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I'm Yours, You're (never) Mine

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7

Agatha’s over by the partially completed lift platform, preparing to head down into the bowels of Castle Heterodyne in hopes of finding a lab with the necessary power for the Si Vales Valeo transfer. They didn’t have time to make everything from scratch. It’s not just Tarvek who would be in trouble any more. He’s pulled Gil into peril as well. Not to mention the risk to Agatha and Mechanicsburg from this detour. Zola won’t wait; wherever she’s gotten to, it won’t result in anything good. The Castle won’t wait; every drop in power made it even more unstable and considering where it had started deathtrap was too optimistic a title now. The Baron won’t wait; he no doubt already had a plan in motion to level this place to the ground even as they’re standing there. Gil had bought Agatha some time on that last front with his ridiculous impersonation of a human shield, but it won’t hold long. Saving Tarvek was eating up what little reprieve Agatha had.

Gil’s cuff was on Tarvek’s wrist. Gil had given it to him without a word when he’d handed him pants. He hadn’t said anything either when Tarvek had chosen to put it on first. Gil’s wrist was left uncovered, black loops clearly visible. Gil kept glancing over at Agatha, reaching for his Words with his other hand. It was probably the first time they’d been exposed in years. Tarvek kept working on tweaking the stabilizing units. They had little enough time as it was; they needed that time to be usable.

“You actually love her don’t you?” Tarvek’s hand tightened around the screwdriver he was holding. Just because Gil didn’t mean it like that didn’t mean it was any easier to hear.

“Of course I do. If anything I should be asking you, considering –” He glanced up and the words died in his throat. Gil was still looking at Agatha, his hand curled close to his chest, his thumb rubbing absent circles over his Words. A horrible, sinking feeling spread throughout Tarvek as something deep in his mind clicked into place. “She’s your soulmate.”

Gil jerked towards him, blushing dark enough to be visible even past his current purple coloring. Tarvek’s gaze drifted past Gil to where Agatha stood, the black lines of her Words a stark contrast to the rest of her skin. Tarvek looked away. Underneath the cuff, his wrist burned.

 

1

Soulmate Words were at once both childishly simple to grasp and completely inexplicable. Anyone could tell you about the black words etched onto everyone’s left wrist. For as little was known about the why or the how, everyone knew what those words on their wrist – often the first words they ever learn to read – meant. They were the first words your soulmate would ever say to you. And they would have your first words on their wrist to match you. Those Words were a connection, perhaps the most sacred one in the world.

And everyone knew what meant to not have any Words. No one knew why these people who didn’t belong to anyone were born but everyone knew what they were. It’s common knowledge that people with blank wrists were heartless, soulless monsters, not possessing enough humanity to deserve a soulmate. Everyone from the oldest crone to the youngest child could tell you this. If you have a soulmate – if you have a soul – you have Words. And Blanks have neither.

Tarvek made very sure to always keep his empty wrist completely covered.

 

15

It didn’t take a genius to realize Gil and Agatha had become much more affectionate in the last few weeks. It also didn’t take a genius to connect the fact to the now officially underway wedding preparations. Tarvek couldn’t say he minded. He’d been late to more than six different appointments and completely missed two more this week alone but when Gil or Agatha pulled him into a secluded corner and gave him that smile he wasn’t about to say no.

It was the smaller things that pulled at his thoughts. Whenever one of them pulled him aside, they were never were particularly willing to see him leave, dragging him in for one last kiss again and again. Agatha kept glancing at him like he had some secret plan she didn’t know the details to. (He didn’t. The only plans he had right now were wedding ones.) Gil kept frowning at him when he thought Tarvek couldn’t see. Both those actions tended to immediately precede Tarvek being very late to wherever he’d been heading at the time. It was always only one of them, never both. And there was very little indication of them sneaking off with each other to anywhere near the same extent either had been waylaying him. No, they were focusing on him and purposely doing so separately from each other.

When it finally clicked what they were doing, Tarvek felt like an idiot. Agatha and Gil were getting married. They were worried he was going to leave after the wedding. They’d been pulling him away so often to convince him not to go. And of course they weren’t approaching him together. They didn’t want to remind him of their upcoming wedding and chase him off.

Having all the pieces put together, Tarvek wanted to laugh. His lovers were so ridiculously dense. As if he would ever leave of his own will. Nothing short of both of them sending an army to demand he leave and never return would make him budge. And even then given their respective history with mind control he’d only go far enough away to test that they were truly themselves.

Apparently Agatha and Gil hadn’t gotten that memo. To be fair, Tarvek had been very subtle. What with the grand gestures and the declarations and the yelling his intention to die for Agatha’s happiness across a battlefield.

Honestly, he was a little insulted. Yes the exact details of the marriage didn’t create the ending he’d hoped for but he could understand it. Tarvek was well aware of how the world worked. And it wasn’t like anything important would change. He’d still spend his days by their side and his nights in their bed. Yes Agatha and Gil were soulmates; they loved him just as much.

That evening, Tarvek made a point to corner both of them together.

“I love you both.”

Agatha looked up from the law book she’d been studying at the impromptu declaration. She set it down and walked over to peck him on the lips. “And we love you.”

Not about to let himself get distracted that easily he backed off half a step, tucking his hands behind his back. “I also love the two of you.”

Gil made a confused face as he rounded the table to stand next to Agatha. “Isn’t that the same thing?”

“Loving you and loving Agatha isn’t the same thing as loving the two of you as one.” He took a moment to kiss each of them before grasping the joined set of hands that always twined themselves together whenever Gil and Agatha were next to each other. “I know the two of you will always love me. And there is nothing that will ever make me stop loving the two of you.” He pressed a kiss to their intertwined fingers; letting his lips linger there as he breathed his next words against their skin. “I just felt I should remind you of that.”

 

4

Soulmates were considered sacrosanct. As such, any attempts to study – or worse, alter – them was akin to blasphemy. Of course, spitting in the face of God, man and human decency had never stopped Sparks before. Polite society may snub their noses at the mere mention of the study of soulmates but there were still plenty of experiments and lectures anyway.

None of them ever came to Sturmhalten. Lecturers found other venues, scientists sought out other labs. They were all too afraid of his father’s changeable temper, of the mad prince Aaronev. More than that were the whispers, the stories of missing girls and of ghostly women that all strayed just a bit too close to Balan’s Gap. The sticky, suffocating darkness that clung to the place like tar. No one ever came to Sturmhalten to study soulmates.

Paris, though, Paris was teeming with researchers presenting their investigations. Tarvek attended all of them.

All the lectures had two things in common. The first was that they were all either extremely boring or vaguely horrifying and the second was that Gilgamesh Holzfäller was present at every. Single. One.

At first Tarvek had studiously ignored him. He would find a corner in the back and avoid being noticed. Holzfäller though, took a much more… active approach to attendance. He would loudly ask endless questions or argue with the lecturer or generally make a spectacle of himself. Eventually Tarvek began sitting next to him simply because someone needed to keep an eye on him.

Whereas before Tarvek would quietly take notes, now he spent the lectures physically corralling Holzfäller since he couldn’t be trusted to sit still like a normal person and – What are you – are you trying to recreate his experiment? The steps may very well be time sensitive and anyway did you not hear the part where he said his lab assistant blew up during it?!

The lectures – and Holzfäller’s presence at them – became part of Tarvek’s routine, falling into the background. He didn’t even think anyone had noticed until one day when Mlle. Marplot invited him and Colette both to tea. “It’s so noble of you to volunteer your time watching over Gil Holzfäller,” she said, theatrically stirring sugar into her tea. “Rather like a disobedient puppy that one.”

“And when is it I’m watching over him?”

“At all those ghastly lectures of course. Everyone knows he’d end up blowing up the lecture hall if you weren’t there to stop him. Why else would someone like you ever set foot in one of those things?”

Colette caught his eye over the rim of her teacup but didn’t say anything. Humoring Mlle. Marplot’s more tolerable theories was often the safer option lest she come with something even worse.

“Well, I do prefer to stay on the Master’s good side. I could hardly let the city get blown up if I could do something.”

“I’m sure my father appreciates it,” Colette said when she put her cup down.

“Honestly I’m not surprised someone like Gilgamesh would be interested in that sort of thing. No sense of moral decorum. You can always tell a person’s upbringing from their actions. But honestly you’d think even reprobates would respect soulmates if nothing else…”

Tarvek tuned out the rest of Mlle. Marplot’s rant; nodding along vaguely, mind whirling all the while.

That night found him in front of Holzfäller’s place of residence. He was still in the middle of deciding how to go about what he wanted to do when the door opened.

“Sure Bang, and I never – Tarvek?” Wow, he must have really surprised Holzfäller to startle him into using first names. Holzfäller shut the door behind him all the loose-limbed relaxation he’d had a moment ago gone. “What are you doing here?”

All of Tarvek’s carefully planned warnings dried up. “Dr. Monroe’s follow-up lecture,” he said instead.

“What lecture?” His blank look of confusion turned to worry. “You didn’t go – ”

“The one next Thursday,” Tarvek cut in neatly. “I came to make sure you weren’t planning to ambush him beforehand and goad him into anything excessively murderous."

“The last lecture of his you set my notes on fire.”

Dr. Monroe deserves to be set on fire. I was merely limiting the spread of the abomination of morality that is his theory.”

“Right. After your reaction to the last one I figured you wouldn’t be going.”

“Someone has to babysit you. Apparently the universe has nominated me.”

The last of the tension leaked from Holzfäller’s frame and he broke into a smile – the bright, conspiratorial grin that split his whole face and hadn’t changed since he was eight. “I’ll be sure not to start anything crazy until you get there.”

 

18

Agatha rapped her pen against the table, a sharp accompaniment to her frustration. “We just got back to Mechanicsburg.”

“I’m not saying we have to leave here tomorrow. However you can’t disregard the seat of power of Gil’s empire. You have to spend some time aboard Castle Wulfenbach convincing his advisors that Gil is your equal not your consort and that you share authority over your joint empire. Otherwise we’re going to end up with some horribly planned rebellion or coup within six months.”

Agatha heaved a sigh. The pen stopped tapping and she slumped against the table. “Fine. What do you suggest?”

“A tour of the further points of the empire wouldn’t be a bad idea. This is your happy ending after all. The people need to see it.”

“You make it sound like we’re telling a story,” she said, a teasing lilt in her voice.

Tarvek glanced up at her and flashed a quick grin. “In a way we are. I’m still here so we’ve missed our chance at an opera, which makes a fairytale your best bet.” A sharp pain shot through his arm. When he looked down Agatha’s nails were digging into his skin.

“Don’t you dare joke about that. It was bad enough when you were saying things like that for political reasons.”

“I’m sorry. It was poorly thought out of me.” He wrapped himself around her stiff frame, waiting until she unbent enough to lean against him. “I’m still here. I’m okay. I’m not going anywhere.” Agatha took a deep breath, forcing herself to release her death grip on his arm. Her fingernails left a line of red crescents cutting through the emptiness of his wrist.

“It’s not funny.”

“Sorry.” Agatha glared at him but she also remained tucked against his side so there was that.

“So, a fairytale then.” The last of the glare faded away and her lips ticked up just the slightest bit. “I suppose you want an elaborately choreographed ceremony at every place we stop.”

“Actually, spontaneous might be better. If Gil can resist ‘improving’ his flying machine you can even use that for some of the stops rather than all of Castle Wulfenbach.

“Really?”

“Mm-hm. Romantic escapes where Gil shows off the hidden treasures of his, now also your, empire. Let me talk to Gil, get a better grasp of the lay of his empire, where the loudest grumbling is, where’s most likely to be swayed by a visit, who needs a subtle reminder verses a somewhat less subtle show of force. I should have a list of places as well as a schedule of which should be official visits and which should be romantic getaways in a few days.”

“Don’t forget to add Sturmhalten to the list.”

Tarvek swallowed the lump that formed in his throat. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Agatha snuggled closer to him, tipping her head against his shoulder. “Gil and I ask too much of you.”

“Perhaps,” he said, because right then, standing there with her ‘no’ felt like too big a lie to successfully get away with. “But for you and Gil I don’t mind.”

