Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sunstroke, Chapter 6: Unveiling

In which all the heroes and heroines become acquainted with one another;
Musetta swoons;
And the Simon children meet their mother


Hi there!  This is an extra-long installment since it's been a while.  I'm making minor adjustments and additions as I go along: the big one in this chapter being that the Simon family's house/kingdom finally has a name!  Enjoy. :)


Genevieve knew that she had been right in telling her brother not to worry.

Granted, she couldn't deny the small twinge of disappointment that she immediately felt in her own stomach. How she had hoped that this would be the time; this would be it – that, regardless of what purposes for which the King might have summoned him here, they might have had something to do with her own dilemma. The locket had been weighing so heavily, lately. She'd been lingering in bed each morning and dragging her feet through each day, unsure of whether the ache was concentrated in her shoulders, or in her heart.

But now, the veil lifted and her eyesight unobscured, she realized that any sense of disappointment was largely irrelevant to the situation at hand.

The small, sweet-faced boy (she found it incredible that he was supposed to be one whole year older than her; he could have passed for seventeen – then again, she shouldn't talk for she was quite tiny herself) was staring straight at her. His plain brown eyes were wide, beneath plain brown hair and over tired gray circles; but they were wondering, not mocking. Gen observed Prince Percival in light of his sisters (who, one red-gold and the other black-white, seemed to be two sides of the same exotic coin), and decided that she had never seen anyone so charmingly ordinary.

The glance of mutual appraisal was broken when, suddenly, the taller of the sisters staggered on her feet, and began a graceful descent to the ground. Prince Percival jumped to catch her with a soft exclamation.

“Oh! I assure you, she does not mean the slightest offense! In fact, she faints out of sheer delight over things quite frequently,” he hurried to explain. Gen eyed the swooning princess dubiously. She heard a soft snort, and turned to see Mortimer practically doubled over in suppressed laughter.

“It could have been worse. It could have been much, much worse,” Hamlin was saying plaintively.

“Shush, both of you!” Gen snapped, and clapped her hands. A servant rushed in, his white gloves pumping. “Fetch cool water for the princess,” Gen ordered, and the servant rushed away once more.

“Your Highness,” Gen said, turning back to the prince, “there's no need to apologize for anything. We are delighted simply that you and your sisters haven't yet run away screaming.”

Prince Percival's eyes sparkled. “Well, don't get too excited, my Lady. I've endured an awful lot over the past ten hours or so, and am likely to snap at any moment. Where is the exit again?” He asked, peering around with a grin.

Genevieve laughed out loud at this, and then coughed, startled at the sound of her voice. She couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed like that. She averted the prince's gaze with a blush, and noticed instead that the redheaded sister was glancing from her brother, to Gen, and back again, a look of quiet interest on her face.

The servant came running back, bearing a glass of water. Gen noticed that Prince Percival thanked the servant – warmly, though he seemed unsure of where to look – before taking the glass and holding it to his sister's lips.

“If I may ask, how are you faring?” Gen ventured. “Truly?”

The prince looked up at her, his eyes suddenly tired and serious again. “I hardly know,” he said simply. “To be quite honest, I have no idea what's going on. I feel as though before, even just one day ago, I never would have been able to accept any of this. And yet look at me, at all of us.”

Gen beamed at him, at his simple, honest face. Suddenly, everything that she'd been holding back - everything that she'd longed to share for the past three years – came bubbling up to her lips.

Not just yet. It must happen bit by bit, or else they will truly become overwhelmed, and they will turn away.

She bit her tongue. Yes, Papa, she replied.

But oh, how she yearned to simply whisk the prince and his sisters away into one of the corridors, into each and every room, upstairs and down, out to the the gardens, everywhere; to show them Minnowway, and watch it cast its enchantment...

Gen caught the redheaded sister staring again, and watched as her wary regard melted into the very sweetest of smiles. Her face glowed pink, and she looked away shyly.

The sister who Gen had decided must be Musetta stirred in her brother's arms. Her eyelids fluttered open, and she smiled beatifically at Gen and Hamlin.

“You are real,” she said softly. Prince Percival stood and helped her to her feet. He looked back up at Gen.

“I know,” the small, ordinary, brown-haired prince continued, a wry smile playing about his lips, “I know for a fact that if I were to go back this very moment and tell anyone at home about this, they'd think I was mad.”

