The Pauper Princess and the Spark’s Holiday, Part 1

Genre: Steampunk / Gaslamp Fantasy
Butts Heads With: Girl Genius
Mara’s Involvement: heavy

Legal disclaimer stuff:
“This story is not approved by, sponsored by or affiliated with Studio Foglio LLC or Airship Entertainment.”

Pauper Princess FanFiction Theatre Presents:
The Pauper Princess and the Spark’s Holiday, Part 1

Once upon a time, the Spark known as Lord Mouseheart took it upon himself to create a vast and mighty kingdom. Unusually for a Spark, especially one as strong as he, his goals for his kingdom were Amusement and Education. He had a vision! – yes, a “spark” – to create a kingdom where all of his subjects would be the happiest and most industrious subjects anywhere else on earth, and be better educated, too. He also wanted his kingdom to be sought out by visitors the world over, and become the happiest visitors anywhere else on earth. Mostly it involved filling the kingdom with amusements, but what amusements! Amusements and diversions that were meant to amaze even other Sparks. And they did.

You see, Mouseheart was the strongest Spark in the land, but was wise enough to surround himself with other strong Sparks, who shared his vision – or were compelled to, anyway – to make the most amazing clanks and machines on earth, albeit nonlethal ones. Oh, visitors could get shaken up – even frightened – by the wonderous devices, but Mouseheart was adamant that no casualties would come of them.

He began by quietly purchasing acres and acres of swampland under many assumed names, until he finally had enough to begin. He also came up with the brilliant idea of having each village and town in the kingdom specialize in some area of expertise. So, one village might excel in creating amazing vehicles, another in automatons and humanoid clanks, another in mechanical recreations of major historical events, and so on. This proved to be quite a successful innovation for the layout of his kingdom. Unfortunately none of the towns or villages were particularly adept at the culinary arts. They were so focused on their respective mechanical and engineering feats, that to a place, their food was heavy, dull and uninteresting, no matter how much they advertised otherwise. And terribly fattening. Dieters bewared the Kingdom of Mouseheart!

Mouseheart succeeded in executing his original vision. Visitors flocked there yearly by the millions, especially in summer, and Sparks practically fought each other for the chance to be in his employ. By “practically,” it means they fought each other in a practical manner. And Mouseheart’s subjects were indeed the happiest anywhere else on earth.

That was then. Strong Spark or not, Mouseheart was not immortal, in spite of his minions trying to fashion a way to make him so, and he succumbed to the cold embrace of death. And Sparks being the way they are, reverted pretty quickly to their innate nature, and started forgetting some of his mandates, such as the “don’t hurt any of the guests” one. The chart tracking guest injuries shot up like a sheer cliff a mere month after Mouseheart’s death. To be fair, his surviving family did try to rein in the insanity, but ultimately failed, mostly because they lacked his charisma, vision and talent. Powerful former partners stepped in and took turns running the kingdom, which, at best, resulted in ho-hum additions, or at worst, a higher death and injury toll. In some ways it was even worse when a non-Spark managed to claim power. Then the kingdom became focused on just selling stuff.

This continued for a century or two. The kingdom of Mouseheart, though still vast, was no longer mighty, and Sparks began losing interest in plying their trade there. Those who remained, having grown up well beyond when Lord Mouseheart reigned, had none of his vision or concern for the safety of others, and built whatever devices they pleased. Ignorant guests, thinking they were still part of the original “amusement” mandate of the kingdom, learned otherwise very quickly. In some cases the Sparks created flat-out weapons, doomsday devices, and living abominations that mocked God and man.

Somehow, someway, a successor to the kingdom took stock of this, and made a fateful decree: the kingdom of Mouseheart was no more. No more amusements, no more devices, no more clanks or automatons or machines. Sparks: GET. OUT. The villages and towns were done specializing in anything, but were to be actual villages and towns like in a proper kingdom. If the subjects were still the happiest on earth, wonderful. If not, deal with it.

