The spider scrambled from one side of the overturned glass to the other, looking for an escape route.
“It's okay,” Millicent said, making sure to keep the playing card flat against the open end of the glass. “Soon, you'll be safe and sound.”
She carried the creature down the steps into the garden and over to the hedge maze, where a topiary chess knight stood waiting. Carefully, she removed the cup from the card and watched the spider fall onto the knight and scurry into the leaves.
She turned to go back to the castle, but halted when she saw her employer, Queen Delilah of Styx, sitting on the steps of the castle. She was making a show of nonchalantly twirling a strand of her long, bristly pink hair around one finger, but Millicent was sure she had seen the whole incident with the spider.
“Oh, um, hello, Delilah. What brings you out here?”
“I was spying on you.”
Of course. The queen had a habit of snooping around and listening in on people when she got bored. Millicent had asked her to not to do so, and Delilah seemed to be gradually trying to stop. Very gradually.
“So, Millie my dear. What exactly were you doing, hmm?”
“Oh, well…” she said, nervously fidgeting with her apron, “I was cleaning behind some of the cases in the treasure chamber and I found that spider, so I just put him outside.”
“I can see that. You came out here to do it twice already. Always in the same spot, too.”
Millicent blushed and looked at her feet. She had chosen the garden specifically because she didn't want to be seen doing something so embarrassing. Then again, Delilah was a goblin—though other than her pink hair, pointed ears, and snake eyes, she looked just like a human—and goblins tended to like insects and arachnids, so maybe there was no reason to have kept it a secret after all.
“Well, I found all three of them in the corner together,” the maid explained. “They'd probably been living there for a long time, since no one was cleaning it, and I felt bad taking their home away from them, so, um… I mean, I figured if I brought them out here and put them in the same spot, it wouldn't be so different from how it was inside.”
“Ah,” Delilah said. “Like a little spider family.”
“Yes!” Millicent clenched her fists to her chest, relieved that Delilah understood.
“Hmm… humans are even stranger than I imagined.”
“J-just me,” she said, deflated. “Most humans would probably have just squished all three of them.”
“Good, good, that makes more sense.” The queen nodded in earnest approval. “Squishing bugs is just one of those inescapable yearnings, isn't it? Like pulling cats tails or slamming your fist down on someone else's burrito.”
Millicent didn't know exactly how to respond this, but made a mental note of what sorts of foods to avoid cooking in the future.
“Leaving spiders aside for now,” the queen said, “or outside, as the case may be, all non-essential cleaning activities are hereby put on hold. We've got to get ready for my layday party.”
“What's a layday?”
“Hmm, you wouldn't have heard of them, I suppose. You see, Millie, after three months of rapid, swelling gestation, goblin mothers lay an egg. The baby grows for another six months inside the shell and then hatches. Needless to say, we celebrate both the layday and the hatchday.”
Both impressed and disturbed by this explanation, Millicent asked, “So, what do you do at layday party?”
“It's not dissimilar to a human birthday, from what I've heard of birthdays, though of course my party will be slightly more extravagant, since it's a national holiday.”
“Ah… then what do you do on hatchdays?”
“We tell ghost stories. But that's not for months. My layday is today, so we must prepare everything for my guests. We'll need to clean the ballroom, of course, and cook a sumptuous feast, then put up decorations.”
“Leave the cleaning to me!” Millicent said excitedly. She jumped up to head up to the ballroom, but then a thought occurred to her.
“Do you get presents on your layday?”
“Of course, Millie. Why would I invite guests if I wasn't going to get presents?”
The ballroom was a brownish, hexagonal room consisting of four walls and two widows that ran floor to ceiling. Though one of the windows was still encrusted with a thin layer of dirt and dust motes swirled in the light that came through the other one, the room was not in as bad a state as it had been when Millicent first arrived at the castle. She had already cleared out most of the debris and broken furniture that had once filled the room, leaving only a strange musical instrument that was too big to move and a long dining table with chairs that could be used for the party. All that was left was to finish cleaning the windows and mop the floor, and then perhaps Delilah could float up to dust the chandeliers.
She had brought a bucket of water and a piles of rags with her and went to work on the windows, letting her mind wander to the subject of presents. What would Delilah want? And, more practically speaking, what could Millicent obtain under such short notice? As a queen, Delilah already had plenty of clothes and jewels. Baked goods were always an option, but Millicent baked for her all the time, so it wouldn't be very special.
She continued to ponder the problem, wiping more and more dirt from the glass, even climbing a tall step ladder to reach the highest parts.
