Grand Mal Press

SORCERER

by Geoffrey James

John Dee gazed up at the comet with vast irritation.  

Now fifty, Dee's face had rounded and thickened from when he was a boy, and he wore a beard the color of day-old ash, tightly trimmed in the latest style of Queen Elizabeth’s court.

 Dee was sitting in the back of an oarboat, the front being occupied by an oarsman, whose heavy arms propelled the boat along the dark waters of the Thames.  The boat’s lantern was extinguished, so that neither the boat, nor the people within it, could be seen from either shore.  It was a dangerous way to travel, for in the darkness a boat might easily strike something—a log, a rock, a corpse—and overturn. 

However, secrecy was necessary, so Dee dismissed the danger from his mind, and instead stared up at the comet, wishing he had the power to make it disappear.

When the comet had first appeared as a silvery tadpole in the west, he had originally been delighted, since this was his first opportunity to study such an unusual celestial phenomenon.  But now it had become a nuisance, a barrier to his plans to obtain the money he needed to pursue his alchemical research.

As a young man, Dee learned that alchemy was the apex of all science, just as mathematics was its root. Therefore, before he could master alchemy, Dee would need to master all other arts and sciences, the trivium, the quadrivium, medicine, metallurgy, and dozens more.

He had therefore spent his life in study, sleeping four hours a day, and spending the remainder either buried in a book, attending lectures and discussions, or writing and cross-comparing sources.  He had attended, and won top honors, at the universities of Cambridge, Louvain, and Paris, and he had spent his inheritance amassing the largest library in England, over 4,000 volumes, many of which dealt with arcane and mysterious subjects.  As of the previous year, the library included a very special book: an alchemical text that his grandfather had given him. Dee had finally located the volume in a Southwark bookstore in a pile of gleanings from the library of Bishop Bonner. Finally, John Dee felt ready to undertake the Great Work of alchemy. There was only one problem: money.

Alchemy was an expensive undertaking, requiring specialized equipment such as alembics, forges, concentrators, and calcinators; rare materials like antimony, mercury, and mummy dust; as well as a certain quantity of seed gold to spawn replication.  Unfortunately, though John Dee had served Queen Elizabeth for decades, his stipend was only enough to keep him respectable, and not sufficient to fund such an elaborate endeavor.

Dee had been forced, therefore, to take matters into his own hand and find an alternative source of income.  And now this damned comet was ruining everything. 

“How long until we get there?” Dee asked.

The oarsman stopped rowing and let the boat drift through the wisps of mist clinging to the water’s surface.  He stuck a finger in the water, as if testing its temperature.  “Not long now,” he said, “Patience be with ye, for ‘tis not such a long trip, not when compared to where we'd be sailing.”  He sculled the oars to straighten the course and resumed his labor.

Dee took a long breath.  There was nothing to be gained by impatience.

To his left were the clustered buildings of London, while on the right were the Southwark brothels, their red lanterns hanging low over the river’s edge.  A man stuck his head out a brothel window and vomited. Dee, embarrassed for him, turned the other way.

The boat slipped under the Great Bridge.  The bridge was a city unto itself, with castled towers atop each pylon, and shops and houses hanging like lampreys from the stone rails, but when the oarboat slipped beneath it, the sounds of the city became faint and hollow, softer than the slush of the oars.

They emerged into the open air, where a warship was silhouetted against the night sky.  It was, Dee knew, the Great Harry, the largest of Elizabeth’s fleet, with a bow-castle so high, that had it been on dry land, it would be taller than most of the buildings in London.  As they slipped past, Dee could just barely see the ship’s cannons, protruding from the porticos like the spines of a hedgehog.

As they passed the Tower of London, Dee thought of the day that Anne Boleyn was beheaded and the death, the following morning, of Beddoe Dee.  As always, he could not have these thoughts without also remembering Bonner—Bloody Bonner, they called him now, because he had burned so many protestants during the reign of Queen Mary. 

Dee spat into the water.

A shadow loomed in the mist — a smallish galleon anchored in the midst of the river.  It, like the oarboat, held no lantern and its rigging hung limp.  It looked like a plague ship, abandoned and forgotten.  Its figurehead was barely visible, a pelican in flight. 

They came alongside, and a rope ladder dropped down.  The oarsman clambered up, held down his hand for Dee.  Dee climbed more slowly, his elbows popping with the unfamiliar exertion.  The oarsman pulled him up and over the rail.

“The captain is below,” said the oarsman, pointing to a hatch near the bow.  Dee entered, felt his way down the steeply laddered stairs.  Then, bent nearly double, he groped his way down the slender passage towards an outlined square of candlelight—a small door.

