To Build a Sonby Bronson D. Beatty (Volume 4)
“Clear the table, Alphonse. The Duke’s man will soon be here.”
The homunculus hopped on the charcoal-colored stone slab which had served as Eduard’s table for longer than the old alchemist could remember. Lack of use had cluttered the surface with drops of wax and spots of ink and scraps of errant parchment. Alphonse surveyed the mess, hands on his hips. The little creature resembled a boy just on the cusp of manhood with a shock of dirty-straw hair and skin with an ashen pallor.
To even a full-grown man, the mess would have been daunting to clean within a mere few hours; to Alphonse, who stood barely a foot and a half high, it would have been like clearing the Aegean stables. But the little fellow was nothing if not dutiful, and he got to work.
While his creation worked, Eduard did his best to look presentable. His hair was long and yellowing and nearly matched in length by his beard. Neither had been trimmed or cleaned in some time. His best clothes had long since been sold, and his eyes were sunken and rheumy.
Eduard hummed as he worked. First, he filled a small pewter basin with cold water—the last he had on hand. Washing his hair and beard and combing the snags (what snags he could comb, that is) took quite a long time. When he finished he studied his appearance in a cloudy, dirt-smeared bit of glass. He toyed with the idea of cutting his hair, but discarded it—it lent a sagely, patrician air which he quite liked.
Next he dragged his old trunk from its hollow beneath his battered desk. At the bottom were his apprentice robes from long ago, when he’d been a member of the Alchemists’ Guild. Once a deep blue inlaid with constellation patterns in pearlescent thread, their color had faded and they smelled musty. How strange, Eduard mused as he threw them on. I’ve shrunk so much in my old age that they fit me almost as well as when I was callow.
He returned to the lab, pleased to see that Alphonse had succeeded in clearing the table. Now the diligent little fellow was on his hands and knees with a snatch of rag, scrubbing away.
“Well done, Alphonse,” Eduard said, a smile touching his lips. His creation looked up at him and grinned.
“Sir! Just doing my best, sir! And might I say you look the very picture of a sage?”
“Hrmmm. Where did you learn such flattery? Not from me, surely?” Eduard cast a critical eye about the lab. Pseudo-occult brick-a-brack festooned the room: an old candle sitting atop a dog’s skull, ugly grotesques sculpted from red clay and purchased from a journeymen for the cost of a pint of ale. What customers bothered visiting Eduard—and there were few, nowadays—often wanted assurance he was as arcane as his reputation suggested.
“When you are finished, clear this nonsense. The Duke’s man won’t be impressed by such trappings.”
“Yes sir.” Alphonse paused. “Um… I suppose once that’s finished I’d better hide, hadn’t I?” The homunculus always stayed out of sight whenever visitors came calling. Even those who sought Eduard out might not take a crafted man with good grace.
Eduard shook his head. “Not this time. The Duke has asked a great task of me—perhaps the greatest of my life. A reminder of past triumphs is in order.”
Alphonse lit up, though he tried to hide it. As always, the intensity of his creation’s eyes struck Eduard—they were the size of stickpin jewels and a sapphire blue. They seemed to light up even more beautifully when the little fellow was happy, which happened less and less these days.
My little Alphonse, he thought. What will become of you when I am gone?
He cast the thought aside and smiled at Alphonse. “Finish your chores and then prepare. The Duke’s man will be the first you’ve seen in a long while—you need to look your best.”
The homunculus snapped a smart salute. “Yes sir!”
The Duke’s man arrived later than Eduard expected. It was well past nightfall when his carriage rumbled along the cobblestones. The few men and women out at the late hour quickly got out of the way; they knew the crest emblazoned on the side of the carriage, and they knew how foolish it was to stand in its way.
The knock on Eduard’s door was fierce, staccato. He took a deep breath and then opened it in one fluid motion.
