Old Friends
anizette
Ok, This is...different. It ambushed me. I can't explain why it came and invaded my brains, it just did. I like it, but it's a mostly serious, somewhat saddish, somewhat realistic far-future view of three loved characters who've just made some really obvious, dumb mistakes in their lives between now and then. The upside is that it's got a hopeful, happy-ish, funny-ish ending. And, again...I like it. I just don't know how it got in my head.

Gil and Tarvek in a formal Imperial meeting thirty years into the life of the Empire they share with Agatha. It's been a long, long time since they've really talked.
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It was the thirtieth year of the Second Great Peace of modern Europa – the Trinary Pax of Wulfenbach, Sturmvoraus, and Heterodyne, or “Donner, Blitzen, und Hagel,” as the wags at taverns and gaming halls across Europa liked to call it.  Thunder, Lightning, and Hail. Together they made the perfect storm…a storm no one wanted to face in its wrath.

That wrath was very close to manifesting, at least where Thunder was concerned. Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, who served in most instances as the executive leader of the combined Extended Empire of East and West Europa, in its sprawling continental entirety, was feeling quite a bit like his nickname – thundery and sullen and ready to shout at the least excuse. Fortunately for him an excuse was on its way; better yet, it was the actual cause of his annoyance.

He strode energetically around his opulent office, tidying papers into imposing piles, setting the Jager dagger he enjoyed using as his letter opener in plain sight at the front of the desk top. If Sturmvoraus was up to the old Storm King tricks of his ancestors, as Gil’s intelligence analysts thought possible, well… if he was, then a glint of a dagger in the foreground might make him feel properly threatened. It would certainly make Gil feel that much more properly armed.

He and Tarvek seldom saw each other these days. Tarvek ran his portion of the Empire from Paris. In the same way Agatha held Mechanicsberg, ruling the Eastern Empire. Gil himself held court either in Budapest, where he was now, or maintained a sort of traveling court as he toured their joint realm, serving as the unifying factor knitting the many regions and factions together. The three Imperators met once a year in one of Europa’s major cities to clear up unresolved business. Otherwise their lives were too busy for casual encounters.

It took matters of serious concern to bring them together – or for Gil to demand Tarvek attend him.

He wanted Sturmvoraus to take this seriously.

What was missing? he wondered, scanning the room.  With a grimace he decided that the stage really would not be properly set without the expensive cut-glass bottle of Irish whisky and the matching glasses. Not that he liked encouraging Sturmvoraus in any additional vice….

And to think that weasel had once accused him of being a disreputable cad!

He’d just collected the tray and set it at the corner of the desk when there was the usual tactful tap at the door, and his secretary Hans called, “Herr Wulfenbach?  Prince Sturmvoraus is here for his appointment, sir. May he come in?”

Gil’s eyes narrowed, and he consciously drew himself up into his most formal, imposing posture, determined to dominate the room. He knew he had the advantage. Klaus’ genes combined with constant self-discipline had served him well over the decades, and he knew he still cut quite the figure, even without putting in extra effort, what with his shock of snow-white hair and his broad shoulders and chest. He might not be so tall as Klaus, but he could be fully as intimidating. He made himself wait a full second before saying, firmly, “Yes, Hans, send him in.”

The French doors of the suite swung open, and Prince Sturmvoraus sauntered in, his silver-capped cane swinging gently, his shadowy forest green morning coat and matching trousers cut just-so, his spats dazzling white over black shoes polished to perfection. His a floral silk waistcoat looked like an impressionist water garden—all glowing greens and blues and misty pinks, and was cut so perfectly that there wasn’t so much as a crease to suggest the fabric might have to stretch somewhat to make it across his round belly.

If time had not been so kind to Tarvek as it had to Gil, he’d still made the most of what he had. As Gil had taken after Klaus, Tarvek had proven himself Aaronev’s son, in the end. Like Aaronev, his appetite had finally caught up with his waistline and chins. He’d kept his hair, but it had first darkened with age, and then gone gingery as he greyed. The pony-tail was long since gone, though he’d kept the bangs, which somehow found a way to look charming as they made an orderly escape from their proper backswept position, tumbling softly over his forehead. His pince-nez were still perched, perfectly balanced at the tip of a nose grown somewhat more prominent with age than in his youth. On his upper lip he’d grown a precise, elegant, dark little moustache that burned with the crimson embers of the fire the rest of his hair had once shown.

He looked like what he was, Gil thought, taking slightly too much smug pleasure in his own disapproval. Tarvek looked every bit the aging Parisian roué that Gil’s intelligence officers suggested he was. Tarvek had enjoyed a bit too much wine, a good deal too much pate and escargot, and if his intelligence chief’s reports were accurate, quite a lot too much in the way of women and song, in the last few years since his divorce. And perhaps even a few men, too…though according to their field agents it was difficult to be certain what Sturmvoraus did behind closed doors, and with whom. Or why.

The why, of course, was the reason Gilgamesh Wulfenbach had called for him…and why Gil was determined to remind him just who ruled Extended Europa, in the final reckoning. Thunder, Lightning, and Hail…but Thunder spoke loudest! Gil wanted no Zola-style connivance with the disgruntled sparks and revolutionaries of Europa going on in the West…and he certainly didn’t want any such cheek from Tarvek, who should feel himself lucky to have control of half the Empire in all issues but those that affected the combined whole of East and West, when Agatha’s voice was heard and Gil had the deciding vote.

Maintaining his most Klausian grandeur and command persona, Gil tipped his head brusquely toward the chair set before the desk: a chair chosen to be a bit small, a bit uncomfortable, and entirely impossible to truly relax in. Klaus had known any number of tricks to keep his subjects and subordinates off-balance, and he’d used them whenever roaring at them had seemed counterproductive. Gil maintained the tradition.

Tarvek looked at the chair and arched a brow, face radiating sardonic amusement. “Are you serious? I’m not a complete fool, Wulfenbach. If you don’t have your man pull over one of those wing-back chairs from over by the window I’ll just sit on the edge of your desk. It has to be more comfortable than that insufferable little torture device.”
He slipped his black felt Homburg hat from his head, placed it upside down on the right fore-corner of Gil’s desk, stripped off black kid gloves which he folded neatly and dropped into the hat, and settled his cane to lean against the polished mahogany of the desk front. He smirked slightly, and cocked his head a not-quite imperceptible few degrees. “Well? Your choice, old friend. Wing-chair or desk-top? Which shall it be?”

Gil didn’t quite manage to control an annoyed grimace. After a moment he gave in, jerking a nod to the waiting Hans.  As the secretary called for a footman to help him carry one of the heavy chairs over to the desk, he gestured to the whisky decanter. “A drink, old friend?”

“Good heavens, at this time of morning? Don’t be gauche! Tea or coffee. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, perhaps: it’s all the rage right now—just brimming with vitamins, according to the London Journal of the Royal Society of Sparks. Better than one of old Sun’s potions. But hard drink? Only if you’ve been awake long enough to ensure that it’s not precisely morning, according to your frame of reference…and I assure you, I slept well last night.” He smiled gently at Hans and the footman, who’d just finished shifting the chair, and gave them an appreciative nod. “My thanks, gentlemen. I’d never have managed it on my own…I’m not the lad I once was, I’m afraid. Remind me to tip you before I leave. Good service warrants—“

“No tips,” Gil cut him off, glowering at Hans and the footmen. “I pay them quite respectably already, Sturmvoraus, and tips are too much like bribes. I don’t want my people getting in the habit of accepting bribes.”

Tarvek shrugged at the men apologetically, eyes twinkling. “You heard Herr Wulfenbach. No tips…except, perhaps…I’ve seen Herr Malmberg’s mechana-colt run. A breakthrough, in my opinion. I myself intend to put a tenner on it both ways in the Budapest Steeplechase.  So there’s a tip Herr Wulfenbach can’t forbid or force me to take back.”

Hans and the footman were too well trained to chuckle out loud, but Gil had no doubt they were doing so silently. There was something in the set of their shoulders and the swing of their polished shoes as they retreated from the room that assured him they were most amused that their boss had been parried so effectively by clever Blitzen Sturmvoraus. He snorted, calling after them, “Bring a coffee tray up.  With pastries: I can see my guest has a great fondness for pastries. And cakes…send up some babkas, while you’re at it.” He shot Tarvek’s stomach a pointed glance, murmuring, “Oh, yes…very fond of pastries. Old friend.”

Tarvek, settling himself in comfy ease in the big wing-backed chair, smiled beatifically at Gil. “Perfect! Quite the little kaffeeklatsch this is going to be. Charming. Simply charming.” He crossed his legs and smoothed the drape of his dark wool trousers. “Now, what shall we talk about while we wait for the kitchen to send something up? I can tell you all about the current season at the Follies. Or the new singer at the Island of the Monkey Women?  Can you believe that place is still a going concern? Under the same management, too! Of course they play on their history and the ties to our regime quite dreadfully, but they also work hard to keep the music merry and the drinks strong…which explains their success even without taking the adventures of our salad days into account.”

“You’re blathering.”

“I always blather,” Tarvek agreed, allowing Gil a flickering glimpse of the hard granite foundations of his personality hidden under the warm aura of his affable sociability. “I always have. It’s my hallmark, and it’s a bit late in the day to change my style. Especially as it works so very well.” The words blended lazy ease with acrid anger – then lightened. “No one would know me if I didn’t piffle on. If you don’t want to talk about the music and theater in Paris, what about the Spark world? There’s a fellow named Dali who’s producing the most extraordinary devices! He calls them ‘surreal,’ and insists they’re based on what lies beyond reality…if you can imagine it.”

“My people have brought in several of his works,” Gil said, sitting in his great desk chair. He steepled his fingers and studied Tarvek. “They’re…interesting. Father says they’re quite ridiculous, but I sent one to Agatha, and she wrote to say that she’s intrigued.”

“And you’re not?  Thunder Wulfenbach fails to be fascinated by something that novel? Alors! Will wonders never cease!” Tarvek was watching, eyes narrowed like a hunting cat’s.

“My focus is on Empire, these days,” Gil replied, face suddenly grim and gaunt. “Someone has to maintain order in Europa.” He let the unspoken accusations and suspicions float in the air between them. After all, he thought, it wasn’t as though Tarvek was putting much effort into the more obvious mechanics of running his half-Empire. Not that Sturmvoraus seemed to have any time for his own spark, these days, either, in amongst all his foolish pastimes, suspicious rendezvous, and highly questionable paramours and hangers-on. Angry, he changed the subject, asking, “And Zola?  How is your darling wife, these days? And your children? Or do you care enough to keep touch at all between mistresses?”

Ah, he thought. At hit. Dark eyes had flashed at that, hurt and angry for a mere fraction of a second, before they went blank and an empty, delicate smile replaced all other expression. Tarvek shrugged.

“Ex-wife. She is as ever…as you no doubt already know. She wrote from Castile a few months ago, asking for money. She’s said to be having an affair with an Italian Doge. Which Doge, I can’t say. Not that it matters. No doubt she’ll get around to all of them, given time. Fortunately, since the divorce I no longer have to even pretend to care. Annekin is in Cathay, studying with Sun Daiyu Yi-sheng. She’s a daughter to be proud of. Unfortunately, she does not return the sentiment. Andrei’s at Cambridge, ostensibly reading in Material Engineering, but almost certainly doing an internship with the Round Table. Not that he or Zola would tell me about that: she makes every effort to keep him in Mongfish circles but far from any modern Sturmvoraus influence. But you know that, too. I sent word you should watch out for him. I suspect he’ll be dangerous, one of these days.”

