Who Is Mister Lapin?
The following is a free preview of the opening chapter of The Deathless Empire: The Impossible Mister Lapin Investigates, Book I – what I hope to be the first of many novels chronicling the adventures of Mister Lapin, consulting alchemist, investigator of the uncanny, and all-around gentlerabbit about town. Enjoy!
The Impossible Mister Lapin
In which our hero tells his remarkable story, thus far.
Like many young men faced with unbearable circumstances, I found myself compelled to become a rabbit.
After an initial fit of staring, most individuals react to my unusual appearance with inquiries as to why a man would choose to become something other than a man. More adventurous souls ask why I would choose a rabbit, when there are so many more fearsome and impressive animals in the world. In answer to the first question, I must admit it was simply because I saw in Transfiguration the potential to be truly extraordinary. I suppose I could have enhanced my physique, augmented my intellect or sculpted my features, but such choices lacked the flair I found so essential to my experiment.
No, I believe that if you intend to change your place in the world, it is not enough to simply succeed. You must do so with panache!
As for the second inquiry, that is rather more personal, if not a bit embarrassing. Ever since I was a young boy, I have always wanted to be a magician, able to conjure a rabbit from a fine silk top hat to the delight and amazement of my adoring audience. When I was ten years old, I was positively monstrous to my parents for six full months, until at last they relented and hired a tutor to introduce me to the conjurer’s art that summer. It must have mortified them to hire a charlatan for their only son, but I was entranced at the prospect of learning magic and eagerly counted the days to his arrival.
When he finally appeared, it is a stroke of understatement to say that Mister Eckhart was not what I had been expecting. Rather than the tall, glamorous entertainer I had envisioned entering behind a flourish of his opera cape, he was a stout, sour-faced bulldog of a man dressed in unfashionable clothes of dubious origin. His eyes were mismatched and perpetually crossed, as though watching each other distrustfully, while his hands always seemed covered in a thin coat of grease from the bacon sandwiches he continually demanded of our poor cook. Such was the hardness of his look that if he had been discovered on the property at any other time, I have no doubt my father would have had him shot for a bandit without so much as speaking to him.
Despite appearances, it turned out Mister Eckhart was able enough at his craft, and his brutish looks concealed a sharp mind with a keen eye for detail. He could produce pennies from nowhere, name your card with uncanny accuracy and conjure rabbits and doves as naturally as the creator Himself. Unfortunately, however, his great gifts did not extend to teaching. His preferred method of instruction was to sit across the table from me and eat a seemingly endless supply of sandwiches, pounding his fist and shouting corrections as I stumbled through a series of disastrous card tricks and painfully inept sleight of hand. By the end of each afternoon his voice would be hoarse and my shirt front entirely covered with bacon flecks, yet each morning the farce would begin anew, a grim march of ineptitude. I learned but two things from the entire time his services were retained: first, that I am utterly and forever hopeless at the conjurer’s art, no matter how much I might practice; and second, that I shall never eat another piece of bacon so long as I live.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my love for the fantastic slumbered for many years after that disappointing season of tutelage, thanks in no small part to the lingering disapproval of my parents. My father in particular worked quite assiduously to make sure that my exposure to whimsy and fantasy was minimal at best. While I lacked for little else, my imagination pined for the fantastic for years,
It was awakened quite by accident during my first year at university, when Professor Blackburne gave a lecture about the alchemical tradition. It was intended as a rather arch commentary on the follies of our misguided chemistry forbears, a diverting way to preface a more serious discussion of the chemical properties of gold. His dedication to detail was more informative than perhaps he had intended, however, and while he ridiculed the men and their work, his scathing commentary fell on deaf ears. I was already enthralled.
My mind was ablaze – I had heard of the concept of alchemy before, but knew little enough about its specifics. I had believed it was the pursuit of the occasional lonely scholar, but Professor Blackburne had shown me it was actually an ancient tradition, and one with some surprisingly well-known adherents. (I shall never forget the expression on my professor’s face as his respect for the great man warred with his disgust at Newton’s unabashed dedication to alchemical research.) I decided on the spot that I would find a way to succeed where others had failed, revive this maligned discipline and restore it to its proper place of honor.
