Thunder rumbled far above the basement. There had been some strikes nearby, but nothing had hit the house again. Yet.
The radio was engaged in an extended critique of the General’s wardrobe: …and those heavy fabrics are not doing you any favors, believe me. For gods’ sakes, Marsellia has a temperate climate! You could wear muslin!… Something light and airy… An empire waistline!… Do you have shoulder pads in those things or are you honestly shaped like that? Are you trying to look like a brick? You may not have a waistline going on in there, but you could have an attractive chest if you did something to it… A ruched bodice!… You’d still be scary as hell, but at least I’d have nicer clothing to look at. Oh, dear gods, Radio, why are you doing this to me? …I am so sick of that green dress! I wish you’d let the nice house-of-cards man do something to it. At least then I’d…
“Mr. Rose!” the General broke in. “I am on the verge of killing that radio myself, and I will not be using a shoe!”
Milo was grimacing with his shoulders hunched and his head down and trying to do math, but the problem was, they didn’t have any really great ideas to do math about. It was just a series of dead ends, which did not require a lot of thinking. And this was all very stressful and he didn’t want to be here and that meant clothes, but there weren’t any other clothes to look at. The fact that the radio wouldn’t shut up about it was only making it worse.
I am nervous! snapped the radio. I do this when I’m nervous! It’s just people usually can’t hear it! I can’t shut up my brain! I am trying! But if we don’t have the radio, you don’t understand what the hell I’m talking about! We have to come up with something! I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this is not going very well!
The trouble was, the nature of what they needed was at cross purposes. Anything that made a good resistor did not attract magic. The reason the rods worked was the shape and the spells layered on them. They were meant to be the most magical thing in the vicinity at the highest, sharpest point. Say, if they put Erik on the roof, he would attract strikes, but he wouldn’t insulate the house. Magic would go right through him and still fry the house. Same problem if they took a more humane option and loaded up a toaster with multiple spells. If they went the opposite direction and threw a sack of quartz crystals up there, it would sit there being perfectly insulted and do nothing at all. And if they loaded up the sack of rocks with magic, it would attract strikes and insulate from them but not discharge them. It would suck magic until it blew, which would not be long, and it would do that in uncontrolled directions and likely hit the house as well.
Remaking the rods had been discarded as an option. The triple strike had fried their construction crew.
They were now trying to come up with something to do with a hypothetical sack of rocks that would allow it to discharge in a controlled direction. Again, if they had Erik up there, he wouldn’t have a problem discharging. He could point at things and blow them up (and likely would, while screaming). But there was no way to make him resistant. The magic would light him up like a Yule tree.
The hypothetical discussion of tormenting Erik was unavoidable, but acceptable. Erik was asleep. He wasn’t sleeping well — he would stir when Seth did, and pet him, and they would both go back to sleep — but he didn’t seem to be listening and the radio had ceased making comments in his voice. It was all Milo’s head all the time. Milo wasn’t sure if he was louder or smarter or the radio just liked him better, but he was leaning towards ‘smarter.’ The radio had expressed this opinion and the General had countered with quite a reasonable one that Milo just needed the ability to communicate more, since he refused to do so conventionally.
“It is not a matter of water quality, Mr. Rose. It is a matter of water pressure.”
…you’re stupid and your ideas are stupid, the radio had answered petulantly. What if we run a line of something from the bag of rocks down to the ground, stupid lady?
That didn’t look like it was going to work, either. Same resistor/attractor problem, with the added difficulty that the line itself might attract strikes.
“What we require,” the General sighed, crossing out another dead line of magical notation, “is a bag of rocks that is capable of doing magic and executing judgment. We need a sentient bag of rocks. Engineering sentience in inanimate objects was, of course, outlawed in…”
Milo blinked. He drew a line from one of his drawings of a hypothetical bag of rocks, tipped it with an arrow, and sketched a big scary eagle.
YOU’RE a sentient bag of rocks, arncha, lady? the radio said.
Thunder rumbled above.
The General looked up at him and he briefly met her gaze. Well? Aren’t you?
The General had stonework in her body, patching gunshot and stab wounds. Quite a bit of it. The medic in her squad had favored semi-precious stones, no quartz crystal, but jade and amethyst worked equally well as resistors. The General herself was uncertain as to the applicability of lapis lazuli.
“As a percentage of bodyweight, I am not very much a bag of rocks,” the General hedged, holding a hand to her mouth.
Milo drew two outlines of people. He shaded one in. He didn’t have colors, but he thought the radio would back him up on what he was trying to express. He drew a bolt of magic detouring around the unshaded person to hit the shaded one.
You’re not an innate magic-user, the radio clarified. You’re resistant too! Or at least inert.
Milo put a percentage sign followed by a question mark next to the eagle, and did the same to the bag of rocks.
