Alchemist's Gift

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The Return

A dove pecked at the trail of bread crumbs Sofia left on the window sill. The trail of crumbs led to a trove of more crumbs in her open palm. She breathlessly stood hidden behind the window curtain. The dove came closer and closer to her hand. She was taken by the beautiful iridescent aura of the creature’s tan-and-pink-blushed feathers. Her heart beat quickly, and she bided her time when she should try to catch it. The bird cooed. Sofia held her breath. The bird made hollow little clicks against the wood sill. Her heart raced. The bird’s beak brushed the heel of her hand--at first gently, and then, as the dove came to the pile of crumbs in her palm, it pecked harder and harder. Sofia left her hand still as long as she could. The beak broke the skin. Sofia snatched her hand back behind the curtain. The bird flew off. Sofia looked at the drop of blood that welled up from the tiny wound. It stung.

This was the second time Sofia had almost captured the dove since Roland had first come to them a little more than two weeks ago. Sofia shrugged and turned back to what she had started. Sofia stood before her worktable and pushed up three handfuls of flour. She made a conical mound and dimpled the center with her thumb. She added a pinch of salt, a beaten egg yolk and a little water from her gill cup into the crater. Sofia worked the ingredients together with her hands. She added more of the egg and water and worked the dough into a firm ball. She rolled out the dough with a rolling pin and, after letting it sit for the better part of a half hour, cut it into thin strips and set it aside to dry.

With her noodles made for dinner, Sofia tended to the fire. Her face was smudged with flour, and strands of unruly hair stuck out from under her kerchief. She was just about to pluck a grouse when she heard hoof beats and the unmistakable squeaks and moans of a carriage lumbering along the lane and onto the cobblestones in front of the house. She wiped her hands on her apron and hurried to the front door. Sofia opened it just enough to peek. After the intrusion of Sergeant Cardetti and his lackey Mario, Sofia kept an iron rod by the door so she could bar it quickly.

Roland stepped out. Sofia was elated to see him. The coachman made a wide turn and headed back the way he came.

Roland stood there in his doublet, linen shirt, his new britches, and shoes with tall heels. The clothing and shoes were gifts from Rosanera. He wore a large black cap that fell to one side, and also sported two weeks’ worth of growth on his face. Sofia felt for the strands of hair and tried to tuck them in. As she dusted the flour off her blouse, Roland had already mounted the steps and was just on the other side of the door. He was about to knock when Sofia opened it.

Roland stood there smiling. Sofia beamed back and took in the new clothes and beard.

“Just look at you.” She eyed him from head to toe and grinned. She held her arms out as an invitation to embrace.

Roland involuntarily moved back but saved the moment by taking her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length. “Let me look at you. It is so good to see you.” He felt Sofia advance. He pulled her close, kissed her on the forehead, and gave her a sideways hug. “How’s Pater?”

Sofia gently pulled away from his embrace. Her shoulders slumped. “It is good to see you too.” Though she kept her smile, there was uncertainty in her voice. She searched his eyes for that depth she saw in them before they went to market. Right now, their last time together seemed like a lifetime ago. She had to clear her throat. “Come in. Sit. There is wine.” She led him by the hand to the table. He sat. When she poured the wine, Sofia accidentally spilled some, which made her overly upset. She took a rag from her apron pocket and attacked the little puddle. She turned away when she felt tears wet her eyes. “I will tell Pater you are here.”

Sofia almost ran to the tapestry-covered alcove. She stood in the dark the little hollow and for a few seconds took a few trembling breaths and wiped at her eyes. She stood straight and pushed the false back on its pivot, entered the landing, opened the door, and descended the stairs to her papa’s workshop.

Rene looked up from his writing. He watched his daughter cross the room. He saw the pained look on her face. Rene put down his pen and pushed his chair away from the worktable. She went to Papa, sat on his lap as she had done when she was a child, and put her head on his shoulder. She tried to hold back her feeling, but tears came to her eyes.

“What is it, my dear?” Rene put his hand on the side of her face and held her against his chest.

“He is back, but everything is different.”

“Ah, Roland has returned. I heard the carriage. Tell, what is different?”

