by J.M. Frey
This short is very spoilery.
Only read this if you have already finished both books in The Skylark’s Saga duology.
Robin coughed and shoved her work goggles up onto her forehead, only faintly amused by the curl of dark smoke that puffed by her face. The edges of the black cloud swirled into nothingness, stirred by a second violent exhale.
“Gee, thanks, WINGS,” she sighed once she had her breath back. She smeared the back of her thick work glove along her cheek. It came away black with soot and mechanical grease, burnished with oily rainbows under her amber work lamp.
Her skin was hot, but it didn’t feel like she’d been burnt. The faint acrid scent of singed hair lingered in the air, and she wondered how much eyebrow she had left. If that wasn’t where the smell was coming from, then she must have shortened the wisps of hair that always clung to her ears when she tried to put her hair back in a messy bun.
Gently, soothingly, she patted the casing of the rocket pack splayed open on the workbench like a flayed bird.
“Look, I don’t like taking you to pieces like this any more than you like being taken to pieces,” Robin crooned. “But you are full up with rust and other, uh, stuff, and . . . just . . . I want you to be healthy, you understand? So no more spitting up on me.”
The casing made the soft pinging sound she liked so much as it cooled down.
“Please?” she added, for good measure, because WINGS was the type of machine that sometimes needed a bit of sweet-talking, as well. She brushed her fingers gently across the lines of script stamped into the casing’s side—Frankinese, Saskwyan, and Klonnish—digging her fingernail into one of the grooves. Velph would have teased her for talking to the pack, for calling it a “her,” and for asking nicely. It would have been annoying, and haughty, and a little bit snide. And she would have given anything for him to be needling her right now.
“Keep nattering to that thing, and it might just talk back,” said a voice from the doorway. Robin’s heart leapt into her throat, and she whirled around, hope building against grief and—
The entire frame was blocked by Taddeus Thorne.
Never again Velph.
Robin swallowed what was left of her heart and offered Thorne a shaky smile, blinking hard, forcing herself to see the person in front of her, and not the one she’d been hoping for. Not the one she would never see again.
Thorne had voted himself Robin’s bodyguard, and had made her security measures his personal mission ever since . . . well, just since. He followed in her footsteps exactly like a big, mountain-sized shadow. And now he was throwing said mountain-sized shadow from the hallway onto Robin’s worktop.
“Wouldn’t mind if she did speak to me,” Robin admitted, pulling the gas lamp closer to the worktable to dispel the shadows. She leaned over WINGS to peer at the fuel hose. It was still intact, so the small backfire hadn’t happened inside the casing—ah, the output ports, then. Robin grabbed the lamp’s flexible neck and yanked it after her as she crouched at the end of the bench, staring up into WINGS’s belly. “At least then she could tell me what was wrong. She’s rattling something awful when I climb to cruising altitude, and that pretty song she makes when the blades are deployed is a bit strained. I’m afraid that . . . some, uh . . . you know . . . when I . . . I think some, uh . . . got into the casing, and it’s all gummed up with . . .” blood, she wanted to say, but couldn’t. Brains. Flesh. “You don’t normally bother coming inside, though. Were you worried about the backfire? Or did you—?”
Robin turned to Thorne, and the rest of her words jammed up behind her teeth. Thorne’s expression was completely poleaxed. His pale eyes rounded comically at the sight of her face, and he doubled over, wheezing with surprised mirth. He laughed like a mountain, too—rumbling, and gravelly, and shaking all over like an earthquake in the foothills.
Robin stared at the thatch of his dark, ashy hair and pursed her lips. “Har, har. I suppose I’m all-over soot?”
“Rosa will be unhappy,” Thorne chortled. “You have walked out halfway through dressing again.”
“No, I didn’t. I—” Robin looked down at her attire to prove him wrong—and couldn’t.
Her heavy oilcloth work apron had taken the brunt of the messy blast, but he was right: she was wearing her good silk stockings and bloomers, her white silk chemise, and her corset—the blue one covered in feathered embroidery that Rosa insisted she wear when she was to be squeezed into one of those Klonn dresses built to emphasize the curves Robin didn’t have.
“Apparently. But I had a thought, you know? The intake manifold could be tweaked to—oh, and of course, there’s the rattling, which I think can be solved by scouring the—” Robin said. She turned back to WINGS, pushing her goggles back down over her eyes, and then paused, oilcloth gloves hovering over the pack’s innards. Another thought had occurred to her, like a god had reached into her head and flicked a propeller into motion, and she clicked her teeth closed on the rest of what she’d been about to say. Instead, she added: “You didn’t come in here because of the backfire.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
“I’ve forgotten something again.”
