The Bell Jar Prince
The Bell Jar Prince
Anna woke up to another day of greasing cogs. It was a shit job but the hum was soothing. The logic of the machinery and the power it created was comforting. The routine never changed. Wake up, feed the dogs, get dressed, ride the train, greet the guard, grab the tank, grease the wheels. No one else wanted this job. It smelled. It stuck with you. You could never wash the grease off. Ever. It got in your skin. But without it, there’d be no light in Millennia. How would lovers kiss under street lamps? How would the women finish their embroidery? How would art students watch old movies? Without light, well, it’d be dark. All the time. So Anna never got a day off. Since she was sixteen she had this job. Her brother got it for her but she was pretty much doing him a favor by taking it.
It was one in the morning but the concepts of “morning” or “afternoon” were lost on Millennia. There was no sunrise, no sunset and definitely no high noon. Anna woke to Charly and Roscoe thumping their tails against the stone floor. “Yo! Yo! Yo! Yo!” the tails seemed to say. “Get up.” Charly and Roscoe were forever hungry. And restless. The Restless came in handy when Anna was out past Frontline greasin cogs. With no one else around it got quiet. Having Charly and Roscoe with her, chasing shadows, barking at mice, made her feel safe. Twice Roscoe had shaken to death a rat equal to him in size. Charly flushed them out, Roscoe brought them down. They were a good team.
Every eight cycles Anna had to go up to Nosidam and hit the cogs. Nobody else got to go up there and none of the Nosys would stick around while she worked. The smell of her alone kept even the cats out of her radius. Charly and Roscoe weren’t allowed. No barking, greasy, flea-ridden dogs ever set paw in Nosidam. Especially not the dogs of a Greaser, it was bad enough having the Greaser around.
Today was a Nosidam day. Up the stairs to the lift. Charly and Roscoe were told to Stay. Left to their own devices on the bridge platform for the next six hours. God knows what they’d get up to. Last time, she came back down to a pile of tunnel rabbit corpses. They’d cleared out an entire warren that day. What a mess. Good dinner for a month though, and a sweet jacket too. She could use a matching set of pants. Go get ’em boys. Up and up in the lift. Where were the greasers that handled the lift chains? They clearly took no pride in their work. Nosidam’s main gate was in the same state of neglect. The doorman broke a sweat. All for little ol Anna. The heaving, creaking, grinding shuffle as he closed it behind her was incredibly satisfying for reasons Anna couldn’t explain. She stopped to watch it shut tight. Then the weight of the tank reminded her why she’d rode that ramshackle service lift for twenty minutes. The Gallery.
Nosidam was a pretty posh place. Lots of white and silver. Smooth everything. She had to change boots in the mud room and put on hazzy gloves. They’d pitch both rather than have the grease linger about for more than a wink. So there they were, a glowy white pair of boots and matching hazzy gloves. Her size. Poor bastards were about to be violated and discarded and they never saw it coming. The Grand Parlor was first, always first. As she came through the door she heard another door slam shut. Nobody in the room but her. Musta cleared out just in the nick of time. Funny. They knew she was coming, knew when she was coming and knew where she would grease first. Never seen hide nor hair of anyone up in Nosidam in her twelve years on the job. Must be a new guy. Doesn’t know the routine yet. Behind the music cabinet was the access panel for the Grand Parlor light room. The door swung open without a peep. Crank the tank and slop the cogs. A few hours of work and bright as the sun for eight cycles. Pop the door shut, slide the cabinet back, cut across the travertine and out the far door that had slammed as she came in. Next up, Music Hall.
The Music Hall was her favorite. Mirrors lined the walls. There was a harp in there as big as Anna. She touched it once and it made a sound like a lover sighing. Got docked a quarter cycle for her troubles too. Still, the urge to touch that harp was so strong it’s all she thought about from the time she woke up to a cycle later. Beautiful sound. The lights room for the Music Hall were tricky. Hidden behind thick walls and heavy doors. Couldn’t have the humming and whirring compete with the metronome. Hard to open the door on her own. She always got grease on the floor. The cogs themselves were easy and she finished up fast – only two hours for the Music Hall. Heavy door pushed shut, walk across the room, around the fluffy carpet, not across it, and out the blue doors to The Gallery.
Man she could waste her life staring at the stuff in The Gallery. When they got the Nomad pieces four cycles ago she lost track of time staring at them. The sound of a door opening a closing somewhere behind the walls snapped her back and got her on her way. Never got docked for that one. Something new in The Gallery today. A big thing in the corner, covered with a huge piece of rough white fabric. Not the kinda fabric you usually see in Nosidam. Nosys almost always go for the really soft, flowey stuff. This was like something you’d find in the market. She stepped closer to check it out. Her left glove was still sans grease. With it she reached out and lifted the hem of the rough fabric.
