From the creator of Dragonbreath comes a tale of witches, minions, and one fantastic castle, just right for fans of Roald Dahl and Tom Angleberger.
When Molly shows up on Castle Hangnail's doorstep to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the castle's minions are understandably dubious. After all, she is twelve years old, barely five feet tall, and quite polite. (The minions are used to tall, demanding evil sorceresses with razor-sharp cheekbones.) But the castle desperately needs a master or else the Board of Magic will decommission it, leaving all the minions without the home they love. So when Molly assures them she is quite wicked indeed (So wicked! REALLY wicked!) and begins completing the tasks required by the Board of Magic for approval, everyone feels hopeful. Unfortunately, it turns out that Molly has quite a few secrets, including the biggest one of all: that she isn't who she says she is.
This quirky, richly illustrated novel is filled with humor, magic, and an unforgettable all-star cast of castle characters.
Excerpt from Castle Hangnail
It was a marvelously dark and dour twilight at the castle.
Clouds the color of bruises lay across the hills. Rooks and ravens flapped into the battlements and were met by bats leaving for the evening.
True, there were only three ravens, but there were plenty of bats, so the overall impression was of a small cloud of winged smoke hanging over the highest tower.
The castle guardian was pleased.
Sadly, Castle Hangnail was not surrounded by jagged mountains, which would have been ideal, but you couldn’t have everything. The grassy hills around the castle were doing their best impression of a blasted moor. The guardian tried not to notice the dandelions growing on the hillside. They were much too cheerful. He would go and have a word with the gardener tomorrow.
It was a good Evil castle, he thought fiercely. Anyone would be proud to have it! Even with the dandelions and the aging ravens and the unreliable plumbing. Castle Hangnail had history. Dark and terrible deeds had been done there. Probably.
He shuffled an empty teacup out of the way. Someone had left it on an end table near the door, and he hid it behind a stuffed crocodile.
The ravens had assured him that the new Master or Mistress of the castle would arrive tonight.
He hung about the main door, waiting. Would it be an Evil Wizard? A Dark Sorceress? A Loathsome Hag?
He hoped it wasn’t the Hag. A certain degree of dust and cobwebs were expected in an Evil castle, but a really dedicated Loathsome Hag would have slime dripping off the walls and dead mice at the dinner table. It got to the point where you were embarrassed to have people over.
But an Evil Wizard, now . . . well, there was a lot to be said for an Evil Wizard. Or a Witch. A Wicked Witch would be just fine. Perhaps she’d even have a cat.
The guardian was fond of cats.
Really, though, he wasn’t picky. Any proper Master would do. Necromancer. Cursed Beastlord. Even an ordinary Mad Scientist.
“It’s been so long . . .” he said out loud. “I was afraid no one would answer the letters.”
“You’re telling me,” said Edward, clanking.“And all those nasty letters from the Board! I was starting to worry that I’d have to go down to the crypt and see if I could find our old Master, the ancient Vampire Lord, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get back up again, with my joints.”
“I’ll get you some oil for them tomorrow,” said the guardian absently.
“Oil won’t help. I’ve rusted solid all through the knees.” The magical suit of armor sighed. “Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. We’d need blood to bring him back, and I don’t think you’ve got much in you.”
“I’ve got plenty of blood,” said the guardian, peering out the peephole. “I keep it down in the cellar, where it’s nice and cool. We gave away at least a dozen bottles of O negative during the blood drive last Christmas.”
A blood drive was not the sort of thing you could imagine an Evil Sorceress allowing, mind you, but you had to move with the times. That was one of the problems with raising the old Vampire Lord. He was very old-fashioned. He’d have been flitting around the town, biting people’s necks, before you could say “stake.” It was easier just to leave him quietly dead.
“Did the ravens say anything?” asked Edward.
The guardian shrugged. “They’re ravens. They mostly see the tops of people’s heads. They said the Master-or-Mistress was walking.”
“Hmm.” Edward thought about that.
