Chapter ten: Going home
The bulk of the notes are tables, graphs and formulae written in that confusing alchemist style using symbols I’ve never seen before. But in between, there are these small bits of text, a sort of diary of random thoughts that he needed to pen down.
The oldest one came to me today, I think they call themself Pagwah now, asking for more books.
It’s fascinating to witness them as they go about their day. The older ones teaching the younger ones how to read, some preferring to read in silence, others to read the tales out loud for the group.
They have their own little personalities, but I have no idea what might be causing the deviation. I thought it was the wood used at first but that doesn’t seem to fly comparing Laylee and Berioth, both walnuts but vastly different in their ways.
I’ve been considering the source of the ether. What if Laylee got fuelled by primarily deer ether and Berioth from primarily boar? I’ll start labelling the containers from now on to test the hypothesis.
I found Laylee in the lab today. I was furious, I told them all that my workshop is off limits but she just stood there unperturbed by the half-finished doll laying on the table. I yelled at her to get out but she responded in that calm, almost eerie voice telling me “I need fixing.” This knocked the wind out of my sails so I asked what was wrong and she told me “I look like a girl.” And I told her that’s correct and she shook her head “I’m not a girl, I don’t want to be a girl.”
“But… you picked your name as Laylee, I thought-”
“Well, now I want to be Jaycee and be a boy!”
“Okay okay.” I never saw her…him this passionate before…so I told him I’ll see what I can do.
The small one still hasn’t woken up. Why are they so late? The others got up within a few hours after I started waking them. But this one hasn’t moved in two days. Part of me thinks I should just scrap them, try again, obviously I did something wrong but I just can’t. I’ll leave them for now, start on a new project but keep this one intact. Maybe they just aren’t a morning person.
Well there goes one theory, I gave the newest doll deer-only but they are sluggish, slow and lazy. This is exactly the opposite of what I expected. So the ether theory goes out the window.
I think it’s time to make a set of twins.
Giving Jaycee a new head was terrifying even though it shouldn’t have been. I know all his vitals are concentrated in the chest the head is mostly just there to look normal but detaching it might give me nightmares for a while. I had to knock out the pins with a hammer and I know they don’t have nerve endings. I know there’s no difference between the head on Jaycee’s shoulders and the one I spend all of last week making. But there is though because one of those has wished me good morning and told me to sleep well for years. When I pulled it off it felt wrong, when he asked if I was okay the sound came from the chest cavity and I felt a need to run. But I promised and I was already this far. Putting the new head-on was a relief, knocking the pins back in place felt like creation. I like creation, it’s the destruction that puts me off. Jaycee was ecstatic when I showed him the result. He hugged me and thanked me before rushing off to show the others.
And I spent a couple of hours just staring at the wall.
The small one woke up at last, they chose their name as Katinka though they looked a bit puzzled when I asked for pronouns, I’m sure it’ll get sorted when they join the others.
Wait I’m the small one!? I mean…I know I’m not tall of course but Tredius is smaller than me! I…I guess he’s also younger. And of course, the pronoun thing was confusing. He just showed me a couple of drawings and asked me which I thought reflected me the most, how was I supposed to know after just waking up?
I shake my head, remind myself that’s all in the past and continue to read.
Jaycee came back to the lab, I asked him if something was wrong but he shook his head “I just…I like it here. Can I be here?”
I tried to explain that the lab really isn’t a place for dolls, that he’d be much happier playing with the other dolls. But somehow he managed to bend my own words against me. And somehow I said “Okay.”
So Jaycee frequented the lab? Maybe he can help! But…who was Jaycee again, I never knew him as Laylee so I can’t recall who got the new head. It was one of the older ones though. I close my eyes trying to picture the old gang. He was the one who always ditched us to go play with dad.
He was…kind of smug.
Jaycee would rename himself to Loka then Baliah and the latest name he picked…Tiborah
“Hey Stegarius you can come out-” Inquiry looks at me, then the book in my hands. “You went snooping.” from his voice I get he’s trying his damnedest to stay calm
“I didn’t mean to offend, but considering it’s my father’s writing I feel I have a right-”
“Just put it back, don’t tell Mercury you read it okay.”
“Because she’s very paranoid and I don’t want her to feel threatened by you.”
“But she could kick you out.”
“Look, either you should keep me in the dark about all of it, or allow me to know everything. You can’t feed me half the story and ask me to guide you at the same time.”
The door handle turns, Inquiry makes a dive for the book. I pull it away from him.
“Stegarius!” Inquiry hisses a whisper.
Then the door opens “The hell is going on here?”
I walk up to Mercury, book in my hand “I read this last night, some of it at least. I’m not interested in numbers and unknown symbols. That’s your department. I read the bits that are about my family, that’s my department. And in doing so I found someone who can help fill in the missing details. “If I take the book to him he can give us the information that’s not in there, the missing steps.”
