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Mina

A Photographic Novella in Twenty Episodes 1


Text and Makeup by Jennifer Broome

Photography by Allie Mullin

Š2012. All Rights Reserved 2


Prologue

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In a time outside our own, in a place we can only imagine, there lives a girl named Mina. She is at this moment a singularly unhappy girl. If we peer down onto her, we can see her in the courtyard of a school, walled in by stones and shadows. There is a towering edifice behind her, composed of bricks piled in so haphazard a fashion it seems impossible that they support their brothers above. The entire building culminates in a peaked roof with fearsome gargoyles guarding against invaders. What type of invaders, we shall not venture to guess, but surely there were some to warrant such a frightful barricade‌

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Let us leave our suppositions for the moment and return to the child Mina.

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She is reading—or possibly rereading—a letter, blotting it with her tears.

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A closer look at this singular missive reveals much:

Dear Mina, I write you because I know that this new home frightens you. You have grown up as happy as a motherless child could. I know well how you joyed in swimming the calm waters of the river, foraging for herbs in the sunny forest, learning to chop wood for fires and puzzling over one of the few books I was able to buy for you. But the day had to come when I could teach you no more. You are a child bound for great things, and the skills I can teach you—the life I can give you—is not the only wisdom to be found in this world. I have loved you, daughter of my heart, since you were born. Though your mother died giving birth to you, she loved you with all of her being, just as I do. Even now, my old eyes can see your 7


mother, smiling down at you. I can see her removing the jade beads from her alabaster neck—the ones you now wear—and reverently placing them in your tiny hand. It was the last thing she did before she died.

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My daughter, I love you more than I can say. If I could do anything, I would keep you with me forever. But I am an old man, and like your mother, I am dying. My death is not something you can fight. I’ve held out as long as I could, to make sure I could deliver you to this school. They have promised to look after you when I am gone. I have a few months left, at best. Because I am weak, I could not tell you this before. I wanted to see you happy for as long as I could. I am telling you now because this is the last time I shall see you. I know what I am doing may seem heartless. But you need protection, my child, and I can no longer give it to you. You cannot fight this, and resisting me will only hurt us both. Mina, if you love me, you will stay at this school and let me 9


die knowing you are safe. This is my one last wish—that you not try to seek me. Do not try to find my grave, do not return to our old cottage. That is no longer your place, no longer your

world. I can say nothing else but that life is short, yet eternity is not. We shall meet again one day. Ever Yours, Your loving father. 10


Mina’s Tale

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The next time we meet Mina, many months have passed in her world. Her father, as he predicted, died soon after the term began. He left strict instructions to keep Mina from his funeral, but she was escorted weeks later to his grave. Even now, she could not think of him without crying, or acknowledge the fact that she was alone in the world.

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Death interrupts life, but life insists on continuing. Despite her grief, Mina began to love the school. She liked wandering through the spacious halls to class, she liked getting lost in the stacks and stacks of books in the library, she loved drinking hot cocoa with friends in her drafty attic room. But of all the wonderful things about the school, the thing she loved most was no longer feeling out of place. She did miss her father, but the constant noise of other students embraced her, providing a comfort she had heretofore never experienced. Much of Mina’s recovery was due to the school’s faculty. Mina’s teachers all showed care and concern for their students, but one teacher was especially adored.

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He bore no normal name, but was simply called The Professor. His sympathetic manner, combined with his knowledge of all the esoteric branches of knowledge, made The Professor one of the most respected figures in the school and the village. Mina, who was placed in the back of a cavernous classroom with the other new students, never thought The Professor knew her name, much less her history.

Yet one day, as The Professor passed Mina in the school’s courtyard, he drew close and whispered—

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‚Your mother’s not dead, you know.‛ Mina whipped her head about in astonishment, but saw only The Professor’s back as he shambled towards an unknown destination. She stood, still and vulnerable, as crowds jostled her, and Mina felt truly alone for the first time in her life. *** 16


Mina could not get The Professor’s words out of her mind. She blotted two successive pages in her copybook before Ms. Snick could arrest her hand. She broke a foil during fencing practice and forgot to saddle her horse for her riding lesson. Worst of all, Mina hopelessly knotted the threads of her weaving and had to remain at the loom into early evening, picking out her mistakes. She bore the quizzical looks of her friends and the concerned questions of her teachers with equal diffidence, but revealed to no one The Professor’s mysterious declaration. Once the sun set over the crenellated towers of the building, Mina scurried from the weaving rooms. Carefully and silently she picked her way across the school to the small library. The Professor, she knew, kept his office somewhere among the stacks of books, manuscripts, and 17


codices that tilted towards the ceiling. Softly she crept, looking for a light. Eventually, Mina found an open door and slipped inside. Before Mina could draw breath or take in her surroundings, a voice spoke from somewhere in the room. ‚I see you’ve arrived,‛ said The Professor. Despite his soft tone, Mina was startled. She whipped her head around to face the voice, and witnessed a most incongruous sight: The Professor, cheerfully wrapped in an alarmingly frilly apron, was dispensing tea into two cups.

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The Professor removed the frilly apron and settled himself in a chair opposite the tea tray ‚Please,‛ he gestured towards a chair, ‚Have a seat. Drink some tea.‛ Mina stood by the door, hesitating. ‚I really just came—‛

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‚—To have me explain about your mother. I know. Still, you’re thirsty, and I can talk while you have your tea.‛

Mina took herself in hand and, with what she hoped was an intelligent, grownup look, settled in the other chair.

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She busied herself with the tea as The Professor watched. When he was satisfied that Mina was going to drink, he began to speak. ***

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The Professor’s Tale

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‚You’re a very intelligent girl, Mina, so I’m sure you’ll be able to understand what I’m about to tell you. The difficult part is for you to believe it.

‚I am going to tell you some fantastic things— fantastic in the sense that they will appear to be the fantasies of a very old man. I swear to you, Mina, that everything I am about to tell you is the truth.‛ 23


‚You see…‛ He paused in his recitation to pull a string of pale green beads from his pocket.

‚You are not the only owner of what you call beads.‛

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Mina tilted her head and stared at the beads. True, they were green, like hers, and perfectly formed, also like hers.

The Professor’s string, however, was much longer than Mina’s own.

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As if he were reading her thoughts, The Professor commented ‚Of course, I am much older than you and have had many more adventures. That is why my strand is longer than yours. If you are lucky and wise, your string will be very long someday as well.‛

He slipped the beads back into his pocket and continued. ‚These beads, as you call them, are 26


in reality margarites. You will not read of my strand, or yours, in any of your history books.‛

The Professor poured more tea for himself and continued thoughtfully, ‚Of course, the history we teach you here is not true. It’s true in the sense that all stories are a reflection of truth, but that’s all. The history tales are no more true than the fairy tales you were told as a child.‛ 27


The Professor paused to take a sip of tea, lifting his pinky to point at Mina as he drank. ‚You, of course, are too young to know better, but you of all people should shun the lies they teach you.‛ Mina squirmed in her seat. ‚But what does this—‛

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‚—have to do with your mother? Don’t you see, child—she’s the reason all these lies are being told!‛

‚What lies? My mother was never in a history book.‛ Mina looked doubtfully at The Professor, wondering what exactly was in his cup. However, The Professor just tutted at her, as if reading her thoughts. 29


Undaunted, Mina continued, ‚And what do you mean, she’s alive? She loved me. She loved my father. If she were still alive‛— Mina paused to hold back tears— ‚then she’d be here, with me.‛

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The Professor sighed, and suddenly appeared much older, and more exhausted than Mina had ever seen him. ‚It’s not a question of loving, child, but a question of duty. Our lives are not merely about what we want, but what is right. And sometimes…‛ —he paused, as if to gather an unfathomable courage— ‚Sometimes we must hurt the ones we love to do what is just.‛ 31


At that instant, the two heard a strange clanging sound in the library. The sound of boots stomping was followed by muffled curses, then the sounds of a paper avalanche. Mina turned as The Professor grabbed her arm. ‚Listen to me, Mina. Find the Alchemist! You must find the Alchemist!‛ 32


Mina paid scant attention to his words, so horrified was she by what was happening to The Professor. It was as if a sudden plague had taken over his body. Angry black lines began to form 33


on his skin. The lines moved as if by galvanism, then began to resolve themselves into some sort of pattern. The Professor’s eyes rolled back towards his brain, his mouth pursed in a silent scream. As the lines settled into place on his exposed skin, Mina saw they were forming more than a pattern—they were forming letters.

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At the same moment she realized this, The Professor lurched, bent double, and began vomiting…words. Sheet after sheet of paper came tumbling from his mouth, covering the floor.

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Mina moved to help, but The Professor waved her away. ‚Run!‛ he managed to gasp before another wrenching bout of lexical nausea attacked his body.

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As if he had given the last of his free will to that syllable, The Professor collapsed, and was soon covered by a pile of regurgitated pages.

Mina ran.

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39


Mina Meets Hatter and Tatter

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Mina didn’t stop running until she was well away from the school, deep in the surrounding forest.

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Although she was extraordinarily fast, something was keeping up with her. Mina heard the—thing—galumphing behind her, unsteady but determined.

The point came when her lungs burned and her body refused to carry her one more step. 42


Realizing something very, very bad was about to happen to her, Mina decided she would rather die fighting than fleeing. Desperately, she flung her body around to face her pursuer. Then she burst out laughing.

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The giant beast, whose long shadow had haunted her escape, was in reality two people, one sitting atop the shoulders of another. The top half of the shape appeared to be a lace bundle, while the bottom part wore what Mina could only describe as a highly improbable hat.

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Both were dressed so oddly, and so bizarre were their faces, that Mina could not contain her amusement. These two beings could not possibly mean her harm. The thing—person—on top used her lacedbedecked parasol to point viciously at Mina. ‚Well,‛ she said snappishly, ‚yer don’t need to run like we’re demons or sumfink and then laugh in us faces.‛ She stood on her dignity, every pore radiating irritation. Mina worked valiantly to stifle the laughter that kept threatening to bubble from her mouth. With as straight a face as she could manage, she asked, ‚Then why were you following me?‛

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The lace-covered woman gave a grunt and rather stiffly clambered down the back of the one running. She put her hands on her hips and glared. ‚Well who else is gonna 'elp yer now that The Professor’s gone?‛

That stopped Mina’s smile. ‚You saw? How did you see? Are you responsible for that, that— THING that happened?‛ 48


The little woman scoffed. ‚'Course not. Do we look like we’re bleedin' Derklings? The Professor told us to come over. Said 'e might need some 'elp.‛ Her offended posture softened somewhat. ‚Fat lot o’ good we did.‛ ‚So if you didn’t do that thing, then why didn’t you stop it? And what’s a Derkling? And who are you two, anyway?‛

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‚First things first,‛ said the woman as she struggled back onto the back of her companion. ‚I’m Tatter, right, and this ‘ere‛—the woman opened her parasol and made a sweeping gesture towards her bearer, ‚’e’s ‘atter, with an haitch.‛ ‚Tatter and Hatter? Well, nice to meet you, I’m sure.‛ Mina was nothing if not polite to her elders. ‚Sure nuffink. Yer right lucky we managed to keep up with yer. Where are yer goin’ anyways?‛ For the first time, Mina took stock of her surroundings. ‚Well, I’m going…I mean, I think I’ve decided…‛ she trailed off and looked at the forest floor.

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It’s just like I thought.‛ Tatter shook the parasol in Mina’s direction. ‚Yer don’t know what yer doin'. No bleedin’ wonder The Professor called us. Well, right, it’s too late tonight for yer to be decidin' about anyfink, init? Come with 'atter and me and we’ll fix yer up for the night.‛

‚Oh,‛ stammered Mina, ‚I don’t think…‛

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‚'Course yer not thinkin'! Yer can’t go back there (a jerk of the parasol towards the school) and yer don’t know what’s out there‛ (the parasol rounded to point at the forest beyond), ‚and yer not got the foggiest idea what to do, right? Now the way I see it, yer can either come with the two of us and get some sleep or yer can take yer chances with whatever’s to come. I 53


don’t need to tell yer the one I’d pick, but then again, right, I’m not some kid as won’t listen when in-dee-viduals are tryin' to ‘elp 'er.‛ And so Mina, defeated by the implacable logic of the parasol, meekly followed Hatter and Tatter to a cottage on the outskirts of town.

