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Birthday Cake

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The Feast Beasts were not used to visitors in the kitchen. Dumas, Rose, and Fred all used the kitchen for baking, but were generally quiet and polite never of much bother to the Feast Beasts. One September morning, the Feast Beasts were extremely baffled to find that a delegation of Caretakers and their associates had taken up residence in the middle of the kitchen and were making themselves very annoying.

The Feast Beasts shifted uncomfortably, and after the noise of chatter did not die down they blinked quietly out of existence to finish their after-breakfast nap somewhere with no bickering humans.

“Listen,” said Rose. “Chocolate cake with vanilla icing is perfect for birthdays.”

“What about cupcakes?” said Laura Glue. “With sprinkles.” She leaned up on a counter, glancing at the Feast Beasts as they vanished into whatever between-place they occupied when not living in Tamerlane House’s kitchen. “Aw, we’ve scared the Feast Beasts.”

“Chocolate cake doesn’t necessarily preclude cupcakes,” Jack put in, opening up a cabinet to start looking for ingredients. “But my vote still goes to Fred’s lemon and blueberry. Ah, where’s the flour?”

“Next cabinet up,” said Fred from the floor. He pulled out a stool to put his snout level with the counter. “We could do two cakes,” he added.

“Two cakes is always better than one,” Laura Glue replied brightly.
Jack handed her the paper bag of flour. “Are better,” he said softly.

“She’s just doing it to bother you,” Hawthorne chuckled. “Don’t react to it.” He swung up onto the counter next to Jack and began rummaging through the supplies.

“What do we need for the lemon cake?”

“I don’t mean to interrupt, but I heard you talking about Charles’ cake,” said the Messenger sometimes called Gaudior as he walked into the room. The young Messenger was holding an apple in one hand, and he tossed it into the air as the group turned to look at him. “Or cakes. I thought I should let you know that the very first harvest of apples from the New Paralon orchards has been gathered, and Madoc sent over two crates.” His eyes gleamed, robin’s-egg pupils in silver irises.

“Well then,” said Jack, taking a bag of chocolate chips from Hawthorne. “Does anyone know how to make an apple cake?”

“There’s a recipe in the Little Whatsit,” Fred announced, placing the book on the counter and opening it to the index. The pages rustled softly as the little badger flipped through them. “Apple cake, page twenty-three.”

“Of course there is,” said Jack.

“I suppose we’ll need apples,” Hawthorne said, jumping down from the counter with a thud that made Rose and Fred startle. “I’ll go fetch one of those crates.”
Gaudior settled himself crosslegged on the table in the middle of the kitchen, picking up a mixing bowl and spinning it in his hands. With his starlight-silver eyes closed, the Messenger looked like nothing so much as a thin boy of fourteen or fifteen with an unusually pale complexion. Like Rose, he was an adept and a Namer, but some forty years previously Verne had discovered he was unable to use his natural talents for the manipulation of time, only space. In an “accident” that most residents of Tamerlane House knew only vague details about, the boy had been thrown into Deep Time. Only recently had Caretakers Maddie and Ray helped him return to Tamerlane and promoted him to the official status of Messenger for the Caretakers.

“I’m going to play some music,” he said. “Any requests?”

Laura Glue opened the icebox and began taking out eggs, lining them up in a row on the table next to Gaudior. “Nothin’ in particular,” she said, and jumped as he vanished with a soft pop. After a few seconds, the boy returned with a boombox the size of Fred, which he deposited on the floor with a soft grunt.

“I told you before to give me some warning before you up and disappear like that,” Laura Glue said with some irritation. Gaudior shrugged and fiddled with the volume dials as she counted up the eggs again. “Hey, how many eggs do we need for the apple cake?”

“Two,” said Fred. “And a stick of butter, and some rum and vanilla and cinnamon.”

“I’ve got butter,” Jack called. “And we should have enough vanilla for all the cakes, if Bert hasn’t been drinking it again.”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon-

“I’ve got the apples,” said Hawthorne, stepping into the kitchen with a large wooden crate under one arm. “And some uh, help.” He shot a glance at Houdini and Doyle, standing outside and smiling brightly.

“Hello!” called Rose brightly.

“They’re just here to eat the food,” Fred complained. “The other day Dumas was complaining ‘bout them sampling all his pastries before he could get them out to us.”