There was nothing inherently wrong with walking to your new castle, of course. The last Witch had walked. The Evil Sorceress before her had ridden in on the back of a Dark Phoenix, though, and the Wizards all had dragons. There was nothing like a dragon to really make an entrance.
“Perhaps the new Master just wants to take in the scenery,” said the guardian.
“That’s probably it.”
He hoped the scenery would be satisfactory. By darkness it should be all right. By daylight, the land around Castle Hangnail insisted on being picturesque, and Miss Handlebram down the road had a white picket fence, but perhaps the new Master wouldn’t notice.
And the castle had crypts! Proper crypts, not just a wine cellar with a coffin shoved in the back. Plus a moat. Well, a mini-moat. Surely that would make up for the picket fence.
The guardian looked through the peephole again.
“Getting on full dark soon,” said Edward as he leaned back.
“Perhaps they’ll come at moonrise,” said the guardian. “Moonrise is perfectly respectable.”
It was actually a few minutes before moonrise when the someone lifted the door knocker and banged it down, hard.
The guardian wanted to throw the door open. He wanted to cheer and throw confetti. The Master—or Mistress—had arrived!
But he had been a castle guardian for centuries, and he knew what was expected.
He waited for five long seconds, then allowed the door to creak open. The hinges squealed like a dying rabbit.
He looked out.
He looked up.
He looked left.
He looked right.
Finally he looked down.
Ravens mostly see the tops of people’s heads. It does not occur to them that some people are shorter than others, because when you fly, everyone is shorter than you are.
A small, determined face looked up at him. It belonged to a girl wearing black clothes, a black coat, and a silver necklace with a vulture on it.
She looked to be about twelve years old.
“My name is Molly,” said the girl. “I’m here to be your Wicked Witch.”
What the guardian saw was a plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair. She was wearing black boots with metal caps on the end. They were very serious boots. Molly had laced them with purple shoelaces. They looked as if they could kick a hole in a stone wall and have fun doing it.
What Molly saw was a very old man in layers of gray rags. Parts of him looked to have been dead for quite some time.
He was not naturally a hunchback, but he was making up for it by walking bent over and keeping his shoulders drawn up around his ears. He had scars and sutures and one white, clouded eye.
Because he was hunched over and she had on very tall boots, she only had to look up a little to see into his eyes.
“You’re the Wicked Witch?” said the guardian.
“Yes?” said Molly. She fingered her vulture necklace nervously.
“Are . . . are you sure?”
“Oh, quite sure.”
The last Sorceress had been nearly six feet tall, with hair the color of bleached bone and eyes like chips of flint. Molly had brown eyes, and the only way she would ever be six feet tall would be if she stood on a stepladder.
“A Wicked Witch?”
“Extremely Wicked,” said Molly. “It would curl your hair, how Wicked I am.”
(This was purely academic, as the guardian had not had much hair for at least a century.)
“A Wicked Witch, though,” said the guardian.
“Very Witchy.” Molly tilted her head. “I’ve got loads of silver jewelry. And I like snakes. And toads. I had a pet toad back home.”
“A familiar?” asked the guardian hopefully.
“. . . sure,” said Molly. “A familiar. Definitely.”
“I don’t suppose he’s here now?”
“Well, no,” said Molly. “He had a family and a nice pond in the backyard and I didn’t want to make him unhappy. Mom promised to feed him mealworms every other day, though.”
“One moment,” said the guardian, shutting the door.
The guardian had a problem, and not just Edward hissing, “Is it a Sorceress? I want to see!” behind him.
He’d never seen a Mistress this young before. If she was the real Mistress, he was definitely wrong to keep her waiting, and he really shouldn’t shut the door in her face, but if she wasn’t the Mistress—if she was an imposter, say—then when the real Mistress arrived, there was going to be a very unpleasant scene. It would probably involve screaming and fireballs and some of the torture devices in the spare bedroom.
On the other hand, there were the boots. The boots had to count for something.
“It’s not a Loathsome Hag, is it?” whispered Edward, who had been hiding behind the door.
“No, no . . .” The guardian waved him into silence. “It’s a Wicked Witch. I think.”
