In which Genevieve goes back,
Percy yearns for the rest of the story,
and Soleil is violently startled
It was only when the centaur, whose name was Diamon, was settled down onto the parlor floor (a process both awkward and endearing to behold; his legs were shaky, like a newborn colt's) and given a cup of tea (which he sniffed suspiciously before sipping), that he began to answer the questions that Percy and the others could barely keep from asking. Yes, he had Prince Percival and his sisters to thank for his sudden appearance at Minnowway. Yes, he was brand-new. The first thing he'd known was that he was standing in front of the King. There had been nothing before that, although it was odd: he seemed to have visions, or senses, if you would, of centaurs racing across fields together, gathering around fires at night to roast the day's kill; playing sweet, strange tunes to each other upon pipes. This knowledge of his ancestors seemed something like memories, but only because there was nothing better to which they could be compared. Yes, it felt rather wonderful to be newly-made, to be freshly alive. Yes, he was starving, and – with utter politeness – might someone be troubled to show him to the grounds of the estate, where he could find running water and fresh vegetation?
Genevieve summoned a servant, and Diamon trotted eagerly out of the room after the white gloves, an enormous smile upon his kind, bearded face.
“Mmm,” Genevieve sighed contentedly, after a moment. Percy felt as though he were afloat on a sea of golden champagne. The grand expanse of all these discoveries was simply overwhelming.
“But,” Musetta began, and when she spoke, her voice had softened – less inquisitive, and more awed - “please, might you tell us about yourselves? I mean – to which species do you belong? You seem rather close to human.”
Genevieve stiffened in her chair, her chin snapping up.
“I am human,” she said coldly.
“Oh,” Musetta said, sounding taken aback. “I beg your pardon.”
A charged silence ensued. Percy observed the white cat cautiously. Her eyes were downcast, her faced suddenly pained. She was playing with the golden locket that hung around her neck.
“Gen and I – we didn't – we didn't always look like this,” Hamlin said hesitantly. “We were both blond,” he added, as if this was key information. Then the tips of his ears turned red again, and he bowed his head. The silence resumed.
“A spell has been cast upon us,” Genevieve finally spoke up. “It's what turned us into cats, and turned our servants invisible.” She gave a helpless giggle. “I'm sorry, it's just that we've never had to explain this to anyone before. Well, except Mortimer, but, you know, he's -” she turned to the dark, slender man, and he glanced up at her. They held each other's gaze for a moment. “- one of the kindest, most understanding people I've ever met,” Genevieve finished, with another giggle. Mortimer's eyes dropped, and he smiled gently.
Percy looked keenly from one to the other. He hadn't realized that there was something between them. He wondered who Mortimer might be – what his full name was; why he stayed at Minnowway rather than with his own family. Percy curbed his tongue, deciding that he'd better not pry. Things seemed to operate on their own terms and at their own pace here. It was all so different from the stiff, staunchly formal world Percy had always known, where the smallest breach of etiquette could bring unreasonable shame upon one's family; all while insincerity, deception, and masked malice were ignored, and understood as simply being part of the game. It had always seemed to Percy that, within a family and among friends, one could commit the very worst of crimes; and yet still be redeemed through honest contrition and honest pardon.
But treat one another with insincerity, Percy thought, and you may as well throw in the towel. You've forfeited your ability to make honest mistakes, let alone honest reconciliations. Your actions are that of a paper doll; your words those of a mechanical bird. You have chosen to be less than real.
He saw no such dark cloud amongst his new friends. He saw only kindness and openness; and sweetness: in a spectrum that spread from the proud, sparkling little cat-woman, to her gruff, bumbling brother, to the dark man whose green eyes seemed to see and perceive all.
“You should tell them, Gen,” Hamlin said, touching his sister's elbow.
“I know. I'd have to go back,” she said quietly. She turned her hands palms-up on her lap, and gazed down at them, smiling. Percy waited, a smile creeping onto his own face.
