A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
"You bought a boy for a one percent share in The Empress, so now Mother holds fifty one percent?" Ozzy locked his black eyes onto Fran's. "Why?"
Fran had put off telling his business partner about the deal he'd struck for as long as he could. He'd spent the early part of the morning organising the workmen who had come out to fix the dressing room flood, but he'd now run out of other places to be and Ozzy had cornered him in their small, shared office, wanting to know exactly what had transpired yesterday.
"I didn't buy him, not as such." Fran attempted to explain. "He's a runaway country boy and Mother had him chained up and was about to send him to work in one of his whore houses, I couldn't just leave him there."
"Why?" The visk said again, making Fran sigh. Compassion wasn't something that troubled the lizard people much. As a species they governed themselves with a very strict set of rules regarding behaviour and place in their society, so to them humans and their emotions were regarded as chaotic and bizarre. Ozzy came from a family somewhere in the middle of the visk caste structure. He was far from the pure, bright green colour that marked out the highest members of their society, but neither was he the dull grey brown of those seen as only fit for servitude. He was a bright chestnut brown with stripes of forest green over his deep black eyes.
"Because...because I just couldn't." Fran said lamely, knowing that he'd never get Ozzy to understand. "But he's going to work here, he used to live on a farm so he's strong and not afraid of hard work."
"That does not make up for the one percent." Ozzy grumbled. "Workers are two a penny, but we'll never get that share back."
"I know." Fran conceded. "But Mother has never had any real interest in this place. He's always stayed out of our business, I don't see how this is going to make any difference."
"Never has doesn't mean he never will. Fran, you've allowed him to hold an axe over all our heads, and I damn well know that one day he'll let it fall."
"Sorry." Fran slumped in his chair. "But it might not come to that."
"I can only assume your buying him had a greater motive than simply pity." Ozzy looked at Fran again. "And that you intend to bed him, if you haven't already."
"No!" Fran almost shouted. "No, no, no. He's the same age as Fudge for the gods sake."
"Does that make a difference?" Ozzy sounded genuinely curious.
"Yes of course it bloody well does! He's not much more than a child, you think I bought him as some sort of sex toy?"
"I don't know." Ozzy shrugged. "I don't understand any of that stuff."
The visk didn't have sex lives to speak of. Twice a year the females came into season and if they were married and wished to reproduce some kind of mating took place, and that was it. Of all the things that visk found hard to understand about humans, it was their seemingly boundless preoccupation with sex that that puzzled them the most. Especially as very little of that sex was aimed at reproduction, indeed it seemed to them that humans were often surprised when reproduction actually happened.
"Well I didn't. And I'm very happy with Mulligan thank you very much."
"Except you haven't seen him in months." Ozzy pointed out.
"He's on tour, he'll be back soon." Fran said defensively. "Anyway, all that aside we need to keep this between us. I don't want it getting out that I don't truly own The Empress any more, or who now holds the majority share."
"Indeed." Ozzy agreed. "Or that you go around buying boys." Unusually for a visk he had a sense of humour, sort of.
"Yes, and that too." Fran sighed.
Sam had only had a brief tour of the auditorium yesterday and today Fudge had promised to show him around the whole building. As he stood on the stage looking out at the empty seats, Fudge had told him that the place seated nearly nine hundred, he tried to imagine what it would be like having so many pairs of eyes on him. He decided that he didn't like the idea one bit.
If he looked off either side of the stage he could see black painted brick work with dozens of pipes, wires and levers running along it and ladders of differing sizes stacked up against it. It was a stark contrast to the opulence of the auditorium.
"Why is it so scruffy there?" Sam asked Fudge, pointing to what he meant.
She was once again dressed in her coveralls and boots, the only change being her barrette, which was decorated with a bright yellow bow today. "Because the audience can't see that bit." She explained. "And they're called the wings, stage left, and stage right." She pointed to each in turn. "It's your right and left if you're standing on the stage facing the audience. That's upstage." She indicated the back of the stage. "And that's downstage." She tapped her foot on the front edge. "And that down there." She peered into a long, rectangular hole that was several feet deep and ran the length of the stage. "Is the pit, it's where the musos live, that's why it's so messy."
Sam looked down into the hole, it was full of chairs, some sort of stands and bits of paper with black squiggles on them were strewn about everywhere. A fair few empty beer bottles were lying on the floor too, a single, upright piano was squashed into the back and a selection of drums was taking up one corner.