           

14

“Tarvek!”

Tarvek turned to see Violetta jogging up to him, dragging Vanamonde von Mekkhan behind her. Desperate to ignore his own problems he grabbed ahold of the distraction with both hands.

“Violetta,” he said, using just a touch of smoke training to meet the pair halfway, “why are you dragging Agatha’s seneschal around like a rag doll?” Vanamonde seemed unharmed but he also hadn’t let go of Violetta’s hand even now that they’d stopped moving, which pointed to at least mild shock.

“Old obligations require that I introduce him to you immediately.”

“We’ve already met.” He nodded to Van in greeting. “Vanamonde.”

“Sire,” Vanamonde said with a half bow and Tarvek couldn’t help but note the unusually high level of deference. Beside him, Violetta huffed.

“Not actually why I needed to introduce you.”

Tarvek turned back to his cousin. Violetta fidgeted in place, actual visible to the naked eye fidgeting. Suddenly this wasn’t just a simple distraction anymore. He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder, the other cradling the hidden knife in his sleeve. “Violetta?” If there was someone he needed to kill he would. Violetta’s gaze darted away towards Vanamonde who appeared to squeeze her hand before finally releasing it. Taking a – again clearly visible – deep breath, Violetta straightened her shoulders and fell into the posture she used to take whenever she used to report Smoke Knight information back to him. Tarvek’s panic most decidedly did not abate at the move.

“I met my soulmate.”

Tarvek’s brain crashed to a halt. His thoughts tripped over themselves as they tried to reconcile what he’d just heard. Violetta ploughed onward heedless of the mental chaos she’d just kicked up. “This is him. Vanamonde von Mekkhan. The current Lady Heterodyne’s seneschal. Only living family his mother, Arella von Mekkhan, and his paternal grandfather, Carson von Mekkhan, who was the previous Heterodyne’s seneschal. The entire family went under the pseudonym Heliotrope while under Klaus’s rule and seem to have entirely discarded the name after the ascension of the current Lady Heterodyne. One of the half dozen people to be first rescued from the time bubble by Baron Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, though the exact reasoning for why he was selected is unknown at this moment. Twenty-eight years old. Unmarried with no current romantic relationships or children.”

There was a long pause as both men waited to see if Violetta was finished. Once it was clear that she was, Tarvek pulled together enough of his thoughts to at least ask, “What are you doing?”

Violetta finally broke formation, folding her arms, face twisted somewhere between a glare and a pout. “You’re the one who insisted I had to drag my soulmate to you as soon as I found him like some virgin sacrifice.”

“Virgin –! WHAT!?”

Tarvek blinked, memories dredging themselves up from where he’d buried them. “Oh. Right.”

“Right? That’s all you have to say?”

“You’re in Agatha’s service now, not mine. I’m honestly surprised you remember those orders at all.”

“You thought I could ever forget them. After I – ” she cut herself off, shutting her mouth with an audible click. She straightened her shoulders again before saying, “Of course I remember. And it’s still an order you gave me while I was in your service, and one I intend to carry out.”

Any thoughts that had managed to scrape themselves back together promptly scattered. “Right,” he repeated dumbly. “Thank you.” He glanced away for a moment until he felt his composure would hold again. Or at least until he felt he wouldn’t start crying. “However I don’t think there’s much of a worry any more of our family killing him. At least, not just for being a Smoke Knight’s inopportune soulmate. I’m sure some of our family still want to kill him, but that’s more because of his position with Agatha and that’s a stable and manageable issue.”

Violetta started. “Wait. That’s why you wanted me to immediately bring you my soulmate?”

“Why else would I want you to?”

“I don’t know!” she yelled, throwing her arms in the air. “I don’t know what I thought! Maybe that you wanted to study him or threaten him or spirit him away somewhere!”

“Only if necessary to keep him safe.”

Violetta gaped at him. “You – You – ” Turning, she looked back over at Vanamonde. She reached out and reclaimed his hand, cradling it in both of hers. “You wanted to protect my soulmate for me.” Her fingers slipped under the edge of his sleeve and while he couldn’t see it, Tarvek would bet anything she was tracing his Words. Tarvek did his best not to squirm uncomfortably at the unintentional display in front of him. It was only after a long moment that Violetta managed to pull her attention back to Tarvek. “And I –”

“– Although,” Tarvek interrupted before she could say anything more, “since he’s already here… why don’t we have a little chat on expected behavior towards you?”

Violetta’s face instantly fell. “You can’t be serious,” she said flatly.

Tarvek grinned. He deftly extricated Vanamonde’s hand from Violetta’s, placing an ever-so-slightly-too-forceful-to-be-friendly hand around his arm. “Of course I am,” he said to her. “You might want to inform Agatha of this new development. Now, Herr von Mekkhan,” he continued, already leading him away, “Let’s talk about just what sort of treatment is acceptable for my favorite cousin, hm?”

 

12

Neither Agatha nor Gil officially propose.

Well, that statement wasn’t entirely accurate. There was the proposal Gil made so long ago when he and Agatha had first met. It had by all accounts been an awkward, clumsy, entitled thing but Agatha had always spoken of it with more fondness than frustration even back then. And while Tarvek didn’t know of Gil ever asking again, their engagement was a claim that had been frequently repeated over the years. One that Agatha had denied less and less until she’d stopped denying it at all.

(There was also the promise Tarvek had given to Agatha years ago, that he wouldn’t just quietly step aside, that soulmate or no Gil would have to prove himself worthy of her. A promise rashly made and sealed with a kiss.)

There’d never been any official plans made for a wedding. They had more important things to deal with. First they had to stop the Other and then what felt like several wars to win and Agatha and Gil’s heads to fix. There’d been an agreement that fixing Europa had to come first. With it though had grown a gentle, quiet understanding that when everything was fixed, when there lives were – not there own per say – but freer, they would be married. There was never a need to talk about it,

(Gil was Agatha’s soulmate. Of course they’d get married. It was always how the story was meant to end.)

The shift from unofficially engaged to actively planning a wedding happened without fanfare, discussion or warning. One day Gil strode into the study with an imposing stack of books and dropped them on the table with a loud thud.

“I don’t think that Mechanicsburg’s laws have ever been properly gone over. The Heterodynes just kept adding contradicting laws on top whenever they wanted to change things." Tarvek merely raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him. This was not the first time they’d dealt with this problem. In fact, Tarvek remembered making those exact complaints before. After holding the look long enough for Gil’s expression to turn sheepish he took pity on his lover and picked up the topmost book. It was a compendium of hundred-year-old marriage laws. Specifically, marriage to the ruling Heterodyne.

“Because I didn’t present Agatha with the proper courting gift – oh and I still can’t find what exactly is considered the proper courting gift for this circumstance, only that it’s apparently very specifically defined – before I proposed I should be” – here he opened one of the books to a marked page and began quoting – “‘stripped naked save a pair of formal gloves and dropped onto tiny monster island.’ But!” he continued, grabbing another book and thumbing it open as well, “‘a suitor isn’t allowed to present any marriage focused courting gifts until after the ruling Heterodyne has accepted their proposal.’” He set both books down, glancing over at Tarvek. “You should technically already be dead for calling Agatha your ‘future bride’ without any formal proposal.”

“What about you? You steamrolled right past the actual accepting of your proposal and tried to forcibly carry her off.”

“Actually,” Gil said, brandishing a third book, “as long as she’s okay with it by the time of the wedding itself, that’s fine. I mean if she weren’t, then I’d have to deal with an angry Heterodyne and all that implies, but she is so we’re all good.”

“That is ridiculous.”

Exactly,” Gil hissed, pressing the book against Tarvek’s chest. “Help. I know you’ve been bugging me about Mechanicsburg’s laws but until we handle this none of us can do anything about the wedding. Not without risking whatever we do being illegal.”

“Nothing Agatha does is illegal; she’s the Heterodyne.” Maybe Tarvek was still a little annoyed at Gil’s sudden about-face on the topic after dodging it for so long.

That is not helpful.”

“Fine.” He slipped the books under his arm. “I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes. I’ll take a look at the laws when I can. In the meantime I know you’re allergic to paperwork, but please remember not to set the books on fire.”

“That was one time. And anyway I was drunk at the time.”

“You’re not helping your case.”

“It was all Bang’s fault.”

“And now you’re just making it worse.” He leaned in and gave Gil a chaste kiss. “I love you; I’ll see you later.”

He didn’t mean to leave the books behind at the end of the meeting. It just slipped his mind. Honest.

The next day he found Agatha in the study with a small pile of Gil’s law book stacked next to her and a slim, much newer looking book in her hands. She gave him a smile as he came in the room, leaning up to invite a kiss. “I am going to have to repeal so many laws.”

“Oh?” He leaned against the back of the couch so he could drape his arms over her shoulders. From this angle he could see that the book was a copy of the governing laws for the Wulfenbach Empire.

“Mm-hm. Klaus may have taken a hatchet to all the old laws but at least the ones he replaced them with were congruent with each other. And concise. There are barely two pages of laws relating to marriage and most of those are finicky rules about titles and inheritance that the fifty families refused to let go of.” She glanced at the pile of books at her feet then buried a hand in her hair. “I’m half-tempted to just repeal all of them and replace them with Klaus’s.”

“Not what I would recommend. “If you keep the families’ laws then you end up keeping then ones about primogeniture. Mechanicsburg won’t care either way and Klaus probably let it slide through since he had Gil and he wasn’t thinking about Zeetha in terms of political inheritance, if he was thinking about her at all at the time, however if you have any daughters it’s going to become a big problem very quickly.”

Agatha made a face. “Good point.” She picked up one of the books, flipping through it listlessly. “But I can’t just leave them as they are. A good half of Gil’s advisors will use these as an excuse to claim our marriage isn’t fully legal. To say nothing of the rest of the nobility of Europa.” She closed the book with a snap, glaring at it. “I refuse to let anyone claim my heirs aren’t legitimate because I wasn’t given the requisite number of goats.”

“IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE GOATS,” the Castle replied sulkily.

Tarvek however latched onto a different part of the sentence. “Heirs?”

Agatha shot straight up in her seat, blushing bright red. “Future heirs,” she hastily corrected. “Far future. As in definitely not anytime soon.”

“Right,” Tarvek agreed, looking away. “Of course.” He was not blushing. He wasn’t, he wasn’t. “Obviously.” He coughed awkwardly before trying to steer the conversation back to its original point. “Well it’s not as if there’s a time limit for fixing them. At the very least you deserve a proper proposal.”

“I don’t need a proposal,” Agatha said reaching for the book she’d dropped. “I’ve already had more proposals than any woman should have to deal with. Besides it’s not like it isn’t already obvious who I’m marrying.” Tarvek’s breath caught in his throat.

He’d thought – He didn’t know what he’d thought. That he’d at least have a chance to fight for her.

(This was always how the story was meant to end.)

“Then we’ll fix the laws,” he heard himself say.

Agatha beamed at him. “Should we get started now?” She held out the book while shifting so there was room by her side.

He couldn’t.

“I took a few other volumes from Gil yesterday, but I left them behind in one of the meetings I attended. I should – I should probably go get them.” He kissed the top of her head, breathing in the smell of her hair. Then he stepped back. “And while I’m out, I’ll see about finding you some goats. Just to cover all your bases.”

(There was a difference between giving up and accepting defeat. There was a difference between blindly fighting and recognizing an armistice, even one disguised as loss.)

 

5

“So,” Gabrielle Marplot said, stirring yet another spoonful of sugar into her tea, “Your friend, Gil Holzfäller.” Tarvek briefly considered protesting the title of ‘friend’. Ultimately though it wouldn’t do to accidentally insult her before she’d shared whatever she’d decided was so interesting. “By any chance, is he a Blank?”

Tarvek choked on his tea. “A what?”

“A Blank.”

“Why would you even think that?” he stammered, failing horribly at regaining any kind of composure.

