Book 4, 18: Surprise
“What in God’s named is this?” Rose poked the things on her plate.
Twelve looked at his plate, as though he had dark theories. He had helped himself from the same, steaming tureen. Charlotte was sticking to oatmeal this morning. She liked oatmeal. As hot breakfast cereal went, not as much as she liked Red River Cereal, or Auntie Ma’s congee, yum, but at least you knew what you were getting with oatmeal. She had tried to persuade her friends of that, but apparently some people got lumps in their oatmeal, and the general consensus was that it was disgusting. So they’d gone for the brown, brothy things in the hot pot, which smelled deliciously of soup –but with a weird overtone of something else.
Dora poked over Rose’s shoulder and put a fork on the biggest lump on the plate. “Let’s call this lump, A.” She moved her pointing fork to a smaller lump, with a vaguely familiar shape. That couldn’t be, Charlotte thought. No, it couldn’t. “And let’s call this lump, B. There are two kinds of lumps, and this plate has two kinds of smells. First, the smell of beef broth. As we know, you cook things in beef broth because they are awful and this disguises it. Second, the other kind of smell has the delicious, old-timey smell of something rotting on the beach. That tells you that someone has snuck seafood into this. But what kind of seafood? We must investigate further!”
Dora finished nudging by her friend, so that she was now next to Twelve, where he stood next to the table. Charlotte backed up, finding a chair with the hollows of her knees, and sat down between Bruce and Brian, who had independently reached the conclusion that only the great piles of blackened toast in the middle of the table were safe, no matter what they looked like, and were busy spreading gellid, green and strawberry red preserves over them.
She looked over to left and then to right at Brian. “Hey, straight shooter,” she said. “I hear you’re toast.” But Brian was too cool to react.
Bruce, meanwhile, had managed to drop a half-eaten slice of toast on his pants.
In front of them, Dora took her fork off of Rose’s plate and put it down on Twelve’s. In her other hand, she held a knife, and she was now all but dissecting something on Twelve’s plate. “Ah: the typical fold of an oyster. From the green bit, here—“ she gestured with her knife, “None too fresh, either.”
“Oh, sorry, Mum,” the brunette housemaid, Emma said. She started forward to clear the table, but her friend, the red-head, Vera, pulled her sleeve with one hand and whispered something about leasing a brush behind her hand with the other. Dora ignored them as she took her fork and picked something up. “And, as ever, when something is disguised with broth and gravy, it is going to turn out to be innards. In this case, tripe.”
Rose carefully put her plate back on the table. “In dark, post-apocalyptic future, the things in your pho are tripe and liver, and the hot sauce just ran out.”
“I, uhm,” Twelve began, uncertainly.
“WE don’t want to insult our hosts,” Dora pointed out.
“Dora!” Charlotte was feeling a little irritated with her friend.
“Now who is being mean?”
“Twelve isn’t going to eat this!”
“No, no, being a good guest means—“
Dora spun around to face Twelve, dropping the utensils as she turned. “Okay, Easy Clone Bake Oven, you don’t have to eat this if you don’t want to.”
Dora leaned in closer. “Okay. Don’t eat them for me.”
“Uhm-“ Twelve managed to make a sound that only dogs could hear, and put the plate down. Instead he took a big bowl of oatmeal, poured cream over it, and sat down next to the three who had already served themselves.
Let us face it, Charlotte thought. Oatmeal and cream is good. About as fattening a breakfast as her Uncle’s beloved Hong Kong-style French toast, but good.
The team sat in silence as they digested what was digestible in another breakfast, all washed down with cups of tea.
Charlotte was just beginning to feel full when Bruce slapped his pocket. “Yes!”
“What?” Charlotte looked at her friend.
Bruce pulled what looked like a tiny Slinky in an almost even tinier glass cage out of his pocket. It was vibrating gently. He opened his mouth, then closed it, with an urgent expression on his face.
Charlotte looked at it. She had no idea what it was, and Bruce hadn’t said anything about it. Which, obviously, meant that it was something that he couldn’t talk about in case someone was listening in. It wasn’t hard to figure out that it must be an alarm on the mannequin. “You know, it sure is lucky that we’re all here for breakfast,” Charlotte said, looking at Dora.
This was going to be tricky. Making solid needfire dummies of Bruce and Charlotte wouldn’t be hard for Dora if she could call the Maid of Gold, and cloaking them with illusions wouldn’t be hard for Brian. If they could figure out—
Bruce and Charlotte were standing in front of the stable side door in the soft but cold rain of early morning.
Or Rose would figure it out. Charlotte could still feel where her friend had grabbed her collar and hip to move her at hopefully undetected superspeed.
