Perhaps it was the taste of the manticore cheese, but the Wheymaster didn’t hesitate for an instant. He turned to Summer, swept her up in his arms, and plunked her down inside the block of Swiss. “Down!” he hissed. “Crawl down! Hide!”
Summer retreated as far as the holes in the Swiss would let her, until there was only a thin light in the distance. She crawled on her hands and knees through a deep, creamy darkness, until she came to a larger chamber in the center of the block. It smelled very strongly like Swiss cheese, which is a pleasant smell in small quantities and a rather nasty one when you are buried in it.
The weasel slid out of her pocket and weaseled back the way Summer had come. “I’ll watch,” he whispered.
The hammering on the door started again.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” shouted the Wheymaster. “If you’d knock on the door like a normal person, it’d open right up, you know. It’s only when people get angry that it gets nervous and sticks.” Summer heard the creak of the door opening, and the angry jangle of the bell over the door.
“Making trouble again, cheesemonger?” asked the harsh voice.
“Oh, it’s you, Grub,” said the Wheymaster. “What do you want?”
“Yes, it’s me,” said the voice. “And my master’s on his steed outside, reading a book. If he has to come inside, he’ll lose his place, and Zultan very much does not like to lose his place. I shouldn’t risk it if I were you.”
“Tell him to bend a corner down, or use a bookmark like a sensible man,” said the Wheymaster, sounding bored. “Does he want cheese? I’ve got quite a good Manchego, settles the bowels and leads to clockwork regularity—”
“Spare me the sales pitch,” said Grub. “We’re not here for cheese. We—he—wants to know if you’ve seen someone hereabouts.”
“I see lots of people,” said the Wheymaster. “Mostly they buy cheese.”
“Don’t be a fool, cheesemonger,” said Grub. Summer couldn’t see him, but she imagined a nasty, sly expression, and stringy hair. “The sniffers picked up a smell. Somebody got through last night. Somebody not-from-around-here.”
“Good for the sniffers,” said the Wheymaster, sounding unimpressed.
There was a clattering noise and a thump. Summer cringed. It had been a violent sound.
“Don’t lie to my face, cheesemonger,” hissed Grub. “The sniffers said she came this way. You’re telling me someone came across the desert and didn’t stop here? Try again.”
“Fine,” said the Wheymaster, in a shaky voice. “Fine, all right? No need to go hitting me. There was someone, yes. A human girl came through here.”
“Looking for a Way, was she?” Summer could practically see Grub rubbing his hands together.
“Yes,” said the Wheymaster.
Summer closed her eyes. Was he going to tell this awful person where she was? They would have a hard time getting her out of the cheese—but no, it was only cheese. They could just hack it to bits and pull her out.
“She was looking,” said the Wheymaster, his voice rising. “And I wish to the great grim gods I’d given her one! But you’ve won, Grub, you and your master. I don’t do Ways anymore. I played the fool and gave her some cheese and sent her back the way she’d come, told her to find whoever had sent her to me and ask for a better direction. Are you happy?”
“You sure you didn’t give her a Way?” asked Grub suspiciously.
The Wheymaster’s laugh could have etched glass. He stomped into the back room—Summer trembled—and she heard the clanking of iron. “Here! Here’s the damn cauldron! Hand it off to a sniffer if you like, there’s not a drop of magic left in it. Something must have gotten into it ages ago. Merlin himself couldn’t find a Way with this thing. Nor your nasty queen, either.”
“Don’t be speaking like that about Her Majesty,” muttered Grub, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it. “How long ago?”
“I don’t know. A few hours. Around dawn, I expect. I was up with the cheeses early.”
“Fine,” said Grub. “I don’t say I believe you, but I don’t say I don’t—what in the name of her Majesty’s chains is that?”
“Hmm? Oh. It’s a weasel,” said the Wheymaster.
Summer pressed her hands to her mouth. Oh no!
“Why’ve you got a weasel in your shop, cheesemonger?”
Oh no, oh no, he saw the weasel, what if he kicks him or something, what if he realizes I’m back here, oh I wish I were back home—
“To make weasel cheese, obviously,” said the Wheymaster. “Milking the little things is the very devil, and you need about fifty of them to get even a small wheel, but you drizzle a little honey over a cracker and—”
“Oh gods, don’t start,” said Grub, sounding disgusted. “I don’t need to know all the revolting details. Nasty business, cheesemaking.”
“I hope to have enough weasel cheese to offer for sale by next spring,” said the Wheymaster with dignity. “Of course, if your master would like a sneak preview, the first wheels should be ready next month.”
“My master wants to catch this trespasser,” said Grub. “This one’s got a scent on her like old magic. We’ve been riding half the night, and we’ll probably ride all day.”
“I don’t expect you want me to wish you luck,” said the Wheymaster sulkily.
Summer heard Grub spit on the floor. “For what your wishes are worth. If you see her again, keep her here and send us word, you hear? If not for your Queen, then for the reward. For there’ll be a reward, oh yes. Enough to keep you in filthy cheeses until you die.”
The bell jangled. The door slammed. Summer heard the Wheymaster moving around out front, muttering to himself.
The weasel poked his head into the Swiss cheese a moment later. “They’re gone. Wait a few minutes and make sure it’s not a trick.”
Time dragged intolerably inside the cheese. Summer was sure that she would go crazy if she couldn’t breathe air that didn’t reek of Swiss cheese.
Approximately a million years later, or so it seemed, the Wheymaster said “Come on out. It’s as safe as it’s going to get.”
Summer lunged for the opening to the block of Swiss and hung her head out of it, gasping.
“Awfully close in there, isn’t it?” said the Wheymaster. He glared at the door. “Sorry about that. The Queen’s lackeys aren’t everywhere these days, but they like to think they are.”
