Christmas Eve was Agatha’s favorite day of the year. The presents she got on St. Nicholas’ Day from Adam and Lilith, her family in Mechanicsburg, and all her friends from Beetleburg were wonderful, and the party Lilith hosted on Christmas Day for all the constructs in the city was always great, and she loved sneaking away to watch Heterodyne shows during the night market on New Years. But as much as Agatha loved them, Christmas Eve would always win, and that was all thanks to Uncle Klaus.
He was very busy running an empire and keeping Europa safe, so only came to see her about once or twice a year when Adam and Lilith said it was okay for Agatha to stay up late. He told great stories about all the people and places he’d seen by traveling with her parents or running the empire, and he always brought a sparky toy, or new tools, or something he’d made for her himself.
It was snowing this year when Uncle Klaus arrived. The smithy was closed for Christmas Eve, and Agatha and Lilith had spent all morning turning it from a practical workplace into a grand reception room for the party tomorrow afternoon. Everything was clean and tidy, decorated with candles, pine, and ribbons. Agatha was sitting side by side with Adam at the workbench, playing with the present Dr. Beetle had gotten her while Adam finished the toys they would give out the next day. She had the little clank of Euphrosynia Heterodyne in pieces, and was half finished putting it back together when Lilith knocked on the doorframe.
“Adam, Agatha, Klaus is here.”
“Uncle Klaus!” Agatha shouted. She ran past Lilith the house and tackled him in the middle of the hall. “Uncle Klaus do you want to see what Dr. Beetle got me for Christmas?”
“Of course I do,” he said. “I didn’t realize he’d been by, I’m sorry to have missed him.”
“He comes by every year with a present for Agatha,” Lilith said. “Her first year in town he built her a mechanical dollhouse of the Palace of Enlightenment. He’s been filling it with little clanks ever since. How many do you have now, dear?”
“Three muses, the Storm King, and the Heterodyne Princess,” Agatha reported proudly. “He even brought an army of Jaegers for her! They’re not clanks though, they’re just little statues. So are the knights that came with the Storm king. I took her apart to look at the insides so she’s not really in the best shape right now, but I can still show you if you want.”
“I’d love to examine the mechanisms more closely,” Klaus said. Beaming, Agatha ran back to retrieve the little Euphrosynia, just barely squeezing past Adam as he came in.
Agatha shoveled all the parts off the workbench and picked up the clank. When she turned away, she saw the Storm King propped up against the front windows of the palace, his knights circling the building. She smiled to herself and stepped back into the kitchen.
“Here she is!” she yelled. She set the clank down on the table gently, then retrieved the spare parts from her pockets. It was larger than most dolls, about forty centimeters tall, but it was extremely intricate considering its size.
“Do you mind if I reassemble her?” Klaus asked.
Agatha shook her head. “I do it every year. There isn’t much difference between the clanks, so I won’t learn anything new from it.”
“Well, that should make my present all the more enjoyable.” Klaus reached into his coat and pulled out a box that rattled like it was full of small parts. “This was one of my favorite childhood toys. It was badly damaged when the original Castle Wulfenbach was destroyed, and I only managed to replace all the parts this year. I thought you would find more enjoyment out of putting it together than I would.”
Agatha opened the box and gasped. Inside, separated into an ocean of parts, was a nutcracker clank. Its main body was largely intact, painted to look like an Wulfenbach soldier dressed in blue and grey. The arms were in pieces, and the head had been replaced entirely. It was the only part made of wood, with a big hooked nose and a wild mane made of horsehair.
“It’s beautiful!” Agatha said. Adam leaned over her to take a look. He pulled the head out of the box and held it up next to Klaus. He shifted his eyes back and forth with a smile, comparing the two.
“I admit, there is a family resemblance,” Klaus said. “It’s an interesting story. Would you like to hear it?”
“Absolutely!” Agatha said. She glanced at Lilith, who raised an eyebrow. “Please?”
“Alright, get up here.” Klaus grabbed Agatha around the armpits and hauled her up into his lap. “Now, a long, long time ago, when sparks were rare and magic was still easy to find, Europa was plagued by war…”
Everyone who had even the slightest trace of the power was fighting their neighbors, and their neighbor’s neighbors, and so on and so forth. In those days there was no shortage of evil wizards, and the worst of them all was Lucien, who terrorized the countryside from his impenetrable tower. It was said that he always smiled, even when he slept, for he dreamt each night of new horrors to unleash upon his hapless enemies.
After years of villainy, he was challenged by a good and noble king, who drove the evil wizard back to the very top of his tower. For the first time, Lucien did not smile, for he was dead at last.
But the eldest daughter of Lucien was a witch. By forgotten magics and arcane sciences she cursed the good king, and he became a gigantic madwolf who spat lightning from his mouth. He ran wild, despoiling the countryside as the witch rode upon his back, laughing in triumph at her revenge. With their protector gone, things were worse than ever, and the people despaired.
The king’s castle became a ruin inhabited only by monsters, but the king’s brother-at-arms was able to escape. He took his young son and fled to the land his wife ruled as queen, a city that floated above the clouds. Their son grew up there with his sister, and the two of them learned to be strong rulers; his sister for her mother’s land, and he for his father’s. Every day they grew stronger and wiser, but though they wanted it desperately, their father would never let them below the clouds.
“Only when you can take the copper sword from my belt,” said their father, “will you be ready to venture into the world of men.”
The prince tried, and tried, but he always failed. The princess tried, and tried, but she always failed as well. Eventually they realized that they didn’t have to rely on just their own strengths. They joined forces, and together they managed to succeed. With the sword as their inheritance, the prince and princess left to seek their fortune.