“Yay, a Witch!”
“Hush! There might be a problem!”
The guardian poked his head out the door again. Molly was still standing there, gazing up at the tower with vague nearsighted interest.
“You can do magic, right?” Magic was a requirement in a new Master, unless you were a Mad Scientist, and Molly didn’t look like the sort to hook lightning rods up to cadavers while wild theremins wailed in the background.
“Absolutely,” said Molly. “I’ve got a book of potions. And I can turn invisible if I hold my breath.”
The guardian rubbed the back of his neck.
“You seem a little . . . young.”
“I’m smart for my age. I can read at a tenth-grade level.”
The guardian found his gaze drawn back down to the boots again. They were very Wicked boots, but were they Wicked enough?
“Could you do something . . . I don’t know, unpleasant?”
Molly shifted her backpack from one shoulder to the other. “If you don’t let me in and show me to the bathroom, I’ll do something very unpleasant right here on the doorstep.”
The guardian shuddered and opened the door all the way. The candles streamed in the sudden breeze.
She stomped past him. She was probably merely walking, but the boots turned it into a stomp by the time they reached the floor. The guardian pointed her in the direction of the bathroom, which was off the main foyer and down a short hallway.
They heard the door shut, and the rattle and gurgle of ancient pipes.
“Seems a bit . . . young,” said Edward.
“Yes,” said the guardian. He had been a member of the Minion’s Guild in good standing for many years—had even won “Minion of the Year” six times—but he could not remember a Master as young as Molly.
“Good boots, though.”
“Do you think the Board . . . ?”
“We don’t have to tell them how old she is,” said the guardian firmly. “It’s just a check box—Witch, Wicked, yes/no, in residence in castle, yes/no.”
There was another gurgle as the Wicked Witch washed her hands and then the door opened again.
“The black guest towels are a nice touch,” she said.
“We can have them monogrammed,” said the guardian. “If you’re staying.”
Molly shifted uncertainly inside her boots. “You need a Wicked Witch, right?”
“Well . . . yes . . .”
“I’ll be a good Wicked Witch. I mean a bad—well, I’ll be good at it. Being Wicked, I mean.”
Edward and the guardian exchanged glances. This is difficult to do when one party has helmet slits instead of eyes, but the guardian had known him for a long time.
“It’s just . . .” the guardian began.
He stopped. He started again. “There was a letter, you understand, that was sent to potential Masters—”
“I’ve got it right here,” said Molly, interrupting. She thrust a hand into her coat pocket and pulled out a black envelope with a bloodred seal.
“Oh!” said the guardian, relaxing. Edward gave a relieved rattle. “Those are ours. We sent them out when the old Mistress . . . left. If you got one—well, if you got one, I suppose it must be fine. They’re magic. They wouldn’t have gone to you if you weren’t eligible.”
He reached out a withered hand for the letter. Molly gave it over. Her hand went to her vulture necklace again.
The guardian flipped it over. “It’s one of ours, yes . . . hmm. Says it’s addressed to Eudaimonia—”
“That’s me,” said Molly hurriedly. “Only I go by Molly. It’s—err—a nickname.”
“I expect you got tired of people not being able to spell Eudaimonia,” said Edward.
Molly took a step back in surprise. “You can talk!” she said.
“Very much so.” Edward took his sword hilt in both hands and knelt, ponderously. The guardian winced, knowing how much the armor’s knees bothered him. Edward bowed his head. “I, Lord Edward von Hallenbrock, swear allegiance to you, Mistress of the castle! I shall be your blade in Wickedness and your shield in adversity.”
The guardian knew that Molly was a Wicked Witch, but he did hope she would be kind to Edward. The suit of armor was very sensitive. One of the Sorceresses had laughed at him, and he had been depressed for months.
But Molly bowed to Edward—a bow, not a curtsy—and said, “Thank you, Lord von Hallenbrock. I didn’t know that the castle would have such”—she sought a word—“such stalwart defenders. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Stalwart had been a nice touch. Edward beamed.
