When you come to a footnote, click your mouse or tap your finger on the number and it will take you to the (mostly sarcastic, sometimes funny) explanation. Then, if you click/tap the number again, it will take you back to the line you were reading. There is no escaping the footnotes. If you ignore them, they will be patiently waiting for you at the end of each chapter.
Ondine is pronounced On-deen, but you can say it in your head any way you like.
December is a fun month, wherever you are in the world. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you have long summer days at the beach ahead of you. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, winter snow dusts everything with soft magic. All over the globe there are festivals galore and New Year celebrations. December is also way more interesting than March, which everyone agrees can be a bit of a dud. If December happens to be the month of your name day, it’s also cause for a fair bit of excitement. Ondine de Groot, the star of this story – and the two that came before it – has her name day in December.1
Two days after her name day, Ondine’s eldest sister Marguerite will marry her fiancé, Thomas Berger under the ceremonial elm tree in the botanical gardens. But before the wedding – and Ondine’s name day – the de Groot family has customers to serve at their family pub, The Duke and Ferret, in downtown Venzelemma.2
On this particular Saturday in December, the day was short and wet, the night dark and cold. It rained and sleeted something miserable, but the weather didn’t stop people from going out in the evening. Saturday nights were always busy in the pub, but in December they were frantic. This is because in Brugel you simply must “catch up” with all your friends before the end of the year, or you’ll have hideously bad luck in the New Year. This entrenched tradition has necessitated the creation of “second dinner”, a meal service that slips between the first evening meal and supper.
Even the new East Asian restaurant across the road, On The Fang, was booked out – for both dinners – every night. Ondine suspected they had somehow created a third dinner, but she was so busy she had no chance to check the truth of it for herself.3
Meal times – all of them – were so busy Ondine felt run off her feet. Or more precisely, run off her hands, which were permanently submerged in hot soapy water as she cleaned dishes day and night.4 Henrik the chef and Cybelle, Ondine’s middle sister, worked together like an old married couple at the stoves, knowing exactly what the other needed at just the right time. Henrik had a pudding bowl of a tummy, which was a generally accepted work hazard in the cheffing world. He did have hair, and Ondine tried to remember what colour it was. It was hard to know, because he always wore a tall white chef’s hat firmly on his head. Da, Ondine’s father, poured drinks in the public bar. He still had shocking white hair and the dark hairy caterpillar of a monobrow, which made Ondine and her sisters simply itch to pluck it.
Da had a television on the wall to keep himself and the patrons entertained. The monitor was a 16:9 rectangle, but nobody knew how to set it properly so everyone on screen looked fat and blurry. Tonight the channel was set to the news, with a miraculous story of a plane crash at an airport in neighbouring Craviç, in which everybody walked out the wreck completely unharmed. (Some were suggesting magic had to be involved.)
And Hamish? The handsome lad with eyes full of mischief and a mop of dark hair that fell tantalisingly over his forehead had the easiest job of all. Ma had him waiting tables. With his Scottish accent, cheeky smile and boundless energy, Hamish had a knack for charming the guests. His sparkly green eyes only added to the package. In return, the tips had never been more generous. And these days he hardly ever turned into a ferret, which made Ondine all kinds of happy.
A defeated-looking Marguerite, her long wavy hair hanging lankly over her shoulders, walked into the kitchen with a tray of dirty beer mugs from the bar. Automatically Ondine pulled up her gloves and re-filled the sink with detergent and scalding hot water.
Ma intercepted Margi. “Darling, you’re wrecked. Take a break or you’ll have bags under your eyes for the wedding.” Ma took the tray of dirty glasses and added them to Ondine’s workload.
“Can I have a break too?” Ondine asked.
Ma shot her a sly grin. “When a fish dances on the table.”5
Marguerite’s soft chin wobbled as she touched her fingers to her cheeks. As the eldest daughter, Marguerite had worked for her parents from the moment she could carry a bowl of soup without spilling it. Tonight she looked far older than her twenty- one years. Long nights and hard work had a way of doing that to a person. Ondine felt exhausted too, but nobody urged her to put her feet up on the off-chance she’d look tired for her name day.
“Get some rest.” Ma kissed Margi on the forehead. “I’ll help Thomas and Josef at the bar. It’s winding down now anyway.”
