A Kind of Alchemy

by London Lampy

Chapter 18

It was morning of the day of the auction and Fran was feeling ill. He had hardly slept for the past few nights between worry and his sister's nocturnal habits so when he was walking across the stalls and a large red shape came gliding out of The Empress' balcony level and swooped over his head he briefly thought that he was hallucinating from lack of sleep.

"Dirty sinner" the shape said as it landed on the shoulder of Teddy who was standing in the middle of the stage holding out a handful of shelled peanuts.

"What's that thing doing in here?" He asked Teddy irritably as the parrot nuzzled Teddy's face then plucked a nut from his fingers.

"I'm giving him some exercise." Came the reply. "Aren't I boy?" He cooed to Bob. "Can't keep him in his cage all day long, it ain't right." Bob squawked as if in agreement with his new owner.

A pirate, or at least an ex pirate with a parrot on his shoulder, if he wasn't so stressed he might have found the cliché funny. "If he craps on the seats he's out." Fran grumbled.

"Yes boss. But you wouldn't do that would you, you're a good parrot, yes you are." Teddy stroked the bird's head affectionately.

"Hello dirty sinner."

Fran continued on his way, wondering if he needed to make a rule about not bringing pets to work. As he set foot on the narrow staircase that led up to his office his nostrils were assaulted by the mixed scents of cigarettes, rose water and gin, and he opened the door fully expecting to see Ava inside, but he found only Ozzy sitting at his desk typing numbers into the adding machine.

"My sister was here." Fran said, it was a statement not a question.

"Yes." Ozzy replied, blinking his black eyes rapidly as he cranked the machine's handle. "You saw her?"

"No, I smelled her."

"I didn't think humans could smell that well."

"We can't as a rule, but just like the woman herself Ava's scent likes to let you know it's around." Fran sat down at his own desk with a sigh, Ozzy had placed the accounts book open to show him the last few days takings. Even with Ava's rather hefty fee, no discounts even for family it seemed, and the extra money the musicians were demanding for having to put up with her, they had still made a tidy profit. Tonight's bar takings from the auction would only add to this, but for once Fran wasn't happy at the prospect of making extra money.

"It's good isn't it." Ozzy said quickly. "Really good, lots of money coming in."

"Is something wrong?" Fran asked, Ozzy seemed unusually nervous.

"No, no, nothing is wrong." He shook his head with short jerky movements. "Just...no...nothing."

Fran squeezed his eyes shut for a second. He didn't need any more problems, but he had to find out. Ava had been in here, she couldn't have been flirting with Ozzy that would have been pointless, he was a visk and he wouldn't understand what she was doing no matter how blatant she was, and even Ava wouldn't be conceited enough to think that a lizard would fall for her charms. So it must have been something else. "What did my sister do?" He asked.

"Nothing...she talked to me." Ozzy's foot was tapping on the floor now, a short sharp tattoo accompanied by a background rustle of robes.

"What about?" He doubted that she managed to winkle any personal secrets out of him, visk's weren't like that, with them everything was upfront and they were sticklers for rules.

"Just...the business...you know...money...how much we make."

Fran frowned, there was nothing wrong about that, even though she wasn't directly involved The Empress was their family business and she had every right to know their financial situation, and even though the balance sheets were rarely impressive he had nothing to hide. Ozzy knew all this he was sure, and yet he was clearly very upset about something.

"You see..." Ozzy was almost hyperventilating now. "I thought...I though she knew...she said you told her everything...I'm sorry Fran...I thought she knew."

"Knew what?" He felt a sudden prickle of fear sweat all over his body, there was only one thing that Ozzy could possibly be talking about, but he prayed to every god he could remember that he was wrong.

"About Mother...and how you bought Sam...and the one percent." As far as Fran knew visks didn't cry, but Ozzy sounded like he might be about to become the first. "I'm so sorry."

"Oh fucking hell." Fran slumped down in his chair, he didn't think that his day could have possibly got any worse, but it just had, exponentially.

