The Dark and Forbidding Land – Chapter 10 Excerpt

“What are you doing out here?” asked a voice.

Senta turned around to find Graham looking oddly at her.  They were at the edge of the roadway in front of the Dechantagne mansion.  Senta had spent most of the morning watching for any sign of Streck, but so far he hadn’t shown his Freedonian face.

“Nothing.  What are you doing?”

“Well, I was looking for you.  I thought we could go over to Hertzel’s house and have a nice low tea.”  He held up a canvas bag in one hand.  “I brought bread and butter.”

“Where did you get butter?”  Senta’s eyes narrowed.  “You didn’t steal it, did you?”

“How in the name of Kafira can you ask me that?”  Graham squared his shoulders and stood up as tall as he could. “When did you ever hear of Graham Dokkins stealing anything?”

“I’m sorry.  Where did you get it then?”

“My Ma sent it,” he replied, not at all mollified.  “We had an extra tin and she said I could share it with the Hertlings.”

“That was nice.”

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” he said, starting down the road.

“I said I was sorry,” Senta said, stepping quickly to keep up.  “I could make it up to you.”

“How would you do that?”

“I could give you a kiss…”

“That magic is making you lose your mind, that’s what,” he said, not slowing down.

“Alright then, I have a secret mission that I might let you help me with.”

“What secret mission?” he asked, glancing at her but not stopping.

“I’ll tell you, Hero, and Hertzel together.”

“Why?  Did you brass them off too?”

“Say, how come you mother is sending butter over?  I thought your folks didn’t like Zaeri,” said Senta, changing the subject.

“We’re not like that Freedonian wanker.  We don’t call people dogs for no reason.”

“Oh, you heard about that, eh?”

“That’s right.  If he’d called Hertzel a dog in front of me, I would have popped him in the breadbox.” The quickest way to anger Graham was to threaten his friends.  “Besides, Ma’s grown quite fond of Honor, really.  They’re in the Ladies’ Auxiliary together.”

They arrived at the Hertling home in short order, but when they knocked on the door there was no answer.

“You don’t suppose they’re at shrine, do you?” wondered Graham, looking around.

“Only if they’re the only ones.”  Senta pointed to neighbors working on their houses or in their yards, all of whom were Zaeri.

A moment later though, the mystery was solved.  The three Hertling siblings came walking down the road from the east. Hero and Hertzel carried large baskets filled with foliage, while their older sister had something that looked like a cricket bat casually slung over her shoulder.  The twins saw their friends and waved, calling out greetings. Hero ran ahead and Senta met her at the road, giving her a great hug.  Though he waved to his friends, Graham’s eyes were fixed on the instrument that Honor carried.  When she was close enough that he could see it clearly, he found that it was not a cricket bat at all, but a lizzie sword.  The main hand to hand combat weapon of the lizardmen was a thick sword made of wood but encrusted all around the edges with flint, obsidian, or sometimes even shark’s teeth.  This one had shiny black obsidian flakes that appeared razor sharp.

“Where’d you get that?” asked Graham enviously.

“It was a gift,” Honor replied.  “The chief of Tserich gave one to each of the members of the Colonial Council. I imagine most of them are hanging on display somewhere, but I like to carry mine when I have to go away from the town.”

“So where have you all been then?” asked Senta.

“We went to gather winter berries,” replied Hero.

“Perfect, we can have them for tea.”

“Oh, you can’t eat them,” said Honor.  “They’re for decoration only.”

“We had loads of them hanging all around our house,” said Graham.  “But it’s way past Kafira Mass now.”

Senta shot him a frown.

“What?”

“As a matter of fact,” continued Honor.  “I got the idea from your mother, Graham.  I think the red and green will brighten up the house and as I understand it, according to Brech tradition, they are often kept over the winter and not just on, um… holidays.”

“Can we go inside now,” asked Hero.  “I’m just frozen.”

