Connolly and I are alone in the room with the tea caddy. Once everyone’s gone, he says, “I can leave if it will bother you, but I think it’s best if someone’s here. For protection.”
“It really is fine,” I say. “Either way. You can stay, but please don’t feel obligated.”
“All right,” I say. “Then I’ll put you to use. Distract me.”
His brows rise.
“Clear my head,” I say. “The curse is still ping-ponging around in there, and I’d like to re-examine it with an open mind.”
He nods. “Right. Well, I . . .”
He looks around, clearly searching for a topic of conversation. When his gaze goes to the window, the dark cloud of weather-related commentary threatens, and I jump into the gap.
“Have you spoken to your parents?” I say.
“You mean telling them that I rescued my brother . . . and lost him again three hours later? Yes, I did.”
“You didn’t lose him. He was kidnapped.”
“I rescued him from a kidnapping, only to have him kidnapped by someone else? Ah, yes, that’s better.”
“Also, Rian isn’t a child, Connolly. He’s an adult. A responsible—well, an adult anyway. He’s what, my age?”
“An adult, who did not want to be safely stashed in a hotel room, and you respected that. Ultimately, only one person is responsible for Rian being kidnapped. The person who kidnapped him. If your parents don’t see that, then I hope you’ve reminded them that they didn’t even tell you he’d been kidnapped in the first place. Did they respond to that? Explain themselves?”
“Their explanation is that they were handling it as they saw fit, and as my parents, they don’t need to explain themselves.”
“Seriously? That’s what they’re going with? You’re not a child. First, they heap all the responsibility on your shoulders. Your brother got himself into a mess, and you needed to get him out of it. Then they withhold information they decide you don’t need, and when you call them on it, they pull ‘Because we’re the parents, that’s why.’”
“This isn’t helping you clear your mind and relax, is it?”
“I don’t need the relaxing part. Just the mental palate cleanser. This did it. Thank you.” I give myself a shake. Then I look at him. “How are you doing? Not about your parents—that’s none of my business. Otherwise, though?”
“Angry with myself for not insisting Rian go to that hotel. But, as you say, he’s an adult. I just . . .” He shrugs. “I didn’t push because he made me feel I was being unreasonable, treating him like a child.”
“Just don’t say ‘I told you so’ when you see him again. As the reckless younger sister of an uber-responsible sibling, I can guarantee he’s already feeling the sting of that. Just like he felt the sting of you rescuing him. And the sting of putting you in danger.”
Connolly nods. “I’ll remember that. And how are you doing?”
“Feeling like an idiot for being in the same house as Hope. While she was being kidnapped.”
“Marius wasn’t on our radar as a suspect.” He pauses. “I haven’t asked you how you’re doing with that. Being here. If it bothers you to ally with him, we’ll leave.”
“It bothers me that it doesn’t bother me as much as it should, if that makes sense. I liked him. I’m furious, and I still need to sort out what I feel about it, but for now, it’s like I’m stuck back at ‘I like him.’ Which is uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable but useful. He regrets what he did, and he’s committed to helping us. Let him do that, and then we can work out how we feel about the situation. I’ve only had minimal contact with him before this but, yes, he was on my short list of people I wanted to cultivate. Now that I know what he’s capable of?” He shrugs. “I’m uncomfortable with it, and at the same time, recognizing that my discomfort may mean I’m not cut out to play on this level. When he called me a sanctimonious prick, I was more offended at the sanctimonious part. But he’s not wrong.”
“One, that wasn’t really Marius. It was Marius channeling Hector. Two, there’s nothing wrong with having a higher ethical standard. At least, not in my book. Not in Marius’s books either, I’ll bet. Hector would be another matter. But you’re correct that it helps if I can still work with Marius right now.”
“Also, your sister seems all right with it. At least for now. As a matter of practicality.”
“Ani is always practical.” I look back at the tea caddy. “Okay, I’ve had my mental break. I need to get to this before practical-Ani bursts in to remind me that this is a wholly impractical way to spend my time.”
“It might not be.”
I smile at him. “Thank you. I’ll put a time limit on it, though. One hour to solve this puzzle. Now, do you want to passively observe or would you like the chatty-Kennedy running monologue?”
“I would definitely take the monologue, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.”
It’s been forty-five minutes, and I can hear the mental timer running down. At first, it was fun, poking and prodding at the gambit while explaining the process to Connolly. He’s obviously interested. There was a thrill in sharing that. I’ve uncursed objects with my family, of course, but that’s like making a cake with fellow bakers—you don’t talk about it; you just do it. So that part is kind of awesome. It grew steadily less awesome when I couldn’t wow him by solving the damned puzzle.
It is a puzzle. At least a riddle. Not solving it takes this from a fun shared—and show-off-y—encounter to potentially ego-shattering humiliation. Like the time I invited all my friends to my softball playoffs . . . and got benched for goofing off.
The curse on Connolly’s mirror was a standard one. We have hundreds of these, like bakers and their book of recipes. But a true curse weaver can go beyond the book and create her own. That’s what the tea caddy jinx was—there’s obviously no “standard” curse for putting pet hair in hot drinks. The curse itself, though, had been straightforward and unambiguous.
