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The Raconteur's Commonplace Book

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The Raconteur's Commonplace Book

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Author: Kate Milford
Publisher: Clarion Books, 2021
Series: Greenglass House: Book 5

1. Greenglass House
2. Ghosts of Greenglass House
3. Bluecrowne
4. The Thief Knot
5. The Raconteur's Commonplace Book

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Juvenile Fantasy
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Synopsis

Nothing is what it seems and there's always more than one side to the story as a group of strangers trapped in an inn slowly reveal their secrets in this new standalone mystery set in the world of the best-selling Greenglass House.

The rain hasn't stopped for a week, and the twelve guests of the Blue Vein Tavern are trapped by flooded roads and the rising Skidwrack River. Among them are a ship's captain, tattooed twins, a musician, and a young girl traveling on her own. To pass the time, they begin to tell stories--each a different type of folklore--that eventually reveal more about their own secrets than they intended.

As the rain continues to pour down--an uncanny, unnatural amount of rain--the guests begin to realize that the entire city is in danger, and not just from the flood. But they have only their stories, and one another, to save them. Will it be enough?


Excerpt

The Blue Vein Tavern

The rain had not stopped for a week, and the roads that led to the inn were little better than rivers of muck. This, at least, is what Captain Frost said when he tramped indoors, coated in the yellow mud peculiar to that part of the city, before hollering for his breakfast. The rest of the guests sighed. Perhaps today, they had thought. Perhaps today, their unnatural captivity would end. But the bellowing man calling for eggs and burnt toast meant that, for another day at least, fifteen people would remain prisoners of the river Skidwrack, and the new rivers that had once been roads, and the rain.

They passed the day much as they had passed the day before, and the day before that. Eventually, Mr. Haypotten, the innkeeper, announced supper in half an hour; he apologized for the state of the meals and the flickering lights, but without real worry. The Haypottens might run out of provisions eventually, but they had not kept this inn and tavern on the Skidwrack for a quarter of a century and more without seeing a flood or two, and they were well prepared for the whims of the river and the rain. The electricity might flicker and the hot water heating system, bought by the previous owners off an itinerant salesman when Mr. Haypotten was still in short pants, had never worked properly, but since the inn's fireplaces never went dark, its rooms never went particularly cold. Nobody would freeze, nobody would starve, and as for the rising water: 'see that?' Mr. Haypotten would say, opening one of the windows in the lounge barroom against the cold and wet and pointing across the porch that wrapped halfway around the inn to indicate a blue step in the stairway leading down to the river. 'that's where the river came back in 'fifteen. She doesn't dare come nearer than that. Water won't rise past a blue stair. Isn't that so, Captain?"

'that's so, Marcus," Captain Frost agreed today as he had every day, because Mr. Haypotten kept the captain in very good sherry. But when Mr. Haypotten left the lounge to go help his wife and the kitchen maid finish preparing supper, the captain sang a different tune. Captain Frost's eyes were deep-lined, his face tanned to mahogany, and his hair and beard bleached to a yellowed bone color from his decades at sea. He felt himself, not inaccurately, to be somewhat an expert in weather lore, and when the innkeeper was out of earshot, he muttered that he'd never heard such doss before in his life o' years at sea, and if painting a thing blue were all it took to put water in its place, then how was it every ship in the harbor wasn't sky-colored? Then he finished his very good sherry, pulled on his coat, and stomped into the hall and back out to check the weather and the roads yet again, as he did at every turn of the cracked half-hour glass he tended as religiously as if he were still aboard ship. It was never far from his elbow when he was inside the house, though it meant rearranging the place settings a bit at meals.

He left four guests behind in the lounge. Jessamy Butcher got up from her chair by the window, where she could see how very close the water was actually coming to the much-discussed blue stair, went around the bar, and found the captain's bottle of sherry. She poured herself a glass, then held the bottle up in one thin, gloved hand, offering it silently to the rest of the room. The tattooed young man named Negret declined and went back to the pages he had taken from the pockets of his tweed vest and was stacking together on the bar top: a mismatched collection of liquor labels, scraps of newsprint, wallpaper, remnants of the long, match-like twists of paper called spills that the maid kept in vases in each room for lighting the lamps and fires around the inn, and other scavenged oddments. When he had them where he wanted them, he took a sharp, round-handled awl from a roll of tools that lay open on the countertop before him and, pressing the pages flat with his palm, began to poke holes along one edge.

