if you ever
Pre-series, several years. Spoilers for up to Book 7, and probably past that to be safe. Prompt from Kytha: 'If you ever make a mess, I'll do anything for you.'


Go to dinner, Father had said, slapping at the air with a five-forked-prong. Stop wasting valuable space here, and go make sure your sister eats. She's important. Her health has become a point of vital importance, so don't let it deteriorate, Tarvek. Keep your strength up as well. Me? No. I must study the plans again. The plans! I believe I can reduce the distortion in the sixth telaparoptic conduit. Improvements, always improvements...

Have the maids send some sweets with you. I'm sure your sister is just dawdling with the tailors again. How many dresses can that girl possibly want? She dresses like each day is a ball. Take some of the cake, Tarvek. She likes almonds still, doesn't she? She does. Have her eat. If you ever forget about her tastes - well. Don't forget.

Ramblings weren't a problem - any Spark was versed on how to muddle through those, and future Storm Kings had to learn to be particularly flexible - but they were a sign of preoccupation. Knowing that Father wouldn't be good for any kind of decent conversation for the rest of the evening, Tarvek had excused himself from the workroom and headed for the outer wings of the castle. He veered around the double staircase that led up to the living quarters, skipped the sliding escalator that cut straight through the wardrobe of his twice-deceased second aunt, and bypassed the seamstresses entirely.

Almonds. She hadn't liked those since she was eleven. Father was growing more and more out of touch with both his children. It could work in Tarvek's favor. It would work in Anevka's.

He put in a request in passing with the maids to forestall dinner for another three hours, with instructions to keep it on heat if neither he nor Father put in an appearance before that. They bowed nervously, which he filed away for mental record so as to compare it to their behaviors of the week before. It wasn't as if the Sturmvoraus family killed their minions on a regular basis - but working for Sparks had its own hazard pay category. If the hired help was skittish, then they must have picked up on some hint, some rumor, and not Father's typical behavior either.

So. That left him with a few guesses. Most of them were interesting. One was particularly intriguing.

He absently thumbed open the puzzle lock to the lower spare laboratories, noting how the second key was sticking. Sloppy. The stairs were clear. No guards, of course. They would only get in the way.

The smell caught him first.

He breathed deeply through his nose to filter the layers as he picked his way down the stairs. Machine lubricant was familiar, and didn't interest him. Mustiness from the laboratory tunnels was to be expected. A bit of mildew; he'd have to have the maids come through again, preferably the ones that would be the easiest to replace in case they turned a corner and discovered something they shouldn't. Carrot - well, that would be the experimental stimulant that Father had been developing. The cloying iron meant blood. Candlewax, from lamps. Perfume, from her.

She'd left the door unbarred, which had been a gross oversight. One of her subjects had managed to burst through it and lay twitching in the hall, limbs twisted into knots. Tarvek sidestepped the soon-to-be-remains carefully. He paused before he touched the door - nostrils flaring as he tested the heaviness of the air for electrical current, for humidity that would betray a chemical mist. The odor distracted him again. This time, the stench of meat was stronger, almost overwhelming, even accounting for the thing on the ground.

Out of practicality, he pulled on gloves.

There was only one person left standing in the room, which made it easy for him to figure out what to address first. "Another mess, my dear?"

Anevka glanced up from the operating table, her gloves bathed in a sticky, black ooze. She'd had the forethought to pin back her hair, which sat piled atop her skull in ruddy knots, but several strands had come loose and were bristling with the hostility of a static charge. With a critical eye, he analyzed her working environment. The connectors from the third generator were waterfalling sparks - the source of the ozone tang, he decided - and probably could last with a fresh application of tape. The broken beakers would have to be replaced. The tubing that had been ripped out of her main subject's chest was entirely ruined, crimped and buckled from wild thrashings. Around the exposed tissue of the thing's face, Tarvek thought he could recognize Anevka's latest painting instructor; so the man hadn't gone off for a summer holiday after all. If that was the case, then the creature that had dripped its way out the door - ah, yes. Anevka's latest piano instructor.

Little Anevka, so bold. So daring. So prone to overenthusiam. So hateful towards arpeggios.

"Brother," she squeaked, and bit her lip.

He stepped inside the laboratory, pushing the door closed behind him. Anevka jumped guiltily at the click. He couldn't help but smile at her reaction; smugness unfurled inside him like an orchid, seeing the red heat that spread across her cheeks. It wasn't often that he caught her indulging in this kind of fashion: she was too cunning these days to let herself fall prey to darker whims. To be caught in the act was a crowning point of embarrassment.

Forget about her tastes, indeed.

When she saw his gaze fix intently upon her, she fidgeted. "You wouldn't," she began weakly. "You won't..."

"Don't worry," he reassured her. "I'll help."