“Well he does certainly fit the type doesn’t he? Rash, violent, aggressive, uncultured, unappreciative of any form of beauty. And everyone knows now he is about Blanks. Blatantly obsessed with learning everything there is about them, no matter how indecent, and picking fights with anyone who tires to speak any sense on the subject. He got into another just last night,” she said with the studiously casual tone she only adopted for what she deemed particularly juicy gossip.

“He did?”

“Mm-hm. Some idiot at L’ivresse de l’Étincelle got a bit too drunk and decided to expound on the inherent evils of Blanks. He got about as far as inhuman before Holzfäller punched him. And kept punching him. Had to be pulled off of him apparently. That sounds rather like a Blank to me.”

“He’s not.”

“Oh? And how can you be so certain of that? Why else would he be so attached to that raggedy cuff of his? Honestly, a little modesty is all well and good – heaven knows someone still searching for their other half shouldn’t parade their Words all over the place like the Baron does with that gibberish on his arm – but he never has his uncovered.”

“Holzfäller is not a Blank.”

“Oh come now. He’s religious about always wearing a cuff. And unlike you, he certainly doesn’t care about the fashion of it.”

Tarvek relaxed into his seat and resolutely did not think about how much easier the conversation was to handle when the threat was against him rather than Gil. “I’ve seen them.”

Mlle. Marplot leaned forward, teacup forgotten. “You’ve seen them?”

“Those giant snails from a few months ago when Dr. Honeydew tried to improve his assistant’s escargot recipe. The acid ate through everything, including Holzfäller’s cuff. I couldn’t actually read what it said, just caught a glimpse. The man covered his wrist before he looked for pants. To say he’s protective of his Words would be an understatement.”

“But you’ve seen them.”

Tarvek eyed her, suddenly regretting saying anything. “A glance. By accident.”

“And yet no one else has ever seen his Words. Just you.”

“What are you getting at?”

“Nothing. It’s just curious, is all.” Tarvek waited. Sure enough, she poured herself another cup of tea and began daintily scooping in her sugar. “No one would hold it against you, you know. One can’t control who their soulmate is. Heaven knows I wouldn’t acknowledge it either if I had someone like that as my soulmate.”

Tarvek blinked, the words slowly drifting down into his brain until they finally coalesced into an actual meaning. That’s when he started laughing. He shouldn’t. This was the perfect alibi, for both of them. But he couldn’t help it. He kept laughing. He couldn’t stop. If he did, who knew what he’d end up doing. “I am not Holzfäller’s soulmate,” he finally managed between wheezing gasps. He probably sounded on the edge of hysterical. If there was any mercy Mlle. Marplot would attribute it to the absurdity of her idea.

Eventually, whatever madness had possessed him calmed and he was able to force himself to breath. Mlle. Marplot was staring at him, dainty china cup held close to her chest. “My apologies,” she said, lowering the cup to her lap. “It does sound rather outrageous when one stops and thinks about it, doesn’t it. I meant no offense.”

She took a long, carefully measured sip of her tea, setting it down exactly in the center of its saucer. “You’ve known Gilgamesh since you were children haven’t you?”

Tarvek forced himself to take a sip of his own tea. It was stone cold. “We did briefly know each other as children, yes, but that was a long time ago.”

“Perhaps. Was he as much trouble back then as he is now?”

“I wouldn’t know. I don’t make it a habit to chaperon him.”

“Of course not. Except for all those lectures you attend to keep him in line. And the fights you’ve pulled him out of. And lord knows how many excuses I’ve heard you make for him. Old habits do die rather hard, don’t they?”

Tarvek swallowed another mouthful of tea; feeling more like it had been lead. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re implying mademoiselle.”

“I’m not implying anything. Now this has been wonderful, but I’m afraid I really must be off.” With a smile rather like a well-fed cat, Mlle. Marplot stood and curtsied farewell. “I do hope Monsieur Holzfäller appreciates everything you do for him.” Tarvek watched her leave, hardly aware of the porcelain of his cup handle digging into his palm.

He took back what he’d thought before. If there was any mercy Tarvek hadn’t just made everything worse.

Immediately tracking down Holzfäller was a bad idea. Mlle. Marplot would no doubt find out and no matter what rumor she spread this would only fuel it. Tarvek went anyway. He caught Holzfäller walking down the street, battered notebook in one hand. Without bothering with a greeting, Tarvek grabbed him by the arm and began hauling him down the street.

“Sturmvoraus? What are you doing?”

“We need to talk.”

“I have class!”

“If you can get into bar fights you can skip class,” he said, pulling harder.

He had a safehouse, a small, slightly run-down apartment, fully soundproofed and the only one of his safehouses that he knew beyond any doubt wasn’t watched or bugged. He dragged Holzfäller there now. It would be use useless after but he would not risk this conversation being overheard.

“Gabrielle Marplot just asked me if you were a Blank,” he said as soon as the door was fully closed.

Holzfäller stared blankly at him. “Why would she think that?”

“Oh I don’t know, maybe because you’re an uncultured lout, or because you can’t go two days without getting into a fight, or because you very publicly follow every experiment related to soulmates and lack the propriety to understand why you shouldn’t.” Holzfäller shrugged. He began idly poking through the room, opening and closing the cabinets. “Did you not hear me? The most influential gossip in Paris has decided you are a Blank.”

“Mlle. Marplot has a new rumor each week,” he said, inspecting a jar of preserves he’d found. “It’ll die down.”

“Gil,” the name got his attention like nothing else in the world. “You have to stop.”

“Stop what?” He still might not understand but at least he was actually listening to Tarvek now.

“Going to every lecture you can find, bringing up the Baron’s ‘protection laws’ when everyone knows damn well what his real feelings are, getting into fights with every drunken, bigoted idiot in Paris. Making yourself a target.”

Gil set the jar back on the shelf, closing the door. He walked over and braced his arms against the table. “You said she asked you if I was a Blank. What did you say?”

“I told her that I’d caught a glimpse of your Words a few months ago during the Honeydew fiasco. She briefly thought we might be soulmates. And yes I know how ridiculous that is,” he added, trying to ignore the indecipherable mess of emotions that had flashed across Gil’s face. “I’m afraid I reacted accordingly to the suggestion so that alibi’s pretty well dead. If anything she’s even more convinced you have no Words.”

“If that’s true, then simply being more polite is hardly going to change her mind.”

“You need to let someone else see your Words.”

“No.”

“This is the best move you can make. If someone else can –”

No. Words are meant for your soulmate. No one else should be allowed to see them except your family. Especially unclaimed Words.”

Tarvek tugged on his hair. “I’m not saying you have to print them on the side of a wall, just let someone catch a glimpse of them. Your British friend who thinks we don’t know he’s a spy, or Colette, hell Zola for all I care.”

“A foreign spy, the Master’s favorite daughter and Zola. Those are your suggestions for who I should let see my Words.”

It was only with great effort that Tarvek didn’t growl. “It doesn’t matter who. Just let someone see them. Because right now your only witness is me: a consummate liar who Mlle. Marplot is convinced is protecting you. You need someone that she will actually believe.”

Gil did growl, a deep sound low in his throat. “I’m not showing anyone my Words.”

Tarvek wanted to scream. He wanted to scream at him and shake him until something resembling sense made it through that thick skull. He –

He loved him.

The realization slammed into him, taking all of his anger with it. He loved Gil.

And now that he knew he could see that it wasn’t a new feeling either. Whenever he’d started loving Gil, it was a long time ago. Tarvek took a deep breath, trying to reacquaint himself with this new world.

“Why do you care anyway?” Oh look, there was the anger again. It shot through him, white-hot and feral because he loved Gil and Gil was going to die because he was an idiot and he dared ask Tarvek why he cared?

“Damn it, Gil!” he yelled. He wheeled around, punching the wall. “Do you even know the average lifespan of Blanks? Do you realize how quickly they die? From ‘unfortunate accidents’ or ‘tragically early natural causes’ or just simple random violence that no one can be bothered to look into? And do you know how much worse it is in noble circles? Circles you keep barging into? Do you know how long a Blank can hope to last in that world?” He turned back around, intent on continuing his tirade. Gil had gone deathly still.

Oh.

He hadn’t. Gil hadn’t known that being a Blank was akin to a death sentence. That Tarvek was very, very lucky that Aaronev had never had any other sons.

Tarvek could already see the shock in Gil’s eyes turn into something harder. Any chance of getting Gil to stand down was gone. If Gil wouldn’t leave this fight before he certainly wouldn’t now. Tarvek tried anyway.

“You have to stop.”

“No.”

“This is the only way to protect yourself –”

“And what about you? Let’s say I let someone catch a glimpse of my wrist. What happens when they realize they still haven’t ever seen yours? That no one has?”

“I can protect myself. I’ve been doing so for years.”

“And I’m not about to make it harder for you.”

Tarvek could feel the anger coming back, this time as a fragile shield for the desperation bubbling underneath. He clung to it, not willing to face everything past it. “You’re going to get yourself killed!”

“And you’re going to let yourself get killed!”

Gil meant it as an accusation, he could tell by the way he’d hurled it at him. But all Tarvek could hear was the truth of it ringing in his head. This was so much worse than simply loving Gil.

Tarvek stared a Gil. The man he loved, the man he would die for, who was going to die because of his own stubborn sense of honor.

And there was nothing he could do.

Without another word, Tarvek turned, walked out of the door and left.

 

10

Contrary to what everyone had been taught, the present opinion on people without Words wasn’t an immutable, unchanging thing.

It was as capable of shifting as anything else.

It had in fact, shifted quite a lot over the years

Those without Words had once been considered people with higher callings. Their focus was far too fixed and their pursuits too important to have room for a soulmate.

People didn’t talk about it, but there was proof, if you knew where to look. (Tarvek had once found a scrap of text, buried in a forgotten corner of the Great Library. Most of it was illegible, but what Tarvek had been able to make out had said something about not being tied down by the anchor of a soulmate.) Most of them were oblique references, things people preferred to write off, not comfortable with the idea that Blanks had once been considered heroes, scholars, leaders. Had once been considered human.

Whether people liked it or even knew it, history painted a story where a lack of Words didn’t mean a lack of humanity. Where soulmate wasn’t linked to soul. It was only near the end of Andronicus’s rule that the world had shifted to what it was now.

And now the world was shifting once again.

Now the world no longer wanted Blanks to be heartless. The more Blanks felt, the more Blanks loved, the more wonderfully hopeless their struggles. Blanks were movingly tragic figures, even capable of being heroic, provided they were striving for the proper thing.

Tarvek knew the world was waiting for him to die for Agatha.

He didn’t care.

The world had decided it was romantic, fighting to hard only for the chance to lose and he pressed that for every advantage he could. He kept his wrist uncovered. He bared his empty arm like a badge. He wove his story for the world. The beautiful lady and the Blank who loved her enough to die for her. He spoke unendingly about Agatha. He spoke about her beauty and her ferocity and her grace. He pledged himself again and again to her cause, to her happiness to her happy ending. (He didn’t mention he was just as likely to die for Gil as he was for Agatha. This was no place for such a pesky thing as truth.)

In return he gained armies, gained informants, gained sympathetic ears into which he could whisper.

Everyone wanted to see the end of this story.

Tarvek kept pushing forward, wrist blank and bare for the world. The world was shifting. It would keep shifting even more.  

 

3

It would have been foolish to assume that after all the years as Tarvek’s bodyguard Violetta didn’t know about Tarvek’s lack of words. Of course it also had been foolish to assume that she would never use it against him.

(It was only once. Some things don’t have to be repeated. Never should be.)

Violetta stared at Tarvek. Her eyes were wide and her hands were both over her mouth as if she could recapture the words she’d just said, if only she pressed hard enough.

Tarvek stood stock still in the same place he’d been when she had– when the fight had started. He didn’t speak. He didn’t move. He just stood there, left hand curled into a tight fist, as hard and as cold – and as heartless – as the clanks he so favored.

Neither of them moved. So long as they stayed frozen, they could pretend it never happened. They could pretend the words weren’t real. Violetta slowly lowered her hands until they were curled against her chest, just under her chin. She took a faltering half step forward. Tarvek didn’t move. His expression didn’t change.

“I –”

“– Don’t,” Tarvek snarled, the impenetrable, impassive mask broken.