“We’re here to help,” said Doyle immediately.

“Word of honor,” Houdini added. He had somehow managed to get hold of an apple from the crate, which was still nailed shut, and he tossed it over his shoulder to Doyle. “Also, we thought you should know that John and Edith were spotted out over the ocean. I assume they’re coming for the party-”
At a sharp glare from Jack, the magician fell silent. “Sorry,” he said. “Was that a surprise?”

“We weren’t sure,” said Doyle, taking a bite of apple. “Everyone was acting as though there was a party planned for tonight, getting gifts ready and everything. But I thought it might be a surprise, so we didn’t tell Charles.”

“Or Ransom,” Houdini chimed in. “I should think it’s his birthday too, since they’re doppelgangers.”

“We didn’t think to ask,” said Jack softly, with a glance at Rose. She shook her head, looking guilty.

“Guess we’ll need more cakes,” Hawthorne said as he pried open the top of the crate. The smell of apples filled the sunlit kitchen, mixing with the vanilla and sugar smell of the batter that Fred was beginning to mix up.

“Could you pass two eggs?” the badger asked Laura. She threw him the first egg, which proved to be a mistake- he fumbled it in his paws, and Houdini only barely managed to dive across the kitchen and grab it before it splattered across the floor.

“Good reflexes,” said Hawthorne.

“Thanks,” Houdini answered, popping back to his feet. “Do you need us to start making some additional cake batters?” He pulled a mixing bowl off the shelf and twirled it on one finger, handing Fred the egg.

“Sure,” said Jack with a sigh. “This could be a little more of an effort than I was expecting.” He checked the recipe scribbled on a scrap of paper. “Says here we need vegetable oil,” he added.

“You know,” a voice told him from the window, “You should use melted butter instead. It’ll make your cake lighter.” Jack nearly dropped the glass bottle of oil, turning to see the slender head of a sky-blue dragon poking in through the open window.

“Oh. Hello, Edith.”

Edith flicked her ears. “Good morning. What sort of cake are you making?”

“Aunt Edith!” Rose exclaimed, delighted. She pressed her forehead against the end of the blue dragon’s snout, and Edith smiled. “We’re making apple cake and chocolate cupcakes and a lemon-blueberry cake from a recipe Fred wants to put in the next edition of the Little Whatsit,” she said happily.

“That sounds wonderful,” Edith said warmly, and then bared her teeth at Jack as he began to measure out the vegetable oil. “Clive Staples Lewis, do not put that into the cake. I said melted butter. And I don’t know what recipe you’re following for the apple cake, but you’ll need to use dark brown sugar, not light.”

“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Fred said, raising a paw. “It says so right here.” He held up the book, a little grimy with flour-dusted pawprints. With an approving nod, Edith withdrew from the window.

“Oh, that’s one of the Little Whatsits,” she said, stretching her wings and turning her head up to the radiant eleven-o-clock sun. “So useful. As long as you've got one- and Fred, too- you should be all right. Let me know when you finish the next edition," she added to Fred, and leapt into the air with a great beat of her wings.

“So,” said Houdini after a few minutes, a bottle of vanilla held loosely between his fingers, “Am I the only one who finds her a little intimidating? Or is it just the teeth?”

“She was plenty intimidating as a human,” said Jack in a low voice.

“Aunt Edith?” asked Rose, baffled. “She’s so lovely. She’s going to teach me to play piano,” she added. “Does anyone know where the unsweetened chocolate is? I know we have some, I used it the other day in my hot cocoa. Oh, and I need the measuring cups and sugar, too.”

“One of us should get to work on the icing,” said Fred as Jack and Doyle began opening random cupboards. After a moment, Doyle produced a block of unsweetened chocolate, so dark it looked nearly black. Rose placed it on a cutting board and began to slice it into narrow slivers.

“Sounds like a party in here,” Byron announced, walking into the kitchen with Percy Shelley trailing after him.

“Great,” muttered Doyle.

“I’m not sure Gaudior’s music choices qualify this as a party,” said Rose, playfully poking the Messenger’s shoulder. “Hand over the vanilla. Really, you have the option of music from all of recorded time and space and you choose Simon & Garfunkel folk songs?”
Gaudior gave a mock sigh as he gave her the bottle of vanilla. “It’s my home decade,” he said defensively. “I have a lingering fondness. Also, Me- Maddie told me to be careful of polluting the timeline. I could lose my job.”

