[© 2019 Robert Edwin Stone, II]
Semple’s preparations for the evening with Ms. Bronwell were completed an hour after he left the aerie. He partook of a longer shower than normal, shaved carefully for the second time that day and trimmed a few unruly mustache hairs. Returning to his bedroom Semple unwrapped a new white shirt that the salesman promised would make him appear to have lost two kilograms.
At first he considered dry cleaning the black suit he had worn to Emma’s funeral but, upon inspection, he changed his mind. It wasn’t a question of money; no, Semple found himself wondering whether having the barmaid to supper was, well, a kind of betrayal of his late wife.
Downstairs he took a turn around the parlour and dining room. There was no evidence that the former was temporarily serving as his bedroom. The latter’s table was candlelit that reflected off Emma’s silver and china, which were arranged on a white damask tablecloth. Everything was shipshape—as he expected it would be.
So pleased was Semple with how things were going that he inadvertently violated the sanctity of the kitchen while Miss H-V was at work. Pots bubbled away on all the cooker’s heating elements. Fragrant tendrils rose from them, making his nostrils twitch.
Then Semple did a double take. He saw there was a wooden spoon in each pot, and damned if they all didn’t seem to be moving independent of any effort on the housekeeper’s part! He was about to draw Miss H-V’s attention to the odd phenomenon when she spun around. Her voice was flat, her cobalt eyes penetrating.
“A scant hour ago your daughter telephoned to say that she and her friend would be dining here this evening. This necessitated an unanticipated visit to the shops, and it has complicated preparation of the meal. Please leave me to my work.”
Semple was about to apologize on Wrenna’s behalf but Miss H-V had already turned away. It baffled him to see that the spoons in the pots were stirring even more briskly than before, as if responding to an unspoken command. He was going to ask Miss H-V to explain the phenomenon but the doorbell rang.
Filled with righteous anger he strode down the entryway. Yanking open the door, he prepared to berate his daughter for her thoughtlessness. Tacy Bronwell stood on the stoop, peering at her host’s deflated face. She interrupted Semple’s stammered compliments about her appearance, saying that she hadn’t meant to arrive half an hour early.
“No, no, please come through!” With a grandiose sweep of his arm Semple invited the young woman inside. He conveyed her to a chair in the parlour, opened a new bottle of dry sherry that stood on the sideboard and sat down across from her.
“So when do I get to meet the mysterious Miss H-V?” Tacy’s eyebrows arched. “My curiosity about her has grown daily.”
“Right now she is practicing her art in the kitchen.” Semple grinned wanly. “No doubt she will put in an appearance when it comes time to serve the meal.”
Ms. Bronwell drained her glass with a rapidity that surprised Semple, who hastened to refill it.
“I want you to know that my elder daughter Wrenna and a friend of hers decided to make a flying visit from the Continent, and that they will be joining us for dinner.”
Tacy’s smile put paid to Semple’s concerns about how she would greet the snag in his plans. The barmaid held out her glass.
“That’s great news, Peter. I can’t wait to meet her.”
Semple excused himself at the sound of the key turning in the lock. Wrenna and Algeberta’s companion was a shock.
“Maisie, why in heaven’s name are you here?”
“I’m happy to see you, too, Papa.”
Semple pressed his fingers to his forehead. “Sorry; the evening isn’t playing out as I had expected it would. Please permit me to introduce you to my guest.”
“In this state?”
Nothing was amiss with Wrenna’s outfit but Semple decided that contesting the topic wasn’t a hill worth dying on. With Algeberta in tow she ascended the stairs, promising to return in two shakes. Maisie rolled her eyes and followed her father into the parlour.
Tacy looked up from beside the sideboard. Semple was surprised to see that there was considerably less liquid in the sherry bottle than when he had left the room.
“Ms. Tacy Bronwell, this is my younger daughter Maisie.”
The women shook hands and sat at opposite ends of the settee. Semple remained standing. He peered at Tacy, believing her to be teetering on the edge of inebriation.
“Maisie manages translation work for a French literary agency.”
