The boy and I are sitting in the playroom, the wooden mareia board set out on the table.
It’s my turn. 
“Come on Stegarius, you gotta make a move.” 
“You gotta stop rocking your chair.”
There’s a clang as the chair slams back onto the floor “You’ve been staring at the board for ten minutes already.” The kid moans as he deflates onto the table. 
“I’m thinking.”
“You think for so long though.”
“A good mareia player never rushes themself.”
“I beat you last round though.”
“Yes you did and now I want to make sure I don’t lose again.”
The boy rolls his eyes. 
I’m no expert at mareia by any means. I always preferred casual card games over the posh board games. But losing to this nine-year-old kid just stings.
I move my watchtower four spaces, then immediately regret it when I see the kid perch up again, eyes bright up with cunning glee.
“Aaaaaand that’s mine now.” He announces swiping the piece off the board with a flourish.
“All right, well done, there went my last-ditch strategy.” I knock on the board to announce my defeat. 
I’m pretty sure this kid is a genius, not for beating me of course. That’s not that much of an achievement. 
It’s a look in his eye, he shouldn’t be analyzing the board the way he does at that age. 
Even when he pretends he’s just playing by the seat of his pants.
Thinking back on his family history maybe it’s genetic. Plenty of his forebears showed signs of incredible intellect.
If he’s like this at nine, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds.
Considering I’ll be there to see it. 
I must admit I didn’t expect to be working here still after three years. But it turns out that ‘when the young master becomes bored of you’ is still a ways off.
“Wanna play another round?” the young master asks as he’s collecting the pieces from the side of the board.
“No can do young master, it’s time for bed.”
“Just one more? I promise to beat you in ten minutes.” He bats his eyelashes while smiling deviously.
Ten minutes!? The nerve in this child.
“All right one game, ten minutes, if I’m still standing by ten past nine I win.”
“Deal.”
Luckily for my pride ten minutes later he’s still bent over the board. 
“I believe it’s my win.”
“Five minutes-”
“Nope, we’re cleaning this up now. You have lessons tomorrow.”
He sighs “All right, I would have beat you in five more minutes though.”
“Sure you would,” I say smiling as I put the pieces back in the box.
Because of course, I won’t tell him he’s probably right.
The subject matter of each lesson becomes more complex by the week. Gone are the days of simple sums. We cover the basics of physics, technology, biology as well as poise and etiquette. Which is an intriguing field to study I must admit.
“When visiting someone’s house make sure to do so between nine and noon, or after three to not to disturb them during lunch. If you wish to partake in lunch announce your arrival beforehand so the cook can prepare for you. Never impose or entitle yourself to food as it is impolite to do so. Never allow the tea to go cold, if there are snacks left out you look to the people above your station and mirror their eating behaviour.” 
I watch the kid read all of this out loud while standing straight with a book on his head and I wonder why humans find the need to make up so many rules around one another. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s a battle of wits, a way to show you are able of memorizing a long list of arbitrary rules and like secret handshakes or passwords they showcase to the rest of the world who is in on the joke or not.
Who is in your inner circle, who is worthy?
Of course, an actual secret handshake or password would be easier but I guess humans are just romantic like that.
There’s a loud thud pulling me from my train of thought as the book falls to the floor.
“Shoot!” 
“Watch your tongue, mister Winton.”
“Sorry.”
“Sorry what?”
“Sorry, Stegarius.”
“That’s better.” 
He picks up the book and puts it down on the table. “The book says I should call you mister or sir.”
“If I were a human you would have to do so.”
“Why is it different just cause you’re a doll?”
“The only way you can address a doll properly is by the way they wish to be addressed. There is no hierarchy, no missus and ma’am, lady and majesties, it makes no sense to a doll to have a book dictate what they are called. 
Sir makes me think of someone old and wise, I am neither of those things so it doesn’t fit for me.”
“What about mister?”
“Just Stegarius will do.”
He pushes a knuckle to his lips as he thinks “What if a human tells me that? Do I listen to them or the book?”
“I doubt a human will tell you to call them Stegarius but-”
He crosses his arms with a sigh “You know what I mean.” 
“If someone asks you to address them a certain way it’s probably best to listen to them.” 
He nods and starts writing in his notebook mumbling “Address people according to the book unless they prefer something different.”
“Do you have any more questions?”
“How do you address people you don’t like?”
“The same way you address everyone else.”
“Really?” His shoulders droop in disappointment.
“Yes, anything else?”
He shrugs.
“Then I think that’s enough etiquette for one day. It’s ten minutes until lunch, I say we clean this up. Then after lunch, it’s back to mechanics and I have a new set of unfinished mechanics to solve so-”
“Can I have them now? I wanna solve them over lunch.” The young master asks as he piles the books into a stack and heads to the bookshelf.
