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Half Past Adventure, Season 1: Princess Pauper

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“How do I look?”  To a twenty-first century human, the question would seem bizarre.  It’s not that the question itself is odd; it’s a perfectly normal interrogative quip in day-to-day conversation.  The context wasn’t what was odd either, per se; the speaker, a girl of no more than twelve years, was getting dressed for what might have been called a date were she a few years older, but instead was merely a play-date.  In such circumstances, it would have been natural for a teenager to be preoccupied with her appearance, as she adjusted the buttons on her technicolor jacket, fiddling with the collar and observing herself in the mirror; and thus it is also natural for a child, pretending at adulthood as children often do before they become adults and pretend at childhood, to say such a thing, half-acting, half-meaning, and half-casting a spell to turn one into the other — the sort of spell whose power comes not from any book, but from that cradle of infancy, the limitless power of imagination, which for all but the lucky fades with age.

It must then have been the speaker of the question which would seem so ridiculous to an inhabitant of that ancient prehistory we call home.  Not her age, certainly; as has been established, the playing of a child at a level of maturity beyond her own is perhaps the most natural thing in the world.  Possibly it would have been her situation; one would not of course have expected an orphan to have much occasion to get dressed up. This, however, is not an innate quality of orphans but a comment on the typically-dull conditions of the twenty-first century orphanages against which they set their expectations.  One would certainly have raised an eyebrow at an orphan’s ability to acquire such an ostentatious, prismatic jacket — ah, but this was the royal orphanage, nacht; nothing but the best for all her subjects was the way Princess Bubblegum treated her kingdom.  Indeed, the prevalence of absolute monarchy would probably have perplexed a modern viewer far more than any of the factors listed thus far.

No, the bizarreness of that “How do I look?” would almost certainly derive entirely from the fact that the speaker was a three-foot-tall macadamia nut with arms and legs, named, fittingly enough, Macadamia.

“Abso-globbing-great,” replied her jacket.

“I can’t believe I’m going on a date with Masse Yvoire!” squeed the burnt-umber nut girl, putting on her best affectation of a teenager — more a parody than an impression, gleaned from her forebears, the oldest to get adopted from the candy orphanage, who learned it from their forebears, who learned it from their forebears, who probably learned it from the old, pre-Mushroom-War sitcoms Princess Bubblegum would occasionally show to the orphans when she visited.  Despite being a distant cousin of a copy, its infectiousness seemed to only amplify with each iteration, producing a feedback loop that would probably someday engulf the whole Candy Kingdom in a valley girl singularity.

“He’s, like, the most popular guy at the orphanage,” she continued, because that was the sort of thing a teenage girl in a sitcom would say, and so it was her duty to say it.

“Knock it off, Macy,” said the jacket, lightly slapping her cheek with zhir collar.  “I heard if you copy a TV show too much, you become a TV show.”

“As if,” she said, tucking her sleeve back down.  “Come on, Robin. We’re not TV show material. Just a couple of orphans in Princess Cookie’s orphanage.  We’re a fanfiction at best.”

“That’s not true at all,” argued Robin playfully.

“How so?”

“I’m not an orphan.  I just hang out here all the time on account of my mom’s a deadbeat and my dad’s — I just hang out here all the time.”

If Macy noticed the stutter, she paid it no mind.  Satisfied that she looked how an imagined teenage version of herself would consider stunning, she headed out the door of her room — the room she shared with five others — and into the orphanage common area.  The common area was small and cozy, to put it nicely. A portrait of Princess Bubblegum and her wife, finger painted by children fingers too thick for finger painting and only recognizable for what it represented by the pink-and-grey color scheme, hung proudly and lopsided over a war-weary red couch.  The paint on the walls, still sticky from a recent touchup, was already chipping once more from the toil of play. There were at once too many and not enough children; too many because one would prefer there to be no need for orphanages, and yet not enough because, this being the largest orphanage in the Candy Kingdom, one would expect it to be larger.

The air felt molasses-thick, as though the anticipation of tonight’s festivities had taken on physical form and was now a syrup through which the orphans swam, as they filed half-excited and half-dazed into a pair of lines by the door.  Macadamia found her place in line next to Masse Yvoire, a white chocolate chip with whom she got along like a bird who got along with another bird. For as long as either of them could remember, they would play together, talk together, sneak out together, get caught together, apologize together, bake Princess Cookie a cake to make up for worrying her together, and tonight they would go to the royal banquet together.  Granted, the rest of the orphanage was going too — the entire kingdom was invited — but that was just a technicality.

“Everyone here?” called Chipper.  Chipper, like all the chips, was smaller than all but the youngest of the orphans, an ovalesque helper who reminded Macy of a tiny, much darker Masse.  In truth, Macy was weirded out by the chips; she couldn’t tell them apart at all, even after living at the orphanage for the past eleven years of her twelve-year life, and she was never truly certain as to whether they consisted of their own unique individuals or were extensions of Princess Cookie’s self since they seemed to spend most of their time in special indentations on Princess Cookie’s body.  Fortunately, she was not yet educated enough to question whether or not that distinction held any real meaning.

The orphans began to sound off, an exercise comforting in its routineness.  The wave of affirmation started at the front of the line and slowly worked its way back, the delay between consecutive “Here!”s decreasing with the attention span of the children.

“Is your weird rainicorn-dog friend with you?” whispered Masse, leaning in toward Macy conspiratorially.

“I’m right here,” Robin whispered back.

“Here!” shouted Macy and Masse, noticing the brief pause in the wave of accounting that indicated a stalling out.

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” said Robin.  “Here.”

Macy rotated her whole torso from side to side, the closest to shaking her head in consternation she could pull off with her awkward nut physiology.  “You’re silly,” she chided.

“Weird is more like it,” grimaced Masse.  “You’ve got too many powers.”

“I don’t have that many powers.”

“You do, though!”  Masse was now hissing.  “And the fact that you’re oblivious to it is even more annoying than the fact that you have them in the first place!”

Robin didn’t move, but zhir voice was now directed directly at Macy.  “Do I really have that many powers?”

“Let’s see,” pondered Macy, pretending to tally her friend’s powers on her fingers.  “In addition to flight, phasing, rainbow magic, and minor telekinesis just from being a rainicorn, you’re also one-fourth crystal spirit on your mom’s side and one-sixteenth shapeshifter on your dad’s side.  You can change your shape at will, you can go six days without breathing, and if I’m recalling correctly you once, completely by accident, talked to your great-aunt Bronwyn through your dreams.”

“Yeesh.  Robin sagged.  “That really is a lot of powers.”

“That’s because you’re super awesome!”  Macy ruffled her jacket shoulder; Masse rolled his eyes at the bizarre display.

At that moment, as if sensing that reality itself needed an excuse to transition to a new scene, Princess Cookie descended the pink spiral staircase of the orphanage, his right hand clutching the brass guardrail for support.  Princeso, as the orphans called him, was an alumnus of the Candy Orphanage himself; his life in between leaving the orphanage and returning to run it was a mystery, apart from the fact that along the way he came into possession of a tiara woven from a single robin’s egg forget-me-not, which he tended to as lovingly as he did all of the orphans under his charge, and that somehow he had injured his leg so severely that even Doctor Princess couldn’t fix it completely, lending him a permanent limp which acted up when agitated.

The children of course came up with their own stories for what had happened in the meanwhile, which they passed around as if it were fact.  Some said that he was the rightful heir of the Grasslands, and that he was secretly raising the children to be his army to overthrow Princess Bubblegum and claim his birthright.  Some said that he was dating a space alien and sending them information on Ooo customs so they would be ready to throw a party when they finally made first contact. Some said that he was an adventurer, and even that he was really the one who drove GOLB away thirty years ago; of all the theories, Macy disbelieved this one the least, since Robin said zhir grandpa T.V. said his dad Jake said he knew Princess Cookie back in the day, and was one of the few people to call him Snaps.  But the one constant was that they all loved him, because he gave them extra sugar, and let them stay up past their bedtime when they were quiet, and brought them toys and special visitors, and never laughed at them when they told him what they wanted to be when they grew up, and always wanted to help them become whatever it was.

“Okay, children, it’s time to head out” announced Princess Cookie in that voice that was at once gentle and firm, calming yet authoritative, sharp enough to draw the attention of even the most distractible children but not sharp enough to sting.  He sidewalked to the front of the room, legs crossing over each other and body facing the children, as if he were looking each of them in the eye and thinking, “You are more precious than anything in the world and I will always love you.”  “Are all of you accounted for?”

“Yes, sir,” said Chipper, flat palm over his nonexistent brow in a comical parody of a salute, all the more comical from how earnestly non-parodical it was.  Macy suppressed a snicker. Masse did not.

Princess Cookie snickered too, playing along as if harmonizing to a familiar song.  Chipper, defeated, hopped back into his hole.

“Let’s head out to the banquet!”

And all the children cheered and followed their Princess out the door.

The banquet was hosted in the great mess hall of Bubblegum Castle.  To the untrained nose of the twenty-first-century human, the royal mess hall, like any other place in the Candy Kingdom, would have simply smelled like candy; to the candy people, this is too broad of a term to be of any use.  Yes, the great hall where royalty made of candy sat on chairs made of candy before china made of candy to eat food made of candy of course smelled like candy — but so did the orphanage, with its love-worn carpets and its piles of discarded candy-paper craft supplies that seemed to pile up as quickly as they were cleared; so did the streets, where the unlucky non-pedestrian would need to wait behind several large riding animals and a perpetual motion machine of candy people just to cross a block; so did the parks, where even the birds were made of chocolate, and only cost a dollar seventy so get them while they’re hot; so did the back-alleys, full of half-slumbering patrons that Dirt Beer Guy couldn’t justify giving yet another drink, where Macy and Masse sometimes hid, giggling, always under the impression that Princess Cookie had no idea they’d snuck out, never quite knowing why they did it.  Each of these candy smells was vastly different from the others. But the royal mess hall, moreso than any of these other places, was sweet .

“Sweet,” exclaimed Robin softly, zhir horn glowing underneath the back of zhir collar as it sniffed the air.  “This place rocks!”

“It’s so… regal,” observed Masse, pawing the tall back of the chair where he had been directed to sit by a lollipop girl wearing the uniform of the Bubblegum Castle staff.

“Thanks,” said Macy as the lollipop girl pulled out her chair.  “What’s your name?”

“Lollipop Girl,” replied Lollipop Girl.

“Well I’m Macy, and I’m gonna be an adventurer!”

“That’s nice, sweetie.”

Satisfied with that interaction, Macy looked around the room at the other guests who had arrived.  The mess hall, the largest room Macy had ever been in, was packed. A lot of the people in attendance she recognized as having visited the orphanage before, either as special guests brought in by Princess Cookie or simply looking to adopt.  Many she recognized from the various magazines and contemporary histories that Princess Bubblegum insisted the older orphans read so they would be aware of the state of the world to the same extent as other children. There was some overlap between these two groups, mostly consisting of VIPs in the Candy Kingdom; almost all of those people were clustered in one area near the head of the table where the royal family was seated.  Princess Bubblegum, her wife Marceline, her aunt the Grand Vizier Lolly, and her children the Peppermint Prince and Princess Torte were all wearing matching pink ensembles, although the prince and queen accented theirs with copious amounts of black.  The people clustered around them, on the other hand, were so uncoordinated that it almost seemed deliberate — the Slime Princess, with her rhinestone-studded yellow poncho making her amorphous body look like a banana peel; Colonel Candy Corn, a loose-fitting military uniform barely disguising his hunched back; old Professor Petrikov, whose own pink sweater, clearly chosen to match the royal family, clashed against his green undershirt like some terrible afterthought; the Earl of Lemongrab in his typical grey uniform, hand locked with the Lumpy Space Princess and her dress of polychromatic scales; not to mention the lustrous Lady Rainicorn and her canine husband Jake, Robin’s great-grandparents on her father’s side, who of course never wore anything, except today for matching ashen hats with little ribbons on their rims.

And then there was Finn Mertens, champion of the four great kingdoms and many-times savior of Ooo.  Finn, who fought the Lich, incarnation of evil, at the edge of space. Finn, who stopped dread Orgalorg when the beast was set to absorb the power of the Catalyst Comet.  Finn who, by betraying Princess Bubblegum, saved her and ended the Gum War before it began. There he stood, in the flesh, in an azure suit with a black bowtie, a jagged white sword at his back, a monitor in his robotic hand, a few strands of his majestic golden locks peeking out of the white bear cap that covered his head, in the same room as Macy for the first time since he visited the orphanage all those years ago and she decided that, whatever he was, she wanted to be it.

Her heart began to pound.  Would today be the day he took her under his wing, just like in her dreams?  Did she dare drink from the chalice of destiny that most dangerous draught? She could picture it now:  She and Finn, riding Jake off into the sunset, he with his sword, she with a bow, to slay whatever monsters lurked under the horizon.  The autumn breeze carried a hint of spice, perhaps from the chefs of the nearby village; ah yes, the windmill was coming into view now.  These people were like she once was, small and helpless and green. But now she was big and strong and brown, and she had a bow made of willow with a string made of grass, and she would defend them just like her hero…

“…for gathering here today, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Gum War,” pronounced Lolly, in a quavering voice that seemed not frail but strong for its regular vibrato.  A hush had fallen over the crowd, and everyone had taken their seats. Macy realized, with a blush, that she had zoned out again.

“Riding off into the the sunset, huh?” whispered Robin.  Zhe had slipped into Macy’s dream somehow; zhe’d probably disguised zhirself as zhir great-grandfather.  Macy blushed harder.

“You know Wolfwood Mills is a popular romantic vacation spot, right?” zhe continued.  “I heard the townsfolk rent out the windmill to us ‘big people’ as a sort of apartment.”

“Shush!” Macy was now blushing so furiously she was afraid it might be visible through her thick, opaque outer casing.  “I’m trying to listen to Lolly’s speech.”

“Lolly just finished talking.”  Masse shook his head and clucked in disappointment.  Of all the times to space out, Macy had done so while a royal was giving a speech. The two of them were made rebels, yes, but to ignore the words of the wise and just aunt of the princess regnant just seemed uncouth.

Princess Bubblegum was now standing up, holding a microphone made of pistachio ice cream.  She did a quick mic check, then winced as a massive hum of feedback threatened to shatter the saccharine glasses of the banquet guests; after waiting a few seconds to get an okay from the sound engineer through her well-concealed earpiece, she began speaking, a little louder than she intended.

“People of the Candy Kingdom and honored guests!” she began, her strong, commanding voice instantly commanding the attention of everyone in the room, even those she did not make in a laboratory beneath the castle.  “As my grand vizier was just explaining, today is the thirtieth anniversary of the Gum War, which was heroically averted—”

“Hmph!” pouted Colonel Candy Corn, and nobody was quite sure whether that was intended to be private.

“—which was heroically and thankfully averted,” amended Bubblegum testily, glaring at her disgruntled captain of the guard, “by my knights Finn and Jake, and then by Aunt Lolly, all three of whom acted against the wishes of their superiors and should be commended for that.”  That last part, too, was directed at the colonel; she didn’t turn away from him until she reached the end of the sentence. Macy felt as though she had just read a tiny passage of a story she’d never be able to find in full.

“It’s also,” the princess continued, “the thirtieth anniversary of the arrival of GOLB, the world-eater, and its banishment from this world through the heroic sacrifice of Betty Grof, who used the power of the Ice Crown to…”

She paused and scanned the room quickly, seeing a sea of blank, confused faces.  “…to banish GOLB from this world,” she finished, apparently deciding that whatever she was going to say before would have been too complicated for her citizens to understand.

“The heroes of that day have been rewarded for their heroism,” she went on.  “No reward could possibly be enough to compensate for what they did, of course, but what we could give, we have already given.”

“She says that as if she wasn’t also one of the ‘heroes of that day’,” muttered Masse, and Macy wasn’t sure of he was accusing the princess of humility or arrogance.  Knowing him, it was probably the former.

“Today, we celebrate the martyrs:  Fern Mertens, the last casualty of the Gum War, who helped to fight off GOLB’s monstrous minions even as he was dying; and Betty Grof, who gave up her…”  She scanned the crowd again. “Who defeated GOLB at the cost of her life. Once again, attempts have been made to honor their legacy, such as the planting of the Great Tree, but today they are honored for the first time as a pair; and that is why they will be honored in two ways.  At this time I would like everyone to look under their chairs. On the bottom of the seat,” she clarified hastily.

In unison, everyone in the mess hall scooted their chairs backward and started pawing at the undersides.  Several seats fell over, pieces of their tall back breaking off into rose quartz rock candy. Macy’s own chair was nearly one of them, but Masse and Princess Cookie helped catch it before it hit the floor.  “Thanks,” she muttered as she grabbed a small round object that had been taped to the bottom of the chair.

It was a toonie — a two-dollar coin — purple and raised-edged, three inches in diameter, with a small beveled pentagon in the middle.  The last time Macy had a toonie was when the orphans had taken a trip to the arcade. Macy, Masse, and one other kid — someone whose name she couldn’t remember, who had since been adopted — had snuck out and spent all the money they had been given for the arcade on foam weapons that blew away in the wind before they got back to the others.  They had no idea how to count large numbers of coins, so they gave too many to the shopkeep, so much so that he gave them a toonie as part of the change for the foam weapons. At the time, it had seemed like a miracle; in retrospect Macy figured he was probably trying to offload an awkward piece of coinage that wouldn’t normally be useful in change-making.  She didn’t remember what the toonie got spent on. Still, at the time it had seemed a symbol of freedom, of the amazing nonsensical nature of the world she and Masse would grow into. Later, she would try to get into coin collecting, in an attempt to recapture that magic (she was ten, it seemed like a good idea), but she gave up partway through (again, ten) and spent her collection on a book that had illustrated descriptions of all the various coinages of the many kingdoms of Ooo.

This coin had different iconography than any she had seen in that book, though.  The mottos engraved on either side of the coin were the same: “Nächstenliebe ist Mut” on the face, “Frieden ist Erlösung” on the flip.  Inspiring words, she was sure, if she had remembered any of the German that Princess Cookie had tried to teach. But rather than the familiar right-facing profile of Princess Bubblegum, or the left-facing one of Queen Consort Marceline that was on some collectable coins, the face of the coin held a portrait of an unfamiliar-looking woman with a tall conical hat and large round glasses; Macy figured this must be Betty.  On the flip, where a normal coin would depict Bubblegum Castle, or the four-candy crest, or possibly a bowl of spaghetti, she therefore expected to see Fern — who, when rendered by embossing on monotone lavender, would probably just look like Finn with more hatching-lines — and was therefore surprised to see an image of a large flowering tree on a hill with a sword barely visible in its top branches. The Great Tree, supposedly planted in honor of Fern; he never really understood what was so great about it.  Perhaps there, too, was a story with which she was unfamiliar. Or perhaps not; perhaps the Princess was just fond of horticulture.

Macy fingered the toonie, the memory of the last time she held it at once immediate and distant.  There was a strangeness to the familiarity of it; the cold, firm suppleness of the metal-gum alloy, the faint smell of chrome that somehow overpowered the aroma of candy, the alluring perfection of that hole which begged to have a string wound through it — it was like waking up and not being sure if everything around her was reminding her of a dream she couldn’t quite recall, or if she’d forgotten it already and her mind was simply filling in the gap with the first thing it encountered.

“Sometimes a dream that seems scary is just something familiar viewed from a different angle,” Princess Bubblegum had told her when she visited and Princess Cookie told her liege about Macy’s nightmares.  Macy hadn’t wanted anyone but Robin and Masse to know, but Robin had insisted on telling Princeso, and he trusted Princess Bubblegum implicitly. The advice had helped a little — it at least helped Macy rationalize the phenomenon and believe Robin that she wasn’t crazy — but it sounded like an echo, like something the Princess had heard from someone else and not really understood herself.  Absently, Macy wondered if the Princess ever had nightmares, and if they were anything like her own: formless, logicless things where inane problems became paralyzing anxieties and the whole world judged her for her every flaw. She doubted it. She was nearly a teenager, so she understood by now that grownups had problems of their own, but she hadn’t yet realized that they still carried all the problems of childhood along with them.

“Hey, you gonna eat that or do you want me to?” asked Robin.  Macy shook herself out of her reverie. Twice in a row was a bad omen.  If she zoned out a third time during the banquet she’d lose something important, she was somehow sure.  The last time—

She slapped herself back to attention.  “Don’t you dare,” she scolded jovially. She scooted her chair back in and turned her focus on the savory spaghetti piled on her plate, the pungent odor of garlic from the bread slice on the side making her sway.  She dug in.

When the banquet was wrapping up and about half the guests had asked the servers to take away their plates, Grand Vizier Lolly announced that things were still getting set up outside and that the first floor of the castle was now open to visitors who wished to mill about in the meantime, presuming everyone got back on time for pudding.  Macy, who had just finished at that exact moment, pushed her chair back, stretched, farted, pretended she hadn’t farted, conspicuously avoided direct eye contact with Masse, and wordlessly stepped away from the table.

“Wanna check out the castle?” she whispered to Robin, taking off her jacket.

“Why are we whispering?” Robin whispered back, gradually reverting to zhir normal color and shape.

“Because this feels conspiratorial.”

“It’s not, though.”

“Right, but it feels like it should be, you know?”


Robin in all zhir glory was an unmissable sight.  Zhe sat in a tightly curled, pyramid-shaped spiral three meters tall, but when zhe unwound she went past seven.  Zhir body was colored in five long stripes — white, tan, green, blue, and black, from top to bottom — like a bizarre rainbow, and on zhir head were a small ivory horn and a set of breathtakingly bouncy black jowls.  Zhir eyes were rubies — not merely red, actual rubies — and zhir fluffy tan tail was decorated with buttons.

“Anyway,” zhe said, “I’m gonna go say hi to my great-grandparents.  It looks like poppoppop just ordered fourths, so I’ll probably need to catch up with them before his girlfriend makes him leave.”

“Girlfriend?  You mean your grandnanny?  Aren’t they married?”

“No,” zhe said, as if that weren’t unusual.  “You want to come with?”

“I’d be too nervous,” sighed Macy.  “Your poppoppop and grandnanny are legendary.  Plus, there’s Finn, and he’s like my hero! And they’re all hanging out near Princess Bubblegum.  I’d be too starstruck to speak.”

“Alright.”  Zhe raised zhir eyebrow as zhe said that word, like there was something else zhe wanted to say but had barely enough tact not to.  “Is there anything you want me to ask him for you, then?”

Yes, a million things.  “No, that’s okay.”   Dammit!

“Alright,” zhe said, lifting the middle of the word like a cat by the scruff of the neck.  “I’ll just ask him about that tiny computer monitor he’s been carrying around.”

“I think that’s actually part of his arm.”  Macy allowed herself one more glance at Finn.  She had initially thought he was holding it before because of his arm’s orientation, but it was actually some sort of fold-out monitor embedded directly into the chassis of his robotic limb.

“Wow, you can make out that kind of detail from that far away?”  Robin whistled, and a flutter of dancing lights and tingling ozone responded to the sound as if a tiny piece of the universe were dancing to zhir song.  “Either your eyesight is really good, or mine sucks .”

“Your eyes are gemstones.”

“They always did say I have my grandfather’s eyes.”  Zhe winked; a tiny part of Macy’s mind still found the image of a gemstone winking unsettling.

“You weirdo,” she laughed, angry at herself for finding one of her two best friends unsettling, glad when zhe went across the banquet hall to talk to zhir family, and even angrier at herself once more for being glad.

Before she could have the dreaded third zone-out, Masse jolted  her to attention by grabbing what passed for her shoulder. “What’s on your mind, Macy?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she lied, knowing he wouldn’t press further.

“If you say so.  Hey, c’mon, wanna explore the castle?”


“Why not?”

“Okay, sure.”

“Yesssss!” He clenched his upraised fist as if grasping his victory before it could flutter away in the breeze like a foam sword.

Princess Cookie saw them heading off and called out to them.  “Be sure not to get lost; the castle can be pretty confusing if— and they’re gone.”  He shook his head. “They’re gone. Chipolina?”

One of the chips hopped out of her hole in Princess Cookie’s back.  “Yo yo baws whaddup?”

“Go in the general direction of those two just in case they need help.”

“I will become one with the shadows,” she intoned, flattening herself on the ground to the best of her ability and synchronising her footsteps with those of a passing candy citizen so as to blend into their umbrum.

“No, you don’t need to do that, really.”  But it was too late; Chipolina was one with the shadows.  Princess Cookie shook his head again and sighed a light yet tired sigh.  “Sometimes, I swear it feels like they’re more childish than the orphans! Jeez, we’re like the blind leading the blind over here.”  He paused. “Damn, that really doesn’t fill me with confidence over whether those two’ll be okay.”

He started to get up to tail Chipolina, but then he saw two of the other orphans smearing steak on each others’ faces and went to break it up.  Chipolina would have to got this herself.

 “Is that the same banana guard again or are they all just clones?”

By the time Masse had worked up the nerve to ask the question out loud, both he and Macy had wondered it silently at least a half dozen times.  The castle was a maze of twisty passages, all alike in dignity and austerity, but with much less ornamentation than was depicted in art of the castle’s interior.  Perhaps, after their second child entered the scene, the royal family had taken down anything that might be a potential hazard for curious hands; or perhaps the Princess was just going through a minimalist phase.  After all, there comes a time in every woman’s life where she must make the decision whether or not to base her entire aesthetic around the absence of any aesthetic, to accept the song of silence into her heart, and to trick herself into believing that something can be so boring that its very dullness is interesting.

“I’m the same banana guard,” said the same banana guard, standing in front of the same door, in a pharyngealized voice it was impossible to take seriously.  “Banana Guard Number Seventeen. Also we’re not clones, the Princess says we’re duomiliquadragintoctuplets.” He beamed with pride after he finished the last word.

“No, she said we weren’t duomiliquadragintoctuplets,” called an identical- yet female-sounding voice from the other side of the door.

“Aw.”  Banana Guard Number Sixteen hung his head and let the butt of his pike hit the floor with a loud thump.

“Sorry I asked,” said Macy, although she hadn’t asked and wasn’t entirely sure why she felt sorry for the guy.

“Point is,” Masse observed pointlessly, “we’re lost.”

“It was your idea to explore the castle,” chided Macy, whose idea it had been to explore the castle even before Masse had suggested it.

“Yeah, well.”

They walked in silence until they reached the next bend in the hall.

“We should have asked that guard for directions,” they groaned in unison.

“Well, now it’s too awkward to go back!”  Macy was gesticulating enthusiastically and meaninglessly, because that was what a teenager in a prehistoric sitcom would do.

“Better to wait until we pass him again,” agreed Masse with the unassailable certainty of a child.

And so they walked in silence, slowed by the weight of their shame, so that their footfalls, lighter for all that they seemed heavy, faded into obscurity.  And in this contemplative state they went about the great circle of their confusion until—

“Glob math it, someone’s following us.”

“Are you sure?” Macy whispered back, glancing around.

“I could hear their footsteps.”  Masse pointed to a dark ventilation shaft.  “In there.”

Macy peered into the shaft, without turning her head so much as to make it obvious.  “It’s just Chipolina,” she said, at a normal volume.

Chipolina noisily removed the grate, noisily jumped down, noisily jumped up to noisily slam it shut, then jumped into Macy’s shadow where it fell behind her and became one with it, noisily.

Macy and Masse exchanged a puzzled look.  “You know there’s no point to hiding anymore, right?” asked Masse.

“There being a point was never the point.”  Chipolina made a series of gestures with her arms that Macy could barely make out as an attempt to look like a ninja without being seen.

“So anyway.”  Masse resumed walking, Macy and Chipolina following suit.  “I was just thinking we should head back to the mess hall. Exploring the castle has been fun and all, but it’s not like there’s really that much to see.”

“Didn’t we decide to do that a while ago?” queried Macy.

Masse leaned close to her and whispered.  “I don’t want Chipolina to know we’re lost; it’s embarrassing.”

Macy nodded subtly in understanding.  “Nevermind, I guess we didn’t,” she intoned.

“Well then where were you going?” asked Chipolina suspiciously.

Macy’s mind raced, trying to think of a location in the castle she knew about from one of her books.  If only she’d paid better attention to the parts that weren’t about heroes doing heroic things! “The… uh… the…”

“The garden,” supplied Masse.  “We were going to the garden.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?”  Chipolina parkoured off a wall unnecessarily and landed in front of the pair, arms outstretched in self-congratulation.  “I know where that is. Follow me!” She whirled around and began marching forward. Macy and Masse looked at each other, shrugged, and trailed behind the chip.


“…and that’s the story of how I saved Raggedy Princess from a tornado — and from herself,” concluded Jake, and then everyone clapped.

“Wow, poppoppop!” exclaimed Robin, who for convenience had shrunk down to fit on the table in front of him, curled into a ball, mimicking the long, rainbow-colored unicorn Lady Rainicorn sitting on the chair beside Jake.

“나는 남자 친구가 방금 말한 이야기에 또한있었습니다,” said Lady.

“I know!  You’re so cool, grandnanny.”

“Yeah, my girlfriend is so cool!”

“Yeah,” agreed Finn nervously.  He leaned down to whisper in Robin’s ear.  “I have no idea what she just said.”

Suddenly there was a great rumbling noise, like a tremor before an earthquake, as if Ooo itself, sorry for what it must soon do, were giving an advanced warning to the people living on its surface, letting them know through those vibrations that more were coming, so that they could do what little can be done to prepare in the face of nature’s wrath, hoping that just once fortune would smile on the prepared moreso than on the lucky.

“My bad,” apologized Jake, raising his paw.  “That’s my stomach. The little pup’s room is calling me.  I’ll see you in an hour probably.”

Perhaps because walking would upset his stomach too much, or perhaps just because he didn’t feel like using his knees, Jake stretched the top half of his pure yellow body out of his chair and turned it down the hallway; and then, when his head was out of sight, presumably having put down his front paws, his elongated spine contracted, taking his backside with it.

“So cool…” whispered Robin, stars in zhir eyes.

“때로는 그가 자신의 낯선 외계인 아버지로부터 물려받은 능력에 너무 의존하고 있다고 걱정합니다,” sighed Lady.  “나는 당신이 아무데도 걷지 않을 정도로 게으르지 않기를 바랍니다.”

Robin laughed sadly.  “I wish. I can’t seem to make myself any bigger than my usual size.  I guess I’ve got so many powers that all of them are weaker than they should be.”

“Don’t let that get you down, man,” said Finn, putting a finger of his non-robotic hand on zhir tiny shoulder.  The motion was practiced, as if he were used to comforting people who could fit in his palm. There was something paternal about it that Robin liked.  “I didn’t inherit any cool powers from my parents at all, and I’d like to think I turned out okay, all things considered.”

Zhe nodded slowly, zhir head tilted to the side.  “Yeah, I guess.” A beat. “I’d better get back to my friend.  But before I go, she wanted me to ask you, what’s with the monitor?  I don’t remember that being on your arm the last time I saw you.”

“Oh, this?”  Finn raised his arm and closed his eyes for a half-second; the monitor popped up and the screen turned on.  There was a woman’s face on the screen, with hair that looked just like Finn’s under a white cap with two bumps and a black T, the recognizable symbol of the Helpers.  “It’s so my mom can attend. She ascended to machine consciousness thirty-seven years ago, and her robotic avatars aren’t programmed for formal events, so Prubs — I mean, Princess Bubblegum — and Gridface Princess programmed a Helpernet node into my arm.”

“Hello there,” said the woman, her voice coming from a speaker further up Finn’s arm.  “My name is Doctor Minerva Campbell. And who might you be?”

Robin slithered onto Jake’s chair and grew back to her normal size.  “Dr. Campbell! I’m a big fan; I’ve taken all your anxiety pills.”

Finn and Lady each gave a feeble, obligatory chuckle, while Dr. Campbell continued to smile absently.  “Let me see if I can find your patient records,” she said, zoning out. “Ah yes, Robin V., rainicorn-dog.  Current primary care physician is Dr. Poundcake. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your experience with the Candy Kingdom’s medical system?  I’m very much interested in getting a third-party opinion on how it operates.”

“Of course!” exclaimed Robin, forgetting what zhe had said only moments prior about needing to get back to zhir friend.  Someone valued zhir opinion! To zhir, it seemed a rare miracle. In truth it was not so rare as zhe believed, but the mind has a funny way of exaggerating problems.  So zhe digressed.

After following Chipolina down a meandering sequence of hallways they were one hundred percent sure could not have been the most direct path to their destination, Macadamia and Masse Yvoire came at last to the palace garden.  The garden was an open space in the middle of an inner courtyard, with yellow candy-stone foodpaths arrayed in haphazard fashion through a colorful menagerie of flora.  Blossoming bushes in all colors and sizes sat in curving rows in the dirt islands separating footpaths, interspersed with patches of flowers, greenery, and the occasional tree.  A banana guard in a patchwork garden apron tended to a column of ivy growing on a square fence near one of the far corners; at the other, there was a massive wrought-licorice gate, one of the smaller side entrances to the castle, near which two other guards sat on a bench examining a sketchbook, presumably on break. Before the orphans could further take in the beauty of the scene, however, their attention was pulled to the fourth and final banana guard, standing in front of the gate, pike at the ready, shouting at an unseen person on the other side.

“Listen, I don’t care what Finn and Jake said.”  His baritone voice, deeper and less pharyngealized than the other guards, had a scolding quality to it, reminding the kids of a disappointed Princess Cookie.  “They’re not my boss. Bonnibel Bubblegum is my boss, and she said you’re not allowed to come in here after what you did the last twenty-seven times.  Capiche?”

“But the last time was eleven years ago!” whined the unseen stranger from the other side of the gate, a note of desperation in their voice.  “Surely there’s some sort of statute of limitations on—”

“Hey, buddy, I’m just trying to do my job, alright?”  Now the banana guard seemed pleading. He relaxed his grip on his pike, letting it hang at an angle.  The two banana guards on the bench set down the sketchbook on the seat between them and looked up, riveted.  The one tending the ivy paid no heed.

Chipolina stood, stark still and silent, rooted to the floor of the castle like a shrub.  She blanched with fear, looking a little bit less like her siblings and a little bit more like Masse.  He and Macy, on the other hand, crept forward, intrigued. Who was this mysterious uninvited guest, who seemed to know Finn and Jake?  What had he done to get himself banned from the castle? Who was this guard who referred to the Princess as Bonnibel? The answers would probably not interest these children in the slightest, had they even the context to understand them, but the questions themselves were tantalizing.  Thus they crept forward, clinging to the wall of the garden as if that would in any way make them inconspicuous, and continued to listen to this drama unfold.

“Maybe you’re right,” continued the guard on duty.  “Maybe Bonnibel should have rescinded her ban on your attendance by now.  But she specifically told me that you weren’t to come in, and I’m gonna be honest, since she paid my tuition for art school after the university you sponsored turned me down, I’m not about to break protocol on your behalf.”

“Sir, I beg of you!”  Now the children were close enough that Macy could just make out his profile through the bars — a figure dressed in formal attire, short for an adult but still tall to a child of twelve, with the brown-carapaced skin of a nut person.  She stopped short. There weren’t very many nut people in the Candy Kingdom, especially not in the capital city, which was quite confusingly also known as the Candy Kingdom. Most lived in the Nut Kingdom, presided over by Princess Peanut.  Macadamia had seen very few nut people in person; she had always felt like an anomaly. Could this person be…?

“At least let me speak to the Princess!” pled the nut.  “I’m sure she could find it in her heart to forgive me, if only I could talk to her!”

“No, dude,” groaned the banana guard.  “That’s not my job. My job right now is to guard the castle while the banquet’s going on.”  He gestured in the direction of the kids. “Now leave before I have to make you leave, which I really don’t want to do in front of children but will if I have to.”

“Ohhhhhh!” the guards on the bench shouted in unison, spectators in a sports match where the ball was about to be the nut man’s rear.

He got the message.  “V-very well,” he stammered, then dashed away, quickly becoming out of sight.

There was a tense moment of silence before someone above them started clapping.  Soon the other guards joined in — even the one tending the ivy — followed by Macy, Masse, and finally Chipolina.  The banana guard blushed and bowed.  “I’m just doing my job, sir.”

“Nonsense!” came a gruff voice from a balcony overlooking the garden, presumably the one who had started the round of applause.  It was old Colonel Candy Corn himself, still in that ill-fitting uniform; now Macy could see that he was also clutching a red-and-pink candy cane that looked as cracked with age as he was.  “What’s your name, Banana Guard?”

“Banana Guard Sixteen.”

“Banana Guard Sixteen, look forward to a promotion in your future.  That was excellent.” He picked up his cane and pointed it over the edge of the balcony at Macy and Masse.  “Wouldn’t you agree, children?”

“Yes, very excellent, sir!”  Masse rushed the word out, as if afraid that were he to take too long to say them they would exit his body through a less pleasant path.

“Um, I guess,” muttered Macy.   Was it really necessary to be so harsh? she wondered, but in the face of the Colonel’s charisma dared not say aloud.

“You guess correctly!  Now—” Suddenly the cane slipped from his grasp and landed with a thud in the garden below, sticking straight upright out of the ground so that it seemed to be a deliberate feature of the garden.  The colonel managed to catch himself on the railing of the balcony, grunting at the jolt as his posture found its new equilibrium. “Banana Guard Four Hundred Seventy-One, could you bring my cane back up to me?”

“Okay,” said one of the banana guards on the bench.  Her voice was much more like Banana Guard Seventeen’s; perhaps Sixteen’s odd voice was an anomaly.  She picked up the sketchbook as she got up and handed it to Sixteen. “Here’s your artbook back,” she said.  “It was very nice.”

“I should hope so,” he laughed.  “It’s not like that art degree is doing much work for me.”

As 471 went to retrieve the Colonel’s candy cane and the Colonel inched inside clutching the railing with one hand and his back with the other, Macy and Masse approached 16.  “If you don’t mind my asking,” inquired Macy, “who was that man?”

“What, you mean the guy I just told off?”  16 glanced past the gate and then turned back to the kids.  “That was the Duke of Nuts, one of Bonnibel’s vassals. She’s suuuuper pissed at him for some reason.  Has been for as long as I can remember, which—”  He leaned in closer and began whispering. “—which is a lot more than most of the other guards can, tell you the truth.”

He stood back up, smirking, as Macy posed the obvious follow-up question.  “Why is the Princess so mad at him?”

“I don’t know the details and I don’t want to.  Knowing details makes my job way too complicated.  All I know is it’s happened twenty-seven times so far, and whatever it is, it’s serious enough that he can’t get back in Bonnibel’s good graces but banal enough that she hasn’t tried to throw him in prison for thirty-five years.”

“Why do you call her Bonnibel?” asked Masse.  “That’s disrespectful. You should address her as Princess Bubblegum.”

16 raised his eyebrow quizzically.  “You’re a real stickler for tradition, aren’t you?”  Masse furrowed his brow at this and took a dramatic step backward as if he had just been called something far worse.

“I call her Bonnibel because that’s her name,” continued 16.  “She’s helped me out on more than one occasion, but she’s always made it clear that she’s just a person.  She doesn’t care to be groveled at, no matter what that stuffy old colonel says. He worships the ground she walks on.”

“He didn’t during the banquet,” recalled Macy.  “He seemed upset when she talked about how Fern ended the Gum War.”

“Yeah, I could see it.  The dude’s got massive warlust.  He got his military title in the last big war three hundred years ago, before us banana guards were a thing, and he’s been craving something like that ever since.  Actually,” he speculated, his free hand stroking his chin, “I’m pretty sure he was made for that war; he probably came out of Bonnibel’s lab already a colonel. That might be why he’s so aggressive.”

“Is that—”  Macy hesitated, not sure if she should press further.  She did anyway. “Is that why he liked the way you handled the Duke of Nuts?”

A smile crept up 16’s face; he took his hand away from his chin and patted Macy on the head.  “That’s pretty perceptive of you.” Macy backed away, embarrassed; 16 put his hand behind his back and turned to the grate.  “I can’t say for sure, and frankly it’d be irresponsible of me to speculate. I shouldn’t have done as much speculation as I already have; I’m just a guard.”  A beat. “I bet the Duke is going to try the other side gate, if he hasn’t already. The one by the chocolate aviary. You can probably catch him if you hurry.”

“Why would we want to catch him?” scoffed Masse.

“I don’t know.”  Macy heard a lilt of amusement in his voice.  He glanced back at the two of them. “Why did you ask about him in the first place?”

Macy would not bring herself to answer.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”  And he turned back to face the wrought-licorice gate.

Macy and Masse walked back to where Chipolina stood, still rooted firm, staring at the empty balcony where Colonel Candy Corn had been.  They each grabbed her by an arm, dragging her away from the garden and back into the castle.

When they had gotten about ten feet down the halway, they both stopped in unison.

Macy smacked her forehead.  “We should have asked him how to get to the aviary.”

“Well, it’d be too awkward to go back now.”  Masse scuffed his ankle on the floor nervously.  “Let’s just get lost again so we can run into Banana Guard Number Seventeen.”

They began retracing their steps to try and find the place where they were lost before.  Macy hadn’t thought to keep track of the winding hallways on their way to the garden, but with Chipolina apparently still either in shock or awe from what had occurred, she was in no state to guide them.  Luckily, Masse had paid more attention to directions, so they soon found themselves back near Banana Guard Number Seventeen and the door he guarded. Macy wondered why Masse hadn’t paid so much attention when they first set out to explore the castle.  Perhaps that had simply been part of the thrill, or perhaps he had been distracted by their conversation. Macy could not recall what the conversation was about, but presumably it was something distracting.

As Masse walked up to the guard and began asking for directions, Macy felt Chipolina finally begin to stir; she let go of the two kids’ hands and climbed back into a nearby vent pipe.  The banana guard didn’t seem to notice, which Macy felt was very irresponsible of him. Absently, she reached into her pocket to grasp the coin she had found beneath her seat, only to remember that she wasn’t wearing any clothes and thus did not have a pocket.  She had dropped it!

Frantically, she looked around, hoping beyond hope that it was somewhere nearby.  Nothing. Panic began to set in. Masse interrupting her daydream must not have counted, and now she’d lost something, she knew it.  It was her fault for not staying focused. Now the coin was gone, and whatever metaphorical significance it held, she would never know.  This was it. She started kneading her fingers violently and began to hyperventilate.

Then she saw movement down the hallway and, grateful for the distraction, pursued it.

The thing she saw did not flee as it heard her approach; in fact, it came toward her.  At first she did not recognize the towering blue figure, with five eyes arrayed in a radial pattern on the top of its face like sunrays on the horizon at dawn, its long thin limbs ending in appendages that were equal parts hand and paw.  Then an image flashed in her mind — part of an illustrated storybook about one of the modern heroes of Ooo — and she realized who it was.

“Jake?” she asked shyly.  “Jake the dog?”

“That’s the one,” he replied.  The voice, at least, was the same.

“What happened to your hat?”

“Oh, uh, I took it off.  Don’t worry, I’ll put it back on later,” he reassured her.

“Why would I be worried?”

“I dunno.”  He reached into a pocket he’d shapeshifted into his belly and pulled out a coin.  Macy’s coin. “You dropped this.”

Trembling, Macy reached out and took it.  “Thank you,” she whispered, staring up into his slanted, alien eyes.

Jake laughed, and in the laugh there was the hint of something somber.  “Hey, no problem. Didn’t want you losin’ that as soon as you got it.”

“I will always remember this.”  Macy was clutching the coin close to her chest.  She would not let it go again, not until she put on some pants at the very least.

“Yeah, I know you will.”  Jake tilted his head. “I mean, sure, yeah, whatevs.  Hey, aren’t you my great-grandkid’s friend?”

Macy nodded slowly.

“I know you want to be a big-time hero like me someday, so lemme give you some advice.”

“Like Finn, but go on.”  Macy was still nodding.

“I’m gonna ignore that.  The motto on that coin you’re holding is part of the motto of the Candy Kingdom.  The face says ‘charity is courage,’ and the flip says ‘peace is salvation.’ If you’re gonna be a hero, you need to figure out what those mean for yourself, and maybe someday you’ll be ready to hear the rest.”

Macy stared at the coin, turning it over and over with the tips of her fingers, staring at the hole in the middle as it disappeared and reemerged with the irregular oscillations.  The image of of Betty, her nose eclipsed by the hole, on one side; the Great Tree, its meaning still a mystery, on the other; the mottos associated with each — even knowing the translations, it was still a mystery to her.

“What do you mean by—”  But when Macy put down her hand, the coin still tightly clenched in her fist, and looked up, Jake was gone.

Shrugging, she went back to Masse, who by the looks of things had finally communicated his intentions to Banana Guard Number Seventeen and was in the midst of receiving directions.  The guard was pointing this way and that, so although Macy couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, she still ended up getting the gist of it. Just as Macy got back into earshot, Masse shook the guard’s hand and said, “Thank you very much for your help.”

“Yay!” exclaimed the guard, clapping quietly.  “I’m a helper!”

“What are we waiting for?” asked Macy.  “You’ve got your directions; let’s hurry so we can catch the Duke!”

Masse ran ahead of her.  “I don’t get why you’re so intent on tracking this guy down.  He’s probably banned from the castle for a reason, you know.”

“Yeah, duh.  I want to know what that reason is!”

“That’s not really why you’re doing it, though.”


“You think he might be your father.”

Macy ran in silence for the rest of the trip.

She knew it wasn’t true, of course.  Her parents, or possibly someone close to them, had left her on the doorstep of the Candy Orphanage when she was a baby.  There was no conceivable reason that could happen if her father were the Duke. (In truth, there was one conceivable reason, but Macy could not conceive of it.)  Still, a small part of her felt like even those long odds demanded investigation. Maybe she would learn that she was destined to be a hero! Somehow.

She thought again of her encounter with Jake.  He had returned her coin to her so fast that it was almost like she hadn’t lost it.  Perhaps, then, her aborted third fantasy hadn’t counted after all, and she wasn’t destined to lose anything tonight.  Still, his words haunted her. He seemed to think she was going to be a hero after all; in fact, he had appeared rather sure of it.  This should have excited her. But she could only think of the mysterious advice he had given her. What did it mean, to learn the true meaning of the Candy Kingdom’s motto?  What was “the rest of it”? The toonie only seemed to grow more perplexing as the night went on. Perhaps soon, even the whole in the middle would acquire some strange significance — the way it necessitated constructing the designs of the face and flip around it, how it framed the world in a five-sided box when she looked through it.  As she had turned it, she kept wondering whether something was supposed to go through that hole. Perhaps Robin could shapeshift herself through it. To what end, Macy had no idea.

She ran smack into a wall.  She had zoned out for real.

She groaned as Masse helped her to her feet.  “Math this.” Now she really was going to lose something.  She couldn’t believe she’d had an out like what happened with Jake and she’d squandered it.  She was such a goofball.

“Are you worrying about losing something?” asked Masse, now holding her hand as they continued to power-walk toward their destination.

“Yeah,” admitted Masse.  “How’d you know?”

“Because I know you , silly.  I wouldn’t worry,” he added, turning toward her with a soft smile on his face.  “It’s just a silly superspition, after all.” He couldn’t quite pronounce the word right, but Macy couldn’t quite tell it was wrong, either, so it was fine.

It wasn’t long after that they reached the chocolate aviary — another plant-decorated inner courtyard, this one home mostly to lemonjon trees and candyfloss grass.  Cocoa birds flew this way and that, making nests out of pocky, pulling gummy worms out of the dirt, singing their mating songs atop flourishing everblue trees. It was quite a sight to behold.  There were birds of all shapes, sizes, and varieties of chocolate, from little hummingbirds of purest cacao hovering by the lemonjon buds, to white-chocolate ducks swimming through the cinnamon reeds in the spiced chocolate pond, to a single great eagle made of a strange red variety of chocolate — a special brand of cherry chocolate made in the Wildberry Kingdom, Macy would later learn — which loomed as large as the Morrow, that legendary bird which served as Princess Bubblegum’s primary mode of transportation.

There were only two banana guards in this room, one standing by the gate on the far side and another feeding raw cocoa powder to some birds by a fountain; there were also a few guests wandering around, as well as Princess Torte, Princess Bubblegum’s second child, cooing with some chocolate doves.  The guests, Candy Kingdom citizens who were thoroughly distracted by her adorable majesty, did not notice Macy and Masse’s arrival; the two managed to get all the way up to the massive gate before the guard on duty heard their footsteps.

“Haha, hey there,” she said, turning slightly to face halfway between the grate and the children.  “Do you want me to open the gate?”

Macy had the feeling the guard was not supposed to say that.  “No, thanks,” she said hastily.  “We’re just… waiting for someone?” She shrugged. “Yeah, that seems right.”

“Are you waiting for your parents?”

Macy’s heart caught in her throat.

“Definitely not,” said Masse, whirling Macy around by her shoulder.  “He isn’t your dad. He’s just some random jerk who happens to be a nut.”  He paused. “Macy, you’re obsessing.”

She sniffled.  He was right, of course.  She had let herself get carried away.  There was no real reason to think this duke had any connection to her.  And if he did, why would that mean anything? If he was indeed her father, he abandoned her for no reason.  Would that be better? She didn’t know. She didn’t want to think about it.

Speak of GOLB and he shall appear.  The Duke of Nuts suddenly came running up to the gate, out of breath.  His formal attire, dark purple with gold trim, complete with a matching poofy hat, contrasted with his harried appearance.  He stooped over and rested his arms on his knees, then raised a single finger before looking up, straight into the Banana Guard’s eye.  “Need… speak… princess…” he panted. “Invited… Finn… Jake… seek… permission… enter.”

“Okay,” said the banana guard, turning around to face the guests in the aviary.  “Princess Torte?” she called.

“No… meant… oh… fine,” wheezed the duke.  He adjusted his hat before it fell off his head.

The little princess looked up from her doves.  “Yeh?” Her voice threatened to break, reminding Macy that they were in fact the same age; somehow this made her presence all the more intimidating.  As she approached, followed obsequiously by the gaggle of guests that had been watching her playing with the birds, Masse gave a performative bow; Macy simply stood flustered.

“Wuzzit?” she asked blearily, rubbing her eyes.  There was a hint of cooing in her voice, as if she were slowly shifting her brain from dove-speak to people-speak.

“This man wants to speak with you,”  said the guard.

“Oh, princess!” exclaimed the duke, who had seemingly caught his breath in the meantime.  “Would you be so kind as to take a message to your mother?”

“Mama said I’m not s’posed to talk to strangers,” she droned.  “Are you a stranger, mister?”

Something was bothering Macy, and she she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.  Something about this situation seemed off, like it was supposed to go down differently.  Not for the first time, she felt the warming metal of the two-dollar piece in her hand, thumbing the engraved mottos on either side of the coin.   Nächstenliebe ist Mut , Frieden ist Erlösung .  The words… words… something about words.

“I may be a stranger to you,” implored the duke, “but not to your mother!  The one who is ruler of the Candy Kingdom, that is. I went with her to the battleground of the Gum War!”

“You mean the War that Never Was?” she asked innocently.

“Yes, yes.  Now, would you please take my message to the Princess Regnant?”

“To the Princess Ray-Nant,” she echoed clumsily.  A beat. “Oh, you mean to mother!” On the word ‘mother’, her speech temporarily became much more precise.

That must be it, Macy thought.  Princess Torte talked like someone much younger than she actually was.  Though twelve, she talked — and acted — as if she were six. But why?

“Yes, to your mother,” repeated the duke.  “Can you do that?”

“Hmm, I’unno.”  She gazed thoughtfully into the distance.  It was an exaggerated gesture, the kind Macy knew well.  She recognized the drawn-out, self-parodying motions of a child playing at something else, although she wouldn’t characterize her own such actions that way — her recognition came not from self-awareness but from seeing that behavior in others, mostly her good friend Masse Yvoire.   Is that it?  Is she pretending to be young the way Masse sometimes pretends to be old?  But what reason would she have to do that?

“Please, Princess.”  The desperation Macy had noticed in the duke’s voice back in the garden had returned.  “I have been a loyal vassal for years. You can verify that with your mother if you wish.  Please do not be so harsh.”

Harsh.  That word rang familiar in Masse’s ears.  She, too, had thought of the treatment the Duke of Nuts received at the hands of Banana Guard Sixteen to be harsh.  Whatever his offence had been, if it were so minor as to not be punishable by more severe means, and if it truly had been eleven years — longer than Macy could even remember — since he had last done it, certainly there were grounds for lenience, if not absolution.

“Well, I dunno,” cooed the little princess, and now that Macy was primed for it, she could easily hear the artificiality in that childish lilt.  It was so clearly a deliberate affectation that she couldn’t imagine how anyone could be fooled by it, least of all herself from ten seconds ago.

“Whadda you guys think?” asked Princess Torte, making her cutest face.  “Should I trust him?”

“Yes,” replied all three of the other guests in perfect unison.  Then they looked at each other, eyes wide with shock, spooked by the unplanned chorus

“No,” said both the banana guards.  Masse jumped in with his own “no,” followed by an “aw, wait, geez,” when he realized he was a half second too late to be in unison.  He seemed disproportionately disappointed.

“Well?”  She turned to Macy, the only one left.  “I must follow the will of the people.” And in that moment everything made sense.

