Ezra had helped Basil and Marjorie chase out what was by his account an absolutely ludicrous number of stray cats, snooped the area for mice or another frog on Marjorie’s advice, and moved a half-broken bookcase to barricade the door just in case. Aurora, the bear, was guarding the exterior of the cabin. Now there was nothing more to do than to sit at the table only ever used for baking and hear the truth.
The thick wooden table had obviously been built by the previous owner, a man considerably taller than Ezra. Marjorie and Basil needed to sit on top of cookbooks in order to reach. The tiny Flower being sat on the table with her dress puffing out around her, somehow dignified despite being covered in a dusting of flour. The moth, which Ezra now recognized as the one which had landed on him when he’d first arrived, was sitting on the kitchen wall and resting.
It was a little hard for Ezra to see the princess. He could make out a humanoid shape with dark skin, black hair with purple streaks that must have been ribbons, and a purple gown with bell sleeves. Her face was too small to perceive. If he had to concentrate to notice a human’s eye color, he would need a magnifying glass to read her expressions. It meant he had to rely on her voice and broader expressions to communicate with her. And what if his voice sounded like an earthquake to her? If humans were enormous in comparison to Philomene, how must he look?
Self-consciousness made him sink back into his seat. What nonsense! His was the default size, so why did it bother him now?
It was Marjorie who spoke first, at the princess’s blessing. Her face was a little red and there was a hint of unsteadiness in her voice, but she otherwise hid any shame she felt at having hidden Philomene from them. “So! As I’m sure you have figured out by now, this is our true reason for hiding out here. In all fairness to me, and I think I do deserve at least some fairness, I did tell Ezra that I was here on behalf of my mistress in distress. And she is absolutely in distress.”
“So it would seem, milady.” Basil was switching between studying the princess and giving confused looks to Marjorie. He seemed a little put off by the size of the furniture, insisting on standing on his chair. “But why did you tell me you had a sick grandmother?”
Marjorie frowned and tapped her chin. “That was a lie, yes. My grandmother is dead. But you have to understand, we were out here in the middle of nowhere and it was quite a stressful situation. Very much a change from palace life. You’re a prince, surely you must understand that?”
“Marjorie!” Philomene’s tiny voice somehow managed to fill the room anyway. She stood up with the help of her cane and managed to stare down Marjorie. “We misled that poor boy and our landlord. Even if it was fear of my own safety, that doesn’t justify it.” She turned towards Basil and Ezra, giving a bow. “As this was done in my name, I ask you to accept my apology. We will explain everything; we owe you that much.”
Marjorie looked for a moment as if she’d been slapped. “Princess, you needn’t apologize for me. I-I mean…” She looked so much like she wanted to sink into the wood of the chair that Ezra felt it difficult to maintain his irritation with her.
“It’s alright,” he mumbled. “Really. Mostly I’m just hurt that you thought I’d ever endanger Princess Philomene.” He glanced away, hiding a scowl. “I know I’m bigger than you all and must be a frightening sight sometimes, but I’d rather not be treated like a criminal down her before I’ve even had a chance to do anything.” Not that he’d done anything up there, he added mentally. At least he could understand why the humans might regard him with suspicion, though it was impossible to tell what the little Flower Folk thought of him.
“Anyway.” He clasped his hands under his chin. “You can stay here as long as you like, if it’s still safe for you. I’m not sure why you call me ‘Landlord’ since neither of you pay any rent, but Marjorie did tell me about the Market. I wouldn’t be able to make a living without it. And a baker who can’t bake is like a…a…it’s a…I’m not a poet and I’m no good at metaphor. You know what I mean.”
He heard a tiny giggle from Philomene. “That’s simile, Mr. Kettle. But thank you! It will be a great asset to have you on our side. Nobody threatens a giant…”
At this Ezra felt himself blush and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You’d be surprised…” But even if it was only due to his relative size, it did feel nice to be wanted for once. Wasn’t he supposed to be angry at Marjorie for lying? He really was a pushover.
It was Philomene who turned to Marjorie. “I understand,” the princess said. “You just wanted to do what you thought was best to protect me. I respect your loyalty, and I’m sorry I yelled at you. But we should try being a bit more straightforward from this point on. It’s okay to trust some people.”
