Chapter 20: The trouble with finding alchemists
If someone told me a year ago I’d be living in Tungsten’s den I’d call them a liar.
I’d also ask how they’d even know that in the first place and what their ulterior motive is in telling me but that aside.
It all feels very strange yet…also familiar. I only visited once before when I was with Mercury but there’s something about the gentle blue glow of ether, the clink of flasks and test tubes that make it feel suspiciously like home to me.
I’m bent over a piece of paper resting on my lap trying to formulate a plan. Tungsten doesn’t have a table or a desk. I don’t exactly know why. My back would certainly be grateful for one by now.
I’m trying to work out what direction to take from here.
Tungsten knows where to find the alchemists so that’s step one covered. Then we need to convince them to prioritise the heart we have over kidnapping. I doubt appealing to their morality is a fool’s errand so I’ll need to convince them on convenience instead. I write ‘Why go through the trouble of kidnapping an innocent doll and trying to break out their heart when we can just talk terms and lend you this one?’
That should be a convincing line, right?
I put a question mark near the word ‘lend’.
I bet they’re gonna complain about that.
Then the door opens with a thud. Tungsten barges in with a doctor’s bag in his gloved claw. His eyes are covered with tinted goggles and his tail is tucked away somewhere.
He then drops the bag on the floor, it clatters metallically as it hits the ground.
He pulls off the goggles, tears the gloves off his hands and lays down on the floor.
I step up to him “Uhm… are you all right?”
“Yeah, don’t worry this is normal, get used to it.” He grunts then whines “I hate outside jobs, I dunno why I accept them.”
“Because they pay so well! fifty lodis for two hours of work! I can’t charge those rates anywhere else.” He rolls onto his belly and clunkyly pulls the tail from the back of his trousers. “Much better.” He sighs “Hey Ion.”
“Sure, you mind grabbing a bottle of wine from my lab?”
“You keep your wine in your lab?”
“It’s where the icebox is. It’s in the top drawer. Don’t look at anything else in there.”
“Okay…” I decide not to question it as I get up from the chair and head to the lab.
The icebox is just a re-purposed commode wrapped in layers of wool and stuffed with irregular chunks of ice. I’m surprised it doesn’t leak water everywhere. I pull open the top drawer and grab a greenish bottle with a incomprehensible label.
“You got a bottle opener somewhere?” I ask from the lab.
“Just bring it over!” He shouts and I shrug.
As I enter the room I find he managed to sit upright, still on the floor, rummaging through his bag.
I wonder why he’d carry a bottle opener in his work bag, but then he pulls out a tool that looks like a thick fishing hook with a handle attached to it.
His long nails clink against the smooth glass as he snatches the bottle from me. He then jams the hook sideways through the cork and yanks out the cork with a swift motion that sends a chill up my spine. He takes a swig straight from the bottle, sighs contently and then holds it up to me “Want some? It’s an eighty-four, a good year if you care about that sorta stuff.”
“Uhm…I…sure.” I accept the drink and take a sip, he’s right. This is some excellent wine. I give back the bottle with a quick “Thanks.”
“Sit.” He says dragging me down to ground level, taking another swig and passing the bottle back to me “How was your day?”
“Well…I cleaned your glassware but most of it’s…occupied so that wasn’t a big task.” I point to the stack of books on the table “I’ve been planning ever since.”
“I should give you longer tasks, got it.” He then gulps down some more wine and adds “If you need reading fodder I got some notebooks lying around the place you can help yourself to.”
My eyes grow big “You want me to read your notebooks?” Mercury would have killed me if I started snooping through her stuff.
“Yeah, I know it’s against type, secretive alchemists and all that. But everything you can learn for yourself I don’t need to teach you and I can’t exactly hand you a book saying ‘the basic principles of modding’ cool as that would be.”
“Thanks.” But I think I’ll stick to fairytales right now.”
“Suit yourself.” With that, he drags himself off the floor and stretches “Well, I dunno about you but I’m famished. Do you know how to cook?
“Well…Not really? And I’m pretty sure we’re out of food.” I admit sheepishly.
“Ugh, I already went outside.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pile of cash that Mercury would have killed for back in the day. “There’s a restaurant called Daisy’s on Spinner Street you know it?”
“I know of Spinner Street.”
“Good, go there and pick up two specials will you?”
“Don’t know never asked but it’s delicious and I’m still alive.”
Oh and since you’re there can you tell them it’s with extra sauce? They tend to skimp out if you don’t ask.”
“Oh and buy some bread for tomorrow.”