“Anyone? Really? Oh, I don't know about that,” Gen murmured, smiling down at her shoes and pushing back the names that fizzled about in her mouth. She looked up to see the prince staring at her with a mixture of frustration and amusement. He was shaking his head.

“And still, the mystery deepens. Puzzle within puzzle, just like a nesting doll. You're all relentless. I hope you know I've got at least two thousand questions, and I expect them all to be answered.” Despite his exasperated words, his face was flushed and his chest was swelling with deep breaths. The air is full of wine, at Minnowway. Gen thought it would make a good book title.

“As is only fitting,” she replied, grinning and spreading her hands. “So, let's begin. Follow me.” And she turned and made for the stone archway. It was time to show them the Library.

As they all walked out and past the great central staircase, Genevieve was seized by the strongest desire to hear from the one person who had yet to open her mouth. Gen whirled around to face the little redheaded sister.

“Princess Soleil,” she said, “the first question belongs to you.”


Soleil was feeling too many things at once for her to keep count of on her fingers, and so she had settled for gripping the skirts of her plum silk gown (which was quite rumpled by now, anyway).

First, she was in awe of the lovely cat-people. (Their faces – and, it seemed, their whole bodies – were covered in a layer of fine, snow-white fur. Their noses were pink and snubbed, with white whiskers underneath. Their ears stood on top of their heads in velvety-looking triangles, and their eyes were overwhelming, blue-marbled affairs rimmed with thick, white lashes.) The young woman was as perfect and dainty as something out of a book, and her brother, though he seemed a little stiff and gloomy, was fearsomely handsome and seemed quite nice, as well.

Then, Soleil was also embarrassed over Musetta fainting (Etta always fainted. In fact, she always did things that drew attention, regardless of whether or not they were on purpose). Thirdly, she was surprised that, for some reason, the cat-woman had been able to bring out the twinkle in Percy's eye (which had been missing for quite some time).

The youngest of the Simon siblings also felt cramped (it had been too long for heels and corset), giddy (because magical things were suddenly real), afraid (because who was to say that it wasn't just a dream, after all?), warm (because all of these feelings were causing her to blush), heartache-y (because everything made her think of Mama), confused (because nothing had yet been explained), and silly (because part of her didn't even desire or need an explanation).

But there was one feeling that kept trying to surface from beneath all of these. It fluttered sweetly within her, as warm and vibrant as one of the bees that had grazed against her cheeks and lips. As everyone moved through the corridor just beyond the great hall, she stole a backwards glance at the man who called himself Mortimer. She didn't know what to think of him – only that he was terribly beautiful, with his tall, willowy frame and glassy green eyes; that when he'd complimented her, regardless of his motivations, he'd not been trying to get something from her; and that, although it was supposedly the Cat Siblings who were the recluses, it was Mortimer who seemed, for some reason, to stand outside.

“Princess Soleil,” someone called in a rich, husky voice. “The first question belongs to you.”

Soleil snapped out of her reverie to see Genevieve, the cat-girl, smiling at her, blue eyes glittering playfully.

“Oh,” Soleil murmured, clasping her hands self-consciously. Why was she being put on the spot?

“Well,” she said, after a moment, “we probably ought to begin at the beginning. Who was our mother? And what connection did she have to Minnowway?”

With no response but a wink, Genevieve beckoned the three siblings to a mahogany door adorned with a big, brass knob. She seemed to be enjoying all this immensely, her steps buoyant and smart; her pink lips smugly pleased. The tiny creature reached out and drew the door open.

Soleil was the first one through. She caught her breath at the sight that met her eyes: row upon row of books lined every wall of the library. A wrought-iron staircase began over to the left and spiraled up into a lofted second floor, also filled to the brim with colorful, lush-looking volumes. Further ladders leaned against each bookcase, allowing for access to any book. An enormous dome overstretched all, and Soleil realized it was one big mosaic: countless little tiles made to form stars, planets, sky, clouds – at the center of all was fixed a huge sun, just like the pendant that Mama had given to Percy. Ornate candelabrum were suspended over a few tables in the center of the room.

Genevieve walked to one of the tables, opened a draw beneath the tabletop, and pulled out a thick, leather-bound volume. “Please, have a seat,” she said, setting the book upon the table. Soleil took one of the carved wood chairs, and Percy and Musetta came to sit on either side of her. Genevieve and the two men sat down on the other side of the table.

“This book was your mother's,” Genevieve said gently. Soleil placed a hand upon the buttery leather cover, and felt anger simmer within her. What were they doing with her mother's belongings?

