Friday, May 18, 2012

Sunstroke: Chapter 3

In this installment, the story really picks up pace.  This is proving to be a lot of fun for me - I hope it is for you, too!


Fellows,” Musetta said, a deeply displeased tone in her voice, “this requires much more rehearsing.”

“But Etta, my feet are tired,” Soleil moaned, squatting to the floor of the red-plush corridor. It was a sweltering June afternoon. Percy could feel the sweat trickling down his back and gathering beneath his collar. He could only imagine what the girls were experiencing, with their tights and layers of petticoats.

“No complaining. Mama and Papa deserve the best. Now pick up your scripts,” Musetta commanded. Percy complied without protestation. He stared distantly at the inky, spotted papers in his hands. He was thinking about everything he wanted to do this summer – learn to ride horseback without Papa's assistance, swim about in the country lake, explore the surrounding forest with the girls...

“Percy,” Musetta rapped, shaking him out of the reverie. “You're not in this part. You can go away for now.”

Percy galloped away down the hall, grinning at his new-found liberation.

Slowing to a walk, he unbuttoned the front of his silk shirt so that the faint breeze could stir against his belly. He turned onto the corridor where his mother's private study was located. He wanted to tell her all about his summertime dreamings. Perhaps she'd even tell him a story.

As he approached the room, a strange sound caused him to halt.

Someone was crying.

He crept to his mother's door, which was slightly ajar.

“Have you heard from him? At all? Has he not even given you some sort of sign, or further directions?” That was Mama's voice. It was harsh, raised far above its normal tone. The only other time Percy could remember her sounding like that was when Musetta had fainted during a carriage ride a year or so ago.

Percy peeked through the crack in the door. Mama stood with her back to him, but she immediately ceased to be the object of interest: for a girl, a young woman, really, was pacing back and forth before the window that led to the balcony. She was very beautiful, with long, dark waves of hair and warm, rosy-bronze skin. And she was sobbing violently. Her whole face was red, and her lips were flushed a deep purple. Percy wondered, fascinated, if her heart or lungs might come bleeding out of her mouth.

“I haven't heard a thing. He's been completely silent for days,” she gasped, pressing her hands to her head.

“And the prince – he won't even speak to you?”

“He speaks to me, alright! He says the same things over and over, nonsense words. I don't know where his mind has gone. I had drawn him so close to me, and I was opening up his mind, and his heart, and he was changing – he was becoming a new man – and now I've lost him, Viv! He's forgotten all about me, and I don't know what to do.”

“The dog,” Mama growled, in a voice that made Percy shiver. “I could kill him. Does he not understand what's going to happen? Who you are? Who has sent you?”

“He's not allowed to know! I was told – if he did not know me by my heart, then he did not have the right to hear my name. And if only I could speak to him, and make him understand! Because I'm still mute back there - and he's grown tired of sitting with me while I write to him in my little book. He doesn't have patience for me, anymore. And he's – he's made his decision.”

“Oh, Odessa,” Mama said. There was a long pause, broken only by the girl's hiccuping breath. Then -

“And now she's come to me. Or rather, she sent my sisters to me,” the girl said lowly, jaggedly. “She's always twisting love. They gave me a dagger. Said, if I just kill him, while he's sleeping, then I – I can – be free -” it seemed she could barely breathe. “But what kind of freedom would that be? I don't care how he's hurt me. I love him still. And I can't kill him. I'd rather die. And I will die. Oh, Viviana, what is happening to me?” the girl cried, staring down at her open hands as if she did not recognize them. “I don't understand. Is this my reward? Is this how I am repaid?” And she sank to her knees.

“Oh, my darling,” Mama cried, flying to the girl and gathering her into her arms. “Oh, my darling.”

Percy wasn't sure how much longer he stood there; how much longer the exchange within the room took place. But after a while, the girl's sobs stilled to quiet, shuddering breaths, and, together with his mother's murmurs, they made a somnolent rhythm. And then Percy saw the strangest thing. The girl's face, which was tucked over the queen's shoulder, broke into a smile. It was strange because Percy could see that she was still crying.

And then she was gone.

