Chapter twelve: The council
Tiborah’s notes make the project take strides at a time. Glass domes and huge bellows have taken over for the rows of saplings (which we planted in the woods of course) and suddenly this step that eluded us for months seems like child play.
Now the challenge at hand is making it move.
I enter the laboratory to find two sticks with a small barrel hinge between them lying on the table.
“Now the doll’s heart functions as a motor, keeping the thing in motion after a spark has been given, but for now we can just omit that part and- Stegarius what are you doing here?”
“Can I help?”
Mercury looks around the room, then picks up a bucket of clear liquid “Sure, hold this.”
I stare at it “What do I do with it?”
“Nothing, unless this whole thing goes up in flames and then you extinguish those flames. Got it.”
I see Inquiry soundlessly chuckling on the other side of the room, I smile inside. “Clear.”
“Good, now Ion when I say ‘go’ you crank the handle until I tell you to stop.”
She pulls on the wired nails hammered into each end checking their security.
I wonder if father started like this as well, just some sticks and wire. Even knowing I’m the product of alchemy I never thought of myself as an experiment.
“All right, start cranking.”
The gears inside the dynamo start turning faster and faster inside the glass case as the boy cranks away.
Somehow I expected sparks, it feels like something an alchemist would do.
But it looks like even they don’t want to lower the output for dramatic effect.
Mercury stands by the doll with a turn dial in her hand, slowly increasing the voltage until the sticks start to quiver and tremble all by themselves. And I can’t help but picture my siblings going through the same thing once.
Is this how we all got revived? The heart kept us going surely but is this what awaits every newborn doll?
Then comes the smoke, and she turns back the dial “All right Ion that’s enough for now, two and a half volts” She says while writing down her findings.
“That was so cool!” Inquiry shouts at the top of his lungs.
I set down the bucket feeling a little queasy.
“You okay?” Inquiry asks, I shrug “It’s just a bit more…violent than I expected.”
“I’m sure it’ll be less extreme when it’s going through a full-sized doll.”
I look at Mercury and find that she’s smiling, this is somehow even more unnerving than the electrocuted sticks.
“Ion, it’s time to hold a council meeting.”
“I’ll get on it straight away.” The boy rushes out of the laboratory while Mercury gingerly picks up the sticks.
“I see you’re still here.” She tells me without actually looking at me.
“You’re going to invite the alchemists here? I thought you didn’t want them to see?”
“They can see something flashy, they just can’t know how it works before I’m done.”
“And you’re not afraid they’ll figure it out?”
She scoffs “Not without the notes they won’t. Besides they’ve been hounding me trying to get me to invite them over ever since I got a new Ion, guess it’s best to humour them now instead of waiting till fresh rumours start to circle.”
“Can I come?”
“I’d like to meet the other alchemists.”
“I wonder what they’re like.”
“They’re pompous bastards. Does that help?”
She grunts “If they make a fuss it’s not my problem okay?”
“Why would they make a fuss?”
“Because they’re even more paranoid than me.”
Pompous bastards is perhaps a bit of a strong term to use, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.
The whole place is overrun with them, an eclectic bunch of self-important children shouting over one another trying to voice their oh-so-important opinions.
“I’m telling you ether is best preserved in cold conditions.” The one with the long beard shouts.
“You do know there’s a difference between ether and milk right? It doesn’t ‘go off’ in heat!?” yells the one with the green-tinted glasses.
“I’m not saying it’ll go off, the cold keeps it stable.”
The guy with purple bowler finds that hilarious apparently “Stability is achieved through pressure, not temperature!”
“Everyone SHUT UP so I can explain how you’re all wrong.”
It’s like watching politics but…actually no, it’s exactly like watching politics.
Everyone is so busy bickering I’m not sure any of them noticed I’m here, which is just as well since I have no idea what I could possibly add to the conversation.
Inquiry is running around the place serving tea they suddenly have despite probably not being able to afford it.
I offered to help three times by now but he refuses to take it, he’s becoming as stubborn as his mentor by now.
Speaking off, Mercury hasn’t emerged from the lab ever since this morning.
Perhaps I should go check on her.
I get up and walk to the door of the laboratory and knock on the door “Are you okay in here?”
“COME IN AND DIE!” She hisses on the other side of the door.
“Glad to hear you’re still alive, I’m going back to the others,” I tell her from the other side of the door. I hear no more response.
I sigh, I expected this to be more fun.
Inquiry comes zipping past, tray in hand “Are you sure I can’t he-”
“Thank you, Ion, though I do wonder what’s taking our hostess?” the bearded man announces, pointing at the door.
“Trying the door is at your own risk.” I tell him, he settles his eyes on me and asks “Were you here this whole time?”
And then the whole company is staring at me
“I don’t think we’ve met before?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Stegarius…helps out here sometimes, he’s not an Ion per se more of a…consultant?”
“Is that allowed?”
“I doubt it.”
