Mythaxis

Ilysveil: You Can Only Observe


J. H. Zech


"The universe as we know it is a joint product of the observer and the observed."
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

A man in a top hat thumped his wooden mug of foaming beer on the round table. “Those damn alchemists. Just because they learned a few new tricks, they think they can get all high and mighty. They should know their place!”

“Those young ones have no respect,” a bearded man next to him said. “They weren’t there to see it twenty years ago. It’s thanks to us magicians that Ilysveil is still standing!” He then proceeded to chug half a mug of beer in one go.

Corvus watched silently from the corner of his eye as he wiped off the table next to them with a grey cloth. The daytime shift at Cheer Haus is supposed to be the quiet and uneventful one. Couldn’t they have waited two hours to come here? He straightened his black bowtie and walked over to the table.

“Gentlemen, may I help you?” Corvus asked with a polite smile on his face.

The man with half a mug of beer chugged the rest of it, then held out the mug. Yellow alcohol dripped from his shaggy beard. “Go get me another, kid!”

“Yes, of course, sir. Would you like anything else? We want everyone to enjoy their drinks in a pleasant and relaxing environment,” Corvus said, slightly emphasizing the latter part. He couldn’t kick out troublesome patrons, but he hoped he could at least convince them to behave themselves of their own accord, even if he knew it was probably futile.

The man in the top hat glared at him, red-faced. “You think we’re being annoying, huh? Rolling it in passive-aggressive sweet talk doesn’t make it any less of an insult!”

“Sir, you’ve had a lot to drink. I simply meant—”

He grabbed Corvus by his black vest. “You know who we are? We’re the Parsentheons! Who the hell are you to insult us?”

The man with the dripping beard stood up and grabbed Corvus’s wavy black hair. Corvus tried to look polite and professional, but his narrowed eyes and forced smile betrayed his discomfort. He looked in the direction of the manager at the bar counter, but the old man merely looked down with a measure of resigned sadness. “Yes, why don’t you tell us your name? I’m sure your family will be happy to know their scrawny kid messed with the magic clan.”

“Um… gentlemen… I—”

“I can’t hear you!” the man said, pulling on his hair. “Huh?” He pulled Corvus’s black hair out, or rather, he pulled off the wig Corvus had carefully crafted.

Both men let him go and stumbled back. “S-silver hair? Are you some kind of demon?”

Corvus quickly snatched his wig and put it back on. A few of the patrons whispered to each other. Their stares made his heart throb, and their unintelligible words rang in his head. He just wanted to live out his days quietly lazing around reading scientific journals on weekends. He wished he could just will all the troublesome people away, but not even the magic clan had anything as convenient as that.

“Wait a minute. Silver hair? Wasn’t there that rumor about a silver-haired child being born to the mechanist clan after the war?” the man with the beard said.

“The mechanists? Those blasphemers who reject the gods of duality? This is perfect. Manager! You’re going to fire this kid, or the Parsentheons will be shutting down your joint!”

“Well, I…” the manager started, obviously torn. A tense silence pervaded the bar, with the other patrons drinking quietly, if at all.

The jingle of bells at the door broke the silence. Everyone turned to see a black-haired young lady in a frilly light-blue dress enter. Her fair skin shone divinely in the light of the doorway. Her thin figure gracefully walked up to the old man at the bar counter.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for someone named Corvus Morgenstern,” she said.

The manager, still in awe and confusion, pointed at Corvus. She walked up to him casually, and he gave her a surprised look, pointing at himself.

“You’re Corvus?” she asked.

“Yes. What’s going on?” he asked.

“Gentlemen, I’ll be borrowing Mr. Morgenstern. Good day to you both.”

“Hold on! This guy insulted us! We’re not done with him. Who are you to butt in?” the man in the top hat demanded to know.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I haven’t properly introduced myself. My name is Mira Chelavye, from the alchemist clan,” she said, curtsying.

“So are the Chelavyes picking a fight with the Parsentheons?” the man in the beard asked.

“Quite the contrary. I’m asking that we not fight. Isn’t it important for the magic clan to uphold its reputation too? From my perspective and the perspective of all the witnesses here, it seemed you were merely harassing the waiter. Could the clan really defend you in this situation? I’d rather not have a fight between any clans, so would you be so kind as to let this matter drop?”

“Tch!” the man in the top hat said. He and the man with the dripping beard stormed out of the bar.

“Wait! Your bill!” the manager yelled.

The bearded man threw some coins behind him. Corvus walked over and bent down, picking them up one by one.

As soon as the door swung shut behind them, Mira breathed out heavily. “Ah, I was so nervous! Maybe I need a drink too!”

Corvus turned to her, not knowing what to say. Her sudden appearance had been surprising enough, but with this about-face in her personality, he didn’t even know what to think anymore. One troublesome person had walked out the door, and another one had walked right in.

“Oh, that’s right! Corvus, I need your help!” she said as she leaned in close to his face.

