Tillie rolled Lord Mareel onto his back using the tip of her pinky finger. Sparkling scales flaked from his crimson tail, dusting the tiles with what looked like glitter. His chest moved up and down sporadically. He looked so fragile and helpless that Tillie could scarcely believe that she had been intimidated by this same person just a couple of days earlier.
Lord Mareel’s head fell back and his obsidian eyes lolled upwards. “Must have… water…” he croaked. His voice was so weak that Tillie had to strain to hear him. He collapsed back onto the floor.
“I’ll get you some water,” Tillie promised, gently scooping him up into the palm of her hand. She looked up at Eve. “So this is how you found your way across the plains? You forced Lord Mareel to tell you where to go?”
“Yes. Now, give him here.” Eve lunged at Tillie, her pincer-like fingers at the ready.
Tillie spun away from the witch. “Tell me what you’re going to do to him first.”
“I’m going to put him back in my handbag. He’ll be protected there.”
“He doesn’t look like he’s been protected!” Tillie yelled. She held out her hand to show the witch the damage that she had inflicted upon the miniature man.
“He’s just a little dehydrated.”
“How could you do this?”
“If you’ll recall, he had plannned to do far worse to us. Given his druthers, you and I would have been impaled on the end of his harpoon or—”
A loud knock on the powder room door interrupted them.
“Are you ladies about ready for dinner?” came the muffled voice of the Prince of Purple. “I’ve informed the other color managers of your arrival. They’re all very excited to meet you!”
“We’re ready,” Eve answered. She plucked Lord Mareel from Tillie’s outstretched palm and stuffed him back into her purse.
“I will get him water as soon as I can,” Tillie whispered to Eve.
“Fine,” the witch hissed back. She opened the powder room door and greeted the Prince of Purple with a smile. “Lovely to see you again. Can’t wait for the banquet.” She took his arm in her own and pulled him down the hall.
The Prince of Purple beamed, quite pleased with Eve’s new, 50% friendlier personality. “By all means, then,” he said, “let’s be off! You look stunning, by the way.” He turned his head to catch a glimpse of Tillie, who was walking a few steps behind them. “And I enjoy your wild west attire, too. Very sensible.”
“Thanks,” Tillie said. “Will there be water at this banquet?”
Eve shot her a warning look.
“There will be soda pop and sweet tea and apple juice and chocolate milk and many other drink selections.”
“I prefer water.”
“Of course you do,” the Prince of Purple said. “And quite rightly, too. Water is much better for you than those sugary drinks. Forget I even mentioned them!”
The Prince of Purple guided Tillie and Eve back to the Casa de Castle’s main hall. They walked to the opposite side of the cavernous room from the guest hallway and stopped at a door that read, “Staff Only.”
“I guess you’re both honorary members of staff now,” the Prince of Purple said, grinning. He took out his keyring, unlocked the door, and ushered Tillie and Eve into the door.
As she passed through the doorway, Tillie found herself staring down a long, gloomy hallway composed of dark gray rocks. Wrought-iron braziers clung to the walls every few feet, holding lit torches that cast flickering shadows across the stones. “Now this is more like it!” she said, happily. “This is what a castle should look like. It reminds me of the Fortress of Fangria on the north shore of Ebberly Isle.”
“Glad you like it,” the Prince of Purple said. “The entire castle used to look like this. My colleagues and I decided to update the public parts of the castle when we converted them to a hotel. We left our own living quarters in their original condition, however; we are, after all, merely humble civil servants and have no need for luxury.” He excused his way between Tillie and Eve and took the lead, setting off down the corridor. After a short walk, the hallway opened into a room with an enclosed stairway dominating one wall.
“Hope you don’t mind climbing a few stairs,” the Prince of Purple said as he set foot on the first step.
“Climbing a few more stairs, you mean,” Eve muttered, hiking up the hem of her cocktail dress and following along.
Tillie noticed that the stairs continued behind them as well. “What’s down there?”
“This stairway runs the height of the entire Casa de Castle, from the deepest dungeon to the highest tower.”
“Dungeon?” Eve asked, raising one green eyebrow.
The Prince of Purple laughed. “The dungeons are just for show,” he said. “My colleauges and I have never used them.”
“That you know of...” Eve added.
“Well, yes, I suppose.” The Prince of Purple ducked out of the stairwell and onto th landing. “Nearly there, now,” he said, waiting for Tillie and Eve to join him.
