When you come to a footnote, tap or click on the number and it will take you to the (mostly sarcastic, sometimes funny) explanation. Then, if you tap or click the number again, it will take you back to the line you were reading. (This will be dependent on your device / app supporting this feature.)
Ondine is pronounced On-deen, but you can say it in your head any way you like.
Astral projection. Some people are great at it; others are famous for sleeping right through it. Take the almost-sixteen-year-old Ondine, for example. By all accounts she’s a healthy teen, eats well, has her regular share of bad and good hair days. (Long, wispy and brown. What can you do?) Being our brave and clever heroine, Ondine is blessed with ‘resting curious face’, which means she often looks like she knows what’s going on. Even if she doesn’t. At the end of a long day of working for her family in their pub, The Duke and Ferret in downtown Venzelemma, the capital city of Brugel, Ondine is also blessed with the ability to fall asleep three minutes and twenty-two seconds after climbing into bed. She has neither the energy nor the inclination to develop her astral projection abilities. It would involve meditating, then separating her spiritual body from the physical to then journey – along what is known in psychic circles as the astral plane – from her mind and project herself into the mind of another.
Or travel to various psychic destinations.
On the other hand, witch-in-training Melody, who is getting the colour back into her cheeks after the strain of working with the ‘bad witch’ Mrs Howser, is an absolute natural at astral projection. Melody and Ondine first met at Psychic Summercamp, three seasons (and three books) ago. Melody proved to be so good at astral projection, she can now travel by day or night and visit people who are either asleep or awake – sometimes without the recipient even knowing. Plus, Melody can take people with her on these journeys, visiting places or people anywhere in the city, or indeed any part of Brugel (a country in eastern Europe that has still not won the Eurovision Song Contest).
So it came as no surprise to Ondine, as she was asleep in her bedroom above the family pub, to see and hear Melody appear at the end of her bed one rainy spring evening, sitting as comfortably as you like. Even though it was the middle of the night, and, as previously stated, it was raining. Pouring down, it was. Hitting the windowpanes at a fierce angle and diluting the last of the winter snow into slurry. Exactly the kind of weather you don’t want to be out in, even if you do have seriously important news you simply can’t wait until morning to tell your friend. Which is again why astral is so useful, as travel along the psychic plane is not weather-dependant.
Melody looked dry and warm as she folded her travelling witch cloak over her knees and smiled her brightest smile for Ondine.
“You’re totally owning astral,” Ondine said.
Melody beamed with confidence. “Yeah, I am. You’re still asleep, by the way.”
“Am I?” Ondine made to rub her eyes, like she normally did upon waking, but found that her arm had turned rubbery and she only mooshed her head into the pillow instead. The pillow felt as soft and squishy as pizza dough. So doughy. So drowsy.
“I have something you need to see,” Melody said, holding out her hand.
“Come with me.”
“Do I have to wake up?” Ondine nibbled at the corner of her pizza dough pillow. Mmmm, yeasty.
“No, it’s best if you stay asleep for this,” Melody took her limp palm.
“This is really important, so hold my hand the whole time and don’t fall asleep on me, OK?”
“I thought you said I was asleep?”
“You know what I mean.”
As Ondine’s hand slipped into Melody’s, she saw a third person appear in the room.
“Hey there sleepy head,” Hamish said, giving her a cheeky wink.
Suddenly Ondine hoped she wasn’t having one of those dreams where she turned up to school naked. She checked herself and noted, with a relieved sigh, she was completely decent. If you could count her nattiest flannel pyjamas with holes in the armpits decent.
For his part, Hamish was dressed in a dinner suit straight out of a classic 1920s movie. High white collar, black bow tie, tight-fitting dark grey suit and black lapels. Not to mention the creased pants and shiny black shoes. Despite his fancy appearance, Hamish’s black hair refused to sit right, with a disarming lock blocking the vision from his cheeky green eyes. (‘Cheeky’ is so a colour.) He tugged at his neck and complained in his endearing Scottish accent, “I couldnae dream about being at a toga party, could I? That would be far too comfortable.”
