Chapter 22: Crumbling bridge
It feels like I’ve been up thinking for hours already…I can check my watch but I decided I don’t want to know how much time I’ve wasted already.
I can’t sleep.
My mind won’t let me.
It keeps drifting back to simpler times and the things that could have been.
If I hadn’t run away Stegarius would still be alive and so would Mercury.
I’d be a foreman by now, bossing people around.
Maybe I’d have kids already, carried around in a silly little booklet.
I always dismissed that life but I never tried it.
Abel seems happy enough about the arrangement.
And right now being bored sounds a lot more appealing than being desperate.
If we can’t even find the alchemists how are we expected to talk to them?
Tungsten blew his chance with Neon and he completely locks me out of whatever happened between them meaning I can’t think up a solution either.
Steel up and left his den, Tin is denless so who knows where he hangs out?
And well…Mercury is dead.
I’m pretty sure it’s hopeless.
Doll fever will continue until the alchemists get bored and who knows how many dolls might get hurt because of it.
And it’s my fault.
I grunt at the darkness, accept I won’t get much rest tonight and get up.
I reach beyond the edge of my makeshift bed and locate the matches to light the walking light. With the flame lit, a brilliant point in the dark I push the blankets off myself and head to the parlour.
Stegarius’ bag has been lying by the door this whole time.
I meant to look inside but never really wanted to.
It feels invasive.
What if there are things in there he didn’t want me to see?
What if there are things in there I don’t want to know about?
I could just give it back to the dolls unopened.
Have them deal with it and yet.
I fear I’ll always wonder what’s inside if I do.
I sit down on the floor, pick up the bag and stare at it for a moment.
I take a deep breath, open up the clasp and pull out the contents one by one placing them around me on the floor. It feels a bit wrong to do so but Tungsten doesn’t have a table to place them on instead.
Books, well mostly books. It’s painfully clear which ones were mine when I was a kid and which Stegarius already had on him. Yet even the newer ones look like they’ve been read over and over and over again.
He told me once that reading was the closest thing to dreaming that he had.
I can imagine him sitting there, reading his books through the night, enjoying the stories. I pull out the book titled ‘The Jax and the wizard’. I know in my head that someone read it to me before Stegarius because I knew the story. Yet I have no recollection of anyone reading me anything but him. And it all started with this story, this cautionary tale that according to Stegarius used to be so much darker. I never did look up the original.
Maybe I should?
I open it up and realize there’s no need. He left meticulously written notes in the margins of the book.
I never expected his handwriting to feel nostalgic but it always looked so round and friendly to me. He wrote in pencil, I can only speculate, but I think he did so that if I ever wanted the books back he could erase the marks again.
I never wanted these back. I wanted him to keep these with him forever. Till long after I was gone.
I read the book front to back and try my hardest not to cry.
I’m surprised to see the notes stop after page fifteen, only a little over halfway in the story.
I guess in the original the jax really doesn’t escape prison.
If only I had magic fairies to rewrite the points where things went wrong.
I huff bitterly at the ‘happy ever after’ and then close the book again.
I pull out another book, one of his originals. I don’t remember these old books being handwritten, but it makes sense in hindsight. They feel valuable, I have to give them back to the dolls. Someone has to take care of them now that he no longer can.
I reach inside and pull out a small music box that I’ve never seen before.
It looks…kind of ugly actually. Old, battered, without the usual decorations and whatever messages or decorations may have been painted on the metal surface got peeled and scuffed to the point the piece is more scratches and stains than anything else.
I turn the key out of curiosity more than anything else and find to my bafflement I know this song.
It sounds like nighttime, like snippets of a melody that would float into my dreams sometimes.
I never expected it to be a real song. I never even registered it consciously until now.
But I know it, I really do.
Stegarius must have put this music up while I was asleep, to read by maybe?
And then in the den and Viola’s place where we were so cooped up I must have picked it up through the walls.
I never knew.
I wish I had known.
