don’t wanna be broke
1. let blackheart be blackheart
Running a country didn’t seem to be as hard as Ambrosius expected.
Not that he’d ever say so out loud. Certainly not in Ballister’s hearing, since that would just be an invitation to scorn and eye-rolling and a long lecture. But given that his previous understanding had been formed by the lines etched into the old king’s face and the Director’s grim insistence on working herself half to death, he’d expected to be more exhausted.
Ballister would say that this was because they were implementing a system of government that, through the use of proper checks and balances, ensured that no single party bore disproportionate responsibility or exerted disproportionate influence. Ballister had also been filling notebooks with draft constitutions since he was about twelve. Ambrosius had a simpler explanation.
The old king had been preoccupied with expanding his territory, keeping his vaults full, ensuring that the populace didn’t know enough to get angry or have any real say. The Director had been obsessed with having the biggest and best weapons, with making the kingdom and the Institute unassailable from within and without. Ambrosius and Ballister, on the other hand, were happy if everything ran more or less the way it was supposed to and no one starved or rioted. This was a much lower bar to clear.
Probably things would be more complicated once they actually had an election. Or if the monster came back.
But it had been the better part of a year, and they had rebuilt most of the city. Ballister had waged a one-man crusade, valiantly championing new ideas like ‘democracy’ and ‘consent of the governed’ before the populace. Since he did this in his spare time, when he wasn’t directing construction crews or dropping off another heap of robot limbs at the hospital, it had gone over pretty well.
Ambrosius had still been recuperating for the first few months of it. To start with, his contribution had consisted mostly of visiting with kids who were at the hospital to pick up their new robot limbs, and saying “I think it’s a wonderful idea” when reporters asked him what he thought of Lord Blackheart’s latest proposal.
Sometimes he didn’t think it was a wonderful idea, but that was all right. He had missed arguing with Ballister, very much, so it wasn’t any hardship really. Sparring with Ballister was fun, and always had been, whether it was with swords on the training ground or words over the dinner table. They dueled the same way: Ambrosius was more nimble, quicker on his feet, but Ballister could always find a path to victory and pursue it with single-minded purpose.
“Do we actually need a parliament?” Ambrosius asked. Ballister had come home grumbling with a stack of notes that could have doubled as a doorstop.
“Yes,” said Ballister, glaring.
“Yes, okay, but-- do we?” said Ambrosius.
“Yes!” said Ballister, glaring harder. “Autocracy clearly was not working. Unless you’d like me to appoint myself dictator for life--”
“I’m pretty sure you’re the one who said that would be a terrible idea,” said Ambrosius.
“It would be! So we need more people to make decisions. Thus, a parliament.”
“Or we could just use the neighborhood councils that everyone put together to manage rebuilding,” Ambrosius said. “Just ask each one to pick someone to send over when we need to make a big decision.”
“That’s basically the same thing,” said Ballister.
“Yes, but simpler and faster and less confusing because it’s what we’re already doing,” said Ambrosius. “I know complicated bylaws get you hot under the collar, but you are, to be fair, a huge nerd.”
“I am not--” Ballister started to say.
So Ambrosius disarmed him. “Motion to table this until tomorrow,” he said, and took Ballister’s hand, pulling him away from his notes. He leaned a little bit forward. He hadn’t gone out that day, so only about four of his shirt buttons were buttoned.
Ballister went silent. His eyes narrowed. He turned his hand over, palm up, and tugged Ambrosius back towards him. “Seconded,” he said, and kissed him.
2. once upon a dream
Ballister kept expecting to wake up.
It turned out that all you had to do to counteract years of propaganda about what an evil villain you were was show up every day and do things that demonstrably helped someone. Or possibly the Institute had never actually been all that good at propaganda. Either way, no one seemed to hold his years of villainy against him.
They were rebuilding the city at a pretty good clip, and people seemed to believe him when he said he didn’t want to seize power once they were done. If they ever managed to hold an election, it seemed likely that he would win it. Not that he wanted to be in charge forever: he invented term limits for a reason. Ambrosius had laughed at him for that, but his laughter didn’t sting the way it used to. Quite the opposite.