“You’re already a decade off with that boombox,” Rose said dryly.

“Get out if you’re not helping,” Jack said with an irritated edge to his voice as he nearly ran into Byron on his way to add the blueberries to the cake batter. “Doyle, Houdini, we need another apple cake, and Fred has the recipe for the lemon glaze.”

“I’ve got the glaze,” said Shelley, rolling up his sleeves. “George, are you going to help?”

“Excuse me,” said Gaudior, “But Ransom’s just coming down the hall.”

“Head him off,” Shelley told Byron sharply, and the other man turned and walked briskly out of the kitchen.

“Is that a good idea?” asked Hawthorne, looking up from slicing the apples into crisp yellow wedges. The smell in the kitchen had become nearly intoxicating, and

Fred reached over to surreptitiously help himself to a slice of apple.

Shelley shrugged. “He wouldn’t have been terribly useful as a cook. Do you mind if I cut back on the lemon zest?” he asked. “It seems to me the flavor would be stronger if there were less zest and instead the lemon to sugar ratio were higher.”

“Go ahead,” said Fred, glancing into the bowl of liquid glaze. “The recipe’s a work in progress anyway.”

“Where’s Mary?” asked Jack.

“Talking to Ray, I think. Does anyone have a hair tie?”

“Here,” said Rose, holding out a purple elastic band. She had switched places with Gaudior, who was now melting the chocolate into butter and sugar over a double boiler, and was sitting on the floor next to the boombox. After a moment of cycling through songs, she settled on Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.

“Ransom’s gone,” said Byron smugly, appearing in the kitchen again. He leaned against a counter and grabbed an apple, glancing at the enormous boombox. “I’ll pick the next s-”

“Not if it’s from James Bond,” Shelley said immediately, still sifting powdered sugar into the lemon juice.

Byron scowled. “You look ridiculous with your hair tied up like that.”

“That’s the best you could come up with?”

“-no river wide enough,” hummed Jack, ignoring the increasingly heated argument. He pressed an elbow into Byron’s ribs. “Move, I need to get this into the oven. Fred, how long should we be baking it?”

Fred's answer was lost under the sound of Byron swearing violently and Shelley banging the bowl down onto the counter.

“Be quiet, you two, before I have to knock your heads together,” Hawthorne said loudly. There was a sudden silence. Shelley tasted the lemon glaze and set it to the side before starting to gather the ingredients for the vanilla icing. Byron looked out the window.

“The chocolate’s nearly ready,” said Gaudior, sifting the last of the dry ingredients into his bowl. A soft puff of cocoa powder went up as he began to stir.

Now do you believe in rock’n’roll,
Can music save your mortal soul,
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

“You know,” said Rose a little suspiciously, “Somehow this one cassette tape has all the exact songs I’m looking for.”

“It’s slightly psychic,” replied Gaudior as he poured the dark chocolate batter into paper cupcake wrappers.

“Like you,” said Laura Glue.

“Like me,” the Messenger agreed with a small bow. “You should be able to find whatever you want, as long as you’ve heard it before and it was released before today’s date.”

Jack straightened up and closed the oven door. “What if you’ve only heard it once and you don’t remember it?” he asked. Gaudior shrugged offhandedly.

“You remember much more subconsciously than you do consciously, and the psychic cassette focuses on the subconscious. If Rose just lets it play without touching any of the controls, the boombox should play a song for everyone in the room.” He opened the oven and slid in the cupcakes.

“Oh,” said Houdini brightly. “Byron, we’re going to see the new Bond movie in a couple months, are you interested in coming along?”
“I think I’m going with P-”

“Go see it with them, for Christ’s sake,” said Shelley. “If I ever see another Bond movie it’ll be too soon.”

“Well,” Byron said, pouting a little, “My date’s not interested, so if you and Doyle don’t mind I suppose I’ll tag along.”

Shelley sighed. “Here,” he said, and handed Byron the spoon from the lemon glaze. “See if this is too tart, I’m still not sure.”