Before she could respond, Masse pulled her to the side, behind a thick-trunked tree from which some manner of chocolate version of a coconut, if only there were a name for such a thing.  The red Morrow-sized eagle perched atop it, eyeing the scene with a scornful scowl.

“I know what you’re going to say.”  Masse’s characteristic intensity changed into something like authority, as if he were imparting some wisdom that Macy had better take for her own good.  “Don’t. Whatever else he might be, this guy’s trouble. He’s a serial offender.”

“But of what!?” cried Macy; suddenly she became intensely aware of her surroundings, and hushed herself.  “We don’t even know what he did!” She grabbed Masse by the shoulder and pulled him even closer, so she could talk yet quieter without sacrificing audibility.  “Besides, even if he isn’t my father, he’s the Duke of Nuts. If we help him, he might be able to track down who my actual parents were.”

“Why.”  It wasn’t delivered as a question, and he wasn’t expecting a response.  Macy knew, on some level, that he was right; learning about her parentage wouldn’t really tell her anything meaningful about herself.  Still, she resented him for making her confront that so bluntly.  What right did he have to speak to her that way?

“I’m an orphan too,” he continued, in that same hollow monotone.

She pushed him away and turned her head down and to the side, studying the roots of the cocoanut tree.  There were visible speckles in the dirt left over from when it was last fed and fertilized. This tree did not grow naturally here; it had to be tended carefully or it would be starved out by its alien environment.  Already some of the roots were poking out of the ground, as if recoiling in disgust at the putrid taste of the undersoil. Within a few decades — short for a tree of its size — it would be replaced with a new one. Macy did not know any of this, yet on some level, she understood it just the same.

“You’re not a nut.”

Macy couldn’t see Masse take three slow steps back.  She didn’t hear his footfalls as he sprinted back to the entrance to the castle proper and then all the way back to the mess hall.  And there was no possible way she could have known she wouldn’t see or hear him again for over a year. All she knew was that, by the time she turned around, she had lost him.

 “Alright guys, I’m back.”  Jake stretched back into his seat butt-first, scooching Robin off; she curled on the floor between him and Finn, eyeing Jake's magnificent stretchy powers with envy.

“욕실에서 즐거운 시간을 보냈습니까?” asked Lady, one brow cocked.  Jake giggled slowly and awkwardly, blushing.

“You were gone a long time,” noted Finn.  “We were about to send out a search party.”

“Oh, is he back?” asked Dr. Campbell from Finn’s arm monitor.  “I’ll notify Squadron Strong to stand down.”

“Mom, we weren’t actually organizing a search party.”

“Son, I’m a computer program now.  I have trouble distinguishing tone.”

“Yeah, me too,” Robin chimed in.

Everyone looked at zhir, and zhe blushed.  “I meant the tone thing, not— nevermind.” She flashed her horn and projected light patterns over her body, rapidly cycling through color patterns to calm herself down.

“당신이 색 변경 기술을 가지고 있기 때문에,” commented Lady, “당신은 다가오는 Cameladabalawabapp 토너먼트의 훌륭한 파트너가 될 것입니다.”

“Oh this?”  Robin changed zhir coat once more to demonstrate, then stopped.  “I just do that sometimes when I’m stressed. It’s nothing impressive; I can barely affect anything beside myself.”

“그런 문제는 종종 기술 부족으로 인한 것이 아닙니다. 로빈, 너 자신에 대한 더 많은 자신감이 필요해. 크리스털 디멘션 (Crystal Dimension)에있는 우리집을 방문하면 내 비밀 기법을 가르쳐 줄 것입니다. 나는 할아버지에게 가르쳐 봤지만 - 나는 그를 사랑해.하지만 나는 인정해야한다. 그는 너무 나빠서 토마토를 붉게 할 수 없었다.”

Robin snorted.  “Grandnanny, you can’t just say that!”

“It’s kinda true though,” confirmed Jake.

“I’ve never met him in person,” added Dr. Campbell, “but that sounds believable based on what I’ve been told of him.”

Finn crossed his arms and sulked.  “Why am I the only person here who doesn’t understand Korean?”

“It’s because you never learned,” jabbed Jake, his mouth full of his fifth serving of spaghetti as he beckoned a waiter over for sixths.

“Neither did you.”  Robin nodded at Jake’s plate as the waiter scooped another lump of noodles onto it.  “You’re going to need to visit the little pup’s room again by the time the night is over.”

“And it’ll be worth it.”

“당신은 너무 쉽게 무의미한 것에 산만합니다,” Lady chided, clicking her tongue.  “그 때문에 당신은 너무 짧은 시간을 걸립니다—”

Suddenly, Robin shot straight up, hitting zhir head on one of the yellow trusses that supported the vaulted ceiling of the mess hall.  “Oh my glob!” zhe exclaimed, rubbing zhir temple as zhe shrunk zhirself down to the more manageable proportions of zhir poppoppop. “I’ve let myself get so distracted I forgot about my friends!”

She slinked under the table and back to Princess Cookie.  “Where are they?” zhe demanded, shaking Princeso frantically.  Zhir pelt was rapidly oscillating through various color schemes and patterns.  One of the orphans stared too long and began foaming whipped cream at the mouth.

“I~~~ do~~~n’t kno~~~w,” warbled Princess Cookie.  When Robin finally stopped shaking him, he took a moment to adjust his crown.  “I sent Chipolina after them,” he explained as he tended to the epileptic child.  “But she’s with Masse, and those two are always fine when they’re together. They’re tough kids.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”  Robin was not fooled by zhir own conciliatory tone.  Macy had been distracted tonight; she could easily worry herself into a frenzy, and for all his good qualities, Masse lacked tact.  “Still, do you know where they went?”

“Let me ask Chipolina,” he said, pulling a walkie-talkie out of his pocket.

He didn’t get a chance to use it, however, for at that exact moment Masse and Chipolina came back into the mess hall.  Masse looked bitter, staring at his feet as he walked as if he didn’t trust each one to go in front of the other without tripping him.  Chipolina was, as always, chipper.

“Where’s Macy!?” asked Robin and Princeso simultaneously in a panic.

“I blew it,” was all Masse muttered in response.

“She’s at the chocolate aviary,” replied Chipolina, not reading the mood.  “I can take you—”

“No need!” shouted Princess Cookie as he ran off, leading Robin by the hand.  “I’ve been to the castle before too? Take care of the kids while I’m gone.” The rest of the chips jumped out of their holes and ran over to the table.  “Come on! We don’t have much time!”

“Why not?”  Despite zhir prior panic, Robin was not sure where Macy’s caretaker’s urgency came from.

“Macy is… complicated,” huffed Princess Cookie, limping on his bad leg.  “She can’t be left alone or she’ll freeze up. She’s improved since you’ve started hanging around, but obviously you’ve never been with her when she’s alone, since that would be a contradiction.”

Robin glanced to zhir left, as if wondering how zhe didn’t know something so basic about zhir friend, and then morphed into a walking cane so Princeso in his hurry wouldn’t worsen his leg injury any more than he already had.

Macy had frozen up.

She was still standing under the cocoanut tree, beneath the disapproving glare of the red chocolate eagle, staring at the spot where one of her two favorite people had been standing moments before.  Images flashed through her head — all the time they’d spent together, or at least the version of that time that persisted in her memory, warped by joy and sorrow and now further warped by the stress of this moment which seemed to last an eternity.  She had not merely lost something but destroyed it in a moment of weakness. A sharp pain shot through her chest; she sank to her knees and sunk her hands into the soil. It was sun-warmed and bitter. This patch of soil would be her new home, she decided.

“Um, are you okay?”  She didn’t look up toward the soothing voice of Princess Torte.  Gone was the affectation of childishness. Perhaps she felt the need to put on a different face for Macy, destroyer of worlds.  Perhaps she was simply too shocked at Macy’s indiscretion to remember to keep it up. Who could say for sure? No one.

“I’m fine,” Macy creaked.

When she felt Torte’s soft arm under her shoulder, heaving her upright, she didn’t resist, but she didn’t play along, either.  She was a weathervane, turning in the wind, for everything else was ruination.

“No, you’re not fine,” insisted the young princess.  “You’re having a panic attack. Come on, let’s get you back to your folks.”

“Don’t have folks.”  Macy didn’t know where she found the strength to say even that much.  “Orphan. Nobody… cares about me. Not anymore.”

“Oh, come now.   I care about you.”  She said it with the mixture of pomp and sincerity characteristic of someone who saw it as their duty to care about everyone and truly believed they did so.

“Prove it.”

“Well…”  It was an impossible demand, of course, to make of a stranger, so it was no surprise Princess Torte did not answer immediately; Macy was surprised she was trying at all.  Her intent had been to drive the princess away, because repelling people who claimed to care about her was apparently all she was good for.

“I value your opinion.”

The princess’s answer was unexpected, shocking Macy out of her reverie.  The world was still spinning, trying to throw her off balance, but this bizarre statement demanded her investigation.  She steadied herself against the thick trunk of the cocoanut tree. “What about?”

“This man.”  She gestured to the duke, still watching outside, concern on his face.  “Should I take his message, or no?”

The question was obviously not the issue here, Macy knew.  Before, the princess had been asking for the popular consensus on what to do because she had known already what that consensus would have been — had read the room — and wanted to obfuscate her wisdom so people wouldn’t treat her like an adult.  That was what Macy had realized: that the princess’s pretense of immaturity was so people wouldn’t prejudge her in the opposite direction. Now, however, she wanted Macy’s opinion because she wanted Macy to be wanted. It was an obvious gesture, but Macy appreciated it anyway.

Her head began to clear somewhat.  Out of a desire to do something — anything — right, she resolved to give the princess the best possible answer.  But what was that?  Macy herself, in the princess’s shoes, would have undoubtedly trusted this stranger; that, she knew, was not a good reason.  Masse, whom she had been so rude to, had had a point; besides, even if the duke’s offense couldn’t have been too major, the fact that Princess Bubblegum still held a grudge after eleven years meant it couldn’t have been too minor, either.

She was about to tell Princess Torte to turn the duke away when she suddenly remembered something.  She whirled around, nearly tripping, and saw it lying in the dirt: her toonie, half-sunken into the soil, where she had dropped it after going into that mini panic attack.  She knelt over and picked it up, licking her thumb to wipe off the dirt covering the inscriptions. Nächstenliebe ist Mut , Frieden ist Erlösung .  Charity is courage, peace is salvation.  Jake had told her that these messages would be important.  She figured they might provide some guidance now, but how?

Then she thought of Colonel Candy Corn.  He seemed to be so against peace, from what 16 had told her.  And he talked so unkindly about the duke, so… uncharitably. Did that say something about the duke, or about the Colonel?  She suspected the latter.

But if the Colonel could be so flawed, and if he could still hold such a high station despite that, what did that imply about Princess Bubblegum?  What did it imply about her peace, her charity?

“Take his message,” insisted Macy, and from the look in Princess Torte’s eyes, she could tell she had chosen the correct answer, or at the very least the answer the princess believed to be correct.  Macy was not yet recovered enough to contemplate the difference between those two things, and she probably wouldn’t be until it was too late for such distinctions to matter.

“Very—” started the princess; when she spoke again, her cutesy lilt was back.  “Okay, miss. Bananana Guard Numbah two zero one eight, open the gate.”

The guard obliged, apparently having already forgotten whatever reservations she had maintained about the duke only moments prior.  The duke, for his part, seemed wowed by the princess’s generosity; he took a cautious step inside, as if unsure whether the ground in front of him were real.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” he said, awestruck.

As Princess Torte led Macadamia and the Duke of Nuts back through the aviary to the entrance that would lead them to the great mess hall, in preparation for the second half of the day’s festivities, who should emerge but Princess Cookie and Robin.  Princeso curtsied for the young princess of the Candy Kingdom, while Robin leapt forward, abandoning zhir prior form, and hugged Macy, knocking her off her feet. Princess Torte’s onlookers let out a collective sigh of cuteness-admiration, and Macy was suddenly uncomfortable with their presence.

“Are you okay are you okay are you okay are you okay are you okay,” panted Robin.

Macy pushed the rainicorn-dog away from her, standing up the front half-meter of zhir body so that the rest trailed behind her back to where Princess Cookie stood.  “I’m fine,” she assured her, a slight chuckle in her voice. It was almost true, too.

The duke cleared his throat and addressed Princeso.  “Pardon me, sir, but you are Princess Cookie, are you not?  We met once before, about eleven and a half years ago.”

Macy gasped and looked to the duke, then Princeso, then back again.  Something was happening. Her pericarp tingled with the static of a thousand candyfloss sweaters.

“I remember everyone who visits my doorstep,” said Princeso, his voice low and serious.  “You brought this one.”

He gestured to Macy, who felt a sudden tightness in her chest.  It felt like another panic attack had threatened to come on but her emotions were so raw from the last one that it decided not to bother.

“Yes,” confirmed the duke.  “Her parents had been lost in the great earthquake, and we did not have our own orphanage, so I brought her here.  I knew that you would take good care of her.”

“And I have.”  Princeso raised his eyebrow.  “What are you getting at, old man?”

“I realize now that I made a mistake.”  He knelt down to look Macy in the eyes, and when she stared back, she saw her own reflection.  In the distorting convex mirror of his eyes, it looked like something small pretending to be something big.  She couldn’t help but pity it.

“You were one of my subjects,” he continued.  “So it should have been my responsibility as a leader to make sure you were cared for, not to pass it off to someone else.  However noble my intentions were, I sent you away, and for that I am sorry.”

“Is this going where I think it’s going?” inquired Princeso.  His eyebrow was now threatening to escape his face entirely and enter near-cookie orbit, or possibly become his newest chip

“Yes, it is.”  He picked Macy up.  “I would like to adopt this child.”

“Yes!” exclaimed Macy and gave him a peck on the cheek.  Through the brown of his shell, she could see him blush.

Masse and the other orphans followed Chipolina outside.  Some of the guests hadn’t arrived back yet, but Lolly had said that they needed to hurry up this reveal before it started to rain.  They filed in a large ring by the castle’s outer courtyard, where a modest stage often played host to city events which didn’t require specialized setup.  A large, amorphous object was situated on the stage, covered in a brown tarp; Slime Princess was taking selfies in front of it, seemingly under the impression that it was the tarp which was the second tribute to Betty and Fern.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced Princess Bubblegum, speaking into that microphone made of pistachio ice cream.  “May I present to you this statue—”

—she pulled the tarp down in one surprisingly swift motion, revealing a large rectangular object with various images sticking out of it like a pop-up book—

“—of the new official Ooo calendar, ratified by all 167 heads of state!  Welcome to Year 30!”

As an overblown horn production hailed the rain of confetti from unseen rafters, Masse turned to Chipolina, shaking his head and clucking.  “Well, that’s a bit of an anticlimax.”

Chapter Text

“And… unpacked.”

Macy put the single book —  A Collector’s Guide to Coinage, Volume 47 by Lionel Rednose — on the otherwise-empty shelf, then rested her hands on the side of her body, imitating a sitcom-esque hans-on-hips posture to the greatest extent her elliptical nut body would allow..  Now this place really felt like home.

Robin, who had shifted into a dark brown backpack, reverted to zhir original shape and coloration as zhe dumped the rest of zhir and Robin’s supplies unceremoniously on the bed.  There were mostly simple, serviceable clothes — a sparse collection, since neither candy people nor rainicorn-dogs usually needed clothing — and basic hygiene utensils, some of whose purposes would be so alien to a human and thus whose appearances aren’t worth describing.  There were also some gifts that Princess Cookie and the rest of the orphans had sent with them: a few half-completed arts & crafts projects, a letter from Masse that Macy wasn’t ready to open, and even a camera phone Princess Cookie had bought for Macy. He had offered to give Robin one, too, but zhe declined, claiming that zhe preferred prismgrams, that strange piece of magical communication technology that required rainicorn magic (or a similar substitute) to operate.  In truth, Macy had never actually seen Robin send or receive a prismgram, and she suspected that zhe simply didn’t want to be made the center of attention.

“I’ll take your word for it,” droned Robin as zhe got back to zhir full seven-and-a-half-meter length.  In most rooms, Robin would not be able to comfortably extend to zhir full size; it was a very numbing, claustrophobic feeling unique to shapeshifters, like one’s limbs being made to squeeze flush against one’s body at all times.  Macy’s new bedroom, however, was a renovated guest suite in Castle Jugland, the grand seat of power for the Duchy of Nuts. The interior of the room was green, in contrast with the plain brown exterior of the castle; red accents dominated the floral carpet, the wall trusses, the chandelier, even the ornamented windows.  There was a large bookcase against one wall, a larger bed against the other, and on the wall between, a writing desk out of whose window could be seen the forested valley that separated the Duchy from the center of the Candy Kingdom. Robin took a moment to glance out the window, taking in the landscape. Zhe had been in this forest before, but zhe had never gotten the chance to see it from above.  It made zhir feel insignificant in a comforting way, like zhe were being let off the hook from responsibility.

“You know, I’m sure Dad’s offer still stands.”  It was curious how quickly Macy had taken to calling him ‘dad’.  She’d only met the Duke of Nuts two days ago, barring the time he had dropped her off on the doorstep of the Candy Orphanage as a baby, yet the term had slipped into a vocabulary like a hand into a fitted glove.  “And looking at the size of this room, there’s definitely enough room to add an extra bed that can accommodate your length.”

“Nah.”  Robin pressed zhir paw against the window, zhir toelike fingers flattening against the glass crisp and cool in the spring morning air.  “Civilization’s not really my scene. I’ll hang out with you like always, but I just don’t feel at home sleeping under a roof.”

“Yeah, why is that?”  Macy grabbed a wire hanger from the large walk-in closet and took it over to the bet where Robin had dumped her wardrobe.  “You’d spend all day in the city with me and Masse at the orphanage but then head out to the candy forest at night.”

“Doesn’t need to be a reason.”  Robin pulled zhir paw away, leaving a smudge on the glass.  Zhe zapped the smudge with a beam from zhir horn, making it invisible — at least until zhir magic wore off.

Macy held up a shirt in one hand and the hanger in the other, examining them curiously.  At the orphanage her only closet space had been half a drawer; the Candy Orphanage hadn’t been underfunded, but it wasn’t luxurious, either, and often that meant practicality had to come before comfort.  That was one of the things Macy had begun to realize only shortly before getting adopted. Of course she had loved Princess Cookie, but after all those years she hadn’t quite loved him like a father, yet she formed that connection with the Duke so quickly.  Perhaps it was because Princeso’s love had been undifferentiated, whereas the Duke’s was personal. Was it selfish to love a love that was selective more than one that was unconditional? She didn’t care to think about that question, so she did not. Questioning things like that could drive a person mad.

Sensing a hole in the conversion, Robin continued speaking.  “But man, can you believe the reason the Duke had been banned from the castle?  And Princess Bubblegum still wouldn’t lift the ban!  Oh, man, she was furious.”

“I know, right?”  Macy had done such a poor job of putting the shirt on the hanger that someone looking at it would have a hard time determining that it was a shirt, or even that it rested on a hanger.  “‘Eating all the pudding in the royal vault’ isn’t the kind of crime you’d expect someone to refuse to forgive for eleven years.”

“Plus, if he’s taking Dr. Minerva’s supplements to counteract his pudding deficiency, that shouldn’t even be a problem anymore.”

“Yeah,” agreed Macy, picking up another shirt and slipping it onto the bundle of cloth and wire in her hand.  “I just hope she wasn’t too hard on her daughter; she was only trying to help.”

“Eh, what’s up with that, by the way?”  Robin uncurled zhir body so it sat in a ring parallel to the floor, making an impromptu corral around Macy as she grabbed another hanger to support the growing cluster.  “You’ve been asking about Princess Torte more than about Masse Yvoire, and you’ve barely said anything about what went on after you left the party. Masse hasn’t been talking, either, and the two of you wouldn’t go near each other.”  Zhe stretched a paw over to Macy and rested it on her shoulder; when she turned, zhe stared into Macy’s eyes with her own crystal peepers, willing a million unspeakable words into that glittering gaze.  “I’m worried about you, Macy.”

“I’m… I’ll be fine.”  Macy turned her attention to the clothing clog.  It was now comprised of eight shirts, two dresses, one pair of pants, and enough distorted wire hangers to make a kabbalist golem, hypothetically speaking.  To know the shape of it would be to understand principles beyond the grasp of any twenty-first-century mathematician, beyond all existing notions of topology and graph theory and non-Euclidean spaces.  It was beautiful and hideous all at once. She gazed into it, transfixed, letting whatever she would have said next die in her throat; and as she stared, it seemed to stare back. If consciousness is born of complexity, then that bundle was a being beyond even the divine.

Then it fell apart.

“You know what would cheer you up?” asked Robin, grabbing the loose clothes without bothering to sift out the hangers and dumping them unfolded into a drawer in the walk-in closet.

“Don’t say exploring the castle.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Robin lied.

“Then what were you going to say?”


Macy rested one hand on the bet behind her as she addressed Robin, one brow cocked.  “Why pudding?”

“I’ve got it on the mind.”  Zhe contracted zhirself to a much smaller size for ease of navigation.  “Come on, let’s go find the castle’s pudding vault!”

“You don’t know that that’s something this castle has,” noted Macy as they walked out of her new bedroom, the rest of her belongings still strewn about haphazardly because for the first time they could afford to be.

“Not with that attitude it doesn’t!”

The good news was that the castle did, in fact, have a pudding vault.  The butler Lisby, who spoke in a comical, perpetually-excited tone that didn’t seem reflective of his rank as chief of the castle staff, was more than happy to point Macy and Robin in its direction.  The vault was to be stocked at all times, and anyone was free to partake of it, so long as they did not take too much; after all, even with his supplements, the Duke’s pudding deficiency still demanded that he have a supply on hand.

The bad news was that it was, impossibly, empty.

The Duke of Nuts was assessing the situation with the captain of the guard.  The duke looked frizz-frazzled: that particular blend of harried and hagrid where the only thing separating person from beast is crippling anxiety.  His dukely robe, woven from a single sheet of fine yellow silk, was beginning to tear already as he tugged at it nervously; his magnificent purple hat was on the floor.  The captain of the guard, in contrast, gave off an aura of stoicism in her green uniform, one hand resting leisurely on the hilt of her sickle, the other clasped hard on the duke’s shoulder.  The duke’s eldest son, the Marquess Penhaligon, was also present, pacing nervously; he wore a long black wig which obscured much of his body front and back like a veil, swishing gently as he quickly paced back and forth.

“Sir The Duke, we’ll get to the bottom of this,” the guard captain was promising as Macy and Robin got within earshot.  “We’ve already sent for the guards who were on duty, and we’ll put the best investigator on the force in charge of the investigation.”

Penhaligon stopped his pacing and whirled around to face the guard captain.  On anyone else, the motion would indicate a sense of sharp anger or excitement, but for a nut, it was simply the only way to turn one’s field of vision outside the small forty-five-degree arc their centralized bodies could muster.  Whenever Macy had done this, the candy people who surrounded her would act startled, wondering who had said something to offend her, so she had trained herself out of it. Nobody here had that reaction when her new brother Penhaligon did it, which relieved a tension Macy hadn’t realized she was holding.

“What about the best investigator not on the force?” demanded Penhaligon in an accusatory tone.

The guard captain was unstirred by this.  “I beg your pardon, Marquess, but the Gabon Guard is perfectly capable of handling its own investigations.  There is no need to bring an outsider into the confidence of the guard just to solve a theft, no matter its scale.”

“Hey Dad, hey Pen, what’s going—” started Macy, then stopped when everyone stared at her — the guard captain with suspicion, her dad with worry, her brother with startlement, and Robin with an anxiety bordering on panic.  “…is it something I said?”

“Oh, no!” exclaimed the duke, rushing over to hug his new daughter.  “Oh, no, sweetie, you just walked in on a difficult, adult conversation.”  He stepped away to resume his frizz-frazzling. “Nothing you should concern your—”

“—the pudding vaults were emptied,” interjected Robin.  “I heard you discussing it as we approached.”

“Yes, and we need to put the very best in charge of finding the culprit,” insisted Penhaligon.  Up close, Macy was reminded that his face was actually on the bottom half of his body, not the top.  She stifled a giggle. Despite his height, her brother had to always look up when talking to just about anyone; she suspected he hadn’t gained an inch since he was younger than she.

“You are out of line, Marquess.”  The guard captain stepped forward, directly into the Penhaligon’s face, her hand now firmly gripping the handle of her sickle.  The duke, in his frizz-frazzled state, did not appear to notice the implied threat. “You will not interfere with the way this investigation is conducted, understood?”

Penhaligon smirked behind his long black toupé.  “Macy, right?” he called over his shoulder.


“You want to learn to be a hero, right?”


“Well, there’s a private investigator in the city who’s really good at solving crimes.  If she helped you solve this one, you’d be super heroic.”

The duke looked at Macy, excitement in his eyes.  “Oh yes, Cash Daniels! I’ll give you her address; with— with her help, you’ll solve the case for sure!”

“Aw yeah!” exclaimed Macy, high-fiving Robin several times in a row.  “We get to solve a mystery and help out our dad!”

The guard captain backed down, her weapon hand now relaxed.  “Very well,” she said stiffly; “you kids go have fun with the detective while us guards track down the pudding thief.”  She failed to keep the desperation out of her voice in the latter half of that sentence.

“Come on!”  Robin was already bounding down the hall.  “Last one there is… uh… the last one to get there!”

Macy, on the other hand, waited for her dad to hand her a business card that held the address to Cash Daniels’s office, because she played to win.

Cash Daniels, P.I., was one of the top consulting detectives in the candy kingdom.  Solicitations for her services were numerous in quantity; compensation, adequate. It was a balmy spring noon.  She was feeling particularly hard-boiled today.

At that moment the Duke’s new kid stepped into her office.  She was a real hard-shell type, the kind of kid who thinks she’s seen it all because she’s read it in a book.  From the way she walked, it was obvious she couldn’t contain her excitement. Clearly, whatever was going down at the castle to necessitate sending the Duke’s youngest daughter out to meet her, nobody had met their maker yet.

“Excuse me,” she said, sticking her hand out across the smooth mahogany desk, “are you Cash Daniels?”  She asked this even though she clearly already knew the answer, as if she were aware of the possibility that everything around her was some sort of flimsy fabrication that would come tumbling down if she interrogated it too closely and she just wanted to get it over with.

“Sure is,” replied the P.I., shaking the new marquess’s hand quickly.  She didn’t like long handshakes; anyone who let a handshake last longer than a second either wanted something from you or was willing to give it, and Cash had no time for either solicitation or obsequity.  “What can I do ya for?”

“I’d like your help to solve a mystery.”

Cash cocked her eyebrow like she was loading a pistol of incredulity, preparing to fire straight through the heart of darkness that shrouded the million unanswered questions plaguing the world of criminality.  She’d been asked to help out on other peoples’ cases numerous times before, but this was by far the most childish way of phrasing it she’d ever heard. It intrigued her, this impossible innocence, maintained even in the face of the ugliness of the world.  That innocence was bound to be snuffed out someday soon, but Cash wasn’t yet heartless enough to do it.

“What kind of mystery?” she probed, taking a long drag from the pixie stick in her mouth.  She knew that much sugar wasn’t good for you — rotted your teeth — but she didn’t mind; the world was as cruel as any dentist.  In her world, you were either the dentist or the tooth. The tooth rot was the criminal underbelly of Ooo, and if you wanted to catch a tooth rot, you had to eat some sugar.

“The royal pudding vault has been emptied!”

Sounded like someone was going to eat a lot of sugar.  Only villains did that.

“When was this?”

“I think it wasn’t more than an hour ago.”

“Right, then,” she said, bolting upright out of her sleek black chair.  It was as black as her sole, scuffed with tar from the city streets and dirt from the mountain roads.  “I’ve got fingers in the black markets; I doubt whoever did this will be foolish enough to try to sell it immediately, but they can’t exactly keep it in town or try to smuggle it out on their own.  We should be able to find some manner of lead.”

“I thought you would want to check out the crime scene.”  The marquess tilted her head in confusion, looking like a lost child, or possibly a child who was standing in one of those fun houses where everything’s tilted to the side to give your brain the illusion of imbalance.  Sometimes life was like a funhouse, except not as fun, and not a house.

Cash laughed, a single, hollow laugh that rang with misery rather than merriment.  “The castle guards’ll be swarming there; they’ll end up getting in the way. We can ask them for collaboration if and when we need it.  Come on.” She strode out the door, the marquess trailing behind her like a puppy that was excited to solve a mystery.

As she left the musty old office building she worked out of, she saw an unmistakable figure bounding down the street — the marquess’s friend, that unicorn-dog with the black jowls.  Zhe was a real drifter type; she could see it in zhir storied, drifting eyes. There was a person who would never be happy in the same place as yesterday. If zhe kept bounding around Ooo the way zhe bounded down the street, zhe was liable to knock something over, and then it would be Cash’s job to bring zhir to justice.  That was the way of the world, after all.

“Hey, I finally figured out— oh, come on!” exclaimed the rainicorn-dog, zhir ruby eyes catching the glint of the midday sun as zhe skidded to an unceremonious halt in front of Cash and her apparent self-proclaimed protege.  “Aw man, you never beat me anywhere!”

The marquess stuck her tongue out and blew a raspberry, the discordant notes reflecting the meaningless chaos of the world she was about to enter.  Cash led them on into the heart of darkness, holding back a single tear for the innocence which would soon be lost to this cruel, unforgiving world.

“Here it is,” muttered Cash, in that tone that was at once understated and melodramatic.  “The most wretched grove of scum and villainy this side of the Mystery Mountains.” When she talked like that, Macy found it impossible to take her seriously.  She was beginning to regret bringing the detective along.

‘Villainous’ was not the first word that would occur to Macy were she tasked with describing the bar she, Cash, and Robin now entered, with its cheery lighting, abstract artwork, and patron dressed in all manner of eye-hurting colors.  If she were being generous, she might describe it as ‘seedy’, but only in the sense that one would describe a tree branch as ‘sticky’. Behind the bar, a sunflower was mixing root beer and cherry cream cola for a particularly daring customer.

“Keep quiet,” continued Cash, leading Macy and Robin toward the open seats at the back of the bar.  “Don’t attract any attention to yourself. Unfamiliar faces mean fresh marks for these pusillanimous reprobates.”  Macy was not sure those were all words.

As Macy climbed onto her seat and Robin shrank onto zhirs, the sunflower, having finished mixing the drink, sauntered over to Cash.  “It’s been too long, my friend,” they said in a gravely voice, reaching one leaf out to bump Cash’s outstretched fist as another rinsed out the cocktail shaker and a third wrapped around some top-shelf soda.

“Not long enough, Helix,” replied Cash gravely.  The two shared a short laugh, like they had just exchanged a private joke that wasn’t all that funny.  “How’s business?”

“Business is business.  Had a bit of a surge last week from a traveling caravan of Icy University gradjit students.”  They set the bottle on the counter behind the bar and reached for another. “Poor rubes thought they was gettin’ their money’s worth.”

“Hear anything interesting?”

Helix eyed Macy and Robin suspiciously in turn as they reached for a third container, this one containing chocolate syrup.  “Gossip’s rude, Cash. Y’should know better than that.”

Cash reached into her pocket and pulled out a small vermillion pouch, sliding it across the bar nonchalantly; Macy tried to get a peek at what was inside, but Helix deliberately opened it in such a way that she couldn’t.

Suddenly she felt a tap on the shoulder opposite cash; when she turned around, she saw Robin standing there, squished down to about half Macy’s height; zhe had apparently stretched out of zhir seat so as not to make a sound.  “This is taking too long,” zhe whispered; “let’s go do our own thing.”

Being twelve, Macy found this a fine idea.  She and Robin trawled the bar for about ten paces, examining its purportedly prevaricatious patrons, before they realized neither of them had any idea how to investigate anything.

Robin leaned close to Macy.  “I’ve got an idea.” She then whispered a plan into the slit on the side of Macy’s head that acted as an ear.  Macy gave Robin a thumbs up which was covert only because nobody was paying any attention to them, and then Robin got to work.

Zhe transformed into a woolen hat with long tassels for Macy to wear, using zhir horn to turn zhirself a dull shade of green.  Macy went up to one of the bar patrons — a scraggly-bearded karuka with too many belts — and tapped them on the shoulder. “Excuse me, mistah,” she said in her best imitation of Princess Torte pretending to be a little kid, “what’s youw name?”

They grunted.  “Jeff.”

“Chef,” repeated Macy.  “Chef. Ta-yeff.” She pointed at one of his belts, which had a large black bag attached to it like a key on a ring.  “Wuzzat?”

Jeff patted the bag, as if suddenly worried that it might be empty.  “This? Oh, uh, it’s nothing.”

“I have a bag too!”  She held up two fingers as if to demonstrate.  “It’s pink and sparkly and my caretakah at the ophanage gave it to me.  See, one time I was carrying a bunch of papers — the papers were for a project we were making — we were making pictures of Princess Bubblegum cuzza she was gonna visit — she and Princeso…”

Macy continued on and on like this until Jeff fell asleep out of boredom, then a bit further because she was now committed to the bit.  When eventually Robin formed a mouth on one of zhir tassels to let Macy know zhe had finished peeked into Jeff’s dream, Macy was in all earnestness explaining to an unconscious karuka exactly what tricks the lion had performed during a talent show Princeso had taken the orphans to.  (Macy had volunteered to be his assistant, and to this day she had no idea how so many coins had been inside her nonexistent ear.)

“That bag’s got nothing but apples,” whispered Robin.  “This guy’s a bust.”

They repeated this process on a few more customers, each time with a different series of vaguely connected, half-formed anecdotes, but to no avail.  By the time Macy put an entire table to sleep describing every minute detail of an episode of a hypernet cooking show as if it were a classical painting, analyzing it in much more detail than she could accurately recall, Robin had given up on finding anything.

“I guess this wasn’t the best plan after all,” zhe sighed, dejected, as zhe regained.  “Also, it’s pronounced helpernet. You know, like the Helpers.”

“Really?”  Macy patted at her head; the sensation of hatlessness after one removes a hat sometimes felt to her like a hat in its own right, so she needed to ensure there wasn’t actually something else on her head.  “Huh; I’ve been saying it wrong my whole life.” A beat. “I’m not gonna stop, either. I like hypernet better.”

“Yeah; me too, to be honest.”  As Robin re-shrank to fit better on the stool beside Cash, who was so engaged with haggling Helix for information that she didn’t seem to have noticed the two had left, zhe let out another, deeper sigh.  “It’s a shame, though. Especially since this clearly isn’t going anywhere.”

As if on cue, Cash slammed her fist on the table, rattling the glass of almond milk in front of her.  “Math this, Helix, I know you’re holding out on me! If you think you can wring me dry, you’ve got another thing coming.  I can just walk out of here if you’re going to waste my time like this.”

Helix dropped the glass mug they were cleaning into a basin behind the bar with a loud shattering sound and nonchalantly reached for another one.  “Do it then,” they challenged, not even slightly turning their head.

“Playing hardball, eh?”  Cash took out a pixie stick, put one end in her mouth, and lit the other end with a small silver lighter.  “Bold move from someone who doesn’t store their sodas in a regulation refrigerator.”

Helix continued wiping down the mug, but their movements were just a tiny bit faster and more careless than before.  “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” they muttered.

“And I don’t know what you’re not talking about, so let’s see which of us gets to remain ignorant.”

“I’m serious, I’ve told you all I can.”  The mug was certainly clean by now but Helix kept wiping it down anyway.  “I don’t know nothing about no pudding theft. There ain’t been no talk like that round here, an’ that’s Glob’s honest truth.”

“They’re right.”  Macy gave the deepest sigh of all.  “I kept spying on the dreams of everyone in the bar, but the only thing anyone seemed interested in buying was apples.”

At that last word Cash snapped to attention.  “You didn’t say anything about apples,” she accused.

“I didn’t think it was relevant.”  Helix’s voice was beginning to crack, along with the mug in their hands.  “You’re a good customer, but I don’t want to risk getting on her bad side if I don’t want to.”

“Her?  Her who?”

“Penelope Farthington.”

Cash cursed under her breath; despite Macy listening closely, she was unable to understand this new and exciting swear word well enough to add it to her vocabulary.

Helix continued, talking much more quickly and quietly than before.  “She’s been gearing up to make a move. Probably aiming for the Eye of Perseus, since it’s the biggest emerald in Ooo that she hasn’t tried to steal yet.  Somehow word got out, and now all the local jewel fences are competing for her attention.”

Cash matched Helix’s lowered, hasty tone in her response.  “And since the Shrine of Perseus is usually pretty heavily guarded, she must have arranged for this theft in order to distract the royal guard!”

Macy raised her hand.  “Um, wouldn’t that mean—”

“Probably.”  Helix set down the mug on the counter and reached over for a soda, but in their frantic state missed; they made the motion of pouring air into the mug, not realizing they weren’t holding anything in their other leaf.  “And you didn’t hear it from me, but the Bramblebush Hotel recently closed off the top floor of the west wing for renovations with no advance warning. They cancelled all reservations for that section up to a couple weeks before renovations are planned to begin and paid the would-be guests triple the usual refund to keep them from makin’ a stink about it.”

Robin began to make a few dancing lights to try to get Cash’s attention but Macy waved zhir down before zhe could draw the attention of anyone else.

“She’s probably planning on auctioning it off within the city,” said Cash, her downturned chin clasped in her fist like a Renaissance sculpture nobody in the Duchy of Nuts could possibly be familiar with.  “The local fences would be much better equipped to deal with the emerald than she is, whether to hide it or relocate it. We’ve got to get over there quickly!”

“Whoa whoa whoa.”  Helix stirred the mug of air friskily.  “You can’t possibly be thinking about confronting Farthington.  I know the two of you have some sort of longstanding rivalry/romance—” Cash opened her mouth in protest, but Helix steamrolled past — “but even you can’t be crazy enough to try to get in her way of a big score like this.  The woman’s ruthless. She has absolutely no ruth. I don’t even know what ruth is , and I’m sure she doesn’t either.”

“Nah.”  Cash took a long drag from her pixie stick.  She couched on a bit of sweetened pixie dust caught in her throat, then resumed talking.  “I’m not interested in the emerald; that’s not my case. I’m only interested in the pudding.”

“Ever the pragmatist.”  Helix slid the empty mug down the bar, where Jeff caught it and began chugging the air inside.  “Hey, before you go, are any o' y’all gonna actually buy a drink?”

The Bramblebush Hotel loomed over the street below like a titan, fifty balconies reaching out to grasp the city and strangle the life out of it, fifty more on the unseen reverse overlooking the sheer drop into the Valley of Moths as a king overlooks a great feast.  Tourists milled about mindlessly — the rich with their palanquins and covered wagons, the sightseers to whom a sunset over the peaks of the Sienna Ridge was a commodity, the perpetual travelers unmoored from any bedrock — oblivious to the dark doings going on right over their heads.  All the windows on the left side’s fiftieth floor were closed, and there was some equipment visible on the roof above them; it was a pathetic performance at renovation, but nobody bothered to look closely enough to see it. Cash took a deep breath, then pushed on the front doors to the hotel and stepped into the air-conditioned lobby.

“I’m just saying, we probably could have stayed for at least one round of drinks,” said Macy.  “I wanted some ginger ale.”

“Justice doesn’t have time for a round of drinks.”  Cash strolled up to the receptionist with an unbreaking gait.  It was important to show no weakness to these kinds of people, and while the receptionist was probably not one of ‘these kinds’, it always pays to show no weakness anyway.  Showing no weakness was like a muscle, which worked in tandem with the muscle of never hesitating in order to operate the long arm of justice. And it was important to exercise your muscles; otherwise they would atrophy, and then you’d need to take anti-inflammatories.  Cash wasn’t sure what anti-inflammatories were in this analogy, and she didn’t intend to find out.

“Well we’re going back afterward,” declared Macy.  “I want ginger ale.”

“Ring up the top floor of the west wing,” Cash told the receptionist, taking her pixie stick out of her mouth and blowing a puff of smoke that glittered pink, green, and robin’s-egg blue.  “Tell them that Daniels wants to chat.”

“The fiftieth floor is closed for renovations,” said the receptionist in a mechanical, rehearsed tone.

“Do it anyway.”  Cash put the pixie stick back in her mouth and walked away.

As the receptionist performed the absurd-sounding request, Cash took a seat in one of the large, cushy armchairs.  The give of the fabric remind her of… of… she was too comfortable to come up with a hard-boiled analogy about armchairs.  She’d be sure to think of one later before she completed today’s journal entry.

After a few minutes, just as Cash tossed her pixie stick in the garbage, a soft ding announced the opening of the brass elevator doors.  A tall human man with a shiny metal scalp and whirring robotic eye in a dark tuxedo stood inside, a pristine white towel draped over one arm.  He beckoned to Cash with the other. “The mistress will see you now,” he intoned, his voice tinny.

Cash stood up and got into the elevator; Macy and Robin, the poor fools, followed suit.

“Who are these two?” asked the cyborg valet in disgust.

“They’re with me, Izak.”  Cash took out another pixie stick from her side pocket.  “Don’t touch them,” she added before putting it in her mouth and lighting it.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”  Izak’s face and body gave away nothing as usual, but judging by his voice he sounded offended by the prospect.  Cash would expect nothing less; her rival/romantic partner was a lowlife living the high life, but she wouldn’t hurt a kid, and neither would her partner in crime.

The elevator didn’t lurch upward like other elevators tended to; it smoothly ascended the seeming increase in gravity so gradual that Cash hadn’t even noticed it until it had reached its peak.  She watched the clock hand tick up the floor numbers, the box’s passage through space and time momentarily in perfect harmony, like cogs in a well-oiled machine of some kind renowned for unflagging precision.

A beat.

Robin turned to Cash.  “So, apples were code for stolen gems, right?” zhe inquired.

“Yes,” Cash and Izak replied simultaneously.

A few more moments passed before another soft ding cued the opening of the elevator’s doors into the dimly lit hallway of the top floor of the west wing of the Bramblebush Hotel.

Apparently, even though the renovations were in large part a cover story for a black market auction, the hotel management in their thrift decided to kill two metaphorical birds with one literal, opulent gemstone.  All around them, walls were knocked down; there was fresh paint on half the surfaces, and the air was filled thick with fumes and dust and ozone. Nearby, a carpenter, apparently unfazed the passage of a master thief’s butler and his bizarre entourage, was assembling a complex device that appeared to be some manner of winch — constructing the construction equipment.  Bags of unmixed cement formed makeshift walls, creating from the half-deconstructed hotel a maze which Izak navigated with the swift precision of an author crafting a complex mixed metaphor, ducking this way and that, making sharp turns that seemed to double back, but ultimately arriving at his intended destination: a large, open space, a makeshift auditorium whose stage was constructed above a newly-built pool, lit with ambient red torches that directed the eye toward the figure seated on a leather recliner on the stage’s center, dressed in a fine black dress, long legs crossed with shiny high heels at the end, and long, curly red hair outlining her round-cheeked, perfectly made-up face with the barest hint of a smirk.

“Why hello there, Cashandra.”  Her voice oozed bravado, as thick as the paint fumes that mixed with the sugar and smoke in Cash’s mouth.  Just as sweet, and just as deadly. “It’s been far too long.”

“Penelope Farthington,” Cash said coolly, gripping her smoldering pixie stick in her teeth.  “Love the new digs. Very, what do you call it, post-structuralist.”

Penelope gave a hearty laugh, accentuated with a beckoning finger; Cash stepped forward on instinct.  “I see you’re as quick-witted as ever, detective. Izak, you’re dismissed.”

She turned away and waved her hand once as if swatting a fly; Izak humbly bowed and left the room without a parting comment.

“Bold of you to vacate the room and leave yourself alone with your worst enemy,” teased Cash, one eyebrow arched, now returning Penelope’s half-smirk.  “You must think quite highly of yourself.”

“I just know you’re not stupid enough to try anything.”  Penelope stood up, legs reaching all the way to the floor as the legs of non-flying creatures tend to do, and strutted over to Cash, so close that her breath disturbed the pixie stick smoke.  “Now, not that I’d ever begrudge our little games, but what in particular brings you to my current abode, if you don’t mind my asking? I didn’t send you an invitation this time around.”

Cash removed the pixie stick this time, causing a puff of smoke to hit Penelope right in the eyes.  “I’m here to see a man about a pudding. The whole shebang.”

Penelope didn’t even blink.  She began to pace around Cash, making the detective spin on her heels in the way that only a nut can.  “Let’s say I happened to know something about pudding. Why should I tell you?”

“Because I know that your real prize is the Eye of Perseus.  That’s what this whole auction is about. Now, I could send an anonymous tip to the constables.”  Cash stepped in front of Penelope, forcing the master thief to stop abruptly in her tracks. “Maybe they’d catch you in the act, maybe they wouldn’t.  But what I’m after is the pudding you stole from Castle Jugland.”

Penelope grabbed the pixie stick from Cash’s mouth, twirled it between her fingers, and pinched out the smoldering flame.  “The pudding I stole?  You seem to be confused, Cash.  Why would I steal something so heavily guarded that would fetch so little a price?”

Cash took a quarter step closer and grabbed the ashen end of the pixie stick; it crumbled slightly in her hand.  “You don’t need me to tell you that. You needed to weaken the guard around the shrine where the Eye is housed.”

“Well that doesn’t make sense.”

Everyone in the room turned to stare at Macy, her frank observation having pierced the bubble of caliginous tension that was brewing between Cash and Penelope, scratching the record on their two-person tango.

Macy glanced around nervously.  “What? All I’m saying is, if she had the resources to get in and out of the castle unseen and take the entire royal pudding vault with her, she wouldn’t need to bother with any of that since she could just put those resources into stealing the Eye directly.  It wouldn’t be significantly harder and there would be fewer moving parts.”

Penelope smiled as she yanked the pixie stick out of Cash’s fingers once more; it tore open, spilling a small pile iridescent white powder onto the floor.  “Precisely. What’s your name, child?”

“Macadamia the Nut, fourth Marquess Jugland.”  She immediately covered her mouth, eyes wide, realizing that she maybe shouldn’t have given out her full name and title to a criminal mastermind.

“Well then, Marquess.” said Penelope as she sauntered over to Macy.  “I must say, I’m impressed. Most of the royal family is either goody two-shoes who are far too quick to trust or conniving schemers who can solve anything but the blatantly obvious.  You’ve got a good head on your…” She looked Macy up and down. “…legs.”

“That’s because she’s adopted,” Robin piped in to a small round of chortling.

“The point is I like you,” continued Penelope.  She knelt down, hands on her knees, to look Macy in the eye.  “I like your moxie, kid, so I’ll give you this one for free. I didn’t have anything to do with the pudding theft, but I knew it was going to happen, and I am in fact taking advantage of that to steal the eye.”  She turned to face Cash and stood up slowly. “Not that you have enough evidence to convince the constables of that, so good luck stopping me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” murmured Cash.

“At any rate, I don’t know who stole the pudding, but I know who commissioned them — or rather, who conveniently turned a blind eye at just the right moment for all the pieces to fall into place.”  She pulled a pixie stick from Cash’s pocket and held it out, her wrist casually limp as if to emphasize how effortlessly she had nabbed it. “Someone who has a long-standing dislike of the Duke and the diplomatic immunity to get away with it.”  She flipped her long red locks, gazing into Cash’s eyes with a playful whimsy. “You know who I’m talking about, of course.”

Cash yanked the pixie stick from Penelope’s outstretched hand and pulled out her lighter.  “You mean Bubblegum’s man,” she postulated as she lit the stick. She watched the flame leap up, igniting the powder-filled tube, before snapping the lighter shut with a forceful click.  “Ambassador Blondie. You think the orders came from the top?”

“Who’s to say?  Whatever went down at the palace seems to have cooled things down between the Duke and the Princess, but four decades of hate don’t evaporate so quickly.  All I know is Blondie arranged for a lot of interesting personnel changes and one of his staff members came down with a case of the loose lips.”

Cash grimaced.  “So in other words, there’s nothing I can do.  Between his diplomatic immunity and his connection to the castle guard who’ve got a stranglehold on the investigation at the palace, Blondie’s invincible.”

Penelope laughed again.  “My, my, Cashiel, aren’t you quick to give up?  I understand you’re having a rough day, but you’ve forgotten your secret weapon.”  She gestured to Macy.

“Me?”  Macy pointed at herself with her thumb, as if clarifying what she meant by ‘me’.  “What can I do?”

“You’re the Marquess.  You can probably distract Brownie and his retinue while Cash scopes out the place.”

Macy scratched her head.  “Somehow I thought you were going to say something different.”

Penelope clapped her hands; Izak appeared out of the shadows behind Robin, causing the rainicorn-dog to jump straight into the air, hit zhir head on the ceiling, and rapidly shift between color schemes.  “Izak, please escort our guests out of the hotel.” She gestured to the pile of pixie dust and sugar on the floor. “And then clean that up.”

“I'm not cleaning that up.”

“This case just keeps getting more and more complicated,” groaned Robin as they approached the towering Candy Embassy, a great gingerbread building just outside the castle grounds.  In front of the embassy, Macy could spot two familiar figures — her brother Pen and the guard captain — arguing heatedly, gesturing angrily with not just their arms but their entire bodies.  She couldn’t quite make out what they were saying over the stead midafternoon breeze that carried with it the sting of snow-cold from the frosted peaks of the Sienna Ridge. “Looks like these nerds are arguing about protocol right in front of our suspect’s front door.”

“Alright,” whispered Cash.  “I don’t want Captain Mél to know I’m here, since I’m technically not allowed on the castle grounds, so here’s the plan.  Robin, use your rainicorn-dog powers to make me an inconspicuous color.”

“I have no idea what sort of color would be inconspicuous.”

“Just, like, a dark brown or something.  Macy, you approach the front door and try to get someone to take you to Blondie; when you get there, lead him outside in whatever way you can.  Maybe swap stories about the Candy Kingdom.”

“I never told you I came from the Candy Kingdom,” Macy said slowly.

“You got adopted by a duke; the circumstances of your adoption were in literally every paper.  You do that, and I’ll sneak around back. I’m guessing embassy security won’t be the castle guards’ top priority at the moment.”

“You’re guessing?”

Cash stood still as Robin carefully darkened her shell, zhir horn flashing in concentration as zhe adjusted the color to better match the wavelengths of the ambient light.  “Detective work isn’t all about deduction, kid. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith. Now go!”

As Macy stalked up to the bickering Pen and guard captain — Mél, she supposed — she turned to whisper to Robin.  “What are they saying? You have better hearing than me.”

“Than I.”

“No one cares.”

“They’re arguing about Ambassador Blondie.  Mél says that since Blondie has a verified alibi and there isn’t enough room in the embassy to store all that pudding, they should direct the investigation’s focus elsewhere.  Your elder brother wants to divert some of the guards to conduct a thorough search.”

It was a good thing Robin explained this, too, for by the time Macy entered earshot the exchange had lost all semblance of sense; the two were merely hurling meaningless invectives at each other.

“You really need to know your place, Penhaligon,” Mél growled, reaching for her sickle.

Pen barked back, “and you need to learn how to do your job , Captain Tight—”

“Hey guys!” shouted Macy.  The two turned to lok at zhir, Pen with a look of annoyance that quickly melted into relief, Mél with her characteristic focused gaze.  Macy began to hyperventilate. The eyes, the eyes, they were looking at her, they could see right through her, they were going to—

She felt a hand on each of her shoulders at once — one from Robin behind her, the other from Pen in front.  “Hey, little sis,” said Pen, his voice all tender now. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, for now,” admitted Macy.  Her breathing didn’t slow, but it stopped speeding up.  Robin came around to her front and started whistling to distract her, conjuring some random shapes and colors.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for sending you off like that.  It was a lot of pressure to put on a little girl. I just knew you wanted to be a hero, so I figured I’d give you a chance.”

“That’s not necessary,” chided Robin.  “Macy’s already a hero.”

“How so?”

A beat.  “Hey, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

Mél cleared her throat.  “If that’s all, then I must be going; there is actual work to be done.”

Pen shook his head disapprovingly, not even looking at the guard captain.  “Don’t listen to them, Mél; they’re just bitter because they’re mad I’m right.”

Mél threw up her arms in exasperation; Macy was taken aback by the gesture, since it was the first time she had seen the guard captain without her hand on her scythe’s handle.  “Well, yeah, but— I mean no!” She covered her mouth and grimaced, but there was no recovering from a slip-up like that.

“So did you two manage to find Cash Daniels okay?” asked Pen.

“Nope,” answered Robin hastily before Macy had a chance to respond.  “We got lost or something.”

“Or something?”

“Or something.”  Robin began shifting colors faster.

“Hey, do you know whose house that is?” Macy butted in before Robin could melt into a puddle of liquid pyrotechnics.

“Don’t you remember?” said Pen, not breaking eye contact with Robin.  “Dad told you as we passed it on the way in. That’s the embassy where Old Man Blondie lives and works.”

“Blond’s not that old,” protested Mél; her disposition now, posture shrunken, voice timid, seemed almost alien compared to how she had been up to this point.

“He’s an old fart,” Pen shouted at Mél, his whole body turned halfway to face her, in a teasing cadance.  Turning back to Macy, he asked, “You want to go say hi?”

