Chapter eleven: Favours and photographs
I watch the sunrise by myself in that enormous house.
And have never felt so lonely in the process.
The curse of large spaces I guess. But then I perk up at hearing a click at the front door. I get up anxiously.
As Tiborah puts his cane against the wall and walks over to be it feels like he’s aged a thousand years in one night. He looks so…tired.
He sits down, stares at his hands.
I wait while my heart thumps away in my chest.
“Before I agree to help I want you to know that even with my help I doubt you and your ward will pull it off.”
“Father was a man unlike any other I’ve ever met he was touched by something, be it a blessing or a special brand of insanity. I don’t think anyone else is capable enough, no offence to your friend of course.”
“That’s all right, I’m not too sure myself but I believe he’ll do everything in his power to make it so. I just want to support him in any way I can.”
He nods understandingly “So what did you have in mind?”
“For you to come to Unebre, meet the rest, help where you can.”
He shakes his head “Impossible, Lara and Rala are coming over in three days.”
“Well then maybe you can help out with just the questions we’ve got so far.” I get up, walk to my bag and retrieve the envelope.
I hand it over, he pulls out the contents and starts to read in silence.
“I won’t be able to help you with everything on this list, just cause I’ve seen the man work doesn’t mean I understood what he was doing, but I can describe the process best to my abilities. That should at least cross off a big chunk of the uncertainty here.”
“That would be wonderful.”
“I have a condition though.”
I pull my head back in surprise “Okay? What is it?”
“Once we’re done here and you go back to Unebre, promise me you’ll visit Prishtoli before doing anything else. The poor girl is worried sick about you.”
“Then let’s get started.”
Two days later I’m back on the train to Unebre. The envelope doubled in size filled to the brim with new insights that would have taken years to test for.
I feel proud of myself, and hope Inquiry will too.
But first I have somewhere else to be.
The familiar sight of pastels and the sound of music boxes calms me in a way nothing else can.
I head over to Prishtoli’s sofa, who jumps at my sight.
“Stegarius darling it’s been over a year where the hell have you been!?” she asks as she puts her hands on my shoulders, looks me up and down and then starts fussing with my wig and clothes.
I shrug, not quite sure how to explain.
She pulls the last piece of lint from my lapel before saying “Well don’t just stand there, sit down. I’ve been worried for you.”
She shakes her head “I mean with the others they just disappear whenever without warning but you tend to at least tell me where you’re going.” She says sitting down next to me and crossing her legs.
“I was with Inquiry.”
Her eyes go big “So you did elope together! You know his parents have set out a ridiculously high reward for whoever can bring him home.”
“I didn’t actually, but he doesn’t want to go home.”
She crosses her arms “I figured as much, which is why we all kept quiet when that man in the red uniform came by again. You’d be a wanted man otherwise.”
“That’s what family’s for. But…you know for my conscience, the kid is okay right?”
“Oh thank goodness.” She sighs relieved before jumping up and pointing at me “Now don’t go anywhere mister I still need to question you some more but first I’m grabbing a tune.” She then heads to the bar looking back at me with every third step as if she expects me to run at any second. I wait patiently for her to come back.
Behind me, people are whispering, pointing at me.
Looks like Prishtoli wasn’t the only one who wondered where I’ve been.
I should tell her.
“Number 105 was already taken but I’ve taken number 328 along.”
“Let’s get out of here.” I get up and grab her hand.
“I want to talk to you in private.”
She pulls her hand away “Fine by me but first, you’ll sit down, listen to the song, and then we’ll go. You know Jaxogeras doesn’t like it when people try to take their boxes outside.”
“All right.” she sits next to me, still holding my hand as we listen to the song.
She puts her head on my shoulder.
I feel myself calm down.
I needed this.
Prishtoli always knows what I need.
She’s amazing like that.
As the last notes fade out she brings the box back and grabs her cloak from the coat rack “All right, where do you want to go?”
There is a small park in front of the theatre where during summer people like to picnic and play. But it’s autumn, and it’s nighttime.
There’s no one here.
Even the windows in the theatre are blacked out
Behind us, the city is sparkling with lights, but in front of us, there is blackness.
Prishtoli drops down on her back to gaze up at the stars above.
I sit down next to her, looking at my hands.
I try to formulate a story in my head that’s reasonable, logical and gets my feelings across without hurting hers.
But after a silence that’s too long for comfort Prishtoli asks “You wanted to talk right?”
“Yeah, I…uhm…” Okay, start at the start “How do you think we were created?”
