[personal profile] hat_writes_stuff
Title: Smells Like Hope Part 7: Diplomatic
Author: Almighty Hat
Fandom: Girl Genius
Characters: Agatha Heterodyne, Dimo, Maxim, Ognian, Jenka, Lilith Clay, Jorgi (letter only), OC citizens of Zumzum (notably Masha and Evgeny)
Word Count: 18,947
Rating: G
Pairing(s): Agatha/Jorgi, background
Warnings: Oblique discussion of and reference to fantastic racism and conditional acceptance, Jägers a little suspicious of offers of help, discussion of the kind of purity policing that politicians only get subjected to when they're women, discussion of women in historical armies in a cross-dressing sort of way, non-graphic non-serious threats against Othar Tryggvassen's life, a gossipy OFC using her powers for good so far, and nearly twenty thousand words of Agatha chatting with various Jägers. Not a single damn exciting thing happens in this fic.

Author's Notes: With thanks to Para and Lilithqueen for inspiration and gracious permission, and Celaeno for beta-reading. (Sorry I started you reading a fifteen-year-long comic archive!)

All canon characters, situations, and plot elements are property of Studio Foglio; no money is made from this fanwork and no infringement is intended.

Summary: In which Agatha meets one of the actually-sneaky Jägers she was promised, various chores are assigned, a couple letters are written, Lilith is better than she wants to be at engineering conditional acceptance, Agatha valiantly does not build a death ray into Maxim's glove, Oggie plays small-town hero, and Masha keeps popping up to gossip.

Previous Part



Rulers across Europa will debate endlessly about the best possible system of government, though by and large the continent defaults to autocracies, with political power held in the hands of a few select individuals, whether because those individuals are strong Sparks, hereditary rulers, or simply the people who saw a job to do and started doing it. Rulers of Europa’s more stable territories understand that any system of government must, at the very least, ensure for its citizens that tomorrow will not be terribly unlike today, which is hopefully similar to yesterday, and that if yesterday, today, and tomorrow are all miserable, then at least that misery cannot be completely and directly blamed on their ruler.

Three days since Jorgi left Zumzum, and not quite one since Agatha had pulled three detached Jägers into her life-- and her house-- and Agatha was still trying to pretend everything was more-or-less normal.

This was trickier than it might have been; knowing Agatha was at risk for being carried off by Geisterdamen (creatures Agatha had still never seen, but the idea was terrifying enough) and whatever made young female Sparks disappear, Maxim, Dimo, and Ognian settled comfortably into a loose protection detail. In the last eighteen hours or so, and allowing for walls in between, Agatha hadn’t been more than about five feet away from another person-- including Dimo escorting her on her morning trip to get the mail.

She wasn’t protesting, really-- she did feel safer, and Dimo was reasonably good company (something about him reminded her of Uncle Barry, but quite possibly that was just a general sense of being protected). He just tended to lurk, a little, and Agatha could tell it was putting the townspeople off.

Most townspeople.

“Agatha!” Masha rushed up to her, but stopped short of actually touching Agatha, with a quick glance over at Dimo. “What did you do? Everybody’s talking about a bet or you arguing the Baron’s law with the mayor or adopting a horde of Jägers or punching out Othar Tryggvassen, which I would have paid good money to see, actually, but what did you really do?

At least she sounded excited rather than dismayed or scared. “Dimo,” Agatha said, moving aside a little to include him in the conversation, “this is Masha, my best friend in Zumzum and probably the most effective gossip I’ve ever met.”

“I like to know when things are happening,” Masha said, only a little curt, “and other people do, too. I don’t like to tell stories unless I know they’re true.” She grabbed Agatha’s hand in both of hers and gently shook it, somewhere between demanding and pleading. “So tell me what’s true!”

“Well, you know how people get about Jägers,” Agatha told her, “probably better than I do.”

“Some of them are a little better than they were,” Masha said. “Evgeny likes Jorgi and people have to like Evgeny, he’s our only baker.”

“But the three who came to town yesterday don’t work for the Baron.”

“… Are they okay?” Masha asked, then turned to actually ask Dimo, “Are you okay?”

“Ho yez,” Dimo assured her, showing teeth. “Ve vos lucky Miz Agatha vos around.”

“All I did was-- they hadn’t done anything,” Agatha told Masha, because that not only true but important. “As far as I can tell, they didn’t have time to do anything. And then that Herr Tryggvassen--”

“Gentleman adventurer,” Masha agreed.

“Oh, you’ve met him?”

“He’s… charismatic but weirdly tiresome,” Masha decided, “also I trust you way more than some actual stranger. What’d he do?”

“I’m not actually sure how it happened--”

“Vos embarrassing, dot’s how it happened--”

“But apparently Herr Tryggvassen talked them into playing Hangman. And when they lost…”

Masha’s eyes went wide. “No.

“Yez,” Dimo said, miming being hung, fisted hand held over his neck, head lolling to one side. “Ve vould haff been hokay for a couple days, ennyvay.”

“I couldn’t just leave them there.”

“Well, of course not, but what did you do?

“Bet the mayor five silver pieces per Jäger that Lilith could find them jobs,” Agatha admitted. “Jägers are constructs.”

“… And of course he took it. And now you have Jägers, and unless you’re sending them out of town, you’re probably out the money, too,” Masha concluded, and Agatha shrugged. The money was beyond unimportant. Masha narrowed her eyes, looking thoughtful-- or possibly plotting. “… What kind of jobs?”

“Dun matter,” Dimo told her. “Ve’s sticking close until dot Tryggvassen goes avay. Hy heard de vay he told Miz Agatha she vos putting de town in danger, getting us loose. Din’ like de sound of it.”

“You think he might hurt her?” Masha asked Dimo.

Dimo just shrugged. “Dun vant to find out de hard vay. Dot’s no vay to pay Miz Agatha back for helping us out.”

Masha looked hard at both of them, clearly thinking. “Right. Well. I have pens to rake--”

That’s right, pigs-- “What are you doing in town this early?” Masha’s free time usually happened in the afternoon.

“Chasing you down,” Masha told her, cheerfully, “for gossip. Because you’re on your morning post office run even though there’s no way you have a letter yet, because it’s only been three days since your sweetheart left town.”

“… I can check.” She was blushing. “And I might have books waiting.” Even if books weren’t her first thought.

“Anyway, pigpens, I’ll stop by later with food or something so everybody who sees me feels bad about being less hospitable than the gossipy pig girl.” She ducked close to hug Agatha, then darted off calling, “Nice to meet you, Dimo!”

Dimo gave Masha either a very brief wave or a very sloppy salute as she ran home. “Goot ting dot vun likes hyu.”

“By this afternoon, the whole town is going to know everything we just told her,” Agatha agreed. So it was a good thing they’d told her that the Jägers hadn’t done anything (recently) worth being hanged over, that they were tricked into nooses by an outsider, and that the same outsider had spoken to Agatha in a way that had the released Jägers worried for her safety.

“… Ve dun leave dot vun alone vit Oggie,” Dimo said.

“Does he gossip?”

“Chust not good vit de secrets,” Dimo told her. “Ve gots to help him out vit dot sumtimes.”

They went on to the post office, where there was, a little miraculously, a letter waiting to be exchanged for the one Agatha had to mail.

Dear Agatha,

This letter might get to you a little bit too fast, but that’s all right because it’s mostly going to be things you need to know instead of happy things I want to tell you.

First, as it turns out, that Doctor Beetle knew who your natural parents were. Apparently you sound a lot like your natural mother when you’re angry. All his notes were in code, but the Baron was trying to decode them-- looking for hive engine stuff-- and that was one of the things he found out. Now, that’s big news, but it isn’t bad news. The Baron knew your natural parents, and he was glad to hear you’re safe. I think probably he’ll want to meet you someday, but he knows your parents might run again so he’ll also probably be patient. Also he’s got other things to do because of the other things they found in Beetle’s notes.

Beetle knew who the Other really was, and he knew the Other could control wasps and things by voice. We found out the Geisterdamen were working for the Other, too. The Baron is going to send a team of monster hunters out to catch a Geister and one of those spiders they ride-- tall as a house, those things, all legs and all white, white, white-- and last I heard they were working on tests to prove the Geisterdamen are working for the Other.

We need the tests because we have to have proof before we go on a monster hunt. The Baron won’t go around telling people somebody’s working for the Other without proof, and also not a lot of people in his whole army are stupid enough to go fight monsters that look like pale pretty ladies with long white hair if we can’t prove they’re bad monsters. So that’s his new project and he probably won’t have time to think about meeting an old friend’s daughter until we’re done with that.

I think the Baron will send us Jägerkin to fight the Geisterdamen, in case they have wasps, because we’re immune to wasps. It will be good to have a proper monster hunt again, for a good cause and maybe with bug pie at the end.

Anyway, you are at least as safe as you were when I last saw you half a day ago, the Baron isn’t going to break down your door, and you probably know best what to tell your parents and when. I want this letter to get to you fast so I don’t want to take too long writing it, which I will do if I start being silly and telling you I miss you after only half a day.

Happily yours,

Jorgi


Agatha read her letter at the post office, to Dimo’s bemusement and Rurik the postmaster’s indulgent headshake, and spent most of the short walk back to the house trying to decide if she wanted to reply, or wait until Jorgi had a chance to respond to Agatha’s note about suddenly ending up with extra Jägers. And telling Dimo what she could about the note’s contents, out on the street where they might be overheard, which was mostly that Dr. Beetle’s notes had been deciphered, but nothing much about the notes’ contents.

The only truly eventful part of the walk was the surprise waiting for them at the house.

“… Bear,” Agatha managed. A tremendous brown bear sat in the yard, looking bored and slightly put-upon (or maybe that was just how bears looked) pretending the rope around its neck would keep it tied to the front porch post instead of taking the post and half the porch roof with it if the bear decided to run off. “Are… are they usually that big?” The bear seemed really big. Agatha had never seen a bear up close before but she hadn’t thought they were that much bigger than Adam.

“No,” Dimo told her-- looking oddly embarrassed and not nearly as alarmed as Agatha might have expected. “But mebbe ve go in de back vay, huh?”

“Why is there a bear?

He dropped his voice and led Agatha around the house, to the kitchen door that opened up on the back garden. “Cos ve’s gonna get yelled at, me und Maxim und Oggie, dot’s vhy.”

As soon as the back door closed behind them, Agatha called out “Lilith? There’s a bear.”

“Yes, dear, I know,” Lilith called from the front room. “We have company.”

“Company with bears?” though Agatha didn’t ask it loud enough to carry.

“Yah,” Dimo told her. “Come on, ve go meet Jenka. Mebbe she likes hyu enuff she von’t be so mad at us for der Hangman ting.”

She followed Dimo into the parlor, saying, “Tell me Jenka’s not the bear.”

“The bear is Füst,” said an unfamiliar voice-- and Agatha stopped stock still for a couple of heartbeats, because-- well, her parents were there, and Oggie and Maxim, and Dimo was at her back, but the strange woman in the parlor looked like nothing so much as every description of Geisterdamen that Agatha had ever heard. She was pretty, so pale her skin was gray, and her long white hair was bundled in a thick braid that her battered straw hat didn’t hide at all.

“See?” Oggie broke in. “Hy told hyu ve found a Heterodyne! Vell, she found us. Hokay, mebbe she found Jorgi first, really. Ennyvay, dis is Miz Agatha! Miz Agatha, dis is Jenka, she’s de Jäger dot’s s’posed to be here, cawse she ken do de schneaky.”

The woman-- Jäger-- Jäger woman?-- stood up and smiled warmly at Agatha. Her teeth were very white and remarkably human, and Agatha suspected she was going to have to revise her ideas of how to spot a Jäger at a glance. “Is so goot to meet you, my lady,” she said, voice warm and happy and only lightly accented. “I am head of the Mechanicsburg Diplomatic Corps-- or I vas, and maybe vill be again soon.”

“Feel free to call me Agatha,” which she had tried to convince the others to do and not quite succeeded. “I’m afraid I told Maxim the ‘mistress’ and ‘my lady’ stuff should wait until Mechanicsburg, just in case.” He’d really wanted to address her formally. ‘Miss Agatha’ had been a compromise.