The Duke’s steward stood on the other side. He was grim-faced, a powerful man who stood far taller than his master. He carried that special sort of arrogance only worn by men of common birth who spent their lives alongside the aristocracy. The steward strode into the lab without an invitation, tugging off his thick leather gloves; his coat, of the finest make, was a deep black.
“Welcome, sir,” Eduard said, sweeping a practiced bow. The steward’s eyes flickered at him momentarily before probing the lab. His mouth tightened.
A group of lesser men hurried into the lab, carrying a heavy thing draped with brown cloth. “There.” Eduard directed them to the granite slab. “Place him there.”
“Be careful,” snapped the steward, though the men needed no reminder. Had they carried their master’s finest portrait they would not have been more careful.
They set the thing gingerly on the slab, and the steward barked at them: “Leave us.” The men hurriedly departed and the steward shut the door behind them.
Eduard made his way to the table. Underneath the cloth was the pale, dead face of a young man.
“His Grace has ordered me to tell you that in addition to the stipend which you negotiated, you will not want for materials. If you need something—anything—send word, and His Grace will make sure you have what you need.”
“I understand,” Eduard murmured, his eyes still on the pale, haunting, beautiful face of the young man before him.
“I warned His Grace that such a generous offer might be taken advantage of.” The steward crossed his arms, leering. “I warned him to reconsider should you ask for anything like powdered ruby or two pounds of gold. Pfah! You should be ashamed, taking advantage of a man in the throes of grief. Even if the alchemists were more than charlatans, which I doubt, their like died out long ago. You are a con man and when you fail to bring the boy back as the priests and doctors and men of science have failed, I’ll see you hanged.”
Eduard turned to face the steward. “Alphonse, come here please.” His voice rang like a bell. There was a small scurrying sound, as if from a mouse, and then the homunculus scrabbled out of a dark corner. Within a few moments he’d climbed his creator’s robes and sat on Eduard’s shoulder.
“Hullo!” The artificial boy beamed, seemingly heedless of the mixture of shock and disgust which consumed the steward’s face. “I’m Alphonse, happy to meet you!”
“So it’s true,” the steward hissed. “You spat in God’s eye. You created life.” He crossed himself. “Now I find myself praying for your failure. Better my master live in grief than compromise his soul by toying with life and death!”
“There are no black arts in this room.” Eduard’s voice was gentle, chiding. “I am an old man—I will die within a few years. I have no need to cheat His Grace out of jewels or gold, and should you put me in the noose, I will not lose much of value. I ask only for your master’s patience and understanding. Now, unless there is something else, I must ask you to be gone. There is much to do and I should begin immediately.”
The steward shook himself back into composure. “I will deliver your words to His Grace,” he said in a flat voice. “Do not forget us.”
And he was gone.
When the door was shut behind him, Eduard bolted it. Alphonse had hopped off his shoulder and was now on the table, peering at the face of the Duke’s dead son. “I don’t think he liked me very much,” he said, a note of disappointment in his voice.
Eduard sighed, trying to ignore the apprehension that weighed inside. “No, Alphonse, I don’t think he did.”
“He died of drowning,” Eduard lectured, measuring a powdery white substance as Alphonse looked on with undisguised interest. “He and some friends went swimming in a lake near his father’s estate.”
“Couldn’t he swim?”
“He could.” All the information on the Duke’s son was in a thick sheaf of parchment the Duke had delivered. It was the first thing Eduard had asked for. “It did not matter. Accidents happen, particularly to overconfident young men like young master Armand. Tell me about Armand’s arrogance, Alphonse.”
The homunculus sighed, scratching his head with one tiny hand. “Armand showed an adventurous overconfidence since he was a young boy. He was prone to climbing on roofs and eaves, of trying to ride horses before he knew the specifics. The Duke probably could have curbed the tendency with a firm hand, but since his wife’s death in the boy’s early years, he coddled his son, letting him do as he wished.” Alphonse laid back, staring at the ceiling as he talked. “The boy acquired a reputation for daring and adventure. It’s said the Duke expected him to become an explorer. But in the end, for him to overestimate his capabilities in a fatal way was not unexpected.”