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The Next Morning

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Mina fully expected to be killed by the oddling pair of Hatter and Tatter, so she was pleasantly surprised when she awoke the next morning. There was a soft bed beneath her, fresh air blowing in from an open window, and a tray laden with breakfast tea at her left elbow. Mina took her toast and tea with a heaping spoon of compunction. When she could take it no longer, she quietly opened the door to the bedroom. Finding no one in the main room of the cottage, she made her way outside. Hatter and Tatter were sitting expectantly. ‚Well, yer not an early riser, I can say for sure,‛ remarked Hatter with a familiar jab of her parasol. ‚We was beginnin' to fink ye’d never come out.‛ 56


Mina found herself grinning sheepishly and not a little inanely. Tatter snorted derisively.

‚Right, then, out with it. What do ye want to do now? Do yer got any more of a plan than yer did last night when we found yer?‛

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‚Not really, no. I’m still unclear about…well, about everything.‛

‚Hrmmph.‛ Tatter darted a look at Hatter. ‚Told ye she wouldn’t ‘ave a clue.‛ Mina became angry. ‚Well, I may not have a clue, but then again I’m not sure who anyone is, 58


am I? I mean, The Professor gets murdered by—by words, of all things, and then you two show up looking like—well, like something out of a fairy tale! I don’t even know what you are, do I?‛ she stamped her foot in frustration.

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Silence swelled in the space between them. Hatter looked meaningfully at Tatter, who glared back. They seemed to be engaged in a silent argument. Hatter apparently won, for she nodded her head sagely as Tatter glared at Mina. Tatter said softly, ‚We’s Philomorphs, that’s what.‛ ‚Philomorphs?‛ replied Mina. ‚What’s a Philomorph?‛

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Tatter looked at Mina strangely. ‚Yer never 'eard of us, isit? Yet yer still wear mar-garites?‛ She pronounced every syllable distinctly and carefully, rolling the letters on her tongue. Mina looked down at the beads she was twisting in her hands. ‚These were my mother’s,‛ she said indistinctly as she pocketed them. 61


‚Oh. I just fought yer 'adn’t 'ad a chance to change yet. Or yer kin still control it.‛ ‚Change?‛ Tatter sat up and the skin visible through the lace flushed. ‚Do yer fink we choose to look like this, isit? 'Course we don’t! It’s just sumfink that 'appens to us, init? We change…we change.‛ The last words left her mouth as a whisper. Then, she squared her shoulders, looked Mina in the eye, and began to explain.

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Tatter’s Tale

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‚The first thing yer got to understand is that the Philomorphs are new to the bleedin' Realm. At least, they’re as new as anyfink can be in a place this old. I’m not sure when they started appearin'—it were before me time. Thing is, yer not born a Philomorph. Philomorphs aren’t a race of blokes, but they’re not right victims of a disease, either. They’re somefink in between. ‚Even though no geezer knows when Philomorphs came to the Realm, and no one knows ‘ow yer get to be one, every bloke can spot the signs. It starts out small—a kid will start goin' on about sumfink. We become these—things.‛ Tatter made sure to pronounce the word clearly so Mina could understand, but her emotion soon got the better of her and she slipped back, speaking faster and faster. 66


‚Kid’s not prattlin' about whatever catches their eye, like all kids do, but goin' on spooky. It’s like they get obsessed with one think. It could be anyfink—a tin of food, a red shoe, right, a flower…or, like me, right, lace.‛ Tatter gestured towards her face, but her eyes remained distant. ‚I don’t know when I first 'ave a look at a piece o’ lace, but I remember finkin' it were the bloody prettiest thing, and the scariest thing, I’d ever seen. Even though we’re called shape lovers, it’s not right love at all. It’s more like obsession, like an inability to NOT fink about sumfink. Pretty soon, yer goin' on to every geezer yer meet about this object, whatever ‘tis. And once the bloody talkin' starts, everyone knows that yer gonna be one of them…yer gonna be a Philomorph. 67


‚We don’t choose to 'ave a look like this—we don’t choose it at all. Who would want ter have private wants, ‘er foughts, branded on ‘er face like so much newsprint? Every bloke and Doris finks ‘e can tell what a Philomorph believes, right, what they feel, what they are finkin' at every single moment. And because of it, because us insides are on us outsides, blokes fink they know us. They fink that we’re just this one fink, right, one part of us, that’s all. But we’re not one fink! We ‘appen to ‘ave lotsa things to say, but no one’ll listen.‛ ‚I know that there are some blokes, if they’re canny enough, can keep they obsessions inside theyselves. But most of us in the Realm, we never learned 'ow to do it. So we all start changin', start 'ave a lookin' like us fascinations. We change and change and change until 68


eventually, right, we are that fink, right? So yer see, right, that’s why yer can’t ever cut the lace off yer shirt. That lace used to be some…some Doris like me.‛ And then, to her own surprise, Tatter burst into tears.

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A Plan Develops (text-only episode)

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Mina waited for Tatter’s angry sobs to subside. ‚That still doesn’t explain The Professor. I mean, he didn’t look, well, like you two.‛ Mina was embarrassed but she soldiered on. ‚He was fine one minute, then the next he’s growing ink on his skin and vomiting books! It doesn’t make any sense. You said the change was gradual and you started as a kid. So why did The Professor…‛ Mina trailed off and tears began to roll down her cheeks. ‚We don’t know. Neither of us knew the Professor were a bleedin' Philo. We just fought 'e were some bloke sympaffetic to what we go through 'round 'ere. Maybe 'e were able to control 'isself better than most. O'course, it don’t make sense, because 'e would 'ave to show first before 'e could learn 'ow to control it. At least I fink it’s 'ow it works. I’m not right 71


successful at it, in case yer didn’t notice.‛ Tatter gestured at her face. ‚What did The Professor tell yer, anyways?‛ Mina considered for a moment. ‚He told me my mother wasn’t dead, which doesn’t make any sense. In fact, not much of what he did say made any sense if I think about it. He talked about how the string of whatever you call them—‛ ‚—margarites,‛ Tatter interrupted. ‚Margarites. He said that as you get older and do more things, the string grows longer. He knew, or seemed to anyway, lots of things about me. He knew I’d missed dinner because I was fixing schoolwork, and he made me tea.‛ Mina remembered the alarmingly frilly apron and how odd the professor looked in it. She started to cry. 72


Hatter rumbled over to Mina and patted her hand awkwardly. Mina eventually stopped crying and began to think again. ‚He went on about how history was rubbish, and my mother should be in the history books, and then something about lies, and we heard a noise.‛ ‚What then?‛ demanded Tatter. It came back to Mina in a rush. ‚The words started to form on him and he said something about the chemist. Then he told me to run, so I did.‛ ‚The chemist? Like, a bloke who gives out drugs?‛ 73


‚Yes. His name is Al.‛ ‚Al the druggist. Hmm.‛ Tatter squinted. ‚I’m not sure 'ow much farther that gets us, but 'ow many druggists are named Al? Not the one in town—his name’s Bert, right, and 'e’s an 'undred years ole if 'e’s a day. I wonder where the bleedin' Professor met 'im, right, this Al? I guess we should start by goin’ ‘round to—‚ But here Tatter fell silent, because Hatter had leaned down to whisper in her ear. Tatter’s face lit up in sudden understanding. ‚By God! Yer silly little girl,‛ she said to Mina. ‚the bloomin' Professor weren’t goin' on about a chemist named Al, he were goin' on about the Alchemist!‛

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‚That’s what I said,‛ Mina protested, but in vain, as Tatter was already onto her own train of thought. ‚But the Alchemist don’t exist. It’s a myth, sumfink that blokes in the bleedin' Realm use to scare little kiddies when they’re bored of tellin' stories about us Philomorphs. It’s like The Professor told yer to go 'ave a look for a yeti or a unicorn or sumfink.‛ ‚Well, The Professor thought he was real enough, and he’s the smartest man in the school.‛ ‚Keenest man in the entire bleedin’ Realm, more like. Well, right, if The Professor believed the Alchemist exists, I suppose we’d better go 'ave a 75


look for 'im. Right then, go pack us some food for a few days. It’ll take us a while to get to her.‛ ‚Who’s ‘her?’‛ inquired Mina, simultaneously wondering why she was now a pack mule in addition to everything else. Tatter widened her eyes in apparent surprise. ‚Why, the bleedin' Cartographer, ‘course. She’s a, right, what do ye call ‘em, a mapmaker. She makes the bloody best maps and 'as been everywhere in the Realm. If anybody besides The Professor knows about the Alchemist, it’ll be 'er.‛

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The Cartographer

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Several days later, Mina, Hatter, and Tatter arrived in a suspicious neighborhood in a strange town.

Mina had by this point gotten used to Tatter’s sharp words and Hatter’s perpetual silence, but she wasn’t prepared for a town where everyone looked as odd as her two companions. There were people with gold-plated faces, with hair 78


made of butterflies, with a cobra’s skin and vertical pupils; there was even a passerby with a prehensile tail. Many people were beautiful, but others had been horribly disfigured by their obsession. Mina ducked past one man who smelt of rotting flesh, and another whose skin was a bilious green. Tatter glanced at the latter figure and said dismissively, ‚Jealous of some bloke, I fink.‛ Tatter marched on, parting the crowds on the street with her ubiquitous parasol. Mina followed. With Tatter in front and Hatter ranged behind her, it was the oddest escort she’d ever had.

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Tatter stopped short in front of a dingy window. The faded gilt lettering on the pane was too worn to be read, but Tatter seemed to know they were in the right location. She used her parasol to ring the buzzer. At once a melodious voice drifted from the upper story of the building. ‚Who needs me?‛ 80


Tatter couldn’t decide whether to be amused or irritated by the question. She chose the latter. ‚It’s ‘atter and Tatter, you bleedin’ toff. Let us in.‛ ‚I can see it’s you, Tatter, but who is the child?‛ Mina bristled at the suggestion she was a child, but before she could respond, Tatter rapped out ‚Sunt non ut videtur!‛ in hesitant but perfect Latin. This feat apparently impressed the voice, for there was a buzzing followed by a sharp ‚click!‛ as the door lock disengaged. ‚Too right, you stuck-up thing,‛ mutter Tatter as she pushed her way into the shop.

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There was a clattering on the stairs at the back of the shop as the entranceway door clanged shut. A shower of tiny white particles drifted down the stairwell. They were followed by what was obviously a Philomorph. She glided toward the three visitors, hands curled at her sides.

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‚Welcome to you all.‛ She looked at Mina and frowned, as if trying to recall where they had met before. She bit her lip in frustration, then gave up and turned around. ‚Let’s talk in the garden.‛ ‚What we 'ave to say is private-like,‛ protested Tatter. 83


‚That’s why I am inviting you into the garden. The walls aren’t safe, you know.‛ Tatter directed a sharp look at Hatter, who merely shrugged. Sighing, Tatter followed the shop owner towards the back door. The garden proved to be an overgrown tangle of weeds. The Cartographer led her guests to an edifice in the middle of the grounds that was constructed of wooden planks. There were wooden chairs and a wooden fence. Without being asked, Tatter plunked herself down on one of the benches while Hatter remained standing and Mina curled up on the wooden floor.

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Mina looked critically at The Cartographer. ‚You’re different than I expected.‛ The Cartographer laughed. ‚Let me guess: you expected me to be made of paper, maybe some landmasses thrown in for good measure? I don’t love drawing maps; it’s just the way I make my living.‛ 85


Mina seemed at a loss. Finally, The Cartographer took pity on her and explained.

‚Tatter has probably told you I’ve been almost everywhere in the Realm. What she obviously 86


did not tell you is why. When I was a little thing, I sneaked into my mother’s room and found her string of pearls. I was so fascinated that I began to turn. There were no more pearls where I was from, so I set out to sea as soon as I could run away from home. I’ve wandered all over the realm looking for pearls. Seed pearls, river pearls, salt pearls…didn’t matter. I wanted them all. ‚Eventually, I had enough of a collection,‛ she pointed to her face, ‚and decided to come back to land. The sailing didn’t agree with me much. Once I returned, I had to make a living somehow. I’d been to enough places that people kept coming to ask me how to get to this or that area of the Realm. I decided to make a little money off what I know. I’ve done well for myself, I must say.‛ 87


‚Of course,‛ she continued thoughtfully, ‚one must always be on the lookout for thieves, but I’ve devised some methods of dealing with them. That’s what I meant when I said the walls weren’t safe. They’re truly not; they defend me against strangers.‛ The Cartographer launched a feral grin in Mina’s direction.

