The Chemick's Apprentice

 'A Boy and his Rabbit' by Flags. For more of their work, visit their art blog on Tumblr,   @thecreepingkid

'A Boy and his Rabbit' by Flags. For more of their work, visit their art blog on Tumblr,  @thecreepingkid

Leigh walked behind her father as he strode towards the large manor house. Their travelling cloaks billowed out around them as they passed market stalls and curious townsfolk, more than a few giant rabbits twitching their noses at the cloud of yellowdust that constantly surrounded them both. Leigh ignored them, trying to take everything in without lingering on any one thing too long, always moving. The way was easy underfoot, the street closely-cobbled, though they had to pick their way between crates of produce and discarded waste of all sorts.

The street ended at a tall wall that enveloped the entire manor house, broken only by the gate in front of them. In front of the open portcullis, one rabbit and one bored-looking human stood waiting to check their papers. Wordlessly, her father passed a thick bundle of parchment to the soldier, and he didn’t so much as glance beyond the wax seal that bound the heavy papers together.

“Iron Oak here will take you in,” he said, indicating the rabbit. The guard performed a lazy salute, fist to chest, to her father, then nodded to Leigh.

As the rabbit led them along the gravelled wagonway, Leigh felt her heart lightening as she looked over the immaculate gardens held prisoner inside the walls. Flowers of every conceivable colour bloomed here, arranged so that the effect was a gradient from the gate to the house. Neat hedges, each one waist-height for a human, were kept trimmed by what seemed like a small army of rabbit gardeners for the space, and several large sculptures had been worked out of the hedgerows. Fountains, topped with intricately-detailed statues, tinkled merrily here and there, and stone benches were laid out at regular intervals.

Her father stopped them halfway along the garden. “Hang on a moment,” he said to Harris, and the rabbit cocked his head in confusion. Ignoring him, her father turned to Leigh. “What have we got so far?”

Leigh took one more look around, then looked into his bearded face. “Money, either too much or not enough. Out there is a pretty standard town, based on what I’ve seen - market day, people seem happy enough, mix of rabbits and humans.”

“There were a few other animals as well - it’s a trade route,” her father said, nodding. “And in here? You said too much or not enough money?”

“Countess Kendall is custodian of the town. If I had to guess, she’s rich and greedy about it. I mean, look at this place… it’s beautiful. The amount of money spent on uplifting those rabbits to tend it alone is staggering, and there are flowers here from all across the kingdom… all across the world, perhaps. Or, she’s poor, but this is her one extravagance - or her fooling herself that she’s still got money.”

He smiled. “She could just be someone who really loves gardens. It’s a bit harsh to say she’s greedy-“

“She doesn’t like sharing, or these gardens would be open to the public. In fact, she’s definitely rich rather than poor - someone poor would be more aware of others. If she was community-minded, this would at least be on display - she would want others to enjoy the same things she does. But instead it’s locked away behind here… a prisoner behind the walls.” Leigh shrugged. “It’s a shame. There’s something really outstanding here.”

“Last one,” her father said. “Who holds the power here? Rabbits or humans?”

“Humans,” Leigh said, without pause. “Like the other Laurice towns, there should be a rabbit in joint governorship, and whichever rabbit is in charge of the breeding program will be high up too, but… the Countess runs this place.”

He nodded and put his hand on her shoulder briefly. “Good, my child. You’re getting better at this.”

She beamed. “Good enough for formal training yet?”

He paused too long, forcing his smile this time. “There’s time to add to your existing knowledge later, of course.” Before she could respond, he turned and resumed their walk, leaving her trotting to keep up.

She scowled at his back, left to her thoughts and the sound of gravel crunching underfoot. He gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Is he really going to hold my mistakes over me forever?

“And don’t forget, with rabbits, the walls have ears-“

“- And those ears aren’t just for show,” she finished, unable to smother a smile. Always, it’s a lesson.

They were greeted at the door of the manor by a large rabbit dressed in a long blue robe edged in gold trim. Black patches stood out in sharp contrast to his mostly-white fur, and his eyes were huge maroon orbs. As Leigh stared into them she shivered. It was like staring into a mirror, the complete lack of emotion rolling out like smoke. Then she looked at her father and smothered a smile. He was doing his best approximation in response.

Observe. Reflect. Use your knowledge. His words echoed in her mind, and she schooled her own features to match.

“I am Chemick Benson. Grover Benson.” Her father gave a short bow and the rabbit copied. Its paws moved in quick, sure signs, most of which Leigh could read.

I am Seneschal Diamond Elm, the rabbit signed. You are welcome to Longrass Manor, sir. The servant spared Leigh a glance, then discarded her as his attention flicked back to the chemick. One paw slipped into a deep pocket in his robe and came out holding a small metal cylinder. Without any further comment, he passed it to her father.

Grover reached out and took the message capsule, already unscrewing it. “We’re hard to find on the road,” he said. “It’s probably the College with further instructions.”

The rabbit seneschal bowed once more. Her grace is waiting for you. If you would please come this way?