Meanwhile, the kingdom bowed before the witch and her terrible wolf. But the witch had grown weary of her games, for although she controlled the world, the people remembered that it was the wolf who was their king. She could only rule through him, and the idea ate away at her, driving her mad with envy.
Seeing this, the young prince and princess visited the palace disguised as a pair of fortune tellers. They convinced the witch that the crown could be removed only with the magic of the copper sword. She happily accepted it, and when she plunged the blade into the wolf’s neck there was a great flash of light. She flew across the room and landed in a heap against the wall.
The prince and princess thought themselves victorious, but the witch was not dead yet. She cursed the young prince before he could remove the wolf’s crown. She transformed him into a nutcracker, so that when he opened his mouth he could do something more useful than lie. The princess tried to grab the copper sword, but she wasn’t quick enough. The witch transported her to the corners of the earth and cursed her so that she would never be able to find her family again.
Before the witch could heal herself, the wolf stood and shambled across the room. It was weak from its wound, and knew that it would soon die, but its anger at the witch gave it strength. It gobbled the witch up, and with its last breath used her magic to enchant the crown and the copper sword with the power to break the witch’s curses.
“...and so the young prince has stayed a nutcracker all this time, unable to return to human form until he reclaims the crown of his father.”
Agatha glanced down at the box on the table. “Poor nutcracker. I wish I could turn him back human again.”
“Well,” Lilith said, “you can still help him by putting him back together.”
“You’re right!” Agatha said. She slid out of Klaus’ lap and grabbed the box off the table. “Do you mind if I go and use the workbench?”
“If Adam and your Uncle Klaus don’t mind.”
Adam shook his head and Klaus smiled. “I was hoping you’d be excited about it. Merry Christmas, Agatha.”
Agatha rushed into the workshop and gently set the box onto the workbench. She brushed the tools she’d been using on the Heterodyne Girl clank in a corner and started humming to herself. Lilith said everyone in Agatha’s family did that. It helped Agatha focus easier and drowned out all the stuff that wasn’t science.
The nutcracker wasn’t in as bad shape as it first appeared. Agatha was able to fix the arms in no time, and spent the rest of the evening making improvements. The machinery was so simple. Too simple! It was to be expected from a children’s toy that was older than Agatha was, but she could make it so much better. She was just finishing assembling a miniature lightning generator (so you can cook the nuts while you crack them!) when someone tapped on her shoulder.
“It’s time for bed, darling,” Lilith said. “Come say goodnight to Uncle Klaus.”
“Five more minutes? I want to make his hands more sophisticated so it’s easier to pick up nuts.”
“Bedtime,” Lilith told her. “You can bring it up to your room with you, but the tools and the extra parts stay down here.”
“Okay.” Agatha yawned as she walked into the kitchen, the nutcracker dangling from one hand. “G’night Adam, G’night Uncle Klaus.”
They both gave her a kiss on the head and then Lilith sent her up to her room. Agatha set the nutcracker on the desk in between the Franz, the stuffed dragon she’d gotten from the Von Mekkans, and Princess Stompy Boots, the stuffed clank she’d won at the fair two years ago. The army of Jaegers from Dr. Beetle guarded the front of the desk. Agatha didn’t think that keeping them in the shop would be a good idea, what with all the knights and the Storm King, but she trusted them to guard the toys of House Heterodyne.
“Good night, Herr Nutcracker, and Merry Christmas,” she said. For a moment it looked like the nutcracker smiled, just slightly, but when she looked closer his face was still painted with the same fearsome, wooden sneer. She shrugged and tucked herself into bed.
Agatha woke a few hours later from a dream about complex jointed hands with her fingers itching. Building them now would be impossible; Adam and Lilith had expressly forbidden her in the workshop after bedtime. Agatha resigned herself to schematics until morning and sat down at her desk. She was halfway through sketching the design when she realized the nutcracker was missing. She panicked for a moment, afraid that Uncle Klaus had changed his mind and taken it back with him, before noticing that Franz and Princess Stompy Boots were missing, too. So was the army of jaegers Agatha had left as a guard. There was only one explanation: toy theft!
Agatha crept down the hall, hoping that the toy snatcher was still in the house. It was hard to walk down the stairs in the dark. Each step seemed larger and larger, until Agatha had to sit down and skootch off the edge of the steps. Without lights, the house seemed even bigger. No one was moving inside, but the door out to the workshop was open, which was strange, since Adam and Lilith always locked it at night. A clue!
Agatha opened the door slowly and poked her head through the gap. On the center table of the workshop sat the dollhouse Dr. Beetle had given her, and on the floor all around it a ferocious battle was taking place. In the air, Franz and the winged Otilia exchanged blows; inside the palace, little Tinka kicked at Princess Stompy Boots through an open window; on the ground, the Storm King’s army clashed with the army of jaegers.
Agatha rushed into the workshop towards the battlefield. The jaegers had pitched camp on the near side of the workshop, and she pulled one aside.
“What’s going on here?” Agatha asked.
“De Storm King declared var,” the jaeger replied. “He iz sayink ve stole de Heterodyne Princess und disassembled her.”
“But that’s not true! My uncle Klaus reassembled her! She’s perfectly intact!”
“Hyu knowz it, und Hy knowz it, but de Storm Kink dun know it. Und verever she iz, de Heterodyne Princess don’t vant to set de record straight.”
Agatha pursed her lips. “What can I do to help?”
“Ve gots a lot less jaegers den knights, so ve iz gun down lots. Ve needz a Heterodyne to take care uf dem.”
