Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sunstroke, Chapter 7: Stories

In which Percy is filled with wonder,
Hamlin makes up for a scant breakfast,
and an unexpected guest arrives

Percy sat comfortably in the little drawing room, his sisters on either side. After leaving the library, Genevieve had directed them each to the respective chambers that had been prepared for them, where they were able to freshen up and change into clean clothing, with the help of the invisible servants. Percy was slowly adapting to seeing a pair of white gloves bob about in lieu of a an entire person. His new valet was a chatty, middle-aged man named Jean who went on and on about how the hens had been too flustered to lay that morning, and how the little golden fish in the pond kept leaping out of the water in excitement; the gardeners had to keep throwing them back in.

“Why, we've all been in a flurry! This is the first time we've celebrated, properly, since Prince Luc left us. We're beside ourselves with joy. And just wait till you see the dinner the cooks've got ready for ya,” the valet chortled. Percy could only smile, dazed.

His bedroom, like his sisters', was spacious and finely furnished, but simple; as was their new attire. A suit of royal blue brocade had been laid out for Percy. Once he was downstairs, his sisters had appeared in lovely frocks made of pure, fine cotton: burgundy for Musetta, and a spring green for Soleil.

Now they all sat across from the cat-people and Mortimer. It was a balmy afternoon – a gentle breeze from outside played against Percy's skin. The branches swaying beyond the window cast dappled shadows upon Genevieve's snow-white face. She took one more sip of tea before setting down cup and saucer and clearing her throat emphatically.

“Shall we begin?” She asked. Percy nodded, smiling. It was strange, so strange, how it seemed as though he'd seen her fold her hands just so a thousand times; as though he knew so well the way that Mortimer was leaning his elbows back upon the sofa.

Something new.

Percy jumped and glanced over his shoulder. “Who was that?”

“Who was what?” Genevieve asked innocuously. Percy turned back around, frowning. He was sure that he hadn't imagined the voice. He was also sure that it was the same voice that had woken him up in the carriage that morning. He stared at the three wide-eyed faces across from him. They stared back, but then Mortimer looked away and bit his lips, eyes crinkling. Confused, Percy settled back onto the sofa. He concluded that no good would come of pushing things.

But I want to know.

Genevieve reached over the wooden table to grasp an orange from a large porcelain bowl. She considered it for a moment, as it lay in her palm. Then she looked up at Percy.

“What if I told you that this -” she closed her fingers around the piece of fruit, paused for a moment; then opened them again to reveal an empty hand - “was sleight of hand; but that this -” she recovered the orange from behind her back and tossed it up into the air. As it reached the height of its ascent, it vanished. Percy and his sisters gasped.

“- was real?”

“Real,” Percy repeated softly, grinning. He felt like a little boy at the circus.

“The thing is, while the two situations are different in essence – in one, the orange is merely hidden; in the other, it truly disappears – the two acts appear to be identical. It would take a very discerning eye to determine which was a display of authentic magic, and which was counterfeit.”

Percy nodded. This made sense.

Genevieve peered at him, her eyes bright. “We've all seen so much of the counterfeit,” she said lowly, carefully. “And we've grown so sick of being deceived; and then disillusioned by the things that we trust, that we've trained ourselves to be cynics. We assume that every wonderful thing we encounter must not be real, simply in order to protect ourselves. In the process, we lose the truth. We forget the Magic.”

Percy heard the doors behind him open with a faint creak. He looked over, but nothing was there but the door standing ajar. The creaking ensued – but it was different, high and soft, as of little wheels. Around the far-left corner of Percy's sofa came a diminutive wooden cart, pulled by four white mice in a harness. In the cart lay the orange that Genevieve had handled. The little animals scurried up to her, and the two in front ran nose-first into her shoe. She gave a light fillip of laughter. “Thank you, my dears,” she murmured, running her finger lightly down each of their backs. At this display of affection, one of the mice flopped over, wriggling its stomach around invitingly. “Now, Alphonse,” Genevieve said sternly, shaking a finger. The mouse sprung back onto its feet, thrusting its little black nose high into the air. “Thank you, Sir,” she smiled, and lifted the orange from the cart. “Now go back!” she encouraged, pointing to the door. With some maneuvering, the four mice turned themselves around and creaked back out of the room. The door closed itself behind them.

“Oh!” Musetta sighed, clasping her hands.

“We don't eat them,” Hamlin said solemnly, his eyes filled with concern. A silence followed.

