A Kind of Alchemy

by London Lampy

Chapter 23

After Bonnie was taken Sam was left alone for hours in the small bedroom with nothing but his thoughts for company. He was very hungry and thirsty, having not eaten or drunk anything since the milk he had heated up for himself back in Fran's kitchen a lifetime ago, and the sun had already begun to turn orange and dip toward the horizon by the time the door to the room was opened again.

The person who entered was the tall man from before, but now he was unmasked and Sam was finally able to see his face. He was in his middle years with wiry grey hair, greying stubble peppering a lantern jaw, small dark deep set eyes and a long nose that made a straight line down the middle of his face, he looked to Sam like he had been hacked out from a block of stone. However Sam was given no time to wonder why the man no longer felt he had to cover his face as he was curtly ordered to follow him out of the room. When Sam asked where they where going and why the tall man informed him that he had no right to be asking questions and pushed him in the back to make him move. He was led along the hallway, down a small flight of stairs and into another, longer hall with several doors leading off it.

He stared around him as they went, the house looked like it had once been an opulent place but was now falling into disrepair. There were pale squares on the walls that suggested pictures had at one time hung there but were now long gone, in the areas that were carpeted the carpet underfoot was worn thin and many of the window panes were cracked, broken or missing altogether. As they walked Sam could see what the source of the damp smell that permeated everything was, all along the walls were patches where the plaster had blown, leaving exposed bare brick work, or where it hadn't crumbled away it had surrendered to creeping black mould. At the end of the hall they stopped outside another room, before the door was opened and he was pushed inside Sam briefly noticed that there was fresh looking sawdust sprinkled on the floor in front of it, and that a bolt had seemingly recently been fitted to the outside of the door. The new room he found himself in was a bathroom, containing a stained and chipped claw footed tub, an elderly looking wooden seated toilet and a cracked sink. The tall man followed him in, and to his surprise the smaller, golden eyed man was already inside, holding a tray with a steaming teapot and a tea cup on it just as he had done for Bonnie the night before.

"The Master requires you to be purified." The tall man said when he saw Sam looking at the tea tray as other servant set it down on the closed lid of the toilet and poured a cup of muddy looking brown liquid into the cup. "Purged that is, a mixture has been prepared for you. Once it takes effect you are to keep everything in there." He indicated the toilet. "Any mess you make you will be required to clean yourself."

"I'm not drinking that." Sam said defiantly, pointing at the cup that the small man was now holding out to him. Bonnie had drunk a cupful of something before whatever had been done to her, and Sam suspected that it had been some sort of narcotic. This didn't smell the same, Bonnie's mixture had a bitter scent while this one was overly sweet, rotten almost, but whatever it was it wasn't passing his lips.

"You will drink it, one way or another." The tall man pulled a length of coiled rubber tubing out of his pocket and showed it to Sam. "It makes no odds to me, I've force fed the reluctant many times before, the choice is yours."

Fran had gone to The Empress in an attempt to do some work, whatever else was happening he couldn't simply let the business go to the dogs, but it was almost impossible for him to concentrate. He was stressed, exhausted and couldn't think about anything other than what might be happening to Sam. The worst point came when he looked through his diary for jobs that needed to be done and found that he was due to write a letter to Sam's mother, a letter that was meant to keep her abreast of her son's well-being. He had made a promise to her that he would look after Sam, and that her son's safety was as important to him as it was to her. How could he now write to her and tell her that he had let Sam be illegally sold for some undoubtedly very unsavoury purpose, and that he had no idea where the boy was?

Fran had told the rest of the staff that Sam was taking some time off to visit his family, he simply didn't know what else to say and as Sam tended to be tight lipped on the subject of his past he very much doubted that any of them would find his story that unlikely. He didn't even tell Ozzy the truth, partly because he simply didn't need to know, and partly because he didn't want him to feel responsible as it had been him who had told Ava about the deal in the first place. Fran wasn't entirely sure that visks felt remorse in the same way that humans did, but it wasn't Ozzy's fault and he didn't want him to blame himself.

