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The Exiles Ever After Book Two: In Rot and Bloom

Chapter Text

Philomene opened her eyes and found herself face to face with a goldfinch.

She scrambled out from under the handkerchief she’d been using as a makeshift bed, feeling her heart jump into her throat. Goldfinches were not quite big enough to see Flower Folk as food, but that didn’t make the sight of one so close any less alarming, especially after a peaceful sleep. The princess shook the handkerchief at the bird. “Shoo, shoo!” she whispered. “How did you even get in here?!”

Weeks of being carried by on-foot human travelers had left the interior of her dollhouse laboratory even more disheveled and disorganized than usual, to a point that would have horrified the servants back home. But it was a secure place to sleep, safer than in the pocket of a human who might roll over in their sleep. The locked, bandaged-over windows should have kept out any curious or hungry creatures. This one had apparently pecked the balcony window wide open, as far as Philomene could tell, and was ignoring water-soaked seeds and dissected blue flower petals as it hopped towards her. In fact, it seemed almost focused and purpose-driven. There was an alertness in its beady eyes. 

She took a deep breath and tried again, mustering as much dignity as she could as she sat up in her cotton nightgown. “Haven’t you any manners? If you’d knocked or alerted my servant, we could have arranged a meeting! State your business here. I’ll forgive you intruding on royal property if you aren’t a threat.” And if the bird was, she thought, she just hoped it’d make enough noise to alert the others.

The goldfinch paused, and then spoke in a singsong voice typical of Enlightened birds. “A bird just speaks to a bird, o! I sang but you did not respond.” 

Philomene sighed, at least relieved to see her guess was correct. This bird was at least intelligent enough to be reasoned with. She rubbed her forehead. “All the birds sing at this hour in the morning. Now please, state your business with me.”

“Sent to deliver a message to any members of the Marl family, o! Any who escaped. Found you, I did, because the squirrels said it smelled like violets.”

This captured her attention. Violets were the flower of the house of Marl, ruling family of Thumbelina Colony-Kingdom; an outsider might not know that. “I do not recognize you,” she said, squinting at the bird’s bright colors. “Are you a citizen of the colony? And do you mean to say others of us escaped?!”

“Don’t know! Don’t know. So far I only found you.” The bird fluffed up its feathers, took a deep breath, and sang in the sweetest voice Philomene had ever heard. 

“The olive trees will blacken and burn, the blooms will reach the sky
If you return to Thumbelina, you will surely die.”

It stopped, looking expectant. “Well, that is the message! Did I deliver it properly? They said if I told you who sent it, I would die.” It didn’t sound any more alarmed at the prospect than it had at its unnervingly cheerful warning.

Before a silent Philomene could process what she’d heard, an enormous, light-skinned hand with long fingers reached through the broken window and grabbed at the goldfinch. “Out of there, you!” Marjorie’s voice boomed through the dollhouse. 

The goldfinch evaded Marjorie’s grasp, but flew out in a panic the moment she withdrew her hand. Seconds later, Marjorie’s concerned green eyes were peering through the window in alarm.

“Princess! Princess, are you alright in there!? Ugh, I can’t believe I slept through that!” 

Philomene could, but did not say so. Even with the herbal concoctions Philomene prescribed for her, Marjorie had been sleeping longer and heavier since she’d allowed the parasite to nearly bloom weeks ago. There was no need to bring that up when the handmaiden was already distraught.

“I’m…fine,” she reassured Marjorie. “It’s alright. He was just a messenger.”

“I heard that. Must have been someone like Toad trying to intimidate you out of returning. Maybe they realized we came bringing help and are trying to scare us off.” Marjorie bit her lip. “Then again, perhaps it is safer for you to wait outside. We can settle in Canducci, it isn’t too far away.”

“No,” Philomene said, a little more bluntly than she intended. “That is, no, Marjorie. We should continue. We’re so close! And it was probably just an empty threat from Toad, like you said.” She stifled a shudder and made herself smile instead. If she let the goldfinch’s words get to her while reassuring another, she’d be a hypocrite. “I’ll tell you more about what the bird said later. You’re here, so I know I’m safe. I mean it.” When she said that, her smile felt a little more genuine. “That said, perhaps I should have tried to move some furniture in front of the windows before bed last night…”

“But Highness, your back! Please, allow me to do that for you. Besides, we’ll be at Nautilus by nightfall, and I’m sure they’ll have a safe place for us to hide.” Marjorie held out her hand, and Philomene walked over to sit in it with the help of her cane. 

The human maidservant drew herself up to her full height, giving Philomene a chance to look around the sparse forest. She almost found herself missing the pine tree canopy of the Blue Forest. Here the trees were hardy, knobby things made to withstand the dry summers of the climate, not nearly as tall or grand. They looked like towers to Philomene as opposed to pillars reaching towards the sky. It was more open and somehow less secure.

She thought she saw the goldfinch perching atop a branch, and tucked herself a little lower against Marjorie’s hands. Marjorie may have noticed from the way her pulse increased and a frown crossed her face. 

Speaking of towering, Ezra did just that when Marjorie turned around, though as usual it looked like he didn’t really mean to loom. He had his head bowed and his shoulders hunched over as if to apologize for his size. It was just difficult not to, Philomene imagined, when surrounded by trees that barely reached one’s own height. 

“Is-is everything alright?” the giant asked, holding a burlap bag in one hand. “Basil was just negotiating with a merchant we found on the road, and Cecily’s getting a fire going so we can make fried eggs and grilled onions.” He held up the bag to demonstrate; it was full of onions. “That was, um, all the merchant had to offer, apparently. He seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere.”

“Oh, it’s fine! Everything’s fine,” Marjorie said too quickly. “We were just having a little bit of girl to girl talk. I, for one, cannot wait to be rid of this ‘camping.’” She scowled as she wiped bits of grass and dirt from her traveling cloak with her free hand. She’d been sleeping on the cloak next to Philomene’s dollhouse. “You know, we could just skip breakfast and make our way down to the shore. We might reach Nautilus by lunch time at that rate. Or late lunch?” 

Ezra’s gold eyes widened. “Skip breakfast?! Absolutely not! We can’t make that walk on an empty stomach, especially in this heat, or we’ll be miserable by the time we get there. You in particular need to make sure you’re eating enough.” He crossed his arms and scowled. “Skip breakfast indeed. Is that how humans take care of themselves?” 

Philomene wondered if Marjorie’s appetite was in decline too and she was just trying to hide it with excuses, or if the message had shaken her as much as it had Philomene. Moving right away might be the wiser option. Then again, Philomene thought, maybe the message was sent specifically to unnerve them and damage their morale. If that was the case, she couldn’t let it spread to the others yet, and she certainly couldn’t let the stress get to her or her servant.

“Eggs and onions sounds just fine, Ezra.” Philomene couldn’t meet Ezra’s gaze when he was standing even when she was in Marjorie’s hand, but she looked up at him anyway; to do otherwise would be rude. “I appreciate you looking out for us.”

That was right. They were traveling with two friendly giants, a warrior prince and a polar bear. She was much safer than she’d been when they’d first fled. Whatever awaited her at Thumbelina, she wouldn’t be facing it unprepared or alone.

Much to his surprise, Ezra had discovered he liked life on the road.

He certainly wouldn’t have seen himself suited for it. He knew years of lifting heavy trays and carrying bags of flour had left him stronger than he thought, but he was used to life indoors. The Center of the Universe was crawling with unknown insects, strange plants, unpredictable terrain and temperature changes. Most roadside inns were naturally run by humans and built to accommodate humans. They’d encountered only one with a room big enough for two Sky Folk. The nervous, suspicious innkeeper had charged double for it and Ezra had slept on the wooden floor anyway, insisting Cecily take the bed. 

And yet, it hadn’t been all bad. Basil’s fairy godmothers had an odd talent for redesigning and resizing clothes. As a result, they’d sent him off with fresh, clean outfits to spare, and though he had to wash them in rivers or streams, the bright blue tunic and black slacks he wore were still in far better condition than the patchy things he’d brought from Mielle. He’d learned from Basil how to identify which mushrooms and berries were poisonous and which were delicacies, invented three new hand pie recipes and one rabbit and dandelion stew that smelled so good Aurora ate it all up while Ezra wasn’t looking. When they had to sleep outdoors, he was able to rest his head against a curled-up polar bear with fur softer than any pillow. On one chilly night, everyone but Cecily and Philomene had slept on top of him, and he hadn’t even minded.

Thus even though he knew it was for the best that they would approach Thumbelina’s border city of Nautilus within the day, he felt a little sad about it. It meant Cecily would likely part ways with them, at least for a while, once she’d found somewhere to settle and seek word of her husband. He suspected the late nights up talking with Basil would be fewer when they were busy trying to break a curse. It had been much easier for him not to think about his name when he hadn’t had many strangers asking for it. 

Morever, Nautilus was a human city. A fairy market was one thing. One expected to see oddities there, and if the humans were going to consider a Sky baker an oddity that was their problem, not his. But there would be far, far more humans in Nautilus, and on the land, human was synonymous with person.

Basil was taking the lead on Aurora, riding the bear down the dusty, well-worn road as they approached a steep incline. “Honestly,” he said, “that merchant’s behavior was too strange! Quite rude, if you ask me. He obviously had apples and spices to sell, even a few bottles of oil, but he wasn’t interested in selling them. Said he meant to sell them in Nautilus and nowhere else. Is Nautilus a major trade city?”

“It’s a port city,” Philomene said from Marjorie’s pocket. “He might not have been able to sell them to us if he had a buyer there, Basil.”

“Well, he certainly was in a hurry. Come to think of it, I’m surprised how many people we’ve seen going this way since yesterday.” Basil turned around to address the others behind him as Aurora plodded along. “I would think with Thumbelina cursed, Nautilus wouldn’t be a very safe place to stay.”

“Did Nautilus send you any support when the curse hit your kingdom, Philomene?” Ezra asked, not wanting to come off as aloof just because he was lost in his thoughts. 

Marjorie huffed. “No, of course not. Why should they? I’m sure they don’t want to put their precious city guard at risk.”

“Well,” Philomene added in a hesitant tone, “we left so quickly in the dead of night that if they did send any support, we just didn’t see it. It’s quite possible. Although, the problem with Imperial intervention would be-ah, you know, nevermind.”

Ezra was about to question just what Philomene meant when he heard a high-pitched screech and noticed a great shadow sweep under him. He looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun, to see a roc making a wide circle above in the cloudless sky. It had a narrower body shape than the ones he was used to, its wings more angular.


Cecily had been so quiet, taking the rear of the procession, that Ezra startled when he heard her soft voice. She was holding up well on the journey, the color returning to her cheeks as she spent more time in the sun. She leaned against her walking stick and peered up at the strangely-shaped roc.

Ezra stared at her. “What do you mean, Vox?”

“That’s a Sea Roc. I’ve seen pictures of them before. They’re only used by Vox officials or Celestial Patrol.” Cecily considered this and then began to walk along, as if it were not worthy of further thought.

Ezra quite disagreed. “Vox is out here?! I mean-Celestial Patrol is, are they…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Wait, what do I have to worry about? I’m serving my sentence properly. I’ve done nothing wrong.” And yet, the very idea of running into a ‘CP’ made him want to hide behind Aurora. 

“Something wrong, Ezra? You’re going a little pale,” Basil said. “This Vox, is it trouble? It’s not a threat to you, is it?!”

“No, no! Vox is a-a city state. It’s the ruling city-state of the Sky, the Celestial Capital. It’s just-it’s just surprising to see Celestial Patrol this far out,” Ezra mumbled. “I’m sure they have business that has nothing to do with us.” 

Basil gave Ezra a skeptical look before turning around and leading Aurora onward. They were just at the top of the big hill. Ezra could already smell a salty, fishy scent he assumed must be what Marjorie had called ‘sea air.’ He peered over the horizon, wondering if he might be able to get a first glimpse of the ocean from that height. In doing so, he almost stumbled over Aurora, who gave him a warning grunt.

“Sorry! Sorry, sorry,” he stammered as he backed up. “Are you alright? I didn’t-”

“I’m fine, Ezra! And I’m strong enough to catch you if you did fall on me,” Basil bragged with a winking, flirtatious grin that quickly faded to an awkward, confused look. “Sorry for the sudden stop. It’s just, well, see for yourself?”

The prince gestured down to the valley below the great hill. It gave a view of the expansive city Ezra had to assume was Nautilus, a patchwork of spires, square and tiled roofs and patches of green. A great wall surrounded the circular city and curved inward within it, forming a perfect spiral with a shining, opalescent palace at the center. 

Looming over it was a great, jagged mountain with its far slope leading directly to the shore. A spiraling path led up the rocky mountainside to a network of doors and tunnels peppering the top of the mountain like holes in cheese. Greenery covered the mountain like a skirt, though nothing suggested a choking mess of brambles or beanstalks. 

It was a lovely view, but Ezra could see that wasn’t why Aurora had stopped. Bears didn’t really appreciate scenery. No, Aurora was making irritated grunts and snorts at the nervous driver of a wooden carriage. A crowd of what had to be hundreds, maybe thousands more were lining the road leading down the hill, with even more human travelers swarming near the city gates. 

“A-a bit of a jam,” Basil said with an incredulous laugh. “Princess, Lady Marjorie, is this common?”

“…No,” Marjorie said, stepping forward with Philomene in her front pocket. She absentmindedly put Philomene’s dollhouse in Ezra’s hands and walked in front of him, clearing her throat and assuming an innocent, curious voice as she approached the carriage driver.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” she trilled. “I admit to being quite the worldly sort, and I do love making conversation with my fellow travelers. What, pray tell, bring you to this fine city? Especially at a time like this, what with the curse and all?”

“Curse?” The driver, an old, stout woman, stared at Marjorie. “For a ‘worldly sort,’ you’re out of the loop. They broke that curse last week!”

“…What?” Marjorie’s ability to keep her poker face up never ceased to astonish Ezra.

“Yeah, a hero right from Nautilus did it! The Duke’s so proud, he’s throwing a month-long festival over it. Thought I’d try to make a little money off of that. Seems I’m not the only one who heard about it!” The merchant rolled her eyes and laughed, then dragged a wrinkled hand down her face. “Don’t suppose you lot want to buy some dresses in the meantime? Traffic discount?”

Marjorie stood still as a statue, her expression frozen. She managed to tilt her head, and Ezra could swear he heard her and Philomene speak in the same time at the same time.


As Ezra looked past them, he thought he saw the white Sea Roc landing within the walls of the city. 

Chapter Text

“Remember, Taylor.” Royce pushed her spectacles further up the bridge of her nose, standing next to him as the dark, winged shape descended towards the beach. “Keep things official. We don’t want this to turn into an incident.”

“As opposed to a meaningless goodwill gesture between rich nobles?” Vittorio Taylor crossed his arms in front of his chest, trying to hide a smirk. 

Royce snorted. “You’re one to talk about that. Look, they came very highly recommended, the young, promising type.” She raised an eyebrow, face otherwise expressionless. “Don’t forget formalities.”

“I’ll be formal! When I am ever not formal?” Vittorio shrugged, then held his hands up to brace himself against the sand tossed up as the sea roc landed.

He had to admit, it was a magnificent bird. Long and sleek, its white wings were tipped black at the ends and its beak curved sharply. Sea rocs were said to catch dolphins and sharks right out of the ocean, though Taylor wondered if this one could wolf down a small whale. Its beady eye glanced at him and regarded him briefly before the bird folded its webbed, clawed feet under itself and nested down in the sand.

The driver, a stout giant with braided hair, gave Taylor and Royce a brief wave before exchanging unheard words with the passenger. There was only one, Taylor noted; the ‘they’ Royce used to refer to the giant officer might have related to how Taylor couldn’t quite tell the officer’s gender at first glance. 

Even for a giant, the passenger towered. They were a head and a half taller than the pilot, too tall to sit comfortably in the hard leather and wooden seat strapped to the bird’s back. 

Great, Taylor thought. They probably sent their biggest to show off.

Successfully resisting the urge to stare, Taylor stepped forward to offer a handshake. “Celestial Patrol, right? Captain Vittorio Taylor of the local Imperial Guard. Taylor’s fine. Or Vittorio. This your first time on the ground?”

The Celestial Patrol officer stepped off of the roc, gingerly placing a booted foot on the sand as if it might collapse. They were indeed very tall and lean, dressed in a long, flowing cloak of midnight blue and green with a sun-shaped gold clasp at the shoulder. A silver pendant in the shape of a moon swung at their chest, and Vittorio saw ringed earrings glint from under their long, straight black hair. They had a prominent, aquiline nose and gold eyes standing out against olive skin. They were also staring down owlishly at Taylor, who realized a little too late that he was offering his hand to the giant’s shins. 

Catching on a moment later, the officer bent to meet Taylor’s gaze and returned the handshake with a hand that could probably wrap around Taylor’s entire head. It was like a vice, though Taylor refused to do more than wince. They then knelt down on one knee and held their hand over the sun clasp in what Taylor had to assume was a formal salute.

“Rem Tera, Investigator on behalf of Celestial Patrol, sir! And yes, sir, I have never been to the Center of the Universe. Does the ground stop shifting after a while?” The giant barked out their words quickly, and as a result all but the last question sounded heavily rehearsed.

When Taylor glanced at Rem’s dead-serious expression, he recognized that eagerness and mild terror in the eyes of every new recruit. It was the look that said, ‘please don’t let me mess this up.’
He had to stifle a laugh, seeing such an incongruous and familiar look in this juggernaut. “It’s fine! Relax, you don’t need to kneel or salute.” He waved a hand. “You’re probably not used to solid ground. Tall drink of water, aren’t you?” 

Taylor had hoped a good-natured rib would help ease the tension. Instead, Rem frowned as they straightened back up, wincing as if Taylor had mocked their hair or face. He could see now that Rem really was much bigger than the pilot, and probably taller than a lot of the occasional Sky Exiles who either passed through Nautilus or settled there. 

He waved his hand. “No, it’s-it’s a good thing. I could use some intimidation factor. Short, fat and old doesn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of criminals. One reason why I was looking forward to this.”

“…I do have that,” Rem admitted with what Taylor hoped was a hint of humor in their voice. They were busy surveying the beach at the edge of the city. Their expression turned sharp and cold at something over Taylor’s shoulder, a gathering crowd staring at the arrival of a uniformed giant.

“Oh, right. Of course.” Taylor ran a hand down his face and turned around at the crowd of fishermen, merchants and tourists. “Imperial guard matters! Move the hell along and get back to your business!” At this the staring masses began to disperse, though he wondered how much of that was him and how much was Royce’s glare and the two uniformed guards silently standing by them. 

He stole a glance at Rem to make sure they weren’t about to say something hasty. Rem’s hand was tensed into a fist under their long sleeves, and they were taking deep breaths, but seemed to recover quickly. “It’s fine, sir. I was informed of the potential difficulties of my mission before agreeing to it. And I’m used to stares.” They smiled in what seemed to be an afterthought, adding, “though they’re always in admiration in the end.”

Rem immediately appeared to regret saying this aloud, freezing with a mortified stare down at Taylor and Royce. “Um, that was a joke! That was an attempt at a joke. I’m not overconfident. That gets good people killed!” 

Right. Giant or not, Taylor thought, young people were always going to be young. He did laugh this time, shaking his head. “It’s fine, Tera.”

“Rem, please.”

“Rem, right. We’ll have plenty of time for tension later, I’m sure. Come on, let me show you to headquarters. Give you a tour of at least some of the city. You want something to drink?” 

Rem stared down at Taylor. “On duty, sir?”

This would take more adjustment than Taylor thought.

A Sky-scale guest room had been rented out for Rem’s lodging at the upscale Anemone Inn. Rem had spent no more than ten minutes in there to set down their belongings before insisting on getting to business. Taylor noted how carefully the giant walked through what had to be narrow and treacherous streets from their perspective, as well as how frequently they glanced over their shoulder and surveyed the area with every step as if expecting a fight.

Did Vox send Nautilus an investigator, Taylor wondered, or a trigger-happy soldier stifled in a militantly pacifist nation?

In preparation for hosting a giant ‘C.P.’, the Imperial Guard of Nautilus had commandeered a warehouse, emptied it out and prepared a sort of clean, safe meeting area. Rem wouldn’t be able to fit inside Taylor’s office, after all, and he thought it only fair that Rem have their own. He sat on a crate, facing a cross-legged Rem as guards stationed themselves at the doors. 

“Sir.” Rem, who’d barely said a word outside, cleared their throat and reached into the heavy pack they’d brought along. “May I speak freely here?”

Taylor ran a hand through what remained of his hair. Rookies. “Yes, of course! Speak. That’s why we’re here.”

“Right.” Rem sighed, easing up slightly on that stiff, unnatural posture of theirs. “I have to admit, I’m surprised they still sent me. When I heard about the curse resolving-”

“Eh.” Taylor gave a shrug. “I think it’s a little strange, too. But orders are orders.” In truth, he had his own suspicions about that curse and its tidy resolution. That didn’t mean he was about to confide them to a foreign operative right away. “Besides, I get a giant on my force for a while. If they think I’m gonna need one, Imperial Command must know something.”

“Right. Something.” Rem didn’t sound quite so certain as they reached into a big shoulder bag. “I was ordered to show you this at the soonest possible opportunity. Does it look familiar to you?” They held out a wax-capped jar the size of Taylor’s head. It was filled with a blackish-green ooze flecked with bits of white. 

“Eugh.” Taylor took the surprisingly heavy jar in his hands, setting it down as fast as he could. “I can’t say I encounter that on a daily basis, no.”

“That was collected at a location where a human had previously infiltrated Mielle Sky Island using a massive beanstalk. Over the past few weeks, an infection has spread through the cloud to the degree that they’ve had to evacuate several homes sinking through the muck.” Rem took a deep breath. “I know your city recently faced an incursion of plants gone awry from neighboring Thumbelina.”

“Why didn’t you go to them? We had a few cases of illness from the pollen being blown down to the valley,” Taylor said, “but that was Thumbelina’s curse. Buried under brambles and vines-yeah, it wasn’t pretty.” He paused as something Rem had said hit him, squinting. “What do you mean ‘infection?’ Cloud Islands are alive?”

“We think. In a sense, anyway. We know they can sicken, though it usually happens over decades. Not weeks. And it happened after an incident involving a magically-enhanced plant. -Oof!” Rem moved like they were about to lean back in a chair, remembering too late that they were sitting on the floor and just catching themselves before losing their balance. They seemed to realize how much damage that did to their intimidating appearance, and went from wide-eyed to blushing. 

“Look,” they added after straightening out, ignoring Taylor’s stifled laugh. “Captain Taylor. I’ve been sent down here at your government’s request, but I’m also here to find out if there’s any connection between that curse that hit Thumbelina and whatever is going on in Mielle. I’m scheduled to meet with some witnesses in Thumbelina, too, but they don’t seem to want much Sky involvement in their affairs.”

Taylor sighed. “Yeah, they’re like that up there. It’s complicated. Look, I’ll have the Academy look at that sample and see what they can find. I’ll tell you now, we haven’t had any slime problems or anything like that. You really think a human did that? Did you find the guy?”

Rem stiffened. “No. Or rather, your Empress has granted him clemency and we…are respectful of her wishes.” They’d mumbled that last bit like a child reciting a rule to a parent. “And personally, I don’t think he had anything to do with the infection. Humans can’t create Sky-reaching beanstalks from scratch. Otherwise it would be happening more often!”

“Or you want to think that, because otherwise the Empire has the power to reach the Sky.”

Rem said nothing, their eyes avoiding Taylor’s gaze.

“See, this is why I was saying we should grab a drink first. Relax.” Taylor waved a hand. “If we have some kind of Green magician with that level of power, I certainly don’t know about it. Witnesses who escaped Thumbelina said something called a Green Witch claimed responsibility for their problem, but even now we haven’t found anyone under that name.”

Rem raised an eyebrow. “You mean the curse was lifted but the culprit’s still out there?” Once again, the young recruit jitters washed away, briefly revealing a living tower who seemed to relish the word ‘culprit.’ 

Taylor reminded himself that he was in charge, size be damned, and stared down Rem as best he could from his low angle. “We’re working on it. You can work on it too, but don’t go doing anything rash. You don’t know if this Green Witch has anything to do with what happened in Mielle. You apparently haven’t even heard of her until now.”

Rem seemed to catch themselves, shrinking back and lowering their head. “Yes, sir. Of course. I am an investigator; I know better than to rush into anything.” Their scolded-puppy expression, while wiping away a lot of the intimidation factor, suggested to Taylor that they’d endured this sort of lecture before.

Of course, if Rem had acted in a manner an investigator should not up on Vox, a fellow giant would reprimand them. Taylor was in a more precarious position. He reached for the flask he usually wore at his hip, only to remember it was back in his own office.

“Well, I’ll let you get settled into your ‘headquarters’ here. Looks like you have some work to do,” Taylor said as he gave a lazy wave towards the paperwork spilling out of Rem’s shoulder bag. “Get yourself something nice from the Anemone’s cafe and for the love of the Fairy Queen, have a drink or something.” 

Rem, who was already pulling out a stack of papers, paused in mid-lift. “Do they have hibiscus tea there?”

“Whatever will make you relax. Stress isn’t good for your heart.” 

“But focus keeps you alive,” Rem muttered under their breath. They probably didn’t think Taylor could hear them, he realized, unaware of how damn loud their speaking voice was. 

Taylor frowned. He doubted Vox was the crime-free paradise its government claimed it was, but he still couldn’t imagine what could have left Rem so constantly on edge. 

As he turned to leave, he heard Rem’s voice echo through the warehouse. “Sir, one more thing.”

Taylor wasn’t going to get Rem to stop with the ‘sir’ business, was he? “Yes?”

“There’s a certain individual-no, group of individuals we’re trying to track. One was Exiled in an incident tied to the beanstalk problem, and he and others were involved in an even more curious event a few weeks ago when the mansion of a wealthy collector dissolved into sugar water.” Rem went on before Taylor could ask any questions about what that business could possibly involve. “A couple are royals, and I’ve been informed not to interfere with them. But the Exile, he’s one of ours. Or was.” They smiled, confidence finally leaking back into their voice. “If you hear anything about an Ezra Kettle, let me know. I have a few questions for him.”

Taylor stared. Royals? Sugar water?

“Okay, kid. Tell me what you know.”

Chapter Text

Philomene rode Melchior up the curving, twisting road that led to Thumbelina. She wanted to see it for herself, just to be sure. She clung to the fuzz on the back of his thorax, glancing back at Marjorie to make sure she was keeping up. 

“You don’t suppose it could be a trap, do you?” she asked the big moth. “But that wouldn’t make any sense. Why would I assume such things? This attack wasn’t even targeted at me. I mean, Toad was targeting me, but I assume that was just him being-well, whatever he’s become now. And of course someone else could have come along and solved the problem. There had to have been other escapees, and…” She looked down the slope towards the spiral-shaped city below. “I’m sure they helped after all.”

And that was a good thing, right? Imperial involvement or not, someone solved the problem and saved lives. It didn’t matter that wasn’t her. She wasn’t such an egotist as to be convinced it could only be her, just because she’d stumbled upon a haphazard plan. “And it was hardly even a plan,” she said, not realizing she was thinking aloud. “We had no proof Ezra’s magic would be much good against the Green Witch. Maybe someone found a more powerful magician. Why is my first reaction disbelief? What is wrong with me?”

“Talk a lot?” Melchior said in a chirping voice. “Nervous?”

The blood rushed to her cheeks as she patted Melchior’s back. “Sorry, Melchior. It just hasn’t hit me yet, I suppose.” At least only he would hear her making such statements, and Melchior never repeated her words to anyone.

She kept her eyes on the ground for signs of brambles or vines, seeing only the occasional dried, dead rose laying on the road. When Marjorie stepped on one, it crumbled into dust beneath her feet. Philomene thought of the roses blooming rapidly around a choking wall of brambles, red as fresh blood and unnaturally large, and shuddered. 

“Maybe I just have trouble imagining it’s over…”

Melchior descended at the end of the path, where a honeycomb of small tunnels connected to a much larger tunnel. There were already Flowerling guards and one human guard running out to meet Marjorie, the human guards in vivid violet and green and the Flowerlings in matching armor of insect shell and spider silk. No doubt they were demanding proof that Philomene was with Marjorie; had Marjorie returned alone, it would have raised a lot of questions.

“I’m here! I’m right here,” she called out to the guards as Melchior landed near Marjorie’s feet. The human guards kept their distance for the sake of safety, a regular part of their protocol, while the Flowerlings shouted orders to one another and gathered to help her off of Melchior’s back. 

“Princess!” The guards parted to allow an armored woman with a scar down the side of her face to pass through. She ran up to Philomene and then knelt on one knee. “Oh thank the Vine! We sent messengers to seek you out as soon as the curse lifted, but none have returned.”

That was disconcerting, especially considering how readily the goldfinch had found her that very morning. Philomene pushed it to the back of her mind and smiled. “You may rise, Captain Juste. Marjorie kept me safe. If you could, can you ensure she gets some rest now? I…”

She gazed out past Captain Juste at the guards gathering around her, and past them the multitude of citizens, big and small, coming to see her return. She saw the arching gates leading into the tunnel systems, lit by the familiar green glow of bio-luminescent plants and mushrooms. There was no looming, seething mass of brambles, no roses staring out like eyes or thorns like teeth. Thumbelina truly was intact, and safe. It was one thing to hear of it, and another to see it with her own eyes.

Her vision began to spin. “Sorry,” she managed. “If I could have a hand…” And everything went black.

Philomene opened her eyes staring up at a ceiling of shining black obsidian, lit by a flickering candle and the pulsing glow of lantern blossoms. She lay on a soft bed padded with feathers, a spider silk blanket draped over her. When she sat up, she quickly recognized the interior of an infirmary room lined with bottles made from hollowed-out gems. Infirmary rooms were no unfamiliar sight to her, considering her childhood. 

Aside from a figure whose white uniform marked him as a nurse and the guards stationed by the door, she was alone. Well, of course, she added mentally. Mother probably found out I fainted from stress and wanted to give me some space. How embarrassing, to pass out in front of my own people. 

When the nurse turned around and saw Philomene sitting up, he immediately lowered his head in a makeshift bow. He was an Enlightened mouse with jet black fur and a pink nose who briefly slipped onto all fours as he ran to her bedside. “Highness! I’m glad to see you’re alright. Now, just take it easy. Here.” He thrust a seed pod filled with water into her hands. “It’s unseasonably warm out there. Likely a combination of shock and heat did it to you.”

She suspected it was the shock more than anything else, but didn’t argue with the nurse. “Thank you,” she murmured. “Listen. My family, my mother, are they…”

The nurse froze in place, a few hairs going up on his back. “Well, the ones who are still-that is to say, erm, I have been ordered not to introduce any stressful news to you for at least a few hours…”

She squeezed the edge of the blanket, her stomach twisting in knots. “Please, tell me.” 

“It is best if you hear it from your family, Princess. One moment.” The nurse darted out of the door, tail a little too low.

What followed was a dreadful few minutes in which Philomene found herself imagining any number of cruel fates that might have befallen her family. If the others had managed to escape, they could have been devoured by birds, cats, or any of the other monsters roaming the world below. They could have been caught in a storm and drowned if their human guardians had lost track of them. The Principle of the Queen Bee echoed in her mind in all of its terrible, terribly logical clarity. 

Thus it was a mercy when the doors burst open and Philomene found herself surrounded by crying, hugging, shouting siblings. There was Meramene, hands stained with ink, and Cyramene holding little Elomene’s hand, Falamene and Feromene, Terymene looming a head taller than the others and Miyamene shouting above all the others.

It was Miyamene who shoved her way forward. “Quiet, quiet! The doctor said she needs peace and quiet, remember?”

“The doctor’s mean,” Elomene sniffled. She ran up to the bed and held her arms out for a hug, one Philomene did her best to deliver from a sitting position. 

“It’s alright,” Philomene insisted, wiping away her own tears. “I’m so glad you’re all safe!”

“Glad we’re safe? We were just sleeping through it,” Falamene huffed with her hands on her hips.
“We all woke a little worse for wear, but we’re fine. Curse or no curse.”

“Well,” Cyramene added as she stared at her own feet, “those of us that are here.”

There were eight royals in the room, including herself, Philomene realized, when there should have been thirteen. “Wait. Osamene, Utamene, Zyramene, Adamene? Where are they? And Mother, where is she?” 

The chatter fell to a murmur, with none of the siblings meeting Philomene’s gaze. It was Terymene who broke the silence with her soft-spoken, alto voice. 

“The other four all got away in time, like you did. Their guardians were under orders to take them as far away as possible until it was safe. You know the Principle of the Queen Bee. We tried, but our guardians fell under the same spell we did. Osamene and the others haven’t returned yet.”

“Yet,” interjected Miyamene forcibly. “And we’ll keep sending messengers until we find them! If nothing else, surely word will spread since Nautilus is having that gaudy celebratory festival, and everyone will be reunited by the end of summer. I’m sure of it!”

Philomene appreciated Miyamene’s stubborn optimism, even as more visions of crows, raccoons and goldfinches ran through her head. “You’re-you’re right. They all have human guardians with them, and if Marjorie can keep someone like me safe, I’m sure they’re alright too. And Mother?” 

This time, even Miyamene fell silent.

Philomene pulled on the blanket so hard she felt the strands of silk strain against the palms of her hands. “Look, you know you needn’t disguise the truth from me. Please don’t you treat me like I’m made of glass, too! Just because I’m physically infirm doesn’t mean I have a fragile heart!” Realizing she was shouting, she caught herself. “Sorry. Sorry. It’s been a very strange…few months, and I have a lot to tell you all. But first, pleas tell me the truth. What has happened to Mother? Is she still asleep?”

“No,” Miyamene said quickly. “Not from the curse, at least. Our mages say she’s…”

“Communing with the Vine.” Meramene, who had barely said a word and whose greeting to Philomene had been a genuine but silent hug, finally made her presence known again. 

Philomene stared. “Communing with the Vine? Like an Elder?”

“It’s quite unusual,” Terymene said, again avoiding eye contact. “When we all woke up, after that human prince broke the spell, we found her wrapped in a cocoon of glowing roots. The mages think she might have made contact with the Vine when the spell hit and retreated into it as a reflex, but she has yet to emerge. Meramene has been serving as the Queen Regent.”

There were Elders who communed with the Vine in such a way for days or even years at a time, their consciousnesses retreating into its life force and information library. Those who did eventually wake up from such a sleep came back both diminished and enhanced, their bodies thinner and their hair whitened while they dictated new wisdoms and prophecies to scribes. It was unheard of, however, for someone as young as Queen Menefleur to attempt such a feat, let alone trigger it by accident.

The part of Philomene that feared for her mother’s fate warred with the little bit that found any new development exciting, and she loathed herself for it.

“Let me have a look at her later.” Philomene knew she’d have to fight the palace physicians and mages to get through, but she’d try. It was all too much to process at once. “The Vine does what it does for a reason. We just have to find out what that reason is.”

“Yes, of course,” Miyamine said, the others agreeing a little too quickly. 

“Did-did you say a human prince lifted that curse?” Philomene was desperate to grasp onto a element of this strange story that didn’t involve imperiled family members. “Who? I thought Nautilus was ruled over by a duke.”

“A traveling prince of some kind,” Cyramene explained. “He’s from one of the outer kingdoms beyond the Empire. One of those Prince Charmings. Prince Alphonse, is it?”

“A big tall human,” Elomene chirped. “He said he’d dance with me!”

Cyramene laughed nervously before continuing. “He’s staying in the human chambers as a royal guest right now. He’s been hoping to meet you, but we thought it would be best to give you some time to recover first.”

“Ah, I appreciate that. A real Prince Charming? Actually, I have someone who would probably like to meet him as well!” At least, if nothing else, Philomene could apologize for dragging Basil so far out of his way for no reason by letting him meet a potential mentor. “And I cannot wait to hear the details as to how he broke this curse."

She noticed Cyramene's brown eyes widen at that statement. Philomene took note, but knew now was not the time to ask.

"Oh, that reminds me," she said instead. "I didn’t come alone exactly.”

“Oh, we know! Marjorie’s down in the human halls right now,” Miyamene informed her. “The mages had the poor girl take that awful herbal tea for her curse and then let her wash up and change clothing.”

“We were on the road for some time.” Philomene had been bathing in safe streams and rivers during their travels, and while it had been adequate, the idea of slipping into a steaming bath sounded much more appealing. “Although, erm, actually, I brought others along. With the hope that they might be able to break that curse the prince already broke. They said they’d wait down in the valley and meet us in Nautilus. I should send word of where I am, especially if it’s been a few hours. They might worry…”

“Really?” Elomene ran back up to Philomene’s bedside. “Who’d you bring? Another prince? A wizard? A good witch?”

“One of them is a human prince,” Philomene said. “And very nearly a Prince Charming! Though I’m not sure what qualifies one to bear the title. He seems to think he isn’t there yet. And the other is-well, we’ve seen him perform magic! The third person is more here for her own sake than ours and probably just wants to be left alone, but she’s courageous and wise and would help us if she could.”

“Maybe one of them can help Mother, then! Along with you,” Miyamene said as she took Philomene’s arm. “You’re the scholar, after all.”

“I was hoping so…” Yes, Philomene thought, that was right. She had Ezra and Basil with her, and Marjorie. Marjorie was still under a curse, and something had happened to her mother. It wasn’t as if she was completely without purpose and drive. Besides, what sort of person would she be to hope for misfortunes and question good luck, even if it came at the hands of others?

So why didn’t this feel right?

“Well, what are you waiting for? Send Melchior to bring them here! Oh, or maybe we can send a few messengers.” Miyamene paced back and forth across the room. “There’ll surely be a celebration for your return this evening. The kitchen was already abuzz with it. Supplies are a little low this year since those curse-brambles dried up or poisoned a lot of our food stores, but to their credit, Nautilus has been providing us with aid. Still, we have plenty of honey, and I’m sure we can plan for a couple of human guests. We’re not some tiny little colony-city, after all! The Pride of the Flowers By the Sea never turns down a-”

“Uh,” Philomene added hastily, “perhaps before you make any promises, we should all go down and see them first. Maybe not all of us. Those who want to meet them? They’re very nice, it’s just…well, I know we can accommodate humans, but…” She squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Could one of you please send for Marjorie, if she’s feeling well? I’ve quite a bit to explain.”

Chapter Text

“See? I told you I’d get us past the checkpoint without any problems.” Basil tossed his hair over his shoulder, walking alongside Ezra and Cecily and leading Aurora. “Sure, I may look a bit worse for wear after a few weeks on the road, but a prince knows how to carry oneself! Though, erm, I am glad I remembered to bring that amulet.” It clanked against his chest, the image of a ram’s curling horn glinting in the early afternoon sunlight. 

“I suspect your two ‘guests’ being Sky Folk and your loyal steed a bear had something to do with it,” Cecily said with a low chuckle. “My, I’d forgotten how humans stare. What poor manners!”

Indeed, Basil had to admit that his group was attracting a bit of attention. He expected as much and thought he ought to make the best of it, walking proudly and hoping none of the ‘admirers’ noticed how badly his coat was in need of repair or how he had to stop and huddle against Aurora for warmth now and again.

He wanted to do the same with Ezra, but the young giant was walking with eyes downcast and hands fidgeting nervously, no doubt acutely aware of the attention and less willing to laugh it off. Ezra, Basil assumed, was probably not in the mood for public affection. Instead, Basil reached over and discreetly squeezed his hand.

Perhaps Cecily noticed Ezra’s anxiety as well. “It’s likely just tourists, staring at everything. You might make some money while you’re here. I’m sure they’d like to try genuine Mielle pastries.”

“Ah, you’re right!” Ezra, who had stared to relax when Basil took his hand, spoke the first words he’d said since they entered the city gates. “I mean, that isn’t why we’re here. But there’s no reason why I can’t do some work while I’m here…”

Basil rolled his eyes. “You’re hopeless sometimes. Your mind’s on business, even now?” But he smiled up at Ezra, and gave Cecily a thankful nod. “I do hope Philomene and Marjorie contact us soon. They did say they’d signal me when they had the, um, the business up in Thumbelina straightened out.” He glanced at the other trinket hanging around his neck, that garnet ring Marjorie usually wore to keep in contact with Philomene. Basil’s heavy fur and leather gloves kept him from wearing rings. 

“Um, say. That reminds me.” Ezra rubbed the back of his neck, speaking deliberately in the way he did whenever he was attempting to bring up a difficult subject. “If indeed the situation in Thumbelina has improved, does that mean…should we…”

“Ah, yes. That.” Basil told himself he was not going to be sore about someone else having apparently saved the Flowerling kingdom. Prince Charming was not prone to envy or selfishness, nor begrudging others their well-earned heroism. “That is a sticky question we can resolve after we know the full situation from our two Thumbelinans, right? And technically I do have other business here myself,” he added with a sigh. 

“Other business?” Cecily tilted her head. 

“Uh, well! Well, see, my grandmothers told my family I’d be going on this journey, as you see they want to be sure I’m going to be safe. Nevermind I came of age years ago and know my own limits just fine, thank you! But I understand things are complicated by my curse and my being a prince and there being individuals who kidnap royalty-anyway! Anyway.” Basil fidgeted. “My family disapproved of me going on a quest, so to speak, but eventually relented with the agreement that I would be staying with an old ally of theirs in this city as an Honored Guest On Behalf of the Kingdom of Sethwhile and represent the honor of the mountains, etc. Etc. Which I can do far more effectively on a quest! But it does mean I have to stay a month or so and hobnob with some Duke Somebody Or Other. I mentioned that before, did I not?”

No answer came from either of the giants, other than a puzzled stare from Ezra.

“…I did, didn’t I?” Basil grinned nervously. “Anyway, I’m sure it won’t interfere too much in any actual questing. Just going to a few boring parties and talking about family history, fielding awkward questions about Mountain culture, maybe a few overlong dinners.”

“Won’t ‘Duke Something Or Other’ expect you with servants and a carriage and the sorts of things royals usually travel with? I assume,” Ezra added. “And does he know you’re here to-”

“Leeeet’s not worry about him for now!” Basil avoided the skeptical look Ezra was giving him and glanced around for a distraction. Of course, they were in a new city. There were a multitude of distractions. “We’re in Nautilus for now, and Philomene might not be able to contact us again until at least tomorrow. She’s probably reuniting with her subjects or performing tests she’ll explain to us later in confusing detail. In the meantime, let us seek out a place to find lunch and…” He pulled his cape around him and bowed. “Allow your prince to give you the grand tour! Of a place I have never been to before.”

Ezra stared, possibly dazzled by the princely bow, then shrugged. “Oh, you’re right. I’m finding reasons to worry. Lead on!”

“I’ll let you two have some alone time,” Cecily said, looking towards a large, circular building painted white and surrounded by rows of spiraling columns. “There’s someone I want to see, though they may not be here anymore after all these years.”

“Have you been here before, Cecily?” Ezra asked. “I had assumed you and your husband just lived in that cabin in the forest.” 

“Not exactly.” That, apparently, was all Cecily was willing to admit at the time. Basil liked her, but found her cryptic nature confusing more often than not. “But there may be a place for me to rest after all that walking. If you need a place to stay as well, Ezra, remember this place here.” She pointed towards the round building, built, Basil realized, to resemble a half-opened clamshell. “We’ll catch up later. If you need me, I’ll be here.”

As she hobbled off, Basil caught a glimpse of the sign posted by the entrance. “Anemone Inn. That’s a hotel?”

“Looks luxurious,” Ezra said with not a little bit of envy once Cecily was out of hearing range. “Maybe she’s wealthier than we thought? Except she spent years as Gourmet’s prisoner.” He frowned and shook his head. “No, wait, we mustn’t speak about her behind her back. You were going to give me a tour?”

“Yes, right! The tour,” Basil said, not wanting to spend too much time puzzling over the mysterious giantess. “Where to start…”

Nautilus, was indeed, much larger than any city Basil had ever seen. As proud as he was of Sethwhile, it was a tiny kingdom, one of the cluster of old kingdoms and cliffside settlements whose citizens proudly called themselves the Mountain Folk. What little he could remember of Borealis, his mother’s homeland, suggested they were not much different. Sethwhile had hot springs decorated with calcite carvings and wall murals depicting the wars of the Mountain Lords, but nothing like this.

The architecture of Nautilus seemed to embrace its namesake wholeheartedly. Temples bore spiraling towers. Tavern roofs were tiled like the scales of fish or decorate with the fringe of scallop shells. Limestone white, pale pink and sea green reflected the light of the sun. All the while, the city’s famous Spiral Wall curved gently through, letting passerby cross through decorated archways as they entered different districts of the city. 

The mountain housing Thumbelina Kingdom loomed to the south. It was of a jagged shape, Basil realized as he looked up at it. Mountain lore suggested it was an older volcano. He would have to ask about that later.

“I don’t know where to start,” Basil admitted, likely sounding as starstruck and intimidated as Ezra looked. “Well, love! May as well make a date of this. Why don’t you point to something and your handsome prince will try to explain it.”

Ezra smiled at that, either genuinely charmed by Basil’s attempt at flirting or at least amused. “Thank you, my prince!” He clasped si hands in front of him. “Oh! Those statues there.” He pointed towards a large fountain with three marble figures in the center. “Do you know who they are?”

Basil worried, at first, that he’d have to try to fudge knowledge of a city’s history or feel like a fool reading facts aloud off of a plaque. Those concerns dissipated as soon as he recognized the three figures. “Oh! Good choice. You’ll want to know who these three are, especially in this area.”
He tugged an increasingly stubborn Aurora towards the fountain. She resisted with a grunt.

“Oh come on, please? We’ll get something to eat very soon, I promise! And there’s some shade there.” 

Aurora didn’t move. Basil realized she had her muzzle pointed directly at a man selling huge, fresh-caught fish.

A brief, but tense negotiation with the vendor and a good amount of his remaining spending money drying up later, Basil led Aurora onward with a big fish hanging out of her mouth. “Just please let me have this,” he whispered to the bear, who grunted noncommittally.

“Right, yes, the statues!” Basil approached the fountain. A light breeze sent the spray towards his face; he shivered and tried to ignore the resulting chill. 

“That, I believe, is Blessed Thumbelina herself.” He pointed to a woman clad in flowing sheets emerging from the petals of an enormous violet. “My guess is she’s here as a sign of friendship between the two cities.” 

“Is that an accurate depiction of her?” Ezra asked, clearly trying not to stare at Aurora’s messy fish-eating.

“I have no idea! I would ask Philomene later.”

“What about the…being with the wings?” Ezra gestured at the statue of a female figure with enormous insect wings on her back. She had a fish’s tail descending from beneath her gown, her face was obscured by another pair of butterfly wings, and a huge eye made of glass stared out from her torso. 

Here Basil felt far more confident in his knowledge. “That is a depiction of the Fairy Queen herself! I say ‘depiction’ because according to my grandmothers, she doesn’t really look like anything. Or rather, she’s looked differently every time she’s manifested in our world. But she supposedly appeared in dreams to human prophets, so her worshipers here use that image. Ah, I should note,” he added quietly, “that worship of the Fairy Queen is supposedly very common here, moreso than with household gods.”

“Oh! Then I’ll be careful,” Ezra insisted with a chastened nod. “And the third figure?”

That statue showed a young woman standing upright, clad in an elaborate half-mask and a layered, bustled gown. One open hand held a dish with a flickering flame inside, seemingly unaffected by the spray of the fountain water. The other clutched a glass orb with a dagger plunged through the center. While Thumbelina’s stone face was innocent and gentle and the Fairy Queen outstretched her arms in maternal welcome, the Empress stood rigid with her head high.

“…Ahh.” Basil was a bit concerned at how much bigger that third figure was, and how she was depicted at the center with Blessed Thumbelina and the Fairy Queen below her. But he shoved those worries aside. “That’s the first Empress Valerian of Libra, the Ever After Empire. Nautilus has been under their control since at least my great-grandfather’s time. Note the soldiers in black and white walking around?”

“Mmm.” If Ezra shared Basil’s worries about the Empire, he didn’t show it. He looked like he was about to sit on the edge of the fountain itself, hesitated when he saw how small the rim was comparatively, and stepped back. There really weren’t many places for him to sit in such a crowded area, even with the passerby keeping their distance from a bear and giant. 

Instead, Ezra walked back to crouch next to Basil, giving the staring crowds a quick glare as if daring them to say something before turning back to Basil. “Thank you so much for this! You’re always very knowledgeable. I’m afraid I don’t know much about human politics or religions down here. Or anywhere, for that matter.” He paused and blinked. “Wait. The first Empress Valerian?”

Basil, blushing from being called knowledgeable for once, lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “Oh, um. That’s a long story. Officially, every Empress is named Valerian. That title is used even for men who hold the title, and only depictions of the first Empress are allowed. She’s, um, symbolically immortal. That’s why they call her Her Imperial Eternity, and don’t really like acknowledging that it’s more than symbolic.”

Ezra wrinkled his nose. “Are you sure they worship the Fairy Queen here? Because that sound a little like-Oh gosh. Ohhh gosh. Oh Sun and Moon and Stars she is in the fountain.”

“She is what?” Basil took a second to process what Ezra meant before following his gaze and finally registering the splashes and screams. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me. AURORA!” He took off running for the bear who was casually attempting to bathe in the fountain, ignorant of the chaos around her. “No! Bad bear! Out of there! Come on! Ezra, can you help me?”

“Oh, uh, yes?” Ezra followed, trying to grab Aurora around her big midsection and hesitating as she growled and swiped at him. “She’s probably cranky from all this heat!”

“I know, I know! The duke promised he’d accommodate for a bear of her nature, so I assumed she’d wait for ice baths later. Aurora, please!” Basil reached for her, pulling back quickly when a splash of water hit him in the face. It wasn’t the biting cold of river water, but it was chilly enough to sting and cause the curse to flare up from within. His toes began to numb.

Aurora was a creature of instinct, not Enlightened at all, but she was trained to recognize signs of Basil’s curse. As soon as she saw him double over and shiver, she lumbered out of the water and grunted, ready to engulf Basil in a bear hug. He expected to get a faceful of well-meaning wet fur.
Instead the embrace was warm and dry, Ezra by now just as attuned to knowing when Basil needed warmth. Basil’s shivering calmed as he rested against Ezra. Let the crowds stare! If he was going to be a spectacle, this was the least he had to worry about. 

“Are you alright?” Ezra whispered down to Basil, who nodded. “Good, because…”

When Ezra let go, Basil could see they were surrounded by the white and blue of the city guard, with a few of the black and white Imperial Guard to boot. 

“…Right! Gentlemen, ladies, hello!” Basil stepped forward, his bow made awkward by another bout of shivering. “I’m Basil, Prince of Sethwhile, and I can vouch for this bear. And pay any fines.” There went the rest of his travel funds.

A guard crossed her arms and eyed him skeptically, looking him up and down. “You’re a prince?”
“Right! Your friends at the gate checkpoint had a similar, quite understandable reaction! I have, after all, been traveling on the road for a while, and without all the pomp and circumstance you might get from some royals. But I can prove it! You see, this amulet here…”

Basil reached around his neck and found nothing. There was no hanging amulet; perhaps more catastrophically, the ring was gone as well. 

“…I…would like to request an audience with Duke Taylor?” 

The girl in the red cape ran behind a building, treasures in hand. She leaned against the wall of the alley, hearing her stomach grumble. That fish had smelled so good, though she knew what she really needed was red meat. That was what the doctor had told her, wasn’t it?

She looked around near her ankles and then up towards the roof, seeing no sign of the doctor. Yet somehow she wasn’t surprised when she turned around to see a white-haired girl, of her age and height, wearing a matching white cloak. White Hood was like that.

“I didn’t spook you this time!” White Hood stomped her foot and pouted. “Well, did you get it, Red?”

Red Hood opened her hands, revealing the ring with the dark red stone and an amulet she’d found around the prince’s neck. The doctor hadn’t asked for the latter, but Red imagined he might reward her for an extra treasure.

“Yes, that’s it! That’s what he wanted. Good job, Red!” White Hood beamed at Red with the same unblinking, black eyes she always had. “Come on! Let me show you where the doctor’s hiding.” She took Red’s arm with cold, clammy hands and led her on. “What did you think of the prince?”

“…I don’t know,” Red admitted as White dragged her along through narrow alleys, sending rats and gulls scurrying away.

“Well, I’m sure he’s awful. Come on! Lord Germain hates waiting.”

Chapter Text

Young assistants came and went down the halls of the Nautilus Imperial Research Aquarium so often that many of its resident professors, mages and philosophers of biology didn’t bother to learn their names. It was expected a laboratory assistant would spend a season or two running errands, cleaning tanks or providing tours to visitors with forced sincerity. They would then acquire a letter of recommendation and either hurry off to the Capitol to study in their more prestigious, less fish-smelling academies or take up a full time position at the Aquarium, at which point they would earn the right to be addressed by name and looked in the eye.

That suited Avery Toad just fine, as he could hardly remember the false name he’d given the manager when he’d taken up work there. He didn’t need any humans asking him the wrong questions. All he had to do was deliver supplies from the closet, look important while carrying his stack of packages, and avoid eye contact. No one needed to see his pupils.

Besides, he liked the smell of rotting fish and salt water. It reminded him of swamps and raw shrimp. Stuck as he was with a human body that was far too big to survive off of flies and poorly equipped to catch even one, he found he was able to stomach shellfish as a substitute. Certainly he found it less unpleasant than the wrapped slab of raw steak he had to carry with him alongside packages of glass bottles and dried flowers.

The actual aquarium itself he found more unnerving. Not so much the windowless darkness, lit only by the blue glow of bio-luminescent sea plants and magic-lit tanks. He’d grown up in Thumbelina’s winding caverns, after all. But he’d never realized how alarmingly enormous sea creatures could be. Some were as large as his head, swimming about idly as if they didn’t realize they were in huge glass cages. A few others were ludicrously big. He’d known an Enlightened turtle in his tadpole days, a teacher who loomed over her students but was still small enough for a human to pick her up. The aquarium had on display a skeleton of a turtle with fins instead of legs and a shell big enough to carry a grown human. Was he always going to feel small, even in a malfunctioning body like this one?

It was a relief for Avery to duck into the supply closet undetected, carefully moving a panel hidden away behind crates of who-knew-what. From there it was a quick trip down a narrow, pitch-black passage which ended in a great round room. 

The hidden chamber was bathed in a soft blue light from the enormous, circular tank that sat just above, serving as a ceiling. Occasionally a great fish or tortoise would swim by, casting a shadow on the room below. For what had once been a forgotten storage area, it was meticulously organized. Glass tubes lined the wall, bubbling over with strange substances. A dried blue flower lay chopped into pieces on a sheet of glass. Wires hung in weblike patterns low enough that Avery had to duck. He remembered those wires well, along with the tiny baskets dangling from them, and the shouted orders to carry this here and that there. He’d done all the work, after all.

Red eyes glowered at him from the center of the room.

Oh good, she was there. 

“This is for you, isn’t it?” Avery scowled, setting down his boxes and picking up the cold steak. “I should have guessed. What are you even doing here?” 

Red Hood didn’t answer. She just looked at the steak and licked her lips. Avery noticed dark red fur growing on the backs of her hands and canines beginning to emerge over her lower lip.

“Don’t taunt her,” a soft voice said from behind Avery. “If she’s hungry enough she won’t discriminate between steak or human. Or whatever you consider yourself. I would just toss it over.”

Avery shuddered, avoiding Red’s piercing gaze and throwing the steak towards her. Her form shrank and warped under the hood as she leaped to catch it in her mouth. Feet jumped and paws landed. The lean wolf pup with red fur dragged her prize off behind a crate to eat it, her hood and red dress still flapping around her neck.

That chore taken care of, Avery turned around with arms crossed to face the figure sitting in a tiny straw basket suspended from one of the wires. “Ugh. What do you even need her around for?”
The Flowerling looked up at Avery with hands clasped behind his back, his melodious voice level and pleasant. “Why does her presence bother you so much? She’s much less of a danger to you now than when you were bite-sized.”

Avery recalled the looming, snarling form of Mother Wolf. “You can say that all you want, but I’m not so sure! The only reason she won’t eat you is because you’re her master now. Like a dog. Besides, bite-sized I might have been but I did secrete poisons!” He'd always been rather proud of that.
“Not like that at all. But it doesn’t matter.” The Flowerling stroked his silver beard once before tugging on a lever inside the basket, allowing it to descend gently towards the table with the glass bottles. “You’re in a foul mood, I see. Has the pain returned?”

“Er, no,” he answered honestly. “No knives to the feet, no burning joints. Not often, anyway. And a stiff drink takes care of it when it does.” Avery sensed the man’s disapproval. “Are you going to lecture me now, Lord Germain? You should know how stressful this has been!”

“I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, Avery.” Lord Germain didn’t raise his voice. He still sounded like a genial father. “That said, you shouldn’t be feeling completely ‘normal.’” 

Avery frowned. “What do you mean? The only good thing about this situation is that I’m not hurting all the time now! I could barely enjoy being big and powerful when every step felt like walking on knives.” He sat down on one of the chairs Lord Germain kept around despite not being able to use them himself, watching the Flowerling cross the table towards a glass dish.

He still had to get used to how tiny Flower Folk were from a human perspective. When he’d held Philomene in his hands he’d felt a rush of power, knowing at any time he could crush her. He wouldn’t, of course; he just wanted to scare her and deliver her to the Green Witch. He had absolutely no desire to attack Lord Germain, the only ally he had left, and yet he still found himself reflecting on the fact that he could flick the scholar across the table with no effort at all. How did the humans of Thumbelina keep themselves from overthrowing the tiny royals? They couldn’t have any true sense of loyalty towards a Flowerling. Avery had been right to fear them all along.

Lord Germain was tall for a Flowerling and rather fat. He looked as if he might be related to the same Thumbelinan royals who imprisoned him for his animal experiments, though despite the self-appointed title he claimed no such heritage. The Vine could spread genes out like grains of sand, according to Philomene, so distant cousins might look more alike than siblings. Germain knelt by the glass dish and poked at a germinated bean with a human-scale needle, his smile never leaving him.

“Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. It’s your body trying to return to its original shape and fighting against the transformation magic,” Germain explained. “If you’re feeling better, it means the magic is winning.”

Avery bit his lip. “Well,” he admitted, “sometimes I still feel compressed. Like my organs are trying to squish into themselves.”

“They’re trying to shrink and rearrange, yes. It means two possible outcomes. One, you remain a permanent human. Eventually you adjust to it. Obviously you can’t return to Thumbelina, but that isn’t an option for either of us, is it?” Germain laughed genially. “I doubt they’ll care about my successes with Red. They never really understood my vision. And you, well! You’re wanted for high treason, aren’t you?”

Avery took a sharp breath and looked away. “If she hadn’t abandoned me…!”

“Please, she was defeated. Even the Green Witch, whatever she was, had a weakness. You made an unfortunate choice of allegiance. We all make mistakes!” Lord Germain shrugged. Why was he so nonchalant? Didn’t he want revenge against Thumbelina Kingdom?

“So I could end up a permanent human.” Avery looked down at himself, at those legs that seemed to go on forever and feet ending in stunted, webless toes. It had been fun when it was a temporary form, a weapon to give him size and functioning fingers. “What’s the other possibility?”

“Show me the ring first.”

Avery held his hand out onto the table, though he hated looking at it. The silver ring around his left index finger had spread out tendrils into his own skin, permanently affixing itself. The flesh near the edge of the ring had developed a grayish tone.

Germain tapped his foot and clicked his tongue. “It’s what I worried about. The artifact is trying to assimilate into you.”


“My research suggests it’s actually aquatic in origin. That ring was probably created by an ancient sea witch, a very old kind of intelligent life form that resides in the deep ocean and spins transformation magic at a rate we can only imagine and envy. Well, spun; they might be long extinct for all we know. It had fairy magic applied to it in order to steer its transformation spell and allow you to turn into a human for short amounts of time. At your will, ideally.”

This was all going over Avery’s head, he was sure of it. He was reminded of having to race to keep up with other students in Thumbelina’s libraries. “Yes, that would be the Green Witch’s work. Her magic must be stronger than some old artifact, right? Must have been,” he corrected himself ruefully.

Germain looked up at Avery thoughtfully. “Still no sign of her presence in your mind?”

“No.” Avery slumped. “Nothing. Not a whisper in here! She just vanished at the same time Thumbelina’s curse was broken. And of course her ugly sister was nowhere to be found. They both abandoned me, and after all I’d done for them!”

Still, no matter how angry he wanted to be at the Green Witch, it was tinged with sadness. He missed her gentle whispers, assuring him of his own greatness and unlimited potential. Now when he thought about his own actions he kept doubting them, and doubt was useless to him at the moment. It had all worked out for Thumbelina Kingdom, and he had his own problems to worry about. 

“That’s probably it. With her defeat, her influence over the artifact failed. It went haywire and stuck you permanently in this form, at least for now. The second possibility-a fascinating one, I might add, but possibly unwelcome from your perspective-is that it’s storing up energy before it alters you further according to its original purpose.”

“Alters me further?!” Avery gestured down at the front of his body. “What else can it do?!”
“I don’t know.” If Lord Germain was worried about Avery’s welfare, he certainly showed it in a strange way. He sounded practically cheerful, chuckling to himself. “By the way, isn’t that the loveliest answer to a question? ‘I don’t know.’ It implies further mysteries to be solved, dissected and tamed. Where is the Green Witch and the ‘sister’ you described? I don’t know. How did that prince defeat her without any apparent sorcery of his own? I don’t know. What’s happening to your body? I don’t know, and that makes you my favorite test subject.”

‘Test subject.’ Avery knew that was all he was to Lord Germain, no matter how kind the grandfatherly Flowerling might come across at times. He was probably making another poor choice, putting his life in the hands of an escaped convict accused of horrific experiments. But there was nowhere else for him to go. He couldn’t go back to Thumbelina and beg forgiveness, not without humiliating himself and likely facing treason charges anyway. Philomene probably hated him now, and would continue to do so irrationally even if he explained his position to her. He had no idea how to live as a human. Certainly he had no desire to seek out the other ‘siblings’ the sister Witches had spoken of from time to time, if they were all so fickle with their chosen mortals.

Avery slumped down in the chair. His eyes caught a sudden movement and a flash of red.
Red emerged from behind the crate, back in her adolescent human form. She wiped blood off of her mouth and approached Lord Germain tentatively. 

“Ah, Red! My little blossom.” Lord Germain walked up to the edge of the table, facing her without fear. “You needed that meat, didn’t you?”

She nodded wordlessly.

“Naturally,” he continued. “Now, you did bring what I asked, didn’t you? I thought it only fair I let you eat first.” 

Probably only safer that way, Avery thought but didn’t say. There was no way Lord Germain was as brave around large, dangerous things as he claimed to be.

Red held out her hand, producing a round, flat metal with a ram’s horn stamped into it and a garnet ring. Avery knew what to do without being asked, taking the treasures from Red’s hand and placing them right in front of Lord Germain.

The Flowerling bent over and examined the jewelry, then laughed. “Splendid girl, you did marvelously! That’s a classic Communication Ring if I’ve ever seen one, just where I knew it would be. And a medal with the seal of-well, doesn’t matter if I recognize the kingdom or not. You’ve done very well. Did White Hood help?” 

White Hood was, as far as Avery could tell, Red’s imaginary friend of sorts. She certainly never showed her face to anyone but Red if she did exist. 

“White Hood said I should take the amulet,” Red whispered, ignoring Avery as she tended to do. 

“Well, her hunches haven’t led us astray yet. Good girl! Now then, let’s see. Avery, I have a bit of work to do. And so do you! You know how they get when they’re hungry. In the meantime, keep an eye out for any sources of magic you see around town. Do report on any changes with regards to Thumbelina, if you might. Oh, and if you happen to come across any information on Hearth magic, let me know! You’re always so helpful.” 

The phrase ‘hearth magic’ scratched at the back of Avery’s mind, though he couldn’t place it. He did want to see what Lord Germain was going to do with a Communication Ring of all things. He really would have done anything to put off his next duty, but knew better than to argue the point. Walking over to a wooden crate that wriggled and clicked, he picked up a burlap sack filled with that dried bluish mixture Lord Germain had never explained to him. 

He unlocked and lifted the crate just long enough to throw handfuls of the mixture, shutting it just as quickly. Not that its wriggling, oozing inhabitants ever tried to escape or even said a word, despite Germain’s insistence that they were partially Enlightened. He just didn’t want to look at them very long.

They looked less and less like plants every day.

Chapter Text

“Worry not! We’ll be out of here in no time. I have connections, after all! And, well,” Basil added with an uneasy smile, “ideally they won’t let this bit slip when next meeting with my family. It’s just a little hiccup!” It was the fourth time he’d said it to Ezra while pacing around the holding cell at Guard Headquarters.

As for Ezra, he was trying not to think about the C.P. roc he’d seen descend into Nautilus that very morning and was instead doing his utmost to focus on the positives. ‘Disturbing the peace’ was not a severe crime, even in the Sky where the slightest social faux pas or petty crime could trigger escalating gossip and suspicion. There had been a flute player in the Mielle town square who was regularly arrested for disturbing the peace, and he hadn’t even found her music all that bad. 

There was also the fact that the holding cell was large enough to accommodate Sky Folk. This, Ezra decided on reflection, had its benefits and drawbacks. Certainly he was glad he wouldn’t be squashed uncomfortably against a stone roof with any other miscreants caught that day. (Not that he would in any way, shape or form consider himself a miscreant, to say nothing of noble Basil.) 

It was just the matter of the only other occupant, a Sky youth with long bangs falling in his eyes and a few scars on his bare arms. He looked to be close in age to Ezra, though obviously taller and more muscular. He wasn’t making a move or even saying anything, but Ezra noticed how often he looked at the two of them and either snorted in contempt or chuckled.

Against his better judgment, Ezra found himself shooting the other giant a dirty look before going back to hovering over Basil. “What rotten luck. If we could contact Philomene, we might have been able to get out of here faster. Even if we never would hear the end of it from Marjorie. Hopefully this Lord Taylor shows up in due time.”

“Duke Taylor,” Basil said. “You’ll want to call him by the correct title!”

Ezra sighed, feeling himself redden. “Noble titles seem to be difficult to keep track of.”

“S’on purpose.” The Sky delinquent leaning against the wall finally chose to speak in an accent unfamiliar to Ezra. “Obscures the fact that it doesn’t mean anything.”

“It absolutely does mean something!” Basil rounded on the giant, apparently undaunted by the difference in size, and pointed his finger. “It states your rank amongst the nobility and status. And your heritage!”

“Doesn’t mean anything,” the delinquent repeated with a shrug and a careless smile. 

Much as Ezra found Basil’s bravery thrilling and his devotion endearing, he was starting to worry that it might get them both in trouble. He set a hand on Basil’s shoulder, whispering. “Basil, best let it go. You don’t even know who he is.” Not that Ezra was anyone to talk about holding the opinions of strangers in too high regard, he supposed. He tried not to worry about how cold Basil was to the touch at times.

Basil shot a glare at the delinquent, though the hand on his shoulder did seem to have a calming effect. “Well, I suppose we all have our priorities. Still, I don’t see what’s wrong with taking pride in one’s title if one wears it with pride and lives up to it, what with all the importance Sky Folk seem to put on your names…!”

He seemed to catch himself as soon as he said it, halting and looking up at Ezra with a positively mortified expression. “…Sorry. I was just-I didn’t mean-it’s been stressful, and-!”

Ezra only then realized he’d abruptly withdrawn his hand the moment Basil mentioned names. He’d hoped he’d been able to hide the hurt that brought back, the reminder of his utter failure to rescue a now-extinct family line; based on Basil’s reaction, he hadn’t been very successful. He fidgeted with his hands. “It’s fine, really. You didn’t mean me. Don’t even worry about it, please.”

The other giant regarded them both with narrowed gold eyes peeking out from under his hair. “He’s not going to understand a Name,” he warned. “And you’re not going to get his way of living, either, especially if he’s nobility. Just accept we’re not meant to see eye to eye, I say. ‘Course, we’re stuck on their turf either way, so what’s it matter to us?”

Before Ezra could argue with the youth or come to Basil’s defense, all were distracted by the sounds of footsteps coming down a stone hallway. The dour-looking guard from earlier arrived, spinning a ring of keys on her index finger. She pointed to Basil and Ezra. “You two. You’re free to go, though someone wants to talk to you first.”

Suspecting Basil was just as relieved as he was at their awkward situation deflating, Ezra turned to the guard. “Y-yes, ma’am!”

“And Aurora is safe too?” Basil still sounded sheepish and guilty. 

“The bear? Yeah, she’s pretty well-behaved. Go pick her up as soon as you go. Bears aren’t meant to hang out in stable and it’s making the horses nervous.” The guard opened the door, while shooting the other giant a nasty look. “Not you, Salten.”

“Yeah, I figured.” Salten went back to leaning against the wall. “So, no word from…?”

“Your old man wants you to spend a night here for once so you learn a lesson next time you hit the pubs.” The guard waited for Basil and a grateful Ezra to leave while Salten sputtered behind them.

“Ma’am,” Ezra asked as he ducked under doorways and avoided looking guards in the eye, “are there many Sky Folk living here? Like that boy?”

“A few. Exiles most of ‘em, though you get a few plain old expatriates who came down here to earn their fortune. They keep to themselves.” The guard betrayed no opinion on the subject, nor did she bother turning around to face Ezra. “You might want to check the Sky Harbor district if you’re lookin’ for, uh, big accommodations, though it’s no fancy-schmancy tree draped with pearl silk or whatever they have up there. Or your little prince friend can get you a room at Anemone Inn, if he’s rich.”

“I am right here!” Basil forced a smile, no doubt reminding himself that Prince Charming is humble and respects the law. “And certainly I’d arrange for nothing for the best for my-Oh, Philomene! Marjorie!” 

The princess and her handmaiden were waiting at the lobby, the former carried right in the pocket of the latter. They’d changed clothes and washed up, which, Ezra realized, was probably more than could be said for himself. 

“Goodness!” Marjorie rolled her eyes. “We leave you boys alone for a few hours and I expect oh, I don’t know, perhaps you’ve spent too much money on souvenirs or gotten yourselves a bit tipsy. Instead I find you’re rotting away in this heinous prison!”

“…It was only for disturbing the peace,” Basil muttered. “Wait, but how did you two know we were here? A pickpocket stole the garnet ring! I thought I’d have no way to contact you.”

“Someone stole it? That is worrisome,” Philomene said. “Though I’m sure I can find another! I’ll just have to make sure the mirror shard isn’t compromised. Well! Well, that’s for later. Actually, we got a message from a Captain…Taylor?” 

Basil blinked and frowned. “Captain Taylor? But we were waiting for a Duke Taylor…”

“That would be my old man, son.” A whiskey-roughened voice spoke up from behind one of the desks. An older man sat there, short and stout with a nose that had clearly been broken and set in the past and a ring of red hair on an otherwise bald head. “I’ll keep this little incident from reaching the ears of Duke Arturio Taylor and save you an earful.” He winked. 

Basil stared and then cleared his throat, giving what seemed to be between a bow and a salute. “Oh, sir! I mean, Captain. I had no idea! It’s just not-that is to say, I didn’t know nobles around here usually served in such roles? Though I do approve! Personally I think all nobles ought to take a more active role in keeping the kingdom safe, orderly and clean!”

“And is it tradition up in the north for princes to bow to guards?” Captain Taylor looked more amused than anything else.

“Oh, that’s just our Basil,” Marjorie said with a dismissive hand wave. “Let him do as he will, as he’ll insist no matter what.”

Ezra could see that Basil was a little embarrassed and stepped in to keep it from worsening. “We were told we needed to speak to someone. Is that you, sir?”

“Did Sergeant Bell really put it to you that way? She’s all business. Don’t let her scare you kids.” Taylor paused to light an oaken pipe. “We do need to speak to you, but it seems Her Highness seeks your presence for a Royal Something-or-other, and far be it from me to deny a Thumbelina princess her requests.”

“Oh, um, yes!” Philomene sat up in Marjorie’s hands and cleared her throat. “You see, officially Thumbelina wishes to honor the return of one of its princesses, namely me, who obeyed the Edict of the Queen Bee in accordance with our laws and the preservation of-have I ever told you about the Edict of the Queen Bee? It’s a bit controversial and personally I have mixed feelings about it, but ultimately it was written to guide us in what is best for our continued survival. I can explain it in more detail later, along with the very interesting debates that surrounded it during the election of King and Queen Fiyet…”

Marjorie cleared her throat. “Highness, the invite?”

Philomene clapped her hands together. “Sorry! Yes, of course, the invite. In recognition of the above, and to thank those who helped ensure my safety, we’re going to be throwing a banquet out beneath the stars. We’ll feast on roast cicada and lavender cake, the latter being not only good for treating depression and insomnia-although I suppose the sugar might offest the insomnia benefits-but also a very common food offered in thanks for good fortune dating back to the tradition of-”


“Sorry, Marjorie, you’re right. I wouldn’t want to get off-topic.” Philomene chuckled, though Ezra thought something sounded off about her. Her voice had the familiar hint of one who was forcing oneself into a better mental state than one actually was in. “And so, The House of Marl Thumbelina requests your presence tomorrow.”

Tomorrow?” Ezra frowned. “You can prepare a banquet in that little time? To feed, um, someone like me?” He tried to imagine how much he must eat compared to an entire army of Flowerlings.

“Actually, they already had one planned for Prince Alphonse.” There Philomene showed the awkward note in her voice again. “It was a fortunate coincidence! And some of my sisters were able to arrange to order food from some of the Nautilus bakeries to accommodate the extra humans and one giant. Besides, most of us don’t see giants very often; they’re all eager to meet one.”

“And we have said nothing but the best things about the both of you,” Marjorie added. “I might have embellished your virtues a little, but it’s all for the best! I’m sure we can find you a room at one of the Sky-scaled inns around here so you can wash up and rest tonight in the meantime. And you really must be hungry by now. Basil is sure to help you out there with his being a prince and having money. Aren’t you, Prince Charming?”

Basil, blindsided by such pure unfiltered Marjorie, mumbled something to the assertive and something else about needing to count his remaining gold coins carefully. Ezra gave him a reassuring hair-ruffle. Basil looked to be just as tired as he was.

In truth, Ezra was exhausted after a month of travel and a day of trouble. The idea of going to a big, loud celebration full of strangers the next day made him want to crawl under the bed. But something in Marjorie’s expression suggested something more urgent than a desire to drink honey wine at another’s expense, and Philomene’s tone had the unmistakable undertone of ‘please come, not all is well.’

“…We’d be honored, Your Highness.” Ezra bowed, nearly knocking over a stack of papers and a lantern in the process. “Sorry! Sorry, sorry.”

“Of course!” Basil grinned. “I would never turn down a royal invitation! It’s bad form. And lavender cake sounds delicious.” 

There was visible relief in Marjorie’s smile. “Excellent! Splendid. By the way, Captain Taylor, how exactly did you know to contact us over this?”

Taylor laced his fingers together in front of his chin, elbows resting on his desk. “Well, now that I’ve let your friends have their piece, I can talk to all four of you. This’ll be quick.” 

“Hmm?” Marjorie blinked, feigning innocence. “Captain, I’m not sure if you heard me…”

Taylor’s smile vanished, and his voice lowered. “I keep a very close watch over this city because it used to be my family’s kingdom, back before my great-grandfather handed it over and accepted a lesser title under Her Imperial Eternity. Things are going great right now. We’ve never been better, especially with the curse-breaking and the celebrations my father and brother are planning. Everything’s fine and dandy and I want to keep it that way. So if I was to hear of individuals with a record of chaos in their wake and strange events around them, I’d want to keep an eye on them. You’d do the same. Right?” 

There was silence all around. The other guards must have heard what Taylor said, and all chose to pretend they hadn’t. Ezra didn’t want to meet the captain’s piercing gaze. Unsure of how else to respond, he simply nodded.

“Right!” Taylor’s cheer returned as if it’d never left. “Well, you kids get some rest and something to eat. Especially you, big guy. I’ll be at that banquet tomorrow, due to Father and all. I’ll look for ya there!” 

As the four of them filed out of the lobby, no one quite knew what else to say.

Rem was already restless and wondering what they were doing down here on the ground. They hated feeling cooped up in the Anemone’s posh, nauseatingly pastel rooms, and had no desire to socialize in the tea room below as Taylor had suggested. They’d spread their paperwork and notes all over the floor in a desperate attempt to get some work done, though it was still frustrating. If the Imperial Guard only wanted information out of Celestial Patrol, why send Rem there at all? Why not deliver messages by roc and be done with it?

They reached for the cup of tea, frowning at the shell-shaped handle. They were on their fifth cup of tea, which might explain how Rem couldn’t even imagine sleeping despite the late hour. “I’ve been down here less than a day and I’m already losing my mind. Just need to focus. I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t need me here!”

“Someone in there?” Taylor’s voice startled Rem, who almost dropped the tea. 

“Uh, no. Just…talking to myself. Near midnight.” Rem quickly cleared a path in the sea of papers. “Come in.”

Taylor had to reach up to the doorknob, but that didn’t stop him from sauntering into the room. “I was going to leave a message for you and I see your light’s still on. Get some sleep, kiddo! Your nerves aren’t good for you.”

“I’m fine,” Rem insisted, perhaps a bit too loudly. They once again blamed the tea.

“Well, suit yourself.” Taylor shut the door behind them. “By the way, you were right about that Ezra guy and the bear prince having a connection to one of the Thumbelina princesses. Sent a notice to Thumbelina by bird and there they were.”

“…I was right?” Rem sat up, vaguely aware of that burning hunger to hear an authority figure praise them. They had to bear in mind who the authority was and what he represented. “I mean, I had utmost confidence in my information!” 

“You did good. I was just going to let you know that I want you around tomorrow night for something.” Taylor looked up at Rem, the smile gone again. “I have a feeling something big might go down, and you’re the biggest we got.”

Chapter Text

Marjorie couldn’t sleep. It didn’t help that the Thumbelinan hospital staff, upon learning of her compromised condition from Philomene, insisted on her taking bed rest for hours that day after drinking something twice as vile as the usual herbal medicine. It was a ridiculous way to treat a servant in her point of view, especially taking into account Philomene’s tendency to worry too much. Then again, the head physicians knew enough about her curse to surmise it in the best interests of all Thumbelina that the Golden Apple tree growing in her heart never bloom.

No amount of assuring the physicians, Flowerling and human, that she was doing much better since her near-lapse in the Gourmet’s palace weeks ago could assuage their efforts. A decreased appetite could only be a good thing considering the parasitic nature of the curse, certainly, and she wasn’t used to so much time on the road. As frustrating as the attention was, Marjorie still found it touching.

Were it her decision, she wouldn’t have wanted someone with her curse around at all. 

Her insomnia led her to wander the human-scaled tunnels late at night, the network of passages and stairs leading through the hollowed-out extinct volcano like an enormous ant hill. Fungi and blossoms sprouting from the walls pulsed with soft colored light, oblivious to day and night cycles outside. The Vine wound all through the walls, its thin, white stalks spreading and branching like veins. Curtains and wooden doors covered the chambers humans lived in, while balconies and tiny walkways connected the honeycomb-like network of rooms where Flowerlings lived and slept.

Thumbelina Kingdom was a work hundreds of years in the making, the result of human strength, ancient Flower engineering techniques and the combined lore of both. All that work, and it had fallen in a matter of hours to a mass of thorns and roses.

As she purchased tea from a late night vendor and drank it from a stone cup, Marjorie glanced around for signs of damage. There were scratches along the walls where massive thorns had run up against stone, and the smell of rotting roses still hung faintly in the air. She also noticed more residences than usual bearing a dried bulb or packet of seeds in the window, the symbol of rebirth displayed after a recent household death. Perhaps not everyone had woken up; more likely, the thorns got them in the initial outbreak.

Leaning against a wall to drink her tea, she noticed a fist-sized rock in the corner shuffle with a suspiciously out of place pair of back legs. The ‘rock’ spun around, revealing itself to be a large, fat toad of reddish-brown coloring with intelligent eyes peeking out above its head. As soon as Marjorie recognized the amphibian in question, she flashed it a hesitant smile.

“Copper, dear,” she offered, unsure of what else to say.

“Miss Marjorie.” The red toad hopped up a tiny staircase onto one of the Flowerling platforms, though she was just a little too large to fit comfortably. “I’m glad to hear you’re well! And you kept the Princess safe, just as we knew you would. When I heard about what happened, I…”

Copper trailed off, gold eyes glancing away. “Um,” she added in a softer tone of croak, “do you think we might speak elsewhere? The lake, maybe.”

“Oh, yes! Of course.” Marjorie kept her smile, though she knew with a feeling of dread exactly what it was Copper wanted to talk about.

The Lake of Night Blossoms was a short, spiraling trip through the tunnels towards the base of the mountain, which let out into natural caverns and long-emptied lava tunnels. Traveling much further down the caverns led one into the sea, and even here the sound of waves lapping against rock could be heard echoing. 

The lake itself glowed a brilliant emerald green, the result of a colony of worms residing at the bottom. Flowers big enough for Marjorie to sit in comfortably floated on the surface, their outspread petals serving as thick, rubbery flotation devices. During the daytime the lake was a popular destination for families or lovers. At this time of night, it was nearly empty save for Marjorie, Copper and a few distant figures wandering the shore.

Marjorie sat on a makeshift stone bench, setting Copper next to her. “Be sure to wash your hands after picking me up,” Copper said, “and don’t wipe your eyes!”

Ah, stalling. It was a favorite technique of Philomene and Marjorie herself. The handmaid cleared her throat, her smile remaining affixed. “You can go ahead and ask me now, Copper.”

“Oh. Right.” Copper took a deep breath, looking out at the green glow. “Have you heard anything from my cousin?”

“So.” Marjorie set her hands in her lap. “Word travels, then.”

“He’d been acting strangely for weeks before the incident. Keeping to himself, spending all his time in the library and just avoiding me. And when I tried to talk to him about it, he sounded so different. He talked about the glory due the amphibians and the long line of the Salamander or something. We’re not salamanders!” Copper swallowed, blinking back oozing tears. “I suppose I should have seen the warning signs. I should have said something…”

“Oh, please. You are not responsible for him being a-well, for his actions.”

“I just can’t imagine him being the traitor everyone says he is. Sure he was always a bit selfish and puffed-up. He had a habit of stretching his tongue to catch the sun.” Copper croaked weakly. “Old frog saying, sorry. But the idea that he was responsible for that whole mess? It’s just hard to believe.”

As uncomfortable a conversation as this was, Marjorie really did feel bad for poor Copper. She considered giving the frog a gentle pat on the head or the back, but Copper seemed to dislike being handled more than necessary. 

“So,” Copper said, “I take it from the silence that you haven’t seen Toad in a while.”

“Avery Toad, now. He chose a name, I suppose.” Marjorie was glad Copper was sitting next to her and was so much smaller, as she had no desire to look her in the eyes. “Last I saw him, he was trying to kidnap the princess.” 

“Oh, snakes and snails.” Copper covered her face with her knobby hands. “That was the other strange thing. He was always friends with Princess Philomene. I’m sure you remember, being her handmaid and all. But he never seemed to obsess over her until recently. And it wasn’t even in a romantic sense. That I could at least understand to some extent, strange as it would be for a toad to like a Flowerling. It was more like he decided she owed him something, though he couldn’t define what. Like she was a step ahead of him in some imagined race, and he couldn’t accept that.” More sticky tears dripped down her face. 

Marjorie decided right then and there not to mention the little bit about Avery Toad having turned himself into a human. Even if it was just a temporary spell, it wouldn’t help someone who thought she was losing the only family she had left. Instead she chose to strategically steer the conversation away from the uncomfortable truth. “Copper dear, no one’s treated you poorly for his actions, have they? Just say the word and I’m sure Philomene will give them a talking to over it. Why, I’ll do it myself!”

“No.” Copper shook her head and croaked. “Everyone’s been sympathetic, which is almost worse. It’s as if he died. And I know people who really did die as a result of all this! Poor Imri…”

“Imri?” Marjorie felt her smile slip. 

“Oh! Oh, you didn’t know? Oh, I’m so sorry, Miss Marjorie. He died protecting Princess Cyramene from being impaled by brambles, shielding her with his own body. Cyramene saw it before she fell asleep. They’re going to have him honored with a quartz statue…” Copper trailed off.

Well, how the tables had turned. Marjorie had noticed Imri’s absence, but she’d assumed he had either gone home to visit his family or was otherwise busy. She had only been back one day after all. While she had been a little slow to make friends with the other human guardians assigned to the royal family, she’d always like Imri. A little too earnest for his own good, she thought, but he never treated his princess like a living doll the way some humans would. 

“What an awful shame.” Marjorie didn’t know Imri well enough to cry on his behalf, but the news left her feeling deflated. “Still…! A true guardian to the end, I see. Poor Princess Cyramene, she always was fond of him.”

“She was very fond of him.” Did a strange hint slip into Copper’s tone there, or did Marjorie imagine that? “And so I feel so selfish asking it, especially after all he’s done. Toad, I mean. Or Avery now, I guess. And here I kept urging him to choose a name when he came of age!” The toad sighed, a sad chuckle escaping her big mouth. 

“You want mercy for him.”

“I was planning on petitioning the Royal Family, but I feel like a heel even asking for it. He probably doesn’t really deserve it, and I know it’s unfair of me to ask just because we’re blood. And secretly I worry that if I did ask, everyone really would turn on me and hate me.” 

“I doubt it.” Marjorie made herself smile again. “Family loyalty is nothing to sneeze at, and Thumbelina knows it. Though you aren’t asking me on behalf of the Princess Regent, are you? It isn’t that they don’t value my opinion at all but it genuinely isn’t up to me.” And thank god, Marjorie added silently. She doubted she would have extended mercy at all. 

“Not really. I’m more asking you for advice. You know, maybe you could sing a rhyme about it or tell a funny story to make me feel better. I’m sorry, this was silly of me to drag you out here, especially when you went through so much…”

“Please, don’t even think of me.” Marjorie prickled at the very thought of someone feeling sorry for her. “So this is you approaching a Court Jester for advice? Well, it isn’t my primary role of course, but I suppose I might be asked to perform something for the banquet tomorrow. So here’s a little practice.” She cleared her throat and began to chant in a singsong voice.

“Don’t paint him a path out of jail with your tears! But if he returns, then lend him your ears.”

Copper blinked. “Lend him my ears? But I don’t have any.”

“No, no. What I mean is, Avery is an adult. He can make his own decisions, including the decision to return and take responsibility for his own crimes. You can be there for him as someone who still loves him.” Marjorie suspected Copper was the only person who still liked Avery at that point, but she kept that bit unsaid. “But he doesn’t need you to plead his case for him, especially since you said yourself you have no idea what’s happened to him. Maybe the situation is more complicated than we think.”

“So I should just wait and see when he comes back?”

It was more of an ‘if’ the way Marjorie saw it, considering how Avery seemed to be in the clutches of the missing Rot Witch. But this was not the time for brutal honesty. “There really isn’t much else you can do, is there? In the meantime, go out and enjoy yourself. Buy some night grubs and put them on his tab. Drink too much at the banquet tomorrow and tell embarrassing stories about him. You sound like you need it.”

“I do?”

“Well, I think so. After all, it’s quite obvious how much he’s hurt you. Even setting aside how he put your life in danger by helping the Green Witch cast her curse, he’s now left you in this awful state of heartbreak and worry. It’s cruel, I say!” Marjorie sniffed. “He isn’t trustworthy. He doesn’t deserve family like you. People who lie and deceive like us-…like him don’t.” 

Copper was quiet for what felt like a long time. Marjorie worried at first that Copper might misinterpret her slip as some sign of treason when Marjorie herself wasn’t sure where it had come from, and then wondered if she’d gone too far in her condemnation of Copper’s cousin. 

“I suppose you’re right,” Copper finally relented. “Thank you, Marjorie. Though you aren’t anything like him! Don’t say that. I heard you protected the princess with your life, too.”

“Well! Well.” Marjorie felt herself blushing. “It’s just my duty. Though I still don’t feel as if I’m the person she thinks I am. The princess, I mean.”

“You should trust her judgment more often.” Copper hopped down onto the cave floor. “And get some rest! You have bags under your eyes.”

Again with the rest! Marjorie shoved her frustration aside; Copper was just being kind. “Thank you, dear. And don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll come back here sometime, repentant and begging to return.” That was a blatant lie, hopefully of the useful kind. 

As Copper hopped off, Marjorie rose to her feet and stretched. Something wiggled in the corner of her vision.

She turned around and saw something red and green hide behind a stalagmite. On second glance it was gone completely, leaving behind no trace of its presence.

“Perhaps I do need more sleep,” Marjorie mumbled to herself. That was another lie, one to keep back the shiver crawling down her spine. While she hadn’t gotten a good look at the small creature, she could have sworn it looked a little like a rose. 

Chapter Text

Philomene sat on a mushroom cap-shaped seat, ribbons braided into her hair twists and the skirt of her spider silk ball gown falling around her. She looked into her cup of tea and honey, the surface reflecting the flickering bonfire. The conversations seem to brush past her like butterflies, which was just fine with her. She had no idea what she would say to anyone.

The seat reserved for the Queen, a construction of wood carved to resemble vines, was missing from the royal family’s table. To keep it there, empty, was thought to be too unsettling for a celebration. The queen was not dead, and to treat her as such would be disrespectful. Meramene, serving as Queen Regent, wore tiny flower buds in her hair as a crown but chose not to sit in a throne. It was understandable. Everyone wanted to believe this situation was temporary. The Queen would awaken, the missing siblings would return, and the meantime Thumbelina needed time to heal. Everyone needed this night.

So why did Philomene feel so ill at ease? How had she managed to put her worries aside in the past, when she’d needed to smile for her subjects? Well, she’d confided them to Marjorie, which she could hardly do in a crowd like this. She’d think about her next scientific project, which in this case would involve either trying to awaken her mother or make contact with the missing siblings. That was hardly a distraction at all. In the meantime she managed to make conversation when it was needed of her, unsure of how apparent her detachment was. 

There was nothing wrong with the banquet itself. A long table had been set out in the center of a great circle, lit by torches and laden with baked pollen, stuffed snail and grasshopper eggs in flower cups. There was plentiful mead for those who enjoyed that sort of thing, though Philomene hated having her mental facilities compromised in any way. She was picking at a salad made of fresh rose petal and bits of fried quail egg, hoping her appetite at least improved soon enough for the roasted grub course or lavender cakes. 

The human guests, Thumbelina citizens and some notable Nautilans counting among their numbers, mulled in a ring outside. There they chatted, enjoying fare ordered from their own kitchens and a Nautilus restaurant in an area where they could both safely walk around without endangering their Flowerling kindred and form a protective barrier against any outdoor predators looking for an easy snack. Owls tended to stay away from humans, especially loud groups of them. They were allowed to pass through to speak with the Flower Folk, but needed to announce their presence and be very careful.

The exceptions were the human servants and guardians of the royals, Marjorie included, and Prince Alphonse himself. While Philomene struggled to achieve the proper mood for the situation and waited for her friends to arrive, she took the time to observe him.

“Well, someone had to take care of it.” Alphonse, seated cross-legged and dwarfing the crowds around him, told his story for what she suspected was the fourth or fifth time. Poor boy certainly was patient, rubbing the back of his neck and carrying a human-scaled glass of mead in his hand. “I wasn’t sure if it was right for an outsider to do so, but what if the thorns spread? The Imperials told me they were worried about brambles taking root down in Nautilus! And I knew they’d had no luck fighting them off…”

“So you kissed Ceramene and broke the spell, right?” A Flower child in a bright frock interrupted. That Philomene had not heard before; she narrowed her eyes. 

Alphonse turned almost as red as his hair and laughed it off. “No, no! Is that the rumor going around now? I can’t really kiss a princess who can fit in my hand, you know. Though she certainly was lovely enough to merit it.”

Philomene wasn’t sure if Ceramene hid her face out of bashfulness or something else. Ceramene had been even more quiet than herself.

“No, what happened was I approached the brambles and found a pathway through them. It seemed to open for me and yield as I went, which is still strange to me…but curses and magic aren’t things a fellow like me claims to understand. The pathway led to a chamber where the only thing visible among all the thorns was a tiny silk bed, which is where Princess Ceramene was sleeping. Not being sure what else to do, and wanting to honor Her Highness, I knelt before it. The idea of an entire kingdom trapped in an eternal poisoned sleep was so awful to me, all I could think to do was to offer the plants my own life in exchange. I even cut my hand open on a bramble so it could have some of my blood.” He held up a palm with a still-healing gash. “But I didn’t have to die! That seemed to be enough to break the curse. Maybe the Green Witch just wanted someone to offer a sacrifice? Well, I’ll leave it to the mages and scientists to figure out the details, but…”

The rest of his story was drowned out by demands from his admirers that he tell them more about himself. Alphonse himself was hard to gauge. He seemed genuine, if a bit taken aback by all the attention, and rather young. He wore Nautilan formal garb with a huge red rose in his lapel, but spoke with an unfamiliar accent. 

Assessing people was Marjorie’s expertise. Philomene instead concentrated on the account of the curse-breaking himself. So the Green Witch wanted someone to offer themselves as a sacrifice, but did not take it? How odd. She would have to keep a close eye on Alphonse to make sure the Witch, if she was still around in some presence, didn’t decide to take her payment later than thought. But it still made no sense to her. What did the Witch have to gain from cursing a kingdom that had done nothing to her, only to free it at the actions of a disconnected foreign prince? The Other Ones were capricious, but they all seemed to have their own motives. The Gourmet was greedy, but he was also stockpiling power. For what? 

“Hello? Princess, hello?”

Philomene snapped up, looking around and then up at the figure looming over her from behind. Basil smiled innocently, clad in a tricorn hat and a Nautilan winter overcoat with a swirling leaf pattern. She saw him shivering a little, recalling that Nautilan winters were mild, and hoped he wasn’t too cold. Still, he was a better distraction than she could have hoped for. “Oh, Basil! Everyone, this is Prince Basil of Sethwhile, who saved my life.”

Basil was standing next to where Marjorie was sitting, and gave a sweeping bow to the seated princesses. “The honor is mine! Sorry I’m a little late. The Duke’s son Xaviero was a little astonished to learn I hadn’t brought any formal wear, and let me borrow this. And wanted to talk. A-a bit.” His smile wavered and he looked over his shoulder as if worried this Xaviero would follow him to continue the conversation. 

“Are you the magician?” Little Elomene, who had been spending most of her time bothering Alphonse and munching on honey cakes, shouted her question to make sure Basil could hear it. “Philomene said we’d get to meet a magician.”

“Magician? Me? Oh no!” Basil laughed. “I mean, I suppose Ezra is. Though he’ll deny it. Actually, don’t call him a magician at all. He is, um…he’s lingering on the edge of the crowd…” 

Elomene puffed out her cheeks and scowled. “I want to meet the magician! Can I, Philo? Please?” 

It was no surprise that Ezra hadn’t approached the center circle. He’d probably cause a fuss if he did; there were already people in the human circle giving someone unseen a wide berth, and Philomene could guess why. Still, this was a good chance for her to get away from her table, and she did want to talk to Ezra about her mother. “Marjorie, I don’t suppose you could…?” 

“Certainly, certainly!” Marjorie set her hands out for Philomene and Elomene to climb in on, then stood back up slowly and gracefully as always. “Basil, you can get to know Prince Charming over there.”

Basil stopped and stared. “That-that-he’s the Prince Charming?!” And that was that; he immediately began asking Alphonse a thousand more questions. Philomene hoped he wouldn’t overwhelm the foreign prince or miss the dance later. 

The crowds of both scales parted for Marjorie, the humans recognizing the royal emblem on her dress. As Marjorie walked through, Philomene thought she saw something in the corner of her vision down by the grass, wriggling and then vanishing. Perhaps it was just a garden snake, but snakes rarely approached crowds.

Sure enough, Ezra was at the very edge of the valley festival ground, wearing the red and gold suit the fairy godmothers had helped him restore into something more his style and less demolished. He was kneeling and avoiding eye contact, generally looking a bit uncomfortable. As terrible as Philomene felt for thinking it, she was relieved to find someone else who didn’t feel like socializing. Sometimes wallflowers needed one another. 

