The Progress Day’s Fair is a place for over-affectionate families, big eyed kids, insipid inventors strutting like overgrown peacocks and yelling drunks. So many yelling drunks.
Mel Medarda is not supposed to be here.
Her Progress Day is made of decadent ballrooms and stuffy conference’s halls, usually filled with people that overcompensates their uselessness by throwing around their weight in gold.
Mel isn’t sure which crowd to prefer, but like an experienced sailor she has the experience to navigate through both.
Two men pass her by, arms thrown around each other and swaying dangerously from right to left. The larger of the two has a big reddish beard, while the thinner is grabbing a bottle like it’s his lifeline, the amber liquid gently slouches in synch with their footsteps. They remind Mel of a couple of soldiers that worked for her mother.
She nearly turns around to voice this thought to Elora, before she stops: her assistant is still at the Academy.
A minor explosion has rocked the East Wing of the old building during the morning when a professor turned on an experimental engine a little too close to a very volatile chemical. Heimerdinger (who may or may not be the professor in question) is currently busy checking the disaster and Mel is attending the competition “New ideas for young inventors” in his steed as a personal favor.
As long as personal favors go, this one isn’t too much of one: Heimerdinger isn’t one of the judges and the awards have already been assigned by the Academy’s Board even if the results are not public yet.
Mel’s here to shake hands, smile and assure with her presence that the Council is ever attentive to the cultivation of the city’s young minds.
Most councilors would find it a tedious waste of time, but Mel is intrigued.
She rarely has a chance to watch the beginning of a new project. The ones that are presented to her are sanitized prototypes, cleaned of any raw potential. Boring renditions of an idea.
There is stagnation in perfection. Mel wants, needs more.
Maybe mingling with young inventors before they became spoiled by their success or lack of it would help her finding that spark. Maybe something worth investing in.
It’s with high spirits that Mel approaches the blue and white pavilion reserved for the competition and it only takes her a couple of minutes to be sorely disappointed.
The competition is a sham.
The prototypes crowd the pavilion in a stunning display of impracticability: “pretty on the eyes and completely useless” seems to be this year’s theme.
A steam powered bicycle catches her attention for a minute, then the engine overheats and melts the golden contraption. She overhears someone muttering that it may be the same prototype that has caused the morning commotion.
She hums, the participants are bright and filled with sincere passion for their work, she politely inquires over their families and how well the Academy is treating them before moving onto the next. It takes her quite a lot of hands shaken before she’s able to spot this year winner.
The prototype is stashed in a corner of the pavilion in a very unflattering lighting, but the crude design catches her attention like a little duckling in a flock of geese. Mel finds humorous how the invention matches its creator: the man is close to her age, he sports a disheveled look that screams “I haven’t got a good night sleep in a week” and his eyes sparkles when he talks about how technology should be used to improve people’s life. He is refreshingly honest and it intrigues her.
His project is an upgraded water purifier that not only works with more efficiency, but it’s also able to transmute the chemical waste in different chemetech byproducts using a mix of chemistry and alchemy. At her request he pushes a button and the machine spins to life with a subdued hum, Mel watches the dirty water becoming clean under her gaze.
The man bends down, pours himself a glass and drinks it. Mel finds it exceedingly endearing.
She asks about the recycled waste and she is presented with a yellowish substance that the inventor explains it is often found in commonly used batteries.
“Highly volatile if mixed with the right substance” he says with a peculiar accent that Mel cannot quite place.
He gestures back at the table to a phial filled with a green liquid.
“They’re commonly used in combination as a cheaper substitute to nitroglycerin in the Undercity’s mines” he explains.
“Quite creative” Mel points out, wondering about the safety of having such an unstable substance in a crowded space.
“Most things in the Undercity are” he shrugs and there is a glint of something akin to pride in his voice.
It’s strange, but somehow the inventor reminds Mel of herself. An old version of herself: a girl with a chip on her shoulder and a thirst for recognition setting foot in the City of Progress for the first time.
Mel is by now used to well-meaning crowds, to pretty words used to mask a fear of change. It’s not so often that she’s able to find someone with a more practical outlook. At least one that still manages to be kind.
Only the doom of a tight schedule forces Mel to cut her conversation with the inventor short, she smiles at him as she excuses herself and joins the crowd of professors.
Mel’s head feels a little bit lighter, she shakes some more hands and laughs at some surprisingly funny jokes, before taking her leave with something like regret. She cannot see her inventor anywhere.
Elora rejoins her as Mel visits the Kiramann’s pavilion. Cassandra is always a sharp conversationalist and her eyes are filled with a pride usually reserved for her daughter only. She has decided to sponsor a young man from a lower House.
“He is a bright young man, he’s destined for great things”.
Mel has heard a version of this phrase too many times to pay it any mind, still Cassandra Kiramann is a prudent woman and her words are not to be easily dismissed.
Maybe her inventor and Cassandra’s one should meet sometimes.
Her lips quirks into an easy smile. Her inventor… not really.
She is nearly late to join Shoola for their usual tea-break, after being held back by the representative of House Ferros. The surprise encounter has left her with the unpleasant aftertaste that usually accompany her dealings with Camille’s lackeys.
Mel distracts herself from the impromptu bitterness by asking Elora to deliver a bouquet to the winner of this year Academy’s competition along with an invite to attend the evening party after Heimerdinger’s yearly speech. Cassandra words echoes in her head and the thought of snatching a brilliant mind for herself is a sweet indulgence on her tired mind. The man’s probably already tied up to a patron, but Mel looks forward to an interesting conversation.
And then it’s when she notices: she doesn’t know the man’s name.
Their talk about the practical application to alchemy on everyday life had been so enticing that it had made her forget to ask basic questions.