Tears slip from my eyes and I draw up my knees for my head to rest on. My mind flooded with memories of moments I’ll never get back.
Things I’ll never get to say.
Choices I’ll never get to make again.
I wish I’d asked about the music.
I wish I’d asked so many things.
I wish it wasn’t too late now.
I pick the box up reverently.
Take it back to my pile of blankets and turn the copper key.
I blow out the flame.
And close my eyes.
I stand outside Bar-B with a bag in my hands and a goal in my mind.
I push the door out of the way, the bell chiming happily at my arrival.
I head to the bar where I find Jaxogeras and Zjeliah talking about fairies of all things.
Zjeliah puts down his argument with conviction “Look I’m not saying modern fairies are bad, it’s just that I think that as a lesson on morality, I think traditional fairies were simply more effective. I mean who makes a more compelling argument, someone helping out when you need it, but only if you’re deemed worthy by unclear parameters, or someone who steals your toes in the night if you’ve been naughty?”
“Yes but is the punishment proportional to the sleight I wonder.” Jaxogeras muses.
“Well, sometimes life is just like that.”
“What do they do with the toes?” I ask while making a mental note that the old fairies are terrifying.
“They feed them to their young of course but that’s beside the point-”
“Inquiry, It’s good to see you.” Jaxogeras tells me with a smile “What’s your opinion on fairies?”
“I uh, I like the ones that keep my toes where they are.”
“But would you do what the fairy says if she wanted to take your toes?” Zjeliah
“Probably? Depends on the request?”
Zjeliah holds his hands out next to me in a sort of ‘ta-da’ gesture as if that were the perfect piece of evidence.
Jaxogeras rolls their eyes and says “Well I guess that’s it then.” With delight in their voice. They then turn to me, their voice turning more serious “Inquiry, how have you been?”
I put the bag down on the bar “First I want to give these back.”
Recognition dawns on Jaxogeras’ face as they pull the bag close and open it up “Thank you, these mean a lot to us.”
Around us heads start turning towards the bar as the books slide out of the bag and onto the bar.
“Oh I love the mirror lake, it’s been so long since I’ve seen it.” Zjeliah croons as he sorts through the pile.
“Can I see?” one of the dolls asks as they make their way over, I don’t think I’ve seen them before.
“Sure, there you go Karokko.”
“Thanks. Did we always have this one?”
“Yeah, but if you want new books you gotta see these.”
Jaxogeras pulls up an eyebrow at me as Zjeliah starts handing books around. “Are you sure you don’t want your old books back?” they ask.
I scratch the back of my head “Positive. It’d feel weird.”
“I see. Thank you.”
“Huh? There’s something in here still? Oh looks like one of yours.” Zjeliah announces as he hands Jaxogeras the old battered music box.
Jaxogeras looks at it “Oh wow, I…I had completely forgotten about this.”
Zjeliah puts his hand on his hip and addresses Jaxogeras accusingly “You never gave me a music box.”
“Back when he was Delaylah he used to really like this song, so after he moved out as Stegarius I gave it to him as a parting gift.”
“I think he used to listen to it while reading at night. I was asleep of course so I’m not sure, but I recognise the melody.”
“Really?” they turn the key and a simple melody comes forth. They set the little machine down and sit down face blank as the notes come in. “Well, at least I’ve improved.” They conclude as the music stops.
“I liked it,” Zjeliah says with a pat on Jaxogeras’ back.
“You’re just saying that hoping I’ll give it to you but don’t you want this Inquiry? I mean you’re giving us the books I can imagine you want something to remember him by.”
My heart jumps at the thought “Can I?” It feels…inappropriate in a way but-
“Of course. I’m the one who gave it to him, and I think he’d like you to have something too.”
“Thank you.” I can feel my lip tremble as I pick the music box off the bar and hold it close to my chest.
As the bag empties and the dolls dissipate back to their tables and seats something approximating calm returns
“So, did you work out a meeting with the alchemists?” Jaxogeras asks tentatively.
