Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Inkweaver" Excerpt: The Rise and Fall of Morgianna Plontus-Byrmingham

Once we reached the road again, I started thinking about the tapestry. Where did we need to go next?
As if she could read my mind, Larryn reached into my pack and pulled out our "map." She spread it out, and I could tell right away that it held more detail, more pictures. The scenes of Gramble and Stania and Mirrorvale were overlapping and closely packed at the bottom of the tapestry, while the blackrope forest and Naten's hut were very close together. My eyes found the familiar signpost that pointed the way to Aberon, and I understood that this town would be our next destination. The Inkweaver (or the magical ink; I could not be sure) thought to include many people in the illustration of the road and the town. The more I stared, the more they seemed to mill about and interact with one another.
"So," I flinched as Belak's voice issued right next to my ear, "Where are we going next?"
I rolled up the tapestry quickly; had Belak seen the part that depicted the discovery of having no food that precipitated our detour to Pierson's house? Perhaps the Inkweaving was magic after all; otherwise, how could she have known about that?
I pointed down the road that would take us back to the cross with the signpost. "We're heading on to Aberon, as far as I can tell," I answered.
Belak laughed, "You know, most girls would benefit from a lesson in map-reading."
"As much as most boys would benefit from lessons in housekeeping!" Larryn retorted cheekily.
Hearing my friends tease each other actually brought a smile to my face. All the heaviness and worry I’d carried over the last few days seemed to shift to the back of my mind, like I left it behind with Junea and her squabbling brood. I wondered if some of Larryn’s adventurous spirit had spread to me as I picked up my head and traversed the road before us with renewed energy.

We reached the crossroads and found it unoccupied. The woman standing beneath the signpost wore the fanciest dress I’d ever seen: all rich, glittering fabrics and lacy bodices and voluminous hoopskirts. She dragged a large steamer trunk mounted on a wheeled platform behind her. The woman squinted up a the various destination markers, and in that movement, noticed the four of us walking toward her.

“Hello, there!” she called as we approached. She seemed to move with definite purpose down the road from a village called (according to the signpost) Hemptor.              
Flaming-red lips grinned widely at us as we gathered around her. Standing with the woman, I saw her face smeared and coated with heavy amounts of paint and makeup. The effect was rather garish and excessively theatrical, but she seemed friendly enough.
She sighed and dropped the handle of the trolley that carried her trunk, easing her hoopskirts from around her shapely legs so she could seat herself upon it.
“Fancy meeting friends on my journey!” she bubbled. “I don’t know what I would have done if I had to walk all the way into town so completely on my own!” She smiled widest of all at Belak, whom I could tell was doing his admirable best not to stare at the topmost trimmings of the remarkably thin waist the woman displayed, which looked even tinier in comparison with the wide skirts beneath it.
“Would you like to join us?” I invited her more out of courtesy than desire.
The woman jumped to her feet with alacrity that made her dress flounce temptingly. “Well, honey,” she smiled at me like I was the hero of everything, “I thought you’d never ask! Oh!” She placed a gloved hand over her mouth—hovering, not touching, lest she leave lipstick on the white lace—and blushed. “Where are my manners? My name is Morgianna Plontus-Byrmingham, but you all can call me Morgie.”
I was glad she gave an alternative; I was very interested in getting to know this exuberant woman, but there was no way I would be able to carry on a conversation with Miss Plontus-Byrmingham!
“A pleasure to meet you, Morgie,” I said, giving the proffered hand a congenial squeeze. “My name is Shereya and these are my friends: Larryn, Greyna, and Belak.”
Morgie only had sea-blue eyes for one face. “Charmed, Belak,” she murmured absently.

I made sure to send clear signals to match Morgie’s obvious intentions by slipping my arms around Belak. The way he placed one hand on my back and used the other to clasp my hand told me he agreed with my intuition. Once our silent tableau was established, I continued, “We are headed to Aberon; where are you going?”
Morgie’s face beamed like a comedy mask in a stage play. “Why, I was just on my way to Aberon, as well! Isn’t that lucky?” She tittered softly.
I smiled and pulled away from Belak, though we kept a firm hold on each other’s hand. “Lucky indeed,” I agreed. “Let us continue, then!”
Morgie picked up the handle to her trolley and we continued down the road to Aberon.

After Larryn’s continuous broaching of uncomfortable subjects and Greyna’s reticence, it felt wonderful to travel with a companion who had no idea who I was or of the true nature of our journey—and instead preferred to talk about something else entirely.
I merely asked her to tell me about herself, and Morgie launched into a long tale that reminded me of one of the Inkweaver’s stories—but I was sure I’d never heard this particular one before. She prattled about the miserable hovel where she had lived, with no hope and no future—then one day, she received notice that Count Bergen—who had the king’s ear in Gramble—was going to provide a banquet in his royal hall at Aberon, and everyone who could arrive on a certain day (the very same day in which we were traveling) could be admitted to attend the banquet.
“It is my chance, Shereya!” Morgie gushed. “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life, and now it has come! And once I am seen in the Count’s court, no doubt I will be noticed by some impressive courtier and he will offer to take me away from my life of poverty and all my problems will be answered!”
Beside me, Belak snorted, “And what if that doesn’t happen?”
Morgie was nonplussed. “Well then, at least I will be able to get work of some kind in Aberon. There’s just no chance of that in Hemptor—Aberon’s the place to be!”