Curiosity ate her up as Ondine took in the lush sight of him. “What were you dreaming about?”
“My worst nightmare. Ballroom dancing.”
For many, ballroom dancing would be the subject of an exciting dream, but considering Hamish’s back story, where he was first cursed by Ondine’s great-aunt Col to be a ferret when attending her debutante ball, that kind of setting was a source of constant upset.
“Was I in it?” Ondine asked.
Melody made an exaggerated harrumph. “Can you two stop gushing and pay attention? This is serious.”
“Yes ma’am,” Hamish said.
Ondine nodded. “Good,” Melody said. “Now, prepare yourselves this won’t be pretty. Lord Vincent is visiting his mother at the asylum, and we need to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”1
“What sort of stupid?” Ondine wondered.
“Seriously stupid,” Melody said. “You know Mrs Howser is being kept at the same facility, don’t you?”
“No,” Ondine and Hamish said together at the mention of their nemesis and Ondine’s former Psychic Summercamp teacher.
“And you know that the vacuum bag with Mrs Howser’s soul in it has gone missing, don’t you?”2
Did they have to be talking about Birgit Howser? The woman had gone from being a batty old pest to becoming Ondine’s mortal enemy. Sickened by the revelation that the bag was missing, Ondine looked first to Hamish then to Melody. “I didn’t know that.”
Melody’s eyebrows shot up. “It’s been all over the news! What have you two been doing?”
Something on the floor became incredibly interesting as Ondine studied the carpet at her feet.
“Fine!” Melody tisked loudly and tightened her grip on Ondine’s hand. “I’ll catch you up to speed on the way there.”
“Eh lass? I can’t go out like this.”
Ondine looked up to see Hamish’s spiffy suit had vanished, replaced by the more comfortable toga he’d requested. He even had a laurel wreath on his head, his dark locks brushed forward to fan his temples.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, they won’t see us anyway, we’re astraling,” Melody said. “Now stop yammering and pay attention. The future of Brugel is at stake!”
“It sounds so dramatic when she says it like that,” Hamish said as he gave Ondine a wink.
The bedroom melted away and they floated out into the dark sky above. It rained all around them, yet they didn’t get wet. It wasn’t even cold, for which Ondine was incredibly grateful.
“Are we spying on Mrs Howser?” Ondine asked.
“Only a little,” Melody said, then quickly added, “I know last time didn’t end well, but this will be different.”
The ‘last time’ of which Melody referred, had ended very badly. Mrs Howser had seen straight through Melody’s magic and had screamed at them for invading her memories. It was the kind of unpleasant encounter that put Ondine right off wanting any repeats. Now Melody was dragging her straight back to the old witch.
“Is it too late to go back home instead?” Ondine asked.
Melody wore a determined look. “That would be a ‘yes’. We’re here already.”
Looking around, Ondine took in what Melody meant by ‘here’. They were in a hallway with fake wood panelling to mid-height; the rest of the walls were painted in custard-yellow, while the ceiling was half a tone lighter. Prints of cottages in impossibly pretty country settings were set along the walls. Beige linoleum covered the floors and curved the first few centimetres up the walls.
The acrid smell of cold chicken soup hung in the air.
Hamish wrinkled his face. “Are we in hell?”
“No, we’re in the Duchess Yelena Memorial Asylum,”3 Melody said, “If I’ve done this right . . .” she leaned sharply towards a door, nearly clonking her head on the knocker. Instead of being hurt, the top half of the young witch’s body vanished right though the wood, like a ghost. Just as Ondine was about to yelp with the shock of it all and loosen her grip, Melody pulled herself back into the hallway. She gave a smile of triumph and finished the sentence she’d started so much earlier, “... Vincent and his mother are behind that door.”
