New students were hardly a rarity on Castle Wulfenbach, given the presence of the school on board. In all honesty they showed up often enough to be considered a form of entertainment. Still, it wasn’t often they got new students as strange as the girl Von Pinn had informed Sleipnir was her new roommate. As soon as she saw Sleipnir enter the room she had hopped to her feet and stuck out a hand, then hastily dropped it back to her side.
“Hello… you are, um, uh, Slipper, yes?” The girl had a thick accent and spoke haltingly.
“Sleipnir.” She crossed her arms and gave the girl a once-over. She was short and slight and had long, dirty blonde hair, her face smattered with freckles, and blushed like a tomato, sitting back down on the bed and twisting the drawstrings of her bag around her hand.
“Sorry, sorry, I am. Not good, I speak little. Sorry. Sleipnir. I can remember that.”
“You better. What’s your name?” The girl looked confused, mouthing the words to herself for a moment, before her expression cleared up.
“Oh! I am called Maxine Elkin. It is very nice to meet you, I want to get along. We can be friends.” There was a hopeful twist to her expression at the last sentence, her tone going wistful despite the fact that she had clearly memorized her response. Elkin wasn’t a name she recognized, so the girl must have been a hostage for a new spark on board.
“Sure, whatever. Just don’t touch my stuff. So if you don’t speak Romanian, what do you speak?”
“I speak English. Do you speak any? I would-” Sleipnir shook her head and the girl’s face fell.
“Okay. I can practice with you, maybe?”
“Maybe.” Sleipnir was mostly annoyed. She hadn’t wanted a roommate in the first place.
Eventually, over the next four months Maxine was there, the truth came out in fits and bursts. Maxine wasn’t a hostage for anyone. She was just child of some English merchants who’d died in the wastelands and the Baron had taken her in out of pity since she was the only member of her family left. She ended up at the bottom of the pecking order, if not at the absolute bottom by virtue of not even having seniority over almost everyone else, let alone a total lack of title or important parent. She was a crybaby, liable to burst into tears at little frustrations, treating books like they had personally betrayed her when she read. She got easily distracted, staring off into space and sometimes forgetting what she was doing in the middle of a task. She hung out with Gil a lot, probably because they both were nobodies, but since Tarvek liked Gil she seemed alone a lot of the time.
For a crybaby though, Maxine was sometimes weirdly adventurous. She wasn’t scared of the jägers, or at least didn’t act scared, going up and poking at them. One time she even stole a jäger’s hat and ended up being chased across the airship, which was super cool. After that stunt it was a lot easier to get other students to include her, but it was hard being friends with someone who didn’t really understand half of what you said and didn’t even seem to get most of the rules of the games.
The story was wrong about Maxine’s origins entirely. Maxine was certainly not from England, though since English was her first language it worked well enough as a cover. Maxine was also not taken in out of pity. Maxine was a student here because the Dreen had insisted.
See, the story went like this. Once upon a time in a fantasy world, a young boy named Gilgamesh found out that he wasn’t an orphan. In fact, he was the heir to an Empire ruled by a baron. His best friend was a prince named Tarvek, who was secretly the heir to an empire that didn’t exist anymore, and together they did wonderful, marvelous, fantastic things, like making a talking lobster or small robots that could learn and talk. They grew up together and solved mysteries and one day they realized they were not only friends, but that they were interested in each other romantically and were quite in love. They went off to Paris and were heroes, eventually, and met a girl- a young woman, really- named Agatha, and found out she had a legacy of her own. The whole thing was a popular collection of novels, collectively known as “The Baron’s Heir” series, and Maxine had devoured the novels, reading them over and over again. The Dreen had come to her (had taken her) and told her that they wanted Maxine to make sure things would go well. They’d chosen her to help, out of everyone who’d ever read the series, and she’d get to meet all her favorite characters and make herself part of the story. Of course she had agreed. Why wouldn’t she?
They taught her what they could, some basic Romanian, the rules she would have to follow, and warned her what would happen if things went wrong. They showed her what they would do if she broke the timeline beyond the point she could keep things going as they planned. (The reminder of the cost of failure stood in the Baron’s office, a macabre statue that she swore was slowly, slowly blinking every time she glanced over.) They’d dropped her off at the Baron’s office, a spindly hand laid on her shoulder and a drawstring bag with a pair of pajamas, a pair of overalls and a family photo in her hands as they talked in quietly hissing strange voices. It turns out everything is harder when the fictional characters you loved to read about are real. Real people have real feelings and real opinions and real voices, and sometimes it overwhelmed her. She was only nine years old and she was responsible for making things go right. It took eavesdropping for her to find an opportunity for her to try and fix anything. Well, not fix. Just to hurry along.
There was a light knock at the door to Klaus’s office, then a pause. Klaus looked up from his paperwork for a moment, then went back to reading the trade agreement he’d just begun reviewing. There was a second knock, this time more insistent, then the sound of a throat being cleared.