Surprisingly or not, this actually worked. Rather than respond with force to the banishment, Sparks packed up and left. Maybe their feelings were hurt. Maybe they’d heard about an even better kingdom of amusements in the islands of the East. Maybe they didn’t need that dumb old stupid kingdom, anyway. Whatever the reason, Mouseheart became Spark-free. To seal the deal, the new king named the vast and not-mighty kingdom Guildern. For him it was something of an homage to the fact that the Sparks had had their own guild when they worked for Mouseheart.

And the newfound prosperity lasted! For about a year. With no Sparks, there were no devices, no elaborate machinery, no clanks, and no organic augmentations. There was simple machinery, of course – bellows and pulleys and steam engines and the like – and plenty of mechanics and smiths, but no one who could properly repair the truly sparky works. Alas, this led to the subjects becoming something of the opposite of the happiest on earth. Scarcely a year without conveniences, and grumbles of a coup were heard everywhere. So the king rescinded his decree – Sparks were no longer banished! – but due to an egregious clerical error, nobody knew that it had been. Oh, the king assumed that Sparks everywhere were being informed of this, but this was not the case. And so the wondrous devices and machines did not come back, and the subjects were now the unhappiest on earth. The king was going to lose his head soon – using a rusted-out, creaking automaton of an executioner, if the subjects had any sense of irony – when he came upon a life-saving idea.

The kingdom of Guildern would become a land of amusement once again: in reverse. Since his subjects had no choice but to do everything manually, they would do so for a living. For tourists. Life in the good old days! No clanks, no electrical lights, no motorized vehicular conveyances! Not a single luxury!

It was crazy enough to work, and did. There was no egregious clerical error this time to prevent the news, and visitors seeking to escape the “craziness” of the world and go “off the grid” and “get back to nature” flocked to the kingdom. Usually the rich, who could afford that sort of nonsense, were the tourists, but an aggressive campaign to make the experience more affordable was launched, and now even the typical laborer could maybe afford a visit, if they’d saved up enough.  There were also contests held four times a year so that a lucky family of four could win a stay inside the royal castle. The castle itself was still called Mouseheart, as a reminder if its origins. The royal family – yes, there was one of late- also called itself Mouseheart, whether that was its original surname or not. This drove the royal genealogists crazy, but at least they earned their pay.  Lucky guests of the castle made a game of searching for what they called “Hidden Mousehearts.” The Mouseheart sigil was a stylized depiction of a mouse’s snout and whiskers. When Lord Mouseheart and his family dwelled there, he and his Spark minions liked to carve, sculpt, doodle and fashion versions of it all around, but camoflaged in some way, such as woven into a tapestry or masquerading as a stain on a wall. Since then whole books have become available to guests that are obsessed enough with finding them.  In spite of all this leaning towards amusement and education, the kingdom was still just that… a kingdom. Taxes were levied on the subjects, a (small) army was maintained, roads and bridges and sanitorial systems were built and repaired, etc etc.

The royal family had mostly followed the tradition of marrying other members of royalty and/or nobility. Trouble was, these days, the war between Baron Wulfenbach and the forces of the “Other” severely reduced the general population of eligible, aristocratic marital partners. Another problem was due to the very nature of Guildern. Its main export was entertainment, as well as education and happiness and peace and love and warm fuzzies. Other kingdoms regarded it as… well, something of a backwater. Also, its nature all but required the rulers to welcome everyone from everywhere. Standard political alliances – “your enemy is my enemy” and so forth – made that mandate difficult to follow. The present King’s and Queen’s marriage had been arranged, per tradition, but the current Prince, frustrated by a lack of traditional suitors and not a fan of tradition, anyway, convinced them to (begrudgingly) let him go on sabbatical and find his own companion. This he did while disguised as a commoner so as not to be pursued solely for his title and money.