“She entrusted it to us months ago, when she knew the end was near,” Genevieve explained. “We've been guarding it for you.” The fire in Soleil's chest cooled. She ran her fingers over an embossment upon the leather - “GEO”.

“Geo?” She queried, glancing up at Genevieve.

The cat-girl bit her lips. “It's an acronym,” she explained.

“What for?” Musetta asked, sounding intrigued.

“It stands for the Guild of Enchanted Ones,” Hamlin interjected gruffly. “It's a very old organization. Your mother was a part of it.”

“Just open the book,” Genevieve advised.

Soliel complied hesitantly.

A letter had been pinned to the inside front cover. Soleil removed it carefully. She recognized her mother's handwriting.

January 14th, 1763

My darlings,

If you are reading this, it means that you have already arrived at Minnowway, and have met Genevieve, Hamlin, and Mortimer. Know that they are good people, and trustworthy, and that they, along with the others, will become the best friends you'll ever have.

I do not have long. I can already feel the fever burning away at my thoughts. I am so, so, sorry, my children, that I was never able to explain everything to you myself. I always wanted to, of course, but the time was never right. Or perhaps I was too tentative, too afraid of what such an unveiling would mean for our country, for everyone. The Magic is such as wildfire – when one person catches, he finds it impossible to keep it to himself, and must spread it on, and so on.

But the three of you are not at all timid. You are so brave. Thank you for taking the leap to trust the Beaulieu family. Once I am gone, your Papa will be in great danger. Do not worry – Marion, Sophie, and several other of our servants – dear friends of mine – will be there to protect him while you three learn what you must learn, and prepare for what is to come.

I love you. I will see you again.


Soleil's eyes blurred over as she finished the letter. She couldn't help but wonder what Mother meant by “I will see you again.” Was she referring to some sort of afterlife? Percy slid his arm over Soleil's shoulders and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Good old Marion,” he murmured.

Soleil pinned the piece of parchment back to the inside of the book, and turned to the first page.

October 6th, 1744

Began tonight. Took what I've learned and went, as I had been told, out into the streets. Visited an impoverished family in the ghetto. Brought them food and drink. They did not recognize me; told them I was from a charity organization. One of their sons was sick with what seemed to be a chest cold. I cast a charm of healing upon him, and by the time I left, his cough was clearing up. Asked them if they'd like to hear a fairytale, and told them Nadette's and William's story, of course using the mythologized form of “The Beauty and the Beast”. I kept it as close to truth as possible without seeming unusual. They were entertained; I think they thought me quaint. It matters not – I'll try again next time. Asked them if they knew of any pregnant mothers in the area who might not be able to afford the services of a physician or midwife. They gave me names, which I took down. These women and their families will be the ones I visit next.

For some reason, I have developed a cough. It seemed to arise just as the little boy's was fading. Don't know what this entails. I will find out soon enough.

Soleil gaped at book.

“They were true,” Musetta said faintly. “The rumors were true.”

Soleil turned the page.

October 17th, 1744

Tended to a young, unwed pregnant mother tonight. Gave her nutritious things to eat and took down the time around when we might expect the baby. Her family largely disregarded me, but I told her of “The Frog Prince” and she listened with the same earnest, rapt delight with which she'd no doubt listened to her lover. I had the satisfaction of knowing that, this time, the story was true.

Also visited elderly couple whose children had moved away. The man had fallen and cut open his arm days ago; the wound was already red and swollen. Washed it and applied a poultice; sneaked in a charm of purging and binding. Made conversation with them about the Magic of everyday life, how it is all around us, and potent in each moment; they agreed vigorously.  I think they understood, if only on a surface-deep level. The Magic is deeper in them than they know, perhaps because they are old enough that they're becoming like children again.

Lastly visited family whose daughter has what seems to be tuberculosis. I administered a healing charm, but also a blessing of peace over the house. My magic is not that strong yet. They are going to lose her.

There are not enough of me. I wish that some of my brothers and sisters could come join me here in Rosegate to help fight all the despair and depravity I see amongst my people. But perhaps it is right this way. I am their Queen.

I've acquired enchanted poppy pollen to assist me in casting a forgetfulness spell over everyone whom I visit. They remember my words and actions, but not my face. It will be safe, for now, this way. I shiver to think what would happen if Thomas found out. He became so angry with me the last time I tried to speak to him about fairytales, even playfully. Each time I go out, I place a charm upon his mind that will divert it from thoughts of me until I return. I do not know how strong it is, though, so I am taking a risk each time I go. It's a risk that must be taken.