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Mina decided she didn’t like The Cartographer that much. She looked back at Tatter, who seemed to share Mina’s assessment. This pearlencrusted woman was very beautiful and very, very dangerous.

Tatter took a breath to stifle her annoyance. ‚We’ve come to yer because of The Professor.‛ 89


‚Have you now?‛ The Cartographer smiled lazily and stretched her arms. ‚And what does that old foghorn want?‛ ‚Not much of anyfink these days. ‘e’s dead.‛ If The Cartographer was dismayed by the news, it didn’t show. ‚Well I certainly can’t bring him back to life. So why are you here?‛ Tatter looked at The Cartographer through slitted eyes. ‚We need to know where The Alchemist is.‛ Whatever reaction Mina had expected from The Cartographer, it wasn’t this one. The woman stiffened as if she’d been bitten by a particularly vicious newt. 90


All were quiet for almost a minute. The Cartographer rose from her chair and stated rather formally, ‚You know the way out. I wish you a good day.‛ She turned around to retreat into her shop but was stopped by Hatter, who 91


blocked the exit. Hatter said nothing, but glared in a way Mina could only characterize as significant. The Cartographer closed her eyes and seemed to ponder her options. Realizing how limited they were, she sighed and returned to her seat.

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She sat and glared at all the trio, who all glared back.

Mina was the one who launched the verbal attack. ‚Here’s how I see it. You’re not going to give anything to us, but you’ll probably answer questions if I ask nicely, right? I mean, Hatter likes it when my questions get answered.‛

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A sidelong glance at Hatter, who nodded, convinced The Cartographer. ‚Fine,‛ she spat through gritted teeth. ‚Ask.‛ ‚First, who exactly is the Alchemist?‛ ‚Who is the Alchemist? By God, you are simple, aren’t you? The Alchemist is all things wrong and evil in the Realm. She’s the Bringer of War and the Mother of Grief. She is the Pestilence of the Realm and the Enemy of Peace. She. Is. Evil.‛ The Cartographer would have gone on, but Mina interrupted. ‚She? I thought the Alchemist was a man.‛

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‚Whatever gave you that idea? No, the Alchemist is a woman. Only a woman can give birth to the plague she’s brought down upon us. She’s the worst woman that’s ever been in this land, and the one who slays her will be blessed from here to the furthest reaches of the Realm.‛ 95


‚Hmm.‛ Mina took a moment to consider the new information. ‚So, besides the fact that you won’t be having her for tea anytime soon, what else can you tell us?‛ The Cartographer ignored this question in favor of her own ‚Why do you want to know about her? Do you intend to kill her?‛ ‚I’m not sure. This whole thing started when The Professor said my mother was still alive. He told me that—‚ Mina was cut off by a jab in her rib from Tatter’s parasol. The Cartographer didn’t miss this detail, but decided Mina’s story wasn’t one she particularly wanted to know.

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Mina rubbed her side and continued with her questions. ‚If the Alchemist is so evil, why don’t you kill her yourself?‛ ‚If I could have, I would. I never had the opportunity.‛ ‚So you’ve never met her?‛ ‚Not person-to-demon, you might say, no.‛ ‚Do you know where she lives?‛ ‚I don’t know if I know that.‛

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At this point Hatter ratcheted up her scowl to menacing, but Mina held up a hand. She saw something in the Cartographer’s eyes that wasn’t there a moment ago: dread. ‚Normally you either know how to get somewhere or you don’t. It’s not often you’re not sure whether you know something or not. Why 98


can’t you tell me whether or not you know the way to the Alchemist? Does she travel around a lot?‛

‚Travel? No, she doesn’t travel. She’s lived in the bowels of Mount Fuscus for as long as anyone can say. But the mountain is large, and no one ever managed to see the Alchemist or 99


report precisely where she lives. I’ll say this much: if The Professor claimed your mother was alive, then the Alchemist probably knows where she is. She’s probably the one who made your mother leave you, if the woman didn’t go willingly.‛ Mina’s face stirred the ashes of The Cartographer’s sympathy. ‚Of course, your mother almost certainly didn’t leave you of her own will. If the Alchemist got to her, your mother wouldn’t be able to go back to you at all. She wouldn’t remember, because the Alchemist is also a Memory Thief.‛ ‚Memory Thief? Is that like a Philomorph?‛

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But at that point The Cartographer realized she had said too much. Not even Hatter’s looks could move her.

Instead, the mapmaker flicked her voluminous sleeve and caught something in her palms. She gestured towards Mina to take the proffered gift. 101


The Cartographer stalked unopposed into her store. Quickly she returned; her expression had changed from one of defeat to something approaching irrational panic. No sooner had she given Hatter the oddest of looks than she turned and flew back towards the building.

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As Mina and Tatter stared at one another, they were startled by Hatter’s hesitant coughing. She said nothing, but pointed at the store’s front entrance, where all three could hear shouts and the rush of boot-clad feet. Moving quickly, Hatter shepherded the trio to a wooden gate in the garden wall. Without the smallest ceremony, 103


Hatter thrust Mina and Tatter through the gate, which banged with finality behind them. *** Once out of the Cartographer’s garden, Tatter took charge again. She began walking purposefully toward the main road, glancing about for a place of refuge. Shaking her head at the many shops they passed, her pace quickened. Finally, she found the dirtiest doorway on the entire street and ducked inside, gesturing for Mina and Hatter to follow. The building was quite obviously abandoned.

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‚We’ll be safe here until sunset. We can set out again once it’s night,‛ announced Tatter. ‚But someone’s looking for us! Those boots sounded just like the ones at the Professor’s office,‛ Mina protested.

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Tatter shook her head. ‚I may not 'ave much use for the bleedin’ Cartographer, but I know one fink: she owes ‘er life to ‘atter here. She don’t like us much, but she’ll protect us ahead of anyfink else. She’ll tell ‘ooever that was we took off in the other direction. She can be right convincin' when she wants to be. She may even convince ‘em we were never there.‛ Mina looked at Hatter, who nodded sagely. So the trio settled in and waited for sunset. *** As the day waned and became crepuscular, Mina noticed something odd. In their haste to leave The Cartographer’s garden, Mina had stuffed the the mapmaker’s gift into a pocket and 107


promptly forgot about it. As the sun’s rays became weaker, her pocket seemed unaffected by the change; it held light as clearly as ever. When the sun had set fully, her pocket was actually glowing. Tentatively, she inched her hand into the pocket and removed The Cartographer’s gift. It was an enormous pearl, so iridescent it seemed to be encrusted with light.

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Tatter whistled appreciatively. ‚So she did ‘elp after all.‛ Mina looked up and frowned. ‚What do you mean?‛ ‚She gave yer the map.‛ ‚She did what?‛

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‚Don’t ‘ave a look at me like I’m a bleedin’ idiot. The Cartographer don’t work in paper. She makes all ‘er maps into pearls. Yer just ‘ave to set it in yer palm and it’ll tug yer in the right direction. The bloody problem is, ‘er maps don’t set a straight course. If yer gonna use the map, right, yer ‘ave to go whatever route she wants. It’s ‘er way of makin’ us feel like chumps for not knowin’ where to go.‛ Mina stared thoughtfully at the pearl in her hand. It did feel like it was rolling away from her, but always in the same direction. ‚So what should we do now?‛ Tatter shrugged. ‚We follow it.‛

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The Theatre of Last Resort (text-only episode)

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Mina took some time getting used to the pearlmap. It was almost alive. Once they were on the road, it bounded out of her hand and settled on the ground. As soon Mina began to move toward it, the pearl-map rolled a little further along. Mina spent a good half hour trying to catch the dratted thing before she realized it was actually leading her somewhere. The odd little object seemed to recognize when Mina understood and proceeded to bounce along the road, almost merrily. The trio followed along until they approached a crossroads. The pearl-map began to roll towards the left, at which point Tatter gave it a vicious poke with her parasol. ‚We’re not gahn ‘at way!‛

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Mina turned towards Tatter. ‚Why?‛ she asked. ‚Because there’s only one fink down that road, and we don’t want to go there. Just believe me when I tell yer it’s not a good idea.‛ Before Mina could reply, a grunt from Hatter called her attention to the pearl-map. Evidently it meant to go on its way, for it was rolling quite rapidly along the left road. Mina uttered a cry of dismay and trotted after it. Hatter lumbered after Mina, and so Tatter was left with no other option than to follow, grumbling darkly about the tricks of certain map-making toffs. After many miles the pearl-map started to slow. It crested a hill and finally stopped all motion. Mina looked at the valley below and gasped. There lay a village like none she had ever seen. 114


It was a small enclave, alight with torches and a central bonfire. All the villagers seemed to live in a series of canvas and silk tents. These tents were brightly colored in patterns that appeared to move with the wind. It then occurred to Mina that it was an exceptionally calm night, and that there was no wind. Tatter answered Mina’s unspoken question. ‚The bleedin' tents move on their own, ‘owever they feel like. If yer not careful, yer can get sucked into one permanent-like.‛ ‚What kind of village is this?‛ Mina demanded. ‚It’s no village. Come on, they’ve noticed us by now.‛ Using her parasol as a walking stick, Tatter picked her way down the stony hill 115


towards the tents. The pearl-map nudged Mina’s ankle, then began to roll down the hill. Hatter and Mina followed. At the bottom of the hill, the orb rose and leapt into Mina’s pocket. Tatter was right; the trio had indeed been spotted, and the inhabitants of the tents were massed to greet the strangers. An oddly protuberant figure, comically overdressed, was obviously the head of the group. Striding forward, he gestured grandly to the tents behind her and exclaimed: ‚Welcome to the Theatre of Last Resort!‛ Mina gaped at the figure. ‚The what?‛

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The man seemed annoyed. ‚The Theatre of Last Resort. I’m the Director, and you’re all my guests.‛ It was the strangest place Mina had ever seen. She was accustomed to odd-looking people by now, but this was something different. Every single inhabitant of the village looked, in varying degrees, depressed, bemused, frightened, offended, or angry. In fact, besides the Director, there was not one happy face to be seen. ‚Come off it,‛ snapped Tatter. ‚We’re not ‘ere to join yer bleedin’ parcel o’ paffetics.‛ ‚My what?‛

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‚Paffetics. Ya kin jest put away yer ledger, ‘cause we’re not staying.‛ ‚Paffetics?‛ the Director queried again. ‚PAFFETICS! Yer deaf or sumfink?‛ Mina whispered to the befuddled man, ‚I think she means ‘pathetic.’‛ The Director nodded sagely, apparently deciding a woman who had problems with dental fricatives would be at home in this place. Clapping his hands, the Director made an attempt to defuse the situation. ‚Well, you are welcome regardless. Would you like a performance? We produce the finest tragedies in the Realm. Yes, any tragedy you want, we can 118


do. Unrequited love? Childhood trauma? Baby fallen down a well? Hero slain by a dragon? Dragon slain by a hero, if you’re fond of dragons? We’ve got it.‛ He prattled on, warming to his subject, ‚We have tragedies of abduction, addiction, adultery, arson, assassination, assault, burglary, counterfeiting, defenestration, desertion, embezzlement, exsanguination, fratricide, fraud, grifting, harassment, homicide, impersonation, juntas, kidnapping, loan sharking, matricide, mistaken identity, nonpayment, overdose, patricide, perjury, quisling, regicide, robbery, spycraft, theft, treason, usury, vengeance, war, xenophobia, yodeling without a license, and zoophilic activity.