Mama got slowly to her feet, and stood facing the balcony for several minutes. Then she turned towards the door. She walked forward, her head hanging and shoulders slouched. Percy thought that he had never seen her look so tired. She pushed the door wide open. Percy stared up at her, entranced. She knelt down before him and took his face in her hands.

“Percy, sweetheart,” she said, “you mustn't tell anyone about this. Do you understand?”

“Who was she, Mama?” Percy asked in a hushed voice.

“She's a friend of mine.”

“Is she alright?”

“No,” his mother answered, after a pause, “but all will be right in the end.”

“But Mama,” he said, grasping her hands, “I want to know! I want to know everything – please,” he begged. She didn't understand – this was it. This was the glimpse of real adventure, real magic. It was the open gate. He couldn't turn back now, now that he had seen. The girl's strange, sad smile had pierced his heart, and now it was as if eternity was pouring through the wound in his chest.

“No, Percy,” she said, almost sternly. “Not yet. Now go and make sure your sisters aren't getting into trouble.”

Percy stood in the doorway of the dark, still room, his hands clasped behind his back, his head bowed. He was alone – no servants stirred in this part of the castle anymore.

Fourteen years was a long time. What's more, Percy knew how absentminded he could be. There were days he'd walk into a room, and have completely forgotten his purpose in entering. And it had been very hot that day. It could easily have been the daydream of an imaginative seven-year-old, or, even more plausible, a real-life occurrence mixed up in his mind with a night-dream.

Not yet.” Whatever she had had to tell him – if there had been anything at all - was now buried in the ground. It was dead.

It's over. I ought to forget.

Percy closed the door and shuffled away. He could forget, perhaps, but he could not ignore how his heart was still pierced, and how some eternal whisper was still coursing through that wound. It was running his valves ragged.


Soleil wound up staying by Percy's side almost all night, anyway. He was more relieved than anything. He held her arm and clasped her free hand over the crook of his elbow most of the time: and now, ever since Musetta had brought it up again, he'd become acutely aware of just how many men really did stare at the little redhead. He had taken to scanning the ballroom furiously throughout the night. It was a sea of vibrantly-clad dancers whirling to the sound of lively strings. Luckily, the wretched Renaud was nowhere to be seen.

“Percy,” Soleil said.

He started, and looked down into his sister's wide, warm face. He bent his ear down to hear her over the music.

“I'm really alright. I promise.” He straightened to look into her eyes. They were smiling. “There's already one madman in my life,” she said. “Let's keep it that way.” She gently extracted herself from Percy's death-grip on her waist.

“Alright, Sunshine,” Percy sighed.

“Ooh!” Soleil squealed. “Come, come, come.” She took Percy's hand and, weaving in and out of chattering party guests, led him to one of the long serving tables at the other side of room. “Look,” she said in a half-whisper, one finger on her lips. She pointed to the food.

Percy looked. “I don't understand what I'm supposed to be seeing, here,” he chuckled.

“Look!” Soleil insisted.

Upon closer inspection, Percy realized that everything was labeled. Hansel's bread, he read in a fine script beside trays of warm baguettes, and Deadly delicious apples, beside a decadent – looking sweet salad made with red apple, almonds, and caramel. Mermaid's chowder stood by a great pot of a most alluring-smelling seafood concoction.

“Oh, my goodness,” Percy laughed, delighted.

“Isn't it perfect? I thought of it, last-minute. I got one of the footmen to slip them in.” Percy noticed one of the table servers glance over at Soleil, and the flicker of a smile pass his lips, before his eyes dropped downwards once more.

“I figured that we may as well make this night our own, if it's going to be our last here for a while,” she explained. She reached over and stirred the ladle of the chowder. “Remember that summer when Sophie was incredibly ill?” she asked.

A chill ran down Percy's spine, but he didn't let it show in his face. “Of course I do. We didn't understand, at first – we were all just very crestfallen because we weren't allowed to play in the kitchen for several days.”

“That's right. Well, I managed to sneak down there tonight while Sophie and all the rest of the servants were busy preparing the food, and she told me the story about how she recovered that time.” Soleil's eyes were shining and solemn.

