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Penny Dreadfuls

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When we last left our heroine, she had just been invited to a state affair at Castle Sturmvoraus, home of the mysterious Prince Tarvek. But what does a man of his reputation want with a virtuous young woman such as the fabled Agatha Heterodyne? Intrigue and temptation await her as the Prince makes his intentions clear, in this week’s installment!

 

The dessert course was as sumptuous as the preceding courses had been, with cakes and confections of all descriptions piled high atop the table. Agatha glanced from one to the next, realizing suddenly that she had no idea what sort of sweets a well-bred lady most favored.

“Your Highness,” she said demurely, “which of these delicacies do you most recommend?”

The Prince put a finger to his chin in consideration. “We have only the finest to offer tonight,” he purred, “so naturally you must have only the finest of the finest.” A smile began to unfurl itself along his narrow lips. “Ah! Perfect. For the lady, a trifle made with Beetleburg cream—” he indicated a dish near Agatha’s elbow— “and the ripest of cherries.” He arched one dark eyebrow as the corner of his mouth twitched upward. “I trust you’ll enjoy it.”

As Agatha lifted the first spoonful to her lips, she nearly gasped at its lightness and delicate flavor, undercut by a strong note of what she could only assume must be brandy. Between the trifle and the generous glass of port she had been served, she was beginning to feel light-headed, and not all of it could be written off as the effect of the Prince’s steady gaze.

When the dessert plates had been carried away, the others filtered out of the room, one by one, until Agatha realized with a start that she was alone with Prince Tarvek. Yes, the very man who had been staring at her all evening, who sent a shiver of danger up her spine and a mysterious flutter through her stomach, was the Prince of Sturmhalten she’d heard so many rumors about.

She looked up at him through her lashes, and he put down his glass of wine as he met her eyes. “My lady,” he intoned, standing and giving a deep, flowing bow. His movements were graceful, studied, drawing her eye along the elegant lines of his body.

“Your Highness,” she said. Had she sounded… disturbed? She fretted, regardless, and felt her cheeks burn red as the Prince came towards her.

“I hope I am not being too forward in remarking upon how lovely you have looked all evening?”

“Th-thank you, Your Highness.” She blushed harder, the heat spreading down her neck and shoulders. “You look quite… dashing, yourself.”

A smirk played at his lips. “Dashing is nothing to ravishing, and I am nothing to the Flower of the Danube. But…” The smirk unfurled into a smile. “Might the flower not glow the more brightly in raiment befitting her exceptional beauty?”

“I…” Agatha stammered, uncertain. How ought she to take such a compliment? From a Prince, no less, and one whose merest whisper sent a delicious shiver through her whole body? “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Your Highness.”

The Prince’s dark eyes flashed, dangerous yet seductive, and he bent to kiss her hand. “Why don’t you come with me and see?” he murmured, still holding her by the hand, and he moved to lead her toward the gold-inlaid door.

“Where are we going?” she asked breathlessly.

“Oh, mon petit chou. Wait and see.” He chuckled, and a shiver ran down her spine as they traversed the hallway, lit only by flickering candles on the walls.

“I’m not certain where you’re taking me! Should I really…?”

“Tsk, tsk, my flower. You’re in no danger here. I have gifts for you, gifts beyond measure. Behold.”

He flung the double doors wide, and she found herself facing a high-ceilinged room, its walls draped in velvet and tapestry, a candle-filled chandelier casting long shadows around it. Against the far wall there was a wardrobe, huge and carven with the Prince’s seal on either door, and mirrors reflected the candlelight on either side.

The Prince led her inside, across the lushly carpeted floor, and stood her before one of the mirrors. Only then did he let her hand slip free of his long, gloved fingers.

“Behold, my dearest. For you.” He pushed the wardrobe open, and she gasped at its contents: dress after dress of silks and velvets, richly embroidered and encrusted with jewels and golden threads. “Which would you… ah, no. No need.” He slipped one from amongst its comrades, a deep-red gown with gold at throat and hem, its heavy skirts rich with patterns. He held it up for her inspection, and she blushed when she realized how very low the neckline would fall.