“Something important?” Robin asked, dread knotting underneath her sternum. She pushed her gloves down her wrists and yanked them off her fingers.
“Hells.” Robin stripped off her work apron and goggles, and laid them over WINGS’s exposed innards like one would tuck a child into bed. “What?”
“The new Saskwyan ambassador arrived today. You have a carriage ride through the gardens to attend,” a second, feminine and unmistakably annoyed voice sounded from behind Thorne. He gave Robin an exaggerated wink, and then stepped aside and abandoned Robin to her fate.
Maederia Rosa stood seething in the doorway, hands on her ample hips, lipstick an angry red slash across her face. “Your Majesty,” she added, which was really—when coming from Rosa—just another way of saying, “You idiot.”
“Oh, buggering Omens,” Robin said. “I’m sorry.”
“You are always sorry,” Rosa rejoined. She held out her hand, finger flickering at Robin in her patented “Come along, now, dear” move. “And yet you continue to wander off to your workshop mid-task. Robin, I swear, as your Mistress of the Glass, I will chain you to your throne if you do not begin to take this seriously. It has been months now—”
“I do take it seriously,” Robin said, crossing the room and squeezing between Rosa’s ample frame and the doorjamb. The hallway beyond was rife with stabbing yellow sunlight, and Robin winced as her eyes adjusted from the dimmer glow of her private workshop’s concentrated lamplight. “And you would never chain me.”
“Try my patience, and you will soon see, Your Majesty,” Rosa said. “I will walk you around the palace with a golden chain attached to your wrist, like a pet bird.” Rosa reached into one of the seemingly endless array of pockets she secreted into her bustles and pulled out a comb. “Now, march.”
“That would be undignified,” Robin said, walking down the hallway, as ordered, all the same. If there was one thing that Rosa had discovered—to Rosa’s distinct advantage and Robin’s disadvantage—it was that Robin had been a soldier in the Air Patrol long enough that an order barked in just the right tone would always make her body leap into motion before logical thought caught up.
Rosa reached out as Robin passed her and, with great practice, pulled on the leather thong tying back Robin’s hair. The bun tumbled out. Rosa matched her pace to Robin’s, and set about trying to tame the tangle of white locks into a smoothly hanging sheet, feet moving in perfect tandem to Robin’s own.
Thorne followed after them like a rowboat caught in the jetty of a first-rate ship of the line, as helpless to resist Rosa’s nagging as Robin was, bemusement in the lines of his eyes.
“This is undignified, Your Majesty,” Rosa corrected. “I am sure that no other Queen of Klonn has ever had to be chased all over the palace to properly complete her toilette. Uhg! Soot! Black soot in your white hair.”
Rosa attacked the locks beside Robin’s ears with plenty of vigor, and a handkerchief that had materialized from her bodice.
Hair smoothed, Rosa moved around to Robin’s front, walking backward in her voluminous skirts and simultaneously, it seemed, putting away the comb to retrieve a damp, rose-scented cloth from her bustle (Where was she hiding that, that it didn’t leave a wet stain on the brocade?). She used it to wipe clean Robin’s face and neck, and then swapped it out for the contents of another pocket, pulling forth a fabric roll filled with what sparing cosmetics Robin would suffer. The brushes had already been dabbed in the various powders and creams and primed for immediate use, so all Rosa had to do was slip them out of their slots and attack Robin’s face.
“Hey! You’re getting really good at that,” Robin said, eyes on Rosa’s hem as she moved smoothly down the hall, hands flying across Robin’s cheeks. “You used to trip all the time.”
“I have had a lot of practice of late, Your Majesty,” Rosa said with a smirk. The former zentapi madam always wore her hair pinned back in a pile of red-tinted corkscrew curls coiled at the nape of her neck. One of them had come loose and was dangling right along her nose. She kept trying to blow it aside, but it stubbornly refused to yield. Robin laughed, and pushed it back behind Rosa’s ear for her. “Thank you. And do not smile. You will ruin the lipstick line.”
Robin bit the insides of her cheeks and kept her mouth still as Rosa painted on the glossy, golden color that she claimed complemented Robin’s bronze skin. Then, finished and apparently satisfied—for now—Rosa secreted away the cosmetics and held out Robin’s court goggles.