Glass. Great big jar of glass. Great big jar of glass big as the service lift. Upside-down great big jar of glass. There was a man in it! Anna stopped and caught her breath. There was a guy standing in the jar. Just standing there. He looked real. Real clean too, like he got a bath every hour of his life. He was dressed nice – not fancy like a Nosy, but nice. Like one of the tailors owed him a big one and paid in full two hours ago. Good boots too. Leather, like her dad’s boots, not resin like Anna’s. She lifted the rough fabric higher and saw hands hanging at his sides wrapped in leather gloves and a body in a leather coat. Lots of pockets. Behind him in the jar on the ground, furthest from Anna, was a stack of books. The big kind like the old guys read at the school libraries. Lotsa words in those books. Secrets and stories like you can’t imagine. Too dark to read their titles but Anna guessed they were the kind of books she’d want to read. Heck, most books were. Lifting the rough fabric up even higher, she saw the man’s face. Beautiful.
As a girl Anna used to read books about princes and heros and true love and timeless beauty. Her dad would find the books in the market and she’d sit for hours in her closet reading while he messed around with his old guns. She thought of the love of her dad, alway bringing her books to read and guns that didn’t fire. She thought of the love of the hero who, in one of her favorite stories, fatally gave his every breath to save the life of the maiden he loved. That was the beauty in this man’s face. The kind of beauty you’re afraid you’d ruin with kissing.
He looked concerned. Not like he was worried, but like he wasn’t so sure you understood what he was talking about. Like sad, but not really. If she made that face, she’d look sad. On him it looked … profound. Yeah, really deep. Small mouth, slightly pursed and eyes with little sparks in them looking back at her. Looking right at her actually. It made her nervous. She shifted her weight and lifted the rough fabric higher still. His eyes moved with her. She coughed up a “Hey, are you in there?” as if it wasn’t plain to both of them that yes, he was in there. Regretted it instantly. A few more inches of lift to the rough fabric and the whole thing came down the other side, slipping through the grip of the Dura-Coated hazzy gloves. No way in hell she’s getting it back up over the jar on her own. They’re definitely going to dock her. His eyes slowly looked up and around as the fabric slid down. Head shifted slightly. “Hey, can you get out?” Another incredibly, terribly dumb question. He slowly – very, very slowly, turned his face and eyes back to her, still with that broody look. “Okay, do you want to get out?” Finally! A fair question.
He squared his shoulders at her, feet pivoting soundlessly on the wood floor/upside-down jar lid. She put down the tank. You never put down the tank. You don’t put down the tank on the dirtiest, gnarliest, stinkiest hole in Reese and you absolutely never put the tank down on a floor in Nosidam. Ever. The shoulder strap slapped the tile floor with a thwack of grease and time. She heaved her shoulder against the glass, feet slopping behind her. It was thick glass. Heavy glass. And she was getting face prints all over it. She stepped back for a more thorough investigation of the base and spotted a brass fitting. A lock. Locks have keys. Open the lock, open the thing.
The Gallery had a few really fancy carved dressers. Dresser drawers were a great place to stash keys so Anna began wiping her hands off, prepping for the pillage of the dressers. She paused to weigh the potential repercussions of continuing on this path. Fired for sure. No doubt about it. Lose the rest of her pay on top of losing the job her brother worked hard to get her. Then everyone would find out. She’d greased up The Gallery. No one would be terribly impressed with her. Most would be disappointed. Careless girl. So she grabbed her cleanest rag and scrubbed her palms and fingers as clean as she could get them then crossed over the floor, and around the surprisingly soft rug, to the nearest fancy dresser.
Fancy handles like embroidered jewels frozen by the sun. Nothing in them. Not even dust. Twelve drawers in the first one and nothing. There were four more dressers. Sliding the twelfth drawer back in to the face of the first dresser, Anna hears a door open somewhere. How long had she been there? She look at her wristwatch and panicked. Bit her lip as she ran over the surprisingly soft rug and hefted the tank to her back. She looked up at the man. Just as she’d found him. Staring at the glass in front of him. She shouldered the tank strap and clicked the buckle in sharply. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m coming back.” His head turned and his eyes caught her. Pain. His face looked pained.
Anna rushed through the cogs in The Gallery, slapping grease everywhere. She was going to run out at this rate. When The Gallery was done, she paused, collected herself and jammed through the rest of Nosidam’s 32 chambers. What a mess. What a stench. She lost count of times she heard doors opening and closing around her. Were they trying to find her? Was there a sparrow loose in the place? As she came down the service hall to the mud room, pulling at the glove that hinted at the possibility of having been white at some point, a door opened behind her in the hallway. She kept walking. “Miss.” Man’s voice. Calm. Calling after her. Barely audible above the tromping of her boots, now moving at a considerably fast walking pace. “MISS.” Louder. It was clear he wanted her attention. Anna stopped and turned, wondering if he could hear her heart pounding in the now very very quiet service hallway. “Miss, you’re wanted in The Gallery. Please proceed there immediately.” The man turned back through the doorway from which he came, closing it softly behind him. Charly and Roscoe must have most of the tunnel rabbits in Millennia piled up down there by now.
