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The Smith Prince

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Once upon a time, there was a small kingdom. It had everything it needed to be happy and prosperous: fertile lands and rich mines in the mountains, rivers and lakes full of fish, and even a smart king.

Unfortunately, the king, while smart, wasn't wise.

He was obsessed with magic. He wanted to understand it, he claimed. Not for himself, but for the sake of his people. Understanding how it worked and where it came from was the only way to properly protect them from it. He needed to go to its roots and in doing so hoped to prove that, deep down, it was nothing but science. Something known. Something that could be mastered—and thus, without noticing it, he betrayed his true ambition: to master magic. He wanted it for himself. Desperately. And in order to do that, he needed magic to be like science. Something one could learn, instead of an ability one was born with or without, instead of a gift one just had or didn't.

He did everything he could to achieve that purpose. He traveled far and wide. He invited scientists from all over the world. He bought all the books and treatises he could find on the topic, in all the languages known to man. He led experiment after experiment. He spent time and sweat and his fortune on that project. Enough that despite all its riches his kingdom, which he neglected entirely, would've gone to ruins—if not for the queen.

With her husband absent more often than not, his mind elsewhere even when he was in the castle, she'd had to take over his role. She ran the castle. She presided over the council meetings. She watched over the kingdom's finances. She made all the major decisions, named all the officials, received or corresponded with the kingdom's nobles and ambassadors. She devised strategies to keep their relations with the neighboring countries amicable, their borders secure, their industry and trade flourishing. She ensured that their son got the best education possible. She gave him all the affection her husband wouldn't. She did all of that, and more. And she did it well.

She was a good queen. After the first few rocky years, no one could imagine questioning her position or authority. All knew that, without her, the country would've gone under a long time ago. All were glad to have her.

The queen, however, wondered. Was she doing the right thing? Certainly, she was keeping the country afloat, ensuring that the people didn't have to suffer too much from her husband's folly—but, in doing so, wasn't she catering to that folly? Allowing it to go on and grow unchecked? Maybe her husband would've returned to reason if he'd been made to see the consequences of his ambition: a dilapidated treasury, all mines and manufacturers brought to a standstill, people starving not for lack of food but for lack of money to procure it. Maybe his obsession could've been curbed. Maybe what followed could've been avoided.

Because all the research the king led, all the time he dedicated to it, all the money he spent on it, all of it remained in vain. He didn't uncover the secret. Magic stayed as impenetrable as ever, the key to mastering it entirely elusive. Yet even after the most talented scientists in the world had reported failure, the king refused to give up. He couldn't, he claimed. He'd done so much already, come so far. And so he did the unthinkable: he went and robbed a witch.

He disliked resorting to stealing, of course—or so he told himself. But he didn't have a choice: of all the people he'd had come to his court, only a scarce few had been sorcerers. It wasn't that he hadn't invited more. He had. He'd tried to attract all those he could find. The majority had simply declined his invitation, despite the more than generous payment offered. Those who had come, willing to help, to demonstrate their tricks, hadn't been of any use. They'd all insisted that magic wasn't the same as science.

It had angered the king. He hated seeing his theory disproven again and again. So much so that, after a while, he'd started suspecting that it was a conspiracy. That magic was indeed just like science, but that the key to understanding how was a secret that all sorcerers and wizards had sworn never to share with anyone who didn't belong to their little guild, no matter how much that person was willing to pay. Their benevolent confusion when he asked questions and demanded they recast a spell for the tenth time in the hopes that this time he would see how it worked was nothing but an act.

The single genuinely confusing thing about it all was how he'd been unable to find but one sorcerer that could be corrupted.

It didn't matter anymore, though. He'd found the solution. He'd found the most powerful witch anyone had ever heard of. However, she hadn't deemed the message he'd sent her worthy of an answer—a slight which he considered to be justification enough for what he did next.

Under the cover of night, he left the royal castle and his kingdom, using contraptions he'd invented to cloak himself and travel quicker than a galloping horse. Before long, he was at the witch's residence—not even a fortress, not even a castle—forcing his way in using more devices of his making. He had but one target: the witch's library and laboratory. She wouldn't share her knowledge with him, but surely she had books, she had treatises, she had artifacts. Surely, with those, he could finally uncover the truth.

Dawn was still a long way off when he slipped back out of the witch's home, his bags full of all the things that he'd judged interesting and been able to fit inside them. By the time the sun rose, he was miles away, his castle in sight, ready to finish his journey and to pretend that he'd never even been gone. He thought himself so clever: after all, even the witch hadn't noticed him.

Therefore he was dismayed, when he stepped into his laboratory, his loot thrown over his shoulders, in plain sight, to find someone already there. It was his son, the prince. He stood in the middle of the room with a wrench in hand, facing…something. A creature? What looked like a heap of scrap metal, a bunch of random parts and rods and plates clumsily bolted together into a vaguely humanoid shape, if one were generous about it. Yet it was standing upright. What's more, when the king entered, it moved. Turned what might've been its head in the king's direction, then its whole body. Bowed. Spoke.

"Your Majesty," it said, and when it straightened the king noticed the lights shining from inside it, a blue-white glow centered right where a man's heart and brain would've been.

"Um," the king said, frozen, half in fright, half in fascination. He glanced at his son. "What is that thing?"

"That's Jarvis," the little prince answered.

"…Jarvis," the king repeated. The…thing bowed its—there was no other word for it: it bowed its head. "And where does Jarvis come from?"

He was suddenly very aware of the bags he was still carrying, of what they contained. Because the white-blue light filtering from inside the creature had a very familiar hue: it was magic, of that he was sure. And so he couldn't help but wonder: was this the witch's doing? Had she noticed the theft and sent that…that thing to retrieve what had been stolen? If so, what was it going to do?

But then his son said, "I made him."

The king stared at him.

"You made him?"

The little prince nodded. "Mother's so busy all the time," he said, shuffling his feet. "There's just so many things she has to do, even more so since she had to let most of the servants go to spare money. So I thought, maybe I can make someone to help her. Someone who doesn't need to eat, or sleep, or—or to be paid."

"And so you made Jarvis," the king said. The boy had gathered what pieces of metal he could and bolted them together and somehow it had turned into this: a creature that could move and talk. Like a live thing.

The king couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe that this boy of eight—or was it nine? seven? He couldn't remember. But he couldn't believe that this brat he kept finding and chasing out of his laboratory, annoyed at always having him underfoot, that this child had just done what he, the king, had been desperately trying to achieve for years now.

He'd used magic.

How ironic, that the solution to all the king's questions hadn't been in the possessions of some witch, but right underneath his nose this whole time.

He didn't care about lost time, though. All he cared about was that he finally had it: the means to get what he most desperately wanted.

Suddenly in the most celebratory of moods, he dumped the many bags he was carrying and took his son by the hand to lead him to the dining hall, where breakfast was being held. Everyone stared at them when they entered. No one remembered the king ever paying any kind of benevolent attention to his son. No one remembered him ever smiling either. Yet smiling he was, and helping his son onto his seat at the queen's side, and ruffling his hair, and calling for the creamiest milk and finest honey to be brought just for him.

The boy soaked it all up, cheeks flushed and smile impossibly bright. The queen, for her part, couldn't quite believe her eyes. As breakfast progressed, the king—for the first time ever—started asking her about their son's education. He asked who'd been teaching him and what, even started throwing around ideas about who else could be prevailed upon for this important task, and in between answering and wondering what exactly the boy had done to suddenly catch his father's attention, the queen felt the slightest glimmer of hope: maybe, just maybe, whatever had just happened had been nothing but her husband finally returning to reason.

Then the first messenger came.

It wasn't actually a messenger. It was a peasant, from one of the villages closest to the castle, come to tell them that something had happened, something they didn't understand. Namely, that when the villagers had left their homes that morning and gone to the fields for their day of work, they'd found their promising crops turned to brittle stone and all the earth turned to ash.

They weren't the only ones. As the morning wore on more messages came, from places further and further away, brought by people on foot. All reported the same thing. All told of petrified plants, ready to shatter at the slightest touch—even the trees. Of fertile lands transformed into a charred desert. Of placid farm animals turned aggressive, furious, monstrous, ready to bite and trample and devour anyone who came near.

Then the afternoon came, and with it the first word from the nearest mines: all the copper in it appeared to have turned to sand.

Upon hearing this message, the queen hurried down to the treasury—or what was left of it after all her husband's inconsiderate expenses—and saw that it was true: there was nothing left. No more golden chains, no more jewelry, no more scepter, no more crown. Nothing but small piles of fine, pale grains that were already dispersing.

"What did you do?" she asked her husband.

"Who's to say I have anything to do with this?" the king asked, except that he knew exactly what he had to do with it. Only a powerful sorcerer or sorceress would've been able to throw such a curse on an entire kingdom. And he'd just happened to steal from one. So when the queen glared at him, he hastily exclaimed, "Okay, I'll fix it! I'll fix it, I swear."

He intended to. After all, now that he knew about his son, he had little to no use for what he'd brought back with him. He hadn't even taken the time to unpack the bags and check their contents to see how much of it was actually worth something. He didn't do so now. Instead, he had them picked up and, with a troop of knights to protect him from the monsters all cattle had apparently turned into, made his way back to the witch's lodgings.

Since he wasn't using his contraption—he'd discovered, much to his dismay, that all his inventions had stopped working—and since all the horses of the palace had become so volatile that they'd already maimed two stablehands, they had to go on foot. The trip lasted over a week. Enough for the king to be forced to contemplate the consequences of what he'd done: everything around him was gray. The fields were littered with ash and pebbles. The forests were receding fast, frozen trees toppling over and shattering at the faintest blow of the wind. The sky was nothing but a roll of angry clouds, grumbling continuously, threateningly, yet not yielding any rain.

They weren't alone on the roads. Countless people were also there, walking in clusters, villagers who had fled their homes, hoping to find a place that had been spared somewhere. Some recognized the king, or they recognized the clothes and looks of someone important. They tried to stop him, to ask for answers, for advice. The king wouldn't be stopped, though. He ordered his guards to keep everyone away, and walked on.

Eventually, they reached the witch's lair.

She was waiting for them at the door: a woman—a young woman, much younger than the king would've expected. He knew not to be deceived, though.

With a sign, he ordered the guards carrying the bags of stolen goods to go and put them down at her feet. Once they had, he braced himself and opened his mouth: he wasn't used to apologizing, but apologize he did. He almost meant it, too.

"Thank you," the witch said, slightly inclining her head.

"Will you lift the curse, then?" the king asked.

"No," the witch replied.

Some of the king's knights gasped. Two even reached for their swords.

"I can't," the witch went on. "Curses don't work that way."

The king raised a hand to stop his men. "What do you mean?"

"The curse will lift on its own once the wrong has been righted."

"I've returned what had been stolen," the king pointed out, frowning.

"Which repaired part of your fault, yes. But the curse needs more."

The guards shuffled, ready to protest, but the king silenced them with another gesture. He was fascinated: only rarely had a magic user been so open, so honest about the way it worked. "And what would that be?"

"You have returned something of the same value as what you had stolen," the witch replied. "Now you have to make up for the act of stealing itself."

"How would I go about that?"

"Your theft was a purely selfish act. The only way to compensate it is with a purely selfless one."

The king nodded. It made sense, in theory—like science did, and that thought sent a thrill through him. In practice, however…

In practice, he'd never learned not to be selfish.

"Like what?" he asked, half provocative, half genuine.

The witch didn't rise to the bait and answered, "Give me your son."

The king froze. His knights froze. "What?"

"Give me your son," the witch repeated. "I'll raise him. There is much I can teach him."

She had felt his power sparking, could already see it shining like a beacon at the edge of her perception. It'd only grow brighter with time. It'd become blinding, so obvious that everyone would notice—including people who would be all too willing to try and use him for it. The same kind of people as the ones who'd tried to use her once.

The same kind of people as the man in front of her right now.

The king was tempted. For a second he pictured it: restoring his kingdom and sending his son to apprentice with such a powerful a witch, ready to learn all there was to know about magic. It sounded like a double win; it sounded too good to be true. And it was, he realized at once. Because the first thing the witch would do would definitely be to swear his son—his own son—to secrecy, have him take an oath never to reveal the truth. Have him turn against his own father.

He couldn't let that happen. So he replied, "No."

"No?" the witch said. She didn't sound surprised.

"The boy already has a loving mother to raise him," the king argued. "I won't part them."

"They wouldn't have to be parted," the witch replied. "She can come live here too, and help me raise him."

The king almost scoffed. "She can't live here, she's a queen!" he exclaimed, disdainfully gesturing at the witch's house. "She has duties aside from raising our son. What would become of the kingdom, if she left?"

Behind him, the knights shuffled. They found the question very pertinent indeed.

"It'd still have you," the witch pointed out. "You're the king. Surely you can rule your own kingdom."

From her voice, it wasn't quite clear whether she believed it herself. Not that the king noticed. He was already raising his next objection.

"What if something happens to me? Something will, eventually. I won't live forever."

"Once the prince is grown and has learned all I can teach him, he'll be free to go wherever he wants to. He can return then, if he wishes to."

All through the conversation she hadn't lost any of her composure. She was so calm, sounded so gentle, that some of the guards were starting to think that her offer actually sounded reasonable. Obviously she didn't mean the prince any harm. So maybe—

"The answer's still no," the king said. He'd understood that the witch would have an answer to all his objections and had decided to cut things short.

The witch remained unfazed. "Very well," she said. "In this case, there's nothing I can do for you."

"Fine," the king said.

There was no point lingering after that. He gave the order to turn around and leave. The knights obeyed, albeit hesitantly. A few glanced back once or twice while the witch and her house were in sight. Every time they saw her still standing in front of her door, watching them leave with an expression that could only be interpreted as sad. Not gloating, not angry, not frustrated. Regretful. Almost compassionate.

It disquieted them.

The king didn't notice, striding forward. "As if we would trust the very witch who condemned us all to starve," he muttered, then straightened his head, proud and defiant. "Well, it's no matter," he went on. "We'll just find a way to break the curse on our own."

With his son, he wagered, it'd be easy.

 

-

 

The king never made it back to the castle, though.

No one knew what had happened to him—or, unfortunately, to the knights accompanying him. Therefore rumors abounded.

Some said he'd been slain by the witch.

Some said he'd been a coward and fled to try and save his own hide.

Some said he'd been eaten by the monsters all animals had turned into.

Some said he'd been attacked and killed by villagers turned mad with despair, because by now everyone knew he was responsible for what had happened.

Some said he'd simply gotten lost.

It didn't matter, though, not really. The end result was the same. Worse, it stayed the same, for even if the king had died—and he probably had—the curse hadn't died with him. And so the country suffered.