It seems as though, when I perform a healing, the patient's ailment transfers itself to me, in a milder, often invisible form. My arm is aching, and my lungs are on fire, but I am perfectly healthy and able. At least, I must be, for my baby will arriving any week. It is a feisty one, already, hammering away inside of me. I will have to take a break to tend to this little one.

Soleil tried to take all of this in. She knitted her eyebrows at the page. She thought she was beginning to understand.

“She means you, Etta,” Percy said, leaning forward to look over at their sister. Etta merely giggled in reply. Her eyes were shining.

The next entry read:

December 2nd, 1744

I have been shaken to the core.

Tonight was my first night back. Little Etta can't bear to be separated from me, so I strapped her to my front beneath my cloak and channeled all my heat to her in order to keep her warm.

I visited as many houses as I could before Etta got too fussy, and then headed back to Rosegate. It was just beginning to snow. I was passing the last building before the lawn surrounding the castle, when my eye caught sight of a dark form in one of the alleyways. I turned, thinking it might be someone in need. As I drew near, I saw her face. Snow-white, as if bloodless, her long black hair blowing in the wind. Her eyes glowed deep red. I knew who she was: they call her the snake-woman, the spider-woman, the woman who is not really a woman at all, who was once more beautiful than any of us. Kay and Gerda did not teach me much about her, because they say that even to study the darkness is dangerous, and should be left only to a chosen few. But I do know that they call that person Amelia.

She approached me, smiling strangely, and whether it was fear, or some sort of spell she was casting upon me, I stood frozen to the spot, clutching my baby to my breast. Etta stirred in my arms and began to cry. Heaven help me, I was so afraid. Still Amelia came closer; still I could not move. She bared her teeth at me, contorting her face into a terrible, ugly shape, and growled at me like an animal. I know that she must hate me, and hate what I am doing.

I don't know what would have happened had I not remembered the Cry to the Goldenwings. I uttered the words, and it seemed only moments before he came blazing through the sky – a beautiful, golden creature with fiery wings. For an instant, the night seemed as bright as day. He came suited in armor, and bearing a glittering sword which he brandished at the woman. She glowered at him, then looked back to me, and finally turned and slunk away sullenly. The goldenwing drew closer to me and wrapped his wings around us, supporting me with his arm. And thank goodness for that, because I could barely walk for trembling. He escorted me to the eastern entrance, whereupon he disappeared with a flash. Marion was waiting to let me in. He still doesn't fully understand what is happening, but he says that he will trust and obey his queen.

Soleil's head swam.

“A-Amelia?” Percy stammered. “I heard you say that name, Mortimer. Who is she?”

“She is the enemy,” Mortimer said lowly, his face grave. “She was doing her utmost to prevent the three of you from coming here.” Soleil felt the prickle of gooseflesh creep down her neck, recalling how the snake's eyes had glowed red. “She has no difficulty keeping a firm reign on Slumberers, ones who have fallen asleep to the Magic,” Mortimer continued. “But she becomes frightened when people start waking up. She feels threatened by living, fighting, fully-conscious things. And that's exactly what you'll be doing here. Coming fully awake, fully alive.” He smiled as he crossed his arms upon the tabletop.

“But I don't understand,” Percy said. “What is the 'Magic'? Where does it come from?”

“First, continue with this,” Genevieve encouraged. “We don't have time for you to read all of it right now, but it would be best for you to skip to the very end,” she said softly, her pink-padded fingertips brushing the pages. Soleil slowly turned to where her hand had indicated.

January 11th, 1763

It has finally happened. Amelia approached me tonight, and refused to leave me alone. Over the years, she has tempted me, and found me resistant. She has tried to intimidate me with her ugliness, and she has succeeded many times. But now I am almost thirty-nine years old, and she has shown me every ugly face she can muster (ugliness, unlike beauty, has an end, and can be exhausted), and I am not afraid of her anymore. She taunted me today, filling my ears with lies about my loves, saying that Thomas is domineering and that he does not love me; that Soleil is stunted and backwards; that Musetta is silly and shallow; that Percy is weak and effeminate. I denied each lie bluntly.

And then she found my weak spot. She must have been planning it for a very long time.