Both Molly and the guardian had to take an arm to get him upright again. “It’s my knees,” he said cheerfully. “Don’t mind me.”
“And I didn’t catch your name,” said Molly, when Edward was up on his armor stand again.
“Oh,” said the guardian. “I haven’t got one. Not as such.”
“Well, I can’t just call you hey, you!”
“The last Sorceress used to call me Lackey. And the Cursed Beastlord called me Wretch.”
“. . . I don’t think I’d feel right about that,” said Molly.
“Then you’ll have to give me a name,” said the guardian.
Molly thought about this for a moment. “What exactly is it you do?”
“Whatever my Mistress desires.”
“He does everything,” said Edward helpfully. “He makes sure the cook has supplies and the maid puts up the right sort of cobwebs and that the pipes don’t freeze in winter. He’s in charge of the castle while the Master’s away.”
“If it pleases you, of course,” put in the guardian hurriedly. “I wouldn’t want you to think that we minions were getting above ourselves.” (Getting above yourself is considered very rude among minions.)
“And he’s been here for ages,” said Edward. “Longer than I have. Back when the first Vampire Lord built the castle.”
Molly screwed up her face. “How about . . . Majordomo? It’s like a butler, only . . . better.”
“I like that,” said Edward. “Major Domo! Sounds almost military.”
“It was on our vocabulary test last week,” said Molly.
The guardian’s eyes widened.
“In—err—Witch school,” she added hurriedly. “For very Wicked Witches. In training.”
Everyone relaxed slightly. There was the feeling of a difficult social hurdle navigated.
“Please forgive me, Mistress Molly,” said Majordomo. “The ravens were . . . not very specific about what you looked like.”
“I love ravens,” said Molly, clasping her hands together. “They’re such intelligent birds.”
“Ye-e-e-es,” said Majordomo slowly. “Yes, they’re very intelligent. For birds.”
“I love owls too,” said Molly. “But I’m afraid they’re not as intelligent, even if people believe in wise old owls.”
“It’s the eyeballs,” said Majordomo. “It leaves very little room in their skulls for brains. You can’t make a proper messenger out of an owl, they keep getting distracted by mice.”
“My absolute favorites are turkey vultures, though,” said Molly. “They’re very intelligent. And social. And they throw up on predators!”
This was starting to veer into Loathsome Hag territory, thought Majordomo, but at least it was properly unpleasant.
“I’m afraid we don’t have any vultures. We’ve still got a barn owl somewhere, I think. Cook can tell you all about it.”
They left the foyer—Molly waved to Edward—and entered the Grand Hall. Two enormous staircases came spinning and slithering down from the heights of the castle. One was in complete ruin, but the other looked solid. Carved gargoyles crouched on the banisters and peeked out between the railings. The truth was that they hadn’t had the money to fix the ruined staircase since it had fallen down last year, but this didn’t seem like the proper time to mention it.
“Awesome!” said Molly.
Majordomo tried to remember if any of the previous Masters had called anything in the castle “awesome” before.
He ushered her around the back of the staircase, to the dining hall. It was an enormous room, the far end lost in shadow, with great banks of candles flickering on the sideboard. The single chair at the head of the table was upholstered in black velvet and was carved into fantastical shapes.
“Ooooh . . .” said Molly, suitably impressed.
Majordomo sniffed. He knew that a proper Mistress should sweep in haughtily and accept such things as the bare minimum due to her station—but still, it was nice to have someone appreciate the work involved. The candles alone would have cost a fortune if not for the Clockwork Bees in the basement.
“So how did you come to be a Wicked Witch?” he asked, leading her past the table, toward the kitchen. Cook would be sitting up waiting to meet the new Mistress, and Majordomo knew better than to offend her. Masters might come and go, but Cook was forever.
“Uh. Right.” Molly rubbed the silver vulture’s beak thoughtfully. “It was perfectly logical. I’m a twin, you know.”
“Oh, twins!” said Majordomo. He was on solid mythological territory now. “Do you have a special language that you use to communicate?”
