My Brief Life and Tragic Death, Chapter 4

(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here: Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins.)

Chapter 4. Penetrable Disguise

I awoke with a start. Someone was knocking on the door. I sat up. Frank was already on his feet, looking tense. Stopping a pace from the door, he called, “Who is it?”

“Lady Lestrange,” came the voice of Lady Lestrange, the palace’s housekeeper. She didn’t actually do any housekeeping. She mostly got in the servants’ way.

Frank looked at me. I hesitated. Lady Lestrange had never done me any harm, but I didn’t like her and neither did Daddy.

My hesitation was enough for Frank. “I’m sorry, Lady Lestrange, but your name isn’t on the list.”

“Who is this?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that.”

“Let me talk to Princess Flavia at once.”

“No.”

There was a pause, then she said, “Who is on the list?”

Frank smiled at this one. Apparently he thought the question was a blunder. “I can’t tell you that.”

“I must insist.”

“Good-bye, Lady Lestrange,” said Frank. He crossed to the sofa, kissed me on the forehead, and sat down beside me. “Hi there, sleepyhead.”

“Hello, Frank.”

“Is Lady Lestrange related to any of the recently deceased?”

“Oh. Yes, Sir Archibald was her younger brother.” I looked at Frank in worry. “It’s not over yet, is it?”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“Then you saved my life by bolting the door.”

“Or prevented you from being kidnapped. She turned the key in the lock first. She only knocked after she couldn’t get the door open. That can’t be protocol.”

“It isn’t. What will they try next?”

He stopped and thought, then shrugged. “No idea. I suppose it depends on how well they’re doing. Which reminds me, how well are you doing?”

“My legs are stiff. I need the toilet soon. I’m bearing up. Frank, I’m really glad you’re here.”

“So am I.” He helped me to my feet. I leaned on him halfway to the bathroom door, then made the rest of the trip on my own.

“Should I flush?” I called softly to Frank.

“Not yet. Smart girl.”

When I emerged, I noticed that the lights he’d turned on were all near the closed curtains, so we wouldn’t cast shadows on them when we moved about the suite. I pointed this out to Frank and said, “What other clever steps have you taken?”

“That’s about it.”

“Why not flush?”

“Some people are stupid and forgetful. The smart ones try to do too many things at once, so it amounts to the same thing. If we don’t remind them we’re here, they’ll forget about us. Grandfather liked to say that the squeaky wheel gets greased. And uncertainty makes people hesitate, so we never want to clarify anything. Just as an example … um … suppose they want to blow the door open with explosives and take you hostage, but they’re afraid the blast will kill you. Sounds from the plumbing mean you’re out of the line of fire and it’s safe to blow the door.”

“Do we just wait?”

“Mostly. For now.”

“Then what?”

“Do you have a fire ladder?”

“Yes.” I pointed to the cabinet where it was stored and he took it out and examined it. It was a neatly rolled rope ladder with wooden rungs and a pair of metal hooks that went over the balcony railing.

“It’ll do,” he said. “We can make a break for it if we have to.” He left it out where it could be grabbed quickly.

I glanced at the clock. It was a little after five. It wouldn’t be dark until after nine.

“Where did you learn these things, Frank?”

“My grandfather, mostly. He was a great man.”

“Your paternal grandfather? Daddy’s late cousin Franklin?”

“That’s right. I’m named after him.”

“Wasn’t he the one with the human menagerie?”

Frank scowled at me. I felt shame and something close to terror. Offending Frank … it would be too much. I said, “I beg your pardon.”

Frank nodded and said, “Let’s move to your bedroom. I made myself nervous with my explosives example.”

It was a breach of etiquette for Frank to enter my bedroom, of course. It took an internal struggle for me to say, “All right.”

“And let’s get that wand out. And your canes and crutches.”

“I don’t have any canes or crutches.”

Frank muttered angrily to himself. I said, “Speak up, Frank.”

Frank rolled his eyes. “I was just saying that your, um, most royal father hasn’t thought it through. They make good clubs, for one thing.”

“The aluminum ones don’t.” I had always used the aluminum kind, back before my walking improved and my crutches and canes were confiscated.

“The wooden ones do. Not to mention sword canes and stuff like that.”

How like a boy, to make a weapon of everything. “I suppose that, as a last resort, one could even use them to assist one’s walking?”

