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They called them the big islands — locally, at any rate, in the little subsection of reality just past Schrodinger’s Drywall (you have an idea that the cat’s got in behind there somewhere, but you won’t know for sure until you knock a hole in it and check). They exist in a place in time and space where reality has gone so far out the other side that it’s circled back on itself. Here, magic is real. (It’s real back in the other place too, of course — people just mostly pretend not to notice.) Here, anything can still happen, and quite frequently does: See the sea … It’s quite pretty and blue. See the way it twinkles in the sunlight. See the serpent lady …
… Whoops. You can just see her reflection, overlaying the scene below in the crystal ball. She adjusts her hair in it and smiles a breath-taking smile. Reflections were important, after all. They were, in a way, why she wasn’t using her magic mirror. That, and you couldn’t necessarily get that big a picture in the little slab of enchanted glass that, at present, lay in its little drawstring velvet bag by her side. The serpent lady smiles and waves a hand over the crystal ball: The image in it pulses, floating, so to speak, in mid-air.
Near her other hand is a piece of wood and metal, a spindle from a spinning-wheel. It still has a piece of thread on it, shimmering oddly in the light. It also has blood on it. Not as if some princess has carelessly pricked her finger in the time-honoured manner, having wandered into one of those deserted tower rooms that can be such an attractive nuisance, and then fallen into a sleep of a hundred years and a day (always throw in a little something unexpected, that was the serpent’s lady’s motto. Or one of them); but as if instead, a man, a blundering idiot of a man … She’d have his— Well, never mind – but not even a prince, mark you. Just a man, who’s come along out of nowhere and cut his hand open on the spindle, and then tried to spoil everything.
She’d put a curse on him, of course – and such a curse – just before she threw him from that tower window.
Now, with most people, that would be that. Curse from a deadly and, though she said it herself, beautiful enchantress, and thrown from a tower window – end of problem.
Only, she strongly suspected, this one was still alive … and the magical feedback that was already playing out from that little incident was rebounding in unexpected ways. She sighed. Why did people feel the need to play the hero?
She drew her magic mirror out of its drawstring bag. Who’d have thought, a little piece of enchanted glass no bigger than a hand (or thereabouts) – with enough magic in it to do quite a lot – and more than most people bargained for …
She looked into the magic mirror … And it looked back …
‘None of that,’ she said with a slightly sibilant smile. ‘People aren’t sssupposed to ssee that …’
The eye, the actual big staring eye that had opened up on the surface of the glass, frowned at her.
‘It’ss no good making faces at me — Although – there’s a thought …’ she said. ‘Anyway, don’t disstract me, I’m working here …’ The serpent lady lifted a finger to her lips, her forked tongue pressed thoughtfully between her teeth. Now if I were a would-be hero, where would I be? How to find him before he could mess things up any more than he had already …
So far, her efforts to trace him had come up empty: Scrying the seas and islands in her crystal ball, spells and enchantments, reaching out in her dreams (though there she felt a bit fuzzier about the whole thing) — even, goodness knows— …
Her attention was drawn back to the all-seeing eye in the mirror. You could do a lot of magic, with ordinary things, or so she’d found. Things people didn’t necessarily expect to be magical could conceal quite a lot behind their simple-seeming exteriors. Take mirrors, for example, and spinning-wheels …
She raised her hand over the glass, wiggling her fingers here and there as the spell started to take shape. She concentrated on the image she’d reconstructed from her memory – a young man’s face faded into view.
As it did so, she set the mirror on the table, eye side up. She moved her fingers through the air, weaving and twisting in strands and threads, musical notes, streams of light … They floated together over the eye of the mirror.
Then, she picked up the spindle, with the would-be hero’s blood still on it – that he’d left his mark on in the psychic blast as the enchantment round her spinning-wheel had been smashed. She could see it over again, seething through time and space: He cuts his hand on the wheel, but instead of falling into an enchanted sleep – he fights back. That was … unusual.