“And that’s why I’m going to be Miss Jenka,” she agreed, every trace of Mechanicsburg gone from her accent, “a poor lost construct who’s having trouble making her way anywhere but the Wastelands, because she just can’t go anywhere without Füst. I should be able to go with you to places where you just can’t take these three idiots.”

“They’re not--”

“I already heard about the game of Hangman,” Jenka said. “If you hadn’t rescued them, Miss Agatha, I would have had to.”

“… Well, then, they’re my idiots,” Agatha concluded, wondering if she ever wouldn’t feel protective of perfectly capable adult Jägers.

“Of course they are, and you’re welcome to them,” but Jenka’s smile was still warm. “To all of us, really.”

“Zo in town,” Dimo said, slouching onto a sofa, “ve run into Miz Agatha’s friend Masha.”

“Oh, god,” Lilith sighed. “What does she know?”

“… Why do we care what this Masha knows?” Jenka asked.

“Because if Masha knows it, the whole town knows it, the next town over knows it, Baron Wulfenbach has been informed of it, and Albia of England heard something about it once but can’t remember where.” Lilith gave each of the Jägers a look. “She’s a lovely girl and Adam and I are both happy Agatha has such a kind friend, but Masha gossips.

“I think she was mostly focused on how Dimo doesn’t trust Othar Tryggvassen,” Agatha offered. “I didn’t feel threatened when he talked to me, though, just… talked-down-to.”

“Avoid him,” Jenka told Agatha. “Stay as far away from Othar Tryggvassen as you can, especially if one of us isn’t around. If he finds out you’re a Spark, he’ll do his best to kill you. It’s what he does.”

“… What?” That was-- well, all right, he’d tricked three Jägers (her Jägers) into nooses, but-- “I thought he was supposed to be a hero-- I thought-- well, even heroes can be stupid about constructs, but…”

“If you kill a Spark who’s flooding a town or growing his own volcanoes or turning everybody into giant squirrels, and you’re a good guy because you stopped a bad guy,” Jenka said. “Othar thinks he’s a hero because he’s killing Sparks, regular people think he’s a hero because most of the Sparks he kills are raving madboys. But he doesn’t stop at the raving madboys. Word has it that he’s trying to kill every Spark. … I thought I heard the Baron’s people finally caught him, but I guess not.”

“Mebbe he got avay,” Maxim suggested. “Hero-types is alvays goot at de dramatic escapes.”

“We were already working to hide your Spark,” Lilith reassured Agatha-- she must’ve looked distressed. (She mostly felt angry.) “We’ll just keep being careful.”

“We have the power of Masha’s gossip on our side,” she said, trying for a light tone. “Everybody who listens to her will be suspicious of Herr Tryggvassen before the day is out. And I’ll avoid him and try to keep my temper.”

My dear Jorgi,

Apparently we have quite the full house! Not only are we putting up the three Jägers I mentioned in my last letter (your note to me was waiting at the post office when I sent my letter), this morning I returned from dropping that note in the mail to find a construct girl named Jenka had come to my parents for help. She’s very personable and well-spoken, and probably wouldn’t have any trouble making her way anywhere, if not for the enormous construct bear who follows her like a faithful dog wherever he fits. I don’t think I’ve seen them much more than three meters apart yet. Luckily, Jenka seems unbothered by the Jägers.

I consider myself lucky to have Masha as a friend, lately, because I’ve been a little concerned that three Jägers, a pretty construct girl, a giant bear, and a public bet with the mayor against the wishes of a well-known hero might be a bit much for Zumzum to handle. Masha, however, dropped by with a smoked pork shoulder prominently carried, to remind anyone who saw her that Zumzum is a hospitable town (although Masha’s father did extract a promise of new gate hinges in exchange for the meat). So far she has only met Dimo and Jenka, but both made good impressions on her. She was a little terrified of Jenka’s bear, but I can’t find it in my heart to blame her for that.

I don’t doubt she’ll also tell anyone who will listen to her (and we all listen to Masha; her gossip is always accurate) that there’s no chance the Jägers will leave Zumzum before Herr Tryggvassen does, even if Lilith manages to find work for them. Dimo told her in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t believe I’m safe from Herr Tryggvassen-- which I admit is possible, I can’t imagine a lot of heroes appreciate it when young women come along and undo everything they’ve done in a very public fashion-- and that it would be poor repayment for their rescue to leave me undefended. Just in case, I will be doing my best to avoid Herr Tryggvassen (Jenka has heard rumors he is not so heroic as he presents himself), and I haven’t managed to leave the house without Jäger company all day. (I don’t mind. They’re not you, but I feel quite safe around them.)

In regards to your news, I’m not sure how I feel about the Baron so easily figuring out where I am, but I suppose since I shouted at him (and suffered a screaming headache) before he investigated my suddenly-empty house in Beetleburg, my name might stand out in his memory a little. It was, however, a surprise to learn that Doctor Beetle was acquainted with my natural parents, as he never mentioned it to me. I suppose if I sound so much like my natural mother, I can see why he might have kept quiet about them. It doesn’t speak well of him, but I can see why he did it. As for telling my adoptive parents, I believe one round of “Agatha, what” at a time is enough; I will wait until we reach some sort of routine with our four indefinite houseguests (and bear) before I tell them that Klaus Wulfenbach knows where to find us and is unlikely to bother us.

… Sentiments like the above make me wonder if the girl you walked to class in Beetleburg would be able to make any sense of my life right now. It’s all seemed like such a logical progression as it happened, but here I am with a giant bear napping on the front porch, grateful to the Baron for not intruding on my parents’ privacy. (I don’t know how often you see him, but if it’s reasonably practical, would you please convey my thanks to Baron Wulfenbach for his discretion? It’s one less thing my parents have to worry about, and considering, well, everything, one less worry is a gift.)

I hope proof that the Geisterdamen are doing unconscionable things can be found, actually. The stories they tell of them in Zumzum are chilling, if folkloric-- according to legend, they blight crops, cause revenants, steal children, and there are a couple of ghastly Walpurgis Night songs about them being the ghosts of maidens who died of fright who carry sleeping girls off to drink their blood. If there is even a grain of truth in that, I’d sleep sounder at night knowing there are none of them anywhere near me or anyone else. Do you think you, personally, will end up fighting the Geisterdamen if it turns out they’re provably working for the Other? I’d like a little time to decide if I should cheer you on, worry, or (most likely) do both.

Do you have any advice for more-or-less gracefully housing three detached Jägers? Naturally we’re managing the basics well enough; the house is full of places to sleep and Lilith is a great preserver of food, but as you’ve mentioned, Jägers have a culture of your own that the average construct lacks. The last thing I want to do is insult anyone, but the first thing I find myself wanting to do is offer to do mending and laundry, and I’m not sure how to do that politely. I suppose the sensible answer is ‘the same way I’d offer those services to anyone we were helping,’ but usually that means Lilith handles it (Adam can’t always ask detailed questions and I was a far quieter person before my headaches started to ease). It’s mostly that they look at once like they are proud and have been struggling; I want to ease the struggle without bruising the pride.

Mail must leave Castle Wulfenbach more regularly than it leaves Zumzum, because even if I mail this letter tomorrow, it will probably reach you at the same time my previous note does. This, luckily, leaves me with the luxury of a paragraph for romantic silliness. I miss you, even at only three days apart, I think partly because there are kilometers between us and weeks until we can be face-to-face again. (Your letters are delightful, please keep sending them as often as you like, but they aren’t you. It isn’t terribly satisfying to hug or kiss a letter, and there is quite a difference between nearly hearing your voice in your writing and actually hearing your voice in person.) I suppose I’ve just been a little spoiled seeing you every day for nearly a week during your leave. Your short, informative letter was still the best part of my day, and it was a day that involved nearly-free food.


Yours sincerely,

Agatha


The next day started similar to the one before, only this time it was Jenka (and Füst) who walked Agatha to the post office to mail her letter. Somehow, despite Füst, people were easier around Jenka than they had been around Dimo, and Agatha wasn’t sure if she was angry about that or willing to chalk it up to Jenka having a remarkable ability to look pretty and harmless even when followed by an implausibly large bear. Two new books had arrived, both on advanced thinking engines, and Jenka and Agatha parted ways at the front door, Agatha to study and Jenka to take Füst out into the woods for a few hours. Füst needed regular feeding, and the most economical way to do that was for him to feed himself.

So Agatha read, doubling back after every chapter to make notes.

Thinking engines of any significant sophistication tended to be either huge or Spark-work; from what Agatha understood (largely from what Jorgi told her), Castle Heterodyne was both. Scale was an issue in part because of immense energy requirements, which seemed important enough to note. Agatha had no way of knowing until she got there just what Castle Heterodyne’s power source was, but she knew the castle itself had been attacked, explosively, from within and somewhere near the foundation. It was entirely possible that the power source was more compromised than the thinking engine.

But thinking engines could indeed take damage. She needed more information on what Castle Heterodyne was like now to guess at what she might have to do to fix it; there were dozens of problems that could be caused by a damaged or malfunctioning thinking engine, from loss of voluntary control of a clank body to fragmented consciousnesses, and they all depended on how the engine had been constructed and the precise nature of the damage itself.

It was worth it to learn, to understand all the potential problems, to make notes on potential fixes (and occasionally sketch out a plan for much smaller intelligent clanks, things she itched to build once she was safe enough to have them go unremarked). Agatha lost herself in research for a few hours before the sound of footsteps above her head caught her attention.

Above Agatha’s head was an attic crawlspace and the roof.

She made an effort to feel more confused than frightened and headed for the front garden to see what was going on, not encountering anyone else in the house. (Maybe she could justify being a little bit afraid.)

Lilith stood in the yard, calling, “Let me know if you need anything.”

Oggie crouched on the roof, a bucket in one hand, the other already scooping out the rain gutters. “Should be hokay, Frau Clay. Hoy dere, Miz Agatha! Vhere’d hyu come from?”

“I heard someone on the roof and got curious.” Also worried about Geisterdamen or giant spiders, but she would call it curiosity.

“Yah, hyu momma said she vos gonna use all dese extra hands she gots,” Oggie said, amiably, and dropping a glob of something that had been in the gutters since before they moved into the house in the bucket.

He’d stripped down to his vest, arms bare, likely because of the muck. Agatha seized the opportunity, not sure if she knew how to ask properly, but suspecting Oggie wasn’t the sort of person who would mind too much if she made a faux pas with her heart in the right place. “If you tell me where you left your coat, I can mend it while you’re working,” she offered.

Oggie beamed down at her. “Aw, hyu dun haff to do dat, Miz Agatha.” But he sounded touched, which Agatha felt was a good sign.

“I don’t mind-- it’s not really any trouble.”

“Hy ain’t gonna tell hyu no,” Oggie agreed. “Coats is on de porch rail-- und tank hyu!”

“You’re welcome.” Maybe she could avoid the potential issue of injuring anyone’s pride completely-- “If you want to let Maxim and Dimo know…”

“Dot hyu vants sewink vork to do? Hy ken do dot.”

Agatha thanked him, and went to collect his coats-- he did have two, one gray, one brown, both with some short tears and fallen stitching along the hems. Lilith followed her into the house.

“That was kind of you to offer,” she told Agatha.

“It needs doing,” Agatha said, shrugging a little. She wasn’t sure how to explain to Lilith that it was heartbreaking seeing the Jägers looking so worn when they were technically hers to look after and maintain. That it felt like she’d failed them a little by not knowing who she was sooner, not making space for them in her life sooner. “And I can do it.”

“It does need doing,” Lilith said. “Half the reason I put Oggie on the roof is so that people see him being helpful. If they look a little less…”

“Abandoned,” Agatha filled in. “I think that was one of the tricks Jorgi used to keep the town’s opinion… neutral or better.” White uniform pants couldn’t be easy to keep looking crisp, but Jorgi had managed to keep his clean for a week. True, Agatha had admitted she thought his uniform flattered him, but unaltered humans responded better to constructs who were clean and well-dressed…

… Well, Agatha knew that was an unfortunately normal symptom of unaltered humanity, really, and that it wasn’t limited to constructs.

“It’s not a game I like making anyone play,” Lilith said, echoing Agatha’s thoughts, “but we can’t afford not to.”

