Chapter 19: Tea?
Tungsten and I head back to the parlour together.
I walk in front. Even after all my efforts to calm the big man down, he won’t turn his back to me.
That’s fine, as long as he gives me the right directions and doesn’t send me down another trap.
He acts tough for sure, and he can look quite terrifying.
Luckily for me, he’s a big coward, just like me.
Maybe we can even become friends?
“Sit down, I’ll put a kettle on,” Tungsten says slapping the door out of the way.
I sit down on the small leather stool and feel oddly nostalgic for a bit. I can almost see the four of us sitting there, Stegarius, Mercury, Tungsten and me.
Now all that’s left are the survivors. It makes my chest feel tight.
I try to keep it to myself. Watching Tungsten make tea instead.
The alchemist walks to a big pipe in the corner of the room and flips a switch, filling the kettle with water.
“Where does the water come from?” I ask more out of a need to break this oppressive silence than anything else.
“There’s an underground reservoir a bit to the north, the previous owner built a whole system of pipes to get to it and then filled it with filters to make sure the water doesn’t taste funny.”
“I see… did you know the previous owner?”
“His name was Auron, never met him but he was a bit of a legend in his day. After he died or disappeared or something the entrance got lost and people assumed it had flooded by now. But it was worth a shot and since Mercury wanted me out of the lab at all times anyway I had plenty of time to search.”
And that’s how we got to Mercury again…
The ‘plop plop plop’ of boiling water breaks the awkward silence and Tungsten dumps the hot contents into the cup “I don’t have a teapot since I’m always alone so hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Good, then here you go.”
He pulls a chair and sits down, staring at his cup for a bit. “So…Mercury…” he starts “You weren’t joking when you said she was dead, right?”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
Thungsten scoffs “We split when she started spouting nonsense. I like to think the rest didn’t take her seriously either but you know alchemists and challenges. Especially when you get to top one another for glory.”
“Well, she almost succeeded in getting a heart, kidnapping and innocent doll and trying to force it out of her.”
“That’s nasty. I know I’m no saint but that’s messed.”
“We also know she had help. The doll in question described Steel, Tin and Neon as part of the pact.”
He pulls his eyebrows together, opens his mouth, and laughs in my face. “Nice trick.”
“Look either the doll is pulling your leg or you are trying to pull mine.”
“That’s ridiculous, why would I risk my life coming to your den if all I wanted to do was pull a prank?”
He shrugs “I’m not that dangerous.”
I cross my arms “Yeah well, I didn’t know that.”
He sighs “Fine, then the doll made a mistake somewhere.”
“She described her captors as ‘a man with pale skin and hair wearing green glasses’, ‘an older man with snake tattoos all over his arms and a scraggly beard’ and ‘a small bald man with buck teeth and a red suit’ I don’t know how specific you want to have it? But that sounds clear to me.”
The big man bites his lip “Fine, sounds like them all right.”
“The doll killed Mercury the moment she got freed but the others weren’t there at the time, meaning they’re still out there.”
“This whole thing became messy, really fast, which is why I came here. I have no idea where to look without an alchemist’s help.”
“I’m not gonna help you kill alchemists though.” Tungsten crosses his arms.
“What? No, no. No, I don’t want to kill them, I want to use diplomacy to see if I can keep the others from retribution.”
Tungsten squints his eyes at me as if that would help him pick up my motives, then sighs “Better come with something good then. The others may not have cared much for the woman but if they can twist the story to benefit them they will.”
“Right, about that. We have a doll heart, a real one, donated by.” I swallow “…one of the dolls.”
Tungsten coughs in his cup as he chokes on his tea. “Donated? Was it that easy?”
“It wasn’t…but I’m trying to see if I can get them to study it on the condition that they leave the dolls be.”
“And you think you can keep them in check?”
“I think I’d like to try…it’s what Stegarius would have wanted. It’s just…after the incident, I brought the heart to the dolls for safekeeping and they don’t want to give it back. So we’ll have to try without heart first.”
“Well, that sounds doomed to fail.”
I shrug, I can’t say I disagree but “We still have to try it to gain the doll’s favour.”