That alone had her more curious than she was prepared to admit, let alone all the other little unanswered questions that were niggling at her … She released the spell in a dash of vibrant pink light that leapt from the spindle and through into the crystal ball, whirling around over the ocean for a moment, getting its bearings, and then whooshing off into the distance. She moved her hand again over the magic mirror. ‘Ssleep. Sleep now … There’ll be work enough for you ssoon …’ She slid it back into its pouch and threw the cover over the crystal ball.
Through the doorway, out onto the stone balcony, sunset was spreading over the islands. Just the time when all sorts of things came out to play.
‘Resst well, little hero,’ she said into the air. ‘I’ll sssee you in your dreamsssss …’
Nemo watched the setting sun gloomily. He supposed he should be happy. After all, he was getting married in the morning …
Well, tomorrow evening, anyway. Except, when you find yourself suddenly and peremptorily betrothed to the avatar of a recently reawakened volcano goddess, and probably now having the approximate life expectancy of a chocolate tea-kettle, it kind of put a new perspective on things.
And whilst he was sensible of the honour that any girl should wish to marry him at all – it was just … he’d never thought it’d be like this.
That, and his friends were either in jail or missing (and consisted of mermaid, one, and talking parrot, one – and guess which one was still at liberty). Added to which, there was his bride-to-be (although in the circumstances, it kind of seemed the other way around), who, although beautiful and no doubt lovely, had a tendency for anything she touched to burst into flame after about a minute.
Funnily enough, this and other more immediate problems seemed to bother him a lot less than the fact that Nessa wasn’t speaking to him. And would probably never speak to him again. (That she was in jail – at least partly on his account – probably didn’t help any.)
Nemo, my boy, he told himself, you’ve got to buck up your ideas. Think, man, think! There had to be a way out of this. Preferably without anyone getting their heart broken – or incinerated.
But just getting out of here might prove a little tricky. Outside the window below, were a pair of guards. The same two guards in fact who he’d, ah, helped into unconsciousness when breaking Nessa out of jail the first time. They looked up at him sullenly. He waved. They glared. And, outside the (locked) inside door, was another pair of guards. It was almost like they didn’t trust him …
Standing there, though, something in one of the trees caught his eye. He looked at it for a moment, and then jogged back inside and came back with something, which he held up to the light. ‘Pretty polly wanna banana?’
‘Rawk! Put it where the sun don’t shine. Rawk!’ Nemo chanced to look below. The two guards with black eyes and bruises were grinning.
‘Smart bird,’ said a voice from below.
‘Every home should have one,’ said the other.
Rzzl-frzzl rckn-frtz … mutter-mutter …
Except, and he knew it wasn’t just his imagination, the bird in the tree had just winked at him. He saw a surreptitious pinfeather whirring round ever so slightly in “keep going” hand – er, wing – gestures.
He went back to the fruit bowl.
‘Polly wanna date?’
‘What d’ya think I am? Rawk!’
There was snickering. Gratuitous, strangled-laughter-type snickering. These guys really held a grudge.
He looked meaningfully at the parrot.
‘C’mon, you must be hungry … Polly wanna …’ he looked at the fruit bowl, ‘papaya?’
‘Hot-diggety!’ said the parrot and swooped in towards the window.
‘I think it’s a shame,’ said a carrying voice from below, ‘what some creatures are reduced to.’
‘Yeah, someone should feed ’em. Even a parrot deserves better company than that … Still, probably won’t catch anything from him, will he?’
Now they were just getting mean.
‘Nah. Well, not in about half an hour anyway,’ the other one said mysteriously.
There was whispering from below. Followed by more laughter. Well, that couldn’t be good … He wondered what they were talking about. Apparently, they knew something he didn’t.
Feathers landed on the table by the fruit bowl and started nosing through it. Nemo stepped over.
‘Yeesh, what a buncha maroons,’ the parrot said. Not for the first time, Nemo thanked his lucky stars that Feathers had sense to whisper on occasions. ‘Say, I wasn’t kidding about that papaya …’
‘You just like it ’cause it sounds like outa—’
‘Don’t say it! I’d just forgotten about that …’ Feathers twitched slightly.
‘Feathers,’ he said to the parrot, ‘are you telling me those … lemon-shaped gourd-like fruits that you fed me and Nessa are addictive?’
