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Good Old Heterodyne Problem-Solving

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There’s no one solid point of divergence.

-

“The royal family was so taken with the young lady who played Lucrezia–” the man says, “–that they have requested her presence at the palace for supper. A coach is waiting.”

Lars tenses, his fingers digging into her shoulders. Agatha forgets all her fretting about the indecency of the play as the pit of her stomach falls.

-

There are several small changes, stretching back through time, so subtle they would hardly be noticed.

-

“Are you really going?” Krosp asks, as she absentmindedly undoes her hair.

“I don’t think I have much of a choice,” she says. “Offending the Prince by not going would probably end worse.”

“So you decide to go unarmed into the enemy’s lair? You don’t even have the basics of personal protection.” He extends and retracts his claws a few times.

“Don’t exaggerate, and I think Zeetha would object to that,” she says, but she is worried, and she looks at her growing collection of death rays, she looks at her tools, looks at Van Rijn’s notes on her desk, looks at the scrap metal and tiny clank parts spread around her wagon, and she does have time.

Not a lot of time, but enough for this.

-

The Prince ran out of truth serum a few months earlier. He made more, but as there was simultaneously a shortage of certain of the ingredients, he had to substitute them for others, following a slightly different recipe.

It’s no matter. This one is almost more effective. It cuts deeper, sedates less. She’s more likely to still be awake and aware when they put her in the beacon engine, but she will only suffer for a moment, and then all will be well. It does not matter.

-

Smaller things are easier to work with, Agatha realizes. She has taken apart all her death rays for their components and energy cores, and they fit together perfectly. The hardest part is smoothing down the bolts.

Usually she would just leave them visible. She rather likes the aesthetic of exposed bolts on her creations, but this is meant to be camouflaged. She leaves little windows open for the power cores to glow through instead, then coats the smooth brass in gold from leftover couplings.

It looks like nothing more than a heavy, ornate bracelet when she clamps it around her left wrist.

-

She does not intend to use it. She does not want to use it. She has morals. She has guidelines for right and wrong taught to her first by Uncle Barry and then Adam and Lilith. She knows that the solution first to come to mind is often not the best one.

It is still there, under the surface of her mind, as a valid problem-solving strategy.

-

The wine tastes strange, but she doesn’t have much experience with wine. Lilith never let her have more than a little, and either way, a prince would likely have different kinds of wine than her family had access to.

She’s sure it has more alcohol in it than she’s used to, at least, because she relaxes almost immediately after her first sip.

She’s still scared, still nervous, still very aware of the weight around her wrist, and so she drinks more.

---

It’s too early for Tarvek to feel conflicted.

His father is delusional. Supper will make that clear enough. The girl is no one special, and once that is certain, she will be sent back as if nothing ever happened.

(Or he will put her in the beacon engine anyway, just in case, and she will die like all the others.)

She is no one. She is remarkably pretty, even under a turquoise lace dress that seems designed to be unattractive, but she’s just a scared circus girl with a strong voice. The golden bracelet she wears is likely the most expensive thing she owns, and even it is only gilded.

He would like to hear her play the spinet, like she said she might. She will probably want to leave as soon as possible, but she is very good at hiding her nervousness, and he wouldn’t mind a chance to have a good conversation with a beautiful woman without having to worry about subterfuge.

But that’s for later. His father is still questioning her.

“Have you known many sparks?” he asks.

“Oh, no,” she says. “Well, I grew up in Beetleburg, so we saw Dr. Beetle a lot. I assisted in his lab quite a bit.”

Which is unexpected. Interesting. Probably means nothing, as Dr. Beetle has had a large number of minions through the years, but his father will latch onto it, for sure.

“Really!”

There it is.

“Oh, yes,” she says.

She seems much calmer now than she was when she came. Probably the drugs kicking in.

“Oh, and I saw the Baron a bit when I was on Castle Wulfenbach!”

What.

“But I had to run away when everybody found out I was a Heterodyne.”

What?

Tarvek very nearly inhales his wine, and then he leaves some terrible stains on the tablecloth. And his pants. Confound it.

No one notices him, at least, because the girl is still talking.

“Of course they’d change their names,” she’s saying, and she’s talking about Punch and Judy. She’s a Heterodyne. An actual one.

His father will never let her go. Oh, red fire.

“I use their name too, you know. Agatha Clay. I suppose they could hardly keep calling me Agatha Heterodyne. Gosh, that sounds odd. It would have drawn attention for sure.”