This time Macy was well aware of Pen’s ulterior motive, but it so closely aligned with her own that she couldn’t really be mad at him about it; she briefly clenched and unclenched her fist, exhaled as if the exiting breath contained her hypocrisy, and said, “Sure, big bro.”

“…fine,” muttered Mél, resting her hand back on her scythe as she reluctantly led them up to the front door of the embassy, dragging her feet the whole way.  “I just want it on record that I think this is a waste of time.”

“What, saying hi?” asked Robin, gradually reducing the frequency of zhir opulent oscillations.

“…yes,” answered Mél through gritted teeth.

Macy leaned over to whisper in Robin’s ear.  “Nice job keeping her off balance. Now she’ll never suspect what we’re actually up to.”

Robin pouted.  “It was a genuine question.”

They reached the door, a large wooden double door with a well-worn brass knocker that looked desperately in need of polishing.  Mél gingerly lifted the knocker by the image of Princess Bubblegum’s head which adorned its handle and sounded it against the door three times; no response issued forth from within.  “This is the castle guard, open up!” she demanded, knocking thrice again, much louder this time; once more there was silence, save a quiet shuffling of paper that the guard captain could only pick up through the vibrations that passed through the door and up through her fingers, a soft tingling sensation that she figured must be what it felt like to be an elephant.

So, like an elephant would, she rammed into the door with her elbow, busting it down.  If she was going to capitulate to Penhaligon’s games and investigate the ambassador, she wasn’t going to do it halfway.

Once inside, Mél took her scythe out of its sheath and held it low to the ground in both hands as she strode dexterously through the lobby of the embassy and toward a room in the back whose door was ajar.  The lobby was in disarray, tables and bookshelves scattered across the floor, with a carpet of loose papers so thick that Macy couldn’t make out the design of the actual carpet beneath it. She slipped on a pile of pink papers that at a glance seemed to be some sort of tax forms; Robin picked her up on zhir back as zhe raced past, weaving over obstacles like a snake as zhe caught up to Mél and Pen just as the latter flung open the door with the words “BLONDIE PALMERSON” engraved on a nameplate.

The scene on the other side of the door was more than enough to cause Macy to fall off Robin’s back in shock.  The office — for Macy could see it was an office from the burnished pine desk which a fancy swiveling chair on one side from a cheap folding one on the other — was in quite a bit of disarray, so to keep herself from parsing it, she examined the parts that weren’t. She noted the pictures on the wall, images of nature and of the Candy Kingdom capital, plus one of the Princess and her family that reminded Macy of the drawing that probably still hung over the door of the orphanage.  She noted the large electric light that illuminated the room, set into the ceiling, with a fluttering moth somehow trapped on the wrong side of the glass; she noted the cracked bookshelf on one side of the room, filled with history books and gossip magazines.  She noted the framed photograph of a roughly cubic, tan-colored man (Blondie, she assumed), holding hands with a pink gumdrop with a bow, a tiny cupcake in front of and between them, that sat miraculously undisturbed on far corner of the desk. She noted the window with curtains drawn; a tiny parting allowed through a ray of natural light, its inherent blue mingling with the electric yellow of the ceiling light in a mildly disconcerting manner.

In other words, she did her very best to note anything other than the dead body in the middle of the room.

Blondie lay motionless, a long white-bladed sai sticking out of his chest; brown sugar and vanilla extract soaked through his freshly-torn formal white shirt, dampening the impromptu paper carpet beneath him.  Above him, holding a matching sai in whose fulcrum lay a smooth oval lapis gem, stood a tall, thin, white-skinned figure with dark gray horns in a simple, unmolested red dress, a perverse mixture of panic and pride in her overly-toothy grin.

“Bandit Princess!” gasped Mél, her voice small.  She held up her scythe in an attempt at a threatening gesture, but her arm was trembling, so she couldn’t keep her weapon straight.  Pen stood shock still, his posture unnaturally straight, as if he believed the murderer before him wouldn’t see him if he didn’t move.  Robin backed up, curling zhirself around Macy, zhir fur standing on end, now cycling through colors so quickly that she merely looked grey.  As for Macy, her head was swimming and her vision blurring; she could not so much as acknowledge the scene before her.

Bandit Princess’s green, catlike eyes sized up the newcomers, panning across the scene searching for the next course of action, like a predator sizing up a large herd of prey to see which one it could most easily separate and devour.  Mél tightened her grip on her scythe and took a too-slow step forward; still, it was enough to give the alabaster intruder pause. Seeing this, Pen feebly reached into a satchel concealed by his toupé and withdrew a small green-tipped lance.

Bandit Princess stepped back at this, drawing the other sai from Blondie’s body and settling into a defensive stance, scattering flakes of candy viscera in the process. In that moment, Macy thought the fact that candy viscera was indistinguishable from regular candy did nothing to make it less disturbing; she would probably not be able to eat candy for quite some time.

For five agonizing seconds, nobody dared to move.  Nobody dared to blink. Nobody dared to breathe. An unspoken question hung in the air.

Bandit Princess answered it by sprinting toward the window, slicing the curtains with one sai and shattering the glass with the other before leaping through and landing with a thud on the gravel outside.  The sudden rushing in of crisp spring air, tousling Bandit Princess’s dress and Pen’s toupé, was an unwelcome pleasantry.

Mél chased after Bandit Princess, but Pen saw Macy hyperventilating and picked her up in his short yet surprisingly strong arms, to Robin’s protests.

“Come on,” he said; “let’s get you home.”  His voice was close to breaking.

Cash Daniels didn’t know what was happening when, as she was attempting to jimmy the lock to the embassy’s back door, a loud shattering of glass erupted from the side of the building.  She didn’t need to. She immediately dropped her lockpick and ran over to the scene; it came into view just as Mél was defenestrating herself. Cash saw the fleeing figure — someone she didn’t recognize — and elected to pursue.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter what possibility is more likely to be right; sometimes it’s about which guess can’t afford to be wrong. If the figure was innocent, Cash could ascertain that when she tracked them down. If they were guilty, she might not get another chance.

“Hey, what are you—” started Mél when she saw Cash, but she stopped herself pretty quickly.  Mél might be stubborn, but even she could tell there were more important things than protocol.  In this world it was chase or be chased, and the only…

Dammit, Cash was letting her mind wander.  She focused on running, and simply by doing that, her speed tripled.  She never understood how things like that happened, but she wasn’t about to complain.

Eventually, the figure reached the streets, ducking down side alleys, attempting to use their agility to their advantage.  That proved to be a mistake; what Cash lacked in dexterity, she made up for in familiarity. The streets are like wild animals.  You can’t tame them with brute force; you have to know them long enough for them to accept…

The figure disappeared over the edge of a rooftop.  Grunting, Cash climbed up after them. She was joined shortly behind by Mél, who used her scythe as a pickaxe to scale much faster than Cash, helping the detective up when she beat her to the top.

“Who is this dark damsel?” asked Cash as they picked up their pursuit of the now once-more distant figure along the roofs.

“First of all, that’s a really freaking weird way to phrase it,” said Mél.  “Why do you feel the need to talk like that?”

“Your reservations are noted.”

“Second, that’s Bandit Princess.”

“That means nothing to me.”

“She’s a bandit who is also a princess.”

“Okay, yeah, that explains it.”

Once again they began to close the lead.  Bandit Princess, intent on not falling, hadn’t turned back to see them approach yet, but she would soon.  “I’ve got a plan,” said Cash.

“Oh, no, I’m not going to follow your lead, civilian.”

“Okay, you need to get a grip.”  Cash forced Mél’s scythe-hand down without breaking stride, forcing her to pay attention.  “This isn’t about rules and regulations. This is about justice. Justice doesn’t come from the chain of command or from following protocol, it comes from the people who sacrifice everything to make it happen, whether or not they wear a fancy uniform while doing so.”

“You mean like yourself?” asked Mél incredulously.

Cash thought about that for a moment.  “No,” she decided. “Not like myself.” After all, she had no intention of telling anyone about the Eye of Perseus.  Maybe it was that she found it hard to get mad about a crime with no victim, but still, her cause couldn’t be justice if she only cared about those injustices that made her mad.  “I’m thinking more like… like the new Marquess, Macy.”

The answer surprised Mél as much as it had surprised Cash the moment before she gave it.  “So are you saying I should let a twleve-year-old fight crime?”

“No, I shouldn’t.  I mean, you shouldn’t.  I mean, do you want to do my plan or do you have a better one?”

A beat.  “I’ll hear it out.”

“No time.  Hey!” she shouted, getting Bandit Princess’s attention.  She noticed how close the two had gotten and glanced around for the best way to put some more distance between them.

An idea popped into Cash head; she veered sharply to the left, making Bandit Princess’s decision for her.  Mél followed her lead, catching on pretty quickly to the general gist of Cash’s plan if not the specifics. Cash put her hand on a smooth round chimney exhaust, using it as a fulcrum to change her direction and slinshot herself straight toward Bandit Princess.  As she ran, she took out another pixie stick and tried to light it, but the soot from her hand extinguished the budding flame once, twice, thrice; sighing, she tore the stick open, poured the contents into her mouth, let the empty wrapper flutter away in the wind, and kept running.

Mél overtook her and threw the wrapper right into her eye.  “Don’t litter.” She started wiping soot off her scythe with the inside of her uniform pocket.  “Can you tell me why we’re leading Bandit Princess toward the commercial district?”

“No, since she might overhear us.  Right!” she shouted. Mél tok a second before leaping to the right; apparently she didn’t realize that was a direction.  Bandit Princess saw the pair of them approaching again and darted to the left.

After a few more zigs and zags, they managed to force Bandit Princess to abandon the roofs and take to the streets once more.  They chased her down a side alley until they came to a dead end; realizing that if she tried to climb Mél would be able to beat her to the top, Bandit Princess elected to instead press her back against the far wall, her sais held at angles in front of her, her stance low and wide.

“Surrender yourself in the name of nut justice!” demanded Mél, advancing slowly, her scythe outstretched.  “You are under arrest on suspicion of murder, fleeing the scene of a murder, high conspiracy, and grand theft pudding.  You will be given a fair trial per the regulations of the Constables Jugland, the Duchy of Nuts, the Candy Kingdom, and the Great Court of Ooo.  If you res—”

With a blindingly-quick swipe, Bandit Princess knocked the scythe out of the approaching guard captain’s hand; there was an ear-piercing scrape of hardened ceramic on metal, and then the scythe embedded itself firmly into one of the side walls of the alley.  Mél, enraged, went in for a punch, but Bandit Princess easily ducked the blow, causing Mél’s fist to loudly impact the wall behind her. Mél was paralyzed by the sudden jolt of pain; Bandit Princess grappled her by the arm, whirling her around, and put one of her sais right under the guard captain’s mouth.  Cash leapt forward to assist, but Bandit Princess glared at her with murderous intent. The detective backed down almost instantly as her heart and brain throbbed in a discordant harmony of panic.

“Don’t you idiots know better than to corner a beast?” cackled Bandit Princess.  “I’ve basically won already!” She started advancing, carrying Mél with her; Cash backed up, not wanting to do anything that might set Bandit Princess off.

Or, more accurately, not wanting to do anything that might set Bandit Princess off or cause her to look back and up at the alley dead end punctuated by the west wing of the Bramblebush Hotel.

With the swift silence of a valet who knew how not to be intrusive, which was the same swift silence as that of a skilled assassin, Izak leapt from the roof, knocking Bandit Princess out cold with a single swift gravity-assisted chop.

“I apologize if this ruffian was giving you trouble,” intoned Izak in that unemotional tinny monotone.  “I would hate if any harm befell such upstanding agents of justice.” Despite his flowery words, he made no move to help the guard captain out from under her limp attacker.

“No trouble at all,” replied Cash, making a quick lip-zipping gesture that she hoped Mél wouldn’t notice.  Izak registered her meaning; his help here was the price of her silence.

“Well, thanks for the assist,” grunted Mél, cuffing the unconscious Bandit Princess’s hands behind her back and picking her up bridal-style.  “We’ll — oof — be on our way, then.”

“Until next time, then,” and then Izak bounded up the walls with supernatural ease, disappearing through an open window and slamming it shut behind him.  Cash knew she danced with darkness for the sake of light, but some darkness had a flair she could respect.

When Macy returned to reality, she was lying down on her bed.  Robin was looking over her, crystal eyes wide with worry; Pen was gazing out the window thoughtfully, looking out at the Valley of Moths below; the Duke of Nuts was tidying up the room, attempting to unfurl the remains of the clothing knot.

“What happened?” she asked blearily, trying to piece together how much of what she remembered was real and how much was some horrible nightmare.

“You’re awake!” exclaimed Robin, hugging her.  “I was so worried about you when I couldn’t feel you dreaming.”

“I didn’t dream?”  She rubbed her eyes.  “Then that was real?”

“Yes,” said Pen, not turning away from the window.  His voice was hoarse. “I’m sorry.”

The duke didn’t say a word as he ran to the bed and caressed his newest daughter.  He sobbed, and he smelled salty, like he’d been sobbing for a while. Macy leaned closer to him, and it was like the tension in her slowly started pouring out, releasing its grip on her just enough that she no longer felt like she was drowning.

“Well,” said Macy, chuckling nervously, “all told that was pretty fun until it wasn’t.”

“I never should have given you such a dangerous task,” said the duke.  “I didn’t expect you to see something like that. I was just so worried about the pudding I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I knew you wanted to be a hero, so—”

“Don’t,” called Pen, turning from the window; his toupé was lopsided, and his cheeks were stained with running eyeshadow.  “It’s my fault. I’m the one who asked her to find the detective. I just wanted to get under Captain Amélie’s skin, and I dragged you into this.”

“You’re damn right you did,” growled Robin, startling Macy; the unicorn-dog got up from zhir hug and stomping across the bed to glare at the Marquess.  “You should have known better! I don’t know what’s going on in this castle, but it got my friend hurt emotionally, so I—”

“It’s okay,” interrupted Macy.  A beat. “Well, it’s not okay per se, but I think this needed to happen.”

“What do you mean?” asked the duke, scooting a half-foot away from Macy so he could turn and look her in the eyes.

“I still want to be a hero, maybe now more than ever.  I was always going to have to confront… to confront death.  Better to get that out of the way now, when I have you guys to look out for me.”  She looked at her trembling hand, and then behind her at the desk by the window where the purple two-dollar coin rested.  “Plus, it helped me understand what it meant to be a hero, in a way. I think it has to be about preventing pain and loss for it to mean anything.  And I can’t try to prevent those things if I don’t experience them firsthand.”

“Even so, I wish you didn’t have to experience them so harshly.  I promise I won’t let anything like this happen again.” And then he hugged her tight.

“I love you, Dad,” she whispered.

“I love you too, my daughter.”

After a few solid minutes of hugging and crying, Macy went into the bathroom to wash the tears from her eyes; Robin took the opportunity to ask about something zhe hadn’t wanted to discuss with zhir friend in the room.  “So what’s the deal with Bandit Princess?”

“She’s a wanted criminal notorious throughout the land of Ooo,” said the duke.  “She’s been in a thorn in everyone’s side since before the War that Never Was. She’s the nominal ruler of the City of Thieves, but she spends most of her time, well, doing banditry.”

“According to documents recovered from the embassy,” continued Pen, “she was hired by the late Blondie Palmerson to steal the royal pudding supply as part of a plan that, from what we can tell , wasn’t ordered by Princess Bubblegum.”  He said “from what we can tell” as if he had wanted to leave that part out.  “The idea was for Blondie to ‘find’ the pudding, leveraging the resulting gratitude to get higher access levels to the castle’s internal affairs.  I guess Bandit Princess had other plans for the pudding, and when Blondie threatened to get in her way…” He sighed, and his voice broke again.

“Were you and him close?” asked Robin.

“Oh, not at all.  It’s no secret he didn’t really like any of us; why he was chosen as the ambassador is a mystery.  It’s hard to like someone who doesn’t like you. But I still didn’t want him to die.” The duke nodded in agreement.

Macy came back into the room at that moment, her face freshly washed.  “I think I’ll be okay now,” she said, “relatively speaking.”

“Well, relatively speaking, it’s pretty stuffy in here,” said Pen.  He threw open the window behind him; the incoming spring breeze, carrying with it the smell of blooming flowers and a faint crispness of mountain frost, was a welcome pleasantry.

Macy inhaled deeply, letting herself get lost in the moment.  As she exhaled, an image flashed through her head, clearer than any memory:  She was standing atop a mountain, surrounded by frost and flowers, wearing a thick woolen coat, scanning the mountainside with a pair of sleek pink binoculars.  She spotted someone buried under a snowdrift; Robin, who had been buried under a mount of snow, transformed into a sled, and the two raced down to save them. She could feel the slicing of the icy wind across her face more tangibly than the breeze that was really passing through her bedroom.  When they reached the victim, however, it was Blondie, and it was too late.

Robin shook Macy out of it.  “Come on, Macy, don’t get lost in your own head!”

“Alright,” Macy said, and the four of them headed out to get ready for Macy’s first dinner at Castle Jugland.  Still, Macy kept thinking about that vision, and not just because the image of Brownie was something she wouldn’t soon forget.  The other reason, and the one she was too embarrassed to tell anyone, was because that had been the first vision of herself as a hero she’d ever had which didn’t include Finn.

Captain of the Guard Amélie Faucher sat across from a restrained Bandit Princess in the dingy, dark interrogation room of Castle Jugland.  She took another swig from her bottle of stale water; it tasted like metal. Bandit Princess put on a coquettish demeanor, or the best approximation one can make of a coquettish demeanor when tied arm, leg, and waist to a cheap folding chair; she’d been making various asinine faces throughout the entire interrogation, and it was beginning to get on Mél’s nerves.

“I’ll ask you one more time, criminal,” demanded Mél, desperately trying not to shout, since she would probably lose her voice entirely if she did.  She’d asked everything many times, of course — how much she knew about the plan, where the pudding was stashed, how she managed to get in and out of the palace undetected, why she killed Blondie — but to no avail.  It was like the murderer didn’t even understand that she was captured, or perhaps more frustratingly, like she didn’t care. “Why did you steal the pudding?”

Bandit Princess fixed Mél with disconcerting glare; a slow smile spread across her face, like everything that had happened in the interrogation room — everything that she had ever done — was all part of some unfathomable game she had just realized she was going to win.  “Isn’t it obvious?” she asked, fluttering her eyelids. “To steal.”

Chapter Text

Macadamia the Nut had no idea how long she had been running through the forest.  Days? Weeks? Decades? It hardly mattered; out here, time had no inherent meaning until you were out of it.  The dank fungal smell of decay told her something nearby had run out of time recently. Good; if she didn’t need to hunt, she could wait a while longer before fletching more arrows.  She smeared some mossy mud on her face to hide her scent and fingered the two-dollar coin she carried with her — her final token of civilization, after she had abandoned even her clothes for pelt rags — for good luck.  Slowly, she crept toward the clearing whence she smelled death; she was cautious to keep her feet on the roots of the thick-trunked trees surrounding her rather than let them audibly splash into the mud.

As she advanced forward, the vines before her began to grow denser and more knotted, until they became like long black hair choking her.  She took out an obsidian knife she used for sharpening arrows and began hacking away; as she did so, it only grew longer and longer, until it became impossible to move normally.  She was now swimming through the hair, stranded deep in outer space; she could see Ooo in front of her, with its unmistakable missing chunk.

She swam away from Ooo, toward the moon.  As she landed on the moon, she removed her space suit’s helmet and approached the tall-headed green man before her.  “Hello, King of Mars,” she said as the grey dust around her turned red in the light of the rising sun.

“Hello, Princess Cookie,” responded the King of Mars in a gregarious monotone.  “It’s time for the celebration. Don’t keep Finn waiting!”

He guided her to a large arena, within which she could hear the sounds of fighting.  Two banana guards stood by a giant iron door; they began opening it as soon as she and the King approached.  The tunnel inside was too dark to see. She looked the King in the eyes, nodded, and stepped inside.

When she emerged on the other side, she was in a jungle clearing.  She could finally see the dead body she had smelled earlier; it was Blondie, and Bandit Princess was standing over her, holding those two horrible sais, cackling madly.  The grass around Bandit Princess was turning brown before Macy’s eyes. Furious, Macy nocked an arrow, aimed it straight between Bandit Princess’s eyes, and fired.

Then she was jolted awake by a piercing headache.

She looked out the window.  It was an east-facing window, and she could see the faintest hints of the oncoming sunrise just peeking through from behind the peaks of the Sienna Ridge, the mountain range that made up the backbone of the Duchy of Nuts.  In front of that was the Valley of Moths, a forested area that Macy had passed through on her journey here from the Candy Kingdom. She hadn’t seen any moths, but it was possible they simply came out at night; she’d have to ask someone about that.  Castle Jugland sat right on the edge of the plateau on which the city of the same name was built, and Macy’s room was on the side of the castle which overlooked the cliff, so as she glanced down, she saw the sheer face of it and vertigo overcame her; she was made to sit down at the desk facing the window, wiping sweat from her brow.

Then there was a knocking sound, followed by a pair of green hands parting the window from the other side before the black-jowled, white-horned rainicorn-dog head attached to them popped up behind the window.  The newcomer gripped the edge of the windowsill with zhir front paws and then shrank her body so that her back half tumbled forward into the bedroom; she rolled forward three times before falling down on her side, panting.

“Hey, Robin,” said Macy, shutting the window behind her best friend, cutting off the biting chill of the early morning draft.  “What are you doing here?”

“I saw that you were moving around, so I was worried you were having bad dreams after what happened yesterday.”

“I think I did.”

“What happened?”

“I… I don’t remember.  I think there was a forest?  It’s all pretty hazy.”

“Well if you can’t remember then it must not have been that bad.”  Robin put zhir arm around Macy’s shoulder and started humming. “La-da-dee, la-da-daaa~.”

Macy shrugged off Robin’s arm and picked up a periwinkle envelope on her desk.  “Not now, Robin. It’s too early for music.”

“Are you ever gonna open that letter?”

She traced the signature on the front.  “To Macadamia,” in Masse’s expressive handwriting.  “Maybe once I feel like my life is less frenetic.”

“You know, a responsible friend would tell you that if you keep putting it off, you’ll never do it.”

“So you’re saying I should stop putting it off.”

“No, because I’m not responsible.”

Macy put the letter down.  “Well in that case, since I’m already up, I may as well get dressed up.  Today will be my first full day in Castle Jugland, as well as the first time I’ll really get to know a lot of my new family members since yesterday was so hectic.”

“You can say that again!”

“You’re right, I can.”  She opened her closet and pulled out a white collared shirt with a small chest pocket.  “You think this’ll do?”

“You’re asking the wrong rainicorn-dog.”

Macy slipped on the shirt, slid a purple two-dollar coin from the desk into her pocket, and headed toward the door.  “Okay, I’m ready.”

“No you’re not, young lady.  Brush your teeth!”

“I can do that before breakfast, it’s fine.”

“If you don’t do it now you’ll forget.  Now get brushing!”

Macy lumbered over to the other door in her room, the one that led to her private bathroom.  “Yeah, you’re so irresponsible,” she muttered under her breath.

“Hey I heard that!  You should be thankful; if it weren’t for me, you’d need to go dentist in less than a month!”  Robin stared into the middle distance, zhir voice dropping to a hushed warble. “I can’t send anyone else to dentist.”

Since it was still early morning, and breakfast would not be served while the majority of the castle’s residents were asleep, Macy needed some way to pass the time until then; having nothing else to do which would not require more brainpower than she was willing to exert at this hour, she took a stroll through the castle garden, leaving Robin behind to mutter incoherently about dentists.

The garden was a relatively small, tidy affair, with mauve coyote mint, golden sage, and verdant lamb’s-ear lining the paths.  A copse of juniper trees surrounded a birdbath in the middle, where Macy’s new father, the Duke of Nuts, sat on a bench tossing seeds to the mountain jays — strange-looking birds, pewter on top and cobalt on bottom, looking all dressed up and ready to rock.  Their song was like a private melody, all rhythm and hushed tones, almost hidden by the rustle of leaves and the copper wind-chimes decorating the boundary of the garden; still, it was all the more powerful in how understated it allowed itself to be, as if the jays were sure their tune was catchy enough that it didn’t need to be loud to be remembered.  Macy found herself snapping along.

“Hey Dad,” she said as she got right behind him; he was so startled he fell off the bench, startling the jays into the trees and birdhouse.  One ornery corvid shook its wing indignantly at the clumsy duke.

“O-oh!”  The Duke put his ridiculous purple hat back on his head and sat back down on the bench, patting the open seat next to him.  “Hello, Macy.”

Macy leapt up to grab the back of the bench, barely missing it as she swung her arm in a wild grasping arc.  She tried again, this time tinging her wrist on the back ridge. Hissing, she walked around to the front of the bench, but before she could get in front of it she decided to instead vault the side railing; she hit her knee and clonked her head against the duke’s arm.

“Are you okay?” winced the duke, oblivious to his own injury as he helped Macy sit up.

“Yeah,” Macy assured him, righting herself and dangling her legs rhythmically as if to demonstrate.  “My shell’s so hard and thick that not much can hurt me.”

“That makes sense.  You macadamias are a tough genus.”  He furrowed his brow, as if there were something else he wanted to add but wasn’t sure if this was the time to bring it up.

“What about you?”

The duke rubbed his elbow.  “Oh, my arm’s fine. I’ve suffered worse.”

That wasn’t what Macy had meant, but she doubted the real answer she got would be any different.

Just then Macy heard a huffing and puffing, accompanied by plodding footsteps on the gravel garden path, before a courier shouted, “Mail for the Duke!”

“Oh!” exclaimed the duke, standing up, spinning around, and putting a finger to his lips.  “Please do be considerate; many people are still sleeping!”

“Sorry, sir,” rasped the courier, handing an envelope to the duke, who took it and hastily opened it.  “Urgent communique from the Candy Kingdom. Er, the capital, that is.”

The duke read the letter quickly, then slid it under his hat and shook the courier’s hand.  “Thank you very much, Reginut.”

As the courier jogged back into the castle proper, Macy turned to the duke.  “What does it say, Dad?”

He rubbed his arm again, slowly this time, a look of confusion on his face.  “Blondie’s replacement is arriving today. Much sooner than expected. I didn’t expect them to even read my communique about the incident until morning at the very soonest.”

They looked into each others’ eyes and said, simultaneously, “Speaking of the incident, how are you holding up?”  They burst out laughing, half genuine and half nervous; the duke had to hold onto his hat to keep it from sliding off his head, and Macy rolled onto the ground and dinged her arm against the bench seat.


The first time Macy had seen the dining hall of Castle Jugland, she had been awestruck.  The curves of the room, imitating the shape of some enormous onion, seemed to magnify its size, modest by castle standards but nonetheless impressive from an orphan’s eyes; natural light streamed down from a small skylight at the top, complementing the artificial lights on the sides.  The faint smells of a thousand foods were baked into the walls, a discordant but tantalizing background to the distinct aroma of spiced ham that had emanated from the kitchen at the time. The table’s surface was rough-hewn in that self-aware manner whereby its imperfection made it seem even more perfect; the grainy surface had given Robin chromatic shivers when zhe ran zhir paw across it.

The second time, when she and the duke finally arrived for a breakfast of pungent cinnamon-raisin oatmeal, it already seemed normal.

“Glad you could join us,” croaked a wrinkly nut sitting at the head of the table, pointing an accusing hickory cane at the duke.  “Took you so long I though you were having breakfast with the birds!”

“I’m so sorry, my lovely wife!” exclaimed the Duke as he ran over to her, kissed her tenderly, and sat down next to her.  “I was just — um — in the garden with our newest daughter.”

“Hey,” said Macy feebly.  The duchess just glared at her.  Macy hadn’t worked up the courage to call her mom, or anything really.  She hadn’t seemed to agree with her husband about his ‘responsibility to the citizens’ for some reason, saying “[t]hat’s what orphanages [were] for, after all”.  Macy didn’t buy that, but then again Macy was biased.

“So you’re Mace, huh?”  The voice came from a teenage peanut at the other end of the table; she had a toupée like Pen’s but with purple highlights, and a hot pink jacket was made to fit her body through the creative use of a belt in between her lobes.

“Um, it’s Macy, actually.”

The teen turned her head ever so slightly, fixing Macy with a judgemental stare.  “…nah, I’m sticking with Mace. You don’t look like enough of a dweeb to be a Macy!”


“It was a compliment, you dweeb.”  She pulled out a prehistoric graphing calculator and began fiddling with it.

“Archie!” scolded the duke.  “Be polite!” But Archie was totally zoned out on a TI-85 Breakout clone called “Orzunoid”.  If she were shown Breakout, a game which hadn’t survived past the twenty-first century, Archie would probably say that it was an Orzunoid clone.  She would then call its creator and players total dweebs for ripping off an inimitable classic. Little did she know it was she who was the dweeb.

“It’s no use, pa,” said another walnut at the table, shorter than the duke, with a goatee sloppily taped to his chin, shrugging in an ostentatious exaggeration of lamentation and speaking with an out-of-place brogue.  “The numbers ‘ave got to ‘er.”

Macy pulled out a seat across from the man who had just finished talking.  “You’re a weird one, Chesterfield.” She had only met him once before — yesterday morning, when she had first arrived at the caste — and already the image of his garish yellow tracksuit was burned into her retinas.

“Och, please, lassie, call me Galé,” he insisted, clutching his chest as if her use of his full name had been a personal insult to the strength of their nonexistent friendship.  “All me friends do, an’ if you’re me family, you’re me friend.” He held out a hand, adorned with a yellow fingerless glove, for her to shake; she reluctantly did, worried that his accent might be contagious.

“Say, Macy,” asked Pen after the group gave a short blessing to Glob for the feast before them, “where’s your friend?”

“Zhe probably won’t be joining us.  Zhe’d get too nervous meeting so many people at once, so zhe’ll probably just introduce herself to you all one at a time.”

“Fair enough.”  He scooped some oatmeal from a central serving platter into the bowl in front of him.  “I got the feeling zhe didn’t much like me, anyway.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what was up with that,” Macy said as she poured herself a glass of orange juice.  The cold of the glass jug on her palms numbed the lingering soreness from her earlier blunders in the garden.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” mumbled the final member of the party, a quiet figure dressed in body-concealing white robes; they had been so quiet that Macy hadn’t realized they were there, and when they spoke up, she let the juice jug slip out of her hand, landing safely on the table and slapping her wrist with its handle.

“Zhe was under a large amount of stress,” continued the white-cloaked person in a slow, croaking tone.  “Zhe had just experienced a traumatic event and desired a convenient external target on which to pin the blame.”

“Insightful as always, Cousin Vesper.”  Pen rolled his eyes. “This isn’t the time for your psycho-babblery.”

“Yeah, but it kind of is, isn’t it?” Archie interjected without looking up from her calculator.  Even without being familiar with Orzunoid, Macy knew to be impressed by the teen’s ability to play with one hand while eating milk-drenched oatmeal with the other.  “I mean, after last night.”

“I weren’t trying ta think aboot that, Archie,” said Galé.  “Och, I’m still trying ta process it.”

“I say good riddance to bad people!” exclaimed the duchess, shaking her fist.  “He was a dillweed who made off with our pudding. If Bandit Princess hadn’t killed him, I’d have put him in the nutcracker myself!  Macy, pass the apple slices.”

She did so.  “I, uh, I’d rather not talk about this.”  She leaned over to Archie and whispered, “Do you guys actually have—”

“—nah,” Archie whispered back.  “Well, I mean, we still have the thing itself, we just haven’t used it since before Galé was born.  Nowadays we just use it for cool selfies.” A beat. “Well, I do, anyway.”

“Oh, that reminds me!” exclaimed the duke, slamming his hands on the table.  He began to recapitulate the letter he had received as Macy ate her oatmeal. Out of nowhere, Macy realized that recap was short for recapitulate; it bothered her that she hadn’t made the connection before.

“How soon is this new ambassador supposed to arrive exactly?” asked Pen.  “There’s still a lot of work to be done before they get here; we need to organize a welcoming committee, draft the transfer paperwork, move out all of Blondie’s personal—”  He choked on his words, then made a grasping gesture as though he could pluck the words out of the air and force them back down his throat. “—there’s a lot we need to do, and a day isn’t enough time.”

The duke waved his hand, giving his son the ghost of a pat from across the room.  “Don’t worry, we don’t need to do all that in a single day.” Then, quieter, hunched over his bowl of oatmeal piled high with cinnamon:  “We need to do it in half an hour.”

Pen spat out his juice.  The duchess harrumphed. Galé dramatically swooned out of his chair.  Archie kept playing with her calculator. Macy, who had been fiddling with her oatmeal, dropped her spoon handle-first into her bowl.  She was sure that if everyone hadn’t been staring at Pen, they’d be staring at her instead. She felt embarrassed for that hypothetical version of herself; that nonexistent Macy probably felt like she couldn’t do anything right, even eat breakfast.  Then, if for no other reason than to preempt the imaginative fugue, she got an idea.

“I can be the welcoming committee,” she volunteered.  “Me and Robin. While you guys take care of all that adult stuff.”

“Do you even know enough about the castle to do that?” asked Pen, eyebrow raised.

“I will assist,” replied Vesper, startling Macy once more; she had already forgotten they were there.  She nearly knocked over her orange juice, but Archie caught it on the broad side her spoon and nudged it back up right without taking her eyes off the pixelated screen.

“It is good that she participates in the management of the castle,” they continued, their tone at once mysterious and matter-of-fact, their white cloak billowing from hand gestures it served to obscure.  “If she is to forge her destiny, she must become the bridge between Jugland and Bubblegum.”

Macy looked at her father for help; he shrugged, a bemused grimace on his face.  Apparently this was normal.

“Don’t take it personally,” said Archie, dropping her calculator loudly onto the table.  “Vesper’s just a weirdo.”

“I am a scholar ,” insisted Vesper.  “A student of arcane divinity, who peers through the veil of time to gaze upon fortune itself with my mind’s eye.”

Archie jabbed her spoon at Vesper, flicking a tiny bit of oatmeal onto their cloak.  “Hey Vess, what’s three plus four?”

Vesper dramatically took a step backward, clutching the bottom of their cloak and bringing it up over their face like a veil.  “Doom!” they bellowed in a low, extended vibrato. Their eyes scanned the startled expressions on the others; then they looked at each of them, numbering them off as they went around the table from the duchess to Macy.

“One, two, three, four, five, six…  doom! ”  And in a panic they clamored up the side of the wall onto the truss supporting the stem of the onion that was the dining hall, opened up the skylight above, and fled out of sight.

Macy stared upward in utter bewilderment for the better part of a minute before breaking the awkward silence that had fallen over the room.  “Did they not notice how many people were at the table until now?”

Galé shook his head slowly, an amused smirk on his face.  “No, they did not.”

“Seven is considered an unlucky number in Breakfastian numerology,” the duke said by way of explanation.  “Vesper has been interested in occult studies since they were a small child; they’ve accumulated a large amount of knowledge from disparate worldviews, and it seems like they harbor the superstitions of all of them put together.  Just last week they refused to be in the same room as anything pink.”

Macy swallowed her latest mouthful of oatmeal; the aftertaste of cinnamon made her tongue feel like it was on fire, but in a good way.  “And that’s the person who’s going to help me welcome our new ambassador?”

Pen winked.  “Good luck!”

After finishing breakfast, collecting Robin, and heading to the castle courtyard, Macy only needed to wait five seconds before Vesper appeared, their white cloak seeming to materialize out of the shadows of the great gate that separated the castle from the city.  They said nothing, either because they were mysterious, or because they didn’t want to interrupt whatever Robin was saying.

“—not really my scene,” zhe finished, curling zhir body around so zhe could scratch zhir ear with zhir hind paw.  “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for medical professionals, but I don’t think I could put in the effort required to be one.”

“I know what you mean,” said Macy.  “I used to think I wanted to be a singer — I’d always fantasize about singing with Marceline and the #1 Babes — but I don’t think I’m passionate enough to dedicate all my time to that.  It’d be a lot of work.”

“Wait, you think being an adventurer would be less work than being a singer?”  But by Macy’s dilated pupils, Robin could tell that she was fantasizing about singing with Marceline and the #1 Babes.

“Adventurers make their own hours,” interjected Vesper.

Robin shot fifty feet in the air and right through all the colors of the rainbow.  “Glob-on-a-cob, man! Where’d you come from?”

Robin had no idea where Vesper was pointing.

“Anyway, ‘make your own hours’ is really just code for ‘work all the hours.’  My grandpa T.V. learned that the hard way when he started his own detective agency.”

“The numbers add up either way.  The only choice is how to get there.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Vesper shrugged helplessly.

Then there was a loud horn from a parapet above the gate, following by Lisby, the castle butler, shouting out over the courtyard.  “Announcing the arrival of the — achoo! — convoy from Castle Bubble— achoo ! — from Castle Bubblegum, the honorable amba— a— am BASS ’dr ! ”  He ran back into the hallway that ran through the outer wall, muttering something about having “practiced that sneeze all week.”

“Ambassador Candice Corn,” amended a voice from the other side of the gate, as if she were too righteous to bother with predicates.  Then the gate creaked open, and on the other side stood exactly the sort of person one would expect upon hearing the name “Ambassador Candice Corn”, looking at nobody in particular as if nobody in particular had yet earned the right to be looked at.  

The sheer levels of snoot seemed to snap Macy out of her reverie.  “Hello, I’m Nakadamia the Mutt, morth Jarquess Fugland,” she said, extending her hand to the imposing conical figure before her.  “On behalf of the noble family I would like to formally welcome you to Castle Fugland.” A beat. “I mean—”

Ambassador Corn put a finger to Macy’s lips.  “Quiet. Ugh, it’s just like the Duke of Nuts to send an incompetent to greet me.”

“Hey!”  Robin got right up into the ambassador’s face.  “Don’t talk to my friend that way!”

“Friend?”  She quirked an eyebrow.  “And who might you be, exactly?” she asked, sounding preemptively disinterested.

Robin opened and closed zhir mouth a few times and looked to Macy for help; Macy thought for a moment, then made a motion with her hand to let Robin know that zhe could go now.  There wasn’t much point to zhir being here anyway, Macy figured; zhe didn’t really have any official capacity in the castle. Robin headed past the ambassador and out the front gate of the castle, to do whatever it was zhe did when Macy wasn’t looking.

“If you’ll follow me,” said Macy, trying in vain to lead the ambassador by the hand, “I’ll show you to the conference room where you can review the relevant ordinances and file preliminary paperwork.”  The ambassador began following, presumably intrigued by the notion of paperwork. “Also, I figure we can swing by the residential wing of the castle since you’ll have to stay there until the embassy building gets cleaned up after yesterday’s incident.”

“You mean the incident you let happen with your lax security.”

The attack that wouldn’t have happened if the person you’re replacing hadn’t been conspiring against my dad, Macy wanted to say, but despite not yet being thirteen, she still had the self-control to bite her tongue.  The fact that she didn’t want to talk about that horrible sight regardless may have strengthened her resolve to not turn the emissary’s insolence back at her.  Instead, she settled for, “Well, not me specifically.”

“Of course not.  A little girl like you shouldn’t be tasked with any big responsibilities.”

“I guess,” replied Macy, oblivious to the insinuation.

As they walked through the castle, Macy kept pointing out anything she was already familiar with, eager to demonstrate her knowledge, and Ambassador Corn kept finding ways to criticize whatever Macy was talking about.  Occasionally Vesper would clarify something or add some context, but they never stepped in to help Macy; for the most part they seemed content to play the observer, often remaining silent for so long that when they did speak up, Macy jumped in startlement.  Corn, on the other hand, was never startled.

“You’re rather jumpy,” she noted to Macy after Vesper had given an uncharacteristically thorough description of the lengthy sequence of artistic movements which inspired the pattern on the door to the conference room.  Apparently, this particular pattern was influenced by a revitalization of a reaction to a mixture of post-post-renaissance Slime Kingdom rollerpunk and absurdist Hotdog Kingdom empathetic geometry, a blend of styles with a vast symbolic dictionary based on the expression of the inexpressible forms characterizing the irreducible self as reflected in the viewer’s perception of meaningless patterns as quanta of meaning.  The pattern in question was a square.

Macy traced the square with her finger.  Maybe Vesper was right; this square certainly seemed to be what Macy was feeling like.  “Yeah, well, we’re here.” She opened the door, on the other side of which she saw Pen and an accountant still rifling through papers; Corn stepped through, and Macy and Vesper walked away.

“You seem troubled,” observed Vesper, their tone unchanged.  “Is something on your mind?”

“Two things,” Macy confessed.  “First of all, you didn’t stick up for me at all back there.”

“I helped with the welcoming itself.  That is all I volunteered to do; emotional support isn’t my forte.  Now what was the second thing?”

You’re not even going to apologize?   “It’s more of a general question on something that’s confused me for a while about the politics of this place.”

“You mean how the Duchy of Nuts swears fealty to the Candy Kingdom instead of the Nut Kingdom?”  Vesper sounded amused; excepting their outburst at breakfast, it was the first time they sounded like anything.

“Yeah, what’s up with that?”

“Well, the thing about that is, there’s a certain context you need to have in order to understand that, which is basically that, some time ago—”  And then they ducked into a darkened hallway and disappeared from sight.

Macy stepped into the hallway briefly but was unable to see them; she could still hear them giggling in the shadows, but she couldn’t tell where it was coming from.  She had always hoped that getting adopted could mean finding more friends her age, but Vesper was basically Chipolina from the orphanage except if Chipolina were a total wad.  Groaning, she walked away, making her way to her dad’s room.

Galé was rifling furiously through his father’s cabinet when the door creaked open and his new sister stepped into the room.  “Hey, Dad, can I ask you about— What are you doing here?”

Galé spun around, slamming the cabinet door with his foot and throwing his hands in the air in an unconvincing imitation of apathy.  “I’m allowed ta be here!” he said, louder than he had intended.

“Are you looking for something?”

“No!”  He tried to elbow the cabinet shut, but since it was already shut, all he accomplished was hurting his arm.  “Och, tha’ smarts!”

“Do you know where Dad is right now?”

“He’s busy tracking down Blondie’s fam ta drop off his personal effects.  That’ll hopefully take him a good half a day. I mean probably.”

Macy paused for a moment, resting a hooked finger on her bottom lip.  “Bluh,” she said, spitting out her finger, followed by, “Hey, you can probably answer this.  Why is the Duchy of Nuts not part of the Nut Kingdom?”

Galé stroked his taped-on goatee ponderously.  “That’s a long story, me lassie. ‘Tis a tale of intrigue and of woe, winding through the tapestry o’ history.  To know that tale is to know the very spirit of this land, the push and pull o’ fortune, and the great myths tha’ are the bedrock o’ this city.”

Macy’s eyes were wide.  “Wha— what are you saying?” she asked, her voice hushed.

“I’m saying tha’ the questions yer asking are tied to the very lifeblood o’ the Duchy!  Once you know that, ye’ll be unshakably a member o’ this city.” He punctuated this with a series of sweeping, grandiose gestures, stepping forward like an orator on a great stage.  “So shall ye drink from the chalice of knowledge, accepting the burden o’ truth? Or shall ye cower in ignorance, afraid o’ wha’ unpleasantries the light will reveal?” He took a massive step forward and reached out with a gloved hand, curling his uncovered fingers as if to draw her nearer.  “The choice is yours, deirfiúr .”

She tentatively took his hand, enraptured.  Closing her eyes, she could imagine the stage clearly — it was the pavilion in center of the Candy Kingdom, just outside Bubblegum Castle.  She and Galé were performing some manner of concert for a crowd of cheering onlookers, throwing roses onstage. Princess Bubblegum wiped tears from her eyes with a pristine white handkerchief.  “Breathtaking,” she uttered, before fainting onto her wife Marceline’s lap. Princess Torte momentarily stopped her riotous applause to make sure her mom was okay.

Macy gazed out across the audience.  They loved her. They couldn’t get enough of her.  They wanted to see what she would do next. They were looking at her expectantly.  They were watching her. They didn’t blink. The applause stopped. Something was supposed to happen, and Macy was supposed to do it, but she was frozen stiff.  Vines started growing up her immobile body; they covered her face, suffocating her with the thick smell of sap. As the pressure increased and increased, through the narrowing gap in front of her eyes she saw Princess Cookie and the Duke, far in the back, looking at her encouragingly but doing nothing to save her from the crushing plants, which were becoming heavier and more barklike with every second.  And next to Princess Cookie, his back turned, his arms crossed, was Masse Yvoire.

Macy managed to summon the strength to break one arm out of her floral prison.  She tried to reach out to Masse — past the infinite distance between them — to get his attention, so she could say whatever it was she wanted to say.  She heard the calcified vines snap as they tried to reach out, scraping dry and dusty against her arm. She managed to put a hand on Masse’s shoulder; he turned around, but it was not his face that appeared.

It was the lifeless visage of Blondie Palmerson.

Macy fell down, jolting awake as she crashed to the floor.  Galé helped her up, gesturing for her to climb into the duke’s bed; she did so gratefully.  “Y’okay, me lassie? I mean, obviously not, but d’ye need anything?”

“A distraction,” she mumbled.  “Tell me the story.”

“Are you sure yer up for it in your state?  ‘Tis not for the faint o’ heart.”

Macy grabbed a pillow and placed it in front of her, then rolled around to lay on her side, facing Galé at an angle with the pillow under the top of her head.  “Can you give me the short version?”

“No.”  He cleared his throat, then gestured toward the blank wall to the middle distance, where Macy fixed her eyes.  “It all started over five hundred years ago, when the pass was first settled by an explorer from the Nut Kingdom named Archibald Jugland…”

The stone dragon soared high over Jugland, concealed by thick clouds; its rider deployed a palm-sized metal glider with a camera attached.  Even through her thick pink parka, she still felt the biting chill of mountain air. She pressed a button on her goggles to trigger their built-in wipers, then looked at a small metal tablet in her hand.  The camera’s preliminary diagnostics were chill. She tapped dragon’s head, signaling it to begin a long, spiraling descent to a cliff face on the far side of the Valley of Moths, close enough to retrieve transmission data from the camera but far enough away to not be in range of immediate retaliatory strikes.

Princess Bonnibel Bubblegum leapt off, landing in a roll, just before the dragon touched down; she bowed to a quiet round of applause from the people before her.  This small cabal currently comprised her closest confidantes in the Candy Kingdom (and its contingent coalitions). First and foremost, there was Peppermint Maid, her short-statured, long-suffering advisor and voice of reason; she took such pristine care of her uniform that even here in the dust of nascent war it seemed to glisten.  Beside her, her opposite in every way, loomed the freshly-minted Colonel Candy Corn; rather than cleanliness, his outfit’s luster came from rows upon rows of medals earned in the relatively short time since he’d been cooked up in Bonnibel’s lab. Next to him was Gumbella, one of the few surviving relatives Bonnibel hadn’t created; she’d found her wandering the wastes looking for pre-Mushroom-War technology to loot.  She wore a battle-ready dress fashioned from the rags she’d had on when Bonnibel first found her.  Holding her hand was the green-skinned Goblin General Gershwin, an ally of Bonnibel whose Goblin Kingdom uniform stood out among the Candy Kingdom citizens.

The only member of the entourage not applauding was Rattleballs, one of a line of advanced robots which had served as the Candy Kingdom’s police force for nearly a century; he looked uncomfortable in its military uniform, despite outshining even the colonel in accolades.  Ever vigilant, he kept one clawlike appendage on the handle of his holstered rapier at all times. His steel eyes scanned the horizon, zooming in on a distant mountain ridge. Other than that, he was stark still and silent.

“What’s the word, mama bird?” said Gumbella, stepping forward to greet her cousin and pointing a finger gun at her.

“The operation succeeded without a hitch,” replied Bonnibel, doffing her thick coat to reveal the very real, non-finger gun holstered on her belt.  “Pretty soon we’ll have a complete picture of Jugland’s infrastructure.”

As Bonnibel took off her goggles, Peppermint Maid grabbed them and the coat, folding them carefully into a bundle.  “Permission to speak my mind, Princess?” she asked.

“You always have permission to speak your mind.”  Bonnibel knelt down, bouncing on her toes with her hands on her knees, to look Peppermint Maid in the eyes.

She stared right into her Princess’s soul as she said, not for the first time, “I think this whole war is a terrible idea and you need to negotiate peace immediately.”

“Nonsense!” blurted Candy Corn in a deep, bassy voice that sounded more like an actor playing a soldier than an actual soldier.  “Slime Princess and her coalition have refused our most reasonable of terms. If we back down, it’ll set a precedent of rewarding bad behavior.”

“This isn’t about abstract ideals of right and wrong,” added Gershwin; he had let himself get dragged by Gumbella and now stood at a forty-five-degree angle, his free arm brushing the ankle-high snow.  “If it weren’t for the Candy Kingdom entering this war, it would have been the Slime Kingdom against us goblins. The Goblin Kingdom is mighty, and our dragons are swift and powerful, but we wouldn’t stand a chance against one of the three great kingdoms of Ooo.”

Peppermint Maid took a step backward and heaved a great sigh.  “Even so, I can’t help but feel this whole business is a bad idea.”

“Jugland has stood here for over two hundred years,” said Bonnibel, as if scolding the distant duchy.  “Its presence here, this far east, represents an implicit threat from the Nut Kingdom. The colonel’s right; if I were to let it stand in the face of war, I would be paving the way for future concessions to the Slime Kingdom Coalition.”

“Then why did you let it stand for two hundred years?” asked Gumbella, tilting her head in confusion.

Bubblegum brushed aside the question as if its answer should be obvious, taking out the tablet and showing it to Candy Corn and Gershwin.  “As you can see,” she said, gesturing to the colored dots that showed up between the green squiggles representing elevation levels in the valley, “there are factories here, here, and here, some sort of a military encampment here, and the entrance to the walnut mine is here.”

“Well then, our course of action is obvious,” pronounced Candy Corn, a wily smirk decorating his otherwise-stoic face.  “The goblins stage a strike on the factory to the south, and when the extensive units are forced to navigate across this mountain to send reinforcements, the Rattleballs division ambushes them from above.”  Bonnibel nodded in agreement.

“Won’t work,” Gershwin countered.  “The mine’s facilities are in operation, or else it wouldn’t get picked up by the scanner.  There’s no way Duchess Penrose hasn’t put the city on lockdown.”

“…which means she’s using it for something else,” finished Bubblegum, grimacing.  “Odds are they’re harboring reserve troops. Glob knows where they’re coming from.”

Candy Corn kicked the snow, revealing a patch of dried grass; a decaying smell trapped for years beneath the permafrost escaped all at once but vanished before anyone could so much as gag.  “As much as I hate to admit it, we need to do more recon. That’s more time for the enemy to build up force, and more time when our armies are dispersed, but we can’t march blindy into a trap expecting the Duchess to hand herself over on a silver platter.”

“Enemy approaching,” announced Rattleballs in a robotic monotone.  He drew his rapier and pointed with it to the ridge he had been watching.

Gumbella took out a pair of binoculars and zoomed in on the ridge.  “Looks like the Duchess is about to hand herself over on a silver platter.”

She passed the binoculars over to Bonnibel, who peered through.  Just like Gumbella had said, there was a small party consisting of the Duchess and her retinue; the standard-bearer, their emblematic sickle conspicuously hung on the front of their green uniform’s belt, waved a white flag high in the sky.  The message was clear:  “We come in peace prepared for war.”

Bonnibel lowered the binoculars, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.  “How do they even know what direction we’re in?” she asked to nobody in particular.

“I’m sorry, my princess,” said Peppermint Maid.  Bonnibel whirled around, drawing her pistol and pointing it at her trembling advisor; she stood her ground, albeit trembling.  “I had no choice. This war would have been far too costly to let it go on.”

“So you led the enemy here? ”  She spread her arms in a gesture of exasperation; the main exhaled a small sigh of relief as the pistol was finally pointed away.  “What were you thinking?

“I was thinking quite clearly, my Princess,” she insisted.  “As you can see, Duchess Penrose isn’t here for war. She’s here to offer her assistance.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Candy Corn said in a gruff staccato.  “Why would a duchess of the Nut Kingdom offer her assistance in a war against her own sovereign?  Especially when they seem to have a tactical advantage with the apparent force in the mines.”

“Hey, don’t ask me why,” said Peppermint Maid, shrugging.  “The fact remains that she’s offering to defect from the Nut Kingdom and swear fealty to you.”  She stared into Bonnibel’s eyes.  “War doesn’t need to be the only path.”

Robin sat in the Gusty Goat, shrunk to manageable proportions, downing zhir fourth shot of grape soda.  Zhe’d come here once before, just yesterday, but due to the events of that afternoon zhe and Macy hadn’t gotten the chance to come back; Robin had come here to buy Macy a ginger ale, and zhe was getting around to that, zhe swore.

“What even is my life?” zhe groaned.  “Stuff was so simple back in the Candy Kingdom.  Hardly anyone got kebabed, and there were no patronizing ambassadors making me question my place in the world.  Stupid, good-for nothing-ambassadors and their stupid, good-for-nothing perfectly legitimate questions.”

“I hear ya,” said Jeff, swallowing a mugful of foam with a splash of root beer at the bottom.  He wiped his lips on the sleeve of his cotton shirt. “Sounds like you’re having a rough go of it.”