“Right so if I got this straight, you want me to rat out the locations of my fellow’s dens for this whole, diplomacy tour to try to keep the dolls safe.”
“And what’s in it for me then?”
“What do you want?”
“Don’t have enough of that.”
“Nope. But if the plan works you get to study the heart as well if you like?”
He shakes his head “Nah, gimme flesh and blood over metal and gears.”
I take a sip of my tea “Well…What if I told you by you helping me, we might just make alchemy legal one day.”
His eyes squeeze together in distrust “Go on.”
“Everything that happened last week made one thing clear as day, that alchemy shouldn’t be allowed to run amok in the way that it has this far. The alchemists need guidance, regulations-”
Tungsten coughs and sputters setting down the cup before asking “Whoa are you with the bobbies!?”
“Feds, cops, policemen, dogs-”
I huff “Of course not, they’d deliver me to my parents with a bow around my neck.”
“What do you mean?” He looks confused I remember Tungsten has no idea about my background
“Never mind” I take a sip of tea trying to think up a way to change the subject.
“Oh no you’re not getting away that easily, you want my help, you gotta feed my curiosity here.”
On the one hand, I want to tell him to shove it, on the other, I’m pretty sure I’ve almost got him into helping me and if I refuse now I might have to start over again. “My name is Inquiry Winton…I’m the son of Victor and Patience Winton, heir to Winton’s automata but I ran away from university when I was sixteen and went into alchemy instead because I wanted to mean something to doll kind. As you may have noticed, this backfired spectacularly.”
“Wait a minute, you’re Inquiry Winton?”
I roll my eyes “That’s the thing you took from that whole story?”
“Not just that it’s just, you’re the kid who got missing.”
“Bugger! Do you have any idea how much cash was on your head when you disappeared? To think you were right under my nose all along.”
I tap my teacup with my fingernail in annoyance “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just insinuate turning me in against my will.”
“It explains the butler though.”
“Stegarius was not-” I grunt, rubbing my temples in annoyance “Back to the point. Stegarius believed that what we need is a school, a place where alchemists can learn the craft but with rules and ethics as a primary focus. Creating a shared set of guidelines and getting all alchemists to keep it so the public doesn’t have reason to fear them as long as they’re with the university.”
“So…what you’re really saying is you want to limit our freedom?”
“I want to do away with the psycho killers and madmen. You said it yourself back at Mercury’s place, our skills can do so much good in the world but we’re getting stopped by stigma. If we can show the world our work is safe, help rather than harm. We can work towards making all of this legal.”
He laughs in my face and sets down his cup “You’re out of your mind, there’s no way-”
“Can I tell you a story that’ll surely change your mind?” I interrupt him with a smile.
The big man huffs and crosses his arms “You can try.”
“When I was young I was taught the entire family history as part of my education. I never thought much of it, just the family showing off, but that’s only partially true. You see Art Winton, paguroidea 1643 to salvia 1724 created the first automaton that went beyond simple farm work. It was a bot to help you get dressed in the morning. It would help with your shoes, stays, coat, the whole lot. The idea came from him having to help dress his elderly mother each morning. But when the public heard about it they went ballistic. An automaton this close to a human being!? Surely that would be far too dangerous. The poor old lady would be crushed to a pulp.
The authorities took the machine by force and told him he was ‘lucky the old sod didn’t press charges’. He spent years getting it back. First by anger and indignation, then by charm and manipulation. But the thing that got them to do so was him explaining every part, every safety measure he put into place, for as long as needed. Until they understood.
And now autos working together with humans is almost a given. We allow them to cut our hair, clip our nails and shave our faces without fear. But only because people know they’re safe, they know they’ve been tested dozens of times before they so much as get shown to the public. The amount of force an internal steam engine can put out is enough to crush someone’s skull, the heat of the engine could burn your skin to ash, if a human were to get their fingers stuck in the gears they’d get ripped clean off. It’s not like an auto couldn’t hurt a human, it’s that we covered any part that could with steel and cloth, added glass safety couplings that shatter on impact with any foreign body that shouldn’t be there. People allow them this close because we promise them nothing can go wrong. We should do the same with alchemy.”
