“Senta, what are you doing out this late? Come in. Come in.”
“Thank you, Benny,” said the sorceress, stepping inside. “Am I too late for dinner?”
“No, we were just getting ready to sit down. Come into the parlor.”
“Senta!” cried Hero, spying her from the other room, and rushing out to greet her. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“I should have. It’s very rude of me just to drop in like this.”
“Nonsense. You’re always welcome.”
Hero took her by the arm and guided her from the foyer and into the parlor. The sofa and chairs were filled with family members. In addition to the Markham children: fifteen-year-old Benny Jr., fourteen-year-old Hannabeth, and thirteen-year-old Honor, there were Benny’s brother Sam Markham and his wife Ernst, who just happened to be Senta’s cousin. Their two sons were on the floor by the fireplace, stacking blocks with Bryony, the Markham’s youngest daughter.
Senta and Ernst were the only blondes in a room of brunettes. In fact, the similarities in their appearance went far beyond hair color. They looked enough alike to be sisters, though there were eight years between them.
“Hello, Senta,” waved Ernst.
“Hello, Ernst,” smiled Senta. “Where is your new baby?”
“She’s in the other room asleep.”
“And Benny,” Senta continued. “I understand that you’ve sold your oldest into bondage.”
“If you mean she has a job, then that’s right. She’s working tonight at Café Idella.”
“What are you about, cuz?” wondered Ernst.
The sorceress waved her hand in a circle near her knees and a wooden chair with a bright red cushion on the seat appeared in the spot. She sat primly.
“I was just in the mood to visit a friend, and I can always count on Hero to have something delicious planned for her family’s evening meal.”
“You won’t be sorry tonight,” said Benny. “Hero’s made her famous sauerbraten.”
“I hope it turns out,” said Hero.
“I hope there’s enough,” said Senta. “I wouldn’t want to take food out of your children’s mouths.”
“Oh, there’s more than enough,” said Hero, with a wave. “We also have Potatoes Kasselburg, apple red cabbage, and pea fritters.”
“Pea fritters aren’t very Freedonian.”
“We’re Brech now, and besides, the children love them.”
“I’m not criticizing,” said Senta. “I like pea fritters too. Just don’t start making toad in the hole. You know how I feel about it.”
“You just missed your daughter,” said Benny. “She took Hannabeth and Honnie out to lunch.”
“Then we went for a boat ride in Radley Staff Park,” added Hannabeth.
“That sounds lovely,” said the sorceress. “I wholeheartedly approve of my daughter having as much contact with young Markhams as possible. I’m sure it’s a civilizing influence of which she is in sore need.”
“Sen’s a lovely girl,” said Hero. “She’s just like you were at that age. Now let me make sure that everything’s ready.”
As she hurried toward the kitchen, Ernst stood up as well.
“I’ve got to check on Tillie.”
“Let me go with you,” said Senta, following.
They stepped through a doorway to a bedroom, where the baby was lying in the center of a large bed. She was still tiny, though almost five months old, with pink skin and fair hair.
“She’s very pretty for a baby,” said Senta, bending down to look at the tiny pink lips and long, dark lashes.
“Yes, she is,” agreed her mother. “I was surprised that she has blond hair, since both the boys take after their father so much.”
“Is she his?” Senta stood up to look into the shocked face of her cousin.
“Of course she is!” hissed Ernst. “How could you even ask me that?”
“Please. Don’t act all holy.” Senta leaned in close. “I know you took a turn with your sister’s husband.”
“That was just the… well, three times, but that was years ago. And Didrika has a big mouth. I would never do that to Sam.”
“Do what? Shag another man?”
“Yes. Well, no. I mean, I won’t do it again. I mean I would never give him another man’s child.”
“Never speak of this again,” insisted Ernst. “What if Sam were to come in here.”
“Oh, don’t worry. No one can hear anything we say. You could scream that I was murdering you and nobody would hear you. It’s completely safe. Anyway, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Well you did. The whole subject upsets me. I feel so guilty. I love Sam so much now. I mean I did before, but… I guess I forgot for a while.”
“I could take him for a ride—even things up, if that would make you feel any better,” said Senta.
Ernst looked at her for a long moment.
“Hmm. Maybe. I don’t think you would be able to seduce him though. He’s a much better person than either of us.”