Applying myself with a passion, I wrote to several notable figures in the field of chemistry, asking them what they knew of alchemy, only to be flatly rebuffed. Quite a few did not answer at all, and of those that did more than one responded with some dismay that a student at university would waste their time in such an idle pursuit. Only one seemed to share any of my enthusiasm, but after a brief exchange of letters it seemed he knew little more than I did. The very notion of alchemy seemed a bit of a sore subject, and not one the worthies of chemistry cared to discuss. Or at least, not with an unknown student.
Evidently I would have to modify my approach.
Taking a pen name, I took on the guise of a young scholar compiling a history of the early years of the chemical sciences and began acquiring texts from all across the continent, many of them long since written off as little more than whimsy or conjecture. Out of necessity I pushed myself to learn Italian, German, classical Greek and even the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt on top of my existing fluency in Latin and French. Every free moment I could wrest from my conventional studies I put to use in old libraries, rare book emporiums or in correspondence with historians of the chemical sciences. Piece by piece, I started to find a shape to the puzzle, and each time a new fact fell into place, I only felt more driven to realize the whole.
Such was my dedication, in fact, that regrettably my academic work began to suffer. Even worse, in the eyes of my family at least, I began to acquire a rather unfortunate reputation around campus. My peers ridiculed me for my admittedly rather obsessive enthusiasm on alchemical science, and after a few too many questions Professor Blackburne began to talk of my “foolish pursuits” with the other faculty as well. My prospects after university, once my sole refuge from my father’s criticism, began to wane rapidly. Between my declining grades and my plummeting reputation eventually talk became so widespread that one of the faculty, an old friend of my father, sent word to him of the impending disgrace I threatened to bring down on our proud family legacy.
My father’s response was as swift as ever. Letters from him accumulated, at first remonstrative, later incensed, and when I refused to yield in my pursuits, at last coldly dismissive. Letters from my mother also arrived, some apologizing for my father’s temper, others scolding me for disgracing the family name and throwing away a promising future. Not one letter asked what it was that had sparked my interest, or why I felt so compelled to pursue it; not one so much as acknowledged the earnest arguments I had made in my own defense. When the final letter arrived containing a small sum and words to the effect that I had been disowned, at least until such time as I could conduct myself as a reasonable gentleman, it was hurtful but sadly not a terrible surprise. I suppose they figured the move might shame me into meekly submitting to their authority, but by that point I was convinced my studies would bear fruit, and so with the dogged persistence of the young I carried on.
As my research expanded and the rift with my family widened, eventually I took leave from university to devote my full attention to the project, only to be told after four months’ absence that I had been officially expelled for, among other reasons, “an unseemly pursuit of foolishness.” I have little doubt who initiated the dismissal proceedings, nor whose urgings prompted him to do so. Unlike the missives I received from my parents, however, I have kept that letter – I consider it something of a justification for all my actions since.
The image of the lone scholar defying conventional wisdom might seem romantic in hindsight, but to tell it truly, being cut adrift very nearly drove me to the ruin my father doubtless predicted would befall me. Spring turned to summer, summer gave way to autumn and before I knew it I faced the unpleasant prospect of winter as a nearly penniless scholar – a grim forecast indeed. The very night of my successful Transfiguration, I was living in a small rented room in a highly disreputable area of Shoreditch, where I owed six months’ back rent to one Louis Moreau, the drunken Frenchman who owned the establishment. Fortunately, the old man had once been an academic himself and thereby accorded me a frankly exaggerated measure of respect; otherwise I’m quite sure I would have found myself on the street some time earlier.
As the winds grew colder, simply to keep myself fed I was reduced to selling my rare book collection that I had so studiously collected when funds were ample, a form of particularly slow torture as I continually wondered whether one of the volumes I had just sold might contain another piece yet to fall into place. It became a race of sorts, in fact, prompting me to study harder and work faster than I ever had before.