"What's a muso?" He enquired, spotting a moulding apple core on top of the piano.
"A musician, don't you know that?"
"Give him a break Fudge." A voice came from behind them. "He's new to all this."
Sam turned to see who was speaking, it was the man painting the meadow, back up on his platform and working on a patch of flowers. This time Sam took a good look at him, he was quite tall and lean, had very pale skin that contrasted with his collar length dark hair which was almost as black as Fudge's and this couple with dark brows and lashes made his very blue eyes stand out. He looked to be at least ten years older than Sam, maybe more, he had dark smudges under his eyes that suggested that he didn't get enough sleep, at least two days growth of stubble, and he was also very handsome. Sam realised that he was staring so instead he turned his attention to the painted cloth.
"It's very good." He said to the man.
"No it's not, it's a piece of crap." Came the cheerful reply.
"Oh." Sam frowned. "It looks good to me, those flowers look just like real flowers." Sam walked closer to the cloth, examining the painted poppies and cornflowers.
"Ah, technically it's good." Conceded the painter. "But it's not art, it's just something pretty for a girl to stand in front of and sing. However it pays the rent."
"Victor paints mucky pictures really, he just does this on the side." Fudge added helpfully.
"Fudge, they're not "mucky pictures", they're nudes, but unfortunately very few people seem to want to buy them, so I have to prostitute myself doing this."
"I'll tell Uncle Fran you said that." She giggled.
"Your Uncle knows very well what I think." Victor replied. "Now be a good girl and go away and bother someone else."
Fudge took Sam up a steep wooden ladder bolted to the wall to what she told him was called the fly floor that looked to Sam to be a confusing mass of ropes. A man called Teddy was tiding up, coiling the thick ropes and hanging them onto cleats attached to a rail along the stage side of the platform.
"You see the cloths and stuff are tied to one end of the ropes, and the other end comes out here." She explained to Sam. "So you pull the ropes at this end to make them fly out, or you untie the ropes and let them fly in."
"Ain't quite that simple girl." Teddy said, coming to join them. He walked with a limp and had clearly seen better days. His skin looked to be the colour and texture of old leather, and he had a strange dent in the side of his almost completely bald head that suggested that he had been hit at sometime in the past with a large blunt object.
"I know, but he's new to all of this." Fudge replied, echoing the painter's words. "Can we go up to the grid?"
"Knock yourself out girl, but don't you going dropping anything on Victor, you know the drill."
"We need to empty our pockets." She told Sam.
This wasn't a problem for him, as he had nothing in his pockets, but it took Fudge some time as her coveralls contained a large number of pockets, and her pockets contained a large number of assorted objects. Once she was done she led him up another ladder, this one led to a platform high above the fly floor and she looked down at Teddy who had resumed coiling the ropes.
"He used to be a pirate." She whispered loudly to Sam. "Most flymen are ex sailors 'cos they know about ropes and knots and stuff, but Teddy was an actual real pirate. He doesn't like to talk about it though."
Sam frowned at her doubtfully. "Are you sure? I thought pirates were made up things in stories, like wizards, or monsters."
"No." She huffed. "Pirates are real, my Mama even sung for some once. They sailed her out to their island and paid her to perform at the chief pirate's birthday party. She said that they were some of the best people that she had ever met, treated her like a princess. The chief pirate even asked her to marry him, she declined, of course."
"Really?" He replied. He was beginning to get the feeling that Fudge had a rather over active imagination.
She stepped off the platform onto a lattice work of wooden slats that stretched across the whole of the area of the stage. The lattice work had ropes running across it that came from the fly floor and fed down through the gaps between the narrow planks, and two large wooden side mounted wheels took up the centre of the space that reminded Sam somewhat of the water wheel back in his village. Fudge was happily picking her way over to one of the wheels and Sam took a step on to the lattice work of planks to join her, then stopped dead. The stage floor was a very long way down, he could see the top of Victor the painter's head far below them, and he got a very sudden unpleasantly queasy sensation in his stomach.
"Come on!" Fudge demanded, looking back at him.
"I...I think I'd rather not." He swallowed and stepped back onto the relative safety of the platform.
"You should have told me that you were afraid of heights before we came up here." She sighed.
"I wasn't afraid of heights before I came up here." Sam said. He'd climbed plenty of trees in his life, and had never felt afraid, but somehow being this high up and standing on thin wooden slats with gaps large enough to see the floor between was making him feel quite ill.
