Chapter 1: Take Warning

Alphonse drifted in and out of a sleepless slumber. The sleep was the merciful part; better to be unconscious than half-awake, constantly disoriented with blurry vision and an aching head.

In his brief moments of lucidity, he gathered he’d been hit with some kind of needle-equipped poison cartridge by Scarlet Sun. He imagined crushing the Flowerling in his bare hand in revenge. Imagining was all he could do. Alphonse was no fool. He knew a Flowerling who’d risen to the rank of Rider couldn’t be stamped out so easily.

As the armed carriage bumped along the road, Alphonse lay slumped against the wall, lit only by the trickle of cloud-dimmed sunlight from the meshed-over windows. They’d bound his hands and legs, gagged his mouth and made him drink something they claimed would keep the poison from killing him, with the helpful side effect of keeping him too weak to slip out.

Would they give him a public execution as a traitor to the Empire? Fine with him. He could hold his head up high and say he tried. He did his best to make the Empress look weak in the face of her enemies, to discredit the lie of Prince Charming, to make someone bleed for the fate of Martine.

Would they invite the nobles of Martine to watch? Would his traitorous uncle be there, with a title won by selling out family? Would Duke Kovel squirm with guilt as he saw the final results of his cowardice on his brother’s son? Would Mina be watching somewhere, or would Alphonse be reunited with him after they took his head?

He could live with that. Or die with that.

But it wouldn’t be so simple, would it? Public executions were something straightforward kingdoms did. Libra wasn’t straightforward. They built their army up into an unstoppable force and sent them to fight at the borders of Fire Opal and the Border Island Kingdoms, all while trickling in like water between cracks to absorb the cities around them peacefully. They never held funerals when their current Empress died, or even acknowledged the death. Someone else just showed up in the title, carrying out the same policies, speaking in the same tone as if perfectly rehearsed.

Libra did not hold public executions. They took you away to Monochrome and you disappeared. Better that Scarlet Sun had killed him than whatever awaited him there.

Do you believe that?

He lifted his head with what little strength he had. His mind registered it as a voice, but not like one he’d heard. It was speaking inside of him, a direct line to the brain. Oh, he remembered this. He even knew how to talk back.

You abandoned me, Rot Witch. You left me to die at the hands of that spell-mad prince. What do you want now?

No answer. The carriage ran over a bump on the dusty road, jostling the bound Alphonse. Maybe the poison was causing him to hallucinate. He certainly didn’t sense the Rot Witch’s presence. After having spent so much time carrying her curse in his body, his own nihilism imprisoning the Green Witch’s rose heart, he’d know the feeling anywhere. There was no sensation of sinking into a swamp, no scent of decay. He imagined he’d feel a lot better physically with her essence gone from him if he weren’t drugged.

He didn’t sense her presence. But the voice answered, sounding amused.

Not her.

No, Alphonse had to admit, this felt different. The voice had the feel of smooth, flawless ice, and carried the sensation of cool emptiness. It resonated with a soft hum of a sort he’d never heard before, low and pulsing. As he shut his eyes he caught flashes of a deep shade of blue, and within it, something tiny and black as night.

…So, am I in demand among you creatures? There’s nothing special about me. You can find plenty of people who hate the Empress but don’t have the guts to kill her.

The hum stopped. Yes, the voice answered, but you know the futility of it. The next Empress will be the same. You should answer my question. Would you prefer to die?

He grit his teeth and sucked in a breath.

…Depends what you want from me.

#

Marjorie held a hand to her head to keep the gust of warm wind from blowing her hair loose from its bun. “My! The weather is lively today, isn’t it?” She positioned herself next to Ezra, who was big enough to provide a little buffer from the seaside wind.

Well, that wasn’t the only reason. He also nicely blocked the mirrors they passed as they walked through the market square. She would only catch glimpses of words written in light, and could convince herself it was still a trick of sunlight and stress. Never mind that the sun hid behind fat clouds.

“Ugh.” Ezra tugged his jacket tighter around him. “Guess we were right not to set up a booth today. We’ll be seeing a downpour within the hour, I’m sure of it.” Already merchants around them were starting to pack up early, rolling up tents and wheeling away carts as the salt-scented wind picked up debris.

“Getting a bit more savvy about land weather, aren’t we?” Marjorie smirked. Her eyes caught sight of the mirror behind Ezra.

-ME HOME COME HOME COME HOME

And thank whatever forces did exist in the universe that Ezra was looking up at road leading to the upper-class districts of Nautilus, because he didn’t see the way her face faltered.

