Memory two: Paper stars
My hands reach out to the colourful lights strung above the stalls. They’re like paper stars and I want to look behind the pretty, patterns and find out how they work.
Father pulls my hand impatiently as I stare “Come on Elizabeth.”
I huff but obey, picking up the pace while my eyes jump around the place. Trying to see as much as possible.
The people are busy talking in a fast and tonal language I wish I could understand. It sounds a bit like singing, set against the strange local music that dances through the air.
There’s a violin-like instrument that’s played laying flat on a stand and drums that are played with fans instead of sticks. Beautiful ladies with long thin swords dance on a stage made from flowers.
I wonder what everyone is talking about? Why they dance? What the songs are about?
I should ask our butler, Shayu to tell me more about it when we get back to the palace.
The palace isn’t like anything I imagined in my head. But it’s still very pretty.
Everything around here is strange but pretty.
Back in Cygne things are made from marble, glass and silver but out here it’s all wood, paper and copper. It gives everything a warmer hue but it also looks…strange.
Then with a start I notice one of the stall-keepers is looking at me, the moment he sees me looking back he beckons me while holding a finger in front of his lips.
Father lets go of my hand to shake the hand of a man in an official-looking uniform. They talk in ‘old friends’ and ‘good old days’
I know how this is going to go, he’s going to keep chatting forever.
I blow up my cheeks indignantly, first he scolds me for being slow, but then gets distracted himself.
I look back at the stall, the man is still looking at me expectantly, beckoning me to come on over.
Father probably wouldn’t even notice if I go now, right?
I take a tentative step away from father, gauging the reaction. Then finding he’s not paying attention, rejoice in my newfound freedom by skipping straight to the stall.
Set against dark green silk stand rows and rows of tiny porcelain creatures. The statuettes are so beautiful. An intricate and cheerful collection of ducks, bunnies, cats and dogs wearing pastel-coloured clothes and holding baskets, fans and other trinkets.
I beam happily at them, then look to the shopkeeper, I want to tell him how beautiful I find them, how much I appreciate the craftsmanship.
But I don’t have the words.
So I decide I want to buy one instead.
I turn to find father but then the shopkeeper starts talking to me in quick syllables and I smile politely trying to explain that I don’t understand the language.
He nods patiently, points at the porcelain creatures and then at me.
I nod but point to the crowd next trying to convey that ‘yes, I want one of the statuettes, but I need to find my father first because I don’t have money for myself’.
I reach my hand all the way up to the sky in an attempt to mimic the word ‘father’.
He shakes his head, points at the wares, then at his money bag and shakes his head.
“You want to give me one for free?” I ask even though there is no way the man could catch my meaning.
That can’t be it, right? They look so expensive. I must have interpreted that wrong. I point at the porcelain duck, then to me, then to the bag of silver sticks and shake my head.
He claps excitedly as if to say ‘well done, you figured it out’.
I smile, reach out for the little duckling-
My head explodes in pain.
Everything goes dark.
I find myself back laying on the ground in the dark.
I can’t move my arms, I can’t move my legs.
Father!? I try to shout the word but there’s something tied around my mouth keeping the words in.
Then a voice starts talking in that fast-paced language and my heart is beating along with each of the passing phonemes.
I cry out for help leaving behind desperate garbles. But the voice doesn’t seem to be talking to me.
Then light floods the room as a door slides open.
Silhouetted against the light I see two men with swords at their side, standing by the shopkeeper from before.
They hand him a pouch of silver sticks.
Then turn to me.
As they enter the room I notice silk bands with golden dragons tied around their upper arms.
One of them squads down in front of me and says “Hi.”
My eyes widen in shock.
He knows my language!?
Then he gets up again and tries to pull me up from the floor together with his partner. I flail and squirm trying to get them to let me go.
Then they do and I fall down again with no way to catch my fall. My head crashes onto the wooden floor and I feel nauseous with pain. With a sick feeling, I can feel the blood pulsing, leaking out of my head and matting my hair together. The one who knows Cygnian sighs, pulls a red handkerchief from his sleeve and pushes it onto the wound “Will you be good now?” he asks and with terror in my heart, I nod.
