January 30th, 18–
Marty looked up from his latest song as the front door of the shop opened. “Hey, folks,” he said as two people, a man and a woman, stepped inside. “How can I help you today?”
The female half of the pair glared at him. She was a rather short and heavyset woman, looking like she was in her early forties. Her clothes were on the simple side, but looked expensively tailored, and she wore a white fox fur around her neck. Her dark brown hair was twisted into a sort of three-sectioned bun, on which a small cap with a curly feather sticking out the top rested. Her face was jowly, with small eyes and a small nose and a small mouth. Said mouth was currently curled into something like a sneer. “We’re not here to buy anything,” she snapped. “Not that I’d buy anything from your sort anyway.”
Marty instantly bristled. Oh, great – one of those Regulars that thought Touched were somehow below them. He hated dealing with these jerks. “So why are you here?” he asked, forcing himself to keep his tone polite.
“Trust us, we don’t want to be here. If I had my way--”
“Don’t get all aflutter, dear,” the man said soothingly. He looked rather older than his wife (at least, Marty assumed she was his wife), like he was somewhere in his fifties. He was as thin as Victor, though not nearly as tall – though perhaps that was partially because he was all hunched over. His orange-brown suit also looked expensive, as did the tall, thin top hat on top of his almost completely bald head. His face had a bit of a pinched look, with a long nose and a large, slightly-droopy mustache over a small chin. He peered at Marty through a pair of gold-framed pince-nez glasses. “We’re looking for our son,” he explained to Marty. “Someone’s kidnapped him.”
“Oh, jeez,” Marty said, deciding to forgive the woman a little for her rudeness. Having your kid in danger would probably make anyone shirty. “What’s he look like?”
“I can’t believe this would happen!” the woman said, before her husband could reply. “Everything was going so well, too! Things were all arranged, we just had to wait for the rehearsal, and suddenly he up and disappears!”
“Nell, it’ll be all right,” the man said, reaching out to pat her shoulder. She glared at the hand, and he withdrew it, settling it back onto the cane he held. “We’ll rescue him and make sure nothing’s happened to his brain--”
“It’s a bit late for that!”
“Guys, I know a lot of people around here,” Marty said, trying to get their attention again. “If I could just have a description--”
“What’s going on?” Doc said, appearing from the rows of parts. “I thought I heard shouting.”
“Somebody’s taken their kid,” Marty said, gesturing to the pair. “They’re searching around for him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Doc said, wiping his hands on a rag.
“I’m sure you are,” the woman – Nell – said acidly, snapping open a fan and waving it in front of her face. “Sorry you didn’t get a chance at him first.”
Doc, who had more patience with these people than Marty (probably from a lifetime of dealing with them), let the comment pass. “We can help you get him back,” he offered. “We’re quite familiar with most of the Touched who live in the city--”
“Oh no!” Nell said, looking deeply suspicious. “I don’t want you anywhere near my son! We just want to know if you’ve seen him. We can do the rest.”
“Quite right,” the man agreed. “Now, then, he’s nineteen years old, and--”
All heads turned as Victor emerged from the inner recesses of the shop, jacket and tie missing, with his sleeves rolled up and his hands stained with grease. “I’m sorry, but I tried adjusting the gears you showed me, and the difference engine is still freezing up,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to take apart more of the machine.”
“VICTOR FITZWILLIAM VAN DORT!!”
Victor nearly jumped out of his skin – not that Marty blamed him, he’d almost done the same. “Mother?!” he gasped, turning to face the couple.
Marty’s head snapped back around, his mouth dropping open. These two were Victor’s parents?! He looked between them for a moment. They did share the same affliction of pasty white skin. And, actually, the man and Victor shared a lot of the same body structure and facial features – Marty supposed he hadn’t really noticed because Victor’s mother tended to draw all the attention to herself. “Holy shit,” he whispered.
“Victor, what are you doing here?” Nell demanded, waving her fan around like it was a deadly weapon. “And why aren’t you properly dressed? Anyone could come along and see you like that!”
“Yes, where is your tie and jacket?” Victor’s father added, frowning at his son’s casual attire.
“I – I – I’ve been w-working on a m-machine,” Victor babbled, hands reaching up to try and grab a tie that wasn’t there. “It’s t-terribly greasy w-work, I d-didn’t want to r-ruin my clothes--”
“And what are you doing working on difference engines?” Nell added, looking like the last two words had left a foul taste in her mouth.
“I-it’s for c-calculations f-for the t-train. . . .”
“What train? Oh, don’t bother, I don’t really want to know,” Nell cut Victor off. She turned on Doc. “So you’re the one who took him! Thought you’d use him for your little experiments, hmm? Cut him up for spare parts?”
“What gives you the right to come and take our son?” Victor’s father added, leaning on his cane and staring hard at Doc through his glasses.
“We didn’t realize we’d taken him! I was testing out the new hover conversion system for my train, and we happened to stop very close to your town,” Doc started to explain.
“How can you not realize you’ve taken someone?” Victor’s father asked, looking very puzzled.
“Yes, exactly, William,” Nell said, glowering at Doc. “He’s lying. They all lie.”
“No, he’s n-not!” Victor spoke up. “I s-stumbled across the t-train while some o-of the boys f-from home were c-chasing me! I g-got my foot c-caught in the r-rope ladder attached to it, and t-they took off b-before I could f-free myself!”
“He somehow hung on all the way back here,” Marty added. “Your kid’s got guts, ma’am.”
“Our Victor?” Nell scoffed. “Nonsense. I know a made-up story when I hear one. You’re coming straight home with us, young man!”
“But – I – d-didn’t you g-get my l-letters?” Victor asked, wringing his hands together. “I’ve b-been writing to you o-once a week. . . .”
“We thought the first one was someone’s prank,” William said, adjusting his glasses slightly. “But when you still hadn’t come home when the second one arrived, well. . . .”
“We would have been up here sooner if it hadn’t taken so much time to arrange for the trip,” Nell said. “We spent a lot of money we didn’t need to coming up here to bring you back! Why do you always do these things, Victor? Honestly, I don’t know what’s wrong with you sometimes.”
Victor looked down at the ground. “Y-you didn’t need to come,” he said softly. “I’m h-happy here.”