“I… know, and at the same time, that’s not why I volunteered to do it. They’re not abandoned. They’re mine.” She just hadn’t known about them until very recently. “And I don’t… I don’t want them to feel like I’m ignoring what they gave up to look for me, even if I can’t really do much for them right now. A little mending, a little laundry-- those are such small things, Lilith. I can do that, if they’ll let me.”

“… You’re going to be a very good mistress,” Lilith told her, expression somewhere between proud and sad.

“Never yours,” Agatha said-- impulsive but sincere. “You’re my mother.

Lilith wrapped Agatha in a hug, warm and sudden and a little bit long. Her eyes were bright when she finally let go. “Well. Go get your mending done, then.”

So Agatha did, pulling the sewing supplies out, finding matching thread, and starting with Oggie’s gray inner coat while Lilith headed back outside; the vegetable gardens were starting to progress, which meant there was weeding to be done. The sewing was easy enough work, repetitive but not mindless, and the sort of thing Agatha had been doing since she was no more than eight. The gray coat was heavy, lined linen with only one tear so ragged she had to slip a patch between fabric and lining to stabilize things. Agatha was almost ready to pull out the hem clips when she got the feeling she was being watched, and looked up from her work.

“Maxim-- hello.”

He was leaning on the back of Lilith’s preferred armchair, watching Agatha with wary eyes. “Hyu vants us all spruced up, huh?”

Well, she’d worried it was going to bruise someone’s pride, and Maxim seemed to have the most of that. “Did I overstep? It’s supposed to be an offer, not an order.”

“Hy’m not sayink no.” He moved to sit properly in the chair, but didn’t take his eyes off Agatha the whole time. “But Hy vants to know vhy.”

“Do you want the nice sensible reason first, or the emotion-driven one?”

“Sensible,” Maxim enunciated carefully.

“It will help put the townspeople at ease. It will be one less thing for them to judge, and one more sign that Othar Tryggvassen overreacted and you’re not here to cause the town any trouble. I can’t…” She hated having to say I can’t, she hated it, she wanted to be able to do more, to do enough-- “I can’t give you all the protections of Mechanicsburg, not yet-- and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do for you, as a Heterodyne-- but I can sew.”

Sometimes it was enough to look like you were trying. Mending a tear or patching a hole showed awareness, and, whether it was illusion or reality, giving the impression of ‘I care what people think when they see me’ could be its own kind of armor (whether you were a construct too monstrous to go out by day or a teenage girl with difficulties).

“… Is dot de feelinks reason, too? Hyu dunno vot ve need from our Heterodyne?”

“More that… at least sewing is doing something.” Something with a finished product at the end, where she could look something physical, something real, and think to herself yes, that’s better. “I’m the only Heterodyne, so far as I know, which means you’re mine-- and if you’re mine, I have a responsibility to look after you. But you’re all capable adults and I don’t know what I should be doing, so.” She held up Oggie’s half-mended coat, and her threaded needle.

“Jägerkin ken be hard on clothes,” Maxim told her. “Oggie ken’t sew, Dimo only knits. Hy ken stitch a vound but dis ting--” he held up his right arm, wiggled the fingers of his clank glove-- “chews op cloth pretty goot.” He tugged at his left sleeve to demonstrate, and yes, the frayed fabric caught in the joints of his glove.

“… You could ask Adam to take a look at that,” she suggested. “He’s good with clank prosthetics, even Spark-work-- he might have some ideas for improving your glove so it doesn’t snag like that.” Never mind his clothes, Maxim’s hair was nearly as long as Agatha’s, and dealing with that while wearing snag-prone powered armor on his dominant hand had to be a nightmare.

“Hyu couldn’t do it?”

“I… could, probably, but Adam can be trusted not to forget what he’s supposed to be doing and turn your glove into a death ray.” Or add one to the palm, or the back of the hand, but the trigger mechanism for that would necessarily be awkward, and it would probably require a bigger power source, which would mean re-engineering-- and anyway, Maxim was a right-handed swordsman, there was probably no good place to mount a death ray on that glove… “I’m not quite there yet.”

“Hokay, goot point,” but Maxim was laughing at her, a little, which was good.

Agatha put her hands back to work, folding Oggie’s hem up properly (the coat was fully lined, so she was planning to cheat with hem clips and hidden stitches), to keep busy and keep from turning over the thought of what she could do with-- or to-- Maxim’s glove. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two Jägers wearing the same uniform.” Not even in the Baron’s honor guard back in Beetleburg-- Jorgi had been wearing his green tailed jacket, white pants tucked into his boots, while the other Jäger (had she ever heard his name?) had been wearing mostly green, with brass scale armor, and a cape. “Is the Heterodyne expected to provide them?”

“Ho-- vell, sumtimes,” Maxim said. “Mostly ve likes to fight an enemy vot gots good taste und vears de same size und right colors, und ve take dot stuff for uniforms. Sumtimes hyu gots to fight more den vun guy for it, too.”

… Well then. “But only mostly?”

“If a Heterodyne-- or hokay, Hy guess de Baron too, right now-- ennyvay, if de boss vants sum of us to be all matching or fancy or voteffer, yah, ve might get given new stuff den.”

“And if you just want something new?”

“Ve’s allowed to just buy tings,” Maxim assured her, amused. “… Pipple dun alvays like to sell to Jägers, but ve’s still allowed. Ve just… for uniforms ve’s gonna fight in, dot’s better to get from a fight, but if ve just vants tings, or needs sumting in a hurry like boots dot fit goot-- not hats,” he added, sudden and vehement. “Jägerkin dun buy hats. Hyu gots to vin a hat.”

“… In a fight,” Agatha guessed, “or do bets count?” Zumzum was starting to get to her.

“Bets count!” Maxim said, cheerful and toothsome. “Und fights count. Stealing counts if ve steal from sumbody, not a shop. Gifts is hokay, too, even vhen de hat got bought by de vun giving it, but… dot’s a big gift, hyu know? For doink a big favor.”

“Not just because you saw it in the window and thought it would suit them.”

“Vhy, hyu gun buy hyu sveethot a hat?” Maxim teased-- and it was good to have him teasing. Oggie was friendly, Dimo treated her like a superior he wanted to trust, Jenka actually came across a little bit like a teacher, but aside from wanting the same attention Oggie had reached for that first day, Maxim had held himself back a little.

“Not if it’s going to insult his hat-winning prowess,” Agatha said primly.

“… Hyu might haff to,” Maxim said, suddenly thoughtful, “at least if hyu vants to do fancy politics parties vit him. Ask Jenka. She vent to dose, vhen ve sent ennybody, und Hy dun tink she vent around fighting ladies for party hats.”

“I’ll be sure to do that.”

The day passed, and Agatha finished mending Oggie’s coats shortly before dinner. Dinner itself was a slightly-crowded tangle that Agatha suspected was going to become normal, though she hoped they could do without the odd little power-struggle over setting the table (Agatha assured all four Jägers that it was fine and she already knew where everything was) and washing dishes (Oggie somehow won that one, at least if for values of ‘winning’ defined as ‘having to do the dishes’). Agatha dried, letting Jenka talk her into showing her where everything should go while putting dishes away, and Adam and Lilith sat at the table and hid smiles behind their hands through the whole production.

The next morning, however, Maxim’s short-sleeved jacket and cloak were folded neatly on the tea table.

Agatha put off those sewing projects until after her trip to the post office, this time accompanied by Oggie, who refused to let Agatha carry any of the packages that had come for her-- probably finally her more civic engineering books, or at least the first wave of them. Agatha was already planning the rest of her day (Maxim’s mending, then see if Lilith needed her for anything, or Adam, and if not-- or afterwards-- she could finally start getting some theory on how to govern) when Oggie asked, “Hoy-- is dot normal, over dere?”

“Hm?” Agatha looked-- there was a crowd milling around the clock tower. It wasn’t the finest clock tower, really, more of a landmark for the town square than a useful piece of city planning, and basically only wide enough for the spiral staircase that provided access to the workings of the clock itself. It didn’t ordinarily draw a crowd. “… No, that’s actually kind of strange.”

She headed over-- only remembering she needed to be more cautious than usual when she was too close to turn back without it looking odd. Luckily, Evgeny was near the edge of the crowd, too. “What’s going on?”

“You know Frau Velichou’s cow?”

Frau Velichou’s cow was slightly infamous for being willing and able to open any gate short of the actual town gates, and likely only because the bars on the town gates were too high for her to reach. “Oh, no, Adam really thought those new latches would hold her.”

“She kicked down a fencepost,” Evgeny told her, “and now she’s up the clock tower.”

“She come down vhen she gets hungry,” Oggie broke in. “Cows dun like goink down stairs, but dey do it if dey gots to.”

“Trouble is, those stairs are maybe a meter wide, and the platform up top is big enough for two workmen and a toolbox,” Evgeny said. “She’s got no room to turn around, and from what I hear, she won’t go down the stairs rump first.”

“Do the clock faces open up?” Agatha wondered aloud. “Maybe we could rig some sort of… of harness and pulley…” It wouldn’t be difficult, just tricky to get it built with a cow in the way…

“That’s about what Herr Tryggvassen suggested,” Evgeny said, “and the mayor shot him down. Something something historical landmark.”

… And like a splash of cold water to the face, there was a good reason for Agatha not to build anything in town. Right. Yes. Othar Tryggvassen was up at the front of the crowd, looking much put-upon as the mayor and Frau Velichou shouted at each other about whether or not the cow should’ve been butchered and eaten after the first four or five thwarted gates.

“Vhy dun Hy go gets her?” Oggie offered.

“… Go get her?” Evgeny echoed.

“Hy promise not to drop de cow down de stairs.”

“Well. Come promise Frau Velichou that and we’ll see what happens?” Evgeny offered. “… Who am I vouching for? I can’t just call you ‘one of Agatha’s Jägers,’ that makes it sound like she’s keeping a set.”

Agatha buried her face in her hands. “I swear I’m not collecting them,” even though she had five of them now. … Technically she had all of them, but most of them were still on loan to Baron Wulfenbach.

“Well, I figured that out when the girl with the bear showed up,” Evgeny said, chuckling.

Agatha just sighed. “Evgeny, this is Ognian, who’s boarding with us for a while. Oggie, this is Evgeny, he’s Zumzum’s only professional baker.”

“Hyu’s de guy who din’ vant to arm-wrestle vit Jorgi, yah? Schmot guy.”

“Well, I need my arms to knead the dough, so…”

Oggie burst out laughing at Evgeny’s tired and terrible pun, delighted (and only a little wild). “Und a funny guy, too! Hokay, letz go gets dot cow.”

“I’ll come right back once he’s inside,” Evgeny promised Agatha. She must’ve looked as puzzled as she felt, because he went on, “I heard there are some worries about Tryggvassen.”

Thank you, Masha. “Well, I’ve got my death ray.”

“… Right, I forgot you have one of those.” She actually had four working ones, now, but no one really needed to know that. Or that she was carrying two of them. “But you also haven’t been outside alone since the… un-hanging.”

If Evgeny had noticed that, he probably wasn’t the only one. “I’m not scared,” she told him, “just… a little wary.”

“And angry, or you’d just let Rurik deliver your mail instead of taking a death ray and a Jäger-- or a death ray and a bear-- to the post office.”

“Of course I’m angry,” Agatha admitted. “He tried to execute three people who hadn’t done anything wrong-- and he doesn’t even live here. He’s got no right.”

Oggie tapped Agatha’s shoulder, and offered her books to her. “Den hyu ken’t be de only vun making him look bad. Hy go rescue a cow, hey?”

“Go rescue a cow,” she agreed, smiling.

“I’ll be right back,” Evgeny repeated, then led Oggie up to Frau Velichou.

Agatha could see but not quite hear the ensuing argument-- the mayor looked aghast, Othar looked astonished, Oggie looked what was probably meant to be harmless, which Evgeny frankly did a better job of, and Frau Velichou herself eventually just threw her hands up and, even at the edge of the crowd, Agatha caught her shout of, “Whatever! It’s worth a try!”