“Ah, see, here you are! I’m glad you made it at least, darling. You won’t at least mingle with the humans? You are a guest of the royal family,” Marjorie said to Ezra, “and if anyone has said anything rude about Sky Folk here you must let us know! But I’m just glad you didn’t find an excuse to hide in your room tonight. Where are you staying? Basil said you weren’t at the Taylor Estate with him…”

Ezra spoke softer than usual, probably due to the presence of so many Flowerlings. Still, his voice was familiar, soothing thunder. “Duke Taylor doesn’t really have an appropriate room for me. It’s quite alright! When they found out I was Basil’s, erm, traveling companion they paid for me to stay at one of the inns. It’s a nice place. Is that you, Philomene?” He peered over into Marjorie’s hands.

Philomene was used to the sight of Ezra towering over her like a socially awkward mountain, but Elomene had never met a Sky giant before. Elomene opened her mouth wide and gawked, and Philomene worried her youngest sister was going to scream and hurt Ezra’s feelings.

Instead she made a squeal of delight. “That person is SO BIG! How did you get that big?”

Ezra, taken aback, blinked and made the sort of confounded face Philomene recognized on those not used to dealing with children. “I, um. Where I came from, everyone is.”

“Elomene! Introduce yourself, please.” Philomene nudged Elomene, a warning that any rudeness towards Ezra would be answered with a lecture from one of the more motherly sisters later.

“O-kaay. Fine.” Elomene sighed and curtsied. “I’mPrincessElomeneMarlThumbelina. Are you big because you’re a magician?”

Based on his expression, Ezra was either amused, a little mortified or both. He glanced to the side, ignoring how hard Marjorie was trying not to laugh. “My name is Ezra K-just Ezra. And no, being big has nothing to do with magic. Usually, I think. What’s this about being a magician?” He raised an eyebrow at Philomene, as if to ask ‘what have you been telling them.’

The princess smiled sheepishly. “I meant that you were someone I’d made contact with who knew magic. That makes you a magician as far as I’m concerned! By the way, I may need to talk to you later about-”

Her own voice was drowned out by a roar of rushing wind, unseasonably cold and sudden on an otherwise still night. It was strong enough to cause some of the humans to stumble. Instinctively, Marjorie cupped her hands against her chest to protect the princesses and Ezra shielded his eyes and braced his shoulder to protect her. Even with his big body in the way, the wind was formidable, blowing Philomene off of her feet.

As torches blew out, Philomene thought she felt something wrapped around her. It had fingers of a sort, but she could hardly call it a hand. Then the lights went out completely and Philomene found herself flying, flying through the air, sucked out from within Marjorie’s hands. The maid managed to protect Elomene, reaching out to grab Philomene; her fingertips brushed against Philomene’s hand to no avail. Then the sound of the wind drowned out everything.

Philomene woke but could not sit up, whatever landing she’d made on the soft surface apparently harsh enough to aggravate her back. Instead she rolled over to look upwards at a sloping green ceiling, then around her. She was sitting on a bed of rose petals, dried and fresh, some unnaturally thick and rubbery. 

There was a figure standing over her on the rose petal bed, offering her a hand up. His eyes twinkled and his beard nearly obscured his smile.

“Princess,” Lord Germain said genially. “I know it has been a few years, but surely you remember me?”

Chapter Text

Philomene tried to wave away Lord Germain’s offered hand as she forced herself to sit up, only to find her fingers passing right through him. That’s when she noticed the faint glow around him, the lack of a shadow, and the very slight transparency.

“That’s right. This is just a projection. I can’t put myself at risk if and when someone comes to rescue you here, can I?” Germain shrugged. “A magical projection is an easy enough trick to rig up with mirrors and a communication ring. You did know they were capable of visuals when fully functional, right? The one my agent recovered from your friend was broken and I had to do a few repairs this morning.” 

Philomene wasn’t sure what infuriated her the most: the fact that she’d been kidnapped once again and would once more put others at risk as a result, Lord Germain openly admitting to stealing her ring from Basil, or his casual take on repairing ancient magical relics. She decided she wouldn’t offer him the satisfaction of a cowering, frightened princess, instead looking the hologram directly in the eyes. “Is that why you brought me here? To show off your skill at magical communication before we arrest you again?”

“Oh, you won’t be doing that. I can’t have that! For one, if I recall the prison was torn apart by thorns.”

“So, you’re taking a princess hostage? I would have expected something a little more original from a genius.” Philomene wished she had Marjorie’s gift of the acid tongue. “Especially one who can construct something like-like this. This is all alive, isn’t it?”

The rose petals beneath her were too thick and rubbery, but there was no mistaking the soft texture of real petals. Her circular prison walls were constructed of entwined vines, bulging in some places and shriveling in others, all constantly wriggling like bound worms. Various flowers sprouted around her; one in particular was a familiar shade of blue. Above her was a dome made of a glassy membrane, the night sky just visible through it. It was too high up for her to reach even standing. 

Lord Germain beamed, resting his hands on his stomach. “The Green Witch’s attack gave me the idea. Granted, someone claiming to be her ‘sister’ aided in my escape in the first place for help with a favor, so I like to think I have her blessing here. Or perhaps not. Generally I don’t believe in waiting for permission to innovate. Do you, Princess?”

She chose not to answer his question. “Tell me why I’m here.”

“I always liked how direct you were! You approached me and my fellow scholars with questions and swept pretense of court manners aside.” He was smiling genially, as if he wasn’t keeping her prisoner in a mass of plants. “That’s why you’re here. Sadly I became too swept up in my important research on Animal Enlightenment before you entered advanced classes, but don’t think I didn’t pay attention to you at the academy. Thumbelinan Royals are expected to be educated, but you went above and beyond! Your thirst for knowledge was exemplary. While I lectured in front of dull-eyed students who could care less about the lost art of geomancy or the difficulties inherent in transformation magic, you spent hours in the library devouring knowledge because you could. So, I wanted to talk to you about my findings personally.”

Philomene held her head. “Your ‘important research’ killed so many animals. Forgive me for not wanting to be part of your plan, won’t you?”

“We kill animals to eat them, don’t we? We kill them to keep ourselves safe. I was killing some of them to help them and us, to create soldiers stronger than us, smart enough to follow orders but not quite smart enough to…cause trouble. But, that’s over with now! Obviously all my materials were confiscated, and the only Seeds of Enlightenment I managed to create were confiscated by the so-called Rot Witch as payment for breaking me out of jail. You’d think I’d be incensed, losing so many years’ worth of research to a woeful misunderstanding of my work on behalf of the very nation I intended to help! But what good is it to hold grudges? They pollute the mind. Anger is useless to those of us who are higher-minded. Don’t you agree, Princess?”

Philomene grasped the skirt of her dress hard enough to dig her fingernails through the fabric, breathing deeply. She did not believe anger was useless, but it did cloud the judgment. Hadn’t Marjorie told her that focus was the key to overcoming a debate? And somehow she found herself in one, whether she wanted to be there or not.

“I think,” she said slowly and without letting emotion leak into her voice, “I would like to know how you managed to bring me here, where I am, and how I can get back.”

“So you have no interest in my current branch of research? After all, it involves the Green Witch. She is still alive.” He tilted his head. “You knew something as powerful as her couldn’t die just from some prince breaking her spell, didn’t you?”

“…I had a feeling.” That wasn’t completely correct. Lavender and Violet had all but confirmed that killing an Other One was impossible, and while Alphonse had apparently broken the curse he hadn’t mentioned anything about sealing the two Witches. In fact, he hadn’t mentioned the Rot Witch at all. “But I think we can handle it without your help,” she added, putting less effort into hiding the venom in her voice. “Calling me smart, stroking my ego, appealing to my better nature while you have me at a disadvantage? A good friend of mine fell under the spell of someone doing just that recently. I don’t intend to repeat the mistake!” 

Lord Germain was quiet for a moment, glancing aside. His smile went lopsided. “I understand. You think I’m trying to manipulate you. I have no such desires! My loyalty lies to Thumbelina Kingdom itself-no, Blessed Thumbelina herself and all she represents for our people, even if I haven’t the highest regard for some of our laws and traditions. To prove my transparency, I’ll tell you how I brought you here.”

“I recognized a teleportation spell.” Philomene forced herself to her feet, leaning on her cane. “But I had no idea you’d taken up sorcery in the meantime.”

“I didn’t have to! In fact, the implement I used to warp you here is right in this dome, and I’m sure you’ll know it when you see it. I’d love to explain to you further, but I am afraid it is nearly showtime.” The hologram tapped the face of a human-scale pocket watch behind him. “The real reason you’re here is because I want to see how you handle a challenge. I can’t say more without compromising my experiment. In the meantime, I would look up if I were you. If you’re interested in seeing how the party is going.”

As the Lord Germain image flickered out, the surface of the dome flickered and glowed brightly before displaying an image of the party from above. The torches were out, the guests illuminated by strange, floating green lights.

And they weren’t alone.

“Is everyone alright? Princess-um, erm, Madam, Sir, everyone okay there?” When that strange gust of wind had blown through the otherwise clear night, it’d thrown a number of Flowerlings right at Basil. He’d caught them in his arms and was carefully setting them back on the ground. “No injuries? Good! That was odd, wasn’t it?”

He laughed, cut short by a shiver. The air temperature was returning to normal, but his chill hadn’t gone away. He knew that stupid outfit was too warm and light even for winter clothing, but felt saying anything would be ungrateful to the Taylors. He’d also gone and had a couple glasses of mead while waiting for Ezra to arrive. His aunts had advised him to avoid wine, but it made him feel warm. Why wasn’t it warming him now?

Banquet guests were looking to one another in confusion, reorganizing and taking stock of one another. The torches were out, leaving only the moon to light the way. Alphonse was helping lost Flowerlings reunite with their partners or parents. Basil wanted to help, but his fingertips burned and he could feel something cold blooming in his stomach and chest. He shut his eyes, hoping for the episode to pass and opening them only when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you alright, Prince Basil?” Alphonse looked down at Basil, biting his lip. “You’re not feeling ill, are you?”

Ah, drat. Alphonse, by all accounts, appeared to be a genuine Prince Charming. He was handsome, humble, well-dressed and had saved an entire kingdom, and here Basil was embarrassing himself during their first meeting. He didn’t want to have to explain his curse again; bad enough the Taylors already knew thanks to his parents. “I’m fine,” he lied, letting go of his elbows and standing straight. He couldn’t help the shivers. “Just startled, that’s it! But not in a cowardly way. That was odd, wasn’t it?”

“Very odd.” Alphonse frowned, looking around at the crowds mulling in the darkness. “And suspicious, if you ask me. Here I am with nothing but an ornamental sword. Not that I think I’ll need it! But spend enough time on the road and one grows wary of sudden changes…”

“I know exactly what you mean. I should make sure Marjorie and Princess Philomene are alright. And, erm.” Basil looked around, trying to pick out a much larger silhouette and failing. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen a giant around here, would you? Black hair, a little heavyset, wearing red-well, he’d probably be the only giant, I suppose…”

“Giant?” Alphonse stared. Before he could answer, the moonlight seemed to swell around them and increase a thousandfold, burning like a star in the sky.

That was when Basil remembered it was a moonless night. 

The floating orb in the sky split into multiple smaller versions of itself, drifting apart. They were fuzzy and soft-looking, reminding Basil of giant dandelion puffs. Beams of light shot from one orb to another, forming a huge hexagon shape that filled itself in. The result resembled a screen projected onto the night sky, depicting the image of a dark-skinned man with a white beard and a peaceful expression. It was far too realistic-looking to be a painting; moreover, it moved. He moved.

“Good evening, citizens of Thumbelina and Nautilan allies. I am Lord Thomas Hazel Germain. Some of you may recognize my name and attach it to unfortunate past incidents.” Sure enough, as soon as Germain introduced himself, the Flowerlings at Basil’s feet began murmuring, chattering and in some cases outright shouting insults. If Germain heard, he didn’t acknowledge them.

“I come here,” the image continued, “not necessarily as your enemy. I feel there has been a misunderstanding and wish to rectify it. You see, in the time since my escape from wrongful imprisonment I came across something very interesting. Several somethings, no less! And it is a sign of my good will that I am going to show them to you. Without further ado…”

Basil heard a commotion on the edge of the crowd. Something was starting to close in on them, dark shapes he couldn’t make out yet. Some were taller than Ezra, and all seemed to writhe and move in unnatural ways. 

“I call them Dryads,” Germain said, “for lack of a better term. I found a few samples lying inert soon after the Green Witch’s curse fell, and found they could do some marvelous things with the right stimulation, feeding and alteration. They can produce different kinds of flowers, some of which won’t even grow locally. I’ve managed to trigger some to produce toxins. And in the right conditions, they can grow very, very fast.” 

Basil slipped through the standing, gawking crowds, ducking around and watching his feet for stray Flowerlings. He had to find Marjorie and Ezra! He tried to ignore how the cold was numbing his toes, and not worry why it hadn’t gone away. 

“The potential these beings hold within them is limitless! And as it turns out, I’ve also figured out how to control them. Which gives me the upper hand in this situation, I’d say.” Germain chuckled calmly. “Now, I could make my demands right away, but I think it would be more effective to give a demonstration first.” 

The image flickered away, leaving the sky lit only by the glowing orbs. Basil broke to the edge of the group, ignoring the protests of human guards who were already moving to protect guests from-from what?

Something hissed from behind a boulder. The dark shapes were still looming, and Basil couldn’t make them out.  There was only one big silhouette he recognized, and he dove right for it.

“Ezra!” He reached for the giant’s hand. “Oh, thank the Mountain Lords, what’s going on?! Where is Marjorie and…Ezra?”

Ezra wasn’t looking at him at all. He was staring up at something, a serpentine creature of oozing vines and leaves dripping with some dark, goopy substance. Instead of a head, the thing had a great red snapdragon blossom grinning with drooling teeth. 

And it had wrapped a spiny vine around Ezra’s leg. 

“Basil?” Ezra looked over his shoulder finally, eyes wide. “Marjorie said the princess is missing. I don’t know where they went. You should run…everyone should run.”

The snapdragon hissed and dove at him, drowned out by the screams of the crowd as the green, spiny creatures emerged into the light.

Chapter Text

Philomene had no idea where she was. She didn’t know if she was anywhere close to the party she was now watching via the dome projection of her strange prison, a party which was rapidly descending into chaos as serpentine creatures of petal and vine attacked. She had no way of contacting Marjorie or anyone else for that matter. 

While it was certainly an ideal time to panic, that was simply not an option. Panicking would not get her out, nor would it do anything about Lord Germain’s plans and plants. So her first step was to do something about her racing heart and desire to tear uselessly at the walls until her hands bled. She took a deep breath, counted to ten and let it out. She inhaled once more, counted to ten and realized she was making herself a little dizzy. 

I am very, very tired of being kidnapped, Philomene decided as she surveyed the dome structure in more detail. Just because I’m a princess isn’t giving others carte blanche to do this sort of thing! 
The walls seemed to pulse, and when Philomene examined them more closely, she saw that the tough outer stalks were a translucent green shell for some kind of blackish-blue liquid pumping through them. Plants might easily retain water or fluids, but this substance looked more like viscous, discolored blood. 

In fact, now that she examined it, everything the miniature garden was producing was slightly…off. The rose petals she stood on were too thick and rubbery; some were warped at the edges as if they’d been burnt. A water lily emerged from the decidedly not aquatic surface, its roots merging with the rose petal bed. Plants didn’t just sprout other kinds of plants; whatever sort of magic-crafting Germain had used to create these things, it was unsettlingly impressive. When she tried to touch the lily, it snapped closed and nearly took her hand with it.

That left the blue flower leaning over by the edge. She walked towards it, recognition slowly dawning on her. She’d been too distracted upon her capture to take much notice of it at first; only now, left to her own devices for whatever reasons Germain had, did she see it for what it was. It was a trumpet-shaped flower, its petals big enough to serve as as a gown. Light flowed through veins in the petals, concentrating inside around the stigma. She’d seen these specimens before and even brought back petals to study, finding them completely devoid of magic when taken from the plant itself. Every time she’d tried to approach one herself it had dimmed its light and shut itself just as readily as that water lily had.

This was one of the Moonflowers, the blue blossoms that clustered around the gates that led to Moonflower Market and flooded the walled-off exterior of the Market itself as far as the eye could see. She had long suspected whatever power transported attendees to and from the fairy market lay in the Moonflowers. If Germain had managed to generate one using a magical laboratory-and she began to suspect this was less a prison holding her and more a living, mobile laboratory-he probably used this to transport her in. 

When she held her hand up to the flower, it stayed still.

No, stop, she reminded herself. Don’t get distracted. You have no idea how these things work, and you have to examine the area thoroughly for anything you can use to escape. 

Yet she still found herself pulling the flower downward until she could see into the bell. There was something in there, flickering at the base of the petals where the light welled. It swirled around a tiny black speck, a perfect orb that pulsed back and forth. It seemed as if the light itself was being pulled into the dark orb of nothingness.

It was so beautiful, like a drop of the night sky. She could reach out and hold it in her hand if she wanted. She felt for a moment as if she was looking down on the sky itself or a little black star. 

But what was she to do with it?

The snapdragon monster was much stronger than it looked. Ezra stumbled and fell as it pulled his leg out from under him and loomed over him, blossom face split in a grotesque grin. 

“BASIL, JUST GO!” He shouted desperately at the prince as he threw a punch at the dryad, not sure what else to do. He hadn’t come expecting a fight, though what would he have brought as a weapon otherwise? His cooking pan? 

The dryad snapped at him, true to his name. Ezra rolled so it only got a handful of grass and dirt, which it gulped right down unperturbed. It was still oozing that blackish liquid from its ‘skin,’ making a sound like stepping on wet leaves when it moved. 

Pulling his leg away so quickly the vine took his pant leg right off, Ezra stumbled to his feet and looked around. Chaos had broken out. Enormous flowers, snakelike vines and hissing moss-blobs were descending upon the party. He caught a glance of human soldiers evacuating Flowerlings by the armful, though no sign of Marjorie. Other soldiers, human and Flowerling, did their best to hold their own against the dryad onslaught. The human soldiers fought with spears and shortswords, the Flowerlings riding on hummingbird and firing tiny crossbow bolts.

His snapdragon, perhaps noticing his distraction, lobbed a ball of acid at him with its mouth that landed too close to his feet to comfort. Ezra looked around and grabbed a broken torch, completely aware he had no experience or skill in staff fighting. All he had was strength, strength and a kind of magic he couldn’t use at the moment. 

He took an aimless, frightened swing at the snapdragon as it lunged at him again, teeth bared. His makeshift staff didn’t connect, nor did he feel the inevitable stab of those decidedly un-plantlike teeth. Something splattered against him, staining his clothing.

“Basil? Was that you? Listen, where’s-wait.”

It wasn’t Basil who had just stabbed the snapdragon from above, neatly splitting it in half. For one, Basil didn’t use a spear with a tip that crackled with violet electricity. The violet glow illuminated his real savior, clad in flowing armored robes and glowering. 

As Ezra stared, he realized he was looking up for once.

Below the very tall Celestial Patrol soldier, Captain Taylor marched forward with a small group of Nautilus guards. “Alright!” he barked. “We’re gonna get this under control! Rem? Work with the local forces.”

“The local-” The intimidating, otherwise silent Rem sputtered. “But they’re-they’re Flower Folk! I’m not sure I can see all of them! I-I mean, yes, sir.” Ezra wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but he thought he caught a suspicious glare from the C.P. 

He had no time to worry about what it meant, as two halves of a snapdragon stood up and screeched at him. 

Rem had no idea what they were doing. 

Not the fight. Rem hadn’t gone through thousands of drills, chased criminals down the streets of Vox and undergone daily exercise rituals for nothing. Numerous as the dryads were, they didn’t seem to have much staying power. A few stabs with Rem’s Thunderspear seemed to do the job for the snapdragon and a shambling moss creature, at least momentarily. Their apparent regeneration power was going to become a problem very quickly.

But Rem’s previous combat experience had been against other Sky folk. Most of them were smaller by default, but they weren’t running around at knee-height. Battling numerous monsters in a Sky civilian crowd would have been chaos; fighting while surrounded by humans terrified Rem. They could fall and kill three. One false step and Rem might take out an entire family of Flowerlings. They were almost too tiny to see at all.

I knew it. They sent me down here to fail. They wanted an excuse…!

Any concerns fell to the wayside as something splashed against Rem’s leg, immediately freezing so rapidly it burned the skin. Rem whipped around to see a waist-high creature, nearly round in shape and carrying itself on thick vine ‘legs.’ It was a white sphere of huge, deceptively delicate-looking snowdrops. Something blue was dripping from the flowers, chilling the air around it.

“What now?! Taylor!” Rem called out to the human captain. “Is this some kind of magic?!”

“They’re probably made with magic, so who knows!” For someone his age, Taylor seemed to be holding his own with a sword. Rem caught sight of male and female soldiers (though no Lunars like Rem) leading civilians to safety, Thumbelinan and Nautilan alike. At least everyone was giving Rem a wide berth. It likely came from being the only Sky person present aside from that stranger. 

Ignoring the burning in their leg the best they could, they raised their spear and tried to bring it down on the snowdrop dryad. The creature moved faster than it looked like it should, surrounding itself with stinging cold and spitting more of the freezing liquid all around it.

“Are all the Flowerling civilians safe?” a Thumbelinan human guard called out. 

“The Princesses Philomene and Elomene are still missing,” another guard shouted. “Search the area! Retrieve them!”

Philomene. Where had Rem heard that name?

“Wait, Philomene?!” The Sky stranger sounded alarmed. Anything else he was going to say was drowned out in a cry as the regenerating snapdragon dove at him, biting hard enough to draw blood. 

Rem winced. While they didn’t think highly of Exiles, Rem was Celestial Patrol and their primary duty was to their own kin. On the other hand, Flowerling princesses was missing. How did an Exile know a Flowerling princess, anyway!?


Recognition hit Rem at the least convenient time possible as two more dryads descended upon them. Well, at least they could do the noble thing and make themselves the big, obvious target. At which point the guard could…

Well, Rem had no idea what the guard could do with those things.

Philomene had to pull herself away from the Moonflower. She could have spent days studying it in any other circumstance. Now she had to think in purely practical terms. As amazing as this laboratory was, she was trapped in it. She had to make pragmatic use of anything around. 

Attempts to tug the vines apart or break them proved fruitless. They were tightly knit and hard as wood, though Philomene pulled until her palms bled. There was no sign of a door, and digging beneath the rose petals just revealed more of vines. She slumped onto her stomach in frustration, turning onto her back to stare up at the dome projection.

She sighed at the sight of the white and black Imperial troops and the Nautilus guard, reminding herself she should be thankful for any help, asked-for or not. The sight of a giant considerably taller than Ezra gave her a double-take; she hadn’t seen anyone like that nearby, though she supposed someone that big could hide against the cliffs at the foot of the mountain. She could just make out Basil and Alphonse struggling to hold their own against these so-called dryads. What did Germain intend to prove, anyway? That he could magically engineer monsters? It was just going to bring down the wrath of two kingdoms on him.

No, this was some kind of demonstration. He had some kind of plan. Someone who claimed to be as focused on logic and the ‘greater good’ as he did wouldn’t act so rashly and violently without some justification, if only within his own mind. Had he been the one to send the goldfinch? No, he had no reason to dissuade her from returning to Thumbelina if he had some strange need to seek her out. 

This was supposed to be a straightforward curse-breaking! And what was that strange glint against the dome’s surface?

Philomene stood up, examining the flicker of light reflecting onto the dome. She was able to trace it to the inside of the water lily. The moment she approached it snapped shut, though she caught a glimpse of dark red.

Of course. Germain had installed her communication ring jewel inside this…thing. Maybe that was just his odd sense of humor. 

She walked back to the moonflower, examining how its glow hit a spot just short of the water lily. Carefully, out of curiosity mixed with desperation, she shifted the moonflower until the bell cast a beam against the open lily. The jewel shimmered, and the light of the moonflower turned a deep garnet color.

Meanwhile, the dome image flickered out entirely. Philomene barely noticed, for if she concentrated, she could hear the din of distant shouts, along with one low, thunderous voice.

Alphonse was a natural fighter, graceful as a dancer and effective even with an ornamental short sword. Basil, staving off a spiny dryad with a lit torch, was holding up as best he could and cursing himself for not asking for an ornamental sword earlier. Or, for that matter, a heavier coat. His fingers and toes were numb. 

Guilt and panic clawed at his stomach. Monsters he could handle; Prince Charming battled monsters, and some of them had to be plantlike. But Prince Charming also protected her loved ones, and Basil couldn’t find anyone. It seemed impossible to lose someone as big as Ezra in a crowd, but Basil’s view was obscured by that much bigger giant with a perpetual scowl who’d come out of seemingly nowhere. He could hear Ezra but not see him, which somehow made it worse.

“Ezra!” he called out. “Princess! Marjorie! Anyone?!” He tried to run towards where he’d heard Ezra’s shout, only to find his way blocked by a slithering dryad. A guard made short work of it before Basil could act just as Alphonse ran up alongside him.

“Prince Basil!” Alphonse seemed to be keeping a cool head about him. “I need help tracking down the missing princesses. Can you assist me?”

“Yes,” Basil blurted automatically, for a prince helped save anyone. “But-but my other friends! The princess’s guardian, and that giant I mentioned-I mean the other giant…” Why was it so hard to think clearly? It couldn’t have just been the wine. The cold kept creeping inside him; he felt as if his guts were freezing from the inside, bit by painful bit. 

“Not now,” he hissed to himself.

“What was that?” Alphonse asked.

“Nothing! Nothing, my friend! I’ll be perfectly fine. Let us rescue the others!” Basil forced a smile, and a curious-looking Alphonse let the subject drop as he dashed towards the outskirts where the fighting was more intense. 

Basil was about to follow when he heard a cry of pain, an all too familiar one. As the unknown giant swept aside to face some kind of white, puffy creature, Ezra came into view, struggling painfully against the snapdragon dryad. His shoulder was soaked with blood.

“Ezra! Ezra, hold on!” Basil felt awful for immediately abandoning his search, but he had to think of a friend in plain sight over one whose location was unknown. Philomene and Marjorie would have insisted. Besides, he was Ezra’s prince! What sort of prince couldn’t save their lover just because it was loud, and crowded, and…

Far, far too cold.

Basil felt something burn against his skin as he ran past the white puffball monster. It had spit something onto his back, something that rapidly froze through his too-light coat. Basil crumpled to the ground, the world spinning around him and darkening. He told himself he couldn’t pass out, couldn’t let the curse get to him. Something inside of him warned that passing out might be the better option compared to what was coming, but he ignored it. He dug his nails into his own arms, biting his lip to stay awake even as the chill crept over him and stung like shattering glass.

Then, all at once, it didn’t hurt at all.

His body felt lighter, painless and stronger. All the shouts and chaos faded into the background. Everything was coming into focus, the cold dwindling into nothing. Whatever he’d been afraid of moments ago was gone. When had he ever felt fear? When had he ever felt anything?

He tossed the blown-out torch aside, picking up a sword dropped by a soldier and charging forward. He was sure he’d felt more confident and free once before, and couldn’t recall why he didn’t like feeling this way all the time. 

His footprints left frost on the flattened grass. Everything was clear to him, clear as ice blue. 

Chapter Text

Ezra knew why he was having difficulty against the swarm of dryads. He wasn’t trained in combat at all. His nerves were already shot due to facing crowds even before the monsters appeared; that in turn did nothing for his concentration. Still, it stung his self-confidence to realize all this after having spent a month or so being the biggest and strongest among his friends. So did admitting he’d started to take pride in what was effectively brute strength. 

Granted that he was not the biggest nor the strongest person present anymore, thanks to the Lunar C.P. who was apparently working with the Nautilus Guard. 

The snapdragon wrapped another vine around Ezra, squeezing him tightly and trying to take another bite out of his shoulder. It seemed to enjoy the taste of blood, Ezra noted with disgust. He tensed his arms, struggling against the thorny vines and doing his best to break free even as he felt the creature begin to squeeze the air from his lungs.

Then it stilled, and the vines fell slack. A blade protruded from its midsection, a short sword withdrawn just as quickly. The creature’s wound frosted over before it melted down into the same slimy substance it had been oozing before. Something tiny, green and serpentine wriggled out from the puddle and raced off into the woods before Ezra had time to react. This time, the snapdragon did not come back.

Basil wiped the slime off of his sword disdainfully. It looked like he’d grabbed one from an injured guard. 

Ezra was so glad to see his prince he briefly forgot about his own injuries. “Basil! Thank you, you always save…” 

But aside from a brief, oddly cold glance, Basil didn’t say a word to him before rushing off to fight another dryad. Ezra could have sworn his eyes were blue instead of their usual brown, and he left brief footsteps of frost in the grass and slime.

“…Wait…no, oh no. Not now. Basil!” Ezra ran after the prince only to stumble, realizing he must have been in a worse state than he thought. “Basil, you’ve got to warm up! Something’s wrong!” 
Basil acted as if he hadn’t heard Ezra at all.

How irritating! Ezra was stronger than Basil, and yet Basil had to save him again. Some part of the prince thought he was supposed to take a thrill in this, or that there was some sort of significance to it, and yet he couldn’t remember what it was. So he let it drop. Marjorie and Philomene were missing and Ezra was hurt. Why were all of his companions so weak?

He certainly wasn’t. Basil had never felt lighter or more alive as he tore into his opponents, chopping the blossom off of a huge dandelion and running his blade through a spiny thing he couldn’t identify. He didn’t bother to check on the safety of the guards. If they couldn’t keep up, that was their fault. It was so liberating, not feeling cold for a while! He couldn’t let anything else distract him while it lasted. 

He heard a voice booming above the rest. “They’re reacting to cold and heat,” the Sky stranger said. “Grab a torch and chase them off!” 

“Are you giving us orders?” a human guard snapped up at the giant. “That’s not how it works here!”

“What? No! I’m just trying to help! See what that human is doing? He’s freezing them!”

Freezing them? That was ridiculous. Basil wasn’t the least bit cold. He couldn’t freeze anything. This was all his skill, his training finally paying off! This was him finally, for once in his life, feeling like Prince Charming. 

Whatever was going on between the giant and the guards, the latter apparently took the advice. Around Basil, humans grabbed re-lit torches and Flower guards lit the ends of dandelion puffs or twigs, dropping them on the beasts from atop their bird and moth mounts. The dryads made odd shrieking noises as they burned, the same ones they made when Basil stabbed them. Little green wriggling things escaped from the bodies, though Basil managed to stomp on one with a smirk. 

Whatever satisfaction that brought him was short-lived. They were showing him up! The giant stranger couldn’t stand the idea of a human being more powerful and efficient, and no doubt the other guards were jealous of Basil too. Come to think of it, where was that Prince Charming? Didn’t Alphonse want to see Basil at his best? Didn’t they all?

A snarl and spitting noise interrupted his thoughts. Basil whipped around to see the snowdrop creature, hissing at him and freezing the grass around him. So, they needed him after all. Here was an opponent worthy of him, one the others needed him for. Even the giants couldn’t upstage him here. He rushed towards the snowdrop, sword held high, ready to cleave it in two.

It burst into flames before he had time to react. He stopped just short, staring as it burnt and then melted down into sludge. Another green thing started to escape before a guard slammed a bucket on it, shouting to the others that he’d captured one. Ezra stood over where the dryad had been, carrying a bundle of burning sticks and looking alarmed and pained. He blew out the sticks right away.

“You can’t fight that one,” Ezra gasped. “It’ll kill you, Basil…”

Basil glared up at Ezra. “What are you doing?! I don’t need your help! You’re getting in my…”

His voice left him as he saw Ezra staring at him, eyes wide and frightened. Was Ezra afraid for him? Or afraid of him? Why was Ezra looking at him like he was a stranger?

As the smoke from the burnt torches reached him, sensation returned to his skin. The cold was back, noticeable again and stinging. And with the cold came something else, something Basil could never forgive himself for having lost. Especially since he knew it wasn’t the first time.

“…Ezra.” He shuddered, falling forward onto his knees despite Ezra’s attempts to catch him. He was dimly aware of shouts around him. “Ezra, I’m so sorry…”

Philomene observed the garnet gem illuminating from within as she focused the Moonflower’s light on it. She couldn’t shake the sense of being less a prisoner or a hostage and more a subject undergoing some strange test of Germain’s devising for whatever odd purposes he had. She knew he had to be observing her. He probably set her up in this laboratory specifically so she’d do something for him. But there wasn’t time to worry about what he wanted out of her when her people were in danger, she was in danger herself, and her prison appeared to be breaking down.

Some kind of greenish-black sludge was dripping from the ceiling. The rose petals beneath her feet were gradually dissolving into a similar substance, forcing her to constantly find new places to stand. She supposed she could wait for the laboratory to melt completely and hope she somehow didn’t drown in slime. But she couldn’t walk away from the garnet gem experiment, not when it could give her information she could use against Germain.

The gem was used to transmit information. The Moonflower had some sort of mechanism that powered an autonomous teleportation spell. If she could channel that spell through the gem, perhaps she could teleport herself to one of her friends-or bring one of them to her.

“Hello?” Philomene shouted into the gem, cupping her hands over her mouth. “Can you hear me? Can anyone hear me?”

She could make out sounds of a scuffle and little else. The dome had gone dark, due in part (she suspected) to interference from her experiment. Taking a deep breath, she shouted again. “Please, respond if you can hear me!”

A voice that sounded slightly stretched-out and distorted answered. “…Hello?”

“You can? Good! Whoever you are.” She couldn’t tell if it was one of her friends, a guard or even a bystander; anyone would be of help. “Are you seeing anything?”

As the dryads retreated, Taylor had ordered the guards to spread out and search for any missing persons. They were to give special priority to the missing princesses. Who, Rem noted with worry, were far too small to be seen at night.

The Center of the Universe being the heart of chaos was an idea Rem always regarded as superstition. The Sun and the Moon wouldn’t create life and then force them to live somewhere dangerous or corruptive. Humans and Flower Folk were just smaller for the same reasons crows were smaller than vultures, whatever that might be. But after experiencing this on their second night on land, Rem had to agree that life here was at least pretty chaotic. How had Taylor known something would happen on a night like this, anyway? Had he known that would happen? 

No, stop, Rem reminded themself. Keep this up and you won’t trust anyone. And what kind of star Celestial Patrol can’t trust their own allies?

Taking very slow, deliberate steps in case there were still civilian Flowerlings who hadn’t retreated to the caves, Rem scanned the area. There was no sign of the person a fellow guard had described, the woman last seen with the two princesses who was apparently a guardian. How convenient that she would disappear right around the time that madman made his announcement.
Something flickered in the corner of Rem’s line of sight. It was a dark red light, hovering just out of reach. There was a very faint buzzing sound coming out.

“Please,” said a high-pitched voice, “respond if you can hear me!”

Rem looked around. No one else seemed to have noticed the phenomenon. They should have alerted the other guards; that was just protocol. Instead Rem found themselves answering. “Hello?”

“You can? Good! Whoever you are. Are you seeing anything?”

“…A red light. Where are you? Do you have any connection to Lord Germain!?” Rem knew it was futile to try to interrogate someone through a wisp, but one had to try.

“No! Listen, he has me captive. Do you think you could step closer? I’m going to try something. I appreciate your cooperation!”

Rem paused. If anything felt like a trap, that was it. It was too odd in a night filled with oddities and suspicious behavior. Notify Taylor, stupid! He’ll praise you for finding something useful! 

But Rem hadn’t come to the land to report and grovel to a human, even if he seemed like an alright person. Rem came to find the truth. And wasn’t it the duty of Celestial Patrol to investigate kidnappings? 

Rem stepped closer, reaching out to touch the red light before everything went red, the ground beneath them distorting and warping. They felt the sense of their entire body being pulled somewhere, then a crash, then nothing.

“I found the missing handmaid! And she has one of the princesses,” Alphonse declared. He insisted on leading Marjorie along, though she was herself uninjured. She reasoned he wanted to keep an eye on her in case she made a break for it. It was what she would have done. 

Marjorie held a sleeping Elomene protectively in her hand. She’d hidden and sung the youngest princess to sleep while assuring her that Philomene was fine, perfectly fine, hoping against hope that Elomene couldnt hear the monstrous sounds behind them. She’d then gone to search for Philomene, finding nothing but damaged plants and strange, wriggling things that drew away from her feet. 

She smiled at the guards and crowds, hoping her failure wasn’t evident on her face. 

“He protected us,” she reassured the crowds. In truth Alphonse had merely found her, but buttering up his story could earn him her favor. Favor was always useful sooner or later. “Quite valiantly! A true Prince Charming. And Elomene is here.” She held out her hand as a moth-rider retrieved the little princess.

The rider looked up at Marjorie, blond locks falling in her scarred face. “What is the status of Princess Philomene?” 

“…The princess remains missing.” Marjorie felt her smile falter and her hands shake. “I shall continue to search tonight, and should I fail, I submit myself to the Court.” 

Should Marjorie fail to find Philomene, she was sure the Court would banish her. She would want nothing else if that was the case. 

“It really isn’t safe for you to search,” Alphonse protested. “We’re here now, and we’ll find her!”
“I’m a guardian. I don’t care about safe,” Marjorie found herself saying as she spotted Ezra in the crowd and drifted towards him. He was holding a shivering Basil, who for some reason wouldn’t look him or Marjorie in the eyes and kept turning away.

Ezra himself was having his shoulder patched up by a medic. “Things…went a little awry,” he said in a low voice. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

Basil said nothing, eyes still downcast. Marjorie resolved to ask what had happened when emotions (including her own) weren’t running so high. She meant to say something to lighten the mood, sure that they needed it.

Instead, she felt her hands shake again and tears well in her eyes. “Philomene, I-I can’t find…”
Ezra shook his head. “It’s not your fault.”


“We’ll find her. Right?” He actually smiled, a rare sight, though it looked strained. “She knows you’re looking for her.” 

Marjorie searched for something else to say. She would never have time to say it, for the sky once again lit up and the eerily calm smile of Lord Germain appeared. His projection was flickering in and out this time, rippling and warped. 

“Do beg your pardon, citizens of Thumbelina and Nautilus! Something is interfering with my communication relics.” Lord Germain cleared his throat. “It warms my heart to see Flower and human working side by side as the result of my work. As you can see, my dryads are still in a developmental stage. They are capable of much; they could be powerful weapons in the right hands, once perfected. No doubt they can do a lot of good in the world one day. All I ask is the proper research space, resources and money to continue this project. Something surely the two cities by the sea can afford! And if not, I am certain the mighty Ever After Empire of Libra could spare the expense to help an ally.”

He flickered again. “Until such time, I will be forced to conduct imperfect investigations and test runs such as the ones you’ve seen here. Certainly I would prefer it work out for all of you, as I am a good man! But in the meantime, one simply must find test subjects where one can. May I commend you for doing an excellent job; I am sure you will continue to perform well in the future.” 

His broadcast ended, leaving a faint after-image in the pre-dawn sky.

Chapter Text

Philomene awoke, wishing she could recall any part of her dream other than the tail end. She’d seen the goldfinch singing his warning as he flew over her in a circle like a carrion bird. And was that smoke obscuring the sky in her vision, or jet-black clouds?

At least in her dream she’d been able to see anything. Wherever she was, she sat in complete darkness, cold water soaking her up to the knees and seeping up the skirt of her gown. She thanked providence for small miracles, such as the resilience of spider silk, and reached around until her hand wrapped around her cane.

Had the laboratory-prison collapsed around her? Had she accidentally teleported herself and that stranger somewhere else and left it behind entirely? She could barely make out a splashing noise and muttering over the sound of water dripping from above. Feeling around led her to a wall a few steps away, one with the lumpy surface of well-worn brick work. This wall proved to be her guide as she kept one hand to it for support, using her cane to check ahead and make sure she wasn’t about to fall into a pit.

She did her best not to think about the disastrous festival, Lord Germain or her mother’s plight. She shoved aside worries about the whereabouts of her friends. Stress would increase her heart rate and ruin her concentration when she needed it most. Such greater concerns would have to wait behind the more immediate question of what she would do if she encountered a rat.

Given the choice between following the source of the splashing sound only to realize it was some kind of water-dwelling predator and heading in the opposite direction towards an unknown oblivion, she opted to head towards the noise. She was sure that sounded like a voice-a deep, clearly irritated one, but a voice nonetheless-and didn’t want to abandon the person she may have brought here. 

She hadn’t made it very far before a violet light flickered and then cast a glow against the stone walls. It revealed a massive cavern at least partially of human construction, a tunnel big enough to fit a small building with a river of salty-smelling water rushing through the bottom. There were lichens and snails clinging to the sides of the walls and the limestone formations that grew over them, ghostly pale spider crabs skittering in stone cracks and pink-eyed rats mercifully ignoring Philomene. The princess found herself standing on a walkway sized for Flower Folk with a decaying guard rail warped by age. She could make out weathered stairs towards human-scaled walkways.
And at the center of it all, a giant held up the light source, a spear with a crystal tip giving off the glow of purple lightning. 

They were almost tall enough to reach the top of the tunnel, forced to stand in the underground river and looking none too pleased about it. They were using their free hand to squeeze water out of knee-length black hair; Philomene thought she caught something about ‘mandrake oil treatment’ in the giant’s irritated mutterings. A crescent moon swung from a large chain around their neck. They had a sharp nose and freckles on their cheeks. Not handsome exactly, Philomene observed, but striking.

Then she wondered why it mattered how the only other sapient life present looked. She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Excuse me!” 

Her voice echoed against the walls. The Sky person looked up and around, frowning in confusion.
Of course, Philomene recalled. If Ezra had to kneel down or hold her up to see her properly, this taller individual wouldn’t be able to see her standing so many human-strides away. At least the echo made her audible. “I’m standing on the smaller walkways. Can you hear me?” 

The giant’s eyes searched the walls, their gaze moving right past Philomene. “Yeah, I hear you. You’re the person speaking through that light, aren’t you?”

Light? Had she actually tried to bring a giant through a low-intensity teleportation spell? Had she somehow managed it? No wonder it may have malfunctioned. She rubbed the back of her neck, embarrassed despite herself. “Ah, yes. I assure you, it wasn’t my intention to trap us both here. I was being held prisoner and unable to escape of my own power.”

“Lemme guess. By this ‘Lord Germain’ person?” The giant sighed, and then blinked, standing up straight. “Wait. You wouldn’t happen to be Princess Philomene or Elomene, would you?”

“Yes!” She knew her disappearance would cause a stir, though the second name left her stomach twisting with concern. “I’m Philomene Marl Thumbelina. You don’t know about the whereabouts of my younger sister, then?”

“Oh, uh, royalty. Majesty, right? I call you Majesty?” The giant glanced to the side and lowered their head respectfully. “’Fraid if any news came of Princess Elomene, it happened after I ended up here. Rem Tera, Investigator on behalf of Celestial Patrol.” They held up an open-palmed hand in what Philomene took to be a salute. “And I’m probably gonna be in some trouble for following strange voices whenever we do get out of here, but hey! Found the princess, right?”

“’Highness,’ actually. ‘Your Majesty’ would be used for a reigning monarch. And yes, you most definitely did!” Philomene smiled despite herself. “Even if you can’t see me, know that I’m quite grateful to you for listening to me, Sir-erm, Miss, Ser…” 

The giant, still not looking in the right direction, turned a bit red and chuckled. “A formal title? Mm, ‘ser’ is probably close enough but unnecessary. I’m a Lunar.” They held up the moon pendant. “They say the self is in the soul, right? If your soul’s not really male or female all the time, it means you’re under the domain of the Moon and-well, you probably get the idea.” They sounded a little awkward, as if reciting a discussion they might have had before and didn’t really want to repeat.

Philomene curtsied despite knowing Rem could not see it. “Investigator Rem, then. I apologize for stumbling onto something sensitive like that, and for-well, bringing us here. I’m afraid I have no idea where we are. This is entirely unfamiliar to me! Clearly a human-made structure and yet out of use for a long time.”

“Jumping right to the point, huh? I like that.” Rem winked, smiling at this point. “More people ought to take the direct approach. Makes life easier that way, and people more trustworthy. I can tell you the water’s flowing from behind me, meaning if we keep going out there we have to reach some kind of opening. Whether it’s one I can fit through…” They paused, smile faltering for just a second. “Well, what matters is it has to be big enough to get you through. Then I’m sure they’ll just, you know, knock down a wall…”

Philomene frowned. She could see the way Rem’s weight shifted from foot to foot, and how they kept glancing about. Up close, it was difficult to read the expressions and body language of much larger Kin; from a distance it was much clearer. She could tell despite their carefree, cocky tone, something about this situation had Rem on edge.

Rem needed some comfort, so Philomene tried to offer it. “The good news is,” she offered, “we’re unlikely to encounter anything big enough to attack you. I mean, it’s always possible. I heard rumors that aquatic dragons sometimes laid their eggs in subterranean caves, and they tend to be fiercely defensive of their nests. Just avoid any big masses of jelly with round eggs in them. Speaking of, if this is coming from the ocean there might be stinging jellies to look out for. Sometimes a big one the size of a human wagon wheel washes ashore and they harvest its tentacles for medicinal purposes. So that would be bad, unless you have the equipment to handle jellyfish tentacles and dry them out. And in the event of an earthquake we could be in a lot of trouble, though if this tunnel is still standing it must be fortified against tectonic activity. Unless the reason it was closed off was due to a volcanic vent activating, though one would think we would have heard about that sort of thing by now if it’s anywhere near Nautilus, and besides that would have been preceded by the aforementioned earthquakes. But those are the only threats I can think of off the top of my head, so we should be fine!”

She realized immediately after that comforting others was always her strongest suit.

Rather than the mortified look she might have expected from Ezra, however, Rem stood wide-eyed for a second before outright laughing. They held a hand over their face, doubling over. “Sorry! I’m sorry, I just…it’s been a long day, Princess. A long night, rather, for you too I imagine. And you just sounded so excited over all those horrors! Not really what I would have expected of a, erm…” 

“Flowerling?” Philomene frowned and crossed her arms. “We live in a world where weather harmless to larger creatures can doom us. Humans raise deadly, enormous animals for food and traipse around our homes without a second thought. We have to know all the dangers that exist in order to work around them and survive. Although what exactly did you mean by ‘excited?’” She felt heat reaching her ears. 

“Nothing! Nothing, Highness. Just, uh. You sounded a little thrilled? Very passionate about deadly jellyfish and tectonic-that stuff you talked about.” This time it was Rem’s turn to blush and rub the bridge of their nose. “You know what? We-we should get going. Can you give me a reference point so I know where you are?” 

Oh, of course. Why hadn’t Philomene thought to reference her location that way? She looked around, identifying a landmark crawling against the wall. “There are four big, pink snails crawling just above where I’m standing. Human fist-sized. Well, one of them is either resting or dead.” 

Rem squinted, eyes roaming the wall before they finally caught sight of the aforementioned snails. They glanced just below, and for a second Philomene thought they may have made eye contact. The scale made it impossible to tell if Rem was looking at her or past her. A second later, Rem had a gloved hand out. They must have at least felt Philomene walk into the giant’s palm, for Rem’s fingers curled around her protectively.

“This is…really awkward,” Rem admitted. “I mean, I know you’re there. I can kind of see you now, just not very well. Still, guess I better get used to that,” they added under their breath.

“What was that, Investigator Rem?”

“Nothing! Uh, nothing. I’m moving now.” Rem managed to hold their hand remarkably level as they began trudging through the river, booted legs sloshing against the undercurrent. “Ugh, this uniform was not made to get wet. It’s like dragging around a fabric chain.”

Again, Philomene caught the discomfort in Rem’s eyes before it faded as quickly as it’d come on. She rested, glad to give her back and joints a chance to recover, and kicked off her sodden-beyond-repair dress shoes. She could watch the scenery pass by through the space between Rem’s fingers, seeing only more twisting walkways in various states of disrepair and cracked stone walls coated in limestone and mollusk remains. A few times she thought she caught sight of doorways, though most looked rusted over or covered in boards. They wouldn’t have fit poor Rem at any rate, and she felt responsible for bringing the giant down here in the first place. She couldn’t abandon her rescuer.

As minutes passed, Philomene searched for something to say. “So! There certainly are a lot of snails down here, aren’t they? A remarkable amount, in fact. I’d say snails absolutely dominate here. Better snails than rats, right?”

Rem just grunted in response, trudging against a stronger current. 

“Listen. You were at that party, weren’t you? Or watching it somehow. I’m a little surprised, as I didn’t see you there…”

“Uh, they had us monitoring it from a safe distance, just in case of something.” Did Rem sound a little guilty there? “Kinda glad we did, though I don’t know how Captain Taylor could have predicted ‘madman attacks party with plant monsters.’”

“Plant monsters?”

“That’s what they looked to be! If it helps, I don’t think there were any casualties.”

“Oh! Good.” Philomene slumped, thinking back to Lord Germain’s strange speeches to her. It gave her a mild headache, though that may have been the chilly, damp air. “I don’t suppose you might have seen anything about the state of my other sisters, or some of my friends. One is from the Sky like yourself, one is my human handmaiden, another you might know as Prince Basil of Sethwhile…”

Rem stared down at Philomene. “Wait, you were with-oh, that’s right. That’s who that was! Of course, how’d I forget?” They snorted. “Yeah, the Exile and the prince are fine. The prince kind of helped save us all, actually.”

“Oh, good! And Marjorie?”

“Uh, haven’t seen her. But hopefully that means she got someplace safe!” Rem sounded like they were trying to attempt cheer. “Actually, I kind of need to speak with all four of you. Got some questioning and all. But listen, I’m a hell of a lot bigger than you and me interrogating you right now, like this, would be-well, wouldn’t be very gentleperson-ly of me, would it? So we get you home safe and reunite you, then worry about my investigation. Right?”

Philomene raised her eyebrows, then thought back to Captain Taylor’s warning. How very strange indeed. She supposed it must look a little suspicious for her to disappear shortly before Lord Germain set plant monsters loose. Come to think of it, she would have proceeded with the questioning right away without bearing in mind the power imbalance and how it might come across. 

“Thank you,” she said, looking down at her own lap. “That’s very thoughtful of you.”

“Ah, well.” Rem’s pulse increased, their voice sounding lighter and more distracted. “That’s what I try to be, the good cop. We’re not all bad, we just-AAAUGH!” 

Rem stumbled, holding Philomene to their chest to keep them safe before they fell back slumping against the railways. Philomene had to cover her ears to drown out the incoherently loud thunder of the cursing giant. They were gasping for breath, the glass spear laying on its side as they held one foot with their free hand. Something must have pierced through those thick boots. 

Philomene got her bearings, sitting up against the wet blue fabric of Rem’s cloak and then climbing back into their hand. Peering through the shaking fingers, she saw the obstacle in question. Sitting right in the middle of the river was the biggest snail she had ever seen, one that could have towered a foot or two over the tallest human. Its iridescent shell shimmered rainbow in the violet light of the spear, studded with long spines. Its multicolored body spilled out around it, one long spiny protrusion withdrawing back into what she could only assume was its mouth.

It spoke, its voice low, creaky and very, very slow. 

“Trespassers. That…will…teach…you!”

Chapter Text

Rem reflected on how things could change in an instant, without warning, altering one’s entire worldview. Ten seconds into the worst pain in Rem’s life, they’d decided to reevaluate their previous neutral stance towards snails into one somewhat more critical. They detailed this new position as they lay in the water, their foot burning and swelling up inside their boot. 

“…with a whole mine’s worth of salt!” Rem’s rant concluded, they went back to concentrating on breathing and trying desperately to remember first aid in case of venomous attacks. Were they supposed to form a tourniquet? Keep the leg elevated? Keep it lowered? Damn it all, Kaina was the physician in the family! 

“Rem, please!” The princess’s tiny voice rose up from Rem’s lap, where her miniature form rested safely. At least Rem had managed to protect Philomene despite their fall. “While I respect your, um, creative use of colorful language, you need to save your strength. You’re injured.”

“I-I am aware, princess. The concern’s real nice of you.” Rem managed a pained smile, realizing that being that close to a shouting giant might be alarming for her. Causing the princess they were trying to rescue to go deaf would not do anything for one’s professional reputation. The Investigator turned their attention down to the big snail, which continued to glare up at them.

How a creature with dots on stalks for eyes could glare was something to ponder later, at a time not filled with searing pain. 

“Venom,” the snail’s thick, syrupy voice droned. It spoke very, very slowly, which did very little to assuage Rem’s temper. “For intruders. I finally caught you…!” 

“Caught us?” Philomene spoke first, a relief as Rem was quickly losing the energy to talk coherently. “Ser Snail, we’ve never seen you before! And you’ve rather violently attacked my acquaintance here. Surely we can talk this out?” 

The snail inched forward, the horn-like projection emerging from its face again as Rem reflexively pulled away. “I felt vibrations. Quakes! I heard voices. And there is light here, too much light. You’re the invaders from earlier! You’ve brought more of you!” Despite how slowly the creature spoke, its voice resonated with panic rather than malice. Its pseudopod was rippling under it. 

Granted that Rem had never learned how to read body language in mollusks, but a proud member of Celestial Patrol had to be adaptable. Gritting their teeth through the pain and wondering how long they had before the toxin knocked them out or killed them, Rem took a deep breath. “We’re not invaders. If you’re facing a threat I can help or get help-I’m with the police.” That was as much as they could manage before they started shuddering involuntarily.

“…I?” The snail pulled back. “You are not an army?”

Philomene somehow kept her balance. “…You can’t see very well, can you? But surely you must have heard only one set of footsteps even if they were heavy ones! Please, we can explain more but you simply must help my friend first!”

The snail was quiet, and raised its head. “Your voice is small. The other is not…and they can still speak under the influence of my venom. Curious. Hold on, though trick me and the curse will be worse than this. Worse…!” 

It slithered forward towards the puncture hole it had made in Rem’s boot. Any temptation Rem had to kick it away was tempered by increased immobility. The snail extended its tooth again, this time emitting a soft glow that spread a warming, tingling effect through Rem’s leg. Within seconds the pain had vanished, taking with it the convulsions and dizziness. 

“…Suppose for that I can fail to charge you for attacking a guard without provocation,” Rem muttered, wiggling their toes. They were sitting in cold, clammy seawater in a tunnel that smelled increasingly of rot and dead fish, a scent bound to stick to their hair for days, but they could ignore that for a few seconds as they reveled in relief. 

“Of course. As an underground dweller, you must not have very well-developed eyesight,” Philomene mused. “And-well, that was magic you used to purify your venom, wasn’t it?”

“What good is having venom with no healing magic?” The snail looked roughly towards Philomene’s voice, if not directly at her. “You are…Flowerling. The other is…wait, I know the taste of that blood. So rare! You are…”

“Sky,” Rem said before the snail could reveal anything in particular about their blood. They doubted it could tell but wanted to be sure. This was not the time to have that conversation with Philomene. “Rem Tera, Celestial Patrol Investigator. And I have with me Princess Philomene of Thumbelina. -Wait, Princess! Are you alright down there?” They squinted to try to make out her form.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. “A little frazzled, mostly worried for you! I’d hate for you to be wounded saving me, especially after I brought you here in the first place.”

At that Rem rubbed the back of their neck. “Eh! It’s just, you know, line of duty. Speaking of…” Picking up Philomene and cupping her safely in hand again, they leaned over to give the snail creature a closer look. “Who are you, what are you, and why did you attack us? I’m not sure if arresting snails is in my jurisdiction, but if you’re obstructing justice I’m willing to try!” 

The snail withdrew its tooth, for lack of a better term. Rem realized it didn’t speak out of any mouth, but could be heard nonetheless. “This is my home. Warm-blooded creatures have been sneaking into it, stealing from it! They steal food for my offspring. I don’t go above ground and snatch milk from warm-blooded babies, do I?”

It seemed to actually want an answer to its rhetorical question. Rem was in no mood to humor it. “Your name.”

“Young species. You never have any patience.” The snail sighed a spray of bubbles and very gradually started to turn around. “I will lead you in. My name won’t work in your language, but you can call me Hess. It is close. I am what the land creatures used to call a Sea Witch.”

Ezra was surprised at how polite the Taylors were, letting him visit Basil as soon as the prince had started to warm up in his room. Ezra had stayed overnight at an accommodating inn, feeling it was inappropriate for him to stay at the home of strangers hosting a fellow noble. Just because Basil was ‘courting’ Ezra didn’t mean he had any claim to fancy hospitality. Besides, he didn’t want to put Basil in the awkward position of explaining a relationship with a ‘giant’ peasant. 

But Viscount Xaviero Taylor seemed familiar with Ezra when he welcomed the latter to the Taylor Estate, a big, walled-off mansion surrounded by olive trees on the north end of the city. Ezra wouldn’t say the bespectacled young noble didn’t stare as he led Ezra through the red-tiled, open air walkways of the estate, but at least he wasn’t intentionally rude. 

“Well, of course I’ve seen giants before. Sky Folk, sorry, old habits! There are a number living down in Sky Harbor, and while I certainly don’t go there very often-I mean what would I do in Sky Harbor? Really now?-well, once in a while one wants the exotic ambiance. I know some people dismiss you as ‘intimidating’ or ‘dangerous,’ but not me! You just like to keep to yourselves. Though I have to say, Mr. Kettle, you’d probably take the edge off of your appearance if you didn’t loom and scowl so much!” 

Ezra didn’t have the chance to protest that he couldn’t help ‘looming’ and this was his normal expression before Xaviero continued.

“Basil tells me you’re a baker? Have you ever made Star Almond Drops? You know, those sweets your kind eat around Summer Solstice.” Xaviero’s opera baritone was strangely pleasing to hear echoing through the halls, though one had to pay attention to keep up with what he said.

Ezra was about to point out that he’d never heard of Star Almond Drops, but Xaviero left no room for a response. Getting a word in edgewise would require finesse and determination, difficult to do when one was concentrating on ducking under door ways and avoiding bumping into potted plants. 

“And do not worry, I cast no judgment on Prince Basil or yourself! I consider myself a very open-minded person. You’ve got to be living in Nautilus! We’re the sea’s door to the Empire, and proud of it. The Empire has declared Exiles can become citizens if they take the vows. We’re all very modern here. Who knows? With all the funding we’ve been getting from magic research, maybe they’ll find a way to fix you!” 

Fix me?” This time Ezra forced his way into the conversation, a glare crossing his face. Something about the direction of the conversation rubbed him the wrong way. “What do you mean?”

Xaviero blinked up at Ezra, hands clasped in front of him. “Well, Libra follows the philosophy of balance and function. The Empress wants to create a world where everyone lives as they should, ‘happily ever after,’ as they put it. Nice ring to it, doesn’t it? And citizens of the Empire ought to fit in for the sake of happiness, one would imagine. Mmm, but I’m rambling and dreaming about things that probably aren’t even possible right now. Personally I find it all fascinating. We are living in the best of all possible times, the best! Oh, but speaking of fixing, poor Basil! If I had known it was that severe I would have ordered a warmer coat custom-made, but our winters are just so mild. Mother wears furs, but only for decoration, and…well, trying to get her to part with her furs even in summer is a chore!” He laughed nervously. 

Taking note of how Xaviero had dodged the question of how one ought to be ‘fixed,’ and trying to ignore the unease that idea brought on, Ezra sighed. “How is he? Prince Basil, I mean.”

“Oh, much better. We brought him home, wrapped him in blankets and put him by the fireplace and he was good as new in a few hours. You know that bear of his would not stay still all night! She wanted to come in, but we really couldn’t have a bear gallivanting around outside the stables. She’d scare the servants and knock over the potted trees. Or wake Father,” Xaviero added, his smile faltering for just a second. “Not sure why Basil was so quiet after that show of heroism he put on against those awful monsters, though I’m told the curse affects his moods?”

Thinking back to the glare in Basil’s blue eyes and the spite in his voice, Ezra stifled a shudder. It isn’t him, Ezra reminded himself. That’s not the real Basil at all. “It…it does. Thank you again for letting me see him…”

“Oh, my brother insisted. Not that I would have denied it! But Vittorio-you may know him as the Guard Captain? Well, he said I ought to do it if I’m to be a proper host, which of course I am at all times in Father’s absence. And Vittorio might be a terrible old grouch, but he does respect the importance of noble hospitality once in a while!” Xaviero led Ezra down a hallway into a room with an ornately-decorated pine door. “He’s in here. We had his breakfast sent in.”

For such a posh, large bedroom, Ezra would have expected (or at least hoped for) a bigger door. He had to hold his breath and duck to squeeze in. Amid a myriad of furs and woven blankets, Basil peeked out from a bed that looked too large for him. “Oh, Ezra! Are you able to get in?”

“Yes, yes.” Ezra stumbled through the doorway, dusting off his stout form. “I’m just-it’s a bit low? Never mind me! Are you alright? That, um, person said you were feeling better, but…”

“…But you suspected I was faking it to keep him from worrying so I’d be left alone.” Basil was smiling, his eyes back to dark brown instead of that unnervingly bright blue, but he wasn’t meeting Ezra’s gaze. A breakfast tray of bread and soft cheese sat on a table, uneaten. “Perhaps a bit. But it’s a hero’s job to keep up the spirits of others, not bring them down! Right…?”

Ezra gently took Basil’s chin in his hand. “Basil, please look at me.”

Basil hesitated before making eye contact; when he did, it was apparent the smile wasn’t reaching his eyes. “I’m…sorry. Again. I don’t always remember what I say when the curse gets that bad, though I know I’ve said awful things to my grandmothers in the past.” He grabbed one of the furs and wrapped it around him. 

It was hard not to picture Basil’s literally icy glare, and impossible to reconcile it with the gentle figure on the bed. “That’s the curse, not you. The guards and Flowerlings were just talking about how the brave prince of the Mountain Folk used a little bit of magic to save everyone.”

“That makes it worse.” Basil was still smiling even as he slumped against Ezra, burying his face in the giant’s side. “You see, I can remember when I get like that how good it feels. I’m so cold I can’t sense the chill anymore, and that’s the only time I ever really feel like that. All my fears disappear along with any sense of love, friendship or compassion. It’s like…”

“Feeling numb?” 

At that, Basil looked up at Ezra and blinked. 

“The Gourmet put me under that spell, remember?” Ezra brushed a lock of hair out of Basil’s face. “And I forgot everything that got in the way of me being his servant, including my feelings for you. I thought I was happy, but I wasn’t really anything. Or maybe it’s more like when I worked for Tooth. I was so tired and miserable that it became normal for me and I just…stopped being affected by it. Uh, only with cold?”

Basil looked at Ezra, wiped away a tear and then chuckled. “No, no! Not really like that at all. Except perhaps a little. It’d be so easy to just slip into that, to stop fighting the curse and let my heart freeze. I’d never feel the cold again. And becoming Prince Charming is very difficult…”

Ezra had never seen Basil admit to his uncertainty like that. He wished he was better at offering words of comfort. Ezra associated that emotion with home cooking, and he doubted the Taylors would appreciate him taking over their kitchen. “But you’ve gone this far fighting your curse.”

“Because I like being a hero.” Basil leaned against Ezra again, more relaxed somehow. “That warmth I feel when I save someone or even just make them smile, it burns a lot stronger than the numbness. I want to be filled with that. And I have so many people I love! If I became a Snow King, I’d lose you all.” He snorted. “Besides, it isn’t my style to whine about how difficult something is, is it?!”

“You know, you can do it a little.” Ezra gave a wry smile. “You put up with my complaints all the time.”

“Your complaints are endearing, usually. Even if I don’t really understand or care about the difference cow or goat butter makes in a recipe.” This time, when Basil looked up at Ezra the smile was much more genuine. “Thank you for coming out to see me. I’m sorry we can’t stay in the same place.”

“It’s fine!” Ezra said quickly, feeling his face redden. “It would be improper, all things considered-” He was cut short when he realized Basil was kissing him on the cheek, the prince standing up on the bed to do so. For a moment he’d forgotten what else he’d come to say.

“…Oh! That’s right.” Ezra shook his head. “Captain Taylor, that grouchy human officer? He wants to meet with us later. Should your health allow, he said, but preferably this evening. Marjorie and Prince Alp-whatever are going to be there too. He’s going to help us find Philomene, and I guess he lost one his own too?” His brows lowered. “Hopefully not to accuse us of anything fishy again. I have had enough of that.”

“He’s just dedicated to the ideals of justice! I’ll be there, Ezra. I’m doing much better. Honest,” Basil added at Ezra’s skeptical squint.

“Well, you won’t get better if you don’t eat your breakfast. Speaking of.” Ezra looked at the tray and sniffed. “That bread looks so dry! Too many holes in it. Really, can no one in this city bake properly?”

Chapter Text

“Bah,” Hess scoffed, slithering along the lumpy, smoothed-over surface of the tunnel. “Come in here, make noise and scare the little ones, and then get mad at me for my self-defense mechanisms. I’m a nice old woman, I deserve better!” 

“We aren’t angry,” Rem tried to explain, narrowly ducking to avoid taking a stalactite to the head. Philomene felt the muscles in their enormous, calloused hand twitch. Hess was testing their patience in more ways than one. The snail’s prickly attitude aside, she ‘hurried’ by slithering very slowly through the chamber, leaving poor Rem to take the occasional big, awkward step behind her. Twice Rem almost slipped in the shallow, murky water; Philomene thought about the hole in their boot and made a note to insist Rem get a check-up once the ordeal was over. The ceiling was beginning to slope, something not lost to the giant or to Philomene herself. 

That ceiling was just as swarming with snails as the walls, spotted with what looked like patches of fungus and slime molds. Only a few spots remained clear, save for splotches of brownish-green slime. 

Did Philomene see Rem give the slime a suspicious look? How odd. Clearly Rem was very inquisitive on some manners even if they didn’t find mollusks all that interesting. She would have to speak with them on such matters later, and commend them on their professional manner (profanity-laden rants under the influence of deadly venom aside.) She made a note to do so once she was done marveling over miracles of science.

“You are a Sea Witch! A genuine, living Sea Witch!” She leaned as far over Rem’s fingers as she safely could, prompting the investigator’s pulse to increase again. “Oh, sorry! I’m fine, really!” 

Hess looked over her shoulder, giving Philomene a once-over with one eye stalk. “You have said that seven times already. Is it so significant?”

“Well, yes! No one’s seen one of your kin in centuries.”

“Because you don’t go underwater.” Hess turned forward again, inching her way towards the narrowing end of the passage. “At least not in this age, not yet.”

That gave both the princess and her erstwhile savior a start. “Pardon?” Rem asked, tilting their head. “In this age?”

Hess was quiet for a few long moments. “My tongue runs away from me and tastes what is not yet ripe. You must forgive me. Ages come and go and it is difficult to keep track. The world is too fast for us. That’s why most of us live on the ocean floor. Less to keep up with, and the mermaids always sing the same songs.” Her eye stalks drooped momentarily, and the chamber filled with an uncomfortable silence.

It was Rem who broke it, carefully stepping over a cluster of snails. “Are these your ‘children,’ ma’am? You mentioned these thieves stealing your children’s food supply.” For such a big person they showed a great deal of grace in their steps, though the long legs likely helped. A shame the dark blue robe dragged in the water, ruining the effect. 

“They are my offspring, though no different from ordinary snails now. Soon they will emerge onto the surface and make their way.” There was little affection in Hess’s voice. She spoke as though lecturing a child. 

Philomene gawked. “These are all going to be Sea Witches!? Then there must be so many of you somewhere! Just please, you don’t suppose you could make a trip to the surface at least once? Or at least let me ask you a few questions? Just several! Dozen. Thousand. Just a few!” Her hands shook. “This is really quite unprecedented…!”

“I am glad you find my existence so pleasing,” Hess said, flattening out her eye stalks. “You will tell no one I’m here. No one! I like my privacy. And I’ve had enough intruders lately as it is.” Lacking a nose, she couldn’t hold it up, but the way she stuck her head in the air brought that image to mind nonetheless. “And no, most of them will live the lives of ordinary snails. Eating, perhaps making new snails, eating some more and then being eaten or stepped on themselves. A Witch-born snail who survives a thousand years returns to us, tastes the Shell of Enlightenment and awakens as a Sea Witch. How often do you think that happens?” 

“That’s, um.” Rem glanced aside, whistling. “A very inefficient means of reproduction, ma’am.”

Philomene winced, looking all the way up at her rescuer. “Don’t be rude, Investigator!” 

“No, the giant is correct. We live too long and have too much to contemplate for there to be too many of us. Too many and you need things like government. Laws. Rules! Sometimes even a common belief system emerges. For seven centuries we tried having a government for a while, out of novelty. What a pain that was!” 

Had Philomene the chance, she would have kept asking questions of this most magical of mollusks until her throat was raw. Her usual focus on the point at hand was hard to hold onto in the face of a new discovery. She had to forcibly remind herself that her mother was still in a trance, her sisters still missing and her friends unaccounted for. “So, Madam Hess, where are we?”

“And who’s been coming down here? And how? If you’re getting ‘intruders’ who at least smell like us, we must be near some kind of civilization. And, um.” Rem stopped in front of a section of the tunnel that narrowed rapidly into a spiral lined with luminescent moss, bringing to mind the inside of a snail’s shell. It was big enough to fit Hess’s body and shell through, but not much larger. A smaller snail, one the size of an apple with a pale ivory shell, sat up attentively to greet Hess. 

Hess looked expectantly at Philomene and Rem. “The Flowerling may proceed. My attendant Moon Snail will accompany you.” Her body flared a bright orange and pink from within, the colors rippling just underneath her skin. “You have questions you want answered, don’t you? I can hear the beating of your heart and sense it. I cannot answer all of them, but if you and your friend can find who is stealing from me, perhaps new questions will arise. Aren’t those better than answers?”

Philomene’s heart caught in her chest as she looked on into the spiral, a soft green glow emanating from the exit. But poor Rem wouldn’t fit. What if the exit was past that passage? It was her fault Rem was trapped down here in the first place, so she could hardly abandon them. She looked up at the giant, trying in vain to read their expression. The distance and dim light made it so much harder to see Rem as more than a towering shadow with sharp gold eyes and pursed, painted lips.

Rem looked away. They couldn’t have met Philomene’s gaze if they wanted to, but they had at least made awkward attempts before. “You’re royalty, and even if you weren’t I couldn’t order you around. I’m pretty sure I don’t have jurisdiction down here, wherever here is.”

“But you don’t like the idea of losing sight of me.” 

Rem sighed. “I can barely see you as it is, Princess. It’d be a dereliction of duty not to follow you if the circumstances were different.” 

Philomene smiled, hoping it would reach them somehow. “You remind me of Marjorie. And ordinarily I’d say ‘you don’t need to worry about me,’ but that won’t do much good. I’m sure she’s tearing herself apart over this, even though none of it is her fault. So if I might ask one favor of you, though you’ve done so much for me already, please don’t let two people fret over me so?” She clasped her hands in front of her. “Besides, I’ll be in the territory of what we suspect is one of the most magical kinds of beings outside of the Fae Plane; surely she could sense a threat to me. I’ll be back very soon and report everything you see, so you and Captain Taylor can investigate the situation further when we get home.”

“And I am not a threat to her,” Hess added. “I sensed how you tense up around me. I am nervous around you because of your size! She is no threat to me, so I do not fear her.”

Rem hesitated, their hand trembling with Philomene in it. She knew that despite Rem’s protestations, they very much could prevent her from going onwards. All they had to do was refuse to relinquish her. No matter what sort of authority a single Flowerling might hold over larger kin in theory, they were still at a physical disadvantage. Or at least she was, incapable of running far without worsening her conditions and too far to summon Melchior. 

But Philomene never willingly sat in the hand of someone she didn’t trust. 

Sure enough, Rem carefully set Philomene on the back of the Moon Snail, making sure she had time to grab her cane. They spoke low, though it still reverberated through the cavern. “If you take too long or if I hear anything suspicious, I’m going in there. Somehow. I’m not losing the Princess of Thumbelina! I’m in enough trouble as it is for following strange voices.” Though Philomene thought she caught a wry smile on Rem’s face.

She offered the best curtsy she could while sitting down on a shell. “There’s too much riding on my return for me to just abandon it for Sea Witch secrets. Honest! Marjorie and Elomene would never forgive me for causing them such grief.” She wasn’t sure what else to say as the snail began making its surprisingly quick climb up the layers of the spiral, remaining right side up for her sake. 
The entrance loomed. Philomene thought she could smell the scent of roses wafting from the other side.

Rem had no real desire to speak to Hess more than they had to. They had the Sea Witch to thank for a damaged boot and a near-death experience. Besides that, Rem couldn’t shake the feeling that Hess was wasting their time somehow. If the Sea Witch knew how to get to the surface, why didn’t she say so? And if she didn’t, what good would an investigation do? 

And what in the name of Chaos itself was a Sea Witch?

But the alternative was remaining quiet and dwelling on whether or not they made the right decision with regard to the Flowerling princess, and that would lead to a spiral of self-doubt Rem could not afford while on duty. Justice had to be served even for persnickety giant snails who were much faster with their venomous bite than with anything else they did. Rem could just imagine how proud the chiefs back home would be upon hearing that Investigator Rem Tera not only solved the rot-beanstalk dilemma and helped save relations between the Sky and the humans, but made an alliance with a Sea Witch in the process.  

So Rem did what Rem thought best: asking questions. Sitting down in the muck, sure at this point that any attempt to salvage this set of clothing or free their hair from salt water damage was pointless, they leaned over to address Hess. “So, this food supply. Is there anything particularly magical about it that might draw the attention of outsiders? A possible motive might help us narrow down suspects, using whatever evidence the princess gathers.” 

“It’s algae.” 


“Don’t make that face! It’s delicious and good for you. Several ages have gone by where your kind have discovered the taste benefits of algae, and then who complains about green slime for dinner?” Hess’s laugh somehow sounded squishy. 

“That ‘ages’ thing. You said my kind. You realize I’m Sky kin, right? And we’ve only ever lived in the Sky.” Rem narrowed their eyes. “Right?” 

“Hmm? Oh, yes, of course, of course! Don’t listen to a doddering old fool like me, what do I know? But I don’t think you want to ask those kinds of questions. You’re a practical sort who doesn’t like troubling truths that would no doubt make you very unpopular where you come from.” The black dots that were Hess’s eyes narrowed. “Or do you? We might be down here a while, after all. There’s a passage back up to the surface I’ve tried over and over to block off, but getting you up there will take a little more planning. Ask me whatever you want.” 

Rem felt as if they were on the precipice of something dangerous, something they’d hate themselves for not jumping at sooner. And yet, some part of them really didn’t want to know. Asking only the right kinds of questions kept their precarious social status stable for too long, and frankly they were carrying enough secrets already.

“Then let me ask a question first, if you will be so silent. Why do you hide what you are?” Hess asked.

Rem stiffened, concentrating very intently on a patch of bluish snails in the corner. “I have no idea what you mean. I’ve quite open about being a Lunar; it’s no big deal where I come from, and it just means awkward conversations here.”

“That isn’t what I mean. I know the taste of your blood. It’s tinged with warmth and sunlight just like the rest of your kin, but I remember that metallic hint. That sheen.” Hess’s body rippled. 

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Rem snapped. “All blood tastes metallic! It’s full of iron!”

Hess reared up as much as her heavy shell would allow. “Don’t be childish! The truth will be evident to any one of your kind who sees you spill blood. It might be obvious already from the size of you. What is there to be afraid of, colossus?”

Rem slammed a hand down hard enough that it shook the chamber, dislodging a few of the snails into their hair. They couldn’t bring themselves to apologize or care at that point. “Enough about me! I’m the damn investigator here and I’ll ask the questions. And never use that word in front of me again.” They simmered, taking a deep breath. They couldn’t lose control of their temper; that would prove everyone right. “First off. That slime.”

“What slime? You’ll have to specify. There’s a lot of it here, young one.”

“Don’t be coy. Those patches of black sludge on the walls. The ones your ‘children’ are pointedly avoiding. They aren’t molds, are they? I thought snails liked slime molds.” In fact, there was something very familiar about those patches of sludge. It was hard to tell in the lighting, but Rem made a note to take a sample to bring back and compare with the substance in that jar.

Hess didn’t answer right away. She turned about, her colors fading into a soft pale beige. “I don’t…I did not see or smell those. How many are there?” 

“I can see at least ten or twelve where we’re sitting, ma’am.” Rem frowned, picking up the lightning-infused spear they were using as a torch. “Do you need me to get rid of it? I can do that as long as you let me take a sample for evidence.”

“No, bring me some. Let me taste it…” 

That would not have been Rem’s chosen way to investigate a foreign substance, but maybe Sea Witches had a heartier biology and a more keen sense of taste. Rem used the hem of their robe to scrape off a small amount of sludge, holding it up in front of the Sea Witch and trying not to flinch when she reached a barbed proboscis out to sample it. 

Immediately Hess retreated into her shell, again proving that her reflexes were much faster than her intentional actions. When she emerged, her already pale body had turned a ghastly white. Was the substance toxic to snails after all? Had Rem just succeeded in accidentally killing the last known Sea Witch?

“I am fine,” Hess insisted when Rem reached over towards her, though her body trembled. “This…no. I know this taste. This is fear.”

“What? Fear?”

“Fear. Fear, dread, corruption. It will consume all in time, and grow stronger in the face of the terror it causes.” Hess pulled away from the sample, staring up at Rem in horror. “Child, this is rot."

Chapter Text

Marjorie knelt before the High Court of Thumbelina with her head bowed. Any human would be expected to do so during the reign of a Flowerling queen, lest her head be higher than the queen’s balcony. In times of a human queen or king, they would use the great chair facing the balcony which now sat empty, covered in green satin.

Meramene, as the Queen Regent, stood at the edge of the royal balcony in a gown of violet spider silk. “Marjorie Snow, can you swear you did everything in your power to protect our sister?”

“Yes,” Marjorie said truthfully. She was glad she didn’t have to look Meramene in the eyes as she answered for her failure to keep Philomene safe. 

“Then there is nothing more to be said. It was impossible for anyone to know that Lord Germain would make a move at that time, and you have no magic to stop a teleportation spell. Please continue to work with the human authorities in Nautilus to help locate Princess Philomene, and our forces will continue to protect the queen and seek out the other missing siblings.” 

“…Thank you, Your Royal Highness.” Marjorie felt blood rush to her face. They really were too kind to her here, when all she had to offer was loyalty. She raised her head, and caught Meramene’s eye. 

The queen regent was gesturing her closer as the few present at court began to disperse.

“…Hmm?” Marjorie stepped closer so Meramene would be able to speak quietly rather than shout across the great underground hall at the center of the mountain. She wondered what Meramene could have to say to her under such circumstances. Meramene was not an unkind person, but she had a reputation as being one of the more private princesses whose demeanor was rarely casual with anyone, let alone a servant.

Meramene clasped her hands in front of her. “I wanted to ask you something now that the court is dispersed, so I wouldn’t embarrass you in front of others. Marjorie, did you expect a greater punishment? You trembled before us as if prepared for the worst. I should hope I’ve not already come across as such a tyrant who would blame a loyal human servant for an unexpected mistake.”

“Ah, well! Not at all, Highness! That is to say, I didn’t expect an unfair judgment from you. I hope I haven’t insulted you in the process!” Marjorie smoothed her hair out, aware she was speaking too quickly. “My nerves are, as you might imagine, a bit shot…”

“I can tell.” Meramene’s usual relaxed but severe expression remained, her eyes half-lidded and partially hidden by curled bangs. “You always seem to expect the worst reprimands even from those who have the utmost faith in you. As if you think we are wrong to do so.”

Whatever Marjorie was about to say in response disappeared on the tip of her tongue. She hated being transparent even to her own queen regent; it left her staring, frozen in place as if caught stealing. Others were not supposed to analyze her.

“Is it perhaps that if others spite you, you’ll feel vindicated in how you feel about yourself? That there’s some difference between the Marjorie we see and the true one you know?” Meramene’s eyes narrowed. “One is not born feeling that way about oneself. Did the Hunter from the House of Fallen Snow do that to you? Or…”

You want to know who convinced me to hate myself, Marjorie realized as she forcibly looked away. But it wasn’t like that. They didn’t even hate me. They just…

“…I’m sorry. I went too far.” Meramene lowered her gaze. “It was unkind of me to push the matter so far. But my sister loves you as much as she loves the rest of her sisters, and speaking as the current head of the family, I fear that shadow you cast over your own heart will poison your own judgment someday sure as your curse might kill you. Please do all you can to help my sister, but as you do, do not be afraid to speak to someone if you need to.”

“…Someone, Royal Highness?” Marjorie made herself smile, though Meramene’s kind-but-strict analysis only made her feel more exposed. She thought only Philomene could see into her heart, and even then there were things the servant hid from her princess. Besides, she was unsure why Meramene would care about her well-being with everything else going on. The House of Fallen Snow could provide a new guardian someday.

“At the very least, please meditate in the Chamber of Silent Blossoms once in a while. This is what your Queen Regent asks of you, on my sister’s behalf. She’s very intelligent, but may not be as aware of all of your curses. And I would hate to see her heart broken.” Meramene smiled gently. “You are dismissed.” 

“Thank you, Royal Highness,” Marjorie said in a daze as she turned away. She wasn’t sure what to make of that conversation, except that she tended to find meditation more dull than helpful. Despite her promise, she knew she could never really talk to anyone about the ‘shadow over her heart,’ her anxieties and certainly not her parents. 

Besides, lying had worked for years. The Hunters always said a true liar can even deceive the self, and as long as she could convince herself she was fine there was no need to open wounds. Nobody needed an ugly truth.

By the time Marjorie arrived for her meeting with Captain Taylor, she’d calmed herself down and quashed any thoughts of shadows or unfortunate emotions. She was the picture of calm, smiling and sitting elegantly at the ornate, shell-shaped table in the Anemone’s private room. She even pretended to like the over-salted seaweed salad and soggy eggs. “Is the entire hotel seashell-themed? Lovely, though I thought an anemone was a flower.”

“It’s actually a weird looking, goopy thing with tentacles that lives in coral.” Taylor may not have been buying her cheer; it was difficult to tell. He lacked some of the confidence she’d seen in the older man when she’d gone to find Ezra and Basil the other day. He was swigging tea to stay awake, showing bags under his eyes, and she suspected he’d rather be drinking something else were it not for the critical eye of his gray-haired assistant. “Figured we’d all fit here and get comfortable so we can talk about this stuff. Yeah?”

“Mmm.” Ezra was able to sit at the same table they were, thanks to elevated seats for the humans. Marjorie had been surprised to find out that the elegant Anemone Inn had private dining rooms for human and Sky guests alike, until she noticed that several of the waitstaff were themselves giants. It made sense that some Exiles would have money to spare. Ezra himself didn’t seem to be enjoying the luxury as much as she thought he might. Perhaps he was too busy trying to stare Taylor down and failing, again and again. Basil sat next to him, merely looking very tired. 

Well, it’s a good thing I’m here, Marjorie thought. And with my head back together, no matter what Meramene might think. Someone has to be sociable with the people who suspect us of foul play for some reason. “So!” She flashed a smile at the weary Taylor. “I must say, the Nautilus Guard and the Imperial Guard all performed wonderfully last night. Thumbelina Kingdom sends their thanks. Might I ask if your, erm, tall assistant is going to join us? I am sure this room can accommodate anyone. Lovely high ceilings, really very nice and airy.”

Taylor pursed his lips together before speaking. “Celestial Patrol Investigator Rem Tera is missing as of last night.” He refilled the tea again. “You’ll be speaking to myself and Lieutenant Royce.” He gestured to the grey-haired woman, who said nothing and did not return Marjorie’s smile.

Ezra almost choked on his glass of water. “You lost track of a C.P.?!” 

“You lost someone that big?!” Basil burst out at the exact same time.

“I know, I know! I don’t get it either, I’ll be honest with you. Lotta things happening that I don’t get. I had enough intelligence to suggest something might happen at that banquet, but I couldn’t have predicted ‘monster plants working for an escaped Thumbelinan madman.” Taylor ran a hand over his scalp. “But one thing Rem did notice is that strange things just happen to follow you. This doesn’t mean you’re in trouble or anything. I just want to hear your side of the story.” 

Marjorie gave a glance over to the two boys. “That may take a little while,” she warned. “And we’ll all have a little bit to explain, and even then we may be missing some details without the princess’s presence. You do understand, no one has the whole story.”

“Well, the food’s not getting any less salty, and I’ve reserved this room for as long as we need it. Figured it’d be better than an interrogation room. Besides, I was planning on having Rem here, but…” Taylor sighed. “Look, the more information you give me, the more we’ll have to help you find your princess and figure out what’s going on with our cities. You’re the Thumbelinan representative here, Ms. Snow. And Prince, your country is an Imperial ally and all if I’m right. And you, uh…” He turned to look up at Ezra, squinting. 

“He’s our hearth magician,” Marjorie explained sweetly, earning a mild reprimanding glare from Ezra. He’d accept the title sooner or later.

“Hearth…alright. Sure. So whoever knows the start of this story, start talking. Lieutenant, be ready to take notes.”

Ezra, Marjorie and Basil all spoke in turn, though Ezra was clearly a bit reluctant to divulge much at first. Marjorie could have guessed he might have issues with law enforcement after his previous experiences, but he conducted himself well and held his temper. Basil had to be nudged politely when he started to exaggerate certain moments for ‘dramatic effect,’ but detailing his past adventures seemed to bring a bit of the spark back to the unusually quiet prince. Marjorie had to bite her lip a few times to ignore the guilt that washed over her whenever Philomene came up. 

By the time they were done, all three were hoarse despite the refills of cold water, the salads remained untouched and Taylor was up on his feet pacing around the room. Royce had run out of paper after writing on both sides, the ink bleeding through her copious notes. The evening light bled orange through the round window, clashing with the light blue decor.

“…So, you defeated a deranged piece of a fairy with cake.” 

“Gingerbread,” Ezra corrected him, blushing. “It was gingerbread.” 

“That is…that is a little too wild for you all to just make up, and too well-coordinated to be a lie. It would explain a lot, even if I think I’m even more confused.” He sat down at the table, sighing.

“Look, I’ll level with you. None of you are Imperial citizens, and I’ll admit you haven’t had the best treatment here so far. That would partially be my fault, though you can understand why I might be a little paranoid. I love Nautilus, and I don’t want anything bad to happen to it-like this, for instance. Until the princess was captured, it sounds like this really wasn’t your dilemma to fix. You, Ezra, are an Exile and not even a citizen of the Sky anymore. I can ask for your assistance in helping locate Princess Philomene and Investigator Tera, as I suspect their disappearances are connected.” He looked at them over clasped fingers. “After that, this really isn’t your problem. The bramble curse is still broken as far as we know. You might be better off going home.”

His words left a heavy silence weighing over the room, with even Royce watching the three for their response. Marjorie rehearsed something charming and heroic in her head, something she ought to say. That wasn’t what came out at all.

“For me, Captain, this is home,” she said instead. “So it is at least my problem. Lord Germain threatens Thumbelina even more than he does Nautilus, after all. And he threatened my princess.”

“And Prince Charming never neglects a nation in need!” Basil shouted for the first time that day, holding his fist in the air and grinning. “Just because you have the assistance of one true Prince Charming doesn’t mean one who strives to his level can slack off and merely neglect an ally. I shall save the princess and your large friend, for it’s obvious you worry for them greatly! And as the two of you clearly love your homeland and the very idea of justice, so shall our own hearts resonate with yours and-”

Marjorie poked him gently. “Basil, dear, you are standing on the table.”

Basil froze, looked down, removed his boot from his plate of seaweed and carefully slipped back onto the seat. “And, mmm,” he added quietly, “no hard feelings about arresting us earlier. Like I said, heart that loves justice and all.” 

Taylor looked like he was trying very hard to stifle a laugh, though Royce was just staring as if trying to comprehend what she’d just seen. “Alright, alright, I get it,” Taylor said, finally allowing himself a toothy grin. “You’re a good kid, Highness. And you, Kettle?”

Ezra winced at the name. “Technically I don’t answer to that anymore, sir. Ezra is fine, or Ezra Nameless if you feel like being formal.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “And I'm not sure there's any place I call home right now. I want to help-I promised Philomene I’d help Thumbelina a long time ago, and I’d be a coward to go back on it now. But I’m not exactly sure what I can do. I mean, obviously if you need any literal heavy lifting, or someone to break something down so the C.P. can fit, I can try…”

“What about that magic of yours?” Royce asked. She’d been so quiet during the lunch that it even seemed to startle Taylor. “If it can trap a fairy, maybe you can do something that can work against plants. They do eat. Or find a way to wake the Thumeblinan queen. If anyone has insight on mystical plants, I’d think it’d be her.”

“And, uh,” Taylor added, “we have no reason to believe we won’t run into any more of those ‘fairies.’ The Green Witch is still at large, whatever the hell she is, along with this Rot Witch you described.”

At this Ezra seemed genuinely surprised, his gold eyes widening. “Well, I would like to do it again! But I’m not practiced, and I think the one time might have just been luck, and I haven’t managed to do it again on our travels, and besides that I don’t exactly have access to a kitchen…”

"He's bein overly modest," Marjorie insisted, trying not to roll her eyes.

Taylor held up a hand. “I can see what I can do. Actually, some white-haired Sky woman asked about you, and I said I’d send you her way after our interview. Apparently she spends a lot of time on the balcony, so go find her there.”

“Cecily?” Ezra asked. Marjorie had wondered where that woman had gone off to in the past few days. Perhaps she was spending some time seaside to help her health.

“Yeah, that’s her. She knows the owner. So do I.” Taylor winked. “So we might be able to arrange something, like I said. As for me, I am officially off duty and can go get a real drink.” He stood and stretched. “Maybe you can help this place prepare a decent meal in the meantime, Ket-u, Ezra.”

“Well,” Ezra mumbled as Taylor and Royce left, “I wasn’t going to say anything, but this is entirely too overcooked and salted. You don’t need to add salt to seaweed, at any rate! The eggs are burnt, and at the very least it could use some garlic. Well, I ought to find what it was Cecily wanted to talk to me about. I'll meet you two later?" He stood, kissed Basil on the forehead and gave Marjorie a brief 'are you alright?' look she pointedly fielded with a forceful 'don't ask' smile.

Once the giant had left, a blushing Basil turned to Marjorie. “So, it seems we’ve been recruited into something greater. Though I could have guessed it would happen when that Lord Germain appeared. That said, I have no idea where to start looking. Do you know of a way to signal Philomene without that ring, Marjorie?”

“…No, but…” She thought for a moment. “Basil, how good is your bear at picking up scents?”

“Aurora has a nose unmatched by wolf or bloodhound! Why, her parents were champion-”

“Good, because we’re going to need her help. I hope she knows her flower scents."

Chapter Text

Ezra found Cecily sitting out on a straw chair, watching the sun set over the seaside valley. He followed her gaze towards the ridge of mountains and rocky outcroppings housing the spiral-walled city in a near circle, spikes even rising from the bay here and there. The evening light bathed the white walls of Nautilus in oranges and violets.

"Do you know anything about geology?" Cecily asked him after a moment, turning her sleepy, pale-eyed gaze on him with a little smile.

"Geology? You mean rock lore? Only what Basil and the princess have told me. They have to know a lot about it up in the northern mountains, since the rock there is so restless. I know what an earthquake or a mudslide is, a volcano, that sort of thing. Why do you ask?"

She shrugged. "Maybe you’d know why the city sits in a cup of mountains and hills like this. Seems convenient, as if it were meant to be built here. Do you think maybe the Center of the Universe is not as chaotic and disorderly as we thought, that maybe there's more order and meaning to life down here than the Sun Path suggests?"

Ezra dug his hands in his pockets. "I’m starting to think its all chaos, every bit of it, and attempts to understand any of it just give one a headache and bad ideas. Though,” he added as he glanced back over his shoulder, “it’s not all bad…”

“It’s alright to say you like it here, Ezra.”

He felt himself flush in the face. “It just still feels like a betrayal. I might be able to return with an appeal, if Jack was able to testify, and at least then my reputation wouldn’t be in complete tatters. But with whom? People I don’t care about, who didn’t care enough about me to help when I needed it? I mean, I know all that. And yet…” 

Cecily gave a tired smile. “The Sky raises its children to think they’re in a paradise and fear all else. It took me years to shake the sense that I’d betrayed the Sun by coming here, and no longer weeping over a lost home.”

“But the Sun and the Moon both shine on the land. That must mean something.” Ezra fidgeted with the button on his shirt before sitting down next to Cecily in the surprisingly comfortable chair. “Is this whole hotel built to accommodate us? I meant to ask you about that. There are places sized for us here and there in the city, I suppose for Exiles, but not to this extent.”

“Exiles have money to spend regardless of how much trust humans lend us, or vice-versa. But The Anemone is run by an Exile family and hires Exiles and human staff alike. It’s an experiment, like Thumbelina Kingdom.” Cecily closed her eyes and chuckled. “Would be more successful if they hired a better cook, wouldn’t they? And if they weren’t so expensive. But grandness over practicality, you know how it is…”

“An ‘experiment?’” Ezra looked around, gazing back behind him at the rather empty halls painted sky-blue and hung with strands of seashells. Something occurred to him. “Wait, Miss Cecily. Do you know the owners? Is that how you’re able to stay here?” How could an Exile who’d spent years imprisoned and lived beforehand in a shack in the woods have money saved up, as he’d suspected earlier? “Forgive me for the intrusive question.”

“It’s not intrusive at all! But…” Her eyes grew distant, and Ezra noticed for the first time the bags underneath them. She’d started to recover her color and energy as they’d traveled; why was it slipping away from her again? “It has been a long time. I didn’t realize how many years I’d spent in the Vacant Palace. They barely recognized me, but I do know them. You can say that.” She pushed a lock of white hair out of her face. “Actually, that is what I called you out here to ask you about.”

Ezra took note of how quickly Cecily once again steered away from the topic of her own history, but chose not to push it. She’d talk about it when she was ready. “Pardon, Miss Cecily?”

“I know you’ve gotten caught up in another bit of trouble, and you’re probably quite worried about your friend. Likely itching to get back in the kitchen, aren’t you? Get your mind off things, and practice that craft of yours.”

He sighed, wondering if he was always so transparent. “Well, I mean, they all seem to think my magic’s going to be key to the situation. Though I still can’t see how. What if what happened with the Gourmet was a fluke?”

“Don’t know much about magic, but I suspect you don’t convince powerful fairy folk to seal themselves away on a ‘fluke.’ And even if it is, don’t you want to get back to baking?” 

Ezra’s stomach rumbled and his face turned red as he remembered he’d barely eaten anything during the interview, due only in part to the sub-par nature of the meal itself. “Well, at least I’d like a chance to make something decent! Where’s this all leading, though? I can’t exactly just take over the job at the inn I’m staying at, and I doubt any of the Sky Harbor bakeries will hire a-a Nameless.” 

Cecily pursed her lips mischievously. “What if I was just very grateful to a troubled young man for helping bring about the downfall of my tormentor, and I managed to convince the owners of a certain establishment to give a new baker a trial run and free access to the kitchen?”

As it dawned on Ezra what Cecily meant, his eyes widened and he stood back up again. “You got me a job here?!” 

“If you want it. It’d be good for you, keep your mind from going idle. You don’t want to be left without a cause in life.” Cecily’s smile faltered for the briefest moment. 

“But-but I’m Nameless! I have no family reputation to speak for me. They don’t even know who I am!” Ezra started pacing back and forth in front of Cecily, too shocked to worry about blocking her view. “Wait. This isn’t indentured servitude, is it? I’ll work for room and board while we’re staying here, but not like that. Never again. Not-not that I think you’d have debts to pay off, but…” 

“You expect a catch.” Cecily sighed. “That is not unreasonable of you. And I was getting to that. Don’t worry, no servitude involved. Just  a few rules, and two…uh, favors.” 

Frankly Ezra would have been suspicious if there hadn’t been a catch. Such a high class place hiring a stranger was odd enough, and he would have resented being taken on as a charity case.

“You can say what they are. It’s alright.”

“Well, first of all I’ll admit this is partially due to one of their chefs quitting recently, and the kitchen being rather poorly staffed otherwise. Their son has tried to take over, but he’s…irresponsible. By the way, the owner wants you to prove your worth by making a dessert tonight. Not enough for the guests, just for the family. He’s very fond of quince, for what it’s worth.”

“Quince pound cake.” Ezra snapped his fingers. “With a lemon icing, or maybe drizzled with cherry liquor if they have it.” 

“Well, you’ve still got a Kettle’s instincts. Also, your magical experiments are fine but will have to be done on your own time, and kept away from the food meant for guests, for obvious reasons. There’s going to be at least another chef-in-training for when you’re busy with the-the plant thing.” Cecily shuddered. “Please stay safe out there when you are, Ezra. You’ve been through enough already.” 

