No Child Left Behind

No Child Left Behind Prologue-Chapter 4


“You fret like a mare in heat, Kemp. Just leave the children and Commoners on Fulgora.” Lord Gnosis spoke aloud in his usual monotone, oil on the fire in my breast. He did not even look up from the sack he was packing with lab instruments. I needed him, and he knew it.

But even he must recognize that, “Without the children, the Great Houses will provide no resources for your new Seers’ Hall.” I spoke aloud as well, as evenly as I could manage. But for Roulon perching on my shoulder, I could not have found words at all. I pulled off a glove and raised my bared hand to stroke his feathers.

“Children have no place as pioneers on a planet of primitives.”

Children have no place on a planet at war. Especially when we are losing it. But that was treason even to think. Luckily, Lord Gnosis was paying attention only to his packing, and to his arguments to grab a bigger share of the expedition’s resources for his experiments.

“How will you protect children from the natives?” he droned. “For that matter, how will you protect the natives from them?”

I had no idea. All I knew was that the First Lords had finally, if secretly, admitted the insane truth none were permitted to speak: survival of Fulgoran culture depended on the success of a pitiful colony in a parallel universe. Depended on me. Depended on those children.

And I would do anything to protect them.











The cheese stands alone.



Chapter 1

Mom slammed the Honda into drive and screeched out of the West Rock Regional High School parking lot. She didn’t say a word when we passed the sunny fields where kids were practicing for football and soccer season. Usually, when she saw kids practicing, she nagged me about joining a sport. Not today.

“That’s it, Geoff,” she finally snapped. “You have to choose. Medication or Special Ed. Or I can go back to work at the firm full time and you can go to military school.”

I wasn’t going to do any of those things. I needed time and space to figure out how I was going to fix this. But I couldn’t think while Mom was freaking out.

My mind began to whirl, flashing on Mom nagging me to eat, ice cream sundaes at Dairy Queen, dairy dairy quite contrary… I shut it down. I had to concentrate to throw Mom off the track. “There are other options, Mom. For example, I could go home and kill myself. Or we could steam back to school and I could snow the guidance counselors.” Steam cars steaming, cleaner snow, cleaner water, way to go…

“We just tried that. It didn’t work.”

It was hard to think scrunched up in the back seat. Off the meds over the summer, I’d grown three inches, and my tapping heels made my knees hit the books shoved into the seat pockets. But I couldn’t let it distract me when I had to distract Mom. “I didn’t try killing myself.”

Mom snorted. “If I believed you were serious, I’d commit you.”

“Then I’d escape from the asylum after chloroforming my psychiatrist.”

“They wouldn’t give you the chance.”

“So I snow the psychiatrist, make him believe you’re the crazy one.” I was famous for snowing adults one-on-one. At least for forty-five minute sessions.

“You’d have to conform to do that.”


Mom’s cell phone rang, playing Vivaldi’s “Spring”. She slapped it off without looking at the caller ID. That was a bad sign.

“So why don’t you just conform in class?”

Because I couldn’t do it all day, every day. But I couldn’t admit that, either. “Because I would have to lie. If I give up my principles for the sake of my goals, I’m no better than they are.”

“Then you’ll have to take the consequences, Geoff. Medication, Special Ed, or military school.”

“You forgot the killing myself option.”

“So it’s liberty or death?”

“They put statues up to Patrick Henry.”

Mom’s cell rang again. She swerved violently to the side of the road and braked to a halt. “WHAT?” she shouted into the phone.


Chapter 2

The library was hot, but the native who squirmed before my desk wore long sleeves like a felon. Yet he refused to admit he was either criminal or stupid.

My guts roiled. No, it was I who had been criminally stupid. My thirteen other templates agreed. I shoved them back into my subconscious, where they belonged.

“So,” I said, “it is not a simple matter of bribing this Mr. Zablinsky, this ‘Zoning Officer’?”

The native’s mouth opened and shut like a carp’s. He raised his eyes to the library ceiling as if for inspiration. The wondrous fresco of vines and flowers held no happy answers, for him or for me. “No sir—er, Lord Kemp,” he corrected himself at a histrionic growl from Moros, looming behind my chair. My Moros made an efficient bailiff; he could ferret out anyone’s fears and leverage them to ensure proper behavior. The native, a broker for transfers of land, was terrified of my gentle First Retainer.