But his brother, Reever, nodded in response to Jessamy's offer and murmured his thanks as she reached across the bar to pass him a glass. Jessamy tried once again to decide whether or not the pale, brick-haired Colophon brothers were identical under their facial decorations. It was impossible to say. The tattoos were very similar but not quite the same, plus Negret wore his hair long and floppy, while Reever kept his short-cropped and cowlicky. And one didn't like to be rude by looking too long. Jessamy turned to the fourth person in the room. 'mr. Tesserian?"

At his table across the lounge, Al Tesserian looked up from his half-built castle of playing cards. "Dear God, yes. No, my dear, don't bother," he said as Jessamy made a motion to come around the bar. "Be . . . right . . . there.' He placed a card and got up. The other three held a collective breath'but Tesserian's castles didn't dare fall until he gave them permission, which was generally done by calling Maisie, the youngest guest, to do the honors. Then and only then, when Maisie had pulled away a queen or gusted a sharp breath onto an ace, they toppled spectacularly, cards flying in all directions as if the laws of physics held no sway in the realm to which they truly belonged.

Tesserian accepted his glass with a bow, then returned to his architecture. He paused on his way to look at Negret's handiwork. "Binding another book?"

Negret nodded as he lifted the stack of papers and held the edge he'd perforated up to the light, checking to be sure the holes were lined up the way he wanted.

'It needs covers," Tesserian observed. He felt inside one sleeve, frowned, then took off the battered and narrow-brimmed porkpie hat he wore at all times except meals. From inside the lining, he produced a pair of aces and tossed them on the bar. "Will those do?"

Negret added the cards to his stack, one on top and one on the bottom. "Perfectly, if you can spare them."

Tesserian laughed. "An old gambler always has a couple of spare aces someplace."

Elsewhere in the inn, Petra, the guest who had been there the longest, borrowed from the maid a key to one of the countless glass cases that occupied walls and corners all around the inn so that she and Maisie could take down one of Mrs. Haypotten's music boxes, very carefully wind it, and dance for a bit.

Maisie Cerrajero was young and had been traveling alone to meet the aunt who was taking her in, with no luggage but an old ditty bag that held everything she owned. Each day someone said something along the lines of, 'Won't your auntie be relieved when she gets here and sees that you're safe?' Most often that someone was Mrs. Haypotten, who had a habit of misplacing her spectacles or her ring of keys or her best little sewing scissors and was never quite sure what, other than 'thank you," she ought to say when Maisie inevitably found them for her, no matter in what unlikely place they'd been left. Flummoxed, she always came out with something like, 'Won't your auntie be so happy to see what a nice, polite, helpful girl you are when she gets here, dear?"

Petra, however, never said anything like that, not even when Maisie found the dragonfly-shaped hair clip she had lost at breakfast two days before, half-hidden by the hem of one of the dining room curtains. Petra instead went for a key and a music box, because the unspoken truth was that, given the volume of rain and the slope of the hills, if Auntie had been on the roads at the wrong time, she was never coming'and Maisie was a girl, not a fool. But when that girl danced, sending her short sleek dark hair fluttering and the pleated skirt of her jumper frock swishing around her knees, her face lost its fear. And Mrs. Haypotten had an improbable collection of music boxes'forty-one that Petra and Maisie had managed to count'no two of which, as far as they could determine, played the same song.

Today, with the dragonfly back in its customary place among Petra's dark bobbed curls, they picked one from the tall cabinet in the parlor, which, like the lounge, looked out over the riverfront. The cabinet had the thick, bubble-pocked green glass that was the only sort that could be made from Nagspeake sand, and Mrs. Haypotten had told them it held some of her favorite pieces, so they took extra care. Maisie chose a music box shaped like a kite with a terrifyingly delicate-looking ceramic key. She wound it gently, the eggshell-colored winder stark against the brown of her fingers. When she set it down and lifted the lid, it took a few notes before the tune resolved itself into 'Riverward.' Maisie hummed along as she spun in a wide-armed circle, swirling her shawl behind her as she turned, making the embroidered chrysanthemums upon it float in the air.

