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First Impressions and Reunions

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Gilgamesh, son of Chump, objectively had several things going for him, and several against. He was royalty, the only son—only child (present)—of Zantabraxus, War Queen of Skifander. He had a magnificent Gift, stronger even than his mother’s—stronger than anyone in the Valley, to be frank; he was first taken with it when he was no older than eight. He had brought a stone rock-crab to life, and named him Enkidu, because if he was going to be named for a hero who’d defied the gods, then so would his best friend.

(He couldn’t talk but he could screech, and snap his claws and scuttle up Gil’s back to sit on his shoulder. There was only so much even a very strong eight-year-old Gifted could do. It was enough.)

He didn’t have very many other friends. Mostly just cousins, none of whom could keep up with him when he got going with hierographics, much less the foreign “scientific” techniques the War Queen taught him.

That edged into the other reasons Gil have few friends, even among the War clan itself. He was a half-child in every way: only half-Skifandrian, from a Europan father who had disappeared almost as soon as Gil was born. One half of a set of twins, his sister missing with their father but that didn’t make her gone. Half-souled, wrong, an empty space in the world. Gil had been born first, so arguably he was the one who was supposed to exist, but when he was ten the High Priestess accused him of stealing his twin’s share of the Gift and he had no way to deny it.

The High Priestess threatened to refuse him formal Temple training with the other Gifted. She backed down when Zantabraxus threatened to train Gil herself in that case, but Gil generally wished she hadn’t—he inevitably had a better time with his mother in her magma-heated workroom than in the dark Temple, or even the sacred spring of the Skiff. Studying science, and some warrior arts that she really should not have taught one who wasn’t her zumil. Better, certainly, than when the Priestesses and other acolytes ignored him, or shot him dark glares and hissing insults that he was meant to just barely hear, or reminded him to his face that he was likely fated to bring nothing but chaos and death to the Valley.

It was traditional, in Skifander, to identify oneself matrilineally; Gil glared back at the world and called himself “son of Chump,” and only his mother really approved. This was about par for his life.

It didn’t help that he didn’t always have the best control over his Gift. Or, perhaps: that sometimes he thought that if he was going to get in trouble anyway, if he was going to make trouble anyway, and chaos and death and doom, he might as well get started right now and show them all.

Or he tried to help and things went wrong. Somehow. Inevitably. Even if he beat back the fafflenarg stampede and re-stabilized the cliff side and saved the boy (though that was supposed to be the girl’s job.

Gil wasn’t the one who first found the strange travellers in their stranger, fire-powered ship, but he pushed his way forward to see them as soon as they were admitted for an audience. It was little surprise to anyone that, before the War Queen could announce a traditional sort of tournament to determine who in the War Clan would accompany them back to Europa, Gil stepped forward and requested the honor himself. A few more, but not many, were surprised that Zantabraxus agreed. (Far out of her hearing it was muttered: it was about time she wrote the boy off.)

---

Gil was very, very irritated. In fact, he was furious. In fact, he had been locked in a cell for ten days because a gang of pirates had attacked and killed everyone on his explorers’ ship—everyone but him, that is, because they had thought his Skifandrian clothes and gear looked excitingly foreign. Meaning he’d probably fetch a good price at a slave market. He’d gathered later, at least. He hadn’t known—hadn’t even fought back—at the time, because he’d been too busy burning with fever and dreaming that the room was upside-down and snarfrats were crawling on the walls.

Now he was awake, and back in his right mind, or as back in his right mind as he could be with the Gift raging in his veins. He wasn’t a warrior, but he’d trained enough, and the pirates weren’t expecting him to be up, much less hanging from the ceiling. Of course heirographics wouldn’t work this far out of the Valley but he’d studied Europan science as well, and it wasn’t as if it was difficult to derive the firing mechanism of an elementary kinematic-projective gun. Or a heat laser, or the larger plasma bullet cannons

There weren’t a lot of pirates left after he was done. Nor a lot of ships. Any ships. Out of what looked like it had been a fleet, until about fifteen minutes ago.

And Gil wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here. To this foreign peninsula with no food or shelter, no Queens or kin or working heirographics (beyond what was already fixed in his knife and a few odds and ends of gear.) He had studied Europan scientific principles, but he only really knew the basics—same for the language.

And he had no idea how to get home.

