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 Born Legacy, Part 1
“You’re not going to reconsider, are you?” asked Violetta.
“We’ve had this discussion before,” said Agatha, or rather, her voice was heard from underneath the one-person flying machine she was working on at the time. Violetta acted as her operating nurse, handing her tools when requested. “Your hunches don’t always pan out. I’m not getting what your problem is. Nine-millimeter socket.”
“I don’t like mysteries,” said Violetta, rummaging for the right piece. It would help if her lady kept her parts organized. “People with voids where a past should be.” She finally found the socket and handed it to Agatha.
“Thanks,” she said. “I know what your reservations are. They’re just not bothering me like they are you. Your objections are noted. Just keep an extra eye on things, then.”
“That makes my job so much easier,” said Violetta.
Agatha scooted out from under the flying machine, her face and hair spotted with grease and oil. She removed her glasses and absentmindedly started wiping at them with a dirty part of her shirt. Violetta saw this but said nothing. When Agatha put her glasses back on, both lenses were an opaque white from smudged-up grime. She sighed in frustration, until Violetta produced a soft wipe and small bottle of glass-cleaning spray.
“I don’t want to have to lead you around by the hand for the rest of the day,” she said. Agatha smiled and gave a friendly slap on the arm. A brown blotch was left behind. Violetta stared at the stain, then slowly gave her lady a Look. Agatha cringed and started trying to wipe it away. This, of course, only made it worse.
“I can fix it?” she said.
“Don’t bother,” said Violetta. “I have stain remover. So… your penpal will be here, for what? A week?”
“Something like that,” said Agatha. “Five days, maybe?”
“I’ll see if I can get a hold of a waspeater, then.”
“Oh, come on.”
Violetta glared. “You said keep an extra eye on them,” she said. “Besides, checking for wasps should be standard procedure around here.”
“Make it so, then,” said Agatha. “You know, it’s not like we know the life story of everyone we’ve met. Aren’t you calling the kettle black, after all?”
“For example, you had the mysterious past of a smoke knight.”
“Yes, and then I became… a smoke knight,” said Violetta. “You’ll be hosting a disturbingly perky Princess with unexplained combat abilities and a past that’s completely stonewalled by all accounts. All my research attempts just got that whole – no doubt whitewashed – ‘pauper princess’ love story claptrap that they keep selling.”
“Point taken,” said Agatha, examining her now-clean glasses before putting them on. “I thought you liked her, though?”
Violetta shrugged. “I liked her kid,” she said. “The rest of her bothers me, especially the more I thought about it.”
“I’ll have to trust you and the Castle to keep me safe, then,” said Agatha.
Prince Kelvin Mouseheart, his wife Princess Mara, their three children, Isabel, Edward, and baby Silas, and last but not least, their nanny, Daphne, finally arrived in the city of Mechanicsburg, ancestral home of the Heterodynes and their landmark, Castle Heterodyne. It had been two years since the Lady Agatha Heterodyne and her entourage had won a holiday to the peaceful kingdom of Guildern, nee Mouseheart, a kingdom devoted to tech-free entertainment and education. It was considered to be a quaint little place by many of its tourists, which didn’t bother the Marketing department at all. For a time that used to be its motto. Guildern: A Quaint Little Place.
Part of the winnings included “Teatime” with the Princess, who, it turned out, had been a severely repressed Spark. Circumstances led to her own Breaking Through, and much hilarity had ensued. Following that brief visit, Agatha had “sparked” the beginning of a friendship with the Princess, kept going by semi-regular correspondences. Agatha had originally extended an open invitation to visit Mechanicsburg, and eventually the Castle itself. The Mousehearts were arriving now to take advantage of the invitation.
The family tried to travel as light as possible, which was rare for a royal family, but this befitted a kingdom where everything was handmade and (Spark) tech-free. Or it had been until the last year or so.
One day, locals and guests noticed that the streets were being gradually blocked off by ropes along the walkways, and constables prevented people from entering the streets. There were grumblings from some, but people complied. Most assumed that the royal family, or somebody of equal or near importance, demanded privacy in order to travel.
What happened instead is that, after the streets were cleared, a public address system – that should not have existed in town – announced the first ever “Electrical Clank Parade,” and at that moment, music blared, and with no warning, inanimate objects from up and down the street came to “life,” shifting from whatever they had been – lamps, carts, benches, post boxes, kiosks, etc. – into marching, dancing and singing clanks. They were shaped like people, animals, mythological creatures, and sometimes just cartoonish versions of their original form, but the town streets moved now. To a jumpy, jazzy beat. The inaugural crowd went wild.