When she finally looked back up, she had changed: she was shining as if reflecting the sun; she had come fully alive. Her clothing seemed to be no longer black, but white, white as a bride's gown. And everything else had changed with her: colors were more vibrant, and sounds echoed more richly throughout the parlor. Percy found himself sitting at the edge of the sofa, leaning in to hear what the white cat had to say. All seemed to have stopped to observe her: the birds and even the trees were silent and still, inclining ears and waiting breathlessly.
“It happened three years ago,” Gen said. “I was seventeen, and it was summertime.”
THE CHERRY TREE
being an ACCOUNT of the SUMMER of 1760
in the LIFE of GENEVIEVE MARIETTE BEAULIEU
“Ham? Ham. Ham.”
Genevieve was poking her brother repeatedly in the stomach as he lay in the sun room's hammock, reading a volume of poetry. At length, the book shifted to the right to reveal a pair of doleful blue eyes.
“Ham. Help me convince Miss Marie to throw another party here tomorrow night? Please?”
“No, Gen. I'm all party-ed out. Besides, you know I'm not much a party person to begin with.”
“Well, you...you seem to like parties when certain pretty girls are involved,” Genevieve retorted. Hamlin's eyes went wide. The book resumed its original position over his face.
“That's why you're reading so much poetry all of a sudden, isn't it? Because you know that Jacqueline Bertrand loves it.”
“Well, I – I – ahhmurnuhummrrnun,” Hamlin said, his voice sinking to an indistinct rumble. Genevieve could see his ears glowing pink where they protruded from his golden curls.
“And that's why you finally shaved off your beard, too,” she added, grinning.
“Just, it was – get – hotmmmergapuph,” Hamlin replied.
“I'm so BORED! And it's so beastly hot,” Gen sighed, sitting down abruptly and flopping back onto the floor. She snapped open her fan and beat it until her curls flew about, sticking to her face.
“So, stop being bored and go do something,” Hamlin said after a while, a little resentfully.
“See?” Genevieve cried, sitting up and pointing. “You mumble deliberately.”
The book moved aside once again. “Genevieve, you've got thousands of books and two hundred acres of land at your disposal. It's no one's fault but your own if you're bored.”
“It would only be hotter outside!”
“Then you find a tree, and sit in its shade! Goodness, Gen, you're seventeen years old. You're not a child anymore!”
“But I hate just going off and being alone. I can't stand it!”
“Now's the perfect time to learn to,” Hamlin said simply, and the book went back up. Genevieve glowered at him for a few minutes before heaving a sigh, getting up, and marching out into the corridor. She paused to give another exasperated sigh at her reflection in the mirror by the back entrance. Puffing out her lips into a pout, she turned and slouched through the doors.
Once outside, Gen blinked beneath the bright sunlight. Oh, silly – she'd forgotten a hat. After staring listlessly back at the entryway for a few minutes, she decided that she didn't feel like going back inside. She shrugged and began to meander east. She figured that the gardens must be diverting enough.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd been outside, alone, for no reason other than to be outside. If friends were visiting, she'd show them Minnowway's grounds, but it always seemed to be more for the sake of making an impression than out of some kind of love for the outdoors. Gen nodded stiffly to workers whose names she couldn't remember.
She breezed through the first garden, which was filled with ponds, all surrounding one great fountain in the center. She passed on into the next one, which was devoted to topiaries of fantastical creatures, and on into the next one, where peafowl were strutting about. She moved through the maze of countless gardens, her heels clicking primly.
Finally, she came upon one garden that made her linger before entering. She frowned up at the stone archway, unsure of why the simple design struck her so.
She stepped within, and the hot bustle of the summer day instantly stilled.
This world was enveloped in silence, punctuated only by the occasional burst of birdsong. Genevieve strolled easily along the winding brick walkway, motivated, for the first time, by curiosity. The grass that lay on either side of the path looked so very luscious; most luscious of all where the trees created deep, cool patches of shade. She was about to slip off her shoes and go dancing about in it, until she realized how ridiculous she would look. Such behavior was for children, not young ladies. What if one of the servants were to see, and then spread word about it? Pull yourself together, Gen, she scolded.