“I’ll be fine! Basil will be with me.” Ezra rubbed the back of his neck, hoping the kitchen staff wouldn’t mind Basil being in attendance from time to time. The prince had declared himself the official taste-tester of anything new, magical or otherwise. On the other hand, maybe the attentions of foreign royalty would bring more success to the Anemone. “Really, Cecily. I’m not the fragile thing I used to be. At least, I like to think so.”

Cecily looked him over and chuckled. “I’d never have described you as ‘fragile!’ Timid, maybe.”

“I mean in spirit!” Ezra scowled, though he was a bit too excited to take offense. “So what’s the favors you asked about?”

At this Cecily fell quiet, and her gaze once again grew distant. She was looking out at the ridge surrounding the city like the rim of a bowl, now dimly lit by the faint twilight and spotted with torches here and there from buildings carved onto the rocky cliffs. 

“The first is for me. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want, and I won’t hold you to it if you can’t. But my husband…well, I heard he may have passed through here years ago. Somehow, some foolish part of me takes that to mean he might still be alive, though I can’t say why. Maybe I just need to believe it. If he is, I may ask your help in curing him. He has an ailment. You might have heard of it. It’s why I think he might still be alive, despite everything. People like him are hard to kill, but hard to find after a while…ah, listen to me ramble like a woman twice my age.” She waved her hand dismissively. “If I ever do find him, do you think you could try to use your magic to help him? It’s a long shot. But maybe…”

Ezra thought back to Philomene, sitting carefully on his book and asking him to attempt magic skills he didn’t know he had under the slim chance it might help her kingdom. It seemed just as impossible that he might be able to cure an illness, especially since Cecily was being so ambiguous about G. Chulainn’s condition. For some reason, people seemed to like to hang their hopes on him. He wondered what it was about him, or his magic, that gave people such faith. He didn’t quite see it himself. 

But he found himself nodding. “I’ll do everything I can. If we do find him. And I’m sure we will! Miss Cecily, if you’ve gotten me work again and a way to help save Philomene and her kingdom, I’d figure out how to perform a miracle. And-and if I can get the hang of this magic, I bet I could figure out how to un-curse Basil too! Or at least keep him warm. Maybe with some kind of heat-infusing soup. Uh, sorry, I’m getting carried away.”

“I’m happy to see it! You were growing so quiet lately, and you’re far too young to have a dim outlook on your future.”

“Well, so are you,” Ezra insisted. “Not that-I mean, you’re still my senior of course. I didn’t mean that disrespectfully. But if I can do that thing with the Gourmet and then if we can stop a Flowerling scientist from taking over the city with plants or whatever it is he’s trying to do, surely you can find out what happened to your husband? Once you’re feeling better.” 

Cecily was quiet for a few minutes, and when she smiled it didn’t look entirely genuine. But she sounded relieved nonetheless. “Thank you, Ezra. I understand what you meant. Don’t you want to hear the other favor? It’s for the owners.”

“Oh! Right, yes. Um. Other favor.” Ezra hoped they weren’t hoping for a culinary miracle out of him as well. At least not of that sort; he was quite confident in being able to create works of art given freedom in a real kitchen. 

“You see, the chef quit after things went a bit south with the owner’s son, and as I said before, they’ve been trying to get him to take responsibility and find a calling in life. He’s a little younger than you, land-born and I’m afraid his parents have spoiled him a bit to make up for him never getting to live in the Sky. He hasn’t had to work very much like the people in Sky Harbor do and spends too much time in human taverns getting into fights.”

Ezra wrinkled his nose. “With humans? How cowardly.” Not that he would have approved of such a lifestyle anyway, but lording one’s more respectable size over humans seemed so petty. It took no effort to be big. It certainly wouldn’t do anything for relations between humans and their own kind. Still, why did something about this sound familiar?

“So.” Cecily sounded a bit hesitant. “His parents are looking for someone to train him. Someone, anyone to try to get the boy in line. Sure that it is a bit late to start a trade and I think they ought to send him off to the Academy or suggest he sign up for the military, but they think the former would be a waste of time considering his temperament and his parents are strictly opposed to the latter. ‘No son of our line will be lowered into fighting for the human Empire,’ et cetera. So while it would not be a typical apprenticeship…”

A slight feeling of dread came over Ezra, though he made himself smile to avert it. That seemed to work well; he wondered why he didn’t do that more often. “You-they want me to take on an apprentice? I-I don’t know. I have a lot going on already, and I don’t have the Kettle recipes to teach someone this time. And even if I did, he wouldn’t be a Kettle. Though neither am I, so I guess it doesn’t matter.” It was strangely freeing saying that out loud, though he felt like a traitor to the dead for it.

“You’re a responsible young man, I told them as much, and loyal to your friends. I think you’d be a good influence on him in more ways than one. I’m sorry, I know it’s a bit much…”

“No! I mean, I like the work. I’m happy about it, and I can use it to help the others. You’re right. I’m just-uh.” Apprenticeships could not be taken lightly. An apprentice who had especially proved their worth might be offered adoption into a trade family of higher status. Though Ezra had to remind himself he was on the land, the Heart of Chaos, and the rules were different. 

And why did this boy’s story ring a bell? 

His thoughts were interrupted by a strangely familiar shout. The doors to the balcony burst open with such force Ezra feared the glass might shatter, and a taller figure stomped in. 

“Aunt Cecily, you got me an apprenticeship?! I can’t waste all my time in the kitchen washing dishes! There’s a damn monster invasion going on. They’re gonna need me to fight!” The boy pounded his chest with a fist. “What, bunch of weakling human soldiers and Flower shrimps are gonna keep us safe?! And who’s this, anyway?” 

As Ezra reluctantly made contact with the youth, he finally remembered where he’d seen him and heard his voice before. At least this time they weren’t in a jail cell together. 

“…Hi, Salten.” Ezra made himself offer a handshake and hoped he didn’t look like he was wincing under Salten’s glare. “Name’s…Ezra?”

Chapter Text

As the Moon Snail passed through the circular ‘door’ into the next chamber, Philomene heard an incoherently loud shout and felt the ground beneath her shake and the walls tremble. Bits of debris and other snails fell to the ground around her, narrowly missing her. She felt herself sliding off the Moon Snail’s smooth back, fully aware that if she fell she’d likely land on the jagged, spiral-edged rock around her.

Something invisible nudged her back up and locked her securely in place, leaving her frazzled and a bit dizzy but safe. Perhaps that was Hess’s magic? The Sea Witch was keeping an eye on her in some manner or another. She thought to go back and check on Rem in order to find out what had just happened, but Moon Snail showed no inclination to turn around.

She hoped she was making the right decision. It didn’t feel right, going off on her own like this when she was the one to trap Rem here in the first place. “Well, that’s the way of the Flower Folk,” she reminded herself. “We go where others can’t follow and see on their behalf.”

At first, it seemed there wasn’t much to see in the first chamber. It was completely dark; all Philomene could sense was that the Moon Snail was crawling down a gentle slope. It smelled of brine and mold just as the previous chamber had, though there was an added scent she couldn’t identify. It was floral, but not quite right. It was more medicinal, perhaps, or chemical in nature, as if one was trying to imitate a flower’s scent. Philomene wondered if she should have reminded Hess she was a sight-dependent being. 

She heard squelching noises all around her, and huddled close to the shell. What was she doing alone? She needed light!

As soon as she thought that, a soft green glow filled the chamber. It rose up from a pond at the center of the round, domed structure. There were patches of damp, mossy substance floating on the perfectly circular pond. The light they gave off reminded her of the bioluminescent mushrooms that grew in Thumbelina, but brighter and more consistent. 

Snails crawled all along the walls here as well, though while they’d dotted Hess’s chamber haphazardly, here they had aligned themselves in a perfect spiral on the dome’s roof. One by one they were making their slow way up to the top, where a hole opened up in the ceiling. She couldn’t see all the way up through it, and yet was sure she had an idea of where it led. “That’s where you head to the surface, isn’t it? To live your lives as snails. That’s an exit!”

It was an exit for creatures small enough to fit and able to crawl along walls, but hardly suited for a Flowerling and entirely too small for poor Rem. Philomene hoped they’d be able to escape without damaging poor Hess’s home, to say nothing of destroying ancient architecture.

Something about the domed chamber struck her as familiar. It took her a few seconds to adjust for the scale before it hit her. “The prison! I mean, laboratory? Whatever that was!” The plant-grown room Lord Germain had imprisoned her in had the same shape, with the green pool taking the place of the large blossom in the center. True that the walls here were stone, and the patterns swirling over them were lines of snails. The green substance in the pool must have been algae, the food Hess said was being stolen by warm-blooded creatures. She could see snails reaching the edge of the pool and taking long drinks from it, leaving with a green glow in their shell.

Was that where they absorbed the power to turn into Sea Witches someday? Did they have to carry that in their bodies and survive a thousand years to awaken like Hess? 

As Moon Snail crawled over a bump, she realized it was still descending. “Um, I can take it from here,” Philomene said as she looked down at the soft, mossy ground below. “Really.” Moon Snail kept moving towards the edge of the pond. “Let me just, um, politely disembark. Really, I can’t swim…!”

Not that Moon Snail was moving very quickly, but the ground was steep. Philomene had to maneuver her legs off and slip down the snail’s large shell, landing on her knees as pain shot down her back. She took a deep breath, reminded herself that she was not going to let her body get in the way of a scientific discovery, and forced herself to her feet with the help of her cane. 

The green pool rippled as something began to emerge from it. The snails paid it no heed, even as water splashed against their shells. As Philomene watched, a huge, bulbous shape peeked up and rose from the surface, pulsing with green glow from within.

She was too busy watching, fascinated, to notice the red glow from within her own body.

Red Hood waited at the edge of the passageway, crouched down so her wolf form could fit. She’d gone down this path so often she could recognize it by scent alone, which was why the new smell was so confusing. There was a scent of flowers down there, real flowers, and blood. She didn’t like anything new and unfamiliar. It never led anywhere good.

Before she could growl a warning, a cold, white hand landed on her head and the scent of old mushrooms filled the air. White Hood stood next to her in the passage, smiling. White Hood was always there for Red when she was scared. “Shh,” the pale-skinned girl said. “Let’s watch and listen.”

“Is something scary going to happen?” Red whispered back. She tucked her tail between her legs.

“Maybe. Don’t worry, I’m here for you! I’m your guardian angel, remember? And if you do your job despite fear, I’m sure Lord Germain will be very happy with you.”

The snails had stopped moving, though Philomene barely noticed. The plant bud was unfolding before her, stretching out huge, rubbery red leaves big enough to cover the surface of the pond. It was as if it was extending a walkway to her.

Philomene remembered hearing about plants that lured insects with sweet smells and bright colors, only to snap closed and devour them or drown them in digestive juices. The lands where Thumbelina’s ancestors sailed from had carnivorous blossoms big enough to consume birds or Flower Folk too drunk or foolish to know better, or so rumor said. Was this one of them? If so, it had to have been designed to capture something bigger than a cat, and there were no such creatures wandering the chamber. 

And why had it seemed as if it were opening for her, as if it expected her?

“…Hess wanted me to go here for a reason,” she reminded herself. “And she trusted me. I have to find evidence for Rem.” And perhaps here there would be something that could resolve the many puzzles surrounding Thumbelina since her return.

Her back still sore, she limped towards the edge of the pond. The flower petals were half as thick as she was tall, their rubbery texture reminding her of the false rose petals in her prison. She poked the surface carefully with her cane, waiting for a snapping reaction or sudden movement; when none came, she took a deep breath and stepped onto the flower petal. 

Nothing happened. It stayed as stationary as ever, not even bobbing under her weight.

She spoke aloud to herself, finding the sound of her own voice more comforting than the drip of water from distant caverns and the squelch of snails. “What sort of plant is this, anyway? Even if that’s a hole leading up to the surface, it wouldn’t provide enough daylight for something this big to bloom. Unless it’s like the subterranean plants in Thumbelina, but there’s no Vine for it to-wait.” She stopped, knelt down and examined the surface of the petal. 

There it was, beneath the unnaturally bright red, a membrane of white veins pulsing so softly she could barely feel it. It was a Vine network, just like the one that wove its way all through Thumbelina and every other Flowerling City-Colony. How far did it reach? Were they in the remains of an abandoned City-Colony, its people gone but its Vine still functioning somehow? Was that why it reacted to possibly the first Flowerling to make contact with it in centuries?

She almost ran down towards the center of the blossom, following the patterns. This was definitely a Vine, and yet it was wrong somehow. In one spot it sported bulbous growths, in another it tangled up into itself in painful-looking knots. It was yellowed here and blackened there, showing signs of disease she’d never seen manifest in a Vine before. 

Her foot slipped into a soft, mushy pit, and she barely caught herself with her cane before the rest of her followed. When she looked down she realized bits of the flower itself were rotting, the surface pitted with pools of reddish-brown muck. It was the same kind of goo the plant prison had dissolved into. 

“…You’re really sick, aren’t you?” She knelt down again, sitting near the edge of the flower’s surface. There was a shallow pool of water there, likely from the pond. It glowed a yellowish-green, and as she looked into it, it rippled.


Philomene looked around sharply, trying to discern where the voice had come from and reassure herself she hadn’t heard it in her own thoughts. It was impossible. Plants weren’t conscious, let alone capable of telepathy, and she wasn’t synchronized with this Vine. She wasn’t even sure if it was still very functional. But if it was, and she could find a way to interact with it, it might have quietly observed and recorded the events in the chamber. She might be able to identify Hess’s ‘thief.’

“…Just for a moment.” Philomene rolled up her already-damp and torn sleeve and plunged a hand into the pool, finding it unnervingly warm instead of chilly. This was definitely an active Vine system of some kind. As she thought, there was a node right in the center of the flower, a white blossom-shaped extension. Interfacing with a diseased or damaged Vine could be dangerous; she’d have to act quickly and find the information she needed as soon as possible. 

She closed her eyes and waited. 

The blossom clasped around her hand too slowly, and the images that reached her mind were too faint. She could hear noises, footsteps in grass and…howls? Growling? Images were rare, flickering in and out and too dim to make out. The pulsing algae likely didn’t provide light very often. 

Reach further. We’re right here!

Philomene snapped her hand back, reeling and nearly slipping into the little pool. She felt dizzy from cutting the interface off so soon, something she’d been warned against doing. Her old teachers would be shocked to see her attempting this at all, as she wasn’t trained in interfacing with the living library that was the Vine to the degree her mother was. 

But the Vine didn’t talk back. It didn’t beckon her further inward, and it didn’t pull. 

She thought back to her studies, to old books and texts about ancient, corrupt Flowerling kingdoms where prisoners were sentenced to be devoured by the Vine. They were trapped in enormous blossoms while magicians used magic to warp the Vine, forcing it to consume the mind and soul of a Flowerling instead of interface with it. Those poor souls were trapped in the memory of the Vine forever, possibly losing their own senses of self. But those claims had never been verified, and most modern magicians weren’t even sure such a thing was possible.

“…Right. I’ve seen enough. I’ll just return to Rem and report what I’ve seen, and see if Hess can help us out.” She took deep breaths to steady her shaking body, making herself stand. “I’ll just find Moon Snail. That’s all…”

The silence of the room was broken by a low growl.

A dark red shape seemed to emerge from the wall itself, though Philomene suspected it was a trick of architecture that had disguised the passage from her before. It breathed hot breath towards her, flashing white, sharp teeth. The green light cast a strange color on the wolf’s vivid red fur. It wore a little jar around its neck, the kind one might use to gather up liquid, though how a wolf could do that without hands she couldn’t say.

“…Rem?” Philomene doubted the giant could hear her in the other chamber, not if she didn’t shout. Was it safer to stay silent and still against a wolf? She had nowhere to run to, not in a chamber like this. “Hess?!”  

The wolf stepped closer. Maybe it hadn’t seen her; she was small enough to be of little notice to the furry behemoth. Its great shape loomed over her. Was there something familiar about a red wolf? It didn’t look full grown, either, which was small comfort to a Flowerling. A wolf pup could devour one whole. 

Find us and we’ll help. We’ll help!

The wolf growled again, and something inside Philomene snapped. She’d spent the last few days trying to figure out if a curse had been broken, learning her mother was still asleep and some of her siblings missing, been kidnapped by a madman in a plan she didn’t understand herself and had absolutely no desire to be devoured by a wolf after surviving all that. The Flower Folk survived; that was what they did.

She thrust her hand into the pool again, letting the node clasp around her hand. This time, she didn’t hold back, and neither did the Vine.

A storm of images flooded through her brain, too fast to comprehend, and her mind filled with voices. No, it was all the same voice, all of it drowning out the wolf and the chamber and the light that was growing far, far too bright around her. 

We’ll save you.
We like you.
You’re like us. 
You won’t shrivel away.

Lord Germain looked up from a charcoal sketch to see the basket in the corner shaking, its larval Dryad inhabitants more restless than they’d been the last time he’d woken them up. In fact, this was the first time they’d woken themselves. Interesting.

“Avery?” He called out to his lab assistant, who was staring in horror at the box. “Dust them with some powdered sleep formula to settle them down a little. But just a tiny bit.” Lord Germain grinned, clasping his hands behind his back. “I want to see where this goes.”

He knew the princess would do something interesting if led near the Sea Witch’s chamber. He couldn’t wait to see what it was. Surprises were the best part of his field of study.

Chapter Text

“Look, just tell me what ‘rot’ is! Please, it’s important for both of us! I can’t help you without the relevant information!” Rem crouched near Hess, who continued to hide silently inside of her shell.

The little protective flap that held her body in looked as solid as stone. As tempting as it was to knock on the shell’s door, if one could call it that, Rem worried it might not be as sturdy as it looked and had no desire to injure Hess. Even if Hess was pushing all of Rem’s remaining patience.

How long had it been, anyway? There was no sunlight down in the towers, no way of keeping time. Why hadn’t Rem brought a pocket watch? Why was it that one night at the festival was the time they forgot to bring it along? That could have been essential to the mission! The stress of their first operation on the Center of the Universe was no excuse. There was no way of knowing how much time they’d spent out cold in this wretched, wet, smelly tunnel before waking up and finding the princess. The headaches and occasional wave of dizziness told them they needed food and drink soon, and were likely running on fumes. Kaina would be angry with them for neglecting physical needs in the name of duty.

They were certain far too much time had passed since the princess had gone into that other chamber. 

“Hess, please. Can you at least recall the princess if you think there’s something dangerous here? I-it’s my duty right now to make sure she gets out safe. That we both get out safe, really. And if you need it…” They gritted their teeth, looking at how heavy, spiny and uncomfortable Hess’s shell looked. “I’ll carry you out too.”

Hess spoke very lowly, her voice muffled by her shell. “You’ll drop me and crack my shell. You’ll expose me to the humans.”

“I won’t! Drop you, I mean. I can handle it.” Rem sighed. “You know what I am. I can’t promise how the humans will act around you, or if they’ll just let you go straight to the ocean.”

“…You admitted what you are.” One eye poked out from under the flap.

“Yes. If it gets you to work with me, I’ll admit it. Colossus.” They held a hand to their chest. “Call me that in front of everyone if you want; only the Exiles will know what it means, and I don’t care so much what they think.” 

“But you are afraid of it. What you are.”

Rem narrowed their eyes. “I’m afraid of what people will do with me because of what I am. It’s everyone else who has the problem with it, not me. And I’m afraid something terrible is happening to Princess Philomene in the other room, and she’s a decent lady! A good gal. Doesn’t deserve it.”

Hess paused. “You’re not telling the full truth, but that doesn’t matter. Fear is fear. It will feed it. The rot, I mean. It is the essence of death and decay, finality and loss. I can’t believe I didn’t see it approaching or growing here. It must have been feeding off of my worries when the warm blooded creature began stealing algae, when the tunnel quakes, when the ages reach their end.”

Rem listened carefully, wishing they could take notes. The rot spreading in Mielle induced fear in a population terrified of seeing their homeland crumble and dissolve beneath their feet, and concerns about it had reached as far as Vox and other larger Cloud Islands. Thank the Moon that sample from Vox was sealed, and appeared inert. 

Hess stretched her head out again, staring up at Rem for an uncomfortably long number of minutes. She narrowed the little dots that were her eyes before turning both eye stalks towards the spiral gate. 

“Duck,” she warned, seconds before thorny vines shattered through the door very, very close to Rem’s face. 

Philomene could recall being trapped in the shared mindscape in the Gourmet’s palace, feeling the faint sense of disconnect as if she might at any moment dissolve into the ether and cease to exist as herself. This felt like the inverse, her mind filling up with such a strong foreign presence that she feared it would shatter like an egg, and something entirely different would hatch.

As she felt her body go numb and the chamber around her faded to a vacant green space, a hundred voices with the same childish, laughing tone spoke at once over one another.

“We are the Green Witch!”

“We used to be an I. More like an I.”

“We were much stronger and so big and getting so much bigger!”

“And then she betrayed us and split us into pieces.” 

“And our chosen couldn’t save us.”

“But you will!”

The Green Witch, the nightmarish fae creature responsible for the curse on Thumbelina Kingdom, was here? She was hiding in an underground, near-dead Vine system the whole time? But why? 

“Because it’s safe here.”

“The rest of us are being used by somebody else. We feel it every time.”

“Stupid potions! Stupid music! Stupid gems! Stupid tiny Flower man.”

“Stupid failure Toad.”

“We can’t control ourselves without our heart. And she stole her heart.” 

Philomene made an attempt to distance herself, using the same coping technique she’d used in the gold-thread trap. She envisioned something familiar, forcing herself to sculpt an image of Melchior from memory. She was Philomene. This was her moth companion. Everything else was memories, or someone else’s mind trying to invade hers.

Melchior looked up at her, happily twitching his wings. Then white blossoms sprouted from his body, splitting it apart and overwhelming it. 

“See?” A green-skinned young woman with a red rose for hair stood before Philomene, surrounded by several dozen others. Their bodies were nothing but smooth green columns with spines. “See? We can make pretty things too!”

Repulsed, Philomene felt herself take a step back. “Get out. Let me out of here! You’re the monster that-”

“She said it would be a good idea! It was HER idea,” one of the Green Witches spat. 

“And it felt so nice for a while! We grew and grew and grew, just like we wanted. We were blossoming.”

“We split ourselves once and spread all the way to the Sky to carry Big Sister’s magic there. We were so strong when we were united, feeding off all the Green Magic.”

“All the ambition from Thumbelina and Nautilus and Mielle. It was so delicious! We could have spread forever.”

She hadn’t expected the Green Witch to be so upfront. Of course, Philomene reminded herself, this very dangerous entity was trying to earn her trust. What would Marjorie have done? Let the fairy talk and give information. “So.” She tried to sound concerned instead of horrified, and doubted she was very convincing. “You were that beanstalk? The one Jack climbed?”

“Big Sister had good ideas.” The Green Witch fragment giggled. “But she betrayed us!”

“She used blood magic to shatter us like this into little pieces, all because we’re bigger than her now.”

“All because we’re stronger.

“It wasn’t even her blood.”

Blood magic. Hadn’t Alphonse’s story involved a blood sacrifice on his part? Of course, Philomene had no real reason to trust a fairy entity possibly trying to take over her mind.

The rose creatures looked upon Philomene with innocent, bright black eyes. “Please help us! Help us reunite. Find our heart.”

“Let one of us inside of you. Just one! Sister used us as a weapon and now that little man is doing the same. We’re not Dryads!”

“We’re greater than that.”

“We can make you so much greater, too…”

The roses vanished, along with the green. The landscape changed, the chamber reappearing for just a second before it transformed. Ages were stripped away, revealing a chamber shining with glass, porcelain and materials she didn’t even recognize. Something great and flat, like the image Lord Germain had projected on the sky, shimmered against an enormous gem. It displayed flickers of the tunnel system in full, vivid, colorful glory, lit from below with something far brighter than torches. It reminded her of the captive lightning in Rem’s spear, but much stronger and more controlled. There were humans and Flower Folk speaking to one another, working alongside each other in styles of clothing Philomene didn’t recognize. 

In the background, there was a looming figure in armor, much bigger than the humans, with glinting gold eyes. When it looked at the screen, the image vanished and reverted to the green void.

The scale hadn’t changed. Those were the memories of a Flowerling from long long ago, entered into this Vine and somehow still active despite the plant’s decay. 

As if hearing her thoughts, which they probably did, the Green Witch fragments began calling to her again. “We can give you all these memories,” one said.

“We absorb whatever we grow into,” said another. “You want to know, don’t you?”

“You want to restore the world. You want to change it and make it better. We know that feeling more than anyone!”

“You want to know. You deserve to know. Your people deserve it. You could do them so much good!”

“Don’t you want to know about the blue flowers? We know how to grow them now! We know what they are.”

“I’m…not like you at all,” Philomene insisted, even as she reeled from the images she’d seen. What had this tunnel been used for? Why had all three kin lived alongside each other, and why had there only been the one giant? 

Wasn’t this the opportunity she promised she’d take if it would help her people? Green Witch had just told her what had happened to Thumbelina Kingdom, and seemed to blame the Rot Witch-her ‘sister’-for it. Having an Other One on their side was something she couldn’t have anticipated. The Green Witch, if she was to be believed, had just been used.

Just as she’d used Avery Toad. Just as she was about to use Philomene.

Fury filled her mind, mostly at herself for even considering the offer for a second. The Green Witch fragments seemed to sense this and recoiled from her, the area around her warping from green to a volcanic red. 

“Get out,” she spat at them, glaring them down. “Or let me disengage. Now.”

Two rose creatures clung to one another, their leaves turning brown. “But we offered you the best!”

“The knowledge you can’t get anywhere else!”

“But you’re like us! We know. We sensed that feeling from you the moment you interfaced with this Vine.” The fragment giggled. “It was delicious.”

“Just let us have a taste…!”

They can’t take you over without your consent. If they could have, they would have done it the moment you entered the Vine, Philomene reminded herself. She tried to conjure up the image of Melchior again, but found it impossible to shake off the vision of his body pierced from within by parasitic plants. 

“…It’s not fair.” One of the fragments sounded genuinely despondent, dropping a petal.

“We just want to be masters of ourselves again. No more being a weapon of Rot Witch or Germain.”

“No more listening to Mirror’s bossiness. You are strong! You beat Little Brother Gourmet.”

“And he killed our other brother.” One fragment shuddered. 

“…Killed your what?” Perhaps Philomene could distract them by asking questions. Green Witch was chatty, possibly lonely. Some part of her felt sorry for the faerie, though she couldn’t forget what Green Witch had done and was trying to do. She was dealing with a very dangerous enemy, and all she could do was buy time. 

Attempting to detach herself from the Vine wasn’t working.

“Mirror says not to tell secrets,” one fragment scolded.

Another stuck out a green tongue. “Mirror is boring and small-minded. If they really cared they’d help us instead of just whining from the big monochrome city.”

“Do you know why you should side with us against Rot Witch? Besides the fact that you are like us?” another asked. “It’s because we know what scares her so much. We know what scares Fear. We know why she hated Gourmet.”

“We know why Harp is always weeping.”

“We saw what Gourmet helped do to our other brother. We know about the Moonflowers!”

There was silence, or at least Philomene detected a pause regardless of how much time was actually happening. Was the wolf still out there? If it had destroyed her body, she would never be able to get out. Of course, that would have shut this part of the Green Witch out of escape too, and doomed them both to a very unpleasant time before Philomene’s soul dissolved into the Vine.

I shouldn’t be this objective about my own possible death. I sound like Marjorie.

“…You won’t do it,” the one in the front said. “You’re rejecting us. We can feel it. You’re closing a door to us…”

“…So we’ll just take over this plant entirely!”

“What?!” Philomene abruptly felt a tingling sensation in her body, saw the green ether shatter around her and a searing pain run up her hand before she withdrew it from a withering, jagged-looking flower node. When she withdrew it, blood ran from a cut down her palm.

At least she was back in reality now. She'd been forced out of the Vine.

She was sitting on the enormous blossom again, and it was trembling, bits of its flesh falling off into the water. The rotting spots crumbled, and from them emerged roses that grew and opened in seconds, sprouting brambles that spread through the chamber. One shot up beside her, nearly impaling her. She thought she heard the yelp of a frightened wolf, though she couldn’t see the beast through the ever-thickening wall of brambles and vines.

“She’s trying the same thing she did in Thumbelina. Trying to overwhelm us. But she even said this is only a part of her ‘self…’” Meaning the Witch wouldn’t have enough body mass to cover an entire kingdom. Just a chamber with snails, one Flowerling and one giant. 

She rose to her feet, glaring around her. “You won’t kill me. Not if you’re so desperate to lure me in. You think I’ll fall so easily? After I saw what your brother did to my friend, stealing his memories and enslaving him? After what you did to my kingdom and my family!?” She caught her breath. “I’ll stop you, AND Lord Germain, AND your rotten sister. Feed on that ambition…!”

Her rant was cut off when a blaze of light appeared, slashing several of the thickest, biggest vines right in half. They nearly fell on her, the crumbling blossom beneath her collapsing under their weight. For a few awful seconds, Philomene found herself pulled underwater, the bits of flower covering the surface.

Then something enormous and warm swept her out.

“Princess!” Hess panted, pulling her close with their free hand and squinting until they could presumably make out Philomene’s shape amid the gooey algae and plant bits. “Are you alright? Answer me?”

“I…” Philomene held a hand to her chest, feeling her heart pounding as if it would burst. “I will attempt to stay conscious until we get out. Where is Hess?!” 

Rem gestured with their head over their shoulder, and only then did Philomene understand why Rem sounded so strange and stood hunched over, despite the collapse of the wall making a doorway big enough for even them. Hess clung to Rem’s back like the heaviest backpack imaginable. 

“…You are a dedicated person of the law,” Philomene marveled. “We have to get out. Though I don’t know how…”

The tunnel quaked. Rem, startled, set Philomene carefully in a pocket that looked designed to carry a medal or a watch, soaked through but relatively safe. “I thiiink this thing is gonna open some doors for us,” Rem said. “We’ll just have to move fast…”

Chapter Text

“Excuse me! Um…Your Highness?” 

Basil sat up to the sound of a shaken Xaviero, very politely but firmly knocking on the door of his too-spacious bedroom. He’d only retreated to bed not long ago and hadn’t yet fallen asleep, having managed to talk his way out of staying up late in the too-cool summer breeze in order to listen to Xaviero talk about the Taylor family history. It was a subject Basil had been educated on quite extensively every time he found himself in conversation with Xaviero. He felt a little bad using his health as an excuse, but conversing with the younger Taylor brother required a lot of energy possibly best spent elsewhere.

That said, Xaviero had been cheerful and understanding when they’d parted ways for the night, already tipsy from dinner. Now something alarming appeared to have sobered him up. As Basil opened the door in his heavy wool sleepwear, the bespectacled nobleman gave him a nervous smile.

“I am terribly sorry to bother you, and I do know someone in your condition needs sleep. Especially with everything on your plate right now! A kidnapped friend must be an awful burden on your heart and mind and I hate to add to it, but, um…”

Add to it? Was someone else in trouble? “Wait, what? What do you mean? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing! Just, well, the stables. Your lovely and usually quite well-behaved bear is acting a little strange. The stable-hands are frightened and say she seems like she wants to get out. Knowing what you told me about her, I suspect maybe she’s looking for…you?” 

“What did you DO in there?!” Rem didn’t want to sound so accusatory towards the princess. Their inner filter weakened, it seemed, in the face of an oncoming wave of thorns and creeping vines swallowing up the walls of the tunnel. 

“I…” Philomene’s voice seemed to trail off, or Rem couldn’t make out the rest of it. Amid Rem’s own footfalls through the shallow water, the crackling sound of the thorns and the rustle of swarming, tentacle-like vines, the tiny woman’s voice was lost. 

Was there a hint of distress in there? Was the princess hurt after all? Had Rem injured her just from running with her in their pocket? 

“Hess! Did you know this was going to happen?” 

“Why should I know there was a fairy hiding in there? We’ve been around so long, the fairies know all too well how to hide from our senses.” Hess clung tightly to Rem, which gave Rem a creeping feeling on the back of their neck. “Keep walking against the flow of the water and it will lead you to the sea. Though the hole there is small, the wall is weak…”

Rem felt a tremor beneath their feet as a bit of rubble fell to the ground beside them. “Would you say these walls are weak, too? Because that thing behind us isn’t!” 

“Behind us is a little optimistic,” Hess pointed out.

Something wet and slick grabbed for Rem, barely-seen plant tendrils wrapping around their elbow. The tendrils crawled up their arm, trying to pry open the fingers wrapped around the Lightning Spear. Rem spat out language improper for Celestial Patrol and wrenched their arm away so fast it snapped off several tendrils which melted into black goo and fell to the ground. One pulled back, though not before sprouting thorns and tearing through Rem’s exposed skin. 

Rivulets of blood laced with a metallic sheen dripped into the water below. 

Gritting their teeth, Rem ignored the wound and kept running. “It’s white this time! That whole weird-looking plant thing is turning white. None of the Dryads at the party were like that!”

“That fairy is probably using the Vine’s mass for its own. Devouring it from within and incorporating it into its form.” Hess shuddered, which brought to mind the sensation of a quivering jelly being pressed against Rem's back.

“Please never do that again, Hess.” Rem winced, making a sharp turn. Their lungs burned from running without rest in stale air, and their back ached from Hess’s weight. They were remembering just how long it had been since they’d had enough to drink or anything to eat and suspected they were running on adrenaline alone. 

Then the voices began.

They whispered from behind Rem, most of them just incoherent laughter and murmurs of happiness and eagerness. They sounded like wind rustling through leaves, warped into a voice. 

“Come back to us.”

“Bring the princess back to us. She belongs to us.”

“She can save us!”

You belong to us, too.”

“You’re just like us.”

“Your blood was so delicious.”

“We could grow so big with it!”

“No thanks,” Rem snapped, wishing they had two free hands to cover their ears. The sound was so awful, all the worst in how it echoed against the walls and sounded so harmonious. 

“Ambitions in your heart mean you’re just like us. You understand us.”

“You tasted like sun and metal, like the growth plate on bones.”

“Like photosynthesis.”

“Like war!”

“We like war. So did Sister.”

They knew. Why did everyone down here know what a colossus was?! And what did it matter to Rem at the moment? They had many more problems to worry about at the moment than what a homicidal fairy thought of them. 

Sprinting as fast as they were, they almost stumbled right into the wall. It was a dead end, the water draining in from a hole that barely reached past Rem’s ankles. It was a slow trickle, heavy with sand. 

As Rem felt for any structural weaknesses, a wave of whispers and cracking wood loomed over them both from behind.

“Found you…”

“Are you sure Aurora doesn’t just smell fish? Say, a shipment coming in?” Marjorie rode behind Basil on top of the bear, likely getting a face-ful of his hair. “I mean, I know you said you gave her a scent sample before you went to bed…”

“It was your idea, Miss Marjorie! And I’m sure of it. She never gets like this unless it’s very important!” Basil stared straight ahead, trying to keep track of where Aurora was taking them. It’d been all he could do to keep her still while servants ran to fetch Marjorie, Ezra, Captain Taylor and at Basil’s request, Prince Alphonse. Who better to save lost friends than a real Prince Charming?

Ezra, being too big and heavy to ride even Aurora safely, had to wait behind.

Alphonse had come without question, he and Taylor riding on horseback. He still wore the rose on his chest, which bloomed as bright as ever. Perhaps it was a family crest of some kind, or a mark of honor. “I think she’s leading us towards the shore,” Alphonse said as he came up next to Aurora. “At the far end of the valley. There’s underwater cave systems there…” 

“It’s best just to let her go where she wants to. Sorry about, um, knocking over the carts earlier…” Basil rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. They were outside the city limits now, running along the outskirts as the rocky ridge surrounding Nautilus approached. 

He thought he saw movement down towards the beach, narrowing his eyes. Who else would be around at this hour? 

Taylor seemed to see it as well, with the way his eyes narrowed. “Just keep an eye out, kid, keep an eye out…”

The wall of thorns and vines stopped, glowing a soft, sickly greenish-white in front of Rem. Behind them, the end of the tunnel remained as solid as ever, strike after strike with the Lightning Spear doing no good. “I thought you said it was weak,” they whispered to Hess.

“Weakened. I don’t know exactly how strong you are, or how easily that thing breaks.” Hess peered over Rem’s shoulders, stretching her neck to do so. “It’s not killing you.”

“I know,” Rem said breathlessly. They picked the spear up again, preparing to strike even knowing it would probably shatter the spear. What else could they do? Even if they sent the princess through the narrow opening, she was likely to drown in the flowing water. And there was no way Rem could fight their way through a tunnel-clogging plant.

“Come to us,” the voices whispered. “Come, feed us. Give us the princess. She belongs with us.”

“Shrivel up,” Rem snapped as they tried to charge up the lightning spear. Maybe they could at least buy some time. Plants didn’t like electricity much, did they? 

And electricity really, really liked standing water, Rem added mentally as they recalled how soaked they were. That idea wouldn’t work. The spear dimmed.

Something faint came from Rem’s sodden pocket. 

“W-what was that, Princess?” Rem stiffened, listening carefully.

“Take me out. I need to see it myself.”

“What?! Sorry, sorry, no shouting. But it’s trying to kill us,” Rem hissed.

“Me. It wants me. Lord Germain wants me. Avery Toad decided he wanted me one day. I want to know why.” Something rustled in the pocket as the princess crawled out to look over the edge. The glare was obvious in her tone, if not visible. “What do you want with me, Green Witch!?”

The ‘Green Witch’ stopped wriggling, frozen in place. Buds formed on its tentacles, blossoming into warped, misshapen flowers of every color. “You can fix us. You can free us! You can put us back together. You can do so much with us…”

Hess leaned over Rem’s shoulder again, crawling down to Philomene’s level, then came uncomfortably close to Rem’s ear. “She’s trying to goad it into attacking,” she whispered. She’ll have me signal you when to move aside so the plant will open the door for us.”

It sounded terribly risky to Rem, but they didn’t have another plan. Besides, it was interesting how the Green Witch hesitated at all. It didn’t want to attack them because it wanted them both to join willingly. 

“And my blood.” Rem laughed, hoarse, adrenaline making them strangely giddy. “What do you want with it? Are you jealous? Trust me, it’s not all fun and games. Besides, you’re quite big enough.”

“Never enough,” the voices whispered. “Brother Gourmet never has enough. Sister Rot never spreads enough fear. We are never big enough, never strong enough. There’s so much more we could know. So many more places we could grow in! We could make the world a big beautiful forest. Grow as high as the Islands and choke out the sun. We’d never be too small again…”

“…Ah.” This time Rem shuddered, imagining great, monstrous trees piercing the Islands and tearing them apart. And yet, the Green Witch still didn’t move. They were in a stand-off. 

“Enough of this.” Hess detached abruptly from Rem’s back, landing behind them with a splash. “Giant, Flowerling, duck down. Get out of the way when I signal you.”

Rem startled. “Wait. Wait! Hess, what are you doing?!”

“Getting you out. She can’t grow any further.” Hess laughed, a noise like sloshing mud. “She’s consumed all the biomass from the Vine and run out. So she’s just going to wait until you two pass out, and you’re close to that. I can hear your heartbeat, you know.”

Ignoring that Rem’s heart was indeed pounding hard, they stared down at the Sea Witch. “But what about you? I said I’d save you!”

“Oh Hess, you can’t-there’s so much we could learn from you,” Philomene pleaded. “And it’s our fault you’re in danger..."

“I am not in danger! Well, perhaps a little. But I have a shell that’s endured a lot worse than this. I said we’ve been around so long that the fairies know a few things about us?” Hess began to retreat into her shell, which started to glow with strange glyphs and symbols. “We know a few things about fairies, too.”

“…Hess.” Rem felt wrong, letting another do this on their behalf. That wasn’t how rescues went. 

“You dying here would be stupid and senseless. I’ll be fine; I’ll hold her off as long as I can, so you do what you need to out there. Get ready to run while I give you the chance. She’ll seize onto anything she can to make herself bigger. Rem, you’d better use that big body of yours to protect the little one…” The glyphs on Hess’s shell glowed brighter. 

Rem knelt down, cupping their hands around Philomene as a brilliant glow of sea green filled the chamber.

There was indeed a network of sea caves peppering the rocky coast like honeycomb, the high tide lapping into them. The rescue party followed a path of raised stones resembling a well-worn pathway, the sea water lapping against the side. The mist stung Basil’s exposed face before he raised his scarf over his mouth.

“Any sign of your friends?” Alphonse asked, scanning the area. “And do you smell that? It’s…”
“Roses. Unmistakable,” Marjorie said, snapping her fingers. “As bad as spilled perfume. Why would a sea cave smell like roses? Maybe that’s what Aurora picked up on?”

“But we gave her a sample of Rem’s spare clothing and Philomene’s glove.” Basil frowned. “Not any roses. And why all at once? And…” He briefly lifted his scarf to sniff the air, hit by the scent all at once. “It keeps getting stronger by the minute.”

“Never thought I’d find myself distrusting flowers,” Taylor muttered as he put his hand to his sword. “Might be dryads swarming down here. Keep your eyes out…”

“Oh, not dryads.” A prim, composed voice echoed through the cave entrance, bearing the trademark higher pitch of a Flowerling. “There’s something much more interesting down here! And thanks to your friends, it’s active again. Which is at least one of the outcomes I was hoping for. I like to think this means fortune is smiling down upon us, don’t you?”

The figure Basil had spotted earlier stepped out from behind a rock formation, and only then did Basil recognize him. Avery Toad smirked from behind his spectacles, holding a jar in one hand with a wriggling lid. His other was held out in the customary gentle, stable way one politely held one of the Flower Folk.

“I’m using a remarkable device to project my voice,” Lord Germain said, level and cheerful as he’d been during the party attack. “Quite simple, but easy to reproduce with enough resources. But I digress; you don’t care to know about Voice Crystals. You want to know what’s going to happen next. The good news is, so do I! Won’t that be exciting?”

Chapter Text

Marjorie made eye contact with Avery across the cavern, hiding her shock with mocking laughter. “Well! I never expected to see you show your decidedly slime-deprived face here today, Toad.” She knew enlightened amphibians took great pride in their slime-producing abilities and figured getting under Toad’s skin about it would throw him off. “So I see you’re still playing human. And puppet! Even if you’ve swapped out who holds the strings.” 

Avery’s eyes narrowed when she mentioned ‘playing human,’ though he seemed to recover his sneering confidence quickly. “That talk about puppets is funny coming from you. Besides, you can’t just pick me up and throw me now. And looks like you forgot to bring a big, dumb giant along for help.” 

“No, but we brought a bear! And two princes!” Basil was already reaching for the hilt of his sword when Alphonse put a hand on his shoulder.

“It just feels like a trap,” Alphonse whispered. “It’s too obvious, don’t you think?”

Well, Marjorie thought, perhaps Prince Charming was sharper than she originally suspected. “They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have something to gain from it. Certainly a Flowerling outlaw wouldn’t expose himself without need…”

“Gentlemen, lady, please!” Lord Germain’s upbeat voice broadcast through the cavern again as Avery held his hand up, a tiny figure sitting next to a palm-sized gem. That must have been the device he was using to magnify his voice. “And Nautilus’s very own Viscount Vittorio Taylor, is it? Or Captain Taylor. I suppose the Ever After Empire looks the other way at nepotism. Either way, quite an honor! You’ve all come quite far to save your friends. I’m a little jealous. Avery here would never go those lengths for me.” 

Avery grinned nervously, looking down at his hand. “Oh, uh, I wouldn’t say that! You just don’t know me well enough yet to-” He stopped as the jar wiggled, using his elbow to shove it shut and turning a bit pale. 

“There’s no need to lie to me. You’re a loyal assistant for selfish reasons, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Besides, enough about you and myself. I think you all want to know what it is I’m doing, and that’s why you’re hesitating. You’re curious, just like me.”

Taylor snorted, though any swagger the man might have carried before was gone. He was giving Avery a cold stare. Marjorie suspected he was torn between ordering them to charge anyway or waiting for the right moment, in case Germain was setting a deadly trap. However headstrong the old man might be, he at least seemed to show concern for the others. 

Meanwhile, Avery was growing more and more uncomfortable with whatever was in the jar, which kept trying to force the lid open. “Boss, it’s wearing off…”

“Now, now! Just give it a moment. She should be along any second now,” Germain insisted.

“She? Do you mean Red?” 

“No, no! Red-Red isn’t supposed to meet up with us at all. I’m thinking…” Germain fell quiet as Avery put his hand to his chest. Marjorie recognized that protective gesture. A Flowerling could hear and feel things a human couldn’t.

Lord Germain had just warned Avery of something.

“Get down,” Marjorie whispered harshly to her companions. “Now! Something’s coming…!” 

As she crouched down next to Aurora, the north wall of the cave shattered as the area filled with blinding green light. When it had faded, an enormous figure lay sprawled, stomach-up, bedraggled and soaked. The impact splashed cold ocean water on everyone but Basil, who was shielded by Aurora, and the force of it had apparently knocked Avery off of his feet. 

The jar fell to the ground and rolled, waves of something green and wriggly oozing out.

“That wasn’t what you said would happen,” Avery sputtered, staring at the half-conscious giant before him. “Worms and flies, they’re getting out…!”

“…Well!” Germain’s voice sounded more bemused than anything else. “That part I didn’t anticipate at all. I figured they would have broken the Green Witch out themselves after the princess resonated with her. But we seem to be minus one…oh. Hopefully I spoke too soon!”

The gaping hole left in the wake of the explosion was covering itself up with a greenish-white pattern of swirls and colors. The barrier seemed to stretch itself and warp, struggling to keep something at bay. Whatever it was, it was clawing at the barrier and pushing against it. Marjorie thought she saw a white tendril.

Taylor had run to the giant’s side, standing by their shoulder. “Rem! Tera, dammit, wake up! What just happened now?!”

Rem, who Marjorie had only seen briefly before, forced themselves up onto their elbows. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in the back of one hand, and a trickle of oddly metallic red blood ran down their forehead. “…Captain. Hey, my-my pocket. She should be there-make sure she’s okay, alright?” 

Immediately deducing who the ‘she’ in question might be, Marjorie ran over to Rem’s side and searched desperately for the pocket in question. They had one on their chest, with a small lump inside. She felt her stomach leap to her throat at the thought of what might have become of fragile little Philomene in that blast and fall, tearing the pocket open.

Inside was Philomene, just as soaked and close to unconsciousness as the giant, but showing no signs of pain. She coughed up water into Marjorie’s hand, looking up at her with a mix of relief, exhaustion and terror.

“Princess!” It was all Marjorie could do to keep from crying, all the guilt from having lost her best friend rushing back to her now that they were reunited. But she had a reputation to maintain, and tear-filled eyes wouldn’t be useful in a crisis. 

“Marjorie…” Philomene put a hand on Marjorie’s palm, then looked between her and Taylor with urgency. Her voice was hoarse. “Don’t let it near you. Don’t let it out!”

“Let what out?” Taylor asked, right before somethng wooden and covered in spines smashed against the barrier. “Good gravy, what’s been living under here?” 

“I woke it up. Her up. She wants the rest of her…” Philomene sounded delirious with exhaustion. 

“Highness, rest now! Whatever’s on the other side is at least trying to take care of it,” Marjorie insisted.

“Hess.” That was Rem, whose booming voice cracked with weariness. “She’s a…a snail. I’ll move some rubble in front of that hole…”

“Like Hell you will,” Taylor snapped. “You’re wounded, and we’ve got able-bodied humans here. And a bear. You lay low. You did good.” 

“I did…good?” Rem’s eyes seemed to light up. Only then did Marjorie make the connection regarding the wounded hand. Rem had taken that blow for Philomene. 

Putting the fact that she now owed a great debt to a Sky official of some sort, Marjorie made sure Philomene was safely secured in her front pocket. “Don’t worry, Princess. We’ll be home soon. And it looks like the princes are going after our favorite Toady…”

Basil sprung into action the moment he had a chance, leaping back atop Aurora to pursue the fleeing Avery. “Alphonse, come with me! I bet we can catch him!”

Alphonse grinned. “You didn’t even need to say the word.” He leaped on Aurora’s back behind Basil as the bear took off through the caverns. Aurora ran right around the fallen giant that Marjorie and Taylor were attending to, hopping from outcropping to outcropping to keep Basil as dry as possible.

Basil held on tight, aware of the danger if he fell into the water. He heard the ocean was warm this time of year, but that had come from people who had a different sense of what ‘warm’ meant. Still, when drops of spray hit the exposed parts of his face he was surprised by the lack of cold sting. 

There were little green things swimming through the underground tide pools, moving a little too fast to be seen properly. “I’m sure those are the things that came out of the dryads when we defeated them. The little snakes…maybe those are the dryads and the rest is just a shell?”

Alphonse’s answer was more subdued than he was used to from the polite prince. “Is-is that so? Basil, are you seeing this too…?”

Basil frowned, unsure what Alphonse meant. He signaled for Aurora to stop, looking down around her. The green wiggly things were starting to swarm all around her in a circle. 

Then one started to climb up her fur.

An alarmed Aurora reared back, roaring and tossing both of her passengers into the water. Basil held his breath and prepared himself for the worst, for the jolt of pain and numb shock to overtake his body as he was thrown into cold water so rapidly.

It never came. This water was remarkably mild. In fact, even by his own standards it was much warmer than ocean water had a right to be, especially by the green creatures. Several of them slithered right by him, much to his disgust; he reached down on a whim and finally grabbed hold of one with a gloved hand, holding it tightly as it squirmed in his hand. It looked like a thick stem with no leaves or spines, held fast in his grip but clearly lunging towards Aurora.

Or perhaps towards Alphonse, who had climbed back onto Aurora’s back and clung there as if cornered. That Prince Charming would help himself before another was…curious in Basil’s mind, but Alphonse was likely in a very understandable panic. 

Out of the corner of his eye, Basil saw Avery hiding behind a dripping rock feature. He was playing a flute which made no audible noise, deep in forced concentration. That must have been how Germain, or rather his assistant, controlled the dryads. 

The water was starting to lose its warmth rapidly. Basil climbed onto the rocky path, frowning at the water dripping from his furs and wool garb; that would get chilly quickly. He didn’t have time to spare. After sticking the green thing in his satchel and tying it tightly, he rushed at Avery, slamming his shoulder into the taller, thinner man. It knocked the wind right out of Avery, who dropped the flute. 

Basil stomped on the wooden flute, snapping it in two. 

Instantly the swarming green creatures fell idle in the water as if dead, then began to swim about slowly like fish. Alphonse took the chance to leap off of Aurora, drawing his sword and aiming it at the dazed Avery’s chest.

“So, seems you’re empty-handed.” Alphonse nodded to Basil, who grabbed Avery’s hands and held them behind his back. “Where’d you hide your Master? We’ll take care of him quickly.”

“And hand you both to the authorities,” Basil added, though he was sure that was what Alphonse meant.

Avery wouldn’t look them in the eye, his glasses hanging from his face. “He’s not here, you idiots. You think he’d put himself at risk when he could just use me?” He gestured with a head-tilt at the jewel Lord Germain had used to communicate, which stood on a rock next to a Flowerling-sized wooden doll. “She used me, too. And she’s down here, and she still won’t take me back. I still can’t hear her voice anymore…!”

“…She? You mean the Green Witch?” Basil squinted. “But you just said she used you. Why would you have any loyalty to her, or to Lord Germain? He clearly doesn’t have much regard for you!”

“Yes, but they want me. They need me. Or she did. As if I was ever useful to Thumbelina, as if any of them would have remembered my name the moment they stopped talking to me!” Avery had stopped struggling. It surprised Basil until he noticed how the gem had gone dark.

Lord Germain had apparently abandoned his lackey, at least for the moment. Perhaps Rem had foiled his plan. 

Or perhaps this was part of his plan and they were playing right into it. Since when, Basil wondered, had he started thinking like Marjorie? Why couldn’t he ever deal with straightforward, easy to figure out kinds of evil?

“Alright, you two.” It was Captain Taylor, marching through the pool and up to the stone walkway with a pair of handcuffs. “We’ll take him in from here. I sent guards to follow us before we left. Any sign of the little guy?”

“Erm, no.” Basil pointed to the decoy. “Cowardly of him if you ask me! And I got one of the…dryad hearts? I don’t know what else to call them.” 

Taylor looked down at the water and frowned. “I don’t like the idea of the rest of those going free. I’ll call for a net, though not sure there’s much we can do at this point. Damned high tide.” He rubbed his forehead. “So there’s something trying to get out, and neither of our witnesses are in any shape to tell us what’s going on right now. Let’s at least get you out of here and dried off before there’s any trouble, Prince Basil. And, uh. Maybe try to get ahold of Ezra and that Salten kid, because Rem’s out cold and we’re gonna have a hell of a time getting them out.” 

Inside Basil’s pack, the green worm was still as death; he wondered if he had accidentally killed it after all. But as he passed that shimmering green barrier, now surrounded by soldiers trying to cover it with rubble, he thought he felt it writhe.

And something looked out at him from the other side of the barrier, pressing against it as if it were a glass window. A single eye watched him, nested in the center of a large, white rose.

Chapter Text

Philomene opened her eyes and stared at a far too distant ceiling, a cavern painted in soft white and lit by the morning sunlight. Her bed was too soft; she’d sunken into it, despite her slight weight, and knew sitting up would take more effort as a result. This wasn’t her room in Thumbelina, alight with the soft green glow of mushrooms and the comforting presence of the Vine…

The Vine. The Green Witch. The voices.

“It’s coming! It’s going to get out!” Her voice was hoarse, her throat painfully dry. Philomene struggled to sit up, only to find her bed prompted up from below by an unseen force and a great shape loom over her. “She’s going to get out…!”

“Shh! It’s okay!” The voice was deep but familiar, whispering for the sake of her comfort. Her vision cleared and she recognized the pair o gold eyes peering down at her as Ezra adjusted the pillow she was resting on. “It’s just me. Us.” 

“Don’t crowd her!” Marjorie peered over at Philomene, her red-rimmed eyes suggesting a lack of sleep. “Princess, how are you feeling? We took you back here just in case, though the Thumbelina military is on alert. We figured it’s better to make sure you recover and then get you back home.” 

Philomene sat up with some force, holding her pounding head. She was promptly presented with a teaspoon full of water, which she drank down slowly. Presently voices sounded clearer to her, her breathing steadying. “I must have been dehydrated,” she gasped. “There wasn’t much safe water down there to drink.”

“Or anything to eat, I suspect.” Ezra waited for Marjorie to take the spoon away, and then very slowly, very carefully produced a saucer with a shell pattern. It was human scale, which made it quite a large tray for her, and on it sat a delicately presented serving of fruit salad and cream drizzled with honey. It looked better than anything Philomene had ever eaten, after she’d gone so long without a meal. He’d even provided a little Flower-scale spoon. “One of your soldiers brought the spoon. I hope I didn’t bend it too much when I held it!”

She stared. “Oh, Ezra, did you make this? For me?” Usually when traveling with her larger friends, she’d just eat a smaller portion of whatever was prepared for everyone else. It would be imposing to ask Ezra to make a specific dish so small.

“It’s really just a matter of chopping fruit up very precisely,” Ezra said quickly, reddening. “And precision is the mark of a good chef! If I’m going to cook for the people of the land I ought to learn how to accommodate all of them. So really-”

“Just take the compliment!” Basil came up behind Ezra, somehow louder than his giant boyfriend. “He had to use a magnifying glass. Ah, Princess, we were worried about you! Don’t worry, you have at least one true Prince Charming promising to keep your kingdom safe, and myself as well! And besides, with your brilliance I’m sure you’ll come up with a perfect solution to this plant problem. That must be why Lord Germain captured you in the first place. He was jealous of your brains.”

Philomene made herself smile, for the sake of Basil’s confidence in her, Ezra’s effort and Marjorie’s worry. “I don’t think that was it, though he was rather vague about what he wanted. He seemed to fancy himself a mentor of sorts, and then proceeded to drop me in the underground tunnels. Or did I teleport myself there…?” Her head ached again, so she took a mouthful of fruit and cream. It tasted heavenly.

“Your sisters are coming on dog-back,” Marjorie said. “We’re at the Anemone Hotel right now, in one of the human-scale rooms.” That explained why Ezra was crouching. “You just rest for now…”

Philomene lowered the spoon, her smile fading. She felt her eyes well up. “I…I can’t. I think I woke up the Green Witch, though she shouldn’t have been down in there in the first place. Nothing matches up with anything. There are so many puzzles. And I thought everything was resolved…” 

“Oh! Princess, please don’t cry!” Ezra sounded hesitant and panicked. “I-I thought I was putting a little spell into it, but I was trying to infuse it with comfort. Just tried to channel it into there while I cook. But maybe I was too worried and stressed out while I did it and I passed it on instead?”

She shook her head and looked up at Ezra, wiping her eyes. “It’s not your fault. I’m just afraid that what comes next may be my fault. The Green Witch was down there, in fragments.” She took a deep breath to calm herself. “She reached out to me. So did Lord Germain, acting as if we had anything in common. But his words I could just chalk up to lies and manipulation. If she’s powered by ambition, I don’t know what that says about me.” She made take another mouthful and swallowed. “I’m sorry. I’ll tell you everything later…”

“Captain Taylor will be asking about it later. But for now, don’t even think about it! And don’t crowd her,” Marjorie added, poking at Ezra and Basil.

“No, Marjorie, it’s alright. I’m glad you’re all here. I’ve missed you so, and I worried about you! Besides, there’s something I want to talk to Ezra about…”

“I can guess. It’s about having one of the Other Ones in your head, right? Getting to you.” Ezra rubbed a hand through his hair. 

“If you want to talk about this alone later…”

“No,” the giant insisted. “I’m ready to be more open about it, especially if it would help you. I don’t know what the Green Witch did to make contact with you, but I can tell you that the Gourmet gave me a distorted image of myself. Told me what I wanted and needed to serve his needs. And at the same time, as much as I hate to think it, I understood him. In an awful way.”

Basil blinked. “Understood him? Wasn’t he just greedy?”

“Yes, painfully so. And so was I, wasn’t I? Because we were both too focused on what we lost. He was lonely and still reeling from what he saw as an injustice done to him, and I guess he wanted to fill the void. You know, like how I filled it with work. Still do sometimes,” Ezra added with a mumble. “I still hate him and I’ll never forgive what he did to me, but some part of me gets it. Doesn’t mean I’d do it myself, you know?”

“…She showed me something amazing. And she longed for it. She saw right through me.” Philomene stirred the bits of cream remaining on the plate. “It’s a little hard not to dwell on it. Ezra, did you think ‘why me? What’s wrong with me that someone that awful would be drawn to using me?’ I know I’m ambitious, but she’s the ambition-monster that almost destroyed my kingdom once. And I helped let her out because I was curious and wanted to push myself a little further. And because I took a risk of self-preservation.”

“And isn’t that one of the laws of your people? Doing what’s necessary to survive?” Marjorie crossed her arms. “I will not let you beat yourself up for this, Highness. You really need to learn how to self-justify better!” She chuckled. “I kid, I kid! But believe me, we’ll have time to go over all this later with the guard and the Thumbelina magistrates. Your older sister has ordered me to keep a watch over you in the meantime.” 

“…Thank you, Marjorie.” Philomene started to close her eyes before they shot open again. “Wait. The guard. Investigator Tera! What happened to them?! Were they hurt saving me? Did they get out safely? I know they were injured fleeing from the Green Witch…”

“Ah, the C.P.? They’re fine. I think.” Ezra rubbed his arms. “Salten and I needed to help carry them in, and they sent for an Exiled physician from Sky Harbor. Taylor’s gone to see them now…”

“But I have to file a report now!”

Rem was sitting up in their slightly too small hotel room bed, hand and arm bandaged, dressed in clean robes and most importantly, bathed.  As soon as they woke up from sleeping far longer than they’d intended to, they’d indulged in what they knew was a wasteful yet entirely necessary bath for as long as they could manage. Their hair was wrapped in towels while it dried. Under other circumstances, they’d be embarrassed to get a visit from Captain Taylor in such a state, but all they could think was how absolutely crucial that report was. 

“For crying out loud, Tera, you need to recover first! You’re in no condition to write anything coherent.” Taylor was carrying around a mug of coffee and looked as if he hadn’t slept much. “How would it get up there anyway?”

“I put it in a container to be shipped up with the Merchants. You know, those masked people who do all the trading with the land. Ow…” Rem’s hand still hurt. It had been an effort washing their hair and skin with just one hand, though worthwhile in their eyes. They could no longer smell brine. “Oh, where’s the princess? She’s safe, right?”

“Yes, and you keeping her safe is why I’m not gonna write your superiors up about you running off without notifying anyone and just vanishing in the wake of a magic-related incident,” Taylor said in a flat tone. He leveled his gaze up at Rem.

“Ohhh. Yeah. Yes, that was. Thanks, sir. Just doing my job.” The confidence Rem had managed to project around Taylor was a lot harder to manage when they weren’t feeling their best. “Maybe you’re right. I should eat first before writing…”

“Yes, and then you dictate the report to me and I file. Anything they need to know I need to know too, since this problem’s threatening my city. Well, Dad’s city.” Taylor coughed. “Seriously kid. I admire your guts, especially since you seemed so stiff and formal when we first met, but you don’t need to be so desperate to please everyone.”

While they admitted their mistakes, Rem wasn’t quite up for Taylor judging their attitude. “Aren’t you a noble? We don’t have that sort of thing up in Vox. I had to work hard to get where I am.”

“Nice try, but your mom’s a senator. It can’t be that different.”

Rem winced. How did Taylor find that out? How much information had Celestial Patrol sent ahead of them anyway? “Well, I don’t get anything by birthright. And, well. It’s not just that.”

Taylor moved aside as several human hotel workers wheeled in a large bowl of minestrone and fresh bread on a tray. Rem was almost always a little hungry, which made it easier to forget just how starving they were up until the food arrived. They hadn’t eaten in at least 24 hours. Self consciousness went away for a few seconds as Rem ate spoonfuls of vegetable soup. 

“…It’s improved,” Rem marveled. “Not too salty this time.”

“Yeah, I think they have a new guy working in the kitchen at the moment.” Taylor cleared his throat. “So. Your blood.”

The spoon stopped halfway up. Rem tried to laugh nervously. “Did I lose a lot of it?”

“Rem, if it’s important to the case, I need to know. And if it’s about your health, I need to know that too. You dying here would be a diplomatic issue. You know that, right?”

Rem was very quiet for a moment, then laughed mirthlessly as they set the spoon down. “I shouldn’t ask for a drink until my stomach’s full, or I’d want to share it over one. Did the physician tell you?”

“Colossus, they called you, but didn’t say what else.”

“Yeah, that. It’s an inborn thing. Not a curse exactly, though we think there’s some magic involved. You’re born like everyone else and everything seems normal.” Rem rubbed their bandage idly. “Then around adolescence your blood starts showing that metallic sheen. And then, uh. You know how adults stop growing at some point? A colossus doesn’t. We slow down a bit, or go through spurts sometimes. And we more or less look the same for a while, no deepening of voice or anything like that. But…”

Taylor stared. “So, gigantism?” 

“No, Sky Folk can get that too! It’s not exactly the same. You don’t die young of it. It’s rare enough that there are only maybe one or two per generation. And you just keep on growing until…uh, until you don’t fit places. Your skin starts taking on a metallic sheen too, and you stop needing to eat, and…I dunno. Most people don’t survive that phase. I’m the only one I know personally, you get me?” Rem’s voice was shaking, much to their embarrassment. “That’s why we think it’s caused by some kind of magic. It might be a hold out from a long time ago. But I mean, in the Sky we don’t-people who stand out don’t do so well. Folks gets scared or uncomfortable. Can you blame ‘em? I bet I loom enough already, and I always have to buy new clothes. Why do you think I always wear stuff that’s flowing? It’s not just all Lunar presentation…ah, Luna, you’re staring. This is why I wanted to wait and talk about it over beer.”

“No, it’s just. Had no idea you had something like that. No cure?”

Rem shook their head. “Not yet. But you know, sometimes it just takes the right motivation. Imagine a hero who’s also a Colossus! Someone who saves Vox, saves the entire Sky from a threat, who stands for justice and order and serves the Sun and the Moon properly. The system won’t fail someone who does everything right, I’m sure of it! I’ll become essential to Vox, invaluable to them. So they will always want me around even when…if I outgrow ‘em.” They took a long drink of water. “See, I mostly didn’t want to talk about it because it’s depressing. And not an immediate threat. It’s long term. I’ll be out of your hair before it even matters much.”

“…So is that why you’re so desperate to make an impression? Afraid they’ll kick you out for it?”

“They won’t! I mean, the system works. It has to. I wouldn’t serve one that didn’t.” Rem was already regretting talking about it. They had enough peers back home treating them hesitantly, no doubt thinking of the monster they’d become someday. They had hoped never to find out how humans would take it.

“But they sent you down here…” Taylor clasped his hands behind his back. “Nah, nevermind.”

Rem rang the bell to ask for a second helping of soup. “It doesn’t mean anything,” they insisted. “Being sent down here, I mean. And if they did it thinking I’m likely to fail so they have an excuse to Exile me properly? I’ll just prove them wrong.”

“You know, Thumbelina’s been the site of magical and scientific advancements for years. Not all of them are ones we can use because they can’t convert the scale yet, but they still might be able to help you.”

Thinking of the tiny princess, Rem stiffened and then shook their head. “Oh, come on. She-I mean, they have enough to deal with right now.” They’d already wondered how terrifying they must have looked to the Thumbelinan troops and guests at the party, looming over even the other Sky person present. What good would it be to tell Philomene ‘by the way, I’m going to become a lot bigger and scarier later?’ In a few years they might not even be able to see Flowerlings anymore.

There was no point in making friendships destined to be outgrown. 

“So, uh, that report.” Rem hoped that was enough to get Taylor to drop the subject. 

“Eat your soup. We’ll make a report over a drink, Ser Can’t Drink on an Empty Stomach.”

Rem blinked. “But it’s official business!”

“And you need a drink.” Taylor sighed. “And so do I, before I tell you what’s gone on down by that cave. Things are getting…complicated.”

Chapter Text

Red limped through the ventilation tunnels that led to the heart of the aquarium, her rust-colored fur caked with dirt and blood. One of her ears still stung where she’d caught it on a huge thorn, so she kept it folded up against her head. Her tail curled between her back legs. She stopped to pant as she arrived in the chamber beneath the big tank, her injuries and ordeal having left her exhausted. Too tired to speak or transform, she chose to alert Lord Germain to her presence with a whimper. 

He spun around, looking up from where he'd been performing some manner of operation on a flower stalk. "Red! There you are! Oh poor girl, it went badly for you I see! That happens, that happens. Come here and bring the bottle and we'll get you patched up." 

She padded over to his table, pushing herself onto her hind legs so he could reach the pouch hanging around her neck. He pulled from it a bottle as big as himself, heaving it out and setting it on the table with a huff. "There we go! Still some life in these old bones.” He pressed his hands against the small of his back. “Too stiff, though. You should have seen me in my prime. I was no chicken-rider, but I could lift apples with the best of them. Speaking of, I'll have to learn to carry my own weight again now that we're down one assistant for the time being."  

He pulled at a rope dangling at the edge of the table. A series of pulleys and weights Red had trouble following lowered a door, filling a bowl on the floor with clean water. Red padded over and began slurping up the cold, refreshing water, letting it soothe her sore snout. 

"Careful now! Don't drink too fast or you'll throw up. And look at that, a full bottle of Witchwisdom Algae despite it all. You are truly irreplaceable, my creation." Germain lowered himself in a little basket with his arms full of strange-smelling pieces of cloth. The earthy, vinegar scent made Red sneeze as the Flowerling rubbed the cloth scraps over her wounds, crawling all over her. He'd done this before, so she was used to the sensation of tiny feet and hands on her skin. She lay perfectly still as instructed, whimpering only at the sting. 

"Yes, that would be the alcohol. We haven't figured out completely why it's good for cleaning a wound, but it works. There, you'll be fixed up in no time." He stood next to her, looking up at her with his hands clasped behind his back and a grin on his face. "What a brave girl you are. Tell me what happened. Go on, you don't need to transform. In fact, you’d best not. It could tear those wounds open."  

Red found speaking more difficult in her wolf form, but she could do it. She had vague memories of hearing her mother make noises she couldnt yet understand, and recalling those made it easier for her to try. "I went to the witch's cave again like I'm supposed to, and there was a little you there." 

"A little me?" He laughed. "You mean a Flowerling." 

"Yes. She smelled like violets. Too many other smells there, like fish and snails and dead things." Red lowered her head so she could talk to Germain on the same level. 

“I expected she’d be there. You didn’t eat her, did you? Remember, no eating anyone without my permission.”

Red shook her head. “Just wanted to scare her off or bring her to you. There should have been only snails! Then the big flower in the center closed up around her and its veins glowed white. I got the green stuff while she was in there. Then it burst open, the room filled with vines and spikes and tried to choke me, tried to kill me…” She shook involuntarily.

“Go on.”

“I ran back into the tunnel. I thought it was too big to follow, but it reached branches up. It kept going and going, trying to tear me apart. I kept hearing it say something about ‘worthless, worthless, no ambition.’ I don’t even know what that means!” She raised her ears, her breathing slowing as she recalled the happier end to her story. “But White Hood saved me.”

“Ah. White Hood again? Your unseen savior.”

“She says she’s my guardian star. She always looks like me, but white like a cloud or a mushroom. She showed up at the entrance in her human form and reached her hand out. The vines all recoiled and turned into black slime. Like-like the stuff the Dryads turn into when their bodies fall apart.” She curled her tail around her. “She saved me…”

Germain stroked his beard. “Such a shame she never seems to appear in front of me! I have to admit, the first time you told me about her I assumed you’d imagined her. Lonely children sometimes do imagine friends.”

Red growled low. “She’s real!” The fur on the back of her neck stood up.

Germain briefly showed a rare moment of panic, as if realizing what he was looking up at. But Germain was never really afraid of anything. Red Hood was sure of it. “No, I believe you! I didn’t mean to insult you. I’m just genuinely wondering if you could get her to appear in front of me someday. So I can thank her for protecting my loyal creation.”

“She says she only wants to appear in front of me. Everyone else scares her.” 

“Well! Curious. As if I’m anything to fear, eh?” He laughed, hands on hips and belly shaking. “What you found there was the Green Witch. I had a feeling she’d wake up if the Princess found her. I didn’t realize you’d be down there at the same time, though. I must have forgotten to tell you to hold off on the algae runs! I am sorry.” He never stopped smiling. “But know that I’m very impressed by your bravery and consistency! You didn’t abandon me even when the worst happened. I’ll remember that, and reward you richly in the end.”

Reward? Red knew rewards as things like bacon, squid or the fish sausages sold by the sailors from far away. Her tail wagged and she sat up despite the pain.

“Ah, I really should watch my own mouth! I have only ground beef for you today, what with Toad missing right now and all.” He whistled as two dandelion Dryads only twice Germain’s height carried a package of meat and set it down before Red. “Again, don’t eat too fast or you’ll lose it.”

Red was about to devour the food in front of her when Germain’s words registered with her. “Toad is missing?”

“Arrested. Inevitable really, and I planned for the possibility by sending him out there with a decoy of myself. And I doubt he won’t hesitate to come forth with information, as he’s not exactly known for loyalty. We may have to move our base of operations soon.” An odd smile crossed Germain’s face. “Thankfully I can at least replace him in the physical labor department. The Dryads are developing so well. Their intelligence and variety of plant growth spiked ever since the Green Witch woke up, just as I’d hoped for. They’re feeding off her power, but still under my control as long as that barrier holds. To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure how this would turn out. I rarely am!” 

“Not afraid of dying?”

“Well, I don’t want to die yet! Not before I’ve left my mark. Die now and I’m an odd historical footnote.” Germain’s smile fractured. “I can’t settle for just that.”

He was about to start talking about concepts Red didn’t understand, and she knew it. He would always tell her not to feel bad if she couldn’t keep up. He was a scholar, after all, and she was an Enlightened beast at heart. But she didn’t like being reminded of that gulf between her and her creator.

“I can help you move and hide.”

“What? No, I won’t hear of it. Not that a wolf pup of your prodigious size isn’t strong, but you have no hands! And your human shape is still that of a child. The Dryads are stronger and less expendable in the case of an emergency.” 

She whimpered again, flattening her ears.

“Oh, come now. Don’t make that face. Eat up and restore your strength so those ointments can work faster.” He patted her paw, climbed back into the basket and began lifting himself back onto the table.

“Why do I have that other body?”

Germain stopped halfway up the table leg, turning around to look owlishly at Red. “Pardon?”

“The human body. How come I can turn into that? Mother couldn’t, could she?”

“…So. You remember more than you let on.” He leaned against the side of the basket. “And this is the first time you’ve really started asking questions. Your intellectual development must be accelerating! Fascinating. You want to know why I gave you the ability to turn into a human? Even if you don’t like the answer? People are always asking questions and getting the wrong answers, you know. You have to be open to the worst and accept it as the truth.”

Red just tilted her head. 

“Oh, nevermind. You were the last of my Enlightenment experiments, the most successful by far. You’re the only creature I was able to bring to full intelligence and speech capacity, long after I’d given up on the project. I made a few Seeds of Enlightenment for the old witch who helped me break out of prison in the first place, and she returned one day with you. Threw the Seeds at me, saying I could use them as I wish.” He chuckled. “Guess it didn’t work out for her! I did warn her I had no proof that those Seeds would work. Well, I thought you deserved a chance at experiencing wisdom. I fed the seeds to you and you started trying to speak. An hour later you shape-shifted. Which is unprecedented! Shape-shifting is incredibly difficult magic to perform. What do you think is at the root of Avery Toad’s problems?” 

“…It was an accident?”

“Your human body, yes! But what a wonderful accident. My former colleagues would be envious, burning up with it if they knew about you! Oh, and they’d take you away from me.”

“No!” Red wanted to shift into her human body just to wrap her arms around herself. Instead she lowered herself to the floor and curled up at the very idea, imagining a thousand hands dragging her away. “No, I want to stay here with you!”

“That’s why you can’t ever tell anyone about yourself. If Avery’s said anything there’s nothing we can do about it, but don’t you worry. I know you won’t let them take you off. You won’t let them corrupt you. You are loyal, as I said, and for that you will reap a great reward in the end. If we end up rich, I’ll give you your own forest to run around and stock it with deer for hunting. How would you like that?”

“…It would be nice.” Though most of Red’s clear memories were of underground cave laboratories, city apartments and other places Germain had moved his domain when the time came. She had no attachment to the forest. The forest was where the bad thing had happened. 

“There now. Any more questions? You know I’m always willing to answer anything I can. Curiosity is the greatest virtue! You must let it bloom and flourish, see all your questions answered at any cost.”

There was one question Red had asked before, though she hoped she’d get a different answer this time. “Do you love me?”

Germain’s expression softened, and he stepped closer, leaning over the edge of the basket. “Oh, that old question again. Red, Red, my dear Red. Of course not. That would be love given just because you exist, and what worth would it be? If you strive hard enough you can be loved, and one day you can call me Father. Then you’ll know it’s earned.” 

When Red’s ears drooped, Germain sighed. “Remember,” he continued, “unconditional love is compromising! It’s dangerous. It broke your mother’s heart, and that’s how the prince drove her mad and convinced her to die. You wouldn’t want that to happen to me, would you?”

As brief flashes of her great, huge, powerful mother fleeing from the prince filled her head, followed by the fog and panic it always brought as she could not quite recall what happened next, Red shivered. “No, no! No, never! Don’t leave me!”

Germain smiled. “There, see? I won’t leave you, and you won’t leave me. Just keep striving and you can have love that’s earned. Sane, stable love.” 

“…Thank you, sir.” No matter what he said, Red still found herself thinking of him as Father. How awful of her. What if that wish drove him mad after all? It would be all her fault.

“Now rest up and you can help me at least clean up before we move. I’ve got a few locations in mind for our next base of operations. A shame, as I’ll miss this place. You can’t beat the view.” He gazed up at a massive sea turtle swimming idly by. “That way if Avery does spill the beans we’ll make him look like a fool in front of those puffed shirt Imperials. Once you’re feeling better, you can go track him down and report back.”

Red had finally decided to eat to distract herself. She swallowed down a lump of meat. “What if he doesn’t work with us anymore?” 

“Then he’s proven he is a traitor and thus no worth to me, and you may kill him. Discreetly of course, as a wolf in the city would cause quite a stir! Now, I need to get back to my work. I’ll have the Dryads pack while I finish up.” He landed on the table and pressed his hand against a paw-sized jewel; as he did, the green worm creatures that always sat in the baskets rose up, tall green bodies sprouting up around them until they were all stalk, leaf and blossom reaching to the ceiling. “See what I mean? Faster than ever. Oh, and Red?”

She looked up at him, as he was speaking in the tone he had when he had bacon to offer after all.

“Be patient and a good girl, and soon you’ll get your chance to kill Prince Basil. You’ve been so good about waiting, but there’s a time for everything. Especially vengeance.”

Chapter Text

When Basil first ran into Ezra, he’d never seen a Sky giant in the flesh before. On his occasional trips into town he’d heard all the rumors of their fearsome strength, their arrogance, their mysterious reasons for keeping to themselves and the many ways in which they could threaten a human if they so desired. Only later did he realize he had heard very few actual incidents of violent or dangerous giants. People likely just assumed that someone who was so much more powerful than a human would have to abuse their power. Basil himself had assumed it of Ezra at first, a fact that had almost destroyed their relationship before it could start. 

Thus, he’d assumed a lot of the tensions humans showed towards giants were just due to unfamiliarity. Yet he noticed the same lack of eye contact, nervousness and occasional glares towards Ezra in Nautilus, a city that had a small, if isolated Sky population. And the occasional Sky passerby or merchant kept a certain distance, their interactions laced with the unease of being in the ‘wrong place.’ Was there a way to protect someone from that sort of thing? Would a Prince Charming know?

Basil made a note to ask Alphonse about it later. 

Still, no wonder the young Sky woman selling hats of varying sizes was so happy to come across Ezra as the two made their way through the downtown crowds. Others were avoiding her, even though she had human-scaled wares. She actually clutched Ezra’s hand when he bought a red fisherman’s cap with a rim to ‘keep the sun out of his eyes.’ “Bless you, sir! Bless you. May the Sun shine through you and the Moon light your way.”

“It’s-it’s quite alright,” Ezra stammered, taken aback by her reaction. “It’s a nice hat. Keep the change,” he added quickly. He set the hat on his head, rubbing the back of his neck and looking down at Basil. “…How does it look?”

“It’s a smart look. I like it. In fact!” Basil made a bit of a show of approaching the Sky woman’s booth and picking out a wide-brimmed red hat with a big, black griffin feather. “This ought to keep my head warm when the hood won’t do.”

The merchant gave him a double-take, likely wondering about his unseasonal winter clothing, his obvious Mountain heritage apparent in his face and garb alike, or both. He had to hold up the money for her so she could reach it without bending down too far with her pregnant belly. “That’s one of my favorites. Feathers are tokens against chao-against bad luck.” 

“Then I shall make good use of it! Basil of Sethwhile, milady.” Basil gave his best princely bow, letting his cape billow out just enough so it wouldn’t hit the crowds behind him. It took effort when the sea breeze was so faint. “And should you need anything, feel free to ask!” 

She stared at him, taken aback before she actually stifled a giggle while Ezra casually (and very gently) pulled him away. “Come along, Prince,” Ezra said with a wry glance back at him. “Before you flirt with everyone trying to make money off tourists.”

“Wasn’t flirting! You’ve seen my flirting; it’s much more pathetic than that. I just thought I’d try to improve her day! And she looked, I don’t know.” Basil lowered her eyes. “Distressed, somehow. Out here. I’m supposed to help the distressed…”

“You do. Just be careful of making a show of it; some people don’t like the attention.” Ezra set a big hand on Basil’s head and ruffled his hair, triggering flushed skin and a rushed heartbeat in Basil.

Ezra being doting or protective did that. Shy, vulnerable Ezra was one Basil had sworn to protect, and yet Basil had to admit it was secretly nice to remember that if the tables were turned and Basil ever did somehow need assistance, Ezra would save him.

Not that he’d allow such a thing very often! What sort of protector would he be if he did?

Navigating the rest of the crowds through the busy square proved a little easier than following the directions Taylor had given them. They found themselves in front of an older-looking warehouse, the smell of fish and salt wafting in from the wharfs. There were large doors that would accommodate Ezra more easily. Moments after Basil knocked on the rusted doors, they creaked open to reveal two Imperial guards standing at attention and a familiar-looking city guard who looked Basil up and down. 

“Sergeant Bell! Wasn’t it?” Basil instinctively turned on his best Charming Smile to hide how nervous he was at seeing the pretty but stern guard who had escorted them from the holding cell a few days ago. “A pleasure to-”

“Mm-hmm. Nice hats. Come on, you two. Meeting’s about to begin.” The tall, dark-skinned guard whipped around in a way that suggested Basil and Ezra had best follow her. Basil went in first, weaving around the narrow passage between two larger crates while Ezra had to suck in his stomach to fit through. Seconds later, Basil glanced behind him and realized they could have just walked around the boxes as an amused Bell had done.

Inside, the large crates had been arranged to suggests ‘walls’ around a sort of makeshift room writ large, spread over with large sheets of paper and parchment. Scrolls and charts were pinned to the crates thick enough to cover the wood, some with ink still glistening. Guards, city scholars in colorful robes and ridiculous hats and officials sat on smaller crates around the edge of the room, many whispering amongst themselves or staring up at Rem.

It was hard not to stare at Rem, who must have been responsible for all of the big paperwork. Basil had seen the giant “C.P.” as a towering, shadowy sentry during the party attack and the unexpected figure who had protected Philomene before passing out. They hadn’t wanted visitors in their room while they were recovering other than Captain Taylor, so Basil never got his chance to thank them for saving the princess. Now as he looked up and up at them he found himself shamefully losing his nerve, their expression steely and focused and their reserved poise in no way suggesting the sort of person who doodled those pictures in the corner of the notes. They wore flowing blue robes and a bandage over one hand, their hair tied back in a chignon knot. 

Basil and Ezra were led to sit near a contingent from Thumbelina consisting of Flowerling and human guards, officials and several princesses. Basil recognized Marjorie among the humans dressed in flowing violet and yellow garb that suggested plants; she caught his glance and gave him a little wave and a wink, pointing out where Philomene was. She and the other princesses were sitting atop a very obedient white duck, flocked by their human bodyguards and soldiers on birds.

“Well.” It was Taylor who spoke up first. “This is…quite a crowd we have here. I’d apologize for the draft, but considering we’re here to figure out how to save two cities I’m gonna guess you lot can put up with it. You’re all familiar with me, and my brother.” Taylor gestured to  Xaviero, who was beaming as usual but in a way that struck Basil as forced and hiding agitation. Taylor’s voice sounded tense, too. “You understand, none of this leaves this building. The public has already heard about commotions down by the caverns and is sure to wonder why they’re blocked off; they don’t need more reasons to panic. Investigator Tera, if you can tell us about the two threats you found down there in the catacombs.”

Rem’s eyes went wide, and for a second Basil thought they seemed to squeak. They cleared their throat and the excitement died down immediately as the steely expression returned. “The Princess Philomene and I encountered what I am made to understand is the Green Witch. In addition, the Sea Witch Hess-” They paused as the scholars interrupted with gasps and murmurs, only to shut them up with a glare. “The Sea Witch Hess described a black substance found on the walls as ‘rot.’ The same substance has been found leaking from Dryads and infecting a portion of the Sky Island Mielle at the site where a massive beanstalk pierced it some time ago.” 

Ezra stiffened behind Basil, squeezing his hand so hard it almost hurt. Basil let him. It was Ezra’s homeland after all.

Rem had take out a black jar covered in wax, filled to the brim with bubbling goo. “This is a sample taken from Mielle. We have it contained for now, but if it spreads…” They lowered their gaze. “Hess claimed rot was ‘fear,’ or fueled by fear. And the Green Witch, who looked like a very powerful Dryad, kept talking about ‘ambition.’”

Philomene spoke up after Marjorie held up a hand on her behalf. “The Green Witch also claimed the Dryads are the rest of her body. I believe she’s been fractured and split somehow, likely when Prince Alphonse broke the curse on Thumbelina. What we’re dealing with are the after-effects of that.”

Rem nodded, their expression softening at Philomene’s tiny voice. “I am told they’re both powerful fairies of some kind. And I am no fairy expert…”

“Well, we have one here.” Taylor looked right at Basil.

Basil stood, suddenly quite aware of all the eyes on him. “…Me, sir? I mean, I’ll gladly help! But surely one of the scholars…”

“You have firsthand experience. I care about that more.” Taylor seemed to relish the disgruntled look from one of the scholars.

“…Well! Prince Charming is always, uh, willing to share wisdom?” Basil wasn’t sure any of the Charming Ways applied here. “So, fairies! Yes. I was raised by two of them, Lavender and Violet, a married couple. They, are, uh…”

He wasn’t sure where to start. He glanced around and saw a reassuring smile from Marjorie, a gentle one from Ezra and what might have been a thumbs-up from Philomene. Basil took a deep breath and began to explain.

“Fairies are from the Fae Plane, which is another reality. They called it a ‘dimension,’ whatever that means. It exists on top of our world and parallel to it. Whenever anyone uses magic they’re drawing on little gaps into the Fae Plane. I don’t know a lot about it.” He fidgeted with his gloves. “Magic, I mean, or the Plane. Apparently it’s a place of pure magic and energy with no fixed shapes or matter, where angles and physics don’t work the same way. Fairies themselves are pure energy and thought there. Only a select few ever leave to enter our world, and to do so they have to affix themselves to some kind of ‘center.’ It can be an object or a living thing as long as it’s physical matter. Grandma Lavender, for instance, is affixed to a candle that never stops burning, so she has heat magic. The Gourmet’s center was a little candy ball that my grandmothers are keeping watch over.”

He still seemed to have everyone’s attention as he continued. He explained how the Other Ones were different, fragments of a single fairy being who were incomplete and thus needed to feed off of emotions in order to sustain themselves. “The Gourmet fed off of ‘want’ and the obsession with losing something. It sounds like the Rot Witch needs fear and the Green is ambition. They’re basically consuming. Though I’m not sure why the Rot Witch is spreading that goo, or how. If it’s made of her magic she might be able to extend herself into it, meaning she’s…uh, feeding off the people of that rotting Island as well.”

He left off to a long silence, retreating back into his seat with nothing more to say. He wasn’t sure if that would help at all.

Xaviero unexpectedly cleared his throat and spoke. “So, what we must do to counteract the threat of the Rot Witch is not to allow fear to spread. Any plan we have is going to fuel the Green Witch, since a plan is ambitious, but Lord Germain’s been controlling parts of her body, yes? We figure out how he’s doing it and ward her off. And…”

“Ugh.” Taylor glared. “You still think this is a great idea? Tourism isn’t everything!”

“It’s not about tourism, Vittorio!” Xaviero jabbed a finger into his brother’s chest. “It’s about showing Germain and this Rot Witch that we won’t be cowed into submission. Don’t let fear win! Repel her with our willingness to come together as two cities and celebrate the victories we’ve already had and the lives we’ve saved.”

“It’s just too risky, Xav!” 

“See, right there! They want us to find it too risky.” 

As the brothers squabbled, they earned stares from all around and above. Even Rem seemed to be at a complete loss.

Xaviero sighed and then smiled. “What I was going to suggest is that we go ahead with the planned celebratory ball at the end of the month. We hold it on the beach, weather allowing, instead of in the Estate as originally planned. We honor the wanderer Prince Alphonse for saving our cities and join together, Flowerling and human-and Sky,” he added hastily as he glanced upwards, “and take every precaution. And, we lure the Green Witch and her equally attention-greedy Lord Germain out into the open, capture and arrest Germain for good and…”

“…Separate the Green and Rot Witches.” Philomene had spoken up, the walls echoing her voice to magnify it.

Xaviero stopped to stare at her. “…Yes?”

“I think that’s going to be the key. I need to talk to the scholars about it more, our own and yours, but the Green Witch seemed out of balance. I suspect we won’t be able to seal her the way we sealed Gourmet unless we remove the Rot Witch’s influence on her, and an act of defiance like that might weaken it. Maybe…”

“But it’s so dangerous,” another princess added. “And it’ll be more so for our people. Even attending an event hosted by a human majority is incredibly risky for us. How can you assure our safety?”

“Will the invited guests be informed of the purpose of the ball? How many guards will we have on hand?” A Nautilan magistrate asked, spawning a series of questions from all over.

“Isn’t this just doing what the Green Witch wants us to?”

“But cowering is what Germain and the Rot Witch want!”

“We’re not going to have that many Sky people there, are we? I mean besides present company I guess. No offense, but they tromp everywhere and-”

“Is it true Prince Alphonse plans to use the ball to find a bride?”

“How is that even relevant?!”

As the meeting broke into increased chaos and din, Basil inched closer to the Flowerlings. “Well,” he whispered, “what do you think? I don’t really like balls at all, so I suspect any feelings I have on this plan are gonna be biased.”

“It’s very daring,” Philomene said as little Elomene rested against her. “A lot could go terribly wrong. Even unrelated to the Green Witch! Once every several hundred years or so we’re hit with a tsunami, and…ahem. I should think of the issue at hand.”

“I don’t like it,” Marjorie said bluntly. “Not that I don’t appreciate the trickery involved in a trap! But I’m inclined to agree with Captain Taylor that this is likely more about city prestige than tackling the problem. Sometimes you can be so determined to do something that you find any justification you can for it. But it isn’t our decision to make! It’ll ultimately be up to Meramene and the notably absent Duke Taylor. Does he ever leave the house?”

“Well, I like the idea of a ball with monsters and actual risk!” Basil grinned. “I might actually not fall asleep at one like that. What about you, Ezra? Ezra?”

Ezra was murmuring to himself. “Sand tarts, for an ocean-themed ball. Probably seafood too. Shellfish. Do I even know how to prepare shellfish? Leave that to someone else. But I saw mangoes sold at the docks. Mango pie and fruit ices…”

Basil jabbed him in the side gently and Ezra sputtered. “I-I mean,” the giant said, “I’ll go with whatever plan. I’m not really decisive…”

The prince chuckled and looked over the heads of the arguing crowds up at Rem, who again looked to be at a complete loss.

Chapter Text

Salten watched another chicken egg shatter to pieces in his fingers, cursing as the goo ran over his palms. “I don’t get it. How do humans break these things open properly? How do you do it?” 

“It’s bad luck to curse in the kitchen,” Ezra admonished as he came over, pointedly taking an egg from the bowl while Salten washed his hands. “And there’s a reason this is the a cook’s first lesson. You’re going to be handling delicate materials that require subtlety, not force. You keep squeezing them too hard so they break before they can even reach the bowl.”

Flexing his hands after drying them, Salten scowled. He was already tired of being lectured by someone his own age as if he were a child. Ezra carried his head high and spoke authoritatively as if he weren’t a Nameless given work out of pity. Was this his mother’s idea of a punishment, assigning Salten to study under a failure? 

But a last chance was a last chance. Salten took hold of another speckled brown egg from the bowl, cradling it in his hands. “We don’t have enough egg yolks already?”

“It’s lemon meringue.” Ezra spoke to Salten as if instructing a servant, blunt and dismissive. “We need to use the yolks for the custard and the eggs for the meringue topping. Now try one more time. Lightly against the rim of the bowl.”

Salten grumbled and crouched down near the wooden bowl so it was eye level, trying to see exactly what he was doing. In the process he lost his grip on the egg as it rolled out from between his fingers and smashed against the stone counter, making Salten’s bowl-to-disaster ratio 3 to 9. 

“Ugh! This is stupid. This is so stupid.” He threw up his hands. “Can’t you just make me do the clean up? It’s obvious this is just my parents’ way of keeping me busy so I’m not running around with the lads or ‘polluting my mind’ talking with the soldiers.” He didn’t wait for Ezra to answer, scooping up the bits of shell and starting to mop up the egg. 

That at least seemed to provoke something from Ezra, even if what it triggered was an indignant shout. “It isn’t ‘busy work!’ Preparing food properly and respectfully is an act of Sun worship, thanking Her not only for the harvest but for giving us the minds and hearts needed to create beauty in the first place. All work is!” 

“So the street sweepers, they’re worshiping Her too?” Salten rolled his eyes. It was always like this with Sky-born Exiles. They thought they were so much better even though they’d obviously done something wrong to end up on the land in the first place. 

“One takes pride in one’s work, for no matter how others might see it, it’s still important. Although…perhaps street sweeping is not as respected as it should be,” Ezra admitted, glancing away. “They’re still using their gifts. Seems to be better than you’re doing, going out and cavorting all night with who knows what.” 

“My parents exaggerate, alright? I don’t go out drinking all the time, and I’ve only gotten into a-a couple of fights. And most of them weren’t my fault,” Salten added hastily. “You know how many humans wanna prove how tough they are by challenging a healthy giant? They look at me and see a chance to impress others. If I knock them out quickly it just teaches them a lesson.” 

Ezra paused in the middle of rolling out pastry dough. “I-they really do that?” 

The Nameless’s wide-eyed stare was so nervous-looking Salten had to laugh. “Only sometimes! Anyway, I feel like I could serve the Sun just fine in the Imperial Army. They’ve been trying to recruit giants who aren’t namby-pamby artisans and actually enjoy a good fight. They pay well and I’d be, you know, out of my parents’ hair.” 

“We need two more eggs. Remember to separate the yolks, and then I’ll show you how to make a meringue.” Ezra had turned away from Salten and was deep in concentration again, working the dough. Salten could swear he saw something glint or glow in Ezra’s eyes, but it might have been a trick of the light. “You keep calling yourself a giant.” 

“Uh, that’s what we are?”

“It’s a name humans gave us because they see themselves as true people, correctly sized. I don’t think of myself as a giant,” Ezra insisted. 

“No, you don’t. You avoid eye contact and hunch over so you don’t take up a lot of space around humans, like you’re afraid to throw your weight around. But they’re gonna think of you as being too big anyway, regardless of what you do. They’re still going to be nervous around you,  or me, or my parents. Hell, even Aunt Cecily gets nervous looks when she takes her walks.” Salten put his hands on his hips, puffing out his chest. “Maybe up there we’re just people, but down here we’re giants. Why not take advantage of it?” 

“Well, because I don’t want to be a bully. The eggs, Salten.” 

Sighing as he failed to get under Ezra’s skin again, Salten concentrated and managed to break two eggs without much mess. “There. See? Did it.” 

Ezra looked up from the dough, glanced at the bowl and nodded without much of a smile. “Good. See? You just need to concentrate and use delicacy.” 

“Yeah, see, that whole thing? I’m just not a delicate type. And personally I can’t help but feel like this whole thing is just to keep me busy and away from the danger.” Salten leaned over the counter with a toothy grin. “So you saw them, right?”

“Saw what?”

“The plant monsters. The mad scientist from Thumbelina. A guy smaller than my thumb has the city leaders terrified. Nothing this exciting has happened in Nautilus since ever! At least since the Empire took over, and that was way before I was born. Tell me about it. Come on.”

Ezra looked up at Salten and bit his lip, screwing his mouth as if he actually wanted to laugh before stifling it. “You just reminded me of Basil for a second there. Never thought I’d draw that comparison. Anyway, meringue first, and I’ll tell you about the monsters later. Here.” He took the bowl of egg whites and began beating it with a whisk in a rhythmic pattern. “You want to make stiff peaks…anyway, why are you so interested in joining the Army? It’s peacetime. They’ll send you off who knows where, possibly for years, just to protect some Imperial outpost.”

“Exactly! I’ll get to see all kinds of places outside of this boring city.” Salten leaned against the counter, not paying much attention to Ezra’s cooking demonstration. “I get why you wanna help me, but I’m just not made for this sort of thing. I don’t have an artistic ‘inner light’ or whatever you call it. My gift is right here.” He flexed, showing off what he considered to be pretty impressive arm muscles. “But my folks look down on that sort of thing. I bet you do too, don’t you?”

Ezra didn’t answer right away, distracted a little by the flex. “Uh! No, I mean…it’s just that we don’t have much of a military in the Sky Islands. They exist to resolve disputes and protect us just in case, but you certainly can’t make a living by joining them. Maybe your parents are still thinking in those terms.”

“Nah, they just think giants fighting or actually using our strength is feeding into what humans fear about us. And maybe it is, but who cares? They might even like us better if we fought alongside them.” 

“You mean fought for them. The Empire is human-dominated and the Empress is a human,” Ezra noted as he set the bowl aside, pulling out some lemons. “Try juicing these. Again, not too hard or you’ll just get lemon juice in your eye.”