A stupid one. One born from the habit of always knowing everyone of importance in a room and having Elora to compensate for the rest. Her mother would have been ashamed.
“I’ll deliver to the competition’s victor, if that it’s alright with you miss Medarda.”
Mel nods, ever grateful to her assistant attentiveness to her changing moods.
Elora leaves and Mel prepares herself for the evening celebrations of this never ending day.
A thin layer of dust has settled on her robes, she washes and changes into a white dress similarly styled with gold embroidery around her waist and spends what little time she has left checking the paperwork for the next Council meeting.
She’s barely not late as she rejoins Elora and takes her front seat to Heimerdinger’s speech.
The yordle’s voice is a strange mix of paternal and youthful, he speaks about progress and about how much Piltover’s has grown through the years never straying from its path of peace and equality.
Mel thinks about children swimming in toxic chemicals. Children who lack clean drinking water. Her smile slips, but only for a second.
Progress is like a war, never caring for the causalities that it leaves behind. Sometimes she wonders if Heimerdinger’s truly blind to it.
She joins the crowd in a thunderous applause, the speech has ended and fireworks bleed through Piltover’s sky, the red turns into a waterfall of gold light that disappears in a soft mist before exploding in a rainbow of sounds.
The display is astounding and Mel nearly forgets how much her feet are killing her after a day in a pair of uncomfortable shoes, she’s desperately in need of a warm bath.
Piltover’s night crowd awaits and Mel joins it with an immaculate mask of gentle curiosity.
She walks with Amara to the buffet and listens as she drones about the sudden rise of the trading taxes for luxury items.
She enjoys the old woman company, even if she tends to be a little verbose and tedious. Mel likes her, she cannot say the same for the new Demacia’s delegate, a burly man who tries to squash her hands in his as he introduces himself. With a pointed look to Shoola, Mel makes certain that the man will be gone by tomorrow.
Her fellow councilmen seem to be in high spirits tonight: Hoskel babbles about the superiority of noxian spirits, Salo snaps at him without any heat. Bolbok is more somber as he speaks about how the sudden unrest on the Ionian’s border could compromise their trades.
Time drifts over Mel’s shoulder as an hour spend in good (and not very good) company passes her by. Then Heimerdinger approaches her with a young man trailing behind him.
The man sports a clean haircut of blond, almost white hair, she remembers him vaguely from the day Fair: he was the one with the exploding bicycle. Mel gently waves them over and she pretends to be charmed when the stranger kisses her hand.
Then the man thanks her for the flowers.
Mel looks at Heimerdinger.
“Our Stan has been quite taken with them.” The yordle smiles. “After all it’s not every day than one receives such a gift from a beautiful woman.”
The man blushes, but quickly regains his footing as Mel asks about his prototype, that, yes, it hasn’t worked and, yes, it’s very similar to other engines, but, hey, it has managed to catch the attention of three different potential patrons.
He looks pointedly at her. Mel is probably counted in the odd number.
“But I won’t mind picking a side.”
He winks at her. Mel reflects that Salo has a point on how strongly noxian wine affects people who are not used to it.
“Then I suggest you to accept one of those two generous offers. Unfortunately the Medarda’s spot for patronage has already been filled.” Mel gestures at the approaching waiter, relieving him of two flutes of white wine. She offers one to the young man.
“Again, congratulations on your victory.”
Their glasses clicks, a sound quickly lost in the never ending buzz of conversations. She turns her back to him and joins Salo for a chat.
It takes another three hours for the party to be over and by the end of it Mel’s feet are a dull bubble of pain.
It’s only later, after the aching has been subdued by a well applied mix of warm water and cream that Mel asks Elora about the inventors’ swap.
“I’m sorry.” She says with a tilt of her head, her own feet resting in a basin of hot water. “I hadn’t know that you had your sight on someone in particular. I should have paid more attention.”
“There is nothing to apologize for, I asked for the winner. The oversight was only miner.”
Mel has been naïve. She knows that favoritism run rampant in these competitions, especially when Heimerdinger isn’t sitting among the judges. The victor has simply been more well connected than the one she’s found more worthy.
No one in Piltover wins by their merit alone. It’s a thing that her new home and her old one have in common.
“Can you find for me the name of the inventor who’s proposed the water purifier?”
It’s not a question of ability, even if Elora replies “of course”. By tomorrow Mel will have not only a name, but a full on report about the man’s past history (personal, legal and medical) and a good guess on the reason why the board has preferred another to him.
Heimerdinger probably knows, judging by the sly look that the yordle has thrown in her direction when she hasn’t managed to completely conceal her surprise at the party.
And if Heimerding who, blesses his heart, he’s smart, but not very politically savvy knows, then it must be common knowledge.
Elora leaves for the night and Mel switches her dress for something more comfortable. The face that looks back at her from the mirror is tired under the make-up.
Her home is in her thoughts as she drifts to sleep.
The blood spreads like oil on the ocean around Piltover’s harbor as she watches faceless children being drowned. There is water in her throat and she chokes.
A girl is watching her, her chopped off head is deformed into a sneer, the blood drips from her neck. Plick. Plick. Plick.
“Hypocrite” she murmurs.
There is a throne made of bones and her mother is sitting on it, her feet planted on a mountain of broken bodies.
She waves at her and points down. And Mel is sitting on a throne too, but when she looks down there is Elora and Hoskel and Shoola being squashed by her weight. She tries to reach for them, but their bodies start shaking, purple lips foaming at their mouth.
A chemical spill, her brain whispers and he speaks with an accent that she’s heard somewhere. An hand reaches for her and pushes.
Mel wakes up.
The sun is a line of red on the horizon, tomorrow is already here.