“I’ve had to,” the Sky giant muttered, “since it’s so obnoxiously unpredictable. Can’t you just have a season for rain and get it over with all at once? Basil said his homeland has a ‘freeze season.’” He bit his lip and face-palmed. “Oh hell, Basil! He’s coming to meet me here. He’ll get rained on!”

“Can he really not take summer rain?”

“A little’s fine, but if he’s caught in a downpour it’ll leave him with a chill no matter what. I’ll just find him and head for shelter.” Ezra peered over the thinning crowd, squinting. “Well, once he’s here. Can’t be that hard to find, especially if he’s riding Aurora…”

Marjorie tried to focus on Ezra’s voice, but it blended into the sounds of the crowd as she found herself staring into another one of those endless decorative ‘mirrors’ lining the streets. They puzzled and infuriated Philomene, who saw them as a way for Libra to enforce its claim on Nautilus.

‘They’re decorating the city like a treasured pet,’ the princess had said with a scowl, ‘and Nautilus lets them.’ But they seemed to serve no practical purpose as far as Thumbelina’s researchers could tell.

MARJORIE, the mirror spelled out over her reflection in glowing white letters.

She could be tried for treason for hiding those messages from Philomene. But no one else saw them. Libra had no reason to go to all this trouble to contact Marjorie secretly through mirrors. It wasn’t making her any more eager to listen. Either she was imagining it, mental stress and health-related exhaustion taking their toll, or…

MARJORIE, COME HOME COME HOME COME BACK STAY AWAYMARJORIE MARJORIE

“Marjorie?”

The sound of Ezra’s voice triggered Marjorie to snap her gaze away from the mirror and up at her friend, now standing next to Basil and Aurora.

“I was just saying,” Basil said, “perhaps we ought to seek shelter at Anemone Inn before this gets worse. Are you well, Lady Marjorie? You look positively white as a sheet.” He patted Aurora’s back behind him. “If you’re feeling ill, you can ride with me!”

“I…yes. I mean, yes, I’m well, but also I think a ride would be nice.” It would get her away from those mirrors faster. Besides, her friends were used to her spells of queasiness and weakness brought on by her curse. If she could pass it off as one of those, there’d be fewer questions.

Today was not the day Marjorie wanted to explain why anyone would want to find her.

#

Alphonse realized the wagon had stopped, its driver strangely silent and still.

I don’t want anything too complicated, the voice said. I just need a pair of eyes and ears. Believe me, I can’t take much else. My brother made sure of that.

At this, Alphonse smirked. Again, this didn’t work out well for me last time. Besides, you’re obviously able to do something. You froze the wagon.

Only because you’re close to where I’ve been sealed. And even this pitiful manipulation of time hurts me, now. But I’ll do it to reach you. If I can speak to you, that means you’re my only hope.
Which seems like it would put you in my debt. So why should I grovel to you? Alphonse wasn’t sure of the wisdom of taunting a supernatural force, but after carrying the Green Witch’s heart around and poisoning himself with the Rot Witch’s essence, he found it difficult to fear Other Ones.

Who said anything about groveling? We understand each other, or we will. We both have reasons to hate Empress Valerian, in all her incarnations.

Well, that was an odd way to describe the Empress. Yet at the mention of her name, he clenched his bound fists. You outright said it’s futile to kill her.

Futile for you. I said nothing about us.

#

Marjorie sat inside the Anemone Inn’s cafe, sipping from a complimentary cup of tea and hoping it would calm her stomach. There were advantages to being friends with the chef. She kept her expression tired but serene so no one would ask questions.

“Well, so much for advertising.” Ezra dusted his hands off, having just moved a heavy dresser in front of the wide glass doors to the balcony. “I would think with all the tourism that tree’s bringing, we could have brought some business from the marketplace here. Does Xaviero really think this is going to be a bad storm?”

“There’s apparently a saying the sailors have about a red sky in the morning bringing storms. Or is it at night?” Basil frowned and shrugged. The Sky-scaled furniture dwarfed him, making both him and Marjorie look like realistic dolls in comparison.

“And you still came down here? What if you got caught in the rain?!”

“Oh, that’s what I wanted to show you! See this?” Basil gestured to the long, black cloak he wore over his other layers of fur, leather and thick fabric. He held it up and twirled in it, letting it flare outward around him. Behind him, Aurora rested on the floor, Red curled up next to her in wolf form. Kind of the owners to allow them inside, Marjorie thought.

Marjorie glanced at him with a tired little smile. “Very lovely, Basil, but I’m sure you could have showed us tomorrow.”