“Actually, Papa, I was just promoted to an assistant directorship at the firm. That’s one of the reasons I came over: I wanted to tell you the good news in person.”
Semple used the opportunity to laud Maisie as cover to ignore the fact that Tacy’s glass was empty again. If he noticed it, he’d be duty bound to offer her still more sherry. She flashed an off-kilter grin at Maisie.
“Adding another place to the table will make for a more convivial time.”
Maisie explained that Wrenna and her traveling companion would be joining them as well. There was no way Semple could say how he regretted saddling Tacy with not one, but a trio of strangers.
Miss H-V came to the parlor entrance, arms folded across her chest. She gave Maisie an inquisitive glance. “Everything is in readiness.”
Semple approached the housekeeper, motioning her into the hallway and speaking in a whisper.
“I regret springing this on you at the eleventh hour, Miss H-V, but I need you to set three more places for dinner. In addition to Wrenna and Algeberta my other daughter Maisie just arrived.”
“Mister Semple, there is a limit to my flexibility. I shall do as you ask but wish to make it clear that the entrée cannot serve five people. Now, are you coming?”
Semple’s new shirt was soaked with perspiration. He unbuttoned his collar button and loosened his tie, wondering why he had succumbed to dressing formally on such a warm evening. It felt as though an age had passed since last he touched his keyboard, and he wondered how long it would take to pick up the threads of Allith and the Mountain Flower Dragoness.
Tacy, Maisie and Semple took their seats at the dining table. The housekeeper set two more places with such force that Semple feared the china would shatter. His heart sank when he heard the wine being uncorked in the kitchen. Miss H-V dispensed the red and white, filling Tacy’s glass to the brim despite her employer’s frantic signal not to.
Small talk at the table petered out after a few minutes. Semple was trying to figure out how to prevent Tacy from thinking his family were loonies, as the barmaid, who had cornered the bottle of red, imbibed steadily. The kitchen clock sounded the quarter hour then the half hour. Miss H-V came in to ask whether she should serve the meal or chuck it in the dustbin.
Semple told the housekeeper to do the former. Just then Wrenna and Algeberta entered the dining room. Tacy’s eyes bulged at the sight of their matching, floor-length green gowns with wide sleeves and tall, conical hats that could have been lifted from the wardrobe department of a television drama set in Medieval times. Maisie’s only reaction to the outrageous costumes was to utter a sigh.
Semple was in the process of introducing Tacy to the latecomers as Miss H-V arrived with a covered tureen. Despite her obvious annoyance the housekeeper ladled out the soup with such aplomb that nary a drop touched the rim of his bowl. Semple was about to compliment Miss H-V on how the soup tasted when the ladle fell into the tureen, splashing him with droplets of the hot liquid.
Miss H-V retrieved the dripping utensil and stared at Algeberta.
“It is you! I suspected as much when first we met.”
At these words Semple sensed that the room began to soften at the edges, everything within it dissolving into a multicolored pool. Only the people retained their forms. The queasiness that hit him was like the seasickness he’d suffered when he and Emma had taken a cross-Channel ferry one windy day.
Wrenna, Maisie and Tacy were still eating. Impossibly, they were unaware of what was going on around them.
Miss H-V’s gaze was fixed upon him. “These things are taking place because of you, Peter Semple.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The desire to write about us unleashed forces whose power you cannot imagine.”
Semple’s attempt to attract the attention of the others at the table went unnoticed. He poked Tacy’s arm, to no effect. Anger swallowed his discomfort.
“You put something in my soup bowl to manipulate my perception, didn’t you, Miss H-V?”
Algeberta shook her head and emitted a peal of laughter. “Curious how people of your time believe that drugs alone can alter reality. What you are experiencing is quite real, Peter; think of it as an alternative to what the others in this room see, taste and touch.”
“Then do me the kindness of explaining the point you’re trying to make!”
The housekeeper snapped her fingers and they were transported to the aerie. Semple noticed that the venue wasn’t the only thing that had changed. Miss H-V, clothed in a coat of mail, had a helmet on her head and a broadsword in her hand.
