1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 05

“But making illicit aqua vitae — what if I’m caught,” Phillip protested. There had been cases of apprentices being caught running illicit stills, and he didn’t want to risk their punishment. He said so.

“But that’s what’s so good about you doing it using the laboratory furnace. Who’s going to notice if you were to run a few extra alembic?” Heinrich Weidemann asked.

That was getting too close to home for Phillip. He had to share a room with Heinrich, and he could so easily make his life hell. But still Phillip resisted.

“We’ll make it worth your while,” Bartholom√ɬ§us Kellner added.

Bartholom√ɬ§us’ involvement almost rolled up Phillip’s resistance there and then. He was the assay office’s best hope of victory over the Goldsmith’s guild in the next Sch√ɬľtzenfest. They were unlikely to punish him for possession of illicit alcohol, and if they didn’t punish Bartholom√ɬ§us, then it was highly unlikely that they would punish his co-offenders.

“You’re the best there is, Phillip,” Christoph said. “Just look at how long they’ve left you on making acids. Nobody else has been stuck with that job as long as you have.” Frederik and Heinrich chimed in with their agreement.

“That just means I’m a slower learner than everyone else,” Phillip protested.

“Right,” Frederik said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “You’re such a slow learner that Herr Reihing and Herr Neuffer are happy to leave you running the distilling apparatus without supervision.” He stared intently at Phillip. “When I had my turn on the stills, I had both of them constantly breathing down my neck.”

“They only did that because they don’t want a repeat of what happened with Martin,” Christoph said. There were murmurs of agreement from the other apprentices.

“Herr Neuffer regularly checks up on me,” Phillip said.

Christoph nodded. “Sure he does. But I bet it’s only to check that you’re drinking enough. I’ve been watching him, and he barely gives the retorts and receivers more than a cursory glance when you’re running them.” He looked imploringly at Phillip. “They trust you, Phillip. They trust you to work on your own like they trust nobody else. You’re perfect for the job.”

Phillip searched the hopeful faces gathered around him. He didn’t know why they wanted the aqua vitae for their Twelfth Night party — well, actually he did know, but he didn’t understand why they wanted it triple distilled. That was much too strong to drink.

They were so earnest, and they were saying such flattering things about his capabilities. It would be nice to prove them correct, but Phillip wasn’t prepared to burn all of his bridges. “How about I try to sneak in an extra retort tomorrow and see how that goes? If that doesn’t raise any suspicions, then I’ll make as much as I can for your party.”

That offer was gratefully accepted, and most of the apprentices left, leaving Phillip with just his roommates.

“It’s going to be a great party,” Frederik said.

“I haven’t made any aqua vitae yet,” Phillip pointed out.

“But you will. We’re counting on you.”

And that, as far as Phillip was concerned, was the problem. Now he had to make the illicit aqua vitae, without getting caught.

Friday January 9, 1609

Ulrich Hechstetter, the head of the Augsburg assay office, sipped from the glass of strong liquor and sighed. “It’s a very good tipple, with not a hint of where they got the aqua vitae.” He looked across the senior staff lounge towards Master Paul Paler and his senior journeyman Jakob Reihing. “That means they must have triple distilled it. Do you have any idea where they hid the still?”

Paul shook his head. “We looked in all the usual places, but they hid it well this year.”

Ulrich though back to his days as an apprentice. “And none of the senior staff realized they had a still running? Surely they had to have someone attending to it constantly?”

“You’d think so,” Paul agreed. “But none of the journeymen reported unusual absences.” He snorted. “They made it look like they weren’t going to try and produce some strong alcohol for their Twelfth Night party this year.”

“Which should have started the alarm bells ringing.” Ulrich followed another sip with another sign of contentment. “Well, we’ll know better next year.”

Jacob chuckled and took a sip from his own glass. “It was nice of the apprentices to give the senior staff a couple of bottles.”

“It was cursed impertinent,” Ulrich muttered before taking another sip. “They were rubbing our noses in the fact that they were able to make more than enough for their party without us catching them.”

April 1609

Paul Paler was deep in thought as he read a report when there was a perfunctory knock on his door and the head of the assay office walked in. “Herr Hechstetter,” He said as he dropped the report and shot to his feet.

“Sit down, Paul,” Ulrich said as he pulled over a chair and sat down. “There’s something I want you to do for me.”

Paul fell back into his seat. “Yes, Herr Hechstetter?”

“Bartholom√ɬ§us Kellner has complained about inconsistencies between different barrels of gunpowder. I want you to do something about it.”

“Powder? Barrels?” Paul stared at Ulrich in confusion for a few seconds before a light dawned. “Oh, you’re talking about gunpowder for the Sch√ɬľtzenfest.”

“Of course I’m talking about the Sch√ɬľtzenfest. And this year we are not going to be beaten by the Goldsmith’s guild.”

Paul winced. The annual festival was supposed to be a demonstration of the readiness of the guilds to do their part to defend the city, but with no war threatening the city, the competitions had become a matter of bragging rights. Unfortunately, in the Augsburg inter-guild shooting competition, the Goldsmith’s guild had placed higher than the assay office for each of the last ten years. To say it was getting embarrassing didn’t really convey the weight of feeling in the assay office. “I’ll see about checking the powder and get back to you.”

“I want a bit more from you than just confirmation that there is a problem, Paul. I want a solution.” Ulrich stared at Paul for a few seconds before leaving.

Paul looked at the papers he’d laid on his desk and sighed. They were important, but not as important as keeping his boss happy. He got to his feet and went in search of his senior journeyman.

****

Paul glanced around the laboratory, taking in the various apprentices hard at work. His gaze settled for a few seconds on the only apprentice who didn’t turned to see who’d come in before continuing the search for the senior journeyman who ran the laboratory. He located Jakob Reihing off in one corner and gestured for him to join him. It took only a few minutes to explain to Jakob what Ulrich Hechstetter wanted.

“Phillip Gribbleflotz can do the testing,” Jakob said. “It’s well within his capabilities, and you only have to show him how to do something once.”

“Gribbleflotz? Isn’t that the boy who claims to be the great grandson of Paracelsus?”

Jakob nodded. “That’s him over there.” He gestured towards the youth Paul had noticed earlier. He was still diligently checking some distillation vessels.

“Is he deaf or something?” Paul asked. “He’s the only apprentice that didn’t look around when I walked in.”

“Or something,” Jakob said. “He’s not easily distracted from whatever it is he’s working on.”

“And what’s he working on?”

“Right now, he’s making aqua fortis.”

The mention of the strong acid reminded Paul of a message he’d been asked to pass on. “That reminds me. The assayers asked me to thank you for the high quality of the acids you’ve been producing lately. They really appreciate how consistently pure they’ve been over the last few months.”

“That’s mostly because of Phillip. He’s got a knack for producing very pure acids and such.”

“A knack?” Paul asked.

Jacob shrugged. “He’s certainly very capable for his age and training. Maybe he really is the great grandson of Paracelsus.”

Paul responded to that suggestion with a derisive snort. “Just do whatever you have to do to attract his attention so we can tell him what he’s going to be doing for the rest of the day.”

****

Phillip was deeply involved in controlling the distillation of the aqua fortis from the mixture of green vitriol and saltpetre when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He kept his eyes on what he was doing. “Yes?”