I have not fallen off the face of the planet

I haven’t written a post on this blog in about a month and to be honest, I’m not sure I have a lot to say. I’ve been busy with work and housework and cooking and writing and writing about cooking etc…

That said, I AM still working on The Dark Queen of Darkness. I’ve started sending out sneak peaks of the first two halves of the book – The third half pivots and focuses on different characters and I’m only about half-way done. What’s interesting about this book, aside from it being the hardest I’ve ever written, is that it actually has a theme. To date, I’ve written books where no solid theme emerges. I like what I’ve done so far with the other work, but this one stands out in a way that, regardless of where it takes me (or more likely doesn’t take me), I’m proud of the work AND what it says.

The main theme is the fallacy of ‘true love’. Not that a true love isn’t possible, no not that, no I’m talking about the fallacy of the sort of fairy tale ‘true love’ that causes folks to go starry-eyed at first sight. Sure, we sometimes have those moments where our heads turn and the word ‘wow’ drops from our conscious mind even as far as out lips. What I’m really going after is pedestal upon which we (Americans) put love, and as a consequence the idea of marriage, because it’s not reality. To be honest, I can’t think of a better way to talk about reality than a satirical fairy tale.

An interesting side effect is that by focusing on that theme, the writing of character and plot feels somehow easier or at least more fruitful. I made everyone a caricature (which somehow made most of the characters stronger, still working that out), loosely based the plot around a standard fairy-tale trope, and then set to focusing on the theme. Of course, I did go a bit further in that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time layering in concepts from both traditional and contemporary fairytales, sometimes overtly and other times with enough subtlety that actual thought is required. Each scene is set up to speak, in some way, to my theme, and in doing this, nothing feels particularly superfluous. When I do find myself having to build a scene to flesh out a character, I can do it to the fairy tale vibe or the main theme of true-love not being what you think it is. Basically, every scene makes a point, no matter how silly that scene is.

I think what I’m trying to get at is that by trying to say something with the book, rather than just tell a fun story, the writing gained some muscle. Sure, there are still some very rough edges, but the core is there and from the perspective of an unpublished author with 3 manuscripts under his belt, I can’t believe I’m the one who wrote the thing. So, the take away? Write to a theme, it’s life-changing.

AND, since you’ve made it this far, if you’re interested in reading through the first half, I’m looking for feedback on plot, voice, and characterization (to that end I’ve gotten some advice on this score that I’m working on now). Just drop me a line and I’ll send it out.

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Something with funny in it – The Dark Queen of Darkness

I’ve posted this before in an earlier incarnation. After the past few weeks, I feel like humor and light-heartedness is in short supply. I almost feel like now isn’t the time for it, but if not now, when. Take a read, hopefully it makes you smile a bit. This is the first chapter of my 4th book, which hopefully will not suck quite as much as the others. It’s a fractured fairytale. Also, please note that Martha is pronounced Matha.

Her’s was the tallest, blackest, most evil looking, and most importantly, only tower in the land. At least in her land. She’d had it built special. After all, a dark queen couldn’t have a bland old castle of the usual design of a stinking moat round high walls with a few stubby towers. It really had to be something special, something that said dark queen and sorcerous on every stone. Indeed, she’d seen to that as well. Every stone laid had the words property of the dark queen, etched somewhere on its face. As she did every morning, she stood at the largest window in the highest room atop her tower and surveyed the dark lands stretching off in all directions. It was easy to tell which bits belonged to her. Every corner could be described as foreboding orchards, brittle wheat fields, ancient twisted forests, and the occasional gloomy city. When the country wasn’t covered in heavy roiling clouds, it was being pummeled by any of a variety of different storms.

There was one bit of land visible from the tower that wasn’t hers. It was the bit that had for years resisted every attempt, both forceful and ingenious, to be subsumed into the dark lands. Out at the very of the edge of the horizon it glittered. A land of shining golden sun and rolling green hills, seemingly perfect in every way. It wasn’t a large country. Hers dwarfed and surrounded it, actually. But that country was held, and had been for ages, by Prince Charming.