She threatened to cast a curse upon my loves: a fatal blow – a sickness ending in death. I panicked, and ran home, ran to our rooms. She followed me all the way. But then I thought: perhaps, perhaps, I may be able to internalize the sickness before it reached my darlings, so that it would not ever even touch them. One thing that I feel Amelia will never be able to understand is the act of making one's self vulnerable. But I am a healer. For me, at least, this is what healing means.

I am unsure whether Amelia was aware of the peculiarity of my body when she attacked me; if she knew what I was going to do. Perhaps she simply wanted me gone from the beginning. Even if so, the fact remains that I have loved. I have won the only fight that has ever interested me.

The malady she has cast is a fever. I give myself three days at the most; for maintaining consciousness, perhaps less. It will be enough time to say goodbye to my husband and children. May the Great Enchanter grant us all peace.

Tears streamed down Soleil's face. Her fists were angry balls perched tensely upon her thighs. Fire was raging inside of her chest.

“I can't believe it,” Percy choked. “I can't believe it.”

“My friends,” Genevieve said softly, “know that your mother was one of the finest heroines this world has ever known. And know that she was not afraid, but peaceful, at the end. All she wanted was to love and to heal, and she was given the opportunity to do both, to the fullest.”

“She spent nearly twenty years ministering to the needy of Roseland,” Mortimer interjected. “And, in that time, she healed not only people's bodies, but helped renew their minds and hearts. She planted the seeds. She placed the sparks in the kindling. Now all that's needed is a bellows to fan the flames. And you, her children, could be the ones. You could set the world on fire.”

“There's your army, Etta,” Percy hiccuped. Musetta gave a trembling smile, smearing tears away from under her eyes.

“You know, it's odd,” Genevieve said. “Viviana went to so much trouble to hide her identity from people outside the castle walls, and yet everyone seemed to remember her by one very distinctive characteristic. They called her the 'Ginger Fairy.' It seems that, for all her poppy-seed spells, she was never able to erase the impression of her hair from people's minds.”

“Too red,” Mortimer murmured, smiling at Soleil. She laughed helplessly.

Copyright © 2012 by Olivia Meldrum

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Sunstroke, Chapter 5: Minnowway

Here is the next installment of my Sunstroke project for your reading enjoyment.  If you have been following this from its beginning 2 months or so ago, I thank you!  If not, you might want to backtrack to the beginning, which you can find here.  I want to start titling these chapters - which means I'll have to go back and add titles to the last installments.  Also, I'm already noticing minor loose ends and inconsistencies among what I've written so far...editing will become a necessity!  This is very much a work in progress, so please feel free to share your thoughts. :)


Once, when Percy was quite young, he had the very worst of nightmares. This world of shadows was particularly terrible because it was very much like real life. Mama and Papa were having a quarrel in the upstairs drawing room, except that he could tell by their eyes, somehow, that they didn't love each other anymore; it was a quarrel of hatred. He ran away to find Marion, to ask him to show him magic tricks, but the old valet brushed him away. When he sought out his sisters, Musetta had run off with all the prissy, priggish little girls, leaving Soleil stunned and alone in her bedchamber.

It was real life, except muddied.

And Percy couldn't see straight. Where is the place for me? He thought, staggering through corridors. Where where where...

And then -

“Percy!” It was his mother's voice.

He snapped to attention, snapped back to the reality of Mama's lovely face stooping over him. He remembered that they were all on their way to their summer home for a holiday. He sat up fully in the carriage. Papa was holding Mama's hand. Musetta and Soleil were poring over a book together. All was well.



It wasn't his mother's voice. Percy started awake, and found himself once again sprawled back upon the carriage seat. The green and gold tapestry whirled about on the ceiling, whirled like his thoughts. Everything from the night before came rushing back, and his stomach gave a thrill.

He sat upright, taking in the interior of the coach by the soft light that was filtering in. The raspberry-hued velvet looked old, but clean and well-brushed. Musetta and Soleil were kneeling together at one window, conversing quietly.

Percy eyed the other window curiously. He shifted over to the right, drew aside the golden curtain, and unlatched the window.

A whirring gust of wind hit him in the face and he blinked, delighted. It smelt of sea salt and springtime. At first, all he could make out was a dizzying commotion of wings: layer upon layer of scarlet seemed first to billow and snap like banners; then to pulse warmly like the first embers of a fire. Suddenly, with a gentle rustle, a footman's face surfaced from among the feathers. The golden eyes crinkled into a smile, and the flaxen curls bounced as the creature inclined its head.