Violetta took an instinctive step back before dropping her head and tucking her arms to her sides, the picture of a perfect Smoke Knight. The kind who would never even dream of saying what she just had to their betters.

There was an almost inaudible breath. “As soon as you find your soulmate you will tell me immediately.” All the emotion of his previous outburst was gone once again. “You will provide any and all useful information you have on them. If at all possible – and I expect it to be possible – you will bring them with you.”

This time Violetta didn’t argue back. “Of course, Your Highness,” she said, eyes still trained on the ground in shame poorly disguised as deference.

“No delays, no detours.”

“Of course not, Your Highness.”

“You are dismissed.”

Without another word, Violetta fled.

When Tarvek finally managed to unclench his hand, he found it was shaking.

 

16

Something was wrong.

For the last several weeks both Agatha and Gil had kept putting off discussions about the wedding. First Gil had started dawdling over committing to anything regarding it, taking far more time than needed and frequently letting himself get sidetracked in the process. Tarvek didn’t think much of it at first, chalking it up to Gil’s natural distaste of the formalities surrounding ruling. Then Agatha had joined him in his shirking of any meaningful planning. Whispered words of love, romanticized daydreams being married, those didn’t stop. Actual discussion about the logistics of the Parade of Arms and trying to make it not look like a hostile incursion from either of them? Not so much.

The feeling of wrongness wedged in Tarvek’s chest and he didn’t know how to fix it. They had no reason to drag their feet like Tarvek wanted to. Wanted to but didn’t. Because Tarvek loved them too much to do anything against their happiness. Because this would make them happy and he was genuinely happy for their happiness. (And if he closed his eyes and lied hard enough he could almost pretend happiness and pain weren’t two sides of one coin.) This was what they’d fought for. This was where they’d been destined to end since the moment they fell in love, since the moment they met.

Tarvek didn’t know what to do. He did he best to pick up the slack but it wasn’t easy. The small, bitter part of his heart – the part that was ruined and warped, the part that was like his family – was bitterly amused at his own attempts. Here he was, loyally scrambling every which way to keep their wedding on track, actively sabotaging his own stay of execution.

Maybe he’d been listening to that part too much when he stormed Gil’s office that morning.

“Have you and Agatha decided you don’t want to get married and simply forgotten to tell anyone?”

Gil looked up from whatever paperwork he’d been reading with wide eyes. “What?” Tarvek ignored him, steamrolling onward.

“Because you have not managed to do anything constructive towards planning this wedding in almost a month. And your laziness, avoidance, whatever you want to call it, has begun to infect Agatha. I am one man Gil, and not a very good one at that. I will not plan your wedding by myself.” His voice cracked and he resisted the urge to punch the desk. “I can’t.”

“Tarvek –” Suddenly Gil was there in front of him wrapping his arms around him, strong and uncertain all at once, like Tarvek was partially broken china and he didn’t know if holding him would protect him or break him further. Probably both. Tarvek burrowed his head into Gil’s chest so he wouldn’t have to look at him.

“Talk to Agatha. Explain to her that her fiancé is an idiot but that you’re going to start actually helping with the wedding again. And you would greatly appreciate it if she did as well.” Gil shifted his hold and Tarvek headed off his apology before it could happen. “I’m serious Wulfenbach. Or I will lock you and Agatha in a room with nothing but different patterned napkins and place settings to decide between. You’d drive each other crazy within an hour.”

Gil snorted. “I get it. We don’t actually have to deal with that do we?”

“That’s why we have minions. Fräulein Snaug is especially good at it.” Before either of them could say anything else the door opened revealing a nervous, wide-eyed boy in the uniform of a Wulfenbach messenger. Tarvek took a step back, extricating himself from Gil’s hold.

“I’m sorry to interrupt Herr Baron,” the boy said with a small bow, “but you’re needed on the Bridge.”

“Right,” Gil said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I’ll be right there.” He waved the messenger off then turned back to Tarvek. “I’ll talk to Agatha as soon as I deal with whatever this is.” He gave Tarvek a quick kiss then strode out of the door, leaving Tarvek alone.

Tarvek spent the next few hours troubleshooting various small problems – for once not related to the wedding – before he let himself escape to Gil’s personal chambers for a little while. With any luck either Agatha or Gil would be there too.

They both were. Tarvek could hear them in one of the further rooms and he followed the muffled sound.

“– Then why have you been?” Agatha’s voice floated out of the bedroom. Tarvek froze.

“I don’t know. I guess everything hit me all at once about how much is going to change. Combining the empires, negotiating around the powers that come with our titles, creating one united, stable power base without looking like we’re amassing said power. Right now our relationship is ours, no on else’s. And getting married means part of it is going to belong to the rest of the world. I do want to get married. God I do. But part of me wasn’t ready to lose it just being you and me and Tarvek.”

“I get it. I think that’s why I’ve been so slow to help too. It’s a lot to give up.”

“We’ll get it back.”

“Not for a long time.”

Gil made a wordless noise of frustration. “Maybe Tarvek was right about weddings always being political.”

Agatha didn’t reply. There was a whisper of cloth against the floor followed by a tired sigh. “I think Tarvek’s known how this would end from the very beginning,” she finally said. “He’s always been better at seeing how these sort of things go. It would explain why he acted like he did when we first started planning.”

“Why didn’t he tell us in the first place then?” Gil demanded.

“He probably knew we wouldn’t want to believe him.”

“We would have.”

“Gil. You and I both know we wouldn’t have. Heck, you would have full on fought him about it. Tarvek knew we’d reach the same conclusion as him eventually. We can’t ignore the political ramifications of our marriage and it’s been silly of us to try.”

Tarvek backed away, careful not to make a sound. He could not let them catch him here. He barely made it out of the hall and into the next room before his legs gave out on him. He caught the edge of the couch with both hands, knuckles going white with the effort to keep himself upright. He hadn’t known how it would end. How they would end. He had stupidly, stupidly thought that he would get to keep them.

He’d still get to stay near them. One of the many characters they’d surround themselves with. He would be their friend, their confidant, their ever-loyal champion.   He’d still be a part of their life. He’d still let himself get pulled into secluded corners. But he couldn’t be in their bed; he couldn’t be by their side. That wasn’t how the story went.

Forcing his feet back under him, he slipped out of the room.

He didn’t remember walking through the other rooms, He blinked and he was suddenly in the outermost one. There was a messenger standing in the partially open doorway. She was a woman about a decade older than him standing with the self-assuredness that came with years of doing their job. This was someone who remembered Klaus’s rule. She didn’t seem particularly surprised to see him and Tarvek belatedly realized her knuckles were poised above the doorframe. She must have been knocking for a while now. She lowered her hand and dipped her head in a perfunctory bow. “I’m looking for the Baron. He’s late for a meeting with the heads of the wasteland recovery effort.”

Tarvek stared at her, the words slow to fit together. He shook his head to clear it. “I’m sorry. The Baron is occupied at the moment. Both he and the Lady Heterodyne won’t be available for next half hour or so.”

“I see,” she said with a smile that was studiously just professional enough not to be called knowing. “I’ll reschedule the meeting for tomorrow and make sure it’s known that the three of you shouldn’t be disturbed for at least the next hour.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Tarvek said quickly. “I’ll inform the Baron and if it is alright with him I can handle the meeting. Let them know I’ll be with them in another five minutes.”

The messenger gave him an odd, slightly confused look but when Tarvek didn’t move she bowed. “Of course, Your Highness.” With one last look, she turned and walked away.

Tarvek waited until she was out of sight before collapsing. The three of them had never been particularly circumspect about how they acted around one another. And why should they? It hadn’t been a problem before.

Political ramifications, Agatha had said.

Hard to convince the world of your unending love with your shadow lover still within reach.

He could give himself the rest of this trip.

And then –

And then he’d deal with whatever came next.

 

2

Tarvek knew better than to tell anyone he didn’t have any Words.

But Gil was different.

It started one night when Gil had snuck into Tarvek’s quarters again. That in itself wasn’t strange, truthfully if was more unusual for both of them to be in their separate rooms. Gil had been fiddling with his cuff – a ragged, scuffed strip of leather whose only point of favor was its impossibility to accidently remove – all night. Then without any real warning he pulled it off and set it on the floor.

Tarvek scrambled over the few inches of floor separating them. He picked up Gil’s cuff and tried to shove it back at him. “Gil what are you doing?” When Gil didn’t take it, Tarvek pushed it harder against Gil’s chest. “Put your cuff back on.”

Gil bit his lip, rubbing his hand over his uncovered wrist. “I – I want to show you my Words.” Tarvek’s hands dropped.

“What?”

Looking away, Gil fidgeted even more. “I don’t have to. It’s stupid. I didn’t mean to – ”

“Okay.”

Gil’s head shot up. “Really?”

Tarvek carefully put Gil’s cuff back on the floor, trying to hide his eagerness. “You want to show me your Words; I want to see them.”

Gil beamed. “Okay,” he said, taking a shaky breath. “Okay.” Scouting closer, he twisted his arm around until Tarvek could read what was there. Tarvek studied the dark writing, imprinting the shape of it in his mind and tucking it away next to his and Gil’s first words to each other.

“The Baron’s ordered me that I have to keep them covered all the time.” He dropped his arm but still didn’t put his cuff back on. “I don’t know why. I’m not important.”

Tarvek bit back his instinctive argument. Because Gil was right, he wasn’t important. Important to Tarvek didn’t count.

“Maybe he knows you’re going to be important. I mean I already know you’re going to be a strong Spark.”

“You’re going to be a strong Spark too,” Gil said, fiddling with the cuff by his side. Tarvek ran his fingers across his own.

“Do you think my soulmate’s going to be a Spark?”

“Maybe.” He considered it for a minute before amending, “Probably. They’ll have to be able to keep up with you after all.”

“I hope they’re a Spark.” Like floodgates, Gil started babbling about his hopes for his future soulmate. And that was all. He didn’t ask about Tarvek’s Words. He kept the conversation away from any attempts to guilt of cajole Tarvek into showing Gil his wrist. He acted like he wasn’t sneaking glances at Tarvek’s cuff – Gil tried but he was not subtle. Tarvek reached for his cuff again. Gil’s eyes followed the motion. Then they darted away and he started to clumsily shift his ramble away from soulmates entirely. Tarvek fiddled with the hidden catches on his cuff, releasing them with fingers he resolutely pretended weren’t shaking. Gil of course caught the action in a heartbeat.

“You don’t have to – I didn’t mean –”

“I know.” Tarvek did know. Which was why he was doing something so incredibly stupid in the first place.

The cuff slid off far too easily for what it protected. He set it down on the floor next to Gil’s but kept his arm curled in his lap. No matter how much he wanted to show Gil, he couldn’t make himself move.

The two of them sat there in silence, not moving. Then, going painfully slowly, like Tarvek was a scared animal, Gil laid his hand on top of Tarvek’s. When he didn’t flinch away or shake him off, Gil gave a gentle tug, turning his hand over so that his bare wrist was visible.

“Oh.”

Tarvek didn’t say anything. His fingers caught the edge of Gil’s hand. If he just kept a tight enough grip on Gil’s hand, he wouldn’t be able to pull away. So long as Gil’s hand stayed in his, he could pretend.

Gil’s other hand came up and covered Tarvek’s wrist. “I won’t tell anyone about your Words.” As if he had Words to tell about.

Tarvek reached out and covered the Words on Gil’s wrist. “I won’t tell anyone your Words either.”

Sitting there, both wrists covered with each other’s hands, Tarvek could almost believe, if only for the moment, that he wasn’t a Blank. It would only be years later, when he was cursing the universe for everything he couldn’t have that Tarvek would realize that this was when he first fell in love with Gil.

 

8

England is full of nothing so much as problems that need to be fixed. A respite doesn’t mean a rest it just means they have some time to actually try making a dent in the veritable mountain of issues in front of them rather than playing catch up chasing after a new one.

They have her head to fix, Gil’s head to fix, the lantern to find, the Other to track down, this new worrying pattern of murders and disappearances…

Agatha can’t even be in the same room as her soulmate without risking her life. That alone should be the highest priority they have. The fact that it isn’t is simply a testament the breadth and enormity of the problems in front of them.