“Extorting gold was not the purpose of Mr. Zablinsky’s visit?”

“No, well maybe, but I don’t think so. Bribing him wouldn’t work, anyway. My Lord.”

Bribes always worked with commoners. “Why not?”

“Because,” said the native, a hint of exasperation creeping into his tone despite Moros’ glower, “zoning officers have no power to change zoning laws. West Rock’s ordinance just doesn’t permit boarding schools or farming in affluent residential zones like this one.”

My fulgun surged and sparks flashed in my vision. I closed my eyes to block sight of the infuriating native and concentrated on a control pattern. I would not compound my criminal stupidity by breaking discipline.

An ocean of blue alpha waves rolled through my mind, stabilizing my nerves enough for me to speak calmly. I opened my eyes. “You assured me I own this land.”

“Yes, s—Lord Kemp.” The broker nodded his head vigorously. “Full title. Estate, mine, mineral rights, riparian rights to your side of the lake, everything. The transaction is closed and recorded, right here in the county seat.”

“Yet you and this Zoning Officer claim I cannot do what I choose on my estate? I cannot undertake peaceful pursuits that affect nothing outside the borders of my land?”

“Uh, no, Lord Kemp. That’s zoning.”

That was disaster. For years, until the snouts overran their hall, our Seers studied all the accessible Earths. On this one, they said, humans had no rivals; on this one, they said, strangers mingled freely; on this one, they said, gold ruled. And some claptrap called “zoning” would ruin it all? My soothing ocean vision blew up in a flash and thunderclap.

Moros clutched his head in agony and I signaled profound apologies. The dead hair on my visitor’s head stood up and his eyes widened. He turned his sensilla-less head back and forth, searching for the source of whatever sparks he was capable of perceiving from my inexcusable loss of composure.

I raised my hand to summon Roulon. I had been a fool to try to interview the native without him. The rockmore flew at once through the un-curtained window and landed on my shoulder. Pressing his beak to my ear, he flicked his crest and scolded, saying everything I could not permit myself to say. “Ridiculous, absurd, unthinkable, intolerable. Boil him in oil. Boil him in oil.”

“Um, is that a parrot?” asked the broker.

“A rockmore.” I spared a glance for Moros, unnecessarily. He was already flicking through the lexicon the Seers had prepared. Roulon’s chant enabled me to stretch my lips into a smile. “So, Mr. Moraine, if not Mr. Zablinsky, whom should we bribe?”

“It doesn’t work that way. You go to jail for taking bribes, and anyhow we couldn’t pay off the whole Planning Board, the Town Council, the neighbors…”

I slashed my arm through the air to cut off his excuses. He stumbled backward as if I had aimed at his heart. “I do not need you to tell me what I cannot do, Mr. Moraine. In fact, I do not need you to tell me anything. This is my land. I bought it with good gold. You arranged the sale, and profited substantially. I hold you responsible for disposing of the nuisances who question my natural right to use my land as I please.”

“I was just the broker, Lord Kemp,” he whined. “My responsibilities ended when the sale closed.”

“Not where I come from.” I signaled Moros and he stepped from his place behind me, this time clenching and raising his capable fists.

The native whimpered and turned to flee, pulling at the round door-handle. Moros held the door shut with ease and smiled a smile that showed his teeth. The native’s nerves crackled like a frightened five year old’s. With a sense of humor rare in a rockmore, Roulon shrieked, “Boil him in oil, boil him in oil.”



Chapter 3

“Myron, that’s ridiculous,” Mom said into the phone, “a foreign lord with a WWW wrestler for a bodyguard bought the old Ferrum estate for a boarding school. Sure.” Pause. “Okay, boarding school and farm. That makes it so much more believable.” Pause. “I know you don’t have enough imagination to make that up, but no one beats up their realtor in their own library…” Pause.

“So he didn’t actually touch you?” Pause. “Then your claim isn’t worth dick.” Pause. “Not ordinarily, unless you misled him before he bought it.” Pause. “Oh come on, Myron, he’d have to be from outer space not to ask about zoning.” Pause. “I don’t have time to listen to your whining when you should have known better.” Pause. “It’s not my specialty, Myron. I can get you a name…”

Uncle Myron attacked by a WWW wrestler? I fantasized a guy in an executioner’s hood and spandex,

standing at attention behind the fancy armchair where his employer lounges, feet on his mahogany desk—(no, lords wouldn’t put their feet on their desks)—where his employer rocks, petting a long-haired white cat. On the other side of the desk, Uncle Myron shifts from foot to foot, sweat rolling down his forehead.

