In the distance, the hills rumbled with thunder.
It had rained rather heavily the day before—storms had wracked the woods around Grimbly Hall, bringing down any number of branches and turning the soil to intractable mud. Overhead the clouds were regathering for another go-round.
Babs didn’t mind a little rain. She was, as has been mentioned, a water spirit, and had to submerge herself in water for a while every day for her health. Rain, fog, humidity all felt pleasant on her skin. She was not partial to storms, however—thunder and lightning always made her jumpy. So she took one look at the sky and headed back inside.
She followed the ushabtis as they marched back toward the conservatory. The little clay men had been constructed to perform agricultural labor in the Egyptian afterlife, but had never gotten the chance because Neville had refused to actually, technically, die. They had found a new purpose in growing orchids and perennials and tending to the massive oak tree that was the centerpiece of the conservatory. A tree they all but worshipped.
Not that they didn’t have a good reason. There were three knots in the trunk of the oak that together formed a pattern than one couldn’t help but think of as the mouth and eyes of a human face. These knots were the only outward evidence that the tree was in fact, ensouled—possessed, if you like—by a hamadryad, a sort of forest spirit who made the conservatory flourish.
Babs and the hamadryad had once had a bit of a contretemps, but that was all in the past now, a case of mistaken identity. Babs was more than happy to let bygones be bygones. “How’s the weather up there?” she asked, looking not at the face but up into the tree’s branches.
The tree swayed as if a sudden breeze had ruffled its leaves. A sudden breeze appearing out of nowhere. Indoors. Two of its thicker branches folded together very much in the appearance of a human woman folding her arms.
“You getting enough sunshine?” Babs asked. “Need any company? My dance card’s empty today, thought I might have a little palaver and—”
The branches unfolded, reaching down until they were nearly at Babs’s eye level. While she’d been speaking, both of them had grown a piece of fruit—a rather impressive feat for an oak tree, especially since they were two different kinds of fruit, neither of which normally appeared on your garden variety Quercus alba.
One of the fruits might have been a plum, except that it shriveled up as she watched, turning dry and wrinkled—in point of fact becoming a slender prune. The other was a kiwi fruit which grew rather large for its species, covered all over with brown fur.
The hamadryad’s branches twitched, presenting first one fruit, then the other to Babs, close enough it would have been easy to reach up and pluck whichever of them she liked. One was always closer to her than the other.
“I get the feeling you’re trying to tell me something,” said Babs, who knew when she was being put on. “Too bad I don’t savvy tree.”
The oak continued its waggling dance. Babs waited for just the right moment, then leapt with both hands out at once. She was able to grasp both fruits and pull them from their stems before the oak could draw its branches back.
Babs looked down at the two prizes and started juggling them. “Who says a girl has to choose just one?” she asked, all innocence and light.
The oak folded its branches again. Babs wasn’t sure, but she thought one of its roots might have moved, too. Like a foot tapping in irritation.
Well, that makes two of us, Babs thought. Without another word she turned on her heel and left the conservatory without another word. Patently ignoring the ushabtis, who watched her every step like a judgmental (and anachronistic) Greek chorus.
Who needed trees, right? Babs was a flapper and she’d learned to keep her skin thick and her reputation preceding her. She wasn’t about to let the bole-brain get to her. She would just have to find better conversation elsewhere.
Out in the great hall she spotted Hughes, Grimbly Hall’s spectral butler, mopping up some muddy footprints. Mostly it looked like the mop had found its calling and animated itself, but occasionally she got a glimpse of the deceased servant’s bald head, his prim if ghostly spats.
“Hughes, old pal!” she called, waving at him. He rose to stand at attention, mop handle standing perfectly straight in the air. “I’ve been here a week and you and I have barely punched the bag. How’s about I mix us some drinks and you tell me every little thing?” Which wasn’t particularly likely, since Hughes was completely incapable of imbibing liquids, and as far as she’d seen equally unlikely to speak aloud. Still, it never hurt to be friendly with the help.
Perhaps Hughes didn’t see it that way. He remained standing like a ramrod as she came closer.
“Oh, alright, I’ll play monologist if you like,” she told him, with a little laugh. A little laugh that could have launched a thousand ships. “And if you’re not drinking, that’s just more for me. But surely you wouldn’t mind a chance to rest your dogs and listen to me jaw on about the latest doings?”
She couldn’t really see him, except out of the corner of her eye. Babs was a sensitive soul, however, and she couldn’t help but notice where the butler’s nose went. Straight up in the air.
“Okeh,” she said. “If you want to be like that.” She flipped her hair and strode past him, not at all bothered by the fact that she was walking right through the spot on the floor he’d already mopped. “Don’t worry. Keep treating me like that and I won’t be around long enough to get anything seriously dirty.”
She decided to head for the kitchen. She was unlikely to find any snobs down there. As she made her way across the hall, though, she happened to walk past the open double doors to the back parlor, where the sodium elemental remained trapped inside its bell jar.
For a moment it was like looking in a mirror. The trapped creature had created an almost perfect, if silvery, image of her face, right down to her heavily mascara’d eyelashes. The expression on that visage was one of forlorn hope.
Thinking that must be her own immediate expression (it was not) Babs scowled and twisted her mouth over to one side. Deeply peeved, she told the thing, “Imitation is the most obnoxious form of flattery.”
And then she moved on. Yet again. There was one person in the Hall who might actually give her the time of day. This person had the extra advantage of actually being able to speak out loud, too, which would improve the conversational prospects immensely.