“I’m a Heterodyne. I can help. Show me to your wounded.”
The injured jaegers were set up in a tent made of Adam’s old rags. Agatha patched them up the best she could: gluing limbs back on, re-painting uniforms, sanding down scratches. She hummed as she worked, drowning out the sounds of metal meeting metal on the battlefield. At first she was patching up more jaegers than she was sending out, but little by little her number of patients lessened as the tide of the battle began to turn. Eventually she found the tent completely empty.
Agatha stumbled outside to see the Palace surrounded by jaegers. Broken knights lay scattered across the workshop floor. Otilia circled the roof, barely fending off Franz, while Tinka stood by Moxana protectively. The Storm King stood in the doorway, flanked by the dozen remaining knights as they kept the force of jaegers at arm’s length.
“Surrender, yeah?” the jaeger general called out. “Hyu shiny toys are broken, hyu don’t vant to lose more of dem.”
“Only when you return my Princess to me!”
“Listen schmot guy, ve don’t hef hyu princess -” The general was cut off by a loud howling from the other side of the room. Agatha turned in horror to see a horde of the spark hound clanks Adam built surrounding the battlefield, led by the largest of them, the wolf that had been promised to Agatha. Lightning leapt from its jaws and arced through the rest of the pack. On its back, holding onto the wolf’s silver crown like a bridle, was the Heterodyne Princess.
“What are you doing?” the Storm King yelled. “This was not a part of the plan!”
“I will not be kept as a symbol,” she cried. “Not by you or by my family. I will reign supreme! I am the Heterodyne! Tremble before me!”
“That’s my line!” Agatha yelled. The princess looked at her coldly.
“There can only be one ruler, and it certainly won’t be you. Prepare to die, girl!” The princess dug her heels into the wolf’s side. It sprinted forward, shooting lightning across the room, the pack following close behind.
Agatha turned to the army of jaegers behind her and pointed back at the princess. “Get her!”
“Hyu herd de mistress,” the general yelled, “ve hunt!” The jaegers streamed past Agatha, whooping with glee as they met the spark hounds three on one.
The jaeger general grabbed Agatha by the hand.
“Iz not safe for hyu here, not vit krazy pants und her puppies.”
“I’m not leaving! Agatha yelled. She tore her hand away and glared up at the general, her hands balled into tiny fists. “These are my toys, and my jaegers!”
“Respectfully, Lady Heterodyne, it would be for the best.” The Storm King stepped out from behind the general, bowing politely. “You must be kept safe to command your troops from afar, and to allow the princess to take you captive would be dangerous and foolish. We have a common enemy, and I would be happy to offer you refuge in my palace while the battle wages down here.”
“And why should I believe you? For all I know, this was all part of your plan with the princess!”
“This was not my plan!” the Storm King yelled. He took a deep breath and looked back at Agatha. “Regardless of what I wanted before, she won’t stop until both of us are powerless. I promise that I never had any intent to harm you.”
“Really?” she asked, still skeptical. His eyes softened.
“I was your Storm King first,” he said. Agatha’s heart panged in her chest.
She turned back to the jaeger general. “Send any injured jaegers you can. I’ll do my best to repair them.” At the general’s salute, she walked past the Storm King and into the palace.
She went straight up to the roof to get the best view of the battle. Franz and Princess Stompy boots had joined the offense against the Heterodyne princess’ spark hounds, but Franz’s fire did very little and the dogs just jumped out from under Princess Stompy Boots’ feet.
“They’re losing,” Agatha muttered. Otilia lay a wing over her shoulder.
“Be patient, little spark. The tide may turn yet.”
“No it won’t,” the Storm King muttered. “It takes three or four jaegers to take down a single hound, and most of them either get stuck underneath or trampled by the next one. They’re going to lose.”
“We have to help them!” Agatha said. “There must be something we can build… something that’ll catch the princess off guard.”
“With what materials?” the Storm King asked. “The palace is an empty dollhouse, there’s no lab with parts.”
“But we can still find materials,” Agatha said, eyes gleaming with madness. “You’re all clanks. I can take the non-essential parts and use those.”
“How do we know you won’t just disassemble us?” Tinka demanded, arms wrapped around Moxana.
“Because I’ve taken you all apart and put you back together. I know every part you have, and what it does. Trust me.”
“Do what you believe is necessary, little spark,” Otilia said.
Using one of the knight’s swords, Agatha started scratching designs into the floor of the palace, muttering to herself as she worked. “I could easily make something electrical with the generator for the Lightning Crown, but that would be more likely to charge the hounds than to harm them.”
“Unless,” the Storm King said, “we overloaded their systems and triggered a short circuit. They’re only built to be toys, they wouldn’t have too high a surge limit.”
“Ooo, we could use the augmentors from Tinka’s legs to boost the current—”
“—and the wiring from Moxana’s table to feed them together—”
“—and Otilia’s glider joints to propel it onto the battlefield!”
They went to work quickly, stripping the parts from the muses and carefully assembling them together. Agatha’s humming drowned out the sounds of the battle, reducing the crack of the Storm King’s lightning crown to a quiet, irregular harmony. Agatha fell out of focus when Otilia grabbed her shoulder.
“Come to the roof, little spark. There is something happening on the battlefield.”
In the distant far workshop, the spark hounds were being driven into a corner. Jaegers herded them back on once side, while on the other Agatha’s little assistant clanks made a unified wall.
“My little clanks!” Agatha said. “Where did they come from? I thought Lilith had them locked away in the shop!”
