My Brief Life and Tragic Death, Chapter 5

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here: Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins.)

Chapter 5. Room Service

We hadn’t expected to fall asleep. If we had, we would have kept watch, or tried to, because we knew we weren’t safe. I woke around sunrise. To my surprise, I was in my bed, though I was still in my boy’s disguise and still wearing my sneakers. Frank was asleep in the armchair.

I saw a letter in my own handwriting, addressed to me, sitting on my desk. I got out of bed. My legs were stiff and painful, but that was true every morning. I sat in my desk chair and read my letter.

June X, 1972

Dear Flavia,

When I wake after midnight I remember that I can see the future. Not just one future, but variations depending on what we do based on my foreknowledge. I try to find actions that prevent disaster without triggering additional disasters. It’s very strange—the deed that makes things come out right can seem trivial and unrelated. Following my guidance precisely is essential.

I apparently forget everything that happens at dawn, even the fact that I was awake at all. I see some events with an Olympian detachment, but others … I’m grateful for my amnesia. Once gone, the memories are gone for good: just as inaccessible by night as by day. I only remember last night’s letter to Frank because he showed it to me in the library.

Did I sign yesterday’s letter to Frank with love because I already loved him? Alas, I don’t remember. I wish I could!

Yes, I suppose I must have written a letter to Daddy, too, but I don’t remember. I wonder what I said? Perhaps I’ll ask him some day.

What else? It’s important that I say as little as possible about future events because only focused foreknowledge can be used with predictable results. Broad foreknowledge affects too many decisions and the future becomes terribly blurred and confused. It can easily deliver the opposite of the results I most desire. So I’m not putting hints or even encouragement into this letter.

I need to keep the secret of these letters to just me, Frank, and Daddy.

Flavia

P.S. I’m you and you’re me. This is probably easier to grasp after midnight because I remember the events of the day. During the day, I’ve forgotten the events of the night, so there’s less continuity. It’s all one, though.

There was also a letter addressed to Frank, and another to Daddy. I crossed to where Frank lay sleeping, slumped in the armchair. I put a hand on his shoulder. “Wakey-wakey, rise and shine.”

He sat up suddenly, disoriented. “Huh? What?”

“I wrote you a letter last night, just as you asked.”

“Oh.” He stretched. “Pass it over.”

I did, and he opened the letter. As he read, I walked back and forth to limber up my legs.

Frank looked up from the letter and said, “You talk all lovey-dovey after midnight.”

“Do I?”

He handed me the letter.

June X, 1972

Dear Frank,

After reading this, ask me to share the letter I addressed to myself. It explains the basics.

There is so much I wish to say to you, my love! But it’s important that anything tinged with foreknowledge be said at the right time and in the right way, especially if it’s written down.

Meet me after midnight tonight so we can talk. It won’t the kind of romantic midnight assignation you may be thinking of, alas. I forget with the dawn, and I selfishly want to remember all my tender moments with you. But meet me without fail.

Your loving

Flavia

After I finished reading, I handed him my letter. I waited until he finished reading it before saying, “Do you think my personality changes at night?”

“I doubt it. I’ll let you know. Try calling me your love.”

“Good morning, my love.” I shivered. I hadn’t been prepared for how right it felt. Yes, I know my English is too formal, but that’s how I am; that’s who I am. Calling Frank “my love” was exactly right for me.

“Morning,” said Frank. “I love you too. I sure hope we get sprung in time for breakfast. I’m starved.”

I couldn’t decide whether to be angry at Frank for saying “I love you” for the first time so casually, or delighted that he’d said it at all. In the end I decided to be gracious about it. Frank had some strange notions. He might even imagine that “mine, mine, mine” was the same as “I love you,” which meant it didn’t count as the first time.

There was a knock on the door ten minutes later. “Who is it?” called Frank.

“King William,” came a voice. Daddy’s voice.

Frank looked at me. I nodded, and he called, “What’s the password?”

“Breakfast,” said Daddy.

“Enter, friend!” said Frank. He unbolted the door.