“Dangerous, yes, but we’ve attempted to put some checks on his ambitions, Albia and I. I think he’s aware his reach had best not exceed his grasp. He can settle for being your heir; he’ll have Western Europa eventually,” Gil said, conceding Tarvek the point. One could hardly accuse him of betraying the Empire to promote his own bloodline. Quite a lot of what security knew of Zola and her too-promising son was known by way of Tarvek’s information.

Apparently Tarvek was in no mood to forgive Gil for the dagger-thrust of family chat, though. He leaned back in the chair and said, so gently it was like a perfect razorblade cutting open a vein, “And Zulenna? How is she? I’d ask about your children, too, but it always presents the dreadful social dilemma of whether to restrict the question to your legitimate family, or to include Agatha’s twins, as well.”

Even now, after years of intense self-discipline, Gil’s temper was vile and violent—and no one could break through his controls like Sturmvoraus. Not even Agatha. Before he knew what he was about he was out of his seat and hurtling forward, leaning over the desk and past, growling, hand going to the Jaeger dagger – only to find Tarvek’s walking stick tip suddenly rammed dead center against his sternum, and Tarvek’s fingers gently fondling the silver floral repoussé of the cap, as though… just possibly…there might be a hidden button or lever that might…just possibly…launch a poisoned dart from the shaft, or spray acid, or any number of other deadly things that suddenly seemed all too likely. After all, Tarvek remained one of the three great rulers of Europa, and yet he regularly walked alone in Paris at night, unguarded…or guarded only by Smoke Knight skill, his own as well as that of any hidden bodyguards.

He met Tarvek’s eyes, refusing to look at the lacquered shaft between them. Those eyes seemed as cold, dark, and unsettling as an arctic plain in the unbroken night of midwinter, with nothing filling them but wind and solitude. Gil drew a tentative breath and said, softly, “You shouldn’t goad me.” It was as much plea as warning.

One dark brow flicked up, then back. A tiny tilt of his head seemed to reply, silently, “And you shouldn’t goad me, either, idiot.” Gil nodded, conceding, and gingerly edged back, setting the dagger aside and sitting heavily in the massive chair. Tarvek allowed the movement to disengage the contact with the walking stick. He drew it down, letting it lie easily across his thighs. Then, his voice suddenly gentle, he asked, “How are they, really?  All of them.”

Gil flinched at the compassion, finding it almost as hard to bear as the goading. “Zulenna is…content. She has her standing as my wife and she takes it seriously. She is a…good wife. I think she has even forgiven me. I’m not sure she will ever forgive Agatha. Even being a Heterodyne isn’t enough to overcome…well... But she’s a good Empress, and a good mother. Klaus Zantabraxus shows an admirable distaste for government, but he’s studying hard anyway. I was hoping I could find some way for him to spend a few years free, adventuring the way I did, but he’s not so anonymous as I was. And he’ll be thirty, soon. If I can’t set him free I was hoping to at least find him a mentor in government, let him have someone who’s not me to test himself against.”

Tarvek nodded. “Yes?” He seemed to wait for something, but Gil didn’t know what. When whatever it was failed to come, he sighed, and said, “And Zsazsa?”

Gil chuckled. “Off with Klaus and Grandma-Empress-Zanta, in Skifander, apparently terrorizing something-or-other beasts on even days and blowing up laboratories on odd days. And Martya is badgering me to be allowed to join her. I told her when she turned twenty I’d send her along, but that her mother was going to insist on her spending at least two years as a proper – and virginal – Europan debutante before I let her run off to turn herself into a lusty Skifandrian madgirl warrior.”

“And…the twins?”

Gil was spared responding when the tap came at the door. “Coffee and babkas,” he said, unnecessarily, before calling the servants in. He remained silent as they set up a coffee table, the coffee set, and several plates of assorted foods, then quickly said, almost before the door shut behind them, “Sturmvoraus, we need to talk. About Paris. I hate to ask – I shouldn’t have to ask – but what in red-fire-and-lightning are you up to out there? My people say you’re spinning more webs than a nyar-spider, with every subtle sneak in the city. And when that supply runs out you’re importing more.”

“Goodness, you suspect me? Of chicanery? What a shock!” Tarvek drawled, as he leaned forward and began to fill a plate with rum-soaked chocolate balls and cream-filled babkas. “I take it a luxogram wouldn’t have been sufficient to ask me?”

“No. It wouldn’t.” Gil rose and came around the desk to pour himself a cup of black coffee – no cream, no sugar –then leaned with his buttocks propped against his desk-edge. “You’re not…backsliding, are you?”

Tarvek gave him a smoldering look of resentment. “Backsliding? Backsliding?! Excuse me? The last I heard I was co-Emperor of this continent. Haven’t I kept the peace in the West for the past three decades? What am I supposed to be backsliding to, Gilgamesh Holzfaller Wulfenbach? It’s not like I’m the only one in this room who ever accomplished his goals through covert methods, after all.” His pique, however, failed to withstand the onslaught of sweet babka and hot coffee – with plenty of sugar and cream. One deep sip and he sighed, happily. “I see you’ve got Von Mekkan’s blend, still, and are using one of Agatha’s coffee machines. It’s been…oh, my…years since I tasted that. I’d forgotten just how good it is.”

Gil studied him and frowned. “You don’t have a supply? I’m sure Van would be happy to ship you some. He’s proud of that blend!”

“I have the blend,” Tarvek said, shortly, then, quickly added, “I really don’t know why you’re worried about me, you know. If you’d been keeping up with my reports you and your people would know how many fire-fang beetles live in the beams of the Storm King’s Palace at Versailles, much less any political skullduggery. It’s not like I don’t spend enough time passing on the details.”

“Perhaps it’s that you don’t exactly seem to have your mind on business,” Gil replied. “You’re a slithery social sneak. You drink. You flirt. You go to operas. You gossip. You start new fashions. You revive old fashions. You design dresses for your favorites. You throw parties. You hold scavenger hunts. You eat too much, you drink too much, you fu… er, carouse too much. You write bad plays. You hold beauty pageants. You judge dog shows. You spend hours with disreputable lowlifes. Need I go on?”

“Of course not! That’s a splendid summation,” Tarvek said, with an amused sniff. “I work exceedingly hard at all that!”

Gil pinched the bridge of his nose, his cup and saucer balanced in the other broad hand. “What you don’t appear to do, idiot, is govern. You send your deputies to all the major governmental meetings, you let the Parliament of the West deal with major legislation, your Bureau d’Affaires Domestique handles the day-to-day labor of your government. Good lord, man, you’ve even got that odd little Belgian with the marrow fetish running your intelligence and police forces.”

“Only the analytical branches!” Tarvek protested, with a squawk. “I told you years ago, I learned from your father: the right monsters for the right job. I delegate. Unlike some Imperial Idiots I could name,” he added, with a fulminating glance over a well-filled cream horn. “That secretary of yours – he’s a nice enough fellow, but I can tell just meeting him that he’s no Boris. Where are your deputies, Wulfenbach?”

“I take my personal responsibility seriously,” Gil snapped. “And I don’t try to write off my indulgences as ‘work.’ Red fire, what good is it to attend the opera? Or spend the night playing cards and singing drinking songs in a…a…bordello! You’ve really become a very loose fish, Sturmvoraus. Quite a change from the prissy little aristo sugar-plum you used to be.”

“It’s called covert espionage,” Tarvek grumbled, struggling to keep his pastry from shedding crumbs over his round, brocade-covered stomach. “That and ‘social engineering.’ You do realize I keep most of the likely plotters too busy worrying about the cut of their trousers and the standing of their team in the latest scavenger hunt to have time for much serious conniving and conspiracy? Even the sparks are too busy planning boats for my river parties to get into much trouble. As for the bordellos,” he flicked a sly glance at Gil, and said sweetly, “I learned from the master….Herr Holzfaller. You and Bang were so convincing as depraved scum, all those years ago! Very clever. I enjoyed reading your old reports, you know.  I suspect there’s a lot you two left out, though.”

“There’s a difference between Herr Holzfaller being a sot and a cad, and Prince Sturmvoraus, Co-Emperor of Europa being one,” Gil scolded.

“Of course there is: it’s much harder to pull off as a Prince and an Emperor,” Tarvek protested. “I have to be very, very silly and decadent before I can learn anything! You have no idea how much bad champagne I’ve had to drink! And how many stupid parties I’ve had to attend. Or poodles I’ve judged. Or ribbons I’ve cut. The risk of judging the Spark Regatta alone ought to earn me a medal for valor! And I assure you, if you’ve seen one underfed Parisian chorus dancer do the Can-Can, you’ve seen…enough.” His voice was suddenly weary. “More than enough.”  He poured himself another cup of coffee, doctored it with sugar and cream…then, instead of drinking it, he cradled the cup in both hands, head drooping over it as though he were saying a prayer, or like Dr. Sun meditating over a cup of hot cha.

Gil waited for him to say something more. He didn’t.

“Tarvek?”

Tarvek looked up, then, openly vulnerable for the first time since he’d entered the room. “I’m tired, Gil,” he said. “I’m just…tired.”

Gil paused, studying him: the aging Parisian roué. A tall, almost gangly frame hidden in a layer of fat—but still with the reflexes of a Smoke Knight. The first soft wrinkles forming around his eyes. Gingery-grey streaks of fading hair at either temple. Tarvek’s hands were growing heavy-knuckled, and it showed in a way it didn’t seem to on Gil’s squarer hands.

“You need a rest,” Gil said, softly, for some reason suddenly finding an eight-year-old boy hiding hunched and miserable in the body of this man just leaving his prime.

“Blue lightning, no! Of course not!” Tarvek scoffed, and looked away, sipping his coffee. “After all, it’s not like I do anything difficult. You said it yourself: it’s not like I govern.” The sarcasm was a double-bladed ax, cutting both men. The silence following the remark seemed unbreakable.

“The twins are fine,” Gil said, abruptly. “They’re tall, and as beautiful as Agatha. I don’t see them much. Agatha sent them up to stay with Theo and Sliepnir for a few months last year, to get a feel for the court.  Zulenna was…polite. They know I’m their father, of course. It wasn’t exactly a well-kept secret. But I haven’t spoken to them outside court appearances more than five times since they were born. I send them presents at Yule and on their birthday…like any good honorary uncle would. I daresay you do the same.”

“Books,” Tarvek said. “Oh, and dresses. Paris fashion. I sent them hats last year, with feathers: the nicest little cloche hats.” He mulled over the memory, a faint smile breaking through for an instant. “Cloche hats with pheasant feathers.”

“No toast racks?”

He shrugged. “I was keeping toast holders in reserve. No doubt they’ll marry someday, and it would be terrible to have run out of appropriate wedding gifts, after all. I haven’t met them, of course. They don’t come with Agatha to our annual meeting.”

Gil frowned.  “No. You don’t see Agatha between the meetings, do you?”

“Neither do you.”

“I have a wife who would be offended…with good reason, unfortunately.”

“Zulenna’s royalty,” Tarvek said, with sharp annoyance. “She knows the rules. It’s not like you’d be the first ruler to marry for the sake of the Empire, then live a more questionable private life for the sake of his sanity and his soul.”

“You didn’t. At least…you didn’t lead a questionable private life until after the divorce. Barring your eternal parties and court buffoonery. Zola betrayed you long before then. She’s the one who chose to end it.”

“She’s the one who’d have brain-cored me or put me in a mind-control tube if I’d behaved the same way she did.”

Gil snorted. “Touché. Fair enough. Zulenna only threatened to, er…make some major deletions in my physique with her sword. And she may be a good swordswoman, but she’s not as good as me.”

“Why…”

Gil waited, but Tarvek didn’t finish the question.  “Why what?”

“Why didn’t you and Agatha marry? She’d made her choice, after all.  And it’s not like your father would have objected by the end. I waited to hear you’d set a date. Waited years after I married Zola. Then…Zulenna? You didn’t have to marry Zulenna.”