Right, about to be seen by the rest of the hullabaloo, then, Robin thought. She paused to don them, and they resumed walking.
At the first turn in the hall, they were ambushed by a pack of companions-in-waiting, armed with underpinnings and a dress.
“Traitors!” Robin teased as a pair of sharp fingers dove in to finish the half-completed task of lacing up the wretched corset. She thought they belonged to Drienna, but there were so many companions-in-waiting, and they seemed to be kept in such constant rotation, that she couldn’t be sure.
“Squeeze me all you like, girls,” Robin wheezed, “you’ll never force me to have a waist.”
“Careful. She may take that as a personal challenge, Your Majesty,” Grier replied with a cheeky wink. They were standing to the side, Robin’s belt in hand, waiting for their turn. Grier was one of the few people who had known Robin as the Skylark back in the zentapi, before she had become the Vigilante Queen. They were also one of the few who was comfortable enough to make sport with her like this.
“Just you wait,” Rosa assured Robin as she helped Drienna sweep a sea of gold brocade over Robin’s head. “One day, we will feed you up enough that you will lose all that desperate, wartime skinniness, and all that muscle in your stomach will turn soft and sweetly rolled.”
“And then, without the upper-body strength to pilot WINGS, I’ll fall right out of the sky,” Robin countered, just as gently.
As Rosa had made her opinion on the queen’s flittering about amid the clouds on a solo, weaponized rocket pack perfectly clear on a number of earlier occasions (that opinion being an emphatic, “stop it,” to which Robin had answered, “no”), neither said anything more on the subject.
The whole cadre of companions surged back into motion, a tightly run ship at full mast, and sailed toward the reception hall. With each footstep, the pile of glimmering fabric swirling around Robin’s shoulders and tripping up her feet somehow transformed into fluttering, elbow-length slit sleeves, an uncannily folded poof of a bustle, and a fitted bodice that showed off her narrow torso to great advantage, despite Rosa’s attempts to fatten her up.
The toilette convoy finished just as they reached the great white doors that separated them from the gardens. Coming into harbor now, Robin the flight mechanic had somehow been transformed into Robin the royal, resplendent in a suffocating corset and delicate, dainty shoes that pinched ever so slightly at the toes.
Robin missed her Skylark goggles, which were softer and didn’t tug at her hair if it was up in an elaborate style. She missed her leather trousers and her solid, practical boots. She missed being able to roll out of bed and be ready for the day in mere minutes, instead of having to sit in front of a vanity for hours as Rosa primped and polished and positioned. She missed being treated like a soldier, instead of like a woman.
But she wasn’t a soldier anymore. She was a queen, however reluctant. She had responsibilities, and expectations, and as much as it galled, Robin understood why this farce of fashion was necessary. To be taken seriously, she had to look serious. And there was nothing more serious than intimidating luxury.
That didn’t stop her from paring back the spending in the palace, however, rerouting it toward better causes—charities, assistance programs, infrastructure repair, hospitals, relief aid. Over the past months, it had become something of a fashion among the court to dress in something simpler, to re-wear or re-make a gown rather than buy a new one, to boast of how many ways one had helped the needy that week. It was shallow, and effacing, nothing more than courtiers copying the trend that Robin had set, but she didn’t care.
It was working, it was helping, and that’s all that mattered.
The retinue paused at the door, and though Robin would have preferred to open them herself, she waited for the footman to swing it wide. Expectations. Bah.
Sunlight stabbed into the hall, blinding her for just a brief moment, despite the goggles. And then she was swept down the stairs toward the middle carriage in a line of three. Thorne murmured in her ear as she went, reminding her that the first carriage would hold her honor guard; the second, the ambassador and herself, with Thorne riding in the rear guard position behind the open-air cab; and the third would hold Rosa, and the ambassador’s bodyguard.
Robin lingered at the bottom of the steps. The Saskwyan ambassador had his back to them, speaking in hushed tones with another Benne noble—likely his bodyguard—whom Robin couldn’t see clearly. Nerves wriggled in her stomach and she resisted the urge to fiddle with tassels at the end of her fluttered sleeves. She was absolutely dreading this.
She’d spent her whole life being talked down to by the nobles of Benne, and now that she had finally managed to gain control of the yoke—inasmuch as a queen ever really had control—she was faced with someone who would, the moment they realized she was Sealie, do everything they could to take it away from her.
