Malena saw less and less of Briar over the next few months. And whenever Briar did return, Malena avoided her. Whatever was going on between Briar and the prince, she did not want to know.
Briar never asked Malena for her share of the money they had earned from fixing Stephen’s airship, which saved Malena from needing to have the uncomfortable conversation with Briar about how much of it she had really earned. However, this also meant that she never confronted Briar about her dragon being taken away. Deep down, Malena knew that it was not Briar who had arranged for the officers to take it, but Stephen, for he was the only one who knew what it was. Briar, Fleur, Faun and Mary had never seen it before it was taken from her.
One day, Briar did not come home at all, and Malena noticed that all of her friend’s belongings were gone. Whether Briar was the new royal mechanic or Stephen’s mistress, Malena did not want to know, for either of those possibilities was equally bad. She buried herself in her work, filling up her free time with work on her own inventions, that she hardly had time to think about Briar and Stephen.
Another month passed, and Fleur burst in with the news that Briar and Stephen were married. Another year passed, and a newspaper announced that the king had died, leaving Stephen as the new king.
“That makes Briar the queen!” Faun exclaimed. “Isn’t that exciting? We could be invited to all sorts of parties!”
“Or she could have forgotten about us,” Malena said sullenly from her perch atop a small aircraft she was repairing.
“What’s eating you?” Fleur asked.
“Haven’t you noticed?” Mary spoke up. “She has been unhappy ever since her invention was taken away. Well, since even before that, actually. You should really get out more, Malena. Staying cooped up in here isn’t healthy.”
Malena sighed. Mary was right.
Reluctantly, Malena began leaving the house more often. Her fellow mechanics never ran out of tools and parts they sent her to fetch from the store, and food they sent her to procure from the market. On one such trip, Malena was on her way home from the parts store, when someone grabbed her from behind. Instantly, she slammed the back of her head into her attacker’s nose, forcing the person to let her go. She did not get far before a hooded figure emerged, and did not see what the intruder hit her with before everything went black.
When Malena woke up, she found herself in a dark cellar. She tried to stand up before realizing that she was tied to a chair.
“Oh, great,” she muttered.
No sooner had she spoken, than the two hooded figures that had attacked her revealed themselves. Not taking the hood off, one of them spoke.
“Are you the one they call Malena?”
“And is it true that you can make potions?”
“Why?” Malena stared at the two figures. “So that I can blow something up for you?”
“What, then? And what’s in it for me if I help you?”
As soon as the last word was out of her mouth, she heard the click of a gun next to her head.
“Any more nonsense from you, and my colleague will pull the trigger,” he was speaking in a raspy voice, no doubt to disguise his real one.
“The queen is having a baby,” the raspy-voiced stranger explained.
Malena’s eyes grew wide.
“And we need your help to ensure that the infant does not live long enough to succeed King Stephen.”
“You want me to kill the baby,” Malena realized.
“And you can’t refuse. Or do I need to remind you that my associate has a gun pointed to your head?”
“So I just make a poison of some sort and then bring it to you?” Malena was struggling to stay calm.
“We also need you to give it to the child.”
“Why can’t you just do it?” Malena struggled to keep her voice from shaking.
“Because you are the queen’s friend, are you not? Everyone of note has received invitations to the gathering celebrating the birth of the baby. And you have the perfect chance to feed your potion to the baby during the party.”
Malena looked at the ground. “But I wasn’t invited. Why the hell was I not invited? It’s because of me that the two of them even met.”
The second hooded figure pressed the gun to Malena’s head.
“Okay, okay fine, I’ll do it. But the best I can do won’t kill the baby right away. In fact, it would not die for approximately fifteen years. That’s the only potion I make that can kill someone at all.”
She was lying, of course. After fifteen years, the potion wouldn’t actually kill the baby. But in order to keep these people from finding someone who could truly carry out the deed, she needed to maintain the illusion that her potion was a murderous one.
“That will do,” the stranger decided. “It isn’t as if King Stephen will die in only fifteen years.”
“So how am I supposed to give the baby this potion if I wasn’t even invited to the party?” Malena wondered.
“I suppose you will have to bring it to one of my associates at the market in one week,” the stranger explained. “If you do not come, we will find you like we did this time, and we will not be so merciful.”
Blindfolded, Malena was led outside and, after suffering through a blindfolded ride in a steam carriage, was dropped off in the center of town, her bonds cut.
After finding her way home, Malena was glad of the late hour for that mean that she did not need to explain her whereabouts to Fleur, Faun and Mary. Her mind was still reeling from the encounter. Who were those people? Were they nobles, or mercenaries? Until she could figure out who was behind the scheme, she would need to make the potion they wanted from her. She thought about making something different and simply telling them that it was the potion they wanted, but the risk was too great. A deception like that could get her killed. Besides, what was the harm in giving such a potion to a prince or princess? It wouldn’t change their lifestyle too much.
Though she had all of the ingredients on hand, she had to make the potion itself from scratch. This was not something that any mechanic should have lying around.
One week later, she hung around the market all day until a hooded figure showed up, holding out his—or her—hand. Malena placed the bag she held into the stranger’s hand before turning away and boarding the first train she saw, just in case they were planning on following her. She wanted no further part in their plot.
Another month passed, and it was announced that Queen Briar had a new daughter, named Aurora. Any hope that Malena had at receiving an invitation was dwindling. Her old friend had indeed forgotten about her. Though not, it seemed, about Fleur, Faun and Mary, none of whom could cease chattering about the party.