By late afternoon he gave up trying to work, packed his things up and took a miserable Fudge, who had been tasked with washing the ornamental plaster work to keep her busy, back home. Neither of them spoke on the short walk to the house, it was almost as if there was nothing left to say, and they both stayed silently wrapped in their own misery for much of the next few hours. The evening passed slowly, Fran stripped the bedclothes from the bed in the spare room where Ava had slept, wondering if he'd see, or ever want to see, his sister again. They ate a supper of cheese sandwiches in the living room because although neither of them vocalised it they didn't want to eat at their normal place around the kitchen table as it made them too aware of Sam's empty bedroom next door.

Just before eight o'clock, while Fudge was attempting to read a book and Fran was staring at the crossword in the evening newspaper without really seeing it, someone knocked on the door. Fran answered it to find Edmund Anglemol standing on the doorstep, and he asked if Sam was home.

"I'm sorry." Fran shook his head. "He's gone away for a while...to visit his family." He found that he couldn't look Edmund in the eye as he said this.

"Are you sure?" Edmund sounded doubtful. "I saw him last night and he didn't say anything about going away, in fact he said he'd see me tonight. I thought he was going to come round to my house but he hasn't, that's why I came here...and I didn't think he was speaking to his family anyway."

"You saw him last night, what time?" Fran questioned, realising that it must have been before Ava came back to the house to find Sam.

"Um....about half ten, I was still up because I was fixing my bike, the chain had broke and the wheel had got all bent out of shape. He saw the light was on and came over after work."

"How long did he stay?"

Edmund frowned in thought, scrunching up his freckled face. "Not more than an hour, we were talking...and stuff...then he went home. Why, is something wrong?"

Fran resisted the temptation to say that everything was wrong, he didn't want or need to drag Edmund into this and he was about to attempt to assure the young man that all was well when a familiar and very welcome figure suddenly appeared on the steps behind Edmund.

"Fran, are you all right? I've been worried sick ever since I got your wire." Mulligan said, sounding a little out of breath.

"Thank the gods you're here." Fran felt a tiny trickle of relief, he wasn't alone now. "Come inside and I'll explain." He glanced meaningfully at Edmund.

"Hold on." Edmund hadn't failed to notice this. "Something is wrong isn't it? Something has happened to Sam, something bad."

"Edmund, I don't want to appear rude but this doesn't concern you." Fran needed to be rid of his neighbour so he could tell Mulligan what the emergency was.

"If it's to do with Sam and he's in some kind of trouble I think it does." Edmund insisted.

"Please, just go home." Fran said.

"No, I want to know what's happened to Sam...I need to know, you see I think I'm in love with him."

In the end Sam had drunk the liquid, not doubting for one minute that the stone faced man would carry out his threat of force feeding him if he continued to refuse. It hadn't tasted too bad, although it had been unexpectedly salty, but within minutes of having finished it and being left alone locked into the bathroom he discovered why he had been moved from the nursery. It was as if everything that he had ever eaten had wanted to leave his body as fast as possible one way or the other. After what must have been at least an hour of being violently ill he was left empty, curled up on the cold dusty tiled floor shaking and sweating, although mercifully his body seemed to have stopped trying to expel its content's.

When the door was next opened it was by the small man alone, Sam had already decided that if he ever appeared without the other one he would attempt to push him aside and run, he was much smaller than Sam and didn't look like he'd put up much of a fight, but right now Sam had the strength of a baby, and his head swum as he pulled himself into a sitting position. The servant glanced down at him with an unreadable expression on his golden eyed face, over one of his arms was slung what appeared to be a white bed sheet and he hung this on a hook on the back of the door then neatly stepped around Sam and began to fill the bath.

"What's going on?" Sam asked, his voice hoarse.

"The Master wants you to bathe before you meet him." It was the first time he'd heard him speak, his accent was strong and unfamiliar, and Sam struggled to understand him. Sam managed to get to his feet, but once he had he needed to cling on to the sink while the room spun. "I will stay while you wash." The golden eyed man said, watching him. "I cannot let you come to harm."

Sam felt far from unharmed, but he didn't say this. "Who are you...what are you?" He asked the man as he began to shakily remove his clothes, whatever the reasons behind it the idea of bathing was an appealing one.