“Happy?! How could you be happy surrounded by madmen?”
“We’re here now, Victor,” William said gently. “We’re going to take you home. You can admit the letters were faked.”
“But they w-weren’t!” Victor said, lifting his face again. “I r-really did write them! I r-really did want t-to stay!”
“Of course you don’t!” Nell said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“But I d-do!”
Nell stared at him for a moment. Then she turned another megawatt glare on Doc. “All right, then, what did you do to him?” she demanded, snapping her fan shut and poking the scientist in the chest with it. “Out with it!”
“I did nothing to him!” Doc said, starting to look angry.
“Nonsense! You’ve – you’ve put him under mind control or something!”
“I’ve done no such thing! Your son chose to stay with us of his own free will! Took us by surprise, to be perfectly honest. We thought he’d been chomping at the bit to get home, if I may use the vernacular.”
“I’m sure he was until you did whatever you did to him! William, search him, make sure they haven’t attached anything to him.”
Victor allowed his father to pat him down, apparently in the hope this would stop the talk of mind control devices. “Nothing I can feel, dear,” William admitted, looking a bit confused.
“Then they must be drugging him. Victor, how could you eat their food?”
“There is nothing in the food,” Doc snapped. “I’m primarily a mechanist, not a chemist. And I’m not one of those Touched who abducts random people for spare parts, either.”
“So why did you take Victor?”
“We didn’t mean to!” Marty yelled, wishing the woman would finally get that through her thick skull. “It was an accident! We were gonna bring him right back, but then we kinda hit it off, Doc offered him a job, and he accepted!”
“A job? You wanted to hire him?” Nell said, looking from Marty to Doc and back with an absolutely baffled expression.
“He’s been an excellent assistant,” Doc said, giving Victor a smile. “Not much technical training, of course, but he learns fast, and he has a knack for working with the smaller parts.”
“He’s clumsy and he’s afraid of everything!”
“I’ll give you that he runs into stuff,” Marty began,“but--”
“You see? Why would you want to hire someone like that? No, you took him to perform experiments on him. That’s what all you people do.”
“It’s n-not like that, M-Mother,” Victor protested, spreading his hands. “A l-lot of w-what we’ve h-heard about Touched is w-wrong.”
“What?” Nell laughed derisively. “You’re just saying that because these two have scrambled your brains.”
“Look, sir,” William said, pulling out his wallet. “None of us want any trouble. I’m sure we can settle this easily if you’ll just tell me how much you think he’s worth. . . .”
Doc stared at him – that bug-eyed stare that usually made Marty laugh. There was nothing funny about it this time, though. “Great Scott, are you seriously suggesting your son is some sort commodity that can be bought?”
“It’s just that I’ve found a few pounds in the right places can solve plenty of problems--”
“William, no,” Nell said, smacking him with her fan. “We’ve wasted enough money on this trip. And I’m certainly not giving any to this sort.”
“Mother, Father, r-really, I’m fine,” Victor said pleadingly. “I h-haven’t been mind c-controlled or h-hurt or anything. Doc – D-Dr. Brown and M-Marty have been n-nothing but k-kind to me.”
“All right, fine, let’s play along with this delusion for a moment,” Nell said haughtily, flipping her fan back open. “Why would you stay knowing that you’re going to be married at the end of the month? To the descendant of a grand duke, no less?”
“Because he’s scared to death of marrying someone he’s never met?” Marty suggested, making sure to pile on the sarcasm.
“Stay out of this, madboy,” Nell said without looking at him.
“I’m actually just the other assistant.”
“Oh, an Igor,” Nell said, making the word sound like some sort of swear. “Wonderful.”
“I – M-Mother, I told you I w-was nervous about that,” Victor said, fidgeting. “That I d-didn’t think it was r-right. Shouldn’t V-Victoria Everglot be marrying a l-lord or something?”
“We’re every bit as good as the Everglots,” Nell said, putting her nose in the air. “It’s positively criminal that we haven’t taken our proper place in society yet. But without a connection to a proper name. . . .” She sighed, heavily put upon. “I deserve better than a fish merchant’s life,” she added softly, giving William a brief stink-eye.
William seemed to take it in stride. “We all do, dear,” he agreed. “I can’t imagine Victor doesn’t want to better his connections.” He glanced at Doc and Marty. “Though he’s choosing the entirely wrong class of people to do it with.”
“These are m-my friends, Father,” Victor said, eyes narrowing just slightly. “And they’re n-not the wrong sort at all.”
“They’re a Touched and his Igor! How could they be anything but the wrong sort?” Nell demanded.
“They’re nice p-people, Mother! If you’d just t-talk to them for t-ten minutes--”
“I don’t need to spend my time talking to mad people,” Nell cut him off. “I have better things to do than listen to some lunatic rave on about science. Now you see here, it took us quite a lot of time to drag everyone up here.”
“Everyone?” Victor repeated, growing anger giving way to puzzlement. “Is Mayhew here?”
“Of course Mayhew’s here, how do you think we’re getting around?” Nell asked, in a tone that suggested she didn’t think Victor had a brain at all. “I’m talking about the Everglots!”
Whatever color Victor might have had in his face fled. “The E-E-Everglots are here?” he croaked out.
“Yes! It took a lot of convincing, but we thought that it might be best if they joined us,” Nell said, fanning herself imperiously. “We’ve had to promise them extra money for coming. I hope you’re happy.”
“I – why--”
“So you can see what you are giving up! You have a chance for an excellent match here, Victor, and you are ruining it!”
“You’ve hooked a winner, Victor,” William said pleadingly. “Come back home and reel her in.”
“I-I-I’ve never even spoken to her!” Victor said, gripping the front of his shirt tightly.
Nell sighed dramatically. “That was a point in our favor,” she said. “But considering the circumstances, perhaps it is best if you meet. We’ve set things up so you can get acquainted tomorrow. Took us forever to find a coffee shop that didn’t stink of Touched, I might add.”
“You’ll a-actually let us meet?”
“If that’s what it takes for you to stop this nonsense,” Nell said, rolling her eyes. “Now put on a clean suit and come back to the hotel with us. I see no reason for you to stay here.”