Ultimately the Prince found his soul-mate in, of all people, an entirely “common,” tomboyish woman who had great compassion and a kind heart, in spite of a near-lifetime of brutal treatment at the hands of her mercenary father, her only known relative. By the time the Prince and the woman met, she had been orphaned and on her own for several years and was getting by as an inn-worker. Twice she had shown him kindness while at his lowest point – it turns out that he was not very good at surviving in the “real world” – and he became genuinely smitten when she unknowingly rescued him from starvation by sharing her meager portion of soup with him. A period of gradual wooing ensued – the Prince continuing his charade all the while – and her heart was won, too. It was only after she accepted his eventual proposal that she learned that he was a Prince, after all — and didn’t believe a word of it. Fortunately a trip to the castle, meeting his parents the King and Queen, being pampered by servants, and so on, convinced her of the truth.

The King and Queen ultimately agreed to the marriage, but also took advantage of her story – with her permission – and incorporated and stylized it into a living example of Dreams Coming True That Can Only Happen At Guildern! And so Prince Kelvin and his wife, Princess Mara, aka the Pauper Princess, continued to maintain their private lives, but also made appearances as Mouseheart “characters.” The lucky contest winners mentioned earlier got an extra special treat, “Teatime with Mouseheart Royalty!” a one-time meet and greet with either the Prince or the Princess.

Mara, being… well, a Princess, became used to the fact that most contest winners were interested in meeting her over the Prince. Her being a former commoner was also appealing to visitors who were otherwise completely unfamiliar with royal etiquette. That and any little girls visiting with their parents seemed unable to function without meeting the real, live Princess of Castle Mouseheart. Mara didn’t mind that, for she had two children of her own – the absolute pride and joy of her life – and was fine with indulging giggly girl fantasies. She made efforts to foster a love of education and discovery whenever possible, though. Since meeting the Prince, she had eagerly devoured every educational opportunity now afforded to her, and wanted to foster the same eagerness in others.

Prince Kelvin hosted families with little boys, or all-male groups, for obvious reasons. For the same reason Mara always hosted all-female groups. Like his wife, Kelvin tried to talk to the boys about education, but with anecdotally less success. Overall Mara came out the “winner” for popularity, especially for autographs and pictures. Little boys varied between wanting pictures with the Prince and with the mysterious Winslow, the original construct pet of Lord Mouseheart, now represented as a costumed character. The whereabouts of the real Winslow were unknown.

Mara was fawning over their infant son, Edward, when Kelvin entered the nursery to announce the latest contest winners. Edward’s slightly older sister Isabel cried out to her father and toddled over. He swept her up in his arms and covered her in kisses before setting her down. Isabel wrapped her arms around his leg.

Mara was also all smiles until he waved the telltale notecard at her. She sighed. “Ah, that time again,” she said. “But it’s your turn, right?”

“No, not this time,” he said.

“Come now, last time we had those tall, blue people,” she said. “The catlike ones. I hosted them.”

“That was two contests ago,” he said. “Last time was the group of Jägermonsters.”

She shuddered. “Uhhhh, that’s right,” she said. “But wait – you owe me for them.”

“No, you owe me,” he said. “I hosted, remember?”

“Yes, and then there was the time I was trying to go about my business, and you let them get away from you, run over and start smelling me.”

“I did not let them-”

Smelling. Me. Kelvin,” she said. “They may have been boisterous around you, but they did not surround you and start sniffing up every part of your body, telling you how ‘nize’ it is. I didn’t know if they meant ‘pleasant’ nice, or ‘tasty’ nice. Poor Heather; she wanted so much to help, but I wasn’t about to let her take on Jäger.”

“You know, I did manage to diffuse the situation,” said Kelvin.

“You owe me,” she said.

“Fine,” he said, then took a closer look at the notecard. “HMMmm,” he said quietly, and turned to leave.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,”he said, and kept walking away.

“Who’s the next group?” asked Mara.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I owe you.”

Kelvin,” she said icily. “You have a terrible poker face. What about this group? Tell me.”

The Prince stopped and sighed, then turned and tried to appear casual. “Ah, just… a group of young women.”