While understandably reluctant to credit looming poverty and desperation as driving forces behind my ultimate discovery, I must confess that they may have played a larger part than one might suspect. At the time I found this a bit disgraceful, but looking back now I realize that those two forces are companions to greatness far more often than commonly believed. Indeed, without those factors in play, I likely never would have taken the giant leap that simultaneously proved my theories correct and established the Art of Ætheric Chemistry as a worthy field of inquiry once more.
I can, in fact, recall the very moment the last piece fell into place. The candle – my last candle as it happened – was burning low on my rickety reading desk, filling the room with greasy smoke from the cheap wax, when suddenly I bolted to my feet, the force of my epiphany nearly flinging me across the room like a cannon shot. It was sheer simplicity: The reason the Art had never functioned coherently was because the various theories and experts that informed it were always viewed as in competition, each striving not only to present its case but also to prove all the others incorrect. To put it another way, each scholar tried their best to shout down those that had preceded them, rather than try to find ways that their theories might complement each other.
Taken together, however, and ignoring the individual prejudices of their supporters, it was soon evident that they formed a ragged but increasingly coherent whole. A missing piece in Italian theory was supplied by a well-known truth in German treatises, while an error in calculation made by the Greeks was corrected by proper application of an obscure principle from the manuscripts of The Black Bruce, the reclusive and persnickety Scotsman who’d supposedly lost his head to the king’s witch hunters.
Twice, if legend is to be believed.
As the knowledge took shape in my head, the glyphs and materials swirling like an illustrated whirlwind, an understanding at once surprising and utterly absolute came over as well: I had to do something with this newfound potential. Something astonishing. Something marvelous. Something that could never be questioned as mere charlatanism. Something the world had never seen before, and quite possibly never would again, to prove my understanding – my mastery – once and for all. But what?
I cried out and clutched my head in frustration as I paced the room, swiftly reviewing and rejecting dozens of formulae as they came to me. From what I had gleaned, the Art could be roughly divided into three broad areas of study, which I labeled as follows: Animation, which gave a semblance of life and even intelligence to the formerly inanimate; Enrichment, which produced oils and elixirs that would enhance select properties of their target; and Transfiguration, which transformed one object or being into another. I tended to feel most at home in the study of Transfiguration, considered the most “classical” path, though I must admit I considered a wide variety of possibilities that night.
Lead into gold? Too ordinary. I’d never have anyone think it was more than just a clever trick. Besides, was the sum of my ambition and talent to be a mere demonstration of the creation of wealth? Unsuitable.
Eternal youth? Too many troubling questions. Also, how was I supposed to prove that it worked? Summon the requisite experts and worthies to watch closely as I … didn’t age? I was a young man, and likely they would not be satisfied until decades had passed with no sign, and even then I would like as not be accused of some form of cosmetic trickery. Not at all what I needed.
True immortality? Too many far-reaching implications for success, let alone any possible mistakes or miscalculations. Also, I liked the possible tests even less than those for a youth serum. Visions of repeated stabbings, beatings, drownings and worse swam before my eyes. No. Not that one either.
It soon dawned on me that not only did I not truly have an idea how I might put together such complex and far-reaching formulae, but that I also had precious few materials at my disposal, further limiting my options. Animation and Enrichment were notoriously lavish in their requirements, and even humbler feats of Transfiguration might be beyond the reach of my modest laboratory. Even if I could apply my newfound understanding of the Art in general to work up a specific formula, what were the odds that I would have the necessary materials on hand to perform it? I had myself, some quicksilver, a teaspoon of silver, a few odd pinches of animal fur – alleged to represent quite a mammalian spectrum, but which I suspected was more than half rat fur when they could get away with it – and a dwindling supply of candle wax.
I grew so frustrated at my apparent inability to put this urgent understanding to use that I quite lost my temper and kicked over a stack of books, injuring my right foot rather sharply. As I sat to sullenly rub the feeling back into my toes, however, I spied a slim volume that had been hidden away at the bottom of the stack. Waterston’s World of Wonders, my first and most favorite childhood book of magic, its cheerful illustration of the dapper magician producing a rabbit from his fine top hat worn from travel and the grip of delighted young hands.
