He Kindly Stopped for Me by veracityW

These grapes are rather good. It's nice of the volunteers to make us snacks in the afternoon, even though most of them are simply loaded with carbohydrates. But the fruit and cheese today was excellent. It's a good thing I still have most of my teeth, because gumming grapes and cheese is not the most efficient way of eating, and I am quite sure that it is no fun to watch. Not that we patients here in the Home are all that fun to watch on even the best of days, but I am still trying to maintain certain standards of presentableness, if that is a word, even here.

My fellow-inmates display various levels of decrepitude, from the gang who like to go out into the garden in their wheelchairs and smoke around the table to the ones who are simply content to remain incommunicado behind their peach-colored curtains. Me, I get around a fair amount. I can use a walker to go down the length of the women's ward, and then the men's, to get to the common room and the garden. But I don't smoke, so there's no point in going outside. The common room is an ambitious-enough goal, considering that my bed is at the extreme far end of the women's ward, in the corner just before the room where the staff and volunteers have their meetings every day. And fortunately my hearing is still sharp, so I make it a point to stay in or near my bed when meetings are going on, and catch the occasional tidbit of gossip or information when they think we aren't listening. Information is currency; I've always said that, ever since I knew what the concepts of information and currency meant. And it's especially important in a place like this where we are removed from the world.

Not completely removed, however. Lots of the patients have television sets at their bed foot, and some of them are plugged in to their headphones almost constantly. I stopped watching the news some time back after the big food and oil riots. Hell, I'm dying, as are we all in this place, and the concerns of those who will continue are really not all that interesting. But I have decided that I am not going to die until I reach my one-hundredth birthday. I want my picture in the paper, and the certificate signed by the mayor, and the party, and all that. There is not long to go. My birthday is December 31, and it is now November first.

Halloween was yesterday, but the staff didn't mark it by much more than a few pumpkin cutouts on the bulletin board and a rather good pumpkin cake for our afternoon snack. Being with other Witches, that's one thing I miss, in here among so many Mundanes. The staff is either christian or jewish, with volunteers from the Zen hospice. Nice people, but not especially Witchy. And I do miss that, especially at Samhain. But I guess I am lucky-at least they aren't forcing prayers down my throat. Susan Sixpence, I tell myself, there are a lot worse places you could have ended up. And several of the nursing staff are Latinas of various sorts, so Dia de los Muertes is a big thing with them. But I don't think they want to talk about it with me. And I don't speak Spanish anyway. Too bad.

There are various intermittent visitors who have some sort of religious agenda, and I rather enjoy arguing with them. Up to a point, that is. I know I'm not going to be able to convert them, which is just a little depressing. My dear Roland used to enjoy going to places like Salt Lake City, which he did from time to time on business, because it gave him the opportunity to try and turn the missionaries, not that that ever worked. But that was one of the things I loved about him, his eternal optimism that such a thing might even be possible. Now there was a Witch. He had been raised a sort of Lutheran (sort of because his parents always sent their boys to Lutheran Sunday School, but never went to church themselves), and got as far as preparing for confirmation before he realized that he had absolutely no belief in what they were about. So he flirted with the Nichiren Soshu Buddhists for a while, but they were far too doctrinaire for him. It wasn't until he had been showing up for cakes-and-wine for twenty-five years that he realized that he wanted to be a Witch. Some people are slow that way. So I took him on as a student, and the rest was Mystery.

Oh, I have to stop now. Those girls are back. The little one with the white hair and the other one with the purple. Odd sorts of girls. They always look a lot less solid than anyone else around here. And nobody else sees them. Apparently they're mine, all mine. Dementia is your friend... I think I will speak to them...

...

Winter looked into the crystal intently. "Oh," she said as the mists cleared, "It's that old lady again, the one in bed. She's eating grapes, come on and look, Veracity."

Her purple-haired sister joined her at the table. "That's the third time in two days you've seen her in the crystal," she remarked to the younger girl. "Do you think she knows we're watching her?"

The white-haired girl flashed a violet-eyed look at her older sister before turning back to the crystal. "How could she possibly know? That is a Mundane hospital or institution of some kind. I have looked before, and most of those people are barely conscious."

Veracity was going over the accounts for the week. She mumbled something, and Winter, realizing that the conversation was over, examined the face in the crystal. Old, the remains of rather handsome looks overlaid with a fine network of lines, scanty grey hair, and a pair of piercing blue eyes, which appeared to be looking back at Winter with conscious awareness of her presence. "I could swear she knows I'm watching," muttered the girl, and just then the old lady gave a slow wink.

Winter jumped back, startled. "She is responding to me! She shouldn't be able to do that! Come and look, Veracity!"

With a small sigh (because there was a lot of estate work to be done, and these diversions did not help), Veracity put down the account book and returned to the table. The old woman was smiling in a rather sly manner straight at them. "I wish we got sound on these things," Winter commented, just as the old woman in the crystal silently mouthed "Hello, girls."

...

Hah, that startled them. They didn't think I could see them. They don't make a sound, even though it certainly looked as if the little one was saying something to the other one. Visual, no sound track. Well, it is too bad that I never learned sign language. But possibly they are not deaf, only somewhere where only their appearance gets through to me.

Hello, I say again. My name is Susan Sixpence, and I am ninety-nine years old. Who are you? I make sure not to say it too loudly; while we patients are not penalized for hallucinating, it is not considered a good thing to do, and tends to attract unwanted attention from the medical staff. So I make my introduction sotto-voce.

The little one -she is so pale. She looks like an albino, with that perfectly white hair and absolutely porcelain skin, and violet eyes. How pretty! And the older one with the big unruly mop of purple hair. - I suppose she dyed it that color. They certainly make some interesting colors these days. Must be her sister, because they are very much alike in the face. What is the little one doing? Oh, saying something to me, pointing to herself and saying My name is... W-something, I can tell by the way she purses her lips to begin the word, but I cannot make out the rest. I hold my hand up like a piece of paper and pretend to scribble on it with the other hand. Write it down, I mouth.

Clever girl, she disappeared for a moment and then returned with a piece of paper, holding it up. WINTER, it says. What an odd name.

Now she is holding up another paper and pointing to her sister. VERACITY. How quaint. Where are you? I mouth, and Winter shakes her head and fades out. How frustrating.

Oh well, perhaps they will return tomorrow afternoon. I have noticed that they generally appear in the afternoons. It is time for me to take another constitutional down the wards and back. The exercise keeps me going. Not like some people.

I pass down the center aisle between the rows of beds and steal a glance to check on the activities of my rival in the Hundred-year Sweepstakes, Tessa Habbitt. I cannot stand that woman. Old Habbitts die hard, she always says, with that irritating horse-like laugh. Gods, to think that I have to put up with That Woman in the bed next to mine.

The curtains are thin, and sound goes through them as if there were no division between our beds, so there is no avoiding the sound of her whining voice, her incessant snoring, and that laugh. It is just like fingernails on a blackboard to me. She loses no opportunity to show (in her own little ways) that she feels herself to be my superior, simply because she has been here longer. How very childish. And she is forever raising her voice when she has visitors, simply to make everyone on the ward know that she has company. And I am sure that her daughters, poor creatures, are not there out of preference. Tessa, or as I like to call her, the Habbitt, browbeats them unmercifully, nagging the single one about getting married, the married one about giving her grandchildren, and the one with children about not visiting more frequently. The woman is a positive Black Hole. Any emotion those girls have is inadequate to satisfy her. It makes me quite reconciled to the fact that my children and grandchildren live thousands of miles away, so are not likely to visit unless it is voluntarily. And at least the Habbitt has not been vouchsafed visitors from ... wherever my girls are. They picked me.

That is a pleasant thought.

...

Winter stepped away from the crystal and wandered over to where Veracity sat. After a glance which assured her that her sister was completely immersed in the accounts, the little girl shrugged and walked to the door. It was time to go and watch them feeding the dragons.

She was a quaint little figure in her old-fashioned green dress and slippers, hastening along the stone corridors and down the twisting staircase that led to the entrance hall of Schloss Wiederwachse. Taking a raincoat from one of the hooks by the door, and stopping only long enough to slide her feet into a pair of galoshes, she went out the vast oaken door, which boomed closed behind her, and bent her steps toward the stables. As she approached through the mist, Winter could hear the roars of the great beasts, and quickened her pace.

As Winter turned the corner into the stable yard, she was greeted by a loud and resounding roar from overhead. Looking up, she saw that Conly was already airborne on the youngest of the dragons, a female who had been captured only recently, too recently to be tame. That was dangerous work, and Conly would be fortunate if he were not to be thrown, as the dragon was bucking and rearing in fury at the unaccustomed weight on her back, turning her head in a vain attempt to grasp her rider in her teeth. Several of the other stable hands stood in the yard, watching Conly on his enraged mount. One of them caught sight of Winter and elbowed his nearest co-worker in the ribs. Tugging on a forelock, the head stabler, Ransome, nodded to Winter. "Afternoon, Miss. Once Mr. Conly has broken her, we'll be feeding the others. He's doing quite well, Miss."

Winter cast an experienced eye aloft and realized that the man was correct. The dragon's struggles were quieting down. Conly was a marvel at breaking dragons to harness. This one ought to be fit to ride after a couple more sessions with him. Winter said as much, and Ransome smiled. "We couldn't do much without Mr. Conly. It's as if the beasts can read his thoughts or sommat like that. She'll be ready for ye soon, Miss, and a nice gentle ride for a lady."

Winter sniffed just the least bit contemptuously. As if she needed a nice gentle ride. She had been around dragons all her life, and the day she couldn't handle any dragon in the air would be the day she'd stop riding and descend to earthbound pursuits like Veracity. Her sister had never enjoyed being around the beasts, but everyone was different, and Veracity enjoyed boring things like doing the accounts. Which was all to the good, as she was the Baroness and responsible for keeping the estate in good order.

Finally Conly permitted his exhausted beast to land, and two of the stable hands rushed to hold its head as he dismounted. He slid to the ground a short distance away from Winter and grinned. "Well, little sister, what do you think? Will she be ready to name and tame?"

"Looks like it," replied the girl. "But I really came over to watch them feed. How is everyone doing?"

Her brother strolled along with her toward the stables as the hands wrestled the still-panting dragon into its isolation stall. "Buttercup is apparently under the weather," the young man replied. "Hasn't been eating properly, and her scales are dull. I think she's in molt. Everyone else is in good shape, and that wing of Sky's is healing nicely."

Winter took hold of a bucket of steaming mash when they arrived at the dragons' feeding trough, and expertly tipped the contents in. The tamed dragons, who were allowed free run of the stables, approached eagerly. They were such stubby, awkward beasts on the ground, with no indication of their grace when airborne. The reptiles were fairly small, none larger than ten feet long except for Buttercup, who reached a magnificent fifteen, including her short, spade-shaped tail. They were varied in color, everything from dun to silver, and their shining scales bore mute witness to the time and effort spent by the hands in polishing and grooming the creatures. Buttercup did look noticeably duller than her companions, and after a few slurps from the trough gave place to the more importunate smaller dragons, apparently satisfied.

"That's not good," commented Winter. "She's letting them walk all over her. Perhaps we need to give her something special in the way of supplements. Here, girl!" The dragon lounged over toward Winter and snuffled her shoulder in a friendly way. Winter scratched the back of the dragon's head where it joined the longish neck, getting to the places Buttercup could not reach herself. The dragon snuffled loudly in ecstasy and laid her little ears backward like a cat.

"Well, she seems to be in a good mood, so she's not in any pain," said Winter. "But her breath smells a little sour. I think perhaps a strengthening potion." Conly nodded agreement and walked over to tell Ransome. Winter, in the meantime, was inspecting the other dragons, Sky, Buffle, Pert, and Grandma, watching them eat, and checking for any abnormalities. Sky, the next biggest dragon to Buttercup, was a greenish-gray beast with a remarkably large set of wings, one of which was still bound up in leather straps to keep it immobile. He obviously did not like this and kept trying to reach back and chew the straps off, but his neck was not long enough. Winter petted his head and murmured to him soothingly. "I know, boy, you want to be up in the air again. You will simply have to be patient."

She was never sure whether the dragons understood what she was saying to them, but Sky ceased his restless motions and dipped his head to the trough again, so apparently the message had gotten through.

...

Here I am shuffling down the ward. Trying not to depend on my walker too much, and doing relatively well. I haven't fallen down yet, anyway. The Habbitt was deep in conversation with her youngest, the one she always nags about finding a husband, but she spared a glare at me as I went by. She knows we're in a race for the Century. But my plan is to conserve my energy and not expend it on thinking too much about her and how she irritates me, while her plan seems to be to suck all the available juice out of everyone and everything within reach, especially her daughters. I am so glad to not be under a mother's thumb.

I actually was, and well under, for many years, though the casual observer (on either this plane or peeking through from other worlds, heheh) would not be able to tell. I carry myself with the self-confidence I gained in my forties and fifties, and even though it is painful at times, I manage to stand up straight and look ahead of me rather than bowing down under the weight of years until I stare constantly at the floor, as many of the women do here. Kyphosis. It's a result of osteoporosis, and I have always been particularly careful to nourish and strengthen my bones. No, I never took hormones, they are garbage; but I did weight-bearing exercise for years and years, always drank my milk, and faithfully swallowed calcium every day.

Of course, I am still dying and warehoused in this hospice. But that would have happened anyway, and I am proud to have lasted this well this long. You would never know to look at me that I am ninety-nine, almost one hundred. I look no older than, oh, seventy. But I have always been youthful for my age, ever since I was a girl. It's all in the genes. My mother looked much younger than her age right up until she fell and lost her mind. But with the vanishment of her eternal youth an short-term memories came a really pleasant transformation of her personality. She forgot who she was angry with, and it made her so much easier to be around. Oh, she still remembered her quarrel with her sister Dora, which happened when she was seven or so, during the Great Flu Epidemic of the teens of the last century. They were both ill and in the hospital, in adjoining beds, and she told me that they never spoke a word to each other during the three months they were in hospital. That woman could carry a grudge like nobody I ever met.

I suppose that's where I get it. I tend to hang on to a quarrel and get all the juice out of it I can over the years. Too bad I have outlived most of my enemies.

Still shuffling down the ward. The patient in bed 11, Serena, has died and been replaced during the last day or so. I thought she would never die- she used to go into these long episodes of moaning and saying Why? Why? Whenever anything set her off, and you could hear her all over the ward. The oddest things used to set her off, too. People singing. Loud conversations. Traffic noises. Serena was here for years and years and never seemed to get any better or any worse, just moaning most of the time she was awake and asking Why? None of us could tell her why, it just is that way. We are old and sick and decrepit and that's how people end up. Who knows why? and as for why Serena? That's simply the luck of the draw

Serena's daughter, who visited her every day for an hour, no more, no less, sitting there in silence by her bed, finally decided go away for a vacation, a cruise; and that's when Serena finally decided to die. Even these unconscious unresponsive people, you may think there's nothing going on; but they are just as capable of manipulating their nearest & dearest as any of us

I always wondered why people are so very nasty to their close relatives when they make it a point to be polite to strangers. My mother was like that, pre-dementia. But afterward, she was the sweetest little old lady you could hope to find. Who are you, my dear? My daughter? Why, you're perfectly charming. And who's your girl friend? My granddaughter? Fancy that

I wonder whether the two girls will put in an appearance this afternoon. I am curious about them; they are not from around here

...

Veracity was still peering without much hope at the account book. The figures were beginning to dance about, and the light had failed without her having noticed. "Bah, I will never make sense of this," she said to herself. "I shall have to have Jean-Luc look at it. Mathematics has never been my forte."

Snapping the book shut, the purple-haired girl pushed her chair away from the desk and stood up. The last rays of the westering sun were shining through the upper panes of the window, and Veracity peered out to see whether either Winter or Conly was in view. But all she saw was the forest at the foot of the lawn which spread on either side of the carriage-drive like a green carpet. With a glance at the crystal, Veracity was about to pass from the room, but she caught a glimpse in the crystal of the old lady Winter had been watching. She was walking, shuffling really, between two rows of beds, and there were strange little wisps of different-colored vapors swirling about her head. This was something neither of the sisters had observed before, so Veracity sat down before the crystal and continued watching.

The old woman was evidently talking to herself; her lips moved, but there was nobody else next to her. As she spoke, more of the vapors issued from her mouth and joined those swirling about her head. The vapors around her head dissipated within a few seconds, but more replaced them. They appeared to be changing color, like soap bubbles. Curious effect.

Just then, the old woman looked directly at Veracity as if she could see her, nodded, smiled, and mouthed the word "hello." A pink vapor issued from her mouth and took the form of a face... it was Veracity's own. Startled, Veracity backed hastily away from the crystal and out the door. Winter would have to be told about this. She descended the stairs, looking for her sister.

Downstairs in the entrance hall, Winter was tugging off her boots. Conly was with her, and they were deep in talk about dragons. At Veracity's hail, they both looked up at her with identical violet eyes. That was the only way in which the siblings resembled each other, for Conly was as dark as Winter was pale, with black hair, and a tanned skin against which his eyes were a startling contrast. Veracity was medium fair in complexion, but her eyes were blue, and her hair was a deep, rich purple that owed nothing to the dyer's art. She had been born with purple hair. It was one of the idiosyncrasies of the von Wiederwachse family that no two of the same generation had the same coloring, but that their features bore an uncanny likeness to all the others. The mouth, especially the full lower lip and the short upper, combined with the long nose, high forehead, and the unfortunate tendency to protuberance of the ears, made the typical von Wiederwachse face handsome rather than pretty. This was of less consequence to Conly than to his sisters, who had often bewailed having inherited The Nose.

"Winter, the oddest thing," Veracity began, and continued explaining what she had seen as the three siblings ascended the staircase once again. Conly thought the idea of watching an old Mundane woman was hardly worth the trouble, and said so, but Winter was impressed. "You know, I think she may have some Magickal talents," the little girl said.

"Being able to produce your own face like that. And it really does seem as though she is producing visions of her thoughts, or perhaps her memories -at least that is my first thought on those vapors. Well, it is time to dress for dinner. I shall give this some thought and see what happens tomorrow when I watch her."

Dinner at Schloss Wiederwachse was a formal affair even when there were no guests in residence. Veracity, as the Baroness, of course sat at the head of the table, and Conly at the foot, with Winter in solitary splendor halfway down and Jean-Luc Bonnefortune, her tutor and Veracity's steward across from her. They had taken out as many leaves of the table as possible, but there were still eight chairs down each side. Only one servant waited on the family, and he brought dishes from the dumbwaiter as fast as they came up from the kitchens; but the soup had cooled considerably by the time it got to Winter, and she grimaced on tasting it. Why they had to be so wretchedly poor and yet strive to keep up appearances was beyond any sense as far as she was concerned. She would have preferred to eat a simple meal with no soup or dessert, and have a decent amount of food on her plate, well cooked, the way they did in the kitchens; but one chicken had not only sacrificed its life for the soup, but the boiled carcass had been roasted and served up with boiled potatoes and spinach (which Winter abhorred). The roast chicken was dry, the potatoes were watery, and the spinach was slimy and over boiled. Nasty. Winter stirred her food about with her fork but ate very little. If they were lucky dessert would be a milk pudding, but if not it would be prunes.

Damn. Prunes. It is very nice to live in a castle and breed dragons and all that, but I would really love to have roast beef for dinner some time, Winter thought, politely spooning prunes and spitting the stones into her napkin. And perhaps a chocolate cake.

Dinnertime. They are bringing in carts with covered trays slotted into the shelves. I am going to eat my dinner in the common room and take my evening constitutional afterward, making my way back to bed.

A cup of bouillon soup, chicken, mashed potatoes, spinach, and prunes for dessert. Oh well, I suppose it could be worse. The chicken is dry, the mashed potatoes watery, and the spinach overcooked, but I try to ignore it and eat. But it would be nice to have roast beef for a change. And perhaps a chocolate cake.

The CD player in the common room is playing something soft and soothing and completely bland. Aural pabulum. I'm glad my bed is at the other end of the floor, so I don't have to listen to it. I don't know why more people don't eat out here at the table like human beings instead of in bed like babies. Perhaps it's the music. Music is so important. I used to listen to music all the time, but not this stuff. I suppose the staff would change the CD if I asked, but perhaps they are trying to soothe the nerves of the patients in the Quiet Rooms. Why have a Quiet Room just off the common room where everything is going on? That makes no sense at all to me, unless it is simply to have them within earshot of the nursing station.

There is nobody in Quiet Room 1 today, but Quiet Room 2 has a new patient who was just admitted a few hours ago. Perhaps I shall look in on them on my way home from dinner. I like to see who is here.

...It is a youngish man, but I can't tell just how youngish, as I only got a quick peek through the door crack before whoever is in there with him shut the door. So he has family. The ones who are new here often have family sitting with them, at least for the first few days. Then the families get used to the situation and go off to do their own family things and work and such, and the patients either stay in the Quiet Rooms and die, after which the family comes back in force before the body is taken away, or they go into the wards and last for anything from a week to years, with or without visitors.

Visitors are a kind of currency here too. If a patient has plenty of visitors, he or she is prosperous. Patients who have no visitors rank very low on the social evaluation scale. And having one visitor who cones every day, like Serena's daughter, is very highly thought of. Actually, it raised Serena's status, which would have been extremely low, she being a moaner. I wonder whether visitors nobody else can see would raise or lower my social status, but I am certainly not going to report their presence just in case it puts me in the Demented category. I'm not demented, at least I don't think I am. I know who is here and who is not. It is just the extra people who are here and not-here simultaneously. Two very nice girls, at least they appear to be so.

It is time to shuffle back to bed. Miles to go before I sleep.

...

All over San Francisco that night there were people still in costume and makeup, hunched over their keyboards uploading pictures and writing descriptions which would go toward their word-count quota. Susan Sixpence was not one of these, as she had no access to a word-processor. But she dreamed about them, missing the procession and the drums and the candlelit altars under the trees from years past. Friends clad in black and white gathering together to eat Mexican food and parade through the Mission on Dia de los Muertos; it had been a yearly tradition she had enjoyed until so many of her fellow-marchers had gone under the ground to be memorialized in their turn. Light a candle in your dreams, old Susan

Meanwhile, in an entirely different (well not entirely, if the truth were to be known) place, Winter was up late, looking at the crystal. On an impulse, she had had it moved that evening from the estate office to the drawing room, and it had taken two of the huskier male servants to carry the awkward thing and set it down carefully near the harpsichord. Right now she could see Susan in her bed, asleep, with more of the phantasmic vapors issuing from her mouth, gathering about her head for a few moments, and then fading out to be replaced by more. Images of skulls, flowers, candles, large crowds of people in costume, dancing in rhythm which could be seen but not heard. Once again Winter regretted not being able to hear what was going on in the crystal. it was one of the largest and finest of its kind, and had been acquired by the late Baron Hugo at enormous expense, one more example of how he had managed to bankrupt the family fortune by these ridiculous expenditures. But this one was worth what he had paid, even if it meant having to make and scrape for the necessities of life by the current generation, at least in Winter's view. Veracity had merely lifted an eyebrow when Winter had expressed this opinion, and Conly had gone into a slightly bitter rant about how one of those "gadgets," as he called it, could have paid for better stabling for the dragons. Conly was notoriously dragon-mad, and anything that did not contribute to the welfare of the stables was worthless in his eyes, so Winter tended to take his opinions with more than a grain of the proverbial salt. Odd how different the three siblings were in their outlooks on the world, or worlds.

Winter was not at all unhappy that lack of financing had not permitted her to go away to school, but had forced her education to be under the aegis of Jean-Luc Bonnefortune. She liked M. Bonnefortune, and it amused her to see the slowly developing romance between him and her sister, of which being away from the Schloss would have deprived Winter. The steward was youngish, about 35 or so, handsome enough, of good family, only poor; and why should the young Baroness feel that her situation was any more superior to his? But Veracity was as stubborn as anyone Winter knew, and held strictly to the formalities due between a Baroness and her steward. And M. Bonnefortune was no more forthcoming. Perhaps it was natural politeness, and perhaps he just did not care that much; but Winter doubted the latter conclusion, as she had seen the man casting some rather fevered looks in Veracity's direction from time to time. He was not going to speak before she did, Which might take forever if Veracity has anything to say about it, Winter grumbled to herself.

The money had been spent, and there was an end to it, in Winter's opinion; it was unfortunate that there was so little left when Baron Hugo died, but the things he had chosen to spend it on were uniformly fascinating to the white-haired child. The laboratory was the place where she preferred to spend much of the day; a fully-equipped potions and alchemical laboratory was an advantage that few families had in the WychWorld, and she would much rather spend her time tinkering there than sitting in a classroom somewhere having to take notes on facts she had known since she was six years old and barely able to see over the counter tops. Baron Hugo, her Grovater, had taken her on as an apprentice as soon as her preference and aptitude for brewing potions made itself apparent, and the two of them had spent many happy hours making "stinks and sludges," as Conly called it. The only saving grace of the potions laboratory in Conly's eyes was the free availability of healing potions for the dragons, when they needed them.

The balance of labor around the Schloss was evenly distributed: Veracity took care of the business end of things, with M. Bonnefortune's assistance; Conly oversaw the care and training of the dragons, closely supervised by the experienced Ransome; and Winter trained under Grovater to make potions and experiment with other Magickal devices until he died, and then took over his position, with only the occasional conference with his ghost

Baron Hugo's ghost had haunted the laboratories until the old man was satisfied that Winter could manage on her own; nowadays he spent most of his time in the Library, with a servant specially detailed to take his books off the shelves and turn the pages for him (for he could not manipulate anything physical, which was the worst part about being a ghost, as he often complained). Since his death he had ceased putting in an appearance at dinner, as he was unable to eat, and it only frustrated him to watch the rest of the family doing it; and having his head pop up through the middle of the table during the meal had made them nervous, especially if he managed to appear in the main dish. That was enough to spoil anyone's appetite, as Veracity had observed.

The only drawback to not going away to school was that there were few and infrequent visitors to the Schloss, and it was a somewhat isolated existence. Just the three of them, Grovater's ghost, M. Bonnefortune, and five house servants and five stablemen, including Ransome. That was not a large social circle. So watching Susan had provided Winter with a field of interest which for which she was more grateful than would have been expected. After all, Susan was an old woman in a hospital somewhere, not even in WychWorld. But that Mundanity made it much more exotic, and her recent attempts at communication, and the odd visual effects, were capable of holding Winter's interest and even making her wonder about the old woman and her odd talents when she had covered the crystal for the night and returned to her room. Perhaps she was some kind of Magickal person in the midst of a crowd of Mundanes. Did Mundanes ever develop Magickal powers?

Susan was still asleep, but the crowd of phantoms around her was actively dancing. Dreams, most likely, but I have never been able to see anyone else's dreams, thought Winter. I shall have to consult Grovater and see if anything like this has ever occurred before. And see if he has any suggestions for finding out more about this woman.

...

I dreamed that the little girl Winter was watching me, and that we were in the procession together. She fit right in to the black-and-white crowd of revelers, dressed all in white with her fine silver hair flying in the slight breeze. It was a warm night for November, and I had followed the drummers, first the band all in black, then the bateria in white with the children dancing, and then a second white-clad bateria with drummers of all ages. The youngest drummer was a little girl perhaps five or six years old, dressed in a multicolored costume of rags and tatters, the only one of her group not in white. She was remarkably accurate in her time, beating on her drum (which was almost as big as she was) for hours as the procession danced along the streets, dancers in skull makeup, costumes with marigold wreaths, flash cameras and cell phones (who talks on their cell phone during a parade?), all jigging up and down, side to side, and back to front in time with the rhythm which became more and more insistent.

I took hold of Winter's hand and we whirled around in an impromptu dance. She was there, physically, I knew it, even though I also knew this was a dream. Sometimes things can be true in more than one way, you know? I was very happy, although my feet hurt and my back was aching. The drummers would stop, then start again, which gave me the energy to keep going all the way around to the park.

I was holding a candle for my dead friend Andy, who died last April, very suddenly, which is how I knew it was a dream. I was in my bed in the Home, and had been there for several years, not out dancing on Mission Street. So since it was a dream, I told the pain in my feet to go away, and it did. Andy deserved attention.

It was sad. My longtime friend Belle, whom I had seen over the years through all the stages of transsexuality save the final operation, had returned from LA with Andy, intent on making money growing pot. She had started up a scientifically-advanced pot farm in their rented house, which Andy had rented along with a woman named Lee, the two of them going to the rental agency together under the guise of a straight married couple with kids (Lee had five-year-old twins). Belle, of course, being six foot eight in bare feet and with a shock of white-blonde hair, was kept in the background.

But things in their little paradise went sour. Andy had put all his money into the pot farm, and once they had a crop to sell, they could recoup their expenses. But the rent on the house was high, and Lee had not paid anything on it as they had agreed before she simply disappeared one day, twins and all. They were evicted and had to dismantle the pot farm. My other friend Amanda, a chronically homeless opera singer who managed to keep her living situation together by a mixture of couch-surfing and house-sitting, moved in with them for a month, paying for her lodging by cooking their meals (and she was a very good cook).

