Agatha H. and the Fair Dinkum Blue – Part 11

Genre: Steampunk / Gaslamp Fantasy
Stumbles Clumsily InGirl Genius
Mara’s Involvement: medium
Time: continuing after The Pauper Princess and the Way of the Trilobite.
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The story so far!
–Poor communication kills… ish!

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Legal disclaimer stuff:
“This story is not approved by, sponsored by or affiliated with Studio Foglio LLC or Airship Entertainment.”
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The Pauper Princess Fanfiction Theatre Presents:
Agatha H. and the Fair Dinkum Blue – Part 11!

General Gkika was expected to join General Goomblast on the battlefield, but informed the others that she had “sumting impawtant” to do first. Generals Zog and Khirzhan remained on the flagship to coordinate Heterodyne movements with the other Emperors. As for Her Ladyship Most High, if she was indulging in forty or even fifty winks, it was her prerogative.

Her trip to the Sturmvoraus flagship was swift and uneventful. As always she was given immediate access to Emperor Tarvek. He paused from poring over his war table and held onto a piece meant to represent part of his own ground forces.

“General,” he said, nodding in greeting. “I take it that something concerns you, or you’d be on the field by now?”

“Yas,” she said. “Hy know hy din giff varning. Hy dun trust dese tokky tings much.”

“That’s fair,” he said. He gestured to a door at the rear of the bridge. “Somewhere private, then?”

Gkika nodded quickly in affirmation, then followed him into the small briefing room. “Iz de Mistress,” she said, skipping any preludes. “Hy dun tink… she iz qvite de Mistress. But iz hard to say how. Hyu should know dot hy haff sed notting to dose old ogres yet. Hy vant to tok to a schmott guy first.”

Tarvek sighed as he ran a hand across his hair. “This is a relief.”

“Vat?”

“Bear with me,” he said. “I’ve been trying to work out how to approach you and the generals about my suspicions. Gil and I haven’t had a chance to talk, either, but I’d be surprised if he hasn’t noticed something. Let’s you and I trade notes.”

********

Lucrezia was grateful that her daughter had kept up her constitution, or she wouldn’t be able to jog with this dead weight on her shoulder. As the corner neared, she heard the clomp-clomp-clomp of Matilda’s palace guard. Five of them rounded the corner before she did and planted themselves in her way, weapons poised.

Halt, intruder, in the name of Queen-!”

“Oh, be silent and take me to her, already!” It was good to still have the Voice handy, and a passable knowledge of English, though it was a struggle to understand this version of it. At least soldiers were used to taking orders. Most of them.

“But you’re… you’re an in-”

“Why, yes, I am an intruder!” she said. “As you can see, my partner is assisting me by being utterly unconscious! It’s the latest trend in invasions. Now WILL YOU-

“Oh, what’s all this then?” she heard Matilda calling from around the bend. Lucrezia sighed in relief. She had no time to waste to kill all these fools. Matilda came into view. She stopped and gave Lucrezia a quick onceover.  “It’s about time, dear! And you brought—a friend? If you think I’ll be hosting your sleepovers, you’ve got another-”

“I don’t have time to prattle,” said Lucrezia, pushing past the guards and then Matilda herself. “They’re going to figure out any second that my shields are down. Now where do I put this?”

“Er… my lab, I suppose,” said Matilda. “And ‘this’ would be…?”

“Agatha’s Techmistress,” said Lucrezia, making a beeline for the lab.

“OooOOOooo,” Matilda cooed. “And you have some way of preventing them from realizing that she’s now missing??

“Most people would think she’s still in the lab,” said Lucrezia. “And I would expect you’ll have the same plan as I do?”

They reached Matilda’s lab. The Queen helpfully unlocked its door, then deactivated its myriad alarms and traps for safe entry. Lucrezia first dumped her bag of stolen tech onto a worktable, then dumped the prone Princess onto Matilda’s experimentation table. The two women busied themselves strapping her in. As the women worked, a small clank wearing a nice hat and wielding an adorable little sword crawled out of the bag. It paused to watch them before quietly scurrying away into the lab’s nooks and crannies.

“You have a servant that resembles her, don’t you?” said Lucrezia. “Someone expendable. Don’t need an exact match, just the body type, hair color. Everything helps.”

“Ah,” said Matilda. “And she will… what, pretend to be her in poor lighting and with hand signals?”