She looks down on her fork for a moment before she keeps eating. Her expression is wondering. Almost vapid. At least she looks happy, for now.

“It’s supposed to be secret, of course. I didn’t realize at the time, but they did so much to keep me hidden. Uncle Barry, oh and I suppose he’s a Heterodyne as well, he went to some lengths to keep me out of the public eye. He made this device to keep me stupid, told me to wear it at all times. It made it very hard to think, but it’s gone now, so I can build whatever I want.”

She smiles then and runs her fingers over her golden bracelet.

Tarvek suddenly wants to take a much closer look at that.

“Oh,” she says, “but I suppose I’ve messed it all up now. I’ve done so well keeping it all secret lately, even with the jägers hanging around. I really shouldn’t have told you all of this, I think. I feel strange. Am I drunk? No, that’s not right.”

“It’s nothing to worry about, dear. Do keep talking,” his father says.

The girl, the Lady Heterodyne, doesn’t seem to notice he’s spoken.

“Oh no, this is strange,” she says, still smiling pleasantly. “Lilith never let me drink much, but even when I did it never affected me like this. Is there something else in this? Did you drug me? Lilith always said to avoid men who would do such things, but it’s too late for that now isn’t it.” She sighs, and then shrugs, smiling. “Gosh. I suppose I have to kill you.”

She presses a hidden button on her bracelet, and it unfurls in her hand. It’s wonderfully elegant construction, almost muse-like in its delicacy as it reforms, and then she points and shoots.

It’s all too fast.

One moment, she’s chipper and harmless, smiling as if nothing is wrong in the world, and the second, there’s a hole through his father’s chest the size of a dinner plate.

Tarvek has to catch himself. This doesn’t feel real. This can’t be.

He’s grasping for something to hold onto, some semblance of control, but the Lady stands up as if she was always going to and two smoke knights hit the ground before they can react and Anevka’s carriers are panicking and someone is screaming and the Lady is smiling in happy wonder.

“Oh, this is much more effective than I thought it would be!” she says.

He tries to dig through his own panicked brain for a tactic, a strategy, a way to shut this down or regain control, but there is nothing, not here, not now, not ever. He has never had control in this place. Not in Sturmhalten. All his plans and scheming has only ever been straws to grasp at as others took control of his life and now it falls apart from the top.

He’s desperate for a way out, but all he finds is that they’re doomed. The Lady isn’t thinking anymore. They stripped away every part of her mind between herself and immediate action, and all that’s left is inane chatter and pure, unfiltered Heterodyne problem solving. She has a gun, and without her conscience to slow her down, she is faster than any of them.

“Gosh,” she says as the fifth smoke knight hits the ground in charred pieces. “This isn’t nice at all. Lilith would be so disappointed at me. Do you think I will regret this later?”

She is calm. Elegant. Gorgeous. Terrifying.

She turns in his direction and he stops trying to be tactical. He drops to his knees and crawls under the table.

It’s an illusion of safety at best, but if she can’t see him he’s not a threat. He’s not a threat.

Please, oh Lady, he’s not a threat.

Bodies fall. The smell of burnt flesh permeates the air. The Lady’s happy rambling almost drowns out the low hum of her death ray firing again and again. Anevka is shouting for her cowardly carriers to come back, and Tarvek wants to call out to her, wants to tell her to stay down, stay quiet, stay still, come under the table with him and hide away, but he’s too scared to attract attention.

The Lady makes her way around the table. “Oh, this is so undignified. None of us are being polite. I really am having a good time, though. You’re wonderful hosts. I’m dreadfully sorry about the mess.”

“Well I’m glad you’re having fun,” Anevka says, and she must be agitated, because even Tarvek can hear the tension in her voice.

“Oh gosh, there’s no need for the knife,” the Lady says.

There’s another humming shot, a strong scent of formaldehyde washes over him, and Anevka screams. A dinner knife hits the ground with a clink.

Then, “What?” in a small, confused voice as she realizes she isn’t dead. “H-How?”

Tarvek buries his face in his knees, puts his hands over his ears and tries to make himself as small as possible.

“Oh, that is interesting,” the Lady says. Her voice is the only sound left to hear. “Of course a clank with a consciousness is remarkable on its own, but you really believed you were human! Fascinating. Hmm, where did your brother go?”

