Chapter 17: It’s a human thing
As the pleasant little awnings and pastel curtains doom up from a distance I dread what’s to come.
Maybe I can just sneak my way in without Miss Viola seeing me?
Dodge the questions, and explain in the morning.
But the moment I arrive I see the light is on still.
I look at the clock.
Doesn’t that old lady sleep?
For a moment I genuinely consider sleeping in the gutter.
Then the door opens up outlining the unmistable silhouette of the old lady against the light inside the entrance.
“You’re late, I stayed up for you.”
“Thank you.” I want to rush past her but she stops me, peering past me into the dark.
“He’s…” I don’t want to say it… “He’s not around right now.” I respond softly, trying to keep my voice from wavering.
Miss Viola’s eyes grow big as she shuffles towards me and pats my back “Oh dear, oh dear did the two of you get into a fight?”
Because of course that’s the first assumption she would make.
I shake my head. “It’s not that it’s…” It’s like my brain is fighting against the thought. Like if I tell her then it’ll be real and there’s no going back again.
The old lady smiles reassuringly, “Why don’t you sit down while I make a cup of tea and you can tell me what happened?”
All I want to do is sleep and leave this dreadful day behind me but I nod out of politeness.
I can’t think of an excuse.
The porcelain clinks softly as Missus Viola sets the tray down. The sound feels sharp to my ears but I don’t mention it.
She pulls the teapot up, her hands are trembling.
“Let me.” I get up to help
“Oh, thank you, my dear.”
I pour the tea for both of us, then set the pot down and hand her a cup.
I sit down.
There’s an awkward silence that seems to go on forever but the woman waits patiently as she drinks her tea.
I just hold my cup, staring down into the dark liquid.
Maybe if I just sit here she’ll give up eventually? Or fall asleep inside her chair.
And then what?
I’ll have to tell her at one point.
“He’s dead,” I murmur softly.
“What’s that now dear?” She asks.
“Stegarius you mean?”
There’s the clang of a teacup set down a smidge too roughly. Her voice is small and shocked as she asks “How?”
“It’s a long story, it’s late-” I try to get up but her hand reaches out for me and grabs my sleeve with surprising accuracy.
“Tell it anyway. Please. There’s no way I could sleep without knowing.”
I notice her hands are trembling. I take them gently and as I sit back down I tell the story for the second time today.
I tell her about the alchemists, the dolls they want to create and the kinapping attempt. I try to keep things simple, or maybe I don’t want to admit doll fever is my fault.
Nevertheless she opens her mouth ans interrupts me “I…I have a question”
“Oh, yes of course.”
“How many alchemists are there in the city? Surely there can’t be enough to wage war with.”
“A couple dozen, I never counted them so that’s a rough estimate.”
“Just in Unebre?”
“They’re good at hiding.”
“Right…” she falls silent again.
I continue explaining the rescue attempt, how we found out she was gone and went back to Mercury’s den.
“Stegarius figured that what we needed was an end to the doll fever, one heart that any alchemist could reference so no other dolls need to be harmed-”
“And he sacrificed himself?” I think I hear a tinge of resentment in her voice but I’m nor entirely sure.
I nod solemnly “Yes.”
“Of course. Classic Stegarius, always putting other people’s wants in front of her-, I mean his, own.” She pulls an embroidered handkerchief from her pocket and then gently shrinks in on herself like a withering leaf as she starts to softly sob.
She takes it harder than I imagined but then they did know one another before she and I met.
I think they were friends somewhere in the past?
Watching her crying makes me want to bawl my eyes out but I find my tears have dried up by now.
After what seems like half an eternity she collects herself for long enough to say “We should both go to bed. It’s past the witching hour. Things will look better in the morning.”
I help her get out of her chair and to her room.
“I can take it from here young man, thank you and good night.”
She closes the door softly.
I stand there for a moment just trying to land.
Then take a breath and leave for my room.
‘Things will look better in the morning.’
I sure hope so.
The next morning I leave my room and find myself alone.
Stegarius is nowhere…
Well, he’s back in Mercury’s lab, or is he down at Bar-B?
I’m not even sure anymore.
He’s not here.
And I hate it.
I get dressed and drag myself to the parlour where I find white bread rolls, butter and a boiled egg waiting for me set at a table set for one.
I look around for the old lady and find a sign on the desk saying; “I’ll be back by midday, please help yourself to something to eat.
I’m not hungry.
I pull the black veil from my bag.
The timing feels almost cruelly comedic but I don’t want to hold on to it.
I fold it neatly before putting it down next to the sign.
As I leave the quaint little building behind I find the whole city is blanketed in a thick grey mist.
I pull up my collar, pull a scarf around my hair and head straight to Bar-B.