It wasn’t easy to find a live pirate in the wreckage, but eventually Gil dug one out of a burning ship. The man was coughing, and bleeding from a massive splinter in one leg, but otherwise intact.

Gil shook him by the hair. “How did I get here?”

[We deserve a moment’s perspective switch here. Imagine that you are a pirate, innocently playing dice with some of your bunkmates, sneaking a spare moment of fun in the bustle of preparations before your fleet goes to reclaim your commander’s lost queendom. Then, out of the blue, another ship fires on you. Another of your ships. Everything is fire and chaos, too fast for anyone to react and who even knows how to react—fire back? On your own ship? More importantly the deck is falling, in flames, and there’s screaming and your friends are dying and eventually it all fades a little—the screams, at least—and you’re just lying there, soot-stained and bleeding, trapped under a fallen sail with licking flames creeping slowly closer…

And then someone pulls you out, and for half a moment you think it’s a friend—but no, this is no pirate that you know: it’s a madboy, hair crazed and eyes worse, mismatched clothes torn and singed and he doesn’t even seem to notice, not with that sharp knife and voice athrum with some strange, growling accent, and eyes gleaming with spark as he shakes you like a ragdoll. “How did I get here?”]

The pirate cringed in his grip. “I don’t know, sir!”

He didn’t look like he was lying. Too scared. “Is anyone more alive who knows?”

“I don’t know!”

Gil dropped him again. It wouldn’t hurt the man—they were away from the burning ship. He whimpered anyway, and tried to back away—dragging that leg, which really was bleeding rather profusely.

“Oh, ashes.” Gil never liked hurting people. It was just so…shouldn’t be necessary. He glanced around for a bandage, Gift-rage starting to fade.

He’d sort of destroyed the entire pirate fleet, hadn’t he. That was a lot of people hurt. Killed. Damn it!

“I’m sorry.” A scrap of sail made decent bandage, even though the pirate froze at Gil’s touch. Field medicine, at least, was the same everywhere. “Does this hurt?” And he knew enough Romanian to carry on the conversation.

What Gil really needed, he mused as he poked through a couple more ships for survivors, was transportation. He could search the world for Skifander on foot—or maybe just search Europa for his missing family—but it would go much faster if he could reconstruct one of these ships. He’d built purely mechanical flying machines before. Sort of. Tried to. On a small scale. These mostly looked balloon-based; that was easy enough to build, even from scraps. And the principles of aerodynamics hadn’t changed…

.

Some number of hours later, Gil startled out of a fugue when a warning shot slammed through his right shoulder. At least, he assumed it was a warning shot—the woman pointing a gun at his head (when he looked up from the engine he’d been building, now sprayed with blood) didn’t look like the sort who missed the kill on accident. Long hair tied in a tight, battle-ready tail and eyes almost literally burning with rage, she didn’t look like the sort who missed very much ever. There was a small group of pirates behind her, including the handful of new assistants Gil had patched up, all equally armed and (he guessed) nearly but not quite as dangerous as the pirate Queen.

(Gil wasn’t an idiot. He knew a War Queen when he saw one. It was almost a relief, one familiar thing in this topsy-turvy land when he couldn’t even get the glyphs on his hunting knife to light up and wasn’t sure when the last time he’d eaten or slept had been.)

Okay, sleeplessness wasn’t particularly abnormal. Nor was raising his hands defensively and saying, “I can explain!”

The Pirate Queen fired another shot into his leg with a snarl. Gil yelped and clutched at the wound. Sunlight glinted off the miniature metal skull bound to her forehead.

What the hell did you do to my fleet?

---

The merchant ship was impressive, its balloon a deep, rich purple and its extensive cabin sleek and shining in the bright Croatian sun. The warning shot that singed its prow, a blazing orange-white fire-blast against the clear sky and dark envelope, was even prettier.

Captain DuPree’s shout chased it, amplified by a cone-shaped device Gil had invented as part of his extended apology. “Ahoy, Precious Gilt! We’re pirates! Let us aboard and we’ll kill you all horribly!”

“Um,” said Gil, beside her on the bridge of the fleet’s new flagship. The first, somewhat haphazardly built part of that apology. That in mind, he tried to phrase his question diplomatically. “I’m still not perfect at Romanian but…should that not be ‘or’? Not ‘and’?”

DuPree looked at him blankly. “I don’t follow.”