“I’ll only need her parts,” said Lucrezia, smirking. Matilda nodded in comprehension and smirked back. “Come on; I have minutes at best!”

“Don’t you order me!” Matilda snapped. “You—! Oh, very well. This time, because of the urgency.” She left the room to summon a servant, who was sent on an errand of the utmost need, upon pain of awful pain, then awfully painful death, if he failed.

Lucrezia paused to examine the table’s restraints and test them. Matilda was losing patience quickly.

“Why is she here at all?” she demanded. “Found out your secret prematurely? Why not just kill her, then?”

“Your speculating is tiresome,” said Lucrezia. “I’ll tell you in a moment. First, we’ll need to remove her clothes.”

Matilda cocked an eyebrow. “You know, if I didn’t know you as well as I do… Oh, never mind. This would have been easier before we strapped her down.”

“Details…” Lucrezia muttered, and set to work carefully working the sleeves off through the straps.

Matilda sighed in frustration. “I will help only if you explain why you’re risking bringing her here like this.”

Lucrezia’s sigh oozed disdain. “She might be a Heterodyne.” When Matilda did not reply, she glanced over. “A good chance of it. Maybe.”

Matilda took a dramatic step backwards and pointed at the Princess even more dramatically. “IN MY HOUSE??”

Lucrezia pointed to herself. “Hello??”

You don’t count any more than I do! And what is this ‘might be’ business? Whose child is she?” Matilda gasped. “No! Not Barry’s?!?”

“I have no idea!” said Lucrezia. She leaned in. “Look, just minutes ago she started blabbering blithely about ‘announcing’ herself as soon as… some big project is done. She was so casual about it that Agatha has probably known for some time. And they’ve been covering it up! She needs to be kept sedated until I return, so we can get the proof we need together. But there is evidence; it snapped into place while she was babbling. The Jägers let her perform surgery on them! She replaced Goomblast’s hands better than I could have. Even Franz was fine with her working on him. Oh, and she has children! She has a daughter that broke through before age five.”

“Oh, that will not do,” said Matilda. “We cannot have breeding Heterodynes! Her brood will need to be dealt with, as surely as she will. And you really have no idea who her parents are?” Lucrezia glared. “You know, I don’t mean to be such a nag, but this is one of those times that dipping into Agatha’s memories would-“

“That will not happen,” said Lucrezia. “Ever. That’s a closed topic.”

“Fine,” said Matilda. “Handicap yourself. It’s not my body.” She frowned and pointed at Mara. “Waaait a moment. Look at all these scars. She’s not a Heterodyne; she’s a construct! Did you know this?”

“Hold on, hold on,” said Lucrezia, peering more closely. “These aren’t surgery scars; they’re wounds.” She threw up her hands. “What is wrong with this woman?”

“Speaking of which,” said Matilda, “Where is her stand-in, anyway??” She went to the door and threw it open, startling the timid woman standing just outside of it, her hand poised to knock. The woman lowered her hand quickly and greeted the Queen with a curtsey. Before she could speak, Matilda grabbed her hand and yanked her into the room.

Matilda pointed a thumb at her. “Is she close enough?”

Lucrezia ordered the woman to turn slowly. She and Matilda compared the servant’s overall look to Mara’s, then nodded simultaneously. Lucrezia threw Mara’s dress at her. The woman caught it awkwardly, but did not drop it. “Wear this.”

She looked to Matilda. “Your… Your Maj-?”

“Wear it!” Matilda snapped. The woman yelped and retreated to a cluttered part of the laboratory, as if granted a semblance of privacy by it.

While waiting, Lucrezia fetched her bag of stolen tech and pulled out the self-replenishing battery. “Feel free to study these things. You might be especially intrigued by this power cell. It packs a hell of a punch, and I haven’t seen any of them need replacing. And there’s a sample of the metal that’s been giving us so much trouble. We need to find how to make it, and its weakness. I also brought some plans and other writings. Her notes are terrible, though, and I don’t mean because they’re coded. Could be a challenge to drag out the details.”

“Well,” Matilda sighed, “The venom does work on Sparks, after a triple dosage.” She suddenly slapped the edge of a table hard, if only to make a loud noise. “Girl!” she shouted at the servant. “Are you finished or not?”