“I don’t see why I need to learn all these things about a dead boy!” Alphonse pouted, standing up to glance at his maker. “Why does it matter if I know things about Armand or not?”
Eduard neglected to answer for a few moments, carefully metering out the fine powder. He placed it into a small, silvery dish—another gift from the Duke—and splashed in a bit of water, setting the thing over fire.
“Because,” he said, turning to Alphonse, “my goal here isn’t just to get the body moving again—far from it. Preserving the body is a simple matter, and even reanimating it will not be a difficult task—certainly less difficult than when I made your body out of nothing. But that alone will not return His Grace’s son to him.” He crossed his arms over his belly, leaning back in his chair. “For the young master to return, his personality must be intact—and that is a far more elusive daemon.”
“Why? You already know so much about him.” Alphonse pointed at the sheaf of parchment. “Can’t you just make his soul like you made mine?”
“Oh, little one. I didn’t make your soul. I made your body and your soul inhabited it of its own accord. I had nothing to do with it. And it’s not just any soul that needs to inhabit this shell, but the soul of young master Armand. Even the slightest detail cannot be off. That is why this information is so important.”
“That still doesn’t explain why I need to know it.”
The mixture was boiling nicely. Eduard removed it from the fire and poured it into a small bowl containing a muddy, clay-like substance. He began mixing it with an old pewter spoon.
“Because,” he said, “I am an old man. With each day, my mind may begin to fade.”
“Poppycock! Your memory is as clear as a crystal goblet!”
Eduard smiled. “Thank you, Alphonse, but you’d be surprised at how age can snuff out even the brightest of minds in an instant. I cannot afford to lose this information. And while it’s true that everything we have is in here—” he gestured at the sheaf, “—mere facts are not enough. To build a son—to snare a soul—I will also need insight. So I have passed my insight to you, and you have added yours in return. Now do you understand?”
“…I think I do, sir.”
“Good.” Eduard took the mixture—now a thick, earthy paste—and began daubing it around the young man’s eyes, ears, and lips. “Now. Recite to me the important moments of young master Armand’s childhood.”
Eduard had promised he’d not ask for gold or jewels or fine silks from the Duke, and he made good on that promise. But the Duke did pay him a stipend, after all, and he felt no shame in using part of it to make his life more comfortable. First were new robes. If he revived the young master—when he revived him—his musty apprentice’s robes would not suffice when he met His Grace in person. His new robes were not ostentatious or overly fine, but they were modern and respectable, the cloth a rich, pleasant black made of good dye. He’d paid an embroiderer to stitch geometric patterns in silvery thread near the hem.
He often wore his new robes about on the streets. No harm in taking pride in the fruits of his work—no harm in letting folk gawk and whisper at why old Eduard was no longer threadbare or louse-ridden. Some had asked him outright what the source of his new fortune, but he only smiled without answering. Armand’s death was not widely known outside of the Duke’s immediate circle—the official story was that he had been taken by illness.
Today, the market beckoned. Fresh fruit was beginning to roll in from the countryside, and today was the first year in many in which he could afford to purchase it.
Little Alphonse rode in secret inside his satchel, occasionally poking his shocking blue eyes out to gaze in wonder. “Please,” he’d begged, “please let me go—I’ve never been out of this musty old lab, not ever!” And though Eduard had shut him down as he had many times before, this time he’d allowed himself to be persuaded. What harm is it? he thought. Alphonse is a good boy, and as long as he stays tucked inside my bag, he’ll be safe.
Eduard meandered through the market, his ears quickly accustoming to the pell-mell din of mongers hawking their wares. He gave his satchel a reassuring pat as he made his way to the fruit stands. He counted out coins for pears and apples, haggling good-naturedly with squat, gap-toothed merchants. Many were shrewder than the men he’d studied with in his youth.