“It’s not my fault! It’s zoning.”

Lord Kemp signals his bodyguard. A leer stretching his face—(no, that wouldn’t work, the bodyguard was wearing an executioner’s hood)—fists clenching and unclenching, the bodyguard stalks toward Uncle Myron.

“Mercy, my Lord! I know one who can thwart the evil Zoning Board!”

Mom’s voice was getting louder, as if that would make Uncle Myron understand her better. Pause. “Very flattering, but…” Long pause. “Myron, are you crying? All right, okay, enough! I’ll drive right over there, right now. Let me get a pen.”

Uncle Myron was crying? That ought to take Mom’s attention off me. I pulled one of my Dungeons & Dragons manuals out of the back seat pocket and started flipping through.

“Geoff, find me a pen, please, and something to write on.”

I scrabbled around on the floor and gave her a pencil and an envelope urging Mom to “complete your CLE requirements in just one day!”

“Thanks, Geoff. Go ahead, Myron.” Long pause, scratching of a pen. Pause. “You’ll call ahead?” Pause. “I’ll let you know. Relax.” Pause. “Goodbye, Myron.” Click and shut-off tones.

Mom restarted the motor and did a 180 back toward the school. “Sorry, kid, we need to make a detour for Uncle Myron. I’ve got to talk to someone RIGHT AWAY at the old Ferrum estate or your uncle’s going into cardiac arrest. ”

“Is Uncle Myron going to sue somebody?” Mom used to be a hotshot corporate lawyer, but now she stayed home with me.

“Come on, Geoff, you know I can’t talk about cases.”

“Is it a case?”

“Actually, I have no idea. Why don’t you read your Van Von Hunter SAT book?”

Thank you, Uncle Myron. Now she’d leave me alone long enough for me to figure out what to do about school. Maybe I’d just pretend to go on the drugs; I’d palmed pills for years at Hawking Elementary when I couldn’t bear another day of dull and freak.

I flipped through the Monster Manual, opened and closed Van Von Hunter so I could tell Mom I looked at it, and read a few pages of Lord of the Flies. It really hurt what they did to Piggy. Maybe if he’d learned not to cry; maybe if one kid had stuck up for him…

Mom stayed quiet the whole time we climbed the mountain road toward the big houses where I used to go to birthday parties. When kids still invited the whole class.

Just past Goose Lake Park, Mom turned the car onto a gravel driveway that curved through iron gates set into high stone walls. A couple of big, green-gray birds, maybe some mutants from the mining-polluted lake, perched on top of the walls. Maybe I was a mutant. Mom, pregnant, swimming in the lake. Big belly. Ick. No, for me to be a mutant she’d have to have swum in the lake before she met Dad, and he was the one from Pennsylvania.

Penn’s Sylvania. Sylvan. Penn’s piney paradise, like the thick trees lining and shadowing both sides of the driveway. More big birds nestled on the ground between the thinner bottom branches, hiding from the late summer heat.

We kept curving around to the left and the driveway opened into a cobbled yard and big stone house like the old English castles in the sims Mom liked. There were workers on the roof, doing something with big panels, maybe solar panels, but not the regular dark blue ones. There were no trees or bushes around the house or on the lawn beyond the cobbled courtyard, very medieval fortress free-fire-zone. But no moat, just flocks of oversized green-gray hook-bills that hopped and strutted on the lawn.

Mom was muttering under her breath as she parked the car, took off her sunglasses and brushed her hair. She always told me not to mutter to myself, but it was okay when she did it.

With the air conditioning cut off, the car immediately got hot. I could smell myself, like after gym. Only stinky Jim smelled in seventh grade, but in eighth grade I began to smell. I so looked forward to ninth grade.

“Geoff, wake up. You better come in with me,” said Mom. “There must be someplace you can wait while I talk to Uncle Myron’s client. Bring a book.”

I unfolded my legs and lurched onto the cobbles. We climbed stone stairs with big ceramic urns on each step. There was nothing inside any of them.