They pick me up again and carry me out of the room weeping.
Outside there’s a cart that’s driven by steam waiting for us.
It makes an angry growling noise and I don’t want to get in.
But I’m afraid to struggle.
They set me down in the back, then the talkative one sits down next to me while the other drives.
“Don’t worry little girl, we don’t want to hurt you.” He tells me “We just want to scare your dad.”
I want to call him ugly names, to be mean to him for not letting me go but there’s nothing I can say in reply with the cloth still in place so instead, I leave him be and focus on the people outside.
I try to grab their attention, make a sound, any sound. But despite my efforts, whenever I see them notice my distress they quickly look the other way.
Outside people are partying, making memories, having fun.
But here inside the cart I’m all alone.
No one wants to save me.
Father? Where are you?
I rest my head against the side of the carriage and feel bitter tears leak from my eyes and get soaked up by the cloth tied around my face.
The shopkeep tricked me.
That much is clear, but what’s next I don’t know. The man says he doesn’t want to hurt me but my head aches from back when he dropped me.
And as the hope for rescue leaves me all that’s left is anger.
I’m such a stupid girl! How could I be so foolish as to leave my father’s side!?
Walking off without permission, talking to strangers.
Father must be so very cross right now.
He must be on his way to save me.
By the time the machine halts, I have no idea where we are anymore. I don’t recognise this side of the city at all. The houses out here aren’t wood and paper but brick and mortar.
It reminds me of the factories back home.
“Home sweet home.” The talkative one says.
I sure hope he’s referring to his home, not mine.
“Let’s go little girl.” I stay in the vehicle per protest for a bit but instead of getting angry he huffs, picks me up with an ‘up we go’ and walks into the building.
Inside there are rough types and loud songs and dangerous games but the man walks past all that without a word and brings me to a near-empty room before setting me down.
The room has no windows once again but it does have a lamp high up on the ceiling and a smattering of furniture.
They undo my bindings and the silent one pulls something out of his pockets and pushes it into my hands with a smile.
I look at it, it’s the little porcelain ducky.
I stare at it confounded as they close the door behind me.
“Wait!” I rush up to the door but it’s locked.
So the duck was just there to distract me?
I squeeze it disdainfully.
With everything that’s happened, it feels so ugly in my hands.
I don’t want a trinket, I want my father!
I chuck it against the brick wall, splinters flying through the air.
Then run back to the door pulling and tearing at it until my fingers are tired.
I look around for a different angle, anything I can use to escape. I pull the sofa underneath the light and try to reach the fire. Maybe I can burn some things, fill the room with smoke and force them to come open the door.
But the light is too far away, my legs are too short.
I’m also pretty sure smoke is bad for you.
Exhausted and out of ideas I drop down onto the sofa, pull up my knees and weep.
I wish we never came here.
I want to go home. Not to any palaces or beaches just home.
With mother and father and Clara and everything back to normal
Back to how it’s supposed to be.
Too much changed in not enough time.
This new place is strange and exciting and terrifying and I’m feeling homesick.
Maybe father will allow me a vacation in Cygne?
When I get out here again and he has forgiven me for leaving him.
They can’t keep me here forever, right?
By the time that big door opens once again I have no idea how much time has passed.
“Lady Elizabeth?” The voice calling out to me is familiar. I scramble upright as fast as my stiff legs allow me “Shayu? Shayu, where’s father?”
“He’ll see you at home. Now come on, it’s time to leave this awful place.” He reaches his wide sleeves out to me.
I jump into his arms, just to check if he is real then quickly take a step back again. “I wasn’t scared you know,” I tell him like a little brat.
“You’ve been a very brave little lady,” Shayu assures me with a pat on the head.
I take his hand and as we leave the two men who dragged me here simply stand there by the wall. I try to hide, pulling Shayu’s big sleeves in front of my face. If they see us they might want to put me back again!