‘What? No … Potentially … Sorta. Maybe. Anyway, it was in a good cause – got ya out of a scrape didn’t it?’
Nemo put his head in his hand. ‘Anything else about those you maybe neglected to mention?’
‘Hey, you were glad to get ’em, both of you. ’Side from which, if I were in your shoes, pal, I might welcome another outa— Ou— One of them.’
‘You’re up to your eyebrows in lava and sinking fast. Rawk!’
‘Keep it down, keep it down! There are guards outside that door too.’
There was a heavy knock at the door. ‘Everything okay in there?’ said a suspicious voice.
‘Er, yes! Just enjoying the, er, fruit. Thank you.’
‘Outsiders,’ muttered a voice from the other side of the door.
Nemo got Feathers onto one hand and grabbed a papaya with the other and took him over to as out-of-the-way a spot as he could manage.
‘You seen Nessa?’ he asked.
‘She tell you she’s not speaking to me?’
‘And how! Rawk!’
Nemo swallowed. He broke open the papaya. It made a mess. Feathers’ eyes lit up. He looked to Nemo to check it was okay and the dug in to one of the halves. ‘Ain’t you gonna have any?’
‘I don’t feel like it.’
‘Aw, c’mon. Ya gotta eat something. You need to keep your strength up. You’re a vital part of the operation. Keystone of the plan.’
‘Plan? You have a plan? To get out of here?’
‘Trust me … Have I ever let you down? (Don’t answer that.) Yer gonna love it!’
Feathers had just flopped out the window again when there was a peremptory knocking at the door. It swung open to reveal a girl dressed like one of the witch doctress’s assistants, only swankier. She stared at him in disapproval. ‘What a mess … Don’t you outsiders even know how to eat?’
Nemo looked down. There was papaya all over his hands and down his face and shirtfront from breaking into it for Feathers, and from where’d he tried to eat some himself.
‘Ugh. I don’t know what the Lady can see in him … Vala, Larissa, Loney, come – it looks like we have our work cut out for us …’ Three more young ladies dressed in the same sort of way stood outside the door. Along with half a dozen guards.
‘Yes, Madam Zara,’ came a chorus of female voices from behind their masks. The guards stayed silent, resting on their spears. The looks behind their masks didn’t seem any too friendly either.
‘Now,’ said Madam Zara, turning to him, ‘we can either do this the easy way or the hard way – and I’m having a bad day, so which is it to be?’ The guards flexed their muscles threateningly. Though from the look in her eye, Nemo was more worried about Madam Zara. She looked like she knew her way around a voodoo doll and a set of pins – and probably wouldn’t bother about the voodoo doll.
‘Hey … can’t we all just get along …’ said Nemo, backing away uncertainly.
‘The hard way it is: Girls, grab him!’
They got him. A cloth laced with something potent was put over his mouth and suddenly he found himself going night-night.
When he started to come to again he could feel himself being dragged backwards by his arms. Also, he couldn’t help but notice that he appeared to be blindfolded. And gagged.
He really needed to get some more shoes, he thought, as his heels trailed along the ground. Being barefoot was getting to be a pain.
He heard doors opening. The surface beneath his feet changed to smoother stone. Then another set of doors, and then strange sounds – gurgling and bubbling, pouring and sloshing …
Feathers had warned him about this. That there may be those among the islanders who may not be happy about the local volcano goddess wanting to marry him (how did they think he felt?), and might arrange for something to “happen” to him.
‘Is it ready?’ said a woman’s voice. Zara’s, he felt pretty sure.
They got hold of his legs. He could feel his feet being lifted up. Actually, come to think of it, it was warmer in here. Quite a lot warmer. He could feel steam and …
He was swung to one side, as they tried to turn him round towards the steam. There was heat rising towards his bare feet, and he tried to struggle out of the way. Were they going to cook him?
‘Stop that!’ said Zara peevishly from somewhere behind him. ‘Hold still! This is for your own good, you know …’
He was aware of giggling off to one side.