“Why did I not get an invitation?” Malena asked them. “Briar was closer to me than she was to any of you.”
“I don’t know,” Fleur shrugged. “Maybe yours got lost.”
“Why do you even want to go?” Mary wondered. “It’s hardly your kind of thing.”
Why did she want to go? To find out who was plotting against the king by feeding potion to his daughter, of course. But she could hardly tell them that.
When the day of the party came, Malena arrived at the palace early. Spreading her mechanical wings, she glided up to one of the highest windows. Following her, the mechanical raven landed on the windowsill. Malena found herself in an ordinary bedroom, presumably an unused guest room, as it lacked any ornamentation and was empty. She went to the door and put her eye to the keyhole. No one was in sight, and she heard nothing. Folding her wings and donning the black cloak she held, she opened the door, the raven following her.
“Be quiet,” she ordered the raven as she ventured into the quiet hallway. After a lot of ducking into hiding places every time a servant walked past, she finally heard the cry of a baby from further down the hall.
Placing her goggles over her eyes, she pressed a button on the raven’s head, activating the camera she had installed in one of its eyes. Now she would be able to see what it saw, through one lense of her goggles. As Malena stayed hidden around the corner, the raven glided down the hallway and peered into the baby’s room. It hid underneath a dresser until the servants in attendance were all out of the room. Alone with the baby, the raven flew to the crib, gazing down at the sleeping baby. Jumping into the crib, it brushed the baby’s hand with one wing.
Looking through her goggles at what the raven saw, she knew that the potion had not taken effect yet. For at least another hour, the raven stayed hidden underneath the dresser, checking that no one was poisoning the baby, while Malena went back to the unused guest room to find a better hiding place.
A glance out the window showed her that it grew dark out. Sending the raven to peer down at the gathering that was about to take place, she waited until there were enough guests in attendance before joining them. She felt sure that no one would notice her, and if anyone did, she could easily pretend to have been invited. If the people who had attacked her had assumed she was invited, it was safe to say that the party guests would, too.
The raven’s camera, trained on the baby who slept in a crib in front of her parents’ thrones, was showing Malena that the people holding the baby at that moment were Fleur, Faun and Mary. Having second thoughts about coming down to join the party, Malena hid in a corner instead. Though the raven’s camera could not pick up audio, she could still tell that her fellow mechanics were talking with Briar and Stephen, and they were smiling and making conversation. Malena rolled her eyes. If she had been invited, she could be talking with them, too. But then again, she would likely be the one being made to poison the child herself as well.
Before too long, people began bestowing gifts upon the child, one by one. This would most likely be when someone poisoned her, so Malena kept an eye out. The raven’s eye, that is. Mary lay a mechanical toy next to the baby, who smiled. Faun attached a mechanical songbird to the railing of the crib, and as it began to sing, the baby laughed. Fleur’s gift was a simple bouquet of flowers. Perhaps she wanted to go exactly the opposite way of her friends.
Once the crib was laden with gifts, and more gifts were added to the floor surrounding the crib, Malena grew tired of watching. No one had poisoned the baby yet, and she was beginning to doubt that anyone was going to. Yet the gift giving was taking so long that the baby had to be brought her bottle twice during the whole affair.
Just when Malena was beginning to think that her entire encounter with the cloaked strangers was nothing but a delusion, the baby began to cry. The raven’s-eye camera zoomed in closer, to find that the baby cried more after touching one of the mechanical toys. This was definitely a symptom of being poisoned. No one had visibly given anything to the baby to drink, as if Briar and Stephen would have allowed that anyway, but the baby had been given her bottle twice. Malena cursed. How could she have been so stupid? Someone had dropped the potion into the baby’s milk.
“She won’t stop crying,” Briar was holding the baby, who cried louder when Briar tried to put her back into the crib. “What’s wrong?”
A few guests began to leave. And Malena wanted to leave, too, but she knew she couldn’t. Stepping out of the shadows, she removed her goggles and placed them on her forehead. Running through the crowd, she went straight to Stephen.
“Your majesty, listen to me,” she grasped his arm.
“Malena?” he looked at her, surprised, as Briar turned around to stare at her, too.
“Someone has just poisoned your child. Don’t ask me how I know, but I can tell you what it is so that we can find an antidote.”
At the word poison, Stephen’s and Briar’s eyes grew wide.
“Not a deadly one,” Malena clarified. “But get her away from any machines.”
“How do I know you can be trusted?” Stephen spoke loudly enough for his voice to echo. “How do I know that you didn’t do this? You are a skilled potioner, after all.”
“Why would I come forward if I did it?” Malena stared at him. “And why would I want to? Taking my greatest invention away from me may have been a terrible thing to do, but it would hardly warrant endangering your daughter.”
“First of all, it was my father who ordered your invention to be taken away,” Stephen stepped away from her. “Secondly, you need to explain what this is, and then get out of my sight unless you want to be arrested.”
Malena took a deep breath.
“Your daughter is now allergic to all machinery. For now, the symptoms won’t seem so bad. She will get sick if she gets to close to machines, or get burned if she touches them. But by the time she is fifteen, a cut from a piece of machinery could…”
She looked around the room. Any of these people could be the poisoner.
Followed by the raven, she spread her wings and flew out the nearest window.