Sometimes he wondered if maybe the Institute had invented some kind of virtual reality prison to keep him in. Something that showed him a world where everything worked out the way he wanted, so he’d never want to escape. It seemed like the sort of thing the Director would have liked. A fake world, where he could rebuild the country all day and fall asleep in Ambrosius’ arms every night.
But he thought a real fake world would have a fake Nimona for him to reconcile with. And there wasn’t one. So probably this was real life.
There had been reports, a month or so ago, of a neighboring kingdom massing troops on their border, which had turned into reports of a neighboring kingdom having all their military supplies and weapons mysteriously trampled by wild beasts in the night. No one was killed or even very badly hurt. That was a good sign. Ballister was pretty sure of it.
They’d talked a lot, him and Ambrosius. They didn’t want to repeat their old mistakes. They didn’t want old resentments to come between them. They were trying to change for the better. Nimona was one of the few things they hadn’t really talked about.
Ballister liked this new Ambrosius. Maybe even better than the old one, from before the tournament, who’d been polished to a high shine in his memory. The new Ambrosius worried a lot less about how things looked and a lot more about what they actually did. He was better at listening, and better at saying what he meant. He was quieter, and more thoughtful.
He still had blind spots, though: things he was stubborn and stupid about, things he didn’t want to hear. When he talked about Nimona, which wasn’t often, he called her ‘your old sidekick’ or ‘your shapeshifter friend.’ He didn’t call her ‘monster,’ because he knew it would upset Ballister, but he never used her name, either.
He’d take it, for now. Ballister was learning how to do things incrementally, one small slow piece at a time, and he was a lot more patient than he’d been as a younger man. He would wear Ambrosius down by the time Nimona came back. If she ever did.
Anyway, he was busy. He was good at planning, and good at executing his own plans, but he’d never really had to manage people before. Ambrosius was a little better at that part, but he wasn’t used to justifying the orders he was giving. The Institute hadn’t exactly encouraged its people to question their superiors. And Doctor Blitzmeyer, while brilliant, had a habit of solving two-thirds of the problems Ballister gave her before she got distracted by a new idea and went off to solve two-thirds of that instead.
Generally Ballister could work out the last third for himself, when he had to. And she really was brilliant. The self-driving streetcar network wouldn’t even be past the planning phase without her. Half the city would still be quarantined and empty, if not for the jaderoot remediation protocol she’d developed when he asked for faster-setting concrete.
That didn’t mean he thought all her ideas were good ones, though.
“You want to go to the Unmapped Forest,” he said. “Alone. For a long weekend.”
“Yuh-huh,” said Doctor Blitzmeyer, absently, all her attention on the very tiny screwdriver she was using on a very tiny screw.
Ballister didn’t pinch the bridge of his nose and sigh, but only because it seemed like the kind of thing the Director would have done. “Dare I ask why?”
“Research,” said Doctor Blitzmeyer. She finished with the tiny screwdriver, looked up, and noticed, finally, that he didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the idea. “Oh, wait, are you worried about the-- y’know, that whole thing with the--”
She snapped her fingers, looking for a word.
“The very rare reports from the very few survivors of expeditions into the Forest?” Ballister said. “All of which are just maddened nonsense about indescribable horrors?”
“Yep, that,” said Doctor Blitzmeyer. “Oh, c’mon! It’s all exaggerated. I’ve been there before and I was fine!”
Ballister sighed, but he still didn’t pinch the bridge of his nose. “If you die I will be very annoyed,” he said.
“That’s sweet of you,” said Doctor Blitzmeyer. She put her goggles back on. “You may want to back up a little. This next part involves fire.”
3. I have no fear nor no one should
The town closest to the Unnamed Forest was small and crappy and kind of a bummer. It reminded her of home, a little. Nimona avoided it as much as she could.
But sometimes she needed things that didn’t grow on trees, or just wanted them. So Nimona would turn into the boringest, least-memorable human shape she could think of, and go get whatever she had to get as fast as possible, wishing she was somewhere else the whole time.
Nimona filled up her pack with apples and hard cheese and some instant oatmeal and beef jerky. She jammed in a few books and, after wavering for a minute, added a rolled-up newspaper on top. Ballister was on the front page again. He looked good. Happy. Kind of tired. Not that she thought about him much, or wondered if his jerk boyfriend was still being a jerk.