“I bet you’re one of those guys who likes butter on his bread.”
“Uhm? Yes.” And normally either herbs or meat but I keep that to myself.
“Get some of that too.”
“Think so? Okay great, I’m gonna wash up, see you later.” And with that, he drags himself off the floor and out of the room.
With no further orders, I guess I’m going out then.
I pull my knitted cap off the coat rack, put on the grey coat, pull up the collar and I’m ready to go.
I don’t really go to this part of town normally.
Spinner Street straddles the slums and odd stories go around about this kind of place.
Tales of strange music, smoke and mirrors.
About people bringing snakes from foreign shores to eat or keep as pets.
But I make sure to lay low and try not to stare as I make my way around the streets and then the scent of herbs and spices guides me to a restaurant with cute little white flowers planted in the windowsills.
The name of the establishment is gilded on the windows in shades of gold and silver.
Looks like this is the one.
Inside the place smells sweet, a mix of incense and spices that waft in from the kitchen.
“Do you wish to dine?” the woman addressing me has a rabbit’s head and big brown eyes that look like they stare straight into my soul.
“Uhm no, no I need two specials. To take home again.”
“Of course, the takeaway is on the other side of the establishment, please pass through here then talk to my colleague. She points to a tunnel made of glass, and passing through it I see it’s a greenhouse filled with wild foliage and pretty flowers.
It’s like there’s a different world in there.
I spot flowers with petals that are nearly black and riddled with holes like fine lace. Green thick stalks with sharp thorns that curl and roll down the bottom of the case erupting in fire-red flowers every few thorns. And little balls of light brown fluff set on short thin stalks.
Someone clears their throat behind me and with a start, I realise this tunnel isn’t wide enough to pass one another.
I rush through to the other end where another rabbit-person waits for me. He wears a suit and his ears are tied down behind his head in a large yellow bow.
“How can I help you?”
“Uhm, I need two specials with extra sauce?”
“Certainly sir, that’ll be six lodettes
“Right, yes, I fumble with the coins and give him his dues.”
“You may sit down, I’ll call you when the food is ready.” He points at a long sofa lining the wall.
“Ah, okay.” I sit down.
Is it bad that I think these people look weird?
Stegarius would probably know exactly who these people are and why they look like this.
But he’s no longer around to tell me.
My eyes keep wandering back to the rabbit-faced clerk. He politely pretends not to notice.
Annoyed by myself I get up from my seat and look at the terrarium once more until the food is done.
By the time I return with the food Tungsten is already lying on the couch half asleep.
“Nice!” He perks up as if by magic and makes room for me on the couch.
I sit down next to him. Opening the bag there’s that same herbal smell I got from the restaurant. There are two bowls inside wrapped in checkered tea towels. They’re warm to the touch.
I hand one over, then open the other to find a sweet, herbal-smelling sauce with lots of chunks in it.
I take it these are vegetables?
But some of them are squishy…
Tungsten hands me a fork, then starts attacking the food with his own.
I try a bite, it’s nice, warm but fresh.
I could get used to this.
Although there’s still a thing I wonder about. “So…the people who run the restaurant all have rabbit heads.”
“Do they now? I never noticed.” Tungsten responds sarcastically.
I sigh “You know what I mean, why do they have rabbit heads?”
“You mean to tell me for all your private tutors and alchemy lessons you never heard of Boron?”
“Right, you might wanna finish your food first. Then I’ll tell you the story if you really wanna know.”
“What do I do with the bowls?” I ask as I bring the dishes to the tap.
“You bring them back next time. Just put some water in them to soak. You don’t eat takeout?”
“At home, we had our own cook, in the den we didn’t have money for needless frivolities.”
Tungsten huffs “Mercury wasn’t as poor as she pretended to be. It’s just that it’s easier to keep things for yourself when others believe you don’t have anything to share.”
“Yeah, alchemists are assholes, oh speaking off, you wanted to know about Boron?”
“So it’s been…somewhere between a hundred and two hundred years ago. An alchemist by the name of Boron got arrested for modding. Now I’ve told you modding can be used for good right?”
“Well, this guy is one of the reasons I don’t expect modding to be legal any time soon. The guy did something truly atrocious. He had this weird obsession with nature and nurture and ‘the natural order of things’. So when they searched his house and found ten previously missing people in the loft, seven of them were modded to hell and back in the shape of humanoid-looking rabbits, the other three were modded up into wolves. They were locked up, no chamberpot, no running water and only a single window to let in the sun’s light.