Two soldiers came in first and did a sweep of my suite. Then Daddy walked in and embraced me. He hadn’t hugged me in ages. I almost cried. He was no longer carrying a submachine gun, just a holstered pistol. He held me at arm’s length, looking delighted by both me and my boy’s disguise. He noted the rope ladder, which Frank had left out, ready for a quick getaway. “Very resourceful.”

A sergeant pushed in a cart of covered breakfast dishes. He quickly set the sitting room table for three, set out the dishes, saluted, and departed, taking the two privates with him and closing the door.

When was the last time I’d had a private breakfast with Daddy? Or even been seated at the same table? I couldn’t remember.

I hurried to my bedroom to fetch the letter to Daddy and handed it to him before taking my place at the table.

“That was quite a light step, Princess,” said Daddy, setting the letter aside for now. “Another of Frank’s miracles?”

“Not me,” said Frank, who had decided to serve. “Who wants ham? Last call. I could eat the whole pig.”

Daddy and I both made sure we got our fair shares. I told Daddy, “It’s these high-top sneakers, Sire. They’re light and they have just enough support to keep my left toe up.”

I poured Daddy’s coffee and looked inquiringly at Frank, who shook his head. I learned later that, as part of his training regimen, he rarely drinks anything but water and, of all things, buttermilk.

Daddy and Frank were both very hungry. Frank, though much smaller than Daddy, matched his intake with that bottomless appetite of a boy in his teens. I ate about half as much as he did. Frank had good table manners, which was a relief.

After we had finished eating, Daddy said, “Where shall we start?”

“Perhaps by reading your letter?” I suggested.

“Very well.” Daddy read his letter carefully, then put the sheets back in the envelope and put it in an inside coat pocket. “Fascinating. We’ll go into all of that later. Before I give you a summary of the situation, do you have any questions?”

“Is Lady Lestrange in custody?” I asked.

“She is dead. Why?”

I was speechless only for a moment. “She tried to force her way in here, but Frank had bolted the door. Then she tried to talk her way in.”

“Locking yourself in with a princess is terribly improper, boy.”

“Daddy!” I said, shocked.

Frank scowled. “I dithered over closing that damned door for almost a minute. I’ll be quicker next time, Sire.”

Daddy nodded. “Yes, well done. Are you willing to continue protecting and supporting my daughter?”

“That’s an understatement, Sire.”

“Good. We will work out the rules and such soon. Carry on.”

Frank grinned. Daddy smiled sourly and said, “I meant, keep up the good work.”

He paused and gathered his thoughts. “It was a coup attempt, of course. A stuffy and pompous coup attempt, put together by people with no appreciation of their own stupidity. Not the usual pattern at all. Chercher le vampire.”

I didn’t understand. “What?”

“It means ‘search for the vampire.’ As a rule, it’s our vampires who do the scheming. It’s taken from a French expression, cherchez la femme, which is a maxim among French detectives. Search for the woman. To a proper Frenchman, a serious crime must involve love, or the whole world has gone mad.”

Frank quoted, “With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

“No doubt,” said Daddy blandly. “Yet in spite of the plotters’ incompetence, they almost succeeded. Had it not been for Flavia’s letters, she and I would be dead and the traitors would have won. Only momentarily, to be sure. They had no real support. And they enlisted far too many of their friends and relations. You will be needing a new maid, Princess.”

“What happened to Miss Parmalee?”

“She is dead.”

I almost burst into tears. I hadn’t liked Miss Parmalee and she hadn’t liked me, but we’d been constantly together for the last year. Was she dead because I was so unlovable?

I heard Frank shift his chair closer. He put an arm around me. I couldn’t help crying then, so I threw my arms around him and wept. It all seemed so natural that it took me some time to realize that Frank hadn’t paused to consider Daddy’s reaction. And yesterday I hadn’t let him near me when I cried.

When I recovered and disengaged from Frank, I looked at Daddy. He wore a strange expression that I couldn’t figure out at all. As if nothing had happened, I asked, “What happened to her?”

“Lady Lestrange, Miss Parmalee, and two others hid somewhere in the palace until dark, then made a break for it on foot. They reached their hiding place, but it wasn’t proof against vampires. The vampires fed lavishly and all four traitors died. A regrettable act of violence by persons unknown.”