Corvus leaned away. “Hold on. You haven’t even explained what’s going on.” He made his way to the counter and dropped the coins into the manager’s hand.

She took a deep breath, then spat out her words, gesturing wildly by waving her arms. “OK, so there was this guy that went missing, and then I asked my clan, and then I asked your clan, and then I had to ask you, but those two guys were bullying you, so I had to—”

“Slow down! You’re not making any sense. First tell me what just happened here. Then let’s move on to the situation as a whole, alright?” Corvus said. He motioned her to take a seat at the table that had just been vacated by the two magic clan members.

She plopped herself down on the chair and started talking. “I was looking for you, and I finally heard that you were working at the Cheer Haus. I got to the door, but then I heard yelling. I looked in the window and saw two men shaking the waiter. I wondered if that waiter was Corvus Morgenstern, so I decided to ask. The bartender confirmed you are Corvus. Those guys said they were Parsentheons, so I was really nervous. I did my best proper lady act and got them to go away. And now we’re here.”

“So you’re telling me that whole threat was an act? You must be an amazing actor. I think everyone in the room bought it,” Corvus said.

“I have to do that a lot at family functions, so I guess I’m used to it,” she said.

He clearly remembered that she announced her family name as Chelavye, the alchemist clan, the second most powerful of the noble clans in Ilysveil. He wondered what someone like her wanted with him, an outcast of his clan. “Alright. Now can you tell me why you were looking for me?”

“Can we talk in private?”

“Corvus! Table four!” the manager said.

“Ah, sorry, can this wait until the weekend? I have work today.”

“No, I can’t wait until then. I’ll wait here for you until your shift is over.”

“That’s another two hours. Come on.”

“No, really. It has to be today,” Mira said, staring unwaveringly at him. He could see his own brown eyes reflected in her deep black eyes. Her forceful will threatened to overwhelm him.

Corvus sighed. “Mr. Stromberg, she’ll have some apple cider.” The round old man nodded and poured the clear yellow cider into a glass, and Corvus carried it over to Mira.

Two hours later, the last daytime customer besides Mira had left, and Corvus was wiping down the tables. He normally enjoyed the quiet this temporary lull in people brought, but today the awkward pressure of Mira’s constant gaze had him on edge. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He jerked in surprise. The manager handed him a pouch of coins. It landed in his hand with a satisfying clink.

“Your pay for this week. Good work today. Leave the rest to the night shift.”

Corvus noticed that the pouch was slightly heavier than usual. Mr. Stromberg was always soft-hearted like that, helping him out a little on tough days, even if the old man couldn’t deal with the troublesome ones.

“Thank you,” Corvus said. The manager walked out the door for a break, and it swung closed with a jingle. After putting the cloth away, Corvus walked into the back locker room. He hung up his white dress shirt and black vest and then changed into his regular grey pants, white shirt, and green vest.

He went back into the bar, and Mira bounced over to him. “Whoa. Now that you’re not wearing that bartending outfit, you look a lot younger, almost like a kid.”

“I’ll have you know I’m seventeen.”

“I’m almost eighteen. Maybe you should start calling me ‘big sister,’” Mira said with an all-too-happy smile.

She was trying to close the immense distance between them, but he couldn’t fathom why, and that unknown made him uncomfortable. Corvus crossed his arms. “Don’t push your luck.” He had a feeling she was bringing trouble, and humoring her antics too much would drag things out. If I have to do it, I’d rather it be quick.

“Fine. Ready to go?”

“Go where? I thought you were going to explain everything to me.”

“It’ll be easier to explain once we’re there.”

He didn’t really feel much like walking around town, but he had already agreed to hear her out, and he found it very difficult to say no in the face of the pure yet powerful pressure she exerted. Reassuring himself that he wouldn’t get too involved, Corvus followed Mira out of the bar. She quietly walked down the narrow, winding brick road. He wondered where all her cheer had gone all of a sudden. Colorful wooden houses overlooked their path on both sides, and occasionally he would see a woman open the shutters and hang a shirt or pants on the clothesline that stretched between houses.

The deep toll of the bell resounded throughout the city. Corvus looked up. The clock tower, the black obelisk at the center of the city, had its hand on the six. It would be nightfall soon.

Eventually, they arrived at a small green house whose paint had worn off. He had passed by this street many times running errands for Mr. Stromberg but had never paid this house any mind. So many blue, red, yellow, and green houses with wooden shutters lined this street that no individual house stood out, but together the street itself formed a rainbow. No streetlamps illuminated their colors, however, as this was a commoner district. Corvus wondered what this noble young lady would have to show him in a place like this.

She reached for the knob but hesitated, trembling. She grabbed her wrist and turned the knob and pushed the door open. Apparently it wasn’t locked. The house was small and simple in its furnishings. A desk with a few papers and a pen sat next to the window. A tall brown shelf full of colorful books overlooked it. A black sofa was against the wall, and a small square table with two half-eaten plates of curry stood next to the kitchen.

“I suppose we’re here. Now let’s hear that explanation,” Corvus said. “First, I want to know where we are.”