The door to the lab swings open “All right, everyone calm down, I’m here already.” Mercury shouts over the uproar.
“You let a non-initiate attend the meeting!”
“Don’t you understand the risks!?”
“Hey if you wanna kick the doll out be my guest, I’m just surprised you haven’t already. Were you all waiting for my permission?” Mercury announces with a shrug. It all looks very nonchalant except for the fact her hands are squeezed together so hard behind her back her fingertips are turning white.
The din dies down, seems like no one can think up a reasonable reply.
She smiles self-contently, then declares “you wanted to see my project, well it’s this way.”
“Can we take the tea with us?”
“I hardly see why not.”
Curious to see what Mercury has been up to I walk into the lab and find the whole place covered with white sheets that look like they’ve probably seen better days once.
The only thing that’s not hidden is the hinged stick that’s still in the same spot it was the first time we tried it.
I follow the wires to a room screen wondering if it’s supposed to up the sense of mystery, or if it’s just meant as a snooping precaution.
Either way, it looks weird.
I lean against the walls as the men walk in immediately thinking up all sorts of crazy theories about this simple stick.
All of them are wrong of course.
But I guess that’s just as well.
I wonder how quickly these people could take over the world if they simply spent the time to listen to one another.
Then conclude it’s probably a good thing their egos are the size they are.
Inquiry comes to stand next to me.
“Are you sure these are the footsteps you wanna follow into?” I ask him expecting a quippy line in return, instead, he just shrugs and sighs. Looks like he’s already done with this meeting.
“You should have let me help you, you know.”
He grunts “Shut up or I’m gonna stand somewhere else.”
I put a hand on his shoulder and pull him closer, his head rolling into the nape of my neck.
Mercury claps her hands in a brave attempt to shut everyone up, then bangs the metal table instead when it doesn’t do a thing. She grunts “Now, with your attention I’d like to present to you dead matter brought to life. She then points at Inquiry “With your assistance.”
He sighs “Really?”
“Do you want me to-”
“No.” He grumbles.
He pulls himself up and gets behind the screen. I spot several curious eyes trying to peek behind it but a booming “behold.” From the one female alchemist in the room is enough to grab the attention back to the table.
I can hear the machine whirring behind the screen and Mercury is being as dramatic as possible while turning the dial. So the main currency of alchemy is mirrors and smoke after all.
As the seconds pass by without change I can feel the smugness in the room increase exponentially. But Mercury seems unperturbed by the tardy start making me suspect she’s turning the dial extra slowly to build suspense.
“Now may I ask what’s supposed to happen?” Bowler man asks and that’s when Mercury cranks it up. The stick quivering and shaking like a leaf in a storm.
All eyes are glued to the table some squint, some stand there mouth agape.
All are quiet.
Until she turns the dial back and tells Inquiry to come on out again.
And it’s time for the verdict.
“It’s an amusing parlour trick for sure.”
“It’s magnets, clear as day, it’s the oldest trick in the book.”
“If it’s magnets what are the cables for then?”
“So you made a stick shake, I fail to see a use.”
“Could make an amazing back scratcher let me tell you!” There’s a round of boisterous laughter.
Wow, these people are mean spirited. Now I’m not the biggest fan of the boy’s new teacher but nevertheless I feel angry for her. Her face goes red and it’s like watching a volcano explode in slow motion.
“You think I would collect you here to watch magnet fueled trickery?” She seethes. “Are you all too dull-minded to see what is happening here!? I’m building new life here!”
“You do know that there are easier ways for you to do that.”
“Implying what exactly!?”
Inquiry steps in raised hand and yelling “How about we head back to the parlour and we can discuss some of your own projects!?”
“I’m sure that’ll prove more productive yes.” The gigantic moustache chuckles as he gets swept out of the lab.
I look at Tungsten, one of the last people to leave wondering if he’s got anything nice to say.
But he just passes without a word.
Then without proper warning, I’m alone with her.
She sniffs, voice raspy “Just get out.”
“All right, all right.”
I walk back out into the din wondering if standing up for her would make her grateful, or want to kill me even more.
“Hey.” Inquiry says sitting against the wall since all the chairs are taken.
He looks exhausted.
I sit down next to him. “You okay?”
“I’m fine, bit tired, I worry for Mercury though.”
“Are alchemists always like this? Downplaying each other’s work, pretending to be unimpressed just to save their own egos?”
“I fail to see the appeal.”
Inquiry shrugs “Maybe I can be the first alchemist who isn’t a massive jerk?”
“I sure hope so.”
“I’m going to check on the dragon, can you keep an eye on the place?”
“Of course.” I jump up invigorated by the ask for help.
Inquiry just grunts, I help him up.
Fifteen minutes later Inquiry and Mercury emerge, despite the thorough humiliation she looks as strict as ever.
She’s not even squeezing her hands.
“All right, you all have better projects than me?” She challenges “Tell me all about it.”
