Chapter fourteen: Take a breath
Inquiry and I are walking down the streets together. It’s cold, it’s dark, without coat the boy is shivering against the wind.
I take off my jacket “Here.”
“Won’t you- of course, you won’t, thank you.” He puts it on and I’m only mildly annoyed at his shoulders being broad enough for it to look tight. I chuckle the nerves away.
“Sooooo, where are we going?”
Most dolls have houses of their own, places to call home but I found that it’s often easier to rent a room close to work and then move out when it’s time to move on.
Meaning I don’t have a home to go to now.
But I do know the location of every hotel, motel, inn and bed and breakfast in the city.
I figure what we need is a bed, a requirement I never really took into account, and privacy. It may have been a while since the Winton family gave up the hunt, but I have no desire for gossip, drama or relations showing up on our doorstep unannounced.
There’s only one place I can think of where discretion would be guaranteed. A place I’ve owed a visit for a long time.
“We’re going to a friend of mine,” I say at last.
“Shut up, it’s this way.”
We arrive at a two-story building in pastel yellow with striped little awnings and beans growing up the wall. On the window in nice curly letters it says ‘Viola’s’ and at the bottom, a small card announces ‘rooms to let’.
“How long has this been here?”
“Longer than you were alive.”
“Really? I never noticed it before.”
“Yeah that tends to happen, come on we’re safe in here.”
A soft ting announces our presence and with a rattle and a click, the gaslights ignite bathing the place in a warm glow that reminds me of home. The whole place is homey, comfortable with plenty warm woods, books, soft pillows and wool blankets so you’re never cold. I pick a small checkered blanket from the sofa and hand it to Inquiry “Here, to warm up.”
“Is it okay to just grab it? There’s no one behind the desk.”
“It is for me.”
He unfolds the blanket and drapes it around himself with a relieved sigh.
The front desk has a cardboard sign with large letters saying “Please be patient, I’m not very fast.”
I can hear the distant tap of a cane, then the door behind the desk swings open with a creak allowing in a woman with an old withered face and stringy hands that shake as she picks up the cane and sets it down again with each step.
I try to keep the nerves from my voice as I say “Missus Viola, it’s been a while.”
Her eyes go big upon seeing me “Indeed it has Delaylah.”
Hearing my old name kicks my brain back to a long long time ago. But that time has passed. “Actually it’s Stegarius now, male pronouns.”
She creaks a chuckle “I suspected something of the sort, looking at your new getup, and who is this young man you brought along?”
Inquiry is too busy staring at me to respond “Your name was Delaylah?”
I shrug “Dolls switch genders sometimes, it’s not a big deal and you should answer missus Viola’s question.”
The boy shakes his head as if to wake himself up “Right, my apologies, missus Viola, I’m…uh…” he looks conflicted, who can blame him, I told him to be careful.
I put an assuring hand on his shoulder “Don’t worry, you can tell her.”
“I’m Inquiry, Inquiry Winton, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The woman laughs heartily at this and directs her attention to me “I should have known you had something to do with it, you always find your way to trouble.”
“It seems to be a theme of my life.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you too young man, now I take it you want to covertly stow him away?”
“For the time being yes.”
“Then let’s see if I have a room to spare.
She passes the stairs and leads us to a room decked out in curtains, blankets and pillows in shades of beige and brown. Everywhere you look there are prints and trimmings and lace to try and snatch your attention.
Inquiry doesn’t seem to mind, heading over to the bed and dropping down still wearing the blanket from the parlour.
We had a long evening after all.
I turn to the woman “This will work fine, thank you.”
She nods “Will the lad require any tea before bed?”
“I think what he requires is a good night of sleep.”
“In that case, I will see you both in the morning for breakfast.”
“Good night missus Viola.”
She nods respectfully and closes the door behind her.
I turn to the lad but he’s completely down.
I’d wake him, get him to put on his nightshirt…if we brought one that is.
Tomorrow we need to go get some supplies.
But this will do for now.
I wait for the footsteps to die down, then softly make my way back to the lobby.
I sit in the lobby by myself, I never stayed in the same room the kid slept in overnight and it feels like I’m intruding.
The snoring doesn’t help either. I guess some things don’t change after all.
It’s the back end of the night. Yet while the inside of the house is silent outside people are still bustling about, there are the night workers and unfaithful husbands, there are kids running past catching rats. It’s a whole different world from the cold and bare stretches of land in the countryside or the claustrophobia of the underground.
My ears get piqued with the sound of old hinges creaking open behind me, I turn.
“Care for some company?” It’s missus Viola wearing her nightgown and cap. She looks much frailer without the pigeon breast and padding to give her shape.
