For the second time that day, they knocked on Gropply’s door. He answered and stared unblinking up at them with a look lacking recognition.

Azriah held up the can, its printed label depicting a shrunken little sausage with cartoonishly bulging eyes, wavering mouth, and an oversized thumbs-up. “We got your beans.”

Gropply’s face lit up. “Oh, you brought me cocktail bratwurst and beans cocktail?”

“Well, yes.” Azriah pulled the can back. “In exchange for the wafer cookies.”

“Oh. Yes. Okay. Come in.” They filed into the cramped hut and waited while he struggled with the door.

Azriah placed the can on the table. Gropply picked it up in his big hands and looked it over. “Mmm. Cocktail bratwurst and beans cocktail. Have you tried it?”

“Never,” said Azriah with a shake of his head.

“Very tasty. You should get some sometime.”

“Maybe if we’re lucky,” said Vit.

Under her breath, Root muttered, “Or unlucky.”

Gropply turned away from them and assessed his uneven assortment of cabinetry. A row ran along the far wall beneath a countertop, and more were mounted haphazardly on the wall above but looking just about ready to make a run for it. Another tall box with a single door slumped in the corner, a furnishing that by the looks of it had had half a dozen previous owners, all of them with young children and pets and more than a few solicitations sent away to the local exterminator. To call it an armoire would be to call a box of battered books an archive.

Starting at the right, Gropply opened one cupboard. Inside, lining each shelf, were cans of cocktail bratwurst and beans cocktail.

“Hmm, no room in there…” He shut the door and opened the next one to the same sight. Pushing the cans did nothing to change the situation—they were packed in all the way to the back.

Gropply moved on down the line, opening each cabinet to reveal more and more cans of the same odd food and scant other belongings mixed in alongside them. Finally he arrived at the tall cabinet and pulled open the door with a creak. Rows and rows of the cans perched on shelves within, all staring back and giving a goofy thumbs-up like the worlds’ peppiest army.

“Here we go,” said Gropply as he found a scrap of open space and slotted the new can in alongside its brethren. He adjusted it so that the label faced outwards, commanding the new soldier to fall into line, then locked them all back in the darkness.

“I thought you said you didn’t have anything else to eat!” said Root incredulously when Gropply turned back around.


“When we asked if we could have the wafer cookies you said you couldn’t part with them because it would leave you with nothing. That’s why we went and got you the beans in the first place!”

“Oh, well, I would’ve had nothing to eat in place of those cookies. Specifically.”

“What about any one of those other cans you had?”

“But then I would’ve had nothing to eat in place of that can.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yes it does. See, so if I was going to eat these cookies, but I couldn’t, then I’d eat this can of cocktail bratwurst and beans cocktail—but then next time, if I was meant to eat that can, then instead I’d have to—”

“We get it,” said Azriah with the look of someone who didn’t get it but also didn’t care to.

“Yes, good,” said Gropply. He returned to one of the other cabinets and withdrew a box of the cookies. It was one of several. “Here you are, then.”

“Thanks,” said Azriah bluntly.

Gropply bid them farewell and good luck and then undertook the task of opening his front door once again. To Root, it seemed that Gropply would’ve gotten a better deal if he’d requested a set of hinges in exchange for the cookies, but she wasn’t about to mention that now.

They set off for Grelga’s house. The walk took five minutes. Tud Walrop spent those minutes rolling in his grave.

They smelled Grelga’s house before they saw it; the unmistakable mixture of smoke from the chimney combined with toasty gingerbread led them right up to the front door, as did the familiar peppermint pavers.

“Oh, come in my sweets, come in,” said Grelga when she opened the door. “I must say, took you quite some time! All day you’ve been gone. You must’ve gotten lost on the short walk over to Gropply’s house.”

“Gropply was not as keen to part with the cookies as we’d hoped,” said Azriah. “But we offered a trade. Here they are.” He produced the box.

“Oh, wonderful. Let me fetch you some frosting so you can get to work repairing the roof.” She disappeared into a pantry and left the four of them sitting in the kitchen. A plate of perfectly arranged cookies sat invitingly on the table; Vit helped themself to a trio while Root looked over the huge oven, still cooking Grelga’s supper.

After a few minutes, Grelga returned. “Here we are, then. Oh, never mind that, sweetie, still just cooking supper. Should be ready soon. Here you go, a fresh batch of frosting for the roof.” She handed Root a hefty bowl thick with the whipped sugary peaks.

Azriah stood up. “Do you have a ladder we can use?”