Leigh was already up the first of the marble steps to the door before she realised that the seneschal had moved to the left, along the outer wall of the house. She exchanged a raised eyebrow with her father, and they turned and followed. Ivy crept up the red bricks and around the thick-paned glass windows, each offering a tantalising glimpse of the sumptuous interior, but Benson took them around the side and then to the rear.

She moved up next to her father as he finished reading the slip of paper that had been rolled tightly inside the capsule, and he passed it to her with a disappointed tut.

“The College,” he said wearily. “They advise that when we’re done here we need to go and organise pickup of a caravan of unrefined yellowdust ore that’s been embargoed at a town to the west, Lakeside. As if we don’t have enough to do…”

“And they think this is worth wasting your time on,” Leigh said.

“Apparently so.” He tapped the letter against his hand, then pocketed it. “I must say,” he said, raising his voice, “It’s unusual to find such a young rabbit in a senior position of service.”

Diamond Elm slowed slightly, signing as he shuffled, ungainly on just his back legs. I’m surprised you could tell, his paws said.

“It’s often my job to tell,” Grover said.

My predecessor was reassigned to the Duchess’ house at Hilltop, Elm said. I have been uplifted less than a month, but I have been imprinted with all the skills I might need.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” her father said, smiling genially. “I’m sure you’re more than capable. And congratulations on your uplifting!”

The rabbit inclined his head in thanks, and then led them around the corner to the back garden.

A broad lawn, meticulously maintained, stretched out to the back wall of the estate, and Leigh narrowed her eyes. At least an acre, trapped behind these walls. Several people were scattered around the lawn, most of them watching or taking part in a game of croquet a short distance away. She looked at their intricate clothing, the feathers and fur that adorned most of the women, and then down at her own simple black dress and white smock.

Observe. Reflect. Use your knowledge - yes, father, and my knowledge tells me that I’m outclassed. Leigh composed her features again. But they don’t know that.

Sat on a bench, this one wooden and carved into the shape of a rabbit stretched out mid-gallop, was an older woman. She wore diamonds at her neck and fingers, and her greying hair was gathered up into a style that must have taken the servants an hour to put together each morning. She watched them approach with one arched eyebrow.

My lady, the seneschal said, dipping its head in a bow. Chemick Benson.

“Thank you, Elm. You may go.” The Countess’s voice was like the cut-glass decanter Leigh had dropped as a small child, knocked from the table in their home. It, too, sounded like it might shatter at a moment’s notice. Leigh watched as the rabbit shuffled away, ungainly on its back legs.

Grover bowed, and she curtseyed. “Your grace. And may I present my daughter, Leigh? She is here as my… apprentice.”

“Young, isn’t she?” Countess Kendall sniffed.

“The youngest,” her father replied quietly. “Her case is… unique.”

The Countess regarded her for a moment more, then dismissed her and focused on Grover. “The College has responded quickly to my summons.”

“It is one that doesn’t come up often. My department deals with internal investigations, you understand - I am a chemick, and trained as such, but I have more of a… caretaking role. It’s not often that one of our assigned chemicks receives a… complaint. Particularly not one of theft.”

“The auditor from Hilltop was the one who discovered the discrepancy. A surprise visit, but a welcome one, as it turns out. I would have had the scoundrel executed - yellowdust theft within Laurice lands, indeed within all Meria, carries with it the sentence of death. But… the College has always been the exception to the rule.”

“And we are glad that you did not. We prefer to deal with these things internally,” Grover said smoothly. “If it pleases your grace, I will go right away and speak with him.”

“See that you do.” Countess Kendall sniffed and stared imperiously at him. “I want my dust back, man.”

“Yes, your grace. I must ask, though, that both my daughter and I be given free access to the estate during our investigation.”

The Countess blinked. “Whyever would that be?”

“These things are sometimes not as they seem, and we may need to talk with other members of your staff, so that we might better understand how a theft has come to pass. It’s vital, of course, that we close off whatever method the thief used so that it can’t be exploited in future, I’m sure you understand.”

“No. No, of course not. Very well then; you have the run of the place. Although I’m sure that you won’t need it. And now, I’m afraid there are a great many important people here who are also deserving of my attention. I’m sure you understand.” She smiled, none of it reaching her eyes.

“My thanks,” the chemick said. “Good day, Countess.”

The Countess turned away, the feathers in her headpiece quivering, and Leigh shared a look with her father.

Right on all counts.

 

The town prison was underground, rabbit-dug and spacious. The larger stone cells were reserved for rabbits, designed to stop them digging out, and only one had an occupant - a rabbit sporting an eyepatch. He watched them sullenly as they passed, the tips of his ears ragged from fights. The handful of human prisoners were further along, their small cells paved but the walls made of hard-packed dirt that bore the futile scratches of escapees and crude graffiti.

Alone in a corner was a thin man that the others avoided. He was bald, wrinkled head adorned with more than a few yellowdust sores, and the sticklike fingers that huddled his stained robe around his shoulders were yellow.

Leigh’s nose twitched at the smell that cloyed at her nostrils, filling the space; unwashed bodies, unemptied dunny buckets, and fear.

Her father tapped the bars. “Chemick Alberich von Osmund?”