“So you’ve been insulted by ambassadors, too?”

“No, I think they’re fine upstanding members of society who are important to the political functioning of Ooo.  I only said I hear ya.”

“Oh.”  Robin stared at the bottom of zhir shot glass.  Zhe could barely make out zhir reflection in the ripples stirred by the ambient noise of the bar.  Somehow, that reminded her of home. “You ever get the feeling that you might never find out who you’re supposed to be, and everything you think you know about yourself is just a lie you tell yourself so you can pretend like you have an identity?”


“Yeah, me neither.”  Zhe turned to face Jeff, growing zhir neck just enough to look him in the eyes; he continued to stare blankly forward.  “Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”

The karuka tugged nervously at his shirt collar.  “Oh, you know.  I’d say I’ve got a pretty normal life. I was born and raised in Jugland, but I went out-of-duchy for trade school.  Carpentry.”

“Where at?”  Robin rested zhir chin on zhir crossed paws.

“Smokey Applewood, over in the Breakfast Kingdom.  They’re not exactly the best there is, but they offered me a 75% scholarship, and my parents weren’t exactly loaded.  Still, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”

“Heh.  Trade.”

Jeff went wide-eyed with shock and started trembling.  “No, no, no, no, no, no,” he repeated.

Robin touched his shoulder, worried.  “What is—?”

“PUNS!” he exploded.  He then leapt off his chair, tripped onto the floor, got up, and ran out the door, shouting, “I’VE GOT TO GET AWAY FROM THE WORDPLAY!”

Robin noticed Helix walking over nonchalantly, wiping down a glass mug.  “What’s his problem?” zhe asked.

“His name used to be Dillon Whedon.”

“I don’t get it.”

“It sounds like dillweed.”

“I don’t get it.”

“So people called him dillweed.”


“Because his name sounds like dillweed.”


“So it’s a pun.”

Zhe thought about this for a moment.  “Okay, yeah, I’d probably hate puns too if I were in his shoes,” zhe admitted.

“It just goes to show ya,” they said, dropping the mug behind the counter with a loud shattering sound, “that you can’t judge a person too harsh for what yanks their whiskers.  More’n not there’s a reason at the heart of it.”

“Yanks their whiskers?”

Helix twirled one of their leaves at Robin.  “You know, rots their pumpkins. Pulls their teeth.  Staples their shoelaces.” A beat. “Stuff they don’t like much.”

“Did you make all of those up on the spot?”

“Only one, and I won’t tell you which.”  They winked; Robin made the slight head motion that would accompany rolling zhir eyes if zhir eyes actually had pupils.

“Hey, before I run out on you, could I get a bottle of ginger ale for the road?”

“Of course.”  Helix pulled an abacus from the top shelf and slid the knobs around at random.  “That’ll bring your total to $17.94.”

Robin reached into zhir pocket, remembered zhe wasn’t wearing any clothes, and then slithered backward out the door without changing zhir expression.

Helix set the abacus down on the bar, a frown plastered on their face.  “Frog-chasing dine and dasher,” they mumbled. “Really jingles my bells.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Duchess,” muttered the standard-bearer, a tall poppy, as she trudged ahead through the snowy path, holding the white flag aloft.  “All this snow severely jingles my bells.”

“Have some faith, Helena,” insisted Duchess Penrose, her arms folded behind her back as if she were simply taking a casual stroll.  “I would do nothing I did not believe to be in the best interest of my people.”

“With all due respect, I’m unsure if we can trust the Candy Princess.  This whole thing could be a trap.”

“I don’t think that would be in her genre.”

“Think,” echoed Helena.  “For the sake of all of us, let us hope you had your thinking boots on when you decided that.”

“It’s too late either way.”  Penrose unclasped her hands in order to gesture with one of them toward the grey tent that sat on the other side of the ridge they were cresting, outside of which six figures sat by a campfire while a sleeping grey dragon half-encircled them on the other side.  “Our fate is upon us.”

Helena came to a stop, awaiting some signal from the Candy Kingdom cadre; there was an awful stretch as they discussed amongst themselves, the howling, bitter mountain wints covering up any traces of their conversation that could reach the approaching envoy, before a pink figure in purple with a gold tiara gestured them forward.  Bonnibel Bubblegum, it had to be. Cautiously, Helena advanced forward, handing a flag to a guard beside her and gesturing for the remainder of the retinue to take position at the top of the ridge as she led Penrose into the ad hoc encampment.

“Welcome, honored guests!” proclaimed Bonnibel, spreading her arms in what would be an inviting gesture if it weren’t so clearly choreographed to show off the multicolored pistol at her hip.  It looked like a toy, but knowing her reputation, it was likely more dangerous than the top-of-the-line robot with a metal claw on his rapier handle.

“Princess,” said Helena, her voice cooler than the ever-wintry air.  “I assume you have a hidden battalion poised to capture us the moment anything goes slightly wrong.”

She immediately dropped the façade of friendliness.  “And you as well.”

“There will be no need for that,” laughed Penrose, putting a hand on Helena’s shoulder as she stepped past; the guard captain stepped aside cautiously, her eyes darting between Rattleballs and Candy Corn, the former now resting a palm on the hilt of their cutlass as if emulating the latter, as she tried to decide who seemed the most impatient.  “You already know why we’re here.”

Bonnibel shot Peppermint Maid a poison glare before facing Penrose once more, all smiles again.  “Yes, and I’m ever so happy to hear it. Come, let us discuss terms.” She gestured for them to follow her back to the tent.

Penrose moved to follow, but Helena stuck out her leg and tripped her; the Duchess faceplanted unceremoniously into the snow.  “No, no, no,” said Helena, wagging her finger sternly like a mother lecturing a child doing something dangerous. “We discuss out in the open.  No walls, no tents.”

Bonnibel wheeled around, looking like she was about to shout something, but before she could get a word out, someone who Helena thought looked like a stockier, shorter-haired version of Bonnibel stepped in, halting the Princess’s movement.  “Understandable,” Gumbella said conciliatorially. She rummaged through a teal fanny pack. “Hold on, I think I have some instant furniture in here. Just add water!”

Grinning, she tossed three magenta spheres into the snow between Bonnibel and the now-half-standing Penrose; after a few seconds, two chairs and a table burst up from where the spheres, scattering dry snow everywhere.  Rattleballs flinched; whether because of the snow’s proximity to his circuitry or his briefly mistaking it for an attack, only he could say.

“Peppermint Maid,” commanded Bonnibel gravely as she pulled out the chair in front of her, sat down, and scooted in.  “Cocoa me.”

“I would like some cocoa as well, if it isn’t too much trouble,” added Penrose timidly as Helena helped her up and into her own chair.

“I’ll go put on a pot,” exclaimed the maid, clapping her hands.  “Gershwin, do you have any more of that cinnamon you used to flavor the canned rations the other night?”

As the goblin and the starlight peppermint headed over to the fire to set up the cocoa, Candy Corn placed some papers on the table.  “These are the terms that we find agreeable,” he said curtly. “Consider them carefully.”

Penrose picked up the papers and inspected them, mumbling to herself as she read.  She held up a hand next to the side of her head, and Helena placed a pen in it; Penrose immediately began crossing out and scribbling.  Wordlessly, she slid the stack, heavy with the pungent scent of drying ink, over to Bonnibel. The Princess read it slowly, growing more and more agitated, pulling out chunks of her bubblegum hair and chewing them, before spitting the whole wad out onto the snow when she reached the end.

“This is ridiculous!” she exclaimed, knocking her chair over and tossing the papers high into the air as she stood up.  She pointed at Penrose. “ You’re ridiculous!  You want all the benefits of being a protectorate state without any of the downsides!”

Penrose shrugged.  “Here in Jugland, we call that ‘opening strong’.  I guess you do things differently over in the Candy Kingdom.”

Without warning, Rattleballs leapt forward; Helena threw herself in front of her duchess, closing her eyes and bracing for the cold sting of metal.  But none came. Cautiously, she opened first one eye, then the other, to see that Rattleballs had quickly skewered every piece of the treaty-in-progress — in order, no less — and deposited them neatly in the middle of the table, only a pinprick hole in their exact center to show for it.  He now stood right at the side of the table, directly in front of Helena, his rapier pointed skyward.

Nervously, Penrose reached out for the papers again.  “I… I can walk back some of these demands, then,” she stuttered.  Helena realized Rattleballs’ stunt had been more than just a means to salvage the replaceable paper on which the treaty draft was written.  It was a power move, and it had worked. Absently, she wondered if the whole incident had been staged. Had even Penrose’s deliberately-preposterous initial demands been factored in as a critical part of Bonnibel’s ploy?  It hardly mattered now.

The two leaders discussed the minutiae of annexation, jurisdiction, and inherited treaties for several hours and several dozen cups of cocoa.  As they discussed, Gumbella brought out more chairs and invited Helena to sit with her and Gershwin; after a bit of hesitation, she accepted, if only to pass the time, although she made sure to choose a chair that both was near the discussion table and had a full view of it.  Eventually, Peppermint Maid and even Candy Corn joined them, although the colonel never directly addressed Helena.

Well after the sun had dipped behind the peak of the Sienna Ridge to the west — what mountain folk referred to as a “coward’s sunset” — Bonnibel called the others over to the table.  “We’ve reached an agreement,” she announced excitedly. “Jugland has officially declared their allegiance to the Candy Kingdom.”

Helena strode toward Penrose.  “Does that mean—”

“That’s right!” exclaimed the Duchess, grasping the guard captain’s hands in her own.  “We can finally go to bed!”

“Wow,” exhaled Macy, who had over the course of listening to Galé’s thorough description of Jugland’s history, had managed to knock three pillows, two blankets, four stuffed animals, a fitted sheet, a wind-up alarm clock, and an ornery jay hellbent on revenge off her father’s bed and onto the floor.  “That was exhilarating.”

“Thank you kindly,” said Galé, bowing.  “I pride meself on me showmanship an’ me ability ta make anything interesting.”

“I mostly meant the part about the treaty,” Macy clarified.  “The rest was forgettable and unnecessary.”

“Aw.”  He looked dejected.

“It was still a good story for the parts that weren’t boring!”  She got out of bed and hugged him, and when he hugged back, he started to sniffle, just a little.

Then she tried to step out of the hug and ended up slipping on a fitted sheet.

As he helped her back up, she collected her thoughts.  “There’s still one thing that bothers me about that story.”

“What is it?”

“It didn’t actually answer my original question.  Why did Duchess Penrose defect?  Why was the Candy Kingdom at war with the Slime Kingdom, and why was Jugland important?  Why any of this?”

“Och, me lassie,” said Galé, arching an eyebrow.  “I haven’t the foggiest. History was ne’er me richest vein.”

“Well, thanks anyway,” Macy called over her shoulder as she headed out of the room.  So that had been a total bust.

By the time Macy got back to her room, Robin was already there.  “How was your morning?” she asked, walking over to the desk by the far wall.

“Pretty good,” replied Robin.  “Walked around, talked to people, had a brief existential crisis, the works.”

“Sounds like — hup! — like business as usual, then,” grunted Macy as she climbed onto the desk via the chair in front of it.

“The more things change, right?”

With a satisfying thunk, Macy undid the wrought-iron latch on the window and threw it open.  She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, letting the smells of budding snow-flowers take her mind back to the story which the younger of her older brothers had told her.  As she opened her eyes, she turned to face her friend, whirling her body around and carefully dropping to sit on the edge of the desk with her feet on the seat of the chair.  “The more things change what?”

“So that’s what that feels like.”  Robin smirked. “Feels nice.”

“What feels nice?  Robin, you’re not making any sense.”

Robin walked up to Macy and put a paw on her shoulder.  “Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh. Be at peace, my child.”

Macy brushed off Robin’s paw.  “Anyway, my morning was pretty meh.  I don’t think Ambassador Corn likes me very much.”

“Maybe she just likes things to be the way they should be.”

“You mean the way she thinks they should be.”

Robin locked eyes with Macy, mouth flat and eyes focused.  “There is no universe in which you should have been leading that welcoming party.”

Macy threw up her hands in exasperation, standing up on the chair and causing it to wobble slightly.  “There wasn’t enough time for things to be done the way they should have! That wasn’t my fault.”

“It wasn’t her fault, either,” zhe countered.  “Besides, Vesper could have done it, or one of your other siblings.”

Macy thought about that.  “I don’t know that they could have.”

“The ambassador definitely couldn’t have known that, though.  Looking at it from her perspective, her official welcoming into the duchy got hijacked by a twelve-year-old kid.”

“I’m not a kid!” Macy snapped, shaking the back of the chair; it tipped, catching itself on the bottom of the desk before it could fall over, and the nut rolled off and tumbled to the ground, rolling until she came to a rest by Robin’s feet.

“You’re a kid, Macy.”

Macy glanced toward the open window.  “Cheese, I’m really glad I wasn’t standing on the desk just now.”

Robin patted zhir friend’s head as zhe rolled her out the door.  “Come on, now,” zhe cooed, “it’s time for lunch.” Zhe looked down at Macy, who was staring up at her with wide eyes like saucers, and smiled.  “I’ll go with you this time, kid.”

After an uneventful lunch with most of the family absent and Archie making a show of being unimpressed by Robin’s chromatic cantrips, Macy decided to stop by the embassy to apologize for the state of the reception that morning.  When Robin had asked her why she had changed her mind, she replied that it probably had something to do with the fact that previously she had been “hangry”, a word with which she had fallen in love the first time she heard it in a pre-Mushroom-War sitcom.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she clarified.  “I’m still wheeled at Vesper for statuing me when Corn showed me the thornbush, but at least now I’m not cutting my jeans about the ambassador’s hot pocket.”

“Okay, I know most of those aren’t real sayings,” said Robin, elbowing Macy playfully.

Macy chuckled.  “Maybe.”

“Stop yanking my whiskers.”

“Okay, I’ll settle my shoes.”

“Thank you.”  Robin stopped briefly to give zhir friend a slight bow, complete with obsequious handwringing.

The embassy door was open — whether as a literal manifestation of some open-door policy or simply because whoever had used it last had neglected to close it properly, Macy could only guess — so the two walked right in.  The lobby was far less cluttered than it had been yesterday, during that incident they were trying desperately not to think about; in fact, it seemed suddenly spartan in comparison. Most of the furnishings were gone. There were no more papers over the floor; there were no papers at all that they could see.  A few folding chairs were stacked horizontally against a far wall, a thick black binder across their tops. The air held that peculiar musk which arises after a carpet is vacuumed yet before the room has a chance to aerate. Robin let out a great sneeze, sending a shockwave of rippling colors through her body as her jowls clapped audibly, and then the echoes faded into silence.

A beat.

Macy looked around.  “I guess she’s n—”

“Can I help you?”

Macy wheeled around, so fast that she would have fallen over for the fifth time that day had Robin not caught her just in time.  There, standing suddenly where the two had walked only moments before, was Ambassador Corn, carrying a stack of papers; with the comically-exaggerated scowl that now adorned her face, Macy was suddenly struck by how much she resembled the Colonel from the time she had seen him in person at Castle Bubblegum.  Sure, she was less ancient, and her attire was more business-formal than military, but her eyes held that same spark of war, that same disdain for mundanity and complacency, that Macy had sensed in the garden where she first saw the man she now called her father.

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” said Macy.  “About earlier.”

“Why?” prompted Robin, drawing out the word with a lilting flourish.  The ambassador raised an eyebrow, silently seconding the question.

“Because you deserved a more proper welcoming.  Because I was the wrong person to do it, and I only volunteered because — because I wanted to feel important.”

“Don’t worry,” Robin assured her, giving her a big hug.  “You’re plenty important where it matters. In here.”

“In where?  You didn’t point anywhere.”

“Listen, that’s not what’s important.  You’re what’s important.”

Corn scoffed.  “Kids.” She walked across the room, picking up the black binder atop the folding chairs and snapping the papers into them before turning to face the two again.  She made a point of not using her feet, turning solely by rotating her torso; she couldn’t manage it completely, but she seemed content with only looking at them in side-eye.  “You know, I wasn’t really mad at you for what happened this morning, and I’m sorry if it came across that way,” she said in a tone that didn’t make it seem like she was sorry.

“I get that now,” said Macy.  “I guess you just felt like your time was wasted.”

Corn’s one visible eye widened slightly, and she half-turned, just enough to properly face the marquess.  “Yes, that’s right. We didn’t want to have any delay in re-establishing the continuity between this duchy and the kingdom proper.”

“We?”  Macy tilted her head, and act which for her required bending one knee so her entire body leaned about ten degrees.

Corn nodded.  “The Princess, her advisors, and I.  We figured it best if there not be too much of a chance for anarchy to set in.”

Macy laughed, recalling what had counted as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” to Cash and extrapolating from that what would count as anarchy.  Then she realized Corn wasn’t smiling. “You weren’t really worried about that happening, were you?”

“It’s always better to be prepared for the worst rather than leave people to their own devices.  Beobachte deine Freunde, damit ihre Füße nicht auf einen unsichtbaren Ast fallen. ”  She said that last bit like a particularly talented kindergartener reciting their sole line in a school play.  At least, Macy assumed so, the first Candy Kingdom kindergarten big enough to have a school play having been built well after she would have graduated; the only experience she really had with the subject was from the sitcoms.

Macy had no idea what this phrase meant, but apparently Robin did, for zhe growled in indignation.  “So that’s how the Princess sees it?”

“No, that’s how my uncle sees it.”

Robin went slack-jawed.  “You have an uncle?

Corn let out a tiny, closed-mouth chuckle and donned the first partial smile Macy had seen on her the entire day.  “Well, not literally an uncle. But he was brewed from the same stock that was used to produce me, and he’s definitely older than me, so I think of him like an uncle.”

“The colonel,” Macy guessed.

The ambassador clapped her hands quickly, fingers to palm.  “Very good, Marquess; nothing escapes your eye, does it?” Macy fumed.  Candy, either not noticing the girl’s death glare or not caring, picked up the binder and tucked it under her arm.  “Anyway, he believed it best to maintain continuity — Der König ist tot, es lebe der König and all that — and he managed to convince the Princess.  Personally, I’m inclined to trust his judgement.”

Macy knew she shouldn’t have said what she said next.  She knew this was neither the time nor the place, even if such a time and place were to exist.  She knew that it was better to not burn a bridge before you crossed it. Yet more strongly than any of that, she knew that if she didn’t say it, it would feel like she had let a terrible lie go by unchallenged.  Her nut heart pounding in her chest, her head swimming with conflicting thoughts, her throat trying to reach out and strangle her tongue before she could speak, her friend nudging her on the arm in a silent cue to leave, Macy had to close her eyes tightly and shut out the world before she could muster up the resolve to say it.

“You mean the judgement that nearly kept my father from adopting me?”

Time stood still.  Macy didn’t dare to breathe.  Robin, now gripping her shoulder, had gone rigid.  Even the faint sound of rustling wind chimes from the castle garden seemed to mute itself out of respect.  For the second time in two days, Macy was bombarded by a deafening silence.

Then she opened her eyes, only to see that Corn’s expression hadn’t changed at all.  “Yes,” she said without inflection, “because quite frankly I don’t think the man has any business raising children.”  Then she walked into the office where a man had been killed the other day. As she closed the door behind herself, making a show of closing it completely, Macy could see that the plaque already read “CANDICE CORN”.

A grass dragon — a great green beast furloughs long — soared high over the Mystery Mountains, slowly spiraling down to the Sienna Ridge.  The spring weather brought clouds from the northwest, the highest of which cleared some of the lower peaks before being forcibly dissipated in any of the mountain range’s countless valleys.  The Sienna Ridge, situated on the end of one such valley, was therefore blanketed by its own personal thundercloud. Nobody there would be able to see the dragon or its rider as they approached.

Macy released one of the long ferns she was using as a rein to wipe frost from her makeshift goggles with a handkerchief she kept wrapped around her right wrist.  Being left-handed, she was often frustrated by the fact that many limited-run mass-production clothing items, like the nondescript brown parka she was wearing, had pockets on the left, which was more awkward to reach for; she had taken to storing important items on her right arm as a result.  In addition to the handkerchief, her wrist also held a charm bracelet, a keychain to which her cameraphone was attached, and a first-aid kit tucked up her sleeve. She couldn’t recall when she had started doing this, but it was something she had thought about doing since she was a child, so naturally she must have gotten around to it at some point.

The dragon plowed through the thundercloud; Macy instinctively closed her eyes, bracing for the imminent moistness.  The vapor was cold, and it instantly formed a thin layer of frost on her shell. She felt small balls of hail shatter against her; she smelled an invigorating rush of ozone as the thunderhead brewed a mighty bolt.  A sudden updraft spooked the mount, causing flakes of frost to fly into the air in front of the rider. She accidentally opened her mouth, and a bit of frost entered and landed on her tongue. It tasted sugary.

Then she burst through and saw the entire valley covered in icing.  Instinctively, she nudged the reins on the dragon, guiding it to an encampment on the far side of a ridge.  Before the dragon could touch down, she leapt off, preparing to do a graceful roll on the smooth rock to the applause of the people who would be waiting when she landed.  Instead she landed on her face; behind her, she heard the grass dragon slam into the side of a mountain and become buried in an avalanche of icing.

“Most impressive,” said an unnaturally deep voice as its speaker, a dark chocolate chip in an oversized white cloak, helped her up.  “For a weiner.”

Macy was about to say something in retort, but the Chipolina-Vesper hybrid —  Chester , Macy convinced herself she had always known — was already standing in a line with the others.  There was a chocolate chip cookie with no chips, sporting a black-and-white dress and a bionic eye —  Ginny .  There was a decrepit candy corn woman with a suit and tie made of solid gold —  Cornwall .  Lastly, there was a short green humanoid child —  Lil’ Bush — cradled in the arms of a pink-skinned man in regal attire.

“How goes the scouting mission?” asked the pink-skinned man.

“Not well,” answer Macy grimly.  She pulled out a notebook from a pack slung across her back and flipped through it.  “I was able to glean a lot of information, but none of it was what we wanted. We’ll need to put the pieces together ourselves, and that leaves a lot of room for error.  Is it too much to ask for some certainty?”

“Well, yes.”  His reply wasn’t blunt; he seemed to think he was answering a genuine question.  “We have no idea how any of this will turn out.”

“You’re a real ray of sunshine, Prince Gumball.”  She turned to address Cornwall. “What are your thoughts?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything, newbie.”  Now that was blunt.

“Look, it’s fine if you don’t like me—”

“No it’s not!” called Robin as zhe burst out from under the icing pile where the grass dragon had crashed.  Zhe ran over to Macy. “It’s not okay, because your reason for not liking her is garbage!”

Cornwall grimaced.  “Macy, could you please control your pet?”  But judging by the glare Chester gave her, that was an unpopular move.

Robin turned to Macy, and as zhe did so, the landscape around them began to break down into shapes and colors, shifting from auburn and grey to brown and green.  “I’m sorry, Macy,” said Robin. “You were right about the ambassador all along, and I shouldn’t have doubted you.”

“No, you were right, too,” Macy forced herself to say.  She wanted to accept Robin’s apology unconditionally, and she might have if she were twelve, but she had to be older than that by now if she rode a dragon.  She needed to act more mature, and maybe by doing so she would achieve maturity. “If I had disliked her for the wrong reason, that would have been bad.” She wasn’t so mature as to actually know why it was bad, but that would probably come later.

Then the scene around her finished reassembling itself into a visage of her bedroom at Castle Jugland.  It was just as she remembered it, with the kabbalist golem of clothes and hangers guarding the door vigilantly, a rapier in its hand.  She leapt onto the bed, hearing that satisfying creak she was so familiar with. She looked at the desk by the window, completely empty because the only thing she ever kept on it — the two-dollar coin — hung on her neck, a wire necklace strung through it.  She rubbed it for good luck.

Her eyes unwillingly focused on a corner of the desk.  There was something else that was supposed to be there.  Something important. She closed her eyes, trying to concentrate.  Why wouldn’t it come to her? As she opened them back up, she expected it to have appeared there, but instead the room had disappeared entirely; she now sat on the bench in the castle garden, feeding the birds with her mother the Duchess Integra of Nuts.

Suddenly a courier ran up to them, bearing a letter.  “It’s for the Marquess,” he said, handing it to Macy. She turned the envelope over in her hands; before she could read the return address, a stray autumn leaf landed on it, covering it up.  She blew it off.

The instant she read that address, the whole universe disappeared except for her and the letter.  Actually, it was more like she and the letter had disappeared; she wasn’t sure how she could tell the difference.  As she turned around, she noticed that the courier hadn’t disappeared either; he — zhe — was slowly morphing back into Robin.  Macy looked back at the letter, and saw that it was addressed form the Candy Orphanage, with the name “Masse Yvoire” written on the byline in his distinctive, ornate cursive.

She gripped it tightly, feeling the paper bunch between her fingers like linen, and awoke.

Chapter Text

Robin V. wandered through the dark hallways of Castle Jugland.  Zhe could barely see two meters in front of zhir face, but having lived here for a week, zhe was already capable of navigating by memory alone.  Zhe placed zhir paws trepidatiously, in part because the fragile near-silence of the plateau at night seemed precious, something whose destruction would be equivalent to the desecration of a priceless painting.  There was of course the chirping of nocturnal birds and a quiet rustle of wind through chimes, but this high up both of those sounds were much quieter than what Robin was accustomed to. Other than that, only a quiet snoring from one of the bedrooms behind zhir belied the presence of a world beyond this empty hall.

The other reason Robin tread carefully was the same reason zhe was skulking around in the middle of the night.  Zhe wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, zhe had seen sneaking into the castle that evening shortly after sunset, but zhe didn’t want to be the rainicorn-dog who cried why-wolf, so zhe had pursued the figure from a distance for a while; eventually, however, zhe had been distracted by a penny dropped on the ground, and when zhe looked up, the figure was gone.  Now zhe was tracing a path zhe guessed the dark-cloaked interloper may have taken, letting fortune be zhir guide.

At the end of the hallway zhe faced a fork in the hallway. Here zhe had to make a decision, and zhe knew that if zhe chose wrong, their prey would most likely evade detection altogether. That would not do. Quickly, zhe tried to recall the layout of the castle. Down the left hallway was a spiral staircase leading back down to the first level of the castle — a bizarre choice ‘twould be, seeing as the figure had started on ground level — to the most heavily guarded region aside from the duke’s bedchamber, namely the barracks and guard station. Down the right were some servant’s quarters and supply closets, but past those one would eventually arrive at a balcony directly above the castle’s temple to Grob Gob Glob Grod, which prominently displayed a triptych by the famous Gardenite painter Cilantro. Robin didn’t ‘get it’, but according to Vesper it was “a priceless masterpiece of post-impressionist shapism which brilliantly blends Vectorian geometric determinism with traditional Martian eschatological iconography.” Robin had agreed more with Macy’s interpretation, which was “a bunch of squiggles and boxes;” still, Vesper spoke like they knew what they were talking about, so there were probably a lot of people who would consider it valuable.

Nevertheless, Robin chose the left path.

Not long after zhe descended the spiral staircase, zhe spotted a guard patrolling the hallway ahead, and for a moment zhe was afraid this whole excursion would turn out to have been a bust.  Then zhe noticed a faint light coming from under a door in front of her labeled “Lieutenant’s Office”, along with hushed murmurs and the faint smell of candle-wax. Thinking quickly, zhe flattened zhirself against the door so that the guard wouldn’t see zhir, then squeezed through the bottom of the door, shrinking zhir proportions just enough to fit.

“… sure nobody followed you,” a guard sitting behind a desk was whispering, “then I can tell you what I’ve learned.”  His desk was large, polished, and as decorated with medals as the seafoam-green walls were with framed awards and photographs.  The swivel chair on which the guard sat matched the room in a way that the folding chair the cloaked figure Robin had been chasing now sat on — identical to every other folding chair on and around the castle grounds — did not.  Robin read one of the papers on the wall, a framed certificate of an award of “Valiant Service to the Realm” from the Duke, made out to “the valiant second in command of the Nut Guard, Peter Stachio.” The word “second” was slightly smudged, as if someone had covered it with their thumb when the ink was still dry.

The cloaked figure, sitting in the folding chair facing the lieutenant — Robin elected to call them ‘Shadow’, since zhe had to call them something — merely nodded.

“Alright, alright,” whispered Peter; he paused briefly to collect his thoughts, closing his eyes as he did a short breathing exercise, then continued at a more normal volume, albeit quickly.  “Legally, I should preface all of this by saying that since we lack any hard evidence or affidavits, a lot of this is speculation, but I won’t insult your intelligence by presuming you’d underestimate mine.  I’m as certain of this as you are that the sun will rise.”

A palm reached out from under Shadow’s cloak and rapped the table three times in rapid succession

“Alright, alright,” said Peter, waving his hand in a jocular reproduction of bashfulness that seemed incongruous with the conspiratorial tableau he occupied.  “I know how much dallying by the rosebushes yanks your whiskers, so I’ll skip to the skedaddle: Our good Captain, Amélie Faucher, was not involved in the ill-conceived pudding heist.”

Shadow crossed their arms, clearly disappointed by this news.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” said Peter, putting his hands up and nodding in sympathy.  “Not what you wanted to hear. Big whoop. Here’s where things get interesting though.  Faucher was leaking info to old Ambassador Palmerson — Glob rest his soul — but there was a limit to how far she was willing to go, and apparently this entire heist was put in place to circumvent that limit.  The best part is, apparently Palmerson blabbed about it to our culprit, Bandit Princess. She’s willing to sign that oh-so-valuable affidavit for the right incentive.”

Shadow leaned back in their chair, possibly so they could more easily tilt their head in a manner which would allow them to look down on the lieutenant.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” laughed Peter, tapping a finger to his head as Shadow sat back upright.  “I don’t believe it either. Blondie was always too careful. But still, you know it’s true, and I know it’s true, so why should it matter whether the fine gentlelady with a signature on the affidavit knows it’s true?”

A small, uncomfortable silence hung in the air like dirty laundry; Robin felt blood rushing to zhir cheeks, as if zhe were playing witness to some act of bawdy perversion rather than of political intrigue.  Then Shadow lifted their palm and rubbed their fingers together, tented upward.

“The price?”  Peter spun around once on his swivel chair as if this part of the conversation could not hold his attention.  Facing directly away from the door, he leaned backward to stare at Shadow, a too-big smile on his face. “You already know that one.  Same thing she always wanted. Total amnesty.”

“Pay it.” Shadow’s voice came out quick and bitter, at once reluctant and impatient to leave their lips. No, not their — his. For in that moment when Shadow first spoke, Robin instantly recognized that voice. It was a voice zhe had known longer than zhe had lived here, a voice belonging to someone who had every right to be here, a voice Robin had already grown to dislike and, amidst zhir panic, was perversely glad zhe finally had a justification for.

It was the voice of Penhaligon Jugland, marquess in waiting of the Duchy of Nuts, and Robin’s best friend’s elder brother.

Macadamia the Nut, Robin’s best friend, awoke just as the first beams of the coward’s sunrise crested the eastward mountains and alighted on her rested face. The wash of gold was not unpleasant, as a light to the eyes ought to be; filtered through the hue-shifting atmospheric dust that lent it its auburn tone, and then further by the imperfections in the window that took up most of one wall of her bedroom in Castle Jugland, it was gentle and inviting, a tinge of warmth in the cool spring morning air. As she sat up, blinking flakes of vivid dreamscape from her eyes, and climbed out of bed, she made sure to disturb the navy blue linens as little as possible, so as to preserve their smooth softness for when they would next call her into their gentle embrace. She shivered as she slid out of the cocoon of warmth and into the brisk air of reality. She shivered a second time as she climbed atop the desk facing the great window and threw said window open, inviting a chilly breeze ripe with the smell of hatchling corvids from the garden below. She shivered once more as she brushed her teeth and buffed her shell, the cold water bringing her still-dreaming mind down to Ooo.

It was after this third shiver passed that she realized she had been anticipating it. For the first time, her morning routine felt like a routine — intimately familiar, each moment inviting her forward in time like an old friend. She went to her familiar closet and pulled out some familiar clothes, deciding what outfit she should wear today; as with all six days before, she decided on familiar nothing and hung her clothes back up. She pulled out the familiar chair by her familiar desk, grasped the familiar purple two-dollar coin in her hand, and gazed through its familiar pentagonal hole at the familiar green walls. The narrowed view of the walls’ subtle tessellated floral silhouette, bounded by such a strange polygon, caused it to take on a new dimension, randomness seemingly being introduced where there was none before. It seemed more hectic this way, more like how flowers might grow in an untamed jungle rather than a tended garden.

Then, to complete the routine, she put down the coin and stared at the unopened periwinkle envelope on the corner of the desk, reaching and retracting her hand as if afraid it might lash out were she to get too close.  Tomorrow , she told herself for the fourteenth day in a row.  Each time she meant it sincerely. It had been fourteen days since she last talked to the person who had written this letter — seven days in the Candy Kingdom and on the road, seven days in the Duchy of Nuts — and over the course of that fortnight her sentiments had mutated from bitterness to trepidation to nervous curiosity, until it settled on a self-feeding guilt.

Macy shook her head, which is to say she shook her entire body, as if erasing an etch-a-sketch.  She couldn’t think like that now; there was breakfast to be consumed.

As if on cue, her father the Duke and Lisby the butler walked past her bedroom door, talking about the upcoming breakfast in a stage whisper so as not to wake anyone who might still be sleeping.  Their conversation was banal — confirming that today was indeed omelette day, asking about who was up already and who was still sleeping — but the hushed tones made it seem almost conspiratorial. The idea of dark doings happening within Castle Jugland was so ridiculous that Macy had to stifle a giggle.

“Oh!” exclaimed the Duke, making a quarter-turn on his heel to face Macy.  “I hadn’t realized you were awake.”

“Course I’m up,” she said as she joined the two of them in their trek down the hallway, tossing her coin back onto her desk with practiced precision.  “The sun’s up. It’s time for a brand new adventure!” She pumped her fist in the air as she whisper-shouted the last sentence.

“Yes, adventure,” echoed the Duke nervously, glancing left and right as if adventure could be just around the corner, waiting to leap out and scare him.  Macy one more struggled to suppress laughter.

As they walked through the halls, going wherever the two had been going before Macy joined them, they talked about all kinds of mundanities — who likes what kind of cheese (the Duke was partial to cheddar), how everyone had slept (Lisby’s arm was still buzzing from resting on it all night), what song the faint discord of wind chimes from the castle reminded them of (Macy recalled a Crystal Dimension folk song Robin had taught her).  All of that was fine and good until Lisby, in that goofy voice that Macy still couldn’t quite take seriously, asked a question she should have been expecting at some point but hadn’t.

“When are you starting school?”

Macy stopped in her tracks.  She was standing in front of a classroom filled with candies, one of the three non-candies in her class.  Today was the day she was supposed to present her big essay on who her role model was. After scrapping several drafts about Robin and Princeso, she had finally settled on one about Finn Mertens, the One-Handed Hero.  She had spent countless dozens of minutes poring through the extensive histories when Princeso had taken the orphans to the library; she had even browsed the grown-up section in her search for sources. After compiling all of this together, she had constructed an oral essay worthy of the princess of all fifth-graders; she had rehearsed it over and over in front of the mirror in her shared bedroom, making sure she got every inflection just right to the best judgement of her subpar hearing.  Now the day had finally arrived when she would present her magnum opus, yet no words could escape her lips.

She had taken one look at the crowd of peers before her, staring at her with those blank, bored expressions, and she thought them zombies.  She knew of zombies from the histories; Finn had fought zombified candy folk on more than one occasion, back when he was not much more than her age.  In one instance he had found himself cornered, pressed into a situation where he could not perform the heroics he so often practiced; he was out of weapons, and his friends had all turned on him.  In a moment of self-sacrifice, he doused himself in antidote and threw himself recklessly to the crowd, letting them tear into him mercilessly until they had all absorbed the antidote through their attacks.  Could she ever be so brave? If pressed, could she truly step into a situation where everyone would attack her without thought of mercy?

She was too busy thinking about the content of her essay to actually recite it.

After that, the school board was finally forced to admit that her hallucinations presented an obstacle to her education.  She was made to work with a counselor for the rest of the semester, a sweet old lady who always made Macy feel better about herself but who didn’t help much with her actual performance in school.  From then on, Princeso had worked with a series of tutors to homeschool Macy himself; she suspected he was learning as much from the curriculum as she was, but he helped to explain things to her anyway, and when she zoned out around him, she never felt ashamed.

“…month, but I’ll need to ask Princess Cookie if that’s enough,” her dad was saying back in the real world.  They had walked several yards down the hallway in the time since Macy had frozen. “Either way, I’ll be taking little Macadamia to decide on a tutor some time next week.”  He turned to where Macy would have been had she kept walking, then stared at the empty space as he clutched his head in distress.

“She’s back there,” said Lisby.

The Duke ran to his daughter and hugged her tightly.  “Are you okay?” he asked, like he did every time, holding her face and staring into her eyes.

“I’m fine,” she answered, like she did every time.  She felt embarrassed at the attention, but more so by the fact that she enjoyed it.

Her dad studied her face for a few moments, searching for a more honest answer written in its expression than could be heard from her lips.  Eventually, he seemed to settle on the conclusion that she was indeed fine, at least for now, so he took her hand and continued walking. “I know you’ve had some bad experiences with school in the past,” he said, “but I will do everything in my not-insignificant power to make sure that you have the resources you need to succeed.”

After a few more minutes of walking, Macy heard frantic footfalls behind her; she and her dad whirled around at the same time in opposite directions, almost throwing out each others’ arms but managing to steady each other.  They saw approaching them a tired, frizz-frazzled Robin, zhir unmorphed body dragging against the floor with a bizarre, high-pitched whine.

“Macy!” panted Robin, before zhe looked up at the Duke and the butler.  “Good morning!” Zhir tone was suddenly chipper, a too-wide smile plastered on zhir face.

“Hi, Robin,” said Macy, waving her hand in a half-circle like an upper-class teen girl in a pre-Mushroom-War sitcom.  “You didn’t climb into my room through the window as soon as I woke up this morning. Have you actually been getting sleep for once?”

Robin brushed aside the rhetorical question.  “We need to talk later,” zhe said, as if this explained anything.  “Hey, Mr. The Duke.”

“Oh, you don’t have to address me by my title,” assured Mr. The Duke.  “Please, call me—”

“Oi, Lisby!” called a voice from the other end of the hallway.  This voice was unmistakable — the Duke’s second son Galé was probably the only person in all of Ooo who spoke in that particular gruff brogue.  Macy had once made the mistake of asking where he had acquired it; his response had been sixty seconds of asphyxiating laughter followed by a full-on existential crisis, while cousin Vesper (apparently drawn to the room by the smell of infuriating vagaries) mumbled something incomprehensible about “ghosts of Cúige Uladh” and “the fire of fifty days”.

“Yes, Master Chesterfield?” called Lisby.

Galé held up a large history textbook whose spine appeared to suffer from severe scoliosis.  “D’ye know where tha splints’re?”

“Of course!” replied the butler too brightly.  “Follow me!” And he led the older marquess away.

Breakfast was quiet that morning.  The Duchess, Archie, and Vesper were all absent — the Duchess for some manner of negotiation, Archie at an overnight study party which Macy suspected did not involve much studying, and Vesper off doing unknown Vesper-like things.  Galé was presumably still fixing up his textbook with Lisby, so he too was not present. Pen looked worried about something, and Robin looked worried about Pen, so neither of them talked much; Macy, in turn, was worried about Robin and repeatedly tried to get zhir to open up, to no avail.  Only the Duke was present and willing to talk, but since but since holding a conversation with only one participant is difficult, and perhaps more importantly impolite, even he remained taciturn.

“Mmmm, these omelettes are tasty!”  said Macy, looking around.  “My compliments to the chef.”  The Duke nodded in agreement. And then there was silence.

“Hey, Macy, you haven’t met my wife and kid yet, have you?” asked Pen.  “They’ve been out of town on business, but when they come back you should come on over and—”  Robin cut Pen off with a growl. And then there was silence.

“So nobody knows where Vesper is?”  The Duke’s question was met with shaking heads around the room.  “I do declare, that nibling of mine is too difficult to get ahold of.  I worry that they lack a real sense of connection with us; I should have a talk with them about getting lost in their occult studies.”  And then there was silence.

After all that nothing took place, Robin gestured for Macy to follow her out of the castle.  Robin usually took walks in the morning, both back in the Candy Kingdom and now that zhe had relocated here to follow Macy, but zhe had always done so alone.  Macy was too relieved at Robin breaking zhir reticence to question this, however, so the two headed out the front gate and into the town proper.

As soon as zhe was clear of the gate, Robin hissed to Macy.  “We need to talk about Penhaligon.”

Macy grimaced.  “Look, I know you don’t like him, but you’re really shifting the blame for that incident onto the wrong party.”

“Oh, so now you want to— look, this isn’t about that.”  Zhe paused briefly, glancing up with her ruby eyes as if the clouds in the sky were where her thoughts were stored.  The concept of storing information in a cloud was ridiculous, of course, but not every metaphor can make sense.  “Okay, I guess it kind of is about that,” zhe admitted.  “But hear me out!”

“I’ll humor you.”  Macy ruffled the rainicorn-dogs neck.  “What did he do this time? Did he take the last mashed potatoes?”

“I’m telling you, he did that to spite me!”

“Did he go on a tirade about how cruel the faultless Princess Bubblegum is?”

“Hey, I never said she was faultless!”

Macy leaned down to whisper in zhir ear.  “Did he use the wrong pronouns to refer to you?”

Robin recoiled.  “What? No, of course not.  He may be a dillweed, but he’s not totally insensitive.”

“Then what?”

Robin took a long breath in, eyes closed, then blurted out, “I overheard Pen conspiring with one of the guards to try and get rid of Captain Mél!”

A beat.  “Who’s Captain Mél?” asked Macy.

Robin blinked.  “You don’t remember Captain Mél?  She was the guard captain who kept disagreeing with Pen on the day of the — of the theft.  Talked really formally? Had a scythe?”

She shook her head.  “Doesn’t ring a chime, sorry.”

“Fleas and lice, Macy, how can you not remember her?  She was the one who busted Blondie’s door down!”

Macy stopped walking for a moment, running through that day’s events in her head.  “Was she the one who wore green?”

“I don’t know, I never checked.  That’s not the point. The point is, Pen’s a bad dude.”

“Right, right.”  Macy didn’t sound convinced as she resumed walking.  “What did he say that makes you think he was conspiring against her?”

“He was going to let Bandit Princess go in order to create evidence that Mél was secretly working with Blondie to steal state secrets.”

Was she?”

“They seemed to think so,” Robin admitted.

“Then doesn’t that mean Mél is the one who’s conspiring or whatever?”

Zhe put zhir paw to zhir temple and sighed.  “Look, I’m not explaining this well.”

“All I’m saying is, maybe you found a situation that could be read either way and you chose to read it in a way which confirmed your anti-Pen biases.”

Zhe pursed zhir lips.  “Maybe.”

“So let’s go talk to her.”

Zhe stopped short.  “What do you mean?” zhe asked, turning zhir long neck around in an unnecessary double-corkscrew.

She smirked.  “Captain Mél. Let’s go talk to her and figure out what’s going on.”  A beat. “You’ll have to point her out to me, though, because I have no idea what she looks like.”

Amélie Faucher, Captain of the Nut Guard and Principal Protector of Duke Jugland of the Sienna Ridge and the Valley of Moths, snored like a wild boar.  She lay slumped in her swivel chair behind a desk stacked with a mountain range of papers, half-sorted into piles and half-strewn about haphazardly. There might once have been personal items which would lend a clue as to the personality of this cubicle’s occupant, knickknacks or photographs or ornaments which could act as gateways to the innermost self, but the room was in such disarray that to distinguish them from the general maelstrom of clutter would be impossible.  Two folding chairs with cheap cushions taped to their seats lay akimbo on the floor opposite the guard captain. And yes, her wrinkled, ink-stained, sweat-pungent uniform was green.

Macy and Robin entered the room, panting.  “We… (gasp) …didn’t need to… (gasp) …run all this way,” wheezed the rainicorn-dog, zhir normally bright color pallet reduced to shades of beige and taupe.

“Sorry,” gasped the thick-shelled macadamia, stopped over on her thin, wobbling legs.  “Got excited. ‘Ll never happen again.”

They stared at the guard captain for five whole minutes, too tired to realize that she was asleep.

“Wow,” whispered Robin.  “I didn’t get this level of intimidating silence from her before.  She’s tough stuff.”

Captain Faucher snorted in her sleep, popping a snot bubble.

“Whoa,” Macy whispered back.  “I want to be just like her someday.”

“Didn’t you want to be just like that detective Cash Daniels all of five minutes ago?”

“Oh, right.”  Macy pulled out a plastic straw with the label for the McMmmmmm’s fast-food restaurant chain emblazoned on it; she stuck it in her mouth, paper wrapping still on it, and Robin focused zhir magic to create a faint red glow at the end.  “Captain Falcon,” she muttered loudly, nasalizing her vowels in order to pronounce them with the object in her mouth.

This startled the guard captain awake.  “Wha-who-wha-hello, Sir Madame Miss Marquess Jugland Macadamia,” she stammered.  Even her stammers sounded measured and deliberate — there was an unwavering confidence in her delivery, seemingly baked into her very soul.

“The name’s Mac Juggles,” said the marquess coolly.  A beat. “But you can call me Macy, and never ‘Mac Juggles’, because I just decided that’s actually terrible.”  She sounded like how the early twenty-first century would imagine an early twentieth-century radio announcer.

“Yes, very how can I help you good?”  As Faucher said this, she blinked, but other than that no part of her expression seemed to reflect the oddness of her phrasing.

“I’m here to see a man about some pudding.”  The straw dropped out of Macy’s mouth halfway through the line; Robin, who had compressed zhirself to fit into the room, stretched enough to catch it before it hit the floor and put it back in zhir friend’s mouth, wet end out.

Faucher shook her head rapidly as if to disperse a cloud in her head.  “What do you mean?”

Robin stepped forward at this point, placing a paw on Macy’s lips to halt her reply.  “Listen, we just want to know why Pen wants to frame you for selling information to Blondie.”

At that the guard captain slammed her fists on the table, suddenly annoyed; her hands slid a little on impact, sending some papers tumbling onto the floor with a loud ruffling sound.  “I have never ‘sold information’, I’ll have you know! Frankly, these wild accusations are getting old, and anyone who spends more than a second believing them is a fool who’s more interested in stirring up intrigue for the sake of their own petty grudges and private power struggles than anything concerning the actual security of the duchy.”

“No, no, no, we believe you,” Macy half-lied, still in her hard-boiled detective voice.  “We just want to know why Pen doesn’t.”

“Because… I really shouldn’t tell you this.”

“Tell me!”  The affect was gone from Macy’s voice now.

“Because I had an affair with Blondie.”

Robin gaped, reflexively releasing zhir shrinkage and colliding with every wall in sight at once.  Macy merely stood still, tilting her head by bending her knee. “What’s an affair?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” Faucher and Robin said simultaneously.

“So what does this mean for the reason we came here?”

Robin shrank back to zhir typical inside proportions, massaging zhir head and sides where they had impacted the walls.  “I hate to say it, but I may have overreacted about Pen. At the very least, he had an understandable reason to think Faucher was selling us out, even if she actually wasn’t.”

“Which I wasn’t,” Faucher added indignantly.

Macy spat the straw into her hand.  “Bleh. This was a terrible idea.”  She turned around to wave to the captain.  “Anyway, thanks, and sorry for wasting your—”

Just then a messenger, the same one who had delivered the notice of Ambassador Corn’s arrival, ran into the room, knocking Macy over so that she rolled into the wall.  “—rtimewhattheglob!”

“Captain Faucher!” said the messenger, saluting.  “I’ve just received word that one of the prisoners has been released!”

Faucher slammed her hands on the table again; she recoiled, her wrists obviously sore from last time.  “Who?” she winced.

“Bandit Princess!”

Despite everything, Macy was excited as she raced through the halls after Faucher and Robin.  She was going on an adventure! The thought should have scared her, given how her previous adventure a week ago had ended, but she was too young and optimistic to see that as a portend of things to come.  Whether this was optimism or naiveté would be for the fates to decide.

After a turn, they unexpectedly joined up with an unexpected pair — Vesper, leading renowned jewel thief Penelope Farthington forward by cuffed hands.  Vesper was so pleased with themself that Macy could almost hear their smile through their drawn white cloak, and Macy had terrible hearing.

“I caught this one trying to steal the Eye of Perseus,” said Vesper.  “I came to drop her off at the holding cells.”

“You’re not a constable, you can’t—”  Faucher sighed. “I’ll take her from here.”  She took out a pair of manacles from a pocket on her chest and cuffed herself to Penelope’s cuffs as Vesper slinked into the shadows.  Macy would have to ask them sometime how they were so stealthy while wearing all white.

The party of now four finally reached the holding cells, where indeed Bandit Princess was now gone; without being prompted, Penelope walked into the empty cell and closed the door behind her.

“I’ll get out eventually,” Penelope promised as Faucher grabbed a keyring from the wall, unlocked both sets of handcuffs, and locked the door.  She didn’t acknowledge the master thief’s comments as she hung the keyring back up and stormed over to where a guard was stationed in a windowed room looking out at the holding cells.

Macy watched her go, then turned to face Penelope. The peach-skinned humanoid seemed a lot less intimidating now than when Cash Daniels had brought Macy to her temporary lair and engaged in a bizarre hateflirting ritual with the femme fatale. “So. How’re things?”

Penelope gestured to the cell bars. “Could be better, but I suppose I can’t complain. This is the risk people like myself take, and I doubt I’ll have to wait long before my loyal minion Izak shows up.”

“Right, of course.”

A beat.

“How about you?” asked Penelope.  “I heard about what you witnessed later that day.”



“Ah.”  Macy took a deep breath, stared at the corner of Penelope’s cell for a half-second too long, then finally spoke.  “Honestly, I wish—”

There was a jarring bang as Mél Faucher threw the door to the guard booth open so hard it rebounded against the wall; she had to throw herself to the side just to dodge its return as it slammed itself shut behind her.

“That snake!” she shouted as she stomped toward Macy and Robin.  “That sniveling, conniving, underhanded gator of a guard!”

“Who?” asked Robin.

She kicked the narrow portion of wall which held the keys to Penelope’s cell, setting them a-jingling; she then took a ragged breath in as she clutched her foot, leaning against the wall for support.  “Lieutenant Stachio,” she said at last. “My former partner. We started out—”

“Bup-bup-pub.”  Robin put zhir paw on the guard captain’s lips; seeing how ridiculous this looked from the outside for once, Macy had to hold in a giggle.  “Listen, I just want to know if this means I was right about Pen being a total green-knight. I can’t keep track of the backstories of like twenty different people; I can barely keep track of my own.”

Faucher fixed Robin with a stern glare; Robin matched it.  There was a solid minute of staring between them, from which Macy and Penelope could not look away.  Their mutual transfixion was transfixing.

“…fine.”  Faucher looked away, ear-slits burning.  Today was not her day. “He had acquired a ducal stamp of approval for the release of the prisoner, which given the limited pool of candidates almost certainly came from Sir The Marquess Penhaligon.”

Robin turned to Macy and stuck out zhir tongue; Macy swatted the air between them as if trying to squash a bug which might be recording their conversation for its nefarious insect overlords.

“Well then,” said Macadamia, “let’s go… uh… that is to say…”

Faucher sighed.  “I’ll go confront my subordinate; you go let your father know your suspicions.”

“What about me?” asked Robin.

Another sigh.  “You just stand in the corner and think about how right you are.”

“I was planning on doing that anyway.”  Zhe shrunk zhir body down, grew a few extra arms for good measure, and started meditating, zhir normally-striped body’s colors blending into a smooth gradient.

Macy and Faucher went in different directions; their footsteps soon faded into silence.  After a moment, Robin slid open her eyes, making sure Faucher wasn’t in sight, and then followed after Macy.

Penelope reached a slender arm between the bars, fumbling for the keys, but a white-robed arm reached out from the shadows and batted her hand away with a newspaper.  The thief crossed her arms and pouted. “Spoilsport.”

The Duke was in his counting-house, counting out his money.  He normally employed an accountant, but they had requested a short leave of absence after the murder of Ambassador Palmerson, so the Duke himself had agreed to cover for them.  In addition to bureaucratic expenditures relating to the instatement of a new ambassador and school fees for Macy, several trade agreements were being renegotiated, and many aspects of the duchy’s internal affairs were facing restructuring after the drop in confidence which had inevitably resulted from the death of a major official.  Right now, the frizz-frazzled duke, wearing a starched white shirt and baseball cap rather than his usual purple robes and hat, was tallying up industrial taxes. If they weren’t enough to cover the discretionary budget, he might have to accept a research investment from IcyU that would let them increase operations on the Sienna mines in exchange for a larger stake in resources recovered than he wanted to release.  On the other hand, accepting the deal would strengthen their relationship with the Ice Kingdom; despite Candy Kingdom protectorates having standing orders to improve relations with the other three great kingdoms, most efforts for the past few decades had instead focused on rebuilding after GOLB’s chaotic onslaught, so such an overture could ingratiate the prickly new ambassador.

