Chapter one: A new beginning
The lady of the house leads me past portrait after portrait as we head to the nursery.
I look at all their faces staring down at me. Each of them looks either strict, bored, tired or a combination of the three.
Her heels beat to the rhythm of her voice like a ruler on the edge of a desk.
“You will address him as young master, master Winton or sir Winton if he’s been naughty. You will never address him by his first name do you understand mister Stegarius?”
My gaze drifts back to the lady. She’s in her late twenties, beautiful red hair adorns her head and she’s wearing the brightest of blue to compliment her pale complexion.
I wonder why she calls me mister? “Just Stegarius will do,” I assure her gently.
Her eye twitches ever so slightly “You didn’t answer me.”
“Young master, master Winton or sir Winton when he’s been naughty. I understand.” She seems the stressful type.
“Good.” She fidgets with her hands as she speaks. “You’ll be responsible for the child’s upbringing until he’s ready to head to university. He’s the sole heir to Winton’s Automata so it’s vital he learns mechanics, as well as maths and etiquette. You will report his progress to Miss Punct the housekeeper on Sundays. After your report, the rest of your Sunday is free to spend as you see fit for the young master will be going to church and spend time with the family. Do you have any questions?”
“What is the lad’s first name?”
“You told me not to call him by his first name but you didn’t tell me what his first name is to begin with. I couldn’t call him that even if I wanted to.”
“Perhaps that’s just as well.” She says disdainfully while wiping an unruly lock of red from her face.
She halts in front of a wooden door that’s carved with beautifully detailed butterflies. Even the hardware is made from shaped brass. Wing-shaped hinges and a handle shaped like a flower’s stalk.
The door opens with a sigh.
Here goes nothing.
The nursery is a treat to look at, the vaulted ceiling is painted with clouds and butterflies, the rug emulates crispy autumn leave. The fireplace is guarded by two dragonflies, their wings propping up the mantlepiece.
And there, near the fire, playing around with bone mareira pieces is a young boy. Hair as fiery as his mother’s but eyes that are dark and deep as they stare at the intruder that is me.
“Mommy what is that?” he asks as the mareira pieces fall neglected to the floor. He stands up, coming about to the height of my hip as he walks towards us.
“This is mister Stegarius sweetie, he’s going to be your tutor from now on.”
“Why is he made of wood?”
“Why are you made of meat?”
“Mister Stegarius!?” The woman exclaims in shock but the kid cocks his head and draws his eyes into slits as he thinks.
“I’m not made of meat I’m made of me.” He replies with conviction
“’ Me’ isn’t a material master Winton. It’s merely a shorthand to differentiate the self from the other.”
“The other?” I can already see this one is full of questions, but his eyes are gleaming joyfully.
“Simply the ones that aren’t you”
“Then what’s a shorthand?”
“That’s quite enough of that!” The woman shrieks and I realize I’ve gone too far. She opens the door and sharply signals me to head on through.
I follow obediently.
“I’m afraid this arrangement is not going to work out after all.” She says rubbing the bridge of her nose in irritation “We have no use for philosophical waxing, we need proper skills. I’ll have your bags fetched.” She rings a silver bell and I hear the distinctive rattle of wheels approaching. A man-sized automaton rolls in on three wheels and holding my bags on large hook-like hands.
I look back at the door, the boy has peeked out his head, watching the conversation intently.
“Mom where is he going?”
“I’m sorry sweetie mister Stegarius has to go elsewhere, we’ll find you a new tutor.”
“Where does he have to go? You just said he’s my new tutor.”
“Your mother doesn’t want me teaching you,” I tell him bluntly while grabbing the bags off the hooks. Being fired is fine by me, but I don’t like being lied over.
“Why not?” he asks me with his big eyes. I shrug in reply.
“Inquiry! Go back into your room and stay there.” Lady Winton orders, but that is of little significance as I repeat the name ‘Inquiry’ in my head, wondering if I heard that right.
“Why?” The boy whines loudly.