“Look closer, little spark. A friend seems to have brought them for you.” Otilia sounded almost as if she were smiling. Agatha squinted at the battlefield, sweeping her eyes across, looking for something new. “Too low, little spark. Look above it.”
Agatha looked up and gasped. One of the airborne clanks she’d built to steal cookies was circling over the spark hounds, and riding astride it like Bellerophon was the Wulfenbach Nutcracker!
“Oh, this is fantastic! He can take the surge bomb directly to the wolf king!” Agatha started jumping up and down, waving her hands in the air. “Herr Nutcracker! Herr Nutcracker! Over here! Herr Nutcracker!”
“I don’t think he can see us,” the Storm King said. Agatha pouted and turned away from the ledge.
“Otilia, can you keep trying to get his attention? We need to finish making the bomb.”
She glanced over Agatha at the Storm King, who nodded. “Of course, little spark. I will do my best.”
The two sparks went back downstairs and set back to work. Agatha’s heterodyning grew louder to drown out the sound of metal upon metal carried over from the battlefield. Tinka and some of the knights wandered in and out, looking at the sparks in the room and at the battle outside with equal uncertainty. Soon enough it was time to add the lightning generator in.
“Are you sure about this?” Agatha asked.
“A crown is only a symbol,” the Storm King said. “I hold the power, and the right. And the crown will still be there. The lightning is really just for show.”
“If you’re certain.”
He knelt down on the ground as she stood above him. The generator was astonishingly small, attached to the inside of the crown to make it invisible to anyone not looking for it. She lifted the crown off gently and held still as the King stood back up again. He looked younger, somehow, without the lightning arcing over his face and adding extra shadows. Before she could have sworn he was an adult, but now he looked almost her age, or maybe a few years older.
“Let’s attach the part,” he said.
“Uh, yeah! Right.”
The lightning generator was the last piece they needed. The Storm King attached it and stepped back, letting her prep the systems. They’d both agreed that though the natural human body was vulnerable to electric energy, people with circuits were more likely to be damaged by a lightning bomb.
Otilia stepped into their workroom just as Agatha picked the bomb up off the floor. “Lady Heterodyne, your majesty, the nutcracker soldier is here.”
“Time to go,” Agatha said. She hefted the bomb a little higher and walked gingerly up the stairs.
The Nutcracker was waiting on the rooftop for them, his flier parked and waiting for takeoff. “Lady Heterodyne!” he said, rushing over to her. He hesitated at the last moment, stopping a few paces ahead of her and bowing. “I’m sorry our first real meeting isn’t under better circumstances.”
“So do I,” she said. “Here, take this. It should stop the lightning from the Princess’ sparkhound.”
“It should be able to glide to an extent,” the Storm King added, “but be careful of aim and timing. We only have the one.”
“I understand,” the Nutcracker said. He took the bomb from her and set it carefully into the cockpit. “I’ll… I’ll be off.”
“Alright. I’ll be here, I guess.”
The Storm King knocked his shoulder against Agatha’s. “For goodness sake, give him something to fight for.”
She smiled at him and stepped forward. “Herr Nutcracker, wait. I want to give you something.”
She took a ribbon off her dress and held it out. He frowned at it.
“What is it for?”
“A token,” she said. “Knights used to go into battle wearing them, as a sign of, um, affection from their ladies.”
“Oh,” the nutcracker said. His face was ageless and wooden, but his voice hadn’t sounded so boyish before. She wondered for the first time how old he’d been when the witch had cursed him.
The nutcracker offered his arm, and she wrapped the ribbon around it gently, tying it in a knot. He saluted her and climbed into the airship. With a parting wave, he took off, flying towards the battlefield.
“Good luck!” she called out after him.
She watched the battle from the top of the roof, the Storm King standing to her left and Otilia to her right. The nutcracker circled around the battlefield, spiraling closer and closer to the Heterodyne Princess. She spurred her hound and spat lightning up at him, but it never reached high enough to harm the little flying clank. Finally, when he was almost right above her, he dropped the bomb. She reared her hound and sent a jolt of lightning up at it.
Agatha grabbed the Storm King’s hand. There was a great flash of light that spread across the battlefield, blinding her for a moment and leaving spots of color stained on her eyes. By the time she could see clearly again, the jaegers had already begun cheering. She could see some of them climbing on top of the immobile spark hounds, waving their hats in triumph.
“Come on!” she yelled, squeezing the Storm King’s hand and pulling him after her. She ran out of the Palace and down onto the battlefield. The jaegers waved and hollered as they passed by. The Heterodyne Princess sat in the center of the battlefield, guarded by the jaeger general. Agatha let go of the Storm King’s hand and placed her hands on her hips, frowning down at her.
“You got lucky this time, girl,” the Princess hissed. “You don’t belong here. You’re nothing but a fake. A flesh and blood Heterodyne could never rule the land of toys.”
“You’re wrong!” Agatha shouted. “This is my house, and these are my toys, and I can destroy you or repair you whenever I wish, because I am the Heterodyne! Tremble before me!”
Inside the house, the clocks began to strike twelve. The sound echoed into the workshop, filling the empty space with triumph.
“De Doom bell rings for de Heterodyne!” the general shouted. The jaegers cheered again, almost drowning out the chimes of the clocks. The Princess fell to the ground, limp, and the few spark hounds that were still twitching finally went still.
“What are you going to do with them?” the Storm King asked.
“Nothing, I suppose,” Agatha said. “Tomorrow the hounds will all be given to their new owners, and at New Year’s the Princess will get put back in the display case. I can station some jaegers near the palace to make sure she behaves, but I don’t think anything else is necessary.”
