Written over 23 posts/toots for my friend B – beginning here.
Chapter 2 here
Chapter 3 here.
Chapter 4 here.
Chapter 5 here.
Chapter 6 here.
Chapter 7 here.
Chapter 8 here.
Chapter 9 here.
Chapter 10 here.
Chapter 11 here.
Chapter 12 here.
Chapter 13 here.
Chapter 14 here.
Chapter 15 here.
The girl, who had been named Malina Serafina Anastazja Dominika Naveed Jeleń nic Cecília O Alexandre (for several reasons beginning with but not limited to the little bubbling noises she made as an infant, several grandmothers, a grandfather, two prophecies, & three bequests with very specific qualifiers), who was called Princess or Your Highness by most people and ‘Lina only by her mother and her nurse, was lost.
She hadn’t intended to be lost. She’d intended only to wander off a little ways, since the party was so loud and the people were so… people.
Malina liked people fine, in small doses, but when it was a Royal Party, a birthday party for her sister, it just went on & on & on, and the people just went on & on & on as well. So, eventually, when enough people had shaken her hand & patted her shoulder & asked for her blessing, Malina wandered away from the crowd.
Lady Rosário threw a great party – this one was at her desert estate on the border – & was a friend of the crown –
– so the party lasted until the Royal Family left, and the Royal Family would stay a long time, talking to Lady Rosário and congratulating Sybilla on making it another year. Malina’d figured if she took a walk, nobody would notice her missing for one hour out of 24.
The edge of the estate segued smoothly into the desert beyond, the manicured trees giving way to cacti & succulents.The crowd noise faded & vanished. The sand flowed, dune after dune.
Malina turned around & there was no estate.
She looked in another direction – nothing – and another & another. There was sand and there were cacti. She thought the cactus with the three arms looked familiar – she had pictured it as a person trying so hard to hold all of Syilla’s packages that it grew another arm – so she turned in that direction.
She didn’t want to go back, not yet, but it would be nice to know where back was, so she headed towards Mr. 3-Arms & from him to Ms. Spiky-hair, a short & angry succulent, & then to M. Doormat.
(M. Doormat was a sort of succulent ground-cover over a rare bit of stone). Malina kept walking, picking out things she thought she’d seen before, until she found herself staring at a scrub tree she was sure she HADN’T seen on her walk out.
For one, it was decked in faded banners & flags. For another, it was flanked by two very small ponds. For a 3rd, she was pretty sure one of the banners was of a lord from the bordering nation.
She turned around in a circle again. She was definitely lost.
For a few minutes, Malina considered her options.
She could try to retrace her steps, but the sands were trackless & she was mistrusting both memory & landmarks now. If Mr. 3-Arms had led her astray, who could she trust?
She could pick a direction & go, but she might end up even deeper in a foreign country.
She could sit down & hope for rescue, but it might be hours indeed until she was missed. This was not her first time wandering off, after all.
She looked at the sun, high in the sky –
and considered. She was pretty sure that way was west, but had she been walking west or east? She considered her geography lesson. She’d been heading away from the estate &, it seemed, towards the border, so she had to have been going east. If she was right, going that way would get her to Lady Rosário’s.
It was better than sitting down here & waiting for the border guard to find her. Malina started walking what she thought was westward, checking the sun as often as she could stand.
Malina had been walking for what she thought was probably twenty minutes, past several cacti and succulents which looked just like Mr. 3-Arm & M. Doormat and so on, when she came upon another tree covered in banners, faded & tattered.
This one had 3 little ponds around it, none of them bigger than Malina’s reach from fingertip to fingertip, but when she knelt down to drink, the water was fresh, clear & amazing.
She leaned against the tree & sighed. She couldn’t be going in the right direction.
She must be going along the border – or maybe the old border. She hadn’t heard of banner-trees before, & these looked very old, but perhaps they had been a tradition under the Old Treaties? Or maybe something before the border existed?
She tilted her head to study the banner closest to her. It was split per bend, 3 raspberries on a grey field & 2 sunbursts on pink; 1 sunburst remained stubbornly bright yellow against the faded background.
She thought she recognized it from the royal home, but
she’d never cared that much about heraldry beyond that needed to not insult the wrong person with the wrong title.
And the one to her right – that was split every way it could be, tiny charges filling every spot on the banner so that it could be representing one person with very strange lineage or a whole organization which couldn’t pick a symbol.
If she weren’t lost in the desert, it might have made her giggle. As it was, she spent some time there in the shade, studying the ancient heraldry.
But she was still lost, so eventually Malina made herself stand up. That was west, she was sure of it. Absolutely certain. It had to be.
Even if going in that direction had gotten her to this tree, well, it had water and shade, right? Malina started walking in almost-certainly-west some more, humming now to herself. She might not be getting back to Lady Rosário’s estate, but she was getting somewhere.
As she walked, she started telling herself stories of the raspberry banner & the others~
making up the people who would fly such things, and why they’d left them hanging off of trees to tatter & fray. It was distracting, at least, since she wasn’t at all certain, no matter what she told herself, that she was going in the right direction.