I can’t see her well in the dark but by her voice, I can tell she shrugged “I don’t know, technical stuff is your department, not mine. Why do you ask?”
“Well…there’s this theory, I mean from his notes, I mean…”I huff.
“Hey take it easy, darling.” Her hand worms its way to my knee where it lies assuringly.
I take a deep breath “What would you say if I say we’re made of alchemy?”
“Yeah could be.”
“I mean I don’t know anything about it. For all I know we may as well run on magic.”
“But the idea doesn’t turn you off?”
She pulls herself upright and looks at me “Should it?”
“I don’t know…” I didn’t expect her to accept it so willingly. Is it me who’s closed-minded on the subject? Or is it cause she doesn’t know much about it?
She huffs, then pushes my shoulder down to the grass “You should have a look at these stars dear. They’re gorgeous.”
I lay down beside her, and she’s not wrong, the night was so clear I could see the ant and the head of the weasel.
“Would you like to have more brothers and sisters?” I ask.
“I like the ones we have, but I wouldn’t say no to more.”
I’m, not sure if she understands what I’m hinting at so I just toss it out bluntly “Inquiry decoded father’s notes, he’s learning alchemy to create a second generation.”
I look over to her, but her face betrays nothing of her feelings.
“It’s an idea that needs some time to get used to, but I don’t think it’s bad per se.”
“Well, it’s gonna take a while for us to get there so plenty of time to get used to it.”
“Did you tell the others?”
“Do you want me to?”
“Later, when we have anything concrete to work with.”
“What is it?”
“I expected this conversation to last longer.”
She laughs “Oh well, that happens sometimes.” She takes a moment to think “The kid, he’s happy right?”
“He fluctuates between joy and despair. Everything he tried to learn up until now has been a piece of cake so he doesn’t take the failures well.”
“I see, well a bit of reality’s not bad, sometimes things are hard and that’s okay, ups and downs are just part of the learning process, but make sure he doesn’t go spiralling downward because that’s dangerous.”
“What do I do if he does?”
She picks up my hand from the grass and holds it “Well, then you gotta catch him of course, be there for him, help him.”
“And what about you? Are you happy?” she asks squeezing my hand gently.
“I think I am.”
“You think you are?”
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.”
“I know the Winton family is worried for their kid, I was worried for him too, I’m glad to be rid of that but knowing they’re still afraid for his safety makes me feel bad.”
“Well, maybe you can talk to him about that?”
“He hates his parents, he doesn’t mind it that they’re worried.”
“But he could mind it that you feel bad about it.”
“Hmmm, I guess that’s true.”
“Anything else stuck in your mind?”
“Only that you are the best sister a guy could wish for.”
“Aww… that’s so cheesy.” She wriggles one of her slender arms around my neck and puts another one on my chest “You know you can always come to talk to me. No matter what.”
We watch the stars together until the sky turned light and they fade away.
Then we go our separate ways again, and with renewed optimism, I head to the green door.
Then remember I don’t have a key.
There’s no doorbell either, should I knock?
Then suddenly get attacked from the back by someone flying around my neck. I pull them off me in a panic, then see Inquiry’s goofy grin. “You shouldn’t do that, I could have accidentally hurt you.”
“Sorry.” He shrugs, opens the door and we inside the laid. “But that was fast I didn’t expect you back in under two weeks.”
“Tiborah and I came to an understanding early.”
“No he accepted, he just couldn’t come with.” I show him the packed envelope “He shared all he knew in here though.”
His eyes go wide and greedy “Ooooh gimme!”
“No way, I’ll give it to Mercury first.”
He sighs ”Fiiiiine. But thank you so much I owe you big.”
“That’s great cause I already have something in mind.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll see. First the envelope.”
“You’re back already?” Mercury asks “And without company?” she adds for good measure.
“He’s got the information though!” Inquiry says pointing at the envelope.
I spot Tungsten sitting on the sofa, writing desk on his lab.
“Should we…?”I point to the laboratory.
The man looks up “Are you going to be sneaky again?” He asks.
Mercury rolls her eyes at him, then points with her head to the lab.
Once inside she closes the door behind me “What happened?”
“Tiborah didn’t have time to travel to Unebre, but he helped me with the questions you wrote down.” I hold out the envelope for her, she snatches it as if I might pull away, opens it up and starts to read the myriad of papers.
Her eyebrows are knit together as she reads, examining the text.
Inquiry looks at me, then tries to shuffle behind the alchemist and read over her shoulder.
I sit down, poke the little saplings.