She turned her eyes upward. The towering chestnuts created something of a canopy above. Squat little umbrella trees, now in full bloom, provided miniature oases from the sun. She picked her way delicately through the beds of daffodils and lavender. The wild rose bushes that lined each wall of the garden were bursting with delicate pink and deep fuchsia. As she moved deeper, their rich, sweet scent wafted forward. Her steps slowed until she was standing perfectly still. The fan slipped from her hand, but she didn't think to pick it up again. Her chin lowered itself from its place in the air, and she stared, distracted, at the closest rose bush.
Something shivered, at the back of her mind, and then in the pit of her heart – something that she had never known before. At least, something that she had only known very, very long ago, when she was a child. She put out a shaky hand to balance herself against a tree trunk. She turned, slowly, and continued deeper into the garden.
Her steps were careful now, and hesitant. Her eyes scanned the ground; she was afraid, somehow, to look haphazardly in just any direction.
She stopped when the toe of her shoe bumped into the roots. She knew where she stood.
It was the cherry tree, the one whose planting none of the gardeners had ever been quite old enough to remember; the one that had grown taller and broader and stronger than any proper cherry tree ever should; the one that little Gen had climbed; whose branches had provided a bed for warm-weather naps; which had served as base for hide-and-go-seek with Hamlin; which had fed her through every summer, fed her belly, fed her heart, till her fingers and mouth were sticky and red and sweet.
Gen looked up.
There, sprawled out among the branches, and fast asleep, was a beautiful young man. He was very long, and very blond, and his suit was of golden brocade. He had propped his bare feet up onto one sturdy branch, and his arms were flung carelessly over his head. His beautiful, pale face was turned towards her, and there was a smile on his lips. She stared up at him, dumbstruck.
The man stirred, taking a deep breath and stretching his arms. He rubbed his eyes, blinked them, and looked down at Gen. A smile bright as the sun broke over his face. He sat up. “Hello, my lady,” he said, in a voice like warm earth and red wine.
“Hello,” Gen said hazily.
“Is it your land upon which I have ventured? I beg your pardon for this rather unconventional situation in which we meet; it's only that I desperately needed a place to lay down my head for the night; and this fine tree seemed just made for repose!” He patted the trunk appreciatively.
Gen goggled at him. “Y-yes, it is my brother's land,” she stammered.
“Oh – I am most abominably rude – I am Luc, prince of the Land that lies beyond the East,” he said. Gen caught her breath in awe. A prince! “And what is your name, my lady?”
She flushed proudly. “I am Genevieve Beaulieu, Lady of Minnowway, where you now find yourself; my brother, Lord Hamlin Beaulieu, is Duke.”
“Lady Genevieve. It is a delight to meet you.” His bright blue eyes smiled along with the rest of his face.
“Likewise,” she said, and then, partly because curiosity was killing her, and partly because his bold smile emboldened her - “your Highness, if I may inquire, what is it that brings you here, and so unaccompanied?”
“Oh! I am simply traveling for the sake of seeing what there is to see. To meet people, to know places, to encounter beauty. And, sometimes, I do prefer to travel alone, to be alone. There are some things that must be done on one's own, after all.”
Genevieve stared up at him, shocked. “But – to travel all alone! And a prince! The thought is inconceivable!” She cried. “What if you were to be robbed, or to injure yourself?”
He lifted his brows. “That is, indeed, a risk that I take,” he said simply.
“And who tends to you throughout the day, and prepares you for bed at night?”
“I do. I gather fruit or hunt game, and find a good place to settle each sundown. Tell me, lady,” he said, his voice taking on a confiding lilt, “don't you ever wish to strike out and do things all on your own? Don't you ever grow tired of being waited on hand and foot?”
“Why, of course not!” Gen said, a little indignantly. “Such treatment is my right as noblewoman.”
“And how did you earn that right?” the prince asked softly. “By choosing to be born to a duke?”
Genevieve was stricken wide-eyed and silent.