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‚Of course,‛ and here the Director paused thoughtfully, ‚You three look like discriminating customers. I’m thinking you want something a little out of the ordinary avenues of tears and tempests. Yes, the more I look at you, the more I’m sure of it. We’ve been rehearsing something new, something more wretched, dejected, forlorn, despondent, sorrowful, desolate, melancholy, and desperate than anything yet produced in this Realm!‛ With a flourish of his hands, he turned towards her Pathetics. ‚Set the tents for the Tale of The Memory Thief!‛ Tatter was gathering breath to shout down the Director when Mina tugged at her sleeve. ‚He said the Memory Thief, just like the Cartographer! Let’s watch and see if it has anything to do with the Alchemist.‛ 120


In the time it took for Mina to whisper these words, the Pathetics had galvanized into an efficient machine. The tents folded back and set their pattern to reveal a mist-shrouded mountain. Chairs were placed behind the trio, and they were guided into their seats by three grim-looking ushers. Melancholy cellos warmed up alongside ominous kettle drums. In less than sixty seconds, the entire troupe had readied itself for the performance. A sweet slip of a girl appeared in front of the tent. She stared at a point somewhere to the left of Mina’s shoulder and began to sing. It was a haunting, lonely tune with no words. It made Mina think of icy sheets of rain and abandoned children, sodden and starving. 121


The girl left the stage and was replaced by an impossibly thin, blue-skinned Philomorph. This part of the play was evidently a pantomime, for she spoke no words. Instead, she danced fluidly, her face becoming more tinged with the sickly blue, until she ceased breathing and dropped to the ground, apparently dead. Two jaundiced-looking fellows dragged the dancer into the wings behind the tent and then reappeared. They were joined by a third man, who wept uncontrollably. The three formed a line and stepped forward. ‚Memories come from the dance of the Memory Giver,‛ they croaked in unison. The crying man brought out a soiled handkerchief and blew his nose. ‚The Memory Giver dances for all of us. What she gives, she can never take back. What 122


we give her is imprinted forever. Our sorrow is her sorrow, our pain is her pain, our regrets are—‛ ‚—’er regrets, like. We know. No need to keep bleatin’ about it.‛ Tatter thumped her parasol to accompany her complaint. The three men took a minute to look offended, then silently filed off the stage. They were replaced by the asphyxiated dancer—apparently playing the role of the Memory Giver— who flitted around the stage strewing flowers. She bent to present a withered daisy to Mina, when a black-cloaked figure appeared behind the dancer. With a twist of a knife, the Memory Giver dropped to the floor, apparently dead.

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The cloaked figure raised its hands in triumph, then turned upstage towards what was obviously a Philomorph. With movement of sadistic glee, the murderer barreled into the Philomorph, who collapsed melodramatically on the stage floor. After a moment, the Philomorph rose and began a zombie-like shamble offstage. He was followed by the cloaked figure. The three men of the chorus reappeared. ‚And so the Memory Thief began her war on the changlings. Peaceful Philomorphs, helpless against the Thief’s curse, had no defense against the purloining of their sacred treasure. Their memories were taken to be used by the Alchemist in ghastly experiments. Memories died or returned twisted out of recognition.‛

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At this point the crying man broke from the line and stepped towards Hatter. He proffered his dirty handkerchief, and at that moment Mina realized that tears were leaking from Hatter’s face. The silent one took the scrap of silk gratefully, wiped her face, and solemnly returned it to the crying man. Before Mina could begin to theorize about Hatter’s actions, a new scene appeared onstage. The cloaked figure, now identified as the Alchemist, loomed over a sizable cauldron. Into it were thrown bits of metal—the troupe’s interpretation of memories, Mina supposed. From the side of the stage, the chorus continued.

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‚The Alchemist retreated to Mount Fuscus, where she is guarded by the Derklings. There is no day in this place, and the sun never shows his face. All is darkness and sorrow.‛ The scene changed yet again. This time it was a tableau. A striking young woman and an equally handsome man sat enraptured over a basket. In a few seconds, the basket began to wail. The woman broke the pose to reach into the basket and tenderly brought forth a sleeping child. As the woman cradled the child, Mina noted a movement on the stage. The Alchemist was crawling stealthily towards the young family. Mina wanted to scream a warning, but as she opened her mouth, the Alchemist swiftly plucked the child from the woman’s hands. 126


A pantomimed fight ensued, backed by the cello and drum. The man was knocked unconscious— some sorcery appeared to be involved—and the battle was soon decided. The Alchemist, victorious, clutched the child and began to depart. ‚Hold!‛ the mother screamed. ‚That child is young and ill-acquainted with the world. I have a surfeit of memories you can use. They are yours, freely given, in exchange for the child!‛ A sound effect of thunder shook the stage. The actors turned as if of one accord to the audience of three. They bowed solemnly and left the stage. Mina looked at the empty stage, stupefied. ‚Wait! What happens next?‛ 127


The Director looked embarrassed. ‚There isn’t any next. That’s the end.‛ ‚What sort of endin' is that?‛ demanded Tatter. She thrust the business end of her parasol at the Director’s copious stomach. ‚Like the child said, what 'appens to the lass, then, eh? What 'appens to ‘er babe?‛ The Director gazed at her helplessly. ‚We don’t know. The Theatre of Last Resort prides itself on telling only the truest of stories. Some stories don’t yet have an end. We live here and wait for the dénouement.‛ He stepped back from the parasol. ‚I warned you it was a work in progress,‛ he snapped. Tatter had never looked more disgusted. Sensing danger, the Director became more cooperative. 128


‚We—that is, my troop and myself—were told to rehearse this story. We were sent the script with no ending and told to perform it only once, and only for a specific group of people. The letter said there would be four of you, but the descriptions were so precise that I just figured one of you decided not to come.‛ He stood back, wary and exhausted. Mina felt a shiver steal across her. ‚The Professor. Someone thought The Professor would be here,‛ she gasped. Tatter was momentarily taken aback. She considered for a minute and returned her parasol to the ground. She leaned on it and suddenly looked very, very old. 129


One of the performers trotted over and whispered something in the Director’s ear. He nodded and seemed to regain some of his composure. ‚It’s late, and I’ve told you all I know. However, there’s no sense in you going away tonight. Please, stay with us until morning. We’ve prepared a supper for you, as well as some post-prandial entertainment.‛ Tatter snapped her head back up. ‚Oh, no, don't try that line with us. We know what takin' yer 'ospitality does. We're payin' yer for yer performance, just so there's no confusion about what we owe.‛ She nodded at Hatter, who removed a coin from her copious headgear and presented it to the Director. He didn’t seem eager to take it, but a look from Hatter changed his mind. He grasped the coin 130


and said with forced politeness, ‚Well, I do hope you enjoyed the evening’s show. Please do come again.‛ At this, he turned on his heel and walked into the largest tent. The troupe followed without a single backward glance at the trio. Tatter led the way back up the hill. Once there, she looked at Mina and told her, ‚Awright, get out yer bleedin’ map and see what it 'as to say.‛ Mina plucked the orb from her pocket where it had rested during the performance. It hopped out of her hands and began to roll, a little slowly, to the north. After a few miles, the pearlmap suddenly lost its light and sat in the middle of a field, a dark mass indistinguishable from the shapes around it.

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‚Is it all right?‛ Mina asked. She had begun to grow fond of the object and was beginning to think of it as a pet. ‚‘Course it’s all right. When it goes dark it means it's time to make camp, is all.‛ So they did.

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The Journey Continues

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Mina woke the next morning with a sharp pain in her lower back. Once she rolled off the tree root where she had fallen asleep, she felt much better. Her mood was further improved by the sight of Hatter making breakfast over a campfire. ‚Eggs! And tea! Where on earth did you get tea?‛ Hatter grinned and pointed to her hat. She then reached into it and brought forth a cup, saucer, plate, and fork for Mina. Mina shook her head in wonderment and sat down to eat.

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‚You know, Hatter,‛ Mina commented through a mouthful of egg, ‚You are just full of surprises.‛ ‚Don’t ‘e know it, too,‛ snapped Tatter as she approached the pair. ‚’urry up and eat. We need to get gone. ‘atter let yer sleep ‘stead of getting

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an early start. Get out yor map and let's commence movin'.‛

About an hour later, when Tatter looked slightly less homicidal than she had at breakfast, Mina approached. Keeping a wary eye on the parasol, she ventured a comment. ‚You said something last night to the Director.‛

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‚Should 'ave said more if yer ask me.‛ ‚What you said—about taking hospitality— what did you mean?‛

Tatter reflected for a moment. ‚I keep forgettin' 'ow little yer know about sumfinks. The Theater of Last Resort is infamous. Yer only go there 137


when yer given up any 'ope. I don’t mean just a bit disappointed or upset. I mean yer go there when yer fink yer life isn’t worth livin' anymore. It’s 'ard to die 'ere in the Realm—us Philos live longer than normal blokes do. So when yer given in, or given up, yer go to the Theater of Last Resort. That slimy Director takes yer in and 'as 'is troupe perform for yer, right, then gives yer a meal. ‚Then, the bloody next day, he ups and tells yer that yer owe the troupe for their 'ospitality, right, and yer 'ave to give them sumfink. If yer don’t pay in advance of th’ meal, the only fink they’ll take as payment is what scraps of 'appiness yer got left. Once yer ‘appiness is finished, you stick on a bit in the performances until yer dead. I'd no mind to stay wiv ‘em wile they leach us 'appiness away. That’s why 'atter 138


paid ‘em in gold. I’ve not 'ad an easy life, but I’m not about to give over on it.‛ And with that, she surged ahead, lace fluttering. Mina ran to catch up with her. ‚Then whoever wrote that script wanted us to be trapped there?‛

Tatter shook her head. ‚It don't make sense. Every geezer—at least all us Philos—knows to 139


avoid the bloody place, knows what ‘appens there. It's why I didn't want ter go last night. Whoever sent them that play would 'ave known we knew. So I don't fink the point was to trap us. I'm not sure what the whole fink meant, but if it were anyfink it were a warnin', like.‛

Mina quietly digested this information. Tatter continued to mutter imprecations against The

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Cartographer as they followed the briskly rolling pearl-map. There was a ‚thump‛ behind Mina and Tatter. When they turned around, they found themselves staring at the broad back of Hatter. She was eerily still, looking in the direction of the camp site they’d left that morning. Tatter approached and began to ask what was happening, but Hatter quieted her with an abrupt gesture. Mina pocketed the map, ducked around the pair, and saw a cloud of dust on the trail. She swallowed nervously, but Hatter placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

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The figure that emerged from the greenery couldn’t have been much older than Mina. She was obviously a Philomorph, but that wasn’t what made Mina stare. With each step the girl took, she left a trail of flowers. It was as if Spring herself had decided to go for a brisk walk.

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The girl evidently figured out that the travelers were waiting for her, for she broke into a run, riotous blooms sprouting in her wake.

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She arrived in front of them, breathless. Before Tatter could begin an interrogation, the girl managed to gasp out ‚saw…Theatre…fall…‛ and promptly collapsed on the dirt. Tatter turned to go, but was restrained by Hatter. The silent one picked up the girl from the road and looked at Mina. She nodded. Tatter saw that she was not going to win this round. Sighing, she pointed her parasol irritably at a nearby side road. ‚I remember a place for travelers to rest about 'alf a league away.‛ Hatter nodded and began to lead the others. ***

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145


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The resting place was a pleasant corner, filled with greenery and sweet water. Hatter set her burden down by a stone pond filled with golden fish, then began to unpack her hat to make lunch. Mina tended to the fainting girl, splashing her with water and keeping her well clear of Tatter’s parasol.

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Finally the girl returned to consciousness. She tried to rise and Mina rushed to help. ‚You must rest. You lost consciousness and hit your head.‛ The girl replied: ‚That doesn’t matter, nor that one’s patter,‛ and pointed directly at Tatter. She went on, ‚It was difficult trying to find you…‛ Mina interrupted, ‚You didn’t seem to have too much trouble.‛ The girl finished, ‚…Yet map-made tracks to follow are still true.‛

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149


‚Yes, I suppose the trail is fairly obvious, now that I think about it. But why did you want to find us?‛ Tatter piped in, parasol in a defensive position, ‚What are yer doin' followin' us, eh? Yer a spy?‛ The girl shook her head:

‚Neither spy, nor enemy, nor agent false Merely a child whose way is lost.‛ Tatter looked at the girl in the most curmudgeonly possible way. ‚Stop yer rhymin', will ye? It’s enough to give anybody a ‘eadache.‛

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The girl fell silent. Hatter glared as Mina said thoughtfully, ‚I don’t think she can.‛ She addressed the girl. ‚Can you speak in any other way?‛ The girl opened her mouth to reply, glanced at Tatter, and closed it. She contented herself with shaking her head.