“Yes,” said Molly. “It’s called English. And no, I don’t know what she’s thinking all the time. I don’t know where people get these ideas.”
Majordomo sighed. It appeared that Mistress Molly was not cut from the same cloth as the previous inhabitants.
This was worrisome. If she couldn’t be a proper Master to Castle Hangnail—well, that was a problem. A castle needed a Master. They’d gotten on without one for this long, but every time he filed an extension with the Board of Magic, Majordomo had the sense of teetering on the edge of a cliff. If they couldn’t get a new Master soon, the Board would decide Castle Hangnail was more trouble than it was worth.
Still, there were the boots.
“Anyway,” said Molly, hurrying on, “she’s the good twin. I’m the Evil twin. So I had to go into Wickedness. I would have been a Sorceress, but I couldn’t figure out how to do the eye makeup.”
“Are you sure she’s the good twin?” asked Majordomo. Perhaps the letter had gone to the right household, but the wrong person had picked it up.
“Well, Sarah sings in the church choir. And she visits old people at the Shady Hills Rest Home. I used to go with her, but I got Old Man Parson to tell me about when he used to hunt trolls and he was acting it out and accidentally hit Miss Pennywidth with a bedpan. I wasn’t invited back. Sarah still goes, though. And her favorite color is pink.”
Majordomo was forced to admit that this sounded like good-twin behavior.
“I like black,” said Molly. “And silver. And purple’s good too.” She rubbed the vulture again.
He pushed the door to the kitchen open.
The kitchen was bright and cheerful and had red-and-yellow checked tile on the walls. It was not the sort of place you expected to find in a dark and dreary castle, but Cook liked it.
Generations of Evil Masters had bowed before the whims of Cook. While a Vampire or a Beastlord might rule the rest of the building, in the kitchen, Cook’s word was law.
The guardian realized that he was holding his breath.
On the far side of the kitchen, between the fireplace and an enormous slab of a table, Cook rose to her feet.
She came forward. Firelight played across massive shoulders, dagger-like horns, and deep-set, burning eyes. Her hooves struck the floor like thunder. The cleaver in her hand was the size of a battle-ax.
“Whoa!” said Molly. “You’re a Minotaur!”
Molly lay back in her bed—a real four-poster bed! With dark red bed-curtains and dark gray sheets!—and let out a long breath.
She’d gotten away with it. The hardest part was over. She’d presented herself at the castle and no one had stopped her.
Majordomo clearly suspected that she wasn’t really a Wicked Witch, but he hadn’t flat-out refused to let her in. Lord Edward, the enchanted armor, was a dear. (Molly was particularly proud of the word stalwart, which is a word that you often see written but which hardly anyone ever says aloud.)
Well. Cook was amazing.
Molly had read all the books on magical creatures in the library twice. She knew the difference between a Wyrm and a Wyvern. She could tell a Hippogriff from a Griffin at fifty yards. She had once—she was almost sure—seen a Unicorn in the woods, even though her sister said it had been a deer.
But a Minotaur! Eight feet tall, with a bull’s head—cow’s head, in Cook’s case, although there wasn’t much difference.
Different than I expected, she thought. I thought it would be a human with a bull’s head, but Cook was shaggy all over, and she had hooves and her fingers were sort of stubby and hoof-like too.
I wonder what else the books got wrong?
Cook had a thick, guttural voice and a white apron with roses embroidered on it.
“Is Minotaur,” she said. “Is problem?”
“No! Not at all. I think it’s wonderful,” said Molly.
“Good. Good.” She turned her head from side to side, eyeing Molly thoughtfully. Her eyes looked like a cow’s eyes, but with razor-sharp intelligence behind them. “You. Is child?”
Molly, thinking very quickly, said, “Yes. Is problem?”
Cook’s face split into a broad bovine grin. She slapped one hoof-like hand down on the table. “Good! Be sitting. Bring you food.”
“The Mistress should eat in the dining hall,” said Majordomo.
“Is here. Food is also here.” Cook went to the stove (which was black iron and the size of a small house) and pulled a tray from atop it.
