The night before they left, Tiana worked the whirlwind. This was not in itself odd. She owned a restaurant, which was all about heading for disaster and swerving right. The death grip on the schedule was at nine thirty. The laughing crowds came in for their food. For their rolling slide music. For their delight.
Chefs worked the line. Open flames and steam and sizzle. Everyone at their stations. Mise in place. Knives flashed. Staff bustled in and out with plates loaded for bare.
Tiana called out the orders and planned not just for tomorrow’s meals, but for the meals three days gone. Tomorrow she would not be here. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. She had to be sure the wheel kept turning while she was away. She flirted with the thought of not going, but Belle would kill her dead. Or hug a book at her. Mulan would just throw her in the rental car.
She threw her own blend of fillet in her Jambalaya and watched the green powder sink in. Stirred. She focused on now. On what she needed to do.
By eleven, the crowds began their subside. She wiped at the weary on her forehead and sighed. Looked over her lists again.
Naveen kissed the top of her head as if to say, “Relax.” As if to say, “It’ll only be a few nights.” As if to say, “It’ll be fine.” He didn’t say any of that. His hands on her shoulders. Warm. She leaned back and looked up. Felt her face soften into a smile. Then she added a couple of items to the list for Thursday night. She didn’t want to leave him in the lurch. She opened her mouth to say that maybe she shouldn’t go and forget Belle. Forget Mulan. She had obligations.
He danced her around the wide room until she forgot everything except the movement. Which. Was. Pretty effective.
The night before they left, Belle planned. Not the reservations or the play tickets. She’d take care of that months ago.
She had two copies of the map. One for what they actually did. One for planning. She’d marked it up with notes for interesting sights along the way. She’d read through a stack of books and made a grid. Along the top was a list of types of locations: natural wonder, historic, literary, ancient ruin, food, shopping, rose gardens, other garden, book stores, etc. It was a wide grid. She’d switched to A2 paper when legal had proved too small. Along the left side was a list of places. She’d put an X next to each item where the type of thing applied. Marked the spots on the map with points allotted for the quality of the location based on how many things it matched.
Beast peered at her suitcase. He poked the spine of a book where it bulged out. “Did you pack any clothes?” He looked at her worriedly. “You’re only going away for three days.”
Belle had been about to roll her eyes. Looked at him. She put aside her list. Pulled a book out of her suitcase and put it on the coffee table. It was one of the books that she was in the middle of reading. She looked into his eyes and smiled. She put her hands on his wide shoulders until they relaxed.
She’d planned enough.
The night before they left, Mulan spent the night out. She walked in a circle from sunset to dawn. Raised $1425 for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
When she got home, she kissed Shang’s last email. She had printed it out the better to crease. To touch the creases. Mushu looked like he wanted to beg to go with her. Cri-kee sniffled, but this was a women only trip. Princesses.
She put her heavy boots on. Put on a “No! I don’t know Kung Fu - I Fight with Swords!” t-shirt. Jeans that had only been worn three times.
She didn’t need to pack . She had a full duffel under the bed. When it was time to go, she pulled it out and out the door she went.
She got in the red rental car. Put the top down. Put on the road music track. Went to pick up her friends.
It started to go downhill at the gas station at the edge of town.
Mulan liked to top off at the beginning of a trip. Tiana went into the gas station and gave them exact change. She avoided credit where she could.
The sun broke over the metal roof of the gas station. Over the wide flat fields that surrounded the town.
Sunshine on a grey spring morning and Mulan felt like singing. Grinned at Tiana. Spun on her foot as she pulled off the gas cap. She let lose with, “I know a place ain’t nobody cryin’, ain't nobody worried. Ain't no smilin' faces, no Lyin' to the races,” She jumped over the gas line and picked up a squeegee. She twirled it in the air. A wide splashed arc. “Help me, come on, come on. Somebody help me now.”
Tiana grabbed another squeegee and snapped the windshield wipers out away from the car. She sang out. “I’ll take you there.”
Belle put aside the map, and sang, “Oh-oh! I will take you there.” The gas went into the car. They sang out. Friendly birds joined in. A stray dog. A sleek cat. Joined the song. They danced as they spun and cleaned and got ready to go. With a gleam.
At least the ninja-pirate let them finish their song. Mulan looked at him. They all looked at him. Black pajamas with a peg leg. Pirate hat over the black cloth covering his face. Crazy red rimmed eyes and a squawking parrot. He waved a cutlass at them and yelled, “Argh, give me yur gold.”