Tarvek stops breathing. If she can’t hear him, she can’t find him.

“Oh where, oh where are you…” she hums.

Please just leave him be.

He hears the tablecloth moving.

Please no.

“Oh, that’s where you were!”

He doesn’t move. Doesn’t look up.

She hums faintly. “You are very cute,” she says.

The tablecloth rustles again.

“Goodness, do you never stop?” she tells someone else. “There’s no need to get so worked up.”

Another shot. Another body hitting the floor. Footsteps.

The room is silent.

---

Agatha is moving as if in a haze.

It’s pleasant. The most enjoyable thing she’s done since… well, she can’t remember. The important thing is she feels good now.

There are people everywhere, coming at her with weapons to kill her or capture her or both. That’s bad, but it’s so simple now.

If they try to kill her, she removes them. It’s so easy, so quickly done.

And she’s so happy! Oh, she knows she’s babbling, but it doesn’t matter. Her thoughts flow unfiltered from her memory through her mouth. It lets her think about things that have been too painful to think about the last month, all without the pain.

This place is huge. She should probably go back to the circus, but she can’t seem to find the way out, so she wanders, and then she gets distracted. It’s so pretty everywhere, and the walls are really solid. They work just as well with holes in them.

No one is stopping her either. That might be because she shoots everyone who gets close, but it’s probably fine.

Her death ray is keeping up so well. She’s barely had to wind it up at all to keep its power level constant, which is much better than she expected.

Suddenly there’s words spoken in a language she doesn’t recognize, though it does sound familiar.

She turns to see a pale white lady come up the stairs and stare at her. Ah, it’s a geisterdame.

The ghost lady doesn’t attack, so Agatha smiles at her. Maybe they aren’t bad after all?

“It is the Holy Child,” the ghost lady says.

“Hello,” Agatha says. “I do apologize for the mess it wasn’t at all on purpose. Have we met before somewhere? You look like you think so.”

“You are our holy child,” the ghost lady says. “The key to bringing back our Goddess!”

That most definitely sounds like something Lilith would want her to stay out of. “No,” she says. “That sounds like it’s your problem. I think I really should get back now. Oh, but I said I might play the spinet for the prince later. Hmm.”

Oh dear, she’s trapped in a dilemma now.

But the prince was under the table. If he doesn’t come out to listen, she can’t play for him anyway. Oh well.

Decision made, she tries to walk past the ghost lady towards where she thinks the exit is.

The ghost lady grabs her. “Wait! You must come. We have waited so long!”

“You are being very rude,” Agatha says, and shoots her.

The ghost lady stops being rude.

But there are more ghost ladies between her and the exit now, and one of them shouts something that sounds like an order, and then there’s even more of them, swarming up from below, and they’re coming at her with weapons.

Which is rude, so she shoots them. It seems to be the simplest solution.

---

Tarvek is trembling.

Stupid. He trained himself out of that. He only shows weakness on command now.

He’s still hiding under the table. He doesn’t want to see what the rest of the room looks like.

Stupid.

Calm down. You’re better than this.

It’s an empty phrase. He knows he isn’t.

Still. It’s been quiet for a while. He can’t sit here forever.

He takes a deep breath and instantly regrets it as the smell of death and formaldehyde fill his nose. Then he takes another.

Slowly, he uncurls and crawls out from under the table. His limbs are stiff and his hands are still shaking.

The room looks as bad as he thought it would. Dead smoke knights and palace guards are piled up on the floor. The walls are riddled with holes.

Anevka is standing perfectly still, looking down on what’s left of who she used to be.

“How long?” she asks, voice crackling with emotion.

“A while,” he says.

She doesn’t move. “Were you ever going to tell me?”

“I was hoping it would never come to that,” he says.

Their father is dead. Tarvek should go assess the rest of the damage. He doesn’t.

“You built in voice commands to override this body, didn’t you?” she asks.

“A couple,” he says.

“Are you going to use them?”

There’s a smoke knight lying face up on the floor three feet away from him. It looks like something huge has taken a bite out of her side. Her intestines are spilling out over the floor.

He doesn’t know her name. She’s been a part of his father’s retinue for over a year. Now she’s dead. Because of his father’s stupid decisions, because of their inability, unwillingness to stop him.

He thinks about pulling the plug on what’s left of his sister now. Letting her metal and ceramic remains stay here as another casualty of this.

“No,” he says.

