“It's working, it's really working!” the Lord Artrell shouted in glee as lightning danced within the binding circle in the center of his laboratory. His exhausted assistant, Mathews, channeled the lightning from the other side, his eyes closed, his lips mouthing the chant.
“Stop there,” Artrell ordered, “That's good.”
Mathews dropped to his knees, succumbing to his exhaustion, ending the spell. “Did we do it?”
Artrell took a step forward, leaning over the boundary of the circle to inspect their work. A boy lay in the center as if asleep, his naked chest rising and falling slowly.
“It breaths at least,” he said. “We'll have to test its other body functions next. Take tissue samples. Measure inherent knowledge absorption.”
“How about sleep first?” Mathews asked hopefully.
Artrell glanced at the clock. “Oh my, 7:00 AM? Already?”
“We've been at this all night. We should rest before continuing.”
Artrell sighed, “Yes, you're right. You go ahead.”
“You should sleep too, sir.”
Artrell waved him off. “Shortly. I promise. I want to write down my observations first while they are still fresh.”
“Alright, sir,” Mathews said, too tired to argue further.
“Oh and tell the cleaning staff—” Artrell looked up, spotting the maid in the doorway. “Oh, you're here already.”
“My lord?” the maid, Ellie, said. She'd been standing in the doorway for the past half hour trying to decide what she should do. It was her job to clean up the lab in the morning before the Lord and his assistant came in. Usually she was in and out long before the lord had even risen for breakfast.
“No need to clean up in here again until I order it again, the homunculus is going to be in the binding circle for the foreseeable future,” Artrell said.
“As you say, my Lord,” Ellie acknowledged the order with a curtsy, an awkward thing when both hands were full of cleaning supplies.
She started to return to the main building above, when a pair of frantic feet came pounding down the stairs.
“My lord!” It was the head butler, a sealed letter in his hands. “Here you are, my lord. This just came for you, from the palace.”
Artrell took the letter, opening it immediately.
“Blast it all, he muttered under his breath. “Of all the poorly timed… Forget about sleep for a minute, Mathews.”
“Sir?” Mathews groaned.
“We've been summoned by the queen. We leave immediately.”
“Sir, surely it can wait an hour?”
“You can sleep in the carriage, Mathews. Prepare our departure immediately.”
Mathews let out a defeated sigh. “Yes, sir.”
“And you,” Artrell said to Ellie, “You are to care for the Homunculus while we are gone.”
“How long are we going to be gone, sir?” Mathews asked. “Surely not long enough that—”
“At least a month. Longer, unfortunately, if things go well. Come along, Mathews, there is work to be done.”
The lord walked out without another word, poor Mathews trailing behind him.
Mathews stopped on his way out, looking over his shoulder at the boy, the Homunculus, lying on the floor, naked. He sighed and laid his cape over the boy, shaking his head. “Master was going to just leave him like that.” To Ellie he said, “Make sure he's fed daily and find him a chamber pot and some clothes. He can't leave this circle, but it should have no effect on you. Master's decided to leave you in charge of him, I'm sorry.”
“Mathews!” Artrell shouted from the stairs.
“Coming, sir!” Mathews shouted back. “I would find someone better suited to the task, but…” Mathew's eyes drifted up the stairs after his master with much resignation. “If anything should happen, send word to us immediately.”
Ellie nodded, although she didn't really understand. The boy was clearly the lord's latest experiment. What they had done to him, she didn't want to imagine.
“Thank you, Miss Ellie,” Mathews said, patting her on the shoulder and hurrying after the lord.
Ellie approached the circle and the boy. He looked about her age, though with his soft features he might have been a few years younger.
While she watched him, his eyes opened. He sat up slowly, no expression on his face. He didn't seem to notice as Mathew's cloak slipped into his lap. He stared back at her, seeming neither surprised nor interested.
“Uh, hi?” she said, waving lamely.
The boy blinked.
She smiled awkwardly. Unsure what she was supposed to do. “I'm Ellie. I'm supposed to take care of you until the lord gets back.”
The boy didn't move.
She bit her lip. She'd expected some response. “Um… What's your name? They didn't tell me before they left.”
The boy didn't answer. Was he scared of her? The lord had been doing who knew what to him, maybe she shouldn't have said she was working for the lord? But she wasn't going to lie to him.
That was it, then. Step one was to get this kid to trust her!
“Ah, are you hungry? I can bring you some food?”
No response. No surprise.
She nodded to herself as if he had said yes. “Alright, then wait right here and I'll bring you something.”
She hurried back about an hour later, food in one hand and a bundle of variously sized tunics, trousers, and undergarments begged off other coworkers in the other.
Smiling she handed him the clothing first. “It gets chilly down here, so I made sure to pick some warm things for you.”
He looked at the outstretched bundle blankly.
She sighed. There was definitely something wrong with this kid, and she was willing to bet it was the lord's fault. Still, nothing she could do about that. So, with false cheer, she asked, “Do you need help putting it on?”
“Yes,” she said slowly, nodding her head. “Or no?” she shook her head to illustrate.
The boy shook his head slowly, although whether he understood what she was saying or merely copying her movement she couldn't say. Still, that was the first reaction she'd gotten from him, so she'd take it.
She held the bundle out for him again, pushing it into his hands when he didn't immediately take it.
“Put on what fits,” she said. “I'll step out for a minute while you figure that out. I'll leave breakfast right here,” she set it just inside the circle drawn on the floor. “Help yourself to it when you're dressed. I'll be back soon.”