Honor opened the front door and they all stepped inside the home, which was only marginally warmer than the outside.  Hertzel, with Graham help, got right to work lighting a fire in the stove, while the girls went into the other room and exchanged damp clothing for dry and wrapped up in thick blankets.  Hero lent Senta one of her two housedresses, which was only slightly baggy and only slightly too short.  The boys removed only their boots and socks, which they dried by the stove once the fire was going, but Hero brought each of them a blanket, and in a few minutes they too were feeling warm and cozy.  The four ten-year-olds sat around the stove, Senta and Hero sharing a chair, while Honor placed the green branches filled with red berries festively around the small room.

“I brought bread and butter for tea,” said Graham at last.

“That’s his way of telling you that he’s hungry,” said Senta.

“No it isn’t.”

The Dark and Forbidding Land – Chapter 9 Excerpt

The Dechantagne dining room table looked extremely empty this morning. Mrs. Godwin was in her usual spot, as was Mrs. Colbshallow. Professor Calliere was there and his solicitor Mr. Streck was still visiting. Yuah sat to the right of her husband. But there were four empty chairs. Saba Colbshallow had not stopped by for breakfast with his mother for several days and the empty spot so often filled with an ad-hoc dining guest was unoccupied. Little Iolana was sleeping in and so was not in her highchair. But it was Iolanthe’s absence which made the table seem much emptier than it would if anyone else happened to be gone. It was quite a boring meal, aside from Mr. Streck spilling his tea in his lap. Yuah was picking at her eggs, sausages, and white pudding not because of her sister-in-law’s absence, but because of the unpleasant cramping she felt in her abdomen.

After the family had finished breakfast and everyone got up from the table, Yuah took Terrence’s arm.

“Where did you want to go?” she asked.

“Blind man or no, I can find my way around my own house.”

“I’m sure you can. I was just trying to be helpful.” She let go of his arm. “I suppose you are going to the parlor to just sit.”

“I don’t know. What are you going to do?”

“I thought I would go upstairs and lie down for a bit.”

“Do you want company?” he asked, smiling suggestively.

“No I don’t, you horrible, insatiable man.”

“You didn’t want me just sitting around in the parlor.”

“I’m going upstairs to lie down because I have a headache,” said Yuah.

“I don’t think I’m any more insatiable than any other man.”

“If that is true,” she said, leaving him at the bottom of the stairs, “then your whole race is horrible.”

At the top of the stairs, Yuah turned left. It was a short walk past the balcony on the left side and Mrs. Colbshallow’s room and the nursery on the right. Her own room was at the end of the hallway. She thought of it as her own room despite the fact that Terrence shared it with her. Neither was inclined to follow the custom among the upper class of having separate bedrooms for husband and wife. She was already looking at wallpaper and other furnishings, though she had to do so from catalogs brought all the way from Brechalon. She knew she wanted pink with lots of lace and she knew that her brass bed would have curtains around it that matched the curtains on the window. At this moment though the bed was a simple wooden frame holding up a single very simple mattress and the only curtains on the windows were a pair of old sheets that she had cut and hemmed.

She sat down on the edge of the bed and tossed herself back upon it, her arms stretched out above her head. The ceiling above her was smooth white plaster, just like the bare walls. She felt another tug in her abdomen. It was the thirteenth of Festuary. She had been married for twenty-three days. She and Terrence had already been together as man and wife at least fifteen times. Yuah was sure that was more than most people did it in their entire lifetime. Why wasn’t she pregnant already? Who could she ask about it? She could ask Mrs. C or Mrs. G, but then she would have to look at them every day after having asked them. Mrs. Bratihn might be a good person to talk to about it. She’d been married twice and had several children. Or maybe Mrs. Leubking.

The baby started to cry in the next room, and Yuah pulled herself up and walked in to check on her. She turned the corner in the nursery and jumped as she saw the reptilian creature leaning over the crib. But the tiny yellow fringe of a skirt told her that it was one of the nanny lizzies.

“You there. What are you doing? Which one are you?”