Her eyes landed on the precious little sliver off in the distance and she gritted her teeth and pulled an ugly face. “Prince Charming,” she scoffed. “If people really knew Pete.”

The truth was, it wasn’t so much that she wanted that land as she wanted to live there. It was something she wanted so badly she was starting to feel desperate for it. That place was vibrant and positively glowed with life. After all, she wouldn’t be young for ever. Well, she could be, it was part of the evil sorcery of being a dark queen, wasn’t it? But all of that was just, well, tedious, and she’d rather like to get on with life. Maybe have a few chickens, learn how to bake, and pop out a few fat babies. Anything had to be more interesting than sulking at the top of a tower, telling off Demons and Gargoyles, intimidating subjects and keeping her lands just at the very edge of horrible without going over the cliff into unlivable. Being the dark queen was a lot of hard, thankless work and all she would ever have to show for it was a murky expanse of land and a lot of really unpleasant subjects.

She leaned against the open window frame and tapped her long fingernails on the stone sill. Between Pete, ye olde Prince Charming, and her own dedicated and very wrong-hearted minions, she couldn’t even escape. Everyone would either be trying to kill her or save her. Of course, there wouldn’t be any telling which was which and she’d end up dead in the process anyhow. 

Finally, Hexe pushed back from the window and spun around. Except for Melbourne, her ever-present Gargoyle, she was alone.

“My, dearest dark queen, ruler of darkness, most lovely of the land—” Melbourne said.

Hexe threw up a hand to silence him. She didn’t look at him. It was beneath a dark queen to look directly at her subjects when they spoke to her, it was only at her own discretion that she should deign to gaze upon anyone, especially when the subject was as hideous as Melbourne.

“Mirror?” Hexe asked.

“What?” A tall floor to ceiling mirror across the room barked in a rasping growl.

“Our dear friend Mr. Melbourne has attempted a compliment. Would you please set him in his place?”

The mirror didn’t hesitate, lighting into the queen’s appearance at once. “The dark queen’s hair is as limp and lifeless as a pot of cooked noodles, her makeup has been applied with far too heavy a hand, possibly with a mason’s trowl, and her clothing is as stiff as a school marm’s.”

Hexe was still not looking at Melbourne, but she was also a sorceress and didn’t need to look. His ugly little flat face carried a slack look of horror which was more than adequately conveyed an unnatural bulge of his already very wide eyes. She let Melbourne stew for a moment.

“I suppose you were going to ask me if I’m ready to meet with my council?” She asked.

“Oh, yes, my most majestic and terrifying dark highness.”

“Tell them I’ll be along presently.”

The heavy footsteps and thudding of a heavy oak door made for a conspicuous auditory trail of his progress that continued on for some time.

“Mirror?” She asked.

“For the sake of all the gods above and below, I am not interested in hosting another pity-party,” the mirror snapped.

Hexe strode up to the mirror to look at herself. Straight Raven hair, pale skin, bright red lips, dark brown eyes, heavily adorned with all manner of makeup, and a very straight and stiff black dress. She looked grim, respectable, and, if she did say so, ever so slightly frightening. “It’s not a pity party, Luc. I just want you to make me look that way again.”

If the mirror had a face, Hexe would have seen it raise an eyebrow. “This is the definition of a pity party, queen. You need to be who you are and focus on your responsibilities. You’re not some foolish farm girl.”

“Just do it,” she said with a sigh of exasperation.

Luc, didn’t shake his non-existent head, though he certainly would have done, right before changing her reflection. Instead of the dark and beautiful queen, Hexe saw a pretty, but thoroughly ordinary farm girl. Her brown hair fell in loose curls to the shoulders of a plain and slightly stained-up dress. There wasn’t any makeup on her round round, happy face, and her body was rather more curvy.