“I-I’m here, your Majesty!” said the woman, now wearing Mara’s clothing. “I’m so sor-“

Matilda spoke only to  Lucrezia. “Fine. Consider her comatose until you return, but when will that be?”

“As soon as I’ve gotten all their shields’ codes, gathered more tech, and set the boys against each other.”

“Oh, come now,” Matilda grumbled, “If you haven’t manipulated them by now, you’ll just be wasting time. Oh! See if you can grab one of those flying suits, hm? And the sonic cannons. That shouldn’t be difficult.”

“I can set them against each other,” said Lucrezia, ignoring the shopping list. She grabbed the servant’s arm and pulled her from the room. Matilda summoned a squad of guards and stationed them in and out of the lab after brief instruction.

That done, Lucrezia continued her beeline to the corridor where she’d arrived. “Listen to this; Agatha’s told both of them that they simply cannot be together, oh, woe! Love and politics not mixing, or some nonsense. The boys are keeping a stiff upper lip about it, but they’re both powder kegs. I can tell. It won’t take much at all to set them off.”

“Do what you think you must,” said Matilda. “But I’m not going to babysit the woman forever. And most certainly not if she’s a Heterodyne. I’ll have to watch her myself now, you know. I’m a very busy woman, and I haven’t got all day!”

Lucrezia leaned in and grinned. “You do what you think you must.” They had reached her arrival point. “She won’t need to be on ice for long.”

“What’s your current entry point?” Matilda asked.

“Agatha’s lab,” said Lucrezia, positioning the portable portal onto the wall. “It’s private, at least. When the time comes, I’ll pick something more strategic; somebody’s bridge, perhaps. Oh! I almost forgot. I think our prisoner is that ‘Popping Princess’ that Dupree was on about. The one she wants to make into furniture? Don’t let her do that. Yet.”

“Yes, yes…”

Lucrezia repeated the business of opening the portal. This time, when the doorway formed, it displayed multiple images of different locations. Only one was the location she needed; the rest were various parts of the desert that served no strategic purpose and should have been removed from the portal’s memory. Well, one location had served a purpose: it was sheer luck that Agatha had stumbled right near an old entry point, allowing Matilda’s favorite giant spider to pop out and grab her before returning to the palace.

Lucrezia selected Agatha’s lab; the other locations were pushed aside. After a brief lookaround, she stepped through, still towing the servant behind her. The servant resisted slightly and looked to her Queen with plaintive eyes. “Your Majesty…?”

Matilda smiled and patted her arm. “You’ll be fine, dear,” she said with uncharacteristic gentleness. “Just do whatever she tells you, exactly as she tells you. In that way, you’re serving me, and thus Australia itself. You’ll be a hero of your people!”

Yes, your Majesty,” she whispered. “But-“

“Will you get in here?” said Lucrezia, yanking the woman all the way through. She and Matilda traded nods before Lucrezia closed the portal from her end.

****

She let go of the servant’s arm and deactivated her device that had been dampening the Heterodyne shields. Her talkbox had been left behind and was booping like crazy. And someone was pounding on the door. Lucrezia threw up her arms in frustration before pointing  at the servant.

You; find a hiding spot in here and do not let anyone see you!” While the servant did her best to acquiesce, Lucrezia unlocked the door and opened it a peek.

That Zeetha woman was right there and trying to push the door open. “Agatha! Thank the goddess! I heard that our shields are down? What happened?”

“They aren’t anymore,” said Lucrezia, struggling to keep the door where it was. “Needed some SCIENCE, you know. Look, I appreciate your concern, but it’s still rather busy in here. They’re back up, but need some finessing.”

“Let me help, then!” said Zeetha, still tugging. “Agatha? I can help!”

“Sorry, can’t!” said Lucrezia. “As I said, it’s SCIENCE, and you don’t know… Science. Oh, and that’s likely Gil and Tarvek trying to contact me. The talkbox is booping. I really have to go.”

“Agatha-!”

Lucrezia said, “Inform the crew and the Jägergenerals and whoever else needs to be informed that our shields are back up. Got that? Please return to your post. That goes for anyone else out there. Thank you. See you soon.” Zeetha, her face frozen in intense confusion, had finally released the door, allowing Lucrezia to quickly shut it and then lock it. Now it was the boys’ turn. She raced over, put on her friendliest face, and switched on the talkbox. Both Gil’s and Tarvek’s countenances appeared as a split screen. They spoke simultaneously.