Everything was coming apart. At first the farmers had been hopeful: they'd lost all their crops, sure, but they could always sow new ones. So they did. Weeks passed. After a month, with no sign of the smallest green shoot, they'd had to let realization settle in. Whatever the soil of their fields had turned into, it wouldn't let anything sprout, wouldn't bear any fruit.

Panic began to spread. The country had stores, leftover from good years past, but the second sowing had already lessened them and they would dwindle fast. In normal lean times, they would have compensated by slaying part of the herds and making do with the grain and dried meat. That wouldn't work this time. The cattle had gone mad, had already been put down—when it hadn't escaped—but anyone who tasted of its corrupted flesh had either turned rabid or died within hours.

And so people fled. They started packing up and left, in increments then in droves. At first, many headed for the royal castle, hoping for help and resources, hoping for answers. There were none to be found. All they learned was that this was a curse, that the king had left to lift it—except that the king hadn't returned. The queen did what she could, and did it brilliantly, as always. She sent messengers far and wide throughout the kingdom, granting every peasant the right to leave the land, asking for every noble and every priest to guide and protect them on their way. To those who came to the castle she offered a bushel of grain from the royal stores, enough to sustain a family for the duration of their journey, and the protection of a few members of the royal guard to protect them from the monsters that had once been cattle and game.

Family by family, village by village, parish by parish, they left. One after the other they bid their goodbyes to their homeland and walked away, some promising to come back as soon as they could, some without a backwards glance. Soon they were all gone. Only the queen remained, to guard the kingdom and to wait, hoping against all hope that the curse would be lifted, that the king would return. Only the queen—and her son.

Her son, who should've left with the last contingent of servants and courtiers, but who somehow hadn't.

"Jarvis helped me hide," he said proudly. Behind him, the strange metal creature he claimed to have made all by himself did the closest approximation of a bow it could achieve with its ungainly body.

The queen was aghast. "I told you to go with Counselor Stane," she said.

"But then you would've been left alone," the boy retorted with a pout. "I couldn't leave you here all alone."

He also hadn't wanted to leave her. Just like he hadn't wanted to go on a trip with Counselor Stane, who was big and a bit scary and mean, and who hadn't wanted to take Jarvis with them because he found him too slow.

The boy didn't tell his mother any of that, though. It worked in his favor: the queen's expression softened, and she drew him into a hug.

"It's going to be okay, Mother," the boy said.

"My darling Tony," she replied. "Of course it will."

If only she could believe it.

 

-

 

They survived for close to a year thanks for the food stores of the castle. Despite the fact that the queen had given most of it away, enough was left to feed two people over the fall and winter, as long as they were careful. The queen was.

It couldn't last forever, though. As spring came—or, what should've been spring but was nothing more than the continuation of the dismal, stormy grey days they'd lived through since the curse had befallen them—their last supplies ran out. They still had water, for by some miracle the curse hadn't touched the river running under the castle, but that wouldn't suffice.

And so the queen began venturing outside.

She started with the surrounding town, checking every pantry, every cellar, every barn and warehouse. Everything she found, she took: leftover grain or flour, dried and salted meat, old cheese, pickles… When nothing turned up anymore, she went further, to the closest villages—but those didn't yield much either. The inhabitants had taken everything they could with them when they'd left, and what little they hadn't had often been looted by monsters since. Every time it took her longer to find enough.

It wasn't easy. Most of all, it wasn't safe. Even after all these months monsters abounded, prowling the land, angry and hungry, ready to attack her as soon as they caught sight of her. She learned to carry weapons. She learned their habits, their rhythms, the markings of their territory. By being very cautious, she managed to avoid them for the most part, and to defend herself when she didn't. Still, there were a few close calls.

Then the day dawned where she'd gone through all the villages and farms and forts she could reach within a day. If she wanted to keep looking for food and most of all finding it, she would have to make it a two day excursion. She would have to spend the night outside of the castle. A dreadful thought: monsters were more numerous, more violent, more daring at night. They'd even tried entering the castle once or twice. Only the thickness of the doors and the strength of their bars had prevented it.

"Don't go," the little prince entreated. He'd asked to go with her at first, arguing that he'd just turned ten and so was definitely big enough to help now. The queen had refused, for it wasn't safe—keenly aware all the while that she was only delaying the inevitable. No matter how far through the kingdom she roamed, eventually food would run out, for good. What would she do then? Either she'd starve—which had stopped being an option the second her son had stayed—or they'd both need to leave. So why not do it now, if it was going to happen anyway? Why not give up on the kingdom? It had already gone to ruin. No matter how strong her sense of duty was, she couldn't change that. She couldn't even save what little was left. So why not pack up too, why not try and make their way through the desert to find refuge in neighboring country? Why not settle there and build a new life?

But she thought of the long days of travel on foot such a journey would entail, of how dangerous it would be, and she looked at her little boy: despite his ten years of age he was still so small, almost frail. That, and even though he obviously wanted nothing more than to help her, he hadn't once picked up her sword to try and learn how to use it. He didn't have the fight in his heart. At the thought of that sweet little boy out in the open, surrounded by all those monsters, she felt nothing but dread. She thought, No. Not yet. She wouldn't put her son in that kind of danger. Not until there was absolutely no other choice.

"Don't go," he repeated, his dark eyes large and beseeching. He wouldn't let go of her skirts.

"I have to," she replied.

"No, you don't!" he protested. "We have enough food to last for a little while longer, and I'm almost done with Stoven."

'Stoven' was his latest project, which he'd started when the queen had had to leave the castle for the first time. She wasn't quite sure what it was supposed to be, but she didn't mind him spending so much time on it: it kept him busy while she was away.

"I'm not sure Stoven will be able to help with this," she said gently.

"He will! He'll be just like Jarvis, but different—he'll be able to cook and garden, and then we'll have vegetables again, and grain, and—and things."

His voice had gone all wobbly and his eyes were overly bright. He could see that he wasn't convincing her.

"I'm sure he will," she said. She was tempted to believe it. After all, Jarvis existed, miraculous as he was. He'd unnerved her at first: a disjointed heap of metal scraps and bars made to look vaguely human, moving through no mechanism she could see. It had to be magic, which she'd learned long ago to be wary of, from her husband's obsession if nothing else. She didn't know how it had gotten there, either. So how could she trust it?

But for all that he barely talked, for all that he didn't even have a face, Jarvis had turned out to be a blessing. He took care of Tony. He got him up in a morning, got him clean and dressed, kept track of him throughout the day, even made him sit down in the library to work on his letters, his reading, his history. What's more, Tony listened to him—something the best valets or preceptors had only ever achieved rarely, and for a limited amount of time.

Having Tony thus supervised had left the queen with the time required to do all that needed doing: cleaning their rooms and clothes, looking for food, cooking, doing small repairs, sewing. So yes, she would've been glad to have another Jarvis. Or—she might as well dream—a Jarvis that could cook, that could garden, that could make something grow in this forsaken desert. But despite Tony's faith that it would happen, she didn't share it. And she didn't have the time to have her fears confirmed.If she waited for Tony to be done with his project, and 'Stoven' didn't come to life. Or if 'Stoven' came to life, but couldn't cook or garden. Or if he could cook and garden, but no seed would germinate. By that time it'd be winter again, and they would've lost weeks, months—and with it, the last of their stores.

She couldn't afford that. She had to go.

To reassure her son, she armed herself carefully: she put on chain mail, took her sword, a dagger and a bow. She promised to find a refuge and secure it before night.

"Now be good," she told Tony. "Listen to Jarvis."

The little prince nodded reluctantly. His eyes were bright, full of fear and tears. She caressed his cheek and brushed a kiss against his brow.

"I'll be back tomorrow," she vowed before she left, "before sundown."

Except that the following day came, the sun rose and crossed the sky and set, and she didn't return.

 

-

 

The little prince resolved never to leave the castle after that. Why would he? The world was full of witches who cursed you and made you disappear when you went and tried to do something about it. It was full of monsters that attacked and probably ate you when all you were doing was trying to survive. No, he was much better behind those walls and doors—safe, like his mother had wanted him to be.

Besides, soon there was no need for him to venture outside. Now that he was alone, he had enough stores to last him through the winter. What's more, he'd finished Stoven—Stoven, who was alive, like Jarvis. And like Jarvis, whom Tony had made thinking of his nurses and servants and preceptors and who'd ended up being a little bit of all of those, Stoven could do everything Tony had meant for him to be able to. He could manage their supplies and cook. He could garden—and under his care the castle's gardens had started flourishing again. He pruned the trees and they became wood again, covered themselves with buds, eager for spring. He turned over the earth and the ash vanished, he watered it and grass came up. Within weeks, it was like the curse had never been there. And when spring came, everything Stoven sowed sprouted and thrived.

It never occurred to the prince to wonder how that could be possible. Or how come he was able to build and give life to creatures who knew how to do things he himself hadn't the first notion of. He vaguely thought that it might be science, since he'd made them in his father's laboratory, and the laboratory was for science. Or for magic. Tony had heard his father mention magic—but only to say that it was like science. Which left Tony confused—why have two words for one and the same thing?—and so he preferred not to think about it. It wasn't important anyway. What was important was this: he knew that he was young. He knew that he didn't know a lot of things. That he couldn't do a lot of things. But those things needed to be done. So all he could do was try and make people who would know how to do them. And it worked. There was no point wondering why, or how.

Besides, he was soon busy with his new project. Stoven was a great addition—thanks to him Tony got all the food he needed—but it wasn't all Tony needed. So he made more.

When the summer grew too warm, he created Breezer, who aired out the rooms and halls and corridors, and kept the cellars cool and dry for Stoven to store his vegetables. Tony knew that, if the winter grew too cold, he could tend the fires and keep them all warm too.

That winter wasn't cold so much as humid, though. In the fall, a storm rolled in and never settled, never left, and for months Tony was busy coming up with solutions for the issues that arose.

When lightning shot through the sky without interruption and he got scared, he made Lightning Rhodey, who caught all electric discharges darting down to the castle and diverted them, or stored them for later use, when Tony needed a light in the dark.

When the well overflowed due to the heavy rain, bringing up muddied water, he put together Bartonder, who could filter it, who repaired the well and monitored the underground river. He could even look after the castle's wines and spirits.

When he noticed the mess the water had left behind and the dirt smeared all over the floors of the kitchens and corridors, brought in by Stoven and Lightning Rhodey on their way in and out to the gardens and the roof, he built Bucket, whose job it was to keep things clean: not just the floors but also the furnitures and linens and clothes and Tony himself.

When monsters once again tried to enter the castle and nearly succeeded, he came up with Black Window, who watched over the doors and windows and secret passageways, who knew every crack and corner, who had woven her web all over them and so knew what was happening everywhere at all times.

When all those problems were solved and things grew quieter, he assembled Enthortainer, who knew all the stories people told in the world, all the songs they sang, all the knowledge they'd gathered. He was always eager to share them on an evening, and helped Jarvis with Tony's lessons, because not all his stories were fictional, and the fact that Tony wouldn't leave the castle didn't mean he shouldn't know the world.

The world still felt scary though, and so at last Samtry joined the others. He had the shape and wings of a bird, as well as its ability to fly. He watched over the castle grounds and beyond, warning everyone when monsters approached or a storm brewed.

By then years had passed—but Tony didn't mind. Finally he felt like he'd found his balance, like he could live. Thanks to Stoven, he never went hungry. Thanks to Bartonder, he never went thirsty. Thanks for Bucket, he was never dirty. Thanks to Breezer, he was never too cold or too warm. Thanks to Enthortainer, he was never bored. Thanks to Lightning Rhodey, he was never lost in the dark. Thanks to Black Window and Samtry, he was as safe as could be.

Thanks to all of them, he was never alone.

All in all, it was a nice life. Despite the circumstances, despite the curse, he was okay. He was good. He would've been content to live out his life like this, for things never to change.

But they always do.

 

-

 

That morning began like any other: Jarvis woke Tony up at the usual time and he freshened up before putting on the clothes Breezer had laid out for him and going down to the kitchen for breakfast. He never used the dining hall: what would be the point of all that space, given that he was the only one eating?

The first thing he did in the kitchen was trip right over Bucket, who was standing in the way.

"Fffffuck," Tony said, because he'd stubbed his toe. And shin. And knee.

Bucket had a lot of sharp angles.

The reason why he did was because Tony had only figured out the proper method to forge and bend metal to his will when he'd made Black Window. And the reason that Bucket was standing in the way was that he was busy conscientiously polishing Stoven's sides with a cloth. Stoven's sides, which were already sparkling. Like the rest of the kitchen.

"Oh, come on, not again," Tony said, rolling his eyes. "Break it off, leave Stoven alone. He's as clean as can be already. And if you're so eager to keep scrubbing things, go take care of my room."

Still, he had to push Bucket out of the way for him to stop. The automaton beeped petulantly at him, then whizzed out of the room.

"Hey, that wasn't polite! Or nice!" Tony shouted after him. "I'm sorry," he went on, turning to Stoven and patting him consolingly, "I don't know why he keeps doing this."

It wasn't the first time such a scene had occurred: Bucket lingering in the kitchen when his work here was done, being a nuisance, wiping and polishing things that didn't need it, as if to make a point. Maybe as a way to berate Stoven for getting himself and the room so easily dirty? Whatever it was, it always left Stoven in a mood, all his dials glowing a bright red—in anger, or maybe embarrassment, Tony figured—that took forever to fade.

Sometimes, Tony regretted not giving Stoven the ability to talk when he'd made him. He could've told Bucket to shove off, then.

"I'll find a way to make him stop," he promised with another consoling pat, even though all his attempts had failed up until now. No matter how much work Bucket was assigned—the latest one had been to wash all the tapestries and curtains in the castle, even in the many unused rooms—he always ended up back down in the kitchens. True, the room gave him the most work. It saw the most activity in the castle, the most comings and goings, and as a consequence got dirty the quickest. Bucket had to dedicate a lot of his time to it. But that was no reason for him to rush over there as soon as he had a free second. Especially if it affected Stoven that much.

However, that day wasn't to be the one on which Tony did anything serious to remedy the Bucket situation. By the time he'd finished breakfast, he was fully engrossed in a mostly one-sided conversation with Bartonder about the speed and flow of the river that provided the castle with water. Late morning found him on its banks, deep underground under the castle, staring down at the current with both Bartonder and Lightning Rhodey to light his way. He was wondering whether it'd be possible to fit a mill somewhere and, if so, what use to make of its power. Surely he could come up with something that went beyond sending running water up to his laboratory for his forge.