“I know, I know…” Marjorie apparently turned into a scolded puppy around the princess, her usual slick confidence having melted away. “I really am sorry about that, you two. It’s just that-”
“Princess!” Basil interrupted Marjorie, leaning forward on the table and staring down at the poor Flower girl. “I don’t know what Thumbelina Kingdom is or what dangers you’re hiding from, but as a prince I vow on my honor and this, um, table to do everything in my power to protect you and defeat whoever threatens you! You have my sword and my courage and my strength, and I won’t rest until justice is done!”
Philomene was crouching and covering her ears, and her tone sounded a little pained when she looked up at Basil. “Thank you, Prince Basil. I appreciate all of those things. But perhaps you’d like to hear what that threat is before you make that promise?”
“I hold the promise all the same! Be it dragon or wizard or wicked giiiaaaogre, I vow to-ow! Marjorie!” Basil shot a little glare at Marjorie as she pulled him back onto his chair by his hood. Ezra, meanwhile, tried his best to ignore the little voice wishing that Basil would make that sort of vow to him. Ezra was not in distress at the moment, after all, and he knew he was being petty at the wrong time.
“Her highness is probably a little exhausted from her ordeal, and would probably appreciate if you could abstain from CROWDING HER or LOUD NOISES.” Marjorie gave meaningful looks to Basil and Ezra. Basil retreated into his chair as he seemed to catch on.
“I wasn’t being loud. Was I? Am I loud?” Ezra found listening to his own voice was an impractical way to tell.
“No, dear, but just consider it a preemptive suggestion. As I was going say, I’ll let Philomene rest while I explain our situation,” Marjorie said.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. “No lying this time? No fake grandmothers, no conveniently dropped information, no failing to mention other possibly high profile individuals living in this shack they’ve decided is my house?”
“Promise! I owe you that much.” Marjorie held up her hands. “See? No fingers crossed. Nothing but a firsthand account of the fall of the Kingdom of Thumbelina, where humans and Flower Folk lived side by side in harmony. A tragic tale of Ezra where are you going?”
Ezra was up on his feet, heading to the stove. “Tensions are obviously high, Her Highness has had a rough night and we’re all probably a little tired from the marketplace. We’re about to hear a story, and we’ll hear it over tea. And I set a cherry tart aside that I’m sure I can divide by four. Three and one very small sliver? Whichever. You’re all currently my guests and my pride demands I offer hospitality, something I would have done earlier if you weren’t always off by yourself.” That wasn’t entirely true, he had to admit; he’d mostly avoided Marjorie and pretended she wasn’t there. He also knew he was preparing tea mostly as a stress relief for himself, as he needed to do something a bit ‘normal’ after all that had happened that evening. There would be tea. He understood tea.
Marjorie shrugged. “If you insist on offering us refreshments I certainly owe it to you not to turn them down. I’ll just start telling you the story.”
“As I said, Thumbelina Kingdom is a place where humans and Flower Folk lived together. It was hidden in a hollowed-out mountain which, I have been told, used to be some sort of volcano. That detail is completely irrelevant to the story, but I thought you might find it interesting. It was lit from the inside by lanterns and luminescent mushrooms, with moss and greenery growing along the walls. Quite a lovely place. The humans who lived there resided in the bigger tunnels, and the Flower Folk lived in smaller residences inside the cavern walls or in hanging gardens. Flower Folk like Philomene give off a natural magical aura that makes plants grow more readily, so they were able to survive without much sunlight. The plants, I mean. A human monarch and a Folk one always ruled side by side in each generation, and any humans considered too much of a threat to the Folk were summarily exiled as a threat to the greater good.
Ezra, are you okay? Do be careful! I’d hate to see you spill tea on yourself after you went to the trouble of making it.
Ahem. So it’d been relatively peaceful for generations, until that Toad showed up. We had a few Enlightened animals residing in Thumbelina, mostly mice or insects. The Toad was not terribly bright, but he was quite obviously Enlightened and had apparently come to attend university there. That was his cover, anyway; personally I suspect he had this planned from the start.