“Now that we’ve got all the cakes baking,” said Jack, “Someone should go see where Charles is. I’d hate for him to stumble in here.”

Gaudior tilted his head upwards with a strange, keen expression. For a moment, his eyes glowed pure stratosphere blue, and then he blinked. “He’s in the lower levels, below the clock. Working on Neil’s magic door. I don’t think he’ll be coming up soon.”

“The boy’s been taking all this surprisingly well, considering,” said Jack. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up Caretaker material someday.”

“It’s getting hot in here,” said Laura Glue. She stretched like a cat and hopped up onto the windowsill, leaning out rather carelessly into the open. Jack made a brief motion as though he were going to pull her back, and then awkwardly withdrew his hands.

“Shelley, what’s wrong?” asked Doyle, and Jack turned to see Shelley turning a glass bottle in his hands.

“The milk’s gone sour,” Shelley said in a puzzled voice. There were already three bottles of curdled milk on the counter next to him, and he was kneeling on the floor in front of the icebox and frowning. A whiff of rot briefly overwhelmed the mellow smell of cinnamon and chocolate filling the kitchen.

“The Feast Beasts don’t normally let food go bad, do they?” asked Rose. She frowned and hopped off the counter, stepping over the bulky boombox and walking over to pick up one of the milk bottles. With an expression of disgust, she set it down again.

“Usually they eat it before it can go bad,” Laura Glue said, sitting down on the windowsill and cupping her chin in her hands. “Meanin’ these bottles must have all gone bad fast.”

“Maybe the icebox is broken,” said Hawthorne.

“It’s still cold,” Byron answered immediately, his voice a little muffled by the glaze-covered spoon in his mouth. He took out a few chips of ice and tossed them across the floor. “Nothing else looks spoiled, either,” he added helpfully after another check. “Eggs, meat, cheese.”

“Now this is getting interesting,” said Houdini, striding over to pick up two of the milk bottles. Doyle followed him, and Byron stepped back quickly to allow them access to the icebox. “And we were worried today would be boring.”

“How long do we think the milk was in there?” asked Doyle.

“Whoa, whoa,” Jack cut in. “Before we hand over the kitchen to our crack investigation team, I’d like to make sure we can, in fact, still make the vanilla icing. Milk should still operate on the principle of ‘imagine it and it appears,’ right?” He held out his hand and a chilled glass bottle appeared in it, icy against his palm.

“Open it up,” Laura Glue said, her eyes narrowing as she leaned forward. Jack opened the bottle and poured some into a bowl, sniffing it suspiciously.

“That’s…odd,” he said. “It smells as though it’s on the verge of spoiling.”
Houdini looked up, a concerning gleam in his eyes. “So we’re dealing with magic here,” he said enthusiastically. “Pass that new bottle.” Behind him, Doyle kept poking around in the icebox.

“There’s salt in the back here,” he said, his voice muffled. He stood up and stretched, and then froze. “Look at this, Harry.” Picking up a teardrop-shaped piece of dark metal from one of the counters, he tossed it to the magician.

“Iron enough to make a nail,” announced Houdini, holding up the iron.

“For keeping out faeries,” Laura Glue muttered. “You think the Feast Beasts put those in there? Our old ones just used to eat the pixies, we’d collect the dust after.”

“Whether it was the Feast Beasts or not, someone was trying to keep supernatural beings out of the kitchen. I don’t believe it was pixies, though.”

“I don’t know too much about faeries,” said Jack with a shrug. “But magically soured milk that the Feast Beasts didn’t catch certainly seems like something a faerie might do.” He looked over to Fred, who was flipping rapidly through the Little Whatsit for references to faeries or soured milk.
“Could be a ghost, too,” the badger said. “Or a bad luck spirit.”

“We still need to figure out what to do about the frosting,” said Hawthorne. “And I think if there might be magical interference in the kitchen we should move the cakes out as soon as possible.”

“You’re right,” Jack answered immediately. “Do they look nearly finished?”

Laura Glue exclaimed suddenly, and as everyone turned toward her she plunged sideways out the window. Hawthorne and Jack raced over, and Jack began to laugh as he looked over the windowsill. Outside, the Valkyrie was sitting between the curving horns of a great twilight-colored dragon and beaming up at them.