She didn’t like the town, and she didn’t like its people, but Nimona did like pizza. So she had gotten into the habit of stopping for a hot meal before she headed back out into the Forest.
That was probably her first mistake.
Her second was staying put at her table when someone familiar-looking walked in. Her third was eavesdropping on the woman’s conversation.
“It’s really not that bad,” the woman insisted again. She had goggle marks on her forehead, and she talked with her hands without putting down her pizza. “I spent quite a bit of time in the Forest, before I went over the mountains. There’s a lot of very interesting phenomena, and most of them don’t even try to kill you very hard!”
Nimona remembered her: the woman from the Science Expo, who kept her from changing shape. Doctor Blitzmeyer. Ballister had used her machine to hurt Nimona.
Thinking about it made her stomach hurt. Not enough to leave the pizza, obviously, but more than Nimona liked. She shoved the last few bites in her mouth, and left.
As soon she was out of sight, she changed into a tall fierce-looking woman with her hair braided up in a crown. She didn’t want to be recognized, and changing her shape was, well, kind of comforting, sometimes. Just the act of it: knowing that no matter what happened, she could become something new, and start over.
Nimona went back to the Forest. She’d be safe there. People were afraid of it, because it was full of monsters.
Except apparently, today it was full of monsters and also a very annoying scientist.
Nimona was only a few miles from town when she heard, one right after the other, a blood-curdling screech, a series of loud bangs, and a woman yelling “Hey! Hey! Don’t touch that! Seriously, you’re going to impede the future of scientific progress! Hey, come on!”
Nimona stopped walking. She stood there for a minute, thinking. She hitched her pack back into place, and got ready to keep walking in the direction she’d been going, away from all the noise.
There was another loud bang, and a fwoooooooosh sort of a sound, and then the woman yelled “Oh no, not the liquid nitrogen!”
Nimona started walking towards all the noise.
The clearing was only a little bit on fire when she got there, so it could have been worse. Doctor Blitzmeyer had a fire extinguisher out already and everything. The bits of the clearing that weren’t smoldering were coated with a thick layer of frost, and there was fog rolling around on the ground and smoke wafting up through the trees.
Oh, and there was a dragon. A smallish one, only the size of a couple of horses, perched up in one of the trees and hissing at Doctor Blitzmeyer. As Nimona watched, the dragon flexed her talons on the branch, gouging out thumb-sized chunks of wood. She was getting ready to swoop down into the clearing, seize Doctor Blitzmeyer in her claws, and carry her off somewhere. Probably to eat her, or at least maim her a bunch.
Nimona stepped out into the clearing, and hollered. “Hey, Monty!”
The dragon froze. Doctor Blitzmeyer did too, but she didn’t let go of the fire extinguisher, so it kept going.
“Monty, I thought you weren’t going to come out this way anymore,” said Nimona. “We’re only a couple of miles from the humans.”
The dragon mantled her wings, and even managed to look a little sheepish. “Got bored,” she said. “And hungry. And this stuff’s all shiny, and it smells interesting.”
Nimona sighed. “Go home, Monty,” she said. “I’ll make it worth your while, even.” She took out some of her jerky, and held it up for Monty to see. “Here, catch!”
She threw it straight up in the air as far as she could, which meant it cleared the treetops. Monty let out a whoop and launched herself after it, roaring a thank-you as she went.
Nimona watched her go, and then realized the fire extinguisher had shut off.
“My goodness!” said Doctor Blitzmeyer. “That was very kind of you. That dragon could have damaged some very sensitive equipment!”
Nimona stared at her. Doctor Blitzmeyer didn’t seem to notice that she had nearly been eaten and one of her boots was still smoking a little. “You should leave.”
“Oh, no, I can’t leave,” said Doctor Blitzmeyer. “I’ve got too much to do, and not a lot of time to do it. It’s nice to see I’m not the only human who isn’t afraid of the Forest, though.”
“Who said I’m human?” Nimona asked. She grinned a little too wide and let her teeth get a little too long.
Doctor Blitzmeyer barely blinked. “Sorry, didn’t mean to assume. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in helping to advance the cause of scientific understanding, would you?”
Nimona didn’t say what she really wanted to say, which was “I’ve already done plenty of that.”