Before Molly had a chance to worry what sort of food a Minotaur would cook, Cook set the tray before her. It had little pastries with jam and big meat pies oozing with gravy and medium-sized tarts with apples and pears sliced up and covered in syrup.
“Keep warm on stove,” said Cook.
Molly dove into the pastries. It had been a very long walk from the village and she’d been living on sandwiches and a thermos of cold tea. “These are delicious!” she said, around a mouthful of pastry.
“Is learning to cook from first husband,” said Cook. “Then is cooking him. Lousy husband. Second husband is chef, much better.”
Molly paused halfway through her meat pie. “You cooked your husband?” She looked at the meat pie. It was delicious.
Probably nobody I know, anyway. She kept eating.
“First husband,” said Cook. “Long time ago. Second husband is dying of natural causes. Third husband is running off with encyclopedia saleswoman, is leaving only encyclopedia, volume Q behind.” Cook snorted. “Not being fond of letter Q. Not allowing Qs in this house. Not be making quiche in this kitchen, understand?”
“Seems fair,” said Molly. “I suppose quinces are out too?”
“No quinces. And is not liking queens. Is not being Dark Queen?”
“Nope.” Molly brushed crumbs off her shirt. It was her best shirt. It had black lace and everything. Unfortunately crumbs stuck to it, and lint and cat hair. Especially cat hair.
“I’m a Wicked Witch,” she said, abandoning the crumbs.
Majordomo made an imperceptible sound at that.
Molly sighed, replaying the scene in her mind. No, Majordomo wasn’t convinced. Having Cook on her side was good, but she was pretty sure that Majordomo was the one in charge.
But he’d let her inside. That was a start.
She wiggled from side to side. The mattress was thick and yielding and there was a bit of a divot in the middle. If she slid herself into it and snuggled down, it was like being engulfed in a warm, cozy marshmallow.
I’ll show him. He’ll see I’m the best Wicked Witch around. I’ll be great at being bad.
She was a little worried about that part, honestly. There were lots of people that probably deserved to have something Wicked happen to them, but actually hurting people . . . well, that was different.
I’ll just have to find people who deserve it.
Once, some boys at her school had seen a bat hanging in the corner of the coat room and had knocked it down to the floor with a schoolbook. It had flopped sadly along the floor, half stunned and very frightened.
Molly had been so furious that she forgot that the boys were bigger than she was. She’d stormed into the middle of them and shoved Todd, the biggest one—who had been about to step on the poor bat’s wing!—and told him that if he didn’t leave the bat alone, she’d turn him into an earwig and feed him to the toads.
And it had worked. Just for a minute, they backed away, looking confused. And that had been long enough for the teacher to come and see what was happening, and for Molly to scoop the poor bewildered bat into her lunch box and take it home.
If she could have turned Todd into a earwig, she would have.
I probably wouldn’t have fed him to a toad. Maybe I would have shown him a toad, though. Just to scare him. Maybe then he’d realize what it’s like to be a little tiny creature that people pick on.
The bat had been fine. She’d let it go that evening and it swooped around her head, making chattering noises, and then flew off into the night.
That had been the moment when she realized that magic wasn’t just a fun thing she could do—it mattered. Not very many people could do real magic, but she could. She could smite people—not nice people, obviously, but the sort of people who were mean to innocent bats.
And that’s why I’m a Wicked Witch, and not an Evil Sorceress. Evil is bad. Wicked is just a little bad.
Well, that and the eye makeup.
She pulled the covers up to her chin.
She loved her bedroom. She loved everything she’d seen in Castle Hangnail so far, but her bedroom was the best.
There was a window seat with bookcases built all around it. She had always wanted a window seat. The books were bound in black leather, with skulls on the binding. The walls were deep, warm gray, and the wainscoting was made of dark, gleaming wood. A tapestry hung on the back of the door, showing three ravens in front of a crescent moon.
It was what she’d always wanted her room at home to look like, but Sarah would never go along with it. It’s very hard to make a suitably dark and gloomy retreat when one side of the room is full of stuffed animals and pink pillows.