“Here we are,” he said, opening his satchel to put the fruit in. “Look sharp in there.”
The bag was empty.
Eduard blinked and cursed, searching for his companion. In the milling chaos of the market, it was near impossible to discern such a small figure. He began shouting Alphonse’s name but caught himself—it might bring unwanted attention.
He milled through the market as fast as he could, always on the lookout. In the end it was not his eyes that found him but his ears—he heard the strident barking of a dog from a muddy side alley.
Within the alley was a stray mongrel with dirty, matted fur and a mean look. The creature circled around a stack of crates, snarling at the little figure on top that might have been mistaken for a child’s doll.
“Ah! Sir!” Alphonse cried, waving at his master. “I thought I’d explore the market for myself—just a little—and then this creature attacked me! It shames me to ask, but could you help, sir?”
Eduard beat down the panic rising in his breast as one might beat a fire with a wet blanket. “Out!” he yelled, grabbing a broom leaning against the wall and swatting at the dog. “Out, you mongrel!”
The dog snarled and bristled at Eduard, but ultimately it was a miserable creature and fled after a few more shouts and swings from the broom. Eduard collapsed in relief against the wall as Alphonse descended from his vantage point.
“Sir?” the homunculus asked abashedly, looking at him with worry. “Are you alright, sir?”
“No.” Eduard regained his composure. He rounded on Alphonse with fury. “How dare you run off on your own! How dare you disobey me! Any child would be ashamed to disobey his father like that. Were you just a bit bigger—were you a proper child—I’d blister your behind in such way you’d never think to disobey again!”
“Was only curious.” The homunculus didn’t meet his maker’s eyes. “Didn’t mean to cause trouble. Didn’t think I’d get chased.”
Eduard sighed, expelling the anger pent up inside him. “Oh, little one. Have I not warned you about cats and dogs and crows and a million beasts that would take a little man for supper? And what of men, hmm? Have you so readily forgotten the Duke’s man and how he viewed you as an abomination?”
“Hah!” Alphonse stuck out his chest in a pose which would be more impressive were he not the size of a man’s shin. “That old blusterer? He was only trying to frighten you! I’m not scared of the steward.”
“Then you are a fool. He would destroy you without a thought.” Eduard opened his satchel. “Come. We are going home.”
“…I am sorry, you know,” the homunculus said as they returned to the lab.
“And put that flask to boil!”
Alphonse busied himself about the laboratory, darting here and there like a little raven. Eduard smiled as he watched his creation work. Since the disastrous incident with the dog, he’d resolved never to let him out again. But Alphonse had taken to staring at the door with a longing look. Hoping to curb his wanderlust, Eduard had allowed his creation a more direct role in his laboratory.
It seemed to have satisfied the homunculus’ desires, which suited Eduard—and he found Alphonse’s help far more useful than he had anticipated. As weeks passed and the Duke (or rather, his grim-faced, looming steward) expressed concerns that Eduard would not deliver his son, Eduard felt the constraints of time like a vise. Even a man as patient at the Duke would grow dark given time, and his steward had made it clear he would cherish any opportunity to handle Eduard more roughly than he’d been given leave to.
With time so pressing, Alphonse’s help was growing invaluable. What Eduard had considered mere busy-work soon blossomed into real talent. The homunculus possessed a keen mind and an indomitable work ethic, and more than once Eduard found a small spark of pride glowing inside of him.
Their preparation done, Eduard cast a wary gaze at Armand. The young man’s corpse reposed on the granite table. It still looked for all the world like he was sleeping—Eduard had no doubt that at this point, he could instill warmth back into those cheeks, compel the lungs to draw breath.
That was not the hard part. His soul…
He knelt onto the floor with a long stick of chalk and began sketching a circle. Alphonse watched.
“What are master Armand’s thoughts regarding love? Tell me,” Eduard said without looking up.