“John!” shouted Jack, leaning dangerously far out the window, and playfully jabbed a fist into the soft hide between the dragon’s nostrils. John snorted a ring of smoke and smiled, sharp-toothed.

“Edith said you were baking for Charles’ birthday,” he rumbled. “She also seemed convinced that you were going to burn down all of Tamerlane House.”

“Well, the house is still standing,” said Jack, with a glance back over his shoulder. Someone had dumped about a pound of ice onto the floor and Rose had pumped the boombox up to full ear-shattering volume. Byron and Shelley had gotten into an argument with Houdini, who pulled a bundle of dried lavender out of one of his pockets and threw it into the icebox. “Although we seem to have some sort of…faerie infestation.”
Laura Glue swung herself back over the windowsill into the kitchen, and as John pushed his head into the room the boombox abruptly switched from Goldfinger to music from an instrument that Jack guessed was a lute.

“The milk’s been spoiling,” said Jack. Fred had poured out one of the spoiled jugs of milk into a mixing bowl and was stirring herbs into it with a silver spoon, pausing now and then to check the Little Whatsit. Gaudior nodded politely to John, then turned to Jack.

“Caretaker Lewis,” he said, “That milk you summoned up earlier is all the way bad now. It’s solid.” The Messenger tilted the bottle side to side to demonstrate, and Jack grimaced. The room was beginning to smell overwhelmingly of spoiled milk.

“Why don’t we just ask the Feast Beasts?” Shelley was saying.

“They’re skittish,” said Rose. “If they aren’t working, they don’t like to be around humans at all.”

“Houdini and Doyle are tulpas,” Hawthorne pointed out. “Maybe they’d worry the Beasts less.”

“Most likely more,” said Fred. In spite of himself, the fur between his shoulders bristled nervously at the thought of tulpas. “Laura Glue knows about Feast Beasts, she should talk to them.”

“Should the oven be smoking?” asked John.

Jack, Rose, and Hawthorne nearly collided in an attempt to sprint to the oven, which was emitting black smoke and a strong smell of burning sugar. In the end, Jack ended up with the oven mitts and pulled out the slightly charred apple cakes before the smell of burning became too strong.

“It looks as though the apple cakes had the worst of it,” he said. “And they aren’t too bad.”

“They’re pretty bad,” said Byron in a stage whisper. Rose narrowed her eyes at him and he looked down at the floor with a nearly apologetic expression.

“You’ll need to cut off the bottom,” Shelley said, standing on his toes to look over Jack’s shoulder. “It’s the most singed part.”

“I think we need to move the food out of the kitchen,” said Gaudior, his high silver voice cutting over the chatter in the room. Hawthorne nodded and quickly pulled out the lemon-blueberry cake and the trays of cupcakes.

“A hand here?” he asked, with a sharp glance at Houdini and Doyle. The magician’s eyes were closed, and the air around his hands was shimmering softly. Next to him, Doyle had begun to empty out the herb cabinet. He glanced up, set down a handful of basil leaves on the counter, and hurried across the kitchen to help Hawthorne move the cake.

John rumbled thoughtfully. “I can call back the Feast Beasts and speak with them,” he volunteered. “They should know the cause of your- problem.”

“I’d like to know sooner than later if we’ve got faeries running around,” said Laura Glue. “We could set up traps.”

“I don’t necessarily think that would-” John began, and then sighed. A few wisps of smoke drifted between his teeth. “Be sure you don’t run into Charles,” he said instead. “You’ll ruin the surprise.”

“He’s still downstairs,” Gaudior said promptly as he shouldered the boombox. “And so is Ransom, now. I’m actually interested in seeing what they’re working on.”

“Do you need help with that?” Rose asked.

“I don’t think so. Good luck with your fairy problem.” And with that, the slender Messenger’s eyes flashed vividly blue and he vanished. A few musical notes lingered, trailing off into silence.

“Well,” said Jack after a short, awkward pause. “At least we know he’ll be able to keep them down there. This cakepan has nearly scorched a hole in my mitts, I think,” he added with a wince. “We should be on our way.”

“There’s some unused laboratory rooms a floor up,” volunteered Rose. “They have sinks and a lot of counter space.” She led the way out of the kitchen, heading for the spiral staircase to the upper floors of Tamerlane House.