“Agatha?!”

“Boys!” she said, still smiling. “Everything’s FineJustHadASlightMalfuction We’reAllFineHereNow.”

“What happened?”

“Uhhh…” she said, looking about to make sure that the servant woman was still out of sight. ”Some miscalculations. Look, I need to speak in person to… well, either one of you. I’ll come to your ship. Compare some notes so this doesn’t happen again. Who’s game?”

“I…” said Gil, “Suppose that would be me?”

“Excellent!” she said. “I’ll be right over!” She switched off the talkbox and busied herself searching the worktables for suitable parts.

The servant woman emerged from her hiding place and fidgeted nervously. Lucrezia ignored her, so she cleared her throat as quietly as possible. “Er… Ma’am? M-may I ask what-?”

“’Your Majesty,’” Lucrezia corrected the woman. “Or rather, ‘Your Imperial Majesty.’ For once I’d like to hear the proper title.”

“S-sorry, Your Imperial Majesty,” said the woman. “I just wanted to know, do you need me to… do anything? Queen Matilda said-“

“Yes,” said Lucrezia looking up from her work. She pointed to a semi-uncluttered part of the room and modulated her voice just so. “Stand there, don’t touch anything, and be quiet until I call you.”

The woman did as she was told, and for once, was quiet about it. Lucrezia returned to her work. It occurred to her that she might have been too hasty in dismissing that little Jäger-clank. After all, the Spark who made it was just barely five, so it might be useful to study. But a cursory scan of the room came up empty, so she quickly finished her new device and set it up in the center of the room. Time to visit Herr Wulfenbach now. She hurried to the exit and checked both corridor directions. To her relief, her orders had been obeyed; the corridor was clear.

Before stepping out, she kicked in her Voice again to make extra certain. “Remember: stay right where you are, don’t let anyone else in, don’t speak, don’t touch anything, and I’ll… be back soon. Ta!”

“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty,” was the flat reply. Lucrezia secured the door, then made her way to the Wulfenbach flagship.

************
“What happened?” Gil asked as soon as Lucrezia strode into his own briefing room.

“Thank you, I’m fine,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “Sorry. I’m glad there were no injuries.”

“Forgiven,” she said with a smirk. “If you must know, Mara’s math was wrong. Fortunately I corrected her mistake before disaster struck. But it would help to compare your shield’s parameters with ours?”

Gil was unexpectedly quiet. Then: “Yes,” he said. “I’ll arrange for you to get copies. Now, I’m glad you came. I have questions for you.”

That earned him a tilt of the head and an arch of the eyebrow. Then she smiled and chuckled. “Oh, good. We can trade them.”

Gil was unmoved. “I sent Bohrlaikha specifically to retrieve Dupree. Alive or dead, preferably the former. You ordered the pursuit off, right when she was in an even better position to catch her. WHY.”

Lucrezia’s smile faded, then was restored. “Gil, you really must give up your hobby of dead horse beating. You’re still miffed about that?”

“’Miffed?’”

“I told you,” she said. ”I made the call to protect the fleet. The entire fleet. And I’d do it again. Why such a fuss over the woman?”

He shot her a glare. A hard one. “Did you really just ask that question?”

“What I meant was,” she said, placing a gentle palm on his chest, “Was, that we must remain focused on what’s important, and not chase after every rabbit we see. Yes, I think we needed everyone. If you still disagree, well… next time you do what you think you must. I won’t thwart you.”

Gil was silent. His features softened, just a little. Lucrezia had not moved her hand from his chest. She felt some of his tension releasing, so she kept on. “Speaking of what’s important, Gil, I—“ She stopped abruptly, then turned away. “When I was away… captive… I had time for some reflecton. ‘Life flashing before my eyes’ moments and such. I was confident that I’d escape, of course, but realized that, after I did, I should make right where I knew that I’d been wrong. Gil, I’ve been wrong about you.”

“…In what way?” he said, arching an eyebrow.

She turned back to face him and smiled demurely. “Refusing to marry either of you. Or as Zeetha put it, ‘breaking up with you.’ I wasn’t thinking clearly. I thought I was. But really, I wasn’t. I realize now that it’s ridiculous to think that… that we – we three – are the power of New Europa, and we’re still unpaired. What are we thinking, Gil? What are we doing?”