At last the inexorable moving day arrived. Belle's long-term friend JD drove his van up from LA to help move them, and they were in the middle of loading the van when Amanda noticed that Andy had not been in evidence for some time. Going to the bedroom which Andy and Belle shared, Amanda discovered Andy unconscious and blue in the face. She screamed for the others to call 911 and started CPR until the paramedics arrived.

Belle and JD had to be out of the house by the next day, so they came over to my house with Andy's cat Mango (a wonderful cat, orange tabby with long hair which perfectly matched our hardwood floors) to wait while Andy was in the hospital. He was on life support, and Belle was not a legal relative, so couldn't make the decision to pull the plug. This had to wait until Andy's sister, not the nice one who had offered to let them use her property on an island off the coast of Texas, but the mean one who lived in Cleveland, arrived. The first thing she said to Belle was "What have you done to my brother?" Bitch.

Andy was taken off life support on Wednesday night, and died early on Thursday morning. His sister had not allowed Belle near him since she arrived, so Belle and JD sneaked into the room to say goodbye while she was out getting coffee.

JD had to get back to his job, so on Friday Belle and Mango piled into the van and went back to LA. Belle would have to return to turning tricks unless she could manage to get into the VA hospital, as she had no money and nowhere to live. Later on she called us and told us that she had managed to get into the psych ward, so she would be able to get veterans' benefits. It seemed only fair; she was in the Navy once, in the submarine service, and she developed some nasty orthopedic problems from continually having to stoop. Anyway, Andy had seemed like the ideal husband for Belle. They were deeply in love, and he had planned to take her away from the sex trade and make her a legitimate drug dealer. So it was a pity, aside from the fact that he was a great guy.

I tried to tell all this to Winter, but I don't know how much of it got through. I don't think they have drugs and transsexuals in her world. Perhaps they do, but she appears to be a young girl who has lived a rather sheltered life. I hope I am not corrupting her.

Well, it was a dream, so I guess I shouldn't worry about it. But, strangely enough, my feet are very tired and sore this morning. I actually had to use the wheelchair to get out to the common room because it hurt to walk.

...

Winter awoke late the next morning, with confused half-memories blurring in her mind. A parade. Skeletons. Dancing. A small girl in multicolored tatters beating on a drum. She must have been dreaming about the things she had seen in the crystal the previous night. Except...

Except that her feet were sore, and her shoes were badly scuffed. This is like the Twelve Dancing Princesses, thought Winter. Only I am just one person, and not a Princess, merely the younger sister of a Baroness.

At the breakfast table that morning, Winter was tucking into a bowl of oatmeal, lamenting its watery consistency, when Veracity entered the room. "Veracity," Winter began, "the strangest thing happened last night..."

...

Today is Happy Hour. The staff holds Happy Hour once a month, and Dr. Duckworthy dresses in his red satin smoking jacket, and they wheel the little portable bar in to the common room, and there are free drinks for all and entertainment. Today's entertainment is Marge doing the hula and singing. Marge is from Hawaii and never lets anyone forget it. She does these little songs from years and years ago with hula movements, just the arms (which she calls "American Hula" because there is no hip motion involved). Marge couldn't very well do the hip movements, as she is wheelchair-bound and has been for as long as she has been here, But I rather enjoy her little performances. She has real enthusiasm, and tries her damndest to get everyone singing along to "Manuela Boy":

Manuela boy, my dear boy
You no more hila hila
No more five cents, no more house
You go aala park hiamoe

I have no idea what that means. But Marge has sung it often enough that I remember it and sing along, just to be a good sport. But I am not going to get up and do the hula, sorry. My balance is not that good

Still, we have cake and cookies and alcohol, and what more is needed for a party? Dr. Duckworthy makes an elegant bartender, and when none of the patients is performing he will occasionally sit at the piano and give us a ragtime tune. The volunteers love Happy Hour, even though it is extra work for them to wheel patients from their beds into the common room. They are sincerely dedicated to giving us a good atmosphere to die in, and I appreciate that.

The Habbitt is here, sitting like a giant toad in her chair with her tiny little tadpole daughter by her side, criticizing everything and everyone. I really must learn to ignore her, as paying attention to her does nothing good for my blood pressure. Breathe deeply, Susan Sixpence, and pay no attention to that toad in the wheelchair. It would be nice to be able to snap my fingers and make her disappear, but my fingers are too stiff, and even when they were I could never quite work that trick.

My, I am irritable today, more than usual. I don't think it is That Woman's mere presence. My feet hurt and I am tired. It's all that dancing and parading I did last night in my dream. I wonder how Winter liked it. I am quite sure she actually joined me there.

Is she an hallucination? Or am I slipping between the worlds the way I used to? Those were the days...

...

Veracity was troubled. Winter had been spending far too much time watching Susan Sixpence, for that was the name she had called herself, in the crystal, and now the old woman had begun to invade her dreams. The child was not looking well; there were dark smudged beneath her eyes, and she was limping, explaining that she had been dancing all night in her dream.

"Winter, I think you should give the crystal a rest for a few days," she said as gently as possible. Winter flashed a violet glare over her teacup (for they were at the breakfast table),set her cup down forcefully, swallowed her tea and launched into an indignant protest about Veracity never letting her do interesting things, and how Susan depended on visitors, ending with, "I should have thought you would have been proud of me for being kind to an old lady!" before producing a few rather unconvincing tears.

Veracity knew her sister too well, however, to think that Winter's motives were altruistic or her tears genuine, and said so. Winter, seeing that the game was up, stopped trying to weep and shrugged her shoulders. "Well," she added as her last attempt, "my visits to Susan's world are very educational, you must admit that."

Veracity laughed and replied, "Winter, I know that you will simply do whatever you want to, regardless of anything I say. But I must insist that you try to confine it to your waking hours, or you will be making yourself ill. And you have been neglecting the dragons for the last few days as well. I am sure they miss you, and the new dragon is ready for you to ride and name, according to Ransome. Please understand that while you are admittedly an extremely intelligent girl, you are still a child and need to get some outdoor exercise to balance out your indoor activities. These dreams are simply a sign that you have been overdoing your crystal watching. I think you should confine it to one, or perhaps two hours a day. and please try to dream about something else, all right?"

Winter was not pleased, but knew that Veracity could have ordered the crystal put away altogether, and assented glumly. After eating some toast and a boiled egg she realized that her sister had been right about her neglect of the dragons, and ran off to change into her riding gear, wondering what to name the new dragon.

Ransome and Conly were already in the stable yard, and her brother greeted Winter with a slightly jeering "Welcome, stranger! Thought you would never turn up." Winter made a face at him, turned to Ransome, and asked after the new dragon.

"She's ready for ye, Miss, but ye'll remember to name her first?" the old man said, to which Winter gave a scornful look in reply. Did he think she didn't know anything? Of course she had to name the dragon, or it would never answer to her.

The new dragon was a lovely beast, silvery-green in color with an underside of almost pure white. Conly led it toward Winter, giving her the reins. She gazed deep into the dragon's golden eye and laid her hand on its nose, saying, "I name you Sixpence. You are Sixpence and I am Winter. You answer to me and I to you."

Then with Conly's aid, she mounted. Conly and Ransome stood back as Sixpence flapped her wings and rose from the ground. While she had flown dragonback many times before, both with and without another rider, this was Winter's first flight on her very own dragon, and the thrill was intense as they rose over the forests and into the skies. But a little part of her mind was wondering why she had picked that particular name. Perhaps Veracity was right and she had been spending too much time at the crystal.

Soon these thought were forgotten as dragon and rider rose beyond the clouds and into the bright sunshine. Winter had fortunately remembered the sun-repelling potion which she needed to smear on her exposed flesh to avoid a terrible sunburn, but the light was too bright for her sensitive eyes even with her protective goggles, and after a short tour of the nearby cloud-tops she guided Sixpence below them and into the more comfortable mist.

She talked to her dragon as they flew, praising her for her strength, speed, agility, and beauty; dragons are egotistical creatures and need to be flattered, but most of Winter's praises were perfectly accurate. Sixpence was a dream to ride. she seemed to know what Winter wanted even before the girl indicated it with pressure of foot or rein. Eventually they returned to the stables, where Sixpence landed gracefully and Winter slid from her back, petting her and praising her, then leading her back to her stall for a rubdown and some mash.

Good dragon. Sixpence thought complacently. Pretty dragon. Pretty Sixpence.

...

We ambulatory patients had a field trip today. A van came and took us to see a movie, something the volunteers arrange for us about once a month. I was afraid I would miss Winter's visit, but the poor thing probably needs a rest after all that dreaming. I don't know how she, or I, or both of us, managed it, but we were definitely there at the procession, which was years ago. Thirty years or perhaps more. Because Andy died in the Oughties, and it's the Thirties now.

Anyway, the movie. It was a classic, the first remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," the one with Donald Sutherland. I always liked him. And it was enjoyable seeing how San Francisco looked back in the 1970's. That's when I first arrived in the city, too late for the Summer of Love San Francisco, but early enough to catch the Tales of the City San Francisco. Dance Your Ass Off. The Sexual Revolution. My salad days, between marriages, fresh off the Chicago bar scene and ready to rock and roll. It was sheer dumb luck that I didn't get the HIV, like so many people did that decade, but found True Love instead. Since the birth control pill there was no such thing as unsafe sex, or so we thought at the time. Well, I'm way past all of that, but I'm glad that I managed to pile up so many unsavory memories to chortle over in my old age. Not that I would care to do it all over again, because emotionally I was a mess.

There are some distinct advantages to getting old. Many things which were of all-consuming importance have simply become amusing. But I just thought of something: all my life I have been on some sort of quota system. Good grades in school. How many boyfriends. How popular. How many sexual experiences, and of what kind (that's the Nineteen-Fifties speaking), and with how many people at once (that's the Nineteen-Seventies). And here I am in the Twenty-Thirties, racing against time and Tessa Habbitt to see which of us can make it to the century mark. As if it actually means anything, other than a sort of symmetry, and a chance to put one over on someone who irritates the shit out of me. Yes, I said "shit." Old ladies are not supposed to talk about unladylike subjects such as bodily fluids and solids or past exploits. Especially in the Home. Dr. Duckworthy is a very kind and pleasant man, but his Hospice Ward is definitely run along strict Christian lines. The best I can hope for pagan thoughts is from the Zen Center volunteers, and they're all about the absence of god or gods, so no joy there. The chaplain tries to be as ecumenical as possible, but he is limited by his Presbyterianism. The Chinese patients are the ones who have the most religious freedom, being as Buddhist or Confucianist or Taoist as they please; but most of them are nice little church-lady Christians as well, only in another language. Most of the Black patients are as gospel-ridden as possible, but they definitely have the best music. the women who come and sing on Mondays are always being asked for "Amazing Grace" or "The Storm is Passing Over," and I must say those are two songs I like to hear, even though I have to translate "God" to "Goddess" for my own peace of mind...

Quota systems. How many gods and goddesses can I fit into my universe? I remember the other big thing that happened to me in San Francisco in the 1970's, and that was finally connecting with Witches. In Chicago I had been a Quaker for years, because the Friends seemed to give me the most room for personal interpretation of the divine, but I came out here interested in Witchcraft, and wondering how I could meet a real Witch. A friend of a friend introduced me to Phantom, and I knew exactly what I wanted to be.

Phantom wasn't her real name, of course; it was Carol or something ordinary like that, which I have forgotten. She got the name because she had a phantom lover. She lived in one of those Victorians on Oak Street somewhere near Ashbury, in a turret room which I envied fervently. I have never in my life been fortunate enough to live in a turret room. Well, Phantom had lived there for a while, sharing the house with an assorted band of artists, gypsies, musicians, and other riffraff, when one night when she was in bed, her door opened, and a man came in and proceeded to make love to her in the dark. They never spoke, and when he was finished he kissed her and left. He returned the next night, and the next; Phantom was very happy, as she was getting laid regularly without all the attendant bother of a relationship. And it was terribly romantic, a Cupid and Psyche thing without the hot wax part and resultant trips to the underworld. They continued that way for years, finally speaking to each other in whispers but never revealing their names nor turning on the lights; finally the house was sold and everyone had to move. After she moved out to the Sunset she never had any more visits from her lover (because anything more unromantic than the Outer Sunset can not be envisioned by even the most fervent believer in the uncanny), but went on to live her life outside my ken.

Phantom had left me with a few good pieces of advice before she went offstage, however. She said that if you are a sincere and fervent believer in your own powers, Things will happen to you, and so will People. (The capitalizations indicate the emphasis.) I was encouraged by the example of her demon lover, and kept an eye out for opportunities to enter the world of Magick. That is how I happened to see a small advertisement in one of the Free University papers for a class on the White Goddess given by a woman who called herself SunRaven. The White Goddessby Robert Graves was a most influential and annoying book which I had been trying to decipher ever since I had found it in a used bookstore in Chicago. I knew its message was important, but the author's habit of jumping from far-fetched factoid to far-fetched factoid like a cruise ship island hopping was confusing in the extreme.

The main thing I had garnered from the book was that I had been lied to all my life, and that there was a whole world of deities which had never penetrated the thin sugar shell of secular humanism, nonobservant jewishness, and evangelical christianity which had been my religious experience so far. This SunRaven had said the magic words, and I was going to find out what Graves was talking about if it killed me.

That was the beginning of my formal introduction to what was then known as the Craft, years before its divisions into Eclectic Wicca, BTW, Feri, and on and on. (it is a truth universally acknowledged that where two or three are gathered together, there will be wankage. Three witches, eight opinions. But that's all years later.) I went to the class, I joined the coven, I studied and meditated and prayed and fought, and eventually I could call myself a Witch.

I would say the 1970's were good to me.

...

Winter did not look into the crystal for three days, during which she spent the majority of her waking time aloft on Sixpence, both of them learning each other's wants and needs and bonding as closely as dragon and rider should. Eventually, however, after three nights of dreamless sleep, both her conscience and her curiosity smote her about how Susan was getting along. It would only be polite to visit the old woman; too bad she could not take her some grapes or sweet biscuits. But from what Winter had observed, the Mundanes fed their elders fairly well.

So she returned to the crystal, which now stood in the Small Drawing Room in its large wooden frame. Whipping off the cover and placing a chair in front of the crystal, Winter sat and observed. Susan Sixpence (and how Winter wished she could tell the old woman that she now had a namesake dragon!) was descending slowly and painfully from a vehicle of some sort, a kind of horseless carriage which held several old people. A younger woman was assisting Susan off a platform which raised and lowered itself by some sort of unseen power, and into a wheeled chair. This was interesting; Winter had never before been able to see much of Susan's environment outside of the hospital. It was a breezy day, and Susan's scarf went flying. She was laughing as the younger woman dashed to retrieve it. Well, good, she is enjoying herself, Winter thought. At that moment, Susan turned, looked straight at Winter, and smiled, with a little wave.

Winter waved back and the old woman nodded, then turned to see to her scarf, which the younger woman was replacing around her neck. Winter was able to follow Susan's progress back into the hospital through a garden entrance which let into the common room. The small group of old people from the carriage proceeded into the common room after Susan, some in chairs, some with frameworks upon which they leaned in order to walk, and some walking unaided, if slowly. Several of them continued on toward their beds, but Susan and three other women wheeled up to the table, where the younger woman helped them off with their coats and hats and brought them plates of fruit and cups of some hot drink. The little group was chattering amicably, if silently to Winter, and she wished once again that she could hear.

A voice, very faint, sounded in her head. "Three witches, eight opinions."

Startled, Winter jumped back, but there was no more sound other than the ambient noise in the drawing room. Susan winked at her and turned away. She had evidently been the speaker, but her lips had not moved. "What did you say?" whispered Winter, and the voice, stronger now, said, "I would say the 1970's were good to me."

Whatever were the Nineteen Seventies? It was encouraging that Susan could make herself heard, but her utterances were cryptic, to say the least. Perhaps Winter could make herself heard as well, but if they didn't understand each other what good would that do? It was discouraging.

Winter said, enunciating as clearly as she could, "Susan, I am going away now, but I will be back tomorrow."

...

I heard her voice today. A light little voice, with an English accent, precisely formed words, although I suppose she was being as careful as she could to get through. She also looks a lot more solid than she did initially. I haven't seen her sister Veracity for several days, however. Veracity seems to be the head of the household, at last that's the impression I get, and awfully young for it. The responsible one, while Winter is the lucky younger sister who gets to fool around at her leisure. Doesn't she have school? Or is she being home-schooled? They seem to be in some kind of castle, stone walls and terribly hard-to-clean high ceilings, tapestries and suits of armor, distinctly medieval. And the way they dress: long dresses with laced bodices, very Ren Faire. Perhaps they are far away in time as well as space. Or perhaps they are simply in the universe next door. Wouldn't it be fun to be able to step into their castle! But I have always been of a fanciful nature, and must remind myself that in the Real World I live in a far different kind of castle...

Whatever did I do here before Winter's visits? She has started me reminiscing and speculating, and I feel more alive than I have in a long time. At least mentally. My body is wearing out according to schedule, and when I go to the shower room and observe it in the mirror (and what was the point in installing a full-length mirror so that old ladies could see the full extent of their decrepitude? Bah.) I can see that I am losing flesh. Once upon a time that would have been pleasant to see, as I was given to dieting and exercise in order to maintain my figure, but now it hardly seems worth all that effort. And my skin is just as sagging and wrinkled as it possibly could be, with my bones poking out here and there all knobby. Oh well. that's what happens when you become a Crone, and I have been a Crone for a number of years. I started claiming Cronehood a little prematurely, in my forties. Back then I was heavily into my physical culture phase and wanted the cachet of being a fit Crone, looking good for my age. well, I managed to look good for my age right up into the present, but I was still working on that eternal quota system and had to quantify it. Pounds lost. Inches lost. Weights lifted: sets, reps. I remember thinking about nothing but food for four years, not allowing myself to eat almost anything, getting my body mass index lower and lower. That was the Eighties, when Jane Fonda reigned supreme as the Exercise Queen and I was teaching aerobics. Hah. I remember the aerobics tape I made from the soundtrack to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and how the women who came to my classes always looked at me strangely when I played it. Let's Do the Time Warp Again.

I looked good but felt like hell, as I recall. There's only so much health and fitness I can stand, and it was a relief to fall off the diet wagon and let myself go a little bit. By this time I was coming into menopause, and wasn't that a fun ride. Sometimes it's hard to be a woman.

Today in the shower room I take another look and have to admit that this physical vehicle has served me well. You Been a Good Ole Wagon, Mama, But You Done Broke Down. If I can just keep the wheels from coming off before December 31...

Well. Time to get dressed before I catch a chill. That would be ironic, wouldn't it, to last this long and die of pneumonia at the very last minute? The old woman in the mirror is laughing.

...

Winter decided to consult the late Baron Hugo about her curious experiences with Susan. A ghost should know about connections between worlds, she reasoned; and he was not as likely as Veracity to become alarmed, or think that she was ruining her health or something silly like that. Veracity could be such a worrywart! It was the responsibility of being Baroness, Winter supposed; she was happy that she had not been the heir to the estate and the title and all the boring duties that went with it. The silver lining to that particular cloud was the increased propinquity of the young Baroness to her steward, which was bound to lead to something if the two of them would just be sensible and realize that they were mad about each other.

Winter shook her head. At the rate they were going, Veracity and Jean-Luc would be as old as Susan before they decided to marry, and then poor Conly would be the heir. And he would be perfectly hopeless at keeping the Barony together, let alone recouping its finances. At least Veracity had a plan, to raise dragons and other Magickal beasts as well as herbs to use in potions ingredients, and be a supplier to apothecaries throughout WychWorld. Not that they had had much success yet, but it had only been a few months since Baron Hugo had died, and it would take at least a couple of years to get the business established.

The Baron was in the Library as usual, accompanied by one of the housemaids, Margaret, who was turning the pages for him and yawning behind her hand. "You may go, and I shall help the Baron, Margaret," said Winter, "I am sure you have other things to do." The maid bobbed a curtsey and left the room, and Winter approached her great-great-great-grandfather, who was sitting rather transparently in one of the armchairs, (actually floating an inch above it, but he liked to keep up appearances.)

"Grossvater," began Winter, "I have a problem, well, not exactly a problem, but something curious, about which I think you might be able to advise me..."

She proceeded to tell him everything that had occurred since she first caught sight of Susan in the crystal, including the dreams. He nodded and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "This is quite interesting," he said, "I knew there was something special about that crystal when I bought it. The dealer told me that it had belonged to a Wizard who had mysteriously disappeared, and that it was rumored that he had gone into the crystal and into another world, but I was never able to see anything out of the ordinary in it. It may take certain specialized talents to do so, which you, my dear child, seem to possess. But apparently this Susan woman is also talented in the same way, or she would not be able to see you... and I have never heard of anyone able to hear into other worlds.

"Susan must be a witch of some kind, because it is almost unheard of for anyone to see what she obviously does without even using a crystal. Are you certain that she means you no harm?"

Winter was taken aback. She had not even thought of the possibility that Susan might be plotting something against her, and said so. The late Baron shook his head and said, "I should be cautious if I were you, Liebling. Put up some protective wards before you use the crystal again. I should hate to lose you to a Mundane world. You would not like it there, I am certain. And do try to find out what this woman is, and what her powers are. It might be that she is simply, as you have said, a lonely old woman who likes visitors. But if you find your energies being sapped at all I think it would be good to approach her with more protections about you. And no more dreaming - it is obvious that your strength is not up to it."

Winter sighed, but decided that Grovater did know better than she did. "All right, I will cast wards before I use the crystal again," she agreed. "Now, would you like me to turn pages for you until dinnertime?"

She is a very considerate child, reflected her ancestor. I hope this spirit of consideration for her elders does not lead to her being vampirized by this otherworld woman. Perhaps I should pay this Susan a visit myself...

...

I have had a ghostly visitor!

An old man, quite transparent, looking very much like pictures of Charles Darwin in his old age, and with a German accent, was sitting next to my bed when I awoke in the night. He told me that he was Winter's great-great-, I don't know how many greats, grandfather, and that he was here basically to inspect my bona fides as a suitable associate for his little descendant. I had to laugh. A ghostly chaperone!

I had to conduct this conversation in whispers, as it would do me absolutely no good to wake any of my fellow-inmates up, especially The Habbitt, who would love to spread stories of my craziness around the ward. But I think I managed to reassure him that I mean Winter absolutely no harm, think she is a perfectly delightful little girl, and have no intention of being any sort of psychic vampire or crossing over into his world. (Though I must admit, the thought of being able to cross over into a different world certainly is appealing, at least for a vacation. But they do not seem to know about central heating or modern plumbing, so a drafty castle in the wilds of wherever it is is certainly not somewhere I should like to go permanently.)

I asked him a number of questions in my turn, and he was quite forthcoming. the family name is von Wiederwachse, and he is the late Baron Hugo von W. Veracity is his heir, and there is another child in the family whom I have not yet met, a brother, Conly. The children's parents have been dead for some time, and the family lives in the wilds of a forest and raises dragons. Dragons! I must be hallucinating.

After about an hour, the old man left, fading out slowly and becoming more transparent until he was gone. For some reason, that did not give me the creeps, although it should have. I remember having a recurring dream about little men who were standing at the foot of my bed looking at me (this is years ago), and I would sit up and turn on the light, and -this is the creepy part- they would fade out sloooooowly. That always freaked me out, because I just KNEW I was going crazy. But having an actual ghost fade out was nothing, because I knew he had really been there, and it wasn't merely my mind playing tricks on me.

I lay awake for about an hour after he left, thinking, and then fell asleep and slept very well until the staff came around with the breakfast trays. I am really enjoying this , and hope that Winter won't be afraid to come back and visit me again.

The man in Quiet Room 2 has been transferred to the men's ward. His name is Franklin, and he seems friendly. As I was making my way down the ward past his bed he smiled, and we exchanged good mornings. He has the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen. I wonder what is wrong with him. He doesn't seem to be over 50.

Today the singers come. They are here every Monday. They aren't professionals, but they sound pretty good, and they do take requests. Harvey in bed 18 always wants them to sing "When I'm Sixty-Four" by the Beatles, that is when he feels like hearing anything at all. They never sang for Serena, because it would set her off into hours of moaning, and there are a few other people who get too agitated to be sung to; but they'll sing to comatose people like Jeannie, nice soft lullabies, and of course to anyone who asks them. There was a woman named Marnie who always wanted to hear songs in Spanish, even though she wasn't Spanish herself. She was especially fond of "Noche De Ronda"

Noche de ronda, qu triste pasas,
que triste cruzas, por mi balcon.
Noche de ronda, como me hieres,
como lastimas mi corazon.

That's something like Night of Making the Rounds or Night of Going Round in Circles, the singer asking the moon where his sweetheart has gone and generally being tragic. Actually very gloomy lyrics, but a lovely tune, and it was Marnie's favorite. The singing ladies gave her some little maracas to shake in time with the song, and she really enjoyed their visits. Marnie had emphysema and was hooked up to one of the biggest oxygen tanks I have ever seen, so she never left her bed. She was pretty lively and interesting to talk to up until just a few days before she died, and then she went out like a light. People do that around here. They will go on perfectly happy and (more-or-less) healthy, and then this sudden change will come over them. You can see it in their faces. They sort of go inside themselves just before they die.

Once every quarter the staff holds a memorial service for everyone who has died in the last three months. The families come, and there's a little table of snacks that the volunteers put together, and there's music and candles are lit for each of the dead. And people will stand up and say something about each person. It's very nonspecific, religiously speaking. After Marnie died, one of the singing women sang "Noche de Ronda" at the memorial, with the maracas. I liked that. I always make it a point to attend the memorials, just as a courtesy to the dead.

It just occurred to me that I could have asked the Baron what it is like to be dead, but he might have considered that a little rude, so I suppose it's just as well I didn't. But I wonder why we don't see ghosts here. Aren't they supposed to haunt the places where they died? This place should be chock full.

...

Baron Hugo reported back to Veracity that he found no reason to forbid Winter's further excursions into the crystal, as the lady was perfectly charming, with only a tendency to chatter overmuch. But this, he informed his heir, was standard for all the old ladies he had ever met, and if Winter cared to listen to her nonsense by the hour that was the child's own business.

So Winter was free to use the crystal as much as she pleased to visit Susan, with the understanding that she was not to neglect her lessons or her dragon. Winter looked demure on hearing this pronouncement from Veracity, but her sister knew perfectly well it was all pro forma. The child would do whatever she pleased regardless of advice or counsel. And who knew how long this interest would last? Veracity thought ruefully of the pets which had been greeted with affection and joy over the years, only to be turned over to Winter's older siblings when she lost interest or the pets grew beyond the cute stage. Cats, dogs, birds, lizards, mice (both talking and otherwise); eventually Winter went on to other things. Hopefully the dragon Sixpence would involve her in its care to the extent that she would actually take some responsibility. And this Mundane woman, she was not a pet to be picked up and loved and then neglected; but Susan Sixpence could take care of herself, just as she had done through what appeared to be a rather lively long life. Besides, she could die at any time, so the problem could become moot quite soon.

So Veracity shrugged the question aside and returned to the everyday problems of making enough money to keep the Barony together and ignoring those feelings for Jean-Luc Bonnefortune that had been sneaking up on her. It was Just Not Done to marry one's steward. Besides, he probably didn't even think about her in that way, and it would be just too embarrassing for words to propose an alliance and have him turn her down. Oh, he would do it very politely and gently, because he had exquisite manners, but still, she would then have to discharge him, because there was no way in the world she would be able to work closely with him after such a gaffe, and she- the Barony- really could not do without his help.

Winter was quite aware of what her sister was trying to conceal, and shook her head at such stupidity. Couldn't she see that he wouldn't refuse her? "Just a lack of self-confidence, that's all," Winter muttered. But it would do no good for her to advise the young Baroness. Nobody ever listened to the youngest sister. They all treated her like a child, and she was almost thirteen. As if she would neglect Sixpence! Or her lessons! And she had a responsibility to visit Susan too! In a mood of righteous indignation, Winter returned to the crystal.

...

There you are, child. Is something wrong? You do not look happy.

Your sister does not understand you? I suppose that is true of sisters everywhere, not that I ever had any. Shall I tell you about my childhood?

I was the only child of two very ill-matched souls. They had met during the late 1920s as teenagers at a dance in London, England. There were Sunday afternoon dances at the time, called "tea-dances" which gave everyone a chance to get home before it became dark and dangerous on the streets. No liquor was served, only tea and other light refreshments; and by the standards of the present day they were quite decorous. My mother, Dee, loved to dance, and soon met my father Morris there, and they struck up a friendship, as he was also an excellent dancer. Dee and Morris were not interested in each other romantically, just as dancing partners and convenient friends to accompany each other. They had an agreement that if either of them met someone they were interested in, the other would go home alone.