Tillie lingered on the stair for a moment and peered up the spiralling steps still above her. “So, if we continued climbing,” she said, “we’d end up in a tower?”
“Exactly. This particular stairway leads to the Wyvern Watchtower. Very nice views. Maybe we can go up later. For now, though, we have a banquet to attend.”
They walked through a stone archway, and into an adjoining room. A wave of applause met them. The Prince of Purple joined in the ovation, clapping his hands madly.
Embarrassed by the unexpected applause, Tillie looked around the banquet hall to avoid making eye contact. The room was huge, its 40-foot vaulted ceiling leading to a series of stained glass windows that stood dark against the night sky. A massive oval table dominated the hall, its legs elegantly carved to look like lion’s paws. Ten men and women – each dressed in shades of just one color – stood around the table, applauding, their heavy wooden chairs sitting empty behind them. A row of beeswax candles cast a soft glow across numerous trays of food. Tillie eyed plates of steaming pork chops, candied yams, buttered sweetpeas, and fresh-baked bread. She started to salivate.
The applause finally died away.
“Thank you, all, for that warm welcome,” the Prince of Purple said, making sure to project his voice all the way across the banquet hall. “I’m sure that our new constituents can sense your sincerity.” He turned to Tillie and Eve expectantly.
“Observe,” the Prince of Purple said. “They are so overwhelmed, they are speechless.” This comment set off another burst of clapping from the room. The Prince of Purple raised his hands to quiet the ruckus. “Without any further ado, let us sit down before our guests are moved to tears by the raw emotion in the room.”
“Here, here,” several of the color managers cried in unison.
The Prince of Purple led Tillie and Eve to two neighboring seats at the oval table. As the Prince of Purple pulled out her chair, Tillie managed to pull her eyes away from the food long enough to look at the person to her right. The man was dressed all in red. “You must be the King of Crimson,” Tillie said.
The man’s eyes grew as large as the dinner plate that sat in front of him. “Do I know you?”
“Then how did you know my title?”
“Well, you’re wearing nothing but red clothing, which is kind of a giveaway.”
The King of Crimson leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin as if he’d never thought of this before. “Very clever.”
“Plus, the Prince of Purple mentioned you. He said you decorated the ladies’powder room.”
“Ah, yes – one of my better efforts. How did you like it?”
Tillie thought for a moment, unsure how to answer. “It was very girly,” she said at last.
“Exactly what I was trying to achieve!”
“Good work, then!”
“Whose seats are those?” Tillie asked, indicating two empty chairs across the table.
“The chair on the right belongs to the Baron of Black, who has taken a leave of absence,” the King of Crimson explained. “And the chair on the left belongs to the Governor of Green, who has not yet arrived for dinner. His responsibilites overseeing both black and green make him late for meals quite often.”
Tillie scanned the table, starting on her left with Eve and ending on her right with the King of Crimson. No one in the room was dressed all in gray. “Is there no color manager for gray?” she asked. As soon as the words escaped her lips, Tillie knew that she had said something wrong. All of the color managers at the table fell so silent that she could hear the buzzing of a fly’s wings as the insect circled the King of Crimson’s head.
The Prince of Purple took a sip of his apple juice. “Gray is not a color,” he said. “Gray is merely a shade of black.”
“Quite right,” the King of Crimson agreed. “The original color managers made that decision long, long ago.”
All of the color managers nodded their heads and remained silent.
Finally, the Prince of Purple cleared his throat. “My fellow color managers, in deference to the long distance that our two honored guests have travelled to be with us this evening, I move that we begin eating now, before all of this delicious food gets cold, despite the continued absence of the esteemed Governor of Green. All in favor say ‘aye.’”
All but one of the color managers said “aye.”
“All those opposed,” continued the Prince of Purple, “say ‘nay.’”
“Nay,” said the Magistrate of Orange.
“The motion has carried. Dig in!”
Although tempted to grab the bowl of green beans in front of her, Tillie restrained herself, searching the table for water. Four seats away, she saw a pitcher of water beside a woman dressed in yellow. “Excuse me, Ms. Yellow,” Tillie called to the woman. “Could you pass me the water, please.”
The woman, who was busy serving herself a juicy slice of roast beef, stared back at Tillie, appalled. “I am the Matron of Marigold, young lady,” she said, “not ‘Ms. Yellow.’”
“Sorry,” Tillie said. “In any case, can I get that water?”