Alphonse rolled his eyes but indulged his master. “His father the Duke says he is genteel and courteous towards the ladies, and that he is particularly warm towards his betrothed.”
Eduard smiled. “Very good. But we know that fathers can be blind regarding certain traits of their sons.”
“Hence why you collected information about Armand from his friends and the manor servants.”
“Indeed. And in some cases they paint a different picture. Tell me. Tell me as though you are Armand himself.”
Alphonse stretched. This was a game his master had often ordered of late. “I am Armand,” he said. “My father betrothed me when I was very small to a young woman with whom I share a pair of great-grandparents. My betrothed and I see each other often.”
“And what do you think of her?”
“I think she is a daft, silly-headed young woman,” Alphonse said. It was growing easier and easier for him to slip into Armand’s mindset. “I am polite to her and cogent of our impending marriage, but I do not think I love her. Or any woman for that matter.”
“The servants whisper that my friendship with certain young men is less than proper. My dearest companion is Frederick, whose father is good friends with mine. The two of us often ride and hunt together. It was with Frederick I was swimming when I drowned. We were swimming naked.”
“I certainly will marry as my father wishes and produce heirs, as is expected of my station,” Alphonse continued. He could picture the young Frederick, a smiling, golden-haired youth with handsome features in opposition to the dainty woman he was to marry. “However, I expect that my friendship with Frederick will remain my strongest bond, and that we will remain close forever.”
Silence as Eduard continued chalking. “Are you cruel, Armand?”
“Like all men, I am capable of being so. However, in general I try to remain polite. I have acquired a reputation for, to put it in gentle terms, thoughtlessness—I am capable of offending without intent. However, I often go through great pains to apologize to those whom I inadvertently offend, even if they are of a lower station. Like my father, I am magnanimous towards all men.”
“Good. Tell me about your father.”
“I love him,” Alphonse said immediately. “I love him dearly. Some say he is not as hard with me as he should be, and they blame my mother’s death for making him soft. I do not know the truth. He is my oldest friend and I endeavor to make him proud.
“Though I am notoriously bold—perhaps overconfident—it is an act. In my diary and to friends like Frederick, I confess uncertainty. I do not know if I am good enough to make my father proud. I downplay my strengths and am overly cognizant of my own flaws. I would never admit this vulnerability to my father—I think he would consider me weak and despise me.”
“Very good.” Eduard set the chalk down and leaned back, sighing. Alphonse leaned over, observing the circle. It was a perfectly regular circle, lined with geometric patterns and phrases in Latin. A recurring image was a small, lizard-like creature—the salamander, representing fire and the spark of life.
Eduard surveyed the circle silently for many long minutes, his eyes probing for any failure of design, anything he might have left out. Alphonse waited, knowing better than to interrupt his master. After several long minutes, Eduard nodded. It passed his inspection.
He got up and moved to the table. There, sitting next to the body of young Armand, was a small yew box. Eduard slid it open—inside was the body of a cat. It was a handsome creature, no longer a kitten yet not quite full-grown, either. Eduard had lured it with cat-mint and snapped its neck.
Alphonse had shivered to see such violence. “But why?” he’d asked. “Why do such a thing?”
“Because I need to test my circle before placing the young master into it.”
“Why this creature? Why not a mangy old one, near death?”
“Because,” Eduard had replied, “youth stands in for youth.”
He gingerly placed the cat in the center of the circle. It lay on its side, looking as though it was resting. Only its glossy eyes and the odd position of its neck betrayed it.
Eduard lit a number of candles, their smoke filling the room with a dreamy aroma that made Alphonse’s eyes water. Eduard placed them at strategic places around the circle and then grabbed a dish filled with a strange mixture. He pried open the sorry creature’s mouth, poured the mixture down into it, and then settled outside the circle.
He fixed his eyes on Alphonse. “Absolute silence,” he said sternly. Then he began chanting.
The words were melodic, in a language Alphonse could not understand—Latin, maybe, though it could have been Enochian. His master had taken to reading Dee as of late.