He was deep in various calculations when Black Window appeared out of nowhere. Well, she didn't, but given that she knew the castle's every nook and corner and that Tony had made her to be able to fit everywhere, it was the impression she gave: suddenly she was there, on top of Bartonder, like she'd always been, when Tony knew for a fact that she hadn't.

He'd learned not to startle. Much.

"Hey," she said, deadpan—because she, unlike most of her fellow automatons, could actually talk, although Tony didn't know why. It wasn't something he'd been thinking about when he'd made her, not like with Enthortainer. "Got a message from Samtry. Apparently people are approaching the castle."

Tony stared at her. "People?"

"Yes."

He stared some more. In the ten years since his mother had left and not returned, he hadn't seen one single human being, even from afar.

His throat tightened. His heart skipped a beat in what he wouldn't have admitted was hope. "Anyone we know?" he asked.

"Not that Samtry could see," Black Window replied. "But they're still pretty far away. Mostly they look exhausted, he says." Given that they'd been travelling across a monster-ridden desert, that wasn't exactly surprising. "What do you want us to do?"

"I…don't know?" Tony replied. "Do they seem hostile?"

"Samtry didn't see any drawn weapon. But that doesn't mean—"

"No, just," he cut her off, waving a hand, "you know what? Just let them in."

Black Window ostensibly paused. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," Tony said, straightening. "They're probably nothing but lost travelers looking for shelter—maybe for food, definitely for a place to rest."

"So what, you're going to welcome them with open arms, a banquet and a feather bed?" Black Window drawled, skeptical.

"I don't know!" Tony retorted. If he was being honest, the mere thought of it—people, strangers, in his castle—terrified him. "All I know is that taking them in is what Mother would have done."

Black Window didn't have an answer to that, and so that was the plan, which got relayed to all the automatons. Strangers were coming and they were to be let in. They were to find plenty of food to eat and rooms to sleep. They were, however, not to see anyone while doing so. Tony didn't know how they'd react to his companions, and he himself wavered at the thought of facing them alone. He retreated instead, sequestering himself in the part of the castle furthest away from the entrance.

The room—north-facing, on the top floor of the west wing—had a window, which made it possible for Samtry to fly in if needed. Not one hour later he did just that, perching on the sill and shuffling his finely wrought feathers. Being the last of Tony's creations, he'd benefitted the most from all the progress he'd made in metalwork over the years. He was what some would've called a masterpiece—not that Tony was aware of that.

"So," Samtry said awkwardly, "there might be a problem."

The problem was that what had looked like a group of six weary travelers from afar turned out to be a group of five travelers and a prisoner up close.

"They're kidnappers?" Tony exclaimed. "Brigands? In my castle?"

"It looks like they might be brigands," Samtry corrected, "and they aren't in the castle yet."

"How do you want us to proceed?" Black Window asked from the chimney breast, where she'd apparently been sitting this entire time.

"We can lock the place down," Samtry suggested. "Then they won't be able to get in any more than the monsters."

Tony would've liked nothing more than to agree, but— "No," he said. "No, we still let them in, we have to— The prisoner. We have to try and help them."

They needed a new plan. For that, they needed more information, which Samtry was happy to provide by flying over the group, using the rolling clouds in the sky to conceal himself. The (probable) brigands were all men, he reported, while the prisoner was a woman, her hands tied not with a rope but with a strange metal contraption whose interstices glowed red. Still, she didn't seem to have been unduly mistreated.

"Also," he concluded, "she's very beautiful. I'd be willing to bet she's a princess."

Tony frowned at him. "How are her looks or social status relevant here? We're saving her—and we'd still save her even if she was the ugliest, poorest serf on Earth."

"Okay," Samtry said agreeably.

Tony straightened. "No, not okay. Where the hell did you get the idea that either of those details mattered? They don't—or, they only do if they make someone a dick. People who are beautiful and rich are dicks fifty percent of the time." That much he knew from Enthortainer's many tales. "I don't like people like that, so if anything her being pretty and possibly a princess would actually make me wary of saving her, and—"

The automatons glanced at each other. They were all gathered at the kitchen table, because it was large enough and because Stoven had decided that lunch needed to be served. Tony would've had to be blind to miss the significant looks they were now exchanging.

"What?" he asked, feeling defensive.

"Should I tell him?" Enthortainer asked.

"Tell me what?"

"You're pretty," Samtry told him. Beside him, both Jarvis and Breezer nodded—or, in Breezer's case, did the closest approximation of a nod he was able to achieve.

"What?"

"According to the current canons of beauty in this region of the world," Enthortainer added.

"If it helps, the fact that you're a crown prince would make you handsome in most people's eyes no matter what," Black Window butted in wryly.

"You're definitely the prettiest of us all, though," Samtry said.

Bucket—who'd been suspiciously silent up until then—beeped something in reply which Tony was pretty sure meant he thought Stoven was the prettiest of them all. And there Stoven went, glowing bright red all over again.

"Hey," Tony said, "no bullying allowed." They didn't have the time for yet another squabble.

"Is that what they're calling it these days?" Samtry muttered.

"Besides," Tony went on, raising his voice, "that's not the point. The point is that brigands are on their way here, and that it doesn't matter whether their captive is pretty, or of noble blood."

"I just thought it might help," Samtry said.

"Why?"

There was an awkward silence.

"Well," Samtry said, and stopped.

Black Window didn't have any of his qualms. "You're weird about people," she bluntly said.

"I'm weird about people?" Tony repeated.

"Yes. So weird that you've decided to stay here all these years, all on your lonesome, rather than try and join them."

"Excuse me," Tony said, "did you all forget about the endless desert and countless monsters surrounding this place? How is wanting to avoid them being 'weird'?"

"The fact that you were able to create all of us," Black Window retorted, "and that we can do everything you can't—except fight. You've made nine of us, and not one to fight for you, to protect you in a way that'd make it possible for you to safely cross that desert and leave this place. That's weird." Before Tony could dispute her claim, she went on. "Which leads me to the true issue here: none of us can fight. And there are five brigands."

Tony opened his mouth. Blinked. "That is an issue indeed," he conceded.

But while he hadn't created any of his automatons to fight, he'd made them smart. Over the next half hour, they brainstormed, even those who couldn't use words, and came up with a simple plan. Hide and let the brigands enter the castle, let them find some food and eat it, let them choose some rooms to settle in for the night. Wait until they all fell asleep, then creep into the room where they kept the prisoner, undo her bindings and hide her. Fabricate a trail outside the castle to make the brigands believe that she'd fled. Wait for them to wake up, find their prisoner gone, and go after her. Lock the door behind them. Celebrate.

"What if one of them stays awake to watch over the prisoner, though?" Black Window asked, because poking holes into defense strategies was her job.

"I'm pretty sure we can take down one brigand," Tony huffed. He was gratified when Stoven gave sign that he agreed.

"What if he wakes up the others before we can do that?" Samtry asked, because it was his job too.

"Er," Tony said.

"What if we don't manage to free the prisoner of her cuffs?"

"What if the brigands don't fall for our fake trail?"

"What if not all of them follow it and a few stay behind just in case?"

"What if—"

"Okay, stop," Tony interrupted. "I get it, our plan sucks. But we'll still try it. And if it doesn't work—well. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it." He raised a forbidding hand to prevent Black Window from pointing out all the ways that was a terrible idea. "In the meantime, play dead. Pretend you're nothing but useless piles of scraps."

"That'll be easy," Samtry muttered, because most of them did look like useless piles of scraps. The few who didn't—thanks to Tony's improvements as a smith—were small enough to hide and stay out of sight. Enthortainer was the exception, but if he stood against a wall in the armory wearing a helmet and not moving an inch, he could pass for ceremonial armor.

Tony had gone a bit wild on the gold and silver inlays when he'd made him.

They got into position. Samtry and Black Window hid. The others positioned themselves out of the way, muting the light glowing from within each of them. On his way to his own hiding place, Tony checked how they looked, to see if they would fool the brigands—and was unnerved, disquieted at seeing them all that way, unmoving, as if they were gone, as if they were indeed nothing but lifeless piles of metal. He hurried past them, telling himself that it was just pretense, that it'd all be over soon. It was just part of their plan and it'd all be okay.

Except that, like most plans, this one didn't survive contact with the enemy.

At first everything went well. The brigands reached the castle and, upon entering, were surprised to find it anything but derelict. It wasn't even dusty; Bucket might act out often but he always did his job and did it well. They resolved to explore to see what they might find. First they dragged their prisoner to the dining hall—and dragging her it was, for now that they were this close it was obvious how little she was cooperating, despite her heavy, undoubtedly painful bindings. Two of the brigands then stayed with her while the other three went to check the rest of the place, calling to each other as they went.

They believed themselves alone, a feeling that persisted: they walked right past Bartonder and Breezer without sparing them a glance. Up in his hiding spot, Tony started to hope that their plan would work. But then…

"Hey, I found the kitchens!" one of the brigands exclaimed. All of the others perked up at once. A kitchen meant possible food supplies. They'd been traveling for days with no way to replenish theirs. At this point even old grain would've been a boon.

"Anything interesting in there?" another one of them called.

"I don't know yet," the first answered. "There's just some weird equipment—" By which he meant the various tools and utensils Tony had made for Stoven over the years. "—and this ugly crap of a stove, I'm pretty sure it's broken." His words were followed by a hollow, metallic sound. "I'm gonna go check the—"

He cut himself off with a shout. It was followed by a series of loud clangs, the din of pots and pans collapsing on tiles; then a moan, drowned out by a thud.

"Um," the second brigand asked. "You okay?"

When he received no answer, he and his bandmate turned in his direction. When more clangs followed, they started running.

Tony started moving too, making his way towards the dining hall. No matter its cause, this turn of events was as good a distraction as any—which was confirmed when he reached the room right on time to see the last two brigands, who'd been left to guard the prisoner, exchange a glance and leave to go see what the racket was about.

As soon as they were gone, their prisoner started struggling in earnest, trying to get free. But between the heavy metal bindings wrapped around her forearms and the rope they'd used to bind her to one of the room's pillars, she wasn't very successful. She was so focused on her task that she didn't notice Tony's approach until he was nearly beside her. Then she froze. Tony put a finger in front of his lips, then took the last few steps and knelt down. He quickly undid the rope, then slid a few tools out of his pocket to get at the cuffs. Given their size and weight and complexity—Samtry hadn't been exaggerating when he'd said they were weird—he expected them to be a problem. Yet after looking them over for a few seconds, he only needed one try for a click to be heard and for them to fall open while the weird reddish glow in and around them faded.

The woman gaped down at them, then up at Tony.

"How the hell did you do that?" she asked, but now was not the time to talk about mechanics or child's play. Tony shushed her, then helped her up—and damn it, Samtry had been right twice, she was pretty. Almost intimidatingly so.

"Let's get you somewhere safe," he suggested in a whisper, a suggestion that made enough sense for the woman to nod and follow him without further questions. They left the hall through a side door and, two corridor turns later, were met by Black Window. The woman startled when she saw her scuttling toward them, which Tony could understand. Black Window would look strange to the unused eye. She had many legs and moved worryingly fast.

He crouched down, holding out a hand for her to crawl upon.

"What happened?" he asked as he stood back up.

"Bucket took exception at that guy kicking Stoven for no reason. Or calling him ugly. Or, you know, both."

Behind Tony, the woman gasped. She hadn't expected talking on top of everything else. But there was more noise coming from the kitchen and—more worryingly—from other parts of the castle, so Tony couldn't linger.

"This is Black Window," he said, turning to the woman and holding out the small automaton. Black Window wiggled one of her many legs in a sarcastic hello. "You can trust her. She'll take you somewhere safe, where even I wouldn't be able to find you." The woman didn't react, staring in alarm bordering on disgust. Tony briefly considered transferring Black Window to her hands, then decided against it: who knew how she might react. He set the automaton back onto the floor instead. At once she moved away, then stopped: an indication of the way to follow. "Perfect," Tony said, "now go."

The woman wanted to hold him back, but he was already hurrying away, and she didn't call for him. She knew they needed to be discreet. Plus, Tony wouldn't have let her stop him. The sound of fighting was still coming from the kitchen. There was a metallic groan, the deafening slam of a heavy object hitting the floor. He started running.

When he reached the last corridor, he saw that Enthortainer had preceded him and was rushing through the door ahead of him. Still, he didn't slow down one bit, and so arrived on time to see Bucket beating one of the brigands with his favorite broom until he'd chased him straight through the back door, into the gardens and beyond. On the other side of the room, Enthortainer was trying to help Stoven get back up from where he'd been tipped over. He wasn't very successful: Stoven was heavy and ungainly, and he hadn't been made to easily do such a thing—because he hadn't been made to fall down easily either. Yet he had, kicked or pushed, and while Bucket had gotten rid of one of the brigands, another one was still in the room, ready to take advantage of the automaton's distraction. He'd seized a chair to hit him or maybe even crush him. Only he never did, because before Tony could react Stoven was back upright and barreling right into the man, all his dials lit up the bright blue-white of a furious flame. Trying to avoid him, the brigand tripped, let go of the chair—which knocked into his shins and feet as it fell—and managed to stumble right into Enthortainer, who let out a bellow the likes of which could only be found in the old songs and tales he knew so well. That was too much for the brigand, who fled, following his bandmate through the back door and away.

The second he was out of sight, Bucket whirled around and zoomed towards Stoven to fuss over him, checking him from all angles to make sure that he wasn't damaged, dented or even dirtied. Tony didn't stop him this time. He even approved, no matter how much it might chafe Stoven to be coddled like a fragile flower. Seeing him on the ground and helpless wasn't something Tony ever wanted to witness again.

"Are you okay?" he asked, addressing the whole room.

"We're fine," Enthortainer replied. He was the only one there who could talk. "There are two brigands left. I crossed path with Samtry on my way here and he said he and Lightning Rhodey would take care of them."

That explained the noises Tony had heard coming from other parts of the castle.

"Wasn't the plan for everyone to stay hidden and out of the way?" Tony asked, aggravated.

Bucket let out a loud beep who clearly—and quite rudely—expressed what he thought of that plan, and of the brigands. Neither Stoven nor Enthortainer showed any sign of disagreement.

Tony was going to have words with everyone. But he had to make sure they were alright first.

He left Bucket and Stoven to guard the kitchen back door to made sure the brigands who'd fled didn't return and took Enthortainer with him to find the rest of them.

In the end, it was pretty anti-climatic. Both Samtry and Lightning Rhodey were standing in the entrance hall, watching the doors. That was where the fourth brigand had run through when they'd scared him off in turn. Then, on the way back to the kitchens, they bumped into Bartonder, who looked very smug indeed as he rolled up to them. Apparently he'd gotten rid of the last brigand, with Jarvis' help no less.

