Universally enthusiastic chaos-artist & storyteller

Chapter 30: The elephant in the room

I’m standing in front of Bar-B and for the first time in my entire life I feel unwelcome here.
I don’t know if Prishtoli’s inside.
I don’t know what I’ll say if she is.
I don’t know what to say if she’s not.
But I have a solution! Or at least I think I do…I have the funds, I have the plan.
All I need is their cooperation.
I should be able to manage that, right?
I gather my strength, open the door and flinch at the sound of the bell ringing above my head.
Inside the dolls stare at me with hard glass eyes. I look around and gratefully find the sofa empty.
I swallow, try my best to smile and rush to the bar.
I do hope Prishtolli is well wherever she is.
Despite her unfavourable look on me, I can’t bring myself to hate her.
She’s probably just scared like the rest of us. And I can’t exactly blame her for that.
At the bar, Jaxogeras is helping a customer so I sit down and wait patiently for my turn.
That is until a doll sits down next to me. She, I presume she at least, wears long black locks that drape over her shoulders like a waterfall made of ink. Her eyes are a striking gold and they stare at me curiously.
I don’t think we’ve met before.
“Uhm, hello?” I ask gingerly.
“You’re the ward right?”
“I uh…guess I am, who are you if I may ask?”
“Lady Karokko, I uh, I didn’t see Delaylah, sorry Stegarius a lot these last couple decades. I never expected him to be gone so soon.” She chuckles uncomfortably “Or at all really.”
My throat tightens around a clump of guilt “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, I uh, I have a question for you, if you don’t mind?”
“Oh, uh, what is it?”
“What was he like?”
“I never got to meet Stegarius, I knew Delaylah of course but I live all the way in Asheru and I somehow always managed to go to the death day party in years Stegarius didn’t. And now I feel like I’m not sure whether I should be mourning someone I technically never met even though the two of us were friends.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She shrugs “So back to my question?”
“Stegarius was, kind, considerate, patient and stubborn. As my tutor he let me try things out even if he already knew the idea would fail. And then we’d talk about why it failed and I genuinely appreciate the time he’d put into letting me find things out for myself rather than simply droning up answers.”
“What did he teach you?”
“Everything, family history, biology, mechanics, physics, etiquette, all of it.”
“Really?” She sounds surprised by this.
“Yes, and he taught me how to play Mareia even though I’m better at it.”
“Did the two of you ever play jinx?”
“I played jinx here actually, Stegarius brought me here once as his tutor, on my birthday, right before I had to leave for university.” I can feel the tightness ease as fond memories come in. The chunk slips into my stomach where it lays heavy and ever-present “Can I ask what Delaylah was like? Back when you knew her?”
“Well, back when I last saw her she taught me how to play that game. It was during a death day party, although I forgot the year. It was that time of night when half the family is tired and the other half is still jumping around, dancing and playing. Kregaya came up to me to ask if Delaylah had already said hi and I told her she hadn’t. So she sent me out to find her instead. She was tired, I was tired. It had been such a long time since I had seen her. And yet I felt like we just left off when we had last seen one another and it felt so comfortable. We skipped the whole ‘how have you been’ thing and in hindsight I kind of wish I hadn’t. I wish we’d talked more, it’s so easy to let people you care about slip away just by not talking to them.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.
She shrugs, but her voice sounds forlorn like she’s acting braver than she feels “It’s life.”
“Yeah, I guess. Can I ask something else, something silly?”
“Of course.”
“How can dolls get tired if you don’t need to sleep?”
“Oh that’s, well it’s not physical fatigue, we don’t get aching muscles or eyes that refuse to stay open but we do get mentally tired. When we’ve been around a lot of impulses or when we had to do a lot of talking, it might be different for each doll, some dolls relish the company of other people. But I get tired when I spend a lot of time talking to people without taking time for myself.”
“I see, thank you for explaining that to me.”
She smiles “You’re welcome.”
