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A Bad Morning
I should have known I would get fired my first day on the job.
All the signs were there. I was just too excited to see them.
This was to be my first official journal entry as Royal Reporter to Vandemere, high king of the Island of Serendair.
That sounds very grand, doesn't it? How does this sound instead—"the former Royal Reporter to King Vandemere"? "Almost the Royal Reporter"?
I guess instead I will just have to be what I am.
My name is Charles Magnus Ven Polypheme, but I am known to almost everyone as Ven. I am the youngest child of the thirteen Polypheme children in a family of famous shipbuilders. I live in the boys' lodge known as Hare Warren behind the Crossroads Inn, on the southern island of Serendair. My home and family are far away on another continent, but that's another story. I am fifty years old, but in my race, the race of the Nain, that's the same as being twelve or thirteen in human years.
So basically I am a kid on his own, of a different race than most, living in a place I just came to, a million miles away from home.
And now I am out of a job.
Morning light was spilling in shining pools all over the gardens and walkways of the Crossroads Inn that day, as fine a day as Ven remembered seeing.
He stopped outside the inn's back door and looked all around him.
The sun had been up for a few hours already. The fields across the road were glistening with the last of the morning dew. Songbirds were calling to each other, and the sky was puffed with clouds.
Ven took a deep breath of the morning air. It was sweet, with no lingering bad taste of the haunting that had happened here. Until a few days before, the crossroads had been a sick place, a place where nothing grew and terrible things happened. Now the hollow feeling of fear was gone. No trace of the evil that had been in the ground where the roads crossed could be felt anywhere.
Life was good.
Ven sighed happily and went into the inn.
As he swung open the back door to go inside, he was met with a scurrying flutter of tiny indignant voices. The air around him rustled.
"Oops—sorry," he said quickly to the Spice Folk, the invisible nature spirits who lived in and around the inn. A burst of sharp dust exploded in his face. A moment later his nose wrinkled as he inhaled what smelled like pepper, and he sneezed loudly.
"Bless you, Ven," said a bored voice near the floor. "And bless your beard—even if it is just one whisker so far."
Ven looked down at the large orange tabby cat sprawled under the breakfast table.
"Thank you, Murphy," he said in reply.
I had still not really gotten used to the concept of a talking cat. Or invisible fairies that throw spice in your face when they are annoyed. Or any number of other weird things in this odd and magical inn where I now live. But I've never had a problem with odd things.
I'm odd myself. In fact, my whole family is odd. My official chores around the inn are "odd jobs," which suit me perfectly. Unlike my friends, the other kids who live and work here, I don't have any special skills, like cooking or gardening. But I learned a lot of useful things working in my father's factory where ships are built, so I can fix almost anything. Being Nain, a race of people that normally live deep within the earth, I can dig very easily as well. This means I spend a lot of time digging the holes for bushes and trees around the inn. So even though I am odd, I'm not totally useless.
Even if I felt like it by the time the day was over.
A series of tiny pinpricks pinched him suddenly all over his body.
"Ow!" he shouted. He whirled around as his hair got yanked in a dozen different directions. "What's the matter with you Spice Folk today?"
"You spilled their seed harvest when you came bounding in through the door like that," said Murphy, stretching lazily. "They're not happy with you."
"Oh boy," Ven murmured. He looked at the stone floor and saw that it was, in fact, covered with multicolored powder and seeds. "I'm very sorry," he said to the air around him. "Can I help you sweep it up?" He picked up a rumpled napkin from the breakfast table and bent down to gather the spices.
The door swung open again, bumping him on the backside and sending him sprawling face-first on the floor as Clemency came into the inn. She was a tall human girl with bright brown eyes and skin the color of chocolate. She wore the collar of a curate-in-training. Clemency was the steward of Mouse Lodge, the girl's dormitory, and the pastor's assistant in charge of the Spice Folk.
"All right, calm down," she said briskly to the invisible fairies who were now jumping up and down on Ven's back. "Pick up your seeds and meet me in the chapel. We have a lot of cleaning to do and some new songs to learn for the summer festival. Morning, Ven."
"Morning, Clem," Ven said, relieved. He stood up, shook the spice off himself, and headed deeper into the main room of the inn, away from the door. "And thanks." He could hear a tiny chorus of spitting in his direction as he walked away.
In the central part of the inn was an enormous fireplace with a long stone hearth, beyond which stood a bar of polished wood where Otis, the barkeeper, was washing glasses. Ven waved to him, then sat down on the hearth.
Already sitting there was a man with large dark eyes, dark hair, and dark eyebrows, tuning a strange-looking musical instrument.
"Good morning, Ven," the man said without looking up.
"Good morning, McLean," Ven replied.
Though he appears human, like Clemency and Otis and most of the people who live and work in the inn, I know that McLean is more than that. His mother was human, but his father was Lirin, a race as ancient as my own. But while my ancestors lived in mountains, digging coal and gems from the earth, McLean's lived underneath the open sky and sang songs to the rising and setting sun.
McLean, like many of the Lirin race, is a Storysinger. This means he knows a lot of the history and stories and songs of people from all over the world, and can hear things on the wind that other people can't. It also means he has taken an oath never to lie, so it's easy to trust him.
McLean knows a lot of things, a lot of secrets. But I know one about him, something that only a few other people do.
McLean is blind.
But even though his eyes don't work, McLean has ways of seeing things that no one else can see.
"You're in pretty late this morning, aren't you?" the Singer asked, continuing to twist the keys of his instrument.
"Yes, I slept in," Ven admitted. "I was having wonderful dreams."
McLean smiled and began to play a soft, intricate melody. "Really? What were you dreaming about?"