The man looked up, then bolted to his feet. “Grover, thank all that is good. I’d almost given up hope.” He staggered to the bars, clinging to them more for support than in an attempt to reach them.

“Alberich, I’d like to say that it’s good to see you,” Grover said. “But it’s not under the best circumstances. The report said you’d stolen a great deal of yellowdust-“

“And that’s patently rubbish!” Alberich swept a hand over his bald pate. “What would I do with a box of yellowdust? Someone’s set me up, dammit, Grover, and you know it.”

Grover rocked on his heels. “It is… odd behaviour. But they have a maid who testified that you were in the laboratory late at night, alone, and the gate guard said that you left shortly afterwards with a bundle, heading away to the woods. The next morning, the chemick trainee under you reported the theft.”

“Look there first, then! Look, yes, I was in the workshop. It was late. I’d been drinking.” Alberich held up one finger to forestall the next question. “Listen. My… my dog. Ever had a pet, Grover?”

Leigh watched from slightly behind her father as he folded his hands behind his back, one hand gripping the other wrist. He only does that when he lies. “No,” Grover said. “But I remember yours from our days at the College. It was a Purkoy off-breed, wasn’t it? Some sort of sheepdog?”

“That’s right. Freya, she was called. She… she was old. Sickened… Died.”

Grover’s shoulders slumped. “Alberich, I’m sorry. I know how much you loved that dog.”

“Yes. Well… these things come to pass eventually. She went at peace, with me, in the workshop. And then I took her out to the woods to bury her.” Alberich looked down. “I can only think that I left the door unlocked, or that some damned fool broke in after me.”

“Was the dust all they took?”

“Sort of. Whoever they were, they also released the dregs - the rabbits that had come from the breeding pool that weren’t physically able to be uplifted. It’s a little odd, to say the least.” He shrugged. “They saved me a job, there, if anything.”

Grover stepped back from the bars and glanced at Leigh, his gaze a question. What would you do? His eyes were tight, and she realised that he was too close to this, too attached.

She stepped forward, summoning the ghost of a smile to her suddenly-dry lips. “Hello, Chemick von Osmund. My name is Leigh.”

“I know you, of course,” Alberich said, his own smile strained. “Your father’s often spoken about you in our correspondence.”

“I’m flattered to think that you remember me, Chemick von Osmund.”

“Alberich, please.”

Leigh nodded. “Alberich… I know this might not be a good time to ask, but there is one way that we can be certain of part of your alibi. Can you tell us where Freya is now?”

The man seemed to sink in onto himself, looking older by far than her father, but he nodded. “Yes… that does make sense. I can’t, though. I… you have to understand, young lady, I wasn’t entirely in my right mind.”

“Could you perhaps show us? If you were not in here?”

“Yes… yes. Perhaps… I’m sure Grover can arrange it.”

Leigh looked at her father. The tightness around his eyes matched his slightly disapproving frown, but he nodded. “Leigh is correct, of course. I’ll arrange it with the guard and we’ll see what can be done. Leigh, with me, please.”

They stepped away, Leigh casting a look back at Alberich, but the man only hung disconsolantly from the bars. She turned away.

“You don’t approve,” she said, forcing the words past the bulge of anxiety at her throat.

“No, I don’t,” her father said. “But I am also acutely aware that I am too close to this one to call it. I asked them not to send us, but the Chancellor insisted. We were room-mates at the College, for goodness’s sake. And now he could be executed, and I have to sit in judgment - as much establish guilt as innocence.” Grover ground his fingers into the corners of his eyes, and then shook his head. “No, what you suggested is the logical next step. But listen; no sense in you following me around. We’ve got the run of the manor, and I want to make sure all our exits are covered, so to speak.”

“You suspect something more to this?”

“I don’t want to think that Alberich’s guilty, but it’s not looking good. If he is innocent, we’ll need to be able to present what actually happened. Go up there. Ask around - track down this maid that reported on it, and the under-Chemick, maybe. Get the feel for things.” He nudged her with his elbow. “You’re good at that.”

She glowed at his words, despite the knot of anxiety that still wriggled in her belly.

 

The mansion was quiet, the few visible servants moving on hushed, slippered feet along the plush carpeted corridors. Leigh kept to the edges, near to the overly-ornate wall decorations, moving from one doorway to the next following directions from the servants. Each treated her with a cautious deference, as though not sure of her station.

Most of the rooms were empty, their opulence on display for no-one, and she passed by several wide-open doors before reaching one that was ajar. Two voices came from within, and Leigh leaned on the doorframe to listen.

“…and make sure you the cobwebs in the top corner this time, Stanley.” Her voice sounded muffled, as though she had something in her mouth.

“Mmm.” The reply was wordless, more of a sound of general agreement than anything else.

“Only the mistress complained, and if she makes it hard for me, you know what’ll happen.”

“Ahhgaah.”

The second voice sounded young, maybe only eight or nine, and Leigh winced at the cowed tone, at its wordlessness. She checked around quickly to make sure no-one else was watching, then bent her head to the crack between the door and frame.