Sullivan, the young man who'd been sitting in a chair facing the fire, his eyes glazing over as they stared up at the big antique map that hung above the mantel, shoved himself abruptly to his feet and hurried out, briefly grasping Petra's wrist in apology as he stumbled past. That was unusual enough to make Petra look after him curiously. In the seven days since he'd arrived, Petra had never seen Sullivan do anything without an almost eerie sort of grace. He was so implausibly elegant when he moved and so bloody good-looking to boot that it was hard to believe he wasn't a hallucination. Petra had had to stop herself more than once from sticking him with a pin as he crossed a room just to see if then, finally, he'd make a misstep.

But apparently all it took was 'Riverward.' Interesting.

The old woman in the corner, thinner even than Jessamy Butcher, rocked her chair gently in time with the song as the music box wound down. Her skin, like Maisie's and Petra's both, was dark, but ruddy here and grayish there, uneven and slightly pocked, while Maisie had the clear and perfect skin of a child and Petra the kind of faultless complexion it would've taken a motion-picture actress an hour in makeup to achieve. The lady they all called Madame Grisaille spoke little, but she hummed as she rocked. It wasn't a loud sound'if the hot water coils in the cast iron case mounted on the wall across the room happened to be sizzling at the same time a wind rattled the windows, the hum was almost impossible to hear'but Petra and Maisie could feel it like a thrum in their bones as they danced, as if Madame's tune flowed through her and into the very boards, the very nails in the floor, and back up through their feet, so that it could sway with them.

'madame is a dancer," Maisie had whispered to Petra the first time she had noticed this.

'When she was younger, you think?' Petra had whispered back. This had been three days ago, one evening when they were all on their way into the dining room, where Madame was always seated first out of unspoken respect for'for what? For her age, perhaps, or for her stateliness. If watching Sullivan was like watching a mirage that was too beautiful to be real, watching Madame was like watching a queen trying badly to disguise what she was, too regal for her sham ordinariness to be believed.

'No," Maisie had replied softly. "Not just when she was younger. Now. She's a dancer. She wants to dance when we do, but she holds herself back."

'Why would she do that?"

'I don't know.' But the girl's eyes had begun to glow. 'maybe it's a secret."

'that she's a dancer is a secret?"

'No . . .' Maisie had looked thoughtfully at Madame as she followed Petra to the sideboard, where a buffet supper had been laid out and where Maisie had found a tortoiseshell button that had gone missing from Mrs. Haypotten's housedress earlier that day. "But she has a secret, so she doesn't dance. Because you can't dance and hide who you are."

Petra had thought that this was a very wise observation, and said so. She had also thought that if dancing showed one for who she was, Maisie danced like someone with no secrets to keep. That idea made her smile. But she hadn't wanted to make Maisie feel self-conscious, and sometimes the girl's dancing revealed as plainly as tears that she was carrying something that, when she remembered it, made her very, very sad. So Petra kept her thoughts to herself.

Today Madame Grisaille hummed along with 'Riverward," and then 'Gaslight," which was the tune plinked out by Maisie's favorite music box, a chrysanthemum-shaped one that nearly matched the flowers on her shawl. Then, another new thing, as if Sullivan tripping over himself hadn't been strange enough: as the sun began to set across the river and the chrysanthemum played its last, slow notes, Madame stopped rocking. She reached into the white fur hand muff she always carried with her, even indoors, and took a new music box out of it.

This one was plainer at first glance, just a round box of gold and ceramic with a scene painted on the lid. She raised one finger to her lips and then began to wind it. There was something so secretive about the motion, Petra instinctively checked to be sure both the parlor door and the French doors to the porch were closed and that the three of them were alone.

'this one is from my room upstairs," Madame murmured in a voice gravelly with age. "I don't know that Mrs. Haypotten would be comfortable with my carrying it about, so we shall keep this between ourselves. But it plays a remarkable song."

She finished winding, held it out on one spread hand, and lifted the lid. Maisie turned her head sideways, trying to make sense of the now-upside-down painting on the lid'two people sitting at a fingerpost, perhaps?'but only for a second, because when the song began, it was everything the girl's dancer's heart could have wished for from a piece of music. It was joy and love and exquisite pain; it was danger and the thrill of adventure and the certainty of failure and the thrum of hope. It was dream and nightmare; it was flight; it was winter and summer and water and stone and metal and fire and earth, and Maisie danced as she had never imagined dancing before.