But as it turned out, Morris had been seeing several other young ladies, and one of them most unfortunately became pregnant and wanted him to marry her. He did not wish to marry at all, but I suppose he thought that the only way out of a shotgun marriage was to be married to someone already; so he proposed to Dee, since they were friends and thought they would get along well. One day at lunchtime when she was on her break from work (he was jobless and lived with his parents) they slipped away to the registry office and were wed. That evening Dee went back home to her father's house, and they continued this marriage in name only for a full year, seeing each other at the Sunday tea-dances with the same arrangement as before. The other girl had her baby and I don't know what happened to either of them, but it has always been a curious thing to think that I have a bastard half-sister somewhere in England. Or had. I doubt that she is still alive, because this was at least eight years before I was born.

Eventually, Morris' mother, Gittel, became ill, and before she died she called my parents to her bedside and asked Dee to marry Morris because he would need a wife to take care of him the way she always had. The couple confessed that they had been married for a year, and she made them promise that they would be married by the rabbi in a real jewish ceremony. They agreed, but there was the problem of Dee's father, Shmul. He disapproved of Morris, thought he was a layabout and a waster, which was perfectly true. And Shmul wanted better for his youngest daughter. He had had a difficult life, emigrating to England from the Ukraine with a mad wife and several children, and with several more born in London. He and his wife, my grandmother Lena, separated when Dee was about ten, and Shmul took the children, which was pretty unheard-of in those days. He ran a pretty tight ship as far as his kids' marriages were concerned, and he had already shipped one son off to South America in order to detach him from his marriage to a gentile woman, Gracie. So if Dee were to tell him about having been married to Morris for an entire year, he would have done his best to have it annulled.

My Auntie Dora came to the rescue. She talked to her father and her most telling argument was that it was better for Dee to be married than to be pregnant without being married. Shmul huffed and puffed, but saw reason eventually, and Morris moved in with Dee in her father's house.

This was in 1935, and while the Depression which hit so hard in the United States was not felt quite as severely in England, it was still serious enough. Morris' father had a little barbershop, and he took Morris on as an assistant, and married another woman as fast as decently possible after Gittel's death, and they made and scraped and survived. But Morris was a dreamer. He always had a very fine hand with a scissors or a pen, and his sketches and caricatures were excellent. He really should have been an artist. But there was no money in it.

Eventually they found a place of their own, and the war began. That's when I put in an appearance, in 1938. I was actually born at Mile End Hospital, within sound of Bow Bells, so that means I am technically a Cockney. But you do not know what I am talking about, do you?

Anyhow, Morris soon tired of the responsibilities of fatherhood and work, and joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to North Africa as a bombardier. My mother trained me to write to him each week, always the same words:

Dear Daddy,
How are you? I am fine. I hope you are well and keeping fit.
Love, Susan
XXX

I did not remember him, as I was just a baby when he left, but there was a picture of him which we had, just a tiny snapshot taken when he was on leave in Durban, in his RAF cap posed with an African tribal mask, with that jaunty smile and cocky attitude which told me so much, and which I believe I have inherited- at least my mother used to say so, and she did not mean it in a good way.

But it is time for dinner already, and I need to walk to the common room. I am sorry, child, I have been prosing on forever at you. I hope you are not bored.

No? Good. I shall see you next time and tell you some more, if you like.

Whew, thought Winter. Susan has really wanted to talk for a long time. It is all very interesting, except that I have no idea where Lundunengelland or Yewkrane might be, and I don't know what she meant about the many people sad at once?

Returning to her room in order to change for dinner, the girl thought about Susan's relationship with her parents. She's a lot like me, she didn't know her father very well. But there the comparison stopped. Winter had not known her mother either. Vronique von Wiederwachse had died in giving birth to her youngest child. The story had it that the young woman, recently widowed, had insisted on going dragon riding while heavily pregnant, had ascended higher than she ever had before into realms of icy cold, become chilled, and had taken a fall on dismounting because her hands were too cold to hold on to the reins. She had been carried into the stable, where Winter had been born (in which detail Winter took a perverse pride). It was not thought that either mother or daughter would survive, but somehow the tiny delicate albino child had pulled through and become the wiry little girl that she was now. Small for her age, and looking as if she were about ten rather than her actual twelve years, but physically courageous and determined, she had inherited her mother's strength of will -willfulness, her sister called it - fearlessness, and stubbornness, so she was definitely a force to be reckoned with. She was the pet of the family and took every advantage she could of that position.

The recent developments with Susan Sixpence had filled her with a righteous glow of virtue at being such an unselfish girl as to listen to very longwinded tales told by an old woman of no birth or position. Noblesse oblige, thought Winter, and was quite pleased with herself for having garnered such fascinating details about Mundane history. She might even be able to use this material to write a paper for M. Bonnefortune once her lessons resumed after the Harvest break. All grist for the mill, she thought, then wondered where she had picked up such a metaphor...or was it a simile? She must have heard Susan Sixpence say it.

Winter decided that it would be a nice gesture to take Susan a present of some sort.

...

Oh, you have brought me a plant! How kind of you, Winter. I have never seen anything like it. What is it called? A Dutcher lily? It looks very much like what we call a waterlily, except that it is in soil, and has no stem above ground but seems to float on the earth. Is it a sort of succulent? The smell is delightful.

It has Magickal properties, you say? The scent can impart energy and health. Why what a lovely thought- I shall make sure to sniff it daily. You are a dear girl, and I will not bore you with more stories of my family unless you are sure you are really interested, and not merely being polite. Why don't you tell me a little about what you like to do?

Ride dragons- that sounds very adventurous. I would be terrified, but I have never been any good with heights. And you named your dragon after me! I am flattered and honored. Tell me about Sixpence.

...And what do they do with the shed scales when they have gathered them? Oh, potions ingredients, how interesting. It sounds as though your sister has a good head on her shoulders. No, I do NOT think you should tell M. Bonnefortune about how Veracity feels. She will simply have to figure it out for herself, and I don't think that either of them would thank you for unsolicited advice. Yes, I know it is hard to simply stand by and wait, but believe me, meddling can sometimes make things much worse.

I have been having some very nice conversations with Franklin lately. It seems that he is a co-religionist. We danced around the subject for a while, throwing out hints until one day we simply looked at each other and burst out laughing. It is very nice to have another witch to talk to. No, we don't call male Witches wizards. And the kind of Magick we do is pretty much contained to the psychic and energetic realms -do you know what I mean? Not so much physical transformations as mental and spiritual, but these can affect the physical in many ways. I believe that in your realm- Which World? Oh, W-Y-C-H world- the laws of physics are different than they are here. I have no idea how you were able to bring me that lovely plant, but I am grateful, and would like to give you something in return, just to remember me by. This is a necklace I have worn for years and years, just a simple pendant on a chain, but it is filled with my energies, if you believe in that sort of thing. It's a seven-pointed star in a circle, and that stands for the seven directions and the Universe around them- well, I suppose I should say the Multiverse. Seven? East, South, West, North, Up, Down, and Center. That just about covers the entire territory of my world, but I suppose there is yet another direction, and that's where you live. And if one more direction is possible, why not unlimited directions, and unlimited worlds? What an interesting thought...

Pet your dragon for me, my dear. And you are perfectly welcome. Use it in good health, as my mother used to say

Winter was delighted with the pendant and wore it constantly. She did not show it off but tucked it under her clothes, to avoid notice and comment by the rest of the family. Grovater would probably have Veracity take it away from her, as he was adamant that nothing material should pass through from WychWorld to Mundane World in either direction. He certainly would not have approved Winter's taking Susan a Dutcher lily, as they were rare and valuable. But Winter had grown this one herself from seed, and felt that she had a right to dispose of it as she saw fit. And it would most likely have no Magickal effects in Susan's world. How had the old woman put it? The laws of physics are different than they are here. Whatever "Fizzix" might be. Probably another word for Magick. so if the Dutcher lily did not serve to promote Susan's health, it would at least make her feel as though it did, which was half the battle, in Winter's view. If it helped Susan get to her hundredth birthday, so much the better.

One hundred years is not a very long lifetime in the WychWorld, but apparently people in Susan's world did not know that and thought it a tremendous age. By the time she was ninety-nine, Winter would only be middle-aged, barely past her childbearing years. So apparently the laws of biology were different there as well. Winter at almost thirteen was still very much a child; she would not begin puberty until she was in her twenties. Veracity was barely twenty-five and still very much an adolescent, which was probably one reason she was acting so very missish about Jean-Luc. But she was of legal age to inherit, which was fortunate. Grovater had delayed his death for as long as possible in order to give his heir time to grow into her responsibilities, and had opted to remain at the Schloss in ghostly form to give her the benefit of his advice when she needed it. That did not seem to be an option in Susan's world. People there died young and went off to wherever it is dead souls go with very few exceptions. Winter would not like that sort of life...so temporary. But hopefully most of them were able to use their time in having interesting and educational experiences. Susan certainly had. It would be interesting to talk to her new friend Franklin. He was dying extremely young, poor thing, but according to Susan, it didn't seem to be getting him down.

And it would be good to think about what Winter could give Susan so she could see into WychWorld whenever she wanted, even when Winter was too busy to visit. Lessons would be starting next week, and Winter would be unable to spend hours with the crystal. Perhaps a small hand-mirror, charmed to show Susan whatever she wanted to see in WychWorld. Winter went off to the laboratory to mix a potion to charm mirrors into Seeing-windows.

Several hours' research and work in the laboratory resulted in a small vial of transparent green liquid. Winter labeled it neatly: Seeing potion. Rub a few drops on eyelids and upon mirror when you want to see into WychWorld. Lasts 30 minutes. Do not exceed two doses in 24 hours or blindness could result.

There. That should do it. She would explain in precise detail how to use the potion, but it was always wise to give instructions, just in case Susan were to forget. And the beauty of the potion was that she could use any mirror she had with her, so as long as she had the vial it would not matter if the mirror broke.

...

Winter gave me some green stuff to rub on my eyes and a mirror to see WychWorld. Let's see how it works.

There's the castle with its lawns, set like a jewel in the middle of a forest that seems to go on forever. Wherever they are, it is certainly not highly populated. I can move my point of view by looking in the direction I want to go. I move past the castle to what looks like a stable yard, and there they are. Dragons!

This is really ... well, cool. I wonder if I rubbed the potion on a TV screen whether I could get sound... well, never mind. I only get to do this twice a day, for a half-hour at a time, so I shouldn't waste it. The dragons are being fed, and there's Winter with my namesake. Sixpence is green and silver, very elegant and shiny. The dragons are smaller than I expected, no bigger than horses in the body. Most of the length is in the neck and tail. But those wings! Like great batwings which fold up very compactly when they're on the ground. Do they breathe fire, I wonder? Perhaps it depends on their diet.

But I want to look inside the castle now. I wonder whether anyone will know I'm watching them. It's a real medieval stone castle all right, and I bet it's a bitch to heat in the winter. Look at the height of those ceilings! And stone fireplaces. Tapestries on the walls for warmth, but nothing in the way of rugs. But this is just the entrance. What are the family rooms like?

Much more comfortable and much less like a Frankenstein movie set. Carpets, somewhat more ornate furniture with plush seating, a harpsichord, and a large object in a frame, sort of a mirror, but transparent...Oh.

That must be the crystal with which Winter has been watching me. I thought it'd be a crystal ball, but it's more like a full-sized mirror, flat. And I can see myself in it, staring into the small hand-mirror. I look rather vacant, like the lights are on but nobody's home. Hope none of the nurses decides to see how I am, because I look...like I'm somewhere else.

But I didn't come here to stare at my own reflection. I want to explore as much as I can before the time runs out.

Rooms, rooms, rooms. This place is bigger on the inside than it looked from outside, and it looked big. I've been running-or floating- effortlessly up and down stairs, in and out of rooms, through closed doors. This is what being a ghost must be like. I can't touch or affect anything, but I can look all I want. I don't know that I'd want to do that for all eternity...or perhaps there's a limit. I should ask.

It's starting to fade. I guess my half-hour is up. I won't take another half-hour- I want to think about what I've seen for a while, and I don't want to risk losing my sight. Or what's left of i.t

I wonder what would happen if I rubbed this stuff on my glasses...

...

Winter's tutoring sessions had started again after the harvest-time break. M. Bonnefortune met her on the stairs right after breakfast, and they headed for the schoolroom together. Winter was tempted to confide in he teacher about her interactions with Susan, but decided that doing so would only open a direct pipeline to Veracity and possible repercussions. so she simply greeted him decorously and asked what they were to study that week.

He opened the schoolroom door for her politely and handed her a small piece of paper, with her schedule laid out on it. "History and Myths for two hours every morning, alternating with mathematics, then a short break, then French conversation, continued during the lunch hour. In the afternoons, music for an hour, alternating with plant studies; then another break and finally two hours of practical potion making down in the laboratory," she read. Today was History and plant studies day, and Winter sat down at her desk, got out her notebook, and began to take notes as M. Bonnefortune lectured on the story of Hero and Leander. From time to time he seemed to lose track of what he was saying, apologize, and start again. Winter knew perfectly well what was amiss, but she kept a straight face and dutifully scribbled in her notebook. Finally he trailed off, looked out the window, and began to recite a poem which Winter knew perfectly well was not in the curriculum.

"My dear M. Bonnefortune," she exclaimed, "whatever is the matter? You have been distracted all morning."

He was actually blushing as he stammered something noncommittal and tried to go on with the lesson; but Winter was having none of it. "Look," she said firmly, "You will have to make up your mind to do something about the situation yourself."

"The, er, situation?" he said, but by this time Winter was in full rant mode. "Just because my sister is letting her ridiculous pride get in her way does not mean that you cannot say what you need to say. If it means anything, Conly and I approve."

"You do?" blurted the astonished steward, who had turned even redder (if such a thing was possible). "You think that if I were to speak to, to, to her that it would not offend her?"

Winter smiled pityingly at the man. "Simply corner her in the estate office, and do not take no for an answer," she said. "You might as well do it now, and let me know the results at lunch time...in French." This brought a grin to his face, which was followed by a look of determination. "I shall go to her now," he declared. "Read chapter four in your mythology book until it is time to go down to the dining room. And wish me luck."

He swept out of the room, leaving Winter to muse on the possible outcome. She had promised herself not to interfere, but the poor man was unable to do his job unless this situation was resolved. But she was not going to read chapter for. She had already read chapter four, and saw no need to sit up here in the schoolroom doing busywork when she could spy on her sister. Giggling, Winter made her way quietly to the estate office and pressed her ear to the door.

...

They (whoever They might be) say that if you can remember the Nineteen-Sixties, you weren't really there. Well, I was there, and I remember it quite well. My oldest child, my daughter Juliet, was born in 1960, and the boys, Michael and Aaron, came along in 1961 and 1965 respectively. This was my second marriage, for which I had broken up my first. Well, the first one, to Peter, was completely a mistake, and I have no idea what I was thinking at the time. We were both in the throes of religious fervor and married on the strength of it; at the time, we were both attending Quaker meetings but had a distinctly peculiar mixture of Catholicism and evangelical fundamentalism going on. Actually, I think the idea was to form a church of two, but somehow that got conflated with the idea of getting married. Which lasted exactly three months.

I was working as a waitress in a coffee house which catered to the hipster and beatnik trade in Chicago, on State Street a little north of Chicago Avenue, which was where it was all happening in those days. Poetry to jazz, lots of beards and berets and sandals, you know the drill. Street fairs where artists sat glumly on the sidewalks hoping that someone would buy something.

It was at one of these street fairs that I first saw and fell in love with the painting. "The Lute Player," it was called, and showed a vaguely Egyptian head in profile, very stylized, against a background of what looked like the galactic center, suns simply crowding together and blazing. The artist was a skinny young man in the usual beard, black turtleneck, jeans, and sandals, and he was the most romantic figure I had ever seen, especially with the painting in the background.

A Real Artist! I was starry-eyed. My peculiar marriage had somehow reached a less-than-enthusiastic point, and I was beginning to entertain vague conjectures about possibly moving on, but I decided to be a female troubadour and simply indulge in a spot of courtly love from afar for my Artist.

What can I say? I met him at the coffee shop, and his name was Mac Sixpence; after much fluttering on my part, we ended up in bed together, I left Peter, Peter stalked me at work and left me impassioned notes detailing his sexual tortures without me, I felt like the Scarlet Woman, and everyone enjoyed the drama. Then I began throwing up in the mornings and my skirts didn't fit any more. Shit! I was married to one man and pregnant by another.

That was Juliet, of course. My divorce from Peter didn't become final until she was a year old and Michael was on the way, but by then Mac and I had settled into the roles of the Artist and his Long-Suffering Wife. He had sold the Lute Player, and a lot of the magic left our relationship with its departure. We didn't talk much, but that was a relief from the incessant self-examinations and confessions in which Peter and I had indulged. The smell of turpentine was like incense; I had Sacrificed Everything for my Art- well, for Mac's art, actually, as I was the one who had to support us while he stayed home with the kids and painted.

The things I remember best about the first half of the Sixties were being horribly poor, moving from shit clerical job to shit clerical job until I finally talked my way into a gig at Spiegel Catalog, doing copywriting for women's foundation garments. Copywriting was nothing like real writing; it was more like constructing crossword puzzles. There were thirty copy blocks to a page, all with the last four lines taken up by ingredients, catalog number, and price, and almost all the girdles and bras were pretty much the same; the trick was to use two or three words to describe each one so that they would seem unique. (This was the low end of copywriting; the favored few who had risen in the ranks by talent or seniority got to write sportswear copy.) Light Lovely Lycra(TM) for the Long Leggy Look you Love. Well, no, not really; we were supposed to avoid apt alliteration's artful aid, but it was fun for us peons to do parodies and pass them among each other.

The kids were noisy, crazy, brilliant little creatures with more energy than I had shielding, and coming home from a day of Light Lovely Lycra(TM) to find Mac on his way out the door to the local bar was depressing.

I left the girdle copy for a job as proofreader at a company among whose branches was the Texas Book Depository Building in Dallas, Texas. On a certain day late in 1963, major events of historical importance took place, and everyone in our office was held incommunicado for several hours before being allowed to go home. That was an interesting time. Then there was Bobby, and MLK, and rioting just a few blocks south of our apartment on Division Street; and Mac, who had been gradually growing more and more paranoid about Black people, decided that we would move to England, where I had citizenship (being a dual national) and it was safe.

Mac Sixpence was a southern Illinois boy, from a tiny townlet south of Carbondale, and his family were total hillbillies originally from Kentucky, with possible ancestral connections to the Blue people of Appalachia, which made his fear of Blacks a little ironic. The Sixpences might as easily have been descended from Charlemagne, which was his preferred origin story. And at that time England was pretty white, and there was my family connection, with a ton of cousins, aunts, uncles and whatnot in the London area. So he managed to get an advance and a monthly stipend from his gallery (he was imperceptibly becoming more successful), and the four of us moved from our little house on North Park Avenue, where the pipes froze every winter and you had to break the ice in the toilet before being able to flush it, to London. We had moved at least five times a year, just one step ahead of Urban Renewal and a half a jump ahead of the landlord, so it was interesting to be in a city where things were left to age for so long. Even the bombsites from World War Two had simply had walls constructed in front of them to keep the kids out. Who knew when anyone would get around to rebuilding?

This was Swinging London: Ready Steady Go on the telly, with new bands like the Rolling Stones, the Who, and P.J. Proby; girls in plastic boots and miniskirts with bangs down to their eyes and ironed hair; the Beatles as Major Cultural Influence; Mary Poppins at the movies; and me trudging about with two littlies and a shopping cart, feeling as if there was a party going on somewhere to which I hadn't been invited. I got a job as a proofreader at a small printing house which published several neighborhood newspapers. I was the first female proofreader they'd ever seen, and I worked alone rather than with a copyholder, so I was cheaper than two employees, even at men's rates. Women couldn't join the union, except for Princess Margaret, who was their titular head; but this was a non-union shop, so I had a job, and one that paid well.

I would ride my bicycle speedily down the long slope to work, and painfully up the slope back home at night. Mac was painting up a storm, and Juliet and Michael were in school. But the cold English winter did me in. One night Mac and I were in bed, with Ready Steady Go on the telly, and it was just too damn cold to go across the room and fetch the condoms. So Aaron was conceived to some of the finest rock and roll ever heard.

I'm tired. I think I'll eat dinner in bed tonight. All this remembering takes it out of me.

...

Winter conscientiously checked in on Susan at least once a week, and refilled her little vial of Seeing Potion when it ran out. The old woman was getting perceptibly weaker; she had stopped using her walker and was now getting about the ward in her wheelchair, and spent many more of her days in bed without getting up at all. But she was still as voluble as ever. You'd have to kill her with a stick to stop her talking, thought Winter.

Franklin, the younger man to whom Susan had taken a liking, was a frequent visitor to Susan's bedside. And Susan could keep an eye on things in WychWorld by means of the Seeing Potion and the little mirror, which was a relief to Winter. She wouldn't have to feel guilty for missing a few days when there was so much to do.

And there was plenty to do. Veracity and M. Bonnefortune (although now that they were to be related she could call him Jean-Luc) had set the date: December 22 would see a wedding at Schloss Wiederwachse for the first time in many years. The last one had been Vronique's wedding to her cousin Jack; that relationship had produced Winter and her two siblings, but had ended badly, with Vronique pushing Jack off one of the towers to his death in a fit of pique (at least, that was the rumor, though Vronique swore that it was an accident, and nothing could be proven against her. Besides, she was pregnant with Winter, and it would not do to bring a mother-to-be into court; hush money for which result was another large expense for the Baron, but one that the family agreed was justified. After all, Jack had been a bit of a scamp himself, and would have come to a bad end eventually, all on his own.). Everyone among the family's acquaintance was ready to put the memory of the past behind them and produce a fitting wedding for Veracity, who was a really nice girl, very responsible and deserving, who could not help the flaws of her parents.

So Winter found herself addressing invitations, checking on the flowers in the greenhouse which had been earmarked for the celebration, and standing for interminable hours while Margaret, an excellent seamstress, fitted her for her dress. Veracity had to undergo the same torture at Margaret's hands for even lengthier amounts of time, as the bride's dress was far more important than that of the bride's sister; but Winter's dress would serve as a costume for all important occasions in the foreseeable future, and so was made with ample hems and extra material in the seams, for future growth. Winter privately thought that Margaret must be expecting her to become some kind of a giant; but better too much material than not enough. It was a lovely pale green satin which set off Winter's porcelain skin, silver hair, and violet eyes very nicely, if she did say so herself. Veracity had to settle for the traditional red for a bride, which was a little dazzling when accompanied by purple hair; but it was a beautiful dress nevertheless, and perhaps could be dyed later for re-use.

Lessons meanwhile had become rather more free form than Winter was used to, as Jean-Luc was in something of a daze ever since proposing to Veracity. He and Conly were the fortunate ones in the matter of bridal clothes, however; their new outfits were being sent for all the way from Grovater's favorite tailor in the capital, where their measurements had very sensibly been sent. Conly was near his full growth, so he was not as burdened with extra material about the waist or under the arms as his little sister. He would not have put up with Margaret's ministrations for a moment, and it was quite a concession to family pride on his part to even consent to dress up at all. He generally went about dressed like one of the stable hands, and it had taken much expostulation on the part of Veracity and Grovater, working in concert, to get him to even change for dinner into another, slightly cleaner, set of the same kind of breeches, shirt, and jacket that he had been wearing all day. So a new suit of clothes would last him for many years.

Winter enjoyed having nice clothes, but not the time it took to get them, and missed her visits with Susan. But she planned to tell the old Mundane about the wedding and invite her to look on by means of the Seeing Potion and the mirror. That would be a nice treat for the old lady, something that she didn't get to see every day.

I do love weddings. I have been a bride a goodly number of times; once for each of my first three husbands, and then every ten years with my dear Roland. When we first married, we decided that we should renew our vows every ten years, and we managed to reach our fiftieth anniversary before being parted. Which is pretty good for having married him when I was thirty-nine and he thirty.

Franklin, have you ever been married? Oh, a civil union, right. It certainly was not before time that they finally legalized same-sex unions. What was your partner like?

...How sweet, he is rattling on about his dearest just the way I tend to do about my dearest. Love is a wonderful thing. Franklin must be one of the very last people to have contracted HIV before they found the vaccine. Gods, the drug riots... that was no fun to live through even if you weren't personally concerned. The Twenty-first so far has been just as eventful as the Twentieth. Wars and rumors of war.

What a nice boy he is! I shall have to introduce him to Winter.

...Roland was a handsome young chap when we met. And as he aged he grew even more so, despite his tendency to portliness. He had the most beautiful silver-grey hair, which he wore en brousse, and it was so very soft and fine that he had to use a ton of hair gel to make it stand up. But when it was just freshly washed with no gunk on it, it was the nicest thing to run my fingers through it. And he had green eyes with a downward slant to them; that was the Russian side in him. Half Russian, half-Irish. He had a beard when I first met him, and later he shaved it off. Still later, he grew it again. Thank goodness, he had a decent chin, so he was very good-looking either way. Not like poor Mac, who had absolutely no chin. My boys both have his chin, but not to the extreme that he did, fortunately; and Michael is quite handsome, even with my nose. But they inherited their father's tendency to baldness. Oh well. Heredity is a funny thing, isn't it?

...Franklin has gone to lunch in the common room, but I feel like having mine in bed again, even though the Habbitt is in full cry next door. Her middle daughter, the one she is always on about giving her grandchildren, has come to visit. And she HAS grandchildren, grown ones. She has simply forgotten. The poor daughter is here with her own grandchildren, still trying to get through to silly old Tessa that that's who they are. I hope I don't get like that... it would hardly be worth reaching my century if I were completely gaga. But it does make me feel a little less malevolent about the Habbitt. She is still obnoxious, but when you get old you simply distill everything you have ever been and make it more intense, so you are more like you than you have ever been. At least that's what I have always believed.

The silly old cow. I certainly do not need to compete with her. I think after lunch I shall go and visit the Schloss. It's better than television.

...

Winter was in the laboratory, mixing up more of the Seeing Potion for Susan, when the storm hit. Even two stories below the entrance level she heard the immense clap of thunder, which echoed and bellowed down the stone halls and staircases, making the glass retorts shiver and rattle in their frames. That was a big onethought Winter. I hope the dragons are all right. I should go and see.

Quickly finishing her work, Winter rinsed off her equipment, laid the empties neatly on their rack to dry, cast a stasis spell on the potion-filled retort, blew out the flame under it, and was out the door, hastily tossing her apron at the hook but not waiting to see whether it landed as aimed. She scurried up the stairs to the Entrance hall, donned boots and raingear as quickly as possible, and ran to the stables through the pelting rain.

Fortunately Conly and Ransome had managed to get all the dragons under cover before it began to rain in earnest; but Buttercup was making some ominous noises, and Sky was pacing about his stall, trying vainly to get the leather strap off his injured wing. Winter dashed about with a bucket of mash, letting those dragons who wished to feed have a little extra, and trying to soothe those which were enraged by the storm. Sixpence was relatively calm, though her eyes rolled wildly at each peal of thunder. Winter petted her and called her pet names, scratching her between the ears to reassure her. The storm continued for some time, and the rest of the stable hands joined the little group in the barn, one human to each dragon, until the peals of thunder lessened and the storm moved off.

When it was safe to leave the dragons to themselves, Conly and Winter walked back to the Schloss. The air was still electric and small sparks of pink lightning danced from turret to turret of their home, running down the metal gutters and over the diamond-paned windows. "That was a bad one," commented Conly. "I haven't seen lightning like that for years."

"I've never seen it like that," said Winter. "I hope it doesn't affect any of the wards around the Schloss." The magickal protections had been set afresh just the previous spring, and it would be most annoying to have to re-do them prematurely because of stray lightning-bolts. Which put Winter in mind of her potion, in Stasis in the laboratory. I hope the potion is all right- I am still not very practiced with the Stasis spell, and there is a lot of metal in the laboratory, she thought. Well, I shall go and look at it, and if it looks peculiar in any way I shall have to discard it.

The green liquid in the retort appeared to be just exactly the same as the previous batches Winter had made, and smelled perfectly fine; so she removed the Stasis spell, poured it into several vials, labeled them carefully, put all but one into the cupboard, and put that one in her pocket for her visit to Susan on the following day.

...

Last night, late, there was a storm. I remember hearing thunder and waking to lightning flashes in the middle of the night, then dropping off to sleep again. Funny thing, it was completely dry outside this morning, and when I asked the nurses if anyone had been disturbed by the storm, they all looked at me and said "what storm?" I am sure I didn't imagine it.

Winter was here for an hour this afternoon and gave me another little vial of the green potion for my eyes. She is certainly precocious, only twelve years old but able to mix all sorts of potions, play the harpsichord, ride dragons, and speak French and German. Apparently people in her world develop intellectually long before developing physically. Scary, a whole lot of supergenius kids mucking about with Magick. I would hate to have to baby-sit them: "no, no, dear, you can't ride your dragon until you finish your vegetables."

I'm headed back to my bed. I am stronger today than I have been for several days, but I still get tired easily. Perhaps I will use the potion after dinner when there's not much going on.

...

Susan was looking rather peaked, Winter thought after her visit, but she had lost none of her enthusiasm. It was a pity Mundanes lived such short lives, almost like dogs. You would get fond of them, but they would die.