“And they didnae see you, lass?”
A wary look came over Melody. “Course not.”
Ondine murmured, “You said that last time.”
Ignoring their scepticism, Melody said, “We’re going to be very quiet and float in like dust motes. Then we’re going to listen in. No talking, OK?”
The instructions had Ondine wrinkling her forehead. “I thought you said they couldn’t hear us?”
“They can’t, but if you’re nattering on I won’t be able to hear them, got it?” Melody said.
“How about I wait out here?” Ondine asked.
Hamish gave her a lopsided smile and said, “You’re not worried it’s going to all end badly are ye?”
Zhoop, before Ondine could answer, they dissolved through the door and into the room. Here was Vincent sitting beside his mother, the Dowager Duchess Kerala. At first Ondine didn’t recognise the frail woman in the room, her hair thin and balding under a cotton cap. She was missing her shiny dark helmet of hair and ubiquitous glass of wine (which had turned out to be apple juice, just to throw people off the scent of her nefarious activities). The room was a far cry from the splendour of the Autumn Palace at Bellreeve. The linoleum from the hallway continued in here, as did the enforced cheer of the yellow colour scheme.
“If ye weren’t crazy already, you soon would be, eh?” Hamish whispered.
Ondine nodded and murmured back, “It’s giving me a headache.”
Melody glared at Ondine. “Be quiet.”
“How come you told me off and not him?”
“Because he’s charming and you’re not, now hush.”
Moving closer, yet also keeping their distance (Ondine still wasn’t convinced they’d be unnoticed), the trio floated towards Kerala’s bed, where they found the former duchess sitting up, dressed in a mauve, velour tracksuit.
As they were floating above their targets, Hamish tilted his head to indicate a small patch on the top of Vincent’s golden head with less hair than the rest. What with Vincent’s glossy dark shoes, neat suit, perfect gold tie and golden cufflinks, he looked like a young man with the world at his feet. If only people didn’t look too close to the scalp. Ondine snorted at the sight of the lord’s future bald patch, which earned her another glare from Melody. With a waft of her hand, Melody sent a trail of glimmering dust through the air towards Vincent, repairing his tresses to their youthful lustre. Ondine threw up in her mouth a little at the sight of Melody’s blatant adoration of Vincent. Honestly, the girl really needed to get out more.
When Ondine turned back to Hamish, her breath hitched. Amongst his lustrous dark locks were three glaringly silver strands of hair. Silver! Alas, they weren’t here to worry about Hamish’s hair – or Vincent’s – they were here to eavesdrop on a conversation. Ondine stopped her noisy internal thoughts and listened in.
“You’re doing so well, I knew you would,” Kerala said, softly touching Vincent’s cheek in a loving gesture.
The former duchess and husband-knocker-offer had certainly changed in strength and tone from the last time Ondine had seen her. Much calmer now. Not ranting and weeping like she had over Duke Pavla’s frail body, pretending to care even though she’d been the one slowly poisoning him all that time.
Vincent’s voice was calm and low as he spoke. “You’re being good here, aren’t you? Taking your medicine?”
“I’m a good girl.” Kerala became infantile and needy as she spoke. “I’ve always been good.”
Is this it? Is this what they’d come to hear? In that case Melody could have come on her own. “Is this relevant?” Ondine asked.
With a tilt of her head, Melody indicated Vincent’s satchel, which he’d left slumped on the floor. Something moved inside it, like a rolling lump of . . . something lumpy.
“I brought you a present,” Vincent said, reaching into that very satchel. He withdrew a bulky present, wrapped badly with too much paper and sticky tape. He must have done it himself, in a hurry.
“Is it my birthday?” Kerala asked, her face wobbling in fright. “Did I forget it was my birthday?”
“No, course not,” he said. Kerala’s smile returned as Vincent pressed the gift into her hands and said, “Can’t I give you a present just because?”