Sam was acutely embarrassed, he didn't belong here and the looks he was getting from the sales assistants backed this up, but Ava had insisted and that was that. Going clothes shopping with Fudge and Ava was the last thing that he wanted to be doing, him and Fudge had been restocking the bars when Ava had suddenly appeared and told them that she was taking Fudge shopping and she wanted him to come along too. As she'd said this she had seemed to glare at him, he didn't know why and Fudge didn't notice as she was far too busy squealing in delight and jumping up and down. Sam had tried to protest, pointing out that someone needed to finish what they were doing, and that there wasn't really any reason for him to go as well, but Ava, a tiny woman who looked like a strong breeze could knock her over, had told him that she wouldn't take no for an answer and he'd been too intimidated to argue. "You're part of the family now, it will be a good chance for use to get to know one another better." She'd said, but her tone of voice was anything but warm.

This all seemed strange to Sam, apart from that fist night after she had arrived when she had interrogated him about why he was living in her brother's house she'd all but ignored him, which suited him just fine. Now she claimed to want to get to know him better, but at the same time she sounded angry, the whole thing was very puzzling.

The first few shops hadn't been too bad, Fudge had tried on a lot of clothes while her mother commented on what she thought. She'd made what seemed to Sam to be some downright insulting remarks about Fudge's figure, especially Fudge's rather flat chest. Although Ava shared her daughter's small build she possessed quite an impressive bust that she seemed to like to show off at every eventuality. Fudge didn't seem to mind her mother's criticisms though and Sam couldn't work out if she simply didn't realise quite how catty Ava was being, or if she just refused to see it, he was very much suspecting that where Ava was concerned Fudge willingly ignored the bad. Ava had bought her daughter several outfits and some very high heeled shoes that Fudge could barely walk in, and Fudge looked as happy as Sam had ever seen her.

The shoe and clothes shops had been dull as far as he was concerned, but he hadn't really minded being in any of them, the lingerie shop was however a different matter. If ever there was a shop that males weren't meant to be in it was that one. Everything it sold was tiny, frilly, lacy and satiny and where most of it was meant to be worn was a complete mystery to him. He suppose that if he was interested in the contents of girl's underwear a girls underwear shop might be a bit more interesting to him, but he wasn't and he just felt like it was a place he very much didn't belong. It was also a very expensive shop, he'd seen some of the price tags, and he couldn't understand how such a tiny piece of fabric could cost so much, he was pretty sure that he could buy several years worth of underpants for the cost a single item in there.

When the staff had realised who Ava was, after she had dropped some pretty heavy handed hints, the three of them had been shown through to a private room with an elegant changing screen, fancy upholstered chairs for Ava and him to sit on and mirrors on every wall.

"I'm not sure about this one Mama." Fudge said, stepping out from behind the screen.

Sam looked at her, then immediately looked away, feeling himself blush. Fudge was wearing a bra and knickers set, the knickers were tiny and hardly covered her modesty, but the bra didn't even do that, it was cut away under her breasts and Sam could clearly see her nipples standing out darkly against her brown skin. Unfortunately with all the mirrors wherever he looked he could still see her, so he settled for staring at his bitten nails, it was safer.

"But Fudge darling, it makes the most of what you've got here." Ava had got to her feet and was fiddling with the bra's straps. Sam glanced briefly into one of the mirrors, then looked down again. "And the gods know you could use some help. When Earnest sees you in that he'll want to rip it off with his teeth."

Sam wondered if he stuck his fingers in his ears whether he could block out Ava completely.

"Mama!" Fudge said in delighted shock. "We've only just started seeing one another."

Ava laughed her deep throaty laugh. "And if you want to keep hold of him my dear you'd better uncross your legs, all men really want is a warm willing body in their beds, isn't that right Sam?"

Sam jerked his head up and was faced full on with a near topless Fudge again. "I...er..."

He was saved from having having to answer by the room's mirrored door rapidly swinging open and Fran bursting in, he was panting and he looked like he'd been running. He took one look at his niece in her overly revealing underwear, shook his head as if to try to clear his thoughts then turned to his sister and said quickly. "Ava, I need to talk to you now, outside."

