Universally enthusiastic chaos-artist & storyteller

Chapter 38: Steel

“Morning sleepyhead, you okay?” Tungsten asks me as I shuffle into the parlour.
He already has a bowl of porridge for me ready to eat, his own bowl stands empty beside it. “I guess.” I shrug as I sit down. “How about you?” I take a bite.
“Well uh…yesterday certainly bruised my ego, I’m…embarrassed you had to see me like that.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him through a mouthful of porridge. I swallow the lukewarm goop and add “I’m glad you try to make things better now.”
His dog ears flatten against his head, tail sweeping back and forth “Thank I uh…never meant to be a bad person. I just-” He huffs “Made a lot of mistakes back when I was your age.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
He scoffs “That’s a tale that’s far too long to tell in a morning, hell I don’t think I could manage it in a week. And besides, we have different priorities right now don’t we?”
“That’s the one.” his voice carries disdain with it. Considering yesterday’s events with Neon I can’t say I blame him. But I also hope we can get to a peaceful solution. I think Tin wouldn’t be too much of a problem now that his weapon is destroyed and I don’t see Neon kidnapping anyone in his state, even if Steel were to order it.
But Steel is neither weak nor a coward.
So I really hope Neon’s advice is gonna pay off here.

With breakfast out of the way, there’s only one more thing to do.
It feels strange going down that ladder again, walking down those slippery stones and standing in front of that unobtrusive wooden door.
It’s only been a couple of weeks but it feels like ages ago. A different era, a different life even.
I pull the key from my pocket and try to fit it in the lock.
I didn’t expect it to work.
But it was worth a shot.
“Can you pick it?” I ask Tungsten shuffling back a bit on the narrow ledge to give him room.
“Of course, gimme a second.” he pushes his nails down the hole just like last time. It still feels wrong but I can’t argue its effectiveness as a minute or so later the lock clicks and Tungsten opens the door. “Come on in.”
“Thank you Tungsten.” I head inside and find myself engulfed in memories. The smell of mould and dust connects in my brain in strange ways bringing up a menagerie of feelings both good and bad.
Simple joys like an experiment working mixed with the deranged look in Mercury’s eyes as she tried to kill Prishtoli just to satisfy her own curiosity flash through my brain in rapid succession.
It all feels more real in this place somehow.
Closer to home, closer to my heart.
In front of the curtain, I pause, and waver.
“You okay?” Tungsten asks.
“I think I have to be, it’s not like I can turn back now.”
“Do you want to?”
I shake my head. “The others depend on us.”
I push past my fear.
We’ve come so close already.
It’s time to end this.
I push back the curtain and walk in, Tungsten right behind me.
On the far end of the room, I find Steel, just sitting there, tea in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other. “Good morning gentlemen. Tea?”
I don’t know what to say. This man, this tattooed and rough-looking old man acting like a perfect gentleman.
It just doesn’t fit together in my brain.
Tungsten huffs “I didn’t know they delivered the news down here?”
Steel flips over a page of his newspaper “Neon brought it to me together with the far more interesting news that the two of you would be visiting.” His mouth pulls into a smile “You just missed him.”
“Did he explain why we’re here?” I ask carefully.
“He asked me to listen to you and not just write you off out of hand so that’s what I’ll do.” He beckons to the chairs standing against the wall “The tea is just tea, freshly made too. So stop standing there.”
I look at Tungsten, he shrugs, steps to the chairs and pulls two out to set down across the alchemist.
I sit down.
I accept the cup of tea.
I don’t want to drink it, not yet.
“So now that we’re all settled in how about you tell me why you’re here?” Steel asks courteously.
“Tin told me you took over Mercury’s role after she died.”
“Tin tells a lot of tall tales, but I must admit he’s right on this one. I mean I did take her den after all.”
“And you’re still looking for a heart?”
His lips pull into a smile “I have a funny story about that actually. A while back I come in here find that poor woman torn to shreds and a doll, one we didn’t kidnap, without heart and just sort of lying in the way.”
“What did you do with him?”
“He’s in the lab, just taking up space on a metal trolley. I’d figure if I manage to find the thing’s heart again I can recombine them to see what happens. But now I read in the paper that the heart got shattered by ‘thieves who tried to steal it’.”
“That was a fake, a facsimile to lure you guys to us.”
“And Tin was dumb enough to bite?”
“I’m not surprised. And I bet you have the real one?”
“Great, you got it with you?”
“Well, then how about you go and get it and then we’ll talk business.” He folds the newspaper down the middle and drops it on the coffee table.
“I’m not the one you need to talk business with. It’s the dolls.”
He laughs “You want me to go and negotiate with a bunch of toys?”
I ball my fists “They’re not toys, they’re people.”
“They’re wooden puppets who’ve forgotten they’re dead. Just because they can talk doesn’t mean you should listen to them.”
“If you don’t think they’re worth your time then why would you even want to make more?”
“Are you kidding? They’re strong, tough, immune to disease and don’t need food or sleep. They’d be the perfect worker if only they weren’t so set on ‘forging their own path’ and ‘being autonomous.’ There’s no raising a doll to be obedient if all the dolls around you are already centuries older than you.”