“Everything, everything is changed.”

“There, there…” He took the rag from her hand and dabbed at the tears on her cheek. “What did he say?”

She answered in a broken voice. “He was glad to see me.”

Rene nodded. “And what else?”

“He kissed me and gave me a hug, but it was a kiss and hug that a brother gives a sister.”

“Are things so changed? When you last saw him, how did you both feel about each other?”

“What a fool I was. I told him we should act as friends, like brother and sister. I was still angry because he did not respect my oath. Now I am angry with myself for spurning him. I was so foolish.”

Rene stroked her hair. “Filia, have you told him how you feel?”

“No, Pater, I have not.” There was a little-girl whine to her voice. Tears appeared again and ran down her cheeks.

“Tell him. Let him know for both of your sakes.”

“And if he does not feel the same? What then?”

Rene reached into the folds of his shirt and took out a small blue glass vial. He uncorked it and held the vial in the track of Sofia’s tears, collecting as many as he could.

“Why did you do that, Papa?” Sofia dried the last few tears, sat up, and looked at Rene.

“Tears carry the greatest of secrets. Yours are more precious than diamonds. You must give this vial to Roland even though you will not want to. Remember, filia, darkness begets darkness. To truly love, you must be selfless.”

Sofia accepted the cryptic answer. “When the time comes, I will if I must.”

“Now be of good cheer. Roland has returned.”

Sofia stood up. She patted her hair in place. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks still blushed. Rene took his handkerchief and dabbed away at the smudges of flour on his daughter’s face. He kissed her on the forehead.

They both looked up at the top of the stairs when they heard the familiar repetitive knock on the door.

“May I enter, Pater?” Roland called.

“Come, my son,” Rene called out loudly. He looked at Sofia and winked. “Remember, no matter what, be selfless and giving.”

The door swung open, and Roland quickly descended the stairs. Rene took a few steps toward his adopted son. They fell into an embrace. Rene kissed Roland on each cheek. He held Roland at arm’s length and looked him up and down. “Let me look at you. It appears you find court life agreeable.”

Roland beamed and was all smiles. “Oh yes, Pater, very much. Everything at Adler Kralle castle is so beautiful--the grounds, all of the wonderful things inside and out. Even the people are beautiful.”

Rene led Roland to the least cluttered worktable, and they sat. He invited Sofia to join them. She was reluctant but took her father’s words to heart. She noisily dragged a stool over to the men and sat at the end of the table.

“Was Gunter there?”

“No, he is not there. He is at war, it seems with everyone.”

“How very sad, there was a time he was known as a peacemaker. Not that long ago he was called Gunter der Gerecht.”

Roland looked over at Sofia for a second and then back to Rene. “What does that mean?”

“Gunter the Just. Now he is known as Gunter the Grausum, Gunter the Cruel,” Sofia added. “Such a change in a man. They say it is Rosanera’s doing.”

“How is Lady Rosanera? When she was a girl she was so cheerful until the plague took her mother,” said Rene.

Before Roland could answer Sofia spoke out of turn, “It could be Rosanera’s fault Gunter is so changed.”

Rene’s brow furrowed, and he gave Sofia a scolding look.

“Now, what I heard from Rosanera’s lips, and as you very well know Duke Gunter also had the plague. She said he had a high fever for a week and was in such great pain. I think that is probably what changed him, not his little stepdaughter.”

Sofia felt rebuffed.

“We had to keep it secret,” Rene looked at Sofia and added, “even from you. Like Emperor Justinian, who survived the plague of his day, only to be a weak and muddled headed leader afterward, it seems the duke follows the same confused path. May God help us.”

Sofia wanted her say. “What I remember of Rosanera is that she was so cold and uninterested at Pater’s funeral.”

“I find her warm and fascinating. She spoke of you Pater, quite fondly.”

“So, you spoke of us?” asked Rene.

“In passing, I told Lady Rosanera so she could instruct the coachman.”

“Did you mention me?” Sofia looked at Roland.

“She asked and I did. Rosanera remembered meeting you too. I told her you were thoughtful and kind, and all grown up,” Roland said with a smile.

Sofia shrunk into her seat, quite ashamed of her jealousy and ill will.

