Foul And Fair: Is Whispering Nothing? Chapter 4

I dream of circles. Circles around me, insubstantial in every way but holding me in place. I’m their prisoner, but they’re nothing at all. Lines on the ground glowing red and pulsating with some sort of anchoring strength that pulls the breath from me. I’ve had this dream before, and I know there are footsteps marching around me in circles just past the edge of my vision, but the circle drowns out all the sound. I always assume that I’ve done this to myself somehow—because, in the end, the feet belong to me and the Whisperer is no one and I have to accept responsibility for my actions no matter how much blood I’ve spilled—but there’s always a chance in there, somewhere, that I didn’t do it. Right? That the Whisperer is real and it takes control and I have nothing on my hands at all.
Except, even if I’m just a tool—which I’m not—that doesn’t absolve me. I could and should take myself away from it. Refuse to be wielded. And in war, as a soldier—there’s an easy excuse, right? Creating the scenario I seem to need, where I can kill and hurt and kill and it’s not my fault because I have to and the Whisperer wins and everyone is happy except the dead.
Ceana’s face hangs outside the circle now, staring at me, the only thing I can really see beyond the edges. Where did they take her? Does she hear the whispers too? It’s just a dream. I can’t look at her.
There’s a clock in the Plutony’s shop, and it’s an impressive thing. Standing on the floor, swinging a pendulum back and forth, and ticking, moving the hands on its own. I’m told it was expensive. It looks expensive, it’s not like any other clock I’ve ever seen. Clocks as tall as a person, whose gets you can see turning and clicking and driving the mechanisms with tiny shining brass bits are probably common in a big city. But here, it’s a draw. But it’s so loud, ticking at me, and I know it’s not actually at me, but the way it just keeps on making those noises, seemingly louder every time, it feels personal. I’ve been here three times a week for years and I’ve stared at that clock many times before, but I’ve never noticed how loud it is. But then again, I’ve never been the only person in the shop before. No Dr. Plutony, no Pinzinger. No customers. Just me and the fish and the clock, and the fact that it’s five minutes after our normal start time. I don’t know how much longer I can wait, not with the circle dream hanging in my mind, not without my medicine. Someone is talking behind the wall, outside. It’s too muffled to hear any words, but it doesn’t sound like a voice I know. It sounds angry.
I turn from the clock, lean away from the wall, and look at the fish. It looks sad, even listless, as it perpetually swims lengths across the tank. If its giant mouth can frown, its frowning now. I listen to the conversation I can’t actually hear for over three minutes, failing all the while to ignore the second-by-second torture coming from that clock, before the door leading out of the shop finally swings open and I jump to my feet because this change means its time to meet with Plutony in the back—that’s the only thing it can mean eight minutes after our normal meeting. Except it’s not him rushing into the store, it’s Pinzinger, fully armed and breathing like they’ve been running. They look at me, uncertainty on their face. We don’t usually talk much. I must look at least as uncertain staring back.
“Ian,” they start like it’s a question, pulling some papers out of a sort of compartment in the layers of leather they’ve got hanging over their torso. I nod slowly, reluctant to keep looking at them because I can feel a sort of wrongness building in this interaction and I’m not sure why that is, but it grates at my nerves. “My name is Pinzinger of Gwyth,” as if I don’t know their name, “you can call me Zin. I know this isn’t the usual way, but if you’ll follow me into the lab….”
My eyes close. There’s a pulsating and a red. I interrupt them. “Where’s Dr. Plutony?”
They clear their throat. The question makes them uncomfortable. Something terrible has happened. I’m frozen in place, listening to the ticking more than their words as the red creeps in through my eyelids and the Whisperer smiles a terrible smile somewhere back where it hides. They try to sound confident as they respond. It doesn’t work. “I’m sorry, he must have forgotten to tell you. He moved away—back to his family. It was quite sudden, but he should have let you know. I’ll take over your care. He’s been traing me for years, I should be able to do everything he could, don’t worry.”
No. No, no, no, no, no. He didn’t leave. He would never leave without telling me first. Without taking me with him. I haven’t been able to take my medicine in a few days and I’m all confused and that’s it. This is all in my head. The meeting with Sir Hors was all in my head and Zin isn’t real, or they’re real and I’m hearing them wrong, or, I don’t know, something. I open my eyes and stare straight down at the red-tinted shadows on the wood. This isn’t right. But I can hear myself talking back and my voice is loud and angry and hurt. It’s not the voice I want to use, but the other one is missing and the only alternative is a whisper. “Where did he go?”
On the floor, I can see their shape moving towards me, just a step and half of another one. It feels like an assault. “I’m afraid I don’t know, specifically. He left a message with the Watch, and they came by and told me—just that he went back to be with his family. I assume it was an emergency.”
“He’s my doctor.” I stomp my foot for emphasis like I’m a small child, and I’m aware that I’m yelling and turning so my body faces them even though I can’t bring my eyes up from the ground. They shouldn’t be walking towards me. This is not a safe place. In the shadows, a hand drifts up onto the grip of a gun, and I’m reassured: they’re starting to understand. But they need to stand back and answer the question. “I need to talk to my doctor.”