“Did you add more weight this time?” Hexe asked. 

“Just a few pounds. I thought you might like a bit of extra curve just there around the hip.”

Hexe nodded, “I have heard this figure is all the rage.”

“This is an absurd dream,” Luc said. “You’d be bored as hell if you weren’t the dark queen, you know.”

“The heart wants what the heart wants,” she said vaguely.

“I can only make you look this way in the mirror,” Luc said. “You’re still going to look and sound and most probably act like the dark queen of darkness, no matter where you are or what you look like.”

“People change, Luc,” she said, still drawn in by the image and the shifting this way and that to admire her new curves. “I don’t suppose you might see about the bust a little?”

Her bust, as reflected in the mirror, slimmed.

“No, not that way. Bigger.”

Luc’s non-existent eyes rolled, but he obeyed and her chest grew to the size it had been a moment earlier and then grew just a bit larger. It wasn’t a significant change, but Hexe felt it made for an enormous improvement.

“Ah, much better,” she cooed, straightening up and admiring the new prow.

She wished she could keep this figure. It was lovely, and it seemed so unfair she could only see it reflected back in the mirror. After all, she was the dark queen, a sorcerous. Could she not do just about any other thing she wanted? This one stymied her. The best she could manage here was take on the new form until midnight. In order to keep it, she’d need to take a kiss from Prince Charming, and frankly, she’d rather kiss a frog than have old Pete’s lips anywhere near hers. Of course, kissing frogs presented a special variety of problem. They kept turning into princes, and there were all nearly as bad as Pete.

Hexe scowled, which the was pleased to find looked adorable on her farm girl figure. “It always comes down to Pete, doesn’t it.”

A voice called from behind her. More of a grisly croak, than a voice really. It’s the sort of twisted thing you pick up from decades of spending to much time puffing on pipes and drinking of moonshine whiskey. “It doesn’t have to be the Prince Charming,” it said. 

Hexe threw her head back to stare at the ceiling. “Do you always just appear from nowhere?”

“That’s what fairy god-mothers do, sweetie. Look it only has to be a Prince Charming. You know I could whip one up for you in a minute.”

“Don’t encourage her Martha,” Luc said.

“Shut-up mirror, you’re not doing anything better. Besides, that’s what fairy god mothers are for, seeing their charges dreams come true.”

Hexe returned her eyes to her fantasy reflection. “It’s much more romantic to find true love on your own. Not have have some beefcake magicked out of the sky,” Hexe paused. “Not that I’d mind that, exactly, but it’s not true love, is it?”

“Honey, there’s no such thing as true love. Best you’re going to get is someone with a good trade and has manageable annoying traits. If you’re especially lucky, he’ll be good looking before he starts going soft round the middle.”

Hexe frowned, still adorable in her fantasy reflection. “You’re such a dour old bitty, aren’t you?”

“All I’m saying is that you’re not going to be any worse off if I just go get one for you. I might even be able to get you one who’ll be amenable to changing nappies.”

“For the zillionth time, no,” Hexe sighed.

“This whole thing absolutely absurd. By all means, get yourself a man, but this whole other bit about the farm-girl is nonsense,” Luc said. “It’s not who you are on the outside, it’s who you are in the inside, everyone knows that.”

“What do you know about it, mirror? I want my precious god-daughter to be happy,” Martha said.

Hexe turned from the mirror. Martha was sitting in a straight-backed chair, her feet propped on a table. Except for the gray hair, which was cropped so close to her scalp as to be on the short side even for a gentleman’s cut, she wasn’t what Hexe imagined as a fairy god-mother. In one hand she held a long curving pipe, issuing forth a thin, but prodigious stream of bluish smoke. The other hand clutched a well worn magic wand. She eyed Hexe with a pair of dark, watery eyes. 

From where she stood Hexe could see out the window to the little golden sliver in the distance. “It doesn’t work without the cottage.”