At which point Thomas came in with another tray of dirty glasses. “Have you seen the news? The Dentate is changing the laws of succession.”6
No, Ondine hadn’t seen the news because they didn’t have a telly in the kitchen. Ondine has been too busy to have the luxury of catching up on Brugelish politics. Nobody had brought a newspaper into the house ever since that food writer Dee Gustation gave them that excoriating review way back in summer.
“Really?” Ma said with extra-high raised brows. “Who’s it to go to after Duchess Anathea then?”
“The daughters I guess,” Thomas said with a shrug.
Ma said, “That will put Vincent’s nose out of joint.”
At the mention of the young lord’s name, Ondine rolled her eyes.7
Ma shot her a look. “They can change the laws all they like, won’t make any difference to us. Because we won’t have anything more to do with that lot, will we Ondi?”
“No, course not,” she said.
Talk of Brugel’s royal family reminded Ondine that she was still grounded for sneaking off with Hamish so she could work for Duke Pavla at his Autumn Palace. This had been expressly against her parents’ wishes. The punishment Ma and Da meted out on her return was both swift and hideous. No friends over. No parties. No extra-curricular school excursions and she couldn’t visit anyone either. Just working at home and studying at school and that was it.
All things considered, she accepted the punishment and got on with it. Because being grounded wasn’t that different from normal life in a busy pub. Plus, Hamish was here in the pub all the time, so why would she want to be anywhere else?
The dishes kept piling up, so Ondine kept on with her routine. In her peripheral vision, she watched Ma walk back towards the dining room and then suddenly gasp in shock.
Her first thought was, Uh-oh, what’s Hamish done?8
The next moment she chastised herself. She should have more faith in him – just because Ma got a shock didn’t mean Hamish was the cause of it.
Silence enveloped the kitchen as everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at Ma. The family matriarch was rooted to the spot, staring at someone in the dining room.
A stranger’s voice cut through the air. Female and demanding, she summoned the will of a field marshal and brought everything to a stop. “If I may have your attention please. Nobody is to leave.”
“What?” Ondine shlucked off her gloves and raced to her mother’s side to see what was going on. Her jaw dropped. There in the dining room stood five official- looking people in dark blue suits, (three women and two men), each holding aloft shiny official-looking badges for everyone to see.
Two suited men moved into the taproom, effectively blocking the remaining exits. They were serious; nobody was leaving.
Their leader, the woman who’d brought the evening to a screaming silence, had a voice that could shatter glass. “We are from the Department of Immigration and Employment. Pursuant to legislation passed this week in the Dentate, we are here to check everyone’s identity documents, to make sure nobody is working illegally.”
Cold dread filled Ondine as her gaze homed in on Hamish, who at that moment turned towards the kitchen with arms full of empty plates. Ordinarily you might say ‘dirty plates’ but the hungry customers had used their complimentary soft bread to scoop up the last of the sauce. It must be the cold weather making people extra hungry, because lately the diners were sending their plates back, licked clean.9
Hamish winked at Ondine as he walked toward her. He was still in the dining room, she still in the kitchen, but he closed the distance between them. Happy harp music played in her head as she looked upon her wonderful, gorgeous, charming – and a teensy bit naughty – boyfriend.
Uh-oh. The invisible harps clanged as reality intruded. The moment Hamish opened his mouth, the immigration inspectors would know he wasn’t from around here.
The lead inspector spotted Hamish moving closer to the kitchen. “You there, do you have your work card?”
Fear for her beloved kept Ondine glued to the spot. Mentally she sent her thoughts to him, as if by sheer will she could keep him safe. Just keep walking. Don’t say a word. Not that she had any psychic powers to speak of, but the will was there.
Behind her, she heard someone pick up the phone, dial out and then murmur down the receiver. It was Henrik the chef, saying things like, “warning”, “immigration” and “get out”. The compressed voice at the other end said, “too late”.
“What’s all this about then?” Ma walked into the dining room to create interference.
Hope soared. Ma had magical powers of timing and could usually interfere just at the right moment. Alas, her hopes sagged as the leading inspector paid Ma no mind, charged forward and clapped her hand on Hamish’s shoulder.
Hamish’s eyes turned round like golf balls.
Ondine’s mouth dried up with fear.
