A Kind of Alchemy

by London Lampy

Chapter 7

"Been shopping?" Ozzy looked up from the wage accounts as Fran plonked himself into his chair, throwing a small brown paper bag down onto the desk.

"Underpants, for Sam." Fran sighed. "I realised that he only has the one pair, and I'm not about to lend him any of mine. If there's one thing people shouldn't share it's underwear."

Ozzy tilted his head to one side, a gesture he'd come to associate with the visk being amused. "You didn't really think it through when you bought him, did you?"

"For the last time, I didn't "buy" him, but you're right, I didn't think it through. At least he's a good worker, so long as you don't try to send him to the grid." Sam had been working at The Empress for four days now, and he had proved himself to be a quick learner who was happy to turn his hand to most things, but he still seemed quite and withdrawn. "Although I still can't get him to write to his family to tell them he's safe and alive, and I really wish he would. I keep thinking about how desperate I'd feel if he was my son and I didn't know where he was."

"Do you know what it was that made him run off in the first place?" Ozzy asked.

"Sort of, but not the full details, every time I've tried to speak to him about it he goes bright red and clams up. It seems that someone, his father I think, caught him in a...situation with a man and gave him a hiding. There's something about some friend who upped and joined the army too, but I don't quite know where he fits in. I saw Sam's back shortly after he came to my house, his father really laid into him." Fran shook his head at the memory. "I was thinking that perhaps if I could get his parents to come up here we could all sit down and talk it through, I'm sure we could sort things out."

He heard Ozzy start to laugh. "Fran, how can you have got to half way through your thirties and still have such a rose tinted view of humans? Most of you lot are no nicer than us, you just pretend you are. Frankly I can't blame the boy for running, if my father had done that to me I would have run as far as I could and never looked back."

"Maybe you're right." Fran conceded. "Sometimes I forget that the world outside this world." He waved his hands to indicate The Empress. "Is a different one. Perhaps a tiny village in the middle of nowhere isn't the best place for a boy like Sam, but at least he could write to his family, even if he doesn't want to go back. You know he won't even tell me exactly where he comes from? I think he thinks if he tells me I'm going to drag him back there against his will."

"How do I look?" Fudge asked, twirling around.

"Ridiculous." Sam giggled. "I don't think blond suits you."

They were in one of the dressing rooms, the one the drag act was currently using. The pair of them were meant to be fixing a broken table leg, but Fudge couldn't resist trying on the man's wigs, and she was currently parading around in a white blond bouffant confection.

"Maybe it would suit you." She said, taking it off and pushing it onto Sam's head.

Sam stared at himself in the mirror, the style looked stupid on him, but he liked the shade. "My hair used to be that colour." He said, taking the wig off and putting it back on its stand. "When I was little, I liked it."

"My Mama has hair that colour." Fudge ran one of the curls on the wig through her fingers. "It's not natural though, she puts bleach on it, perhaps you could do that."

"You mean put the stuff we pour down the drains on my head?" Sam frowned. The smell alone caught in his throat and made him cough, he wasn't at all sure it would be a good idea to use that on his hair.

"No, don't be stupid, you buy a special sort for hair, it comes in a kind of powder and you mix it up with water. If you buy some I'll help you."

"Oh, no I can't buy anything, I don't have any money." He felt a little disappointed, he rather liked the idea of being properly blond again.

"Don't worry, I'll buy it, and you can pay me back when Uncle Fran pays you." Fudge said brightly.

"I don't think I'm going to be getting paid, Fran never said anything about wages."

"Of course my Uncle's going to pay you." She scoffed. "So shall we go and buy some hair bleach once we're done here?"

"Bloody hell!" Fran exclaimed when he saw Sam.

"Looks great, doesn't he?" Fudge beamed.

"Um..." Fran peered at Sam from every angle. The last thing he'd expected to find when he came home for supper was Sam with a completely new hair colour. "It does kind of suit him, I think. It's going to take some getting used to." Fran had to conceded that Sam looked delighted with it though, he was admiring his hair in the mirror over the living room mantle and grinning, it was the happiest he'd ever seen the boy look. Who knew that a box of hair bleach was all it would take to cheer him up?

"Uncle Fran..." Fudge started.

"Yes?" He knew that tone of voice well, she wanted something.

"You are going to pay Sam, aren't you?"

"Pay him?" He hadn't really considered doing so, the boy was living rent free in his house, wearing his old clothes and eating his food, not to mention the fact that his freedom from Mother had cost Fran full ownership of his theatre, not that Sam actually knew it. He felt working at The Empress was the least that Sam could do in return.