“Because I say so!”
“Go!” The woman’s ears have gone quite red.
The kid keeps looking past her mother and straight to me as if looking for permission. I nod slightly and gesture him to close the door.
He disappears back into his room and I swing my bags over my shoulder.
“Just…follow the bot out.” Mrs Winton sighs, pulling hairs from her coiffure to wrap around her fingers.
I nod politely, take one last glance at the butterfly door, and make my way out again.
The sky is dark with clouds despite the early hour and snow is coming down in little tufts.
I trudge through the snow avoiding the occasional cart and hi-wheel bicycle.
I make my way to Bar-B that to no one’s surprise is open at eleven in the morning. Beyond the tacky name is a very respectable place where dolls can spend time with one another without judgment or interference from anyone else. It’s not like we have a ‘dolls only’ policy.
It’s just that we’re the only ones able to put up with the ‘gaudy decor’.
“Stegarius? What are you doing here I thought you were going to try out being a tutor?” this question from a doll called Kregaya who currently reclines on a soft pink upholstered chaise lounge.
“Got fired,” I reply matter-of-factly.
“Already?” There’s surprise in her voice, she sits up to give me room.
I shrug in reply and sit down next to her. “So how have you been Kregaya?”
“Well for one, it’s Prishtoli now.”
“Still she. I wanted to go for something a bit more youthful.”
“Thank you, so what did you do to get fired this time?”
“I asked too many questions.”
She chuckles “That sounds an awful lot like you indeed.” She rises from the couch and stretches showing off her long wooden limbs before patting me on the head. She’s younger than me, by about ten years, meaning her body is much better crafted than mine. She’s a singer, working for some director whose name I keep forgetting, or do they change all the time? I’m not sure. She spends a lot of time here though that’s for sure.
“Well guess I’ll be buying today then? I’ll go get something to cheer you up.”
I’m about to tell her that I haven’t been unemployed for that long but before the words can leave me she’s already off towards the bar.
I watch her go, then allow my eyes to go around the room for a bit.
The place borrows from centuries past for its aesthetic, gorgeous leaf patterns moulded on the walls, mirrors and furniture intricately carved and covered in gold leaf. Curtains and cushions made from heavy brocade with woven silver threads.
It’s a home away from home. Meant to emulate the home we used to have a long long time ago.
Prishtoli returns to the table, and sets down small brass machine.
“Jaxogeras told me this is one of their best. But I haven’t had it before so blame them if it sucks okay?”
She turns the key carefully winding the circuit until it won’t go any further.
“Well here goes nothing.” She says putting it down.
A lovely melody plays forth from the gears and pegs, a cheerful little ditty that’s clear enough for us to hear but not loud enough it might bother other guests. I close my eyes and listen, entirely and completely at peace. The song’s too pretty to talk over and we sit there in silence, sharing a moment of tranquillity.
But then the gears slow and stop, the song ends. And the room appears back in front of me.
“What did you think?” She asks.
“I loved it.”
“Kind of like the flap of a butterflies wing.” But maybe that’s just because butterflies are on my mind.
“Really? I thought the same thing! Well in my head they were sparrows but close enough.”
“That rise in the middle was very energizing.”
“Exactly, I’m gonna get another.” She says snatching the machine off of the table.
“You will do no such thing, it’s my turn.” I extend my hand to her.
She shrugs “Fine if you insist.” And hands me the device.
I head over to the bar where Jaxogeras is sat over a pile of metal parts. A pair of tweezers in their hands as they sort through it.
They look up at me, then notice the device in my hands “Morning Stegarius, how did you like the song?”
“It was brilliant. Could you rewind it for me?”
“Repeating a song so soon removes some of its magic, it’s why I limited the machines in the first place. listen to a song too often and you’ll start to loathe it. Might I suggest something in the same vein?”
“If you got anything like it then yes please.”
“What did you like about it the most?”
“The sensation of flight.”
“Then let me fetch you number seventy-six. One of my personal favourites.”
