Kieran Baxter stood on the doorstep for at least fifteen minutes working up the courage to knock. It seemed foolish when one actually thought about it. He had walked in and out of that very same door a thousand times at least, without knocking and usually without announcing himself. But the heart and soul didn’t function with the logic of the mind. They were full of distractions. Finally he knocked, three times quickly, his knuckles barely touching the painted oak surface.
“That’s not loud enough for anyone to have heard,” he told himself. “Knock again. No. Better to wait a while, just in case. I can always knock again later.”
To his surprise, the door opened, revealing a lizzie about his height. He immediately recognized her as Aggie, the maid. Opening the door was not usually among her duties, or at least they hadn’t been when he had last been in the house. That job belonged to Cheery, the butler. Baxter suddenly realized he didn’t know if Cheery still worked here. For that matter, he didn’t even know if the male lizzie still lived.
Aggie stepped back to allow him to enter the foyer.
“Sir,” she said.
“Is the lady of the house in?”
“Yesss. Closing the door the lizzie started into the parlor. Baxter followed her through that room and on back to the library. Senta, in a simple brown skirt and white blouse stood in the room, facing away. A bookcase and a chair had been removed from the north wall, and in their place was a huge, ornately decorated oak and glass case, of the type usually displaying fine porcelain dishes. This one however was almost completely filled with small metal boxes, about three inches square and one inch deep. There had to be more than a hundred of them.
“You’ve messed this all up,” said Senta. “When you took them out for me yesterday, I asked you to remember where each went. You’ve got Grand Master Wizard Cavendish and Lord Callingham on the bottom shelf. They belong on the top, next to Master Wizard Goderick, while Dr. Sykes and Nurse Pyle definitely belong on the bottom shelf.”
She turned and jumped when she saw Baxter standing with the lizzie.
“That’s new,” said Baxter.
“Oh, yes. I’m a collector now—um, snuff boxes.”
“It’s an odd collection. They all look alike.”
“I can tell them apart,” she said, seriously.
“I came to tell you…” he started.
“Wait. Let’s be civilized. It’s almost elevenses. There should be tea.”
A tray containing a teapot, two cups, and a plate of chocolate biscuits was waiting on the occasional table in the parlor.
“Sit down,” directed the sorceress, pointing at a spot on the sofa. “I’ll be mother.”
He watched as she prepared a cup of tea just the way he liked it—no sugar, just a twist of lemon. She handed him his cup and then prepared her own, with four lumps and cream. She sat on the opposite end of the sofa from him, turning so that one leg was up on the spot between them.
“As I said,” he started again. “I came to apologize for my… behavior… the other day, when you came to see me.”
“Completely understandable,” she said, pausing to sip her tea. “You suspected I was an imposter, and you could have been right. But you weren’t. I’m me.”
“Of course you are. I… my behavior was inexcusable.”
“I excuse you,” she said with a smile. “I should be the one to apologize to you, after all I’ve done to you… leaving you alone, without a word.”
“Why did you?” he asked, setting his still full cup on the end table, and then turning to face her.
“You know how it is. Sometimes you just need to get away, to be by yourself, to get some perspective.”
“You just left? You just left me? For four years?” His voice rose higher and higher. “You left your daughter for four years? Four years!”
She looked like she was going to say something else, but closed her mouth and just shrugged. “What can I say?” she said, shrugging again, an impertinent smile crossing her lips.
“You bitch!” He slapped her hard across the face.
Her head snapped to the side, but when it turned back, other than a large red handprint, her expression had not changed. Then she started laughing and reclined back on the arm of the sofa.
“Come, come,” she said. “Be a man about it.”
He leaned forward, for what, he didn’t know. To punch her insolent mouth, maybe. He reached down to balance himself and his hand found her waist. Grabbing the waistline of her skirt with both hands, he pulled, ripping it open. She wasn’t completely naked underneath, but she had few foundations, no petticoat—only a small pair of bloomers. He grabbed them and ripped them off.
“That’s right,” she said, breathily. “Yes, you know what you have to do, don’t you?”
He looked up into those beguiling grey eyes, but he saw something else. The side of her face where he had hit her was swelling up alarmingly. He looked back down at her half-naked body, suddenly appalled by what he was doing.
“Don’t think about it,” she said. “I need to be punished. Do it!”
He pushed himself back and climbed to his feet.
“No. Don’t stop.” Her voice sounded so genuine, he suddenly realized that her earlier words had not. This whole time she hadn’t sounded like Senta at all, at least not like his Senta, the Senta he knew.
“Go to hell, demon,” he said, staggering to his feet.
“I’m not Pantagria. I’m not an imposter.”