"Yes, for all the work he's doing, he doesn't have any money." Fudge looked up at him with her big dark eyes, a look he could hardly ever resist.

"I suppose so." He sighed. At least if he paid Sam he could buy his own underpants. "I can't afford to give you much though." He directed this to Sam, who managed to pull his gaze from his reflection and look at Fran.

"That's all right, Victor's going to pay me too, he's asked me to model for him."

Fran was stopped in his tracks by this piece of information. If Fudge had told him she was going to model nude for the painter he would have forbidden it on the spot. Not that Victor was at all likely to ask her to sit for him, as far as Fran knew Victor never painted girls unless it was a commission. However he had no idea where his responsibility with Sam lay, at best he was Fran's lodger and employee, certainly not someone he could tell what to do outside of work and domestic matters, but that didn't mean he felt posing for Victor was a good idea. He'd know the painter long enough to be aware of his reputation, and he felt that there was very little chance he wouldn't try to seduce the boy. He tried to think of how to put this to Sam.

"You know that Victor will most likely expect you to take all of your clothes off, don't you?"

"Yes." Sam nodded, but he also blushed, the pink rather clashing with his newly white blond hair.

"He also...well he..." Fran was pretty sure he was blushing now too. "He hasn't got the best of reputations, he might." He glanced at Fudge, who was now sat in an armchair regarding the pair of them with interest. "He might not be entirely professional with you."

"Entirely professional?" Sam echoed. Fran could pinpoint the exact moment when the boy got his meaning by the deepening of his blush. "I can look after myself." He stated.

Fran was tempted to point out that people who could look after themselves didn't run away from home with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, turn up in a city where they knew no one and almost instantly get themselves mixed up with one of the nastiest men in Parnell, but he didn't. Instead he said. "Just watch out, please."

"I like Victor." Fudge suddenly stated. "He wouldn't do anything bad to Sam, he's always been nice to me."

"Yes, but that's because..." Fran caught himself before he said "you're a girl". "Because you're my niece and I pay him. All I want is for Sam to know what he's getting himself into." He a gave a meaningful look to Sam that turned the boy an ever darker shade of red.

As he was washing the dishes after supper Sam caught sight of his reflection in the kitchen window, and couldn't help smiling. He loved his newly blond hair, admittedly the bleach had stung somewhat, and his scalp was still a little sore and itchy, but it was a small price to pay. It wasn't just the hair that was making him feel happier though, for the first time in his life he was starting to feel as if he fitted in, or at least that he wasn't any stranger than anyone else around him. The theatre seemed to be full of of people who were different, very different indeed from the people back home in Dovedale. In the village it had somehow been important to be just like everyone else, to hold the same opinions, to act in the same way, even to dress in the same way as one another, but here no one seemed to give a damn about fitting in. It felt to Sam as if he had spent his entire life in a cage and someone had just unlocked the door and let him out.

His conversation with Fran about Victor and his intentions had simply confirmed what he already thought, and he'd made up his mind that if that's what the man wanted then he was quite happy to give it to him. Sam had often found himself standing outside the stage door chatting to the painter while he was taking a break, and he knew that he was becoming increasingly attracted to the man, to the extent that he was very much looking forward to the sitting. Sam couldn't possibly tell Fran this though, he'd die of embarrassment if he tried, although at least he now knew that Fran didn't think he was some sort of disgusting deviant.

It had taken a casual comment from Fudge to make him realise that Fran's apparent revulsion at Sam's suggestion that he may want sex in repayment for his rescue from Mother had nothing to do with his gender, and everything to do with his age and the fact that Fran had simply been trying to do something good. She had found him a pair of gloves and a warm woollen hat to wear on their trips to and from The Empress, and had explained to him that he could keep them for now as they belonged to Mulligan and he was away on tour for the foreseeable future. When Sam had quizzed her as to who Mulligan was she'd breezily told him that he was a her Uncle's boyfriend, and a magician. The way Fudge had said this, as if it was nothing at all remarkable, had been a revelation to him.

As the three of them were making their way out of the house to head back to the theatre for the evening show the front door of the house next door opened.

"Oh crap." Sam heard Fran mutter as an old woman came out.

"Dirty sinners!" She said loudly, pointing at the three of them. "The god's have a special place in hell reserved for all the dirty sinners."