“Both good questions,” he said.

“We should be making wedding plans,” she said. “We should be… decorating a nursery and constructing a nanny and little iron cages!” She placed her palm on his chest again. “Oh, Gil; I may be smarter than you, but can be so very, very foolish! Can you forgive me?”

“Agatha, I…” he said softly. Almost like a breath. He paused, then wrapped his hand gently around hers. “I’ve loved you since I first laid eyes on you, on Castle Wulfenbach.”

“I know…”

He chuckled, then gently touched his forehead to hers. “I asked you to marry me on the spot. The impulsive actions of a boy, but then, I’ve never rescinded it.”

“I know,” she said, and clasped her hands around his face. “And I finally accept it. I accept it. Yes, Gil. Yes! I will marry you.”

His face lit up the room. “Oh, my-!” Just as suddenly, he furrowed his brow. “But what about Tarvek?”

“Oh,” she said, “Him? That is, I meant…” She paused, then stroked his chin. “Well,” she said with a tiny shrug and a coy tilt of the head, “You did ask first.”

“Oh, Agatha,” he moaned, and pulled her into a tight embrace. Their lips met. Lucrezia forced hers to stay relaxed and not curled into a satisfied grin.

POUND POUND POUND POUND

She opened her eyes, but did not pull away from him. She hoped in silence that it was the news she was expecting. Gil ignored the noise and held her even tighter.

POUND POUND POUND POUND

It was his ship and his crew; he could do the answering. On the other hand, the show must go on.

POUND POUND POUND POU-

He had disengaged from Lucrezia, spun on his heels, and yanked the door open so quickly that the Lieutenant on the other side stumbled forward, his hand still moving in a brief bout of “air-knocking.”

“WHAT!” Gil shouted. “Unless the entire ship is on fire, you’d better-!“

“B-b-but it is!” squeaked the flustered officer. “Herr Wulfenbach, look!”

Gil and Lucrezia followed him to a side viewport. Others that had crowded around parted to make way for their leader. Gil’s eyes went wide. Lucrezia gasped, then covered her mouth. Smoke was pouring from the Heterodyne flagship. Gil demanded reports, which the crew scrambled to untangle from the myriad of voices pouring in. That, and the Jägergenerals still had the bad habit of screaming into their talkboxes.

“I need to go,” said Lucrezia, pulling away from the crowd.

Gil stopped with a hand on her arm. “Wait! You don’t know if the ship is stable!”

“My people are over there!”

“Herr Wulfenbach!” said another airman. “They’re saying that it’s the laboratory! There was an explosion, and now a fire!”

“Oh, dear Lord,” said Lucrezia. “Mara was in the lab! I have to go! Now!”

“Not without me!”

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

The Fire crew had only just gotten the blaze under control, and much of the smoke cleared, when Lucrezia and Gil arrived. Generals Zog and Khirzhan were here, that Zeetha woman, and her man Higgs. Lucrezia made a point of shouting Mara’s name often, in as much anguish as she could muster. Gil tried to hold her back, but she wrenched free and stood in the doorway, only to stare in shock at the devastation. Her incendiary device had packed more punch than she’d expected, but so much the better. Never mind the Princess’ stand-in; there was hardly anything identifiable of the lab itself. She realized that the large smears and splotches around the wall were as much of the servant woman that anyone would be able to find.

“Mara…” she said, turning on tears. One of her many talents.

“Mistress,” said Zog, “Ve dun know vat happened! Ve vas on de bridge, und den dis happened!”

“Ahhh, no. Prinzess,” Khirzhan said as softly as a centuries-old ogre could. “Ve gon miss hyu.” Zog removed his hat; both Generals bowed their heads in respect.

Lucrezia escalated her tears into loud sobbing, and buried her face into Gil’s chest. He obliged by wrapping her in his arms. “I told her to stay in the lab until everything was fixed. To keep working, to… to…” He patted her back as her voice disappeared into sobs.

The scene was soon joined by others: Heather and Seamus, who had shed their armor, and Tarvek. The last couldn’t help a quick glance at Gil and Agatha as he neared. Gil knew that a glance was all he needed to fully assess any situation. Gil responded first to the growing crowd.

“There are too many people here,” he said. “We can’t have– Just stay back and let the fire team finish.”

