The moment Tafel and Vur stepped outside, a flinching motion nearly caused Tafel to jump. She looked down and made eye contact with Mary, who was looking up at her with quivering eyes. “T-Tafel,” Mary said. “H-hi.”
Tafel furrowed her brow. “Why are you stuttering?”
Mary lowered her head and stared at her toes, wrapping her fingers tighter around her shins. “You’re…, um, are you mad at me?”
“For walking in on us?” Tafel shook her head. “Of course not. I was just a little surprised. But, please, knock next time.”
“I tried to warn her,” Sheryl said, “but she said she wanted to see the stork.”
Tafel stared at Mary, and the empress shrank back with her cheeks turning a light shade of pink. “Not mad about that,” Mary muttered. “I mean, are you mad about”—her voice turned even smaller—“earlier? When I attacked you. I’m sorry. I didn’t know I did it.”
“You didn’t know?” Tafel asked. She gave Vur a glance, but he was using his four hands to pick up the four elementals at once. Zilphy, Deedee, and Mistle seemed to be fighting since none of them were looking at each other or speaking.
Mary flinched and turned her head to the side, tears forming in her eyes. “I didn’t….” She sniffled and blinked, a tear rolling down her cheek. “I really didn’t….”
Tafel sighed and placed her hand on Mary’s head. The empress’s lips quivered, and her hands tightened around her shins even further, turning the surrounding skin red. Tafel moved her hand back and forth as if she were petting a dog. “I’m not mad, alright? If anyone’s to blame, it’s your uncle.” Tafel’s eyes narrowed. “I’m going to have a thorough talk with him. Where is he?”
“You’re not mad?” Mary blinked and lifted her hands to wipe away her tears. Her pale shins had bruises with the imprints of fingers. “Are we still friends?”
“Yes, we’re still friends,” Tafel said and pulled her hand back.
Mary sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She turned towards Vur, and her eyes lit up. “Why do you have four arms?”
Vur snorted. “Why don’t you have four arms?”
Mary pursed her lips and reached up to tug on Tafel’s sleeve. “I want four arms too.”
A groan escaped from Tafel’s lips as a wide smile appeared on Vur’s. “Vur used a genie king’s wish to wish for extra, retractable arms,” Tafel said. “If you want four arms, you have to find a genie.”
Mary jumped to her feet and nodded, letting go of Tafel’s sleeve. “I’m going to”—Mary lowered her head and stared at her bare hands and feet before sitting down again—“wait a bit.”
Tafel turned towards Vur. “See? This is what happens when you have overpowered equipment from the start,” she said. “You get too reliant on them.”
Vur shrugged. “Mary’s dumb; she doesn’t count.”
“I’m not dumb!” Mary glared at Vur. “I might not be smart enough for magic or engineering or finance or economics or geography or math or literature or art, but I’m not dumb! I can count to a million.”
Vur raised an eyebrow. “Just a mil—”
Tafel placed a cookie that she retrieved from a portal into Vur’s mouth. “Why don’t we go ask Grimmy for your armor back? I have to see him anyway to check on your uncle. You don’t mind if, uh, bad things happen to your uncle, right?”
Mary shuddered and hugged her shoulders. “I don’t mind.” Her fingers dug into her flesh, drawing blood. “I don’t.”
Stella’s head popped out of Vur’s chest before Tafel could say anything else. She turned until she was facing Vur and waved at his face with one arm. “Vur! You can’t stick a sleeping woman like me inside of you without waking me up first! Don’t do that again. Also, there’s a few prisoners of war that I chained inside of my dungeon. I thought you’d like to know.” Then she disappeared back inside the flower tattoo.
Mary looked up at Tafel, her fingers still embedded in her shoulders. “Can I wish for a fairy too?”
Tafel sighed. “Even the genie king couldn’t win over a fairy, so I doubt you’ll be able to wish for one,” she said. “And you should stop aspiring to be like Vur, okay? Just because he has something, that doesn’t mean you have to have it to.” She reached forward and placed her hands on Mary’s. “And you shouldn’t, err, injure yourself like this.”
“But it makes me feel better,” Mary said, biting her lower lip.
Tafel frowned and pulled her hands back. “Oh. Well, um, you should heal yourself when you get the chance.”
Mary nodded. “I know. An empress can’t look injured.”
Tafel sighed again. “Hey, Vur,” she said, grabbing Vur’s arm and inching closer to him. “Why don’t we go look for some genies with Mary? We’ll bring Alice too since she’s still bitter at me for forgetting her the first time even though she tells me she’s not. And with Mervin to help us out, I’m sure we’ll find trustworthy genies.”
“Mervin turned back into a beansprout,” Vur said. “Don’t you remember?”
Tafel stared at Vur’s extra arms. “Ah, right. How could I forget?” she asked, her voice flat. “But still, we can go find some genies, right? We can go explore the dungeon after.”
Vur nodded. “I think finding more genies will be more interesting than going to the dungeon again. Let’s do that instead.” He crossed his lower arms over his chest and rubbed his chin with his free right hand. “I should wish for another pair of arms. If having four is this nice, then having six must be even better.”
“No,” Tafel said. “Please. Have you thought of how difficult it’d be to find you shirts?”
“They’re retractable,” Vur said.
“Okay, but what if the genie you make a wish from isn’t trustworthy this time and decides to make them only partially retractable?”
Vur furrowed his brow. Then he relaxed and nodded. “Well, I don’t wear shirts, so it doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me!” Tafel said. “Please, don’t wish for more bodily modifications without asking me first.”
Vur let out a non-committal grumble.
“Promise me,” Tafel said, stepping even closer to Vur.
Vur sighed. “Fine. I promise.”
Mary shifted her gaze between the two. “I don’t have to ask first, right?”
Tafel glared at her. “You do too!”