I shake my head solemnly “We can’t even find them. We tried all the places we knew to look but they moved out or haven’t showed up in a while.”
Jaxogeras brings a wooden hand to their lips “That does complicate things”
“I uh…may have an idea.”
“If we can’t get to the alchemists maybe we can lure the alchemists to us instead.”
“Well…we use the heart as bait essentially-”
“Out of the question,” Prishtoli tells me resolutely as she buts into the conversation.
“Can I at least finish my sentence?”
“There’s nothing you can say that makes that makes the risk worth it.”
“What about finally reaching our goal?”
The doll crosses her long arms “Don’t you mean your goal? You just want that school built.”
“No, well, it’s not about that, we need to get the alchemists to back down at least. Or do you want to be cooped up here forever.”
Prishtoli huffs “There must be other ways, I’m not risking the last part I have of my brother to satisfy your curiosity.”
“It’s what Stegarius would have wanted.”
I grunt, this again “Well, in that case, what idea do you bring to the table.”
The dolls crosses her long arms and sneers “I have no sympathy for them. If I have to go out there and kill every last one of them I would.”
“That’s not a solution, that’s a reason for the other alchemists to retaliate not just with fervour but with the moral high ground. In a way, we were lucky it was Mercury who died since no one liked her but I don’t know who’s allied to who.” In hindsight I wish I’d kept up with the politics and petty grudges “Attacking now will only make the war between dolls and alchemists inevitable.”
“So they’re allowed to kidnap and torture me and then they get the heart of my best friend and brother offered to them on a silver platter after you, another alchemist, killed him? And I’m supposed to be okay with that?” She turns to the other dolls in an attempt to rally them “I say we let them reap what they sow and make them leave us alone in one fell swoop.”
“Look I understand what you went through and I’m sorry that happened but-”
My shoulders jump as Prishtoly slams her wooden hand on the bar. “You don’t understand anything! All you understand is wrapping people around those fleshy little fingers of yours until they do your bidding and then you use them for whatever plan you fancy.”
“That’s not true.”
“My Stegarius couldn’t care less for alchemy, he thought it was silly pseudo-science at best. But you warped him to the point he disappeared from my sight for over a year and then he turns up and tells me he’s ‘making a new generation’. He pushed himself for you, he dragged himself beyond his comfort zone to make your dreams come true. And then when someone needed to clean up the giant mess you had made he fucking died for you! My Stegarius would still be here if it weren’t for your manipulations!”
“You think it’s my fault he’s dead? You’re the one who killed a human breaking the illusion that dolls are harmless! You’re the one who has given them the tools to dehumanise all of you, hunt you and kill you without the public feeling an ounce of pity. It’s your mess we’ve been trying to clean up!”
“Get out.” Her voice is ice, her long nails digging into the bar. Jaxogeras carefully puts a hand on hers, looks into her eyes and calmly says “It’s time to go Inquiry.”
They may as well have used that hand to slap me in the face and it would have felt the same. “What? But the heart, the plan.” I stammer.
“I-” I look around, doll eyes boring into me from every direction.
Expecting me to go.
My heart is thumping in my ears.
My eyes sting
I try not to cry.
The sound of the bell out the door feels like a death knell.
Then I run.
Stegarius’ words float up in my head as I push people aside on the sidewalk trying to run away from this feeling.
‘The dolls will always treat you like a friend and ally. You will be the bridge between dolls and alchemy, father of the new generation, brother of the old one.’
By the time I reach the conifer trees tears are streaming down my face.
I scream into the mass of needles.
Bad thoughts pounding through my mind.
Everything was for nothing.
Thinking hurts too much right now.
I jump down the ladder into the den and make a straight line for Tungsten’s ice box.
Grab a bottle of wine.
Awkwardly pry off the cap with the first tool I can find that looks sharp enough.
Take a swig straight from the bottle.
And head to bed.