A long silence followed, broken only intermittently by the cooing of the infant Edward as his mother bounced him in her arms.

“It’s my turn to host,” she said.

*************************

Prior to their arrival, the usual forms had been sent to the latest contest winners. The legal houha such as liability forms, reminders about the taxes surrounding the prize, agreements to behave themselves, etc. Nobody got to set foot on the castle grounds without returning them. Other forms had been sent – optional ones – asking for more personal information such as interests and hobbies, ostensibly to make their visit more customized and thus more enjoyable, but of course also to give the Prince and Princess some idea of who the heck they were going to meet. Three of the forms for the latest contest winners had been returned, which told Mara that one of them was either too disorganized, or “too cool” to fill out things like that. Unfortunately even the ones who had returned their forms had been vague. For instance, one had listed “Adventure” as her interest, one “SCIENCE!” and another had simply written “wouldn’t you like to know.” So maybe that fourth one wasn’t “too cool,” after all.

On the day of their arrival Isabel was suffering from a sore tummy-wummy and was with the nurse and nanny, so this was foremost on the Princess’ mind when the guests arrived for “Teatime.” As always she looked more “Princessy” than usual, her long hair elaborately braided, her clothing brighter – save for the “patches” on her skirt and right sleeve – a tiara that she almost never wore otherwise, and various props on her belt as clues to her Mouseheart “character.” Accompanying her was an official Mouseheart picture-taker, charged with capturing the guests’ inevitably happy memories. Prior to meeting any group of winners, she or the Prince reviewed first names and pictures so they could greet each person by name on sight. Mouseheart Magic!

“Welcome!” said Mara, big smile, her hands held out in a warm, welcoming manner. She looked at each one while naming them. “Zeetha! Sanaa! Violetta! and Agatha! I am Princess Mara Mouseheart, and you are most welcome at Castle Mouseheart! We hope your stay with us will make you the happiest guests on earth!”

“Hey,” said Zeetha as a way of greeting. “I’m the one who won the contest. I invited them to join me. So… that would make me more a guest of honor than them, huh?”

“Ah…”

Agatha rolled her eyes. “Zeetha…”

“Well, only one person wins,” said Zeetha. “The rest of you are here by my graces.”

“Oh, we are so grateful, your Grace,” said Sanaa, earning a punch on the shoulder by Zeetha. Sanaa rubbed her arm and glared, then perked up when she reviewed her official Mouseheart pamphlet. In her excitement, she punched Zeetha in the shoulder.

“Ladies!” said Mara, still in a warm, friendly tone. “Please, there’s no call here for any violence.”

“What violence?” asked Zeetha in all sincerity.

“Hey!” said Sanaa, pointing at Mara. “Guys, this is the Pauper Princess! See, there’s the soup ladle she used to win the heart of the Prince!”

Mara smiled and turned to show off the small ladle tucked into her belt. Doing her shtick was fine around children, but it was surreal for her to perform for adults. “That’s right, ladies,” she said. “I was working at an inn, when the Prince, in disguise, came in one night cold and wet and hungry, but he only had money to pay for a room, not a meal, and-”

“-And you decided to share your last bit of soup with him, even though you were living on scraps yourself!” Sanaa finished. She slammed the pamphlet against her chest and sighed. “That’s so romantic!”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” groused Violetta, snatching the pamphlet away and skimming it.

“Oh, it is a true tale, ladies,” said Mara, still all smiles.

“Sure, it is,” said Violetta, flipping through the pages. “Why was the Prince in disguise? Wanted for a crime? Trying to escape his wife and find some extramarital nookie?”

“Tch,” said Sanaa. “To find his True Love! Did you people do any research on this place?”

“Well, that’s even less believable,” said Violetta, handing back the pamphlet. “It’s not ‘research,’ it’s just the story they made up about this place. If you have a fake castle, you have to have a fake Prince and Princess.”

Mara, still smiling, leaned in slowly until she was eye to eye with the much shorter woman. Violetta folded her arms and cocked her head.

