Looking the part.

the Alchemist

As I walk the streets of Port Naain, it strikes me how people try and look the part. Setting aside the mercenary horseman cantering by, you have the butcher with his blood spattered apron. You have the professional mourner with his dark clothing and his hair artistically disarranged. Then there is the dunnykin diver over there; you can easily spot him, nobody stands within six feet of him and that’s a crowded street. Even I have to look the part. The leading poet of his generation has to dress with casual elegance and adopt an insouciant air.

Orthando the Wise was somebody who took this lesson to heart. He started life as Orthan Shornfuddle and worked as a short-order clerk. Still even then he dressed appropriately. He wore the white pillbox hat, the long brown overall and the inkstained leather glove on his right hand. I have been told that he worked at the junction of Wittle road and Ropewalk; sitting on his stool with his trusty lap-desk.
To be fair he could write well in a good clear hand. He normally had a short queue of people who were waiting for him to produce for them a short letter, an invoice, a recipe or an invitation. On fine days he did well enough, on wet days he did badly, and in winter he was forced to wear so many old clothes in a desperate attempt to keep warm that he could barely move.

His big break came when he acquired an old notebook filled with patent medicine recipes. He’d initially just bought it for the paper, but was fascinated by what he read; so fascinated that he kept his eyes open and picked up all sorts of old manuscripts of the same type. He studied them carefully, love philtres and tonics, purges and diuretics, seeking to discover the underlying system.

After some years of assiduous study he finally came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a system. His assembled recipes had either evolved by trial and error or were just made up on the spot to seem impressive. Fortified by this knowledge he decided on a career change. He’d had too many cold winters and wanted an indoor job. Thus he became Orthando the Wise, Alchemist.

Now to be fair, Orthando was wise. Before he became an Alchemist he spent two years quietly putting together the equipment he’d need for his new profession. He picked up an aludel in one house clearance. He was lucky in one junk shop, finding an alembic and a retort. Mortars, pestles and crucibles were easily enough acquired; indeed like many alchemists before him he made his own crucibles out of clay and fired them himself. To this he added a collection of glass vessels, a number of carboys, a furnace and a score or more of incomprehensible tomes. At the same time he let his hair grow, even going to the extent of acquiring a beard.

Then he was ready for business. A discreet brass plaque on the wall by his front door proclaimed his trade. To advertise more widely he took to writing into the letters pages of various Port Naain newspapers, where he would advise previous correspondents. Each letter would fetch him a few more clients.

As for the clients, when they came each would be carefully assessed. Orthando was old enough and wise enough to realise most people carry within themselves the solution to their own problems. In many cases merely talking about it to somebody who sat there looking wise and deeply concerned provided more healing than a dozen elixirs. Faced with those for whom just talking seemed to help; he would apparently ponder deeply and then pour into a bottle a quantity of a tonic he created personally for them. All these tonics started with a base of pure spirit, and to it he would judiciously add small quantities of essences, each drawn from a single herb. Most of these tonics had a euphoric effect, thus the client got into the habit of feeling better.

Obviously there were people who came to him who were genuinely ill. In this case he would discuss matters with them and if happy in his diagnosis he would have his servant escort his client down the road to see the doctor, Mord Filch. As an aside, Mord and Orthando had a mutually advantageous relationship. Mord gained a number of patients, and he repaid Orthando by sending him those patients whom he felt needed cherishing rather than medicine.

Finally, everybody asks me, did he produce love philtres?  Of course he produced them. He’d have been drummed out of the profession if he hadn’t. But as always Orthando would spend a lot of time with his client. He was always trying to get to the heart of the problem.

Therefore one young man spent an hour with him, as he struggled to admit that, yes; he did want a love philtre but was too embarrassed to ask for one. Orthando poured him out a bottle of almost pure spirit and instructed him to pour two fingers of it into a glass and to drain the glass ‘in one’ before he attempted to speak to the girl of his dreams. There were one or two false starts. On the first attempt the client drank the spirit off so quickly he couldn’t speak, and merely wheezed hoarsely. On the second attempt, considering that if two fingers was good, eight fingers would be four times as good, the young man leaned nonchalantly against a lamp-post where he could gaze adoringly at the young lady as she passed. What really happened was that he slid slowly and helplessly down the lamp-post and she stepped over him. But still, persistence pays off and at some point as he worked his way through the third bottle, he finally proposed and she accepted.

Another young gentleman who admitted to having difficulty in wooing the lady of his choice was issued a special pack. It consisted of soap, a razor, and the philtre was in effect a mint flavoured breath freshener. Orthando even supplied a servant who instructed the young man on the use of the various items. Here too the philtre was eventually successful.

Mind you, there were ladies, some not so young, who would come seeking a love draught.  After listening to one lady he reached into a cabinet and took out his onyx pendulum. To her immense fascination he held it above a board marked with cabalistic symbols. As the pendulum finally stopped he explained that the problem was in the personalities within her household. She must replace her cook immediately. Yet that was not all, she had a blockage within her aura. Greatly sorrowing, the lady followed his advice, and one of the finest pastry cooks in the city was left seeking a new employer. Hence within three months of her cook leaving the lady in question had lost a remarkably large amount of weight.

Initially the client had been somewhat wary about the programme of exercises she had been given to free the blockage within her aura. But she came to feel that when set against the sacrifice of giving up her cook, the exercises where a mere bagatelle. So she followed the regime assiduously and it worked wonders with her figure (and general health). Within the year she could have been married, the only problem being that she wasn’t sure which of her several new admirers she preferred.



Just as and aside, if you have spent the last month of so on a raft in the pacific without access to company or the web, you might not have realised that I have published a collection of stories by Tallis Steelyard.


Tallis Steelyard. The Festival, and other stories.

to quote from a review. “Another selection of tales from Port Naain, as told by jobbing poet Tallis Steelyard. Read about the underpinnings of dancing matrons, the secret beneath the undergarments of a gentlewoman of the town, the resurrection of a dead mercenary, and much more. This is a gentle comedy of manners in a world so different from our own. The author writes affectionately of his world and his characters, and I share that affection. Lovely stuff.”







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