“Yes, of course—around back near the woodshed, you can’t miss it.”

“Thanks,” said Azriah, and then the four of them headed outside.

They certainly couldn’t have missed the ladder. It was made of peppermint sticks and looked like it had been left out in the rain a few times. When Azriah picked it up and moved it into place below the broken eave of the house, his hands came up gooey. He wiped them on the side of the house.

“Think it’ll hold our weight?” asked Vit.

“Lightest first,” said Azriah.

“Oh, no,” said Beel. “That’s what you all said in Affodell’s manor, too, and those stairs creaked so loud my ears are still ringing. I bet that’s how Ajis found us in the first place.”

“If it breaks, I’ll catch you,” said Vit.

“Absolutely not. I’m staying down here on the ground.”

“Fine,” said Root. She passed the bowl of frosting to Vit and climbed the ladder. The peppermint rungs bent under her weight. Underfoot, the gingerbread roof felt no sturdier.

Ridges of looping frosting and candy tiles provided ample holds to wedge her body against. Vit passed the bowl of frosting up as Azriah climbed the ladder, then joined them. They set to work patching the damage.

“What do you think happened here?” asked Vit, using a spatula to slather frosting along the broken edge. “Falling tree, maybe?”

“Or a hungry bird,” said Azriah.

“Or a hungry something,” said Root. “Look at the edge. Looks like teeth marks, no?”

Vit cocked their head and looked at it from a new angle. “I guess it kinda does.”

Up on the roof, the smell of the smoke wafting out of the chimney hung more pungent in the air. It smelled interesting—not bad, necessarily, but not entirely familiar either. And it smelled sweeter than Root thought it should, but that might’ve been thanks to the frosting mortar all around the edges of the chimney that held together—but barely—as nothing more than a goopy drizzle under the heat.

“What’s the proper technique here?” asked Vit, pulling a handful of wafer cookies from the box and eating one. “Layered like shingles? Or sort of fitted in wherever they’ll work? It’s tough because they’re round…”

“I think layered like shingles,” said Azriah. He smeared a thick glob of frosting on the upper section and started to affix a row of cookies.

“You can’t start at the top,” said Root.


“You have to go from the bottom and layer them as you go up. Otherwise rainwater will flow underneath. Haven’t you ever patched a roof before?”

“Uh…” Azriah tugged the hair below his lower lip. Bits of frosting on his hand got caught in his scruff. “No, not personally, but I—”

“How do we start from the bottom?” asked Vit. “The roof is gone—there’s nothing along the bottom to attach them to.”

“Here, let me do it.”

Root lined up an array of cookies and frosted them together into a bottom layer. Stepping back down onto the ladder, she held it to the corner while Vit frostinged it into place.

“There, now we can do a second layer over the top as shingles. Starting from the bottom.”

“Uh, thanks,” said Azriah. He fidgeted with a spatula.

“Are you almost done up there?” asked Beel from the ground. “It’s getting late.”

“We’re taking our time while we’re safe on the roof,” said Root, “just in case there’s something hungry prowling around down there.”

“That’s not funny.”

Azriah and Vit took turns layering the cookie shingles. Azriah’s came out messier, with more wayward frosting smeared around the edges.

“I just don’t know how you’re supposed to do this,” he muttered. “The frosting is too… it just doesn’t do what you want.”

“Do you think she wants us to add the embellishments too?” asked Vit, gesturing to the line of gumdrops and licorice garland.

“She can decorate how she wants to,” said Azriah. “This is hard enough. Who fixes a roof with frosting and vanilla wafer cookies?”

“Well, we are,” said Vit.

On the ground, Beel cowered near the tree line—crouching and squashed and unblinking like a frightened cat—while a flock of spirit birds bobbed around in Grelga’s yard. They pecked at the ground, picking up morsels of gingerbread and sugar. Each one looked plump enough to feed a family of five. When they’d finished their scavenging, they spread their wings and flapped impotently as they hopped away through the underbrush. Beel scrambled to get out of their way.

“That just about does it,” said Vit, pressing the last of the cookies into place. “Good as new.” The three of them looked over their handiwork.

“It doesn’t look as sturdy as the rest of the roof,” said Azriah. “And these cookies would be easy to pull off.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Root. “I don’t think the birds around here can reach this high.”

Sadson wasn’t sure what to make of the girl who showed up on his doorstep in the night; she was frilly and proper and smelled like those special cherries that came with ice creams at fancy places, and all the folks he knew were none of those nor anything adjacent much of the time.