Tamerlane was a labyrinth of rooms and hallways, and most of the Caretakers Emeritus were content to stay on the main floors which housed the portrait gallery, feasting hall, and kitchen. A few, like Houdini and Doyle, had explored much more deeply into the lower levels of the House, and as head of security Hawthorne had a working knowledge of most of the floor plan- but only Rose ever seemed to be able to find her intended destination on the first try. (Jack always claimed Tamerlane House liked her better. Charles held to the slightly more reasonable theory that she had just had more time to explore the House than most of the rest of its inhabitants.)

“I hope John can figure out what’s wrong with the kitchen,” said Jack as they entered a brightly lit room. It was mostly empty, besides a stack of copper coils in one corner and a few empty glass beakers by the sink. There were some sheets of engineering paper tacked to one wall, covered in designs and Da Vinci’s instantly recognizable handwriting. “I don’t care for this room much. Is that a shark?”

“Looks like,” replied Laura Glue, walking up to a tall cabinet tucked away in the corner. Through the glass front of the cabinet, preserved animal specimens were visible- along with a severed hand in a softly bubbling jar. “You aren’t squeamish, are ya?”
Jack gave her an irritated frown, and Rose laughed.

“On anyone younger,” she said, “I would call that a pout.”

“You can leave if you like,” Hawthorne sighed. He began to drizzle glaze over the top of the lemon cake, which had baked to a soft golden tan spotted with the deep purple of baked blueberries. The smell of the cake- and a faint smell of scorched apples- rapidly overwhelmed the previous sterile and dusty smell of the lab.

“Don’t touch that,” said Jack sharply.

Shelley looked a little guilty and set down the jar holding the hand. “I should tell Mary about this,” he said softly, almost to himself. He closed the cabinets and walked over to the window, looking out at the sea. (It was late in the morning now, and the sun had risen high over the ocean. A few pearly clouds scudded across the western horizon.)

“There,” said Hawthorne, sounding pleased.

“As fine an example for your cookbook as you could ask,” Byron told Fred, and attempted to reach out and swipe some of the lemon glaze from the cake.

Hawthorne caught his hand and gave him a withering glare. (Byron stepped back, but looked surprisingly unwithered.)

“It looks great, Scowler Hawthorne,” said Fred happily. He had to stand on the tips of his hindpaws to see onto the counter, but it was evident that the little badger was delighted at the success of his experimental recipe. “And if it tastes just as good this afternoon, I’ll have it put in the next edition of the Little Whatsit for certain.”

“We could taste it now,” said Laura Glue in a studiously casual voice. Jack elbowed her, and she stuck out her tongue.

“Maybe we can try the cupcakes,” he said. “If we ever manage to get that icing put together. Doyle, Houdini, have you had any luck with- whatever you’re working on?” The two tulpas had been poking around the doorway for some time, and Houdini had begun to crush something with a pestle. Doyle bit the inside of his cheek.

“Working on wards for the room,” he said. “In case our Prime Caretaker isn’t able to work out what’s souring the milk- or doesn’t know how to stop it.”

“Fortunately, I did,” announced John. He had transformed himself into something along the lines of a human, although his hair was still a shockingly bright indigo and curved horns were barely protruding from behind his ears. He was holding two bottles of fresh milk in one hand and a mixing bowl in the other, and a Dragon shadow coiled large and stark on the wall behind him.

“Were you waiting for an entrance line?” asked Jack.

“Oh, uncle John! Your glamour’s becoming much better,” said Rose happily as she took the mixing bowl. “I can barely see the horns.” John grinned, showing a row of very sharp teeth.

“This was Chaucer’s fault, apparently,” he said. “I didn’t get the exact details- the fae spoke an extremely odd dialect. In the end I traded the remaining apples in the crate in the kitchen in exchange for regaining our luck.”

“Apples for luck?” asked Fred. “I don’t think I’ve heard that one.”

“Why not the whipped cream vodka?” Jack said. “The fae we dealt with last spring were practically head over heels for it. I think there’s some left in the cabinet.”

“Well,” said John. “I offered them the traditional cream and bread to be put out nightly for the next month, but they said our food wasn’t solid. It took a little work to figure out that they didn’t want anything that was make-believe.”