“There are different kinds of necessity,” Gil said. “You should know that. The match stabilized half of Europa and won over the Fifty Families, especially in combination with your marriage to Zola. And…Agatha hadn’t—picked me, I mean. She didn’t choose. I…even after what happened later, I’ve got to say, I’m not sure she would have. But when I married Zulenna, she and I weren’t, well, we weren’t much of anything by then. It just didn’t seem to work. It kept not-working until it was too late and I was married to Zulenna.” He gave a twisted grin. “Maybe once you were gone, the spark went out of it. Maybe what we both really needed was that spark of competition. You or Zulenna. Something to add spice after the first thrill had passed. But she never did choose me. Or you. Or anyone, so far as I know.”

Tarvek’s frown pulled down the creases between his brows. “But…I saw the two of you. In the tower.”

Gil had no idea what he was talking about. Or…perhaps he did. Agatha and he had explored some of their options more than once in several of the towers of Castle Heterodyne in the months after the war. He’d simply assumed she’d been doing similarly with Tarvek at other times, and perhaps in other towers.  “She didn’t pick me, she picked getting some experience. I thought you and she were doing the same.”

Tarvek looked down his nose at Gil. “I was a gentleman.”

“Oh.” Gil sipped his coffee, considering. “That was stupid of you.”

“It made it easier to marry Zola later, though.  And someone had to marry Zola. It didn’t seem fair to make you give up what you and Agatha had…so…” Tarvek stared back down into his own cup. “After all, father had planned for me to marry her all along. And it was a good political match. Sturmvoraus. Mongfish. One of those matches made in the society pages.”

The pieces began to fit together. It was all Gil could do not to swear.  Stupid, stupid aristo idiot with his puffed up notions of honor and his mistaken assumption that Agatha’d made some kind of final choice between her two suitors! And his damnable aristo commitment to Empire!  The ass had sacrificed himself on the blood-altar of Zola Mongfish, for his friends’ sake and for Europa’s. After all, it wasn’t like he could have joined the Foreign Legion. He was too well known and too necessary to the Empire by then.

Moron. Complete and utter moron.

A younger Gil would have said so, with passion and verve. However, Tarvek wasn’t the only man in the room who’d aged.

“Well,” Gil said, pushing himself away from the desk and putting his cup and saucer down on the tray. “Water under the bridge, I daresay. Now, about Paris.” He eagle-eyed his co-Emperor.

“Yes. Paris. What has you and your people wound up, Wulfenbach? It can’t all be my suave demeanor and elegant air of uselessness.”

“My people say there’s a new faction in town, tied to that girl you’ve been dragging about with you to all the more bohemian artist parties. They’ve traced her back through an entire network of known radicals, to a group in Istanbul. They lose track of her in a muddle of old family ties and friends-of-friends and court gossip and trade secrets, but they’re concerned. Now that I’m reasonably sure you’re not encouraging her for some hidden agenda of your own, I’d rather you know what they’ve learned. Maybe you can help them…” Not that he was completely sure Tarvek had no such agenda, or ever would be completely sure. But the problem no longer seemed as pressing as it had before they’d spoken.

Tarvek, too, put down his cup and rose, dusting himself off to remove any stray crumbs that might have gotten past his defenses. “Excuse me, but I’m ahead of you already.  Have your people look through the papers I dropped off on the way here this morning: I’ve got a full brief regarding Fatima and her associates for you and your people to study. She’s a cousin of the Grande Turque, by way of his sparky mother. Part of the same spark network Z’s people came from, though there’s no direct relationship between them beyond trade ties and religion and spark. Z’s been sending me what information he can unearth, but so far it’s not…useful. In the meantime I’m letting her think she’s seducing me.”

“She’s not?”

“I’d sooner bed a nyar-spider. Or even Zola. Either one would make better conversation afterward.”

“That wouldn’t bother most men out looking for a mistress.”

Tarvek looked at Gil and sighed. “It would bother you, wouldn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but…” Gil flushed, and ducked his head. “That hasn’t always kept me out of trouble.”

“I didn’t say it kept you out of trouble. Just out of bed with morons.”

“Mmmmph.  Yes. Well.” One could hardly call Agatha a moron, after all…

Tarvek collected his hat and gloves, putting himself back together neatly.  He tucked his walking stick under his elbow, and he and Gil strolled slowly toward the door.

“How long are you staying here in Budapest?” Gil asked.

“Not long.  Two days, maybe three, to give your people time to go over my brief and ask questions. Then I’m heading back on the Sunset Express. The trains aren’t that fast, and if I’m gone too long someone will get tired of designing boats or planning costumes for the Ardennes’ masquerade ball, and the next thing I know some trumped up fool will start fomenting rebellion. Or design the ultimate war clank using a well-aged Brie, three geese and a tractor. Or begin a new fad for chartreuse.” He gave a delicate shudder. “It took me ten entire years to put down the mauve insurgency. I have no intention of seeing the continent break out with radical chartreusist sympathies.”

“Stay longer and I’ll have one of my people fly you back,” Gil said.

“Fly?  In another of your wretched buzzy-bugs?” He made a face. “I did that back in the bad old days, when we had no choice. Never again.”

“Please?”  Gil smiled at him, suddenly sure of what he wanted. “It’s been too long. I’ve missed you. We’ve run this continent together for thirty years, and I only just realized  how little we’ve talked about anything but politics and finance and strategy and armies and madboys and mayhem in all that time. And most of the time not even that: you’re in Paris, I’m here or on the Grand Tour.  Please. Stay.”  Please, he added silently, I’m lonely – and so are you.

And so is Agatha.

Agatha, whose children you’ve never met. Who you barely mention, even though you rule half a continent while she rules the other half—partners together. Who you won’t ask for a coffee machine, even though you’ll risk asking Vanamonde for his coffee blend. Who you meet once a year for our formal governmental confab, and never risk getting close to.

She never got to choose, you idiot.

Neither did you. You just jumped to a wrong conclusion and ran away to commit Zola-cide and put your heart to death in the arms of a human nyar-spider.

Tarvek shook his head. “Gil, I’m sorry. But, really, I hate your falling machines. And no matter what you think of my methods, I keep Western Europe stable. The last thing we need is trouble. Europa’s had enough wars, and if there’s one thing I manage with my piffle and my parties and my fashions and my scavenger hunts, it’s an ongoing epidemic of peace. As long as I’m doing my job, you don’t have to do yours, because we never ‘make you come over’ to settle our squabbles. Agatha keeps Eastern Europa stable by having the biggest and most terrifying armed force in history. I do it by…babbling. Endlessly, endlessly babbling.” He tried to make the words light, but to Gil’s ears his voice sounded exhausted.

“Let me send Klaus Zantabraxus out to Paris as your proxy. He can spend a few weeks finding out how much he doesn’t know. And your deputies could smack him around and teach him some humility.  Then, when you’re rested, you can go out there and show the young hound how a real fox does it.”

Tarvek lit up for a moment, a smile blooming.  Then he frowned.  “No.  It’s a tempting idea. But…I haven’t been out of Paris for longer than two weeks since we three took power. I’ll tell you what. Send your boy out to me and when I’ve got him trained up a bit, then…maybe. Maybe I’ll take a rest. Maybe…maybe we can even find a way to swap sons for awhile. I’d like Andrei to learn from someone beside his mother and the Knights. You could knock some sense into him, Wulfenbach style.”

Gil sighed. Maybe that would do, but he found he doubted that he’d ever get Tarvek away from Paris again, if he failed to keep him away now. Still, it was hardly as though he could kidnap the man…

“All right. At least you’ll be here for a few more days. Come over for dinner tonight. You can meet Martya and catch up with Zulenna. She’ll be delighted to see you.”

“She’s changed so much, then?” Tarvek quipped. “Amazing. As I recall she always loathed me for outranking her—and I still do.”

“You don’t have to remind her of it!”

“You think I can avoid it? I think she already knows, Wulfenbach.”

“Well, yes. But…she can pretend she doesn’t if you don’t insist on it. Please. Dinner? My cook’s as good with dinner as he is with babka and pastries.”

Tarvek grinned a very crooked grin. “Well, in that case!” Then he sighed. “No. I have to go through the reports my people are sending me by lux-o-gram. And I’m supposed to meet with a silk merchant about a new weaving technique they’re experimenting with. And there’s a spark who’s just gotten her doctorate from Trans Poly who wants to meet me. I think she’s hoping for a place at L’Universite, and wants me to recommend her to the Master of Paris.”

Gil’s heart dropped, but he nodded. “Maybe before you leave, though. If I have to I’ll make it an Imperial Command.”

“You only outrank me in issues of transcontinental scope. I don’t think where I eat dinner counts, Herr Wulfenbach.”

“You’re the Emperor of the West having dinner in a city in the East with the over-Emperor of the Extended Empire. That makes it transcontinental.”

“Yeah, yeah, right. Try again, Woodchopper-boy.” But Tarvek smiled and, suddenly, he hauled Gil in for an unexpected hug. “Cinder and ash, but I missed you. It’s good to see you, Gil.” He thumped Gil gently between the shoulder blades. He was soft but strong, lanky but round, and his hug felt like comfort and kindness.

Gil wondered if Agatha would feel as comforted. Her life, full and fulfilling as it was, had not been any easier than his or Tarvek’s.

They pulled apart, then, and shook hands like proper ruling dignitaries parting company. Then Tarvek left.
Gil called Hans in to get a footman and clear away the coffee things, then walked to the window, brooding, still uneasily certain that this might be his only chance to…what? Rebuild his friendship, rather than just a governmental partnership? He found that desirable, but to his own surprise what he really wanted was to get Tarvek together with Agatha, and that wasn’t possible. Tarvek wouldn’t fly. Agatha wouldn’t come to Budapest – not while Zulenna was there to be offended.

Below, Tarvek had come out the main door of the palace and was toddling like a great, lanky egg-man down the gravel walk…away.  Not that Gil could change that. It wasn’t like he could kidnap him.

It…

By heaven, he thought, our stories began with a kidnap. Why shouldn’t they continue with a kidnap? Or two…

He stopped thinking for one blinding white moment, then shouted with laughter, so frightening the footman that he dropped the coffee tray.

 “Oh, never mind, man,” Gil said, silencing the man’s terrified twittering. “Just clean it up. I won’t bite.  Much.” He grabbed the crank and spun the intricate gears that opened the windows, leaning out and shouting, “Hoy!  Sturmvoraus!”

Tarvek turned and waved.

Gil leaned farther. “Just so you know – I’m going to kidnap you. Don’t be too worried when my people come for you.”

“The last person who did that and got away with it was a Trygvassen. Actually, it took two of them to pull it off. Who are you going to get who can match the Trygvassens?” Tarvek looked amused, and entirely disbelieving.

“Oh, I’ve got a few ideas. Just remember—when they come for you, don’t panic. I’d just as soon no one got hurt.” He waved once more, then pulled his head back in, ideas percolating.  “Hans, let the footman worry about the mess.  I need you to get some things set up for me.  First, call Boris Dolokhov and tell him I’m pulling him out of retirement for a few months to work with Klaus Zantabraxus, in Paris.  And send someone up to K-Z’s room to tell him I need to have a long talk with him. Then I want you to call Van Mekkhan, over in Mechanicsberg, and arrange a time when I can have a long talk with him, too.  That’s sometime today.  And contact Grantz. I’ve got work for him.”

“Her. I think Grantz is a her this month.”

“Him, her, I can never keep the schedule straight. Whichever she is this week, get in touch and let her know I’ve got an assignment – and to recruit help. Maybe…maybe Trygvassen and his sister. It would…amuse someone.” Or perhaps piss him off. But that would be good for Tarvek Sturmvoraus, too. The overgrown ginger weasel had clearly spent a few too many years in quiet desperation. Noble, self-sacrificing, Imperial desperation with parties and opera and escargot, but still… definitely desperation.

