Chapter three: Ups and downs
It’s Sunday, we’re outside. The sun is bright but treacherously so, as it’s still far too cold to be outside without a coat.
The young master looks like a tiny prince as I send him off to his parents. His wispy red hair combed back and dressed in a white suit with embroidered trimmings. I find it a daring move. Dressing a six-year old in something so easy to stain. But it’s what the parents request so I file it under ‘orders’ and feel sorry for the laundry maid.
The boy’s father is a big man with a big moustache to match and hair that’s already streaked with grey. He isn’t around often, spending his weekdays at the Winton factory near the coast and only coming back for church and an afternoon with his family.
He doesn’t talk much when I’m around.
The man nods at me, then takes his son’s hand and walks to the gate where their carriage waits. The Lady Winton follows dutifully, not bothering to look at me.
With my job done I head back to the house to report to miss Punct.
But as I walk inside I spot a piece of fabric lying on the ground.
The young master’s handkerchief.
I pick it up.
If he doesn’t realise he lost it before getting in the coach he might think he lost it on the way or in church.
I walk down the stairs and rush out the door.
The father is just stepping in and I shout “Hold up.” To keep them from departing.
The kid looks at me with confusion, the mother is tangling her hair, the bridge of her nose wrinkled in annoyance.
“What’s the matter?” Lord Winton asks and I hand him the handkerchief.
“I’m sorry to bother sir, but I found this on the step.”
In the corner of my eye, I watch the young master frantically patting his pockets.
The man takes it with a puzzled expression.
“You see if he thought he’d lost it at church it’d be inconvenient so I thought I’d bring it by now and avoid all that,” I ramble a justification in order to not look weird.
The man just hands the piece of cloth off to his son and sits down with his family saying “Thank you mister Stegarius, that’s very kind of you.”
I shrug “It’s nothing much, have a nice day.”
He nods once more, then addresses his coachman “Time to go mister Modest.”
There’s the crack of the whip and the rattling of wheels.
And then I’m alone again.
“Hey, new guy.” I hear someone call out to me.
Surprised, I look around and find two scarecrows stood at either side of the gate.
They’re dressed well, wearing the same red and grey combination the rest of the staff wears but made from light silks that get caught and scattered in the wind. A painted porcelain mask stands in for a face they do not naturally possess.
The senses of scarecrows aren’t tied to eyes and ears like in humans.
But most humans don’t like being reminded of that fact and prefer some sort of stand-in face to focus on.
Despite the fact I passed the gate on multiple occasions I hadn’t noticed them yet.
Probably because I tend to leave and return when it’s still dark outside.
I blame the season.
“Oh hello there. I’m Stegarius, it’s nice to meet you.”
“Charmed, what are your signs?” the one on my left asks and for a moment I’m not quite sure what he means.
“Yeah you know, your star sign.” The right one adds “Slow sign, quick sign, that sorta thing.”
“I don’t know?” I wonder if this is some new craze I missed again. I may be getting old.
“All right then, when’s your birthday?” the right one asks.
“You gotta know that right?” The left one adds.
“I’m sorry, dolls don’t celebrate birthdays. I shrug apologetically”
“Okay so he’s a polite knight in shining armour who delivers handkerchiefs, what do you think?”
“He’s a sage all right.”
“And the quick sign?”
“Could be a rabbit, could be salmon.”
“Well he’s a tutor so rabbit makes more sense.”
My head keeps bobbing from one side of the gate to the other as they discuss
“Yeah sounds about right, congratulations Stegarius you were born between the 10th of Leprodisa and 17th of Luna.”
“How do you know?”
“Personalities don’t come at random. It’s all in the stars you see.”
“Born under the sign of the tiger and you’re powerful, unapologetically yourself, impulsive” The one begins waving his branches in wide gestures.
“And you have no qualms pulling others down to achieve your goals.” The other adds a tad more cynically.“Salmons on the other hand are sympathetic, helpful and try to avoid conflicts by all means necessary.”
“What about the rabbit?”
“Neat and precise, honest, dependable.”
“Rabbits are good teachers no problem there, but you gotta look out for your sage sign.”
“Altruism is a beautiful quality but it’s one people will take try to take advantage of if you’re not careful.
“Uhu…” I used to think stars were just stars. It’s difficult to wrap my head around the notion that the stars in the sky and the people in the streets have such an intimate connection “And you can tell all that from a first impression?”
“Well, we’re not often wrong.”
“But that’s a valid point.”
“Feel welcome to prove us wrong.”