Oggie disappeared into the clock tower, and Evgeny made his way back to Agatha’s side. “I can hold some of those, if you want,” he offered, nodding to her books. Agatha thanked him and handed over half the stack. “So, when does the library open?”

“… What?”

“My mother was a big reader,” Evgeny said. “Got a new novel every week. When my father wanted to give her a present, he built bookshelves.” That, Agatha decided, was adorable. “But she got through about one book a week. Either you read really fast, or you’re going to end up with more books than you can read in a lifetime.”

“Oh-- well. They’re mostly technical-- I’m sort of trying to continue my studies,” she offered, which was true-- she was just also expanding on her studies. “But my headaches are so much better now, and there’s… not really anyone to tell me not to read ahead or that I have to focus on the project at hand, and… and we didn’t have room for me to pack all my personal books when we left Beetleburg,” she admitted. All of it was true, although she had more regrets about leaving her little failed clanks than her battered, hidden copy of The Heterodyne Boys and the Race to the West Pole, now that she knew a little more about the ‘characters.’

“Start pacing yourself,” Evgeny advised. “You’re going to end up building furniture out of books, otherwise.”

“If I find myself doing that, I promise I’ll give the library idea some serious thought.”

“It would give you somewhere to stand, if you’re going to keep standing up to the mayor,” he said, quietly. “‘Town librarian’ carries more weight than ‘blacksmith’s daughter,’ even if you make the job yourself.”

“… You think so?” She had too much on her plate to actually do it-- but, she thought, in a different world, a world where she’d stay Agatha Clay, blacksmith’s daughter, all her life, ‘town librarian’ might not have been the worst possible path. And Evgeny might have a point about a position like that being a better place to speak from.

“That’s my professional opinion,” he told her, “as Zumzum’s only professional baker.”

Agatha wouldn’t have thought of ‘baker’ as a position of any kind of power, but ‘only baker in town’ kind of was, at least in terms of how much time everyone else had to devote to work besides baking bread.

A cheer went up at the front of the crowd-- Oggie appeared with Frau Velichou’s escape-artist cow held securely and a little ridiculously in his arms. He set the cow on the ground as though hoisting cattle around was an everyday thing, and though Agatha couldn’t hear him, she could tell he was pretending to scold her. Then he looked to the mayor and Frau Velichou, gestured back toward the clock tower, and pulled a dismayed face while he said… something else Agatha couldn’t hear.

“And that,” Evgeny announced, just loud enough for the other people at the edge of the crowd to hear, “is why I will never be drunk enough to arm-wrestle your beau, Miss Clay.”

From there, Agatha’s day went more-or-less the way she expected it to-- with the inclusion of Oggie’s animated retelling of The Daring Cow Rescue as background to her sewing. He turned out to be an engaging if not particularly linear or very likely accurate storyteller, and had Lilith laughing quietly and Maxim interjecting whenever he deemed something implausible. This included a well-described but fictional maneuver Oggie claimed had gotten him past the cow at the top of the stairs, because it had required his halberd-- which had an alibi, as it had been leaning against a wall in the kitchen at the time-- and being offered reward money by Frau Velichou-- which Oggie claimed he’d turned down. “Hyu’s just cranky cawse hyu had to borrow vun of my coats,” Oggie informed Maxim.

And frankly, Maxim did look a little odd wearing Oggie’s fur-collared overcoat. It really wasn’t his color, he’d had to take off his glove (which made him protective of his right hand, its fingers looking limp without support), and he seemed to be sulking about the whole situation. “Dere is ladies present,” Maxim pointed out.

“So vot? Hyu gots a shirt.”

“Hyu dun sit vit ladies vitout a jacket on-- hyu gots to be dressed proper.”

“That’s very considerate of you, Maxim,” Agatha said, without looking up from the tear she was mending. (Whatever caused it had gone clean through the fabric and the gold braid; Agatha suspected either a blade or some kind of Spark-engineered thorn.) If she’d actually looked at Maxim, she might have laughed.

“See?” Maxim said, practically preening. Agatha was going to laugh, she knew it. “Miz Agatha gots manners.”

“Miz Agatha is being nize to hyu cawse hyu’s cranky,” Oggie countered.

“Do you two need to go run around in the woods and fight something?” Lilith asked-- and Agatha knew the tone, it was the ‘do you have something you’re supposed to be doing?’ tone that had reminded Agatha about everything from chores to homework to going to bed at a reasonable hour.

“Vell,” Oggie started, “ve’s due for a goot fight.”

“Probably, yah,” Maxim agreed. “But not in Oggie’s coat, Hy ken’t draw mine sword like dis.”

“I have two small tears and a loose button to go,” Agatha told him, “if you don’t mind going without the cloak.”

“I’m sure they can wait that long before they get into a fight,” Lilith agreed, and two centuries-old Jägers reacted like sheepish little boys. Agatha desperately stifled a giggle.

“Vould chust be a friendly vun,” Oggie said.

“I spent the first twenty years of my life in Mechanicsburg,” Lilith reminded him-- reminded Agatha. She rarely thought of that, still seeing her parents as Adam and Lilith most of the time, not Punch and Judy. “A ‘friendly’ bout between Jägers would end with how much of my furniture in pieces?”

“… Really?” Agatha asked, tying off her thread and moving on to the next tear.

“Is not so bad vhen dere’s just two of us,” Maxim said, looking around the parlor. “But… yah, vould probably break sumting over Oggie’s head.”

“Woods,” Lilith insisted, before Oggie could reply. “There’s a boar problem a little ways south of town.”

They lit up at the idea, and were off as soon as Agatha had Maxim’s coat sound again. Lilith knitted while Agatha finished her sewing-- the red cloak seemed newer, or possibly Maxim’s spiked shoulder armor kept it clear of his glove, because the worst it seemed to have was a fallen hem-- but didn’t protest when Agatha admitted she wanted to go start in on her new books.

Political science was a new field to her entirely, so Agatha read with care. The books that had arrived weren’t entirely specific to her needs, but the brief history and fairly extensive detailing of the Pax Transylvania was useful, and she chose it as her starting point-- she had expected to learn what a city-state would have to do to stay out of trouble with Baron Wulfenbach, but that turned out to be surprisingly simple. The Baron was laissez-faire about local politics so long as Imperial law came first; a local leader could have petty thieves executed or enforce Underwear Thursdays so long as they didn’t attack any other vassal state of the Empire and didn’t try to allow things the Empire had banned, such as slavery or treating intelligent constructs like property (technically also slavery, but people could be awfully particular), or fail to report and surrender any artifacts of the Other.

The protections the Empire offered were not inconsiderable; military and reconstruction aid in case one or more of the neighbors decided to attack, relief for disasters such as flood, famine, fires, earthquakes, or Sparks gone rogue, connection to the postal service, mandatory state-funded basic education for children (though scheduling was flexible on a community basis), and access to the ongoing project that was safe roads through the Wastelands, though travel by airship or Corbettite railway was encouraged by the Empire, as well. These of course required taxes, which were levied by the Empire on the city-state’s governing body, and from there to the local people. There was room there for corruption, for local governments to bleed their people dry and blame it on the Baron while lining their own pockets, but it largely seemed that Baron Wulfenbach had two settings as a head of state-- overseeing every detail personally and ‘don’t make me come down there.’ A region that kept to the Baron’s laws, paid taxes on time, and neither suffered nor caused calamity might never see Castle Wulfenbach overhead.

… Come to think of it, hadn’t Jorgi implied the Baron didn’t actually want to be as politically active as he was? It was something to consider, so Agatha made a note. (And she sympathized. Politics had never interested her, either, but here she was, designing her own crash course in it.)

She had just about concluded that, unless the people currently in charge of Mechanicsburg had a stunningly good reason to want to secede, remaining part of the Wulfenbach Empire had more benefits than risks when someone knocked on her bedroom doorframe.

“Miss Agatha?” Jenka asked.

“Hello-- did someone need something? I didn’t think I’d been reading that long…”

“Just checking in. I heard you finally got some political books.” She shifted, not quite stepping inside-- but trying to see the titles, Agatha thought.

“You can come in,” she offered (it wasn’t the most polite way to put ‘come in,’ but she still felt as though even an awkwardly-phrased offer felt better than anything that could be seen as an order). “I don’t have an extra chair, but I haven’t covered the bed in books or notes.”

Her little desk, her vanity table, and she suspected she was going to start pinning things to the wall soon, but not the bed.

“Where are you starting?” Jenka asked, settling onto the bed with what might have been practiced ease.

“Hm? Oh. The Pax Transylvania,” Agatha told her. “Out of what arrived today it seemed like the best place to start.”

“That makes sense. So, are we staying with the Empire?”

… Okay, actually being asked that was a little bit terrifying. Agatha was eighteen. She shouldn’t have the ability to answer questions like that and have them matter. “Um.” But she did have the ability, so her answers had to be good ones. “I can’t actually think of a good reason not to, but I’d be open to hearing from people who do have reasons.”

“Well, that’s interesting,” and though it was by no means thick, a trace of Mechanicsburg crept into Jenka’s accent-- just the lightest touch.

“Is it? I’m happy to try to fix things, or improve things, but if something’s working, and benefiting most people without actually harming anyone, it’s probably better left alone, isn’t it?” Things weren’t perfect, of course, but people were messy, imperfect creatures, and Agatha was sort of fine with that. Things worked. At least, across Europa as a whole, they worked-- she still needed to learn about Mechanicsburg in particular. (Beetleburg had worked. It hadn’t always been perfect, but it had usually been good and definitely hadn’t been as bad as it could’ve been.)

“Not a lot of Heterodynes would have liked the ‘don’t attack your neighbors’ rule,” Jenka pointed out.

So this was Jenka trying to get to know Agatha-- or Mechanicsburg’s head diplomat sounding out her new Lady Heterodyne. Or both. “It goes both ways,” Agatha countered. “Vassal states get military aid if a neighbor makes war on them.”

“Most vassal states don’t have much of a standing army,” Jenka pointed out. “You do.” Her teeth might have been human, but her smile was still somehow very dangerous.

“Which means we’re in a position to offer the Baron our aid,” Agatha told her, “both in Jäger volunteers continuing to travel Europa and fight whatever needs fighting, and-- if I can get the castle fixed, Mechanicsburg is practically impenetrable, right?”

“The town has survived years-long sieges,” which Agatha decided counted as Jenka agreeing.

“So we could possibly trade on that security, too, to keep things or people protected or contained.” As needed. “At least I think we can, I don’t actually know much specific about Mechanicsburg, yet.” Soon.

“You haven’t asked,” Jenka said.

… Head of the Mechanicsburg Diplomatic Corps. Really, Agatha probably should have asked, and not assumed it would trip them into homesickness-- a conversation wasn’t a letter they could put aside while they thought it over-- or assumed that Jenka, at least, was actually fifteen years out of date. She probably had contacts. On the other hand-- “Is just asking a good place to start? There’s so much I need to know, and I don’t think I can take notes as fast as people can talk.” … She could build a-- no. Actual conversation happening. A dictation clank could happen later. (Like every other clank she wanted to build.)

“You’re going to read that Mechanicsburg is where the monsters come from,” Jenka told her, “Jägers and Heterodynes and everybody else. The books from Mechanicsburg make us all sound like fun monsters, because they want tourists to come look at museums and spend their money looking at the relics, like it was a thousand years ago instead of forty, nize and safe and under glass.”

For a moment, Agatha wanted to ask Jenka something… something Sparky and rhetorical about monsters and safety. Something about Adam and Lilith’s work, their network of constructs. Something about how it felt to be held by arms that could tear her to pieces and not have even a heartbeat of fear. Something unformed about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ being verbs, things one could do, and all of it wrapped up in a perilously I’ll-show-you-all sentiment. Instead, she took a slow breath-- not quite a measured one, she didn’t hold it-- and asked, “What do you want me to know?”

“To start with? That we’re your monsters,” Jenka said. “That we will love you, at least a little bit, just for being a Heterodyne. And that we need you to love us a little bit. Mechanicsburg has always run on love and loyalty. We don’t sell that to tourists, and historians don’t believe it. Sparks don’t usually love their people, especially not the warlord-Sparks.”

But the Heterodynes had, it sounded like. And-- well. Agatha could sympathize. “So that’s normal?”