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‚Well, then, that’s all right,‛ declared Mina. ‚We’ll just eat a bit and let you get back your strength—‚ ‚Wits, more like,‛ muttered Tatter. ‚—and then you can tell us your story.‛

153


Fleur’s Tale

154


155


‚O, before I begin, I must confess My odd syntax comes under great duress Couplets before, never did rhyme until My love for flowers overcame my will. Why I speak thus, I truly do not know For I am no poet, yet still the words grow From beneath my tongue as if on a vine Speaking only thus I have for some time. I have no family, no one to claim For, alas, I have forgotten my name. Its syllables cannot match anything And so I’ve been left with no name to sing.‛ At this point, Mina interrupted the narrative. ‚Well, we have to call you something.‛ She looked up and down the girl’s face. ‚It’s 156


obvious; we’ll just call you Fleur until you remember you other name.‛ The girl took some time, rolling the name around her tongue.

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‚That fits quite nicely, the name you just gave,

I take it with thanks, and you I shall save. I shall try to, at least, for I know not How to speak with such limited argot.‛ ‚You’re doing just fine,‛ Mina reassured Fleur. ‚I understand everything you’ve said so far.‛

‚Prophecy is incomprehensible Never too clear, never too sensible; Even when spoken plain, without a rhyme And yet what I know is lock’d in this dime.‛ ‚Dime?‛ inquired Tatter, suddenly alert.

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Mina explained. ‚I think she means the ten syllables she has to have in every line she speaks. Though they don’t follow a pattern, so it’s not meter exactly. It’s like…well, it’s like asking a little girl to speak with unbearable restrictions. I’m amazed she’s gotten this far and I’ve been able to understand. What she lacks in skill she makes up for in clarity.‛ 159


Fleur looked extremely gratified at this halfcompliment.

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Mina used her fingers to tick off points. ‘So far, we know you had a name. You lost it because you can’t say it with your speech, um, irregularity. You have to speak in rhyming couplets with a certain number of syllables. What I want to know is, where did you see us? Why are you following us? What prophecy do you have to tell me? And what are you going to do after you relate it to us?‛ Fleur put up four fingers of her own to remind her of Mina’s questions. She thought for a moment, and resumed her halting half-poetry:

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‚No name till now, no home, no place to be Except that den of low chicanery Known to Philomorphs as they know their sport; To the Theatre of Last Resort I crouched to spring, but suddenly I saw Three travelers enter. I sat in thrall Until by chance I espied firelight And then I heard speak from on a great height: 162


‚‘Go, young maid, and seek out the valiant three Serve them well, and speak this message from thee: ‚‘Tell these three persons that should have been four Their guide will lead them to a darkened door That seems to hold only epic defeat. Within those walls is the force they must meet—

163


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The Derkling Queen seems an enemy; Neither pity nor sympathy has she For those who meet capture in her dark realm That carry spearhead, shield, banner, or helm. Yet mind this: she has not, this Derkling Queen, Forgone mercy. Heartless as she doth seem, Peer beyond her forbidding outward show Into her soul, which withal still doth grow. Careful they must be, justly innocent Of intrigue against her and her servants. Heed my words, and this trio, if worthy, Shall bring peace for the Philomorphs earthly. ‚The voice came to me, which lesson I learned By rote so that I could, in my own turn, Deliver the prophecy, the warning To you, just as it was come this morning. 165


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Once I impart to you all that I know I’ll retire, then a garden I’ll grow Wherever I am, you may always find Me where there bloom flowers, fruit on the vine.‛

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Fleur fell silent and looked beseechingly at the three travelers. They too were silent, trying to take in all that she had said. Mina noticed that, in the course of Fleur’s narrative, dark had crept upon them. She spoke. ‚Thank you for seeking us out to tell us your story. We shall stay here tonight and think about what you have said. Will you remain with us?‛ Mina smiled. ‚I’m sure Hatter has supper for all of us, and as long as you stay out of striking distance of the parasol, you’ll be fine.‛ After a moment, during which Fleur looked warily at Tatter, she gave a slow nod. Hatter, apparently pleased, began to unpack her hat and prepare supper.

168


Hatter Reveals Her Knowledge of Spycraft

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The next day, when Hatter awoke, she noticed that Fleur was gone. Every trace of her had disappeared, down to the last petal of the blossoms she shed. Hatter shrugged her shoulders and began to pack her things. Once done, she roused Tatter and then Mina, who groped towards the cold campfire for some tea. ‚No time,‛ Tatter said matter-of-factly. She nodded at the pearl-map, which was vibrating as if in impatience. As if of one accord, Tatter and the pearl-map began to move away from the fountain and towards the road. Hatter tossed Mina a hardboiled egg. She munched on it grumpily as she joined the procession.

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The trio had been walking for several hours when Hatter raised her hand imperiously. Tatter used her parasol to carefully pick her way through the rocky terrain and perched next to Hatter. Mina scrambled to follow, and they all three gazed on the largest and darkest mountain any of them had ever seen or imagined. It was impossible from their vantage point to see either 171


the base or the peak of the mountain. The entire formation was shrouded in mist, which occasionally parted to show impossibly sheer cliff faces. Tatter sighed and plopped down on the stony earth.

‚Welcome to Mt. Fuscus,‛ she said, pointing with her parasol to the geological behemoth. 172


Hatter remained standing in thought for several minutes. She seemed to have come to a decision she did not like. Sighing, Hatter turned to face Mina, and then something most improbable happened: Hatter spoke.

173


174


‚Well, I didn’t think it was going to be easy, but I had no idea even simple reconnaissance would be next to impossible. I don’t suppose there’s anything for it, though; we need more information if we’re going to locate the Derkling Queen. That mountain’s a natural fortress; I’ve never seen anything like it.‛ Mina gaped. Hatter’s distinctly upper-class accent and crisp delivery jolted her. Hatter seemed to take no notice of the child’s consternation, though Tatter did use the tip of her parasol to close Mina’s open mouth.

175


176


Hatter continued, ‚We’ll have to camp for at least a day. Actually, there’s too little cover here, but I noticed a natural cave formation about half a league back. You two should be safe there.‛ Mina sputtered, ‚Where are you going?‛ Hatter smiled patiently. ‚I told you that reconnaissance had to be done. I’m the spy in the group, so it makes sense for me to go alone. Neither of you have my training. Tatter,‛ she said, ‚do you have provisions enough for the night?‛ Tatter grunted an affirmative. Hatter clasped her hands together. ‚Excellent. I’ll guide you two back to the cave and then be about my business.‛ 177


178


‚I should be back by sunset tomorrow. If I’m not, Tatter, you take the child and return to the Theatre of Last Resort. I presume that, should remain on the outskirts for a few days that Fleur will eventually find you. She’s a knack for turning up where she’s needed, that one.‛ Tatter replied, ‚Yer don't need to guide us back to the cave. I saw it when we passed.‛ She took a moment to glare and thrust her parasol in Hatter’s direction. ‚Jus’…be careful.‛ Hatter grinned and doffed her hat. ‚Aren’t I always?‛ And with that, the formerly silent Philomorph slipped into the shadows. *** 179


Tatter had indeed remembered the cave Hatter mentioned, and within the hour she and Mina were ensconced in an inner chamber. The shelter kept out the rain, but was far from cozy. Tatter forbade a fire, saying there wasn’t enough ventilation to keep the smoke from killing them both. Mina grumbled but knew the Philomorph was right. After a cold supper, Tatter began to bunch her clothing around her, a sure sign she was getting ready for bed. Mina hastened to her and blurted out what had been on her mind all afternoon. ‚You can’t go to sleep! You haven’t told me about Hatter!‛

180


181


‚What’s there to tell? She’s gahn to get us information so we can cop into the bleedin' cave and spot this Derklin' Queen. She’ll be back, don’t worry.‛ ‚Not that! I mean, she said she was a spy! And she talks! I thought she couldn’t talk, I thought…well, I don’t know what I thought.‛ Tatter sighed. ‚Hatter can talk, alright, she just don’t choose to. Not unless she’s got sumfink important to say. She don’t trust many blokes, yer know. Says it’s an occupational 'azard.‛ Mina digested this information. ‚How long has she been a spy? Who does she spy for?‛

182


Tatter sat up and, resigned to the inevitability of a conversation, helped herself to cold tea. ‚’atter's not a spy anymore. Well, she don't work as a spy. She can't, because it's sort of 'ard to go undercover if yer a Philo.‛

183


Mina frowned. ‚I thought Philomorphs changed as children. Does that mean she was a spy when she was my age?‛

184


Tatter put as much irritability into a sigh as she could manage. ‚It'll save time if yer let me tell the story from the beginnin' instead of askin' me so many questions.‛ Seeing the justice of this rebuke, Mina settled herself against the back wall of the cave and began to listen. 185


Hatter’s Tale (as narrated by Tatter) (text-only episode)

186


‚Back when Philomorphs was just startin' to appear in the Realm, every geezer thought it were a freak of chance, an’ eventually we’d get over us obsessions and go back to normal. 'Course, that didn’t 'appen. After a while, there got to be more and more of us. Blokes said it were a new plague and got scared. I don’t mean scared like when a wee kid spots a spider, I mean scared like getting ready to burn us at the chuffin' stake. It were a bad time, right, and I personally don’t want to discuss that part of it. Eventually, the persecution got so bad that some of us banded togeffer. We decided that we’d just take ourselves off to a different place and live among us own kind. Th’ others in the Realm would 'ave agreed with this plan if they’d fought to ask what we were doin'. Instead, right, they seen a bunch of us gatherin' and decided we was 187


formin' an army.‛ She snorted. ‚We were just a bunch of kids, right, init? We didn't know 'ow to fight a bleedin’ war. ‚But once they began to attack us, we learned and we learned fast. We’d grown up fightin' with us fists in the bleedin’ schoolyard, so it weren’t a stretch to start fightin' with real weapons. We was just defendin' ourselves, but things got so out of 'and, and no side would listen to the other. After a while, all of us forgot what we originally wanted and were just wagin' a war because we always 'ad. ‚I told yer before there were some Philomorphs as could control their changin'. It would catch up with ‘em eventually, right, but it were a dead useful skill to us when we were at war. Hatter were the best at it; she could keep from changin' 188


for days, right, weeks if she 'ad to. When the Philos started to figure out that this war weren’t gonna end with us alive if we surrendered, we knew we 'ad to change tactics. We were outnumbered, right, and there were no way we were gonna win in a direct confrontation. So we started an intelligence service to infiltrate the other side, see if we could end the war that way. ‘atter and another girl started it. This other one were a Sympaffizer…that’s what we called the blokes who weren’t Philos but who thought we shouldn’t be killed just because of who we were. ‘atter and this other woman was us most important assets. Thanks to ‘em, we won some direct battles and managed to prevent some others. Both of ‘em—our best agents— were set to be 'eroes wen the war ended.