Dragons, on the other hand, were extremely long-lived, not even reaching their full growth for at least a hundred years. So specific dragons would be handed down as legacies in families. Buttercup had been Vronique's own pet from the time she had been hatched, and she was still an adolescent. And Sky, who had belonged to Grovater and who was the oldest of the weyr, was barely an adult. Sixpence, who was a wildling capture rather than weyr-bred, was apparently about the same age as Buttercup. But her temperament was completely different. Buttercup was morose and Sixpence cheerful; so, while Winter certainly had the right to ride Buttercup, she left her for Veracity's use and spent most of her time aloft on Sixpence, occasionally taking one of the other dragons out for a little exercise when they needed it. Dragons were high-maintenance beasts; the shed scales were, of course valuable, and they were a lovely means of transportation over short distances, but they needed plenty of exercise and personal contact with each other and with their humans. Which meant not only taking them aloft, but also petting them, grooming them, feeding them, taking care of their illnesses and injuries, and mucking out the stalls. This last activity was not Winter's favorite, but she knew, as any child in WychWorld, that dragon's shed scales and dung were prized as potions ingredients. Which made them the Barony's main source of income. Winter was not shoveling dung, she was shoveling gold, or the potential for gold.

And they would need it: the wedding was going to cost plenty, even with the dresses being homemade by Margaret. There would be at least a hundred guests, all of whom would have to be housed and fed during the festivities. This would have put a tremendous strain on the servants, except that most of the guests would be bringing their own servants- who would also have to be housed and fed. So the entire household was plunged into activity; sheets and bedding were aired and patched, with the oldest and most worn being reserved for the servants' quarters; rooms which had been closed for years were scrubbed and made decent; draperies and bed-curtains were replaced in the guest bedrooms, and the entire Schloss was turned upside-down, to the point that Veracity had burst into tears one morning at breakfast and sobbed that she wished she could simply elope.

Fortunately, Jean-Luc had been able to soothe her and head off Winter from throwing a glass of water in her sister's face. Winter was just a little disappointed, and vowed that the next time Veracity had hysterics nothing would keep her from using the water-cure, secretly hoping that the opportunity would arise. Her sister had always had the ability to make Winter roll her eyes, but her prenuptial behavior was extreme, even for her. She was either in the clouds or weighed down with responsibilities. Winter wondered why it was that some people cannot seem to enjoy the process as it goes on, but finally concluded that this was Veracity's way of enjoying it.

...

Her sister is getting married, Winter tells me. And apparently it is a huge event, because the wedding of a Baroness is a social highlight. I shall have to spy on the proceedings using the potion and the mirror. I have always loved weddings. Perhaps that is why I had so many of my own.

My mother was married three times, so I suppose I get it from her. My father was her first husband, and they got married twice: first on the sly, and then in a jewish ceremony. But World War Two was a great breaker-up of relationships and bringer-together of others, and that's what happened with my parents. My father went off to bomb Germans in North Africa, and the American GIs came to England.

My mother had a niece named Bette, daughter of my Auntie Dora. Bette was dating lots of Americans and bringing home nylons and chocolate bars. I remember that summer of 1943 when my cousin Sid and I were each given the biggest Hershey bars we had ever seen, and we made ourselves sick eating them. We were all living with my grandfather, my Auntie Rebecca, her husband Howard, and their son, Sid, in a house in a small village in Hertfordshire, where my mother and I had gone after being bombed out of our own place. Bette set up a double date with Dee and a friend of her own boyfriend, and the two young women went into London to meet their dates. Dee often told me of how she saw the two soldiers coming up toward them on the escalator in the Tube station, and how she thought, "He's cute, but I thought he had dark hair." It turned out that the GI who was originally supposed to come had swapped with a buddy, and the buddy was tall, good-looking, and blond. His name was Harry, and he was the True Love of Dee's life.

I remember there was a Roman camp not too far from the village, and Sid and I used to go and play there, hoping to dig up a Roman helmet. But we never found anything, and one day some bigger kids tried to chase us away from our diggings. Sid told me to stay while he went for help, but he never came back, the little shit. So I tried to defend our territory but was forced to go home crying. Sid was sitting peacefully with our grandfather, eating lunch. I was sooooo angry. That was the first major betrayal of my life.

...Last night I did use the potion, after lights out, just in a spirit of experimentation to see whether the time was the same in Winter's world as in ours. She had assured me that there was plenty left from this new batch, and I didn't need to be frugal with it; so I put a little more than usual on my eyelids and then rubbed the rest off on the mirror.

The feeling was very different from the times I had used the potion before. It was night in WychWorld, but the moon was full and it was as bright as day, where in my world it was just a new little crescent. The sky was clear and the stars were brilliant. No air pollution there, and no light-pollution either, which meant that the Schloss was far away from any cities. I was floating across the front lawn, and I could see that most of the lights were out on the main floor, but a couple of lights were still shining in the towers. So it wasn't all that late. The moon was fairly high in the sky, but I suspected that it was before midnight. I didn't know which way was West, so it could have been in the wee hours; but there's a feeling about the early hours of the morning which is just different from the way it is earlier. So I figured it was about ten or ten-thirty, and proceeded on the assumption that not everyone would be in bed yet.

I was able to float right through the front door, just like a ghost, and drift up the main staircase to one of the towers. I was looking for Winter, but soon met the late Baron, who passed right through me without seeing or feeling me. That was a little odd, but everything about my being there was a little odd.

My eyes had begun to burn a little- I had used too much of the potion- and I was beginning to see rainbow edges to everything, even in the dimly-lit corridor. And objects, such as furniture or tapestries, seemed to be illuminated from within. It was a pretty effect, but it worried me a little. I decided to cut the visit short and return to my body as soon as possible, but apparently the potion gave me a half-hour, no more and no less. So I decided to explore the castle a little more and let it wear off by itself, which it would have done whether I had wished it to or not.

I felt a tingling sensation in my hands and feet, and took the opportunity to look into a large framed mirror which hung on the wall. I saw myself sitting bolt upright in bed, clutching the hand-mirror and gazing at it intently. Good grief, if any of the nursing staff had happened to walk by they would have thought I was having some sort of a fit.

Finally the effects wore off, just as I finished traversing a long hall hung with ancestral portraits. There was certainly a family resemblance among the von Wiederwachses. There was one portrait of a young albino woman, which at first I thought must be of Winter; but it was actually her mother, Vronique. A portrait of Winter's father, Jack, was hanging right next to that of his wife. That must be where Veracity gets the pretty purple hair. And there was the portrait of Baron Hugo. I had just begun examining it closely when I felt the influence of the potion fade, and found myself back in bed again.

This morning when I woke up, everything looked the way it had in the castle, illuminated from within. I couldn't shake the foreignness of it, but eventually I didn't notice it any more unless I thought about it. I think this new batch of potion is stronger than the first; I'll have to make it a point to use less at a time.

And I'm not sure if this has anything to do with anything, but people and things look subtly different to me today. I can't really describe it except to say that I seem to be able to see inside of things, not physically, but in some essential way. I spent a full half-hour after breakfast just looking closely at my Dutcher lily, smelling it, touching its petals, and just generally grooving on it. It was so beautiful I felt that I wanted to be it. It was almost like being stoned on acid (only without the disorientation and sense of tightness somewhere in the vicinity of the back of the neck, like a big knot had been tied in my skin)... No, not like acid, not that strong, much more subtle; but I am seeing things differently today. Everything seems charged with energy. Maybe it's just me, rather than my environment. And it's not just my vision. I have changed in some slight way, and I would dearly love to know what this means.

...

Winter was overworked. There were lessons, and taking care of the plants in the greenhouses (the Tenganortis drusilli was about to spore, and fine muslin bags needed to be tied over every single flower to catch the spores when they exploded from the plant, otherwise they would break all the glass and proliferate all over the countryside around, with unfortunate results. Once Tenganortis took hold, it would spread and become invasive, choking off most of the plant life in the forests. And while the spores of cultivated Tenganortis were valued as potions ingredients, the wild variety degenerated rapidly into a useless variety which was more trouble than it was worth to harvest).

Then, of course, there were the dragons. It turned out that Buttercup had not merely been in molt, she had been gravid; and after much thrashing and moaning on her part, produced a clutch of three eggs. It was very unusual for more than one egg in a clutch to be viable, but Buttercup would not let anyone near enough to her nest to examine the eggs and discard the dead ones. She was in a constant state of what, had it been evidenced by a human being, Winter would have called an almighty snit. Motherhood evidently disagreed with Buttercup; it was her first clutch, and she was alternately pacing about her stall and snarling loudly at the approach of any of the stable hands, and moping pathetically on the nest she had built. It was impossible to get her out of her stall even to eat, and as for flying, not even Ransome could persuade her to consider it. "She'll be all right eventually," he told Conly and Winter as they gathered in front of Buttercup's stall. "We just have to give her time to get used to the idea of motherhood." With that they had to be satisfied; Ransome knew dragons better than anyone else at the Schloss, and he had been dealing with this particular weyr since before Veracity was born.

But Buttercup's condition took most of Ransome's time, and so the weyr was a hand short. Winter and Conly donned their grubbiest breeches and shirts and wielded shovel and food pail with everyone else. Winter knew better than to grumble, but she did take the liberty of telling Conly that Buttercup could not have picked a worse time to be delicate and demanding if she had thought it out with both hands. And there were still the dress fittings and the sprucing up of the Schloss in preparation for the wedding, which took almost all the rest of Winter's free time. She thought longingly of having the wherewithal to hire more servants, but that was not possible. The only thing which kept her from feeling like Cinderella was that the bride-to-be and everyone else at Schloss Wiederwachse was just as run off their feet as Winter. The wedding was not simply a social event, although it was that, with the cream of WychWorld nobility represented on the guest list. It was also a means of promoting the Barony's potions ingredients business. Most of the nobles were in trade of one sort or another, and business alliances would be forged and contracts signed, if all went well. It was necessary to put on a good show if the Barony was ever to become self-sustaining again.

So Winter could not spend much time with the crystal. She managed to look in on Susan in brief snatches over the next few weeks, but could not spend much time in conversation with the old woman. She made her excuses and explained the circumstances; Susan accepted it calmly and simply told her that she would use the potion to see what was going on at the Schloss, and that would be almost as good as a visit. Susan did say something once which Winter found a little odd at the time, something about her vision changing; but she did not mention it again and Winter soon forgot it. Probably needed her glasses replaced; Mundanes were so fragile, especially as they grew old.

...

Franklin is very sick, poor boy. Right as rain one minute, and then with that sweaty desperate-for-breath expression on his face, and that sort of sunken-in look which people get just before they go. But he has had crises before, so this might not be the final one. I have taken to sitting beside his bed in my wheelchair and telling him stories, some of them true and some simply confabulations of my own. I don't know whether he hears me; his eyes are partly closed, and his jaw dropped open. His gaze is fixed somewhere in space behind my head. But I think he can hear me on some level at least. When he seems really bad I will sing him little songs; for some reason, music will get through when ordinary speech won't. Mostly I sing popular songs from my own salad days, like "When I'm Sixty-four" or Patsy Cline's "Crazy." He seems to like it.

Music has always been very important to me; I always had a sound track to go with different parts of my life, even if I have imposed them after the fact. Songs will bring up memories which nothing else will. "I'll Be Seeing You" always reminds me of being a little girl in, oh, it must have been 1945 or 1946. Before I went away to boarding school, anyway. There had been some bombing raids in our neighborhood, and there was a bombed-out house down the street where I used to go and look for bits of shiny rock. The house had been a typical middle-class villa before the war, with ornamental quartz boulders along the driveway. These had been shattered in the bombing, and there were plenty of white glittering fragments, which I admired greatly and gathered up in the pockets of my dress. They looked like precious stones to me, and I was forever in conflict with my mother, who would empty my pockets, throw the glittering things in the rubbish, and scold me for weighing down my pockets with useless stuff. Our priorities were completely alien to each other's, my mother's and mine. We never did understand each other. She was always slightly aggrieved about having given birth to this alien being, and I was always conscious of a sense of being dealt with unjustly. I guess we were both right in our ways.

Franklin is breathing with more difficulty. I can actually hear the rales, and I think that this bout of pneumonia might do him in.

Music. I don't remember this, but my mother once told me that when I was a tiny little thing, I could remember the words and tune of any song I heard, and she would stand me up on a table to show this ability off to her friends. I have always found it easy to memorize the words of songs, where words without music would simply go out of my head within moments. A different part of my brain is well developed, I suppose. But even though I was a good student when I went to school, I would have been an eidetic if the lessons had been set to music.

My mother taught me to read when I was three, from the backs of cereal boxes at the breakfast table. She would joke that the first word I learned to read was "Kellogg's." I had a little book of astronomy, by Professor Norman Lockyer, which had been printed before the discovery of the planet Pluto, later to become the non-planet Pluto (which I regarded as a shame and refused to revise in my personal cosmology). There was a full-page picture of the Moon, which I colored with blue pencil. My first image of the Moon goddess; I longed to go and see the Moon for myself. Much later, in my thirties, I saw the first men on the Moon. "A giant leap for mankind," indeed, but what of womankind?

"My skin, my bones, my heretic heart/ Are my authority," I sing. Franklin smiles faintly. He is a fellow Lunatic, and I will miss him when he is gone. I can see him leaving little by little. If I don't meet you in this world, I'll see you in the next one. Don't be late.

Don't be late.

...

Winter was feeling a little bit guilty about neglecting Susan. The old woman had been a good sport about it, but still, Winter felt a certain responsibility for her. After all, she had interfered in Susan's life by giving her the Seeing Potion and communicating with her in the first place. But she was just so busy...

So days went by, and Winter realized that she hadn't even looked into the crystal for over a week. Chiding herself, she determined that she would simply have to make time. So after dinner, rather than doing her homework (for lessons ground inexorably on, and Jean-Luc's impending marriage seemed to mitigate his schoolmasterly sense of responsibility not one iota), Winter sat at the crystal and peered into its depths.

There was Susan, in bed and apparently asleep, with a woman Winter recognized as one of the volunteers sitting by the bed. Was Susan ill? Not that she could do anything about it if that were the case, but she felt a jab of bad conscience. She kept watching, and was rewarded by seeing Susan's eyes open and a faint smile cross her face. She was not well, that was obvious; but she had not yet died. Her pale lips moved, and she said, "Winter," very quietly. "Hello, Susan," said Winter politely. "I am very sorry I have not visited you lately. Are you all right?"

The old woman grimaced slightly in the direction of her companion. "Can't... talk now," she murmured. Winter wished the bedside companion would leave, but it looked as though she was installed for the evening. "I shall try to come back later," Winter promised, "but I may not be able to. Tomorrow I will come again."

Susan blinked in assent. She was so weak! Winter began to worry about her. But there was nothing to be done. She smiled at the old woman and stepped away from the crystal.

...

Winter was here last night, but I couldn't talk to her because Jenny, the volunteer, was sitting with me, and none of the staff or volunteers can see Winter. I am not sure why, but so it is. I think they believe I am hallucinating. Well, perhaps I am, but it is certainly interesting, much more so than simply lying in bed thinking about dying and staring at the wall.

Franklin died last night, but his ghost has been visiting me. It's nice to have the company. And over the past few days I have been seeing the ghosts of many other people I recognize as patients who died here. I wonder why I never saw them before. It has something to do with my changed vision, I am sure of it. But Franklin is the only one who spends much time with me.

I remember. That's what I do these days. My physical activities are curtailed because of this flu or whatever it is that has laid out most of the patients in the ward, and I spend my time remembering. That and listening to the commotion around Tessa Habbitt's bed. Old Habbitts die hard, she said. And that is what she is doing, dying hard. She is fighting the flu tooth and nail, and it has done nothing to sweeten her temper. She coughs a lot at night, deep racking juicy coughs which sound as though all the phlegm in the world is concentrated in her lungs. When I hear it I get nauseous, and I can't afford to vomit any more. I have been expelling everything I eat (when I manage to eat) from both ends, and it's perfectly disgusting. I would much rather spend my mental efforts in remembering. If I were not so weak I would use the potion to do some more exploring in WychWorld, but I just don't have the energy to reach my hand out for the vial and the mirror. So I remember instead. Thank the Gods that I lived a life which was full of events worth remembering!

I can remember years ago perfectly well, even though the events of the last few days seem to drift tantalizingly out of reach. Short-term memory loss. My mother had that during her last days. Partly it was just the normal wear of aging, because she was in her nineties; but a great deal of her dementia was caused by an accident. She fell and cracked her head, and had bleeding on the brain, and most of her memories just vanished, except for the days of her girlhood. She didn't remember me until I reminded her. I phoned her every week, and she had forgotten me again every time. Oh well, as the old joke says, the nice thing about dementia is that you meet someone new every day. Ha!

My favorite memory of my mother at this point in her life was when I phoned her and she very portentously told me to keep this a secret, but she had left Harry. I knew this wasn't true, as he was her sole caregiver, but I went along with it. The following week I called and she said, "Well that was the biggest mistake of my life! I'm back with Harry now." I grinned and said I was glad to hear it, and she went on to say, "But you know, all those young men who were looking after me- I've never felt so popular in my entire life!" We die as we have lived...

When my mother died soon afterward, Harry shipped her ashes to me and I made a little shrine in my niche at the Columbarium. I like making altars, and this was a little altar to Dee, with a really glamorous picture of her as a sixteen-year-old hottie, some mementoes of her that Harry had sent, and a pretty figured jar for her ashes, which had formerly held tea. Oh, and a tiny little teapot with a teabag in it, because she had always, my entire life, been fond of drinking tea. "Put the kettle on and we'll have a Nice Cup of Tea" was her mantra in good times and bad. Me, I prefer hot cocoa, but I'm not averse to a Nice Cup of Tea. It gives me a sense of historical continuity. For generations, women in my family have been making Nice Cups of Tea to get through wars, divorces, deaths, birth, weddings, alien invasions, revolutions, sicknesses, graduations, mental lapses, political upheavals, short-term memory loss, successes and failures of all sorts, and the whole catalog of everyday events which make us who we are. If the Saucer People had landed, my mother and all my aunts would have put the kettle on for a Nice Cup of Tea before doing anything else. Bless them!

So a Nice Cup of Tea, courtesy of the volunteers and made properly with milk and sugar in it (lemon? an American affectation!), and possibly a cookie as well, is one of the highlights of my daily life at this point. How have the mighty fallen. But I do have my memories.

...

Winter's resolve to at least look in on Susan daily lasted a few days before being swallowed up in the chaos which was life at Schloss Wiederwachse these days. There had not been much to see in the crystal on her last two attempts, just Susan looking deathly white and silent in her bed. Well, Susan will die, or she will survive, thought Winter, but hopefully the Dutcher lily will help. Susan had kept the flowerpot on the little cabinet next to her bed, where the scent could reach her. Dutcher lilies were quite useful in healing inflammations of the lungs, so there was a good chance, unless Mundanes were too physically different from WychWorlders, or their diseases were not susceptible to the lily's influence.

After a few more days of unremitting work, Winter again sat before the crystal to see how her friend was doing. She seemed to be a little better, still pale but more alert and alive looking; she might just pull through. Susan caught sight of Winter and smiled weakly. "How are you?" asked Winter, and the old woman smiled wryly and said, "Not very how...but I feel as though I am going to make it this time. Not much energy though. Tell me about what's happening at the Schloss..."

So Winter spent an enjoyable half-hour venting about plants, dragons, how impossible Veracity was becoming, and how she would have dearly loved to go away to boarding school immediately after the wedding, if they had had the money.

Susan was not so debilitated as not to see the humor in the situation, and actually laughed aloud at one point, which nearly led to a coughing fit. "Thank you, Winter," she said when the girl was taking her leave, "You always amuse me. I think I might be well enough to start using the Seeing potion again- I would love to see the exploding plants, and Buttercup too. But you must take some time for yourself, you know- go flying on Sixpence or something that gets you away from everything. Otherwise you will burn out completely."

Winter agreed, said farewell, and headed for the stables, where Conly was looking at Sky's wing. "You know," he said, "I do think it's healed enough to take him aloft today. Why don't you grab Sixpence and let's exercise these beasts for a bit? We could use the exercise ourselves."

"Great minds think alike," Winter said, and went to find Sixpence's harness.

...

Well, here's me again. The flu spared me this time, though it is still raging pretty well unchecked among the other patients. I'm almost well enough to walk with only my walker, but I'm still taking it easy and using the wheelchair to go all the way to the common room. Franklin's ghost walks beside me, but nobody else can see him; they simply walk right through him. I asked him how that made him feel, and he said it was a sort of tingling sensation, but not unpleasant. I said no, not physically (or whatever the appropriate word would be for a ghost), but emotionally (ditto), and he told me that being invisible is something he had become used to during his lifetime, so it was no big deal.

That makes me very angry. Someone like Franklin, he was good, not someone to be ignored; but even people who are idiots have the right to be acknowledged. Of course, there's only so much attention to go around, and some of the idiots seem to be sucking as much of it out of their environment and the people in it as possible, so they get more than their share. The Habbitt, for example. I'm not feeling nearly as competitive with her as I was a few weeks ago when she became so ill, because the Race for the Century is really, when you look at it objectively, just a silly little battle to no purpose between two foolish old women; but the woman does have a talent for pushing my buttons without even knowing or caring.

I have always been prone to anger; that's been my besetting sin, or tragic flaw, or primary weakness, or whatever you want to call it. I remember when I was first initiated into Feri, I was continually having battles-royal with all and sundry among my brothers and sisters in the tradition. As an only child, I had no experience with sibling rivalry, but came to it late in life. And Feri is noted for driving people nuts, or rather, bringing out their inherent madness. It's different from regular Wicca, which certainly has its share of extreme personalities battling it out over minuscule points of doctrine or practice; the emphasis in Feri is on self-development and on the search for ecstasy with the Gods rather than the celebration of the seasonal/archetypal/fertility aspects of the Divine. And so the Feris have added to the normal Wiccan craziness the weapons of extreme paranoia and mistrust of anyone who is not privy to the secrets. They're the Jesuits of the Craft, and sometimes the Spanish Inquisition. So I fit right in.

I don't know what mellowed me out over the years. Perhaps it was all the work I did on my own Stuff (and obviously, there's still plenty to do, or I wouldn't find myself falling into these old Habbitts. Heheh, a pun). Or maybe it was just that I can be at daggers drawn with the world for only so long until it gets boring and it occurs to me that there are far more pleasant ways to spend my time. Or it might just be the meds. I started taking these little green-and-white capsules for headaches, and they had the fortunate side-effect of making me a much easier person, without the constant itching under the mental skin which kept me flailing around and hitting out and knocking my edges against the world. Better living through chemistry. Or philosophy. Possibly both.

In any case, I gradually backed off from these flame wars (for most of them were conducted online on the many message boards to which I belonged and which served me in lieu of a social life when I was feeling hermitic). And my most prominent adversary finally died, so many of the internecine struggles in the Tradition were dropped by tacit agreement or at least agreement to disagree. I think we all grew up a bit. It was bound to happen.

Most of my friends were either Feris or some other kind of Witch, and/or artists of some kind. Lots of Burning Man devotees. (I shall have to tell Winter about Burning Man and the artistic movements of the early years of this century before the Big One.) There was a consistent evolution: Spontaneity, Congruence, Elaboration, Commercialism, Decline: the Artistic Pentagram.

Pentagrams: I have learned in Feri to think in terms of pentagrams. Sex, Self, Passion, Pride, Power. Love, Knowledge, Wisdom, Law, Liberty. Devotion, Radiance, Blessing, Truth, Grace. The five steps in the process, the five stages of evolution, the five petals on the flower.

Franklin has no notion what I am talking about, and it is too exhausting to explain in depth. Suffice it to say that Magickal and spiritual points of correspondence became the patterns which determined how I lived my life, made my decisions, developed my psyche. My daily practice was a check-in with the Gods and a way of aligning my various selves, and it is only now that I realize that it has been a long time since I did daily practice. No matter how advanced you get, you still have to go back to the beginning over and over again. It's humbling to realize how easy it is to get out of shape... just one bout of flu or accidie, and there you are, back to Square One.

I do believe that the effects of the illness, the lily, and the Seeing Potion combined have brought me to my senses in some subtle way. I am in my body more, and even though it's not always comfortable (my feet pain me considerably, but that's arthritis), I feel more alive and present. And mentally and spiritually- I had fallen into a sort of laziness, being old enough, as I thought, to be able to just blow off any efforts to improve myself. And the result was to bring myself down to the level where the most important thing in my life was rivalry with Tessa Habbitt. Whatever was I thinking? There are much more important things to do, like preparing for death. And those tools which I set down years ago, the pentagrams and the practices and the connections to the Gods, those are exactly the tools I need right now.

Well, I continue to surprise myself: a religious revival at my age! Too bad there are no chapel services for me, no supportive chaplains with hymns and prayers, but I have always believed in DIY, and knowing what a maverick I have always been, I am sure I would have come up with some new heresy to shock the good churchgoing people. Thank goodness, or perhaps natural badness, for my capacity to push limits! A contentious Goddess smiled on me from birth. And if I can't be eccentric at age ninety-nine, when in all the Qlippothic hells can I be?

These thoughts are cheering me up immensely.

...

Winter hummed tunelessly to herself as she moved about the greenhouse, clipping dead leaves, pulling unwanted sprouts, and doling out appropriate doses of Ever-Grow and FeedMe potions, diluted with plenty of water. The Tenganortis had spored, and all the tiny muslin bags placed with so much haste and effort a few days before were filled with golden dust which would need to be collected and stored. More work. But she liked it in the greenhouse, even with the bright light. Her dark glasses mitigated the effects of the sun, and she had daubed her skin with protective potions. It was warm and steamy, and smelled nice. And, above all, it was quiet.

Why every process involved in the production of a noble wedding should have devolved into a shouting match, or at very least, a conversation which became more and more clipped with repressed anger and tears, was beyond her, but so it was. Veracity was not doing very well in the role of a cool and lovely bride-to-be, and had, in addition to her frequent bouts of temperament, developed a nasty rash on the back of her neck. By this time Winter had united with her sister in wishing that the bridal couple could simply have eloped. But the wedding was to be a theatrical performance geared to making a splash in WychWorld high society, and thus leading to valuable contacts and, hopefully, contracts, some of them involving Winter herself. Veracity was hoping for a betrothal contract for Winter with some well-connected family. So the show had to go on. Winter's role was simply to be decorative, well behaved, and demure, and she could have done that standing on her head. She might have rather large lacunae in her knowledge of WychWorld history, but she was an expert at the arts of etiquette.

Gently, Winter eased a muslin bag off a Tenganortis flower, holding her breath so as not to disturb the tiny spores inside. This was going to be a good crop, and the hundreds of little bags, after taking out those distributed as favors to the wedding guests, would yield sufficient to actually make some money from the repeat orders which would undoubtedly roll in afterward.

One thing which had attracted her to Susan was that the woman was so very earthy. She was never hesitant about speaking her mind on any subject, and her talk was often salty to an extent which took Winter aback from time to time. But Susan's world was a far different place from Winter's. Even if Susan had lived in Wychworld, the two of them would probably never have met, as the circles in which they moved were so very different. Susan's ramblings were a look into a completely exotic world, drab in many details but still exciting in a gritty sort of way. So it was not merely niceness or even guilt which kept Winter coming back to the crystal, and feeling a little mental itch on those days when she didn't. Susan was easily as good as a novel. Artists in WychWorld were simply another kind of craftspeople like blacksmiths or healers, attached to some noble family or presiding over their own ateliers in the capital (only venturing forth, accompanied by their trains of apprentices, by special request to the castles of the great and prosperous, to execute the current generation's obligatory family portrait), if they were of sufficient reputation. They didn't hover together in flocks to celebrate their own and each others' strangeness, and as for an entire city where the majority of the population was some kind of what Susan called BoHos, there was no such thing in Winter's knowledge of her own world.

Not that Winter knew all the byways of her own world, however. There were pockets of self-proclaimed outcasts in WychWorld, but they were not visible in Winter's milieu. She was, after all, despite her precocity and intelligence, only a child, and a sheltered one at that. Perhaps in later years she would move away from the mainstream of her social milieu, or perhaps she would not; but one thing which certainly made her envy the apparently lawless Bohos of Susan's world was that so few of them had to go through the ordeal of Wedding. Having Veracity's wedding thrust on her perforce was souring Winter's outlook toward the entire process. And Veracity was marrying for love, as well as for the opportunity to weld Jean-Luc Bonnefortune's organizational talents to the Barony. He was an excellent steward, even though he had not managed to talk the late Baron out of his most ruinous expenditures; and he was doing his best to help the family von Wiederwachse out of its financial difficulties. He would be an excellent husband and partner for Veracity, despite his lack of family connections, and everyone at the Schloss knew it. Even his name was a good omen.