Try as they might, neither Samtry nor Enthortainer could get any more details out of him. Tony decided not to insist.

In the kitchens, they were soon joined by Jarvis himself, who'd gone to fetch Breezer. As it turned out, the latter had been the only one who'd stuck to the plan and stayed where he'd been supposed to, playing dead. Tony would've thanked him, except that the automaton was both dismayed and rueful about it.

Tony could feel a headache coming.

"Could you find Black Window and tell her we're good?" he asked Bartonder, because the automaton could always find her no matter where she hid herself. Or he always could make her find him, which had the same end result.

Within twenty minutes, Bartonder was back with the freed prisoner in tow, who in turn was carrying Black Window in her hands. She paused in the doorway, taking in Tony and all his companions gathered around the large oak table in all their misshapen glory. The expression on her face was still wary, but a lot less alarmed and disgusted than before. Still, she didn't come any closer, holding herself like—well, like a princess surveilling her court. Which she probably was. Samtry had been right about everything else, why not that too?

"I've been given to understand that my captors have been chased away?" she asked, doing nothing to contradict that theory.

"Yes," Tony replied, "thanks to—" He gestured around him. "—everyone, pretty much. You're free to go. I mean." He'd suddenly remembered that things were inevitably more complicated than that. "Do you know where you are?"

"I believe," the woman replied slowly, "in the cursed kingdom."

Given the many barren, ashy, monster-ridden miles she and the brigands had had to cross to get here, it had to have been pretty obvious.

"And you're the cursed prince," she added, looking at Tony.

"Oh?" he said, hand fiddling with the grain of the wood in front of him. "Is that what people call me?"

He found that pretty unfair. As far as he knew his father was the one who'd made a mistake and ended up cursed. Although those things did tend to be hereditary. And with his father dead…

Damn it, he was the cursed prince.

"Mostly they say you're dead," the woman said. "That's what we all thought."

"Oh yeah?" He felt a bit peeved at their lack of faith in his ability to survive. "And who's 'we'?"

"Allow me—" Enthortainer suddenly cut in, standing up before the woman could open her mouth. He hadn't taken off his helmet and so really looked like a walking and talking suit of armor. "—to introduce the very noble and very gracious Virginia of Potts, crown princess of the Fenix kingdom." He turned to her and bowed. "Your noble deeds, wisdom and beauty have reached far and wide, all the way to our humble abode."

The—actual—princess frowned minutely at him. "You've heard of me?" she asked. "I thought this place would be entirely cut off from the outside world."

"Oh, it is," Tony said. "That's just Enthortainer, he knows everything."

"Everything?"

"Yup."

"How?"

Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. "I don't know," he said eventually, "that's just how I made him."

"You made him?"

"Well, yeah," Tony said with a shrug, chafing at how incredulous she sounded. "But that's not the point here. The point is, you're a princess."

"So?" she asked.

"So your people must be missing you. Looking everywhere for you."

She sobered. "Yes, they probably are."

Tony worried a bit more at the grooves of the tabletop. "What happened?" he asked. "You were captured. How?" He would've expected a princess—a crown princess no less—to be well-protected.

The princess looked at him for a long time, gauging whether she could trust him. "I was on my way back after helping villagers put out a forest fire," she replied finally. "We were all exhausted, my escort and I, and some of my soldiers were wounded. There was an ambush." She briefly looked down. From the expression on her face, it was quite obvious what had happened to her escort then. "I fought as best I could, but they managed to get those cuffs on me and they suppressed what was left of my powers entirely."

"Um," Tony said. "Your powers?"

"I should add," Enthortainer butted back in, "that all members of the Potts elder line are Masters of Fire."

The princess nodded. "I'd heard of a metal that could be forged and spelled to suppress it, but I didn't realize what it was. I tried to use my powers anyway and lost consciousness. I didn't wake up until we were miles away."

"… Right," Tony said blankly. To him the conversation had just taken an unexpected turn, jumping straight from reality to one of Enthortainer's wilder tales.

"Which is why I was so surprised when you undid those cuffs so easily. Only the sorcerer who'd closed them should've been able to do that. But I understand, now."

Tony frowned. "Understand what?"

The princess let her eyes rove over all the automatons gathered in the room. "None of the stories ever mentioned that you were a sorcerer too," she said, and smiled.

"Um," Tony said again. "Sorry, what? I'm not a sorcerer."

The princess looked at him bemusedly. "You just told me you made all of the—" She glanced down at Black Window, whom she was still holding. "All of your companions."

"Yes. I mean, I built them. As a mechanic. A smith. That's not magic."

"But they're alive," the princess pointed out.

Black Window emitted a noise like clearing the throat she didn't have. "If I may," she said wryly. "Rather than wondering about how we all came to be, it might be more pressing to figure out a way to ensure Princess Virginia's safe return home."

She was, of course, right. Enthortainer quickly stepped aside to offer the princess his seat—at which point Tony realized he should've done so himself, and a lot sooner—so they could discuss the matter. To which, they realized over the next few hours, there was no easy answer. No matter what the automatons said about Tony and people, there was a reason that he hadn't received any visitors in the ten years he'd spent here. Reaching the castle was a feat in and on itself. It meant walking through a desert for weeks, with little to no resources but monsters aplenty, all hungry and wanting nothing more than to feast on you. The princess was keenly aware of that. The brigands who'd kidnapped her had been a lot more numerous before they'd crossed the border—before their horses had turned. Their depleted number was half the reason they'd been so easy to disband: they knew flight was the best chance of survival around here, if not the only one.

"Why did they even come here, then?" Tony asked with a groan, rubbing his face with his hands, elbows propped on the table. The only reason why he hadn't planted them right into his plate was Jarvis' long experience and deceptively quick reflexes.

"I believe they'd been paid handsomely and promised more," the princess answered. "And before you ask, I'm quite sure I know by whom." She spared a brief smile for Jarvis as he cleared her plate away too, then took the time to thank Stoven for the meal, which he'd presented them with an hour into their discussion. At the compliment, his dials lit up in a quick, bright red show of bashfulness and he hastily retreated. "As for why they came here, I don't think it was part of the plan," the princess went on, albeit distractedly. Her eyes had caught on Bucket and followed him as he trundled his way to the sink with all the plates and cutlery Jarvis had heaped up on him. "They ventured in attempting to evade pursuit, believing half the stories about this place to be made up. Once they realized that they weren't, they kept on out of fear of being caught by border patrols if they went back."

Tony groaned again. "Amateurs."

"I'm a much better swordswoman than they were, though," the princess said.

"Your skill with a blade, both during tournaments and on the battlefield, is indeed the topic of many a song," Enthortainer said, the awe clear in his voice.

The princess smiled again, contained and gracious as she accepted the well-deserved compliment. "I also have my powers back," she added. "I believe I'd be much more successful than they were in defending myself against the monsters."

Tony thought briefly of his mother, who'd been strong and skilled too, with her sword and her dagger and her bow. True, he couldn't be sure of how she and the princess compared when it came to fighting. But he couldn't be sure greater abilities would make a real difference, especially not at night, when the body and the mind grew tired and the monsters swarmed.

"Let's say you can do it," he said. "What then? Do you know where we are exactly in the kingdom? Do you know in which direction you need to go?"

"I will head south," the princess replied confidently. "I'll be bound to reach the border eventually."

Tony, for his part, felt very tired. "And how will you know you're heading south? The sky is always covered in a thick layer of clouds, so you won't see the sun or the stars. And after all these years, most of the landmarks have disappeared—no more forests, villages in ruins… The whole country is pretty much nothing but a flat plain."

The only distinctive elements left were the rivers, which still flowed. But without any vegetation to stabilize their banks, they tended to move in unexpected ways from one season to the next; to overflow then to drain, to seemingly vanish then suddenly reappear further away. The smaller ones were constantly run through with ash, and difficult to glimpse from afar. All in all, they'd be an obstacle and a danger more than a help.

The princess didn't have a quick answer. She could try and walk in a straight line from the castle, but one fight with monsters and that attempt would be thwarted, her orientation gone. How would she know which direction she should continue in then? Tony sighed.

"Sir," Jarvis said then.

Greetings and honorifics were about as far as his vocabulary went, but somehow he'd found a way to turn them into the richest trove of meaning over the years. At least to Tony's ears.

"Jarvis's right," he said. "It's late. We should sleep on it. Who knows, maybe the solution is actually obvious and it'll jump out at us in the morning."

"You're probably right," the princess said, although she wondered how he'd gotten all that from the one word the automaton had pronounced.

Tony turned to the others. "Bucket, Breezer, go prepare a room for our guest," he said. The two of them rolled out of the room at once. "Jarvis'll show you the way," he told the princess. The automaton bowed in her direction. "Hope you have a good night."

"Good night to you too," the princess said.

Tony nodded in acknowledgement—but once she'd left the room, he didn't go to bed. Instead he went right to the library with Lightning Rhodey and his light to consult the old maps and start comparing them to what Samtry had observed on his patrols over the years, trying to put together an itinerary from the castle to the Fenix kingdom. It wouldn't matter how good or direct it was though, unless the princess had a way to make sure that she was still following it. So down to his laboratory Tony went, to try and find a way, a tool that'd help her, that could always show travelers which direction they were going.

He was frustratingly unsuccessful.

The wee hours of the morning found him still working, and still failing. His third botched attempt ended up thrown through the room in a fit of frustration—and only missed Stoven by a hair. The automaton's dials darkened in reproach. Tony felt bad: focused as he had been on his experiment, he hadn't heard the other coming in, which, given his weight, was never a silent affair. As a consequence, he obediently took the tray Stoven held out to him once he'd reached him and put it on the bench in front of him. On it were a few slices of bread, a small bowl of apple compote and a cup of herbal tea. Then Jarvis arrived too, holding a blanket which he went to wrap around Tony's shoulders at once.

"Did the princess get settled in alright?" Tony asked, rubbing at his eyes and picking up the cup. The smell wafted up to him: verbena. Stoven wasn't taking any risks.

"Sir," Jarvis replied, which was both an Of course, sir and Yes, hours ago, sir all rolled into one.

"I know, I know," Tony said, hearing the scolding clear as a bell. He took a sip of his infusion and sighed. "I just can't seem to figure it out."

"Sir," Jarvis repeated.

Tony's throat tightened around his next mouthful. He forced it down.

"Yeah," he said, voice wavering. "I'll have to go with her, won't I?"

Jarvis' reply was to pick up the blanket where it had slipped from Tony's shoulder and securely re-wrap it around him. Tony let him, just like he let Stoven convince him to eat the contents of the tray once he'd drunk his tea, then shuffle him up to bed for a well-deserved, deep sleep.

 

-

 

Neither Jarvis nor Breezer came to wake him up, so Tony slept late into the morning—something they allowed whenever he let his research engross him so much that he forgot about time. Usually he didn't mind, was even grateful for the extra respite. But this time, he had a guest. Even though he didn't remember much about the days before the curse and the visits his parents might have received, he'd heard all about the rules of hospitality through Enthortainer's tales and knew that a lord had to be present and entertain his hosts.

Fortunately, he wasn't alone in the castle. By the time he came down to the kitchens, refreshed and dressed, the princess was already there, a plate that had been generously laden with breakfast half-eaten in front of her. She was listening as Enthortainer regaled her with one of his stories.

She was wearing one of the queen's dresses.

"We took the liberty of providing her with clothes," Black Window whispered in his ear. She'd jumped from the counter to his arm and crawled up to his shoulder the second he'd stepped through the door. Her voice was cautious: she was wary of his reaction, wondering if they'd overstepped.

"Good," Tony managed to reply. He summoned a smile and walked up to the table, drawing the princess's attention. "Good morning," he said, trying to channel his mother as he remembered her. "Did you sleep well?"

"Very well, thank you," the princess replied. "Much better than the past few weeks. But I should've expected as much, spending the night in a magic castle."

"I told you, I'm not a sorcerer," Tony said as he sat down. At once Stoven was at his side to serve him a bowl of gruel accompanied by some bread and fruit, while Bartonder poured him a glass of cider. "No sorcerer, no magic castle."

"If you say so," the princess replied agreeably, but with a smile which betrayed that she'd decided to believe whatever she wanted. Her eyes followed Stoven as he retreated and lingered there for so long that Tony turned to see what could be so fascinating. It was none other than Bucket, who once again had rushed to wipe Stoven down when there was absolutely no need.

"Hey," Tony called. "Stop it, not this again! You've got plenty of other things to do—I don't know, go help Breezer with Princess Virginia's room or something."

Bucket beeped grumpily but obeyed. Not that it mattered: Stoven was already half red anyway.

"I'm sorry," Tony said, turning back to his guest. "I don't know what's up with him, he's always bothering Stoven for some reason."

"I'm not sure 'bothering' is what's going on here," the princess said, the smile on her lips having turned amused.

"What else would it be?" Tony asked, tucking into his food, before he realized that there were more pressing matters to address. "Wait, no. Getting you back home. That's what we need to talk about. Did you come up with anything new during the night?"

"Unfortunately, no," the princess admitted. "But I do maintain that I should be able to make my way through the desert unscathed, provided I know the way—and don't lose it."

Tony's chewing slowed down. He swallowed. "Yeah," he said. "Provided you don't lose it." He stared down at his plate for a few seconds, then took a deep breath. "I came up with an idea. I'll come with you."

The princess frowned minutely. "I can see how two blades would be better than one against our foes but I can't—"

"Oh, yeah, no," Tony interrupted with a snort. "I won't be carrying a sword or helping with all the—" He flailed with a hand. "—fighting and all. I have no idea how to do that. But you do, and very well if you and Enthortainer are to be believed, so that's one problem solved. No, what I have are friends, and maps, and a good knowledge of the land, and a very good understanding of how those monsters work. We've been thwarting them for years. So I'll make sure we avoid them as much as possible. You fight them when we can't. I stay out of the way so we don't both get turned around. That way we don't get lost, and we get you home. How does that sound?"

"Good," the princess said. However, she went on at once, "but I can't let you leave your home and put yourself in danger—"

"Let me?" Tony exclaimed. "This isn't about letting me. Do you think I want to do this?" He shook his head. "Believe me, I'd much rather stay here. I'm fine here, I'm safe. I've got great company and everything I need. But—" He turned his spoon over and over in his hand. "—I can't just stand there while you go off on your own to get lost or, or eaten. You've got a whole kingdom waiting for you to lead them one day." He didn't need to add that he, on the other hand, had nothing of the sort. He straightened and met the princess' eyes. "Besides, it's not like you can prevent me from doing it."

The princess watched him in silence for a long time. Then she smiled, almost wry, and said, "I can't, can I?" Her smile faded. "Thank you."