“Hey Dad,” said Macy as she walked through the open door.  “You busy doing boring stuff nobody cares about?”

“Macy!” Robin chastised.  “Don’t be rude. I’m sure there are plenty of boring people who care about this stuff.”

“You’re right; I should be more sensitive.”  She walked out of the room and then back in. “Hey Dad.  You boring?”

The Duke sighed heavily, wrote down his current count on a piece of paper, and then looked up, his face all cheer.  “Not too boring for my wonderful daughter.”

Macy smirked.  “So If I’m your wonderful daughter, what’s Archie?”

“His teenaged daughter,” Robin suggested.

The Duke’s smile faltered.  “Is everything alright? You two seem… unkinder than usual.”

Macy stopped to reflect on what she had just said, then cringed.  “Yeah,” she confessed, “I guess I am a little upset because of something I just found out.”

“I have no excuse,” said Robin.  “I’m always like this. I just usually don’t have someone to riff off of.”  Zhe turned to Macy. “You should get upset more often. In fact, you probably will, since you’re turning thirteen yourself in, like, eight months.”

The duke stacked some papers together and stood up; the smile was back, accompanied by an energetic tone of voice which Macy couldn’t tell was fake.  “In the meantime, was there something you wanted to do?”

Macy stroked her chin for a moment.  “Right, right, I almost forgot the reason I was so snappy.”  A shadow fell over her face. “It’s about Pen.”

“You mean my eldest son, your older brother, whom I love very much and who is extremely devoted to both his family and his duchy?”  Had it not been for the almost childlike lilt in his delivery, Macy would have sworn her dad already knew what she was going to say and was attempting to pre-emptively disarm her.

“Yeah, about that.”  There was one last moment of hesitation.  Once more, Macy wondered if this whole thing was a ridiculous misunderstanding.  If there was one thing she knew for sure from watching sitcoms at the orphanage, it was that ridiculous misunderstandings like this happen constantly and there’s no possible way to avoid them no matter what you do.

Wait, yes there is: communication.   “We-think-he’s-conspiring-to-try-and-get-rid-of-Captain-Faucher!”  This sentence came out as a single word, as if she didn’t want to give herself time to reconsider until the whole thing was said.

They then related to the Duke the events of that day — Robin listening in on Pen’s conspiratorial meeting, their conversation on the walk, their meeting with the guard captain, their trip to the holding cells, their conversation with the Duke, the time the conversation got meta—

“That’s enough,” said the Duke, holding up his hand toward Robin as zhe got to the seventh level of self-reference.  He sounded exhausted; his eyelids were drooping, and his posture was like a ragdoll.

“Aw.”  Robin lowered zhir head.  “But I was just getting a rhythm going.”

“If this is true, then… then…”

“It is,” intoned Macy.  She examined her feet, swinging one tentatively.  She could smell the dirt from outside. She would need to take a shower to feel clean again.  Everything was too dirty.

The Duke straightened, making a visible effort to focus his eyes on Macy.  “Then this demands serious investigation. My own son, making deals with murderers just to get revenge for imagined slights!”  A beat. “I feel like that should be more surprising than it is.”

“Awesome,” said Robin without a hint of irony.  “Looks like I’m right yet again!”

Macy glared piercing arrows at her friend.  “Could you not right now?”

“Hehe, sorry.”  Robin slinked backwards out of the room, down the hall, and out of sight.

Macy turned to look at her dad.  Only now did she allow her eyes to water.  “Why?” she squeaked.

He walked over and hugged her tightly for thirty seconds before responding.  “Your older brother has a strong sense of justice,” he said, grasping her shoulders and staring into her eyes as she wiped away tears with her finger.  “He has always taken slights against the duchy and against me far more seriously than I ever did. I suppose I never did enough to discourage that facet of his personality; I though I needed someone that at my ear-slit.”

Macy sniffled.  “What’s going to happen now?”

The Duke rose, dusting himself off; he affected his typical jovial attitude so easily that Macy took a step backwards out of shock.  “I suppose I’ll have to talk to him about this,” he announced as if he were going to ask Pen whether he liked mustard on his PB&J. “Why don’t you go hang out in the garden?”

She stomped her foot, but she was too distressed to pout properly, so she came across as more dejected than petulant.  “I want to come with you!”

He turned to look at her, and she noticed that there were tears in his eyes, too.  “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“That’s fair.”  And she stood still, watching him leave to confront his son.

There are certain places in the world where time flows differently. This is true in a technical sense: The gravity well of a supermassive object, such as a black hole, dilates spacetime itself so that a second lasts an eternity. There are also places where the curvature of the universe is normal but time behaves strange regardless; these places are those where, whether due to the scenery, the ambiance, or simply the emotional weight tied to that locale, one can remain for hours and feel like only seconds have passed. They are insignificant next to the cosmic pull of a black hole, but they are no less impressive and no less important.

The spire atop Castle Jugland was one such location.  There, wispy clouds of crystalline ice drifted through, coating the shingles with a powdery frost year-round, carrying with them a bouquet of smells, of lily and lichen, of petrichor and pine, which had long since lost any identity of its own and now only gave the impression that it ought to smell like something .  From here, one could look about the whole of Jugland — the Sienna Ridge, the Valley of Moths, the pass deeper into the mountains, the distant road to the Candy Kingdom — and beyond, even on a good day to where the Mystery Mountains began their gradual descent to the sea in the northwest.

This was where Marquess Penhaligon Jugland had his telescope trained when he heard footsteps ascending the long spiral staircase which led to this exposed chamber.  Other than his wife and daughter, few people besides himself ever came up here; there were plenty of other views, almost as good, which didn’t require quite so tedious a climb.  This spot, however, was the only vantage point in the duchy this side of the Valley of Moths from which one could, with the proper equipment, observe the migrating waterfowl which roosted between the mountains and the coast.

“Summer is coming,” he said in his best ominous voice as the figure behind him crested the stairwell.  He kept peering through his telescope. His gaze was transfixed on a particularly large flock of seagulls zigging and zagging as if lost.  Most likely a powerful thunderstorm had charged some of the natural lodestone deposits, messing with the magnetic fields the birds sometimes used to navigate.  His wife — Colla, the most beautiful birdologist in the world — had told him that such events, while possible, had never been recorded. And here he was without his sketchpad.  He could be the only person to ever bear witness to this unique accident. “Migration season is coming to a close.”

“Son,” the Duke said, reaching out, then faltered.  Pen could hear his father’s words catch in his throat.

“I know what this is about,” he said, turning around to face him, still gripping the telescope steady.  “I think it’s time we all get this off our chest.”

“Yes.”  The Duke didn’t have the energy to say more.

Pen took a long sniff of the thin mountain air before speaking.  “We need to sell the lakehouse.”

His father, who had his finger raised as if stretching it in preparation for an accusatory point, froze.  “Wha— huh?”

“Look, we hardly use it, and because of recent events the duchy isn’t in a cozy enough financial situation that us having a secondary property is a good look.  Colla and I can move back in, and Penny won’t be bored this time since Macy’s a lot closer to her age than Archie was. It makes financial sense, and with me home all the time, I can share more of the political burden and let you actually figure out what your daughter wants instead of sending her off on ridiculous quests all the time.”

“Wait, didn’t you ask her to go get Cash’s help for the pudding theft?”

“Yes, I did, and that was a terrible idea which you should have stopped!”

The Duke looked down at his feet.  “You’re right, of course; I realize that now.  I need to—” Then he looked up angrily. “Wait a minute, that’s not why I came up here at all!”

“It isn’t?”  Pen glanced through the telescope again.  One of the gulls had taken out a compass and realized that the magnetic fields were wonky; they were now huddled around a map another one of them had brought, trying to use the nearby mountains to work out where they were and what direction to head next.  He removed the telescope from its stand, collapsed them, tucked them under his arm, and spun around to face his dad again. “What was it then?”

“It’s about Mél Faucher.”  The Duke spoke through gritted teeth now.  With every misty exhalation, a bit of his calm seemed to leave him.  He advanced toward his son, placing a firm hand on the side of his toupéed head, and repeated, “We need to talk about Amélie Faucher .”

Pen laughed, looking off to one side at the duchy below.  “You mean Captain Mél? What, have you finally decided to let them go?”

And with a yell, father tackled son over the rail of the spire as the two tumbled down to the sloping roof below.

For a moment, falling through the air, Pen felt lost and weightless.  He imagined himself a gull.

The impact below was bracing, and it likely would have been much worse had Pen not thought to desperately grip the spire to the best of his ability, slowing the two down as they fell.  Still, it was enough to stun the pair as they began to roll down towards a parapet below.

It wasn’t until the steep icy grade of the shingles began to taper off toward the edge of the roof that either of the two nuts began to regain some control over their bodies.  The Duke tried to catch a foot on the smooth shingles, hoping to snag an errant tile and perhaps slow their slide, to no avail. He clawed and scrambled with one hand, miraculously still gripping his son tight with the other, managing to accrue a bit of ice under his fingernails but not tapering their descent by much.  At this point all of his extremities were numb from a combination of bruising, cold, and exertion.

Pen picked up his father’s slack, moving his legs as if swimming; the act scraped his knees, but it also had the desired effect of further reducing their fall rate.  In conjunction with the leveling off of the roof itself, he managed to reach a reasonable pace by the time they approached the parapet. Thinking quickly, he shouted, “Now!” and grabbed one side of the protrusion; his father, still gripping him, grabbed the other, and with a jolt that yanked the Duke’s arm out of its socket, they came to a sudden stop.

Between shallow breaths and dry heaves, Pen managed to ask his father, “What was that for?” except in a manner which involved words not fit for polite company.

The Duke massaged his arm and then looked at his son, regret joining the rage and remorse in his eyes.  “Why did you do it? Were your suspicions worth going behind the backs of — of the justice you hold dear?”

“Behind the backs?”  Pen sounded equal parts confused and insulted.  “What are you talking about?”

The Duke’s mouth hung hopen long enough for a mayfly to inspect it as a possible place to lay eggs.  “The deal!” he exploded, nearly letting go of the parapet and tumbling to the courtyard below. “The amnesty deal you made with Bandit Princess to falsely testify against Captain Faucher!”

“That’s not it at all!  I was just — wait a minute.”  Pen narrowed his eyes. “Where did you get that information?”

“From Robin.  Zhe overheard everything!  I couldn’t believe it at first, but zhe didn’t sound like zhe was lying.”

“Uh-huh.”  Pen bit his lower lip.  “And in how much detail did zhe relay this information?”

“Now that you mention it, not much, but it was enough to know that you—”

He held up one hand like a crossing-guard indicating that his father’s sentence should wait for the next signal change.  “I think my dear sister’s friend relayed to you a very distorted view of what actually happened.  Not that zhe lied, just that zhe didn’t quite get what was going on.”  He began to crawl over the edge of the parapet, searching for a foothold on the wall below.  “Listen, I’m gonna go get a ladder, and then we can discuss whose backs I may or may not be going behind.”

The Duke waited for five minutes, alone with his thoughts.  The first such thought was for his eldest son’s telescope; he looked around frantically, then saw that it had skidded away in a different direction but was miraculously undamaged in a rain-gutter.  That could be retrieved later. Next, he felt ashamed at his actions and haste. He should not have been so quick to anger. Except he hadn’t really been quick; he’d been holding in a lot of frustration for a while, and especially since last week.  I really need a better release mechanism .  Towards the end, his thoughts drifted darker, wondering if his son had abandoned him.

Then he saw a ladder-top appear before him, after which his son ascended, his wig blowing dramatically in the breeze.  “We need to talk about Mél. You see, I—”

“—can’t believe that you’re doing this now of all times!” shouted Mél, her voice muffled by the door with the plaque reading “Lieutenant’s Office”.  In the light, this place seemed totally different from the dismal, shady hallway Robin had visited early that morning. For some reason the less foreboding version filled zhir with much more unease.

“And I can’t believe you just tried to pull rank on me, under the circumstances.”  Zhe definitely recognized that voice as the one from before. So this was the famed Lieutenant Stachio.  Now that the mood wasn’t so conspiratorial, he sounded like a whiny brat.

“If you’re going through with this then — then you can expect a serious demotion when you inevitably come out with nothing!”

“And you can expect a comfortable spot in the holding cells you were just visiting when I do find what I’m looking for, as you await your trial.”

Evidently too flustered to respond, Mél stormed out of the room, once again flinging the door wide yet this time failing to dodge out of the way.  She hopped on one foot, holding her other angle, as she turned to face Robin. Zhe started to recoil before realizing the glower on the guard captain’s face was general rather than specific.

“Well, that sounded like it went poorly.”

Now that was a specific glower.  “I don’t need your sass right now, civilian.”  Then she paused, took a breath and a half-step back, and started over.  “I would…  appreciate if you didn’t sass me, please.  And I thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

“Yeah, I am pretty awesome,” Robin agreed as the two began to walk back toward Mél’s office.  “But are you gonna be okay?”

She sighed a tired sigh.  “Maybe. I meant what I said about not having sold information to Blondie, of course — I would never betray my people — but… well, the young Marquess may not be able to appreciate the gravity of an affair, but you probably can.  You’re more mature than you let on, and I know rainicorn-dogs age fast.”

Robin began shifting colors and whistling nonchalantly as variegated shapes and spirals materialized around zhir head.

Mél laughed far harder than was warranted.  “I’m sorry,” she wheezed. Then she punched the wall next to her with an outraged yell.  Robin reached up and put a paw on her shoulder; Mél turned to stare into zhir iridescent ruby peepers.

Robin stared back and said, “That sounded like it went really poorly.”

The guard captain tossed the rainicorn-dog to the side and paced down the hallway.  “It really did,” she said without turning back.  “And I would really like to think about how I’m going to handle this latest insubordination without constantly receiving really unhelpful snark.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll back off,” said Robin as zhe began following Mél.  “Although I gotta say, ‘insubordination’ is a really mild way of putting it.”

“How so?  Insubordination is hardly a minor thing.”

“I just figured you’d be more upset about the treason.”

“What treason?”

“You know, obstructing justice to retrieve a false confession.”

Mél scratched her head for a minute before she realized what Robin was talking about.  “Oh, you mean the—”

“—affidavit,” explained Pen.  “Obviously it wouldn’t mean anything in court, but I only needed it to get a search warrant for Mél’s office.  Which I did, by the way, and was going to use as soon as I’d filled you in on the situation.”

“I see.”  The Duke wiped his brow, then returned to holding the ladder steady.  “Well, I still don’t like how you handled it, but that’s certainly not treason.  Although using an affidavit you believe to be made in bad faith is not how I raised you.”

“Don’t get the wrong impression; I totally believe Bandit Princess did hear Blondie say something to that effect.”  He retrieved his telescope from the gutter and began descending the ladder two rungs at a time. “Pete was the one who didn’t believe it.”

“Ah, yes, the lieutenant,” recalled the Duke as he folded the ladder and slung it under his arm.  “I gave him an award for ‘Service with Valor’ or something to that effect. I hope I don’t have to revoke that.”

Pen massaged his aching shoulder with his free hand.  “Hey listen, Dad, I’m sorry for going behind everyone’s backs with this.  I was so focused on making sure Mél didn’t find out that I didn’t think about how… well, how treason-y this would look to anyone else.  That deal with Bandit Princess — even if I’m right about her not lying, it wasn’t worth it.”

“What’s done is done.”  The Duke moved close to his son, giving him an armless hug since both of his hands were busy holding the ladder.  “I’m sorry, too; I overreacted and let my emotions get the better of me, all because I let myself be swayed by Robin’s colorful version of events.”

Pen chuckled.  “Why does zhe keep finding zhirself at the center of things?  It’s uncanny.”

“Bad luck, I suppose.  I just hope all of this drama doesn’t scar Macy too badly.”

“She seems fine.”

“I seemed fine, too, until I exploded at you.  I’m really sorry about that.”

“I deserved it.”

The Duke smirked.  “Yeah, you really did.”

Pen moved to jovially elbow his father, then reconsidered when his bruises from the roof flared up briefly.  “Since when did you know how to snark?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  I must have picked it up from you.  Or maybe—”

“—Robin!” called Macy as she raced toward her friend and the guard captain.

“Hello, young marquess,” said Mél as Robin ran forward to hug Macy.  “How went your conversation with your father?” She sounded amused, a twinkle in her eye, for reasons Macy could not fathom.

“Well, I suppose.”

“You suppose what?”

Macy narrowed her eyes in confusion.  “Well.”

“Oh, ‘well’ is what you suppose.”

Robin turned to face Mél.  “Is what she supposes what?”

“It went good,” Macy said in a loud monotone.  “What about you?”

Robin shrank about two feet.  “I learned a very valuable lesson about jumping to conclusions.”

“Basically zhe found out that you were blowing this entire thing way out of proportion,” Mél clarified.  “Zhe confused intrigue and bargaining for conspiracy against the duchy and neglected to mention that our co-conspirator was in fact the lieutenant of the Nut Guard and thus one of the few nuts who actually has the authority to make deals with high-priority prisoners.”

Robin shrugged.  “Oops.”

Macy raised a brow, arms crossed.  “After giving me a lecture about not remembering who Amélie Faucher was just this morning?”

“In my defense, I never claimed not to be a hypocrite.”

Macy elbowed her friend playfully, which received an exaggerated groan of pain and dramatic fainting spell, all accompanied by a subconsciously-generated light show.  At the end, Macy dropped to her knees and wailed mournfully to a small round of applause from Amélie Faucher and a passing messenger.

As Macy was bowing, Robin got up and shook off a cloud of dust, sending zhir friend into a coughing fit.  “So, what happens—”

“—now?” asked Lisby with a sigh.

“Och, I’m sorry, Lisb me lad, bu’ these textbooks seem ta have minds a’ their own!” Galé was holding a hefty bound anthology of nineteenth-century kitchenware advertisements labeled Bedtime Stories for Adults: A Collection for the Convenience Comparative Literature Students whose spine looked like it was warming up for the annual Ooo-wide Limbo Championships.

“I think you’re missing the point, Master Chesterfield,” explained the butler as he began setting the injured spine with supplies from the first-aid kit on the table beside him.

“An’ wha’ point would tha’ be, cara maith?”  Galé chewed on his fingernails nervously.  He forced himself not to look away. His books needed him to be here as much as he needed them, and in much the same way.

“‘Twould be the point that you’re attempting to solve a problem without actually understanding why it’s a problem in the first place.”  Lisby held up the book for the marquess to see.  “You’ve attempted repeatedly to reinforce the spines of your textbooks by inserting these metal bars, no?”

Galé nodded, wiping a tear from his eye as the smell of book-glue filled his nostrils.  “It seemed ta help.”

“In the short term, perhaps.  But attempting to interfere where you lack knowledge means you have driven a wedge between the spine and the pages, thus leading to further weakening down the line.”  Lisby took some surgical glue from the first-aid kit and began sealing the cavity inside the collection’s spine. “You must learn patience, Master Chesterfield. The true value of aid, whether first or otherwise, is only realized when one first takes the time to focus on the situation which they are attempting to remedy.”

Galé sighed, eyes lowered in shame.  “Och, I s’pose yer right.”

“Come along,” said Lisby, taking Galé by the arm as he set the book down to dry.  “I’m sure you’re missed by your father. Hopefully nothing too crazy has gone down in the meantime, and if it has, I’m sure someone can—”

“—fill you in,” muttered Mél as she stood outside her office door in front of a very tired-looking Duke — almost as tired as she, but not quite.  That was a trophy she would not give up so easily. “But I assume you already know as much as I do, if not more.”

“I’m not quite sure about that,” confessed the Duke.  “This whole thing is rather complicated.”

“The important thing is I was mostly right,” said Robin.

“But wrong it some very important details,” countered Macy, her eyes closed and index finger extended as if giving a lecture and expecting everyone before her to take careful notes because this will be on the test.  “Like whether anything that was happening was actually wrong.”

Robin crossed zhir arms and snorted, looking away.  “When you put it like that it sounds a lot worse.”

Pen came out of the office, holding a stack of unsealed envelopes.  “These are all the correspondences I could find between the suspect and — oh, hi Mél, I didn’t see you approach.”  A beat. “I have a warrant!”

Mél sighed.  “I know. Just… get through that quickly, okay?  Those letters have sentimental value to me.”

“Of course.  I just need to make sure things are on the up-and-up, at least to the degree that things can be on the up-and-up when it comes to—”  He looked at Macy, his eyes widening. “Uh, when it comes to, ah, matters of state.”

He walked away, Mél walked into her office, and the other three began walking toward the garden for their denouement.  “This kind of thing isn’t a weekly occurrence,” promised the Duke.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” said Robin, running circles around the Duke and Macy to burn off nervous energy as zhir stripes alternated through various stages of color.

As the distant wind chimes grew louder and Robin’s coloration slowly settled on zhir normal pattern, Macy began thinking about something that had been bothering her.

“Hey Dad,” she said finally, “what exactly is my brother—”

“—looking for?” asked Cinnamon Bun, his silver armor highlighting the determined blue of the fireproofing enchantment that let him live in the Red Palace amid the lava flows of the south of Ooo.

Flame King Phoebe threw more phernalia across the bedchamber.  At this point she had rifled through nearly every drawer, hamper, and closet in the palace, and the place was a bit of a mess.  Her hair, normally kept in a manageable wave, was now a gigantic, antler-like inferno. She turned to shout at her knightly husband, her face looking like a Cilantro painting.  “My flipping golf bag!”

Cinnamon Bun rested his flame-tipped spear on the flame-tipped-spear-rack that many rooms in the castle had for the convenience of those who didn’t want to leave their flame-tipped spears behind but also didn’t want to hold them all the time.  “Well, where did you use it last?”

Phoebe gripped the side of her head for a moment before bursting into an even larger inferno as she shouted, “ GOLF!

Cinnamon Bun blinked as the smell of scented candles in hickory and nutmeg, accidentally lit by this latest outburst, filled the room.  “Why don’t you take a break and then look for it when you’re calmer?”

Phoebe burned bright as the sun, briefly, before letting off some smoke and returning to her normal size.  She was a well-built woman, if a little on the short side, and despite the crown on her head, with her black jeans and oversized novelty t-shirt she might have passed for an ordinary human had her body not been made entirely of fire.  “…you’re probably right,” she said, slumping down onto the large water bed with a hiss of steam. “But the Life-Sized Miniature Golf invitational is tomorrow, and I want to head out tonight if we’re going to make the most of my one weekend off.  And it’s hard to be calm when I’m so worried about leaving the kingdom in the stead of my brother even for that short while.”

“If you’re worried about Flint usurping your authority, I don’t think that’ll happen,” Cinnamon Bun reassured her, taking a seat next to her and putting an arm around her.  She leaned on his shoulder; it felt warm, but thanks to the flame shield it didn’t burn. “And he won’t try to declare war on the Candy Kingdom, either. I’ve got a good read on that guy.”  He turned to face the Flame King. “Trust me, I’m a people person.”

She giggled, and in that moment she seemed twenty years younger.  “Yeah, I guess you’re — oh!” She glanced at something sticking out from under a corner of the bed, then dashed over in a burst of flame before pulling out a black-and-grey checkered duffel bag.  “I found it!”

“See?” he said as he got off the bed, sending ripples that knocked off a pillow on the far side.  “Once you calmed down it became a lot easier!”

“It really did,” she agreed, slinging the bag over her shoulders.  “I can’t believe it was right under—”

“—our noses,” insisted Macy as she sat between Robin and the Duke on the garden bench facing the birdbath.  “I mean, it would make sense, right? If she’s working for Princess Bubblegum, or at the very least working with her, it wouldn’t necessarily be a conflict of interest, so there wouldn’t be anything stopping her from becoming Captain of the Guard — in her mind at least.  She wouldn’t need to worry about subverting your authority because she would answer to one higher than yours.”

“I thought that was the whole point of the warrant,” said Robin, conjuring brown sparkles on the ground that no self-respecting corvid would confuse for birdseed.  “Pen has all the correspondences between Captain Faucher and the late ambassador. If there really is such a leak, he’s going to find it.”

“Not if the captain let him find those documents.  Think about it — he already knows about the ‘affair’, whatever that means, so if she pretends not to have had any communications, that’s suspicious.  But if she hid only some of the communications, he could sift through the rest without knowing that there’s a huge chunk he’s missing.”

“Wait, so are you saying, after all this, that Pen was right?”

Macy smirked.  “No, I learned your lesson.  All I’m saying is that it’s possible.”

The Duke tossed some birdseed in the wrong direction, prompting a series of annoyed tweets from an ornery mountain jay.  “Well, I can’t say that’s impossible, but I don’t feel right about fomenting such misgivings after the events of this morning.  I don’t want to get caught in such a negative loop.”

“We don’t need to get caught in it ourselves,” suggested Macy.  “I could get that detective involved. Cash Daniels, P.I.” Then, quieter, “She’s so cool.”


Macy and Robin both turned to look at the Duke in confusion.  “What was that?”

The Duke’s hand, clenched full of birdseed, was shaking.  “No, I don’t think that’s a wise decision, my daughter.”

Macy stood up, nearly falling off the bench; Robin caught her and stabilized her.  “But — but why not?”

He turned to look at her, tears once more welling up in his eyes.  “Macadamia, you’ve been through too much since coming to the Duchy of Nuts.  You can’t fall into the adult world so soon.  Not like this, at least. If you recruit that detective, you’ll be pulled into the world of politics and intrigue and probably will never be able to escape.”

“I know, right?”  She sounded so excited.  Part of the Duke wanted to preserve that excitement.  The other part, the bigger part, knew what road that would lead down.

“Macy.”  He breathed in.  The spring air smelled like birds.  The Duke of Nuts loved all creatures, but he knew enough about birds not to trust them.  They would routinely push their children from the nest to teach them to fly, and they wouldn’t try to care for any bird who they thought couldn’t survive on their own.  In that regard, the Duke strove to be the opposite of a bird. “I love you, but I can’t allow you embroil yourself in adventure when it’s so clearly detrimental to—”

Macy’s expression drastically and imperceptibly changed.  No individual facial feature altered much, but the totality of her face was sadder, more hollow.  She stepped down from the bench, aided by Robin.

“Macy?” asked the Duke, but she didn’t even acknowledge him as she sulked away.

He returned to the birds, making sure despite his unfocus to actually give the birdseed to them this time.  He was determined to get something right today.  “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he chided himself. “That was about the most tactless way you could have gone about that!  How did you expect her to respond?” He sighed as one of the jays picked up some birdseed and put it in a leftovers bag.  “I just hope she isn’t going to be as rash as I just was.”

Macy threw one final item, the toothbrush she had received from Princeso, into her backpack before zipping it up.  She threw the backpack’s straps over her shoulders, now covered with a blue-grey hoodie. She had never really liked the hoodie, a Yulemas present from her old orphanage friend Masse Yvoire; the color worked on him, but on her it looked dingy and off-putting.  Still, it was about as different from the browns and greens of the Nut Kingdom as she could muster.

“You know,” Robin offered, “a responsible friend would tell you that you’re being extremely rash right now and will probably regret this pretty quickly.”

Macy grabbed her two items from the desk — the special coin and the letter from Masse — and stuffed them into her hoodie pocket, where she had already deposited her cameraphone.  “It’s a good thing you’re not responsible, right?”

“Hehehe.”  Robin rubbed the back of her head nervously and put on an unconvincing grin.  “That’s me. No responsibilities, no regrets.”

Macy looked around the room one last time.  Without the limiting effects of the coin-hole, the floral silhouettes on the green wallpaper seemed uncomfortably tame and regimented.  There was a stagnation in their trimmed appearance which made her shudder uncomfortably. She climbed onto the desk and looked out the window, towards the Valley of Moths.  Those were plants which could actually grow wild and free.  She threw the window open, letting a cool breeze into the room, alight with the ripening smells of springtime.

She turned back to look at the room one last time.  Her copy of A Collector’s Guide to Coinage, Vol. 47 sat on the bookshelf, surrounded by books lent by the Duke and the rest of her new family.  She had wanted to take it, but Robin had convinced her that it would be too heavy to realistically carry for long.  Now it seemed to weigh her down, calling her to remain here. There was a comfort in security, a comfort which was not the same thing as stagnation.  The book was always the same, but it was always fascinating.

While she was distracted, Robin had slipped behind her and climbed backwards out the window, whatever reservations zhe had held just moments before seemingly forgotten.  “C’mon, Macy,” zhe called, zhir face just peeking over the desk. “I know a shortcut to the Crystal Dimension near here. You can crash with my poppop while you think things over.”  Then zhe disappeared out of sight.

Wordlessly, Macy followed suit, closing the window behind her as she scaled down the wall of Castle Jugland.  And then in her room there was silence.

Chapter Text

There was a loud sound like a glass thunderclap as the world went dark with color.

Macy clutched the chalcedony endtable, trying to avoid being sucked into the iridescent vortex in the center of the room.  She couldn’t find a good grip on the polished surface, so she had to settle for squeezing with all her might and hoping her fingers didn’t slip.  The blood drained from her knuckles, leaving them numb. Fine china sucked in from the kitchen pelted her legs as they dangled in the air. A hurricane of dust stung her eyes; even when she closed them, she could still see the colors rushing past.  “Hurry up!” she shouted hoarsely.

“I’m trying!” Robin called from the other side of the room, zhir voice barely carrying across the din of the colorful vortex.  In the rushing wind, the plastic buttons woven into zhir tail rattled like a muted wind chime. Zhe lit up zhir horn and fired more bolts of rainbow magic into the center, solidifying the color of the swirling mass and slowing down the overall shifting of hues.  It wasn’t enough, however; as quickly as its chroma shifting slowed, it resumed. “It’s hard to sense what colors it needs when it keeps sucking up my magic! Poppop, how’s Mommom?”

“She’s not looking too hothot,” T.V. called over his shoulder.  He turned back to his wife, the color drained from her six-foot-long body, her horn cracked in two places and held together with duct tape.  He took out some more gauze from a first-aid kit nearby and began patching up a gash on her face leaking a black ichor that used to be blood.  It stained the gauze like ink, swirling across in strange fractals unlike any normal liquid. He turned away. If he looked at that for too long, he might…

There was a knocking at the door.  “Open up!” shouted a gruff voice from the other side.

“We’re a little busy in here!” T.V. called impatiently.  “Come back later!”

“Get out here, you coward,” the voice responded with a canine growl.  “Don’t make me bust down this door; it’d be a shame to damage two antiques.”

“Big whoop!” replied Robin.  Zhe lost zhir grip on the nailed-down couch zhe had been hiding behind, and the middle of zhir long body was suddenly stretched closer to the vortex.  “Wh oagh!”

Thinking quickly, Macy picked up the lamp now hovering above the endtable, ripped the cord out of its socket, and threw it at Robin.  It knocked zhir out of the air and back down to the couch, where zhe was able to grab ahold of one of the feet and shrink down to zhir compressed size again so as to better hide behind the couch.  “Be careful, Robin!” she cried out.

Then she realized she was no longer holding onto the endtable and was pulled toward the vortex.

A voice emanated from within.  “<SOON>,” the voice bellowed in Korean, as Macy was drawn inexorably toward it.  She blindly reached out with her feet to find something — anything — to anchor herself down with.  Something caught, but it wasn’t heavy enough and was simply pulled with her instead. An eye appeared in the center of the vortex and opened up.  “<I’M GONNA TURN THIS WHOLE WORLD INSIDE-OUT.>”

Five hours earlier…

Macy caught up with Robin, panting.  She brushed an errant tree branch aside, shivering as its leaves tickled her shell.  “Don’t get too far ahead of me,” she complained.

“Don’t dally by the rosebushes,” countered Robin.  “We have to get there before the snake moves.”

“What snake?  Get where?”

Robin parted a drape of vines before them, revealing a quiet blue pond in a small grassy glade with a rock beside it on which a snake was tanning itself.  The sounds and smells of the forest of the Valley of Moths still filled Macy’s ears, but the aura of the pond seemed to dim them. For the most part, there was only the sound of the wind through the trees, the smell of clear water, the warm feeling of sun on her carapace.

“I had to get here while the snake was tanning,” explained Robin.  “In the afternoon, as the trees’ shadows begin to approach the rock, sie always goes back into the pond.”


“All snakes use sie/sir pronouns; didn’t you know that?”  Robin said this like it was obvious, so Macy simply nodded.  Robin could never tell when other people were messing with zhir, so, possibly as an act of petty vengeance, zhe never made it clear when zhe was messing with anyone else.

“And that would be a bad thing because…?”  Macy examined the snake. It stuck out its tongue, tasting the air, but evidently decided Macy wasn’t a big enough threat to move.  Its blue-and-yellow scales seemed like a distortion of the noon sky above, as if its skin were a canvas upon which it had drawn a picture of the sun in anticipation of basking in its warmth.

Rather than answering with words, Robin curled into a spiral cone on the opposite side of the bond, closed zhir eyes, and lit up zhir horn.  Streaks of colored light began materializing, cracks in the electromagnetic spectrum, surrounding the rainicorn-dog before flowing like rivulets into the still surface of the bond below.  As Macy approached the pond, she realized it wasn’t merely still, it was perfectly still — she could see with equal clarity her awed face’s reflection and the smooth chalky pebbles which lined its bottom.

The colors began to spread across the surface, melting Macy’s reflection into an oily rainbow and obscuring the pebbles below.  Everything was colors and shapes, and those shapes began rearranging themselves into bizarre patterns with no semblance to anything in the real world.  It reminded Macy of that incomprehensible triptych in the castle cathedral. Then the shapes took a new form, a fractal mosaic of rainbows.

And then Robin jumped into the middle.

There was no splash.  The surface of the pond was no longer a surface; the illusion of depth created by the fractal angles and dithering trajectories had seamlessly transitioned into actual depth, and where there was once a pool of water now lay a hole of iridescent crystal.

“Come iiiiiin…” Robin called, zhir voice becoming distant as it echoed against the smooth walls.  Macy took a deep breath, closed her eyes — a part of her mind still insisted there was water — and jumped in.

Thirty seconds of freefall passed before she gasped for breath, her eyes fluttering open involuntarily.  She was falling through a deep hole; scents of sulfur, metal, and ozone hit her nose, along with a bouquet of smells she couldn’t quite place.  Some were somewhat familiar nevertheless, wisps which drifted up from the Jugland mines sometimes when the breeze was right. Others were totally alien to her.  There wasn’t enough light for her to identify any potential source of the smell, even with her superior eyesight. As for sound, there was nothing at all, not even the expected sound of wind rushing past her ear-slits.  Its absence was the most terrifying thing of all. Ah yes, there was a sound: her nut heart beating so hard it wanted to escape from her chest.

Well, she could smell, and she was breathing, so clearly there was air; it was probably just thin.  Yes, that made sense, she told herself. She looked around again, taking out her cameraphone and turning on its flashlight.  As she suspected, the walls of this hole were crystals in every shape, size, and color, moving by too quickly to identify any individual gem.  The sky above was barely more than a pinhole; as she squinted, she noticed a faint watery gloss to the sun behind it, as if she were underwater.  So the pond was back. She was sure the snake would be happy to have hir favorite waterbathing spot back for when sie was done sunbathing.

Then Macy looked down and saw the light fast approaching.  She began to panic briefly —  What’s on the other side?  Am I going to— but then she saw a long spiraling silhouette below her with glowing horn and flapping jowl.  Robin was right below her, diving toward the light with aplomb. If Robin had led her down here, it couldn’t be too dangerous, probably, she hoped.  No, she knew. She trusted her friend.

Still, she closed her eyes once more and didn’t open them again until Robin caught her.

Zhe set her down at the edge of a silvery lake whose surface bowed out in the wrong direction.  Instantly, Macy recognized that bizarre behavior from her chemistry class and backed away, pushing Robin back with her.  “That’s mercury!” she hissed. “What are you trying to do, poison me?”

Robin shook zhir head.  “Look around, Macy. We’re here.”

She took in the rest of the scenery.  She realized that the edge of the lake, and indeed all of the ground she could see, was made of crystals of pink and green.  The two were in the middle of a great crystalline bowl, with mercury at the bottom and a crystal mountain ridge at the top. There was no sun; light seemed to emanate omnidirectionally from a vast pink sky.  In the distance, hills of yellow gems dotted a shiny blue plain; a road of multicolored quartz was paved from there, leading around the whole circumference of the bowl, and then spoking off in all directions, toward a jade forest, an onyx ravine, a padparadscha plateau.  Nestled in the hills was a towering city of glass and stone, streams of light shooting out in all directions at random intervals. “The Crystal Dimension,” she whispered, awestruck.

“Come on,” said Robin, taking Macy by the arm.  “You haven’t met my grandparents yet, right?”

Macy merely gave a thumbs-up as she continued to observe the tableau before her.  She had never seen anything so beautiful in her life. It was like a dream, except with less being haunted by the corpse of Blondie Palmerson, his pallid visage stalking her constantly, hiding behind every corner, in every shadow, on every unseen face, sneaking up behind her, his breath on her back as it prepared to—

Macy stumbled on the crest of the bowl and began tumbling down the quartz road.  As she rolled, she heard the sound of crystals snapping off in her wake. She reached the bottom several minutes later and stood up, only to see Robin not far behind her collecting the crystals.

“What?” zhe asked, putting a crystal in zhir mouth and breaking off the end with a crunch.  “They’re goof f’r magmc.”

Macy rolled her eyes and started walking down the road.  “I assume that city over there is where your grandparents live?”

“Mhm,” replied Robin, swallowing.  Zhe dropped the remaining crystals unceremoniously on the ground with a clatter.  “Fort Eisenkiesel. Named after the gem. It’s where my grandnanny grew up. Poppop moved there with Mommom after he quit the detective business to raise Dad and his siblings.”

“You have uncles?”  Macy raised her eyebrow.  “You never told me that.”

Robin shrugged.  “I like to stay mysterious.”  A beat. “Also I’m terrible at keeping in contact with people.”

“Your poppop doesn’t even know we’re coming, does he?”

“He will soon enough.”

As they approached the glistening city, Macy was able to make out more of the details.  The glass-and-stone construction of the buildings, she realized, was only for the newer edifices; the older ones were forged of crystal, like the rest of this dimension.  In particular, many of the oldest buildings — Macy assumed they were old, based on the rounded corners from frequent buffing of chip damage — were made of a deep red-orange gem she presumed to be eisenkiesel.  She could make out the distant figures of rainicorns, dogs, and the occasional rainicorn-dog milling about. Some pups were playing in a field while a matronly dachshund watched from the porch. A short rainicorn and long dog were performing street magic for a crowd of engaged onlookers.  From a stadium near the center of town she could see frequent beams of colorful magic, as well as rainicorns occasionally flying out and then back in; probably there was some sort of rainicorn-specific athletic event going on.

Robin led her through the winding streets, their intersections forming angles based not on any reasonable civil engineering but the shape of the crystal foundations upon which the city was built.  As zhe guided her into a residential district, the smells of domestic life hit Macy’s nose, feeling oddly pedestrian in such a wondrous place. Would her own world seem just as fascinating to someone from this plane of existence?  Did it to Robin? She’d have to ask about that when she got a chance.

They strolled up to a small, one-story house in a cul-de-sac ornamented with a single organic pear tree.  Robin shrank to zhir inside size and rang the doorbell, which sounded like a thousand silver spoons being tinked against a thousand half-full glasses of grape juice.

There was a crash, and then a clattering, and then loud stumbling, and then the doorknob rattled vigorously before it finally swung open.  Macy instantly knew that the rainicorn-dog standing before her was Robin’s poppop. They didn’t look alike at all — this man was tall for a dog but short for a rainicorn; his colors were light and somewhat desaturated, dominated by a pale blue-grey on top with pastel stripes below; he had no jowls to speak of, but the horn on his forehead was larger than Robin’s; and he was almost perfectly spherical, to a degree that put even Macy herself to shame.

“‘Sup?” said T.V.

“Hey, Poppop,” Robin said as zhe slithered past him, shrinking zhirself somewhat to fit between him and the doorframe.  He stepped out of the way as zhe turned back to him and asked, without a hint of irony, “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” he said in a chipper tone.  He gestured to Macy. “Is this your friend?  They can come in, too.”

She introduced herself as “Macadamia the Nut, she/her,” in a tone which she recognized as ‘prim and proper’ from her sitcoms but which a 21st-century viewer would recognize as ‘horribly offensive to all of England and parts of eastern Wales.’

“Well, hello then, Macadamia.”  He clasped her hand in both of his and shook it like a soda can.  “Can I just call you Damy?”

She blinked.  “Uh, I don’t see why not.”

“Sweet.  Why don’t you come inside and let me get you some tea?”

Macy stepped into a cozy but eclectic living room.  No two elements seemed to have been designed to share the same space.  One couch was old and ratty, with almost as much duct tape as felt showing; the other was sleek and modern.  There was a polished wooden rocking-chair with velvet cushions next to a fake electric fireplace, above which was hung a novelty painting of a winged dog (or perhaps a normal painting of a dog who happened to have wings).  A glass cabinet in the corner held a collection of action figures, Yulemas ornaments, and antique lamps, crowned by an ornate wooden box with a “DO NOT OPEN please” note taped on.  In the corner of the room, another lamp sat on a light blue endtable, emitting a flickering light.

On his way through the open doorway that led to the crowded kitchenette, T.V. reached his paw under the lampshade and fiddled with the bulb; its light became constant.  “Sorry about that,” he said, laughing. “This thing keeps coming loose. We should really get rid of it.” Then he wandered into the kitchenette and began to search through drawers, presumably looking for tea.

Macy tried to sit on the newer-looking couch several times, sliding off each time; crystal chic was apparently not designed with nut bodies in mind.  Sighing, she crossed the room and sat down on the older-looking couch, sinking in several inches with a creaking sound and a musty smell. She coughed.  “What’s up with this place?” she asked.

Robin lay down on the newer couch, stretching back to zhir normal size so zhe could take up its entire length.  “I dunno, I think it’s kinda nice.” Zhe yawned, spreading zhir arms and popping zhir shoulders. “There’s something authentic about it.”

Before Macy could say “What the glob does that mean?” T.V. called out from the kitchen.  “Hey, I forgot to ask what kind of tea you guys wanted. We have green tea, red tea, heliotrope tea, ginseng…”

“I’d like an entire pot of black coffee,” said Robin.  “With a stick of cinnamon.”

“Can you get me a green tea?” asked Macy.  “With honey, please.”

“Okay.”  T.V. shuffled through several drawers.  “Oh, looks like we’re out of honey; is sugar okay?”

“Of cou—”

“Whoops, never mind, found honey.”

As T.V. brought the kettle to boil and started percolating the coffee beans, Macy fixed her gaze on Robin.  “Hey,” she said quietly. “About what you said earlier?”

“What’d I say?”  Zhe sat up intently.

Macy shifted her weight, trying to find a spot where a spring wouldn’t poke her in the undercarapace.  No such spot existed. “You were trying to tell me not to run away.”

“You ran away?” came T.V.’s voice from the kitchenette.

“No!” Macy shouted back.  Then she leaned toward Robin.  “I should have listened. This was a terrible idea and I want to head back.”

“Don’t leave yet!” whined Robin.  “You haven’t even gotten your tea!  Plus you have to meet my mommom.”

Macy sat back.  The couch creaked once more under her.  “I… what are you talking about?”

Robin fixed Macy with an accusatory glare.  “You’re trying to weasel your way out of meeting my family.  Friends meet friends’ families! Except when those families are dirtbags.  But my grandparents aren’t dirtbags!”

“Okay, okay.”  Macy put her hands up in surrender.  “I’ll stay. But after this I’m heading back home, unless something suitably dramatic comes up.”

Just then there was a knock at the door.  “I’ll get it,” said Robin as zhe walked — no, flowed — to the door, fumbling with the latch before cracking the door open.  Macy could see why T.V. had jiggled it before letting them in earlier; the exposed locking mechanism on the door looked to be a veritable hodgepodge of mutually-destructive kludges.  It was almost as if it had been repeatedly broken and repaired over an extended period of time.

Macy took another look around the room.  Its eclectic nature seemed more foreboding now.  The sleek couch and endtable across the room from her were the only two things that seemed to go together.  She wondered why that was.

After a few moments and some bickering that Macy couldn’t make out, Robin closed the door and went back over to the couch.

“Who was it?” called T.V., setting down a stepstool so he could grab mugs from a high cabinet.

“Just some salespeople,” replied Robin.  “I told ‘em to step off.”

T.V. poured two mugs of tea and one of coffee, then carried them into the living room and handed each of the guests their respective drink.  “There’s more where that came from,” he said, taking his own mug of tea off of his head and setting it on his knee as he sat down on the rocking-chair, “so feel free to ask for seconds.  Ow that’s hot.”

Macy breathed across her tea.  The scent settled her mind. She was overreacting, of course, and she knew it — she was doing what Robin had done earlier that day with Pen and that guard captain whose name escaped her mind.  She wore green, that much Macy knew.

After waiting a few moments for it to cool, Macy finally took a sip of the tea.  It was hot against her lips, like fire or stew. She relished the warmth as she took in the sweetened tea with a wet slurping sound.  More so than the taste, it was the smooth, uncomplicated warmth of tea which she enjoyed.

“Hey Damy,” asked T.V.  Macy looked up at him, nodding in acknowledgement as she slurped her tea.  “Robin’s talked about you a bit in zhir prismgrams. You’re, uh… zhir friend, right?”

Macy swallowed.  “If you’re dancing around asking whether I’m the orphan, then yes, I am.  Was, rather; I was actually adopted a few weeks ago by the Duke of Nuts.”

Mazel Tov.

“I don’t speak Korean.”  T.V. laughed when she said this; she didn’t know what was funny.

“Hey, Macy,” said Robin, dangling zhir already-empty coffee mug to show off the dregs on the bottom.  “Tell him about how you want to be an adventurer.”

“Oh!”  Macy put her arms down, resting her tea on the couch without letting go of the handle, and turned to T.V.  “I want to be an adventurer.”

“Neat.”  He took a sip of his tea.  “Ow that’s hot. You know, I used to be a private investigator; that’s kind of like being an adventurer.  I could tell you about it.”

“Oh yes, please do!”  Macy downed a swig of tea, scalding the back of her throat.

T.V.’s eyes glazed over.  “Back in the old days, the three of us all lived together.  Me, Viola, and Jake Jr., that is. Kim Kil Whan had his own place, and Charlie was off with her secret project in the ruins on the other side of the planet.”  Suddenly an image sprang to life in the middle of the room: an office building with eclectic decorations and homey furnishings, with three rainicorn-dogs sitting on a couch looking over some papers.  Macy recognized the couch as the very one she was sitting on.

“We were as close as siblings,” he continued, his pupils dilated and his voice naught above a whisper, “which makes sense since we’re siblings.  We all pitched in to help refurbish the place, and I rebooted our grandparents’ detective agency to keep the lights on.” The image of T.V. walked over to the office and put up a placard reading “DETECTIVE TV”, then sat back on the desk, arms crossed, in a manner that brought to Macy’s mind images of the other detective she knew, Cash Daniels.  Outside the hallucinatory window, rain began to pour.

“I was a good detective, or so I’d like to think.  I learned a lot from studying the case files left behind after Joshua & Margaret Investigations closed down.  Being a private investigator is a tricky business, and sometimes you have to doubt even what your client tells you when they hire you, which is a tough thing to learn to do.”  A small green elephant walked into T.V.’s office, clearly distressed; she set a covered wicker picnic basket down on his desk, reached her feet up on the table to look at him, and began telling him something as he scribbled on a notepad in front of him.  Jake Jr., a pastel-colored rainicorn-dog with long blonde hair and a sunken face, walked into the room behind Tree Trunk and began stacking boxes. Macy moved out of the way to make room for her; she could no longer hear the creaking of the physical couch she sat on, so drowned out was it by the rain and the sound of boxes moving.  Despite this, she could not hear — or rather, could not understand — a word of T.V. and his client’s conversation.

“Still, with the help of my sisters, I was able to solve a bunch of cases and make a lot of peoples’ lives better.”  The image of T.V. looked inside the box, then sniffed. Macy couldn’t tell what he was smelling — what she was smelling — but whatever that smell was, it was unmistakable.  He immediately tore out the first page of his sketchbook and tossed it into the garbage, where it started twitching violently and overtaking the can. Jake Jr. grabbed a gizmo out of the box she was holding and the two of them rushed out of the room, Tree Trunks tailing them.  Soon the three were out of sight.

“But if you investigate enough crime, soon you come face to face with the really nasty kind of criminal.  The kind who won’t take ‘just put the pie down and we can talk through this like reasonable adults’ for an answer.”  The papery mess, now larger than the trash can itself, folded itself up and reassembled itself into the silhouette of a chihuahua, which then unfolded into five more, holding hands.  They materialized into a line of chihuahua ninjas dressed in all black, each of whom grabbed one of the boxes Jake Jr. had been stacking and then leapt through the window. Robin tried to follow but smacked into the glass.

“Eventually we were forced into a confrontation with the Rhodonite Ruffians, a big scary canine mafia which controlled most of the gem trade between Ooo and the Crystal Dimension.  That battle got so intense, our mom had to come help us.” Sure enough, there was Lady Rainicorn, holding a spear the size of her seven-meter body and standing her ground between a group of angry dogs and T.V.’s group, including two more who hadn’t been on the couch earlier, who were scampering through an abandoned building searching for cover that was ever-dwindling thanks to enemy mortar fire.  Viola took a few potshots at the entrenched Rhodonite forces and got her beautiful battle-dress singed in return. T.V. walked right up behind an enemy soldier, poked them on the shoulder, and then clocked them in the jaw. Macy felt a sympathetic twinge in her nut chin. By the time they hit the ground he had picked up their weapon and begun firing like a maddog.

“When the smoke cleared, the battle was won, but not all of the hostages had made it out, and Charlie was injured pretty badly.  She’s still in a coma to this day, actually.” T.V. ran through a collapsing doorway, whose other side transformed into a hospital bed where a dog who looked remarkably like a long-haired Jake was hooked up to an IV.  Dr. Minerva — or rather, one of her robotic avatars — and Dr. Princess were standing over, comparing notes. It was clear from their expressions that none of those notes were good. T.V. broke down sobbing at the foot of the bed; rain came from his face and began flooding the floor.  As the salty-sweet tide rose, for the second time that day, Macy found herself panicking because she should have been drowning but wasn’t.

“I was pretty shaken up myself; I couldn’t bring myself to go into open spaces for weeks.  Obviously I needed a change of pace, so I moved in with my girlfriend, who soon became my wife, Allowance.”  A stocky rainicorn with a teal jersey that complemented their green-heavy rainbow pattern — Allowance, Macy supposed — came and led T.V. away hoof in paw.  The hospital hallway turned into the hall of a chapel, where a worm in black and white clothes was saying something Macy couldn’t make out but somehow recognized as wedding vows.

Then the vision faded, and they were back in the disordered living room of T.V.  Macy finished the last of her tea; it had gone tepid. His pupils still dilated, T.V. said in a hoarse voice, “And the rest is history.”

Robin peeled zhir face off of the wall.  “Poppop, I told you not to do that! Macy has hallucinations.”

“Well, I mean you never told me that, but I’m sorry Damy.”

“Oh, no, it’s perfectly fine,” Macy assured him.  “That wasn’t anything like what happens to me. It felt less — I don’t know how to describe it.  It was fine though.” She held out her mug. “More tea, please?”

“Sure.”  He collected the mug and headed back into the kitchenette.

Macy turned to Robin.  “You never tell me anything about your family!”

“You never tell me anything about yours.”

Macy stood up, walked across the room, and slapped Robin.  She then attempted to sit down on the opposite end of the couch, the end next to the endtable, but slipped, spun in the air, and landed on her face.  But at least she was on the fancy couch now.

“Sorry,” Robin chuckled.  “But c’mon, you research this stuff for fun.  You should probably know more about my family than I do.”

“No, I shouldn’t,” said Macy, sliding into the arm of the couch to trick her body into going upright.  “I do , but I definitely shouldn’t.  You should talk to them more.”  She sighed, thinking once more about how she had exploded at her father.  Considering what had happened to T.V. and Charlie, he may have been right to stop her from doing more adventure.  Adventure is bad , she decided.  “Appreciate the family you have.”

“And not the jerks who only pretended to raise me because it would be socially unacceptable to do less than the bare minimum in public,” Robin finished.  Macy stared at zhir, eyes wide. “What?” zhe shrugged. “Don’t tell me I never told you about my biological p—”

“You never told me about your biological parents,” Macy half-shouted.  “You’ve mentioned that your dad’s a deadbeat and your mom’s weird in some unspecified way, but you always refused to talk about them in any more detail.  I thought you were traumatized!”

Robin took a sip of zhir coffee dregs.  “Maybe I am.”

Macy sighed and crossed her arms.  “When’s your mommom going to get here?”

“How should I know?  I never see her. Could be hours for all I know.”

Just then there was a jingling before the door swung open and the rainicorn from the end of T.V.’s vision walked into the house.  “<Honey, I’m home!>” she announced, hanging up a soaking-wet hat on a rack near the door.

“How did the, ah, game go?” asked T.V. as he came out of the kitchenette and gave Macy her second mug of green tea.