We exchange machines and I put the usual fee on the counter.
They shake their head and push the money straight back at me “This one is on the house”. I heard you got fired today.”
“On the first day no less.”
“No need to rub it in.”
“I would never. Enjoy the song.” They tease. It’s okay though, we’re siblings after all.
Prishtoli and I spend the rest of the morning listening to music and playing games. A couple of others joined as well and by the time I leave Bar-B I’m in a good mood and ready to go back to the job hunt with renewed vigour.
I would like to report it going well…
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Defeated I sit down on a bench overlooking the university. I watch the people buzzing around like flies. Running up and down staircases, laughing, shrieking, reading and chatting.
I don’t understand
I have an impressive resume, multiple degrees, spotless record. I’m strong, fit, don’t mind working hard. So then why does no one want me?
I follow the redbrick walls up and up to stain glass windows, stone carvings and spires reaching high up into the sky kept upright by flying buttresses. I believe Janine works here. It’s been a while since I saw her, maybe I should go up and talk to her, ask if there are any openings at the university.
I mean it’s worth a shot.
I get up.
I look behind me to find a kindly old man smiling at me, he’s wearing a fine costume of red and grey meaning service staff most likely. Perhaps a butler of some kind?
“That would be me yes?”
“Lady Winton has requested your presence at Winton manor as early as is convenient for you.”
“I thought she fired me?”
A knowing smile graces the man’s lips as he replies “I believe she changed her mind.”
The first thing I hear upon re-entering that place of wealth and splendour is the shrieking of a child.
“Why isn’t he back yet!? I want that doll now!”
I look at the butler, he doesn’t seem to respond to the commotion. However, upon seeing my gaze he tells me that the young master is quite a strong-willed lad. And he always manages to get his way in the end.
This doesn’t sound like proper child-rearing to me. But then it seems like I’ll be able to keep my job so this doesn’t sound like the moment to complain.
The man opens the butterfly door and I witness a young maid trying her utmost to keep the boy from tossing his toys to the wall “He’s on his way young master, we just have to be patient okay?”
“But-!” He looks at the door. The maid follows his gaze and an expression of weariness and relief falls over her as the kid drops everything and runs up to me.
“You’re mine now.” He declares sternly in his pink night shift.
“Okay,” I respond before patting the boy’s head and as he smiles I watch the maid slinking out the door, exchanging looks of gratitude to the butler and me.
I wave politely.
The butler clears his throat “Well then with that sorted I believe it is time for the young master to go to sleep.”
“But I wanna play with the doll!”
“You can play with him tomorrow, master Winton.”
“He’s quite right, I imagine you’re quite tired from overhauling your bedroom,” I say pointing at the mess that had resulted from his tantrum. Pillows tossed to corners, toys on the floor books tossed under the bed.
The boy looks around himself and perhaps knowing at least a little humility allows me to tuck him in.
I turn off the lights and close the door silently behind me.
“I didn’t expect the owners of Winton’s Automata to have human servants still.”
The butler shrugged “Some jobs still require a human touch.”
“Oh god no, that’s your problem now.” The man replies with a start.
“I’ve never done so before though, where do I start?”
“Miss Punct has the notebook on the young master’s schedules and arrangements. I suggest you start there.”
“Thank you…” I try to recall the name “I don’t think you’ve introduced yourself yet have you?”
“Mister Mason would do.”
“Got it, pronoun?”
“He is fine.”
“I found ‘he’ causes the least offence in others. Also…you’re the first human to ask me that.”
His moustache curls up as he smiles “I’m honoured.”
“Now where can I find miss Punct?”
“Actually, Lady Winton will be expecting you in her office.”
“I did not ask, but she requested I take you to her office as soon as the young master was asleep.”
“I see, in that case, lead the way.”
Mister Mason leads me up the stairs and down the left where he stops at a door with a sign that says “Office.” And nothing else. The door has an ornate looking lock, presumably mechanic, but aside from that is surprisingly plain.
“This is the Lady’s office, and with that, I wish you good night.”