That part was true, and Salten couldn’t argue against it. The idea of taking orders from a human chafed almost as much as being bossed around by a Nameless. 

But he remembered the Empress’s last visit, her rows and rows of guards in white and her elites in all black. She brought with her the distant glory of the Monochrome City of Elysium, the city’s spiraling towers and fountains of white flame. Clad in an elaborate long gown of white and grey, surrounded by masked servants and guards who moved with the regularity of clockwork, she looked out into the gathering crowds and peered at them from behind her own mask. She had made eye contact with Salten. She had beckoned him to join! While the Sun was nothing but a distant ball of flame, the Ever After Empress Valerian was real. 

“Salten? Salten, are you there?” Ezra frowned, tapping his foot. “You’re spacing out. I was trying to show you how to juice a lemon.”

“Uh? Oh. Sorry,” Salten mumbled, though he wasn’t really. 

“Look.” Ezra clasped his hands behind his back. “Your parents really want you to at least try learning a skill. Maybe you are meant to serve the Sun through combat, as unconventional as that sounds, but you’re going to have to talk to them about it. I can-I can try, or at least speak to Cecily about it. But in the meantime, we should at least try to work together. We have that contract for the ball…”

“Contract?” This was news to Salten. He knew about the ball, though he’d disregarded it. No way he’d get an invitation, let alone the person he wanted to ask.

“Uh, they’ve decided to go ahead with the celebratory ball after all, despite everything going on.” Ezra spoke a little too fast; Salten was sure he was hiding something about this. “And we’ve been given a contract to make the cake. Cakes, really, considering the size of the event. And since we don’t have much of a kitchen staff left…”

“Cuz we’re a failing business.” Salten raised an eyebrow. “This isn’t a little fishy to you? I mean I guess the Duke wanted to reach out to a giant-owned business, or maybe that talk about us converting to catering is true, but…wait. It’s gotta be something to do with you. There’s something about you. You’re tied up in all this.”

“No I’m not! I mean, by accident,” Ezra stammered.

Salten knew a guilty look when he saw it. “There’s more going on than meets the eye and I’m gonna find out what it is. Trust me! If not from you, from that Celestial Patrol officer. Man, why couldn’t I get apprenticed to them?” Salten sighed, digging hands in his pockets. “Celestial Patrol are the best of the best.”

Ezra scowled, though he still looked shaken somehow. He was definitely keeping a secret. “If you want to kiss up to one of Vox’s high-and-mighty enforcers, be my guest. I’m sure they’ll be just as friendly to you as they were to me, seeing as we’re both Exiles.” He gave a pointed look up at Salten. “Anyway, I do have to get some work done, and you managed to break eggs. Good work. I mean it! So meet up here tomorrow at the appointed time.”

That did it. While it was obvious to Salten that Ezra didn’t like him and didn’t want him around, there was more going on. Still, at least his needling got him some free time. “Fine with me! I’ve got unsavory friends to meet up with. You don’t follow me and I don’t follow you.” 

“Of course. It’s your business, not mine.” Ezra was looking over recipe notes, and Salten could swear he saw his eyes shine again. What did that mean? 

Well, if Salten was ever going to impress that C.P. enough to get Sky citizenship, or make an impression on the Imperial army, he’d need to prove he was more than just dumb muscle. He could investigate just as well as anyone else. 

“Actually, why don’t I thank you for all this work you’re doing?” He grabbed a protesting Ezra by the arm and started leading him out. “Come meet some people for once! If the C.P. isn’t going to socialize, surely you can.”

“I-I socialize enough,” Ezra insisted, eyes wide. “I really do have work to do, Salten!” 

“You’re way too young to be shutting yourself in all night. What would the Sun think?” Salten had no idea what the Sun Faith’s views on leisure were, and he didn’t really care. “And we’re going to be working our skins off in preparation for that ball soon anyway. I bet we won’t even be able to enjoy it. Come on, have a drink with me and the others! What harm will it do?”

He’d get those secrets out of Ezra yet.

Chapter Text

Philomene peered over the railing of the spiral staircase that led down, down into the heart of Thumbelina Kingdom. Once this great depression beneath the mountain had been the mouth of a magma chamber, before Blessed Thumbelina calmed the volcano for good in one of her final miracles. Now it pulsed warm and bright with the core of the kingdom's massive Vine, a system of roots and tubers surrounding a bulb taller than the biggest human citizen. The staircase was blocked off by signs, though none would dare trespass into the Heart and risk angering the Elders. Only the Queen was allowed to enter, or in this case the Queen Regent. 

There was a much larger spiral staircase curling into the Core for the times when Thumbelina's ruler had been human. There were also spaces reserved for human Elders, but in all of Thumbelina's history no human had ever succeeded in becoming one.  

Below her she heard the soft hum of the Core. Behind Philomene could hear the steady breathing of Royal Guards, Flowerlings led by the loyal Enlightened mouse warrior Tai. Beyond she caught faint echoes of the pantomime Marjorie was putting on in the courtyard for citizens badly in need of distraction.  

I wonder if they know how much of this is my fault, she pondered with a bitter smile as she sat back down on a bench. Or if they aren't saying anything merely because I'm a princess. 

"Highness," Tai said as he stepped forward with a bow. "The Queen Regent may be down for some time. Are you sure you don't want to join your family in the great courtyard?" 

She smiled gently. "I'll be fine. Give me a few more minutes to wait for my sister, please."  

Tai relented, Philomene pleased that she didn't have to explain further. Since returning from the caverns, she'd been ill at ease, feeling as if every pleasant word or reassurance was a vile lie on her part. She was a fake, as fascinated by power and disaster as Germain was and just as reckless. 

Why else would she have such a desperate need to return to those vile caverns, to see the Dryads for herself? Why else would the danger her kingdom faced excite her so even as it repulsed and horrified her? What sort of person would see a broken curse as a disappoinment and a new terror as a challenge? 

At least while she waited for Meramene to finish convening with the Elders, she didn't have to face anyone and risk them reading her thoughts. Even Marjorie could never see this side of her, let alone her sisters. 

Gradually, even footsteps echoed over the Core's hum. Philomene stood as Meramene emerged from the staircase, the elder sister holding her head high though her eyes were puffy. Meramene kept to herself the most out of the Twelve Princesses, perhaps anticipating the lonely life of a queen. She wore a long, simple grey dress and wore her hair up in a cloth wrap. 

"Philomene. You waited for me here?" Meramene asked, hands folded in front of her lap. "I appreciated it, but there was no need." 

"I know. A little silly of me. But I just felt better here, somehow." Philomene looked past Meramene to the cavern below. "Near the Elders, I suppose. And..." 

As if anticipating what Philomene was thinking but had not said, Meramene's expression fell. "The Elders still cannot reach Mother. No one can. She sleeps down there, but her soul is elsewhere. At least they have her wrapped in petals to keep her body safe." She gripped the front of her dress. "It you cannot see her. None of you. She wouldn't want to be seen in such a diminished state." 

"...I see." Philomene felt a lump forming in her throat, but Meramene needed someone else to be strong for her sake. So she didn't let herself cry this time. "I don't understand. Do you think she anticipated this? Knew the Green Witch was still out there in some capacity and felt she needed to lend the Vine her strength just in case?" 

"Honestly? I wish she'd told me. I could accept taking sudden responsibility for the kingdom easier if not for rumors from the discontent that the queen abandoned her people in their time of need to meditate on ancient secrets." Meramene sounded more weary than genuinely bitter. "And here is her daughter, working alongside the Empire." 

"They can hardly blame you for that! Nautilus and Thumbelina are in this together now. We have to do what's best for our safety, don't we?" 

"I like your pragmatism, Philo." Meramene smiled. "We may need it, along with your intellect.”

“I’ll do what I can. It’s the least I can do.”

“It’s not all bad news. Messages came in from our missing sisters! They’re hiding out in distant colony-cities. It seems you were the only one not to flee to other Flowerling kingdoms." Meramene’s smile faltered. “I suggested they stay away for their own safety for now, but at least we know they’re well. And we aren’t without help or a plan of sorts; this ball idea is a little reckless, but I’d like to think it could work. Feed the beast, if you will. Maybe if you can help the humans devise a trap to catch the Green Witch, and if they can find and arrest Germain, we won't have to..." 

“I knew they had to be alright! Please send them our love.” As encouraging as the news regarding her sisters was, Philomene noted the way Meramene seemed to tense when she spoke of an alternate plan. What could she mean? What would the Elders have suggested that would work against a plant monster?

When it hit her, Philomene’s blood went cold. "Won't have to what? Wait, Mera, the Elders. They didn't suggest the Autumn Spell!" 

"Only as a last resort! Only if nothing else can be done. But it is possible. And with the strength of Thumbelina's Vine, we might have the power to wither the Green Witch for good." Meramene would not meet Philomene's gaze. "Saying it is on the table doesn't mean we'll use it. I know the risk." 

"But it goes against our entire philosophy. Every one of Blessed Thumbelina's ideals! Even if we aren't using it against people, still..." Philomene had to admit, it might work. The spell Meramane no doubt spoke of, the one they dared not name, might be the most effective weapon against the Green Witch. Was the effective way necessarily the best way? 

Meramene didn't answer. The silence hung heavy between them before they heard heavy footfalls indicating an approaching human. Marjorie arrived wearing frills and lace and a half-mask designed to invoke a folkloric hero. She was breathing heavy, hopefully just recovering from her pantomine routine. Philomene had been keeping a close eye on her wavering health since the incident at the Vacant Palace. 

"Princess, Royal Highness! There you are. Philomene, you're going to regret missing my act. It was a winner this time! I mean, it always is. People love when I take on the character of Parames the Chicken Tamer. And yet, I was upstaged!" Marjorie huffed. "Upstaged, I tell you." 

Some part of Philomene wanted to hug Marjorie around the thumb for breaking the tension. Another wanted to crawl into her room without a word. Pragmatism won; Marjorie clearly had news of some kind. "Upstaged? By whom? Not another jester, or the musicians, I hope." 

"Of course not! No performance in Thumbelina can compete with me when I'm on a roll, you know that. But outside...! Well. I just think you'd better come see this." Marjorie held the palm of her hand out, and Tai helped the princess step aboard. 

Marjorie gave a hesitant glance to Meramene. As a royal maid she could carry the queen regent if requested, but from the way her pulse quickened the possibility intimidated her. Meramene gave a meaningful look to Marjorie that Philomene didn’t quite understand, then nodded. “I have some duties to attend to,” Meramene said slowly. “Marjorie, take Philomene to this ‘distraction.’ Oh, and see to it that she has something nice to wear for Nautilus’s ball.” She turned back to her guards, leaving the argument between the sisters unmentioned and unresolved.

It was just a last resort, Philomene told herself as she settled into Marjorie’s palm. There was no need even to bring the risk up to her friends. It would just worry them. Marjorie of all people would understand a need to keep secrets, or at the very least she was in no position to judge.

“I’m sorry I missed your act,” Philomene said as Marjorie cupped her hands safely around the princess. “I just needed a little bit of quiet.”

“You needed to be alone. I understand completely! You can’t be a social butterfly all the time. None of us can. Say nothing more of it,” Marjorie said. “I still think this ball is a bad idea, but I’m not in charge of anything here. But as your sister charged me with, I am your loyal servant and will handle any preparations. What do you want to wear? Dark blue? Green? I saw this shimmering violet fabric from the Sky traders, Starsilk or something to that effect. I think you’d look stunning in it.”

Fashion was the last thing on Philomene’s mind, but a princess had to impress at a ball. “Could you get me a sample of that? I suppose all I’d need for a dress is a sample, especially at the scale Sky traders must use.” She paused. “Could you do me one more favor?” 

Marjorie, catching the hint as Philomene gestured downward, lifted her hands up to her face so the Flowerling could whisper and be heard. 

“Prince Alphonse. I heard something concerning about him from-well, let’s just say from a very unreliable source. It’s probably nothing, and for all I know I’m playing into their hands by suspecting him. But something about this is just not right. Could you find out more about him?”

“Say no more! Frankly I was waiting for you to ask me about that. I was halfway to doing it myself at this point. Never trust anyone who calls themselves Prince Charming, I always say!”

“What about Basil?” Philomene chuckled. 

“Notice how I didn’t tell him about you at first? I liked him just fine and admit I did take advantage of his chivalry early on for completely understandable reasons, but it took me a while to trust him. But he doesn’t call himself Prince Charming. He aspires to it. It’s-it’s different!” Marjorie cleared her throat. “Well, we shouldn’t be speaking so openly near the crowds.

“Crowds?” Sure enough, Philomene peered over Marjorie’s fingers to see Flowerlings gathering near the open gates of the city, sitting on outcroppings, standing on the shoulders of equally fascinated humans and otherwise gawking at something just outside. Whatever it was, its shadow fell over the entrance-way, blocking the setting sun. 

Just outside the entrance on the mountain path sat a great, dark, looming shape, so big it was hard for Philomene to make out what it was. She had to squint against the light of the golden-orange sky to realize she was looking at a Sky giant, one taller and leaner than Ezra with hair that cascaded down their back. Only when she caught the glint of silver on their earrings did she realize where she’d seen that profile before.

“Is that Inspector Tera?” she whispered up to Marjorie.

“So it seems. Apparently they wanted a vantage point to get a good look at the beach for some reason. Must be some strategic thing. I guess they didn’t realize that a giant is sort of a, um…unusual sight here?” Marjorie gestured around to the crowds who were marveling at the living spire in flowing official robes, who was obliviously making notes on paper big enough to carpet a Flowerling room. 

They looked more regal in the light, moving with a refinement she didn’t usually see in larger beings. Rem’s motions were deliberate and careful. They sat straight up and alert, their gold eyes darting from the landscape below to the caves. 

Without warning, Marjorie began walking forward through the entrance. Philomene startled and stared up at her. “Marjorie? Where are we going?”

“To say hello to Inspector Tera, of course.” Why did Marjorie have a mischievous smile on her face? “You said you wanted to thank them for saving you before.”

“Well, yes!” In fact she had, so why did Philomene suddenly feel flustered and out of place? “But I-I mean, I suppose no better time than the present. And it is a little rude for everyone to watch them and not try to strike up a conversation. But what if they don’t want to be bothered?”

“Then I’m sure they’ll say so. Inspector!” Marjorie tugged on Rem’s robes with her free hand. “Sorry to interrupt you, but you have a visitor.”

It took Rem a second to react. They looked down from their cross-legged position and set the pad aside. Philomene caught a white bandage around one palm. “Marjorie Snow, is it…?” They didn’t seem to see Philomene. “Can I help you?”

Marjorie held her hand aloft, leaving a sitting Philomene to look up into the huge gold eyes lined with kohl. Philomene was still unsure if she was visible to the giant. She shouted to be heard. “It’s me, Inspector. Philomene, from…oh, you know.”

Rem had to squint, but recognized the voice at least. “Oh, Highness! Sorry for the-incorrect protocol?” They stumbled onto their knees and hastily bowed their head. “Is it alright for me to be here? I did request permission from the kingdom…”

“Of course it is! We know you’re no threat.” Philomene looked down at Marjorie, who was still holding her up, and then back at Rem. “Do you mind giving me a platform, so to speak? I’m afraid my handmaiden’s arm will soon fall asleep at this rate. You don’t mind, do you, Marjorie?”

“Hmm? No, no. Just signal me when you need to go back in.” Why was Marjorie smirking like that? What did she have in mind? “Take all the time you need, though I wouldn’t stay out too late past dark. Bats and all.”

“Bats?!” Rem was the one who quailed at the word, though they did hold out a much larger hand. Philomene settled into it, sitting and leaving her cane draped across her knees. Marjorie retreated, leaving the two momentarily alone.

Well, alone aside from the staring Flowerlings and humans. Really, even if Rem was quite a sight to see, there was no need to be ill-mannered.

“You, um. You wanted to speak with me, Highness?” Rem’s eyes wandered over their palm before settling on the princess. They were at least doing their best to make eye contact, which she appreciated. 

“Yes. I never formally thanked you for saving my life, even after learning you were injured doing so. I certainly owe you that, and…” Well, what else was there to say? “I’m sorry for dragging you into that mess in the first place.”

Rem’s complexion darkened around their cheeks. “Please, it’s my duty. You let me do something exciting and interesting for once. Who else back at headquarters can claim they rescued a princess?” They shrugged. “Not that anything else I do is boring. I’m a little thrilled at having an opponent or two to deal with instead of just hunting around the source of black muck. Even if I realize that sounds terrible in context…”

“No, I understand it better than you’d think.” Philomene stopped craning her neck and looked outward at the setting sun bathing the valley in brilliant colors. She could catch just a flash of bright green down by the beach, the tiniest splotch that hadn’t been there before. Was that where the Green Witch was emerging from? Nothing she could do about it at the moment, nothing but research and cooperation. “What do you think of this ball idea?”

“I think it’s a little too clever for its own good, but I don’t have any other ideas yet. I guess I’d be more enthusiastic about it if I could, um…fit.” Rem glanced away. “Not that I would really expect them to accommodate me as a guest. I’m here as an investigator and to lend my physical strength to the cause. I’ll have plenty of parties to go to when I return to Vox, so I have no right to pout just because I can’t dance at this one.” 

It hadn’t hit Philomene how isolated Rem might feel surrounded by a mostly-human population. She had trouble reading expressions in giants, though by now she knew Ezra well enough to pick up on his voice and body language. Rem, despite their shared experience, was still a relative stranger. So why did she feel so safe and at ease in their palm, even knowing how uncertain the future was?

“I can’t dance either, if it helps.” 

Rem glanced down. “Oh, I’m sure that’s not true.”

“No, I’m not being overly modest. I literally can’t.” Philomene smiled. “I guess you can’t see it from there, but I walk with a cane. Too much time on my feet causes me a lot of pain, so ballroom dancing is right out. I really don’t mind watching others instead.” At times she did, but she had more to worry about at the moment. 

Rem rubbed the back of their neck. “Oh! I’m-uh, I’m sorry. But hey! We’ll be doing the exciting stuff, right? Devising a plan of attack, catching our enemies at their own game and all that.” 

What was Philomene thinking? What was she doing? She was a princess, and a Flowerling. Her mother was still in a trance and her kingdom was once again in danger from multiple angles. Rem was a Sky giant, the scale difference between them immense. They could barely even see her, and she in turn couldn’t see all of Rem except from a distance. Rem wasn’t even an Exile, and thus was to return to Vox once their mission ended. They had a duty to their own people. There was a chance Thumbelina would have to use the dreaded Autumn Spell and Philomene was letting herself feel like this?! She’d always had a practical approach to this sort of thing when she thought about it at all, which was rare. She was supposed to be the pragmatic one! She knew it was impossible.

Perhaps knowing it was impossible from so many angles left her more comfortable to say what she needed to. “Rem?”

“Yes, Highness?”

“Don’t dance with me at the ball. Let’s not dance together.” 

Rem’s eyes widened, their pulse quickening before they abruptly seemed to relax. “…Of course. I accept your invitation, Princess.”

Chapter Text

“…And so I was thinking, I’m not the most skilled at traps but maybe if the Green Witch appears I could jump off one of the sea cliffs and take her from above! And do, oh, something involving fire. Plants and fire don’t mix. But that isn’t much of a wide-scale plan, is it?” Basil took another bite of the fish-stuffed pastry he was eating as he mulled that over. “Nfff dshn’t-scuse me. And it doesn’t account for that Lord Germain person. How does one draw out a wicked scientist? Flasks as decor? A dry presentation about gravity or tidal patterns during the dance?"

Alphonse, walking alongside Basil as they passed through the city square, just chuckled in response. “To be honest, I’m about where you are when it comes to elaborate plans. I just feel my way around things and hope for the best. Not the most inspiring person to hear from the ‘local hero,’ I know.”

“Oh, not at all,” Basil insisted forcefully. He was delighted at finally getting the chance to spend time with Prince Alphonse, who dressed rather modestly in a light brown jacket and slacks when out in public. With Ezra having to deal with his stubborn new student and Philomene and Marjorie attending to duties in Thumbelina, Basil found himself at loss for something to do. He met up with Alphonse under the pretense of discussing strategy, but mostly wanted to learn more about the quiet Prince Charming. 

“Really, most of what I did to save Thumbelina Kingdom was acting on instinct, or on the advice of an old wise woman nearby. All this celebration and flattery is a bit much.” Alphonse briefly looked a little uncomfortable, though his smile didn’t waver. “And this business with the ball, at a time like this…”

“Hmph. People need reassurance and distraction at a time like this! They need something to celebrate. It’s really more about them than anyone else, the way I see it.” His snack finished, Basil dug his hands into his heavy gloves to stay warm as the sun set over the ocean. “Have you meet Xaviero Taylor or spoken to him much?”

“Oh, yes! Here and there!” Alphonse took a deep breath and looked as if he were searching for a polite word. “He’s very…”

“Very much not as worldly and sophisticated as he thinks he is,” Basil said with a sigh. “The things he insists are true about Mountain Folk kingdoms would certainly be news to my family! But he means well, and I get the impression from how he talks about it that this ball idea is being forced on him from above. You know.” He lowered his voice. “The duke who never leaves his room.”

“I was wondering about that. Is he ill? Duke Taylor, I mean.”

Basil shrugged. “He won’t even meet with me. Uses Xaviero and his servants as his representatives. Apparently he’s grown reclusive with age. I wonder a little why the duke would be so invested in a social event he can’t even attend.”

Alphonse glanced around at the citizens milling about, their movements and conversations revealing little of the tension Basil had detected since Lord Germain’s appearance. “Well, I think I have a guess. Take it with a grain of salt, but from what I hear I’m not the actual guest of honor.”

Basil frowned and stared up at Alphonse. “What do you mean by that? It isn’t Xaviero, is it?”

“No, no. I mean…” Alphonse pointed over Basil’s shoulder to the fountain, where the statue of the Ever After Empress loomed over Blessed Thumbelina and the Fairy Queen. 

“…Wait. You don’t mean she’s going to be in attendance…!” Basil stared at the statue of the masked queen, with a flame in one hand and a dagger-pierced orb in the other. She had made diplomatic appearances in the northern mountains, to mixed reception, but Basil had never been around to see any of them. He tried to tell himself that a representation of an empress was likely far more intimidating and grandiose than the real thing. It was just an image.

“Empress Valerian sent the Royal Guard to help Thumbelina Kingdom with its curse from what I hear, though neither they nor the royal academies could figure out any solution. It was as much as surprise to me as it was to them when I broke it with a sacrifice and a prayer for a sleeping princess. They questioned me for hours.” Alphonse rolled his eyes, though that discomfort was back in his voice and in the way his hands kept fidgeting. “Then out of nowhere I get a commendation from Her Imperial Eternity, despite not being an Imperial citizen myself, and the news that she intends to reward the efforts of Nautilus and the heroism of Thumbelina Kingdom by visiting our city. I guarantee you, plant monsters or no plant monsters, they won’t say no to her.”

“A commendation from Her Imperial Eternity? That’s…quite an honor!” Hadn’t Jack been granted a pardon by the Empress as well? It did strike Basil as a bit inconsiderate of the Sky Folk to do so, to say the least, but when it came to speaking of the Empress one was best diplomatic. 

“She’ll probably award me with some manner of medal. Which is nice and all, but Prince Charming’s true reward is…”

“-A job well done!” Basil finished one of the most Edicts of Prince Charming with a grin on his face. “So you’ve read the Edicts as well? I mean I had to assume, you being a Prince Charming and all…”

“That’s the title they seem to have given me! Really, I am but a humble traveling prince from a nondescript little kingdom on the Imperial border. One of those places the Empire allows to thrive because we’re not worth their notice.” Alphonse punctuated that with another eyeroll. “But if it’s Prince Charming I’m meant to be than who am I to question?”

Basil considered. “Well, it’s just that-do you feel like Prince Charming? I always assumed when one made it and earned that title, one would have an innate sense of it. There’d be some kind of light going off, some sensation of ‘I know the right thing to do now’ and ‘I have the confidence to save anyone.’ Wait, this is a little intrusive of me, isn’t it?” He scolded himself inwardly. “My dearest apologies, Alphonse. I let my mouth run away with my thoughts and am always running to catch up with it, and here I am at least nominally here for diplomatic reasons! My father would be mortified to hear me, representing the glory of Sethwhile Kingdom like this…” 

He trailed off as something Alphonse said finally hit him. “Wait. ‘Not worth their notice?’ I know modesty is a Charming virtue, but speaking so of your kingdom seems a little…”

Alphonse stopped and stared at Basil, then slapped his forehead. “I apologize! I did come off that way, did I not? It’s more that the Empire seems primarily interested in big, grand things it can rebuild and reshape as it pleases. To create its ‘happiness for all.’” He lowered his voice. “Like Nautilus.” 

“…Ah.” Basil looked around at the seashell buildings of Nautilus, their lantern light-bathed white and pastel paint giving them a soft glow in the night. The city was so clean and pretty, and he hadn’t heard anyone speak ill of the Empress nearby. Then again, he hadn’t really been listening for that, and Basil knew he had a habit of missing details when he wasn’t looking for them.

Was it possible the Empire made alliances with the Mountain Kingdoms simply because their friendship was more valuable than any resources the mines and mineral lakes had to offer? Surely his parents knew what they were doing when they made such a fateful decision, and the proud Mountain Folk wouldn’t be coerced into anything.

“Basil?” Alphonse frowned, tapping him on the shoulder and snapping him out of his stressful thought process. “Are you alright? You looked a little queasy for a second.”

“Me? Perfectly fine!” Basil forced a smile. “Those fish fritters were a little too oily.” 

“Personally, discussing politics gives me indigestion. Why don’t we talk about something a little more positive so we don’t drown ourselves in the heavy current events.”

“You’re right! Yes, that is a thing we should do.” Basil searched for something else to bring up. Wasn’t there something he was going to ask Alphonse about? Something having to do with the incident in the cave before they captured Toad? But Alphonse just said he didn’t want to focus on heavier subjects. There would be other times.

“Do you have an escort to the ball?” There, that was something. “There’s rumors you’re going to be searching for some eligible lady but that sounded a little silly to me. No one is themselves at a ball! You can’t get to know someone like that in a night.”

Alphonse raised his eyebrows. “Eligible-oh!” He burst out laughing. “Is that really going around? Become Prince Charming and suddenly people are making all kinds of romantic assumptions! No, I don’t really aspire to marriage right now, or even companionship. If it happens it happens. Why do you say you can’t get to know someone at a ball, though?”

“Because formal events are full of people following elaborate rules of etiquette and being polite to others they can’t stand or don’t respect so they can look good. I mean,” Basil added hesitantly, “I have never been to a formal ball per se; the tradition’s relatively new to the Mountain Kingdoms and not all that popular, and I haven’t lived there much anyway for…medical reasons. But I’ve read plenty in lessons and frankly I don’t see the romance in it at all. Maybe it’s been ruined for me as a result.” 

“Maybe.” Alphonse offered a wry smile. “So what about you, brave Prince Basil? Do you have an escort or perhaps a marriage prospect?”

At the phrase ‘marriage prospect,’ Basil felt his heart catch in his chest and his ears heat up. “Well! Marriage prospect is a-a little soon to say, as courtship takes a long time and one might even say it’s a little more casual than that, and besides if it did come up I would have to explain quite a bit to my parents.” He hadn’t even thought much about that part. “But provided he can be persuaded to participate and dance instead of putting all his energy into catering, I do have a boyfr-” He stopped as his own voice was drowned out by a crash and a bellowing shout.

There were times when Basil was sure the Mountain Lords took a break from their eternal battles in the underground fire seas to make fun of mortals. This would prove to be one of those times. 

“…Can’t believe you aren’t even good for this,” a strangely familiar voice snapped, echoing through the alleyway as a large, wide shape lurched down the cobblestone road. It resolved itself into two shapes, two young giants with one leaning unsteadily on the other. The taller giant, standing much straighter despite the weight on his shoulders, glared at his companion through too-long bangs. “This is what happens when you try to do something nice for somebody.” 

That was when Basil saw who the other giant was.

“…Excuse me,” Basil said at a staring Alphonse, rubbing the back of his neck. “I will be right back.” He ran over to the two giants, narrowly avoiding splashing into a cold puddle. 

“I dunno what you-what you’re talkin’ ‘bout,” Ezra slurred as he leaned against the giant Basil recognized as the apprentice Salten. “We were havin’ a nice conversaten…conversashioning…we were talking and it was fun!” He looked down with an out of focus smile at Basil. “Hiii, Basil! This is-this is Saalten. I thought he was a jerk but we’re friends now.”

“NO, we’re not. Ugh, thank the Sun you’re here.” Salten stopped glaring at Ezra long enough to turn his sharp-eyed gaze down at Basil. He’d clearly been drinking too, but was a lot more coherent and sharp. “You could have warned me he’s a lightweight. You’re his boyfriend, right?” 

Basil stared, unsure whether to laugh or panic. “You took him drinking?”

“It was veerrry nish of him.” Ezra stood up, swaying back and forth. Basil tried not to think about the fact that if Ezra fell on him, he could be crushed. “He has very-talkative friendsh! Bad language, though. I wanted to ask you along but I did not think I was going to have fun either. But I did!”

“Yeah, and I got laughed at! We’ve barely been out an hour and you’re a mess by round three.” Salten dusted himself off. “Well, I’m not spendin’ my night babysitting someone who can’t hold his liquor and starts babbling nonsense. I never wanna hear about lemon custard again.”

“I told him the reshipe.” Ezra sounded proud of himself.

“FIVE TIMES AND DIFFERENT EACH TIME. And talk of stuff that doesn’t even make sense.” Salten snorted. “Well, Prince, since you’re his boyfriend you can escort him back him.”

“I…” Basil stared at Ezra, who was trying to balance himself by leaning on a wall. “What did you give him?”

“Nothing too strong! Why? He’s an adult, isn’t he? He’s his own man, right?” Salten again glared down his nose at Basil. There was something unnerving about his stance. Ezra usually bowed his head slightly and drew into himself unless he was standing up to something bigger, as if trying to take up as little space as possible. Salten stood with shoulders out, head up and chest out. It wasn’t the restrained, cold poise of Rem, either; there was a swagger to it, the arrogance of power instead of the discipline of a soldier. Salten seemed to revel in his size. Didn’t giants not actually think of themselves as big, or was that just Ezra and Cecily?

But Prince Charming did not let himself be intimidated by bullies! “Of course he is! But he’s also uncomfortable in social situations, and if I find out you dragged him into this against his own will…”

“Then what?”

“Then I’ll…” Well, he could hardly threaten Salten with anything harmful. “Well, I’ll let you know you’re a jerk. And you probably surround yourself with jerks if they encouraged Ezra to drink past his limit, and then made you take him back all by yourself while making fun of you for it. Maybe those aren’t people worth impressing.” Something suggested he should stop, that he was letting his mouth run away with him again, but if he didn’t put Salten in his place who would? “And you’re going to ditch him here and go right back to them so you can keep failing to impress them. I’d say they’re beneath you, but right now I don’t think that’s true. You’re a perfect fit.” 

He didn’t intend to sound quite so venomous. Something he said must have struck a chord with Salten, who stepped back and briefly looked genuinely hurt. That lasted for just a second before the glare returned, this time paired with a saunter forward as Salten rolled up his sleeves. “So, you think I can’t do impressive things? Nice thoughts for a human. Maybe I oughtta remind you who’s the stronger here…” 

Basil realized he’d chosen to chew out a giant in a bad mood who had been drinking while Ezra was himself too drunk to do much about it. “…Salten, wait! Don’t do anything you’ll regret. Believe me, you don’t need to prove anything…!” 

“That’s enough.” Alphonse stepped up next to Basil, the taller prince standing tall and authoritative, all traces of humor gone from his face. “You don’t want to make a scene here, do you?” 

Salten halted, looking between the two princes. No doubt he could take both of them, Basil assumed, but he seemed to think it not worth the effort. Somehow he seemed a lot less frightening overall when Basil had backup. 

“Heey. Hey.” It seemed Ezra’s reaction time finally reached his brain as he staggered over to Salten and put a heavy hand on his shoulder. “That’sh my Prinsh there. I’ll ‘splain how we became friends later, okay? But you-you do anything to him ‘n we won’t be friendsh…”

“And we’ll both have to explain how you took Ezra from his work to spend the night at the pub.” Basil crossed his arms. “Which, if I recall, is something your parents don’t approve of?” 

That seemed to be the last straw for Salten, who swatted Ezra’s hand away. “FINE. Forget it. You two shrimps can take him home. I’m going back out.” He stomped off, mumbling, “I don’t need this.”

“Aw.” Ezra leaned back on the wall again. “He’zh not so bad. He’s just…he needs direction and-and…Basil! He kept saying I’m drunk. Do you think I’m drunk? I’m not.”

“Of course not, dear.” Basil had enough experience with drunken relatives at family gatherings to know the proper approach. “Uh, Alphonse? This is, um…”

“Your escort?” Alphonse raised both eyebrows, but smiled. “A Sky Person…well. Then as one Prince Charming to another future one, allow me to help you take your beloved home safely.”

“Thank you!” Basil rushed to Ezra’s size, Alphonse taking the other as both did their best to lead the giant forward. 

As Ezra couldn’t actually lean on the humans and seemed at least aware of that fact, he used them more for direction than support, trying to incoherently explain something about pastry. Basil caught the word ‘magic’ and hoped Alphonse didn’t notice it.

“And, um,” Basil added with a whisper over to Alphonse, “thank you for helping me there.”

“Prince Charming protects the innocent and the brave.” Alphonse winced. “Though if he passes out, I’m not sure how we’ll get him into bed.”

“Humans may not be all that strong,” Basil asserted, “but that’s what polar bears are for!” Though Aurora would be very grumpy if woken up in the middle of the night.

Alphonse hadn’t said anything cruel about a human and a giant in a relationship, and had come across so modest and human to Basil. Forget mistakes made in a sea cave in a moment of stress. He was the real thing. He had to be.

Chapter Text

Most Respected Investigator Rem Tera:

Our department has reviewed the information you've passed on about the nature of these "Other Ones" and the defeat of one of them at the hands of Recorded Exile Ezra Kettle. I assume just as you do that Captain Vittorio Taylor is to be trusted. I imagine you must trust that human quite a bit, in fact, for I can't see you believing in a heroic act from an Exile otherwise. No offense. I just know you too well.

Knowing the beanstalk that introduced the rot was a separate entity itself, this Green Witch that now menaces Nautilus and Thumbelina, makes me wonder if the human Jack was some kind of collaborator. It seems unlikely; from all accounts he was just a common intruder whose actions led to the death of Hamilton Tooth, the loss of one golden goose and one harp that was unaccounted for. Still, we don't know everything about these fairy beings, and from what you've reported they can have psychological influence on humans and Sky Folk. That Exile had contact with Jack, right? I suggest questioning him. Be nice. We need this information.

Thus far the rot has shown no signs of spreading outside Mielle, and none of our plant life is behaving strangely there or elsewhere. I gave you the good news first for a reason. The bad news is this: we can't stop its spread through Mielle. The house near where it originated has started to sink into the cloud, dissolving in the black muck. There's a small pond forming filled with the stuff. Birds avoid it, and plants nearby die. Nearby residents have been evacuated. Some are falling ill, suffering from respiratory troubles and regular nightmares. Many are in panic, despite the best efforts of our officials, priests and the mayor to keep the peace.

Thus the news that this enemy may feed off fear, while no doubt helpful in the long run, is not what I wanted to hear at the moment. When water supplies are at risk for contamination and the very foundation of an Island is dissolving into toxic muck, I’m not sure how we’ll convince the populace of a small Island currently hovering over Libra territory not to panic. 

But that’s our job. You keep working alongside the Imperial humans, and reporting anything they or the Flowerlings do that proves effective. I know you're going to worry about us up here, but try not to. We'll handle this.

-Investigator Atropos Veras

P.S. Doing all I can to ensure your return back to Vox after you complete the mission is streamlined and ready for you. The usual suspects are obstructing me here. Whatever happens, know I'm at least rooting for you.

The wolf crept through the tall grass, keeping a low profile and sniffing all the way. She disliked the mix of overwhelming scents, seawater and kelp mingling with bird droppings, all drowning in a noxious mix of flower perfumes and herbal smells coming from the the caves. It made her want to retch. She liked familiar smells like meat, aloe and the rotten-sweet mushroom scent of White Hood. At least she had White Hood by her side, in the form of a pure white wolf with black eyes. 

White Hood didn’t say anything aloud. She never did while Lord Germain could hear her. I only like you, she insisted every time Red tried to introduce the two. I’m your fairy guardian and yours alone. But Red was soothed just by having her nearby. Lord Germain cared for her, but never acknowledged her as anything more than a creation. White Hood reassured her. 

Now, White Hood spoke through the red wolf’s mind. There’s a lot to fear down there. The Green Witch is disgusting, White warned. She’ll tear you to pieces on thorns and water her roses with your blood. Don’t you hate her?

Red, who hadn’t yet figured out how to answer White through her strange mind-speak, only grunted an affirmative response. Her wounds had healed quickly thanks to Germain’s ointments, but that didn’t mean she’d forgotten how those vines had torn into her.

The carpet of green oozed out of the cave entrance, covering an area as big as one of the smaller human houses. It stood out against the damp sand and shimmering, sloshing waves. At high tide the ocean lapped hungrily against the beach, flooding the lower tunnels, yet it flowed around the garden of tall, mismatched plants as if an invisible wall surrounded them. 

"Can you hear me, Red? I'm unsure of this artifact's range." Lord Germain's soothing voice spoke through a jewel set into her left ear, held there by a gummy adhesive. "But this way I can keep in touch with you without broadcasting to anyone who might eavesdrop."  

Red had to stop herself from tail-wagging at the sound of his words. "I can," she grunted with the rougher edge her voice always had as a wolf. 

"Excellent. Now, I want to get a better look at what's become of my lost Dryads. Unleashing them near the Green Witch made them stronger, as I suspected, but it's also left them unresponsive to my commands. An overgrowth on the beach does us no good. Can you get closer without being spotted?" 

Red surveyed the area. She knew as a wolf she could see far better at night than the human guards reliant on their lanterns. By day there had been Flowerling guards on birds patrolling above, a strange alliance Germain seemed to find amusing for some reason. He'd informed her that Thumbelina was unlikely to dispatch even their best guards at night, when bats and owls hunted for prey.  

She could make out six sleepy guards, four men and two women. The tallest woman, wearing fancier armor that Red suspected put her in charge, scanned the area with more alert body language. All carried short swords and wore armor that would at least take some effort to bite through.   

The guards stood in a circle around the garden on sharp rock outcroppings, the seawater lapping at their booted feet. None stepped foot on the garden itself. And no wonder, dwarfed as they were by monstrously huge dandelions, nightshade heavy with apples-sized toxic berries and a rosebush that seemed to weave through everything as if choking it. The vines and oversized leaves didn't seem to reach out towards the humans or the sea, or even spread upwards and outwards towards the sky. They were all leaning, reaching into the cave which was now overrun by glowing green moss and patches of grass. 

"Fascinating," Germain said as Red whispered a description to him from her perch overlooking the garden cave. "In a matter of days they've managed to grow without soil and without being drowned by the seawater. I'm unsure how they've made that barrier to protect themselves, though. That's not something even magical plants like Chilled Snowdrops and Carnivorous Snapdragons can do." He sounded thrilled. "No wonder the humans haven't burned it down yet! I bet they can't."  

He was happy! Red wasn't entirely sure why. If the Dryads were thriving without him, it seemed to her they didn't need his attention at all. And didn't he like having them serve and respect him?
"Well, I do have a theory. You see, those Dryads are fragments of the Green Witch's body. They respond to orders I deliver through artifacts like controller gems treated with Witchwisdom and Avery's flute. I think that's because they have no brains or will of their own. I mean, they are plants." 

"No brains?" Red wrinkled her nose. So many scents still bothered her. She wanted to be able to smell if a human came near. "What's brains?" 

"Your brain is where your thoughts come from, including ones like what you should do or where you should go. Yours has been enhanced by Seeds of Enlightenment, but even non-Enlightened animals have brains. Their will might be as simple as `hunt here' or `eat this.' Plants don't have that at all. If the Green Witch is one huge mass being, all the Dryads and whatever is contained in that cave are all part of her body and she is the brain.”

“She’s big,” Red said with a low growl. 

“Massive, yes. I suspect she fed off of Thumbelina’s green magic when she had us under that sleeping curse, as well as the ambition needed to try to break that curse in the first place. And now she’s thriving off everyone’s desire to stop her, which is also an ambition. As a result she’s able to do things with her physical form most fairies cannot. Hmm. Ambition. I wonder…”

As Germain trailed off, Red kept closer to get a better view. The roses were mostly concentrated at the center of the strange garden. They were huge and misshapen, dripping with a black, sticky substance that seemed to burn through their leaves.

“She’s sick,” Red concluded.

Germain’s response was immediate, and he sounded startled. “What was that?”

“The plants look wrong. The Dryads look that way too. Always dripping with goo.”

“…and always breaking down too quickly to be of long term use. That’s one of the two keys. We stop the infection spreading through the Dryads so she’s stronger. And then, we fill the void.”

“The void?”

“Listen to me, Red. I’ve put together some research from what Toad told me about the Rot Witch and her sister down there. I’ve read stories of the late Vacant Palace, which Toad said was owned by another one of them. They are incomplete. Someone who devours without satisfying hunger and covets without knowing what he wants. The Rot Witch he knew less about, but if the Green Witch is rooted in ambition as the Gourmet was in loss and greed, I suspect it’s just as aimless. Ambition moves towards a goal. Aim her towards a city and she’ll conquer it. Wish for her to terrorize a city and she’ll strive to do it. Red, my dear creation, that’s what we need to do.”

Red hated to admit she was confused. She flattened her ears against her head, which muffled Germain slightly. She looked to her side to find reassurance from White Hood, finding only a patch of sickly white toadstools where her fairy guardian had sat before.

Germain remained oblivious to her confusion. “We become her ambition. Not just myself, but anyone who wishes to use her as a weapon. These beings come from elsewhere to toy with us, feed on us and grow fat on our foibles. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of them? I’ll strengthen my Dryads and run a few more ‘tests’ on them in the meantime, while we find a way to reach the Green Witch. We figure out how to remove the ‘infection’ and impose our own will on her, direct her ambition. Do her a favor. This aimless, eternal growth will eventually just exhaust her or disrupt the ecosystem and kill her physical body in the end.”

“…I don’t have any ambition,” Red lied. “I can’t help you there.”

“Of course you can! I need your strength, your paws and teeth to act in my stead. I may need your human face very soon, too, for I trust you more than Toad. Besides, if we divide the Green Witch into a thousand pieces, strong enough to strike terror into the hearts of enemies, with the desire to fulfill any goal imposed on them by an outsider, we have done more than save the world from an otherworldly threat. We have made it ours. We have created city-builders, gardens capable of growing herbal curatives and plants long thought extinct. We have forged perfect weapons for anyone willing to pay for them. If we can do it to the Green Witch, we can do it to any of her monstrous siblings. Mortals can control power selfishly guarded by fairies since recorded history. And then I can die happily, knowing-”

“Don’t die!” Red’s ruff went up in panic. Her outburst had caught the attention of one of the guards, who turned around to stare at the cliffs above the caves. As she’d been instructed, Red retreated and sniffed, making low barking noises despite having no instinct to bark.

“…Damn stray dogs,” the guard muttered. “If that was your master, dog, tell ‘em to stay away. Nothing good out here.” She turned back towards the dandelion looming all too close to her, its yellow blossom staring longingly at the cave.

Germain took a few seconds to answer. “I didn’t mean to scare you! I was talking figuratively. I’m not planning on dying anytime soon. Are you alright? You seem shaken. I didn’t mean to blather in your ears like this. I’m a man of the academy, after all! Used to hearing myself talk.”

Something sat ill with her, like the strange scent she couldn’t place mixed among the many surrounding the garden. “You said you need my teeth and claws and face. Am I a weapon?”

“…From a certain angle, yes. But then, I’m arguably a weapon of the Vine, and those soldiers are just willing weapons of their government. The ambitious impose their will on those willing to listen, and use their strength to achieve our goals. You’re getting smarter every day; one day you may have weapons of your own beyond your teeth, people willing to serve you and your goals long after I’m gone. Does it bother you?”

“No.” Red lied again, terrified that if she told the truth Germain would mock her the way he used to mock Avery Toad who latched onto powerful people and followed them around. Was she like that? Her one goal and desire, to be loved as a daughter, felt so lowly. And Germain clearly didn’t approve of it; he’d said as much before.

You’re right to hide that, White Hood said through her mind, once again back by Red’s side. He’ll never love you, and one day he’ll toss you aside like a broken sword. But one day I’ll come to ask you a favor, as your guardian and true friend, and if you do it I’ll be by your side forever.

“Red? Are you there, Red?” Germain sounded confused. His voice snapped Red to attention as she realized White Hood was gone again. “I was just saying, best to retreat for now. No telling what that barrier will do to you.”

“…Yes, Lord Germain.” She gave one last gaze down at the withering roses in the center of the Dryad cluster before taking off back into the tall grass.

Chapter Text

Rem sat with their elbows resting on their knees. It wasn't the most professional pose even if their loose pants protected their modesty, but professionalism went out the door after a long night spent poring over notes.  

"You didn't sleep either, did you?" Taylor, dwarfed by the Sky-scale bed and furniture in Rem's hotel room, sat on an ottoman with a book in his lap serving as a makeshift writing surface. He swilled black tea like he'd dry out if he stopped. "Look, kid. It's not that I don't appreciate the dedication. But you need sleep. Young person like you running around without it ain't good for you." 

"What, afraid it'll stunt my growth?" Rem ordinarily didn't crack jokes about their condition. But since that talk on the mountain, they'd been brewing such a mix of emotions only aggravated by dwelling on the increasingly dire Rot and Green situation. They needed an outlet somehow, and watching Taylor choke on his coffee was worth it. "Besides, don't you have a wife and kids to tend to? This case can eat up my time. I don't exactly have a social life here." 

"My wife works with the department, and my kids get to see Dad plenty in the evenings." Still, from the way Taylor tensed up and focused so intently on the comparatively oversized sheet of paper in front of him, Rem suspected they'd touched a nerve and made a note not to bring it up again. "I'll give you this, you take thorough notes." 

Rem tried not to bask too obviously in the minor compliment. "One doesn't enter Celestial Patrol through sloppy work!" 

"Oh no, I said thorough. You've written all over this page back and forth and in a circular pattern. Either that's some kind of Sky code, or your note-taking is sloppy as all get-out." He rolled it up with a shrug. "But I can read it. So you think you could lead a charge against the Green Witch once it's lured out into one place, then?" 

Rem chose to ignore the dig at their handwriting style. "I don't think, I know. Whatever I might think of Libra, you all train your soldiers well. And we know the Dryads dislike fire. If we can find a way to bypass that barrier..." 

"Let's try to bear that in mind as a backup plan if we can't find something a little more foolproof first." Taylor took another swig of coffee. "We've got an expert coming in from Thumbelina in a bit." 

"...wait, from Thumbelina? Here?" Rem froze, looking around a room covered in notes and in general disarray. Nevermind how easy it would be for a Flowerling to end up lost amid that room even if it were clean.  

"Yeah! Forgot to mention," Taylor said as if it were no big deal for a surprise visitor to see Rem in such plain clothing and no makeup. "It's that princess you rescued, actually. She's got more firsthand knowledge than anyone else right now save for you." 

And that made it a thousand times worse. "Oh, yes," Rem echoed with a reddening face, "the-the princess. Yes, that's right. She's very intelligent and good at thinking on her feet. I'm sure-" 

Taylor raised an eyebrow. "Okay, what happened between you?" 

"What-what do you mean?" 

"I mean, you doodled a little picture of you dancing with a girl in a flower dress here in the notes." Taylor pointed it out, the incriminating doodle standing out worse than the ink splotch at the bottom. "Not that it's any of my business, but I couldn't help but wonder-" 

"I'm her escort to the ball." Rem blurted it out and released a long held breath, slumping against the bedside. "She...asked me." 

"...To escort you to the ball?" 

Rem just nodded, forced again to dwell on everything unwise about the scenario. "And yes, I know we can't even dance together, and I'm more likely to be out fighting that night than spending much time at the festivities. And she's a damn princess and we couldn't even kiss and I'm set to return home to Vox eventually and I can barely see her considering the scale difference between us even if you set all the rest aside. You don't need to tell me how ridiculous this is, trust me. I have been going over everything about it all night." 

"And you accepted. Knowing it was ridiculous." Taylor tilted his head as he looked up at Rem.  

Because Philomene faced the unknown without trembling. Because Rem was tired of facing a lonely future and it would be fun to pretend someone might still fall in love with them if they were bigger than everyone. Because Nautilus was pretty, but isolating, full of humans who didn’t get the whole Lunar thing and kept calling them 'him' or 'her' if they didn't just stare at their size. Because the Exiles here led very different lives from Rem. Because neither one of them could dance, and Rem knew what it was like to have the weight of the world on one's shoulders. Because the princess was passionate and cared about things like snails and earthquakes and the greater good. Because on some strange level, it just felt right.  

"...Well," Rem said instead, "I wasn't going to turn down a princess, was I? What a terrible insult that would have been to the Thumbelinans. You get offered that sort of honor, you take it. I-it’s probably good for diplomacy. Besides, I guess deep down I'm just kind of a narcissist who responds well to admiration." 

Taylor just gave Rem a skeptical look. "You know yourself." 

"And it won't interfere with the mission," Rem added hastily. They wondered if they were saying I for their own benefit, as Taylor seemed content to let the subject drop. He was sensible for someone with such a casual manner and lapses in professionalism, and sensible people didn't probe into the love lives of others. 

Personal lives. Personal lives. 

"How soon is the princess showing up? Should I assume that maid of hers is coming along? Miss Snow does seem to be her..." Bodyguard? Mode of transportation? Assistant? "...personal attendant," Rem settled on. "Do I at least have time to order them room service?" 

Taylor was suddenly studying one of Rem's notes on the Rot very intensely. "...Well, actually the princess made a stipulation regarding her visit. She seemed to think bringing others along would help her out. And I was inclined to agree, given the circumstances. Besides, like you said, can't insult the royalty..." 

It was then that Rem heard three soft, perfectly timed knocks on the door. "Hello?" chimed a female voice, lilting and musical. "Officers? Oh, I do hope it isn't terribly troublesome for us to show up early..."  

Another, with the same slightly higher pitch Rem recognized in human voices, but much louder cut in. "But justice waits not for breakfast!"  

And then came a third, rumbling, monotone and tired. "Though really, it should..." 

Taylor gave Rem a casual grin and a shrug as Rem took a deep breath, reminded themselves that one could not dismiss the princess's friends, and let it out with a sigh. "Come in." 

Last time Philomene saw the inside of the grand but rather empty Anemone Inn, she'd spent most of the day recovering on a human scale-bed from her underground misadventure before Marjorie brought her back to her room in Thumbelina. She'd been in no mood to admire the decorations, the seashells hanging on the walls or the welcoming smell of frying bacon. Ezra had explained to her the mixed-scale hotel's financial troubles, which Philomene thought a shame. Certainly from her perspective, halls designed to fit Sky Folk were massive caverns, but these were very pretty and hospitable caverns.  

She had to keep that scale difference in mind while Rem apologized for how `messy and crowded' their seemingly enormous hotel room looked at the moment. "I've been consumed with the case lately, and didn't have a lot of advance notice." They shot a look at Taylor that literally and figuratively flew over Philomene's head.  

"Please, it is not a problem! Certainly not for me," Philomene insisted as she settled down on the coffee table, using Marjorie's handkerchief as a comfortable seat. "Thank you for hosting us, Inspector." 

There it was. She'd spent a good hour or so of the previous night sitting in Rem's hand and watching the sunset. They hadn't said much after Rem accepted her invitation. Mostly she'd enjoyed a moment of peace and safety, and from how at-ease Rem was for the first time since they'd met, it would appear to have been mutual. Philomene had pointed out the constellation of the weeping river, and would have done it longer if the night wasn't such an unsafe time for Flower Folk. She had left with a heat burning in her cheeks and a lot of questions on her mind. 

And now they addressed her as Princess in front of the others, and she called them Inspector again. Back to business, she supposed. Much as she envied the comfort with which Basil would lean against Ezra, she couldn't let her emotions get away from her. Even if Rem's eyes were just as striking without the kohl. 

“Of course, Princess.” Rem’s tone was deferential, perhaps a bit too much, though that curious self-importance returned wen they looked across the table. “And I don’t think I’ve really had a chance to speak with you two in a peaceful setting yet, have I? Inspector Rem Tera, though you probably remember me from the meeting. Prince Basil of Sethwhile and Ezra Kettle, is it?” 

Ezra looked a little ill, or at least drained. When Philomene had asked he’d insisted he’d just had a long night. “It’s…it’s actually just Ezra.” He winced as if expecting something terrible to come of that admission. 

Rem blinked, eyes visibly widening and seemed to be searching for something to say. Philomene knew they weren’t looking down at her, but hoped the meaningful glance she was giving them influenced their reaction. “…Ezra, then. I trust Nautilus is treating you well? You are friends of the princess, which makes you…”

“Friends of yours, good! Excellent!” Basil, heroic Basil took the reins of the potentially awkward conversation and shook Rem’s hand forcefully. “I saw you fight at that banquet. Magnificent! Like a dancer in motion with that weapon of yours. And yes, the city’s been quite kind to us, not to mention the owners of the Anemone. They gave Ezra the morning off for this!”

“Actually,” Ezra mumbled, “Salten did. He insisted he could take the morning shift on his own.” He sounded bewildered, rubbing his forehead. “Though do watch for eggshells in the scrambled eggs.” He continued to avoid eye contact with Rem, who did the same. 

Rem still seemed put off by the whole ‘nameless’ situation, a cultural hangup Philomene herself didn’t quite know enough about. To their credit, they were keeping anything untoward to themself. That they kept glancing back down at Philomene suggested they wanted her to take charge of the meeting, as she was the one who called it. (That had to be it, right?)

“Thank you all for gathering here.” She made a note of speaking as loud as possible without actually shouting, so as to be heard clearly by the giants in the room. “As we’re all involved in this situation, I feel it’s best we all get to know one another better.” And get along, she added silently.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time going over what the Green Witch said in my mind, trying to remember important details. I have every reason to believe she lied about part of it, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t reveal any important information. And this morning when I woke up, I remembered something.”

She took a pull of tea from a thimble before continuing. “She said she couldn’t control herself-selves-without her heart. Considering fairy biology seems to be, um, strange, I don’t think she meant this metaphorically.” 

Taylor tapped his finger together and leaned forward. “So, Highness, do you think Lord Germain has this ‘heart?’”

“No. I suspect he’d want it, but if he had it he wouldn’t have needed me to wake up the Green Witch’s self-awareness in that cave. He would be able to control all of her body. The Green Witch said ‘she’ stole it. The Rot Witch. And since the Rot Witch is missing, I suspect she’s hidden it away somewhere and is gradually taking control of it.”

Marjorie hummed. “Why do you think it’s gradual? That seems odd, her biding her time like that, if she’s strong enough to control her ‘sister.’”

“I don’t think she is. Remember, the Rot Witch targeted us in the woods using others. She bossed around Toad and sent cats after me, then Mother Wolf after Basil. She planted a Silver Apple in our household to play into Marjorie’s fears and Gourmet’s plan.” And that was something Philomene had signed off on. She gave a guilty shudder and looked up at Marjorie, who just smiled at her. Somehow that made it worse. “I feel like if she was strong enough to take over that heart, she would have by now. She needs fear, a lot of it.” 

Rem glanced aside. “…She might be getting it from Mielle.” 

“Mielle?” Ezra snapped to attention. “Wait, why would she be drawing power from Mielle? How bad is the infection there?!”

Rem stiffened, realizing perhaps they’d said more than they should, and bit their lip. “I’ll…we’ll talk in private after this, Ezra. I need to speak with you anyway. For duty.” It sounded like they really didn’t want to do that for several reasons, and Ezra didn’t look too eager himself. 

Before the meeting could go too far off course, Philomene took it over again. “In the meantime, we have to act. The Heart has to be around here somewhere. At least, I hope so. We find it first, figure out how to ‘purify’ it of the Rot Witch’s influence and somehow seal it, and we’ve solved our problem. We just need to figure out the opposite or counter of ambition.”

“Humility,” Ezra offered. “I mean, I could bake something infused with humility, but…would that work on a plant?” That earned an odd look from Rem.

“You strike humility into the heart of your enemy with a sound defeat,” Basil added. “If her Dryads lose a battle that’s got to hurt her pride and kind of ruin Lord Germain’s plan at the same time.” 

“The opposite of ambition,” Marjorie said, sounding curiously distant, “is inaction. Indifference. Nihilism, I suppose. But!” And then she perked up again, her hair bun bobbing behind her. “One can hardly weaponize inaction. Maybe laziness?”

“Well, we need to find this ‘heart’ first, and that’s provided your theory is correct, Princess,” Taylor said. “Your older sister wants to meet with officials later about another contingency plan, though from the wording in the message it sounds like something everyone involved would rather avoid…” 

Philomene tried not to wince. The Autumn Spell was still on the table, then. “Yes. That-that is absolutely correct. As for finding the heart, we haven’t many leads. There were obviously no signs of it in the tunnels, and if Hess knew she didn’t say…and likely isn’t in any condition to speak on the matter now.”

“Didn’t you take a witness into custody, Captain?” Rem asked. “One of Germain’s lackeys, a human. Name of Aidan, Amery…”

“…Avery. Avery Toad.” Marjorie spat the name out even as her smile never wavered. “Yes. We are. Familiar with him.” As for Philomene, she had to bite her tongue to keep from saying what she thought of the shape-shifting slimeball.

Taylor rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that guy. Real piece of work. Just sits around whining all day, trying to insist nothing is his fault. Won’t spill the beans on his employer, and Thumbelina doesn’t want him in their prison right now because they’re still repairing their facilities. You think he’ll be of any help? I mean, if you could get him to talk…”

“Let me consult with the princess,” Marjorie insisted with another flashed smile. She ducked down and cupped her hand to whisper to Philomene. “Princess, you don’t need to do this. Let me talk to Toad. He hates me, I hate him, but he can’t do a thing to me.”

It was tempting, to let Marjorie deal with her friend-turned-tormentor. Philomene would have been perfectly content never to see Avery Toad again, in amphibian or human guise. 

“…I’ll speak to him,” she insisted out loud. “I’ll do it. He might talk to me. We-we used to get along. But I want Marjorie with me, and I want to make sure he’s supervised.”

“Of course,” Taylor insisted. “You sure about this, Princess?” 

“About the Green Witch’s heart? No, but it’s a theory worth chasing. About getting Avery Toad to talk?” Philomene’s fists clenched involuntarily. “Oh, I can do it. And I have a few things to say to him, too.”

Chapter Text

Philomene was safe. She was in Marjorie's careful hands, and Marjorie would never let anything happen to her. They were flanked by two Thumbelinan bird-riders perched on Marjorie's shoulders and two human city guards stood on either side of Avery Toad, daring him to make a move. He was a coward who didn't start battles he did not think he could win. She was safe. She was safe.

Repeating the mantra over and over in her head helped her steady her breathing as she looked across the room at her former friend. "Toad," she said, sounding more hoarse and less self-assured than she'd wanted.

He didn't look well. His skin was colorless and sallow, with bags under his eyes. He wouldn't sit up straight despite the demands of the guards, instead hunching over in his seat and constantly fidgeting with the ring on his finger. Was it her imagination or was that finger more swollen, with veins visible? Had his fingers always been so long, his eyes so large and round behind the lopsided spectacles? She'd only seen him close up, and then very briefly. Those hands had been her prison.

"So, you finally came to visit me." His voice sounded off, too, the booming reverb of a human mixed with Toad's nasal croak. "I thought maybe you planned to let me rot here."

"It was tempting," Philomene admitted. She kept her head high, standing though she knew she'd be more comfortable sitting. Toad had the advantage of size. She needed to express power.

"Well, I'm not going to beg forgiveness no matter what. If Copper couldn't convince me, you definitely can't." He stared down at his hands, the defiance in his voice unmached by his wilting body language. "Because it's not my fault."

"Really. By all accounts, you were the vector who brought the Green Witch into Thumbelina in the first place, and then worked with the Rot Witch. And you threatened a member of the royal family with kidnapping and cats. Later you were seen assisting known criminal Lord Germain, who is now wanted by Thumbelina and Libra." Philomene exhaled, trying to keep her temper. "So, are you saying they used you as an unwilling puppet? If so, I'm sure you'll be glad to assist us in their defeat."

"I'm no puppet!" Avery shouted loud enough that it rang in Philomene's ears, though he shrank back down at the glares of the guards beside him. "I'm not as weak-minded as your giant friend was. I just did what I had to. It was fate."


"You're from the same Vine that birthed Blessed Thumbelina, right? Well, I might just be a descendant of the toad she spurned in the old histories. It only seemed right that I had a chance to rule Thumbelina. The Green Witch spoke sense into my head, that's all."

"She planted an idea in your head!" Philomene gave up trying to stand, the stress only adding to her discomfort, and just sat in frustration. "Believe me, she does that.They do that. She tried to do it to me."

“And I suppose you resisted because you’re better,” Toad hissed. “You’re always better. I get it.”
That was new, though Philomene knew better than to take it as a compliment. She saw the glare in his bug eyes, heard the venom beneath his croaking voice. She tried to remind herself she wasn’t here to understand him or know what happened. She needed to get the information out of him and leave, go on and do her best to forget about him. 

And she knew that was a lie. That wasn’t really why she braved the booming, echoing sounds, why she came despite the distant shouts and angry laughter of prisoners, the flickering lamp light casting strange shadows against the stark, white stone walls of a strangely clean prison. She would have left it to Taylor and his guards otherwise, or even let Rem shake the cowardly former amphibian a few times until words came out. This? This was personal.

“So. Is that your latest excuse?” Philomene blinked back tears and affixed a stone-cold glare she knew Toad wouldn’t see at his current size and distance. “It’s the Witches. It’s Ezra’s weak-mindedness. It’s fate, whatever you think that means. And now it’s me. I apparently brainwashed you into betraying our kingdom, endangering our people and your Queen and trying to force me to marry you. By the way, what was that even about!? Even if I agreed, we certainly can’t have children together and the people of Thumbelina wouldn’t accept a traitor in the royal family. I’m not even in the running for the crown. If you really were just after power, you’d have tried to go after Meramene. Or called for the election of a new royal family and nominated yourself. You know we allow for that, right?” 

“Well,” Marjorie added, “those would have been hard work.”

Philomene appreciated Marjorie’s attempts to deflect the flack onto herself, but she wasn’t sure how to indicate ‘not helping’ in body language. She was, however, grateful to see Toad turn that glare up to Marjorie, who seemed more unaffected by it. It was hard to read Marjorie’s face from Philomene’s angle. 

“So,” Philomene continued. “It’s about me, I suppose. What do you think I did to earn this? What did you want out of me that was worth wrecking a friendship?”

“It wasn’t a goddamn friendship!” Toad spat, rising to his feet only to be shoved back down to the guards. The shout thundered through the room, the same cruel, venomous voice as the being who captured her in the market. He let out a sigh, the spark of aggression having apparently passed, and quieted down. “I mean I thought it was for a while. I liked talking about the class work with you, discussing philosophy and engineering. Magical history, that sort of thing. It was fun. But you were always a little better than me, always got higher marks. Always stayed a little later. As if being a princess wasn’t enough, you had to be the best student too. We would start projects together and you’d just take them over. You fill the room with your presence and it’s suffocating!”

Philomene’s throat had gone dry. She was unsure where to start with the charges he was bringing before her. “…Toad, it was never my intention to show you up. I was just enthusiastic. I was glad to find a field I actually excelled in since diplomacy was so difficult for me, and-and if you thought I was crowding you out, you could have talked to me! I’d listen. I try to listen! It never had to come to this.”

“Oh, don’t turn this into a pity session for yourself, Toad.” All the false cheer had left Marjorie’s voice, along with the razor-sharp smile. “The princess didn’t come here to apologize to you. Forget it, Highness. He’s going to keep coming up with excuses so he can keep seeing himself as the victim of his own story. Trust me. I’ve met the type.”

She stopped when Philomene held a hand out. “It’s…fine, Marjorie. Thank you. You’re right, this is not…worth my time.” That was only partially true. On some level she wanted to hear it to understand how the Green Witch got into Toad’s head, to keep it from happening to her. But she had a feeling continuing the current conversation wouldn’t be healthy for her. “Avery Toad, I will work under the assumption that you allowed the Green Witch entry into your mind and she corrupted it, and the rest will be up to the judges to decide. For the purposes of this investigation, I come to you as a scientist working to solve the current case. No more mention will be made of our friendship.”

And that was it. There was the sense of a door shutting, an invisible barrier going up between the two. Toad sat up, blinking and then averting his gaze, as if he was just as aware of it. “Alright,” he said in a low voice, still resentful but more muted. “You’re just here to get me to talk too, then. Put my neck on the line for the nations that want me to rot in prison. Well, too bad. Lord Germain has promised me an awful punishment if I betray him, and considering he was my doctor…”

“Your what?” Philomene blinked, once more looking over his pallor and awkward body language.
“Toad, if you’re ill the guard will get a doctor to treat you. They’re not inhumane.” She gave a meaningful look up at the two city guards as if to say, ‘isn’t that right?’ 

“Oh, they’ve tried. Trust me. I’m medically fascinating to the physicians and the mages at the academy!” A snorting, sarcastic laugh escaped him. “Turns out I’ve probably got more in common than I thought with your tall maid friend there.”

“You’re…cursed?” Philomene had trouble believing him, but he certainly looked unwell. On the other hand, the mages should have been able to detect a curse easily. Finding the cure was a different problem entirely, as Philomene had discovered with Marjorie and Basil. 

“S’not a curse. They say it’s this.” He held up his hand bearing the ring. Philomene could see what she thought were veins were actually branches of metal digging right into and under the skin like roots. “Why do you think I’m not talking to you as a toad right now? I can’t change back, but my body keeps trying to do it. That’s not good for you, being caught between forms! And it’s old Sea Witch magic, which is a lot stronger than anything a pathetic human mage can handle. Lord Germain was working on it. That’s why I agreed to work for him.”

Philomene could feel her inner magic-researcher bubbling up, asking a million questions, and pushed it down. “Well no wonder, playing around with an artifact like that! Transformation magic is incredibly dangerous, and you’ve been using it willy-nilly to puff yourself up. Literally.” Though she wondered why a species of giant snails would forge a ring. Didn’t those require hands? “And I thought you liked being human.” 

“I liked being big! Tall, strong, powerful. You have no idea what you’re missing out on! I can pick up a rat or a frog or even a Flowerling in my hands! I can break chicken eggs. I could carry the entire Royal Family in my arms if I wanted to!” Toad was grinning, and the enthusiasm in his voice almost reminded her of her old friend. Almost. The smile melted away into a bitter, petulant scowl. “It was nice not living in a world of towers for once, hoping at least some of the towers were polite and didn’t try to murder you.”

Philomene understood that. The ‘world of towers’ Toad described was her reality too, that of any Flowerling and small Enlightened creature. It was the reason the Autumn Spell existed. But she couldn’t imagine turning herself into a human and using that body as a weapon, which was clearly all it was to Toad. “So what’s gone wrong with it? You could have gone on being a human. Sure you could never return to Thumbelina, but now you’re in that position anyway.”

“Copper misses you,” Marjorie added.

Mentioning Copper seemed to shake Toad, throwing him off his course for a second. Whatever ghost of clarity was bubbling in his head, he shook it off too quickly. “I told you, it hurts. Sometimes it feels like someone jamming knives into my joints, or my whole body trying to stretch itself out and squish back down. I guess even the Sea Witches hadn’t perfected transformation magic as well as they thought. I shouldn’t be held responsible for their mistake just because I used an old relic of theirs.” He mumbled, “and the Rot Witch is the one who gave it to me anyway. Besides, this isn’t really me. I like having the power of a human but I don’t want to live as one, especially among other humans.

“Where suddenly you’re not the big fish in the little kingdom.” Philomene leaned on her cane and tried to make sense of this. Disregarding how Toad was actually blaming ancient Sea Witches for his plight as well, somehow, she wasn’t sure why such a thing would happen. She hated Toad, but didn’t really want him to die or suffer. 

“I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it now. But at the very least, it seems foolish to keep holding out for Germain’s sake. He hasn’t made any move to bail you from prison, has he? I think you’ve been abandoned. Betrayed.” Philomene tried not to take much pleasure in that irony. It led nowhere good. 

Toad snorted. “Don’t I know it. My loyalty is lost on…wait. Wait a minute.” He snapped his fingers. “Lord Germain said I should look for a hearth mage. Isn’t that what your big fat friend was? The giant who got suckered by the Gourmet? The Rot Witch said something about it to me. He might be able to cure me!”

“…Um, he might?” Philomene knew Ezra was still struggling with the fundamentals of his craft, forced as he was to learn it without the same magic recipe books the Rot Witch herself had destroyed. “Look, Toad, what I really need to know is-”

“I’ll tell you everything! Anything you want if you’ll have him help me. Lord Germain is a jerk but he’s smart! He had to be onto something. Come on, Princess, don’t let me die here! You came here for information, right?”

Philomene bit her lip. “Listen, we wouldn’t withhold treatment you need just because-”

Marjorie cut in again. “We’re looking for the Green Witch’s Heart, most likely hidden away by her spongy sister who you worked under for a while. You’re going to help us find it.” 

“And then you promise you’ll get that hearth mage to help me?” Toad actually seemed cheerful again, though it was tinged with wide-eyed desperation. 

Irritated at Marjorie taking hold of the conversation and at the same time a little grateful for her ruthlessness, Philomene exhaled. “I will convince Ezra to try. I can’t guarantee results. And you lead us to the Heart first. Not because I want you to suffer longer, but because we need to examine it as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.”

“Yes! Yes, of course I’ll do that. And then no more attempts to conquer the city again, promise!” Toad beamed, only to suddenly remember that invisible wall between them and withdraw. “Um, I’ll lead you tomorrow. Is-is that all?”

“Yes. You are dismissed.” Philomene made a show of turning her back to Toad from her perch in Marjorie’s hands, in part so he couldn’t see her face. 

As Marjorie walked out of the visiting room, Philomene finally let herself slump down and cry.

“…It’s alright, Princess. You did wonderfully,” Marjorie whispered, letting Philomene slip into the privacy of Marjorie’s front pocket. “You got him to break down and work with us. Don’t listen to that worm. Don’t let him get into your head.”

“I know,” Philomene managed through a sob. “I know. But I just thought…I don’t know what I thought. Let’s go back.” She wiped her eyes and nose with a handkerchief. “I’ll talk to Ezra-”

“Later, and I’ll give Captain Taylor the report. You really, really need a night off, Highness.” Marjorie set a gentle hand over the pocket, the closest she could do to taking her lady’s hand. “I’ll order some moscato.”

“No,” Philomene mumbled, suddenly exhausted and pressing the handkerchief to her face. “You know how moscato gets to my head. I need to-I need to…alright.”

Toad’s mind was a mess of emotions, glee at a potential cure mixed with unease at seeing Philomene again, his own bitterness at the world having betrayed him so often warring with that sticky, unsettling feeling of wrongness he tried so hard to ignore. That last feeling welled up more often than he liked since his arrest, and he had trouble naming it. It was just as off as the tingles and pains of his poorly-transformed body.

But all were drowned out by a sudden silent panic over what he’d just promised that horrible maid with her cold green eyes and tree-tall stature. He said he would help them find the Green Witch’s Heart. Never mind what the Green Witch would do in retaliation; she betrayed him by abandoning him, so fair was fair.

But what the hell was the Green Witch’s Heart? 

Chapter Text

Ezra really didn’t want to meet with the C.P. in their room. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them, but he’d be on their turf. It felt like it would just add to the already obvious power imbalance. Had it been a sunny day he would have suggested the balcony where he’d sat with Cecily the other night, in hopes the sea air would improve both their moods.

But the late spring was a fickle season, particularly for the coastlines. The sun which had shone so brightly in the morning was gone by noon, overshadowed by fat black clouds rushing in from over the ocean. The windows of the hotel cafe shook with the crack of thunder, each reverberation running through Ezra’s head. 

How did Salten convince him to come along that night anyway? Well, it seemed like Salten was trying to be nice in his own way, though Ezra’s fuzzy memories of Salten’s friends weren’t very flattering. And why was that surly, self-identified “giant” working so hard in the kitchen for what seemed to be the first time while avoiding eye contact with Ezra? Maybe someone had said something to him. 

Rem cleared their throat as they entered, though no such action was necessary to attract attention. The cafe was practically vacant, with a few human guests sitting far enough away that they only gave Rem a double-take before returning to their tea. Rem was back in Celestial Patrol blue and violet with the moon pendant glinting around their neck, hair worn back in a long ponytail and tied up in a shawl. 

They sat down gracefully, though even the Sky-scaled chair seemed a little low for them, and politely ordered tea with sugar from a shy human waiter. Then they turned to Ezra. “Well, it’s not as private as I wanted it to be, but we won’t be discussing anything classified at this point.”

Ezra frowned at that, forced to look up at the very tall Rem. “Mielle’s situation isn’t classified?”

They sighed and pinched the bridge of their nose. “Well, it seems rumors spread fast, and a former citizen of Mielle recently chose self-Exile to avoid debts. And they went to Sky Harbor to find work. I can’t exactly tell them not to talk about it.”

“Because Exiles aren’t under your laws anymore?” Ezra thought it important to point this out as early as possible. He wanted to make it clear he didn’t have to cooperate with the C.P. Of course, that was bunk; Rem was working with the local human government here. Which was its own puzzle. Generally Vox was perfectly happy to meddle in the affairs of other Sky Islands but just as wary of the Center of the Universe as anyone else.

“They aren’t my laws. Try to remember, I didn’t make them.” Rem bristled and stood up straight, looking even taller in the process. “I, um. I know we didn’t start out on the right foot, Ezra…” The lack of a family name hung in the air, leaving the sentence sounding incomplete. 

“Nameless.” Even that wasn’t really a name. It was a placeholder, an indication of loss. There was no Nameless family, only the pitiable Nameless individuals. 

“Ezra.” Rem danced around the word, and Ezra wasn’t sure if he liked that or not. “I know we got off on the wrong foot. I will admit, at first we had reason to suspect you and your, um. Friends? Trouble seemed to follow you, particularly trouble regarding these fae creatures.” 

“But we sealed the Gourmet! I was his victim. He used me.” Why, Ezra wondered, did it sound so strange to say aloud? It was true, but something he tried his hardest not to talk about. “We spoke with Captain Taylor about it.”

Rem glanced to the window and back, briefly failing to make that penetrating eye contact down the length of their nose. “Yes, and he spoke to me about it. So I do owe you an apology for misdirected suspicion. Just, do understand…”

“I’m an Exile and I was accused of involvement in Tooth’s death. I get it. I don’t…didn’t really trust Exiles either, even when I was one.” Did Ezra now? He lived among them. He was one of them, lower than them, given his Nameless status. Why was it so hard to internalize? 

“Actually, that’s one thing I do want to question you about.” Rem’s eye contact returned, sharp and direct. Maybe someone that tall and trained in that profession couldn’t help but be imperious, Ezra thought. “Hamilton Tooth. He took on guardianship of you in the wake of your mother’s death and as the Kettles owed him debts, you were his indentured servant. How much did you know about him?”

“…Tooth?” Now they wanted to hear about him? Now that Tooth was dead, when even his death had managed to derail Ezra’s life? When he had spent contented months keeping his old master out of his mind, hoping that the chaotic Earth had swallowed his soul as it deserved? 

Rem just nodded. “I think despite everything, you still have the heart of a loyal citizen. I saw the look on your face when I mentioned the state of things in Mielle. It’s my job to keep us safe from any threat.” 

“…Despite everything.” Ezra lowered his voice, narrowing his eyes and regretting how one had to look up at Rem no matter what. “You mean despite the fact that the Sky betrayed and falsely accused me, that I failed any duty I had to my family name and surrendered it, that I’m fallen in every way it’s possible to be in Sky society outside of being an actual criminal, I can still be of some use to the high and mighty Celestial Capital.” 

He immediately realized what a mistake he’d made mouthing off to a C.P. with the way Rem’s eyes widened, and Ezra felt his heart sink into his stomach. He usually tried to choose his words so carefully! Where had that come from? What did he even care what the Sky thought of him? Wasn’t he over that? 

Rem, on their part, recovered quickly from the outburst and took a long sip of tea, letting the tension hang in the air. “I’ll let that pass,” they stated evenly, “unless you want it to go on my records.”

“…No, thank you,” Ezra mumbled. “You want to know about Hamilton Tooth. The honest, unflattering truth?”

“And nothing but the Tooth.” Rem twitched. “Truth. I wasn’t making a joke there.” 

“…Um, sure you weren’t.” This was going to be difficult. “I will do my best. It’s been a while.” Less than a season, he added mentally. Not long enough. “The Tooths, well, I’ve never met most of them. He was the only one in his family who lived on Mielle. I think the rest were from…Carallo? That’s right.” Carallo was a larger, much wealthier Island, though nothing in comparison to Vox. “I got the impression things weren’t great between them, but he certainly had the family money. They were a culinary family too, and I don’t know how far back our debts to them went. There was some kind of family feud, possibly? Long before I was born.”

Rem nodded, as if mentally taking notes. It hit Ezra that Rem probably did know more about it than he did. 

“He was talented, when he wasn’t drinking. Just, he wasn’t a Kettle. Maybe that’s what he resented me for? The Kettle name was disgraced but once great; the Tooths were financially successful and respectable, but never famous. Or maybe he was just the sort who liked lording power and control over everyone. At any rate, he was more likely to shout commands than teach and had me do most of his work. He always found ways to add onto the debt. Didn’t even do a good job of keeping the books. And…” 

Ezra heard an angry, drunken shout echoing in his mind and saw a looming shape. He heard the discordant sound of harp music. Everything he kept securely locked in the back of his thoughts was starting to leak out. 

“…Ezra?” Rem leaned forward, forehead wrinkled. “Are you alright? Do you need to continue later?” 

“No.” Ezra halfheartedly brushed Rem’s hand away, reminding himself to focus on the here and now. He was in the Anemone Hotel. Tooth was dead. “No, I’m fine. I just…”

“It sounds as if he was a cruel master. Mielle has laws about the treatment of indentured servants. Why didn’t you-”

“Because they wouldn’t have done anything! He was respectable, I wasn’t. He was an adult and I wasn’t of age yet for most of it. Why do you think they were so ready to convict me, so that they had someone to blame? It’s what they’re like.” He glared up at Rem. “None of them would help if I’d asked, and none of them stood up for me because they’re cowards.”

His heart was racing as if he’d been running. What was this? He’d thought it, and yet it still felt like treason to speak of it. And to a C.P. no less? 

Yet Rem didn’t answer his glare with one of their own. They stared, fidgeted in their seat and ordered a refill of tea for both of them. Thunder rumbled as the Lunar searched for something to say. “…I’m sorry. Their system failed to protect you. If it helps-well, it wouldn’t help you now, but there are bills being debated in the Senate to ban that sort of servitude entirely. It’s illegal in Vox.”

“That’s good for Vox.” Though Ezra couldn’t help but think about how if Vox could make broad-reaching rules regarding trade and Island alliances, they could do more than debate bills ineffectually for years. “Sorry. I really am alright talking about it.”

“You’re not,” Rem said, their mouth drawn in a thin line. Their eye contact was slipping again. 

No, agreeing with Rem would mean conceding to the authority of a C.P. Moreover, it would imply Ezra wasn’t better. He was completely fine. “You probably want to know about the harp, right?”

“I mean-” Rem stopped and raised an eyebrow. “The harp?” 

“It was one of the things Jack stole. Apparently it’s some kind of enchanted instrument, though we were never sure how it worked. Its music invokes emotions in others.” Like Ezra’s magic? But he knew better than to bring that up around a snoop like Rem. Let them hear about it from someone else. “Tooth traded for it at the marketplace from one of those traveling Merchants and listened to it for hours at a time. It always sounded awful and off-key to me. It was, um.” He made a shape with his hands. “About that big? Human-scaled, so more of a table decoration for him. I assumed that’s what this was about. The Gourmet wanted the harp for himself too. That’s all I know.” Well, that and Jack still had the harp himself as far as Ezra knew. 

“Hmm. Well, he may not have gotten it from a legal Merchant. We traced him back to some smuggling operations, among other things.” Rem still sounded muted somehow, a little deflated despite their size. “Do you really think the people of the Sky are cowards?”

Where did that come from? Ezra stared and shook his head. “What? No! Not the whole Sky. There’s too many of us. I can’t generalize about our entire Kin. I mean, I’m not of the Sky anymore, but…”

“No, I get what you mean. But the word you said about Mielle. Cowards.” Rem indicated the window being pelted with marble-sized raindrops. “You see that storm out there? To us and the humans, it’s an annoyance. The roads get slippery, we get soaked if we don’t have umbrellas. It’s more dangerous for the ships in the harbor. Once in a blue moon some unlucky sap is struck by lightning.” They paused. “Do you…mind if I diverge from the topic for a moment?”

“Uh, please.” Please, Ezra begged, don’t make me talk about that man anymore. Don’t peel any more layers away, you vulture.

“I was just thinking when the rain started about how it must be for the Flower Folk. Don’t laugh! But at their size, those raindrops could hit a Flowerling hard enough to break bones. It must sound like some kind of bombardment for them when they’re indoors. The princess told me they can’t go out much at night because there’s a chance they could get snatched up by owls and bats.” 

“Wait, when did you talk with the princess?”

Rem glared. “None of your business!” Their expression returned to that slightly cold, formal mode immediately. “But it made me think. The Flowerlings live on the land. In Thumbelina Kingdom they live alongside humans on equal terms, allowing for the royals and noble ranks, and the scale difference between a Flowerling and a human is far greater than that between a human and Sky Folk. Even the ones in separate City-Colonies live with humanity, with all the dangers the Center of the Universe brings. Why do you think that is?”

“…Don’t they need to? And aren’t we-I mean, the Sun and the Moon say that we’re meant to live in the Sky.” This conversation was going to places Ezra didn’t like. Celestial Patrol officers weren’t supposed to be philosophical, were they?

“Well, yes. But what if we live up there because we’re afraid? And of what? What could have happened to scare us and send us up there, when we’re bigger than humans and have less to fear from the Center? You’ve lived in the Sky and on the land. You have friends among humans and Flower Folk. I thought maybe…maybe you’d have a guess?”

This time, Ezra had no idea what to say. He wanted to go back to the interrogation. At least he had answers when it came to his own unpleasant life. This was bigger than him, far beyond him. “I’m not sure what this has to do with…”

“Mielle is rotting from within, literally, and the source of it feeds off of fear. We are afraid of the Empress, of our own potential, of people like me-people who aren’t-” Rem froze, color draining from their face and downed the rest of their tea. They coughed as it went down. “I’m sorry. You’re right, this is unprofessional of me. I simply cannot abide of a problem Vox cannot solve.”

Ezra squinted, entirely baffled by Rem at this point. “But you think I can solve-but I can’t-I can’t do this!” His heart was still beating too fast and he felt dizzy. He stood up fast enough to shake the glass cups, turning away. “Don’t look to me for answers to your questions. I’m a Nameless. People like you pity me, remember? Speak of me in low voices if you must at all.” He couldn’t look after his friends and boyfriend, learn his own magic, cook for the hotel, help save this kingdom, serve as a mentor and carry the weight of an unanswerable question. He felt pulled in a thousand directions and about to shatter. The throbbing headache was not helping.

Rem took a second to reply, and sounded shocked and hollow when they did. “…Ezra. I didn’t mean to-Mielle is dying. This is bigger than the both of us, and it’s left me asking a lot of strange questions.”

“Then ask them to someone else. I’m part of your investigation, not your friend. Besides, you have nothing to fear from our cowardice. You’re C.P. They’ll never Exile you.”

No answer came from Rem. Momentarily, Ezra heard footsteps and turned away to see them leaving the room without a word. As he did, he felt  that hot, angry sensation dissolve, leaving him shaky and feeling hollowed out. Why had he lashed out at Rem like that? The C.P. had been condescending, but not cruel as Ezra expected. 

What was going on with him? 

“I, um. I’ll be back in the evening. I’m going to call on Prince Basil.” He slunk back into the hallway, not caring about how Salten was staring as if the youth had seen the whole thing.

Chapter Text

Esteemed Investigator Atropos Veras: 

Thank you, as always, for your kind words. The Center, or should I say the land, is not as trying as I thought it would be. My size does cause difficulties, for even buildings constructed to accommodate Sky Exiles aren't always suited for me and those are few and far between. Let's say I have been adept at ducking under doorways for some time now. I have also avoided intrusive questions about my gender, likely because everyone is busy gawking at my size and finds me properly intimidating. (Though I like to think my fashion sense simply impresses them too much, ha!) The occasional "she" or "he" is easily corrected. 

Still, I wonder how humans who are of a Lunar nature fare in societies such as this one, which have two genders. (It is in the scriptures that the Moon will claim human souls as her own too!) Do I only merit this respect because of that intimidation factor that comes with my stature and position? I am told by Captain Taylor's worldly brother Xaviero that some human nations are different in this respect.  

I suppose if the great societies of the Sky Islands can have their outliers,  even humans can feel lost and isolated among humanity. 

Ha! Listen to me. Lately I find myself pretending to be a philosopher rather than a rational investigator. Forgive me. This is a report, not an editorial. 

I tried speaking with Ezra (formerly Kettle, now Nameless.) He was somewhat cooperative but clearly agitated. His case raises questions I want to bring up with you later in person once I return. He at least seemed to attest to mistreatment on the part of Hamilton Tooth. He also brought up a harp of some importance, now in the ownership of Jack Nimble. Probably the one you mentioned in the last letter. According to Taylor, the Gourmet wanted that thing too. At this point there’s no reason to believe Ezra himself was a collaborator; both he and Jack seem to be pawns. Ezra, for his part, is probably not interested in reapplying for citizenship.

The talk did not end well. Perhaps they should have sent you along too. You were always better at interrogations and interviews. 

“Salten? You can take the night off, or just watch tonight.” 

Salten stared as Ezra walked into the kitchen, tying on his apron and washing off his hands as if nothing was the matter. “Uh, really? But I thought you were, uh, that you had…a headache.” 

Ezra gave a sharp glance up at Salten. “The hangover’s mostly gone now, though next time please don’t pressure me into drinking with you. I don’t take to alcohol well. And nothing happened in the cafe, alright?”

“I know nothing happened! I wasn’t watching!” Salten turned red. “I mean, listening. Uh…wait, if you’re in a bad mood after that, wouldn’t you wanna go find your boyfriend?” 

Ezra was very casually dusting his hands with flour. “I think I’ll make pasta dumplings tonight, filled with shrimp. I’d love to set up a more elaborate menu, but we have so few guests. But we’ll have the ball to show our stuff and I’m sure that’ll change. I decided not to call on Basil with this rain still going. He’d get soaked coming down here, and poor Aurora would be very cross with me for it.” 

“But he’s your, uh…”

“He has a lot to deal with.” Ezra was focusing on mixing a bowl of thick, sticky dough for egg pasta. Once again Salten could swear he saw those eyes flicker, though it might have been the lightning outside. “All my friends do, and I was raised to be self-sufficient. I’ve just had a bad day. I can handle it myself.”

Salten was left in a position of watching, and felt strangely disappointed about it. He was actually looking forward to taking on dinner himself. Maybe it would prove to Mother and Father once and for all that he could learn and make a good apprentice, and they’d let him leave to pursue what he really wanted to do. Except what he wanted to do wouldn’t be possible here. But he got the impression from the tense movements in Ezra’s hands and the soft, flat tone of his voice that Ezra needed the kitchen tonight. 

Maybe working through one’s emotions was a better coping mechanism than going out drinking with friends who were just as likely to ditch him or egg him into fights, but it still didn’t feel quite right. Ezra had people who cared about him and probably listened to him. Salten’s parents clearly loved him, but he couldn’t talk out a thing with them.

“We’ll definitely need to hire additional help for the ball, though. Your parents have so few employees!” Ezra was working obliviously, and there was another flash of the eyes. “

“Hey.” Salten interrupted him. “That stuff you were talking about when you were drunk. That wasn’t fake at all, was it?” 

Ezra stopped in mid-stir. “…I’m sorry?”

“I’m not an idiot. You’re a magician. Your eyes flash like that when you’re cooking and it does things. Last night I had some of the leftover pie when I got back, and it felt…tingly. Like I was all charged up to get into a debate with someone or start a fight for real or something.”

“…You were drunk when you got back. And you’re always itching for a fight,” Ezra said, eyes wide and cheeks going a bit pale.

“I was already sobering up! And I felt bad after your preachy boyfriend preached at me. For some reason. You put your feelings into the food somehow. And you’re gonna do it again, so I hope you’re as alright as you say you are.” He narrowed his eyes. “My parents don’t need miserable customers.”

Ezra stood with the bowl in his hands, sighing and slumping. “…It’s…new. I haven’t the full control of it yet. I didn’t even think it was powerful at all, let alone activating itself. Maybe I’ll walk you through this after all. It’ll be good for you. Did you say my eyes really glow…?”

The search for the Heart begins tomorrow promptly in the morning, rain or shine. Apparently Her Highness Princess Philomene thought we ought to start immediately, but Captain Taylor saw her mental state after speaking with that prisoner and said she needed time. He knows people well. You ask me how I have come to trust Captain Taylor despite him being both an aristocrat in Libra's power and a human. It is because underneath his bluster, unprofessional countenance and terrible sense of humor, he genuinely seems to care about the well-being of others. Not only of his city but Thumbelina Kingdom, which is not part of the Empire. (All Flowerling City-Colonies are sovereign, an arrangement made long ago.) He has no reason to care for me as more than a necessary evil, for it was neither his choice nor mine that we be assigned together in this strange arrangement. And yet I find myself invited over to supper at his house this evening to meet his family! Yet he is not a soft-hearted fool. He takes all threats seriously, no matter the source. He, at least, is trying to rise above the corruption surrounding him. Or so I think. Perhaps he has me fooled, too. 

It is a wonder to you, I'm sure, that the princess would want to be so heavily involved in the investigation. Having met her, it is no wonder to me. Her mind is sharp as a knife. She would make a fine Investigator or Inquisitor if the Sun had chosen differently and she was born among us.  

You will not let it spread that I suggested the Celestial Patrol might thrive with outside, non-Sky assistance? I certainly wouldn't say that in front of the chief. 

Philomene and Marjorie had ducked into a cafe to avoid the sudden downpour. They would likely spend the night down at the Anemone if it continued, or perhaps head up to the wealthy district and ask the Taylors for a room. Philomene would not have Marjorie climb the mountainside during a rainstorm, not when the road was treacherous and likely to flood. Besides, Thumbelina would have the doors tightly shut and the populace moved in case of said floods. 

At least Marjorie had delivered on the wine, along with a dinner of cheese and sliced grape. 

“I just don’t get it, Marjorie. I thought I would understand him ‘gain if I just talked to him! I thought he’d, you know. He was jealous of me? That’s what this was all ‘bout?” If Philomene was going to be stuck in the human city, she was at least going to indulge in sweet wine after a day like this one. “Why do I do this? Assume people make sense. All the time. When they don’t.”

“Oh, often they do! You just want to see a positive answer.” Marjorie ran a finger along the edge of her wineglass, making it sing a soft hum. “You’re an idealist, like Basil.”

“Is-is it wrong, you think? To be an idealist? It doesn’t always seem to work out.” Philomene, sitting on a cushion in the middle of the table, stuffed a slice of grape into her mouth with table manners that would probably shock her sisters. Looking up at Marjorie made her a little woozy, but she did it anyway. Better to be dizzy than rude.

“No! No, no, I think it’s…I mean, I sort of wish I had it. That optimism about people. I always feel like I should, like missing it is wrong. I think you want to encourage people to be better. People meet you and they want to be better! Well, most people,” Marjorie added with a scowl. “Toad found you threatening so he tried to drag you down to his level, that’s all.”

“I don’t know why it upsets me so much.” Philomene sniffed, her eyes still puffy from crying. “’S not like we’re friends anymore. I guess I just, I thought…I keep seeing problems everywhere. To solve. But for problems to exist, somethin’ has to be wrong. I don’t know, am I selfish for it?”

Marjorie’s green eyes widened and then she covered her mouth with a long-fingered hand. “Oh Princess, no! Trust me, as someone quite well-versed in selfishness, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Granted I’m biased towards you. Anyone can twist anything around to suit themselves, especially people like him who don’t want to face themselves. ‘Oh, idealists are egotistical for wanting to improve the world! That friend of mine is trying to succeed specifically to spite me! Everything I do is alright because of how I feel!’ And you listen because you’re a compassionate person.” 

Lifting her glass thimble up to ask for a refill, Philomene wiped her eyes with her free hand and smiled. “And you see through it because you’re a cynic. Which isn’t such-such a bad thing to be either, I think. But Marjorie, I wish, I wish…” It took her a second to organize her thoughts. “I wish you wouldn’t keep trying to take all the badness on yourself. Claiming you’re selfish and wicked when I know you’re not. You don’t need to lie about it around me. You’re a lovely friend. You keep me safe and carry me places and pushed me to open up around the Investigator. Try to believe us idealishts when we tell you? You know I’m smart.”

Her human companion was silent, pursing her lips and for a second looking as if she might cry, too. Philomene hoped she wouldn’t; in her current state she’d start sobbing again too, and they’d be loud and embarrassing in the middle of the cafe. Instead Marjorie inhaled and smiled, pressing her finger gently down to lower Philomene’s cup.

“You should slow down for a while. And I’ll try, Princess.” Marjorie’s smile grew into a toothy, sly cat’s grin and she leaned her cheek on her hand. “Now, what was that about the Investigator there?”

If we are able to control the Heart, we may be on the right path to doing the same with the Rot Witch. I can think of no practical use for a living rot entity and would like to see her sealed as promptly as possible, then either handed over to the fairies or locked away without a key. Yet I know certain parties would suggest perhaps more daring, self-aggrandizing and foolish uses for her. I suppose that is out of our hands. Should we solve this problem, the Rot Witch's fate would be with the High Senate. Surely they wouldn't be so stupid as to suggest weaponizing her? Then again, these are worries shared from one colleague to another. It is entirely possible there will be no way to control the Green Witch, heart or no heart. 

At which point, we will simply have to kill her. Captain Taylor and Queen-Regent Meramene have been in talks about another option. I am not privy to it. From his expressions I gather he would prefer never to use it.  

This brings me to another point. I think we may have been underestimating the Flower Folk, dismissing them because of our physical distance. I mentioned before how they have sovereignty even in places like Libra and the Fire Opal Empire, both of whom seem to be expanding gradually like rising dough. Human troops could easily overrun a Flowerling colony, though it would be a horrific crime to do so. If war being wrong prevented warfare, I imagine we should have no reason to ban humanity from our Islands. The Flowerlings have advantages humanity does not. I know they've been accelerating their scientific development and magical studies for some time now. I don't think it's just that. I think the Flower Folk have a weapon in their arsenal, and merely having it has merited human respect.  

I don't know what to think of it, if it's true. It would seem to endorse what the hawks are saying in the High Senate about how we should deal with the human empires. It's also terribly sad to think about, somehow. 

If the people of the land find a way to control the Green Witch and do not seal her, they may be able to grow another giant beanstalk like the kind Jack used. I suppose if humans have a way to reach the Sky, we'll really learn whether or not Libra intends to leave us in peace. 

You will forgive me. I don't usually dwell on worst case scenarios. A friend of mine has shown me the wisdom in considering them.  

Oh, and because I'm sure Mother will be asking after me: Yes, I am well. Yes, I am getting enough to eat, and fish is supposed to be good for the skin anyway. No, I am not going to do anything foolish like run off with some rakish Exile out of those novels she reads. 

Well, I did get wordy. Yours and etc.,

Investigator Rem Tera 

Chapter Text

Toad hated everything. He hated the guards who dragged him out early in the morning, pushing him to wash up and get moving. He hated that bald old man with the sharp eyes Toad could practically feel boring into him from behind him. He hated the rocky slopes of the shore, the sharp drop-offs he had to narrowly avoid as he and his current traveling escort trudged down towards the sea. He hated that stupid Northerner human prince and the red-haired prince who ruined everything. He hated the Northern prince's looming, snorting bear. He even hated Philomene, a little, for daring to pity him or thinking he had anything to offer. 

