"What in the black flames do you think you're doing here?" Samanthi hissed.
Lundin glanced over his shoulder and shrugged defensively. The side room at the Petronaut warehouse was cramped, packed floor to ceiling with shelves and parts. This was where the carters had delivered the Melodimax and the squad's other gear, after the riotous feastday yesterday. Lundin drummed his fingers on top of the squawk box. "I'll come out in a moment," he said.
"You come out now," she said, stalking into the room. Samanthi was wearing a suspiciously dress-shaped garment over top of her cleanest slacks, and her hair was twirled into pretty, full-bodied curls not typically associated with rolling out of bed. Lundin, too, was in a glossy peacoat and had his boots blacked; though their shine wouldn't last, the way he was shuffling his feet. "The Princess and the Regents have the right to show up late. You, junior tech, do not."
"I just want a moment, please, Sam."
"You can have a moment in the hall, with the rest of us, as we wait for Her Royal Highness to give the Petronaut community her personal thanks. Does something about this sound optional to you?" She put her hands on her hips as he steadfastly refused to meet her eyes.
"Do you think Dame Miri and Sir Sigurd don't deserve to get medals?"
"Of course they do. They captured that wizard, and they almost died."
"Do you think Kelley and Mathias don't deserve medals for making that steward crack?"
"Of course they do."
"Are you bellyaching because we aren't getting medals? Because if that's it, I'll slap your face here and now."
"Damn right. Every Petronaut in this hall knows that it was all four of us who cracked this plot open, and their respect is more than enough reward for me. Besides, you and I know that the broader public isn't quite ready to hear that we've got magical machines ready to go yet."
"I know," Lundin said, his hand on the Melodimax.
"Kelley and Mathias were bound to get the public credit, even if we did announce what we did with the squawk box yesterday. The Regents would rather just deal with people with 'Sir' and 'Dame' in front of her names. That's life, Horace."
"I know that."
She sighed, looking at him. Samanthi punched him in the shoulder, as hard as she could. Lundin winced. "So what's your damn problem?" she demanded.
"It's too soon to celebrate," he said, quietly. Samanthi cocked her head. "You know who else got a medal yesterday? Ouste. 'For meritorious dedication in the protection and arcane restoration of Her Royal Highness.'"
"Hey, Lundin. What were we supposed to do?"
"She's still up there in that palace. She's got the trust of the Regents and the Princess more than ever before. And just because we stopped her once doesn't mean we have any hope of stopping her next time."
Samanthi put a hand on his shoulder, at gentle speed for once, not hitting speed. "At least we stopped her," she said, clearly troubled by it herself.
"I just feel like we let the Princess down. We don't even know what Ouste wanted. Or that steward. Or who that Petronaut was, or even where she was from."
"So there's more to do," she said. "That doesn't mean you don't stop to enjoy the fruits of your labor now. It just means you have a party, get drunk, and go back to work the next day."
Lundin smirked, shaking his head. "I'm always learning something from you, boss."
"If that were true, you wouldn't still be such an idiot." She grinned up at him.
The door to the main warehouse hall swung open. Sir Kelley stepped inside, his black-and-silver armor spotlessly clean. Mascarpone hovered in the doorway, his long hair slicked back. "Mister Lundin!" Kelley barked, his eyes hard but his mouth smiling. "Ms. Elena! So good to see you! Now why aren't you out on the floor, like a couple of reasonable people?" Kelley's mouth chomped open and closed several times after his words finished, and his forehead furrowed in confusion.
Lundin and Samanthi stared at him. "Coming out right now, Sir Kelley."
"Lundin was just being melancholy," Samanthi explained.
"Melancholy?" Kelley growled. "Of all the self-indulgent—! Stars and Spheres, Lundin, sometimes I just can't stand you. Sometimes I love you!" he said suddenly, his voice rising. His mouth flopped open and stayed that way for a long moment, until he used his hands to physically close it again. A certain bewildered frenzy was creeping into his eyes.
"Spell's wearing off," Samanthi whispered to Lundin, trying to avoid moving her mouth.
"Or getting worse," Lundin whispered back. "Funny; I thought I would be able to tell the difference between those two things."
Sir Mathias stepped forward and put a gentle hand on Kelley's shoulder. "You two should really come take your places out here," he said. "Dame Ellen said she spotted the Regents' coaches a few minutes ago."
"Excuse me," a female voice behind them said.