The gambit is different. Oh, it happily held up its name tag. Hello, I’m Gambler’s Gambit! But that was just the introduction. Then I needed the actual gambit—the riddle I needed to solve to unlock the prize. That wasn’t so easy.
First, it’s in ancient Greek. Naturally. I say “naturally” with a generous dose of sarcasm. Yes, that’s the language used to curse the Necklace of Harmonia, but considering the time period, it was the equivalent of me weaving a curse in modern English. This, though, is a modern curse in ancient Greek, which is the equivalent of Catholic church sermons in Latin. It’s unnecessarily elitist—saying that if you lack a certain background or education, you don’t deserve to understand it. Pure showmanship, and while I know curse weavers who still use it, I totally reverse-snob them by writing them off as pretentious hacks.
So I’m a little disappointed to discover that this master of the craft went for ancient Greek on their gambit. In this case, though, I’ll grant them an exception and say it’s probably intended as part of the puzzle. If you don’t know ancient Greek, you need to translate it before you can solve it.
I do know ancient Greek . . . and I still can’t solve it.
In English, the gambit isn’t nearly as pretty and poetic as in its native tongue, but it roughly translates to:
My second secret is for the wise drunkard, who treats his morning-after woes with the enemy of my first. Return what I’ve lost, and all shall be won.
“You’re quite certain of the translation?” Connolly says.
My narrow-eyed look answers for me.
His reply is drowned out by Ellie, who has been meowing at the door for the last ten minutes. Meowing, I should point out, on both sides of it. When she started, we let her in . . . and she promptly meowed from our side, wanting out. Let her out . . . and she wants back in. The issue, of course, is the closed door, which is an affront to all feline sensibilities.
I stomp over and open it a few inches. “There. Is that better?”
She looks from me to the door and sniffs, as if to say I’m really no fun at all.
I return to Connolly. “Yes, I know the curse doesn’t make sense. I get the part about the wise drunk. The weaver is referring to a hangover cure. But ‘with the enemy of my first’ seems like a mistranslation. It’s not. I’m sure of that. First what, though? First secret? The wise drunkard treats his hangover with the enemy of my first secret?”
Ellie hops up on the table and eyes the tea caddy.
“This is why that door was shut,” I say as I go to scoop her off. Then I stop. “The first secret. The jinx. The tea caddy puts cat hair in tea. What’s one supposed cure for hangovers? The hair of the dog that bit you. Dogs and cats are enemies.”
“Okay . . .”
“So the second secret is for the wise drunkard, who treats his hangover with the hair of the dog that bit him.”
“Okay . . .”
“Obviously, we solve the riddle with booze. Just dowse the sucker in cheap vodka and set it on fire.”
He looks at me, brows shooting up.
I sigh. “Really, Connolly? I’m kidding. Though at this point, turning this thing into a big ol’ bonfire is mighty tempting. As for what the riddle means, the answer, I believe, is ‘not a damn thing.’ It’s misdirection. Like those stupid word problems your friends share on social media where you spend ten minutes dutifully calculating the answer, only to discover it’s a trick question.”
His blank look tells me his friends don’t do that. Or, more likely, he doesn’t spend nearly as much time social-media surfing as I do.
“It’s a trick question,” I say. “Misdirection. Which I fell for. The first part seems to mean something, especially when you get the cat hair part, but it’s gobbledygook. It’s the second line that counts. Return what I’ve lost, and all shall be won.”
I walk to Connolly and bend to Ellie, who’s rubbing against his pant legs, her purr getting louder the longer she’s ignored. I nudge her aside, retrieve my prize from his trouser cuffs and stand, waving it. As he frowns, I walk back to the caddy, open the top and dangle the cat hair over it.
“Return what I’ve lost,” I say. “Yes?”
His eyes light up. “Ah. Yes.”
“Feel free to tell me I’m wrong,” I say. “I only get one shot at this.”
“No, you are correct. The caddy gives out cat hair. That’s what it loses. Put it back in and ‘all shall be won’—you’ll win the prize.”
“Okay. Let’s do this then.” I take a deep breath and carefully place the cat hair in the tea caddy.
It shimmers, and I blink. “Um, Aiden? Is it just me seeing this?”
He comes over, looks inside and says, “If you’re seeing that hair turn into some kind of worm—”
The wormlike hair shoots to the corner of the box and then wriggles into the crack. It disappears, and there’s a pop, and the bottom springs open.
“We did check for a false bottom, right?”
“We did, but apparently our tools don’t detect magical trap doors.”
He reaches in and lifts the false bottom. There’s no compartment under it. Just the actual bottom, with a folded piece of paper on top.
He takes out the paper. When he starts to unfold it, I grab his hand.
“That’s locked,” I say.
His brows rise.
“It’s letter-locked,” I say. “See the way it’s folded? A very old form of encryption. If you unfold it wrong, you risk destroying the contents.”
He frowns. “Destroying the letter by unfolding it?”
I wave off his incredulity while taking the letter. “Just trust me. Call the others in here. I’m going to need Jonathan’s help.”