I saw that rabbit and I thought of my childhood dreams, how they had met such a disappointing end, and I knew at once what I had to do.
From that moment it was simple. There was no formula for what I wanted to enact, exactly, but with the lunatic confidence of my newfound wisdom I simply chose two formulae whose combination could theoretically produce the effect I desired, and set about making the adjustments almost instinctively. I didn’t lack for materials; all I really needed was myself, aside from time and a bit of dust. When the ink dried, I checked the formula one last time, took a deep breath, and changed myself and the world with six minutes, seven symbols, sixteen drops of quicksilver, and a pinch of rabbit fur.
At least I hoped it was rabbit fur.
It was over so fast at first I hardly noticed the formula was complete. There was no pain, only a kind of curious tingling that ran through my body like a shiver brought on by placing a toe in cold water, then nothing. I was momentarily shattered; had I, burdened by insomnia and a desire to prove myself, simply imagined the whole thing? I slammed my hand down on my desk and gave a yell as I saw its neat white fur coat. Transfixed, I brought my hands up before my eyes and found them identically furred; with just a touch of hesitation, I reached for the mirror on my night table and held it up to the light. Looking back at me was a curious amalgam of man and rabbit: familiar human eyes set between long ears possessed of the same delicate white coat I’d seen on my hands, set off by a wet, twitching nose at the end of an ever-so-slight muzzle. My body was furred more than not, and while my hands had thankfully retained their human shape, my legs had acquired a bit of the rabbit’s distinctive bend. A discreet search proved I had a tail, just to top off the Transfiguration.
I was right. The Art was real, and I’d found a way to unlock its secrets.
I could not help it – I began to laugh, at first suppressed giggles, then outright chuckles, and finally peals of what must have sounded like positively lunatic hysteria. Walls thudded and voices hollered as my merriment roused my neighbors one by one, but I paid no heed to their threats and curses. I simply continued to laugh until it felt like my whole body would shake itself apart from sheer excess of humor. I have no earthly idea how long I lay there, or when my fit of absurdity finally lapsed into faint snickering once more, or even what I was thinking that entire time. I was, quite simply, overwhelmed by joy.
At last there came the familiar dragging shuffle followed by the triple knock on my door, signifying the arrival of my landlord, no doubt summoned from a stupor by the complaints of the other tenants. I rose to answer, only to freeze two steps from the door. How would he react? What would I say? Would I find myself confronted by an angry mob? What had I really done?
Just as quickly, however, I rallied my courage. I had sought marvel and spectacle, after all, and that meant I was going to have to reveal myself sooner or later. Best to take that first step now, while the fires still burned bright. I collected myself, adjusted my ears to a more dignified position, and swung the door wide open. Sure enough, Monsieur Moreau was waiting in the hall, the odor of strong wine, sharp cheese and stale bread hanging about him as usual.
“Is something wrong, sir?” I said as calmly as I could mange.
“Some noise, only,” my landlord said with a dismissive wave of his hand. His required warning delivered, he was already half-turning away before he stopped and turned on his heel with almost comic sluggishness. Monsieur Moreau slowly looked me over from head to foot, once, twice, the inscrutable expression that drink lends to some concealing any trace of surprise or alarm, and all the while swaying ever-so-slightly back and forth like a boat tied up at harbor. “Are you…?” he began, only to trail off into a bleary stare.
“Yes?” I prompted, surprised to find I was actually faintly offended by his lack of reaction to my new state. “Can I help you, Monsieur Moreau?”
“Eh… non, non.” Moreau waved his hand dismissively again. Quite unbelievably, he turned and headed back to the stairs, occasionally leaning on the wall for support. When he reached the top, he called out to me, still not looking back. “Bon soir, Monsieur Lapin.”
