Here's the second installment of my novel, Sunstroke. The first chapter can be found here. Enjoy!
It was three o' clock. Percy had been in his room for hours. He'd tried reading, writing to faraway friends, whistling to his pet cockatiel, rearranging the suits in his wardrobe, and trying to see how many different kinds of bows he could tie with his cravat. Now he was sitting at his desk and staring at the wall. A painting hung there, of a beautiful young woman on horseback stooping down to smile at a man in a full suit of armor. Percy blinked at it. He knew that he needed to find a woman to marry soon. In fact, it was odd that his father hadn't brought it up that morning. He sighed, slid off his chair, and slipped into the hall.
His eyes flickered cautiously to each of the faces of the footmen lining the luxurious corridor. Their expressions were still and blank. None of them met his gaze. Percy finally resigned himself to staring at the carpet. He walked along, hands clasped behind his back.
Things hadn't been the same ever since Father had forbidden the servants to converse with the members of the royal family. The level of familiarity that had developed between the higher and lower classes in the house, he said, was vulgar. Real nobility these days were able to maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and their servants. Percy knew that, technically, he was running a risk every time he spoke to Marion about anything other than clothing. He didn't care. Percy also knew that the warmth between his family and the servants had begun years ago, when his mother took a newly-orphaned scullery maid under her wing. It had only blossomed from there. He turned a corner smartly, his steps deliberate and stern.
As he'd expected, Musetta and Soleil had gathered in the elder girl's bedchamber. Light streamed through the windows into the colorful, charmingly disheveled room. Percy smiled. His shoulders relaxed.
Gowns were strewn across furniture and shoes tumbled out of the closet. Books had been arranged in precise, precarious stacks all over the carpeted floor. A small army had formed on either side of Musetta's four-corner bed. The girl herself lay sprawled amongst the sheets, her face blue-white in a pool of glossy black hair. One of her hands languished against her forehead in what was presumably a response to either something very romantic, or very dreadful. Percy eyed her skeptically. He peeked around the door to examine another colony of costly, hardback books.
“Etta, you realize that the library's missing a considerable chunk of its inventory, yes? Poor Gérard has become very anxious.” The librarian was a nervous little man who found his obsessive organizational habits to be both a blessing, and a curse.
“I've always felt like a prisoner,” Musetta murmured in deep, labored tones, “but now I feel as though I've received a death sentence. One day. We have one day left, brother.” She lifted her other hand to cover her face, uttering a muffled moan. Percy exchanged smiles with Soleil, who was perched upon Musetta's green velvet writing chair, knees drawn up to chin. The little redhead seemed to be mostly herself, too – the color had returned to her face, and her eyes were shining. Percy went to sit at his youngest sister's feet.
“I have some news, my dears,” he began. “Now, don't fly into a frenzy,” he cautioned, glancing at Musetta. “Father has ordered us to start wearing colors again – starting tonight, at the ball he's planned.”
“What ball?” Soleil sounded concerned.
“Apparently, it's a going-away affair for the three of us. It'll just be the usual families. Nothing to be anxious about. If you want, I'll even be your escort for the night.” Percy smiled, trying to coax away the suspicious wrinkles in Soleil's forehead. Finally, her gaze dropped.
“You don't have to be. I'm fine on my own.”
“Colors,” Musetta muttered. “Are we to look like circus clowns, as well?” She sat up indignantly, tossing her dark mane over her shoulder.
“Etta,” Percy said calmly, “you need to become more understanding. He loved her before any of us even existed. We must allow him his own way of mourning.”
“Is he mourning, or is he mentally deranged?” Musetta's eyes flickered.
“According to the doctor I've employed, he's perfectly sane; he's simply expressing his grief in a very extreme way. Perhaps all of this is his way of saying that he just can't handle us right now. If we make an exit at this point in time, maybe it will give him the opportunity to begin to heal.”
“You're on his side,” Musetta said, scowling.
“Musetta,” Percy said sternly, getting to his feet. “This has nothing to do with sides. And Father's right, to a point. It can't hurt us to try to become a bit more like other people...our age,” Percy fumbled. His eyes had landed upon a book that lay face-down on Musetta's nightstand, set apart from the others. Fairy-Stories of the East, it read. It was Mother's last gift to her, for her nineteenth birthday.
