The sky was properly dark by the time they arrived in the village, streaked by the pin-prick lights of a billion other suns of a trillion other worlds - none of which, to Edna Star, had any appeal. She had a complicated relationship with her namesake. On the one hand, they made her feel so small and insignificant and alone, which she loved. On the other, they reminded her very much that she was surrounded - at all times and always - just a cog in a machine she would never see, the purpose of which she could never discover. This made her feel lonely, which is different than alone, and worse.
She hadn’t always felt this way, she knew, but the stars had a way of reaching back to her youth - tracing the constellations that had guided her here. As a child staring into that broken dark with her friends, she would listen - silent and incredulous - as they told preemptive tales of the adventures they’d each find among the other worlds.
Tamera was going to find a planet made of milk and honey where there was never any school or chores or bedtime. Marquis would go to a “regular world” and slay a monster with a thousand heads and no hands or butts by getting it to do Ms. Hartley’s arithmetic homework. Priya wouldn’t go to a planet at all, but discover that a beautiful comet was actually a tower with infinite princesses from infinite worlds locked inside. They would find these places, and be called heroes, and the gods or queens or mayors who lived there would thank them for their labors with boons of immortality or true love or twenty-seven camels. Marquis really wanted twenty-seven camels.
On this particular night, once they had all - all but Edna - agreed on the inevitability of these grand fortunes, Priya asked the young Star what she thought. Edna wanted to tell them that she thought a planet of milk and honey sounded a sticky way to drown. She wanted to tell them that she wasn’t sure monsters needed slaying, but that one with a thousand heads and no butt would slay itself eventually, whether you bothered it or not. She wanted to tell them that she thought it unlikely, despite the expansion of the universe, that there would be infinite princesses at all, given the failures of hereditary monarchy.
She wanted to tell them that she didn’t understand why they would want to go anywhere but home. That adventure was well and good, she supposed, but all she wanted was to sit in a soft chair and drink plain black tea for the flavor. That sometimes, boring was the most exciting thing in the world.
She wanted to tell them all of this, and so she did. In return, they told her things, hurtful things. They would apologize for these things later, but it would be too late, for once her friends had stormed off and Edna had been left there alone on that hill on that night, these things had moved into her soul - into her deepest picture of herself - and found homes to raise families in, where they would never need leave.
But that night hadn’t been all bad, she recalled, for as the words of her friends had found their homes and signed their mortgages, she had stared through her tears at the stars and felt something from them for the very first time. In her memories, she likened this to the feeling of clutching her watch - only where her watch was shiny and close, the sky was distant and dark.
She had followed that feeling down the hill, through some bushes, and into an old house she had never noticed before. The house had no locks and no people and no creeping dread. Edna was there and, she knew somehow, supposed to be. It was beautiful and old and broken to bits. She had climbed over piles of debris, walked through rooms full of treasures worth more than she could have understood, and come to a table with only a gleaming silver watch and an old, broken picture. She payed no attention to the picture, for she had none left to give. Her senses were at their very edge - heightened higher than she had yet known - but they were all focused on that watch.
So the sky was dark above the land that should have been Japan (but wasn’t quite), and full of memories. It was also diagonal, but Edna didn’t blame it for that. She blamed Highmond. He had tried to make a run from their captors early on, forcing her to try the same. They immediately tripped over a huge, exposed root. That makes them both sound quite unimpressive, really, which isn’t entirely fair. It was impressive, for instance, that they both managed not to see the massive, obvious obstacle in their path until the precise moment it became too late. They piled atop each other and splayed, the way piled people do.
In total, their grand escape lasted almost three seconds, which, she had to admit, was better than usual when she tried plans such as these. Their captors had tied them by hands and feet to poles after that, and carried them the rest of the way down the forest path to their destination.
Edna was unsure what to expect of a town that had been painted over by another time and place, but she should have just expected... that. Even in the dim glow of lantern and moon, she could see that it was wrong. It was as if someone had built a small, Japanese farming village then laid a thin veneer of old British peasantry overtop - colonialism in a can.
“Disgusting,” she murmured.
“What was ‘at?” the guard at her front called over his shoulder, barely turning his head.
“Dicussing,” she enunciated the word carefully - a lie of pronunciation - “the situation with my friend would be nice. Perhaps you’d consider ungagging him, now we’re in town.”
About an hour previous, Highmond had had the bright idea to try speaking Japanese to their new companions. This had, just the same as when he’d asked the dino cops where they were, caused a lot of distress to their poor abductors. “What was ‘at!” they’d yelled, and “What you fink you’re doin’!” as well as other things I’d rather leave out.