He sat down at his desk, pulled out pads of note paper and sheets of drawing paper, and joyfully entered the Madness Place, stopping only for short periods to give orders and brief critical players in his game. His plan gamboled through his mind like kittens in a yarn store. Soon it involved secret crypts, heart-shaped cakes, brilliantly novel pit traps and oubliettes, oversized clanks, a small fleet of flying machines, three very particular Jaeger monsters, a roller-skating giraffe, a leaning tower of piroshky, a case of plum brandy, a basket of midi-mimmoth kits, wasp weasels, an entirely novel design for a rotating bed, and an automated accordion player.  He was still giggling to himself and adding the final details late that afternoon when Zulenna came in.

“Gil?  What are you doing?  According to Hans you have the whole palace in an uproar.”

He looked at his wife. She was, as always, proud and beautiful and very, very dignified. He considered telling her.  Once, as a schoolmate, she’d been…well, never exactly relaxed or casual, but capable of fun, and wit, and laughter.  When they’d first married she’d been at least a friend.

No, he thought. It’s too late for that.

“Nothing much,” he said. “A project, that’s all.”

She nodded, calmly. “Ah. Well, just don’t forget to change for dinner.” She turned to go.

“Wait.” She turned back, and Gil, surprised by his own impulse, found himself blushing. “Um. I…I’ll tell you, if you like. If…”

“If what?”

“If you promise not to get mad?”

“I never get mad.”

“You get even. So…promise you won’t get even?”

She considered his request, and to his and her mutual surprise, nodded. She came across the thick carpet and behind the desk, leaning over to look at his lists and drawings. As she read, Gil told her a story about mistaken assumptions and pride and needless self-sacrifice and loneliness and the burden of governance and the slow creep of time, and of wrong turns and lost dreams. Then he told her about kidnaps and adventure and hope and Trygvassens…and about midi-mimmoth kits and a roller-skating giraffe. To his amazement, his beautiful, proud, lonely wife smiled. Then she laughed. Then she gave the address of a particularly good lingerie shop. And insisted he replace the accordion with a wind-chime and a mechanical nightingale. And she argued passionately that the midi-mimmoths had to have bows around their necks, and that the plum brandy ought to be from the Sturmhalten orchards. And then she kissed him.

“Why?” he asked, when they’d come up for air.

“You know why,” she said, “You just don’t realize it, yet. Can I have a midi-mimmoth kitten, too?”

“You can have a whole herd, if you like,” he said.

And that wasn’t the end, but it will do for the time being. They all lived—probably not happily ever after, but happily enough, and for a long, long time.

Diplomatic Triangulation, Chapter 4
anizette

IV

It was, to Gil’s amazement, Tarvek who saved the moment…though he later admitted to himself he should have expected the wily prince to find a way to pour oil on the heaving ocean of turmoil about to crash over them. Sturmvoraus somehow managed to disengage from Gil, give a complicated shrug that pulled the too-large shirt into at least a semblance of decency, and walk in elegant dignity toward the fuming Lady Heterodyne. He gave the tiniest of bows, met Agatha’s eyes, and said, “He’s right, for once, Agatha. It’s not what it looks like—but this isn’t the moment to explain what really was happening. Would you go check into your rooms on the dirigible, get your party settled, and come back when you’re done?  By then Wulfenbach and I should be neat, clean, and properly dressed, and we can all sit down and have tea and talk.”

Agatha stared at Tarvek. She was a sensible girl, but she had a temper—Gil knew that far too well. She drew a deep breath, ready to explode, when Zeetha reached over several other members of the entourage and tapped her vigorously on the shoulder…or at least, it was a “tap” if you considered it possible to tap with a closed fist moving at high speed into a bicep.

Zumil, shut up and come listen to your kolee.”

Agatha whirled, her arms shooting out in a gesture of infinite frustration. “You’ve got to be kidding! Now?”

Zeetha’s eyes shot fire. “Now. Before you turn hilt-I-win: blade-you-lose into a three person bloodbath. Believe me, zumil, you’ll have to work to make this a lot better, but it wouldn’t take more than three words to make it worse.”

Tarvek shot Zeetha an admiring glance, and chimed in, “Really, she’s right, Agatha. I don’t know what brought you all here, exactly. But I do know that we can come out of this fine, if you give us all a chance.”

Gil sympathized with Agatha’s obvious wish to bash heads together. This was where his conversations with erring subordinates all too often devolved into short debates followed by shorter stomping sessions. He found himself impressed when she drew a deep breath, clenched her jaw, and gritted out, “Fine.  But just in case Zeetha is wrong?  I spent the time on the trip here making a new death ray, and I’ll be happy to test it on anyone who makes anything even a little more difficult.” She glanced at everyone around, including the gaping passengers clustered in the hall enjoying the free Heterodyne show. “And I do mean anyone. Do you understand?”

Her own entourage nodded vigorously, as did the poor trapped steward and porters—but the passengers were gone already, leaving only faint vacuum whooomps behind them.

Agatha turned back and glared at both Gil and Tarvek. “You, too: you’ve already made life way too hard. Make it harder and I’m going to rethink my Heterodyne heritage. There has to have been some reason wholesale slaughter worked so well for my ancestors. “ Her head rose, her nose turned up, and she swept off, clearly determined to make a good exit in the grand manner. Behind her trailed her retinue, for all the world like a motley parade from a fairy tale, all stuck to the magic goose that was Agatha. Zeetha, bringing up the rear, tossed the two young men a final grin, wave and wink before striding off after her zumil.

Tarvek watched them all go, his face a picture of besotted admiration. “Red fire and lightning, she’s learning so fast. What an empress she’d make! I can imagine it now: the Heterodyne Empire, stretching from Japan to Ireland. She’s perfect…”

“She’s going to make us perfectly dead if we don’t come up with something to explain this fast,” Gil responded, sourly. “I don’t know what it is about her, but I can’t seem to avoid making a fool of myself in front of her every time I turn around.”

Tarvek closed the door and turned back, one brow rising. “Have you considered that it may not be her?

“Yeah. I did wonder if it wasn’t something to do with you, too.”

“Only when I want it to be,” Tarvek snapped, “and right now we’re both a lot better off if I don’t encourage your natural skill for making things worse.”

“I don’t see how it can get much worse,” Gil groaned, sitting on the edge of the bunk. He clutched his head, running his fingers into his hair and tugging hard. “This is just awful. Now she’s going to think I’m—“ he stopped, turning red as he looked for vocabulary that said what he was trying to say without sounding insulting regarding people who were what the words needed to describe, while still expressing his desire not to be mistaken for what he was certain he wasn’t.

“She already knows you’re not—or at the very least, not exclusively so,” Tarvek said with a growl. He grabbed Gil’s wrists and tugged. “She knows neither of us is—we’ve both more than established our credentials where lusting after women is concerned. It’s the rest of this mess we have to work out. Now get up. You can’t afford to spend your time just sitting there moaning: you have to clean up, shave, and dress. And so do I. And there’s only the one lav and it’s literally not big enough for the two of us. If you want to get through this looking good, it might be an idea to start out looking good.”

Gil allowed himself to be dragged to his feet and shoved toward the lav, but couldn’t resist saying over his shoulder, “Still determined to play dress-up, eh, Sturmvoraus?”

“Of course, we could remain in our current state of undress,” Tarvek responded, his voice dry enough to create a desert in a rainforest. “So—how’s that working for you?”

Gil indulged in a very loud silence, the whites of his eyes showing as he thought of remaining in his boxers until Agatha arrived again…  He then bolted through the lav door, howling, “Find me something decent to wear.  I forget what I packed, but there has to be something good!”

Fifteen minutes later the two men were clean, shaven, splashed with some of Tarvek’s lemony Parisian eau de toilette, and dressed in the best they could arrange from their two sets of luggage. If Gil was wearing a slightly too-tight shirt and a silk cross-chest baldric that he would not have ordinarily chosen, and Tarvek was sporting a waistcoat that would have been too big if not for the convenient back-tie, in the end they looked superb—even in Tarvek’s finicky opinion

“Good,” Gil said, cutting off a prolonged fashion analysis in mid-critique, “We look great. Now—how do we get out of this?”

“We don’t, I suspect,” Tarvek said. “We’re going to have to hear what Agatha has to tell us. She’s not just here chasing two wandering suitors: she’s too angry for that. So until we know what else is happening, I can’t promise that riding the storm is really the best answer. But I’m betting it is.”

Gil looked at him in disbelief. “Letting Agatha think we’re…we… that we were…” he turned pink again, reviewing the vision they must have presented to Agatha when she opened the compartment door. The image was terrifying: even he could see how Agatha would think they’d been...”She thinks we were canoodling, you idiot!  Fire-in-a-coal-mine, Sturmvoraus, enough people got a view of us that by now half of Europa probably thinks we were…”

“Yes. Canoodling, as you so quaintly put it,” Tarvek agreed, leaning over and stripping the lower bunk before sliding it into place again. “You might have thought of that before you, oh, dragged me to your room. Or stood in the hall in a state of outrageous undress trying to rattle my cage by hinting dire things to the floor steward. But ultimately it may be to our advantage…and to Agatha’s. Now, get your own bunk tidied away and if there’s time we’ll discuss it.  And if there’s not, we’ll discuss it with Agatha.  Which may be the best idea anyway.”

Gil stared at him. “What are we going to tell her?”

“Well, d’oh. The truth, of course!”

Now Gil really stared. “Truth?  You’re suggesting we tell her the truth?”

Tarvek growled, softly. “Yes.  Yes, Wulfenbach, I, Prince Aaronev Tarvek Sturmvoraus, am suggesting we tell the truth. Oddly enough, I do that sometimes. Rather often, if you hadn’t noticed. Even when I don’t tell all the truth, or try to misdirect people, I make every attempt to tell as much of the truth as is practical—it’s a far better way of misleading people than just lying, and much less likely to trip you up. But in this case… Gil, for heaven’s sake, how stupid do you think I am?  This is Agatha. She’s smart, her friends are smart, and into the bargain we love her. Why lie if we can help it? Is that so hard to believe?”

“Yes.” Gil considered elaborating, but after due consideration just shrugged and repeated. “Yes, it is.”

“Fine,” Tarvek snapped, obviously just short of clipping Gil across the ear. “Whatever. Assume I’m being devious and Machiavellian—you won’t even be wrong. Just get it through your head that a lot of the time the most devious, Machiavellian thing you can do is tell the truth. Intelligently. Which is probably why you never discovered that fundamental axiom.”

“Hey, I know how the game is played,” Gil snapped, hotly, “One of these days you’re going to figure out I’m better at the game than you are. I just didn’t think you knew.”

“Right. You just assumed I'd lie. Because I am a Sturmvoraus. The sun, it burns me. The truth, it sets my tongue on fire!” Tarvek staggered and mimed a vampire dying. “Throw holy water and I dissolve in foul smoke. Put garlic in my food and I…Well, actually, if you put garlic in my food I ask for a second serving, but then, I am Romanian, for lightning’s sake.” Straightening, he said, “Give it a rest, Wulfenbach, would you please? We’ve got maybe ten minutes left to try to work out how to manage this, and you’re wasting that time.”

“Yeah, about that…how’s the truth going to help us?”

“Well it helps that we both left for reasons we can probably argue were noble and self-sacrificing, if not entirely smart,” Tarvek said. “And then we explain how sick I was—and that it seemed smarter to just stay in the room and not worry about dressing because, well…I was sick. And then we just say we were laughing. Which we were.”