Genevieve cleared her throat again. “As I was saying – there is, and always has been, a struggle between belief and disbelief in this world. A struggle, a battle, lies at the heart of things. And understandably so, for it takes the faith of a child, to believe in the Magic. It takes a heart that is as tender as it is stout. It is no easy task, even once one has woken up.” She paused, her lowered eyes slanting sweetly. She placed the orange back on the table. All was quiet, but for the mingling of birdsong with a ticking clock.

She leaned forward and extended her hands over the table, frowning as if in concentration. Percy realized that the sunlight that had filled the room was beginning to dim by grades. He watched, fascinated, as a small army of flickering flames arose from the table, perched upon dripping stumps of wax. The candlelight danced eerily across the three figures on the other side of the table. The little white cat wrinkled her nose, clicking her tongue in disgust.

“It was a stupid idea,” she mumbled, dropping her hands into her lap.

“No,” Percy breathed, looking at her. “It's lovely.”

She peeked up at him, a smile teasing her lips. She resumed her position, her hands hovering over the little sea of candles.

Mortimer shifted on the sofa. “May I?” he asked, looking at Genevieve. She nodded, not moving her eyes from the table. Mortimer raised his own hands, palms together, and then parted them, as if pushing open curtains. Percy watched as the spread of candles expanded, and began to break apart. Smaller clumps started to form, and soon enough, Percy was looking at a map of the world. He spied Windward in the west, Belvor below it; all the other little countries of their continent molding into their proper shapes. Mortimer pointed a finger at the Roseland-shaped clump, and a red flame appeared above it, larger and more vibrant than the little candle-flames.

“That's exactly what I was aiming for. Thanks, Mort,” Genevieve murmured. Then she looked back up at Percy and his sisters. “There was a time when everyone, the entire human race, lived with the Magic. Though some were opposed to it almost from the very beginning, there were few who denied its existence entirely. The real world was the world of fairy-tales. It was as common then to see a golden carriage transported by winged footmen, as it is today to see an ordinary carriage pulled by horses.” As she spoke, she seemed to become more comfortable with her words, and they began to flow out of her easily as if this were a story she'd shared a hundred times.

“It was like that for the longest time, we are told,” she said. “But then, nearly two hundred years ago, the darkness began. It robbed hearts of their wonder and put weariness in its place,” she said softly, her eyes on the table again. Percy looked, and saw that the candles were starting to go out. It was only a few here and there, at first; but then dozens were extinguished in quick succession, until only a few flames remained flickering in each country. Genevieve didn't lift a finger throughout this; she only kept her eyes sadly fixed upon the candles. Percy noticed that Roseland was the darkest of all the countries on the map, although the red flame still hovered above it.

“Soon, the minority who had ceased to believe in the Magic became the vast majority. They fell asleep to it. They became blind to it. It was as if all the most beautiful things in the world had become invisible to them. It became so that all of the fantastic creatures had to be concealed by a barrier of invisibility, to protect them from exploitation and abuse. People were beginning to treat them like freaks of nature, like mere spectacles.”

Percy glanced the table. The candles were starting to melt away into nothingness; soon, they had disappeared completely. He noticed Hamlin staring at the wood with big, unblinking eyes. After a few moments, something new began to rise out of the table: a little porcelain dish bearing a strawberry pastry. Hamlin squinted, and the filling brightened into what looked like peach. He smiled, and surreptitiously stuck his finger into the middle where the filling was.

“Once hidden, the creatures were safe, but they hadn't been made to live in such isolation from the rest of the world. Most of the creatures soon died of broken hearts – all of the faerie and mer-people, followed not long after by the rest. Those that survived the onset of the Slumber – a couple of dragons and some gnomes deep within the mountains – were so few that their races went extinct within some twenty years. And this is when the Guild was formed. It was very small, back then.” Genevieve looked up at Percy. “Your mother's family, the d'Aulnoys, were always a part of it. Every generation, straight through the Slumber. They were always faithful.”

Percy tried to take this all in. His mind kept creeping back to the naming of fantastical creatures. “But – fairies?” He asked. “And dragons? They were real?” He felt a little dizzy.

Genevieve nodded excitedly. “And so many others, too; too many to name! And now – I'm sure you have figured it out by now, haven't you?”

“Figured out what?” Percy felt somewhat slow.

Genevieve smiled, her eyes turning into thin blue slivers. “This: that every fairy-tale your mother every told you is real.”

Percy blinked at her.

“They're all real,” he repeated, dubiously.


“You mean they actually happened?”

“That is exactly what I mean, my prince. And they didn't just happen in the minds of a nation, or in hearts throughout history – they happened here, now – or at least, a place that was once 'here', and a time that was once 'now' – it was real as this -” she rubbed her hands together - “as this -” she struck the arm of her sofa - “as real as the hair on your head, as real as the blood flowing through you!” She was bouncing upon the cushions, her entire face was upturned and illuminated by laughter. And they were all laughing.