You got the numbers on how much of a bag of rocks you are? the radio asked.
“Mr. Rose,” the General said, drawing herself up to her full height — which was still about a head below Milo — “I am in the habit of destroying my body and rebuilding it from scratch. I have the numbers on everything… including these dresses which you are so disdainful of, which is why I make certain they are always of the same material and the same weight.”
Magic struck the house. Seth yelped, “No!” and the mage lights flickered out. In Erik’s light, Milo looked like a green demon. He was smiling.
Let’s do math about this, the radio said.
Hyacinth was looking at a large sheet of paper with a drawing of an eagle on it. The eagle was perched on the cupola roof being struck by a bolt of magic. Its head was tipped back and the beak was open in apparent pain, it was steaming slightly, and it had lost a few feathers. There was a lot of magical notation and interlocking circles, too, but the operative part was the eagle.
Behind the drawing, Milo was grinning like a maniac with his wet braid splaying in all directions — an expression which bespoke, if not sadism, certainly insanity.
At the foot of the sweeping staircase, the General was wearing Ann’s ill-fitting yellow raincoat and instructing a small appreciative audience in the magical alteration of clothing. Maria was willing to make an attempt. Florian had been forbidden on account of his visual difficulties. (His attempt to patch the General’s dress had resulted in a swatch with crawling, fuzzy caterpillars stuck to it, the kind with the stripes. She had bidden him to remove it. Milo had been all right with his repairs, which were of the same gray color but with a pattern of waving black lines. He was thinking of requesting the whole shirt done that way, but not the pants, or else it would look like a uniform.)
“You guys, I don’t know if this is a good idea,” Hyacinth said. She shook her head and amended, “You guys, I am positive this is not a good idea.”
“It is an appropriate idea for the materials and the time allotted,” the General said. “In this context, it is good. In any other, yes, it is virulently stupid.”
Milo was still grinning, though he was unaware of it. I think it’s great! I think we should do this every storm! Then Ann doesn’t have to go down to the municipal building and get rods!
He was safe from the radio up here. It was such a relief he felt like crying.
“It it actually going to work?” said Hyacinth.
“It should,” said the General. “My capacity as a resistor cannot be calculated beyond the shadow of a doubt, given that my body has been fundamentally altered to accept stonework, but we have estimated a reasonable minimum and maximum. A catastrophic failure is highly unlikely.”
“And what would a catastrophic failure look like, exactly?” She was trying to divine this from the magical notation, but she couldn’t get it at a glance. She sure as hell didn’t want another triple strike.
“It is not without the realm of possibility that I will become overloaded with magic and explode.”
“Mom!” cried Maggie.
The General sighed. “I did say that it was highly unlikely, Magnificent.”
“Mr. Rose…” said Maggie, painfully. “Are you gonna blow up my mom?” She shook her head, her pigtails bobbled. “Milo, please don’t blow up my mom. I’d rather have no house than no mom.”
Milo turned the paper around and regarded it. His grin faded. Oh. Wait. Maggie will be sad if I blow up her mom. Maggie likes her mom. Hang on… He went over the numbers again.
“Maggie,” said the General, “you do know that there is a non-zero chance I will blow myself up every time I change forms… and every time you change, as well?”
Hyacinth blinked and put a hand to her mouth. She didn’t know that.
“Yeah,” Maggie sighed. “But it’s really small and you’re really careful and you do it a lot. You’re good at it. You’ve never done this… I don’t think anybody’s ever done this.”
“It is unlikely anything this convoluted has ever been necessary,” the General said. “But we have allowed for a margin of error. The chance that this will kill me is not a great deal more.”
“How much more?” Maggie said.
“Given ideal conditions for a change of form, and current known conditions for taking a magic strike, fifteen to twenty percent…”
“…Fifteen to twenty percent of an infinitesimally small number, Magnificent,” the General said wearily.
Having checked his work, Milo nodded agreement. He made a small space with his fingers and squinted as if to see a tiny thing.
Hyacinth took the paper from him. “It kind of looks like it’s going to hurt, sir.”
The General regarded the ceiling and shook her head. “Mr. Rose was engaging in artistic license for the sake of hyperbole.”
Milo’s eyes widened. I’m doing what to what now?
…probably something else she hates, he decided.
“There is no way of knowing whether it is going to hurt,” the General went on. “Pain is subjective. Also, in this case, irrelevant. It has no bearing on my ability to weather the strikes.”
“Well, I believe that,” said Hyacinth. Her ability to second-guess what she ought to be doing or saying had been severely dented by the circumstances. “That raincoat looks hilarious.” Maria had managed to make it wider, but not shorter. The General appeared to be wearing a bright yellow evening gown. “I thought your greatcoat was waterproof?”