The mechanical performers even interacted with spectators, especially children, and when the music stopped, each and every device stopped at once, returned to their original positions, and shifted right back into their original form, showing no indication at all of what they had transformed into. Their original functions were also retained, so streetlamps gave off lights, shop carts could be used by their merchants, and so on.
People would try to examine them, coax them, even try to command them into changing again, but to no avail. Nothing happened unless the announcement had been made and the music was playing, which it did, once a day, every day. When the objects were inanimate, the constables let people look to an extent, but had to actively deter those who tried to damage or dismantle the devices. There had been no publicity, no marketing, no hints or teases from those governing the kingdom or towns – much to the Marketing department’s dismay – but that mandate had come from the ruling family itself. Henceforth, the kingdom of Guildern could no longer call itself entirely tech-free. Sparks – or perhaps only a single Spark, if rumors were to be believed – had returned.
The Mousehearts, mostly Mara, had conducted research of Castle Heterodyne and Mechanicsburg. They knew that Mechanicsburg, true to its name, had always been filled to the brim with mechanics, Sparks and their devices. As for the Castle, it was either a technological marvel unlike any other — or haunted. Even knowing that the former was the case, the conflicting stories about the Castle piqued her interest, and she was resolved to get to the bottom of them.
It was, unfortunately, nighttime when the Mouseheart’s carriage made its way up the menacing, black-stoned path to the front gates of the Castle. It cut quite the dismal silhouette against the waxing gibbous moon. It was of some relief that the path was lighted, except that the lights emitted from the “eyes” of stone, gargoyle-like sculptures. The middle child, Edward, just past two, looked through the carriage window and regretted it. He ducked back inside quickly and all but buried himself in his father’s chest, and moaned. The oldest, Isabel, just past four, also looked through the carriage window, but was impressed by the scenery and pointed out to her mother that each gargoyle-like creature was different.
The sky was clear, which was why there simply had to be a crack of lightning suddenly striking at the Castle, terrifying Edward and startling Daphne, not to mention the carriage’s horses, but fascinating Isabel. She cried out in glee and pointed.
“Momma, Poppa, it’s lightning!” she said. Her mother smiled.
“That’s right, honey,” she said. “And do you remember what makes lightning?”
“It’s, um…” said Isabel, a finger put to her lips, “It’s an electrical discharge…”
Her mother nodded.
“…because… there’s an imbalance of charges in the air and the ground… ”
Her mother continued nodding.
“…and then the imbalance gets realllly big… and then enough electricity is made to make lightning, and it tries to go down because the ground has a positive charge and the lightning is negative, and opposites attract!”
Mara smiled and clasped her hands together. “Very good, honey!” she said. “You have the basic idea!”
“She’s four, and she knows such things,” said Kelvin, not without a small amount of pride.
“Four and a third, Poppa!”
“I do wonder where the clouds are that produced the discharge, though,” muttered Mara, peering outside. Given that they were approaching the home of the sparkiest of Spark families, she deduced that somebody, at some time, had experimented with weather control devices. Perhaps even the Lady Agatha herself. Mara sat back in her seat, and noticed that Edward was shaking his head.
“Don’t like lightning,” he said.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s only because you don’t understand it yet,” said Mara. “The more you learn, the less frightening that things become.”
“No, it’s because he’s dumb!” said Isabel, and laughed at her own joke. Edward burst into loud tears. The look that her parents gave her, though, made her realize immediately that she was an audience of one. Mara grabbed her daughter’s arm and lowered her voice.
“Isabel Hope Mouseheart!” she growled. “We do not refer to people as ‘dumb’! Ever! Not anyone, never mind your own brother! Do you understand me?”
Isabel groaned and fought back tears. “Sorry, Momma,” she said.
“Not to me! To Edward!”
“…Sorry, Edward,” she said. Edward pouted.
“Edward,” said Kelvin, “Your sister has apologized to you.”
“Edward,” said Mara, “We must be gracious and accept sincere apologies. Your sister truly regrets her words.”
“…Okay,” Edward lied, but his parents silently decided to let it slide.
The carriage made it up the long path and circled the roundabout at the top until reaching the front door. Unsurprisingly the double doors were enormous, thick, ominous, imposing… whatever didn’t cry out “Come on in!” to a normal visitor.