Once he was back on the stage he started to feel better, and from there Fudge led him through a series of dimly lit corridors to the dressing rooms. "What's that smell?" He asked, covering his nose with his hand.
"We had a flood, that's why Uncle Fran was at Mother's office, he was borrowing money to fix it."
"I see." He nodded, not wanting to be reminded of the pudgy man who had almost enslaved him.
"Do you want to meet the lampies? They're not happy, the water got into their stores, and all their stuff got wet."
Sam was also getting the feeling that Fudge was enjoying using words and phrases that he didn't understand, but he had to ask. "What's a lampy?"
"A sparks, an electrician, they're in charge of the lighting for the theatre."
She opened the door to a room that was full of damp boxes, two men were sat at the far end at a work bench. One looked not much older than Fudge and him, he was tall and thin with a serious face and had slicked his dark brown back with hair cream. His eyes lit up when he saw Fudge. The other was a very much older man, he was squat, almost square in shape with thinning hair and a pair of wire framed glassed balanced on the end of his nose, like Fudge they were both wearing dark blue coveralls. The pair of them were holding screwdrivers and were in the process of taking apart some very large looking lights.
"Hiya Fudge." The young one said, while the older one briefly looked up from his work and nodded.
"This is Earnest." She indicated the younger one. "And that's Wally. This is Sam, he's going to be working here, and he's staying with my Uncle and me."
"Hello Sam." Earnest greeted cheerfully, while Wally grunted something as he went back to his task.
"Is it bad?" Fudge asked.
"Pretty bad, we're trying to get everything dried out before the water corrodes the insides of the lights." Earnest replied.
"We're very busy." Wally said pointedly, but neither Fudge nor Earnest took the hint and they carried on talking to one another until Wally flat out asked her to go so they could get some work done.
After that she showed him the green room, which wasn't green but was where the performers could go to make cups of tea and sit and gossip together, and they ended the tour in Fran and Ozzy's office.
Sam was very surprised to see that Fran had a visk working for him, and when Ozzy held his hand out for Sam to shake he almost recoiled. The visk only had three fingers and a thumb, and they were all oddly shaped, very much wider and flatter at the top than his own, but he politely took the proffered hand, feeling the strange texture of scales against his own skin.
Soon after that they went back to Fran's house for lunch. He only lived a few streets away from The Empress, and by the time they had finished eating and had returned for the afternoon the performers had arrived and were rehearsing on the stage in preparation for that night's show. Sam watched from the back of the auditorium in fascination, he'd never seen anything like it before. There was a troop of acrobats who piled themselves up into towers and tumbled through hoops, a group of tiny girl dancers, the oldest only twelve, went through a series of highly synchronised routines watched over by a stern looking woman with a black cane that she banged on the stage floor every time one of them made a mistake, and a rather fey man sang some songs in a high voice.
"He's a drag act." Fudge elaborated when Sam asked why he seemed to be singing a girls song.
"He dresses up as a woman when he sings."
"Why?" This seemed a very odd idea to Sam.
"Because he's a drag act." Fudge rolled her eyes.
"But why? I mean aren't there any real women who want to sing?"
"Lots, but drag is different. People like men pretending to be women."
"But why?" Sam persisted.
"Um..." It was Fudge's turn to sound puzzled now. "They just do."
Once the rehearsals were over it was time to go back to the house again for dinner before the night's show. Fudge and Fran were finishing up inside while Sam waited for the pair of them just outside the stage door, peering down the narrow alleyway at the side of the theatre out into the busy street beyond when someone saying "hello again" from behind him made him turn around. It was Victor the painter, he was smoking a cigarette and looking at Sam with interest.
"Have you ever modelled?" The man asked Sam.
"I made a bird out of clay once when I was at school." He replied, baffled by this strange enquiry.
"And I'm sure it was lovely." Sam could see amusement in Victor's blue eyes. "But that's not quite what I meant. Let me put it another way, have you ever sat for an artist, had your portrait painted?"
"No." He shook his head.
"Would you like to? You'd make a good study, and I'd pay you."
Sam thought about it, he had absolutely no money and Fran hadn't actually mentioned paying him. Sam was assuming that his food and bed were all the payment he was going to get, so some money would be nice, and being painted didn't sound like hard work.
"All right." He agreed.
"Excellent." Victor dropped his cigarette on the damp ground and ground it out with a heel. "I'll find a good time and you can come to my studio." And with that he left.
It wasn't until the other two had joined him and he was almost back at the house that Sam remembered Fudge telling him that Victor painted nudes.
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