“I guess. Seems like a waste, though.” We smiled at each other. How strange that this boy could make me smile! No one else could. And he could do it even while drawing attention to my handicap and criticizing Daddy.

My bedroom is really half study, half bedroom. Frank scanned the titles of my books with a little smile on his face and a piratical gleam in his eye. “Nice.”

I sat in my armchair and he took my desk chair. My wand was sitting on my desk. He reached for it, stopped, and looked at me. I said, “Go ahead.”

He picked it up, then closed his eyes and touched the grip to his forehead.

I said, “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

He handed me the wand. “Try it.”

I did, and I got a sense of … serenity, precision, and control.

Frank said, “It’s a wonderful piece of work, isn’t it? Amazingly delicate and precise. Almost the opposite of my wand.”

“I suppose yours blows things to smithereens.”

“Yep. Sometimes even when I want it to.”

I used the wand to idly create some points of light and send them floating across the room. I suppose I was showing off, or at least demonstrating that, in my hands, the wand was more than a stick, though in truth my training hadn’t taken me very far.

Frank was on edge. The long wait was hard on him, leaving him both restless and exhausted. He paced back and forth. I tolerated this for a while, then said, “Frank? If you don’t calm down, I’m going to scream.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a real scream in the distance. We stared at each other. More screams and shouts followed, in different voices, and a few gunshots. The next thing I knew, I was on my feet and had flung myself into Frank’s arms. He held me tight but didn’t kiss me.

Soon all was quiet again, and Frank asked, “How are the legs?”

“Stiff. Walking will help.” He didn’t mention flight directly, so neither did I. We paced back and forth for a while until I was about as limber as I seemed likely to get.

He sat in my armchair and pulled me down onto his lap. This put our faces closer to the same level. After a little undignified squirming I found a posture that was comfortable and made it hard for him to escape my kisses. Not that he tried. Quite the contrary.

Our first kisses had been heartbreakingly gentle. I experimented with ones that were more definite.

“You’re very bold,” he said. “I like that in a girlfriend.”

I looked at him appraisingly. “Frank, you’re very attentive and you have natural talent.”

“Thank you. So do you.”

“But you’ve kissed girls before.”

“I cannot tell a lie. Well, I can, but I won’t. Spin the Bottle, mostly.”

“What’s Spin the Bottle?” I’d never heard of it.

“You’re running with the wrong crowd. It’s a kissing game, obviously. You and a group of friends sit in a circle. An empty wine bottle is used as a spinner. One person twirls the bottle and has to kiss the person it’s pointing to when it stops.”

“What if it’s another girl?”

“Depends on the house rules. Spin again, first boy on the right, or go for it.”

I blinked at the third option. Kissing another girl was so unexpected that it made my mind quite blank. Frank said, “I refuse to kiss other boys, myself.”

“Spin the Bottle doesn’t sound very romantic.”

“Sort of the point, really. Everyone pretends it’s harmless and the kisses don’t count. It’s mostly true.”

I kissed him and said, “My kisses always count.”

“I noticed that.”

We kissed a little more, then Frank wanted to get back to work. “If we make a run for it, you’re in the wrong clothes. What do you have that’s more rugged?”

“Jodhpurs. I have a pair of overalls, too. Daddy and I join in the manual labor sometimes, at harvest and such.”

“Good. How about shoes you can walk long distances in?”

We talked it over. When I’m tired, my left foot tends to droop. That is, my heel comes up all right with each step, but my toes tend to scuff along the ground, tripping me. I had a special shoe attached to a leg brace to keep my foot from drooping. It was heavy, though.

I’d recently discovered that my Keds high-top sneakers tended to hold my foot in position if I laced them tightly. Canvas sneakers weighed almost nothing. They were ideal. They just weren’t princessy.

“Good,” said Frank. “Let’s have you travel incognito.”

I saw where he was headed. “You want to disguise me as a boy, don’t you?”

“Yep.”

I didn’t want to be disguised as a boy. Frank had never seen me except in a beautiful dress. So far he seemed happy to think of me as an attractive, even desirable girl. But what if this illusion was easily shattered? Did thirteen-year-old boys even have girlfriends? Maybe this was a childish game to him and costume was essential. I said, “I hope you realize that there isn’t a boy in the kingdom with a gait like mine, so it’s a complete waste of time.”