While the coachman began unloading their goods, the doors opened, and three people emerged. One of them Mara recognized as Violetta, one of Agatha’s companions from the visit. Violetta wore a simple dress this time rather than the more masculine attire she’d worn before, and was holding and petting a small, reddish-brown animal. There was also a man – dark-haired, stout, bearded – and a woman of average build and appearance. Kelvin charged Daphne with watching the children while he and Mara approached them.
“Good evening to you all,” he said. “Would you please inform the Lady Heterodyne that Prince and Princess Mouseheart and family have arrived?”
“Dear, this is Miss Violetta,” said Mara.
“Ah, yes,” said Kelvin, extending his hand. “I’ve heard good things about you. I’m told that you cured our daughter’s stomach ailment. You have our sincerest gratitude.” To her surprise Kelvin turned her hand and brought it up to be kissed. When he was done, she pulled it away gently, perplexed.
“Uh….” she said. “No problem?”
“It’s good to see you again, dear,” said Mara, stepping forward and embracing her warmly. Another unexpected move, but tolerated. Mara took a moment to greet her pet, which on closer inspection appeared to be a sort of weasel. It sniffed at Mara before allowing her to touch it.
“Agatha’s on her way,” said Violetta, looking back. “Thought she’d be here by now.”
Mara excused herself to go introduce herself to the man and woman, who were called Moloch and Snaug, respectively. They had been sent to assist with unloading the carriage. Mara directed them to the coachman for instructions, when she heard some noises from the other side of the carriage, and rushed off to direct the coachman’s efforts at removing an unwieldy item. Moloch and Snaug followed, but Mara would not allow anyone to remove its covering. Meanwhile, Isabel and Edward could no longer contain their excitement, and rushed over to pet Violetta’s weasel, which went through the same routine of sniffing them before allowing itself to be touched.
Soon enough, Lady Agatha herself arrived at the entrance, doing her best to appear dignified while walking hurriedly. Kelvin noticed her breathing heavily, most likely from racing through the Castle. She was dressed in fine Lady’s clothing, the skirt and vest being a forest green, with a white, lacy blouse underneath, long silken gloves, tan leather boots, and a trilobite choker befitting a Heterodyne. What was clashing with this image were the grease marks on her face and somewhat unkempt hair.
“Hello, Welcome, Greetings, sorry I’m late!” she said, adjusting her glasses and flashing a big smile. He smiled back and held out his hand. She giggled as he repeated the hand-kiss maneuver he’d used on Violetta. Then both were startled by a thump coming from the carriage.
“I’m all right, it’s all right, there’s no damage!” said Mara as she came around to the front. She made the briefest of double-takes at Agatha’s appearance, squealed with glee, then rushed forward into a bearhug, followed by kisses on both cheeks. Mara grimaced when she realized that some of Agatha’s grease had gotten onto her lips.
“Wow,” said Agatha, “I guess you did miss m- Oh, you have a smudge of something on your cheek. Here.” She wiped at her own cheek to indicate where, then looked at her fingers and realized what had happened. “Oh, wait, did I do that?”
“You did, my Lady,” said Violetta. “And now your fine glove is dirty. Did you even look at a mirror before coming out?”
“I was in a hurry.”
Kelvin chuckled. “Don’t worry. Mara looks like that half of the time these days.”
Agatha was intrigued. “Oh, reaaally?” she said, giving her a sly look. Mara blushed.
“Well… I haven’t hidden my, ah, new interest from you in our correspondence,” she said. Kelvin took the opportunity to introduce Agatha to Daphne and the rest of the family. She was particularly pleased to see Isabel. She crouched down, smiling, and shook Isabel’s hand. Isabel did not smile back, but looked at her as though examining her for defects.
“Do you remember me?” said Agatha.
“No,” said Isabel.
Agatha gently poked Isabel on the nose. “Bzzt!” she said. “Do you remember that?”
“No,” said Isabel. “You’re a Spark.”
“You’re right! Are you sure you don’t remember meeting me?”
“Yeah,” said Isabel. “But that’s okay. I’m a Spark, too.” She suddenly held up something to Agatha. It appeared to be a simple, jointed doll at first, painted like a harlequin, but then came to “life” and started climbing around Isabel. “This is JoJo,” she said. “Momma made him. He’s my friend and plays any game I like.”
Agatha watched “JoJo” go its through motions, then slowly stood up, turned, and stared at Mara with barely-contained amusement. Mara blushed and clasped her hands together awkwardly.