“And this is going to be believed for what reason?” Gil said in deep disbelief. “Tarvek, we know what happened, but Agatha doesn’t. And everyone else thinks we were…”

“Canoodling.”

“Yeah. Canoodling. Everyone else thinks we were canoodling.”

“So?  Does it matter?  And even if it does, does it matter in ways we can use to our advantage?” Tarvek leaned in and poked Gil in the chest for emphasis as he continued, “If they do think we were canoodling, so what?  So long as we still prove we’re interested in Agatha, that just means that other suitors—and you know there are going to be other suitors—will be really confused about how to deal with the three of us. It will be harder for them to figure out how to play us against each other. And some will be bothered, because they’ll think Agatha likes…well…people who don’t really want her. And others will worry that they won’t be able to live up to her expectations: I mean, it won’t hurt us if folks think she’s too much woman for one guy to manage alone. And she’s The Heterodyne: people expect her to be too much for any one man, in too many ways to count. In the end the only thing that matters is that Agatha believes we love her…and that she wants that.”

“Yeah, but…” Gil frowned, sure there was a catch there somehow. “What happens when one of us finally wins her?”

Tarvek rolled his eyes. “You mean what happens if she finally chooses one of us?”

“Isn’t that what I just said?”

“No, idiot.  You’ve got to get this through your head: we don’t ‘win.’ She picks.”

‘That doesn’t seem right,” Gil grumbled.

“I don’t see why not. We already did our picking. It’s her turn, now,” Tarvek said, mildly. “In any case, when and if she chooses then one of us leaves heartbroken. And no one is that surprised, because two in love is hard to do well and three’s nigh-on impossible.”

"Yeah, but if she thinks we were canoodling, why would she pick us?"

"Because she wants one of us--and feels good about being attractive enough to compete with the other. Or because she hopes this way she can get both of us? But I really think she's going to believe us." He got a dreamy look on his face. "Agatha trusts me. Mostly. She's..."

"I know, I know. She's perfect. You've said so before." Gil scowled.“I still think there’s a catch,”

Tarvek looked away, uneasily, and said, “Wellllllll, there may be one little one. If it’s going to work…”

He never got to finish, though, because just then there was a knock at the door. When Gil opened it he was met by Agatha, dressed in a green velveteen skirt and spencer jacket, and Princess Zeetha of Skifander, dressed in a black riding jacket and trousers trimmed in green braid and steel weaponry. Agatha opened her mouth—and Zeetha fwapped her on the back of the head and said, “Hush, zumil. I’m the yenta…and this is gonna be so much fun! Wow! You guys are never going to forget this!”

Gil was dreadfully afraid that she, like Tarvek, was telling the truth.


Diplomatic Triangulation, Chapter 3
anizette

III

Gil woke to the profoundly unwelcome sound of Tarvek throwing up in the compartment wastepaper basket. Hearing, his eyes snapped open and he stared at the ceiling in patent horror.

“Sturmvoraus?”

There was a frenzied scuttling  as Tarvek scrambled for cover. His tense, hyper-controlled voice said, “Where am I?”

Gil was a doctor, and as a doctor he was now thinking a number of things he might have considered the night before if he’d been thinking as a medical spark, rather than as a frustrated lover. What he was mainly thinking was “concussion.” Between kicking Tarvek in the head and smashing him in the temple there was an unreasonably large chance he might have rattled the prince’s brains like dice in a cup. This was not good. Very not good.

“You’re safe,” he said, softly, aiming at getting the most critical information out first. “No one’s going to hurt you. You got…injured. That’s all. Bit of a concussion, I expect.” He knew enough by now to suspect Tarvek had spent a lot of his short life defending that life. Finding himself sick and in pain, in a place he didn’t recognize, was not something Tarvek was likely to find reassuring. And like headaches and nausea, limited amnesia was such a classic symptom of concussion…

His guess was confirmed by a long, wary silence followed by a growl full of bravado. “If you lay a hand on me, I promise you’ll regret it.” Then, in a wavering, sick tone that belied the boldness, “Who are you?”

“Um…Gil?”

“Holstfa—?” Tarvek cut off, abruptly, and then corrected himself with disgust. “No. Wulfenbach. That’s right. I thought we’d at least gotten beyond this. There is no call for kidnapping and violence, you cad. You know, Agatha’s not…” he failed to complete the sentence, instead apparently lunging for the wastepaper basket again. The next sounds rising from below had less to do with hostage negotiations or recriminations between enemies, and more to do with intense post-cranial-trauma queasiness.

Gil rolled on his side and looked down over the edge of his bunk. Tarvek was kneeling over the wastepaper basket in an attitude of profound and humble worship, expressing himself…as it were. As Gil had ensured his rival had eaten no dinner the night before, that expression was limited in amount—but not by any means in duration or intensity. In short, Sturmvoraus was sick as a dog while having nothing but his own empty interior to be sick with. The results were obviously less than enjoyable. During a brief interlude between rounds, Tarvek whimpered.

“I hate you, Wulfenbach. Just so you know. I hate you with a white-hot hate that will endure for eternity. I don’t know how you’re responsible for this, but I am sure you are. I hope your bones burn green for all time.” He might have said more, but nature prevented him.

Gil sniggered, softly. Tarvek suffered with such eloquence, and always had…even as a boy he’d been great at soliloquies of angst. Bang had enjoyed tormenting him so much in Paris, for that very reason.

Poor Tarvek. Happy Bang!

Still, Gil thought, he had responsibilities. After all, Tarvek was right: this was actually Gil’s fault. And Gil was the doctor. Or at least, he was the doctor who wasn’t kneeling in a pitiful heap on the floor, upchucking into a wastepaper basket. He slipped from the bed and crept down the ladder, then padded across the tiny room to squat beside Tarvek.

“You need something to drink.”

“I’ll just throw it up again.”

“At least you’ll be throwing up something besides your stomach lining.”

“I don’t need my stomach lining. I’m dying.

“What’s a little bit of death, now and then? Been there, done that, after all. Wouldn’t you rather be dead with a belly full of hot, sweet tea?”

After a few minutes of intestinal distraction, Tarvek looked up, eyes bleary. “Fine. It’s got to be better than this.” He blinked, squinted at Gil, and then, in tones of subterranean gloom, said, “You’re not dressed.”

“I’m wearing briefs,” Gil disagreed. He went to the door and opened it, leaning out and peering both ways. He was in luck: there was a steward passing. Gil called out, “Ho, you!  Can you take an order to the kitchens for us? I’m afraid we’re going to be in here all day, and my friend needs some nourishment.”

“Gil!” Tarvek hissed, “you are not dressed! Get back in here!”

Gil chuckled, and winked at the steward. “He’s so impatient. Tea—hot, heavy on the sugar, at least three large vacuum flasks. No, make that four. Dry toast. And for me send a large grilled steak, rare, with fried eggs, an order of fried potatoes and onions, a pitcher of orange juice, a couple of flasks of coffee, and a sack of apples. It’s going to be a long day, and I’ve got to keep my strength up. Oh, and some cheese. Nice aged cheese…”

Gil….”

“Oh, and have a porter collect Prince Sturmvoraus’ things and bring them to this compartment. I think he’s going to be here for a while.”

Gil!!!

Gil turned, and asked tartly, “What?  Do you really want to parade through the halls in the state you’re in? In that condition the only place you should be is in bed…and if the only way to keep you there is to send for some chains and handcuffs, I’ll do it.”

“I hate you.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Heard it before, sunshine.” Gil turned back to the porter and shrugged. “He had a rough night. You’ll take care of all that for me?”

The porter managed to keep a straight face and nod, before escaping with the latest scandalous news about the Wulfenbach-Sturmvoraus ménage.

Gil turned back, closing the door behind him. Tarvek, temporarily spent, leaned against the back wall of the compartment, eyes shut tight, wastebasket between his knees.  Gil quietly took the wastebasket and carried it to the tiny latrine tucked between the end of the bunks and the door, hidden from Tarvek’s view. He emptied the basket, rinsed it, emptied it again, and dried it. Then he soaked a towel in hot water, wrung it out, and carried both towel and basket back to Tarvek. Squatting, he slipped the basket back between the prince’s knees, then said, “I’m going to wash your face. Don’t panic.”

Tarvek merely grunted, too worn to argue. Gil swept Tarvek’s bangs back and swabbed his face, taking time to clean the crusts from his eyes and wipe the faint traces of illness from around his mouth. He went back, washed the towel out, and hung it out, ready to be used again—which no doubt it would be. Then he returned, saying, “You should get out of those clothes. You’ve been in them since yesterday.”

“You can bury me in them.”

“Bad form, Sturmvoraus, bad form. A gentleman always changes into fresh linens.”

The Romanian phrase Tarvek responded with surprised Gil. He hadn’t realized Tarvek knew those sorts of suggestions. He grinned. “Not so stuffy as I thought you were.  Really, though, you need to get out of those and clean up.  I can help you, if you need me to.”

Tarvek managed to glare at him, even in his weakened state. “You just don’t want to have to help me out of them if I’m sick again.”

“There’s no ‘if’ about it. Come on, be honest—you’ll feel better if you’re out of that jacket and into a clean shirt of mine. Give yourself a little wash-up in the latrine, curl up in bed with your good friend Mr. Wastebasket right nearby, drink some tea, and pretty soon you’ll be feeling a lot better.”

Tarvek sighed gustily, but nodded. He set the wastebasket aside and hitched his unsteady way up to his feet, using the back wall to brace against. Once standing he wobbled gently, like a weak spark’s first clank. He squeezed his eyes shut.  “Oh, my head.  And why does everything look so blurry?”

Gil frowned, then said, tentatively, “Maybe because I still have your glasses?” He groped around till he found his vest, and drew them out. Then, with a grin, he delicately balanced them on the tip of Tarvek’s nose.  “Better?”

Tarvek’s entire face skewed in ironic disbelief. “It might have been better if I’d had a different view. Do you know your hair is standing on end?”

“It gets that way when I have to bunk up with a Sturmvoraus,” Gil snarked back. “Now go, go: your breath smells like a tanning pit, and your clothes smell worse.”  He dug into his luggage and pulled out a spare shirt, tossing it at Tarvek—who, in his state, failed to catch it and ended up draped in miles of gathered linen. “Get on with it—by the time you’re done the tea will be here.”

The tea was there—and the coffee, the bloody steak, runny sunny-side-up eggs, fried potatoes and onions, orange juice, apples, well-aged, strong cheese, and, of course, the rack of dry toast. Tarvek, his long shanks showing beneath the hem of Gil's baggy shirt, took one look, drew in one breath—and dived toward the wastebasket, narrowly avoiding upsetting Gil’s breakfast in his flight.

Gil, unsurprised, simply poured out a large cup of tea for his patient and proceeded to slice into his steak. It was very nicely done, he thought. Not too purple, but still hot red and oozing pleasantly.

Tarvek finished being ill. He staggered with the basket to the lav, and soon came staggering back, trying to avoid looking at Gil’s meal. Or smelling it.

Gil sliced another bite, and murmured happily.  “I wonder how they’d do with liver and kidneys?” he mused, considering the possibility. “I like liver and kidneys.” He did not have the decency to stifle his laughter when Tarvek immediately darted back to the lav, not even bothering with Mr. Wastebasket. He did, however, skootch sideways on the lower bunk, making room for Tarvek when he returned. As the other man sat limply at one end of the bed he handed him the cup of tea and a piece of dry toast.  “Eat it slowly, now.”

“Mmmmph.”

Gil was right. It was a long day. Tarvek’s stomach slowly settled, but his head continued to throb, and Gil felt it necessary to check his patient’s pupils and reactions regularly. Between times they played i-go. Gil found out Tarvek was a simply deadly player…every time he thought he had the upper hand a stone would appear here, and then there, and the next thing he knew he’d find entire regions surrounded, turning sides and becoming enemy territory.