Victor looked at them, then at Doc and Marty. “I – I’d rather stay,” he said after a moment, voice soft.
“My assistant told you he’d rather stay,” Doc said, jaw set. “And we would be very happy to have him continue living with us. Not to mention he is currently in the middle of working on a job. So, if you do not mind. . . .”
Nell stared at them for a moment, then let out a frustrated sigh. “Oh, I don’t have the energy to argue this with you,” she said. “Fine. Stay here. Ruin your reputation. But this is not over, Victor.”
“I’m sure it’s not, Mother,” Victor said, looking at the floor again. “I’m sorry.”
“If you were really sorry, you would have come home straight away. We’ll continue talking about this tomorrow. We’ll come fetch you at one o’clock.” Nell turned, briefly met Marty’s eyes, let out a “hmph!” of disapproval, and headed for the door. “Come along, William!”
“Coming, dear.” William took a moment to shake his head at Victor sadly, then followed his wife outside.
There was silence for a moment after the two had left. Then Marty turned to his friend, who was still staring at the floor. “Okay, there’s about five million things I could say, but let’s start with the easiest one – Fitzwilliam?”
Victor winced. “It wasn’t m-my idea,” he said, finally looking up again. “Mother picked it. She wanted Fitzgerald, but in the Van Dorts, it’s tradition to give a first son his father’s name as his middle. Fitzwilliam--” he said the name with utter distaste “–was her idea of a compromise. She thinks it sounds aristocratic.”
“Probably it is, those people usually have weird names,” Marty said. “So, basically, she’s been picking on you ever since you were born?”
Victor winced again. “S-she’s just loud,” he claimed, with an expression that said he didn’t believe a single word coming out of his mouth. “She’s u-used to getting her o-own way, and--”
“Victor, she treated you like you were something she scraped off her shoes!” Marty interrupted, gesturing wildly with his right hand.
“She was j-just angry. . . . I’m more concerned with how she treated you two,” he added, looking between them. “I’m very sorry about that. I think I told you how badly Touched are regarded in my hometown.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Doc said, waving a hand. “I’ve heard worse, believe me. Your mother is hardly the only one to think Touched are a stain on society, if not the earth as a whole.” He gently put a hand on Victor’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“I – oh, I don’t know,” Victor said, putting his face in his hand (apparently forgetting it was covered in grease at the moment). “I never expected them to actually come after me. And to bring the Everglots.”
“At least she realized it might be nice for you to meet your own fiancee,” Marty said, leaning over the counter. “If you want to go to that, I mean.”
“Well, you don’t have to. Unless you’re scared of your mother yelling at you some more. Which, considering, is probably a legit fear.”
“We’re not going to let anyone make you do anything you don’t want to do,” Doc added, with a firm nod. “You shouldn’t be bullied into things.”
Victor looked over at him. “But – they’re my parents--”
“That doesn’t mean squat,” Doc said, rather heatedly. “Being related by blood doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like someone. Trust me, my father proved that to me in the worst way possible.”
Victor’s eyes went wide as he considered the implications of that statement. “He – he didn’t try to--” he started.
“Never explicitly, but I’m damn sure he considered the idea,” Doc said, his voice dark and slightly Creative. “I didn’t want to tell you this, but I happened to have been disowned at gunpoint.”
Victor’s jaw dropped. Marty didn’t blame him – when he’d wrangled that tidbit out of Doc, he’d been absolutely stunned too. He couldn’t imagine anybody’s father pointing a gun at their chest and threatening to shoot them if they didn’t leave. “Oh! I’m – I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Doc said, letting out a deep sigh. “I suppose I have my mother to thank for him not actually going through with it. She was frightened of my sudden – difference, but she knew it didn’t warrant me being killed.” He suddenly looked every bit his sixty-five years. “I suppose I’m actually one of the lucky ones. There’s plenty of small towns both in America and over here that simply kill recently Creative Touched, no questions asked.”
“That’s simply horrible,” Victor whispered. “Why would they do that?”
“Well, there’s no getting around that a lot of Touched who have first gone a bit Creative cause a lot of collateral damage,” Doc admitted, moving to lean on the counter. “Other than that, you can blame popular opinion. People are so used to thinking of Touched as monsters that. . . .” He shook his head. “Normally good people can do some extremely vicious and evil things. Just look at some of recorded history.”
Victor reached out to touch Doc’s shoulder, then remembered the state of his hand and changed his mind. “It’s such a terrible situation,” he said.
“Made worse by the fact that some Touched really are monsters,” Doc said, running his hands through his hair. “Like Doctor Narbon – that’s one Touched you would be completely justified in killing. And as I’ve stated before, they’re the ones that everyone knows about. Thanks to them, everyone is automatically willing to believe the worst of us.”
“And then you’ve got people like Dr. Horrible, who – you know, go around calling themselves stuff like ‘Dr. Horrible,’” Marty added.
Doc shook his head. “I really would like to see a change in this dynamic, but sometimes, I have to wonder if it’s all futile,” he muttered. “It might take a complete overhaul of society to get us to a point where Touched aren’t automatically considered evil almost all of the time, and where Touched don’t automatically consider themselves to be evil much of the time.”
“You changed my mind,” Victor said quietly. “Fairly quickly, too.”
Doc smiled. “That we did,” he allowed. “But most people aren’t as open-minded as you are.”
“Some people have to be.”
“I certainly hope so.” Doc stood up straight again. “But it’s not our job as of yet to try and fix society’s woes. Let’s focus on the somewhat smaller problem of dealing with your parents attempting to drag you back to Burtonsville.”
“I can probably convince them that I genuinely am happy here,” Victor said hopefully. “Given enough time.”
“Like what, until the new millennium?” Marty asked sarcastically.
“Marty,” Doc said, leveling a look at the young man.
“They’re just upset at the moment,” Victor said, voice pleading. “If I go to the meeting tomorrow, they’ll be a bit calmer and perhaps we can talk more civilly. And – and I really should meet Miss Everglot. Just so I know what I might be getting into.”
“Don’t marry her if you don’t want to, Victor,” Marty said. “Just because she’s the daughter of some lord doesn’t mean you gotta marry her. Even if your mom thinks differently.”