“It is water-resistant, but I am not going to subject any part of my uniform to this abuse,” the General replied. “My clothing will have to cope with more magic than the strikes alone. I am naturally resistant, but I am not attractive. Ah!” She raised a hand. “I am aware of the pun, and so is the radio. It really is a mercy Mr. Rose elects not to speak.”
“Am I allowed to laugh at it?” Hyacinth asked, grinning.
“If I am allowed to ignore you.” The General plowed on over Hyacinth sniggering and Milo’s humiliated expression, “I must be made attractive with an application of magic. It does not matter what kind. I need to be the most magical object at the highest point. I do not believe it is possible to sharpen me, but I begin to wonder.” She examined the coat sleeves, which came to the tips of her fingers. The coat also easily buttoned over her chest. “Mrs. Toussaint, you appear to have created more coat fabric from thin air. Do you have any idea how you’ve done that?”
“It seemed easier than doing all that math, General D’Iver,” Maria replied with a shrug.
“It should not be physically possible, Mrs. Toussaint.”
“General, may I introduce you to the concept of a magic storm?” Hyacinth said, gesturing to the air. “Maybe you haven’t met.”
“If she produced it out of pure magic, it would be orange,” the General said. “Not to mention fluorescent. This is either a transmutation or unheard of.”
Thunder rumbled above.
“I’m always fixing Teddy and Bethany’s clothes,” Maria said, frowning.
“But like this?”
“No… I get Bethany’s dresses two sizes too big and let out the seams. I never thought about doing this.”
Magic struck the house. The mage lights flickered and one went out. Either Tania’s repairs were not as good as Milo’s original spell, or all the strikes had damaged the lights irreparably. A second strike did not follow. Some gasps and cries and sobbing did, and an off-key twang from the guitar. Elizabeth was not present to provide a sneeze. Barnaby patted Mr. Olivier. Florian abandoned his magic lesson to check on Ted and Pablo. Hyacinth grimaced, “Look, whatever you need to do, please do it fast. You can argue with the nature of reality later!”
“I intend to,” the General muttered, pulling at the coat. “Whatever this is, it seems a good start.” She lifted her head and called out, “Since I find myself temporarily embarrassed, I must ask all of you to assist me. I require a liberal application of magic. My clothing or my body, it does not matter where, or what sort. There just needs to be a lot of it. I would prefer not to have any more raincoat, Mrs. Toussaint,” she added aside. “It may interfere with my ability to climb onto the roof.” Although stepping on Mr. Rose would undoubtedly be easier than stepping on Mr. Graham.
Maria smiled. “What about a different color raincoat?” she asked.
“That sort of thing would be ideal, yes.”
Bethany approached, being followed by an amorphous blob of marshmallow salad. It was almost candy. “Mommy, we’re supposed to put magic on the lady?”
“Yes, querida. What color raincoat do you think?”
“All of them!” cried Bethany. “All the colors!”
The General nodded. “Also acceptable.”
Tommy put down his guitar. “What if we have some food follow you?”
“Reasonable, but I will have to ask you to make the attachment as strong as possible. A magic strike is liable to break some of the spells and it would be irritating to clean food off the roof.”
“I’ll do some of those muffins,” Tommy said. “If they fall, they’ll bounce…”
“I think they are more likely to disintegrate, but by all means. The pigeons will eat them.” The General grinned. “I am fond of pigeons.”
“I like to feed birdies, too!” said Bethany.
“Feed them,” said the General, frowning. “Yes…”
“We can have the muffins different colors, too,” Maria said.
“Do all the coat buttons, Mommy! Make all the coat buttons different!”
“Te-adoro, come here and show Pablocito how you can make things change colors. I can only do things in patches…”
Ted wandered over, bouncing the baby against his shoulder and looking either shell-shocked or exhausted to the point of numbness. He managed a smile for his wife and daughter, but it appeared powered by memory rather than feeling. Oh, yes. The people I love. Hello. Maria wrapped both arms around him and it became more genuine. Florian offered to take Pablo for a second. Barnaby was hiding from Pablo. He had taken personal responsibility for Mr. Olivier, although Mr. Oliver mainly just sat there and stared at the opposite wall.
The General’s outsized yellow raincoat was quickly made to cycle through multiple colors in patches, as if lit by stage lights. Tommy began hanging muffins in the air around her and making them fly in a tight circular orbit. Ted and Maria made them change colors. Florian contributed eyes and smiles to each muffin. “Remember to take your meds with breakfast, kids,” he said, snickering.
Tommy grinned and culled one muffin from the herd. This muffin opened its mouth and screamed, “Oh my gods, a talking muffin!“
Florian laughed and Ted doubled over, giggling, “Oh, no. Please. No.” Bethany laughed, too. Maria looked mystified.
“It’s a joke,” Florian explained.