“So,” Gil risked saying, toward mid-afternoon. “Why are you here, anyway?”

Tarvek grunted, and kept his eyes fixed on the i-go board. “I should ask you that.”

“I don’t see why.”

“You were supposed to be back in Mechanicsberg. With Agatha.”

“So were you.”

“I decided I ought to get out. Third wheel isn’t much fun.”

Gil scowled at yet another ring of black go-stones materializing around one of his territories. “I saw what happened, you know.”

Tarvek hunched lower. “Nothing happened. We kissed.  I mean—it could happen to anyone.  I was upset. She was…kind. But she loves you.”

It would have played better, Gil thought, if Tarvek hadn’t still been slightly off-kilter. As it was there was a faint quiver in his voice on that last line that made it clear that his friend was trying hard to abide by that belief—and that he hated believing it. “She loves you, too,” Gil said softly, regretting admitting it even as he said it.

Tarvek shrugged, Gil’s too-large shirt flooping with the motion. “She loved you, first.”

“Just because she met me first,” Gil acknowledged. “And she loves you even if your family did stick her in an Abomination of Science and try to turn her into Lucrezia.”

“Actually, my father wanted to, but it was the Geisterdamen who actually did it,” Tarvek said, voice tired and resigned. “Not that it makes much difference. With my family it’s only a question of who stabs you in the back and how. ‘Whether’ is never in question. We’d have hurt her somehow, eventually.”

“And that’s why you ran away from Castle Heterodyne?”

Tarvek frowned like an entire cold front moving in, driving tempests before it. “I did not run away from Castle Heterodyne. I just…chose to make a long-overdue trip to Sturmhalten. It’s still far from repaired, and I am still the prince.  Someone has to take care of the principality.”

‘Yes. I can see how the right time to go off to check the stonework and mortar is right when your preferred bride finally decides to pile some coal in your boiler furnace.”

“Oh, nice metaphor, Wulfenbach. She was just being kind.”

“No, you idiot. She was heaping the heat on so high your boiler was about to blow.”

Tarvek looked up, and Gil saw real anguish. “Gil, she loves you. She always has. Before…before I got to see you together, I thought… Well. She was running away from you and your father when I met her. She thought it was over, and that you were her enemy. I thought…” his head dropped. “I thought there was a real place for me. But there’s not. All right? Just leave it alone.”

“Lightning and hail. No.  I will not ‘leave it alone.’ She was not being ‘kind.’ She was kissing your brains out…a fact that’s obvious because you’re being stupid, now. Okay, I’ll admit, she may love me. But she loves you, too, and right now she doesn’t know which of us to pick. And…” Gil sighed, and forced himself to continue. “And it’s not fair to her to insist on her picking before she’s had a chance to figure it out. Which means she gets to kiss us both, I guess.”

Tarvek shrugged again, then said, “I suppose you left because you saw?”

Gil grunted agreement. “More or less. I—sort of overreacted. I mean…how can I match that?”

Tarvek’s head shot up, and the prince stared at Gil, finally saying, “What?”

Gil blushed. “I mean, what does a big lunk like me have to offer? That was—amazing. The two of you just…” He was red as a beet.

Tarvek shook his head in amazement. He carefully set the i-go board aside, then leaned forward, grabbed Gil’s shoulders, and shook him –hard. “You moron. You already have matched that.  I mean, I don’t want to understate how much I liked…well.  You know.  But—you should have seen when you and Agatha kissed that time before you left Castle Wulfenbach. It nearly singed my bangs off!”

Gil crossed his arms. “Yeah?  Well when you and Agatha kissed, it left a puddle of lava on the terrace afterward.”

Tarvek’s mouth twitched, and for the first time in too long Gil saw a spark of laughter in his eyes.  “All right. When you and Agatha kissed, seas boiled and stars fell.”

“And when you and Agatha kissed Vesuvius went off.”

“The earth was torn in two.”

“The sun exploded.”

“The universe ended.”

“Yeah, but when you kissed Agatha, the Gods started creation over again!”

Tarvek’s eyes twinkled, and a true smile broke through, brightening his too-often sober face. He chuckled, and said, softly, “Yeah. All right. You’ve got to admit, whatever else—Agatha can really kiss!”

The two boys dissolved in laughter, falling against each other, rolling on the lower bunk, howling, clinging to each other…

And of course, that was when the door opened, framing Agatha, and behind her Krosp, Violetta, Zeetha, Moloch, Vanamond Von Mekkhan, two porters, a steward, and an assortment of fascinated passers-by. They all seemed to have a very good view of two young men, one in nothing but his underpants, the other in a shirt falling off his shoulders, clinging to each other in a single bunk.

Gil stared, stunned, finally saying only, “Um. Agatha?  Um… this isn’t what it looks like.”

Agatha scowled. “Drat. Life would have been one heck of a lot easier if it was.”


Diplomatic Triangulation 2
anizette

II

The room came to a complete standstill. Even those who had not recognized the now- famous—or notorious—young men still recognized the frizzling energy in the voices of sparks fast heading for the Madness Place. The few other customers tossed cash onto tables and departed at speed, leaving half-eaten meals and, in a few instances, damp seats behind them. Low-ranking staff attempted to disappear and failed, because higher-ranking staff were jammed in the exits already. From the kitchen came the sudden crash of falling crockery, followed by an eerie, very un-kitchen-like silence.

Gil frowned. “Why don’t we leave, before we ruin business for the evening?”

Tarvek sighed with annoyed, long-suffering resignation. “I had hoped to dine. But as you wish, Wulfenbach. “ He stood, and just that action made Gil want to shake him. Such a lazy, loitering motion—so foppish and studied! And the way Tarvek tossed his linen napkin to the table? Obnoxious: a light, graceful flip of the wrist that suggested formal functions in one of the stuffier of the Fifty Houses. Or, Gil thought grimly, a performance on the stage of a Viennese opera house. Did Sturmvoraus have to behave as though everything were a public event?

Of course, it was a public event, he conceded, as he quickly stepped out ahead of his rival, refusing to be seen following rather than leading them from the room. These days he, Tarvek, and Agatha couldn’t go anywhere without being noticed, recognized, and remembered. The days of anonymity were over. Which only made it more annoying that Tarvek acted like they’d never existed in the first place, as though he always lived and breathed the role of languid loafer…as languid as a python on a high branch, waiting for prey!

Gil wanted to hit him—and he damned well intended to. Or something as good as. He’d see if Prince Powder Puff could match swords with him. If he recalled correctly…yes! He did. Ahead he spotted the crossed-swords logo of one of the dirigible’s salles d’armes. He veered toward it and swung inside, waiting only until Tarvek had cleared the doorway to slam it shut. He fished in his pockets, found a small screwdriver, and rammed it hard at a diagonal into the door-jamb, effectively locking the room to all but determined efforts to break in.

“Melodrama, thy name is Wulfenbach,” Tarvek drawled. With a soft harrumph he walked back to the door, reached up, and slipped a deadbolt lock into place. “You know, this place does assume sometimes people want privacy. The captain and the steward can probably slip that from outside, but no one else will.”

“My way was more fun,” Gil snapped back.

Tarvek rolled his eyes. “Fine. What other fun were you planning on, now we’re here? Let me guess: some saber play? Foils, I suspect, involve more skill than you’d prefer.”

On that basis alone Gil knew he just had to pick foils. Had to! No question about it, foils or nothing, and he intended to wrap his own whippy blade around Tarvek’s neck by the end of it. He stalked over to the racks that held the foils and selected two, tossing one casually to Tarvek—who, of course, caught it with studied ease, seeming to barely bestir himself. The two moved to the piste, saluted each other, and Gil growled out “en garde.”

Within seconds he knew he’d made a mistake and allowed himself to be gulled. If he’d chosen sabers his height, weight, reach, and raw strength would have balanced his opponent’s subtle finesse. Foils, though, were almost pure finesse. The blades were so light and flexible that a solid blow was almost impossible, and the entire focus was on control: control of the point, control of the piste, control of the opponent. These blades were kitted out with buttons, too--sporting blades intended for practice, never for a true duel. Gil could do some damage, if he wished. The tip of the blade in Tarvek’s eye could injure, even with the point capped. But the weapon would simply not allow Gil to overpower his rival.

Tarvek had suckered him, and done so with ease.

Even so, Gil could beat a Wasteland fighting clank, if he fought his way. With a lunge and a twist he managed to pull Tarvek’s blade and arm out of alignment, pressing the foil to one side. Before Tarvek could disengage, Gil reached in with his free hand and ripped the foil away…only to find Tarvek's foot already tucked behind Gil's knee, and one hand against Gil's shoulder. After that it was pure physics.

As Gil tumbled, Tarvek dropped to a high fighting squat on the piste with the smooth action that indicated intent.  “Knew you’d cheat,” he growled, bitterly. “Anything for the win, right, Wulfenbach? You didn’t like the rules, so you changed the game.” There was a brooding fury behind the words. The red-head scuttled across the floor and got in a savage kick to Gil’s hip, then slipped back quickly, before Gil could grapple with him.

Gil gasped and curled around himself, letting his head drop. He heard Tarvek mutter, then ease closer, saying, “Oh, come on, I didn’t kick that—“

Before he could complete his sentence Gil had swirled where he was, booted feet slamming Tarvek’s chin. As Tarvek jolted back, Gil was on him, finally in his element. He didn’t have his father’s size or mass, but he still outweighed Tarvek in bone and muscle. He was bundling the other man the way a farm hand bundles livestock, using his own body as a pivot to turn Tarvek into a position that would allow a final telling pin.

He never did know quite how Tarvek threw him off. A snaky twist here, a jab to a nerve-cluster there forcing Gil to relax a hold, and Tarvek was free and on his feet—then attacking with a cold, calculated skill that, for the first time, honestly spooked Gil. As Tarvek fought, he spoke, words coming in short, angry bursts. “What are you doing here, idiot?” He forced Gil backward, to Gil’s amazement. “You…are supposed to be…in Mechanicsberg.” A blow nearly took Gil’s head off, failing only because Gil was far too well-trained to resist.  “Agatha…is going to be…frantic.”

“Agatha won’t miss me at all,” Gil gasped back, rolling with the punch and converting the move into his next attack. He managed to connect, once, a solid blow to Tarvek’s belly. “You saw to that, you snake.”

“Sweet lighting,” Tarvek cursed, on a gasp. Gil wasn’t sure if it was pain from the blow, or dismay. “You moron.” He staggered back and poised, warily, watching Gil for any cue as to the next attack. “She loves you, you flaming fool.”

“Did,” Gil huffed, waiting his moment. “Did. Till you seduced her. Planning your next political coup, Sturmvoraus? She’s a pretty prize for you, isn’t she?”

Tarvek paled, turning an almost greenish shade suggesting illness more than rage…and, as Gil had expected, his control began to fray. “No.  Green embers and brimstone.” The prince lunged in an entirely unprincely manner, fingers reaching for Gil’s throat.  Gil dodged back, sweeping Tarvek’s legs from under him…but he failed to reckon on Sturmvoraus’ ability to turn even an error into an advantage. His opponent managed to grab Gil’s arm and twist, the leverage throwing Gil off-balance. The two men went down in a tangle of limbs, Tarvek getting in blows even as he fell.

Gil struggled to regain control, and failed, to his own surprise.  Tarvek was on him like brass on a clank: everywhere he could be and a few places Gil could have sworn he couldn’t…and there was a fire in his eyes of pain verging on madness. Then he had Gil pinned, and his fingers wrapped around Gil’s neck.  “She loves you. Idiot. She loves you.”