Well, this was it …
Cthoney sat on her Throne of Dreams, her head resting in her hand. Her eyes stared into the stillness, with the vacant stare of a long-dormant volcano goddess who is struggling to make sense of things – or even to find her way out of her own head. She was … getting married tomorrow …
She tried to think. She remembered waking up. Remembered a dream … There had been a boy, a young man, in the darkness. She remembered that part. She had felt a name on the air, echoing around him. She had seen him, glowing white, like a spirit along the way, with touches of gold radiating through him and out into the gloom. She pictured him again as she had seen him: His shirt and trousers half in rags (his trousers, in particular, barely came down past the knee anymore), and … Focus, she thought. Concentrate. Had to make sense of …
She saw him again. She’d called out in the darkness. And he’d … answered.
It had been a long, long time since anyone had bothered to answer her, or even to talk to her. Just to ask after her, to ask her how she was – so that she could feel someone cared … A fiery tear trickled down her cheek and evaporated into steam.
More than that, he’d been kind to her. And … She shook her head. Everything was so confusing … It shouldn’t be like this, it shouldn’t … auggh!
Something didn’t feel right. Several somethings. But she couldn’t make sense of … She tried to smile. She was getting married … Wasn’t she?
In the flaming heat of the temple-palace kitchens, pots bubbled, ingredients were gathered together. Off to one side, great baskets of fruit were laid up. Barrels of laki-laki (a local liqueur, made, among other things, from bananas) were hauled up from the cellars. Herbs and spices were gathered in. And, under the Lady Vexila’s watchful witch-doctressy eyes, a barrel of apples was carted in on a little bamboo trolley.
She turned back to the chief cook, a lady of long experience with a deep appreciation of the gentle art of coaxing food to mouth-watering perfection – and who wouldn’t have nuthin’ to do with that “eatin’ people” nonsense some folks was so keen on. Then there was the question of the traditional hog roast—
‘… and ya want my advice, Lady, ye won’t get none. Not in time for tomorra evenin’. They’s all been scared off clean over t’other side of the island. Just as well, really. I never did like the idea of some poor dumb creature turnin’ round and round over a fire with an apple in his mouth.’
For a moment the words ‘poor dumb creature with an apple in his mouth’ conjured up an image in the witch doctress’s mind. But, no … she’d have to be a bit more subtle than that in how she attempted to dispose of the man Nemo. ‘But it is a wedding feast,’ she reminded the cook, trying to keep ahold of her patience. The cook tended to have that effect on her.
‘Don’t you worry your pretty li’l head over it, sugar, ’s my advice. I been doin’ this a long time. Weddin’ feast? No problem. You leave everythin’ to Cooky.’
People just didn’t speak to the Witch Doctress that way. (Terrified kitchen maids tried to avoid drawing her gaze upon them as they passed.) Well, except Cooky. And, Vexila reminded herself, there was a tradition on the islands of being respectful to elders … And besides, good cooks were hard to find. Now, apples, why did she have apples on the brain … She looked down at the open barrel. They glistened there, red and shiny …
‘You don’t mind if I take a few things along with me, do you, Cooky?’ she said sweetly.
‘Larn sakes, help ya’self. ’T’ain’t as if we’s wantin’ for food roun’ here.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, her voice dripping with saccharine, though her eyes seemed to be elsewhere. She’d just had rather a good idea …
Thrown up into the air. Feeling the boiling, rolling heat … falling, plunging, through the steaming vapour— Splash!
Nemo got his hands up and pulled away the gag and blindfold … Oh.
He was in a big stone-tiled room. In a pool, in fact. That resembled nothing so much as a giant bath. There were bubbles on the surface of the water. They looked kind of soapy and … pink? Pillars rose up to an open roof around the corners of the pool – er, bath. The young ladies from earlier were busy around the edges, pouring in liquids by the amphora-ful or sprinkling in salts and powders.
The one he thought he recognised as Vala was pouring in a soft pink liquid that bubbled up and frothed as it hit the water. The beautiful, warm, steaming water … He’d forgotten what a bath felt like. As long as this was a bath, and there weren’t any crocodiles or piranhas in the vicinity. He looked. The other two, Loney and Larissa, were sprinkling in a pale blue powder by the handful, that fizzed and frothed over the surface.