Sarah couldn’t do magic and didn’t think it was fair that Molly could. And she had always squealed when Molly brought home bones. “That’s so disgusting!”
“It’s neat,” said Molly defensively. “Look, it’s not rotten or anything, it’s just a deer skull. It’s been picked clean. I found it in the woods.”
“I won’t sleep in the same room with that thing!” shrieked Sarah, and went off to tell their mother.
Here even the candelabras were made of bones, holding candles in their skeletal hands. It had taken her ten minutes to go around and blow out all the candles.
She could do it. She could be Wicked enough. And they’d let her stay at Castle Hangnail.
And if she was very lucky, nobody would ever find out that the invitation hadn’t been addressed to her after all.
She’s no Evil Sorceress, that’s for sure,” said Majordomo.
The other two people at the table nodded. One said “Hmmmm” in a thoughtful fashion.
The thoughtful one was only a person if you were feeling particularly generous with the term. He was a doll made out of burlap, with heavy pins stuck in his head like hair. His name was Pins.
When you show people dolls full of pins, they tend to think of voodoo. Voodoo is a very interesting religion and is not, as some people believe, all zombies and pins stuck in people. Nevertheless, Pins was not a voodoo doll. Nobody was quite sure what Pins was. He had shown up a few decades earlier and taken over doing the laundry and tailoring in Castle Hangnail.
He stood about eighteen inches tall and had a seam for a mouth and holes for eyes. You could see his white stuffing through the eyeholes.
Pins lived in a small room over the laundry with a talking goldfish. The goldfish was intensely neurotic and convinced that she was always sickening for something. Pins took very tender care of the fish and was currently knitting her a very small waterproof scarf.
“Does she not look like an Evil Sorceress?” asked Pins. “She’s a Wicked Witch, isn’t she? Or is it more than that?”
Majordomo thought about this for a while.
If anyone else had asked him this question, he would have defended Molly without question. One simply did not bad-mouth the Master to outsiders. It wasn’t done.
But they were all minions here, and minions are traditionally all in this together.
“She definitely doesn’t look it. Although,” he added, with the air of one being fair at any cost, “she does have very Witchy boots.”
“Good shoes are the foundation for any wardrobe,” said Pins, knitting another row on the scarf. “If it’s just a matter of sewing, I’ll have her looking properly Wicked in no time.” Pins was very proud of his tailoring, because after all, nobody knows fabric like someone who’s made out of it.
“I suppose,” said Majordomo dubiously. He had great respect for Pins’s sewing, but Molly was rather small and round and frizzy. He didn’t think any amount of costuming could turn her into a tall, elegant Sorceress with ice dripping off her fingertips.
“Is she not magic enough?” asked the other person at the table.
Then she went “Fssssssssss . . . .” like a train coming into the station. The other two ignored this, because that was just how Serenissima talked.
Serenissima’s father had been a djinn, a spirit of immortal fire. Her mother had been a shopkeeper in the capital. This sort of thing goes on all the time, and nobody pays much attention, except for the fact that one of her mother’s distant ancestors had been a mermaid.
Mermaid blood can lie dormant for generations. Serenissima’s mother had been fond of the seaside and taking long baths, but those were the only signs. But when the mermaid blood met the djinn blood, they fought as only fire and water can fight and produced a creature of immortal . . . steam.
It’s from the word djinn that we get genie, but you couldn’t have put Serenissima in a bottle. It would have exploded from the pressure. She lived in a teakettle instead. She dripped scalding water wherever she went, and clouds of steam rolled off her constantly. She could turn a room into a sauna just by sitting quietly in the corner.
She couldn’t very well work in a shop with these handicaps, so when she was fourteen years old, she had answered an ad in the paper to come and do maidwork at Castle Hangnail and had been there ever since. She had even been granted her associate minion degree last year and was considering graduate minion studies.