Of course there were more goblinical things Delilah might want: springs, strings, small mechanical devices. No, Millicent thought, the first two would be terrible presents, and she didn’t have time to go into town and look for any machines. Then what about something non-material, like a magic show? No, no no! That would be a disaster. Then why not something more practical, like offering to clean the castle?
“I guess I’m doing that already,” she said to herself, looking at the rag in her hands, which had turned a deep, chocolate brown. Millicent jumped, then steadied herself on the ladder.
“The glass wasn't that dirty…”
She looked at the spot she had been cleaning and saw that it wasn’t glass at all. In her daydreaming, she had finished the window and moved onto cleaning the wall by accident. Curious, she flipped the cloth to the cleaner side and rubbed it back and forth across the wall, then pulled it way. The cloth was dark brown, while the wall had a streak of black and gray stripes running down it. Millicent continued rubbing, revealing more and more stripes of black, gray, and lighter brown.
A sense of excitement tempered with foreboding filled her as she climbed down the ladder to see the wall from a distance. Sure enough, in looking up at them from the ground, it became obvious that the stripes were painted-on branches.
Millicent sighed, then grabbed the bucket to refill it with fresh water.
Delilah arrived at two o’clock carrying an armful of fireworks and found Millicent leaning against a giant mural of a forest.
“Why, Millie, you painted!”
The exhausted maid silently shook her head.
“Hmm? But all these trees… I distinctly recall that the ballroom was painted brown before.”
“Dirt… The painting… was underneath,” she said between breaths.
“Hmm, now that you mention it, I do recall reading about one of my ancestors being renowned for her painting of the Forest of Infinite Horrors. It was thought to have been lost to the ages, but I suppose we just grimed it up over the years. Who knew?
“Anyway," the queen continued, "the guests will be arriving in about three hours, and we’ll serve dinner at six.”
“Oh, right. I forgot about dinner. What did you want me to make?”
“A delicate question indeed. I personally love your humanesque cuisine, but I’m not sure what everyone else will think. It’s probably safest to go with a traditional goblin recipe, as long as you can eat it, too. You should find some cookbooks in the downstairs library.”
Millicent had visited the upstairs library once or twice in search of books about living with goblins, but she hadn't heard of any other libraries.
Millicent had visited the upstairs library once or twice in search of books about living with goblins, but she hadn't heard of any other libraries.
“It’s full of nothing but cookbooks. You’ve always made such delicious food that I suppose it just slipped my mind. You’ll find it down in the main hallway, behind a secret door hidden by a picture of the eight of spades.”
Sure enough, behind the sliding card panel was a door marked Second Library. Millicent threw this open, only to stumble back as a cloud of dust engulfed her. Coughing, she steadied herself against the wall until the cloud dissipated, then cautiously approached the doorway as if it were the mouth of some probably-occupied cave. By the dim light of the turned-down gas-lamps, she could see low, hill-like shapes within the room, but couldn't make out much else.
Well, she thought, the first thing to do is turn up the lights.
She did so, and was immediately struck by the thought that it was a miracle the castle hadn't burned down. The globe of each gas-lamp was entombed in cobwebs, which ran from lamp to lamp like streamers. The floor was covered in a coat of dust and, under this, piles and piles of books. Millicent surveyed all this—the cavernous room was certainly large enough to “survey”—and decided that the old (and thankfully uninhabited) webs needed to go. Aside from having to climb over and through the book mountains, occasionally slipping on some thinner volumes, this proved to be an easy enough task, and brightened the room considerably.
Unfortunately, the increased visibility brought to Millicent's attention the fact that there were no bookshelves. Around the room stood tall rectangular indentations in the wall that were probably supposed to be bookcases, but these lacked the necessary shelving to actually hold books.
“No wonder they're all on the ground,” Millicent said to herself, picking up a dusty tome with the title: The Wil-O-Wisp Diet. She flipped through this, finding only blank pages, and wondered if looking for any proper information in a goblin library might be a fool's errand. Even so, the state of the toppled books and all their crumpled and bent pages could not be allowed to continue. She knew that Delilah didn't mind how cluttered or filthy anything in the castle was, but something in Millicent, perhaps her humanity itself, compelled her to begin cleaning the room.
Without proper shelving, she would have to settle for stacking the books on the floor, but she could at least organize as she went. Some books seemed like they might be worth a read, including Making Sense of Mushrooms and Faux Haute Cuisine: Comestibles for the Highfalutin Palate. Millicent stacked these books close to the door, while placing other titles—including Waste Not, Want Not: Surviving on the Bounty of Styx's Trash Heaps and the unsavory looking Recovered Recipes from Gammon's Cannibal Past—far in the back of the room.