Inside lay a drawing-room, the sun streaming in through the windows. To one side, a harpsichord took up a third of the open space, a long sofa and two high-backed chairs set around the cold fireplace taking up the rest. A huge mirror hung on the wall above the mantlepiece, and around the room various sideboards and tables nestled against the wall and in the corners.

The woman was dressed in a white smock, her grey hair done up in a tight bun; her arms were folded as she leaned on the harpsichord and watched a small boy wield a feather-duster. He wore a shirt that had long ago stopped being white, and grey shorts made of some rough fabric. His hair was lank, cropped unevenly. As soon as his back was turned, her hand snaked out to a crystal bowl that sat on the harpsichord in which rested a pile of paper-wrapped candies. Before the boy could turn back, she’d deftly unwrapped it and feigned a cough to eat it.

Leigh pushed the door open, feeling a churlish delight as the maid almost choked on her stolen candy, and stepped into the room.

“Who-“ The maid’s eyes bulged as she coughed. The boy turned, duster held limply in his hand.

“My name is Leigh Benson. I’m Chemick Benson’s… apprentice,” she said. “I do most apologise for the interruption… would you like a moment? Some water perhaps?”

“No, n-no, I’m fine, mistress, thank you,” the maid said, her face beetroot. “Are you needing something?”

“Actually yes,” Leigh said. “I’m just trying to get a feel for what’s going on here. I didn’t catch your name, miss…?”

“Hallie. You’d be investigating that theft then, mistress?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Leigh said, coming in and sitting down on one of the armchairs. She gestured to the sofa, and, with a quick glance at the door, Hallie sat.

“Well, you’re in the right place,” she said. “I saw him do it!”

Leigh raised an eyebrow. “How convenient. You saw… sorry, who?”

“That Chemick von Osmund. Where’s he from with a name like that, anyway? Sounds Sanglier.”

“Perhaps you could tell me a little about what you saw?”

Hallie nodded and folded her hands in her lap, back straight. Her eyes unfocused slightly, jowls quivering as she spoke.

“I was walking Stanley here home - right cold it were, mistress, and dark. I saw the chemick coming out of the pub. Rolling drunk, he was, reeling off the walls. He went straight to his workshop and unlocked the door, and went in. He was in there, ooh, a good ten minutes. Then out he comes, got a bundle, looking left and right all secretive-like, and he staggers off into the night. Next morning, they say that dust is missing and, well, it’s a done deal, mistress.”

Leigh frowned. “You say he was in there for ten minutes, Hallie. Was it unusual for him to be in his workshop for that length of time?”

“Not that I know - I don’t make a habit of keeping an eye on his comings and goings, you get me. He just seemed suspicious.”

“Suspicious enough that you watched the outside of his workshop. For ten minutes. In the freezing cold.”

“Well… yes,” Hallie said, two tiny dots of colour appearing on her cheeks. “Like I said, it was suspicious-like. And little Stanley here lives right next to the workshop, so I wanted to make sure he was in all snug.”

“Hm. Well, perhaps I could have a chat with Stanley-“

“Oh, he doesn’t speak, mistress. Poor, dumb boy. Never had a tongue in his head, you see, and simple with it.”

“I see. That’s a shame.”

“Aye, ’tis a shame. His mother gone left him here, and we raised him like our own.” Hallie leaned closer. “So what’ll happen to that Sanglier chemick? They gonna hang him, maybe?”

“If Chemick von Osmund is guilty, he’ll be sentenced by his peers at the college. Probably stripped of his ability to practise and also his rank, but he might end up working in a servant’s role at the college itself.”

She sniffed. “Huh. If it were me or Stanley, we’d already be dancing the hangman’s jig, and don’t we know it.” She clucked for a moment, then shook her head. “Well, mistress, is there anything else? Only I need to get this room turned around before them’s outside finish their game, you understand.”

“No, nothing for now,” Leigh said carefully. “I’d better get on my way. Other people to talk to.”

They rose, Hallie performing a perfunctory curtsey, and Leigh crossed back to the door. As she left the room, she heard Hallie’s sharp voice ring out again.

“Get on with it boy - you got nothing better to be doing than standing there stock-still. Din’t you hear me?” Leigh looked back past her to Stanley, whose eyes had gone so wide that she could see white all around the edges.

Something Hallie said terrified him.

 

The hours wore on, and the other servants offered little other than gossip and idle speculation. Leigh, her feet aching, plodded through the twilight into the town proper, more directions rattling through her mind. In the end, the chemick’s workshop was easy to find, a large warehouse that had high windows and double wooden doors. A large rabbit in full armour was stood outside it, ears flicking slightly as it looked this way and that. It watched her approach but didn’t move.

“Good evening,” Leigh said, nodding to it. “My name is Leigh Benson and I’m here helping to investigate the yellowdust theft.”

Its paws moved in the Laurice sign-language, almost unintelligible, but there were enough common signs that she could work out the meaning.

“I don’t have any papers - my father has them.”

The rabbit’s paw-movement was unequivocal. No entry.