Precious Gilt replied before Gil could, with cannonballs. Gil staggered as his ship shook. DuPree whooped as she yanked the lever to return fire. Literally. The merchants had clearly hoped to knock the pirates out of the air in one go, but Gil had built turbines into the bottom of the ship to keep it aloft even if the gas envelope failed.

Then one of them blew, pitching him and half the small crew across the tilting floor. But at least the merchant ship was falling as well, envelope aflame.

Gil stole the megaphone back once they were both grounded. “My name is Gilgamesh, son of Chump!” he hollered. “Do any of you know of Skifander, or how to go there?”

They were a lot closer now, guns leveled at the frightened merchant crew trying to escape their burning ship without running straight into the pirates. So Gil could see a couple of them confer frantically at his question. A woman’s voice rose from behind a creaking bulkhead. “Are we more or less likely to die if we don’t?”

“It isn’t my choice,” he said apologetically. Holding the megaphone out of DuPree’s scowling reach.

“Oh.” Gilt’s crewwoman was clearly disappointed. “Then no, I don’t think anyone’s heard of it.”

“Oh,” Gil said much more quietly. He hadn’t expected they would, really. It was a hidden valley, after all. And he’d only been in Europa for a couple weeks.

Captain DuPree kicked him in the kneecap but abandoned the fight for the megaphone anyway. Instead she jumped off their ship and fired her pistol through Gilt’s last unshattered window, conjuring a burst of flame as oxygen rushed in. “Enough boring talk, people! We’re stealing this ship now!”

Right. Gil hopped the rail and followed her, ignoring the knock to his injured leg. He really did need more frames if he was going to rebuild all the ships he’d destroyed. And a look at a non-broken engine would be great.

Something flickered at the corner of his eye as he helped restart Precious Gilt’s internal anti-fire system, to minimize the damage (while DuPree and most of the rest of the pirates rounded up the merchant crew for…probably shooting them. Maybe recruiting them. They did need more people, especially if they were getting a second ship.)

The second time, it was a whisper of air against the back of his neck, an extra brush of movement where there should have only been an empty pantry. (Even inventors got hungry. These merchants had fresh fruit! No narfruit like home, but Gil had found “strawberries” to be delicious.)

He might not have thought anything of it, but that was the sort of mistake made by someone who’d never explored skleer-infested caves in the Deep Caverns. Or, gotten lost in them. Skleer were also known as “phantom snakes.”

The third time, Gil was talking with DuPree at the mouth of the new engine room. He’d been hoping to find a Europan mechanic in the merchant crew, but the best they’d had had gotten himself shot by “talking too much.” The Pirate Queen was demanding to know why he hadn’t already gotten the thing flying; Gil was trying to explain again that he just barely understood the chemistry behind the combustion process; he needed more than a day and he really he needed to refine it if they wanted a ship worth flying into battle. Maybe if she hadn’t killed the engineer

There wasn’t a blink of a shadow where there shouldn’t have been one so much as an odd lack of shadow where there should have been, and DuPree’s knife hit it half a second before Gil’s full-bodied tackle.

“It” materialized into a young man in a deep purple cloak, with red hair and tiny glasses knocked off his nose by the force with which his head hit the piston cabinet.

That didn’t stop him from shoving Gil back with even greater force, and no doubt he would have disappeared again if Gil hadn’t hooked his ankle as he fell. They ended up in a pile on the floor again.

“Don’t move!”

DuPree shot before she’d even finished speaking. This time Gil’s left shoulder was in the way, but only enough to get nicked in passing. The redhead was less lucky—Gil heard the crack of bullet on bone. That arm was not going to be sneaking around in anything but a cast. Blood and bone both spilled through the skin.

“Get out of the way, crazy!” She pulled Gil aside by the shoulder she’d just shot, and leveled her gun at the redhead. “You’ve got to watch out for these sneaky purple guys. They all work for the law.”

Clutching his arm, DuPree’s boot on his chest, the redhead spared a moment from his burning glare to roll his eyes. “Believe me, even by your abominable standards—”

DuPree adjusted her stance to press down on his shattered humurus instead. Bone crunched. The redhead let out a faint, shocky whine, turning even whiter than before. Captain DuPree grinned.

Then she sighed, and cocked her pistol. “Nah, probably too much trouble.”

“Wait!”

Gil and the redhead exclaimed as one, but it was Gil who yanked her arm up to send the shot into the engine instead. It sent up a gust of steam, which was probably bad.