But mostly he hated himself for promising it. 

"It's a little further," he said as he turned around to face a skeptical-looking Captain Taylor, whose expression brought to mind the sternest instructors at Thumbelina's academy and the Rot Witch's strongest disdain all at once. It did nothing to calm Avery Toad's nerves. "We wanted to keep it far from the sea caves and the catacombs so You Know Who couldn't get to it so easily." At least that struck him as a good reason to lead them towards the scraggly forest that grew outside the `rim' of the bowl of peaks and outcroppings enclosing this stupid, over-inflated hovel of a human city.  What was it Germain had said about that once?

"My old teacher had a theory about the geology around here." Lord Germain spoke without looking up from his work, carefully bisecting a still-squirming tiny Dryad. "He thought it might be the remains of a massive extinct volcano that erupted so spectacularly it blew a hole in the very land itself. Of course, that would have happened long before Thumbelina banished the draconic salamanders from the mountains and calmed the volcano that bears her name. If we're lucky, the big one that made the crater is dead too." 

He chuckled. "Was that what you were going to do as King of Thumbelina, Mr. Toad? Bring your enormous kin back and reestablish the reign of the salamanders? Or did you just not think that far ahead? Ambition is wasted on the young and short-sighted."  

Well, what did that fat old idiot know? Germain certainly hadn't used those Dryads to help Avery escape. If only he really did know where the Heart was, how deliciously it would smother Germain's own ambitions! How fitting it would be. If Toad ever ran into Germain again in person he'd have to smother the old man himself.  

Which he could absolutely do. He had the physical power. If that Hearth Mage giant fixed him he wouldn't need Germain anymore. And it couldn't come a moment too soon. Toad shuddered as he felt his insides shift a little again, his stomach churning and his joints burning. It no longer felt like his fingers were being stabbed with knives or his feet walking on glass as it had when he first used the ring, but he wasn't sure this was any better. Back then he could shift back.  

"Hey." Taylor prodded him from behind. "You gonna be sick? You alright?"  

Toad glared and waved him off. "I'm perfectly fine. Just the pollen in the air and the humidity." He actually loved the humidity lingering after a long night of rain, and the salt-smelling mud caking his boots.  

"Then make sure to take a more direct route than this! I feel we've been weaving all over." Basil, the Northern prince who'd helped in Toad's arrest, had insisted on coming along with Taylor and the guards. At least that ludicrously tall giant officer was back at the city, though having the prince's bear along wasn't much better. The redheaded prince was nowhere to be seen, which was fine with Toad. "If you're feeling unwell, climb on Aurora's back and get a ride," Basil added. 
A look at the leering bear informed Toad it would be a bad idea. "I'll walk," he stammered. "Just got a second wind!" 

He thought he saw something rustle in the trees up ahead. When he looked again, it was gone.

“Toad is there.” Thanks to the sea breeze blowing in the right direction, she’d smelled him before she saw him. But she wanted to be sure before she reported to Lord Germain, who did not like mistakes. 

“Is he alone?” The jewel in the wolf’s ear flickered as Germain spoke to her from afar. “I’d be shocked if they just let him go, or if he broke free. Not that the boy doesn’t have the wits to do it, but he lacks initiative.” 

Red growled when she recognized the flash of light armor. “City guards are there. And…” 

There. That was the prince with the white bear! She recognized the scent of his curse, chilly against her nose. He was in reach, and this time she didn’t have to pretend to be a human pickpocket. She wasn’t anywhere near as big as the bear, but surely she was fast enough to tear the long-limbed human off of his mount. 

“…Red?” The voice crackled. “You’re growling quite a bit. What’s out there? He isn’t leading them towards one of our safehouses, is he?”

Without a sound, a white shape leaped down from the branch of a lime tree as gracefully as if she’d floated. White Hood was a wolf herself again, smelling as always of wet mushrooms and peering at Red with eyes black as ink. If you tell him Prince Basil is here, he will order you not to attack him. He always has reasons. But you want to attack, don’t you? You want to kill him as soon as possible so he doesn’t kill you first. Which he will. I know everything you should fear, sweet Red Hood.

Red flattened her ears, lowering herself against the grass still saturated from last night’s rain. She couldn’t disobey Germain, who indeed seemed to hold her back when it came to Basil. Basil of the Frozen Heart, as White Hood had called him, who had cruelly tricked her mother into devouring poison and dying. Basil, who had stolen her brothers when they were just pups. 

White Hood wanted her to lie through omission. Good children did not lie to their fathers. But Lord Germain always denied being Red’s father. 

“He’s leading the guards and some others towards some of the old lava tunnels.” Wasn’t that what Lord Germain called them? “The ones near all the trees.”

“Ah, yes. Odd! I don’t have anything there.” Germain spoke over the sound of creaking wood on the other end. “What could that treasonous idiot be doing? Well, nonetheless, let’s give them a little scare and make them think they have hit upon something important. May as well take advantage. Red, I’ll leave Toad up to your discretion. If you think it’s worth his time, let him explain himself to you.”

There. She’d done it. Red was glad Germain couldn’t see the way her tail curled under her legs even as he accepted the lie. “And the others?”

“You’re a wolf, a lovely huge specimen even at your age. Do as your mother would do.” He chuckled. “In fact, this might be a good time to give the guard back in the city a little surprise. A distraction upon distractions to keep them on their toes. I want to be sure I can overpower the pull the Green Witch has on them. Let us remind them of who we are.”

White Hood gave Red a warm nod, bearing her teeth. For once, they both approved of her.

Toad’s feet hurt more than usual, and he wondered just why it was the princess had insisted on setting out so early. She had insisted on coming, apparently, to verify what Toad found was indeed the Green Witch’s Heart, though how she’d know he couldn’t say. It was more of her arrogance again, her assurance in her own intelligence. She was riding that huge moth, Melchior, occasionally landing on Basil’s shoulder to speak to him.

They hadn’t spoken a word to each other, which Toad figured was likely for the best. Every time he tried thinking too hard about Philomene he grew both more resentful and irrationally guilty, and then his joints would start pulling in strange ways and the magical ring would send its roots a little further into his finger. 

He would just have to find something and hope it was the Heart. Or he could find something convincing in the glade, a strange root or odd-looking tree, and pass that off as the Heart. He’d get his cure and…then he’d run for it. Whether what they had was the real thing or not, it wasn’t his problem. 

The ring flashed white-hot for a second and the joints of his hand burned. He grit his teeth, unwilling to show weakness around those soldiers. 

“Just up this hill,” he said, trying to sound as natural as possible. “We hid it among the trees. Seemed like a good idea, right? She’s a plant, these are plants.” Oh, that wasn’t convincing at all! “Let me just…”

He scanned the edges of the glade, looking past them towards the lava tube caves behind them. There had to be something. There, that tree with the twisted branches. But what was that shadow behind it? And why was it moving?

There was scarcely more warning before Germain’s wolf-shifter, Red, leaped out in front of him with her fur raised and her teeth bared. She was easily as tall as his shoulders in that form, bigger than a wolf ought to be by his reckoning, with very white, sharp fangs. 

“Hold on!” Taylor shoved him aside, stepping forward and grabbing a crossbow from his side. “The hell is a wolf doing in these parts?!” 

“SIR! I have it!” Before Taylor could fire a bolt, Basil and the bear were before them, the prince bearing his sword and the bear rearing up. “You keep our guide safe,” he declared.

Taylor narrowed his eyes, grabbing hard onto Toad’s hand. “Are you crazy?! You don’t give the orders here, Prince! God damn hothead rookies…” 

“Basil,” a tiny voice added, “you are being reckless…” Philomene’s moth was hanging back and up, away from the danger.

“I can handle it! Aurora and I can-can…” Basil trailed off as he stared down at the wolf, some of the color draining from his face. He seemed to lock into place, unmoving. Red took advantage, lunging for him with a vicious snarl.

Taylor let go of Toad to ready his crossbow, shouting out a curse as the thread of Red distracted him. That was fine with Toad. Let that odd child do as she will! He took the chance to scramble to his feet and run for it, ignoring Taylor’s angry shouts. He’d hide in the caves. Let them deal with Germain’s remaining flunky.

Ezra grumbled to himself about apprentices who wouldn’t get up early enough in the morning to make a proper breakfast for guests. Bread needed time to rise and vegetables needed chopping. If it was to be left to him, that was perfectly fine. He would just be careful and not let any magic leak into anything. It was his magic. How could he not control it?

Had the knife not slipped, he might not have cut his thumb. And had he not cut it, perhaps he wouldn’t have had to stop to wash it off in a basin and tie it with a piece of cloth. And had he not stopped, he might not have heard the noise coming from outside, now like creaking wood, now the thudding of heavy footfalls and the swishing of leaves. 

But he would have heard the screams. 

Hastily tying the bandage over his thumb, he ran out of the kitchen to a scene of chaos. One of the owners, Mrs. Candlewood, stood out in the hallways with her cap askew. “Everyone just stay calm! Please remain in your rooms and don’t go outside! The City Guard are on the case, they’re dealing with the-Ezra, dear!” The plump Sky woman rushed over to him, gloved hands clasped. “Oh thank goodness. I’m making sure all the staff and guests are accounted for and stay inside. Except, except…”

Ezra noticed her eyes were puffy. When he glanced out a window, he saw a branch-like shadow pass across it and heard more screams. Dryads? Out in the street, in the middle of the day? When Basil and Philomene were off on a mission?

“So Marjorie is alright?” Due to the storm last night, she and Philomene had roomed at the inn rather than risking the wet climb up to Thumbelina. 

“Still resting in her room, like a sensible girl. And it’ll be fine,” Mrs. Candlewood repeated. “We’ll be fine, all of us…”

Ezra had repeated that mantra enough to himself to recognize what it meant. Trying to contain his own alarm and maintain calm amid the shouts outside, he asked, “Is someone missing, Mrs. Candlewood?”

Mrs. Candlewood’s nervous smile dissipated and her form shook. “It’s…Salten. He went out again and hasn’t come back yet. Karon went to go find him and hasn’t returned. My husband and son are out there…! But it’s alright, the guards will protect us. It’ll be fine…”

Something slithered over the locked balcony windows, silhouetted by the morning sun. The snapdragon grinned, showing off rows of spiny teeth dripping with oozing black goo. 

Chapter Text

Three wolf cubs. Mother Wolf had three wolf cubs, far bigger than natural and perhaps a little more intelligent. The black one and grey one came home with Basil to the surprise and dismay of his fairy godmothers, to be washed and fed and sent to live with his family in the North. There they’d be safe, free to run about in the fields. Maybe they could learn how to herd sheep and goats like the big, woolly dogs his sister Fern kept, or trained to hunt like his older brother Raven’s griffin. Basil would keep his promise to Mother Wolf, whom he could not save.

But there had been a third, one with rust-red fur and ears too big for her head. She’d wriggled away the moment she was free from the Rot Witch’s trap and run off into the forest. All Basil could do was hope she’d thrive out there.

So how was it he found himself facing her, a little bigger now, snarling up at a looming Aurora? What was she doing so far from the Blue Forest, in broad daylight? 

“Aurora, yield! Down, Aurora!” Basil pulled against her reins to no avail. Aurora was trained to protect him at all costs. He suspected that conditioning overrode any orders he’d give to her. She swung her great, long-clawed paw down at the red wolf, who skittered away.

“Highness, what the hell is going on?” Taylor ran up behind them, though he wisely stayed a good distance from the angry, feuding predators. “I can get a good shot in, non-lethal. Just get the bear out of the way.”

“Don’t shoot!” Basil blurted, holding on tight to Aurora. “This is-I-I think I know this wolf!”


The wolf lowered herself down into a growling defensive position in the underbrush, raising the fur on her back. She curled her lips back into a snarl. “You…coward! Stop hiding behind your bear!”

“…You spoke?” Basil finally managed to get Aurora back onto all fours, though the bear snorted out a vicious warning growl that even made Taylor jump. Basil barely noticed, staring at the red wolf to make sure he’d heard correctly. 

“Stop hiding.” Her voice wasn’t nearly as deep as Mother Wolf’s had been, though she slurred words as if unused to speaking them. She had the scratchy, high-pitched voice of a child of perhaps nine or ten, underscored with a guttural growl. Her black-rimmed eyes were ruby red. “Where is Avery?” 

Basil saw Taylor readying his crossbow again, though with unsteady hands. He noticed the soldiers around him doing the same with their crossbows or short swords. Of course they would kill her if she threatened him. He was a foreign prince and it was part of their duty to protect him. 

“Highness,” Taylor said, voice flat. “Care to explain.”

“I-She can’t talk. You can’t talk,” Basil repeated to the red wolf, voice trembling. “That was the entire point. That was why Mother Wolf did what she did. To give you voices! You’re not Enlightened…”

“Now I am! He fixed me.” He? “And you lie about Mother. You poisoned her heart. You are the ice-hearted prince!”

She saw what happened. She’d witnessed him fail to save her mother and blamed him for it. And why shouldn’t she? 

“The prisoner got away,” another soldier called from further up the hill. “Your orders, sir?”

Taylor did not lower his crossbow, still trained on Red. “Veretti, Attar. Find him. Bring him back alive. And you.” He glared at the wolf. “Stand down. Kid like you doesn’t need to be getting in this kinda trouble.”

Kid like you. So, Basil thought, Taylor saw her as a child now too. A child with teeth and fangs capable of ripping his throat out, but that didn’t matter. Prince Charming would never raise her sword against a frightened kid. She also wouldn’t have failed to save them in the first place.

“…What’s your name?” Basil kept his hand on the hilt of his sword anyway, hating himself for it. When there was no response from the wolf but a growl, he held both hands up. “Okay. Wolf? Your fight is with me, not these people. I do not want you to attack them or Aurora. So I’m going to get down onto your level and talk to you.” He ignored the chilly tingling in his fingers and familiar numbness in his toes. This wasn’t true cold. 

Melchior flitted by his ear and landed briefly on his scarf-covered neck. He heard Philomene whispering into his ear. “Basil, that’s the wolf I saw in the caverns. The ‘algae thief.’ I think she’s working with our enemies. Be careful!”

“Please be careful yourself, Princess! If she’d jumped on me while you were here…” But Basil understood Philomene’s own recklessness came from the same place his did. She just wanted to protect him in her own way. As Melchior flitted safely off, Basil began to slowly climb off Aurora’s back. 

The wolf made no movements, her hair still raised and her teeth bared.

“You’re crazy,” Taylor muttered. But he held his fire. Melchior perched onhis shoulder, wisely finding it the safest place for the princess to be at the moment.

“See? Not going to hurt you,” Basil said as he landed on the ground, holding his hands up again. He tried to remember how Fern approached fearful pups during a summer visit, using her body language to convey what words would not. He knelt and removed one of his gloves, wincing at the sting of the morning breeze against his exposed fingers. His gloves would smell of Aurora, and she would want to sniff him.

Of course, that was how his sister dealt with dogs who had lived alongside the Mountain Folk for generations. This was a wolf, an apparently Enlightened one, who by all accounts hated him. But he had to try.

No, no no no! It was happening all over again. Red could still remember glimpses of it, though her memory before her Enlightenment was foggy. The prince had stopped fighting her mother, and was doing something else. Something that made no sense to her animal mind. And then, and then…!

Red lowered her ears and backed up, her courage failing her. Basil of the Frozen Heart was going to confuse her as he had her mother and then she would die, or be stolen away like her brothers were. These were Lord Germain’s enemies. If she ran away from them, he’d demand an explanation and she would have to admit she’d disobeyed him. No matter what happened, she would fail him.

As always happened when she was at her most frightened, White Hood appeared. No one else seemed to see her perched on top of a rock, and why should they? White Hood was her guardian. 
You could kill him so easily. At this point it’s self-defense. Lord Germain would rather you disobey him than die or lose your free will, wouldn’t he? Her all-black eyes blinked. Then you can bring Germain Toad’s heart. He was a traitor. You’re loyal and good.

Loyal and good, that was all Red wanted to be! Why was it so hard? But attacking Basil was disobeying Germain. She was no good at finding ways to justify actions the way White Hood could. 

The prince kept his hand held out, though it trembled. Behind him, his enormous bear glowered down at Red. Was that his plan? Was he going to tame Red and then feed her to his bear? 

Surely it was fear that kept her from attacking him as she thought she should. She’d been waiting so long to confront him, maim or kill him and avenge her mother. She’d told herself many times she didn’t care if she died in the process. Why couldn’t she take her chance? Why wouldn’t her body move? Something about this felt wrong, viscerally wrong. Was this the kind of power Basil held, or was she really such a coward after all? 

My poor, frightened Red. A black, sticky tear ran down White Hood’s face. How odd; humans shed tears, not wolves. You can do it. I’ll be right here…

“Princess,” Basil heard Taylor whisper to the moth. “On my word, you move your Melchior up ahead and go find Veretti and Attar. I’ll send one of my guards to escort you. You need to find your Heart, right?”

Basil let out a faint sigh of relief. At least he hadn’t ground the entire mission to a halt, and Toad couldn’t have gotten far in his condition. He kept his hand out for the wolf, though he carefully slipped his other over the hilt of his sword. He had to be prepared in case she didn’t want to negotiate.

Yet the wolf had fallen silent, giving furtive glances up at the empty space above a rock. Her ears were flat and her tail curled underneath her. That wasn’t aggression. That was fear. 

“…I shall talk first, then. Red Wolf, I tried very hard to save your mother. I do not blame you for being unable to forgive me for my failure. I don’t know how you’re able to speak now, or why you’re working with people like Toad.”

“Not working with Toad. He’s a traitor,” the wolf mumbled. The venom stayed in her voice even if the belligerence was gone.

“He seems to make a career of that.” Basil bit his lip. “If you come with us, we can help you. I can tell you about your mother. We’ll keep you safe. The people are kind to Enlightened animals here.” What else could he say? Wouldn’t Prince Charming have been more eloquent, more convincing? 

“It’s alright, kid.” That was Taylor, voice softer than Basil was used to hearing it. “You don’t need to do this. You don’t want to do this. Just tell us who ‘he’ is and what he did to you. Is he forcing you to work with him? Threatening you?” 

“He is-he is my…” The red wolf trembled. “I am-I am not a traitor. I’m a good girl. I’m a good girl…!” 

With that she spun around and took off towards the woods, tail still between her legs. The sudden movement startled Aurora and triggered her predator instincts. She reared up behind Basil and let out a bellowing roar, only speeding the red wolf’s retreat.

“Aurora, no! Down, stand down!” Basil clung to her massive bulk, hoping his voice would reach her. “No, Aurora…!” 

“Spread out,” Taylor ordered the remaining guards. “You two, try to track down that wolf. Get her unharmed.”

“Captain Taylor!?” Basil looked at him aghast. “You said she was a-a kid…!”

“Yes! And I’m gonna take her back somewhere safe,” he snapped. “And you are gonna explain this part of your story to me in a little more detail when we get back, Highness.” 

Technically a Captain of the Guard ought not to be giving orders to a foreign prince, and Basil knew that. But he didn’t care. He eased Aurora downward with calming whispers as Red’s shape disappeared into the sunlit maze of cypress and olive trees. Perhaps it was because his eyes were clouded with tears, but he could have sworn for a second that shape looked humanoid. 

“Captain!” An Imperial guard ran up, clad in the more striking white armor and slightly out of breath. “Sir, we’re getting reports of Dryad activity down in the city square.”

“What?!” Basil whipped around, staring at the woman. The Anemone Inn was by the city square. Ezra and Marjorie would still be down there.

“Oh, hell. In the daytime now, huh, Germain?” Taylor ran a hand through what would have been his bangs if he had any. “Sounds like he’s trying to scare us off from finding anything here, between this and the wolf…”

“The wolf, sir?”

“I’ll explain later.”

“Sergeant Bell suggests you stay up here, Captain,” the guard said. “She’s got the guard and Investigator Tera on it. There haven’t been any appearances in the upper hills district, so…” 

The upper hills district was where the Taylors lived, on the Duke’s ancestral land. Basil tried to imagine the towering Investigator fighting in narrow city streets, but he was too distracted by thoughts of plants devouring Ezra. “Sir, I-I must-”

Taylor tilted his head, sounding tired and shaken. “Go do heroic prince stuff down there. You’ll be too distracted to help us here anyway. We’ll help the princess find that Heart.” 

“And the wolf?” Basil slipped his glove back on and mounted Aurora with his heart pounding in his chest. It was all too much at once.

“Told you, we’ll bring her back alive and unharmed. Go.” Taylor turned away, barking orders to his guards again who followed them to the letter. Even the Imperial guard seemed to respect him.

“I’ll make sure your family is safe,” Basil called out to Captain Taylor as he rode off down the hill. Already he could see a snake of billowing smoke coming from the heart of the city below. He could only hope that was defenders trying to use fire against the Dryads, and not something worse. 

You’ll fail Ezra, something icy whispered in his mind. Just like you failed her. If not now, then someday. You are no Prince Charming.

The whispering died down when he dug his hand into Aurora’s warm fur and rode on. 

Toad leaned against the cliff side to catch his breath, every joint in his body aching. Germain had warned him not to run too often with his condition, to say nothing of how gangly and useless human legs were at it. His good, strong toad legs could leap and carry him away faster than this. The old lava tube caves that peppered this cliff like honeycomb would hide him for a few hours at most. The guards weren’t stupid; they’d search here and they’d find him. 

“Do you need some help?” a clear, soft voice asked.

Toad nearly did jump as high as his former self could, spinning around to see the red-haired prince who had stumbled into breaking the Green Witch’s curse and ruined all of Toad’s plans. Alphonse was smiling with his arms crossed over his chest, a white horse waiting behind him. He still wore that stupid rose on his chest. It had to be made of silk to stay intact for so long. “I thought I heard something,” the prince said. “You’re the prisoner, aren’t you? Not very smart of you to break away like this.”

“I was just running ahead,” Toad said, huffing and puffing too hard to say more coherently. Great, so Alphonse would be the one to capture him. More accolades for that pretty boy and another failure for Avery Toad. 

“I was scouting ahead for the guard when I came across something. It’s what you were looking for, right?” Alphonse kept smiling, but there was something penetrating in his blue-green eyes. “I mean, it has to be. I don’t know what else it could be, though we’d need you to confirm it. And I bet they’d be a little more forgiving about your escape attempt if you were just trying to elude that wolf and find the Heart, right?” 

Toad froze and resisted the urge to grin. That idiot prince thought he’d found the Heart? The thing Toad wasn’t even sure existed? How utterly cocky of him, to be expected of anyone called Prince Charming. “Well, um, yes. Of course. But if we could do so quickly, Prince, before the guard catches up and thinks you’ve caught me…”

“And gives me the credit for it, right?” Alphonse let out a musical chuckle. “I have quite enough attention for now, thank you. I’ll have to endure a whole ball’s worth of it soon. Come on.” He tied his horse to a tree, gave her a gentle pat, and led Toad into a tube cave so narrow both men had to duck and crouch to navigate it.

Two turns in the pitch black darkness later brought into vision a chamber filled with sickly green light. Fat, bloated roots climbed along the walls, giving off a luminescence like the glowing mushrooms in Thumbelina Kingdom, but wrong and artificial somehow. At the center of the chamber sat a great, bulbous shape, pale white, oozing with black goo and spouting tumorous growths along its smooth, rounded surface. The air stunk of rotting plant flesh and something piercing and sour; were it not for that second scent, Toad would have found the smell nostalgic, like that of the sea marshes.

Alphonse covered his mouth and nose with a handkerchief. “It looks like a giant onion, doesn’t it? But look at it. The roots look like veins and arteries. It’s burrowing into the stone. That has to be the Heart you’re looking for.” There was a suggestion of a smile underneath the piece of cloth. “And I’ll let you take the credit.”

The Heart! Well, why wouldn’t it be there after all? Philomene was a genius, and no matter how much Toad resented her he could never deny that. Now that he’d found it, they would have to fix him. Any failure on their part to do so would be monstrously cruel. They’d be at fault and he could finally rest at ease knowing he was the victim after all. 

Something in his body tugged at him, as if trying to shrink him down and failing. He let out a shudder and hoped Alphonse couldn’t see it. “Ah,” he said, “you really are a kind-hearted prince! To help a poor soul such as myself who is in such a bind…”

Alphonse laughed again. “As I said, I don’t want any more praise lavished on me right now. I don’t need a big head. Besides, you really are in need! If they found out you were lying and didn’t know where the Heart was, they’d cast you out. They’d have no real reason to help you. And then what would happen to you?" He fell into a brief coughing fit. "Ugh, it stinks in here. Oh, just one favor in return. Don’t tell anyone you saw me here, or they’d definitely draw the conclusion that I helped you and you’d be back at square one! Because let’s face it, I’m Prince Charming who saved Thumbelina and you’re a criminal. So this was all you.” He winked. “I’ll just head on out there and signal the guards that I saw you go in here, and you lead them and Princess Philomene to the Heart like you said you would.”

That felt…odd. Why wouldn’t the prince want more attention? Toad couldn’t imagine intentionally hiding a good deed. He’d want to bask in the credit. But he was too desperate to question Alphonse’s apparent eccentricity too far. “Yes! Good plan, yes. Thank you, Prince. You truly are, erm, Charming.”

“Oh, you know.” Alphonse lowered his head sheepishly. “Anything I can do to help someone in need…”

Chapter Text

Vox was green, overwhelmingly so even among the blues, reds and violets of colored glass and painted wood. The ancient Cathedral Trees growing from the surface of the biggest Sky Island grew with branches entwine into towers, their vast hollow trunks forming the oldest and most important buildings in the Celestial Capital. Their broad, thick succulent leaves swayed in the wind, big enough to support the weight of a child.

But they were still. Their growth was gradual, easy to control with the right structures. They did as they were meant to do in the Celestial order of things, if such an order existed. Rem had their doubts.

Nautilus Square was green now, writhing, hissing, spitting green in nauseatingly vivid shades. Dryads swarmed the fountain, crawling over the statue of the Empress until only the flame in her hand was visible. A creature with eyes peering out of its bright red blooms snarled at a shopkeeper trapped behind his fish stall. Rem couldn't see where they were coming from, and as far as they could tell they had no goal or direction. They were just an unpleasant surprise.

"Aid in the evacuation," Sergeant Bell snapped to her guards. "Keep those things out of the alleys and stop them from spreading. Giant!" She turned her steely-eyed attention up to Rem. "Keep cutting them down until we can trap them, maybe set them on fire. Watch your feet."

Rem didn't need Bell to clarify what she meant. The Square was big and open enough that Rem didn't feel cramped or fear stumbling in the wrong place, but they would be rushing into a fight with panicked humans at the level of their knees again. At least this time it was broad daylight.

"Did we see where they hatched from?" Rem slammed their spear down on the fat root-feet of a towering dandelion, which roared and bore fangs. Lord Germain apparently had a terrible sense of humor. It had no bearing on the dandelion itself, which responded to its root being ripped off by lunging and sinking its teeth around the spear. Then it snaked its body around the handle and started to climb up to Rem. 

As Rem kicked back down at the approaching dandelion, a dripping water sound filled the square despite the clear day. It came from a violet trumpet-shaped flower, the head of the Dryad clinging to the Empress statue. Rem could just make out the glint of something in the trumpet’s core, though nothing more than that.

“Good morning,” Lord Germain’s broadcast said through the Dryad. “No imagery today, I’m afraid. It doesn’t work so well in the daylight, so you’ll have to make do with my voice.”

“Has to talk over his own attacks. What an egotist,” Rem muttered under their breath, finally piercing the dandelion in two. As always, something minuscule inched out of the plant’s body too fast for Rem to step on it. 

“Consider this a demonstration,” the voice continued. “Not only of my continued presence, or of what happens when you try to interfere with my creations; no, I am not so small-minded as to make this about myself. I feel the people of Nautilus and the glorious Empire of Libra are owed a chance to see these creatures in action. Understand their potential. I am sure by the time the morning is through.

“Try to interfere?” Bell frowned as she helped a wounded human civilian to his feet. “Does he mean Captain Taylor?” More specifically, she was alluding to the mission Captain Taylor was on with the prisoner and the princess. Which meant Philomene’s theory might be correct after all, and in turn that she was probably in a lot of danger if Germain was willing to retaliate so heavily against everyone else for her actions.

Rem stiffened. No. They had a mission to protect the people here. They were an investigator trained in the use of a Lighting Spear and Vox Martial Arts, not some white knight rushing to the rescue. 

"Thanks to the marvelous technology of our long-forgotten ancestors, the ones whom I'd like to imagine understanding my goals if perhaps not my actions, I can see you. Humans scrambling for cover, my own kin nowhere to be found, as if we have once again left you to your fates. And what's this? My old friend, the Sky officer. A pleasure! What a lovely challenge for my Dryads." The voice chuckled. "Well, I'll leave you to the test."

Rem would regret letting Germain's boast distract them the moment the dandelion sank its teeth into their leg.

"You are in the kitchen. Now." Marjorie leaned against the huge door frame and sighed. "I knew this would be the case."

Ezra looked up sharply, holding a spoon dripping with liquid sugar. The windows rattled behind him as a greenish-yellow vine slithered over it. "I'm not-I mean, I thought it was best if-well, you're not in your room either!" He always reminded Marjorie of a brooding hen when under stress. "Philomene would have me killed if anything happened to you!"

Marjorie pretended to ignore him as she kept up her melodramatic act, draping the back of her hand on her forehead. "I saw the trouble out there and somehow knew my dear old friend Ezra, whom I have known since he was a not-so-wee babe-"

"This is not `fake story time,' Marjorie," snapped Ezra who apparently saw fit to cook candy in a crisis.

"-Who would trust me with his very life, would cope with a crisis by working through it even if it put him in grave danger because that is how he copes when he can't cuddle a Prince. And it was up to Marjorie the clear headed to ask what exactly you're planning?"

That seemed to catch Ezra off-guard. He stared at her. "You're not going to yell at me to go back to my room where it's safer?"

"Do you want me to?" She stepped closer to the giant and lowered her voice. "It's not safer there at all. This is a hotel, not a fortress, and at most those windows are fortified against storms. Monsters are another thing entirely. The innkeeper sent people there for their own comfort, so they'd feel safer and less likely to do anything dangerous and stupid."

"Her family's trapped out there," Ezra said softly. "And she has to hold down the fort, so to speak, knowing there's no good in following her husband at this point. It's in the Sun's hands now, or the guards. I have to do something to at least protect her inn and the people here..."

"Aha! You do have a plan." Marjorie snapped her fingers and moved a chair over to peer into the pot, which bubbled with something herbal-smelling. "Lavender? Lavender candy?"

Ezra avoided her gaze. "I thought, lavender is calming, and my magic seems to turn itself on without much of my intent. But so far I don't feel anything, and it's just boiled sugar..."

Magic. Well, it was nice to see Ezra finally begin to embrace that part of himself, even if he obviously had no idea what he was doing. He needed a guiding hand, someone with firsthand experience in magic.

Marjorie could do that, right? This was completely different from her childhood. The scents were all sweet, the room well-lit, the windows bright and under assault by Dryads.

"Okay, hold on. Marjorie to the rescue." She cleared her throat, making eye contact with a confused Ezra whose wooden spoon shook in his hands. "You are casting without any spellbook and under a lot of stress. Whatever you produce right now will just agitate those monsters or put them in the heightened state of a fight-or-flight response."

"Marjorie, I assure you, this is probably as calm as I'm going to get right now!"

"Because you're letting your emotions run wild and currently ruled by the one you don't want tainting your spell. Do you know why spells have chants sometimes? It's to put the caster in the right mental state. Here." She took the spoon from his hand, placed it in the pot and urged him to put his hand above hers. "You stir, and I'll sing."

You sing while I stir. That's a good girl. Nice and slow. Now, don’t cry like that. If you cry, your tears will ruin the potion. 

Marjorie grit her teeth. She didn't need to start hearing them and slip into unhelpful memories that would put her in a panic, not at a time like this. If only her brain would listen to her.

She wondered if practical, skeptical Ezra would scoff at the idea of singing. Instead he glanced at the window, watched something claw across the surface, and shuddered. "I'll sing with you. I like doing it while I'm working by myself."

"Aha! I knew I heard you humming while you dusted a few times." Marjorie smirked, secretly relieved. They never sang with her in the laboratory. Maybe this would be fine, too different to trigger a response.

Behind them, the glass cracked at the edge with a low tinkle.

The stench was horrendous, somewhere in the unpleasant range between rotting plant flesh and putrid seaweed. If this was the Green Witch's heart, it wasn't a healthy one. The black muck Philomene recognized as Rot permeated it, forming a puddle at its swollen roots.

"It's worse than I thought." Philomene steered Melchior to rest in Taylor's open palm, letting the poor moth rest his wings. "The Green Witch really was overtaken by her 'sister.' Poor thing..."

"Poor thing that tried to smother your kingdom?" Taylor asked sardonically, though with no venom in his voice.

"Hah, you are right. I can't feel too sorry for her." Still, it was hard not to at the moment. Looking at the grotesque sight before her, she was reminded of drawings of Flowerlings who had died of horrific diseases, plague outbreaks and overuse of certain herbs. "I don't know how we're going to separate them. You can't just clean out a plant..."

She pursed her lips and looked over at the crouching Toad, who seemed less bothered by the odor than the humans around him. "Avery," she said, addressing him by the name he used as a human.
"Do you know what repulses the Rot Witch? What causes her to keep sabotaging people who should be her allies?"

"Oh, I don't know." Toad rolled his big eyes. "I think she just took nasty pleasure in undermining others once she had their trust. Maybe she expected the same of everyone else. She's Fear, right? I bet an act of courage ticks her off. Like what that red-haired prince did..."

"Of course! Alphonse entered a dangerous area full of toxic flowers and thorns, which was an act of great courage. And he knelt before my sister and made a blood sacrifice for her, which is rooted in humility..." Maybe. Something still felt off about that situation. But Alphonse wasn't present and Philomene had to concentrate on her current problem.

"...Well, this is my plan, and I have the most to fear from anything this thing might do." She tugged at Melchior's fur, signaling the moth to take off again.

"Wait. Princess, you don't have to do this." Panic rose in Taylor's voice. "We're all armed here, and no offense but we're a hell of a lot bigger..."

"And have less to fear." Philomene offered Taylor a weak smile she doubted he could see in the dim light. "I'll be fine. She's only mold and mushrooms, right? And all she can do is scare me."

She landed Melchior as close as she safely could, urging him to flutter back.

"Nnnnno," he said in his high-pitched cricket-chirp voice. "Stay heeere."

"...Oh, Melchior." She held his head and nuzzled his feathered antennae, then turned around and faced the porous surface of the onion-heart. Leaning on her cane, she reached a hand towards the surface. It was cold and clammy, its surface mushy like old vegetables. But nothing happened.

"...Hmm. Maybe I need-"

Violet shadows overtook her, and the panicked voices around her fell silent.

Chapter Text

“Is it drinking my blood!?” Rem pried the dandelion’s teeth off of their leg, leaving nasty tooth-marks and reddish metallic blood running down their ankle. They reminded themself that secrets didn’t matter right now, and most people wouldn’t know what that kind of blood meant. They’d just chalk it up to superstitious ideas about Sky Folk and leave it at that. 

The dandelion Dryad squirmed out of Rem’s hands and back towards the fountain, retreating before Rem could pierce it with their spear. Just as well, as a scream ran out across the square. A human man was trapped against a wall, sheltering a bundle with his hands while two flowering Dryads slithered towards him. 

“Coming through!” Rem bounded through the square, taking broad steps and feeling awkward and ungraceful. It was difficult to keep an eye on a goal while having to pay so much attention to where they put their feet. They kicked one of the Dryads and speared the other right through, resulting in another one of those awful little worms inching away. Rem gasped for breath, covered in plant goo now and looking down at the humans, who stared up at them.

“It’s fine,” Rem panted. “Get out while you have a path, head up the hill. We’re containing them here.” 

Did the human hold the baby a little tighter while looking up at them? Was that fear in his expression, or was he just frazzled from the chaos around them? Rem didn’t want to think about it. “Just go,” Rem snapped, and the human complied wordlessly. 

Seconds after he was safely out of the way, something smashed into Rem from the side with full force. Pain welled up in their chest as they doubled over, skidding to a halt before they hit the wall of a building. They stumbled back, woozy and gasping for breath, and heard the loud crack of wood under them. 

They hadn’t hit the building, but they’d been knocked right into a carriage, smashing it into bits. If anyone had been in there…

“Tera!” Bell called out, gesturing forward as she ducked behind a makeshift shelter of barrels. 


“Worry about it later! We need some cover here! I have a plan.” 

Trying to recover their poise, Rem ran past the fountain which seemed to be seething with even more vicious plants and met up with Sergeant Bell, whose armor was painted green and grey from the battle. Her troops were gathering behind her, firing crossbolts at any Dryads that came near.

“See that?” Bell gestured to the fountain. “They can’t touch the flame in the statue’s hand. I sent some of my soldiers to fetch torches. We can’t set them all aflame or the city will go up with them, but we can close them in and corner them in the center. And then you do your thing.”

“…Do my thing?” 

“I saw you fight out there.” Bell grinned. “If they’re all in one place you can take ‘em out, and we’ll try to capture as many of the worms as we can for evidence. Germain wants to humiliate us in front of our city. You don’t want to let him, do you?”

Some of Rem’s spirit came back to them, as quickly as their breaths evened out. If they could pull this off they’d be a city hero, and praise from the humans in the Empire meant accolades up in the Sky. “I think I can put on a show.” They returned Bell’s grin.

Up at the fountain, the dandelion re-emerged from the swarm briefly, still holding something in its mouth. 

Marjorie didn’t recognize all the songs Ezra was singing, though she could pick up a few folksongs here and there that must have been popular down on the land as well as in Mielle. When she didn’t know the words she was able to hum along, knowing the effect would be the same. Ezra wasn’t a bad singer, though he couldn’t always hit the notes. 

She also had no idea making candy was so complex. Ezra said it had to be at something called a ‘hard ball’ stage, which involved putting drops of hot liquid sugar in cold water and expecting something to happen. 

The singing at least seemed to have the right effect on Ezra. His hands had stopped shaking, and while he still glanced at the windows for safety’s sake he no longer looked like he wanted to crawl under the table and hide. She also noticed a soft golden glow to his eyes. It would be interesting to see him actually work his magic. It was such a gradual, gentle thing, a spell that came on slowly and seeped in through the handiwork of a master craftsman. Not like…

Mirrors, so many mirrors everywhere. Most of them shattered. Withered apple trees in pots with red-tinted soil, bearing heavy black and grey fruit swarming with flies. Singing, dancing, posing, doing anything to convey the right mood to cast the spell so the victims would be in the right mental state, so the sorcerers could remain happy. They always wanted to be happy, even when…

“Marjorie?” Ezra had stopped stirring and held a hand on her shoulder, giving her a vigorous shake he must have intended as a gentle one. “Marjorie!”

No mirrors, no terrible pots, no sorcerers. Marjorie sucked in a deep breath and made herself regain her smile, hoping she didn’t look too pale. “Really, how embarrassing. I just got a bit into the moment. It’s been some time since I did this.”

“…I can probably do it myself from this point,” Ezra said, lowering his head. “Give me time to figure out what the rest of my plan is beyond ‘make a sleeping potion out of candy and hope monster plants like it.’” 

“No, no! No, I can do it.” Marjorie cleared her throat. Did he pity her? Did he guess something about her own singing unnerved her? What must he think of her? Singing was a joyful thing; everyone thought so. “It’ll be stronger with support, anyway, and we can use all the support we can get. Do you think the smell might work?” 

“The smell?” Ezra sniffed the air. “Well, they do say the senses of smell and taste are connected.” He drizzled a few drops into the cup of water, where they formed little balls. “See? Hard ball stage.”

“I can’t believe you are such a perfectionist about magic food we’re going to be feeding to monsters.” Marjorie laughed despite herself. “Well, again. We’re casting without spell books, so we’d better hope your force of intent is-”

There was no time to explain the concept further as the glass of the window shattered. 

Something slid in, a tangle of thorns and various blossoms that didn’t even belong on the same plant. It was a good head taller than Marjorie and much wider, likely with enough mass to engulf the both of them. And it was on the kitchen floor now, no doubt about to call over its friends for lunch.

“I CHANGED MY MIND,” Ezra yelped as he grabbed the pot and staggered back. “THIS IS A TERRIBLE PLAN, WHY DID I TRY BEING BRAVE?!”

“Because we are, darling! Because my boundless courage spilled over and you caught a bit of it.” Well, so much for the both of them staying calm, though Marjorie guessed the spell was cast as well as it was going to be. “Just throw it on the monster!” 

“Throw it on!? But it’s candy! If you throw melted candy over something it’s just-” A spiny appendage reached out towards Ezra’s food. “Alright, alright, I’ll throw it!”

He had quite a throwing arm, Marjorie had to admit, slugging the pot right into the bramble Dryad. Purple contents spilled all over it and it shrieked, likely from the heat unless it disliked the permeating scent of lavender. Bits of it turned brown and fell right off. It hissed and spat, covered in sticky sugar goo cooling rapidly in the air. 

“Marjorie,” Ezra whispered. “It’s not calm.”

“I noticed,” she answered through gritted teeth. She was sure he’d been casting magic! How else to explain the glow in his eyes? And he’d done it before; it was how he’d captured The Gourmet. 
“…You said it’s not candy if you just throw it on something, right? When IS it candy?” Marjorie spoke as she scrambled onto Ezra’s shoulder to avoid the angry brambles, one of them tearing a long, painful cut into her ankle. “Sorry to use you for shelter.”

“No offense taken!” He’d taken to using the pot as a pitiful shield, backing up against the wall. “I’d say it’s candy when it cools? At this rate we’ll probably end up with something like poorly-made taffy…” 

“And where did you get the cold water you were using for the hard ball test?” 

“Someone delivers ice here in the morning. I don’t know where they get it from, up in the mountains I guess…oh. Ohhh.” Ezra’s eyes lit up as he seemed to catch on. 

Marjorie held onto his shoulder as he rushed across the sticky kitchen floor, the bramble slowed but still furious. She leaped down and knocked over a barrel of ice water with the impact of her landing, its chilly contents splashing all over the Dryad. 

“…You know, I could have knocked that over myself,” Ezra mumbled.

“But it wouldn’t have been as good-looking.”

The Dryad shrieked as chunks of the sugar water solidified all around it, weighing it down. The crystallization effect spread more rapidly than Marjorie would have expected, perhaps a result of the magic imbued in the candy. And candy it was, a purple, lavender-scented sculpture of rock candy with a Dryad sealed in the center. 

A violet vapor began to leak from the big candy sculpture, carrying with it a much more vivid floral scent. It dismissed Marjorie’s battle rush and replaced it with an overwhelming urge to just close her eyes and sleep, sleep right where she was and forget all her problems.

“…Oh,” she realized aloud, drowned out by Ezra’s yawn. “I just realized, we unleashed a sleep spell in the same room…”

She heard the satisfying thump of unconscious Dryads outside and promptly gave herself permission to let the spell take effect on her, slumping onto an unconscious Ezra. 

The plan was going so smoothly Rem assumed their earlier slip with the carriage had to be a fluke. The Dryads recoiled from the torches. It was clear whatever strange barrier the plants down by the ‘sea garden’ were generating, Germain’s Dryads couldn’t imitate it yet. Soon there was a huge swarming mass drowning out most of the fountain save for that little flame, the area evacuated of civilians. 

Rem’s leg stung with every step they took, but the bleeding had stopped and the wound showed no signs of infection or poisoning yet. That was a blessing, given their earlier experience with a giant snail bite. All that was left before them was one big, grotesque target, one they could take down with a good long electrical charge from the Lighting Spear. They ran their thumb on the little wheel implanted in the spear’s handle, turning the charge up to maximum. The crystal spearhead went from a warm glow to a white-hot blaze, filling itself with captive electricity. 

They charged forward, wondering how good they’d look at this moment and what genuine celebrity might feel like, too fast to hear Bell shout a warning until it was too late. 

Even as the spear plunged into the swarm, it seemed to swell. Plant flesh merged together, growing into a stem and then a trunk. It grew and grew, far bigger than even the fused combined mass of all the remaining Dryads should have been. A branch hard as stone smashed into Rem from above, knocking them back. As they lost their grip on the spear, it remained uselessly lodged in the Dryad.
It towered over the tallest buildings in the area, waving too many branches. Its trunk was bloched in too many shades of grey and brown, not like the smooth red and tan of the trees Rem recognized. Its leaves were a mishmash of shapes, and it bore blossoms Rem couldn’t identify. The whole thing had a metallic sheen. But the broad shape Rem would know anywhere.

“…A Cathedral Tree?!” 

The trumpet flower reformed in one of the lower branches, with the glint of crystal still visible at its core. “Well,” Lord Germain said, “I’m genuinely surprised! I did not know they could do this. I shall have to study them later to find out what element you exposed them to that caused this change, though I do have my suspicions. Is that blood metallic, C.P.?”

Oh Center of Chaos, of course. Hadn’t the Green Witch said something about wanting to taste their blood? And they’d let the Dandelion get away with a mouthful and feed it to all of their buddies. 

“Bell,” they murmured to the human soldier nearby, “you should get the guards out of here.” 

Rem didn’t hear Bell’s answer as the Colossus Dryad heaved forward, its steps shaking the stone below. It snapped the handle of the Lightning Spear right off, charging at the unarmed Investigator. 

Chapter Text

Philomene remembered this lack of sensation, the feeling of being detached from oneself by all but a spider-silk thread. But there she’d been pulled into a mental link with her friends and a more distant one with the Gourmet. She’d had to collect all the pieces of herself and hold them together, lest they drift apart and dissolve like salt in water. 

Here she was somewhere else, and the being surrounding her knew she was there. She was an intruder, an unwelcome guest, and greeted accordingly with pitch-black darkness and the sound of screams on rushing wind. Her psyche did not try to spread here. It clung to itself and crystallized, like a protective shell.

It did nothing against the voice of the Rot Witch, which echoed through the starless sky and over the gales. 

“What do you think you’re doing? A tiny, insignificant being like you, challenging us?”

The land beneath Philomene quaked and split open. From it sprouted a mushroom giving off the only light, sickly pale and grey. The mushroom bloomed and withered, first into the shape of a young girl in a hood, then a wolf, then the old woman who had given them the Silver Apple in the woods. It cycled in that respect even as the black eyes glared down at Philomene, standing at Flowerling scale.

“Don’t be surprised,” the Rot Witch said with a gooey grin. “You had the gall to visit me alone. The least I can do is meet you on your own terms before I devour your mind!” She cackled, speaking with the voice of the old woman and the child at the same time. “Though really, I despise such arrogance.”

“…Of course you do.” Philomene could feel the pressures of something cold and draining around her. It took a lot of energy to speak. She reminded herself that she merely needed to hold her ground until she could figure out how to repel the Rot Witch from this ‘heart.’ “You feed off fear. So you want everyone to cower before you. Your kind aren’t as complex as you think you are.”

“And you aren’t as brave as you claim! Oh, I know you delude yourselves. You’re survivors who live in the World of Towers, isn’t that what you say?” The Witch spat something black and acidic on the ground. “You know, my idiot sister absorbed some knowledge from you. She knows why the humans tolerate you, why they don’t use you as dolls anymore or capture you as curiosities. And since I’m currently infecting her body, turns out I do too!”

Philomene wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. “It’s a-a social contract. We radiate Green Magic even if most of us can’t use it. Living near a Flowerling colony makes for a greater harvest and more fertile land. Everyone knows that!” 

“Oh? So fear has nothing to do with it.” The Rot Witch narrowed her eyes in her wolf form. “You’re all perfectly content to rely on the kindness of humans and assume the best of them. You’ve never seen humanity as monsters despite the livestock they breed, the impact their heavy feet have on the land, the cities they build that encroach on your colonies.” 

As the Rot Witch spoke, enormous shapes sprung up around them. A cow leered down at Philomene with great, empty sockets for eyes and jagged teeth. Massive feet and hands crowded them, stomping, reaching for her but passing right through her. Leering faces the size of moons grinned down at her, some cooing condescendingly, others fiendish and predatory. They crowded her in, moving ever closer.

It isn’t real, Philomene reminded herself. It isn’t real. She wants me to let her guard down so she can infect me. Rational thought is the enemy of fear. Rational thought is the enemy of fear…!

“Already you start to cower and crumple! Poor little princess. This is just a glob of me, just a fragment of myself. You really should try latching yourself onto a fungus for a physical form. That is, provided you have a sister with a huge body mass to exploit. Poor, big idiot…”

The ground trembled beneath Philomene and a flower sprouted at her feet, peering up at her with one eye. 

Help me, it sang to her. Help us. We love you, princess of ambition!

Rem gasped and pried at the oakwood hand wrapped around their throat, choking them as it lifted them upwards. Their vision blurred, the massive cathedral tree Dryad fading into a dark shape blocking out the sun. 

It was novel, Rem thought bitterly while in the grasp of panic, to look up at someone for once. 

There was a shout from somewhere followed by a flaming projectile hitting the dryad in the branch-arm. It made a roaring sound like cracking wood and tossed the investigator aside forcefully just as spots began appearing before Rem’s eyes. They hit something hard and felt it give beneath them.

Rem coughed and heaved as air entered their lungs again, their chest burning and throat marred by harsh red marks. As their vision cleared they raised a hand, looking at the gash that had reopened due to broken glass. In fact, they were covered in glass shards. The dryad had tossed them into a store front, the window now shattered and the awning crushed under Rem’s weight. 

I can’t do this, Rem realized as they stared at the glass in their hand. I can’t fight in a human city like this. What was I thinking?!

They staggered to their feet as Bell’s guards continued to fire flaming arrows at the dryad. They were answered with a roar and a slam of a huge branch big enough to toss guards aside like ragdolls. Rem thought they heard bones snapping. 

Their eyes fell on the broken handle of the lightning spear laying on the cobblestone, its charged head still submerged in the dryad’s body. It was still out of reach. At Rem’s side lay a broken lamp post, its flame unlit. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective a weapon, but it would have to do.

“Bell!” Rem bellowed as they charged at the dryad, swinging the lamp post at full strength. It dented, but not without taking off chips of wood and bark. Rem’s voice was still hoarse from the choking, and it hurt to shout. “I think we need to get it out of here. It has a charged lightning spear head inside of it, and if that thing breaks and explodes…”

“Would take care of our tree, yeah? But how big an explosion are we talking?” Bell was holding her side in a way that didn’t look promising.

“Not the sort you want going off downtown.” And you don’t want me fighting downtown either, Rem added silently. We’re both too big.

Bell thumbed towards the pier. “We get it down to the water. I’ll have my soldiers clear the way, you lead it down there!”  

Rem saluted, trying not to let their panic show. It wasn’t a bad plan, they had to admit, but they looked down some of the narrow, weaving streets leading to the docks with dread. There were so many ways this could go horribly wrong. 

The Rot Witch smiled, ignoring the little flowers at Philomene’s feet. “A shame I can’t seem to manipulate those dryads the old fool made of my sister’s body. Once I devour you I should figure out how he’s doing it. But I can see through them! All the delicious fear they generate, all the work he’s doing for me! Did you know your oversized friend is terrified of one of them?” She licked her lips with a black tongue. “The fear of one who believes themself fearless is exquisite.”

Oversized friend? Could that be Ezra? Marjorie or Basil, who were both comparatively large? Rem?!
“Oh, there we go! I found a weak point after all,” the Rot Witch said as the huge shapes inched ever closer. “You fear failing the ones you love. Don’t we all? Well, not me. I don’t have loved ones. It’s so convenient that way; they can’t reject you.” 

Philomene felt rooted in place, unable to push forward but unwilling to retreat. “Of course you don’t. You betray anyone who might trust you first, and for what? Toad, your sister? The Gourmet, I’ll bet?”

“And what do you care for them!? You hate the traitor. I can’t even feed off your fear of him, because your pity and revulsion are too strong; I have no need for such emotions. My sister cursed your kingdom and grew fat off your people’s magic, to say nothing of the ambitions of those who failed to save them.”

“She seemed to think it was your idea,” Philomene managed through gritted teeth. What was she doing? Trying to win a mental battle against part of an Other One? She really was arrogant. The Princess of Ambition indeed.

More grass bloomed at her feet, emerald green.

“And the Gourmet? Pfah! He betrayed first. Do you think I could trust him, after what he did to our brother?” 

“You keep saying that, you and your sister.” Maybe Philomene could eke information out of the Rot Witch the way she did with the chatty, childlike Green Witch. “What brother?”

“Oh, you’ll meet him someday.” The Rot Witch waved a dismissive claw, and a vivid blue Moonflower sprouted next to her, the strange light flickering inside of it before it vanished. “In a way you already have. Trust me, if you knew what the Gourmet did to him, you’d wish your hearth magician had starved him rather than satisfied his hunger.” 

“It worked, didn’t it?” Philomene crouched near the green patch of grass. This was good; she wanted the Green Witch in control, until she could figure out how to control the Heart herself. “I’d say your kind have a lot to fear from us mortal kin. Ezra trapped your brother with a piece of gingerbread and whipped cream. Lord Germain is using your sister’s body mass as a weapon system…”

Her eyes widened as the realization dawned on her. “Of course! That’s why you can’t control the dryads. Lord Germain isn’t afraid of you! He’s arrogant and possibly half mad, but I suspect at most he finds you a curiosity. Oh, that must be infuriating for you! To know there are those who don’t fear you…”

Philomene expected a vicious backlash from such mockery and braced herself for the worst. Instead, she sensed the shadows shrinking back a bit, the green growing a little more vivid and bright. The Rot Witch looked at her as if stricken.

It lasted a few merciful seconds. “Well,” the Rot Witch said with disgust, “no wonder my sister likes you so much. You’ll strengthen her to weaken me after all?”

“Who says I’ll do that?” 

“Defiance feeds her! Either way, you betray your people. Or they betray themselves, Flower and human alike. You’ll just be her puppet instead of mine.” 

“Leave the Heart, Rot Witch.” Philomene forced herself to stand up straight, speaking with royal authority. “Unless you want me to poison you with my ‘defiance.’ You hate it, don’t you? That’s why you infected the Green Witch and betrayed her. She represents something that’s repulsive to your nature. She outgrew you, and you can’t keep up with her. You fear her.”

“The Heart…?” The Rot Witch’s eyes widen. “What do you-UGH!” Green coils of ivy wrapped around her, blooms smothering her. “What have you done?! You idiot, you really think you’ve-”
She was silenced, sucked into the ground. A carpet of green covered the blackened ground, the starless night replaced with a canopy of massive leaves. 

She thought she heard scattered laughter, childlike and high pitched. Good princess, brave princess. I’ll remember this…!

Then the world fell out beneath her. There was a glance of a frightened Taylor holding her in his hand before she finally, mercifully blacked out. 

At least Rem could still run, though they could only run so well when watching terrified civilian humans clear their way. Why couldn’t they evacuate faster?! Didn’t they see the titans battling in their city? 

The dryad was huge but slow, maddeningly so. Every second it lurched was another one it could set off the unstable lightning spearhead and explode, sending shards of itself into everything and everyone around and setting the city aflame. It saw Rem as its target, which Rem could use to their advantage. “Come on, overgrown shrub,” Rem hissed as they took another swing and ducked beneath a branch. “Follow me…” 

Bell was an expert at commanding the guard, who formed a phalanx ahead of Rem to clear the way. Rem would have to tell Taylor about her and insist upon a promotion, even if Rem was sure their own professional record was tainted forever from this fiasco of a battle. They couldn’t let anyone die here. Not the human soldiers who could be crushed under the investigator’s own weight if they fell the wrong way, not the civilians who gawked from the sidelines at a battle of big and bigger, and not…

What the hell was that Sky kid doing?! 

Rem recognized the boy from the Anemone Inn, the sulky son of the owners who worked alongside Ezra Nameless. “Hey,” he shouted, brandishing a pole as a heavy bat. “Over here!”

“What are you doing,” Rem snapped at Salten over the dim, “trying to get yourself killed?! Back off, kid!”

“And hide like a coward?! Forget it! I’m like you! You like fighting too, don’t ya?” Salten flashed a feral grin, rushing towards the dryad. “There’s others like us! This is what we’re meant for…!”

A branch as thick around as a ship’s mast crashed down onto the cobblestone, throwing up dust.

Rem watched in horror, hoping that sound was just the crack of wood. Please don’t let the innkeeper’s kid die like this. He was just a misguided Exile-child. 

As the dust cleared, Rem saw Salten half-crouched on the ground, silent and staring. He was intact and unhurt, but paralyzed with fear. And the dryad had found a new target. 

“Run for it,” Rem commanded to Salten as they picked up the remains of the lamp post they were using as a weapon. They slammed it into the Dryad as hard as they could, jagged side first. It splintered into pieces with that last thrust, which at least was enough to regain the dryad’s rage.

“We’re so close,” Rem huffed, watching a silent Salten retreat with an older Sky man’s help. “Come on…what’s that smell?”

There was some kind of violet smoke drifting in the air from the Anemone Inn up the hill. Instinctively they covered their mouth with their sleeve, in case it was some kind of chemical fire or smoke from a magical explosion. The soldiers seemed to do the same, though the civilians around them seemed to grow sluggish and some even dozed off. A sleep spell?

Whatever it was, it was weakening the tree dryad, which lowered its branches and began to list over. In fact, it tilted all the way over and fell asleep right over Rem.

Thus did Rem find themself hefting the massive weight of the tree’s branches, keeping it from just falling over entirely. Their arms, back and legs burned from the exertion, sweat running down their face and ruining what was left of their eye makeup. The soldiers looked up at them in what they hoped was awe, the shadow of the fallen tree covering them. 

Something inside the tree’s trunk sputtered, sparked and then…nothing, save for a trail of black smoke. The lightning spear head had just burned out. 

Bell, on her part, recovered quickly from her momentary gawking spell, snapping orders to her troops. “I want that thing tied up and secured now! Get the mages from the academy down here and figure out how we either contain it or safely chop it up.”

Rem, exhausted as the adrenaline of fear began to fade, sputtered. “You’re not just burning it?”

“You can ease it down now, big, uh, I mean Investigator. We can’t just burn it in the middle of the city, not something that size. Besides, the academy’s been at us to get a specimen for weeks.”

“A specimen…?” Rem very carefully eased the tree down and then collapsed into a sitting position, throwing up a dust cloud themself. Their throat still burned, blood trickling from the reopened wound on their hand and a few more new ones. 

As they looked over their shoulder past the path of the rampage, they saw wrecked store fronts, shattered carts and broken windows. They told themself most of it was the dryad, which didn’t make them feel much better. Nor did the stares of the civilians and even some of the guard, looking up at them as if they were not much different from the monster they’d fought.

Come on, you know you’re big. You always own it. It’s useful and you’ve never made apologies for it before. Besides, you have to get used to this; you’ll get it from your own kin anyway. Hold your head high and shrug it off! It’s their problem!

Except that for the first time, Rem was starting to have a problem with it too.

Chapter Text

"So, what are we going to do with it?" 

At Basil's question, Ezra lowered his hammer and glowered at the rock candy-enclosed bramble dryad in the corner. "The guard should be coming by to confiscate it soon. I wish they'd come sooner, honestly, though I gather with all that's happened they have their hands full." He turned back to the boards he was hammering over the broken window. "At least it's not radiating a sleep spell anymore. Probably wasn't enough potency in there." 

"Well, it certainly had enough potency to knock a bunch of dryads out there off of their feet. Roots? Tentacles? Well, whichever. Their bodies all dried out and the wormy parts crawled off before anyone could get to them. To different parts of the city, too, which is worrying…" Basil squinted at the makeshift sculpture, the creature preserved like the huge insect in his father's ceremonial amber amulet. He could imagine a mouth in the form of a misshapen rose bloom, and another from the form of the vines. This one was making no attempt to appear humanoid or even bestial like some of the dryads.  

"You don't need to help us sweep up glass, Your Highness! Really," the Sky woman who Ezra identified as one of the innkeepers said. She was shorter than Salten and plumper than Ezra, with brown curls tucked under a cap, freckled light skin and smile lines at her eyes, though the shape of her facial features reminded Basil of Cecily. "It's a little-I mean, I appreciate the help! But it isn't beneath you?" 

Basil grinned and gave a princely bow to the lady who towered above him. "A prince who thinks a kind of assistance is 'beneath him' is no kind of Prince Charming at all, Mrs. Candlewood." 

The woman chuckled, a smile crossing her worry-laden face. "Please, call me Claudine. And it wouldn't be necessary at all if we could afford more employees." The smile slipped. "Karon is working on the damage outside and I have to refund guests. No one's really keen on staying in town when this sort of thing might happen at any time. But that's of little concern.” From the uneasy tone of her voice, Basil suspected that was a polite lie on Claudine’s part. Her family’s livelihood depended on tourism. “I'm just grateful that Karon and Salten are alright and unhurt, and that Ezra here was able to keep us safe!" 

Ezra reddened as deep as his complexion would allow and rubbed the back of his neck. "It was really just dumb luck..." 

"Oh nonsense," Basil cut in. "Your magic is not dumb luck, nor is your courage. You ought to take lessons from me in how to accept a compliment when you deserve it." He took one of Ezra's hands and kissed it, propriety be damned. 

Claudine looked away briefly, flustered but not saying anything. If she disapproved of humans and Sky Folk having relations, she was polite enough not to say so. Ezra ran a hand through his hair and smiled sheepishly.

"Well," Claudine coughed, "I just thought we ought to express our gratitude. To your friend Marjorie, too; she's welcome to free nights here for life. Where did she go off to?" 

Ezra frowned, wiping sweat from his brow. "She went to meet up with Princess Philomene and Captain Taylor as soon as she woke up. She seemed woozy and I thought she ought to rest here or at least let me escort her, but she's stubborn as a broody roc when it comes to her health. I’m starting to see why Philomene finds it so frustrating." 

"Stubborn, eh...well, I know a thing about that." Claudine sighed and twisted the edge of her apron. "Well, I'm going to check on Cecily and Salten." 

Basil blinked. "Wait, you said Salten was unhurt. And don't tell me something has befallen poor Cecily?" She'd already been through so much.  

"No, no! Cecily's perfectly safe. She's just nursing Salten. He's a bit...ill tonight, wouldn't take anything to eat all day..." Claudine looked away. "But he'll be fine. We spoil him but he's a resilient boy. I, um, thank you again, Ezra, Highness..."  

She left in a flurry of long skirts and closed the door behind them, leaving Basil staring puzzled up at Ezra. "Salten is ill?" 

Ezra's forehead briefly wrinkled in concern before he dismissed it with a shake of his head. "Probably just drank too much with his friends or something. He ought to be ashamed, the worry he puts his parents through!" 

"You talk like an old man sometimes, Ezra. You know that, right?" Basil asked as he swept glass and purple candy debris off the floor. "Also, I hope you know how to scrub sticky stuff off of stone. Grandmother Violet made some kind of soap for it back home and I doubt they sell the ingredients around here, seeing as one of them was ‘the hum of a wasp’s wings.’" 

“I remember someone selling that at the Moonflower Market! Sometimes I wonder what became of that place. I suppose it’s still running, but I doubt we’d be very welcome company after what we did to the Gourmet.” Ezra winced. “But I’ll be able to get the sugar water off the floor. You work in a bakery for a man with a habit of spilling things and demanding you clean them to perfection long enough and you learn some tips." He shrugged, as if not casually recounting another horrible thing his old master used to do to him.  

Basil wished his friends and loved ones weren't always so accepting of their own troubles.  

"And," Ezra added as he readied another nail, "while I'm glad Salten is safe, I just don't know what to do with him. I'm starting to think I'm not meant to have an apprentice, especially an unwilling one. Apprentices aren't supposed to be disinterested in their work. It's meant to be a calling, shining forth from your inner light. Oh, it's hard to explain to a human or someone who doesn't follow the Sun Path, I'm sorry..."  

"Maybe I should talk to him once we have settled down. No offense, Ezra, but you're not really an active sort. He seems restless. I could try turning him on the path of justice." Basil bit his lip. "Not that it would help him any with the family business, but it'd be healthier than lashing out and spending his time with hooligans and belligerent sailors." 

"A-are you sure? Basil, he's a bully. I don't think he'd really attack you, but he seems to be the sort who...looks down on humans. Figuratively, I mean, and not in the 'wary and snobbish but not belligerent' way I still catch myself doing from time to time." Ezra stepped closer, his voice hesitant. "There are Sky Folk who do seem to think that our superior size and strength is an excuse to be..." 

"The sort of giant who people think of when they talk about enormous bandits or musclebound brutes picking on humans? The kind I was thinking of when I thought you were Marjorie's captor?" Basil still felt a pang of shame about that, though Ezra had long since insisted it was far enough in the past to count as a 'story to tell the grandkids' someday. "Though I suspect those incidents are exaggerated in number. You're saying you think Salten would be violent with me if I tried to help him?" 

"No, no, not necessarily! He hasn't been with me, and I'm a lot shorter than him. And it's clear he resents being apprenticed to someone his age who's Nameless, no less. I just worry he might take that dislike out on you, that he might try to intimidate you or be-you know. A bully." 

Basil briefly saw a flash of Salten looming above him in the alley, the glare in the youth's red-rimmed eyes and the fist bigger than Basil's head. He felt his grip on the broom handle involuntarily clench.  

"Oh, I will be fine," Basil insisted despite that. "I suspect he's all bark and no bite, and I fear no bark! Besides, he has to know if he tries anything stupid, he'd have my brave companion, a polar bear, and whatever penalties there are for attacking foreign royalty without cause on him all at once. I already confronted him once, when he got you drunk. Remember?" 

Ezra stared, eyes wide as apples. "You what?" 

"Mmm, I guess you would not remember, given the circumstances." Basil shrugged. "Just trust me. You have this awful habit of taking on a lot of tasks for yourself out of some desire to be responsible and productive, and you won't let us help." 

"I'm sorry," Ezra stammered, setting the hammer down on the counter. "I didn't mean to-" 

"Don't apologize! Please." Basil quieted Ezra down with a hug around the giant's waist. He soon felt Ezra's strong arms around him, the warmth pleasant and soothing, and forgot to speak as well. 

Until the words came to him, along with an unexpected knot in his stomach. "Ezra, can I confess something?" 


"I encountered someone I could not save today, someone I don't know how to help. I'm not sure if I'll ever see her again, and I keep going through the incident in my mind over and over, figuring out if I could have acted differently." He closed his eyes, pressing his face against Ezra, the broom forgotten.  

"Who was it?" 

"I think she might be one of Mother Wolf's cubs. I know Mother Wolf did something unforgivable to you, tearing up your family recipes, and I tried to save her anyway because-I don't know! And I failed." Basil chuckled weakly to hold back a sob. "Honestly, I wasn't going to say because it was in poor taste, but I felt a little bad for the dryad, too. All the dryads, even the one that almost froze my heart. Ever since I faced Mother Wolf I've felt so muddled deep inside, and it just comes up once in a while..." 

Ezra squeezed Basil's shoulders and knelt down to press his forehead against Basil's. "Is it because of what you said, about Prince Charming saving everyone? But you aren't Prince Charming yet by your own reckoning, and that's okay." 

"I want to rescue her, that wolf girl. Salten too, I suppose, because I like to think they can be helped. I know I should be concentrating on the big picture, that we have two cities full of humans, Sky Folk and Flower Folk to save, to say nothing of what Rem said about your hometown, and-" Basil stopped short, staring at Ezra's eyes. "Why are you crying?" 

"Why are you crying?"  

"I'm not!" Basil insisted, wiping his eyes with his fingers. "I'm just a very emotional person. And if you're crying because I'm getting a bit teary-eyed over my own deficiencies it'll just make me feel worse!" 

"No, that's not it!" Ezra smiled despite the tears, his voice soft. "I was just-I practically tore into poor Inspector Tera the other day over something that wasn't their fault, and I couldn't figure out why. And I just realized as I heard you talk about that wolf just now. How much happier I would have been back then if someone was out there offering hope or caring about people like me instead of just the 'bigger picture.' How I wish there were just more out there like you." 

Basil stared, his heart pounding in his chest. "...Oh. I-I'm sorry-" 

At that, Ezra burst into laughter, the tension crumbling around them both. "P-pardon me! I'm not laughing at you, Basil! It's just, are you apologizing for not being born a citizen of Mielle? I know you want to be Prince Charming but I doubt even she could have done something about that!" 

"Don't underestimate her-my..." And Basil couldn't help it, his exhaustion and emotional confusion for the day just crashing down and leaving him feeling strangely elated. He laughed along with Ezra, slumping against the giant's stomach for support. Once he caught his breath, he looked up at Ezra and again wiped his eyes.  

"I do not hear you laugh nearly often enough, Ezra," Basil declared. "It sounds nice! Very deep and contagious." 

"I'm usually just chuckling on the inside." Ezra relaxed and gazed down at Basil.  

A thread of mischief ran through Basil's mind, the prince feeling daring after such a stressful day. "You know," he said, lowering his voice and wrapping his arms around Ezra's neck while the giant was still crouched, "I am a little selfishly thankful I'm the first would-be Prince Charming you've met." 

Ezra blinked, staring right into Basil’s eyes in that stunned manner he had when truly flustered. He ran his fingers through Basil’s hair. "Why, um, why's that?" 

"Because I don't want to share you." Basil closed his eyes, leaning in and pulling Ezra closer. 

And froze as the door swung open. 

"Erm..." If Claudine had seen anything, she politely did not point it out. "Ezra? Your Highness? Captain Taylor and your friends are here to meet with you." 

"Ah, good," Basil said a little too brightly as he concentrated very intensely on sweeping. "Excellent! We shall just, um," 

"Prepare some tea for them," Ezra managed, holding a hammer and nails and doing nothing with them. He snuck Basil an apologetic glance.

The Mountain Lords are punishing me, Basil thought beneath his smile, hastily smoothing out his braided hair. Prince Charming is prudent, Prince Charming is patient... 

Chapter Text

“...and then the Green Witch, if that is her, thanked me and expelled me from wherever I was. I don’t think I was there physically,” Philomene explained, sitting with her dress spread out on a cushion. “I think without intending to do so I tapped into-no, it wasn’t a Vine, obviously. Something else.”

“And you’re safe after all that?!” Ezra wrung his hands in front of him, staring down at her. He was a little too shocked to watch his volume, his voice ringing in her ears. “Princess, next time you can rest and give us the report the next day! You’ve been through so much in such a short time…”

“I tried to tell her that.” Marjorie scowled, blowing delicately on her steaming cup of tea. Her cool body language could not hide the nervous twitching of her fingers. “But she wanted to report it as soon as she was awake again, and washed up.”

Philomene had the good graces to offer a sheepish head-bow. “Well, I can’t say it isn’t reckless of me. But I tell you, I’m not the least bit tired. It’s true that I passed out, but upon waking up I felt better than I had in a long time. More energized and alert, like after drinking a strong brew of black tea. Or that drink they make down in the cafes out of pomegranate juice and too much sugar. Or-I’m going off on a tangent! Sorry.” She shook her head.

“Besides,” she continued, straining her neck to make eye contact with as many of the meeting attendees as possible. It was a little more difficult with Ezra, so she hoped he at least understood the symbolic gesture. “I have a feeling whatever happened is key to defeating our enemies. I just have to decipher what it was. And if I say it aloud, it helps me conceptualize it. Do you understand what I mean? If I can describe something while I still remember it clearly, it’ll crystallize in my mind.”

“So,” Taylor said, politely refraining from smoking around a Flowerling, “what you’re saying is that you have no idea what any of it means.”

“Right now.” Her heart pounded in her chest. “No, that isn’t true. I know what it means. I found myself torn between two monsters, and I let one into my heart.”

Her polite smile faded. True enough, it hadn’t felt real until she’d said it aloud.

“...Let it into your heart?” Basil frowned. “I’m not sure what you mean, Highness. You don’t seem any different.”

“The Green Witch and the Rot Witch are at odds right now,” Philomene said. “That much is obvious. I sided with the Green Witch, who might seem to like me more but is still incredibly dangerous, powerful and unpredictable.” She laughed nervously. “Well! Saying it that way does make me sound reckless, doesn’t it?”

“...It makes you sound a little like me,” Marjorie said slowly. “That’s something I would do in the situation.”

“Well, I could think of no better reassurance.” She smiled up at Marjorie, clasping her hands before her. “You’re always putting yourself down, and I know you’re the bravest human I’ve ever met, Marjorie.”

Marjorie’s pale, thin face flushed, though her own smile looked somehow thin and uneasy. “...Thank you, Princess. But I-oh, no, don’t worry about it.”

Was it something Philomene said? Was this just Marjorie’s self-depreciation acting up? She made a note to talk to Marjorie alone later.

“Oh, um. There is one other thing.” Philomene cleared her throat. “Ezra, I have a favor to ask…” She told him of Avery Toad’s strange, panicked request.

Ezra took the news better than Philomene expected, which was to say he didn’t refuse outright. He did toss his head with an air of disdain. “I don’t know what he thinks I can do. My magic is still all guessing and hit and miss. If the scholars from the academy and the doctors don’t know what’s wrong with him, how am I supposed to help?”

“I suspect Germain just threw ‘hearth magic’ out there to pacify Toad because he had no idea how to do it either. You don’t have to do it, Ezra,” Marjorie said with a wave of her hand. “We’ll say you don’t have the capacity or skill, and he’s mistaken.”

“I-I never said I don’t have the skill! Just that it isn’t very practiced yet!” Ezra flushed and puffed out his chest. “He just needs someone to stabilize his form, right? That can’t be hard. I just have-I mean...well, there are a lot of other obligations,” he added as he slumped back down.

“That you should prioritize,” Philomene insisted. “Still, it can’t hurt to exercise your magic. We may need it in the future. I still don’t have a solid plan for the ball coming up in a few weeks, and I want to avoid-well, the alternative is-”

“You don’t have to come up with the whole plan yourself, you know.”

The voice interrupting her was somehow both muted and thundering, hoarse and tired. She recognized it right away, turning around to face the Sky figure ducking under the doorway into the room. Rem looked worse for wear, their face bruised and their hair tied back in a ponytail too simple for their fashion tastes. They walked with a little limp, the sort that might have been caused from pure exhaustion.

“Tera.” Taylor frowned. “Told you to take the night off, dammit! Is everyone in the Sky allergic to rest?”

“Probably.” Rem laughed weakly. “I’m not working, am I? I just needed to get out of that room. Paperwork everywhere…” They settled down into a Sky-scaled chair, glancing down at it uncomfortably for a reason Philomene couldn’t discern. It looked to be a sturdy chair.

“...You were hurt.” Philomene stood and walked to the edge of the table, wondering why Rem wouldn’t come closer. “I didn’t hear…”

“According to Bell, Tera’s one of the reasons the city’s still as intact as it is. That’s gotta be worth a promotion from the higher-ups, eh?” Taylor nudged Rem gently, eliciting a little smile from the tired giant.

“Or it’ll be impressive enough to offset breaking a Lightning Spear. Those cost more than the average roc.” Rem shifted uncomfortably in the chair. They glanced once at Philomene and seemed to pull back as if frightened of something.

Philomene frowned. “...Um, Investigator? May I-perhaps we should compare notes and-”

“Aaaand that reminds me,” Ezra cut in. “There’s something you should see in the kitchen. And by see I mean take away, please, please.” He gave Taylor an insistent, meaningful look.

“Ah, yeah, right. Lead the way, chef. Ms. Snow, as a witness I’m gonna need you to come along, too.” Taylor rubbed the back of his neck, shooting Rem a look that Philomene could not read.

“Right, of course, of course!” Marjorie sprung to her feet. “Basil, come along in case it wakes up, won’t you?” She dragged the prince out before he could answer, effectively leaving Philomene alone with Rem again.

Traitors, all of them!

“...Well!” Philomene was unsure of what to say, staring up and up at the bedraggled but poised giant. “I can’t imagine what they think is-I mean, I just meant to compare notes! Do help yourself to some tea and biscuits.”

Rem glowered in the direction of the door. “He must think this is funny…”

“What’s funny?”

“Nothing! Nevermind, Princess.” Rem exhaled, “And I wasn’t injured too severely. I think our kind heal a little faster.”

Despite herself, Philomene smiled. “Why do you only seem to put on the ‘tough’ act for me?”
“Tough act?” Rem flushed. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you! It’s just that you brush things off. ‘All in the line of duty,’ ‘nothing at all to worry about.’ Whereas Taylor seems to have a different impression of you from what he’s told me. So you’re putting on another face.” She shook her head. “It isn’t a bad thing. Marjorie is a jester; it’s part of her job. I’m just curious.”

Rem crossed their arms. “What does that old man say about me? He’s so hard to read sometimes. And I thought, well. Oh, it’s childish but I’m exhausted and I don’t care.” They took a long drink of tea. “I wanted to impress him, so I make a point of being serious about my job. I wanted to impress you, an elegant princess, so I took on the role of the fearless hero from stage plays. I suppose that means the real me is a fake who just wants people to like them.”

“You wanted to impress me?” Philomene blinked. “But you barely knew me. And you don’t need to put on pretenses for people to like you. You’re very clearly dedicated and heroic, even when you’re just exaggerating parts of yourself. That doesn’t seem very fake.”

“Of course I did! You were acting in a crisis when you could have hid. When hiding was the prudent thing to do, especially since as royalty you have the privilege of relative safety. You’ve kept acting through all of this, trying desperately to take control of a situation that’s bigger than all of us.” Rem smiled a little. “I would very much want someone like that to think highly of me.”

“Well, consider it not necessary. And you can complain or show weakness around me whenever you want. In fact, I hereby request it.” Philomene sat down closer to the edge of the table. “Besides, people can tell when you’re putting on airs. If I of all people noticed, I’m sure Taylor did. Social aspects aren’t my strength, Investigator.”

“You can call me Rem. If you wish. If it would be appropriate and not too familiar. If-”
“Rem, then. But you have to call me Philomene at least sometimes, in private if nothing else,” Philomene insisted. “Besides, there are a lot of princesses of Thumbelina. If you just call me ‘Princess,’ it’ll cause confusion.”

“Philomene, then.” The name sounded nice in Rem’s soft, rumbling alto. “I meant what I said earlier, by the way. You don’t need to take everything upon your own shoulders. There are a lot of us here. There’s a lot of me!” They gestured to their own chest. “If you can’t find every answer, someone else will.”

“...I know.” Yet, why did the idea of someone else solving the problem make Philomene uneasy? Why did some part of her want to grasp the solution in her hand, holding it tightly as her own treasure? What mattered was the victory, not who brought it about. It was no reflection on her when Alphonse appeared to break the spell instead, and this was no different.

“Pri-Philomene?” Rem crouched down eye-level with the table. “Are you alright? You fell quiet.”

“Oh? Yes! Yes, it’s fine.” She was glad for once that Rem likely couldn’t see her expressions, or they might read the guilt in her eyes. Perhaps she wanted to be seen certain ways too. “I’m sorry. I was just thinking about the problem at hand, though maybe I should take Marjorie’s advice and take the night off.”

“Ugh, I hate that! You can’t make your mind take a night off. Telling yourself not to think about something just makes it dance around faster in your head.” Rem scowled. “Taylor tells me that all the time. It’s not how my mind works.”

“You can’t force yourself into distraction. At least I can’t,” Philomene said. “Becoming distracted, sure! I can pick up a book and find myself reading it for hours, or I’ll glance at a design and it’ll remind me of the ancient heraldry of one of the old Flowerling Noble Vine clans and well I could talk for hours about those. And history isn’t one of my favorite subjects.”

“Do you like philosophy?”

“Philosophy? I suppose. It’s a little too abstract for me,” Philomene said. “I prefer the concrete. Philosophy brings up questions without concrete answers and attempts to debate or prove the unprovable. The arguments themselves are interesting to me in their structure, but-oh dear, I’m not dismissing one of your favorite subjects, am I?”

“What? No!” Rem laughed. They had a musical laugh. “My father worked for a famous teacher, and when I was growing up I was allowed to sit in on the salons and listen to the philosophers argue all day. Questions of law, ethics, morality, the proper manner of living, whether or not the Islands could be considered alive, it all came up and nobody ever agreed. I used to wonder what the point was, since philosophy doesn’t produce anything the way singers produce song, or farmers make produce. Or senators make laws. But I still found myself riveted every time. People so passionate over beliefs and ideas.”

Rem’s eyes took on a dreamy look, and they sipped their tea slowly. “I thought I would like to go back to teach philosophy myself in my old age, and join those elders in their idealistic shouting matches. But…”


Rem startled. “But I’m more suited for the law,” they said quickly. Something told Philomene they didn’t want to talk about it.

But she loved talking with Rem. She didn’t know why, but she felt she could spend hours just chatting with the towering, long-haired Investigator. It put her heart at ease at a time when very little did anymore. “So what do philosophers produce?”

“Books. They publish books.” Rem twisted their mouth into a smile. “Everything is a little commercial up in the Sky. But it keeps us productive.”

That explained quite a lot about Ezra, Philomene noted. “Most of our pursuits are dedicated to the survival and growth of the Vine. Social improvement, one might say. We can never grow stagnant, and we can never forget the old ways.”

“Improvement towards what?”

“Towards…” Philomene paused. “I don’t know. A better world, I’d like to think, though I am sure some Flower Folk see it differently. National strength, maybe. Fewer things to fear.”

“Wouldn’t ‘fewer things to fear’ fall under creating a better world?”

Philomene lowered her eyes, though she doubted Rem could see the gesture. “We have a lot to fear. We’ve learned to live with most of it. Not everyone thinks we should.”

“...Oh.” Rem bit their lip. “I’m sorry…”

“For what?” Philomene raised an eyebrow. “It has nothing to do with you. Humans are more dangerous for us than Sky Folk are.”

“Because we’re in the Sky. But you’re really not afraid of me?” Rem gazed down at Philomene.

“Rem, I was trained from birth to recognize signs of aggression in larger beings. I was raised with the knowledge that a human could trip and cause my death by accident, just as the lower levels may flood or a cat may carry me away. We live in the World of Towers, as they say. And you move around me as if I were made of glass.” She stood and stepped closer to their hand, resting on the table. “You are enormous, impossibly big from my perspective, but I trust you. Could you trust someone who just faced off against Fear this morning to know her own fears?”

Rem was silent, gazing down at Philomene for a few long moments. “...You’re right,” they said with a gentle sigh. “I just hate to think of myself as dangerous to anyone. Well, anyone who isn’t a threat.”

“Then it’s settled.” Philomene gently set a hand on Rem’s finger, and felt the heat return to her face as she did. She withdrew it slowly. “I’m sorry, that was too familiar. I mean I really did intend to compare notes, I don’t know how…”

She trailed off as she watched Rem slowly pull back their own hand, staring at it.

“Rem? What’s wrong? Is it your injury?”

Rem shook their head. “No. I just...I barely felt your touch.” They shrank back. “I’m sorry, Princess. Philomene. I care for you very much. But this isn’t-this can’t…” They stood abruptly. “I should go.”

“Rem?” Philomene started to run, or hobble as best she could, stopping short at a safe distance from the table’s edge. “Rem, please! What’s wrong?”

Rem turned away, then looked back over their shoulder with a terribly sad look in their eyes. “Thank you, Philomene. For not seeing me as I’m starting to see myself.” Then they were gone down the hallway, out of Philomene’s reach.

Chapter Text

The harborside marketplace was as busy as ever though mere days had passed since the dryad attacks. If Lord Germain had intended to shake the city’s spirit, he certainly hadn’t dented its commercial sensibilities. There were still fish to be caught, sold and eaten, imports to sell and ship, and the straw hats looked just as tempting in the glaring heat of the sun.

Yet as Marjorie smiled politely in response to Xaviero Taylor’s chatter and paid him just enough attention to respond to his tales of Nautilus’s great past appropriately, she paid careful attention to who was buying, and who was missing. Booths selling abalone shell jewelry and pewter keepsakes in the shape of the nautilus shell remained largely ignored, their merchants’ voices increasingly desperate as they called out their wares. The tourists flocking to the seaside city for salt air and fresh seafood were likely in short supply. Who wanted to vacation in a dangerous place?

“...when she won the Battle of the Eastern Crescent. Her statue used to stand here, but her rival Captain Bluesmoke managed to steal it one night, and no one’s sure why!” Xaviero laughed, then stopped to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief. “My, but it is terribly hot out today. Are you sure you’re comfortable in those furs, Highness? You don’t need a frozen drink?”

“No!” Basil shouted, likely out of reflex. He bit his lip and smiled apologetically. “I mean, no thank you. This is very comfortable for me. And I had no idea there were such a thing as officially-sanctioned pirates!”

“They’re called privateers,” Marjorie explained. “It’s respectable piracy because you’re doing it in the name of someone rich and powerful.” It wasn’t really necessary to needle Xaviero like that, but it was fun. “By the way, may I ask a question?”

“Why-why yes, of course, miss!” Xaviero kept calling her ‘miss’ as if he couldn’t remember her name due to her being a servant. That was useful to her, if irritating.

Marjorie gave her most innocent, curious smile. “Certainly it is benevolent of the grand nation of Libra to send troops and laborers to assist this lovely city. How is it they arrived so quickly?”

Where there had been tourists, there were soldiers she’d never seen around before. Some wore the glinting white, black and gold armor that was as stunning as it seemed impractical. Others wore far more practical armor or even went without, though the tunics and slacks of their uniforms were of the same colors. The laborers worked to repair broken walls, hammer down roofs of government buildings and even assisted in fixing civilian homes. It was all very efficient. Marjorie would call it admirable if something did not feel strange about it.

“Oh, they were probably deployed from nearby bases. The Empire is said to have a very efficient messaging system,” said the young man next to her.

Ah, and there was Alphonse. She’d agreed to accompany Basil mostly to keep an eye on the Prince Charming, who was said to acquit himself well against the dryads but had otherwise said very little about the attack other than to offer the proper condolences. He was responding appropriately to Xaviero, his smile revealing little, and was otherwise the very picture of princely modesty.

In other words, she couldn’t get a read on him and it was driving her mad.

“Oh! Is that so?” Marjorie clasped her hands in front of her, assuming an expression of concern. “How clever of them!” If nothing else, perhaps she could get him to state an opinion on something.

“Isn’t it, though?” Xaviero said, interrupting Marjorie’s questioning attempt. “I tell you, there are still some old holdouts bitter about the Empire and how everything went down, but the past is the past and Libra is the future. This is part of their plan for a new society, one that won’t be shaken up by the actions of some madman who holes himself up like a coward!”

That felt like rhetoric if Marjorie had ever heard it, and rehearsed rhetoric at that. Though this was the first she’d heard of Libra building a ‘new society.’ They struck her as a run-of-the-mill empire, overstretched, bloated with bureaucracy and likely fated to fracture sooner or later.

As she carefully mulled over her next question, Alphonse asked one instead. “Well, certainly not. I’m quite secure in the future of this city under Libra’s care. Though, funny thing…oh, nevermind.”

His eyes darted to hers, smile unmoving and expression opaque.

Basil grinned nervously, letting his hood fall down as if the sun was finally affecting him. Marjorie suspected it was anxiety warming his face instead. Poor boy really needed more experience with politics. “Well, they seem nice! The soldiers, I mean. I heard tell from my father during occupations-uh, not that this is an occupation! But often when you have troops stationed from elsewhere, they can make a nuisance of themselves. Harass people, get drunk, loiter in the streets. But everyone here seems very professional.”

Indeed, the soldiers were walking in careful formation down the street, giving no more than a cursory nod to anyone. The ones ordering food ate quietly before immediately resuming work alongside the laborers, who hammered and sawed with such efficiency one would think they were made of clockwork.

That was what was so strange to Marjorie. There was so little chatter. The citizens were whispering to one another or talking in low voices, the presence of the soldiers muting them like students in the presence of a harsh teacher. The laborers and soldiers were absolutely silent except when giving or taking orders. A harbor full of crying gulls, crashing waves, creaking ship wood and shouting merchants could never be quiet even if it weren’t drowned out in the sound of boots on stone, but it should have been filled with voices.

“Oh! Look over there.” Basil broke the silence, poking Marjorie and pointing at strange silhouettes standing by themselves at the market. She could only think of them as ‘silhouettes,’ cloaked as they were from head to foot in dark grey cloth that draped down to hide the shapes of their bodies. On their faces they wore masks, expressionless and blank, the same shade of dark grey as their cloaks.

Two in front of a strangely empty booth were human, or at least human-shaped. Behind them loomed two identically cloaked Sky figures, standing so still she at first thought them statues. One turned to look in her direction. The sight of the blank mask was so unnerving she found herself turning away.

The sight of the figures left the group in silence for a few seconds before Xaviero regained his composure, clearing his throat. “Oh, yes,” he said, his voice a little higher pitched than before. “Yes, the Sky merchants. You see, they don’t allow travel to and from Sky, so those fellows there handle all of it. Very mysterious sorts…”

“Ezra told me about them,” Basil said more optimistically, though even he shuffled his foot nervously. “They’re officially called Shooting Stars, since the giants call shooting stars the emissaries of the heavens. But mostly they’re just called Merchants.” He put a strange emphasis on that word. “They sell the treasures the Sky creates and bring back the goods the giants need. But for reasons I don’t really understand, they disguise themselves and never give their names. I guess they’re not really a part of the Sky or the land.” He frowned. “I had no idea there were human Shooting Stars too, but I suppose it stands to reason.”

“Well, shall we see what they have to sell?” Alphonse asked, looking to Basil. “Maybe you can get your beloved a gift. After all you said about his courage the other day, surely he’s earned it.”

“Oh, yes! Shall we, Xaviero?” Basil looked pleadingly at both Xaviero and Marjorie. She guessed he was partially desperate to escape a dreadful and somewhat depressing tour. “I’ll not be a few minutes.”

“Are you sure you would not rather head to the upper districts? They’re in much better shape,” Xaviero said, his smile faltering. “But, oh, I suppose there’s no harm in it…”

“I’ll wait right here,” Marjorie said in a cheerful tone. “Do show me what you buy, though!” She didn’t want to find out that the ‘Merchants’ were in the market for a golden apple. Besides that, she mistrusted any situation where she could not read others.

Basil approached the Shooting Star booth and Xaviero followed, either out of curiosity or a desire for Sky delicacies and luxuries. Alphonse, to Marjorie’s surprise, hung back with her. That was perfect.

She couldn’t well start prying him for information around Basil, who seemed to admire Alphonse as a genuine Prince Charming. If Marjorie wasn’t so certain of Basil’s loyalty, she’d wonder if Ezra had something to worry about.

“So, Highness.” Marjorie lowered her head with the proper obeisance a handmaiden ought to show a foreign prince. She never bothered with Basil, but Alphonse might care more about that sort of thing.  “Are you staying very long in Nautilus?”

“Well, in truth I’m still a guest of your own Thumbelina,” Alphonse said. “But I feel staying there very long would be a drain on their resources. As I understand it, you can only support so many humans.”

“So it is.” Marjorie nodded. “That’s very thoughtful of you. Others might have taken advantage of the gratitude Thumbelina has shown you for your brave deeds.” And what were those deeds, Prince? What did you do? Why didn’t it work in full?

“But it’s a shame I haven’t been able to watch one of your performances. Even at that ill-fated banquet, we were interrupted before you could offer the crowd one of your skits. The Sisters tell me they’re not to be missed.” Alphonse grinned. “You really must tell me when next you perform in court! A lovely a talented lady like you must do amazing work.”

Marjorie downcast her eyes in a rehearsed picture of modesty. “Oh, I’m not all that special, though I’m flattered to hear Their Highnesses speak of me so.” Calling the princesses ‘The Sisters?’ How familiar was he? Certainly Philomene and Meramene didn’t seem to hold him in close regard, honored guest or no.

She thought of offering him a story at that moment, for how one reacted to stories said a lot about oneself. What tale she could tell evaporated from her mind when a bright light stung her eyes and left her vision full of spots.

“Ow!” she covered her eyes, stumbling. Alphonse reached out a hand to steady her, though she didn’t need it. Her vision cleared quickly. “What was that? Light reflecting off of steel I suppose, but it was so vivid!”

But it wasn’t steel that the laborers were installing on a newly-repaired wall. It was some manner of decoration, a flat octagonal crystal oblong in shape with the sword-in-sphere emblem of Libra etched into the glass. As she looked around, she saw another worker carrying an identical mirror crest. A third stood already mounted on a post, and she wondered how she’d missed it before.

The sight of it caused Marjorie to forget her modest maiden guise. “What in blazes are those?”

“I...don’t know.” Alphonse stared at the mirrors. “I suppose Libra wants to leave yet another mark of theirs on Nautilus. You know the city used to look different, generations ago when Libra was independent? I heard tales from my grandmother. She could barely remember what it looked like anymore at her age, but would say it ‘used to be different.”

Did something change in Alphonse? It was as if his shell fell away, a distant look in his eyes as his mouth crooked into a hard line. She thought she saw him clench his fist.

“Isn’t it interesting,” he added in a low voice, “how the Empire always seems ready to respond to a crisis? How they wait for the cracks to form so they can fill them in as they wish?”

Then it was gone like the crash of the waves against the pier. Prince Charming returned, confident and serene as ever, the red rose on his chest fluttering gently in the sea breeze. “But enough of that. I doubt you’re anymore interested in talk of politics than Prince Basil is, or have any desire to listen to my empty speculations. Besides…”

He tilted his head. “You have your own business to worry about. Don’t you, Miss Marjorie?”

Alphonse’s smile and tone never changed. Was he being threatening or merely condescending? Was he onto her? If he was familiar with one of the princesses, did she possibly tell him of Marjorie’s new duty? Doing that would be betraying Philomene for a stranger! No, not a stranger, she reminded herself. Just someone no one seemed to know much about.

“Where are you from, Prince Alphonse?” Marjorie asked, hoping the cracks in her composure didn’t show.

“Martine. It’s a humble little place. I’ll return after the festival is over, no doubt exhausted from too much celebration.” Alphonse shrugged. There was no sign of the metaphorical bared claws. Whatever game he was playing, he was frustratingly good at it. “Ah, Basil is back. Basil! What did you buy?”

Basil ran up to the two, carrying a bag the size of an orange in his bagged hands. “Apparently this is something called Nebula Suspension Powder. You can use it to make a dessert out of cold water and fruit that solidifies into a ‘gel?’ It’s some kind of texture thing. The Merchant said it’s in high demand in far-off Islands. Ezra will love a chance to try something new and show off.”

Marjorie peered at the silent, still Shooting Stars. “They spoke?”

“Two of them did, but their voices sounded the same.” Basil frowned. “The Sky is an odd place.”

“Well, Highnesses, miss!” Xaviero came up behind Basil, carrying some kind of glittering statuette in the shape of a phoenix carved out of a transparent blue substance. “Now that I’ve got another rare cultural artifact to add to my collection, shall we return to the tour?”

“Just a moment, sir.” Modest Marjorie returned, since Xaviero seemed to expect her. “Tell me, what are those mirrors the workers are setting up?”

“Hmm? Those?” Xaviero glanced at the wall and beamed. “Ah, they’re here! Her Imperial Eternity thought it would be a nice show of national pride and courage in the face of danger if we not only repaired our fine city, but continued to beautify it. She sent decorative mirrors from the Monochrome City itself as an art installation and a gift, a symbol of Libra as the untarnished pearl of the Empire. Isn’t that generous of her?”

Marjorie looked from the soldiers to the laborers, from the odd mirrors to the Prince Maybe Charming standing with them. She felt a very intense headache coming along, one she suspected had nothing to do with the Golden Apple tree inside her.

“Your city has so many surprises to offer, Viscount Xaviero.” Modest Marjorie knew her own business to worry about, indeed. Everything was her business.

Chapter Text

Salten didn’t want to be in the kitchen. He didn’t want to break eggs and find constant reminders of how ill-suited he was for it all. He was in absolutely no mood to deal with Ezra, particularly after hearing his mother’s glowing tale of how Ezra and his weird human friend had saved the inn from a dryad with magic and candy, of all things. Surely Ezra would rub that in his face, especially after hearing about how miserably Salten had failed against the big dryad. 

But staying in his room only made his family worry. They didn’t need that stress. And sleeping meant more nightmares. He couldn’t avoid everyone forever. Sooner or later someone would ask him about what had happened. At least while he was working he could beg it off for another time.

And the chances he’d run into anyone who recognized him while carrying blocks of ice wrapped in burlap were pretty low. He hauled them on his shoulder easily, smirking as he cut through crowds of humans with a confident swagger. They could say whatever they wanted about him or his kin; none of them could pull off such a physical feat. The human ice merchants needed a horse-drawn cart. 