“Thank you, but I gotta head to miss Punct now…Uhm…I didn’t catch your names.”
The pair of small trees start to rattle in what is supposed to be laughter but sounds a tad unnerving.
“You can call us whatever you fancy.”
“Yeah, we don’t care much for names.”
“That’s human stuff.”
“All right, I’ll keep that in mind. It was nice meeting you two.”
I tell myself I should look into these star signs, see if there really is a connection.
Then immediately forget the moment I’m back into the house.
I head straight to miss Punct’s and knock on the door.
I head inside and find the woman sat behind her desk like always, nose pressed inside a book.
“I take it you’re here to report on the boy’s advancement.”
After a couple of seconds of silence, she tells me “Well go ahead then.”
“The young master performs well during lessons, he’s attentive and polite but he still has trouble getting up on time in the mornings.”
Her eyes squeeze together in thought “I see, I expected him to be used to it about now.”
I nod in agreement. “Do you know how I can help him?”
“Does the boy have nightmares?”
This remark surprises me “I don’t think so?”
“Ask him, just in case. It could explain the difficulty getting out of bed.”
“I will, thank you miss Punct.”
She nods “keep me informed on the matter, poor sleep can result in sub-par learning and we want to prevent that.”
She gives a stern nod “Good, enjoy your day off.”
I wander back to my room wondering what to do.
Then carefully pack the young master’s books into a bag and head out.
“Where you heading?” The scarecrows ask.
“Just visiting some friends.”
“Oh, he has friends.”
“Maybe he’s more of a ranunculus then.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Do you maybe know the season you were born in?”
I shrug “I’ll see you two later.”
“Yeah sure leave us here.” The right one grumbles.
“Have fun.” The left one shouts.
Bar-B is full of life like always. The air tingling with soft music notes.
Jaxogeras spots me coming in, I give them a happy wave in return.
Then head to Prishtoli’s sofa.
“So you want me to trust the people who thought ‘Dale’ was a good idea to write good stories” she looks at the book as if it’s diseased but I shake my head.
“The writers are different, look. They simply published it as a set to make it more appealing buying all of them.”
“Sneaky… all right then, gimme.”
“Be careful with it, it’s not mine.” I remind her, handing her one of the books.
“Yeah yeah.” She pulls her legs up onto the sofa and opens the book on the first page. Her eyes instantly glued to the page, I doubt I’ll get much conversation out of her now.
“What book you got there?” I hear behind me.
“Oh hey Tyalowa, it’s been a while.”
“Yeah the sewing hall is killing me, but never mind that.” She points to the stack of books in my hands. “Can I see?”
Before long the whole bar is reading the young master’s books.
I hope he doesn’t mind.
But everyone looks so happy to be reading something new.
I couldn’t say no.
I head home for my final task of the day, tucking the young master in.
As I stride through the corridors my head is still swimming with the day. The consensus between my siblings is that the new books aren’t as good as the classics, but they are a breath of fresh air, which makes them more than welcome.
When I enter the boy’s chamber I’m met with a pile of blankets, presumably with a child underneath.
He usually sits on the bed as he waits for me.
“Young master?” I ask carefully while walking up to his bed.
Something feels wrong.
There’s a shift underneath the cover, he’s under there all right.
I sit down next to him lifting a corner of the blanket. “Are you okay under there?”
I see the crown of his head and some arms but not much else.
He doesn’t respond.
He shakes his little head, I try to see his face but his hands are covering it.
What am I supposed to do now? When I sent him off this morning he was fine.
“Did something happen today?”
He doesn’t respond. My heart is feeling uneasy.
Maybe something really bad happened, or maybe he feels scared to go to sleep?
Maybe he does have nightmares.
But should I ask now?
“Stegarius?” His voice sounds small, uncertain.
“Yes, young master.”
“I want to be alone.”
“But what about your nightshirt and brushing your-”
“Please, just for tonight?”
I want to know what’s wrong, I want him to tell me. To trust me with whatever is bothering him. But something tells me he won’t talk to me tonight.
Maybe he just needs some time? “Just for tonight…But if you ever want to talk you let me know all right.”
He hums an affirmation. I get up from the bed and walk to the door, hoping I made the right decision.
I expect to find a melancholy boy the next day.
This is however not the case.
He’s cheerful as always, it’s like nothing even happened last night.
As I read from the book I wonder if I was just overthinking it?
My flow is broken, I look over the pages to the boy “Yes?”
“Ever since we skipped the farmers all my family were inventors and engineers.”