“I can get you an army of suitors, but nothing in my power will get you a cottage in that country. Too many do-gooders over there and do you have any idea how much a single-room cottage is in that country? Why not a nice cottage in one of your lovely dark forests?”

Hexe folded her arms and glowered. “Happily ever after does not happen in a dark forest. That’s the whole point. I’m already the queen of the darkness. I want to be a fair maid in a fair land with my one true love,” she stopped to picture her perfect cottage in the woods in her mind. “And mabye a few chickens,” she finished.

“Honey,” Martha said gently, “We don’t live in some fairly land.”

Hexe threw up her hands and willed a thunderbolt to slam into the spire at the top of the tower. A blinding flash filled the room with blue light and shook the tower with enough violence to knock a picture off the wall. “Yes, we do. I’m a dark sorceress, you’re a fairy god-mother and my best friend is a magic mirror.”

Martha rolled her eyes and got to her feet. “Always so dramatic. You know what I meant. Look honey, I’ve got to run. I’ll swing by again in a few days to see if you’ve come to your senses. Just promise me that if your Prince Charming does turn up, you won’t have his head chopped off?”

“If he’s my one true love, I won’t,” Hexe said, leaning in to give Martha a peck on the cheek.

“Good girl,” Martha stepped back and with a flourish of her wand, disappeared, leaving only a thick cloud of pipe-smoke in her wake.

Hexe stood in her silent room for several seconds before returning to the mirror to get another glance at her fantasy self. “I suppose I’ve put off the council-thing long enough. Stodgy old bastards.”

“You’ll enjoy it,” Luc said.

She walked over to the door and grabbed the handle. “Enjoying power doesn’t make me feel whole.”

“It does,” Luc said.

Hexe slid out of the room, letting the door slam behind her. Much to her displeasure, Melbourne was standing outside.

“My dearest, darkest queen, they are all gathered and waiting.”

“I know, you already said so. Why aren’t you down there keeping them occupied?”

“Because they sent me up to fetch you, your darkest, most fearsome, grace.”

“Let’s get this over with then.”

Hexe wound her way down a dozen flights of stairs followed by the thudding footsteps of Melbourne. When she reached the door to her council chambers, she stopped and waited for Melbourne to open it. He pushed it open and she entered the room, holding her chin up high and keeping her eyes trained forward. Taking no notice of her inferiors was usually not a problem. They were a motley assortment of stinking old men, demons, and mad wild-haired wizards. This time, however, she spotted someone new out of the corner of her eye. He was so out of place she almost turned her head to take a proper look, but she was the dark queen. Turning her head to look at anything in that room wouldn’t do.

When she reached her seat, Hexe had to force herself not to look in the direction of the unexpected attendee. Instead, she put on her best face disdain, the one with the slight frown and raised eyebrow, that was her favorite. Then, starting at the farthest point from the one she really wanted to look at, she let her eyes slide to each person. The Demon lords huddled together off to her left looking as polite and deferential as demons could. Then there were the barons and dukes. For the most part, round old men wearing a mix of haughty and cowed expressions. Then, he eyes lighted on the man she had wanted to take a better look at. He was much younger than most with broad shoulders, dark, intense eyes that reminded her of a hawk and a very strong and straight jaw. 

 Since he hadn’t ever been there before, she felt she could get away with examining him at length without attracting any attention. She wondered vaguely if Martha had sent him. That thought wasn’t going to do her any good, so she let it go. Under her gaze, most men would cower or look away. This man did not. He looked back at her. If it had been any other man in that crowd, she’d have had him tossed into the the dungeon without having another word. That sort of uppity behavior couldn’t be tolerated. This man, though, had the part of her brain usually involved in scheming instead working overtime on strategies to get him to his feet and turn around, preferably without a shirt. 

At length, she asked. “Who are you?”

