The rough stone walls of the little chamber and five candles on the table managed to keep the night out, but did little to keep the heat in. Two brassiere heaters, facing each other, hung on the opposite walls of the room. The coal in them was glowing red, but they failed to dispel the cold, which seemed to reside in the stones themselves. However, the gloom of an early winter evening did not seem to affect the mood of two men currently inhabiting the chamber. The older of them sat at the table, which was large and inlaid with rare woods. He could not be less than sixty and his long beard already turned white. He wore a long, scholarly robe and his head was covered with a small skull cap. His long hair, also white, flew freely to his shoulders. The only concession to vanity was a wide, stiff white collar, as worn in the Elizabethan England. That country, his home, was far away, though, as was revealed by the words of the second man, who stood across the table, leaning slightly ahead, as if ready to spring. His eyes were fixated on a scroll in the hands on the sitting man.
“Doctor Dee,” said the standing companion. “Doctor Dee,” he repeated slowly and wonderingly. “You are the owner of a true Emerald Tablet.” His posture relaxed and he seemed to shrink in deference for a moment. “You are the greatest alchemist in the world, Master,” he exclaimed.
“No,” Dee said calmly, “it was not me who discovered it.” Dee smiled a little smile and observed the standing man. That one wore tight pants, ballooning near his waist and colored bright red, a splendid tunic, also red, but heavily embroidered in gold, and a cavalier’s cap, fashionably shifted to one side. He was much younger than Dee, perhaps around forty, and sported a short black beard. His hair covered his ears.
“How did you get it, then?” The younger man asked.
“I got it from a friend,” Dee said. “A friend like you, Edward,” he repeated.
“Does it contain really everything?” Edward asked. “Even the Stone?”
“It may contain the recipe for making the Philosopher’s Stone,” Dee said. “I don’t know yet.”
“What if it does?” Edward exclaimed, and a light of greed appeared in his eyes.
“We can make gold,” he said and turned way sharply and began to pace the room. ”Yes. We will get rich. We can buy anything.” He stopped. “Even an Empire,” he whispered, as the enormity of what Dee said finally hit him. He walked over and reached out. “May I see it?”
Dee handed the scroll over. “I have a few more,” he remarked. “This is just one of them.”
Edward grabbed it and unwound it so quickly that he tore an edge. Dee watched with, a sad little smile at his lips.
“I cannot read it.” Edward exclaimed. “These pictures, are they supposed to be writing?” How do you know what it says?”
“You are Magister Edward Kelley,” Dee said. “The favorite alchemist of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and famous all over the Europe. And you don’t know Hermes Trismegistus, the patron of all alchemists, was an Egyptian? These are hieroglyphs, of course.”
Kelley winced and said: “You know I don’t know half as much as you do. So I take it you can read it?”
“I can,” Dee said. “Just like a few other alchemists. Perhaps too many. After I am finished, I will transcribe it into the secret writing I invented, and destroy the original. Some things should be known only to a select few.
“Where does it say how to make the Stone?” Kelley demanded.
I don’t know, I told you, “Dee said. “There are more to the scroll than the Stone. For example, you can learn the speech of animals.”
“Who needs that,” Kelley said.
“Or,” Dee would not be dissuaded,” you can transport something from one place to another using a spell.”
“Is this what you did,” Kelley said, a recognition dawning in his eyes. “Is that how you produced that puppy for the Emperor?” He laughed when Dee nodded.
Kelley continued: “Here I was, hiding in that other room, holding Minister Lang’s dog. I wondered why it disappeared, but that was nothing compared to Lang’s rage when he searched the whole Castle. You would think it was his mistress who disappeared.”
“I gave it back to him, didn’t I?” Said Dee and permitted himself another little smile, this time almost boyish in his delight about the little mischief.
“OK,” Kelley said and sighed, “when do we start to learn?”
“Soon,” Deed said and reached for the scroll. Kelley reluctantly released it. Dee placed it in a small bag.
“First, there is something we have to do right now,” Dee said and slowly and painfully rose from his chair.
“Come with me,” he said. The door of the chamber, the top of which was rounded, was very small and must have been several hundred years old.