“Tell me,” Percy said, smiling.

“Mama made her this chowder,” Soleil said, touching the ladle.

“Wait – you're joking.” Percy's chest swelled with pride, and something else that he couldn't name.

“I am not,” Soleil said, her face crinkling up into a grin. “But, yes. I decided to give it a name that would've pleased her.”

“The older I get, the lovelier she becomes,” Percy murmured. A long silence ensued, during which Soleil leaned her head against Percy's shoulder.

“How are you doing, Percy?” she asked softly.

“Soleil, I – I feel as though -” Percy stopped to try to sort out his thoughts. “I feel out of place. Like a vase whose flowers have been thrown out, or a chest stripped of its gold and jewels. Something that was once full, but is now empty. And – is it Mama dying? Yes. Undoubtedly. But it's so much more than that, so much older. And I feel as though losing her is what's tipped the scales. I can't ignore it, anymore.”

“The emptiness, you mean,” Soleil said quietly, her hazel eyes wide.

“Yes. And feeling as though I'm not where I belong.”

“We all feel it, Percy. All three of us, I mean,” she said, glancing away as if looking for their sister.

“And, you know, if it means that I will be unhappy my entire life, then. Then so be it, because, uh.” He played with one of the food labels. The princess's pea and munster quiche. 'Be sure to pick the right one', he added as a subtitle. “I'm not one to run away from what I have to do.”

“Well,” Soleil said, her brow knotting up in its serious way, “she was happy. But she was also older, when we knew her best. Maybe we just can't understand, yet.”

“Soleil,” Percy said hesitantly, “there's something...I mean, that summer...”

They were interrupted by high-pitched giggles.

“What on earth is this?”

Percy turned around. It was Annette Grégoire, decked out in a scarlet, gold-embroidered brocade gown that made Soleil's plum silk look dull. The prime minister's daughter was accompanied by a gaggle of her friends. They, too, were examining the table's dishes and their accompanying labels. Annette's eyes landed upon Percy and Soleil, and she turned towards them, as if surprised.

“Oh, your Highnesses!” She and her entourage sank into low curtseys.

Percy eyed them skeptically. “Please, be at ease,” he said uncomfortably. Annette stood to her feet with a sugary smile.

“We were just observing the, uh, little signs scattered about on this table. One of the servants got a bit carried away, no?” She gave a another condescending chuckle. Percy could sense Soleil beside him: a mass of burning, quivering flame. He waited a moment in silence before carefully glancing over at her. Her face had been drained of all its rosy color. He watched her swallow a couple times, then -

“I made those signs,” she said, rather faintly. Her eyes were fixed on some indeterminate point among the girls' rainbowed gowns. Percy felt her hand brush against his. It was trembling.

“Oh!” Annette cried, her eyes going wide. “I do beg pardon for my mistake, dear Soleil,” she said. “I should have known – you do so love fairy-tale things. And how perfectly quaint this is!”

Percy closed his eyes, and resisted the urge to speak. At least not right away. Soleil needed the chance to do this on her own.

“A - actually,” Soleil stammered, “I don't think that's really the most fitting description for – for what I've done here.” Percy watched her force her gaze up to meet Annette's. “I thought that it would be a fitting and – and beautiful touch to our farewell ball. And I did it mostly because it's something I think my mother would have done.”

The mixture of disgust and disappointment on Annette's face caused Percy to smirk behind his cup of Aladdin's enchanted coffee. The young noblewoman had a long history of trying to corner Soleil into some sort of backhanded cat-fight. She, along with many of the other nobles of the court, could make neither head nor tail of the three siblings and their unconventional upbringing. It seemed a constant thorn in her side that such eccentrics were considered royalty, while she, who acted like a princess, and a normal princess, would never actually be one. But her spiteful, veiled attacks upon the youngest of the royal family, in particular, continually backfired. Soleil would always respond to her with pure, and sometimes painful sincerity, because that's just what Soleil did. Percy beamed fondly at his youngest sister.