Frank shifted uncomfortably. I, too, suspected that Daddy knew exactly who the vampires were and may have sent them himself. After a moment Frank said, “I don’t suppose you happened across Spike.”

“Louisa Maréchal graciously volunteered her assistance. She’s helping to track down the remaining traitors. Shall I send her to you when she returns?”

“Yes, please. How about Maria and Charlotte?”

“As far as I know, they were not involved in any of this.”

“That’s a relief.”

I asked Frank, “Who are Maria and Charlotte?”

“Two of Grandfather’s dependents.”

“Whose dependents are they now that he’s gone?”

“They’re pretty much on their own. Uncle Nestor doesn’t like them.”

Nestor was the new Count Woodville. Frank’s grandfather had died two years ago. “How old are these girls?”

“They look and act about twelve. In reality they’re between eighty and ninety.”

“How is that possible?”

“They’re vampires.”

“Oh, of course.” I’d read that children who became vampires stopped developing physically and emotionally, though they learned new facts and skills readily enough. But I’d never met anyone like that.

I was twelve myself. They’d certainly be strong and graceful. Were they pretty? Would I have to compete with them for Frank’s affection? Vampires used their glamour to influence humans; even to enslave them. It was worrisome.

“Let’s not discuss Charlotte and Maria at the moment,” said Daddy, “though I’m sure we all have concerns.”

Frank said, “How much is left of the palace staff?”

“That’s not yet clear. No more than two-thirds. It was an odd sort of coup attempt. No real military involvement. The palace staff imagined that they ran the country already, and their vast experience meant that obviously they’d be kept in charge if we were killed, at least until the new monarch could be elected; a rigged election, no doubt. The princess and I seem to have been their only targets.”

The way our constitution works, direct heirs (that is, Daddy’s children) can inherit the crown directly, but any other succession requires an election. Since I’m crippled, there’s a school of thought that holds that I shouldn’t succeed without an election, either.

Frank said, “I keep hearing about the incompetence of the palace staff, but I don’t know how it happened.”

“Few of the staff positions are important in reality, so the palace attracts second-raters. The second-raters repel the men of talent. I find this immensely frustrating. So did my father. A tiny government like ours can’t really attract the best men, anyway. There are so many wonderful opportunities in the larger world. Most of the crucial work is done part-time by leading men like your late grandfather or Dr. Wright.”

I wanted to point out that it’s “men and women,” not “men,” though in fact few women held positions of prominence. Daddy would have agreed with me and then continued just as before, on the grounds that everyone knew that “men” means “men and women.” I have my doubts about that.

Frank told Daddy, “I’m only willing to fill in as Flavia’s tutor and maid until school starts.”

Daddy chuckled. “What do you think, Princess?”

“Do we have to be so formal when it’s just the three of us, Sire?”

“I suppose not. I’m a little gun-shy after Louisa’s example.”

“She calls him Billy,” Frank told me, not even pretending to keep a straight face. To Daddy he said, “How about if I call you ‘sir’ in private?”

“Perfect. All right, Flavia. Informal it is.”

“Thank you, Daddy. I need a new maid. One who respects Frank. And me. And us.”

“I draw the line at Louisa,” said Daddy.

Frank chuckled. “I’ll write Mom for suggestions. Spike might have some ideas, too. Sir, do you know anyone who’s okay with the necessary girl stuff and has nerves of steel?”

This upset me. “I’m not that hard to get along with!”

Daddy said, “I think Frank is thinking ahead to your midnight meetings. The usual servants’ gossip will create intense interest in your friendship and put pressure on me to separate you, though you’re still very young. The right companion will minimize this.”

We talked it over for a few minutes. I would join Frank at his lessons, which would resume tomorrow. If this worked out, a new tutor could wait until September. As for a maid, we might do that in stages, with someone to come in morning and evening to help me dress and undress and someone else to tidy my suite every day.

The emphasis might even be shifted to guards rather than chaperones. Since my previous chaperones had tried to kill me, this seemed natural enough! The soldiers were intensely loyal to Daddy in ways that courtiers rarely were.