She nodded. “This is where my former uncle lived.”

“Former uncle? Lived? What do you mean?” Corvus asked.

“He was my uncle until last month. I’m not sure what exactly happened, but my family kicked my uncle out of the Chelavye clan. And now he’s committed suicide.”

“I don’t see him here, but how do you know he committed suicide?”

“He left a note,” Mira said, pointing to a piece of paper on the desk.

Corvus picked up the note and read it.

“Dear Mira,

If you’re reading this, then I’m sorry that I won’t be there for you anymore. I enjoyed having you as my niece, and I treasure all the memories of your visits. I’ve failed my family, I’ve failed Ilysveil, and most importantly, I’ve failed you. I’m going to join your aunt Stella in the eternal realm, so don’t look for me. Look through the looking glass and seek your own happiness. If it’s you, I’m sure you can transform the pieces and find the brighter future I lost.

With love,

Alfonse Chelavye”

The letter left a bitter taste in his mouth. Family politics in all three of Ilysveil’s major clans were nasty. He didn’t really want much to do with this mess.

“This seems very tragic, but how does this involve me?”

“I was very close to Uncle, and even after he was banished from the family, I often visited him. He would tell me stories and teach me alchemy. I asked my parents why they kicked Uncle out, but they wouldn’t tell me. One day when I was walking down the street, I saw your parents. They said, ‘Alfonse has been removed. So it’s not going to work after all.’ I ran over to the Morgensterns and asked them if they knew anything about Uncle. They just dodged the question. But they knew something about him for sure. I tried talking to any Morgenstern that I could find. At last I found you.”

“You do know that I’m also in limbo with my relationship to my family, right? If you think I have any inside knowledge of the Morgensterns, forget it. All they do is send me money every month to help pay the rent. I have to work to fund the rest of my living expenses.”

“Even so, you’re the only one who was even willing to talk to me about this. I just can’t let it go like this. I have to at least know why he died. I’ll give you anything you want, please!” Mira begged.

“Why are you so insistent on having me help you? You could probably get anyone on the street, and it’d probably be the same. I’m a Morgenstern in name only.”

“My parents aren’t helping me, and Uncle’s gone. I’m all alone, but I don’t think I can do this alone. I’m sorry for dragging you into my personal problems, and I know it’s selfish, but I’m afraid. If at least you’re by my side, I might be able to confront this issue. The way you patiently endured those Parsentheons and the way you were willing to put up with me, it showed me that you might be a good person. So please, help me.”

Corvus felt the barrier of his peaceful uneventful life under threat by her intense will. He wasn’t sure if he could help Mira, and regardless, if he accepted her request, it meant venturing into an unknown world of trouble. Still, she had bared open her heart and pleaded. She would give him anything he wanted. There was one thing he had wanted long ago, but he had dismissed it as nothing more than a fantasy. The girl standing here, though, made him want to believe it was possible.

“Mira, look carefully,” he said. Mira watched him obediently. He pulled off his wig, revealing his flowing silver hair.

“Silver…”

“That’s right. Silver hair. A sign of demonic influence. If people saw me without this wig, they would say I’m a demon. My family sees me as a devil. Are you still willing to ask for the help of a devil?”

Mira stared at him silently for a while then spoke. “I don’t think you’re a devil. No matter what the world says you are, I saw you with my own eyes today. You’re just a person. I’m asking you, as a human being, to help me.”

Corvus smiled. Indeed, if anyone could make him believe again in what he once sought, it was her. “Don’t regret it.”

“I won’t.”

“Well then, let’s think. First off, how are you sure he’s dead? Have the police investigated yet?”

“No. That’s what’s so strange. I found the note two days ago and went to my family, and we went to the police station. They said they’d take care of it, but they still haven’t sent anyone over, and my parents won’t talk about it anymore.”

“He was exiled from the clan, vanished, left a suicide note, and the police won’t investigate. I don’t think we can say for sure if he’s dead, but everything does point in that direction. Let’s work with that assumption for now.”

Mira nodded. “At the very least, I want to know why Uncle was kicked out of the clan.”

“Why would your uncle be banished from the alchemist clan? There are three reasons someone can be excluded from a family. One, like my case, there’s something inherently wrong with that person. Your uncle was probably in his forties, so it’s unlikely that this is true since he wasn’t kicked out until last month. Two, betrayal.”

“Uncle would never betray us. He always enjoyed his work and wanted to support us.”

“I’m just saying it’s a possibility. I won’t say he betrayed you unless there’s evidence. Three, he did something that would bring shame to the family or was against its principles.”

“He wouldn’t do anything like that either!”

“You can’t be sure of that one. Every family has its own politics, and shame and principles are about as solid as pudding. A moral man could still easily cross an arbitrary line. We can’t speculate, though. We need some facts. What was your uncle doing before he got banished?”

“He was just his normal self. He drank tea in the morning, then went off to do alchemy experiments in his lab, then came back home.”

