Master Gilgamesh whirled into the room. His hair stood on end, even more than it usually did, the circles under his eyes were more prominent than they had been in years, and he trailed a faint line of smoke. “Madame von P – Otilia!” He sighed in relief, sagging in scorched clothes. A quiet murmur in Skiff registered on her auditory sensors. Otilia had never learned to understand the language, but she thought that it might have been a prayer. “Thank you so much for doing this.” He shoved a small, equally charred figure into the room, practically dragging it through the doorway.
Nearly a decade of Otilia’s long existence had been devoted to the care of large numbers of children; she scanned the girl without truly registering the decision. Her optics – so much more convenient than organic eyes – rapidly took in the child’s state. The burn marks and minor shrapnel wounds covering her arms and face implied that she had been near a small explosion in the recent past. Her rumpled clothing and frazzled hair showed that she had been awake for too long, though not as long as her father. What stuck out, to a caretaker of groups of mixed sparks, minions, and regular people, was the particular wild-eyed, shocked look she was trying desperately to hide. This child had watched a spark at work, and despite the terrifying, world-bending tendencies of madboys, had not looked away.
“We had to get her out of the lab somehow,” Gilgamesh said rapidly. “She wouldn’t leave – she’s convinced that her siblings will blow themselves up if she’s not there to watch them – but Barry and Lily haven’t slept at the same time in at least two days, and Teo has always been watching them, so she hasn’t slept in all that time. We have to watch them and run the empire; we can’t watch her and keep her away from the others at the same time, and you raised Tarvek and me, so we’re handing her to you.” He shoved a shock of bronze hair out of his eyes and took a deep breath in. “Um. Lily and Barry are breaking through,” he added as an afterthought.
“I was informed of this,” Otilia responded. She kept her attention on the child, though she did not turn her head. Rather than seek shelter with a parent in the presence of a new and intimidating figure, the girl appeared to be considering how best to break for the door. Otilia prepared to block her, though the child’s determination to protect her siblings was admirable. “Where are your other children?”
Gilgamesh blinked rapidly. A few less-than-eloquent English epithets left his lips. “I… I don’t – Adam is still visiting Count What’s-his-name’s youngest, and Klaus is with, with, with the Von Mekkhans.” He seemed pleased with himself for remembering.
The faint sound of another explosion rang through Castle Heterodyne’s halls. Gilgamesh did not actually swear in front of his daughter (again), but he bolted away towards the source of the chaos. The girl blinked after him, then glanced back at Otilia.
Otilia looked back.
The next few seconds were very chaotic.
Otilia dropped her charge onto the bed and held the struggling child down with a paw. “Mistress Teodora. You have been placed in my care to ensure that you will be safe. You will remain in my care until your siblings are no longer breaking through. Do you understand?” The tiger clank’s vocal apparatus turned the tersely controlled sentence into a growl.
Mistress Teodora was truly a child of Mechanicsburg: a large predator snarling directly into her face didn’t so much as faze her. “Lily and Barry are in fugue. They will blow themselves up if someone doesn’t watch them.”
“Your parents are watching them. You will sleep.”
“They’re gonna get hurt!” It was the most childish utterance the girl had allowed herself yet. Otilia very nearly relented at the desperation creasing the young face. “They’re gonna get hurt if somebody doesn’t watch them and Mom and Dad and Papa will just start fuguing and they won’t watch them anymore and someone’s gonna get hurt!”
“Master Sturmvoraus’s self-control rivals the most minion-friendly sparks, and he will do nothing that might risk his children. That includes drugging all of you into sleep, if that is what becomes necessary. Shall I request his aid?”
The child glared suspiciously up at Otilia. The movement drew attention directly towards her sunken, bloodshot green eyes. “Papa’s not even in the city right now.”
“He entered the city less than two hours ago, and has reportedly been preparing sleeping draughts that will work on sparks in breakthrough,” Otilia retorted. This was broadly true, though Lucrezia’s – Euphro – the Heterodyne Girl’s chief minion had reported that he had been… sidetracked. (Likely by general sparkish nonsense) That, however, was not something that this Heterodyne Girl needed to know.