“Two muffins,” Ted said, gasping. “In an oven. Oh, my gods, a talking muffin!“
Tommy translated, “Two muffins are sitting in an oven. One of them says, ‘Hot in here, isn’t it?’ The other one says…”
The muffin screamed, “Oh, my gods, a talking muffin!“
Bethany had been grinning continuously and she laughed again. Pablo did, too.
“I would rather you refrained from such spells,” the General said. “They are liable to become annoying.”
“It was just to be funny, ma’am, it won’t keep doing it,” Tommy said. Smiling, he replaced the muffin in its orbit. Florian put a hat on it.
The screaming muffin attracted Tania’s attention, and Mr. Oliver looked up at it and appeared to be trying to reacquaint himself with reality.
“Mommy, Daddy, let’s make her change colors!” Bethany said.
“I bet I can make her light up,” Tania said to Tommy.
“I bet I can make her blink on and off like a Yule bulb!” Tommy replied.
Now that the spirit of competition had engaged, things started to happen more quickly. The General was willing to sacrifice her dignity, her dress and her shoes — to a point.
She was never quite sure which one of them said, “Let’s make her ears longer.” She suspected Hyacinth.
(It was Barnaby, but he crept over and adopted a falsetto to do it.)
She couldn’t be sure which one of them did it, either, but whoever it was settled on lopped rabbit ears in dark brown and this, of course, necessitated a tail. Florian had affixed one to the coat before she could protest: “See here! There is no earthly reason these spells need to be pranks!”
“No reason they can’t be, either, sir,” Hyacinth put in, grinning.
Milo’s smile had returned as well, though it was a trifle hysterical. This… This is truly wonderful. Why don’t I have a camera?
Milo, a camera works on magic. It would hurt you if you tried to take a picture in a storm.
Ann, I don’t think I care!
“Hey, I know a good prank!” Tommy said. He laid both hands on the General’s arm. “I ordered it off the back of a comic book.” Nothing appeared to happen. The coat-sleeve continued to cycle through colors. “Roll up your sleeve!”
“Aw, c’mon,” Tommy said. “It’s a mermaid!” he told his audience. “With great big…” He made a heavy gesture with hands over his chest, then noted Bethany and caught himself. “Er, maybe don’t roll up your sleeve.”
“I was not going to, no.”
He nudged Florian and lowered his voice, “I did that to my kid brother once. Mom and Dad had kittens.”
“Kittens?” Ted said miserably. Maria dragged him aside, pinned him up against the wall and kissed him on the mouth. This seemed to prevent any sobbing. That may have been Maria’s intent, or she may have just gotten tired of standing next to him and petting him without kissing.
The sounds of chaos and multiple enchantments (some pranks, some otherwise) being applied and discussed was enough to get Cerise and Violette out of Room 201. They filled in for Ted and Maria. Violette considerately waterproofed the General’s shoes and the hem of her skirt, and added repel charms. “I know how uncomfortable it is to stand in the rain, miss.”
“‘Sir,'” replied the General.
Violette blinked at her and had a brief look at Cerise for comparison. “I-I had no idea.”
Cerise shook her head, frowning. She had borrowed some of Ann’s makeup to repair her appearance. “If she is, she is bad at it.”
“I am excellent at being a General,” the General replied, “and ‘sir’ is appropriate for that reason. The only reason you remain upright at this time is because I do not believe that is what you intended to imply.”
Violette broke in between them, “Um, I can get your hat as well, sir.”
“My hat will not be accompanying me on this adventure,” the General said — glowing, blinking various colors, and with muffins, rabbit ears and a tail.
“I have a hat,” Mr. Olivier offered with a weak smile. It was a gray pork pie with a short orange and green feather poking out of the band. “I’ve waterproofed it.”
It was also, audible over the excited talking an occasional thunder, whistling a merry tune. Not like a human whistle, more like a pipe of some kind.
“‘Run, Rabbit, Run!'” cried Barnaby, happily. “Gay and Butler!”
“From the Veaceslav War,” Mr. Olivier said. “Do you recall it, Mr. Graham? We used to sing, ‘Run, Sergei, Run,'” he added. “Of course, we don’t sing that anymore.” He seemed bitter about it.
“I appreciate the waterproofing,” the General said, “but the music is liable…”
Cerise accepted the hat with a flourish, “Ooh, we’d better hard-stick it so the storm doesn’t get it!”
Music? thought Milo. His eyes widened. He snatched the sheet of paper with the eagle drawing and flipped it over to the blank back. He pinned it to the wall, much like Maria had pinned Ted, and employed his pencil. It didn’t take him long. He presented the result to the group of hyperactive magic-users with a hopeful gaze. Oh, please tell me one of you can read this!
Florian had a look at it. “Any of you guys real good at magical notation?”
“I know a little,” Tania said. Mr. Olivier did, too. The three of them puzzled over the paper for a time.