Their voice is calm and reassuring and confident in the fact that they’re armed and trained and safe and they think they know me, but they don’t know me and they think they’re in control here. Or they think I am in control here, and they don’t know the Whisperer. Don’t know how loud it’s getting and how close to the surface and roiling and making its demands and I’m shaking. They’re using that voice and I hate that voice, it’s making everything worse. “Ian, I’m the alchemist now. Plutony has trained me for years. You know me well enough—I’ve mixed your medicine plenty of times over the years. We can go into the back and talk and get to know each other properly. I know the transition is hard, coming upon you so suddenly like this, but I’m also sure that if you give me a chance we can learn to trust each other just like you do Dr. Plutony. Did. Did Dr. Plutony.”
Nerves. Their nerves are fraying and they don’t know why. The red on the floor is deepening and stretching and my eyes are bleeding on the inside. It occurs to me, out of nowhere, why this change might be. The Watch. The questions. I swallow and ask. “Did you talk to him?” They don’t understand. I can hear it. I’m going to have to say this slowly. “At my last session, he promised to do something very important for me. Did he tell you about it?”
They don’t respond. They don’t understand and they’re going to make me say it, or they’re thinking hard about the idea…I get impatient and finally look up at them, and they’re flipping through the semi-crumpled notes they pulled out when they got here, glancing over each of the three pages multiple times like they’re going to find new answers each time they look back. If they were the alchemist, they’d know exactly what I was talking about. They would have the letter and they would be prepared to tell me why everything was going to be fine and what they did to fix it all and save me. He would have saved me and now he’s gone and this person is a pale shadow with a gun and a sword and they’re wasting my time and using that voice.
Finally, they give up. They give up and they say in a voice that’s flustered but not afraid and not truly apologizing: “Nothing specific that I can see. We didn’t have a chance to actually talk before he…and I have a few of his papers, and more in the back, but I haven’t had a chance yet to go through everything carefully, and I don’t remember anything about a favor. I’m sure if you can give me some more specifics and a little bit of time I can find something. But we should be having this conversation in the office, not out in the lobby where anyone could just walk in on us. Please, come on back with me. We can talk about whatever you want, and find anything Dr. Plutony wrote about that favor, and I can mix up your medicine, and maybe I can give you a discount. How does that sound?”
That’s it, then. The only real hope I had is gone with Dr. Plutony. I’m doomed, everyone around me is doomed. The red will drown everything and choke the rest of the world.
“The Whisperer grows impatient. You know what the Whisperer wants. You know what you have to do.”
My face suddenly points itself right at them, and I’m looking into their eyes for the first time and there’s a burning something in my forehead and I ask: “What did you say?”
They look confused. It wasn’t their voice. They didn’t say anything. “I said we should go into the office, and we can talk about whatever you want while I mix up your medicine.” They take another step towards me, the confusion starting to fade into a kind of concern. They drop their hand off the gun. They’re not being careful. They’re still using that voice. “Please calm down, Ian. I’m sorry you weren’t given any warning, but I’m confident we can get through this.”
Calm down? I look down again, and both of my fists are clenched so tightly that they’re shaking, turning white. I should be scaring them. They don’t know me—not really—but they should know what I did and who I am and who is talking to me and they should be scared. No. They shouldn’t be scared, because I’m not like that anymore. I am in control. But I haven’t had my medicine in days and the Whisperer is so close to the surface, and I don’t know what I’m like now. The red is still there and the footsteps outside the shop are a swarm and pounding and that man on the other side of the wall is shouting now, his voice unintelligible but shrill and grating at a high volume. They’re still approaching me, and now I’m getting scared. I have to make something happen fast. Before something else happens.
I say the only words I can think of. “I assume you don’t have the letter I gave him, then?” They don’t answer right away, so I can’t stop talking. The words are falling out of my mouth, almost like I’m throwing up, my throat tying itself in bigger and bigger knots. It strikes me that I sound like a completely different person. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. We’re done here.”
As I turn to leave, they reach out and grab me by the shoulder. Not forceful, but enough to stop me from going any farther for a second. Unless I really try. “Hold on, Ian. You can’t go yet, you need your medicine. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but I need you to wait for a few minutes so I can mix it up for you.”
I pull away and twist back to face them. The whispers are hot on my skull and this is not a safe place. “No thank you.”
“The Watch made it very clear that you were to take your medicine,” they say with a new firmness. This is a person who is beginning to understand.
They shouldn’t have wasted all of this time. My voice is a whisper now and I’m very far from control. Every muscle in my body is tensed and ready no matter how much I beg them to relax. The whisper sneaks out of me. “The Watch can come find me after they finish cleaning up your remains.”
They draw the gun, as they should, at the threat. They know what I’ve done and they’re trained to deal with situations that can no longer be calmed. But I want this situation to be calmed. I’m fighting inside at the walls of the circle, searching for some weakness I can push against and arrange some kind of a stop. It’s all so very slow. Their gun comes up, out of the holster, turns, and lifts, the barrel rising towards my face to back me down, but their finger isn’t on the trigger and they’re not serious. They want to stop this before it begins—but it’s too late and it’s too slow and my face isn’t there anymore. The Whisperer can move in ways I don’t understand, it grabs their wrist and twists and the bones pop out of place and something breaks and there’s a scream and the gun thunks heavy onto the floor by my feet and Zin helpless in pain, clutching at their arm and falling to their knees and crying.
And the Whisperer lets go. The circle is gone. Zin’s arm falls from my hand and all the footsteps and the shouting are gone. I’m standing in a store with a person I have hurt and it’s just me. Spinning and dizzy and out of control and I have no medicine and now the Whisperer has abandoned me and I am alone. It’s the first time it’s been to the surface since the night it took control. I walk out into the street, where there sun can burn away the red that coats my world.