“Who is having lunch, by now?” Jorinda said. “Is it only us?”
“The elf said he wouldn’t.”
“And Coral? If Alma were here, I’d be curious to know,” she raised her voice, “why the kitchen is empty, and the stew seems vanished, and my good copper kettle…” With a strong forearm, Jorinda banged the lid on. The kettle sat gleaming, its years of service and fine patina erased. “Come out of there and stop making yourself small.”
A tiny head nudged up the lid, and a sprite clambered free, his size righting itself by the time he’d got both feet on the floor.
“Marshhawk! Just what has been going on?”
“Ma’am. A wish may have been granted. I don’t say I haven’t seen Whimbrel close at hand, going after Finch as he does.” Marshhawk looked dismayed, then cross. “Finch,” he added, “has not been here.”
“From the time she left. Bede, explain to our guest our House Rules on truthfulness.”
“No one,” Bede obeyed, “is punished here. But when we ask a question, Marshhawk, we require a plain answer. I understand your wishing powers are…defunct.”
“I am studying a more sophisticated course of magic, Mr. Dwale.”
“And I am eliminating you as a suspect. Alma, of course, is only human. Likewise, Mrs. Langham…and Vincent. Whimbrel is, I believe, conferring with Scoter in the tower. Gadwall has gone with Bunting to spool yarn. What Finch has done is all Jorinda and I care…that is, a speedy undoing—”
“Well, I hardly know! I was only keeping an eye, an unobtrusive one, while the women fussed over the pot. She in the orange said she wanted a broth bowl.”
“Why, by any chance?”
“Which,” came an additional voice, “is this? Can it produce its work permit and identification amulet?”
“This is Whimbrel.”
In a split-second, Jorinda had thought of resemblances, judged Gadwall’s weight to be off, Scoter’s hair too improbably colored…
Marshhawk, showing a seasoned fear of elves, offered only a pale nod.
“I keep official…” Tackle, she nearly said, and substituted, “…documents in my bedstand drawer. Unless they’ve somehow got wished away!”
A swift reverie of stumbling on the hearthstone, flinging (by accident) Whimbrel’s papers into the fire, was interrupted by a jingling of bells swelling, and a certain smell of swan. Next came carriage wheels, the sway on its chassis of the carriage itself, the fluffing and squabbling of an eight-bird team brought to a halt, a patriotic song sung with reluctance, by elfin voices. A glare like bright morning sun filled the windows.
“She is here,” the elf said.
“The Queen? Surely not visiting, this moment?”
“Mr. Dwale, you are honored beyond reason. You will have to lump it. And kneel, if you will. You as well, ma’am. Sprite, begone! The Queen never wishes to see a sprite.”
Marshhawk crawled back inside the kettle.
When a great many ticks of the clock had passed, Jorinda and Bede kneeling still, the elf whispered aside: “Her Majesty requires more accoutering than the rest of us. They’ll have her out soon, I don’t doubt.”
“Will it be a long visit?”
“Her Majesty’s wish was to observe an exemplary house of detention along the Fells border. Not knowing of one, I chose yours.”
The door crept wider, and a frowzy elf-girl came in, a waiting woman of second or third rank, laden with six tapestry bags, a potted ivy, a white mouse in a gilt cage, some boxed candies, a bedjacket, an embroidered cushion, and a pair of shoes larger than her own.
The elf said: “The Princess Arnessa. Do not rise.”
(2022, Stephanie Foster)