“That’s fair. I wouldn’t let anyone in if I were in your position.” She shrugged. “It was worth a try.” She looked around. The workshop was situated on a narrow side-street with little passing traffic - the main road through the town ran parallel, and was humming with life. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

She walked a couple of houses down the road, then ducked into the narrow alleyway between two buildings. Quickening her pace, she walked down the dark alleyway to where a wooden gate blocked her path; she looked back, then quickly clambered over the gate and lowered herself into the back yard beyond.

It was sparsely populated by grass and bits of broken wood, the whole space in deep shadow thrown by the tall walls of the next-door workshop. She looked up to the rooftop; several of the rooftop windows were ajar. The yard was in deep shadow, most of it thrown by a rickety wooden balcony that extended from the second storey of one of the overlooking houses.

If I could get up there… Ears alert to intruders, Leigh crossed to the wall and ran her hands over it, but its smooth surface had been well made. There were no hand-holds.

She sighed, turning to lean back against the wall, then paused. She breathed in deeply again, chasing a tantalising scent on the wind.

There! Yellowdust, but not the sort of scent that might come from storage. This was yellowdust being used, the harsh taint of chemicals on edge of the overpowering tang of yellow - the chemicals that were used to uplift.

“I need to get higher,” she muttered, standing on tiptoes to try and spot an open skylight on the workshop roof. More carefully this time, she traced the shape of the bricks in the wall, looking for even the smallest crevice to exploit, but there was nothing wide enough. She turned around, putting her back to the wall, and looked at the rest of the small yard.

The detritus on the floor was useless, nothing longer or wider than her own arm among the discarded wood, but as she looked up at the surrounding houses, an idea began to form.

Boots scrabbling on the gate, she climbed up again. This time, she balanced on the gate, slowly coming upright and using the wall of the house for support. The gate wobbled, its hinges and catch not designed to hold so uneven a weight, as she reached for the balcony. Too far - with a lurch, she overbalanced, her hands scraping down the rough bricks as she scrabbled to keep her perch on the gate. At the last moment, she grabbed hold of the corner of the house with an ungraceful yelp.

“This is stupid,” she muttered, moving her feet into a more stable position. Her hands smarted as she walked herself back along the wall and upright, reassessing the situation.

The balcony was almost a foot away from the furthest she could reach.

“Stupid. What do you hope to learn?” She gathered herself, coiling, then - “Stupid!”

She sprang, hands almost immediately slapping against the wooden balcony, a sharp pain in one finger letting her know that a splinter had lodged in deep, and then she hauled herself up, the muscles in her arms screaming from the effort.

Hand over hand, she hauled herself onto the balcony, under the lip of the open window. She paused, but there were no sounds of alarm or fear. Although anyone living here couldn’t have failed to hear the din I made getting up here…

She pulled herself into a crouch and looked over at the workshop. From here, she could see the roof clearly, could even see a route over there that would take her onto the strong wooden beams, and she shifted her feet again in preparation. Then she paused.

The windows were closed, all of the slanted skylights on the roof of the workshop sealed up tight. Wherever the smell of yellow that still clouded the air was coming from, it wasn’t the workshop. She closed her eyes to try and bring her sense of smell into focus. It was nearer. Too near.

Her eyes snapped open and she stared at the door that led off the balcony and into the house. She was crouched under the window - the open window - and the smell was coming from inside the house.

Slowly, she brought her eyes up to the windowledge and peeped over it.

The room inside was a bedroom, only a single bed and a small set of drawers that doubled as a bedside table, the wood thin and cheap. A small door, half-height, perhaps led into a cupboard off to one side. Everything was dirty, apart from the furthest corner. There, some effort had been made to clean. The floor had been swept and washed in a careful square, the whitewashed walls scrubbed almost back to the brickwork, but just in that corner. A small table, again washed to within an inch of its life, had been set up, and on the table were several glass vials sealed with wax. A small box on the floor held the remainder of the vials, every single one filled with yellow powder.

She only had a moment to take it all in before the occupant of that clean corner met her gaze, his wide eyes glistening with unshed tears.

“Stanley?”

The voiceless servant boy began to shake his head convulsively, his stringy hair dancing around his ears. “Aughh,” he said, then began grunting as Leigh clambered in through the window. He got up, hands stretched, but froze when she lowered herself to the bare floorboards and sat crosslegged.

“Hello Stanley,” Leigh said. “We met earlier, in the house. You were cleaning the room with the big harpsichord, remember?”

The boy didn’t respond, and Leigh pressed on.

“Now, we need to have a… discussion,” she said. “We’re looking for someone who has taken… that.” She nodded to the box of yellowdust. “Is this your home?”

The boy didn’t reply, but for a moment his eyes flicked to the small doorway in the wall. Leigh followed his gaze.

“What’s that? A cupboard?” She got up, but as soon as she took a step forward he was there in front of her, arms spread, babbling unintelligibly.

“Don’t-“ she said, but then she paused. Behind his wordless chatter she could hear something moving, something making a small noise that echoed him - something without structure, but not without purpose.

Enough, she thought, and pushed him to the side, yanking the door open with the other hand.