“Everything’s already been arranged,” Victor pointed out, though he didn’t look any happier about it than Marty felt. “I may not h-have a choice. It was probably silly of me to think running away would solve anything,” he added with a sigh. “So I may as well meet the young lady. P-perhaps I’ll get lucky and she’ll be nice.”
“I guess I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” Marty said with a slight nod. “Just – just know we’ve got your back, okay? We’re not gonna let anybody mess with you.”
“Precisely,” Doc agreed. “You’re one of us, Victor. And nothing will ever change that.”
Victor finally smiled. “Thank you. It means a lot to me.”
“You’re welcome.” Doc clapped him on the shoulder. “Now, how about you wash that hand print off your face and we finish our work on the difference engine?”
Victor decided to meet his parents outside the shop the next day, in order to avoid causing another scene. He tugged at his coat lapels, fidgeting as he waited for the carriage. He’d made sure he looked proper today – he’d chosen his plainest suit, waistcoat, and tie, and he’d foregone wearing his fingerless gloves and goggles. He’d gone ahead and worn the overcoat, however – there was a distinct chill to the air today, and even a tattered coat his mother was sure to remark coolly upon was better than none at all.
He frowned as he thought about how his parents had treated Doc and Marty. Just because they were a little different was no reason to be so rude! Of course, Mother’s like that to almost everyone. Oh dear, how am I going to convince her and Father that I’m not brainwashed and that I really do wish to stay?
The sound of hooves on cobblestones caught his attention. He looked down the street to see the familiar shape of the Van Dort carriage weaving its way through traffic. It was hard to miss, what with the large figure of a fish mounted on the top and the way the carriage driver coughed almost every five seconds. Victor smiled and waved as the carriage came closer. “Hello, Mayhew!”
Mayhew waved back with a smile of his own. The man had been the Van Dort’s driver for as long as Victor could remember. He and Victor had formed something of a bond over the years, most likely due to the fact that, apart from whoever Victor’s current nanny had been, he was the one in the household who paid the most attention to the boy. “Hello, Victor!” He pulled up beside him, and paused to cough. “So, this is where you disappeared to.”
“Yes,” Victor said, feeling suddenly nervous. He’d never asked Mayhew’s opinion on the Touched – he hadn’t thought it necessary, with how normal Burtonsville was. Was his old friend like his parents in this respect?
“You like it here?” Victor nodded as firmly as he could. Mayhew started to speak, then coughed again. “Never thought you would like a place like this. You were always such a nervous little boy.”
“I never thought I would either,” Victor admitted with a chuckle. “It’s odd how things change, isn’t it?”
“Victor!” The door was flung open, revealing the annoyed face of his mother. “Get inside at once! We’re going to be late!”
Victor hurried to obey, hitting his shin against the step as he scrambled inside. The pain was preferable to his mother’s anger, however. He had a feeling this was not going to be a particularly good day, and he didn’t care to make things worse. He dropped into his seat facing his parents. Nell looked quite grumpy, while William wore the bland expression he usually did. Victor smiled at them. “Hello again.”
“Hello,” Nell said coldly. “Have they stopped altering your brain yet?”
Well, there went any chances of this being a pleasant conversation. Victor sighed as William tapped on the carriage roof to signal Mayhew to start driving. “They h-haven’t done anything to me, Mother,” he said. “They’re n-not that kind of p-people.”
“They’re a Touched and an Igor,” Nell snapped. “Of course they’re that kind of people. They can’t help it. It’s in their blood.”
“They’re dangerous, Victor,” William added, clutching his cane tightly. “I don’t understand why you would want to associate with that sort of people.”
“Doc and Marty aren’t dangerous,” Victor protested, starting to feel rather annoyed. “They’ve s-shown me nothing but k-kindness since they first m-met me. And Doc’s Inventions n-never hurt anyone.”
“So far as you know,” William said, rather darkly for him. “Touched are all alike. Even if they say they want to help you, all they truly want to do is take over the world.”
“Exactly!” Nell agreed. “They should all be locked away with the rest of the mad people, and the key thrown away. Not to mention this ‘Doc and Marty’ seem to be completely common. Tell me, what does Dr. Brown do, exactly?”
“He runs the shop,” Victor said, bristling. “And he does q-quite well at it too, Mother. It’s h-honest trade.”
“With a Touched running it? What’s his family background?”
Victor abruptly realized he had a trump card. “He’s related to nobility,” he said proudly. “His family came from Germany as the Von Brauns – they changed their name to Brown to fit in better in America. Apparently those remaining in Germany hold the title of Baron.”
Nell looked briefly impressed despite herself. “Really?” Then her eyes narrowed. “Are the rest of them Touched as well?”
Victor frowned. “Er – he’s never said. I know for sure his father isn’t.” Please don’t make me explain further on that.
“Hmph – I bet at least one is,” Nell muttered, waving her fan. “The entire family’s probably tainted. And what about that Marty fellow?”
“His family farms,” Victor was forced to admit. “Though he’s told me his father has expressed an interest in writing books.”
“What kind of books?”
“. . .Science fiction,” Victor said in a low voice.
“Hah! Completely beneath our notice,” Nell said contemptuously. “You could do far better in selecting your friends, Victor.”
I don’t think so, Victor thought, but held his tongue. It was useless to argue with his mother. She just would never listen. Better to let her wear herself out talking while he planned another way to convince his parents that Secundus was where he wanted to be.
The trip to the coffee shop his parents had selected was, unfortunately, brief. Victor gulped as they pulled up outside the cheery little store. Inside he would meet the woman to whom he had become engaged without sharing a single word. What would she be like? What could she be like, with the Everglots as her parents? Was this really worth it? Should he just try to bolt – run back to the shop and pretend none of this had ever happened?
No, he scolded himself. Enough running. You live in Secundus now. You work for a Touched. You rode to this mad city underneath a flying steam train and chose to stay instead of slink back home. You can face up to meeting your f-f-fiancee.