Now, she looks up.

He can’t read her expression. She doesn’t have one. She should.

“These are useless, aren’t they,” she says, gesturing to the amputated ends of her old lifelines hanging from her back. Her voice is flat. Less crackling.

“Yes,” he says.

“Help me remove them,” she says.

He does. It’s not hard. They haven’t truly been connected to anything for a long time.

She looks freer without them. Less contained. Ironically more human.

“I’m going to go change,” she says.

He nods absently.

Then he follows the trail of destruction.

It’s easy to see where the Lady went. Here and there are more dead bodies, smoke knights who tried to get the drop on her, palace guards drawn to the commotion. She also at some point started blasting doors open rather than using the doorknob. Presumably it was easier.

The path weaves in and out of rooms, almost aimlessly destructive. The spot where the spark-wasp was hidden is entirely vaporised, removing any hint it ever existed.

With the number of holes in the walls, it might well have been a coincidence.

At some point, the geisterdamen came after her. One of the servants must have ran into them and told them what was happening, or they just heard the noise and came to see.

After that point, the hallways are practically littered with pale bodies. They must have swarmed up like ants, single-mindedly throwing themselves to their deaths for the sheer hope of bringing back their goddess. Or under orders they couldn’t question.

Stupid. It’s so pointless. Such a waste of life and effort.

He feels a stab of relief that no one seems to have gotten to the townsfolk, that the bodies he’s wading through aren’t those he’s sworn to protect.

And then he feels only guilt, because what’s the difference? What’s the point? What are they doing here?

What part of this is even remotely functional?

The hallway is filled with the bodies of people with lives, friends, hopes and dreams. People with endless potential for good, endless potential for bad, all dead because a single woman decided she wanted to become immortal. Because they were never given the chance to choose for themselves.

He throws up somewhere in it all. It doesn’t make the smell any worse.

The trail is heading towards the chapel. Maybe the geisters were somewhat successful in directing her. Maybe she realized they were planning something.

The chapel is in ruins. The beacon engine is irreparably destroyed. The floor is littered with wreckage and bodies.

He picks through them looking for signs of life.

Then he catches a glimpse of turquoise lace, and he ducks down behind a block of debris with his heart racing in his throat.

He sits there for several painful seconds before the panic starts to recede. The room is still devoid of movement.

He peeks out from his hiding place.

The ragged hem of the dress is just visible past another pile of rubble, but it’s flat on the ground and doesn’t move, so probably safe.

He still approaches as silently and carefully as he can.

And there she is, the Lady Agatha, no, too informal, Miss Clay? Beneath her. Lady Heterodyne? She thought that sounded odd. Just Lady. Lady is safe.

She’s passed out flat on the floor.

The dress is burnt and split, the gaudy pink bows stained with ash and other things, but somehow, she is entirely unharmed. She’s been methodical. Efficient.

Her hair has come out of its updo and is fanned over the floor. She’s snoring lightly. The miniature death ray is still firmly clutched in her hand.

He has no idea how such a small thing could do this much damage.

She might be the most beautiful woman he’s seen in his life.

She’s definitely the scariest.

She’s also defenceless on the floor.

What now?

---

Anevka is dead.

She rummages through her old dresses. The ones she loved too much to risk ruining by fitting them around her metal body. A part of her always hoped she’d wear them again. That she’d get better.

She’s dead.

She pauses over one of blood-red silk, silver ribbons, polished gems. She’s never managed to get a tailor to make something that feels so much like her as this particular dress. God knows she’s tried.

She’s dead.

The silk slips smoothly over her ceramic skin. It fits almost perfectly. Differently, with so much less give to her body, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if you hadn’t seen her before.

The servants ran away. She works out how to manoeuvre her limbs to lace it up herself.

She’s dead. She’s dead.

She looks at a wig with long red locks, and then picks one in silver. Drapes it carefully so it falls down her back and shoulders. Ornaments in gleaming red keeps it in place.

She’s dead and gone and she never even noticed.

Her reflection in the mirror is beautiful. Immaculate.

It looks like her.

She’s not quite sure what that means.

Her face is fixed in an unmoving smile. A doll’s face.

Is it a mask she can hide behind, or is she just a doll all the way to the core?

She doesn’t know.

She is Anevka.

She was Anevka.

She was dead and is reborn. She is inanimate and she is alive.