The huge rooms were too large to turn into saunas and wherever Serenissima walked, the stones would be scoured and the carpets steam-cleaned. She could clean most of the castle merely by taking a brisk walk around it, and she spent the rest of her time in her teakettle on the stove in the kitchen, writing epic poetry about boilers.
“I don’t know,” said Majordomo, in answer to the question. “She says she can turn invisible if she holds her breath, which isn’t bad.”
“Not really enough to make a career on, though,” said Serenissima.
Majordomo sighed. “Well, she said she was in Witch school. I suppose they teach them witchery there.”
“They must, mustn’t they?” said Serenissima. “Witch Economics and . . . oh, Toadology or some such. She’s bound to know all sorts of spells.”
“I suppose.” Majordomo rubbed his finger over the wood-grain of the table.
There was a long silence.
“Will the Board of Magic think it’s enough?” asked Pins finally.
Majordomo hunched his shoulders up even higher than usual. “They will if she completes the Tasks.” He stared down at the table. “They gave us an extension again. When I said that there was a new Master coming.”
“They said this was the last extension, though,” said Pins. The Board of Magic, it should be said, is not like a government that rules over magic. Magic is ungovernable. There’s no king or queen, no president or prime minister.
But the various people who use magic had found, over the years, that it’s useful to have an organization that takes care of practical matters, like making sure fairy roads are kept up and standing stones don’t get overgrown with ivy and that somebody’s pet octopus doesn’t have an accident in the laboratory and grow eighty feet tall and start devouring tour buses.
This is the Board of Magic.
One of the things that the Board of Magic does is oversee old magical castles. If they have a proper Master, everything’s fine. But if their Master isn’t up to the Board’s standards . . . well, then the problems arise. Magic is a lot like water, and if there isn’t a fit Master in charge, it’ll puddle up everywhere, the basement will flood, and weird things will start laying eggs in it.
Castle Hangnail had filed eleven extensions so far, and the Board was running out of patience. If they didn’t get a Master soon, the castle would be decommissioned.
Which meant “de-magicked and sold.”
Which meant all of the minions would be out of work and out of their home. Some of the younger ones—Pins, maybe, or Serenissima—might be able to find new jobs, but it would be hard for Majordomo to find another castle. And even if he did, he probably wouldn’t be in charge of it.
It was one thing to take orders from the Master. It was quite another to take orders from a butler or a housekeeper. He shuddered at the thought.
“The Board will accept her,” said Majordomo. “I don’t have to write down how old she is, or that she’s fresh out of school. They’ll just see ‘Wicked Witch’ and sign off on it, once she’s completed the Tasks.”
“Unless they send someone out to have a look,” said Serenissima.
Majordomo shuddered again.
“Board or no Board, she’ll have to do something to earn money,” said Pins. “Cook’s been selling eggs to Miss Handlebram, and Angus is doing odd jobs at the farm over the hill, but you can’t keep the whole castle up on egg money.”
“We do all right,” said Serenissima. “Every woman in the village brings you her silk and velvet to wash. They won’t go anywhere else.”
Burlap can’t blush, but Pins dropped a stitch on his scarf. “It’s nothing,” he mumbled.
“We do all right,” Majordomo echoed. Then he sighed. “We do all right for a half-dozen people in a castle without a Master. But what if she’s wanting to throw masked balls or have a chariot pulled by cockatrices or some such?”
All three of them stared at the table.
Masters were prone to extravagance, and the castle was supposed to provide it. But there just wasn’t very much money in Castle Hangnail. They didn’t have a cellar full of gold or a gallery full of paintings by great artists.
Between all the minions, they made enough to pay everybody a small wage and buy soap and sugar and tea and anything they couldn’t make themselves. But a masked ball would stretch them very thin, and they certainly could not have afforded even a very small cockatrice.
“Ungo the Mad could turn lead into gold,” said Pins. “That was useful.”
“I don’t think Wicked Witches can do that,” said Serenissima. “The old Sorceress used to zap bandits and take their money, though.”
“Not as many bandits as there used to be,” said Pins. “She was zapping bank robbers toward the end, and look where that got her.”