“Where was his lab? And by home do you mean this house?”

“His lab was this house. By home I meant the house he used to live in, right next to ours.”

Corvus looked around and saw few signs of any recent alchemy in the house. Only a partially erased alchemic circle drawn in some yellow dust remained on the floor. “Did he change in any way before a month ago?”

“Hmm… Maybe there’s one thing. He would occasionally tell me about the experiments he was doing, and he always talked about some kind of new liquid property, but one day he told me about an experiment he did with transmuting a metal. After that, though, he wouldn’t answer any of my questions about his experiments. He had this really uncomfortable expression on his face whenever I brought up the metal experiment.”

“Did he say which metal?”

“I remember it was copper.”

Corvus looked at the suicide note one more time. “One thing’s clear. Your uncle’s death is not a suicide.”

“What?”

“A real suicide note usually talks about one’s own life, failures, and sadness, along with an apology to family and friends. This note is clearly directed toward you only, and most of it is talking about what you should do. It’s also interesting that he specifically says the memories of your visits. Wouldn’t a death note normally talk about all his memories of you? This seems oddly specific, almost like a message to you.”

“Maybe he was just under stress. Isn’t it a stretch to say he was murdered?”

“Yeah, I’ll admit, the note wasn’t enough. It put me on the fence as to whether this was suicide, but take a look at the room.”

Mira looked around. “What am I supposed to see?”

“The dinner table. There’s two plates. Food for two people. And they’re half-eaten. Someone who’s committing suicide wants closure. Someone else was here. It wouldn’t make any sense to stop eating a meal with a guest to commit suicide. This also makes it highly possible that the other person at the meal killed him.”

“Then what about the note? If someone killed him, how could he have left a note?”

“Because this death was made to look like a suicide. If the killer had just killed him outright, then there would be no note. If the killer had left him to die, then if he could actually write a note, then he would just tell you who the killer is. If the killer threatened him and made him write a suicide note in front of him though…”

“He would have to hide any message he wanted to tell me.” She looked at the note. “So what’s the message?”

“I don’t know. This note was written for you. If anyone knows what it means, it has to be you,” Corvus said, placing the note in her hands.

“I really don’t know, though.”

“There’s nothing more I can do then. I wish you luck on finding answers,” Corvus said. He was happy that someone had believed in him even after seeing his silver hair and that he could help, even if only a little. This mess seemed beyond him, however, and getting any closer to Mira, who shone so brightly, felt blinding, so to save himself, he would quit while he was ahead. Corvus headed for the door.

Mira tugged at his sleeve. Shocked, Corvus turned around. She was looking down, so he couldn’t see her eyes through her black bangs. “I’ve already thought about this, but you got further in minutes than I have in days. I can’t do this alone. To tell you the truth, my parents actually told me to forget this. I shouldn’t be here right now, but I couldn’t abandon Uncle. I lied to my mother and father to come here. So please, even if you can’t do anything right now, please don’t leave.”

Corvus didn’t know how to respond to her feelings or her burdens. They stayed silently still for a while, but even after thinking, he couldn’t find the words. He did realize one thing though. For the first time in many years, he truly wanted to help someone, despite his hesitation at accepting a responsibility that would end the quiet in his life. This was more important than going home and reading the Scientific Quarterly on his sofa; he would try harder, an unfamiliar notion to him. Corvus closed his eyes and thought it over again. Exclusion from the family. A murder made to look as a suicide. The involvement of the Morgensterns. An erased alchemic circle. Copper. The note. There was still something missing.

“Let’s go to the library,” Corvus said.

“Will you go with me?” she asked, not moving.

“' Let’s' means 'let us', ” Corvus said. Hearing himself say it out loud was embarrassing, but it had to be said.

“What are we looking for?” Mira asked, looking up hopefully.

“Anything that helps us figure out what exactly your uncle was working on. In the note, he told you to find a brighter future. That means he believed something was wrong with the present. It sounded like he was entrusting his dream to you, so something he was working on would change the future for the better.”

“Looks like I wasn’t wrong to ask you for help. You’re amazing at figuring things out!” she said.

“T-thanks.” He hadn’t heard such earnest praise before. He hoped he wasn’t blushing.

Corvus and Mira stepped out the door and onto the brick road. The orange of the sunset and the shadows of the houses colored the road in tiger stripes. They headed toward the other great tower of Ilysveil, the Library of Omniscience. Corvus occasionally glimpsed Mira out of the corner of his eye. He had never traveled with a friend before, so his heart beat nervously. As the last slice of the sun sunk below the houses, the rays poked the edges of his vision. He squinted and looked away. For a moment he thought he saw Mira sneaking a glimpse at him, but as soon as he blinked it was gone. He began to fantasize what would happen if their eyes had met, but he stopped himself. He had probably only imagined her glimpse. I wonder if this is okay. If I go down this path, it’ll probably hurt again. I could be setting myself up for another tragedy, but Mira’s not going to let me stop. No, that’s just me pushing the blame onto her. I’m the one that can’t stop. They continued walking, the crystal-laden tower looming over them.