Well, say this for them, that was one advantage about having volcano heat “on tap”, as it were. He wondered how they drained it …
A little sulphur-y, the water around here, but … not bad … Not bad at all. He was still in his clothes, mind, but, then, they probably needed a good wash too.
He wondered how big this place was. From the look of it, he wasn’t sure if this was even the only room of this kind in here. There were big double doors going through to one side, and though the outside windows were shuttered, there seemed to be internal “windows” running through near ceiling level beneath the open roof. He floated along experimentally, glancing around at the walls. Scenes on some of the wall tiles depicted volcanoes and parrots and girls in feathers and – huh – something he couldn’t quite make out … As if the tiles had crumbled away or gotten broken somehow …
The guards seemed to have vamoosed, and he couldn’t see Madam Zara. Must have wandered off in disgust or something …
Something made him look up. Splashing sounds from one of the other rooms. Sounded like someone else was getting the same treatment … Nessa, maybe?
In the twilight, the ant looked up at the tree as it swayed and wobbled in the breeze. It was of the kind known locally as the boingi or volcanic rubberwood tree. Carefully seasoned and treated with the help of volcano heat, its planks made the finest diving boards in the world (particularly prized by pirates, for some reason). But that wasn’t what the ant was thinking about.
It had this idea whirring away inside its head. The other ants would probably all laugh if it told them; although, through a strange concatenation of circumstances (involving a leaking barrel of treacle, a perilous sea voyage, and – well, that was another story), he was currently the only one of his kind on the island. It was just that some instinct seemed to speak to him out of the sunset – he didn’t know why, but he just had this feeling it was something he was supposed to do.
Of course, everyone knows an ant can’t move a volcanic rubberwood plant. Still, it’s amazing what you can do when nobody tells you you can’t … And, of course, he had high hopes …
Nessa was torn between fury and … well, it had really been quite some time since she’d been able to enjoy a good bubble bath. Her boots rested beside a dressing screen. More screens and potted palms surrounded the sunken bath, a little pool filled with warm bubbling water and mounds of suds. Which was good, because she was feeling strangely tearful. Well, not strangely, but –
She found herself looking round with interest despite herself. There were loofahs and natural sponges. Little stone bottles that smelled of things like rose petals and mint and cinnamon and limes. Some smelled of tropical flowers. She picked up a round powdery white ball from a woven basket. It fizzed on her fingers a little as she tossed it up and down experimentally in her hand.
Who knows why we do what we do sometimes? Maybe it’s just that the mind has gotten so overwrought, so overheated, that we have to do something, however zany or loopy it may seem, just to keep ourselves from cracking. She selected a few more from different baskets. Pale blue, pink, purple, and yellow. She kept them up in the air, juggling as she sat back in the bath among the foamsome suds and bubbles. She was a bit rusty it was true, but it was amazing how it all came back to you. Another one? Why not. She managed to scoop up another, orange this time, and add it into the mix.
Her eye was caught, though, by a label pasted on the side of a wooden box nearby, that for some reason reminded her of fireworks: Madame Splodo’s Bath Bombs – Kaboom-Boom Mix assortment. Warninge: Do notte add ye more thanne one at ae time …
That was probably what made her take her eye off the ball for a moment, as they all came tumbling down …
An explosive splash echoed through the walls. Multi-coloured foam fell in patters through the open roof and the connecting windows high up towards the ceiling line. Some of it made it into the big bath. Quite a lot of foam, actually. It was really rather pretty, in a way … On the tail of it, a number of spinning pasteboard boxes opened in mid-air, with their distinctive lettering and the picture of Madame Splodo on the front. Larisa and Loney spotted them at once and sped out of the room mysteriously quickly. Vala didn’t see them until a second later, and had to dive for cover. The doors closed behind them with a resounding boom – as more than a dozen brightly coloured powdery spheres spilled out from each box and down towards the water.
Nemo, in the middle of the giant bath, couldn’t get out fast enough, and even so he found himself watching in fascination …
In the smaller bath room, Nessa poked her head up out from under the water, and through the swirling multicoloured foam that half filled the room. Whoops …
She wondered where all the other boxes had gone … The sponges and loofahs still seemed to be here – somewhere – but the rocketing fountains of foam seemed to have taken—
The great watery explosion that came from the room next door was really quite spectacular.
