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