“I’ve had no less than five people tell me that my soulmate should be jealous of you.”

Agatha gave a particularly vicious yank to the internal wiring of the death ray sitting across her knees. “People should mind their own business.” The gold casing gleamed in the light. “I keep getting told I should watch out because the smartest thing your hypothetical soulmate could do is try to kill me.”

“Well you don’t have to worry about that happening. I don’t have a soulmate.” The words slip out without his permission. He’d only meant to reassure Agatha, not add a Wordless suitor to her list of problems. If Tarvek actually loved Agatha he’d be devoting every waking moment to helping fix them, not handing her more.

Agatha barely glanced up from her work. “I know.” She hadn’t realized what he meant. He should take her obliviousness to what he’d just admitted as the gift that it was. Except now that the door has been opened he wanted nothing more than to tell Agatha the truth about himself. Horrible idea or no, he wanted her to know all of him.

“I don’t mean I haven’t found my soulmate yet. I don’t have a soulmate at all. I – I don’t have any Words.”

“I know.”

“You know?” Tarvek repeated dumbly.

Agatha set her death ray aside, tilting her head up at him. “I already knew you didn’t have any Words.”

Agatha suddenly seemed very far away. Everything seemed far away. Rather like he was underwater. Maybe he was. Maybe the dome had sprung a leak. It would explain why it was so hard to breathe. Then there was a hand on his arm. Agatha. Tarvek blinked, struggling to put the world into proper focus. “How?”

“Tarvek,” Agatha said slowly, still not letting go of his arm, “You showed up in my castle wearing nothing except a sheet. I’ve seen your wrist. I’ve seen –” Here Agatha cut herself off, looking away and blushing. Tarvek felt his own cheeks flame as well. He’d rather forgotten that. “Anyway. The point is I already knew you were a Blank.”

“Oh.”

Agatha’s hand brushed over his cuff. “Can I…? I mean you don’t have to if you don’t want to but –” He fumbled with numb fingers for the catches, feeling seven years old again when they stopped listening to him. Agatha pulled it off the rest of the way, pressing it into his hand. She turned his wrist one way than another, studying the empty skin. When she was apparently satisfied, she offered him her own wrist, dark with her Words.

Tarvek already knew Agatha’s Words. But that was through surreptitious glances, not anything like this. He brushed his thumb over the letters, taking his time to memorize every curve, carefully stowing them next to his and Agatha’s first words to each other alongside the memory of his and Gil’s first words and Gil’s Words from her.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”

“I think, all things considered,” Agatha said with a gentle huff of laughter, “you told me as soon as possible.” Her hand trailed down his arm to his hand. He didn’t miss the way her fingers skimmed across his blank wrist first.

“And you don’t mind?”

Agatha smiled. “Mind what? That I don’t have to feel guilty about stealing you away from your soulmate? Because I would have. Felt guilty. But I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I would have kept you either way. Maybe I’m just selfish.”

“You are anything but selfish.” His fingers gripped hers. “I know – The talk that floats around – That people say – I know that a lot of people claim that people without Words aren’t capable of loving someone –”

“People who believe that,” Agatha said very clearly, “aren’t capable of feeling love themselves. And they deserve everything that comes to them.” Her eyes glittered darkly, silently promising to burn every last one of them to the ground and her fingers curled even tighter around his.

“I love you.”

Agatha leaned in and kissed him. “I love you too.”

 

20

There was a grand celebration two days after the wedding. It was a lot of speeches and acknowledgements and all the rituals Vanamonde had so dearly wanted. Mainly though, it was an excuse for Mechanicsburg to throw the party they were so cruelly denied by their Lady’s quiet nuptials. There were the speeches and ceremonies true, but mostly there was a whole lot of dancing and even more alcohol.

Tarvek, still more than a little overwhelmed by the reality of the last few days, found himself oddly disconnected from the celebration. He danced whenever anyone pulled him onto the floor, lifted his glass whenever there was a toast to the marriage, but otherwise fell back. He let himself get pulled along by the merriment; his emotions still a knotted-up mess that forty-eight hours wasn’t nearly long enough to untangle. He was out of step and he knew it.

Agatha and Gil noticed it too. Agatha kept catching his eye every time he moved the side, tipping her head in a silent question of if he was all right and Gil kept glancing at him every other minute like he was deciding if bodily dragging Tarvek into the festivities would help. To Agatha, Tarvek would shake his head with a smile – he was fine; to Gil, Tarvek would make small shooing gestures with his fingers – yes, yes, he was perfectly content right where he was.

Because as wrong-footed as he might feel at the moment, he was still so happy. And he wouldn’t let his own mistakes stop him from celebrating that happiness.

The current song wound down and with it the dance Agatha had pulled him into. On the last notes of the song rather than bow he spun her towards Gil in time with the opening notes of the next one, making her laugh, high and bright and delighted.

Agatha and Gil were rapturous, their love and happiness practically a physical thing. There was something soothing about the two of them. Tarvek looked at them and the emotions still fighting to loosen in his chest settled. He retrieved his glass of wine and openly watched as Gil ducked down and kissed Agatha. He knew that for every eye watching the two of them, there were as many focused on him. It didn’t matter right then. All that mattered was the way Agatha and Gil were smiling.

The two of them broke apart and started to dance. As they moved Tarvek accidentally locked eyes with Vanamonde across the room. He paused in the process of loading up a plate with chocolate mimmoths and lifted the plate slightly in a toast of acknowledgement. Tarvek raised his own glass in return and smiled.

 

13

Tarvek allowed himself to dodge, turn aside, or otherwise ignore any actual, meaningful discussion of the wedding for two weeks. He came up with a list of a handful of laws that should be abolished during that time, progress hindered by the way he couldn’t bear to work on it for more than five minutes at a time. After two weeks though, he knew he couldn’t avoid the conversations about the wedding any more. If he delayed any longer they’d get suspicious. They probably already were. There was only so quickly he could force himself to tear out his own heart.

It was late morning by the time he found them in Agatha’s favorite parlor. Breakfast had already been laid out on the side table. Agatha hadn’t touched any of it, instead pacing back and forth, muttering to herself. Gil was sitting on the couch with his half-eaten plate currently ignored as he tracked Agatha’s movements. Tarvek stopped in the doorway, silently observing the scene.

“What’s wrong?”

“Vanamonde is what’s wrong! He took one look at the laws I planned to abolish and as soon as I told him it was because we wanted everything in order so we before we start planning the wedding he immediately came back with this list of ceremonies and rituals and parades and feasts that are apparently ‘absolutely essential for the wedding of the ruling Heterodyne’. There were more than two-dozen of them and everyday he keeps adding more! And those are just the ones that are a part of the wedding itself.”

It looked like he wasn’t going to be allowed to run any longer.

Entering the room, he stacked a plate high with the little pastry snails Agatha was so fond of. Handing her the plate he steered her onto the couch next to Gil. “Tell Vanamonde that you’ll allow five ceremonies during the wedding, no more, and remind him of Gil’s fondness of the idea of elopement. He’ll panic for a few days and then come back to you with a list of ten or so ceremonies that are – how did you phrase it? – ‘absolutely essential for the wedding of the ruling Heterodyne’. You can negotiate from there.”

Agatha blinked at the plate in her hands. “That… could work.” She looked back up at him her expression openly studying.

“There’s no need to sound so surprised.”

“I’m not. I mean, of course I’m not surprised you’d know how to handle Van. It’s more, the last couple weeks you’ve been…”

“You’ve been a complete ghost anytime anyone mentions anything to do with the wedding. Does this mean you’re finally going to start actually helping us with the planning?”

“Gil!” Agatha whipped around to glare at Gil. Tarvek didn’t miss however that for all Gil’s casual goading he was watching Tarvek just as intently as Agatha.

Tarvek summoned up a passingly convincing smile. It probably only worked because he’d been aiming for apologetic rather than happy. “Yes, well. I suppose after so many years of Gil’s increasingly inordinate pronouncements I’ve grown desensitized to the talk.” Steeling himself, he forced his smile into something hopefully a little happier. “But since it’s evident that there is in fact a real wedding on the horizon I can hardly let you muddle through preparations by yourself. Lord knows Gil’s help isn’t going to be worth much.”

His expression didn’t fool them in the slightest. The two of them shared a glance and Agatha passed off her plate and propped herself against the arm of the couch closer to Tarvek. At least he hadn’t worried them too much yet. It was easy enough to wipe the expression away – at least temporarily – with a kiss. Agatha hummed happily, letting her hand catch on his shoulder as she sat back down. Gil’s hand snaked around her waist. His eyes were still trained on Tarvek in what could only be described as a worried glare. “I would have thought you’d be more excited.”

That… hurt. It hurt more than Tarvek had been prepared for. He turned back to the table and pretended to busy himself with the food. “Weddings at this level are primarily politics above anything else.”

“Well not this one,” Gil leaning closer to Agatha.

“Clearly.” His plate was full. He stared unseeingly at it for a moment. He picked it up and brought it over to the couch. He sat down next to Agatha. “Now,” he said, “What other wedding problems am I solving today?”

 

9

The revenant laughed, a gurgling, wet sound around the sword in their chest. Blood leaked out of their mouth, dripping down their chin. “My Mistress will be victorious. The false child can’t fight her forever.”

Tarvek twisted the hilt of the sword further in. “She will never get Agatha,” he hissed.

“Well,” Martellus said, coming up to peer at the body, “I don’t remember you being quite so competently vicious.”

“Only when I need to be. Unlike you, I consider it a necessity, not a hobby.” Now that the threat of a nominally shared enemy was gone Martellus would probably fall back on trying to kill him. At least there were plenty of witnesses. Excepting Agatha and Gil, nearly every even slightly important power in Europa was here, drawn in by Lucrezia’s trap. They were all watching them now. That might keep Martellus from simply up and stabbing him. Maybe. Tarvek rolled his shoulder, trying to ignore the pain running up his arm. He was lucky he’d been able to neutralize the acid before it ate through his arm and not just his jacket. He’d started the night trying to gather support for Agatha. He still had work to do. “Do try to pretend to be human for at least the day,” he said, walking away.

“Blank.”

“What?” Tarvek asked, twisting back around.

Martellus was staring at his arm. “Your wrist is blank.”

Tarvek looked down. The edge of his sleeve was in tatters and his cuff was –

His cuff was gone.

His cuff was gone and his wrist was bare.

The world tilted.

He’d managed to hide his wrist for years. His family had never known. The world had never looked at him and guessed he was a Blank.

He’d been lucky, he’d been lucky, he’d been lucky.

“You’re a Blank.”

His luck was gone now.

Martellus grinned like a child who’d finally been given the toy he’d always wanted as he pulled the sword out of the revenant’s corpse. No one would object any more. A couple might even applaud.

Whispers rippled through the crowd. Tarvek was close enough he should have been able to hear at least some of them, but all he heard was a shrill, high-pitched buzzing.

“How long did you think you could hide the truth from the world?” Martellus asked, his voice cutting crystal clear through the buzzing. He stalked forward. The sword glinted red when the blood still dripping off of it caught the light. Tarvek took a step back. “I must say, I’m impressed you managed this long. Then again, Blanks are known for their inability to tell the truth. It must have come as easy as breathing.”

Movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. Gil was pushing his way through the crowd, lips pressed together the same way they used to in Paris, right before he started another fight. Tarvek blinked and Gil vanished.

“Does the Lady Heterodyne know? Does she realize what her suitor is? One well-placed scrap of truth to buy yourself her trust? No, I imagine not. Even you have enough sense to realize that if you’d told her, she would have put you out of your misery.”

There was a flash of gold in his periphery. Agatha stood at the edge of the spectators, fingers tight around a death-ray of some kind. Tarvek turned toward her and she disappeared too.

The buzzing got louder.

“Do you think one of them is going to help you? A Blank who dared to presume to claim to be a king?” I don’t think you realize just what you are. All these years of hiding has lead to you believing you’re actually human. Fortunately, I am more than willing to elucidate the truth.”