She remembers being the Anevka that was. She’s not sure how different she is. Maybe there is no difference. Maybe the difference is vast. She does not know.

She is the Anevka that is. She is herself, whatever that may mean.

It’s far easier to move without the tether of her catafalque. Her steps down the main staircase are quick and light. It feels good.

Once she’s downstairs again, the walls are riddled with holes and the floors are accessorized with dead bodies. At some point, she thinks she would have reacted to that. Possibly.

Mostly she’s thinking it’s such a shame, such a waste, such a bother. It’s annoying that it had to happen at all.

Now someone is going to have to clean it up, and she’s reasonably sure her brother isn’t in a state to organize anything.

Right, what is it that needs to be done?

The first thing is cleaning up the bodies. Leaving them like this is wrong and will have distasteful consequences. She needs to find enough living, willing workers to take care of that.

She also needs to contact contractors to fix what is broken. Before that she needs to get someone to survey the amount of damage made. That will have to wait until after the initial clean-up. People are more efficient when they’re not horrified.

More importantly, the Baron is going to hear about this sooner or later. She needs to work out how to spin it, but she needs to make sure he hears it from them first, if at all possible. She’ll have to arrange for an express courier with a short message, bare-bones and promising more in-depth correspondence later. That will give her time to find her angle.

She needs to make sure Tarvek hasn’t gotten himself shot.

She needs to think more about how to deal with her own identity. That is going to have to take a backseat.

The family is also going to need to be informed. That is something she cannot afford to be careless with.

Sturmhalten needs an official declaration. No doubt they will all know by tomorrow morning, but it’s not official until it’s official, and she needs to make sure they know it’s still under control.

The girl needs to be dealt with somehow, if she’s still here.

Priorities. Tarvek, then the Baron. Hopefully, Tarvek will deal with the girl, if not, Anevka will have to. Then informing the town and organizing the clean-up and working out what to tell the family. Everything else is less urgent.

With a plan of action solidly in place, she follows the path of destruction until she finds both her brother and the girl. She’s unconscious on the floor, and he’s sitting by her. Not touching, just watching.

“Tarvek.”

He looks up, as if he didn’t know she was there from the moment she entered the room. “Anevka,” he says. Then he gets up. “Right, we have… things we need to do.”

She regards him for a moment. No, she doesn’t think he should be seen in this state. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of the most pressing matters,” she says. “Should we tell the Baron the girl is here?”

He pauses. “She said she was running from the Baron,” he says. “She wouldn’t be happy if we gave her up.”

“And are we more afraid of her, or the Baron?” Anevka asks.

It’s mostly a rhetorical question. They both look down at the girl snoring on the floor, weapon in hand.

“We wait until she’s gone before we tell him,” she says.

He nods. She can see the relief washing through him.

“Can you take care of her?” Anevka asks.

He nods again. “Yes. I can do that.”

“Good, I’ll leave it to you,” she says. Then she leaves to write the message to the Baron.

She hopes her brother’s sudden and obvious crush on the woman who just nearly killed them all won’t make things too troublesome.

All in all, he could have chosen worse.

---

Agatha wakes up slowly.

She feels weird. Uncomfortable, because she’s fallen asleep in her dress, but also cradled by the softest bed she’s ever slept on and pleasantly worn out, as if she went to bed after half of one of Zeetha’s mildest training sessions.

Her thoughts feel sticky. It takes effort to pull them out of unconsciousness.

She must still be at the palace, which explains why she’s sleeping in her dress. She was sown into it, after all. Though, she can’t remember going to sleep.

She just remembers sitting down at supper, and then she might have had too much… oh. Oh no.

Oh no.

No no no no no no no.

She shoots up and slaps her hands over her mouth before she can scream.

Destruction and death and a gun in her hand. “Oh my, you are dreadfully persistent. This is such a mess we’re making, don’t you think? Oh, gosh, don’t be so loud.”

Oh red fire, what has she done?

She’s hyperventilating. Her vision blurs with tears and her hands are clamped solidly over her mouth.

How many people? Why?

How is she still alive after that? Why is she on a bed?

Where is her death ray?

After a short, second burst of panic, she locates it on a bedside table, returned to its bracelet form and glowing steadily.

She picks it up and looks it over, to ensure herself that it hasn’t been tampered with. It performed far better than she expected it to. She never even had to turn it up from the lowest setting until she destroyed that… machine in the room with all the statues.