“Uh…” she said, chuckling, “Yes, we do have a lot of catching up to do!”
The Mousehearts’ mouths were agape, if not from the sheer size of the Castle’s foyer and main corridors, but from the enormous, magnificent sculptures of armored creatures lining every crevice, alcove, nook and cranny. Their reasons for the awe varied from member to member, however. Mara and her daughter Isabel were stunned by the magnificence. Kelvin recognized the whole of it as representations of power, creativity, but mostly ego. Daphne dutifully followed her lieges and carried baby Silas, but privately preferred to be somewhere more cheerful and inviting… even a dungeon would have worked. Edward, carried by his father, spent his time burying his face into his father’s chest, sometimes daring to glimpse at the statues that he “knew” were monsters ready to pounce at any moment. If the others hadn’t been looking forward as they walked, they might have noticed some of the “statues” preparing to do just that, as they walked past. And bringing up the rear was Violetta, casual and almost bored, like the long-time resident of the Castle that she was. She didn’t have to look back; she already knew the Castle was watching.
Agatha was happily describing their surroundings as Moloch and Snaug pushed the cart ahead of them, until they finally reached the corridor containing their guest rooms. Kelvin and Mara would have their own room, and Daphne and the children would share another. The luggage cart was brought into Kelvin’s and Mara’s room. It was one of the most lavishly appointed rooms they had ever seen, even more so than their own Castle’s “fantasy room” for VIP guests. This had all the trappings of the well-to-do and aristrocratic: four-poster bed with silk curtains and sheets, exquisitely carved bas reliefs on the walls and ceiling, and parquet floors. All of the furniture appeared to be sturdy and hand-crafted, some with filigree carved into the molding or sides, some with silver and gold inlaid into geometric patterns. The entire room was a work of art. Kelvin was unabashedly impressed, as was Mara, but there was also something… unsettling about it. She made a mental note to give the room a better look.
Next stop was Daphne’s and the children’s room. It was just as large and well-appointed, but with enough beds to accommodate all of them. Agatha seemed very proud of their accommodations, explaining that they were, as far as she could tell, the fanciest of the rooms, next to her own master bedroom, of course. The room was a flurry of unpacking, shepherding children, adults trying to discuss that night’s dinner plans, Mara calming and comforting her oldest daughter over her “missing” toy clank “JoJo” (no doubt just mislaid somewhere), and baby Silas bursting into loud tears. Both Mara and Daphne recognized the cause by his tone. Daphne handed him to her mistress.
“Please excuse me,” she said to Agatha. “I won’t be a moment.” She leaned towards Kelvin. “I’ll just duck into the next room. You’ll make sure they’re ready for dinner, yes?”
“Of course, dear.”
In the next room, Mara consoled Silas while unbuttoning her coat and blouse so he could begin to feed. His sobbing immediately quieted down into suckling. Mara decided to pass the time by examining the room’s decor a little more closely. She started with the bas reliefs and quickly caught on what had been subliminally disturbing to her: rather than carvings of pastoral, heroic or even historical scenes and images, there were menacing figures depicted in the act of torturing – dare she thought, experimenting on – helpless, terrified victims. Carvings of people that, at first glance, appeared to be dancing or celebrating, were actually fleeing from some grotesque creature. Madmen – and women – killing each other with violent inventions. Animals being tortured, or transformed, by cackling mad scientists.
Mara shuddered and stood by an exquisitely-decorated dressing table. She looked at the various carvings on the side, and it took not much imagination to see demonic faces leering at her. She wiped some sweat from her face and made herself look at some of the family portraits along the walls. A passerby would see regal ancestors captured in oil on canvas; she saw madness, perhaps even evil, behind those painted eyes.
There was a slight rumbling in the walls and ceiling. “THAT’S DEAR OLD HEIRONYMUS HETERODYNE,” boomed a baritone.
“-The hell??” said Mara, looking everywhere at once. Baby Silas, meanwhile, suckled away in ignorant bliss. She cautiously started moving towards the bedroom door.
“TO THIS DAY I MISS HIS WHEEZING CACKLE,” the voice continued. ” ‘WHEEZE, WHEEZE, WHEEZE, HEE HEE HA HAAAAA!’ OH, BUT I NEVER COULD DO IT JUSTICE.”
“Oh, I’m sure you do just fine,” said Mara, and bolted for the door. All the locks clicked into place by themselves. Mara tugged at the door and tried to undo the locks, to no avail. Suddenly a fire blazed in her eyes, and she whirled around, enraged.