Frank displayed his willingness to ask for the moon and stars by suggesting that I be given a new suite, no higher than the second floor, with an adjacent room for him, connecting via a door that was secret or at least so securely locked that no one would guess that he used it every day.

Daddy turned his best penetrating stare on Frank, who met it calmly at first. After two or three seconds he began to scowl. His face gradually turned red, then he stood and put a hand on my shoulder, still glaring at Daddy. Daddy’s face was like stone.

“Take that back,” said Frank.

“I didn’t say anything,” said Daddy.

“She trusts me,” said Frank. “It’s the only reason we’re still alive.” His voice rose to a shout. “Do you want her dead? Do you? Then go ahead. Act like any of this is normal.”

I don’t know how Daddy reacted to this. Frank’s grip on my shoulder had become so painful that I gasped. He looked around wildly, then let go as if my shoulder were red hot. He met my gaze in alarm and contrition.

“It’s all right,” I whispered.

He flinched at my innocuous words. He stared at me, wide-eyed, suddenly horrified and strange, as if he’d only half-wakened from a nightmare. Tears rolled down his cheeks. His mouth opened and closed without any sound, then he whispered, “In my … in my dream, I saw everything twice. The one time I saw events just as they happened. In the other, I dragged my feet for no good reason and they … they shot us both. You said ‘it’s all right’ then, too, just before … just before … just before you died. Oh, Flavia, I’m so sorry!”

He began to weep in earnest, in that heartrending way that boys have, struggling against each sob. I stood and took him in my arms, then pulled him down to sit next to me.

After Frank began to subside I looked at Daddy. He was wiping away tears of his own. He murmured, “I concede the point. Where did his dream come from, Flavia?”

I didn’t remember, of course. “At a guess, I sent it to him when I put the note on his nightstand.”

Daddy said, “It seems awfully harsh.”

Frank said, “No! It was perfect, because it worked.” He wiped his tears on his napkin. He sighed and closed his eyes, trying to relax into my embrace without much success.

He soon pulled free and gave me a ghastly imitation smile that suddenly turned genuine. “The important thing is, you have excellent taste. You chose me.”

“Any port in a storm, my love.”

He chuckled. “Likewise. Any brilliant and beautiful psychic princess named Flavia will do for me. I wouldn’t want people to think I’m fussy.”

Daddy stood, looking diplomatically bland. “I must leave you now. There is a trusted sentry on the door. I’ve given orders that he will prevent anyone from entering unless he receives your permission. Leave the door open or closed, bolted or not, at your option. Stay in the suite until I give you the all-clear. Probably in time for lunch. Frank?”

“Sire?”

“You’ve convinced me. We must all trust each other. In areas not related to her … ah. We need a code phrase for this new talent. See what you can come up with. In other areas, you’re nothing but a pair of child prodigies. For you, Frank, being too big for your britches is as natural as breathing. It’s a family trait. Together, you two can surely get yourselves into trouble no one else could even imagine. Getting out again? I think not. I have no idea what to advise. Maybe assume that you’re only half as smart as you think you are.”

“That’s still mighty impressive,” said Frank, who had recovered nicely.

“No doubt. In anything remotely ordinary, seek advice from trusted friends.”

I said, “I don’t have any except Frank. And you, Daddy.”

“Help her find some, Frank.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Search beyond the obvious. And I’ll work out a schedule where we meet daily. Private breakfasts may be ideal.”

With that, he departed.

Continued in Chapter 6, “Ticklish Situation.”

My Brief Life and Tragic Death, Chapter 4

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here: Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins.)

Chapter 4. Penetrable Disguise

I awoke with a start. Someone was knocking on the door. I sat up. Frank was already on his feet, looking tense. Stopping a pace from the door, he called, “Who is it?”

“Lady Lestrange,” came the voice of Lady Lestrange, the palace’s housekeeper. She didn’t actually do any housekeeping. She mostly got in the servants’ way.

Frank looked at me. I hesitated. Lady Lestrange had never done me any harm, but I didn’t like her and neither did Daddy.

My hesitation was enough for Frank. “I’m sorry, Lady Lestrange, but your name isn’t on the list.”

