“Hide.” Philomene whispered the command to Melchior as she clung to the thick hairs on his back, watching the jewel attached to the moth’s thorax flicker. He was already hiding up in the rafters, but she knew he needed reminders and reassurance. The “Enlightenment Jewel” was a flimsy and poorly-constructed thing which had interfered with Melchior’s natural survival instincts without completely elevating him to sapience, leaving him with the intelligence of a small child. And frightened children needed advice from adults.
It could have been worse for him. By the time the Thumbelina Royal Guard had put a stop to Lord Germain’s inhumane experiments in Animal Enlightenment, many of the poor test subjects were dead or trapped in permanent rages. Philomene had managed to rehabilitate and stabilize Melchior, earning herself a pet and friend. The idea that she might now indirectly owe her life to the monstrous Lord Germain made Philomene feel a little queasy, though the smell of rotting leaves from the roof didn’t help.
At least she could take comfort in the knowledge that Lord Germain would still be rotting in a prison once Thumbelina was restored, provided he’d survived the disaster. That, of course, assumed that anyone had survived it.
“Concentrate, Philomene,” she whispered. “This is no time to be distracted. One thought at a time. Cats are the immediate threat. Avoid being seen by cats, then worry about the Toad and the plants and everything else.”
She looked around the roof area. Melchior generally slept inside the room, as even with his camouflage and large size he would be unsafe outdoors. Whoever had managed to open the window and let those monsters in had shut it closed as soon as the Toad was gone. For once, the massive size of the cabin was a boon to Philomene; built for and by a giant, it was like a vast cavern in and of itself and dwarfed the cats. They would at least have to sniff around more and take some well-timed leaps over furniture to make it to the rafters.
Unfortunately, that big one was sitting on her ‘dollhouse’ laboratory. She could just imagine pots and potions tipping over, glass shattering and potted seeds strewn about every time it poked its big paws into the now-broken front window. That must have been the other message the Toad wanted to send her. He knew she was out there, he could send creatures to kill her at any time and he was never going to let her complete her research.
“I sent the message to Marjorie. She should be here soon.” For all of her many faults, Marjorie could never be described as ‘unreliable.’ She literally would drop everything and come running if Philomene asked, much as the princess was loathe to demand it. “I can’t tell if those animals are Enlightened like you, or even like the Toad. They seem to be acting like regular cats…”
A careful examination revealed that the door to the bedroom was open just a crack. It wasn’t enough to herd the cats through, but if she pressed flat against Melchior he might be able to climb through. She whispered the order to him and the moth took off flying, landing square on the wall next to the door.
Two cats looked up at her, meowed and stretched up in an attempt to swat at her. They couldn’t get anywhere close, but just seeing their great eyes and fanged mouths leer at her from below made Philomene want to disappear into that wall entirely. The fact that riding like this and holding onto Melchior when he was sideways did a number on her back only increased her agitation.
“Go. Through there. Now!”
Philomene had to hold her breath and felt the surface of the door brush against her, but the moth managed to make it through the door to the kitchen area that served as the cottage’s atrium. It was even more cavernous than the bedroom had been, though much cleaner than the last time Philomene had seen it. Then, safe in Marjorie’s hands, she’d observed walls thick with dust and cobwebs. The new inhabitant must have spent some time tidying up, though he apparently had very few possessions other than some heavy-looking books and the pots and pans that now hung in the kitchen. What must have once been a dinner table had been used as a work surface, covered with a dusting of flour.
And one frog.
The Toad stood up on two legs, croaking and bowing with an oily smile. “I thought you might make your escape out here,” he said in a voice like gargling. His brownish-green back was covered with white spots, as it had always been. “Care for a meeting, Your Highness?”
She didn’t want to face him again. She couldn’t, not now. Her desire to just bury herself in Melchior’s fur and pretend she hadn’t heard him was difficult to fight. Instead she instructed him to land on the edge of Ezra’s cast-iron frying pan, letting her peek out over it from a safe distance.
He wouldn’t go until she spoke to him, and if she could delay him long enough Marjorie would return to throw her shoe at him. “I think I’ll speak with you from here, if that’s quite alright.”
“If the lady wills it. Don’t you think this has gone on long enough? You can make it all go away. You know you can.”
“You threaten me with cats and think it’ll endear me to you!?” The nerve of that wretched amphibian, acting as if she could fix everything just by bowing to his will. That was really all it was about, wasn’t it? Just an ego trip for him. “Don’t you even care what happened to Thumbelina? You won’t even take responsibility for your actions?!”
“The Green Witch will listen to me! She promised. She said she’d hold off and fix everything if you marry me.” The Toad puffed out his throat like a great spotted bubble. “So that would make you the selfish one, wouldn’t it?”
“Fix everything.” Philomene took a deep breath, refusing to lose her temper even in front of a traitor. “When Thumbelina Kingdom is restored I’ll see you rotting away in a very dry jail. That might not ‘fix everything,’ but at least justice would be served.” Philomene could think of worse fates for the Toad, but such thoughts were unbecoming and best avoided.
Then she went over his words in her head again, and something clicked. She narrowed her eyes. “What did you say about a Green Witch?”