Tony dismissed it with a gesture. "Thank me when you're back home safe," he said, and focused on eating his breakfast. Stoven wouldn't allow for his food to go to waste, and he had a lot of things to prepare before they could leave.

 

-

 

The next few days were spent preparing for the trip. Breezer and Bucket went through the castle's various rooms to try and find clothes that could sustain the journey—mostly those ended up being the former king's traveling and hunting garments. Stoven and Bartonder focused on food and drinking supplies that'd last the whole way. Black Window, Lightning Rhodey and Enthortainer, for their parts, spent their time between the library and the castle towers, planning out the route with Samtry. It had been decided that the latter would accompany Tony and the princess. Being that he could fly, he'd be best able to watch their surroundings, warn them when monsters were close, and keep them on track. Last but not least, Jarvis went from one group to the next, coordinating everything and regularly reporting to Tony.

Tony himself would've liked to help, but he was busy being repeatedly trounced on the training field by the princess, who'd decided that, if he was to come with her, then he should at least know the basics of how to defend himself with a blade.

It wasn't going well. Tony was, to put in plainly, terrible at it. He did everything wrong, from the way he held the weapon to the way he swung it, be it in attack or defense.

The princess was more flabbergasted and frustrated about it than he was. He didn't see the point. Even if his instincts hadn't been spectacularly contrary, he wouldn't be able to make much progress in the few days they had. That, and he didn't mind being relegated to the rank of bait, or distraction. That was something he was quite sure he could do, and well. So the main—maybe the only—win of the whole enterprise was that the princess got to familiarize herself with the contents of the armory, and pick what suited her best. She had ample choice. Tony's mother and ancestors had all enjoyed fine weaponry, and Bucket had kept every single item as clean and polished as if they'd just come out of the forge.

With everyone working together, everything was soon ready. Yet the reality of their imminent departure didn't really strike Tony until the morning they were set to leave, when he came down to the kitchens to find Samtry perched on a chair, one of his wings spread as Bucket carefully and determinedly cleaned every one of his feathers, taking his time with each joint until it was spotless and freed of even the smallest particle that might grip it. Black Window and Enthortainer were there too, going over the itinerary and the ways to guarantee the security of the trip. Black Window insisted on safety measures and perimeter checks while Enthortainer schooled him on the proper conduct when faced with foreign nobility. They'd been at it for a while, and Samtry was growing fed up with it.

"Guys," he said, "should I remind you who here has regularly been leaving the castle for years?"

Black Window huffed. "We know," she said. "It's not you we're worried about."

But they were worried. About Tony. And that's when it hit him: what was about to happen. What it'd mean. Leaving. Him leaving, when he'd never done so. In the last ten years he hadn't set foot outside the castle once. The gardens didn't count: they were Stoven's domain, they were inside the walls, they were safe. Only Samtry had ever made his way outside. And Black Window was right: he'd made them to do all the things he wasn't able to. He'd made Samtry to venture outside, because he couldn't. He couldn't do this, what was he thinking? He couldn't do this—all the things that could go wrong, all the things that could happen to them, all the things that would happen to them… He couldn't do this, he couldn't, he—

He couldn't breathe. Without realizing it he'd retreated from the kitchens and now he couldn't breathe and he'd collapsed on the floor and he couldn't breathe, and—

He couldn't breathe, but he could hear, faintly, beyond his gasps and wheezes, beyond the buzzing in his ears, and that was Jarvis, Jarvis's voice, right there above him, calling him softly. He couldn't breathe, but he could feel, and that was Jarvis's hand on his back, its angular edges dragging against his skin though the fabric of his shirt, both comforting and uncomfortable, undeniably there. Slowly it went up, then down, then up, and eventually, after a long while, Tony managed to match his breathing to that movement, to make it slower and deeper, and then he could breathe again. He became aware of where he was, sitting tucked in a corner at the end of a corridor, far enough from the kitchen that the people in it wouldn't hear, wouldn't notice—but notice they had. Some of them had. Jarvis was still bent over him, rubbing his back, and Bartonder was there too, holding out a glass of wine, trying to be helpful. And he was. They both were. Like they always were.

They were always here for him when he needed it.

If he left, he'd be leaving them too—at least for a while. How could he do that? Without them, he would've died years ago. They'd saved him. And now he was going to, what, just leave? Abandon them? How could that be right? Or fair?

Bartonder beeped at him softly, holding the glass further out. Tony took it with a faint smile. The automaton was trying so hard—they were all trying so hard. They'd done so much these past few days to try and get things as ready as they could be for Tony and the princess. Hell, Bucket was even taking care of Samtry, with whom he got along frostily on a good day. Tony couldn't not acknowledge all that. He couldn't let all that hard work go to waste.

So he drank the wine, and let Jarvis help him up, and walked back with them to the kitchens, where Bucket was finishing his work on Samtry's wings while Stoven brought breakfast onto the table. The princess came down soon after, already dressed for the journey. After that, there was no time left for doubts and fears. Before Tony knew it, breakfast had been eaten and he was dressed for the road too, down to the kind of sturdy boots he'd never worn before. He'd never needed to, not even when Enthortainer had decided that his duty extended to educating Tony's body as well as his mind and started taking him on runs throughout the castle, up countless flights of stairs and down endless corridors until he was all sweaty and out of breath and yet felt better for it.

"Travel swiftly and safely," Enthortainer told them solemnly as they stood at the gates, ready to depart. All of Tony's companions were gathered there to say goodbye.

"We will," the princess said.

"And then I'll come back," Tony added. "As soon as possible."

They paused visibly, and for a second he was certain—he was terrified—that they would tell him not to. But instead Black Window turned to Samtry, who was perched on Tony's shoulder, and said, "Take care of them."

Samtry nodded as solemnly as Enthortainer had spoken—and Tony couldn't help it. "Thanks for the vote of confidence," he quipped, and the moment broke, and Breezer gave that small, singing laughter of his while Lightning Rhodey crackled. "I should be telling you to take care of yourselves."

"We've kept you alive this long," Black Window retorted, "I think we'll manage somehow." A pause, and then, "Just go," she added, sounding wry and fond at the same time. And so, when Tony followed the princess and stepped out from under the wall, it didn't feel too bad. It didn't feel too final. It was like pushing down the warm, comfortable blankets of his bed in a morning: it left him feeling a bit cold, a bit vulnerable, but it not panicked. It was just him, following one of the strange ideas his mind had come up with like it always did, and the automatons letting him do it no matter where it led, because they trusted that he'd resurface sooner or later, that he'd return eventually.

And return he would, he vowed. He hiked his bag higher on his free shoulder, pointed at Bucket, and said, "No bullying Stoven while I'm away," to which the automaton beeped way too agreeably. Not that Tony could do much about it now.

He turned away, nodded at the princess. Together, they started walking.

 

-

 

Hours later Tony had come to realize that walking wasn't as easy and breezy as Enthortainer made it sound in his stories. His back ached. His feet hurt—he was pretty sure he had blisters already. His knees and hips smarted at every step. In a word, he felt awful.

The princess didn't have the same problem at all, her gait as supple and regular as when they'd started out. She'd only made them stop once for a few small swallows of water—there'd be streams on their way, but given that they couldn't be sure the water would be safe to drink, they had to ration it. They hadn't eaten. By now, Tony was famished, and almost begging inside for them to stop for lunch. He'd been known to skip a meal here and there, whenever he was too absorbed in a project, but never when he'd exerted himself physically. That, and Stoven had learned to leave small things lying around the laboratory, dried fruit and nuts and pieces of bread, left within easy reach for him to snack on. Sometimes Tony didn't even notice he was doing it. But he sure noticed the absence of it now.

Samtry reappearing from scouting ahead was a welcome distraction. He circled Tony and the princess once or twice before diving and landing on the arm Tony held out. He was careful about it, but his claws were still sharp, and Tony was still glad for the leather glove Jarvis had dug up just for this purpose.

"There is a herd of—well, of what would've been cows in another life, up ahead," Samtry reported. "We should slow down until they've moved on, or make a detour."

"There'll be no need for that," the princess said. "We can stop and have a small bite." Tony could've wept, upon hearing that. "We'll see afterwards how far they've moved."

Samtry nodded. "I'll go make sure they aren't headed this way and that nothing else is creeping up on us," he said, and took off again.

The princess gazed after him, a smile on her lips, which she turned onto Tony once Samtry was out of sight. Tony shifted awkwardly. She was awfully pretty.

"He's really like the most graceful of falcons," she marveled.

"If falcons could talk and were devastatingly intelligent and helpful, sure," Tony said.

"You must be proud of yourself."

Tony frowned in confusion, but didn't get to ask what she meant. Her smile widened and she went on, "This is working. I'm starting to believe we have a chance."

She was right to hope. Days went by and they traveled on unharmed. At night they took turns keeping watch, Tony going first because he was no stranger to late nights, the princess going second because she didn't balk at early mornings. Samtry kept them both company, whenever he wasn't flying overhead, his sight as good in the dark as it was during the day. Thanks to him, they managed to avoid many of the monsters roaming the land, and when they couldn't, the princess proved to be as good a swordswoman as she'd claimed. With her fiery powers to top it all off, she was utterly deadly. Tony mostly stayed out of her way, keeping track of the direction they were headed, although he did intervene as a distraction a few times, quite successfully if he dared say so himself.

Thus their journey remained relatively safe. It didn't make it any shorter. Their supplies were dwindling, despite the princess' careful and strict rationing, and they were tiring, especially Tony. Plus, despite all their caution, they walked with the fear of having gotten something wrong, of having lost their way and being unable to tell. Every evening Samtry flew high overhead, through the clouds, to try and see where the sun was setting; and every morning he did the same to see where the sun rose, so they knew they couldn't be too far off the mark. Their itinerary had been made to bring them through several former villages, which were to serve both as places to rest and as landmarks. They reached every one of them, one by one—and yet they weren't completely reassured.

In order to stave off their doubts and the dark thoughts that came with them, they talked, exchanging stories of their lives. Tony told the princess about growing up in the castle with his automatons and about the faraway lands Enthortainer mentioned in his tales sometimes. The princess spoke of her kingdom, of her childhood there, of her people and travels. Ever since she'd turned fifteen she'd spent a lot of time on the road, getting to know the land she'd rule over one day, learning and helping.

She was every bit the kind of princess whom Enthortainer always talked about and whom Tony had thought was nothing but naive fiction. She was smart, and strong, and chivalrous, and beautiful to boot. It was almost distressing, and most certainly intimidating.

Little did he know, the princess was quite admiring of him too. She was impressed by his intelligence, his curiosity, his ingenuity, by the fact that he didn't realize how exceptional they were. She liked his generosity too, shown by the way he'd welcomed her, the care he had for his friends, the decision he'd made to help her without asking for anything in return.

And so they traveled on, both increasingly pleased with their travelling companion. It made up some for the length of the road, the dark clouds rolling overhead, the grey uniformity of the landscape—an unbroken, ashy plain scattered with stone debris, the remains of what had once been a luxurious forest: a dour picture that could only elicit despair.

Their conversation had petered out one day, and Tony had fallen deep into sombre thoughts as he painstakingly chewed on a few small pieces of stale bread when he suddenly realized what his distracted gaze had come to rest upon: a small dash of color trembling against the wind that swept through the land unhindered. Frowning, he stood up to go closer. While he'd quickly understood what it was, he still had to crouch down and touch it to believe it: a small yet hardy dandelion, growing and blooming, defiant against the gray earth and sky. A sign that the curse was weakening. That they were nearing the edge of the territory through which it had spread.

Heartened by that thought, they finished their frugal lunch and set off again. Over the next hours, they saw further signs that they were slowly but surely leaving the curse behind: more flowers, a few blades of grass peeking through the layer of ash, a cluster of bushes… A tree. And then animal life. Insects—flies, a beetle, a butterfly, a bee—then the first bird that didn't try to attack them on sight. The first hare, the first deer who fled at their approach instead of charging them, ready to kick, to bite, to maim. To Tony, it was almost disturbing. Plants he'd gotten used to, thanks to Stoven, insects he'd seen in the gardens, but nothing bigger. By the time he started getting used to it, all signs of the curse had disappeared. With them went his last fear, the one he hadn't dared speak out loud: that the curse would follow him, would cling to his steps and spread to the princess' kingdom too.

It hadn't. For the first time in over a decade Tony was standing on uncursed land. He'd had a glimpse of what that might be like thanks for Stoven's garden, but not out in the open, not on such a scale, not as far as the eye could see. It was almost overwhelming. When Samtry came down from the sky to settle on his fist, then his shoulder, he was grateful for his presence, his familiar weight, and for the confirmation that constant vigilance wasn't needed anymore.

They'd made it. Tony couldn't quite believe it.

The princess wasn't very familiar with the region. Over the years, her people had moved away from the border, leery of the curse, and so she'd stayed away too. They kept to their planned itinerary for now. It led them through a forest, which Tony crossed with his nose in the air, gaping at the trees overhead. At their size, at their presence, at the life in and around them, at the noise of it all. He tripped more than once, almost broke his neck at one point, but he couldn't stop, not even when Samtry irritatedly tugged at his hair with his beak, entreating him to be more careful.

Tony felt like they never would, but they reached the edge of the trees eventually, after a few more days. Suddenly the view opened wide in front of them, onto a hilly stretch of land. A merry stream ran through it and on its banks lay a small village. A village that the princess knew.

"We made it," she whispered, like she still hadn't believed they would. Then she said it again, louder, brighter, "We made it!" and whirled to throw her arms around Tony. Unused to being hugged, he froze, and only remembered one was supposed to hug back once she withdrew. She didn't seem to mind, or even to notice: already she was setting off towards the cluster of houses, her stride long and supple, energetic and eager like all the exhaustion from their weeks of travel had vanished. Tony wasn't so lucky. He still hurt everywhere, especially on his feet, where several of his blisters kept tearing. Yet he followed. He was slower, almost limping, but he did.

Most of the villagers were working in the fields, gathering the wheat and tying it in bundles after it had been scythed. They stopped at Tony and the princess's approach, squinting at them distrustfully, until one woman blinked and said, "Princess Virginia?"

The princess smiled and replied, "Yes, good day. Sorry to arrive this way, completely unannounced—" But already the word was spreading—It's the princess, it's the princess, the princess is here—and more people were straightening up from their work, were coming closer, hurrying over to see for themselves if what they'd heard was true. They were converging, and soon had surrounded Tony and the princess completely.

Tony felt his throat tighten. His heartbeat picked up. His breathing—

On his shoulder, Samtry's claws tightened, then shifted. His wing bumped against Tony's cheek. Tony breathed out. Samtry's claws relaxed. He breathed in. Then out. In. Out.