“Who is this?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that.”

“Let me talk to Princess Flavia at once.”

“No.”

There was a pause, then she said, “Who is on the list?”

Frank smiled at this one. Apparently he thought the question was a blunder. “I can’t tell you that.”

“I must insist.”

“Good-bye, Lady Lestrange,” said Frank. He crossed to the sofa, kissed me on the forehead, and sat down beside me. “Hi there, sleepyhead.”

“Hello, Frank.”

“Is Lady Lestrange related to any of the recently deceased?”

“Oh. Yes, Sir Archibald was her younger brother.” I looked at Frank in worry. “It’s not over yet, is it?”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“Then you saved my life by bolting the door.”

“Or prevented you from being kidnapped. She turned the key in the lock first. She only knocked after she couldn’t get the door open. That can’t be protocol.”

“It isn’t. What will they try next?”

He stopped and thought, then shrugged. “No idea. I suppose it depends on how well they’re doing. Which reminds me, how well are you doing?”

“My legs are stiff. I need the toilet soon. I’m bearing up. Frank, I’m really glad you’re here.”

“So am I.” He helped me to my feet. I leaned on him halfway to the bathroom door, then made the rest of the trip on my own.

“Should I flush?” I called softly to Frank.

“Not yet. Smart girl.”

When I emerged, I noticed that the lights he’d turned on were all near the closed curtains, so we wouldn’t cast shadows on them when we moved about the suite. I pointed this out to Frank and said, “What other clever steps have you taken?”

“That’s about it.”

“Why not flush?”

“Some people are stupid and forgetful. The smart ones try to do too many things at once, so it amounts to the same thing. If we don’t remind them we’re here, they’ll forget about us. Grandfather liked to say that the squeaky wheel gets greased. And uncertainty makes people hesitate, so we never want to clarify anything. Just as an example … um … suppose they want to blow the door open with explosives and take you hostage, but they’re afraid the blast will kill you. Sounds from the plumbing mean you’re out of the line of fire and it’s safe to blow the door.”

“Do we just wait?”

“Mostly. For now.”

“Then what?”

“Do you have a fire ladder?”

“Yes.” I pointed to the cabinet where it was stored and he took it out and examined it. It was a neatly rolled rope ladder with wooden rungs and a pair of metal hooks that went over the balcony railing.

“It’ll do,” he said. “We can make a break for it if we have to.” He left it out where it could be grabbed quickly.

I glanced at the clock. It was a little after five. It wouldn’t be dark until after nine.

“Where did you learn these things, Frank?”

“My grandfather, mostly. He was a great man.”

“Your paternal grandfather? Daddy’s late cousin Franklin?”

“That’s right. I’m named after him.”

“Wasn’t he the one with the human menagerie?”

Frank scowled at me. I felt shame and something close to terror. Offending Frank … it would be too much. I said, “I beg your pardon.”

Frank nodded and said, “Let’s move to your bedroom. I made myself nervous with my explosives example.”

It was a breach of etiquette for Frank to enter my bedroom, of course. It took an internal struggle for me to say, “All right.”

“And let’s get that wand out. And your canes and crutches.”

“I don’t have any canes or crutches.”

Frank muttered angrily to himself. I said, “Speak up, Frank.”

Frank rolled his eyes. “I was just saying that your, um, most royal father hasn’t thought it through. They make good clubs, for one thing.”

“The aluminum ones don’t.” I had always used the aluminum kind, back before my walking improved and my crutches and canes were confiscated.

“The wooden ones do. Not to mention sword canes and stuff like that.”

How like a boy, to make a weapon of everything. “I suppose that, as a last resort, one could even use them to assist one’s walking?”

“I guess. Seems like a waste, though.” We smiled at each other. How strange that this boy could make me smile! No one else could. And he could do it even while drawing attention to my handicap and criticizing Daddy.

My bedroom is really half study, half bedroom. Frank scanned the titles of my books with a little smile on his face and a piratical gleam in his eye. “Nice.”

I sat in my armchair and he took my desk chair. My wand was sitting on my desk. He reached for it, stopped, and looked at me. I said, “Go ahead.”