“Good morning, Prince Percival,” it piped in strange, lyrical tones. And then the great, glowing wings that had been guarding the window were swept away.

Percy found himself gripping the window's ledge furiously. The sea stretched out for as far as he could see, shimmering in the sunlight. He peeked cautiously around the side of the carriage, towards the front where the two winged horses were racing. He had to shield his eyes: the carriage was soaring due east, straight into the sunrise. Leaning forward as far as he dared, he gazed down into the water below. There seemed to be some disturbance amongst the waves – he could vaguely make out little fish and other creatures leaping about.

“The ocean's inhabitants are happy to see you!” A voice cried jubilantly. Percy jumped. Another head popped out from behind one of the coachman's wings. There was a young man clinging to the outside of the carriage, and he was carefully inching his way towards the window. He looked about Percy's age, perhaps a little older; with dark hair and milky-white skin. His eyes were large and very green. Percy frowned. Having finally reached the window, the man sighed with relief. “Well,” he said, gesturing outward, “what do you think?”

“There was a spell cast on you.” Percy turned to see Musetta scrutinizing the young man, her head cocked to one side.

“How perceptive of you, Princess,” Mortimer replied with a gracious nod. “I do beg your pardon for having employed a disguise. See, we decided that an old-man relation would be far more convincing than a young one.”

“Who's 'we'?” Musetta demanded, lifting her eyebrows authoritatively.

“Myself, and my brother and sister – well, they're not really – in spirit, not in blood – and then the King.”

“The king?” Percy's heart had begun pounding, for some reason. “What king?”

Mortimer's lips curled in a coy smile. “The King,” he said simply.

Percy wished he could act stuffy and chagrined – as if all this were too absurd, too much of an imposition upon his royal dignity. But he couldn't. The carriage, the wings, the eyes, the sea – they were all streaming through the hole in Percy's chest. Please, Mama, I have to know.

“King of what? And if you're not our mother's cousin, who is?” He asked.

Mortimer laughed, head back and full of joy. “Just wait,” he said. “I can't explain everything right now. But in the meantime - this, Highnesses, is for you.” He extended a tray with one hand, balancing it with seeming effortlessness upon his fingertips. It bore fruit, pastries, and three glasses of some pinkish drink. “You'll be glad of some breakfast, I promise,” Mortimer said with a grin.

Percy took the tray tentatively. “Where did it come from?”

Mortimer's eyes widened. “Magic,” he whispered. Then his face sobered. “I suppose I'll add one more word, before our arrival,” he said, leaning against the window frame. “It's regarding my brother and sister. Here's the quandary: they're both rather stranger-shy, and they don't get out much...it's been a while since they've had visitors. Actually,” he added, a little sadly, “it's been a very, very long time.”

“They're recluses?” Musetta's hands were clasped beneath her chin. “Oh, for what reasons? How terribly romantic!”

“Well,” Mortimer said, his grin returning, “you'll see.”

“My sisters and I were taught to be kind and gracious to everyone whom we encounter,” Percy assured. “We will be nothing less to your siblings. Especially since you all – you're all friends of our mother's. And any friend of hers is a friend of ours.”

Mortimer gave another little bow. “Thank you, your Highness.” Percy watched his eyes stray to Soleil, who'd been observing all in total silence ever since Percy had woken up. Mortimer's smile deepened, and a dimple appeared.

“Are you enjoying your ride in the sun-carriage, Princess?” he asked earnestly. “You make it shine all the brighter.” Soleil's eyes widened at this. “I hope you know that you've got the loveliest hair,” he added. “You look just like your mother.”

Soleil was blushing a deep pink beneath her freckles. “Thank you, Sir,” she murmured, her eyes downcast.

“We're almost there,” Mortimer said, speaking to the rest of the carriage. “I'll see you again soon.” And he disappeared amongst the wings.

Percy smiled, pleasantly surprised at whatever it was that had just happened. He caught Soleil's eye and raised his brows encouragingly, which only resulted in her flush spreading to the tips of her ears. Musetta was being odd – sitting up stiffly, with a pinched, faintly amused expression on her face.

Percy chuckled inwardly. Oh, dear. This, among everything else. What are the Simon children galloping into this time?