“It’s...it’s beautiful, Your Highness.”

“As it should be, for the lady who wears it. Come, my flower. Let me see you in it.” He pressed the dress into her hands, and returned from the wardrobe with something else: a corset, snow-white, lace edging where it would fall beneath her bosoms.

“I do not know if I should…”

He pressed one slender finger to her lips. “Shhh, my dearest. It would be my pleasure see you wear this.”

He stepped behind her, and she shivered more strongly now as he brushed her hair from her shoulders and began to unhook her dress, his hands deft and practiced.

“Your Highness...”

“All in good time, my pet.” Leaving her hooks for a moment,he ran one hand down her back, from shoulder to hip, and she felt herself flush, her face heating in shame, and perhaps in more.

“In time we will find the rest of your ensemble, won’t we? Shoes. Stockings. Chemises. Something more appropriate for a lady of your…exquisite gifts than these old things.” He pushed her dress from her shoulders, and she shut her eyes to avoid his face in the mirror — and her own.

“Step from it — ah, there we are, ma petite. Now —” He dropped his head until he could whisper in her ear, and she shuddered even harder at that. “let me take care of this.”

He began on the laces of her corset, slowly and carefully loosening them, his breath still hot against her ear. “I can see you now. A queen, regal and beautiful, a flush on your creamy shoulders, a dress with the richness of wine and blood, gold at your throat and ears. What do you say?”

“...Ah.”

“I thought as much.” His hands moved higher along her spine. “My, but there are a lot of these laces! However do you undo them all by yourself?”

She blushed even deeper. “It… it just takes a little while, I guess.”

He laughed low in his throat. “Lucky for you that you have me to help you with them. Now, off you go.”

She trembled, fearful, and yet… “Wait, Your Highness, please—”

“Nonsense, my little sugarplum.” He trailed one hand over her bare upper arm, and at his touch she turned her head, just enough to see the fire kindled in his dark, half-hooded eyes. “I insist that you try on these little fripperies now. Just a whim of mine.”

Cringing at the touch of his hands, yet with a strange new feeling in the pit of her stomach, she reached to remove the corset, fumbling with its hooks, when the sound of thudding footsteps came echoing up the corridor, startling them both. The Prince turned sharply on his heel and faced the door.

“Don’t you have better things to do than play dress-up with honorable young women?” Standing in the doorway was the Baron’s son, brandishing a rapier and bleeding from a cut to his lip. His shirt had fallen open, and a fine trail of blood ran down his glistening chest. Agatha gasped and clutched her arms over her bosom, staring frightened between the two men.

“Well, if it isn’t my dear friend Herr Wulfenbach. So very glad you could join us, monsieur. We were just getting started.” The Prince smirked, and then, raising one eyebrow, licked his lips.

“If you can’t treat her like a lady, then you can face me like a man.” Wulfenbach strode across the carpet, his heavy footfalls leaving deep impressions in the crushed velvet. For a moment, despite his considerable height, the Prince looked nearly delicate next to his huge frame as Wulfenbach glared fiercely down at him, hand on the hilt of his rapier. “Choose your weapon wisely, knave.”

The Prince looked him over approvingly from top to bottom. “Oh, I already have chosen. Unfortunately, I think I’ll have to make do with a sword for the time being.” With a pouting glance back at Agatha, he added, “A pity, Lady Heterodyne. We’ll have to have our fun some other time. I do so hate to break an appointment.”

Hastily tying the laces of her corset, Agatha did her best to regain her composure. Her own dress out of reach, she grabbed the red silk one which the Prince had thrust upon her and clutched it to her chest before turning to him. “Well, I hope you will take lessons from Herr Wulfenbach in how to be a gentleman next time.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Perhaps. I do think it rather above the station of a baron’s son to give lessons to a prince in anything.” From over the mantelpiece he took a sword, sharp and gleaming, though not so long as the one Wulfenbach was brandishing.

“We’ll see how far your pedigree can get you at swordpoint.” Wulfenbach thrust first, a swift and calculated blow which the Prince deflected with the tip of his own sword mere inches in front of his chest.

