I am nearly floored by Larry's inquiry.

Firstly, this is the first time I have heard him speak intelligible words. As a matter of fact, it was a scarce moment that I had heard him so much as babble. And here his first words come out with clearer pronunciation than Roy, two years his senior, could certainly manage.

Secondly, I am at a loss as to how to respond, as I have no answer to his question…

"Where's Mama?" Larry repeats.

"She… Your mother Amanda… she went off somewhere to some place to have a good time before she… goes to a better place." He need not be told what that 'better place' is. "That's all I know."

"Oh." Larry sat down and turned his gaze off into space for a moment, as if thinking of what to ask next. I reach for my mug and take a long swig of Kaffee.

"She sick like King Daddy?"

I gasp in midsip, and some of the lukewarm fluid goes down my trachea. I cough for several seconds, spraying salivated coffee everywhere. Now THAT was even more alarming than Morton Sr.'s magic carpet!

"She… yes. She is sick, just like your father."

"When will Mama and King Daddy get better?"

"I… cannot say when…" This is not a complete mistruth. One technically cannot say when, after all, if the time in question does not exist…

Now, where was I? I turn around to the chalkboard, trying to remember where I left off, hoping that Larry had decided he had asked enough questions for tonight. I have more conquests to plan, after all! I will require a formidable supply of nuclear fuel and weapons if I expect to threaten the Mushroom Kingdom into submission. I can get this from the natural uranium deposits of Sarasaland, provided I figure out a way to break their truce with the Mushroom Kingdom and get them to form an alliance with Dark Land, but that I can leave to figure out for later. My other option is to get to Star Road and figure out how to recycle the vast reserves of radioactive waste that are dumped there. The Star Road nuclear waste repository can only be accessed through portals located at top-secret locations around Dinosaur Land. Dinosaur Land is said by some historians to be the long-abandoned birthplace of Koopa civilization, and since it is unruled and full of uncivilized inhabitants it should be mine for the taking. This castle happens to have a book in the library that details all five of the secret locations of the Star Road portals, so Star Road is mine for the taking as well.

"Lud?" Larry asks. Silly child! Can he not see that I am in the middle of writing my own history book! To be technical for the moment, drawing a small but detailed map of the kingdoms and marking important locations with pentagram stars. Next up is the BeanBean Kingdom. Since that is the breadbasket for the Mushroom Kingdom as well as many other kingdoms, that will have to be slashed and burned…

"Ludwig?"

Larry pronounced my name the way it is supposed to be pronounced; a rare, even insurmountable feat for most of the others in this castle. For that, I suppose he deserves another moment of my attention.

"What is it, Lawrence?"

Larry crawls across the map on the table while looking up at me with wide, limpid eyes. "Are Mama and King Daddy ever coming back?"

I freeze. The chalk slowly slides from the grip of my now-limp fingers, until it is released to snap upon the dungeon floor. Is it possible that this toddler, who had, in spite of sickness and silence, picked up on so many things that should have been beyond him, might possibly have fathomed the truth?

Larry deserves an answer. He DEMANDS an answer. But what answer shall he get? Shall I sugarcoat the truth, tell a white lie to spare his tender, impressionable feelings? Just as Mutter had done instead of telling me, before seeing me off down the pipe to Dark Land, that I wasn't ever coming back?

My throat feels tight as my eyes unconsciously dart around in their orbits, my mind trying to come up with the RIGHT thing to say.

"The truth is… Larry… that your mother and father are never, ever coming back… … …unless I bring them back."

"Oh. Bring them back!"

Larry smiles, his tail wagging like a puppy's. Cute. He thinks bringing them back is that easy…

"It's not quite that easy, Larry. Your mother and father are very sick. They cannot come home until they are all better."

"Make them better! Like me! I'm all better!"

My hands wring over the conductor's baton. "They are not little like you, Larry. Big Koopas take a much longer time to get better."

"Longer? How much longer?" Larry's smile falters a bit.

"Could be much, much, MUCH longer. Might even be an INFINITE amount of time longer."

"…infi… in… fin… infinini… infinite? That means forever…"

I have told him too much. Time in the limit of infinity IS forever. Seems Larry had picked up something from that premature calculus lesson after all. He pouts and stares down at the table, his lower lip quivering, until tears fall upon the tabletop.

I pull a handkerchief from my shell, a very nice one that Mutter had embroidered my name on, and rub it over his red, wet cheeks. He sniffles as mucous tears drip from his nose. As hot as my face now feels, I hope that he cannot tell how red my face has become as well…

"So… so no birthday presents from Mama?"

My throat tightens even more as I recall the amount of loot Amanda had so selfishly raided from this very dungeon. Surely she could have spared some small gift for her own child?

But wait… I play the incident back in my memory… a few coins had spilled from that bag. I walk over to the spot where I recall the coins spilling out and find that, indeed, the coins are still in the exact locations where they had fallen, dully glinting in the dungeon torchlight.

"Larry… your mother has in fact left you a birthday present."

I pick the coin up and show it to him. "She got a bunch of coins, and she left this one just for you."

Larry's eyes glow with ten times the luminosity that they had upon the sight of the diamond necklace worth ten thousand times as much. He reaches eagerly for it with both hands, staring at his reflection in the golden, firelit surface, then pressing the cool metal against his face.

"Now, will you go back to bed?"

"Yes." Larry hops down from the table and runs to the stairs, still holding the coin in both hands and staring into it like a mirror. He only takes his eyes off of it for one moment when he reaches the top of the stairs.

"Good night, big brother Ludwig."

"Good night," I murmur hesitantly.

After Larry has swung his little crack of a door opening shut, I heave with a massive sigh. It comes out almost a scream, almost a… sob? Nein, a hiccup from the Kaffee earlier going down the wrong pipe, that's all…

I inhale a few more breaths, shallow breaths, but for a heavy few… my stance falters, and my face falls chin-first upon the lab table. The bone in my chin is nearly cracked by a small Lego that I had joined to a few others to make a castle for the map with. But I would not be greatly distressed had that been the case, for right now, I feel too… empty. Empty and sickened. Or maybe that is just the knot in my stomach, but the reason for that is not anything I ingested, that I know for sure.

My eyeballs burn. My brain burns. Well, not my brain so much but my mind. My eyes are squinting tight from the ache. To feel this way, so suddenly, especially when things are all starting to fall in place for me, is such a cruel, unfair joke, and, by nobody's fault but my own, I just might have to live with it.

There will be no sleep for me tonight.