“This Castle needs an upgrade,” Kelley muttered as he opened it and walked out into the snowy and cold night.
“Of course,” Dee agreed. “This is one of the many reasons Rudolf wants to produce gold, isn’t it.”
“When I - we - have the Stone, I am not going to share it,” Kelley said and hugged himself. “Not even with the Emperor. Where are we going? This horrible land is much colder than England.”
“Just down the street,” Dee said.
They stood on a little unpaved road, next to a row of tiny houses, one of which they just left. Behind the houses loomed a wall of one of the Castle’s palaces. If either Dee or Kelley turned around, they would face the Cathedral: its intricate stonework looking ethereal in the moonlight, and its tower reaching almost to the heaven. Instead Dee started to walk down the path avoiding the puddles of refuse, which liberally graced the street.
“We should have taken a light,” Kelley complained.
“Do you want all your colleagues to see where you are going at this hour?” Dee waved his hand toward the little houses. Kelley scowled and pressed on, following the older man.
They passed two hundred yards, until Kelley suddenly stopped. “You are not going there, are you?” He asked, watching a huge dark shadow in front of him.
“I am and so are you,” Dee said firmly.
“The Dalibor Tower?” Kelley said and continued: “Of all places in the Castle, you go to the prison? You know I abhor prisons, don’t you?”
“I know you are scared of them,” Dee said. “Sometimes I wonder why.”
The Tower was old, much older than the rest of the Castle, with the exception of the Basilica of St. George. It was square and made of rough stones. The one window they could see was blocked by crisscrossed iron bars. Kelley looked up apprehensively, studying the window.
“Are you expecting a violin?” Dee asked and chuckled.
“What?” asked Kelley, startled by the strange question.
“If you would learn the local language, you could talk to people and learn something,” Dee said and Kelley winced.
When he saw Kelley’s uncomprehending stare, Dee continued: “The Tower is named after Dalibor, a minor noble who annoyed his King. He was locked up and you know that prisoners had to pay for their own food. Dalibor soon ran out of money and was forced to beg. He would start sending down a little bag from his window so that people could donate food. They are pretty stingy here and the mob as everywhere, enjoys a cruel joke or two. So someone sent him up a violin. Play for food, they demanded. And he did. He became very good at it. The Tower now carries his name.”
“What happened to him then?” Kelley asked.
Dee shrugged and said: “He was executed anyway. King did not care about his playing.”
“Now that is my idea of a joke,” Kelley grinned.
“Yes,” Dee said, “you would execute him too, just to show them.”
“Hey,” Kelley said, “it is a rough world.” When Dee did not respond, he continued to dispel a shadow that seemed to fall between them: “So why are we going there? Are we going to see another violinist?”
“We are going to see a prisoner,” Dee confirmed, “but I do not know if he knows what a violin is.”
“Why?” Kelley asked.
“I want to ask him about this,” Dee said and stuck his hand into his bag and pulled out a small object. Kelley reached for it and Dee surrendered it without a fight.
“What is it?” Kelley asked after a while.
“It is an ankh,” Dee said. “It is the Egyptian symbol of life. That I know. What I don’t know is why it was sent to me together with the scrolls.” He took it back from Kelley and hid it again.
They entered a little door, half submerged under the surface of the road. A narrow, gloomy staircase led up and turned right. On top of the stairs was another door. Dee lit up a torch.
“How come there is no guard?” Kelley whispered. “There is never a guard at this time,” Dee said. “They are down in the tavern. They are men of regular habits, or perhaps I should say regular vices. It helps tremendously when you want to talk to someone in the Tower. Remember that.”
Dee lifted a large iron paddle at the door and pushed it open. Kelley’s hand slid toward his waist.
“Are you afraid?” Dee asked. “What are you hiding there?” Kelley pulled out a narrow dagger.
“Emperor would not like it if he knew you are armed in his presence,” Dee said dryly. “Don’t worry. The prisoner is harmless.” He entered the door.
“If so, why is he here?” Kelley muttered. He followed Dee in and the mystery on his mind was solved by one glance. He stopped abruptly. “A Mohammedan?”