The Prince stepped aside abruptly, parrying Wulfenbach’s next thrust almost before it had begun. “If this is your best, Baron-to-be, it may take me farther than you would think.”

He thrust first this time, forcing Wulfenbach to stumble and step back, and they circled around the edges of the room, reflected in the Prince’s mirrors. The Prince almost fluttered, his stance light, dodging every strike, parrying every thrust, landing a glancing blow here and there before spinning away from Wulfenbach’s blade. The young nobleman, in turn, matched him move for move, so close and synchronized it looked to Agatha as though the two of them were dancing.

A few minutes in and Wulfenbach was panting hard, his chestnut hair spilling loose into his face. Agatha could see the strain in the hard lines of his muscles and in the set of his strong jaw. He took a wild swing at the Prince, yelling, and then there came a whirlwind of motion, too fast for Agatha to keep track. At its end, Wulfenbach was on his back, struggling under the Prince’s booted foot, which was planted firmly on his chest. His own blade lay on the floor, far out of reach.

The Prince had been struck, though; a fine red line bloomed on his cheek. He hardly seemed to notice, until a drop of blood rolled down his ivory face to rest at the corner of his mouth. With a murmur of evident pleasure, he let his tongue flicker out to lap it up.

“Tch.” The Prince shook his head, staring down the line of his sword. “What else was I to expect from the hot-headed heir to an illegitimate legacy?” He used the flat of the blade to tilt up Wulfenbach’s chin, forcing the other man to look at him. “Oh, if only you weren’t so boorish, so determined to ruin our fun. You can’t even put that fine form of yours to use, can you?” He drew back the sword, but Wulfenbach didn’t look away. “More’s the pity. I suppose I’ll have to send the Baron a very apologetic letter, explaining the accident that’s —”

With Wulfenbach trapped on the floor and the Prince showing no signs of relenting, Agatha took matters into her own trembling hands. Casting about her surroundings, she chose the sturdiest candlestick she could find and flung it at the Prince’s sword hand.

It collided with a tremendous thud, and the Prince cried out in surprise. But her aim was true: he dropped his sword, letting it clatter to the floor, and stumbled back in alarm.

Wulfenbach took the opportunity, leaping to his feet, fists at the ready. The Prince was still startled, still stunned, and he took a step back as Wulfenbach advanced.

“More’s the pity, indeed, Your Highness,” he taunted, raising his fists. The Prince simply arched an eyebrow and ducked away, avoiding the first punch and the second. The third hit, though, struck the straight line of the Prince’s nose, and the fourth caught him squarely in the jaw.

He struck no more than a glancing blow or two of his own, dodging rather than punching, and eventually his evasion seemed to fail him. He staggered, barely resisting as Wulfenbach struck him once and then again until he stumbled. He seemed to fall almost of his own accord, until he came heavily to rest on his knees before Wulfenbach, lifting his head upright. Wulfenbach stood over the Prince’s crouched form, staring down; the Prince, his carefully groomed face bloodied, auburn locks spilling out of their ribbon, grinned up at him.

“Take her, if that’s what you want,” he murmured, shutting his eyes. “I’ve seen what I wanted tonight.” He laughed, low in his throat. “And you can expect my company sooner than you’d think, Baron.”

“You’re mad.”

He laughed again. “And you aren’t? Go on. I won’t stop you.”

“You’re…” Wulfenbach shook his head in disgust, unable even to find the words. Then he started, jolting upright, and rushed over to Agatha, stripping out of his coat and casting it over her shoulders. “Let’s get you away from this house of debauchery. Finishing him off isn’t even worth the time.”

Agatha snatched her dress from the floor, and then Wulfenbach took her hand. He rushed her out of the room and back down the strangely empty corridor; she could feel the Prince’s gaze on her even as she ran out of his sight.

“Where are we going?”

“Away from here. Don’t worry.” Wulfenbach stopped short, rapier drawn, and motioned to her to halt before peering around the corner. “It’s clear. Hurry. We have to get you out of here before he follows us.”

