Philomene opened her eyes and found herself face to face with a goldfinch.
She scrambled out from under the handkerchief she’d been using as a makeshift bed, feeling her heart jump into her throat. Goldfinches were not quite big enough to see Flower Folk as food, but that didn’t make the sight of one so close any less alarming, especially after a peaceful sleep. The princess shook the handkerchief at the bird. “Shoo, shoo!” she whispered. “How did you even get in here?!”
Weeks of being carried by on-foot human travelers had left the interior of her dollhouse laboratory even more disheveled and disorganized than usual, to a point that would have horrified the servants back home. But it was a secure place to sleep, safer than in the pocket of a human who might roll over in their sleep. The locked, bandaged-over windows should have kept out any curious or hungry creatures. This one had apparently pecked the balcony window wide open, as far as Philomene could tell, and was ignoring water-soaked seeds and dissected blue flower petals as it hopped towards her. In fact, it seemed almost focused and purpose-driven. There was an alertness in its beady eyes.
She took a deep breath and tried again, mustering as much dignity as she could as she sat up in her cotton nightgown. “Haven’t you any manners? If you’d knocked or alerted my servant, we could have arranged a meeting! State your business here. I’ll forgive you intruding on royal property if you aren’t a threat.” And if the bird was, she thought, she just hoped it’d make enough noise to alert the others.
The goldfinch paused, and then spoke in a singsong voice typical of Enlightened birds. “A bird just speaks to a bird, o! I sang but you did not respond.”
Philomene sighed, at least relieved to see her guess was correct. This bird was at least intelligent enough to be reasoned with. She rubbed her forehead. “All the birds sing at this hour in the morning. Now please, state your business with me.”
“Sent to deliver a message to any members of the Marl family, o! Any who escaped. Found you, I did, because the squirrels said it smelled like violets.”
This captured her attention. Violets were the flower of the house of Marl, ruling family of Thumbelina Colony-Kingdom; an outsider might not know that. “I do not recognize you,” she said, squinting at the bird’s bright colors. “Are you a citizen of the colony? And do you mean to say others of us escaped?!”
“Don’t know! Don’t know. So far I only found you.” The bird fluffed up its feathers, took a deep breath, and sang in the sweetest voice Philomene had ever heard.
“The olive trees will blacken and burn, the blooms will reach the sky
If you return to Thumbelina, you will surely die.”
It stopped, looking expectant. “Well, that is the message! Did I deliver it properly? They said if I told you who sent it, I would die.” It didn’t sound any more alarmed at the prospect than it had at its unnervingly cheerful warning.
Before a silent Philomene could process what she’d heard, an enormous, light-skinned hand with long fingers reached through the broken window and grabbed at the goldfinch. “Out of there, you!” Marjorie’s voice boomed through the dollhouse.
The goldfinch evaded Marjorie’s grasp, but flew out in a panic the moment she withdrew her hand. Seconds later, Marjorie’s concerned green eyes were peering through the window in alarm.
“Princess! Princess, are you alright in there!? Ugh, I can’t believe I slept through that!”
Philomene could, but did not say so. Even with the herbal concoctions Philomene prescribed for her, Marjorie had been sleeping longer and heavier since she’d allowed the parasite to nearly bloom weeks ago. There was no need to bring that up when the handmaiden was already distraught.
“I’m…fine,” she reassured Marjorie. “It’s alright. He was just a messenger.”
“I heard that. Must have been someone like Toad trying to intimidate you out of returning. Maybe they realized we came bringing help and are trying to scare us off.” Marjorie bit her lip. “Then again, perhaps it is safer for you to wait outside. We can settle in Canducci, it isn’t too far away.”
“No,” Philomene said, a little more bluntly than she intended. “That is, no, Marjorie. We should continue. We’re so close! And it was probably just an empty threat from Toad, like you said.” She stifled a shudder and made herself smile instead. If she let the goldfinch’s words get to her while reassuring another, she’d be a hypocrite. “I’ll tell you more about what the bird said later. You’re here, so I know I’m safe. I mean it.” When she said that, her smile felt a little more genuine. “That said, perhaps I should have tried to move some furniture in front of the windows before bed last night…”
“But Highness, your back! Please, allow me to do that for you. Besides, we’ll be at Nautilus by nightfall, and I’m sure they’ll have a safe place for us to hide.” Marjorie held out her hand, and Philomene walked over to sit in it with the help of her cane.
The human maidservant drew herself up to her full height, giving Philomene a chance to look around the sparse forest. She almost found herself missing the pine tree canopy of the Blue Forest. Here the trees were hardy, knobby things made to withstand the dry summers of the climate, not nearly as tall or grand. They looked like towers to Philomene as opposed to pillars reaching towards the sky. It was more open and somehow less secure.
She thought she saw the goldfinch perching atop a branch, and tucked herself a little lower against Marjorie’s hands. Marjorie may have noticed from the way her pulse increased and a frown crossed her face.