“Geoff,” called Mom from the top, standing by an ironbound door that looked like a D&D door. Mom banged a brass knocker and the door swung open into a cool, dark, marble lobby.

“Mrs. Moraine?” asked a tall, older girl dressed up in a white cap and apron over a sleeveless brown dress. She wore white gloves. She curtsied. Mom was going to love this.

“Ms. Cello,” said Mom reflexively. She hadn’t changed her maiden name.

The girl looked confused. “Mrs. Moraine?”

Mom sighed. “Yes.”

“Lord Kemp is expecting you. Please follow me.” She curtsied again.

“Wait. I have my son with me. Is there somewhere he can read while I meet with Lord Kemp?”

The girl looked aghast. She had a very expressive face. “I’ll, I’ll have to ask, Mrs. Moraine.”

Mom sighed again. “Never mind. Just tell Lord Kemp I’m here with my apprentice.”

I choked on a laugh. That was what made Mom cooler than other moms. She knew how to role-play.

The girl curtsied a third time and led us down a dark hall to a big curving stairway. We walked partway up and she whistled a tune. Mom lifted her eyebrows.

“Enter,” called a man.

The girl futzed around with the doorknob until she managed to turn it, then, with a triumphant smile like she’d done something clever, she waved us through the door.

More stuff out of Pride and Prejudice. The room was like a miniature ballroom, except books covered the walls and rugs covered the floor. There was a huge chandelier and the white ceiling was carved with flowers and vines and—Mom hit me on the shoulder to make me stop spinning.

A man dressed in a sleeveless silky bathrobe and gloves sat behind a fancy wood desk. One of those big green-gray pigeon-parrot-crow birds sat on his padded shoulder. Lord Kemp, I supposed.

A guy showing huge bare pectorals and holding a leather book and pen in leather-gloved hands stood behind the lord’s chair. The bodyguard? This was even weirder than I had imagined.

“Mrs. Moraine, I presume?” said the bathrobe.

Mom walked forward and extended her hand to shake the man’s. “Ms. Cello, actually. I never changed my maiden name.”

The man raised an eyebrow but didn’t get up or extend his hand. Mom dropped hers to her side. The bathrobe didn’t introduce the bodyguard.

Mom’s voice much colder, she said, “And this is my son, Geoff Moraine. Is there somewhere he could sit and read while we talk?”

The man looked startled, just like the girl had, but recovered more quickly. “Ah, perhaps your brother-in-law told you we were foreigners?”

Like we couldn’t tell. I should have paid more attention in Social Studies. I had no idea where these guys could be from.

“It is the custom of my country for parents to keep their children by their sides when among strangers.”

“Fine,” said Mom. “So long as you don’t mind him hearing this business.”

“No more than you, yourself, hearing it, Madame.”

Mom pointed to a chair near the back wall and I sat. I read the titles on the books while my toe tapped soundlessly on the thick rug. “Concentrating Sunlight: Basic Lens Design.” “Concentrating Plant Potential: Simple Machines.” “Calculating Calories for Electron Propulsion”. Boring.

Mom’s voice was rising. “We do not bribe officials in this country, Lord Kemp. Nor do we threaten bodily harm to real estate brokers or anyone else. If you have a grievance, bring it to court.”

Mom was leaning forward in a dark green armchair covered with tiny embroidered red flowers and lighter green leaves. She was clutching and kneading her pocketbook, which was a very bad sign. She really wasn’t too good with people.

Lord Kemp looked frustrated, and the pigeon/parrot/crow was cooing up a storm in his ear. My foot was tapping faster, the hair on my arms rose and my wrists tingled with galvanic skin response. I wondered to what.

I stood and walked up beside Mom.

“Excuse me, Sir,” grown-ups were suckers for polite kids, “but what country are you from? Are women allowed to be lawyers there or only men?”

Mom glared at me.

The bathrobe looked thoughtful. The prickles in my wrists subsided, but I still felt gooseflesh.

“A very good question, young man. In my—country—women who have birthed children may hold the same positions in society as men, but I’m not sure we have lawyers as you know them.”

That made Mom stop glaring and start thinking. She was almost as smart as me. I smiled, said thank-you, and sidled behind Mom’s chair.