“Sorry, coming through.” The ‘sorry’ was purely sarcastic as he barreled past a crowd of soldiers in white, black and gold. Intentionally antagonizing soldiers could lead to a fight, and while he didn’t like fighting in the daytime, some part of him craved a battle he could win. Sure he’d end up thrown in jail again, but what did that matter? He was already a disappointment. 

The soldiers spared nary a glance at him before going on their way, blending in with the other troops that seemed to swarm like ants over Nautilus in the wake of the dryad attacks. Salten stared after them, squinting and unsure if he was annoyed or relieved. He considered calling out after them until he noticed those were Imperial uniforms, not Nautilus ones. Getting in trouble with the local guard was one thing; crossing the Empire might cause him and his family a lot more grief. 

One of the mirrors caught his eye as he passed it by, catching sight of his own reflection. That was new. Maybe they were part of the preparations for the ball. The glint briefly blinded him, forcing him to stop and rub his eyes with a muttered curse as another soldier brushed passed him. 

“Excuse me?” 

The voice came from below, sounding small and young. He looked down at his side, shifting the weight of the ice on his shoulders. Down below stood a human teenager in the flower-petal patterns of Nautilus, wearing a long servant’s dress and hair in two braids. She shrank back at Salten’s raised eyebrow, a satisfying reminder that he could at least still scare some people, holding her hand to the big pocket in her front. 

“Sir,” the girl said with a curtsy, “my mistress has questions for you. Is it true you work at the Anemone Inn?” 

Salten couldn’t see any mistress with her, though he could swear he saw two songbirds circle them in patterns that looked intentional. “Uh, yeah? Look, is this about a refund on rooms? Cuz we’re gonna be a bit…”

“Nothing of the sort, sir.” The girl leaned down towards her pocket and nodded before looking up at Salten again. “My mistress asks if we may follow you back there. This is our first time in the city, and I’m afraid I am a little lost…” 

Had she asked Salten to follow her, he might have assumed some kind of prank at best and a mugging attempt at worst. But there seemed to be no harm in leading the way. “…Sure,” he said, though he made a note to hold his shoulders high and emphasize his own height. “Doesn’t matter to me. Just try to keep up, shrimp.” He didn’t want to linger long; Ezra would be even more cross than usual if he came back with a wet bag instead of ice. 

The girl again leaned down to her pocket; only then did he realize she was whispering to it. He frowned. “…Wait. Is your mistress a…”

“Yes,” the girl said plainly, “so I request you don’t shout in her presence. Your voice is very loud to her.” 

Salten wasn’t sure what was so unsettling about that. He’d met Flowerlings before once or twice, though mostly they were part of that odd country right next to Nautilus that kept to itself and held strange traditions. He’d kept his distance from Princess Philomene for fear he would accidentally do something stupid and injure her. He felt like a jerk thinking of anyone as uncomfortably small, and yet he wasn’t sure how else to put it.

But the Inn needed guests. “Alright, like I said, follow me…”

“Oh, good, you brought it! And quite a bit, too.” Ezra ran over to the kitchen door, taking the bags of ice from Salten and setting them on a spot of the floor covered in burlap. “Now we’ll be able to keep it cool…”

Salten snorted, drying his hands off on a towel. “You’re welcome, Salten,” he said in a nasal tone. 

Ezra paused, staring at Salten and genuinely looking taken aback. “Oh, uh, sorry! I really do appreciate you fetching the ice, Salten. I’m glad you’re feeling better now, really.”

Feeling better? That’s right, Salten had heard his parents say he was ‘taken ill.’ It was less embarrassing than admitting how off he’d felt for the past few days, how he’d wanted to do nothing more than sleep and forget the thunder-crack sound of branches hitting stone. He made a point of scowling. “Yeah, I’m fine. I don’t stay sick for very long. I try to keep healthy.” 

“And I hope you’ll stop going out late like that. If you don’t get enough sleep you’ll be ill more often.” Ezra crossed his arms. “Your mother was so worried about you.”

“I know!” Salten hadn’t meant to shout, and doing so only made him feel more uneasy. He glowered. “I know, and I don’t need you lecturing me like a parent or a superior. Let’s just get this over with.” 

Ezra opened his mouth, stopped and turned away with an audible huff. “Fine, though I would ask you to please hold your temper today. I’m going to be doing magic and I need a clear head and an assistant I can rely on. By the way, you have a visitor.”

“Magic?” Ezra was finally going to intentionally work magic in front of him? Despite himself, Salten couldn’t fight the excitement welling up inside him. Magic was exotic and strange, looked down upon by the Sky and rare among Exiles. He could travel down to Sky Harbor and buy the occasional trinket with a weak luck enchantment, but nothing like this. Then the second half of Ezra’s statement caught up with him. “Wait, what visitor?” 

He looked over his shoulder, turned around and then looked down to find the young servant girl from earlier standing behind him with a bland expression.

“…You’re still here?!” Salten remembered his promise regarding her ‘mistress’ and made a point of lowering his voice. “My mother can check you in at the front desk. We don’t let customers back here.” 

“I know, sir,” the girl said with a distinctively weary tone, “but you see…”

“Are they doing the magic yet?!” a tiny voice belted as loud as such a voice could from within the girl’s pocket. 

The maid reached into her pocket and then held her hands up for Ezra to see. A Flowerling child who looked very much like a smaller version of the Princess, though smaller and with a dark puff of hair haloing her face, stood right up to face him. Even her own spotted-petal dress dwarfed her, yet she stared up and up at Salten and made a sound of…consternation?

“You’re not Ezra. Alice, I thought we were going to see Ezra.”

Salten was entirely unsure of what to say in response to that. He took a step back, letting an equally astonished Ezra take over.

Ezra peered at her. “…Wait. Are you Philomene’s little sister? Princess-forgive me, she told me all your names but I’m sure I met you. Falamene? Miyamene?”

“This is Her Highness, Princess Elomene Marl Thumbelina,” said the girl apparently named Alice. “She, well…”

“I can say it!” She brushed her hands over her dress and looked defiantly up at the two giants as if they weren’t comparatively enormous, or older for that matter. “Philomene is doing research and she won’t see anyone and I’ve been asking her a thousand times to take me to see her big big big big magician friend. Well, I’m a princess and I can do what I want, and…”

“Did you ask Meramene’s permission, Princess?” Ezra asked, fidgeting with a hand towel.

Elomene paused. “I asked her if I could go out,” she said a bit too slowly, “and she said it was alright as long as I went with Alice and some guards.” She tilted her head up left and right, drawing attention to the two birds perched on high shelves. Each bore a Flowerling soldier.

“Sun and Moon.” Ezra buried his face in his hands and turned away. “Well, no good fretting over it now. Salten, I suppose we’re doing a magic cooking demonstration for the young princess. We don’t have long before the ice melts, so if you could help her find a safe perch…”

“You’re Salten?” Elomene looked Salten up and down and then beamed, giggling with delight. “You’re big too!”

“Uhuh.” Normally Salten would take pride in someone drawing attention to his size. In this circumstance he wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Do you, uh, is your handmaid gonna get tired holding you up like that?” He found a clean handkerchief and folded it into a seat for her to use on the counter, a safe distance from the bowl of ice water Ezra had set up. Alice gently set the little princess there and gratefully stretched her arms, then hung back. 

Ezra handed Salten a handful of limes and a peeler knife, whispering to him. “Listen. Her mother is missing, Philomene's had a hard time of it and I suspect her older sisters aren't faring much better. Poor girl probably needs a distraction, and we're it. But we have to be very, very careful. If anything happens to the princess-”

“You don’t need to tell me!” Salten snapped, stealing another glance at the little girl. “I’ll just-Uh, I’ll keep an eye on her. She’s a kid. She has to know how dangerous everything is. She’ll be fine.” He frowned at the limes. “Is this another test?”

“No, it’s part of the recipe. I want you to zest and then juice the limes and we’re going to cook both into a sugar syrup for the cake. But,” Ezra continued, “you can think of it as a dexterity and delicacy test. Put on a good show for Her Highness.” Ezra seemed intent on doing just that as he spun on his heel back to the counter and looked over the glass bowl of ice water.

Salten glared at him and set about trying to keep his hands steady as he brushed the edge of the knife against the lime peel. Ezra was giving him a challenging test in front of an audience on purpose! He was trying to make Salten look bad in front of foreign royalty while Ezra himself got to show off and be the star. Typical. 

Not that Ezra seemed terribly comfortable in front of an audience himself. “W-well, Elomene, what I’m doing today is a little unusual. You did come in time to watch magic, though! Hopefully. It’s an experiment.”

“I like experiments!” Elomene sat on her stomach with her chin propped against her hands, which didn’t strike Salten as terribly princess-like. “Sometimes Philomene lets me watch her experiments. But she’s down by the cave with the Heart-thing right now and says that’s a little too dangerous for me. I’m sure what you’re doing is safe.” She kicked a leg. “I mean, cold water can’t catch fire.”

“…Right,” Ezra said, eyes wide as saucers. “Remind me to ask you later about your sister. But in the meantime, let me explain. This,” he said as he indicated a bag tied with string, “is called Claris Root Powder. It grows on certain Islands and can be used to make an edible, transparent gel. You cook it with sugar and maybe suspend some fruit in it, then let it set in a mold. It’s a delicacy, very much in demand up in Vox nowadays.” 

“Does it taste good?” Elomene asked.

Ezra paused. “Well, I’ve never had it. Or seen one, for that matter. But the instructions are quite clear! Haha, clear? Get it, because it’s transparent?” His terrible joke got the silence it deserved. “Ahem. Since it’s a pretty simple recipe, and one that involves stirring and setting, I bet I can use it to create a spell to help, uh, someone.”

Salten noted how Ezra had hesitated to name the recipient and filed that away. “That sounds unnatural to me,” he said. “The ‘gel’ shape, not just the magic. You’re double-experimenting.”

“I KNOW! That’s twice as unpredictable! Maybe you will get water catching fire and going kaboom!” Elomene held her arms out to emphasize the explosion.

Salten couldn’t help it. He found himself laughing, especially at the nervous and annoyed look crossing Ezra’s face. “See, and people call me irresponsible. I like her! At least something exploding would make this more interesting…”

He thought suddenly of the explosive noises down in the alley, the way the dryad smashed roofs right off buildings and cracked the cobblestone pavement with its blow, and his laughter stopped.
“But it’d mean we’d have to do this all over again, and I want to get it over with,” he added quickly, looking away before Elomene’s frown made him feel like more of a jerk. Bad enough to show vulnerability in front of all those humans and anger the Celestial Patrol Investigator; he didn’t need to panic in front of a damned Flowerling child. He returned to his limes, though he stole glances at Ezra’s work. He really did want to see intentional magic in action.

“By the way, Magician Ezra, Limes giant. I have a declaration to make,” Elomene said. For such a little person, she certainly had a voice that carried. 

Salten looked down at her again and snorted. “Did you just call me-”

“How many gel-things does that mixture make?” 

Ezra seemed taken aback by the question. “Well, I suppose it would only be one or two for one of us, but the target-erm, the recipient is human-scaled. I suppose I could divide it up and make a non-magical batch for refreshments. 

“By order and power of me, princess and self-declared future arch-magician of Thumbelina, you’re going to help me cast a spell to wake up my mom and make my sisters feel better.” She held her head high and crossed her arms. “So you’re going to make a few small gels. And I am going to help you.”

Chapter Text

"Um, Princess?"  
"Elomene," the diminutive princess insisted. "We are not at court." Which, Ezra observed, was not preventing her from ordering them around like subjects. "You heard what I said. I'm going to use magic to save my mother and sisters and you are going to help me." 
Ezra was unsure what to say. There was really no way to speak to Flower Folk without looming over them by default, and he didn't feel comfortable lifting Elomene to eye-level as he did not know her very well. "I appreciate all the faith you're putting in my magic, but Philomene and Marjorie must have exaggerated my talents to you. I am not powerful or skilled." 
"You are so! Marjorie reenacted your cunning defeat of The Gourmet before the Court of Blossoms. You created a flavor so enticing an incarnation of greed and gluttony could not resist." 
Ezra made a note to talk with Marjorie about that. "That isn't actually how it-" 
"Wait, seriously?" Salten interrupted, voice booming without consideration for the child princess. "That's what all this magic business is about? You beat someone with it?" He paused. "What's a gourmet?" 
Elomene ignored him in testament to her concentration. "I think you're afraid of messing up." 
"Well, yes! Princess, what if I flub this and make your sisters feel worse, or curse your mother further?" Ezra made a note to speak in a low voice but his anxiety slipped through. "If you want to observe a magical demonstration, that's fine. I'm just making a simple curative spell-" 
"Aha!" Elomene saw her chance and took it. She pointed up at Ezra. "Cure spell, right? So just make a spell that would cure Toad and my mother. They're both under enchantments."  
"I-" Ezra's objection died on his tongue. Having some kind of catch-all curative spell to undo the effets of evil magic would be incredibly useful, especially if he learned how to apply it to other kinds of food instead of just rare jelly desserts. He wouldn't have to constantly puzzle over a new spell every time. He might even be able to help Basil. 
Could it really be that simple? 
"We can give it a try," he said with a sigh. He wasn't confident he could pull it off, but he didn't want to disappoint the princess or let pessimism taint the spell.  
"Hah! You got him to listen to your ideas? Nice!" Salten grinned down at Elomene. "And got away with calling him a coward. I like this kid."  
Ezra shot Salten a glare as if to say, don't you start, though he refused to argue in front of Elomene. Instead he began slowly stirring the cold water mixture according to the recipe. "Salten, remember the lime syrup. Elomene, I do want to help your mother. But why do you say you need to help your sisters? None of them are cursed, and Philomene said the missing ones are safe elsewhere." 
Elomene slumped a little in her cloth seat, crossing her legs to sit back down. "I know, but they're not happy. Philomene's always anxious and busy with plants or science or anything else, Meramene is gloomy and tired, Cyramene is avoiding everyone..."  
"...Ah." Well, Ezra thought, Elomene was a child after all. She wanted straightforward solutions to complex problems. "Your kingdom's going through a difficult time, and people are going to be feeling ill at ease about it all. Meramene and Philomene especially are under a lot of stress. I'm not sure I can fix that with magic..." 
"Sure you can," Salten said, arms crossed. "Your moods affect the food you cook and it leaks in through magic. I told you. You can just inject cheer or calm into something and have them eat it, and they'll feel better. I mean, it won't solve the problems." He turned away, staring at the broken window. "And it'd only be temporary. But sometimes you want to forget how you feel, so you go do something stupid for the rush or the sensation."  
Ezra stared at Salten. There it was again. The boy was capable of insight, honestly far more thoughtful than he appeared to be. Were they up in the Sky, Ezra might have suggested he attend the schools of philosophy. So why was he so disinterested and angry?  
Salten must have noticed the silence in his wake, as he turned back around with a forced-looking smirk. "But I guess when I go out drinking or get into brawls it's something I'm choosing to do. It's different to cast a spell on someone without them knowing it. If someone put something into my food to calm me, I'd be pissed off. Uh, afterwards." He shrugged.  
"You got into brawls?!" Elomene gazed up at Salten in awe. "You're so big! I bet it's amazing to watch. Do you wrestle krakens? Fight orcas barehanded? Have you ever fought a draconic salamander?!" 
"Yeah, Salten," Ezra added with a raised eyebrow. "Tell us about all the brave, not-at-all bullying or cowardly battles you engage with daily."  
As Ezra expected, Salten froze up at this, briefly mortified. He recovered his confidence with a cough. "I, uh. Would fight a draconic salamander if ever one came around. Yeah, if you little guys ever need someone to wrestle a kraken, just call me!" He pounded his fist against his chest. "Cuz you don't have any giants living up there. So someone's gotta train to be a hero."  
Ezra decided that Salten showing off for Elomene was probably preferable to him trying to intimidate her, though he made note of how differently Salten acted around Flower Folk as opposed to humans. That was curious. "At any rate, what Salten's trying to say is that you shouldn't force someone to change their emotional state. Sometimes I've done that with my food by accident, but I want to avoid it. The best thing you can do for your sisters is be there for them, and try not to cause them too much stress. By sneaking out, for instance," he added with a meaningful edge. 
"They kind of know where I am! And the guards are here," Elomene protested weakly. "And you need a magic expert to help. I'm going to be one someday. Like how Lime Syrup Giant is going to train to be a hero." 
"It's Salten!" Salten turned red in the face and squeezed the juice right out of a handful of limes. "And I never said that, I mean, uh..." 
Ezra could tell the princess was in no mood to be lectured, and he was starting to feel a little bad for picking on Salten. Sour as his attitude was, Salten was doing his work this time with little complaint and being honestly rather sweet to Elomene in his own way. Ezra thought it best to change the subject. "So how should this spell work? What I usually do is try to think about a specific concept and center the spell around that. And Marjorie said it can work better if I chant or sing to focus my mental state." 
"I am not singing," Salten insisted. 
"Well, it's optional. With Toad I was just going to think about 'reversal,' or something having to do with a 'true' state, though I was kind of stuck on what exactly to do there. Besides," Ezra continued as he stirred, "it's a little hard to stay neutral when I think about him. He doesn't deserve to be 'fixed!' I'm glad Philomene is merciful and it's her he hurt, not me, but to think about how he treated her! It's a little hard not to demand justice on her behalf."  
He noticed how the two were staring at him, and then glanced at his rippling reflection in the mixture. There was a soft glow in his eyes. He withdrew the wooden spoon quickly, taking a deep breath. "...Right! I forgot to be careful. I'm sure it'll be fine anyway. I was only thinking about justice. And the queen is a just person."  
"And you were thinking about Toad anyway," Elomene added. "Not her. I hate Toad too. You should turn him into a rock!"  
"Now, I can't do that..." Ezra had to work to banish thoughts of it from his mind, in case it did happen. "So before I start stirring again, I need to think of a core concept for the spell. And I haven't much time, since the jelly sets after a while." 
Salten began boiling sugar and water for the syrup without prompting. "I dunno, I'm with the princess. But maybe something like 'stability?' You know, being fixed in one state."  
"That might just leave him fixed somewhere between human and frog. Maybe it'll work better if I try to find something that matches the food I'm preparing. I chose a jelly dessert because it doesn't have a strong flavor. With something like meringue or sponge cake you can mix it with a more dominant flavor. Maybe magic works the same way?"  
"I thought you just wanted an excuse to try out that root powder stuff," Salten said.  
"...Well, true. I still can't believe Basil got it for me! How did he know I always wanted to make a Claris Star Drop Cake? It won't be like the ones they serve in the shops without little bits of gold leaf or jewel berries suspended in it like stars, but..." Ezra realized he was saying it aloud. "I-I mean, anyway." 
"Careful," Salten said with a squint. "You'll make Toad fall in love with you."  
Ezra recoiled at the thought. "I know, I know! I'm trying to focus. This is why Marjorie had us sing before. Okay, okay. Focus. Truth? Something related to truth or reality."  
Elomene climbed to the edge of the bowl, just close enough to make Ezra nervous as she leaned over to look at the mixture. "It's all cloudy."  
"Yes, but it'll clear up as it sets," Ezra explained. "Oh, I'll have to get a really tiny mold for the queen. How's she even going to eat it? I'm not sure these desserts have a scent, though maybe the lime syrup..." 
"So it starts cloudy and then turns clear? Maybe connect it to that. Toad's body doesn't know what it is right now, right? Or something like that." Elomene reached over to poke at the mixture, hesitating when she saw Ezra's horrified expression. "Okay, okay, I won't touch it."  
"Clear, clearness...wait." Ezra snapped his fingers. "Clarity. Of course! Something to help Toad's body sort out that malfunctioning spell, and to help the queen find whatever it is she's looking for in the what's-it-called, the Vine. Meaning she'll come back faster, I hope."  
Salten lifted a spoonful of lime-juice goo to test its texture. "Kind of a weak definition for a spell, isn't it? Clarity. Even sounds pretentious." 
"Well, if you have a better idea..." 
"Just go with the justice thought you had earlier. The queen waking up is what's supposed to happen," Salten said.  
"It's already got a little bit of 'justice' mixed in there, and that's such a nebulous idea I'm afraid to play with it further." Ezra blinked. "I had no idea you've such a strong sense of justice yourself. And you've been very kind to Elomene. This is, um, honestly a little surprising, in a good way." 
"Ha! See, I can be nice when I feel like it. When there's someone to impress." Salten crouched down as close to eye-level with Elomene as he could manage. "Hey, I'm done with the stupid syrup, so you wanna hear about the time I fought fifteen sailors at once?" 
Elomene gasped, clutching her hands together. "Were they mechanical fire-breathing sailors?" 
"Weeeeell yeah. Yeah they were." Salten grinned, and this time it almost looked genuine. 
Ezra left them to their storytelling. Maybe Salten's talent had to do with caring for children, though one could only imagine how well bringing that up with him would go. Besides, Salten would have to iron out all those violent tendencies and that temper if he were to consider a career as a tutor or nurse. At any rate, he wasn't meant to be a chef; his heart wasn't into it.  
Bringing that up with Salten's parents would be tricky. 
As for Ezra's own heart, he did his best to calm it as he stirred the mixture and poured it into little molds, using a teaspoon for the Flowerling queen's portion. He concentrated on ideas of clarity, truth and revelation, trying to set aside his distate for Toad. Perhaps Salten had more potential than Ezra thought, but he was certain people like Toad would never really change.  
"Excuse me?" Claudine, the innkeeper and Salten's mother, poked her head through the kitchen doorway. "The guards are here. They have, um, him. That person you're supposed to be helping?"  
"...Toad is here?" Elomene shrank back, pulling the piece of cloth up around her. "Please don't tell him I'm..." 
"Of course not," Ezra said immediately. "You should be getting back anyway. We'll send one of the Thumbelina guards with the queen's dessert and a chip of ice as soon as it's set." He wondered at first how she could find Toad so much more terrifying than the much bigger Sky Folk in the kitchen until he remembered neither he nor Salten had ever threatened her. Toad had betrayed an entire kingdom, and he was still big enough in his semi-human form to hurt Elomene.  
"Uh, well, it's late. City gets kind of rough once the sun goes down." Salten rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll escort-Alice, is it?" He nodded towards the silent human servant Ezra had honestly forgotten about, who was waiting patiently by the doorway. "And Elomene back to the mountain path. No one will mess with me!"  
"Thank you! Your generosity will be noted with the court," Elomene said, curtseying. She gave another brief, nervous look towards the doorway before Alice approached to pick her up. 
Claudine beamed. "That's very kind of you, Salten! Just do be back by ten? Please?"  
Salten made an noncommittal grunt as he moved to escort Alice and Elomene out. His mother bit her lip, sighing and following him out of the kitchen. That left Ezra briefly alone with the enchanted desserts, looking down at them. 
"I hope the princesses know what they're doing..." 

Chapter Text

Vittorio Taylor really needed a smoke. He knew the proper protocol when dealing with Flower Folk included keeping the pipe extinguished, for a puff of exhaled smoke from a human could choke a Flowerling. He saw those dirty side-glances Royce sent him every time his hand moved to just fiddle with his pipe. It was well enough for her to keep a cool head while dealing with a foreign monarch! Nothing fazed Royce.

As he settled into the chair in the locked, spacious meeting room, the biggest one on the Taylor Estate, he reminded himself that he dealt casually enough with Princess Philomene and Prince Basil, both of whom were no less royal than Queen Meramene. He himself was nobility, loathe as he was to remind himself; certain factions of the city probably still considered him royalty and spoke of him as such behind their own closed-door meetings. He should know, his soldiers having broken up more than a few such meetings. 

The Queen Regent herself, seated on a small, ornate cushion on the big mahogany table and flanked by Thumbelinan guards on all sides, should have been dwarfed by the vast meeting hall with its banners of family crests and prayers for fairy blessings. She was smaller than the wine glasses. But just as Philomene carried a bold, inquisitive presence greater than her size, Meramene moved with a dignity and grace Taylor could never diminish by calling her "cute" or "diminuitive."
Adorned in ceremonial green and violet, her hair wrapped up in spider silk and her gown falling around her like lily petals, she looked every bit as if she was meant to be in the center of the room, leading the meeting with eyes of various scales locked on her. 

"Gentlemen, ladies, honored persons, thank you for coming here. Captain and Mrs. Taylor, Viscount Taylor, we are grateful to you for finding a secure meeting place that may accomodate all of us." Meramene nodded to Taylor, Royce and Xaviero.  

Across the table, Taylor saw Rem wince and try to hide it, their mask of cool professionalism slipping back on with force. If Meramene had a grand presence, Rem seemed somehow diminished despite their great size, and had been since the battle. Their movements were too careful, their shoulders hunched and head lowered. Taylor had no idea where their head was lately and knew he needed to talk with them about it after this. Maybe force Rem to finally take him up on that family dinner offer.  

So the Flowerling towered over the Colossus. Everything was topsy-turvy. Maybe that was why some people were so apt to label humanity the center of the world. 

Meramene clasped her hands and continued. "What I have to say cannot leave this room. I am sure you will understand why soon enough." 

"Of course," Royce assured Meramene. "I had the room checked for security purposes and magical tapping devices." 

"Good." Meramene glanced downward before continuing. "You asked if we have any magic or sorcery that can be used against the Green Witch and the Dryads. As I understand it, the ball is effectively a farce designed to trap the Green while warding off the Rot-an act of valor and ambition. And then we need something to kill the Green." 

"We're not...sure it can be killed, Highness," Rem said with eyes averted. "Fairies usually can't be. Weakened, though. And we know the outer bodies of the Dryads can be destroyed." 

"Weakened, then. Enough to allow my sister or someone else to seal her. Surely a humiliating defeat would be enough of a blow to counter a monster that feeds off ambition." Meramene took a drink from her own tiny wine glass. "I have spoken with the Elders of Thumbelina on this topic."
"The Elders?" Xaviero asked. He'd been uncharacteristically quiet all meeting. Maybe, Taylor thought, his brother wasn't sure how to react to such a dire situation.  

"The oldest members of our community who spend the last years of their life in a semi-trance state, communing with the Vine. They have granted me the authority to use, if needed, the most powerful weapon any City-Colony has." Meramene took a deep breath. "Which brings us to the Autumn Spell." 

There it was, the real reason Meramene had called the meeting. She had spoken before of the possibility, but only vaguely alluded to what the spell did. While Taylor could not see her face very well, he could read the way she wrung her own hands and looked for a few moments like a frightened woman instead of a proud regent. She didn't want to do this. 

"So," Taylor said, "it is a weapon. One you think can take the Green Witch out." 

"Without a doubt. If her body is made of plant material, it would absolutely devastate her." 

"And," Taylor said, again itching for his pipe, "I'm gonna venture a guess and say there's a reason you haven't used it yet." 

Meramene fell silent, and with her the rest of the room, all eyes on her. She had to take deep breaths before she could speak again. "I feel some background and context would help. Let me tell a story. Have you heard of Lillit? I doubt you have. It was a colony that dissolved centuries and centuries ago, long before even Thumbelina Kingdom." 

She began to walk around the perimeter of the table as she told the story. "Lillit was a colony located in a very large tree on the edge of a human kingdom, the name of which has been lost to history. This was before we dared interact much with humans or Exiles, isolating ourselves and our colony-cities much in the way the Sky Folk forcibly separate themselves still. Some among our kind hid in human settlements, borrowing what they needed to survive and otherwise staying in the shadows. Others traded with humans, supplies for magic, as we all have Green Magic in our blood. Our presence makes the land more fertile and harvests more bountiful, and most humans, knowing that, let us be. Some Colony-Cities still live this way." 

"But navigating what some call the World of Towers requires a great deal of trust between Flowerling and human. We must agree not to abuse our magic, to steal what is not ours or to involve ourselves in foreign wars. Humans must treat us with dignity and respect, or if nothing else they must leave us be. No one knows who started the troubles between Lillit and the human kingdom. Some say some foolish Flowerling stole an important jewel from the queen. Others claim the humans started it, growing careless and crushing us underfoot. Whatever happened, that trust was broken and the results were devastating for Lillit. The humans ceased to see the Flower Folk as people, instead treating them like curiosities or worse. The princess demanded the capture of Flower Folk to be kept as toys. We snuck in to liberate our kind and lit fires in our wake, but the Flower Folk were vastly overpowered. So as humans became monsters, the people of Lillet dove deep into the archives of the Vine to find a way to defeat monsters." 

Taylor could see where this was going. He refilled his wine glass and lifted it with a shaky hand. "So we're who the Autumn Spell was designed against. It's a weapon against humans." 

"Not you! Not...specifically you," Meramene added with exhaustion in her voice. "We have no way of knowing for sure what the spell's original intent was. It was already archived by ancestors too long forgotten, as if from an age before our history." 

Was it Taylor's imagination, or did Rem startle at those words? 

Meramene paid them no mind. "But the people of Lillet knew what it would do. They sent an emissary to the human king, asking once and for all to be left alone; that emissary never returned. And so the population of the colony lent the Vine their power, and the Flower Folk cast the Autumn Spell. It is called that because it shrivels and kills off plant life, drying out crops and poisoning trees. Fall and winter come upon the land in seconds, the grass turning yellow and fruit rotting into nothing. It happens with no regard for the weather, and the land stays dead and infertile through two more springs and summers." 

"So what you're getting at," Taylor cut in, "is that they starved. They all starved."

She took another deep breath, her voice shaking. "The human kingdom was in a forested region and dependent on their farms for survival. Livestock died and famine came upon them. When they heard their own king's actions had provoked the spell, they stormed the castle and killed him. Perhaps they would have done the same to the people of Lillet in retaliation, but they had vanished underground. No one is sure if they are to be regarded as heroes or cowards. But the spell's power sent rumors through the countryside of what could happen if Flower Folk are abused, and there was never a repeat of Lillet. Even now, I suspect the Ever After Empire and the Fire Opal Empire respect Flower Folk sovereignty not because they respect us, but because…”

Taylor tried to search for words, his mouth dry. The pragmatic part of him, ever dominant, made sense of her story. Of course the Flower Folk would want something to protect themselves from kinfolk far bigger and more powerful than them. With their emphasis on progression and exploration, they would be the first ones to uncover secrets dormant in their own pasts. They couldn’t use size to intimidate or appease empires with treasures and artwork like the Sky could. 

The paranoid part, the one always thinking ahead, noted that he was part of the Empire, and they loomed over the entire continent. Did Her Imperial Eternity know of the Autumn Spell? Was it a potential threat against her? And if it was, did that put Taylor in the position of protecting an Empress against a smaller kingdom? He hadn’t joined the Guard to protect the great from the small.

Xaviero was not so silent in response. He sprung to his feet, barely stopping himself from slamming his palms against the table. “Highness, don’t tell me you intend to use that spell! You can’t kill all the plants in Nautilus! Our olive trees, our vineyards and rose gardens…”

“I would not put forth an option that would put your city at certain risk,” Meramene said in a level voice, attempting to stare Xaviero down. “I understand you speak only out of concern for your people, Viscount.”

“Well, of course I do! It’d ruin us. Hells, even if you cast it near the beach, you could kill the kelp forests and ruin our fishing industry.” Xaviero began pacing around. 

Taylor felt he’d best step in to defuse the situation. “Highness, am I correct in guessing you don’t plan to cast this spell indiscriminately?”

“To be honest, I do not plan to cast it at all. We will consider it only if all other avenues are exhausted, if my sister and the University mages alike cannot find another means of disabling the Green Witch and the Dryads. And rest assured, Philomene is working herself to the bone researching that ‘Heart’ she found, suggesting she has some kind of plan. But if that fails…the Elders believe the spell can be focused; indeed, that it was originally designed that way. We could try to draw the Dryads into one spot, as your heroic guards managed to do. We would need your help on this, Investigator Tera.”

Rem just silently nodded, looking pale.

“But please understand,” Meramene continued, “even focusing the spell could be very dangerous. There are too many variables, ways it could go awry. And I understand what we might face if we caused harm to your city, especially in the sight of the Empress herself.” She hung her head. “So I will not command the spell unless you give the word. And let us hope that day never comes.”

“I-I should hope not.” Xaviero gulped down wine with a shaking hand. Royce was silent, but squeezed Taylor’s hand under the table. Meramene herself stood quietly, holding her gaze up at the humans even as it was clear she wanted to turn away.

It was Rem, oddly quiet Rem, who finally broke the silence. “I believe in Princess Philomene’s efforts. Her and her-friends? Companions? They’ve had experiences I can’t even really imagine and a perspective we should listen to.” 

Taylor raised an eyebrow. “Even that Exile you suspected?”

“I did so wrongly.” Some of Rem’s cool-headed arrogance was coming back, if a bit forced. “You’ve got an Investigator of the Celestial Patrol on your side, a scientific genius, at least one true magician, several royals and two entire cities who can surely unite for a little while to take down a mutual threat. I know it doesn’t have to come to…that.”

“So you’re pledging your assistance, Investigator?” Though Meramene had to crane her neck and likely still couldn’t meet Rem’s gaze, she still spoke like a queen.

“I already have. Even if I’m not necessarily speaking on behalf of Vox. I’ll work with Bell to formulate a battle plan.”

Taylor sighed. “Yeah, what the big-the Investigator said. We just file this one away as a worst case scenario. And no need to dwell on those.”

“One might say knowing the worst case scenario does run through the family,” said Meramene, a sliver of humor in her voice. “Very well.” She raised her glass. “May we find a solution that relies on trust, not fear.”

As they made an uneasy toast, a petal fell from the blood-red roses in the glass vase sitting on the table.

Chapter Text

Avery Toad found himself seated at a human-scaled table in the cafe of a fairly expensive hotel while surrounded by armed guards as the owners, a pair of giants, cast suspicious looks down at him. It made him feel a little powerful for the first time in days to know he intimidated someone, right up until he realized the giants were probably more worried about his presence making customers uncomfortable. He was a prisoner awaiting trial.

And Lord Germain had never sent Red or anyone to rescue him, not even during the dryad attacks.
A younger-looking giant with bangs falling over his eyes followed a human in Thumbelinan dress out the door and gave Toad an odd look as he passed. He was followed by Ezra, the would-be Hearth magician, looking far more clear-eyed and coherent than he’d appeared the last time Toad had seen him. Back then, at the market, Toad had gloated from the sidelines as Ezra fell under the Gourmet’s spell. Now Toad found himself missing that rush of confidence and power, even knowing it was because he himself had been under the Green Witch’s enchantment. 

He shuddered as a wriggling, painful sensation ran down his arms. His body desperately wanted to transform one way or the other. The magic ring was digging in deeper under his skin, sending metal veins down his finger that now reached the back of his hand. “So,” he said, gritting his teeth through the pain, “you’ve got it then? You’re sure this will work?” 

“Of course I’m not sure,” Ezra said, balancing a tray with one hand. Toad couldn’t see what was on it. “I’m not sure why you’re so insistent that my Hearth Magic will cure you. It might worsen your problem. It’s untested and dangerous. You may be better off as you are…”

“I’m not better off as I am! I’m-I’m not well.” Toad wasn’t even sure he’d be able to eat anything. His appetite had diminished since the day that prince had led him to the Heart. He took it as a bad sign. “And I’d rather take my chances with your spell than keep things as they are. Besides, Lord Germain told me to seek out Hearth magic, and none of the doctors or scholars here had any other answers for me.”

That was technically a lie. One had suggested just amputating the hand with the ring on it. Toad felt he would rather eat a volatile spell than endure that.

Ezra set the tray down in front of Toad. On it sat a dome of transparent jelly that resembled an enormous water drop, drizzled with a citrus syrup. It reminded Toad of slime, which was a strangely comforting thought.

“…Wait.” Toad, spoon in hand, shot a look up at Ezra. “Before I eat this, what’s in it?” 

“It’s made from water and a powdered Sky root,” Ezra said, meeting Toad’s gaze for the first time. “And a spell rooted in clarity.” His tone sharpened, as if questioning his cooking had ignited the giant’s temper. “I wouldn’t feed you something you shouldn’t eat just because you’re my friend’s enemy.” 

“…Fine.” Toad gave one more glance down at the metallic veins in his hand, shuddered, and took a spoonful of the jelly. It had a slippery texture, most of the flavor coming from the sweet lime syrup. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly didn’t taste like a magical cure-all.

Nor did it feel like one, once he’d swallowed a few bites. His tongue felt a little tingly, but beyond that his condition hadn’t changed much. The ache in his joints had dulled a little. Maybe the giant really didn’t know how to cure him and had just put in some kind of pain-killing spell to help him feel better. Some part of Avery found that touching. But what good would it do if it wouldn’t undo the ring’s magic?

“…I don’t think it’s working,” he said finally, slumping in his chair. “Is this really the best you can do?”

Ezra sighed and pressed his hands together. “I told you, I did my best. My magic’s not quite there yet. Maybe Lord Germain just suggested Hearth Magic to distract you.”

“But, it’s nothing. It’s doing nothing!” Toad sat up fast enough to alert the guards around him, though he made no other sudden movements. “Just take me back. It’s…”

It’s more than I deserve right now.

Where did that come from? A thought bubbled up from nowhere, sending a strange, tingling sensation through his body. Had the giant cursed him after all? No, that was ridiculous. There probably wasn’t enough magic in there to do more than soothe his nerves. It was a placebo.
He waited for the odd feeling to return, just in case; it didn’t, much to his relief. He dug his ring-hand into the pocket of his coat as he left, escorted by the soldiers. For some reason he found himself unable to look anyone in the eye. 

Philomene had forgotten how exhilarating it was to work with a research team and actual resources instead of whatever she could scrounge up and fit in a dollhouse. The team mostly consisted of younger students of the Thumbelinan academy, most Flowerling and a few human; the footsteps of the latter echoed in her ears as she stared up at a broad, shriveled leaf. She was on her back on a small board mounted with wheels, allowing her to see underneath the swollen roots of the Heart. All around her, students took samples and measured data, hovering around the enormous Heart like bees around a rose garden.

The Heart at least looked healthier than it had since Philomene had confronted the Rot Witch. The black goo had evaporated, leaving a tattered, withered but no longer decaying plant that still looked very much like an onion. Whatever the Rot Witch had done to it left scars. Gaping holes in the onion skin refused to heal after several days, though they weren’t oozing anymore. The leaves sprouting around it were brown and shriveled, with a few falling off. 

And Philomene had uncovered a dried-up Vine interface blossom, sealed shut, buried under one of the roots.

“Well, ordinarily I’d assume this poor thing is dead. Except I’m not sure the Green Witch can really die like that, and her ‘garden’ is certainly thriving. And I’m sure she reached out to me before,” Philomene explained to a marble. 

When a problem proved particularly frustrating, Philomene found it best to work through it by speaking aloud as if explaining the problem to someone else. As all the students knew what the problem was and she didn’t want to bore one by making them sit around and listen to their princess talk to herself, she tried the trick she’d used a few times back in the dollhouse laboratory. She spoke to an object as if it were a person. The glass marble wouldn’t complain.

“And here,” she continued, “we see an interface blossom. It’s closed and still budding, which suggests to me the Heart is trying to reach and communicate with me. Or with the Flower Folk in general, since we’re the only ones who can do that.” She pulled a few dried layers away to get a better look. “And it’s grown within a couple of days, which is pretty remarkable. On the other hand, it just looks dead and unhealthy. Which means the part of the Green Witch that should be her core is much weaker and more vulnerable than the rest of her, which is blooming by the beach and being used as Lord Germain’s personal minion army.” 

The marble said nothing, as expected.

“Which makes me worry that regaining control of the rest of her through the Heart might be difficult. It’s not strong enough, and it needs to be because it’s the only part of her that might be on our side. I at least hope it is, since I worked with it against the Rot Witch. This might put me in the odd position of trying to heal the Green Witch’s heart.” Philomene mopped sweat from her brow. The cave was uncomfortably warm. At least her ‘work’ clothes were short-sleeved and loose for comfort; she’d be miserable in one of her gowns like this. “At which point we have no proof she won’t be strong enough to overpower us and resist any efforts to control her, understandably after how she’s been treated.”

Realizing what she’d just said, Philomene scowled. “Wait. This doesn’t mean I feel sorry for her,” she insisted to the marble. “She’s caused us a lot of trouble. At the very least, she’s extremely dangerous and untrustworthy as she is. We’re not friends. I just need…to…”

The words dropped off as she stared. The interface blossom had moved. The bud had opened just a fraction.

“…So. Speaking aloud so I’ll remember to take note of it later, the Green Witch’s Heart may be responding the sound of my voice. Or it may be the physical presence of so many Flower Folk. Our residual Green Magic might be triggering a small reaction.” She picked up a knife to pull back another layer of dried plant skin. Sure enough, underneath the root flesh looked firmer and less grey-brown. 

“Well, now that I have a potential in, I have to try to exploit it. I need to be able to communicate with this thing again; I think that’s the key.” At times like this, Philomene wished she had figured out how to make those magical gemstone artifacts record her own voice. The marble worked fine as an object to talk aloud to, but it was as magical as a carrot. “So I’ll just keep talking and see if that makes any difference.” 

She explained to the plant what happened if one mixed vinegar and baking soda, and how an experiment with that had flooded her room with foam when she was eight. She talked about the history of earthquakes in Thumbelina and the various systems put into place to keep the colony safe from cave-ins. She told the old story of the mermaid who fell in love with a human and transformed herself, and how no one knew how she’d done it. She spoke for an hour until her throat ached and she had to wheel herself out  as a student helped her sit up and offered her water. 

“Highness,” the red-haired student said, “are you sure you’re alright to continue?”

Philomene pushed back the long cloth she’d used to tie up her braids safely and smiled, despite her frustration. She didn’t need to vent to a student. “I think just a little bit more and we’ll have a breakthrough. I’m sure of it.” She had been working for days, breaking only for meals and sleep. “But if you or any of the other assistants are tired, you should go back. I have guard escorts and Melchior.” 

“Oh! No, we’re fine! I mean, I’m fine!” The student bowed. “I never get to work with royalty. I just mean, um. If you need me to fetch Marjorie…”

The princess shook her head. “She has her own work right now.” Marjorie was to find out more about Alphonse and report back to Philomene. 

Though bringing up the maid only made Philomene feel more agitated, something she was only willing to admit when she was back under the roots with the marble. “I really don’t know why she acted so strange the other day. It isn’t as if I’ve completely embraced deceit. I’m not lying to the Green Witch! I’m working alongside part of her for mutual benefit, even if I may have to seal her after. Or probably will have to. Okay, it’s a bit duplicitous. Though I’m saying it out loud to the Heart, aren’t I?”

The blossom didn’t budge. It hadn’t that whole hour. Apparently Philomene’s voice had nothing to do with it. She didn’t even know if it could hear. 

Philomene groaned. “Of course. Why should I be able to communicate with a fairy plant if I can’t even get my maid and best friend to talk to me like a person? I mean, I feel like I can vent to her, but she keeps everything so close to her chest that I can never tell what she’s thinking. How do I know she’s not just telling me what I want to hear? I suppose it’s unfair of me to ask that of a servant, though. Our positions aren’t equal.” She frowned. “But, we’re also friends. If something I’ve said is upsetting her…”

She examined the blossom again. Talking with the marble felt better than anything had in days, so Philomene saw no reason to stop even if it wasn’t getting her closer to a solution. “And Rem! I wonder what that was all about? They’re usually so confident. They have to know that I’m not afraid of them and never have been. Do they think I’m stupid, unable to tell who’s dangerous to me and who’s just big? I mean sure, they are all technically dangerous to me. If I feared everything that could crush, drop or injure me I’d never leave my room! Oh, maybe Rem is just shaken from the fight. And I can hardly expect them to talk to me about it.” She leaned back on the board. 

“I mean, what we have is nice. I suppose we do have it. It’s silly to deny that it’s there. But it’s illogical, and we’re both logical people. Marjorie, too; well, she’s logical when it comes to everything but herself. I can never shake the feeling that if I let her, and if the Golden Apple Tree wasn’t dangerous to have around, she would let herself…”

Philomene wiped something from her eyes. “Plant residue,” she muttered, though she knew it was a tear. “Oh, what do I think I’m doing? I find causes and try to fix them. Because it feels good, I suppose. How much of this is just about my ego? Why don’t I just let the academy handle it? I guess I am a little jealous of Prince Alphonse, that he was able to save Thumbelina Kingdom the first time before I was. Isn’t that awful?”

She was glad marbles didn’t judge and the other students, if they heard anything, knew better than to respond.

“But I suppose it’s better than sitting around doing nothing when I can help. I should talk to Basil about it. He’d call me silly for even questioning my desire to help others. And Ezra would offer tea and a parfait in a glass thimble and say something about my not having to do everything, even if he’s just as bad about it. And Marjorie…well, she’s my best friend for a reason. Maybe if I vent to her like this she’ll finally tell me why she was upset. And Rem…” 

She felt blood rushing to her face, and not just from the heat. “Like I said, we’re both logical people. I can logically explain that while their size provides certain difficulties, and while we’re still unsure what we have and if it’s a good idea, I am not and have never been afraid of them. And they have nothing to fear of themself, because fearing oneself is completely unproductive. And we have to be productive, don’t we?”

While she was talking to the marble, she was facing the blossom. And she saw it open just a little bit more.

“…Don’t we? Do you want me to talk to you, directly? Not just talk for the sake of talking?”

It might have been her imagination, but Philomene could swear the blossom was taking on a little bit of color.

“…Alright, Heart. I’ve got an hour before sunset. Let me know when you’re ready to talk back.”

Chapter Text

Rem was torn between two compulsions. They wanted to sit up politely, head held high and shoulders level as they were trained to do at family dinners. Even as they started to tower over their siblings in adolescence, their mother admonished them not to slouch or overcompensate for their unusual height. “You’re a Tera, darling,” Somne would insist. “Never diminish yourself.” That was proper dinner party behavior in the upper echelons of Vox society. Excessive modesty suggested embarrassment and shame. Rem wasn’t well schooled enough in Nautilan society to know if it was different down here, but gathered good posture was valued everywhere.

Rem also wanted to shrink into a ball, to betray the family pride by diminishing themselves into invisibility. They hadn’t felt that way since they hit their first growth spurt. It was a child’s compulsion, to wish to be ‘less’ than oneself, and knowing that just made them feel worse about it. But ever since the fight with the Cathedral Tree they’d been all the more aware of the vast distance between themselves and the ground, the way they dwarfed the well-stocked banquet table in front of them and how often the serving staff had to restock the table to compensate for their dreadful, constant appetite. That was one of the side effects of their condition. They were always hungry.

As it turned out, they needn’t have worried about posture. The Taylors, nobles they might be, were apparently not the formal sorts. Somehow Rem wasn’t surprised.

“Have you ever punched a dragon?” one of the Taylor children said through a mouthful of flatbread and roasted eggplant. Another was busily telling Royce Taylor a story Rem couldn’t quite follow while the oldest stirred her soup and ignored everything. And one of the children kept trying to climb Rem.

“Zinnia! Cut that out,” Taylor snapped, rubbing his temples. “No climbing guests. And Yuri, swallow before you talk. Sorry, Tera, this is-they’re, you know…”

Rem glanced down at the adventurous pigtailed girl using a handful of their hair as a climbing rope and tried very hard not to laugh. “It’s alright, really! I don’t mind,” they insisted. “But that does kind of hurt. Here.” They eased Zinnia up onto their shoulder. 

“HAHA! I can see everything,” Zinnia declared. “Have giants over more often, Daddy!”

Taylor groaned. “You aren’t helping…”

“It-it’s fine,” Rem insisted. Oh no, were they undermining Taylor’s authority in their own home? Would that reflect badly on them? But being around smaller humans who weren’t showing the least bit of fear around them was somehow relaxing. “Really! I have very young cousins and a nephew.”
“Do you have any kids?” The child who had asked about the dragon, Yuri, seemed to have forgotten about his earlier unanswered question. “Are they big too?”

“I don’t,” Rem answered. It was a very direct question, but Rem liked that with children. They were blunt and honest at least some of the time. So was Taylor, but he did it in an irritating old man sort of way. “I might someday,” they added, though that was a lie. Even if Colossi could have children, Rem had no desire to do so. Perhaps one day they’d adopt. “And our children start off as babies about, oh…” They held their hands out the proper distance. “That big.”

Royce cleared her throat. “Inspector Tera, I apologize for the somewhat hectic nature of our evenings here.”

“We’re, uh.” Taylor rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I figured a stuffy dinner would just put you on your guard. And I invited you here to make sure you’d get a good meal and a stress-free evening, since I can’t convince you to go drinking with the others.”

Rem blushed at the mention of a good meal. “I really do appreciate it, sir. Sorry for the trouble…”

“What trouble?” Taylor refilled his wine glass as Yuri reached across the table to grab another piece of flatbread. “I don’t invite people over if I think they’re gonna cause trouble.”

“I don’t mean that. It’s just-” Wait. If Rem suggested the amount they had to eat might cause the Taylors hardship, it could be taken as an insult to the obviously wealthy noble family. “Uh,” they quickly amended, “making the family eat out here in the courtyard…”

“Oh, we do this once a week,” Zinnia said so close to Rem’s ear the Inspector winced. “Unless it’s raining.”

“Exposure to fresh air keeps the mind sharp and the lungs pure,” Royce declared as she carefully cut into a piece of roasted eggplant. “Parim’s Philosophies for Longevity.”

Rem blinked, nearly leaning forward before they remembered they had a human child sitting on their shoulder. “You read Parim? I used to study under a Parimist scholar! I didn’t know humans read Sky philosophers…”

“Well, some of us read Parim. Mostly to brag about having read Sky philosophers,” Royce admitted with the hint of a smile on her thin face. “His works were popular with the Nautilus literati for a brief period of time. Granted, one uses what one finds useful from such texts rather than adopt them wholesale…”

“So I take it you don’t sleep on cold, hard surfaces to encourage truthful dreams,” Rem said. “And I am glad your cook uses sauces and spices.” They always found Parim’s ideas a bit too austere and drab, a path to a long life that would be absolutely boring. But the bit about fresh air was nice. 

“Tera. Relax.” Taylor waved a hand holding a wineglass. “This isn’t a meeting. You can eat and talk all you want and I promise it won’t reflect on your record.” 

“I am relaxed,” Rem lied as they reached for a roasted fish. Their eyes moved to compare the wineglass in Taylor’s hand to the size of their own hand and they froze, withdrawing quickly. The childish compulsion was back. 

“Mm hmm.” Taylor made a skeptic grunt. “You just act like you’re not used to this sort of attention. Do they neglect you up there? Hold you to some crazy impossible standard?”

“No! No, the Celestial Patrol has always been very fair to me.” Rem was only partially telling the truth; they definitely viewed Rem differently from a non-Colossus. They had to prove they were stable and hold their tongue when others could be more outspoken. But Rem never felt badly mistreated. “And you’ve been a fair-minded partner.”

“Then quit looking like I’m gonna yell at you for taking extra fish. Take it all! I can’t stand the stuff.” Taylor laughed. 

“Mommy,” one of the children interrupted, “I don’t like fish either. Can I give mine to the Inspector?”

Royce shook her head. “Eat your fish, Marciano.” 

While Marciano grumbled, Rem found themselves searching for words. This was all so confusing. They’d been sent down to the Sky with instructions to keep a careful eye on the human authorities they’d be working with, knowing they were aligned with the Ever After Empire. Now here they were, at the home of a man who was much kinder than he allowed himself to admit, while his children treated them like just another guest. Well, just another guest who was far larger than anyone they’d ever seen, much to their delight.

That did mean the Taylors hadn’t hosted many Sky Folk before. Unsurprising, as most Exiles lacked social importance on the Center of the Universe.

They finally allowed themselves a smile as they glanced over at Zinnia, who seemed very proud of her shoulder perch.

“I saw you fight the tree monster,” Zinnia declared.

Rem froze, keeping the smile on through force. “You did…?”

“No you didn’t,” the eldest child said, one of the first times he’d spoken throughout the entire dinner. 

“Shut up, Antonio!”

“We were all boarded up in the mansion. You just heard about the fight,” Antonio insisted. 

“Heard? Um.” Rem had a sister and knew enough about siblings to know when to diffuse a potential squabble before it started. “Zinnia, what did you hear about this fight?”

“It was a monster fight! That there was a BIG monster that wrecked EVERYTHING and a HUUUGE warrior with a spear made of lighting who blew it up and they knocked over buildings and were so big they broke the street and-”

“Zinnia.” Taylor’s grin was gone. “Get down from there and eat your dinner.” 

“Aww.” Zinnia moaned as Rem gently set her back down. “How come Daddy gets to not eat fish?”
Rem rose as soon as it was safe to do so, smiling apologetically. “Apologies, I just have a little headache. I’m going to take a brief walk around the courtyard to get some fresh air. Parim had the right idea there!” Before they let themselves apologize further for causing offense, they turned away and headed behind the gushing marble fountain.

There they crouched down and took deep breaths. What was wrong with them? What had welled up inside them after hearing an innocent human child describe a fight she hadn’t even seen? Zinnia hadn’t meant any offense and obviously thought Rem was neat.

Then again, even Sky children adored stories of monsters.

Confident that the fountain would at least obscure their pose and their breathing, they tried to regain control of their emotions. This was not proper dinner party behavior. One did not abandon the table unless it was an emergency, certainly not so abruptly. One did not make one’s host worry.


Well, Rem had failed that part. They turned around to look at Taylor, covering their face partially with their long sleeve. “Some of the water from the fountain splashed on my face. Is my kohl smudged?” 

“Forget that.” Taylor sat on the rim of the fountain and looked up at Rem. “Sorry about my kid. Kids. Royce sent them to wash up for stargazing later. I mean, they’re great, but we kind of let them run wild. You should hear Xaviero lecture about it…”

“No, they’re-I like them! Your family seems so happy.” Rem didn’t want to look Taylor in the face. “I just needed a moment. I’m sorry, this is so humiliating…”

“That was your first battle, wasn’t it? Against the monster.”

“…We don’t have many reasons to get into violent clashes up there,” Rem admitted in a low voice. “I’ve been through countless training exercises. The Celestial Patrol don’t accept any less than the best of the best. I’ve apprehended a few criminals here and there, but nothing like that. Don’t tell me it was that obvious.”

“Nah. I just know something when I see it. From experience.” Taylor sighed. “Granted, I don’t have much experience with all of this madness. Given the situation I think you’re doing pretty well.”

The rush Rem always got out of a compliment from authority was tempered this time. “I appreciate that, Captain. But it isn’t just that.”

“It’s not?”

“I was suddenly aware of everything. How fragile the buildings are here, how easily I could destroy them if I made a mistake. How easily I could hurt one of you. I should never have fought in an occupied area like that.” Rem gave up any pretense of maturity, burying their face in their sleeves. 

“And do what? Let a monster Dryad wreck the city instead? At least you’re trying not to hurt people. I mean…” Taylor paused. “I won’t lie. The first time I saw you I was taken a bit aback. You’re huge.”

“I’m aware.”

“And you carried yourself like you looked down on everything in the figurative sense too. But you know what? You’re young! You had something to prove and no more reason to trust me than I had to yield to you. No offense, but it’s kind of hard to find you intimidating once I see past the scale difference and realize I’ve met a thousand rising stars just like you. Just, you know, smaller.”

Rem looked down at themselves. “I guess I’ll take that as a compliment, coming from you.”

“This isn’t about other people being afraid of you, is it?”

Rem shook their head. “I benefit from that when they’re my opponents or criminals. And I’m used to stares. I’m big up there, too; here it’s just more pronounced. It’s just that I used to be able to shrug it off. ‘They’re the ones with the problem with it, not me,’ isn’t that what I said?”

“Yeah, it was something like that.”

“Except now I suddenly have the problem with it. It’s like I’m always aware of the difference between myself and the human world down here. And the Flowerling world,” they added softly. 

“Oh. Ohhh. Yeah, I wondered about that.”

Rem reddened. “It isn’t because-I mean, I know that can’t work out anyway! Couldn’t. Might not. I don’t know. And I’m not supposed to be like this. I’m focused! I’m disciplined! I’ve worked so hard for this position serving ideals I care about and I can’t fall apart just because I’m afraid of myself. I have bigger things to worry about!”

“Disciplined, meaning you want to be able to shut parts of your brain off and operate just fine. I dunno if it works that way, kid. Wish it did; I’d be in a better state myself.” Taylor lit his pipe.

“Gonna steal a smoke while I’m here. Listen, I’m not gonna lie. I need your head in the game. I’ve seen what you’re capable of when you’re at your best, and I don’t think we can beat this thing without it.”

“I know. I picked a lovely time to lose my confidence.” 

“Considering how desperate you are to impress people sometimes, I’m not sure how much you had in the first place. But I don’t know a magic way to get your head back in order. Just do what you can for now. I’m sorry this didn’t really work out the way I hoped…”

Rem turned around to face Taylor finally, eyes wide. “What? No, this was great! I know I had a moment just now, but overall everything’s fantastic! Your family is so open and friendly without all of the snootiness I’m used to at dinner parties. I didn’t have to listen to Ms. So and So of House Whatever or Lunar What’s-Their-Face of the Who Cares Firm drone on about their finances and latest marriage arrangements or worry about drawing attention to myself if I get extra portions. I’m so much bigger than you, you’d just expect me to eat a lot!”

“You’re talking to the son of a duke, remember? Don’t give me flashbacks.” Taylor laughed. “And what’s wrong with eating a lot? You’re a growing-oh. Right.”

Rem sniffed. “Being a Colossus is fine, but reminding others of the fact is unwise. Speaking of, I am sorry if I ended the meal prematurely…”

“I guarantee Marciano didn’t eat his fish portion. You can finish it off so it doesn’t go to the fat dogs.” Taylor stood back up. “You’ll join us for stargazing, right? It’s another habit Royce picked up from that Parim guy.” 

“Of course. My apologies again for making a spectacle of myself.” Rem stood up as well, pulling out a hand mirror to check their kohl. It was indeed smeared; in addition, Zinnia’s giant-climbing activities had left a long lock of hair frayed and out of place, and she’d spilled her drink on Rem’s shoulder. 

So be it. Rem could fix themselves up later; at least around the Taylors, it was alright to be a little bit of a mess.

Chapter Text

You are my new eyes and ears now that we can’t count on Toad. I have a few Dryad seedlings rooted here and there to listen in, but you’ll be the most important part of this puzzle. Listen to gossip and report what you hear, my loyal Red.

Being good meant following Lord Germain’s orders, and Red was a good girl. She wasn’t going to slip up again no matter what White said. Disobeying had put her face to face with the prince and left her confused and upset. It felt so much better to obey. She could sniff around the entrance to the cavern with the strange object at night, the thing Germain wouldn’t name for her but ordered her to watch. She could report the changes in scents by the seaside garden. When she took human form she could blend into the city crowds as an overlooked urchin, listening.

And Lord Germain was always happy when she brought him news.

“Mirrors, you say? Fascinating.” Germain stood on a half-rotten wooden crate while looming dryads patrolled the door. His new laboratory was small and cramped, smelling of old wet wood and seawater. Too-heavy steps shook the walls so frequently, even at this late hour, that even Germain barely seemed to notice them. They must have felt like earthquakes to him, Red thought. 

“Mirrors everywhere,” she reported. She couldn’t help wagging her tail, as Germain’s excitement was contagious. “They don’t do anything yet. Soldiers too, all in white and black and gold.”

“Libra troops. Then the mirrors are their work, I’ll imagine.” He cupped his bearded chin in his hand and then let loose a hearty belly laugh. “This is better than I expected! Perhaps they’re trying to prepare some kind of weapon against my dryads.”

She tilted her head and whimpered. “That’s good?”

“That’s fantastic! It means I am worthy of that level of attention. I have inconvenienced the mighty Ever After Empire. Nothing against them, of course. I admire their efficiency. You have to understand, when you are born small and your entire species is thought of as being below notice…well, but I suppose you would understand that. You’re a child.”

Red did not, but associated being noticed by strangers with danger. Those must be the ‘instincts’ Germain mentioned from time to time. “Are the mirrors dangerous?”

“I don’t know! Won’t it be wonderful to find out?” He paused so he wouldn’t be drowned out by the thundering laughter from above. “Well, they’re certainly having a good time, aren’t they? Though I wonder if perhaps the mirrors have nothing to do with me at all. Libra is a strange country. Any other news, Red?”

Well, if Germain wasn’t worried about the mirrors, neither would Red. “The smells outside the cavern where the princess works keep changing. Sweeter, more like flowers. Less rotten.”

“…Really, now.” Germain sat down on the little piece of driftwood he now used as a chair. His coat now hung around him in tatters, his button down shirt clean but missing buttons. Yet despite his dingy surroundings and the wear and tear of his clothing, he didn’t seem lowered by any of it. His beard remained neatly trimmed, his eyes shone and he retained a spring in his step. It seemed to Red that he made everything around him seem more important by virtue of his presence, transforming the forgotten storage room into one of the famed and mysterious classrooms he spoke of.

“So the princess is doing something I was unable to do,” he reasoned, his voice taking on a distant tone. “Can’t deny that makes me jealous. But I’m proud of her. In a way, one might say any progress she’s making with that old thing is due to me. She wouldn’t have thought to try without my interference.” 

“So is that a good thing?” Red folded her ears back. 

“Not in the least! It means she may undermine our entire operation before we’ve truly had a chance to shine. And yet, I can’t help it. I’m dying to know what happens if she manages to replace the Rot Witch and command the Green Witch herself.” He grinned. “If she can achieve what I can’t, why should I stop her?” 

Red whimpered, lowering her head upon her paws. “Because she’ll use it to hurt you!”

“Maybe. She may use it to kill me.” He didn’t sound anywhere near as concerned as he ought to be about it. “And you said something about a ball?”

“Soon. For the prince who saved Thumbelina Kingdom. The ‘Empress’ is going to be there.” She stumbled over the unfamiliar word. “What is an Empress?”

“She’s the leader of Libra. Probably the most powerful woman on the continent.” Germain hopped to his feet again, practically gleeful. “Throwing a ball in the face of certain doom. What an audacious thing to do! I’ll bet they’re trying to lure our Green Witch and our dryads with that level of ambition. I’ll bet everything I own on it.”

Red had never imagined it might be a trap. She barely knew what a ball was. “So you won’t go, right? Do you need me to hide you during the ball? You and the dryads?”

“What? Of course I’m going to go. This is fantastic!” He laughed again, gloved hands on his hips. “If they are throwing a trap in my honor, how can I not attend? How can I turn down such praise in the presence of Empress Valerian herself? I may face my defeat there, but it will be in sight of Thumbelinan royalty, Nautilan nobility and Her Imperial Eternity or whatever they’re calling her. This is wonderful, Red, wonderful! Here, to celebrate!”

He brought out a piece of dried fish. She gobbled it right down, her instincts briefly overcoming her shock. Yet even as she licked the taste of fish off her lips, she stared in confusion and horror at her creator and his triumphant laugh.

“…No! No, you can’t go! Not if you’ll be in danger. You’ll get arrested. You’ll die! Your dryads will all be destroyed! And you love them so!"

Germain’s laughter died down, and he looked up at Red from his perch. “Well, you’re right about the first part. That may be the end for me. Did you know the Empire disappears people who cross them? Not everyone, of course, but rumors circulate. Some aren’t publicly tried for anything. They just vanish one day, officially declared dead or missing, and that’s that. Guess I’m too high profile for that by now. My arrest will be a very public thing. But it will come after my greatest triumph, my ultimate masterpiece. I shall have to bring my best dryad, something very special.”

Red still didn’t understand. She wanted to cry, a sign she was growing too human for her own tastes. Instead she whimpered and lowered herself to the ground. “But…you wanted to change the world. I thought…”

“Oh, dear Red. Innocent Red.” He clasped his hands in front of him and gestured for her to sit up again so he could address her better. “How did you end up with a kind, caring heart? A fascinating phenomenon. But you needn’t worry. I will have changed the world. Everyone who attends the ball will have seen my handiwork, and some of them will no doubt capture a dryad or two. Learn how to make them. And if the princess Philomene is mastering the Green Witch, in part due to me, then I will have triumphed greater than I could have imagined. Red, do you know what immortality is?”

“No,” Red admitted, ears flat.

“It means living forever. For one foolish reason or another, we mortals have sought out immortality for ages upon ages. Some of the magical remnants of the ancient days may have been designed with immortality in mind. The parasitic Silver Apple, for one. Let me tell you a story about that. Go on, have some cold water to drink.” He pointed to her bowl, which a dryad had refilled.

“You see, my Red, when I was a boy I studied under the great Thumbelinan scholar Professor Thoma. She was a brilliant woman, completely devoted to discovering the undiscovered. One day, she greets me by telling me that a human from Nautilus contacted her about a meeting with the city’s leader, Duke Uberto Taylor. Seems the Duke wanted her to help him find the secret to eternal life. She had no investment in the Duke living to 90 or 900, but the idea and the challenge fascinated her. She threw herself into the work entirely, to the point where she had to end our studies. Wasn’t enough time! And the whole thing got her discredited from the Academy after a few years when they thought she was devoting too much attention to the whims of a foreign, Imperial-allied leader. And it failed in the end, anyway. She never found the secret to immortality. Notably, Duke Taylor hasn’t left his estate or made a public appearance in over a decade.

But that’s all politics. You don’t care about politics and you shouldn’t. I don’t. 

Still, the idea always stuck with me. As a young man I looked into records on immortality, studies of Silver Apples and Sea Witches. And you know what I concluded? Immortality is a fool’s dream! Take the Silver Apple. They restore the flesh and keep it young for a little while, but once the effect wears off the aging process accelerates due to the strain it puts on the body. And to maintain the effect you need more and more over time, like a drug. Do you know how they make Silver Apples? They’re grown from a tree that sprouts in the heart of a living host. Good luck sustaining that in the long run without developing a reputation as a mass murderer. 

And Sea Witches, who do by all accounts live forever? What of them? If they still exist, they do nothing for our world. They do not interfere, do not share their wisdom with us. For all we know they’re either mostly extinct or hiding out in the bottom of the ocean, living endless lives of insignificance. To exist forever as yourself is to stagnate, slowly paralyzed by the weight of your own knowledge and the fear of losing your eternal life. And stagnation is a living death!”

Red watched Germain in rapt attention, fascinated by his vivid body language. She wasn’t entirely sure she grasped what he was talking about, but he seemed to believe in it. He was always so passionate.

“So, you are asking yourself, Lord Germain, what does this have to do with anything? Well, it’s because in time I realized what true immortality was. Think of the old scholars and mages of the past, the kings and queens famous enough to be remembered for great and terrible deeds, Prince Charming, those who leave their marks upon history. Think of those whose names last in books, whose likenesses linger as statues and paintings, whose triumphs evoke tears of joy and shudders of horror in people born hundreds of years after their death. Seeking to linger on forever in your own body is foolish. To make your mark upon the lips and hearts and minds of those you will never meet, that is how to truly live forever!” 

“…And you’re going to do that at the ball? This is going to do that?” 

“Well, we can hope! Hope and plan. You see, I will make it clear once and for all what can be done with the dryads, and who forged them from the body of the Green Witch. From there, what does it matter who takes up the reins? The land is at peace only on the surface. We all look at one another with suspicion. Libra slinks its way into other lands and absorbs them like a spreading swamp. Some fear its power and others envy it. Any one of those countries will look at what I have done and someone will think, ‘can’t I do that too?’ And why not? Why not grasp the power of these invasive, corruptive fairies and make it our weapon? And what happens after that, I cannot say. Maybe another stalemate. Maybe a war, unlike anything seen in ages. But it will be my war, you see? The results do not matter except that they will be my work. I will have burned my name upon history, and the Empress herself will see with her own eyes who lit the spark. And if she is somehow immortal as they claim, well.” He winked. “All’s the better.” 

Red didn’t know what to say. It made a little bit of sense to her. He wanted to be remembered. She wanted to tell him that she would remember him no matter what happened, that she would tell everyone of his misunderstood brilliance if he would only let her. But she wanted to be an obedient wolf, a good wolf, and good wolves did not argue with their creators’ beliefs. 

This would make Germain happy.

“Ah! I see it from the light in your eyes that you understand.” He reached forward to pet her muzzle when she offered it. “My dear, clever Red. Let us work together in the time we have left to make my dream a reality. And then you will run free.”

“…Run free?” Red pulled back. “What do you mean?”

“I won’t take you with me to the ball. It will be my grand finale, not yours! You are my legacy, my greatest creation. You must live on, inspired as I was inspired by Thoma, and see my future for yourself. I may be in prison for life, if I’m lucky. I don’t want to think of what Libra would do to you if they knew you were a collaborator, and I doubt Thumbelina would come to your defense. We Flower Folk are not fond of wolves.” 

“…But I want to.” This time she had to fight the urge to shift into human form and truly cry. She liked being a wolf better. She was stronger as a wolf and safer. Besides, she couldn’t shed tears in front of Lord Germain. 

He sighed, shaking his head. “Such is the danger of unconditional love. I have tried to dissuade you from it before for this reason. It will only cause harm. Loyal Red Hood, for your own sake, shake this feeling off as best you can. And in the meantime, help me fulfill my dream.” 

Red lowered her head and protested no more. In the corner of her eye, she saw White Hood for the first time since her confrontation with the prince.

Chapter Text

Two weeks and 23 hours before her scheduled arrival, an Imperial messenger arrived at the Taylor estate at nightfall. Regal, stiff and wooden in demeanor, she presented a notice that the Empress would arrive early. She was to be expected at dawn.

Because of that, Ezra found himself helping a crew of exhausted, resentful cooks prepare a welcoming feast at the request of a nervous Xaviero, who thought presenting Her Imperial Eternity with a few “exotic Sky dishes” by an “expert chef” among the offerings would show Nautilus to be a cosmopolitan city of fine tastes. Fresh off a long night in the Anemone kitchen, a bewildered Ezra tried to protest that he was a Nameless in the eyes of Sky Folk, that perhaps Xaviero ought to look to one of the resident Exiled chefs in Sky Harbor instead, and that he would have a lot of difficulties using kitchen tools built for humans. Yet he couldn’t ignore the old spark that flared in him when he was given a real chance to cook for royalty like the Kettles of old.

Now that he stood in the midst of a huge, crowded, and irritatingly low-ceilinged tent just before dawn, surrounded by equally frazzled and irritable cooks who were too busy working to even act nervous around his looming presence, his sleep-deprived mind reminded him of a few things. He had already cooked for royalty many times. Philomene was royalty. Ezra’s own boyfriend and self-proclaimed ‘assistant in charge of taste testing’ was royalty. He wasn’t a Kettle and attempting to be one had never worked out well for him in the past. He didn’t even know if the Empress liked Mielle-style wine-poached pears and mascarpone cream or caramel custard. 

At least he didn’t need to worry about casting a spell by accident, as he couldn’t actually work hands-on with the food. There’d been no time to haul tools down from the Anemone kitchen into the food preparation tent. For one of the first times in his life, Ezra found himself giving orders to a team of cooks assigned to him and just supervising.

He never wanted to do it again.

“No, you-you can’t let it boil over like that! You have to keep stirring or it’ll harden. No, those have to be chopped finer! More like finger-width. Um, one of your fingers, not mine. Is something burning? Please check your stations to make sure nothing’s burning!” 

A human cook likely twice his age glared up at him and made a show of checking her kettle. “It’s fine,” she said forcefully.

Ezra winced, lowering his head in mild deference. Insulting an elder was a sin in the eyes of the Sun, even if she really ought to have kept a better eye on that cauldron lest it boil over. “Yes, yes, sorry,” he stammered. “Of course. You’re all doing great. Everyone’s doing great…”

“Not the first time she’s done this,” an even older chef said as he sniffed seasoned wine. “Empress, I mean. It’s a show of power. Saw her do it before-must have been a good 30 years ago now. 40? Whims of royalty, one supposes.”

“I don’t think it’s a show of power,” his assistant said, wrapping a finger he’d cut peeling pears. “She wants to make sure we’re all ready to meet with her. She wants to see us as we really are.” 

Ezra was a little too tired to speculate on the motives of the Empress. “Is Empress Valerian very old, then?”

“What? Oh,” the old man said, snapping his fingers. “I see what you mean. My mistake. Wasn’t her, of course, was her predecessor. Also Valerian. They all take the name Valerian. Wasn’t it? Didn’t one of them die?”

“Wouldn’t there have been a funeral, and a coronation?” Ezra asked, feeling a bit out of the loop in general when it came to the mysterious Empress. Why did the Empress always take on the same name?

The woman working over the kettle snorted. “One dies, another just takes over quietly with no fanfare. It’s how they do it in Libra proper. Old customs, I guess.”

“Royalty is peculiar,” Ezra caught himself muttering under his breath. He glanced at the sliced pears and all thoughts of Valerian’s peculiar nature left his mind as he sprung to his feet and stood as tall as the tent would allow, which was to say he crouched authoritatively. “No, no, you can’t chip that much off while you’re peeling them! Just-just let me do it…!”

Rumors of the Empress’s early arrival spread the moment city folk saw the hastily-erected tents and rapidly-assembling music rehearsals just outside the city walls. Salten knew they were confirmed when his bossy jerk of an instructor got wheedled into helping with an ‘arrival feast.’ He’d hoped that would mean a night off for him; instead it meant he was up late at night helping clean up and rush repairs on the Anemone Inn. Salten’s parents anticipated a potential rush of guests in the wake of the Empress’s visit and the impending ball.

Salten wasn’t so sure. They were so intent on making the Anemone work, on proving they could succeed on the land with their dream project. They’d sunken the family money into it, and in recent years it seemed as if all the Anemone did was soak up more money. 

It was his future, this overly lavish hotel in an expensive part of town so strapped for success it couldn’t even hire a full staff. They’d hired a Nameless with unpredictable magic powers to work in the kitchen. Salten was up late at night replacing glass windows in this elegant cage his parents had trapped themselves in. 

And it was his future. This was their gift to him, in their minds. He was expected to take up the business whether he wanted it or not. The smart thing to do would be to sell, but that would break their hearts. Salten felt he’d done enough of that for one lifetime. 

This was why he hated quiet nights. When he was out at the taverns, surrounded by peers trying to out-drink and shout over each other, it was too loud and too chaotic to hear unwanted thoughts. He could just act, look for an excuse to start a fight and worry about the consequences later. In the dead quiet of night, Salten had nothing to distract himself from, well, himself.

“…But what would I even do if I was out?” he asked his own reflection in the window glass, lit by a flickering lantern. Well, that was a good sign. He was talking aloud to himself. “I can’t talk to them about anything. I mean, that’s the point. I don’t talk to anyone about any of it.”

Especially not that fight with the Cathedral Tree monster, the one where Salten had utterly failed to do anything other than put his father in danger. He kept thinking he ought to ask the Celestial Patrol, but every time he thought of approaching Rem he remembered how cowardly he must have looked to Rem and stopped. It wasn’t as if talking would help anyway. He doubted it would make his nightmares go away or make him feel more at ease walking down the streets of Nautilus again. He doubted telling anyone how he kept expecting to see a shadow towering behind him would earn anything but laughs or, worse, pity.

“Guh. I want to kick my own ass every time I catch myself sulking like this.” He wiped down the window glass and made sure it was securely installed, stepping back and dusting off his hands. 

“It’s actually happening though, isn’t it? She’s visiting again.” He’d only gotten a glance of the Empress that one time, her glittering guard and the clockwork precision of her entourage as they paraded through the streets. The Empress promised to find ‘happiness ever after’ for all in her domain, a place for all who assisted in her generations-long quest to create perfection.

(Technically it was not ‘her’ so much as many, many hers, for everyone knew the Empress was only symbolically immortal. But they all spoke the same way and advocated the same philosophy; according to Cecily, she’d been doing it long before his aunt’s time. It was hard not to think of them as the same person somehow.) 

Did that apply to giants? Did they fit in her perfect world? When she addressed her subjects in her arrival speech, would she mean Salten too? He was an Exile, and most nations considered Exiles to be outsiders. Rumors said Libra at least sought giants to serve in its military.

It didn’t matter how crowded the square was. Salten had to see that speech somehow. Soldiers weren’t cowards, and no one ever told them not to fight.

Basil wasn’t going to take any more chances of dressing too lightly for a formal occasion. Thankful once more than Xaviero used to be his size in his younger years, he let the Taylors’ servants bring him the most winter-ready formal clothing they could find. That amounted to a burgundy fur-lined coat in a cut and style a little too frilly for Basil’s tastes, though he bet Ezra wouldn’t mind one like that. 

“I’m afraid you simply cannot hide your face in front of Her Imperial Eternity,” Xaviero warned him as servants brought a bitter, hot drink said to help with very early mornings. Basil, used to rising at dawn when he lived with his grandmothers, had no trouble staying awake, but many of the Taylors looked half-dead after a long night of hasty planning. “I know you usually like to wear that scarf to keep yourself warm, but…”

“Oh, it’s fine!” Basil assured Xaviero, who probably didn’t need any more concerns at the moment. “The hood’s quite warm, and if I need to I’ll just be sure to stand in a sunbeam. Besides, I’ll be with Aurora.”

“Yes, you’ll have Aurora, so-” Xaviero choked on his ‘coffee.’ “Aurora?! You’re bringing the bear to the Empress’s welcoming ceremony?”

Basil frowned. “I may not have much experience with diplomacy,” he said, “but I am sure the Empress would like to meet a rare Domestic White Bear like her. They’re almost never exported outside of Northern Aeris. Aurora was a gift from my maternal grandmother, which does technically make her royalty, doesn’t it?”

“I-I am not sure that…” Xaviero slumped. “Will she at least wear some kind of adornment?”

“She’s been at court before when we visit my family. She knows what to do!” Basil beamed with pride. “Aurora’s a very intelligent and well-trained bear.” 

“Yes, indeed,” Xaviero sighed, “bear royalty. I will not protest further, Highness. I apologize for questioning her presence. It’s just that everything needs to be perfect.”

“Why? Would she really punish you if something wasn’t to her liking?” Basil choked down another mouthful of the vile drink, wishing he could stir in more sugar without turning it into a syrup. “I thought you said she was a wise Empress.”

“Oh, she is! Of course she is, and you’ll never hear me say otherwise.”

“Well, a wise ruler wouldn’t make selfish demands of their subjects. They would see the generosity of what was offered and praise them for bringing forth a good harvest. At least, that’s what my father did at summer harvest festivals,” Basil said. “So unless your faith is misplaced, I’m sure all will be fine.”

Xaviero offered a weak smile. “Your father sounds like a good king. You’re right, I’ve worked myself into a tizzy over perfection when it probably isn’t needed. But if others see us not living up to our duties of hospitality when the Empress visits, it could be seen as an insult to the entire Empire, not her. And then…haha! But it won’t happen. Nautilus is the pearl among Libra’s treasures, even in our beleaguered state. She will look upon us and see a proud city, not one brought low by monsters and fairies. Please agree with me, Highness. I need someone to agree with me right now.”

Basil was a little put off at seeing the usually rather pompous Xaviero act like this. He was asking for help in his own way, and Prince Charming rescued the helpless. “Absolutely! Nautilus is a beautiful city, and I’m sure she’ll know your family has taken great care of the city on her behalf. They’ll be there, I assume?” 

“Well, of course.” Xaviero twisted a cloth napkin into a spiral as he talked, waiting for a servant to refill the coffee. “Vittorio has to be even though I’m sure he’d rather be with the guard watching the crowds. Royce too, of course, and the children and all the cousins working in this or that government position. We all work in the government as I’m sure you can probably surmise. It was the concession she made to the deposed royal family when we first became part of Libra in my grandfather’s time. Part of a well-oiled machine and all that. You know how it is!”

Basil did not, but doubted he’d get a coherent answer two hours before dawn. “And the Duke, your father? I still haven’t met him. Will he be there?”

Xaviero went a little pale and cleared his throat. “S-sadly, Father’s health won’t allow him to be outside like that. He’ll meet with Her Imperial Eternity later in his chamber.”

“…Ah.” Said chamber was completely forbidden to anyone but immediate family and one elderly servant at the behest of Duke Taylor. Until that moment, Basil hadn’t thought to take offense at the Duke’s refusing a foreign prince for an audience. Sethwhile might have been a small country, but it wasn’t beneath the notice of a duke. Did Duke Taylor look down on the Mountain Folk as some lowlanders did? Was he merely in such poor health that he could only hold audiences when absolutely necessary? Come to think of it, Basil had never specifically requested a meeting with the Duke himself.

But it was peculiar

“Sir.” A servant entered and bowed. “The carriage is prepared.”

“Good! Good. Wish luck to Royce and Vittorio in getting the little ones to sit still for the ride.” Xaviero rose to his feet a little too quickly. “Highness, go ahead and prepare your, erm, bear. We’re about to meet the leader of the greatest nation-erm, as in size! Biggest nation in the continent, I meant. No pressure!”

And only then, as Basil followed, did a dread begin to creep over him. He’d taken to sword-fighting right away as soon as he was old enough to learn. He knew how to bow properly, how to come across as charming as possible, how to measure himself against high ideals and had a general idea of what to do if he ever did have to rescue someone from a dragon.

Did he remember anything he’d learned from his aunts about diplomacy?

Chapter Text

The Empress arrived at sunrise. 

Guards clad in white, black and silver heralded her arrival, the outermost in white followed by more elaborately-garbed soldiers in all black. Flag-bearers carried rippling white banners, one with a flame, the other with a sphere pierced by a blade. Between them, priests in flowing robes carried wind-chimes and bells mounted on staffs. All of them, the guards, the priests and the flag-bearers, wore half-masks of white and black on their faces. 

Salten couldn’t make out any more details from the balcony, not when the procession was still making its way into the city. Nor could he hear anything over the roar of the crowds gathering on the sides of the streets or climbing on their own balconies and roofs to catch a glimpse of the Empress. He wished he could just clear everyone off with a sweep of his arm and brush them aside so he could concentrate on her arrival. Their cheers, whistles, whispers, drunken whoops and angry shouts usually didn’t bother him when he was out at night, enjoying the worst of city life. But he didn’t want to hear from any of them today! They were just embarrassing him in front of her.

Nautilus. They were embarrassing Nautilus. Not that he knew why he cared about this dumb city and its reputation anyway. Or his, for that matter. He was a land-born Exile of no particular importance to anyone who didn’t already know him. To an Empress he’d be invisible. What would he even do if she did look his way? What would he say? It was nice to think about a brush with something impossibly grand, but that just didn’t happen with people like Salten.

(Well, there had been the little Flowerling princess. But she was a kid. Kids didn’t have opinions worth trusting; he’d been a kid himself long enough to know that.)

As the procession wound down the street, the Empress’s carriage came into view. For a vehicle carrying the leader of a massive, powerful nation, it was a modestly decorated affair, all white with the windows covered by long veils and beads. The only real decoration was a mirror hanging on the front of the carriage, catching the glint of the morning sun. It was drawn by two black horses which appeared to move in time with one another almost perfectly, though Salten might have been imagining that. Or maybe it was just that everything in the procession moved at the same fluid, steady pace, stepping in time like well-wound clockwork. 

And before the carriage…

“Those are the riders, aren’t they?” Claudine’s voice startled Salten as she set her tea set down, squinting. “Do you see them, Salten?”

“Of course I do.” He worked hard to disguise any enthusiasm in his voice, as it would be humiliating to show in front of his parents. He worked hard to maintain a sense of aloof detachment. “They’re uh…wait.” 

He didn’t know much about the rumored Three Riders, personal bodyguards of the Empress. They hadn’t been there the last time she’d traveled to Nautilus. Then again, that hadn’t been her, but a previous Empress. Maybe this one just wanted more security. 

“But there’s only two. I don’t see a red one. And one’s…” 

His mouth went dry. One of the Riders strode ahead of the carriage, a human clad all in midnight blue and black, riding what looked like a horse but longer-legged and narrower. He couldn’t make out anything else about that animal. And the other Rider, wearing gold and white armor and riding something big and covered in plate armor…

Aunt Cecily said it for him. “Well, would you look at that. The white Rider is one of us.”

Philomene heard the news about the Empress’s impending arrival a few hours ago. Had she known in advance, she might not have spent all night working with the Green Witch’s Heart in an attempt to make any progress whatsoever with the strange plant, documenting when it sprouted flowers or when it seemed to retreat from her in turn. And she had been making progress! Everything had been going so well.

No, she realized. Had she known, she would have kept going with her work anyway. No reason science had to grind to a halt just because a self-important, self-proclaimed  Ever After Empress saw fit to arrive fashionably early. Willow bark tea existed for a reason, and so did fruit juice. The tea would ease her aches and pains and the juice would provide enough sugar to keep her alert for a little while.

“Psst.” Miyamene nudged her. “Your fake smile is slipping.”

“Oh, she can’t see it,” Philomene whispered back. “She’s not even here yet.” She adjusted her seating position in the ceremonial perch holding Meramene and her other sisters, a covered palanquin of woven wicker lined with soft cotton and flower petals. The ceremonial riding duck likely wouldn’t have stayed still for the duration of the meeting. Meramene sat at the front on a portable throne shaped like a mushroom. 

The Taylors were waiting on a platform in the center of the city, most of them looking no less uncomfortable than Philomene was. Granted it was hard to tell from their perspective, but she’d long since learned how to read the body language of a human towering above her. Or in this case around her, as the palanquin sat on a raised pulpit for the safety of its occupants.

She could see Captain Taylor (Vittorio, was it?) tugging at his collar, ill at ease in the frilly ceremonial clothing of nobility. The woman besides him, hair tied in a tight bun, stood stone-still and stared ahead at something. Viscount Xaviero Taylor paced in front of them, muttering to himself about everything that could go wrong. The children whined, poked at one another, or in turn stared up at the palanquin. One of the smaller ones said something about a “flower basket” before the mother pulled her away.

Marjorie stood at the bottom of the platform alongside other human bodyguards, stealing reassuring glances up at Philomene from time to time. At least she didn’t look too unwell that day. And Basil…

“Prince Basil,” Meramene said in a remarkably calm voice, considering. “Please keep your bear from sniffing the palanquin.” 

“Oh! I’m sorry, Highness! Terribly sorry! Aurora, down!” Basil urged Aurora to sit down, much to the relief of the princesses seated behind Aurora who were getting more exposure to bear-nose and bear-breath than they’d ever desired. “I think she’s nervous.”

“What would she be nervous about?” Philomene asked, trying not to let her sour mood show and likely failing. “She’s a bear.”

“Well, animals pick up on the emotions of their owners. And see-this is my first time meeting the Empress, you know?” For the first time since Philomene met the outgoing ‘Prince Charming,’ Basil looked as if he wanted to disappear right into Aurora’s fur and hide. He was smiling but it wasn’t reaching his eyes, and his gloved hands were fidgeting. 

Oh, of course. Philomene was just meeting with the ruler of another country, and really Meramene would be doing most of that. Basil was the lone representative of his country, an ally of the Empire, and he was far from home. She tried to shove her own disdain for the whole affair aside and offer support to her friend. “You will do absolutely fine, Basil. Your family wouldn’t send you if they thought you a poor representative.”

“True! Although, they might have let me go because it’s warmer here, and they had no idea the Empress would be here. If they had-oh, but Prince Charming does not think in what might have been! I think? Maybe? It’s never said.” He breathed onto his hands and shivered. “I just hope Ezra wakes up in time to see the whole thing. Be a shame if he missed it. But she’ll still be here for-oh, here she comes!” 

It was like watching children gather in place for a painting. Royce and Vittorio gathered the kids and ordered them to stay put. The other Thumbelina sisters stopped chattering, set cups of juice aside and took their places behind Meramene, Cyramene making sure Elomene understood how important it was to speak respectfully to the Empress. Philomene took a deep breath, hoped the tea would kick in soon, and reminded herself that she had to do the same. For Meramene and Mother’s sake, more than anyone else, she would smile at the Empress. 

Though Valerian certainly wasn’t Thumbelina’s Empress! And this whole cult of immortality, what nonsense. The kings and queens of Thumbelina had not all been great, and the city-colony had seen its fair share of tyrants, but all at least used their own names instead of constantly assuming the guise of a long-dead woman.

Soon she heard the rumble of footsteps and horseshoes, the vibrations from the ground reaching up to the palanquin which Basil was careful to hold steady, much to the relief of the princesses. The heralds in their eerily monochrome colors stepped aside and parted, the guards forming a passage towards the platform. 

“Behold,” a herald cried out in a voice like thunder and yet strangely flat, “Her Imperial Eternity, True Heir And Chosen of the Fairy Queen, Weaver of the Golden Thread, Eyes and Ears of the World, Empress Valerian The Infinite.” 

A servant whose movements struck Philomene as just slightly unnatural and stiff opened the carriage. Out stepped a woman whose face was almost entirely obscured by a filigree mask, the rest painted over white with red lips. She wore an elaborate white headdress displaying ringlets of gold hair that trailed behind her and around her, a diamond-shaped in display on her tiara. Her long gown was all white and black, white pearls and black onyx, one glove white and the other black. It was said she wore those colors to represent the moral clarity of her empire, though Philomene was left longing for the vivid colors of flowers or the soft green glow of mushrooms. It was less lifeless.

Two figures Philomene hadn’t noticed before followed her, having stepped aside to let her pass first. The herald spoke again. “Behold, Her three Riders, chosen bodyguards of the Empress. The White Rider, Bright Morning.” 

And suddenly Philomene wondered how she could have missed the first figure who followed the Empress, clad in full armor that disguised their face. Perhaps their armor had blended in with the monochrome colors of the carriage. They were enormous, an actual giant who likely stood head and shoulders above Ezra when standing and here towered atop what looked to be an enormous, armored bird of some kind. Philomene was reminded of pictures she’d seen of an ostrich, but this had a thicker body and was altogether more reptilian in shape. Perhaps it was a juvenile dragon? They were said to have feathers in their youth.

But what was a giant doing serving the Empress? This one would not say, merely dismounting and bowing on one knee to the Empress. The image of someone so huge bowing to a small, decorated figure would be comical if Philomene, who’d had humans bow to her, did not understand the implications. Philomene thought she saw a shock of red hair from under the helmet, but could make out nothing else.

“The Black Rider, Dark Midnight.” 

Dark Midnight, if that was this person’s name, was swathed in black with a flash of gold jewelry here and there. At least Philomene could see their face, partially hidden by one of those damned masks as it was. They were smiling as they bowed with a magician’s flourish, their horse standing deathly still. 

“The Red Rider, Scarlet Sun.” 

There was a moment of confusion as others stared down the path, waiting for a rider who did not appear. Then Philomene spotted motion from atop Bright Morning as a tiny creature, a gecko, crawled down the giant’s armor from its perch on a shoulder. It was a spotted gecko, and atop it rode a cloaked figure in blood red wearing a shrew’s skull for a mask. Scarlet Sun was a Flowerling

Philomene couldn’t cover her own gasp, though she doubt the Empress heard it. She could swear Scarlet Sun turned to the princesses for a moment, but it was impossible to read the Flowerling Rider’s expression. Maybe that was why all the Imperials wore those masks. 

But why would a giant serve one of the most powerful humans in the land so intimately as to be a bodyguard? Why would a Flowerling?!

The Riders stood aside as the Empress approached, standing still as if expecting something. On cue, Xaviero bowed, urging the other Taylors to do the same. Basil did as well, though his movements were stiff and awkward. The Thumbelinan princess stood and curtsied, though Philomene could tell some of them found it distateful. Philomene herself, due to her condition, was thankfully exempt. 

What a joke, making everyone drop everything they were doing to attend to this Valerian! How petty of her. 

“You may rise,” the Empress instructed. Her voice was soft, though it had more inflection than her herald’s. She sounded relatively young, maybe a little older than Philomene herself. “You honor us with your welcome, Viscount.”

“Oh, the honor is all ours,” Xaviero said. “All ours! Indeed, you bless our city with your presence! May it bring us good fortune!”

“We do hope our presence does indeed bring better fortune upon your city, one you have defended from so many threats. It is also our hope to foster understanding between the pearl of our empire and its sister kingdom.” Here she turned to Meramene.

Meramene, diplomatic as ever, nodded. Nevermind that an understanding between Thumbelina and the Empire had been fostered long ago, and it amounted to ‘respect our sovereignty and leave us alone.’ Then again, Thumbelina and Nautilus had been working together so closely to deal with the Dryad threat. Maybe that was what she meant, and Philomene was just assuming the worst because she was sore and exhausted.

Speaking of that threat. Where was Prince Alphonse? As a foreign prince, wouldn’t he be expected to greet the Empress? 

“Why does she say ‘we’ when she’s just talking about herself?” Elomene whispered up to Cyramene.
“It’s a manner of speaking some human kings and queens use,” Cyramene whispered back. “Now hush.”

If the Empress heard the Flowerling whispers, she did not acknowledge them. Instead she turned to the crowds, stretching out so thick beyond the pathway that Philomene felt a little claustrophobic by proxy. Was Rem out there, doing crowd control without Vittorio’s help? Was Ezra watching or sleeping as Basil worried? No doubt Lord Germain had eyes and ears in the crowd. Where were they?

“People of Nautilus!” Now the Empress’s voice rang out strong and clear, the thunderous noises of the crowd dying out in its wake. “Fear not. You have welcomed us, and we shall reward you well. Let today be a day of celebration. Your Empire embraces you and brings you safety from your enemies. Let your troubled city be set anew on the path towards happiness ever after.” 

Cheers erupted from the humans around her so loud that Philomene had to cover her ears. Why were they so happy? She hadn’t promised anything concrete! Did the Empress have some kind of plan? If so, she certainly hadn’t told anyone else! And to think all this time Philomene could be back running tests on the Heart, finding a real solution instead of pretty words delivered to an adoring audience…

She took a deep breath. She was in a bad mood. That was no one’s fault, not her own and not the Empress’s. And when she felt like this, overtired and in pain, she couldn’t clearly assess the situation. She would get through this ceremony and then sleep. Maybe she’d vent with Ezra and Marjorie over some tea or sweet wine. And besides, at least she was doing better than poor, anxious Basil. She glanced over her shoulder to check on him.

And saw the nervous faces of the Taylors, a confused bear, and no Basil. 

Chapter Text

Thank the Mountain Lords it was hot out, or at least how Basil understood it. He knew his perception of heat differed from most other humans who could not, for instance, immerse their hands in flame without injury. For him, summer was the most merciful season, and it reached Nautilus sooner than it had for the Blue Forest up north. If everything else about the morning proved to be a complete disaster, at least Basil wouldn’t freeze. 

That was something his grandmothers told him. When troubles overwhelm you, be they real or imagined, just think of all that has gone right. Think of all the geological processes, all the accidents of fate and deliberate actions of generations that led to your birth. He didn’t always understand it. Not everything fairies said about humans made a lot of sense; their view of the world was too different. But he did find that when he “counted blessings,” he felt the same sense of comfort he got out of petting Aurora’s soft ears or leaning against Ezra. Not to the same degree, but anything helped.

Anything helped when he found himself unable to face the Ever After Empress.

There was something unnerving about her. Her movements were too stiff and elegant, her face hidden by that mask. But that wasn’t it, was it? Basil had told himself he was going to be better about judging from appearances and giving people the benefit of the doubt after getting to know Ezra. And he of all people ought to know that royals had to present another face to the public.
Something he was, apparently, terrible at doing. 

Philomene seemed to be doing just fine, the picture of grace with her sisters in their flower-covered palanquin. As awkward as Xaviero could be at times, he and Vittorio were playing the nobleman part perfectly. Even Vittorio’s children hadn’t run off, bored out of their skull as they obviously were. So what was wrong with Basil? Why was he crouched behind the platform, hiding in its shadow behind a row of guards who were at least kind enough not to stare at him? 

It was all of those staring faces, a sea of them in a crowd bigger than any he’d seen before. Sure he’d been present for a few festivals when his parents addressed the people of Sethwhile, clad in royal or ceremonial garb as needed, but it hadn’t been the same. He knew how to fake enthusiasm at a royal ball, but there he could blend in as well as a prince could. Here he felt like he was on display. 

He took deep breaths, listening to the Empress’s speech and wrapping his arms around himself. Ezra got like this sometimes, when public attention got to be too much. Basil sympathized but never really understood. He loved being the focus when he was telling stories of his adventures or fighting a monster. And maybe that was it. He could control that kind of attention. He’d asked for it.

“Hey. Kid. I mean, uh, Highness. Are you alright?” 

Basil was already sitting in the shadow of the platform, so he couldn’t say a great shadow fell over him. A shame; it would have been such a nice detail for a retelling if he ever got the nerve to tell this story. But he did look up when he heard the deep, resonant Sky voice to see a large figure leaning over him, clad in the midnight blue robes of the Celestial Patrol. The guards had parted to let them through.