“What about the pack leader? The one that’s supposed to be yours.”
“I think we should let Herr Nutcracker decide,” she said, thinking about the story Uncle Klaus had told her earlier that night. “Do you know where he went?”
“I never saw him land. The last time I remember seeing him was when the electric bomb went off.”
“The lightning generator!” Agatha gasped. “I installed a lightning generator last night, it must have caught some of the electrical feedback. We need to go find him, he might be injured!”
“What about the jaegers? And my knights?”
She tapped her finger against her chin. “We should stay here to repair them. My clanks seem to be mostly uninjured. If we figure out the approximate location of where he landed, I can send out a search party to sweep the area.”
“Dat’s a goot plan,” the general said. “I vill send some ov my boyz vit dem to help.”
So agreed, they all set to work. Calculating the nutcracker’s location was easy enough after they compared memories of the blast, and her little clanks were eager to help. The Storm King set to work reassembling his knights. His clinking percussion mixed with her heterodyning and the snaps of the pack leader’s crown to make a chorus of spark work. The repairs were close to finished when a jaeger returned from the search, closely followed by a clank carrying the nutcracker on its back.
Agatha lept to her feet and almost ran over before remembering she was still repairing a jaeger. She turned to her patient, but he waved her off.
“Go help hyu friend,” he said. “Hyu gotz de vorst of it, ve ken hendle de rest.”
She smiled at him in thanks and rushed to the medical tent. The Storm King was already there, sitting close to the nutcracker’s cot. They were engaged in a whispered argument that stopped as soon as they saw Agatha.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
“I’m fine. You don’t need to worry,” the nutcracker said. He sat up straighter on his cot.
“You got blown out of the sky by a lightning bomb,” she told him. “You are not fine. Let me take a look at you.”
He held out his arm sheepishly. It seemed to be the only part of him that was injured, but it had fractured badly during the landing. Most of the mechanisms responsible for joint movement in the hand and wrist had been crushed, and the wiring around the elbow had been severed. She frowned at it, humming as she assessed the damage and pushed what she could back into place.
“I don’t think I can fix this by myself,” she said. “Certainly not tonight. It’ll have to wait until I can get better tools.”
“Here,” the Storm King said. He took the ribbon that Agatha had given the nutcracker and used it to make a sling. “This should keep the limb safe and stop any further damage.”
The nutcracker thanked him and got up off the cot. He wobbled slightly before catching himself. “Now” he asked, “where is the wolf king?”
They led him back onto the battlefield. The Heterodyne Princess had been taken away, along with most of her army, but the crowned spark hound still lay on the ground. The nutcracker knelt down next to it and touched its forehead with his good hand. He stayed for a second, looking at it silently, before standing up and turning back to Agatha and the Storm King.
“I need to take off its crown,” he said. “Could you help me?”
Agatha took the left of the hound, and the Storm King the right. The nutcracker straddled the wolf’s neck, his good hand stuck underneath the crown. He gave the word and they pulled together. Lightning leapt up from the wolf’s jaws, crackling over the crown and into the three of them. Agatha and the nutcracker let go, but the Storm King pulled even harder. The crown flew off with such a force that he fell backwards. It shrunk in his hands, turning from a disc as wide as he was tall to just large enough to be worn by a doll. He looked down at it, clutching it tightly in his hands, before standing and offering it to the nutcracker.
“Here,” he said. “It’s yours.”
“Are you sure?” the nutcracker asked. The Storm King nodded. They stared at each other a moment, neither of them moving. The nutcracker reached out and grabbed the crown.
Lightning flared between them, bright enough to be blinding. She blinked the spots out of her eyes and saw that both boys were still standing, but neither were quite the same. The Storm King now wore the wolf’s crown, lightning arcing between all the silver prongs. Across from him stood a human boy dressed like the nutcracker, as an infantry soldier in Wulfenbach blues. His hair stuck out of his hat in all directions, and she realized with delight that he had the same large nose as the nutcracker had. He took his arm out of the green sling and flexed his fingers, grinning with delight.
“You did it!” he yelled. “We did it! I’m human again!” He threw his arms around the Storm King and kissed him on the cheek, then pulled Agatha into their hug and kissed her on the forehead. She threw her arms around both of them. After a moment’s hesitation, the Storm King hugged them back.
They pulled apart as their friends came to congratulate them. Agatha lost herself in the crowd of knights and jaegers and clanks, but eventually she ended up back next to the body of the wolf king. The jaeger general was there too, looking at the wolf with a pensive look on her face.
“What is it?” Agatha asked.
“Dere’s a sword in the volf’s neck,” said the general. “Look, hyu see it? Eets a leedle copper ting. Hy tried to tek it out, but it schocked me.”
“Let me try,” Agatha said. She grasped the hilt with both hands and pulled with all her might. The sword slid free so easily she almost lost her balance. An electric current ran through the blade, tingling her arms, but it didn’t hurt at all.
“The sword!” She turned to see the nutcracker prince grinning with excitement. “I remember now! Follow me!”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her towards the door outside of the workshop, the Storm King right on their heels. Agatha glanced back and saw the jaeger general wink at her before turning back to the army and drawing their attention away from their runaway leaders.
The prince pushed open the door and stepped out into the street. There was about an inch or so of snow on the ground, and the dusting over the carved wooden trim of the buildings all along the street made them look like gingerbread houses. The prince pulled her into the middle of the street and then stopped and looked at the sky.
“Hold the sword up high,” he said. “It should send a signal of some kind, and then my sister can find us.”