Immediately the smell rolled out from the small dark space within, one she knew well from her father’s workshop. The space was half-filled with what seemed at first to be fur, and then the fur moved, two muddy yellow eyes peering out at her from the gloom. It might have been a rabbit once, before Stanley had begun his ministrations. Now it was a horror of patchwork fur, teeth too long for its mouth protruding out over a chest that was sunken inwards. One of its ears was huge, hanging down over its emaciated body, while the other was almost comically small against the skin stretched tightly over its skull. A metal clip shone dully on the short ear, already digging in to the fur. A hollow feeling blossomed in her chest as she saw the wildness in its eyes come and go, replaced at turns by a kind of sanity.

It hissed, trying to back further away, but there was nowhere to go, and it thrashed in the space instead. Its ears twitched with little spasms, the metal clip rattling against the walls.

Leigh took a step away, covering her nose with one hand, and looked from the tortured beast to Stanley, now crouching with tears flowing freely down his cheeks. “You were… uplifting it?”

The boy nodded, upper lip shiny from where his nose was running. He moved closer to the cupboard and reached inside, and Leigh watched as the half-uplifted rabbit calmed at his touch.

She moved back to the window and looked out, then closed her eyes. In her mind’s eye, she saw a young boy watching a chemick work from skylights that were easily accessible from his home. She saw a pet rabbit belonging to a servant, an animal that had no hope of ever seeing so much as a pinch of yellowdust. Doomed to idiocy, to having no language… the same as the human that cared for it.

She looked back into the room, to where Stanley was sat half-in the tiny cupboard, stroking the rabbit, calming it. He was singing a wordless song, but his eyes were fixed on hers, the fear still there. A tear rolled down her cheek, and she dashed it away with one angry sweep of her hand.

He stole the yellowdust. Take him in.

“Stanley…” She moved back over to the little table and began to gather up the glass vials there. “I need you to close that door and come with me. We need to go and speak with…”

She looked down at him again, at his pleading eyes. He had freed one of the rabbit’s huge paws and it was extended out of  the cupboard, across his knees. Gently, almost unconsciously, he was stroking its fur.

“…with my father,” Leigh finished. “I’m not taking you up to the big house. Not yet, anyway.”

She turned away as the boy coaxed the rabbit back into the cupboard and closed the door. When she turned back, he was standing by the door that led downstairs, and she nodded. Tucking the yellowdust box under her arm, she led the way down the stairs and out into the evening air.

 

Grover Benson was waiting for her in the rooms they had rented above the most welcoming tavern they could find. He was alone, a cup of black tea steaming on the table next to him, and as she came in he looked at her pensively.

“Von Osmund’s telling the truth,” he said without preamble. “At least, what there is of it. Took us a bit of finding - seems like he’d rambled a little in his state - but there was a grave all right, fresh, and with the body of a dog in it.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose, kneading the corners of his eyes. “Some days, I hate this job. He’s still in jail, of course, in lieu of better suspects.” Her father blinked, then focused on Leigh properly. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve found the stolen dust,” she said. “And the thief. Stanley? Come in, please?”

The servant boy, holding the small wooden box in his hands, came in and stood awkwardly next to Leigh. He stared fixedly at the patterned rug on the floor.

“You… goodness,” Grover said, raising one eyebrow. “Who is this?”

“His name is Stanley,” Leigh said. “He can’t speak - hasn’t been able to since birth, apparently. He’s a servant boy up at the mansion. He lives in a little attic space next to the chemick’s workshop, and, if my guess isn’t wrong, he’s spent quite a long time observing Chemick von Osmund at work.”

“And you’ve brought him here instead of the house because…?”

In answer, Leigh gestured to the box that Stanley was holding. Grover reached out and gently took the box of vials from the boy’s hands. He opened it.

“About half of these are empty,” he muttered. “Dare I ask why?”

“There’s a half-uplifted rabbit in Stanley’s cupboard,” Leigh said quietly. “A pet, maybe. Or… one of the rejects from von Osmund’s workshop.”

Her father closed his eyes and sighed. “Salvageable?”

“Maybe.”

“Let’s go.” He was on his feet in an instant, tea forgotten, grabbing at his cloak with one hand and the door handle with the other. Leigh grabbed Stanley’s wrist and pulled him along with her, and the three of them clattered down the stairs and out into the street.

It took fifteen minutes for Stanley to lead them back to the workshop, his feet shod in thin leather shoes that were already worn through on the bottom. Every step slapped on a cobble, in sharp contrast to her father’s ringing bootsteps. He ignored her, his lips firmed into a thin line, and she could do little else but bob along in his wake.

The rabbit guard outside the workshop watched them approach, but Stanley walked past without even acknowledging its presence. Instead, he opened the door that led upstairs to his attic and went up. Leigh went to follow him, but paused as Grover crossed to the rabbit guard and spoke quietly to it. It nodded once, rattled the workshop door to ensure it was locked, then bounded off down the street in the direction of the mansion.

“Father?”

“Either way, this will all come to an end here, I think,” he said, ignoring her puzzled stare. He moved past her and up the rickety stairs to Stanley’s small room.

It was lit by a small lantern that the boy was tending, its flame doing nothing but throwing their huge shadows against the thin walls. There were no chairs, of course, and Leigh sat at one end of the bed as her father pointed to the cupboard. “May I?” He looked at Stanley, who nodded, and pulled the door open.

