They had wandered in the tame forest for several days before finding the path.
Ribbons and lace caught on branches, or sometimes tied there purposefully, in saucy bows. The grass trampled by many bare or slippered little feet, the trees carved with crude hearts and letters.
S + E. K + P.
There was much exasperation in such things, as they were undeniably adorable. And because of them His Lady the Duchess was under strict review for the great escape, the kingdoms were all in uproar, and he was living out of a pack among the trees.
Not that Bowen had been so lucky as to leave the Academy without censure. There had been fire and brimstone from the first lords and ladies, kings and queens, to arrive upon the devastated scene. Bedrooms torn apart, silverware stolen, inkpots toppled over, the pantries raided.
Condemnation had indeed rained down from on high. That he and his fellow guards had been unable to stop the fleeing girls, never mind the shock delivered by certain pairs of bloomers – pink and blue, striped and dotted, while breaches were held high to flap like flags above white, flashing legs…
He bit his lip at the memory. Such quick devils they were.
And there was every need for caution now. He had never paid much attention to the girls at their lessons, but the first questions put to His Poor Lady had been most disturbing.
“What have they been doing?” His Lady repeated the question with pained grace. “Why, their lessons include botany and geography, archery and calligraphy, music and mathematics, history and poetry, swimming and dance –”
“Ah, as I recall the lake is lovely in the mornings,” sighed one of the ladies. “Though frigid, of course.”
A few others nodded while their husbands looked askance.
“They have been learning all these things?” a Queen, not originally from the kingdoms, spoke up uncertainly. “I, well, I merely sent my daughter here so she would be finished. It most beneficial to peace on the Contintent to have all our daughters schooled together…”
“You Highness,” His Lady said sadly, “pardon me, but what did you think the young ladies learned while they were at school?”
“Veritable Amazons!” a Lord cried, twisting his hands. “What of the languages and pretty stitching I thought my Lavender was cultivating?”
“I assure you we have been teaching those things as well, my Lord.”
“I refuse to believe my Lavender began this awful mess!”
At this His Lady the Duchess had been silent, and Bowen turned away in despair. Amazons indeed. They had found the tame forest gleaned of every edible plant, and there were traces of girlish hands and feet climbing farther up into the trees than they could see.
Now they had finally found the path of ribbons, where it seemed that the girls had come together after their romp. It headed north-north-east, as His Lady had predicted. This was directly toward the village which was the only habitation on the other side of the forest, an ignominious place long forgotten by the kingdoms.
“The girls,” she had explained, with what Bowen thought was a trace of pride, “have studied their maps, and will undoubtedly make for such a near and hidden place.”
The tame forest seemed to grow hostile as he and his company pressed on, in the hollow bird calls and the more cryptic messages now carved into the trees and dirt. Romley muttered about “triangulations” and grimaced at the night sky, but Bowen didn’t bother asking.
When they first heard the sound they all froze. Bowen found himself creeping forward first.
It had, admittedly, been almost two months since Princess Lavender ran away. It had, admittedly, been almost three weeks since the other girls left the Continental Ladies Academy, the pride of the fourteen kingdoms, a place ransacked and devoid of students. But still he found himself staring in wonder.
There was no longer an ignominious village beyond the trees. There was a bustling wooden town painted in blues and yellows, with lacy knickknacks hanging in windows, a narrow but freshly-tilled field lying between the forest and the first houses. Construction had begun on a very large something that Bowen could not discern no matter how he craned his head. He smelled bread, he heard music. But most importantly, the main street teamed with people, among whom were an inordinate number of young girls in breeches.
Someone jostled his elbow. “How can we catch them in all that, Romley…?”
“Gosh, I don’t know,” replied a sunny voice. “Maybe you should try getting out of the net, first?”
His heart sank, and he turned to look at the now-freckled young lady smiling at him through the criss-cross of ropes.
“We made a whole bunch so I’m afraid you can’t expect any help from your friends,” she went on. Could it possibly be Lady Beatrice, Bowen wondered? That wavy hair might be cropped alarmingly short, but…
“…anyway, didn’t you worry about what might have happened to the other search parties?”
She regarded him earnestly. He had, in fact, worried. But none of them had had the nerve to mention it.
“Oh, I can’t tease you a moment longer,” the-girl-who-might-be-Beatrice suddenly gave truly a beatific smile. Bowen wobbled. “They are all here! You needn’t worry, they are helping us build our Miscellorium.”
“It’s for anything! Anything we want. We might make it part hotel,” she added, “because once you get to the other side of town you can see the scenery here is quite lovely, so perhaps we could attract visitors and commerce. Theresa?”
The answer came from above, but the net stopped Bowen from seeing more than rustling boughs.
“Do you think the rest of them will come into town too?” (and aside to Bowen, “The folk we’ve met here are so kind, I know you’ll like them!”)
“Oh I think so!” A figure dropped out of the leafy canopy, hitting the earth with a thud that made him wince. It was covered in dirt and leaves, holding a very long, thin pole with a red flag on the end.
“Is that how you knew we were here?” he spluttered. “You were all done up in – in all that, watching up there?”
“We’re calling it ‘flage!” the outlandish figure said.
“Short for camouflage,” added the-girl-who-might-be-Beatrice.
“And then I raise the flag if I see anyone.”
They turned to each other, beaming. The very sort of childish delight to slyly melt one’s heart.
“You’ll come and build with us, won’t you, Bowen?” The-girl-who-might-be-Beatrice turned back to him, and then raised a hand to her mouth and blushed. “That is your name, isn’t it?”
Somehow, he nodded.
“Oh! Good! Well,” the-girl-who-might-be-Beatrice tugged at her short hair, “I only overheard it, on the grounds one day, so I wasn’t sure.” Turning ever redder, she put her hand out to the knot that was holding the whole net together. “Won’t you come into town with us? There’s fresh bread just now.”
The charming blue and yellow houses, and the blushing girl, regarded him hopefully. And against them there was no way to win.
He offered up a prayer to His Lady for forgiveness.