He picked it up, then closed his eyes and touched the grip to his forehead.

I said, “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

He handed me the wand. “Try it.”

I did, and I got a sense of … serenity, precision, and control.

Frank said, “It’s a wonderful piece of work, isn’t it? Amazingly delicate and precise. Almost the opposite of my wand.”

“I suppose yours blows things to smithereens.”

“Yep. Sometimes even when I want it to.”

I used the wand to idly create some points of light and send them floating across the room. I suppose I was showing off, or at least demonstrating that, in my hands, the wand was more than a stick, though in truth my training hadn’t taken me very far.

Frank was on edge. The long wait was hard on him, leaving him both restless and exhausted. He paced back and forth. I tolerated this for a while, then said, “Frank? If you don’t calm down, I’m going to scream.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a real scream in the distance. We stared at each other. More screams and shouts followed, in different voices, and a few gunshots. The next thing I knew, I was on my feet and had flung myself into Frank’s arms. He held me tight but didn’t kiss me.

Soon all was quiet again, and Frank asked, “How are the legs?”

“Stiff. Walking will help.” He didn’t mention flight directly, so neither did I. We paced back and forth for a while until I was about as limber as I seemed likely to get.

He sat in my armchair and pulled me down onto his lap. This put our faces closer to the same level. After a little undignified squirming I found a posture that was comfortable and made it hard for him to escape my kisses. Not that he tried. Quite the contrary.

Our first kisses had been heartbreakingly gentle. I experimented with ones that were more definite.

“You’re very bold,” he said. “I like that in a girlfriend.”

I looked at him appraisingly. “Frank, you’re very attentive and you have natural talent.”

“Thank you. So do you.”

“But you’ve kissed girls before.”

“I cannot tell a lie. Well, I can, but I won’t. Spin the Bottle, mostly.”

“What’s Spin the Bottle?” I’d never heard of it.

“You’re running with the wrong crowd. It’s a kissing game, obviously. You and a group of friends sit in a circle. An empty wine bottle is used as a spinner. One person twirls the bottle and has to kiss the person it’s pointing to when it stops.”

“What if it’s another girl?”

“Depends on the house rules. Spin again, first boy on the right, or go for it.”

I blinked at the third option. Kissing another girl was so unexpected that it made my mind quite blank. Frank said, “I refuse to kiss other boys, myself.”

“Spin the Bottle doesn’t sound very romantic.”

“Sort of the point, really. Everyone pretends it’s harmless and the kisses don’t count. It’s mostly true.”

I kissed him and said, “My kisses always count.”

“I noticed that.”

We kissed a little more, then Frank wanted to get back to work. “If we make a run for it, you’re in the wrong clothes. What do you have that’s more rugged?”

“Jodhpurs. I have a pair of overalls, too. Daddy and I join in the manual labor sometimes, at harvest and such.”

“Good. How about shoes you can walk long distances in?”

We talked it over. When I’m tired, my left foot tends to droop. That is, my heel comes up all right with each step, but my toes tend to scuff along the ground, tripping me. I had a special shoe attached to a leg brace to keep my foot from drooping. It was heavy, though.

I’d recently discovered that my Keds high-top sneakers tended to hold my foot in position if I laced them tightly. Canvas sneakers weighed almost nothing. They were ideal. They just weren’t princessy.

“Good,” said Frank. “Let’s have you travel incognito.”

I saw where he was headed. “You want to disguise me as a boy, don’t you?”

“Yep.”

I didn’t want to be disguised as a boy. Frank had never seen me except in a beautiful dress. So far he seemed happy to think of me as an attractive, even desirable girl. But what if this illusion was easily shattered? Did thirteen-year-old boys even have girlfriends? Maybe this was a childish game to him and costume was essential. I said, “I hope you realize that there isn’t a boy in the kingdom with a gait like mine, so it’s a complete waste of time.”

“Maybe we’ll encounter people when we’re not on the move. Anyway, dresses don’t accessorize with sneakers.”