She’d already taken off her gloves. She was not supposed to remove her gloves until she was in the mud room with the door closed behind her. Once removed, the gloves went straight down the chute. Not on a hook, not on a shelf and definitely not clenched in her left fist. She made her way back towards The Gallery. Twice she saw silhouettes of people as they closed doors she walked past. This was certainly a first. They’ll be talking about this for years. She will go down in folk legend as The Greaser Girl Who Trashed The Gallery.
The Gallery. The doors were flung open wide. As she came in she looked across the room and saw the uncovered glass thing. A woman standing next to it. Very tall. She stood like most important Nosy ladies stand; chin almost perfectly parallel to the ground, feet three inches shy of shoulder-width apart, right foot slightly forward and left wrist grasped in right hand, held at the pelvic bone. A man moved from the left. Anna hadn’t noticed him. There was another woman farther back towards the other door and a second man standing next to her. The two women stood in the same pose but the second one had her hands reversed. And her feet were parallel, right under her body. She was scared. So was the man next to her. But not the first man. He was very important. Anna could tell by the brass on his shoulders and boots that this guy was serious business.
The important man’s initial direction seemed towards the middle of the room but changed course, headed towards Anna, eyes locked on to her, a determined pace. “Edward,” the woman called to him, right hand raising and making a sort of “be peaceful” mime. The important man slowed, almost awkwardly. He was older than all of them, but not old. The couple by the door were young, but not young as Anna. And they were both still clearly frightened. “Anna,” the important man said, shocking Anna till she lost her breath. He stopped just out of arm’s reach of her and introduced himself.
“Anna, I’m Lord Edward Ashlar Yeahtree. I believe you’ve met the Prince.”
“Edward.” The woman was worried. The couple, now with hands clasped, looked alarmed. “Anna, did you find a key?” The woman’s question was almost as startling as the important man’s approach. “The key for the Bell Jar. Have you seen it?”
Anna stumbled and tried to grasp at what was happening. They knew what had gone on. Were they always watching? No, it was the grease. She looked at the glass thing – the bell jar – and her handprints and stomach prints and face prints were all over that thing. “No, ma’am,” she managed to cough out, “I haven’t seen any keys up here in twelve years.” Wow. She was talking to this Nosy, this beautiful woman. Then she noticed the woman’s hands. They weren’t like the hands on the other people in the room. They definitely weren’t like the hands that were on that young lady staring bug-eyed from the far door. They were like her dad’s hands. There was texture on them, not super smooth like everyone else.
“Anna, we need to find that key,” the important man said taking another step towards her. The beautiful Nosy woman reached out again, this time taking a slight step forward.
Anna racked her brain. Keyekeykeykey. Where’s the key? Have I ever seen a key? What kind of key? What’s it look like? “What does it look like?” she heard herself asking before she could think.
“Like this,” the woman said lifting her right had off her wrist and revealing a beautiful band of brass around her fine wrist. The band didn’t match what the woman was wearing – light, gauzy sleeves of fabric in an impossibly pale shade of yellow – but it somehow matched her hands perfectly. The woman moved towards the important man, towards Anna, extending the beautiful wrist and brass band in to Anna’s view. The band was carved – or had carvings. There was a round bit that hung underneath, like a tiny doorknob. The woman grasped the brass band with her other hand, turning it on her wrist so that Anna could get a better view of the little doorknob.
It was like a hex bolt. A really fancy, skillfully engraved hex bolt. The whole thing look like it was carved by very strong mice. The surface of the band was almost as shiny as lights but the engraved parts were much blacker than dirt alone could have affected.
“This bracelet is the key’s, and the Bell Jar’s, mate.” the woman said, sad, but direct.
“We need the key to free them both.” the important man summarized. That’s when Anna looked over to the man in the bell jar. He was fully turned, square with Anna, square with the vast, open doorway behind her. His eyes were wide. “Can you help us? Can you help us find the key?” the important man, Lord Yeahtree, asked. Then everything went dark.
She remembered her father, playing with things in his workshop. He fixed things for fine people. People with fancy clothes and silk gloves. They spoke differently than the people she knew in Millennia, all orthographic. But they smelled nice and treated her father nice. Her father’s tools smelled of grease and leather and diligence. She was remembering something very important he’d said. Something about what kind of people one should not get mixed up with. He was very determined in talking to her but she couldn’t quite follow what he was saying.
“Anna. You’ve got to concentrate.”
The Gallery again. Bright lights. Soft hum of whirring cogs. Smell of roses. The Lord Yeahtree was at her hand. The woman near her feet.
“You must think. Have you seen a key.”
Anna had seen no keys. Ever. From the lift to the furnace, rooms were always just left open for her. Never once in her twelve years did she ever need a key. Boots, gloves, grease, cogs, rooms, doors, it never changed.
The Music Hall.
“There’s a painting of a key,” Anna heard herself say, “in the Music Hall. It’s on the South Wall. By the Garden Maidens.”
Everyone glanced about nervously, a door slammed somewhere outside the room.
“Help her up.” Finally the man by the far door spoke. He stepped away from the girl on his arm and stepped towards Anna.
Lord Yeahtree helped Anna to her feet. The woman and the frightened lady were moving together through the far door.