189


‚’atter and me, we should 'ave known it couldn’t last. We were winnin' too easy, like. Turned out this other spy, the Sympaffizer, was workin' for the other side. Some Philos said she'd been a plant from the beginnin', but 'atter figured she’d been turned against us. Hatter said the bleedin' Sympaffizer 'ad seen sumfink or 'eard sumfink to make 'er change 'er mind. I don’t know, myself, but I trust 'atter’s instincts about these things. ‚Once we found out that the Sympaffizer 'ad turned, we went to keep 'er from runnin' to the bloody other side. She knew we knew. Somehow, she managed to escape before we got there. Once she were gone, right, so were us spy network, because she knew every bloke in it. We didn’t 'ave a choice; we couldn’t win the war without 190


the spies, right, and we couldn’t surrender because we’d all be killed. So we ran. ‚Some Philos left the Realm permanently, before the borders closed. Most weren’t so lucky. They were 'unted down like dogs and killed, or else managed to find someplace to hide. When it were all over, there weren’t even enough Philos left to form a dinner party, much less an army. Once that 'appened, right, the other side decided to let the bleedin' rest of us alone, as long as we stayed with us own kind. Funny, because that’s exactly what we were tryin' to do in the first place, before the war. The city we visited, right, where yer seen The Cartographer, that’s us city, our place. When kiddies start to show changes, to turn into Philos, parents have ‘em sent to us and we raise ‘em. 191


‚There’s not much more to tell. ‘atter, she was ruined comin' and goin’. The Philos fought she’d betrayed them, right, because she were so close to the Sympaffizer. There were some as wanted to execute 'atter as a traitor, but she 'ad enough mates to escape that punishment. There were no way 'atter could or would go to the other side; she’s not a defector. Then we lost the war and there were no goin’ anywhere. There weren’t enough Philos left to risk killin' one, so the others kind just sort of let 'er go about 'er business. She were banished from the city, o'course. Meself, I didn’t want to stay and make a life in a place with blokes who’d turn against their own, so I left with 'atter. We’ve been together ever since.‛

192


Mina regarded Tatter with admiration mixed with pity. ‚You’re a good friend,‛ she whispered. Tatter sniffed appreciatively and Mina continued, ‚What happened to the Sympathizer?‛ ‚Dead, most like. If she were turned, the other side would’ve used what she had to give ‘em and then made off with ‘er. They weren’t shy about killing they own, if it came to it.‛ ‚But if things are settled—I mean, if there’s no war—then why was the Professor killed? And who’s been following us?‛ ‚The Philo coppers were the ones tracked us to The Cartographer’s shop. ‘atter’s not allowed in 193


the city limits under pain of death. As far as the Professor goes, I 'ave no idea. He kept 'is cards close, that one did.‛ And with that last pronouncement, Tatter lay down on her side, her back to Mina, and shortly began to snore.

194


‚Hatter’s Plan‛

195


Hatter returned the next day several hours early. She had no trouble finding Tatter and Mina’s position in the cave, as Tatter’s grumbling echoed throughout the entire rock formation. Chuckling, Hatter ducked down under the low entrance and said ‚Hush, Tatter, I’m back and I’m early.‛ ‚It’s about bleedin’ time,‛ snapped Tatter. ‚What did yer see?‛ ‚It’s not good,‛ replied Hatter. She plucked Tatter’s parasol from her hands and began to draw in the dirt floor of the cave. ‚There are six entrances to Mt. Fuscus. Two of those are caved in solid, one is in the middle of a rockface so sheer I couldn’t begin to climb to it, and the other three are guarded by Derklings.‛ She marked a series of ‚X‛es on the diagram. ‚Two 196


of the latter are guarded very lightly—four or five Derklings each. That tells me there are other defenses in play that we can’t see. Those are out—I don’t want to tangle with whatever the Derkling Queen put there.‛ ‚What is a Derkling, anyway?‛ demanded Mina. Hatter shrugged. ‚They’re difficult to describe. They’re sort of dark, winged, shadowy halfhumans gone bad. They’re small things, not much trouble by themselves. It’s when they’re in large groups you run into problems.‛ She returned her attention to the diagram. ‚The last entrance is the one we’re looking for, I think. I counted twenty-five Derkling guards for each of the three shifts on that entrance.‛

197


‚So we need to get by twenty-five of these things?‛ asked Mina. ‚Not necessarily. We have some options. If we choose any of the secondary entrances, we can easily overpower the guards. The problem is that once we’re inside we won’t know which way to go. That mountain could hold any number of passages, dead ends, and the like. We could end up wandering for days until our food and water give out. I don’t much like the idea of starving to death in there.‛ ‚Too bleedin’ right,‛ muttered Tatter. ‚We could try to shift the rocks on one of the blocked entrances, but we face the same problem if we get inside. Not to mention it’s difficult to move boulders stealthily. We’d be discovered 198


before we’d finished prying the first one away from the others. So it looks like our only means of ingress is the heavily guarded entrance.‛ ‚If the Derklings are small, why can’t we just kill them?‛ Mina inquired. Hatter stiffened. ‚The Derklings are not our enemies. They’re to be pitied, for they’re hopeless, leaden-souled things. Besides, remember what Fleur said: the Derkling Queen won’t suffer us to live if we bring weapons to her home.‛ ‚Can we just ask the guards to let us in?‛ ‚We could, but then they wouldn’t be much good as guards, would they? Besides, they hate Philomorphs.‛ 199


Mina began to feel exasperated. ‚So what exactly do you propose we do, Hatter?‛ Hatter smiled. ‚It’s easy. We’re going to let them take us prisoner.‛

200


‚The Descent‛

201


Mina had not thought it would take so much to be captured by the Derklings. In the end, after three days of fruitless, overtly suspicious activity, Tatter and Mina were forced to stage an argument within a few yards of the main entrance. Hatter had lapsed back into her habitual silence but kept a watch on the movements of the guards. In the middle of Tatter and Mina’s argument, Hatter signaled that the 202


Derklings were moving in. Tatter opened her parasol so it looked as nonthreatening as possible, while Hatter scrunched her improbable hat further down her face. Mina just stood there feeling a trifle silly.

Soon enough, six Derklings were cresting the ridge where the trio had staged their argument. The Derklings spoke among themselves in a chirruping sort of language. To Mina, it sounded 203


like a poor cricket-to-bat translation at an animal Parliment.

Hatter seemed to understand what the Derklings were saying, but as they approached she gave no indication that she spoke Derklish. She pretended to be as confused as Mina and Tatter

204


when they were rounded up and herded towards Mt. Fuscus. Tatter bit her lip as they walked, trying to keep both her temper and her parasol in check. Though she and Hatter had been through much together, Tatter was no spy. She was unused to surrendering control of a situation, and she especially hated having to submit to being frogmarched towards that looming mountain. Unbidden, an image of The Professor’s wordstrewn corpse settled at the forefront of her mind. Tatter shifted uneasily, but realized that she couldn’t escape now if she wanted to. The trio was politely but firmly guided past the main entrance to the mountain, then down a complex series of paths lit by torches. Mina could feel the downward slope of their progress 205


as they moved deeper and deeper into the stone edifice. After what seemed like an hour, the group approached a wooden door wedged into a carved opening. It was apparently held up by means of metal bolts forced into the surrounding stone, and it was guarded by another contingent of Derklings. The two sets of guards chirruped back and forth for a few minutes, then one of the door guards set to unlocking the sixteen different types of bolts that fastened the door shut. When the last hasp was cleared, a mass of Derklings hefted the wood out of the way. Without further ceremony, the trio’s guards shoved them into the space beyond; the other group of guards thrust the wood back into place and rapidly refitted the bolts. 206


There was no light in the space, but Hatter rummaged in the improbable hat and produced a candle with matches. She lit the candle and surveyed the cell.

207


It was clearly a place of confinement, in that there could be no doubt. The three were in a damp, cramped little space with manacles driven into the walls. It was so small that Hatter’s candle cast light into the far reaches of the walls. Tatter plunked down onto the dirt floor and glared. ‚Wot now?‛ 208


Hatter, serene as ever, replied, ‚We wait for a rat.‛

If Tatter was confused, she refused to show it. And indeed, Mina watched with amazement as Hatter pulled a bit of grain from her hat and placed it in the far corner of the room. Then she

209


turned back to her companions. ‚Tatter, I need string.‛ Tatter stood up, glaring. ‚’ow much string?‛

Hatter looked at Tatter, thinking. ‚Your hem should do it.‛ Tatter stared daggers at her friend, but started to unravel her tatted lace without a word. 210


‚I’m going to have to blow out the candle,‛ Hatter said to Mina apologetically. ‚Just sit still, but not against the wall. They’ll be more interested in the food than in you.‛

Mina obeyed, hoping Hatter knew what she was doing. After a while—Mina couldn’t judge how long— she heard a telltale scrabble of claws. Before she 211


could think to scream, Hatter let out a whoop of triumph. ‚Got you! Tatter, light the candle, would you?‛

Tatter complied, and sure enough, Hatter had pinned a rather large and definitely ugly rat by its tail. The rat didn’t look scared, probably because Hatter was nudging bits of food in its direction..

212


‚I don’t believe this,‛ Mina said. ‚It’s going to bite you, you know.‛ Hatter sighed. ‚I know, but we need it enough that I can afford a bite or two.‛ She removed more grain from her hat and kept feeding the vermin. Mina looked on helplessly. Of all the odd things that had happened lately, this was by far the oddest. In the dark, Tatter had finished unwinding her hem. She thrust the pile of thread at Mina. ‚Go on, now.‛ ‚And do what?‛

213


Hatter interrupted, ‚I need you to tie the string around its tail.‛ ‚What?‛

Tatter became exasperated. ‚'Ave a look, it took me a bit to see what ‘atter were up to, right, but it makes sense. ‘ere not dead, are we, so there must be a’ air source. That means a hole somewhere. If a rat can get in 'ere, then a rat can 214


get out. We need to be able to follow the rat to find out where 'e comes from and spot if we can use it as an exit. So just 'urry up and tie me string 'round that dratted fink’s tail, and make sure yer cover it tight! If the bleedin' string snaps, this’ll all be for nuffink.‛ Mina shuddered but did as she was asked. Once the string was firmly anchored to the rat’s tail, Hatter tipped it out of her hand onto the floor. ‚Time to earn your keep, little thing,‛ she murmured. The rat, sensing that its free meal was at an end, scuttled away. Hatter picked up the thread from Mina and gave the rat as much slack as she dared.

215


Once the string was pulled taunt, the trio began to follow it to what had, until now, looked to be a wall of unnerving solidity. Hatter handed the string to Mina and began to pat the place where the string had disappeared.

216


Hatter regarded the crevice. She tapped experimentally on the wall and listened for something—Mina wasn’t sure what. Hatter turned around. ‚Well, I hoped we could do this the easy way, but there’s not enough cover in here for me to use large explosives. We’ll have to create several smaller blasts and 217


hope the entire thing doesn’t give way before I’m through.‛ She turned and began to unpack her hat. ‚Tatter, Mina, you go over to the other side, as close to the door as you can get. Keep your backs to me for safety. I need you to sing.‛ ‚Sing?‛ Mina wondered if Hatter had gone mad. ‚To cover the sounds of the micro-explosions.‛ ‚Oh.‛

218


Escape

219


It was during their thirty-second round of ‚Greensleeves,‛ when Mina assumed she was in a very special hell, that a thought came to her. ‚Tatter,‛ she whispered, ‚how does Hatter know what to do? How is she so sure she can get us out of this dungeon? Has she been here before?‛ She picked up the tune again.

220


221


Tatter finished the verse and answered. ‚If so, it musta been durin' the war. She musta been keepin' 'erself from changin', so the bloomin' Derklings don't recognize 'er now.‛ She picked up the chorus as another faint popping sound came from Hatter’s corner of the dungeon. Verse. Chorus. Verse. Chorus. Whenever Mina felt like stopping and collapsing on the floor, she recalled everything these two very odd women had done for her. The thought gave her flagging energy enough guilt to fuel another round.

222


After an eternity, or so it seemed to Mina, Hatter sauntered over to them and joined in the chorus. She caterwauled so loudly that the Derkling guards banged something ominously against the door. Hatter put a finger to her lips and all three fell silent. Hatter turned, motioning to Tatter and Mina to follow her.

223


Where several hours ago there had been a ratsized hole, there was now a Hatter-sized one, surrounded by rocky debris. The three picked their way across the pebble-strewn floor, Hatter in the lead.

On the other side of the wall there appeared…another wall. Mina was about to sink to the new floor and cry when she saw Hatter move. If they each turned sideways and sidled 224


along, she saw, there was just enough room to walk. Mina scrambled up and sandwiched herself between the Two Philomorphs, feeling like a joint in an articulated skeleton. ‚Where do we go?‛ whispered Mina. Hatter said nothing, but pointed to Mina’s pocket, where the pearl-map was once again pulsating with light. Mina slipped the sphere out of her pocket and rolled it to the stone floor. It bounced once and then began to roll down the small path. It took the better part of three hours to navigate the myriad twists and turns of the narrow passage. The pearl-map urged the group unerringly through the labyrinthine passages deeper into the mountain. Finally, the orb rolled 225


to a stop against a wall. It continued to radiate the space around it, but seemed disobliged to move around the obstacle. The trio craned their necks to look at the others, but no one seemed to have a solution.