She’d gotten wrapped up in thinking Ms. Spiky-Hair might have the vert and or banner with the little knives and cats for charges, picturing a squat, spiky woman surrounded by cats, when she heard a meow.
Malina stopped dead. There was not a cat.
She was in the middle of the desert. There was not a cat.
She looked down at the tiny cat, nearly the color of the sand, at her toes. “How are you here?”
“Meow.” The cat groomed itself, stretched, and stretched up Malina’s leg. “Meow!”
Malina looked down at the cat and picked it up. “You’re quite friendly for a wild cat in the middle of the desert.”
The cat settled into the crook of her arm, purring against her chest. “This isn’t the middle of the desert.”
“Say that again?”
There was not a cat and it was not speaking to her. Right?
“It’s not the middle of the desert. It’s more like the edge on this side. But it’s far enough in that it’s easy to get lost, that’s for sure, if your nose isn’t good enough.”
The cat cleaned itself pointedly, especially brushing a paw over its nose.
“I’m definitely lost,” Malina agreed slowly. “Where am I heading?”
“Well, that’s one question.” The cat looked up at her. “The other might be, ‘how do you get home?'”
Malina cleared her throat. “That’s a good question,” she allowed. “How DO I get home?”
“If you walk forward the direction you’re facing for a few steps – I don’t know how many, your steps are long, but it’s just past that stand of cacti – you’ll see the beginning of an answer.”
Malina looked down at the cat. “I’m taking directions from a cat,” she told the cat. “Cats don’t talk.”
“HOUSEcats don’t talk in human languages. They made that agreement in the Last Treaties.” The cat licked its paw.
“The more fools they. But I, of course, am not a housecat.”
“Of course.” Malina walked forward towards the stand of cacti slowly, waiting to see how many steps was too many by the tiny cat’s standards. “You’re a desert cat.”
“A sand cat. We did not sign that treaty. We’ve signed only one treaty. The housecats, dogs, burros, the humans, you all signed the Final Treaty & many others. The sand cats, mustangs, foxes – we were more clever.”
“What treaties are these?” There were so many cacti.
She would be walking around cacti forever.
The cat twisted around to glare at her. “You know of the treaties, Princess.”
“I – read about dates? The Treaty of the Red Banner, the Oasis Papers, the Dominika Accord. I know all the dates & most of the parties who signed.” There had been no dogs nor burros in the lists of interested parties she’d memorized.
“Humans.” The cat scoffed. “Of course. Here, move carefully around this.”
Around a cactus made of spikes, Melina stared a horse in the face.
The horse whickered at her; Melina gasped. “You’re BEAUTIFUL!”
“Thank you, I know,” the cat preened.
“The horse.” It had a black pointed stripe down its face, over speckled grey-white fur; its mane was black with a few white stripes. “How-”
“She volunteered. To get you home, we’re going to need to go quite far. She’s carrying water, because humans are foolish; she’ll carry us as well.”
The mustang presented her side to Melina; she was wearing a light saddle with saddlebags but no bridle.
There was a convenient rock; with its help, Melina hopped into the saddle with some grace & more relief than she could express. A moment later, the cat lept up to sit in front of her as if the spot on the saddle had been built for it, which it may have been.
“Ready,” the cat called; the mustang immediately broke into a trot and then a gallop. Melina on tightly with her knees & held the cat with both arms; she leaned forward over horse’s neck & watched the desert speed by, cactus after cactus.
After a while, the horse slowed back down to a trot, then to a fast walk. As she did, Melina straightened * stretched, arched her back & reached out her hands to both sides.
They were walking past another banner-decked tree, this one in a stand of similar trees, a large pond – Melina could have laid down in it – shaded by the trees. The banners were so pale and weathered as to be nearly no more than cobwebs decorating the tree, save for one yellow starburst.
“Border tree,” Melina breathed.
“We can’t be going towards home, I’ve never seen these trees before today.”
“There is home and there is HOME, princess.” The cat turned to regard her. “This home is one you were named to, as it were. You said it yourself: the Dominika Accord. And the Malina Concordat, of course, & the Final Treaty, which was also called Treaty of the Alexandres. This is your home far more than what you left, Princess.”
The mustang was still walking, leaving the border tree behind. “Then where-?”
“I AM fearing!”
“You need not fear for your safety, not here in the Lands of the Last Treaty. You need not fear for your well-being, for a place to shelter, clothes to wear, food to eat. There is a place just ahead with all of those; it was the home of the Dominika who gave you her name.”
“I said we would take you home. And in time, should you want to return to the Royal Family & that party, we’ll take you there, too. But there is work to be done, Princess, & at least here-
“-it is quiet.”
The mustang walked on, hooves silent on the sand. The sun was moving towards the horizon; it seemed as if they were moving not west but south and eastish, possibly along the border.
Melina weighed her options, or tried to, but she was more lost than she had ever been; the cat & mustang at least were offering her food, water & shelter.
Someone would find her, she was sure (she was no longer that sure). In the meantime, she supposed-
“Then bring on this place & this work.”Want more?