“Who are you?? Where are you?? Show yourself!! How dare you threaten an innocent child?? I said, show yourself!!”
“T-T-T-T, MANNERS,” came a booming. “NO ONE IS INNOCENT; ESPECIALLY NOT CHILDREN. AND WHO AM I? I AM EVERYWHERE. I AM ABOVE YOU. I AM BELOW YOU. I AM BESIDE YOU. I AM… CASTLE HETERODYNE!”
Somebody was pounding on the other side of the bedroom door. “Mara?” came Kelvin’s muffled voice. “What’s going on? The door is locked! Please open the door!”
“I’m not the one who locked it!” she yelled into the wood, then looked up to address the voice. “Let me out now!” said Mara. “Don’t think I can’t-!”
She heard Agatha now. “Castle, did you do this? Open this door now!”
The Castle… sighed? – the sound made the walls and floor tremble – and the locks were undone. Kelvin rushed through the door, followed by Agatha. He was frantic; she was furious.
“Castle, what was that all about?” she demanded. “We’ve been over this; these are my guests!”
“EXACTLY, MY LADY,” it rumbled. “YOU DECREED THAT I BE FRIENDLY, SO I WAS. IT’S NOT MY FAULT YOUR GUESTS ARE SQUIRRELLY. SHE RUDELY TRIED TO CUT OUR CONVERSATION SHORT.”
“I’m… usually quick to apologize,” said Mara, “But I don’t think my attempt to escape was unjustified.”
“Agreed,” said Agatha. “Castle: behave yourself.”
“BUT I WAS.”
“What’s going on here?” asked Kelvin. “Who’s speaking? Where is this voice coming from?”
Agatha shrugged. “It’s the Castle. It has an A.I.”
“What? What kind of eye?”
“Ohhhhh,” said Mara in comprehension, and admiration. “Dear, I keep explaining that it’s an abbreviation for ‘Artificial Intelligence.’ And Agatha, I thought you were just… anthropomorphizing the Castle in your letters. ‘It wasn’t happy about that,’ and so forth. I didn’t realize you meant it literally.”
“Yes,” she said. “Funny old world, huh?”
Kelvin held up his hands. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Wait a minute. Mara, didn’t it just trap you in this room a-and try to kill you?”
“LIES, MY LADY,” said the Castle. “TRAP, YES. KILL, NO. I HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN OUR ‘DISCUSSION.'”
Kelvin shook his finger at the ceiling. “Now just a minute my good… er… you,” he said. “You threatened my wife and child, and that’s unacceptable! You will apologize immediately!”
The walls and floor trembled again from the Castle’s “sigh.” “MY LADY, ARE YOU CERTAIN ABOUT NO HARM BEING DONE? NOT EVEN A LITTLE?”
“Castle,” said Agatha, pinching her eyes together, “Just shut it, all right?”
Kelvin was about to go off again, when Mara stepped up and laid a calming hand on his shoulder.
“Dear… Dear…” she said. “Please. I know this is going to sound, um, a bit crazy, but yes, I was startled, and it made me worried about Silas’ safety, but it caused no harm.”
“I’d like to think that’s because we arrived in time.”
“I WAS GOING TO DESCRIBE THE ANCESTORS IN THE PORTRAITS FOR HER. DEAR OLD HEIRONYMUS. LOVELY EXCRETIA. EVEN OUTRAGIO, POOR SOT.”
“Maybe some other time, Castle,” said Agatha.
“How did you do it?” asked Mara, her excitement rising. “I mean, this is– Unbelievably incredible! The entire Castle? Really? You made a clank the size of-?” Agatha suddenly clamped her hand over Mara’s mouth. She spoke in the lowest, most cautious whisper that she could.
“Don’t– call it– a ‘clank!‘” she whispered into Mara’s ear. “Got that?” Mara nodded, and Agatha let go.
“I’m sorry,” said Kelvin, “But am I the only one here who has reservations about staying in a haunted Castle?”
The two women giggled. “Darling, there’s no such thing as– Don’t you see now? She built a sentient home! An artificial intelligence that can be conversed with-”
“To excess,” said Agatha.
“-and-and can apparently even affect its environment! Am I right?”
“Ohhhhhh, yes,” said Agatha. “Yes, it can. By the way, I didn’t build it. I just repaired it. Long story. But you all must be famished, right??”