“You think he will?”

“I know he will,” said Wulfenbach grimly. “Hang on tight.” He scooped her, roughly yet tenderly, into his arms and slung her over one enormous shoulder. She was astonished at how easily he ran while carrying her, with no sign of strain showing on his face. Only the tautness of his muscles under her fingers betrayed that it was any effort for him at all.

His footfalls echoed on parquet through the cavernous rooms. Sword in one hand, Wulfenbach secured her with the other, and if anyone lurked in the shadowy corners of the castle halls, they did not emerge.

Agatha shivered out of cold rather than fear now, as Wulfenbach threw open a heavy set of doors onto a balcony. The mountain winds whipped at her, stinging through the thin layers of cotton she wore, and she hugged his thick, warm coat tighter around her shoulders.

“Aren’t you cold?” she asked him, teeth chattering.

“I’ll be all right,” he grunted, although she could see goosebumps rising along his thick arms.

“A-ha!” came a shout. Agatha clutched Wulfenbach’s neck as the figure, clad in violet, approached. He grinned at them, brandishing a dagger. “I thought you’d be along. Won’t His Highness be pleased when I tell him I’ve dispatched his rival and brought back his pretty pet?”

Without warning, Wulfenbach lunged forward, turning to the side to keep his bulk between Agatha and the assailant. The man gave a tremendous cry as the rapier plunged into him. Before he could collapse to the flagstones, though, Wulfenbach drew the sword back out and, in one fluid, practiced motion, heaved the assassin over the battlements. “Not today,” he growled.

He stared over the wall for a moment, set Agatha down as gently as he could, and then walked the length of the balcony, looking around corners. “There’s nobody else here,” he reported, wiping his broad brow with the back of one large hand. “They must all be with the prince. But if that’s any sign of what’s to come, we must get you away. Come, the flying machine is close.”

It was close: just around the corner, in fact, and they made the journey unmolested by any other minions, assassins, or rogue mechanics sent to stop their escape. Wulfenbach bent to examine the aircraft, running his hand along the frame. “Let’s leave,” Agatha whispered. “Please? I don’t think I can stand to stay another minute in this frightful place.”

He nodded and dropped his hands to her waist to lift her into the machine. Sitting in it, she was at eye level with him, and he gave her a bracing smile. She found herself smiling back, safe at last, warmed by the concern written all over his face. “Wear these,” he said, handing her a pair of goggles, and strapped a larger pair over his own eyes.

As he hefted himself up into the pilot’s seat, she looked behind them. The balcony was still empty, but there were lights flickering through the windows and the open door. “Hurry!”

The engine roared to life, and in a moment they were in the air, leaving Castle Sturmvoraus far behind. Wulfenbach pulled a lever, and the engine shifted, the noise settling into a gentle hum.

The night was clear and cool as they flew. With the gaslamps of Sturmhalten growing distant, the stars and waxing moon flooded the little aircraft with silvery light. Agatha’s flowing locks streamed out behind her as they sped across the sky.

Wulfenbach turned to her. “Lady Heterodyne. Are you all right? Did that treacherous filth lay hands on you?” He squeezed her hand.

“N-no. I’m not hurt,” she said, lower lip trembling. “I was just… so afraid of what might have happened. What would have happened, had you not come.”

He moved again until he could pull her into an embrace. Startled for a moment, she soon relaxed against his chest, not realizing just how tense she had been, and he wrapped his strong arms around her shoulders. “Agatha,” he murmured, his voice low, “if I may be so bold as to call you that. I would sooner die than fail to rush to your side. Truly, I…” He trailed off and cupped her face, bending to kiss her forehead. “And if that swine Prince Tarvek ever gives you any trouble ever again, well.” He shot a look over his shoulder at the Castle and shook his head, jaw set with grim determination. “He’s going to wish he’d never been born.”

She nodded. Suddenly the combined effects of exhaustion and gratitude overtook her, and she flung her arms about his neck, burying her face in the crook of his shoulder and clinging to his solid form. He wrapped one arm around her waist and stroked his other hand through her hair, cradling her against him.