“You will do no such thing, lunchtime is meant for eating not schoolwork, the mechanisms stay inside the classroom…you can however look them over and maybe think on them for a bit.”
“Yes please.” His eyes sparkle with curiosity.
I walk to my desk and pick up a small pile of papers on which I drew a handful of mechanical circuits that are incomplete and need additional gears or pistons to theoretically function. I then lay them on his desk.
He immediately fans them out scattering the paper over the table trying to fit as many drawing as possible face up so he can look at them. 
“This one needs two small spur gears to bridge the gap yet leave the rotation in the same direction…perhaps a belt would work too but for that. But I’d need to change the current construction. This one needs a cam, this one a piston and-”
“All right, all right, time for lunch. We’ll pick this back up in an hour.” 
He looks at the drawings one last time then nods, jumping off his chair and rushing downstairs for lunch.
I’m going to have to let him play with actual components soon, this theoretical stuff is no longer challenging him.
I wonder if it would be okay to take some parts from the factories so he can practice, I should ask miss Punct. 
By the time he comes back, he fixes the problems within the hour.
I look them over, it all works.
“Well done,” I tell him, and he radiates with pride.
“Let’s read the chapter on-”
“I have a question.” He cuts through, quickly raising his hand as an afterthought.
“Now you should raise the hand first and then I can ask you what you need to know.”
“Yeah, sorry.” He scratches the back of his head sheepishly.
I sigh as I lean against the chestnut desk “What’s the questions?”
“You’re made of wood right?”
“Yes.”
“And you don’t have muscles.”
“Indeed I do not.”
“But you can also move, and talk and think.”
“Correct.”
“How?”
“Well, that’s what this whole course is about really. Using technology to make the inanimate, animate. The non-moving, move.”
“Are you an automaton then?”
My eye twitches a bit at the thought “No, master Winton, automatons are machines, dolls are people.”
His head turns to the side in confusion “Why?”
“Because dolls have souls and auto’s do not. They cannot think, cannot experience happiness or pain. They are as much alive as a bicycle or a table.”
He takes a moment to think, finger pressed against his lips, then gingerly gets up from his seat and sidles up to me. 
He kicks his little leg against mine as hard as he can. 
“It’s not polite to kick people, sir Winton.” I cross my arms at him. 
“But did it hurt?” 
“No, I’m made of wood-”
“But you said-”
“I am talking about emotional pain; anger, loss and inadequacy.”
“What’s inadequacy”
“Don’t worry about that one for now. What I mean to say is that dolls are people made from wood, automatons are metal machines that often resemble the shape of people, but nothing else.”
“So…you wouldn’t mind if I kicked an auto?”
Ï grunt “You shouldn’t kick anything master Winton because violence is never the answer.”
He rolls his eyes and heads back to his seat.
“No, no, no look at me.” I tell him, making him turn back to me “Repeat after me. Violence is never the answer.”
“Yeah, all right, violence is never the answer.” 
“Good. Now, do you have any more questions?”
“If you have a soul, that means you were made by God right?”
The mention of God makes me sigh inside. Oh right…that whole deal. 
“I was made by my father, who was a human.”
“But that makes no sense because only God can make souls.”
“And who taught you that?”
“The people at church.”
“Well with all due respect, they are wrong. My creator was a mortal man with no divinity whatsoever.”
“But then you can’t have a soul.”
I squeeze my hand for a bit, trying to alleviate my frustration before carrying on. “Young master, what is your definition of a soul exactly?”
“It’s what separates us from the animals, the rational part of man. The way we can consider both past and future. Reflection on who we’ve been, consideration of who we are and realisation for who we want to become in the future.” He talks as if he’s reading from a textbook. I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the animals he considers soulless. 
But at least this is a definition I can work with.
“Well before I became your tutor I have been a great many things. I’ve been a librarian, an innkeeper, a factory worker even a bartender to name a few. Right now I am your tutor and it’s my job to help you become a learned, responsible and open-minded young man. Once my task is done here I will go and look for another job. I believe I like teaching. So I think I’ll go to the university next. Now putting that against your own definition I fail to see where I do not qualify for having a soul.”
His eyebrows knot together as he considers the statement. But mom says the people at the church are never wrong.
“No one is never wrong and people who claim they’re always right often have something to hide.”
“So God made the people and then one of those people made the dolls, soul and all?”
I nod.
“How?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then who does?”
“I think no one at this point. My father made notes but he wrote them in a special code to deter thieves of his work.”