“He never wanted us to be different, like Mother was different. Free, with lively hearts, and open eyes and arms...” Musetta was pounding her fist into one of the pillows. Percy could see her trembling.
“Etta, stop it.”
“I'm so sick of this country!” she cried, pulling at the sheets. “I don't care that we're at peace. So what if all of our soldiers are safe and no one's trying to usurp Papa's throne? We're not at peace. We're not! Look at what happened at the masque in March! It was supposed to be beautiful. And the affair turned into one big occasion for all of the noblewomen between ages five and eighty-five to gossip maliciously about one another. You know Marie and Suzanne? Just days before, they had been gushing to me about how they doted on each other, how close they had become – and then proceeded to stab each other in the back, repeatedly...it seemed to be over some boy? How could anyone possibly remain sane in such an ugly, senseless world? And I stepped into that ballroom with high hopes of being immersed in the Romantic, the Faërie!” She clasped her hands to her breast, and Percy could see that all the melodrama had vanished: there were tears in her eyes.
“And then, of course, there was that pig Jean-Pierre Renaud. Ohhh -” she growled. “I know you still think I made a great to-do about nothing, but you weren't there. You didn't see what I saw. He had his hands all over her!”
“Why are you acting as if I don't care?” Percy could feel his face and neck getting hotter by the minute. “I believed you. I took action. I told him to get out of my house, and he did!”
“He tried to seduce our little sister! And he's nearly twice her size - who knows what would've happened if I hadn't showed up! He should have been arrested. You could've at least given him a good punch in the jaw!”
“And what – start a fight with a drunken idiot, in front of all those people? I'm the crown prince! I - I couldn't very well make a scene, could I?” To his indignation, Percy could feel tears starting in his own eyes. He glanced helplessly at Soleil. She seemed to have withdrawn into her own world. She was staring blankly, just like one of the servants.
“We need to start making scenes! We need to start stirring up the waters! We can't just stand by anymore, pretending that everything is just fine, when things are clearly not!” Musetta's chest was heaving in shaky breaths. “If this is what it means to be a king's daughter, then take my nobility away. I'm done with it. I don't want it anymore. Let me be a peasant, one of our mother's secret allies, and I'll start a revolution in her name!”
“You need to grow up, Musetta,” Percy said quietly. “This is your life. You don't have a choice.”
“She had a choice! She lived and breathed love, and beauty! And when she was in a room, she made everyone else present a better person. And now look at this kingdom, Percy. It's falling apart without her. Our king is going mad. These people need goodness, they need wonder, they need magic! It's the only thing that's going to save them!”
“And what are you going to do about it, Musetta?” Percy shouted. “Reach into one of those fairy books and pull out a genie? Wish her back to life?”
Musetta bristled, her eyes full of comebacks, but then she stopped and deflated into a slouch. She bit her lips and shook her head. “Please just go away, Percy,” she said wearily. “I can't do this anymore.” She turned away and collapsed back onto the bed.
Percy stood numbly in the center of the room. He felt like a useless mannequin. He walked slowly over to Soleil and knelt down before her.
“Sol,” he said, “do you want me to reprimand that man?” Soleil shook her head, her brows furrowed again. Her face was like the work of a master sculptor, even when it expressed pain.
“I don't want to bring scandal to our family,” she whispered.
“I know, and that's very sweet of you, but it would be unjust to simply ignore this. Do you want me to privately reprimand him? His punishment can be in secret. No one needs to know.”
She nodded, her face crumpling over. Tears glistened in her lovely auburn lashes. “Alright,” Percy said.
He got up and walked to the door. There he stopped and turned around.
“I'm sorry,” he said. He couldn't think of what else to say. He hung on the doorknob lamely. “I'm doing everything I can. And I love you both.”
“I love you too, Percy,” Soleil said softly. Musetta was silent.
“Make yourselves look festive. Just one more night, girls. We can do it.”
“I suppose we may as well go out with a bang,” he heard Musetta mumble as he closed the door behind him.
Copyright © 2012 by Olivia Meldrum
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