He’d let her in and given her a blanket and a cup of plunk tea (a warm beverage of his own invention, now popular among his friends and neighbors and the sort)—he was a gentleman, of course (he’d taken a class)—but outside of blankets and tea he didn’t know the third thing about what frilly fancy ladies liked.

Fortunately for Sadson, he had a friend—Gero—who lived just down the road. He told the lady he’d be back right quick, faster than she could inflate the air sacs near her temples that seemed to control her blinking motions, and then made a run for it. Gero had just sat down with a cup of plunk tea when he arrived.

“You gots to help me,” said Sadson, quickly recapping the lady’s arrival and spending just an ounce too long describing the look of her. “You know about these sorts of things owin’ course to your trip to the big city that one time. What’s the story with a lady like ‘at?”

Gero set his tea aside with just the right number of fingers to make Sadson absolutely certain he’d come to the right place. “Yes, my trip to the great city of Lallslatt,” said Gero, who had lied about the outing on multiple fronts. He hadn’t set foot there so much as seen it from a distance—seen the chimney smoke, that is—but in his mind, that was all to the same spirit. Him being the spirit, of course.

Sadson nodded, eyes wide and pleading. “What do I do?”

“Well, you gots to find out if she’s a prin-cess. Could be.”

“A prin-cess!” cried Sandson. “I knew she’s was of a fancy sort, but you really think she could be…?”

“Could be. Maybe lost out here ’n the woods ’n such. Cold ’n afraid ’n such.”

“You think I got to ask her, then? If she’s a real bone of hide prin-cess?”

“Oh, golly no!” said Gero. (The image he’d crafted for himself of someone touched by the class of the big city included using words such as “golly.”)

“What, then?”

“There’s a test, you know. A way to figure it out absolute for sure.”

“You’ve got to tell me!”

“Tonight, you offer her a place to sleep, yea? And you make up her bed with, uh, with twen-y mattresses, all piled up, yea? But in between ‘em, down near the bottom, you gots to hide a pea. ’N then… then if she sleeps real bad you’ll know for sure she’s a prin-cess.”

“How will that make sure?”

“Buh-cuz prin-cessis can’t sleep near peas, everyone who knows about prin-cessis knows that! It, uh, it keeps ‘em awake because, well they’re allergic, you know? Gives ‘em a lactic shock. So if she says she din’t sleep at all, you’ll know that she’s a prin-cess.”

“Okay, okay,” said Sadson. “But wait, I don’d have that many mattresses, I only got the one!”

“Well you’ll need ta-go buy more, then!”

“But I bin savin’ up. Was hopin’ to take a trip to Lallslatt one day…”

“You’d be golly lost inna place like that. What’s more imported anyway, seein’ Lallslatt once or havin’ a prin-cess ‘round to tell you ‘boutit every day?”

“I guess you’right.” Sadson rubbed the back of his neck. “Okay, I’ll do it, then.”

“Good choice,” said Gero taking a sip of his plunk tea.

The next morning, Gero stopped by Sadson’s house. Sadson answered with a grin.

“Well?” asked Gero in a hushed tone. He eyed the lady sitting at the table blinking wearily into a cup of plunk tea.

“You were right!” said Sadson excitedly, keeping his voice low. “I did just what you said, ’n this morning she says she slept hardly a wink, if any!”

“That insures it,” said Gero. He pat Sadson on the shoulder. “A real prin-cess.”

“One thing, though,” said Sadson. “I went down t’the market last night—for mattresses—except the farm stands were all closed ’n my peas arn’t near ready for harvesting, but that’s all jus’ fine coz on my way back home I found a bean just lying right across the road ’n I said to myself I said ‘Self—a bean’ll do jus’ fine, I’m sure, hardly a difference when you come and think about it.’ So I took that home ’n used it instead.”

“When you say ‘across the road’…?”

Gero peered around the door a little farther to put the pile of mattresses in the corner of Sadson’s small living space within view. The mountain of mattresses teetered dangerously. A third of the way up, sticking clean out both sides, was an enormous bean.

“Mr. Sadson,” said the lady at the table. Sadson turned. “If it’s quite all right with you, I’m just going to have another lie-down. And on just one mattress, if that’s quite all right. I didn’t sleep nearly enough on account of my nose scraping on the ceiling all night.” She picked out a splinter and placed it daintily on the saucer beside her untouched cup of plunk tea.

“Of course, miss,” said Sadson. He turned back to Gero and winked, then whispered, “We’ll know the real reason, though, eh?”

“Eh,” said Gero with a nod. “A real bone of hide prin-cess.”