Rainbow-coloured foam cascaded through the window up above.
Nessa tried to make a note of the name. Mama Splodo’s, was it? If they ever got out of here, she was going to have to remember that one …
The Great Bath Room (in fact there were bigger and better, but Nemo didn’t know that) was almost swimming with surprisingly weight-bearing foam. You could practically swim through it to the roof, if you were so minded. The trouble was, finding pockets of air to keep breathing. Floating near the top, this wasn’t so much a problem for Nemo. And it’d probably dissipate some when the doors were re-opened – although, by the booming sounds and shouting from outside it seemed that Loney and Larissa had bolted them shut in a way that meant it wasn’t easy to open them up again, when they’d secured them against the inevitable tidal wave of … whatever this stuff was.
A voice, frightened and tremulous, and slightly muffled, came from below. ‘Please, is there anyone there … Help!’
Vala. The other girl in the mask. There was a burst of frantic coughing from under the foam. Sure, she was one of the Witch Doctress’s assistants, with all that probably entailed – but what could a man do?
He dived down into the foam, and started swimming.
Nessa had struggled into her clothes again. She’d heard a cry from the other side of the big double doors. The ones with the window high above them where foam was still overflowing from the next room.
And then she’d heard someone calling for help. If the foam was pouring through like that, that must mean – she dreaded to think. She rushed for the communicating doors.
‘Hey, you out there,’ she called back to the guards and handmaidens outside the other door. ‘Get in here and help, someone’s in trouble!’
‘Yeah, right. Just get clean already, lady. Witch doctress’s orders. It’s just soap, it won’t hurt ya.’
‘Why you—’ She didn’t have time for this. The voice on the other side of the double doors didn’t have time for this. She tried to work on opening them. Something was holding them shut … Think, Nessa, think … What to do … How to get through …
He tried to make for where Vala would be, pressed under the foam. Except, he couldn’t see. He just had to go by ear (which were both filling up with bubbles). Fortunately, sound carried – vaguely – through the porous layers of foam. It was just kind of hard to breathe if you ran out of air pockets.
He swam deeper. Too deep. His foot went through, and he found himself falling into the water of the bath below. No time to panic. He struck out for the sides, the solid, stone sides and lifted himself against the surface tension of the foam. His arm muscles burned, but he manged to wriggle forward. And, an air pocket. He took a soapy breath and kept going. This was strange stuff … As he lifted himself up enough it was like he was swimming in it again. He reached out and found an arm. It was barely moving. He heaved and started kicking out for the surface. His lungs were burning now. Almost there … Almost there …
And then it was like someone pulled the plug …
And they were swirling back downwards …
As the doors burst back and foam started flooding into the room, viscous and strange, the colours twirling in amongst each other, Nessa realised that it needed somewhere to go. The shutters on the lower windows were closed. No time for subtlety, she got a chair and heaved it with a strength borne of desperation. It smashed through with quite a satisfying ke-rash!
Next one. Ah, she should have held onto the chair. She drew back her booted foot and kicked. Her toes hurt, but at least the next set was open. Hopping slightly, she pushed the shutters open wider and stepped back as foam started pouring out through them. It was up to her knees already, and rising. And then, in a swirling tangle of colour, two figures washed through.
One was a girl, dressed like one of the islanders. She’d lost her mask, though, and she was coughing as she drew in great gasping lungfuls of air — and looking, wide-eyed, at the vague foamy figure next to her. The figure next to her, she saw, as foam fell away, though still kind of indistinct among the bubbles, was Nemo.
‘Are you all right?’ he said to the girl … Why was she looking at him like that? All wide-eyed and … something.
The guards burst in, through the other door. Along with Zara and Loney and Larissa.
Zara looked around, surveying the scene. It looked like a brightly coloured soap-filled typhoon had rolled through. Folding screens lay flattened on the floor. The windows were bust open. Bath-time paraphernalia lay scattered about the room. Oh, and they were all completely covered in foams of many colours.
