Chapter 16: The moment after
“This isn’t happening,” I whisper the words out loud despite there being no one left to hear them.
With the heart of my mentor in my hands, all I can see is the blue ether-light seeping away behind a wall of water.
I try to wipe away my tears then take a shuddering breath.
All right Inquiry keep it together, now you just gotta…
You have to…
Panic strikes me like a slap to the face.
He didn’t tell me what to do next!
I can’t just wait for the alchemists to come back and just hand it off stating my demands…
No that sounds like it would go very badly.
First I have to leave here.
I put the heart down on the trolley, the raised edges keeping it from rolling down to the floor.
I walk to his body his…corpse I guess?
Do dolls have corpses?
I don’t know.
I put my shoulder underneath his arm and try to drag him off the metal operating table.
Almost pulling my back out in the progress.
Why is he so heavy!?
“Should I leave you here?” my voice is hoarse and strangely enough my brain expects an answer.
It feels wrong to ask Stegarius a question and not getting an answer in return.
What am I even doing? He’s just…wood now.
I should take the heart and go before anyone comes in.
I walk back to the heart and pick it up.
Why did we do this here? Shouldn’t we have done this elsewhere? In Bar-B surrounded by the people who love him.
That would have been better.
But then how would the alchemists believe us?
Maybe that’s why I must leave the husk here? So the alchemists know there’s a heart out there for the taking, know we’re not bluffing when we tell them we got one?
Did you plan it like that?
Or were you just an idiot like me?
I walk to the door, look back.
“Goodbye, my dearest friend.”
Then I run.
I hold the heart close to my chest as I enter Bar-B.
Tears are burning down my red puffy face.
All around me the music boxes are winding to a close. An army of glass eyes pointed in my direction.
Realization dawns as to what I’m holding spreading out like blood-red ink in the water.
Then a heartbreaking noise cuts through the silence
There’s a smear of pink as Prishtoli lunges towards me.
Knowing her strength I close my eyes anticipating pain but the long-legged doll merely crumples down onto the floor “What did you do!?” she cries out and I can feel the anguish cut through my heart. The other dolls quickly spring into action to console her, leaving me standing alone.
“He-he…made me.” I gasp, desperate for air “I didn’t…want.” My legs are trembling “I’m sorry.” I want to collapse, curl into myself and die but the sheer weight and importance of Stegarius’ glass and brass heart keeps me on my feet.
If this breaks, it is all for nothing.
I watch as the other dolls help Prishtoli to her feet, I remember their names. Tyalowa, Zjeliah.
They won’t even look at me now.
I can’t blame them.
But I don’t want to be alone.
Please, I’m scared.
I didn’t know where else to go.
Just look at me!
Then the mass of chaos splits, creating a thin path through which Jaxogeras approaches me with hands outstretched “May I?” they ask gently and their voice makes my throat squeeze shut painfully. With quivering lips I nod. They wrap their long fingers around the heart, pick it up reverently, and hand it off to another doll whose name I never got. “Wrap it up in towels and put it underneath the bar, we’ll deal with that later.”
With the burden of the heart lifted it’s like a hammer strikes me in the back of the legs.
I drop from sheer exhaustion and misery.
They catch me, hold me up like I weigh no more than a feather. Cradling my head on their shoulder.
“Shhhhh.” They try to soothe me “It’s gonna be okay.” I can’t help but notice the effort they have to take to say this. They sound like they’re trying to convince themself rather than me.
I try to speak, I want to apologize but every time I open my mouth there’s nothing but sobs.
They pat my back, keeping me close.
Giving me time to gather myself.
Some time later I’m sitting on a chair, a cup of water in front of me.
Prishtoli walked out together with Tyalowa. I can’t even imagine how much she must be hurting.
My stomach feels heavy, my face feels hot. It feels like I’ve been drinking molten lead for hours on end.
Jaxogeras sits across from me on a bar stool they grabbed off the bar. The other dolls are standing around.
I know it’s not on purpose, but it’s like they’re looming over me.
“I know this must be hard, but we have to know what happened,” Jaxogeras explains.
My eyes drift to the bar, and I nod in understanding, taking another sip of water “Mercury kidnapped Prishtoli. She tried to open her up by force. It didn’t work thankfully, but she riled up the other alchemists to do the same. ‘Spread the doll fever’” I say the words with palpable disdain.
“You mean to say that this could happen again?” a voice asks from the crowd.
I nod and a wave of whispers glides through the wooden audience.
“She set out a cash price to whoever can either get make a working replica…or get an authentic heart to study.”
Jaxogeras looks confused “Why? What’s the value of such a thing to an alchemist?”
I shake my head, trying to keep the tears from my eyes “It’s my fault, I’m so sorry.”
A whisper flutters around the room, the pressure building in my chest I breathe faster and faster trying to get air in my system but it only makes my heart go quicker.
Jaxogeras puts a hand on mine, their voice peeks gingerly through the darkness while trying to soothe me by saying assuring things like ‘keep breathing’ ‘have another sip of water’ ‘take your time’
I can feel their stares boring into me, even with my eyes squeezed shut I can sense their judgment.
“This isn’t working.” Zjeliah gets up and claps his hands “Okay everyone out except the kid and Jaxy.”
“Zjeliah what are you-?” Jaxogeras starts but the Zjeliah puts a hand to their lips.
“You want to know what happened right? Talking is probably easier without an audience.”