Inquiry went to bed around ten, wiped out by the day but the meeting keeps going until midnight at which Mercury promptly kick everyone out and almost pulls the curtain off the rings as she yanks it closed.
“Are you all right?”
“Shut up.” She bites at me, then slinks off to her room.
Well, that certainly was something.
The place is a mess…dishes, bottles, cigar stumps, candy wrappers, it’s all just strewn about without rhyme or reason.
Might as well do something useful, I think starting with collecting the dishes.
The next morning Mercury strides straight to the lab not even giving the parlour a second glance.
I assume she wants some time alone, so I just keep to myself reading father’s notes again. I always thought dolls thought differently from humans because we’re a different species. But reading these passages I’m convinced the sole reason is that we were simply raised by an extraordinary human.
I only wish I’d had more time with him. Have conversations, as for advice, what would he say if he could see me now?
Would he be proud? Angry? Disappointed?
He did encrypt his research after all.
“Morning?” Inquiry yawns as he walks in.
I check my watch, eleven am is still technically morning, how did you sleep?”
“Dreadful, got kept up until midnight by those…guests and then I woke up three times without really knowing why.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
He shrugs and sits down next to me on the couch “I’ll survive, I feel worse for Mercury though.”
“I don’t understand why she even wants the approval of the society.”
“Wouldn’t you wanna prove yourself against those smug bastards?”
“Knowing they’d never allow me the satisfaction, I wouldn’t bother.”
“So what about you?”
“Are you going to vie for their approval once you make alchemist?”
“I think I rather surround myself with dolls, they’re more supportive.” He says smiling.
“Good answer.” I put an arm around him and squeeze gently.
Then Mercury emerges from the lab.
Inquiry looks back over the back of the couch “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I don’t need their approval.”
“If that’s the case then why do you try so hard to get it?” The words leave my mouth without thought.
A split moment later I realize it’s not a smart thing to say.
Her face flares up, “I don’t need your sassy comments you arrogant auto!”
Inquiry gasps “Mercury, you can’t call him auto it’s-”
“I can call him whatever I like! This is my den and my rules and if you can’t deal with that you can just get the bloody hell get out of here.” She seethes slamming her hands down on the table. Her eyes are wild…violent.
“But-” Inquiry tries.
I squeeze his shoulder to shut him up “Don’t worry about it, she’s upset. Do you want us to get out of your hair for a bit?”
I drag the boy along as I rush down the street, my heart is thumping.
Inquiry is running alongside me “Where are we going?” He gasps.
“First we’ll pass the sweet shop to get you a nice bottle of pop, then we’re going to Bar-B to unwind.”
“Pop? I’m twenty-one.”
I stop, look at him and ask “You want beer instead?”
The boy gently extracts his hand from my grip “Are you angry?” he asks, concern in his voice “I mean she crossed a line there so I get it.”
I look behind me, the workshop far behind us “I all honestly I think I was scared, scared that woman might be angry enough to hurt you.”
Inquiry grabs my arm and puts his head on my shoulder “She wouldn’t, she’s just upset and doesn’t have a good way to cope.”
“I understand her frustration, but she shouldn’t lash out like that. She’s an adult, she should know better.”
Inquiry shrugs noncommittally “I guess.” then starts walking again, pulling me along “Let’s go get that pop.”
“Wait a second.” I stop the kid dead in his tracks.
“What is it?”
I pull up his collar and take off my cap “I almost forgot you’re a wanted man out here.”
I toss the cap on his head and assess the situation, then tie my scarf around his face for food measure “You can pass for a dock worker if you keep your head down.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“You’ll manage, come on.”
He huffs but his eyes are smiling I put a hand on his shoulder.
We start to walk.
Twenty minutes late I open the door to Bar-B, the bundle of rags next to me holding a cherry cream soda.
Straight away a familiar voice addresses me.
“Stegarius, it’s been a wh- Who’s your friend?” She sounds wary. Then Inquiry pulls down the scarf and her face lights up “Inquiry, it’s been so long, you have grown so much!” Prishtoli puts a wooden hand on the boy’s cheek and turns his chin every which way to look at him.
“It’s nice to see you too Pristalli.”
“Prishtoli, but very close well done.” She grabs his arm and holds it up in the sky shouting “Hey everyone, Inquiry’s back!”
Within seconds we are swarmed with dolls wishing him well returns and asking what he’s been up to and Inquiry just smiled widely throughout all of it without actually committing to a straight answer.
It’s chaos, but friendly chaos.
“I’m telling you he doubled in height at least.”
“I don’t know about that, but he’s surely outgrown Stegarius.”
“Yeah yeah I know, I’m short.”
“Sit down, I’ll grab us some music,” Tyalowa says as she skitters off.
The boy pulls me down on the sofa.
The cards get pulled out.
And I’m thankful that no matter what happens the boy will always have a second family here who will look out for him if needed.
Even if they are adamant about pointing out I’m the short one.