“Agatha,” he murmured again. She lifted her head, all anxiousness gone, and he kissed her. She was surprised by the force with which he pressed his mouth to hers, and the roughness of his unshaven face against her smooth skin, and even more so by how fast her pulse began to race as he pressed her to himself with strong arms. The kiss grew deeper, and her whole body felt electrified at his touch, at his mouth on hers. She had no idea how long it had been when he finally broke the kiss and looked down at her with darkened eyes. He looked like he wanted to kiss her again, but instead he ran one thumb over her kiss-swollen lower lip. “Agatha. You are so perfect, so impossibly lovely, that the very thought of the Prince’s dirty little hands on you makes me sick with rage.”

“He’s the kind of man I was warned about growing up,” she said with a vigorous nod and a shudder. She did her best to ignore the strange tingling feeling that arose inside her when she remembered the Prince’s flashing eyes and the way his nimble fingers had undone her corset.

“You have nothing to fear from that lecherous snake anymore. I’ll protect you,” he said, stroking her hair as gently as his large hands could.

The rest of the trip went by in a blur; all that mattered was the two of them, together. It was still dark, the sky velvet-black, when they landed beneath a shadowy copse of trees.

Wulfenbach vaulted himself out of the machine, landing easily on his feet. “We’re going just over there,” he told her, pointing into the woods. “You’ll be safest there, from anything — or anyone — that comes. I promise you that.”

She moved to clamber out of the machine herself, but he stopped her, lifting her out of the machine with big hands around her waist. Instead of setting her down on the ground, though, he swept her up into his arms, carrying her as easily as if she weighed nothing. She snuggled herself against his chest, suddenly flooded with relief. She would be safe, and they would be together, and maybe, just maybe, he would kiss her like that again…

They were well into the trees when something crackled behind them. Agatha clutched at his arm and trembled. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” He drew her close in a protective embrace.

The noise came again, louder this time, and Wulfenbach whirled around, reflexes as sharp as ever. “Who goes there?” he shouted.

The grinning face that emerged from the darkness was all too familiar.

- - -

Who has ambushed our heroine and the Baron’s heir? How will they escape?” read Zeetha in her best dramatic tenor, waggling her eyebrows wildly. “And what will become of the budding passion between them in the aftermath of the escape from the Prince’s castle? Romance and intrigue aplenty await the Gentle Reader in next week’s installment! Ta-daaaa!” She bowed from the waist.

“Who writes this tripe?” Gil howled. He snatched the magazine, holding it at arm’s length in case it started biting. “No, seriously, who? And where can we find them? Tarvek, you know these things, where—”

“I do not know these things!” protested Tarvek, who was rapidly turning the same color as his hair. “I can honestly say that I have never seen a copy of—” he glanced at the cover— “Thrilling True Tales of the Heterodynes before in my life.”

“You must not get out much!” crowed Zeetha, who was perched atop a pile of cheaply-printed literature. “It’s on every newsstand in Mechanicsburg!” Tarvek made a noise of pain.

“And you haven’t shut them down?” spluttered Gil to Agatha.

Agatha sighed. “I’m trying to be a good Heterodyne. I should be keeping the city safe from invaders, not harassing the publishers of penny dreadfuls.” She glanced again at the magazine, which boasted a full-color illustration of a thinner, excessively well-coiffed version of herself locked in an amorous embrace with a square-jawed, shirtless man she could only assume was supposed to be Gilgamesh. “Though I have to say it’s tempting. Damsel in distress, my socket wrench. Where do they think I’d have ended up if I just clung to your chest all the time?”

“...Uh,” said Gil. “At my chest?”

Gil.”

Zeetha grinned. “Would you prefer Heroic Heterodyne Exploits?”

Agatha rolled her eyes. “Oh, let me guess, that’s the one where I wear a leather bikini and—”

“Nah, that’s Stupendous Adventures of the Lady Heterodyne, and the bikini is fur, not leather. Heroic Exploits is the one where Tarvek is the dashing, chivalrous, sensitive Prince Charming, bound to sweep our lady off her feet, and you—” she cuffed Gil on the shoulder, “are the lecherous, hulking brute who would use his illegitimate power to carry her away!” Gil stared at her, looking faintly ill, and she beamed back. “What?”