The lizzies didn’t seem to startle the way the humans so often did, but even so the creature turned around quickly. As soon as it did, she could tell by the coloring that it was the one called Kheesie. The creature rolled its eyes around in a way that Yuah was beginning to recognize as fear, or at least nervousness. Stepping quickly past Kheesie, Yuah looked down into the crib. Iolana was red-faced with anger at having her diaper changed, but was otherwise unhurt.

“I’ll take it from here,” she said.

Cleaning the baby’s bottom with the washrag, she tossed it and the old diaper into the ceramic chamber pot under the crib, which she then handed to the lizzie. She powdered Iolana and then pinned on a new diaper. Picking up the still crying child, she pressed her to her shoulder and turned around to find the lizardman still there.

“Are you going to stand there looking stupid all day, or are you going to take that out and empty it?”

Kheesie stared blankly.

“Take it out!” and as the creature hurried out of the room, she called after her, “And clean it properly.”

She patted Iolana on the back and bounced her up and down.

“It’s so hard to find good help.” Then she burst out laughing at herself. How quickly she was turning into Iolanthe. My, what a horrible thought.

She pulled the baby away from her shoulder and looked into her face. Iolana was giving her a puzzled look in return.

“Don’t look at me like that. You know Auntie Yuah. I’m your favorite.”

Iolana blew a spit bubble.

“Look at you, you are so advanced. Already walking and now you’re going to talk to Auntie Yuah, aren’t you?”

The child made a valiant effort at speaking by saying “boo-uh.”

The Dark and Forbidding Land – Chapter 8 Excerpt

The S. S. Windemere didn’t arrive until Festuary eighth.  It had been waylaid in the Mulliens with a damaged boiler. Still, Saba Colbshallow had been at the docks to meet it and one passenger in particular.  Mr. Brockton didn’t look like a secret agent, not that Saba knew what a secret agent looked like.  He was a short, slight man in his mid-forties with a brown handlebar mustache and thinning hair beneath a brown bowler hat.  He looked over Saba for a moment then shook hands.

“Governor Dechantagne-Calliere asked me to meet you and see that you have a place to stay,” said Saba.

“Very good,” said Brockton in a thin nasal voice.  “She indicated in her correspondence that she would send a representative that had her complete trust.”

Saba tried not to let his surprise show.

“I’ve got you an apartment on the militia base.”

“Won’t that be suspicious?”

“Probably less than rooming anywhere else, unless you want to spend the next week in a tent,” said Saba.  “Those are basically the two options for new arrivals.  We don’t have a hotel or rooming house yet, though there are a few people who let rooms.  The apartments and rental houses have quite a long waiting list.”

“The militia base it is then,” said Brockton with a thin smile.

Saba led the way up the hill from the dockyards.

“I’m going to need a day to get my land legs back,” said Brockton.  “Why don’t we plan on meeting tomorrow and I’ll go over what the governor needs to know with you then.”

Saba nodded.  “Fine. I’ll have some supper sent over if you like?”

“Good.”

The following afternoon just before tea, Saba met Brockton outside the building that had been designed to eventually be part of the base’s barracks but which, since its construction, had been divided into ten small apartments.

“The best place to eat is back at the dockyard,” he said.

Brockton raised an eyebrow.

“They have food carts.”

Making their way down the hill, they took their place in the queue for sausages.  Then they sat down on a bench at the northern edge of the gravel yard and ate the thick sausages, which were served on a stick.

“Not much in the way of dining in Birmisia, eh?” said Brockton, then waved off Saba’s reply.  “I expected as much really.  I ate so much on the voyage that I probably gained ten pounds anyway.  This is fine, and so were the fish and chips you sent up last evening.”

“Good.  So what is the information you want me to relay to Governor Dechantagne-Calliere?”

“She is aware, though you might not be, that I am with His Majesty’s Secret Service.  We have people working around the world, but right now our focus is in Freedonia.”

“Aren’t we at peace?”

“Ostensibly.  But a great many things can happen.  And I don’t mean war, at least I don’t mean just war.”

“What else?” asked Saba.