Eventually, most of the panic had passed, and he could focus back on the scene around him. Mostly, the people were expressing their relief. "We heard you were gone," a man was saying.

"Captured," another added.

"Maybe even dead," a woman butted in.

The one beside her nodded. "We feared the worst."

"I know," the princess replied. A couple of children had gathered in front of her and were reaching out, wanting to hold her hand or her wrist, asking why she was wearing man's clothes and whether they could see her sword. She dealt with it gracefully, giving them just the right amount of attention to keep them reasonably quiet while pursuing her conversation with the adults. Tony for his part watched all of it unfold with faint alarm and felt very grateful that people scarcely seemed to notice him. The few who did contented themselves with throwing him a couple of curious glances, half of which were actually directed at Samtry, who was still perched on Tony's shoulder. Therefore Tony quaked internally when the princess, having started to explain what had happened, chose to say, "It might've come to the worst, if it weren't for Prince Stark," and threw him a smile.

That brought nearly every single pair of eyes on him. He froze. Wondered if he should wave. Couldn't.

"He helped me escape and disband my captors," the princess went on, "then he escorted me all the way back through the cursed kingdom."

"I thought no one could get in or out of that place," the woman who'd first recognized her said.

"That's what I thought too," the princess replied. "Yet the brigands had no problem crossing the border, and neither did we, coming from the opposite direction.

"Wait," someone suddenly said. "Prince Stark. You mean, Lady Stark's son?"

Tony stared at him. The princess smiled again. "Yes, exactly."

Everyone looked at him again after that, and even though part of him was glad to know that people still remembered his mother after so many years—maybe some had even been her subjects—he could've done very well without all the attention. They looked happy, though. They were happy, told him so repeatedly. It was all, "You're looking well, my Lord," and "You're all grown up now!" and "It's such an honor to finally meet you," and "We were so afraid you were dead," and "Lady Stark will be so glad, she was so worried," which confused him a bit, but by then the kids who'd been pawing at the princess had caught sight of Samtry and started getting curious about him too.

"Is that a hawk?" one asked.

"He's so pretty!" another exclaimed, to which Samtry preened, pretty obviously. He didn't talk, though. He and Tony had agreed that it would be best for him not to.

"Did you make him that armor yourself?" a man asked.

"I did," Tony finally managed to reply, realizing as he did that an armor was as good an explanation as any for Samtry's metal…everything.

"Isn't that too heavy for him?" a woman asked dubiously.

"He's used to it," Tony replied quickly, "and he's very strong."

"Can I pet him?" a little girl asked.

Tony glanced at Samtry, who nodded imperceptibly, then agreed. "Be careful not to get your fingers stuck between the plates," he said while transferring Samtry from his shoulder to his fist so he could hold him out. The little girl reached out a hand and stroked him gently, as if afraid to hurt him. It was, Tony had to admit, quite adorable.

Meanwhile, the princess had started making arrangements with the rest of the villagers to have her father informed of her return as quickly as possible. Once a messenger had taken off, they offered her a room and a meal at the inn so she and her companion could rest for a bit before they continued on their journey. She accepted gratefully and turned to get Tony's attention—and paused at the scene in front of her. The prince was bending forward slightly, holding out his hand with his falcon on it for a little girl to pet. The child's mother stood close by, ready to tug her backwards if the bird gave the slightest sign of growing agitated. But he wouldn't. He was no mere animal, he was smart and careful and seemed to be enjoying the attention. The girl did too: she was smiling widely, as was Tony. It was a beautiful moment, one the princess was loathe to interrupt. But she also knew how exhausted Tony was, how hurt, after such a long journey. So she called his name, and he straightened up, and the scene was over.

The villagers led them to the inn, although a fair number of them returned to their work instead now that they'd seen what all the fuss was about. In the inn, they got a meal. Tony took the bread and broth and ale and a few bites of the cheese but stayed well away from the milk and meat, which was just as well: as much as they wanted to honor their princess and her companions, the villagers didn't have much and deserved to keep what supplies they could for themselves. Still, the princess didn't turn them down when they offered to pack up some food for the next few days of their journey. They would've had her stay, but she'd decided to go meet whoever the king sent to fetch them once he learned of their return instead.

So travel on they did. However, news traveled fasted than them. The people of the next village were already aware of their upcoming arrival, as were those of the next, and after that a small lord came to meet them and invite them to spend the night at his castle. In the morning, he lent them two of his best horses, accompanied by a handmaiden, a manservant, a few guards and even the company of his own son to escort them. The princess accepted all of it—to her it was normal, it was her due—and that's how Tony ended up perched on a horse, acutely aware of how little he remembered the riding lessons of his childhood.

Fortunately, the princess had foreseen at least that and had asked for the most gentle and docile mare in the lord's stables. Said mare didn't even need to be steered. She simply followed the example of the stallion the princess herself was riding, walking when he walked, turning when he turned, stopping when he stopped.

Unfortunately, it didn't change the fact that Tony's behind was as unused to traveling in the saddle as his feet had been in boots. Soon he developed aches, abrasions and blisters in places he'd never considered before. The princess, of course, had no such issues. She was just glad for how much quicker their progress was now.

As they ventured deeper into her kingdom, the rumor of their return kept preceding them. It also kept growing, and evolving. At first it was quite close to the truth, tales of the princess' capture and of how the Stark prince had helped her escape. But with each village, his contribution to that fight appeared more daring, more heroic. There hadn't been five brigands, but ten, fifty, a hundred. He'd still defeated them, and single-handedly at that. It hadn't been brigands at all, but a dragon which had wanted to turn the Stark castle into its lair. The prince had slain it all the same.

Then a switch occurred. It wasn't the Stark prince who'd defeated the dragon, but the princess. Of course she had: she was so strong and talented and true. She'd been looking for more heroic deeds to prove herself, and so had done what no one else had ever dared to attempt. She'd entered the cursed kingdom, of her own volition, and rescued the cursed prince. The whole tale about brigands kidnapping her was nothing but a misunderstanding. There was just no way the princess had been defeated and taken by a bunch of lawless amateurs. No, she'd gone on a heroic quest, and slain the dragon that kept the poor prince prisoner, and brought the—very grateful and definitely besotted—prince back home with her.

By then it was becoming difficult for Samtry not to laugh out loud, especially since, of all the automatons, he was the one who came the closest to a 'dragon'. The princess was amused, but also a bit apologetic at the truth being distorted that way. Tony didn't mind. Or rather, he wouldn't have minded, if not for the fact that half the people seemed to expect nuptials the second he and the princess reached her father's castle. They kept congratulating her on her engagement.

The other half kept repeating how happy and grateful Lady Stark would be, which confused him more and more. While he enjoyed his mother being remembered, he was surprised that her memory would've persisted so strongly and for that long, especially amongst people who wouldn't have known her as a ruler.

He didn't understand it until they reached the last third of their journey through the Fenix kingdom and the guard they'd sent forward to inform the lord of the land of their passing through returned on a fresh horse with the news that the king himself had ridden to meet them and was waiting for them at the baron's estate. When they reached it and were led into the courtyard, the kind was there indeed, standing on top of the short flight of stairs leading to the castle's gates. Beside him were the baron, his wife, and another woman—a woman Tony was astonished to recognize as his mother. She was changed, of course, aged, but he knew her at once. As did she him. She gasped and started down the stairs at once, uncaring about ceremony. He let out a cry and climbed down the saddle—or, he tried to, but his foot got tangled in one of the stirrups. He stumbled as he tugged himself free, and would've fallen over, except that his mother was already there, drawing him into her arms. This time he returned the embrace at once.

It took them a long time to part. Meanwhile the king had greeted his daughter, a lot less demonstratively but with as much warmth and relief. The baron invited everyone to go inside, where it became clear that the celebrations would wait. The king wanted a private audience with the princess, to find out what had happened. As for Tony, he was shown into one of the guest apartments, his mother never leaving his side, never letting go of his hand.

"You're alive," he said finally, once they were alone. He still couldn't believe it, kept starting at her face, almost expecting to suddenly see a stranger looking back. But it never was. "How?"

"It'll sound laughable when I tell you," the former queen replied. "To put it simply, I got lost. I'd ventured far enough that the castle was out of sight. When monsters attacked me on my way back—I dispatched them easily," she added quickly when she felt Tony's hand tighten around her in distress, "but afterwards I couldn't remember which way I'd been going. I chose a direction I wagered was the right one. But I was wrong." She paused. "I reached the border entirely by chance, after weeks of aimless wandering. The supplies I'd managed to gather in the village were gone. I'd run out of water the day before. Villagers found me. I don't know what would have become of me if they hadn't."

Tony pressed her hand again. In the years she'd been gone, he'd had only too much time to picture what might've happened to her.

"After a few day of recovery I wanted to go back to you. I swear to you I tried," she insisted, "but I couldn't. The villagers warned me: anyone who tried to get in would get turned around and find themselves back where they'd set off—and I did. Every time, I did. Then one day, upon my return from yet another failed attempt, an escort was waiting for me. I was told that the king had been informed of my presence and wanted me to come to him, where I would be comfortable and safe. Our fathers had been allies and good friends, you see. I couldn't refuse him." She looked down. "For that, I'm sorry. Over the years I attempted the journey a few more times, always without success. I thought it couldn't be done. But now I know that it can. I simply should have tried harder."

"No," Tony said at once. "No, I wouldn't have wanted to you. Had I known, I would've wanted you to be safe first and foremost—like you'd want me to be."

"But that's just the thing," the former queen said. "You weren't safe. You were a child, and you were on your own." Her mouth trembled. "And I left you there. I even started to believe—after so many years, I started to believe that there was nothing I could do, that even if I succeeded in reaching the castle it would all be for naught. That you were already gone. I gave up." She sniffled and wiped at her eyes.

"But I wasn't gone," Tony protested, alarmed by her tears. "I was safe inside the castle, I was okay. I am okay. I lived."

"You did," the former queen said, and under her tears her face bloomed into a smile. "I don't even know how—oh, do tell me. Enough about me, tell me everything, tell me how you've lived all these years."

Tony privately thought that he hadn't heard nearly enough about her doings over the years they'd been apart, but he couldn't refuse her anything either. He smiled. "Do you remember Jarvis?"

"Jarvis!" the former queen exclaimed. "I do—he took such good care of you. Is he still—" She realized she wasn't sure what word applied. "Is he still with you?"

"He is, and he isn't the only one anymore."

He reminded her of Stoven, told her how he'd been able to do everything Tony had expected him to. He told her about Breezer and Bartonder, about Lightning Rhodey and Enthortainer, about Bucket, about Black Window, about Samtry.

"He's the last one I made," he explained, holding out his hand onto which Samtry had hopped for the former queen to better see him. Samtry bowed his head respectfully.

"Tony, he's beautiful," she said, staring at the fine metal slides shaping his feathers, the smooth movement of his head, the glow shining from his eyes. "Did you really make him?" Tony nodded. "You've made so much progress. I thought it was a live bird."

"He's so much more than a bird," Tony said, preening about as much as Samtry was. "It's thanks to him that Princess Virginia and I were able to make our way here without getting lost or killed."

"Clever bird," the former queen cooed, and ran the back of her knuckles against Samtry's folded wing in a gentle caress. Samtry bumped his head against them in return.

"With their help, I never wanted for anything," Tony reassured her. "Not even company. I swear it, Mother. I was okay. I was more than okay."

"I'm glad," she said. She had to hug him again. Again, he hugged back. "I'm so glad."

"But what about you?" Tony asked. "What have you been up to for all these years? Surely they weren't all spent trying to get back to me." He hoped not. He hoped that despite their parting she'd managed to find joy in other things too, a purpose. Especially since, "Everywhere we went, everyone seemed to know you."

"I expect they do," the former queen replied, and explained how she'd repaid the king's hospitality by helping his wife and daughter in all their tasks. A lot of it had been about taking care of the poor, crisscrossing the country to make sure that everyone had enough to live through the harsh season, traveling to the site of disasters to provide assistance. Near the northern borders a lot of the people were refugees from the Stark kingdom. They'd had to be housed and fed, to be given work, to be relocated sometimes. Entire villages and towns had appeared within a scant few years, and often mediation had been necessary so that the previous inhabitants would be welcoming rather than distrustful.

Tony listened with a smile. He could've done so for hours without tiring. However, his manservant—the very one who'd been appointed to him by the lordling who'd first welcomed them near the border and who still hadn't left—soon came to the door to inform them that a celebratory meal was going to be served and that he was here to help the Stark prince bathe and change. So the former queen left, smiling as she went at her son's protests that he didn't need help, he knew how to wash and dress himself, thank you very much.

By the time he came down to the dining hall, he'd been thoroughly scrubbed. The servant had been only slightly gentler about it than Bucket had been, back when Tony had been young enough to still need some assistance.

He'd quickly grown out of it.

The clothes he was wearing were the newest and the finest he'd ever put on, a generous loan from their host. The baron had also made sure that the dinner he offered was worthy of his king and princess—not that the king noticed. He was much too distracted listening to his daughter, watching her and convincing himself of her safe return. Tony was much the same. He asked for nothing more than hearing stories about his mother's everyday life, although he agreed to share some anecdotes from his own.

It may have been better for him to pay the slightest bit of attention to what the servants put on his plate and what he himself put in his mouth, though. A lot of it was meat, fine cuts of beef, poultry, and game, of which he hadn't eaten a bite in over ten years. As a consequence, he was sick as a dog for the entirety of the ensuing night and could only swallow the tiniest cup of vegetable broth, accompanied by the driest of breads the following morning.

He'd missed Stoven's cooking before, but never with this much intensity.

Time didn't allow for much regrets, though. The king had prepared for them to depart within a couple of days, which they did with great ceremony. Queasy and weak as he still felt after his indigestion, Tony went along, helped by Samtry and his mother and even the princess, who rode over from time to time to make sure that everything was okay. At least he could rejoice in being rid of his manservant, since the man had finally left to return to his true master, along with the lord's son, the guards and the handmaiden.

Compared to what they'd endured before, that last part of the journey felt almost easy. Soon they reached the royal castle, where an even grander celebration for the princess's return was to be held. Before that, though, the king unleashed his wrath at one of his counselors, Lord Killian, who it turned out had been the one who'd arranged for the princess to be captured. He hadn't been liking the growing interest she'd been taking in the running of the kingdom, even less so since she'd made it clear how little she trusted his advice or would be willing to take it into account in the future. Before the day was through, the man had been banished from the land, the king making such a scene of that declaration that there wouldn't be one person left in the country who hadn't heard of it by the end of the week. Killian, understanding what was best for him if he valued his life, left without much protest and with the very few servants who were still willing to follow him.