After enduring multiple jabs of Tatter’s parasol, Hatter squeezed her way around Mina and Tatter so that she was closest to the wall. She reached out a hand and began to prod the stone, 226


feeling for some indication that the slab could be moved. After a few minutes, Hatter plucked a couple of pins from the improbable hat and wedged herself as parallel to the stone as was possible. Mina couldn’t see very much over the rather suspicious movement of Hatter’s shoulders. Finally, with a satisfying ‚click,‛ the slab of stone began to move laterally. ‚It’s a pocket door!‛ exclaimed Tatter. ‚It’s right clever, ‘at is.‛ Once the stone had retreated from view, the trio was greeted with the obverse side of a rich tapestry. Tatter used her parasol to swat it aside and stepped forward. Mina shrugged and followed as Hatter trundled behind her.

227


The three found themselves is a cavernous space at least a furlong from end to end. The intricately carved rock ceilings soared almost past seeing. The columns supporting the ceiling were likewise inscribed with images of innumerable unsettling creatures. Mina shivered and tried not to look at the grotesque engravings. Instead, she fixed her eyes on the throne that occupied the opposite end of the room from the tapestry.

228


229


The throne was set upon a series of shallow stairs, and upon that throne reposed a figure. The figure wasn’t human and wasn’t Derkling, but some combination of the two. Mina tugged Tatter’s hem and pointed towards the throne. For once, Tatter was rendered speechless.

230


The Derkling Queen

231


232


The figure upon the throne rose sinuously and appeared to glide down the stairs. ‚Our, our, our,‛ she—for it was a she—purred. ‚Whatever do we have here?‛ She paused and cocked her head. ‚We do believe thee hast managed to escape our guards. We shall have to speak to them.‛ Her wings twitched in anticipatory pleasure. While the figure was speaking, Hatter stepped in front of Mina and Tatter, as if to protect them. Hatter considered a moment. ‚You must be Nerezza, Queen of the Derklings.‛ The wings twitched again. ‚Thou knowest us, but thou art not of us. Wherefore came thee, and why dost thou not kneel before us?‛ 233


Hatter paused, then doffed her hat. ‚We are diplomats from the Realm, and mean no disrespect, which kneeling is to us. We bear you no ill will, even though your guards imprisoned us and would have left us to our deaths.‛ Mina started at this blatant lie—she certainly bore ill will towards the Derklings—but did not speak. Something was hanging in the balance, and Mina was afraid it was her life. Nerezza seemed to accept Hatter’s explanation, for she folded her wings and chirruped in the language of the Derklings. Servants appeared from shadowed recesses and began to lay down rugs in lieu of chairs. The Queen spread her hands and nodded for her guests to sit.

234


235


Hatter nodded, and shifted her bulk to the floor. Mina and Tatter followed, at which point the Derkling Queen lowered herself gracefully to sit across from the three. ‚We did not know thee hadst been imprisoned by our guards. Indeed, we did not know thou hadst come to us. Others do not often seek us in our home, much less those from the Realm. Had we known thou came from the Realm, we would not have imprisoned thee.‛ ‚With all respect tendered, Your Majesty, you knew we were here and you knew we are from the Realm, else why did you greet us in our own language?‛ If the Queen was embarrassed at being caught in so obvious a lie, she did not show it. Instead, she 236


bared her teeth at Hatter in a gesture that wasn’t quite menace, but hinted strongly that diplomatic status meant little in Mt. Fuscus. Hatter didn’t react. She continued speaking in the strange, archaic cadence that the Derkling Queen seemed to prefer. ‚We brought neither sabers, nor helms, nor armament of any kind. Had we been given the opportunity, we would have declared our diplomatic status.‛

237


238


‚If thou art diplomats, as thou sayest, why did thou not present thyselves as such, instead of relying on a ruse to gain entrance to my domain? Yes, we saw thee stage thy argument, we did, and we wanted to know why. Surely thou must know that Mt. Fuscus has never entered into relations with the Realm of any kind but war. No, envoys thou could not be. So we had thee watched as thou destroyed our perfectly good dungeon. We were curious. Frankly, we thought thou wouldst die trying to find an escape from our mountain. Let us put aside pretense and deception, and deal only in what is true. Tell us why thou comest to our domain.‛ Hatter, seeing there was nothing for it, looked the Queen in her eye and said softly, ‚We are here for the Alchemist.‛ 239


The Derkling Queen tossed back her head and produced an unearthly laugh. ‚And by what consul did thee come to seek her here? She is a myth, a legend, a figment of smoke upon the sky. The Alchemist exists not, and certainly not in our realm.‛

Hatter didn’t pause; she was on surer ground now. ‚Your Majesty, as you yourself have said, let us put aside pretense and deception. We 240


know the Alchemist is here, for we have The Cartographer’s word.‛ As Hatter spoke, the pearl-map rolled from behind the tapestry towards the seated conclave. Mina scooped it from the carpet and placed it in her pocket. ‚We are therefore presented with a conundrum,‛ Hatter continued. ‚For if the map is correct, the Alchemist is here. And if she is here with your knowledge and permission, you have shown your stated desire for truth, and by extension yourself, to be wicked and false. If, however, you speak in good faith, then you are ignorant of what—and who—constitutes your realm.‛ Mina clapped her hands over her ears as Nerezza spat an unholy scream in their general direction. It was so high-pitched that two 241


Derkling guards spontaneously combusted, leaving behind only wisps of foul smoke. The other Derklings lashed together in a group, cowering under the Queen’s wrath. Tatter had seen enough. It was obvious to her that the negotiations had been stalled. She leapt up, parasol at the ready. ‚What in the seven ‘ells do yer fink yer doin’? Alls we want is a nice civil-like conversation, and now yer so het up yer blowin’ up yer own subjects! Do you do that to ‘em every time yer get hacked off about somefink? It’s a wonder yer got any of ‘em left.‛

242


243


244


The Queen rose as well, vocal cords at the ready. She meant to destroy these interlopers, no matter how many of her Derklings had to be sacrificed. It was at this point that Mina had an idea. ‚Say it!‛ she begged. ‚Say the thing—the code! It helped us before!‛ Hatter just looked at her. Mina was more frustrated and felt more helpless than she had even been. She clambered onto Hatter’s back and screamed into the room, ‚Knee hill nest oot wid knee roar!‛ Both Tatter and the Derkling Queen turned to gape at Mina but didn’t relax their battle stances. Hatter, on the other hand, figured out 245


what Mina was attempting. She boomed across the cavern, ‚Nihil est ut videtur!‛ There was a grinding, pulsating movement as the stone floor vanished beneath their feet.

246


‚Nihil est ut videtur‛

247


Thwump! Thwump! Thwump! Thwump! Mina, Hatter, Tatter, and the Derkling Queen dropped into space for only a moment before they were arrested by a sort of landing stage. It was simultaneously pillowy and springy, and all four were unhurt. ‚Well, I’m happy to see that particular invention works,‛ said a voice. Mina swiveled her head in an attempt to locate the body attached to the voice. The voice continued, ‚Give me a moment to dissipate the miasmic vapors and you’ll be able to stand.‛ 248


Soon, the cloud-like substance began to recede and the four were able to right themselves.

‚That’s better,‛ commented the voice. It seemed to be coming from behind a table piled with flasks, retorts, tubing, and other scientific detritus on a raised section of floor. The voice moved from behind the table to the front of the platform. Mina couldn’t tell if the woman

249


attached to the voice was a Philomorph or if she was simply wearing protective goggles. This puzzle soon ceased to occupy Mina’s mind, as Hatter shrieked, ‚Traitor!‛ and began to move towards the woman. The stranger seemed unperturbed; she leaned back towards the table and flicked a lever. Hatter’s progress was halted instantaneously. Hatter looked around, perplexed.

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‚Reverse-adhesion surface-tension flooring via electrical fields with a soupçon of rare-earth magnetism thrown in for good measure,‛ the woman explained, staring at Hatter. ‚No longterm effects, but you won’t be able to move until I depress the lever. So just stop thinking about killing me and explain why you’re here.‛ From her new statuary position, Tatter tried vainly to look menacing. ‚Yer alive, yer bleedin’ defector!‛ Mina, taken aback by Tatter’s announcement, blurted, ‚You’re the spy! You’re the one who betrayed the Philomorphs!‛

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The woman snapped her eyes towards Mina, and in that moment became as immobile as the rest of the group. ‚Mina?‛ Mina was shaken. ‚How do you know my name?‛ The woman shook her head. ‚That is…unimportant. What is vital right now is to 254


get the three of you out of my lab and make sure you can never come back.‛ ‚No, what is vital is that you tell me how you know my name and why you’re trying to kill us,‛ retorted Mina. ‚I have no intention of murdering anyone. However, it seems your friends do intend to do me as much harm as possible.‛ Hatter growled in response.

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‚You should not have come,‛ The woman continued, then turned towards the Derkling Queen. ‚Nerezza, why did you allow them in your domain? You knew better, surely.‛ The Derkling Queen looked markedly less regal than normal. ‚We were trying to send them away, but then she‛—an accusing finger was pointed at Hatter—‚spake the code and the 256


floor retracted.‛ The Queen stood stiffly and seemed to regain her usual air of disdain. ‚Why thou persists in employing such a treacherous phrase is beyond the compass of our wits. We could have warned thee this would happen one day. Now let us up from this floor. We don’t care about the others, but thou art still here under our sufferance.‛ The woman grinned ruefully. ‚Sorry, Nerezza, it’s all one piece. If I let you go, the others could move as well. So you’re stuck—literally—until I can figure out what to do.‛ Mina thought fast. ‚Whoever you are—you still haven’t told me—you have some of those Derklings fly in, then carry us out of here without anyone getting hurt. We’re looking for the Alchemist, and we found you by mistake.‛ 257


The woman shook her head. ‚That won’t work. First, the Derklings won’t come down here; they’re scared of the lab. Second, you already know where my laboratory is, which defeats the purpose of hiding it. And finally, it wouldn’t do any good for you to leave, because you’re talking to The Alchemist.‛

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‚Indeed, Mina,‛ the woman continued calmly, ‚nothing is as it seems.‛ *** ‚So yer real,‛ Tatter said flatly. ‚Figures the two most hated people in the bleedin’ Realm are the same woman.‛

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‚I think that’s an exaggeration. Most feared, certainly. Most hated? I’m sure there have been others to take that title since I disappeared.‛ The Alchemist peered closely at Tatter. ‚What are you doing here anyway, Cassiopeia?‛ ‚Don’t. Call. Me. Cassiopeia.‛ ‚What should I call you then?‛ ‚How about yer bleedin’ worst nightmare?‛ The Alchemist laughed. ‚That’s a little long. Come now, either tell me your new name or I’ll call you Cassi—‚ ‚TATTER!‛ Tatter shouted.

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‚Fine. Tatter it is. How very apropos.‛ The Alchemist smiled frankly. ‚You know, I always did think you were underrated. I never knew why they didn’t employ you in intelligence during the war.‛ Tatter began to spit out a string of profanity that was impressive in both its breadth and complexity. Mina counted seven different languages before Tatter ran out of breath. ‚Yes, yes,‛ said the Alchemist. ‚You’re not fond of me. I know. What I do not know is that you’ve spent the past seventeen years hunting me. That’s a tad obsessive even for you.‛

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Mina spoke. ‚They haven’t. They came to help me after The Professor was murdered.‛ The Alchemist paused. ‚Jabir is dead? Who murdered him?‛ Mina was taken aback. ‚I thought you did. The last thing he said to me before he died was to find you.‛ 262


The Alchemist sighed. ‚That wasn’t because I killed him, Mina. He wanted you to find me for another reason, even though we’d had several fights about it in the past.‛ ‚You fought about me?‛ Mina asked. At the same time, Hatter broke in. ‚You were in communication with him for seventeen years and

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he never told us? Was he the one who helped you escape?‛ The Alchemist sighed. ‚No, no, no. I haven’t talked to Jabir since I fled. We fought about everything before that. It’s a rather long story…‛ Tatter interrupted, ‚Well, we’re bleedin’ stuck ‘ere until yer done wiv us, so yer might as well spill whatever yer got to tell.‛

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The Alchemist nodded in acknowledgement. ‚I suppose I owe Margaretha that much,‛ she said, nodding at Hatter.