“…Rem, right? I’m fine! Perfectly fine. Just…” No, needing to get out of the sun for a bit wouldn’t work for him.

“…Your curse, right? You needed to get away from the breeze. Do you need assistance getting up?” Rem reached down with a hand bigger than Basil’s head, rings glinting on the long fingers. It was awkward to grab onto such a hand, and Basil didn’t really need it, but he took it anyway out of appreciation for the gesture. 

Unsure of what else to say as he stood up, Basil gave a little nod up to Rem while trying to avoid eye contact with them. “Thank you,” he managed, hoping the giant wouldn’t think poorly of him for it. It was hard to tell; Rem’s face was unreadable, though not quite as stony and empty as that of the Empress’s soldiers.

“It’s just my duty. Sometimes we all need to get away.” Did Rem glance away too, or was that Basil’s imagination? “But you should get back up there, or people will wonder.”

“Will the Empress think of it as an insult?! I didn’t mean it that way!” Panic shot through Basil at the thought of his moment of anxiety toppling years of goodwill between Sethwhile and the Empire. “Surely she must know that…”

“Of course you didn’t. You were helping to escort me,” a third voice said from behind Rem. Alphonse stepped in around Rem’s cape, a sheepish grin on my face. “Will you believe the Empress’s visit took me by surprise too? I slept a bit late and needed time to get ready.” 

Basil blinked and stared at the Prince Charming, trying to discern if Alphonse was just having a laugh. That wouldn’t be much like him. “You overslept?”

Alphonse shrugged. “Believe me, I’m as shocked as anyone. I’m usually an early-riser. Investigator Tera here helped me get through the crowds.”

“They parted for me,” the giant added, shielding their eyes from the sunlight. “They usually do.”

“So you can help me onto the stage, which is why you stepped off in the first place, right? You heard me signal you so I could be discreet.” Alphonse tilted his head. “Is something wrong? You look a little overwhelmed.”

“I’m fine,” Basil insisted for the second time. “Really! Just, she’s…” Well, he felt like he could trust and confide in Alphonse, who was quickly proving to be a friend. He really wanted Ezra there, but that wasn’t possible. “It isn’t her. I suppose I am just intimidated. It’s hard to explain, but I was rather suddenly overcome…”

“Maybe you can sense evil,” Alphonse winked. “I’m joking. Listen, my kingdom, Martine, is part of the Empire. Technically I’m not even supposed to call it a kingdom anymore. Where do you think all my grumbling about her comes from? I know enough about the Empire that I can guide you through this.” He paused, listening. “It sounds like the speeches are almost done. Lead me in, won’t you? One prince to another?”

If Martine was part of the Empire, Alphonse technically couldn’t call himself a prince at all. It was probably just an old habit, or purely an honorary title. But Basil didn’t care, as Alphonse had proven himself to be Prince Charming after all, giving him an excuse for his momentary panic. Nevermind how shameful it seemed for a would-be Prince Charming to need that help, but Basil could hardly compare to the real thing. 

“Right, of course, of course!” He took deep breaths before ushering Alphonse to follow him, preparing himself to face that sea of people again. He wasn’t completely soothed, just as he always felt a little chilly even at his warmest, and he still would rather have had Ezra or Marjorie on stage with him. But Philomene was there, as was Aurora. And he had Alphonse, at this point clearly a new friend. 

As he stepped back onto the stage, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of a street girl in a tattered red hood. There was something so familiar about that it sent a chill down his scarf-covered neck, and not the kind he was used to. Maybe he’d ask Marjorie to keep an eye out for someone like that later. She was so good at observation.

“I am afraid your presence at the reception is not optional, Highness.” Marjorie, at the princess’s request, was transporting Philomene in the front apron pocket designated for such a purpose. She wasn’t any happier about the crowds and noise than Philomene apparently was, though more because crowds brought pickpockets. Hopefully if her Thumbelina maid garb didn’t mark her as a poor target, the bird-rider guards flying above her would. “Though I’m sure I can make up a convincing lie about you having a headache.”

“It would not be a lie.” Philomene’s voice came out muffled. “But my sisters would worry. You know me and parties. All the talk is so…”


“It would be one thing if there were other scientists around! People who wanted to know about divergent schools of magic or the various ways in which the presence of a single draconic salamander can alter the geological patterns of an entire region. N-not that I’m a geologist or anything! I just find that sort of thing interesting.” The princess yawned. “Am I rambling again?”

“Not at all,” Marjorie lied. “Why do you think they wouldn’t want to hear about that? It all interests me! The latter in a morbid, sort of terrifying way but there’s nothing wrong with that.” She looked down at her pocket, setting a gentle hand over it and frowned. “Are you really feeling unwell? You sound exhausted, Highness.” 

“I thought I’m the one who’s supposed to boss you around when it comes to resting,” Philomene said with a little bit of humor in her voice. “I think I’ve just been over-exerting myself. With the project.”

“The, erm.” Marjorie made a heart shape with her hands in front of the pocket. “That?”

“Yes, that. And I realize it makes me a hypocrite since I’m always on you and Ezra about not pushing yourselves too hard. But I can’t shake this feeling that if there’s something I can do to help, I ought to do it to the best of my ability. Past that, even! And furthermore…oh, this just does sound morbid. Creepy, perhaps. You won’t judge me, Marjorie?”

“You’re the only person I don’t judge,” Marjorie insisted, a little alarmed at this apparent sudden confession. “Most of the time. Including myself. You know that!”

“Yes, but you do analyze me. I can tell. It’s quite alright.” Philomene shifted into another position in the pocket, likely resting her back against the cloth. “I am enjoying the work I’m doing on the you-know-what. I’m making actual progress, which is better than I did when we were out in the Blue Forest.”

“Oh, come on! Don’t say that! About the Blue Forest, I mean. Your tinkering helped us figure out how all those strange little artifacts worked. Even if you didn’t find ‘the solution,’ you made a lot of progress elsewhere. And I’m not sure what’s wrong with enjoying your work.”

“I’m only doing it because others are in trouble!” At this Philomene actually poked her head out of the pocket to stare up at Marjorie. It was hard to tell from that angle but it looked like her eyes were puffy. “The only reason I have an opportunity to work on such a fascinating project is because of a whole string of misfortunes. Mother is still trapped in stasis, my sisters still can’t safely return home and Thumbelina Kingdom faces a worse threat than the sleeping spell and the thorns. And you know what is worse? When I found out the kingdom was safe after all, some little part of me was worried I’d be…bored. When we were hiding out in the Blue Forest, gathering all sorts of oddball items you brought back from the market and making friends with Ezra and Basil, it was fun. It was the most fun I’d had in a while, and all because of more misfortune.” 

“…You are starting to ramble now,” Marjorie admitted. This was all backwards. Philomene wasn’t supposed to feel guilty! That was Marjorie’s job. Other people weren’t allowed to treat themselves that way. 

Well, when Marjorie thought of it that way, it did sound rather ridiculous and petty. Philomene didn’t exist to make her feel better about herself or serve as a counterpart to all of Marjorie’s own issues. 

“But to be honest? I’m a little relieved you were having fun,” Marjorie continued. No need to make this about herself. “If you torment yourself for your own feelings all the time-uh, well, I don’t know what happens when you do,” she lies, “but I doubt it’ll help you with your studies. Or anything else. Oh, and Princess?”

“Yes, Marjorie?” Philomene sounded smaller and quieter than usual.

“Sorry about the other day. When you said you managed to turn the Green Witch against the Rot, and I acted strangely?”

“…Yes, about that. It’s quite alright, but why did that upset you? Do you think I’m acting dangerously?”

“To be honest? I don’t know.” Marjorie exhaled, rushing through the crowd towards the Taylor estate where the reception was to be held. “I really do not know. Are you sure you don’t want to beg off having a headache?”

Philomene paused. “No, no. At the very least, I want to see if there are any scholars at the party. And Ezra handled some of the food, didn’t he? It would be an insult to him to turn that down. And I am a little worried about Basil, so there’s no need to worry him in turn.”

“Well, then! We’ll go reunite with your sisters and their bodyguards. And don’t worry, Princess,” Marjorie added. “We have a plan and a few weeks of time. Everything will be fine.”

“You’re right,” Philomene said, lowering back into the pocket. “I hope so…”

Chapter Text

It took a little bit of snooping outside the busy gathering of important people Basil could barely keep straight before he found Ezra. The giant was not, as Basil would have hoped, actually getting any sleep. Instead he was still on his feet, somehow, looking over dishes and giving exhausted, half-mumbled orders to staff who mumbled about the "overgrown tyrant." 

They also gave alarmed looks up at Aurora, who Basil carefully navigated away from the trays of grilled fish and meat. "Not today, old girl," he insisted as he ruffled her ears. "I'll buy you a crate of fish later for being so good at the ceremony.”

"We have some we couldn't use," Ezra interrupted, stifling a yawn. "I thought it was a terrific waste, but some of the baked fish didn't come out looking quite right. Though we might have eaten them all on breaks..." 

"Does that we include you?" Basil demanded, marching up to where Ezra sat in the tent with his hair tied back for kitchen work. "As in, have you had something to eat yet yourself?"

Ezra’s eyes darted to the wall and he wrung the washcloth in his hands. “I planned on it. After we’re done. Don’t particularly like fish, and I have to supervise-”

“No, you don’t. You need to eat, and make sure you’re drinking enough water.” Basil crossed his arms and gave a firm look up at Ezra. “We really do have to keep an eye on you or you’ll just slip into this work-yourself-to-death habit, won’t you?” 

“I…yes, you’re right, I should eat something.” Ezra tried to stand up, wobbled and sat back down with a slight crash, flushing as the kitchen staff stared at him. “Sorry, sorry. Just a little woozy. Probably not a good idea for me to walk around a lot with all these humans and nice dishes. Basil, I hate to ask this, but could you…”

“Not another word. I’ll get you something from the banquet table. If anyone complains, I’ll point out that I am a prince and clearly important enough to greet Her Imperial Eternity at a ridiculous hour in the morning. Does one of the chefs here have a suggestion?” 

Ezra caught what Basil was implying as a timid smile crossed his face. “Well, I am rather proud of the cheese pastry and the popovers…” 

“Those were yours?! I thought they were a standout! And I’m not just saying that because it’s pastry.” Basil grinned, satisfied that he’d at least managed to eke a little self-care out of Ezra. “Fuss all over everyone else to make sure we eat right and I stay warm and here you are wearing yourself out. Was it at least enjoyable back here?”

Ezra took a deep breath, glancing around at the staff and hunching over as he spoke in a low voice. “Well, to be honest…oh, enough about me. How was the ceremony?” 

Well, Basil didn’t say, I froze up at the last second and a lot of people probably saw me ducking behind the podium as I found myself unable to face that crowd and meet with an intimidating foreign leader, despite that being one of the basic duties of a prince. So overall rather humiliating, unpleasant and something that makes me want to crawl under a table when I think about it. He did want to talk to Ezra at some point, especially since he knew Ezra always found crowds and unsolicited attention frightening and thus might understand. But Ezra didn’t need to cope with Basil’s problems at the moment, and Basil figured the better option was to pretend it never happened. That was much more pleasant. 

“Oh, you know how it is. A lot of standing around and looking important, listening to speeches,” Basil said instead. “You would have been bored. I was bored. Aurora was a good girl, though! Very stoic.” He reached up to give the bear a pat. 

Afraid he might have to talk more on the subject, Basil had to admit relief when Alphonse peeked into the cooking tent. “There you are! I wanted to check up on you but I could not get away from having to tell that same story over and over to this and that stuffed shirt.” He stopped short when he saw Ezra, staring before recognition crossed his face. “Oh, yes! I remember you now, sir. You were-” 

Basil and Ezra both reddened when they remembered the last time Alphonse ran into Ezra. The two princes had to keep a falling-down drunk Ezra from, well, falling down. “Oh, Prince Alphonse?” Ezra squeaked, as much as someone his size could actually squeak. “I, uh. Apologies for-that was not-I don’t usually-”

Alphonse laughed and shook his head as he walked into the tent, his cape trailing behind him and the still-red rose standing out against his blue vest. “Think nothing of it! We all slip past our limits now and again. Basil has told me so much about you.”

Ezra stiffened, gave Basil a mildly accusing look and rubbed the back of his neck. “Has he now…?”

“Stories about how you fought off wolves with your bare hands, made gingerbread so enchanting it charmed the infamous Gourmet, and have very strong opinions about the proper way to make caramel?” Alphonse tilted his head with a grin. “Nothing bad, I assure you. And I apologize if I stared earlier. Sky Folk rarely pass through where I’m from, let alone settle there.” 

Basil gave Ezra a shrug. “I just think you ought to speak of your own deeds with more enthusiasm! Believe me, he heard far more about my adventures. Uh, not as much as you have,” he added lest Ezra grow jealous. Not that there had been many truly epic adventures in Basil’s life prior to meeting Ezra, but nothing wrong with embellishing tales of angry mountain cows and Enlightened Honeybees with short tempers. 

“…Well, he’s right about the caramel,” Ezra admitted in a low voice, “and technically everything else. I’m glad you two are getting along so well. Alphonse, right? Basil’s very serious about becoming Prince Charming, as you might know by now, so…” 

“I knew it!” A female voice interrupted the three as Marjorie flitted in, carrying a tray of various snacks and three slices of cheese and mushroom pie. “Basil, he forgot to eat, didn’t he? I thought that would be the case. Well, Marjorie to the rescue.” 

Basil felt terrible for the pang of jealousy that ran through him when she arrived first with food, knowing that it was his own fault for getting distracted with Alphonse. But he’d wanted to be the one to heroically save his beloved from low blood sugar! “Hello, Marjorie,” he said instead as he turned to face his friend. “Is the Princess with you?”

“As a matter of fact, she is.” Marjorie set the tray next to Ezra and reached into her apron pocket. “Her Highness wishes to speak with you, Ezra.”

“If you’re feeling up to it,” Philomene added, her tiny voice just barely carrying over the sounds of clanking plates and silverware. “Sorry Basil, but can I monopolize him for a moment?” 

“Um, sure!” Basil told himself he could have an actual quiet moment with Ezra later. He missed traveling alongside him and seeing him every day, and made a note to take him out somewhere nice once they both finally had free time. “If he’s okay with it…we probably have to go back into that reception anyway.”

“I can talk,” Ezra said, already sounding a bit more alert after eating a slice of pie in a few bites. “I think at this point if I don’t take a break and get some fresh air, Basil and Marjorie are going to team up and throttle me.”

“Quite likely,” Marjorie agreed cheerfully. “Well, I’ll be back to get the princess later. Ta!” She flitted out, giving Basil a look suggesting he ought to do the same.

And as she did, Basil thought he saw Alphonse and Marjorie make eye contact, and Marjorie’s eyes narrow just a smidgen.

“…Right.” He waved goodbye to Ezra and followed Alphonse back into the party.

Curiously enough, while he didn’t exactly like formal gatherings for anything but the music and food, Basil didn’t feel trapped in the same way he had up at the podium. How odd that he loved attention when he asked for it, which he did quite often, yet had trouble with just the sort of attention his position required. He reassured himself that it wouldn’t matter in the short run and his tendency to take a sample from every tray that made the rounds was not him eating his anxiety.

At least Alphonse was there. Basil found his presence comforting, though not in the same way he did with Ezra. Alphonse always seemed to know what to say. He dominated the conversations with the wealthy of Nautilus and Basil let him. What did Basil know about the cushy lives of Lowlanders? He was raised in a forest cottage. 

“And the people of Thumbelina have been the most gracious host,” Alphonse continued as several young nobles gathered around him. “I worried my size would make me a liability, but their city-colony is designed to support Flower Folk and humans alike. Really quite ingenious.”

“Are you planning on staying long?” a woman with an impossibly ornate hairstyle asked from behind a feather fan. “We hear rumors of a prince looking for a wife. Unless that’s you, Prince Basil?”

“Ah,” Basil started, holding his hands up. “Not quite-”

“No, I’m afraid no princes here are looking to marry.” Alphonse came to Basil’s rescue again with a modest grin. “That’s just a silly rumor spread over that whole ball event. Besides, you probably wouldn’t be satisfied with my kingdom.” 

“True,” Basil heard a woman whisper to a man in a powdered wig, “they do say wandering princes rarely have much to offer. Hence the whole playing Prince Charming thing. And as for the Mountain Folk, who would want to live with them? They’re so poor and backwards and-”

She fell silent as soon as she saw the ice-on-bare-skin glare Basil was giving her, party civility be damned, and retreated with her partner to another group. Basil took a deep breath, trying to remember what Prince Charming would do when facing that sort of naked disrespect. Xaviero’s well-meaning but rather clumsy ideas about Sethwhile and the other Mountain kingdoms were off-putting, but this was something else entirely. 

A hand fell on his shoulder. “They’re just like that,” Alphonse whispered. “They’d treat me that way if I said where I was from, too. It’s just that with you, they can tell by looking. We just need to endure another hour or so before we can come up with some sort of excuse for leaving without it standing out.” 

“…Right.” Basil unclenched his fists and stretched his gloved hands. “Thank you. I admit, this has been a trying day, but I think…”

He lost his train of thought as he looked past Alphonse. Was that-no, that was her. Marjorie was watching them from the corner while protecting some of the other Thumbelinan princesses. 

It wasn’t the first time, either. As Basil endured war stories from an elderly general he could swear he’d seen somewhere before, wishing his curse didn’t make alcohol dangerous to drink, he caught her watching Alphonse while she juggled scarves for the Taylor children. When Alphonse brought him some sun-warmed fruit juice for a toast, Marjorie watched Alphonse as if expecting him to slip something in.

“Alphonse? I will be right back. I may have eaten too many popovers.” It was not exactly a lie; that just wasn’t why he was stepping away. He waited until Alphonse was out of sight before making a beeline for Marjorie, who was chatting with one of the princesses.

“Sorry, Princess Cyramene, but may I borrow her for a second?” He gestured for Marjorie to follow him and step outside.

Marjorie looked confused but took it in stride, standing under one of the late-blooming olive trees on the Taylor estate. “Is something the matter, Basil? Is this about your stage fright?”

“My stage fright? Oh, I suppose you would have seen. But no! No it’s not.” Basil reminded himself that Marjorie liked to use misdirection to defer confrontations, even friendly ones. He would just have to find a polite way to bring it up.

“You’re spying on Alphonse,” he said. “Why?”

Nailed it.

For a second, Basil could swear he saw a crack in Marjorie’s exterior, her smile faltering and instead showing something…sad? Frightened? He wasn’t scaring her, was she? But the calm serenity was back before he knew it. “Why do you think that?”

“I saw you during the party. You didn’t take your eyes off of him. You don’t trust him,” Basil said. “Why?” 

“Oh come now,” Marjorie said, not quite making eye contact with Basil. “You know me, I hardly trust anyone when I first meet them.”

“Funny,” Basil said with crossed arms, “I don’t see you giving that kind of look to Xaviero or Captain Taylor.”

“…Well, I know the Taylors. Not personally, but they do run the city. And Basil, listen.” She edged closer to him, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you at first, I really am, but there is just something off about him. Something isn’t matching up.”

“He’s Prince Charming! I know parts of his story don’t make sense, but Prince Charmings create miracles by their very nature. That’s what it means to be Charming, to embrace a level of heroism above and beyond what even someone like me can understand.” Why was this happening? Alphonse had been such a help this entire awful day. Why was Marjorie so determined to undercut his confidence in a new friend? It wasn’t as if Basil had many opportunities to make friends. 

Marjorie bit her lip. She did seem genuinely regretful, though she wouldn’t relent. “I know you might be able to accept that, but…”

“…But you don’t believe in Prince Charming, do you.” It wasn’t intended as an accusation. Basil didn’t feel angry or triumphant when he said it, just miserable, like there was a weight on his chest that hadn’t been there before.

“What I believe about Prince Charming isn’t really relevant here,” Marjorie said quickly, turning red. “And shouldn’t have a bearing on how you feel! I am just not sure Alphonse in particular is Prince Charming. Philomene asked me to investigate-” 

“Philomene, too?!” Did all of his friends just see something he couldn’t? Or was he seeing what they were missing? Maybe they just needed to get to know Alphonse.

Marjorie covered her mouth with one hand. “I should not have said anything. As princess it’s her duty to investigate, well, everything. If this trip has told us anything it’s that enemies can come from within…”

“We know who the enemies are! Lord Germain, the Green Witch, the Rot Witch, the Dryads!” He counted them off on his fingers. “Are those not enough? Are you all really so cynical you have to look for an enemy everywhere?!”

Marjorie’s smile was long gone now as for the first time in their argument she raised her voice. “Finding an enemy is part of my job! Not every problem can be solved by fighting a monster or ‘saving’ someone! I mean, I understand. Really! You want Alphonse to be Prince Charming, because that would be confirmation that Prince Charming exists, which means you can someday-”

“I’ve heard enough.” Basil could feel a chill on his fingers and toes, the kind that came from inside of him. “I understand perfectly. You think I’m stupid and charmingly naive. My idealism’s endearing but misguided. Right?”

“Basil, wait!”

He turned away and started stalking off to one of the rooms. “Tell Ezra I’ll see him later. And apologize to Alphonse for me. For my absence, I mean. Tell him I have a stomachache.” 

“You don’t get it! He could be using you!”

“For what?! A cursed prince isn’t exactly the most useful pawn around here. I just…I’m sorry, Marjorie.” He covered his face with his hand. “I can’t have this talk right now. It’s been a bad day. I’ll…see you later.”

He didn’t know if the knot in his stomach was caused by the chill brought on by unhappiness clashing with the ‘heat’ of anger, immediate guilt over what he’d said to his friend, dread at what he would say when he did see her later or just plain indigestion. He doubted feeling like this would lead to his powers going haywire again, though it made a convenient excuse for him to retreat to his guest room for the day.

Chapter Text

Ezra carried Philomene as if she might tilt over, holding his hands remarkably level as he walked. She could still hear the low thud of his heavy footfalls, mixed with the clacking of boots against marble. (So much marble everywhere! And what was the likelihood of it cracking in half during the next quake? What if one of those lovely columns or statues toppled over? Human nobility had no appreciation for efficiency or sense of thinking ahead.)  

"Forgive me if this is a strange statement, Ezra," Philomene shouted up at her friend to ensure being heard, "but you have a fantastic sense of carrier's balance." 

"I...what?" Ezra sat down cross-legged in a patch of the courtyard mercifully free of pipe-smoke and conversations, leaning back on the human-scale marble bench. They were seated next to a peach tree just starting to sprout little green, hard fruits. As he usually did, Ezra raised his hands closer to eye level to ease their chat. "I mean, thank you for the compliment, but I don't know what that is." 

"Oh, of course you wouldn't! What was I thinking?" Philomene settled herself into Ezra's calloused palm. "Carrier's balance refers to the grace, care and stability with which a larger being holds a smaller one. Humans who live in Thumbelina train in it if they have the physical ability and will to transport or protect Flower Folk. What I mean is, you're a very smooth ride? Especially considering the, erm, the distance and all." 

At that Ezra blushed and gave one of his rare chuckles. "Probably because I've had to carry trays full of biscuits and layered cakes flat in my hands! You drop one aether persimmon cream layer torte in your boss's sight and, uh, you learn quickly. Well, with my boss, anyway." The smile dimmed. 

Oh, oops. "I-forgive me if I brought up bad memories!" Philomene didn't know much about Ezra's life with his former master because he didn't like speaking of it, but she recognized that look in his eyes. Marjorie had it sometimes. 

Ezra shook his head. "It's probably a good sign I can joke about it now. Helps me put some distance between what happened and the life I have with you all. Besides, I got careful Flowerling transport skills out of it and he's probably been buried in the soil where his soul will never return to the Sun and Moon, so it all works out." He sniffed. "Enough talk about him. You wanted to talk to me? I'm feeling a little better now that I've eaten something, so I'll try to be as coherent as I can..." 

"I'm not sure I'll be any more coherent! Running off of two hours of sleep and all, and I had a glass of muscato at the party to help me tolerate all the noise. Not everyone knows to lower their voice when addressing smaller kinfolk, and multiply that by a large group of mostly humans trying to speak over one another in an enclosed chamber, and suddenly that theory about sound being made of waves that can reflect off surfaces like light against mirrors is very plausible! Granted it's a little hard to envision, and when I say `wave' I do not mean an ocean wave but rather something like a ripple, except invisible and in the air..." She stopped herself as she saw Ezra's mouth tighten into a line, the giant clearly having trouble following her. "You see what I mean?" 

"About sound and waves? N-no," Ezra admitted, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand, "but I'm glad someone is studying that, really. It's interesting! But about everything else, yes. Crowds are the worst and we both need a nap, but neither of us can do that because there's still work to do and we haven't the sense to leave it to someone else. Because they won't get it right!" 

Philomene sighed. "Not sure if I am supposed to agree with you there, but yes. Actually, one reason I wanted to talk to you now is specifically because I'm exhausted and my nerves are frayed, so I haven't the energy to change my mind. I need to ask you-" 

"A favor?" As Ezra said the words, Philomene noticed a spike in his pulse and a higher pitch in his voice. "I-erm, I want to help, whatever it is, really! But I-the inn owners want me to train Salten and he hates it and hates me for it and the guards want me to use my magic to help them and Cecily asked me to cure her husband of something if we ever find him and then the Taylors wanted me to help cater this party and I've never even worked with a full kitchen staff like that before and everyone wants me to give directions but then gets mad when I correct them and Toad wanted me to cure his curse and Elomene wanted me to save your mother and I keep agreeing to do things because that's what I do and I don't want to be selfish and then the swordfish doesn't grill correctly and I realize I know nothing about cooking swordfish and I can't do all these things I want to do, I can't!" 

He was shaking when he cut off his rant, even his hand quaking with Philomene inside of it. That seemed to be what snapped him out of it, thankfully before the tremors gave Philomene a headache. "I...I'm sorry. Don't know where that came from. If you are here to ask me a favor, of course I’ll help…”

“No! Oh no,” Philomene insisted as she stared up at Ezra, “that’s not it at all!” Seeing his outburst tied her stomach in a knot. It was she who had asked him to help Toad, something she still regretted. “We just said we’re both rather exhausted, didn’t we? I wish only to ask you a few questions. And you don’t have to answer them.”

Ezra bit his lip. “I-I’m fine, really. Of course I can answer questions. Sorry, it’s just…”

“I wish you’d told one of us if you felt the world was upon your shoulders,” Philomene said. She wanted to give him a hug, but it wasn’t feasible at their scale. “You are allowed to say no, even to this. I know I can ask insensitive questions. And if you’d let us help…”

“But you’re all busy! You especially, Princess, trying to save the world and all.” He managed a little smile. “And I am the biggest. You’d think I could handle it.”

“You don’t believe that for one second, Ezra, and neither do I.” She sighed. “Though I suppose I am a hypocrite, taking everything as royal duty. Marjorie’s been urging me to relax more often than I have, think of my own mind and heart. I will pass this onto you.”

“As long as you promise to take your own advice. Because to be honest, you look like a bit of a wreck too, even in that lovely dress. I’m making you some lemon tea with honey for your throat later, or lavender drops so you can sleep properly.” Ezra took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I think I’m alright now. I mean it, I can answer whatever questions you want. You’re much easier to talk to than Investigator Tera.”

“Oh, but Investigator Tera is so charming to talk with,” Philomene found herself blurting before covering her hand with her mouth, looking up at a bewildered Ezra. “About…some topics.” She was going to regret having this conversation in her current state of mind, though if she waited until she was feeling better she’d never have it at all. “Alright. I came to you in particular because you’ve had the closest experience with one of the Other Ones of us four. And if I recall, he approached you?”
Ezra didn’t stop staring at her. “You…change focus very quickly, don’t you?”

“Do I?”

“And yes, he was drawn to me. At first I thought it was my talent and hard work, but he really saw me, personally, as one of his treasures.” Ezra paused for a moment. “This is going to be strange to admit, but I think for me that was part of why I accepted it so easily.” 

“Accepted it?” Philomene blinked. “What do you mean? You were under his power and had no control over the situation.”

“No, you’re right. I mean, it took me a while to know I should fight it, to remember there are other, healthier ways of being treasured. Spend your whole life being ignored or mistreated while knowing you were meant to be something else, and someone telling you something you wanted to hear can get into your head.” Ezra narrowed his eyes. “He must have known that. He’d been at it so long, I bet he had a lot of practice worming into people’s heads and eating their memories.”

“You think he ate memories?”

“Uh, just a theory. Would explain why it was so easy to forget things around him except what he wanted me to remember. And memories are precious, right? I, uh,” Ezra said, “I’ve been thinking on it before. You’re a good influence, prodding dumb old me to ask questions even if I don’t like the answers.”

Despite the grim subject matter, Philomene couldn’t help but beam a little at the praise. “Oh, come now! You’ve always been very sharp, just reluctant to think outside the box. I can’t imagine your old ‘employer’ encouraged that. And you’ve been practicing a rare form of magic without any documentation or spell books.” 

That time, Ezra really did blush. “I don’t know about that…” He never had been the best at taking a compliment. “Why do you ask, though? About the Gourmet, I mean. Surely the Green Witch works differently? She doesn’t have a candy castle full of precious things.”

“See? Asking questions!” Philomene clasped her hands together. “But that’s just it. I need to figure out what ties the Other Ones together and what sets them apart. Their tactics obviously vary in scale, but there have to be commonalities. Because to be honest? Even if-when, when we defeat the Green Witch and fight off the Rot Witch this time, that won’t be the end of it.”

Ezra rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I worried that might be the case. I bet I made them mad when I sealed one of them.”

“Actually, they don’t all seem to get along. I mentioned the Rot Witch and the Green Witch seemed to have turned on one another.” She did not add how the latter wanted her to be part of it. “And the Green Witch at one point mentioned a ‘dead’ sibling, which seems impossible. But even if they aren’t about to rally in defense of one another, we’re proving to be threats to them and their plans. And while I can’t discern if they have a unified plan now, nothing brings mismatched groups
together quite like a shared enemy. Why, look at this party!” She gestured around, her petal-fringed bell sleeve flapping in the breeze. “The Empress Herself welcomed by one of Libra’s colonized cities and embraced as a welcomed distraction by some and a liberator from an alien enemy by others. Our own kingdom working alongside Nautilus when for a long time, we regarded one another as eccentric, strange neighbors. The Sky Folk sending an emissary from among their elite to help humans who serve the Ever After Empire.”

“I didn’t really think of it that way,” Ezra admitted as Philomene could hear his pulse increase again. “Except you think the Other Ones are going to unite against us. Us four who are not fairies, and are not in any way all-powerful, and who might have powerful friends provided we can trust them?”

Philomene smiled weakly up at the giant, who was starting to look a little green around the gills. “I am always bringing bad news, aren’t I? And I may just be speculating about the worst case scenario. I like to do that. It’s cathartic somehow.”

“It’s alright, Princess. Better the evil you know?”

She snapped her fingers. “That’s it exactly. I know Marjorie and my sisters worry about me spending so much time studying the Heart. Apparently I do come out of sessions crankier than usual and short-tempered, and my research team says I almost seem to go in a trance when I communicate with her.”

“You communicate with her?!” Ezra’s shout was still like the rumble of a volcano, though with a more panicked pitch.

“Don’t overreact, please,” Philomene said, gesturing downward with her hand to indicate ‘please lower your voice.’ “It’s the only way to figure out how to seal her. That’s why I’m asking questions of you as well. I need to know as much as I can about the Green Witch as long as I have this chance, even if it isn’t safe for me. I’m recording everything I learn for others even as I navigate her strange mind. You don’t need to tell me how dangerous it is; I already know.”

“…Sorry,” Ezra whispered, “for yelling, I mean. But what if she does take control of you the way she took control of Toad? Or the way the Gourmet did with me? Nobody wants to lose you, Princess.”

“I know,” she answered as softly as she could while talking to a giant. “I have no intention of losing myself either. And in case I do start to go, I gave my sisters contingency plans. They are to lock me up under supervision until the spell’s hold fades and I come to my senses again. This war-and it is one now-is a lot bigger than me.” 

“True, but that just means you can’t shoulder it all alone. Remember what you just said to me?” Ezra shook his head. “If it will help you, I’ll tell you absolutely everything I can remember about the Gourmet. Bits are still fuzzy. He got really deep into my head and sometimes I think it left some scars. But I’ll do my best. Just maybe when we’re both more clear-headed and have had some sleep. And I will make you a batch of lavender candy for sleeping and pain troubles.”

“I-it would be too small, Ezra…”

“I made your sister a drop cake,” Ezra said, that old haughty pride slipping back into his voice. Its return seemed to Philomene a good sign. 

“Is that what that was? She tried to give Mother some kind of liquid and then started crying because Mother can’t consume anything right now, and the ‘cake’ had melted. Except it was some kind of transparent liquid. We bottled it for her, covered it with a wax cap and she insisted on keeping it because according to her, it was a magic potion.” Philomene smiled and at the same time found herself wiping tears from her eyes. “So that’s what happened.”

Ezra looked away. “I’m sorry it didn’t help your mother.”

“Meramene thinks Mother has chosen to connect herself to the Vine like that, as if she has to do so in order to protect it. There’s likely nothing you can do.” Talking about the missing queen brought on another wave of guilt and gloom Philomene wasn’t quite equipped to handle at the moment, so she forced herself to switch focus again. “Um, one other thing I might ask you about? Unless you need to get back.”

Ezra looked over his shoulder at the tent, squinting. “I’m forcing myself to take breaks. If they need me they’ll come find me.”

“Good! That’s good for you. Uh, um.” This was the part Philomene knew she had to make herself talk about, the one that would be much easier to suppress and deny. “What do, erm, giants-sorry, you don’t like being called that, right? Sky Folk, what do they think of the Flower Folk? I know with most of you up in the clouds and our travel naturally being limited, there must not be much, but…”

“Huh? That’s a little abrupt, Princess, but-wait.” Ezra drew his mouth into a thin line, holding the princess up to make as close as they could get to eye contact. “Is this about Inspector Tera being ‘charming in conversation?’”

Philomene felt blood rush to her cheeks. Any protest she had died in her throat and came out instead as a squeak.

“Uh huh. Well. That’s unexpected. I mean, I-Rem is not really my type, but-well, Marjorie did mention you two liked to chat for a while sometimes. And you did spend that time together in the tunnels…”

Marjorie, that traitor! “Nothing happened there,” Philomene said in a higher pitched voice than she intended. It must have sounded absolutely mouselike to Ezra. “We just talked and met a Sea Witch and-anyway. I know this must seem unusual. And unfeasible! I mean, we can’t quite kiss, even if Rem did feel the same way. And Rem works for another government. And-”

“You’re calling Rem by their first name,” Ezra pointed out in a flat tone. 

That just led to another squeak. Philomene resisted the urge to ask for another glass of muscato, especially knowing Ezra’s enormous fingers would have trouble with a Flower-scale wineglass.

“You want to ask me advice about this because I’m in a cross-kin relationship too. With royalty,” Ezra added. “Well, this is at least new.”

“We’re not in a relationship,” Philomene managed, only to nod up at Ezra. “Yes, advice. Explain to me why I am being very silly and frivolous and utterly unlike myself to even entertain such thoughts, and how I have every reason to assume we could never work something out.”

“…Why would I tell you that? I’m a romantic, Philomene! I fell for Basil the moment he saved me and spent far too much time convincing myself I shouldn’t bring it up because I was afraid of rejection. Once in a while I remember that he’s a human prince and at best people see his dating me as ‘eccentric’ and something he’ll tire of someday, but I know he doesn’t see me as a novelty and that’s what matters.” Ezra was blushing again, for a different reason this time. “I mean, with you and the Investigator, there would be issues, but…every relationship has issues. I’m sure Basil’s fairy godmothers and the Taylors had some, too.”

Philomene chuckled nervously. “I-I am sure I did not develop my feelings for R-Investigator Tera quite that fast. It was gradual, a realization that I very much liked being around them. Conversing with them, sharing thoughts, watching the sunset, sitting in their hand. For a warrior, they are remarkably gentle. I am not sure I want to be with them the way you and Basil are, but I want to grow closer to them. Bare my soul, I guess.” She couldn’t hide her smile this time. “But, but Ezra, our particular issues are very, for lack of a better word, big?”

“I won’t deny it. It would require adjustments. I mean, besides me learning how to get along with Rem,” Ezra added with a grumble. “And to answer your earlier question, our kind are so distant physically that I think we just rarely regard one another. Humans dominate the land, so we compare ourselves to humanity a lot. We read and study transcribed Flower Folk poetry and dramatic works, of course, and there have been Flowerling ambassadors visiting Vox. You’re seen as ‘chaotic’ as well, just much, much smaller. We don’t hate or fear Flower Folk up there, not to the same extent. But we tended to disregard and dismiss you, which isn’t any better.” He paused. “But I mean, there have been Sky Folk on the land since we started Exiling people, which as far as I can tell has been going on for a long time, and love of all kinds has existed for longer than that. I doubt you two would be the first.” 

Philomene buried her face in her hands, groaning. “Ezra, you were supposed to talk me out of it! You’re so practical!”

“Except when it comes to love. Not exactly Royal Consort material you’re talking to, here,” Ezra said with a hand on his chest, “but I don’t worry about it. Why don’t you talk to them? Rem, I mean.”

The princess had trouble answering. “I was going to, in order to see where we stood, but the last time I tried it was after the last Dryad attack and it was if something had happened to them. Something profound that made them fear themselves. Wouldn’t I just be adding to their troubles?”

“Or giving them more room to shoulder them. I mean, even if your shoulders are smaller,” Ezra added with a shrug. “Alright, I had better get back there for real. Don’t drink too much wine at the party and then get some sleep. I’m serious. Worry about matters of the heart and the supernatural later.”

“Mm, you’re right,” Philomene admitted, rubbing her eyes. “I’ll stay away from the wine lest I really speak my mind about Libra to the wrong person. Ezra, thank you. You’ve been a great help. Now you get rest after this too.” 

He rose to his feet, Philomene once again feeling the rush of air as she was swiftly carried upwards. “I will, I will,” Ezra promised. “And I’ll go check on Basil. He’s not really the party type, but at least he seems to be enjoying himself for now.”

“Right, right.” Philomene felt at ease for the first time since she’d woken up, and while she wasn’t exactly eager to return to the party, there was no need to keep Marjorie waiting.

She wondered briefly how Marjorie was enjoying her break.

Chapter Text

Growth spurts never did have the best timing.

Rem always knew when they were coming. Their moods would shift rapidly, their joints ache. They’d be even hungrier than usual and constantly thirsty, prone to rapid dehydration in the summer heat. There’d be that strange tingling feeling in their extremities and in the back of their head, a sensation that Rem inexplicably thought of as ‘metallic’ ever since childhood. They didn’t have better words for it. No one did, so scant was the actual study of Colossi.

None of the above was in any way convenient during a patrol. When they had to run crowd control during an unexpected major event, it was absolutely miserable. Rem had a lot of practice hiding it behind a wall of businesslike stoicism, focusing on the work at hand and treating their condition with tea and rest later. It likely did them no favors in the public eye, a giant with an icy expression towering over the masses. They wanted to say it wasn’t personal, that they had nothing against revelers and protesters alike, that frankly they were just as uncomfortable in Imperial presence as anyone else.

But were they? Despite the debates in the Senate about the distant threats of the various Empires and the frightened rumors of humanity someday finding a way to reach the Cloud Islands (or draw them down) here Rem was, helping the human guard protect the Ever After Empress. Vox had sent them to assist Libra in exchange for help with the investigation. And Rem, so eager to prove
themselves valuable to Vox, certain they would be the one to out-maneuver any deceptive humans and uncover the secret of the Rot of Mielle, had accepted the position.

They’d told themselves this was their big chance, their way of showing Vox that a Colossus was worth the danger they’d eventually be to everyone around them. They’d ignored the little voice in their head pointing out that they might be accepting an Exile in practice if not in name.

But a useful Exiling, one done for the greater good of the state that no selfless hero would question, was surely better than the real thing. 

“I’m really an idiot.” Rem smiled despite everything, lowering their pen and looking up at the moon. Sleep wasn’t coming despite the long day they’d endured, and likely wouldn’t for hours if experience was any indication. They wanted to make use of the spare time to write another report to Celestial Patrol, but the words barely inched out. There was so much they could not tell C.P. Headquarters, thoughts consuming their mind and crowding out the useful information they needed to communicate. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust Atropos Veras. Atropos was a true friend, the first they’d made in the Patrol when the both of them were still in training. But she had to report to their superiors or risk her job, and Rem wouldn’t put Atropos in a position to do that.

They shook their head as if it would physically banish doubts and dipped their quill pen back in the ink.

The sudden appearance of the Empress seems to have taken even the Nautilus authorities by surprise. I wonder what the purpose of an early arrival could be. It’s also worth noting that Libra is apparently capable of moving large numbers of troops into the city on short notice. Is it possible they’re utilizing something akin to the rumored Moonflower Gates? It seems far-fetched, as to our own knowledge no one has been able to replicate the effects of those gates. But of this I am sure: when it comes to Libra, nothing is as it seems.

With that, Rem set the quill aside and refilled a glass from the pitcher of water sitting on a table. What happened to them? They used to be so productive, even being admonished by Captain Taylor for working too hard. Now they could barely do anything, too distracted by their own thoughts and sorrows. They just needed water and fresh air, that was all. The humidity and heat were making their symptoms worse. 

Taking the lightest steps they could so as not to wake anyone else, Rem made their way into the cafe and tested the balcony doors. They unlocked easily from the inside, letting Rem look out over the city with its patched rooftops and those baffling mirrors. “Gifts,” Taylor had called them, though with a strange look in his eyes. He was a friend by that point, and a trusting, caring one at that underneath that ‘gruff old man’ act of his. But Rem could not forget Taylor worked for the Empire, anymore than he could ignore that Rem represented Vox’s interests. 

That was the other thing. Rem was to assist Libra against a common enemy while finding out more about them. Making friends or falling in love hadn’t been part of the plan.

“They’ve rebuilt the city so fast.”

The voice broke Rem out of their thoughts as they whipped around out of reflex, pulse racing. They felt rather foolish when they laid their eyes on Cecily, who was walking out onto the balcony and lowering herself with some difficulty into one of the chairs. “Forgive me,” the woman said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Oh, it’s fine. I’m not sure I should be out here right now anyway. But the door was unlocked, and…” Rem cleared their throat. “It’s Cecily Chulainn, right? You helped defeat the Gourmet according to Ezra.”

Cecily blinked and then laughed, covering her mouth. “Did he say that? What a nice young man, making me look good like that. I was merely another prisoner of the Gourmet’s, and carried out one of his friends once they’d all done the work of actually defeating that monster.” Her gaze went distant. “I suppose you’ll want to question me.”

Rem turned a little red out of guilt. “Not at this exact moment. I mean, when you’re feeling up for it, certainly.” They thought back to how poorly their interview of Ezra had gone. “But I’m off duty right now. Nothing you say will be ‘on the record,’ I promise.”

Apparently satisfied, Cecily nodded. “Actually, Investigator, I was hoping to talk to you. I’ve been meaning to, but you’re not around very often. Understandable, given your position.”

“Well,” Rem said as they rubbed the back of their neck, “you can call me Rem if you’d like.” If they started going by their given name when off duty, it would seem less conspicuous that they let Philomene use it, wouldn’t it? “Your family’s been very hospitable in housing me. I know my presence here is probably not the most welcome…”

“You didn’t personally Exile my husband. And my sister and brother-in-law have their own reasons for being down here that aren’t mine to tell you. But that does tie into what I wanted to ask you about, in a roundabout way.” Cecily paused. “If you’ll forgive the forwardness of a sick old woman.” 

Sick? “Mother raised me to respect elders. As long as it’s still ‘off the record.’” Rem sighed. “I could use a distraction anyway. Ask away.”

Cecily folded her lined hands in her lap. “My sister tells me you’re a Colossus.”

Rem froze. Of course the innkeepers would know; likely the physician who treated their injuries told them. Rem remembered a few strange, sad looks from the owners that at first they’d written off as sympathy for the wounded, but made a lot of sense in context. They took a deep breath. “Well, I…”

“Oh, forgive me, bringing painful things up like that so casually. It isn’t right. I’ll drop the subject entirely.” 

“No! I mean, no. It’s…if you have something to say about Colossi, I’d like to hear it. Positive or negative.” Rem felt foolish, putting their guard up around an elderly woman, but old habits died hard. No one was ever really mean to them over the whole thing, no one dared bully them. It’s just that no one really looked at them the same once they knew. It was like they were waiting for Rem to grow into something unimaginable before their own eyes.

“I know another one.”

Rem stared, open-mouthed. Colossi were so rare that one was born, on average, once every few generations at most. The doctor told them it was possible there were more, undocumented, though how a Colossus could stay hidden forever Rem had no idea. But then again, how did they keep vanishing when they should have been towering over the landscape?

“Blunt of me, wasn’t it? Again, I hope you’ll forgive me for that. My husband, Galileo. He was…”

“Your husband?” Rem felt foolish repeating after Cecily, but was unsure what else to say, given the revelation.

“He was a carpenter. We lived out in Pegas, and everyone knew what Galileo was ever since he was a boy. Everyone kept their distance. It was like they were always expecting him to lash out against them, like they already feared him.” Cecily still spoke quietly even as her voice took on an icy edge. “He was always kind, especially to me, but you can only take being treated like that for so long before you start to absorb it. Didn’t help his reputation that he was dabbling in magic to try to find a way to fix himself. One day a crowd of drunks started taunting him, and when he finally fought back, he-well, he didn’t know his own strength at that point. The victim was fine, just a broken arm, but I think they wanted an excuse.”

“…Mmm.” Rem wasn’t sure whether what was more uncomfortable: the parallels with Ezra’s story or their own situation. But Vox wasn’t Pegas. Vox was the heart of civilization. They wouldn’t…

“He built us a home down on the land. We thought it was best if we lived out in the forest, since no matter how big he grew he could still live off the land. I learned how to hunt and fish, and sewed us clothing. We farmed. He used magic to make me a pretty little room that kept itself clean and beautiful no matter what. It was…nice.” Cecily’s voice quivered. “Oh, forgive me, I’m babbling on to a stranger. It’s just…”

“No, I kind of want to hear it,” Rem admitted. “Do you need something, madam? A glass of water?” They could tell this story wasn’t going to have a happy ending, but Cecily did mention Galileo in the present tense. There had to be a reason for that. 

“No, no. I’m fine. You’re a nice sort.” She shook her head. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, only burdening you with sorrows. I suppose I just want to know why. And I feel only someone else like him could tell me.”

“You seem like you need to talk to someone,” Rem said quickly. “Why what?”

“…Why he left.” She turned to gaze out at the city with its flickering torches and lamps reflected by the mirrors. “He was more ill at ease with his own size as the years went on, I know. It made things awkward and difficult for us sometimes, but we were happy. At least, I thought we were. One day he broke something-some piece of furniture, it hardly matters, but it affected him deeply. He didn’t want to come near me; when pressed, he just said he worried he’d hurt me too. And then the next day, he’d left.” 

“…Oh.” Rem looked away, and silence filled the air as they thought of what to say.

“…Well.” Rem cleared their throat, finally. “I don’t know your husband. I can’t tell you what was going through his head. We’re all different, and we all cope with what happens to us differently. But…” They glanced at the difference in size between their own hands and Cecily’s, proof that they were already starting to outgrow other Sky Folk. “I can tell you what it’s like, if it would bring you comfort. To be honest, just telling someone about it would help me…”

Cecily only nodded.

“It’s fine at first. I didn’t feel any differently from anyone else. All children grow like weeds at certain points. It’s just that when others stopped, I kept going. Until people couldn’t just pretend I was like everyone else, only with silvery blood.” Rem was smiling despite the bitterness in their voice, and didn’t know why. “But I had a supportive family, and I suspect a better situation than your Galileo’s. Sure, there were things I couldn’t do because of my eventual future. But I thought, well, I’ll just become the first Colossus hero. Still plan to do that, you know! There’s hardly any history on us, only terrible, sad rumors. So I have to make it myself, don’t I? Cocky as that sounds.”

“I think it sounds wonderful,” Cecily said. 

“Ah, thank you, madam. But coming down here skewed things.” They turned to stare down at the human-scaled buildings with their walls that crumbled like paper when the monster slammed Rem into them. “The things humans build are a lot smaller and more fragile. Impressive, I have to admit! But so small. It’s hard not to feel a little distant from them. At first I dismissed it, but it’s gotten harder to ignore. And that distance is how I’m going to relate to the rest of the world sometime. Someday everything will be tiny, fragile and far away from me. Out of my reach. Knowing that, and thinking about it, makes it hard to grow attached to anything.” They bit their lip. “Well, I say that, but I’ve formed bonds down here despite every logical thought dictating I shouldn’t. And I wouldn’t leave a spouse. I don’t want you to think I’m excusing what he did. It was cruel to abandon you. Especially if he didn’t tell you…”

“He never told me anything about it. I could tell it hurt him, but he kept that to himself. I suppose to him after a while I did become ‘fragile,’ still a Pegasus Dancer even while I dug for potatoes in the dirt. I sometimes worry he stopped being able to see me as I was, afraid I’d shatter. What you’re saying about that distance and loneliness matches up.” Cecily frowned. “But love isn’t like that. I want to find a way to cure him because it seems like it would make him happy, but I would stay by his side even if he were as big as a mountain. I just wish he’d let me be there.”

Rem rested against the railing. It was easy to talk to Cecily somehow, even if she was mostly a stranger. At the same time, it was surreal hearing about their own condition from a different side. Did Rem’s family feel they were pulling away? “They might have done that to preserve their own heart. Sometimes people have to do things for their own sake. But it hurt you. It-ugh. I’m not well-versed in this.”

“You’re young yet. And even I don’t have an answer.”

“I’m 25,” Rem said, turning a little red. “Forgive me, madam. It feels a little better to finally talk about it with someone, but I doubt I’ve helped you at all.” 

Cecily staggered to her feet, Rem offering to help her. “You’ve given me a window into his heart. Angry as I am sometimes, I still want to find him, if my health ever recovers. I still love him.” 
If? “Ah, surely some time by the seaside and rest…”

A sad smile crossed Cecily’s face. “The Gourmet found me when I went searching for Galileo, and the hole in my heart was great enough to him to feed off of years after he’d forgotten about me. He took a lot out of me. And you know what happens when we don’t get enough sun.” She closed white eyelashes. “Well, it just means when we reunite, we’ll be a crone and a mountain. But I thought you’d like to know you aren’t alone, that there’s another one out there.”

“Another one.” Rem ran a hand through their bangs. “I don’t quite know what to think of it. He must be huge by now. One would think I would have heard something about him, except…”

Except Colossi were rumored to disappear sooner or later. Their stories just stopped. There were no walking towers, no living mountains with steel replacing skin in recent history because they always vanished.

Rem could only imagine their future, having no model for it. Until that moment, they’d assumed it was just a tragic pattern. The Colossus would run out of food and drink, or humans would find a way to kill them. They’d suffer exposure from the elements. But death was not the same as disappearance. Why hadn’t they looked into this before?

Because they were too busy dealing with a thousand other conspiracies to recognize there was one tied directly to their fate. 

“Rem? Are you alright?” Cecily looked up at Rem. “Do you need a refill of your glass yourself? You are a guest here.”

“Hmm? I’m…” Well, not fine. A little floored, if Rem was being honest. “Alright. Just thought of something. Business, and I promised I wouldn’t talk business right now.” Why trouble this poor woman with an unsettling possibility Rem knew nothing about? “Again, I am sorry about your husband. If I learn anything, I promise I’ll let you know. And talk to him. Talking to another Colossus would be, well, I don’t know. Helpful, perhaps.”

“I hope you do, and that it does help you.” She took a breath. “Rem. Please remember something. It may be that someday, everyone is tiny and fragile compared to you. But there’s strength in their heart, too. If my husband wanted to leave for his own sake and had told me, I would have let him. I think he wanted to do it for me, to protect me from him. But I never wanted him to pull away. He never gave me the choice about my own safety and life. You should live your life in the way that’s best for you, but don’t harm yourself for the sake of what you think others would want. The distance may not be as great as you think, and the tiny world is stronger than it looks.” 

Rem again found themselves speechless. It was true that Galileo leaving Cecily caused her a lot of pain and likely led to her being captured by the Gourmet. What would he think if he was reunited with her, learning he’d hurt her anyway? But it was different with Philomene. She was a princess from another nation-not the heir, but a princess nonetheless. She was already so small and delicate; one day Rem wouldn’t be able to see her at all.

But she’d still be there. Had Rem just been thinking about it from their own perspective instead of listening to hers? Rem couldn’t see themselves the way Philomene did, but that didn’t mean her view of them had no merit. After all, they did love her for her sharp mind.

“I’ve got quite a bit to think about,” Rem said, helping Cecily to settle again. “Thank you. And if it helps, my sister’s a physician who knows some of the best doctors in Vox. I am sure something can be arranged for you.” 

“Thank you, but I doubt the best medicine can restore years of life. I’ll settle for the sea air for now. Good night, young Investigator.”

“Goodnight, madam.” As Rem turned to leave, they gave one last glance over at the mirrors. As they did, they thought they saw a flicker of light run across their surfaces, not reflecting the moonlight but glowing as if from within. It ran across as if in ripples and waves before the mirrors fell dark again. 

It could have been their imagination. Cecily, who was resting, didn’t seem to notice. 

They would go in there and finish that letter while they worked through things. They wouldn’t ask Atropos about vanishing Colossi. That might be something they would have to investigate themselves in less dire circumstances. They would write about the plan to trap the Green Witch and wither her through Heart commands or dangerous magic, depending on how successful Philomene proved against the Heart. They’d mention if a similar plan could be used against the Rot Witch infection, and how. 

And they’d ask if anyone had heard any new information about mirrors.

Chapter Text

The days passed, and Red did her best to be good. She watched from the shadows as the Flowerling princess visited the strange-smelling cave, reporting the changes in scents and sights to an increasingly astonished Lord Germain. She watched him in his new lair as he mixed fluids and powders. She stayed up all night to keep him company when he stood over a fallen piece of the massive Dryad she'd brought back, a shard of wood with a metallic smell.  

Well, no, she hadn't managed that last bit. As the hours droned on she risked closing her eyes, and when they were open Germain was beaming next to the glass dish where the wood was soaking. He didn't seem to mind. Or notice she'd tried, for that matter. 

"Would you look at this, Red? Would you look at this? Fortune smiles upon us after all! I wondered how we'd replace the Witchwisdom algae now that the supply's cut off, but this is even better." He pointed down to the dish, where something metallic was welling up around the sample. "We truly will wearing our best for the ball. Won't we, my Dryads?"  

And Red's ear twitched as she heard something whisper from the dandelion and sunflower looming over the work table.  

"I can come too." She'd asked so many times, and each time had been denied. "You can use the silver stuff on me and make me stronger. I'll be brave and strong!"  

And as before, Lord Germain's expression seemed to soften as he walked to the edge of his work table. "I'm sure you would be, but as I said, this isn't the destiny I've laid out for you. This is my grand finale, which means you alone are my future." And then his tone turned cold. "You are to hide out in the cliffside woods and stay out of the way where no one can connect you to me. You are not to step foot in that ball, Red, and that is final." 

Red lowered her head, remembering that she was a good girl and good girls eventually earned love and family. But Germain still talked like he would die at the 'grand finale.'  

She would lose him. 

"Basil, really, I'm fine just working in the kitch-" 

Ezra fell silent as Basil pressed a finger over his lips. "You are going as an honored guest and a hero and that's final. I won't have you working yourself to death while everyone else pretends to enjoy themselves again."  

The prince was standing on a crate to adjust the silk scarf around Ezra's neck. Basil was already resplendent in a white fur-lined winter coat, black boots shining and an obsidian amulet hanging around his neck. The hem of the coat was sewn-in with patterns of hares, deer and ice crystals. According to Basil, the formal garb from Sethwhile had arrived in a package at the last minute. If Basil encountered another Snowdrop Dryad, he'd be prepared.  

As for Ezra, Salten's father let him borrow a scarf, boots, earrings and other ornaments that made the red and gold 'fancy wear' he'd salvaged from the Gourmet look a lot fancier. When he looked at himself in the mirror he couldn't help but feel a sense of disconnect. Ezra had never owned anything so fine. (Which may have been why, as Basil pointed out, he had no idea how to wear the long black scarf.)  

"I guess it has to all look right for the trap to work. And I mean, I did give my recommendations for the menu, though I think after I got so bossy and snippy at the reception crew before they may have chosen not to listen. And I'm not sure how much I should be cooking for a group when my magic keeps acting up..." Ezra sighed. "You're right. I can enjoy myself. I mean, until..." 

His glance fell on the sword at Basil's side. Despite the ornately-decorated hilt, it was clear the blade was not a purely ceremonial one. 

"That's part of why I want you down on the dance floor. I know you haven't much confidence in your fighting skills, and I'll admit you're untrained. But you're strong! I'm still in awe every time I see you lift something." Basil climbed down from the crate. "You ought to see yourself from someone else's perspective for once."  

Ezra wanted to explain that whenever he was in a crowd he imagined how every last person was seeing him in a thousand unflattering ways, but this was not the time. "Raw strength isn't really valued among the Sky Folk unless it's being applied to something productive or artistic, like construction or farming." 

"Farming is artistic?" 

"It can be. They say Loake Island has a Windmelon shaping contest that entire families stake their reputations on year after year. But, uh, that wasn't my point," Ezra said. "Just, well, that's why I don't think about it too much. It's...improper to take pride in strength and size alone. When you're the biggest kinfolk and all, it's regarded as vulgar and lazy. But, uh, I like it when you talk about my own strength like that. It's different, especially since you're so strong..." 

"I'm fast and skilled," Basil corrected him. "My grandmothers said since I was wiry and never going to get very tall, especially compared to lowlanders, I should learn how to fight in a way that took advantage of that. And it's good you're learning how to take a compliment! That's the first step." He winked, eliciting a blush from Ezra. 

Seeing Basil in such an eager, upbeat mood when he'd been so miserable after the Empress's reception made it tempting to just leave well enough alone. 'Don't call a hurricane,' so went the Mielle saying, despite Mielle being too far inland for hurricanes to reach. But he knew for all of Basil's emotional transparency, the prince was just as apt as anyone else to fake happiness. 

So Ezra's expression sobered. "Basil, have you talked to her yet?" 

Basil stopped where he stood, his voice sounding a little thin. "Well, she's been so busy lately, you know. Tending to affairs in Thumbelina and keeping an eye on Philomene while she does those experiments..."  

"Basil. Just talk to Marjorie." He crouched down to Basil's eye-level. "You're friends! You just had an argument. It's not the end of the world." 

Basil bit his lip and fidgeted with the hem of his coat. "I know. I'm being a coward, avoiding her. It's just that-well, I feel awful lashing out at her like that, but I'm still mad at her for being so paranoid about Alphonse and treating me like I'm naive. And Philomene too, if Marjorie was acting under her orders...well, I just worry if we tried to have a heart-to-heart it'll just lead to another fight, right when we don't need one." 

Ezra frowned, placing a hand over Basil's shoulder. "What makes you think that?" 

"I can't negotiate or compromise on the idea of Prince Charming, Ezra. Prince Charming has to be real, and someone had to have achieved that honor in my lifetime. Knowing someone who did it makes it seem less impossible. I know," Basil said, holding up a hand before Ezra's protest, "to you I'm already Prince Charming. And that means so much to me, from the bottom of my heart. But, oh, it's hard to explain."  

Ezra wondered if he should remind Basil about the prince's own advice regarding seeing oneself through the eyes of others, but he had a feeling this wasn't just about that. "Well," he said softly before removing his hand, "I suppose those two have enough on their minds right now without us dredging up one bad day. We just have to play our parts for everyone's sakes. But Basil? Look me in the eye and promise me you'll talk to Marjorie after this is all done with. Please. I'm an expert at pushing pain into the back of my mind and pretending it's not there. It's an easy coping mechanism but a terrible idea." 

It was hard to tell if Basil agreed, with the way he shifted his weight and sighed, but he looked up at Ezra and managed a smile anyway. "For you, I promise. If I'm to be Prince Charming I can hardly be cowardly. Now, let's prepare ourselves for a night to remember! If we're lucky, I'll finally get back at one of those Dryads while I'm at it!" He clenched his fists and grinned. "Though if we have time, you will dance with me, won't you? Sure, you're much bigger, but we'll manage." 

Somehow, the idea of ballroom dancing with Basil made Ezra's head swim more than all the many ways the plan could go wrong. "...Dance?!" 

Preparation for the ball was a confusing mess of briefings with Nautilus and Thumbelinan guards and officials, study of documents and charts, all while a servant styled Philomene's textured hair and pinned ribbons and carved shell ornaments into her long braids. It was so busy that for a few blissful hours, the princess was able to set aside her worries.  

"We'll have enough of us stationed around the perimeters to cast the spell on a weakened scale," Meramene explained as she pointed the locations out on a map. She did a remarkable job of remaining calm and steady while being fitted with the filigreed royal headdress, an ornate and by all accounts heavy tiara made of mother of pearl shell. A moth silk veil fell behind her. "Our elders and scholars have altered the spell for one specific focus. If all goes well, we'll never have to cast it. And," she added, looking to the gathered sisters, "none of you will."  

"Are you sure?" Cyramene asked, helping Elomene with her gloves. "Don't royals have a little more Green Magic in us?" 

"That's exactly why we should refrain," Philomene explained. "We'd add an extra charge that would make the spell more unpredictable. And this is only if the Heart fails. I..." She took a deep breath. "I have it as under control as I suspect I ever will. It listens to me. It's started to bloom, which means without the Rot Witch's influence it's growing stronger. I just have to hope I can use it to control the rest of her."  

"And the Dryads," one of the Thumbelinan guards added. "It's all part of her body, right? So if we restore the Heart while it's under our control..." 

"Then she should be as well," a scholar said, looking over more documents Philomene's research team had written up. "It's sound if it works." 

"Our Plan A." Meramene nodded. "And the Autumn Spell is Plan B. I have given Captain Taylor a signal in case we need to cast it, and another to the ones in charge of the spell. And in accordance with the Edict of the Threefold Escapes, our Plan C." She closed her eyes. "Evacuation." 

"What?!" Elomene stirred out of Cyramene's grip and ran up to Meramene. "But we can't leave! Not again. Our sisters still haven't come back! Momma's still sleeping!"  

"And if we stay here too long, our enemies will consume Thumbelina and Nautilus alike. We have to be prepared for any possibility." Meramene gave Elomene a gentle smile. "But we have two grand plans that need to fail first. And you don't need to worry about any of them. Just enjoy your first ball, for Mother's sake, and then go into the shelters when the time comes." 

Elomene's lip trembled, then she stood upright. "Fine, but I have a Plan D! So don't forget that."  

As the other sisters retreated for last minute preparations, Philomene found herself still staring at the documents. "I've done all I can, haven't I? I hope so. I keep thinking if I had just one more day, just one more..." 

She froze when she felt a tap on her forehead, looking up to see Meramene. It was both touching and sad to see her wearing the headdress, one she previously only associated with the Queen. And Meramene looked so tired, beautiful as ever but with new creases near her eyes that powdered pearl makeup could not disguise. 

"Philo." She used the affectionate name Philomene hadn't heard since she was a child. "You have done so much for us, so much more than you need do. It isn't your duty alone to save the kingdom. Let us share some of the burden." 

"I-I know." Somehow hearing that name on her sister's lips caused something to break within Philomene, like an overburdened dam. She felt herself tremble. "But I couldn't save us the first time. I did nothing but hide! And it took a foreign prince to break the curse. An outsider. And I keep thinking I was so close to finding out the secret myself, I was so close. And then I hate myself for it, because I fear it's pride fueling my search, not love of country, not filial piety..." 

"You believe in science. You think the natural and metaphysical philosophies can save the world. You always have," Meramene said in a soft voice. "I remember when you were still little, you tried to lug around books too big for you to read or carry just because you knew they had secrets you wanted to uncover. My curious little sister. However things turn out, I want to thank you for all you've done and tried to do. On behalf of your kingdom and Mother." The smile that crossed her face was tinged with sadness. "She will be so proud of you, the Truth-Seeking Princess. She always was." 

"Meramene..." And the dam shattered completely as Philomene found herself sobbing against Meramene's shoulder, regretting how much time she had to spend away from her own family since her return. She wasn't sure how long she stayed that way, Meramene hugging her like she had when Philomene was still little. 

"Oh, I-I cried on your dress. And your veil," Philomene stammered when she finally sat back. "I'm so sorry!" 

Meramene blinked and then laughed, the first time Philomene had heard the eldest sister laugh since her return. "It's easily fixed! Same with your makeup. Come now, let's get that touched up before Marjorie comes to take you away."  

Red was the last one left. Lord Germain had climbed into the glassy blossom of a Deep Water Lily Dryad and departed through the secret entrance beneath the old building, heading to the dark shores beneath the docks along with a green stream of Dryads. There were, as he told her, more waiting nearby for the right moment.  

And she knew she was to stay and be a good girl. But Lord Germain would never come back.  

She found herself transforming into human form so she could cry properly. It was more satisfying somehow to let the water run from her eyes and the sobs rack her body than to be left whimpering with her tail between her legs. But she always hated how useless this form felt, with its pitiful fingers instead of claws and weak, underdeveloped muscles. Being a human girl was only helpful for blending in with humans, and Red felt no kinship with them whatsoever. 

What was she supposed to do? She didn't feel ready to be Lord Germain's legacy, to carry on his studies. She was curious, but that didn't mean she understood everything he wanted her to. He'd left her with papers and documents he'd been training her to read, though they seemed like a cold, lifeless legacy. If only he had once let her call him Father. 

If only she could see his great 'grand finale' at the ball. 

You don't need to say 'if only,' Red. I'm here for you. 

Red looked up from her tear-stained, ragged red sleeves to see her mirror image, a young girl with bone-white skin and hair in a white hooded cloak. Whatever form White Hood took, Red would know those all-black eyes anywhere.  

"White Hood?" Red sniffled. "I thought you were gone. You were gone so long..." 

You didn't need me at the time. But you need me now. I'm your guardian, and I'll bring you happiness. I'll let you go to the ball. 

She could feel her heart skip a beat at the idea. "But Pa-Lord Germain said I'm to be a good girl and stay away..." 

He underestimates the danger he'll be in. You'll save him and let him live on, and he'll hail you not only as his hero, but as his beloved daughter. I'm of the Fae, Red. White's cloak floated around her, glowing faintly at the edges. I can see what is to come. 

"...I can't go to the ball. I'm not dressed right." Red gathered from the way humans reacted around her that she was an 'urchin.' She had no idea what that meant, but they associated her appearance with poverty, and poor people didn't go to balls. She knew that much. 

That's what I'm here for. Fairy guardians have spells to change appearances. They're very simple ones. My kinfolk have done this before. I'll make you a beautiful dress and cast a spell on you to ensure everyone knows upon seeing you that you belong at that ball. Though it won't work on anyone who knows you already. 

The only people who knew Red were Germain and that traitor Toad, and what were the odds he was at the ball?  

She hesitated. The last time she'd listened to White Hood instead of Germain, she'd ended up heartsick and confused. She knew that cursed Ice-Smelling Prince would be at the ball too. Maybe she'd get her revenge against him in the process, especially if he was part of the threat she was supposed to save Germain from.  

That did it. It was for his own safety and well-being. Maybe there was a good way to be disobedient. 

"I'll do it." 

Without hearing your side of the bargain? That's the Red I know and adore. You're brave and noble. With those words, White Hood's body exploded into light which shimmered around Red Hood, so bright as to obscure everything else. 

When the light cleared, she was standing on the hill overlooking the crowd gathering for the outdoor ball. When she looked down at herself she beheld a glittering white dress in place of her red hood, studded with gemstones and woven with silver thread. She resisted the urge to chew off one of the gemstones, reminding herself she would have to act human for the spell to work. 

And there was something in her hand, she realized as she opened it. It was a perfect blackish-green lily, one that carried White Hood's earthy scent. 

That's a gift I want you to bring the hero Prince Alphonse on my behalf. I'll never get to meet him myself. White Hood's voice seemed to come from the lily itself. That's all I ask of you. Now go on, brave Red. Go down there and meet your destiny. 

Chapter Text

It was just as the now-silent White Hood said. Red followed a group of humans in glittering, bright clothing, imitating their style of walking as they traversed the path down to a massive pavilion tent, its entrance marked by an arc of white-painted branches. Green and violet lanterns swayed in the sea breeze. The pavilion stood on a flat dip in the valley, with the twinkling lights of Thumbelinan Kingdom’s mountain looming in the distance. When Red turned, she could see the rippling sea beneath a cliff.

Germain’s Dryads would emerge from that sea and climb that cliff. She wanted to be there to greet him, not among these humans who smelled like flower essence and strange oils. 

When the armored guards at the gate let the group pass after they showed some kind of hand-sign, Red followed. The guard looked through her as if she weren’t even there. She tried not to fidget with the curls the spell had fit her long hair into, uncomfortable as they felt as they bounced against her neck. 

The inside was a round ballroom, everything arranged into circles. Tables of food, mostly fish and fruit, ringed a central area marked off for dancing. There were tables and platforms on the outside rising above Red’s head, where she could see Flower Folk mingling or dancing. There were uniformed guards among the humans and Flower Folk both. 

A few of the Sky giants Red had seen from time to time stood out among the crowd, though not many. Germain told her that most of them kept to themselves in the same part of town where he’d made his second laboratory, unseen in the forgotten storage room of a Sky-populated tavern. ‘The large often overlook the small,’ Germain had once instructed her. ‘When you’re in human form, use this to your advantage.’ 

The one standing not far from the entrance caught her eye. The giant was huge even among giants, at least a head taller than the others with a long, lean build and black hair in a thick braid. They wore a long, wrap-like gown (or robe?) and gauze in their hair. As Red looked all the way up at the giant, unable to help herself, they made eye contact. The giant blinked, smiled and gave a little wave before turning their gaze back to the center of the ballroom. 

Red ducked behind a tall human, not sure what to do with that sort of reaction. She never got it when she was out on the streets in human form. It was always pity or disgust. Were Enlightened beings like that, willing to change the way they treated others based on what they wore alone?

Well, Germain wasn’t. That’s what mattered.

Seeing that giant look into the center led Red to do the same. The centerpiece of the ballroom was quite a sight to behold, a sculpture of great white flowers studded with red roses. They were silk, she could tell from the lack of scent. And beneath that, some large shape covered in cloth. It could have just been a platform…

No. Red knew that smell. The thing Princess Philomene had been experimenting with in the cave was in there. 

Germain hadn’t told her everything about what it was, except that the princess had found success where he had failed, much to his displeasure. The intense urge to knock it right over then and there and ruin whatever terrible plot the wicked princess had in mind came to her. It would be so easy. They’d catch her and likely lock her up, but Germain would be safer. 

But he didn’t want to be safer. He seemed to revel in the challenge, in ways Red couldn’t understand. And something in her balked at such destructive behavior in such a place. There’d be violence soon enough; why rush it?

She kept looking up at the great walls of the tent, waiting for an interruption, when none came. Maybe Lord Germain would change his mind and decide to live another day, coming back to Red to tell her he loved her after all and wanted her as his daughter. That seemed so unlikely. Red knew she was deluding herself with such ideas, and Lord Germain had spoken to her before about her penchant for self-delusion. It wasn’t healthy, he said. 

There were so many smells, too many great forms looming around her, bright colors and sounds. She didn’t belong here. She could just apologize to White and flee, obey Lord Germain after all. She should have done that from the start. It was too much, too much…

“Are you alright, miss?”

Red didn’t realize she was covering her eyes and kneeling until that voice snapped her out of it. It was low and rumbling, hesitant. She looked up to see a huge pair of gold eyes looking down at her from a dark-skinned, round face. A giant was bent over her with concern, hands clasped in front of his belly. 

She stared up at him, reminding herself that to everyone who didn’t recognize her she’d just be a normal human girl. She tried to think of something to say.

“Oh dear,” the giant said, standing up and waving his hands in front of him. “I didn’t mean to scare you like that! It’s just, well, I hate crowds too. And where are your guardians? The adults who came in with you?”

Adults? She hadn’t thought of that, and the humans she’d followed in were long lost from view. “I, uh…” Her human voice felt scratchy. 

“Ohhhh dear. It’s fine, just…stay here. I’ll notify one of the guards and they’ll help you out.” He lumbered off towards one of the uniformed humans.

No, no, that wasn’t what she wanted! She’d drawn undue attention to herself, and now the giant thought she was some kind of lost child belonging to a rich human. Once he’d turned his back to her, she darted towards one of the cocktail tables, her flight instinct kicking in, and hid under the tablecloth.

Good. She was invisible here, or would be at least long enough for Lord Germain to show up. Where was he? This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. She still had to give Prince Alphonse that flower, or White Hood might punish her. All that and she still hadn’t found the prince who smelled of roses.

A gloved hand lifted the cloth as Red smelled mint and ice. No, it couldn’t be.

“Oh, there you are! See, Ezra? I told you, you should have just brought her to the guards.” Prince Basil looked over his shoulder to a huge pair of legs behind him, ones Red recognized as belonging to that nosy giant.

“Sorry! I’m not experienced with children or this sort of thing,” Ezra said, hanging back. “I’ll let you talk to her. I think I’m intimidating her by accident.”

Red stared directly at Prince Basil, her mother’s killer who had once shown her such puzzling compassion even as she’d threatened him. He clearly didn’t recognize her human form. 

She could take him down so easily. He was vulnerable like this, his neck in view. She could change into a wolf in a matter of seconds, tear his throat out before the giant knew what had happened. She could, so why didn’t she? 

“Maybe I should get her something to eat and drink,” Ezra said. “She might be overwhelmed. Once she’s calmed down we can probably get her to sit with the guards for a bit until they locate her family.” 

“Right! Good thinking, Ezra. Thanks.” Basil turned back to Red, kneeling in front of her. “It’s going to be alright! I know it must be a little scary, being on your own like this. You needn’t worry. Prince Charming is here!”

Red rested her chin on her knees. For some reason she couldn’t name, she wanted to see what the Icy-Hearted Prince had to say. “Prince Charming?”

Basil blinked and then laughed. “So you don’t know? Him! Near the Empress.” He pointed up to the far end of the rotunda where a woman in an elaborate mask and headdress sat on a great chair, flocked by a cloaked human in black and a giant in shining white armor. 

Just in front of them, with his back to the Empress, stood Prince Alphonse in a white uniform with a red cloak behind him. It was the prince who smelled of roses, the one who had broken the Green Witch’s first spell. He was the one White Hood had a present for. But how could she get all the way over there with Basil watching her? 

“See? Alphonse is a true Prince Charming,” Basil said, ignorant of Red’s foiled plans. “He’s going to keep us all safe. The grown-ups have explained to you what to do when the signal goes off, right?” He frowned. “Though, bringing a child here in the first place is a little strange. Well, if we can’t find them, I’m here. I won’t let anything happen to you, my lady! You have an in-training Prince Charming’s word.”

“And some cheese and apples. Children like those things, right? I did when I was little.” The giant returned carrying a small plate and porcelain cup in his relatively huge hands, holding them with surprising delicacy out to Red. She took them both, trying to remember that humans ate with their hands when no utensils were allowed and drank by tilting up the cup. The cheese, at least, she devoured, rind and all. It was hard and sharp, her favorite kind. 

Basil chuckled. “Guess you were hungry. Salten sliced those apples, didn’t he? Their shape is a little, um, creative!”

“And he complained all the way,” Ezra grumbled. “Anyway, one of us should stay with her. I’m sorry, Basil, I know you wanted to dance…”

“I can dance any time with you. And courage is more than just pretending to have a good time, right?” The second part the prince said with a bit of a whisper, though Red’s sharp ears heard it. 
This was the second time she’d encountered Prince Basil, and he was nothing like she imagined him. Certainly he wasn’t the merciless killer Lord Germain had described to her. Had he lied?

Nothing made sense. Germain lied to others, but not to her. Or if he did, it was always for her own good, for the sake of her education. It would be ungrateful to suspect him. 

And yet, as she saw the prince kneeling in front of her in compassion for the second time, she found it so much harder to imagine her avenging her mother against him. There was the urge to ask him about it, though doing so would reveal her identity immediately and the spell’s effect wouldn’t protect her. 

He was Germain’s enemy. How could Germain’s enemies be so kind? 

“I can come out now,” she said with a mumble. The table was starting to feel so dark and lonely.

As Basil extended his hand again, she hesitated before taking it and letting him help her back up. He felt cold beneath the insulating gloves, standing out among the humans with his wintery formal clothing. As a faint ocean breeze blew through an open flap of the tent, he shivered and pulled a scarf around his face. 

That’s right. When he’d encountered her in her wolf form, he’d taken off one of those gloves. If he was still wearing them now, they must have been important to him the way her red cloak was. The cloak that had vanished and transformed into that strange white dress. 

“See? Drink some water and you’ll feel much better,” Basil said. “Not too fast, though! To tell you the truth, I get nervous too. When I went to meet the Empress for her arrival ceremony, I was so scared I very nearly threw up.”

“You were scared? Of her?” Red again glanced at the Empress. She looked strange, sitting still as a statue and making slow, deliberate movements when she did, but the armored giant and the cloaked figure struck her as more obviously dangerous. She wasn’t close enough to detect any scents from them. 

“Silly, right? She’s just a person like anyone else. But something about the situation was just too much for me. And I’m an adult! Uh, not that it means I should be any braver,” he added, looking down at her. “Kids can be incredibly brave. I’m sure you are, right?”

“I…” Was she? “No. I’m scared for someone…”

“…Oh. You mean because-right. Well, like I said, it’ll be okay. You’re here to cheer someone on?” 
Red nodded. The urge to tell someone, anyone something was growing stronger, and this was an out.

Basil pulled down his scarf to show a smile. “Then I’m sure knowing that will make them fight more valiantly than ever, so they can come back to you. But really, they shouldn’t have left you unattended in the first place! The very irresponsibility of it all.”

Why was Basil so upset about Red being alone? “But it was for my own good. I was supposed to stay…”

“Is that so.” Basil’s eyes narrowed, though not at her. “Well, if they try to blame you, I’ll have words. Say, what’s your name? I’m sorry, I never asked, which is terribly rude of me. I’m Basil Yunen, Prince of Sethwhile. One of them,” he added. 

“Red…” Wait, how could she tell him her name? She silenced herself instead.

“Red? That’s all you want to use right now? That’s fine.” Basil looked around and then waved. “Oh, Ezra’s here. Listen, he’s got Sergeant Bell with him. She’s a nice lady and she’s going to help find your family or make sure you get somewhere safe…” 

So, this was how it ended. The guards would find her, learn she hadn’t come with anyone, and that would be that. She wouldn’t get to prove her worthiness to Lord Germain, and he would never call her ‘daughter.’ She’d fail to fulfill her promise to White Hood, who would abandon her. And yet, how strange that two people she seemed to know so well for so long had strange requirements for their love and approval, when her hated enemy offered her kindness without condition. 

She needed time to consider such contradictions. She was not to have it.

The ground quaked softly, echoed by a rumbling in the distance. The very tall giant stood up straight, making a hand signal to one of the guards. The rest started mobilizing, the humans around her rushing into positions or places of safety. So they were expecting Germain, as he thought. She couldn’t see what the Flower Folk were doing, though she thought she detected a whisper of “formation.”

The guard Basil referred to as Sergeant Bell sighed, looking down at Red. “Looks like it’s showtime. I’ll get you to the shelters, alright? Hold on.” She lifted Red gently and moved to hand her off to another guard.

That was when the roof of the tent tore off. 

An enormous shape blotted out the light of the moon, then another and another. The biggest Dryads Red had ever seen peered in, glaring down at the inhabitants. They all dripped with strange black goo even Lord Germain couldn’t eliminate, what he identified as contamination from the Rot Witch. And yet running through their veins was a silvery substance, the same kind she’d seen him extract from the remains of the Cathedral Tree Dryad.

“Well,” Lord Germain’s voice boomed through a crystal embedded in the big, oozing tree Dryad. “After you’ve gone through all this trouble for me I can hardly fail to show.” 

The black blossom wriggled in Red’s hand, impatient. She squeezed it tight, and waited.

Chapter Text

Lord Germain couldn’t have arrived at a better time. 

The Guards of both cities followed their orders like clockwork. Many escorted the guests into shelters, guests who had bravely and knowingly served as decoys to keep up the charade. From her perch on a platform, Philomene watched an immaculately-dressed and decorated Rem reach for a steel spear with a jagged blade as long as they were tall, the giant serving as the first line of defense against the biggest Dryads. 

And they were, Philomene noticed, much bigger than expected. 

“Leave it to Germain to do nothing by halves, one supposes.” She let a Thumbelinan guard help her onto Melchior, eyes on that centerpiece. This was the most dangerous part, where she would have to fly through the resulting chaos of battle on her own. She couldn’t draw any more attention to herself. Nevermind how Lord Germain seemed to see her as some kind of rival, whether she accepted the idea or not.

“People of Thumbelina and Nautilus, Flowerling, human and giant,” Lord Germain declared through that projection jewel. “And of course, Your Imperial Eternity, you honor me with your presence.” It was impossible to see from this distance where he was hiding on the huge rose-shaped Dryad peering down with its one eye, but Philomene had a feeling he was somewhere on that one. It was the most prominent. “I did not think you cared so much for the lives of the small.”

The Empress stood her ground, surprising Philomene, merely turning her head to stare up at the rose. Meanwhile, the white and black Riders stood in front of her, the knight brandishing an ornate sword with rings hanging from the hilt and the human clutching a long, smooth-carved staff. They remained silent and masked as the Empress spoke, her tone even and dispassionate as ever.

“We take great interest in our subjects and their allies. We also find that which is exceptional to be quite interesting. We hope your ‘performance’ proves to be a valiant effort before your inevitable loss, Lord Germain, though we suspect we shall be disappointed in the end.” 

Philomene squinted. She doubted Empress Valerian was much less vainglorious than Germain, just part of an established power instead of a trouble-making outsider. Then again, perhaps the Empress was just making a show of mocking the scientist in order to give her people more confidence. Well, banter wasn’t Philomene’s concern. She had another job.

“Melchior,” she whispered to the moth as she gripped the thick fur on his thorax. “Go. I believe in you!’

Toad was starting to look forward to his trial, as life in one of the Empire’s prison camps or mines might at least beat the monotony of his imprisonment in Nautilus. Then he’d remember the rumors of what happened when the Empire made an enemy ‘disappear,’ and shuddered. Would they make a public example of him and condemn him to whatever fate that was for helping to endanger two kingdoms? Thumbelina wouldn’t intervene on his behalf. They were really willing to let Libra handle one of their own traitors.

That was the ultimate punishment all City-Colonies would use for traitors. They were stripped of their citizenship and protections. Toad knew why; an insecure City-Colony was an unsafe one. He’d once dreamed of ruling Thumbelina Kingdom as king-for-life, a descendant of the mighty draconic salamanders. Now they’d left him to his fate at the hands of humans.

This is just desserts.

That again! Toad stood up in his cell and paced. The giant had cursed him with some manner of infection of the brain. The strange, pudding-like dessert Ezra the Hearth Mage had offered him did at least seem to stabilize Toad; he was in human form, but at least it was fixed, the constant discomfort and unease of a body trying to transform stilled. If he was to be Avery Toad, Human, for the rest of his life, so be it; better than being trapped in-between. But since he’d eaten the enchanted food, Toad kept having strange thoughts at the wrong time. He didn’t deserve this! He was deceived by the Witches. He was wronged and used as a pawn.

He’d used everyone around him for his own goals and abandoned them when it suited him. He’d knowingly betrayed those he once called friends. He’d lied.

There! There it went again. What a terrible nuisance! It would be just Toad’s luck to be cured by unpredictable magic. 

He needed a distraction, which led him again to the bars of his window. His cell overlooked the sloping valley that led to the sea, the lights of Natilus flickering off and on. That night they were dwarfed by the lights of the ball, a tent with its roof torn and flapping in the wind. 

There were things crawling into it, innumerable things emerging from the sea.

“What’s this?” He leaned over to watch. In the meantime, the awful little voice in his head kept telling him things he didn’t want to hear, and he kept ignoring it.

Dryads of all sizes crawled in to join their enormous brethren, knocking over tables and swarming the ball. Human and Flowering guard alike responded with swords and crossbows drawn, the Flowerling soldiers brandishing lit torches and attacking in swarms. Philomene spotted Ezra to a far end, standing protectively in front of civilian humans like a great wall. Basil had charged right into battle atop Aurora, his shout gleeful; this was probably the only part of the night he’d been looking forward to at all, save for the food and a dance.

Marjorie gave Philomene a nod as she stood by the other princesses, knife in hand.

Melchior bobbed and weaved in a way that made Philomene a little nauseous, evading vines, spines, flames and swords. She held on tight, catching glimpses of the battle around her in the process. There was Rem, the giant-among-giants serving as the front line defense against the biggest Dryads and likely unable to see Philomene at all. That struck her as for the best; she didn’t want to be a distraction. There was Captain Taylor barking orders to soldiers, the ‘head’ of a Dandelion Dryad falling to the ground, the fabric of the tent tearing apart. The Flower Folk remained in their guarded positions, waiting for the signal Philomene hoped she would never have to give. Already she could sense the tingle of magnified Green Magic; they were pre-preparing the spell, just in case.

Melchior approached the centerpiece after what felt like an eternity of high-speed flight, diving in for a landing, when a projectile whizzed through the air close enough to shred Philomene’s dress chain behind her. She clung to the moth, ignoring how fast her heart was beating, as he landed on the floor next to the centerpiece and crawled under the cloth.

“Did…good?” He sounded exhausted, his voice distorted and his wings trembling. Melchior was not the sort of moth built for speed, even with the enhancements Lord Germain had forced upon him as an early ‘experiment.’ “Did good, Philo?”

Philomene gently stroked his head as she climbed down, leaning on her cane for support. “You did very good,” she reassured him with a whisper, lowering her head. “Thank you, Melchior. Please rest here.”

“Rest,” Melchior chirped, folding his wings. He was clearly too tired to move any closer. 
Giving one last look behind her, Philomene made her way to the big glass cylinder concealed by the fabric. Inside the Heart loomed above her, filling its enclosure like-well, like a pickled vegetable, she thought. Her coaxing, talk and experimentation had gradually healed it of its sores and infection, and it now resembled an enormous purple onion with white roots and tiny purple flowers. She wasn’t sure why simply talking to the Heart won it over, but it seemed to work. Now it was time to win over the rest of the Green Witch.

She settled herself on a weighted pulley elevator built of wood and twine and tugged a rope, triggering her rise up to the top of the container. The sounds of battle were muffled to her now, though the vibrations of human and Sky feet against the ground thundered and quaked beneath her. She ignored them, limping to the head of the plant where the tiny purple and white flowers seemed to reach out to her, the Heart’s attempt to imitate a Vine interface socket. 

Philomene took a deep breath and grasped one of the sockets, letting it link up with her. 

There was no being pulled into the mind of the Heart this time; that hadn’t happened since the first encounter, when Philomene had chased away some part of the Rot Witch infection. But the Heart responded nonetheless, tendrils and roots ripping the cloth right off and others reaching out and up towards the Dryads. Philomene concentrated, conveying with all her conscious thought one message. Come. Come back. Rejoin.

Nothing happened.

No. This had to work! She repeated her command, forcing it through the vine-like interface. Come back. Rejoin. Accept the Heart. Obey.

“What’s this?” 

Lord Germain’s voice startled Philomene, so deep was she in her concentration. The din of the chaos around her felt more like a distant buzzing. It even took her a few seconds to react to the fact that the big rose Dryad was looming directly above her, staring down with its one eye. “Well,” Germain said, “I didn’t expect you to bring that here.” 

So he was onto her after all. So much for taking him by surprise. But why was that Dryad still listening to him instead of the Green Witch? Why wasn’t she able to call the rest of the Witch’s body from that sea cave?! 

“What are you doing with my prototype, Princess Philomene?”

She froze, and her concentration broke. The tiny flower at her hand wilted away.


“The first Dryad, that is. Initial attempts are never quite as good as the final product. I couldn’t get it to do anything, even after I tried hiding it and letting it grow on its own. And once the Rot Witch infected it,” Germain said, “well! I’d written it off as a lost cause. Yet here you’ve gotten it to bloom and obey you! I’m too astonished to take too much offense at you doing what I could not.” 

It was a prototype. Toad had lied to her, led her to a red herring to save his own skin. Of course he had! How could she have expected anything else? And she’d been so desperate for a perfect solution, one answer to a complicated, terrible question that she’d embraced it wholesale. All so she could be the one to save the day after all. 

“But I’m afraid I’ll have to claim that now.” As Germain spoke, the rose Dryad extended one huge, spine-fingered hand big enough to encompass the entire false Heart and crush Philomene in the process. She couldn’t move or even speak in protest; her body wouldn’t obey. All she could do was hope Marjorie would know to give the signal.

The engulfing darkness never came. It was cut short by the sound of a blade moving through the air, followed by a screeching and a rain of silvery goo from above.

BACK OFF.” When Rem shouted, their voice really did fill the entire room, echoing in Philomene’s ears. Their hair was streaming around them in disarray, and a wound on their arm dripped with the same silver liquid running through the biggest Dryads. Philomene stared up at them, this living mountain who had once again come to her rescue.

“Princess!” Rem had forgotten to speak softly, a mistake Philomene was perfectly willing to forgive even if they were borderline incoherent to her while yelling. “It’s fine! Do what you have to do. I’m here…!” 

Before Philomene could answer, a human-sized pair of gloved hands swooped up to grab her and clutch her protectively against fur. Philomene recognized the uncanny chill at the center of those gloves, looking up to see Basil atop Aurora. “Sorry to pick you up without permission,” he stammered. He was soaked with green plant goo and breathing heavily. “We’ll keep you safe!”

“Basil…” But what good was it to keep her safe when she’d failed so drastically? When she’d put her own people in danger? Resting against his hands, she saw there was only one thing to do. 

She tore off the spider silk bow trailing her dress, or what was left of it, and tossed it up in the air.
Marjorie saw the signal as it floated up, and responded with a signal in turn. She flashed her knife so that it reflected the torch-light upwards, a sign that Plan A had failed and it was time for Plan B to take effect. They’d need Philomene to cast the spell as well; the royalty of a Colony City generally held a stronger concentration of Green Magic. 

“Basil,” Philomene told the prince, reminding herself that sitting around blaming herself was not a productive act. “I need you to get me to the corner near the Empress. Can you do that?” 

“Easily! We can pull that off, eh, girl?” Basil rubbed Aurora’s ears, eliciting a grunt from the big white bear. For the second time in less than an hour Philomene found herself riding at a much higher speed than she cared for, though unlike Melchior-who, to Philomene’s relief, was resting on Basil’s shoulder-Aurora didn’t bother weaving a path. She made one, roaring and swatting away any Dryad in her path.

Until she stopped short, snorting and roaring at the sight of a Dryad with blossoms oozing ice and slush. It was the Snowdrop, the one that had come close to permanently triggering Basil’s freezing curse the last time.

“You’re kidding me!” Basil recoiled, pulling up his scarf. “Did he know to send one of these?! I need a torch…” 

“I’ve got it!” Philomene saw the flash of a cape as Prince Alphonse rushed in, looking just as ragged from the battle as everyone else. “Basil, I’ll take her over! You get as far away from this one as you can so we don’t risk a relapse.” 

“I can handle it,” Basil protested, though he seemed to second-guess himself immediately. “…No, you’re right. Too much of a risk. I’ve got other opponents to conquer! Alphonse, are you sure you’ll be safe?”

Alphonse grinned as he held his hands out. “I’ll be fine. Princess, if I may…?”

After all the suspicions she had about Alphonse, Philomene was a little reluctant to entrust her entire life literally into his hands. But Marjorie’s investigations hadn’t turned up more than strange behavior, and maybe he really was strange. At any rate, she had little choice but to transfer herself from one prince to another. Basil freezing was the last thing they needed at that moment. She was a little astonished to learn that Alphonse knew about Basil’s curse; then again, they were friends.
Alphonse at least was much closer to where the Empress had retreated, her Riders and strangely stoic entourage protecting and shielding her. Just behind her was the platform where the other princesses waited, gathering to cast the spell. Alphonse rushed her over, turning around only when he heard a shout and strangely enough, a growl.

“Hey! That’s that kid!” A shocked Sergeant Bell pointed as a young girl in a white dress ran fearlessly towards Alphonse, moving faster than a human child ought to. Behind them she saw Bell and other soldiers shouting at a rookie, though Philomene couldn’t make out what they were saying. 

The girl grabbed onto Alphonse’s pant leg, breathing heavily. “I’m sorry,” she said in a hoarse voice that had the softest hint of a growl beneath it. “I brought it! This is White Hood’s present.” She held up a black flower in one hand, her dress somehow still immaculate and glittering white. 

“…Ah! Thank you. Now get yourself someplace safe,” Alphonse said, curiously acting as if he expected this strange event. He reached down with his free hand to pluck the flower, and that was when Philomene noticed how the blossom writhed with black goo in its veins and smelled of damp mold and rot.

It happened before she could do a thing about it. He raised the blossom to the rose on his chest, a rose that she only then noticed was entirely unharmed. It wriggled and seemed to slither into the core of the rose, turning it a jet black and withering the two leaves around it. 

The same change rapidly spread across all the Dryads, a greenish-black rot and mold rising in them from the roots up, their forms twisting and warping. She heard Lord Germain protesting in consternation as even the enormous Rose Dryad started to wither, then spread its thorns rapidly all around like bars in a cage. The Dryads were corrupting, growing into one another, changing and warping, forming a great black forest of mushroom-sprouting, goo-oozing rot around them. 

Alphonse held her in his hand, smirking down at her as the true Heart of the Green Witch pulsed at his chest.

Chapter Text

It all erupted around Alphonse.

The Dryads writhed in panic, screaming with voices like dying birds as mold overtook them and ropes of white fungus forced their bodies together. The biggest ones split apart, rotting in the middle, and spread their mass outward around the remains of the ballroom. The big rose Dryad hung at the center of a dome of thorns, its eye glazing over as it stared down at a rapidly forming forest of fungus and decay. Overgrown, swollen roots sprouted up like trees, disrupting the crowds who rapidly grew invisible in a grey fog dimly lit by glowing green mushrooms. Thorns obscured the Empress and her entourage from view as the Riders shielded her with their body, the last glimpse Basil got of them.

And Basil barely registered it, because he was staring at Alphonse, who stood unconcerned as black thorns encircled his body. He looked calm, even serene, holding a silent Philomene in one hand while the girl in the white dress stared up in astonishment and backed up against a big mushroom. 
Despite everything, even when he was at the core of chaos he himself had unleashed, Alphonse still looked princely. He held his head high even as his blood trickled from spine-inflicted wounds, and smiled at Basil.

“What’s wrong, Basil?”

Basil couldn’t answer the question, his throat dry. He could feel the cold creeping over him, and yet couldn’t even shiver in response, as if his entire body was trying to give up on fighting it. It was just impossible to process what had just happened. 

This was another Alphonse, replaced at an opportune moment by an evil copy. Or he’d been brainwashed by the Rot Witch, more thoroughly under her power than Toad had been. Or he was imagining this, which was why he felt so numb. He was dreaming after passing out at a very inconvenient time. Wouldn’t be the first, would it? 

Alphonse said something to the little girl and then to the plants around him, but Basil couldn’t hear it. Or he did, but it was garbled, nonsense to a mind that refused to hear it. Until he did, as Alphonse turned to address him.

“Oh, wow. You must have really bought into the Prince Charming idea. I mean, you said as much, but I had no clue how deep it went!” Alphonse laughed, the same awkward, sheepish laugh he always had when faced with flattery. “I thought everyone else was just going along with it all, but you! You believed in me?”

Basil’s head spun, his fingers numbing even under the gloves. A sharp pain dug into his chest, like a long needle being pushed through him, and he nearly collapsed off of Aurora’s back as he doubled over. What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he answer Alphonse? What was going on with his body?

He knew this pain. It was the harshest, frozen touch, cold so strong it burned. When he felt it in his hands and ears it was a warning sign, time to seek body heat or even fire immediately. But he was huddled against Aurora, her heat unable to reach him. And he’d never felt it from his chest before. 