“Inquiry, I’m glad to see you’ve come back to us,” Jaxogeras says jovially as they make their way over from the other side of the bar.
“Yes hi, I uhm, I want to talk to you…in private if possible.”
“I hope you understand I can’t leave the bar behind?”
Karokko gets up from the stool “It’s fine, I’ll go say hi to Araracanga then. It was nice meeting you ward.”
“Oh uh, likewise.”
Jaxogeras watches her walk off, then turns to me “So what is it you want to discuss?”
“I know I don’t get to take the heart with me and I’ve accepted that”
The doll nods but stays silent leaving me the space to continue.
“I think I found a way to set the trap but keep the heart out of harm’s reach.”
There’s a moment of silence as Jaxogeras thinks. “What do you have in mind?”
“We can trick them with a fake heart, do the talk. If there’s hope for a peaceful solution, we take it. If there’s not, they can puzzle till they get bored on a heart that doesn’t work.”
“I’ll have to discuss this with the others-”
“Of course, I didn’t expect a response straight away.”
“There’s also another matter that needs discussing.” A voice behind us cuts in. My shoulders jump in recognition
“Melody? What are you doing here?”
She smiles a wrinkled smile “You’re not the only human who is friends with the dolls. And then my heart sinks as I turn towards her and find Prishtoli standing beside her, keeping the old lady steady.
“Jaxogeras you’re gonna have to put up a sign, there’s no way I’m climbing onto one of those barstools.”
Jaxogeras looks at the woman, then at prishtoli and says “Very well.” They reach underneath the bar and pick out a sheet of paper and a pencil with which they write ‘I’m in the room.’ Before folding it over and awkwardly standing on its end, it flops down again. “I uh…I’ll be with you in a second.” They explain before diving back into the bar.
“We’ll be on the far side, Inquiry you’re coming too. I think the fake heart idea is worth trying but there’s something you overlooked.”
“I did?”
“Yup.” She signals me to follow her so I get up and do and wonder exactly what I’m supposed to feel or think right now.
Pristoli hasn’t said a word yet, her eyes look distant, as if she’s not really ‘here’ with the rest of us.
“Are you okay?” I ask as the three of us sit down.
She looks at me her eyes focusing on me for just a second before they look away. For a moment I’m afraid she’s going to be angry at me but she just says “Don’t worry about me.”
“But I do I said some rude things last time and-”
“I came as fast as I could,” Jaxogeras announces as they dive to their seat.
“Good. Then I think it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Prishtoli killed a human.”
“Yes, we know.” I tell her a bit confused “I was there actually.” Even though I kind of wish I weren’t. It was not a pretty sight.
“Yes, and Stegarius is hoping that by giving them a heart we can prevent the alchemists from turning against us.”
“Which with all respect, leaves a lot of power still in the alchemists’ hands.”
“I guess…and you have a different suggestion?”
“She wants to push the blame onto Stegarius to save me!” Prishtoli exclaims and the whole bar goes silent at once leaving nothing but the gentle ringing of music boxes.
I chuckle uncomfortably “Surely you’re exaggerating?” I look at the old lady hopefully but she shakes her head “No that’s in essence what I wanted to say.”
“But we’d be lying, we’d be ruining his reputation, his memory.” I stammer.
“Yes, and we’d be keeping Prishtoli out of harm’s way.”
“But if we can get to terms with the alchemists that would be unnecessary right?”
“I don’t wanna bank on that, even if the few who agree to talk want to keep silent at all that still doesn’t guarantee anything for the future. I trust the dolls to keep a secret far better than the ones who are evidently not above kidnapping and murder.”
I look at Jaxogeras but their face has gone just as blank as Prishtoli’s before.
“I… don’t know what to say.” Abel’s words ring true in my head ‘Promises die with the ones who made them’. But framing Stegarius for murder.
Melody shrugs “Then say nothing, but you know it’s the best way to ensure the dolls aren’t just safe right now, but continue to be so in the future as well.”
“Well? What do you think?” I ask the table at large but Prishtoli and Jaxogeras remain silent.
Then of all dolls, it’s Zjeliah who opens up his mouth, sitting down at the table unprovoked “I think it’s a good idea. It’s not polite or pretty but the lady is right, Stegarius died to protect us, it would be silly to put ourselves into unnecessary risks.” He lays a hand on Prishtoli’s shoulder, she carefully wipes it away in response.