After a moment, Madame handed the music box to Petra, and at last, perhaps because it was only the three of them in the room, the old woman joined the young girl and they danced together hand in hand, and suddenly Maisie understood why Madame had refused to dance before. And she knew what the old woman's secret was, too, and she understood the knowledge for the gift it was and wrapped her arms around it, concealing it in swirling embroidered chrysanthemums as the two of them whirled together, both dancing now like people with no secrets to keep as the sunset over the river painted them in golden light, orange light, crimson light. Madame caught Petra's eye over the girl's head, and the two women smiled at each other.

Perhaps the notes found their way out through cracks in the windows, drifted on the rainy wind along the length of the porch facing the Skidwrack, and snuck back into the house through another chipped pane of glass in a different room altogether. Perhaps they had other ways of making themselves heard. Either way, beyond the hall, beyond the stairs, two people in the lounge heard the song too.

Negret Colophon, stitching an elaborate binding into his scrap-paper book, dropped his needle in surprise, then quickly picked it up again and pretended not to have heard anything. Jessamy Butcher, who had been deep in conversation with Reever Colophon a short way down the bar, was less subtle. Her head turned so quickly in the direction of the music that several joints in her neck and shoulders cracked. The popping might even have been audible had her gloved fingers not at the same moment crushed her sherry glass to fragments and powder.

Reever, who had been debating just then whether it was time to invite Miss Butcher to continue their conversation in a more private corner of the inn, jerked back as glass and liquor flew. Jessamy did not appear to have noticed what she had done. 'remarkable," she said in tones of quiet wonder, ignoring his stare, along with those of Negret from a few seats away and Tesserian from the table with the card castle.

'What is?' Reever asked.

'that song.' Jessamy breathed out, a strange huff that wasn't quite a sigh.

Reever looked back down at the bar top between them and saw that she still clutched pieces of the glass she had destroyed. He took her hands in his and gently uncurled her fingers. One by one he removed the shards carefully from her palms, where small spots of blood had begun to seep through her pristine pink gloves. Then he held her hand for a moment when he had finished, watching her face.

She did not appear to notice any of this, and he could hear no song.

After a moment, Jessamy took her hands back and got to her feet. Self-consciously she tucked a stray bit of hair into place and smoothed it back with her palm, a gesture that left a small rose-tinted streak among the pale blond finger waves over her ear. She walked out of the lounge and across the hall, then slipped into the parlor. Petra and Madame looked over sharply, but when Jessamy closed the door behind her, they relaxed.

The song, improbably, had not yet begun to slow. "Do you want to dance too?' Maisie asked, reaching for the newcomer's hand, ignoring the blood that marked Jessamy's gloved palm like stigmata.

Jessamy spun Maisie around by the fingers that held hers, but her feet stood firm on the floor as she shook her head. "I don't dance," she said with a smile. "But I know that song well. I tried to play it once, but it's more difficult than it sounds. I was a musician, you know. Long ago, back in another lifetime."

Musician or not, Miss Butcher is a dancer too, thought Maisie, who could always tell. I wonder what her secret is.

There were six other people at the Blue Vein. The Haypottens, of course, and Sorcha, the maid, who was sixteen, plump and black-eyed, and utterly smitten with Negret Colophon, a thing that had shocked everyone who'd realized it, because in the same inn there was Sullivan, whose face was so perfect it would've been blinding except for that tiny scar he wore under one eye. But Sorcha, like Maisie, was a girl, not a fool, and she sensed unerringly that there was danger in that much beauty. And even though he wasn't precisely what you'd call handsome, there was something about Mr. Negret, with his face obscured by the swirling pattern of dotted tattoos, that made her need to look closer, and to sneak surreptitious glances whenever she came across him looking through the books on the shelves in the lounge, or the atlases on the mantel in the parlor, or the decades' accumulation of assorted bound material that stuffed the corner bookcase where the stairs turned midway between the first and second floors. Not to mention that when he thought no one was paying attention, he sang under his breath as he pieced his paper scraps together into hand-stitched tomes or stood at a window, reading by whatever light managed to filter in through the rain.