“What?” DuPree snapped, pulling away. “You’re in charge of fixing ships, kid, not prisoners.”

“But I need this one!” Gil begged, and refused to let go of her arm. “You can see, he has the spark! Hear his voice? He can teach me how science works!” He glanced down at the redhead. “Yes? You know how engines work, and flying, and death light beams?” And the Pirate Queen wouldn’t care but Gil really wanted to know more about the local plant life, and whether it was true that some Europans had two spleens, and how legendary thunderstorms could be summoned—it wasn’t a sort of storm they got in Skifander much, but he’d heard stories about Gifted—Sparks—here.

“…Yes?” the redheaded Spark managed. He looked like he was about to faint. DuPree’s boot was still on his arm.

“Yes!” Gil repeated. He pushed her pistol gently back down towards her belt. “Please?”

Captain DuPree groaned. “This is going to be exactly like when I let Deathwish keep that pet pteranobat.”

---

The traveling circus shot back, which was surprising. Not the first time, when it was just a half-hearted volley of arrows and one small blaster of some sort, but the second, after Gil explained that he and his crew were going to take all their gold, weapons, and any spare warriors—“spare” by Gil’s standards, not the players’. The circus wasn’t trying to rebuild a full pirate fleet, after all.

“Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size!”

What was surprising was the blast from the side, blue-white energy searing from the muzzle of a blaster held by a girl only a little larger than her weapon. She was knocked backwards as much as the ship was—her stance was unbalanced, and her bright green dress looked like it had started life in a clean castle, not the Wastelands. Her hair shone golden in the sunlight, and her eyes sparked even brighter, hard and clear.

All of this, Gil noticed as he more or less landed at her feet—on, it should be noted, his feet. He’d had practice being thrown from explosions even before he came to Europa.

“Hey!” he said brightly. “You missed my introduction. I’m Gilgamesh, son of Chump. Have you ever heard of Skifander?”

He glanced back as he said it, to make sure his crew was all right, and the ship. It wasn’t one of their big ones, just a scout really, for the last round of recruitment-and-supply runs before they set sail for DuPree’s lost queendom. Gil didn’t bother to stifle a glow of pride at that—it’d taken nearly three years (he’d been stuck here, lost, for three years) but he’d really built something, better than it was before.

This particular ship was a loss, little but ash and splinters. But everyone looked like they’d made it, all going back to back now, weapons out—Sally with her machete, Big Mac with the knife-launcher, and Enni’s double pistols and Therese limping but glaring through her scope, and Jimmy’s laser eye and sword leg both whirring, ready.

It had been three years. Gil had friends now. He introduced himself as a reflex, a trademark—sometimes to buy time.

He certainly wasn’t expecting the sparky girl to squint at him (while trying to whallop him with the butt of her blaster) and say, “Skifander…oh, the ‘warrior queen’s hidden jewel’? Why?”

This time Gil genuinely fell at her feet. Partly because she successfully whalloped him.

---

The only light in the tunnels below Sturmhalten was from the sewer muck, green and luminescent. Still, there was enough for Gil to catch sight of a familiar flicker turning across the fork ahead of the rescue party, like a lack of shadow moving through the dim light. Familiar from years spent teasing phantom snakes, and three weeks in Europa that had ended far too soon. He didn’t think; he just drew a knife from his belt and threw it, and was rewarded with a muffled yelp as he sprinted forward and caught the hooded figure against the tunnel wall.

“Oh, god no,” it choked, face hidden in shadow. “No no no no this cannot be happening to me right now. What are you doing here?

Tarvek?” Gil pushed the hood back to reveal wine-red hair and wide, slightly wild eyes in a pale face. He split into a grin, and pulled his friend and once-prisoner into a tight hug. “Tarvek! I thought you’d jumped over the edge and died! Tinka didn’t say you were alive!”

Tarvek slipped out of his grasp, reappearing several feet away.Tinka? What did you do to her?

“Wha—nothing! Oh, don’t worry, we didn’t attack the circus. I mean, I did a little, but Agatha…”

He came back to the situation a little, and eyed Tarvek with suspicion. “What are you doing here? You’re working with the princess—what do you know? Is the prince going to do something to Agatha?”

Tarvek eyed him right back, and Krosp and the jägers who had caught up by now. He closed his eyes in the expression Gil recognized as I would like the world to stop spinning so that I can have a rest. “I think I trust that you did not take my card from the Muse’s broken, dissected corpse.” He sounded faintly surprised to say it.