Still, as a younger daughter without these considerations to influence her, Winter was rather fascinated with the Mundanes' (well, at least many of Susan's friends') lighthearted approach to coupling. Many of them did not even bother with a formal wedding at all, even the truncated version in which Susan had indulged so many times, apparently in a spirit of romanticism. It might actually be fun to be an Old Maid when she grew up, Winter mused, especially since the only boys her own age she had met were such fops and weaklings on the one hand, or mindless sportsmen on the other. Conly was a sportsman, but at least he wasn't mindless. It was really unfortunate that one could not marry one's brother, with whom one had so much in common; but Winter knew from years of watching the dragons that inbreeding was unhealthy and led to a weakening of the line. Look at her own parents: they had been first cousins, which was not too close, and Veracity and Conly had been perfectly normal; but Winter herself had inherited the albinism which made it so very inconvenient to spend much time in sunlight, even though her looks were highly valued and currently in fashion. This was an asset as well as a liability: Winter would serve as the shining little Snow Princess, an ornament to be treasured, during this wedding monstrosity, and Veracity would undoubtedly receive many offers for Winter's hand when the nobility saw her. And Winter was already determined to refuse every one of them if the boys involved were not up to her standards. Above all, the boy to whom she would be betrothed must not be boring.

And her future husband, should she decide to marry, had to be rich, so her bride-price and future family connections would help the Barony prosper. Finance and such things, even though she was merely the younger sister, were still of great import; it would not have been pleasant to be a servant (although with her looks she could have risen to being the mistress of some rich man. She briefly considered a career as a famous courtesan, but realizing that she would have to spend her entire time catering to the needs and desires of men, and never having the time to fly her dragon or muck about with her potions, decided that it was not a life she would enjoy). But she didn't have to think about that right now, thank goodness. Betrothal contracts, even long-standing ones, can be broken, and it would be years until she was old enough for the question to be more than moot. She might even enjoy the attention from the boys at the wedding; it would give her a chance to practice her dancing and flirting-with-a-fan skills; and presiding over the teacups with the matchmaking mammas while they looked her over as a prospect for their sons would be another interesting experience. It was best to be optimistic; life was full of interesting experiences, some pleasant and some not. Listening to Susan had made her more conscious of this; and she had resolved to collect as many memories as possible, so that some day she could spin tales of her life to some young girl, who would be similarly inspired, and thus the cycle would continue.

I have to laugh at Winter's comments on marriage and the Big Damn Wedding impending. She is such a little cynic in some ways, and so innocent in others. By god, as the man said, she reminds me of me. At least in my teenage. Isolated. Smart. Naive about the Big World Out There. Imaginative. Geeky.

But in other ways we are polar opposites. As I recall, when I was twelve I spent most of my energies in reading science fiction and trying to write it. One of my heroines was an intergalactic spy who managed to get hit on the head and knocked unconscious by Evil Mad Scientists and other assorted bad guys with amazing regularity. In real life, the poor thing would have been brain-dead in short order, but I went on maltreating her skull for almost a hundred pages before the obligatory happy ending, in which she fell into the arms of the Mysterious but Ruggedly Handsome Stranger who was my thinly-disguised version of the boy in my eighth grade class on whom I had a hopeless crush, but whose name I can no longer recall, with just a dash of Michael Rennie as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Actually, the sci-fi was more interesting to me than the boy. By the year 2000 we would be riding in personal jet-cars, traveling to other planets, and running about on our interplanetary errands in tightly-fitted suits of some material which shed dirt and never wore out. And there would be friendly aliens, and a kindly world government, and no more wars or poverty or sickness since the Saucer people landed and brought us humans out of our primitive ways into the Galactic Collective, and life would be Interesting and Fun. And somehow I would be at the center of things, valued for my beauty and intellect and general awesomeness. Those were my hopes, boosted by the sight, when I was thirteen and looking north from my back stairs one summer night, of a bona-fide Unidentified Flying Object.

Well, I couldn't identify it. And it was an object of some kind. And it was, if not flying, certainly maintaining a trajectory unlike any airplane or shooting star I had ever seen before. It looked like a light bulb as seen from a hundred yards away, appearing at the zenith and slowly descending to about seven o'clock before winking out. Nobody believed me, despite my attempts at scientific detachment and reportage, because of my noted addiction to Galaxy and Astounding (later Analog) science fiction magazines. Thus is a prophet not honored in her own country. Still, I kept the faith, and wrote to my dozen or so worldwide pen pals, also SF devotees, from whom I could expect the respect and support I was denied at home and at school. This was, of course, long before the Internet, and even before the Age of Xerox. We did it all on paper in handwriting, and the fanzines were all mimeographed. Fans were fans in those days, and with virtually no help from the media aside from Captain Video (production values of which were laughable, but which was graced occasionally by Spartak, Prince of the Black Planet) and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (a bit better, but notable chiefly for the handsome Venusian, Astro. Mmmmm...space and sex, Alien Love, because the boys in this world were either impossible or unattainable). Klaatu barada nikto.

Fans were hopeful of World Peace through Technocracy. The reality, however..

Sputnik went up in 1957, and I watched it from those same back stairs. Its flight elicited the only apology my mother ever gave me (for having doubted the value of my interest in space travel, once the media had decided that it was a Good Thing), making it a doubly historic event.

Years later, I witnessed the first moon landing with the same sense of the story coming true. My third husband, Byrd, and I were at Naked City, a nudist resort in Indiana whose owner, a young Hugh Hefner wannabe in a wheelchair, had organized his business of checking on television commercials for the corporations who had paid for them, through a bank of television sets in the saucer-shaped central building where he lived with his aged parents. Dirk (for that was his name) had managed to become a success despite his disability, and had used much of his money to buy a long-established naturist resort, and turn it into Naked City, his own version of the Playboy Mansion. There we all were, everyone naked except for Dirk, watching the giant leap for mankind as Dirk watched the naked women. And the future utopia seemed to move closer. However, that was probably the closest it got.

This has not been the Twenty-first Century I ordered. Things just seemed to go off the rails and go down the wrong fork in time, but I'm not sure when the deciding point was. Things tend to creep up on you imperceptibly, and gradually, when I saw that it just wasn't going to happen, I lost my faith in Science as the savior of the world. Life just got grubbier and grittier, so I stopped reading sci-fi and moved over to fantasy. I did have some hope when the millennium happened and there was that world-wide celebration (Roland and I were out on Twin Peaks watching the fireworks with a group of perhaps 35 strangers, all of us celebrating and popping the champagne in hopeful anticipation of a Better World Ahead), but the year after that was when it really started to go bad. Wars and rumors of war. Global Warning. Peak oil. It's just too damn depressing.

But having met Winter, I am encouraged to think that this is a Multiverse, and that somewhere there is a world where all my Sci-fi dreams came true. And perhaps there is a Susan Sixpence, Intergalactic Spy, there, dressed in Spandex leotards and, hopefully, avoiding concussion...

...

Finally the preparations for the coming ordeal were finished, and the family had a moment to bask in the perfection of their home and their wardrobes. But this halcyon time lasted one evening, as the first guests began to arrive the very next morning.

Veracity's rash had cleared up, which helped her attitude immeasurably; and she and Jean-Luc, after a tearful conversation (on her part) concluding in some very satisfactory kissing, emerged from the estate office relatively calm, if not rested and ready. After all, as Veracity was heard to remark, they had done their best, and if that wasn't good enough, the hells with it; which made Winter giggle.

Several of the families invited were bringing their children, down to eight-year-olds but no younger, thank goodness, as there were not enough servants to spare for baby-sitting (with the exception of a sprinkling of nursing mothers who could not be separated from their infants). Eight was an age of reasonably social couth. Winter was assigned to preside over the entertainment of the girls, and Conly that of the boys, but there would be mixed-gender events over the next two weeks which were designed to let the older children get to know each other while their elders discussed betrothal contracts as well as trade. This event was a combination of trade fair, marriage mart, and political convention, reflected Winter, with the actual wedding ceremony as the decoration on the cake. She was quite willing to divert herself with the other girls, as they would doubtless be reporting on her suitability for betrothal to their parents and brothers, at least as seen through the lens of young-girl attitudes. And Conly's charges would be looking at him as potential husband material for their sisters and younger female cousins as well. Everyone, even the littlies, would be there on business.

But this didn't mean that they couldn't enjoy themselves in the process. Winter had decided that the girls should experience the stables as well as the greenhouse, the laboratory, and the tea-table. A well-rounded visit would be much more interesting. And if there were a few little ninnies who thought that dragon riding was unladylike, they would definitely not be included on Winter's list of Possible Sisters-in-Law. Any family which kept its daughters from outdoor or intellectual pursuits was not one which Winter intended to join. On the other hand, any of the boys who would cavil about having a wife who was interested in plants and potions, or who had a passion for a well-stocked library, would also be on her Do Not Call list.

The first family to arrive was that of the Baron von Iseling, the nearest neighbor. The Baron, his wife Griselda, their son Ivan, and daughter Margaretta-Louise (known as Margalo to her friends), accompanied by their respective maids and valets, arrived by coach from their estate, a mere seventy miles away. Conly was most admiring of the team of horses, and he and Ivan made their excuses as soon as politely possible in order to follow the von Iselings' coachmen to the stable, where Ransome took care to house the horses as far from Buttercup and the other dragons as possible.

Baroness Griselda, in the meantime, hovered in a motherly way over Veracity, Winter, and Margalo, while Jean-Luc, for lack of another adult male, took the Baron to the Library for a glass of brandy, and the various servants shifted luggage to the guest rooms. The von Iselings and the von Wiederwachses were well acquainted, so the formality of the arrival was soon dropped, and the ladies repaired to the Small Drawing Room for the first of what would be numerous similar gatherings, lubricated by tea and a good gossip. Cook had risen to the occasion with a Black Forest gateau, which Margalo greeted with a smile of innocent greed. She would do well to restrain her appetite, Winter thought, as the entire two weeks of celebration would be marked by rich and fattening foods. It was quite easy to put on ten pounds over the course of a typical noble wedding party. Besides, Margalo, who was fifteen and plump, also had a tendency to break out in spots, and Winter had been cautioned by both Veracity and Margaret to go easy on the desserts in order to preserve the porcelain complexion which was Winter's best feature. Best selling-point is more like it, Winter thought cynically; but she dutifully took only a sliver of the gateau and picked at it delicately as the ladies discoursed over the teacups.

The enjoyably malicious conversation about the habits, manners, and current scandals of the guests who were yet to come was only interrupted by the entry of Jean-Luc, Baron von Iseling, Conly and Ivan, who had met in the hall and were indulging in a vociferous four-way discussion on the best varieties of mash for dragons. Ivan was as dragon-mad as Conly, but as the von Iselings did not breed, or even own, dragons, he had had to content himself with frequent stays at Schloss Wiederwachse. He and Conly were of an age, and had been best friends for years. The contrast between the two young men was amusing; where Conly was short, dark, and stubby, Ivan was tall and thin, with pale blond hair which would undoubtedly give way to baldness, if his father was any example of the line. Ivan was actually at his best around Winter's family, as his natural shyness disappeared among people he had known all his life. He had once had a remarkably persistent tendre for Veracity, and still showed a tendency to break out in fits of sighing and bad poetry; but his behavior to Winter was free and natural, as befitted an elder brother. Winter liked him best when he was not being a mooncalf about her sister; although he was not a dragon expert like her brother, he was most sensible in his theories about the best way to feed and train them, and treated them with a gentle firmness which was almost touching to watch. When he gets married I shall have to see whether we cannot give him a dragonet to raise, thought Winter kindly. Of course he would get married to some nice girl, hopefully rich and pretty, who could afford to let him raise dragons. The thought cost her no pangs; Ivan was far too familiar a family fixture to consider as a Marriageable Hopeful. Besides, he was still nursing a broken heart over Veracity, and enjoying it hugely.

The conversation over the teacups now became more general; the bride-to-be presided demurely, basking in the approbation of both her young swain and her affianced; the Baron observed the gateau with approval, took a huge piece, and then went for seconds, to the remonstrations of his wife; Ivan eventually stopped staring at Veracity and descended to the mundane realities by eating a piece almost as big as his father's and observing to Winter that their Cook was a champion. Winter invited him and Margalo on a visit to the kitchens a little later. Cook was fond of the pale boy, and was forever giving him treats in an attempt to fatten him up, so there would doubtless be plenty of goodies for the picking, an otherwise unusual happenstance at the Schloss when no visitors were in evidence to impress.

...

Winter has warned me that she will be too occupied with her guests for the next two weeks to pay me a visit via the crystal; but she has kindly left me with a sufficient supply of Seeing Potion so that I will be able to wander around the Schloss unseen and eavesdrop on everyone. This should be fun!

...

Over the next three days the guests arrived. The trickle begun by the von Iselings increased to a stream, and the servants were rushed off their feet while the family tried to lend as much as a hand as they could manage unobtrusively. The von Iselings' servants were a godsend, as they dived right in to the increased workload with great good cheer; several of them were related to Margaret and to Cook, and it was a chance for a family reunion of sorts below stairs. However, the higher-ranking guests who showed up almost insultingly late were another kettle of eels. These nobles were accompanied by servants who were so high in the instep that they looked down on the Schloss and all its inhabitants and made themselves highly unwelcome in kitchen, stable, and hall by their demanding ways, "almost," as Margaret said in exasperation, "as if they was the nobility theyselves." There was nothing more frightening to a little kitchen maid than to be accosted by one of these persons of extreme (if secondhand) nobility and scolded for not performing tasks which were not even her duty, and at least two of the maids ended up in tears. Cook, who looked on them as her rightful slaves, to order around at her will, was highly indignant, and rumblings of revolution began to leak from the kitchen to Veracity. Fortunately, Baroness Griselda was there to run interference. It was almost like having a mother of her own, Veracity told Winter a little wistfully, and it was a pity that Jean-Luc's own mother was no longer living, to be a support to her new daughter-in-law.

Winter privately thought that Griselda was in her glory, being a rather managing female, although as kind as she could be. But she had problems of her own. Her plans for the entertainment of the younger female guests had been disapproved by the daughter of one of these annoying high-ranked families, the Princesse Amabelle de Nevins, with a single wrinkle of her fine-boned nose and lift of her eyebrow. Amabelle de Nevins (whose riches and rank made her an unquestioned Beauty in the eyes of all fashionable WychWorlders) and her brother, the extremely handsome (and rich!) Prince-Junior Ducan de Nevins, himself an exceedingly eligible catch, were too bored for words at being hauled off to the middle of nowhere for some rustic's wedding to her steward (of all people), and took no pleasure in either dragons, greenhouse specimens, Library, potions laboratory, or much of anything other than their own wardrobes. Ducan was dense, but Amabelle was vicious, and she almost reduced poor fat little Margalo von Iseling to tears with cutting remarks on her appearance and prospects for making a good marriage, all delivered in the sweetest-toned little drawl ever heard. Winter had to take Margalo aside and give her a stiff lecture on not giving in to bullies; but the girl was in the throes of hopeless and obviously never-to-be requited passion for Ducan, and had turned herself into kind of an upper servant for him, fetching him sweetmeats and cups of tea and generally acting like a spaniel. She will never find herself a husband at this rate, thought Winter, and profited by her friend's poor example. She treated Ducan de Nevins with the same cool courtesy as she would expend on any of her guests, and, even though she had to admit in the still of the night that his looks were definitely thrilling and his money very appealing, refused to be tempted. He was simply the equivalent of a Black Forest gateau, too rich for her blood; and Winter merely nibbled delicately at his company and kept her bearing cool.

Unfortunately, this coolness on her part was a pleasant contrast to the behavior of all the other girls present (other than his sister, of course), and he began to notice the pale little beauty in light green who seemed unaffected by his charms. Winter was different. Obviously not betrothal material, but quite interesting for her age. She might turn out to be quite spectacular once she was a bit more ripe. Imperceptibly, his manner to her became a trifle less starched. Poor Margalo watched this and would have been consumed with jealousy had she not been the recipient of Winter's aside that Ducan certainly thought well enough of himself that he didn't need girls following him about all the time. He could have a love affair with his mirror, Winter had whispered to Margalo, which had caused her to giggle despite her wounded heart.

Susan was witness to much of this byplay, thanks to the Seeing potion. It was too bad that she could only use if for two half-hours a day, because she hated to miss a thing. This was like a Jane Austen novel with ghosts and dragons.

...

The Wedding of the Century is in full force, and I have been enjoying myself immensely during my all-too-brief visits there. What a repressive society WychWorld is! I cannot imagine how Winter grew up so independent-minded, but she has mentioned to me that she takes after her late mother, who was, if the stories are to be believed, quite a piece of work. But it galls me to my feminist bones to see girls, as young as twelve or thirteen, vying for the attention of the boys, and their parents trading them off like so many pieces of breeding stock. But I suppose if it's what you were accustomed to from birth it wouldn't be such an irritant.

Puts me in mind of something my mother would say to express disapproval: "Well, that's not the way I was raised," she'd say. Well, duh. Of course not. She was raised during the teens of the Twentieth Century by people whose patterns of child-rearing and morality and ideas of right and wrong were formed back in the 1880's. So actually, many of her ideas were a century out of date, or even more, but she couldn't see that.

Not that I've been innocent of that sort of cultural relativism in my life, or would it be chronological relativism? Whatever; what I was used to was normal, and any departure from normal was shocking. I had to purposely train myself to get used to new ideas and different ways of doing things. I know I still speak the jargon of my younger days, because I stopped trying to keep up with PopCult back in my sixties. It just got too complicated. But as for being the Way I Was Raised, well, hardly.

They have moved Tessa Habbitt into one of the Quiet Rooms, which may mean that she's on her way out. I can't say I'm sorry to lose her as a neighbor. Right now the bed next to mine is empty, and nights are blessedly quiet. No more snoring! I hope the next woman in that bed doesn't snore. I have a hard enough time sleeping anyway without the noise. Not that I'm in any more pain than usual, but I seem to be a bit more agitated all the time lately, even with the meds. I would up my dose, but I don't want to lose my sensitivity to seeing ghosts and WychWorld and all the fun new things which have expanded my world in the past few weeks.

I don't feel any the worse for lack of sleep, but I am definitely losing weight. The skin on my arms simply hangs off the bones. Good grief, how very unattractive. Oh well, so much for vanity. The nice thing about being very old is that nobody expects you to look good, which is restful.

I remember how very concerned about my appearance I was in my youth, and how very homely I felt; in later years I looked at photographs of myself when young and realized I was really pretty. Where did this misperception about my own body come from, anyway? Why did I always feel like someone who had just come from a different planet? I had absolutely no self-confidence at all, and I marvel at Winter, who seems to be completely free of all those uncertainties and awkwardnesses that plagued me at her age. I could never have dealt with all that social pressure at thirteen. At thirteen I had just begun high school, for I was intellectually precocious; but the social rules, or any other things that couldn't be found in books, were a total mystery to me. I blushed, I stammered, I was awkward, I didn't know how to talk to boys. Hell, I didn't know how to talk to anyone. I must have walked around in a state of total embarrassment for at least seven years. I was afraid of going into a restaurant on my own because I was convinced that everyone there was staring at me. I was terrified of boys. And I knew I was a big fat failure, because my mother had always known how to talk to anyone, and had always been popular.

The first ray of hope for me came when my mother took me back to England for a visit when I was sixteen, and we went with Auntie Rebecca, Uncle Howard, and Sid to Juan-les-Pins, a tourist town in the south of France, for a couple of weeks. Those were the days of the bikini bathing suit, and I got used to the (at first excruciatingly embarrassing) experience of walking around wearing next to nothing. It was only because most of the women wore just as little that I gradually got used to it. And surprisingly I began to realize that men were looking at me as if I were one of the cute girls.

So I made friends with a group of teenagers, mostly French, who hung out on the plage, and even went to the movies with one boy. I was shocked to see actual bare breasts in the movie, and felt terribly sophisticated, knowing that nobody back home in Chicago would be seeing such things. At least nobody at my high school. The group I hung out with went to someone's villa one day, and I felt as though I were living in a movie myself. But the one thing that affected and influenced me forever afterward was one evening when my mother and I were sitting at an outdoor cafe, people-watching. At the table next to us was a group of English people, laughing and chatting; one man was particularly noticeable because he was particularly witty and had the entire table helpless with laughter. He had a wonderful Oxbridge accent (and was, I realized years later, as gay as a goose). Right then I decided that he was my role model. I wanted to be the witty person who could make the entire table laugh.

Salutations to that unknown raconteur! He never knew it, but he helped me discover my sense of humor and wit, and my ability to make people laugh. You know that old Lou Reed song about the girl whose "life was saved by rock and roll"? Well, that was me. My life was saved by the spirit of Fuck 'Em If They Can't Take a Joke. It took me years to develop it, but that man's example gradually came to be an essential part of my self-presentation.

When I returned to Chicago, I was not instantly popular, but there was something different about me so that I was no longer one of the freaks who always got picked on. I started dating (nobody from my own high school, but still, boys!) and realized that the very worst was over. And I owed it all to a flaming queen in the South of France, bless his heart.

That makes you smile, Franklin? Glad to be of help.

...

It was the day of the Masked Ball, and Winter was looking forward with delight to the evening. She had raided the attics for costumery weeks before, and had found a Masked Ball costume once worn by her mother: a white lace court dress, rather daringly low-cut, in the style of twenty years before, and a white mask to go with it which was sprinkled with false diamonds (they must have been false, otherwise they would have been picked off and sold by Grovater when he was short of money for one of his projects). Only minor alterations had been necessary to make the dress fit Winter to perfection, with a little judicious padding in the bosom to make up for her deficiencies in that area. And when she found a pair of white satin shoes in the attic which were still in reasonably good condition and which actually fit her feet, she was in alt. She knew she would look as pretty as any of the older girls, and much prettier than that horrid Amabelle or her constant companion and crony, Myrrhine du Valier, who was just as horrid and stuck up as her friend. Those citified minor royalty thought they were such a much, far too good for a mere country bumpkin Baroness' wedding, and had lost no time in letting everyone know it. Well, this country bumpkin was going to outshine them, Winter decided fiercely.

Veracity was going to attend the ball dressed as a gypsy in artfully torn tatters of blue, which looked lovely with her hair, and was a useful way of getting a little further wear out of her old blue dress with the rip in the skirt. The bodice to another, darker blue dress had been divested of its sleeves and now served as a corset to show off her admirable figure. And Conly took the line of least resistance and decided to go as a peasant. "I can wear my everyday clothes for that," he pointed out to counter his sisters' remonstration. His one concession to the occasion was a leather half-mask with an extremely bulbous red nose and goggling eyes, practical for staying in disguise while still being able to drink as much as he wished. When Veracity protested that he would look a figure of fun, he calmly answered that that was indeed his intent, and that it was very clever of her to have noticed. All she could do was roll her eyes and hope that some of the other guests would be in silly costumes as well.

Jean-Luc declined to wear costume; his customary well-cut clothes would serve perfectly, he declared. But he did condescend to wear a mask, that of a stylized lion-face. He would be the Beast to Veracity's Beauty. "But Beauty was not a gypsy," she protested, to which he answered that this particular gypsy was the most beautiful girl this Beast had ever seen, and the conversation became disgustingly lover-like; so Winter and Conly made their exits, with Conly miming retching and causing Winter to giggle uncontrollably.

Margalo was sharing Winter's bedroom, and when Winter went up to dress, she found her friend trying to stuff her plump form into an extremely low-cut gown of yellow with spangles, which did nothing for her ruddy complexion. Winter helped her lace herself up, as the maids were far too busy to help the younger daughter of the house, and the girls were on intimate enough terms that they would not mind helping each other. Margalo's costume also included a large hat with feathers, perched on a red wig, and a little half-mask which covered her eyes but did nothing to disguise her features.

"Aren't you going to be hot in all that?" asked Winter, and Margalo cheerfully said that she was planning to take the hat off after everyone had seen her in it, but that Ducan had told her that he liked redheads, so she would wear the wig as long as she could tolerate it. Margalo's own hair was a rather undistinguished light brown, pleasant enough but nothing attention-attracting like the wig. Apparently Ducan had told her a little more than his preference in hair color; Margalo was filled with a joyous expectancy that could not be quelled. She explained that he had asked her to save him a dance. Winter thought privately that he would most likely be dancing with every eligible female in the room, including Winter herself, but didn't express this to Margalo. It would be a shame to take away her self-confidence. The poor thing needed all the encouragement she could get, though Winter would not have encouraged her to choose yellow had she been consulted.

The two girls made their way downstairs to the ballroom and were announced by Ransome, who was playing the part of major-domo for one night. Buttercup seemed to be settling in nicely on her eggs, and one of the other stable hands was with her, so it should be all right. Veracity must have ransacked the attics to good purpose, as Ransome's uniform was a colorful antique hung with enough gold braid to serve as a prince's costume in an operetta. He was enjoying the change of pace, and his voice was stentorian enough to attract attention even over the chatter of over a hundred revelers. "Miss Winter von Wiederwachse-Miss Margaretta-Louise von Iseling," he roared in his most refined accent, and then gave Winter a wink as she murmured, "very posh, Ransome."

They made their way over to what Winter had privately called the Debutantes' Corner, where all the marriageable young girls were clustered under the aegis of several of the mammas. From time to time a young man would approach one of the flock, bow, and extend an elbow; the favored maiden would glance for approval toward the duennas, and then sail off to the floor with her dancing partner. Winter, as one of the host family, was busy immediately, dancing with Ivan von Iseling and several of the other boys before having her hand solicited by Ducan de Nevins.

Ducan had evidently been imbibing at the bar, though Winter could not see how he had had the time, as he had been dancing with a number of young ladies just as she had predicted. His half-mask, that of a fox, concealed most of his face, but his mouth and chin were bare, and Winter could smell the brandy on his breath. He held her a little more closely during the dance than she liked, and murmured in her ear that she was a remarkably fine looking girl, and that he would like to know her better, following this with a vacant laugh which made her sure that he was already drunk. She tried to widen the distance between them, but he was too strong for her; before she realized what was happening, he had danced her right outside the ballroom on to a balcony, where he proceeded to try to kiss her. His mask and hers got in the way, and with an oath he tore the mask from his face and threw it down, tipping Winter's mask up so that he could reach her mouth. This was most unpleasant. Winter did not want to kiss Ducan, especially not when he was the worse for drink, so she struggled vainly to get him to stop. She had opened her mouth to tell him to let her go, and had only managed to gasp, "Ducan-" when his mouth was on hers and his tongue was probing the inside of her mouth, while his hands roved about her body.

With a supreme effort Winter managed to escape Ducan's grasp, and slapped him soundly across the face. "How dare you!" she breathed, angrier than she had ever been in her life. "You have no right to take such liberties. You are disgusting!"

And she whirled about and ran into the ballroom, trying to adjust her mask so that nobody would see her scarlet face. She was only a child! How could he! She felt almost nauseated.

The very first person she met, and in fact almost ran into, was Margalo von Iseling. who was standing at the door to the balcony, and had evidently witnessed what had happened. "Margalo, not a word!" snapped Winter, and, trying to regain her composure, returned to the Debutantes' Corner, hoping that nobody had noticed her absence. When she glanced at the balcony door again, it was empty.

After a while, Winter's heart stopped hammering and she was able to act almost normally when Ivan von Iseling asked her for a second dance. But she did not know what to say, and Ivan noticed her unaccustomed quietness. "Is something wrong, Winter?" he asked. She was far too embarrassed to tell him and just shrugged, doing her best to keep up a flow of inconsequential chatter. With a quizzical look he led her back to the Debutantes' Corner when the dance was through, only saying that he hoped she would be feeling more the thing soon.

The rest of the ball passed with interminable slowness. Winter could only wish that each dance was the last. She tried her best to disguise her turmoil with a stream of mildly flirtatious remarks as she danced with one boy after another, and finally went into supper with Myrrhine's much younger brother Leo, who was only ten and attending his first ball. Fortunately, he was so awkward and embarrassed himself that he avoided speaking to her, only fetching her a plate of food before disappearing with several of the other littlies into a corner, where they could hide under a table and divide the several heaping plates of food each that they had managed to snag. Winter was glad to be alone; but as her eyes roved about the room, there were two faces she did not see: Margalo and Ducan.

...

Oh, man, high weirdness at the Schloss. I was only able to eavesdrop for the two half-hour minibites I get a day, but the contrast between Winter's happiness at the start of the ball (she looked fabulous, and so grown-up!) and later on when I checked in via potion and mirror, was disturbing. She was sitting by herself at the supper table, picking idly at a plate of something, but not eating. Something bad has happened. I wish she'd use her crystal to talk to me about it, but her schedule is crammed full. Damn.

In other news, Tessa Habbitt died today. In an odd way, I think I'm going to miss her; it's really no fun to be undisputed champion in the Age Sweepstakes. Oh well, as the man said, so it goes...

It was worse than she had thought. Neither Margalo nor Ducan appeared in the ballroom again, and Margalo did not come to the room she shared with Winter until the earliest dawnlight was just beginning to show on the horizon, and the nearer moons had set. She let herself in with utmost quietness and tiptoed to the bed in an obvious attempt to not waken Winter.

But Winter was awake, and had been so all night despite her attempts to sleep. She sat up in bed and turned on the lamp, to see a most bedraggled Margalo. Her dress was muddy and rumpled, the red wig and huge yellow hat had been left somewhere, and her hair was wildly tangled, and even had a twig tangled in it. She looked as though she had been dragged through a hedge backward. But there was a proud smile on her lips, which disappeared rapidly when Winter opened her mouth to question her about her whereabouts.