In the far left corner, on a bed made of a pile of straw, lay a man. A foul odor permeated the air. The man shook and his teeth clicked, as he tried to cover himself with a tattered blue cloak. He tried to rise when he saw Dee, fell down again and finally stood up. Dee, pity in his eyes, took off his cloak and offered it to him. The prisoner grabbed the thin piece of cloth, clutched it to his heart and deeply bowed to Dee.
“This is Khalid,” Dee said, and the prisoner brightened as he heard his name and tried to stand straight. He was almost skeletal in his thinness and the impression was enhanced by his shaven head, now showing fine stubble of growing hair and the spare hair on his face, which suggested that he could never grow a beard. His skin was dark brown contrasting with the skin of the alchemists, which was bleached by long winter months. His head was covered by a strange cylindrical hat, blue like his cloak. The clothes underneath were once brown and reddish. By now, of course, they would be brown with dirt anyway.
“Magister Kelley,” Dee introduced his companion. Khalid bowed again. What do you want us to do with him?” Kelley asked, eyeing Khalid contemptuously. “How did he end up here anyway? He is a Musulman, isn’t he?”
Khalid frowned as he caught a familiar word. He stuck his hand behind his shirt, pulled out a cross that hung around his neck and reached the hand with the cross toward Kelley.
“What the devil is that?” Kelley growled as he studied the cross. It was ornate and in the center was etched a circle.
“That is a Coptic cross,” Dee said. “He is a Christian of a Coptic Church of Egypt.”
“Really?” said Kelley skeptically. “How did he get here then?”
Dee said: “He says he came to ask for help because Christians are persecuted in Egypt and he thought His Majesty, the ruler of the mightiest Christian Empire, could intervene on their behalf. Unfortunately, Rudolf saw this as a wonderful opportunity to interrogate someone from the land where alchemy originated and demanded to know all its secrets. Khalid did what he could, but he says some alchemist got jealous of him and told Emperor that Khalid is hiding secrets. So he is here until he talks.”
“I did not say anything,” said Kelley.
“I know,” Dee said. “I will find out who demeans our profession like that, though.”
“Does this guy know anything useful, though?” Kelley asked.
“That is why we are here,” Dee said, “I talked with him a few times and he trusts me now.”
Khalid gave him a questioning look apparently wondering what the two alchemists are chattering about.
“He does not understand,” Kelley said. “How do you know his language?”
“A friend taught me,” Dee said.
“Was it the same friend that taught you hieroglyphs?” Kelley asked.
“You are perceptive,” Dee said shortly. “Now, let me ask Khalid some questions.” He spoke a few sentences and Khalid listened carefully. Then he slowly shook his head.
“Translate,” Kelley demanded.
“He says he does not know about Hermes, or Emerald Tablets”, Dee said. “Of course, perhaps we have just a terminology problem. Let me try this.”
He released the bag from his waist, untied it and pulled out the scroll and the ankh. Khalid looked on uncomprehendingly for a second, but when Dee unwound the scroll and its pictures were revealed in the dim light of Dee’s torch, a change came over Khalid’s face. His eyes opened wide and his mouth whispered a foreign word. He fell to one knee, placed his right hand over his heart, and his left arm shot above his head.
“I take it he recognizes it,” Kelley said dryly.
Dee asked Khalid a question. He lowered his arms, still kneeling, his eyes glued to the scroll and answered: “He says it is from a city of Egypt that is known for its magic. I cannot pronounce its name,” Dee said.
“That’s interesting,” Kelley said impatiently, “but I thought you want to ask him that thing – whatever it is.”
Dee spoke to Khalid again. Khalid arose shaking vigorously his head. He spoke rapidly, waving his hands in a universal gesture of denial.
“Perhaps a little torture would help?” Kelley suggested. “We could tell the Emperor and he would take care of it.”
“Do you want Rudolf to know about the scroll?” Dee asked as he hid the scroll away. “Anyway, Khalid told me what I wanted to know.” He bid away to Khalid, who wiped his sweaty brow, and returned to his sad excuse for a bed, richer by one cloak.
“So what about the ankh?” Kelley asked. “What if he was lying?”
“He could be,” Dee said, “but I don’t think so. Let me ask my friend, the one who gave me the scroll, if he can figure this one out.”