Sam stared at the woman in astonishment, she was only about four and a half foot tall, but her body seemed to be virtually as wide as she was high, and entirely rectangular under a large hairy black coat that came down to her ankles. Her face was rectangular too, her jaw and forehead wide, and she didn't seem to have any discernible neck. Her mouth was a lipless line with a hint of a wiry moustache above it, and her eyes were deep set dark holes almost hidden amongst her fleshy wrinkles. On her head sat a peculiar lumpy black hat, with what looked like an entire dead bird decorating it.

"Good evening Mrs Anglemol." Fran said wearily. "I'm afraid that we haven't got the time to stop and talk."

"You'll have all the time you need in hell, when the little imps are are roasting your sinner's bodies for all eternity." The old woman roared.

"Roasting eh? Sounds better than all this cold weather, come on Fudge, come on Sam, we need to get going." Then without looking back he marched them off down the road, the old woman still preaching behind them.

"That." Fudge spat as they turned the corner. "Was Mrs Angry Mould, she's vile."

"Anglemol." Fran corrected. "And she's to be pitied, not hated."

"Why?" Fudge objected. "She called me a dirty little blue skinned bastard a couple of weeks ago."

"I know, you told me, several times." Fran turned to Sam. "She's not entirely sane, she's always been a bit of a gods botherer, but she mostly used to confine herself to pushing the odd religious leaflet through our letterbox. That was when the rest of her family lived there too, they've all gone now except one grandson who looks after her, poor little sod."

"Still no excuse to abuse us." Fudge grumbled.

"No, it's not, but the best thing to do is to humour her, she's harmless really." Fudge snorted at this. "She is, her main objection to us seems to be that she thinks all forms of theatre are a degenerative distraction from the gods, and that her youngest son was a solider who was killed in the war with Surosa."

"And she thinks it's my fault!" Fudge cut in.

"You look Surosian, that's all." Fran put a hand on his niece's shoulder.

"Because I am, half anyway. No reason to call me a blue skinned bastard though."

"Why blue?" Sam frowned. "You're more dark brown."

"Surosians are blue." Fudge stated to Sam's puzzlement.

"Not really." Fran explained. "It's just that someone who's fully Surosian has skin so dark that it can look blue in certain lights. As Fudge is only half she's not quite that dark, but I don't think Mrs Anglemol cares much about the distinction."

"And I don't care much about her." Fudge said. "If she loves the gods so much she should just die and go and be with them and leave us all alone."

"Fudge!" Fran chided.

"Well she should." The girl muttered darkly.

Fran found Victor at the end of the alleyway by stage door, lighting a cigarette before he headed off home for the night. The painter was wearing a long charcoal grey overcoat and had a blue scarf that matched his eyes wrapped around his neck, he looked carelessly elegant in them, and this annoyed Fran. Partly because he knew that whatever he wore he could never achieve that effect, he had neither the stature nor the features to carry that look off, and partly because he'd come outside into the bitter cold in only his shirtsleeves, and therefore Victor had the advantage over him.

"Wait up!" He called out as Victor turned to go.

"Hey, Fran." The damn man looked amused, he always looked amused. "What can I do for you?"

"It's about Sam." Fran said, hugging himself to keep warm.

"Ah, he told you that he was sitting for me I take it, would you prefer that he didn't? I don't want to...tread on your toes." Victor quirked a dark eyebrow suggestively as he said this.

"I don't have any toes to be trodden on, thank you." Fran objected, then realised just how stupid what he had just said was. "What I mean is he's sixteen and I'm looking after him because he doesn't have anyone else, and that's all. He's a child."

"You just said he was sixteen, that legally makes him an adult, at least in this part of the world, and therefore not gaol bait."

"For the god's sake Vic, he's the same age as Fudge!"

Victor shrugged in reply. "And that matters why? I'm not interested in your niece."

"I know, if you were we wouldn't be having a polite conversation about it, believe me." Fran scowled.

"What, would you put a bullet in me to protect her honour?"

"Maybe." Fran would do anything to protect Fudge, and the last thing he wanted for her was to fall pregnant before she even reached eighteen like her mother had.

"It's not like I'm going to knock Sam up." Victor laughed, seemingly reading Fran's mind. "And I've talked to him, he may blush a lot, but he's not a virgin."

"I know that too." Fran admitted, realising that he was going to have to bring this conversation to a close soon before frostbite set in. "Just please, don't hurt him, or make him do anything he doesn't want to do."

"Fran." Victor looked serious for once. "You clearly don't have a very high opinion of me, and perhaps you're right not to, but I am no rapist."

"You'd bloody well better not be."

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