She doesn’t know what the geisters wanted her there for, why they reacted to her like they did, why they were willing to die en masse to get her there, but she can’t believe it was anything good.

The whole thing would’ve given her the creeps even if she hadn’t….

Her dress is burnt. She shot a split into it to move more easily.

Zeetha would probably approve.

She wants to go back to the circus. She wants Lilith.

She curls up around her death ray on the bed and desperately wishes for her mother.

After a while, she sits back up. She has to get out of here.

Eventually.

She’ll just… sit here. Just a little longer.

The door opens.

She has the death ray up immediately.

There’s a glimpse of red hair before her visitor disappears behind the doorframe.

She gets up and walks over, gun raised and eyes fixed on the open door.

She takes a deep breath before she swings around the doorframe

He’s sitting against the wall beside the door, hands over his head. The younger prince. The only prince left.

He doesn’t look so regal now. He just looks scared.

“Please don’t shoot, my Lady,” he says.

She doesn’t want to have to shoot. There’s been enough death this far.

She lowers the gun a little.

“Why?” she asks, gesturing vaguely outwards with her free hand. She’s not sure exactly what she’s asking. Why the drugs? Why the endless stream of construct fighters? Why the bed?

“I was never part of any of this,” he says, and she’s not quite sure what he’s answering either. “It was always my father. There was nothing we could do.”

She lowers the gun all the way. She should probably tell him he can stand up, but he looks quite comfortable on the floor, and she’s too tired to decide right now whether she wants to feel charitable.

“Explain,” she says.

He explains.

She feels even less charitable when he’s done.

This is terrible. What they planned to do to her, what they’ve already done to so many…. The townsfolk. The old prince’s own daughter.

The hand on her death ray twitches.

The Prince, Tarvek, that’s his name, raises his hands in surrender and cowers.

He claimed not to have a part in it. For the most part, she believes him.

“I won’t shoot unless I have to,” she says.

He lowers his hands and looks up at her with hope in his eyes. “Thank you, my Lady.”

“You will tell the Baron everything you’ve just told me,” she says, because this needs to be dealt with, but she can’t do it herself. She wouldn’t know where to start.

“Yes, my Lady,” he says, bowing his neck.

She’s tired. She’s so tired. She wants to go home.

“Stand up,” she says, gesturing with her death ray.

He scrambles to his feet and stands at attention.

“Take me back to the circus,” she says.

His eyes flick down for a moment before he nods and says, “Yes, my Lady.”

Looking down at her burned and tattered dress, she realizes what he was looking at. Right, this thing was ugly even before she messed it up.

“Wait,” she says. “Get me some better clothes, then take me to the circus.”

Surprisingly, he lights up with what seems like a genuine smile. “Yes, my Lady! I will come back as soon as I can!”

He runs off with a spring in his step.

He reminds her a little of a puppy. Scared. Eager for approval. Cute.

…The last time she called him cute he was hiding under the table like a child.

Shaking her head, she goes back into the room and tries to figure out how to remove her dress. After everything she’s just done, she has no right to look at Tarvek like that.

Only minutes later, there’s a knock on the door and a call of, “My Lady?”

When she peeks out, Tarvek is all but hidden entirely by a large pile of clothes.

“Ah, forgive me, my Lady,” he says once he’s freed of the pile. “I wasn’t sure what you’d like so I picked a few options.”

She thanks him, tells him to wait outside, and sorts through the pile on the bed.

A lot of the options very much aren’t options. She suspects a few of the gowns are worth more than Adam’s forge. At least one looks like it should belong to an evil queen of some sort.

She eventually finds one. A simple and deep green dress with golden linings. It fits her near perfectly when she pulls it on.

She finds a comb to pull through her hair, and after a moment’s hesitation, clasps the death ray around her left wrist like a bracelet again.

There. Now she almost feels human again.

---

Zeetha is worried.

She’s been worried since they took Agatha to the palace. She doesn’t know why they did, and she doesn’t trust them.

Now she’s worried because it’s late.

If Agatha just stayed there for supper, she should’ve been back an hour ago. It’s of course possible she decided to stay the night, but by now, Zeetha knows her well enough to know that’s unlikely. At least by Agatha’s own choice.

On the other hand, there’s little Zeetha can do about it one way or another. She’ll wait until the morning, then see if something needs to be done.

Sleep is proving difficult. She practices her meditations instead.