I don’t like how they talk over me, but he’s right. When the dolls follow him out I feel relieved, grateful.
And then it’s just Jaxogeras and me.
“Take another sip of water.” They repeat and I wipe my nose on my sleeve before obliging. I try to focus on my breathing, in and out again.
Don’t listen to the rapid thumping of your heart.
“Remember when Stegarius asked you to take my picture?” I start.
“That place underground, it was an alchemist’s den. I was learning alchemy. It’s all my fault, I started doll fever.”
There’s silence for a bit. I expect anger or indignation but when the doll opens their mouth again they say “I’m sorry but I don’t understand.”
I swallow hard before continuing “Back in the university I learnt that dolls are made from alchemy. I wanted to see if I could make my own.”
Their eyes stand flabbergasted “Why would you try such a thing?”
“Because you’ll die!” I yell the words but I didn’t mean to “I mean one day. Dolls will die out one day and I wanted to prevent that.”
“By cutting open one of our own?” they scoff and I think I’m telling it all in the wrong order.
“No, no that wasn’t part of the plan at all! I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I swear.” I try to focus on my breathing but my thoughts are in the way muddling my focus. “We started with the notes, your father’s notes, I translated them, thought I could do it with that alone but-”
“You have the notes!?”
“Fayatspaad has looked all over for those.”
“Taking them was stupid I know, but I thought I could do it. Then we ran into a wall. We found we needed to see a heart up close and study it in order to replicate it. Mercury tried attacking Stegarius and then after we left… she went after Prishtoli and…” My voice gets stuck in my throat again. Am I allowed to tell about Mercury’s murder? I don’t want Prishtoli to get into trouble. I take another sip of water.
“Inquiry?” Jaxogeras asks carefully.
I shrug “I’m sorry I’m not sure if I should say more.”
“It’s okay, I’ll tell them.”
We both turn to the door where Prishtoli is standing with Tyalowa by her side. She still looks a bit shaky as she walks over to the sofa but her face betrays no weakness. “I killed the alchemist who tried to kill me. They kept me in a cage like an animal, not even an animal an ‘it’, an object.” I can taste the vitriol in her voice, I can’t say I blame her.
But I don’t understand.
“They, there were more than one?”
“There were four of them, the woman one who lured me underground. a pale man with white hair and green tinted glasses, one old, for your kind at least, his arms were covered in tattoos of snakes and scorpions and a small bald man with buck teeth and a red suit, he kept to the back of the pack mostly.”
“Neon, Steel and the last one sounds like Tin to me.” I almost feel proud of the alchemists for finding a way to work together. If only the goal they decided to unite over wasn’t murder.
I spot her hands are balled to fists “Stegarius promised me he’d take care of it, but now he’s dead. Just what happened after I left?”
“He knew the other alchemists wouldn’t stop at anything to obtain a heart, so instead of waiting for them to come attack the others he decided to end the fight before it even began.”
Jaxogeras nods understandingly “This sounds plausible enough, the question is what to do now?”
“He wants me to build a school for alchemists. Regulate them not by fighting them, but by teaching them an ethical way to perform their craft. The heart would be on display there, meaning no one would have to get their hands dirty to study one.”
“Stegarius wants to build a school for alchemy?” Jaxogeras asks flabbergasted.
“Well he wanted me to do it but-”
Prishtoli crosses her arms “You’re lying.”
“There’s no way he tried to help them, he wanted out of alchemy, not jump head first into another scheme. So either you pushed him into it, or you’re lying and he said nothing of the sort.”
I open my mouth to retort but then her words come through to me.
Stegarius wanted out? That can’t be right, right? He didn’t tell me anything about it. He’d tell me, right? “I’m not lying, you have to believe me.” I pull my arms close to me.
“All I know is you killed Stegarius and then come in claiming he said something that sounds a lot more like you than him. How am I supposed to interpret that?”
“If you think I could overpower Stegarius and take the heart by force you overestimate my fighting prowess by a big margin.”
Prishtoli’s voice is sharp as she responds “There’s a machine in that lab, one that can knock out dolls but not humans, I don’t know how it works but you’re an alchemist I’m sure you could figure it out.”
“Are you really accusing me of murdering my dearest friend and parent, just so I can pull a bunch of work onto my shoulders?”
“And play the hero, and build your doll army or whatever-”
“Enough!” Jaxogeras smacks their wooden hands down onto the table making us both jump, I almost forgot they were here “This is too much to process in one night. Stegarius is dead, the alchemists are after us and apparently, they have a machine that can incapacitate us. If we are in danger then there’s no time to waste so if you’ll excuse me I’m going to round everyone up. We’re stronger together.” They get up and walk to the door.
“Can I help?”
“Just go home kid.” Prishtoli bites bitterly.
Her voice feels like needles in my heart “Prishtoli, I swear I didn’t do what you think I did.”
She casts her eyes down, shoulders slumping “Does it even matter at this point, he’s dead and there’s no way for me to check if your story holds true.” Her voice sounds broken, wanting to cry but not being able to.
It breaks my heart.
“Prishtoli I’m so sorry.”
“Please just go, I need to help Jaxogeras now.” She gets up, walks to the door and holds it open for me.
Even the bell above the door sounds sad tonight.
“I’ll come back tomorrow-” I start but the lady is already walking in the opposite direction.
I push my hands in my pockets, shiver against the chill.
Make my way back home feeling hollow and utterly alone.