Well, some time passes and he bursts from the library one day, claiming he has a right to marry one of the princesses, seeing as their ancestor, the Revered Thumbelina, ran away from a marriage to his ancestor, the…Toad. I suppose they’re all Toads. Not terribly creative, amphibians. This is quite a surprise to us and frankly a little baffling, as he had been a casual friend to the princess in the past. But no, he was absolutely adamant that one of them should marry him, carrying on about divine right of this and honor of his forefathers that. I don’t need to tell you how that went over, do I? He wouldn’t leave her alone, and was eventually expelled for such behavior. Rightly so!
That should have been the end of it. But then things started going awry. The plants along the walls began growing out of control. It was slow at first, until suddenly we had entire tunnels clogged by weeds within a few hours. The central cavern almost collapsed when an entire oak tree sprouted within it, growing in a matter of minutes. We humans helped the Flower Folk evacuate as the disaster became more dire, but we could only do so much.
The Toad arrived and claimed responsibility, which seems impossible as he hadn’t a single bit of magic. He said he’d let up if the Princess would marry him. She actually considered it, being a selfless leader of her people, but that would have only made the situation worse. Besides, why should bullies get their way? Instead the guards attempted to arrest him and he vanished before a human could stomp him out, which is frankly a tragedy.
When he vanished he left behind a puff of seeds, which landed and grew into briars. Those briars enveloped the palace, sprouting massive red roses which gave off some kind of poisonous scent. Anyone who breathed them in fell into some manner of sleep like death. Philomene was lucky to have been outside trying to investigate the phenomenon, and she was the only member of the royal family not affected by the curse. All she could determine was that Green Magic was used. That’s all we know!
I was not lying about being the court jester. My family had been employed in that role for ages, though it was a cover for our true role as bodyguards. I was Philomene’s servant and still am, so I ran off with her to protect her. That’s how we ended up here, in the almost literal middle of nowhere.
All we can do right now is figure out who did it and how they did it so we can reverse the spell. Oh, and bring whoever’s using this Green Magic to justice. Green Magic is what it sounds like, magic using enchanted plants. It’s a little like that aura the Flower Folk have, magnified by a thousand. But it’s usually considered small fry magic, used to increase harvest or create decorative flower beds. According to Philomene’s research there’s never been a precedent for it being used on this scale!
So I’ve been going to Moonflower Market trying to pick up any sort of potentially magical bits and pieces I can get ahold of for cheap in exchange for my painted miniatures, and Philomene dissects them, soaks them or melts them down to try to find bits and pieces of spells. Neither of us is a wizard, but she thinks we might be able to assemble an antidote spell with the right components. It’s just a matter of finding them, which so far is proving to be like sorting out a single bead in a silo full of them. And I’m sure I saw some woman selling magic plants at the marketplace the other day, but she hasn’t shown her face since. But not all is grim! All we need is to find the right pea, the right seed, maybe the right enchanted bean and…
Oh, Ezra! Really, are you alright? Splash some cold water on it!”
Ezra had indeed spilled hot tea on his shaking hands, but he was almost too shaken to register the reddish mark on his palm. “No, it’s my fault. I made the water too hot. Just, pardon me. I might know something about this. You said…” He turned to stare at her over his shoulder. “You said plants, right? Enchanted plants?”
Marjorie stared at him for a moment, and he felt as if he was being dissected in the name of science himself. “Yes, I did. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
“I know you said neither one of you knows how this was done, except that it used this Green Magic.” Ezra could feel his heart pounding in his chest. “Is it possible that same kind of magic could make a beanstalk grow?”
Marjorie glanced towards Philomene, and the princess considered for a moment before speaking in a squeaky, scholarly tone. “I don’t see why not. Just one beanstalk?”
“Yes, but a very large one. One big enough to support the weight of someone my size.” It had not been enough to support Hamilton Tooth, who was considerably bigger. “One tall enough to reach from the Center of the Universe, I mean the land, to the Sky. One that could anchor its roots down here and its longest tendrils in a Cloud Island.”
“I can only imagine how much magic that would take. I’d consider it impossible had I not seen what had happened to my own kingdom.” Philomene leaned on her cane. “I take it this isn’t a rhetorical question?”