“Oh, all right. Help me off with this dress.” My dress fastened in the back, of course. As a princess, I was never expected to dress myself, but my maids had been unreliable enough that I’d learned anyway. Alas, this dress was particularly impossible. If I took my modesty too seriously, I’d be stuck in it forever.

He drew back in surprise, then said, “Sure.”

“Undo the buttons in back.” He set to work and I said, “You seemed surprised.”

“I never expect to get a girl’s clothes off on the first date,” he said.

“How many first dates have you had?”

“Counting this one?” There was a pause, then he said, “That makes, umm, let’s see, by my estimate … one.”

He helped me out of the dress. As I stood there in my slip, I was afraid he’d be disappointed. Or uncontrollably amorous. Or who knew what. But he looked away. This irritated me. He could at least show a polite interest! “Don’t just stand there,” I said, “I can’t wear this slip with overalls. Help me out of it.”

“Aye-aye, mon capitaine.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I meant, ‘oui-oui, skipper.’”

He helped me out of my slip and I was left standing in my underwear and stockings. I’d never seen him blush before.

I was glad I’d started wearing training bras recently, being fairly sure that he’d have been even more embarrassed if I hadn’t, though in fact he’d once again looked away. “Hand me my shirt,” I said.

He did so, and seemed relieved after I put it on. I started removing my stockings. Once they were far from forbidden territory I had him take them off the rest of the way. Stockings are difficult for me. This also put him into contact with my matchstick legs, which are by far my worst feature. And therefore they’re always on display. There’s nothing like an above-the-knee dress and white stockings to show my legs to their very worst advantage.

I’d always wanted to be interested in clothes and fashion, but I’d never been given the opportunity. My wardrobe had been chosen by the stuffiest and least imaginative women available, women who liked to pretend that Queen Victoria hadn’t been dead for seventy years. Modernity had penetrated their thick skulls only to the point of realizing that high button shoes, which would work for me almost as well as high-top sneakers, were hopelessly out of fashion. Pants suits scandalized them and they imagined that I was too young for long skirts.

They never listened to me, anyway. I wished them all to the devil.

After helping me out of my stockings, Frank’s only comment was, “Your left foot is colder.”

“Yes, the circulation is poor. My left leg is shorter, too.”

He compared my legs and couldn’t see it. “By how much?”

“A quarter of an inch. It makes a difference.”

We talked about this as he helped me into socks and overalls and shoes. He thought that an extra sock on the left foot might be just the ticket to increase warmth, provide a shim, and allow tighter lacing. It was logical, but I said I’d like to test it under less trying conditions and would go with my existing shoe insert for now.

But the best part was that he didn’t draw back from touching my legs or even my coldish left foot. They neither repelled him nor elicited his pity. I wondered why. In fact, these few minutes of conversation contained more practical consideration of my handicap than I’d received in the last year.

Frank wanted me to braid my hair, claiming it was required when impersonating a boy successfully. Loose hair stuffed into a cap meant that there would be a “big reveal” later in the episode. This baffled me until he explained that he was making a joke about television clichés.

I’d never seen television, though we had movie nights in the palace once a week. I admitted that I didn’t know how to braid hair. Frank surprised me by doing it himself. He was dreadful at it, and his frustration and his tendency to swear and then feel embarrassed made me giggle.

I settled a cap over his handiwork and looked at my reflection in the mirror. The boy in the mirror looked back at me solemnly; a serious boy of obvious intelligence. He was surprisingly handsome, as if I were Frank’s adorable little brother. “I make a better boy than I’d like.”

Frank looked me over. “If you get confused, I’ll find a way to remind you that you’re all girl.”

“You hardly looked at me when you had the chance.”

He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. After a moment, he whispered behind his hand, “What’s my line?”

“You’re asking me to prompt you?”

“Well, why not? You did in your letter.”

“Frank Barron, you’re the most maddening boy I know.”

“I’m the only boy you know.”

“That’s not true!” I hesitated and added, “It’s a little bit true.”

He groped for his next line, but met my gaze and began to smile for no reason I could see. A moment later I couldn’t help smiling back. How did he do that?

He said, “I just realized something. You’re my girlfriend, and that means I’m allowed to think you’re beautiful. And I do. You’re my beautiful Flavia. Get used to it.”