But of course, in an inn, the maid, at least, is almost always listening, and more than once when she went around at night to bank the inn's fires after everyone else had gone to sleep, Sorcha had caught herself singing the words of the firekeeping prayer she'd learned from her mother's father to the tune she'd gotten from Negret.

The last three guests were in the public bar at the front of the inn, where they were allowed to smoke. There was Antony Masseter, a tall traveling merchant whose right eye was green as a cat's and whose left was hidden by a rust-colored patch. Mr. Masseter had a round, dappled scar like a firework on one palm and appeared to suffer from insomnia that drove him to wander the halls of the inn at night. Between his light footsteps and the rain, he was almost soundless, but Sorcha and one or two of the others had caught glimpses of him, when nightmares or thirst or the need for a bathroom or the fear of the fires going out or something else had driven them out into the halls in the darkling hours.

Three nights ago, when Petra had caught him at it, Mr. Masseter had given himself away with music. As she'd been returning to her room, she'd caught a faraway, barely audible spill of tiny notes from somewhere down on the first floor of the inn: 'High Away," the song played by a red casket on the bottom shelf of the glass cabinet in the parlor. Petra had paused at her door, trying to remember whether she had given the key back to Sorcha after she and Maisie had finished with the music boxes in that cabinet earlier in the evening. She glanced over her shoulder to where Sullivan was frowning in his own doorway. Their eyes met. 'masseter," he had whispered so quietly that only the sibilants were audible. "He's always up late.' He nodded to the door of the next chamber down the hall to the right. "I hear him go out.' Then he'd touched his fingers to his lips, not quite a blown kiss, and disappeared into his room.

Sullivan, as Sorcha could have told everyone, did not sleep either. She'd heard him later that same night pacing in his chamber when she passed on her way from her own tiny room to the kitchen to sing the firekeeping prayer as she checked the stove to be sure it hadn't gone out.

Sorcha usually slept soundly, but something about all this rain gave her nightmares. The peddler who'd sold the hot watter system half a century ago hadn't had the parts on hand to heat every room in the inn and he'd never come back in all those years to finish the job; not to mention the system had to be stoked up every morning anyhow to sizzle and knock what heat it did give to the rooms that had coils. Sorcha's banked fires kept well overnight, but lately she woke up twice, sometimes three times a night in a panic about the fires, so twice, sometimes three times a night, she tied her apron over her nightgown and went around the inn, checking every stove and fireplace she could get to without disturbing a sleeping guest. No, Sullivan did not sleep, but at least he stayed in his room'unlike Mr. Masseter, who had scared her half out of her skin the first time she'd come upon him staring into one of Mrs. Haypotten's hallway display cases as if he couldn't remember how he'd gotten there. Now she knew to expect him in the corridors, but that didn't make it any less shocking when she came across him suddenly in the dead of the night. He walked like a cat.

In the light of day, however'even at sunset'masseter was ordinary. Today, after Haypotten popped into the public bar to announce supper and popped out again, the traveling merchant offered a pocket box of small cigars to the other two men sharing the room: Phineas Amalgam, a freckled and salt-and-red-'pepper-haired neighbor of the Haypottens who'd come the day the rain had started just to borrow a box of matches and had wound up stuck there along with the travelers; and an artisan printmaker called Gregory Sangwin with darker gray hair and skin the color of a wash of good walnut ink on fine Creswick paper, an acquaintance of Amalgam's who had come to stay at the inn on his recommendation.

Sangwin's usual work was printing delicate, detailed pictures and illustrations from carved wooden blocks, and he amused himself by crafting small animals out of wood that found their way to Maisie every night at dinner. This had become a joint effort between himself and Sorcha, who saved all the smallish bits of firewood she came across and passed them to Mr. Sangwin, who, once he'd magicked them into beasts and birds with his inlaid whittling knife, passed them back to the maid. At supper the creatures turned up on Maisie's plate, in her napkin, even in her soup on the day Mr. Sangwin had turned a longish splinter into a swimming dragon.

Today the printmaker squinted through his pince-nez at a tiny seabird with outstretched wings that he was busy carving from a scrap of pearwood. Maisie's animal, a river otter, already sat finished beside his cup. The bird was meant as a thank-you to his co-conspirator. He looked up, blinked, and accepted one of Masseter's cigars. 'thanks."

