I looked at the first question on my list, and experienced a moment of panic. Back home, the questions had seemed perfectly reasonable, but after all the risks I had taken to reach this moment, they seemed trivial, shallow, and mundane. I dearly hoped that Salamandra wouldn’t find them boring.
“Ahum, erm,” I began. “Salamandra. What is your favourite colour?”
Owen laughed. “Seriously? You’ve doomed yourself to Hopeless to ask Sal what her favourite colour is?”
I shrugged apologetically. “They’re readers’ questions, not mine.”
“I like the question.” Salamandra smiled. “My favourite colour is daylight.”
“That’s not a colour,” I objected.
She blazed with sudden fury, her hair rising in an angry cloud. “Now listen, Scribbler. I don’t know how often you’ve seen daylight, but I’ve seen it about four whole times. That makes me quite the expert, and as such, I assure you that daylight is a colour.”
I nodded quickly, reminding myself that my job required me to be an objective observer. “Daylight it is.”
“It better be,” Salamandra declared with satisfaction. “Next.”
“Do you have a favourite book?”
Owen drew a sharp breath.
Salamandra’s face darkened. “I do, and the less that is said about it the better. Next.”
“Alright,” I said, scanning the list, seeking something less likely to cause offence. “This one is from Mrs Albert Baker’s Soup Kitchen in Lancaster, for street urchins and whatnot.”
“Does street urchin soup taste nice?” Salamandra asked. “It sounds prickly and spiky.”
“No, no, Mrs Baker feeds the urchins soup, so she’s always on the look-out for new recipes. She wants to know what your favourite soup is. To feed the urchins.”
“Ah, I see, to fatten them up a bit before serving them. That makes sense. Before your arrival, I would have said Owen’s kyte kidney soup. But I’ve changed my mind on that one, it’s bug chowdah now. Wouldn’t mind trying urchin soup though, for comparison.”
“That’s good,” I said, scribbling away. “As the ingredients for chowder will probably be easier to find in Lancaster than bits of kyte. The urchins are big fans of yours, by the way…”
Owen frowned. “There’s something I don’t understand.”
“Hush,” Salamandra said. “I’m being interviewed, don’t you know.”
“It’s about the interview.” Owen looked pensive. “Ned, you say you know me, know Salamandra. And more people do, because you were sent to ask their questions. How does that work, precisely?”
I was put off by his question, not expecting it because I assumed they knew. “Well, people buy the books…”
“Books?” Salamandra asked. “What books?”
“There’s books about us?” Owen asked.
“Well, yes. The Illustrated Adventures of Salamandra in Hopeless, Maine. Surely you…”
My voice trailed away as Salamandra and Owen exchanged a dark look.
“Must be that Brown fellow,” Owen mused. “And his missus.”
I knew the name of course, for who hasn’t heard of Tom and Nimue Brown? However, it seemed that there was potential turbulence ahead on our current course, so I deemed it wiser to know as little as possible.
“Who?” I asked innocently.
“Two outlanders,” Salamandra answered.
“Regular visitors to Hopeless,” Owen added. “The Aunties only know how they get in and out. They seem quite harmless; just wander about with sketchbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils.”
“Which is why I haven’t changed them into floating newts or spoon walkers,” Salamandra said darkly. “…Yet.”
It occurred to me that I might have got the Browns into a spot of bother.
“Truth be told,” I confessed, determined to take some responsibility. “When I write out your answers to these questions, it will be published in a newspaper, which people will hopefully buy to read more about you…”
“You’ve paid us,” Owen said. “That was the best meal I’ve ever had on Hopeless.”
“Bug chowdah,” Salamandra said dreamily. Then she furrowed her brow. “That Brown fellow better get us something nice to eat, or else…”
“There’s something else I brought for you,” I interrupted her, eager to change the subject. “A gift.”