He knocked, then pulled the door open, blinking in the sudden brightness.  The quarters were cramped, not much more than a closet, with half the room taken by a pallet bunk, on which sat Francis Drake, head bowed, elbows on his knees.  He was a little over thirty, with only a touch of gray at his temples, but his almond eyes were already undershot with the dark rings of habitual drunkenness. 

“It’s no good,” Drake said, grimly.  “The queen has withdrawn her permission.  The fleet’s to disband.  Everything’s off.  They’re afraid of the comet.”

It was exactly as Dee expected.  As an astronomer, Dee knew that comets were, like eclipses, simply part of the great clockwork of the heavens and that this very same comet was visible everywhere in the world from the Japans to America to Africa, and therefore was unlikely to have a specific significance for the tiny island of Britain. 

But Elizabeth and the rest of her court did not understand this, and believed that the comet represented a threat to her realm.  And that made it a bad time—in their superstitious opinion—to launch a bold undertaking.

The plan was simple.  Drake would captain a small fleet to America, where he would capture one of Philip of Spain’s treasure ships filled with gold plundered from the new world.  Dee, with his unique knowledge of geography and navigation, had provided Drake with improved sextants, superior ephemerides, updated maps—everything he would need to out-maneuver the Spanish navy.  In return for his help, Dee would receive a portion of the profit, which, assuming things went well, would be more than enough to fund his alchemical research. 

But now that excellent plan was in tatters.

“What have you heard from the palace?” Dee asked.

“Cecil is using the comet as an excuse,” Drake said.  “As her private secretary, he’s been against the enterprise from the start.  Says it’s too likely to provoke a war with Spain.  Says the comet is God’s counsel of caution.  And he has the queen’s ear, that’s for certain.”

Drake extracted a leather flask from his bedding, took a pull, handed it to Dee.

Dee sipped gingerly, for the Madiera was strong.  “The comet will be gone in a month,” he said.  “Couldn’t we wait until then?”

Drake shook his head.  “No good.  Can’t hold the fleet without pay.  Every day we’re in port, we lose a few more men.  If we don’t sail soon, I won’t have enough crew to keep afloat.  The weather, too.  Even now we might hit winter squalls.”

“Have you spoken to the queen?” Dee asked.

“Won’t see me.” Drake said.  Then he looked at Dee hopefully.  “Might listen to you, though.  Aren’t you her childhood friend?”

Dee blew out his cheeks.  That description, while accurate, failed to encapsulate the complexities of the relationship.  He had, indeed, known Elizabeth as a girl, becoming her friend by doing the one thing that nobody else in her father’s court had been brave enough to do: tell her how her mother died.

Then had come the dark days, when Elizabeth’s sister Mary ruled.  Dee had remained loyal to Elizabeth, a decision that had gotten him arrested on a trumped-up charge of witchcraft.  Even under threat of the stake, Dee had not abandoned her, and when Elizabeth came to power, she did not forget it.

Even so, Elizabeth was an unreliable patroness, as mercurial as her father, miserly as her grandfather, and waspish as a dowager.

“The queen has been...difficult lately,” Dee said.  “I hardly know where I stand from minute to minute.”

Drake took a long pull at the flask.  “Well, you better do something, because without the queen’s permission, our great enterprise is as dead as a drowned dog.”

Dee left Drake’s cabin around midnight, having consumed just enough Madiera to give him the courage to try something he never would have attempted sober. 

Under his instructions, the oarboat took him to nearby Greenwich Palace, a gray-brown hulk of towers and gables.  A gibbous moon had risen and on the tower flags flying above the palace, Dee could see the Tudor escutcheon signaling that Elizabeth was currently in residence. 

As soon as they reached the dock, Dee disembarked, paid the oarsman an extra penny for his trouble, then trotted along the quay, towards the arched gateway that led to the outer courtyard of the palace.

It was protected by an iron gate.  Approaching quietly, Dee peered through the bars.  Two guards were sitting on the ground beside a small fire.

Summoning his courage, Dee rattled the gate violently.  “Open, on the queen’s business!” he cried, trying his best to sound authoritative. 

The guards, startled, leapt to their feet, and grabbed their halberds.  They stared at Dee for a moment, then one of them sucked in his breath.  “The queen’s sorcerer!” he gasped.

Dee had heard the nickname before.  It was based, in part, upon his arrest for witchcraft in Queen Mary’s day, but primarily upon an oft-told tale of an enormous flying beetle. 