He had me there. “You put the emphasis on ‘my.’”

“That’s because you belong to me. Mine, mine, mine, and don’t you forget it. But I’ll ogle you properly next time. I promise.”

I knew I should be outraged by his claim that he owned me, but it made me happy. Why? It didn’t make any sense. I’d have to think more about this later. “What does ogle mean?”

“It’s like leering, only less creepy.”

“Frank!”

“I meant … um … it’s a delighted amorous stare … no, gaze. Delighted amorous gaze.”

“That’s better.”

He asked me to pace the room a couple of times. Much better. The sneakers were a really good idea.

Time dragged. I asked Frank to tell me about his life in California. He lived in an ordinary house within walking distance of his middle school, where he was an ordinary student. I told him I didn’t believe he was ordinary, and he admitted he was the smartest kid in his class and had a lot of life skills through no fault of his own.

“What do you mean?”

“My parents got drawn into a venture that’s taking more time than it should, over the hills and far away, so they’re not around much. Most of the time it’s just me and my sister Spike.”

“I thought you were an only child.” And what kind of name was Spike? Especially for a girl?

“Foster sister. Louisa Maréchal. She just turned twenty.”

“How could you end up with a member of the Maréchal family as a foster sister? They’re very clannish.”

“Not when one of their own gets bitten by a werewolf at the age of seven. They couldn’t wait to get rid of her. Dropped her like a hot rock.”

“How awful! Wait, was she infected?”

“Yep. She’s a real bitch around the full moon.”

I glared at him and he said, “Sorry.”

“I don’t think you should talk about the poor girl that way.”

She talks about the poor girl that way. But I’ll behave.”

“Thank you.”

“You mentioned Grandfather’s human menagerie—”

“Oh! I’m sorry, Frank. I didn’t know.” I looked at him with real anxiety. With that line I’d insulted his grandfather and his foster sister. It would be so easy for him to hold it against me!

He reached out a hand. My guilty conscience made me flinch again, then I hated myself for flinching. He froze, an appalled look on his face, so I grabbed his hand by the wrist and pulled it closer. He relaxed and stroked my cheek with his fingertips.

Soon he continued his tale. “Anyway, I spend the school year in California and holidays on this side of the gateway, plus a weekend or two a month.”

“But you’ve been avoiding the palace, haven’t you? I haven’t seen you.”

“Sort of, but not this time. I’m getting tutored in magic by Dr. Wright.”

I was impressed. “I just get lessons from one of his apprentices.”

“He’s buddies with my parents. I’m here for the whole summer. I have the world’s tiniest bedroom just down the hall.”

He’d be here until the end of August! A weight lifted from my heart. Still … “Frank, I’m confused about us.”

“I’m not. Do you think your father got a letter, too?”

What? Oh. Of course I’d sent Daddy a letter. That’s why he hadn’t been blown to bits and why he’d been quick to accept Frank. Obviously. “Yes, he must have. And I must have put in a good word for you.” I wondered what I could have said to make Daddy so amenable. But I set the issue aside. “Frank, I signed my letter to you with love, and I don’t remember if I meant it.”

“Would you have said it if you didn’t mean it?”

“Maybe? Lives hung in the balance.”

“I want it to be real, Flavia. Please?”

“So do I.”

He looked relieved. “No problem, then. Let’s make it real. We’ll put our backs into it. We’re off to a wonderful start.”

“Are we?”

“Sure. You’re good in a crisis, I love your taste in books, and your kisses always count. And I’m in the doghouse for not ogling you as much as you deserve. You’re perfect, Flavia.”

“Flatterer.” I didn’t mind it so much this time.

“I’m not the flatterer; you are. When your life depended on finding a hero, you picked me.

All of which was gratifying, but Frank was soon restless again. The strain was getting to him. It was getting to me, too, but I showed it less. I had more training in presenting an outward calm while tolerating boredom and frustration. He offered to pace in a different room, but I didn’t want him out of my sight.

It was a long, slow, boring, endless, hungry evening. It seemed like it would last forever, but shortly after dark we both fell asleep.

Continued in Chapter 5. “Room Service.”