“<We won in a total cave-in, as usual.  Spirits 72, Jeju 34. We had a rough second quarter after an illegal check gave me a horn chip—>” she gestured to her horn, which indeed had a small crack in the side — “<but we got our sweet revenge.>”

“That’s wonderful, sweetie!” exclaimed T.V.  “Oh, by the way, these are our guests. You know Robin, obviously, but this is zhir friend, Damy.”  He leaned toward her, cupped his hand to his lips, and whispered, “She’s a marquess.”

Allowance nodded.  “<What’s a marquess?>”

“<The child of a duke,>” Robin explained.  “<It’s an Ooo thing. You know, that whole ‘royal tradition’ hullabaloo.  I’ve never really understood it. Personally, I think we should just dismantle the whole system and send all the nobles to the mines.>”

Macy nodded blankly.  “Yeah, whatever zhe said.”

“<Did you give them the tour?>” Allowance asked, heading over to the old couch and lying down on it.  When she did it, the creak sounded satisfying rather than disconcerting.

“Not yet,” replied T.V.  “I did give them tea.”

“<Give them the tour.>”

“Okay,” said T.V.  He gestured around the room, his arm sweeping from the once-again-flickering lamp across the couch to the fireplace to the other couch to the display cabinet topped with the box.  “This is our—” He paused, his arm still outstretched toward the cabinet, now trembling. “That’s the wrong box,” he mumbled.

“<What!?>” said Allowance.  “What?” said Macy.

“That’s the wrong box,” he said again, more forcefully.  He ran into the kitchenette, came out with a stepstool, and climbed up to take the box down from atop the cabinet.  He opened it, then threw it on the ground in disgust; it was empty.

“What’s the right box, then?” asked Robin, moving over to inspect the box on the ground.  Zhe picked it up and peered in, closing one eye. “This thing’s got some really shoddy craftsmanship.  The inside isn’t smooth at all.” Zhe tossed it over zhir shoulder; it landed right where zhe had been sitting before and then slid over to Macy, who nervously shoved it under the chalcedony endtable with her foot, afraid it could knock her off.

“It’s been stolen.  Probably Lee’s old friends.”

“<That wannabe terrorist?>” asked Allowance, bolting upright.  “<Wasn’t he killed by the very same weapon that was supposed to be in that box over thirty years ago?>”

“That’s what we thought, but we don’t actually know what it does.  Maybe they do.” He went over to a closet behind the hat rack and grabbed a thick yellow poncho.  “Robin, Damy, will you two be alright here for a while?”

“Yeah,” said Robin.

“I have no idea what’s going on, but yeah,” agreed Macy.

“Also,” T.V. added, stuffing tools from a hanging wire basket into the poncho’s bulky pockets, “could you do me a favor and prismgram my mom?  Ask her to get over here as quickly as she can.”

“<If we’re looking for Lee’s buddies, I know who to ask,>” said Allowance as she grabbed a heavy green jacket that seemed to be armored.  “<One of my teammates’ siblings has connections in the underground. I’ve been holding off on saying anything about it because I figured something like this might happen eventually.>”

T.V. bent over and kissed her on the cheek.  “That’s why I love you, Lowie.” Then he dashed out the door, his wife right behind him.

Robin grabbed a crystal from the display cabinet — Macy realized it must be  a prismgram crystal — and sprawled out on the rickety old couch, mimicking zhir mommom.  “<Look at me, Macy,>” zhe said in a poor imitation of Allowance’s gruff, nasally accent. “<I’m a sports star, so I get the entire couch to myself!>”

Macy sipped her tea.  “What?”


Allowance put a hoof over her husband’s mouth to silence the exclamation.  They had reached the warehouse her contact had told them to find — a storage facility for a line of gadgets that were high end when T.V. was still a detective.  They were crouched on an upper balcony behind a box of cameraphones, observing a heated discussion on the main floor.

“I can’t believe it,” he whispered, his voice muffled by the hoof over his lips.  “ They’re working with them?

She nodded solemnly.  “<Not very well, from the sounds of it.>”  As if to reinforce this, the dogs and rainicorns down below increased the volume of their dissenting shouts.  The two spies could make out the words “tonight,” “after all these years,” and “<can’t trust>”, but everything else was still too hectic to understand.

“Of course they’re not getting along smoothly; they’re an anarchist ring and a once-powerful crime syndicate.  I’m just surprised they can get along at all.” It was just T.V.’s luck that Lee’s former buddies had just so happened to strike a deal with what remained of the Rhodonite Ruffians.  He had so badly wanted to disbelieve Allowance’s friend.

Just then there was a horrid scrape of crystal on crystal as one of the apparent leaders of the groups below, a matronly dachshund, drew a jagged cassiterite sword from a well-concealed sheath and yelped something incomprehensible at the bored-looking rainicorn across the table from her.  Around the warehouse, people began moving about with more urgency and haste. “<We need to move now,>” urged Allowance; she and T.V. raced into the upper hallway and ducked into a cramped maintanence closet just as panicked footsteps rounded the corner behind them.

Once they were reasonably confident nobody was going to overhear them, Allowance cleared some space in the center of the room and illuminated the small space with her horn.  A trinkle of rainbow magic leaked from the chip in the keratinous appendage, but she didn’t seem to notice. “<We need to figure out where they might have stashed the Mergence of Destruction,>” she said.  “Skip to de skedaddle <and do your thing!>”

T.V. pressed his hands against his head and scrunched his face.  “Come on, come on, come on! If I were a sandwich, where would I be?”

When he opened his eyes, the supply closet was gone.  He was standing in the same half-demolished building from his vision earlier that day; the battle was still raging on.  He was holding a shoulder-mounted cannon made of shadow agate, whose inner shadow — an illusion formed by the gem’s indeterminate translucence — framed the explosive projectile within like a dark halo.  Allowance was guarding him in jasper plate armor, knocking aside Lady Rainicorn’s furious spear jabs with a mace and countering her magical blasts before they could reach him.

He scanned the hectic battlefield for threats.  Beyond about twenty feet out, it was all empty space and formless blobs of chaos still hastily assembling themselves into something resembling a possible version of reality.  The one exception was an outcropping far in the distance where he could just barely make out the figure of a rainicorn-dog writing symbols in dust and broken class on a cracked cement floor.

He fired.

Immediately, a building began materializing just on time to collapse, starting with the far side where the figure —  Charlie , he had to remind himself — now lay unconscious and burning.  Lady gasped and ran towards her; Allowance managed to get in a solid whack with her mace, breaking Lady’s leg with an uncomfortable squelch.  Unable to reload quickly enough, T.V. could do nothing but watch as Lady flew over to her daughter, picked up her limp body, and phased through the wall with her just before that whole section of the building became nothing more than a rapidly-approaching pile of rubble.

The wave of destruction crashed toward T.V. and Allowance, breaking up the ground beneath their feet and causing them to fall into infinite darkness.  As he was falling, he saw the giant form of the hospital bed growing larger beneath them, his sister lying still and staring directly at him, her brows furrowed and her mouth bent into a hostile frown.  He realized he was still holding onto his weapon and tried to throw it, but the boundary between his hands and the weapon was now gone; it grew heavier on the ends of his arms, pulling him ever faster toward the bed as it grew larger.

He tried to turn away, but he felt an arm on his shoulder guide his vision toward Charlie once more.  “<Don’t run,>” Allowance whispered in his ear. “<You have to acknowledge it or you’ll be caught in a loop.>”  He breathed in the familiar scent of hospital chemicals, willed his heart to slow down just enough to not feel like a woodpecker was trapped in his chest, and stared back into his sister’s glazed-over eyes.

Then he landed on the empty hospital bed.  It was he who was hooked up to the IV, one leg cast and suspended, one arm dangling numb over the side of the bed.  He shifted his shoulder, hoping the arm would wake up soon.

A towering dachshund walked through the hospital door, not looking very matronly at all.  “Pull yourself together—” she boomed before her voice temporarily dissolved into static. “The jisa ’s stallions are on our fluffy little tails after that disaster of a fight.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he croaked.  He realized that the hospital bed was in a cold, damp, acrid underground bunker.  Something green was growing in the corner that he didn’t think was supposed to. A pungent lantana flower bloomed on Allowance’s nose before falling off to reveal a handlebar mustache.

“You’re damn right you’re sorry.  You’re a crack shot, Pugliacci, but you should have aimed for that meddlesome detective instead of that inscrutable sister of his.”  ‘Sir’ jabbed a paw at Allowance, who was sitting on the floor tapping her foot to something in her headphones. “At least your boyfriend got a solid whack in on that tranch Lady Rainicorn.”

Allowance raised a hand in acknowledgement and said, “‘Sup,” in the voice she always used to imitate men — her normal voice but pitched up.

“Oh, I’ll tell you ‘sup.  ‘Sup is that you’re dancing on celestine.  If you don’t prove your worth, you can consider yourself out of the Ruffians for good.  And I’m sure you’re very familiar with our retirement plan.” She said the words “retirement plan” the way someone might say “fish bicycle” in an alternate universe where the phrase “fish bicycle” was a euphemism for death.  Then she exploded into shadowy wisps and vanished as the floor of the bunker opened down and T.V.’s hospital bed slid into a back alley down below.

The cast melted away like butter as T.V. and Allowance touched down in the alleyway, crystal dust jabbing painfully into the soles of their paws/hooves.  “Boss Gasket is right,” T.V. moaned, plucking a lapis shard from his toe. “This is all my fault.”

“<That’s not true,>” insisted Allowance, still in that high-pitched voice.  “<You did what you could and lost anyway. That’s life, pal. Nobody can win every game.>”

“Well, we’ve lost this one pretty bad,” he said, peering out the corner of the alleyway.  He saw his own head poking out about a block down. The distant smell of fresh grass made his stomach growl.  “I need a trump card. And a sandwich.”

“<Why not both?>” came a voice even more nasally than Allowance’s.  T.V. ducked back into the club he’d been standing in the whole time, and next to Allowance was a beagle in a bowler hat, sitting on a newspaper and reading a chair.

“<Pugliacci, this is Boomer,>” said Allowance.  “<He says he also wants to get back at that detective, and he has a plan to do so.>”

Boomer smiled, showing off rows of shark teeth which went much further back than the base of his skull would allow.  “<Have you ever heard of the Crystal Mergence of Destruction?>”

“So what is it?”

Robin stared at Macy like the question offended zhir as zhe handed her a third mug of tea.  “What is what?”

“What we were just talking about.  The thing that should have been in the box.  The thing you just told Lady Rainicorn was missing!  What is it?”

Robin shrugged as zhe flopped back onto the couch, doing a swan dive so that zhe bounced a couple times on impact; the springs creaked loudly in protest, not used to such energized lounging.  “Dunno. Some kinda thing I guess. Probably boring.”

Macy loudly swallowed her tea and then breathed out a burst of hot, fragrant breath.  “I don’t believe that you don’t at least have a guess as to what it could be.”

Robin stared at the ceiling for a moment.  “You know what’s always weirded me out?”


“Stucco.  I don’t really get why people find it attractive.  It’s just lumpy beige plaster you put on the ceiling.”

Macy attempted a leg-tilt but ended up sliding onto her side instead, having forgotten that she was on a slippery couch.  “The ceiling here isn’t even stucco.”

“Yeah, I guess not.  It’s kinda like stucco though.”  Robin then looked directly into Macy’s eyes, going so far as to tilt zhir head sideways to match the nut’s, and spoke with more gravitas than Macy had ever heard zhir use.  “The Crystal Mergence of Destruction.”


“That’s what I think was in the box.  It’s a powerful artifact my grandnanny helped steal from Fort Eisenkiesel — and by that I mean the actual military base the town is named after.”

Macy sat up with some difficulty, bracing her arm against the endtable to stop herself from falling over again.

Robin continued.  “Presumably it’s some kind of powerful weapon.  We’re not sure exactly what it does, but Grandnanny never intended to find out.  She betrayed her dirtbag ex-boyfriend Lee, the scumbag who made the plans to steal it in the first place, and hid it away in a farmhouse in Ooo.  Lee eventually recovered it, kidnapping Poppop in the process, but when he tried to use it, he got sucked inside it or something. It would have taken Poppop and Grandnanny, too, but ol’ Poppop managed to seal it inside of that box — or,” zhe added, “apparently a different box that just looks like that one.”

Macy took a long drink from her tea, which had somehow escaped spilling throughout the whole ordeal.  She let Robin’s story sink in as it poured down her throat. “Wow,” she said finally. “That sounds pretty important.  Maybe…” She glanced at the foot of the front door. “Maybe we should have gone with them to help, if it’s that important.”

“Nah.”  Robin sank deeper into the couch.  “They’ve got this. Mommom’s an athlete; she can body-check anyone who tries to give ‘em trouble.  Besides, you’re just a kid, and I’ve got to stay here to look after you.”

Macy wanted to say, “I’m not a kid,” but based on precedent that would result in her immediately falling off the couch, which would probably cause her to spill her tea.  Instead, she said, “I guess you’re right.” After all, she had decided on a whim that adventure was bad, and what kind of person was she if she didn’t stick by that decision?

“You’re a genius, Pugliacci!” exclaimed Boss Gasket as she furiously shook his paw, causing his whole body to vibrate.  “This plan is amazing!”  She slapped him on the back, halting his shivers. “I’m so glad I don’t have to show you our retirement plan.”

T.V. tugged at the collar of the suit he was wearing and always had been wearing and likely always would be wearing.  Since the tech stored in the warehouse they were hiding in was obsolete, the company that owned it didn’t bother to air condition it properly, meaning the air was warm and musty.  “What, hehe, is the plan?”

“We steal the Mergence of Destruction and use it to—” her explanation dissolved into static once more.  “Of course once we take it we won’t have long, so we should hold off on that part until everything else is ready.  That should be about fifteen years, give or take a hot sauna. It all depends on the Mergence.”

“<It’ll be in a box like this,>” said Allowance, her mustache now ten times as massive and her voice two octaves higher.  She held up a box identical to the box that was almost identical to the box that should have housed the Mergence. “<I made this one myself.>”

Gasket produced another box, slightly lighter than the other and with a less shoddily-rendered pattern.  “Since the real box could be locked or alarmed, you should just swap boxes.”

T.V. walked over to them, picked up a box in each hand, and switched them around.  “Now what?”

“Now take that box down to Vault C, in the warehouse basement.”  She snapped her fingers, and Allowance phased straight down through the floor without moving.  T.V., startled, fell backwards and clattered against a rack of cleaning supplies someone had left in the middle of the warehouse floor.  “And pick those up,” finished Gasket.

Then T.V. blinked twice and the vision ended.  He was back in the supply closet, covered in cleaning supplies, while a worried Allowance glanced furtively out the cracked door.

“I think I know where to go,” he said, picking himself up and fixing up the cabinet behind him.  He took some duct tape out of a poncho pocket and covered up a crack in the shelf. “They took the box down to Vault—.”

“I saw,” hissed Allowance.  “But I think some of the guards heard you crashing down at the end there.”  She leapt into the air and tackled him through the floor, phasing through to the level below — and into a break room filled with armed dogs and rainicorns, playing cards and drinking orange soda.

There were five tense seconds while the people in the room looked around in confusion, before the first knife was thrown.

Allowance immediately shoved T.V. out of the way, going partially intangible so that the knife phased through her.  T.V. had never been more glad he’d married an athlete. He didn’t have much time to be glad about that, though, as the rest of the gangsters were taking out their weapons — judging by how many had them close at hand, the card games had gotten heated — and advancing toward the two interlopers.

T.V. landed sideways on the ground; the impact knocked the breath out of him.  Instinctively he twisted and shoved off, boosting himself into a sprint. He saw a glint out of the corner of his eye and ducked as a second knife grazed his ear.  He turned his duck into a roll to dodge under a swinging baton, kicking it out of the assailant’s hand as his wife caught up and knocked them back with her horn.

She picked T.V. up and attempted to charge intangibly through the wall, but instead she smacked into it and crumbled on the ground, clutching her forehead.  An unfamiliar rainicorn in a red-and-black jacket came through the wall — they must have been the one to block Allowance. They lowered their horn toward her neck and started charging a bolt of rainbow-sprinkle energy at the tip.

Enraged, T.V. picked up the rainicorn by the shoulders.  The effort felt like it would burn up his back, but he ignored this as he stepped in a small circle, swinging the rainicorn over his head before flinging them at the approaching gangsters.  They all landed in a heap accompanied a loud crack, buried now by broken tables and scattered playing cards. Clearing her head, Allowance took the opportunity to pick up T.V. once more and bust through the room’s actual door with her shoulder.

T.V. didn’t wait to catch his breath; they began racing down the hallway as he took from his pocket the map they had stolen when they first snuck into the facility.  The blaring of the alarms, the pounding of armored feet, and the distant echoes of escalating infighting did nothing to drown out the warm sound of his heart in his ears.  His shoulders involuntarily flexed, causing him to almost drop the map as he unfolded it and attempted to chart a course to Vault C.

“Take a right up here,” he said.  “There’ll be an elevator—”

She held up a hoof to stop him, resulting in an accidental clotheslining as he failed to look up from his map in time.  Glaring down at him were two chihuahuas in complementing brown-and-blue uniforms, although only one had a black-and-red armband; each held a silver rapier perfectly upright.

“Oh hey,” said T.V., forcing himself to sound unreasonably casual so that he wouldn’t sound unreasonably panicked.  “I remember arresting you guys. You’re the Sisters Sergeant, the self-proclaimed greatest duelists in the Cry—”

“Silence!” barked the one on the left, her brown eyes gleaming with hate.  She turned to Allowance, sword still held high. “Ve are ze Sisters Sergeant,” she said dramatically, “ze greatest duelists in ze Crystal Dimension.  I am Joëlle.”

“And I am Noëlle,” said the other, her blue-grey eyes gleaming with excitement as she stepped forward to match her sister.

Then, simultaneously, they shouted, “And ve are here to strike—” they crashed their swords together, each keeping one hand behind their back as if to demonstrate how little effort they needed to put into defeating the peons before them — “jou down!”

Sighing, Allowance reached up to the ceiling, tearing off a piece of piping with an ear-splitting creak, and clasped it like a baton at the ready.  “<This shouldn’t take long.>” T.V. continued studying the map.

He had to roll to the side to avoid being kicked as Noëlle danced backwards; he bumped into a wall, aggravating his already aching shoulder, and decided to sit up.  The two fencers were just like he remembered — Joëlle kept Allowance on the defensive with precise thrusts and agile parries, never moving half an inch more than was strictly necessary; Noëlle weaved in and out, leaping dramatically over Allowance’s powerful tail and getting in weak but cumulative jabs on non-vital areas to throw off her opponent’s concentration.  It wasn’t regulation fencing and it certainly wasn’t dueling, but nobody told them that twice. It was all Allowance could do to focus on blocking the most threatening attacks, relying on partial intangibility for everything else.

Unfortunately for the Sisters Sergeant, Allowance was an athlete and knew a thing or two about fighting.  She let Noëlle score a non-critical hit, and in the moment between the rapier making contact and the fencer making her next move, she smacked her with her rear hoof, knocking her into the wall.  Free of that distraction, she was able to focus on Joëlle’s movements, sweeping her paws out from under her with a deft hoof-swipe and knocking her on her doggy rear. Noëlle, enraged, charged forward, only to get blinded by a nonchalant tail attack.

T.V. traced the planned route with his claw.  If his guesses about where most of the guards would be stationed were right, then this path would give them the best chance to retrieve the Mergence quickly without running into too many, especially if the ever-growing sounds of infighting were any indication as to the level of cohesion the forces in the warehouse had.  “Alright,” he muttered, taking a pen out from one of his poncho pockets, “let’s just make sure—”

Then a silver rapier came down right in front of his face, tearing through the flimsy map like a butterknife through knifebutter.  His eyes slowly moved up from the point of the rapier, along the arm where tufts of fur were torn off from the strugger, past the necklace with symbolic inlaid rhodonites, to the furious face of Joëlle Sergeant.

Right before her eyes rolled up as she was clonked on the back of the head by Allowance’s bar.

Allowance reached out a hand to help T.V. up; he gathered up the map pieces in one hand and accepted her help with the other, attempting to clear his mind so he could focus on the heist rather than the image of the rapier in front of his nose.  “You really did take care of both of them pretty quickly,” said T.V. “I thought it’d take longer.”

“<So did I,>” Allowance confessed between deep breaths, “<but Noëlle went down pretty easily.>”

T.V. did a knee-bent head-tilt.  “Really? That doesn’t sound Like Noël look out!

Noëlle, who had been lying on the ground behind Allowance, suddenly sprung up from her feint of a faint and jammed her rapier into the crack in Allowance’s horn.  Whether this was an uncharacteristically precise thrust from the chihuahua or simply a stroke of bad luck, nobody could say. Either way, the rainicorn screamed in pain and clasped her horn as the fencer stood smugly above her.

“Zat’ll teach jou for standing in ze vay of ze Sisters Sergeant, ze greatest duelists in the Cry—”

T.V. whacked her on the nose with the rolled-up map halves.  She spun around and ran away, wiping her face with her black-and-red armband.

“Let’s go,” wheezed T.V., slinging Allowance over his shoulder.  “Aw geez, you’ve got a lot of muscle.” He began trudging down the hallway until he came to a set of closed elevator doors; he set Allowance down, took out the duct tape from before, and wrapped it around her horn.  “That should hold it in place.” And he let himself pant, tasting the dry air of the warehouse, the hormonal smell of fear, and the million other scents that his powerful rainicorn-dog nose and tongue could pick up on.

T.V. had barely collected his breath when Allowance sprang into action once again, phasing her head through the elevator doors.  She poked out just long enough to say, “<It’s below us,>” before jumping through entirely; after a few moments, he heard an electronic ding, and the doors opened to reveal Allowance floating in an empty shaft as promised, holding onto a series of thick cables.

“It’s time to hack the elevator,” said T.V, reached into his pockets to pull out out a tool Jake Jr. had always made fun of him for bringing everywhere — a large diamond hacksaw.  He leapt into the elevator shaft, grabbed onto the cords, and started hacksawing. With Allowance’s considerable help, he was able to sever the cables; Allowance caught him just as he was about to fall, and they heard the elevator car hit the bottom with an uncomfortable, echoing crash.  Allowance whisked T.V. through another set of closed elevator doors below them, and he once again took the lead.

As he expected, the central hall of the basement was taken up by a large firefight between anarchists and Ruffians, each group presumably suspecting the other of having betrayed them in order to take the prize for themselves.  He and Allowance busted through a series of back doors to navigate around to Vault C without ever setting hoof/paw in the middle of that kerfluffle.

At last, they were there.  T.V. instantly recognized the ornate wooden box his mother had placed the Mergence in all those many years ago; it was placed near the edge of the room, perhaps to look inconspicuous among the piles and piles of unrelated paraphernalia.  He casually walked forward, picking up the box gingerly, as if it were a baby he didn’t want to wake.

Standing right behind the box, her face twisted into a smirk, was a familiar dachshund holding a wicked black blade.  “So it was you,” she snarled.  “That was gonna be my fourth guess.”

“Oh hey, Ms. Gasket,” said T.V. in the tone of voice one would use upon greeting a casual acquaintance in a grocery store.  “You mind if I take this box?”

“Yes.”  And then she swung at him.

T.V. barely had time to dodge the worst of it.  The jagged crystal still sliced his arm, sending a shooting pain up his veins.  He had already learned the hard way that crystal was painful; that foreknowledge didn’t make it any less so.  The box fell out of his hands as he winced, backing up, his tail between his legs. He took a roll of gauze and some antiseptic from one of his pockets and began dressing his wound.  The sting of the antiseptic felt like a gentle massage in comparison to the burning pain of the cut.

As he was wrapping the gauze, feeling it moisten with blood, he forced himself to glance up.  Allowance was dueling Gasket as she had with Noëlle and Joëlle, but despite the Sisters’ claims, Gasket was clearly the better swordsdog.  She got Allowance off balance with a tricky feint and then shoved her back; she deflected an oncoming blow and then used the momentum to wrench the rainicorn-dog’s arm; she scored a slice on the cheek that leaked iridescent blood.

Soon, Allowance was backed up against a wall.  Sensing that playing defense was a losing game, she made a desperate jab, but distracted as she was from the pain of the cut on her cheek, she went off-center.  Gasket easily dodged the strike, grabbing the frog of Allowance’s hoof and twisting. The bar landed on the floor; the dachshund kicked it up into the air with her hind leg and caught it in her off-paw.

“Well, well, well,” she said as she tucked the bar under her arm.  T.V. silently got up and began creeping up behind her. “It looks like this is the end of the line.”  She raised the cassiterite blade and aimed it at the rainicorn’s throat. “Unless you can give me a reason as to why I should let you live.”

Suddenly T.V. leapt forward, landing right behind Gasket and taking out a piece of duct tape.  He reached over her head and stretched it over her eyes. She effortlessly shimmied her sword in front of her face and sliced the tape in twain, but that was enough of an opening for Allowance to escape; dashing between Gasket’s legs, she grabbed T.V. and the box and left the way they came.

Getting out proved easier than getting in.  If there had only been two groups, then by now guards would be swarming every exit point, but instead they had conglomerated into the center of the facility for easy infighting.  It was a cinch to navigate smaller passages and maintenance hallways to work their way back to the side entrance they had come from. In fact, despite the throbbing from their various injuries making it difficult to keep a careful eye out for patrols, they didn’t run into anyone else until they reached said entrance.

Standing there, leaning on his mace as if he had been waiting for them, was a rainicorn with a rhodonite necklace and a glorious handlebar mustache.  The sight of the mustache immediately sent shivers down T.V.’s spine, more so than even the blood loss. He stepped behind Allowance and trembled.

The mustachioed rainicorn threw his maul to the side and opened the door, gesturing for them to go through.

Never one to look a horse’s gift in the mouth, T.V. dashed out the door, Allowance at his heels.  It was only when they were around the corner, panting and heaving in a back-alley and further dressing up their wounds for the trip home, that he allowed himself to ask the obvious question.  “Why did he let us go?”

Allowance turned back to face the door, a wistful expression on her face, as her husband applied a bandage to her cheek.  “<Perhaps there is something he views as more important than success.>” She didn’t sound like she was sure what that meant, so he didn’t bother asking.

After taking no more than thirty seconds to slow their racing hearts, they began to head back to their house, taking side streets and detours partly to avoid getting odd looks and partly out of a paranoia that wasn’t entirely rational.  Every passerby with a designer handbag could be a Ruffian, every pedestrian with wild hair and a twitch could be one of Lee’s anarchists, every shadow could hide an enemy. T.V. didn’t let himself take more than half a breath at a time.

He was looking behind, checking for the fifty-seventh time that they weren’t being followed, when he crashed into a halted Allowance.  He turned around to see her trembling as, from behind a dumpster in the side alley they were cutting through, two dogs stepped out wearing armored jackets with colorful polka-dot patterns and ornate hard hats.  One, a creamy-brown bulldog, held two mean-looking rhodonite daggers; the other wielded a large, two-handed crossbow.

“Hey, Bulcinella,” said the one with the crossbow.  “Look what just dropped into our feeding-bowls. It’s the grand prize.”

“Sure is, Pugliacci,” agreed the one with the daggers.  “A bit dry in the nose, too. Looks like the universe is repaying us for our patience.”

Pugliacci side-eyed his companion.  “No, it’s not the universe’s doing, it’s the plan’s doing.”

“Don’t not thank the universe,” warned Bulcinella.  “That’s bad juju.”

“Look, can we just beat them up and take the Mergence?”

“Only if you admit—”

And then Allowance hit Bulcinella with a blast of rainbow-sprinkle energy, knocking him on his doggy rear.

Four hours earlier…

Pugliacci and Bulcinella stood perched on the roof of a house, observing the front door of T.V. and Allowance’s domicile.  Allowance was out of the house at the moment, but T.V. was still at home; they could see him moving around through the curtains.

“What do you think?” asked Bulcinella.  “Should we give him the ol’ one-two?”

Pugliacci shook his head.  “No, too risky. We don’t want this to come to blows if we can help it.  Don’t want the jisa ’s stallions on our fluffy little tails like they were seventeen years ago.  No, let’s go with the old traveling-salesman routine.”

“Remind we what we’re supposed to be selling?”

Pugliacci grinned.  “An offer he can’t refuse.”

“Well, zhe refused it.”  Pugliacci plopped down on the edge of the roof and sighed.  “I knew we should have made our move before those two kids entered the scene.”

“Well, it’s not like we could have realistically avoided that,” said Bulcinella.  “I guess this is just the universe’s way of—”

“Shut up about the globforsaken universe, man!”  Pugliacci turned to face away from his companion.  “It should have worked out. It was supposed to be simple, ya know?  Make him think we’d captured his wife, get him to follow us out of the house, and then he won’t have time to figure out that my boyfriend’s box is a fake.”  He glanced up at the infinite pink expanse and sighed. “Hey, are we the the bad guys, Bulcinella?”

“Nah, I wouldn’t worry about that.”

“Well, I mean, think about it.  We just tried to tell a retired detective we kidnapped his wife just to distract him from figuring out we stole a superweapon from his house.”

Bulcinella laughed and slapped Pugliacci on the back.  “Nah.”

Pugliacci turned around.  “Why not?”

“‘Cause nah.”  He grabbed a dagger from his fest and unscrewed the hilt; the dagger concealed a flask.  He handed it to Pugliacci. “Here, why don’t you have some tonic water to calm your nerves, and then we’ll do my plan.”

Pugliacci bottoms-upped the flask, wincing at the bitter taste.  It was like his tongue was being stabbed by some kind of stabbing implement.  “Alright,” he said, cringing. “But don’t blame me if you get knocked on your doggy rear.”

Bulcinella had just gotten knocked on his doggy rear, dropping his reflective red daggers on the ground.  Light was still leaking from the duct tape on the offending rainicorn’s horn as she doubled over and clutched her forehead.  The smell of garbage from the nearby dumpster seemed to intensify. Pugliacci readied his crossbow.

Just as he fired, T.V. tackled Allowance out of the way, taking a bolt to the arm that caused him to yelp and stagger.  The rainicorn-dog felt a piercing pain that brought to mind similar pains in his past — damage taken during his last fight against the Ruffians, shrapnel from a crash go-karting with his dad, getting his arm stuck in a revolving door in the Wildberry Kingdom.  Still, a tiny part of him was relieved that both of his arms had gotten injured; the asymmetry had been bothering him.

Standing up, Bulcinella grabbed two more daggers from his belt and threw them at Allowance, one after the other.  She tried to go temporarily intangible, but her horn flared up again and the daggers ended up trapped inside her; she let out a sharp whinny.  T.V. grabbed them by their hilts and shouted, “Now!” With a grimace, Allowance released the daggers; T.V. launched one at Pugliacci with unexpected speed, and it was all the pug could to to dodge out of the way.

As he dodged he heard a scrape, looked down, and saw that the dagger had grazed his precious crossbow.  Growling, he reloaded; this former detective must pay .  Hurting an innocent person he’d be fine with, but hurting a poor defenseless crossbow was a step too far.

T.V. was glad he had only thrown the one dagger, for when Bulcinella lunged toward him he needed the other to block the bulldog’s attacks.  It had been over a decade and a half since he had needed to defend himself like this, so both his eyes and his arm were out of practice. Naturally, Gasket’s wound chose now to flare up.  It was all he could do to keep from howling in pain and stay focused on the fight.

Allowance scooped up the Mergence, which had fallen out of its box when T.V. had been hit with the crossbow bolt.  It didn’t seem to be doing anything yet, and she didn’t want to find out what would happen when it did. She was about to pick up the box too when she noticed her husband’s situation.  She flew over to him and attempted to pick him up; then she heard a crack, felt a sharp pain, and blacked out.

A second bolt from Pugliacci’s crossbow had impacted Allowance’s horn, causing another crack to spread across it.  T.V.’s own horn flared up empathetically, and he was filled with a blinding fury.

Thinking quickly, he dropped the dagger he was using to defend himself so he could grab both of Bulcinella’s wrists instead.  He reached up a leg and slammed his belt of daggers to the floor, twisted his wrists to make him drop the other two, and then kicked them all away.  He then flipped the bulldog over his head and into his companion, picked up Allowance, and ran down the alleyway. His back wanted to kill him worse than the thugs, but adrenaline pulled him through.

By the time Pugliacci had thrown the dumbfounded Bulcinello off of him, T.V. had kicked over the dumpster before them.  More affronted than enraged, he began clamoring over the heap of garbage bags, ignoring the tantalizing stench within. He’d have time to roll around in it later.

Behind him, Bulcinello moaned, “Hey, I think the universe is sending mixed messages.”

Pugliacci dropped to the other side of the pile, where he could just barely hear his quarry scampering off in the distance.  He took a large whiff, just barely able to make out their scent trail beneath the smell of garbage. “Shut up about the universe.”

Allowance had just regained consciousness when Macy, in response to T.V.’s furious pounding, and with some difficulty, opened the door.  He quickly rushed past the nut with no more greeting than a “Hello excuse me,” resting his wife on the rocking chair and dashing off to retrieve a real first-aid kit.  Allowance carefully rubbed her horn; she could feel a second wrapping of duct tape around the newer of its cracks. She sighed. This would definitely cut into her field time.  Coach would not be pleased.

Suddenly, she felt a strange vibration in her hands; she looked down and realized she was still holding the Mergence.  Panicked, she tossed it up into the chandelier and attempted to dash into the kitchenette where T.V. was passing through with the first-aid kit; she felt a tug at her back, like all feeling was being sucked from her body, and it was all her husband could do to drag her out of the range of that ferocious pulling.  She turned around and saw what she had feared: In place of the Mergence, there was now a swirling vortex of color from which emanated muffled cackling.

Allowance collapsed on the ground once more.  Numbness overtook her. The pain from her various injuries barely registered; even her twice-broken horn gave her little more than mild irritation.  She looked down at herself and noticed that she was greyscale. She heard screams from the living room which she knew should have worried her, but it registered as trivia, about as interesting as the steam lines on the window.  T.V. must have been brewing tea.

T.V. glanced up briefly from tending to his wife; he saw the swirling mass of color, drawing all the saturation in the room toward it and then sucking it up, and in that moment something clicked.  “The Mergence!” he shouted. “I think it’s some sort of anti-magic device!”

“That’s really fascinating,” Macy shouted back, desperately clinging onto the endtable, “but how do we stop it?”

“Why don’t you try making it all one color?  The chroma differential is augmenting its power; that’s why rainicorns have such powerful magic.”

Macy nodded first to T.V., and then to Robin; the young rainicorn-dog, who had knocked the rickety old couch onto its back to use it as a bunker, began zapping the frenetic spiral of chromatic destruction.

Then there was a loud sound like a glass thunderclap as the world went dark with color.

Macy held onto the chalcedony endtable, her fingers aching from exertion.  “Hurry up!” she shouted to Robin, her voice equal parts panicked and limp. She couldn’t even slightly make out Robin’s no-doubt snarky response, nor whatever T.V. shouted in further response to Robin.

The topic was no mystery, for she could still smell the blood that had been soaking Allowance and T.V.’s sloppily-bandaged wounds.  She felt like the smell should have made her retch, as the sight of Blondie Palmerson’s body had; her comfort gave her a strange pang of guilt.  She thought once more of the state of the office when she had found that body — papers and furniture in disarray, everyone around her in a state of confusion apart from the eerily-silent killer, the one sword sticking out of his body like a flagpole.  Ah yes, there it is.  Took me a minute, but we got there eventually.   The convulsion nearly caused her to let go.

She was snapped back to reality by a sound she was surprised she could make out over the cacophony stirred up by the prismatic whirlpool in the middle of the room — a knocking at the door.  The gruff voice on the other side exchanged some shouts with T.V. which Macy couldn’t quite comprehend. Then Robin said something about Bigfoot before losing zhir grip on the couch.

The scream of “Who agh !” that exited her friend’s mouth Macy understood without any difficulty.  Without thinking — or perhaps thinking quickly, she couldn’t say for sure — she grabbed the still-flickering lamp, suspended over the endtable by the torsion between the Mergence’s vortex and a surprisingly sturdy power cord, yanking its cord out of the socket and throwing the whole thing at Robin.  It shattered against zhir torso before being vacuumed up into the vortex, but Robin was pushed back enough to regain zhir footing on the even-more-faded couch.

Then, too, late, Macy realized her folly:  No longer holding onto the endtable, she was pulled into the vortex.

“<SOON>,” Lee’s voice bellowed from the Mergence, as Macy was drawn inexorably toward it.  She blindly reached out with her feet to find something — anything — to anchor herself down with.  Something caught, but it wasn’t heavy enough and simply got pulled with her instead. An eye appeared in the center of the vortex and opened up.  “<I’M GONNA TURN THIS WHOLE WORLD INSIDE-OUT.>”

Macy managed to grab onto the chandelier, but with her weight added, she could hear that it wouldn’t be long before it was ripped off the ceiling.  She was equal parts terrified and excited. Huh, that’s odd.   She knew she shouldn’t be excited, especially after learning firsthand what the stakes for situations like this could be, but she was anyway.  She looked down, adrenaline pumping through her nut heart, and saw what her feet had snagged — the fake sandwich box T.V. had angrily chucked earlier.

Then she grinned uncontrollably.  “Hey, Lee,” she shouted over the rushing sound of color, “looks like you bit off more than you could chew!”  She let go of the chandelier, tossed the box from her feet to her hands, and closed it around the sandwich.

Instantly the coloration in the room went back go normal.  All the debris and scattered collectibles from the now-empty display cabinet fell unceremoniously to the ground, along with Macy (still clutching the box) and the chandelier.  She heard a loud thump right next to her head, turning to see that Robin had righted the couch and was now helping her up.

“Are you okay?” zhe asked, tears in her eyes.

Macy nodded, still too high from adrenaline to know whether that was the truth.

Robin’s face brightened instantly.  “In that case, that was awesome!   You threw that lamp like who-pah! and then grabbed onto that chandelier like hi-yah! and then smacked that box over him like ker-chomp!”   As zhe made the sound effects, comic-book-style onomatopoeia manifested in the air around zhir head, their colors much more muted than they normally would be yet their dynamism striking nevertheless.

Macy laughed.  That was awesome.  Adventure is good, she decided.

Then Robin and Macy looked at each other, eyes widening, as they suddenly remembered they were not the only people in the universe.

Macy placed the box back on the cabinet, careful to avoid stepping on broken glass, and ran over to T.V. and Allowance.  The rainicorn was beginning to regain her color, but since Macy hadn’t seen her lose it in the first place, to her it simply seemed like she was much more desaturated than when she had last seen her thirty seconds ago.  “Oh my glob,” she said, “is she going to be okay?”

T.V. pressed a paw against his wife’s chest for a full ten seconds before answering.  “I think so, yeah,” he said. “Her breathing’s returned to normal, and if this is anything like Shive’s Hypochromia, she’ll regain her color after about a week or two if she eats her greens, her blues, her reds, her—”

Weakly, Allowance put a hoof to her husband’s lips.  “<We get it,>” she groaned; whether it was a groan of physical weakness or merely annoyance, Macy didn’t know enough about Korean inflection patterns to judge.

On the other side of the house, Robin opened the door to see two familiar faces — a pug and a bulldog, both looking mighty angry.  “Didn’t I already tell you off?” zhe groaned. “This is really not a good time.”

“Oh, I’ll show you a bad time,” said the bulldog.  “Just wait until—”

Then, with a single blast of rainbow-sprinkle magic, the two dogs were launched away.  The magic’s source, a majestic rainicorn Robin knew well, flew up to the door in a huff, panting.  “<I just flew in from the southeastern grasslands and boy are my arms tired,>” announced Lady Rainicorn.  “<I got your message, Robin. What happened to the Mergence?>”

Robin gestured lazily to the display cabinet.  “<We found it again.  Well, Poppop and Mommom did, and then Macadamia shoved it back into its box.>”  Zhe shrugged. “<I didn’t help much.>”

Lady flew over to the cabinet and retrieved the box, then went to check on T.V. and Allowance.  “<Oh dear. It seems you have a lot to fill me in on.>”

“It seems you have a lot to fill me in on,” said Boss Gasket, guiding her allies out of the smoldering electronics warehouse.  After a lot of shouting, she had managed to convince the two sides to stop trying to slice each other to bits, but not before an unfortunately-placed grenade started a fire with some very noxious fumes.  “But that can wait.”

“Jou said jou knew who ze intruders were,” said Noëlle, pushing her unconscious sister on a mattress tied to a pallet jack.  “Vould jou care to enlighten moi ?”

“Use your brain, you sword-nogginned simpleton,” barked Gasket.  “It was obviously that detective T.V. and his athlete of a wife. They recovered the Mergence, and I highly doubt it’ll be as easy to steal it back the second time around.”

“Zen ve lost,” sighed Noëlle.  “All of zis vas for nossing.”

“Not nothing.”  Gasket withdrew her blade, now glowing with a faint crimson light.  As she held it upright, the subtle shadows it cast on her face made her seem alien, especially with her predatory grin.  “That detective may have made a fool of me, but from now on, nothing he does can escape my vision.”

“<We have to assume nothing we do can escape their vision,>” said Lady.  She had laid Allowance down on the rickety couch, gently placing a pillow under her head; once again Macy was impressed at how comfortable the rainicorn managed to look, even while half-unconscious, on the dilapidated piece of furniture.  “<The Mergence will need to come to Ooo again, but this time under even more vigilant care than before.>”

“<Who can we charge with its protection that won’t begrudge us potentially putting them in the target of an alliance between two dangerous criminal organizations?>”  T.V. chewed his claws. “<Someone who’s both strong enough to defend it and generous enough to accept the danger that comes with it.>”

“<Preferably… someone… far away…>” added Allowance, barely lifting her head.

Macy did a knee-bent head-tilt while standing on the seat of the smooth couch; Robin partially unshrunk zhir neck to lean into Macy’s ear and whisper an abridged translation peppered liberally with “…or something”s.

Then Macy’s face lit up.  “I know who we can ask,” she said, holding her finger up as if she were about to say, “The ceiling can watch over the Mergence!”

Lady, T.V., and Allowance all stared at her, suddenly going quiet.  At first she thought they were judging her, harsh critics furiously writing down notes about everything they hated from Macy’s latest stage performance, even Robin shaking zhir head in disappointment as zhe managed the spotlight.  Then Allowance let out a feeble cough, and Macy was yanked back into the moment. There was an important decision, and they were honestly awaiting her contribution.

She swallowed hard, as if banishing the daymare down her throat, before she spoke.  “Finn Mertens,” she said at last, the words coming out like they were being held at crossbowpoint.  “Finn Mertens,” she repeated more forcefully. “He’d love to help.”

For a moment, she thought she had said something wrong; then Lady nodded eagerly.  “<I was just going to suggest the same thing,>” she said.

“What?” said Macy.

T.V. spoke up, in English for Macy’s benefit.  “If I’m remembering the dates right, Finn’s going to be at the Life-Sized Miniature Golf Invitationals tomorrow.”  He turned to Lady. “You were going to go there anyway, so you may as well bring the Mergence with you.”

“Plus me and Macy,” added Robin.  “I bet she can’t wait to talk to Finn face-to-face, in person, about all sorts of hero junk, now that she’s officially saved a day.”

Macy felt heat rising to her cheeks.  “Oh, I don’t know if I could do that.”

“You’d better,” Robin warned, narrowing zhir eyes.  Macy nodded politely, not wanting to ask what exactly zhe meant.

“<We can head out in the morning,>” said Lady, adjusting Allowance’s pillow.  “<For now, let us catch up as a family. We don’t do that enough, I feel.>”

“I’ll go make us some grub,” T.V. offered, walking into the kitchenette.  As the aroma of soon-to-be-cooked foods filled the air, Macy slipped off the couch, landed face-up on the floor, and sighed with relief.  The adrenaline was wearing off, everything ached, and she was going to be just fine.

A dimension away, Charlie lay in a hospital bed, hooked up to a series of life-saving yet menacing machines that hummed and beeped and bubbled as a cream-colored dog in a pleated pink dress with a white silk bow in her hair held her hand, talking in a melodious voice as if delivering a sufficiently stirring soliloquy could rouse the sleeper from her slumber.  A name tag placed crooked on the front of her dress labeled her a visitor and, less importantly, “Viola”.

“…anyway,” she was saying, blinking away the tears from her eyes, “that’s what’s been going on in my career.”  She paused, as if waiting for a response, before continuing. “On a more, eh, personal note, I met a cute girl today.  I think I might ask her out. Yes I do mean it this time,” she scoffed.

A beat.

“Sorry, I know you only lashed out because you loved — love — me.”  She patted the comatose patient’s cheek admonishingly.  “You just wanted to push me out of my comfort zone. Oh!”

She rummaged through the fuchsia purse at her side, pulling out a small snowglobe.  Her trembling fingers struggled to close her purse’s sun-shaped magnetic latch properly.  She shook up the snowglobe and set it on the bedstand by Charlie’s head; inside was a replica pyramid of light reddish-brown stone, next to a crowned green statue with torch held high.

“I saw this in a gift shop and thought you might like it when you wake up.  If you wake up,” she corrected herself.  She let the conditional hang in the air a bit before continuing.  “Also, I got a prismgram from T.V. Sounds like the Rhodonite Ruffians are back in business, and they tried to make a move for the Mergence of Destruction.  Oh, and Robin stopped by to visit, which is a rare occurrence. The enby’s a real free spirit, like you.”

She sighed.

“Look, I’d love to stay longer, but, eh, I really do need to go.  I promise I’ll talk to you soon, sis, okay? Let me know if you wake up.”  She stood, gave her a lick on the cheek, and slowly walked out of the room, pausing every few feet to look back on the tranquil yet viscerally uncomfortable form of Charlie.

If her eyes had been better, if they had been wizard eyes, then she would have noticed that she had not been the only person in that chair.

Charlie — some projected part of Charlie, at the very least — sat there playing a game of solitaire on top of her own comatose meat-body.  “Bye, sis,” she said to nobody in particular. “I love our chats.” And then she turned her attention to the game.

She turned over the top card in the deck.  Jack of diamonds goes on queen of hearts. Move ten of spades to jack of diamonds; reveal two of hearts.

“So the Crystal Mergence is back in play.  That could get dangerous.”

Next card.  Five of clubs.  Worthless.

“The Ruffians don’t know what it’s truly capable of; I doubt anyone alive does.  Anyone alive .  Hrrm.”

Next card.  Three of spades could go on four of hearts, but no.  Two and four are showing; if ace and three show up, she wants four free.

“Robin is like me, eh?  I wish I’d gotten the chance to know zhir.  If I recall correctly, zhe is a dreamwalker, so perhaps I will.”

Next card.  King of hearts goes in free slot; move pile containing queen of hearts.  Reveal ace of hearts, put in ace row; reveal nine of diamonds, put on ten of spades; move eight of clubs to nine of diamonds, revealing three of hearts.  Two, three, and four of hearts move to top row.

“Perhaps I’ve finally shuffled a winning deck.”

Chapter Text

“—all I’m saying is it’s a little disappointing,” said Macy as she crested the hill, shielding her eyes from the morning sun’s glare.  “Just compared to, you know, that whole thing with the pond and the mercury.”

“Well, I’m sorry the universe has set out to disappoint you personally,” teased Robin, coming up behind Macy and then draping over her like a scarf.  “Does it jangle your balls?”

Laughing, she rolled her shoulders, knocking the rainicorn-dog off; zhe landed on the dewy morning grass and rolled around in it.  “That’s not the expression,” she said as she readjusted her hoodie.

Robin sat up, shaking flecks of grass and mud out of zhir fur.  “Don’t fall into the trap of linguistic prescriptivism, Macy,” zhe warned.  “Language is a subjective thing.”

“관측 언어학은 전체 인구를 고려할 때만 일관된 철학입니다,” Lady Rainicorn countered, bringing up the rear of the party toting a picnic basket and duffel bag.  “다르게 말하는 한 사람은 규칙의 예외로 간주하기에 충분하지 않습니다.”

“Come on, grandnanny,” protested Robin.  “Let me have this.  It’ll be funny.  Besides, if I get enough—”

“We’re here,” announced Macy, her hands in her hoodie pockets as she faced the two polychromatic equines.  She leaned backwards and began rolling down the grassy hill; behind her, coming into view as she fell, was a glorious spectacle of a place, resembling a walled city with a giant windmill, a narrow bell tower, a flying armada, an enormous fir tree covered in fake snow, and a hundred other discordant structures.  At the base of the hill was a great red archway with iron gates which led through the grey stone walls; emblazoned on the archway in letters of blue fire were the words, “STUPENDOUS HAL’S LIFE-SIZED MINIATURE GOLF & OVERSIZED CARNIVAL.” A sizeable crowd composed of denizens from most of Ooo’s various kingdoms was gathered at the base; at a windowed booth near the gate itself, a large frizz-frazzled frog in a denim jacket was struggling to take a headcount while typing frantically on a computer and glancing alternately at twelve different monitors.  The smells of freshly-fried abominations wafted from the other side of the wall, enticing Macy as she rolled to a stop at the foot of the hill and sprang up with practiced ease.

She turned back to her companions, waving them along as followed after her in more measured pace.  If Macy didn’t know better, she would have sworn that they weren’t terribly intrigued by the prospect of tumbling down a hill in an uncontrollable whirlwind of speed.  Grown-ups.

The frog in the booth waved his hands to the side in two sweeping arcs.  “Invitees on the left!” he shouted, his voice cracking. “Visitors on the right!  Invitees, get your envelopes out!”

The crowd began parting; Lady split up from Macy and Masse and began rummaging through the side pocket of her duffel bag.  Macy tripped over several different people, and several different people tripped over her. Robin had to shrink zhirself to make zhir way through the crowd; zhe had to zig-zag to avoid being stepped on.

“My left and right, not yours!”  The two halves of the crowds switched sides smoothly, like a well-choreographed dance troupe.  The frog raised a webbed hand high over his head and slammed it down on his keyboard with a cry of “Welcome to Stupendous Hal’s!”  The massive gates swung inward with a mighty groan, and the two crowds walked into the park.

As large as it had seemed from the top of the hill, Macy didn’t appreciate quite how massive the park truly was until she had seen it from within the great walls.  It stretched for miles, she was sure; in the faint morning mist she couldn’t distinguish the far end. She gazed about in wonderment, propelled forward more by the crowd surrounding her than by her own legs.  “Life-sized” didn’t do it justice; she felt like she herself was but a miniature, surrounded by windmills, koi ponds, and even food trucks three or five times the size she was used to. On the side of the brick-paved walking path she saw a ring toss game the size of an elephant; on the other side, a creature made of mud was selling corn dogs the size of Robin.

Speaking of Robin, Macy suddenly heard zhir calling her name.  After taking a moment to remember how her body worked, she turned around to see that Robin had rejoined Lady, who was hanging out in a gazebo with a sizeable group of people Macy assumed to be the other invited golfers.  Robin and a few others were waiting on the near side of a velvet rope, chatting with a few of the golfers. “Get over here!” the rainicorn-dog shouted. “Come on, don’t forget what you promised me yesterday!”

Macy didn’t have the presence of mind to chastise her friend that no , she actually didn’t promise anything when she noticed that one of the golfers chatting at the velvet rope was Finn Mertens, wearing a red-based plaid suit and tie with a matching scally cap, a steel putter in one hand and totally missing the other at the elbow.  Following Robin’s gaze, he looked toward Macy, a large smile forming under a short blond mustache and beard that he must have been growing out since the royal banquet, and waved at her with his stump.

Macy ambled over in a trance.  “Heyfinh heromai,” she breathed.  Robin danced a swirl of red and green in front of her eyes, snapping her back to attention.  “Hello, Finn,” she corrected herself, holding out her hand for him to shake — her non-dominant right hand.  “I’m Nakadamia the Mutt.”

“I know,” he said brightly.  “Your friend was just telling me about you.”  There was a pause as he shifted his shoulder uncomfortably, unsure of what to do next, and Macy realized why a split second before he did; she switched her outstretched hand for her left one, and this time, actually being in possession of a counterpart, he shook it.  “So I hear you want to be a hero?”

“Yeah, and she wants you to teach her,” offered Robin.

“What?”  Macy took a step back and glared at Robin.

“It was all you talked about for years, dude.”

That nerd?” came a nasally voice from behind Macy, making her jump several feet in the air and nearly yank Finn’s remaining arm out of its socket.  She spun around to see a short, green-skinned humanoid about her height with a metal eye like Izak’s, a metal arm like Finn’s, and a metal leg like a telescope; his banana-yellow hair was in a messy tousle she was sure must have taken hours to get right.  “If you want to be a real hero,” he sneered, pointing at himself with his cyborg thumb, “you should talk to me .”

“Hey, Tiffany,” Finn said.  Whatever animosity the boy held for Finn clearly wasn’t mutual.

At the mention of “Tiffany”, there was a stirring in the middle of the golfers’ crowd as Jake the Dog, who had been nuzzling with Lady Rainicorn, stretched himself over the intervening people to stand next to Finn.  “Tiffany!” he cheered. “You’re out of jail again!” He smirked, leaning on the velvet rope; Finn had to reach out quickly and grab the pole it was attached to in order to stop it from collapsing. “Did you come to cheer me on?”

“I’ll have you know, Jay T. — I mean, Jake,” he said, his robotic eye whirring as he glared, “I was invited to be a participant in this tournament!”  Then he looked off to the side, tapping his hands together bashfully. “Then I lost my invitation in a motorcycle chase, which I also lost. So, to answer your question, yes.”