Algeberta’s transformation was even more startling. Her skin had erupted into scales. Her face was reptilian and her exhalations carried the scent that once puzzled Semple in the kitchen. He lost consciousness.
The dragon’s sulfurous breath touched his face. He was seated before the laptop. The machine was already booted up and the file containing the manuscript of Allith was open. Semple watched the creature he had known as Algeberta—whose true name was Mountain Flower—use a claw to scroll through the text until the long section inserted by Miss Hegyi-Virág, who now identified herself as Lady Allith, appeared.
“Failed to read this part closely, didn’t you?” The mistress of Askerton Castle nodded toward the computer. He focused on the screen, calming himself to go line by line through the addition to the narrative. After completing the task Semple turned to face the noblewoman and the dragoness.
“Taking this tack undermines my novel’s very foundation. Instead of it’s being about peace and reconciliation between longtime enemies, you would have it be just another tale of bloodshed and revenge. It is something I cannot permit.”
Allith held up the small leather-bound volume from the hidden cabinet in her castle chamber.
“Like life itself, many stories are not resolved according to their authors’ plans or wishes. Your work serves as the framework for our lives, Peter. Only what is recorded within these pages can flesh it out. I fear the narrative’s further course would cause you immense pain. Therefore, we have decided that you can no longer contribute to Allith and the Mountain Flower Dragoness.”
The blood rushed to Semple’s head. Swinging back to the desk he yanked the power and monitor cables from the laptop, snatched it and ran to the farthest corner of the room. He wedged his back in the corner. The fingers of his right hand tapped the keys, while the knuckles of his left hand were white with the effort of gripping the machine. Mountain Dragoness seemed to grow larger as she advanced toward him; spreading her arms wide, she displayed her wings and razor-sharp claws.
“What are you doing?” Lady Allith came forward, holding up the heavy broadsword. “You must surrender that device to us.”
“Come no closer!” Semple’s index finger was poised above a key. “If you don’t leave immediately I shall delete the novel’s live and backup files. Allith and the Mountain Flower Dragoness will be no more.”
The women traded a glance, assessing the chances that the perspiring man would carry through on the threat. Mountain Flower brought down her wings and mildly smiled at Semple.
“Peter, there is no need to be confrontational. Our wish is to carry on the excellent work that you’ve begun.”
“She’s right.” Lady Allith edged a bit closer as she sheathed her sword. “We mean no harm. Hand that over and we will depart in peace.”
“And no harm will come to my daughters or Miss Bronwell, Allith?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They have no idea that this encounter is taking place. After we’ve gone you can return to entertaining your guests, who will have no memory of our presence.”
Semple licked the sweat from his upper lip. His short breath was the only sound in the aerie. He closed his eyes for a fraction of a second before nearby movement made them shoot up. Mountain Dragoness, her wings and claws deployed again, stood to one side, while Lady Alilth, the edge of her sword a centimeter away from his neck, was at the other. The former hissed at him.
“Your uncertainty about the wisdom of obeying us is plain to see, Peter. Regrettably, we have no choice but to act!”
At the touch of claws and blade Semple jammed his finger on the keyboard. It fell to his feet amid a titanic roar, screams and curses in a language he didn’t understand. Knocked down, he called for help.
Semple had no idea for how long he lay on the floor. It was painful to unbend from the fetal position in which he found himself. Supported by his forearms, he cautiously surveyed the aerie.
Except it wasn’t the aerie. There was a sewing machine; spools of coloured thread and partly finished projects. Semple looked at the walls, which were decorated in flowered wallpaper, interrupted here and there by prints of pastoral scenes. Fighting dizziness he got to his feet to confirm that his laptop and everything else purchased to begin his new career as a writer had disappeared.
Semple crawled into the wooden ladderback chair placed by the sewing machine table and struggled to control his emotions. Have I been dreaming? Or did I hit my head and black out?
A familiar voice interrupted the turgid stream of thoughts coursing through his mind. Peter Semple wiped the tears from his cheeks and went to the hallway to call down the stairs.
“You say tea is up already, Emma dear? I am on my way!”