"Where were you all night, Margalo? I was so worried, but I didn't dare say anything to your parents," she asked as Margalo sat down on the side of the bed and hugged herself. "And what on earth is making you so -"

She had to stop and gape as Margalo held out her left hand, which bore a man's signet ring. "We are betrothed," crowed Margalo. "I knew you didn't want him when I saw you slap him, so I went to him right away. And he was wonderful, and he's mine, mine, mine!"

She fell on her face into the pillows in a fit of ecstasy while Winter goggled. "Margalo, you are betrothed to, to Ducan?" she managed, and her friend looked up long enough to nod and then burrowed into the pillow again as if it were Ducan himself.

How could this be? Winter knew Ducan had been drunk, but drunk enough to try to make love to her and then to become betrothed to another girl a few moments later? And how on earth had Margalo managed it? A couple of unpleasant ideas came into her mind.

"Margalo, you didn't let him, uh...?"

Margalo looked up at Winter. "He wanted to. And I believe I would have let him, because I love him more than anything in the world. But he...couldn't, he was too drunk." She giggled. "I held his head while he threw up. And when I gave him another glass of wine laced with, well, never mind that -"

Winter was aghast. "You gave him a love potion? Where did you get a love potion? And have you been carrying it about since he got here, just waiting for a chance? How could you be so foolish? You know that betrothals made under the influence of love potions are not binding!"

A trifle sullenly, Margalo said, "well, yes, and that is why you must promise me to tell nobody about it. You know, I'm not completely stupid. I can see that he didn't much care for me while you were in the room, even though you don't want him and besides, you are much too young. But I," she sighed rapturously, "am a woman grown, and I know very well what to do with a man like Ducan; so I just seized my opportunity. You must not give me away, Winter! You have been my friend forever, and it would be too selfish of you to do so just because he admires you. You know that you will have your pick of men when you are old enough. Please, Winter, please!"

She was nearly in tears by this time, so Winter rolled her eyes and promised not to tell anyone in the Schloss. The "woman grown" was finally persuaded to get out of her soiled finery and into a bedgown; fairly soon she began to snore peacefully.

Winter however did not feel at all like sleeping. What a pickle! If Margalo managed to pull this off (which was hardly likely, considering how highly-ranked the de Nevins were and how little the von Iselings had to offer in the way of money), she would have to live with Amabelle de Nevins until Ducan's sister married. Not to mention having to live with Ducan himself. Ick. Brainless, stuck-up drunkard, and the sort of pervert who liked forcing himself on girls who were far too young for him! I know what I'd like to do with Ducan, Winter thought indignantly, Kick his arrogant bottom for him, that's what. And Margalo was only fifteen, just two and a half years older than Winter, so she needn't plume herself on her maturity. "A woman grown," indeed! Even though it had to be admitted that she had a womanly embonpoint which needed corseting rather than padding to show to best advantage, and which some men might like more than Winter's straight-up-and-down figure...

Margalo was a nice girl, but she was crazy stupid in love with a nasty young man who did not care a rap for her without the aid of a love potion, and whom, if they were to marry, she would have to keep dosing continually. But there was something so pathetic about Margalo's unalloyed joy at making this unlikely catch that Winter's sympathies were reluctantly on her side. It would be like hurting a puppy to tell her any of the practicalities involved. She would have to lie in the bed she had made, and Winter sincerely (for she did love her friend) hoped that it would be as happy a bed as possible. In any case, it should prove most amusing to see Amabelle's reaction to the news of her brother's engagement. And that of Myrrhine du Valier (for Amabelle's best friend appeared to have sought that position in order to become closer to Ducan). The cat's among the pigeons now, thought Winter, and wished there were someone she could talk to about the whole thing. But she had promised Margalo that she wouldn't tell anyone in the Schloss...

Susan.

Susan wasn't in the Schloss, except in occasional ghostly form (which shouldn't count). Winter could always talk to her, and her long life experience might prove useful when it came to giving advice...

So it was that before even the earliest-rising maids of all work were making up the fires in the guest rooms, and the stars still shone, that Winter, clad for the stables, was sneaking down the grand staircase, headed for the Small Drawing Room and the crystal.

...

Winter showed up early this morning while it was still dark, and at first I didn't understand what she was talking about until she slowed down a bit. Holy crap! This is better than a soap opera. I'm sorry Winter had to be groped by that unpleasant young creep, especially since she confessed that this was her very first kiss. But the rest of it is pure bedroom farce. Margalo is in for trouble either way, whether she succeeds or fails in getting the jerk to marry her. But maybe he was so drunk he won't remember a thing to tell his buddies.

Damn, this is just like back in the 1950's, when there were only two kinds of girls, Good Girls (who didn't) and Nice Girls (who did), and once a girl fell into the latter category and got herself a reputation, no Good Boy would want to date her or go steady or anything. Of course, the couples who were Being Good together were inching their way toward Doing It. And there was a strict timetable of what was expected or allowed, depending on how long the couple had been dating, whether they had exchanged class rings, if he had given her his team jacket, and on and on and on in a perfect tea-ceremony of mutual frustration in steamed-up cars. The Sexual Revolution was, like the advent of free-form dancing which accompanied it, a liberating influence, even when it eventually dawned on me (several years too late) that the men still called the shots and that unwanted pregnancy was not the worst thing which could happen.

Anyway, it seems as if Winter's world is a restricted one for females. Surprise, surprise. Is there a realm anywhere in the Multiverse where woman have equal rights? And why the hell couldn't I have visitors from there?

Winter is a sweet child, and very bright. Even if she hadn't promised Margalo not to talk to anyone at home about all this, she is well aware that I'm the only disinterested person around. Veracity couldn't really do anything about Ducan putting the moves on Winter now that he's moved on to Margalo; Conly could fight a duel with him, but it's kind of pointless, and Winter tells me that Ducan is a much better duellist, so it would be risking Conly's life for nothing. Jean-Luc is not quite yet a member of the family, though I think he would probably be the most sensible of them all. And as for warning Margalo's parents, well that depends on how ambitious they are for her. Some parents would be willing to sell their kids to the Devil if it meant good trading relations.

Huh. Sounds like Earth.

I gave Winter as much encouragement as I could and advised her to simply let things play out as they will. There's nothing she can do for her friend, and she should be glad Ducan's not still chasing her around. And that she should do her best to forget his swinish behavior, stay away from drunks and bullies, and let her real genuine first kiss be pleasant and romantic. (That Ivan kid might be a good prospect for her once all this stuff blows over; but I didn't say so.) I told her to go and play with the dragons for a while and let the good clean air blow all the nastiness away. She smiled and said she would do just that.

Poor kid. Gods, I am sooooo glad I'm not young anymore. For real.

...

It was the last day before the wedding ceremony, and the main activity of the day was the formal Ceremony of Announcement of Betrothal, for all the joinings which had been arranged during the past two weeks. There had been much conferring and negotiating among the various papas and mammas involved in making matches for their offspring, for these betrothals were important business decisions; Winter, being one of the maidens still under tutelage or in school, was of course not privy to any of these deliberations, but she had been keeping an anxious eye on Margalo, to see whether her somewhat irregular engagement was going to result in parental negotiations with Ducan's father and mother. But Margalo was keeping mum. She had evidently regretted her initial disclosures to Winter, and tended to avoid her during the days' activities and at mealtimes, and come in late to bed. So it was not until the actual Ceremony of Announcement that Winter was able to even exchange a few words with her roommate. "Well?" she asked as she slid into a seat next to her friend, but Margalo only smiled mysteriously and laid her finger on her lips.

The entire family and all the guests, young and old, were assembled in the Ballroom, it being the largest room in the Schloss. Heraldic flags of all the noble families were displayed along the walls, and Winter wondered idly where on earth Veracity had come across them, though they did look impressive. At one end of the Ballroom, in the space usually reserved for musicians, a table was set up for the official Recorder, the Herald, and the three Judges, who had arrived with great pomp from the capital the previous evening, and who would rule on any irregularities or conflicts which might conceivably arise. Since these betrothals were binding contracts (and while it was possible to break a betrothal, it could not be done except for a very good reason), involving transfers of large amounts of land, property, and goods as well as allowing strategic joining of families, they were of immediate political interest to the High King. Also, some of the higher-ranked guests, such as the de Nevins and the du Valiers, were relatives of his. Ducan, Amabelle, and Myrrhine duValier were all some kind of cousins to the High King, and he would have a say in their marriage alliances.

The Head Judge, an impressively large man in fur-trimmed robes, had a Globe of Truth sitting on the table before his seat; he would use this to determine who was telling the truth in the case of disputed claims of Betrothal. Winter's stomach did a little flip-flop when she saw it; if Margalo's use of a Love-potion to bring about her own betrothal were to be examined, the match would be deemed invalid, and her whole family would be disgraced. But Margalo seemed perfectly confident.

Ducan de Nevins, on the other hand, seemed to be very nervous. Myrrhine du Valier had managed to snag a seat next to him, and was trying to engage him in conversation, but he was not paying attention, but fidgeting and pulling at his collar as if it were too tight until his mother, on his other side, jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. He subsided, looking rebellious and miserable. Well, thought Winter, he deserves it.

The expected roll of matches was read out by the Herald to polite applause at each pair of names. Winter was expecting to hear Ducan's name the whole time, but his was the very last on the list.

"Ducan Randolph Meritiz Andren, Prince-Junior de Nevins, and Margaretta-Louise Gratiana von und zu Dingen von Iseling, daughter of Baron Martin and Baroness Griselda von Iseling..."

There was a shriek from beside Ducan. Myrrhine jumped to her feet and screamed, "But he is betrothed to me! Our families have had it arranged for years!"

Ducan's and Margalo's parents all seemed as shocked as Myrrhine to hear the Herald's announcement, and Myrrhine's mother seemed about to have an apoplectic fit. Winter looked at the scarlet-faced Margalo, who seemed frozen to her chair, but who recovered sufficiently to say, "I wear his ring!" and stumble forward to the Judges' table and raise the hand with Ducan's signet ring on it to show the Judges. The entire crowd was abuzz with consternation. It was not entirely unknown for a young man to change his mind and offer for a young lady who was not the choice decreed by his parents, but it was the first time anyone now in the room had actually had it happen before their eyes. The Head Judge stood, vainly trying to shush the babble of voices, which was getting louder and more upset. Finally he resorted to pounding his fist on the table, which brought quiet back into the room.

The Head Judge, an experienced diplomat who was well-used to the vagaries of noble WychWorlders, first conferred with his fellow-Judges, and then turned to the crowd, speaking in soothing tones of the need for calm. "This is doubtless a mistake, my good ladies and gentlemen. This is why we judges are here, to investigate irregularities; so not to worry, not to worry. Young man," turning to Ducan, "Please to approach the Globe of Truth and we shall get to the bottom of this mix-up."

Ducan walked to the Globe like a man going to his own hanging, and placed his hands upon it. The light inside the globe swirled hypnotically, and as Ducan stared into it he became calmer, and answered the Judge's questions tonelessly

"Ducan," the Judge asked kindly, "are you betrothed to any of the ladies now in the room?"

"Yes."

"Can you name the lady with whom you have agreed to be wedded?"

"Myrrhine du Valier..."

Myrrhine smirked triumphantly, but Ducan was not finished.

"... and Margalo von Iseling..."

Now it was Margalo's turn to smirk, but there was more on Ducan's mind.

"...but I have changed my mind about both of them, and now I wish to wed..."

"Yes?"

"...Winter von Wiederwachse."

Myrrhine fell into an elegantly contrived swoon. Margalo burst into tears and glared at Winter, who felt as though a pail of hot water had suddenly been poured over her. Jumping to her feet, Winter said in a clear carrying voice, "While I am sensible of the honor done to me, I have no wish for a match with the Prince-Junior. I am far too young to marry anyone. And I have a previous commitment." Now why did I say that? she thought in a pani.c

The judge: "With whom, young lady?"

Winter looked about her, trapped. "With- with Ivan von Iseling, honored Sir." Catching Ivan's astonished look, she frowned at him, willing him to go along with her story. She would NOT consent to a betrothal with Ducan de Nevins. Ivan turned pale, but nodded when the Judge asked him for confirmation of his betrothal to Winter. By this time the elder von Iselings were beyond astonishment and simply goggled like fish at each new revelation, and Veracity was standing with her jaw dropped, one hand to her cheek, and the other crushing Jean-Luc's cravat. Oh, there would be repercussions when she got hold of her little sister...

The Judge sighed and removed his spectacles and cleaned them on a kerchief he had taken from his long sleeve, as he considered the facts. Finally, he said, "Prince-Junior Ducan, you have heard that the young lady you prefer is not available. And two young ladies are quite enough for any young man to marry, no matter how changeable the young man's mind might be. Therefore, it is the ruling of this court that you should be betrothed to both Myrrhine du Valier and Margaretta-Louise von Iseling. Your parents will have to negotiate with the parents of the respective brides to determine which young lady is primary wife and which secondary. I am sure you will have no difficulty in providing a suitable establishment for each of them. And may all three of you be very happy. You may be seated."

He went on, to Winter's dismay, "And, Miss Wiederwachse, would you and Mr. von Iseling care to have your betrothal added to the roll of those concluded here today?"

Winter shook her head violently at the same time Ivan nodded "yes." Another glare at him on her part turned his nod into a negative head-shake. "Perhaps at the next one of these ceremonies," said Winter a little maliciously. "When Prince-Junior Ducan is wed..."

She returned a sweet smile to Amabelle's glower and Ducan's snarl. It was a pity about Margalo, but she would at least have half of what she wanted, and Ducan would have twice the marital bliss he had expected. Now all she had to do was figure out how to let Ivan know, as gently as possible, that she had no intention of marrying anyone for at least ten years, especially him, and everything could be just fine. Not that he wouldn't be a perfectly fine husband, but Winter wanted to see whether she couldn't make a splash in Court society in a few years, once the family had managed to improve their finances, and perhaps end up with someone as rich and good-looking as Ducan. Only not as stupid and obnoxious, and without any horrid stuck-up sisters.

...

Oh. My. Freakin'. Gods.

By some miracle of good timing and thanks to the Seeing potion, I was able to attend the big betrothal hoo-hah- only missed the first couple of minutes when some of the betrothals were being read out, but I managed to be there (and with an excellent view of the proceedings from a handy niche halfway up the wall), during the Ducan-Myrrhine-Margalo-Winter-Ivan mess.

I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Winter was, well, I simply don't have the words. Attagirl! I have to marvel at her self-possession in a crisis. But one thing puzzles me: what was Ducan doing making an offer for Winter if he was still under the influence of Margalo's love-potion? Peculiar.

I wish I could take Franklin's ghost with me on these little excursions. I know he'd enjoy it as much as I do- he absolutely cracked up when I told him about the whole betrothal thing. Ghosts should be able to get through to WychWorld if anyone can. After all, Baron Hugo came to see me. It almost makes me wish I were dead so I could travel back and forth. But no, I'm still here, stuck in this rapidly disintegrating body. I don't get up much at all lately, so I think I'm getting ready to check out; but I can't possibly die now and not see how all this turns out. At this point it's even more important than reaching my hundredth birthday. Curiosity will keep me going. It's always been a strong motivator for me.

When I'm not getting all excited about what I see in the mirror, I spend a lot of time remembering, and sliding off into sleep while doing so, so that my dreams and my memories fade into each other. It's kind of pleasant, actually. Things that were absolutely excruciating at the time are now just amusing. They do say that time heals all wounds, and maybe that's what they mean.

That Ducan boy reminds me of, what was his name? Chuck, that's it. It was during my first year of college at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier. I had graduated high school a year early, and while I was doing my best to seem sophisticated and Cool, under my bleached-blonde hair was the brain of a rather bookish, essentially shy little virgin, living mostly in fantasyland, and with a very incomplete knowledge of how to relate to actual real-live people. I was seventeen, and far from having Winter's composure, I was all knees and elbows, socially speaking. I was still living at home, although relations with my folks were not good, and I planned to strike out on my own when I turned eighteen. College was a new start for me; nobody knew me for the outcast little geek I had been at Robert G. Slocum High.

I discovered T.S. Eliot and witchcraft in the stacks of UIC Library, and sang the blues to myself as I walked the 3/4-mile length of the pier to my classes. Yes, it was three-quarters of a mile long, the only college campus in the world which was mostly on water, and the janitors used bicycles to get from one task to another. It would have been fun to have had the four-year University there, but it had only been constructed on the Pier in order to give returning veterans from World War Two a place to study on the GI Bill; so it was, for several decades, only temporary. The four-year Chicago campus where I eventually finished up my BA sixteen years later was a triumph of urban renewal on the near West Side of Chicago, wiping out a thriving Greek community, but that's another story. Anyway, Navy Pier. The cafeteria was a challenge; I somehow managed to overcome my shyness and sit with a mixed group of male and female students rather than hiding alone behind a book, and try my untutored hand at flirting. That's where I met Chuck.

He was a good-looking, athletic, boy with a rather unpleasant cockiness about him which at once attracted and repelled me. He seemed somehow dangerous, and in just about all our conversations would make sexual innuendoes to which I did not know how to respond. I managed to get a ride home in his car with a group of students one time; after dropping off the other passengers, he pulled off the road at one of the north side lakeshore beaches.

It being early in the semester and still warm weather, the beach was crowded. Chuck started putting the moves on me, which I had half expected and didn't altogether dislike; but after a brief session of necking, he wanted to Do It right there in the car, with people passing by in broad daylight. I knew better than that - if I was going to give it up, it wouldn't be in public. Ooh, he was furious, finally started the car, drove me the rest of the way home in sullen silence, and almost shoved me out of the car when we got there. I knew I wouldn't be getting any phone calls from him asking me out.

But the next night some friend of his called and asked me for a date. And when I went out with him, I had to fight him off practically from the moment I got in his car; so apparently Chuck had been spreading my name around as a girl who was easy. I stopped hanging out with Chuck's group, and found some other kids to eat lunch with, but it always rankled that a boy could have so much power over a girl's reputation, and that her reputation should matter so much. Of course, this was in 1955, but still... Anyway, Ducan has that same attitude. Thinks he's god's gift to women and struts around like a little turkey cock. And probably brags to all his buddies about what he has managed to get a girl to do with him. I am so glad that Winter managed to put him in his place so publicly. But I hope there won't be repercussions for her and her family- he's pretty high-ranked in her world. And I think he's the type to carry a grudge. Jerk.

I still can't figure out what he wanted with Winter. She's very pretty, and whip-smart, but she's still built like a little kid, and way too young for him. And with both the other girls crawling all over him, and several others looking as though they'd like to, you would think he'd have too much on his plate to bother with a schoolgirl. Unless he's one of those perverts who likes them young... Makes my head ache.

...

Winter had been wondering the same thing. Why had Ducan offered for her in public if Margalo's potion was still in effect? Once the Ceremony was through, she narrowly managed to avoid her sister (who was advancing on her with a look which said she obviously had some major questions), and Ivan, who naturally would be looking for an explanation, and gripped Margalo's arm tightly, hissing at her that they needed to talk somewhere private.

Margalo's triumph was somewhat dampened by the knowledge that she would have to share Ducan with Myrrhine, but Winter's refusal of his offer and claim of an agreement with Ivan had defused Margalo's anger at her. So she went docilely enough, only complaining that Winter was pinching her arm, and that she would need to talk to her parents.

Winter paid her no mind, but dragged the older girl through a seldom-used servants' door behind one of the tapestries and into a passage that led out the back way. The greenhouse would be the most private place to talk, she thought; and as she opened its door it was only then that she released her grip on Margalo's arm.

"I shall have a bruise, Winter," complained Margalo. "You did not need to grasp me so tightly."

The two girls faced each other and Winter took breath. Then she launched into a rant which was, she thought later, one of her better ones, covering as it did a) Margalo's stupidity in trying to obtain Ducan in marriage by the use of a love potion when it should have been perfectly obvious that he was already destined by his family to unite with Myrrhine; b) Margalo's unlikelihood of being named anything more than Ducan's secondary wife and the resultant humiliation of her family; and c) finally questioning the efficacy of the potion, since it had allowed Ducan to make that embarrassing offer to Winter, which she was only able to evade by pretending to be affianced to Ivan, "which," she concluded, "is something I really do not want. I know Ivan is a nice boy and your brother, but I have no intention of becoming Ducan's sister-in-law. Where did you get that potion, anyway?"

Margalo, who had begun to weep during Winter's tirade, looked up at her from streaming eyes in a face blotched and red, and sobbed, "I m-made it myself. And it should have worked properly, because I used your laboratory, and followed the recipe in one of the books from your sister's Library. I d-don't know why it wore off in the middle of everything, and I don't know why he wants you, but at least he didn't say he wanted that horrible Myrrhine du Valier, and I did manage to get him, at least half of the time..."

She was crying harder now, and Winter gave her a handkerchief and bracingly told her to blow her nose and be quiet while she considered what Margalo had said. The little idiot! Winter thought.

"That was really stupid, Margalo-you know you are hopeless at making potions," Winter said at length in calmer tones. No sense in upsetting her further. "Why didn't you at least buy one from a reputable potion-maker? But what's done is done. What I would like to know is why he has fixed on me, when he knows that I am too young, and that I do not even like him. What recipe did you use?"

"Love-the-One-You're-With," said Margalo in a tiny voice, still sniffling.

Winter rolled her eyes and sighed deeply. "That potion is notoriously chancy, Margalo! I know that it uses fewer ingredients and is simpler to make than other Love potions, but when you combine it with a randy young buck like Ducan, it's a recipe for confusion, pure and simple. But that explains a lot. He must have been so drunk the night that you gave him the potion that he didn't even realize it was you. He must have thought I had reconsidered and returned to the balcony to be with him. We were both dressed in light colors for the Ball, and it was dark on the balcony. So perhaps he fell in love with me rather than with you under the effects of the potion. Did he ever say your name when you were out there with him?"

Margalo looked sullen, but had to admit that Ducan had called her "Winter" several times during their little interlude. "But he finally knew who I was just before he fell asleep with his head in my lap-" "Passed out, you mean," said Winter with a little more force than was strictly kind, but Margalo rushed on, unheeding. "And he knew who I was when he gave me his ring," displaying her hand and concluding triumphantly, "and since I have the ring and Myrrhine doesn't, that will make me primary wife, so there!"

"Primary, secondary, that's a side-issue," retorted Winter. "Somehow he managed to fall in love with both of us. Which means that as long as you keep dosing him with your potion he will love you, more or less, and honor your betrothal- but he will still want me as well, which is unacceptable to you as well as to me. Come, I see only one solution: I shall have to mix up a new batch of love-potion, properly this time, and you must give it to him when I am not around to confuse him further. And when he is not drunk, if there is any time he isn't. That is, if you are absolutely sure you are willing to marry Ducan."

Margalo assured her friend that she was completely willing, and that she appreciated Winter's help more than she could express, and if she needed any help in managing Ivan, Margalo would be happy to help in any way she could in discouraging her brother's advances "Right. I am sure you will be a great deal of help, Margalo," replied Winter dryly. "I think that you should simply leave all that to me." She held out her hand wordlessly, and after goggling at her a little, Margalo realized what she wanted and reluctantly placed a small vial in it.

So the two girls left the greenhouse. Margalo headed back to the Ballroom for her inevitable cross-questioning by various sets of parents, while Winter took a devious route to the Laboratory to see whether she could contrive a more effective and permanent love potion than Margalo's, which would hopefully put Winter out of Ducan's mind and leave only Myrrhine as Margalo's rival for his affections. The things we do for our friends, she thought.

...

Winter seems to have things very much under control at this point. And I am far too tired to keep worrying about her, or to do much except chat in a desultory way with Franklin, who has been spending a lot of time sitting in the chair by my bed. He isn't nearly as obsessed with Winter and her world as I am, of course, and we have been having nice long confabs about Witchy things. Differences in daily practice, for example. Franklin was a Gardnerian, and had cobbled together a rather nice-sounding set of prayers, chants, and songs from both old Gerald himself (the Book of Shadows which was posted on the Internet years ago, and Franklin would be among the first to admit that is probably not genuine, but pretty nevertheless...) and bits and bobs from the Golden Dawn and OTO (also readily available online). I must admit that a lot of old Aleister's stuff is absolutely gorgeous. The prayer for the dead from the Gnostic Mass, for instance. Franklin said he'd always wanted someone to say it over him, and nobody had when he died, so we said it together:

Unto them from whose eyes the veil of life hath fallen may there be granted the accomplishment of their true Wills; whether they will absorption in the Infinite, or to be united with their chosen and preferred, or to be in contemplation, or to be at peace, or to achieve the labor and heroism of incarnation on this planet or another, or in any Star, or aught else, unto them may there be granted the accomplishment of their wills; yea, the accomplishment of their wills.

And he told me that he'd say it over me when I finally kick, but who knows, I might be around to join in. And we talked about True Will, and how stupid we are that we can't see what is there all along, but let all these little side issues get in the way. What did you learn from your death? I asked him, and he smiled and said, What's really there. You ghosts are always so damn cryptic, I said, and he laughed but didn't tell me any more.

I wonder why I don't see more of my own personal ghosts, dead family and friends; but I suppose that not everyone wants to stick around that long. Considering the "labor and heroism of incarnation," which really is a lot of work, I can see where it might be nice to have a good long rest. It's mainly the itch of curiosity which keeps me in the body. And even though my body is failing, it's still the house I've been living in for almost a hundred years, and I'm used to it, so it's hard to move out and move on. But I have to confess that there is also a lot of curiosity about what will be revealed when "the veil of life hath fallen." This certainly is an interesting time! Blessed be my feet, that have brought me in these ways...

There's a new patient in Tessa Habbitt's old spot. She sleeps much of the time, I think. Her curtains are always drawn, and I never hear much of anything from her unless it's the aide coming in to clean her up or feed her. The aides call us all "Mama," which I think is rather cute. Liz, halfway down the ward, is forever taking off her hospital gown, and they keep coming back to her and saying, "no, Mama, keep your clothes on..." Which just tickles me, I don't know why.

Anyway, I have been keeping myself amused during the quiet hours by running energy through my body. Nothing extreme, just allowing the feeling of power to flow from the earth to my feet, to my knees, to my hips, to my belly, to my chest, to my throat, to my third eye, to my crown, and out off into space, then bringing it down the opposite way. Sort of an extended version of breathing, or cleaning out the pipes. I feel the unimportant things being breathed out and the light of the stars breathed in, as if someone else were doing it. No effort. Nice.

I used to do daily practice in the shower, because I liked to feel the water on me while I was running the energy vertically. Eventually, I had to give that up because the Water Shortages dictated one-minute-or-less showers (if you could manage one at all), and then only once a week or so, but I liked to picture myself as sitting or standing under a waterfall whenever I run energy. Even though the Earth has been mucked up irretrievably, there are still the habits of movement and mudra and toning that put me in the space where I could feel Her as She used to be. And I can do it lying down, which is just as well, because I don't think I could stand up unassisted long enough to do the entire thing, even though it takes less than ten minutes.

You know, it would be fun to be a ghost over in WychWorld. I always wanted to go to other planets, and I don't see any reason for not being able to cross over to other realms if I'm not tied down to a physical body. Franklin said he hadn't even considered it, but it seems obvious to me. What's the point of going half-astral if you can't go where you want?

...

Winter was in the laboratory, carefully mixing up the new potion for Margalo, when Ivan found her. She jumped a little at his greeting, but replied calmly enough with "How did you find me?"

"I knew you would be either with the dragons, or in the greenhouse, or here, so I came looking for you. I think you owe me an explanation."

Winter carefully poured the new potion into the first of several vials before answering. "You are right, and I am sorry to have sprung that on you, but it was necessary at the time. I apologize for using your name that way, but I had to give a credible answer when the Judge asked me with whom my prior commitment was. You were sitting right there, and since you are a friend of the family, I hoped you would not give me away." She turned to him with a smile. "Thank you very much for cooperating."

Ivan looked embarrassed. "So you are not serious about becoming betrothed to me?" he asked uncertainly.

Winter shook her head decisively. "No, Ivan. I like you as a friend, but you and I both know that I am far too young to make that sort of decision at my age. I needed an excuse, and I am only sorry I did not foresee that I would need to act as I did, or I certainly would have consulted you first. But it was an emergency."

He looked just the least bit disappointed, then smiled. "I cannot say I am completely surprised to hear you say that, Winter. It would be flattering to my esteem to have your affections, but as you say, you are too young. I am too young myself. But do you wish to keep up the pretense that we are a couple? At least until the festivities are over and everyone goes home?"

Winter looked at him fondly. What a good friend he was! "I think that would be the best thing to do," she said smiling, "and I have to say that you are being a really good sport about the whole thing. If I were to become betrothed to anyone right now, it would be you, because you are a good friend and both our families would like the match; but that is a matter for much, much later."

Ivan blushed at her praise. He was one of those unfortunate youths who blushed at the least thing, but Winter thought it was sweet. She rose on tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "There, my gallant knight, a token of my esteem." Laughing, she turned back to her work, to spare his further blushes.