Still he kept going, no matter what they said about his mother or manhood or tophat. He pushed on through their distress until the leader, the woman, was covering her ears, one of the men was screaming, and another was hitting his head on a tree. The last man, the mean one, grabbed a few handfuls of leaves and shoved them into Highmond’s mouth. Then he’d torn some cloth from his waist and wrapped it round Highmond’s head to hold them in.
When the armored lot had recovered, the leader declared Highmond a witch and sentenced him to… she wasn't quite sure, actually. No one else was either. Witches, they decided, were best left to the Queen.
So the man’s response to Edna was, “No. Can’t do, mum. No ungagging him till we reach the Queen. It’s for your own safety as much as mine. No telling what other hexes and spells and such he might try to cast. Best to have the Queen’s protection.”
“Right,” Edna said, “and why will the Queen be able to protect us from his ‘hexes and spells and such’?”
“Well,” he paused, “because she’s a witch, in’she?”
The guard clammed up after that, and the rest of the walk through town passed by uneventfully. Most people, Edna guessed, were asleep in their homes, leaving the livestock in charge. Pigs, chickens, cows, and goats patrolled confidently along the streets and gardens and at least one roof.
There were a lot of animals, she noticed, but no apparent facilities for them. She suspected they might have come on whatever wave had changed this village - stolen it from its own time. Edna wondered if the animals had been stolen, too - from some other time and place - or if they had been created spontaneously.
Her pole-bearers wound their way down a central dirt road, passing building after building, each as dark as the night around them. All the while, their goal was clear - the castle atop the hill, where all the light had gathered. It wasn’t a proper castle, of course - of any history or present. Like everything else here, the building was more the idea of a medieval british castle, imprinted upon whatever had already been there.
From what Edna could see - while swinging from the bottom of a pole - the building was enveloped, like any proper castle, in a protective, stone wall. Platoons of guards strolled proudly along the top, keeping an eye for approaching dangers - no doubt to yell at. The image was softened, a bit, by the fact the wall was only about three feet high and, she guessed by how the guards politely scooched past each other whenever their paths crossed, maybe a foot or two thick.
As Edna and her captor and their captors approached, a few handfuls of guards yelled at them, apparently taking their group for a danger. She picked out, among other things, “Who goes there?”, “Who goes?”, and one person just yelling, “WHO?” over and over again.
“Shut it, and open the gates,” their leader yelled back while taking off her helmet with one hand, the other still holding the pole that bore Highmond. They stopped about five paces from the gate, which was more of a cute, little half-door they could have easily ambled over. She gave the pole a shake as she kept on, “We got guests for the Queen!”
“The Queen en’t meetin’ no one!” a small guard yelled from the small wall, “It’s half night already!”
“She’ll have these!” the other of Highmond’s carriers called in response, “He’s a witch!” The man jostled the pole to indicate his accused.
Highmond made a noise that Edna took for protest. She thought about trying to help him out but decided on another tactic.
“Yes!” she said from her pole. “He’s a very powerful witch!” she paused, then added, “Even floats in water!” She wasn’t sure what she was trying to do (and would therefore fail at), which was utterly new for her. She was just doing something and seeing where it led.
The throng of heavily-armored women and men gasped at this last, most damning, revelation. “We bett’a see what boss finks,” cried a heavy man from the wall. He took a deep breath to call out, then paused, deflated a bit, “Wuss’ee called now?”
“Larry!” several of his cohorts yelled in response.
“Right,” he said. Edna noticed a figure appear then, in the torch light of one of the windows, though no one else seemed to. The man on the wall shouted, no louder than his colleagues had a moment ago, “Larry!”
Several joined in the call, until it overcame and became the cricketsong on the night air - a repeated refrain of a tuneless “LARRY!”
Slowly - painfully slowly - Edna heard a polite, small voice rising from the figure in the window. When it eventually rose to a level equal to the calling “Larry”s, she heard it saying, “Please stop! You’ll disturb the queen! I’m right here. Me.” Finally, his patience snapped, and he screamed, “I’m LARRY!”
“‘Bout time,” the heavy man said, “We been callin’ for ages.”
Edna thought she heard Larry begin to say something, but he was instantly drowned out by a woman saying, “Give it a rest, Geoffrey! He’s trying his best.”
Another voice chimed in, “Yeah, he’s got a new job and a new name! That’s gotta be hard!”
“Thank you, but I don’t need--” Larry began, but the man called Geoffrey interrupted.
“Nah, they’re right, guv. My apologies. I let the stress o’the situation get the bett’a o’me. It shan’t happen again.”