“… What?”

“I’ve never…” How to put it. “The ‘mistress’ thing is new,” she started, “and I wasn’t sure how strange it was to…” To love her people for loving her, to love them for wanting to be her people. To want to protect them because they were hers. To mend torn clothes because she couldn’t bear to have her people looking like no one cared what condition they were in-- she cared. But it was intensely hard to find a word or phrase to explain it out loud. Agatha made a frustrated sound and shook her head. “I know,” she restarted, “that Maxim, Dimo, and Oggie are centuries old, implausibly strong constructs. I know their being hanged was an embarrassing inconvenience. I watched Oggie carry a cow like an empty pasteboard box today. They can look after themselves.”

“To a point,” Jenka agreed, amused, and motioned for Agatha to go on.

“To a point,” because yes, all right, she’d give Jenka that. “But I still want to look after them myself, even though I’m really not equipped to do that.” Yet. Opening her home to them was a temporary measure-- she’d give them their home back, eventually. “I’m surrounded by Jägerkin to keep me safe, but I want to keep all of you safe.”

“Vell,” and that wasn’t a trace of Mechanicsburg anymore, “dot’s a good start.”

“Your accent is slipping,” Agatha pointed out.

“Hy know. Hy get de feeling hyu like me better vhen Hy sound like dis.”

“… I mean… not better, but-- I understand why you put on a different accent even around the house,” so she didn’t forget herself when she wasn’t in the house, or if they had company, “but ‘Jenka the Mechanicsburger’ does sound less like a teacher who’s reserving judgment on me until after the first test.” Agatha’s experience with Jägers had been pretty uniformly positive. Her experience with teachers reserving judgment had been a lot more varied.

“You are the most important person I report to,” Jenka said, her accent back to that precise enunciation that didn’t betray any origin, “but you aren’t the only person I report to. The Jägergenerals want to know about you-- from a less-biased source than Jorgi.”

And that-- all right, that was probably reasonable. It was one thing to be the central figure of a lost-princess story; the people she’d be returning to had a right to want to know what they were getting. (It just also meant that Jenka probably was reserving judgment a little bit.) “Should I be writing to them, too?”

From the look on her face, that was the last response Jenka had been expecting. “Do you want to?”

“I have no idea what I’d say,” Agatha admitted, “but I certainly don’t mind the idea, if it’s safe to get in touch that directly.” But if Jenka was reporting to them-- she certainly wasn’t just mailing letters to Castle Wulfenbach, or wherever the Generals Jenka was in touch with were living.

“I can pass short letters along with my reports,” Jenka said, confirming Agatha’s suspicions. “And I’ll see about getting you in touch with some of the people running Mechanicsburg, too. Carefully, so we don’t attract attention.”

“Will they accept me? I’m not recognized.”

“Not by the Castle, you’re not, which means nothing can be official, but we can get a lot of things done unofficially just fine.” Jenka’s bright smile was somehow just as sharp as any pointier Jäger grin. “We can tell you’re a Heterodyne. We wouldn’t have been detached if we couldn’t. The right people will listen. Mechanicsburg wants a Heterodyne,” Jenka told her. “No matter what kind of Heterodyne you are.”

“I want to be useful,” Agatha said, gesturing at the notes, the books, the diagrams of thinking engines. If the best she could do was fix a broken clank brain and stay out of everyone else’s way, well, she still wanted to be sure that was the best she could do. “I don’t want to be an obstacle people-- my own people, Mechanicsburgers-- have to work around to get things done.”

“And you want to start with books.”

She did. “The books will show me the systems that run Europa.” Agatha handed Jenka one that had arrived that morning-- a hefty compendium of Transylvanian agricultural production, by region, over the last twenty years. “They might only be able to show me an outsider’s view of Mechanicsburg, but that’s still a place to start.” Once she had a broader view of the Europan political machine, she could work on how the specific systems of Mechanicsburg fit into the whole.

Jenka examined the book, flipped through a few pages, and grinned at Agatha. “So you’re working from the outside in. You want to know how the rest of Europa likes Mechanicsburg these days, and who’s feeding who, and what imports go where?”

“That’s the plan,” Agatha agreed. “It might change a little depending on which books arrive first.”

“If you don’t want to go raiding, we do need tourists,” Jenka said, “but there’s no trouble with that. People will probably come to town for the chance to get a look at you. And then there’s the bloodline game.”

“Well, that sounds… ominous.”

“You,” Jenka told her, “are a Lady, a Spark, a liege-- or you will be once you’re recognized-- a Heterodyne, a Heterodyne girl, and a hero’s daughter. Every fortune hunter, spare heir, and landless gentleman in Europa is going to be interested in you, and the Storm Lords are going to explode.”

No matter how delighted Jenka sounded (at least by the explosion), Agatha… wasn’t looking forward to that. “… Won’t they care that I’m seeing someone?”

“… Hokay, I have a couple of answers there, but first I need to know how long you see that lasting? No judgment,” Jenka assured her, “just your best guess.”

Unfortunately, her best guess was, “I don’t know. I’m eighteen and this is my first romance. It could last the rest of my life, if I’m very lucky, but I think Jorgi and I both need more time together to decide that.” And to talk about things that hadn’t come up during a very emotionally complicated week together.

“That’s a good answer,” Jenka said. “Well. Jorgi’s a commoner, so you might see some support from commoners-- everybody loves a fairy-tale ending, and ‘the loyal soldier who found the hidden princess’ is a good one. From the upper classes-- not just nobility, but people who’ve been working for nobility, and old money that isn’t quite nobility but would love to marry a title-- you’re going to get them thinking your relationship isn’t anything serious unless you actually get married.” Agatha blushed, but nodded-- that was good to know. “The Fifty Families have funny rules about constructs, and might not count him even if you do get married. Wulfenbach will support you, but you might have to prove to him that there aren’t any weird mistress-minion issues first, he’s protective that way. You will need to have answers when people question that you’re seeing one of your own Jägers,” Jenka warned, “because people will question that, for a lot of reasons.”

“I know.” She did. She had an awful lot of power over Jorgi, even if she didn’t want to use it. “Jorgi and I need to find time to talk that out between ourselves, first, but I do know there are some-- I mean in fairness to us, we got involved before we knew there were any ethical issues.”

“And Mechanicsburg won’t care,” Jenka told her. “You’ll be the Heterodyne, you’re allowed to be as weird and wild as you want, no one would blink if you kept a whole stable of consorts-- constructs and humans and Jägers, men and women and whatever else-- and walked out with the one who matched your outfit best that day.”

“… You’re joking.” Agatha had to be red as a beet. Jenka had to be joking.

“Not even a leedle bit.” Jenka’s grin was wide. “Mechanicsburg doesn’t play the bloodline game-- your bloodline is the only one that matters, and Heterodynes almost always come home to Mechanicsburg in the end. Have six kids with six different fathers and the Fifty Families will be appalled, but Mechanicsburg will just be happy the succession is secure again.”

“That might be a little much for me,” Agatha admitted. But she had to ask-- “Can anyone in Mechanicsburg do things like that, or just the Heterodyne?”

“… Do you mean are there laws about it, or do you mean is it socially acceptable?”

“Both,” even if she got embarrassed by the answer.

“Mechanicsburg has traditions and the word of our Heterodyne more than laws,” Jenka said, almost shrugging. “And right now, the Baron’s laws, but you’re thinking of keeping those, right?”

“I generally agree with them.” And it would be a poor way to start off treating with the Baron if she didn’t, she was sure.

“So if he doesn’t have any laws about who and how many in a romance, neither does Mechanicsburg. Traditionally, if a Mechanicsburger wants something bad enough to brazen it out, they can probably get it. Neighbors might gossip, but neighbors will gossip about what color you paint your house, so.” She shrugged, and Agatha could certainly understand dismissing gossip as just one of those things-- like betting, gossip was one of Zumzum’s favorite sports.

“And gossip, in Mechanicsburg, doesn’t tend to lead to people being… shut out?” Because that could happen even in a good sized city-- it had happened in Beetleburg. The wrong kind of mistake could get you shunned, evicted, fired, or expelled.

“Not over who’s sleeping where,” Jenka said. “Maybe if somebody’s scandalously young, or broke a vow. We take promises to other Mechanicsburgers seriously-- don’t give your word if you don’t mean it. … Outside Mechanicsburg, you’re going to need to brace yourself for real gossip, Miss Agatha.”

“I will?” Hadn’t they been talking about regular citizens?

“You’re unknown, that would make them nervous even if you weren’t also a Heterodyne woman ruling in your own right, and your first serious suitor is a commoner, a construct, a soldier in your own army, and a Jägermonster-- that will get them talking about how you intend to control your monsters.”

“… Oh no.” Surely people wouldn’t assume…

“You won’t be the first lady it’s happened to,” Jenka told her. “Men in power always use sex against women in power, because most men get nervous when they have to admit women are-- well, you know, capable. They want us to do twice as much as a man before they’ll admit we’re half as good, and usually we have to do it without getting our pretty dresses dirty.”

Agatha blinked, because all of a sudden she had a new question. “… There aren’t a lot of women Jägers, are there?” Even if Agatha’s sample size was representative, it was still one in five. Transylvania Polgynostic University’s student rolls were closer to equal than that, and there were still more young men than young women.

“There are a few,” Jenka told her, grinning broadly again. “Most Jägers started off in the army, and most Heterodynes didn’t let women openly join the army. Openly-- so there were lots of dramatic haircuts and padding things out and strapping things down, and a lot of soldier boys pretending they didn’t notice some of their brothers-in-arms never needed to shave. The ones who take the bräu usually stop pretending once we’re Jägerkin. … Haircuts still vary. I missed long hair the whole time I had it short, but it was a lot easier.”

“I believe it. … Can I ask an impertinent question?”

“Of course.”

“Are the teeth… um, because…” Actually, now Agatha didn’t know how she wanted to phrase that question.

“Not a lady Jäger thing,” Jenka told her, sounding wry, “just a thing that happens once in a while-- we don’t all get all the fun stuff. I’m not the only one who didn’t get the sharp teeth, but I try to make sure I’m sharp in other ways.”

The first time Agatha saw Jenka, she’d assumed Jenka was a Geister-- “People don’t immediately think ‘Jäger’ when they look at you,” she concluded.

“Vhen Hy sound like a Mechanicsburger,” Jenka said, “und I’m all dressed op und armed to the teeth, pipple see Jenka the Jägermonster. When I switch accents and I’m not carrying any visible weapons and not wearing any armor--” she smoothed her skirt, a simple, hard-wearing blue wool thing-- “people see Miss Jenka the construct, who’s probably harmless. And sometimes I get to get all dressed up fine and be Her Excellency Lady Jenka, the mysterious and eccentric ambassador. Somehow nobody ever minds Füst.”

“I do wonder why.” No, she didn’t, and she smiled to show she didn’t. Nobody wanted to know what Füst did when Jenka was upset, that was why nobody ever minded Füst. “But actually that reminds me-- Maxim said you’d be the person to ask about Jäger traditions for, um, formal hats?”

“… Just curious?”

“Someday I might need to know.” ‘Fancy politics parties,’ Maxim had called them, but Agatha did know that politics was sometimes paperwork and sometimes dinner parties-- she’d never gotten to attend one in Beetleburg, but she’d helped juggle schedules around them. To any kind of party that required an escort, her first choice would probably be Jorgi. … And there would probably be several Jägers at any party Agatha hosted, as Lady Heterodyne. She couldn’t imagine letting herself be talked out of that.

“Hokay. Well. Did he tell you we usually fight for them?”

Agatha nodded. “That hats the hats you wear with your uniforms are badges of honor, can be issued but should be won somehow, and that bets and gifts are okay.”

“But that’s a big gift,” Jenka told her. “If you wouldn’t give somebody a medal, don’t give a Jäger a hat.”

“… Well,” Agatha said, blinking, “thank you for the sense of scale.”

“But I serve the House of Heterodyne in more ways than most of my brothers. Miss Jenka is a disguise, and when a Jäger needs a disguise, all the rules fly out the window-- you get the disguise any way you can.”

“You bought the hat,” Agatha guessed.