“Maybe we’ll encounter people when we’re not on the move. Anyway, dresses don’t accessorize with sneakers.”

“Oh, all right. Help me off with this dress.” My dress fastened in the back, of course. As a princess, I was never expected to dress myself, but my maids had been unreliable enough that I’d learned anyway. Alas, this dress was particularly impossible. If I took my modesty too seriously, I’d be stuck in it forever.

He drew back in surprise, then said, “Sure.”

“Undo the buttons in back.” He set to work and I said, “You seemed surprised.”

“I never expect to get a girl’s clothes off on the first date,” he said.

“How many first dates have you had?”

“Counting this one?” There was a pause, then he said, “That makes, umm, let’s see, by my estimate … one.”

He helped me out of the dress. As I stood there in my slip, I was afraid he’d be disappointed. Or uncontrollably amorous. Or who knew what. But he looked away. This irritated me. He could at least show a polite interest! “Don’t just stand there,” I said, “I can’t wear this slip with overalls. Help me out of it.”

“Aye-aye, mon capitaine.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I meant, ‘oui-oui, skipper.’”

He helped me out of my slip and I was left standing in my underwear and stockings. I’d never seen him blush before.

I was glad I’d started wearing training bras recently, being fairly sure that he’d have been even more embarrassed if I hadn’t, though in fact he’d once again looked away. “Hand me my shirt,” I said.

He did so, and seemed relieved after I put it on. I started removing my stockings. Once they were far from forbidden territory I had him take them off the rest of the way. Stockings are difficult for me. This also put him into contact with my matchstick legs, which are by far my worst feature. And therefore they’re always on display. There’s nothing like an above-the-knee dress and white stockings to show my legs to their very worst advantage.

I’d always wanted to be interested in clothes and fashion, but I’d never been given the opportunity. My wardrobe had been chosen by the stuffiest and least imaginative women available, women who liked to pretend that Queen Victoria hadn’t been dead for seventy years. Modernity had penetrated their thick skulls only to the point of realizing that high button shoes, which would work for me almost as well as high-top sneakers, were hopelessly out of fashion. Pants suits scandalized them and they imagined that I was too young for long skirts.

They never listened to me, anyway. I wished them all to the devil.

After helping me out of my stockings, Frank’s only comment was, “Your left foot is colder.”

“Yes, the circulation is poor. My left leg is shorter, too.”

He compared my legs and couldn’t see it. “By how much?”

“A quarter of an inch. It makes a difference.”

We talked about this as he helped me into socks and overalls and shoes. He thought that an extra sock on the left foot might be just the ticket to increase warmth, provide a shim, and allow tighter lacing. It was logical, but I said I’d like to test it under less trying conditions and would go with my existing shoe insert for now.

But the best part was that he didn’t draw back from touching my legs or even my coldish left foot. They neither repelled him nor elicited his pity. I wondered why. In fact, these few minutes of conversation contained more practical consideration of my handicap than I’d received in the last year.

Frank wanted me to braid my hair, claiming it was required when impersonating a boy successfully. Loose hair stuffed into a cap meant that there would be a “big reveal” later in the episode. This baffled me until he explained that he was making a joke about television clichés.

I’d never seen television, though we had movie nights in the palace once a week. I admitted that I didn’t know how to braid hair. Frank surprised me by doing it himself. He was dreadful at it, and his frustration and his tendency to swear and then feel embarrassed made me giggle.

I settled a cap over his handiwork and looked at my reflection in the mirror. The boy in the mirror looked back at me solemnly; a serious boy of obvious intelligence. He was surprisingly handsome, as if I were Frank’s adorable little brother. “I make a better boy than I’d like.”

Frank looked me over. “If you get confused, I’ll find a way to remind you that you’re all girl.”

“You hardly looked at me when you had the chance.”

He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. After a moment, he whispered behind his hand, “What’s my line?”

“You’re asking me to prompt you?”

“Well, why not? You did in your letter.”

“Frank Barron, you’re the most maddening boy I know.”

“I’m the only boy you know.”

“That’s not true!” I hesitated and added, “It’s a little bit true.”

He groped for his next line, but met my gaze and began to smile for no reason I could see. A moment later I couldn’t help smiling back. How did he do that?