“Okay, this is magic to sound,” Florian said, indicating a particular string of code.
“It’s a scale,” Tania said.
“It’s music!” Mr. Oliver said.
Milo nodded frantically.
“It sticks music to fabric!” Tania said. “Oh, and he’s left it open on both ends so you can build more enchantments off it, that’s clever.”
“I can’t read the music,” Florian said. The others were shaking their heads as well. “I mean, I can’t read music, but I really can’t read this.” It appeared to be by frequency. There were sine waves.
Milo put up both hands, Wait!, and he took off upstairs. He came down a few moments later with a penciled card and handed it to the nice house-of-cards man who would probably not get mad at him.
“‘Build Me Up, Buttercup?'” Florian said. “I don’t think I know that one…”
Tania shook her head.
“It sounds modern,” Mr. Oliver disdained.
“It’s the Foundations!” Tommy said. “I know it!” He collected his guitar and played it. A female voice did the lyrics and an entire band (save the percussion) accompanied it, much better than Milo’s simple tone and frequency, “Why do you build me up… Buttercup, baby, just to let me down… and mess me around… And then worst of all… you never call, baby, when you say you will… but I love you still!“
Milo pointed both fingers and nodded. That! That! Like that!
“Oh, yeah, I bet I can do that,” Florian said. He ambled back over to the General, accompanied by Tania. Cerise, Bethany and Violette had been hard-sticking buttons from the button jar to the General’s coat and dress, and to Mr. Olivier’s hat. Bethany had managed to do a variant of her father’s color-changing enchantment that made them flash bright pink.
“I would much prefer it if you refrain from more auditory magic,” the General said. “It is liable to become exceedingly…” She was drowned out by the raincoat starting up Tommy’s version of ‘Build Me Up, Buttercup’ at full volume and resolution.
Milo pressed both hands to his face and his eyes brimmed over tears. Ann, this is the best day of my life.
Ann was amused and a bit horrified, Milo, what about when you bought your dress?
What dress? He sniffled and wiped under his nose with his sleeve. I still need to hide in the closet and hit my head about the radio and all the people, okay?
Not until after we find out if it works, Milo.
…Can you try to make it the back of your head, Milo? I’m going to have to come back down and help Cin and I don’t know if I can cover that with makeup.
Okay, Ann. I’ll try.
The buttons and the singing coat were the last of it. The buttons alone might’ve been enough, as they each had to be attached with an individual enchantment and more could be applied to each button. In attempting to apply a second circling clay seagull to Mr. Oliver’s hat (Mr. Olivier had approved of the first one with a snicker) Florian engaged a flash of yellow magic and a shock. The bird disintegrated in a white spatter. Florian waved his hand and stuck his fingers in his mouth. “Ow! I think that’s it for the hat… I think that might be about it for everything…”
An attempted application of another button to the dress resulted in another flash (this time purple) and knocked four more buttons off. “Ooh, I think you’re right, Flo,” Violette said, uncomfortably flexing her hand. There was a tinge of purple flame still clinging to it.
“Then that will have to be enough!” the General declared, over the noise of hat and coat and storm. “If I may remind you, we are also under a time constraint! Mr. Rose, will you please accompany me to the roof so we can test out this ridiculous arrangement before another double strike removes our last rod!”
Thunder rumbled its warning. A strike did not immediately follow, but it punctuated the urgency of the matter.
Milo attempted to contain his anxiety and joy. He wiped his running eyes and his glasses. (The glasses needed it, the triple strike had taken out the repel charms. He was lucky they were weak charms or he would have had a face full of glass to cope with as well as a side full of watch. It would be really hard to design new eyes for himself if he couldn’t see. He would’ve had to buy them from a store.) He managed a weak sigh, he lowered his head and he tramped up the stairs behind the horrible woman in the singing, glowing, color-changing coat with all the buttons and the whistling hat and the bunny ears and the mermaid tattoo and all the muffins and one clay seagull that emitted an occasional cry. Her shoes gave off white sparks as she walked and continually tied and untied themselves.
She refused to acknowledge any of this, except inasmuch as it impeded movement. The coat was heavy. She privately hoped that the extra weight and the sparking shoes would prove painful in some way to Mr. Rose.
The coat was audible downstairs until Milo closed the door to Room 204 behind them, “I need you-oo-oo… more than anyone, baby… you know that I have from the star-r-r…“
Maggie watched them go, making a washing motion with her hands. She sat down on one of the cots and stared at the floor, while the cadre of magic-users congratulated itself. That was amazing!… How did you do that thing with the glitter?… Where did you learn how to read magical notation?…
Hyacinth walked over and put a hand on her shoulder. “I think she’ll be all right, Maggie. If your mother was going to go out like this, I think Barnaby would’ve mentioned something about it by now.”
“Oh, my gods, I would have done a whole wall about this!” Barnaby agreed, gazing up the stairs.