Speaking of towering, Ezra did just that when Marjorie turned around, though as usual it looked like he didn’t really mean to loom. He had his head bowed and his shoulders hunched over as if to apologize for his size. It was just difficult not to, Philomene imagined, when surrounded by trees that barely reached one’s own height.
“Is-is everything alright?” the giant asked, holding a burlap bag in one hand. “Basil was just negotiating with a merchant we found on the road, and Cecily’s getting a fire going so we can make fried eggs and grilled onions.” He held up the bag to demonstrate; it was full of onions. “That was, um, all the merchant had to offer, apparently. He seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere.”
“Oh, it’s fine! Everything’s fine,” Marjorie said too quickly. “We were just having a little bit of girl to girl talk. I, for one, cannot wait to be rid of this ‘camping.’” She scowled as she wiped bits of grass and dirt from her traveling cloak with her free hand. She’d been sleeping on the cloak next to Philomene’s dollhouse. “You know, we could just skip breakfast and make our way down to the shore. We might reach Nautilus by lunch time at that rate. Or late lunch?”
Ezra’s gold eyes widened. “Skip breakfast?! Absolutely not! We can’t make that walk on an empty stomach, especially in this heat, or we’ll be miserable by the time we get there. You in particular need to make sure you’re eating enough.” He crossed his arms and scowled. “Skip breakfast indeed. Is that how humans take care of themselves?”
Philomene wondered if Marjorie’s appetite was in decline too and she was just trying to hide it with excuses, or if the message had shaken her as much as it had Philomene. Moving right away might be the wiser option. Then again, Philomene thought, maybe the message was sent specifically to unnerve them and damage their morale. If that was the case, she couldn’t let it spread to the others yet, and she certainly couldn’t let the stress get to her or her servant.
“Eggs and onions sounds just fine, Ezra.” Philomene couldn’t meet Ezra’s gaze when he was standing even when she was in Marjorie’s hand, but she looked up at him anyway; to do otherwise would be rude. “I appreciate you looking out for us.”
That was right. They were traveling with two friendly giants, a warrior prince and a polar bear. She was much safer than she’d been when they’d first fled. Whatever awaited her at Thumbelina, she wouldn’t be facing it unprepared or alone.
Much to his surprise, Ezra had discovered he liked life on the road.
He certainly wouldn’t have seen himself suited for it. He knew years of lifting heavy trays and carrying bags of flour had left him stronger than he thought, but he was used to life indoors. The Center of the Universe was crawling with unknown insects, strange plants, unpredictable terrain and temperature changes. Most roadside inns were naturally run by humans and built to accommodate humans. They’d encountered only one with a room big enough for two Sky Folk. The nervous, suspicious innkeeper had charged double for it and Ezra had slept on the wooden floor anyway, insisting Cecily take the bed.
And yet, it hadn’t been all bad. Basil’s fairy godmothers had an odd talent for redesigning and resizing clothes. As a result, they’d sent him off with fresh, clean outfits to spare, and though he had to wash them in rivers or streams, the bright blue tunic and black slacks he wore were still in far better condition than the patchy things he’d brought from Mielle. He’d learned from Basil how to identify which mushrooms and berries were poisonous and which were delicacies, invented three new hand pie recipes and one rabbit and dandelion stew that smelled so good Aurora ate it all up while Ezra wasn’t looking. When they had to sleep outdoors, he was able to rest his head against a curled-up polar bear with fur softer than any pillow. On one chilly night, everyone but Cecily and Philomene had slept on top of him, and he hadn’t even minded.
Thus even though he knew it was for the best that they would approach Thumbelina’s border city of Nautilus within the day, he felt a little sad about it. It meant Cecily would likely part ways with them, at least for a while, once she’d found somewhere to settle and seek word of her husband. He suspected the late nights up talking with Basil would be fewer when they were busy trying to break a curse. It had been much easier for him not to think about his name when he hadn’t had many strangers asking for it.
Morever, Nautilus was a human city. A fairy market was one thing. One expected to see oddities there, and if the humans were going to consider a Sky baker an oddity that was their problem, not his. But there would be far, far more humans in Nautilus, and on the land, human was synonymous with person.
Basil was taking the lead on Aurora, riding the bear down the dusty, well-worn road as they approached a steep incline. “Honestly,” he said, “that merchant’s behavior was too strange! Quite rude, if you ask me. He obviously had apples and spices to sell, even a few bottles of oil, but he wasn’t interested in selling them. Said he meant to sell them in Nautilus and nowhere else. Is Nautilus a major trade city?”
“It’s a port city,” Philomene said from Marjorie’s pocket. “He might not have been able to sell them to us if he had a buyer there, Basil.”
“Well, he certainly was in a hurry. Come to think of it, I’m surprised how many people we’ve seen going this way since yesterday.” Basil turned around to address the others behind him as Aurora plodded along. “I would think with Thumbelina cursed, Nautilus wouldn’t be a very safe place to stay.”