“Mm-hm, at a secondhand shop the next town over, because it looks like it’s been through the Wastelands before. This is a hat for Miss Jenka, Itinerant Construct.” And Agatha could see that-- it was a battered straw hat, still sound but with a few tattered places around the hem, decorated with a faded but still blue velvet ribbon. “I could have gone without, but I don’t like to.”

“I’m mostly relieved you didn’t steal it.”

Jenka just shrugged. “I was in a hurry. Shopkeepers remember thieves. They forget customers, even funny-colored ones.”

Agatha had never thought of it that way, but she was familiar with the way the last half-dozen people who needed repairs to their clank wagons could sort of blend into one super-customer-- even as the wagons themselves stood out. “That’s true. So what about hats for formalwear?”

“For when I’m Lady Jenka, Society Beauty?” She shifted her hands up and down in counterpoint, a scale looking for balance. “It’s not quite a disguise, but it’s not quite a uniform, either. It wouldn’t feel wrong to buy a hat off the shelf, especially if I’m in a hurry, but if I have time I’ll hunt something for fur or feathers and have it made into a hat.”

“You must have quite a wardrobe.” How many fancy parties was a diplomat expected to attend? For that matter, how many fancy parties was a Lady Heterodyne (with or without her escort of choice) expected to attend-- or host?

“Most of it’s waiting for me in Mechanicsburg,” Jenka said. “Some of it might not even be hopelessly out of date.”

She was struck by a sudden vision of centuries of formalwear, neatly stored, and stacks and stacks of hatboxes. “… How far back…?”

Jenka just laughed. “Probably not as far as you’re thinking! I only save my favorites.” The conversation wandered, from there, to descriptions of some of Jenka’s favorite hats and dresses over the years, leaving Agatha a little lost in some of the particulars (she knew what color verdigris was, which of course would look stunning in silk damask and flatter Jenka’s coloring, and she understood ‘robe à la polonaise’ literally, but she’d need a picture to work out what it meant in eighteenth century dressmaking terms-- but now she knew Jenka’s favorite thing about panniers was how much weaponry a prepared lady could hide under them), but with a better understanding of how fashion and politics came together in a really formal setting. More than once, Jenka talked about her clothing collection as though it were armor or weapons, and the careful art of choosing a gown that helped hold attention when one wanted it but blended into the background when one needed to be subtle.

But Jenka excused herself, only a few minutes before Agatha realized learning that-- or at least, learning that sort of lesson-- was probably part of why Jenka, specifically, had been sent to her. There might be books that could teach Agatha how to make statements more sophisticated than ‘I’m respectable’ with her clothes, but she doubted they came backed by at least a hundred years of personal experience.

So that was something to think about.

But she thought about it in the back of her head, instead turning to her crop-yields compendium to have an in-depth look at Mechanicsburg’s exports, and in contrast what it needed to import. She’d known the best quality snails came from Mechanicsburg, but not that there were so many varieties.

She also turned over other ideas in the back of her head, brewing the text of a short letter she finally worked on after supper, after bothering Jenka for names, spelling of names, and double-checking how she should style herself in a relatively formal letter.

My Dear Generals Goomblast, Khrizhan, and Zog,

Please forgive the awkwardness of this introductory letter; I hardly know what I want to say besides introducing myself. I am Agatha Clay, natural daughter of Bill Heterodyne and Lucrezia Mongfish, and with any luck I’ll be Lady Heterodyne before too terribly long. My adoptive parents continue well, as do my Jäger guardians. I hope this note finds you likewise collectively well.

Though no longer a student at Transylvania Polygnostic University, I have been making an effort to continue my studies, and the recent revelation of my identity has channeled my efforts first into the details of thinking engines, in the hope that I’ll be able to repair Castle Heterodyne, and a broad-to-specific self-styled course of study in the economics and political sciences first of Europa in general and then on to Mechanicsburg in particular, in the hopes that I can be of some political use to Mechanicsburg as its Heterodyne. To that end, if you have any advice for a young Heterodyne, or book title suggestions for my reading list, I would be both delighted and relieved to entertain them.

Thank you for your patience and indulgence in supporting my decision to remain in Zumzum for the time being. I assure you, when I feel capable of repairing a sophisticated thinking engine, I’ll make my way to Mechanicsburg and Castle Heterodyne. I do not intend to delay your homecoming any longer than necessary.

Most Sincerely,

Lady Agatha Clay Heterodyne


Signing with any noble title felt odd, but Jenka had advised her to do it, at least on this letter, to assure the generals that Agatha acknowledged her bloodline and responsibilities. It was good advice, so she took it, wondering if she’d ever meet a Jäger who wasn’t at least a little bit afraid she’d reject them.

Besides, slipping her name in between Lady and Heterodyne was about the simplest Agatha’s formal style could get, from here on out-- the Heterodyne was a Serene Highness. According to Jenka, that title dated back to the reign of the Storm King, specifically to his first diplomatic envoys to Mechanicsburg, to see if they could reach terms to stop the fighting and raiding before it became a war with the Coalition of the West. The nobility arithmetic had gone like so: Heterodynes were ruling warlords, therefore the Heterodyne was roughly equivalent to a prince regnant, therefore it would be insulting to address the Heterodyne as anything less than Serene Highness, which had just been standardized for reigning princes. Since insulting any Heterodyne was a plan likely to get a person broken down to constituent parts, ‘Serene’ won the day. Apparently, Clemethious Heterodyne had found the whole thing absolutely hysterical, laughed himself sick when he realized the envoy meant it, promptly refused to invent a less ironic style of address for future the-Heterodynes, and giggled every time protocol dictated that some dignitary had to call him ‘Your Serene Highness’ to his face.

It was Maxim who promised Agatha that Mechanicsburg would let her leave the more inflated titles at the town gate, as long as she didn’t try to stop her people calling her ‘mistress’ or ‘my lady’ without giving them a substitute option. (There had been at least one Heterodyne who had preferred a gender-neutral ‘my liege’ rather than ‘my lord.’) Europa’s rules mattered to Europa, but Mechanicsburg only cared about its own traditions.

Jenka disappeared with Agatha’s note to the generals the next morning, and Dimo joined her on the walk to the post office-- Agatha had been expecting Maxim, and admitted as much. “It seemed like you were taking turns.”

“Ve is,” Dimo confirmed, “but Maxim takes third vatch-- de late nights. Hardest to see in de dark.”

“That makes sense.” Purple and red would absorb a lot of light, especially if he kept his arms covered by his cloak. And it explained why Agatha hardly saw Maxim between breakfast and lunch-- he had to sleep sometime. “I’m a little surprised he comes to breakfast. Do you think I should offer to save something for him?”

Dimo chuckled. “Nah, Maxim von’t miss a chance to show off his table manners unless he din eat for days. Und ve dun sleep so much as regular pipple. Is fine.”

“… Come to think of it,” and she did notice that Dimo looked suspicious as she spoke, “I think I’ve only seen you at meals for the last little while?”

“Ho. Vell. Hy heard hyu vas… vanting to get efferybody’s clothes all fixed up.”

And he’d made himself scarce? But aside from needing a wash, Dimo’s clothes looked fine-- unless he was hiding damage somewhere, there didn’t seem to be any obvious rips or tears. “I wasn’t going to insist,” she offered, “and your clothes seem to be in pretty good shape, anyway.”

“Vas chust kind of vorried hyu vanted… Hy dunno vot. To gets us dressed op like de guys dot vent vit de Baron.”

“… I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” Agatha started, “and I wouldn’t try to talk you into wearing anything you didn’t like. Mending was something I could offer.”

“Hy figured most of dot out vhen Hy saw hyu din’ bother vit Maxim’s shirt,” Dimo admitted, shrugging a little-- embarrassed a little, too, Agatha thought.

“I wish I could just give him a new one,” Agatha admitted. Maybe if it turned out there was money attached to being Lady Heterodyne. There probably was, but that didn’t help anyone right now. “Maxim’s shirt is a little bit beyond mending-- or at least the sleeves are.”

“Dot’s cawse he picks out de vorst dem shirts,” and Dimo grumbling was so much more normal than Dimo embarrassed that Agatha had to smile.

“Does he really? I thought it was the clank glove making short work of them.”

“He alvays ends up vit cotton,” which was not the most hard-wearing fabric-- it was actually pretty delicate-- “und says ‘ho, no, Dimo, hyu is being schtupid, dis is a nize soft shirt,’ und den it starts vearing out in a couple months. Hyu’d tink he’d be de vun to hold out for a silk shirt, dot might last him a year, but voteffer devil’s luck he gots finding boots, he dun gots enny sense in getting a goot shirt.”

“That sounded like it’s been brewing for a while.” Agatha would honestly not have expected Dimo, with his air of cultivated scruffiness, to be the Jäger with views on fabric choices.

“Hyu haff no idea,” he sighed, and Agatha reached over to pat his shoulder. “Ve’s hard on clothes. Hyu ken’t chust grab de furst ting dot fits hyu und expect it to last ten years. Hyu gots to plan dis schtuff.”

There was nothing at the post office, not even a book, so effectively they’d just taken a walk back and forth-- which was fine. It let Agatha be seen. It let Dimo be seen-- and maybe it didn’t do his reputation as a fearsome Jäger any favors if they were overheard talking about wool quality in army uniforms on the way back, but Agatha still found it interesting that Dimo could tell how much a Spark or lord or Sparky lord cared about the welfare of their troops (or at least the opinions of their generals) by the fabric of their uniforms.

But with nothing heavier on her mind than that, Agatha checked in with Lilith and was told nothing pressing needed her that morning, lost Dimo to Adam-- Agatha had gathered that it was nice to have openly inhumanly-strong help in the workshop-- and returned to her books. She devoured a book on political systems through the ages that gave an admittedly Europa-centric view of, well, political systems, over the last five thousand years or so. Agatha had never really thought about the differences between types of governments, or even really known there were so many-- even in Europa. She likely should have, after brushing up on the Pax Transylvania. Rulers could do what they liked and rule how they liked, whether they were the aristocracy of the Fifty Families, ruling much the way they had since the Middle Ages, or the Sparky surviving Great Houses, who tended to see governance the same way Sparks saw everything, as a system they could improve if they learned to understand it.

Agatha supposed that would be a pitfall for her, too-- the more she read, the more often she found herself making notes about how things could be altered for the better, and looking back over her notes she suspected as many of her ideas were unorthodox or unworkable as they were potentially useful. It was all sadly similar to the situation with the castle-- she needed to learn everything she could, but she wouldn’t know for sure what she could do with that knowledge until she actually got where she was going and had a good look around.

On the other hand, she did struggle a little with some of the principles driving aristocracy. Inheriting a title and the job of running the associated lands because your great-great-great grandfather had been particularly good at killing people in full armor was one thing, but there was an alarming tendency to only marry other descendents of skilled killers (recently, including Sparks from the Great Houses), turning the family trees of the Fifty Families into something much more like a thicket or hedgerow, branches twisting back around on themselves. Marriage-based treaties were all well and good once in a while, but wouldn’t it make more sense to marry someone who loved the region or its people, or who at least had a family history of healthy offspring? She probably ought to ask Jenka; her ‘bloodline game’ had some complicated rules, and Agatha wasn’t at all sure what the conditions for winning were.

She also wished there were more modern examples of large-scale democratic systems; those seemed interesting, and quite possible very useful for a young, inexperienced absolute ruler who wanted to avoid unduly upsetting the people she ruled. At the very least, the practical systems behind voting might make for decent models for surveying public opinion.

Lunch was a welcome break.

So was Jenka dragging her outside afterward-- Lilith was still making sure the Jägers had plenty of highly visible heavy chores to do, in no small part because they’d moved in before managing much in the way of spring cleaning. Today, Maxim and Oggie were beating rugs.

To be sure there were more efficient ways to clean carpets, at least if one were limited to human strength, but those required heavier equipment than a couple of cane carpet beaters and clotheslines strung across the yard. Jenka had asked her to watch with a little of that teaching tone in her voice, and as long as they stayed upwind of the dust, the fresh air was nice.

She was just starting to see what she suspected Jenka had meant her to see-- Maxim and Oggie getting competitive over who could beat their rug cleanest fastest, without hitting anything so hard that the clothesline was ripped free or the rug beaters snapped-- when Jenka stiffened a little and looked over Agatha’s shoulder.