“Finish what?” said Heather. “Was this the lab? What’s happened here?” Rather than push past Gil, she tried to call around him. “Mara! Mara!”

Lucrezia was right in her face. “She’s dead!” she spat. “Your Princess is dead! My Techmistress, my… friend.”

Heather’s face was contorted by genuine grief. Very real tears filled her eyes. She shook her head. “No… No, no, no, no, NOOOOOOOOO-!” Now she tried to push past Gil, who blocked her path. It only caused more tears and more grappling. Her eyes burned with rage… at Lucrezia. “What did you do? What did you do??

Lucrezia pointed at Seamus. “Get her out of here! Remove her!”

“NNOO-OH-OHHH!“ she wept. “I have to see her! Mara!” The Captain peeled her away from Herr Wulfenbach and had to all but drag her down the corridor. Her cries echoed all the way.

Lucrezia wiped at her crocodile tears and stepped carefully inside the lab. That tracking device the Princess had made was as shattered as everything else here. Excellent. She felt somebody’s hand on her shoulder. That Zeetha woman’s.

“Agatha…?”

Lucrezia spun around and returned to the corridor. “We have no time for grief,” she said. “I’ve lost my… right hand, and everything we’d been working on. Gil. Tarvek. Will you help me replenish my tech?”

They both nodded and offered their respective Techmasters’ help, their plans, their designs. Their weapons.

“Thank goodness my shields are still up,” she continued. “That they’re in another room!”

“Agatha,” sad Tarvek, “We’re so sorry for your loss. We’ll help you investigate-“

“No,” she said quickly. “We’ve no time for that. If Matilda has noticed the damage, she might strike. I’ll have some people gather her remains quickly and lay them to rest here.”

“Ve vill do dis,” offered Zog. Khirzhan nodded. “In dot vay ve vill serve de Prinzess vun last time.”

“No,” Lucrezia snapped. (Not with those noses, they weren’t!) “The Jägers are needed on the battlefield, not cleanup duty.”

“But-“

“That’s enough, General,” she said sternly, then made her expression soften. “But thank you for the offer. She would have appreciated it.”

“Agatha,” said Gil. He put an arm around her to lead her from the room. “You should rest. And consider leaving her remains with me? I can’t do much now, but on Castle Wulfenbach… Well, you’ve seen what can be done in my labs.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I will consider it. It’s when we get home to New Europa that you mean, yes?””

Gil nodded. “In the meantime, we’ll set you up in one of our labs. Our Techmasters are at your disposal.”

A loud sigh was heard from behind them all. “People here keep forgetting that I’m a Spark, too,” said Othar. Gil and Tarvek stiffened. Gil set his jaw and closed his eyes, but did not turn to face the Gentleman Adventurer. He stepped around those in his way to stand by Lucrezia. “Oh, my trusty sidekick, it pains me to have to come to your rescue under these circumstances, but I offer you my services as your Techmaster. Just point me at the enemy, and I’ll see justice done to them! I really liked that Princess, too. Especially when she wasn’t doing any Sparking. Posed for pictures with the tourists, was great with kids. I’ve got a signed picture with her, you know! It’s framed and on a shelf in my den. Such a nice lady.”

A dead silence filled the area, other than the quiet hum of their engines. Lucrezia spoke through gritted teeth. “What a generous offer, sir,” she said with no intonation.

“Of course it is! When do I start?”

“Perhaps he could clean up,” offered Tarvek.

“Not funny, Tarvek,” said Lucrezia. “In fact, I-I can’t be here anymore. This is too upsetting.” She addressed a fire crew member. ”Seal the area tight until further notice.” She noticed Tarvek at the door, leaning in to take a look around. “Tarvek? Please. We need to move on. We have work to do.”

“Yes, you’re right,” he said, turning away from the door. Years of practice allowed him to find, fetch, and pocket a fragment of bone and flesh without anyone noticing. Except perhaps Zeetha, who gave him a sidelong glance as he coughed to distract from his sleight of hand. He shut the door behind himself and followed the others through the corridor. Even Othar had a certain solemnity to him, or as much as he could muster.