I don’t want to go back again.
Shayu’s hand squeezes mine “It’s okay Lady Elizabeth. Everything is sorted, we can just leave.”
But looking up at him I see the same fear in his eyes I feel inside my heart.
He’s just as scared as I am to be here, he just pretends not to be.
The one who knows my language waves at me with a smile upon his face.
I start to walk a little faster.
Outside the sun has already hidden itself behind the horizon.
I don’t recognise the carriage that stands outside for us. Our carriage has gold leaf and pale blue flowers and is carried by Babette and Julietta the horses.
This vehicle is pitch-black and noisy as smoke comes out the back end.
Shayu opens up the door for me “Milady.”
And I have to tell myself ‘this is Shayu, he’s been our butler for as long as I can remember. He wouldn’t want to toss me into yet more danger’.
I take a breath and force a smile onto my face “Thank you Shayu.”
I get in, the inside is leather and the cold sweat on my arms makes them stick against the armrest.
The door slams shut and my shoulders jump.
I watch Shayu as he makes his way around the front and gets in on the other side.
Then he sighs a sigh of relief “Well then, let’s go home.”
He turns a key.
The machine makes even more noises as it starts to shake and tremble, my hands squeeze the soft, sticky armrests.
And we’re off.
As the machine gets to a more even rumble and outside there’s nothing of interest I feel like I have to ask.
I look at Shayu “Who were those people?”
The man keeps his eyes trained on the road “Well they are…bad people.”
“What kind of bad people?”
“The kind of bad people you don’t talk about.”
“Why no-?” He smiles at me but in his eyes, I see a plea that asks me ‘please don’t enquire any further’.
I smile back. “I see.”
Then start gazing out the window again. Barely aware of the scenery flying by.
Thinking about that dragon symbol.
The car comes to a screeching halt in front of the locked city.
Outside there’s a flock of bodyguards in identical dark suits ready to bring me home.
I wonder why father put them here rather than in the car to accompany Shayu during the pickup.
Maybe he would have been less scared if people had his back.
“Home again.” Shayu sighs relieved as he opens the door on his side, then walks back to my door to let me out as well. “There we go, miss.”
I step out and the bodyguards quickly shuffle the butler and me beyond the gate.
It closes with a heavy, metal thunk behind me.
“This way miss.” One of the guards tells me in an attempt to be helpful.
I do know where my house is you know.
I only think it, never say.
I’m not allowed to say mean things, I don’t think I’d like to either.
So I just smile and walk and wonder when I get to see father again.
“Your father waits for you in his study,” Shayu tells me as he takes my coat.
“Thank you Shayu.” I take a moment to breathe, then straighten my back, push up my chin and walk up the steps to father’s study.
“Is that you Elizabeth?”
I didn’t even need to knock.
I open the door.
Father’s office shimmers with gold and precious stones. He’s sitting at his desk, sweet smoke swirling from a carved wooden pipe.
The moment his eyes meet mine he sets the pipe down onto a porcelain stand “I was worried I’d never see you again.” He gets up and I rush toward him. My little arms wrapped around his legs. “I’m so sorry father I’ll never leave your side again when we’re outside the gate.”
“You could have died.”
“I know father.”
“I had to pull strings I never thought I’d have to resort to, just to get you back.”
“I’m sorry father.”
“Why did you leave me?”
“There was a shopkeep, I wanted to go and get you but-”
“How many times did I tell you not to trust those kani!” My shoulder jump, breath stuck in my throat.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.” How many times do I have to keep saying it? I wonder with tears hiding behind my eyes.
Then father pushes me off of his legs.
Hugs me properly.
“I never want to lose you Elizabeth. You are my daughter and I’d do anything to get you back.”
“Just promise me you’ll never leave me again.”
He smiles faintly, wipes a lock of hair from my face and tells me “I love you.”
I squeeze my tears from my eyes and take a deep breath.
“I love you too father.”