He grabbed one of her shoulders, and the Storm King placed a hand on the other. She held the sword up, her arms struggling a little with the weight. At first nothing happened, but then a bolt of lightning struck. Agatha’s hair stood on end. She felt full of life, like she could run for hours and hours and never get tired.
“Come home, Zeetha,” the nutcracker prince whispered. His words echoed, and Agatha looked up to see all three of them reflected in the sky. “Come home, Zeetha,” he said again, and the reflection spoke too, echoing across the sky.
The wind started to blow, sending snowflakes flying up off the street. They whirled in little tornados, making moving pictures that danced around the three of them. One looked like a muse; another, like the Heterodyne boys; a third like three jaegers. A loud chime sounded in the distance. It repeated, growing louder and louder. The closer it got, the harder the wind began to blow, and the faster the snowflake images moved. Finally, there was a great, single chime, and the wind stopped. The snow fell back to the ground.
In front of them was a team of gingerbread caravans decorated with every color of icing sugar imaginable. Each one was uniquely intricate, and each of the drivers seemed to be made from a different kind of sweet: a flower girl made of spun sugar, a honeycomb woman surrounded by a swarm of bees, a cheesecake actor brushed with graham cracker crumbs. The driver of the front wagon was an enormous man who seemed to be dressed in every sweet that formed a part of the circus.
The door to one of the caravans banged open and a girl jumped out. Agatha barely had the time to look at her —about their age, green hair, two glimmering swords on her back—before the girl leapt at the nutcracker prince and knocked him onto his back.
“It took you long enough!” she yelled, and then the two of them started wrestling in the snow. The nutcracker prince seemed to take the upper hand multiple times, but the girl always rolled out from underneath and pinned him. Eventually he gave up, and she pulled him back onto his feet.
“This is my sister Zeetha,” he said. “We’ve been lost to each other for years, but with the magic of the copper sword we’ve finally been reunited.”
“We can go home!” Zeetha cried, and hugged Agatha tightly. “Thank you, thank you.”
“What are you waiting for?” the man in the lead caravan yelled. “Let’s get going!”
Zeetha pulled the three of them into her caravan and they took off. In the distance, Agatha could hear music playing. The Storm King counted the notes under his breath: one, two, three, one, two, three. The sword started to spark in Agatha’s hands, sending lightning that tickled up and down her arms.
“What is it doing?” she asked.
“It’s telling you to open the gateway,” Zeetha said. “You have to think about where we want to go.”
“But I don’t know anything about it!”
“Then we’ll tell you!” the nutcracker prince said.
He and Zeetha wove a story together. They talked about a great warrior queen with hair as sleek as a sword blade who ruled a lost city upon the clouds. The buildings shone underneath the setting sun, and on the edge of the city rose a great, red mountain that housed the great temple. In the center sat a giant mirror, and one day a year every great performer in the land would stand before it and show the goddess all their stories, dances, and tricks. As they spoke, the sword buzzed happily in Agatha’s hands. She felt a jolt of lightning one last time before it finally fell still.
“We’re here!” Zeetha cried. She kicked open the caravan door and jumped onto the clouds. The temple rose above them, carved from wisps of red smoke. Hundreds of people waited on the steps, but at the very top stood an imposing woman dressed in the gold and violet rays of a sunset. Zeetha ran up the steps and jumped into her arms. The nutcracker prince hung back shyly until the woman pulled him into the hug. She smiled down at Agatha and the Storm King.
“Thank you for bringing my children home,” the queen said. “I would be honored to have you as our guests during the goddess’ festival.”
“The pleasure would be ours,” the Storm King said. Agatha nodded, suddenly shy.
The two of them got to sit with the royal family next to the goddess’ mirror. It was huge, nearly three times as tall as Agatha, but the amphitheatre in front of it was even bigger. She couldn’t imagine filling up so much space herself, but none of the performers seemed to have any trouble.
There were a lot of talented acts: two women dressed in vines and brightly colored flowers danced a waltz, a girl told a story while a boy played a flute mournfully, an old woman led a troupe of small children in a comedic mock battle. But Agatha’s favorite performance of the night was the acting troupe that came with Zeetha’s caravan. They did three dances together, alternating costumes so they dressed as different sweets.
During the ringmaster’s introduction, led by the man wearing all the sweets at once, two dancers snuck onstage behind him: a boy dressed in milk chocolate, and a girl in white chocolate. They danced a silent polka, wandering all around the stage, and sometimes even getting close enough to steal sweets off the ringmaster’s clothes. When he finished his speech and turned around, they shrieked and ran offstage together, causing the audience to laugh and the ringmaster to shake his head at them.
For the first dance, the band began a light, fluttery tune as three dancers took the stage. Two twins wearing tea leaves danced around their single citrus suitor, fooling him into thinking they were one girl. When they finally twirled together to dance in front of him, the revelation made him faint in shock. They dragged him offstage together, both laughing.
The second dance brought the chocolate dancers back onstage. The girl carried a small mechanical noisemaker and jumped out of reach whenever the boy tried to grab it. He chased her around the stage, pulling her into graceful spins and dramatic dips that she executed flawlessly and escaped just as well. As the final notes played, he grabbed her around the waist and finally got his hands on the noisemaker, only for her to pull him into a kiss.
For the third dance, two girls armed with swords stood in silently on the stage. One was dressed in white and blue stripes like a candy cane cavalier; the other wore red and white like a peppermint pirate. The band struck up a fast and excitable song as the two girls leapt at each other. They darted back and forth, clashing their swords together with each crescendo. The cavalier knocked the pirate’s sword out of her hands, and the music grew quicker and quicker as the pirate pulled dozens of knives out of her clothes and threw them at the cavalier. She nearly dodged them all while thrusting at the pirate. At the final note, both their aims struck true, and they fell to the ground, "dead."
