Alchemist's Gift

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Best Laid Plans

Lady Rosanera and her entourage approached the gates of Adler Lager. Along the way, they were stopped by the hungry, destitute, and homeless. Anyone who asked was given a small loaf of bread or dried meat or a piece of cheese, enough sustenance for another day or maybe two. They passed under the observation arch and looked out on the square with its fountain flanked by vendors in their stalls. For all the brightly colored banners, canopies, and enthusiastic barking, the stalls were scantily supplied. The baker had loaves that most could not afford. The loaves they could afford were three and four days old; the oldest might sport a patch or two of copper-green mold. The butcher offered two cows’ heads, a sheep’s head without the tongue, and some very dry and dusty sausage. The greengrocers offered a better fare. The honey seller was fairly well stocked, but the people had little money to spend.

Old Greta, a seller of potions and remedies, was wrinkled and missing her two front teeth and her sister, Eva, watched the nobles enter the square. Greta hung a bunch of dried hemlock on an upright, and then arranged her little pots of salves and other dubious concoctions along the front of the table. She pointed to Rosanera. “Look at high and mighty there, trying to buy us with a crust of bread from the castle feast. God strike me dead if she is not doing the work of Satan.”

Eva nodded in agreement. “It is the work of that dog Pope Leo. He keeps the war going through that Italian bitch. Ever since the duchess died, good riddance; look how the daughter makes the duke a madman with her wiles. She is nothing but a temptress. I told you once and I will tell you again, my cousin Terse, the washerwoman at the castle… well, she says she saw that slut have the duke the same day they buried her mother.” Eva spit on the ground.

The tinsmith in the next stall over could not help overhear. “Watch your tongue, Greta, or the Papists will cut it off.”

Old Greta let out a little cackle. “I am not going to worry. They’re all running scared. They can all go to the devil.”

Rosanera and her party carefully wended their way through the narrow avenue’s tents, tables, and stalls. Some bowed or curtsied and others showed their contempt by standing up straighter or crossing their arms. The baker was angered when he saw the loaves in the basket that were being given away. Some women looked beyond politics and couldn’t help commenting on the beautiful outfits the ladies were wearing, but the glow of their admiration faded when they looked at the coarse and scratchy homespun they felt against their skin every day. Admiration turned to jealousy, and jealousy turned to disgust and even hate.

Rosanera, Catharina, Luis, Cecilia, and Angelo turned the corner and stopped at the front door of the orphanage. They slipped their cloaks off their backs and let them drape over their horses’ hindquarters. Luis and Angelo dismounted, went to the orphanage, and swung the knocker against the massive wooden door. “Open the door for Lady Rosanera.”

The door swung open, and the roly-poly Fra Benito stepped through and bowed. “Bless Lady Rosanera! Welcome, welcome. Come in, come in.” Fra Benito looked over his shoulder and called into the large room.

The ladies dismounted with the help of Luis and Angelo.

“Boys, come quickly.” The six boys made short work of unloading the baskets of bread and cheese and Catharina’s and Cecilia’s bundles that they took inside and set on the long refractory table. Fra Benito went on, “Take the mounts to the alley, and keep them out of sight.” The boys were glad to obey.

Toddlers to twelve-year-old boys and girls moved en masse and surrounded the visitors. Their smiles and bright eyes were the warmest of welcomes. Fra Benito turned and held his hands up. “Now, now, you are all being very naughty. Go back inside, now.”

The children stayed right where they were. Rosanera looked over at Cecilia and laughed.

“I am so sorry, so sorry, your Lady.” Fra Benito attempted to snatch up a little boy closest to him. The boy slipped away with catlike grace.

“Oh, pshaw!” Cecilia bent down and picked up a little red-haired boy, held him at arm’s length and swung him around. In no time, she was cooing, and the boy was laughing. Rosanera spied a little, dark haired girl and picked her up. The little girl was afraid at first but melted into Rosanera’s arms, put her head against her breast and closed her eyes. Rosanera smiled and gently stroked the girl’s hair. Angelo, jolly as ever, hoisted a little boy up on one hip and a little girl on the other and bounced them up and down until they shrieked with laughter.