“Klaus II fancies himself a wizard and he’s immersed himself in the wahre kunst von zauberei.  As a result, the wizards of the Reine Zauberei have replaced most of the non-wizards in key positions in the Freedonian government.”

“Don’t we have quite a few wizards of our own?” asked Saba.  “Yourself for instance?”

Brockton smiled a thin smile.

“Well spotted young Corporal.  I’m a first level journeyman from Académie Argei.  But you have to understand, these Reine Zauberei are not just wizards. They have their own peculiar ideas.”

“Their magic is different?”

“No, as a matter of fact their magic is almost identical to my own.  It is their belief system that is different. They believe that the Freedonians are the master race and that they are destined to rule the world.”

“Isn’t that sort of jingoism pretty common?” asked Saba.  “After all, patriotism is a great thing, as long as the fellow who has it is from the same country that you are.  I know quite a few Brechs who think that if you’re not Brech, you’re nothing.”

“Do they want to kill everyone else in the world?”

“Um, no.”

“There you see the difference.  These Reine Zauberei believe that everyone else must serve the Freedonians or be eliminated.  Completely.”

“But that’s just insane.”

“Yes it is.”

“And it’s not possible.”

“There you may be mistaken.  They’ve already started their plan.  The first victims are the Zaeri.”

“I know they’ve been treating the Zaeri badly—forcing them out of their homes and such.  The Zaeri have been treated horribly for centuries though—in Brech and Mirsanna too, not just in Freedonia.”

“There is more to it than that.  In fact the Freedonians have stopped chasing the Zaeri out of the country and are now rounding them up and putting them in forced labor camps.  And there are rumors of other camps—camps where the Zaeri and others are being murdered by the hundreds.”

“That can’t be true,” said Saba.

“We don’t know for sure whether it is or not.” Brockton took the last bite of his sausage and tossed the stick at the dustbin next to the bench.

The Dark and Forbidding Land – Chapter 7 Excerpt

“You think I’m an idiot?” demanded Senta.

“I didn’t say anything of the kind,” replied Zurfina calmly.

“I know a fylfot when I see one!”

“Don’t be so defensive, Pet.  I didn’t say I didn’t believe you.  I merely pointed out that I have been all over this town in the past few weeks and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of this wizard of yours.”

“Well I saw him.  I’ve been keeping tabs on him since he got here and I even talked to him.”

“I don’t doubt you,” said Zurfina, in a remarkably soothing voice, “but the level of residual magic around town is no more than I would expect from you and your everyday antics.”

“Are you sure you didn’t miss some?”

“Now who’s being insulting?”  The sorceress’s voice suddenly flared louder.  “If I didn’t detect it, it wasn’t there.”

“Hmph!” said Senta, and crossing her arms, turned to face the door.

Zurfina sighed.  “Children are so difficult.  Is it any wonder that I never wanted one of my own?”

“Maybe you should just get rid of me like everybody else does,” said Senta quietly.

Zurfina crossed from the kitchen to the other side of the stairs and put an arm around Senta’s shoulders.

“You’re far too interesting for me to get rid of now.  Look, this wizard of yours is obviously far too insignificant for me to concern myself with.  You’ll have to take care of him.”

“Me?  I’m just a little kid.”

“You know something?” said Zurfina, taking her arm from around Senta and grasping her by the shoulders.  “Nobody believes that—least of all me.  There’s not a journeyman wizard this side of Xygia who can do what you can do with magic.”

“Really?”

“Would I lie to you?”

“Of course you would.”

“Well…” Zurfina shrugged.  “Keep an eye on your wizard, and if he turns out to be a threat to us, neutralize him.”

“What if you’re wrong and he magics the crap out of me?” wondered Senta.

“Then I’ll know better with my next apprentice,” replied Zurfina.  “Do you want a sandwich?”

“Yes.”

Zurfina waved her finger in the air and, as the contents of the froredor began to fly out to the table and assemble themselves into sandwiches, she started up the stairs.

