Chapter 12: Thirteen Balconies

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I scurried to the bottom of the steps that led to the kitchen.

To someone as tiny as me they looked like a series of mountains stacked on top of each other but I had a plan. The sandstone walls were textured enough that I could dig my claws in and climb straight up vertically. I weighed so little, it was almost as easy to run up the wall as it was to run along the floor. I climbed up and onto the wooden bannister and scampered along it, all the way to the top.

When I reached the kitchen I scurried down the wall and across the kitchen floor, trying to ignore the tempting smells of forgotten food wafting out from under the tables and behind the cupboards. I clawed up the kitchen wall and onto the bannister of the wooden staircase that wound up to the princess's level. Up and up, round and round I scurried. In spite of my size I could move very fast, much faster than a clunky human being. At last I reached Jemima's floor. The walls were smooth marble here. I jumped off the bannister and landed paws splayed on the marble floor of the corridor that led to the princess's room. The cold stone was slippery beneath my claws so I stayed on the carpet. A guard was on duty outside the peacock doors. Camouflaged by the carpet I slipped past him, underneath the door and inside.

The room was quite dark. The green velvet curtains had been drawn across the balcony. Jemima was snoring gently in her four-poster bed, her beautiful red hair fanned out against the pillow, her little dog curled up at the foot of her bed. At my entrance, he lifted his head sleepily, scrabbled to his feet and trotted towards me, tail wagging. I stopped still and shrank back onto my haunches. I watched his nose come towards me, nostrils twitching. He snuffled over my tiny body, the smell of his meaty breath was overpowering. Then, just like the greyhound in the dungeons, he lost interest, turned and wandered back to his sleeping place.

Jemima's silver dress hung over a chair next to the wardrobe, a pair of grey velvet slippers were discarded under the chair. I closed my mouse eyes and pictured myself kneeling down, trowel in hand, planting seeds in the soil of Gerda's garden with the sun on my neck. The familiar wave passed through me; I could feel the softness of the rug underneath my feet as they grew fleshy again. My legs and arms elongated, my whiskers shrank back into my face and I was human once more. I swayed on the spot, my head spinning, as if I'd stood up too quickly. It was the first time I'd grown back into my body from something so tiny.

I wriggled into the dress, pulled on the slippers and looked around for a quill and paper. I wanted to write Jemima a note, apologising for having taken her dress but what would I say? Hello, I healed your dog earlier. Actually, I'm a shape-shifter. I came into your room as a mouse but now I'm a girl again and I needed something to wear. Hope you don't mind, love Daisy, kiss, kiss. No, the note was a bad idea. Besides, the less she knew the better. I knew her father hated magic and I didn't want her getting in trouble on my account.

Now, what to do? I hadn't thought any further than this point. I couldn't stay in the palace. Enough people had seen me dressed as a slave; if I pretended to be a noblewoman, a member of the court, I'd be found out. That meant I had to get out of the palace but Jemima's room was guarded and there were more guards at the palace gates. Softly, so as not to wake Jemima, I tiptoed across the room, slipped through the curtains and out onto the balcony.

The early morning air was cool against my skin. Jemima's room was on the very top floor of the palace and in the weak predawn light the view was breath-taking. I took it all in - the silent city of Jamain, its colours muted, its lines softened, down at the bottom of the hill the orchards, fields and towns of Quain stretching out for miles and beyond them, the sea, flat like a great mirror. I walked to the balustrade and looked down. The palace was tiered like a wedding cake. Jemima's balcony formed the roof of another room below. This room's balcony stuck out as far as Jemima's did. There were marble pillars connecting the end of Jemima's balcony with the beginning of the balcony beneath. I knew what I had to do.

Gritting my teeth, I took a deep breath and stepped backwards over the balustrade. I gripped it tightly with both hands, lowered my body down and wrapped my legs around the marble pillar beneath. Then I let go of the wall with one arm and hugged it round the pillar.

Okay, here goes! One . . . two . . . three . . .

On three I let the other arm go, threw it round the smooth marble of the pillar and slid down to the balcony below, the silver velvet of my dress slipping easily down the stone.

Bump! I landed on my bottom with a jolt of pain, my heart hammering in my chest. Grimacing, I picked myself up, rubbed my sore rump and staggered across to the front of that balcony. I climbed over the balustrade and did the same thing again. This time I managed to brake by squeezing the pillar tightly with my knees before hitting the bottom, then I crossed that balcony and slid down to the next.

And the next.

And the next.

And the next.

I knew I could get to the ground this way but how I would get past the guards at the palace gates, I still had no idea.

There were thirteen balconies in total. When I reached the last one I heard voices coming from the room inside.

"Get out of bed now and put your clothes on or you'll be late," a female voice snapped.

"But it's so early!" a child's singsong voice complained.

"Of course it's early. I told you before; it's the anniversary of the founding of the Kingdom of Quain. We're going up the hill to watch the sunrise."

"Do we have to?" the child protested.

"Yes we do. It's tradition. We always go and so does everyone else in Quain, nobleman and commoner alike. What would people think if we weren't there? Now get up, will you!"

This was good news. I swung myself over the edge of the last balcony, slid to the ground and quickly hid myself behind an ornamental bush. Seconds later the main entrance doors to the palace were flung open and hundreds upon hundreds of people came out, all walking towards the great gold gates which the guards were now pushing open.

Discreetly, I stepped out from behind my bush and joined the throng.

Well guessed, crazyforchrist :)

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