I shrug “It’s your house.” That probably sounded colder than I intended it to be.
The truth is I’m nervous.
She pretends not to notice and sits down next to me on the sofa.
“I didn’t expect you to come back after all this time.”
“I meant to-” I start but the sentence dies in a jumble of panicked thinking “I’ve always meant to but…” I wrack my mind trying to come up with an excuse but…I don’t think I have any.
“It’s no matter, Pienter was a good husband to me.” Her right hand absentmindedly travels to her left hand rotating the golden ring around the ring finger.
“You married a man?” I said the words before I could make myself sound less surprised.
“Oh don’t judge me please, things are different for humans, we can’t go around marrying our own sex. Besides he knew what he was getting into. We made things work, and I did love him dearly. We simply found our…desires elsewhere and made sure to never bring it up around the family.”
“I could never judge you.”
She smiles, her lips much thinner than when I saw them last, “I know, you dolls are always so open-minded, I wonder if the genders you pose as even mean anything to you?”
I shrug “I think they mean different things to different dolls.”
“I wish humans worked the same way.” She sighs “Pienter would have liked to meet you, I told him all the stories.”
I open my mouth to retaliate but she stops me dead in my tracks.
“Yes even the ones you think are embarrassing, you really ought to have come by to stop me.” Her lips curl into a cheeky smile.
I laugh “Sounds like you didn’t change at all.”
“Neither did you.” She puts a brittle hand on mine and in her eyes, I see the same longing we shared those many summers ago.
She still looks beautiful to me, but the follies in our past were a mistake I don’t care to repeat.
“I’m no longer the woman you love Melody.”
“Oh, I know.” She waves the idea away but then her voice goes soft again “I just…” She falls silent for a bit, looking for words. “I guess I’m just lonely.” Her eyes travel down to our hands, her lip trembling ever so slightly.
“What happened to Pienter?”
“He died three years ago, one moment we’re drinking tea the next he drops to the ground gripping his chest.
He was dead before I could even scream for help.” Her eyes go soft as tears glide down wrinkled cheeks. “It all happened way too fast, way too soon.”
“I’m sorry.” I turn my hand underneath hers and gently hold it for support.
“Stupid humans and their stupidly short life spans.” She whimpers as she rubs her cheek with her free hand.
There is silence while I rub her small back wondering if humans shrink when they get older.
“I’m just so tired.”
“You should go to bed, it’s late.”
She shakes her head “Every time I feel my consciousness slip away I worry I won’t wake up again and I start awake again.”
She smiles a watery smile “It’s not even like I fear death it’s just…the pastor told me there’s a terrible place in the underworld for people like me and-”
“That’s ridiculous, there’s no such thing.”
“How can you know for sure?”
“Because no benevolent god would pass judgment on people who did no wrong. And you told me your god is benevolent.”
“Why is it that your view of the world is so much different than ours, yet makes more sense to me.”
I shrug “Humans make up a lot of extra rules for themselves.”
“Can I ask you to do something strange for me?”
“What is it?”
“Will you sit in my room tonight and hold my hand?” She squeezes my hand weakly “Until I fall asleep. Your presence soothes my nerves.”
I help her up and bring her back to her bed, I tuck her in like I tucked Inquiry in years ago.
I kiss her forehead tenderly and I hold her hand.
Less than five minutes later she’s fast asleep.
I head back to the lobby.
Staring out the window, dreaming of the times we were both young, foolish…
and had a lot of fun.
The next morning Melody comes around seven in the morning, all bunned up and padded. “Good morning.”
I finish my page and close the book I was reading “Did you sleep well?”
She smiles “I slept wonderfully. Now, what does the young man want for breakfast?”
“Anything but oatmeal.”
“I’ll check the pantry.”
“Do you need a hand?”
“I never say no to a hand.”
The following days pass in a daze of unusual normality. It feels good to breathe, take a moment to think.
I see it does the boy good as well, bit by bit that sparkle enters his eyes again.
We spend our time normally, reading normal books on normal subjects, the boy eats normal food, goes to bed at normal times and together with Melody, we play normal games to pass the time.
“On come on! Really?” The boy asks insulted at the dice before him. Five sixes and one four.
“That’s tough kid. Without a one that score doesn’t mean anything.” I say.
“Dice games are stupid.” Inquiry grumbles.
“Sorry kid, those are the rules.”
Inquiry grumbles and hands me the dice “next round I will end you.”
“Sure you will.”
“You both realize this game is about 90% luck right?” Melody asks, I shrug “That never stopped him from being competitive before.”
“Competition is the quickest road to unhappiness.” The old lady explains “for it is when we compare ourselves to others we become unsatisfied with what we have.”