“Someone did it. I don’t know who, but someone did it and the result was that one of us ended up robbed and murdered. And that’s why I’m here, because the people of the Sky need a scapegoat in order to feel safe.” Ezra hoped the bitterness in his voice was not too apparent. “But I can’t imagine why they would. The Sky didn’t end up ravaged by plants the way Thumbelina did. The only thing the beanstalk brought was…”
“Jack!” Basil snapped his fingers. “You’re talking about Jack!”
Ezra twitched. “You know him, Prince?”
“Why, word of his adventure has already spread far and wide! He traded his only cow for magic beans, and climbed to the Sky where he faced a ferocious giant who tried to eat him. He barely escaped with his life, returning with a harp that sings on its own and a huge goose that lays golden eggs. I heard about it when my brother came to visit me a few days ago. He said Jack told his story in song thanks to the harp, and earned the respect of the Ever After Empress herself. And…” Basil trailed off, covering his mouth. “Oh. Oh, wait. I see. I’m so sorry, Sir Ezra! I didn’t think about it. It must not have been so glorious for you.”
“No,” Ezra managed, “it wasn’t. It’s quite alright, though.”
He tried to remember the Jack he’d known, frightened and hungry, and reconcile it with what he’d heard. Jack couldn’t have been lying about his desperation, could he? And he was probably just a pawn, just like this Toad. And certainly Hamilton Tooth might threaten to eat a human in a drunken rage even if he probably wouldn’t actually go through with it. And that foolish, ungrateful little brat had HIS FAMILY’S GOOSE.
Ezra took a deep breath. “Well! I’m happy for him. Really! He seemed like he needed some help.” The Sun would reward virtue in the end, he reminded himself. He had to gulp down half his tea before continuing, to calm himself down. “I’m sorry, you were talking about much greater problems and I dragged the conversation off to talk about my own. That was awfully self-centered of me. I’d love to help in any way I can, especially since we might be suffering from the results of the same Green Magic. But I really don’t know anything about it. I’m just a baker. Of course, as I said, you have my shelter…”
“And my sword, and all I offered before. I can talk to my fairy godmothers to see if they’ve heard anything. I can defeat those wolves the next time they menace you!” Basil had bounced back completely from his misstep. Ezra had to admit, that was somehow a bit endearing. Basil’s cheer was contagious, as was his proud grin.
So what if Basil occasionally misspoke, or Marjorie fibbed, or Philomene talked about concepts he didn’t understand? Basil saved him and was charming. Philomene seemed kind and noble, and Marjorie was, well, Marjorie.
He found, for all the strange news regarding malicious plant magic and fallen kingdoms landing in his lap, he liked talking with them about it. That was something. Ezra hadn’t enjoyed talking with Hamilton Tooth about anything.
“The wolves are odd. I don’t know how they fit into anything yet.” Marjorie thought about it and then shrugged. “And I promise to lie in service to this investigation…” She seemed to notice Philomene giving her a meaningful look, one too small for Ezra to see. “And to tell the truth to you,” she added. “Honest. Just, one knows what one is good at, right?”
“You all might be of more help than you think,” Philomene said. “I would like to speak with you tomorrow in private, Ezra.”
Ezra had no idea how he’d manage to converse one on one with someone so tiny, but he agreed with a little nod. There really was something authoritative about the princess.
“I just can’t imagine why the same person would enact such complete destruction on a kingdom of Flower Folk,” Ezra said, “but play what amounts to a prank on Mielle. What could the motivation be? I mean, is it even the same person? We know it was plants. Plants!” He slapped his forehead. “That’s what I wanted to be on the lookout for at the marketplace! Magic plants, because of that. I spent all my money on seasonings and ingredients I can’t get ahold of instead. You know, for next time.”
Basil patted his side. “It’s alright! You know for next time.”
“I know. I just can’t believe it slipped my mind. I must have been distracted. It’s so late. I may just be tired.” His mind had been consumed with the idea of impressing someone. Who? Was it one of the customers? All he knew was that when he tried to think back, he was left with a strong urge to conquer one of those recipes in his book if it took him all night to do so.
It had to be stress. Surely after such a night he had a right to stress, didn’t he?