This legendary creature had, in fact, been an enormous puppet of wood, metal, wire and string that he’d made while at Cambridge as a prop for a play.  Unfortunately, the tale had grown in the telling, so that it was now commonly believed that Dee had not only brought the stupendous creature to life, but caused it to fly back and forth from the moon, carrying a hapless priest in its ravenous mandibles.

Under normal circumstances, Dee found the nickname irritating, but on the present occasion felt it might prove useful. “Yes, I am the queen’s sorcerer,” he said. “And the queen has summoned me to tell her the true meaning of that.”  He pointed his finger, trembling with mock drama, at the comet above. 

One of the guards crossed himself.  The other said, “We’re not supposed to…”

“Silence!” Dee thundered. “Open the gate at once!”

The guards, trembling, did as he commanded. 

Dee pushed his way inside, then strode off towards the palace, without so much as a backward glance, praying the guards would not think to run ahead and warn their captain of Dee’s arrival. 

Dee heard the gates clang shut, but no sound of footsteps.  He breathed a sigh of relief.

By this time, however, Dee’s wine-spawned courage had begun to wear off and he suffered second thoughts.

A royal court is like an onion, with a series of layers that must be penetrated before one reaches the royal sanctum.  Even Dee, who was in the queen’s circle, would normally have been expected to apply to a privy counselor for permission to see the her privately, a request that might or might not be granted, based upon a variety of factors, including Dee’s current standing at court, and the importance that privy counselor put upon his own friendship with Dee.

On this occasion, however, there was no time for such formalities.  He needed to see the queen now, or at least this morning.  To do this, he would have to get into her private chambers, without being captured or, worse, shot outright as a possible assassin.

To accomplish this, Dee had something, a very special something, that he had kept secret and on his person for many years. 

It was a key.

Dee had found it in a leather pocket on the inside of a book from the library of Northumberland, who had been regent during Edward’s reign.  Ordinarily, Dee would have merely put the key aside, but there had been written above it, on the flyleaf: Chapel: Greenwich. 

That had naturally piqued Dee’s curiosity, so he had taken pains, when next invited to that palace, to investigate the chapel.  He had found a break in the wainscot, a long line running up to the ceiling.  He rapped his fist on the wood and heard the hollow echo of a passage behind. 

He later checked the base of the tower beneath the chapel and had found, exactly as he expected, a small door with a tiny keyhole about the size of the key he’d found.

That key had rested in an inside pocket of his doublet for several years, awaiting some occasion where it might prove useful.  And even though this was clearly such an occasion, there was no denying that Dee was taking a very big risk.

Dee worked his way around to the chapel tower until he reached the door.  He fished into the pocket, extracted the key, then fumbled along the door’s edge until he found the keyhole. 

He tried to turn the key, but it remained stuck.  He jiggled it, turned again, felt a slight give.  He took the corner of his sleeve, wrapped it around the head of the key, and forced it round.  There was a grinding sound as the long-unused lock opened its chambers.  He pulled on the key and felt the door move.  Jamming his fingers into the edge of the opening, he pulled while the rusted hinges protested with a plangent whine.

He paused for a moment.  He could still give over this mad plan, could still close the doors, return to the gate, tell the guards he’d delivered his message, then wait on the dock until a boat passed, to flag it down and return safely to his home.  But once he actually passed within the palace, he would be committed.  There would be no going back.

Taking a deep breath, he removed the key, stepped into the darkness, and shut the door behind him.

Groping like a blind man, he followed a short, curved passage to a staircase so steep and narrow that he had to turn sideways to climb it.  It led to a short landing in front of a blank wall. 

There must be a latch somewhere, Dee thought.  His fingers slid along the corners of the wall, feeling nothing but the desiccated bodies of cobwebbed flies.

He ran his palm along the center and found a square metal spike about the bigness of his thumb.  He pulled on it. Nothing happened, so he pushed it, and there was a dull thump from inside the wall.  Suddenly, it felt mobile, so he pushed, lightly at first, then harder. It slowly inched open. 

Dee stepped forward, push backward on the wall, so that it returned, with another dull thump, to be against the rest of the room.

He was standing, as he expected, in the queen’s private chapel.  The moon was shining through the tall east windows above the altar, illuminating the throne, the surrounding chairs, and the huge Bible on the lectern.  The room had the liturgical scent of oiled wood and frankincense.

Now there was nothing to do but wait until morning when might be able to meld into the crowd of courtiers invited to break their fast with the queen. 

He sat down on the cold stone floor, intending to stay awake, but it had been a long night and his body would not cooperate.

The last thing John Dee saw before sleep overtook him was the moonlit silhouette of an angel in the window overhead

 

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