Peter M Howard ::

wintermute.com.au

Raphaël — 19thC Book II Chapter I

09June2011 [writing]
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“Here it is, sir,” the boy announced at the door, his grubby hands clinging tightly to a small ball of cloth.

“Thanks, Amzîn,” Raphaël answered, getting up from the bench that served as his desk, and walking over to the kid. “Did you get any change?”

“No sir,” Amzîn replied, with a shake of his head.

“Well here’s a little extra for your help.” Raphaël pulled out a few coins, exchanged them for the bundle.

The boy vanished the coins beneath his clothes, and vanished himself from the doorway in moments. Raphaël closed the door behind him.

It was late in 1813. Raphaël was in Tunis. He’d arrived six months earlier after the long journey south, his travels slowly becoming easier as he escaped the Family’s influence. Now he’d been living in this dirty room in this dirty city for months, and was only just starting to feel safe.

He’d ventured out more and more over the last weeks, starting to scour the city, its markets and its meeting places, looking for signs of the hidden Chemick, of the Salt of the City of the Earth. At last he’d found something.

Two days earlier, he’d come across an old man in one of the city’s squares. He sat against a wall, stripped to the waist, a small low fire set up in front of him, a collection of minerals and solutions arrayed about him. He was slowly, carefully, grinding and mixing his materials, all the while ignoring the crowd that gathered around him, but telling a story, as if to no-one in particular. Raphaël struggled to understand the old man’s accented Berber, but caught words here and there, and was able to gather more from the conversations around him. He told a story of a king and his court, of attempts on the king’s life and the ways in which he’d thwart them. Each of the players in the story seemed to correspond to another material in the chemick he mixed. But Raphaël couldn’t work out which corresponded to the king.

Raphaël watched for hours, engrossed by the story, wondering at its parallels to the stories he’d read with Saul. Eventually, night fell, and the old man fell silent.

Raphaël returned the next day, watching and listening again. Gradually, the identity of the king become apparent — he was not an ingredient in the chemick, but rather, its result. The old man would mix his ingredients, slowly burning off impurities. And when the story reached its conclusion, he’d have a salt, its crystalline form left behind. The king would outlive his court, the product of its members and its machinations.

Raphaël knew he had to sample that salt. He asked around. Apparently the old man came to the city once a year. He was a wanderer, travelling with the moon. He’d arrive with a new moon, prepare his chemick, and leave when the moon became full. The same people would show up year after year to buy just a few crystals of his salt. No-one knew how long this had been going on for.

But he wouldn’t sell to foreigners.

So that night, Raphaël recruited the boy, Amzîn. Amzîn was the son of his landlord. The boy had befriended Raphaël when he first arrived, and even if that friendship was little more than cultural curiosity, he was happy to help. Besides, Amzîn’s family were sufficiently well known that Raphaël assumed he’d be allowed to make the purchase.

Raphaël returned to his bench, carefully unravelling the ball of cloth. Inside he found two small rocks of the crystalline salt. Setting one aside, Raphaël took the other and ground it finer. Over the course of his travels he’d acquired various instruments, and now had a sufficient collection that he’d be able to test the salt, and hopefully determine its composition. He set himself to work.

Hours later Raphaël rose again, disappointed but curious. He’d gone through both rocks of salt. It was evidently not the hidden Chemick, but it was a variation he hadn’t seen before — it had subtle differences from the preparations he’d undertaken with Saul over a year earlier. And he was reluctant to discount the local stories, the old man’s apparent agelessness. He’d have to speak to the old man.

The sun was setting when Raphaël hurried out into the streets, making for the square where the old man had performed his preparations. As he reached him, the old man was stirring sand into his dying fire. His minerals and potions were packed away into a basket. The old man looked up at Raphaël, saying nothing. Raphaël found himself speechless as he looked back at him. Unsure what to say, but uncomfortable standing over him, Raphaël crouched, then squatted in the dirt. He sat, drawing his legs beneath him.

“What is it you seek, young man?” the old man suddenly asked, his French broken, but understandable.

“The— City of the Earth,” Raphaël managed, reverting to his native tongue in surprise. “The hidden Alchemy.”

The old man paused, drew something in the dirt — a symbol, somehow familiar — then scratched it out just as quickly. He reached behind him, took a small vial from amongst his potions, handed it to Raphaël.

“Drink. Just a sip,” he instructed.

Not knowing what else to do, Raphaël sniffed the liquid, tipped a little onto his tongue, and cautiously swallowed. As he did, for the briefest of moments, the air around him seemed to grow darker, while the old man before him seemed to glow. Then it was normal again, and Raphaël noticed that the full moon was out, its light shining down on them, reflected off the sand.

Raphaël returned the vial to the old man, who took it, nodded, and rose to his feet. He was leaving, without saying a word. Raphaël tried to cry out, but found he had no words. He stood, his head suddenly dizzy. Raphaël remembered that he hadn’t eaten, nor had any water to drink in hours. In the time it took him to pause and clear his head, regain his focus, the old man had crossed the square.

Raphaël hurried after him. The moonlight made it easy to see, but his head felt foggy, and dehydration made it hard to focus. He felt like he was chasing a ghost, catching glimpses of the old man as he turned round corners, passed through archways, leading him through a maze that Raphaël no longer recognised. Raphaël doesn’t know how long this went on for, but after some time he found himself pushing open a door, stumbling down some steps, finding cold stone beneath him, and darkness around. Raphaël paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust, the moonlight peeking through gaps far above him.

The room was bare stone, with an altar at one end. He approached it as the old man stepped out of the shadows. On the altar stone he saw it again — the symbol the old man had drawn, a triangle drawn over a horizontal bar.

“The City of the Earth,” the old man said, this time in his own tongue, indicating the crude lines etched around it. A map, of sorts. Raphaël would have to go south.

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