“Did Nautilus send you any support when the curse hit your kingdom, Philomene?” Ezra asked, not wanting to come off as aloof just because he was lost in his thoughts.
Marjorie huffed. “No, of course not. Why should they? I’m sure they don’t want to put their precious city guard at risk.”
“Well,” Philomene added in a hesitant tone, “we left so quickly in the dead of night that if they did send any support, we just didn’t see it. It’s quite possible. Although, the problem with Imperial intervention would be-ah, you know, nevermind.”
Ezra was about to question just what Philomene meant when he heard a high-pitched screech and noticed a great shadow sweep under him. He looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun, to see a roc making a wide circle above in the cloudless sky. It had a narrower body shape than the ones he was used to, its wings more angular.
Cecily had been so quiet, taking the rear of the procession, that Ezra startled when he heard her soft voice. She was holding up well on the journey, the color returning to her cheeks as she spent more time in the sun. She leaned against her walking stick and peered up at the strangely-shaped roc.
Ezra stared at her. “What do you mean, Vox?”
“That’s a Sea Roc. I’ve seen pictures of them before. They’re only used by Vox officials or Celestial Patrol.” Cecily considered this and then began to walk along, as if it were not worthy of further thought.
Ezra quite disagreed. “Vox is out here?! I mean-Celestial Patrol is, are they…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Wait, what do I have to worry about? I’m serving my sentence properly. I’ve done nothing wrong.” And yet, the very idea of running into a ‘CP’ made him want to hide behind Aurora.
“Something wrong, Ezra? You’re going a little pale,” Basil said. “This Vox, is it trouble? It’s not a threat to you, is it?!”
“No, no! Vox is a-a city state. It’s the ruling city-state of the Sky, the Celestial Capital. It’s just-it’s just surprising to see Celestial Patrol this far out,” Ezra mumbled. “I’m sure they have business that has nothing to do with us.”
Basil gave Ezra a skeptical look before turning around and leading Aurora onward. They were just at the top of the big hill. Ezra could already smell a salty, fishy scent he assumed must be what Marjorie had called ‘sea air.’ He peered over the horizon, wondering if he might be able to get a first glimpse of the ocean from that height. In doing so, he almost stumbled over Aurora, who gave him a warning grunt.
“Sorry! Sorry, sorry,” he stammered as he backed up. “Are you alright? I didn’t-”
“I’m fine, Ezra! And I’m strong enough to catch you if you did fall on me,” Basil bragged with a winking, flirtatious grin that quickly faded to an awkward, confused look. “Sorry for the sudden stop. It’s just, well, see for yourself?”
The prince gestured down to the valley below the great hill. It gave a view of the expansive city Ezra had to assume was Nautilus, a patchwork of spires, square and tiled roofs and patches of green. A great wall surrounded the circular city and curved inward within it, forming a perfect spiral with a shining, opalescent palace at the center.
Looming over it was a great, jagged mountain with its far slope leading directly to the shore. A spiraling path led up the rocky mountainside to a network of doors and tunnels peppering the top of the mountain like holes in cheese. Greenery covered the mountain like a skirt, though nothing suggested a choking mess of brambles or beanstalks.
It was a lovely view, but Ezra could see that wasn’t why Aurora had stopped. Bears didn’t really appreciate scenery. No, Aurora was making irritated grunts and snorts at the nervous driver of a wooden carriage. A crowd of what had to be hundreds, maybe thousands more were lining the road leading down the hill, with even more human travelers swarming near the city gates.
“A-a bit of a jam,” Basil said with an incredulous laugh. “Princess, Lady Marjorie, is this common?”
“…No,” Marjorie said, stepping forward with Philomene in her front pocket. She absentmindedly put Philomene’s dollhouse in Ezra’s hands and walked in front of him, clearing her throat and assuming an innocent, curious voice as she approached the carriage driver.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” she trilled. “I admit to being quite the worldly sort, and I do love making conversation with my fellow travelers. What, pray tell, bring you to this fine city? Especially at a time like this, what with the curse and all?”
“Curse?” The driver, an old, stout woman, stared at Marjorie. “For a ‘worldly sort,’ you’re out of the loop. They broke that curse last week!”
“…What?” Marjorie’s ability to keep her poker face up never ceased to astonish Ezra.
“Yeah, a hero right from Nautilus did it! The Duke’s so proud, he’s throwing a month-long festival over it. Thought I’d try to make a little money off of that. Seems I’m not the only one who heard about it!” The merchant rolled her eyes and laughed, then dragged a wrinkled hand down her face. “Don’t suppose you lot want to buy some dresses in the meantime? Traffic discount?”
Marjorie stood still as a statue, her expression frozen. She managed to tilt her head, and Ezra could swear he heard her and Philomene speak in the same time at the same time.
As Ezra looked past them, he thought he saw the white Sea Roc landing within the walls of the city.