There was a thin smear of blood at the corner of his lip. Part of his face was bright red, as if he’d been sunburned. Summer stared at him.
“He hit you,” she said. “Grub hit you.”
No one ever really hit Summer. Another girl had punched her in the stomach in third grade once and Summer had fallen down, as much in shock as pain, and had gone to the nurse for an hour. Her mom never spanked her. It would no more have occurred to Summer to hit someone than to turn cartwheels off the edge of a cliff.
A man had just hit another man for helping her.
“He’ll do a lot worse than that if he catches you here,” said the Wheymaster grimly. He dabbed at the corner of his mouth. “From another world, are you?”
“I think I must be,” said Summer. “I’ve never heard of Orcus.”
“Well, it happens.” He narrowed his eyes. “You’re not from Faerie, are you?”
“That one world with all the nasty grabby tentacles?”
“N-no….?” Summer hadn’t realized that there were so many worlds out there, or that some of them were so unpleasant.
“Well, then.” The Wheymaster waved a hand. “We used to have a lot of coming and going. We don’t discriminate against otherworlders. They’re allowed to hold public office and everything. We’re very progressive. “
“That Grub-person didn’t sound very progressive,” said Summer.
“Well, no. The Queen’s people aren’t like the rest of us.” He sighed. “Come on, we haven’t much time. Let’s find you a Way.”
“I thought your cauldron was broken,” said Summer.
“It is,” said the Wheymaster, “but when in doubt, there’s always cheese.” He reached up onto the shelf and pulled down a wheel wrapped in silver paper. He had to blow the dust off the top.
“Harpy cheese, aged in moonlight, washed in the pool of the Oracle,” he said. “As close to a prophetic cheese as exists in the world. I stocked it a few years back, just in case.”
He took her hand and set it atop the silver paper. “Now tell the cheese what it is you want to do.”
Summer took a deep breath and addressed the cheese. “I want to help the poor Frog Tree. And find my heart’s desire.” She thought for a minute, then added, “And I should probably figure out how to go back home afterwards.”
In the stories, a way home always turns up, even if the hero doesn’t want to leave, but it probably won’t hurt to mention it in advance.
The Wheymaster pulled a knife from a wooden block and handed it to her. “Now you cut it.”
Summer gulped. It was a much bigger knife than any she had ever used before. It looked like a short sword.
The Wheymaster had to hold the cheese down while she sawed into it, but he didn’t offer to help her. The second cut was easier. When she pulled the wedge out, it had a ragged side and a smooth side, marred with little slivers of silver.
“Do I eat it?” asked Summer.
“Not unless you want to start telling the future in rhyming couplets. No, give it a minute, it’s a very old cheese now…”
The cheese seemed to quiver in her hands, like jelly, and then something fell out onto the floor.
Summer squeaked and jumped backwards. More of the small objects rattled from the wheel of cheese, clattering to the floor in a cascade of pale blue.
“Turquoise,” said the Wheymaster. He picked up one of the objects. It was a blue stone that looked like chewed bubble gum, with little black lines in it. “Interesting.”
“Is that—does that—is that how it works?” Summer clutched the cheese knife and the cut piece of prophetic cheese to her chest, while little blue stones pattered down around her. There seemed to be a lot more contained in the cheese than there could really have been space for.
“More or less,” said the Wheymaster. “Your Way is marked in turquoise. Look for it, and it will not steer you wrong.” He considered for a moment. “Well, mostly. If your Way involves being deceived, then—look, it’s complicated.” He took the slice of cheese away from her and pressed a stone into her hands. “Take one with you. I’ll clean up the rest before I go.”
“You’re going?” asked Summer.
The Wheymaster nodded. “Grub and his Master will chase your scent through the hills awhile, thinking you doubled back on your own trail, but they’ll figure it out eventually. Then they’ll be back here, and I’d best be gone by then.”
“Thank you,” said Summer. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
The Wheymaster shrugged. “It was bound to happen sooner or later. It may be the manticore cheese talking, but I’m tired of cringing here and waiting for the axe to fall. Now!” He dusted his hands off.
“One last cheese,” said the Wheymaster. “Grace or luck? Pick one.”
Summer thought that probably she was supposed to say luck—everybody talked about luck, luck would probably be very useful. But on the other hand…
She didn’t like church. Church was boring, and she wasn’t allowed to read any books except the ones on the back of the pews. Her mother said that they should go every Sunday, but she had headaches a lot, so they went every other Sunday at most.
But they had gone one Sunday a few weeks ago, and there had been a woman singing hymns at the front of the church, a huge woman in blue velvet with a voice like swan wings, and she sang a song called Amazing—
“Grace,” said Summer firmly. “I’ll take grace.”
The Wheymaster nodded. He pulled down a cheese from under the counter, wrapped in a black wax rind, and cut off a piece.
“Nightmare milk,” he said. “Aged in granite and mixed with honey from clockwork bees.”
It was deep purple, the color of beets, and didn’t look like cheese at all. She nibbled.
It was dark and bitter and she almost wanted to spit it out, but it melted away into sweetness. It left a taste on her tongue like cream. She licked the corner of her lips, trying to prolong the taste, but it vanished like a dream on waking, like something you wanted to hold on to and can no longer quite remember.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh…that was lovely…”
“A marvelous cheese,” said the Wheymaster. “One of my favorites. Only recommended in the morning, of course, and never with grapes. Now go, go, hurry!”
Summer paused in the door. She was still holding the cheese knife, and he didn’t seemed inclined to take it back. “But what will happen to you?” she asked.
“I’ll find a Way,” he said, and winked at her. “It’s what we do. They can hammer on the door all they like, but I’ll be well away, and the best cheeses with me. Now go!”