The boy puts his head on the table and sighs. Guess there’s only so many new ideas a child can absorb each day. I close the book and put it on the desk “That’s enough for today. The weather is nice so go out and enjoy it. Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the mathematical side of things, starting with spur-gear acceleration.” 
His head perks up “I can go now?”
“Yes.”
He squints his eyes at me for a bit but when he sees no ill intentions in my face he jumps from his chair and rushes to the door. 
I sit down on my chair and take a moment to land again. Him calling me outright soulless wasn’t a fun moment, but at least I managed to dissuade him from that.
I wonder if his insatiable curiosity will ever start to dwindle.
I smile inside.
I doubt it.
“I’ll ask Lord Winton about the parts, I’m sure he can spare a few.” Miss Punct tells me as she makes a note in her planner. “On a different note, someone sent you a letter.” She rifles through a pile of papers picking out a beige envelope with a recognizable bell-shaped seal on the back. 
I wonder how they even got this address? Though I suspect her name starts with P and ends with rishtoli.
“Thank you miss Punct.” I take the letter “anything else?”  
“No, you are dismissed, enjoy the day off.”
I give a quick bow, then head straight to the gate twirling the envelope in my hands as I walk.
“Dolly got a love letter!”
“Dolly got a love letter?” The scarecrows cackle amused. 
“It’s not a love letter.” I clarify.
“Then what is it?” The left scarecrow asks.
“It’s an invitation.”
“An invitation? Where to?” The right one wonder.
“None of your business.”
“Secret party?”
“Definitely a secret party.”
“Have fun at your secret party!” they yell after me.
I shrug it off as I open it up and pull the paper inside.
Dear Stegarius,
You are hereby invited to join your siblings for father’s 157th death day party. 
I know you don’t like to go to these but perhaps instead of seeing it as a reminder that he is dead, you could try and see it as a celebration of life. And a way to catch up with your fellow dolls. 
We miss you.
Anyway please give it your consideration. 
Yours truly,
Tiborah
At Bar-B I drop the letter on the table with a soft flop and sit down on the sofa “I’m not going.”
With haste, Pristoli snatches the envelope and presses it to my chest “You have to go! Stegarius please, you haven’t been home in ages.”  
“I don’t want to be home. It’s not my home anymore”
“But your family misses you.”
“They know where to find me.”
“You can’t expect everyone to come to visit you individually, for some of them it’s already hard to make it to the party.”
“I didn’t say they should, but they could if they missed me that much.”
She huffs and slaps me on the head with the letter “You’re being petty.”
“I just want to spend that day doing my job.”
“The 27th is on a Sunday this year.” 
“It is?”
“Yes, exactly two weeks from now, you declined before even checking whether you were available?”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Well tough luck, if you’re not here in two weeks at 9 in the morning, I’ll go to that fancy workplace of yours and pick you up myself employing as much drama as necessary.”
“Prishtoli that’s my job!” I exclaim shocked.
“Stegarius, this is your family.”
“So you want me to go to a party I don’t want to go to just to please the others?”
“Yes, that is exactly what I want you to do, now promise me you’ll be here.”
I cross my arms.
“Stegarius, I’m not joking about going to your job. Actually now I’m considering asking Jaxogeras along as well.”
“You wouldn’t.”
“You know I would.”
I grunt “Fine but next year I’m off the hook.”
She gives me a peck on the forehead “Deal, I’ll grab some music to celebrate.”
That evening I sit down on the bed and pick up a book to read.
The door flies open and lady Winton walks in, heels loudly clacking on the floor.
“Mister Stegarius you are not to discuss religion with the young master ever again. Do I make myself clear?” Her hair is messy, I wonder if it’s because it’s been a long day or if she’s been plucking at it again. 
I put the book back on the side table “May I ask why?”
“No! You may not ask why.” She says wagging a finger in my face. “Religion is taught at church with his father and me. Whatever you like to believe is your business but you keep it to yourself.”
“What I believe is that healthy discussion of multiple viewpoints on a matter can only be beneficial for a person.”
“Well that’s great but I don’t pay you to have healthy discussions with my child. I pay you to teach him the skills he will need for university so that is what you’ll do, understood?
I don’t understand why this woman is so set on isolating her son from the world. But she’s right about one part. She’s paying me, and I don’t want to get fired “Very well.” I tell her “I apologize for any inconvenience I caused and will do better from now on.”
She opens her mouth to retort, takes a moment to process the words I just said and then says “Good!” Before storming out again.
The door slams shut and I pick up my book again.
I wonder what happened at church today that made her this livid, but I guess I’ll have to speculate as I put ‘religion’ on the mental list of off-limit topics. 
I open my book at the marker and start to read. 
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