The Matron of Marigold silently lifted the pitcher and passed it towards Tillie. When the pitcher reached Eve, the witch paused, water in hand. “Don’t do anything foolish,” she warned.
While the other people at the table served themselves mountains of food, Tillie poured herself a full glass of water and sat the pitcher by her empty plate. Noticing that the man on the other side of Eve – the Brigadier of Blue – had struck up a conversation with the witch, Tillie nonchalantly slid one of her hands along the surface of the table toward the witch’s beaded handbag. Pausing mid-sentence, Eve grabbed the purse and casually moved it to the other side of her plate. Tillie saw a hint of a smile cross the witch’s lips.
“Excuse me, Eve,” Tillie said, attempting to interrupt. “Would you – or your purse – like some water?”
Eve held up one long, slim finger in front of Tillie’s nose and continued talking to her neighbor. “I think you’re correct,” she said to the man, “we voters hate it when our elected officials disregard our opinions and I am very glad that you are open to doing whatever I tell you to do even if it contradicts pervious promises you have made.”
“Water?” Tillie said again, lifting the pitcher and giving it a shake.
“And we especially respect politicians who refund blue skies to the 10% of voters who already receive more blue skies than the other 90% voters,” Eve said, still ignoring Tillie.
“Fine,” Tillie said, barely whispering. “You asked for this.” Stretching her arms to their limits, she held the pitcher across Eve’s plate until it was directly above the witch’s purse. With her target in place, she turned her wrists, soaking the beaded handbag beneath a tidal wave of sparkling water.
Eve jumped up, knocking her chair backwards to the floor. “Why, you little...” she began.
“Oops,” Tillie said, remaining seated.
The Brigadier of Blue handed Eve his napkin.
“I will curse you so bad,” Eve said, glaring at Tillie and using the napkin to wipe away the few drops of water that had splashed on her dress.
“It was just a little water,” Tillie said. Water continued to run out of Eve’s drenched bag and over the side of the table where it formed a pool on the floor.
“No harm done,” the King of Crimson said. “Just a minor accident.”
“I’ll get a towel,” the Brigadier of Blue offered, hurrying from the room. He returned less than 10 seconds later, carrying a towel in one hand and pulling a tall, sickly thin man in a lime green pinstriped suit with the other. The new person bent so far forward as he walked that he nearly doubled over on himself. “Look who I found lurking in the kitchen hallway” the Brigadier of Blue said, “the Governor of Green!”
“H-hello,” the Governor of Green muttered, not looking up. He buried both of his hands deep into his pockets.
“Where have you been?” the Prince of Purple asked from the head of the table.
“I was running a little late,” the Governor of Green said, “and I didn’t want to interrupt your meal.”
“Nonsense!” the Prince of Purple declared. “Take your seat and meet our two new constituents!”
The Governor of Green did as he was told, but never once glanced at Tillie and Eve.
Having sopped up all of the spilled water with the towel, the Brigadier of Blue picked up Eve’s chair and motioned for her to sit. She did, leaning close to Tillie and whispering, “I will crush one of your fondest dreams.”
“Promises, promises,” Tillie replied. She served herself a giant dollop of mashed potatoes and motioned for the Matron of Marigold to pass the yeast rolls.
The witch turned her attention to the new arrival. “Long day?” she asked the Governor of Green, trying to make the question sound casual.
“Uh, y-yes,” he stuttered.
“Make any mistakes today?”
The Governor of Green tried to busy himself by carving off a piece of honey-glazed ham.
“I said,” Eve called, louder this time, “did you make any mistakes today?”
“I, uh, don’t believe so, no.”
“From what I’ve seen,” Eve continued, “that would be a first.”
The other color managers looked at one another.
“I don’t know what you mean,” the Governor of Green said.
Eve grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled it to one side. “Do you think this is my natural hair color?!”
The Governor of Green poured himelf a glass of sweet tea and did not respond.
“I’ll give you a hint,” Eve said, “IT’S NOT!”
“I, uh, well, that’s too bad.”
Eve stood from her seat and leaned across the table. “Look at me, you weasel!”
The Governor of Green tilted his head up, his eyes watering and his bottom lip trembling. “Y-yes?”
Tillie grabbed Eve’s wrist and tugged her down. “What Eve means to say is that she and I have noticed that some black objects have recently turned green. And, since you’ve recently taken charge of both of those colors, we were wondering if you knew of any mix-ups.”