After sorting through about a third of the books, Millicent reached for what appeared to be a tall, bark-colored volume, only to pull up a plank of wood.
“Why?” she said, digging deeper and finding another plank. “Why?”
“Why what, Millie my dear?” Delilah said, floating into the room.
“Why are the shelves underneath the books?”
“Isn't that where they usually are? Books don't just float, you know.”
“But why are they on the floor? Why didn't someone just put them in the bookcases and then put the books on them?”
“That's always the question, isn't it? Anyway, the guests are arriving. Did you decide what to cook for tonight?”
“Ah! I completely forgot! A-again… I guess I got so hung up on cleaning…”
“Hmm, well, it's actually probably better if we can stall dinner for a bit,” the queen mumbled, “but we also can't let everyone starve. Hmm… Here, just make this.”
She plucked up a book from the floor, flipped to a page at random, and handed it to the maid.
“Why would we need to stall?” Millicent asked, relieved to see that the recipe, Cactus Curry, had fairly normal ingredients and instructions.
“I'm afraid there's been some bad business concerning one of our guests.” Delilah paused for a moment, looking more serious than Millicent had ever seen her. “Well, probably more than one of our guests. You see, the chief of police's son has been kidnapped…”
Millicent gasped at the sheer thought of the crime, but then thought a moment.
“We have a chief of police?”
“Of course we do, Millie. Who else would lead the police force?”
“I didn't know we had a police force.”
“We have to have a police force. It would be pretty silly to have a chief of police without one, you know?”
“Um… Anyway, what does his son look like? Maybe he's still in the castle somewhere?”
“He's a bugbear just like his father, minus the mustache. And while his being in the castle might make things easier for us, it would also mean that I'd unwittingly invited a horrible scallywag into my castle, and you know how I feel about scallywags. I wouldn't even let one in wittingly, to tell you the truth…”
Millicent was sure that she wasn't going to get any sort of proper description of the boy anytime soon with the way Delilah explained things, so she headed toward a passageway that led up to the other library to try to find a picture of a bugbear, but Delilah threw an arm out to block her path.
“Let me worry about the kidnapping, Millie. I'm not sure you could handle such a black-hearted villain. You could take them down in a fight, but then you'd release them into the garden, which is all right for spiders, but not for criminals. No, what we need is to bring the iron hand of justice down on this monster.” She narrowed her eyes and slammed her fist down through the air. “Like a burrito.”
Delilah was probably right about that, Millicent thought as she began compiling ingredients in the castle's cavernous underground kitchens. Even if she could hold her own against a hardened criminal (which was doubtful, no matter what Delilah thought), she would probably get distracted by helping them clean blood off their clothes or organize whatever weapons they had.
Sighing, she considering the events of the day. She'd already made more work for herself by accidentally washing that spot on the ballroom wall and tidying up the library when she didn't need to. The guests were already here and she hadn't even started cooking dinner, and the odds of getting a present for Delilah were dwindling with every passing second. When she couldn't even do normal tasks without messing up, what hope would she have against a criminal?
Still, feeling sorry for herself wasn't going to solve anything. Besides, Delilah said she would handle the kidnapper, in which case, Millicent would make sure the party went off without a hitch. That was at least one present she could give her!
“Okay, no more distractions, no matter what!” She rolled up her sleeves and tightened her apron strings, ready to cut, curry, and fry.
Then she heard a faint scratching, shuffling sound come from one of the earthen corridors.
It's probably nothing, she told herself, measuring out several cups of sliced cactus. Certainly not a kidnapper. No more distractions.
She continued to combine ground beets and various seaweeds in a bowl, then added an assortment of spices. The entire time, the scuffling continued, getting closer and closer. It was finally so loud that it had to be coming from inside the kitchen somewhere and Millicent could no longer pretend to ignore it. She grabbed a sauce pan to defend herself—surely the sort of person who would kidnap a baby would think nothing of snuffing out the life of a thirteen-year-old girl—then slowly crept toward the sound. Whatever was making the sound had to be behind the large barrels of pickled mushrooms that lined one side of the room. Millicent tightened her grip on the sauce pan, sucked in a breath through clenched teeth, then leapt forward to face the unknown.
Then she let out a high pitched squeal of delight.
“It's a giant pill bug!”