“Tell us, what happened to you?”

“Horsemen came riding through the market place. They knocked over tables, and they even pulled down some of the stalls for sport. Sofia warned me to stay with her but instead I followed them to see what they were going to do. When I got around the corner, I saw the door to the orphanage pulled close. I figured they went inside. Two soldiers stood outside and held the horses. One soldier saw me and put his hand on his sword.”

Sofia leaned in. “Then what happened?”

“As I stepped away from the soldiers I heard someone whispering to me, trying to get my attention. I saw this beautiful woman hiding in the shadow of the doorway of the building, next to the orphanage. I could tell she was afraid. She asked me to help hide her. The only thing I could do was stand in front of her and block the doorway. Then the soldiers rushed out of the orphanage. Some of the poor children were pulled along by their hair. The soldiers mounted up. Each held an orphan in front of them, and they rode off.”

“Yes, they came back through the marketplace. That is when I went to look for you.” Sofia put her hand on the table very close to Roland’s. She wanted to take his, but she dared not.

“That soldier Mario, the one who tore your blouse… he was mounted and held a little girl in front of him. The poor girl was kicking and trying to get away. She held her arms out to me. When I reached out, he looked down at me, laughed, and mumbled something. He hit me with his club. I woke up in Rosanera’s bed two days later with a terrible headache.”

Sofia stood. “Show me where.”

Roland gingerly parted his hair so Sofia could see the mark. She gently touched his fingers. “We were so worried about you. I did not know if I would ever see you again. We are so glad you are back.” She said in a whisper, “I am so glad you are back.”

“I am glad to back too. It is so good to be with you. Well, for now, anyway.”

“You are not staying?” Sofia absently put her hands over her heart.

Rene saw the disappointment and hurt in Sofia’s expression. “Daughter, please make us some of your wonderful hot drink. The spiced mead.”

Sofia was numb. She turned away from the men and felt herself disappearing as she crossed the chilly room.

Rene waited until Sofia was gone. “Tell me why you have returned. I know castle life very well, the company, the libation, the excellent meals--so many wonderful diversions and conversations. True, it has been five years since my untimely death, but the fond memories I have of Adler Kralle have not faded one bit. It must have been hard for you to leave.” His smile invited Roland to talk.

“Yes and no. I came back for a few reasons. Pater, I do not know what kind of man I was before I came here and I met you and Sofia. Not knowing who I was before, I hope I am making the right decisions.”

“My son, we can only strive to know ourselves. There are no wrong decisions. Everything we do, we must do. Everything we do echoes throughout time and affects the deeds of countless others. Do not doubt or second-guess yourself or your motives, or you will lose your way. Each day we have an opportunity to seek out the divine. Be selfless; when you are, Heaven and earth will open to you like a flower.”

“I came back because of Sofia. I was touched by her compassion and the strength of her character. Knowing her is important to me.”

Rene looked into Roland’s eyes. He hoped his words would help Roland see what a treasure his daughter was. “Sofia has found her path; she knows that divine part of her. She has a kind and generous heart. She is delicate, trusting, and loving. Make sure you tell her how she makes you feel. I am sure it is something she would like to hear.”

Roland agreed with a polite and subdued nod. He puzzled over how he should feel. What Sofia was to him and he to her was not at the forefront of his mind. Right now, his thoughts were on the promise he had made to Rosanera. He put forth his argument. “Many people have lost their families to the plague. They have lost their lands to the tax collector. Many are starving; they are sick, they need help. I feel I must help Lady Rosanera, and I hope what I am about to do is the right thing.”

Rene was slightly bewildered by Roland changing the subject. “Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise. Your aims are commendable. When you show compassion and care for others, it always returns to you. Filio, tell me, how are you going to help the Lady Rosanera?”

“I told her I could help her with gold.” Roland showed measured enthusiasm. “To help buy the things the people need.” He ventured a smile.

Rene sat back in his chair. He didn’t bother to hide his impatience. “Where are you going to get gold?”

“That is the other reason I came back. So you can help me change lead into gold.”

Rene brought his hand down on the tabletop with a loud slap. He startled Roland. “Did you mention I was alive as well?”