Until all of a sudden the woman exclaims “Of course, a vacuum, why didn’t I think of that!” She walks to a trolley and pulls out a rubber lined glass dome with a hose sticking out the top “I should have the pump somewhere, Inquiry help me look.”
“Yes ma’am.” The boy springs to action.
I watch as they get to work “Can I help?”
“Yes! Go check if Tungsten is listening at the door, if so kick his ass.”
I take it she means that figuratively, nevertheless I nod and head to the door.
Tungsten is sitting on the sofa, writing desk next to him, his face is red from exertion.
But he’s not at the door so I sit down across from him, ass unkicked.
I look at the writing desk, instead of the expected notes, there’s a city map laid out on there. “What are you working on?”
“Just looking for other places to den. The city’s full of nooks and crannies you just have to know where to look.” He points to a block of buildings that looks innocent enough. “See this?”
“This street connects all the way to church, and the reason is that underneath this block there’s a tunnel that leads into the woods, if calamity strikes everyone can be safely transported out but until that happens it’s a great spot to crash.”
“So you wanna set up shop there?”
“I wish, it’s already taken, but there’s plenty other spots to check.” He then stretched and puts his feet on the table “That aside though, care to tell me what’s happening in there?”
“I think you already know enough by eavesdropping.”
“I wish, all I know if you’re setting up a vacuum.” He doesn’t even try to feign ignorance.
“Mercury told me not to tell you anything, and to kick your ass if I found you listening at the door.”
“Mercury is all bark and no bite, you should know that by now.”
“I’m not entirely sure of that.”
“You worry too much.” Tugsten says sinking just a bit deeper into the cushions.
“It is my job to worry.”
“Sound like you got a shitty job.”
I shrug as I think; it could be worse, I could be a modder. I decide against voicing that particular remark.
But it does make me smile.
Some time later the experiment is full swing, the ether has been mixed with the wood in the vacuum, now it’s just a matter of time to see what will happen.
Mercury is in the lab, Tungsten is out on his den-search, and I decide it is time to claim that favour Inquiry mentioned.
The boy is sitting on the sofa reading.
I sit down next to him “Could you do me a favour?”
His eyes peek out from above the book, he tilts his head in surprise then asks “Sure what is it?”
“I need you to tell your parents you’re safe.”
The book slams shut with a thud, part of me expected his nose stuck in the pages.
“You want me to do what!?” The boy shouts at me indignantly.
I put my hands on his shoulder to contain his anger “Just tell your parents you’re safe, you don’t have to go live there but leaving them in anguish like this is simply not right.”
“What part of ‘they deserve it’ wasn’t clear?” He smacks the book down on the table.
“Then do I deserve to feel guilty over it in your stead?”
He’s taken aback by this “You don’t have to feel guilty. They fired you, you should be angry at them, not pity them.”
“And yet I do because I know what it’s like to worry for you, and it’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemies.”
He looks at the floor he twisting his thumbs nervously “But, it’s been so long…surely they forgot about me already?”
“Forget about you? They plastered the city with posters looking for you. You’re their son they’ll never forget about you. They’ll take this worry to their grave unless you tell them you’re okay.”
He looks at his hands, pinching his fingers one at a time “I don’t want to go back.”
“How about we send them a letter instead? A letter and a picture, that way they’ll know for sure you’re alive.”
There’s a long silence as he considers this.
“If not for your parents, will you do it for me?”
His shoulders slacken, he sighs “Fine, but if the whole city is looking for me then wouldn’t getting my picture taken be a problem?”
“Don’t worry, I know someone who can help.”
Two days later I’m waiting at the green door.
“A little help would be nice.” A familiar voice shouts from above.
Jaxogeras’s arms are filled with equipment that’s about a century out of date.
It should still do the trick though.
“How am I supposed to get down here?”
“One second!” I rush inside and just around the door there’s a basket on a rope.
I take it, head outside and tell them “We can lower the equipment down first.”
“If his breaks you’re in trouble.”
“If this breaks I’ll get the boy to build you a new one that’s up with the times.”
As we walk down the tunnel together Jaxogeras looks around with intrigue “You know, I’ve been in this neighbourhood many a time and I have never noticed this door.”
“That’s the idea yeah.” Mercury is standing by the orange curtain “But if you’re gonna invite your whole family in, I doubt things stay secret for long.”
Jaxogeras tips their hat at the woman “Not to worry madam, I am a bartender, I know how to keep a secret.”
The alchemist raises an eyebrow “So why is there a bartender in my den?”