Tungsten sets down his cup and huffs at the notion “And how will you get the public to play along after generations of modder stories?”
“This school would be highly regulated. It would have to be to shown the public we’re not a thread. And then its graduates would be granted the permissions to work in the open in exchange for occasional inspections to check if they’re still working by the ethos.”
“And what about all the alchemists that are around already? You expect them to go to your school as well? I’m sure they won’t be thrilled about that.”
“I don’t know, I think so? Maybe a reduced course could help smooth the transition between the generations.
“So…assuming the others would be okay with your plan, you think that they’ll actually make alchemy legal, even the modding?”
“I believe we have a shot at it.”
He rolls his cat-like eyes “So you’re not sure then?”
“No one can be sure what the future will bring, I can’t even vouch it’ll be legal within our lifetime. But I’m willing to fight for it, both for our sakes and that of generations to come, and I believe this is the first step to take.”
“Why would the others go along with it if it’s all just a big guess?”
“Because the reward would be worth it. Wouldn’t you want to work openly? Get your dealings not from back alleys and shady dealers but instead have a shop where people can find you and your services with ease. You’d get a lot more customers without that target on your back. Only those who did the course will get this legal immunity. And if people can find certified dealers who they know are safe, they won’t look for back alleys anymore.”
“Forcing those who want nothing to do with the whole deal out of a job.”
“If they want to disregard safety and ethics, I’m not sure they should be practising to start with.”
“I guess. So…let’s imagine I’m down for this plan, what is it you need from me?”
“We must start with safeguarding the dolls. I want to talk to the three I know are involved to see how far this doll fever has spread. If it’s just them maybe this problem can have an easy fix.”
“And if not.”
“We’ll have to call a meeting with everyone in tow. I…I hope it doesn’t come to that. For now, I need your help finding them, as an ion I never had the privilege of learning where the other alchemists can be found.”
“I’m not sure if I can find them all but Steel is an easy one. I can ask him to gather the rest.”
“That would be amazing thank you…there’s also another thing. A bit of a strange question.”
He pulls up an eyebrow “Being?”
“I kind of need a place to crash.”
He sucks his lip in thought “Will you help me in the lab?”
“I don’t know anything about modding but I can try?”
“You can learn, don’t worry about that.” He shrugs “It’s fine by me, this place is huge enough for the two of us, just make sure you keep it secret and help out every so often.”
I set down my cup. “Thank you Tungsten, I’ll be right back, just need to grab my stuff.”
I wonder if I’m making the right decision by leaving Viola’s. I know I could stay here as long as I want. Miss Viola is such a nice host and yet I feel I need to go. It’s a gut feeling, hard to describe.
I just have to.
I enter the hotel with a calm sense of melancholy. The wooden panels, the abindance of blankets and pillows.
I’m going to miss this place.
The old lady comes shuffling out “Oh hello Inquiry, I’m sorry for my sudden departure this morning I needed to be somewhere.”
“It’s all right Miss.”
“Did you eat something already? I can whip something up for dinner-”
“I’m truly grateful for the time I got to spend here. You are a magnificent host but…” I try to find the words to explain what I feel in my chest.
Miss Viola just smiles gently “It’s time to go?”
“Oh well it’s part of the job, where will you be going?”
“Just staying with a friend.”
“Are you still on the run?”
“Yes but, their place is hidden, it should be okay.”
She nods understandingly, then taps with her fingers on her lip for a moment “I think I have something that might help.” She shuffles to the door, then signals me to follow her.
She leads me into a room that’s about half the size of the room I stayed in, yet still decked out in all the fabrics and ruffles.
She walks to a tall chestnut wardrobe that takes up a large portion of the room and starts rummaging through it with surprisingly nimble fingers.
“Will you be a dear and try this on? I think it’s close to your size.” She holds out a grey woollen coat with a wide double breast and jet black buttons.
I take it from her, a bit confusedly.
I wonder if I should head to a different room but the old lady has already stuck her nose back into the wardrobe and isn’t focusing on me in the slightest.