The technicians saw Mathias and Kelley's eyes go wide, and the two 'nauts dropped to one knee, heads bowed. Lundin and Samanthi turned around to see the forgotten side door to the outside swinging wide open. There in the doorway was a massive woman, easily as big as Mathias, in ceremonial blue and silver dress armor. Lady Ceres had a tight smile on her face, her hand resting lightly on the doorframe. Standing in front of her was a slight girl in a pale blue tunic with dark blue leggings. Were it not for the platinum bracelets on her wrists, or the jeweled diadem in her fawn-colored hair, Princess Naomi might have looked like any other midling girl, laughing and playing in the streets. But there was something else, in her deep brown eyes; a striking maturity, that told even a casual observer that this girl was beyond the ordinary.
The techs sank to their knees. "Hail to her Highness, hail to the Regents," the whole squad said in a confused, dutiful flutter.
"Please stand up," Ceres' warm voice carried through the room. Uneasy, they stood up, eyes fixed on the young Princess. Naomi smiled at them, her fingers fluttering. "Don't let the others know we're here yet. Her Highness says to be very quiet, just like her," Ceres translated with a grin.
The squad looked at each, at a loss. Do we laugh? Was that a joke? The unspoken questions flew between them. But Naomi's hands were already moving again, and Ceres continued to translate. "Before the award ceremony, Her Highness wanted to get a quick look into the, uh... the underbelly?"
Naomi rolled her eyes and moved her fingers again, tracing a low curve with the tip of her index finger. "The other side," Ceres corrected. "The other side of the Petronaut world. After everything you all did for her yesterday, she's quite interested in your work," Ceres explained.
"She takes after Queen Tess, then?" Sir Kelley asked tentatively, his mouth behaving for once.
Ceres laughed; a low, throaty sound. "Looks like she will," she said. "Her Majesty was never happier than when she was hearing about some new machine."
"Our technicians would be honored to show you anything you want to see, your Highness," Sir Mathias said, bowing his head. Naomi nodded back, a smile on her lips.
Lundin turned, wide-eyed. "Sir Mathias, Sir Kelley," he said, his mouth dry. "Wouldn't you rather be the ones to, uh, tour the gear with Her Royal, uh?" he trailed off, star-struck.
Mathias shook his head, grinning. "Her Highness said she wants to see the Petronaut underbelly. And I'm afraid that's you two."
"Besides," Sir Kelley said, raising his face into an almost-normal smile with great difficulty. "Petronauts are always only as good as their technicians. Ask away, Your Highness."
"Go on," Ceres encouraged. "What would you like to know about?"
Naomi's eyes swept the room. They fell on the dented Melodimax, with the stacks and stacks of plate-sized metal disks piled up all around it. Princess Naomi laid a hand on the cabinet, her other fingers signing at breakneck pace.
"'This looks like a squawk box,'" Ceres said, frowning. "'But so many disks! You listen to music while you work?'"
Lundin and Samanthi looked at each other. They'd talked it over for a long time during the feastday, and decided that the city wasn't ready to hear that mechanized wizardry was a reality. Between the hype and the hysteria, the advocates and the naysayers who would all come crawling out of the woodwork, too much publicity now would destroy the idea before it even began. It wasn't about publicity right now, they decided; it was just about the joy of taking a chaotic slice of the world and seeing if their Petronaut ways could bring a little order and a little understanding. Ulraexi Pillok Mentatum Est. They wanted to dig their minds into the problem as independent researchers for just a little while longer.
With massive publicity, in the best-case scenario, their work would be taken away from them. There were any number of worst-case scenarios, and almost all of them involved Ouste figuring out who had enchanted her.
But here was Princess Naomi, daughter of Queen Tess, the greatest friend the Petronaut community had ever known, resting her hand on their mechanical mage and looking up with expectant brown eyes. The two techs took a deep breath.
"Actually, Your Highness," Samanthi said, stepping closer to the heir, "this is a special project we've been working on in secret; so secretly, that not even all the Petronauts know about it."
"'I'm a head of state, almost. I can keep all kinds of secrets,'" Ceres translated, shaking her head. Princess Naomi gestured at them, her foot stomping and palms splayed open in a movement that needed no translation. What is it?
"Your Highness," Lundin said, his face almost as alive with excitement as hers, "It's a wizard."
Princess Naomi's brown eyes went wide.
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