There was one tavern in Teufelsburg, and Marica’s family ran it. By all rights, this should have given her wealth and social prestige and dozens of suitors.
Instead, she bussed tables with her family’s servants. The tavern closed on Sundays, but that left six days of the week she spent hefting trays of beer and sausages, dodging drunks and the occasional errant chair, and helping her papa and brothers shove their customers out the door after last call. It was boring and monotonous and didn’t leave much time for dating, which she suspected was the way her parents liked it.
When the Jaegers came in, she refused to let it rattle her. Teufelsburg was a vassal of Mechanicsburg; she had nothing to fear. And besides, there were only two of them. (Okay, one of them was purple which was a bit of a shock, but the other one could’ve been mistaken for a regular man except for the horn curling up from the side of his head. Totally not scary.) She certainly wasn’t watching them warily out of the corner of her eye or anything. Still, when Petru tugged her onto his lap and tousled the blonde curls she’d spent actual effort on that morning, she was startled into a yelp.
“Marica! Did you miss me?”
She stiffened. “I don’t see vhy I should.”
He pouted. If he hadn’t been blatantly drunk, it might even have been cute. “Oh, don’t be like that! You know you’ve alvays had a place in my heart. Come on, why don’t you and I go somevere qvieter…”
Oh, that was entirely too much. Petru might be the mayor’s son, but that didn’t mean she had to put up with that! When she tried to get up, though, his arm tightened around her waist. “Petru, let me go.”
He started to say something, but was cut off as a clawed hand landed on his shoulder. A voice rumbled from behind them, “De lady dozn’t appear to like dot verra much, hey? Mebbe hyu should listen to her.”
Petru’s arm vanished from around her waist as if it had never been there, and she looked up into the face of the Jaeger with the horn. He smiled at her, somehow managing not to bare the fangs she knew lurked behind his lips. “Hey, dere.”
Now that she got a closer look at him, she had to admit he was sort of…cute. His hair needed a comb and possibly soap, but he had a nice smile and the sort of pleasant, open face that would make most people trust him until they spotted the horn. “Thenks.”
And then she stepped away and continued serving her round. By the time she got to the Jaegers, the horned one was leaning back in his chair with his two-toed—and bare—feet on the table. She cleared her throat pointedly at him until he removed them, and then she set their drinks down. “I am Marica. By de vay.”
The horned Jaeger grinned at her. “Ognian, at hyu service. Bot my friends call me Oggie.”
The purple one snorted. “Hiz friends call him ‘hyu eediot,’ usually, vitch Hy tink iz a better name.” As he dodged Oggie’s punch to the side of his head, he added, “Maxim. Iz a pleasure to meet a pretty gurl like hyu.”
The names slotted into the part of her brain reserved for information she was never going to need again. “Yah, it’z nice to meet you too.”
But then they came back the next week, and then they started to linger, and then they started to talk. She learned that Maxim was cavalry and had just made corporal, and that Ognian was in the infantry and had grown up on a goat farm. When Ognian started coming in on his own, she learned that he liked cats (“not az a snack unless Hy iz really hungry—look at dere leedle paws! Und dere cute leedle faces!”) and children (on this they could agree; both had been someone’s aunt or uncle almost before they could walk, and it just seemed weird not to have a small swarm underfoot) and her. He seemed to really like her.
When he showed up one day with his hair brushed and asked if she’d like to go for a walk with him, she said yes. The kisses weren’t a surprise; that they were actually good kisses was, and she all but dragged him into Herr Kleinberg’s barn when he brought up the idea of more.
They went for a lot more walks after that. She discovered she liked his claws, even when he was a little clumsy with them. (Soon enough, there was a set of scars high on one shoulder. She told her mama she’d stumbled into the door hinge.)
Summer faded eventually, and as the days grew colder Marica was sure she’d see less of him—he’d get bored, surely, or turn out not to love her nearly as much as he swore he did—but on a blustery September day he slid a ring onto her finger (she thought she might faint) and asked to meet her family for their blessing. There was hay caught in her hair and poking her in places that shouldn’t be poked, but she was blissfully happy.
The next morning, her father took one look at him and would have shut the door in his face if Ognian hadn’t shoved his foot into the gap. “Hey!”
Ognian was taller than him; he loomed even when he wasn’t trying. “Hy chust vant to talk, sir. Iz important.”
“No. I know vat you vant to do!” Her father actually had the guts to shake his fist in his face. “Did you tink ve are blind? You tink you vere being—vot, subtle? De whole town knows you have been sniffing around my daughter, and now you ask permission to court her?”
