The Philosopher’s Stone
We accept your invitation for March 14th. Her Grace has business nearby and will personally attend your demonstration. I myself will accompany her…
Giovanni put the letter aside. Marco felt threatened, as well he should. He, Giovanni, had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone! Because of him, gold would become as common as dirt. Three weeks, and yet much work to do.
Marco swept through Giovanni’s door unannounced, giving the front room a disapproving inspection —
“Behold Her Grace!” a herald called from the doorway. Giovanni immediately turned and knelt.
“Arise,” said the queen, bored with ceremony. “You are the one whose demonstration I have come to see?”
“Your Grace,” Marco sneered, “we may be in the wrong place. The Giovanni who wrote us claims to be an alchemist. We seem to have found the apothecary instead.”
“I am the one, Your Grace,” said Giovanni, refusing to be cowed by the likes of Marco. “I am also the apothecary to this village, which provides the income to pursue my true calling.”
“Impressive — to have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone in a part-time pursuit.”
“Your Grace is kind. But I have not labored unaided. My brother is the local monsignor, and I have a letter of commendation from the bishop as I successfully treated his gout.” Let Marco chew on that — any ill he plotted would be returned.
“I see,” said the queen. “And thus you found it. How?”
“Your Grace, you yourself know the Church has preserved a great body of ancient knowledge, to which I was granted access. From Roma, my research led me to a monastery in Persia, where is stored a certain manuscript from faraway Bharat. Clues I found in Roma — and much prayer — allowed me to unlock its secrets.”
“A pretty story,” Marco sneered, “but incredible. A mere village apothecary, no matter how well-traveled, discovering what so many have searched for their entire lives? If you were certain of success, you should have sent your notes.”
And let you steal the credit? “Eminent Marco, it is said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I intend to provide that proof.”
“So you intend to put on your show?”
“Your fraud will —”
“Marco,” the queen interrupted, “enough. We were invited to be witnesses. Let Giovanni succeed or fail without further harassment.”
Marco sketched a bow and mumbled “Your Grace.”
Giovanni made a more sincere bow. “The queen is kind. All is ready in my laboratory. This way, if you please.” He conducted them into the next room, and lifted heavy lead-lined aprons from the wall. “Some of the manuscript, I was unable to translate satisfactorily. I am unsure whether these are for safety. But with such distinguished guests, I err on the side of caution. I believe the power of the Stone brought to bear on mere flesh can cause harm.”
“The Stone. What is the Stone?”
“That, eminent Marco, is a misnomer that led us all astray. It is not a stone at all, but metal! The manuscript spoke of mines in what are now German and Slavic districts. There I found the ores.
“The refining process is exacting. The manuscript says that a certain amount of refined metal is required, and must not be brought together into a single mass until the proper moment. The base metal is packed around two pieces of Stone, and brought together with a great weight atop. Perhaps you wish to examine the apparatus before we begin?”
Marco nodded and peered into the open furnace. “This brown stuff — that is it?”
“So unimposing. Perhaps that too has kept it hidden. Well… proceed, then.”
Giovanni turned to the wall, where a sturdy crank was mounted. With a silent prayer, he released the catch and let go the handle; it spun madly as a mass dropped from above and struck the mass below with a flat WHUMP.
Marco smiled. “Nothing. You have failed. As expected.”
|(Photo: Icy Sedgwick)|
“A miracle!” The herald gasped. They stood transfixed in the growing heat, until Marco seized a crucible by its long handle and dipped it in the flow. He pulled it to them and all stared at the contents wide-eyed.
“It glows with an inner light!” the queen breathed. “Marco: speak true. Do you find fraud in this?”
“If fraud there is,” Marco whispered, “I cannot find it.”
“Then acknowledge him,” she commanded.
Marco gave a sour look, but sketched a brief bow. “Maestro.”
“Maestro Giovanni,” Her Grace smiled. “What will you need to bring your apparatus to our court?”
“All can fit in ten wagons. Except, of course, the furnace.”
“Very well. Marco of course will assist you with all his talent. We will withdraw now. Begin preparations immediately.”
“Of course, Your Grace. Please, take the crucible as my personal gift to you.”
The pounding at his door did not wake Giovanni, for exultation precluded sleep. He put down his short sword when he recognized the herald’s voice: “Open, in the name of the queen!”
The herald entered. “Your services as apothecary are required,” he said. “We vomit, and our bowels run like water.”
“Tainted food,” Giovanni said, then started. “I have never known Pietro’s inn to serve bad food!”
“It was ours,” the herald said as Giovanni spooned powder into a packet. “Heads will roll at the court over this!”
“Stir this into warm tea for each of you. Who would do this?”
The herald rubbed his head, then looked at the loose hair in his hand. “Any of them.” He paused. “Marco… beware of him. He is envious.”
“I will, and thank you.” Giovanni himself felt a little queasy, and he’d eaten… nothing. He’d forgotten supper. Forcing himself to eat a bite, he then took a pinch of his own powder.
Two days later, a hearse conducted the remains of the royal entourage back to the palace. The village was in turmoil, and Giovanni departed on the advice of his brother. The villagers were used to his comings and goings, so few noticed.
Another day, another village. In the afternoon, a dead man arrived atop a cart, slumped over the reins. The cart and its contents were looted. A stack of books fed only the fires…