"I don't remember," Ven said. "Strange—the dreams seemed so clear when I was dreaming them, and right after I woke, but I've forgotten them already. I just know that they were full of adventure. I've actually been awake a long time—I was just lying in bed trying to remember them."
The Singer nodded and started to play a bright song that made the corners of Ven's mouth twitch with the desire to smile. "Next time that happens, hop out of bed and come directly to me," he said. "Singers are trained to help put together the pieces of invisible things, like threads of dreams, songs whose words you never really knew, and directions you only sort of remember."
"I will do that," said Ven. "Thank you, McLean."
The kitchen door banged open, and Char came into the dining area, wiping his hands on his long white apron. Char was Ven's roommate in Hare Warren.
"Well, good mornin', Lazybones," he said sourly. "You looked so peaceful sleepin' when I left for work three hours ago that I thought some prince might be comin' to kiss ya."
Ven laughed and tossed the napkin at him. "Good morning to you, too, Grumpy."
Char is my best friend, at least in this place. He's had a pretty miserable life. I met him on the Serelinda, the ship that rescued me when I was shipwrecked, floating in the middle of the ocean.
Char was the cook's mate. He's an orphan, like most kids who work on ships. Char doesn't know where he was born, or when his birthday is. He has no parents, and no clue as to who they were. He has no idea where he is going, or what he will do when he gets there. He only knows that the captain of the Serelinda, Oliver Snodgrass, husband of our innkeeper, told him to watch out for me, and he takes that order very seriously. I try to watch out for him, too, but he doesn't appreciate it if he thinks I'm pitying him. So I don't.
Char works in the kitchen of the Crossroads Inn. He's an experienced cook, though it would be hard to say that he's a good one. I'm very lucky to have him as a friend.
I don't think I've ever met anyone more loyal than Char.
Char picked up the remaining dirty plates and glasses from the table. "Everyone else has had breakfast. Hurry up—I saved you the last two sausages." He pointed to a lone remaining plate.
"Thanks, Char," Ven said. His stomach had been rumbling since he woke up.
He looked around at the inside of the inn as he had done outside. The empty, strange feeling that had been within the walls also seemed to have gone, replaced by a warm one. There were travelers sitting at tables closer to the bar, while others went up and down the stairs, chatting happily to each other.
In spite of his run-in with the Spice Folk, Ven felt cheerful. "Hey, Char," he said to his friend, who was taking off his apron. "After I finish my chores, you want to go see if we can get your kite up on the wind? There's a great breeze blowing."
"Sure," said Char, smoothing his wild hair. "So why are you in such a fine mood today?"
Ven shrugged. "Maybe everything just feels better than it has since we got here.
It's warm, but not too hot, with a cool breeze and a clear sky. What more could you ask for? All kinds of good things could happen on a day like this. Who knows? Maybe today is our lucky day."
"Hmm," said Char. "Well, I don't think this is your lucky day, mate."
Char pointed at the table. Ven's plate was empty.
"Augh! My sausages!" Ven exclaimed. "Where did they go?"
A loud belch echoed across the room. Ven turned around to see Ida No, the thin girl with colorless hair who had been a thorn in his side since he came to the Island. She was now a friend of sorts, but kept to herself unless something interested her.
Or if there was something to steal. Ida was an extremely talented thief.
She was now sitting on a stool by the back door, scraping her boots with a knife in one hand, and licking the fingers of the other one.
"Ida—did you eat my sausages?" Ven demanded.
"Looks that way, Polywog," Ida replied, not looking up from her boots.
I felt the urge to slap her, as I often do. But whenever she does something to irritate me, I remember what she has also done to help me. It was Ida who actually saved the Crossroads Inn.
Ida's pickpocketing talents, which usually cause trouble, came in handy when we were trying to reconnect the pieces of a Rover's box that held something so evil that it had tainted the very ground of the crossroads. Rovers are an eerie, nomadic people, full of secrets, rootless wanderers who travel the world, bringing darkness with them. Rovers' boxes are such complicated puzzles that only the Rover Masters who made them are supposed to be able to solve them.
Ida managed to put aside her serious dislike of bones, which the box was full of, and piece the lid of the box back together so we could bury it to end the haunting.
So whenever she takes my things, I try to remember that she's been of great help, she's very talented, and like Char, she's an orphan with no idea even what her real name is.
Or at least I think she is. I really know very little about her. She keeps pretty much to herself and has no close friends.
That prevents me from stomping on her.
But believe me, I'm tempted on a daily basis.
"Well, that was piggish, Ida—I saw you scarf down at least a dozen of your own," Char said indignantly. He turned to Ven, who was crestfallen. "There's a little leftover porridge in the kitchen still. It's cold, but it's only a little bit lumpy."
"Great," Ven muttered.
Mrs. Trudy Snodgrass, the innkeeper, appeared at the top landing of the stairs.
She was a small, roundish woman with red hair that was just beginning to turn gray around the temples. Char and all the other sailors on her husband's ships were terrified of her.
"Well, lookee here, Sleeping Beauty wakes," she said. "Glad you're finally up, Ven. I have some hinges that need fixin'. Get your tools when you're done with breakfast."
"I'm done now, Mrs. Snodgrass." Ven glared at Ida. "I'll go to the shed and get them."
Outside the inn, a loud rumbling sound could be heard. It seemed to be growing closer, gaining volume, the rattling of wood and the clopping of horses' hooves shattering the peace of the morning.
"What's all that racket about, now?" Mrs. Snodgrass demanded. The displeasure in her voice made Char shiver.
He ran to one of the front windows and peered out.
"Blimey, Ven, your day is just gettin' better by the moment," he said nervously. "I think you're 'bout to get arrested again."
Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth Haydon. All rights reserved.