“That is correct.”
“Does that mean I’m destined to be an engineer too?”
I take a moment to think about that “well, your family managed to get out of being farmers, so that means past generations don’t necessarily dictate future ones. But I do think you’ll be an engineer.”
“Because that’s what your father wants you to become and he pays for your tuition.”
“What if I don’t want to be an engineer?”
Last night keeps ghosting through my head. My mind hungry for answers “Don’t you want to be an engineer?”
He makes a large shrugging motion “I don’t know, I never tried it… I was just wondering.”
I deflate again “Oh, well then you don’t need to worry about that yet. Is there anything else you worry about?”
He shrugs, his head held in his hands.
I might as well ask it now. “Do you have nightmares?”
He looks at me with a surprised expression. There’s a pause, then he looks down and says “yes.”
I feel a tinge of triumph as I put down the book and walk over to his table, putting a hand on his shoulder “I see…do you want to talk about it?”
He shrugs again and stares blankly ahead of him as he speaks. “There’s a wolf in my room but not like miss Punct, I mean a real wolf. Like in the fairy tales. And it wants to eat me. So I try to run away but… I’m not fast enough and it jumps on me and eats me and it’s very scary.”
“I can imagine.” I try to comfort him with a pat and a smile “Now…I don’t have dreams, but I can give you advice from someone who does.”
He looks at me expectantly.
“Now I heard that there are people who can change dreams while they are having them. And so next time you dream that dream I want you to imagine a better ending. Create a hero to save you, or a weapon to fight the wolf with.”
“Huh…All right, thank you Stegarius” He crosses his arms and stares at the ceiling for a bit before asking “Can we continue lessons now?”
That evening, I immediately report to miss Punct.
“Then my instinct was right.” The woman concludes with a nod “Your solution to it was…interesting but if it works there will be no complaints from me.”
“Thank you miss Punct.” I make a bow, ready to take my leave.
“Hold up, I didn’t know you’d come by tonight. The young master’s new books have arrived and I had the maid deliver them to the study room.”
“Thank you for letting me know miss Punct.”
She smiles, her lips pulling away from her wolf teeth and the visage looks quite disturbing.
But I appreciate the gesture nonetheless.
I take my leave, and while surely the books would be there tomorrow still, I head over to the study room.
I find the box laid on my desk, it looks very fancy in dark blue cardboard and silver lettering on the lid reading ‘Devron & Kaliqua, helping your child achieve new heights.’ I open it to find books on mechanics, physics, geography, a whole manner of subjects. There’s a note that slipped down the side of the box.
It says ‘Dear mister Stegarius, the young master’s new study books have arrived, please start him off on these subjects once you’re finished with the family history.’ I find Miss Punct’s signature on the bottom of the page.
I pick the book on mechanics and sit down flipping it open on the first page.
One will require patience, care and precision among all thing to achieve in this field. A good mechanist spends time to perfect their understanding of one subject first before jumping to the next. Doing half work in this industry is not an option. So please keep in mind as you read this book that some of these sections may be difficult for you. Mechanisms are an interconnected web of many things, and skipping here and there will make up inadequate for most of them.
I wonder if Jaxogeras read this, it sounds like their speed.
Then the kid comes barreling through the door.
I look over my book in surprise “What are you doing here I thought you were having dinner?”
“We finished, it’s my playtime now.”
“Wouldn’t you like to go to your playroom then?”
“Do you know how to play Mareia?” He directs my attention to a box in his hands.
“I want to play but no one told me how.”
I see how that can pose a problem.
I close the book and gingerly put it back in the book. “You want me to play with you?”
“Very well, but we are going back to the playroom first.”
Three weeks later I start him off I the new subjects, he likes some, hates others and that’s probably normal for a child his age.
The one thing he’s not used to though is working by himself.
And he get distracted easily.
“Is your hair real?” The boy asks out of nowhere.
I look up from tomorrow’s material and spot his little hand pointing to my hairpiece.
My hand travels to my head “It depends on your definition of real, it’s made from real hair but it didn’t grow from my head, it’s a wig.”
His eyes grow big “Can I try it on?” he shouts enthusiastically.
“Did you finish your sums?”
“Yes.” He proudly holds up his notebook. I get up to check it. A perfect score…I should make these more difficult.
“Can I have the wig now?”
“Very well.” I take off the piece and the moment I do the kid starts to giggle uncontrollably slamming the table with his little fists.
A bit lost I stand there, wig in hand, wondering what’s the matter.