The king also scolded his court sorcerer for not having seen such a betrayal coming and not warning him.

"My talent is not in prophecies," the sorcerer retorted stiffly. Yet beyond the insulting implication that he might be nothing but a seer, he didn't seem to care much for the king's disapproval. He was a lot more interested in Tony—and Samtry.

"You're very generous with your heart, Prince Stark," he said, reaching out a finger as if to poke the automaton in the chest. He stopped when Samtry made to stab it with his beak, and smiled.

"And who are you?" Tony asked, drawing Samtry closer to his chest so the automaton could return to his shoulder.

"People call me Strange," the sorcerer replied. Both Tony and Samtry found the name profoundly apt. The sorcerer unnerved them, a feeling that only worsened when he added, "I see what Wanda meant. You do have a rare gift. How fortunate that you instinctively found a way to channel it. If not, it would've blown up right in your face."

"Who's Wanda?" Tony asked, now with a scowl.

The sorcerer didn't reply. Enigmatic smile still on his lips, he turned away and slowly walked back to his liege.

"Don't mind him," Lady Stark said, coming up to his side. "He has his ways."

"That was still rude," Samtry muttered, so low that only Tony caught it. In that second he was so glad for the automaton's presence: at least one person who shared his views of the strange world he was being thrown into, a world that kept growing bigger, more crowded, overwhelming. He would've done very well without another banquet, for instance, would've appreciated a few days to rest now that the journey was over, maybe even a week. He would've loved some time, not only for his various wounds to heal and aches to fade, but also to get used to his new environment. This place was so dynamic and full of life, even more so than the villages and towns and castles they'd stopped by and traveled through. Even in the rooms he'd been given, even with the doors and windows closed, he could hear the hustle and bustle of the castle and the town around it. There was just no escaping it.

It only occurred to him now how dark, how silent, how hollow the royal castle back home had been. It had never felt that way—not with Lightning Rhodey lighting his way, not with Enthortainer's voice echoing down the halls, not with all the automatons coming and going in the few rooms he used: his bedroom, the laboratory, the library, the kitchens. It had never felt that way, but he knew that's what everyone would think of it. Even his mother, who knew Jarvis, who could picture all the others better than anyone. He could see it in her eyes, in the sad looks she gave him when she thought he wouldn't notice.

Right now, though, she was already putting the whole incident with the sorcerer behind her and encouraging him to follow her to the dining hall, where he was introduced to the queen—the princess's mother!—and seated across from her and the rest of the royal family. The seat of Counselor Killian had been left conspicuously empty, a silent message, a warning.

No one seemed to care much. For now, the hour was to rejoicing. There were a few speeches, a few toasts to the princess's health and in honor of her rescuer—Lady Stark beamed at her son, who mostly felt like disappearing underneath his seat. Then the food was brought to the tables. As promised, the dishes were even grander than whatever the poor baron would've been able to offer. There was deer and boar and hare, pheasant, dozens of kinds of fish. A pig had been slaughtered for the occasion, as well as a calf and more than a few cocks.

Faced with such a spread, Tony felt queasy all over again. "Um," he said, before turning to the servant currently pouring him a glass of wine, "would you happen to have lentils?"

Lentils, however, weren't on the menu. Tony had to make do with bread and eating the vegetables around the meat. He tried to make up for his lack of enjoyment of the meal—which, he knew, could've been perceived by the king as a slight—by drinking a lot of wine. By the end of the evening, he was quite tipsy and needed Samtry to guide him back to his room. If not for the automaton, he probably would've gotten turned around and ended up sleeping in the stables.

"I hope I didn't make a fool of myself in front of the princess," he said, muffled by the bed's coverlet, on which he'd collapsed face first once he'd reached the apartment. Samtry wisely didn't comment. Instead, with a lot of pestering, he managed to get Tony to take off his boots. He gave up on the rest. When they'd arrived here, Tony had been given another manservant by the king, to which he'd reacted by giving the man the evening off whenever he remembered to. As a consequence, there was currently no one around to help Samtry get him out of his clothes. Not that it mattered: within seconds Tony was out like a light, and quite unable to care.

He was frightfully hungover the next morning. Worse, his brand new manservant—a tall round man who never looked near as 'happy' as his name would've led one to expect—was back at his post, looking fresh as a daisy despite his night out. Tony would've preferred to suffer alone, or with no one but Samtry as a witness, who had seen him in much worse states over the years. It wasn't to be, though, and he had to bear being scrubbed, dressed and fed by Happy through a pounding headache.

His day looked up shortly thereafter, when a maid came by carrying the message that Princess Virginia was offering to take Tony on a tour of the castle. Apparently, whatever way he'd behaved the night before hadn't been enough to repel her. Lady Stark would of course be in the party.

That morning—minus the hangover—set the tone for the next couple of weeks. Aside from a few interviews with the king and queen, Tony spent most of his time with his mother and the princess, discovering first the castle, then the town around it, then the surrounding land and villages. They went on horseback. He was learning how to stay in the saddle even when the horse did something unexpected, even succeeded in directing it from time to time. In the evenings or when the weather was bad, they played card games—he already knew a fair few thanks to Enthortainer—or listened to minstrels and musicians. A few times they went on hunts, although Tony's contribution was limited to holding the princess's arrows and trying to prevent his mount from stepping on the dogs.

All in all, he was having a jolly good time. He was even getting used to being around people, although the fact that one of them was his mother and another one the princess helped a lot. He would've been perfectly happy, if not for how much he also missed home. He missed its quiet, its familiarity, the specific kind of freedom living there had entailed. Most of all, he missed the people he'd shared his life with. Worse, he worried about them.

Samtry did too. As the days went by, he increasingly declined going with Tony on his various outings, preferring to stay in their apartment where he wouldn't be stared at. The way people reacted to him had quickly ceased to be flattering. How could it be, when most of them treated him like an animal? They tried to feed him and grew vexed when he wouldn't eat the pieces of raw meat they held out to him. They tried to touch him without asking and complained when jerked away. They talked about him like he wasn't right there, like he couldn't understand everything they said. But then, they didn't know he could. He still didn't talk in their presence. That's what going outside with Tony meant too: he always had to be careful not to be caught emitting sounds a falcon wouldn't.

So instead he stayed in the guest apartments. Sometimes he would go on a short flight on his own. Mostly he would perch on the balcony, facing the direction in which the Stark kingdom lay, miles and miles away. He'd stay there for hours, a silent vigil. He moved so little that he resembled the stone on which he sat. More than once, when Tony returned, he found Samtry so still that he grew afraid that he'd never move again, that maybe he couldn't. But Samtry always turned his head the second the door closed, shook his feathers, asked how Tony's day had been.

Tony had wondered if he should apologize, at first. He'd wondered if Samtry was angry at him, vexed at being sidelined in favor of Lady Stark and the princess, of the many activities they invited him on. All of them left Tony so exhausted, so drained from so much socializing that he wasn't even good company in the evenings. But at the same time, Tony couldn't pass up even a second spent with his mother, not after all the years he'd lived believing he'd lost her forever. And he was reluctant to turn down the princess, for fear of hurting her, yes, but also because he enjoyed her company so much. They got along marvelously well. She was so smart, and nice, and gifted—and yes, pretty.

Samtry hadn't wanted any apology, though. He wasn't angry. He was just worried—and he missed the Stark castle and its inhabitants even more than Tony did. Sure, he enjoyed being in a country of plenty, flying over fertile field and thick forests, over clear streams and vibrantly green meadows, over lively villages and busy roads. He liked Lady Stark and the princess, who always listened to him and treated him as an equal whenever they were alone in a room and he could speak. But he wasn't like them. Here, he wasn't like anyone else. He didn't begrudge Tony the time he spent with his mother or with the princess. But with Tony so distracted and busy, he was deprived of the only piece of normalcy he had left.

He missed his companions. He wanted to go home.

Tony understood that. Part of him wanted to go home too. He remembered the promise he'd made when he'd left, to return as soon as he could. Yet now the princess was safe, had been safe for weeks, and he hadn't done so. The thought plagued him, and not only out of duty. He missed the other automatons too. He missed Jarvis waking him up in the mornings. He missed Breezer's easy fretting. He missed Black Window's habit of crawling up his leg when he least expected it to try and make him scream. He missed Enthortainer's tales and his dragging him up and down the castle's stairs for some exercise, laughing at Tony's complaints. He missed poring over his latest project with Bartonder and Lightning Rhodey. He missed Stoven's cooking—especially since the meals that came out of the royal kitchens still didn't agree with him. Hell, he even missed having to try and prevent Bucket from bothering him. Who knew what the automaton might've gotten up to in Tony's absence. Tony had to go back.

But at the same time, he didn't want to leave his mother. And he didn't want to force her to return with him to the castle either. By now even he could now admit that life was frugal, especially compared to life in the Fenix kingdom. His companions helped a lot, but they could only do so much. He was fine with that. His mother, however, needed—deserved—more.

If he was being honest, he didn't want to leave the princess either.

He didn't know what to do.

 

-

 

Things came to a head one morning. He was taking a stroll through the royal gardens in the company of his mother and the princess—one of his favorite activities given that, unlike musical evenings or rides around the land, the amount of people with whom he had to interact stayed limited. Sometimes he could even convince Samtry to come with them: the gardens reminded them both of Stoven's work back home. That morning, however, Samtry had preferred to stay where he'd been, perched on the balcony. So it was just Tony, his mother and the princess. Although now Lady Stark had stopped to talk with the gardener about something or other, so it was more just Tony and the princess. Instead of waiting for Lady Stark to be done, she slid her arm into his and walked on until they'd rounded the next bend in the path.

"Um," Tony said, glancing back. They were now out of sight from both his mother and the gardener.

"It's okay," the princess told him. "I just wish to talk to you about something."

She was strangely tense, and so Tony let himself be guided to a bench without further protest. They sat down.

"Okay," the princess said. "Prince Stark." She looked him in the eye.

"That's me," Tony quipped. Her behavior was making him nervous.

"We haven't known each other very long," she said, "but the time we've spent together has been very pleasant. More than pleasant. Especially since we've arrived here."

"The lack of monsters has been a definite plus, yes," Tony said.

She nodded. "Definitely. And I greatly enjoy your company."

"Oh, um," Tony said, caught off-guard by her openness, "I do too."

"I would like all this to go on," the princess went on. "I'd like to get to know you better."

"I'd like that too," Tony replied, more easily. He was quite getting into this whole honesty thing.

The princess, however, looked pained. He almost grew worried—had he said something wrong?—but instead she took a breath, then took his hand. "Prince Stark," she said, then amended herself, "Tony. I want us to start courting."

Tony froze, at her use of his first name as much as the statement that had followed. "Um," he said again, "courting?"

"Yes, courting. Seeing each other, with intent—with, if we keep liking each other, the prospect of marriage."

"I know what courting is," Tony said. Enthortainer had told him all about it. Still, something like a shiver had run up his spine at the word: marriage. "I just. I didn't think. You'd want that. With, um. With me."

The princess relaxed slightly. "Well, I do," she said. "What about you?"

Tony blinked. "Me?"

"Do you want that with me?"

Tony opened his mouth to say, Of course I do, but then he paused. He was smart: he realized at once what it would all mean. Courting. Marrying. Here.

He closed his mouth. Swallowed. "Okay, I want to say—the answer is yes. I do want that, with you, I do." He swallowed again. "One hundred percent, I want to say. Except."

"Except?" the princess prompted.

"Except that I can't stay," he said, throat tightening. "I have to go back."

"Go back where?"

"You know where. I have to go home—go back to Stark Castle," he explained. "I told everyone I'd return. I promised. You know that, you were there."

"I was," the princess replied slowly.

Tony tried to explain further. "It's just, they've been here for me my whole life. It's thanks to them that I have a life. I can't just leave them there."

"Of course you can't," the princess said at once. Like she agreed completely. Like she understood, like it was obvious to her too. There was no Who cares about them? There was no But they're not even human. There wasn't even a You made them in the first place, you owe them nothing. Tony stared at her, heart in his throat, and knew: he didn't just like her. He loved her.

"Do you want to go back, though?" the princess asked. "If they weren't there, would you want to return anyway?"

Tony was a bit confused. "I mean, I won't deny that I miss the peace and quiet from time to time. Nothing exciting or dangerous or unexpected ever happened until you came." They exchanged a brief smile. "But no. If they weren't there—I only want to go back for them."

"Then there's no problem," the princess said, straightening up.

"There isn't?"

"No." She smiled. "All we need to do is go fetch them."

"Um," Tony said. "What?"

"We are the proof that people can both enter the kingdom and come back out of it alive. We can do it again, and bring your friends back with us. I'll ask Father—we'll take a cart, to carry those who can't easily walk. Some soldiers will accompany us to help us draw it and protect everyone. I'm sure it can work."

Tony stared again. "But it's such a long journey," he finally said. "Especially on foot. Especially if we take them with us." Black Window and Lightning Rhodey would be easy enough to carry, small as they were. Enthortainer could walk and run. But the others… Breezer, Bartonder and Bucket wouldn't roll very well on uneven, ashy ground. As for Jarvis and Stoven…

"It doesn't matter," the princess said. "What matters is, if we do this. If bring them home with us. Will you say yes, then? One hundred percent?"

"Yes to what?" Tony asked.

She almost rolled her eyes. "To courting."

"Oh." He'd almost forgotten about that. And he realized: she was ready to do all this, just for the chance to see whether they could make a life together. At this point, he had no doubt they could. "Yes," he said, then repeated, "Yes. One hundred—actually, three thousand percent."

The princess smiled.

 

-

 

With that plan in mind, they went to the king. He wasn't surprised at his daughter proclaiming their intent to court. She'd already broached the subject with him in private, and obtained his approval. It hadn't been difficult: Tony was of noble descent and the son of a woman both he and his wife considered a close friend. No, what made his eyebrow twitch was the clause that came with it, the mention of another expedition to the cursed kingdom. Especially to retrieve some 'friends' which, as far as he understood, weren't even human.

"That doesn't mean they're any less alive, or sentient, sire," the court sorcerer interjected, an unexpected show of support.

Between that and the glimmer he could see in his daughter's eye, the king finally gave in. He knew that look on her face. The one that said she'd made her decision and would implement it no matter what. All he could do was ensure she wouldn't do it alone, and select a troop of his best soldiers to accompany her. It was that, or risk her sneaking out in the middle of the night. Again.

Plus, part of him remained quite convinced that the whole enterprise would fail. That the brigands managing to cross the border had been a fluke, or the result of a trick by the sorcerer among them who'd known to use the enchanted cuffs his daughter had told him about. That they wouldn't be able to penetrate the realm, as Lady Stark had experienced so many times.