Before Gil could register that Tarvek was releasing his grip and pulling back, face contorted by confused misery, Gil had managed to worm one arm free. He connected in a brutal strike to Tarvek’s temple. Tarvek fell in a slump even as Gil realized his rival had been ending his own attack.

Gil lay on the floor, panting, with Tarvek Sturmvoraus sprawled limply over him, and contemplated the complexity of life and the unfairness of it all. For example, rivals were supposed to be reliably slime-sucking, vice-ridden snakes…they weren’t supposed to bawl you out, tell you the girl you both wanted loved you, and then go and try to end the fight. That just was not in the rule book. And as for looking like they wanted to weep while doing it?

Blazes. It was just entirely unfair.

Gil prodded Tarvek’s ribs with one thumb.

“Sturmvoraus?  Hey.  Wake up.”

Sturmvoraus, however, did not wake up. Gil sighed and wriggled, managing after some effort to tip his once-friend off onto the floor and pull himself upright. He crossed his legs and looked down wearily.

Tarvek stirred slightly, but only to draw himself into a curled position on his side. One hand fisted softly and settled near his face, like a child who’d once sucked his thumb and been punished so severely that even in sleep he refrained, almost but never quite completing the gesture. With sudden clarity Gil remembered...

Dozens of nights the two boys had slipped from their dormitory beds to huddle together under blankets, giggling and whispering, exchanging secrets, reading Heterodyne stories by spark-light together or playing with Tarvek’s big pet hypermimmoth. Tarvek often fell asleep first, and always woke the next day bewildered, muttering he never fell asleep first. Never! Even then Gil had known that it was true. Tarvek trusted no one, and never fell asleep until he was sure he was the last. Few people but Gil would have ever seen the other boy posed as he was now, with one curled hand just brushing his lips.

Gil bowed his head, the anger seeping out of him. He reached out and softly stroked Tarvek’s hair into place, gathering up the pince-nez lying on the piste by his head and tucking them into his own vest pocket.  “You flame-sucking nuisance,” he murmured. “What are we going to do now?”

Sturmvoraus answered with only a snuffling half-snore. Gil struggled to his feet, and looked down.

There really wasn’t much choice, he thought. He went and pulled his screwdriver from the door frame and drew back the deadbolt. Then he returned and hoisted Tarvek up, draping him over one shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Opening the door he strode out into the corridors of the dirigible, headed for his compartment. Along the way he flagged down a steward, who approached with understandable wariness.

“Your Majesty?”

“Just Herr Wulfenbach, thank you.  We’re going to be aboard longer than planned. I’d like two tickets, from wherever we’re at now to…fire and smoke.  Where’s a good stop about a day from here? I think it’s going to be at least that long before Prince Sturmvoraus here feels up to debarking.”

The steward gulped, staring at the tall man and his unconscious burden, trying to decide how one dealt with the Powers of Europa when they chose to behave like, well… like unruly yahoos after a drunk night on the town. In the end he fell back on the old, reliable principle that the customer was always right. “Yes, sir, Herr Wulfenbach, sir. That will be Bucharest, sir.”

Gil grunted. Not the direction he’d thought he was going, but he’d just grabbed the first dirigible out of town, expecting to transfer to someplace he wanted to go later.  So?  It would just be a bit later and farther out of his way than he’d expected. “Bucharest is fine. Two to Bucharest. And Prince Sturmvoraus will be sleeping it off in my compartment tonight, if anything comes up and he’s needed. Not that I think it will help. I don’t expect him to be any use till tomorrow at the earliest.  If he’s any use then,” he added, amused. “Dreadful lay-about, our prince.”

“Er, yes, sir. As you wish, sir,” the poor steward said. “I’ll make the arrangements for those tickets now, sir.” He fled up the hall, determined to find a place as far from this troublesome young man as possible without finding himself treading cold air outside the walls of the ship.

Gil smirked, and returned to his trip to his own room, cheerfully ignoring the stares of the other passengers, or, when it suited him, bowing slightly and greeting the more stunned ladies and gentlemen. When he arrived he dropped Tarvek onto the wide bench, then reached up and flipped out the upper bunk. He drew the lower bench out, feeling it click into place forming a bed beneath Tarvek. Then he rummaged in the chest-drawers below the lower bench, pulling out blankets and pillows. He draped one blanket over Tarvek, and managed to hoist his head long enough to squeeze a pillow beneath.

That completed, he stripped down to his boxers, tossed his bedding up to the upper bunk, and climbed up the built-in ladder into bed. He would, he thought, worry about tooth brushes and razors in the morning.

He lay awake late, pondering the difficulty ahead. How in the world was he going to deal with this? It had been so much easier to hate Tarvek. Now he had to worry what to do when he and Tarvek both loved Agatha, and she seemed unable to choose between them…and one of them would be heartbroken whenever the other proved victorious. It was near dawn before he finally fell asleep, with the problem unresolved.

Meanwhile, of course, word spread from one end of the dirigible to the other: Gilgamesh Wulfenbach had beaten Prince Tarvek Sturmvoraus unconscious in a wild lover’s spat, had locked them together in his room, and was now absconding with him to Bucharest, no doubt for an intense and  clandestine assignation!  How scandalous!   How romantic!  How passionate!

All the passengers were agog, and entirely delighted to be so. Such a story they would have to tell when they got back home! It was better than a Heterodyne show!

Of course, soon enough it was a Heterodyne show…but not yet.  Not quite yet.


Diplomatic Triangulation
anizette

Gil watched in glee as a little Nepenthe dulcis seedling slithered its way up Tarvek’s leg, nuzzling eagerly at the Prince’s crotch.  It was all he could do not to whoop with laughter as Tarvek staggered, squeaked giddily, and pettishly shoved it away, giggling.

“Oh, go away, you nasty thing! For shame!” Sturmvoraus grumbled, cheerfully, voice muffled by the chem filter he wore. The dulcis snapped back flirtatiously, and Tarvek gave a little shriek and danced backward, tumbling as he tripped over still more of the wicked little plantlets.

Gil gulped and clenched his jaw, refusing to give away the fact that he was enjoying every second of this. He did, however, catch Agatha’s eye, hoping to share the humor. Then he realized: his dear, his darling, his beloved was not laughing. Instead a frown hovered. Her brows were drawn down and her eyes were narrowed in speculation. She jerked her head silently toward Tarvek, then pointed a gloved finger at Gil. He didn’t need her to shout “Did you do this?” through her own mask to know she’d nailed him.  He shrugged, and tried to act innocent and stupid.

He suspected only the second worked. She glared over the upper edge of the mask, and proceeded to stomp through snapping dulcis plants, kicking them away and batting them off as she leaned down to help Tarvek up from the earthy, leaf-strewn floor of the Heterodyne conservatory.

“Let me help, Tarvek,” she said, gently, steadying the prince and smiling kindly as he chuckled at her.  “Look, I think there’s something wrong with your filter mask.” Another glance toward Gil made it clear that she had a very good idea why there was something wrong with Sturmvoraus’ mask, too. “You probably ought to go back, find another, and wait to come back till you’ve sobered up a bit. You can come back and help clear this place out later, when you feel better.”

Tarvek sighed and giggled at the same time. “Aw, that’s no fun.” His eyes were dilated, and even with the mask on Gil could tell there was a fool’s grin spreading across his face.  One hand slid up and cradled the turn of Agatha’s neck and skull. With a peculiar blend of laughter and wistfulness he said, “I can’t imagine feeling better. I haven’t been this happy since the last time we were here.”

Gil was about to make a loud gagging noise…but cut off short when he realized that Tarvek and Agatha were standing, unmoving, eyes locked, both growing faintly flushed.  A shudder shook his rival, and he moved slowly, head dropping, as though to kiss Agatha.

She didn’t pull away.

Their face masks bonked, but not soon enough. Gil squawked in fury. “Hey, hands off, Sturmvoraus! She’s claimed!” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a heavy steel nut, sending it hurling at Tarvek with one dexterous flick of his wrist. “Go find your own girl! That one’s taken!”

Tarvek flinched and pulled back as the nut slammed into his shoulder. “Ow!” He giggled, though, unable to resist the perfume of the dulcis that was concentrated in the carefully doctored mask. Gil had spent enough hours reengineering it to have a clear idea just how doped his rival must be: very.

Agatha gently took Tarvek by the shoulders, turned him, and patted his back. “Go on, Tarvek. We’ll talk later.”  She glared at Gil, and said, in far more ferocious tones, “Gil and I are going to have words now.

Gil gulped.  Red fire, his father’s skill with women appeared to have resurfaced, just when Gil thought he might have escaped the curse. He held his hands up, half in placation, half in surrender. “Agatha….”

She waited till Tarvek cleared the room and the doors swept shut behind him, then began a slow stalk. She looked like an enraged marmalade cat, green eyes narrowed to slits, glowering at him over the edge of her face mask. “’Claimed’? ‘Taken?’  Oooooooh, if I had a death ray you’d be the EX-Infamous Gil Wulfenbach. I am not yours.”

“Um…” Terror pounded through him, combined with real frustration. “I thought we were… I mean I thought you…” Frustration won. “I thought you wanted to be mine!”

“I want to be my own, you Idiot. And it’s not like we’ve settled anything yet, now is it?” She stood in front of him, arms crossed, nose barely inches from his. “And you sabotaged Tarvek’s mask, didn’t you?”

“Hey, he fed me to the dulcis last time!  Turnabout!” That seemed obvious and only fair to Gil. “I mean, he was such a jerk!”

“He was drugged, and thought it was just a little plant into the bargain,” Agatha growled.

Gil scowled. “He wanted to make me look like an idiot in front of you. So?  Payback.” Then he snapped his mouth shut, knowing he’d said too much. Again.

She gave a slow, furious nod. “Thought so. “ She turned, and began to stalk away from him, as clearly enraged as when she’d stalked to him.

“Hey!  We’re not done yet!” Gil rushed after her, grabbing one shoulder, desperate to sort things out before they became unsortable. “Come on, it’s just…I thought you’d laugh.”

“You thought I’d like seeing a friend made a fool of?” she said, sweetly.

“Um…” he flinched. “I hoped…”

“You hoped I’d think Tarvek was a bigger idiot than you?”

“Um…”

She twitched her shoulder, shaking his hand off. “I’m going to go talk to someone sensible. Like Othar.”

“Oh, now that’s just…”

Too late. She was gone. Gil sighed and ran his fingers through his already wild hair.

Women were much, much more complicated and difficult than engineering.

He kicked sullenly at the snapping dulcis seedlings teething on his heavy boots. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. He’d expected to get a good dose of well-deserved revenge, overcome Sturmvoraus’ obnoxious, prissy mastery of social couth, discourage Agatha’s continued admiration for the annoying weasel, and get a half-hour to an hour of comic amusement in into the bargain. Prissy Tarvek Sturmvoraus, drunk as a lord. Drunk as a prince!

And it wasn’t like Tarvek hadn’t fed him to the dulcis before.

Life was sooo unfair! Someone throws a bomb at you, you’re supposed to be able to kill your attacker. Someone tries to shoot at you, you’re supposed to be able to throw him off an airship. And if someone once fed you to a giant Nepenthe dulcis and embarrassed you in front of your best girl, you were supposed to be able to drug him with Nepenthe dulcis perfume in return, and embarrass him likewise. Logic!  If only people would apply more logic, his life would be soooo much easier.

For some reason, however, his logic never seemed to satisfy the people he wanted to impress.

He looked gloomily at the snapping, snarling thickets of plants, and narrowed his eyes.

It was amazing, he thought, how many plants you could eliminate with a handy tool like a flame-thrower.  Now all he had to do was make one.  In a lab.  Somewhere else. He’d clear this lot out later.  Meanwhile he had some sulk… er, some sparking to do.