********

The somber procession rounded a corner and continued on in silence. Lucrezia and Gil led the way, followed by the Generals, Othar, Tarvek, Zeetha, and Higgs. A correction: Tarvek slowed enough for the last two to move ahead of him. Higgs paused; Tarvek shook his head quickly and waved them to continue. Zeetha did not pause, but locked arms with Higgs to both pull him along and to provide a tiny bit of cover. When the procession reached Mara’s old quarters, and then passed it, Tarvek stood by and waited, then turned the doorknob slowly.

After a second of that, the door was flung open by Heather, whose face flashed anger before recognizing him. Her eyes were red and swollen. He quickly put a finger to his mouth, then glanced down the corridor.

Your Majesty?” she whispered. Even at such a low volume, there was a quivering to it.

He pushed past her and held up both hands in a calming gesture. “I don’t have much time,” he whispered. “I need something of the Princess’s. Something from her body.”

What??”

Sorry,” he whispered. “I meant something such as hair from her brush, or, uh, nail clippings? Do you understand now?”

Yes, but why…?” She clasped her hands together. For the first time, her face lit up with hope. “Are you going to use SCIENCE to test something?” She gripped his arm. Are you going to bring her back??”

Miss Heather,” he said, peeling her fingers from his arm. “I don’t know. It’s a hunch that I have. You must understand that this could come to nothing. Please; every second counts!”

Yes, yes, you’re right,” she said, and knew exactly where to find Her Lady’s most personal of effects. She held up Mara’s brush. “No one but her has used this. I swear! Please take it!”

He whispered his thanks, then quickly tucked the brush into another pocket. It was hardly ideal, having no pristine containers for these specimens, but time was wasting. “And Miss Heather; it’s very important that you say nothing about this. Not even to Her Ladyship Most High.”

Your Majesty,” she said, “I have nothing to say to that-! Well. This is our secret.”

He turned to leave, but she snatched up his closest hand and kissed it reverently. “Thank you,” she said.

From another part of the ship, someone was calling Tarvek’s name impatiently. He quickly, but gently, pulled his hand away, patted her shoulder, then made haste to rejoin the others.

“-did he go?” Lucrezia was asking.

Zeetha and Higgs looked behind themselves, then shrugged. “I thought he was right behind us. Higgs, did you-?”

A very familiar noise came from a room just around the corner. Tarvek appeared, heralded by the flushing of a commode, and was tugging up his trousers in a most unkingly manner. He flashed an embarrassed smile. “I guess people didn’t hear me say where I was going?”

Lucrezia gave him a look that suggested that too much information had been conveyed. “Tarvek, shall we convene on your ship? We three and the Techmasters?”

“Speaking of which,” said Gil. He gestured towards Othar. “Agatha, are you seriously-?“

Othar grabbed Gil’s hand and pumped it enthusiastically in a handshake. “Glad to be onboard, my boy! Now we’ll get things done around here!”

“And you think we haven’t been??”

“Gil,” Lucrezia said softly. She let her palm rest on his chest, then slid it gently down as she spoke. Neither action escaped Tarvek’s notice. “It’s all right. I’m willing to see what he can do.”

********

In the Sturmvoraus war room, Lucrezia fielded the condolences of the boys’ Techmasters, including {{sigh}} Othar, before insisting that they all resume their business. Zeetha and Higgs were ordered to join the ground forces, which neither of them objected to. Tarvek could not say, but hoped they would get the chance to compare notes with Gkika. There had also been some debate whether to inform all of the Jägerkin of the Princess’ demise. Lucrezia had ordered it, but the rest argued that it would bring down morale. Her counterargument was that the sooner they knew, the sooner they could recover. Besides: their Mistress was alive and well. That should be enough. The Jagergenerals resigned themselves to carrying out her orders.

The New Europan ground forces were successfully keeping the Dinnunder forces at bay and away from the Drill Team. Their drilling progress was slower than expected, though, and the foul weather was not helping much. It was after that discussion that Professor Óriásifej announced that his weather machine was finally ready to take on Queen Matilda’s – assuming that her Sparks were the cause of the fierce storm. He contacted his minion, who had the machine aimed through an open viewport.  It was switched on, and within minutes, the skies had cleared so well that the stars shined as if part of a painting. Congratulations were conveyed all around. Tarvek offered to fetch ‘Agatha’ some notes and other useful items from his office.

As he left the war room, Gil made an excuse to leave, as well. Lucrezia surreptitiously watched as Gil took the same path as Tarvek. She excused herself for a visit to her ‘other office’ for an ‘urgent matter.’