Minutes passed, the smoke hazing the air. Alphonse’s mind drifted like a vessel caught at sea when everything changed.
There was no light, no display of color or energy. The most that happened was a distant whooshing sound, barely perceptible—like a breeze tickling the leaves of a distant tree. And yet, the tenor of the room changed. Something had happened. Something was happening.
Alphonse fixed his eyes on the cat. Its neck had straightened—when had that happened?—and, almost imperceptibly, the small form began rising and falling. The animal breathed.
Alphonse felt the urge to whoop, which he suppressed—the ritual might still be ongoing, after all. After a few minutes the animal rose to its feet, blinking blearily, and Eduard ceased chanting. He snuffed out the candles, stroked the bewildered animal a few times, and put it out his door.
“Master! You’ve done it!” the little homunculus said. “I can’t believe it! You’ve finished it! Now will you try it on Armand?”
But Eduard shook his head.
“No, little one. This is not enough. The soul. That still eludes me. The soul…”
“Please, just a little more time!”
The steward roared, ignoring Eduard’s entreaties. He grabbed a bookcase—a sturdy thing of oak at least a foot taller than Eduard himself—and sent it plummeting to the ground. Eduard wailed and Alphonse watched from a safe nook in the corner of the room.
“You have had time enough!” The steward spat contemptuously in Eduard’s direction before grabbing a flask of green liquid and hurling it against the wall. Glass sprayed across the floor and the liquid dribbled down the wall, hissing slightly.
Paying no heed, the steward smashed another flask, and then another. Then, using both arms, he swept everything off of Eduard’s desk, sending it tumbling into one ugly mess.
“Sir, I merely ask for—”
“You have asked for enough,” growled the steward. The gaze he fixed on Eduard could only be called venomous. “I have warned my master not to allow you to take advantage of his grief and finally, finally he has listened. You are playing him for a fool—leeching off of him!”
He grabbed the now-barren desk and, with a grunt, upended it. It hit the floor, splintering. “Did you think us ignorant of the new robes you have purchased? Of the way you parade around town? Instead of working, you strut like a preening cock!”
“I—I am so close.” Eduard babbled now, sweat beading on his forehead. “I mean it! Only the soul remains! The key to the final lock! If I might receive just a little more time—”
“You receive nothing.” The steward strode over to Eduard, grabbing him by his robes. He lifted him up to stare him dead in the eyes. Eduard’s feet dangled helplessly above the floor. “Seven days,” he said in a low voice. “His Grace has ordered me to tell you that seven days from now he will collect his son’s body for burial. And then I will see you hanged.”
“I—I do not fear you,” Eduard said. Though his voice quivered, he stared down the steward. “I am an old man. I will die soon anyway. I am not afraid.”
The steward chuckled darkly. “You underestimate me. What of your blasphemous creation? He is around here, yes? Before I haul you off to irons, I will break his limbs one by one and then throw him in the fireplace. And you will watch. Oh yes,” he said, “I don’t think you will like that, will you?”
He dropped Eduard and strode for the door. “Seven days, old man, and then your crimes against God and man will be reckoned. And don’t try to flee in the night. I have men watching you.” He grabbed his hat and tipped it sardonically. “A pleasure as always, master alchemist.”
Long after the steward left, his presence seemed to fill the room—ominous, overpowering. Eduard curled where he fell, sobbing. Alphonse made his way across the floor to comfort his master.
“Sir?” he asked. “Are you well?”
Eduard looked up. He did not look well—his was the red-eyed, splotchy face of an old man given to despair.
“Yes, Alphonse,” he lied. “All is well. We have been given a deadline. We shall meet it.”
Alphonse nodded, but doubt gnawed at him. The problem of the soul had stumped his master from the beginning. What could they do?
“First,” Eduard said, picking himself up, “we clean.” He cast an eye at the refuse-strewn wreck that had once been his laboratory. “We cannot work in this mess.”