It’s well past midnight when she hears a carriage roll up and someone knocking on Master Payne’s door. She steps out to see, and there’s Agatha, in a new dress, standing next to a young man with royal red hair. The younger prince, most likely, though she hasn’t the foggiest idea why he’s here.

Master Payne looks like he’s just been woken up. He looks relieved to see Agatha, and he looks suspicious. The expression is mirrored on the faces of everyone else who are starting to peek their heads out of their wagons.

“You are going to want to pack up and leave,” the prince says.

Zeetha doesn’t like this, but Agatha doesn’t look downtrodden. She looks tired, but at this time of night they all are. Suspicion can wait until there’s more info.

“Is that a suggestion from you or from above, your Highness?” Master Payne asks.

“My father is dead. I am the Prince of Sturmhalten,” the prince says.

That changes the tune of the conversation.

Zeetha locks her eyes on Agatha and waves to get her attention. Then she mouths, ‘What happened?’

Agatha shakes her head and mouths back, ‘Not now.’

“By this time tomorrow, entering or leaving the town is going to be difficult. It will be easier for everyone if you’re not here anymore by then,” the prince says.

Master Payne seems overwhelmed. “I… Thank you very much for the consideration, your Highness. There was no need for you to go to the trouble personally.”

The prince smiles and brushes him off. “Consider it a favour for the Lady, and an apology for the mess.”

“Tarvek,” Agatha says. “The mess is on me as well. You’ve already apologized enough.”

And that is… curious. Zeetha knows she’s not the only one to notice. The way Agatha refers to him by his given name, and the way he lets her. She speaks to him as an equal, but he reacts like she’s his superior. Under other circumstances, she could’ve let it slide, but here, it’s so painfully obvious.

The Prince of Sturmhalten defers to Agatha.

“You’re too generous, my Lady,” he says. “I wish you safe travels. Now I should get back to the palace. Unless there was anything else?”

Agatha nods, and says, “It’s been… interesting.”

The Prince’s smile is strained. “That it has, my Lady.” Then he climbs back onto his carriage and is gone.

All eyes turn to Agatha.

“Miss Clay…” Master Payne says.

Agatha’s shoulders slump. In a moment, she looks ready to fall over and sleep. “I’ll explain,” she says. “Just… later. After we’ve all slept. Can we just leave, now?”

He barely hesitates before he agrees.

They never wanted to stay here long, so everyone’s already packed. Getting ready to leave takes no time at all, but Zeetha keeps watching Agatha.

She looks more than just tired. She looks positively melancholic.

The caravan gets moving. Agatha does something to ensure her wagon stays on track and then goes inside. Zeetha lets her have a few minutes before she follows.

Agatha looks like she’s collapsed face first onto the bed and stayed there. She doesn’t move until Zeetha closes the door with an audible snap. Then she turns her head so her face is free of the pillows and sits up slowly. “Zeetha?”

“Hey, girl, what’s going on?”

“I said I’d tell you later, didn’t I?”

“Mhm.” Zeetha sits down at the foot of the bed. “You said you’d explain to everyone later. I want to know what you were planning to tell me.”

Agatha blinks and looks down at her hands, at a heavy, shining bracelet Zeetha can’t remember where came from. “I suppose you’re right,” she says eventually.

Then she gets up and peeks out the door. They’ve apparently just passed the city gates. Soon after, there’s three loud thumps of someone jumping onto the roof, she waves to get their attention, and then the three jägers come in.

“Ho! Nize dress!” one of them says.

“heh, thank you, Maxim,” Agatha says as she sits back down on the bed. “Look, I need to ask you three a question.”

The jägers shift, subtly. Zeetha isn’t sure she would’ve seen it if she wasn’t looking, but now that she is, it’s obvious. They’re standing at attention.

“Did you know my mother was the Other?” Agatha asks.

Oh Hells.

The jägers’ eyes widen comically. They look at each other, and then they look back. “No,” Dimo says, serious as death. “Ve did not, but ve iz not surprized.”

Zeetha is on her feet before she realizes she’s stood up. “Your mother? Agatha, what happened?”

Agatha is looking down again, right hand clutching onto her bracelet. She takes a deep breath. “Right. Let’s start from the beginning.” She looks up to meet Zeetha’s eyes. “My name, my actual name, I suppose, is Agatha Heterodyne, daughter of Bill and Lucrezia, and so much has happened to me since I left home.”