We crested a hill, and there in the valley before us stood the village of Aberon—though it did look more like a city. A high gate straddled the road entering the city, a thick stone archway chiseled with the name ABERON. Morgianna instinctively drew herself up and whispered to me, “Watch me and do as I do.”
I tried to walk with the same stilted stride that she used, but failed miserably in my sensible boots. Morgianna flounced us right by the armored guards standing watch on either side of the arch. By the time we crossed the threshold into Aberon, she was grinning. She drew a long breath.
“Ahh! Absorb it, my friends! Take it all in!” she raved. “Aberon, the glory of Gramble! Everyone who is anyone must have visited Aberon at one time or another. There is a distinct level of quality that makes this great city famous.” She finally turned to us and frowned. “Unfortunately, that is not it,” she indicated our clothing with an outstretched finger.
“These?” Larryn examined her drab-yellow dress that was the brightest color to be had in Mirrorvale. “But Morgie, these are the only clothes we have.”
“Oh, I’m not just talking about the clothes dear!” Morgianna tittered. She seemed to be talking more to me than to the others. “Come with me! I’ll show you Aberon style!”
“No offense,” Greyna spoke up, her voice mousier than ever after Morgianna’s boisterous prattling, “but I think we’re all agreed that we should save our money for the things that we actually need. It’s a long way yet to Gramble.”
Morgianna slowly bent her sparkling eyelids toward me. “I think Shereya would agree that, to experience Aberon fully, you all need makeovers. As for the money, don’t worry about it!” She reached into her handbag and pulled out a thick scroll. “Once I receive my placement, the crown will handle all my expenses. I’m keeping a bill for that purpose. I’ll just add everything you get to my tab!”
Belak, Larryn, Greyna, and I exchanged glances; my first reaction was the distinct impression of wrongdoing. “You mean we’ll be getting items and services and promising to pay for them later—without any guarantee that it will happen? Isn’t that akin to stealing?”
Morgie waved a manicured hand. “Oh, it’s going to be paid, Shereya, dear! We aren’t stealing it—entirely,” she added after a pause. “Now, come along!”
I stepped forward—and immediately noticed that I was the only one. Belak and the other girls hung back. I turned to him.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Belak held his ground, “You can go ahead if you want to, Shereya; we’ll wait here for you.”
“Yes, go ahead,” Greyna encouraged, “You deserve something special; it’s more your style. Larryn and I, we’re too plain and too—“
“Rambunctious,” Larryn cut in, “Going to a party—blech!” She made a face. “You can have my share, Shereya.”
The more they talked, the more Morgie tugged, the more I knew I wanted to attend this party. We had no high-class cities like Aberon near Mirrorvale, and I hated speculating, so there would be nothing I would like more than being able to see it and experience it firsthand. I stepped up next to Morgianna.
“Now then!” the woman cried.

Such a day we made of it! Morgianna took me to the beautician who styled my hair and painted my face to look the latest style, we visited the seamstress and the millinery and got ourselves the finest gowns we could find. Meanwhile, Morgianna instructed me in all the ways I must behave as a high-born lady. She knew a lot about how to act like upper society, the way I must carry myself and the way I must speak. When Morgianna talked, it was not just idle speculation or the wretched daydreaming of the story-chasers—it felt like it could really happen, and moreover, that it would, as long as we “played our cards right,” as Morgianna phrased it.

By evening, we were both ready, and it was time to enter the ball. I wore a brown silk brocade gown with many tucks, and gloves up to my elbows, and I tip-tapped over the stones of the Count’s courtyard like a lady of state. A footman escorted the two of us to a banquet hall. I stopped and gasped.

The room was fairly lined with tables, and all the tables were piled high with food. There was enough space in that one room to hold my house and Larryn’s at the same time. People in fancy clothing were chatting with one another and the whole company had just began to take their seats at the tables. The tables at the front of the room were filling faster than the ones at the back. I guessed it was because the Count and his officials were all seated at the head table. I started to move toward one of the back tables (I cared more about participating than about my position in the room), when Morgianna caught my elbow.
“Follow my lead!” she whispered in my ear.
I scuttled behind Morgianna as she went straight for the last two empty seats at the table just lower than the head table. Grinning and chatting amiably with the overstuffed, deaf lords on either side, Morgianna pretended that she was doing what came absolutely natural as she claimed the seats for us and sat down without missing a breath. We had done it! We were sitting right in front of Count Bergen’s table—the two of us were certain to be noticed by everyone in the room!

The hubbub of conversation died down, but before the meal could begin, the doors of the banquet hall opened again, and a late-arrived couple entered. Count Bergen stood and greeted them fondly, and then—with all eyes upon him—turned and walked straight up to our table—straight up to Morgianna and I—and in a clear voice, so that everyone in the whole hall could hear him in the breathless silence, he spoke to us.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are—but did you not see that those seats had been reserved for my personal friends?” said the Count.
There was an awful pause, and someone had the nerve to giggle. That giggle prompted more soft laughter, and by the time a waiting-man had helped us from our chairs and led us to the table at the furthest corner of the room, we were certainly the center of attention—we were the laughingstock of the whole banquet. Suddenly I wasn’t hungry for the glazed delicacies and rich cakes of the party. Everything felt as fake and empty as Morgianna’s painted face.
I turned to the footman. “Please, don’t worry about finding me a seat; I would like to leave.”
“You’re leaving?” Morgianna spluttered. “B-b-but we’ve only just begun!”
I shook my head, “No, Morgianna; it is over. I’m going to rejoin my friends. I hope you enjoy your banquet.”
The footman showed me to the door, and even after the castle doors closed behind me, I could still feel the laughter of those rich, noble-born guests ringing in my heart. The words of my dream came floating back as I walked through those quiet, dark streets alone. “As the mirror reflects the face, so a person’s heart reflects the person…Those who work hard will be rewarded, but those who only talk of it are sure to be ruined… A quiet, simple life is better than a shallow, showy life… The last one I remembered was the one that seemed to speak of my own situation:  

Don’t take the best seat at a party; it is better to be found at the foot of the table and welcomed to the head, than for the host to ask you to move down in front of everyone.