“Look all we need to do is take Inquiry’s photo and then they’ll be gone again.” I try to assure her, she huffs “You should ask my permission before inviting people here.”
“Make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
I nod, she rolls her eyes “I’m out to get supplies. If you touch my stuff you’re all dead.” Then she heads on out.
“Charming lady.” Jaxogeras remarks with a hint of sarcasm.
“Are the young master and her…you know?”
“No, no definitely not. Not in a million years.”
“All right, all right, pretend I suggested nothing of the sort. Where is the whippersnapper anyway?”
“He’s in the bedroom.” I walk towards the green curtain and knock on the wall beside it. “I’m back with Jaxogeras.”
“In a tick.” He shouts back and we wait patiently for him to emerge.
“How do I look?” he asks as he pushes the curtain aside. Behind it is a gentleman with neatly kept hair and a suit that’s only slightly too big.
“Look at you all grown up. How many years has it been?” Jaxogeras asks.
“Blimey. They grow up so fast.”
“That they do.”
Inquiry shrugs awkwardly “Not my fault you don’t age.”
We laugh heartily and then Jaxogeras speaks up “Now I heard you ordered a picture.”
“Right, uhm. I got a chair set up in the bedroom so…come on in.”
We follow him into the bedroom. I realise I’ve never been in here before, it’s a sober place just a bed, wardrobe, washing stand and a chair stood against the wall. It reminds me of my old room back at the mansion.
They set up the wooden standard and balance the black box on top of it. Pulling a sheet over themselves to look through the wayfinder.
“Well, the light in here is crap I can tell you that.” Jaxogeras appears again and starts rummaging through his basket of tools “I have two extra lights with me, does anyone have matches?”
“There you go.” Inquiry says picking a small matchbook from his breast pocket.
I look at the boy accusatory.
“No stegarius, I still don’t smoke, I use them in the lab to turn on the bunsen burner.”
“Stegarius I’m going to need you to hold this lantern for me.”
“Now Inquiry, you may sit down. Now turn your head a tad to the left. Stegarius can you hold the lantern up a bit higher. Now a bit to the right. Hold it there, excellent. Now neither of you move for, about an hour.”
One hour later Jaxogeras locks himself in the lab to develop the pictures and avoid our wrath. In the meantime, Inquiry and I break our heads over a suitable letter to accompany the photo.
“I mean dear mom and dad is a classic.”
‘Yes but they’re not dear to me at all.”
“Not even a little bit?”
“No.” His voice is cold, I start to feel a bit bad for his parents.
“Well, you can at least say ‘hello mom and dad’ right?”
“I guess.” He starts to write ‘Hello mom and dad, I’m in good health, I’m happy, I won’t be coming home, you can stop looking for me. Go look for someone to take my place in the business instead. I wish you a happy life. Goodbye.’ “Happy now?”
“Great let’s see how the picture’s coming along.”
Inquiry lays a hand on the doorknob “Don’t you dare come in!” it hollers from the other side “this is a dark room! Come back later.”
“Let’s have some water. While we wait.”
That night I’m walking down a familiar road.
It’s been years, I feel nervous like I’m doing something bad and cannot be caught or else.
As I walk I wonder what things would have been like if he never went to university, or if I went with him? Maybe he would have liked it there then, maybe he wouldn’t have left. I mean sure taking your ward to school is a bit off but if it made him happy…
Or he’d just get bullied relentlessly and drop out that way.
But then I’d be with him from the start.
Things could have gone different in so many ways.
Things could have gone better.
But now I’m walking down the long road up to Winton mansion to deliver the news the Winton heir is alive but doesn’t want to come home to go to his family.
It’s better than thinking he’s dead right?
“Stegarius old chap it’s been a while.”
“Didn’t expect to see you back, what are you doing here?”
“I have a letter for the Winton household.”
“Hey you know where the kid is right?” the left one tells me out of the blue, my heart skips a beat.
“I knew it, hey buddy you owe me ten pounds.”
“What are you talking about we don’t even get paid.”
“Fine be like that.”
“Is he all right?” the right one puts his attention on me.
“He’s fine, I had him write a letter to say he’s okay. But he doesn’t want to come home.”
“It’s always complicated with humans.”
I shrug and slip the letter into the green cast iron letterbox, it almost feels like a weight lifts off my shoulders. It feels uncertain but good “Take care scarecrows.”
“You too dolly.”
“You say hi from us to the kid right.”
“Sure I will.”
I turn around and start the long road back.