“Pardon me, Lord Kemp,” she said, “I assumed that since you bought property to reside here, you were familiar with our culture. Was that assumption wrong?”

The bird stopped cooing in Lord Kemp’s ear.

Kemp stared at Mom, he stared at me, then back at Mom, and finally said, “Obviously insufficiently familiar. I find your notions of law as incomprehensible as they are, forgive me, unnatural. I cast myself upon your mercy: my situation is the most grave imaginable, and quite simply I need help.”

Even realizing her earlier mistake, Mom couldn’t help her sarcastic tone. “To run a boarding school in a single-family residential zone, or to terrorize a real estate broker?”

“Madame, if I could tell you the particulars, I know you would sympathize. But I cannot take the chance of betrayal.”

Mom bridled. “I’m an attorney.”

“Madame, I have no understanding what that implies.”

“Oh, right, forgive me. Anyway, Myron is my client, not you, so attorney-client privilege doesn’t apply to what you tell me.”

“Client? Attorney-client privilege?” Behind Lord Kemp, the bodyguard was flipping frantically through his book.

“Don’t you watch television?” Mom muttered. I squeezed her shoulder.

“Pardon?” said Lord Kemp.

“Sorry. A client is a person whom a lawyer agrees to represent. I can’t give you the full lecture right now, but, in brief, attorney-client privilege is the doctrine that forbids an attorney from revealing client confidences. There are exceptions, mainly the duty of an attorney to reveal ongoing or planned future crimes that threaten other citizens, but basically, what you tell your lawyer stays with your lawyer. Even details of past crimes. Preserving client confidences is a legal and moral duty for a lawyer.”

“Pardon me, Madame,” said Lord Kemp, and turned to talk to his bodyguard.

I bent and whispered in Mom’s ear, “Did you feel any static electricity or something before? This guy’s books are all about electricity and I think something weird is going on here.”

Mom jerked her eyes toward me and frowned. “What did we say about keeping your imagination at home?”

“I’m whispering, aren’t I?”

Lord Kemp cleared his throat loudly. He was staring at us, but his left hand was crossed over to his right shoulder, petting his bird obsessively.

“What’s his name?” I asked. Of course the bird could have been a she, so I was being sexist, but people looked at me funny when I said he/she/it.

Lord Kemp looked surprised. “My pardon. Ms Cello and son, this is Moros, my First Retainer.”

“The bird?” I asked.

Both Lord Kemp and Moros looked embarrassed, as if I’d told them their flies were open. But Moro’s tights didn’t seem to have a fly and I couldn’t see what Lord Kemp was wearing under his robe.

“It is considered impolite to notice the presence of a fulgurant’s…” He looked a question at Moros, who flipped more through his book, then shook his head.

“Familiar?” I suggested.

Mom snorted. “Geoffrey Merrit Moraine! Please pardon my son’s rudeness, Lord Kemp.”

“Granted. In any event, my… friend’s name is Roulon, and his words are mine.

“I know our customs must be strange to you, as yours are to us, so now I must ask you a question. Please forgive me if it is offensive.”

Offensive? He had my attention.

“If I dropped my claim of dereliction of duty against your husband’s brother, would you represent me, so I could become your client for purposes of this attorney-client privilege?”

That was offensive? Mom representing these guys would be cool. We could find out more about the bird and the bodyguard and the static whatever. But Mom was hesitating, for whatever Mom-ish reasons. I squeezed her shoulders and murmured, “They sure need somebody to represent them.”

Her shoulders squared, then shook off my fingers. “That would be acceptable, Lord Kemp, but Mr. Moraine is my EX-husband’s brother, and you and I would have to agree to a retainer.”

At the word, a shock of electricity zapped through me. Not adrenaline, not a static electricity spark, but a live jolt like when I touched the hot wire on our paddock fence. It hurt. But it was gone before I could tell where it came from. Mom obviously hadn’t felt it, because she kept talking

“Um, a retainer is an agreement to the terms of legal representation, its scope, my fee, what happens to documents when the retainer terminates, that kind of thing. You retain me to represent you. But I’m not a specialist in municipal land use law. Or education law.”

Lord Kemp and Moros both looked like someone punched them in the stomach. Had they been shocked, too?