There they were, starving for who knows how long because the only thing they were given was lettuce and carrots. The madman wanted to know if the ‘animal nature’ would take over and the ‘wolves’ would start killing the ‘rabbits’ but well…no they just shared the vegetables and tried to escape instead.
It was a drawing that one of them threw into the street that convinced people to alert the bobbies.
When they were rescued the public was sympathetic, pictures in the paper of them, rail thin and sickly, had convinced the public they were victims, not a threat. They were given shelter, food and opportunities to start over and reintegrate into society at large.
And the public was respectful and polite to them despite their unfortunate deformity.
But then as things often do, it all turned sour when the first baby was born. A rabbit lady bore a child with a regular bloke and to the shock and horror of everyone involved the baby had large rabbit ears and fur-covered skin.
Whatever Boron did to these people wasn’t just superficial, he changed their genetics, the building block of life. And the mutation was aggressive. Three out of four babies born from these wolf and rabbit kin are born with these traits.
No one expected this. Most people thought these odd-looking people deserved to be respected of course but then when they died that’d be the end of it.
And now they can multiply.
Of course, the first solution the normal people posed was ‘just don’t have kids’ but imagine being told that you’re okay to exist as long as you don’t make ‘more of you’ and end the line here.
Among the survivors this was a divisive topic, some of them agreed with the public, staying celibate so as to not spread this ‘curse’. Others decided they had just as much right to exist as everyone else and they should just get used to it.
Now that a couple of generations have passed they mostly keep to themselves but they’re around. The offspring of the victims of Boron trying to build a life like everyone else. Does that answer your question?”
I nod, not quite sure what to say.
Except “Our housekeeper Miss Punt was a wolf-kin, I never really thought to think that’s strange though.”
“Yet rabbits?” Tungsten’s mouth pulls into a grin.
I throw up my hands in the air “I don’t know, there were so many of them, I never expected there to be others who look like Miss Punct.”
“Well, there are. I can’t tell you how many though. Still think you can make modding legal after hearing something like that?”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it.”
“Well you can think on the way, We’ll leave the dishes for tomorrow, come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going to steel.”
“You said you were in a hurry right?”
“Then right now, come on.”
Out by the factories the machines never sleep. The clanking and banging of steel on steel radiates out to the docks on one side and the slums on the other.
I would have been a foreman by now if my life had gone according to my parents’ wishes.
Directing groups of people, checking their work and telling them to do better or else.
I shiver thinking about it.
“So where is Steel’s den then?” I ask.
Tungsten points to a warehouse that has clearly seen better days. There’s a thick chain wrapped around the door handle keeping it shut, but Tungsten passes that by and guides me to the back.
The paint is peeling off the wooden boards and then covered up with dust and soot. It smells dusty.
Yet underneath all that grime, there does appear to be a subtle doorknob sticking out.
Tungsten gestures back to the front of the building “Knocking on that door won’t do anything, but out here.” Tungsten knocks on the door and waits.
Then waits some more.
“That’s odd…Hey Steel! It’s Tungsten!”
“Okay he should have opened the door and yelled at me to shut up already, I don’t like this.” He puts his hand on the knob and the door just swings inward.
It wasn’t even locked.
Tungsten’s expression changes from concern to dread as he pushes the door in and grunts painfully.
I look inside, the place is water-stained, dilapidated and empty.
Not even a single beaker.
Just dust and the disbelief that someone used to live and work here here recently.
“You have got to be kidding me.” Tungsten darts into the room and starts knocking on walls and tapping the floor looking for any sort of false wall or hidden hatch.
I try to follow his example but I have no idea what to look for.
“He just up and left, the bastard!” Tungsten exclaims.
“Does that mean he’s no longer a problem?” I try carefully.
Tungsten snorts at this “I doubt it. I bet my tail he’s still in the city, the question is where.”
“So now what?”
Tungsten grunts “I guess we have to look for the next one then.”
“I have no idea where he hangs out, I think he might be denless.”
“How about Neon’s den? Do you know where that is?”
Tungsten sucks his teeth “I do but it’s not the sort of place you wanna walk into uninvited, not if you wanna live.”
“If it’s out only lead then-”
“I have a better idea, come on, we’re heading back.”
“Where are we going?”
“The plush side of town.”
“What’s the plush part of town?” I ask as we leave the docks behind and make our way into the heart of the city.
“They’re the streets where time and services are bought and sold and never spoken about again.”
“There’s a nightclub there called Utopia, if we’re lucky Neon will be there.”
“And if he’s not.”
“Then I could go for a drink either way.”