“Bring it out,” he said to the boy, miming the movement as he did so, and Stanley obediently reached in and helped the pitiful creature within out into the room.

Carefully, being sure not to disturb Stanley’s calming strokes and small sounds of soothing, Grover ran his hands over the half-uplifted rabbit. He bent his head to its chest and listened, then opened its eyes wide and stared into them. He checked the metal tag on its ear, and sighed. Then he got up and came to sit next to Leigh.

“Stanley, I’m going to ask you a few questions and you need to answer them honestly. Your very life may depend on it, but moreover, so might the life of this rabbit. Do you understand me?”

A nod. Yes.

“Did you take the yellowdust from the workshop?”

Yes.

“Did you use it to try and uplift this rabbit?”

Yes.

“Do you have any training in how to uplift rabbits? Or animals of any kind?”

A shake, and then another.

“Did the Chemick who worked there, von Osmund, ever talk to you? Teach you? Show you how to use his equipment?”

A volley of headshakes.

“Show me where you’ve been administering the serum,” Grover said, and bent down to peer at the small patch of bald skin that Stanley indicated. The questions came thick and fast now, increasing in technical complexity. “The serum, ten droplets measured with a small pipette, yes? And shaken, or stirred with a wooden spoon? How many hours between doses, exactly?” Leigh frowned as her father seemed to become more animated, keener somehow.

“And you haven’t missed a day?”

No.

Grover sat back. “Remarkable.” He looked at Leigh and seemed to consider something for a while, then nodded. “Well, it’s clear that we can’t just go handing Stanley over to the mansion.”

“Because he’s a natural chemick?”

“That… and for another reason.”

As if to underline his words, the sound of shouting down in the street rose up to meet them. Grover motioned to the doorway. “Leigh, invite our guests up,” he murmured.

Leigh went down the stairs and opened the front door to find the street absolutely full. Several human guards surrounded a palanquin carried by two rabbits, awkwardly balanced between their backs. Beside it stood Seneschal Diamond Elm, looking around the grimy street with obvious discomfort. His nostrils quivered. He saw Leigh and stepped forward.

The Countess insisted on coming herself, he signed, without preamble. The message said you had the perpetrator in hand?

“That’s right,” Leigh said, and the curtain on the palanquin snapped open to reveal the countess, fanning herself despite the coolness of the night.

“Well? Where are they?”

Leigh curtseyed. “Upstairs, my lady.”

“Well have them brought down here. I’ll see them hang.”

“I think you will need to come up - my father is up there, and he will explain everything, my lady.” Leigh smiled her most sickly smile, bowing her head.

Seneschal Elm quivered, ears going flat against his back. My lady, you should stay here, he signed. I will go and-

He broke off as Countess Longrass climbed out of the palanquin and shoved past him

“I will see justice done,” the countess snarled. “I will know who stole from me.” She turned and stamped up the stairs, her high-heeled and bejewelled slippers winking in the dim light. Leigh followed behind, leaving Diamond Elm in the street.

The Countess stepped into the upper room and took in the scene around her, a look of disgust on her face. She looked from Grover to Stanley, and when her eyes rested on the half-uplifted rabbit she brought her fan back up to her nose.

“Chemick Benson,” she began icily. “The explanation for why I am stood in this peasant’s grotto will be good.” Leigh felt, more than heard the unspoken threat - or there will be dire consequences.

“As you say,” her father said. “This is Stanley. He works for you - cleans your rooms. He has taken dust without permission or payment, and has used some of it to partially uplift this animal here. But he will not be coming with you, or to your jail, my lady.”

“Preposterous,” the countess said, seeming to swell up. “He’ll hang by daybreak.”

“I’m afraid not,” Grover said quietly. “He’s under my protection now, and the protection of the College.”

The Countess didn’t respond, and Grover knelt by the rabbit, stroking its ragged fur.

“Apparently just from sheer observation - not from tuition, or from book learning - this boy has been able to correctly uplift this animal. In fact, it was a rabbit that Chemick von Osmund had quite rightly marked for rejection, that was due to be released into the wild. Somehow, this young man has overcome that, if I’m any judge. Were we to have remained unaware of this for another two weeks or so, he might very well have succeeded in raising this rabbit up to sentience - albeit stunted in growth thanks to the limited space in this room. In all my years of chemicking, I’ve only know one other person who’s been able to get so far without formal tutoring, and she had the benefit of living with a chemick.” His eyes rested on Leigh briefly, and she looked down, unable to meet his gaze.

Images flashed through her mind - it had been so easy to take the dust when she was trusted with auditing it, and so easy to watch and make mental notes as her father plied his trade. What child of ten hadn’t dreamed of a pet that they could talk to, share their world with? But then had come the sounds, the pain…

Her father was still talking. “Now, that previous case came to a head of its own accord. The animal being uplifted was physically not strong enough, and it didn’t survive the process.” Leigh closed her eyes at his words, the hollow space in her breast opening up wide enough to swallow her, but she pushed it away. “Not all animals can take the serum and survive,” her father was saying. “That child had done everything right, and showed possibly the best natural chemicking talent I have ever seen. It was a harsh lesson for that child, but one that tempered her. One day, she will be a chemick the likes of which the world hasn’t seen.”