This is one Sealie who will not do as she’s told. Not anymore, Robin reminded herself, gathering up her courage. The fact of her heritage had to come out, eventually. If not now, if not the moment the ambassador heard her speak, then likely when she pushed back on the allocation of the Wild Woods, or when the apiary expert she had invited to take employment at the Domed Palace arrived, or—gods of luck be on her side—when she managed to convince her parents to be among the first Saskwyan Sealies to move to Klonn with the promise of wagons and hives of their very own. One way or another, it would it would be discovered that the Vigilante Queen was Sealie; that she was Robin Arianhod, former pilot of the Saskwyan Air Patrol, thought to have been shot down over a year ago by the now deceased Coyote. And the instant he heard of it, King Auden would assume that he’d had suddenly had the good fortune, by the blessing of his All Mother, to become ruler of both nations; that Robin was a puppet who’d put herself onto the Klonnish throne for him.
I am Klonn, Robin reminded herself. I am of these people and for these people, as much as I am Sealie. As much as Velph was Sealie. And I will do right by his home, the people, and the duty he entrusted to me. She pressed her lips together hard in an effort to disguise their trembling. But by all the gods of all my ancestors, how I wish he was here to do this beside me.
The Saskwyan ambassador wore the flame-colored, formal uniform of a highly decorated Benne officer, rather than the bottle-green and fawn-brown she had worn during her time in the Air Patrol, and she wondered if he had ever actually served in combat. She’d requested that Auden send a veteran as liaison to help them parlay a treaty. But she realized now that she had no way to verify if her request had even been considered, let alone honored. Even if it had, this man could have been veteran of riding a desk, instead of a glider or a warhorse, and it would still technically count.
“Your Majesty?” Rosa prompted gently when Robin had hesitated too long on the final step.
“Right. Yes. Of course,” Robin said, sucking in as deep a breath as the corset would allow, throwing back her shoulders, and marching toward the waiting Benne.
Behind her, Rosa muttered something about needing another comportment lesson, but she followed dutifully nevertheless. One of the footmen blasted a soft note on a silly little copper trumpet, catching the attention of the mingling crowd of coachmen, gardeners, guards, and grooms.
The ambassador waved off the other Benne noble at its sound, sending them toward the third carriage. He then took a moment to adjust the lay of his clothes, seeming to self-consciously check himself over before he turned to face her, which was far more respectful that Robin had expected. He cared to make a good first impression, and she appreciated that. Closer up, she could see that his hair shone blond under his brimless cap, and his shoulders were broad, his figure trim—a former pilot, she decided, pleasantly surprised. Probably the son of a wealthy noble who’d never danced with the enemy—
The ambassador turned, cornflower-blue eyes shaded against the sun by his hand.
His only hand.
“Omens!” Robin breathed. She came to a halt so abrupt that Thorne bumped into her shoulder. “Oh, by all the gods of luck and all the omens of delight, they sent Wade.”
“Who?” Rosa asked, leaning in close to whisper, flicking open a fan to hide their words from prying lip readers who might be hiding in the verge. “Wait, Wade Perwink, as in your—?”
“My pilot!” Robin said, and threw herself across the courtyard, rucking up her skirts to run straight at him.
“Your Majesty!” Thorne called as she barreled into Wade, but it was too late.
The ambassador was stunned, too afraid to do anything more than grab the Klonnish queen by the shoulder to keep her from ricocheting off his broad chest.
“I, uh, beg your pardon, Your Majesty. I don’t—”
“Wade!” Robin whispered, hissing up at him, filled with fizzing delight. A friend. The King of Saskwya had sent to bargain on his behalf one of Robin’s only Saskwyan allies, and he never even knew it. Oh, the fool isn’t going to get anything now. “It’s me!”
Wade’s jaw dropped open, and his eyes popped wide. “Robin!” he gasped, though he had enough sense to keep his voice down. “What—how . . . ?”
Robin stepped back and grinned, grasping his hand between hers. Her own pilot’s scars were hidden by her gloves, but she could still feel his through them. “I told you once, in the air—make me king and I will find a way to end the war, didn’t I?”
Wade, stunned and pleased, just threw back his head and laughed.
Around them, Robin’s companions scuffled and whispered behind their sleeves, confused and gossiping. The grooms were too well-trained to react, while the guards were subtly wary, glancing to one another for reassurance or their cue. Rosa, exasperated, snapped her fan shut and stepped up so she could shield this private moment from view with her body, and Thorne moved in so close—in case he was needed—that Robin felt him tred on her train. There was a confused noise from the third carriage, the sound of someone slamming shut a door, and then the crunch of boots on the gravel path as Wade’s bodyguard decided it was time to actually do their job.