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The Alchemist’s Tale (Text-only episode)

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‚Despite what you may think, it really is true that things are not as they seem. I was a traitor, but not in the beginning, and not for the reasons you think. I did truly believe in your cause, you know. But I’m also a scientist, and knew— know—there must be a cure, or at least a vaccine to keep people from contracting Philomorphism. None of you have had an easy life—separated from your parents, fighting every time you left your houses, hounded and persecuted—why would you want to live like that if you didn’t have to?‛ ‚Because—‛ growled Hatter. ‚Margaretha, don’t interrupt if you want to hear this tale.‛ Hatter fell dangerously silent. 267


‚To continue,‛ said The Alchemist, ‚I knew that this condition couldn’t have sprung from nowhere. There must have been something—a miasma, a congenital predisposition, something that morphed people in the Realm. For every action, there is a pre-existing action. While everyone in the Realm was tearing each other apart, no one thought to ask why this transformation was happening in the first place. Why should people who didn’t want to…well, to morph, have to endure it? It’s like any disease— you experiment until you find a cure.‛ ‚I am not diseased!‛ Tatter screamed as Hatter overlapped with ‚You’ve really been experimenting on us? How? Have you been kidnapping us?‛ 268


‚You misunderstand,‛ said The Alchemist. ‚My research so far is purely theoretical. It is my belief that if we can understand the transmuting of base elements into noble ones, we can attack the mutation from its origins. We can transmute whatever’s causing this. People would have a choice—a choice of whether to become a Philomorph or not. I haven’t gotten as far as I’d hoped, but my experiments have yielded some interesting negative results. The null hypothesis—‛ The Alchemist was cut off by Tatter’s menacing growl. ‚I don’t care about your theories. I care about the fact you betrayed us.‛ The Alchemist’s sang-froid deserted her for a moment and she snapped, ‚I am trying to find a cure! Not one of you understood that! All you 269


wanted was information that you would use to kill people! I was the only one trying to stop the war; you just wanted to win it!‛ Mina was confused. ‚The Philo army shut down your lab so you betrayed them?‛ The Alchemist shook her head. ‚No, it wasn’t like that. None of the Philomorphs knew I was doing this research. It was a project unrelated to my intelligence work. I really was on your side, Margaretha.‛ She looked at Hatter beseechingly. ‚YOU LEFT ME TO DIE!‛ screamed Hatter. She had lost all control, and even the Derkling Queen looked frightened. ‚Yes, I did. I admit that. But I didn’t lead them to your door; you were careless.‛ 270


‚Leave no one behind,‛ spat Hatter. ‚We agreed, and you violated that oath.‛ ‚What I don’t understand,‛ Mina broke in, ‚is why. If no one knew you were doing these…experiments, then why did you turn on the Philomorphs?‛ The Alchemist sighed, and Mina saw a haunting grief flit across her face. She bit her lip and then said, calmly, ‚Because I became pregnant with you, Mina.‛

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DĂŠnouement

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No one spoke. No one moved. The quiet was absolute.

The Alchemist crossed her arms and waited expectantly. Finally, her voice shattered the silence. ‚I don’t think you’ll be able to understand what I did until you have children of your own, Mina. When I realized I was pregnant, it was no longer me fighting a battle of conscience. My ideas shifted, and very quickly I 273


saw the danger. Even if I discounted the very real possibility that I would be captured by the enemy, there was still my theory. If Philomorphs have a medical condition that makes them transform, it was feasible that this condition, whatever its origin, was communicable. I’d been living alongside Philos for many months, and there was every likelihood that I’d contracted the—‛ she looked at Tatter and paused—‚that I’d give birth to a child who would transform. A child who would suffer as I saw so many others suffer. It became imperative to conduct my experiments as quickly as possible if I was to find a way to give my child a choice about her— about her possible Philomorphism.

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‚In my haste, I made a mistake. I was buying too much equipment too fast, and the other side became suspicious. They would have executed me, so I made a deal. In return for my…cooperation, they would fund my lab and leave me to complete my research. I knew why— they assumed they could use my findings as a kind of biological weapon. They would let me build what I thought of as a vaccine and use it to 275


exterminate the Philos. That I didn’t want to happen, any more than I wanted the Philomorphs to have no choice about their transformation. However, I didn’t see that I had much of a choice, so I complied.‛

‚And then she double-crossed them,‛ interjected the Derkling Queen. 276


The Alchemist nodded. ‚Nerezza and I came to an arrangement. Both sides hated her because she wouldn’t join them in the war. So I helped her defend this fortress and kept her guards alive, and she gave me and my lab protection. There wasn’t enough time to tell you any of this, Margaretha, or to warn you that the enemy was coming. It was a choice between you and my child, and I chose Mina. I retreated to the woods with her father, gave birth, then one night I just…disappeared. It was the only way to keep Mina from being used as leverage—if no one knew where I was, no one could betray me.‛ ‚So ‘ow does the Professor come into all this?‛ demanded Tatter. ‚Jabir helped me escape. He was always the best friend I’d had. He didn’t approve of my 277


methods, or of my abandoning my child, but he didn’t think it was right to turn me over to anyone, either. He knew I’d be executed. We fought for days, but he finally relented.‛ ‚So you see, Mina,‛ The Alchemist concluded, ‚Jabir—The Professor—wanted you to find me not because I killed him, but because he thought a daughter should be with her mother.‛ Mina didn’t respond. She was too busy trying to sort out the rage, hope, despair, relief, disbelief, and countless other emotions that were battling for control inside her. She looked at Hatter and choked out, ‚Please don’t kill my mother.‛

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Hatter sighed. ‚I don’t like killing people, Mina. It’s never an easy decision, and it’s something I always tried to avoid. But you have to understand that your mother—assuming of course that she is your mother—caused the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people.‛ ‚People who wanted to execute you and who threw you out of your city,‛ Mina countered. 279


‚Mina, I have no intention of murdering this woman. I do, however, plan to arrest her and take her back to the Realm. She must be tried by a jury, and if she is sentenced to death, I’ll not stand in the way. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.‛ Hatter looked at the Alchemist. ‚I don’t suppose you’ll come willingly.‛ ‚You suppose correctly,‛ replied the Alchemist. ‚But I have no plan to harm you, either. As soon as I can figure out where to go, I’ll release you. Nerezza will allow you to leave Mt. Fuscus as long as you promise never to return.‛ The Derkling Queen chirruped in agitation, but a look from the Alchemist silenced her. 280


Tatter interrupted this stalemate with a seemingly irrelevant observation. ‚Yer glowin’ red, Mina.‛ Everyone turned to look at Mina. She didn’t understand at first, but Tatter nodded towards her pocket. Mina looked down curiously, and plucked the pearl-map from her pocket. The Alchemist’s face contorted in fear. ‚The Cartographer!‛ Mina looked at her. ‚Yes, she gave us the map to find you—‛ As she spoke, the pearl-map made a sudden leap off of her hand. It rolled at full tilt across the floor towards the platform on which the Alchemist was standing. 281


The Alchemist reacted instantly. She turned and flicked the switch behind her, deactivating the floor. Hatter, Tatter, and Mina all jerked forward and tumbled to the ground as the Derkling Queen unfurled hidden wings and levitated. Tatter’s parasol shot open, obscuring her sightline.

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Mina scrambled up first and made a run towards the platform, but Hatter seized the child’s waist and spun in the opposite direction of the dais. At that moment, the pearl-map-bomb exploded.

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Fragments

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Mina woke up six days later.

The first, rather blurry thing she saw was a lacecovered parasol; its business end was pointed at a stout, cloaked man. 285


‚If yer not good enough to do yer job and make ‘er well, yer can just—‚ ‚Tatter?‛ Mina croaked.

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Tatter whipped around as the man scurried off to parts unknown. ‚Mina?‛ She trotted over to the side of Mina’s bed. ‚’ow are yer feelin’?‛ Mina groaned. ‚Like I’ve been clouted.‛ Tatter nodded. ‚Sounds about right. Yer got hit by sumfink from above when the bomb went off.‛ Mina started for a moment as she remembered. ‚What—who—is…?‛

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Tatter seemed to understand. ‚It were a bit confusin’ like for a while. Th’ bleedin’ Derklings came and dug us outta the rubble. Th’ Queen’s wings broke, so she’s con…con…ver…‛ ‚Convalescing?‛

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‚Yeah, that’s it. Con-ver-lessing. ‘atter shielded you from the impact, but she didn’t do so well.‛ Seeing the look on Mina’s face, she hurried on. ‚not dead or nuffink, just hurt kinda bad. She’s gonna take a long time to get back to normal.‛ ‚What about my mother?‛

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Tatter paused. Finally, she said carefully, ‚We’s not sure about ‘er.‛ ‚What do you mean?‛ ‚Well, the bomb went off so quick, there weren’t any way she could’ve avoided bein’ hit. But when the Derklings shifted all the rubble, like, there weren’t no body.‛ ‚So is she alive?‛ ‚We don’t know. ‘atter said that she musta flipped another switch or sumfink that protected ‘er from the blast, but we didn’t find another lever or anyfink. We just don’t know. I don’t like it any more than yer do, but ‘struth.‛

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Mina digested this news in silence. If there was no body, there was hope. She supposed that was something, at least. She put aside the thought with difficulty, leaving room for another, even more reprehensible idea. ‚Tatter…‛ ‚Yeah?‛ ‚Did you know?‛ 291


‚Know what?‛ ‚Know that the map was actually a bomb?‛

Tatter’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. ‚’Course I didn’t know it were a bomb! I’m not in the habit of making meself a target for flyin’ rock, am I?‛ Her indignation subsided a bit. ‚Although I should’ve never trusted that bleedin’ 292


mapmaking tart. Shoulda known she ‘ad sumfink up ‘er sleeve, like.‛ The Philomorph sighed. ‚Naw, th’ fact we all got out alive were stupid luck.‛ ‚Why aren’t you hurt? And how did Hatter know to turn me away from the bomb?‛

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‚Well, ‘atter’s been in tight spots for a long time, so she’s gotten a kinda intuition when sumfink ain’t right. I think she were just actin’ on instinct, like. Plus, she don’t trust The Cartographer any more’n I do, so that put us both on ‘igh alert, you might say. As for me, well…‛ she patted her parasol fondly. ‚Bein’ a Philo’s got some advantages, yer know. All me lace may look like nuffink to most people, but it’s me armor. And me parasol’s the same way…it protects me, like. It popped open right before that map exploded us all to the next Realm. First time it’s ever done that, so maybe it were a coincidence, but I don’t really think so.‛ Mina was silent for a long time. Finally, she looked at the lace-covered woman and arched an eyebrow. ‚So, Tatter, what do we do now?‛ 294


Tatter considered for a bit. ‚I fink the best thing to do is to get outta this ‘ospital, like, and set towards home. Then, when ‘atter and yer all recovered, we’ll see. We still don’t know who killed The Professor, or where yer mum’s gone, and I’ve got a reckonin’ with a toff who makes maps.‛ The parasol jerked. 295


A tear plopped onto Mina’s lap. ‚Tatter, I don’t have a home. My father is dead. My mother may be dead, or she may have just abandoned me again. I can’t go back to school…‛ she trailed off and stared at the bedcovers. Tatter snorted and jabbed Mina’s knee. ‚Yer sumfink, yer know. ‘atter and me may not be yer blood, but we’re yer home. Whether yer like it or not, yer comin’ back to the ‘house with us.‛ And once again, Mina bowed to the implacable logic of Tatter’s parasol.

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Want further adventures of Mina, Tatter, and Hatter? Let us know by emailing literaturecouture@gmail.com. You can see behind-the-scenes photos, cast and crew bios, makeup tutorials, and more at http://literaturecouture.com/mina Thanks for reading, and remember:

Nihil est ut videtur (Things are not as they seem)

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Mina: A Photographic Novella (all 20 episodes!)