“That’s kind, but it’s fine, really. Only, about the witch--”
The woman who had defended Larry earlier chimed in before he could finish, “Oh yeah! So how it went was like this…”
Larry tried to stop her, but it was no use. She and all the guards outside started in, retelling and reliving the events that had happened since Edna and Highmond had come swinging up to the castle. Larry chimed in often with, “No, I know. I heard everything,” or “Actually the windows don’t close, you know. The sound travelled fine the first time,” but it was unnoticed by the others - too deeply engrossed in their reenactment.
There was a pause when they finished, having recapped him all the way to the current moment. He stared at them, which one of the guards started to describe, but he cut it short with a loud, “I’ll go tell the queen!” and walked away through the castle.
Edna tried to use the time to give one of her captors a stern look, but she couldn’t lock eyes with any of them before Larry returned, only seconds later. He opened his mouth to speak, but the leader of Edna’s group of guards said, “What? Already?”
The heavy man from the wall added, “Yeah, how’d’joo already told’er everythin’?”
“Sorry, no. I didn’t have to. She already knew--”
“--You mean she already knew…” and they rehashed the whole thing again, up to this moment.
“Yes,” Larry said, in the smallest, shortest voice he could. “You see--”
“Ohhhhh,” one of them said in realization, “‘cause she’s such a powerful witch.”
“Ohhhhhhh,” they all agreed, “Yeah, yeah.”
Larry was flat faced for a moment before he said, “Untie the two and bring them to the guest quarters. The Queen will see them in the morning.” Then he walked away.
“Whatever you have, and please don’t put anything in it.” Edna completed her tea order. One of the guards who had led them to their room nodded and wandered off. The other stayed at the door.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Highmond asked in a hushed voice once Edna had closed the door. “I only mea--” he stopped to spit out more bits of leaves, “Sorry. I only mean, what if they,” he looked around and lowered his voice even more, “poison it.” He raised his eyebrows and dropped his chin like he’d just heard someone make a very good point.
Edna rolled her eyes. We’re doing this one, I guess. Then she felt bad, reminding herself to be patient. “They won’t,” she said, taking in the room. Highmond was plopped in a comfortable looking chair, one of a pair that sat facing each other across an ornate, little table. The chairs were so close to the table that Highmond had to sit with his legs squished to one side like he was trying to let someone pass in the theatre.
On the walk in - once they’d been let off their poles - Edna had seen that the whole castle was like this - absolutely cramped with lavish decor. Tables lined the halls and were lined themselves with ornamental regalia, regal ornaments, and other such useless doo-dads. Paintings covered the walls - and some of the doors and ceiling, as well. In their room now, she stared at a huge landscape masterpiece, the scene broken by several small pictures of horses hung on its front.
She looked back at Highmond, sighed, and said, “If they wanted us dead, we’d be…” She stopped with purpose. When he only looked at her, she rolled her open hand toward him.
He paled in realization that he was meant to be talking - a realization he rarely came across. Floundering, he said, “Er, um... naked?” Edna erupted in laughter, and Highmond went red-faced. “I. Well. Or--” he began, but seeing his distress, she cut him off.
“--No. I’m sorry. You could be right. They might be that sort.” She wiped her eyes and calmed her breathing, “But I just meant we’d be dead already. They’ve had ample opportunity to kill us. As you do this more, Highmond, you’ll find that most people, in adventures as in life, aren’t interested in murdering us. They aren’t interested in us at all, actually.”
Highmond’s mustache tilted to one side, bringing the rest of his head with it. “What do you mean ‘as I do this more’?” he asked.
Edna took a slow, deep breath through her nose. She had hoped to have this talk in a safe, abduction-free zone, where there was no danger of anyone being beheaded or renamed Larry. This is what Edna Star always got for hoping. “Highmond, I know you’ve been lying to me.”
Highmond’s whole demeanor changed. He clutched his hand to his waistcoat, like she’d stabbed him. His shoulders rolled in and he shrunk by inches. His face went dark in a way that said ‘I’ve absolutely been lying to you, but how on Earth the Second should you know that?’ His mouth said, “Lying! Why! I!” Then he made a series of spurting noises that sounded almost like the word ‘preposterous’.
Edna spoke, raising her voice to overcome his outbursts, “Or misleading me, protecting me, trying to inspire me - whatever you’d like to call it.”
A serving woman came into the room with a tray of tea. Edna took a cup and thanked her. Highmond’s eyes darted to the newcomer as she set the platter on the table in front of him, then back to Edna, then to the various horse paintings when Edna’s glare became too much, then back to Edna (‘s shoes). “What, er, whatever do you mean?”