She looks me in the eye, I look back without wavering.
She then sighs “Can you convince him to come back here and help us out.”
“I can try.”
“I don’t want you to try, I want you to be certain. If that doll doesn’t want to cooperate with us he can send this whole project down the gutter and I’m not ready to give up before we’ve even managed to trap ether inside a block of wood.”
“Even if he wouldn’t agree to help he wouldn’t actively oppose it. He’s not that kind of doll.”
“Yes. And imagine the amount of time we can save if we get an expert on the case.”
“Get to it then, but don’t tip your hand too soon. I rather you come back without asking cause you weren’t sure than blabbering it out straight away and finding he’s less than happy about it.”
“I can do that.”
“Hopefully.” She says before picking the book from my hands “You’re not taking this though, we need it here and I can’t risk losing it. I’ll copy the unclear parts and compile a list of the questions we have.”
“Works for me.”
“Good, now that that’s settled, it’s time to get some breakfast.”
She then turns, walks away.
And Inquiry rushes after her, looking back at me mouthing the words “What the hell?”
I just smile and whisper “Language.” Back at him.
Tungsten is already sitting at the table playing with his fork “Finally, even I’m up earlier and I’m hungover.”
“That sounds like a you-problem” Mercury tells him, he merely shrugs in response.
We all sit down, Inquiry divides the grey slurry over mismatched bowls while in my head I’m working out the trip.
He’s down in Loptuny, I’ll need to take the train from Unebre Central, if I’m not mistaken they run every hour at 7 past.
It would probably be polite to send a letter in advance, announce my arrival. Mercury will need time to make the list of questions anyway.
My train of thought grinds to a halt “What is it?”
“Mind passing the salt?”
I send the letter out, something short, to the point, he’s gonna have questions anyway so no use in trying to explain.
Three days later Mercury hands me an envelope.
“Read it before you go, if something’s unclear report with me, I need you to be the intermediary so you have to understand.
“Actually I was thinking that perhaps I can take Inquiry along, I bet he’d love to see-”
“No way, he stays here, I need him to help me with the experiment. Besides he’s still an Ion, quitting his work weeks on end could be a detriment to his process.”
At least that’s one thing we can agree on “Very well, take good care of him.”
She shrugs “You do your job I’ll do mine.”
“Fine.” I walk to the couch and sit down, Tungsten is out looking for a workshop of his own and the peace and quiet is a welcome change from the usual bickering.
I start to read.
And then suddenly I’m at the train station getting send of by Inquiry.
“How long will you be gone for?” he asks as he hugs me.
The boy is becoming taller than me, this is unacceptable. I pat him on the shoulder nonetheless “Well the journey takes three days, so I doubt I’ll be back in under a week, the rest depends on Tiborah’s hospitality.
“Yeah about that…how sure are you really about Tiborah helping you?”
“Not as sure as I tried to appear, but sure enough I have to try.”
“I see, well good luck and” He let’s go of me “I really appreciate you trying your best like this.”
I…didn’t even think of it like that yet…
Then the train whistle cuts through the air and Inquiry pushes me onto the train.
Disoriented I look at my ticket, wander to my car, sit down and stare out the window as the city disappears and the forest takes over.
My thoughts drift as the landscape rushes past and I’m just wondering.
Wondering what I was even thinking jumping on this project so hard. Wasn’t I trying to steer the boy away from alchemy?
I must have gotten swept up in the atmosphere, promises of a new generation.
Despite my only real priority should be keeping Inquiry safe.
But instead, I left him there.
Did I do right by this?
Am I an idiot?
I mean probably.
But it’s not really about that, isn’t it?
I want to know.
I want to know what he knows. What did he share with our father, what did he do as he spent all those hours in the lab.
Why was he the only one allowed in?
What made him so special.
Great now I sound petty.
Oh well, we’re on our way already, no going back, no reason to quit now.
Let’s try to get some answers.
The journey itself was uneventful, just staring out the train car. People coming in, people going away. I read the contents of the envelope at least five times by the time I arrive in Loptuny.
There’s a great hustle and bustle as people fight to get off the train pushing me along.
I’m spat out onto a red fishbone paving and immediately spot my brother, head peeking out from the rest of the crowd. He’s a proper gentleman, with his neatly kept black hair and silver-headed walking cane. He looks like he walked straight out of a fashion plate.
Tiborah is…I wouldn’t call him the leader, but he’s the one to keep us all together. His yearly parties to commemorate father aren’t about him, not really. It’s just an excuse to get us all in one spot and bonding.
For someone who spent most of his childhood ignoring us to spend time with father he sure tries a lot to keep us together now.