“The Story. Is. True,” said Mara quietly, and kept their gazes locked a few seconds longer. Then she broke away and straightened up.

Mara was about to return to the script, when Sanaa saw the picture-taker and got excited again. She tried to wave her friends over for a group picture, but only Agatha seemed willing to comply. Ultimately it was up to Mara to gently persuade the rest to grump their way over to pose for their first official Mouseheart Memory. Sanaa had asked to hold her ladle, but Mara gently refused and recommended any of the many gift shops where she could get her own commemorative ladle.

After the picture, Zeetha poked her in the arm. “I get my own suite, yes?” she said. “I’m the one who won; they’re just with me.”

“Uh… well, our guests get the one suite,” said Mara. “Working out the sleeping arrangements between the two rooms is up to our guests. We know that there is, technically, winner, but all our guests are treated equally. We don’t favor any over the others.”

“That doesn’t seem fair,” said Zeetha.

“Ah- I take it that you’re all family?” asked Mara.

Friends,” they all said at once.

“I see,” said Mara,. “And have you seen your accommodations yet? Have you settled in?”

“We have,” said Violetta, looking about the area with apparent suspicion. “They’ll do.”

“The lights don’t work,” said Zeetha. “You need to put in an order for that.”

“I’d fix them myself,” said Agatha, “But I couldn’t find any wires, pipes, materials, power sources… there wasn’t anything to fix.”

“Well, we use candles for our lights,” said Mara.

“What??” said Zeetha. “Pfft. That’s fine for the tourists, but we want at least that modern convenience.”

“Ah… Do you ladies know how this kingdom works?” asked Mara. “And… you actually are tour-”

“Don’t mind her,” said Violetta. “She’s just afraid of the dark.”

What??” came from Zeetha, who growled and erupted into a blur of motion, as did Violetta. Zeetha took a swing at her jaw, and missed as Violetta ducked under the punch and slammed into Zeetha’s torso with a “ha-HA!”, then tucked under to gain the leverage for flipping her. Zeetha went flying into what was sure to be a painful slam against a wall, when she was caught in midflight by the Princess, who used the momentum to swing her around and flip her head over heels and back onto her feet. The Princess then dropped down in a blur to sweep Violetta’s legs from under her, and just as quickly rolled back up into a standing position. She adjusted her clothes, ladle, and tiara, and brushed off the dirt and dust while Violetta flipped herself back onto her feet, ready for another tussle.

“Hey!!” she yelled. “Miss Princess!” Castle guards, meanwhile, who were disguised as unarmed security walkers, but were in fact well-armed, were hurrying their way over. Mara shook her head quickly, and they stopped advancing, but kept a wary eye on them all.

Violetta wasn’t finished. “What kind of vacation spot is this, where the staff can attack its guests??”

Mara cocked an eyebrow at the shorter woman and frowned, then whipped her hand out and caught Violetta’s fingers in a painful hold. Violetta winced at the pain, and tried to pry Mara’s hand off.

“Stop struggling,” said Mara calmly, and addressed them as a group. “First, I am not ‘staff.’ I am the actual Princess of this kingdom. Second, we are only human, and as such are allowed, when it calls for it, to ‘break character,’ and I thought it did just then. In which case,” she said, and roughly let go of Violetta’s fingers. She stepped back and dropped right back into Mouseheart Mode.

“Ladies!” she said, big smile, her hands held out in a warm, welcoming manner, “I am Princess Mara Mouseheart, and you are most welcome at Castle Mouseheart! We hope your stay with us will make you the happiest guests on earth!”

“…What just happened?” Zeetha whispered to Violetta.

“I don’t know,” Violetta whispered back. “I kinda like her, though.”

*************************

In the outdoor patio reserved for the special prizewinners, Mara’s assistant Heather finished pouring the tea for them all, then sat into her own chair with her own cup. The Princess then took it upon herself to offer and dole out the additionals such as cream, sugar, and lemon. Various snacks such as petite-fours, ladyfingers, and nuts were all around. The official picture-taker hovered around, capturing candid pictures with abandon.