“I’m Gregory the son of Duke Winthrop. My father —”

Hexe held up her hand. “You will address me as your grace, her royal highness, her most illustrious queen of darkness, or something equally flattering.”

Gregory nodded. “As I was saying,” he continued without the slightest hint of proper form. “I am the son of Duke Winthrope —”

“You will stand up and address your queen properly,” Hexe said.

Gregory stood up. Hexe felt a little thrill of pleasure run down her spine. Getting him to his feet had been a very good idea, indeed. Now, she needed him to turn around, and then there was the matter of that shirt, though that second bit would be tricky. 

“My father,” Gregory pressed. “Asked me to come in his place at this meeting.”

Hexe eyed him. If he kept on like this, he’d go from being interesting to a better looking version of the boring old farts she already had to deal with. This was not going to do.

“Melbourne,” she said. “This man has twice insulted me by not addressing me properly and to my knowledge has not been invited to this council.”

“Shall I have him locked in the deepest, most horrible dungeon?” The gargoyle asked.

“No. I will question him when I am finished here. Bring him to my deliberation chambers.”

“Er —At the top of the towers, great and powerful sorceress?” Melbourne asked.

“Yes, and now if you please, before I have you placed atop a battlement somewhere. If I don’t like what he has to say, I will have him dropped from the top of that tower.”

Gregory bowed and turned around to leave the council chambers. Melbourne stumped along behind him. Hexe’s eyes tailed Gregory out, and it was quite a tail. When the doors shut, her mind went with him and became quite randy in very short order.

Several moments passed before she regrouped to address the remaining attendees. They all stared at her with expressions carefully designed to conceal other expressions, which consisted of fear, surprise, or amusement according to political alliance. 

“I believe there is some business regarding the prince of the trolls,” she began.

Penelope H. Adventure

This is a revisit of last year’s failed NaNo project. I’m resurrecting it for this year. Below is the first chapter, recast with a new lead, Penelope H. Adventure, & a new direction.


Penny stepped silently into the doorway of a cluttered, and she knew, deceptively cavernous, but comfortable workshop. It was lit only by a variety of gas lamps tacked hap-hazardly to various gray stone-walls and columns. In the middle of a region where the density of lamps was easily two to one on the rest of the shop, a little old man puttered contentedly, and hummed to himself. He leanend over an orderly, but thoroughly random looking conglomeration of cogs, gears, springs, and flywheels sitting on a work bench. Thittlebod the Adventurer he was called, or Thittlebod the Maker, Thittlebod the Secret Stealer, and sometimes Thittlebod the Great. Once she had even heard Thittlebod the Terrible. He wasn’t any of those things. As she stepped fully into the room, he looked up and removed his goggles, blinking at her with small eyes, watery from concentration. He ran his hand through his wispy white hair.

“My dear Penelope,” he said with a toothy smile. “You’ve arrived just in the nick of time.”

Penelope Hope was her proper name, but it didn’t suit her. It was far too formal for her tastes. She imagined a Penelope Hope to be one of those prim and brainless bimbos that flitted about the courts of the moneyed. No, that wasn’t her, never would be. Their story was always the same. There was no fairytale ending for them. She’d called herself Penny H. Adventure for years now, and couldn’t see herself any other way.

She let out an exasperated sigh. “You know I don’t care for the name.”

“Ah, yes, of course, my dear. You prefer Penny. Might you see fit to forgive an old man in his dotage.”

Thittlebod’s eyes sparkled at this. Whatever he was, he wasn’t dotty. Penny knew he thought of her as little Penelope Hope, always had. She had been a princess in his home ever since she was a small child.

“Oh, my dear,” Thittlebod said, embracing her tightly. “It is so good to see you. I am glad you have come down all this way.”

“I am pleased to have the excuse,” Penny said, taking a step back and looking him over more closely. She was disappointed to see that age was beginning to catch up with him. “To what do I owe the honor of your invitation?”