“Bring my meal up to the top floor.  Leave it on the step outside the door.  Don’t come in.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” said Senta, watching mayonnaise being spread across a freshly cut piece of bread.

When the sandwiches had been completed, Senta delivered Zurfina’s to the appropriate location.  Then she put away the ingredients by hand and sat down at the table to enjoy hers.  She was only on her second bite when there was a knock at the door.    As she opened it, the cold air from outside blew across her bare shins and feet.  It had stopped snowing a couple of days before, but it was still cold out and the world was still covered with a thick blanket of white.  Standing outside and shivering was Hertzel Hertling.

“Hertzel!” squealed Senta, giving him a great hug.  “Where is your sister?  Didn’t she come with you?”

Hertzel remained as quiet as he always did, but shook his head.  Two years before, when he and his two sisters had escaped their former homeland of Freedonia, soldiers had killed both their parents.  Hertzel, who up until that time has seemed a perfectly normal boy, had lost his voice. And there seemed to be no reason to expect its return any time soon.

“Come in and get warm.”  Senta pulled the boy into the house and closed the door after him.  “Are you hungry?”

Hertzel shrugged.

Taking this as an affirmative, Senta cut her sandwich in half and gave him the portion with no bite taken out of it.

“I’ll put on some tea.”

Hertzel took a bite of the sandwich and smiled with his blue lips closed.

Senta put the pot on the cast iron stove.

“Nothing’s wrong, is it?” she asked.

Hertzel shook his head.

“It’s only that I don’t see you very often by yourself.”

She crossed back to the stove and sat down.

“What’s Hero doing?”

He shrugged.

“Do you know where Graham is?”

He shook his head.

“So… kind of hard to have a conversation with you.”

Hertzel looked down at the table, took a bite of his sandwich and nodded sadly.

“That’s okay.  Really. I don’t mind.”

The kettle on the stove started to whistle, and Senta went and got it.  She transferred the water to a teapot, put loose leaves of tea into an infuser and dropped the infuser into the teapot as well. Then she brought the pot and two cups to the table.

“You know, I bet I can be as quiet as you.”

Hertzel shook his head.

The Dark and Forbidding Land – Chapter 6 Excerpt

Cissy was getting quite used to her new role.  The work she did, while not physically demanding, was at least varied enough to keep her attention.  She enjoyed watching the humans and learning about their strange activities.  She enjoyed earning many copper bits and spending some of them to buy things.  She liked the human houses, especially now with four feet of snow on the ground outside and more coming down all the time.  Unused rooms in the big house could become as drafty as the huts in lizzie villages, but there were so many fireplaces constantly burning that it was easy to find a place to warm up.  And her own place, in the room she now shared with four other females, in the back of the motorshed, was kept toasty warm in the evening.

“Pay attention Cissy,” said Mrs. Dechantagne.

Cissy was lacing up the back of the strange undergarment that squeezed the human woman’s waist.  Cissy now knew Mrs. Dechantagne’s name, and indeed the names of the other members of the household, though the intricacies of their familial connections still baffled her.  Nor could she pronounce most of the names, but fortunately speech on her part was seldom needed.  She liked Mrs. Dechantagne almost as much as she liked Mrs. Colbshallow.  Neither woman hit the lizzies and Mrs. Dechantagne didn’t yell at them overmuch.  While Mrs. Colbshallow did on occasion raise her voice, she alone among the humans had learned the lizzie language, and offered affection toward the lizzies.

Cissy found herself starting to think in Brech, rather than her native language.  She had learned so many words for things that there were no words for among the lizzies. She had stopped thinking of her race as “the people” and now just thought of them as lizzies, and more often than not, when she thought of herself, the name Cissy came to mind rather than Ssissiatok.

She pulled the corset strings tightly through they eyelets and pulled down on them, locking them into position, so that she could then tie them into a knot.  Once that was done, Mrs. Dechantagne turned around to examine her work in the cheval glass.

“Yes, that’s fine.  Now help me into the dress.”