Ozzy had told Fran that Ava had informed him that she was taking Fudge out shopping. When he found both Fudge and Sam had gone he'd feared that she was planning to tell them about his deal with Mother simply out of spite, it was exactly the sort of thing she'd do. He knew that whatever she'd said to Ozzy there was no guarantee that she had actually gone to the shops, indeed he had tried the house first but had found it empty so then had decided to trawl the city centre to see if they were there. He'd been on the brink of giving up when he'd spotted what he knew to be Ava's favourite lingerie shop and decided to risk trying it. The staff had happily told him that the famous singer was indeed in their shop, but when they had tried to prevent him from going into the private room he'd been forced to do a very un-Fran like way and push past them to get in.

"Have you said anything to Fudge and Sam?" He blurted out once the two of them were outside on the street.

"About what?" Ava's voice was harsh, he knew she knew what he was asking, but she was going to make him say it.

"About what Ozzy told you, about the deal."

"About the fact that you gave away our family business, a business that's not even really yours to give away, for the sake of a boy you're not even fucking!" Ava jabbed her finger hard into Fran's chest, saying the last part loudly enough for several passers by to hear and turn to stare at them curiously.

"Ssh, calm down." He grabbed her wrist to stop her from poking him again. "Have you told them?"

"No." She shook her head. "Not yet."

"Not ever." Fran hissed. "They are never to know."

"Why? Don't you think your niece deserves to know how her uncle has betrayed his family, and don't you think that boy should know exactly what he owes you? By rights he should be on his knees sucking you dry every night for the rest of his life."

"Ava!" Fran was very close to loosing his temper, something he very rarely did. "It has nothing to do with them. I did it, it was my choice, I betrayed nobody and nobody owes me anything."

"What would Papa say if he knew?" She looked up at him defiantly.

"He'd be angry, just as you are, but I like to think he'd understand my motives. Look Ava, no matter how much you dislike what I did it's done and I can't undo it."

"You are a fucking idiot, I don't know why I allowed you to look after Fudge all these years, look what you've turned her into. She dresses like a boy, she has no idea about the real world, you've allowed her to date some gormless stage hand when she could do so much better..."

"What, you think she should be like you?" He cut her off. A small part of Fran was shouting at him not to say something he would regret, but he foolishly ignored it. "You think she should dress like a working girl, drink a bottle of gin a day and let herself get knocked up by someone whose name she doesn't even know, then lie and claim that the father is some kind of prince?"

Just as he said this the shop door opened and a now fully clothed Fudge came out followed by Sam carrying their many shopping bags. "What's wrong, why are you arguing?" Fudge looked like she was about to cry.

Ava took a deep breath and turned to her daughter. "Your Uncle thinks." She flicked hers eyes briefly at Fran, who willed her not to say anything about his deal with Mother. "That you're too young to be wearing the things that they sell in there." She nodded to indicate the shop.

"Oh, Uncle Fran." She turned to him. "I'm sixteen, not a little girl any more, Mama only wants me to look nice."

"I know what your Mother thinks." He addressed this to Ava. "And she needs to take into account what's right for you, not her."

"And your Uncle needs to understand that some things aren't his to simply do what he likes with."

"Mama, Uncle Fran, please don't fight." Fudge sniffed.

"It's all right sweetheart." Fran put a comforting hand onto her shoulder. "We're not really fighting, it's just a difference of opinion, that's all, isn't it?" He looked at Ava.

"Yes." Ava nodded. "Nothing more than a difference of opinion. I know." She suddenly said brightly. "Why don't we all go out for tea and cakes?"

"Oh yes!" Fudge's eyes lit up. "Can we Uncle Fran?"

"Yes, but not for too long, remember you never finished stocking the bars for tonight and it still needs doing." He replied.

"Don't worry Fran, I won't keep them from their work for too long, I know that your first duty is to The Empress. After all Papa would have never left you to run it if he thought that you'd do anything to put her or her reputation in jeopardy." Ava said smoothly as she led them all off down the street.

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