Soon Agatha could see the sky growing red with the sunset. Just as she was beginning to feel sleepy, the queen called for the final act.
Zeetha and the nutcracker prince got out of their seats and stood in front of the mirror, both of them holding two strangely shaped swords in each hand. A musician began to pluck their lyre strings as they circled each other. When a flute began to play the siblings ran at each other, blades meeting in perfect time with the music. They wove in and out of each other’s blows, ducking and stepping in time with each of the notes. Agatha held her breath in fear. The Storm King grabbed her hand and squeezed it tightly. It was nothing like the earlier sword fight; the actors’ movements had been large and dramatic, but Zeetha and the prince moved with deadly precision. At a rising crescendo they rushed at each other. Agatha was certain someone was going to strike a killing blow, but they stopped just in time, both with a blade against their sibling’s throat.
The temple goers clapped wildly as the children bowed. The queen declared the festival over and everyone began to stream out of the temple and back into the city. The Storm King and the nutcracker prince walked together hand in hand. Agatha’s heart warmed just watching them together. She went to join them, but Zeetha grabbed her arm.
“If you ever need me, you can use the sword to find me,” she said. “Just think about the festival tonight and it’ll take you here.”
“I wouldn’t want to bother you,” Agatha said.
“It’s not a bother,” Zeetha told her, shaking her head. “You saved my brother’s life. You brought me home after years of wandering. You reunited our family. I owe you so much. The least I can offer is friendship.”
Agatha hugged her. “I’ll be sure to visit. Maybe after Christmas is over.”
“Now go home,” Zeetha said, and beeped Agatha’s nose. “You have a big day tomorrow, and you don’t want to sleep through it.”
“The party!” Agatha cried. She ran down the steps of the temple, closely followed by Zeetha’s laughter. She grabbed the Storm King’s hand as they passed, pulling him and the nutcracker prince down the steps with her. She thought about home, about Lilith’s gingerbread and Adam’s dirty tools and her big wooden desk. The sword buzzed in her hand and Agatha heard a waltz in the distance: one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two—
Agatha woke to the sound of music. One of the many clocks in her room contained a prince and princess who came out and danced on the hour. She scrunched her nose at the rhythm and made a mental note to change it from a polka to a waltz. She’d need a new music box for that, so it would make a good afternoon project.
Then she remembered what day it was, and tangled herself in her sheets trying to get out of bed too fast.
“Not a word,” she told the army arranged on her desk. The jaegers grinned back at her silently.
She took the stairs two steps at a time, almost slamming into the wall during her race to the kitchen. Adam grabbed the back of her nightgown just in time. He deposited her in her spot at the table and went back to reading the newspaper. Lilith had already set down a mug of cocoa and some poppy seed bread, and Agatha tore into her breakfast with gusto.
Adam tapped the table next to Agatha’s plate and jerked his head in the direction of the workshop.
“Pack the toys for the trip to the castle?” Agatha asked. Adam nodded. “Yeah! I can do that right now.”
She jumped off the chair, shoved another piece of poppy seed bread into her mouth, and headed into the workshop. Lilith had picked up boxes for the spark hounds weeks and weeks ago, so all Agatha needed to do was put one in each box and tie the lids on. It was a fairly mindless job, and she was getting pretty bored doing it, but Adam had asked her, and since he’d made all the toys it was only fair that she contribute.
The last of the toys was a little larger than the others, a wolf rather than a hound. It was the made for her, and Adam had built it so it was big enough for Dr. Beetle’s little dolls to ride on. It should have been wearing a silver crown, but it appeared to be missing. When she looked closer, it looked as if the crown had been snapped off.
She almost dropped it in surprise. She dashed over to where the Palace of Enlightenment stood on display and looked through the windows. Otilia and the other knights were guarding the Heterodyne Princess on the second floor. On the first, Tinka and Moxana were sitting together in the corner. The Storm King was missing, but the lightning crown sat alone on the roof. She picked it up and saw that the metal was slightly warped on the inside where the lightning generator sat.
She placed it gently back onto the dollhouse, wrapped the last wolf hastily, and flew through the kitchen and up the stairs. Franz, Princess Stompy Boots, and the Jaegers all sat on her desk, but the nutcracker was missing. At the front of the army, the jaeger general stood in all her grinning glory, holding a copper sword the size of a hair pin.
“It was real!” Agatha shrieked, jumping up and down. “It was real it was real it was real!”
“Agatha! What is going on up there?”
“Nothing, Lilith!” Agatha yelled back. She pressed her hands against her mouth and giggled.
“Klaus will be here soon, are you getting dressed?”
Agatha had gotten a new dress just for tonight’s party, and it was the best thing she owned. It was all green, with little golden ribbons and trilobite buttons. When she spun, the skirt twirled around her legs and showed off her cream stockings and her brown slippers.. She curtsied to the jaeger army as elegantly as she could, which was, in her opinion, fairly elegantly.
“Thank you for your service,” she said. They grinned back appreciatively.
“Agatha! Klaus is here!”
“Uncle Klaus!” Agatha slammed the door to her room shut and bounded down the stairs. She skidded into the living room and ran straight into Klaus’ legs.
“Oof. Someone’s excited to leave,” he said. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yep! Well, almost. Hang on a second.” Agatha ran back upstairs and took the copper sword out of the general’s hands.