Leigh’s eyes snapped open and she stared at her father, but he ignored her. “But to find two such children… I cannot allow Stanley’s talent to be wasted.”

“Damn what you allow, man, I rule this city, and I say he hangs,” the Countess spat. She narrowed her eyes. “I know this dance, man. This is the part where you say that the College will withdraw its services from this town - from the Laurice duchy, perhaps, unless I give you the boy. You chemicks, you act like you own the world-“

“Actually, no,” Grover cut in. “If I may suggest a compromise?” He moved over to her and bent his head, dropping to a whisper. Leigh looked at Stanley, who had been looking from one face to another the entire time, hands cupped protectively against the huge head of his rabbit. She bent down and tentatively reached a hand out to stroke it, then frowned as the metal tag on its ear caught her eye. She undid it, letting it fall into her hand, then peered more closely at it.

“Double that,” the countess snapped suddenly, and Leigh looked round, slipping the tag into her pocket.

“Done,” her father agreed. He put his hand out to shake, but the countess simply turned her back on him and left without a word.

There was silence, broken only by the sound of the countess trying to navigate the stairs in shoes entirely unfit for purpose, and then the door closed. Grover clapped his hands. “Right then. Young man, we should be on our way, but first we need to find a wagon big enough to transport your friend here.” He pulled a small coinpurse from his pocket and tossed it to the boy.

Stanley stared at the purse, containing more coin than he had ever seen in his short life.

“Quickly now,” Grover said, one eyebrow raised. “I’ll not have my apprentices standing idle.”

At the sharp note in his voice, Stanley got up and scampered down the stairs, leaving Leigh with her father and the almost-slumbering rabbit.

“How did you convince the Countess to give Stanley up?”

He smiled, eyes still closed. “Ah, well. Appealing to her sense of justice wouldn’t work, nor her sympathy.” The smile turned into a grin. “So I appealed to her purse.”

“You offered money.”

“You gave me the idea - she’s greedy. I offered her what had been stolen, and more.” He lifted a hand and pulled from his pocket the thin slip of paper he’d received from the College, folded and curling at the edges. “You see, I happen to know about a wagonload of unrefined ore just sat in Lakeside, embargoed, and that stuff is such a pain in the arse to move around…”

He laughed, and the years seemed to fall from him.

Leigh smiled, and began to tentatively stroke the half-uplifted rabbit’s fur. “Father…”

“Mm?”

Leigh coughed quietly, not looking at him. “What you said there… was it true?”

“Which bit?”

“About me.”

He seemed to think for a moment. “Would you like it to be true?”

“Of course.”

“Then if you want it to be, it will be, one day. You have it in you to be the best, and so does that boy. There are plenty of good chemicks, well-trained, and there are plenty who have the knack. You could combine the best of those traits, both of you.”

She fought past the sudden lump in her throat. “Even though I’ve made… mistakes?”

Her father stood and came over to her, laying a hand gently on her shoulder. “Leigh, the only problem with mistakes is not learning from them. And besides, the man who says he’s never made a mistake is either lying…” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Or mistaken.”

“Even you?”

“Especially me.” He tapped her twice on the shoulder. “For example, I’m beginning to think it was a mistake to let that boy off on his own with that much money. I’m sure he hasn’t made it far. Would you mind…?”

Leigh shook her head, a smile ghosting her lips, and headed for the stairs.

Stanley was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. He hadn’t moved from the doorway, and in the middle of the street was a large rabbit, robed in blue. His head was twitching slightly as he jerkily looked at the upper storey of the building, ears turning this way and that.

“Seneschal Diamond Elm,” Leigh said, moving Stanley behind herself. “I thought you had gone back with the Countess…”

I heard everything that went on up there, the rabbit signed. I…

Slowly, Leigh reached into her pocket and drew out the tag from the half-uplifted rabbit’s ear. She narrowed her eyes as she read the embossed text.

“This says ‘Diamond Ash.’ That rabbit upstairs… A relative of yours?”

The seneschal seemed to crumple slightly, ears going limp. My child, he signed.

“Uplifted animals can’t have children,” Leigh said, automatically, then stopped. “But… you’ve only been uplifted a month…”

I didn’t find out about him until after it was too late, Elm signed. They breed us before they uplift us, to continue the breeding program. We’re not meant to feel… attached… to our offspring.

“The word is ‘love,’” Leigh said quietly.

I freed him while the chemick was out. The boy saw me - he watched often, it seems. Elm sighed. Will you tell anyone?

“No. But… we will need to take the rabbit away from here, finish its uplift.”

It will survive?

“If my father has anything to say about it.” She reached forward and gripped the rabbit’s huge front paw in her fingers. “And if I have anything to say about it.”

That is… enough to live with. To know that he is alive and well. The rabbit bowed low, all four paws on the ground, forehead touching the cobbles. Thank you.

Then he turned and bounded away after the palanquin, leaving Leigh and Stanley in the empty street.