He said, “I just realized something. You’re my girlfriend, and that means I’m allowed to think you’re beautiful. And I do. You’re my beautiful Flavia. Get used to it.”

He had me there. “You put the emphasis on ‘my.’”

“That’s because you belong to me. Mine, mine, mine, and don’t you forget it. But I’ll ogle you properly next time. I promise.”

I knew I should be outraged by his claim that he owned me, but it made me happy. Why? It didn’t make any sense. I’d have to think more about this later. “What does ogle mean?”

“It’s like leering, only less creepy.”

“Frank!”

“I meant … um … it’s a delighted amorous stare … no, gaze. Delighted amorous gaze.”

“That’s better.”

He asked me to pace the room a couple of times. Much better. The sneakers were a really good idea.

Time dragged. I asked Frank to tell me about his life in California. He lived in an ordinary house within walking distance of his middle school, where he was an ordinary student. I told him I didn’t believe he was ordinary, and he admitted he was the smartest kid in his class and had a lot of life skills through no fault of his own.

“What do you mean?”

“My parents got drawn into a venture that’s taking more time than it should, over the hills and far away, so they’re not around much. Most of the time it’s just me and my sister Spike.”

“I thought you were an only child.” And what kind of name was Spike? Especially for a girl?

“Foster sister. Louisa Maréchal. She just turned twenty.”

“How could you end up with a member of the Maréchal family as a foster sister? They’re very clannish.”

“Not when one of their own gets bitten by a werewolf at the age of seven. They couldn’t wait to get rid of her. Dropped her like a hot rock.”

“How awful! Wait, was she infected?”

“Yep. She’s a real bitch around the full moon.”

I glared at him and he said, “Sorry.”

“I don’t think you should talk about the poor girl that way.”

She talks about the poor girl that way. But I’ll behave.”

“Thank you.”

“You mentioned Grandfather’s human menagerie—”

“Oh! I’m sorry, Frank. I didn’t know.” I looked at him with real anxiety. With that line I’d insulted his grandfather and his foster sister. It would be so easy for him to hold it against me!

He reached out a hand. My guilty conscience made me flinch again, then I hated myself for flinching. He froze, an appalled look on his face, so I grabbed his hand by the wrist and pulled it closer. He relaxed and stroked my cheek with his fingertips.

Soon he continued his tale. “Anyway, I spend the school year in California and holidays on this side of the gateway, plus a weekend or two a month.”

“But you’ve been avoiding the palace, haven’t you? I haven’t seen you.”

“Sort of, but not this time. I’m getting tutored in magic by Dr. Wright.”

I was impressed. “I just get lessons from one of his apprentices.”

“He’s buddies with my parents. I’m here for the whole summer. I have the world’s tiniest bedroom just down the hall.”

He’d be here until the end of August! A weight lifted from my heart. Still … “Frank, I’m confused about us.”

“I’m not. Do you think your father got a letter, too?”

What? Oh. Of course I’d sent Daddy a letter. That’s why he hadn’t been blown to bits and why he’d been quick to accept Frank. Obviously. “Yes, he must have. And I must have put in a good word for you.” I wondered what I could have said to make Daddy so amenable. But I set the issue aside. “Frank, I signed my letter to you with love, and I don’t remember if I meant it.”

“Would you have said it if you didn’t mean it?”

“Maybe? Lives hung in the balance.”

“I want it to be real, Flavia. Please?”

“So do I.”

He looked relieved. “No problem, then. Let’s make it real. We’ll put our backs into it. We’re off to a wonderful start.”

“Are we?”

“Sure. You’re good in a crisis, I love your taste in books, and your kisses always count. And I’m in the doghouse for not ogling you as much as you deserve. You’re perfect, Flavia.”

“Flatterer.” I didn’t mind it so much this time.

“I’m not the flatterer; you are. When your life depended on finding a hero, you picked me.

All of which was gratifying, but Frank was soon restless again. The strain was getting to him. It was getting to me, too, but I showed it less. I had more training in presenting an outward calm while tolerating boredom and frustration. He offered to pace in a different room, but I didn’t want him out of my sight.

It was a long, slow, boring, endless, hungry evening. It seemed like it would last forever, but shortly after dark we both fell asleep.

Continued in Chapter 5. “Room Service.”

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