He exited the carriage first, as he knew it would take a moment to get his mother out through the door. For some reason, Nell refused to really acknowledge the weight she’d gained over the years. Normally this wasn’t a problem – they had the services of an excellent tailor to quickly alter any dress she grew out of – but it was always an issue whenever they traveled. Nell, basically, was now just a smidge too big to fit through the door. Getting in and out of the carriage on her part, therefore, generally required at least a moment’s pulling or pushing. He took the time to study the coffee shop a bit more. It was a small place situated right on the corner of the street, the exterior painted a bright yellow. The sign above the door proclaimed it to be “Her Majesty’s Bean” (a pun, or just an odd name? Victor wasn’t sure). There were two large windows on either side of the door, but they were frosted glass – it was impossible to see anyone within clearly. Victor fiddled with his tie, as was his wont when he was nervous. Be brave, be brave, it’s just a young lady and her parents (her incredibly scary parents). . . .
Nell popped out after a moment, and the three of them entered the coffee shop. Victor spotted Lady Maudeline Everglot right away – she was hard to miss, being a tall woman with an even taller hairdo. She was sitting at a table in the back with three other people. Victor took a deep breath to steady himself. As long as he didn’t drop hot beverages on anyone, the meeting could be called something of a success.
Nell saw Lady Everglot shortly after Victor. “Ah! There they are. Come along, you two.” She bustled her way to the back of the shop, followed by Victor and William. “Lady Everglot, how nice to see you,” she said, voice dripping with insincere charm.
Lady Everglot scowled at her, as she did everybody. She was a harsh-looking woman, her face pointed and pinched under her enormous, vaguely heart-shaped hair. She intimidated almost everyone who crossed her path – certainly she intimidated Victor. Victor had heard rumors that she had never smiled once in her life. He could certainly believe them. “Good afternoon to you too,” she said, coldly polite. “I see you have located your son.”
“Yes – this is Victor,” Nell said, pulling Victor to stand beside her. “Victor, this is Lord, Lady, and Miss Everglot, and their servant Hildegarde.”
Victor let his eyes roam over the group. To Lady Everglot’s right sat a hunched-over little old lady wearing a maid’s uniform. She looked very worn, as if she’d been almost used up by life. But her eyes were infinitely more kind that Lady Everglot’s, which encouraged him a bit. To Lady Everglot’s left was an extremely short, very round man with beady eyes and a pronounced scowl – Lord Finis Everglot. He looked at Victor with open distaste. Victor attempted a smile and let his eyes move to Lord Everglot’s left.
And blinked rapidly, shocked. What – this is Miss Everglot?
It seemed to be, given that she was sitting with the family, but otherwise Victor would have never believed it. Miss Victoria Everglot looked nothing like either of her parents. She was actually a rather pretty young woman, her light brown hair done up neatly into a bun above a rounded heart-shaped face. Her eyes were large, her nose small, her lips pleasingly plump. She was wearing a quite lovely dress with alternate stripes of light and dark red, with flounces at the hem. She seemed quite nervous too, eyes focused on the table. She noticed him watching her and looked up, giving him a slightly trembly but sincere smile. Victor smiled back, a wave of relief washing over him. This afternoon probably could be salvaged. “H-how do you do?” he said politely.
“How do you do,” Lord Everglot replied in his deep voice, sounding rather annoyed.
“Won’t you sit down?” Lady Everglot said, in a tone that made it clear it was more of a command than a request.
“Pleasure to see you all again,” William said, stealing a couple of spare chairs from an empty table so everyone would have a seat. Victor found himself sitting across from Miss Everglot, with his mother on his left and his father on his right. “We are sorry you had to come all this way.”
“Hmph,” was Lord Everglot’s only reply.
“Oh, I do like that dress,” Nell simpered at Lady Everglot. “You have such taste.”
“Thank you,” Lady Everglot said, perhaps just a shade warmer than before. Apparently the woman was not immune to a compliment. “How do you find the city?”
“Ugh – I’ll be glad to go home,” Nell said, becoming a bit more casual in her speech. “Horrible place. Those mechanical carriages nearly gave me a heart attack. I’m surprised you can stand them,” she added to Victor. “You think you’d be terrified of them. He’s scared of most things, I’m afraid. When he was a boy, he used to wet his combinations regularly, didn’t he William?”
Victor wished, as he so often did in these situations, that the earth would open and swallow him up. As that didn’t happen, he settled for staring at the ceiling in awkward silence. The Everglots didn’t seem any more impressed with him or his family with this announcement. “Children are often like that,” Lady Everglot said disdainfully.
A waitress came up to them, smiling warmly. “Hello, and how may I help you today?” she asked, pencil and pad at the ready.
“Would anyone like anything to eat or drink?” William asked. “It’s no trouble.”
“I’ll have a coffee – black,” Lord Everglot said brusquely.
“Perhaps a cup of tea – cream and sugar,” Miss Everglot said softly. She sounded shy, though Victor doubted she was as shy as he was. Still, it was nice to know they apparently had things in common.
“Some tea for me too – plenty of cream, but no sugar,” Nell added.
“A chocolate muffin, please?” Victor requested. Having something to put in his mouth might help stop him from saying stupid things.
“Coffee, two teas, muffin,” the waitress repeated. “Anything else?” The others shook their heads. “Then I’ll be back shortly.” She departed the way she had came.
William clapped his hands. “Onto business,” he said. “Now that we’ve found Victor, things can proceed again. Though we will have to reschedule the wedding.”
“Oh, when does Valentine’s Day fall this year?” Nell asked, looking excited. “That would be romantic, wouldn’t it?”
Romance? Since when do you care about romance when it comes to marrying me off? Victor thought, picking idly at the tablecloth. Not to mention I still haven’t agreed to come back with you yet.
“I’m sure we can arrange something during that week,” Lady Everglot said, voice back to its usual coldness. “Though I do hope you know what an imposition it will be to resend the invitations.”
“We are sorry,” Nell said immediately, fanning herself. “We certainly never expected anything like this to happen.”
“Oh, yes,” William agreed. “Who would have thought any Touched would land his flying steam train in our town?” He laughed nervously.
“Mind you, I can see our Victor getting his foot caught in the ladder,” Nell admitted. “He’s a bit of a daydreamer, doesn’t always look where he’s going.”