Cissy was fascinated by the ornate dresses that the human females wore, and this dress was no exception.  It was the color of an angry sunset and was made of enough material to have clothed a dozen men and women.  Covered with coral roses and pink bows, it had to be carefully held so that Mrs. Dechantagne could step into it.  Then it was fastened up the back with more than forty tiny buttons, which Cissy could barely manipulate even with a buttonhook in her clawed fingers.  There was no way that the woman could have put it on by herself and there was no way that she would be able to get out of it either. Of course Cissy had her own skirt, but it was just a wide piece of material wrapped around her above the tail, a mere homage to the dresses worn by the human women of the house.

Once Mrs. Dechantagne was in her dress, Cissy had to kneel down to put the woman’s shoes on her feet, using the same buttonhook to slip the twenty-four buttons on each shoe into their correct spot.  Before she could stand up she heard a shrieking sound from the doorway to the right.  She turned to see elderly Mrs. Godwin leaning against the doorframe with her hand on her breast.

“Are you alright Mrs. Godwin?” asked Mrs. Dechantagne.

“I thought for a moment you were being attacked… by an alligator.”

“Did you forget your glasses again, Mrs. G?”

“Of course I didn’t.   I have them… oh…”  Mrs. Godwin felt her face, and not finding any glasses there, turned and wandered off down the hallway.

“You do rather look like an alligator,” said the young woman, looking down at Cissy.

“Alligator?”

“Yes.  Well, I’ve never seen one in real life.  Just in books.  Um, they say you have crocodiles that are very similar.  Do you know crocodiles?”

Cissy shook her head.

“Oh well.  Get up off the floor.  I’m done with you for now.  Go down and see what Mrs. Colbshallow has for you.”

Leaving the bedroom and walking down the staircase, Cissy looked into the kitchen to find Mrs. Colbshallow supervising the lunch preparations. Shoss and Clegg were washing and cutting vegetables while Sill was arranging a few snow flowers in a vase. Kheesie stepped into the room just behind Cissy.

“Did you finish helping Mrs. Dechantagne get dressed?” asked Mrs. Colbshallow.

“Yes sss…” Cissy hissed mirthfully.  Though she had understood everything the woman had said, not many would have, since about every other word was in the lizzie language.  She had in fact not said “Mrs. Dechantagne”, but had used the term the lizzies in the house had for her, which roughly translated to “the thin white and brown one”.

“And you Kheesie?  Is Iolana down for her nap?”

“Yes,” said Kheesie, then turning to Cissy, hissed under her breath. “Finally.  It simply refuses to sleep.”

“She,” corrected Cissy.

“Very good,” said Mrs. Colbshallow.  “You two are free for now.  Staff lunch is in two hours time.  Come see me afterwards.”

The lizzies were used to eating just once each day, but Mrs. Colbshallow insisted that they sit down to dine three times, each immediately after the three biggest meals of the humans.  Cissy made her way out the back door and across the snow-covered yard to her room in the back of the motor shed.  Kheesie followed.  Once they were inside, they both stretched out on their sleeping mats, lying flat on their stomachs, their noses pointed toward one another.

“I saw Tattasserott walking by on the road in front of the big house,” said Kheesie.

“What was he doing?” wondered Cissy.  “Has he got a job here now?”

“You know he doesn’t have a job.  He’s Ssterrost’s kinsman.”

The Dark and Forbidding Land – Chapter 5 Excerpt

Senta looked through the glass of the small clear bottle at the milky green liquid inside.  She swirled it around.  It was just thick enough that the potion coated the inside of the glass.

“So if I drink this, I’ll be beautiful?” she wondered.

“I would be most surprised,” said Zurfina the Magnificent, who was lying naked across the divan.  “You haven’t done it properly.  It’s supposed to be a lovely forest green—not a putrid olive.”

“I used all the right ingredients and I put them in, in the right order.”

“But you didn’t maintain the necessary aura.”

“Aura? Kafira’s fanny!  I didn’t need to worry about the aura when I was making happiness potion.”