“Of course not!” said Gil, stung.

Tarvek kept his eyes closed. “And you’re chasing after the Girl. Naturally. Because this is my life.”

---

Tarvek skidded to a halt at the chapel doors, Gil just barely managed to not run into him, and Oggie, Maxim and Dimo all but tripped over themselves not crashing into Gil.

“Agatha!”

Gil didn’t know why Tarvek had stopped. Yes, the walls were decorated with paintings and statues of a woman who looked a little like Agatha—though some of the statues reminded Gil of nothing so much as art of Ashtara in her manifestation as the Fertile Mother. And the room was crowded with Geisterdamen—Gil hadn’t known they ever went indoors—and one of them had a young woman with short red hair by the arm, in a grip that didn’t look comfortable. Probably the princess. And there was an odd throne of sorts, with far too much machinery on top to be anything but fascinating.

But the center of everyone’s attention was Agatha, twirling and laughing exultantly as if she’d just invented something particularly genius. Gil loved that laugh. It was like sparkling wine in sunlight, bright and intoxicating.

Except it…wasn’t quite right, here and now. There was too much ice in it. Especially when she heard his shout and stopped to stare at them through narrowed eyes. “Who—”

Tarvek’s hand only slapped over Gil’s mouth for half a second before he slid to one knee, graceful as a snake. But his nails left stinging imprints.

“Lady Heterodyne,” Tarvek said with just a little too much emphasis. “I’m delighted to see you…here. As you can see, I brought your other friends as well.”

There was also an odd inflection on the your. At least Agatha looked as skeptical as Gil felt.

“And you are?” she said haughtily.

“Lord Tarvek Mondarev, my lady.” He got to his feet. “The Order sends their compliments, and apologizes if your journey was in any way inconvenient.”

She sniffed, scornful. “I’m sure they do. What have those old fools gotten wrong this time?” She glanced around the room. “Where is Aaronev?” Her gaze landed on the jägers and she amended, “That is, the prince?”

Gil had been the butt of a great many escape attempts; when Tarvek’s hand twitched as Agatha spoke, he clamped his hands over his nose and mouth and concentrated on not breathing. So he was one of the few people who did not, a moment later, slump to the floor. Not asleep, at least—Tarvek wasn’t the only one who could play the fool.

Voice muffled behind a breath mask, Tarvek rushed over to the princess. Gil watched through slitted eyes.

“Violetta, what happened? How did she get here? Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine.” She had only wavered when her Geister captor fell, donned a mask almost as quickly as Tarvek. She shrugged off his fussing touch, but the way she was breathing, Gil judged her about half a minute from bursting into tears. “Where have you been?!”

“Vienna. Tell me what’s going on.”

“I—Father—” She took several deep, shuddery breaths.

Tarvek wandered back towards the rescue party. Eyes closed, Gil tensed, ready to jump up. Agatha was still knocked out, and had been acting strangely before that. This rescue was not over.

Then Agatha stirred, groaning softly. Though the Geisterdamen and even the jägers remained unconscious.

“That was adroit, I suppose,” she said, sitting up. Drowsiness dropped away with every word. “It’s a pity about the priestesses, but it does take rather a lot to take down a jägermonster.” Her new tone was dry and condescending, and didn’t sound like Agatha at all.

Gil had opened his eyes when Agatha spoke, and accidentally met Tarvek’s. Otherwise he would never have seen Tarvek’s flicker of dread. Neither of them moved a centimeter.

Wait, Tarvek mouthed, and turned back to Agatha, perfectly composed. Gil closed his eyes and listened to the cloth-shift of a short bow.

“Again, I apologize for the inconvenience. Lady Lucrezia, I presume?”

---

Gil didn’t catch up until they were almost back to the circus wagons. Lucrezia was arguing with Krosp, Maxim, Oggie and Dimo, while a new man Gil didn’t recognize watched for trouble—though he stood close enough to be listening. He saw Gil first.

“…troops were shooting townspeople,” Lucrezia was snapping. It was definitely her; Agatha didn’t sound that haughty when she wasn’t acting or deep in her Gift. “If they’ll do that—”

“That’s not Agatha!” Gil crossed the final distance at a sprint and slapped his hand over her mouth.

“Vot?” chorused the jägers. All three had tensed up when he touched her, ready to attack.