The spiraling white tower looked somewhat grey in the darkness, but the giant green crystals embedded all over still sparkled in the night. A large wooden door gilded with golden hinges and the sun and moon crest of Ilysveil stood before them. Corvus pushed the door in, and white light poured out, blinding him momentarily. He and Mira stepped onto the dark red carpet of a circular room that seemed to stretch up into the heavens.

The architect must have one heck of an ego. Shelves full of books covered the walls, and a spiral staircase snaked around the perimeter. Large tables with quiet readers filled the center of the floor. At least practicality hadn’t been sacrificed in the name of the architect’s vanity. The light from the crystal chandelier reflected and sparkled throughout the space. It gave the books a faint glow. The Library of Omniscience indeed.

He looked at the chandelier. The light shone brighter than anything he normally saw. “Say, Mira, do you know what’s giving off the light in that chandelier? It’s too bright to be a candle.” When he received no response, he turned to see that Mira had disappeared. He looked around and found her talking to a lady at a round counter on the other side of the room. Corvus wished she had brought him along. He jogged to catch up to her.

“What’s going on?” Corvus asked.

“I asked Ms. Helvenia if she had any books on Ilysveil’s three clans,” Mira said.

“You rushed right over here. You seem to know this place well. Have you been here before?”

“Yeah. When I was younger, Uncle used to bring me here all the time.”

“That must’ve been nice.” Corvus felt a tinge of envy, wondering what it would have been like to have family that did such lovingly normal things with him. He turned to the librarian at the counter.

“And what can I help you find at the Ilysveil Central Library today?” the purple-robed Ms. Helvenia asked.

“Hm? I thought this was the Library of Omniscience,” Corvus said.

She placed her hands on her thin waist, and her short eyebrows flattened. “Oh, they simply call it that. Because of the books’ glow, people seem to have this notion that there’s heavenly knowledge to be found here, though if they really believed that, it’d be nice if they donated as much to here as they do to the Church.”

“I see. You learn something new every day. Do you have any books on the Dominion War and relations between Ilysveil and Elvengard?”

She pushed up her glasses. “Of course. Please wait here while I find the books you and the young lady requested.” She stood up from her seat and began ascending the staircase.

Corvus turned to Mira and cleared his throat. “As I was trying to ask you earlier, that chandelier is unnaturally bright. Do you know where its light comes from?’

Mira’s jaw dropped far too much for someone who was supposed to be a noble lady. She probably noticed this too and caught herself by covering her mouth with her hand. “You haven’t heard? It was big news when the Parsentheons and Chelavyes collaborated to make this. The magic clan cast light magic that gathered light and transmitted it while my family built the crystals.”

He probably had heard about it but forgotten, as he felt politics had nothing to do with him, but ignorance would be of no help today. “What do the crystals do?”

“Do you remember the crystals on the outside of the tower?”

“Yeah, they were embedded all over.”

“The spell that was cast on them gathers sunlight during the day and transmits it to this chandelier. Our family used a new technique to construct this crystal that could delay the emission of the light so that it naturally starts shining at night as if it were natural sunlight,” Mira said, smiling with her hands on her hips.

Corvus decided to humor her pride. “That’s a pretty amazing collaboration. I didn’t know the two clans were that close.”

“Well, I don’t think they like each other that much. It’s just that both wanted to preserve the peace, so we decided to do collaborations and such.”

The clack of the librarian’s heels on the metal steps alerted Corvus to her arrival. “Here are some books related to the topics you requested. If you wish to read more, then just let me know, and I’ll simply guide you to the section. These books were located rather far up the tower. I don’t think my ankles will survive many more trips there with a heavy load.”

“Thank you,” Corvus said, accepting a stack of books.

He and Mira sat down next to each other at a large table. She rummaged through the pockets of her dress and brought out a small bag tied at the top. She pulled the string, and the cloth unfolded, revealing chocolate chip cookies.

“A little snack for us while we work,” she said, pushing the cookies between them.

Corvus wanted to refuse for fear of getting too close, but Mira stared at him expectantly. That look is just unfair. He bit a small chunk of a cookie. A mellow spiciness floated in the sea of a strong sweetness in the soft cinnamon cookie. He was happy beyond words to share a moment like this with another person, but shook that thought off immediately out of embarrassment and pain.

He must’ve been smiling unconsciously, however, for she giggled and said, “I’m glad you like it.” From the stack of books she grabbed a thick black volume titled Chronicle of the Dominion War. “Let’s get to it then. What do you think the Dominion War has to do with Uncle’s death?” she asked.

“It’s not really what I think. Call it more of a hunch. It’s obvious Alfonse Chelavye was murdered over something related to family politics. If we think about the current political status and conflicts of the three families now, most of it can be traced back to the war between humanity and the elves.”

“Oh, I didn’t know it went back that far.”