Lord Kemp swallowed audibly. Then he stood up, stripped off his gloves, and stuck both his hands out across his desk like he was sticking them into a fire. “Ms. Cello, I would be—privileged—to, to—retain you. I agree to whatever forms and payments are customary, and I put my faith in your faith.”

Mom just sat there. I poked her in the back and she got up and held her hands out to Lord Kemp to take. He closed his eyes and seized them.

The bodyguard gasped. The hair on my arms and neck rose. Mom staggered and fell back in her chair.

“Mom?” I grabbed her shoulders. She shook her head like she was shaking a bug off and then raised her arms and patted my gooseflesh. Her hands tingled.

Lord Kemp’s voice was hoarse. “May we proceed under attorney-client privilege now?”

Mom squeezed my forearms like she was using them to balance. “Uh, yes, yes, of course,” she said.




Chapter 4

Lord Kemp did something to Mom in that handshake. But when I leaned over she looked okay, and I didn’t want to do anything that might make her send me out of the room while the guy told us his big secret.

She let go of my arms and sat forward. Quiet as a mouse, I slunk back to my chair against the wall.


“Please call me Ella, if the informality isn’t inappropriate in your culture.”

Lord Kemp smiled. “Not at all, Ella, so long as you call me ‘my Lord’”.

Mom laughed, but the guy meant it.

“I beg your indulgence while I tell you a history that may tax your credulity.”

“My Lord,” said Mom with a little laugh, “just so you know, it doesn’t matter if a lawyer believes her client. It’s her job to act as if she did, anyway.”

Lord Kemp didn’t like that. “I assure you, Madame, that I do not lie to my Retainers.”

Mom just nodded, not even correcting Kemp about the difference between “retainers” and “retainees”.

Her new client cleared his throat. “Are you familiar with the theory of parallel universes?”

Mom nodded again. Of course she was. She was the one who introduced me to science fiction.

“We are from such a universe.”

“Uh-huh,” said Mom.

“Our Earth evolved a bit differently. There is another sapient race, one which developed a tool-using culture in parallel with our own.”

“Uh-huh,” said Mom.

Her new client raised his still bare hand and stroked his bird. “We have always competed for resources, often resulting in conflict.”

“Naturally,” said Mom.

Lord Kemp lifted his bird from his shoulder with both hands and held it against his forehead for a minute. “Our different technologies have been spurred by the conflict, until we threaten each other’s existence.”

Mom nodded. Too long.

“They’re winning.”

“Bummer,” Mom and I murmured together.

“Do excuse me,” she said by herself. “I did not mean to make light of your, your tragedy.”

“You don’t believe me,” said her client.

“My Lord, it doesn’t matter. What would you have me do to help?”

“It does matter, Fulgora blast it!”

The static electricity was back, my hair standing up all over my body and my wrists tingling while my brain fizzed and popped. It felt really cool.

The bodyguard was grabbing his head like it hurt, Mom was rubbing her arms, the chandelier crystals were swinging and banging into each other, the bird was squawking up a tirade in Lord Kemp’s ear.

Lord Kemp squeezed shut his eyes and rocked back and forth. A shudder passed through him, he huffed out a loud breath, then opened his eyes to glare at Mom.

“If you would permit me, Madame,” Lord Kemp said in a voice colder than Dad’s, “I will prove my history.” He stalked around his desk, bird glued to his shoulder and bodyguard glued to his back. He wore trousers and boots beneath his bathrobe. The door swung open before he reached it and the girl who brought us to the library stood gasping on the landing. “Please join me for a ride to the mine,” he said. To Mom, not the girl.

“A ride? Car, needleship or horseback?” asked Mom.

“Horseback,” gritted her client. “You do ride?”

“Love to,” said Mom. “But Geoff doesn’t ride. He can lunge my dressage horse for me, but he’d rather sit inside at his computer…”

“Mara,” said Lord Kemp, to the girl, “Please conduct this son of my newest Retainer to the kitchen and feed him. You may show him around the schoolrooms as well.”

The girl’s eyes widened and her mouth formed a red “O”, oh my, oh dear, oh great jumping scotts in the sky…

“I thought you said people from your culture didn’t leave children with strangers?” asked Mom sweetly, like she did when she caught you in an inconsistency.

“You’re my Retainer, now,” said Lord Kemp, as if that answered everything, and he swept Mom out the door.