Instead she said “You should leave me alone.” She turned on her heel and stomped off into the forest. As soon as she was out of sight, she became a dragon, bigger and meaner than Monty, and clawed herself up into the sky and away.
Nimona hoped that would be the last of it, but of course it wasn’t. Doctor Blitzmeyer kept turning up, miraculously still alive, all over the Forest. One day she was in the river, wearing hip waders and earplugs so she could study the sirens’ tattoos. Then she followed the witchlights almost all the way to the cave full of flesh-eating fungus, and would have probably been fungus lunch if Nimona hadn’t caused a rockslide. Next, the harpies had to find Nimona to get the crazy human unstuck from a tree. When Nimona went to check on Monty, she found that Doctor Blitzmeyer had beaten her there, and recruited Monty to take aerial photos of the Forest. She was even at the dryad council meeting, taking notes. Nimona wasn’t even supposed to be at the dryad council meeting.
“Oh! Hello again,” said Doctor Blitzmeyer when she saw Nimona. “We do keep running into each other, don’t we?”
“I told you to leave me alone,” Nimona growled.
“You don’t seem like a very solitary person,” said Doctor Blitzmeyer. “Is it just me you don’t like?”
To be fair, Nimona had little baby dryads hanging off both her arms and another one riding on her shoulders, giggling.
Nimona didn’t really want to be fair. “Yeah, it is,” she said, and made herself a little taller, which unfortunately made the baby dryads cheer and demand helicopter rides. “So back off.”
“I have to head back tomorrow anyway,” Doctor Blitzmeyer said. “So don’t worry. Can I tell Lord Blackheart I saw you? He’s been worrying.”
Nimona had never told Doctor Blitzmeyer her name, or worn any shapes she’d worn back in the city. She hadn’t worn the same shape twice at all, any of the times they’d met, and she’d still been recognized. It made her feel cold all over, realizing that.
She shrank without meaning to, to the disappointment of the dryads. As soon as Nimona set them on the ground, she backed away. “Leave me alone!” she yelled, louder than she should have. Some of the grown-up dryads turned towards them.
Nimona turned and ran, deeper into the forest.
A few weeks later Monty brought her a letter, only a little bit singed. Nimona gave her some jerky as a thank-you, and didn’t read it for another week. She thought very seriously about ripping it to shreds or trading it to the gnome hoarder who lived under the next hill.
Eventually, she opened it.
Dear Nimona, it said. I’m sorry to have frightened you; that wasn’t my intention. It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to leave the city for another research trip any time soon, so you won’t see me again for at least a year.
I know you don’t know me very well, or have much of a reason to trust me. But I promise you, I don’t mean you any harm and I won’t mention our meeting to anyone without your permission. I’m glad to know that you’re safe and well. Everyone I met in the Forest spoke well of you, and of course I’ve heard many stories from Lord Blackheart. I think he still feels a great deal of guilt for hurting you.
The dryads have expressed an interest in corresponding with me, which would be a wonderful scientific and anthropological opportunity. If it isn’t too much trouble, would you be willing to carry their messages, the next time you go to town? I can arrange for you to leave letters at one of the shops there, and pick up any arriving mail.
If you would like to, you could write to me, or Lord Blackheart. Don’t feel obligated, of course.
Nimona scowled at the letter, and crumpled it into a ball. She should have gnomed it. Doctor Blitzmeyer didn’t know what she was talking about, anyway. Even here in the Forest, Nimona only fit in so far. The other monsters liked her, but they didn’t know she was something worse than all of them put together. Ballister hadn’t cared about her, not really. Not once he knew what she was. Maybe he could convince himself otherwise, but she knew better.
But. But she had liked Ballister, for a while. She missed him sometimes, a little. She wondered if his jerk boyfriend was being nice to him. He had tried to be her friend, even if he’d failed.
Nimona had liked pretending to be his sidekick. She had gotten pretty good at being his friend, good enough that it hadn’t always felt like pretending. She didn’t like being alone. She missed pizza.
Nimona uncrumpled the letter, and smoothed it out enough to write on the back. She picked up a dry twig and set it on fire long enough to char the end, and turned her nails into claws sharp enough to whittle kind of a crappy pencil.
Hey, Boss, Nimona wrote. How’ve you been?