Maybe he feels guilty or something.
The moment he spots me he waves with arms that are entirely too long and hurries towards me. “Stegarius it’s a joy to see you. How have you been?”
“I’ve kept myself busy.”
He chuckles “Oh really? Care to elaborate?”
“Not out here, let’s head back,” I suggest, pulling on the string of my bag as I walk in the direction of Tiborah’s home.
He sounds…disappointed as he replies “Sure.”
It’s a short walk to the manor, skirting around the bustling town and heading straight for the countryside beyond.
The family house is a palace of white brick, green rooftops and lacquered metal fencing around every single balcony.
Throughout the trip I haven’t spoken, I just…I don’t know what to say. I rush up the steps without looking back.
I hear the tap of his cane behind me, slow and monotone. He’s taking his time.
I put my hand on the door and push but it’s locked.
“You’re my only guest at the moment.” He explains calmly as he pulls a chatterlain from his pocket and opens up the door.
He holds the door open for me.
He nods his head “You’re my guest, so be welcome.”
I walk in and the sound of music box music starts fluttering through the air.
“Jaxogeras installed a music system for me last year, look.” He points out a small chain leading from the doorknob into the wall. “They’re so clever it’s incredible.”
“You know…Prishtoli wasn’t able to deliver last year’s invitation. Told me she has no idea where you hang out nowadays. It’s unlike you to leave her worrying.”
“Well as you can see I’m quite all right.”
“Thankfully, I just hope you won’t disappear again next year.” He teases as he takes my coat from me.
I cross my arms in defiance “Just…why are you so hell-bent on seeing me even year?”
He shrugs “Every year is an overstatement, I mean I only start pushing until you’ve skipped out two times.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Just being realistic, and I want to see you because we’re family and family needs to stick together, don’t you think so?” He asks pulling me to the parlour.
I shrug at that “I guess.”
“Look I try to respect your individualism, that’s why I don’t push you to visit every year, but our kind travels all over the globe, and I don’t want to lose sight of any of you.”
“You think this is about my individualism?”
“You mean to tell me it isn’t?”
I shrug, not quite sure muself.
Silence dawns on the parlour.
“Well that’s an aside, you’re here now after all. come sit, sit, you must have had one hell of a journey coming all the way from Unebre.” He sets me down on a chair covered in shiny silver brocade.
He sits down across from me. Waits for me to speak, then takes the conversation into his own hands. “You know you’re always welcome here but your note wasn’t very specific making me wonder why you wanted to come here?”
“Must I have a motive.”
Tiborah squints his eyes, drags his chair closer to mine leaning forward to ask me head-on “Are you in trouble?”
“What? No! Why would I be in trouble?”
“I mean, mysterious whereabouts, breaking contact with the people you love and suddenly turning up here despite this possibly being your least favourite place on the whole planet.”
“Now that’s not true-”
“You wouldn’t come here at all if Prishtoli didn’t drag you along every so often.”
I don’t really know what to say against that.
“Now of course I’m not offended, but you can’t blame me for being suspicious of a sudden visit accompanied by a vague letter.”
“I’m not in trouble, I’m perfectly safe where I am though…but I could use your help.”
“I need to know things about you, about father. Things I think only you would know, given you were the one closest to him.”
His face softens “I see, what do you need to know?”
Well, I try to find the most delicate way to put this “How did father make us?”
He tilts his head in confusion “Excuse me?”
“You, me, our siblings, how did he make us.”
“Our father… carved us from wood.”
“You know that’s not what I mean, how did he make us…alive?”
He pulls back, sits up straight “May I ask why you want to know?” He sounds wary.
I cross my arms “Will you tell me if I do?”
He shrugs noncommittally. “How about a game?”
“Tiborah I don’t have time for games.”
“Would you like mareia or jinx?”
“It’s been a long while since we did anything fun together.”
I sigh, he’s skirting around the subject, tries to distract me. But the proposal does give me an idea “All right, a game, but how about we make it interesring? Who wins the round gets to ask a question to the other and they have to be truthful in their answer.”
“Really? Isn’t that a bit cliche?”
“Humour me will you?”
He grunts, thinks for a moment ad then says “Fine, now pick a game before I change my mind.”
“We’ll take jinx.” I’m better mareia but I reckon shorter rounds mean more answers.
“You go for a game of luck over one of strategy. Interesting.” He says as he opens a drawer from his gold plated coffee table and pulls out a silver chest the size of a hatbox. Inside is a variety of games, but all he pulls out is a single deck of cards.
I shrug “I’m feeling lucky I guess.”
“We’ll see about that, all right rules of the house, no counter betting, no double pulls, we deal in turns.”
“I can live with that.”
He deals eight cards, I look at them and squint at the uselessness of the hand.