The Toad’s yellow-brown eyes went wider, and he started to hop about the table in mild panic, leaving little footprints in the flour. “I said nothing. I said nothing! Don’t tell her I said anything, please! She’ll squeeze my guts out and turn me into flower fertilizer…”
So, that confirmed it. Philomene knew that the Toad couldn’t possibly have magic of his own. For a second, Philomene almost fel sorry for the Toad. It hurt to see him reduced to this, so mad with delusions of grandeur that he thought blackmailing her into marriage would somehow spare him from whoever he’d made a deal with.
Then she thought of a sea of choking vines, her mother and father asleep in their beds surrounded by briars that just wouldn’t stop growing and spreading. She remembered a hollow mountain erupting with blood-red roses and glowing blue flowers. Those memories did a fine job of devouring any sort of pity for a former friend.
“As if I could tell her. All you did was confirm she exists. Was she the one who opened the window, Toad? Are the cats hers?”
Bulbous eyes glanced back and forth. “I-I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you any more!” The Toad leaped about in panic, finally landing in a small pile of flour. It stuck to him in a way that would have been funny once upon a time. Now Philomene could derive no pleasure from his presence.
“You’re not good at pretending to be secretive.” And Philomene felt like just as much of a liar, putting on a brave face when she still wanted to order Melchior to keep flying and not look back. Still, she was getting information out of his panicked state. “What was your plan here? To scare me? To ruin my research? If one of those cats had eaten me I wouldn’t be able to marry you, and your whole plan would have been for nothing.”
“It was to speak to you! You won’t talk to me unless I send cats after you. And don’t you mock me, Princess!” Out went the bubble throat again. “Sooner or later you’ll realize there’s no way to undo that spell other than the one she knows, and she answers to me.”
Of course. Whoever this Green Witch was had easily been able to manipulate the Toad by stroking his ego and giving him the illusion of power over a larger, stronger being. Philomene hadn’t studied people and the way they worked to the degree Marjorie had, but even she could see that.
The problem was, why? The Green Witch had nothing to gain from the fourth princess of Thumbelina Kingdom marrying an enlightened Toad. In fact, she couldn’t see how anyone would benefit from cursing an entire kingdom and refusing to take credit.
“Of course, it was all my idea,” the Toad continued. He had apparently regained his bravado. “She just agreed to help me because she thought it was such a smart idea. In fact, wait until I show you what she lets me do now.” He held up his front left arm, revealing a gold band clinging to the warty flesh.
Philomene’s instinct was to try to interrupt whatever he was about to do, in case this Witch had given him another magical boon. On the other hand, if he was going to reveal it to her so easily she ought to observe it first. Besides, she could see no better way to demoralize him than to let him understand his fear tactics would not work on her. Let him turn into a warthog or make it rain indoors. It wouldn’t stop her research.
“See, I just have to…erm. Hmm.” The Toad was tugging at the gold band, his wide mouth frowning. “It’s stuck. Just a few turns, you see, and…”
They both heard the quiet rumbling in the distance and felt the soft vibrations of the walls as someone walked onto the flimsy front porch. Philomene and the Toad were of such a size that they could not help but be aware of when larger beings were approaching; their booming voices and thudding footsteps gave them away. Marjorie’s steps were easy to recognize, close together, as was her fast-talking nasal voice. The fact that Philomene could hear her voice meant that Marjorie was talking to someone; she had not returned alone.
A much greater thud followed, and the Toad looked as if he might throw up.
Philomene couldn’t help but indulge in a little bit of mean-spirited intimidation of her enemy after the scare she’d had. “Oh, did you not notice? Didn’t she tell you? A giant lives here! Not just a big human, but a walking mountain from the clouds. He’ll blow you away with his breath.”
“A-a giant? I’m not afraid! Of a human or a giant!” The Toad tugged frantically at his ring again. “What’s wrong with this thing?! Come on, work! It worked earlier! Rotten, rusty piece of-”
The door swung wide open. The moment the Toad saw his opening he went for it, hopping right past Marjorie and the human next to her before the former had time to react. Marjorie jumped and yelped, and something behind her spoke in a deep rumble.
“Was there a frog on my worktable?!”
“Marjorie!” Philomene was so happy to see her maidservant, she didn’t mind Melchior taking right off and landing right on Marjorie’s hand. “It’s bad! There are cats out there, in the bedroom, and, and…what’s wrong?”
Marjorie was looking a bit wide-eyed at Philomene, and then turning red. She gestured behind her bony shoulder at the shapes behind her.
There was indeed another human, this one so wrapped up in furs and scarves it was hard to make out what he looked like. He was giving Marjorie confused glances.
Behind him was something Philomene could only describe as a walking mountain in a baker’s apron, staring down at her with befuddled gold eyes.
It was Marjorie who spoke first. “You’re safe, Princess?”
“Princess?!” The fur-clad human and giant shouted at the same time, the resulting thunder pounding in Philomene’s ears.
She hid her wince out of decorum, stood on Melchior’s back with unsteady legs and managed to lift her skirts in a curtsy. “Princess Philomene Marl Thumbelina. Melchior, land on the table. We probably need to have a talk.”