She came back half an hour later with the chamber pot. She was pleasantly surprised to find he had managed to put on the clothing and that he had started to eat the food she'd left him. She had half expected to find him still sitting on the floor with the bundle of clothing in his lap.
She smiled as she set the chamber pot inside his circle.
“How's the food?” she asked him.
He nodded slowly.
She sighed through her smile. Should she be happy he was at least responding to her now, even if the responses didn't make any sense?
“Can you tell me your name now?” she asked, more to talk while she waited for him to finish eating.
He shook his head.
“How about where you came from?”
He shook his head.
“Why you are here?”
He shook his head again.
She shrugged. “Alright. But I'm going to keep asking.”
He opened his mouth, a strangled sound escaping his lips.
“Ah, are you alright?” She leapt into the circle, putting an arm around his shoulders. Oh Lord, what would happen to her if the lord's experiment died the very day he left him in her care?
But the boy nodded vigorously, the sound coming out of his mouth changing. “Doe-Don't nn-know.”
“What?” she asked.
“I don't know,” he repeated slowly.
“If you're alright?”
He shook his head.
“Why you are here?”
He nodded, then shook his head.
“Where you're from?”
Again, the same response.
He nodded vigorously.
“You don't know any of that? Really?”
What in the world had the lord done to this boy? How could he have no memory of anything?
“Well, if nothing else,” she said, “You need a name.”
“What do you mean why?” she asked. “Everyone has a name. That's just how that is.” She crossed her arms with a nod.
The boy looked up at her helplessly, as if saying, “But not me.”
“Well, I'll pick something for you, just for now, until we find out what your real name is, that okay?”
He hesitated a moment before nodding.
“Hmm…” She'd said all that, but in truth she wasn't sure what to call him either. What had the lord said about the boy? He'd definitely called him something. It had been a weird word. Homon-something? She couldn't remember. But maybe some of those sounds would make a decent name? Hom? Mon? Hon? Han. “How about Han?”
Over the course of the next several days, Ellie spent what time she could with Han. Most of the time, it was just to take care of him, bringing him food or emptying the chamber pot. But when she had time, she slipped down to the lab just to keep him company.
“Why do you stay down here?” he asked her on the fifth day. He had gotten much better at speaking since she first met him, no longer stumbling over his words, although he still had no memory of anything before waking up in the lab. “There must be more interesting things to do up there.”
She shrugged. “Maybe, but I figured you were lonely down here. No one else visits you.”
“Didn't you say that servants aren't supposed to be in here?”
“Well, sure,” she said. “But the lord is still out. No one would know.”
“Should you be down here?” he asked.
“I have a reasonable excuse,” she replied proudly. “I was left in charge of you by the lord himself. So, no one can complain if I disappear down here to make sure you aren't dying.”
He laughed at that. He'd only done that a couple times, but she'd already decided she liked the sound of it. He wasn't very expressive, she wasn't sure if that was another side effect of whatever it was that the lord had done to him or if that was just his nature, but he rarely smiled or frowned. Laughter was even more rare. Still, unlike most stoic people she met, it didn't seem like he was actually hiding or suppressing his emotions, but rather, he just didn't know how he was supposed to show them.
“Is me dying suddenly a likely event?” he asked.
She shrugged again. “Who knows. Neither of us know what the lord did to you before he left. And Mathews, that's his assistant, just left me the cryptic orders 'Send word immediately if something happens'. Maybe he meant if you fall over dead, maybe he meant if you sprout wings and a tail. Obviously, I would not be fulfilling my duties though if I didn't check in on you often, though.”
“But seriously,” she added. “Never mind me, aren't you bored down here?”
“Just a little,” he said. “But it isn't like either of us can do anything about that. I can't leave this circle after all.”
They had tried a couple days ago. Despite Mathew's order to not let him out of the circle, she had wanted to let him out for a little bit for fresh air. But to both their surprise, it had been as if he'd walked into a brick wall when he touched the boundary of the circle. Probably only Mathews or the lord would be able to let him out.
“I don't remember what it's like up there,” he said. He looked up at the basement's ceiling as if he might develop x-ray vision and see the sky above. “This lab is all I know. I have nothing to remember to miss.”
“If you pity me, keep visiting me,” he said with a shrug. “If you want to fill my world with more than these four walls, tell me a story.”
“Tell me about your life,” he said. “Tell me about your memories. Give me something to tie to these words I know about intellectually but have no context for. Tell me about the places you've been, the people you've met. Help me fill this emptiness.”
So, the days past, each day a new story for Han, each day a day closer to the lord's return.
She couldn't say why that day filled her with such dread. The lord certainly wasn't going to take over these duties from her. He wasn't the type to engage in menial labor. Mathews might, but if she asked, he would probably be happy to let her continue instead of doing it himself.
Perhaps she would have less time with Han. Certainly, she wouldn't be able to talk to him like this in front of her lord. But there would be plenty of time to sneak down here and talk to him still.
And the lord might be able to do something about Han's memories. He surely would know something about Han's real name. He could let Han out of the basement laboratory too.
This sense of foreboding remained.
She sat in the center of a magic circle, pink chalk dust on coating her hands and knees. She’d tied her long, curling hair back in a loose, bushy ponytail. A bright purple bow held the barely controlled hair more or less in place. At the least, it kept enough of it out of her face and workspace, ...