“Trained lizzies could mix blessudine.  It’s the easiest potion to make.  Hermosatin is twice as difficult, amorazine more difficult than that, and dionoserin more difficult still.”

“Alright,” huffed Senta.  “In exactly which part did I let my aura drop?”

“The rose petals.”

“Well, I can’t do it again.  I don’t have any more rose petals.  Why do you need rose petals anyway?  I can understand cucumbers.  Cucumbers are vegetables and vegetables are supposed to be good for you.  I’ve never heard roses were good for you.  I don’t even think you’re supposed to eat them.”

“Do you want to be a sorceress or a chemist?” said Zurfina, sitting up.  “Do you think this is a science experiment?  Cucumber is essential, but not because it’s good for you.  It represents a man.”

“A man?”

“A specific part of a man anyway.”

“His todger?” asked Senta, incredulously.

“Yes, of course. And the rose petals represent the woman.”

“Her fanny? His todger and her fanny?  And I’m supposed to drink this?”

“Relax,” said Zurfina, rising to her feet.  “It’s not like it has the real bits in it.  They are just representatives.  That’s what magic is about.  Dionoserin doesn’t have walnuts because they have any real connection to your brain. They just sort of look like a brain when you take them out of their shell.”

“I’ve had enough for today.”

“Yes, so have I,” said Zurfina, heading for the staircase.  “Your ineptitude has completely worn me out.  I’m going to take my beauty sleep.  You should read your primer.  You’ve been neglecting your studies.”

“What will happen if I drink this?” asked Senta, holding up the small bottle.

“It might be interesting to find out,” said her mistress, stopping on the first step to watch. “Go ahead and drink it.”

The girl tilted the bottle to her lips and swallowed the contents down.  She licked her lips and waited, but nothing seemed to happen.

“It tastes alright,” she said.

“That’s the spearmint.”

“What does it represent?”

“It doesn’t represent anything,” said Zurfina, ascending the stairs.  “It just makes it taste good.”

Senta followed Zurfina up the stairs, but stopped at her own room as the sorceress continued on.  Going to the bookcase, she pulled out primer number six.  She plopped herself onto her bed and began reading about the classification of animals.  The people who had put the book together had obviously never been to Birmisia.  They had the animals of the world divided into nice neat categories— invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The deinonychus and velociraptors that wandered around the edges of Port Dechantagne had feathers, so they must be birds.  Yet they seemed to have much more in common with the iguanodons that had moved south into the forest.  They were reptiles, weren’t they?  Senta decided to think more on the topic at a later time.  She was running around in her unders and right now she was starting to feel the cold creep in around her.  She went to the cast iron stove and tossed a few more logs in.  The firebox on this floor was almost empty and it was her job to keep it full.  One of these days Zurfina would teach her a spell for filling the firebox, or at least for carrying big piles of wood easily up the stairs.

She went to the window and peered out.  The sun was going down and it was all grey and white amid the trees.  The wind whistled on the other side of the thin pane of glass.  Five days earlier the storm had rolled in from the north and it hadn’t let up since. She hadn’t been outside in that whole time and no one had come to visit her either.  Senta resolved to go visiting on the morrow regardless of the weather.  She opened the primer again, but ten minutes passed without her reading another word.

She heard the front door a level below open and slam shut.  It never occurred to her that someone would enter who had no business being there.  This was Zurfina the Magnificent’s home and such an action would have been more than reckless– it would have been suicidal.  She turned her head toward the stairway and watched until the graceful form of the steel dragon danced over the top step.

“Pet,” said Bessemer.

“Come here and warm me up,” Senta commanded.

The dragon’s long, lithe body crossed the room in two quick steps and hopped onto the bed with her.  A moment later his body was on top of hers, his neck was wrapped around hers, with his head resting on her chest, and his long tail was wrapped around her right leg. His scaly skin felt hard and smooth, but he was exceptionally warm.  It was like having a big scaly hot water bottle.

“Did you find something to eat?” asked Senta.

“Yes.”