Nemo opened his mouth and a few soap bubbles came out, floating into the air. One of them, shimmering like a rainbow, drifted over towards Zara, who extended a long-nailed finger and burst it. Still, it looked quite pretty as it went …
Zara folded her arms, and looked at him, one foot tapping up and down on the ground, as if to say, This had better be good …
Which was when he happened to glance to his right and recognise the only other person who was about as be-sudsed as him. A great drift of foam fell to the floor as she shifted the set of her shoulders. Some fell from her long hair. It looked more greeny-brown than golden when it was wet, he noticed. But her eyes were just as bright, nailing him to the wall. Nessa just stood there. She didn’t say anything, she just weighed something in her hand and drew back her arm.
The sopping-wet sponge made quite a thwack as it hit him squarely between the eyes.
Through the windows, out to sea, the last glimmerings of sunset faded over the horizon.
Nessa sighed, sitting back against the wall in her cell. What a difference a day makes …
To think, just twenty-four hours ago, she’d been sitting in a prison cell waiting for goodness knows what to happen to her. And now … well, now she was in a prison cell, waiting for goodness knows what to happen to her, dripping dry against a cold stone wall – and shivering. After she’d thrown the sponge at Nemo, one of the women in masks had pointed a sharp fingernail at her and had her hustled away by the guards. Again.
She kept waiting, half hoping, for the sound of fluttering wings near the bars of the window up above. At least Feathers hadn’t abandoned her — had he? Early evening was getting fairly settled in by now and was looking to make a night of it. She thought she’d seen the distant curve of a yellow moon through the clouds a little while back.
That nice warm bubble bath seemed a long time ago. So did the last time she’d had anything to eat. She was cold and hungry and soaked. She leaned back and tried to squeeze some more water and suds out of her hair and sniffed. At least with the breeze blowing through, her clothes were drying off a little.
But where was Feathers?
The apple twirled on the thread tied to its stalk, round and round … The Lady Vexila, her witch-doctoring mask lying to one side, peered at it. It had been a deep crisp red before it went into the potion. Now it practically glowed. It just went to show, there was nothing wrong with variations on the classics – if done right, and you gave it your own little twist. Apples. So often it came back to an apple. She wondered why.
She paced around the great open tower-top room. When she had serious juju to brew up, this was where she came. Hardly anyone else was even quite sure what was up here – and you can bet they were afraid to ask. It was a bugger in the tropical storms sometimes, when the driving rain leaked through into downstairs, but from here she could look out over the island …
She could see the jungled expanses and hills off to one side. She could see the village out below, twinkling with coloured lights awaiting the morrow’s festivities. It couldn’t be often that a god married a mortal, after all. And they’d already had a big luau planned in any case, so, there you go.
But still, it was always as well to have a little something extra up your sleeve. Something they didn’t know you had. Something nobody knew you had or could do. It also kept life interesting. For her, anyway. And, after a fashion, quite interesting for other people, too …
She gazed out to sea and saw the pirate ship at rest in the bay. And then at last she turned to the slopes of the volcano. Mount Lava-Lava. A searing cauldron of fire and molten rock, and a source of power, if you knew what to do with it. But you had to be careful, if you didn’t want to get burned …
That, and whatever magic was in there was probably too closely tied up with Cthoney right now. Sustaining her “mortal” form. Vexila had made quite a study of volcano magic, but for the first time in a long time, she found herself nervous.
She stared back out past the village, out to sea, to the rolling ocean where the sea mists were seeping in. A fog was building. The weather round the islands had always been … idiosyncratic at times, but there— Did she hear the distant rumble of a storm cloud? The flash of lightning? Now that she could work with. It was a while off yet, though.
She put it to one side in her mind and descended the steps down to her workshop. There, she lifted the cover from something that might give her the edge she was looking for. It was a good thing the ceremony was only tomorrow evening, she thought, gazing out the window, as the sun fell on the stone-terraced slopes of the volcano. But she had everything she needed to hand …
After checking that things were proceeding to her satisfaction, she covered her little surprise over again. Walls had ears and mirrors had eyes … Which was why she kept hers in a little drawer in her quarters below, lined with lead and cedar. Just in case.