“That ought to make me feel better,” said Tarvek with a grimace, “and yet somehow it really, really doesn’t.”

Zeetha shrugged. “I hear it sells like hotcakes in Sturmhalten.”

“And this is what sells in Mechanicsburg?” He gave a weary sigh. “Do they really think of me as a spoiled, leering lech in tight trousers?” A look of horror crossed his face. “Or — or do they think I’d be more interesting if I were?” He shuddered. “I don’t know which is worse.”

“Ooh, I know.” Zeetha rummaged through the stack of magazines by her side and selected one that was printed in three garish colors. “Try Chronicles of the Heterodynes and Company.” She opened it to a page near the middle and handed it to Tarvek. “Emphasis on the ‘and company’ part.”

Tarvek began to read aloud. “The door to the chamber shut, and inside, the Prince blinked his dark eyes as he tremulously adjusted his cravat. Shuddering with anticipation, he turned on his heel to face the other man.” He groaned. “Not this nonsense again. ‘At last we are alone, my princely pet,’ said young Wulfenbach, his entire face ablaze with desire. Under Wulfenbach’s withering gaze, the Prince blushed demurely and—

“All right, that’s enough,” snapped Gil, yanking the magazine out of Tarvek’s hands. “If I ever call you ‘my princely pet,’ do me a favor and shoot me.”

“Not unless you shoot me first.” Tarvek regarded the magazine with a faint horror. Gil made a face at it.

“Hey, Agatha, this is right up your alley!” Zeetha retrieved the magazine from Gil and tossed it over to Agatha. “Something to stick under your pillow on those lonely nights, am I right?”

“Zeetha!” Agatha squirmed in her seat. “Who would want to read that… that corny garbage?”

“Oh you know.” Zeetha nudged Agatha in the ribs. “You don’t have to read it for the brilliant prose, is all I’m saying.”

“Why would she, then?” said Gil with a snort, as Tarvek buried his face in his hands and groaned. “The character assassination?”

“You mean you—” Zeetha gaped at Agatha. “It’s like this. Let’s say you have a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese. But you just keep eating them one at a time.” Zeetha pantomimed biting into alternating foodstuffs. “How has it never occurred to you to make a cheese sandwich?”

“All right,” said a crimson-cheeked Tarvek, picking up a bag of magazines. “I’ll start bringing this stuff downstairs. You ladies enjoy your… cheese sandwiches.”

Gil hastily grabbed several more bags and started after him. “Yeah, I, uh, guess we’ll just go start the papier-mâché mixer and hook it up to the cannon.”

Zeetha hefted a bag onto one shoulder and elbowed Agatha again. “See you downstairs,” she sang out.

“I’ll catch up,” Agatha called after her. She began stuffing two burlap sacks with newspapers, but stopped when she glanced again at the copy of Chronicles of the Heterodynes and Company. It was open to a page featuring an image of Gilgamesh — the likeness this time was at least recognizable— planting a kiss on the lips of a slender young man. His face was mostly hidden by the auburn sweep of his bangs, but she had a suspicion as to whom he was meant to be.

She picked it up and began to skim the text, wincing at lines like “the sculpted expanse of his manly chest” and “the flutter of long dark lashes against the smooth porcelain of his skin,” but didn’t toss it into one of the bags. Instead, after a quick glance around the room, she tucked it underneath a cushion on the overstuffed sofa.

”I must say, Mistress, it warms my heart to see you indulging your prurient interests,” said the booming voice of Castle Heterodyne. Agatha froze. “If you’ve developed an appetite for those two, it bodes quite well for the suitability of your heirs.”

“Castle,” she said sternly, “I don’t want to hear about it from you, and I certainly don’t want anybody else to.”

”Very well. If I may simply suggest some literature from the personal collection of your ancestor Satyricus-”

“Don’t push it,” she said with a half-smile as she started down the stairs.

”Suit yourself, milady.”