I slip the coat over my shoulders and stick my arms through the holes.
It fits remarkably well around my shoulders.
The sleeves are a bit long, but that’s probably a good thing anyway.
Is there a mirror in this place?
“I’m certain I put it in here some- ah! There you are you little sneak.” Miss Viola sets her foot into the bottom of the cabinet and pulls herself up before snatching a box off the bottom shelf.
I look at it with acute secondhand panic and hold out my arms just in case she tumbles down.
But she turns around says a short “Grab.” Before stuffing the box in my hands and then she grabs the shelf before stepping down again.
The whole thing took less than ten seconds.
But I feel I might need a day to recover from the anxiety.
Back on safe ground she looks me up and down, then her eyes soften to a melacnholy sort and she smiles faintly “Would you look at that, it fits perfectly. Well. Just roll up the sleeves.” She notes and she grabs the box from my hands. She sets it down on the powder table before taking hold of my arms, fussing with the fabric as she rolls it up. “Now, that’s better.” She decides, then picks up the box again and opens it up with a sigh. “Now it must be…there you are.”
I look over her shoulder as she pulls a knitted woollen cap from the box in a dark greenish shade. “I feel quite embarrassed I didn’t pull this out for you sooner, but it’s been a while since I’ve thought about this box.”
I look over her shoulder into a mess of old photographs, dried flowers and other memorabilia.
I spot a beautiful woman in a big wedding dress, standing next to a man with a suit, a single flower stuck through his buttonhole.
And a golden bunny hanging from a golden chain necklace.
And too many envelopes with black butterfly seals on the back.
“It’s quite all right miss Viola.”
“If you want, you can call me Melody.”
“Thank you Melody.”
“Now put this on and have a look at yourself in the mirror dear.” She tells me handing me the cap, as I take it from her I notice a ‘p’ embroidered lovingly in the inside.
I pull it over my hair and try to push as much of my red locks underneath the loose knit.
“You need to pull the back down like this. Then set your collar up.” She walks around to my back and starts futzing with the pieces. It reminds me of the days father would come back. Stegarius was surprisingly loose when it came to fashion. I think I was twelve, maybe thirteen when I wanted to start picking out my own clothes. And he let me on most days. And he wouldn’t comment on whatever I chose no matter how hideous the combination in hindsight.
But when father came by all of a sudden he got very particular about my dress.
He’d have an outfit laid out that I can only suspect he spent far too much time coordinating. And I wasn’t allowed to leave my room until I looked Perfect.
“That should do it.” She then leads me to a mirror to inspect myself.
I look like a boring old dock worker.
Which is just perfect.
“Are you sure you want to part with these?”
Melody nods “They’re of no use to anyone in the box. I’m glad they get to have more adventures now.”
I smile at this, it sounds like something Stegarius would say.
“Thank you miss- Melody. For everything.”
“Know you can come back at any time you like.”
She chuckles, mutters something under her breath I can’t quite catch. It’s probably better this way. “I wish you good fortune.” She smiles mildly. “Oh but first!” She shuffles off and comes back holding a tattered leather bag “I wouldn’t know what to do with this, can I bother you with it?”
I take the bag from her, look inside.
I pull out a book and read ‘the tale of the jax and the wizard’ on the faded cover, the pages are curled at the edges. It’s been well loved. I swallow, try not to cry and ask “Can I hug you?”
“Oh, of course you can! Just don’t squeeze too tightly, I’m not as sturdy as I used to be.
She puts her arms around me, I hug her gently with smile curling around my lips. I’ve only been in this place for days.
I really shouldn’t be this attached to this place.
But it feels so cosy.
So warm and inviting.
It feels like a home I never had.
Part of me feels bad for leaving miss Viola behind, but an even bigger part doesn’t feel comfortable being sad in a place I used to be so happy.
I don’t want to taint that wonderful place with grief.
Though I should go back one day, once all of this is over.
I grab my stuff, clear the tab and give her something extra for the effort.
Then we part ways.
I sling my bag around my shoulder and head back to the woods.