“Well you can read all about it now,” he said. She puffed her cheeks in an adorably angry manner. Corvus pretended not to notice. If she wanted answers, she would have to research academic texts even if she didn’t want to. “I’ll be reading up on current politics of the three families. I’ve been a bit out of the loop for a while.” Corvus grabbed a grey folder full of newspaper and magazine articles. He started poring through it while Mira reluctantly opened the old cover of the Chronicles.

The articles mostly covered the alliance and tension between the Parsentheon and Chelavye clan. Titles such as “Parsentheon and Chelavye Brothers in Bar Fight” were common. He also read an article titled, “Alchemists Oppose Magicians’ Proposal to Lower Tariffs on Elvish Goods.” The oldest article was only from 1853, just twenty years ago. The magic clan had risen to prominence immediately after the war, and the alchemist clan gained influence shortly after.

The first article about the mechanists was dated 1862, titled, “Morgensterns Build First Reliable Steam Engine.” He found an article describing Erwick Morgenstern, his father. Erwick was quoted as saying, “Humanity should take control of its own future.”

The last article he picked up was fairly recent, printed just over four months ago. He couldn’t vouch for its credibility though; the cheap paper and big flashy letters told him this had been published in a daily rumor tabloid. “MORGENSTERNS BUILDING MECHANICAL COLOSSUS,” it read. The article described it as a steel golem that would serve as humanity’s counter to the Elvish Colossus. He closed the folder.

“What have you found, Mira?”

“Ah! That was a lot to read. I would’ve been okay with just knowing the basic 'Elvengard invades Al-Shath and Ilysveil and ends in a stalemate' story.”

“This is your uncle’s murder we’re investigating. If anyone has a duty to put some effort into this, wouldn’t it be you?”

She fidgeted with her hands. “I know. I’m sorry. I guess I’m just a little nervous right now.” Her expression was more hesitant than nervous though.

“Still, you worked hard and finished. So? What did you find?”

“The book gave a little more detail on how the stalemate happened. Elvengard is actually resource-poor, so they invaded mostly for minerals and forests. The fairies didn’t have much military power, but they had great defenses against magic, so Elvengard couldn’t break Al-Shath’s border. Humanity had magicians, but elves have greater inherent magic and the Colossus giants, so Ilysveil was being pushed back. The elves almost reached Vathel.”

“Now that’s something they didn’t teach in basic education. I guess the officials didn’t want to tell kids that humanity almost lost their capital city. Anyway, and then the magicians and alchemists worked together to repel the elves, right?”

“I heard that story as a child from my tutors too, but according to this, that’s not actually how it happened. The magicians kept fighting for sure, but it was the alchemists developing warfare methods like transmuting the ground into bombs that forced the elves to offer a truce. Ilysveil couldn’t afford to fight the war anymore, so it took the deal despite the elves getting a favorable trade deal.” Mira looked him in the eyes proudly, as if she wanted approval for doing serious research.

“You really did find something interesting. This now begs the question, why did the magic clan gain power if they were mostly losing the war?”

Mira looked pleased. “I’m not sure about that. It really is weird if you think about it. I think it’s because the Parsentheons started creating many new magic techniques. The light magic that this library uses, for example, didn’t exist until twenty years ago.”

Something clicked in Corvus’s head. “Hand me that book on the Parsentheons.”

She placed the blue volume in his hand. “What are you thinking?”

“If I’m right…” Corvus flipped through the pages and found the section of their history of magic development. The clan did deserve some respect. It had created a few key magic innovations in the forty years from the 1800s to the 1840s. During the 50s, the Parsentheons had then created new magic at an unbelievable pace, but had developed almost nothing since the 60s.

He turned the book and showed it to Mira. “Look, starting from the end of the war to ten years after that, the magic clan’s rate of innovation just exploded. Now war does accelerate innovation, but if that was the only factor, then the magic clan’s rate would be similar to the alchemist clan’s, but no, they gained power because their new techniques surpassed anyone else’s. How did they get these techniques? They didn’t even use these techniques during the war. Only the elves did. If you look at their rate of innovation in the last ten years, it’s dropped off significantly.”

“That means—”

“The magic clan probably had a corrupt deal with the elves. The elves would give them some new magic for a few years to ensure the Parsentheons would take control, and in exchange the magic clan would keep the peace and give them favorable trade treatment. They didn’t count on the Chelavyes and Morgensterns outpacing their innovations in the last decade though.”

“That explains a lot, but we still haven’t solved my Uncle’s murder.”

“Remember how I said I had a hunch about this?”

“Yes. It looks like you’ve figured something out.” She impatiently bobbed up and down on her toes.

“I more or less have the whole picture. The magic and alchemy clans have an uneasy alliance, but the mechanist clan is pretty much hated, partially because they don’t believe in the gods of duality, but also because their engineering techniques completely reject the metaphysical. What were the exact words the Morgensterns said about your uncle?”

She sat back down in her seat. It seemed she had entered her serious mode again. “Alfonse has been removed. It’s not going to work after all.”