You look funny like that! The boy shouts at last as he wipes the tears from his eyes.
I turn to a mirror hanging next to the bookcase, I look normal to me. I wonder what the fuss is about.
“Give me the wig, I want the wig!” he cackles joyously, his hands making grabby motions in my direction.
I step towards him and give him the piece, he puts it on backwards, I try to help him adjust it but he swats at my hand “Leave it, I wanna see the mirror. Pick me up!” he declares and I hold him in front of the looking glass as he squirms in my arms laughing himself silly.
Why does this make me feel bad?
Like I’m being made fun of?
After a minute or two he goes limp, having tired himself out, I put him down.
“Do you have more wigs?” he asks as he hands it back to me.
“No, just the one.” I put it back on, it feels warm and kind of uncomfortable now.
I adjust it all the same and pretend it’s nothing.
“I believe that concludes our lessons for today. It’s time for dinner.”
As the door closes I feel a bit off.
I try to ignore it and instead pack my bag to head out for a bit.
“The little rascal did what!?” Prishtoli asks with offence. “Why didn’t you tell him off?”
“I don’t know. What was I supposed to say?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe something along the line of ‘Hey twerp, my looks are not your business to laugh at!’?”
“I can’t call him twerp, he’s Sir Winton when he’d naughty. Besides he didn’t mean bad.”
“Well, aren’t I glad I don’t have your job? Also one moment, I think I saw Zjeliah sitting in the back, he’s got to hear this.”
“Prishtoli wait.” But it’s too late she already disappeared down the ballroom floor.
I pick up the music box on the table and twirl it in my hands as I wait. Looks like Jaxogeras is trying out a new style, making the boxes square instead of round.
It looks modern.
“Did I hear someone insult my impeccable sense of wigs?” Zjeliah asks as he prances in, he went for long white curls and a silver suit that in combination look quite dashing if not a bit over the top.
“Look it’s nothing much.”
“You, are a cherry dear, anything lighter than russet would look horrible on you and you need a bit of a red tinge not to clash with your wood.”
“I know. It’s actually when I took the wig off the kid started to laugh.”
“Oh, I can understand that, you have a cue-ball for a head, carry on then.”
“Zjeliah!” Prishtoli hisses but the guy shrugs “Just telling the truth baby doll besides, Stegarius doesn’t mind do you, cherry?”
I shrug not quite sure how to feel.
“Stegarius it’s your job to raise this child, you have to tell him if he says something bad else he’ll never learn,” Prishtoli explains.
I nod half-convinced, it’s not like I’ll keep this job very long if it’s up to the kid’s mother “I have to go back now, I have to send the young master to bed.”
Prishtoli grabs me by the arms and pulls me close “Don’t let that young twerp walk all over you okay?” she says patting me on the head in a motherly fashion.
I roll my eyes “Fine.” then give a happy wave before leaving and looking at the clocktower, it’s probably best if I order a cab.
As I rush through the gate one of the scarecrows tells me “And what time do you call this mister?”
“No time gotta go.” I quickly tap my cap to them.
“You sure do.” The other adds and the first one rattles a laugh. I check my watch, five minutes left. I do hope the scarecrows keep their mouth shut and refrain from telling Lady Winton I’m almost late to tuck her son in.
I almost crash through the door. The young master looks at me with big eyes as he sits on the bed.
“Apologies for my tardiness young master.”
The kid looks at the clock and shrugs “You’re one minute late.”
“Exactly, no time to waste.”
I brush his hair and teeth, wash him up, change his clothes and before long he’s back in bed wearing his nightshirt and ready for a story.
I leaf through my book, avoiding the stories mentioning wolves and come to a fairytale that features fairies and a greedy merchant.
“How about buttercup gold?”
He nods and rolls to his side to listen.
“The merchant told the fairies ‘I don’t care for magic or song, all I care about is gold.’ But the fairies didn’t have any until the smartest fairy of the bunch told the merchant ‘be here tomorrow at dawn and we’ll give you your gold.’ The merchant huffed but left all the same. ‘But how will we get the gold in time?’ the smallest fairy asked. ‘Don’t worry little one.’ She then addressed the whole village and declared ‘I need everyone to collect buttercups, I’ll need a basket full” as I read, Prishtoli’s words keep swimming through my head. But I don’t know what to say, how to explain. As I turn the page I look at the boy, blissfully listening with his eyes half-closed.
I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s probably too late anyway, but I’ll be sure to bring it up if he ever asks again.