“Mind if I join you?” Masha asked, only a little cautious. She was fine around Jägers and fine around Jenka, but Agatha could tell Füst still worried her a little. (Agatha was getting used to Füst, who so far was mostly a large, furry obstacle, but she didn’t blame Masha one little bit.)

“Oh, we’re just giving those two someone to show off for,” Jenka told her, gesturing to Maxim and Oggie.

“Really? My goodness, Agatha,” Masha teased, leaning against the fence-- leaving Agatha in the middle. “Poor Jorgi.”

“… I’m just-- I’m taking a break from reading--” If she flustered this easily in front of a friend--

“It’s fine, I know, apparently you’ve been breathing books lately. They don’t change if you let them sit a little, you know.”

“That doesn’t mean I want to wait to read them, either.” She couldn’t, not really-- and, really, didn’t want to. There were things to learn, her knowledgebase to expand, even if it wasn’t in the direction she’d always intended.

“Some days I wonder why you left University,” Masha admitted-- and Agatha-- well, she didn’t think she was frowning, but something in her expression prompted Masha to continue, “Oh, no. What happened?”

And there was nothing wrong with telling the truth there. “Well-- after Dr. Beetle died, the Baron put Dr. Merlot in charge. He’d been one of my professors, and one of the people I was supposed to play lab assistant to, and he hated me. I think he thought my headaches gave non-Sparky students a bad name.”

“Jerk,” Masha agreed-- and Jenka nodded, looking stormy but restrained.

“Well, as soon as he was in charge, he expelled me.”

“What? No.”

Agatha shrugged. “It’s-- I won’t say it’s fine, I miss… a lot of things about TPU. But my headaches are better here, and nobody can tell me what is and isn’t at my level of ability, and if I hadn’t been free to leave Beetleburg, I wouldn’t have been in the right place at the right time.” She nodded toward Maxim and Oggie. She didn’t doubt Jenka’s ability to get them off the gallows, but she hadn’t known Jenka existed when she saw the other three dangling there-- and honestly, Agatha’s way had probably included less fighting.

“You are too good to be real,” Masha said, but slipped an arm around Agatha for a brief hug anyway. Then she watched Maxim and Oggie for a moment. “So, change of subject? Is it me, or do they look younger than Dimo?”

“I haven’t asked anyone’s ages,” Agatha admitted.

“Dimo’s got one of those faces,” Jenka put in. “He’s probably looked forty since he was fifteen.”

“It’s not a bad face,” and Agatha couldn’t tell if Masha was defending Dimo or not, “but you’re right. Neither of these two look too old for me.”

“… Masha!” Agatha stole a quick glance at Maxim and Oggie-- Oggie had put off his coats and Maxim his cloak to start their rather dusty work, and Agatha didn’t think it was her imagination that Maxim’s shoulders looked a little extra squared and Oggie was holding his rug beater at a more flattering, less functional angle.

“Agatha, you of all people can’t tell me not to flirt with a Jäger,” Masha said, grinning.

Really?” Jenka asked, with a dangerous smile, and Agatha buried her face in her hands.

Masha patted her shoulder sympathetically, and went on, unsympathetically, “I’m just not sure whether I should talk to the pretty one or the cute one.”

“Red fire, Masha,” Agatha mumbled.

“The pretty one is very pretty, but the cute one looks like he might know one end of a pig from the other.” Agatha wished she knew if Masha meant to sound as seriously thoughtful as she did, but mostly just kept her face in her hands.

“They can probably hear you, you know,” Agatha warned her.

“… Wait, really?” Masha asked, and Jenka dissolved into laughter, leaning hard on the fence. Masha did not suffer uncertainty long, and called out to Maxim and Oggie, “Then come on over and talk with us! I haven’t said anything I’m ashamed of. Agatha, stop hiding in your hair, we need you for introductions.”

Jenka was still laughing, though she’d managed to scale it back to something… more ladylike than snickering, but not as girlish as giggling. Maxim and Oggie, however, swaggered and sauntered (respectively) over to the fence wearing nearly identical terribly sharp grins.

Agatha sighed and shoved her hair back over her shoulders. It wasn’t so much that Masha was inappropriate, but embarrassing? And possibly skipping blithely into territory Agatha didn’t know how to handle given all the things she couldn’t quite tell Masha? Oh yes. All of that. “Masha, meet Maxim and Ognian. Maxim, Oggie, this is Masha, who is a terrible person.”

“I have it on good authority I’m the best friend you’ve had since you were ten.”

“I’ve been a tragic, friendless orphan, my options were sadly limited.”

“You’re stuck with me now!” Masha informed her, brightly, then turned to smile at the Jägers she knew were Jägers. “It’s nice to finally meet you boys.”

“Ve heard a lot about hyu,” Oggie said, and Agatha hoped Masha could tell his smile was meant to be friendly and curious, and not actually terrifying. (Agatha was starting to doubt her ability to find Jägers properly terrifying, anymore.) “Vot hyu been sayink about us lately?”

“Oh, well, I couldn’t say much of anything-- I hadn’t met you personally. I can say Evgeny says Ognian’s got a good sense of humor, which I guess means you like terrible puns about bread because I know Evgeny, and I can say nobody knows much of anything about Maxim-- people do worry about that,” and that, she told all four of them, not quite as coquettish as she’d said the rest-- “and I can say Dimo says all three of you are a little worried about our Agatha’s safety, but up until now I didn’t even have faces to put to your names.”

“Hy keep vatch at night,” Maxim told her. “Ve do vorry.”

“Some of that might be my fault,” Jenka said. “I’ve heard some… complicated things about that Othar Tryggvassen.”

“Also, ve dunno vot vould make de town turn on us,” Oggie said.

“Oh! Oh, no, I can help with that,” Masha said. “You don’t need to worry about the town. You’d have to kill somebody or start a fire or something.”

“… Frau Velichou can’t have been that impressed with Oggie,” Agatha said. They were suddenly safe? Jorgi had never felt totally safe in Zumzum, and if anything happened to Jorgi, there would’ve been an inquest.

“Well, she sort of was, but that’s not-- Agatha, come on. There’s a hero, three wild Jägers, and a giant bear in town, and you and the mayor are at odds. I know you’ve only lived in Zumzum for a couple of months, but--”

“-- It would throw the betting pools,” Agatha concluded.

“It would throw the betting pools,” Masha said, grinning only a little triumphantly. “I won’t say everyone’s safe, and probably it’s a good idea to stay close to Agatha anyway, don’t stop doing that, but every time any of you talk to anybody, the whole town recalculates odds. We’re all very busy with that.”

“What’s in the pool?” Jenka asked.

“Oh, what isn’t,” Masha countered, and started ticking things off on her fingers. “Agatha’s going to win her bet, Agatha’s going to lose her bet, someone’s going to hire the Jägers and throw Agatha’s bet. The Jägers are going to carry Agatha off. Agatha’s got a thing for Jägers--”

“What?” Agatha blurted, more indignant than offended. “I wouldn’t--”

I know you’re true to Jorgi, and you know you’re true to Jorgi, but Cute and Pretty here lend themselves to less dignified bets.” But Masha went back to her counting, never mind that Maxim was practically preening. “Jenka’s bear is going to eat the Jägers. The Jägers are going to revert to type, sack the town, and Othar Tryggvassen will have to save us all, which at this point is the dark horse because that’s what Herr Tryggvassen isn’t actually betting on, because of course a gentleman adventurer never wagers on himself, but he keeps telling people that’s obviously where the smart money ought to go. So please don’t sack the town,” she said, turning a pleading gaze on Oggie, “he’d be even more unbearable than he already is, and I don’t think I can get away with feeding him to the pigs.”

“Masha!”

But Oggie laughed-- “Miz Agatha, Hy like hyu friend!”

“Is he really that bad?” and Jenka was good at this, Agatha realized.

Ugh,” Masha said, with feeling. “He’s awful. As soon as he found out I’m Agatha’s friend, he started leaning on me-- oh, I must have some pull, maybe I can talk to the Clays, talk some sense into the family, blah blah blah whole town in danger. When I started pushing back-- because you’re my friend and I trust you and I’m not going to let some stranger tell me what I should think about you-- he started making noises about what a good Spunky Girl Sidekick my loyalty might make me.”

“… He what.” What. No. Masha was-- well, not Agatha’s, exactly, but she was Agatha’s friend and no stupid murderous hero was making off with her unless that was what Masha wanted.

“It’s weird he’s even in town,” Jenka offered. “I heard he’d been arrested by the Baron.”

Masha’s gaze snapped to Jenka. “Where did you hear that?”

And either Jenka was a very good actress, or Masha had surprised her. “I-- where was I… I don’t remember,” Jenka said, “I hardly ever get to stay anywhere very long.”

“Hm. Do you remember what he was arrested for?

“… I want to say he killed someone the Baron wanted alive,” Jenka said, “but I don’t know for sure.”

“The Baron does try to take people alive,” Agatha said. “He was even angry Dr. Beetle was permanently dead, and Dr. Beetle threw a bomb at the Baron-- and his son.”

“And I think we all know Herr Tryggvassen isn’t the ‘take them in alive to face justice’ kind of hero,” Masha mused. “Some of the bets are on variations of him snapping-- too bored in town or too proud to admit he might’ve been wrong-- and attacking you or the Jägers and getting his head handed back to him or you death-raying him in the face-- that’s Evgeny’s bet, by the way.”

“Evgeny has a lot of faith in me,” Agatha said, but she could see herself doing it, if she had to. If one of the Jägers were in danger and she wasn’t, yet.

“Hyu could do it,” Oggie assured her, as though they’d been discussing talking to an intimidating professor and not shooting a man in the face.

“… You know,” Masha said, “a lot of the stories they tell about Othar Tryggvassen feature daring escapes. Maybe he did get arrested, and got away. Agatha, maybe you could ask Jorgi about it? He might know, or know who to ask.”

“I mentioned Herr Tryggvassen was in town in my last letter,” she admitted. “If Jorgi doesn’t say anything about it in his next letter, I’ll be sure to bring it up.” It should only be a few more days.

“Good. I really don’t want to have to feed him to the pigs, I like the pigs. Although I guess there’s always Katia’s cesspit.”

“Dere’s vot now?” Oggie asked.

“Who’s Katia?” Maxim added.

“… Okay this is not my usual kind of gossip,” Masha told them, “nobody knows for sure what happened or if anything happened, but it’s a very persistent story that everybody agrees could have happened, and only a couple of details ever change. Just remember I don’t know first or even secondhand, so I can only tell you what people say.”

“What do people say?” but unlike Oggie’s surprise or Maxim’s wariness, Jenka was eager.

“People say,” Masha continued, delighted, “that one time, Katia caught a man-- probably a traveler or stranger, or somebody would say his name or that he was an uncle or cousin or ‘this guy my father knew’-- anyway, she caught him mistreating a girl. The girl also never gets named, and nobody says just what the man was doing to the poor girl-- I’ve heard ‘mistreating’ and ‘using her poorly’ and ‘threatening.’ Anyway, they say when Katia caught him at it, she beat the guy to death, either with a rolling pin or a pewter beer stein, and then she stuffed the body in the cesspit.”

“Who’s Katia?” Maxim repeated, a little more urgently.

“Oh! She runs the Busted Clank, it’s the best tavern in town and also the only inn. She made Jorgi pay her ‘I don’t trust you not to break things’ fee, which honestly she charges a lot of people--”

“Vell, he’s Jägerkin, ve breaks tings on accident,” Oggie agreed.

“-- And she’s charging Herr Tryggvassen her ‘I don’t like the way you talk to women’ fee. Which is more than the ‘breaking things’ fee, for the record.”

“For the way he talked to me, or the way he talked to you?” Agatha asked. He’d been condescending to her, but not terribly rude-- likely he would have been a lot worse if he’d realized she was a Heterodyne Spark and he’d hanged her Jägers, but that would’ve made for a very dramatic morning.