'Albatross?' Masseter guessed.

Sangwin nodded. "For the maid. She's a good sport, passing along the little girl's critters.' The cigar temporarily forgotten, he lifted the bird, squinted at it, and touched the point of his knife to a tiny hole in one wing to cut away a nearly invisible splinter. "Perhaps Mrs. Haypotten will have a spare bit of ribbon it can hang from."

Phineas Amalgam stood staring down at a small card house that Al Tesserian had built on one of the bar tables the night before and that was somehow still standing. He accepted a cigar but tucked it in his vest pocket rather than lighting it. "I'll go ask her, shall I?"

'Good of you, Mr. A.," said Sangwin.

'think nothing of it," Amalgam said. 'sorcha's a good egg. Known her since she was a tot.' He nodded his thanks to Masseter and left the parlor. Later, as they all drifted into the dining room, he passed a length of blue velvet ribbon to Sangwin.

Mrs. Haypotten, bustling through a moment later, paused to squeeze the printmaker's elbow and murmur, 'so kind.' And as everyone else was smiling at Maisie's delight at discovering the river otter peeking out of a bread roll, Sangwin tucked the albatross on its ribbon into the maid's hand.

After supper, as they had done every other night, the guests moved into the parlor for coffee and tea beside one of Sorcha's well-kept fires. It was Phineas Amalgam who, on the evening of that seventh day of floods, suggested the stories.

'In more civilized places, when travelers find themselves sharing a fire and a bottle of wine, they sometimes choose to share something of themselves, too," Phin told them as he settled into his favorite chair, one of three that stood before the hearth. "And then, wonder of wonders, no strangers remain. Only companions, sharing a hearth and a bottle."

Mr. Haypotten, laying out the coffee on the sideboard, winked at his wife, who held the teapot. Amalgam, a folklorist, made his living collecting tales and putting them into books, so perhaps the innkeeper was thinking that his neighbor's suggestion had a bit of self-service to it. And it might have been that he was right. Still, it was a way to pass the time.

The wind and rain rattled the windowpanes and the French doors as the folks gathered in the parlor looked from one to the next: the young girl in her embroidered silk stole; the twin gentlemen with the tattooed faces; the gaunt woman with her nervous gloved hands constantly moving; the other woman, gaunter still and hidden beneath two layers of voluminous shawls, whose red-brown skin showed in small flashes when her wraps did not quite move along with her. The gambler in his old porkpie hat, building a castle on the floor before the fire with a pocketful of dice and at least six decks of cards, not counting the strays planted here and there about his person. The captain, lurking by the sideboard, where he'd stowed the half-hour glass and was itching to turn it but was also thinking it would be rude to interrupt Amalgam or get in the way of the Haypottens as they worked. The printmaker, smoking Masseter's cigar by one of the windows overlooking the river. The young man with the perfection and the scar, and the young woman with the dragonfly in her dark curly hair sitting just far enough from him on the sofa that the arm he had stretched out along the top of it did not touch her shoulder; and the gap between them, where Maisie had been before she had gone to sit beside Tesserian on the floor to help build the castle. The maid beside the door to the hallway, who must be counted here because no one who sings prayers set to stolen music when she works at a fire can be left as mere set-dressing in a tale; and the merchant, leaning on the mantel, toying with the filigree on the big music box that lived there: a case the size of a loaf of bread, which stood open to reveal a beautiful tree wrought of several kinds of metal, with roots entangled among the device's gears.

'If you will listen," Phineas Amalgam said, swirling his glass, 'I will tell the first tale. Then perhaps, if you find it worth the trade, you will give me one of yours."

'Hear, hear.' Mr. Haypotten passed Amalgam a cup of coffee. "Let's have a good one, Phin."

'Could you tell the one about the house in the pines?' Petra asked. Amalgam glanced at her, surprised. "I read it in one of your books," she explained.

'Oh.' The folklorist had collected hundreds of stories into books. It was perhaps not terribly surprising that he did not immediately remember that the story Petra had asked for was not actually in any of them. "Yes, I suppose I could tell that one."

It can be hard to keep one's stories straight.

'thank you," said Petra.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Captain Frost turned the half-hour glass, and Phineas Amalgam said again, 'Listen."

Copyright © 2021 by Kate Milford


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