“Enough!” The buzzing stopped.

He wheeled on Martellus, storming forward. The move surprised his cousin enough that he actually took a faltering step back of his own. “I already know I have no Words! It is not something I need reminding of. It is a fact I’m reminded of every morning from the moment I wake up. Every time I see my wrist. It’s something I’m reminded of every time Agatha smiles.

“But I would rather have no Words than to be like you. I would rather have no soulmate, or even, as I’m sure you’ll claim, no soul at all than to be able to murder them,” he yelled, flinging the long-horded secret at Martellus’s feet. “Tell me Martellus, did you feel anything for that poor girl when you killed her, your Words barely even past her lips, all because she did not fit with your plans. Do you ever even think about her at all?

“The Lady Heterodyne and the Baron are soulmates. They are each other’s equals, matched in every way that matters. They hold each other’s hearts in their hands. But just because I don’t hold the Lady Heterodyne’s heart, doesn’t mean she doesn’t still hold mine. Her happiness is the most important thing in the world. I will fight to let her keep that. I will die to let her keep that. I can keep her alive. I can keep him alive. And when all this is over they will be alive and together and any price will be worth it. There are no other ties on my soul when I pledge my loyalty and my life and my love. Just the Lady Heterodyne’s happiness and everything I am to give it to her.

“I didn’t hide my wrist because I was ashamed. I didn’t hide to lie. I didn’t hide it from them. Agatha already knew. Gil has always known.” He closed his eyes, letting the visions of Gil and Agatha dance behind his eyelids. Everything seemed distant and so much less important than it had a minute ago. He laughed again and the sound was free and almost wondrous. “Agatha and Gil, they are everything.”

There was a hand on his arm. Someone, he wasn’t sure who, pulled him away. He blinked and realized he couldn’t see Martellus or the revenant. He was surrounded by several of the other guests. Colette’s hand was on his arm. Oh. She must have been who grabbed him.

His wrist was still bare.

His hands were shaking. He curled them into fists to hide it. Then, very deliberately he straightened them, letting them shake openly. Now was not the time to appear heartless.

He still had work to do.

 

17

Sturmhalten had not changed. For everything that had happened Tarvek had thought that it would be an empty crater or a bombed out husk or at the very least irrevocably ruined. But no. There were the mountains; there was the castle in the distance. The field, when they disembarked, looked the same. The battle had dug up the earth but the grass had long since grown back, masking any proof that anything had happened at all

The town was exactly as it always was, constant in the way quiet towns were, the details shifting even as the picture they created remained the same. The baker may be wider than he used to be, but his bread still smelled like the honey he brushed on the top, the first batch slightly burned from when he always dozed off after putting them in.

Would it have looked like this if he’d come back after only a few months? If he’d waited ten years?

They stopped when they reached the castle. Tarvek stared up at it suddenly wishing he were anywhere else in the world.

Agatha came up next to him. “Are you okay?” she whispered, low enough that no one else could hear them

“I think I should be asking you that. The only time you’ve ever been here wasn’t exactly the basis for fond memories.”

“I have a little more protection with me this time than a nice dress and a lock-pick ring. Plus there aren’t any Geisterdamen waiting for me.”

“I’m fine, it’s something I have to do.”

“Just remember we’re here.” She kissed his knuckles then slipped back next to Gil.

Whenever he thought about his home, the picture that always came to his head was as it had been that last night. Even now he half expected to find his fathers charred corpse still smoking on the floor of the lab, Anevka’s attendants sprawled out around her misnamed coffin. Or failing that for the entire place to be coated in dust, a forgotten tomb left to crumble where it stood. Instead when he opened the door he found the same immaculate, empty front hall that had always greeted him. The servants had tidied everything up, swept it away and kept the castle for someone to come and claim. Somehow that was lonelier than if it had been abandoned.

Someone had gathered up all of Tinka’s pieces, carefully stowing them a large crate at the bottom of the stairs. It was better than having her strewn over them, he supposed. The sight still left him feeling empty.

He heard Agatha and Gil enter the hall, their quiet footsteps echoing in the stone room. He wanted to drag them back out of there, before the stillness could infect them too.

Then the rest of their party arrived. The quiet was abruptly pushed back, banished to the dark corners of the castle as they tromped in.

“I forgot just how flouncy everything is here,” Violetta said from the entrance. “I wonder how much Smoke Knight stuff is still hidden away.”

Somehow there ended up being a contest to see who can find the most hidden Smoke Knight items. Violetta, who it had been decided wasn’t allowed to compete since she’d have an unfair advantage, gleefully appointed herself the judge. Any weapons, tools or other accessories anyone found were to be given to her so she could add it to their tally and if they were stupid enough to let someone else steal it off of them before they presented it to her then it was their own fault. Dupree was cackling over discovering three blades at once while Higgs stood on the other end of the hall trying to pretend he hadn’t just found ten. Overhead Zeetha rummaged through the chandeliers happily dropping throwing stars and blow darts down to Violetta as she unearthed them.

Gil twirled a small knife he’d found between his fingers. Tarvek suspected he might keep it. He hoped he did. Beside him Agatha examined a small vial of a rather pretty, very potent knockout drug. She held it up to the light one last time before handing it off to Moloch who was resolutely trying to avoid being pulled into the scavenger hunt surrounding him. Right now his tally was the highest. “It’s less cold in here than I expected from when we were outside.”

“It should be. I designed the heating system myself.”

“You did?” Agatha said, turning towards him.

“Mm-hm. It was my breakthrough project as it were, so parts of it are a bit… confusing.”

“Really?” Gil leaned towards him, both him and Agatha focused on him. “You broke through with an entire, working heating system?”

“Oh yes. Highly efficient but the system’s a little hard to understand in places. It actually scared away a couple non-Sparks who tried to duplicate it once.” He paused; suddenly shy as he asked, “Would you like to see part of it?”

Dimo tracked them down three hours later, ensconced in piping, bouncing improvements back and forth between the three of them. They continued chatting excitedly even as the Boys steered them towards the dining room.

The scene was nothing like Agatha’s fated dinner there. In fact, it was nothing like any dinner Tarvek could remember having in it. The whole table was packed, loud and rowdy. By the looks of it the only thing preventing a food fight from breaking out was the fact that the food itself had yet to be served.

Tarvek was directed to the head of the table. It was his castle he supposed, even if it was technically within Gil’s empire. Agatha and Gil are seated on either side of him. They really should be seated next to each other, considering their engagement. Tarvek didn’t want to risk pointing that out. Not when he could reach for both their hands under the table instead.

The staff started bringing out the food and Tarvek realized he recognized most of them as the same servants that had been there before. They scuttled around the table in efficient, silent movements even as they were clearly at a loss about what to do with the rambunctiousness surrounding the table.

One girl in particular – Ana, shoemaker’s daughter, Tarvek had made sure to know every servant even if he’d never let them know because the last thing any of the servants had wanted was to learn the royal family had noticed them – was so preoccupied by the whole thing that she didn’t notice Oggie’s poleaxe until it was too late. While she managed to catch herself, it wasn’t before the pitcher of wine she’d been carrying had spilled, splashing all over Tarvek’s jacket. Gil, ingrate that he was, started laughing. Agatha was too polite to laugh at his misfortune but from the way her eyes were sparkling, she wanted to. The rest of the servants froze, clearly remembering punishments from his father’s time. Poor Ana was shaking, unsure if she should start apologizing or flee while she still had a chance. Tarvek offered her his kindest smile.

“I’m so sorry, Your Highness. I – I didn’t –”

“It’s fine,” he promised her. Motioning towards the still mostly full pitcher, he asked, “May I see that?”

“Of – Of c–course, Your H–Highness.”

“Thank you.” Then taking the pitcher, he upended the entire contents over Gil’s head. Agatha lost it, dissolving into giggles.

Gil blinked, Ruländer dripping down his hair. He turned toward Ana, giving her the same smile that had charmed countless serving girls in Paris. Unlike Tarvek’s, Gil’s smile seemed to actually work, even when covered in wine. “Excuse me, miss…?”

“Ana, Herr Baron,” she said.

“Ana. Would happen to have any red wines? I think it would pair wonderfully with Prince Tarvek’s hair.”

So maybe it was Tarvek who ended up starting the food fight.

It’s the first time Sturmhalten ever felt like a home rather than a prison.

They ended up spending a week in Sturmhalten. Tarvek showed Agatha and Gil the morning market and bought them each a honey-bun only for Gil to eat all three. The three of them toured the various labs, getting lost in projects Tarvek hadn’t even remembered. They dismantled the Summoning Engine, the most dangerous pieces being sent up to Castle Wulfenbach. Zeetha put on an impromptu one-woman show in the royal theatre by goading Dupree into firing his father’s gun at her and dodging in increasingly ridiculous ways. One night he even went down to the family crypt, briefly accompanied by Violetta. He couldn’t think of anything he wanted to say to his father but he did manage a proper goodbye for Anevka.

The last night found him standing on the balcony. Cold as the wind may be, it still smelled like home.

Agatha hadn’t been quite brave enough to join him outside. Instead she stood in the doorway, wrapped in the duel warmth of a blanket and Gil’s arms. “So, are you glad we decided to come?” she asked.

Tarvek ran his hand along the railing. “I didn’t realize I missed this place. I didn’t realize I could miss this place. I – Thank you.”

Agatha beamed. “We’re glad.”

“Actually,” Gil said, “we have a gift for you.”

“A gift? What is it?”

“We –” Gil broke off, glancing down at Agatha who gave him a small smile and squeezed his arm. “We wanted to give you Sturmhalten. To rule.”

“I already rule Sturmhalten.”

Gil shook his head. “You govern Sturmhalten but it’s technically under Wulfenbach rule. We were thinking more in line like how Agatha rules Mechanicsburg. Aligned with the Empire but ultimately separate from it.”

Tarvek clutched the railing. The stone caught against his fingertips. He forced his hands to relax before they could start bleeding. So this was how it was going to go. It was generous really. Quite the parting gift. “You want to give me a kingdom.” And naturally, he’d have to stay behind to rule it.

“All of Balan’s Gap.” Gil grinned. “It was Agatha’s idea.”

“It’s more than I deserve.” Please don’t make me. Please.

Agatha’s smile softened. “You deserve to have Sturmhalten, Tarvek. And Sturmhalten deserves to have you.”

He tried to imagine being here without them to chase the stillness and the silence away. The thought made him want to scream. He swallowed. It didn’t help. “If you’re going to insist,” he rasped, voice thick, “then I suppose I’ll have to keep it.”

Their smiles could have replaced the sun. He tried to tell himself they were overcompensating. Not all of him believed it. “We can make it official tomorrow morning,” Agatha said.

“No!” Tarvek bit back a curse when Agatha and Gil both started. “I just mean,” he continued, pulling words out of thin air as he went, “it would be better if we waited. Politically speaking. At least until after the wedding.”

Agatha frowned. “Really? Wouldn’t it be better if –”

“Please.”

Now Gil was frowning too. “Is everything alright Tarvek?”

“I’m fine,” he lied, something he’d promised himself he’d never do with them but this conversation was hardly one for the truth. “I’ll be fine. I just wasn’t expecting it. It’s a bit overwhelming.”

“If you’re sure,” Agatha said, still watching him. Tarvek silently thanked darkness of the night.

“I’m sure. I’ll have everything straightened out in my head by the time the wedding’s over.” A particularly sharp gust of wind whipped over the balcony. “Go back inside before you freeze. I’ll be in in a minute. I’m fine. I’m just… not ready to say goodbye yet.”

“We can stay another day.” Tarvek bit back a bitter chuckle, idly wondering if Gil had honestly missed what he was really confessing, or purposefully missed it.

“No, no. We have a wedding to prepare after all. Go get warm. I won’t be long.”

 

6

Whenever Tarvek managed to sleep for more than three hours at a time, he ended up on his side with his left arm in front of his face. It was a habit he’d been trying to break. It had been slow-going progress and if Tarvek were superstitious he’d be tempted to claim it was the universe trying to remind him of what he was. As if he needed the reminder.