After a moment of silence on his part, he cleared his throat and asked what she was making. "Oh, just a medicinal potion for Buttercup," she answered airily. "It has to sit for a few days, but then I will take it to Ransome." I am getting frighteningly good at telling lies, she thought. "All right, it is all bottled, and I cannot do more work on it today. Shall we go to the stables and see about exercising the dragons?"

Ivan's enthusiastic answer showed that the prospect of riding dragonback had pushed all other thoughts from his mind. Which was a very good thing, Winter thought.

Their session with the dragons was enjoyable in the extreme, as it took them (and Conly, who had escaped the Schloss as soon as possible) away, at least for a time, from the embarrassing questions which were inevitably going to be asked on their return. Conly was good enough to not ask them what was going on, and since Ransome was present, their conversation was confined to Buttercup's progress, Sky's wing, and who was going to ride which dragon.

Buttercup was still very touchy about who she let approach her. Ransome swore that more than one of the eggs was alive, and he had hopes of a full clutch of three. This was very rare indeed, and would be a sign of good fortune if it happened. Winter was mounted on Sixpence, Conly on Sky, and Ivan on Buffle. Once aloft, of course, conversation was impossible, and Winter was happier on Sixpence's back than she had been for several days. As she rose above the clouds to see the rays of the setting sun gilding the distant mountain tops, she could concentrate on the pure sensual experience of flying, the rush of the air, and the cool moisture of the clouds which left drops of condensation on her leather flying breeches and jacket and dampened her hair.

After their ride, the young people switched dragons to take up those who had not been flown, with Ivan and Winter riding double on Grandma and Conly on Pert, who was a trifle small to take two riders. This brought Winter and Ivan in close proximity; Ivan rode behind Winter with his arms about her waist. She was entirely unembarrassed about this, but Ivan was extremely conscious of her physical presence. Of course, he was still as devoted to Veracity as ever, but her little sister, while still a child, was beginning to seem very grown-up. Her silver hair blew into his face, damp and fragrant, but somehow he did not mind at all; and it seemed a very short time before they landed and he was forced to let go of his young "fiancee."

He threw an arm around her shoulder as they walked back to the Schloss, "in order to make our relationship seem more genuine to anyone who might be watching," as he whispered to her. She seemed to accept this with her usual calm, but Ivan was the one who was flustered. She may only have been a child, but she certainly was a tempting little thing... He felt filled with an unaccustomed desire to protect her against all dangers.

As Winter had feared, their loving relatives were waiting for them in some impatience. Winter put her sister off with the excuse that they would talk more in private, but Baron and Baroness von Iseling, who had just finished grilling Margalo about her arrangement with Prince-Junior Ducan, were not to be put off so easily by Ivan. He gave Winter one despairing look as he was borne off by his parents in the direction of their quarters, to which Margalo had also been banished. The von Iselings would spend the night together in their suite, and Winter would sleep alone. This was actually a relief to her; she had consented to make the potion for Margalo, but was far from confident about how long her friend could keep Ducan's interest, even with Magickal help.

Now all she had to deal with was getting through dinner and the evening without letting Veracity know anything other than the little Winter was willing to tell. Oh, and facing Ducan and Myrrhine and the rest at dinner as well. When the ladies retired to the Small Drawing Room after dinner, she would have to make sure to play the harpsichord for an extended length of time in order to avoid conversation, at least until the gentlemen joined the ladies for coffee and cards.

Fortunately, several of the protagonists in the afternoon's little drama had decided to dine in their rooms. Ducan and his parents were not in evidence, and Myrrhine had opted for a tray in her bedroom as well. Veracity obviously could not speak about any of this during dinner; she had attempted to confront Winter while they were changing for dinner, but Winter had begged her sister to let it go until bedtime, when she would explain everything. So Veracity had to contain herself in patience.

The only thing marring the apparent calm of the evening was Myrrhine's mother, who was heard to make several cutting remarks during Winter's stint at the harpsichord. But Veracity, who was turning into quite the diplomat, was able to soothe the Princesse-Senior du Valier with the judicious application of several glasses of home-made brandy and some of Cook's excellent pastries, to such good effect that the Princesse-Senior actually deigned to smile and applaud languidly when Winter finished playing. After all, the chit was already tied up with the von Iseling boy; she would be no threat to Myrrhine's marriage. That fat little hussy, Margalotte (or whatever she was called), however, was fortunate to not be in the room, as the Princesse-Senior would have taken her down a peg or two for daring to rise above her station.

...

I think I am ready to try to cross over to the WychWorld, but I'm not quite sure how to do it. Franklin isn't much help- he could only shrug when I asked him how ghosts manage to shift realms. So I figured that if a ghost couldn't do it, perhaps a Witch could.

I meditated for a long time, gathering power from the earth and the sky, and then applied the Seeing-potion to my eyes and took up the hand-mirror. I concentrated very hard on making the experience on the WychWorld side of the mirror as real and tangible as possible, and just pushing through into that place from this, and hoping very hard that it would work. After all, intent is, if not quite everything, pretty damn important.

I seem to have broken through at last. At first, it didn't seem any different from the previous times I had eavesdropped on events at the Schloss; but gradually my vision became clearer, and I began to see more details. Colors arre more intense, and it no longer looks as if I were seeing everything through a filter of some kind. I was floating along a passageway, and when I reached out to touch the wall, I was thrilled to actually feel the stone. And I noticed that, while I could float like a ghost, I was casting a shadow whenever I passed one of the torches that burned to light the passage. I sank a little lower so that my feet could touch the ground, and I was walking. This has to be a dream, because I haven't been able to walk for a while now; but it certainly feels real. I am quite free of my usual aches and pains, which is very pleasant. If this is a dream, it can go on as long as it likes as far as I am concerned.

I came to the Library, and at my touch the door opened. The late Baron Hugo von Wiederwachse's ghost was there, poring over a book. He reached the end of his page, but was unable to turn it, and looked about him in frustration for his servant, which was when he saw me. I went over to the book and turned the page for him without even thinking about it. He mumbled something and began to read again, but then it registered with him who had turned the page. Vot are you doink here? he asked; Dreaming, I think, I answered. Except that I can touch things and move them...

The Baron was astonished. This was something that no ghost could do, he told me, and no dreamer either. Visitors from other realms had appeared from time to time in WychWorld, but they were not usually quite as physically manifest as I appeared to be. I must actually be present in the flesh. What Magick had I used? I explained what I had done, and he pondered for some time, before expressing the opinion that I must be mind-traveling, and that it was a rare talent, but not completely unknown.

Our conversation lasted about the usual half-hour; but at the end of that time I didn't return to my bed, but stayed in WychWorld. And when I looked in a mirror, all I saw was the reflection of myself here in the Schloss rather than back in bed in the Home. I had somehow become costumed in a WychWorld dress of green (how convenient- it would not be helpful to be running around in a hospital gown! Guess my imagination was working overtime), and my reflection showed me to be around oh, perhaps seventy- elderly but not as ancient as I know myself to be. (Which was nice. It's really much more fun to have all one's faculties when in a foreign country.) And there was a faint pink vapor surrounding me, which, when I looked at my hands, was not simply a trick of reflection. When I waved my hand in front of my face experimentally, there was a trail, like those trails you see on acid, only mostly pink. How very odd. What is going on with my body at home? Is time passing at the same rate it is here? Have I become Glinda the Good Witch? (Well, no, because she had a crown and a foofy pink dress, and I am clad in a long dress in a sensible shade of dark green, with a leather belt at the waist from which hangs a scabbard containing a short knife, rather like a kitchen knife. And I don't have a wand with a star on it. But at least I'm not all in black with green skin, although I have to admit that Margaret Hamilton has always been a favorite of mine. I'll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too.)

Is this a dream? Do I care?

...

When Susan finally ran Winter to earth, it was quite late. Winter was sitting up in bed with the lamp lit, pondering. She knew she should be getting her beauty sleep, because the wedding was tomorrow, and it would not do to have dark circles under her eyes, but the problem of Margalo, Myrrhine, and Ducan was occupying her mind. During the previous half-hour, she had tried her best to explain her part in all of the day's events to Veracity, who had come to her room looking for explanations in a barely-suppressed mood of fury. Winter's story was necessarily a little truncated, leaving out as it did any mention of potions or Ducan's attempt on her virtue; and she told Veracity as calmly as possible that her betrothal to Ivan was of long standing, though quite informal, which was why she had not mentioned it to her sister. That was her story, and she was sticking to it. Winter added with some heat that she really was not interested in a formal betrothal with anyone right now, but would much prefer to keep her options open, so that an offer from one of the highest-ranking young men in WychWorld was not something she wished to accept, advantaged though it might be.

Veracity, while knowing that her devious sibling had her own agenda, had to be satisfied with this. She was far too caught up in the immediate responsibilities of managing her own wedding to be able to spare too much energy for something that could (hopefully) be settled later. At least she would not have to engage in negotiations with Ducan's parents, who were so high-and-mighty that she felt quite unable to face them. If anything of the sort were to arise in the future, Jean-Luc would be much better at dealing with it. Thank the gods for Jean-Luc.

So the bride-to-be retired to her own bedroom for her last night of single blessedness, and Winter breathed a sigh of relief when she had left. It was time to see what she could contrive for Margalo's benefit. Winter had been racking her brain for a way to deliver the new Love potion to Margalo without anyone's noticing. This had become nearly impossible since the elder von Iselings had placed their daughter under virtual seclusion in their rooms.

And it would take some doing to deliver the dose to Ducan as well, as his parents, still angry about his performance at the Betrothal ceremony, had severely limited his wanderings about the Schloss. The de Nevins had been negotiating with Myrrhine's parents for some time to arrange a match between their children, and he had managed in three days to upset their plans and saddle himself with an extra wife for whom they would have to provide a house and lands. Fortunately the little girl for whom he had expressed a preference (and what was he doing, chasing schoolgirls, and a younger daughter of a set of rustic Barons as well!) had proved unavailable. But they were now stuck with Margalo von Iseling, whose possession of Ducan's signet ring had given her status as primary wife over Myrrhine. This of course upset the du Valiers, especially the Princesse-Senior, almost to the extent of calling off their daughter's union with Prince-Junior Ducan, and it took some fast talking and some major financial concessions on the part of Ducan's parents to save the union.

Susan's knock startled her a little. "Who is it?" she called, and gasped with surprise when the old woman entered the room. "Susan! How did you get here? I am glad to see you, but this is a surprise!

"

Susan Sixpence grinned and waved her hand, leaving a faint pink trail of vapor, which faded out after a few seconds. "Winter, I'm here, really here! Is this cool, or what?" Her voice and demeanor were that of a middle-aged woman much younger than the ancient crone in the hospital bed, but Winter knew that this truly was her friend. Some Magickal thing had happened which neither of them could explain, and Susan was here in the flesh.

After some discussion of this fact, Winter said, "I wonder what powers you have in this world; the pink vapors around you indicate some sort of Magick, but we should see what you can do. Can you become invisible?"

Susan chuckled at the girl's irrepressible spirit of ruthless scientific inquiry, but shook her head. "But I can float, and I can make things move by themselves," she said, demonstrating by rising several feet in the air and making the lamp rise with her without touching it, before sinking back to the floor and returning the lamp to its place on the bedside table. "I was messing around trying to figure out what I could do for about an hour before I found your room. But I think I've got a power that's better than invisibility, and it's not even Magick."

To Winter's eager query as to what she might possibly mean, Susan said, "Look at me. I'm not dressed up fancy like one of your lady guests, but more like one of the servants. I can go anywhere in the Schloss and not be noticed, because nobody notices servants." She grinned impishly. "That means that if you have anything you want taken from one place and put somewhere else, I can do it... like potions, for example."

"Oh, Susan, that would be perfect!" Winter cried enthusiastically. "If you could dose some wine with the potion, and somehow get Ducan and Margalo to drink it together, they would fall in love. But I don't know what to do about Myrrhine. She is a horrid girl, but I would not wish even her to be an unwanted wife. Is there any way that you can contrive to have all three of them drink it together? That seems to be the only way to assure any happiness for that trio - not that Ducan deserves it, because he is just as horrid as Myrrhine - but I am mainly thinking of Margalo's happiness. And of not having any more upsets to spoil poor Veracity's wedding."

Susan was silent for a while, and then said, "I'll do my very best. I don't think I can manage it tonight, but I might be able to sometime tomorrow. Is there any time when everyone drinks a toast to the newlyweds, or anything like that?"

Winter smiled. "Oh, yes, after they take their vows, the Loving Cup is passed and everyone drinks from it. Actually, not from the very same cup, since there are so many people present that passing a single cup would take forever, but the servants go around and give cups of wine to everyone - and betrothed couples, or triples in this case, drink from the same cup. I would not be able to dose Ducan's cup, but if you were one of the servants, you could quite easily, and from a distance as well, which would be just what we need."

She handed Susan a vial of blue potion. "Here is the new batch of Love potion. A few drops in the cup should do it. Thank you so much, Susan - your arrival could not have happened at a better time."

...

I didn't feel the need for sleep after meeting with Winter (do dreamers sleep? and am I dreaming?), so I went to the empty kitchens where I could practice levitation uninterrupted. It was a little spooky in the cavernous room, but the remains of the fire banked in the huge hearth, in which you could probably roast a whole ox if you wanted, kept it warm, and I found some candles in a drawer. First I practiced with a battered old goblet that I found on one of the massive oaken tables, taking a small dish of water and trying to levitate a few drops into it from various distances.

Well, I have always been a klutz, so I ended up with a lot of water on the floor. I was going to have to do this potion trick up close and personal, as my aim was definitely not to be trusted from any further away than about a yard, and from across the room it was hopeless.

After a while I decided to see what other little stunts I could do, since it would be hours before any of the kitchen crew showed up to start cooking. I could change my clothes from the simple green dress in which I started out into something a lot more fancy. Actually, several varieties of something, up to and including a full-out pink Glinda outfit complete with crown, star-tipped wand, and all. That made me giggle, looking at my reflection in one of the windows; but on reflection it might come in handy for special effects, in case of discovery. A floating Glinda would definitely attract attention, if I wanted it. But for now I changed back into my green servant's gown, and added a nice white apron and cap for good measure. I definitely looked the part; the Schloss people would just think I was with the Judges' entourage, for they were staying to officiate at the wedding; and the Judges' servants would simply think I belonged at the Schloss. So I was covered either way. And I was sure that nobody would object to an extra pair of helping hands.

After I had perfected my levitation technique to as good as it was going to get, which was close enough for jazz, I decided to wander about and scope out the scene of the crime-to-be. The wedding was going to be held in the Ballroom, which was the only room in the place that would fit all the guests and servants. Someone had already been busy; there were rows of chairs already set up, facing a little dais, which was decorated with a flower-trimmed arch under which stood two velvet-upholstered chairs. Very nice. And there was a long strip of purple carpet running down the central aisle leading to the dais, down which the bride would advance. Winter had explained the details briefly so that I could envision the layout in my mind and be able to get to Ducan and his two brides-to-be with the least loss of time.

By this time it was just before dawn, so I returned to the kitchens, the precious vial safely in my pocket, and prepared to lend a hand. The cook, an enormous woman with a bright red face and a hoarse voice, greeted me without suspicion when I told her I was with the Judges' servants, and had been sent to see if she needed any help. She set me to peeling potatoes for breakfast, and I spent the next couple of hours amusing myself by eavesdropping on the kitchen gossip while preparing various foods to be cooked for both breakfast and the wedding feast that evening.

Of course, the events of the Betrothal Ceremony were gone over with great relish and even greater detail, and I congratulated myself for managing to land in Information Central. The servants who belonged to the Schloss were uniformly amused at Winter's sudden announcement of her betrothal to Ivan, which, as Cook said, "has been expected I dunnamany years." The public humiliation of the Prince-Junior was met with a mixture of high snobisme and reluctant enjoyment by his own servants who were eventually unable to resist gossiping about it with great relish. A good scandal trumps attitude, hands down. Besides, the Prince-Junior and his sister were not easy masters, and their servants disliked them. Respect for the parents involved kept the gossip confined to the younger generation, but there were some knowing smiles exchanged. And the von Iseling servants were almost as much in shock as their employers, so there was nothing useful to be gained from their responses to questioning.

I never realized how much fun goes on below-stairs. The work is hard, and Upstairs is demanding; but for the most part the servants were enjoying the situation hugely, especially those whose masters had nothing to do with the brouhaha. I could stand to be a servant in one of these big old castles... especially with a few Magick tricks to help me get things done more easily.

It has taken a remarkably short time for me to acclimate to Wychworld. I had no idea I was that adaptable. I do miss Franklin, but you never know, perhaps I can manage to bring him over some time, through the crystal in the Small Drawing Room. That is, if he wants to come.

Eventually breakfast was cooked and we moved on to the serving of food. We dished it up into large platters, more like trays, with silver covers, and staggered with them up to the dining room, where we placed the trays on racks over little spirit-lamps, which were stationed on an enormous buffet at the side of the room. Guests would filter down from the bedrooms whenever they were ready, and serve themselves, eating at the long table, which had every single leaf installed and stretched from one end of the room to the other.

They would be eating eggs (scrambled, fried, coddled, or boiled), potatoes, various kinds of meats, toasted bread, rolls- a typical English breakfast from the Old Days. There was even a huge dish of kippers, which made me a little nostalgic for the breakfasts of my childhood. I've always been one for a big breakfast. But strangely enough, I wasn't at all hungry. When we servants went back to the kitchens for our own morning meal, I managed a little toast, a cup of tea, and a boiled egg, which I ate with a spoon from an egg-cup after slicing its top off with a knife, and which put me in mind of my aunt Rebecca, who had always told me to "eat bread with your eggs, or they'll stick to the lining of your stomach." Actually, I think that forcing Sid and me to eat bread with everything was a way of filling us up cheaply; but for years the thought of eating eggs without bread made me feel just a little bit ill.

After the nobles finished their breakfast, we were told off to clear the dining room and re-set the table for the feast that evening. The wedding was scheduled for early in the afternoon, and everyone wanted to be there, so we hurried through our work. The valets and ladies'-maids scurried up to the bedrooms to begin the process of dressing their masters and mistresses, and I thought it prudent to retire upstairs with the rest of the Judges' staff.

I was becoming nervous the closer the big moment came. Periodically I would feel for the precious vial of love potion, just to reassure myself that it was still in my pocket. I had scoped out the whereabouts of the wine and cups that were to be used for the passing of the Loving Cup; I had practiced levitating the potion into the cup; I was as prepared as I was going to be. It was time to find a hiding place until I had to play my part.

The upper floors were devoid of hidey-holes, so I decided that it might be a good idea to get out of the Schloss until the wedding, so I took a slow walk around the kitchen gardens, which were extensive and obviously well-cared for. I plucked a sprig of lavender and sniffed it as I roved through the herb garden toward the greenhouse. Suddenly, as I approached the greenhouse, I heard the sound of female voices raised in argument.

I opened the door and saw Myrrhine du Valier and Margalo von Iseling in the midst of a furious argument which was, if I was any judge of such things (and, believe me, I am) was at the "Did not!" "Did too!" stage, and just about to descend to the hair-pulling level. Myrhine made a snatch at Margalo's hand and tried to possess herself of Ducan's ring; Margalo responded by using her fingernails to such good effect that Myrrhine stepped back momentarily with a long scratch on her arm before returning to the attack. Both girls were screaming at such a volume that they did not notice my entry; in fact, they would not have noticed it if an army in full uniform had come in, complete with cannon and ball. And now they were both trying with great enthusiasm to pull each other's hair out.

I thought it time to take a hand. "Young ladies!" I yelled at the top of my lungs, at the same time levitating the two of them apart. They both turned, startled. I decided to add a little showmanship to my approach, and rapidly turned my dress red, got rid of the cap and apron, and took on the aspect of a noblewoman of WychWorld. I floated gently up a few feet from the ground and looked down at them sternly. They gaped up at me in stark amazement as I proceeded to read them a lecture on the Proper Behavior for Young Ladies which I cribbed wholesale from my memories of all the Regency romance novels I had ever read. I was pretty damn convincing, too. I reminded them of the responsibility they owed to their noble families, of how they would have to learn to get along when they were both married to the Prince-Junior Ducan, and, most importantly, how late it was getting and how their ladies'-maids would be waiting to get them dressed for the ceremony. I finished by asking them how they expected to look their best if they tore each other's hair out, which was my most telling point; they gave each other a look of loathing, then turned and ran toward the Schloss and the tender ministrations of their waiting-women, all questions of who I might be driven completely out of their little minds.

I practiced a few quick changes before returning to my servant-woman appearance. This could be useful... But it was time to go back to the castle.

...

Winter was sitting decorously trying not to move and wrinkle her new dress. After helping her into the dress and arranging her hair, Margaret had ordered her in tones that brooked no opposition to sit still and not get anything dirty. Fortunately, her hands were encased in satin gloves that buttoned at the wrist and reached above her elbows, so there was no danger of inadvertently wiping her sweaty hands on her skirts. And she was sweating, not from the heat but from nervousness, to the point that she had to hold her arms away from her body so that she would not end up with big stains under them. It was not a comfortable position to hold for very long, so she rose to her feet and paced restlessly around her room. She fanned herself from time to time with the delicate ivory-and-ostrich-feather fan that had been dyed pale green to match the dress and gloves. A glance in the mirror reassured her that she looked very nice and that the ornament in her hair was not falling out, but Winter could not sit still. Finally there was a knock on her door and Veracity came in, dressed in her red bridal gown with the long red head veil that trailed out behind her. Veracity looked as nervous as Winter felt, which somehow relieved some of Winter's feelings.

"I just came in to see how you look," said her older sister, and Winter smiled. This was supposed to be a happy occasion, after all. "You look wonderful, Veracity," she said. "Jean-Luc will be bowled over."

Veracity smiled and twirled herself around, the veil following her like a long tail and getting tangled in her skirts. Their efforts to straighten it out broke the tension, and Winter said in more natural tones, "Well, what do you think?" Veracity kissed her little sister on the cheek and laughed. "I think that someone else will be bowled over as well," she said impishly. "And a certain Prince-Junior will be very, very sorry that you have a prior commitment."

Winter tossed her head, to the danger of her hair-ornament. "You know perfectly well that I would never have accepted Ducan even had I been older. He is not someone I would care to have much to do with. But all that is moot. Are we ready to go to the Ballroom and get you married at long last, or have you decided to be an Old Maid like me?"

Giggling as they had not done for a long time, the sisters left the room and headed for the Grand Staircase. Winter was feeling a lot better. If Susan could pull off the potion trick during the Loving Cup, everything could be just fine. And if not, all was not lost; there was always the reception. In any case, it was a relief to be able to move again. She knew enough to avoid walking too close to furniture that could snag the satin. But after her grand entrance and march up the aisle as train bearer for the bride, she would simply refuse to worry about her clothes. She had enough on her mind without that.

The entire company was assembled in the Ballroom and the flute-players who were carefully concealed in the minstrels' gallery were playing a sweet, slow melody, the Spring Maiden Song, which was traditional for brides. Jean-Luc was already standing by the dais next to the Head Judge, with a somewhat dazed expression on his handsome face. Conly was waiting to take Veracity's arm at the door, and Winter picked up the end of her train and tried to match the dignified pace with which her siblings proceeded along the strip of purple carpet.

The trip along the carpet seemed to Winter to take forever. She was suddenly awkwardly conscious of her feet, and hoped to heaven that she would not trip over her skirts. Veracity, on the other hand, was sailing along just like a ship under full sail, and reached the harbor of the dais with a brilliant smile at her bedazzled groom, which he returned. The two of them met and Conly handed his sister over to Jean-Luc, who ushered her into one of the chairs before sitting in the other, still gazing at his bride. Conly then took Winter's arm and steered them both to one side of the dais, facing the audience. The Judge approached the couple in the chairs, took hold of Veracity's right wrist and Jean-Luc's left, and tied them loosely together with a scarlet cord. Then turning to the audience, he raised his hands and, looking to the ceiling, recited the traditional Making of Sacred Space in the Old Tongue. Translated, Winter knew it went thus:

"What is between the worlds concerns not the worlds,
Yet will change the worlds!
Be this space safe from all evil,
A lens to concentrate the power of love."

His voice was deep and sonorous, and hearing the words made Winter shiver. She glanced out into the audience and caught Ivan looking at her with an expression which made her a little uncomfortable; so she shifted her gaze to Margalo, who was sitting next to him. Margalo was not looking her best; her eyes were a little red, but she grasped the arm of Ducan de Nevins who was being gripped just as tightly on the other side by an equally flustered-looking Myrrhine du Valier, and looking as if he would rather be anywhere but here. Ha! He is getting just what he deserves, thought Winter, and her lips curved upward in a delicate little smile.

The ceremony went on. The Judge informed those present that they were now in the Holy Presence of the Gods, and any falsehoods, doubts, or unfinished business of any sort must be put aside as they witnessed the bonding of this couple together. "Baroness Veracity Tourmaline von Wiederwachse of Schloss Wiederwachse and M. Jean-Luc Marek de Fontaine Bonnefortune of the Family Bonnefortune have chosen to bond together for their lives. Is there any who would stop this joining?"

The audience sat in rapt stillness.

The Judge continued. Motioning for the couple to stand, he took a goblet full of wine and a knife from a small table, which stood to one side of the dais. Dipping the knife in the wine, he then replaced the goblet and cut a tiny nick in the bound wrists of the bridal couple, wiping the knife afterward on the bond that tied them. Turning to the crowd again, he said, "Thus are those who are bound together committed to suffer together."

The blood was running down their wrists and soaking into the scarlet cord. The Judge held the goblet of wine underneath the cord and caught a drop or two of blood from each of them, then took their hands and pressed their wrists together, saying, "Thus are those who share their suffering made one in blood."

Cutting the blood-soaked cord off each wrist, the Judge rolled it up, saying, "And thus are those who are one in blood made free."

He put the cord on the table and presented the cup to the bride and groom, saying, "This is the Loving Cup. As the knife is to the sky, so the cup is to the earth, and from their union, worlds are born. Drink and be one in the name of All Gods."

There was a roar from the audience as first Veracity and then her new husband drank from the Loving Cup; servants passed among the audience, passing out duplicate cups of wine for them to drink. And Winter looked hopefully over the rim of her goblet for Susan somewhere in the crowd.

...

Now, as I say, I am a lifelong and notable klutz. Things just seem to happen around me which can't be explained.

There was the time when I was doing housecleaning for a living. I had signed up a new cleaning client who lived in the Marina district of San Francisco, on the third floor (four flights up actually). The main thing he wanted done was his laundry, and he told me on the phone that there was a washing machine and dryer down on the basement level that I could use. When I got to his place, he'd left the keys to his apartment for me inside a cinder block in the unlocked garage. I went up to his apartment and started sorting the laundry. There were at least fifty pounds of tee shirts, running shorts, and athletic socks, as he was an avid jogger; but I managed to cram it all into one lawn-sized and two kitchen-sized garbage bags, took a pocket full of the change he had left for the machines, and kicked the bags down the back stairs. When I got to the basement level, I looked around for the laundry room, but couldn't find it, so I started trying all the locked doors. One room had a lock that almost fit one of the keys, but the key wouldn't go in all the way or turn. Damn, I thought, the key is messed up; guess I'd better go get the shopping cart from the garage and haul the laundry to the closest Laundromat.

I went into the garage and opened the lock tethering the shopping cart to the guy's motorcycle, but by the time I got back to where I left the laundry, it had vanished. The garbage man had come and thrown it all in the big hopper of his truck! It was a total "I Love Lucy" moment, something you would only expect to see on TV. Fortunately, the garbage truck was still sitting out on the street with its motor running, so I talked the garbage man into diving into the hopper and trying to retrieve what I hoped was all the laundry.

I began looking for the closest Laundromat. It was a hot sunny day. Nobody I approached on the street seemed to speak English or know what I was asking for, but I finally found it. Unfortunately, the machines were all busy. So there I was, slogging along Union Street with this giant pile of laundry in a shopping cart, sweating like a pig, stinking of garbage and looking (and feeling) like a homeless person (which may have explained the reaction I was getting from the people I stopped), until I found the next closest Laundromat... eight blocks away from the house.

I grabbed the two biggest machines and filled them with laundry, then dashed the eight blocks (and up the four flights of stairs) back to the apartment, where I cleaned one of the rooms. Then it was time to dash back to the Laundromat and throw the stuff in the dryer. Fortunately it no longer smelled of garbage.

Then I dashed the eight blocks (and the four flights) back, and cleaned most of the rest of the house; then it was time to trudge on back to the Laundromat and take the laundry out of the dryer. (By this time I was no longer dashing.)

The client had more tee-shirts and socks than I had ever seen, but eventually I got everything folded and back in the cart, and trudged back the eight blocks (and up the four flights) with the fifty pounds of laundry, grabbed the sheets and towels, made up the bed, and left everything else sitting on chairs in the bedroom. There were a few socks missing, but he had enough left to stock a store, so the heck with it.