“Annette, darling!” Musetta's rich voice rang out. She approached the assembled group with long, graceful steps, her chin held high. She looked regal in dark green velvet, and with her hair pinned up in elaborate braids.

“I presume you were just complimenting my clever designer of a sister on these little touches? I think it's lovely. Just beautiful. Our mother, the late Queen Viviana, would have been enchanted by such magical sentiments.” Musetta smiled severely down on Annette. Tall and slender, she had the advantage of being able to tower at least three inches over most other girls her age.

“I – uh – yes, of course,” Annette stuttered, utter confusion clouding her face.

“Now, if you don't mind, my dear, I was hoping for a word in private with my brother and sister,” Musetta continued, gently pushing Annette away by the shoulder. “Oh – and that gown, my dear!”

Annette drew herself up proudly. “Isn't it lovely? It's the latest thing over in, uh -”

“Oh, I've never seen anything like it! I...find that I can barely look away,” Musetta breathed, raising an eyebrow.

Annette's eyes narrowed. She dropped a hasty curtsy, spun around, and flounced away, followed by her little flock of friends.

Musetta broke into hushed laughter the moment they were out of earshot.

“Now, Etta,” Percy chortled, “I think you just ruined the night for poor Annette.”

“I was all the way across the room, but all I had to see was your faces,” Musetta said, shaking her head. She reached out to take Soleil's hand. “Come, my dear, and walk this way with me. I'm determined to get you to dance with that Claude Danton before the night is through. He's a genuinely sweet man – he's just a little shy, like you! It would be a match made in Heaven,” she gushed.

“Musetta,” Percy called, “promise me that this plan won't end up with deliberately spilling wine all over someone?”

“Oh, shush,” Musetta returned with a wink.

Percy was just turning away when something unusual caught his eye. It appeared for a moment out on the ballroom floor, and then vanished before he get a closer look. He rolled his eyes. The pets of the wealthy were evidently becoming more and more ridiculous. What he'd seen was a black snake, he was sure of it. With a sigh, he raised a glass of champagne to his lips, casting his glance to the other side of the room. He immediately stood up straight, frowning.

A man – a tall, elderly, man – was bobbing about in the sidelines, pausing every few seconds to peer over someone's shoulder into the flurry of dancing couples. Percy had never seen him before. As the stranger drew closer to Percy, his form became clearer: he had silvery-gray hair that curled atop his head, and a beard that fell over his chest in the same color. He wore a suit made of silver material, embroidered all over in a diamond pattern, causing him to look like a harlequin. There were little designs scattered among the jacket's cloth that Percy couldn't make out. The old man took a few stealthy steps closer to the table, and Percy saw what they were: his suit was embroidered with alternating images of crescent moons, and cats: cats dancing, cats playing the violin, cats sitting upon thrones. Percy grinned. His father had hired a clown for the night, apparently. He watched as the man nearly ran into a footman carrying a tray of food, and had to help the servant steady and rearrange the silver platter.

Once the jester had finally reached the table, he came to an abrupt halt.

“What is this?” he cried, his green eyes wide with wonder. He held up one of Soleil's little cards. “Why, this is the most delightful idea! Simply splendid! I love it! Oh,” he said, covering his mouth and glancing around bashfully. Then his eyes fell upon Percy. “Oh!” He exclaimed, as if he had remembered the purpose of his venture to that side of the room.

“Prince Percival!” The old man hailed him from the other end of the table, a hand shielding his mouth. “Prince Percival! It is I, Mortimer of Minnowway! Your mother's cousin?” Percy nearly choked on his mouthful of quiche. The man took another wild glance about, and crept towards him.

“I understand that this really probably isn't the best time, but, well, I really had no choice,” he whispered desperately, wringing his hands.

“Pardon - pardon me, Sir,” Percy stammered, “but it was my understanding that we weren't expecting you until tomorrow.” Percy glanced over to where his father sat, at the very end of the hall.

“Oh, dear boy, I wasn't expecting me until tomorrow, either! Well, I mean -” the old man broke off with a wave of his hand - “you know what I mean. In short, there's been an unavoidable change of plans.” Percy stared, mystified.

