The bracing wind of the late December afternoon gusted outside and intruded into Albert’s thoughts. It was the first Thursday of the winter school break. Hoping to escape his troubles, Albert went to the Bavarian Library near the Gymnasium campus where he sat contemplating his compass. Inspiration was not forthcoming, so he put his treasure in his coat pocket and wandered over to the bookshelves. He searched half-heartedly for one of his favorite philosophers, Kant, and found Critique of Pure Reason. As he pulled the book from the shelf, he heard a familiar voice call his name.
Albert turned, and his face lit up. “Herr Talmud, it is so good to see you!”
They embraced cordially, Max, a head taller, with a premature touch of gray in his chestnut hair and mustache. Though only in his mid-30s, he had the air of a wise older gentleman.
Max was equally excited to see his young friend. He held Albert at arm’s length and assessed the boy. “You’re growing up nicely, Albert. How have you been? Are you at the Gymnasium getting your diploma?”
At the mention of the Gymnasium, Albert’s body slumped. “Uh, that’s kind of a long story. Say, maybe I can tell you about it over dinner. Can you join me?”
“Of course,” Max responded with a smile, putting an arm around Albert’s shoulders. “I would love to find out what has been going on with one of my favorite people.”
For the first time in a long time, Albert felt himself relax in the company of a friend as the two walked to the coatroom. Moments later, they stepped into the cold evening air and headed down the hill to an alehouse a couple blocks away.
* * *
Not far from the Bavarian Library, Raka surreptitiously peered beneath his cloak and inspected his walking stick. Pressing the ruby eyes set in the dragon’s head, he made sure the steel needle tipped with venom was ready. He knew he could not do harm to the possessor of the Shamir without paying a massive karmic price, but you never knew when it might be a useful tool for coercing someone to do his will. He was hot on the trail of the Shamir and knew it was near at hand. Satisfied that all was in readiness, he reset the needle and continued his way.
Sniffing the air, he found the Shamir scent much stronger than it had been just minutes ago. He quickened his pace, practically salivating at the thought of possessing the stone.
A few blocks from the library, Max and Albert entered the alehouse and found a quiet table. After ordering beer and sauerbraten from the plump, middle-aged waitress, they resumed their conversation.
“Do you remember when I would visit you and your family each Shabbat?” Max asked. “Your parents were so kind to me when I was a struggling medical student.”
Albert nodded, a warm feeling filling him along with the memories of simpler days. “Yes, I remember. I have missed you. It was an exciting time when you were twenty-nine and I only ten, and you brought me books on philosophy and mathematics. I loved the quizzes you made up for me to test how well I’d understood my assignments.”
Max grinned as he chewed a bite of beef and pointed his fork at Albert. “It wasn’t very long before I could no longer follow you.”
Albert beamed at the praise, and the two chatted amiably, recalling the many Shabbat evenings they had spent together.
Outside the alehouse, Raka approached, his pace quickening in anticipation. He took a final sniff and satisfied himself he was at the right place. His thoughts were confirmed when he saw the hoopoe bird perched above the door. The aroma of human food coming from the alehouse did not interest him. Instead, the rat that ran around the corner of the building as he approached made him remember it had been a while since he had eaten.
Raka entered and casually made his way to the table next to the one where Albert and Max were chatting. When the waitress approached, he ordered a beer to justify his presence and settled back, giving no indication that he was listening intently to the boy and the man at the nearby table. Raka wondered which of the two possessed the Shamir.
Though he had found the conversation relaxing and enjoyable, Albert decided it was time to bring up the topic he really wanted to discuss. Taking a bite of his pot roast, Albert became serious. “Max, may I confide in you?”
The smile faded from Max’s face and was replaced by a look of concern. “Of course, you can tell me anything. What is it, Albert? Is something wrong with your parents?”
“No, no, my parents are fine. They are in Italy. I am staying with my aunt and uncle, who live not far from here.” Albert paused and took a long drink of beer as he gathered his thoughts. He was trying to figure out just how to tell his story, but when no inspiration appeared, he just plowed ahead. “It’s just that I feel I am wasting my time at the Gymnasium. I pass my math and science examinations easily because I taught myself the things we’re studying in class years ago.” Albert pulled the Gymnasium Direktor’s letter from his pocket, saying, “But when I ask to be given more advanced work to study, I am met only with anger.” He handed the letter to Max, who frowned as he read it.
Dear Herr Einstein,
You are requested to attend a meeting at 10:00 a.m. on December 15, 1894, at the Office of the Direktor to discuss your future at the Luitpold Gymnasium with the Academik Committee Council. Please be prompt.
Max shook his head as he folded the letter and gave it back to Albert. “I’m not surprised, Albert. I suspected you would have a hard time at the Gymnasium.”