Prince Luc looked at her very seriously for a few moments. But then he blinked, and a smile smoothed his face again. “Are you Lady by virtue of those golden curls?” he teased. “Or perhaps those rosy cheeks? Or is it that proud little demeanor?”
Gen dropped her gaze, blushing hotly. She heard him chuckle above her.
“But truly, fair one,” he continued, “what I mean is that a queen cannot rightfully call herself a queen unless she is willing to serve her own subjects.”
“Ah, but I am not a queen.”
“For shame, my lady.”
It was Gen's turn to chuckle. A fleeting thought passed through her mind: why do you feel so at ease with a man you've never met before? And a prince, no less? But she brushed it aside.
“Is not your father needing you at home in his kingdom, your Highness?” she asked, hoping that the question was not too impertinent. She imagined that few questions could be, when addressed to a man up in a tree.
“Not at the present. Indeed, it is my father who sent me.”
Genevieve tried to decipher this, and failed.
“Well, Sir,” she said, folding her hands pertly, “where have you left your horse?”
The beautiful man grinned. “I haven't got one.”
“What! You, travel on foot! Now that, I cannot believe. You are jesting.”
“So little faith in my bodily fitness!”
“Well then pray, Sir, where have you deposited your shoes?” Gen asked, looking pointedly at his feet, which he was now dangling cheerfully from his perch in the tree.
“Haven't got those either,” he laughed. When Gen gaped, he laughed some more, and pointed to his feet for inspection. “See for yourself,” he said. Sure enough, his soles were brown and covered in thick, impressive-looking callouses.
“Your Highness,” Gen said, “I am utterly shocked by your lack of footwear. It is disgraceful!” (But secretly, secretly, she was utterly delighted by this beautiful, barefoot vagabond of a prince.)
“I beg to differ, my lady! Indeed, what are you doing, wearing shoes on such a day as this? It is outrageous! The earth seeks to please you by providing warmth and sunshine, and you respond by clomping about on it with heels? I am scandalized by your feet, and the slippers in which they are currently clad.”
And they both laughed.
“Lady Genevieve,” Prince Luc said, after they had quieted, “may I rest here at Minnowway for a while?” His eyes had turned wistful, and a little sad.
“Of course!” Gen assured. “I mean – as long as my brother doesn't object, and I don't see why he would!”
“Good,” he replied, and he smiled at her once again. There was something supremely wide-eyed and candid about the way that he looked at her. It made Gen feel naked and shy and beautiful all at once. She had to keep looking away.
“Lady Genevieve,” he said softly, from above. Gen forced herself to look back up.
He was grinning at her as though he thought her to be the loveliest woman in the world; as though she were the only woman in the world. It was all so strange. What is happening? Could this possibly be real? Gen thought faintly.
“Aren't your feet tired from walking for so long in those fussy heels?” His eyes were sparkling.
“Oh – well, I – I mean, I'm used to it -”
“They're coming off. I insist.”
And then, in one, easy movement, Prince Luc jumped down from the branches. A small shower of cherries rained down in accompaniment, bouncing about his feet.
There was something somehow new about the way that he walked. It wasn't particularly fluid, but it was very steady and very strong. And it wasn't as if he were taking his first steps, either – rather, it was simply as if he walked without every having stumbled or fallen. Dusting off his suit, he took the few steps necessary to come to stand directly before Genevieve. She had to turn her face all the way upwards to meet his eyes, for he towered over her; she did not nearly reach his shoulder. He extended his hand, and she took it.
She stooped to dislodge one foot from its shoe, but it took longer than was necessary, for all she could think about was the warmth of his hand holding hers. When she finally stood back up, a wave of dizziness washed over her, sending her off balance.
“Oh -” she yelped, tottering backwards, but he caught her and steadied her once again. “Thank you, Sir,” she gasped.
“Of course, my lady.”
“I'm not sure – maybe – perhaps it is the sun – I did forget a hat today, and I haven't been out very much lately – just a touch of sunstroke, that is all. I feel quite better now.” Gen did not disclose that the sensation had not been entirely unpleasant, or that it had worsened when he had put his arms around her.