“Notice that they didn’t say anything about the Chelavyes. Your uncle was working with the Morgensterns in secret. He probably got caught at some point.”

“But they wouldn’t murder him over that! My parents loved my uncle.”

“No, I don’t think your family murdered him. Did your family meet anyone from the magic clan recently before your uncle’s exile?”

“Come to think of it, there was one time someone came over. He talked in private with my parents and then left. My parents didn’t look too happy.”

“My guess is the magicians also caught on to what he was doing and pressured your parents into exiling your uncle by casting him as a potential traitor and unbeliever.”

“Well, if the Parsentheons are involved, that explains why the police haven’t investigated. They have the police in their pocket.” Mira’s expression had turned serious, but it quickly softened. “Hold on, though, that doesn’t explain why my family kicked him out. Even if the Parsentheons pressured them, my parents wouldn’t give up my uncle that easily.”

“I don’t think the exile was supposed to be permanent. They probably assured the alchemists that they only wanted a temporary suspension or something. If he had been completely and permanently kicked out, then you wouldn’t have been allowed to visit him.”

“I get that the Parsentheons don’t like the Morgensterns, but that seems like a lot of effort just to spite them.”

“It wasn’t to spite them. Remember what your uncle was making?”

“Copper, right? What is it about copper?”

“Copper conducts electricity. It’s said that the mechanists are making a mechanical Colossus. To do something like that, you would need to have energy circulate the body and have something that can simulate a mind, even if all it does is follow orders. The primary source of energy for mechanists is electricity made from steam engines. Electrical signals can also turn individual parts on and off. If you had fine enough copper wires, you could both circulate electricity and send signals to the body parts. The problem is current engineering techniques can’t create copper wires that precisely.”

“So they turned to alchemy!” Mira leaped out of her seat and leaned close to his face. Her mouth was wide open, and wonder filled her gaze.

Corvus leaned back and looked away. “Exactly. Now who would lose out if humanity gained a weapon powerful enough to take on the elves? The magic clan would lose its standing. The alchemists probably didn’t believe your uncle when he talked about a mechanical Colossus, or they thought it was too risky to jeopardize relations with the magicians over an uncertain bet like that, so they accepted a suspension.”

“Then who killed my uncle?”

Corvus lowered his gaze, and his bangs shadowed his eyes. After coming this far, he felt a sharp pain in his chest as he told her, “I don’t know. There’s just no way to find that out.”

She grabbed his shoulders. “No! It can’t just end like that.”

Not moving, he quietly said, “The magic clan probably killed him after using the suspension to isolate him, but the trail goes cold after that. We don’t know who visited his house that day. If we point fingers at the magicians without any evidence, it’ll be our heads on the chopping block.”

She released her death grip on his shoulders and sank back into her chair. “No way…” Tears started welling up in Mira’s deep black eyes.

He didn’t want it to end like that either. Corvus closed his eyes and ran through the evidence again. Her uncle had been exiled due to inter-family politics. The suspension was temporary, but the magicians murdered him and dressed it as a suicide. The uncle left a suicide note directed at Mira. Was it merely a good-bye? Was the story of the man working to change Ilysveil merely that of a victim? What had he told her, and what had Alfonse Chelavye meant?

After scouring his thoughts, Corvus looked up at the chandelier, and it dawned on him. “You said you came to this library often as a child. What was your favorite book?”

Mira wiped her tears with her frilly white sleeve. Sniffling, she answered, “Through the Looking Glass.

“I thought so.”

“How did you know that?”

“Basically, your uncle told me. Alfonse Chelavye saw his death coming and left something behind. He had a message that only you would understand. The supposed suicide note told you to look through the looking glass. The killer might have searched his house, so he didn’t want to leave the real message inside the house. The real message is here in the library.”

“I know exactly where it is. Let’s go.” Mira, her eyes still red, jumped up and pulled Corvus along by the hand and up the spiral stairs.

By the time they had run up what Corvus estimated as the equivalent of four flights of stairs, he was panting, but Mira was scurrying around the shelves. He found it hard to believe that anyone could regain their energy so quickly. They eventually found the white-covered book in a shelf and she pulled it out. “But which page is it on?”

“He said to seek out your own happiness. Find the page that talks about your happiness.”

She flipped through the book for a while until she stopped and pointed at the page. “There it is! ‘You must be very happy.’ But where’s the message?”

“He said to transform the pieces. I thought about what it meant, but then I realized it meant from your perspective. You’re an alchemist. How do you transform?”

“I transmute materials.” She stared at the page and then looked up as if a light had been lit in her head. “Oh, I get it!” She placed her hand over the page, and both her hand and the page began to glow. When she lifted her hand, the words on the page had vanished, replaced by an intricately criss-crossed transmutation circle that looked similar to the one in the house. “How?...”

“A transmutation circle doesn’t need to be visible to work. He probably put a circle in invisible ink that rearranged the visible ink into this alchemic circle when you activated it.”