This morning was evidently not a successful one. When Tarvek blinked open his eyes the first thing he saw was the delicate swirl of embroidery on his cuff. The stitching looped around and back in on itself in an intricate nonsense pattern of color and stitchwork. From this perspective they almost looked like words.

Tarvek shut his eyes again. He pushed himself up and threw off the covers. He didn’t look down at his wrist again until after he had his jacket on covering it.

 

19

Tarvek paged through his reports again, hoping for some sort of hidden mistake or problem. There were none. They were ready for the wedding. All that was left was polishing up the details and managing the multitude of visitors that would be pouring in. But as far as the ceremony itself, Agatha and Gil could be married tomorrow if they truly wanted. He put the papers back down.

What had he expected? For some miraculous catastrophe to magically spring up and save him from having to give them up?

“I should have guessed you’d be here.” Tarvek looked up. Agatha was leaning against the nearest bookshelf with a small smile and eyes that were tired from something other than a lack of sleep. “You didn’t come to bed last night.”

Tarvek winced. He wished he could say this was the first time that charge had been leveled at him since they got back. “I fell asleep in here.” Falling asleep alone here with them in reach was good practice for when they wouldn’t be and passing out over a desk was infinitely less painful than a cold bed.

“You waved off dinner last night.”

“I’m sorry.”

“And the night before.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’ve been avoiding us.”

Tarvek started. “I haven’t –” Except he had. He’d been avoiding them in public to try to distance himself in the minds of the people and he’d been avoiding them in private so the sudden loss wouldn’t kill him. All at once the weight of the future crushed down on him and he knew the walls he was trying to build wouldn’t be nearly enough. “Can I be honest?”

“Of course.” Agatha stepped close, one hand finding his cheek, the other his blank wrist. “Always.”

“I can’t – I’m not –” He took a deep breath, trying to scrounge up his composure. “I know we haven’t talked in any explicit terms about what we all know is coming after this wedding. I’m not even sure I know how to. But just because we haven’t talked about it doesn’t mean we can wish it away. Changes like that can’t be made overnight. Not if we expect people to believe them. I’m simply laying the groundwork. Trying to get things ready for when –” He couldn’t do it. Instead he lifted Agatha’s hand off his cheek, kissing her palm. “I’ll come to bed tonight, I promise.”

“At least come out and have lunch with Gil and me.”

“We shouldn’t.” Maybe the reason there was no saving grace was because every time he was given a reprieve he burned it. “The more we double down on this now the sooner we can go back to like we were before, or at least as close as we can get.” Or maybe some part of his brain was still hoping if he could just get everything arranged well enough they wouldn’t send him away.

Agatha pursed her lips unhappily. She picked up the pages Tarvek had set down a minute ago, skimming through them. Her expression grew more considering as she looked up over the top of them at Tarvek. “Do you know if Zeetha and Zantabraxus have gotten back yet?

“They just arrived about an hour ago I think.”

“And is Klaus here?”

“No, he and his escort aren’t supposed to arrive until next week.”

Nodding definitively, Agatha said, “Could you and Gil meet me in front of the west entrance of the Red Cathedral? At say, one-o’clock?”

“Of course,” he said automatically. He furrowed his brow as he flipped back through his notes. “Did we miss something?”

“No, no,” she said as leaned in and toyed with his ponytail. “Your planning’s been perfect. This is just… the Heterodyne’s prerogative.

“Well in that case heaven forbid we even think of doing anything else,” he said, pulling her into his arms. He shouldn’t, he knew he shouldn’t. But there was no one else here and Agatha was looking up at him with that smile that made him want to melt into a puddle at her feet. “Is there anything else you want me to do before then?”

“Yes actually. Could you make sure Gil’s wearing something nice?”

“Get Gilgamesh cleaned up and in formal clothing. I’ll have to track him down now if you want him in only four hours.”

“Be nice,” Agatha said, tugging on his hair and immediately making it up with a kiss. “And try to find him something happy, not his ‘intimidating the empire’ clothes please.”

“Should I dress up as well?” he asked, ducking down for another kiss.

Agatha smoothed down the lapels of his jacket. “You’re fine. But if you want to dress up,” she added, kissing him again, “I’ll never say no.”

Tarvek grinned against her lips. “Duly noted.”

Agatha stretched back up against him for one more kiss before breaking away entirely. “I need to get some things done first, so I’ll see you at the cathedral. Be good till then.”

He was supposed to be giving them up.

He was pretty well failing at that.

While he’d meant it as a joke, they did in fact end up taking almost the whole four hours. First he’d found Gil elbow deep in one of his flying machines and then his enthusiasm was so infectious that Tarvek ended up getting swept up into it for, well, time went a little bit fuzzy at that point. By the time he remembered why he’d dropped in on the first place they were both in desperate need of a bath and new clothes. And if Tarvek chose Gil’s favorite jacket and Agatha’s favorite waistcoat, that was neither here nor there.

They rounded the corner at exactly one-o’clock. There were two goats tied to the side of the cathedral. They both had collars on, one of which was embossed with the Wulfenbach sigil while the other for some reason had the Sturmvoraus sigil.

“Oh good!” Agatha said appearing from the other way. “They found me my goats.” She’d changed as well. She now had on a beautiful white dress Tarvek had never seen, too intricate to really be called a day dress despite the cut.

“Why do we have goats?” Gil asked.

“Just covering all my bases,” Agatha said flashing a conspiratorial grin at Tarvek.

Gil went over and began cautiously petting Wulfenbach goat. When it didn’t breath fire or try to eat him he relaxed and stroked it along the ears. “So, what are we doing here?” Agatha smiled, but simply shook her head and tugged on their hands. She led them both along until they came to a small side room. It was the Castle’s least favorite room in the cathedral, mainly because it was completely shielded from the Castle’s senses.

“Now do we get to know what this Heterodyne prerogative is?”

Agatha rocked back on her heels. She pulled her glasses off and very thoroughly cleaned them on her hem. Finally she said, “I want to get married.

Gil shot Tarvek a confused glance. Tarvek did his best to communicate a helpless shrug with only his eyes. Just because Tarvek had been in charged with dragging him there doesn’t mean he knew anything more about the why than Gil did. “I thought we were already getting married?” Gil said slowly, walking over to her.

“Today. I want to get married today.” Agatha straightened her shoulders even as her fingers twisted in the folds of her dress. “I know our marriage is going to be at least partially political. I know you can’t have a marriage with people with our amount of power without politics getting involved. We’ve all accepted that and we let the politics of it consume us until we’ve barely seen each other in days.” And that was a very pointed look that she was giving Tarvek. They were Agatha and Gil’s last days too that he was taking away from them. “We’re getting married. And we’re doing so because we love each other, not because it’s politically advantageous.” Agatha grasped Gil’s hand. “Our marriage might end up belonging to the rest of the world but our wedding doesn’t have to. It can be just ours.” She ran her fingers over Gil’s Words. It wasn’t the first time she’d done so in front of Tarvek, it wasn’t even the hundredth – she probably wasn’t even aware she was doing it – but here, in the middle of losing them when Tarvek had thought he’d still have weeks, the sight made him want to choke. “If you don’t want to then we won’t. We’ll call today a rehearsal or claim we wanted to fine tune –”

“Agatha,” Gil said. “Did you seriously think you even had to ask me if I would be alright with eloping?”

Agatha grinned, nerves dissolving. “Well no, but it still seemed proper to ask first.” She leaned in to kiss him and as always they fit together perfectly like fairy tales always claimed soulmates should. “Tarvek?” she said when she and Gil broke apart, and he could see the nerves creeping back in. “What do you think?”

Tarvek blinked. “Huh?” What could they need his opinion on? This was their wedding not his.

“You’ve spent more time working on this wedding than anyone. If anyone has a right to be object to me wanting to demolish it, it’s you.”

Oh.

How very… practical.

Before he could reply there was a sharp knock and Vanamonde poked his head in. “My Lady? I gathered everyone you asked for. They’re all waiting for you in the main church.”

“Thank you Herr von Mekkhan.”

“May I ask what you wanted all of them for My Lady?”

Agatha and Gil, still in each other’s arms, turned and looked at him. He could say no. He could give himself this one last reprieve. “A wedding. The Lady Heterodyne has decided she wants to get married today.”

“Bu–But the wedding isn’t planned for another three weeks1” Van squeaked.

“I know. We aren’t planning on all the pageantry today, just the marriage ceremony. If need be we can still have the other feasts as scheduled in three weeks. However today we’re getting married.”

Van swallowed once. He closed his eyes, very obviously reworking his mental world to the whims of his Heterodyne. Then he bowed his head, starting to recover some of his color. If the von Mekkhan’s hadn’t been able to deal with a Heterodyne’s changeable mood, they never would have lasted as their seneschals. At least Van didn’t usually have to handle surprise giant monsters. Usually. “Of course My Lady. What do you wish me to do?”

“If you could go fetch the priest. And please remember not to mention this to anyone as you go. We’d prefer not to have our elopement swarmed. I’ve already spoken to the Castle about…” The words faded out as Agatha continued talking with Van. She’d grabbed his wrist at some point. It didn’t escape his attention that her fingers danced over his blank wrist the same way they had with Gil’s.

When the three of them entered the chapel proper it was already full of everyone the three of them would easily still call family. Krosp was draped over one of pews basking in the sun coming through the stained window. Lilith and Adam were retying Maxinia’s hair ribbon only for her to rip it out again as soon as they weren’t looking. Zantabraxus, in formal robes but traveling dust still caught in her hair, was chatting with (interrogating) Higgs. Violetta, Zeetha and Dupree were crowded around each other, smirking in a way that implied yet more bets were being made. The Boys were leaning against the wall, grinning fit to show off all of their teeth. Theo and Sleipnir were off to the side, talking to Moloch, who looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks.

So this is what Agatha had run off to do earlier. He wondered if they knew she’d gathered them for a wedding. Everyone was in something that could conceivably be considered formal enough wear for a wedding, yet not so much as to scream that this was an important occasion. Violetta was wearing a dress, but it was one of the handful of dresses Agatha had commissioned for her, easy to move in and with pants cleverly hidden underneath. Dupree’s outfit consisted of more weaponry than fabric. Zeetha was in a traditional Skifanderian warrior outfit, however it wasn’t anything ceremonial. (He knew he was letting himself get distracted but thinking as little as possible about everything he was losing was the only way he’d get through this with any of his sanity intact.)

“So what’s going on?” Theo asked, wandering over, “Some sort of scaled down rehearsal?” He nudged Gil playfully in the ribs. “Or did Gil finally convince you to elope?”

“What makes you think I’m responsible? I’ll have you know this was Agatha’s idea.”

“Hah!” Zeetha cheered. “I told you it was a wedding!” Both Violetta and Dupree grumbled as they pulled out coins and handed them over. Zeetha gleefully took them before prancing over to Zantabraxus and holding her hand out for her mother to put a coin into.

Gil looked like he might consider being hurt if he wasn’t so busy being amused by it. “You and made a bet over whether we this was a wedding?”

Zantabraxus’s expression was completely unrepentant. “You have so many endless little ceremonies here. I thought this would end up being one of those. I’ve never been so glad to lose a bet.” She carded her fingers through Gil’s hair, expression softening to one of motherly pride so strong that even Tarvek, whose basis with such an emotion was as limited as Gil’s had once been, could feel it. “I am so happy to see this day. And I am so glad to be able to see you so happy.”

Lilith had similarly gone over to Agatha, fussing over her while Adam crowded close and tried not to cry on her dress.

Violetta sided up to him, hovering awkwardly, a sad parody of the family surrounding Agatha and Gil.

“I want to be ready as soon as the priest gets here,” Agatha said, glancing up at her mother. “Besides, the less we wait the lower the chance of the news hitting the grapevine before we even start the ceremony. The Castle already knows not to say anything, but that won’t stop the Mechanicsburg gossip mill. Well, and,” her gaze caught Tarvek’s as it drifted over to Gil, practicality melting away into blushes and love-struck smiles. “I really want to be married as soon as we can.”