Victor wondered if his mother really thought a list of his faults would somehow recommend him to the Everglots. If so, she was going to be spectacularly disappointed. “Really,” Lady Everglot said blandly. She turned to Victor. “Your mother did tell us before that you are a classically trained pianist.”
Victor nodded. “I s-started lessons w-when I was s-six,” he said. “My t-tutor said I was q-quite talented.” He felt his fingers twitch as he talked about it. That was the one real downside of living with Doc and Marty – he hadn’t gotten a chance to play in weeks. He really had to figure out where to find a piano so he could start playing again, before he got hopelessly rusty.
Victor felt the burden of continuing the conversation fall on him. He fidgeted again. “D-does any of y-your family play?” he asked, eyes flicking to Miss Everglot.
“No,” Lady Everglot said sharply. “I don’t hold with young women learning music. It’s far too passionate.”
“I think a young gentleman should be trained in the art of hunting,” Lord Everglot added, looking quite disdainful. “I find a good shooting party much preferable to those musical soirees people keep holding.”
“Oh, with all due respect, Lord Everglot, you don’t want to give Victor a gun,” William said with another laugh. “He’d shoot himself before anything else.”
“So I’ve gathered,” Lord Everglot said, his expression suggesting that Victor’s lack of prowess in the killing department made his qualifications for manhood questionable.
The waitress came back then, carrying three cups and a plate. “Your coffee, milord, your tea miss, your tea ma’am, and your muffin sir,” she said, distributing everything. “Please just call if you need a refill or anything else.”
“Thank you,” William said. The waitress smiled at him and departed.
There was a momentary pause in the conversation as everyone who had something sampled their food. Victor found the chocolate muffin quite good, though it didn’t stand up to anything at the March Hare’s tea table. I wonder what they would all make of that, he thought, hiding a chuckle. Mother would have a fit, I’m sure. And Father wouldn’t know where to turn. The Everglots would surely get up and leave the first chance they got. He glanced at Miss Everglot again, who was daintily sipping her tea. She’d probably faint upon meeting Richard. Unless she’s secretly like me and finds the company of people like that pleasant. I wish we could get a chance to talk.
“So,” Nell said as cups and muffin were set down, “for the honeymoon, I think that--”
There was a loud BANG! from outside. Startled, Victor nearly broke his plate. All heads whipped around to see what looked like a huge mechanical foot stomping down the street, steam hissing from the ankle. “What in the world is that?” Lady Everglot demanded.
“Looks like one of Professor Madblood’s,” Victor said without thinking.
“Madblood?” Miss Everglot said, looking surprised.
“How would you know?” Lord Everglot asked, scowling deeper.
Victor found himself gripping his tie again. “I h-have been here s-some weeks,” he said. “I’ve b-become a bit f-familiar with who l-lives here.”
The foot continued stomping, people scrambling to get out of its way. One stomp nearly took out the Van Dort’s carriage – Mayhew had to scramble to keep the horses from panicking. Another actually did take out the other carriage parked in front of the shop. The driver and two horses promptly fled the scene. “Our taxi!” Lady Everglot cried.
A small man with a black goatee, glasses, and a labcoat appeared, his expression quite peeved. “Foot, what are you doing here? I told you to go down Market Street! This is Marshall Street!”
“FOOT SORRY,” the foot replied in a mechanical voice, gears grinding as it spoke. “FOOT NOT READ SIGN RIGHT.”
“That – that monstrosity nearly crushed our carriage!” Nell yelled, looking horrified. “How can people--” Seized with fury, she sprang to her feet and ran outside, waving her fan like a weapon. “You there! How dare you threaten our carriage like this! And Mayhew, stop that blasted coughing!”
“I didn’t mean to! I told Foot to go down Market Street!”
Lord Everglot seemed to think Nell had the right idea. He waddled out as fast as he could, gesturing angrily. “Madman! If I had my way, your kind would be shot on sight!”
“Can’t you come up with any original threats?” Madblood retorted. “I’ve been threatened with shooting far too often.”
“You mock me? The descendant of a grand duke?”
“Your kind makes life harder for all of us!” Nell yelled. “You and your worthless inventions!”
“The only reason Foot is just a foot is because I ran out of money to build the complete giant robot! You’d be cowering for sure if I could just get some more funding!”
“Oh dear, this won’t end well,” William said, wincing as the three continued to yell at each other. “Would you excuse me?” He got up, calling out, “Don’t get all aflutter dear, you don’t know what he may have on him. . . .”
Lady Everglot sighed, looking much put-upon. “That man sometimes. . .Hildegarde, please stay here and make sure nothing improper happens,” she said, shooting Victor a look.
“Yes, milady,” Hildegarde said, in a voice that cracked.
Lady Everglot nodded and left her seat, heading for the door as well. “Finis! Return to the table at once!”
Victor abruptly realized that he had been left almost completely alone at the table with Miss Everglot. He felt his pulse speed up. Oh, God, what was he going to do? He had no idea what to say, but surely avoiding all conversation was rude. . . . He smiled nervously at the young lady. “Hello.” It was an asinine thing to say, but it was something he was sure he could get out without making a complete idiot of himself.
Miss Everglot smiled back, looking almost just as nervous. “Hello.”
There was silence for a moment as Victor struggled with topics. “I’m s-sorry you h-had to come all t-the way up here,” he said finally.
“Oh, it’s all right,” Miss Everglot said, voice soft. “It’s a very--” Her gaze went briefly to the scene outside, where Madblood, Nell, and Lord Everglot were all ranting at each other, watched by Foot and a growing crowd. “–interesting city.” She paused, glancing at the table, then looked up at him again. “You must have been very frightened when you came here.”
Victor was surprised – she sounded genuinely concerned. She really is nothing like her parents, is she? It’s to her benefit. “Not as m-much as you m-might think,” he confessed. “Doc-tor Brown and Marty h-have been v-very kind to me.”
Miss Everglot looked surprised again. “Isn’t Dr. Brown the one who kidnapped you?”
“Not on p-purpose,” Victor explained. “He d-didn’t even realize I was t-there until we landed. And he d-did everything he c-could to make me c-comfortable afterward.
“But – your mother and father said he was a – Touched,” Miss Everglot said, her gaze briefly going to the floor as she said the word.