“It was real, and for a purpose. It was real, as we are real. And we can fall asleep, we can forget for as long as we like; but it will still be real when we wake up. The Magic lives within us, but only because it first lives outside of us.”

Percy shook his head. “But – well, surely, the stories have been embellished over the years?”

Genevieve tilted her head back, clapping her hands delightedly. “Quite the contrary. Indeed, the facts have had to be dulled considerably in order to fit upon blank pages and human tongues.”

Percy sat back against the sofa, grinning. He looked from the three beaming faces across from him to his sisters. Soleil was putting her arms around his neck and kissing him. Musetta leaned over. “I knew it, all along,” she was saying, shaking her head confidingly.

“Tell us more,” Percy said. “Tell us everything.”

Genevieve held out her hands. “Well, I've said enough,” she laughed. “Hamlin!” She gave her brother a playful shove. Percy's heart warmed at the sight: the big cat-man was nearly twice her size.

“Oh, alright,” Hamlin rumbled, his ears turning red. He wiped a blob of peach filling from his whiskers. “What's next?”

“Amelia,” Mortimer replied, without missing a beat. His eyes were absent, staring into space beneath a creased brow. Percy tensed up at the name. He had managed to forget it, somehow, listening to Genevieve speak.

“The woman who killed my mother,” he said. He couldn't keep the loathing from his voice.
“She's not a woman,” Hamlin said ominously, shaking his head. “She doesn't make for pleasant conversation, so I'll speak briefly. She was once the most beautiful of any creature. And she was one of the first. She was even more lovely than the goldenwings. But – she didn't want to serve the King, when he assigned her to -” Hamlin stopped, a shocked look on his face. “Gen,” he said, turning to his sister, “we haven't told them about the King yet!”

“Oh!” Genevieve squeaked, clapping a little white hand over her mouth.

“Oh,” Mortimer said quietly, as if he didn't understand how such a thing could have happened.

Then all three simultaneously burst into laughter.

“Well, I at least mentioned him, this morning,” Mortimer chuckled, drawing his hands over his face.

“See, it isn't easy to find the right words,” Genevieve said, smiling at Percy. “And the three of you have probably heard plenty for today. So for now, I will tell you only what is essential, for it would be possible to talk about him for forever.” Her gaze shifted to look out the window.

“He has many names. Your mother called him the Great Enchanter in her diary, and, indeed, that is just who he is: for he is the one from whom all the Magic comes. He is the one who was, before all else. He is why the animals dance here. He is why your mother was able to heal. He is why your parents fell in love. He is why your lungs receive the air around you. He is why Princess Soleil's hair curls, and why Princess Musetta's lips are so red.

“And he is here,” she finished. “He is here, with us, now. He has not yet summoned us to take you to meet him. But he will summon you at the right time.”

Percy didn't understand. “But – what is he? What is he king of?”

“He is King of everything,” Genevieve said simply. Percy could tell, by the way that she closed her lips, that that was all she had to say. Could it really be as simple as that?

“Well, I have a question,” Musetta interjected. Percy was actually surprised at how quiet and attentive she'd been throughout the whole conversation. “If all of the fantastical creatures died out centuries ago, then where did the winged horses and winged footmen come from?”

“The 'winged footmen' are, in fact, goldenwings,” Genevieve replied pertly. “And they are not of this world, though they often enter into it. Our pegasi, on the other hand, are...something else. They're new creations. The first step in restoring the world back to the way it was. The King is working on something, you see. I believe he is planning a revolution, though I don't know when it might be set to begin – he seems to be waiting for something to happen.”

Percy heard a noise out in the hall. It sounded, for lack of better description, like the clipping of a horse's hooves.

“Each time someone remembers the Magic,” Genevieve continued, “he responds by bringing back some piece of the old world. When Hamlin and I woke up, he gave us the two pegasi to keep and to tend.”

There was a pause. Then Musetta spoke - “Well, what about us? I mean, we're awake now.”

There was a knock at the door. Genevieve rose quickly to her feet with a little gasp.

“Come in,” she called, her voice quavering.

The face that poked itself around the door was red, rough, bearded – and dazed. It blinked about at the room's equally speechless inhabitants. Then he shuffled forward, pulling the rest of his body into the room.

“Pardon me, my Lords and Ladies,” the centaur said, folding his hands politely before him. His face broke into a beaming smile. “I have no idea of where I am or what is now occurring, but The King sent me to greet you.”

Copyright © 2012 by Olivia Meldrum

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