“Now, many guests are nervous and intimidated by these gatherings,” said Mara. “For instance, they think they need to behave formally around us. Calling us ‘Your Highness’ and bowing and curtseying. Of course a certain decorum is expected, but…” She sighed. “Ah. Hm. Clearly you ladies don’t have a problem ‘being yourselves’ around me. In which case I’m allowed a bit of it for myself.”

“We’re sorry about the trouble before, Princess,” said Violetta. “Really. Believe it or not, it’s how we play with each other.” She indicated herself and Zeetha, who winked and flashed Mara a rather unsettling grin. “You have some decent moves yourself,” she continued. “Where did you train?”

“Ah… Well, that’s not really important,” said Mara, tilting her head. “Ladies: we really do wish to make your holiday here fun and exciting for you! So this will help us get to know you better. But first, we should have asked if there are any other beverages you desire, besides tea. Do you fancy any juices? Plain water? Coffee?”

“NO!!” everyone but Agatha yelled with such force that both Mara and Heather almost fell back in their chairs. It was a miracle that their tea didn’t go flying.

“Sorry again,” said Zeetha. “Not everyone here can handle coffee. That’s all.” Agatha sighed and rolled her eyes. “Anything else is fine. What kind of wine do you have?”

“At… 10 in the morning?” said Mara.

“Ah, well, maybe just provided later for our rooms,” sulked Zeetha.

“As you wish,” said Mara, nodding to Heather, who took notes. “Now, ladies, thank you for filling out the forms about yourselves. If we can, we like to customize our guests’ visits according to their interests. For instance, uh, Sanaa: you indicated ‘adventure’ as an interest. Could you elaborate?”

“Oh,” said Sanaa with a shrug, “Well, you know, uh… anything where my life is in terrible danger! Fighting off hordes of crazed mutants! Escaping death rays and bottomless pits! Rescuing men from their own clumsy attempts to impress me! You know what I mean.”

“…I’ll see if we can work with that,” said Mara. Heather gave her a confused look, but kept writing. “Uh… uh, Agatha? You’ve been nice and quiet.” Zeetha snickered. “You enjoy science, or.. as you wrote it, ‘SCIENCE!'”

“Yes,” said Agatha, sipping at her tea. “I like to tinker with this and that.”

“Is there anything we can do to assist with that?”

“Here?” she said, looking around. “I thought the point of this place is ‘no machines.'”

“Well, there are machines, but-”

“But no Sparks,” she said. “Please elaborate, Princess: why are Sparks forbidden here?”

Mara sipped at her tea, then set it down and clasped her hands lightly. “They’re not forbidden,” she said, still keeping up at least a basic smile. “It’s true, at one time, they’d been banished, but that lasted for a single year, no more. That law was rescinded after that, but… nobody noticed, or cared?” She shrugged. “Either way, everybody thinks that Sparks are forbidden here, and they’re not. But then, since the point of this entire kingdom is tech-free recreation and education, Sparks wouldn’t really fit in. Do you agree?”

Agatha took another sip while pondering her answer, then bobbed her head back and forth. “Mmmm, maybe. I don’t know. I’m just not fond of people pretending to be something they’re not.”

“But… nobody pretends to be a Spark if they’re not,” said Mara.

“But are people pretending not to be one if they are?” said Agatha. “For instance, just to fit in with the ‘theme’ of this place?”

“I… I wouldn’t really know, actually,” said Mara. “As I said, no one is forbidden from being a Spark.”

“But are they forbidden from doing their work?”

“Not exactly,” said Mara. “That is, their work cannot be public. If our purpose is to recreate a time when there was no diabolical machinery or crazy, clanky things terrorizing others, then if a Spark creates such a device, it has to be kept out of sight and away from everyone. So in that sense, yes, they must fit in with the ‘theme’ of this place.”