Ognian looked stricken. Marica dared to unwedge herself from the hallway corner and come to his defense. “He vants to marry me, Papa. Look, here iz the ring—it’z real diamond!”
“No!” Her father shoved Ognian out of the doorframe; still baffled, the Jaeger didn’t put up a fight. “You—I never vant to see you in my tavern or near my daughter again. And you, girl, are not to leave this house until you’ve learned sense!”
She didn’t leave the rooms they lived in for weeks. When sounds of a fight in the bar downstairs reached her, she bribed her maid with her favorite necklace until the girl returned with news that a Jaeger with one horn had tried to enter the bar and been thrown out by all six of her brothers. She cried at that until she was sick.
And then she kept being sick, even when she wasn’t crying. It took her another full month to realize why, and then she was intensely grateful that her father couldn’t ban all Jaegers from his tavern and still stay in the Heterodynes’ good graces. Ognian’s penmanship was awful and his spelling was, if possible, worse, but he could still smuggle legible messages to her through his “brodders” when her parents let her work. (There was always at least one in the tavern, greeting her with a smile and sometimes calling her “sister” when her brothers or the maids couldn’t hear.) She knew she wouldn’t have much time before it became obvious, but she could at least let him know that he was going to be a father.
The day after she received and burnt his response (a hastily-scrawled i lov yu kom 2 mechanixburg sunday ve get married), her family found out she was pregnant.
Predictably, all hell broke loose. Her brothers wanted him dead for deflowering her, Jaeger or not. Her parents, clearer-headed, shouted over them until it was determined that she would marry Petru before she started to show—next week, if at all possible. He was the mayor’s son and would probably be the mayor himself in time, it would be a good match for her. Like the Jaeger—they refused to use Ognian’s name, and her mother struck her for speaking it—he was blond, and the child would probably look like his. Nobody would ever know of the shame she brought to the family.
So deeply involved were they in planning her wedding that they didn’t even notice when she slipped out of her room (they’d locked her in, but somehow it had never occurred to them that she might have had a key made) and down the stairs to the bar. There was a Jaeger there she hadn’t met before, brown and dark-haired, and she thumped his shoulder in greeting. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Vhy should I—“ He sniffed at her and straightened up. “Ah, hyu iz Oggie’s gurl. Vot hyu need, miz?”
She didn’t have parchment or a quill, so she leaned in close to his ear. “Listen to me, this iz very important. Go to Ognian—“ No, Ognian was infantry. No Jaeger, no matter how strong, could get to Teufelsburg on foot in less than a day. “No, no. Go to Maxim, Corporal Maxim Dyatlov in the 10th Light Jaegercavalry. You know him? Goot. Tell him to be here on Saturday and vait by the back door ov this building after dark on the fastest horse he can find.”
The Jaeger looked mildly curious. “Vhyfor?”
She growled. “My parents are trying to marry me off, and I am not going to let them.”
“…Iz Thursday. Hy might not mek it—yow!”
She grabbed his ear and twisted hard. “Then start running.”
Maxim was contemplating murder. If he had to listen to Oggie fret over his fiancée one more time…
“Mebbe she decided she dun vant to get married.”
Maxim reached over and slammed his head into the table. “For de luff ov little green apples, vill hyu schott opp? Yah, she vants to marry hyu—Hy kent figure out vhy, mebbe she took a knock on de head und tinks hyu iz a good ketch or zumtink, bot she vants to marry hyu.”
Oggie straightened up, shaking his head to clear it. He sounded dangerously close to tears, but Maxim hoped that was the beer talking. “She deedn’t send bek a letter or a note or ennytink. Und iz Saturday, und she izn’t here. Mebbe her parents deed zumtink—“
Above the usual dull roar that was Mamma’s on a weekend night, Maxim thought he heard his name. He was ready to dismiss it when it sounded again, louder and in a voice he recognized. “Maxim!”
“Jorgi! It’s been a vhile, how hyu doink?” Finally, someone who wasn’t going to bring up Oggie’s love life.
And then Jorgi spoke, and his hopes were dashed. “Iz no time—listen. Marica—her parents are tryink to get her married to somevun else. She asked for hyu to vait by de back ov de tavern und bring her here.”
“Hy ken go—“
Maxim shoved Oggie back into his chair. “Hyu kent ride! Und eef hyu go, hyu vill haff to fight her brodders und dot might mek her sad. Hyu stay here—Jorgi, dun let him drink enny more, he’z got to get married in de mornink. Hy vill be bek.”