“Thank you Zjeliah.” Melody says and the doll looks a bit confused at this “You know me?”
The woman chuckles “It was a lifetime ago, don’t worry about it.”
Prishtoli balls her fists “I don’t want it. Look it was my mistake and my responsibility. I can’t expect Stegarius to take the fall for something I did.”
Melody scoffs “He already took the fall for something you did. You can either make the best use of it or squander it.”
“Didn’t you love him?” She bites back.
Her lips tremble “I still do, but the thing about being human is that we don’t have the time to wait for things to blow over by themselves. I think Stegarius understood that more than any of you. Besides, it wouldn’t be just to protect you, but to protect everyone. There has never been a doll that has been tried for murder the implication alone could be enough for some people to mistrust your kind forever. By blaming someone dead already there’s no need for an investigation or a trial, there might be newspaper coverage but as long as we tell the story can exercise control over the narrative. Make it so Stegarius is the exception, a necessary evil in order to save his poor sister who got tortured and humiliated for their twisted experiments. And who is the victim in this story.”
“I uh.” Prishtoli speaks up “I’m already being hounded by a reporter who wants to know what happened.”
“Do you think you can talk with him?”
“I’ve talked with him before…he’s an…all right sort.”
“We can’t antagonise the alchemists too much.” I warn her “Else they’ll never wanna work with us.”
“We can’t let them off the hook either.” Prishtoli challenges.
“We won’t. I promise.”
“So we’re in agreement then?” Melody asks the room.
“I think it’s the best way,” Zjeliah says.
“I mean I don’t like it…but…I guess.” I mutter.
“It all makes sense of course.” Jaxogeras sighs. “I just wish we didn’t have to lie.”
“You wish Stegarius killed Mercury for real?” Melody asks.
“What no it’s just…I’m not used to it.”
“Considering how often you deal with humans I doubt you’ll have to do much of anything really,” Prishtoli assures them, then puts her hand on theirs.
They chuckle in response “Fair enough. But back to the other matter, you wanted to make a fake?”
“Yes, as closely matched to the original as possible.”
“Why? You took the heart out before they got to see it right?”
“Stegarius made a drawing once.”
“Of his own heart?” Jaxogeras gasps.
“Yes.” And just like that, a sense of unease floats around the room. I never really thought about what it must have felt like to draw one of your own organs, one you’ve been taught since childhood to keep hidden. But looking at the faces around me now I can make an estimate.
I wonder if I was sufficiently grateful to him for it.
I doubt it. “Mercury could have shown the drawing to them, in fact, it’s highly likely so we can’t risk them flagging it as a fake from a mile away. That’s why I need to study it and make a plan from there. I’ve never blown glass so I’ll have to let an artisan do that part. But I think I should be able to build the rest.
“I want to help,” Jaxogeras tells me with certainty.
“Do you know mecha-” I start then remember we’re in a music box bar.”Of course you do, thank you.”
They get up “So how would you like to go about this?”
“I’d like to see it, maybe get some photographs made from it while I measure it and make some notes on colour and texture, then I can break that down into a building plan.”
“All right. Come with me.”

The heart is beautiful. As much pain as it brings me to see it, I cannot deny the almost hypnotic quality it has as the flickering lamplight dances over the minutely tuned brass parts.
If only they would move still.
“I’ll grab my camera equipment.”
We take the pictures, I make some notes to go with it and ask “So what’s next?”
“Do you have a workshop?”
“Not as such, my friend has space but no tools.”
“I have tools but no space. Do you think your friend would allow us to work there?”
“I can ask.”
“Then that’s next for you.” They fold the camera back in on itself and carefully pick up the stack of glass plates “I have to set about developing these.”
“Thank you.”
“No genuinely, thank you Jaxogeras.” My voice feels like it’s made of sandpaper.
They smile kindly, and tell me “You’re welcome.”

By the time I’m back in the front of the bar, I see Prishtoli and Melody have left already.
They didn’t even let us know they were leaving.

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