Speaking of Lady Stark, she insisted on coming along. Despite her son's many protests, despite the fact that they'd travel half the way on foot, would have to fight and carry all their supplies themselves, she would not be deterred. Besides, even though she now lacked a kingdom, she was still a queen: no one could stop her, really.

No one had been surprised by her decision either. More unexpected was Happy's determination to do the same. Everyone tried to convince him to stay, but he stood fast in his resolution. He'd really taken to his new master—and not only because of the many evenings off that came with the position.

Within two weeks they were ready to depart. Samtry almost trembled with eagerness as he perched on Tony's shoulder, a feeling Tony shared. His mother and the princess, for their part, were full of determination. Happy and the soldiers were more apprehensive, but they hid it well. Besides, the first part of the journey was easy. They travelled on horseback and replenished their supplies at every town or village until they reached the one in which Tony and the princess had first arrived after entering the Fenix kingdom. Upon seeing them, the people were confused, a bit worried, but soon appeased when they heard that this was just a short expedition to go fetch some of Prince Stark's friends. Things had been quiet these past few months, they said. No monster had strayed all the way into their fields, which sometimes happened. No storm had rolled in.

Still, the company grew more tense as it approached the border. Tony especially couldn't help but wonder. What if the king had been right and they couldn't get in anymore? What if they could get in, but got lost on their way to the castle, and couldn't make their way back? What if they did find the castle, but found it in ruins, having been overrun by monsters or destroyed by a storm? What if they found it intact but all his companions were dead, reduced to scrap metal, because they'd needed his presence to be alive?

Seeing those thoughts darkening his brow and eyes, Samtry tried to reassure him. He was more trusting than Tony was in their friends' abilities. Plus, it was no use imagining the worst. All they could and therefore should do was focus on the task ahead. He was almost eager for the border to come, for the vegetation to disappear, for the ash to replace it. He wanted to unfold his wings and fly again for longer than a couple hours at a time, he wanted to have a mission once more, he wanted to fulfill it and feel useful again.

They'd hoped to reach said border before the night, but by the time the sun set they were still surrounded by greenery. The trees had given way to bushes, which themselves had grown scarce, but the grass was still present, luxuriant, interspersed with a riot of flowers—even more than was usual in this season. Not a speck of ash could be found between the blades, not a single cloud could be glimpsed in the darkening sky. The stars appeared one by one and the moon rose, all confirming that they'd been going in the right direction.

They just assumed that their days of traveling on horses—which they'd had to leave behind at the village with some stores of grain—had skewed their perception of the distances they could cover within a day, especially with the cart that they now had to draw themselves. When the following day dawned, they moved on.

They expected the grass to finally grow sparse, stunted, to get choked under a layer of ash. It didn't. They expected a storm to roll in. It didn't either. The sun rose bright in the clear sky, showing them which way to go.

They were confused. They should've reached the border by now. Or, if they'd gotten turned around, they should already have been back at their starting point—or so Lady Stark said, based on her experience. Instead, they kept walking through tall grass interspersed with flowers, where even a few insects were buzzing. When the day came to an end they reached the ruins of a village. Samtry, Tony and the princess all recognized it—and not. It had been the last cluster of houses they'd gone through before the Fenix kingdom. But when they'd been there, it had been drowning in ashes, squatting fearfully under the rolling clouds. Now, both clouds and ashes were gone, replaced by tall green stems, flowers, cereals, even some moss.

They stared at the greenery for a long time before setting up camp, as had been the plan. It was undoubtedly the same place. Except that all signs of the curse were gone.

No one dared say what it might mean.

They traveled on. They reached every stream where they'd expected to find them, except that now their waters ran clear instead of grey. They caught sight of animals in the far distance, but none of them rushed towards them, eager to attack. When Samtry flew out to observe them better, he saw nothing but cows—actual cows, not monsters that had once been cows. Cows and a few horses, some rabbits, once a herd of sheep. All were feasting on the grass. Instead of attacking the travelers, they fled at their approach.

Still, no one said it. Only the guards were growing more relaxed every day. What had felt like a march to the death was turning out to be closer to a week spent on leave, or moving camp during training. They made good headway. Given that no fight occurred to delay them or tire them out, they traveled faster than Tony and the princess had in the other direction. Still, they were all surprised one morning when they reached the top of a hill and saw the silhouette of the Stark castle on the horizon. Between it and them lay a vast plain, covered in grass. Not a speck of ash or stone was to be seen. Overhead the sky curved bright blue, with only a couple of white clouds floating here and there, entirely innocuous.

There was no denying it, then.

"I don't get it," Tony said, staring at his home, which looked nothing like he'd left it.

"I do," Lady Stark said, and finally uttered the words, "You broke the curse."

She was sure of it. She remembered: in the weeks after she'd been taken in by the Potts king, she'd received a visit. The person requesting an audience had been none other than the witch responsible for the curse, who'd heard of her arrival. Lady Stark had long hesitated before granting the meeting. She'd wanted an explanation. And she'd gotten one. The witch had told her everything—about her husband's theft, about his attempt to make up for it, about his refusal to do what it'd take, about how his kingdom had had to pay the price instead. All because he'd been unable to perform one single truly selfless act.

"But you weren't," Lady Stark told her son. "Saving the princess, putting yourself in danger by fighting the brigands and escorting her back home, that was a selfless act. Coming back afterwards, even though it meant leaving her and me, just to fulfill a promise to your companions—that was just as selfless."

"So I did inherit Father's curse," Tony said slowly.

"And you broke it," the princess said. "It's gone, now." Her smile widened. "And now you're bringing an entire kingdom to the table. Father will be very glad he let us go on this adventure, after all."

They travelled onwards. Samtry flew ahead to announce their arrival, but also—and mostly—because he was eager to see his friends, to make sure they were alright. He soon returned with reassuring news: all was well. It was confirmed when they reached the castle. All of Tony's companions were waiting in front of the gates, exactly where he'd last seen them. The only difference was the grass and sunshine surrounding them—and the fact that all of them were wearing a flower crown or garland.

Tony found out the reason for them later. After the long reunion, during which Tony claimed not to have shed any tears, after Happy and the guards had overcome their surprise—because even though they'd been warned by both Princess Virginia and Lady Stark about what they'd find, even though they'd seen and heard Samtry in action during the journey, hearing about it and seeing it were two very different things—after all that, Tony asked about the flowers, and heard all about how the automatons had noticed the changes in the world around them within weeks of Tony's departure. About how Enthortainer had been the first to venture outside the castle walls to see the newly growing grass up close, to touch the recovered earth. About how he'd quickly made a habit of it, and started coming back with armfuls of flowers. Breezer, Bartonder and Bucket helped keep them fresh. Some of them went in vases to decorate the kitchens, corridors, and bedrooms. The rest went to Black Window, who had taken to weaving them. Hence, the crowns.

That wasn't all. After the grass and the flowers, animals had started coming back too. Birds at first, then some chickens, then two cows, a donkey, a horse. With Enthortainer's help, Stoven had managed to catch them and bring them to the old aviary and the old stables—both of which had been cleaned from top to bottom by Bucket just for that purpose.

Speaking of Bucket, he had taken advantage of Tony's absence. But not to annoy Stoven to death. Rather, to move into the kitchen permanently. That's where he returned now whenever he was done with his work, whenever he needed to rest, whenever he had a moment free—which, with Tony gone, had been often. Stoven didn't seem to mind. On the contrary, he always welcomed Bucket eagerly, very clearly perked up whenever the other automaton appeared. He let him snuggle in close whenever he wasn't busy, and let him help whenever he was.

"Yeah," Samtry said. "Should've seen that one coming."

Tony had to admit that he very much hadn't. All these years, and he'd never realized that that was what was going on.

He was outraged.

 

-

 

The disappearance of the curse changed things, though. For one, there was now no need to bring Tony's companions back to the Fenix kingdom, or at least not for now. Returning to the Stark castle and staying there wasn't a condemnation anymore. One could leave whenever one wanted. Communication and regular travel could be reestablished between it and the Fenix kingdom. And if the decision was made to move them, then one could wait until horses could be brought to help with transportation.

Besides, there was a lot of work to be done on the castle. Tony's companions had done their best, but most of it had still been standing empty and unused for years. A lot had to be repaired, or at least restored. The same went for the whole kingdom—especially once people started asking about coming back. Soon after their arrival, the princess had sent two soldiers back to her father to share the good news. They hadn't been able to prevent themselves from sharing it on their way to the royal castle, and so now the entirety of the Fenix kingdom—and some neighboring countries too—already knew that the land of the Starks was recovering its old splendor. King Potts couldn't have been happier, not only for the sake of his friend, Lady Stark, now a true queen once again, but also for his daughter's, whose suitor could now offer both fertile lands and rich mines. But his joy was nothing compared to that of the kingdom's former inhabitants. Soon some were asking whether it'd be safe to return, when they weren't already planning to do so. The first arrivals could be expected any day. The migration would have to be organized, aided, coordinated, so that everyone stayed safe, so that they had food until they could restore their fields, so that they had a roof over their heads until they'd repaired their houses. For that, they'd need a leader. Someone to look to in case problems arose.

Lady Stark—the queen—was more than up for the task. From the moment the curse had befallen them and she'd helped them escape, she'd dreamt of this day: the day on which they could return. She wasn't sure how Tony would react, though. After all, he'd been the actual ruler of the castle, of the kingdom, for over ten years now. Such things were his responsibility now.

Not that he realized it. After his companions, the second thing he'd been happiest to find again was his laboratory, where he now spent all the time he wasn't sleeping or devoting to his mother, the princess or his automatons. That's where the queen found him, once she'd realized the topic had to be broached.

She paused when she reached the door, suddenly reminded of all the times she'd come down there to find her husband, needing to talk about the matters of the kingdom. Only he'd never had the time, never had the patience, had always replied at best with an irritated Just do whatever you want, except it hadn't been about want, it had been about people's lives, which should've been his responsibility, as the heir and king, not hers.

The scene that greeted her wasn't anything like what she expected, though. For one, Tony wasn't alone in his laboratory, but surrounded by Jarvis, Lightning Rhodey and Bartonder as he pored over a sheet of parchment, asking questions to which the automatons replied in beeps and trills. That, and he looked up at once when the queen entered, brightened, gave her his full attention without her needing to ask.

He paled when she told him her thoughts concerning the kingdom, though.

"You want me to rule?" he asked, entirely incredulous. "But." He floundered. "I'm not qualified. Like, at all."

"You can learn," the queen said.

Tony pouted. Ruling might've been the only thing in the world he was absolutely uninterested in learning.

"What about Pepper?" he asked. The princess had insisted he call her by her nickname now that they were officially courting. He'd taken to it like a duck to water. "She knows these things. She's more than qualified. And she's interested by it all. She loves it, even."

"Princess Virginia isn't the heir to this kingdom," the queen pointed out.

Tony flapped a dismissive hand. "That won't matter once we're married."

He realized what he'd said a second later and clammed up. The queen almost smiled. Her son was so transparent: everyone could see how taken in the princess he was. Obviously he already knew that, whenever the courting came to an end, he'd marry her in the blink of an eye, provided she still wanted him. The queen had high hopes that she would. Still, she wouldn't encourage her son to treat it like a done deal—or to unload his responsibilities onto her just like that.

"You need to ask her first," she said, because her husband never had.

"Okay," Tony, and did just that. Fortunately for him, Pepper was more than amenable to the task. After a long discussion on the matter, they came to the agreement that she'd rule the Stark kingdom, which upon her father's death would be fused with the Fenix kingdom. Her father wouldn't be opposed to it: it would mean uniting the two kingdoms under one rule, without need for negotiation or conflict. The people wouldn't mind either. They were used to being ruled by a queen. What's more, they were used to being ruled by a queen who was much better at it than their king, given how neglectful Tony's father had been. Plus, a lot of them—those who had taken refuge in the Fenix kingdom—already knew Pepper and knew how good a ruler she was promising to be. Tony, for his part, was a complete unknown. He'd agreed that he'd contribute, though. He'd keep up to date with what was happening, help Pepper in her decisions, and come up with as many machines and things that could make the people's lives easier as possible.

Both he and Pepper were quite happy with that arrangement. They even sealed it with a kiss.

It was a great kiss. It was a great prefiguration of the happily ever after that was to come.

 

-

 

"There is one thing I don't quite understand, though," Pepper said. They were sitting snuggled together on a bench at the edge of the flower garden, facing the orchard. The trees that Stoven had painstakingly planted and tended for a decade had been bearing fruit for years now, but this time the harvest was particularly plentiful, a beauty to watch and smell, so they'd come out to enjoy it some. Jarvis was close-by, playing chaperone—an excellent chaperone, given that Counselor Stane had been right, all those years ago: he was slow. Slow enough that, if Tony and his fiancée really wanted to, they could hurry and turn around a bend in the path and disappear from his sight for a few precious seconds. They could exchange up to five kisses until he caught up.

It vexed him, though, so Tony and Pepper tried not to abuse it. Much.

Tony was dreamily thinking about that, and so only replied an absent-minded Mh? to Pepper's remark.

She wasn't deterred. "It's to do with the curse," she said. "Obviously it tried to protect people by preventing them from entering the kingdom. But if so, then how come my captors and I could get in?"

"Oh, that's easy," Tony replied distractedly. "Curses want to be broken—or at least this one did. Probably due to who cast it. Except that, with the way things were going, it would never have happened. So when a circumstance presented itself that could've developed into an occasion to change that, it made sure it did. So it let you all through—just on the off chance that I might be better than my father."

"And you were," Pepper said.

A few seconds passed in silence, only by then Tony knew to recognize Pepper's amused stillness, even without seeing her smile.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said. "It's just, for someone who consistently refuses to call himself a sorcerer—even when several confirmed sorcerers have inferred that you are one—you understand awfully well how magic works."

"That's because all that, with the curse, that's not magic," Tony retorted. "It's just logic."

"Logic." Pepper laughed. "Sure." A pause. "And what about that, then? Is that logic too? Or science?"

She gestured at the orchard in front of them. Stoven was slowly making his way through it, closely followed by Bucket. They were picking apples. At every tree Stoven would stop, carefully pluck the ones that were ripe and that he could reach, and put them in the container Bucket eagerly held out for him. It was Bucket's favorite, converted into a fruit basket for the occasion. They were both entirely absorbed. They looked entirely happy.

"That's not logic, no," Tony said. "Actually, it's the furthest thing from logic." He let out a long-suffering sigh. "I believe it's love."

 

-

 

END