They all waited, some more apprehensively than others, for the next strike.
It was a double.
“Oh, gods,” Maggie said. She clenched one hand around the edge of the cot. Ted screamed — briefly. One of the mage lights went out and Tommy and Tania both shot it with magic. (Hyacinth neglected to scold them about it.) Florian groaned and sat down on the stairs, “Oh, my brain…” Violette bit her lace-edged handkerchief.
Milo came thudding down the rickety roof stairs and swung out of Room 204. He hit the upstairs railing, tipped over it slightly, and gave the whole front room a double thumbs up, followed by ‘okay’ signs.
“Milo, she’s okay?” said Maggie, rising. “You promise?”
Milo nodded frantically and gave her a thumbs up again. Then he pointed at her, motioned her up the stairs and pointed up at the ceiling.
“Yeah,” said Maggie. She scrambled up the stairs. Milo held the door of Room 204 open for her, and then wandered numbly into Room 201 to attend to his own business.
Emerging into the storm and the cupola, Maggie could not see her mother, but she didn’t see any pieces of her mother, and she could still hear the music. The song had begun again from the start.
She hitched up her dark blue dress, swung a leg over the cupola railing and climbed on to the roof itself. The rain was warm and slightly phosphorescent with absorbed magic. The water on the roof was like glittering stars. The wind was considerable and she had to hold her dress down with a hand. “Mom?” she cried, fighting the storm and the music. She mounted one of the roof peaks and tried to make out the top of the cupola. Her shoes skidded on the wet tarpaper.
“Please remain in the cupola, Magnificent!” her mother called down. “You will dirty your dress!” She was sitting, with difficulty, cross-legged at the peak of the conical cupola roof. The stone rod had been removed and set carefully aside, the point aligned with the point of the roof so that it would not roll off. It was like a watch hand, and the blinking woman in the be-buttoned coat was the novelty character at the center of the dial. She appeared to be frowning, with arms folded across her chest.
“I kinda don’t care, Mom!” Maggie shouted, pigtails waving like flags.
“As I will undoubtedly be the one cleaning it, Magnificent, I…”
Magic struck the General, a long forked tongue of fire from the clouds above. She lit up with a bluish-purple flame and her rabbit ears stood on end. She winced and pointed a finger at the ground in the front yard. The fire crawled out of it in a long bright thread and buried itself in the dirt, leaving a blackened smoky patch. The General was also smoking somewhat.
“I apologize,” she said. “The previous double strike proves I must not be tardy with discharging the magic! As I was saying, I will be the one cleaning your dress, and I do care! Return to the cupola!”
Maggie climbed back into the cupola. She really had no idea what else to do in this situation, other than follow orders. Okay. Mom just took three hits of raw magic and she’s worried about my dress. I guess she’s all right.
“I asked Mr. Rose to send you up here because it seems as if this task will be alternately dull and uncomfortable!” the General continued, once Maggie’s dress was out of harm’s way. “I will require your assistance! If you could locate a book that I will not find too disagreeable, or I am willing to attempt a game of chess, though I will not be able to see the board, or perhaps…”
Magic struck the General. From above there was a shriek, “Oh, my gods, a talking muffin!“
“Ah,” said the General. “And it seems Master Thomas did not bother to remove the screaming muffin spell, he merely overwrote it with a silence spell, and that spell has broken.” She raised her voice again, “Magnificent, this is liable to grow quite tiresome! Please return with some form of entertainment and accompany me for the duration! I will be unable to read books or complete chess problems by myself due to the precarious nature of my position!”
“Okay!” Maggie called back. “It might take me a little while to find you a book because Ann and Mr. Riordan put them all over the house!”
“I am aware of it! A textbook from our bedroom will do if you can find nothing else!”
“Right! Got it!”
I’d rather bring up a chessboard, thought Maggie. I’d rather play Twenty Questions!
Maggie presented the front room in general and Hyacinth in particular with her problem.
“Not sure if we have a chessboard,” Hyacinth said. “Or, if we do, where it is… Let’s have a look around for the books.” Both Ann and Liam were absent, but some of them were in plain view. There were a few on the staircase.
“Hang on,” said Barnaby. He had found an excuse to sit down again as soon as possible and was availing himself of a floating portion of chocolate pudding. He stood and waved it aside. “Your mother is on the roof in a whistling hat.”
“Yeah, that just happened,” Maggie replied, looking up the stairs. “I’m having a little trouble with it, too.”
“I have a folder for this!” Barnaby cried. He went up the stairs — as quickly as he could, though he was still a bit stiff. Hyacinth ran past him and pulled down the attic stairs for him. Barnaby managed to reach them by the time they finished clacking and refusing. He came back down, clinging to the banister with one hand and bearing a manila folder in the other. The folder was labeled, in dark smudged pencil, For when the General is on the roof in a whistling hat. There was a sketch of a pork pie hat with musical notes coming out of it.