“Hm,” said Agatha, finishing her tea and pouring another cup. “I still don’t like it. Wait– did you say ‘diabolical?'”

“You know,” said Mara, trying to get back on track, “Many of our visitors have been Sparks, and we’ve gotten feedback from them, and they say that they enjoyed the break from their usual routines. They’ve described their experiences as peaceful, and stress-free, and-”

“But they wouldn’t wanna live here!” said Violetta, cracking herself up.

Look!” said Mara with more force than her guests had quite expected – or herself. She glared at the picture-taker, who capped his lens immediately. “If there are people here pretending to be normal, except that they’re not, and they’re secretly uh, uh madboys and girls, maybe they have other reasons besides just trying to fit in with the ‘theme.’ Maybe they’re concerned about uh, uh losing themselves or… or hurting people with their insane devices. Hurting innocent people. Hurting their own children!”

After a moment of awkward silence – even Heather had stopped writing – Mara buried her face in her hands.

“Ohhhh,” she groaned. “This is why he’s so much better at this,” she said. “I’m a terrible hostess. I just can’t stay… ‘on’ all the time. If I were ‘staff,’ as you say, I would’ve been fired years ago.” Heather gave the picture-taker the signal to take a hike. He complied immediately.

“Nonsense!” said Zeetha, slapping her hard on the back. “Your honesty is very refreshing! If you had been perky and cheerful no matter what, we’d have had Agatha take you apart and examine your inner workings!”

“Hm? I’m not an automaton.”

“Well, we would have suspected you of being one,” said Violetta.

“Uh… Princess,” said Agatha. “If you don’t mind, what is it you meant about ‘losing themselves?’ For Sparks, I mean?”

Mara sighed and poured herself more tea. Heather put a gentle hand on her back while fetching the cream and sugar for her. “Thank you,” she whispered. “You’re a Spark, aren’t you?”

“More or less,” said Agatha.

“I hope I did not offend you with the things I said,” said Mara.

“Mmmmm. Nyah.”

“No, they were ugly words,” said Mara. “Spoken out of fear and– What I said was very inappropriate. I sincerely apologize. But… since you are one, I was hoping you would know what I meant by ‘losing themselves?’ Falling into the, um… Well, when they… they go into this… place of the mind where… where all of their ideas come at them at once and…?”

“I think you’re referring to a Spark fugue state,” said Agatha. “Or derogatorily, the ‘Madness Place.'”

“Goddess knows I call it that,” said Zeetha with a chuckle. Agatha glared.

“Yes,” said Mara. “I didn’t want to say, but a ‘Madness.’ That place where you– where they lose track of time, and all they see are their ideas, their devices, their SCIENCE! as you say, and then… hours, days have gone by, and they haven’t slept, or eaten, or bathed, and they’re covered in grime and grease and surrounded by drawings, tools, parts everywhere, and some thing that does God knows what. Only destroys the world, if they’re lucky.”

“Stop it!” said Sanaa, grabbing Agatha’s arm. “You’re getting her excited!”

“Pfft,” said Agatha. “Destroying the world would be a waste. I’m fine with a mere death ray.”

Mara looked up from her stupor, and stared at the girl. Agatha slapped her thigh and laughed.

“I’m joking, Princess!”

“No, you’re not,” said Zeetha.

“Nooo, I’m not,” said Agatha with a sigh. “Princess?”

“Mmph.”

“You sound like you have, uh, some personal experience with Sparks. Unpleasant experience. Or you are one.”

“What??” Mara straightened up immediately and sniffed. “No,” she said. “You are mistaken.” She cleared her throat and stood up. “Ladies, please enjoy your stay at Castle Mouseheart in the kingdom of Guildern. Our staff is at your service and will assist you with all of your needs, and will help you customize your visit so you, too, can be the happiest guests on earth!”

She turned to leave, followed by Heather, who accompanied her mistress back into the castle.

“Well!” said Sanaa. “She does a good impression of an automaton, though, doesn’t she?”

–To be continued

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