“Your help, my dear, your help.”

Penny raised her eyebrow. “Another wild and dangerous trip off into the far reaches of the world?”

Thittlebod waived his hand. “No, my dear, I’m too old for that now. Too old. No, I’ll show you.”

After fiddling with the mass of gears and what-not on his workbench, he turned a crank, counting aloud to ten, then he dropped a brilliant blue gem into the mess and clicked a panel into place over it. He took a few steps back.

“A dozen heartbeats, my dear,” He said.

True to his word, a dozen heartbeats later, the mass began moving. Out of habit, and a hard earned sense of caution, Penny’s hand fell to the the ornately carved wooden grip of her pistol on her hip.

“No, no, my dear, he’s safe,” Thittlebod said, holding his hand out to stop her.

Penny raised an eyebrow, but didn’t move her hand. “He?”

They watched as the mass, sat up on the bench, stretched, and turned to face them, just as if it were getting out of bed. It struck a remarkably human pose and, as much as a mechanical thing could, it took on a look of surprise.

“Most men of your age get a cat, Thits,” Penny said dryly.

Thittlebod shrugged off the remark. “Rundis here is the world’s first auto-winding automaton.”

“Perhaps you mean the world’s first automaton?” Penny corrected him.

“Details,” Thittlebod said vaguely.

“Why have you made it?”

Rundis stared at them with unblinking, glass eyes. Two little flaps, Penny took to be eyebrows were raised. Penny had interpreted the expression as surprise, but was now reconsidering that it might be curiosity.

Thittlebod frowned. “Why have I made him? Well, he’s part of your little adventure isn’t he?”

The polite thing to do would have been to let the enigmatic statement go and wait for clarification. After all, these sorts of statements were the norm for Thittlebod. Penny, however, didn’t set much store by politeness and they knew each other too well for little dances of etiqutte. “I’m not sure how that could be less obvious.”

“In due course, my dear.”

“Have I a role?” Rundis said in a metallic, echoing voice.

Penny eyed the automaton, who was still sitting on the workbench. “It talks?”

Thittlebod looked from Rundis to her, squinting. “Well, of course it does, my dear. Wouldn’t be of much help to you if he didn’t, now would he?”

Penny nodded, squinting at Rundis. “I need a very stiff drink Thits.”

“Of course you do, my dear,” Thittlebod said kindly.

“May I do a drink?” Rundis asked, cocking its head slightly.

“Two, actually,” Penny added.

“Naturally,” Thittlebod said, gesturing down a corridor leading off the back of the workshop. “And something to eat after your journey. There is very much to do.”

Penny shook her head and followed Thittlebod down a hallway lined with rapidly fading glow-bulbs. At each one, he stopped and gave a couple of turns to the cranks affixed to each, causing them to flame into their full brightness. Rundis tailed them, clunking and whirring with each step. They emerged into Thittlebod’s study where tall windows overlooked a small garden walled with tall trees. The room was bright and spacious. Comfortable chairs and fussy tables on spindly legs were scattered about. A pile of gear and all the trappings for a full adventure sat stacked in the middle of the room next to a tall mirror.

As many times as she had been in that room, Penny had never seen a mirror, but recognized it all the same. She’d seen smaller ones, usually on one of her journeys, but never this large. A crack near the bottom opened to a large missing piece along the edge of the frame. It was that missing piece that gave it away. Of course, that and the fact that it reflected some other, unknown room, the same as reflected by every other mirror of its sort.

“Where did you get it?” Penny asked.

“Lovely specimen isn’t it? Picked it very many years ago. Curious things aren’t they?”

Penny looked around the room. She realized there were more than a dozen other magic mirrors scattered about, hanging from walls or set on tables. Rundis was shuffling around clumsily picking up various frail looking instruments.

“I’ve seen my share, I just thought they were some old forgotten enchantment.”