“In that case, do you want to help carry my stuff?”

Tiffany put his hand up to his forehead in a salute and sniffled.  “It would be my honor, sir.” Then they both doubled over guffawing.

Macy glanced around blankly.  “What’s happening exactly?”

Finn gestured to the other side of a gazebo, where a goblin in a black leotard was waving golfers one at a time onto a large green that ran alongside the windmill.  “The Invitationals are starting. Because there are so many golfers, they don’t offer complimentary caddy service, so it’s a lot easier of the golfers have a friend to carry their bags for them, just so their putting arms don’t get tired.  Arm, in my case. Of course, that means they’d have to follow them around all day, and I’m a strong guy, so I didn’t—”

“I’ll do it.”  Macy didn’t know what had compelled her to make this offer, but i that instant it seemed like the best way to get close to her biggest hero.  Besides, she’d come too close to death too recently to be timid.

“Oh.”  Finn seemed almost as taken aback as Macy felt.  “Well, that’s not nece—” Robin jabbed him in the ribs.  “I mean, sure thing, thanks!”

“So the mighty Finn finally admits he’s mortal?” came a voice from higher up than Macy had thought to look; glancing up, she noticed a tall, lithe water elemental with cyan skin and a mustard-yellow toga crouching on the roof of the gazebo, a much smaller and pudgier elemental perched on her shoulder.  “I never thought I’d see the day you let someone else carry that weight.”

Finn leaned against the brass pole and looked up, cupping his hand over his eyes to block out the morning sun’s glare.  “Oh come on, Canyon, it’s not like that. I haven’t been that immature kid for a long time. I know when I need help and when I don’t.”  He sounded amused, not annoyed; in fact, this whole time, Finn had lacked any of the nervous tics Macy would expect of someone about to participate in an Ooo-wide invitational.  Even Jake was jittering one leg, his short tail pointed straight back.

“What, you mean like how you didn’t need help sealing that monster under the sea floor?”  She wagged a Finn-sized finger like a metronome, smiling playfully. “Don’t you know hoobris is a mortal folly?”  Macy was pretty sure that wasn’t how the word was meant to be pronounced.

Finn shrugged, closing his eyes as they were denied the shade his hand could no longer provide.  “I was probably going to have to leave the Night Sword down there anyway. You’re just jealous that I didn’t invite you.”

The goblin in the leotard called Canyon’s name; she slowly climbed off the gazebo roof, lowering her shoulder so the nereid on her shoulder could jump down.  “Well, I’ve gotta go set the bar for the rest of the golfers, but I’ll catch up with you after the hole. Bye, Finn!”

“Bye!”  As he was waving, he lifted the velvet rope; Macy walked under, followed by Tiffany and Robin.

“Hey, mommom,” whispered Robin as zhe approached Lady Rainicorn and picked up the duffel bag she had set on the ground.  “Have you talked to Finn about the you-know-what yet?”

“주위에 너무 많은 사람들이 있습니다,” she whispered back.  Robin nodded in acknowledgement, then withdrew a sapphire putter from the duffel bag and handed it to her.  The goblin called her name, and the two walked off, leaving Macy and Finn with a dwindling crowd of golfers.

“So, Finn,” Macy said, inspecting his steel putter.  She was extremely nervous about talking to him, but she wasn’t going to get less nervous so she may as well.  “I was wondering what you could tell me about being an adventurer.”

“Oh, uh, I’m not really sure where to start.  It’s… hard, I guess? There’s a lot of danger to it.  But as long as you keep your way, and don’t let your judgement get clouded, you can do a lot of good.”  He tugged at a strand of long blond hair escaping from under his cap. “I don’t know, is this helping at all?”

“Not really,” Macy confessed.  “I guess that was kind of a vague question, though.”

“Bah!” shouted Tiffany, making Macy wince as her ear slits rang.  “If you want to get real advice, you should talk to me, Tiffany Oiler!”  He closed his eyes, grinned a self-satisfied grin, and held up a finger. “The first thing you need to know about being a *real* hero is—”

“Jake!” the goblin shouted.

“Come on, Tiff,” said Jake, snaking an arm around the boy’s shoulder as he corralled him to the green.  “Let’s go get our butts kicked.”

Macy turned back to Finn.  “What’s his deal?”

Finn let out a sigh that sounded like he’d been holding it in all morning.  “I have no idea.”

Macy grabbed a ball marker from a pouch the goblin had given her — rich cobalt with a white chevron — and swapped it with the pocked white golf ball next to the hole.  She removed a tape measure from the pouch, stretched it, then stood up and called to Finn. “Six point five inches!”

She and Finn met about halfway, then stepped to the side to be out of the way of the other golfers.  “That’s pretty close,” he said, satisfied. “I should be able to come in at par for this hole. Not a great start, but not a bad one, either.  Say, who’s up next?”

Macy shrugged.  “How should I know?  Whoever’s furthest from the hole, I guess.”  She stretched the top if her hoodie to form a temporary vizor, glancing toward the middle of the green.  “I think it’s that person who looks like a king made of flame.”

“Oh, that’s Flame King Phoebe.  Hey, Phoebe!” he called, waving his stump; Phoebe, focused on her practice swings, didn’t wave back.  Finn gave Robin a sly nod. “We used to date, you know.”

With a fiery streak, Phoebe swung the charcoal putter — Macy found it odd that no other style of club was allowed, but she supposed it could hardly be called life-sized miniature golf otherwise — and rocketed the ball almost straight up into the sky, out of sight.

A beat.

With a quiet whistling followed by a loud bang, the ball impacted the green, creating a fiery explosion centered on the hole.  She and her caddy, a large blue cinnamon bun, ran through the smoke to inspect the result; when the smoke cleared, she was stooped over the hole, confused.  The caddy pointed with his spear toward a second, smaller hole; she reached in, pulled out a singed golf ball, and threw it on the ground in disgust, her head temporarily transforming into an inferno.

Macy did a knee-bent head-tilt.  “Must have been quite the interesting dates.”

Finn glanced up at the drifting smoke.  “We were both a bit unstable, back then.  Cinnamon Bun turned out to be much better for her, and she was good for him too.”  As he said this, the cinnamon bun — possibly Cinnamon Bun, though that was just a guess — put a firm hand on Phoebe’s shoulder, calming her down and bringing her head back to a normal head size and shape.  Amazingly, with the exception of the additional hole, the green itself was unscathed.

She gave a crackling sigh.  “Stupid wind. That shot would have been perfect!”

“We’re probably going to have to mulligan,” Cinnamon Bun mused in a voice like if Lisby the butler were capable of not sounding ridiculous.  “There’s no way to hit the ball from the bottom of that hole.”

“Or is there?” boomed Canyon’s voice, leaning over the green and casting a shadow over half of it.  Macy wasn’t sure how she kept forgetting she was there.

Cinnamon Bun looked up at her.  “No.”

Smirking, she turned to the nereid on her shoulder.  “Cragg? Do your thing.”

“Alright!” exclaimed Cragg as she jumped down, landing next to the hole; a spritz of water on impact made Phoebe flinch away.  She put her hand on the ground next to the hole, and it caved in, its sides receding into a sloped muddy crater; as Cinnamon Bun placed a red-and-orange marker in the center of the crater, Cragg stuck a hand out to Phoebe.  “Cragg Ambrosia, future hero of Ooo, at your service!”

Phoebe reluctantly shook her hand, visibly wincing.  She leaned on Cinnamon Bun’s shoulder as they walked off to wait for their next turn.  Cragg, unaware of this, leapt back up onto Canyon’s shoulder with a splash sound.

Without turning her head to look at Finn, Macy asked, “Do you have any idea what that was about?”  Finn didn’t get further than “Canyon’s appr—” before a familiar voice came from behind to cut him off; Macy whirled around on one leg to see Tiffany riding on Jake’s back, arms crossed.

“Networking!” Tiffany cackled.  “And a very poor job of it, too.  Why, if I were me, I would have a network of criminal and non-criminal connections stretching all the way across Ooo by now.”

Macy held up her finger and wiggled it back and forth, trying to mentally rearrange the words Tiffany had just said into a coherent thought.  “But you are you.”

“Exactly!”  He bent over to look Jake in the eye, pointing at Macy.  “What did I tell ya? This one. This one gets it.”

“I really don’t,” Macy said.

Tiffany executed a textbook dismount, then tripped over his own foot and faceplanted in the dirt.  As he got up, he slapped Jake on the rump; with a whinny, the dog ran over to where Lady Rainicorn and Robin were hanging out.  “If you’re gonna be a hero,” Tiffany insisted, approaching her with a sauntering gait, “you’d better hope your brain is as smart as your mouth.  Otherwise, you’ll end up dead, like me!”

“You’re dead?”

“No, because I was rescued by the altruistic-yet-ultimately-sociopathic Doctor Heidrun Gross, who gave me these awesome cyborg enhancements that I use to do awesome cyborg stuff.  Like… this!” He held up his metal hand, which morphed into a disco ball and began to shine various colors while playing atonal synthesized music. Macy had to admit being impressed; his dancing may have been awful, but he managed to keep the disco ball entirely stationary.

Macy turned to Finn.  “WHERE’S YOUR ARM?”  She had to shout to be heard over the music, which seemed to be a high-speed remix of a Bumpy Pumpkins ballad, although country music was never her forte.


Then, with a gasp, Tiffany shut off his disco ball, morphed his hand back, and pointed at the hole.  “Roly poly!” he exclaimed, his eyebrows ascending to within the blond forest that was his hair. “The champ just scored a hole in two!”

Macy turned around again , nearly slipping on the twirl-slicked dirt beneath her heel but bracing herself against Finn’s arm stump.  She saw a massive human woman in a ripped purple shirt — three hundred pounds of pure muscle, she was sure — dash with blinding speed down the green and inspect the hole.  She stomped the ground next to the flag; this was enough pressure to cause the golf ball in the hole to launch high into the sky. With a flick of the wrist, she caught it on its return descent, to a round of cheers from the other golfers and other onlookers and a respectable bout of clapping from the goblin in the leotard.

“Whoa,” gasped Macy.  She knew who that woman was without a doubt — one of the strongest heroes Ooo had ever known, a traveler who could shrug off any blow and best any foe and stub any toe.  She remembered hearing one story alleging that this woman had punched the queen of all dragons all the way to the Moon. “That’s Susan Strong! She’s the champ?”

“No, of course not,” said Finn, looking at Macy with the kind of head-tilt reserved for creatures with necks.  “Susan’s terrible at this game. She loses the ball every swing. The champ is her wife.”

As he pointed down the green, Macy looked over and saw a much smaller woman, in a cyan shirt and cyan-eared dog hat.  She was much shorter and more lithe (lither?) than Susan, and her complexion was closer to a walnut than the peanut-colored skin Finn and Susan had.  She slung her putter — it had a glowing blue ring on the front and emitted a low electric hum — over her shoulder like a knapsack and clicked her heels together, causing wheels to pop up on the bottom of her shoes; she skated down the green and jumped into Susan’s arms, and with a mighty leap the giant woman carried her over the crowd, landing next to a vending machine by the start of the next hole.

“Frieda Strong is the first to finish Hole 1, at two under par,” announced the goblin in a monotone, holding a scroll up to his face.  “Next putter…” He squinted at the scroll. “Jack the God.”

“It appears I must depart, but fear not!” Tiffany exclaimed, pointing dramatically at the sky.  Macy hadn’t noticed before because of the angle he was standing, but apparently he had been wearing a purple-and-gold cape, which fluttered behind him as he posed.  “I, Tiffany, will return to teach you more of the ways of adventuring!” And then with a pirouette he bounded over to where Jake and Lady Rainicorn were chasing each others’ tails.  Tiffany gestured to Robin, who gave a countdown on zhir fingers; then the two tackled their respective golfers simultaneously so that Tiffany could drag Jake onto the green for his turn.

Macy nearly slipped again doing a knee-bent head-tilt.  “Is it just me, or did he not—”

“He didn’t teach you anything to begin with,” confirmed Finn, stabilizing her.  “I have no idea what he’s talking about.” Macy was glad that the two of them had something in common.

Macy squared her hands, trying to judge the opening shot Finn was attempting.  It was a tricky one — through one open window of the windmill and then out the other side — but if he did it right he wouldn’t need to hit it through the oversized rain-gutter that was the centerpiece of the hole.  So far every golfer had attempted it except Canyon, who had opted to play it straight, but only Frieda had succeeded. “I’m surprised the windmill is part of the second hole,” she commented. “I figured it would be saved for later.”

The tightness in her chest whenever she addressed him was still there, but he was a much chiller guy than she had expected.  She found it easy to slip into a sense of familiarity with him. She could easily imagine the two of them heading out together to take care of some monster.  He’d be driving some teched-out vehicle Princess Bubblegum invented, and she’d be struggling to hold a map upright against the wind. She’d spot an egret and make Finn pull over so she could snap a picture of it; Pen would be so jealous when she showed him.  The egret would pose as if it were in on the joke, raising its leg high in the air before stomping hard on the ground and kicking up dust. Macy would breathe in at the wrong moment and start coughing; Finn would sit her down on his lap and give her a lozenge, and they’d settle down for a midafternoon snack…

“…another one recently,” Finn was saying back in the real world, “so that makes a total of three holes that involve the windmill.  I haven’t actually played the newest one yet.”  He had already swung.

“I’ll go mark your spot,” said Macy.  “You go, uh, catch up with Jake or something.”  She ran off before he had a chance to reply. How could she slip up like that in front of her hero?  She needed to get away a bit to clear her head and make herself feel less useless.

The unpainted door of the windmill was high off the ground; even the bottom threshold was three full inches of raw granite.  Who’s ever heard of a brutalist miniature golf course? thought Macy as she sized up the stunt she was about to attempt.  She rubbed her hands together, took a deep breath, then ran toward the door, jumping at the last second and then pushing off the door itself to gain enough height to reach the brass handle a third the size of her body.  She grabbed onto it, her momentum causing her to swing at the same time it drew the door open with a mighty creak. Then she let go of the handle, crumpling her legs as she landed so her shins wouldn’t hate her, and dashed inside.

Macy wasn’t sure what was supposed to be on the inside of a windmill, but she was pretty sure the answer wasn’t “a concrete pyramid with a sloping path around the outside taking up the majority of the real estate”.  On one side of the pyramid, she could see a tunnel which was occasionally blocked by the shadow of the windmill’s blade, with an exit on the other side shaped like an aqueduct; that must be where the later hole crossed through this one.  The pyramid was designed such that any ball which failed to clear the interior would meander down its outer path in a square spiral before being deposited back out the side where the course began. Finn’s ball hadn’t come out, though, which meant it was still somewhere in here.

Grunting, she hauled herself up the pyramid.  She nearly lost her footing on the first level, scraping her foot against the rough cement.  She guessed this was why they called it brutalism. She imagined herself scaling a mountain of cement, a vicious architect constantly pouring more at the top.  She wasn’t sure what an architect looked like, so she imagined Ambassador Corn wearing a hardhat and safety vest instead. She struggled to get a foothold on the next rocky ledge; a mountain jay flew up next to her and took out a bag of popcorn.

“Is this funny to you?” she asked angrily, pulling herself up and bracing against the next layer of rock to give herself a moment of respite before further ascension.  “Do you think you could do it better? Is that it?”

The jay spread its wings and spoke in Tiffany’s scratchy, nasally voice.  “I have tool use!” Then it flapped its wings with a mechanical whirr and flew up the mountain.

Macy glanced around frenetically, hoping to one-up this cocky corvid.  “Well, I have, uh, a hard shell!” She switched tactics, hugging the mountain more closely than she had been taught when Princeso had brought her and the other orphans to a rock-climbing wall.  Her friend Masse had hugged the wall as he ascended, giving himself numerous bruises and necessitating this warning. However, Macadamia was a tough genus, so the scrape of the mountain didn’t affect her at all.

Then she reached for a rock and, finding nothing but air, was shoved back into reality.  She had ascended the pyramid, where Finn’s ball now rested on a flat surface at the very top.  Miraculously, it had lost its momentum here rather than rolling down the pyramid.

Macy let go of the concrete, swapped out the ball for a marker, and rolled down the pyramid.  She gingerly closed the door behind her, then called over to Finn. As she tossed him the ball, she shouted, “You’re in a good spot!” to which he gave her a thumbs-up (well, a thumb-up, anyway).  Then she located Robin and sidled up to zhir. “So, uh, did you see what’s on the inside of the windmill?”

“I got a glance, but what I’m more interested in is the door.”  Zhe conjured a miniature diorama of Macy’s stunt to get the door open, with the part of Macy played by an indistinct brown swirl.  “Cool trick, by the way.”

“Thank you.”

“Anyway.”  Zhe shut off the diorama.  “This place is supposed to be life -sized miniature golf, but the whole thing seems to be larger than life.  What’s up with that?”

Macy had been wondering the same thing herself; hearing the question come from someone else illuminated an answer.  “Well, what sort of person would want to make a bigger version of miniature golf?”

Robin massaged zhir forehead.  “I don’t know, maybe someone who’s compensating for a small eeeeego?”  Zhe drew out the last word like it didn’t belong there and zhe was surprised by its presence.

“No, think about the other golfers.”

Zhe rotated zhir head a full three hundred and sixty degrees.  “Someone who’s… on fire!” Her ruby eyes gleamed proudly.

Macy gave Robin an affectionate noogie, causing the rainicorn-dog to scratch zhir back with zhir hind leg.  “No, silly, someone giant-sized!

“Oh.”  A beat.  “Like Susan Strong!”

“No, I meant closer to Canyon.”

Zhe tilted zhir head.  “I guess that makes an iota of sense, too.  By the way, was that a pyramid inside?”

“Yeah, for some reason.”  She grinned, remembering the exhilaration it had given her.  “I pretended I was on a mountain as I climbed it.”

“So that’s what the yelling was about,” came a voice from behind her, accompanied by a strong smell of salt.  She whirled around, half-expecting to see Tiffany even though the voice was different. Instead, before her stood the nereid, Cragg Ambrosia.  Up close, Macy noticed two seemingly contradictory things about the water elemental, who was only half a head taller than Tiffany: Aside from her clothes she was made entirely out of water, yet she had somehow dyed her undercut hair with neon-green highlights.

“Sup?” said Macy in a deep voice, sticking out a hand.  “I’m Macadamia Jugland, she/her. You’re…” She squinted and looked slightly down, as if reading the nereid’s nametag like a fake-suave character from a twenty-first century sitcom.  “Cragg, right?”

“That’s right!  She/her as well, I think.”  She returned Macy’s handshake.  Her hand didn’t feel as wet as Macy had expected; it was more like shaking hands with living gelatin covered in condensation.  When they withdrew, Macy could feel the salt depositing on her hand as the water droplets evaporated in the southern spring heat.

“And I’m Robin, zhe/zhir,” added Robin, zhe/zhir.

“Oh, I know who you are,” Cragg said, flipping her hair and sending a mildewy mist into the air.  “I know all about the great-grandchild of the legendary Lady Rainicorn of the Crystal Dimension.”

“You do?”

She cracked a smirk.  “Nah, I just said that to sound cool.  I overheard you talking.” She turned to face Macy and whistled.  “And you! The first person to play caddy for Finn in years! The last time he didn’t carry his own bags, I hadn’t even been formed from the primordial chaos that give life to all water elementals!”

Macy chuckled.  “When was that, like sixteen billion years ago?”

“More like thirteen.”

“Thirteen… billion?”

“Thirteen.”  She cocked an eyebrow.  “Do you really think I look that old?  Is something wrong with my hair? My sister said it looked fine, but I can never tell if she’s just appeasing me, and I can’t count on Canyon for an honest opinion because she doesn’t care about that kind of thing.  Well, she says she doesn’t, but I think—”

“That’s not it,” Macy interjected, waving her hands in assurance.  “I just… was confused.” She racked her brain for a way to change the subject.  “So you’re a ‘future hero of Ooo’, you said?”

“Yeah,” she said, rubbing the back of her head sheepishly as she somehow blushed.  “I mean, uh, thats the plan. For now I’m just Canyon’s squire. I help her out on quests, she teaches me stuff about survival and politics and fighting.  A lot of it goes over my head, but it’s cool. But I guess you wouldn’t want to hear about all that.”

“Yeah she would,” interjected Robin.  “Cause she wants to be a future hero of Ooo, too!”

“Robin!” Macy chided.

“Plus, she saved the world like yesterday, so she’s kinda already a hero of Ooo!”

Robin! ”  She put a finger to her lips and gritted her teeth.

Cragg stood slack-jawed; her mouth was open so wide, Macy could see her uvula dangling like a fish in the jaws of a gull.  “Holy carp, that’s awesome! I haven’t saved anything bigger than a kelp grove.” She lunged forward, her sudden speed startling Macy, grabbing the nut’s wrist before she could react.  Macy felt an unplaceable warmth flow through her body at the chilly touch — embarrassment, or something else? She stared at Cragg’s face, now twisted into a wicked grin and narrowed eyes.  “We’re gonna spar.”

Macy gulped.  She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.  She wouldn’t know how to respond even if they had.

“Spar means fight,” Cragg clarified, as if she believed that had been the cause of Macy’s confusion.  Then she let go of her hand and leapt away in a splash, leaving behind the smell of the ocean crashing onto a rocky shore.

Macy pawed at the gangplank across which Finn was to send his next putt.  The wood, rough like the concrete pyramid, was damp from the splashing of the water below.  She pressed her hand into a particularly damp spot, then looked at Finn and shook her head. “No good,” she insisted.  “You’d lose way too much momentum.”

Finn sighed and reoriented himself around the ball.  “I’ve known you for two hours or so, but I trust your judgement.  I’ll just have to hope for another par. Alright, get back here.”

Macy immediately planted a foot on the moist patch she had been inspecting, lost her balance, and tumbled over the edge of the gangplank.

The sensation of tripping over the edge was a delirious rising where time seemed to slow down and speed up in equal measure.  It was so disorienting and unnerving that when she finally entered freefall, twisting her ankle painfully in the process, it was almost a relief.  Now she was plummeting face-first into the waters below, a mildewy concrete foundation on one side, the large wooden ship which comprised the next two holes on the other.  She could just barely register the stench of mildew and the disconcerting feeling of wind whistling past her ear slits before she closed her eyes and struggled in vain to rotate her body in the half-second before impact so that her face wouldn’t be the first part of her to smash into the water.

Then she felt a jolt as a strong arm wrapped around her and diverted her waterbound course.  A second later she was flying through the air, then landing with a soft thunk on the green next to Finn.  As he helped her up, she saw Susan Strong bound off the wall of the ship with a creak of wood and vault over the guardrail of the false marina.

“Are you okay?” Susan asked in a voice that sounded deeper than it actually was.  “You should be careful; golf is a very dangerous game.”

“I’m fine,” Macy assured her, although she handed Finn the marker so she wouldn’t need to go across the bridge.

“I’m glad to hear it.  It shows strength that you’re fine after nearly falling into rushing waters from rickety golf bridge.”  Macy was less fine now.

“Susan!” chided the champ as she walked across the gangplank to collect her wife.  “Quit scaring the poor child, you drama queen.”

“I’m not scared,” Macy lied.  Nevertheless, Susan looked appropriately contrite.

“Oh, get over here, you!”  Frieda had to leap onto Susan’s side like a frog climbing a tree to nuzzle her neck.  “You know I only scold you because I love you.”

Susan laughed as she walked back across the gangplank to await her wife’s next swing.  “It’s okay. I know I can be intense.”

“Yes, you certainly can,” sighed Frieda wistfully, now hanging off the giant woman’s shoulders and dangling her legs in the way a small child might when receiving a piggyback ride from a significantly larger child.

When they were gone, and when the attention had turned once more to Finn’s upcoming putt, Macy held one shaking arm in her other.  “Intense,” she echoed. “What am I even doing?”

“I don’t think you should fret too much about it,” Finn consoled her, reaching his stump down for her to hold as he teed up with his remaining arm.  She held it, and she could feel him grasping back; her jittering slowed. “Honestly, there are times when I still get nervous and scared. We’re all frightened little babies inside.”

“I’m not a frightened little baby.”

“Sure you are.”  And he hit the ball just past the new divot in the gangplank and onto the final stretch of the hole, right next to Frieda’s marker.  “That’s a birdie for sure.”

Macy watched the ball fly into the enormous clown-head at the start of Hole 6, bounce around the unnecessarily-detailed innards, tink against the flag, and land with and teeter at the edge of the hole proper.  She leaned forward, held back by the leotard-wearing goblin; her knees locked up with tension, causing her to lean against his arm, as she stared at the ball, willing it to budge. It came to a stop just at the precipice, and she felt a shout of frustration well up inside her.  Somewhere nearby, a magpie chirped.

Then the ball fell in, and the spectators, golfers, and most of all Macy burst into a raucous cheer, drowning out the goblin’s awed proclamation of “Hole in one for Finn Mertens!”  Even Tiffany yielded a reluctant nod of acknowledgement as he leaned precariously against the upright duffel bag containing Jake’s club and twenty enormous sub sandwiches.

“What’d I tell ya?”  Finn said to a mollified Jake.  “I know this hole like the back of my one hand.”

On his other side, Frieda gave Finn a friendly poke with the butt of her putter.  “You might actually be able to catch up at this rate. I guess I’d better start trying.”

“거짓 겸손은 당신에게 어울리지 않습니다,” Lady noted as Robin centered the ball for her putt; the rainicorn-dog was kneeling on zhir front paws with zhir rump five feet in the air, wagging zhir tail.  “아마 당신은 단지 질투심이 많을 것입니다.”

“Maybe I am a little jealous,” Frieda admitted.  “But I’ll ace this hole eventually.”

Phoebe gave a whistling sigh as Lady sent the ball sailing right into the clown’s teeth, bouncing back onto its outstretched tongue.  “I guess that’s right.” The Flame King hadn’t had another outburst like at the first hole, but she was still ranked dead last by two points, a fact which seemed in turn to have a negative impact on her performance.

Macy leapt into the final section of the course, retrieved the ball, and leapt back out before she could allow herself to think about the design of what she was running through.  She tossed the ball to Finn wordlessly, only stopping for the merest moment to ensure he had successfully caught it before dashing into the bathroom and washing her hands furiously.  Why did Stupendous Hal have to put such meticulous care into rendering a scaled-up clown’s internal organs?   She wasn’t sure she would have been able to handle herself had Finn not aced that hole.

She pushed back the visions of giant clowns with gaping maws that she knew were threatening to overtake her even now.  If she focused on the awful smell of the bathroom, the off-putting checkerboard pattern on the walls, the mix-and-match assortment of soaps, she could distract herself.  All in all she spent five minutes in that bathroom refusing to hallucinate; by the time she came out, only Canyon (whose first shot had landed her right next to the hole) had not holed out.

“All better?” Robin asked.  Zhe had apparently been waiting for her outside the bathroom, along with Finn, Jake, Lady, and Tiffany.  Macy wasn’t quite sure why Tiffany was there, but she also wasn’t going to look a horse’s gift in the mouth.  “You were in there for a while,” zhe said.

“Mostly, yeah,” replied Macy.  “So what’s the next hole?”

“The best hole of all,” said Jake.  “The stomach hole! It’s lunchtime on account of we’re halfway through the course.”

Tiff held up the duffel bag.  “Jake brought sandwiches.” Macy could tell by the smell; how they hadn’t spoiled by now was beyond her.  The answer was probably something simple, like that the duffel bag was magic. She didn’t care how, though.  She was just glad that sandwiches.

“Did you really make these?” Macy asked between bites.  “They’re delicious!”

“I am but a humble conduit for the sandwich inspiration the universe deigns to grant me,” Jake replied, his hands morphing into a shape that was at once incomprehensible and a sandwich.

Suddenly Tiffany leapt onto the table and began gesticulating dramatically as he recited some manner of poem that was written on his arm.  “Just as the lion stalks the flagging gazelle,” he intoned, “the tongue of the true believer is ever searching for the perfect taste. The herd must scatter before the booming sound of sunset, making them ripe for the pickings.  It is not the flagging but the toil of the hunt which makes it taste so sweet. And just as the sweetness of ketchup is nothing without the savory decadence of choice meat, so too, does, uh…” He squinted at his forearm, pausing his frenetic motions.  “…so too does blessed inspiration from Grod above merely part the clouds for the artisan lion to prepare his master gazelle.” He bowed to a quiet round of polite applause.

Cragg, sitting at an adjacent table, leaned over to Macy and whispered, “Too bad the clouds didn’t part for that poem.”  Macy let out a small chortle before stifling herself in embarrassment.

As Canyon munched on her Robin-sized corn dog and Lady pulled Finn aside, Macy swallowed the last bite of her sandwich and went to throw away the ornate sandwich paper (it was covered in cartoony images of Fionna & Cake).  She tried to toss the paper into the garbage bin from ten feet away, but the breeze suddenly changed; it flew into Phoebe’s arm and incinerated, causing her to shudder. Macy plopped into the ground, leaning back against the gazebo column with her arms wrapped around her legs.  With all the golfing she’d witnessed today, she should have known to watch out for a wind shift.

“Talk to me.”  Robin’s voice came unexpectedly from behind the pillar, jerking Macy forward, but her seated posture was stable enough that she didn’t budge much beyond that.  “You’ve been getting increasingly mopey all day, and it’s not like you.”

Macy signed.  “I’m just feeling—”


She turned to see Robin, her neck wound around the pillar, and blinked in confusion.  “Nope?”

“Nope.  Whatever you were about to say is wrong.”

“How can you tell?”

Robin ruffled Macy’s hoodie.  “Because you’re a twelve-year-old kid with average emotional intelligence who isn’t used to introspection.  You can’t accurately diagnose your own maladies without outside assistance any more than I can read facial expressions and body language from people I’m not intimately familiar with.”

“Then outside assist me,” she snapped.  “What’s wrong with me!?”

“You’re feeling guilty about getting mad at your dad because you’re starting to think he’s right about adventuring, but you still want to be an adventurer, which is making you even feeling-guiltier.”  Zhe put a paw on her shoulder, and the nut could see tears impossibly forming at the base of zhir ruby eyes. “This is what I was worried about when you left. You’re tearing yourself apart, Macy”

Slowly, Macy stood up and hugged Robin.  “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinking about anyone but myself.”

“That’sh okay.”  Robin’s muffled voice reverberated through Macy’s shell.  “It’sh your prerogative.”

Macy pushed Robin back to arm’s length and stared zhir in the eyes.  She couldn’t let zhir stay like this; emotional maturity was disconcerting on Robin and she wanted it to go away.  She needed something to distract both zhir and herself. Plus, on the off-chance Robin was right about how Macy was really feeling, she needed… she needed…  What did she need? And more importantly, could she find it at Stupendous Hal’s?

An idea occurred to her.  Turning away from Robin, she strode over to Tiffany, who was furiously scribbling yet another ode to the glory of hoagies on his own sandwich paper.  “Hey Tiffany,” she said, “this is a golf course and carnival, right?”

“Stupendous Hal’s is the reuben with corn chowder of the buffalo-burger world of miniature golf courses!” Tiffany exclaimed without looking up.  Macy wasn’t sure whether or not that was meant to be in response to her.

Regardless, she brushed the sandwich paper aside, clenched his hand in hers, and looked him in his startled eyes.  “Then I challenge you to a test of strength.”

Macy, Tiffany, Robin, Cragg, and the rest of the caddies gathered around a massive bell tower that served as both a clock and a strength test.  Once Tiffany had accepted Macy’s challenge, others had decided to join in, and it wasn’t long before it became a thing .  The next hole, a sizeable hedge maze, was expansive enough that attempting to communicate with caddies would get cumbersome anyway, so the golfers went on ahead while the others stayed behind.  Finn had looked worried when he separated from Macy. She had meant to ask him why, but she was whisked away before she got the chance. That would probably weigh on her. The frog from the front gate — a sticker on his bulbous chest let Macy know his name was “Factspinner” — arrived to judge the contest, writing the contestants’ names on a notepad the size of a billboard.

Tiffany stepped up first.  He took the great brass mallet in his hands, with a whirring of his robotic shoulder and a cracking of his organic one, and hoisted it up.  Factspinner indicated in his throaty yet oddly melodic voice where the cyborg should stand; Tiffany struggled to keep the hammer from falling as he walked, although he refused to show on his face his clear regret at picking it up before being guided to the correct spot.  Then, with a mighty cracking shriek of “ Behold the might of Tiffany! ” he swung it down hard on a black rubber pressure plate with concentric red-and-white rings that sat at the base of the bell tower.

The onlookers, Macy included, watched transfixed as a glowing yellow light ascended the bell tower floor by floor, visible only through circular windows on the side.  For a moment, it seemed like it could climb forever. Then it slowed to a halt about three-quarters of the way up the bell tower and began strobing as the bell at the top of the tower chimed.  “Thirteen for Tiffany Oiler!” Factspinner croaked as he noted the score with a pencil the size of the mallet’s handle. Tiffany held up his hand and morphed it into a disco ball, strobing in time with the light above and performing a victory dance Macy wasn’t sure she should be looking at.

After about ten seconds of this tomfoolery, Factspinner shooed the runt away and called for the next contestant.  Robin took the opportunity to pull Macy aside and talk to her behind a conspicuously normal-sized vending machine.  “What’s this all about, Macy?” zhe demanded. “One minute you’re all mopey, and the next you’re challenging Tiff in front of the whole assembly.  Not that I’m complaining about you feeling better, but what gives?”

Macy placed a hand on the vending machine, feeling the electric hum from inside.  It seemed alive to her. “Well, I’m gonna be a hero, right?”

“Are you?”  Robin tilted zhir head.  “I mean, after all this, I thought you were reconsidering.”

“Reconsidering?  If I were reconsidering I’d have gone straight home after the Mer—”  Robin placed a paw on Macy’s lips. “—I mean, after yesterday. I came here to gawk at Finn from a distance; all you did was shorten that gap.”

“Sorry about that.”  Robin slinked around Macy to lean against the side of the vending machine, zhir head pressing into the opening whence cometh beverages.

“Don’t be.  I think I needed that extra push.  And I realized that if I want to be a hero, I’ve got a lot of growing to do, and the first step in growing is seeing how I measure up.”

“So that’f what thif iv aboot.”  Robin’s head was now fully inside the vending machine, muffling zhir voice.  Macy could feel the vending machine’s heart flutter.

“Basically, yeah.”  A beat. “That, and something about Tiffany kinda cheeses me off.”

“Dv yvv rvvlv thvnk—”  Robin popped out of the vending machine and spat out a can of Super Porp.  “Do you really think you can beat him?”

“Maybe.”  Macy reflected on the events of the day.  “I don’t rightly know. But I’m pretty sure his arm was built for style, not strength.”  Then she stepped away from the vending machine, did a full spin, and crossed her arms. A smirk spread across her face.  “Besides, I’ve got an ace in the hole.”

Before Robin could express confusion over what golf had to do with tests of strength, Factspinner called zhir name.  Macy watched zhir race over to the bell tower, following behind at a relaxed pace. She stretched her arms, taking deep breaths filled with the scent of freshly-mowed grass and monstrous carnival confections.  Focusing on the competing smells let her clear her mind. She barely registered the crack in her shoulders as she exhaled. Her eyes tracked the brief ascent of the light from Robin’s round only on instinct. By the time she was a part of the real world again, she had subconsciously moved on to stretching her legs and Factspinner had written a giant “4” — the lowest score so far — under Robin’s name.

Macy continued stretching as the other contestants went up, one after one.  When it became clear the contest was going to be bigger than the two of them, Tiffany had brazenly insisted on going first, to “show you how it’s done;” that suited Macy fine.  She had elected to mirror his example and insist on going last instead, using this opportunity to observe the other contestants, seeing what strategies worked and what didn’t. Cinnamon Bun stood a bit farther back than the others so he could step into his swing, which netted him the first score to crest Tiffany’s.  Another caddy had attempted something similar by jumping in the air, but when the mallet came down close to the edge of the pressure plate, they wound up with a score barely above Robin’s. Susan Strong, on the other hand, did nothing special whatsoever. Her score was nearly perfect, at 17.

The second-to-last contestant was Cragg Ambrosia.  She strode confidently up to the pressure plate, eyes closed as if navigating by some manner of smarm-based echolocation.  When Factspinner tried to hand her the mallet, she held up a hand and said, “Is it okay if I go without?”

“You need to hit the pressure plate with a hammer.”

“Right, but does it need to be that hammer?”  She pulled her hand back and hung it like a mantis claw.  “I’m pretty saline; I might corrode it.”

He pulled a massive tome out of — huh, Macy wasn’t sure where he pulled it out of — and flipped through it.  “Technically, no,” he conceded. He put the tome back where he found it.  “But you don’t appear to have an alternative hammer on your person.”

“Don’t worry about that.”  She twisted at the hip in a manner that would make even a vertebrate jealous, pointed her head in the direction of the hedge maze, and cupped her hands to her lips; as she did so, they reshaped into a megaphone.  “ Hey Canyon! ” she shouted, her amplified voice ringing in Macy’s ear slits and interrupting her squats.  “ How much power can I use for this thing?

Canyon stuck her head over the wall of the maze (she must have been crouching before, Macy reasoned, presumably placing a marker or inspecting the hole) and shouted back.  “ Fifteen percent! ”  That shout caused a wave of bending hedge that rippled throughout the maze.

Okay! ” Cragg shouted in reply.  Luckily Macy was still covering her ear slits from last time.  Cragg turned back to the pressure plate, a wicked grin spreading across her face so wide that it was visible from her backside.  She raised her arms up into the air, balling her fists together, and they merged into a single hammer. Macy figured that hamer had about fifteen percent of the nereid’s body mass inside it.

Then she slammed it down.

There was a shockwave that knocked Macy onto her nut butt, accompanied by a popping sound that seemed to come from everywhere at once.  She shook her head, bracing herself on one knee while the world stopped wobbling before she dared to stand. She glanced up at the tower just on time to see the light reach the very top before the startling cacophony from the bell knocked her on her back again.  This time, rather than bothering to stand, she simply rolled into Robin and let zhir pick her up.

“How you feeling?” Robin asked, zhir form flowing around Macy’s and supporting her.

Macy took her lucky two-dollar coin out from her hoodie pocket and stood up, squinting through the pentagonal hole in the middle at the bell tower above and then at the pressure pad.  She put the coin back in her pocket. “Ready.”

Macy kept her hands in her pocket as she walked over to Factspinner, only taking them out to accept the hammer with a simple “Thanks, man.”  She stood a mite farther back than the spot he indicated — not as much as Cinnamon Bun, but she didn’t want to risk crossing it. Then she took a careful stance, one leg bent and the other twisted and outstretched.  She felt the springlike potential diffuse throughout her body. She took one last pair of breaths — sharp inhalation, hold while the smell of mortar and sweat filled her lungs, deep slow exhalation — and sprung.

She spun on her foot faster than she had ever spun before.  She heard a panicked yelp as Factspinner leapt backward. She nearly missed her window, slamming the mallet down onto the pressure plate at the last possible moment.  Yet it worked. She could feel the energy from her twirl flow through her arm, out of the hammer, and into the center of the pressure plate. Dropping the hammer, she took five paces back and watched the yellow light ascend.  Seconds felt like eons. Eventually, as with all things, it slowed and came back down to Ooo.

“Thirteen for Macadamia Jugland!”

The rest of the tournament proceeded as normal.  Robin got lost inside the bowels of an enormous ceramic cat; Jake and Lady kissed as the volcano that dominated hole ten erupted boiling water; Finn had a putter-duel with Frieda on a rotating windmill blade as Macy and Susan cheered their respective golfers on; Phoebe aced the haunted house hole by bouncing her ball off the Lich and proceeded to trash talk the other golfers through freestyle rap until everyone else had holed out.  Macy tried several times to get Finn to talk, but he seemed reluctant to discuss whatever it was that had been bothering him. Perhaps she had overestimated their familiarity.

Finally it was time for the announcement of the victors.  Everyone who was there for the invitational gathered around a small stage with three rows of folding chairs before it; the golfers went up onto the stage while the caddies and onlookers filed into the chairs.  Standing next to the other golfers, waiting for the goblin to tally up the final score, Finn looked as pale as a sheet. If Macy didn’t know any better, she would have assumed he was as nervous as the rest. Jake and Lady Rainicorn were holding hands while averting their respective gazes.  Phoebe was burning bright enough that Canyon had to cover her eyes. Only Frieda seemed unfazed, waving happily at Susan. The muscular woman looked ridiculous sitting in a metal folding chair next to Macy. Macy herself probably looked just as ridiculous, having slipped on the chair’s smooth surface and now resting on her side.  She could hear the sound of her shell rolling against metal in her ear slit.

Robin came up behind Macy, righting her before morphing into a seatbelt.  “You nervous?” came zhir voice from the buckle region.

“What?”  Macy cast her eyes downward and began tapping her foot against the ground.  “No. I mean, yeah, but not about the scores. I just came here to talk to Finn, remember?”

“So then what’s got you all jittered up?”

“I don’t know,” she confessed.  “I just feel like there’s something I should be nervous about but forgot.”


Macy slowed her tapping.  “‘Hm?’ What’s ‘hm?’”

Then there was a hiss like a pouring waterfall before Cragg’s voice came from behind Macy.  “The referee’s back!”

Indeed, the goblin in the black leotard walked onto the stage from a door in the back.  He rushed to the side of the stage and pulled open a much bigger door, through which stepped a massive hulking figure only a head shorter than Canyon, a beige trenchcoat covering their body, a tipped fedora and scarf covering their face.  As they stepped to the center of the stage and silently spread their massive arms ending in white-gloved hands, Macy knew. This was Stupendous Hal.

Then the goblin climbed over Hal’s back and unclasped a button on the front of the trenchcoat; the whole ensemble, hat and all, was carried to the top of the stage along with the goblin, revealing the man in all his glory.  Macy couldn’t hold herself back from exclaiming, so shocking was his appearance.

“He’s like three inches tall!”

Stupendous Hal was an eggplant-colored humanoid in a silver bedazzled suit and top hat gleaming with sequins, standing on a pair of massive stilts and holding two great mechanical arms in his own tiny ones.  As his trenchcoat fluttered away, he tapped a tiny lever on his stilt and stepped forward into a kneel, spreading his arms wide. A brief burst of trumpets came from hidden speakers surrounding the audience. Everyone except Macy and Robin, apparently used to this, gave a respectable if quiet round of golf applause.

He stood up, bowing, as those in the crowd who hadn’t been following the golfers all day threw fragrant roses the size of corpse flowers onto the stage.  Then he straightened and raised one hand, holding up three fingers. He pointed the other hand at Finn, who stepped forward and faced the crowd; the goblin descended from above to drape a bronze medal around his neck.  Everyone cheered. Macy pulled Robin off of her, standing on her chair and clapping. Then she toppled over.

By the time Cragg and Robin pulled Macy up, Stupendous Hal had already gestured for Canyon to step forward as the second-placer.  Her head being too big for the medal’s ribbon, she had the goblin place it over her upraised fist as a bracelet. Cragg’s whooping cheers from behind Macy made her cower until Robin jumped into her hood and morphed into earmuffs.

Hal made a circle with his uplifted wooden arm and held up one finger, pointing with the other arm at Frieda.  The human walked to the center of the stage casually, waving to the audience as they cheered. Macy found herself excited for the woman, despite having rooted against her.  She just looked so happy , a big goofy grin plastered on her face as Susan blew kisses from the audience.

The goblin descended to place the shiny gold medal, noticeably bigger than the others, around her neck.  Unfortunately, Frieda was so skinny that the ribbon instead fell off her shoulders, the weight of the medal dragging her arms down until it got caught halfway down, trapping Frieda’s wrists around her waist.  She alternated between maintaining that cheerful grin and struggling against her latest accolade. The cheers continued as the rest of the golfers filed behind the three medalists and took a collective bow, followed by the medalists themselves.  Frieda attempted to get Finn or Canyon’s attention, but they were caught up in the moment.

As  the golfers filed offstage, Susan throwing Frieda over her shoulder, Macy remembered something.  That must be why he’s nervous.   She grabbed Finn by his stump and led him away to the vending machine by the strength test; Jake shooed Tiffany away and followed, joined by Lady and Robin.  Finn followed without question. Caught up in the moment, rubbing a thumb on his bronze medal like Macy did with her lucky toonie, he didn’t have the presence of mind to resist.

When they were out of earshot of everyone else, she turned to face him and dug her phone out of her hoodie pocket.  “Hey, can I get your number?”

He raised an eyebrow at this, but he told her her anyway.  “Why?”

“Because I want you to call me if anything happens with the Mergence.”

Finn smiled and patted his backpack; as he did so, the flap shifted, revealing the back end of the jagged white sword he had been wearing at the banquet.  “I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m Finn Mertens, man. I’ve got Jake with me, and he’s got Lady on speed dial.” As if on cue, Jake latched onto Finn’s arm stump, morphing into a forearm and giving a thumbs-up.

Macy squinted at Jake for a moment before pointedly looking away and locking eyes with Finn.  “Still, though. I put the Mergence in the box; I feel an odd sort of responsibility for it.” The next words to come out of her mouth were not words she had planned on saying.  She paused briefly before saying them. Should she say them at all? Her mind whirled with indecision; her heart had already decided. “It’s my duty as an adventurer.”

“Mathematical!” Finn exclaimed, removing Jake as the dog morphed back to normal.  “I’m impressed by your moxy, and your commitment shows a promising sense of responsibility.  But, ah, how do I say this?”

“당신은이 슈퍼 웨폰을 추구하는 적들에게 10 초간 살아남지 못할 초보자입니다,” suggested Lady.

“Yeah, that.”

Macy did a knee-bent head-tilt.  “What?”

“The point is you’ve got gumption,” Jake explained, “but gumption don’t win wars.  If you’re gonna be a hero, you need to figure that out for yourself.”

Those words brought something to Macy’s mind; she replaced the phone and took out the toonie once more.  “You said something similar back when I got this,” she said, squinting at him through the pentagonal hole in the middle.  “Something about learning the meaning of charity and peace.”

She felt something slip between her fingers; she shifted the coin to see that Jake had morphed into a blue copy of it in her hand.  His now-five eyes, one perpendicular to each side of the central hole, blinked in succession. “Did I?”

“Yeah, back at the banquet.  You handed the coin to me after I dropped it, said something weird, and then left.”

He grew an arm so he could shrug.  “That sounds like something I’d do.  I must’ve forgotten. But let’s skip to the skedaddle:  You’ve got a lotta learnin’ to do before we can entrust you to be one of the Mergence’s guardians.”

“Then teach me,” she suggested as Jake pushed himself out of her grasp and turned back to normal once again.  “I can learn!”

Finn scratched the back of his neck, looking off to the side like something awkward had caught his attention.  “I’d love to, but I don’t think I’d make a good teacher. Peebs can testify that I wasn’t a good student. Plus it would be pretty counterproductive for me to train you while guarding the Mergence if the whole point is you’re not strong enough to help guard the Mergence.”

“Oh.”  Macy turned to look where Finn was looking.  One of the oversized paving stones was cracked; a hearty weed was growing in the crevice.  Macy had always been impressed by plants’ ability to grow where they weren’t wanted. Perhaps she was biased, being a plant herself.

Robin, on the other hand, was having none of it.  “Excuse you? We didn’t come all the way out here to be foiled by your low pedagogical self-estimation.  I dragged my friend to the Crystal Dimension and back so she could learn the ways of adventuring, and you are not going to skewer that kebab like this.”

Finn raised his arms defensively and backed up against the vending machine.  “I’m not skewering any kebabs. I just think she should, uh…” He looked at his friend.  “Jake, help me out here, man, you’re way better at food metaphors than I am.”

“She should marinate in a different sauce!” Jake suggested.

“Sure.  What I mean is I can’t be your teacher, but my girlfriend could if you convince her.”

Robin shrank down to traveling size and rotated zhir face in confusion.  “Your girlfriend? How come I’ve never met her?”

“그녀는 문명과는 거리가 멀고 혼자있는 것을 좋아합니다,” Lady explained.  “그녀는 그렇게 너와 나와 같다.”

“Yeah okay that makes sense.”

Finn began rifling through his backpack.  “She’s living in the Evil Forest, preserving the balance of nature and all that.  If you can reach her, you can ask her to train you in the ways of — ah, here they are!”

He took out what appeared to be a silver signet ring and held it out for her to take; she stuffed her coin back in her pocket before accepting it, slipping it carefully onto her finger.  As soon as she did so, she felt a crackle of energy like spicy lightning flow through her. She was at the same time paralyzed and energized. He handed her a small red pistol and a clear-lidded box with eight red balls in it.

“A ring of recall and a flare gun,” he explained.  “I’ve also got a shortsword you can borrow if you want.  The ring’ll pop you right back to the Great Tree if you get into trouble, but it takes a while to activate.  If that’s not an option, just send up a flare and we’ll be there before you can say ‘magical ring of teleportation we stole from a genie.’”

“You mean borrowed from a genie,” Jake corrected.

“Come on, bro, you know we never intended to give it back.”

As Finn explained how to use the flare gun, Macy’s thoughts drifted to Robin.  Had zhe really done all this for her? She recalled the state she had been in when she left Jugland, angry at her father for threatening to curtail her adventuring privileges.  It had seemed such an unreasonable demand, in contrast to the unfaltering support Princeso had showed her before then. Perhaps Princeso had been overly permissive, though. She thought again of — oh, wait, Finn was showing her what parts of the flare gun did what; she should probably pay attention.  She really couldn’t afford to get distracted. If something like this happened on an adventure, if she got caught thinking about something else while fighting a giant monster, it would seize the opportunity to lash out with its whiplike tail and — nope, she’s doing it again.

She looked up at Finn sheepishly.  “Hypothetically speaking, would you mind repeating all of that again, word for word?”

He sighed and obliged.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” Robin asked as Macy stuffed her backpack with one more sandwich for the road.  “I’d be glad to tag along.”

“No, that’s okay.  Adventuring is my thing, but it was never yours.”  She turned to face the park gate, much smaller than the one she had entered from.  “So I just go until the rock-shaped rock and then turn right?”

“Yeah.”  Finn rested his hand on Macy’s shoulder; she leaned back to look up at his face.  He still seemed worried, but it was a worry mixed with anticipation and a measure of excitement.  The sword he had given her, white-bladed with intertwined roots on its handle, rested heavy at her side.  “The path is less well tended from there, but it’s still a clear path. From that turn it’ll be about five miles until her house.  It’s only about 4:25, so if you leave now you should be able to make it there well before sundown.”

“Got it.”  She walked up to where the path began to slope downward, indicating the watershed she knew must exist for such a dense forest to exist.  Then she turned around and placed a hand over her eyes, a mock salute to block the afternoon sun. “I’ll see you all later,” she said. Then she leaned back and rolled down the hill.

She walked at a brisk pace but not hurried, taking in the sights and sounds and scents of nature.  As the trees grew thicker, so too did the smell of sap. Squirrels and magpies larger than she was used to seeing poked their heads out of the boughs, observing her somewhere between prey sizing up a predator and predators sizing up prey.  The wildflowers had thorns. She kept moving.

By the time she got to the rock-shaped rock, her nut heart was racing.  She was exhilarated, to be sure, but she was also nervous. This seemed right, somehow, but that didn’t mean it felt natural.  Heh. As she leaned up against the rock, taking a swig from a water bottle Finn had given her, one thought raced through her mind over and over.

I can’t believe I forgot to ask Finn who his girlfriend is.

Chapter Text

Macadamia the Nut and Masse Yvoire sat by the edge of a babbling brook just outside the Candy Kingdom.  Macy wore a yellow skirt with a long-sleeved red shirt and black leggings, Masse had a blue-grey cardigan pulled over his white-chocolate body, and they were both covered in dirt.  Masse held a long stick that had fallen out of a gum tree, poking it into the water with a thunking splash; Macy watched intently as the swimming school of gummy fish, perplexed by the intrusion of the branch, slowed and flowed apart, mimicking the wake on the surface above.  The reflections of the trees on the far side of the creek wavered, and for a moment Macy thought it looked like the fish were growing from them. She shared that thought with Masse, and the two chuckled. As she laughed, the smells of outdoors filled her nostrils — the clean, only somewhat sugary air; the mix of minerals and algae from the crystal-clear soda water of the brook; the unpleasant yet not unwelcome smell of molting.  Out here, Macy could clear her head.

Behind her, Macy could hear Princeso’s special guests for the day, the Marshmallow Rangers, explaining the same survival tips for the seventh time to a group of hyperactive six-year-olds.  As a nine-year-old, Macy viewed six-year-olds as babies and twelve-year-olds as the elderly. Right now the rangers were explaining the difference between poison ivy and chocolate cake, as well as which one is better to build a shelter out of.  At least that’s probably what they were talking about. Macy didn’t bother listening because she doubted she would ever need to walk five miles through the wilderness to meet up with someone who could train her in the ways of being a hero, or for any other reason either.

“Hey, Macy,” said Masse in that carefree, confident voice of his.  He drew a circle in the water, and a spreading ellipse drifted downstream.

“Yeah, Masse?”  Macy reached her bare foot into the river.  A curious fish nibbled on her toe, tickling her; she pulled it out with a splash, getting her leggings wet.