Edna Star looked into her tea and frowned, but then she took a deep breath of it through her nose and her whole body loosened like a violin string unwound. “Well, I still got tea out of it,” was all she said for a long moment.
Highmond didn’t know what she meant. Was it a code? He was thinking of synonyms and parallel meanings for ‘out’ when she finally said, “You aren’t an adventurer, Highmond.”
A schoolyard of emotions played across Highmond’s face and body language. There was too much there for Edna to even bother guessing what it all meant, but eventually, staring into his tea, he whispered, “No. No I am not.”
Edna’s voice was not unkind, but not forgiving either as she continued, “You told me your Adventurer’s League sent you.” There was a sudden clanking noise from the back of the room and Edna looked to see the serving woman was still there, tidying things on a pair of shelves in the corner. She was replacing a bust she had apparently dropped.
Highmond didn’t appear to notice as he rushed to his own defense. “Well, no, I said, well, that I came on their behalf, not at their behest, which is true, you know, after a fashion, only--”
Edna cut him off with a look that said things I am not allowed to print. With her words, she said - printably - “And how did you come to be their messenger? Why wouldn’t they just send one of their own?”
Highmond made a sound that Edna took for a snort, “This whole apocalypse drama has made them all a bunch of babies.”
“You’re not seriously telling me they were afraid? They’re adventurers, Highmond, fixing things like this is their only job - and, for most of them, their entire identity.” Edna watched the maid as she said this. The woman was still replacing the same bust.
“What? No! Sorry,” Highmond shook his head, “I meant that literally. All of my world’s great adventurers have, sort of, slid backward along their timelines to the point where they were babies. I thought about bringing a few anyway, in case you could - I don’t know - unbaby them, but Pythagoras convinced me against it.”
For the first time in many years, Edna was genuinely surprised by, well, anything. She pulled the watch out to fidget in her usual way as she turned to look at the old man. “Highmond that’s very strange,” she said.
He sighed, “Yes, I see that now. I’m sorry, I’m not sure what I was thinking. Perhaps I’m just not cut out for this the way I had hoped.”
“No, Highmond, not what you almost did - what happened. They were turned into babies? The adventurers, specifically?”
He looked up and saw in her face that she was indeed awaiting an answer. “Uh, er, yes! Just the adventurers! Very baby - wailing and pooping and everything!”
Edna looked up to see the other woman was now openly staring at her - not at her face, Edna noted, but her hand. She said, “And what does her majesty think of all this?”
Highmond responded, “How should I know?”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Edna said, “I was asking our guest.” She smiled at the other woman, who took a beat, then slowly smiled back.
Highmond said, “Who then? The serving woman?” as he followed Edna’s eyes around behind him. When they got there, he seemed to see her for the first time, and his jaw dropped.
The Witch Queen set the bust she had been placing and replacing back on the shelf and bowed deeply to them. Rising with a flourish she said, “Iona Plum’s the name, and I think you’re just the people I need.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet your majesty,” Edna said, still smiling.
“The pleasure is all mine,” Iona responded, then changed her mind, “No. I’m sure it won’t be. I’m incredibly charming, you’ll find.”
“Oh?” asked Edna, “Well, then you might become the second kidnapper on this adventure whose company I grow to enjoy.” Iona tilted her head at this, and Edna responded by tilting hers at Highmond. The old man missed the memo, not tilting his head once. Instead, he sat dumbly staring at their new acquaintance, moving his mouth in an as yet failed attempt to form words. The others carried on without him.
“Really? Him?” Iona asked, in a tone that said she wouldn’t believe the answer. “I am sorry about that, by the way. My guards were acting under the orders of the previous sovereign. I’ve not had time to change everything. I do hope they weren’t too brutal. I’ve been on your side of them plenty.”
Edna raised one eyebrow - the left one, if you must know, “For your crimes as a witch?”
“Oh! No,” Iona gave a dismissive laugh, “For my crimes as a criminal.” She paused to let that land then continued with a shrug, “No, as a witch I’m incredibly upstanding - very law-abiding.”
This Iona Plum was dripping in sarcasm, which Edna normally hated. Well, in others - she prized it in herself. What did that say about her? She pushed that concern right out of her mind, so it could go have tea with grief. Perhaps this sarcasm was a refreshing break from Highmond’s unabashed earnestness. (I mean how hard is it to abash your earnestness now and then?) Perhaps it harmonized with her own sarcasm where others had clashed. Perhaps it was just that confidence rewards itself.