Luis joined the others and picked up a little boy who was standing off by himself. He followed Angelo’s lead and bounced him up and down. Instead of laughing, a serious expression came over the boy’s face. Something quite malodorous wafted up to Luis’s nostrils. His smile was replaced by repulsion. Luis put the little boy down and patted him on the head. He pulled a scented hanky from his sleeve and held it under his nose.

“Now, now, everyone inside, come, come.” Fra Benito stretched out his arms and guided everyone inside the orphanage. The room was large and plain with a tall ceiling. Straw covered pallets were lined up against the wall with a neatly folded blanket and pillow at the foot of each little bed.

Cecilia and Catharina set out their things on one of the long refractory tables. Catharina put her salves, herbs, and unguents out on the table. The children gathered around fresh and wide-eyed and watched her every move.

Catharina called for the children to make a line, and saw them one at a time. She looked in their mouths, at their teeth and smelled their breath. She looked into their eyes and ears. She told them to bow their heads, and she searched their scalps for lice. She found them very much more often than not. Catharina used a tightly toothed boxwood comb to sweep the lice out the children’s hair onto a saucer Angelo held to catch the scrambling vermin. A little boy of seven named Nico sat nearby; and after Angelo put the saucer on the table, Nico would gleefully crush the tiny creatures into a little, brown stain under his thumbnail and giggle with each crunching dispatch.

Catharina also showed the children how to clean their mouths, first with a good rinse and then with a scrubber that was nothing more than a little piece of cloth dipped in some salt and powdered anise seed. The children were instructed to rub their teeth and gums with it. Catharina showed the same children every week and became impatient with those who did not follow her regimen, which caused her to overlook the good she did.

When Catharina finished, Cecilia laid out old clothing donated by those more fortunate. Cecilia matched the size and color of a piece of clothing to the grateful little boy or girl. Luis either approved of Cecilia’s choice with a nod or disapproved with an over exaggerated wave of his hand and a roll of the eyes. The children found his antics very entertaining.

Lady Rosanera and Fra Benito stood under the archway to the kitchen.

“Lady Rosanera, bless you, bless you. Your help is most needed and appreciated,” said the pudgy little man with much sincerity.

“There seem to be more children here than just last week.”

A grave look came over his face. “Yes, there are. Each week maybe five or six come to us. Half of them die before the week is out. Before you came, there was never enough money or food.”

“As long as the people know I am here to help. They do know I help…?”

The question made the man nervous. He clasped his hands together “The people know you help them. I am sure your work pleases God. I see very few people outside these walls, what with tending to the little ones and all. I do include you in my prayers every morning and night.”

Rosanera felt impatient, not particularly with Fra Benito but with her inability to connect with the people like her mother did. She had arrived when she was eight years old, and after fifteen years Rosanera was still the outsider. Her future and the future of Adler Lager were at risk. Rosanera needed the support of the people if she was to be the next duchess. “May our prayers be answered,” she said softly. She continued with a note of frustration in her voice, “This despicable fighting--will it never end?”

“I am of no politic, but Duke Gunter must prevail for the sake of our souls and the good of our Holy Father, Pope Leo.”

The dichotomy irked Rosanera. The Vatican wanted to hold on to this last bastion of Catholic-ruled Bavaria. The Pope could maintain that control through Gunter. But the duke had run roughshod over his people with crushing taxes and endless expropriations in order to feed, clothe, and keep his men in the field. In doing so he alienated the very people that he needed to support him.

As for Rosanera, upon Gunter’s death, if he did not remarry and have an heir, she would be duchess. It was unlikely that he would remarry, but not impossible. Her own mother’s marriage to the duke was arranged through the Vatican to unite their noble houses and strengthen the agreements, treaties, and loyalties. Rosanera hated that she was a Papal pawn and could be cast aside and lose her courtly status. She needed the people on her side. “Yes, Fra Benito, for the good of the church. But today let us tend to the orphans. Tell our townsmen of my concern.”

“They do know, Lady Rosanera. I will tell them again.”

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