“That’s odd, for faeries,” Laura Glue commented. She had taken up a seat on the counter and was watching Rose and Shelley mix up the vanilla frosting as the story took place. “They’re usually the other way around.”

“Well, they wanted something that would take some effort for us to get. If you imagine something and it’s there, they consider it a poor deal. And I knew the apples were real, proper apples from the orchard on New Paralon, so I offered a few of those.”

“You gave away our apples?” someone demanded.

John grimaced, his fangs exaggerating the expression. “The fae drove a hard bargain,” he said defensively. “In the future, nobody touch the purple shrubs on the west side of the island. You’re likely to wake something up.”

“Things that want to eat our hard-earned apples,” said Jack grumpily, crossing his arms.

“We barely did anything to earn those,” Fred replied.

“Speak for yourself. I saved the world something like five times and I feel that I deserve an apple.”

“There’ll be more apples later in the season,” Hawthorne said. “And we do have the apple cakes, even if they are a little burned.” He frowned. “I should make sure no one else tries to touch those shrubs. They grow near the water, not too close to Tamerlane House itself. I wonder what Geoff was doing there.”

“Probably hiding from a backfired joke,” said Shelley. “Maddie didn’t seem particularly happy with him yesterday.”

Rose held the bowl between her knees as she vigorously whisked the icing. A splash of vanilla had ended up on her nose, and curls of her ocean-blue hair had come undone from the ponytail she’d knotted it into. There was a loud click, and she looked up to see Houdini holding a camera. He waved at her. “Go back to doing what you were doing,” he said. Rose gave him a slightly suspicious glance and kept whisking the contents of the bowl into a fluffy whiteness.

“I don’t know if I trust you with that,” she said. Houdini smiled brightly and turned to Shelley instead.

“Hold up that bowl,” he said with a gesture to the bowl of glaze. Shelley tilted the bowl and posed for the camera. (Byron stepped into the frame and winked as Houdini snapped the photo.)

Laura Glue swiped a fingerful of vanilla frosting. Rose made a halfhearted attempt to hit her with the spoon, sending a spray of half-whipped vanilla across the room and onto Jack’s shirt. Houdini took a picture.

“Did we make a double batch?” Doyle asked Hawthorne, counting up the cupcakes as Jack tried to take control of the frosting bowl. “I’m not wholly certain that there’s going to be enough left for all the cupcakes after- this.”

“We’ll manage something,” Hawthorne said, rubbing his temples. “Laura Glue, Fred, Houdini, Doyle, would you go start on the decorations in the hall?”

“Looks good,” said Laura Glue nearly two hours later. The chandelier over the great table was hanging at an angle and draped with multicolored streamers, and stray pieces of glitter were drifting through the air. A few chairs had been splattered with paint.

Doyle and Sam Clemens had twined green and purple streamers around the bannister of the staircase that led into the upper floors of Tamerlane House, and Laura Glue had recruited the Martians to help hang a massive hand-painted banner that stretched from one end of the hall to the other. Houdini angled himself in the doorway and took a picture.

“Is that chandelier going to fall?” asked Morse. Marvin shrugged.

“It hasn’t fallen yet,” he said. Both Martians wore blank golden masks which hid their expressions, but Marvin’s voice sounded faintly amused. “When do we go retrieve Caretaker Charles and Mr. Ransom?”

“This is so exciting,” Morse added happily, and waved a hand to telekinetically straighten the banner. “Just like a storybook.” Her voice was considerably more expressive than her counterpart’s, and she spun lightly on her toes.

“We’re not getting anybody yet,” said Laura Glue. “Have to wait for the cakes.”

“Wish we still had Gaudior here,” Fred said. “It’d be handy to know whether Charles and Ransom are still in the basement.”

“I can go check,” said Rose, heading for the door and dropping the half-empty bowl of frosting into Shelley’s arms. “When do you think we’ll be ready?”
“Who knows,” muttered Jack. “Maybe ten minutes? Twenty?”

“Less than that,” Shelley said. He’d immediately begun to frost the cupcakes with quick, precise movements, lining them up at the edge of the table. “Don’t,” he told Byron softly as his partner reached for one of the cupcakes. “Laura Glue, do we need anything else for these?”

Laura Glue frowned. “Sprinkles,” she said. “I’ll have to ask the Feast Beasts for some.”