“What is this circle? I’ve never seen it before. I don’t think my clan has anything like this,” Mira said, staring intently at the book.

“Come on. Let’s check out the book and go. The real story’s in that house.”

Mira closed the book. She didn’t seem as happy as he’d expected. “Are you okay with this though?” she asked.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You said it yourself. Our heads could be on the chopping block. If you go with me to Uncle’s house, then you’ll know what Uncle created, what got him murdered, and you’ll really be involved. We’ve only just met, but I’ve relied on you so much. I don’t want to put you in danger. Even those cookies, I guess I made them to make myself feel less guilty dragging a stranger into my personal troubles. I—”

Corvus put a hand on her shoulder. He remembered the frightened desperation with which she had pleaded for his help. Perhaps she had felt guilty all along, but her fear of heading into the darkness alone had overcome even that. She had indeed dragged him into her problems, but for the first time, someone needed him and trusted him enough to share her doubts. He was the one who was grateful. Even if staying with her meant more trouble, this time, he felt certain he wanted to endure, but it felt too embarrassing to say it. “I wouldn’t exactly say we’re strangers anymore. Besides, those cookies were delicious. It wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t stay till the end after eating them.”

She locked eyes with him and wouldn’t let go. “Are you sure?” He couldn’t tell if she was asking him or herself.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Mira seemed relieved; she turned away and sighed quietly. She stood still for a moment, then grabbed his hand. Before Corvus could react, she pulled him with her. They flew down the stairs, drawing the stares of readers disturbed by the banging steps. Mira signed a slip at the librarian’s counter then walked out of the library with Corvus.

The sun had set completely, and the brick road and colorful houses were now all black, with a tinge of silver lining from the glow of the moon obscured by the clouds.

“Can you transmute a candle?”

“Watch this, Corvus,” she said, pulling out a few cubes from the pocket of her dress. “I always keep a few cubes of materials in case I need to make anything.” She held them in her hands, which began to glow. The cubes glowed and morphed, merging into a bronze candle holder with a candle in the center.

“You did that without a transmutation circle?”

“I actually have a pretty good memory, so if I see a transmutation circle, I memorize it perfectly, and for simple transformations, I can channel the reaction straight from memory.”

I thought she was just an airhead, but maybe, she’s actually a genius? “I guess it’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, though in your case, it’s the cover and half the book.”

“Hey, that’s mean.” She gave him a playful shove on the shoulder.

“Now to light the candle.” Corvus pulled out a small, grey rectangular object. His thumb pushed down on the protrusion at the top, then the box ignited a flame.

“What is that?”

“It’s one of the gadgets I made. I mostly just use it to impress customers at the bar if they want a flaming cocktail.” Corvus touched the flame to the tip of the candle and lit it.

“What do you call it?” Mira asked.

“I don’t know. I never thought to give it a name,” Corvus answered.

“Well then, how about, since it brought light to us when it was dark out, a 'lighter'?”

Corvus smiled. “I kind of like that name.”

They continued to chat frivolously until they reached her uncle’s house again. She pushed the door open, and it creaked. The house of a dead man was even more creepy at night. She brought the candle close to the partially erased alchemic circle. “Is it here? But this circle doesn’t match the circle in the book.”

“It’s not supposed to. Remember, the killer was here, so this was meant to mislead him. Most likely, he drew a false circle as a diversion, and the killer partially erased it, thinking that would prevent anyone else from using it. In fact, this is just the material for the transmutation. Draw the circle, then gather the yellow powder and put it at the center.”

Mira transmuted some chalk and then drew the circle on the floor exactly as it appeared in the book. She and Corvus swept the dust into the center with their hands.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you?” he said.

She smiled and put her hands on the perimeter of the circle. The lines of the circle glowed with an intense white light that enveloped the room. When the light faded, the powder had disappeared. Around the perimeter of the circle lay a thin yellowish string. She picked it up, but it didn’t bend. Corvus grabbed the other end and bent it with some pressure.

“This is a pure copper wire. Thin and flexible but not flimsy. This is what he was working on for the Morgensterns. He passed it on to you. That’s his dying legacy.”

Mira cried. “This is what’s left of him. One day, when we’re the heads of our clans, the mechanical colossus…”

Corvus put his hand on her shoulder. He found it unlikely that he would ever be the head of the Morgensterns, but he couldn’t tell her that. “I’m sorry. Even though I know the truth, I can’t do anything to help you get justice for your uncle. I can only observe.”

Mira smiled as she cried. “No, you don’t understand. This is what’s left of him. He left me his legacy. The future that he believed in, he entrusted it to me. We both know the truth. Neither of us can do anything right now. But even if we can only observe, I still found it together with you. That’s more than I could’ve asked for.”

As the clouds drifted, the moon shone through the window, revealing Mira’s teary yet glad form cast in a soft light, and Corvus couldn’t help but think to himself, well, if it’s with her, maybe just observing isn’t so bad.

© J. H. Zech 2017 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 19:11 Wed 22 Feb 2017
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