Oggie blinked up at him; as Maxim headed for the door, he heard him call out, “De first boy, Hy iz namink him after hyu!”
The stables were quieter, and Maxim breathed a silent prayer of thanks to whatever might be listening that his horse was in the stall closest to the door and well-trained enough to stand still as he saddled it. It was second nature to him anyway, and in no time at all the streets of Mechanicsburg were blurring past him.
He had to slow to a walk when he entered Teufelsburg. He’d gotten in just a few hours before the gates closed for the night, and as the shadows lengthened he tried to stick to them. Jaegerhorses weren’t exactly stealthy, but it was still probably best to avoid the notice of the mayor’s security clanks. Lord Heterodyne would probably demand answers if Teufelsburg complained. He made his way to the tavern and waited, feeling distinctly stupid as the sun set and there was no sign of Marica.
And then a rattle from above caught his attention, and he looked up to spot a familiar figure (slightly thicker around the waist than he remembered) shimmying down a drainpipe from the second floor. She was barefoot and wearing boys’ clothes that were a bit too big for her. He waited until she was a foot or so above his head before murmuring, “Eef hyu drop, Hy vill ketch hyu.”
She squeaked—quietly, he noticed with approval—and lost her grip; before she could break her neck or impale herself on one of his horse’s spikes, he rose in the saddle to grab her and swing her up in front of him. “Here hyu go!”
She slowly relaxed her deathgrip on his arms and nodded. “Ve have to hurry.”
“Yah, Hy iz goink, Hy iz goink.” He nudged his mount into a walk, stopping whenever one of the red clank-lights swept across the street.
They were almost at the gate when a clank spotted them and screeching alarms rebounded from every corner. Dogs barked, children woke up and started crying, and somewhere behind them Maxim heard the tavern-keeper bellowing. In his arms, Marica swore savagely.
Well, at least he didn’t have to be subtle anymore. Maxim kicked his steed into a flat-out gallop, barreling towards the (still open thank all the saints in heaven!) gate. He was vaguely aware of guardsmen hurrying to close it, but that didn’t matter. Speed mattered. It mattered more once he started hearing painfully high-pitched whines behind him, followed by the staccato bursts of badly-aimed gunfire. Something hit his horse; it snarled, but he could worry about that later. There were twenty miles of open plain between Teufelsburg and home.
Marica twisted around to get a look behind him. “They’re shooting at us!”
“Hy noticed! Hang on, ve ken outrange dem!” He hoped they had a maximum range. Some clanks would chase you until their power ran out; if nothing else, it would make the ceremony very annoying. And he couldn’t fight, not with Marica to protect. Oggie owed him for this.
The clanks seemed to gather speed, or maybe just power, as they followed them. Maxim wasn’t about to turn his head to check. He sprinted through fields, leapt over fences and stiles and those annoying little streamlets that refused to freeze solid (Marica didn’t scream, which spoke very well of her) and kept his gaze focused on the dirt road ahead of him. He could see the gates ahead, they were so close–! Something stung as it grazed his arm, but he ignored it. There were still miles to go.
Mechanicsburg never bothered closing its gates when the Heterodyne was in residence. By the time they passed through them, Maxim’s mount had slowed to a walk, and Marica was catching her breath with her fingers knotted in its mane. The sun was rising. “…Thenk you. Really, I mean it—they vere going to make me marry the mayor’s son.”
He grimaced—both from her words, and from what he’d just realized was a bullet wound in his right bicep. He hadn’t been impressed by that boy either. “Vell, now hyu iz goink to marry Oggie, for zum krezy reason. Iz hyu happy?”
She smiled. “I am. I love him.”
He was thankful he was behind her; she couldn’t see him roll his eyes. “Great, hyu two vill be verra happy. Good luck vit dot whole veddink ting; Hy iz goink to schleep for a veek.”
“Oh, no you’re not.” She looked at him over her shoulder, eyes gleaming. “You’re the best man.”
“…Hyu iz kiddink.”
“I am not.” Her voice was as cold as the Poles; Maxim had heard similar harmonics from Mamma when she was dealing with new Jaegers or particularly stubborn old ones.
He was the best man. It actually was a good wedding as those things went, he supposed; the bride wore a mostly new dress, Oggie had been wrestled into a suit that fit (a minor miracle, with his spikes), and the traditional post-kiss battle broke three chairs and overturned the buffet table but didn’t touch Marica’s outfit.
Six months later, to his great relief, Oggie had a baby girl. Somewhat less to his relief (of any sort) he was immediately dubbed “Uncle Max.”