I cleaned the bathroom and finally got out of there six hours after my arrival; the last thing I did was phone the client and tell him that I couldn't find the laundry room and ask if I could have the extra $20 he left "in case." (I didn't tell him about the garbage incident.) He told me I had been looking in the wrong place, that the laundry room was downstairs, and, yes, I could have the money; but he didn't sound too pleased.

I decided when I got home that nothing could persuade me to return to the Cleaning Job From Hell; but before I had a chance to let him know, his girlfriend called me to tell me that his regular housekeeper, who had been out with a bad back, was now available, so they wouldn't need me any more. Big sigh of relief. No wonder she had a bad back. I was reminded of that Laurel and Hardy movie where they are taking a piano up a looooong flight of stairs...

...One of my favorite memories which are much more fun to look back on than to live through. But anyway, this kind of thing has happened to me all my damn life, so why should this Love-potion trick be an exception?

The wedding ceremony had been so sweet that I was still sniffling a little when the announcement of the Loving Cup took me by surprise. I was doing my best to get the vial of potion open unobtrusively so I could put a few drops into Ducan's cup, but somehow I managed to dump about half the vial in the goblet. Yikes.

But it was important for me to get the right goblet to Ducan before he was given one by another of the servants, so I made a kind of end-run around several people to get to him. Every servant in the Schloss was passing goblets, and the scene was almost complete bedlam, so nobody noticed me skid to a stop in front of Ducan, just in time to thrust the goblet into his hands and dash off, mission accomplished. He took the cup, drank a healthy swig, made a face, then handed it off to Margalo, who drank eagerly before handing back to him. He passed it to Myrrhine, who was looking very sullen about being served last, but drained the rest of the wine in the goblet. All I could do at this point was hug the wall with the other servants, and hope the potion would work the way it was supposed to.

The entire room was filed with noise and laughter, with couples toasting and kissing each other, as Veracity, Jean-Luc, Winter, Conly, and the Judge retraced their steps down the aisle and into the hall to form the reception line.

I shut my eyes in momentary fear that I might see my most horrible imaginings come true: Ducan and his brides-to-be rolling around on the floor in the throes of potion-induced passion, with the servants eventually being forced to throw a bucket of water on the three of them to get them separated, giving the witnesses a story on which they would be able to dine out for years.

Nope. Not gonna happen. No way. If this was a dream, it was my dream, and I wasn't going to have a trio of randy teenagers spoiling Veracity's wedding.

When I dared to look, the three of them were still glued to their seats, gazing at each other. Well, better than on the floor. But the servants needed to clear the room of chairs and wedding props so there could be dancing after the feast, so I approached them. Ducan had an arm around each of his brides, who were nestling toward him. And all three had somewhat glazed looks on their faces, so I took this as a good sign. "Come on, kids," I said in a quite un-servantlike manner. "Time to do the reception line thing."

"Mmmm," sighed Margalo, with a silly smile.

"Mmmm," agreed Myrrhine, looking at Ducan with devotion.

"Mmmm," rejoined Ducan in the most pleasant voice I had yet heard from him, and flashed his white teeth at each of the girls in turn, eliciting more heartfelt sighs.

Oh dear. What was I to do with them? Get a room, guys, I thought. But I had to persuade them somehow to leave the Ballroom, and stash them somewhere if they were incapable of acting the part of well-behaved young aristocrats at the feast. "I know what," I muttered, more to myself than to them. "I'll put you in the minstrel's gallery. By the time the musicians arrive for the dancing you'll have sobered up a bit. I hope."

Well, that was one of the champion feats of levitation, I can tell you. Ducan was a well-grown boy, and Myrrhine was surprisingly heavy for being so skinny. And as for Margalo, well, she's a nice girl, and I wish her well, but she's no lightweight. So I pulled my concentration together and levitated her first, then Ducan, on to the gallery, saving Myrrhine for last. She was a handful, as she was just beginning to come to her senses, just enough to make a fuss but not enough to be any help.

But I managed to float them all up there, and hovered in midair long enough to tell them quite sternly to "stay," and then hurried down to help stack chairs. I have no idea why none of the other servants in the room noticed. People see what they expect to see, I guess, or maybe I was developing invisibility. Or maybe the Power to Cloud Men's Minds, which would be useful. Or maybe they were just too busy working. All I know is that my pink vapors were heavy around the gallery, so Magick was involved. Hey, I only work here. I can't explain it either.

...

Winter had been seated next to Ivan at the feast, with Conly on her other side. She eyed the three vacant chairs across from her that had been set aside for the Prince-Junior and his brides-to-be, hoping that Susan had managed the Love-potion without incident. Actually, she was rather relieved that she would not have to face Ducan staring at her from across the table. Who had set up these table arrangements, anyway?

But it meant that she had to talk almost continuously with Ivan, as Conly was happily chatting up one of the prettier girls in Amabelle's entourage, and on Ivan's other side sat another of the littlies, Lily du Metz, a girl of nine who was too shy to look up from her plate or do more than nod or shake her head when spoken to. Veracity has done this on purpose, Winter thought as Ivan turned to talk to Lily and Conly dug into his food rather than holding speech with his little sister as politeness demanded. She is throwing Ivan and me together because of our "betrothal." Well, it won't work, I'm not going to make it formal and tie myself down to any boy, even though he is looking rather delicious tonight. And he has been nothing but kind to me...

Just then her thoughts were interrupted by Conly's asking her to pass the rolls, and subsequent comment that he wished all this was over with so he could go to the weyr and check on Buttercup's eggs. Winter agreed distractedly, and he took a closer look at her. "Are you all right?" he inquired with some concern. Buttercup and the prospect of thrsee new dragons had been the main subject of conversation between the siblings for the last few days, when they had found the time to talk at all.

Winter shook her head and smiled. "Just a brown study. I wonder what has happened to Prince-Junior Ducan and his two betrotheds?"

"Yes, I was wondering that myself," he brother returned. "Margalo has never been known to miss an opportunity to eat."

"Be quiet! He'll hear you!" Winter shushed him, indicating Ivan on her other side, still trying to induce Lily to come out of her shell. Her brother winked and turned to chat up the pretty girl from the capital once more, and Winter turned away from him to see Ivan looking at her with the same intent expression which had disturbed her during the wedding ceremony. So she began to talk about Buttercup; it would serve to deflect his ardor, if that's what it was.

Finally the meal dragged on to a close, the champagne toasts were given, and the cake was wheeled into the dining room. Susan was among the servants passing out cake, and managed to be the one to give Winter her piece, which gave Winter the opportunity to whisper a little frantically, "What has happened to ...them?" with a little jerk of her head across the table to the empty seats. Susan whispered back, 'Minstrels' Gallery. I think I gave 'em a bit too much," before decorously passing out more plates of cake to the surrounding guests.

Oh, damn, Winter thought. We'll need to get them out of there and off somewhere private to recover themselves before the musicians set up for the dancing. But how...?

She turned to her right, smiled brilliantly at her swain, and said in her most coaxing tones, "Ivan, my gallant knight, could I perhaps ask you for a small favor?"

...

Making some excuse, which she could never afterward recall, Winter led Ivan and Conly into the now-empty Ballroom, where Susan awaited them. "Good," she said. "Nobody will see us. What we need to do is get those three out of the Minstrel's Gallery and safely to their own rooms before everyone comes in and sees them. Ivan, you take Margalo up to your family quarters. Conly, you deal with Myrrhine. and Susan and I will take care of the Prince-Junior. How are they doing up there, Susan?"

Susan floated gently up to the level of the gallery and peered over the railing at the trio. Winter had been forced to disclose Susan's Magickal abilities to the two boys in order to get their help, though Ivan, anxious to protect his sister's reputation (or what was left of it) did not need that much information in order to aid in this project.

"Out like a light, but it looks as though they've been having their fun, because the girls are both half-out of their clothes, and Ducan's breeches are around his knees," the old woman called down with a grin. "I'd better get in there and tidy them up a bit; then I'll levitate 'em down and we can start taking them home. Let's prop them behind that tapestry there for safekeeping, and we can get them out of the Ballroom one at a time. It would attract too much attention to do them all at once."

Winter nodded, and the task of getting the three sleepers out of the Gallery in respectable condition began. Susan was becoming tired, despite her Magickal powers; it was a lot to expect of a hundred-year-old woman (or as near as made no difference), even a Magickal one, to rearrange the clothes of three great healthy Wychworld youngsters and then levitate them to the Ballroom floor without dropping them. It was not until she was lowering Ducan, however, that her strength failed, and he hit the wooden floor with a resounding "thump!" Fortunately, he had landed on his head, so he would be none the worse the next day except for a headache. Which he would richly deserve, in the opinion of all the conspirators.

They had just finished stowing their unconscious (and still obviously-disheveled) charges behind the tapestry, when the musicians began entering the Ballroom to take up their stations for the dance. There would be no chance to do anything with Ducan and his ladies until the end of the festivities. Winter shrugged. "Oh well, at least nobody's seen them yet," she said resignedly. "But we should all keep an eye out for any activity behind the tapestry."

...

I'm not cut out for all this kind of excitement. I've been used to a quiet life the last few years; but I do have to admit that all this hoo-hah has been a challenge which I seem to have been meeting pretty well. Well, except for the potion mistake. And dropping Ducan on his head, which I might have done deliberately if I weren't such a nice old lady. But Winter is a genius at this kind of adventure. She must have been hell to raise, and she's got Ivan completely twined around her little finger. A chip off the old block, from what the gossip in the servants' hall has it. Her mother was just the same, completely fearless and with a fiendish talent for getting into and out of trouble and leaving other people to take the blame. If she ever decides to marry Ivan she'll either run him raged or be the making of him...

Anyway, after a little rest and a glass of brandy brought to me by Conly (who is no slouch in the mischief department himself), I resumed my servantly duties, taking trays of drinks around to the various nobles who lined the room and watched the younger folk dance.

Veracity and her new husband, of course, led out the dancing with a well-executed waltz. She had been allowed to ditch the long red veil, and she and Jean-Luc wore matching bandages on their wrists where the Judge had cut them. I wondered what would become of the blood-soaked cord, but heard in passing that it would be kept with the family gems in the safe as a symbol of their bond, to be cut only if one of them died or they divorced. Divorce seems to be a fairly simple procedure, but getting permission to divorce, involving as it does all the financial exchanges and political alignments between families which originated with the betrothal, is more complicated, and needs to be as carefully negotiated as the betrothal was.

Veracity, being Baroness in her own right, and Jean-Luc, with no living relatives, are fortunate in that they could cut their bond more easily than most noble couples; but I have a feeling that they are both in it for the long haul. I don't think he married her just for her position, and she certainly didn't marry him for his; but they've been business partners ever since she inherited, and work well together. Besides, they are both obviously in love. So I have high hopes for their future.

All the servants were permitted a drink to the newly-married pair, and we raised our goblets with enthusiasm. Then, after starting off the dance, Veracity and Jean-Luc disappeared up the Grand staircase, headed for their bedroom, to the cheers of the crowd. Outside, a large crowd of the local peasantry had gathered for a cruder version of the indoor festivities, with several fires on which roasted whole pigs and oxen, and great barrels of beer. When the lights went up in the master bedroom, a great cheer went up, which was joined by the nobles and their servants who had come outside to see the fun.

Much loud singing and clanking of beer-mugs and clattering of farm implements ensued until the bride and groom made the obligatory appearance on their bedroom balcony, to the accompaniment of many shouted rural references to the breeding process (to be polite about it). This was all traditional, and everyone, even the highest-ranked nobles, joined in singing a song with many verses, all about the goddess of love and the god of fertility, and how they are doing in the heavens what the married couple will soon be doing in the marriage bed (described with great attention to detail). I didn't know the words, but lalala'ed along happily once I caught the tune. (For such a prudish society, they do know how to get down and get earthy. Well, it's only the nobles who have to be prudish, and that's just designed to keep family contracts where they are supposed to be. The peasants are happily lewd, as befits a pagan society. I could really grow to like it here.)

Finally the couple went back into their bedroom and closed the curtains. The lights went out, to great outcry from the crowd, who set up a rhythmic banging on pots and pans which would continue all night and which was supposed to encourage the newlyweds in their efforts, and would certainly ensure that nobody on that side of the Schloss would get any sleep that night. I guess nobody ever goes on the WychWorld equivalent of a honeymoon in Hawaii, which certainly is a help in terms of wedding expenses; but I wondered whether the couple would come down to breakfast the next morning, or would simply hole up in their bedroom for a few days and let the servants provide room service.

The nobles and their entourages drifted back into the Ballroom, as the show was over, and I continued my duties as roving bartender as the dance went on. We wouldn't have a chance to shift Ducan and company until everything was over, but I made sure to peek unobtrusively behind the tapestry every so often, just to make sure they were still there and in reasonably good condition.

...

Ivan and Winter were dancing, and she was enjoying the feeling of his hand clasping her waist a little more than she thought she should. But how often did her sister get married, anyway? She was entitled to a little fun before the hard work of sneaking Ducan, Margalo, and Myrrhine up to their respective quarters. And the shivaree outside Veracity's bedroom had turned her thoughts to what Veracity might be doing at this very moment with Jean-Luc. It was difficult to keep one's thoughts away from such things, as the rhythmic beat of the peasants outside drifted in through the windows. What would it feel like to have a man make love to her? Would she like it? Men, especially young men, obviously liked it, because it seemed to Winter that almost all their efforts in life were toward that one purpose. Ducan had scared and insulted her, but there was still a little bit of satisfaction to know that she could be the object of a man's desire. And then there was Ivan, who was right here, holding her. What would it be like to have him kiss her? If he put his tongue in her mouth would it be disgusting, or nice? She really must get her mind off such things, but the rhythmic beat from outside was becoming more insistent.

When their dance was over, they were standing before the balcony door, the same one she had passed through with Ducan a million years ago (or so it seemed). Winter felt hot, and leaned toward the door to catch the breeze. Ivan put a hand in the middle of her back and said, "Why don't we go out and get a little air?" She could feel his pulse, and drew back a little; but when he seemed to sense her reluctance and dropped his hand, she twirled about, caught hold of his hand and led him out on to the balcony herself, laughing at herself. It was only Ivan, after all. She could trust Ivan not to try to force her into anything she didn't want.

The rhythmic beat from the front of the Schloss became faster, and then ceased in one thunderous roar, accompanied by the triumphant yells and cheers of the men. Winter felt her face flush, and was glad of the darkness as the cheers from outside were echoed by laughter and applause from within the ballroom. Apparently everyone in the Schloss had their minds in Veracity's marital bed. Winter let go of Ivan's hand and walked rapidly to the railing of the balcony, pretending to be observing the moon. For once, she was at a loss for words.

As they leaned on the stone railing, Ivan touched her hair gently and said, "You look beautiful tonight, Winter, I've been meaning to tell you." There was a thickness in his voice. Winter tried to find her own voice but only managed a squeak. Clearing her throat, she finally said "Thank you, Ivan," as demurely as she could. It was strangely pleasant to say his name; dreamily she repeated it, "Ivan..."

He didn't ask her what she wanted to say, only murmured, "Winter..." and cupped her chin in his hand as he gazed at her in that intent way which always made her drop her eyes. But this time she didn't drop her eyes, but looked back into his, blushing. His eyes seemed enormous in the dim light, and he was looking at her with such a, a worshipful gaze, that she could tell what he was feeling. A sensation of dizziness swept over her and she raised her face, finally closing her eyes. His arms were around her and his lips on hers, and it was wonderful, nothing like Ducan, and she responded, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him enthusiastically.

Nothing like Ducan at all.

...

The drumming from outside was getting everyone all hot and bothered. I noticed Winter and Ivan heading out to one of the balconies and chuckled to myself. Young love is so cute. On my rounds I peeked behind the tapestry to see how the Trio were doing, and by golly if they weren't perking up a bit. Ducan was sitting propped up against the wall with a really stupid smile on his face and one hand on his crotch, so I couldn't tell if he had come to or was still out of it; but Margalo and Myrrhine were lying on the floor clasped in each other's arms, snogging away at a great rate. Well, it's better than trying to pull each other's hair out, I guess, but the dynamics of that marriage will be interesting to see. If the girls manage to gang up on Prince-Junior Charming, they might actually make a man out of him... Young love, as I say...

That was not the only tapestry that hid lovers behind it. All the wall hangings were undulating suspiciously as the Bright Young Things of WychWorld high society got down with the Rock and Roll, and there was a distinct thinning-out of the crowd on the dance floor as some of the older couples made their way in twos, three, and even foursomes to various bedrooms. The little kids were becoming a majority, along with the grandmas and grandpas who were still sitting on the banquettes around the room, oblivious to anything but their drinks or knitting. The interesting part of the party was taking place all over the Schloss. Sex, it's wonderful.

Sometimes I see younger people chasing their gonads around and thank the Gods that I'm past all that, but sometimes something like the drumming gets to me, and I remember it well, being young (well, younger) and hot and in love. It's at times like these that I miss Roland. He would have enjoyed the party, and if he had been working here and I'd had anything to say about it we would have ended up in one of the sculleries with my skirts up around my waist and his breeches around his ankles. Oh, but I am a randy old woman. Good to know there's still a dance in the old girl yet.

Anyway, the grandmas and grandpas finally noticed what was going on and hauled the littlies (and any of the teenagers who hadn't been fast enough to get out of there) off to their families with much tsk'ing. The musicians stopped playing, packed their instruments up, and left for the kitchens and a well-deserved drink; those couples behind the other tapestries weren't about to pay attention to me as I snagged the Trio; and it was time for Ducan and Company to wend their way upstairs.

Unfortunately, my little helpers had all disappeared. Winter and Ivan were still out on the balcony, sitting on a bench with her head on his shoulder and his arm around her. Conly and the high-bred cutie with whom he had been flirting at dinner had disappeared somewhere. So there was just me. And I was tired. My back ached and my feet hurt. I had been dragging dead-to-the-world bodies up and down the walls all damn night, not to mention serving drinks for hours. I may be a bit younger in WychWorld than I was at home, but I'm still too old for this shit. And Ducan and his bonny brides would keep until the morning. If I was lucky, they would get up and go home by themselves like all the other tapestry kids.

So I went down to the kitchens and hung out with the musicians. I've always had a weakness for musicians, so why should I stop now?

And it was just as well I was still up when someone came banging on the back door.

...

Winter and Ivan were still sitting on the bench dreamily watching the moons when they were hailed by Conly's voice from the lawn beneath the balcony. "Hoy! You two! Get over to the stables - Buttercup's eggs are hatching!"

Heedless of her satin gown except as an impediment to running as fast as possible, Winter kicked off her shoes, picked up her skirts, and ran barefoot down to the entrance hall, where she scrambled into a pair of galoshes and a long raincoat, followed by Ivan (who had gallantly picked up her shoes and held them in his hand). The two youngsters rapidly made their way to the stable yard, where Ransome was holding Buttercup's head, trying to keep her from attacking each new arrival who had come to see the hatching. A group of about twenty peasants from the party outside the Schloss had joined the stablemen in crowding about the stable door, for it was a rare event to witness a dragon's birth, and considered lucky. Conly was there, hanging over the side of Buttercup's stall in order to not miss a thing. He moved over for Winter and Ivan to join him, and the three had an excellent view. Ivan handed Winter her shoes, and she put them in the deep pockets of her raincoat with a murmured word of thanks; but her full attention was on the eggs.

They were balanced on their blunt ends in the straw, with their pointed ends facing upward, and they had begun a slight rocking motion about fifteen minutes before, as Conly explained; at which point Ransome had rousted him and his female companion out of one of the vacant stalls where there was an old sofa for the use of the stablemen, and where Conly had brought her from the Ballroom in search of a little solitude. The young lady, used to having the full attention of her male companions, had not taken kindly Conly's immediate loss of focus on her and concentration on the dragon, and had stalked off in indignation, adjusting her clothing; but Buttercup was the center of Conly's world right now, and he had only left her side long enough to run to the Schloss and alert Winter, for he knew that if he had failed to do so there would have been repercussions. City girls might come and go, but he had to live with his sister.

The rocking had become more violent, and cracks had begun to appear on two of the eggs. Buttercup hovered protectively over her precious offspring and bellowed loudly if anyone even appeared to be approaching them.

Now cracks were appearing on the third egg, and the entire top of the largest egg seemed to have separated from the rest of the shell and was bobbing up and down. Something dark, wet, and scaly showed through the gap; and suddenly the shell fell apart, leaving a very unhappy little dragonet wobbling about in the straw uttering pitiful squeaks. Buttercup gently took the little fellow in her jaws and set him down between her forelegs, where she proceeded to groom him with her rough tongue, scraping off the gooey remnants of shell which clung to her baby.

Winter squeaked with excitement and clutched Ivan's hand. He squeezed back in a daze of love, wonder, and thoughts of the bragging rights he would have at school for for being here to see this. Conly applauded and almost fell off the wooden partition when Buttercup turned her head and snuffled loudly in his face.

The other two eggs were doing well. The middle-sized one was rocking madly and its shell crumbling to pieces from the onslaughts of the tiny dragon inside it; and even the third one was rocking and cracking at a moderate pace. Buttercup had just finished polishing her firstborn to her satisfaction and stowed him safely under her soft belly when the second dragon, a female, was born and she was able to subject her daughter to the same motherly treatment. The littlest egg looked just about ready to hatch when suddenly it stopped moving. Buttercup howled loudly, and Ransome darted forward and took the egg in his hands. Knocking on the shell with his knuckles, he was rewarded with a faint movement from inside the egg. "It's alive!" he yelled, "but it'll need some help. Here, you," pointing at Ivan, who was perched closest to him, "Hold this and rub it to keep it warm while I get the shellcracker."

The bemused young man stood holding the egg in his hands and tried to warm if with the friction of his hands. Winter jumped down beside him and began to rub the egg as well, and they cradled it between them until Ransome reappeared with the tool. They continued to hold the egg while the man rapped deicately on the shell. If he were to hit it too hard there was a danger of damaging the dragon inside; not hard enough, and the egg would fail to hatch and the dragon would die.

Conly, meanwhile, was holding Buttercup's head and trying to calm her, for the frantic mother dragon was plunging up and down, heedless of the two babies tucked underneath her. If she became too upset she might crush them.

There was a long tense moment as Ransome continued his delicate work, and then finally the top of the shell fell off, and a tiny little female dragonet poked its head out with an indignant "peep." Winter and Ivan carried the baby to Buttercup, who lowered her head and took it up in her mighty jaws before laying it down between her forefeet with a contented rumble. More peeping from underneath her reminded her of her other two offspring, who she hauled out for inspection with an almost embarrassed look at having forgotten them.

"That is our dragon," Ivan said softly to Winter. "She will be the beginning of our weyr when we are married."

"If we are married," said Winter impishly, but Ivan simply repeated "when," and put his arm around her.

...

At the Siege of Acre in 1191, Richard the Lionheart assembled two trebuchets which he named "God's Own Catapult" and "Bad Neighbor".

That is a little-known fact, which was given to me this morning by the late Baron's ghost when I found him in the Library, on going in to dust the shelves. I am not sure what he intended me to do with the information, but I simply smiled and said, "Is that so?" and got on with my work. He does get a little strange sometimes, but perhaps it's what comes of being unable to actually do anything. He has begun researching Earth history lately and is always coming up with off-the-wall useless knowledge like that.

It's been a couple of months since I joined the staff at the Schloss, and once all the excitement of the wedding had died down I had to face the big decision of what to do with myself. On one hand, I could go back to my body and die; on the other, I could stay here. Well, duh. Even the lack of flush toilets and electricity couldn't keep this from being a much more interesting environment than my bed at the Home. (And I wasn't taking advantage of the flush toilets that much anyway, being confined to bed and having to use a bedpan.)

There was the problem of my kids. I hadn't been able to see them or say goodbye. But they all lived pretty far away from San Francisco, and what with all the transportation problems due to the fuel shortages, it wasn't likely that they would be able to come and visit. I figured I could look them up on the crystal if I really needed to tell them something. That daughter of mine, Juliet, wouldn't be too weirded out from a ghostly visit from her old ma, being as she's a Witch too and knows how these things work; but it might take a bit of diplomacy to get the boys used to my showing up in the bathroom mirror. Well, I could figure that one out later.

There was Franklin's ghost, of course. I wasn't sure if I could get him to WychWorld by way of the crystal or not. And I didn't know whether he would even want to come. But I missed our talks, and I thought he'd be company for the Baron. I find it hard to believe that in all the time the family has lived here in Schloss Wiederwachse, Baron Hugo is the only member of the family who stuck around after death. But I guess it takes a particularly stubborn kind of person to be a ghost. I'd have thought that Vronique, Winter's mother, would've been a prime candidate, but I guess she didn't like the idea of not being able to do things like change her clothes or do her makeup. When you think about it, it would be pretty depressing to spend eternity wearing the same dress, especially for a fashionista like Vronique. I'm really lucky that I managed to cross over while I was still alive, so I'm more of a Feri Godmother than a ghost. And it would drive me nuts to spend my time floating through walls and having things slip right through my hands.

Oh, yeah, I'm dead, by the way. I checked the crystal as soon after the wedding as possible, only to see an empty bed and a blank name sign on the wall over it. I had been so busy, what with the festivities and then the new dragons and all, that I had completely missed the whole thing. Missed my hundredth birthday, too. So obviously I couldn't go back. The problem was moot.

Veracity took me on as maid-of-all-work, at Winter's insistence. The newlyweds had stayed in their room for three days before finally emerging, to great applause from the staff. Almost all the guests had all gone home, and let me tell you, there followed some very lengthy consultations between Ducan's parents, the du Valiers, and the von Iselings. They finally worked out the questions of settlements, bride prices, and so on. This was helped by Ducan, Margalo (who was finally declared primary wife, to Winter's great delight), and Myrrhine declaring that they didn't want to live in separate homes, but would be content with one middle-sized chateau, reasonably close to the capital. Since this lessened the expense for the Prince-Senior, he was all for it; and, since the three had already consummated the marriage in just about every way possible for two girls and a boy, they prevailed on the High Judge to stay an extra day and perform a quick ceremony of marriage for them. Since all the other guests had already left, this was witnessed by the families involved and the Schloss people. Ducan's mother and sister were really frosted by the lack of pomp and circumstance at this second wedding, but they knew that a hasty marriage and sequestration somewhere rural would be the fastest way of quelling the scandal. Amabelle was most annoyed that she had to make do with the same dress she had worn for Veracity's wedding, and sulked through the whole thing, but Ducan seemed to be perfectly happy with a girl on each arm. I think the kid was a born polygamist, and the fact that his wives were horny for each other didn't hurt.

There was an opportunity for Winter and Ivan to formalize their betrothal, but she persisted in keeping her options open and refused for the present. Smart girl. She and Ivan are obviously fated for each other, but much too young to make that commitment right now. Ivan took it pretty well. He's still in school too, so he's not ready for a wife and responsibilities. And I think that this slight uncertainty about how he stands with Winter will keep him from becoming complacent (which just might be part of her motives. She's not her mother's daughter for nothing.) He comes over every chance he gets, ostensibly to check on their dragon (which they named Butterfly- is that cute or what?), but actually to hang around making googoo eyes at Winter. She's loving it. Conly made up with his girl friend from the city, who turned out to be from a very rich and important family, and they have been exchanging impassioned love notes which will get him into some trouble if her parents ever read them. But he might just be able to bring a sizeable bride-price into the family if they are ever married. No fool he. Another chip off the old block.

What else? Oh, Ransome. The night Buttercup's eggs hatched, he had sent a stablehand to bang on the kitchen door and get someone to come over with food and drink for the hands, as this looked to be an all-night process. I went over with a couple of bottles of the wedding brandy, a nice big ham, and a few other edibles and potables that hadn't been consumed at dinner, and watched with the peasants while the hatching took place. As soon as everything was out of crisis mode, I passed the goodies around, and we had a nice little party right there in the stables, which got a little wild after the kids went back to the Schloss at about three am. I finally learned all the words to the god-and-goddess wedding song, and believe me, they would make a sailor blush.

Ransome and I hit it off that night, and we've been sort of courting ever since. He's 150, a nice age for a WychWorld man; experience but not decrepit. I moved in with him in his quarters over the stables about a month later, and we get along pretty well. Of course, he will never fill the place in my heart of my darling Roland, but Roland's gone, and life goes on. (And on.) Ransome and I aren't bothering to do a formal wedding or anything of the sort. That's for the aristocracy, and even though I'm a Feri Godmother, I'm as common as dirt. That sort of thing is for the rich folks.

I'm treated very well for a house-servant, mainly due to Winter's friendship. She arranged it so that I get to use the crystal any time I like, as long as the family aren't actually in the Small Drawing Room at the time. Margaret and Cook think I'm a gem, because I can dust the chandeliers and get things down from the very top shelves without having to fetch a ladder, and levitate hot cauldrons from stove to table without spilling a drop. It's always nice to be useful. But one thing I've learned from Winter is to keep my options open. If she goes off to make a fancy dbut at court in a couple of years, I'm going with her, and taking the crystal too. I want to see a bit of high life. And then there's always the opportunity to visit still other worlds, at least for vacations if not permanently. A change is as good as a rest. They say that here, too.

THE END