“Bon soir, Monsieur Moreau,” I replied rather incredulously, shutting the door and beginning preparation for what I quite rightly expected would be the longest day of my life to that point. There would be precious little chance of hiding my new condition for long, of course, and if I hoped to prove the validity of my theories once and for all, I intended to present myself to no less than Professor Blackburne, who I read was in town speaking at a scientific symposium at the Royal Society. His residence was known to me from an ill-conceived attempt at reconciliation some months back, and despite our rather turbulent history, I was sure he would prove quite a respectable authority to announce my success to the world at large. I also reasoned that he and his fellow scholars were less likely to form an angry mob, and to be perfectly honest, I had no other notion of whom else I could turn to that might give me even a moment’s time. Blackburne might have thought me an obsessed young fool, but at least he had some idea of what I’d been working, some context for my discovery.
Another solution to the more immediate portion of my dilemma soon presented itself, however, and so elementary I nearly slapped myself for not thinking of it right away: Why not simply employ Transfiguration to change back into my old self? After all, it was surely bound to be one of the first demonstrations any of my former professors would request to prove the efficacy of my Art, and going about as an unassuming young student would certainly draw less attention than a rabbit-man about town.
I sat down with the materials I’d used just moments earlier, this time substituting a few strands of my own hair for the rabbit fur I’d used in the original concoction, and set about carrying out the formula.
At first puzzled, then rather panicked, I checked the calculations and repeated the formula again, then a third time. Each time I felt the same sort of curious tingling I had during my original Transfiguration, so I knew the proper energies were being harnessed, but there was absolutely no discernible effect. Aghast that my transformation might have been a solitary success, I tried to keep my wits about me and searched my texts for other simple Transfiguration formulae I could attempt.
At last I found one that promised to transform wood into candle wax; it was hard to imagine a more humble process for such an incredible Art, but it’s not for a beggar to bite every shilling that’s offered, as my father used to say. I set it up with trembling hands, tracing the symbols and arranging the catalysts, right foot thumping distractedly, then set the reaction alight. Sure enough, a chip of wood from my uneven desk melted into wax within the ring of symbols. I tried it again, with similar success. A third time clinched it – the Art was working, and no mistake. Despite my nerves, I felt the sense of satisfaction creeping back in. It was working. Maybe not in as completely as I’d hoped, but if nothing else, my own condition testified to its efficacy. That sort of evidence was worth all the fur in the world, I believed.
A fortunate outlook, I discovered, since my next attempt at reversing my own Transfiguration proved fruitless. I fought down the panic that threatened to make a resurgence, and attempted to think through my situation. It appeared I was trapped in my amalgamated form, at least for the moment, but my faculties appeared to be intact, I still had fully functional hands and my powers of speech were not denied to me.
True, I did find the wares of the flower seller’s stall across the street more appetizing than before, and my trousers complained of my new tail and the crook of my legs, but on the whole those were bearable concerns. It could certainly be a matter of lacking sufficient practice, or a missing subtlety that I would uncover with more study. Those reassurances did not entirely quiet my fears, but they sufficed to allay them long enough to put me back on course to Professor Blackburne’s town home.
As I worked, gathering books and packing clothes, I found myself smiling again. In vino veritas, as the saying goes, and indeed my imperturbable landlord had neatly if quite inadvertently provided me with the final touch for my Transfiguation. A nom d’Art, as it were, a new identity for a disowned man. As names go, its origin is impossible, its meaning simplistic, its implications ridiculous, its relevance at once all too obvious and yet also perfectly descriptive. Especially since it seemed, then as now, I could not change myself back again.
Of course I fell in love with it.
I hope you enjoyed this first chapter of the novella! If you find yourself intrigued and would like to read the more about Mister Lapin’s thrilling adventures, you can find the novella form of the story serialized in Steampunk Tales magazine, beginning in issue #10. An abbreviated version is also available in The Steampunk Megapack.
Want to see the full-length novel in print? So do I! I am currently actively seeking an agent or publisher interested in seeing the full story of Mister Lapin brought to life, so if you fall into either of those categories and would like to talk, please feel free to drop me a line through the site. Thanks!