Charlotte assessed the situation for a moment. It was the kind of situation straight from Traps R Us, or a complete set of three from Cost-Co for half the price. Oh, well, this must be the opportunity for leadering practice she’d been hoping for an hour ago.
Charlotte pointed to Bruce, then to the hayloft. He had his goblinarangs, and even wire gun if the baddies turned out to be eligible, so he was overwatch while Charlotte went through the front.
Bruce jumped lightly for the open hay loft door above, disappearing through it surprisingly lightly for such an overgrown boy. Charlotte waited a moment, but heard no sign of a struggle from above. Then she opened the door and advanced into the morning darkness of the stable, a lightly glowing Pearl Harmony in her hand.
Once again, no warning light shone from the pommel. There was no evil to detect. There was also nothing the matter with the mannequin, which still slumped on the hay bale on which Bruce had seated it.
So totally a trap. Charlotte advanced on the mannequin, comforted by the rustling sound of Bruce moving above. The vacant stare of the mannequin’s gaze somehow seemed anything but vacant, but rather focussed on her. The pendant she’d noticed earlier was more obvious now –shinier, even.
Yeah, right, Charlotte thought. I grab the pendant, the mannequin comes to life, tries to kill me. Seen this movie before. Everyone on Earth has seen this movie before.
Instead, Charlotte paced off to the side, coming at the mannequin from its left, because that was a good way to start a fight, and how knew with mannequins. Under her breath, Charlotte managed a mantra of intercession without feeling like a complete hypocrite. The unspoken words helped her find the clarity of mindfulness, and she reached out with her senses for the cobwebs, threads and stalks of straw with which Bruce had rigged the mannequin. Focussed, she saw the little pool of damp under the mannequin’s pocket, and smell the faint, sharp whiff of acid.
Nothing had been touched. No-one had been here, except to –somehow—set off whatever warning device Bruce had hidden on the mannequin. Charlotte just couldn’t see how. Her senses extended further, until she could almost see Bruce with her other senses, and even pick up Rose where she flitted between dining room and stable, too quickly, hopefully, to be seen by anyone and keeping up appearances where Brian, Twelve and Dora were chatting with their own dummies.
In fact, her senses were acute enough that she noticed the warning lights glimmering on the pommel of the Pearl Harmony. Now you tell me, Charlotte thought.
Oh, well, nothing unexpected. Any more than the sound of a crow calling from outside the stable. Ginger was here, too. And not too worried about –
She’d gone in t an angle. There was no way that the mannequin’s button eyes should be looking at her. But they were. The head had, somehow, turned.
Oh, nice, Charlotte thought. You’re going to go all Weeping Angel on me, are you? Not likely. With a firm flick, Charlotte sliced through the neck of the mannequin, sending the head flying across the empty style. The head rolled, and the eyes came up looking towards Charlotte.
Well, at least you’ve got a reason to be upset now, she thought, in way of apology.
She stepped closer.
At which point the headless mannequin jumped clear across the room. Startled, instinctively, Charlotte stepped back. Just in time to avoid the curled, hooked paw of the thing that had been, a moment ago, the bale of hay underneath the mannequin from gutting her.
Charlotte’s right foot went down on balance, ready to shove off in a counter-thrust, only to feel the ground go grabby and slippery underneath. Without overthinking it, Charlotte transitioned into a back flip, hoping to find secure footing, or at least enough traction on a three point landing to not be flipped and helpless by stupid gravity.
But this wasn’t a kung fu movie. A backflip took time, and dragged her eyes off her foe, and even as her head spun, she could see her straw-made enemy rushing into action.
Her second landing was as bad as her first, but fortunately the momentum now put her flat on her stomach with her limbs gathered underneath of her. Less fortunately, the entire straw cover of the floor of the stall had formed into the oversized right arm of the straw dummy, which seemed to have sucked up mass and stature from the floor litter. That oversized right arm was reaching to smother her, while the left formed bizarre, straw talons.
The talons swept towards her, then backwards without seeming to make an effort to intercept Bruce as he pounced from above and behind. The impact was solid, and so was the mass of Bruce’s body striking the far wall of the stall without any apparent effort to break his impact.
Bruce was out, and with three goblinarangs standing out from the straw dummy’s head, innocuous and impotent, probably not much help if he were conscious.
Rose materialised out of thin air. Not on purpose, but because the sweeping, too-long left arm of the straw dummy was just that fast, intercepting the speeding girl and sending her body smashing into the wall next to where Bruce’s had just hit, although without making a noticeable dent in the panelling.
And all that had taken so little time that even Charlotte had not managed to get her sword on guard. It’s all you, girl, Charlotte thought. And if Rose isn’t fast enough, neither are you.