“Here's the quandary,” the man explained in an undertone, taking Percy by the arm and steering him off into the semi-privacy behind a pillar. “I'm being pursued. As we speak, we are surrounded – the enemy is right here with us, in this room! It's a good thing none of these lords and ladies can see them, or else everyone would be in an uproar! It's only the four of us they're after – me, you and your sisters. You've got to come away with me, immediately, before it's too late!”

With a jolt, Percy understood. His father had left out – or perhaps he didn't even know – that Mother's cousin was an eccentric, senile old character who needed not so much guests in his house, as the constant monitoring of caretakers. How humiliating! Percy closed his eyes wearily. He saw a long, long month stretching out before him. Oh well, he thought. So much for a relaxing retreat. At least this will make for a good story. He opened his eyes to find the old man frowning at him. The stranger's eyes were unusually clear and bright for a man his age – a vivid, glassy green.

“You think I'm insane, don't you? Just a senile old man?”

There are dancing cats embroidered on your jacket, Percy felt like saying.

“Here,” the man said, reaching down into his shirt. “She told me to bring this in case of this precise situation.” He pulled out an amulet.

It was an ornate, golden sun.

Percy's stomach flipped. He clawed at his own chest – he could feel it there, the matching sun resting warm against his ribs. “What are you talking about? Where did you - who - who told you about my charm?” he demanded.

“Your mother,” the man answered with a gentle smile. “Just days before her death.”

“You're lying,” Percy said harshly. “She was here with us for nearly a week before she died. First she kept indoors, then finally she was confined to her bed. She didn't go anywhere during that time, and one of us was always with her.”

“There are still things about your mother that you do not know,” the man continued calmly. “You know that she was a wonderful person. You just don't understand how wonderful, yet.”

“Stop speaking riddles to me,” Percy growled. “I have no patience for this. Not after living through Hell the past four months. Who are you and what do you want?”

The man's eyebrows furrowed in frustration. “I've told you who I am! The name's Mortimer. As for what I want – it's not so much my personal wishes, as what I've been sent to do. You need to gather your two sisters and come away with me – immediately. You're all three of you in grave danger.”

“Why, I – I -” Percy was tongue-tied. And all the while, he couldn't shake the luminous, green eyes that the old man had trained on him.

“This is some sick, elaborate joke, isn't it? Damn you. There're plenty of nobles who dislike my family; one of them's hired you to mock me. Why, I'm just about ready to – to become the first prince to publicly address this problem. Right here, right now! I don't care if it's graceless! I don't care if it flouts social etiquette! I've had enough!”

“Your Highness!” The man called Mortimer pleaded, clasping his hands. Percy stared, perplexed. It was such an odd gesture, for an old man. “Just one moment, please! If you would only calm down and look logically at everything that I have presented to you, you'd see that my story, while seemingly nonsensical, actually has a lot going for it!”

Percy stared for another beat before breaking into an agitated dance-in-place. “Ohhh, I know! I want to trust you! You have no idea! You're just like someone out of one of my mother's stories, but – but - how do I know that you're trustworthy?”

Mortimer shrugged. “She knew,” he said.

Percy chewed the inside of his cheek. He bored his eyes into the strange, old man.

“My favorite fairytale, growing up, and still, today,” he whispered.

Mortimer raised his eyebrows quizzically.

“What is it?” Percy demanded.

“Oh. 'The Queen Bee', naturally,” Mortimer replied with a grin.

“And why is that my favorite?” High in the tower of the castle, the clock began to strike midnight.

Mortimer's smile faded. “Because you sometimes feel like Simpleton, the youngest prince. But, as your mother always told you -” he paused, and his eyes searched the ceiling - “'you will grow up into not just any king's son, but a true King, yourself. And somewhere in this world, there is a honey-lipped princess waiting for your kiss.'”

“Right,” Percy breathed, and whirled around into the clamor of music and dance.

“The carriage is waiting outside!” Mortimer called after him.

Percy searched the crowd frantically for Soleil. He singled her out: she was just about to accept a dance from the Claude fellow. Percy rushed to her and snatched her hand away, pulling her in the opposite direction.