Mulan sighed. “That’s not how you hold a sword.” She stepped forward, blocked the cutlass with her squeegee, twisted his wrist and took the sword. Which she held the right way. He yelled, “Argh.” and fumbled for something. While he was distracted, Belle hit him with her purse, which had the complete works of Shakespeare in it. In hard cover. It made a loud crack against his skull.
Tiana came around the car with her squeegee.
Any number of things might have happened at this point. He could have been a diabolical genius intent on world domination while wearing one of the most poorly planned outfits ever. His parrot could have offered more than color commentary.
What did happen was that thirty more ninja-pirates rappelled down from the sheltering roof of the gas station. There were eye patches over masks and leather boots from unclear on the concept gold brocade stealth outfits. There were beards sewn onto masks and skull-and-cross bones decorated pajamas.
Mulan jumped in the car and started the engine. Tiana dove for the backseat, while Belle sacrificed Romeo and Julliet’s love to hold off a series of throwing stars, darts and one parrot. They drove through the scattering ninja-pirates and off onto the highway.
After a moment, Mulan said, “Running doesn’t invalidate our girl power moment.”
Belle starred at the thirty or so metal objects bristling out of her Shakespeare and said, “Certainly not.” She looked closer at a star. “Huh, this one has a skull and cross bones engraved on it.”
Tiana rolled her eyes and pulled out her crackberry to text Naveen. “Dead women tell no tales.”
Mulan turned up the music and soon they were singing along with Otis Redding and “Sitting On the Dock of the Bay.” This trip was not wasting time.
Actually, the moment that it all went downhill went something like this.
Belle smiled very, very brightly and blinked her eyes. She had pamphlets. Very glossy pamphlets. And a book with yellow sticky notes. And a very tattered grid. They’d been traveling for four hours and had visited a hay bale labyrinth next to a diner under a giant thermometer and a palace made of corn. Belle had bought a magnet. For some reason there was a high school gym inside the corn palace. Students shot basketballs through hoops made of corn stalks. Mulan took a picture.
The next spot had a score of eight on the Belle map: volcanic hill, cathedral next to standing stones, fairies, gargoyles, three story book store, old town center and an Atomium, which turned out to be a giant replica of an iron atom.
None of the books had mentioned the fire bird living in the not so extinct volcano. The bookstore had long since burned down. Belle glared accusingly at her guidebook.
The cathedral perched on the edge of the volcano, because naturally where else would they have built it. Belle threw a corn ring in the volcano and cackled something about, “Precious.” Mulan snickered. Tiana ignored them because she was busy looking at the cathedral.
The cathedral looked like St. Louis Cathedral back home except it was built from polished black stone. Course the town was lousy with fairies leaving fairy dust all over the place. Bricks floated like leaves on the breeze. Far more than leaves did.
Tiana pushed a brick with a finger. It floated through the air in a lazy loop.
Inside the cathedral, it was cool. Sunlight streamed from a hundred stained glass windows. The gargoyle choir was amazing. Stone voices from every direction.
They probably shouldn’t have, but it was flying gargoyles singing, “First I was afraid, I was petrified.”
Tiana sang out, “But I spent so many nights, thinking how you did me wrong, I grew strong.”
Met Mulan’s eyes, who pulled Belle up to danced on the backs of pews. They sang, “I learned how to carry on.”
As generally happened, everyone joined in. Human voices calling up and gargoyles booming the earth down the high cathedral walls until the glass hummed.
A wonderful conversation in song. Then the fire bird joined in. That was less good. Then there were ninja-pirates rappelling down the cathedral walls.
Mulan and Tiana dragged Belle outside as she yelled, “Stop trying to ruin our trip.” Threw her in the car and started downhill. No way to go but down. Cobblestone streets and the fire bird singing wide wings of lava fountains behind them. Lava that floated up on the fairy dust and away from the town. Light shown up from standing stones and ninja-pirates tumbled up in the air in the arms of gargoyles.
Tiana said, “I don’t think we should stop again until we get there.” She pointed at a gap in the buildings. “Turn right.”
Mulan turned right. She glimpsed the road that circled the town. She took another hard right at the next turn. They passed two old women walking up a narrow cobblestone street. The women gave them a look that could have curdled concrete.
Belle opened her mouth to say something, but stopped as the road curved left and the road turned into a long flight of stairs.
Mulan slammed on the breaks. “That’s… unexpected.”