Max nodded. “Yes. You’re right in the middle of a struggle within the school system itself. The schulkrieg, the war over the schools, is a fight between proponents of the classical values associated with education in Latin and Greek and supporters of instruction in modern languages and natural sciences.”
Albert leaned back in his chair, surprised at this revelation. “I had no idea.”
“How could you know?” Max sighed, “But, you see, I struggled too as I went through school to become a doctor.”
“Really?” Albert was taken aback.
“Mmm hmm. Believe it or not, the Luitpold Gymnasium has had a reputation as an enlightened school. All of Germany celebrates its ‘institutes of learning’ because of how prosperous it has become in the last three decades. Germany leads the world in what people are calling the industrial revolution.”
Albert waved his hand as if brushing away Max’s statement. “Institutes of learning? Bah! They are just factories of rote instruction.”
Max did not argue. “Be that as it may, Germany boasts of its schools.” As Albert scowled, Max continued. “But, my friend, I can tell you that there are schools in Switzerland that may be of interest to you. I attended one of them before I went to the University of Munich.”
Albert raised his eyebrows. “Switzerland?”
Max nodded. “The Polytechnic in Zurich, where I studied. And I have an uncle who lives in Zurich. He was instrumental in having me attend the Polytechnic, and I believe he would be willing to assist you as well. It would give you the education I think you are looking for.”
Albert’s face brightened. “That would be wonderful... if it would not be too much trouble, I mean.”
Max touched Albert’s arm, reassuring him, and said, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re family, Albert. I would be glad to help you. No trouble at all. It is the least I can do for people who treated me with such kindness.”
Albert sat back in his chair. For the first time in months, he felt like he could breathe.
Albert and Max went back to reminiscing as they finished their supper together. Feeling a refreshing wind in his sails blowing him in a new direction, Albert was now more than ready to meet the direktor and his lieutenants. When the two finished the last of their beer, Albert prepared to pay the check.
Raka was deep in thought, speculating on what he had heard when he saw the younger man reach into his pocket and pull out his money clip along with a round, brass device. Raka held his breath. There it was, his treasure! He wanted to jump up and grab it but had enough presence of mind to know that was not the way to achieve his objective. In the excitement of seeing the Shamir, Raka’s concentration weakened, and the illusion of his human form began to fade. Scales began to appear on his face. He rubbed his hands over his cheeks quickly, and his soft, human complexion returned. Shaking with anticipation, Raka was overwhelmed by his proximity to the prize he had sought for millennia. As Albert and Max stood up and made their way to the front door, neither noticed the blond gentleman at the table behind them.
Raka waited until Max and Albert had left the alehouse before he tossed a few coins on the table and followed. As he exited the building, he saw Max walking to the left and Albert going right to fetch his bicycle at the library. Raka grinned and moved along the cobblestone street toward Albert, melting into the pitch-black night. Albert rounded the corner of the now-dark library and walked to where he had parked his bike. Lost in thoughts of his future, he was unaware of Raka approaching him from behind. Panting in anticipation, Raka prepared to strike, cosmic law be damned. He readied his weapon by pressing the dragon’s ruby eyes and exposing the toxic steel needle. Just as he began to aim, out of nowhere, the hoopoe bird flew straight into the evil lizard, its pointed bill piercing his left eye. Raka stifled a cry and crouched to the ground in pain as the swift bird flew away.
Pulled from his musing by the muffled sound, Albert looked around. But the night was dark, and he saw neither Raka nor the weapon, which fell from his grasp as the lizard covered his wounded eye. The walking stick tumbled to the cobblestone pavement, and the poisoned needle tip broke with a snap, bouncing onto a squirrel nearby, causing it to chatter angrily. As he was placing his leg over his bicycle, Albert heard the noise and saw the little rodent scurry past him. Because it was so dark, Albert did not believe his eyes as the creature’s fur began to smoke and the animal appeared to disintegrate into a puddle of ooze. Albert shook his head, chiding himself for the way his eyes deceived him. He pulled the collar of his coat tighter around him to protect himself from the cutting wind.
Muttering soundless curses at the hoopoe bird, Raka skulked in the darkness, attempting to tend his wound. Far from fatal for the changeling, it was painful enough to demand his attention. He cursed himself soundly for his over-eagerness and realized what he had nearly done. The price he would have paid, he realized, would have been too high, even for the Shamir. He would not make that mistake again.
Walking in the dark, cold night, Raka vowed to lay a far more foolproof plan. Yes, it would take time. Yes, he would have to be patient. But he would not let the Shamir slip through his clutches again. A plan began to form in his mind—one that involved other humans. Like a precious seed, he would nurture it until it blossomed and bore fruit.
Astride his bicycle, Albert pedaled toward his aunt’s house, his mind filled with thoughts of a much brighter future. Not far behind, the hoopoe flew, ever vigilant, watching for the potential dangers of which Albert was blissfully unaware.
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