Whatever the reason, Edna wasn’t annoyed at all by this new person in her life. Rather, she was trying eagerly to form a clever response when Highmond finally spoke, saying, “Anato no namae wa Naya Sakura desu ka?”
Edna winced, waiting for this to go as it had all the other times, but without thought or hesitation or suddenly screaming at them Iona said, “Kanojo wa ane desu.” She gasped. “That! What is that?” she said, attempting to keep her joy in check.
“Japanese, er, Nihongo,” Highmond said, “You’re saying Naya Sakura is your sister?”
“I suppose she must be,” Iona responded, “I only just remembered I had a sister.”
For a reason Edna couldn’t decipher, Highmond scoffed at this answer. Edna had been taking her turn as the dumbly one, but she spoke up now, “Who is this Naya Sakura? And why do I recognize her name?”
“She’s an adventurer - classified a master hunter,” Highmond said. There was a strange vigor to his voice that sounded somewhere between hostile and reverent. Edna gave him a look and he cowed a bit as he continued, “The best in our world. I would have gone to her instead of bothering you, Edna, except, well you know, all the babies.”
Iona crossed the room as Highmond explained this, coming to rest against the footboard of the massive bed, next to Edna. If she was insulted or at all even affected by Highmond’s inexplicable animosity, she hid it behind an infinite vault of swagger. “Adventurer!” she said. Iona tossed the bust she had been faux-tidying onto the mattress, “That’s why that League thing sounded familiar.”
Highmond made a grunt of assent, which Edna had learned to distinguish from several of his other grunts. Namely, his grunts of confusion, disturbance, trying to cover another bodily function, and of course miscellaneous, all-purpose grunting. “So, your sister is this Naya Sakura,” she said, setting her tea on a corner bedpost. She turned to face her new neighbor, “And your name is... Iona Plum?”
“Ah. Good question. Yes, it isn’t.” She winked at Edna and smirked. Edna tried to smirk back, and tried not to think what it might have come across as instead. “I can’t remember my real name - it was taken from me by the endless tide of Change that has washed over our town. Each new time and world made it harder to remember what things had been like before. Eventually I grew tired of the new names that came to me and gave myself one that I have endeavored to keep ever since.”
“And that name was Iona Plum?” Highmond scoffed, differently from his previous scoff. The first was derisive, but Edna clocked this one as more disbelieving.
“Yes,” was all the woman who called herself Iona said.
Edna brought the topic around to more useful bits, “So you’re saying these new times come in and change everything about you, even your name?”
“Not quite everything. As far as I can tell, people stay generally who they are. Personalities keep from one world to the next. Jobs and families and general social status stay roughly equivalent. Other than that: yes, everything changes.”
“And why should you be the only one aware of any of this?” Highmond asked, with all the pomposity he could muster. Then he added a “Really!” for good measure.
“Highmond!” Edna snapped, “What is your problem?”
“This woman is a criminal, Edna! By her own admission! Probably some sort of confidence schemer or burgle heister or... something.”
“Your point?” was all Edna said. She had befriended many criminals - confidence schemers, burgle heisters, and otherwise - in her adventures. She found they all had one important characteristic in common: they were human. Well, except the ones who weren’t, but even they were people.
Highmond was aghast - aghast and agape - aghast and agape and agog, too. “How can we know she is who she claims? What if she isn’t even the queen of this… village?”
“I’m not,” Iona said flatly. They both stared at her. Edna was beginning to feel the fool when her new friend said, “I’m the Queen of the Universe.”
Highmond scoffed. A scoff so loud and clear, he would later remember it as the greatest scoff of his entire scoffing life. He wrote an ode to that scoff that no fewer than twenty-seven poetry magazines rejected for publication.
Iona called out, “Larry, dear!”
The guard now called Larry burst through the door. “Yes…er…serving person.” He gave her (what he considered to be) a significant wink.
“No dear, it’s alright. They know,” she said, not returning his (apparently insignificant) wink. “Please, oh Captain of the Royal Guard, tell our fine guests who I am.”
The man called Larry was visibly confused, but he obeyed without pause. “Well,” he said, “you’re Her Majestic Witchiness, Iona Plum, Queen of the Universe.” He finished with a hard nod, like he was nailing the final period onto the sentence with his chin.
Highmond made noises - you know the ones. Edna gave Iona a sly, impressed look. Iona smiled, thanked Larry, and dismissed him. “There,” she said, “Now we’ve established I am in fact your Queen,” Highmond’s noises intensified, “I think I should like an answer to Highmond’s question.” They each stopped their respective reactions, switching to a shared confusion. Iona went on, “Why am I - deserving though I am - the only one aware of any of this?”