“Barnaby!‘ snapped Hyacinth. “If you knew how all this was going to turn out, why didn’t you say something about it?”
Barnaby lightly folded the folder and smacked her on the top of the head with it. “I didn’t have any context for it, did I, Alice? She didn’t pick up the hat until the very end, anyway!”
“What is it, Mr. Graham?” asked Maggie. She had also come up the stairs and she had experienced considerably less difficulty with them.
Barnaby opened the folder and handed it to her. “Two weeks worth of daily crosswords.” They had been trimmed precisely out of the newspaper.
“Oh,” said Maggie. “That’s where they went. You know, my mom thought it was you, but she doesn’t like to yell at you ‘cos you’re nuts.”
“She doesn’t like to yell at me because I yell back,” Barnaby replied. He reached past the pasteboard sign with the broken slot machine and put a hand in his coat. “Here’s a pencil. Will someone put a mage light on this poor child?” he asked the room below. “I don’t think we’ll miss one. It’s already like the gods’ own flashlight in here.”
Magnificent proceeded up the roof stairs with a folder full of crossword puzzles and a pencil, followed by a ridiculously-bright mage light… and a piece of pie, for her own amusement.
Mordecai emerged from the bedroom sometime later, after the louder chaos but before Milo was done in the closet, drawn by something else entirely. He had put back shirt, pants and socks, but nothing else. He was not particularly bothered about this. There was a yellow man downstairs with no shirt and bare feet. Besides, Hyacinth was to blame for the missing shoes… Somehow. He was certain of it.
He had left his tie considerately around the doorknob.
He wrapped both hands around the upstairs railing and peered down into the front room. “Who’s playing down here?”
A green boy with a guitar stepped out from directly beneath him. He was wearing frayed blue jeans and a blue button-down shirt over a white t-shirt. “Just me. It’s super easy to magic the sound right now. Name’s Tommy.” He tipped a vague salute.
“Tommy with a guitar!” cried Mordecai. He grinned. “There’s a whole movie about you! You should really have longer hair. Do you play pinball?”
Tommy twined a curious finger in his hair. He shrugged. “S’all right.”
“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“I know the whole thing!” Mordecai said. He tore down the stairs. “Hang on, I’ll get my violin…”
“Mordecai, there’s a guy asleep in your room,” Hyacinth said, planting herself in his way. “He’s…”
He pushed her aside. “Oh, so I’ll get my violin quietly. It’s not as if I have shoes, is it? Why did you put him in my room?”
“He was screaming and hitting his head on the wall and on fire and it was closest.”
He wasn’t listening, but he did enter his room reasonably quietly. There was a blue man in a blue suit sleeping in his bed, on top of the covers but with his head on the pillow. Mordecai ignored him. The violin was on the shelf in the closet. He retrieved it and tiptoed out. When he had shut the door behind him, he promptly lost all sense of decorum. He slung the violin case into a cot and popped open the latches eagerly. “I don’t suppose Quadrophenia means anything to you?”
Tommy shook his head.
“Yeah, that wasn’t anywhere near as popular. Not familiar with the Who at all?”
“The Who?” Tommy said. He frowned for a moment, then played a few chords on the guitar. The woman’s voice broke into song, “They call me the seeker! I been searching high and low!“
“‘Low and high,'” Mordecai corrected him. He shouldered his violin and played the rest, “I won’t get to get what I’m after! Till the day I die!” The voice came instantly, as well as all the instruments. It really was incredibly easy to magic the sound right now. He wondered how he’d do with piano.
Tommy laughed. “Yeah, that’s it.”
“Know any others?”
Tommy played, “Who-o-o are you? Who, who, who, who?“
“The story of my goddamn life!” said Mordecai. “Except I woke up in a snowbank. And that one,” he indicated Hyacinth with the bow, “was not about to let me go home.”
“As if you had one,” Hyacinth said. She had been taking advantage of the brief lull in the insanity to finally sit down and eat something, and she returned to it. She had claimed one of the nice chairs. She felt she deserved it. Barnaby was in the other one. She put her feet on his lap.
“You know the whole thing?” Mordecai asked.
“I guess about,” Tommy said.
“Come on, let’s see!”
They both played. Mordecai had to fill in the lyrics in a few places. As the song wound to a close, Tommy played “Who the (sound of radio static) are you?” while Mordecai played, “Who the fuck are you?“
“Oh, is that how that goes?” Tommy said.
“Damn regulations,”Mordecai said, shaking his head. “It’s not like that on the record. Do you have a record-player?”
“Nah,” said Tommy. “Kinda hard to keep one.”