“Yes,” Victor nodded. “But that d-doesn’t automatically m-make him evil. I’ve l-learned that in my t-time here.”
Miss Everglot seemed a bit uncertain. “I suppose you would know more than I would,” she allowed. “I’ve just heard so many horrible stories. . . .”
“Please believe me – they’re not true of all Touched,” Victor said, his tone pleading. “They’re – they’re just people, like you and me.” Trying to add a bit of levity to the proceedings, he added, “D-do I look like the t-type of person who w-would willingly stay with s-someone who was e-experimenting on me?”
It got a smile. “No, I don’t think so,” she said.
Hildegarde reached over and touched Victor’s hand. “You seem so nervous, Master Van Dort,” she said sympathetically.
Victor gave her a weak smile. “N-nervous is my n-natural state of being, I’m afraid.” Glancing at Miss Everglot, he added, “E-especially around young l-ladies.”
Miss Everglot nodded a bit, shifting in her seat. “And under our particular circumstances, it’s to be expected,” she agreed. She looked up at Victor, then down at the table, idly drawing patterns with her finger. “When I was a child, I dreamt of my wedding day. I always hoped to marry someone I was deeply in love with. Someone to spend the rest of my life with.” She sighed and looked up with a melancholy sort of smile. “Silly, isn’t it?”
Victor felt immediately bad for her. He’d been so worried about his own part in this, he hadn’t even considered she was being forced into this marriage as well. Both of them, condemned to marry someone they’d never even met. What had been going through their parents’ heads? “Not at all,” he told her gently. “This arranged marriage must have u-upset you.”
“A little,” Miss Everglot confessed, looking ashamed. Then she smiled at Victor. “But you do seem quite nice. I – I think we could get along fine. Unless there’s some problem. . . .”
Well, there was the small problem of him not wanting to leave Secundus. But Victor didn’t want to say that until he’d found a more polite way of expressing it. Something that indicated it had nothing to do with Miss Everglot. Because she truly did seem like a lovely girl. It was just – she wasn’t enough to get him to leave.
Why is that? an inner voice suddenly asked him. Why isn’t she enough to convince you to go home? She’s pretty, she’s sweet-natured, her temperament matches yours, and for Mother’s sake we may as well add that she’s the daughter of a lord. Being married to her certainly wouldn’t be the hell you imagined – it looks to be a quite pleasant experience, in fact. So what’s wrong?
Victor frowned slightly and studied Miss Everglot a bit more. She really was nice – everything a man should want in a wife. But there was – something missing. Something he hadn’t realized until now he needed. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure he could put it into words. He looked at her face – the pink lips, the faint flush of color in the cheeks, the blue eyes –
Blue eyes. . . .
I’d be so much happier with a pair of green eyes.
The realization was like a lightning bolt going straight through him. Victor sat up straighter, still looking at Miss Everglot but not really seeing her. He – he wanted green eyes, and red hair, and skill with a knife. He wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to go up against monsters, who relished the company of those not quite sane, who could be dangerous but also gentle. He wanted someone who loved cats and rabbits, who had the same passion for art he did, who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. He wanted – Alice, he thought slowly. Dear Lord, I’m falling in love with Alice. When did that happen? I mean, we’ve been friends for a couple of weeks now, but I didn’t realize. . .it explains why whenever I try to compliment her, I end up falling all over my words (and sometimes myself). Maybe – maybe when she touched me that first time in Wonderland Park. . . . Or maybe when I first met her, and saw those eyes. . . .
Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face, as Miss Everglot suddenly sighed. “There’s someone else, isn’t there,” she said, not even bothering to make it a question.
“I – I only just realized it this moment,” Victor confessed, feeling a fresh stab of guilt to his insides. Oh God, their first meeting and he goes ahead and – upsets her, if not full-on breaks her heart. And this after spending weeks convinced she was some sort of harpy. “I’m sorry,” he continued, wanting to reach over and take her hand, but resisting the impulse. “It’s nothing to do with you, I swear. You’re lovely, Miss Everglot. Under other circumstances, I – I d-do think things w-would have w-worked out nicely.” He meant that, too. If he’d never come to Secundus, never had a taste of this life, never met Alice, he was practically certain he could have been happy with her. She would have made a good wife for him. But now. . .he couldn’t help his heart. And he couldn’t help feeling like he belonged here now, not back in Burtonsville. “If there’s anything I can do to m-make this up to you, I will. You d-don’t deserve to h-have to hear this.”
“Better now than later,” Miss Everglot said philosophically, though she still looked rather sad. “I don’t want you marrying me if you’re in love with someone else.” She glanced outside. “I’m just worried about my parents. Our marriage was going to – to save us from the poorhouse.”
“I’ll c-convince Father t-to give you a loan,” Victor impulsively promised. “For m-making you come up h-here all for n-nothing. It’s the l-least I can do.
“That would be very kind of you.” She looked at the table for a moment, then back up at him, frowning. “You – really do like it here?”
“It’s amazing,” Victor said, smiling. “I could do without Professor Madblood building g-giant Automaton feet to stomp all over the p-place, but most of it. . . .”
“I’m assuming – she lives here too?”
“She’s a rather good friend of mine,” Victor said, pulling at his tie. “I hadn’t guessed until now that I – I was w-wondering why you d-didn’t make me want to come home, you seemed so perfect – I’m not t-trying to flatter you, I really m-mean that – and then. . . .” He waved a hand, trying to sum up the shock that had gripped him at that point.
Miss Everglot turned pink at the “perfect” comment, then nodded. “I see. She – she must be really something if I’m perfect,” she added with a slight giggle.
“Oh, she’s really something, all right,” Victor nodded. You’d probably be scared to death of her if you met her under the wrong circumstances. Or even the right, given she carries that Vorpal Blade everywhere. “I am sorry. You really are a nice girl.”
“You’re a nice boy,” Miss Everglot replied. “I won’t deny I’m sad, but it is better to know now. And I do prefer the idea of marrying for love rather than for money or status.” She paused, then smiled, looking just a bit more cheerful. “Would you still like to be friends, Master Van Dort? Victor?”
Victor smiled back. “I would like that very much, Miss Everglot. Victoria.”