Did he learn how to trick deal?
Surely he wouldn’t, right?
Nevertheless, the first round is a complete bust.
I toss te final card to the table in defeat “All right then, what’s the question?”
“How was your trip?”
“Yes.” He says crossing his legs.
“Pretty boring actually. It’s a direct line so I was just cooped up in the same car for three days.”
“I see.’ He hands me the deck, “Your turn to deal.”
“Another bad hand, another question from mister perfect.”
“How long has it been since you saw Prishtoli?”
“I don’t know…three months?”
“Are you sure about that answer?”
“That’s a question.”
“Fine, just deal again. Just wanted you to know it’s been over a year Stegarius.”
I don’t know what to say about that… I hand the deck of cards back in silence.
Receiving a hand I can actually use for a change.
I cheer as I toss down the final card “All right, now it’s my turn.”
“Only one question.”
“I know, I know. I intended to lead into the question, ease him into it but considering my poor play I might not get the chance so I just go for the sledgehammer approach asking “Father was an alchemist wasn’t he?”
I notice his hands squeezing tightly against one another “Where did you hear that?”
“Is it true?”
Tiborah rests his head on his hands thinking for a minute, then shakes his head “Yes and no-”
“Now we agreed we had to be honest-”
“Then let me finish.”
I shut up again.
“All right, what father did wasn’t like what alchemy is today. He was one of the first to harness the ether and back then no one could even anticipate the trouble it would cause later down the line. So please don’t judge him too hard for it.”
“I’m not judging him at all. He was my father and I love him. What I need to know is how he did it.”
“Only one question at a time.”
I hold out my hand for the cards “Fine, bring it.”
“Why this sudden interest in our father’s business?” he asks after I lose the round.
“A friend of mine translated father notes.”
“You mean the same notes that got stolen from the university of Unebre?”
“That’s a question.”
“Fine, gimme the cards.”
“How did father create us?”
“Well I just told you, he used alchemy.”
“You must know more than that. You were with him in his workshop. Did he use the old or the new system of measurements? Did he purify the ether before trying to fuse the doll? How did he get the doll and the ether to fuse at all?”
“What are you trying to do?” there’s a hostility to his voice that I never heard before.
“That’s a question, and you haven’t answered mine yet.”
I can almost see the cogs grinding in his chest “He used the old system, that’s all you get this round.”
The next round my hand is so miserable I’m almost certain he’s playing me, I toss the cards down on the table. “All right, ask away.”
“You know what I want to ask.”
“What I’m trying to do right?”
“I’m.” I pause, I have to word this carefully now “I’m trying to help someone achieve their dream.”
“And who is this someone? What dream do you refer to? If you wish me to elaborate I expect you to do so as well.”
I sigh, they got a point, I just hope it doesn’t blow up in my face. “Did I tell you about my ward Inquiry?”
“You have a ward?” He sounds genuinely surprised.
“Used to actually, he’s grown up now, we’re friends. But during my time as his tutor, he started developing a fascination with our kind. An innocent curiosity to our inner workings and philosophies. I nurtured this interest because it made me feel special and because I never met any human before who was so willing to learn about us. I know him to be respectful, kind and intelligent which is why I didn’t try to stop him when he told me he wanted to learn alchemy in order to make a new generation of dolls-”
His eyes widen “Are you mad!?”
“No, I’m not. Look, he translated father’s notes, by himself I might add. And upon finding out we run on ether he realized we aren’t immortal. We may grow older than humans but no one knows exactly how long our ether will last us. We’ll die out one day, and…I suspect you knew already?”
He puts his cards on the table, a perfect hand confirming my suspicion of foul play. He sighs “I didn’t keep it secret out of malice. Father asked me not to burden you with mortality.”
I cross my arms. “Is that why you are so hung up on having us meet every year? To keep track of us?”
“What? No! I just want us to spend time together and honour father. When did you become so paranoid?”
I shrug “I’m not paranoid I just…I just thought I knew how this all worked and then it turns out I was wrong about so much.”
“Look father didn’t tell you how this worked because he wanted us to live free from dread. The whole process isn’t pretty, if you read the notes so you should know where the ether came from.”
“And you still want to go on with it?”
“I want to help Inquiry succeed. I want to see a new generation of dolls. I don’t want our species to die out just because the process is unappetizing.”
He shakes his head “You are both mad.”
“Mad or not we need your help.”
“If you have the notes I don’t see what you need me for.”
“The notes aren’t clear in some places, we hoped you could shed light on the details. You should still be able to remember.”
“So will you help us?”
He sighs, collects the card, stuffs them back into the box and then gets up. He picks his walking cane from the side of his chair “Ask me in the morning, for now, I will take a walk in the woods. I have a lot to mull over.”