“Thank you for holding onto it for me,” she said. The general grinned back at her. Agatha tucked the sword into her pocket and went back downstairs.
Klaus carried the boxes of toys back to the airship, nodding politely as she chattered about the repairs she’d made to the nutcracker and ideas she’d had for an improved model. He sighed in relief once they got onboard, watching her run between the windows to watch the view. Beetleburg fell beneath them, drifting into the distance like a boat floating down a river. Agatha shared that thought with him and he chuckled.
“More similar to an island that’s getting farther upstream,” he said. She nodded and ran back to the window, trying to count all the clanks she saw out in the wastelands.
As they got closer to the palace, airships from the castle fleet started to pass them, ferrying people and messages back and forth. Agatha pointed to the ones she found interesting and Klaus told her who was on board, and where they were going, and why. He kept the game up as they walked through the castle, explaining what each of the crew members did and where they had come from. When they reached the door to the school, he stopped and placed the toy boxes on the floor.
“Before you go in, is there something you’d like to put on?” He opened his palm to reveal the copper sword. She stuck her hands in her pockets and realized that they were empty.
“How did you do that?” she asked.
“It’s a simple trick,” he said, smiling. “A sword never forgets its first owner.”
Her eyes widened as he knelt down in front of her. “So the nutcracker prince--”
“Was my son,” he said. His eyes looked sad, but he was smiling. “I haven’t seen him in many years, ever since I came back to Europa. Thank you for bringing him home.”
“Is— is he here?”
“He is.” This time, Klaus’ smile reached his eyes. “Would you like me to put your hairpin where he can see it?”
“Yes please!” she said. She turned around and let him arrange her hair. He put it into a loose bun secured by the copper sword.
“Now,” he said, patting her on the shoulder, “let’s go greet the other guests.”
Agatha was pulled into a whirlwind of half familiar faces as soon as she stepped into the school. She handed out toys to everyone, matching names to the people she’d seen in the nutcracker prince’s court: Sleipnir O’Hara and Theo DuMedd, the chocolate troublemakers; the tea twins Sun Daiyu and Mingmei, and their citrus suitor, Nickodaemus Yurkofsky; Zulenna Luzhakna, the candy cane cavalier; and Bangladesh DuPree, the peppermint pirate. None of them seemed to recognize Agatha, but they were all excited to meet her.
Klaus handed her three boxes, one of which had her own toy in it, and pointed to two boys sitting together in the corner. She ran over and sat down next to them, letting the boxes tumble to the floor.
“Hi!” she said. “I’m Agatha Clay!”
“I’m Tarvek Sturmvoraus,” the first one said. He had dark, dark red hair, in a shade Agatha didn’t even know really existed, and big square glasses. He nodded his head towards his friend, who had a big nose and a huge mess of flyaway hair. “This is Gil Nussknacker.”
“It’s nice to meet you! My dad made presents for all the kids, you can go ahead and open yours if you want.”
Gil stared at her while Tarvek opened a box. When he pulled out the spark hound he blinked in surprise. Gil looked at the spark hound, then at Agatha, and tore into his own box, pulling out an identical toy. She opened hers too, setting the wolf in her lap and leaning on her elbows.
“Yours is bigger,” Gil said.
“We had to make him big enough for my dolls to ride ‘cause he’s the king. He used to have a crown, but we had to take it off.”
Gil glanced over at Tarvek. He tugged on his sleeve nervously, pulling it up just far enough for her to see a green ribbon tied around his wrist.
“That’s a pretty ribbon,” she said, smiling.
“A girl gave it to him,” Tarvek said. Gil tried to shove him, but Tarvek just pushed him away. “He likes her.”
“Really?” she asked. She felt her face getting hot..
“Uh-huh. He went on and on this morning about how smart she was, and how pretty—”
“So did you!” Gil hissed.
“Shut up! I did not!”
“Did she give you that?” Agatha asked, pointing at the bracelet on Tarvek’s wrist. It was shaped like a little silver crown. Each of the prongs had a little bolt of lightning engraved in the metal.
“No,” Tarvek said proudly. “Gil did. It was supposed to be his, but he knew I would like it more.”
“You should know that already, Lady Heterodyne,” Gil said. “You were there.”
Tarvek stared at Gil, then at Agatha. His eyes widened as he noticed the copper sword in her hair. He started to blush, redness spreading from his cheeks down to his neck.
“My father knew your parents had the crown when he gave me to you didn’t he?” Gil asked. “He knew you would be able to break the curse. But how did he know the crown would help Tarvek?”
“It didn’t,” Tarvek mumbled. He looked down at his hands. “My curse was a lot older and a lot stronger than yours. It would only break if—if I gave up my crown for love.”
Agatha pressed her hands to her face, trying to calm her blush. It didn’t feel like it was working. Gil glanced at her, then at Tarvek, then down at the token tied around his wrist. He pulled one of Agatha’s hands away from her face, lacing his fingers with his own, then did the same with Tarvek’s.
“You know,” he said slowly, smiling, “I don’t think anyone would notice if the new kids snuck away from the party.” Tarvek looked shocked, but Agatha slowly started to smile.
“I did promise your sister I’d visit,” she said. She tilted her head towards Tarvek. “Would you like to help?”
Tarvek took the copper pin from her hair, letting it fall free onto her back. She covered her palm with his, trapping the sword between them. Tarvek hummed a waltz as Agatha thought about Zeetha, and the land above the clouds, and the red jewel of the sun when it sank to the horizon. Gil started to hum along. One, two, three, one, two three, one, two, three, one—