“Hoy, mebbe hyu should go back to bed, kiddo, de Baron is busy.”
“It’s important! You hafta let me in, I gotta tell him!” Hm. A child’s voice, clearly upset, speaking in English.
“HOY! She’s slippery, Johann!”
Oh dear. Normally he’d let the jäger guards deal with this but it was the Dreen-gift who was currently playing at being a student. Was a student? She certainly went to classes. He stood up and walked over to open the door, the girl almost stumbling from the door being opened when she had her hand on the doorknob.
“Miss Elkin? What’s the matter now?” She straightened hastily, shooting the jäger a wary glance.
“Can I come in your office to talk, Herr Baron, sir? It’s important.”
“Of course.” The girl sighed in relief, shooting Johann and Ivan a smug look over her shoulder as she entered and sat down at a chair across from him. “Now, what’s so important you had to tell me right away and couldn’t make an appointment, or even show up during the day, Miss Elkin.”
The girl took a deep breath, fiddling with a piece of her hair nervously, then the words spilled out of her without so much as a breath between sentences.
“Tarvek and Gil are sneaking into the record room sometime soon. Gil wants to know who he is and Tarvek wants to help him, and they’re gonna find the story you planted and Gil’s gonna cry and you’re gonna tell him but not Tarvek, and it’s going to cause problems, Tarvek’s gonna keep looking and they’re gonna fight about it.”
Ah. Well, now that would cause problems. Especially given the Sturmvoraus boy’s sneaky habits and the not-insignificant fact he was passing information to his own father.
“Is that all, Miss Elkin?”
The girl’s face screwed up in concentration as she seemed to be trying to figure out how to phrase things. “You should- you have to tell-” The girl began flickering strangely and she gasped, hands flying to cover her face.
“I’m not gonna say it, I’m not, I’ll change it, please don’t!”
“Miss Elkin?!” Klaus started to stand up, reaching out to try and touch the girl and reassure her when just as suddenly as it started, she stabilized.
The girl dropped her hands into her lap and took a shaky inhale.
“You- Tarvek is going to find out. It’s important, you need to know he’s going to find out and that he and Gil aren’t going to get along as long as Gil is keeping secrets, I’m sorry, they won’t let me say more, I wanna help more, I’m sorry.” The girl did seem truly unhappy about this development, seemingly unable to meet his eyes, instead glancing at the statue over his shoulder and back down to her hands.
“I’ll handle it.”
“Miss Elkin. No, Maxine. I promise, I’ll look out for my son, fighting between those two would certainly be a problem.”
“Okay. Okay, good.”
Three days after she had gone to the Baron to share her information, Maxine noticed Gil had come to class with red-rimmed eyes and a distant look on his face. More importantly, she noticed Tarvek completely failed to show up. Mistress Von Pinn had ears like a hawk and a sharp eye for tomfoolery, so she couldn’t pass Gil a note, but as soon as the first class of the day was done and they were taking a break, she sought Gil out.
“Gil! Where’s Tarvek? He’s your roommate, right? Is he sick or something?” Gil glared at her thunderously and crossed his arms.
“He’s at the departure bay for the smaller ships. He’s leaving.” Oh. That would explain the bad mood. Maxine wracked her brain, trying to figure out what could have happened but came up with nothing like this in the novels. Well, nothing said the novels were always right. Maybe Tarvek’s sister had a birthday or one of his relatives was sick or dying.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine until he comes back. I can keep you company, and we can both take notes for him so he doesn’t miss anything important.” Gil stared at her, something strange and bitter in his expression.
“He’s not coming back. He got caught spying. Good riddance, I guess.” Maxine had to have heard him wrong. She had to have. She blinked, trying to make Gil’s words make sense. This definitely wasn’t supposed to happen.
“That doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t. He’s not supposed to leave! He’s not! You’re just playing a mean trick on me and lying. He can’t leave , he’s supposed to, to-” It was like Maxine stuttered in space. She jerked to the side while also standing still, as if part of her failed to move with the airship under her feet. She took a shuddering gasp, tears welling up in her eyes and she shook her head frantically.
“No, nonononono, please, please don’t, I can fix this, I can, he hasn’t left yet, right? I have to fix it, please, give me a chance, come on!” Gil took a step back, then another, startled.
“He- his airship was supposed to leave sometime in the middle of class. I- don’t be so upset, please, Maxie. He wasn’t actually your friend or mine you know, he was just using us to spy.”
“He wasn’t! He couldn’t have been, he liked you! He liked you, I know it, the spying wasn’t that bad. He didn’t deserve it, anyway, he had to stay! Couldn't you have stopped the Baron? He'd have listened to you if you asked, I bet!”
“It doesn’t matter . He was a spy, and now he’s gone.” Maxine’s face crumpled and she started crying in earnest, forgetting all the Romanian she’d learned.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Her job was supposed to be to keep the story on track, or even for the story to happen ahead of schedule by helping them. With Tarvek gone, she didn't know how to make the story happen at all.