“A good night to you too, it was nice meeting you.”
He makes a slight bow before walking back to his duties.
“Who is it!?” the Lady shouts from the other side of the door.
“Stegarius, mister Mason told me you wanted to see me, Lady Winton.”
The lock starts the whirl and twist, little gears rolling round.
Then it stops.
“Come on in.”
I open the door.
She’s sat over a writing desk, pen in one hand and a comptometer sitting next to the other as she punches in the numbers.
“You called for me?” I ask.
“Sit down.” She says without so much as looking up.
I follow her order and wait.
As I sit there I look around at the paintings on the walls, all winter scenes for some reason.
I look at the comptometer as the steel and brass parts, pins and hooks pivot up and down and the wheels turn inside with unscrupulous accuracy.
There’s no clock in the office.
For all I know I’ve been sitting here for five minutes already, but nevertheless, she keeps tapping on the calculating machine.
“I don’t like your attitude.”
“Who me?” I ask her as she keeps facing downward as she speaks.
“That.” She points at me “Always with the questions, you came here to answer questions not ask them, young master has no need for that Socratic nonsense.”
“You had Mister Mason search the city to find me though.”
She grunts “Don’t remind me. Look all I did was make sure he wouldn’t do anything stupid like burn the house down. I don’t mean you to get comfortable here, just to stick around until I either find a replacement he likes better or gets bored of you.”
Well, at least she doesn’t dance around the subject.
“Knowing that, why would I choose to stay?”
“Because I wish to employ you, and the next time something like that happens is uncertain for you.”
She has a point there.
“Then it’s settled.” The woman rings a bell and a small automaton that reminds me of a mix between a cat and a radio comes zipping into the room. “It’ll lead you to your sleeping quarters, any items you need to collect from your house will be retrieved in the morning. Good night mister Stegarius.”
“I have a question.”
The woman groaned as if my words physically hurt her “What is it?”
“I’d like to see miss Punct about some documents I need, where may I find her?”
“Miss Punct is asleep you may find her tomorrow by changing the punch cards on the automaton from number 031 to 056, you know how to change punch cards I presume?”
“I’m afraid I’ve never come into contact with an automaton of this model.”
“Right.” She steps to the auto and lifts a small hatch in its flank snatching a pale yellow celluloid card from it, a paper label on the end of it designating it 031. She then pulls a knob that extends to a drawer meticulously archived on the building and floor. “You can find the other cards here, be sure to put the cards back in the right place, there’s a list in the front of the drawer. You got that?”
“Card 031 for my room, 056 for miss Punct, but she’s asleep now so I shall try tomorrow.”
She nods then pushes the card back in the automaton “Good night mister Stegarius.”
“Just Stegarius will do.”
She doesn’t comment as she sits down and starts punching in numbers again.
Oh well, it was worth a shot.
I follow the bot to my room and find a sober but well-kept room available to me. It has a bed, desk, chair but no room for a full-sized wardrobe sadly.
I guess most of the servants who work here have little else beyond their uniform.
And frankly, while miss Winton told me to retrieve the rest of my stuff tomorrow, there wasn’t much that needed retrieving, I had expected to stay that morning and brought most of my belongings as a result.
I unclasp my bag to reveal a couple of old books and two pairs of simple clothes.
I reverently place the books on my nightstand. Their spines are worn and pages wrinkled with water damage and wear, the titles faded beyond recognition.
Fairy tales our father used to read to us.
My heart aches for him still.
I push the feeling down, just for a bit.
Lacking a proper wardrobe in this room, I put my clothes away on the bottom drawer of the desk.
Then I push the bag under the bed, sit down and lose myself in a story about two children who outsmart a mermaid.
Dolls cannot sleep, they cannot dream the way the humans can. But they can read.
And when people describe dreams they had to me, it sounds similar enough.
Inside the mansion, everything is silent, outside the owls and crickets sing their midnight melodies.
The countryside sounds much different from the city.
But not in a bad way.