“Of course you can. I love presents.” Her fingers dug into the paper and battled with the tape to reveal an over-stuffed teddy bear. “Oh I love it!” She squeezed it to her chest, making dust blow out.
Looking to Hamish, Ondine mouthed, “Dust?”
“I have to go now, dear Mother,” Vincent said, giving her a dutiful kiss on the forehead. “Be good now and keep taking your medicine.”
Kerala hugged the teddy, sending more dust into the room. The teddy’s stomach bulged under the pressure.
Vincent turned, lifted his now-empty satchel from the floor and tucked it over his shoulder as he walked out. Melody began to waft after him, tugging Ondine’s hand towards the door. “Was that an heirloom or something?” Ondine asked.
“Aye, I was wondering that meself, although it looked new,” Hamish added.
“It is new. You haven’t worked out what’s inside it, have you?” Melody said as she drew them after Vincent.
“A bag of dust . . .” Ondine thought out loud. She would have slapped her forehead in realisation had she not been gripping Hamish and Melody’s hands so tightly. “It’s the dust bag from the vacuum cleaner. The one with Mrs Howser’s soul in it.”
“That’s why we’re such good friends, because you’re so smart,” Melody said, giving Ondine a wink of encouragement.
“But why would Vincent give Howser’s soul to his mother? Are they going to merge or something so Kerala can use Howser’s magic to escape the asylum?”
“I doubt it,” Melody brought them through another closed door, where they found Vincent crouching down to speak to a woman who was kneeling in the corner of the room. She was curled up, her arms tucked tightly over her knees, rocking slowly back and forth. Her hands were covered in mittens, which were securely fastened to a solid jacket she wore.
Vincent touched the woman’s shoulder, but she didn’t react to him. With a tug of her hand, Melody pulled Ondine and Hamish around to get a better view, which resulted in them emerging through a connecting wall.
The woman was Mrs Howser. Her face was gaunt and grey, the lines deeper after rapid weight loss and perhaps a nervous breakdown. The shocks kept coming when Mrs Howser opened her eyes to reveal opaque irises and pupils; like dirty windowpanes in need of a good clean.
Cold fear prickled Ondine’s spine. They thought they’d been safe from Mrs Howser, after her body and soul separation last month in Savo Plaza. But now only a child-woman and her teddy bear separated the most powerful witch’s body from her evil essence.
Thank goodness for the mittens, so she couldn’t touch anyone and transfer magic, Ondine thought.
“Now you see why I brought you here,” Melody said, pulling them upwards, away from Vincent.
“He won’t stop till he’s Duke, will he?” Ondine asked, although she already knew the answer, so it was more like a statement.
“Exactly.” Melody said. “Which is why I already have a plan. I’m going to work with Vincent and keep an eye on him. Meanwhile, you have to help Anathea any way you can. We’ll meet up and share what we know, to make sure Brugel stays on the straight an narrow.”
Of course Melody would volunteer to work with Vincent.
“Ma’s going to kill me,” Ondine said. “She doesn’t want any of us having anything more to do with the royal family ever again.”
“Then don’t tell her,” Melody said. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
“Aye. It’ll be like old times eh lass?” Hamish gave her a wink.
Ondine’s lips twisted in thought. Could she really do this? “I thought we’d have a little more time for normal things before everything turned bonkers again.”
“Come on.” Melody gave her hand an encouraging squeeze. “As if you could ever stay away from the crazy.”
1 Did you think I’d forgotten about the footnotes? Not a chance! Vincent’s mother was previously known as Duchess Kerala. However, now that Kerala’s husband Duke Pavla is no more, mostly because Kerala fed him pastries made from poisonous rhubarb leaves, she is known as The Dowager Duchess Kerala.
2 If none of this is making any sense, it’s most likely because you’ve accidentally picked up the fourth book in the series instead of the first.
3 “It’s fun to stay at the DYMA,” is a popular Brugelish refrain when someone starts acting loopy.
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