“Yes,” Masha told her, “and the way he talks to Katia, and I think there are some other girls he’s talked to-- and some of the men-- it’s weird, really, how he treats people. He acts like he really believes he’s the hero of a story, and like the rest of the world is either side characters or unimportant background. I’ve never-- I’ve never been to the city or through the Wastelands or anything. I’ve never been anywhere where I didn’t know everyone’s name and something about them. So-- that really is weird, right, treating people like bit parts in a play? It’s not just a small-town thing?”

“… If it’s a small-town thing,” Jenka assured her, “It’s not wrong.”

As she was the local city girl, Agatha offered, “You don’t normally think about a crowd being made up of individuals, in a city, but… mostly that’s because you’re part of the crowd. Everyone is just trying to go about their day without getting in anyone’s way more than they have to.”

“Vot kind of characters is he lookink for?” Maxim asked.

“Uh-- Spunky Girl Sidekick,” Masha said, then corrected, “potential Spunky Girl Sidekick, because not even if he bribed me with Albia’s crown jewels. Naïve But Well-Meaning Fool, sorry, Agatha.” Agatha made a sour face, but waved Masha on. “Innocent Bystander, which seems to be most of the town, at least those of us who aren’t Useful Informants. Fiendish Villain, which we are fresh out of, but I’ve been unfortunately hearing a lot of Dangerous Construct, too.”

“Ve is dangerous,” Maxim told her, grinning sharply.

“Well, yes, but it still doesn’t help me shove things in Agatha’s favor.”

“Thank you for trying,” Agatha said.

“What’s a little managing public opinion between friends?” Masha said, cheerfully-- then turned to Maxim and Oggie. “Really, please don’t sack the town, I’ll feel terrible, I’ve put a lot of work into getting people to look sideways at Herr Tryggvassen. He’s very charismatic.”

“Und ve vouldn’t vant hyu to go to all dot trouble for nothing,” Oggie agreed. “Ve vas neffer gonna sack hyu town-- dere’s only three of us.”

“Why did you come to Zumzum, anyway?” Agatha stiffened, Maxim froze, and Jenka was behind her a little so Agatha had no idea what sort of face she was making-- because Masha had asked Oggie directly. Dimo was worried about Oggie’s ability to keep as many secrets Agatha currently needed kept.

“Ve’s lookink for a Heterodyne,” Oggie said, easily. “Vhen ve find vun, ve ken go home.” Agatha glanced to Maxim and, she hoped, subtly to Jenka, but they looked relieved rather than upset. The Jägers’ search for a Heterodyne wasn’t a secret, then, even if it wasn’t common knowledge.

Masha blinked, and asked, “The three of you can go home, or…?”

“Oh, all of us Jägerkin,” Oggie told her. “Dot’s de deal vit de Baron. Vhen ve gets a Heterodyne beck in Mechanicsburg again, ve all gets to go home. Dot’s vhy us guys here dun vork for de Baron, so ve ken keep lookink.”

“… And you thought you’d find one in Zumzum?

“… Mebbe?” Oggie shrugged. “Ve gots to look efferyvhere. Ve dun-- ve might not find Master Bill or Master Barry. But de Old Heterodynes vent all over de place, so ve might find somebody who dun know dey’re a Heterodyne.”

“How will you know when you find one?” and Agatha was glad Masha said ‘when’ instead of ‘if.’

“Ve ken schmell de bloodline. Ve probably gun be a big surprise, yah?”

Agatha couldn’t help it-- “I can just imagine.”

“Agatha,” Masha scolded, and swatted her shoulder. “Be nice. I’m sure it’ll be a good surprise,” Masha told Oggie, “once they get used to the idea. Good luck finding them.”

“Thenk hyu, Miz Masha,” Oggie told her, sincerely, and Agatha made a note not to underestimate Oggie.

“And you definitely should all get out and about,” Masha told Oggie and Maxim both. “Sergeant Zuli says the Old Heterodynes used to raid here every four years or so, way back when. We don’t really make a big fuss about it when the first baby comes seven months after the wedding, so to speak, but if somebody smells suspicious I can probably find a few things out.”

“… Vait, really?” Maxim asked, impressed.

Masha nodded. “Somebody always remembers-- one family might bury a secret, but the family whose flour sifter they borrowed and broke never, ever will. And the one thing an old gossip loves most in the world is trying to scandalize a young gossip. And I’m very good at going--” Masha gasped, eyes wide with both shock and eagerness, fingertips flying to her mouth then slipping down to rest on her collarbone-- “Really?

“Why, Agatha,” Jenka said, smiling and feigning shock herself, “what dangerous friends you have.”

“Well--” she talked sometimes about hoping Masha used her talents for good but-- “but everybody knows Masha only spreads accurate gossip--” which meant if Masha ever decided to spread a lie…

Masha’s smile was sweet. “I’ve been building that reputation since I was thirteen,” she told Agatha.

“… Why,” Agatha asked three Jägers and a calculating gossip, “are all my friends dangerous?”

“Hyu vas nice to us first,” Oggie reminded her. “Hyu stood up to hyu mayor und dot Tryggvassen for us.”

“Hyu got us out ov danger und hyu put hyuself in danger for us,” Maxim agreed, “so ve’s gonna stand between hyu und dot danger. Ve owes hyu dot.”

“Someday,” Masha said, “you’re going to leave Zumzum and marry your sweetheart and get noticed by the Baron and use all your books and your words to make things better. All I’ve got to work with is pigs and gossip, so the only way I can really help you with that is to make sure that when you leave Zumzum, you go with a good reputation.”

“I just like you,” Jenka said, shrugging, then lied, “and really, it’s only Füst that’s dangerous.”

“You’re all terrifying and I love you,” Agatha told them.

“Ve luff hyu too, Miz Agatha,” Oggie said, grinning-- then shoved Maxim. “Come on, Pretty, ve better go finish vit dose rugs before Frau Clay asks us vhy ve’s tokking to pretty gorls instead of vorking like she vants.”

“… How hyu know Hy’m de pretty vun?” Maxim asked, as though he’d been expecting to have to argue the point.

Hyu is de pretty vun, because Hy am de cute vun dot knows vhich end of a pig is up.” Oggie sauntered back toward his rug beater, while Maxim followed more slowly and visibly tried to work out if he’d been insulted.

“If it helps,” Masha offered, leaning on the fence again, “you do look like you know your way around a horse.”

Maxim turned a wide smile on her. “Hy vos in de cavalry! Hyu ken tell dot by looking?”

“… You’re wearing riding boots,” Masha pointed out, gently.

“Hyu dun miss notink,” Maxim told Masha, and went to finish beating dust out of Lilith’s rugs.

Masha watched, and from her slightly fixed smile, Agatha could tell she was searching for something to say that wouldn’t hurt Maxim’s feelings if he overheard it. And he was too close not to overhear it. “I should get going, too, actually,” she finally said. “You should ask your father if he’ll send one of the Jägers by with Poppa’s hinges, when they’re ready.”

“… Cute, or pretty?”

Masha giggled. “Surprise me,” she concluded. “Jenka, it was nice seeing you again.”

“You too,” Jenka said. “It’s not my house or I’d tell you not to be a stranger.”

“No fear of that,” Masha said, told Agatha, “Tell your parents I said hello?” and was off.

The next two days continued as the last ones had, Agatha spending most of her time studying and walking to and from the post office, and to and from any errands Lilith gave her, always accompanied by a Jäger. (People besides Masha and Evgeny were finally going out of their way to say hello again, which was nice, and some were even asking to be introduced to that outing’s Jäger, which was heartening. … Even if Agatha suspected it was mostly for odds-calculating purposes.) She did resort to pinning papers to the wall behind her desk, grouping overarching notes together; the roughest outline of a legal system that could work within the Baron’s laws, protect the people who most needed it (a category Agatha could expand if she needed to, as it was largely ‘constructs and the unfortunate’ at the moment), and hopefully fit into Mechanicsburg’s traditions without too much upset. She would, she promised herself, ask Jenka to give it a good look once she had it tweaked to her satisfaction.

Agatha would just tell Jenka to ignore the little sketches of clanks that littered the margins. She’d been very good and hadn’t actually built anything new in almost a week, just tinkered with death rays until instead of four working ones she liked well enough and two works in progress, she had six designs she was very well pleased with, for what they were.

… She wanted to build a bigger death ray, something with more heft, with more power, but the little ones were easy to conceal. She also wanted to revisit her designs for miniaturized clanks in metal instead of paper, to see what she could do now, what she could build a clank to do, but if she built a clank with any degree of autonomy-- which was of course part of the point-- it would be much harder to hide in a pocket than a petite death ray. It was intensely frustrating, and learning how to build a legal system more stable than ‘whatever the Heterodyne says goes,’ a system that might give Agatha’s successors something to build on, only took the edge off.

Agatha had death rays. She didn’t need clanks (at the moment). The knowledge was important, and writing her own notes instead of dictating to a clank (that she hadn’t built) helped her sort her thoughts.

Lilith sent Agatha and Maxim to the bakery in the afternoon; Evgeny had offered her a deep discount on any unsold day-old bread he had left at the end of the day. Lilith had accepted readily, because that was a lot of breadcrumbs for stretching stew and there were four extra mouths to feed.

“So vhen ve got dot boar, also dere vere volves, so ve left it,” Maxim told Agatha on the way to Evgeny’s bakery. “Hyu tink next time ve should bring de meat back?”

“… The boars are a nuisance,” she mused, “so there’s no set season on them-- but I don’t know if they’re what Füst is eating?”

“Ho yez, ve dun vants Füst to go hungry,” Maxim agreed vehemently. “Ve ken eat anyting.”

Four loaves of technically-two-day-old bread wasn’t so much Agatha couldn’t have carried it home herself, but Maxim had gallantly refused to let her do any such thing. (It also wasn’t so much Agatha could suspect Evgeny of deliberately overestimating how much bread he would’ve sold the day before, but just enough she suspected him of keeping a couple of loaves behind the counter, so they’d still be there at the end of the day.)

Maxim was eagerly telling Agatha how he’d buy extra time by throwing the bread at a potential attacker, and thus him carrying the bread was entirely justified by both good manners and good tactics, when she heard Masha’s voice from across the street. “Agatha!” Masha darted over to them, excited in a way that meant she had news of some kind. “Maxim, too, hi! Did you hear?”

“Did ve hear vot?”

Masha fell into step a little ahead of Maxim, so she could see Agatha past the bread. “The circus is coming to town!”

“Oh, well, that’s nice,” Agatha offered, fairly sincerely. Traveling shows had been regular occurrences in Beetleburg, but Zumzum spent so much time making its own fun that a circus coming to town was an event. There hadn’t been anything like that since the Clays had come to town.

“Their advance man just left,” Masha continued. “The whole caravan should be here tomorrow-- it’s Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure, they’re a lot of fun. There’s a fortune teller, and animal acts, and they do Heterodyne Plays-- wait,” she said, and looked up at Maxim, “does that get weird?”

“Vell, ve’s not mad de Masters is famous,” he said, amused.

“Oh, good. Anyway, they haven’t been by here in two years-- um, there was an incident with Daniil and their knife-thrower and--”

“Is that what happened to his ear?” Agatha asked. Part of Daniil’s right ear had been cut clean away by something very sharp, and Agatha had wondered about the story but never gotten up the nerve to ask.

“He dodged,” Masha said, and turned solemn as she warned both of them, “Don’t joke about being a vampire if the knife thrower asks.”

“… Sound advice.”

“Anyway, do you want to come see the show with me tomorrow night?” Masha asked, eagerly. “I know you need a chaperone, but that’s not a big deal, I don’t mind-- bring everybody, bring your parents, but you need to come do something fun. You like Heterodyne Shows, right?”

Well, she had. It might be awkward to see one now, knowing just who Bill and Barry were in relation to herself, knowing what Lucrezia had become, what she’d planned to do. … And knowing why Adam and Lilith hated their depictions of Punch and Judy so much. How much could she put out of her mind, and for how long? On the other hand, she really had only left the house for errands and when dragged outside by Jenka for the past week or so, and it didn’t sound like the only thing to see would be the Heterodyne show.

“Apparently someone could get dismembered,” Agatha said. “With a ringing endorsement like that, how could I say no? I don’t know who else will want to come, but I’ll go with you.”

Sure-- Agatha would go see Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure. She deserved a night off.
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