“Yes.” He spread his hand out flat and moved it across the landscape. “Like a dry lake. A place where the wind plays.”

Cnán laughed. “All of this land is like that.”

“No, no. Not like this. Perfectly flat. Alchemists call it a sabkha.”

Cnán shrugged. “I do not know that word,” she said, though she had a dim recollection of a Turkic word that might mean the same thing. She tried to dredge up the word, but nothing felt quite right on her tongue. “Nor have I seen one,” she admitted.

“A pity,” Yasper said. “Neither have I.”

Cnán smiled again. “There’s still time,” she said.

“I know, I know.” Yasper flapped his hands and blew out, puffing up his cheeks. This…wasteland…wears on me. I’ve been trying to find some solace in my recipes, but my supplies are terribly meager, especially after…” He trailed off, and Cnán knew he was thinking about the loss of his horse in Kiev.

When he had fled from the fight with the Shield- Brethren, the Livonian commander Kristaps had returned through the same stinking tunnels they had used to reach the Shield-Maiden sanctuary. Upon emerging from the well house, the Livonian had stumbled upon her, Yasper’s, and Finn’s horses. He had taken all three—a smart ploy to reduce their ability to pursue him. Yasper hadn’t been so distraught about the lack of his horse as he had been about the loss of his numerous satchels and jars and powders.

All of his alchemical supplies, gone.

Since then he had been trying to replenish his stores, with some mixed success. The market in the border town had supplied him with the firecrackers they had used so effectively against the Mongol war party, as well as a number of other basic ingredients. Yasper had been excited when they had first stumbled across the wormwood—the hearty plant native to these lands—but after days and days of seeing clumps of it everywhere, Yasper’s enthusiasm had diminished drastically. Cnán knew little about the alchemist’s recipes (and wanted to know very little, actually), but what she had gleaned was that all of his potions, unguents, powders, and salves were built from a carefully measured base of two or three simple ingredients.

Salt being one of those basic ingredients.

“What is it that you hope to create?” she asked, out of boredom more than any concerted interest.

Yasper offered her a wolfish grin. “Why, nothing more than the secrets of the universe, of course,” he laughed.

“Every alchemist seeks to unlock the riddle of existence by discerning the secret methods by which God constructed the world. All of this,” he gestured around them, “though this is not much, but all of the world was created through a complex set of instructions. Men have spent their entire lives trying to enumerate the multitudinous mystery of creation. Pliny—do you know Pliny? No, of course you don’t— Pliny wrote thirty-seven volumes on the natural history of the world. Thirty-seven!” He sat up in his saddle, his mood improving as he spoke. “Can you imagine how complicated this world is that God has created? Don’t you want to understand how all the various pieces fit together?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Cnán admitted. “But why do you want to understand it? So that you can become a god too?”

Yasper shook his head. “That would be heresy,” he clucked his tongue at her, a grin stretching his mouth. “No, we seek to understand who we truly are, and what our true purpose is. If we can comprehend how the world was made, and learn the power of transmutation—the art of changing one thing into another—could we not give ourselves that same gift?”

“Which gift?”

“Transmutation.”

“Trans-what?”

“Becoming something new.”