He stopped by the kitchens and collected sandwiches, coffee, and several apples to stuff into his pockets for later. The he proceeded to a lab he’d claimed as his own. Stripping off the mask, gauntlets, and protective jacket he’d worn to clear the plants out of the conservatory, he grabbed one of the sandwiches and the flask of coffee and settled into a window seat to eat before he worked.

He immediately wished he hadn’t.

On the broad terrace below, Tarvek leaned morosely against the ornate stone rail. Agatha was beside him, turned the other way, her butt propped against the rail. They were clearly talking, with Agatha’s expression suggesting she was trying to cheer Tarvek up, and not sure she was succeeding.

He wished he could hear what they were saying.  No…no, he didn’t, he corrected, as Tarvek reacted to something Agatha had said. The princeling straightened, spun, and paced the broad flag pavers of the terrace, arms waving wildly as he gesticulated, eyes wide and emotions clearly tempestuous.

Agatha remained where she was for a time, then she, too, straightened and paced beside Tarvek, like a herd dog keeping pace beside a fretful calf. When the prince wheeled and turned, still gesturing, she was ready for him.

Gil winced as Agatha gripped Tarvek’s lapels, dragging him to a full halt. She was a strong, tall girl—tall enough to look both Gil and Tarvek in the eye, barely having to look up at all, though both were themselves well above average height.  Tarvek, caught in her grasp, seemed to deflate, his distress seeping out of him like helium from the gasbag of a dirigible. His eyes grew huge, his hands wavered in mid-gesture, then hesitantly came to rest on Agatha’s shoulders.

Agatha said something, and the prince replied with distress and sadness, shaking his head slightly. He turned his face from her – a sight gesture, but unmistakable. Tarvek was trying, with regret, to distance himself from Agatha and from whatever she’d said.

Agatha stomped one booted foot, and shook Tarvek lightly, fists still clenched in his lapels. She said something else…something that made Tarvek turn back to her with a sudden snap, wide-eyed.

That was when Agatha simply melted against him, arms suddenly slipping up his chest and around his neck. One hand curled around the back of his neck. She pulled his head down, and their mouths met.

It was to kisses what a seven-volume fat fantasy epic is to literature: a slow, expansive thing with multiple complex developmental arcs. A bit hokey, somewhat melodramatic, with a wide variety of secondary and tertiary climaxes along the way to a cataclysmic resolution. Gil, transfixed at the window, could see entire epochs of their relationship pass in that single kiss. There was Agatha’s first firm, determined claim, Tarvek’s hesitation and faltering response. There was Tarvek’s sudden shift, from uncertainty to rising desire. Agatha, responding, became herself hesitant, unsure how to react to a fire she’d called up all unsuspecting. Tarvek collected himself, like a hawk bating back from mistaken prey…only to have Agatha, once more confident, surge into the kiss, the prey herself turned hunter. Energy swept back and forth between them, and Gil, for the first time, witnessed a kiss as an entire, passionate story played out over time. At last the two parted, each with an expression of amazement and shock. They stared at each other for a lingering moment, then Tarvek pulled Agatha close and buried his face in her hair, caressing her as though comforting a shaken child or a grieving widow.

Gil couldn’t watch any longer. He nearly fell out of the window seat in his scramble to escape, dropping flask and food as he tumbled. He didn’t know whether to rage or mourn.

That kiss had nearly burned off the atmosphere around all Mechanicsberg! Gil had seen inferno bombs that raised less heat! What did he have that could top a kiss like that?

It was obviously over between him and Agatha.  How could it not be? She’d made her choice…and now what was he going to do?

He couldn’t let go of the final image of the two, leaning together in shaken tenderness, auburn hair against strawberry-blonde.  Tarvek’s hands had arched over Agatha’s shoulders so gently. Her own hand had rested in the turn of Tarvek’s neck, seeming almost to shape the turn of bone and muscle like a sculptor shapes clay. To him it had all been as silent as a dumb-show at the prelude of a play, and as telling, laying the heart of the story bare for all to see.

For months he’d tried to tell himself that what Tarvek felt for Agatha wasn’t really love, just a combination of political opportunity and understandable sexual infatuation.  Agatha was smart, beautiful, and the most perfectly placed political alliance Tarvek could have ever dreamed of. Sturmvoraus-Heterodyne was an alliance secured over and over across the generations going all the way back to Andronicus Valois and Euphrosynia Heterodyne. Of course the sneaky weasel would see it as a convenient and desirable match! But Gil had tried to convince himself his rival didn’t really love Agatha: not like he loved her.

The aftermath even more than the kiss itself destroyed that dream. He kept seeing the protective curve of Tarvek’s shoulders,  as though he could wrap his own body around and over Agatha to defend her from all pain and danger, and the gentle sweep of his hands, spelling out a silent “I love you” with every soft stroke. Tarvek really did love Agatha, and loved her for herself.  The other benefits of the match were obvious, and Sturmvoraus was far too smart not to recognize them, but they were merely pleasant extras—nothing, compared to how clearly he treasured Agatha simply as a person.

Gil leaned heavily against the lab table, caught still between fury and tears. He wanted to go thump that damned Sturmvoraus till his pince-nez broke and his pretty face was purple and green. He wanted to start a fight with Agatha—to scream she’d betrayed him, going behind his back.

But she’d been right, earlier. There was nothing settled between them.  And she’d never hidden her fascination with her other suitor, or tried to pretend she’d made up her mind. He might have wanted to believe otherwise, but faced with this he had to admit the truth: she was a normal young girl experiencing her first courtships, with no obligation to make a final choice about either beau before she’d explored her options. It wasn’t fair to insist she choose before she even knew what she was choosing, or had any full understanding of who she was choosing between.

And Tarvek, too, had made no secret of his own desire for Agatha.  Worse, if Gil had read the interactions he’d witnessed correctly, Tarvek had at least tried to resist Agatha’s advance…which, Gil had to admit, was more than he’d ever tried to do, even knowing his rival had to witness each of Gil’s victories. Indeed, Gil had taken a certain pleasure in the extra victory of not just kissing Agatha and being kissed by her, but in knowing Tarvek had to watch and writhe in silence. Now the boomerang had turned back and smacked him upside the head.

But Gil didn’t think he had Tarvek’s quiet fortitude, or his ability to step aside.

Gil wasn’t impulse driven—he had plenty of control. But he wasn’t given to patient waiting or to accepting the role of second fiddle; not by birth nor by upbringing. Staying at Castle Heterodyne watching Tarvek and Agatha resolve themselves into a couple was more than he felt he could do.  At least, more than he could do without knocking heads together, trying to show Tarvek up, and having regular fights with both the young lovers.

Better to go away for a while.  It wasn’t like there wasn’t plenty of clean-up left to be done in Europa, after all.

It was the work of only a few hours to tie off the various loose ends left in the Castle—projects partially finished, more than anything. Another hour to pack and write Agatha and Tarvek a note to excuse his sudden absence. Then he was on his way down to the Mechanicsberg dirigible station. Soon he’d bought a ticket, found his compartment, and curled himself into one of the wide benches to brood. It was hours after sunset when he at last concluded that heartbreak didn’t preclude hunger.

He was seated in the dim dining hall, halfway through a very fine meal of prune-stuffed pork, noodles, and braised turnip when he saw a familiar figure slip silently into the chamber, flag a waiter, and settle at a table on the far side of the room, as far from the wide plate-glass windows as possible…a familiar figure with blazing red hair and tiny pince-nez shimmering at the tip of his straight aristo nose.

Gil pushed back from the table, scowling, and rocketed his way across the room, coming to stand, looming over his rival.

Tarvek looked up, and his eyes snapped first wide…then narrowed.

In a single, grating voice, the two strongest male sparks of their generation growled, “Red fire! What are you doing here?!?!?”


Binary
anizette

Gil

He couldn’t help wondering if this was how his father felt all the time.

The fury and frustration that everyone around him made things so hard; the conviction that if they would only shut up and do what he suggested life would be better for everyone; the outright rage that so many refused to believe he could destroy them if that’s what it took.

Why would no one listen to him?  What did he have to do to be taken seriously?  Did it always have to come down to the fist or the death-ray?

He wanted something different from his life, something better: better for the world, and better for him. And he wanted just a bit of happiness—happiness that appeared to have evaded his father. Someone to laugh with, someone to share with, someone to keep the loneliness at bay. Someone to listen, when he had to talk. Someone who understood the crazy, glorious world with its ever-expanding fractal intricacy. Someone to test him to the very core, not like Klaus tested, but like a friend might test him, pushing him to his limits and beyond to match her talent, to revel in her enthusiasm, to shine with her glory.

Agatha. He wanted Agatha.

Knowing her, he understood a little better how his father had come to be Bill Heterodyne’s rival. Yes, that competition between two friends was too well-known for Klaus to have hidden it from him. His father had made every effort to steal his best friend’s girl. As a boy Gil had been horrified, scandalized, embarrassed. He'd tried to dismiss it all as just another false legend. A proper fellow didn’t do that to a chum.

Now he understood entirely.

He still didn’t know what to do in the face of the danger she presented. He didn’t know what to say to the fierce independence that drove her to stand alone when she should have given herself into his protection. He didn’t know what to do, or say, when she admired that damned Sturmvarous, even though he and his family and allies were the ones who’d doomed her to be what she now was, and who were turning his world to raging, warring hell.

But he loved her anyway. If he could just fight long enough and hard enough to defeat all the monsters rising with the tide of war and chaos, he was sure – certain – that she’d love him too, and finally let him guide her. He’d protect her, and Europa, and prove he was right and worthy of her.

He thought about his rival, who might once have been his friend, and couldn’t help grinning a fierce, determined grin.  Tarvek might be an aristo, he might have all the mincing airs and graces of the society fop, he might really love Agatha, he might even be a touch more trustworthy than Gil had thought -- but he was still danger.  Agatha would see.  Gil would make her see. He intended to win. He deserved to win.  And he wasn’t about to give up now.

***

***

Tarvek

He couldn’t help wondering if this was how his father had felt all the time.

The ache and longing. The sense that he’d found his one true pole-star. The bone-deep need to rebuild his entire world to conform to his true love’s desires. The will to do anything, be anything, sacrifice anything, if that was what his beloved asked for. She had ripped through years of internal defenses, the crushing discipline and numbing despair of a lifetime hiding his mind, heart, and soul while eternally trapped in plain view, and changed everything.

The one difference between him and his father, he thought in shaken dismay, was that he was lucky enough to love someone good and true. But what if he’d loved someone else?  Someone like Lucrezia?

His whole life he’d raged, uncomprehending, furious at his father’s obsession. Nothing had mattered to Aaronev so much as Lucrezia mattered: not honor, not rank, not duty, not his own wife, not his daughter or son. Nothing was too precious to sacrifice for her—not even his own soul.

Now he understood entirely.

He wanted something better than his father, though.  Something better for the world, and better for him. Someone who valued him. Someone who would never turn him into a monster. Someone who understood what it meant to fight a heritage so woven with danger and dishonor that nothing could ever wash the past clean…and only iron will could promise a better future. Someone whose own honor would challenge him to race toward virtue the way other men raced toward vice. Someone who could match him: mind to his mind, heart to his heart, soul to his soul.

Agatha.  He wanted Agatha

But it seemed that Agatha wanted Gil.

He thought about his rival, who might once have been his friend, and knew he’d do whatever he had to. Even give Agatha her freedom, even accept her choice.  Anything so that his love remained the one bright light in his life. If she chose him, so much the better. But if she didn’t, he would fight down the loss and smile. He might lose his joy, but he’d win his own honor in that defeat. If the only way to be worthy of her was to lose her, he’d lose—and in losing, win.

He intended to win. He needed to win.  And he wasn’t about to give up now.


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