“I was hoping to demonstrate it! It’s a rain cloak.” Basil held out the edge of it, showing off a glossy sheen on the surface. “New invention made from a cloth imported from the Sky. Coated with something that makes the water slide right off. The Taylors got it for me as a gift. Isn’t it great? I should be able to-to…”

Thunder shook the walls. Basil stopped short, devolving into a coughing fit as he held his chest and shivered. Ezra was over there in seconds, holding Basil to warm him up, followed rapidly by Aurora pressing against him from behind. Red, unable to squeeze in, hovered nervously next to Marjorie and ran circles around her.

Funny, she was starting to feel that oozing tightness in her own chest too. Their curses rarely acted up at the same time. But Basil’s was more acute, and Marjorie had no desire to draw attention to her own. She swallowed down her tea and forced a poker face.

“I’m okay.” Basil’s voice came muffled from behind giant and bear. “It’s over. It passed.” He wriggled out of their arms, catching his breath. He grinned, though Marjorie knew an intentional smile when she saw one. “Just a little chill.”

“A chill?” Ezra crouched down to eye-level, lowering his voice. “But you’re wearing multiple layers. It’s warm in here…”

“From a cold,” Basil appended too quickly. “Not a bad one! It’s, you know. It’s this aristocratic lifestyle the Taylors have. Not good for me at all! Too much rich food, not enough traveling in the woods.” He wouldn’t meet Ezra’s gaze.

Behind Marjorie, Red whimpered but said nothing. In the weeks since the seaside ball, the wolf rarely spoke to anyone but Basil and never took human form. Marjorie wasn’t as well-versed in reading canine noises and body language as she was with people. Did Red know something? Basil absolutely did; Marjorie was sure of it.

“If it’s a cold, I can have the princess recommend an herbal tea.” Marjorie walked up to Basil, noting his flushed complexion. “I’ll tell her as soon as I get back home.”

“No need! It’s really nothing, as I said.” Basil shook his head, turning back up to Ezra. “And before you say it, no, no magic cakes. Regular cake will do just fine, if you’ve any.”

“…Regular cake. Right.” Ezra managed a little smile, easing away from his boyfriend. “I made a little bit of pound cake with orange syrup this morning. Not a bit of magic, I tested it.”

This time, wind rattled the windows of the inn and rain pelted the roof. Funny, thought Marjorie, how a storm outside made the indoors appear all the more calm. The owners were off doing financial paperwork, according to Ezra, expecting no visitors in weather like this. Since Salten’s disappearance they’d buried themselves in their work, apparently requesting Ezra not go after their wayward son.

Everyone was just trying to carry on as if nothing had happened. Basil wasn’t returning to Sethwhile or his cottage, not without Ezra. Ezra was still trying to act as a chef even as his magic kept bubbling through him. Thumbelina Kingdom busied itself with its recovering queen, as if it hadn’t faced certain oblivion not two weeks ago. A storm carried on, and no one wanted to look at it.

And what could Marjorie say to that? She wouldn’t even look in mirrors.

“I’ll pass on cake,” she said, stirring her tea without drinking it. “Still feeling just a little…Ezra? Basil? What’s wrong?”

Both were staring at her as if seeing a ghost. Instinctively, her hand went to the side of her head. She wasn’t sprouting a blossom, was she? Last time it hadn’t exactly been painless, and she’d been taking her herbs regularly. But no, there was nothing amiss up there.

“Marjorie,” Basil said, hand over his mouth. “Turn around. Behind you.”

They weren’t looking at her. They were staring past her, at the thing she should have seen the moment she came in. The object that somehow eluded her attention, as if it wanted her to overlook it, until it drew her attention.

It was a long decorative mirror mounted against the wall, and glowing words spun across it like the cogs of wheels. They shone bright enough to obscure Marjorie’s reflection.

COME HOME COME HOME COME HOME SYNCHRONIZATION 99.99999% COMPLETE COME HOME COME HOME ERROR: TIME-SPACE MAGIC DETECTED COME HOME ESCAPE NOW THEY’RE MAKING ME TAKE YOU MARJORIE

“Marjorie.” Without another word, Ezra lunged for her, Basil drawing the sword at his waist as if it could do a thing against whatever was trying to contact them. They saw.

Yet Marjorie found herself rooted in place, staring at the words.

WELCOME HOME MARJORIE RUN THEY’RE ALL AROUND YOUINITIATING SEQUENCE

As the lightning flashed, she felt Ezra’s big hand clamp around her arm. She could see Basil aiming to do the same, but he never got the chance. The words vanished and the mirror turned black, opening into a powerful vortex of wind that surrounded her entire body.

TOO LATE

She heard the sound of shattering glass, saw vivid silver light surround herself and Ezra. Then the light consumed everything else.

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