Tarvek had just entered his office, followed by Gil. The door was left ajar. Lucrezia found a nook to settle in to and listen. She had to strain a bit, but could make out their words well enough.

“Something you need, Gil?” said Tarvek.

“Yes,” he said. “I think you can tell what’s going on.”

“Do I?” said Tarvek with a distracted tone. Lucrezia could not see into the room, and could not see Gil quietly take a paper scrap and begin writing. “What is it that you think I know?”

“Agatha came to me tonight,” said Gil. “She realized that her decision to stay away from both of us, was wrong.” He held up the paper.

ISN’T HER.

Tarvek found his own pages and followed suit. “I see,” he said. “Yes, I have noticed an increase in-“

SUSPECT SAME. EVIDENCE?

“-Affection between you two,” he finished. “And since you’re being honest with me, I’ll be honest with you, too.”

BEHAVING ALL WRONG. KISSED HER. ISN’T HER.

“She made the ‘wrong’ decision, all right,” said Tarvek.”Turning us both away was one, but choosing you? Even worse.”

LISTENING?

“Don’t be such a boy, Sturmvoraus,” said Gil. “Just accept her decision. You’ll live longer that way.”

HOPE SO. WAS FOLLOWING YOU.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Tarvek. “Is that a threat?”

CONTROLLED BY MATILDA?

“It isn’t if you act carefully,” said Gil. “She’s accepted my proposal, so yes-“

OR LUCREZIA??

“-that can create an imbalance in our alliance,” Gil continued, “But it doesn’t have to lead to any unpleasantries.”

BUT HER LOCKET?

“If you’re insinuating that I should knuckle under to your combined power,” said Tarvek, “Then you are seriously underestimating me. Both of you.”

DAMAGED? DISABLED? JUST DOESN’T WORK?

Tarvek continued, “I’ve said it before: your father was an illegitimate usurper, and you’ve inherited an illegitimate empire. Now if you’ll excuse me-“

LU  IS  WORSTCASE! BUT SHOULD PROCEED AS IF TRUE.

Gil huffed, “You can’t just blurt something like that and expect me to leave it there!”

DON’T SHOW OUR HAND UNLESS HAVE TO.

“You’re going to have to,” said Tarvek. “We’re here to defeat an enemy that’s threatening all of our lands, not just your father’s ill-gotten ones. I’m willing to absorb your implied threat to get this job done. Are you?”

IF EVER. LONGER SHE’S HERE, GREATER THE RISK.

“Fine,” spat Gil. “But with changes. First, you step down as the ‘brain’ of this effort. Agatha and I will assume that role.”

CAN LEARN MORE ABOUT MATILDA.

“Oh, so the knuckling under begins now, in other words?”

FEED HER BAD INTEL? BAD TECH?

“We all want the same thing: victory!” said Gil. “And it will happen, just with a slight change in management.”

SHE’S NO FOOL. HAS TO BE BELIEVABLE LIES.

AGREED.

Tarvek was quiet, save for the shuffling of his notes and papers. “We’ll have victory,” he said in a low tone. “But this is not over. When we return to New Europa-“

SO – HOW WAS THE KISS?

“We deal with it then,” said Gil. “That will give you time to think very carefully about your next move. And don’t think we won’t be doing the same. By the way; I look forward to your attendance at the wedding.”

EVIL OOZING DOWN MY THROAT. ALMOST GAGGED.

Tarvek next spoke in a growl. “Get wound, Wulfenbach.”

Gil slammed his hands on the table and leaned in. He scoffed. “You don’t even have your own insults for me.”

“Then how’s this?” said Tarvek. “Watch your back. You know that my family is very good at targeting them.”

“And mine is very good at moving the targets.”

The two men leaned in close and glared at each other long and hard. Gil was the one who finally broke into a smirk and held out his hand. Tarvek glanced at it, then straightened up and accepted the handshake. He heard the faintest of creaks from somewhere in the corridor, and the softest of footsteps moving away. Even so, he wrote one more note for Gil.

GOT SAMPLES FROM MARA. CAN YOU CHECK THEM?

Tarvek pulled out “Mara’s” tissues collected from the lab, and her real hairbrush. He pointed to the tissues and shrugged, then to the brush and nodded. Gil nodded back and pocketed all items.

DO MY BEST.

–To be continued

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