Thittlebod poured a generous measure of a strong drink Penny could almost see smoking in the glass. “Yes, the prevailing belief. Never liked it really. It’s the missing piece in the bottom of every one that’s always nagged me. Look here,” He said picking up a hand-held mirror. “Feel the glass, it’s smooth.”

Penny ran her finger along the bottom where the missing piece was. Just as Tittlebod said, smooth.

“You’ve figured out the mystery then?”

“No, no, there is much here that I couldn’t hope to unravel. It’s taken me a lifetime to get to this point, dear Penelope.”

Penny took a sip of her drink. “I grew up here Thits, I’d never even so much as seen one of these until I went out on my own. How is it this is a life-long research?”

Thittlebod shifted uncomfortably. “I had rather hoped not to bring you into this adventure.”

Penny frowned. “So, then why have you?”

“Not just yet, my dear, not just yet. Food first. You must be terribly hungry,” Thittlebod said, turning to leave the room.

Before he could make it out, a man appeared at the door. He was tall, with blond hair that fell in curly locks to his shoulders. If it weren’t for his square jaw, he might, at first, be taken for a woman. His traveling cloak was pristene, as were his boots and the rest of his clothes. Upon catching sight of Penny, his face split into a broad, toothy smile.

“Ah, Eston you’ve arrived,” Thittlebod said. “Just join dear Penny here and I’ll have some food brought in.”

“Sure thing,” Eston said, moving past Thittlebod toward Penny.

“What have I done to be inflicted by your presence once again?” Penny asked as Thittlebod left the room.

“Surely it’s not so bad. That last adventure was a romping good time.”

“No, it wasn’t. You left me alone in the forest surrounded by some really pissed-off gnomes. Then when I made it back, you called me, what was it again? Sweet-cheeks. There is nothing good about it.”

“To be fair, you did shoot me. I still have the scars, care to take a look?”

“No, for gods’ sake keep your pants on!”

Eston smiled. “Well, if you ever change your mind, you just let me know.”

Penny shuddered. “I should shoot you again. What are you even doing here?”

“Same as you, work. Any chance I might get a bit of that?” He asked pointing at her drink.

“No,” She said downing the rest of her drink in one gulp, something she immediately regretted as it sent flaming vapors up her nostrils. “The last thing any of us need is for you to be boozed up,” she coughed.

“I have missed your fire, Penny,” He said with a smile.

“So what has Thittlebod told you?”

Eston took a seat in one of the chairs. “Not much, just that he had some dangerous work. So here I am.”

[Of all the people he could have chosen,] Penny thought, taking a seat herself. “I think we both know danger isn’t really your cup of tea.”

“People change, Penelope.”

Penny bristled at the use of her full name. “No, they just become more transparent about who they are,” she paused, realization dawning. “You’re only here because I am, aren’t you?”

Eston smiled. A loud crash sounded on the other side of the room, drawing their attention.

“I believe this is no longer functional,” Rundis said, holding up a mangled bit of gadgetry.

“Who is our friend here?” Eston asked.

“Rundis.”

“Strange fellow. I expect Thittlebod made him?”

Penny looked at her empty glass. The drink was already warming her belly, but it wasn’t going to be enough to deal with wherever this was going. “He did.”

Tihttlebod re-entered the room, carrying a tray with an assortment of meats and cheese. He set it on a low table.

“Where’s your help?” Eston said, immediately diving in.

“Some matters require private discussion. They’ll return to keep the Tinkerage while we’re away.”

“Where exactly is away, Thits?” Penny asked.

“I am not certian, somewhere in the real world.”

A long silence descended over their small group. Even Rundis’ constant whirring and clicking seemed to taper off.

“Surely,” Eston smiled a wide, nervous and very, very fake smile, “We are in the real world, are we not?”

Thittlebod walked over to the large mirror and rubbed his finger around the edge. “We are not.”