“Of course not. Lady Rosanera has no idea where the gold is coming from.”

“Do not be so sure.” Rene took a deep breath and calmed himself. “My dear boy, it was no secret that I was thought to be an alchemist. In my younger days when I was vain I did not try to dispel that notion. I rather enjoyed the mystique of it all. You are staying in my home, and you have promised gold to someone with dubious motives? Where might she think great amounts of gold might come from?”

“I did not think of that. Pater, she seems very sincere. The first time I met her she was at the orphanage giving clothes and medicine to the children.”

Rene pinched his chin and reflected before he spoke. “There is no question that she does good deeds. The results are laudatory, but the motives are uncertain. Let me tell you this. Shortly after the duchess went to her final reward, there was a great change, I am sorry to say. A dark change in Rosanera. She no longer smiled, and she would no longer look at Gunter or, for that matter, anyone, in the eyes when she spoke. She became hard, and I think so did her heart and soul.”

“In confidence she told me the terrible things Duke Gunter did to her. I will spare you. Let us just say that whatever she had to offer, the duke took away from her.”

“Those were rumors I did not want to believe.” Rene bowed his head.

After a short silence Roland asked, “Pater, could this be my purpose, the reason why I am here?”

“I have no answer for that. Do you feel this is your purpose?”

Roland wanted it to be his purpose. He was still a bit bothered by how dismissive and patronizing Rosanera had been the night before. But then, she was so beautiful and she had made such wonderful promises, he just knew that it was only a matter of time before she fell in love with him. “Yes, to use alchemy and make gold to help Rosanera.”

Rene spoke thoughtfully, “You must remember alchemy is a philosophy. It is a guide to live by. Its use is to put order to the cosmos, and more, to put order to our souls and to understand and accept our place in the great plan of the Creator. The miracle of our being here, now, at this moment, was put into motion by the simplest choices of our distant forefathers. What we do, the choices we make today will echo through eternity. As I said earlier, no matter what choice you make, it will always be the right one. The deed is the truth of the man.”

Rene patted Roland on the hand. “So, she wants gold.”

“She wants gold,” Roland repeated.

“My dear son, we are all weak and can be blind to our motives. One can fall under the spell of someone who is beautiful, clever, and wealthy. No matter how beautiful or clever or wealthy Lady Rosanera is, you cannot understand or fathom what truth guides her. Or, for that matter, what truth guides you.”

Roland was slightly put off by Rene. “My truth?”

“The truth changes for everyone. Once my truth told me that I could not live without my Bella. But here I am, many years later and I am living. I laugh. I eat. I do my work.”

“Rosanera is so beautiful and kind. She offered me a position in the court when she becomes duchess, and an apartment next to hers. The truth is, I think I we may come to love each other.”

Rene gave an ironic chuckle. “Venus smiles down on this house with a vengeance. Did you tell her Ladyship how you feel?”

“No, not yet.”

“That, my dear boy, is something I would keep to myself for now.

You will find nobles have their own agendas, and they will use anyone or anything to achieve their own ends.”

“We are the way we are for many different reasons,” said Roland.

Rene pursued his own thread of thought. “Filio mea, you will not need my help. All of the answers you need are in my workbooks. Look to the symbols and signs on the Alchemist Cabinet. The most help will come from Sofia. Do tell her how she makes you feel.” He added in a cautionary tone, “I warn you, gold now will only cause a thirst for more and more gold in the future. “

“The Alchemist Cabinet? Something about that sounds familiar.”

“Does it?” Rene ended their discussion by opening a large tome that was on the table in front of him. He wanted to leave Roland with one last thought. “To practice alchemy you must be the good and the bad, the light and the dark, and weigh them against one another and combine them. You must be the sun and the moon at the same time.”

Roland nodded thoughtfully.

“Judge your reasons well, and remain selfless.”

Rene went to reading. Roland was quiet and circumspect.

Sofia descended the stairs carrying a tray. She immediately noticed the silence and solemnity. She set the tray on the table, poured the hot mead, and placed the cups in front of the men. She watched Roland drink. He looked into her eyes and saw a sad tenderness that he had not seen before.

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