The parents finally returned to their places, Nell and Lord Everglot still looking rather steamed. “Bloody Touched,” Lord Everglot said viciously. “Should be hanged, the lot of them. Making mechanical idiocies like that.”
“Horrible man,” Nell agreed. “We’ll be well-rid of this place.” Giving Victor a bit of a look, she added, “Isn’t that right, Victor?”
Victor yanked on his tie. “Mother, I t-told you before, I l-like it here,” he said slowly. “I d-don’t want to g-go back.”
Lord and Lady Everglot both stared at Victor as if he’d suddenly grown a second head. “What nonsense is this?” Lady Everglot asked. “Surely you’d want to leave such a terrible place as soon as possible.”
“We think they’ve been giving him something to addle his brains,” Nell said, looking like she wanted to hit Victor with his fan.
“Who has?” Victoria asked, looking more curious than anything else.
“Dr. Brown and his assistant Marty, and no they have not,” Victor said, summoning up all the courage he could muster. He didn’t want to keep stuttering and stammering while trying to say something important. “Mother, they’re not the monsters you keep trying to m-make them out to be.” Damn, almost. . . .
“You’re giving the impression that you like these mad people,” Lord Everglot said, starting to look suspicious.
“I told you, his brain’s been addled.”
“M-Mother, he gave me a job! Why would he a-addle my brains if he needs m-me to work?”
“Job?!” Lord Everglot shot to his feet – which had the unintended and rather humorous effect of lessening his height enough that his eyes were level with the table’s edge. He scrambled back onto his seat. “You said he was kidnapped, not that he was hired!”
“He was kidnapped!” Nell yelled back, seeing the situation spinning out of control. “This job’s just a delusion of his!”
“You walked in on me the other d-day repairing a difference engine!” Victor said.
“All you were doing was walking about improperly dressed with your hands covered in grease!”
“Improperly dressed?” Lady Everglot repeated, looking more horrified by the second.
“You work for Dr. Brown?” Victoria said, obviously having a bit of trouble keeping up with the growing chaos.
“He offered me a job a-after we landed,” Victor said. “We’d b-been talking, and he n-noticed I had a bit of an i-interest in his inventions. . . .”
“An Igor! You tried to engage our daughter to an Igor?!” Lady Everglot yelled. “The scandal!”
“He’s not an Igor, he’s under some sort of mind control!” Nell yelled, desperately trying to salvage the unsalvageable. “William, shake him a few times, perhaps it’ll clear his head!”
William did as he was asked, much to Victor’s discomfort. “Come on, now, Victor, you know Touched are bad!” he said, sounding almost frightened.
“W-would it make you feel better to h-hear me say I know some Touched are b-bad?” Victor said, holding a hand to his head as he tried to clear it.
“Not some! All!” Nell snapped.
“This is disgraceful, Van Dort!” Lord Everglot snapped, holding up a point-making finger. “Trying to fob off your mad son on us! We will not stand for our daughter to be married to an Igor! She may not be the prettiest young lady of the aristocracy, I will admit that, but she can certainly do better than some fish merchant’s son who slaves away serving a lunatic!”
“He’s not an Igor! We wouldn’t raise such a person!” Nell said, waving her arms like a windmill. “William, do something!”
“Victor just needs some time away from the city,” William said, trying to smile – it came out looking more like a rictus of terror. “He’s just under some bad influences, that’s all. . . .”
“Don’t even try to excuse this,” Lord Everglot said. “Your son is not fit to be seen with our family. The wedding is off.”
“No! It can’t be!”
“It most certainly can, Mrs. Van Dort,” Lady Everglot said, standing. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have to hire a new taxi and arrange for our trip home. Come Hildegarde, Victoria, Finis.”
“You have train fare home then?” William said, with uncharacteristic nastiness.
That stopped Lord Everglot at least. “We’ll – think of something,” he said, although he looked distinctly fidgety.
“Or you could allow us to pay your hotel bill while we try to convince Victor of the error of his ways,” William said, returning to his usual geniality. “I certainly don’t mind.”
“You don’t have any other offers for her hand, do you?” Nell added, waving her fan nervously next to her face.
The Everglots looked at each other. “No,” Lord Everglot admitted reluctantly. “All right, Van Dort, we’ll stay for now. But you’d better convince your son to regain his senses quickly. Don’t think we won’t be looking for a more suitable prospect.”
“Of course,” William said with another forced smile. “We won’t keep you any more today.”
“Good. Good afternoon.” The elder Everglots walked out the door, followed by Hildegarde. Victoria hesitated a moment to give Victor a wave, which he returned. Poor girl. I do hope they find someone she likes.
Once the Everglots were out of earshot, Nell rounded on Victor. “HOW COULD YOU?! Now they think you’re – you’re tainted! Our reputations may never recover from this blow! You’ve thrown away an excellent match, all for the sake of a Touched! Do you even have a brain in that head of yours?”
“Nell, people are staring,” William noted, looking nervously around at the other customers.
“Oh, for – and look at this! The only shop in town that doesn’t cater to those lunatics, and your little pronouncement--”
“Mother, please!” Victor said. “I’m sorry you f-feel this way, b-but--”
“You see what this Dr. Brown has done? He’s turned you against your own family! Victor, I’m hurt, I really am!”
“Ma’am?” The waitress appeared by their sides, looking upset. “The manager says if you keep causing a scene, you’re going to have to leave.”
“I’m causing a – oh, never mind, we’ll go,” Nell said, apparently deciding it wasn’t worth it to vent her rage on a lowly waitress. “William, pay the girl and let’s be off. I suppose you will want to go back to your job,” she added viciously to Victor.
“Mother, if you’d j-just let me e-explain – or come a-and visit, you’d s-see--” Victor started.
“Visit a Touched? Have tea with one of those madmen? I don’t care to end up mutated, Victor.” She snapped her fan closed. “Go ahead, go back to them. Allow them to turn your head to mush. We’ll be back with a psychiatrist later. We’ll fix you if it’s the last thing we do.”
“All right, Mother,” Victor said, giving up the argument. He watched them as they headed outside to the carriage, then sighed deeply. Oh dear. . .this is going to be a fun few days.