“You said that you do not live far from here,” I mentioned, once we had finished the pies. One might say the purloined pies, but I would not. I would instead insist that they rightly belonged to us in recompense for our unjust confinement.
“That is correct,” said he.
“The pies rightfully belong to us?”
“No. I live not far from here. Are you carrying on some other conversation in your head about the pies?”
“Of course not,” I replied. “You are an orphan.”
“I am well aware of that fact. There is no need to keep rubbing it in my face.”
“What I mean is you don’t have a proper home anymore now that you are an orphan.”
“Even an orphan may have extended family,” he explained. “Perhaps I live with them.”
“One might suppose that I do.”
“One might suppose a great many things,” said I. “But would it not be better to base our future activities less on supposition than on actual remembrances?”
“One might suppose we should,” said he.
“You have an odd way of talking,” I commented. “You don’t quite sound orphanish at all.”
“Really? How many orphans have you known?”
“Quite a few actually,” I revealed. “The Queen of Aerithraine…”
“With whom you once had the pleasure of spending a fortnight.”
“Indeed it is so. The Queen of Aerithraine, with whom I once had… well, she has a soft spot for orphans. Some years back she opened an orphanage called Elleena’s House.”
“Is that because her name is Elleena?”
“Why would her name cause her to have a soft spot for orphans?” I wondered. “No, I believe it is because she was an orphan herself.”
“No. Is it called Elleena’s House because her name is Elleena? And how could a queen be an orphan? Doesn’t she have to be a princess? Or did the King find her in an orphanage and come to sweep her off her feet? That would be a lovely story.”
“Well, there is no king,” said I.
“Gah!” he exclaimed. “You are the worst storyteller in the world. You are messing everything up and making me confused.”
“Forsooth! I am the best storyteller in the world. I do not expect you to know so, as you are an unfortunate orphan without any knowledge of the world.” I looked over my shoulder at his pinched little face. “In truth I was not trying to tell you the story of the Queen of Aerithraine. If I had, you would be filled with wonder and excitement. I have made half my fortune from that story, and a better story, a truer story, a more profound story; you are not likely to hear in all the days of your life. But I was not trying to tell that story. I was trying to explain that the Queen of Aerithraine has a soft spot for orphans. In fact, I suppose that I do so myself, as I am almost an orphan.”
“You are almost an orphan?”
“How can you be almost an orphan?”
“Why couldn’t I be?” I demanded. “If anyone can be, I could be.”
“What I mean is…” He took a deep breath. “How can one be almost an orphan?”
“Oh. Well, it’s only that my parents aren’t dead.”
“I see,” said he.
“But they were kidnapped,” I confided.
“Are you sure they didn’t just run away?” he asked.
“It was a stormy night and I had been away from my parents’ home, which is to say my former home, which is to say Cor Cottage just outside Dewberry Hills, and I was returning for a visit. As I approached I heard a disturbance, though at first I attributed it to the sounds of the storm. Then I looked up at the cottage window to see figures silhouetted on the shade, locked in a grim struggle.”
“What did you do?”
“Why, I rushed forward to aid my poor old mother, who as I recall smells of warm pie, and my poor old father, and my sister Celia, and my aunt Oregana, and my cousin Gervil, and my other cousin Tuki, who is a girl cousin, which is to say a cousin who is a girl, which makes sense, because whoever heard of a boy named Tuki.”
“They were all struggling by the window?”
“They may all have been struggling by the window, or some of them may have been, or perhaps only one of them was struggling by the window. I don’t know, because when I burst in through the front door, they were all gone. The back door was open wide and the rain was splashing in.”
“What happened to them?”
“I know not.”
“Were there any clues?”
“Indeed there were.”
“What were they?”
“The table had been set for nine, which was two places too many.”
“Three places!” said the orphan triumphantly. “You thought I wasn’t paying attention. There was your father, mother, sister, aunt, and two cousins. That makes six.”
“They would also have set a place for Geneva.”
“Of course they would have. Who is she?”
“She’s my other cousin, which is to say Gervil’s sister, only she’s imaginary, but she wasn’t always imaginary, which is to say she died, but Gervil still sees her, so Aunt Oregana always sets a place for her.”
“What other clues?”
I listed them off. “There was a knife stuck in Gervil’s bed. Floorboards had been loosened in several rooms. There were drops of purple liquid leading out the back door. And someone had hung bunches of onions from the rafters of the dining room. Most mysterious of all was the fact that the tracks led away from the house only fifty feet and then disappeared entirely.”
The orphan gripped me around the waist and squeezed. “How terrible,” he said, in a tiny voice.