Paper Crowns is what I privately call a “Midnight Stroke” (of inspiration, that is) that happened upon me last night. The title ‘Paper Crowns’ has been rolling around in my head for several weeks, but the story didn’t come to me until last night when I couldn’t sleep. My “What should this story be about?” process is a lot like throwing ingredients into a pot and hoping it comes out all right. My head put together something like “faeries – and there should be flowers – and definitely paper, like magic paper but not – and a blue cat that isn’t actually a cat – and white dresses, and-” You understand. Anyway, I’m skipping the introduction I write and giving you a sneak peek into the first chapter. I hope you enjoy it.
“Mal!” I ran down the stairs, my bare feet thumping on the wooden steps. I breezed through the kitchen, and the sitting room, and finally knocked on her bedroom door. “Mal?” I asked, peeking in.
The quilt was tucked neatly around her bed without so much as a wrinkle, and chattering birdsong came in through the open windows. Malgarel was not there.
Frowning, I walked back out to the kitchen and put my hands on my hips. Halcyon was curled up on the windowsill, his tail swinging lazily back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum. “Hal, have you seen Malgarel?”
He opened his eyes just far enough to let me see the slivers of gold. She went out.
To pick blackberries, I believe.
“Why didn’t she wake me up?”
Because you were asleep, presumably.
Blast that cat. “Some help you are,” I said, although I knew he didn’t care in the slightest what I thought of him. He never had. “I’m going to help her.”
He sighed and stood up, arching his back in a long, satisfying stretch. “What are you doing?” I asked, as he hopped off the windowsill onto the counter and made another calculated jump from the counter to the floor.
I might as well come with, he responded, trotting to the door. Wouldn’t want you getting lost in the wildwood.
“I haven’t ever gotten ‘lost in the wildwood,’” I said, miffed.
He turned his head to stare at me over his shoulder. What about the time you decided to go for a walk and were gone half the night? I had to go and find you, and I got a thorn in my paw for my trouble.
“That was years ago,” I protested. “You can really hold a grudge.”
I hope you get a thorn in your paw one of these days. You won’t be so flippant then, he retorted. He stretched his face toward the sun on the front step and let out a deep, thrumming purr.
I stepped past him, the grass cool and welcoming beneath my feet. “Come on,” I called, hurrying out of the small, trim yard and into the trees beyond. “Last one to Aunt Mal’s a rotten egg!”
How lovely. He raced past me, a blue blur in the shadows, and I caught the white skirts of my dress and ran after him until my breath was gone and my heart hammered between my ribs. Halcyon was nowhere to be seen.
“Hal?” I called between gasps. “Hal, come on. You won, okay?”
There was no response. “That cat,” I panted, more to myself than him, wherever he was. “Why can’t he ever stick around?”
“Speaking to someone?” Startled, I whirled around to look behind me, but it was only Malgarel. Her hazel eyes swept the clearing and she asked, “Did Halcyon go off again?”
“We were racing,” I said, “although he won, so I don’t know why he disappeared.”
“Hmm. Well, I’m going back,” she said, shifting the basket under her arm. It was full of ripe blackberries the size of thimbles, and my stomach remembered it had missed breakfast and gave a quiet growl.
“I’m going to pick some myself,” I said, wincing as I put my foot down on a sharp twig. The soles of my feet were tough from a lifetime of running through the forest barefoot, but they the minute I stood still they noticed every prick and thorn. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Only if Hal is with you,” she said sharply.
I sighed. “Mal,” I began, but she cut me off with her I-will-not-argue-with-you-on-this-young-lady tone.
“The woods are dangerous, and if you want to remain in them you must be accompanied by Halcyon.”
I had heard that line so many times; I wondered she bothered saying it anymore. Aside from the fact I tried to wriggle around it at least once a week. “Yes, ma’am,” I muttered, letting go of my skirts so I could ball my hands into fists behind my back. She began to walk away, but the imp in my mouth had to get in one last shot. “Out of curiosity, at what age do you think I’ll be old enough to take a walk unaccompanied?”
She never even faltered. “Maybe when you learn to pay heed to things?” She stepped over a log and disappeared behind a thick stand of birch trees. I let out a suppressed shriek of frustration and kicked the trunk of an oak, but the shriek came out like the whistle of a teakettle and my throbbing foot did nothing to improve my suddenly flammable mood.
That’s right, kick a tree. It might help.
I turned around and threw a stick at the blue cat, who lifted a paw and watched the stick sail over his head with vague disinterest. “Where were you?” I demanded.
Chasing a field mouse, he said.
I snorted. “You’ve never chased a mouse in your life, field or otherwise.”
There is always, he said, licking his paw with his tiny pink tongue, a first time.