Upon hearing this, the creature curled itself into a tight sphere about the size of a soccer ball. Millicent picked it up to try and see its belly, but it refused to uncurl.
“Oh, you're so cute! But you can't live in the kitchen. I'll just take you out—No! No distractions. I need to make dinner.”
She glance around, wondering if the queen was anywhere nearby. Surely she wouldn't try to squish such a large bug? And she really couldn't spare the time it would take to put it out in the garden.
“Okay,” she said, placing the creature back on the ground. “You just stay put here and I'll let you out after I finish cooking.”
She went back to the counter where she was preparing the meal, only to feel a soft bump against her leg—the bug, still curled in a ball, was rolling back and forth into her. She pushed it away with her foot, but it came rolling right back. She suppressed another squeal and grabbed the creature up into a hug.
“I can't play with you yet,” she said, as if she were talking to an overzealous puppy.
She deposited the bug in a large mixing bowl so that it couldn't escape, then went back to her task. From time to time she caught a glimpse of two beady eyes watching her from the brim of the bowl, but when she turned to look at them, the bug curled back up.
Finally, the meal was ready and waiting on eight serving trays, which all had to be carried up five flights of stairs from the kitchen to the ballroom. Everyone would be waiting upstairs, but Millicent still felt a nagging guilt about not freeing the pill bug. Delilah had been either spying or checking up on her all day, and if she dropped by the kitchens to see how dinner was coming along and found the pill bug all alone…
Millicent shook her head, banishing the gory thoughts from her mind. The bug had to be set free first; that was all there was to it. She picked it up once more and cradled it in her arms, then headed up one of the numerous flights of stairs that led up to the main castle. The fastest way to the garden was through the entrance hallway, but when Millicent arrived at the hallway door, she heard raised voices on the other side.
“…all the evidence points to someone who knew this castle inside and out,” a male voice was saying. “Not one of the guests. Not some interloper. You.”
“Why, I oughta…” Delilah said, loosing her normally high-class tone of voice.
“Whoa, whoa, Chief, calm down,” said another male voice, this one a baritone. “This is the Queen you're talking about.”
“You disagree, Folderol? What other explanation can you offer for the disappearance of my son?”
Delilah cut in before Folderol, whoever he was, could answer.
“Maybe you should have kept a tighter watch on him. It is the police's job to prevent this type of thing happening, after all.”
There was a general mumbling from the crowd, and an unmistakable sound of a gentleman harrumphing through his mustache.
“That's exactly what I would expect a criminal to say!”
“Oh, really?” The queen went on. “Then perhaps you could enlighten us as to my motive?”
“Easy. The police force has been too much of a burden on the country's finances, and you want to put an end to us once and for all!”
“So you admit that your salaries are too high?”
There was a burst of protestation from the crowd, with Folderol's deep voice clearly saying, “He doesn't know what he's saying! That doesn't even make sense, Chief, and Your Majesty, don't provoke him…”
Millicent would gladly have tried to break up the argument, for a little while at least, by announcing that dinner was ready, but she still had to deal with the pill bug in her arms. Hoping that everyone would be too busy arguing to notice her, she pushed the door open and stepped out, only to find the hallway completely silent.
The crowd was a tableau of feathers, scales, fur, and horns, with Delilah in the middle leaning over the fleshy, mustachioed face of a three-foot tall goblin with a segmented blue shell on his back. The eyes of every goblin on the room were on Millicent, and several of the goblins’ mouths and beaks hung open in shock.
“A human?” a scaly goblin finally said.
“The kidnapper,” said the mustachioed goblin, with a scowl.
“Hand that baby over right now, Miss,” said Folderol, who Millicent now saw was the same type of goblin as the one with the mustache, only much bigger.
“Baby?” She looked down at the ball in her arms and gasped. “You mean this is…?”
“Unhand him right now!” the chief said, with both the force of a lawman and the trepidation of a worried father.
“O-of course! Here…” She knelt down and placed the baby bug—or bugbear, she supposed—on the ground, where he rolled over to the waiting arms of the chief. Safe in his father's crustacean arms, he finally uncurled, revealing that unlike an actual pill bug, he had just four limbs, with the same fleshy face and stomach as the other bugbears.
“There you are, Capricious,” the chief said, starring into the eyes of his child. “You're safe now… Cuff 'er.”
It took Millicent a moment to understand what he meant, but in that time Folderol and a number of smaller bugbears had rolled into balls and sped toward her to make the arrest. The only thing that saved her from being smothered by the numerous shells of Styx's police force was Delilah, who leapt in front of her at the last second.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” she said, donning her regal tone once more, “but is that any way to treat the girl who rescued the chief's son?”