I haven’t seen the place this busy in any of my visits. I had no idea this many dolls even lived in this city.
I don’t know a lot of these people.
And I’m not sure what to do with myself.
They look at me with curiosity whenever I pass by.
I cross my arms in discomfort as I rush towards the bar. I’ve never felt this human in my life.
Jaxogeras is engaging a customer while sorting a bowl of metal parts into small jars. When they see me they excuse themself and come straight towards me “Inquiry, you’re earlier than expected.”
“I didn’t sleep much,” I admit. It’s hard to sleep when your brain keeps throwing misery at you. “Did you manage to find all the dolls?”
They nod “And Prishtoli is at the post office to warn our friends outside the city. It shouldn’t be long until everyone knows to steer clear of alchemists.”
“And then what?”
“Prishtoli mentioned a machine that can knock out dolls, we need to find a way to destroy it.”
“No, they’d just build a new one. The solution isn’t to attack, we have to talk to them. Work this out.”
“Do you think they’ll listen?”
I think back to the meeting the alchemists hold every month. They consist of a lot of shouting but not much listening. “I don’t know but we have to try. If we want to make a school we need their goodwill.”
Jaxogeras pulls a key from their pocket and starts winding music boxes “You mentioned a school yesterday but I don’t see how that would help keep us safe.”
“Alchemy needs to be regulated. They need ethics and rules and the only way to do that is by uniting them and teaching them a better way.”
“I understand that that may be a long-term goal you want to set but right now-”
“Look, it’s the one thing I’m certain I have to do.” I cross my arms defiantly.
“Why?” They ask surprised.
“Why do you think?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking.”
For a second I’m stunned but I detect no malice nor sarcasm, I sigh, sit down on the barstool and say “I killed Stegarius, I know it was his idea and he kind of forced my hand at it but it was me who did the deed. He thought there was no other option, I thought there was no other option but if there is then what was the point!?”
“We don’t know if there’s another option, we can’t really know unless we try. But we do want to try, because losing Stegarius has been hard on all of us, and a lot of us want to protect the one piece we still have.”
“But you’re going against his last request,” I exclaim.
“What’s a last request?”
“It’s…it’s the last thing someone wanted before they died, it’s important to follow it. You can’t just go ahead and go against a last request.” I can feel my face heat up as I speak.
Their eyes soften “I’m sorry we’re not used to dolls dying…I wasn’t aware of that tradition.”
I grunt, it’s like talking a different language sometimes “It’s not a tradition it’s just common sense it’s-” I sigh “It’s a human thing…”
“So even if there are other options you would rather give away Stegarius’ heart because he told you to do that and now he’s dead.”
“You make it sound stupid on purpose.” I cross my arms.
They shake their head “I’m only trying to understand.” They then close the vox of metal parts and set it down underneath the bar “How about we leave the heart out of this for now? Focus on the real problem. You said you know the people who kidnapped Prishtoli?”
“Knowing is a big word, I’ve seen them at the meetings but aside from general yelling I haven’t had much interaction with them.”
“And you think you can get them to stop this madness?”
“Well if they have the heart.”
Their voice goes stern “The heart isn’t yours, or mine for that matter. It belongs to doll-kind as a whole, we have to figure out a lot before even thinking of doing that-”
“But Stegarius wanted-”
“Stegarius can no longer tell us what he wanted, I trust you to tell the truth, but you know not everyone does. Other dolls have the right to be sceptical.”
I bite my lip in frustration, I thought my education meant I understood dolls but now I run into walls on every side and I’m starting to get the disturbing feeling that I may never have and never will.
“Okay, so how about…” I start carefully “I reach out to the alchemists and try to set up a meeting without the heart?”
“Better, I could invite Tiborah to come along for our side, Fayatspaad can make notes-”
I flinch at the name, remembering the notebook in my bag “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Because you stole father’s notebook from them and they’re still angry about it?”
“Then I suggest you give it back.”
“I really should, shouldn’t I?” I pull the notebook from my bag and lay it down on the bar. “Here.”
Jaxogeras crosses their arms “It’s not mine.”
I sigh “I know but I doubt Fayatspaad wants to see me ever again.”
“Well, I’m sure they’d think you much braver if you handed the notebook in yourself rather than shove the responsibility to one of us.”
I hate it when they’re right.
I swipe the notebook back off the table “All right, fine. I’ll give it back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” they ask sceptically.
“Now?” I try.
Jaxogeras nods approvingly.
I put the notebook in my bag again “All right, but if I’m setting up a meeting can you try to figure out what to do with the heart in the meantime?”
“Of course, good luck.”
And just like that, I’m outside again.
The fog hasn’t even died down yet.
I have a feeling this will be a long day.