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“So…,” Alice said. Her hand was shielding her eyes from the sun and blocking her hair from waving into her face. She rose up and down as Vur beat his wings, hovering in place. “None of us know where Mary’s palace is.”

“I thought you studied this continent’s geography,” Tafel said. “Isn’t that why you cooped yourself up in the library instead of training?”

“Hey, at least I tried, alright?” Alice snorted and brushed her hair back with her hands. “You didn’t even try to familiarize yourself with the place. All you did was train after getting schooled by Mary. Just because I know the general layout of the lands doesn’t mean I can know exactly where we are based on a few very small clues.”

“Hovering is annoying,” Vur said, nearly knocking Alice and Tafel over as his head moved. “Can I circle instead?”

“Let’s just head towards that direction,” Tafel said and pointed. “If we reach a town, I’m sure we can ask around for the location of Mary’s palace. We have a few days since we left the dungeon early. We’ll make it in time.”

***

Mary hummed to herself as she hugged her sword to her chest. Her arms were no longer bare, covered by her gauntlets, and her feet had been washed before slipping back into her sabatons. With a little persuasion from Lindyss, Grimmy had returned Mary’s items back to her. Mary swayed from side to side and giggled before slipping her sword into her sheathe on her waist. “I really didn’t expect those two to return my equipment,” Mary said as she looked up with her eyes. Susan was sitting on top of her head, and Emile was sitting on top of Susan.

“What did Lindyss ask of you?” Susan asked, meeting Mary’s gaze.

“Watch out,” Emile said and flapped his wings. “You’re going to walk into a tree. When you’re walking this fast, don’t look away!”

The forest blurred by as Mary’s footsteps shrank the land underneath her feet. “I won’t,” she said. “I always pay attention.” She rubbed Susan’s belly with her finger. “Lindyss asked me to become her servant for ten years sometime in the future. It was a good deal, right? I think it was a great deal.”

“Hmm.” Susan’s beak jutted out as her eyes narrowed. “Ten years isn’t long at all. Isn’t Lindyss being really nice? I think she’s planning something. When someone who’s as corrupted as her does something nice, you can bet your tail feathers that she’s working in her best interests. What’d she tell you to do?”

“She told me to have fun and do whatever, just get out of her sight,” Mary said. She swerved to the side, avoiding a caravan and startling a horse. The trio had exited the forest and were approaching a city with a massive wall surrounding it. “And maybe when I actually became useful, she’d make me her servant, but for now, I’m free to do what I want.”

“It sounds a lot like you were thrown away,” Emile said. He shifted his weight on top of Susan’s back and squinted. “Which is a good thing when you consider who you were thrown away by. Nothing good comes from associating with flying lizards and their sympathizers. Phoenixes are the only ones that you can trust.”

“Don’t forget that Tafel married a dragon,” Susan said.

“Yeah, well don’t forget that Tafel’s a traitor who abandoned us in the middle of nowhere to fend for ourselves,” Emile said and snorted. “We were almost shot by hunters!”

“Emile…,” Susan said, hesitating as she picked out her words. “You tend to blame others a lot for your own faults. In a few hundred years, you’ll be an adult. Don’t you think it’s about time you grew up and took some responsibility for your own actions?”

Emile’s beak snapped shut as he lowered his head. Susan met his gaze without wavering. The two phoenixes stared at each other as the scenery blew past. Emile’s eyes narrowed. “Who do you think you are? Mom?”

“No, I’m saying this as your older sister,” Susan said. “The way you’re acting, it’s not cute at all.”

“I’m a phoenix; I’m not supposed to be cute.” Emile flapped his wings twice. “I’m imposing! Majestic! Awe-inspiring! People will write stories about my grandeur, not my cuteness.”

“But I think you two are cute,” Mary said, stopping in front of a shop. She walked inside and grabbed a flask of water that was on a shelf. She popped it open and took a long gulp.

“H-hey! Miss, you can’t drink before you pay,” the shop owner said from behind his counter.

“It’s okay,” Mary said. “I’m the empress. This is a tax.” She nodded and left the building before the shop owner could respond. Without caring about the confused man’s feelings, she sat down on the steps leading up to the shop and sipped on her flask.

Emile leaned forward and glared at Mary. “Which part of me is cute?”

“You’re small and puffy and you have large eyes,” Mary said. “Isn’t that the definition of cute?”

Emile clacked his beak. “Just wait a few hundred years until I’m an adult,” he said. “Then I’ll tower over you, and we’ll see who’s cute then.”

Mary raised an eyebrow. “I think I’ll be dead before that happens? So, you’ll always be cute and not awe-inspiring in my lifetime.”

“You see?” Susan asked. “You have to play towards your strengths. Learn to act cuter and take some more responsibility for your actions. You can’t stay immature forever.”

Emile pecked the back of Susan’s head, causing her to squawk and roll off of Mary, both phoenixes falling to the ground. They rolled around in front of Mary, a ball of red feathers and occasional flames. “Just because Mom told you to seduce Vur for grandchildren you think you’re mature now? You’re only a few minutes older than me! How dare you talk to me like you’re some kind of adult when you’re still just a baby!”

“Maturity isn’t about age,” Susan said and buffeted Emile’s head with her wings. “It’s about how you handle life. Why do you think Tafel’s an adult when she’s less than half our age? It’s because she’s mature!”

“You’re dumb! Stupid! Idiot!”

“This is why you’re immature,” Susan said. With a few deft movements of her legs and wings, she managed to pin Emile underneath herself. She sat on his chest and held his wings against the ground with her talons.

Emile struggled but couldn’t break free. He stopped moving and stuck his tongue out at Susan. “I know you are, but what am I?”

Before Susan could respond, Mary scooped the two phoenixes up in her arms. “I’m ready to move again,” she said. “If I move fast enough, I might make it in time to apologize to Tafel for missing the banquet. We’re almost at my palace, just a few more cities to go.”

Emile and Susan exchanged glances with each other. They were held near Mary’s armpits, one phoenix per arm. “Isn’t Mary the type of person to get lost easily?” Susan asked in a whisper.

“Don’t worry. I always know the way home,” Mary said with a nod.

“She’s like a pigeon,” Emile said. “Not a lot goes on up there, but at least she can find her way home.”

“Up where?” Mary asked, leaving the city behind as the ground warped underneath her.

“Nothing,” Emile said. “Forget I said anything.”

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