“Don’t I know it.” Mordecai sighed. “She doesn’t give a damn what it’s for.” He pointed at Hyacinth again. “If it’s metal, she uses it. I gave up buying record-players before Erik turned two.”
“You knew that when you moved in here,” Hyacinth said.
“I did not move in here, you kidnapped me!”
“You’re free to leave any…” She interrupted herself, “Not right now!“
“I’ve got that syndrome,” Mordecai replied. “You’ve broken my will to escape. Why is there flying food?” Hyacinth was eating a piece of it.
“You used all the dishes,” she said.
“All the dishes? For what?” He was picturing some kind of art project.
Hyacinth took her feet out of Barnaby’s lap and sat forward, “Wow, that really cracked your record, didn’t it?”
“The same thing that killed your shoe.”
Mordecai attempted to consider that. He really wanted to play some more. He didn’t think he cared about the shoe. “Is it going to happen again?”
“Nah, we’ve fixed it. The General is on the roof with her finger in the dyke.”
Mordecai also attempted to consider that. It sounded sort of obscene.
“You know any Beatles?” Tommy asked.
“Do I know any goddamned Beatles!” cried Mordecai. “Do you wanna hear Abbey Road?”
“I don’t think I know that one…”
“Oh, you poor, sweet child. Maybe we’d better start with Sgt. Pepper’s…”
“Hey, squirt.” Tommy motioned Bethany over. “Come over here and be Ringo for me.”
“What that?” said the pink girl.
“Drums. Hit the guitar, okay?” He spared one hand and demonstrated, tapping a slow beat. He smiled at her. “My girlfriend usually does it for me. But I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Bethany hit the guitar. Tommy tried a little of ‘Love Me Do,’ which had a pretty obvious beat. Bethany picked it up fast and Mordecai joined in.
“How come your girlfriend’s not here?” Bethany asked, with neither tact nor care for disrupting the song.
“Oh, she’s not bothered about storms. She’s not colored.”
Mordecai stopped playing. The whole room stared at Tommy. Tommy also, eventually, stopped playing, then it was just Bethany hitting the guitar.
“What?” Tommy said.
“Aren’t you worried about the kids?” Florian said.
Tommy smiled. “Wasn’t planning on having any for a while.”
“Well, that’s…” Florian broke off and shrugged. He didn’t know what it was.
“What do your parents think?” Mr. Olivier demanded.
“Dunno. If I ever see ’em again, I’ll ask ’em. Are we gonna play or what?” he asked Mordecai, frowning.
“Yeah,” said Mordecai. He shrugged as well and put back his violin. He’d run off on his family, too, and taken up with a girl they didn’t like. Granted, he’d run off because of the girl, and she’d been a colored girl, but… It was 1376, wasn’t it?
Come on, it’s not like anyone else in this house is conventional.
“Nothing before Rubber Soul, please,” said Mordecai. “That ‘Please, Mr. Postman’ stuff really bugs me.”
“What’s Rubber Soul?” said Tommy.
“Oh, my gods!” said Mordecai.
From the cupola, over the noise of the wind and the rain and the thunder and the seventeenth iteration of ‘Build Me Up, Buttercup’ and snatches of ‘Run, Rabbit, Run,’ on penny-whistle, Maggie heard rock and roll drifting up the stairs. There was an entire band, including drums.
“Aw, man, they’re playing music down there,” she noted.
“We are playing music up here!” the General replied. Magic struck again and she directed it down to the ground. ‘Build Me Up, Buttercup’ slowed like a warped record and then picked up speed again. The muffin screamed.
“Good music, though!” said Maggie.
“Whether what they are playing downstairs is good music is a matter of opinion!” said the General. “However, I will agree with you that what is playing up here is not! What is the next clue, please?”
Maggie counted the little boxes. “Thirteen letters! Fifth letter ‘L!’ Twelfth letter ‘S!’ Fish soup!”
Maggie attempted to fill that in. “Uh, how do you spell that?
Above, the General gave a weary sigh. “B-O-U-I-L… Damn!“
“…b-u-u-u-t y-o-o-o-r’e late! I wait around and then! Ba-da-ba!“
“Oh, my gods, a talking muffin!“
“Got it!” said Maggie. “Next clue! Twelve letters! Second letter ‘R!’ Soured cream!”
“The theme of this puzzle is idiotic,” the General muttered. “Creme… Ah!“
“I-i-i-l-l b-e-e-e h-o-ome, I’ll be beside the phone! Waiting for you! Oo-oo-oo!“
“Oh, my gods, a talking muffin!“
“Creme fraiche! I don’t suppose you have a puzzle in there where the theme is eviscerating minor enchanters, do you, Magnificent?”
Maggie obligingly shuffled the papers. “Don’t think so, Mom!”
“No matter. ‘Creme fraiche’ is spelled C-R-E-M-E, F-R-A-I-C-H-E…”