Alphonse snapped a salute. “Yes, sir.”
Seven days passed like a dream. Alphonse found himself worrying more and more. He did not worry for himself; he was confident he could outrun the steward, if need be. He would race into the night, darting through crevasses and into the small spaces. They would never find him. No, it was his master he worried about. As the days passed and the deadline loomed, Eduard seemed to grow greyer and greyer.
But on the final night, Eduard grabbed his chalk, sketching the familiar circle. Alphonse watched with fascination. “Have you unlocked the soul, Master?”
“I have found a solution, yes. Recite to me about Armand once again.”
“No!” roared Eduard. “Tell me as if you were him!”
“Yes sir.” Alphonse quieted his chest. His master seemed so distraught, so nervous—but then, if he failed, his life was forfeit. “My name is Armand. I am the Duke’s son. I am adventurous and filled with doubt and I am kind—or try to be. My closest and dearest friend is named Frederick.”
The recitation filled the air as Eduard finished chalking the circle and lined the outside with candles. To Alphonse, it all looked identical to when his master had raised the cat. But there had to be something different. Simply breathing life wasn’t enough. The soul…
“Now,” Eduard said, kneeling at the edge, “bring the mixture and pour it into the young master’s lips. And continue your recitation.”
Alphonse’s heart swelled. He’d never taken part in such an important ritual. He continued speaking—“I dream desperately of seeing lands beyond. I feel great empathy towards the common folk”—while performing his task. He hefted the small dish, carried it carefully across the circle (making certain not to disturb the chalk) and poured it into Armand’s lips. He did not spill even one drop.
Behind him Eduard began chanting. The strange words filled the room like music and Alphonse’s skin pricked. He finished his task and turned—Eduard had already lit the candles. Smoke cascaded into the air. He tried to cross the line—but couldn’t.
He frowned, momentarily stumbling in his recitation of Alphonse-as-Armand. He took another step, and was barred again.
“Sir?” Alphonse said, his voice tremulous. Eduard kept chanting, never missing a single syllable. “Sir? I’m—I’m—”
“Continue your recitations!” Eduard’s voice was a harsh bark. “You are Armand! Tell me about your childhood!”
“I often played in the woods surrounding my father’s estate,” babbled Alphonse. The words flowed from him like water. “I would often find treasures and bring them home to show my father. He fostered in me a love of—of adventure and discovery—”
“Tell me about your interests!”
“I—I have many,” Alphonse began. Nothing in the room had changed, yet it seemed foreign to him somehow—the shadows in the corners yawning into the distance. “I am fond of music and have a discerning ear, despite being a poor player. I am an avid equestrian and an adept tracker and hunter. My father considers me a poor student but those things which catch my passion, I throw myself into. I ardently study naturalism.” He swallowed. “S-sir, please… what’s happening? Won’t I mess up the young master’s soul?”
For a half-minute, Eduard continued his chanting, paying Alphonse no heed. He finally locked gazes with his creation; his eyes were weary, sorrowful. “I cannot revive Armand’s soul,” he said. “The chasm is beyond me. It cannot be crossed.” He shook. “I have failed. I have failed the Duke—I have failed Armand—and I have failed you too, my little one. For the steward will destroy me, and then what will you do? Even should you escape his wrath, you cannot survive. Cats and dogs and ravens will hunt you down, or people will scream and ruin you in fright. And I am an old man. Even if I was to revive Armand, in a few years I will be gone—and you will be left alone, defenseless.”
He blinked a few times and his next words were almost pleading. “But though I cannot snare his soul, I can fill his empty vessel with another. I can save you. Isn’t it what you always wanted? Freedom to explore the world outside? Freedom from fear? As the Duke’s son, you will want for nothing. The whole world will be open to you—it is what you always wanted. But you must be Armand. You must be him. No one must suspect what I have done. Now. Tell me of your friendship with Frederick.”
