The Assembler

Chapter 22 - Guilded Cage

Jean G Hontz

@copyright 2009 all rights reserved

He wasn’t uncomfortable. They’d put him in a room rather than a cell. It had walls and a single door to the outside world. It also had a sitting area, a comfortable bed and a bathroom suite. They’d even given him clean clothes and a razor. Apparently they didn't think he'd slit his wrists or his throat. The tub was attached to the latest in steam plumbing. He gratefully filled it with hot water, shed the clothing he’d worn for several days now and soaked awhile and then scrubbed off the dirt.

Once bathed, he shaved, then dressed - the clothes fit him perfectly. Then he began pacing the room, trying to figure out just what it was they wanted of him and how he could deny it to them. It was the principle of the thing. Even if he might be tempted to do whatever it was they wanted, try to force him to do it and he’d dig in his heels. He admitted, freely, his attitude quite often got him into trouble. But it was trouble he felt worth getting into. Even worth dying for. Well, so long as it was only him at risk.

He’d circuited the room 10 times, examining every flaw or join in the floor, walls and ceiling attempting to find some sort of exit, or possibility of one. So far he’d come up with little inspiration on that front. He was on the eleventh circuit when the one obvious door - metal, bolted and sealed, began to open. It opened much like a ship’s hatch complete with the ‘dogs’ or metal levers. Now the wheel in the middle spun and the levers moved and the seal on the hatch was released with an audible hiss. The door swung slowly inward.

Ned had thought briefly of attempting to attack whomever was about to enter, but luckily he’d thought better of it. At the open door stood two burly men with weapons, and... his mother?

“Abigail?” he croaked. She'd always insisted he call her by name. She looked to be in fine health and there was no sign she was any sort of prisoner or was here against her will.

She held a tray with food and drink on it. She was dressed much as she always dressed at home, in a beaded, embroidered, expensive and wispy sort of peignoir outfit.

“Benedict, darling. You look terrible. Look at those dark circles under your eyes. When was the last time you slept?” she asked as she entered to set the tray down on the sideboard near the set of comfortable chairs off to one side of his prison cell. “You’ve never been very good at taking care of yourself, my darling. I’ve always told you that a good solid 8 hours of sleep is indispensable to your good health, haven't I?”

Ned swallowed. No sense asking her questions. She’d ignore them and say what she wanted to say regardless of them. “Yes you have, mother.”

“You may kiss my cheek,” she instructed once she'd put down the tray. She stood still, with her cheek at an angle to make his kissing of it easier.

Ned felt much as he had at six, the only difference being the angle of the cheek was now up, not down. He kissed the proffered cheek.

“Now sit down and I’ll serve you a good breakfast.”

“Breakfast? What time of day is it? Are we in London or elsewhere? How did you ..” his voice died away as Abigail Black serenely spoke over his questions.

“I made certain the eggs were done just as you like them. Hot, buttered, firm. The bacon is not the best but fair, although it is cooked well. Toast hard. Good tea, however, which will fortify you for whatever challenges you might face today.”

“What challenges might those be,” Ned asked, fighting back his temper, as he took the cup of tea his mother had fixed for him. One lump, with milk.

“Eat first, my darling boy. Nothing makes sense when you consider it on an empty stomach,” Abigail pointed out reasonably.

Ned closed his eyes to grab hold of his temper. He had so many questions, every one of them vital. Yet, if history proved correct, he’d get none of the answers he desperately needed out of his mother. She was just not entirely in the normal world, period. Had never been, or so it seemed to her son.

He sipped the tea, ate the breakfast and listened to her constant chatter. It was just as if they sat in her own morning room sharing breakfast on a perfectly normal day.

She made no comment regarding the fact she hadn't seen him for over a year, nor did she comment regarding his being held captive or even why it might be so. He wasn't certain she would, even if she knew.

Thinking about this rather startling development, it was clear to him that sending her in here was by way of a message. Cooperate, because we have control of your mother. The fact she seemed to be oblivious the fact she was being used as a means of controlling her son made no difference whatsoever. They had her, he now knew it.

At first he tuned Abigail out as he thought furiously what he could do to escape this confinement. But then he caught one word that made him realize he might actually learn something from her if he only had the patience and wisdom to listen.

“He’s a bright boy, you know. His workshop is quite fascinating. I think he’s an alchemist also. So odd you two were never friends. I quite like him, Benedict.”

“Richard, you mean?” he asked her accepting a freshed cup of tea.

“Yes,” she said looking him full in the eye for the first time since she’d appeared. “Who else would I be talking about? Instead you always hung round with that absurd fellow Cyril.”

“Cyril isn’t absurd. He just likes books.”

“There you see? How absurd is that, I ask you. Granted one needs to be educated and well-read but certainly books aren't something to devote one’s life to. Not like the theatre or the opera or even,” she shuddered a bit, “alchemy. Science. Such a filthy field. But you love it, don’t you, my darling?”

“I do,” Ned replied, his mind cycling through what she was saying and what she wasn’t saying. He’d always thought she was smarter than she let on.

“RIchard was nice enough to tell me about your little toy. It’s quite pretty when the lights work, he tells me.”

“I’m sorry, Abigail, that I never showed it to you. I’d love to show it to you now, but I doubt they’ll let me.”

“Yes, I don't understand it all, myself, but Nathan explains that it is imperative you not turn it on for fear of harming yourself,” she replied serenely.

Yes, no doubt he would. Nathan might shoot him. But what about Richard?

“You like Richard, do you?” Ned probed.

“I do. He’s handsome, and smart and quite the ladies man. I wish you were more of a ladies man, Ned. But you’ve never .. You always liked that little Hollis-Reynolds girl. I never could understand why. She wears pants!”

Ned fought with his lips and lost the battle. “She does. But she looks quite handsome in them.”

“Yes, exactly! Handsome, indeed. It’s as if she thinks she’s a boy.”

“Oh, I’m sure that isn’t the case. It’s just that she likes to dig for pots in dirty places,” Ned replied.

Abigail shuddered in a lady-like fashion, managing not to spill a drop out of her teacup.

“Nathan says that if you behave you may come to dinner this evening with us. Haven’t you been behaving?” She eyed him as if he were that six year old who ran wild through Oxford.

“I shall do my best to behave so I might join you and he for dinner. Will Richard be there as well?”

She frowned as she thought of it. “I’m not certain. I shall ask Nathan. Richard is quite busy I understand, meeting with some very important men from, oh, somewhere or another. I forget where. They’re in town to see some scientific demonstration or other.”

Ned’s lips fell into a hard line and he failed to keep the anger out of his voice. “I see.”

“Yes,” she replied, standing. “I’m told you’ll be an honored guest for the demonstration at least. Well, I’ll see you for dinner then, darling. Kiss mama good bye.”

He stood, approached and kissed the cheek again. “Good bye, Abigail. Give Mr Ainsworth my regards. And Richard if you see him.”

“I certainly shall,” she replied as she sailed out of the room, leaving the tray behind.

The guards dogged the hatch and Ned was alone again. But not, he was quite certain, without someone watching and listening to him most carefully.

 

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