“Is there anything else?” asked Perdita. “I confess that I’m a little surprised by this visit.”
“That’s right, we never see you!” chimed in Arleyne. “Just the shoes in our closets, like magic. Like you were some sort of reverse thief!”
“Quiet Shoeman! That’s what we call you,” added Joy merrily. The younger princesses dissolved in giggles, but Ced felt that Perdita was looking at him with suspicion, and he fumbled with the bag that held the book and his shoes.
“I have another errand — my mother Gwen sent you this. As a Christmas present,” he explained, holding out the book and feeling that the explanation would be less flimsy if he had bothered to wrap it.
“Did she really?” asked Camellia, smiling. “How is she doing? It’s been years since we saw her.”
“She really must come see us someday!” added Gabrielle. “And she got a book of fairy tales for us,” she said, taking the book from Ced and flipping through it. “Look at the illustrations!”
“Oh! A new book! How lovely,” Daphne said, almost tearing it from Gabrielle in her haste to see it. “I swear I’ve read everything in our library, and I’m so bored of all of them…”
“Not ALL of them,” Natalie said meaningfully. Iliane giggled, but Holly elbowed her sharply, glaring at Natalie.
“She’ll be glad you liked it,” said Ced. “Anyways, I’ll just see myself out,” he continued, addressing himself mainly to Perdita and Camellia since the other ten princesses had retreated to their library, arguing over the book. Camellia smiled and vanished inside the library as well, but Perdita seemed intent on seeing him out herself. Luckily for Ced, one of the girls called out, “Perdita! This book has The Princess and the Troll, your faaaavorite…” and she sighed and joined them.
Ced opened and shut the door without leaving the hallway, hoping that everyone would believe he had already left. Taking the blue shoes from his bag, he slipped them on and made his way noiselessly to to one of the closets (filled with dark green, he noted, so it must be Iliane’s). He pushed his way past green overskirts, green underskirts, green petticoats and a green nightgown and crouched in the very back, pulling one of the voluminous skirts over him and poking his head through the waist. From his hiding place he couldn’t see the princesses, but he could hear to some degree. They were reading one of the stories in the book, Camellia narrating, Pieris taking the part of the prince, Juliette that of the princess and Mariel making a strikingly evil goblin.
By and by, the goblin was vanquished, the lovers were reunited and it was past the princesses’ normal bedtime.
“Let’s get out of here!” said one. (Sounds like Holly, thought Ced.) “Come on, Perdita, let’s…”
“Quiet!” hissed Perdita. “What of the cobbler’s assistant? Mariel, Joy, Arleyne, split up and check for him.”
Now, if Perdita had assigned inquisitive Holly and methodical Pieris to the task, or perhaps gone to look herself, the story may have ended right here, because of the twelve they had the sharpest eyes and the quickest minds, and while Ced’s hiding spot was good it wasn’t flawless. But Mariel, Joy and Arleyne were the youngest of the princesses, and had been jumpy all night, waiting for night to fall so they could get back to this new game Perdita had discovered a week ago. Therefore, they made only perfunctory checks under beds and in closets, and Ced passed unnoticed.
“He’s long gone, Perdita,” announced Mariel confidently.
“Just us,” chimed in Arleyne.
“Good,” Perdita replied. “You three go first, then.”
Ced was, of course, unable to see what “going first” actually entailed, but he could hear what sounded like some sort of hushed chant. Real magic! he thought, his stomach turning over. (His master had always held, grudgingly, that magic existed, but he had held even more strongly that the Minister of Sorcerery was a right old quack, so Ced had never had much regard for the mystical arts.) Perdita directed them, having three chant at a time, and after a while said, “Camellia, Daphne, shall we?” One last chant, and there was silence. Ged stayed perfectly still, just in case; his instincts served him well because he finally heard Perdita muttering “I guess he really IS gone after all.” Then she, too, performed the chant; this time Ced didn’t just hear the chant, but also a loud thud. The strange sound seemed like a signal to Ced that he was finally alone.
He burrowed out from under the piles of laces and skirts in Iliane’s closet and made his way to the library. There was the fairy tale book on one of the chairs and, lying haphazardly on the floor, was another book. No doubt this is the book of magic they are using, thought Ced, picking it up as gingerly as if it was a live crab. He was surprised, then, to find it was only a fantasy story. He flipped through it, held it by one cover and shook it hoping for a secret note to come out, searched the spine for secret magical objects, flipped through it again backwards. Feeling silly, he raised it over his head and proclaimed, “Book, take me to where the princesses are!” He read the title aloud, then read it backwards. He read the first word from every sentence on the first page, then skimmed the margins for hand-written notes. Frustrated, he let it fall to the floor with a loud whump! Sitting on the floor alongside it, his mind wandered to the Minister of Sorcery’s threats of what the King might do to him if he couldn’t figure out the secret. Holding the book tightly to his chest, he mumbled “Please, book, I don’t want to die.”
This dress belongs to twenty-two year old Gabrielle. Although she doesn’t have much artistic sense herself and is hopelessly unorganized (the less charitable might call her “messy”), she is adept at making things and is a sort of jack-of-all-trades. One of the more extroverted princesses, she seems to have a project going on with all of them: she takes Iliane’s dress designs and sews them into doll clothes, she binds beautiful journals for Daphne, she created wooden swords and shields for the twins (before they moved on to the real thing), she helps Mariel wire things together for her experiments. Her favorite color is royal blue, and her favorite flowers are columbines.