“No!” Eduard cried hoarsely. “Armand does not call me ‘master!’ Armand does not even know me! Now tell me of Frederick!”
Alphonse swallowed. “He is—he is both my oldest friend and my dearest love. Our bond transcends the merely physical. He understands me—supports me—I feel myself around him. I do not feel like I have to wear a mask…”
“Good, good,” Eduard mumbled. His hands shook. “I am sorry, little one. I could not think of another way. The way things stood you were to die, and His Grace would never see Armand again. But now he and I will both have our sons.”
Something splashed against Alphonse’s hand. He looked down—he hadn’t realized he’d started crying. “Master…” he said.
Eduard shook his head. “No. Do not call me that. Not now, at the end.”
Alphonse blinked. His body felt serene and distant, almost the way he felt after waking from a pleasant dream. He looked at the old man sitting across from him and for a split second, he didn’t recognize him. The realization of that sent a chill through him.
“You must forget me,” Eduard said, reading the homunculus’s face. “You must forget all of this. But even if you do, it will still be you inside. It will still be you…” He swallowed. “Now. Continue.”
Alphonse smiled sadly, nodded once. “I am Armand. I am a good boy. I am kind. I love plants and beasts and hunting and the thrill of being outdoors. I am filled with doubts and fears that I hide in order to be strong. I feel weak inside but I fight it every day.” He fixed his gaze on Eduard. “I love my father,” he said. “I love my father. I love my father.”
Eduard bent over the circle. He said the last few words—there was a whooshing sound like distant wind. The young body in the center of the circle drew breath, color returning to the cheeks. The small form of the artificial man slumped to the side, a lifeless vessel devoid of soul.
The old man picked up the homunculus’s body, cradling it gently. It was still warm.
“I know you do,” he said. “I know.”
The Duke wept when Eduard presented Armand to him. The boy was confused, bewildered—but he recognized his father. Eduard watched His Grace’s tearful reunion and his heart ached. The Duke’s steward glared at him from the far side of the room, but Eduard no longer cared.
Though his personality was intact and the greater parts of his knowledge untouched, the boy needed to be re-taught other things. “It’s to be expected,” Eduard told the Duke. “One cannot return from beyond without losing some things.” The Duke did not mind. He was simply happy to have him back.
Over the next few months, the boy regained his vigor and his knowledge in the wake of his long ordeal. And if the servants whispered that some things about him had changed, no one minded. Illnesses changed people, after all, and the young master had nearly died. And soon enough the Duke’s son was again roaming the countryside and basking in his father’s praise.
The townspeople noted the return of Armand. They also noted that the old alchemist Eduard had retreated into near-isolation—and when he did emerge, it was with a weary, grey face.
One day—and this was perhaps a year after the miraculous recovery of His Grace’s son—the young master rode through town on a splendid black steed of impeccable breeding. His close friend Frederick was at his side, the two men chatting candidly. A few children waved at the Duke’s heir and he waved back—he was always friendly with the common folk, especially children.
Occupied by conversation, the two young men took a wrong turn, and then another, finding themselves on a poorly-cobbled side street. Frederick clucked his tongue in disapproval, but Armand’s brows narrowed as if he knew the place.
On the far end of the street, an old man sat in robes that might have once been fine, rocking slowly back and forth in a chair. The old man raised his head and his eyes met Armand’s, and there was a long, silent moment where the two of them searched the eyes of the other. Armand’s face twisted into confusion, and then something that might have been regret—but his companion tapped him on the shoulder and cajoled him to leave.
After the two young men were gone, their voices no longer echoing over the street, the old man closed his eyes. If he listened hard enough he could almost hear another voice—lighter, attentive, and playful. It was a voice he knew intimately. He imagined the familiar voice drifting across the cobblestones, laughing at a trick played or whistling while chores were done. It was an earnest voice, quick to learn and full of love. He imagined a small body rounding the corner, scrabbling over the steps…
But it was only an echo.
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