I would have liked to go see the mine, even if it just turned out to be the old Cameron coal mine, not a gate to a parallel universe. The girl in the white apron and cap was still staring at me, though, and I guessed I didn’t need to fall off a horse today. Mom said I annoyed them by never sitting still in the saddle.

“Hi, Mara,” I said. “I’m Geoff.”

“Are you truly a native?” she said.

“Well, no. Do I look like an Indian?”

She fumbled in the big front pocket of her apron and dragged out a book and pen like the bodyguard was carrying.

“What’s that?”

“Our lexicon for the native language. I’m looking up ‘Indian’.”

I twirled in a circle, shaking my head. “Why don’t you just ask me?”

“May I?” she said. “That would be wonderful.”

She had a beautiful smile that hit me below the gut. Even though she might have been college age.

“Actually,” I stammered, “there are American Indians and Asian Indians, from India, you know. When Europeans first settled America, they thought they had found India, so they called the Native Americans ‘Indians’. When we say ‘native’, we mean them.”

Her smile dwindled. “Um, I had better take you to the kitchen. Lord Kemp did order it.”

What had I said? “Okay.”

I followed her down the stairway, through more stone hallways, down some stairs, into a kitchen that was half normal and half colonial. There was nobody in the normal half, but a girl maybe my age was turning a huge roast on a spit in a walk-in fireplace. She was beet red and sweating oysters. The dark hair straggling from under her white cap pasted to her cheeks and her apron and gown pasted to her chest. Her breasts.

I looked away. “Wouldn’t it be cooler to use the oven?” I asked Mara.

“I don’t know,” she said. “We haven’t figured out how to make it work.”

Either these guys were the best at staying in character, or they really were from someplace else. “I could show you.”

“Who’s that?” called the girl turning the spit.

“The son of Lord Kemp’s new Retainer. He’s from this Earth.”

“Oh, sure,” said the spit girl, her tone as incredulous and contemptuous as if I had asked her out to the Middle School dance, “My Lord Retained a native.”

“Um, I’m standing right here,” I said. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about, but my Mom is a lawyer and Lord Kemp retained her to find a way to let you make this place a school.”

“Let us?” spat the spit girl. “My Lord owns this land in the right of Fulgora. He needs no permission to do with it as Fulgora pleases.”

Mara was frantically paging through her lexicon.

“He does so need permission. And without my Mom, he’ll never get it. And you don’t even know how to use an oven.”

The spit girl looked like she was trying to throw daggers at me with her eyes. My arm hairs, slick with sweat from the hot kitchen, stirred feebly.

Mara rubbed her temples. “Bea, stop it.” She turned to me and whispered. “Please don’t take offense. Bea misses her family; they were at Seers Hall when the snouts destroyed it.”

“Snouts? Seers Hall?” I pictured pig-men like ogres, snuffling up to a castle. A bunch of old wizards stood on the battlements, wailing. The pig-men dug under the walls like boars looking for truffles…

“Not right now,” Mara said like Mom, and waved me to a seat at the long kitchen table as far from the fireplace and Bea as we could get.

I bet I could get Bea to tell me right now. “Uh, shall I show your friend how to use the oven? And maybe the stove?”

“Perhaps you could show all of us later. Would you like some bread and cheese? Only flatbread, I’m afraid; we aren’t used to cooking over a fire.”

Without waiting for me to say yes, Mara bustled over to the pantry, took out a stack of pita bread and big slice of gooey cheese and set it down in front of me. I poked it. “Don’t you keep cheese in the refrigerator?”

Mara pulled out her book. I was getting tired of this.

“Cold box,” I said.

“We couldn’t find one,” she said, facing two huge Sub-Zero freezers and fridge.

“Uh, right across from you?”

“The closets with the doors you have to wrench open? They’re not cold boxes.”

I jumped up from the table and stuck my face in the crack between the leftmost freezer and the wall. Yup, it was unplugged. I kneeled down, squeezed my arm through the gap, grabbed the electric cord and forced the plug into the socket.

Nothing. No happy hum.

What if these guys really were from another universe? Would they know about paying electric bills?

I pulled my cell phone from my jeans pocket and speed-dialed Uncle Myron.

“What’s that?” asked Mara.

“Not now,” I said, enjoying a tiny revenge. “Perhaps later.”