Something in the very back of Otilia’s processor shook slightly at the fact that there were now three Heterodyne Girls. Her King had declared one of them his consort, and another his successor.
Her Creator would be screaming.
The girl – the one in front of her, not the Heterodyne Girl – did not seem convinced. “I want to talk to him.”
Ahh, this was more familiar ground. Children trying to escape others’ eyes were likely to do just about anything to get out, and bargaining with their caretakers was one of the most common, especially among the older set. The child was indeed very mature for eight years old. “You may – after you sleep.”
Exhaustion appeared to be dragging the Het - young Mistress Teodora’s carefully crafted layers of adult mannerisms away, revealing the child beneath. In a few more years, she would be a terror, with that kind of self-control. “But I’m not tired!”
It was a very long night for the both of them.
Unfortunately, the trouble with breakthrough is that it lasts days, not hours. Teodora slept a solid fourteen hours and upon waking immediately proved herself the product of her mother’s impossible willpower and her father’s unbreakable stubbornness. She demanded to see her siblings. She demanded news of her siblings, which was granted, and arrived in the form of a harried-looking and possibly recently electrified Lady Heterodyne. Teodora passed a relatively peaceful breakfast with her mother, still under Otilia’s watchful eye, as the – Agatha Heterodyne narrated the scientific exploits of two thirds of her middle children. After her mother left, having reaffirmed that the girl was to remain in Otilia’s care until her siblings were no longer breaking through, however, the insistence resumed.
By Otilia’s past experience – all twenty-odd years of it, handling the children of Europa’s most influential families – no child of eight should be able to continue the same argument for more than a single hour. Two, at the absolute most.
It’s been five.
Six hours, eight minutes, and forty-six seconds from the time her charge’s mother (easier, to think of the woman that way than as herself) left to now, Otilia’s internal chronometer reminds her. The number includes the hour King Tarvek had spent with them over lunch, reassuring Teodora that her siblings still lived. He promised to start dosing them with sedatives that afternoon. Teodora had nearly cried in relief. The shouting argument resumed as soon as he left the room.
Otilia takes advantage of her clank body to switch off her chronometer.
Eventually, Otilia manages to distract the girl. It takes far longer than it should.
“Chin level, back straight, feet together at the heel,” Otilia instructed. At Mistress Teodora’s request for somewhere to practice swordwork, the Castle had produced a rather dusty, small ballroom that had rapidly filled up with jaegers. It seemed that they considered sword training to be a spectacle, especially when the trainee was one of their Lady’s heirs. “Now, turn your left heel parallel, and step forward with your right foot. Raise your sword…”
The lesson continues. Teodora proves to have a positive gift, both for swordwork and for tuning out the commentary of a dozen-odd jaegerkin’s “advice.” She takes to the basic movements like a spark to a room of machine parts, and is working her way through the first set of forms when Master Gilgamesh bursts into the room. Otilia begins to catalogue his appearance, but fails to get further than comparing it – unfavorably – to yesterday’s before he starts shouting. “Barry and Lily are asleep!” He punches the air victoriously.
Otilia does not relax – the tiger clank she currently inhabits is incapable of the subconscious tensing endemic to biological structures. However, something in the back of her processor loosens in a mimicry of such systems. She pretends not to notice.
Teodora stares up at her father, hope plain on her face. “Really?” she asks. Doubtless she is aware of the use of exhaustion as a baseline for both strength and survival of new sparks. “They’re okay?”
Master Gilgamesh’s grin could power a small airship. “Really.”
The girl’s practice sword slips out of her hands. “Oh, good.”
Teodora passes out.
It’s the better part of two weeks later when Otilia realizes what happened.
Mistress Teodora spent two days unsupervised with a pair of sparks in breakthrough and still shows no signs of the spark.