“Right.” There’s a salty undertone to Inquiry’s voice. “I’m tired, thank you for the company but I’m going to bed.”
“Oh, right, of course, good night.” Melody sounds as surprised as I feel.
“Are you okay?” I ask before he has the chance to disappear to his room.
Inquiry shrugs then pulls the door closed behind him.
“Was that out of line? I didn’t mean to offend it’s just one of the Wisdoms and-” Melody stammers behind me.
“It’s not you, don’t worry, I’ll check up on him.” I get up and rush to our room where the boy is sat on the bed.
I knock on the open door.
“Can I come in?”
There’s a grunt, but it’s one of the ‘whatever’ ones, not the one that says ‘get out’.
I sit down next to him, his eyes are dry but his face is pale.
“She just came shooting through my head and it’s just, unsettling.”
“What are you talking about.”
“Mercury, the whole reason it went to hell was because she couldn’t stop competing with the other alchemists!”
“Well that’s not all on her per se, I’d say the council is a toxic environment that brings out the worst in everyone who are part of it.”
“We can’t stay here can we?”
“We can stay here for as long as you need.”
“But that’s just wasting time, postponing the inevitable, we can’t sit here and do nothing.”
“Well, I thought that for now, we stay here, get out bearings and then…start over..”
“I could look for a different alchemist, one that’s nicer?”
I shake my head “Your experiments are on hold for now.”
“But we only need one more part, we’re so close.”
“Then where is your lab? Your tools, your ether? What doll will you grant life?”
He grumbles “Then what do you propose we do.”
“What I’ve always done, find a job, create some stability in your life-”
“So we just give up?”
“Inquiry you’re only twenty-four.”
“Already twenty-four” he corrects me.
“you have plenty of time ahead of you, a year or two spent on gathering yourself isn’t going to end the world.” Though I secretly hope you’ll get distracted long enough to give up on the quest altogether.
“But how can I find a job in this place? What if people recognize me” He grunts frustratingly “It was a dumb idea to include my picture with that letter, now people know what to look for.”
“I figured they might otherwise not believe you’re safe.”
“Yeah maybe not, I’d have liked to be able to walk the streets though.” He points to his red mess of a hairdo, “But I stand out like a lighthouse.”
“Of course!” I cry flabbergasted at the time it took me to find the solution.
“What is it?”
“Now your face is covered but you’re still a sight so I suggest walking quickly and not looking back,” Melody explains as she draws the black veil over Inquiry’s face.
Inquiry pushes the netting into his face, trying to see through the holes.“It’s so dark under here, how am I supposed to see like this?”
“Just follow Stegarius, he wouldn’t let you walk into trouble.”
I put a hand on his shoulder “Not even as a joke.”
“Why did you feel a need to specify that?” he snarls and I can just feel him squinting under there.
Melody chuckles “Now while this place is nigh invisible I don’t want any trouble so if you get followed by the papers or vengeful alchemists or something please shake them off first.”
“Noted, thank you for the veil.”
“I want it back.” She warns.
“Well then, good luck.”
I pull the boy along and get my fair share of stares for it.
But as far as I can tell no one recognizes him.
That means it should all be fine right?
We walk quickly and with purpose or rather I do, dragging Inquiry along.
I keep an eye out for the both of us.
It’s gonna be okay.
As we arrive at Bar-B I practically kick the door in.
“Is it safe?” Inquiry asks.
I look around, it’s a slow day, but less crowd is probably for the best “You may take off the veil.”
“Finally.” Inquiry sighs flinging the lace up and pulling at the pins in his hair.
“Be careful with it, old lace tears easily.”
“Here, he pushes the cloth against my chest “I hope Zjeliah has something on hand cause that was terrible.”
I pull the veil in front of my face “It’s not that bad.” I recall a time when all ladies were expected to wear a veil outside, you get used to it.
Inquiry just shakes his head at me before asking “All right, where is he?”
“He likes to sit in the corner next to the bar, come on it’s this way.”
Completely against type, we find the doll sat with a larger group at the games table, the table is empty.
The atmosphere is off.
In the pit of my stomach, I get an uneasy feeling.
“Hey everyone.” I wave, everyone turns to me.
“Stegarius! Please tell me she went to you?”
“You mean you don’t know yet?
It’s Prishtoli, she’s gone.”
“No one has seen her for almost a week now.”
It’s like the ground falls away from under me “What?” I manage to utter.
“She’s not home, not at work and if even you haven’t heard from her…” he doesn’t finish the sentence, there’s no need.
I look at Inquiry, his face is white and with quivering lips he mouths a single word.