Lucrezia slammed a fist into his bandaged shoulder and pulled away as he winced. The stuff Tarvek gave him was good but it wasn’t perfect.

“Of course I’m Agatha! Why would you—”

Her expression softened, and she reached up to cup his cheek gently in one hand, all big green eyes and kind voice. “Oh no, they gave you something, too, didn’t they? I got amnesia for a while. And you’re wounded.” Her fingers played over his bandages, and trailed down his bare arm.

Bandages which were there because she had shot him not eight hours ago. But for half a second he believed her, if only because he desperately wanted her to be Agatha again.

But she wasn’t. Gil shoved her hand away. “No.” Turned desperately to the jägers. “You’re Mechanicsburgers—you can’t hum like she does, can you? That’ll let Agatha—”

“Move,” Lucrezia said firmly, taking him by the same wounded arm. Gil’s breath caught at the pull. She dragged him toward the wagons, trailing the others. “We need to get out of here before Klaus finds us.”

“That might be more difficult than you had anticipated.”

The Baron's voice was cold as he stepped from the props wagon.

At least, Gil assumed it was him. There was little to doubt, really: there was a Wulfenbach pin at his throat, he dressed much like the actors who played him in the Heterodyne show, and Lucrezia gasped, “Klaus!” when she saw him. Even as Gil fought the instinct to shove her behind himself for protection. It wasn’t just Agatha—the Empire had been hunting the DuPree fleet hard for the last year. Gil’s knife was already in his hand.

The Baron caught sight of him. “Gilgamesh! Of Skifander?

Years of training meant Gil didn’t drop his blade. Just barely. “You speak Skiff?

Yes, I speak Skiff! What are you doing—”

Suddenly the Baron fell back, choking.

---

Gil was around the back of the coffee house, converting its heating pipes to a steamer system, when suddenly his assistants collapsed with three quiet thumps, one after another. Holding his breath and raising his shirt to his face against the C-gas, he caught the second minion’s wrench as it fell, tightened a last bolt and turned around and smacked the gun out of the soldier behind him. There were two more: he shoved the first, now empty-handed, into the second, and charged the third with all the madness running through him. He’d been working! The third man—a woman, actually—went down to a solid knock from the wrench, and Gil stole her gun to spin around and shoot a leg out from under the first man—literally. Bang would have been proud of the kneecap.

The second man shot back; he still had his weapon, unfortunately. Gil ducked, returning fire—and completely missed the second woman, who swept his legs out from under him with a smooth kick.

Then it was a fistfight and a wrestling match, still all silent as the C-gas dissipated, and Gil all but froze a few strikes in because this woman—young, lithe, strong—fought like a Skifandrian.

Half a moment’s pause was all she needed to get him flat on his stomach with three out of four limbs in holds that would break bones if he moved. He didn’t, because her hair dangled across his face as she leaned down and it was green.

“You’re the pirate, right? Gilgamesh, son of Chump?” Her speech was pure Romanian, but she didn’t scoff at his father’s name, or trip over his own.

“Yes. Who are you?” His curiosity wasn’t Gift-mad anymore, but he couldn’t have held back the question for all the gold in Zik’s vaults.

She didn’t answer him. “Hawkins?”

“Here, ma’am.” Someone—the first man, by the sound of it; Gil must not have hit him as hard as he’d thought—knelt beside them, and half a minute later a collar clicked around Gil’s throat. He would have fought harder if he hadn’t been busy craning for a look at the green-haired “Ma’am’s” face.

Before he could decide it was worth it to dislocate the shoulder, she dropped her hold and offered him a hand up instead. She wore something like an airwoman’s uniform but ten times more fine and formal, despite the wrinkles from the fight. All dark teals and gold, with a winged castle at her throat. Familiar eyes.

“I am Zeetha Wulfenbach,” she said, and Gil hoped his gaping looked like surprise because…it was, but he couldn’t think to explain just how.

“You serve the Empire, now,” she said, too businesslike to be self-satisfied. She flicked the collar around his throat with a faint ting. “Or I will blow your head across several walls. There’s going to be an army at the gates in a couple hours, and I need something sufficiently big and sparky to wipe the floor with them.”

“I’m big and sparky?” Gil was not done gaping.

Zeetha’s eyes narrowed like she thought he was being flippant. There was more than enough steely determination in them to make up for the lack of Gift. “You’re going to invent me something that is.”