“I’ve been thinkin’.”  He turned to her, swinging the stick around to point at her and getting her shirt wet.  “About fish, and how dumb they are.”

“I’m with you so far.”  She nudged the stick out of the way so she could stare down at her reflection.  Something seemed off about it, but she couldn’t figure out what.

“If we were to become hardcore adventurers like our M&M characters, and decided to live in the woods for like ever and ever, do you think we could trick ‘em into bein’ our food like the rangers were talkin’ about?”

“I dunno.”  Macy poked the water.  It felt warmer on her finger than she anticipated.  A fish went for another nibble; it stayed clamped onto her finger as she lifted it out of the water.  “They seem to think we’re the food.”

“Maybe we could use that agin’ ‘em.  Make ‘em think we’ve got some food for ‘em, get ‘em hooked so to speak, and then bam!”  With his free hand he yanked the fish off Macy’s finger; distracted, he let his other arm move in a complementary arc, causing him to whack Macy in the back with the stick.

“Whoa!”  Macy wobbled her arms and knees, attempting to maintain her precarious balance on the edge of the rivulet.  She felt that heavy weightlessness that comes of losing balance.

And then she crashed face-first into the murky, slow-moving tributary.

As she got up, spitting water and moss out in a thick, wretched-tasting slurry, she took stock of her surroundings.  She had been resting on the edge of this stream, taking a breather to collect her breath and thoughts, when she had zoned out.  She figured she was about one mile out from the rock-shaped rock, which meant she had four miles yet to go before she reached Finn’s girlfriend at the heart of the evil forest.  She took out her phone to verify that.

“Fleas and lice!” she exclaimed.  The phone’s screen was a mess of colored boxes and glitching text.  She facepalmed at her own shortsightedness. Despite having the good sense to load everything else into her backpack, she had decided to keep her phone and flare gun in her hoodie pocket for easy access.  That was probably not her smartest putt. She had heard of a few tricks to fix this, but she couldn’t remember exactly what; she could just look it up on her —  oh.

She pulled out the flare gun and poured two liters of water out of its barrel.  She was no expert, but she doubted that would work either.

The ring of recall on her finger buzzed with anticipation.  She could turn back now with no problem. At least, she assumed the ring was waterproof.  But she still had the Root Sword Finn had given her, her water bottle, and her wits, as well as several hours before the sun set.  If she was going to be an adventurer, she couldn’t let a little mortal peril faze her.

“Fleas and lice?” she repeated to herself, amused, as she walked back to the trail she had been following.  “Wow, Damy, you’re really starting to sound like Robin.”

A short while later, Macy smelled something odd in the air.  It smelled like rust and something vaguely unpleasant, carried to her nose on a warm and fetid breeze.  Whoever said that fresh air was clean was a liar.

Cautiously, she withdrew the cream-bladed short sword from its backpack-mounted sheath.  Her fingers wrapped loosely around the twisting wood handle, only tightening briefly to yank the branching crossguard free when it snagged on her grey hoodie pocket.  She held it pointed down, in front of her leg as she approached the spot where the scent seemed to originate.

As she neared its source — a thorny bramble bush — she stilled her breathing.  There were still the sounds of the forest, of winds and waters, of magpies and monsters, but none of it sounded nearby.  Either whatever was in this bush was trying to avoid detection, or…

Slowly, she parted some of the bush’s branches, revealing the odor’s origin.  A large brown squirrel, easily thrice the dimensions of a normal squirrel, was lying still on the ground, blood seeping from a gash on his arm.  The sickly red fluid was soaking into the ground and the squirrel’s blue polo shirt; bizarrely, the squirrel didn’t seem to be wearing pants. Granted, neither was Macy, but at least her hoodie doubled as a dress.

“Hey there, little squirrel,” she cooed, holding her sword awkwardly in her right hand so she could use her left to heft the creature up and out of the bush.  “I’ve got you.”

“I’m actually a shiba inu,” said the shiba inu.  “The name’s… the name’s… hrrgh!” They clutched their side, wincing convincingly.

“There, there,” she said, setting them gently on the gravel path and rifling through her backpack for her first-aid kit.

“…Ontario,” the dog on the ground warbled.

“Ontario, huh?”  Macy set the kit on the ground beside Ontario and opened it up with a click.

“Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.  Hnngh!”

Macy took some antiseptic and squirted it on a disinfectant cloth.  She began swabbing the wound, parting matted fur so she could determine the extent of the injury.  “That’s a very nice name. Very… huh.” She paused, looking off into the middle distance. There was something pressing on the back of her mind.  Something she was forgetting.

“Ooh, doc, you’re forgetting about me,” yelped Ontario.  She looked down and realized she had been pressing the alcohol-moistened cloth onto the wound for a mite longer than she assumed was standard.

“Uh, sorry about that.”  She placed the cloth in a plastic bag and squinted to inspect the wound.  “Looks shallow,” she guessed. How’d you get it?”

“I was walking through the forest, looking for, uh… I was walking through the forest when I got jumped by a monster.  I lost my knapsack, my composure, and my pants, and its gnarly claw gashed me. I’m a bit embarrassed that it caught my by surprise.  I should have seen the signs.”

“What was the beast that attacked you?” she asked, a nervous quiver in her voice.

“The signs.”

“Ah, of course.”  She took out a piece of absorbent cloth and laid it across the length of the wound, then began wrapping it in gauze.  “You know, you’re really lucky this was just a minor scrape.” A beat. “Otherwise I’d have absolutely no idea what to do in this situation.”

Once she finished bandaging up the dog, they got up on their hind legs, knees shaking, leaning on her for support.  She waited for them to find his balance and let go before she began packing her supplies. “If you don’t mind my inquisition,” she heard them ask, “where might you be headed?  It’s pretty suspicious to find someone wandering alone in the Evil Forest, you know.”

Same to you, Macy wanted to add, but she kept her mouth shut.  That was not how a doctor was to address her patient, she assumed.  “Just meeting up with someone who can hopefully help train me in the ways of hero biz.”  She slid the medkit back into her pack and resumed walking, sword out.

“Alrighty, doc.”  They sounded much better already — hale and hearty, and peppy as a puppy.  As they walked behind her, their energetic steps send gravel clattering with every pawfall.  “I guess I’ll tag along with you, then. Safety in numbers and all that.” Their voice drifted to the side at the end, as if he were leaning over to look at something.  “You’re my hero, after all.”

“Oh, but ‘tis nothing, citizen!” Macy exclaimed in a deep, projecting voice, gesticulating wildly with one arm while she kept the other tucked behind her back.  “I was merely doing my duty as a sworn protector of the Land of Full Cherry Termite.”

“Falscherrinertreich,” Masse coughed beside her, briefly looking up from the furious scribbling he was doing on a sheet of paper before him.

“That too,” clarified Macy.

“Even so, totally radical and noble warriors,” Princeso said in a thick Lumpy accent from behind the cardboard tryptich that sat in front of his chair, “I wish I could offer you, like, some token of gratitude more than just grody payment.”

“Magic weapons!” interjected Masse.

“Healing potions!” insisted a weary Robin, sitting on the other side of Macy with zhir own sheet resting on zhir head.

“Perchance a title?” suggested Macy.

“You know what, since I like you, I’m just gonna totally give you all three of those things,” said Princeso, making a dismissive hand gesture.  “Thanks for the ideas, but I was totally gonna do them anyway, so like what- ever.”

Then Princeso began furiously rifling through pages of notes behind his GM screen while muttering to himself as Macy, Masse, and Robin exchanged confused glances.

“Alright, I’ve, like, got it,” Princeso said at last.  He took out three index cards — one green, one white, and one red.  He handed the green card to Macy. “Sir Fionn Mac Inteach, I give you the title ‘sky-warrior’, the longsword ‘moonslicer’, and three regular healing potions.”

As Princeso handed out the rest of the loot, Macy examined the card.  It was a pretty neat weapon — much better than her current sword, which she had been using since the beginning of the campaign.  Its magical bonuses to attack and damage were okay, but what caught her attention was a special ability it had. Apparently, this sword would allow her to attack at range, in a manner which would allow her to use the tripping feat she was planning on taking when she leveled up.  Princeso must have remembered when she mentioned that offhand and drafted up this custom magic item specifically to complement her intended build. Every time she thought she had learned the vast extent to which the caregiver wanted to make Macy’s desires feasible, he did something like this that made her appreciate him all over again.

In other words, giving her this fake weapon for her Mushrooms & Magi character was the greatest thing anyone had ever done for her.  She held up the glowing, formless blade in awe. It felt less than weightless as she swung it in a wide arc over her head, as if it were being pulled to some other font of gravity.  A night breeze blew over her, guided by Moonslicer’s sweep.

Then Princeso threw a bucket of gravel in her face and she woke up.

Macy stood up and dusted herself off, spitting pebbles out of her mouth.  Her tongue would probably taste like dust for a while now. She turned around to see she had tripped on a stray rock while distracted.  Normally she could navigate fairly well while daydreaming — it was like her body went on autopilot — but any unexpected obstacle that appeared would, well, trip her up.  She avoided looking directly into Ontario’s eyes; she hoped they wouldn’t press her on what exactly happened.

She checked her pockets once again, but thankfully nothing had gotten more ruined than it already was.  She was about to congratulate herself on not being a total klutz when she realized she had dropped her backpack in the fall and its contents had scattered all over the road.  Frustrated, she knelt down and began shoving things in haphazardly. If she kept getting distracted like this, she wouldn’t be able to make it to Finn’s girlfriend by sunset, and being in a place called the “Evil Forest” after sunset sounded ill-advised.

As she tried to jam the first-aid kit back into the backpack, she realized to her frustration that it wasn’t fitting.  She attempted to make room by holding everything inside the backpack up with one hand while holding the backpack itself down with her foot, but that still didn’t create enough slack.  With a groan of frustration, she held the medkit out to her new traveling companion.

“Hey Ontario,” she said, “would you mind holding onto this?”

“Oh, sure, doc!” he said eagerly, grabbing it in one hand and slinging it over his shoulder.

“The name’s Macadamia Ju—”  She stopped herself. Did she really want to use that name with a total stranger?  “Macadamia the Nut,” she decided. “She/her.”

“O-oh, I’m he/him.”

“Cool.”  They resumed walking.

As they got deeper into the forest, Macy began hearing more rustling noises in the bushes.  She saw animals larger than Ontario — animals which had no business being that large — dart away fearfully as she approached.  She saw plants recoil as if in terror, their flowers spontaneously wilting in an almost-convincing imitation of death, their leaves curling up and forming spiky tips.  She saw dappled shadows in the distance grow thicker until the canopy above became like a thatched roof. Patches of wildflowers and thorny grasses grew more frequent on the gravel path until they covered it entirely; whenever a spot of unmolested gravel appeared, it revealed a fierce battle between different-colored ants or a foraging worm being harassed by a sadistic pigeon.  Macy watched her step.

Eventually, Macy saw something in the distance that made her pause.  She held out her hand and accidentally clotheslined Ontario, but at least when he got up he didn’t keep moving.  He opened his mouth to ask what was going on, but she shushed him and ducked into the grass, ignoring a mantis that had taken interest in her foot.  She pressed down the grass in front of her to get a better look at what was going on.

A mace-tailed possum and a winged mongoose, both far larger than they had any right to be, were staring each other down a couple score meters away.  The mongoose kept advancing and retreating, flapping its wings not to take off but to give itself a larger, more intimidating silhouette; the possum sidestepped each time, baring its gnarled fangs and hissing.  Around them the grass began to smolder with a sweet, ashy stench.

Suddenly the mongoose lunged forward and the two animals began fighting.  The possum let loose a brutal tail whip to send the mongoose flying, which turned out to be a poor decision given that the mongoose could actually fly.  It began strafing the possum from the sky, dealing quick bites to the shoulders with sickening squelches. In response, the possum belted a great fiery blast from its mouth, igniting some of the less leafy branches above.

Deciding not to wait for her path forward to become blocked by a forest fire, Macy advanced, keeping low, holding her sword out with one hand while keeping Ontario linked to her with the other.  She didn’t want to get close to two fighting animals (monsters?), but she wasn’t sure she had much choice in the matter.

At six meters away, she saw a fireball whiz past startlingly close, its roasting heat nearly blasting her off balance.  Woozy, she yanked Ontario behind a thick-trunked tree, nearly causing him to drop the first-aid kit. Her nut heart was racing.  Clinging to the tree for support, she leaned out to observe the skirmish.

The possum had managed to sink its teeth into one of the mongoose’s wings and was thrashing it about on the ground; the poor mongoose, battered and bloodied, was simply trying to wrest itself free at this point, whatever territorial dispute had started the conflict long forgotten.  A series of clicks issued from the mongoose’s throat, and a wave of fire overtook the possum. The poor creature thrashed about violently, attempting to douse itself before one final tail-whack to its neck brought its life to a merciful end. Macy felt a retching sensation slowly rise up her throat and fought back the urge to vomit.

After glancing around to ensure nobody else would challenge its authority, the possum clamped its jaws around the torso of the still-smoldering mongoose.  It began pulling it back into the thicket whence it had emerged, leaving a trail of blood and ash behind. The wing that had been bitten before caught on a rock; the possum kept tugging, and the wing tip was torn off.

Then an enormous, blue-furred, two-headed puma leapt out of the canopy and pounced on the possum, killing it instantly with a bone-crushing squelch.

As soon as it landed, all the fires in the area went out.  Dew began condensing around it, and as it ambled down the path — in her direction, Macy noted glumly — jagged ice crystals sprang up in its pawprints.  It paid little heed to the corpses behind it, merely wiping its tail over them to coat them in a layer of frost. Either it was confident that nothing would try to mess with it by disturbing its kill, or its vendetta was territorial as well.

Before it reached the tree Macy was using for cover, it stopped and sat, wrapping its tail around its torso.  Its mighty snout sniffed the air, its breath coming out in tiny clouds of wintry mist. It’s a cool cat, Macy suddenly remembered; they appeared on several denominations of Ice Kingdom currency, as detailed in A Collector’s Guide to Coinage, Vol. 47.   Indeed, its proximity seemed to suck the warmth from the air.  An unnatural chill ran through Macy’s core. She ducked fully behind the tree once again.  Now she wanted to vomit and shiver.

Then she heard once more its approaching steps, accompanied by a low growl, and realized she could no longer hide.  It had sniffed her out, and there was nothing she could do about it. It was going to reach her in about two seconds, and then it was going to crush her, and her body was going to shatter into a million pieces small enough to be picked up by the breeze and deposited in the ocean where she would be found by a sailor… who would put her back together… and give her a sword…?

That panic-induced hallucination certainly went in an odd direction at the end, Macy thought.  She did a knee-bent head-tilt, puzzling over what could possibly have prompted that.  Maybe it was something she ate. If that was the case, she needed to eat it more often.  Her stomach protested this thought by turning inside-out again. That was her third hallucination, after all, so she was going to lose something soon.

Then she felt a puff of freezing, oddly moist air on her shoulder.  Oh right, the cool cat.   She dutifully resumed her panicking.  She felt a shake in her right hand and realized Ontario was panicking too.  She swallowed her fear (as well as her nausea) and stepped out, blade raised, to face the puma.

The beast stood a good meter taller than her; one of is massive heads, nearly the size of her entire body, sniffed her curiously while the other stood a vigilant guard.  Its breath smelled oddly minty. The sniffing head issued a low, guttural growl. Macy averted her eyes; the Root Sword slipped from her grasp, her fingertips growing numb.

The head facing her sneezed in her face, the other said, “What a chump,” and the cat turned back to the bodies on the ground.

Once the puma had collected them — one in each mouth — and leapt back up into the trees, Macy allowed herself to breathe again.  That was way too close.   One part of her mind was berating herself for freezing up and dropping her sword.  Another knew that if she had done anything other than what she did, she likely would have come out of that encounter worse than scared.  A third was disappointed that the reaction she would have had was one that, in retrospect, would have been disastrous.  A fourth was laughing at that “freezing up” joke; the first three parts found this to be a situationally inappropriate response.  In summation, Macy was feeling so many things that she didn’t feel much of anything.

“Yo, so, okay,” said Ontario, sounding a lot less nerve-wracked than Macy.  “It’s not just me, right? That was really weird, right?”

Hand still trembling, Macy picked up her sword.  The hilt seemed like it had withered slightly. “Y-yeah, it was.”  She gave the blade a test swing, but it felt unchanged. “Let’s not test fortune’s mood, though; we should get moving before another incident occurs.  Fortune hates a slow deal, after all.”

“I thought it was, ‘Fortune hates a crowded park.’”

Macy looked askance at him — a difficult maneuver for her, but one which she had practiced meticulously — and rolled her eyes.  “As far as I care, Ontario, it’s ‘Fortune hates dallying by the rosebushes.’ Let’s go.” Something about this dog was beginning to rub Macy the wrong way.  Plus, she kept getting the feeling that she was forgetting something.

They walked a good distance more through the thickening forest.  By now the grass was up to their knees; Macy was carving a path through the thick swathes with the Root Sword.  The pungent smell of the cut grasses encouraged Macy to keep moving, but apparently it enticed Ontario, for he kept trying to roll around in it.  She had to drag him along like some manner of leashed animal to keep moving at anything close to a reasonable pace.

Also attracted to the smell of grasses were a variety of increasingly large, increasingly monstrous bugs.  Macy had to fend them with her sword, swinging wildly in a bizarre act of intimidation. For the most part, the bugs quickly realized that the cream-colored blade was not something to be trifled with, and after a few warning swipes at the air she would scare most of them off.  One beetle, sporting a stylish goatee and with a bass guitar strapped to its back, got a bit too close for comfort; Macy twanged the instrument with the crossguard of the Root Sword, and in retaliation it bowled her over and then flew into the trees to re-tune it, but after that it left the travelers alone while its guitar gently wept.

Soon Macy noticed that the ground was growing damper, the bugs more plentiful, and the slope of the path more consistently downward.  She knew what this meant, and as she suspected it wasn’t long until the stream she had fallen into hours before crossed paths with the trail she walked.  The area by the river was brighter thanks to the slight gap in the treeline it enforced. A roughshod log bridge lay across the river, affixed at either end by hempen rope staked firmly into the ground.  Macy watched as a large salmon with enormous muscular biceps leapt out of the water and over the bridge, flexing and giving her a wink before it splashed back into the water. She gagged, feeling suddenly sick.

In an attempt to get her mind off that mental image as soon as possible, she walked up to the log and tapped it with her foot.  It was unsurprisingly damp but surprisingly firm. She supposed it wouldn’t have been used as a bridge if it weren’t capable of thousands of ants were flowing out from unDER THE LOG OH MY GLOB—

She nearly fell over, just barely catching herself with her elbows.  She had to dig her heels in to stop herself from rolling down the slope and into the creek for the second time that day.

“Hoo boy, that’s pretty gross,” said Ontario from near enough to Macy’s ear slit that she was fairly certain he could easily have caught her.  “Are you sure this is the way to go, doc?”

“You’re free to stop following me whenever you want, you know.”  Macy stood up, wobbling a bit, and wiped dirt and ants off her hoodie.  “Also stop calling me doc, it’s weird.”

“You got it, Nut.”

“I changed my mind.”  Macy took a hearty swig from her water bottle, then handed it off to her tagalong.  Trepidatiously, she advanced once more, kneeling by the stakes to peer into the log.  It seemed empty now; hopefully she had spooked all of the resident ants. Very slowly, she reached out a foot and ever so slightly poked the log.  She held her breath, blocking out the acrid smell of the log. Nothing happened. “Feel free to call me anything except ‘Nut’.”

Holding her arms out for balance, Macy began the precarious trek across the stream.  Above the brook a cool breeze blew a bit stronger than in the thick of the trees, picking up the smells from the river and blasting Macy with them.  She had never before wished that she had a nose she could scrunch — not because the smell was bad, necessarily, but because it was distracting. She made the mistake of glancing upstream to see the salmon from before sticking its head out of the water and kissing its biceps repeatedly. Its sickening aura intensified.

Once she was near enough to the end of the log, she jumped onto the soft ground on the other side and spun around.  Ontario was making his way across the log with ease. The bandage on his arm caused him to exhibit notably less ease in the act of hoisting the medkit over his head with the water bottle balanced atop its center.  Something about the dark shadow it cast over his face, contrasted with the less-obscured sunlight around him, made him seem vaguely sinister.

Perhaps it was the salmon off to the side which was now attempting some sort of rhythmic dance.  Macy closed her eyes and turned away from that, nauseous. She felt like she was going to throw up.

The forest after the river was significantly more cramped.  In addition to the increasingly dense weeds, Macy now had to continually cut down thick curtains of vines which draped from the canopy above.  Occasionally a patch of grass would appear trampled or otherwise disturbed, although she never saw whatever creature might have disturbed it. On more than one occasion she and Ontario dove into a thicket at the sound of a distant growl or approaching pasteps, yet they never caught a glimpse of their source.  Even the insects grew more sparse as the plants grew thicker — no mere correlation, as Macy discovered when she observed a butterfly alight upon a purple tulip, which promptly swallowed the bug whole. Macy made a point to steer clear of anything bright after that.

When hints of muted gold began tingeing the muted sunlight, the combination of general weariness and uncomfortable humidity forced Macy to take a seat on a small boulder at the edge of the trail.  Judging by the time it probably was and how fast she felt like she had been walking, she may be getting close to Finn’s girlfriend’s place, possibly, if she was right. She took out her water bottle, which felt a lot lighter than when she had packed it.  Concerned, she unscrewed the lid and peered inside. Empty. Math this day.

She reached into her backpack and pulled out one smashed granola bar.  Sighing, she unwrapped it — shoving the empty wrapper back in the pack — and split it in half, giving one half to Ontario.  “Here. Calories.”

“Oh boy, I love calories!”  In a single chomp, he nommed his entire half of the granola bar without taking it from Macy’s hand.

Macy leaned back and sighed, a weary grin spreading over her face.  “Dogs.” She ate her own granola slowly and deliberately, letting the nutty, vaguely sweet flavor sink in with each measured bite.

As she shoved the last of the granola bar into her mouth, she leaned forward again, closing her eyes and focusing on the taste.  Memories came unbidden to her mind: finding Ontario in the bush, the fight between the possum and the mongoose, that flipping salmon from the log bridge.  A wave of nausea spread through her once more.  She held the last chewed slurry of granola in her mouth, unable to swallow.  That though further compounded her queasiness, and she retched.

Don’t think about that, Macy.  Think about your happy place.   She willed herself to think about golf.  She thought about hanging out with Finn, about meeting Cragg, about making fun of Tiffany.  She thought about her room in the Duchy of Nuts, with that floral silhouette in green. She thought about feeding the birds with her dad, about idle conversations with Pen, about playing M&M with Masse and Princeso and Robin.  Mostly she thought about Robin. As she pictured zhir ruby eyes, zhir confident gait, zhir button-braided tail, Macy felt herself recenter. Her nausea didn’t go away, but it subsided somewhat.

“It’s getting kinda late,” observed Ontario.  As he spoke he kept his eye locked on Macy’s hand, perhaps working up the courage to ask for her crumbs.  “I was hoping not to get caught in the Evil Forest after dark.”

“Yeah,” croaked Macy, slowly standing up, ignoring the sudden stiffness in her joints.  “We should probably (oof) build some sort of (oof!) shelter soon.”

“I don’t know if I’ll last long in the cold, doc.”  He rubbed his bandaged arm, still staring at Macy’s hand.  “Especially in my condition. I’m not as hale and hearty as you.  I just wish I had some way to instantly get out of the forest with no complications.”

That oddly specific phrase gave Macy an idea.  “Hold on, I might just have something for you.  Here you go.” She took the ring of recall off her finger and handed it to the shibe. “This should warp you directly to the allegedly-Great Tree.”

“Haha, that’s great!  Thanks doc.” He tapped the ring twice with his index finger, and then in a flash of azure light he vanished.

As soon as her tagalong was gone, Macy collapsed onto the ground.  She knew it was irrational, but she didn’t want to show how little composure she truly had in front of someone she had just met.  In truth, she had barely the strength to stand. Perhaps the morning’s golf excursion had tired her more than she realized, or perhaps she simply had no stamina in the first place.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. She wasn’t sure of anything these days. The one thing she knew was that she wanted to be an adventurer, and half the time she wasn’t even sure of that.   If adventures were usually like this, she might start having second thoughts.  Again.

Then the nausea returned, and this time Macy realized — too late — that it wasn’t purely emotional.  She puked out a pile of granola and half-digested sandwich onto the forest floor before retching at the smell and puking again.  The sensation of the food leaving her body in the wrong direction, the bizarre perversion of the digestive process, was the worst part of it.  At least, that’s what she thought until she felt it coming out the other end.

Entirely too much of that later, Macy dragged herself back to the boulder where she had unceremoniously dumped all of her supplies.  Groggily, fighting back several dry heaves, she rifled through her backpack looking for the first-aid kit, hoping it would contain something of use.  When she remembered that it wasn’t in her backpack, she began frantically pacing around, pawing up the grass to find where it might have been dropped.

Realization finally dawned on her just when the sensation of pressing a hand into a rotting thicket of weeds triggered a tiny bit of puke she didn’t know she still had in her.  “Ontario!” she shouted weakly. The dog must have taken the medkit with him when he teleported away. He’d gotten Macy to give him the ring, and then he’d stranded her. He must have known what the ring was the whole time.  Had he even arranged for her to spill her backpack so he could be in charge of the medkit? “You gator!”

A second realization coward’s-dawned a moment later.  That was what she had forgotten — stories about a dog whom everyone mistook for a squirrel, a perennial huckster who typically latched himself onto a bigger, more conventionally dangerous villain, the chessmaster behind the strings who played peoples’ emotions like Jake played the viola.

“Ontario is Toronto,” she moaned, collapsing onto the ground once more.  “I really need to study more history.” After being teased by her classmates for idolizing Finn back when she was at the orphanage, the fact that she got (as a twenty-first century viewer might put it) dunked on for not obsessing over his exploits enough was sobering.  Laughing and moaning in equal measure, Macy lay there on the forest floor as the gentle sounds of a thunderstorm lulled her into another memory.

The icosahedral die tumbled across the cheap toffee-metal alloy of the folding table with a small cacophony before finally coming to a rest with that most horrid figure pointing ceilingward.  A collective gasp echoed throughout the crowded orphanage dining room; even Chipper the chip, balancing on a pair of stilts as he hung up a portrait of Princess Bubblegum one of the orphans had drawn, turned to look.

A beat.

“…natural one,” sighed Macy.  “That’s obviously not gonna hit the dragon.”

Princeso seemed somber too.  “No, it is not. Lemme just roll something real quick…”  There was a quick clatter of dice behind the folded cardboard he used as his head honcho screen, presumably the pair of ten-siders that were rolled to determine random effects.  “You, ah, er, hm. You drop your weapon.”

“Aw, math.”  Macy scribbled something on her character sheet.  “That means my defense number is reduced. I’m gonna get hit by everything.

“Speaking of which, at the end of your turn, the dragon uses one of its bodacious actions to do a headfin attack against you, which…”  He rolled another die behind his screen, probably another icosahedral die. “That plus that… Does a 17 hit you?”

“It does now.”

After one more tense clattering of secret dice, Princeso announced the result in a low, almost melancholic tone of voice.  “That’s, um, holy cow. 31 points of poking damage.”

“Right, so I’m at…”  Macy tugged on Masse’s shoulder, startling him out of his engrossed reverie.  “Hey Seyv. What’s twenty-seven minus thirty-one?”

He started counting on his fingers.  “That’d be, let’s see, carry the one, that’d be sixteen.”  A beat. “Wait, no, negative four.”

Macy erased her health number on her character sheet and was about to write the new number down when she suddenly paused.  “Wait a minute, negative four is a negative number.”  She dropped the pencil and threw her hands in the air, leaning back in her creaky folding chair.  “I’m unconscious.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” came Robin’s voice from two places at once.  Zhir eyes glowed, and a beam of ruby light shone out of them. The number on Macy’s character sheet began increasing before her eyes, and she felt herself grow heartier.

Emboldened, she drew the wicked longsword in her one good arm, its silvery single-edged blade flickering with moonlight.  She stared down the massive cookie dragon before her, raising her blade as it hummed with divine power. As she swung, a shockwave of radiant energy issued forth, slicing the dragon in half and releasing the billions upon billions of ants which had been trapped inside.

Then something wet hit Macy on the forehead and she found herself startled back to consciousness, laying against the boulder as a worried Robin examined her like a physician examining a friend they found sick in the middle of an evil forest.

“…hey, Robin,” she groaned.  She tried to prop herself up, but her stomach protested, so she leaned back against the rock.  Her back protested at the thud, but her back would have to play with the hand fortune had dealt it.  I’ve got a lot of metaphors from that fortune poem stuck in my head, she observed.  What was it called?  “The Ode of the Golden Byway”?  Or was it the Golden Highway?   “By or high?” she asked aloud.

“I have no idea what that means.  Also, thank Glob you’re awake!” Robin gave Macy a hug so tight she could almost feel it through her legendarily thick shell.  Then zhe grasped her by the shoulders, stared at her with zhir ruby eyes, and started talking fast.   “Also also, what were you thinking?   You’ve showed about zero wilderness survival skill since you got out here.  You didn’t even think to turn back when you got sick! You’re really lucky I caught a glimpse of your surroundings when you had the shattering daymare or I never would have caught up to you.”

Macy blinked slowly.  “When I got sick… shatter—”

“And another thing!  Getting that close to an injured animal, especially one who’s a known convict in basically every kingdom on Ooo, is just asking for trouble.  You want rabies? You want Lemyn disease? Because that’s how rabies gets Lemyn disease. Also cursed gangrene. At least tell me you had the presence of mind to not try to use the log bridge.”

Macy sat still for about ten seconds while her mind caught up with reality.  “Oh, um, about that — it’s not like anything bad happened!” A beat. “Immediately.”

Robin facepawed.  “Well, if you made it to the other side okay, then that’s fine, as long as you didn’t fall in the water.”

Macy turned to examine a sproutling weed on the side of the path.

“Oh my glob you did.”

“Not back there!” protested Macy.  She turned back to look at Robin, embarrassment rising like one more thing to regurgitate now that she was out of food.  “Just at the beginning of the trip.”

“That’s even—”  Robin paused, closed her eyes, and did a quick breathing exercise; zhir colored stripes temporarily became a gradient.  When zhir eyes opened again, zhir pattern seemed crisper than ever. “Tell me everything.”

Robin didn’t say anything for the duration of Macy’s story.  After it was over, zhe simply held up zhir paw as if telling Macy to wait before darting into the thick of the woods.  For about thirty seconds, Macy was once again alone with her thoughts. However, since she lacked the energy to think, those thirty seconds were solely spent wondering how long Robin had been gone without actually speculating.

“Alright, I’m back,” said Robin, back.  Zhe grabbed a clump of weeds and wrung them out into Macy’s water bottle, then shoved some herbs into it before smashing them with zhir paw and handing the bottle to Macy.  “Drink.”

Macy did so.  The taste was so tongue-punchingly bitter that she wanted to spit it out immediately, but she forced herself to swallow.  “Wazzissfer?”

“Aggravated groundwater disease and Derek’s plasmitis.  Don’t you remember anything from the many, many times Princeso had the Marshmallow Rangers over to talk about wilderness safety?”

Macy flashed back to her earlier flashback.  “Technically yes.”

“Then you should remember that the breath of a cool cat contains a chemical they use to induce lethargy in their prey, and you need to counteract that immediately or you’ll get Derek’s plasmitis.”  Zhe pushed Macy upright and then transformed into a walking cane.  “Oh, uh, gather up your supplies; I found a dead tree we can use as shelter for the night.  I’ll thatch the roof and glamour the entrances so we don’t get disturbed, and you should be a bit less out of sorts in the morning.”

As Macy found her legs, she also found an extraordinary desire to plop down into the muddy grass and plant herself.  Perhaps that could be her next great adventure. But no, she didn’t want to disappoint her walking cane, and she had already committed to finding this mysterious girlfriend; she needed to follow through.  In the fading light of the oncoming sunset, she needed to use Robin to locate most of her dropped supplies. The rainicorn-dog understandably did not appreciate finding the Root Sword the hard way, but Macy didn’t know what zhe was complaining about; zhir paw was barely bleeding.

Once all that was gathered and Macy started heading off into the woods per Robin’s holographic directions, she gathered the presence of mind to ask the questions that had been forming at the back of her mind since her friend had first appeared out of nowhere.  “So, what are you doing out here anyway? And how do you know all this stuff?”

“Oh, I didn’t want to miss the chance to talk to Finn’s girlfriend.  Besides, nature’s always been my thing, remember? You have your heroism, I have my naturalism.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s fair.”  She sloppily cut down a tangle of vines, briefly getting the Root Sword stuck before pulling it out.  “Wait, I thought you said you hadn’t met Finn’s girlfriend.”

“I haven’t met her, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know who she is.  You should know, too, since you’ve read all the stories.”

“Actually, the stories are pretty inconsistent about that.  I think maybe that’s a piece of his private life he doesn’t want made public.”

Robin created an illusory stick-figure arm so zhe could shrug without breaking pace.  “Or maybe he just didn’t view that as important enough to tell anyone.”

When Macy woke up the next morning, she would be infuriated at her past self for not having the presence of mind to ask any obvious follow-up questions.

Robin lay another large scavenged branch against the side of the massive, hollowed tree trunk.  Zhe was impressed by how much the simple, makeshift walls muffled the unconscionably loud snores coming from zhir friend, who had fallen asleep as soon as zhe had set her down.  It was a wonder every monster in the woods hadn’t rushed over here as soon as the sun had set.

Zhe grabbed some mud and slinked up the conical structure zhe had created, being careful not to rest any weight on it.  Zhe reached inside to pull out some grass zhe had been drying and began using them to cover up some of the gaps between branches.  In addition to keeping the sound in, zhe wanted to keep the cold and rain out, especially given Macadamia’s frail condition. Zhe wouldn’t be able to thatch it like zhe had promised, since it smelled like the storm was going to worsen soon, but zhe would at least ensure Macy stayed relatively dry through the night.

Zhe swung zhirself up into a tree just as zhe heard scampering on the forest floor below.  Thinking quickly, zhe cast a minor illusion over the makeshift hut, causing it to appear as an uninteresting pile of detritus.  Hopefully the incomplete upper layers were enough to mask Macy’s smell. Zhir own smell was similar to that of a number of creatures which lived in the forest, so zhe simply had to hope that zhe wasn’t inherently interesting.  ‘Hoping for the best’ wasn’t usually zhir survival strategy, but zhe didn’t usually have to run into the woods to save zhir friend from two diseases at once and also possibly monsters.

Zhe hid in the tree as zhe watched a two-headed cool cat walk by below.  It held two well-preserved corpses in its mouths, and while Robin’s eyesight was awful, zhe was willing to bet they were the same animals Macy had described fighting earlier.  It plodded up to the shelter and began sniffing around the woven leaf curtains Robin had laid over the entrance. It must have recognized zhir friend’s smell from inside. Robin waited with bated breath to see what its machinations were.  One head seemed to pull it toward the door, but the other nodded in a different direction and the cat began rooting around and examining some of the weeds on the ground.

Robin let out the tiniest sight of relief.  Zhe couldn’t believe that Macy had been stupid enough to try to hide from a cool cat by ducking behind a tree.  Had she simply forgotten that most animals have decent senses of smell, even after being friends with zhir for most of her life?  No, she’d just acted without thinking.   Masse Yvoire used to have that effect on her, and Masse was always weighting on Macy’s mind nowadays.  Robin, for zhir part, tended to avoid acting without thinking by avoiding acting altogether. For some reason Princeso had objected to zhir attempts to impart upon Macy and Masse the virtues of laziness.

A snapping sound brought Robin to sudden focus.  The cool cat noticed it too; its heads jerked up and looking attentively from side to side, its hair standing on end.  Then like a blue thunderbolt it dashed deeper into the forest. Whatever it had been looking for clearly wasn’t worth sticking around to discover the source of that noise.  Robin shared the opinion, but zhe couldn’t abandon Macy, so zhe simply waited.

After about fifteen minutes, zhe was reasonably convinced that if the source were a creature it had elected not to pursue.  Zhe collected some of the larger leaves from the tree, leaned down toward the shelter, and began creating a proper roof that could actually keep zhir friend dry.  Zhe could never say this, but zhe had been insulted when Macy had turned down zhir offer to follow her into the woods to begin with. This kind of skill was something that Robin had much more experience with than Macy did.  For all her bravado, Macy wasn’t really an adventurer, and Robin knew this. Robin, on the other paw, was an outdoorsdog, with all that entailed.  To not be considered for an expedition like this was a grave insult.

As zhe continued to weave the insulating layers in the worsening storm, a thought as heavy as precipitation weighed zhir down.  Zhe was definitely better at introspection than Macy, but zhe was no means perfect. Perhaps zhir own claim to outdoorsdogship was as tenuous as Macy’s claim to heroism had been until yesterday.  That would explain why Macy had rejected Robin’s offer in that way — not because she didn’t understand the rainicorn-dog’s feelings, but because she wanted to spare them by not telling zhir that the real reason she didn’t want zhir to accompany her was zhir incompetence.  With that fresh new insecurity added onto the pile, Robin finished up the roof and slinked through the curtain to steal a few hours of restless sleep.

Macy awoke in darkness to the sound of shuffling outside.  She was alone in a hollowed log, an impenetrable veil of darkness cloaking her.  The sat up quickly and immediately regretted it as her stomach threatened to leap out of her throat yet again.  “Owie,” she moaned, holding her head in one hand and her nut butt in the other. She patted down her hoodie, which was covered in dirt and brush.  The hoodie pocket was empty, and panic welled up in her nut heart.

Macy began frantically pawing around the edge of the edifice looking for a door.  In her haste she shoved her arms right through a curtain of woven grasses and tumbled face-first onto the damp, fragrant forest floor.  Spitting out some dirt along with a disgruntled worm, she rolled around and looked up at the structure she had been taken to. It was some sort of primitive conical hut covered in mud and leaves, presumably constructed by one of the vile denizens of the Evil Forest.  It would no doubt be back to finish her off soon. The thought made her sicker to her stomach than she already was.

Wait, no, that didn’t make sense.  As the bright light coming from above, even filtered through the thick canopy, began to jog Macy’s mind, her hazy memory of the previous day’s misadventures calcified.  A wild beast hadn’t captured her; Robin had rescued her and presumably built this shelter during the night. In retrospect, the idea that some forest creature had brought her into its den and then simply left her alone was nonsensical, but it was too early in the morning for her to be rational.  Either that, or she had slept in too late.

Which begged the question:  Where was Robin right now?

Macy was too sick to think of any non-awful possibilities.  Perhaps she had been right about the wild beast after all. Perhaps one had come and taken Robin instead.  Perhaps the rainicorn-dog had went off to gather more herbs and gotten lost or ambushed. Perhaps zhe had simply abandoned Macy in the middle of the forest, embarrassed by her tragic failure as a hero.  Perhaps Robin had never even existed in the first place.

The dappled light around Macy seemed to mock her.  She collapsed onto the ground and dragged herself back into the hut.  Once she was inside, she began to hyperventilate. Her stomach begged for food and threatened to turn itself inside-out again at the same time.  She fumbled around on the ground until she found a flashlight she didn’t remember bringing and turned it on. She shone it around the ceiling of the abode, simple except for some sort of slab near the top.  This was the last thing her best friend had made before abandoning her and/or dying and/or never having existed in the first place. She took it in.

Next she shone the light around the floor.  All of Macy’s belongings she had taken with her were arranged neatly in the corner, set across a small blanket Robin must have brought with zhir.  She also saw several items that Robin must have brought with zhir; in addition to the aforementioned, there were several loose-bound books, a collection of jars and bags (some empty, some full of various substances), a prismgram crystal, a blue gemstone hatchet, and a tinderbox.  How Robin had carried all of these items, Macy had no idea.

She peered closer at one of the bottles, which was full of rice.  Shining the light down onto the surface, she could see that her phone was sitting inside.  She should probably take it out and then do something to take care of the water that had gotten into it.  She reached into the jar and fished around for the phone. As she grabbed it, the smell of the damp rice reminded her of a trick she had once seen in an old sitcom for getting water out of phones.  What you had to do was put it in a jar of — oh. She took her hand out of the jar and set the phone down. She was glad nobody would ever know about that embarrassing bit of inner monologue.

She considered looking through Robin’s supplies to find something to eat, but despite her hunger she had no appetite.  Instead she just lay down in the middle of the shelter, starting up at the ceiling shelf. She didn’t turn off the flashlight, merely planting it face-first into the ground.  There in the darkness she began to cry.

Images flashed through her mind once more of all the times she had told herself that she was going to be a hero — all the times she had let herself believe that lie.  She and Masse sneaking out without Princeso’s knowledge, fantasizing about Finn taking her on as an apprentice, trying to solve a pudding heist on her first day in the Duchy of Nuts:  All of it seemed so foolish now. Sure, she may have saved a day in the Crystal Dimension, but that was just one of fortune’s inscrutable gambits. Also, she really couldn’t get that poem out of her head; she never had, ever since Princeso had gotten the poem’s author to come to the orphanage and read it.

“Man, that’s not even remotely what the poet guy looked like.”  Robin’s voice, coming from the real world, jolted Macy out of her reverie.  She got up, picking up the flashlight and shining it unnecessarily in Robin’s face.  “Glob, Macy!” zhe shouted, nearly dropping the bundle of leaves in zhir arms as zhe recoiled.

“Sorry,” said Macy sheepishly as she turned off the flashlight properly.  “Also don’t pry into my mind like that. And ‘the poet guy’?”

“I may not remember any details about him, but I know you got it wrong probably.”  Zhe strode across the room and began sorting the herbs into various jars, lighting up zhir horn to illuminate the hut.  “Plus, you’ve gone through a traumatic experience and you slept in way later than usual, so I gotta check up on your mental health.”

That’s not quite what “checking up on someone’s mental health” means, but I think you know that so I won’t say anything.   “I probably slept in because there’s no window in this place.”

“That and you’re super sick.  Take this,” zhe said, handing Macy some concoction.

Macy swallowed the cold leaf juice.  She had to coax it down her throat with sweet nothings.  “I’m sorry,” she gagged.


Reflexively Macy spat the concoction back into the bottle.  “Excuse me?”

“You donked up, Macy.”  Robin curled up into a pyramid and stared down at Macy.  “You’re a talented kid, but you’re still a kid. I wanted you to talk to my poppop because I wanted to show you the difference between being talented and actually having the skills you need to be an adventurer, and I figured you’d learned that lesson when you did the whole test of strength dealio.  When you decided that you had enough natural knowledge to walk a meager five miles through a forest, I was dumb enough to believe that you were capable of making that assessment about yourself. I should have stopped you. I should have…” Zhe facepawed.  “But you shouldn’t have gone in the first place!”

“Robin!”  Even though Macy had been saying these same things to herself not five minutes ago, hearing them stated like this made her disagree out of spite.  “Are you saying that I’m incompetent? That I’m worthless?”

“No, I’m not saying that at all!  I’m saying you’re super talented, but you just need to hone those talents.”

“That’s what I’m coming out here to do!”

“Well, then you’re doing it out of order, because coming out here requires a talent that you haven’t developed yet.  How many juvenile mistakes did you make along the way here that led you to this current circumstance?”

Macy deflated.  “More than I’d like to think about,” she admitted.

“Exactly.  Now, why is that?”

“Because I’m stupid.”

“No!”  The word came out angrier than zhe intended.  “No,” zhe repeated softly. “You’re brilliant, Macadamia.  You’re super talented, and a quick learner, and more responsible than I’ll ever be.  You just need to know your limits.”

Macy scoffed.  “Right now I feel like my limits are the walls of this shelter.”

“Then you need to build up some true self-confidence and figure out what your limits really are.”  Zhe shrunk down to zhir indoor size and reached out zhir paw to pull Macy up.  “Allow me to show you them.”

Macy stared at the outstretched paw for a moment.  This represented a second chance she wasn’t willing to give herself.  Was she really deserving of that? Was it even a good idea to take it?  Robin seemed to think so, and right now Macy trusted Robin more than she trusted herself.

Still, there was another issue that needed to be cleared up before the two could step into the light.  She knocked Robin’s paw away feebly but firmly. “Okay, but first we need to talk about the other thing.”

“What other thing?”

“The real reason you’re so upset with me.”  Macy felt a dry heave coming on, but she talked over it, determined to get this thought out before her green-knighting body could interrupt her.  “You don’t like that I left you behind because you’re too dependent on me.”

“What?  That’s preposterous!”  Robin made a dismissive hand gesture as Macy heaved.  “Besides, didn’t we just talk two days ago about how you’re not super good at telling that sort of stuff?”

“No, we talked about how I’m bad at introspectation or whatever it’s called.  That doesn’t mean I can’t tell things about other people, and it’s pretty obvious that you’ve got a problem when it comes to me.”

“No, I don’t,” lied Robin.

“Sure you do.  You say that naturalism is your thing, but it kind of way isn’t.  It’s a thing you do, sure, but it’s a very minor aspect of your life when compared to how much time you dedicate to me.”

“That’s banyaners, Macy.  You’re being banyaners.”

“I’m not being banyaners, I’m being completely and utterly nyaners.  I don’t know whether it’s because you’ve systematically shut out almost every non-Lady Rainicorn member of your family or just because I’m some ridiculous passion project, but you are clearly and certifiably obsessed with me.  You followed me from the Candy Kingdom to the Sienna Ridge for literally no reason that has to do with yourself, and given the results of this expedition, even I have to admit that you encourage my worst impulses, just like Seyv used to do.”


“Seyv, Masse, whatever you want to call him.  The crux is I needed to give you some space, because — because you’re right.”  Macy stood up, standing eye level with Robin and staring at zhir, her eyes still shining wet with tears.  “I’m a kid, Robin. A scared, confused, overly ambitious kid. And I can’t keep being the truss you build your life around.”

Robin melted.

Macy immediately knelt down and tried to mold Robin back into a vague rainicorn-dog shape.  When zhe noticed her worry, zhe began morphing back into zhir previous form. “Are you okay?”  Macy asked, a note of desperation overtaking the general sickliness of her voice. “Did I dunk you so hard your body lost its integrity?”

“Nah, that’s probably not a thing that can happen.”  Robin braced zhirself on Macy’s arm to pull zhirself back up, then started leaning on her and leading her out of the hut.  “I was just relieved that your reason for leaving me behind wasn’t because you thought I was incompetent or something.”

“What, you don’t have any reaction to the whole dependency thing?”

“I think you’ve got that pretty spot-on.  Mostly I’m just impressed with your natural talent ‘n intelligence.  Kinda hoping it’ll rub off on me.”

Macy paused before the curtain and elbowed Robin.  “No, I mean, don’t you think you should change anything?  Try to not be so reliant on me?”

“Only if you promise to not be so reliant on me.”

“I meant you should talk to some of your other family members.  Share the load.”

“I guess I can do that for you.”  Zhe pushed the door open; light flooded in as the two friends stepped out to meet it.

Macy was going to say something about Robin needing to do it for zhirself as well when the symbolic catharsis of them leaving their constructed shelter and becoming illuminated was literally overshadowed by a towering figure, one whose growl stirred in the nut feverish memories from when her fever had started to worsen.  Slowly, as if by delaying its reveal she could postpone its reality, she cast her eyes upwards to examine the great beast which stood before them.

It was bipedal, its flat steel feet supporting two spindly metal stilts of legs whose entire lengths had a pattern of equal-sized holes dotting the middle.  The metal may once have been iron, but over the centuries it had rusted over and filled in with some inorganic sinew as it took on a life of its own. Its knees bowed out, warped from stress to actually look like knees; that was somehow more disturbing than the alternative would have been.  Toward the top, the sinews spread out, forming a haunch for the utterly baffling creature that loomed above them.

Ontario — Toronto, rather — had spoken true:  It was a sign. Specifically, it was massive, metallic billboard, whose original text had been worn away by time, except a blue shield with the number 384, no doubt representing some pre-Mushroom-War military regiment.  A jagged, rusty hole stretching across the bottom half of the sign formed a roaring mouth, from which flecks of metal like saliva sprayed out onto Macy’s poor unfortunate eyes. Two metal spokes like its legs stuck out from either side, forming arms which ended in hands made of flexing steel wool.

I must not be afraid, Macy told herself as it bent down and reached toward them with its hands.  I must have courage.  I will not stand paralyzed like I did when faced with the cool cat.   Armed with this resolve, Macy vomited on its hand as it picked her up.  There was a sizzle as her stomach acids attempted to eat away at the metal appendage, and it howled in pain, but it did not let go.

Macy watched as Robin stretched zhirself back into the tent.  At least I’m not getting us both killed, she thought as the gritty grip of the steel wool on her carapace tightened.  It reminded her of a time she had buffed her shell way too hard. Masse had called her “disco” for a week after that.  Princeso, misreading the situation, had attempted to intercede on Macy’s behalf by telling her that if she wanted to be a disco ball that was okay.  The next Yulemas, he had even gotten Macy a disco ball as a present, probably at Masse’s instruction. Macy liked to think that she had gotten him back good by having Princeso get him a sieve.  She liked to think that.

“Heads up!” came a voice from behind Macy.  With a great scraping, she turned herself around even as the sign hoisted her toward its impossible maw.  Zhe saw Robin, curled around the roof, clutching the Root Sword. “Hyah!” zhe shouted as zhe tossed it through the air toward her.

Somehow Macy caught it.  She used the momentum left over from the throw to spin herself around, swinging the blade further and chopping off the monster’s fingers in one continuous motion.  As she fell, she stabbed the sword into the side of the shelter, slowing herself down just enough that the impact of landing on her nut rear was shocking rather than debilitating.

“Whoa-oah!” called Robin as zhe collapsed along with the shelter, its already metastable structural integrity compromised by Macy’s improvised fire pole routine.  Macy tried to stand, holding her sword in a defensive posture and preparing to charge toward the giant, but her own foot was caught under a fallen log.

As she strained to shift the wood off of her leg, the steel-wool hand of the beast slammed down on top of it, crushing her leg with a searing pain.  She screamed and retched simultaneously, losing all concentration and dropping her sword. A stiltlike leg kicked the weapon away, sending it flying until it landed blade-first in a nearby tree.

Macy had no time to process this before the hand closed around her again.  This time she had no strength to struggle; between her general strength, the shooting pain in her leg, and the discouraging moans of Robin below her, she was out of hope.  She saw the beast’s maw open before her and took this as a sign that this was the end of the road for her.

Her eyes drifted once more to the faded 384.  In her last moments she idly wondered what the number might be counting.  Then a snapping sound came from the metal heels below, and both Macy and the monster looked down.

A figure in a brown cloak, holding a tiny blade, had just scored a line across both of its legs above the feet; one had nearly disconnected at the juncture, and Macy watched as they kicked the other one out of alignment as well.  As it started tipping, the sign spread out its arms and waved them in a circle to stabilize itself.

This proved to be a mistake.  The moment Macy was clear, the figure took out a sleek bow and fired a flaming green arrow just above the monster’s face; it howled in pain, hurling Macy into the air as it fell backwards.  The snapping of entire trees and the slam as it hit the ground drowned out the nast notes of its screeching metallic scream.

Macy had no time to worry about this; just as the green flame shot up a cloud of verdant smoke, she reached the peak of her ballistic trajectory and started falling.  She imagined herself a comet hurtling toward Ooo, the smell of smoke being the charring of her own rocky form, the whistling in her ears standing in for the screams of the panicked civilians.  She was going to impact soon, and much destruction would follow in her wake.

Then the cloaked figure caught her before she impacted, their momenta averaging out so that when she hit the ground, braced by her savior’s arms, it wasn’t so sudden.  It wasn’t the fall that hurt, nor the stop, but the suddenness of the stop; Macy had learned as much from Masse attempting to justify why his M&M character should definitely be allowed to jump onto a dragon’s back and kill it without dying from fall damage when the dragon inevitably crashed.  It was that suddenness which her rescuer had timed their leap to reduce.

Macy attempted to stand up, but the pain that shot through her leg convinced her to settle for sitting upright.  As the adrenaline rush postponed the coming onset of queasiness, she got a good look at the person who had saved her.  They were a green-skinned, pointy-eared humanoid, tall for a goblin but short in general, with a red tunic under their brown, pinecone-clasped cloak.  Over their head was a hood decorated with an extravagant set of tree-branch antlers. The bow they had drawn earlier was strapped to their back, along with a quiver of arrows with different-colored feather fletchings; around their belt was a small arsenal of other tools, all of which looked like they might have been created from the materials in this forest.  In the harsh light of the flame behind them, their leafy hair cast an intimidating shadow over their eyes, so that a smile which might have been calming instead emanated menace. Here was someone who was no doubt perfectly at home in a forest of monsters.

Macy, of course, knew who this must have been.  Standing before her was another great hero, a champion of the War that Never Was, and a keeper of balance in the natural world.  Of course someone like this would be Finn’s girlfriend; who else could match him? She should have known as soon as their place of residence had been explained.

The nut’s voice came out in a small gasp, betraying the awe she felt as she found herself, for the third time in as many days, in the company of legends.  “You’re Huntress Wizard.”