“So you wanna replace Neon with a doll?” Tungsten scoffs.
“Well, not just Neon, why stop at one after all? I could automate my entire workshop. And I see the way you look at me Tungsten but you know it’d be for the best as well. No one would need to get hurt making artificial tungsten, or making matches, or radium paint. The whole of occupational hazards could just vanish the moment we let dolls do all the dangerous work.”
“Don’t you pretend you care about that sort of thing when you forced Neon to make you yet more arty after he’s already this sick.”
Steel picks up his teacup and takes a sip. “He’s on death’s door anyway, I’m not going to ruin own my health as well.” He then puts down the delicate cup and challenges Tungsten with his eyes “Besides what do you care? I thought your whole song and dance with him was just so you could spy on me and my trading associates.”
Tungsten bites his lip “So Neon did tell you about that then?”
Steel grins “Eventually, after you already broke his heart.”
Tungsten averts his eyes.
I’m feeling out of my depth again, so much happened between these alchemists before I even got here. And I’m afraid we might end up wasting a bunch of time dragging up old hurt.
“All he wanted was to be useful to you.” Tungsten hisses.
“And he has been. But now I need someone to help me who’s less fragile.”
“So you want to use a bunch of dolls as servants instead?” I ask trying to steer the subject. I also try to keep my tone level but it’s hard to avoid letting through some sarcasm.
“Look I know there’s this whole debate on whether dolls have souls-”
“They do,” I tell him.
“Well, I have not seen evidence of that yet but either way, I’ll die in what? Twenty years, maybe thirty. That’s nothing to a doll. And after I bite the dust they’ll have the time in the world to explore and ‘forge their destiny’. I bet you did chores for your mom when you were young, right? It’s just like that.”
“No. No, it’s not like that at all.” Tungsten crosses his arms. “You’d mess up their heads and we could never fix them again.”
Steel just sighs in response “Tungsten you dumb dog, you may think I’m some evil manipulator or abuser or whatever but Neon was already messed up by the time I took him in. That little boy grew up despised for his albinism and I was the first to accept him for who he was and what he looks like. Long before you put your greasy paws on him. I was a net positive in his life.”
“Oh yes, we all love dying from lead poisoning.” Tungsten scoffs in retaliation.
“The artificial tungsten was his idea, not mine, and we didn’t know the effects it would have on him at the time. I understand it feels better to pin the blame on me but you simply can’t. So I suggest we don’t dwell on it. Besides this isn’t about what you want at all. He turns his attention to me “It’s about what he wants.”
“It’s about what the dolls want.”
“Sure it is. But here’s my offer. I get the heart and get to make as many dolls as I want unopposed by you or your doll friends. In return, I’ll make sure no dolls are attacked by the alchemists in this city. Anybody attempting will be severely punished. That’s how far my sphere of influence goes, you can’t expect me to offer more than that.”
“You’re not seriously considering that are you?” Tungsten scoffs indignantly. “He’ll just sell them as slaves.”
“How else am I supposed to make a profit? Making dolls isn’t cheap you know.”
“Your increased profits from the extra unpaid manpower should be enough!”
“If making new dolls is even feasible for all I know it doesn’t even work and I’m left with a massive loss and no way to get a return on my investment. I’m taking risks here.”
“You couldn’t sell dolls you can’t make anyway-”
“Tungsten shut up for a bit, I’m thinking.” I snap at Tungsten.
His ears flatten suddenly.
Steel nods approvingly.
I push my finger against my lips as I think “You’re right. You are taking risks and you should be compensated for that. And I think I know of a way to do that.”
“Well, feel free to share it.”
“How about instead of selling the dolls you get to sell the knowledge on how to make one? I want to start a university for alchemy. A place where ions don’t just learn the craft but learn about the ethical concerns and safety of conduct. Alumni would be responsible, ethical alchemists and their degree is a sign of trustworthiness. They’d have an advantage over rogue alchemists in finding customers and could help to improve the reputation of the craft as a whole to the point where we could implore the government to make alchemy legal just for those who followed the course and the ethical guidelines it comes with. Once this happens we’ll have a monopoly on the market at least until some other school manages to organise. And this business venture could create revenue in tuition fees even if the doll idea falls through completely. And you can have a cut of that, as long as you keep the dolls in the city safe both old and new and appoint a new figure for the job when you’re no longer able to fulfil it.”
“You want to directly out-compete our fellows?”
“Not at all, I want them to follow the course and pass with flying colours.”
A grin wraps around the old man’s face “And here I thought you were a simpleton. All right where do I sign?”
“There will be a formal discussion and chance to come to a shared solution. I’d like the opportunity to talk to the dolls first and I’m sure you’d like to discuss with your men as well?”
The old man huffs “Very well. Where and when?”
“The when is as quickly as possible. As for the where. We wanted the talks to be on neutral ground so one of the dolls has offered to reserve a room inside Unebre University.”
“Very well. Tomorrow then, does midday after dinner works for you?”
“I think so.”
And then that’s that.

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