She locked the door on her way out, to the sounds of the distant rumble of the storm. Fog and flame, lightning and rain, enchanted apples and the dance of the storm, she thought, as she stepped down the spiral stairs. Magic mirror in the drawer, what, oh what, can the future have in store …
Nessa looked up. A faintly parrotty shape was struggling through the bars on the high window of her cell.
‘Confrazzle it!’ she heard it muttering. Something seemed to be getting stuck, but, somehow, Feathers managed to finagle it through.
He had a string gripped in each claw. The other end of each was tied round a bundle of shrivelled roasted-looking yellowish things. The big birdbrain looked pleased with himself.
‘Feathers!’ she cried out. A couple of same trailed down as she grabbed him and pulled him into a hug. ‘Boy, am I glad to see you!’
A slightly strangled voice managed, ‘Urk — glad to see you too, toots, but … need to breathe …’
‘Oh, right. Sorry.’
‘Don’t mention it,’ said the parrot, straightening himself out a bit and flopping down by his cargo. ‘Anyway, look what I brought ya. Go on, take a look.’
She reached out to one of the bundles. It was piping hot.
‘Roast bananas, island-style,’ he said with a big birdy grin. (One of these days she was going to have to ask him how he did that.) ‘Go on, try ’em.’
She pulled one loose. It was almost too hot to handle but she didn’t care. She was too hungry. She puffed a little air on it to cool it and took a bite. It was hot. It was food. It was heaven …
… but it was also hot. She reached out in the darkness. There was a bowl with some water in it. She managed to sip some down without spilling it, and then judged that the next bit of roast banana must be cool enough by now. ‘Aren’t you having any?’
‘Nah,’ said Feathers. ‘These are fer you.’
Nessa put down the roast banana she was eating and looked at him.
‘Ah, well, maybe just a small one, since ya insist.’ He hooked one away and spit it open along a seam.
‘Are you thirsty? I can pour a little water into my hand if that’d work.’
They managed somehow.
As she started to feel a little more human again, Nessa glanced at the parrot again. ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Where did these come from?’
Feathers shuffled slightly awkwardly from claw to claw.
‘What? What? Ask me no questions and I’ll tell ya no lies.’
A suspicion crystallised. ‘Did Nemo get you to bring these?’
‘If I said no, would ya believe me?’
‘Well, there ya are, then. Eat up, enjoy. Food’s hot, and you gotta keep ya strength up. ’Cos tomorrow, one way or the other, we’re gettin’ outta here!’
She kept glaring at him. He looked back, waggling his eyebrows. ‘Say, ’d’ya get ya hair done? Looks great. You clean up nice, toots—’
He didn’t even try to get away from the bit of flung banana, but hopped up and caught it in his mouth instead. ‘Mmm-mmm-mm. C’mon, c’mon. Eat.’
She reached over and ruffled his feathers. ‘Thanks, birdbrain.’
Nemo lay down on the floor and tried to settle. It was no good, though. He couldn’t sleep. It’s true there was a perfectly good big, fluffy feather bed, with real sheets and everything, just waiting there against one wall. There were even rugs so thick you could lose yourself in them. But he’d found the only patch of bare stone in the room and lay down on it. Because if Nessa had to make do with straw, there was no way he was sleeping on any feather bed.
Eventually, though, he drifted into something you might call sleep, even if it didn’t seem to be actual rest. There was too much going on. Too much happening.
And somewhere in his chest, something pained him. He saw himself, hanging from the tower window, a hand reaching towards him, coruscating with rippling green light. A forked tongue flickering over red lips. From somewhere he thought he could hear something like music – and a voice, softly singing: ‘I’ll ssseee you in your dreamsssss …’
The hand with the green light touched his chest, running through like lightning – and in his dreams, the man called Nemo screamed …
Over the ocean the spell travelled, then paused. It had heard something … from somewhere. Somewhere out there in the ether. It turned. Ahead … Somewhere ahead … Pink light rippled and accelerated. And far away, inside its little velvet bag, the enchantress’s mirror opened its eye …
To Be Continued …
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