“Percy!” she exclaimed, shocked.

“There's no time to explain. Come with me.” He moved them along as quickly as possible, dodging gawking party guests and servants alike. They were just yards from where Musetta stood talking and laughing, surrounded by a group of clearly fascinated young men, when a huge, dark form shot forward on the floor, blocking their path. Percy and Soleil skidded to a stop.

It was the snake. Lightning-quick, the animal coiled itself once around their feet, and reared its head, hissing at them. Soleil shrieked. Without thinking, Percy pushed his sister behind him and stomped on the snake's black head. It writhed about in pain for a moment, and then seemed to gather itself. The creature's beady, black eyes flickered upward to meet Percy's. Then it slithered away, hissing angrily.

Percy stumbled backwards a step, astonished. He looked up to see the same reaction in Musetta's gaping face.  The men around her seemed confused as to why she had suddenly dropped her glass of champagne.

“Musetta!” Percy cried, beckoning. She leaped over the men picking up shattered glass, and flew to her brother and sister.

“What on earth is going on?” she gasped.

“I have no idea,” Percy said helplessly. “I think I'm going mad.”

“Was that a snake?” Musetta whispered.

“Yes. And it looked at me like a person. And that man over there -” Percy pointed to Mortimer, who was off by the doorway, brandishing a rapier at yet another snake - “is Mama's cousin.”

Musetta looked, and blanched paler than the fine white tablecloths.

“Right,” she squeaked.

“Girls,” Percy said, suppressing an hysterical giggle, “either this is a dream, or our mother's stories were a lot more real than we've ever suspected. Honestly, it's a toss-up for me.”

“Either way, we have to go,” Soleil said, pointing to Mortimer, who was waving frantically from the doorway. The three took off running towards him.

“Hurry,” he cried, leading the way out of the ballroom and into the hall. A backward glance showed Percy that three snakes were in hot pursuit, slithering around the ankles of oblivious dancers.

The three siblings followed the old man to the great doors that led outside. Mortimer pushed the doors open, and there Percy stopped for a moment, breathless.

The carriage that awaited them just below in the drive appeared to have been made of pure gold. The body of the carriage was like the center of the sun, adorned with whorls and scrolls, and rays of varying length emanated from it. At the front of the carriage stood two fine, white horses. At the snap of Mortimer's fingers, huge, feathery wings unfurled from the beasts' backs. The footmen – if they could be called footmen – lifted their heads, unfolding themselves from where they had been waiting against the carriage. They were beautiful, unearthly creatures that seemed to have been dipped in gold and covered in jewels. They, too, bore wings: the feathers stretched up like scarlet flames into the night sky.

“We'll be flying, tonight,” Mortimer said with a grin.

“If this is a dream, then I don't want to wake up,” Musetta breathed.

Mortimer laughed. “I assure you, you're quite awake and alive and kicking in this strange, wonderful place called Reality.”

Percy and his sisters bounded down the flight of stairs. One of the golden creatures was just about to open the carriage door when a snake shot forward, barring their path. This one dwarfed all of the snakes that had previously appeared. Its body was as thick as a tree-trunk, and it towered over Percy. A hood flared out around its head as it bared its fangs, hissing. Percy stared, terrified, into the gaping chasm of the monster's mouth.

Mortimer darted forward, placing himself between Percy and the snake. “Not on my watch, Amelia,” he muttered. He did something with his hands that Percy couldn't see, and then the snake gave an almost human squeal of pain, dropped to the ground, and slithered away.

“Now!” Mortimer cried, ushering the three youths into the carriage. Percy stared hazily at their strange escort. If someone were to ask him, he'd say that the man called Mortimer didn't look nearly as elderly as he had when they first met back in the ballroom. But he was suddenly too tired to care. Without further comment, Percy tumbled inside the sun-carriage, and his sisters followed. He heard Mortimer leap onto the driver's seat and slap the whip against the horses' backs. The lush, padded interior of the carriage was irresistible – Percy could feel himself already drifting away into sleep. The last thing he would remember, upon waking, was the whirring of many wings.

Copyright © 2012 by Olivia Meldrum


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