“Rescued, your majesty?” Folderol said, uncurling enough for them to see his upraised eyebrow.
“Yes, rescued. Capricious had obviously rolled off somehow and gravity took its course, pulling the lad into the lower areas of the castle. If Millicent hadn't spotted him in time, he could very well have ended up in the dungeons by now, where he would have been lost forever.”
“And how do we know she didn't deliberately take him?” the chief asked. “It's a well known fact that humans have hated goblins since time immemorial.”
“Hmm, yes, but not without provocation. I believe the ones doing the random acts of mischief were usually on our end in human-goblin affairs, right?”
The crowd nodded and even the chief had to admit, with some goblinical pride, that that was true.
“But since we're on the subject of humans,” Delilah said, slipping her arm through Millicent's, “you should realize that you're incredibly lucky that this particular human was the one to find your son. You seemed surprised to learn that he was the missing child, Millie.”
“W-well, I though he was just a big pill bug,” Millicent said to the crowd, who stared blankly back at her.
“Pill bugs are like tiny, non-sapient bugbears that inhabit human gardens,” Delilah explained. A shudder ran through the crowd, with the bugbears looking especially appalled. Millicent supposed that if she found out that a species of small, human-shaped woodlice lived out in the world somewhere, she might have the same reaction.
“Anyway,” the maid continued, “I thought he was just a bug that got caught inside, so I was going to put him out in the garden.”
“That's my Millie, always letting creatures free in the great outdoors. Not like other humans, who would certainly have squished him flat.”
“They wouldn't!” the chief said, turning pale.
“Of course they would. It's one of those inescapable yearnings, you know? Yes, if it had been anyone but Millie, this would have been quite the gruesome affair, what with cracked shells and—”
“Delilah, stop that!” Millicent said, pulling free of the queen to go help the chief, who seemed to be ready to collapse. She steadied him with one arm and put her other hand out to catch Capricious, who had started to fall. Capricious, for his part, curled back up at her approach.
“Th-thank you, Miss Kidna—ah, Miss Human,” the chief said. “I suppose I owe you my gratitude, and an apology.”
“No, no, that's all right.” She waved her hand in front of her as if to brush away his praise. “You were just worried about your baby. Besides, I guess humans can be pretty scary. I was a little overwhelmed by all the different sorts of goblins when I first came here, so I'm sure it works in reverse, too.”
“Perish the thought,” the chief said, suddenly the model of genteel manners. “To be honest, you don't look all that different from our beloved queen.”
“You saying I look like a human?” Delilah said, balling up a fist.
“No, no!” Folderol said. “I think he meant that she looked like a goblin. It was a compliment.”
“Well, I suppose that's all right then…”
“I think he's still scared of me, though,” Millicent said, pointing to Capricious
“Him, Miss?” said the chief. “No, he's just shy around most people. But if he let you pick him up, he must have taken a liking to you.”
“Really?” She edged closer to the baby, hoping he might finally open up for her. Instead, a gurgle issued from inside his shell.
“I think he's hungry.”
“I think we all are,” said some kibitzer from the crowd. The rest nodded in agreement.
“Oh! Dinner's actually all set to go,” Millicent said. “I just have to carry it up to the ballroom.”
“Nonsense,” Delilah cried, thrusting a finger at the police bugs. “Your job description is to protect and serve, right? Why don't you go down to the kitchens and fetch us dinner, hmm? That's the least you can do for Millie after all the help she's been.”
The bugbears saluted and rolled through the door to the kitchens, while Millicent, Delilah, and the rest of the crowd headed to the ballroom.
“I'm not sure I was all that much help, to be honest,” Millicent said to the queen as they climbed the spiral staircase that led up through the castle.
“Of course you were, Millie. You rescued a child from certain peril.”
“He was just crawling around the kitchens when I found him.”
“True, true, but you still decided to bring him up to the safety of the garden rather than squish him or just let him be, and therefore prevented a rebellion of the police force against the royal family.”
“That's true. You wouldn't want a civil war on you layday.”
“No, that's more of a hatchday sort of thing. Anyway, Millie, don’t give it another thought. Now it's time to enjoy the party: dinner, then games, and then inside fireworks.”
She was going to protest, but it was Delilah's layday, after all, and a national holiday on top of that. She would contain her urge to keep the castle in one piece for tonight, then clean up the debris tomorrow. That was as good a present as any.