He forced himself to look back up at Alphonse, who was staring at him in confusion and possibly even concern. That seemed to fall away quickly, as the false Prince Charming sighed. “This is quite a time for you to have an episode now! But just as well. Not that I care what happens to me, but being eaten by your bear isn’t on the agenda. Just wait one second…” 

He held up his hand where Philomene sat, her posture slumped, just as silent as Basil and possibly as numb. He could see her tiny form shaking, silhouetted by the ghoulish green light. A stalk sprouted from the domed ceiling, bulging unnaturally at the end and splitting to reveal a withered parody of a blossom. It stretched downward, opened its grey petals, and swallowed up Philomene before Basil’s eyes. 

Basil wasn’t sure of the exact moment he could move again, or even what had paralyzed him in the first place. Shock, perhaps, mental or physical. He knew he still felt himself freezing from within as he rushed at Alphonse. One moment, he was atop Aurora, the next Alphonse was parrying his blade with an alarmed expression.

“Where is she? What did you do with her?!” With every word Basil shouted, he felt it reverberate in his chest where the burning-needle-chill lingered like an old wound. Wrath, apparently, kept the rest of him warm. 

Alphonse glared and managed to shove Basil’s blade away. His sword skills, at least, weren’t a lie. “She crossed the Rot Witch. Now she faces the consequences.” 

“Alphonse, what is this? What’s the meaning of all this?! I could take you being a fake,” Basil said, though he knew he was lying. “But why are you-why are you working with-you saved Thumbelina!”

“From the Green Witch, yes. The Rot Witch thought she was getting a little big for her britches, so she backstabbed her own sister using me.” He shrugged. “I really don’t care what went on between them. But it works out for me.” As he held his hands out, the vines around his body obeyed him, writhing like tentacles and diving to stab at Basil. 

Basil narrowly avoided having an eye taken out by one, cutting it right off, only to be pinned down by others. The thorns seemed to grow and dig right through his coat into his skin. Behind him, Aurora roared, ready to lunge in defense of her master.

“Aurora, no! Stay!” Basil remembered all too well what happened to Mother Wolf when she tried to eat the Rot Witch, and he had no way of knowing if the Rot Witch’s new body was just as poisonous. “Go-go find the others. Go find Marjorie. Find Marjorie! GO!” 

The bear growled in protest, but she understood the orders ‘stay,’ ‘go’ and ‘Marjorie.’ And Marjorie would be with the other princesses. She ran off, tearing through brambles with her claws. 

That left Basil staring up at Alphonse, the center of a swarm of brambles himself. “Well, that was heroic of you. You know, if Prince Charming were a real thing, I’d think you really were a good candidate for being one someday.” 

Basil tore away at brambles with his bare hands and slashed with his blade. “Prince Charming is real. And all those people believed in you. They saw you as their hero. They sang your praises! Why, what reason could you ever have to-” 

The vines struck all at once, wrapping around Basil and pinning him in place as they dug into his skin. Basil struggled to free his arms to no avail; the vines solidified, hard as wood. 

“The Rot Witch needed a lot of fear to recover herself and take full control of her sister. And nothing provokes fear and mistrust like a betrayal at the moment of triumph, right? Thanks for buying into that.” Alphonse smiled as he said that, an expression that warped into a glare. “But that’s not what you’re asking, are you? You want to know why me. Why Prince Charming would do such a thing.”

“I want to know why my friend would do such a thing! I argued with Marjorie on your behalf, I trusted you, everyone did…!” Basil, still pinned and bound in place, stirred and pulled away only for the thorns to dig in deeper. 

Alphonse seemed to find this amusing, holding his hands out casually. “I never asked you to be my friend. I’m doing you a favor, you know.”

“A favor?!”

“Do you know what happened to Martine, Basil? Libra took it from us, in the guise of charity.” Alphonse narrowed his eyes, his faux-easygoing demeanor gone again. “We were devastated by famine and a flood, and Libra showed up with an offer to fix everything for our poor starving little city-state if we signed ourselves over to the Empire. My father wasn’t a spineless coward like the old royals of Nautilus, but my uncle was. He killed everyone who supported my father and the Empire pardoned him, saying he acted for the greater good of the state. My sister and I were just children, under the thumb of a wicked uncle. Surely Prince Charming would save someone like that, wouldn’t they?” 

Basil’s hands shook. It was getting harder to push against those brambles and vines, and while he couldn’t feel much outside of the chill in his chest, he could tell he was bleeding. “I don’t understand. That’s awful, but what does it have to do with-”

“THERE IS NO PRINCE CHARMING. Nobody came for us, nobody helped us, everyone sang Libra’s praises for saving us and denounced my father as a traitor because they were good citizens. And if I had known that from the start, I wouldn’t have expected it.” He pointed his sword at Basil like an accusing finger. “Doesn’t it hurt to have your trust broken like this? Trust you only ever had in the first place because of a-a fairy tale? But it’s for the best. I broke your illusion. You’ll grow past this.”

Grow past this. Basil’s passion was a childhood fancy to Alphonse, just as they seemed to be to Marjorie. And yet, the most evident proof Basil had of anyone becoming Prince Charming had been…Alphonse.

“…You wanted to kill the idea. That’s why you’re doing this.”

“There’s no magical perfect heroes going around saving the innocent and helpless. There never was. They never even found the first Prince Charming’s grave, and who wants to idolize a hero who disappeared in the end anyway?” Alphonse raised the spines around him, curling them into the shape of a scorpion’s tail. “You’re a good person, Basil, why didn’t Prince Charming save you from your curse? Why should someone like you have to save yourself from something that’s killing you? That’s why you wanted to become Charming, isn’t it?” 

“It…” No, Basil had never resented a theoretical Prince Charming for not showing. He’d spent winters longing for Prince Charming to come, but those dreams had gradually morphed into becoming that prince and saving others, hadn’t they? He’d never given up. Alphonse had given up. 

It hit Basil that Alphonse as he was, so consumed by spite and pain that he would rather kill an idea, was perhaps just the sort a real Prince Charming would save. So why couldn’t Basil imagine reaching out to Alphonse? Why was it so unimaginable to him, so vile?

In fact, Alphonse was holding a hand out to him. “The Rot Witch would have you, you know. She told me so just now. She could take away all the pain your curse gives you, make it all stop. I bet nothing makes sense right now, does it? It’s fine. I went through the same thing. And then I stopped caring. Apparently that’s why she could use my blood to seal the Green Witch.” He smiled. “The blood of the indifferent and nihilistic is toxic to the ambitious. Come on. Prince Charming can’t save you, but-”

The vines around Basil froze solid and shattered with a loud crack.

He struck before Alphonse could say anymore. Tearing free of the broken vines, Basil acted on instinct, swift and accurate, swiping his sword across Alphonse’s chest. A dead leaf blew as the rose bloom fell to the ground, intact. 

“…You…what have you done? What have you done?!” Alphonse held a hand to the tear in his coat, dripping with blood where the blade had just grazed it. The vines around him had withered into dust, while the rose extended ugly, oversized roots right into the ground.

Basil took no more notice of it, swinging his sword again. Alphonse, severely weakened without the rose, defended and evaded as best he could in the narrow chamber of vines around him. Wide-eyed with alarm, Alphonse took off running through the hole Aurora had made, with Basil running after him.

The cold pain in his chest throbbed, but he could ignore it. He could even get used to it. Already he could feel his senses focusing, his grief freezing away. He didn’t need to feel anything right now. It was for the best. 

He could barely remember what he’d been so upset about anyway. He just needed to kill Alphonse and everything would come right back to him. 

Chapter Text

Scarlet Sun perched on Dark Midnight’s shoulder, thankful for the scrap of cloth he wore over his mouth and under his mouse-skull mask. He whispered to his fellow Rider more out of propriety than necessity; with all the chaos erupting around them, it was unlikely anyone would hear a Flowerling. 

“Did she know she’d encounter two of them, not just one?”

“Ah, who knows with her? She does love her secrets.” Midnight tilted his head in lieu of a shrug, which might have unbalanced Scarlet. “And her ‘probabilities.’” 

Both looked on at the Empress, standing just on the other side of a shimmering black portal. Midnight kept it open for her, an effort that brought sweat to his brow and made his hands shake. For all of his confidence, Scarlet observed, Midnight was not so young anymore. 

The Empress herself stared impassively up at withered vines and warped brambles reaching out to her but not quite touching her. Dark Midnight’s magic obscured her from the view of onlookers, that little pocket dimension he was conjuring up keeping her safer than the strongest walls. Yet she stood on the edge of it, the barrier between reality and unreality. 

Her hands lay at her side. Tiny threads of gold, almost invisible in the dim light, stretched out from her headdress and hair towards the vines. One very nearly touched a Witch tendril; the tendril recoiled as if burnt. 

“Assessment: the two Other Ones are trying to merge. More precisely, one is attempting to devour the other. These two are unstable, and their Fae nature is incompatible with our own. They cannot be incorporated into our design.” Valerian spoke without looking upon Midnight and Scarlet; she didn’t need to. “Our Scarlet Sun, we wish for you to observe how the individuals in question deal with them and assist them where necessary. If they fail, follow further instructions.” 

“My Eternity.” Scarlet bowed, glad to be given a purpose. He had to admit he was feeling a bit useless, with Bright Morning out there showing off. “Well, old friend,” he added to Midnight as he climbed the gecko’s back, “I dive into fear itself! If you suddenly sense there is less beauty in the world, you know what has become of me.” 

“Less hot air, maybe.” Midnight stood still for Scarlet’s sake, his trailing black cloak serving as a fine path down to the floor. 

Scarlet spent but a few scant moments down there on the ground, urging Leopard onto one of the long ropes of dead vines hanging low enough to reach. The gecko flicked its tongue and climbed up without protest as Scarlet reached for his belt, pulling out a glass vial and giving it a shake.

Ezra held up a broken table, using it as a makeshift shield to deflect the strikes of spindly, spiny fronds. He had absolutely no experience in using a shield and was, now more than ever, entirely convinced that Basil’s faith in his combat usefulness was well-intentioned but entirely misplaced. 

Unfortunately, the missing Basil wasn’t the only one who had more faith in Ezra’s abilities than he himself did. Stragglers and wounded soldiers caught in the collapse from Dryad to fungal forest hid behind him, somehow expecting him to guide them out and protect them. He doubted he looked very brave, almost perpetually hiding behind his shield, and he certainly didn’t feel brave without his friends. 

But he was bigger than his human escorts by a good margin, and perhaps that was enough for them. 

The fog obscured so much from view. Ezra couldn’t find Marjorie, Basil or even Aurora, and he didn’t even want to think what might have become of poor Philomene. He could just make out the outline of Rem at the center of the dome, fighting something from above and shouting for others to get back.

 Knowing there were Flower Folk about, he took slow, deliberate steps and kept glancing at the ground, resisting every urge to just take off running. “Is everyone still behind me?” he asked for what had to be the fifth or sixth time, peering over his shoulder. A wounded soldier leaning on her compatriot gave a thumbs-up, which was enough for Ezra. “Okay, good. It looks like the vines sealed off the entrance, or what was left of it. But I’m sure we can make our way out somehow…” 
He was not sure, but someone had to offer optimism and it might as well have been him. 

"It looks like she absorbed all the Dryads into her body," he mused, fascinated despite himself. "I wonder if she's trying to create a new castle like the one the Gourmet had." Well, at least that part of Philomene's plan was working out. She seemed to think collecting the Green Witch's "biomass" together would be necessary to seal her. They'd just counted on the ball setup to ward off the Rot Witch, not empower her through a sudden betrayal.  

Curiosity cost Ezra as something lashed out from the ground, a stalk taller than Ezra and the width of a human arm shooting up and opening a blossom that looked more like a gaping, dripping maw. Ezra shouted and recoiled, the guards still able to fired their crossbows at it from behind him, and the civilians just hid and clung closer. If the Rot Witch feeds off fear, Ezra thought, she must be feasting off of us. 

And suddenly Ezra realized what she was trying to do, and why she'd trapped a struggling group inside of her forest.  

"We're her food supply! She's going to wear us down and toy with us until we die a slow death, while everyone else fears for us and their own lives out there. And then...!" Well, he didn't actually know what would happen then, but he'd seen what a well-fed Other One was like. The world didn't need another. 

"Stop rambling and pummel that thing!" a human shouted behind him. "You're a giant!" 

"I'm not-fine!" Ezra waited for a break in the crossbow bolt fire and rushed forward, prepared to slam into the spiny thing shield-forward and topple it with his own body mass. Sure it would hurt, but... 

At the last minute he halted. He didn't even intend to do it. He remembered the dandelion sinking its teeth into his shoulder and the bramble monster in the kitchen, and his feet slowed, breaking his inertia. He stumbled, half expecting to take long spines to the face through the wood of the table.  

Instead he heard a cracking and shattering sound as glass fragments sprayed the table. Ezra looked up from his shield to see a big shape throwing projectiles at the bramble, first wineglasses and then an entire chair. He couldn't quite make out the face of the Sky person through the fog, but he recognized the voice. 

"Come on! You liked that, didn't ya? I could do this all day!" Salten laughed, though Ezra thought it sounded a little uneven and forced. 

"Salten!?" The youth was, as far as Ezra knew, helping out with the setup of the ball and kitchen work. But he'd been ordered to evacuate and help with the escapees as soon as the Dryads arrived, so why was he still here? 

Still, he had given Ezra an opening by distracting the corrupted Dryad. Ezra gestured for the humans behind him to follow as he ran in a long loop around the obstruction, stopping when he hit another solid wall of brambles. Salten was standing against it, looking ragged and showing light cuts but not too much worse for wear. 

Looking to make sure his escape party was all accounted for, Ezra turned to stare at Salten. "What are you doing here?" he hissed. "You were supposed to-" 

"You're welcome," Salten snorted, grin fading for only a second. "I wasn't gonna miss the action! Those monsters made me look like a coward in front of the whole city. A weakling!" 

"You were in charge of helping with evacuation!" 

"I-" Salten colored and looked away. "I got people out...but I had to help. And then everything went weird, so I guess we're all locked in. So it doesn't matter now, okay?" 

"It doesn't matter!? You might not ever see your parents again! And-and you're not a soldier or a warrior, you're-" 

"The guy who just saved your life and all those people with you!" Salten glared, avoiding the gazes of the humans as they witnessed an angry 'giant' in action. "I don't want to be a cook, or a nobody in charge of boring stuff, or your apprentice! I don't wanna be talked down to by someone my own age who doesn't even have a family name. I know what feels right, what I'm meant to do, and I'll be just fine here. I'm not a coward like you!" 

Ezra fell silent at that, indignant, hurt and guilty all at once. The last thing he needed was a reminder of how badly he was failing his apprentice. “Just help me find a safe place for them,” he said in a lower voice, looking away. 

“A safe place here? Good luck,” a third voice said, muffled as if coming from behind metal. 

Perhaps the fog hid the armored figure, though Ezra wondered how that was possible considering her garb. The Sky figure Basil had identified as one of the Empress’s Riders swept in front of them, the golden highlights of her white armor glinting and a red cape with Libra’s insignia trailing from her back. Bright Morning was a little taller than Salten and thus towered over Ezra. 

The knight, for that was what Bright Morning clearly was, raised a blade that gave off a soft hum and the jingle of bells as it cut through the air, slicing off the end of an infected spiny tendril. Ezra had heard of weapons that doubled as musical instruments, used in ceremonial dances and and combat demonstrations, though he’d never seen one in an actual fight. 

“Her Imperial Eternity’s forces are trying to break through the barrier from the outside, and we’re to do our best from within. No luck yet. If it’s a safe escort you want, you’ll want to go with Captain Taylor.” She gestured with her thumb at the approaching Captain, limping but still holding his crossbow at the ready. Taylor seemed just as ready to stare at Bright Morning as everyone else; she commanded that sort of air, Ezra supposed. 

Not that it left the old guard captain tongue-tied. “Could use some help protecting the wounded here,” he said, “’til we got another plan. You seen Prince Basil or Alphonse?”

“I-no. I was hoping you had.” Ezra deflated. “And the princesses? Marjorie?”

“Miss Snow’s helping to guard the other princesses, but Philomene’s still unaccounted for.” Taylor looked so drained himself, as if weary of having to deliver bad news already. 

Dread crept over Ezra and he fought it off. He had to focus, or he’d lash out again like he did at Salten. “I see. Come on, Salten, let’s help Captain Taylor. We’re both big and that’s something…”

“…What if I want to fight?” Salten wasn’t looking at Ezra or Taylor, or really anything else. He was staring at Bright Morning. “I don’t want safety.” 

“Salten!” Ezra snapped, feeling his guilt burn up in the heat of frustration. “They need us here! We’re-we need to protect them!”

“You need to protect them. I’m not really a protectin’ type.” Salten had a strangely distant look in his eye. “You said the Sun tells us what we’re meant to do, right? Some kinda inner light thing?”
Bright Morning turned around to face Salten in full, tilting her head. “I’m off to help that C.P. I can’t tell you not to follow me, but I don’t want to hear any complaints from a rookie in over his head.” She gave a casual-looking salute to Taylor and stomped off towards the center of the dome, where Ezra could hear a battle if not quite see it.

Salten fell quiet, then turned to look one last time at Ezra. He seemed like he was going to say something, but swallowed it down and ran off to follow Bright Morning. 

“…Where’s he-he’s gonna get himself killed!” Taylor swore under his breath. 

“…I should, I’ll, uh. I need to find him. But you need me here too…”

Taylor shook his head. “You stay here. We need at least one giant by our side. I’ll make sure some of my guards keep an eye on him. ‘Sides, he’s with one of the Riders. She’ll keep him alive.” 

Ezra had little doubt of that, and yet had the uncanny sense he’d just lost something else.

Sun and Moon, he needed the others. 

The dome of vines writhed and oozed above, growing spines and losing them, mushrooms blooming and then falling away. And within, one little blossom hung suspended out of reach, slowly dragging its contents towards the center of the dome. 

And within it, curled in a fetal position, surrounded by darkness, Philomene woke up and screamed.

Chapter Text

My fault, my fault, this is my fault.

Toad thought he could ignore the pangs of guilt as he watched the chaos down by the shore, the guards surrounding the black mass that had formed around the tent and the slithering river of vines oozing from the sea cave where he’d been arrested. The pangs had come and gone for days now. He tried to remind himself that Philomene was no longer his friend, Thumbelina Kingdom was not his concern and he had done his best to find that Heart they so wanted.

No I didn’t. 

How was he to know Alphonse was lying? And what if Alphonse wasn’t, and Philomene’s plan had just gone awry? He ought to be happy to see one of her ideas backfire for once. And yet he wasn’t; his stomach kept doing flip-flops as the dome below grew.

Did he feel hot? He was breaking into a sweat, all the heat under his skin. He knew humans got fevers sometimes, and he was in a human body. Go figure, he’d get sick right when most of the guard was too concerned with a disaster to do anything about it. 

A disaster I helped cause. 

“Well, true.” Toad was talking to himself, deciding he could be excused for it when he was so obviously ill. “But I was desperate! What if I died due to malfunctioning magic? And it was unfair of her to ask me to find something in the first place! She should have just saved me because…because…okay, so she had no reason to save me. And I could have just left it to the University. Or endured it. I had no clue if it was really fatal! But none of this is my fault. Not truly!”

The fever flared up inside of him, filling his stomach and his head. Everything had a tinge of red to it now. He could sense something inside of him wriggling, changing, though not like the malfunctioning spell had before. This was different. It was like an egg trying to hatch, and what would hatch filled Toad with a sense of dread. 

“Ngh…did the giant poison me after all? How do I make this stop?” He leaned against the wall, gasping for breath. He could be forgiven for ignoring the suffering going on downhill considering his own pain.

But isn’t that how this started? I decided my own feelings mattered most. I should at least look.

Grumbling to himself at how even his own thoughts were betraying him, Toad forced himself back to the window. The black mass was growing, writhing angrily. He had no doubt that it would kill everyone inside of there, or at the very least never let them out. This was how Philomene was going to die.

This was how Nautilus and Thumbelina were going to die. 

And Toad, noble descendant of the ancient draconic salamanders, would be the one who ended it. No one would ever know but Toad himself. And before he could say to himself that he’d never wanted that, he finally heard the voice in his head and understood it. It was his own, the thoughts he’d pushed back into his mind ever since he’d accepted the Green Witch’s bargain and betrayed Thumbelina. He’d grown so skilled at ignoring his own conscience that it hadn’t been more than a whisper for a very long time, until he’d eaten that jelly dessert with the magic spell in it. 

This was his fault. Everything was his fault. He was a traitor, a backstabber and a cruel friend. And for once, rather than insist there was nothing he could do about it, he wished there was something he could do.

The spell hatched inside of him. It shone with clarity, blazing with uncomfortable truths accepted. It burned with justice, and as it ignited around Toad and began to reshape his body, Toad screamed in a voice that deepened to a roar.

As an inferno burst in his cell, Toad reached fingers that were neither human nor frog around the bars, and the red-hot metal bent.

Red stuck to her wolf form because she felt safer that way. Red the Wolf had fangs and claws, powerful muscles and ears that heard everything. Red the Human had fingers, good only for holding things, and was much smaller. She’d taken to wearing that red hooded cloak in her human form, the one Germain had given her, to simulate the feeling of fur and the security it brought. It was a poor substitute.

Now she was back in her wolf form and wishing she could wear her hood at the same time. The world was erupting around her, her hiding places shrinking as they filled with brambles and mushrooms. The rose Basil had cut from Alphonse had rooted itself into the ground, veins snaking out from it and reaching out to the edges of the dome. Red smelled the sickly-sweet rotting smell of White Hood everywhere, in the walls and earth and the air itself. Mixed in it was the lingering scent of mint and ice left behind by Basil, and blood. She could catch a whiff of the floral smells of the Flower Folk, but not Germain’s citrus blossom scent. 

It was possible he was already dead, killed by her own actions.

Poor little Red, White Hood whispered to her, next to her again for the first time since the start of the ball. How terribly things have turned out! But you meant no harm. You were a good girl. 

“I am a good girl,” Red found herself whispering. She bounded over brambles, ignoring how they brushed through her fur, intent on following Germain’s scent. Why was White Hood following her right when Red didn’t want to see her?

Are you angry at me? I’m just liberating you. You were meant to be like me, little Red. A Big Bad Wolf to serve alongside the Wicked Fairy who loves her. I will love you for this, Red!

White would not. Red understood this now. White had never loved her, nor protected her when it really mattered. Why hadn’t Red seen it before? Was it because she was so desperate to believe she had a secret friend, a guardian fairy godmother who wore her faces and understood her heart? How foolish she was. 

Red’s nose did not lie to her. White Hood was the white wolf lurking beside her and the black thorns all around her. She was the fuzzy growths and the girl with black, black eyes. She was the mushrooms sprouting up big as tables, and mushrooms were both black and white. White Hood was many things at once.

And the brown-eyed, ice-smelling prince who had showed her compassion and helped her when he thought she was a stranger now fought his opponent with heartless eyes so deeply blue they almost glowed. There was more to him, too. Maybe everyone was more than one thing.

But Germain! He was always Germain, arrogant and jovial, brilliant and fascinating. She would find him and save him, apologize for going so far astray, and he would understand then how much she loved him. Surely he was still alive, and the blood scents were coming from everyone else. 

And yet...

Red, talk to me! Listen to me! He was never going to love you back, no matter what either of us did. If he does love you it’s as a thing, an object, an extension of himself. I will love you as my own if you would have me. You can be part of this. You were meant to be part of this. White sounded more forceful now, cajoling Red, her form glowing and shifting from girl to wolf to girl even as Red stayed in wolf form. How odd. White Hood had done something terrible, and Red wasn’t even allowed to be angry at her over it. Such behavior stuck in Red’s mind, like a burr or a bramble.

The citrus smell led Red to a mass of spiderweb-like threads hanging from a protrusion in the dome ceiling, one Red soon recognized as a mummified giant Dryad head. It was far too high up for her to reach, even if she stood up on her hind paws. Desperate, and wanting more than anything to drown out the noises of the battle around her and White’s whispering in her ear, she threw back her head and howled. 

In the corner of her eye, she saw the ice-prince turn to look at her for just a second, no longer. The tallest giant turned around to stare. It was, in Red’s opinion, quite a howl. And amid all that…
“Red? Red, my girl, is that you? Oh, it is! Thank goodness. One moment, I’ll need you to catch me.” 

The voice came from above, in the mummified flower. Something tiny drifted from it, a humanoid shape in a parachute of that same silken material. Red remembered that it was easier to catch with hands than with paws and shifted into human form, letting Germain land in her palms and cupping them before anyone else could find him. 

“Well, thank goodness I had some contingency plans. That piloted Dryad has a few secret compartments, though I wasn’t counting on the Rot Witch trying to trap me in one like that. Can you believe it?” He laughed as he stood and dusted himself off, though it lacked his usual mirth. 

Red’s hands shook, despite all the times Germain had told her about carrier’s balance. Big tears fell from her eyes. “I’m sorry. I wanted to see you! I wanted to help you and she said this would help, and, and…” Her words stuck in her throat.

Germain stroked his beard, “She? I just assumed Rot Witch had latched onto you in parasitic form. If she’s a fungus like all of this would suggest, she can probably travel through spores.” He patted her hand. “There there, no crying! You’ll splash me at this rate. I’m not pleased to have my moment of triumph upstaged by one of the Other Ones, but I always have backup plans.”
“So you’re not mad?” Red sniffed.

To her left, into her ear, White Hood whispered. Don’t ignore me. Look at me, Red Hood! You’re not his wolf. You’re mine.

“I’m going to have to give you a stern lecture about following orders, I can tell, and decontaminate you, but I suppose you can’t live around me for long without a bit of me rubbing off of you. You’re just as curious as I am. You wanted to see it all happen. I was hoping you’d stay away for the sake of your safety, but that just isn’t in your nature.”

Red shook her head. “No! I wanted to help you.”

“Of course you did! You’re not quite ready to go off and find glories of your own yet. I keep forgetting how young you are, since you’re so big.” Germain dusted off more of the white feathery substance. “Damned sticky mold.”

Germain wasn’t mad. He did forgive her. Red felt so awful for doubting him. And yet, something did not feel right about this, something gnawed at her like the burr planted by White Hood. White Hood, who she could still hear. Don’t ignore me. Don’t be mad at me. You might need him but you need me too…

“Why did you lie?” 

Red hadn’t expected that to come out of her. She almost covered her mouth with her hand, save that both were holding Germain. 

“…Lie?” Germain stared up at her, hands falling to his side. “Why, Red, whatever do you mean? And can’t it wait for another time?”

White Hood was silent too. She was in wolf form again, ears folded back, head lowered. 

“You said Prince Basil was cruel, and I should want to avenge my mother by killing him. But that doesn’t seem right. He was kind to me as a girl and as a wolf.” Red frowned. “And I didn’t have to do anything to earn it.” 

“Well, look at him now! A terror on the battlefield, cutting down and freezing brambles like they were nothing.” Germain pointed at where Basil was, indeed, carving a swath of destruction through branches and corrupted Dryads, chasing that other red-haired prince. 

“Because he’s scared and hurt. When I get scared I bear my teeth, my fur goes up, I growl. But I’m not a bad girl.” 

You see? He lied to you. But I won’t! Never again, not anymore. I’ll protect you from him, from everyone.

“And you!” Red whipped around to glare at White Hood, pulling her lips back even though she had no fangs to bear in this form. “You told me I would be helping Lord Germain. You used me to hurt him, to hurt everyone here. You made me disobey him. You’re the Big Bad Wolf, not me!” 

White Hood recoiled as if Red had bitten her, yelping and snarling. 

Lord Germain just kept staring until Red turned back to him. Then he wouldn’t meet her gaze. “So, White Hood is real, then? The Rot Witch was really communicating with you right under my nose?” He laughed, with even less joy. “How ironic.” 

Red trembled. “Lord Germain, did you lie to me?” He was trying to avoid the subject, the way Toad did whenever Germain asked him a direct question.

“Ah, nothing-never big lies.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “How do you know Basil wasn’t lying to you when he showed you kindness, eh? Remember what I told you about the dangers of unconditional, unearned love?” 

“It didn’t feel dangerous.” Red let another tear fall. 

“It was to protect you. You’re my greatest creation,” Lord Germain said. He said it in the same way he always had, affectionate, and yet it somehow sounded different this time. She heard the ‘my’ much stronger, like it was the part of the sentence that mattered most to him.

He’s lying about that too! He didn’t create you. I did. I brought you to him, I commissioned the Seeds of Enlightenment from him, and it’s my right to take you back! White Hood shifted back into human form, though there was something in-between at first, like an old human woman with a flat round face and black dots for eyes. She reached for Red’s hands. You need me. You’re too scared to live without me.

“Now come on, Red.” There was a hint of desperation in Germain’s voice. Fear? Did he really think she’d hurt him just because she was mad at him and bigger than him? “Come to your senses. I’m sorry I may have told some half-truths about the prince, but now isn’t the time. I have a new victory plan at hand, you see! Look.” He pointed towards the center of the dome, where a great green patch was spreading at the feet of the tallest giant with the spear. “Just take me over there. Then we’ll talk about it later! We can put the whole sordid business behind us. And you’ll learn to let go of this familial attachment that’s corrupting you! I gave you speech and wisdom. Isn’t that enough?”

“…No. No! You were wrong about love, too. And you, White, you’re wrong about me. You’re both wrong about me. You keep telling me that I need you, I need you to like me and love me and protect me. But, that’s not true, is it? That’s another lie.” The burr in Red’s heart was growing, and all of this was spilling out of her, coming from somewhere she didn’t know she had. And yet every word of it felt like truth, the first truth she’d heard in a long time. 

Don’t say it, White whimpered. Please don’t say it.

And as Red heard White’s pleas, and saw Germain pacing nervously in her hands, she realized what the truth was.

“You need me. That’s why you lied to me and controlled me, why White tried to turn me on Germain and Germain on Basil. You don’t love me. You’ll never really love me. But you need me, so you’ll keep promising that you’ll love me someday.” Red’s vision filled with tears she blinked away. “But Mother died for me before I could speak a word. She loved me from the moment I was born. And I don’t need you. I don’t need either one of you!”

White screeched, though not from anger. She shifted from wolf to girl to old woman to wolf, covering her ears and mouth and eyes. Red recognized that kind of shout, the flattened ears and tucked-in tail. She knew the tone of that cry, understood immediately why White Hood turned to cower and run away before vanishing. It was fear. For some reason, White Hood was afraid.

And as she vanished, the green patch in the center started growing rapidly, the brambles weakening and the mushrooms starting to melt. The rose the redheaded prince had dropped sunk into the ground entirely, its roots and stems turning greener as they reached for the blooming spot. The dome trembled, lurching and quaking. 

“Ohh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Red heard the spear-wielding giant mutter as they stared at the ceiling. 

She didn’t know what worried the giant, or care. Instead she watched Lord Germain, who sat in her hands with shoulders slumped and face in his hands. For the first time since she could remember, he looked defeated. He’d never looked that way when one of his plans went awry, or when Toad betrayed them, or even when the princess had escaped his trap. For a second Red was tempted to take it back, hoping that now he’d offer genuine kindness, that he’d change. This time he’d understand and listen to her. But no. That was a lie, one he didn’t even bother to tell her as he looked back up at her.

And he was smiling. It was the saddest smile she’d ever seen him bear, but it was genuine. “Well, Red. Can I at least ask you to place me somewhere safe? I’ll be trampled at this rate.”

She wouldn’t set him in the green place. It was his responsibility now, and she would not help him again. But she found the remains of a table still upright, and set him up on there. Then she looked back at Basil, who was closing in on the redheaded prince with his sword raised. 

If Basil really was kind, he would deeply regret hurting someone in the throes of fear. Already Red was starting to understand all the terrible things she’d done out of fear of rejection. 

She gave one last glance at Lord Germain, who shook his head. “I’ll be fine,” he said in a low voice. “Help me if you want, or do something else. I always said I’d accept the answer to any question, even if I don’t like it.” 

Red turned into a wolf, lowering her head as a way of saying goodbye. She couldn’t hate him even now, even realizing he could only love anyone as an extension of himself. This was his way of letting her go. 

And then she bounded off across the warping, rippling dome, still caught in the throes of White Hood’s terror, and jumped onto Basil’s chest, knocking him onto his back. 

Chapter Text

Philomene pressed against the membrane of the flower, facing downwards as she felt vines pull her prison through the labyrinth of brambles. The petals were opaque, yet she could see everything. It flashed before her like the images Lord Germain projected onto the sky so long ago during her last imprisonment. 

There was Basil, eyes glowing blue and the ground beneath him frosting over. She saw Ezra, huddling with a group of the wounded, he and Captain Taylor acting as a last line of defense. She saw Marjorie, hands shaking as she and the other human bodyguards ferried the princesses around, Marjorie’s eyes wandering with panic as she sought out Philomene. There was Aurora, acting as Marjorie’s own bodyguard now and fending off threats with her great claws. 

Philomene saw her sisters crouching together in the arms of the bodyguards, the bird-rider guards hovering above them. But no Elomene. Where were Elomene and her handmaid Alice? Where could they have gone off to at such a time? 

The petals shuddered as Philomene felt her own heart rate increase, a spike of panic running through her. The images projected in the walls of her tiny prison grew more vivid, zooming in on awful details. She saw soldiers of both kingdoms bleeding, human and Flowerling alike. The flower showed her Melchior flitting about in confusion, narrowly avoiding the brambles swatting out at his fragile insect body. 

It showed her Rem, wounds dripping with metallic blood and makeup smeared, fighting a seemingly endless battle against the monstrously warped rose Dryad that had implanted itself in the center of the dome. It opened one great eye as it batted at its opponent with enormous spines, dwarfing even the biggest person Philomene had ever seen. Rem was fighting fiercely and carefully, steeling their expression to ignore pain even when they didn’t think anyone could see their face. They were protecting something beneath them, and they were tiring. 

So this was the Rot Witch’s final punishment for Philomene’s defiance, her last mockery. She would torment the people Philomene loved, force them to fight for their lives until they died. Their dying panic would feed the Rot Witch, allowing her once and for all to consume what remained of the Green Witch. Alphonse had said defeat and despair were stronger when they came in the face of extinguished hope. The Rot Witch ought to know. 

And Philomene would be forced to watch. She could look away, but would not allow herself. This was partially her failure. Much as the sights in front of her eyes horrified her, made her want to curl up into a ball and weep, she couldn’t. Guilt was not productive. At most it gave impetus to do better, but one had to actually do better. Fear, fear was a motivator. Fear was the whole reason she’d left Thumbelina Kingdom in the evacuation. It was why the ancestors of her ancestors had written the Edict of the Queen Bee. 

In the worst disasters, the ones who can do the most must be saved. 

Only the ruling royal family of a Colony-City could plant a Vine and create a new Colony-City. The ancients who penned the Edicts and all those who followed them after did so out of fear of extinction. Many of the Edicts were cruel in Philomene’s opinion, some even heartless; she always thought the Queen Bee to be so, easily abused by a corrupt ruler who would abandon her kingdom in a time when she was needed. And yet the Flower Folk lived and thrived in the World of Towers, their City-Colonies still numerous, unbowed by the human empires. 

It wasn’t the best way to do things. But if she gave up, let fear collapse into despair, there’d be no finding a new way.

So Philomene let herself fear, let it point out every tiny thing the Rot Witch could do to worsen the situation. And she took deep breaths to steady herself, counted backwards from ten, sang an old nursery rhyme she remembered from childhood about the clumsy spider and the willow tree. Panic, fear’s excessive cousin, would not be useful to her. She needed vigilance. 

She had no way of awakening Basil from his cold-spell trance. All she could do was hope the others managed to warm him, though it was peculiar he should be affected so when there was nothing particularly cold in the dome. (Fear must not be allowed to dampen curiosity, she reminded herself.) Ezra, timid as he could be, was a survivor and too compassionate to fail at his newly-appointed guard duty. He had previous experience with Other Ones that would work to his advantage. Marjorie and her sisters, sans the missing Elomene, were safe as they could ever be in such a situation with Aurora. She had to assume the Rot Witch had not attempted to devour Elomene as well; what benefit would she gain from that?

And what was Rem guarding so vigilantly? Was someone wounded down there, and if so, why hadn’t they been rescued yet?

“And why,” Philomene said, speaking aloud more for herself than to be heard, “why are you so quiet, Rot Witch? Why aren’t you gloating over your certain victory? Why aren’t you talking?”

Basil felt warm fur and a sharp tingling in his fingers and toes as heat started rushing back into them.

The big, red wolf pup wasn’t quite heavy enough to keep him down on her own, but shock did the rest of the work. He could feel himself coming back, emotions flooding in again, the cool focus of his frozen mentality fracturing and melting away. He reminded himself this was a good thing, that when the cold took him over he did things he regretted. 

Then the wolf herself registered with him.

“You! You’re…you’re the wolf from the mountainside, right? The pup from the forest?”

The wolf didn’t answer him right away, instead hopping off him and nudging him back onto his feet insistently. She really was as big as a full-grown domestic sheepdog, though her proportions were puppylike. No surprise, given how big Mother Wolf was. 

Basil swayed, holding his head with one hand and his chest with another. The cold that had come over him in the face of Alphonse’s betrayal was subsiding, so why did he still feel a shard of it in his heart? Why did his deep breaths still hurt with lingering, sharp pain? 

“…Alphonse. Alphonse is getting away!” He reached for his sword, and then stopped himself.
“Getting away where? There’s no way out of this dome right now, is there? The guard will get him…” 

Another cold shudder brought him back to his knees. He took deep breaths, one after the other, urged on by the silent red wolf. This would pass. He could get through it without Ezra’s embrace, without Aurora’s warm fur. When literally surrounded by the enemy, Prince Charming could not let her own body kill her. 

“Alphonse is the other prince?” The wolf had the voice of a young girl with a growl beneath it, her ears still back and her tail curled cautiously under her legs. “You said that he was…”

“A hero. I know.” Basil didn’t smile as he looked up at her, forcing himself to a standing position again. He would just have to push through this new pain and tell the others about it later. “I thought so too. -Wait, how did you know?” 

“I have questions,” the wolf said instead of answering his own. “You promise to tell the truth, and I will help you. Then I’ll figure out what I want to do.” 

Basil stared then, as the wolf he’d failed to rescue twice made an offering of peace to him on her own. This, when he’d been so consumed by rage that it had started to freeze his heart without any external chill. He forced down the lump in his throat, reminding himself that now was not the time to get emotional. “Yes, of course. But right now my friends are in a lot of danger. Everyone here is. Do you need to hide, little wolf? Aurora can keep you safe. Or can you run and fight?”

"I will help," the wolf repeated, a forceful declaration. "Because I want to. You were kind." 

Basil wasn't sure he'd offered genuine kindness to her yet, nothing that would earn her trust to such a degree that she would brave his cold-state to save him from it. Or maybe she didn't know about it at all and just wanted his attention. She was a canine. Yet that voice was so familiar, as was the look in her intense yellow eyes. 

"Help me find a white bear," he said. Aurora would make a good reference point. "The one I was riding when I last saw you." He prayed to the Mountain Lords battling beneath the stone that Aurora had found Marjorie and the princesses as he asked her to, and that Ezra was safe wherever he was. 

He had to tell them where Philomene was. She was out of his reach, but there had to be someone who could help her. 

Someone tall.

"Alice? Princess Elomene? Where are you?!" Marjorie was too frazzled for eloquence, too busy repeating to herself that Philomene was alive, had to be alive, to remember court etiquette. She and two other human bodyguards had the princesses gathered in aprons, arms and baskets, only able to run so fast or risk injuring their passengers. Most of the other Flower Folk in attendance had managed to evacuate on Meramene's orders. The Elders predicted a smaller, more concentrated casting of the Autumn Spell would require the royal family but not the full forces that the spell usually needed.  

Of course, there would be no casting the spell now. It was up to the bodyguards to shield their small charges with their own bodies, and more importantly, stay together. Which made Alice's wandering off in the foggy labyrinth of thorns all the more irritating. Marjorie would have protested for the girl's removal if she were not so certain Alice was acting under Elomene's orders. 

Elomene, the willful youngest princess who declared herself to be the future Court Mage despite the fact that City-Colonies rarely held such a position, had spoken of a Plan C. But to act without notifying the others, to do so with such little regard for her own safety...!  

She heard a low growl behind her, a reminder that Aurora was there. The great bear had emerged from the mists without her master, sniffing and immediately identifying Marjorie before forcing herself in front of the huddled bodyguards. If they were to protect the princesses, Aurora seemed determined to guard them. As she never abandoned Basil except at his own command or in extreme circumstances, Marjorie had to assume Aurora was acting on his orders. 

She hoped that was the case. If Alphonse had killed Basil, there was no way Aurora would be acting so calm. And Marjorie would be partially at fault for failing to convince him ahead of time. She had not protected anyone from Alphonse; none of her suspicions led anywhere coherent. He had evaded her and her one weapon, her trickery, did nothing to him. 

Well, she reminded herself as she glanced down at the knife on her belt. It wasn't her one and only weapon. 

Aurora growled again, more insistently, and gave Marjorie a gentle nudge. A nudge from a creature almost as big as Ezra and more muscular was hard to ignore. 

"What is it?" Marjorie's tension made her snap. "What do you-oh, Basil!" Aurora must have heard and smelled him through the fog before Marjorie could make him out, half-running and half-limping alongside a big red-furred wolf cub, of all things. Was the would-be Prince Charming collecting animal companions like the princesses in tales of old? 

He was bleeding from shallow cuts. More concerning was his sharp breath and the way he held his hand over his heart. When he caught up with the Thumbelina entourage he had to lean on Aurora to catch his breath, and Marjorie caught shivers. 

"Lady Marjorie," he gasped. "I owe you an apology." 

"And I owe you several, when our lives are not at stake!" Marjorie gestured him over, her arms holding a dismayed Cyramene and two of the other sisters huddling together in Cyramene's maternal embrace.  

"Prince Basil," Cyramene said, looking up at him and speaking in a hoarse voice. "Our sisters-" 

"Philomene is up there," Basil burst out, pointing up at the canopy of brambles. "Alphonse gave her over to a-it looked like a flower, which took her away. If I can get up there, maybe with a boost from Ezra...wait. Sisters, Highness?"

“Elomene.” Even with the world falling apart around her, Meramene, in the hands of her elderly human guardian, sounded as queenly as ever. “She commanded Alice leave to find the ‘last bit of green.’”

So it had been at Elomene’s orders, as Marjorie suspected. Panic never did good things for her perception. “Basil,” she added, “did you happen to see a younger woman in the Thumbelinan royal maid garb? You know, a bit like my own outfit.”

“I-I did, yes!” Basil snapped his fingers. “She was headed towards the center, and wouldn’t listen when I tried to call her over. Near where Rem and Sergeant Bell are fighting. Shall I go find her?” 
For the first time since she’d arrived, the strange red wolf spoke, much to everyone’s surprise save Basil. “There’s a bit in the center that’s still green. The prototype Dryad, the one the other princess woke up.” 

“The thing we thought was the Heart?” Marjorie frowned.

“I will go protect her.” Before the others could protest, the wolf ran offtowards the core. Marjorie moved to follow and then remembered the princesses in her arms.

“Let me take them,” Basil insisted, holding out the edge of his now-tattered cloak. “You can ride Aurora. You want to go, Marjorie. I understand! Duty is duty.” 

Was he still angry at her? She couldn’t tell. But Basil did offer a sad smile, and he looked to be in poor shape to be doing any rescuing himself. His breath still had that shudder. “I’ll bring them both right back,” she insisted. “And Philomene will-wait, did you say Rem is there?” Her eyes lit up.

“Basil, I think we found someone who can reach her.”

The Rot Witch was still communicating only with images, if that was her. And Philomene was starting to doubt it, because all she could see was what was around her. Basil was reuniting with Marjorie and her other sisters. Alice was running towards the core, towards the thing at Rem’s feet that Bell’s guards were shielding.

Panic paralyzed, and Philomene had to move. She experimented.

“Show me what they’re guarding,” she ordered.

The petal turned a bit more greenish and revitalized, flushing a faint pink. It zoomed in on the false Heart, the thing Germaine had identified as the prototype Dryad. 

It was flourishing, more than it had even after her sessions in the cave. The bud emerging from its onion-like bulbous body was starting to unfold in full, vivid blood-red petals peeking out. Deep roots ran from it and towards it, the green standing out against the encroaching rot. Moreover, it was pushing against the rot before her very eyes. Some part of the Green Witch was fighting back. 

“No wonder the Rot Witch is so silent,” Philomene marveled. “You’re exhausted, aren’t you, Rot? You can’t consume your sister as easily as you thought, not when she’s pulling her whole body together. It’s too much for you. Something’s thrown you off. And you’re terrified. You’re scared of failure, just like I am.” She squinted. “Can you hear me, Rot Witch? You should be afraid of me. I understand you.

She knew then this flower wasn’t the Rot Witch’s anymore. The Green Witch had taken it back, and was pulling her to where the Other One wanted her. That wasn’t necessarily a better scenario, but it left Philomene with one chance. There was a question she had not answered, one last test. And she needed to get down to that bloom at the bottom.

The focus increased, and Philomene blinked as large human hands briefly appeared by the last Dryad. Her amazement only increased as Elomene, of all people, emerged from the hands. Amid the consternation of the guards and the confused shouts of Rem thundering from above, Philomene could hear Elomene perfectly.

“Big stupid plant that caused us so much trouble. You need clarity, too,” the little princess said as she lifted the glass bottle containing the last of Ezra’s spell-jelly, long since melted into a liquid. It was the magic Elomene had intended to use to wake the queen. She tore the wax off the bottle and dumped the contents on the bloom. 

The flower immediately opened all the way, each petal bigger than five Flower Folk, displaying prominent interface blossoms within. 

Elomene climbed back into Alice’s arms, and Alice was handed over to an Aurora-riding Marjorie by a very annoyed and concerned Captain Bell. All Philomene could do was watch, amazed and all the same infuriated at her little sister’s recklessness. Maybe it ran in the family.

“Flower,” Philomene commanded. “Green Witch, if this is you. Show me my current location.” 

The image faded, replaced by a view from far, far above. Philomene was at the apex of the dome, no doubt in the center of that strange rose monster. She could feel heavy vibrations now, a sign that the ceiling was lurching downward. If the Rot Witch kept pulling the Green Witch’s mass from the sea cave and wasn’t strong enough to sustain it, the dome would collapse under its own weight. At that point it wouldn’t matter which Other One was in control; all within would die. 

For the first time she saw Rem from above, their breathing heavy. They were tiring out, gritted teeth showing frustration. They’d been fighting the ceiling itself for who knew how long, protecting the Dryad at the bottom on what Philomene suspected was a hunch. Rem was the sort to think quickly on their feet, after all. 

Only then did she remember one serious problem. Rem could not see her.

And Rem raised their spear, prepared to strike right where Philomene hid. 

Chapter Text


Did Rem hear that? It was so small, so faint over the snapping and creaking noises of the dome. Maybe it didn’t really say ‘stop.’ Maybe it wasn’t a voice at all, just one of the uncanny screeches from the writhing vines that tricked the ears into sounding like a scream. ‘An idle mind breeds unrest,’ so went the saying, ‘and a taxed mind tells lies.’

But Rem stopped, tip of their spear inches away from the eye at the center of the roof. Their hands shook, their chest burning from heavy breathing and their hair falling around them. They could see the ceiling lowering itself inch by inch, ever closer to collapsing under its own weight. The enormous rose Dryad stared down at them with its one glazed, oozing eye, dripping with slime that had a distinctly metallic sheen. 

And behind it, just past the translucent eye, Rem saw something wriggle that hadn’t been there a second ago. 

“What is it, Tera? What’s wrong?” Bell called from below. She and her guards were helping Rem keep watch over the Dryad Prototype, which against all odds had not only resisted the Rot Witch’s attack but was spreading a patch of green through the corrupted ground. If nothing else, they knew how to fight the Green Witch, though throwing their hopes in with one monster instead of another felt reckless.

Then again, there were people who thought of the Colossi as monsters, even if they never used the word in polite company. And everyone present, even the mysterious imperial knight and the damned innkeeper’s son who insisted on helping in the fight-well, they were all throwing their lot in with a Colossus. 

“Sorry,” Rem said, shaking their head. “Sorry, just-there’s something up there. Inside the Dryad. I can’t-I’m sure I heard…” 

The little flower bud was going from a bleak, corrupted off-white to more vivid coloring before Rem’s eyes. It turned a bright yellow and then split open, revealing a tiny figure with dark skin and very long black hair in braids, crouched on the remaining petal and calling out to Rem with outstretched hands. Rem couldn’t see any further details but somehow immediately knew who that was. The way she talked with her hands, how she would touch her face when frustrated, they would know that anywhere. Had they memorized that much of Philomene’s body language when talking with the princess? 

“She’s up there! She’s in that thing!” Rem blurted out, hoping their loud voice would carry to the others.

“She?” Bell asked, her voice sounding out of breath. 

“Is that Philomene?! It’s her, isn’t it?” Marjorie cut in, a surprise to Rem who didn’t even know the handmaid was nearby. Rem peeked over their shoulder down to find Marjorie atop Basil’s bear, along with one of the other Thumbelinan guardians. “What’s she saying?”

“I don’t know! I can’t hear her.” Rem had to listen carefully to hear Flower Folk who weren’t in close range in the best of times; to hear Philomene over a battle and through the disgusting filter of that creature’s eye would be impossible. 

But the princess was clearly trying to tell them something, growing frustrated and running hands through her hair. Then she fell quiet and held out her hand. 

The ceiling lurched closer with a low groan, a reminder that Rem didn’t have much time to think about it. Philomene would be just in reach if Rem strained. Without hesitation, Rem thrust their hand upward through the eye.

The reaction was immediate as the corrupted Dryad, strangely still while the little flower bloomed inside of it, roared to life. It sent long spiny tendrils to wrap around Rem’s wrist, all lined with piercing, razor-sharp thorns. Rem choked down a scream, reminding themself that these were just surface wounds. They held their hand up until they felt something climb onto their palm, then pulled it away. 

The increasingly strong instinct inside Rem urging them not to trust their own body around the small and fragile, the external voices and suspicion that seeped their way inside until they started to make terrible sense, flared up as Rem was reminded of how light and delicate Philomene really was. And Rem ignored them, thinking of Cecily and the Taylors and their own last conversation with Philomene. Rem trusted Philomene to save the world, and Philomene trusted Rem with her own life. That was all that mattered.

Besides, would Rem have fallen in love with someone with such poor judgment? 

Maybe that thought, sudden and a bit flustering, helped Rem ignore the pain and pull away from the tendrils before cutting them away. Then they opened their hand, there she was, leaning back against Rem’s palm. She was clearly disheveled and exhausted, though a cursory examination revealed no immediate injuries that Rem could see. Rem cupped one hand over another and ducked down to protect the princess, lunging away from the enraged and screaming Rose Dryad. 

Philomene managed to sit up, though likely standing was out of the question. “Hello, everyone,” she said wearily. “I apologize for the failure of my plan.”

A chorus of protesting voices erupted around Rem, who only now realized Marjorie, some of the guards and even Salten were all peering over to look at the little princess. “You’re crowding her,” Rem muttered, going ignored. 

“It’s fine,” Philomene said. “Rem, I need you to bring me to the prototype. Elomene’s potion did something to it, I think. But more than that, I have a feeling it’s still the answer to all this, just not in the way I expected.”

“We guessed that too, Princess,” Bell answered. “But you let us know if you need out. With a signal.”

Philomene shook her head. “I won’t be able to signal you. You’ll know if I succeeded or not, I’m sure. I do have a plan, I promise.”

When Rem looked down at the prototype, it suddenly didn’t look quite so inspiring. There were deep red veins in its green body, its colors a touch too vivid and bright. Something about it struck Rem as…hungry. But they had promised to trust the princess not a few minutes ago, had they not? 

So Rem set Philomene next to the big flower, gently as they could manage. “We’ll keep things safe for you out here. Take as much time as you need! Though maybe not that much time, the ceiling’s coming down…”

“You contact me as soon as you’re out,” Marjorie cut in. “Promise you’ll stay safe in there! Promise!”

“It’ll be okay, Philo,” a very tiny voice shouted. “I gave it Ezra’s magic! It’s good luck!” 

“Lemme know if I gotta punch it,” Salten insisted. Rem wasn’t sure if he was serious or not.

The armored knight just grunted, slicing through vines to protect the gathering. The human and Thumbelinan guards gave the Princess various salutes. 

Rem almost said something else, but knew the princess needed to focus. So they just echoed the salute as she thrust her hand into a miniscule little blossom and fell unconscious.

Avery Toad wasn’t sure what he was anymore. This body was bigger, that was for sure. Considering the taboos humans had about their own bodies, it was a strange mercy that the magic had warped his clothes to shape his new form and somehow fireproofed them. Though it might not have mattered, because whatever Toad was, nobody wanted to spend much time looking at it. They saw him and fled, screaming, as if he were a greater horror than whatever was going on down by the shore.

He found himself switching from two legs to four and back at whim, bounding down the streets towards the enormous clot of vines. Everything was red-tinted, as if he were seeing the entire world through a faint veil of flame. Was he a Draconic Salamander somehow? No, that wasn’t it. A Salamander would fill the alleys with its girth and didn’t have the long limbs of a human. He stopped to feel his face, trapped somewhere between the flat form of a human and the long, narrow head of a salamander. His tongue felt distinctly froggish.

A woman staring at him whispered something about a “strange Beast,” and he decided that fit well enough. But why? Why had he taken on this form? What was he going to do with it? 

His confusion was overriden with the voice of guilt reminding him that he was gazing at himself while people suffered due to his actions, those feelings urging him forward until he found himself down by edge of the bulbous dome. The last of the vines from the tunnels were wrapping around the tangle, while others started reaching out towards Thumbelina Kingdom. At this rate, it would merge with the Vine, and the results of that would be disastrous in ways Toad could not even imagine. 

“This is too much for me,” he muttered. “What can I do? Of course I want to help, but there’s nothing I can do! Not against something that big. I’m just a frog…!”

“Shut up,” a sticky voice snapped. At least its tone suggested snapping, though it spoke so slowly as to confuse the effect. 

Toad turned to find the source and saw a spiraling, opalescent shell twice the size of his own body, tangled and lodged into the vines. A slimy snail head with a spiny proboscis emerged, speaking to him despite having no visible mouth. 

“What sort of creature are you, to throw up your hands and say there is nothing you can do? What good is guilt without actions? It only serves the guilty.” The snail pointed one of her eyestalks at him. “You can start by helping to untangle me.” 

The appearance of a giant snail on top of everything else was a bit too much for Toad to process. He reached over and pulled at the vines, which burned to ash at his touch. 

“…Oh! Well, that’s something. I burned them right off, didn’t I?” He stared at his great hands, with their sticky-pad toes and curved claws. They glowed from within as flames licked their edges and then died down. 

“A Salamander’s flame can burn through steel. Even something magical can’t resist it,” the snail insisted. “Thankfully, a Sea Witch’s shell can. Tell me, what are you, and why?” 

“You’re a Sea Witch?!” Sea Witches had created the ring that had started Toad’s problems in the first place. (No, his newly-reactivated conscience reminded him, he’d caused those problems himself.) “I don’t know! A spell-there was a spell, and it took a while to activate I guess. And now I’m this!” 

The Sea Witch examined him uncomfortably closely with her other eyestalk and then hummed to herself. “Interesting. Interesting spell construction indeed. Get enough magic in someone and, well, never you mind. Isn’t it obvious what you should be doing?”

Toad stared back at his hands, and then the wall of vines. He could hear shouts and screams inside of them. Hoping whatever controlled his fire would listen to his will, he shoved his hands against the wall and began to burn through it. 

There were layers upon layers of the stuff, taking far too long to burn. Clearly despite what the Sea Witch claimed, the bigger vines had some resistance against Salamander flame. The hole seemed so tiny, barely big enough for him to thrust a hand through, and the spines cut into his hand. He wanted to pull back and run off, use his newfound strength to swim away into the ocean the way the Draconic Salamanders he claimed as his forefathers did when Blessed Thumbelina banished them. 

But that little voice was urging him onward. Maybe if he listened, and did what the spell wanted him to do, everything would be fine. He’d be normal again. 

A pair of gold eyes peered out at him from behind the hole as the last layer fell away, followed by the surprised shout of the Hearth Mage giant and a number of humans around him. 

“No, don’t worry!” Toad said, only now noticing how gravelly and thick his voice sounded. “I’ve almost got you out!” He channeled that flame from inside of him, lit by that pesky conscience, and burned.

Philomene was standing in a lush forest with trees of every shape and size she’d heard of, bearing fruit and flowers, leaves and needles. The tallest ones soared into the skies, the smallest not even as big as she was. The scale was disarming. This had to be how the Green Witch saw the world, or perhaps how she saw herself. Or maybe the Green Witch was just trying to make her feel comfortable.

She stood with the lightweight sense of not really having a body, relieved of the pain and exhaustion burdening her when Rem found her. She knew she wouldn’t have to shout to be heard here. “Green Witch,” she called out. “Prototype. I’m here, just as you called me. I’m ready to talk.” She narrowed her eyes. “I demand to talk.”

“So,” a different voice answered her, “she summoned you, did she?”

Lord Germain was sitting at the foot of one of the trees, cross-legged. Had he been there the whole time? His form was somehow more bedraggled than it had been, thinner and more haggard, with an odd look in his eyes that betrayed his smile. 

At Philomene’s alarmed stare, he just laughed. “Oh, don’t worry, Highness. Much as I’d love to steal your moment of glory, I can’t. She sent a tendril out to synchronize with me and then gave me the cold shoulder. She wants to force me to watch as she embraces you, I think, out of some childish pettiness. Can you blame her? I made quite a hash of her physical form for my own benefit.” Nothing about his tone suggested remorse. “Thus have I been rejected twice tonight.”

“Rejected twice? Do I want to know?” Philomene had lost all patience for his strange mind games. While she was glad in a way that the Green Witch had somehow subdued him, she would have preferred him in the hands of Thumbelinan authorities rather than an unpredictable magic being. 

That frown vanished for a rare moment. “It is not for you to know.” Then it returned, serene as ever, though slightly strained. “Though if I’m correct about what’s happened here, I like to think I had a hand in it. Let my historical immortality come through the ascendance of a new goddess, or the rebirth of a world.” 

“I don’t know what you mean,” Philomene snapped, “and I don’t care.” A new goddess? What nonsense was he talking about now? Philomene had to approach the Green Witch as a confident opponent and nothing else.

She called out once more. “Green Witch! Some part of you reached out to me in this body. Even if it was just a fragment, even if I did not hold dominion over your true Heart, you welcomed me and you welcome me again. Make yourself known!”

There was a strange, heavy silence. Then the green field exploded with violet blooms of all size, the trees sprouting violets until they were heavy with them. Some were big as the real thing, others smaller than Philomene’s hand. A great violet emerged from the earth, reshaping itself into a humanoid form with a bell-shaped dress and a blossom for a wide-brimmed hat. It spoke in one voice fragmented into a thousand tiny voices, coming from every angle around her. 

“Hello,” said the Green Witch. “I am the First Dryad. We are the Green Witch. You reached out to me while I rotted. You gave me strength to fight my sister, who now cowers in fear from her own rejection. You shall help us flourish. Won’t you? Won’t you?”

Philomene was a little too astonished to answer properly. “What do you mean, cowers in fear? You really were listening to me, then? But what of your heart?”

“The Heart was stolen from us,” the voices-voice said. “Sister gave it to one whose blood and heart is poison to us. Now we have retaken it. It is ours, and we will use it to grow strong! Will you become our heart and mind? Will you be our Ambition?” 

Violet and green vines wrapped around Philomene and raised her up over the ground, her dress floating around her. She could feel Green Magic tingling around her, smell its scent of grass and flower perfume, see its faint green glowing in the air. 

Was this what Lord Germain meant? Did she really have the power to awaken the Green Witch and command it? Was that what the Witch was offering?

“Please,” the fragmented voices begged. “We have so much to offer! We can shape our body to your will instead of hers. She corrupted us, but you can command us! We can grow to reach the Sky again. We can grow new fruit and make fertile fields. We can cast famine on your enemies. You are tiny, and we are great. For your sake we can grow and grow.”

“Is that what you want?” 

“You can command us,” the Green Witch said again, more insistent this time. Desperate, even.
“Lend us the power of your heart and your mind and we are yours! I am yours. Yours is the wish for a better world. We can sing to you the secrets of the past. We can plant for you the seeds of a great future. Greater, greater, ever greater!” 

Philomene could look past the Green Witch’s avatar now to see roots extending forever into the horizon, shrinking gradually and turning spiderlike and white as they reached the edge of the visible world. To her they looked almost like-like Vines.

Of course. That was why the Queen linked herself up with the Vine and would not awaken. She was protecting it from incursion by the Green Witch, who under the Rot Witch’s command would have incorporated it and devoured it. That was what the Witch did. She stretched and incorporated, like veins. 

She could cure Marjorie with this power, Philomene realized. The Green Witch could likely grow plants that didn’t even exist, plants that could create any cure or poison. She could change the world at Philomene’s wishes, just as she promised. 

Just as she had promised Toad. 

Philomene pulled her arms away from the vines and let herself fall back onto the carpet of lilies, ignoring the astonished sputters of Lord Germain. “No,” she said. “That isn’t what I want you to do.” 

“…It is not?” The Green Witch did not rage at her, but merely tilted her head. “But it is what you want. You want a better world.”

“Yes, you’re right. It’s what I want. But tell me, Green Witch,” Philomene said, staring right at the figure of violets. “Tell me, now. What is your ambition?"

There was no answer.

Again, Philomene asked. "You seem to know mine and everyone else's, and beg to serve it. Green Witch, what do you want?" 

Chapter Text

"What do you want?" 

Philomene was acting on instinct and intuition, going against every principle of her usual methods. She was trying to reason with what might be an unreasonable being. There was no plan D. She had no idea how to seal the Green Witch even if the Other One did manage to shake off Rot for good.  

Germain clearly thought her reckless from his incredulous stare, one of the few times she'd seen him look so out of sorts. "You are being offered godhood. You've been accepted and chosen by a being stronger than any of your opponents. You could use her to end war and hunger. She'll listen to your ambition, at her full form!" 

"I know, because she feeds off ambition. Don't you, Green Witch?" Philomene looked up at the silent flower being, now floating a bit lopsided. "You and your brothers and sisters, you have to eat." 

"Have to eat," the Green Witch echoed in that fragmented voice of hers. "Need to serve you. Have to take you in as our Heart. Be our heart, be our will!" 

"Answer my question," Philomene commanded. "Is that what you want? Does Ambition wish to be led, subordinate to the will of another?" 

"Ambition seeks-ambition needs-" The creature floated up and spun, holding what would have been its head. "Why do you ask such things? It is how we are. It is how the world is!" 

"But what if the world was otherwise? Myself, my friends, even Lord Germain, everyone who has ever had an ambition dreamed that the world could be different from what it is. Better, in our own subjective ways. That's why I can't accept your help, Green Witch, because so many others have grander dreams than I do. And when you find them, you'll abandon me for a new target, a new will or whatever you call it, because you must. You’re a parasite of some kind, aren’t you?" Philomene sat down in the flowers and took on a relaxed position so as to steady her opponent. "But if there was nothing you must do, if you could do whatever you want of your own will and had the power to do so, what would it be?" 

The blossoms retreated around the princess, the trees starting to shiver and shrink. Perhaps the Green Witch was having trouble maintaining her landscape as she drew herself inward, the violet form sprouting roots and taking on more humanoid hands and feet spun of branches. The hands held her head, which shook back and forth until it looked up at Philomene with one very vivid green eye where a face would be. 

The eye cried a tear. 

"I want to reach." 

"To reach?"  

"Not-not sure how to speak it in words. It's feelings. Not feelings we like." The Green Witch shuddered. "Some parts of us spread to all of us. Hurt all of us." 

"I dislike talking about such things too. They rarely make logical sense, do they? So try just saying it aloud. If you want, pretend I'm a stone or a glass marble. Explain it to me so you'll understand it yourself." The method worked for Philomene before. Maybe others would find it useful.  

"...Alone. We were alone when we were one, so we split ourselves from one to many. But then we felt more alone, and when we tried to reach others we hurt them. We corrupt them. We cannot feel guilt for it because Harp carries our guilt, but we know it is not a connection the way you connect." 

"Actually," Lord Germain said, startling Philomene, "we hurt one another all the time. Sometimes even ones we don't mean to harm." What could that mean coming from him? Philomene doubted he was talking about anyone in Thumbelina. 

"Gourmet can only consume. Rot Witch can only bully and control. Why do you think she's so scared right now? She fears what she cannot control, so she rejects before others can reject. She saw we were growing bigger and stronger than her by feeding off Thumbelina's magic, so she hurt us before we could hurt her. We thought we could connect with her, but we can’t.” The flower-being wilted. “I-we-I can only understand dreams and wishes and fulfill them, or try. But that is not reaching." 

Progress, Philomene hoped? “You’re right. That’s just you becoming a weapon for their sake. Then what is reaching? You’re so big, surely you can reach whatever you want. Just grow to it."  

"Veins reach leaves and bring them water. Air reaches blood and turns it red. Hands reach and grab hands. We are the part of the One that could reach, could connect. If we could, we want to reach everything. Reach the trees here, the land, the Sky, the sea. Reach everyone, and understand them, and be part of them. You..." The big eye blinked. "You reached us. Me. The Prototype. I remembered when your sister poured the Clarity and Transformation potion. So we tried to reach you, but you reject?" 

"Because..." Oh, this was where Marjorie would have a better answer, or Basil an inspiring speech, or Ezra something genuine from the heart. Philomene could only try to put thoughts into words and hope to be understood. Which was what the Green Witch was doing, wasn't she? 

"Because," the princess continued, "you can't reach the world and interact with it as you are. Like you said, you'll hurt us. All of you warp people, twist and feed off of them. Why should it work any better just because I’m in command? You remain the same.” She hoped she was making the right decision, rejecting a power that rightfully could solve a lot of problems. “So, Green Witch. Do you think that can change?" 

"Don't know." The form swayed back and forth. "Don't know." 

"Neither do I. It's an exciting, terrifying idea, isn't it? You Other Ones are probably unique among fairies and beings of our world. I’ve been studying your kind, ever since one of you hurt my friends. I bet the Gourmet is too busy hungering for what's lost to change, and the Rot Witch, well, change is frightening. And I don't know about this Harp or Mirror you mentioned." 

"Too sad to change," Green Witch observed. "Too rigid to change." 

"But you, you are Ambition! You are the desire to make something greater, to better it, to grow. If anyone could figure out how you can reach us without harming us, how you can be part of this world instead of devouring it, it's you. Even if it takes time. You could fulfill your own wish." 

"My wish? Could take a long time," the Green Witch said slowly, her multiple voices finally pulling together into one voice that sounded distinctly childlike. "Longer than you live." 

"That's fine. You have much longer, right? And in the meantime I'll keep trying to better the world on my own terms." Was that why she'd been so intent on saving Thumbelina herself? It would have been a grand gesture, a huge step towards saving what she knew was a deeply imperfect world. Helping someone talk it out felt insignificant in comparison. Yet it felt right. And Philomene couldn't ignore her gut instincts forever. 

"Going to need all my mass," the Green Witch continued. "All my body together, without Rot, to think on how. So I can change in my sleep. Going to need your power to drive out Rot. She's scared and weaker now, but she's stubborn." 

"Honestly, you can use my own ambition alone." Lord Germain's smile was back, cocksure and easygoing. "I thought tonight would be my final performance, but I just thought of seven ways to top myself while you had me trapped here. I'll fulfill them without your help, which is just all the more ambitious, eh?" 

"You," Philomene answered him with a narrow-eyed glare, "are going back to jail." 

"If that's what you think, Princess. But ah, the plans I have to escape jail...!" 

“Don’t know what reaching means yet. Don’t know how.” The hands covered the eye again, the Witch’s whole body trembling.

“Then maybe rest a while, and observe. Like a scientist,” Philomene said, offering a smile. “You’re here surrounded by Flower Folk and humans, with exiled Sky Folk nearby. I’m not saying you must become like one of us, but maybe you can change yourself into a being who can exist peacefully in this world. Maybe you can show your siblings the way too. Reach them.”

“…And they would not be alone?” the Witch asked.

“Well, it would be up to them to change themselves, not you. You work on yourself. One ambition at a time. Kindness reaches others.” Philomene hoped it was reaching the Green Witch, for she was not fond of wasting compassion. “Perhaps first try to learn about that.”

“…Need peace. Need all my body, and then peace. Tell your friends to get out of me, and I will expel my sister.” The Green Witch’s body swelled up now, warping from a flower to towering tree as the rest of the artificial landscape around them vanished. “She’s so small and weak now. She’s only on the surface of me! But she kept saying I needed her. We needed her. Silly little Witch.” 

Germain’s form flickered abruptly, turning translucent. “Well, Highness, it seems I’m being forcibly ejected! ‘Til we meet again. I’d say I hope this was a wise decision of yours, but in truth, I just want to see what happe-” And then he was gone. 

Philomene, too, could feel the mental discomfort and tension of the Dryad’s access port rejecting her. She shouted her last words while she still had the time. “And Green Witch! If you do decide you want to harm the world again after all, we’ll be waiting. There are a lot of us, and we’re full of ideas.” 

The access blossom withered as soon as Philomene regained consciousness, an awakening which brought back how exhausted and uncomfortable she was laying on that leaf. As soon as she forced herself up she felt two hands cup her protectively and lift her away from the Prototype Dryad, recognizing Marjorie’s painted nails seconds before the girl looked down at her with relieved tears in her eyes.

“Princess! You’re not going to believe this, but something you did worked! You’ll have to tell me. Look, all around you!”

Philomene gazed upwards. “All I can see is people looming over me,” she admitted truthfully. There were two giants in close vicinity and they took up most of the view. 

“…Oh, right. Hold on.” Marjorie pulled her up as Basil hoisted the handmaid up onto Aurora, giving them both a better vantage point. Philomene peered through Marjorie’s fingers to see a dome covered in brilliant green of all shades, hung with living flowers and smelling of pine and herbal scents. The Green Witch had recovered her own body when given the will to do so, just as she said she would. As frightening a being as the Green Witch could be, her true form was really quite beautiful. 

Unfortunately, the space within it was rapidly shrinking as the walls warped and twisted, vines combining and melding together into wooden roots and branches. Then Philomene remembered the Green Witch’s final warning.

“Marjorie,” she gasped. “An evacuation-everyone has to get out of here…”

“We’re taking care of that now,” Basil declared, urging Aurora onward towards a blackened hole in the wall of the dome. That was new. Rem and the White Rider both had their weapons lodged in the hole to keep it wide open enough to admit a giant, or a bear, while soldiers rushed out. Ezra was guarding their way, smacking back branches that tried to grow too close to the escape hole. 

Philomene let Marjorie hide her in the handmaiden’s big dress pocket as Aurora leaped through the hole, followed at last by the three giants. A strange figure with a long, orange-spotted tail appeared to summon flames with his own hands and burn the hole just a little bigger to allow the three in, though all had to strain. Rem was the last out, losing a shoe in the hole as it closed behind them.

The evacuated crowd gave the dome a wide berth and stared as it shrank into itself, twisting and writhing as foliage bundled itself in vines and hardened into wood. Unimaginably huge roots sprouted up from the grassy earth, steadying a lumbering and ungainly form before it began to shape itself with curlicue branches and a split, braided trunk with a hollow inside. Far up, like a tower among towers, great green leaves sprouted flowers in every color and shape imaginable, blossoms that grew on entirely different plants. It was a tree made of every tree, a different patch of bark here, a mottle there. And as it finally fell and settled itself, the Green Witch took on a form where she could watch and observe. She sealed herself in the bulk of her enormous, reunited body.

A rainbow hue of petals drifted down, lit by the rising sun. 

Philomene had never seen one before, and only knew of them from her books. But something told her she was looking at the first-ever land-grown Cathedral Tree.

Chapter Text

" a Cathedral Tree." Ezra felt a little foolish stating the obvious until he realized that to most of the humans and Flower Folk present, it wouldn't be obvious at all. Cathedral Trees, like many of the plants in the Cloud Islands, only took root in Cloudstuff. Well, until this one. 

He realized as he spoke how hoarse his voice sounded. It was as if a pin had been pulled out of him from there as the tension drained from him, and with it the energy keeping him on his feet. He swayed, catching himself on his hands so he wouldn't topple and sat right down on the muddy, sandy grass, his head spinning. The ball and battle had raged all night.  

And if he was being honest with himself, he hadn't been sleeping well in the days leading up to it either. 

As he fought the urge to pass out, Ezra felt a small hand on his side. He looked over to see Captain Taylor, looking grimy and disheveled as the rest of his guards. "You did good, kid. I owe you a drink. Probably kept some of my people alive. You use a shield before?" 

Shield? Oh, right, the table. Ezra felt a pang of guilt at hastily abandoning it during the retreat, even if it was just an object. "No, not really. I'm not a warrior," he insisted. "Not like-Basil. Where's Basil? Where are the others?" 

He tried to stand up and failed, though it proved unnecessary as seconds later he felt the insistent nudge of Aurora's big, grunting snout. Laughing despite himself, he looked past the bear to her riders.  

Marjorie had her hands over her chest, no doubt to protect Philomene. She looked exhausted but not heartbroken, which Ezra took to mean Philomene was unhurt. She sat behind Basil, who was...shivering? 

Before he said a word, Ezra reached over to take Basil into his arms and held the prince against him, onlookers be damned. Basil didn't resist despite his nervous, weak laughter. "I'll be fine," he whispered to Ezra, even as he buried himself in the embrace. "Just a little chill, I'm sure." But there was no triumphant, defiant look in his eyes. Instead he seemed unwilling to meet Ezra's gaze. His formal coat was tattered, spotted and splashed with blood. And his breathing was so shallow. 

"You need medical attention," Ezra declared immediately, looking around frantically. "Listen! He needs-" 

"You all do," a small voice spoke up from behind Marjorie's hands. "We all do." 

"I thought you were going to get some sleep." Marjorie opened her hands to hold out Philomene, looking exhausted but mostly unharmed. 

The princess managed to sit up, though it looked like an effort. "Ezra, Basil. I'm glad to see you safe." 

"And your sisters are all safe and accounted for too, Highness," Taylor added. Ezra had almost forgotten he was there.  

"Oh! You're going to want a debriefing, right? What happened was, see, there was this mental link and...I asked a question will and..." Philomene stopped herself. "I'll give it when I'm more coherent. But she should be sealed now." 

Ezra stared up at the tree. "That's her sealed form? But it's so big! The Gourmet was a single candy drop. I just assumed they were all small things and made themselves bigger." 

"Well, candy can't grow on its own. You can just add more candy to it. She was bound to something made of living tissue and could increase her biomass. At this point, between the Sea Garden and the Dryads, there's just so much of her."  The princess yawned and seemed to droop in Marjorie’s hands. “Maybe I should get some rest. No, I should stay awake for my sisters, and I want to check on Rem…”

“Rem’s fine.” Ezra pointed over to where Rem sat among several other guards and civilians, talking with Sergeant Bell. They clearly needed patching up but at least looked better off then they’d been after the sea cave. “And would want you to take care of yourself, just as your sisters would. You can explain everything later. You’ve worked so hard…”

“I-I didn’t know he was dangerous,” Basil said, face half-buried in Ezra’s shirt. He wasn’t shivering anymore but still had that uncomfortable-sounding breathing. “I’m sorry, Princess.”

Philomene shook her head. “You did a valiant job and were just trusting your instincts. None of us expected-that. Speaking of, where is Alphonse?”

Taylor tilted his head and pointed to two guards carrying an unconscious Alphonse. “We found him like that, just out cold. We’ll get answers outta him once he wakes up, trust me. Still on the lookout for Germain. On that note, I gotta talk to Rem and Bell. Holler if there’s trouble.” He left, walking with a noticeable limp.

Ezra was a little too weary to worry about anything else happening around him. Salten was worryingly absent, but Ezra had seen him escape the dome’s collapse and transformation and thus knew he was safe. He was content for the moment to just hold Basil until medical help arrived, trying not to fall asleep where he sat.

Unfortunately, fate was not content to let him do that. He heard startled cries and mutters of confusion before someone grabbed his arm. Looking down, he saw thick-toed, amphibious hands, orange with black spots and red splotches. They belonged to a very curious-looking creature, somewhere between a salamander and human, with distinctly toadlike eye placement beneath a shaggy mop of hair. His translucent skin glowed faintly with something flickering inside, like flame.

Only then did Ezra recall the strange creature that had burned their escape hole, now looking up at him with gleeful yellow eyes.

“I know you! You’re the Hearth Magic giant. Sky Person, whatever you call yourselves!” His voice was eerily familiar. “You can fix me now!”

“…Do I know you?” Ezra frowned, pulling his arm away from the salamander monster who was drawing stares and whispers. 

“I know that voice.” Philomene wasn’t asleep yet, it seemed. “It’s distorted, but I know it.” She sat up in Marjorie’s hand and stared at the salamander. “…Avery Toad.”

Toad, if that was him, winced at the sound of her voice and lowered his head. “Yes, it’s me. That was quite a trick you played, cursing me like this. That’s what happened, isn’t it? You cast some kind of delayed curse. But I’m not mad! You helped me realize how awful I’ve been, and now it’s time for me to reform. I am a new Toad!”

Ezra had trouble comprehending Toad’s words as he stared, fixing on one word in particular. “I did this? I-I cursed you? But that’s impossible! I don’t have magic like that and-I wouldn’t, I-”

“Hold it.” It might have been her acting skills, but Marjorie seemed the least shocked by Toad’s new appearance. “Ezra, your magic is based on emotion and whatever principles you impart on the food, right? Something like that. I’ve seen you do it. What did you invoke when you made that, erm, that jelly thing?”

“Claris Gel Drop Cake is not a ‘jelly thing,’” Ezra felt the need to point out with a little scowl. “And I think-I think it was clarity. Clarity and…justice? Not intentionally, but I was certainly thinking about justice at the time. And how unfair it was we had to help someone like you, Toad, when what you really merited was…”

Punishment. “Oh,” Ezra said, shuddering. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to…”

Marjorie snorted. “Can you really say he doesn’t deserve it? After all he did, even after he was free of the Green Witch’s magic?” 

Philomene said nothing. She wouldn’t even look at Toad. Somehow Toad seemed unsurprised by this, if disappointed.

Instead the toad-turned-human-turned-salamander beast kept his attention on Ezra. “Your tall mean friend is right, Hearth Magician. I’ve really been quite wretched and selfish, thinking only of myself and my own misfortunes. And I’ll bet between that enchanted dessert and the ring, I was so chock-full of magic that when I finally realized how I’d acted, it all kicked in like a catalyst. That’s how it felt inside, anyway. So you were right to curse me.”

“I don’t want to curse anyone!” Ezra looked at Marjorie, whose own curse had almost killed her at least once since they’d met, and then at Basil whose life was defined by his curse.

Basil shook his head. “It’s not the same,” he insisted, as if reading Ezra’s mind. 

Toad must not have heard him. “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t mean to curse me. You’re a good person, not like me! Like I ought to be from now on. So let me assure you I’ve learned my lesson. I am a changed whatever I am! So you can go ahead and revoke the curse now.” He curled his tail around him, a hopeful grin on his elongated snout. “I mean, I can’t live like this. I’m some manner of monster. I can’t even fit in with true Draconic Salamanders. I’m just a-a beast of some kind, like nothing else that exists.”

“I don’t know how to revoke the curse,” Ezra said quietly, avoiding Toad’s gaze. 

“Oh, that’s easy! The one who lays the curse gets to set the terms. I remember Rot Witch mentioning that.” Toad licked his lips with a big, sticky pink tongue. “Just say the curse has been broken by me doing something unselfish for once and it’ll be so, I’m sure. Then I’ll change back into a toad. I think. And…get arrested again, but at least I won’t be a monster.” 

Was it that easy? And if so, why didn’t Ezra feel any sense of relief? He didn’t want to live with the idea that he’d literally cursed someone to be an outcast, which was what such a creature would no doubt be. Draconic Salamanders couldn’t live around others for very long or their inner fires would draw fire from within the land, or so Philomene had told him. Nevermind if it was by accident, and nevermind that it had befallen a rather awful person. It would be so convenient to say that yes, that was what made things right. Toad had, to his credit, acted bravely and saved them.

“Come on, please!” Toad grabbed Ezra’s arm again. “I just want to be myself again. I barely even know what I am right now. It was fine when it was useful but now it’s supposed to go away. I know I was a jerk! That’s why I came down here in the first place! To rid myself of all this guilt and cure myself. I’m better now.” Heat surged through Toad’s fingers into Ezra’s arm until Ezra pulled it away. “I’m better now! And you have to help me!”

It would be convenient to say yes and believe him. Saying no was so hard, so frightening. 

“No,” Ezra said. “I don’t think you are.” 

“…Huh?” Toad withdrew, head lowered again and tail in hands. “What do you mean, Hearth Magician?” 

“I think you want to change. You know something’s wrong now. But you’re not there yet. And if I revoke the curse to ease my own conscience and free myself of responsibility, you’ll revert. You betrayed two countries and lied to Philomene when a lot was at stake. You can’t just do one good deed to wash your hands of it.” Ezra brushed a dusting of ash off his sleeve. 

“Oh, no! I truly, that is, um…” Toad shuddered. “I don’t want to feel guilty anymore. I tried so hard to resist it since you cast that spell. I just want to be rid of it. And now it’s all over my skin, you know? Avery Toad, the traitor who thought he had the blood of salamanders. I can’t stand looking at it.” 

“Well, I’m not the one who needs to forgive you.” Ezra glanced at Philomene, who still had her back turned. “So I could say, you need to earn the forgiveness of Thumbelina. But that would put the responsibility on them. They may never forgive.” 

Toad kept his head lowered. “I do want to change. How long does it take? I’ll do it. I promise.”
Ezra looked to Marjorie, whose attention was on Philomene. He glanced down at Basil, who gave him a slow nod of encouragement. 

Philomene spoke. “I leave the terms up to you, Ezra. I have severed all ties with Toad. If I set the terms, that’s a tie.” She seemed to retreat into Marjorie’s hands, a distant finality to her voice that was not lost on a nervous Toad.

“Philomene,” Toad said. “Philo, I-…oh, you’re right, Magician. I’m not there yet. Set the terms already.”

Ezra took a deep breath. He couldn’t set this recklessly. It was his own reckless use of magic that caused this in the first place. “You caused a lot of harm with your actions, as I said. You must travel far from here, helping others without demanding a reward. Do enough good to balance out the ill, and the magic will give you the form you’re meant to have.” 

As he spoke, he became conscious of something tingling inside of him, some sort of invisible force rushing out of him and into Toad. Astonished, Ezra covered his mouth with his fingers. So he’d done it. “As for becoming a better person,” he added slowly, “I can’t tell you how to do that. That’s for you to figure out. Guilt’s a curse you lay on yourself, I think.”

Toad wouldn’t meet Ezra’s gaze, fidgeting with his tail and wincing at the proclamation. The light inside him flickered, and at first Ezra worried he would lash out in anger. Instead, he took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“…You’re thanking me?”

“You were right. I would just have snapped back. I was still thinking about myself when I helped you, you know. How to win absolution for myself. Ha. But you know, now I’m hopeful! I can do that. I can.” Toad dropped his tail and lowered himself to all fours. “In fact, I’ll start doing that just now. Sure there’s got to be some do-gooding to do. Sure a nice firey Beast like me can do it.” He kept reassuring himself of that as he slunk off into the woods, glancing one over his shoulder past Ezra at Philomene. Philomene did not look back.

All four were silent in the wake of that, Ezra’s heart racing. He’d cast a curse and maintained it. Could that possibly have been the right thing to do? 

“He got off rather light,” Basil muttered, finally breaking the silence. “I’d like to be warm all the time.” 

“Don’t talk now,” Ezra insisted. “Just rest and catch your breath. And I-I don’t know. I never wanted to…I don’t know.”

“You said no, and you were harsh about it. I had to learn how to do the same thing.” Philomene sighed. 

“Well. I need to learn more about magic from a master instead of pretending I can teach an apprentice about anything. I know that much,” Ezra said. 

“Take it from a fellow cursed person. I think it’s going to be for the best. Although,” Marjorie pointed out, “you did give him a head start against the guards there.” 

Ezra blinked. “Oh! I-I guess he did escape. Well. I don’t know what can be done about that.” 


That was another voice that was familiar but not immediately identified. Ezra looked up, around, and down at a wolf, or perhaps some kind of dog, with reddish fur. She looked up at him and wagged her tail. “You have Basil?” she asked, sounding very much like a growlier version of the girl from the party.

“Uh.” Basil blinked, looking up. “Long story. I’ll explain.” He had one hand over his chest, breathing as if he were in pain. 

Chapter Text

The Riders sat apart from the rest of the Imperial guard, as Salten would have expected. They were right outside of the Empress’s tent. What he did not expect to see was how casual they were after the battle, bathed in the orange light of the sunrise. 

Bright Morning sat in front of the tent with her helmet up, revealing ruddy skin, auburn hair and a long scar across her nose. She looked younger than Salten would have expected, puffing on a long pipe held between her gauntleted fingers. At her side, grey-bearded Dark Midnight poured tea into two-no, three porcelain cups of differing size, then handed the kettle off to a silent servant. The scent of cinnamon mingled with the herbal pipe smoke around them. 

Salten ducked behind a curve in the great tree’s trunk, telling himself he wasn’t listening in. He was just resting all the many, many aching muscles in his body and nursing the bruises, and he just happened to be doing it in hearing range of the famed Riders. 

“Really, Scarlet. With two cartridges?” An older male voice Salten took to be Dark Midnight chuckled. “What did you fill them with?” 

The answer was too faint to make out. Salten recalled the rumors that the oft-unseen Scarlet Sun was actually a Flowerling. Naturally, he wouldn’t be able to hear someone that size from a distance.  

Bright Morning clearly could, and responded after an audible puff on her pipe. “Weak constitution, I’d guess. Had that rose-thing attached to him for so long. Bet that can’t be healthy. So the Empress wants him alive, does she?” 

“Her Imperial Eternity specifically said she wishes to speak with him, in private,” Dark Midnight said. 

“Mm.” The giant sighed. “He’s going to wish we let the Mountain prince deal with him.”  

There was another pause, during which Salten guessed Scarlet was talking again, and then Bright responded with a laugh. “What? No. Honestly, what did he think he was doing? He hates Her Eternity so much, go join the rebels or something. Coward.”  

Salten wasn’t really sure who they were talking about, and didn’t care. His heart pounded in his chest with what was more than mere exhaustion. He’d fought alongside one of the Riders. He’d barely managed to get by, using whatever furniture he could find as a makeshift weapon, but he had fought. There had been no cowering under a monster plant this time, no public display of his own cowardice. He hadn’t endangered his father this time, and the C.P. had, well, barely acknowledged his presence. Probably too busy, he figured. But at least this time Salten hadn’t humiliated himself in front of them. 

He was bruised and battered, sure to be sore later. His heart hadn’t stopped beating, the adrenaline in his blood still flowing. He could even convince himself he hadn’t been frightened at all, and believe it. And underneath that rush was a sense of rightness, something repressed blooming and flaring up. Was that the Sun’s light spark? Was that more than devout Ezra’s method of motivating him in the kitchen?  

So caught up was he in his own thoughts that he didn’t notice the conversation had died out. Even if he were paying attention, he would not have thought twice about the strange spotted lizard crawling over the trunk. Not until it crept onto his shoulder and he heard a small, smug voice next to his ear. 

“Thought we heard a mouse.” 

It took a lot of self control not to jump. What sort of trouble would Salten be in if he accidentally injured a Rider? Or worse for him, angered a Rider? He had no idea what a Flowerling could do in retaliation to a giant; if the Flowerling in question was one of the Empress’s guards, one probably didn’t want to find out. Instead Salten froze, back against the tree, speaking in an intentionally low voice. 

“I was just-I wanted to see all around the tree, and…” 

The little voice laughed. “You aren’t going to play this off as innocence, are you? Relax. Stress causes wrinkles. And if we thought you were a threat to Her Imperial Eternity, you’d already be a nice, clean corpse.” The gecko on Salten’s shoulder crawled down his arm so Salten could see its rider better, a Flowerling clad in a bright red cloak with a miniscule rodent skull mask. He tipped the mask, though Salten couldn’t make out his face. 

His mouth dry, Salten couldn’t find words until he managed to mumble out a nigh-unintelligible apology. 

“Scarlet Sun, Rider of the Blazing Midday,” the Flowerling introduced himself. “My cohorts sent me to bring you out so you might join the conversation instead of listening in on our petty gossip. Wouldn’t want you to feel excluded, would we?” 

Sweat poured down Salten's neck. No, they wouldn't toy with him and then kill him for eavesdropping. If they were discussing anything truly confidential they wouldn't do so outside. In fact, he doubted the Empress was even resting in that particular tent. And he would not allow his own cowardice to keep him from meeting an idol. He'd fought alongside Bright Morning. He had every right to speak with her.  

Thus were the justifications he used to make his suddenly-heavy legs carry him out into view, approaching the Riders with a bowed head. "Salten Candlewood," he managed to say. "Apprentice." He rarely afforded anyone a Sky-style formal introduction, profession and all, and not just because he loathed his profession. Why did strangers deserve respect and deference from the get-go? 

But these three were different. Even unmasked, Bright Morning rose to her feet with the kind of confidence and authority his kin ought to have, seemingly unburdened by the weight of her plate armor. She did not shrink back in the presence of humans and made no body language gestures of apology for her size. Beside her, Dark Midnight was dwarfed in comparison, yet his form carried a sense of serenity and power. And Scarlet? Why, Scarlet had approached a giant unafraid, not out of valor (for Salten would know that well) but mere curiosity. Scarlet had nothing to fear from someone like Salten. 

Normally that would irritate Salten. Instead he found himself filled with awe. 

"Well, I'm sure you know our names. But I'm not rude. Bright Morning, Rider of the Purifying Dawn." The giant offered a formal introduction giving only her apparent title; something told Salten her family name was not Morning.  

"Dark Midnight, Rider of the Harmonius Slumber." The human's languid tone fit his curiously peaceful-sounding title. As he spoke, Scarlet's gecko scurried across the grass and onto Midnight's wrinkled, ringed hand. 

"I thought you'd come back." Bright approached Salten and gave him the once-over. "Well, good to see you came out of that without more than scratches. You could've been killed, kid. You know that, right?" 

So that's what he was going to get? Another dressing-down for finally taking action instead of hiding behind some shield? He couldn't stop himself from blurting out an answer. "Of course I know that! I wanted to help, I mean really help for once, in a way I knew how. And no one even cares! No one wants to hear how I can-what I'm supposed to..." 

He stopped himself, mortified, and felt the color drain from his face when he remembered who he was lashing out at. "I didn't mean anything! I'm sorry, please, I just let my mouth run..." 

Yet he stared in astonishment as Bright Morning smiled.  

"I like the honest you better. You're angry, right? At the world, at people you can't be angry at, a sense that nothing's as it should be. I recognize it. Our people are supposed to suppress it, especially if we're Exiles or Landborn and unworthy of being angry in the first place. At least, in the world as it is now."  

"...I guess." Was that what Salten's unease was from? Why he felt like a storm brewed inside him even when he was supposed to be having fun and enjoying himself? 

"A shame, though. People with that sort of inner flame usually go astray on the land. They don't fit." Bright crossed her arms. "But you said you're an apprentice, right? Good. Means you've found a niche. Ought to take care of that." 

"Actually..." What was Salten about to do? Bright Morning was honoring him with a talk, that was all. She didn't know him. Why should she want to hear how ill-fitted Salten was for his apprenticeship, how he resented the future offered him by well-meaning parents and then hated himself for resenting it?  

Maybe his expression said enough. "Well, you ought to go back to your family. They're probably worried, especially once they hear you helped fight. And if you don't treat those scrapes they'll fester." 

"Right," Salten mumbled. 

"But you know," Dark Midnight interjected, "if you do think your place is somewhere else, and there is nothing wrong with that, Her Imperial Eternity is looking for strong youths of a...fiery persuasion. Of any size." 

"Ones willing to fight," Scarlet added. "For Her cause." 

"For your place. Your happy ending, as She might put it." Bright Morning stepped back. "Which is not an invitation for you to try trailing Her Eternity's entourage back to the capital. Security and all, and we're not some traveling caravan picking up passengers. But there is a ferry running up the Lethe River that might accept passage for work. From anyone." 

"But we want you to come willingly," Midnight said, hands folded as Scarlet situated on his shoulder. "Follow your passion. Now, if you'll excuse us, we need to prepare. Her Eternity has a speech prepared." 

"Good to meet you, Apprentice Candlewood." Scarlet tipped his mask again and rode Midnight back into the tent. Bright was the last to leave, with only a wave. 

And Salten was left standing outside, trying to make his legs work again. His heart kept pounding, something welling up inside him like a flame.

So yes, somehow this has all resulted in the appearance of an irregular Cathedral Tree on territory half-belonging to Nautilus (and the Empire) and half to Thumbelina. If the Green Witch were so inclined I’d bet she was trying to be symbolic, but nothing of the sort. The location was chosen for the false ball specifically so it was “neutral ground.” Considering Thumbelina Kingdom’s obviously negative inclinations towards Libra, that’s quite an allowance on their parts. You know what they say about common enemies.

Confession: I thought there was some kind of adage about common enemies but cannot remember it. I lost a lot of blood last week. Bear with me.

As a goodwill gesture, I recommend sending an information packet from some of the local Architectural Gardeners and a copy of Arb’s History and Cultivation of the Common Cathedral Tree. We can’t get a human-scaled copy, can we? I’m not sure a human could lift that door stopper in its common printing. Well, maybe that’s all the more motivation for them to hire some Exiles down here.

Included is the sample, all the visible parts left of the Rot Witch on the land. Two dried up mushrooms which hopefully won’t be dust by the time they reach you. I say visible because as Princess Philomene has pointed out, a fungus can spread out underground and only surface in the form of mushrooms when it rains. It’s possible the Rot Witch is laying dormant in some sort of network under the surface here, but to be honest I doubt it. I don’t think she’s rooted here at all, or else she’d be a lot stronger. No shortage of fear to go around. And there’s no way she’d leave Thumbelina’s Vine network intact.

No, Veras. I think what we saw was her ‘fruiting body’ (that’s what the princess called it, I’m no natural philosopher) and the rest of her is infecting Mielle. Can’t prove it, but that’s my suspicion. Why she was concentrating her efforts down here while just spreading generalized, faceless decay up there, that I can’t tell you. Maybe she had some kind of two-pronged plan involving taking over the Green Witch’s much stronger form, and once she failed at that she retreated as fast as she could. Witnesses claim she “fears rejection,” whatever that means.

Now we just need to figure out how to apply the idea of rejection to a spreading goo patch. Easy, right? 

Well, I hope we’ve at least slowed her down. 

Basil once again found himself huddled under piled-on blankets, nursing a mug of hot tea in weather that had the other inhabitants of Taylor Estate sweating and sipping fruit juice. It wasn’t that he was any colder than usual. He’d mostly recovered physically from his fight with Alphonse by the end of that day, thanks in part to Ezra’s attention and gentle nursing. He could probably walk around in his usual coat just fine if he’d desired. But the blankets gave a familiar sense of comfort he associated with his childhood, even if those blankets smelled of Lavender’s campfire-scented magic and these of perfumed soap. 

Being mostly recovered, physically, was not synonymous with being alright.

Thank the Mountain Lords, long may they battle, that nobody had pushed the point when he said he didn’t want to talk about Alphonse. Captain Taylor and Sergeant Bell needed the dry facts and mercifully asked for nothing else. Ezra, Marjorie and Philomene, perhaps catching the look in his eyes, would let him change the subject. 

And Red, blessed Red, seemed to want to talk about everything else instead.

The wolf sat at the foot of his bed. Red, for whatever reason, hadn’t transformed back into her human form since breaking Basil out of his cold-trance. That left others a lot jumpier around her, as she was certainly a very large wolf cub. Aurora was one thing, a great bear who mostly slept in the stables and growled lazily at the horses. 

Red wanted to follow Basil everywhere. It was pretty adorable, if a little baffling. He had to gently explain to her that as she was an Enlightened animal, it wouldn’t really be appropriate for her to sleep in his room; besides, he wanted privacy. And she wanted to know every single detail of the story behind her mother’s last stand.

“Where’s the harp?” She tilted her head, big ears up. “Jack’s harp. I want