“Captain Perwink!” they shouted, and this voice grated up Robin’s spine. “Are you okay? What is the queen—?”
Fury, clean and clear, flooded Robin’s head, filling it with the angry buzz of bees. She jerked back, head whipping around, vision dark and red at the edges at the sound of that hated, hated voice.
“Move!” Robin shoved her friend to the side. It was rough, and she would have to apologize later, but right now, Rosa was between her and justice. Thorne caught Rosa around the waist, and they both stumbled back a step.
“Traitor!” Robin snarled, one hand balled in her skirts so she could stalk toward the approaching Benne noble, other hand pointed, accusatory, right between their eyes.
Utterly taken aback by this wrathful accusation, Captain Catherine Renge stumbled to a stop, skidding in the gravel. Her face immediately drained of all color.
“Murderer!” Robin screeched, the dark ball of hate that had calcified in her gut when she realized she was trapped in Klonn forever cracking open and flooding her insides, crawling out of her mouth—vile, and hot, and wonderful in this exact moment.
“What?” Renge said, falling back a step, looking startled and confused, empty hands up in a plea of understanding. Around them, the queen’s honor guard, in their ice-blue uniforms trimmed in queen’s copper, closed ranks. “Me?”
“You!” Robin confirmed, and shoved her so hard Renge toppled over, still too surprised to understand exactly why the Queen of Klonn was attacking her. “Guards, hold her!”
Renge tried to scramble away, but two of the guards grabbed her arms and hauled her back to her feet. Robin was viciously pleased to see that her palms were flecked with blood from where she’d scraped them on the gravel, her hair coming loose from its perfect bun.
“What have I done?” she squealed in horror. “Your Majesty, I’ve just arrived. I don’t—Ambassador!” She turned to Wade for help, but he remained where he was, face pointedly turned away.
This was between Robin and Renge. He wasn’t going to intervene. Whether because Robin was queen, or because he already knew what Renge had done, Robin wasn’t sure. She had no doubt, though, that when they’d heard report of Robin’s glider going down, the heartless cow would not have been able to resist her brag.
Robin took another step forward, getting right in Renge’s face. Rosa wound her arm around Robin’s, trying to hold her back in as dignified a manner as possible.
“Your Majesty, peace,” Rosa urged.
“Stay out of this,” Robin snapped.
“Think of the implications—”
“This woman is Captain Catherine Renge,” Robin said.
The name shattered against the air like crystal thrown against marble. Robin’s throat burned to have uttered it. Tears, scalding and thick, choked her voice, gathered at the bottom of her court glasses, made her chin tremble.
Rosa gasped, her grip going lax in shock. Wade’s eyes bounced between Renge and Robin, pity for one and spite for the other clear in his gaze. Thorne rolled onto the balls of his feet, preparing for whatever order Robin might decide to give next. And Renge, the wretched bitch, sneered at this foriegn queen and her quivering hatred the same way she had once sneered at Robin as she dumped out a pot of perfectly good honey in sheer spite.
“Who?” Grier whispered, when it seemed that the horrified silence would drag on forever.
Robin swallowed hard, lifted her chin, and reminded herself that she was a queen now. She took no orders, and she was not one to be sneered at. “Catherine Renge sabotaged the glider of Robin Arianhod and Alistair Brigid, the last two Saskwyans to ever be shot down by the Coyote.”
Grier gasped, and Rosa let go of Robin’s arm and took a theatrical step out of the way.
“Your Majesty, please—” Renge babbled, face draining again of all color as guilt and realization set in. “You can’t know that!”
“But I do,” Wade growled.
“That was—I told you that in confidence!”
“In pride, you mean,” Wade corrected her coldly. “You were drunk, and you were pleased. You were celebrating.”
“That’s Captain Perwink to you!” Wade snapped. “I never wanted you in this entourage, and now I have the perfect reason to send you back.”
“You can’t!” Renge wailed. “I’ll be shamed! I can’t show my face—”
“Not until after it’s healed, at least,” Wade agreed.
“Wha-what?” Renge said, words tumbling to a halt.
But it was Robin who answered. She released her skirts. She balled her fists. She pulled back an elbow.
And then, with a snarled, “This is for Al,” the Vigilante Queen punched the Saskwyan ambassador’s former bodyguard straight in the mouth.
Find out more about The Skylark’s Saga.