“Show me your work card,” the woman said.
Every single guest looked at Hamish and held their breath. You could have heard a knife and fork drop – which is exactly what happened. The plates wobbled in Hamish’s hands and cutlery slid onto the floor with a clatter.
Movement caught Ondine’s peripheral vision and she looked to the pub’s front windows. There, across the street, were people running out of Fang’s. Some of them looked like diners. Two of them were wearing aprons, which meant members of staff were fleeing too.
“Tell me your name and where you’re from. You look Slaegalese to me,” the inspector said.
Silently, Ondine begged, I know you don’t like authority, but Hamish please keep quiet and –
“I’m Scottish ye toerag.”
– Jupiter’s moons! Why did you open your mouth?
The inspector said, “Close enough. You’re coming with us.”
“No!” Ondine charged into the dining room without a thought as to what she should do or say when she got there. No way would she and Hamish be parted again, not after everything they’d gone through.
Hamish dropped the rest of his plates in a series of sharp clangs and crashes. In the next half-second, he fell away into nothing, leaving only a pile of second-hand clothes on the floor. The inspector’s palm clutched at nothing but air, her eyes astonishment-wide.
As one, every guest in the restaurant gasped and looked at where Hamish used to be.
Ondine took advantage of the confusion and screamed at the inspector. “What did you do to him?” She bent down to scoop up the fabric, hoping against hope he would be in there somewhere. Also hoping she didn’t stab him with the broken crockery lying about.
A ruckus broke out as everyone talked at once.
“– was just there.”
“– will they let us out?”
“ – told you we should have come for first dinner.”
“– what’s in this plütz?”10
Ma stepped forward and said, “Please, Ondine, you’re making a scene. Tidy this mess up and get back to work.” To everyone else she sounded like a peeved mother. But to Ondine, Ma provided life-saving interference.
“Yes Ma,” she said, carefully carrying away the bundle. The clothes felt warm and smelled of hot dinners and Hamish. Something scratched at her wrist. It might be a chunk of broken plate but she didn’t dare look. She kept walking, every moment wondering if one of the inspectors would grab her and drag her back to the dining room. Heart thumping, she tore through the kitchen and jogged up the stairs to the room she now shared with Cybelle – they’d set up Ondine’s room for Thomas’s parents so they had somewhere to rest after the wedding reception.
She kicked the door shut behind her and dared to breathe again. Heart crashing against her ribs, she put the bundle of clothes on her bed. There in the middle of it all, a lump began moving. Then the lump poked out from the neck of a shirt to reveal the face of a whiskery, black ferret. The ferret looked up and grinned. “Didye miss me?”
1 In Brugel, name days are not birthdays. They are far more important than that. It’s the day you celebrate the saint you are named after, rather than the accidental day on which you were born. If you’re not directly named after a saint, you’ll be given one as a middle name. One of Ondine’s middle names is Benedicte, named after the patron saint of spelunking. Benedicte is also the patron saint against witchcraft, which is pretty convenient considering the situations Ondine has been in.
2 Venzelemma is the capital city of Brugel, a country in Eastern Europe that still hasn’t made a dent in the Eurovision Song Contest.
3 In Brugel, eating is the new black.
4 They do have a dishwasher, which is brilliant for crockery, but everything else has to be done by hand. Beer goes flat if detergent residue is left on the glass. Flat beer may be all the rage in neighbouring Slaegal, but in Brugel it just won’t do.
5 Something that is incredibly unlikely to happen. A fish can dance on the table, but few of them want to.
6 At the risk of becoming bogged down in footnotes before the story can gain momentum, there have been huge ructions in Brugel lately. Duke Pavla is too sick to rule, his wife Kerala is responsible for that sickness and is being kept under high security lock and key. As a result, the Duke’s sister the Infanta Anathea is only too happy to take control.
7 Lord Vincent is almost as gorgeous as Hamish on the outside, but under the skin he’s rotten right through.
8 Let’s face it, Hamish is a trouble magnet.
9 In neighbouring Slaegal, bread rolls on the table are not complimentary. Nor are they all that edible. They are, however, very effective for stabilising a wonky table leg.
10 A ravishingly demented drink made from sozzled peaches. The consumer feels no ill effects for the first few minutes, then they stand up to find their knees don’t work.
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