Penny closed her eyes, wondering if Thittlebod had finally lost it. She opened them and looked at her empty whisky glass, wishing it full again. “We’re not in the real world?”

Thittlebod put his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels. “No. It is my belief that we are on the wrong side of the mirror.”

Penny shook her head. “It’s just magical illusion. Those mirrors always show the same empty room. It’s a trick, nothing more.”

“The real world does exist dear Penelope,” Thittlebod said softly. “What is not clear is whether we do.”

Penny held out her empty glass. Thittlebod sighed, but took the glass and filled it with another measure of evil smoldering liquid. He also handed Eston a generous share, before taking a seat himself.

Thittlebod’s eyes got the bright, excited look Penny associated with a brilliant new discovery. “Here we sit in the great city of Lundus. At last count, the largest city in the known world by a factor of ten. There are people everywhere. Very many of those people are little more than illusion,” Thittlebod leaned forward. “Not one of them could tell you who was not real. Perhaps all three of us might be real or illusion.”

This statement made Penny’s blood run cold and by the pasty look on Eston’s face, he wasn’t doing any better with it. “That’s downright alarming, Thits,” she said. “I don’t suppose you could give us a bit more?”

“I can’t. That’s why we’re going to the other side.”

“I don’t follow the bit about people being illusion.” Eston said.

“When you look in a normal mirror, you see an illusion of yourself staring back. You’re the real thing, but in our case, many or all of us are supposed to be the ones looking out of the mirror back at someone in the real world. Travel far and wide, and you will come across all sorts of mirrors just like the big one here,” Thittlebod handed Penny a hand mirror reflecting the same dusty room and having the same crack at the bottom as the large one. “Somehow, they all reflect the same exact place. It is my postulation that this is happening because our world is a reflection of the world we see in that mirror.”

“What about the regular mirrors, the ones that do just reflect things back?” Penny asked.

Thittlebod took a bit of cheese and meat and sat down. “They could be to our world what ours is to the real world. My hypothesis is that the world behind this mirror is special. It’s the true real world.”

“Thits, I love you to death, but I don’t believe a word of this.”

Thittlebod nodded. “This is one of the reasons we need to go. As right as I feel in the matter, I want certain proof.”

“And what do we do with that proof?” Eston asked. “I’ve spent my entire life comfortable with the notion I was as perfectly real as the next guy.”

“But you may not be,” Thittlebod corrected him.

“Thits, are we just going to do this just for the sake of figuring it out?”

“In a word, yes. It would help my soul to know the truth of it.”

That was enough for Penny. It was something Thittlebod wanted, and she owed it to him. Plus, it was an adventure she knew she wouldn’t be able to walk away from, but she could tell by Estons’ uncomfortable shifting that it wasn’t for him.

Eston shifted and cleared his throat shakily. “So, then, the plan is to leave this world and go into another?”

“Yes. Naturally, I will go first. You, Penny, and Rundis will follow.”

“What is my purpose?” Rundis asked from across the room.

“Ah, yes. I haven’t told you,” Thittlebod said. “I’ve made you and so I know for certain that you, at least, among us are real. This might be helpful, but more importantly, you are to remember all of my notes and books and things. I’m far too old to do this myself.”

“Do I know these?”

“Yes, it’s been encoded into your memory wheels.”

“How are we going to travel to this real world?” Penny asked.

“Obviously we go through the mirror.”

Penny stood up and walked over to the large mirror standing in the middle of the room. She pushed her finger against the glass. It was quite solid. “How?”

“Magic, of course. How else would I make it fluid?”

“You make magic?” Penny asked in a much too loud voice that exuded incredulity.

“I may avoid it at every opportunity, but I do know how it’s done.”

“What do we do if you go through and something bad happens?” Penny asked.

“I would say that depends on the manner of the happening.”

“So, when do you want to go?” Eston asked. Penny could tell he was trying to work out how to extricate himself.

“It’s nearly dark now. I think two hours past dusk will be adequate.”