Tiana said, “More than ninja-pirates?”
Belle glared at her purse. “I should have gotten a map book.”
They parked the car at the edge of the stairs. Tiana stepped up and down the stairs. Her sensible shoes climbing up and down the sharp angles. She walked back up behind the car. “We could go back.”
Mulan laughed. “Down.” Her friends looked at her. She shrugged. “Drive it like a rental. I don‘t want to go back.”
A floating rock drifted by. A fairy zipped by too fast to catch. They strapped rocks to the car with duct tape and towed it down the stairs. Too bad. Mulan had been looking forward to driving down.
When they’d freed the car, they turned up the volume on the stereo and didn’t stop again as they drove up the wide freeway.
Okay, they stopped once for a snacks. But that was critical.
The point that the trip reached the bottom of the hill, the no seriously muddy pit at the bottom of the valley was when they reached the red bridge over the bottomless chasm with the festival grounds on the other side.
The red bridge that decided to turn into a flight of red flamingos as they approached.
“But, we’ll miss the plays.” Belle pulled out their tickets. “We have center front seats. We’re going to see the Scottish play in modern dress neo-Victorian steam-punk. Did you look at the pictures I sent? Did you?”
They sat on the hood of the car and looked down into the chasm. Mulan threw a pebble. There was no fairy dust. It fell a very long way.
They all sighed and without really thinking about it or discussing it, they sang.
Belle put her purse in the car trunk with a snap of the lock. “Ain't no sunshine when you’re gone.”
Mulan threw another rock. “It's not warm when you’re away.” Steam puffed from their mouths.
Tiana put her hands in her pockets and walked along the path by the cliff edge. “Ain’t no sunshine when you’re gone.” The grey shale rock of the path crunched under their feet. “And you’re always gone too long anytime you go away.”
On the far side of the chasm, crowds gathered in wide circles around stages in the round. Brilliantly dressed figures walked onto the stage and they could hear the roar. While the princesses sang the chorus and somewhere someone cried.
Someone not them. They turned around and behind them were thirty or so ninja-pirates crying onto each other’s shoulders. Pirate hat plumes drooping. Big fat sobs.
Belle clasped her hands in front of her chest and said, “Oh. It‘s not that bad.” Now even the parrot was crying.
Tiana put her hands on her hips and said, “That’s it. We’re putting on our own play.” She turned to Belle. “Do you have any barns marked on your map?”
Belle grinned. “Yes. Yes. I do.” She paused. A little line between her eyes. “It’s a magic barn full of parrots that sing about tiki rooms.”
A ninja-pirate fist pumped the air. “Grog!” The parrot squawked, “Sake!” There were several votes for plum wine and one zombie.
Tiana waved her finger. “After the play.” She looked at Mulan and raised her eyebrows.
Mulan grinned and got out her phone to call some friends for supplies. She said, “Essayons”, which meant, “Let’s try.” Literally. Army Core of Engineers and all that.
By night fall, they’d transformed the magic tiki barn into a playhouse. With tiki torches and little drinks in skull mugs with umbrellas in them.
They put on “The Tempest”. Ninja-pirates in the audience with their arms around their knees. There were more of them now. Gargoyles in some of the non-speaking roles. Tiana played Prospero. Mulan played Ferdinand. Belle was everyone else. She had the lines memorized. Except Caliban. The singing scarecrow from the field played him.
When they sang, “Full fathom five, thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made,” the ninja-pirates joined in the chorus, which wasn’t generally, “Yo, ho, yo ho, those are pearls that were his eyes;” But it worked.
In the end, they took a bow and everyone cheered and threw throwing stars at the tiki barn ceiling. No one injured, not even the parrots.
Afterward, the princesses shared a toast and planned what they’d do the next day.
They still had two more days to go for their trip. Belle had brochures. And now they could travel by flying-castle-sailing-ship, which possibly they should have used to reach the festival, but whatever.
For now, they were going to need a few more princesses. Tiana pulled out the phone tree and Belle hit the books. Mulan put on her appropriated sword and traded stories with the ninja-pirates.
And if it all ended up in a giant ninja-pirate versus zombie-unicorn brawl with a finishing chorus line of high kicking princesses singing, “In These Shoes”, that was okay. Mulan only showed those pictures to her closest friends. Tiana kissed Naveen and didn’t have to tell him that she was glad she went. While Belle, she hugged Beast and started her plan for the trip next year.
She’d need more books.