The pews were forgone in favor of clustering around the happy couple. Agatha and Gil bundled themselves over to the altar. The sun coming from the windows cascaded down over the two of them, sending a million colors dancing over Gil and catching in Agatha’s hair and turning it to spun gold. Oggie had liberated a bouquet of flowers from somewhere and Agatha cradled them in her arms.

They were getting married.

Tarvek clenched his fist and kept smiling.

Yes Agatha and Gil were soulmates but they loved him too.

Just not as much.

“Tarvek?” Tarvek blinked. Agatha and Gil were both looking at him. “What are you doing over there?”

They wanted him to stand by their side.

He took a deep breath and stepped forward.

From this close he could see the blush on Agatha’s cheeks, the warmth in Gil’s eyes. The wrinkles in Gil’s collar and the flyaway hair stuck to Agatha’s neck.

“I can’t.”

The entire church fell dead silent.

Agatha blanched grey. Gil looked like he’d just been shot. In fact he looked worse than the times he’d been shot. The flowers in Agatha’s hand trembled. “W-What?” she said. It was only then that Tarvek realized the words had been his.

“Tarvek what do you mean you can’t?” Gil said.

He sucked in a shaky breath. The very air in his lungs could break him apart. Not looking at them he stepped back.

“I’m sorry.”

“WHAT!!?!” Violetta barreled over to him, grabbing him by his lapels and shaking him. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing!?” she demanded. “Of all the stupid, idiotic –”

“Violetta.”

Agatha had stepped away from the altar over to them. Her bouquet was lying in a heap on the ground. Tarvek stared at the bruised petals. Wonderful, he’d torn the bride away from the altar at her own wedding.

“Let him go.”

“But he –”

“I know. And I am going to know why. But first you need to let him go.” Violetta’s fists uncurled from his jacket, dropping him the two and a half feet she’d been holding him in the air.

Agatha nodded once, the smooth regal nod of the Lady Heterodyne on the battlefield. It’s not a motion she’d used since the last troops surrendered. Then she turned toward the exit and started walking. Gil followed silently, grabbing Tarvek’s arm as he went. The thing about Gil: when he’s determined to keep ahold of someone, there is no getting away. He has a grip that puts Erie Bartlett’s mechanical death claws to shame and while Smoke Knight training means you can get away with a hairsbreadth of a second of inattention, Gil would remain so unshakably focused on his target that there is no gap big enough. Tarvek didn’t try to pull away instead letting Gil guide him back to the little side room.

Agatha was standing in the middle of the room. Tarvek could see the mantle of Lady Heterodyne she’d chosen as her armor, how it was only hanging on by a thread. He didn’t think he could give her any help. The only thread he had to offer was what was holding himself together and he was fairly certain at this point it was frayed enough to be useless.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated.

“Stop,” Agatha said. The thread snapped and all that was left was Agatha. She took her glasses off and dug the heel of her hand into her eyes, movements sharp and jerky like a clank that needed fixing or a construct who’s still figuring out personhood. “Just – What happened?”

“I thought – Well I guess I thought wrong. I suppose it’s better it wasn’t the big public wedding we’d been planning.” The painstakingly crafted narrative that let people cheer for Agatha and Gil and welcome their rule, that kept the other powers of Europa from attacking hadn’t been instantly destroyed thanks to the breakdown of the person who everyone pretended wasn’t the happy couple’s shadow lover. (no place for such a pesky thing) No, he’d only fallen apart in front of everyone he loved and cared about. Well lucky for him in a few days he’d be tucked away in Sturmhalten far away from all of them.

“Better.” Gil snapped face contorted into a glare that hid any worry well behind it – a look that had been all but reserved for Tarvek during the war. He hadn’t seen it in quite a while. “This is better?”

Tarvek rubbed his eyes. He was tired. “Would you rather we had to deal with continental politics and a possible restart of the war we just put down on top of all this?”

“I would rather,” Gil shot back, “know what is going on. You were fine yesterday. Hell, you were fine an hour ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That still isn’t an answer,” Gil said, gripping his arm. Gil always reverted back to fighting when he didn’t know what else to do. Tarvek didn’t want to fight. He’d accepted defeat back when this first started. Winning meant that either Agatha or Gil lost and that was worse.

“I’m fine.”

“You are not fine. And apparently you’re back to lying to us too.”

Tarvek couldn’t help but wince at his own mistake. “You’re right, I’m not. But I spent most of my life that way. I know how to claw my way back out.”

“Without us.”

No. “Yes.” Never. “It would rather defeat the purpose otherwise.”

The pained, barely audible sound Gil made as he let go of Tarvek’s arm made Tarvek want to curl into a ball. One more day. He’d only had to keep it together for one more day but he couldn’t and now he’d caused this. Stepping away from both of them was the best thing he could do right now.

The whole time Agatha had kept staring at Tarvek like she could unlock the reason he wasn’t able to keep it together for just one last day. “Tarvek,” she finally said, “who’s wedding is this?”

The question was enough to make Tarvek turn. He worked his jaw for a minute but no sound made it out. “Please tell me you’re joking,” he finally managed. Agatha kept staring at him acting for all the world like she’d asked a legitimate question instead of insanity. “It’s your wedding! You’re the one who wanted to move it forward!”

“It’s not just my wedding. I can’t marry myself, not without a lot of ill-advised application of science and anyway I don’t want a marriage of just myself. Who’s wedding is this?”

“Yours and Gil’s.”

There was a loud crack of splintering wood behind him. He couldn’t make himself turn around to see what Gil had broken. That would mean seeing Gil’s expression. He could imagine it well enough; he didn’t need confirmation.

“I know I couldn’t – But I’m not leaving you.” At least, not until he had to. “I love you. I am always going to love you, both of you.” He closed his eyes, trying to pull himself back together. “We can go back out there and - If you still wanted to – There’s no reason we can’t still have your wedding today.”

“You keep calling it that.” Tarvek’s eyes shot open. Gil had stopped glaring instead studying him with an expression that was a sharp reminder that underneath impulsiveness and imprudence was one of the most brilliant Sparks in Europa. “And not just now, but ever since we first started planning, it’s always Agatha’s wedding or my wedding. Never our wedding.” Gil stalked over to him. “But I have to be remembering things wrong or reading into things because otherwise that would mean you somehow haven’t acknowledged your own role the entire time we’ve been planning this wedding.”

Tarvek blinked, Gil’s words not making sense. No matter how hard he tried the words weren’t lining up right. Agatha came over next to them, laying her hand on his arm.

“Tarvek,” she said again, “Who’s wedding is this? Because I always thought it was ours. Mine and Gil’s and yours.”

Tarvek’s legs buckled and he would have hit the ground if Gil hadn’t been there to catch him. “I – What?” And then there were Agatha’s arms around him.

Agatha squeezed him tighter then stepped back. Tarvek forced himself not to cling to her. Gil remained nearby but he wasn’t touching Tarvek anymore either. They’d thought they were marrying him. And now they didn’t.

“Why would you ever think we would ever get married without you?” Agatha said.

“The two of you are each other’s soulmates!”

“And you’re not?” Gil demanded.

Tarvek opened his mouth to point out that his wrist was proof enough of that. “If the next thing out of your mouth has anything to do with Words I swear I will punch you,” Gil growled. He was scowling, a different, much more familiar one than before. It was the one he wore when he was angry at himself and was trying to pretend it was the world. Tarvek leaned up and kissed him without even thinking about it, an ingrained habit at this point in the face of that particular expression.

That was the wrong choice. He shouldn’t have done that. He had no right to –

The way Gil grabbed him and clung to him like Tarvek had wanted to with both of them said it actually was the right thing. This time as Agatha wrapped her arms around him too he gripped both of them as tightly as he could.

“Either all three of us are getting married or there is no wedding,” Agatha said. Her fingers twisted in Tarvek’s sleeve. “Unless – Unless you don’t want to get married,” she finished, not looking at him.

“There is nothing I want more than to marry the two of you.”

Agatha rested her head back against his; lacing her hand through his, thumb swiping across the inside of his wrist. “Then I guess we’re still having a wedding today after all.”

They stayed there for a few more minutes, wrapped in each other. When they returned to the chapel everyone was gathered in a loose knot, expressions running the gamut from upset to angry to worried. Next to the altar a bit apart from the rest were Vanamonde and the priest, both looking confused. It was nice to know news of Tarvek’s idiocy wouldn’t spread past family. He had been serious about the political problems he could have just created.

It took less than a second for their family to realize they’ve returned. Violetta broke away from the group, immediately marching over to them. “What happened?”

“We’ll explain later,” Agatha said

“Tarvek’s an idiot,” Gil said at the same time.

Violetta scoffed. “We already knew that. He was an idiot yesterday and last week and the week before that. It doesn’t explain anything.”

“I’m an idiot but Agatha and Gil are good at compensating and further explanations can wait until later.”

Violetta’s scowl did not abate. She narrowed her eyes dangerously at Tarvek before finally breaking contact, tuning her head to glower at one of the demonic carvings set into the wall. “But it is fixed right?” she asked, worry leaking through into her tone, “Whatever that was before.”

Fixed, probably not. As much as Tarvek wanted to say yes, ‘fixed’ probably wasn’t a word they’d be able to use for it for years. But they had each other. That was everything they’d ever needed to figure out the rest.

“It is most definitely not a problem that will happen again,” he said instead, because if anything, that would be true.

Once it was clear that there was going to be no further interrogation or explanation the priest cleared his throat, walking forward a few steps. “My Lady,” he said with a low bow, “Your seneschal tells me you wish to be married today rather than waiting.”

Agatha’s fingers squeezed his. “Yes. Yes we do.”

The priest straightened and drew himself up to his full height. “Of course My Lady.” He gestured with one hand towards the altar behind him. “If the three of you would come forward I would be honored to officiate the union of Our Lady Heterodyne with her two chosen.”

Tarvek blinked. “I’m the only one who didn’t know this aren’t I?”

“Probably,” Gil said. “Don’t worry, we have a lifetime to not let you forget it."

 

11

The end of the fighting – against the Other, against Klaus, against all of Europa – was something Tarvek had often thought he wouldn’t survive to see. But even more unbelievable to him than that was the waking up to the first morning of peace.

Tarvek woke up to the sounds of Agatha and Gil’s breathing. Gil’s steady rumbling mixed with Agatha’s soft, whistling snore and if he focused he could just make out his own measured breathing running under it. He kept his eyes closed, soaking up the sounds of the three of them together and breathing.

After a while Tarvek let his eyes blink open. They hadn’t bothered to pull the canopy all the way closed the night before and sunlight filtered through the gap. Without his pince-nez the rest of the room was an undefined blur, leaving Agatha and Gil the only things in focus.

Agatha was curled up on her side, just close enough that her breath wasn’t quite ruffling Tarvek’s hair. Sometime during the night she’d reached out and grabbed his hand and now had it held pulled close in both of hers. One hand had laced their fingers loosely together and the other was curled around the lower half of his hand.

Gil was plastered against Agatha’s back. Half of his hair was smooshed to the side of his face while the rest stuck up in every direction. His arm was draped over Agatha’s side and his hand on top of Tarvek and Agatha’s own. The pile of hands created a Gordian knot he had no wish to try to untangle. He couldn’t even see his own wrist from under it.

He shifted his focus from their joined hands to Agatha and Gil’s sleeping faces. He reached his fingers out enough to brush the tips of them against the edge of Agatha’s cheek. The gesture earned him a soft sigh. Thinking to stroke her cheek properly, he stretched them out further. Agatha frowned in her sleep. One of her hands, Tarvek honestly wasn’t sure which, tightened as if to keep him from escaping. Gil’s hand likewise shifted, moving from idly covering to a much more possessive hold. Tarvek stilled. After a moment his partners settled back down with gentle, sleepy murmurs of contentment. He studied their faces for several more seconds but it was clear neither of them had woken up.

His gaze drifted back down to the hands covering his own. Careful not to move his hand again he slid his right arm out from under his pillow, twisting around to tangle it up with the others. Then burrowing closer to their warmth he closed his eyes and went back to sleep. They were at peace. Morning could wait a little longer for them.