"I'm nobody, a tailess one, a slave, that is all, do not ask me questions" Came the reply.

Mulligan was sitting in the arm chair, his elbows on his knees, his chin resting on his locked hands looking deep in thought, Edmund was beside Fran on the sofa and his face suggested that he was trying very hard not to cry, while Fudge was perched on the arm of the sofa on his other side, her thin arms wrapped around her body.

"Anything could have happened to him." Edmund said, his voice cracking with emotion. "He could even be..."

"We don't know anything though." Fran cut Edmund off before he said "dead" and made himself, and most likely Fudge too, cry. They didn't need that right now. He really wished that the boy hadn't got involved, but after his utterly unexpected declaration of love for Sam Fran hadn't been able to leave him out, and he already known that something was wrong, just not quite what.

"So you have no clue where he was taken?" Mulligan asked. "You didn't see who he went with, the carriage he was put into, nothing?"

"No." Fran shook his head sadly. "Mother's men kept me away until he was gone."

"And you didn't see who bought him, who was bidding?"

"No, I couldn't see into the stalls from where I was, but even if I could most of them were wearing masks or hoods."

"That's so creepy." Fudge put in, rubbing her hands over her upper arms as if she were cold.

"More like necessary." Mulligan replied. "From what your uncle has said these weren't your average punters looking for a quick fumble, this was the city's rich and powerful after something new for their jaded pallets." He sat back and ran a hand through his short dark hair. "All right, let's try another approach. What about the other people there, I know you said that you and Fudge tried to get something out of this "Mother"." He said the word as if it were something disgusting. "But was there anyone else there you recognised?"

"No, I told you, they mostly had their faces covered." Fran said in frustration.

"There must have been others though, Mother's staff, people selling drinks..."

"The waiter!" Fran suddenly sat bolt upright. "How could I have not though of him? I'm so bloody stupid." He smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. The waiter from the restaurant under Mother's office had been there bringing drinks out to the auction's audience, he'd even seen him earlier in the day as he had left the offices with Fudge, perhaps he held the key to finding Sam.

"You look dreadful." Mulligan said putting an arm around Fran as they sat on the tram on their way to the restaurant. This earned them a few odd looks from the tram's other passengers, Mulligan often took great delight in doing things like that in public then staring down anyone who seemed like they disapproved, but this wasn't the night for that kind of thing, and Fran knew that he'd only done it to make him feel a little better. If he looked half as bad as he felt he suspected that he must resemble a walking corpse, and it was a measure of just how bad he felt that he couldn't be bothered to find a pithy comeback to the magician's comment.

"I can't remember the last time I had a whole nights sleep." He replied, leaning into Mulligan. "Between worrying about the auction and Ava being here. Even before what happened to Sam I wasn't sleeping."

"Ah yes, Ava." Mulligan's tone of voice said it all. As a rule Mulligan found being around Ava amusing, not because he liked her, he didn't, but because all the things she normally did to intimidate or wrong foot people didn't work on him. This annoyed her so she tried even harder to get to him, and it usually resulted in her loosing her temper, at which point Mulligan wouldn't be able to help laughing and that would cause her to flounce out of wherever they happened to be in a snit. Fran generally ended caught up in the middle of this trying to get them both to behave, and for that reason he was glad that their paths rarely crossed. "What are you going to do about her?" Mulligan asked.

"I don't know, she's still my sister and Fudge's mother, and I'll suppose we'll start speaking to her again one day."

"If she were my sister I'd never speak to the bitch again."

Fran sighed, he'd though about it, but despite everything she was still family, and he thought that was something important. "That's easy for you to say, your sister is a kind woman who does charity work to help the poor and needy, you'll never be in this position."

"True." He agreed. "Poor Fran. I might be able to help with the insomnia though." He said the last part in a distinctly suggestive tone.

"How can you even think about that with Sam missing?" Fran protested.

"I don't see that one has anything to do with the other, abstinence isn't going to bring him back any faster...ah...if I'm not mistaken I think that this is our stop."

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