“Well, then -” and he bent down to scoop up the tiny slippers, and then straightened and offered her his arm. “Are your toes happy?” He inquired merrily, as they made their way out of the garden.
“Oh, very! The grass is simply lovely,” Gen breathed.
“Of course it is! Will you introduce me to the gardeners, Lady Genevieve?”
“Oh – your Highness, I – I am ashamed to say that I can't remember their names.”
The beautiful, barefoot, brand-new man drew her arm closer through his own. “Then we'll find out together,” he said.
Percy stared incredulously at Genevieve. He smiled over at Mortimer, expecting to get a twinkling grin in return. But Mortimer was focused on the little white cat, his face drawn.
“Is there more to the story?” Percy finally asked, politely.
“What?” Genevieve piped, looking up. Her eyes were blurry and distant.
“You wandered outside, and found a man named Luc sleeping in a tree...” Percy trailed off. He glanced over at Musetta, who seemed to be equally confused.
Gen stared at him, seeming to be somewhere else entirely.
“I don't understand,” Percy said finally, with a laugh. “Am I missing something? I don't see what any of this has to do with the... the spell that you mentioned. Is there more to the story?”
Genevieve smiled, dropping her eyes. “There is more,” she conceded. “Much more. But please, might it wait till tomorrow night?” She looked up, and her eyes were pleading.
Percy nodded, although he still felt lost. “Of course, my lady.”
Genevieve smiled. “Please. All of you – call me Gen. Let us drop formalities. And now, as it is almost seven o' clock, let us make our way to the dining hall.”
Upon retrospect, Soleil would not remember that night's dinner in the same way that four other of the people at the table would remember it. Her impression, instead, would be similar to that of only one other.
She would remember, hazily, how Gen revealed yet another surprise: a midnight soiree, a gathering of members of the Guild of Enchanted Ones; Kay and Gerda were already due any time now – they had been Queen Viviana's mentors, and now they, along with two others, would come to stay at Minnowway to serve as tutors for the six of them.
She would remember the food, which tasted even more decadent than it looked: the roasted fowl, the colorful selection of puddings, the array of candied and crystallized fruit, the endless bottles of golden honey-berry liquor.
She would remember thinking it strange how Mortimer kept showing her attention, when she was doing nothing (so far as she could tell) to encourage him – and especially when Musetta was trying her hardest to catch his eye.
She would remember being at the very height of giddiness, continuously suspended in a state of surprised delight; sitting there with her family and her new friends, with chandeliers blazing above; surrounded by more beauty than she ever knew existed, as well as the promise of more beauty to come; finally convinced that it was not all a dream – is it not strange? How somehow, the living is sweeter than the dreaming, she thought to herself.
But one memory would stand stark and glittering-clear, sharp as a sword's edge, in Soleil's mind, when she would seek solitude in order to think later that night.
She saw what happened, perhaps because she had been waiting for it; perhaps because fate would have it that she should be the first of the Simons to see. In any event, it did seem odd that it should go unnoticed by everyone else at the table.
Musetta had just said something witty, and everyone was laughing. Mortimer reached out to take up his dessert fork, and upset his water glass in the process. He hurried to catch it (in this moment Soleil realized that the glass had been completely full, while the wine glass beside it empty), and his right hand consequently got quite doused. Soleil took in that
(firstly) Mortimer winced in response to the water, and grasped his hand, as if it were acid burning his skin;
(secondly) Mortimer folded back the cuff of his jacket, unbuttoned his shirt at the wrist, and began to roll it up when he saw something beneath the fabric that caused him to pale (if it was possible for him to become paler) and quickly pull down his sleeve once again. Before he managed this, however, Soleil caught a glimpse of thin, red marks beginning at the inside of his wrist and traveling up his arm, marks which could have been anything from knife-cuts to fresh burns.
(thirdly) Mortimer lifted his gaze and looked her squarely in the eye.
(lastly) Soleil snapped her eyes away, thunder roaring her chest, and deafening her ears.
Copyright © 2012 by Olivia Meldrum