Eve sat back down.
“I, ah, must admit,” the Governor of Green said, “mistakes have been made. I have been working dilligently to correct the errors made by the previous administration, but these things take time to fix.”
“The ‘previous administration’?” Tillie asked. “Do you mean the Baron of Black?”
“But I thought you were good friends with him?”
“I am.” The Governor of Green fidgeted with his hands. “That doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge his shortcomings as a color manager, though.”
“Sell him down the river, you mean,” Eve said.
“Far be it for me to speak ill of a friend, but the Baron of Black was not particularly, well, I suppose ‘industrious’ is the word. He was also a bit absent-minded.”
“That’s not true,” the King of Crimson said. “The Baron of Black was whip-smart and he always took his responsibilities seriously.”
“Well, you’re right about that,” the Governor of Green admitted. “Although I think we can all agree that his grasp sometimes exceeded his reach.”
“No, we cannot,” said the Prince of Purple.
Eve shot out of her seat again. “I am sick of this!” she yelled. “I did not come all this way to listen to a snivelling worm make excuses. Someone needs to answer for this black-to-green situation and I am holding you responsible.” She pointed a pale finger at the Governor of Green and began chanting a curse.
“NO!” the Governor of Green shouted, standing from his chair and stumbling towards the door. “I won’t allow this! She will protect me!” Without another word, the frightened man dashed from the room.
“Come back here, you!” Eve screamed, chasing him through the doorway.
Slightly embarrassed, Tillie pushed her chair away from the table and quietly stood. “Please excuse me,” she said. “I’m afraid I must be going.”
“Quite alright,” the Prince of Purple said. “Do what you have to do.”
“Thank you,” she called, already half-way out of the room.
The King of Crimson removed his napkin from his lap, folded it over once, and threw it onto the center of his plate. “This is quite irregular,” he said, “vacating the table before dessert. You would think these people have no sense of decorum at all.”
“I agree,” the Matron of Marigold said. She turned to the Prince of Purple. “Where did you find these constituents, anyway?”
“I encountered them wandering around the fun park,” he admitted. “They seemed lovely until just now.”
“Well, all I can say,” piped up the Brigadier of Blue, “is that our new voters better not get killed in some infernal high-speed chase through the halls of the Casa de Castle.”
“Oh, I’m sure they won’t run down the hallways,” the Prince of Purple said, spearing a bit of cranberry jelly with his fork. “They’re not that uncivilized.”
Several rooms away, both Tillie and Eve were running down a hallway, Eve just a few steps behind the Governor of Green and Tillie just a few steps behind Eve.
“Hurry up,” Eve yelled to Tillie. “He’s nearly there.”
“There” was a single, wooden door at the end of the hall, which the Governor of Green was sprinting toward, his breath ragged. Tillie saw the tall, thin man reach the door only seconds before Eve. In a flash, he tugged the portal open, ducked inside, and slammed it shut behind him again.
Furious, Eve grabbed the thick metal ring that served as a doorknob, twisted it to one side, and pulled. The door didn’t budge. It was locked from inside.
“If you think a lock will save you,” Eve yelled as Tillie came up beside her, “you’re even more stupid than you look. I suggest you back away from the other side of this door immediately.”
“What are you going to do?” Tillie asked.
“Entry spell,” Eve said. The witch pinned her handbag against her body with one elbow and then began to pose her hands and fingers in a complicated series of patterns, each more bizarre than the last. She closed her eyes, concentrating on every muscle in her hands, struggling to cast the spell exactly right. Finally, she rotated her wrists inward toward her body and, in one swift motion, thrust both palms at the door. A blast like a gust of wind slammed into the door, shattering the wrought iron hinges and knocking the wooden slab forward.
Eve removed her purse from beneath her arm and stepped into the room.
Tillie followed a few feet behind the witch, scanning for the Governor of Green. On the far side of the room she saw him, grovelling beside a gigantic black cauldron.
“Please, mistress, protect me,” he whined. “The witch has come.”
Tillie sidestepped to the right, trying to get a view of the person to whom the Governor of Green was speaking. She caught a glimpse of a large, spherical, pulsating object on the floor, but couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing.
“Sweet Sabrina’s Slippers,” Eve spat. “What is that bloated, wretched thing?”
And suddenly Tillie realized that she knew what the bloated, wretched thing was.
It was Ophelia.