It seemed only minutes later that Percy could feel the carriage beginning to descend. He flew to the window. They had arrived in a region that he knew he'd never seen before. It was green, all around – where there was not forest, there was meadow or rolling hill. It was nothing like their home – smog and cobblestones everywhere, and any kind of countryside at least an hour away. A river coursed by below, and Percy could hear its quiet roar.

Again, the appearance of the carriage seemed to elicit a response from the wildlife it encountered. Deer gathered in herds and raced along below, throwing their heads up in salutation. To Percy's amazement, even bears and wolves made an appearance, frolicking with seeming geniality beside the other animals. Winged things began to enter into the carriage – sparrows and swallows swooped through to nuzzle the sibling's faces and settle in their hands; a swarm of ladybirds was followed by a swarm of bees, which covered Percy and his sisters with tiny, buzzing steps that warmed like kisses. Soon the carriage was alive with joyous, wordless laughter.

Then, finally, the castle came into view.

Perhaps, in some very distant, childhood dream, Percy had seen Minnowway before. He blinked hard, rubbed his eyes, pinched his leg; to no avail. He couldn't shake the sense that he was somehow returning: both to rest from a long journey, and to begin a new one.

A stately, stone castle was rising up before them (as the carriage was dropping), inset with tall windows and crowned with a multitude of turrets. This structure was indeed impressive; but moss grew between those stones, and vines upon the gates behind, and it was a simple, dirt road that ran between the two. What seemed to be acres of orchard and meadowland stretched off into the distance.

Percy was not able to register much, when the carriage finally landed in the courtyard. The footmen opened the doors, smiling and chattering, although Percy couldn't hear their words. Musetta took hold of him with one hand and Soleil with the other, and he didn't think to object in any way. They moved, hand-in-hand, in the direction of the entryway, though Percy couldn't feel his arms or legs. Mortimer jogged ahead of them, grinning hugely, frequently turning around to engage them in some elaborate story. Percy became aware of a clamorous, overwhelming sound: that of applause.

There was a crowd of floating, white gloves all around the steps leading up to the castle's front door. Dozens of pairs of hands were clapping furiously, and shouting, too: 'Huzzah's', 'Heys'; each of the three siblings' names, and their mother's name, too. Mortimer gestured toward them with an outstretched arm; each of the pairs of hands likewise extended an invisible arm; and they all bowed together. Everything came in pieces: Mortimer's dark curls flopping as he danced about (he was jester, after all), the foxes and rabbits appearing and fawning at their feet, the butterflies landing upon their faces and clothing like so many falling petals, the hands hurrying to escort his sisters as the door opened wide.

Percy drifted up the stairs and through the doorway. They stood at the front of a long, high-ceilinged hall lined with winding marble pillars and blue-and-gold checked marble floors. The hands floated away through a door to the right, swinging as though attached to the arms of walking persons. The three siblings were left alone with Mortimer, who now proceeded forward, his gait slower and more reserved.

There were two people standing at the opposite end of the hall, both dressed entirely in mourning. It was a tall, broad-shouldered man, and a woman so small that she could have passed for a girl, were it not for her shape. As Percy advanced, he observed their clothing: the man wore a simple suit of breeches, shirt and jacket; the woman, a simple, floor-length, high-collared gown. Both were in black from head to toe, and even their hands were concealed in black gloves. The woman wore a nondescript hat, whose dark veil fell over her face. The oddest thing of all was that, likewise, the man's face was also covered.

Mortimer came to a halt before the two mysterious figures, and then withdrew to the side, so that Percy and his sisters now faced the strangers alone. After a lengthy silence, ending with the man and the woman exchanging glances through the veils, the man took a step closer, and cleared his throat.

“Welcome, Prince Percival, Princess Musetta, and Princess Soleil. Welcome to Minnowway. I - I am Hamlin Beaulieu, and this is my sister, Genevieve,” the man said in a deep, husky voice. He gestured to the tiny woman who stood beside him. Percy noticed that the black-gloved hand was trembling. He wondered how old the man was – his voice seemed youthful enough.

The man named Hamlin folded his hands tightly in front of his stomach. One hand faltered up to the veil in front of his face, and then back down. “Um,” he said awkwardly. His sister reached up to gently squeeze his arm. A few more awkward moments passed. And then, almost in unison, both black figures reached up and lifted their veils.

Percy was struck, first and foremost, by the beauty. Two pairs of large, piercing, blue eyes gazed out at him from white faces. But then he took in shape, and placement, and texture, and it registered in his mind.

They were cats.

Copyright © 2012 by Olivia Meldrum