The cabbages had been divested of caterpillars. The formerly sagging tomato vines had been relieved of their ruby produce. The camellia bushes had been pruned of old growth, and the minature potted pirhana plants had been fed their daily luncheon of live grubs. Luigi checked his watch. Quarter to twelve, another successful morning's work. Before he returned inside to work on the laundry, however, there was one final task left to perform.
Equipping himself with his well-worn trowel, shears and watering can, he reverently approached an elevated, sunny patch of the flower bed.
In the centre of a well mulched and well weeded circle of soil grew a small rose bush, its undulating stems a pale young green, just on the verge of yeilding its first buds. These delicate teardrop-shaped bulbs dotted the plant, standing out like stars in a milky evening sky. Even at this stage of life, they glowed an intense, luminescent yellow, completely unlike any other flower in Luigi's garden.
He brushed at the flushed leaflets and prickly stems tenderly, checking meticulously for any sign of pests or discolouration. After a lengthy inspection, satisfied that the precious plant was out of danger, he carefully loosened the rich soil surrounding the base, sprinkling a light shower of high-phosphorus fertiliser as he went. He had considered planting a ring of pansies around his treasure, but later decided against it, adamant that nothing should be permitted to leech nutrients away from its imminent blooms. Besides, once the flowers had opened, the prettiness of any mere pansy would shrivel beneath its splendour.
Finally, he took his battered watering can in hand and poured a gentle rain upon the tended bed. The forecast had insisted that the skies would remain blue for at least the next week, and keeping the thriving shrub from thirst was crucially important.
Having finally completed his regimen, Luigi wiped the sweat from his forehead and remained kneeling by the rose bush, his eyes roving over its burgeoning features. He had grown many plants from small cuttings - the tiny balcony of his childhood home in Brooklyn had always been teeming and green with the botanical accomplishments of he and his mother Mimi. However, this latest charge was truly a glorious accomplishment of his expertise.
He had only ever seen one other specimen of this jewel-like flower, a cutting that had been bestowed upon him as a gift. Instead of letting it wither indoors, condemned to sit in a chipped vase in a dim corner of his room, Luigi had propagated the little flower, planting it in his garden and taking every measure to ensure it would take root. The love and care he had dedicated to it seemed to be gradually paying off.
He removed his gardening gloves and lay back upon the dark, springy grass.
Trembling and flustered, Luigi shakily got to his feet. He grimaced at Daisy's ear-to-ear grin.
"You know, normal people don't use ambush as a form of greeting."
"Wanna come play some tennis this afternoon, Sweetie? Everyone's gonna be there,
and we'll all go out for dinner afterwards!"
Luigi shook his head. "I have a lot to do around the house this afternoon."
"I'll help!" Daisy proclaimed, and began to haul the garden implements back to the shed. He moved to stop her in her task, but thought better of it, watching his friend lug everything away in a single trip, her scruffy brown ponytail bouncing about in her wake.
"Princesses don't usually take kindly to labour."
After setting her load down in the shed, in a disorganised clump, she emerged and ruffled his hair. "And great champions of the Kingdom don't normally spend their days cleaning and gardening." She began to skip off down the garden path. "Shall we start by putting out the laundry?"
Before he could object, Daisy had clambered into the laundry room and was hauling a sopping wet pile of the brothers' work clothes into a basket.
"I assume these are Mario's?" she giggled, holding up a pair of dungarees with a considerably wide seat.
"I haven't scrubbed all the grease stains out yet," Luigi insisted gently, removing the garment from her clutches. "It's okay Daisy, I got this. Go out and enjoy the match with the others."
A pang of guilt stung him as he saw the spark fade from her eyes. She gave him a brief, sad smile, before turning and making her way back down the garden path. "It'd be really great if you were there," she said simply, "We've seen so little of you for the past few weeks."
He followed her to the front gate, and she lingered for a moment, leaning against the wooden fence.
"Last chance?" She offered. "I'll pay for your pizza afterwards."
Luigi sighed, simpered at her apologetically, and fetched the post from the nearby mailbox.
Finally resigned, she snuck a kiss to his cheek in parting. "See ya 'round, nature boy."
"What's his excuse this time?" Mario grumbled, when he saw Daisy approaching without a lanky green-clad companion on her arm.
"He said he's got housework to do," the girl lamented. "Could we at least recruit Peach to make up the numbers?"
Toad shook his head. "She's holding a forum on the federal regulation of agriculture today."
His sister, Toadette, giggled. "At least she has an excuse."
Mario took his cap off and rubbed his forehead, trying not to chafe at his brother's continued reticence. "I had planned this day for HIM! To give him a change of scene and a chance to socialise! The first day in a month that I didn't have a monarch to protect, a violent bandit to squash or an autograph signing to attend, and he still can't be arsed to drag himself out of that blasted garden." He exhaled, resigned himself to the situation and looked to the cluster of his friends. "Come on then... let's play anyway."
The game wound down as the afternoon wore away, and the group agreed on a light meal at a fashionable new establishment in the Toad Town Arcade. They entered the brass-gilt doors, and savoured the respite of the air-conditioning and light jazz music emanating from a small stage at the back of the room. Toadette's eyes sparkled appreciatively.
"Oooh... the decor is so glam!"
Daisy nodded. "Yeah, they say all the new 'Starbeans' franchises that have been opening internationally have developed waiting lists that are, like, three months long. I heard that the one on the Kong Archipelago even needs a team of bouncers."
"Good thing we have combined star power, then," Mario remarked cheerily, as a fawning maître d' showed them to a large table on the ornamented mezzanine level.
Menus were handed out, and Daisy hastily decided on her meal. Looking for something to wile away the time, she picked up a tabloid newspaper left on one of the nearby velvet lounges.
"This is a Beanbean Kingdom newspaper," she commented, "they must carry them in every Starbeans."
Mario's head snapped up. The front page of the publication declared: "Bumper Crop at Chuckle Bean Plantations - Prince Visits to Congratulate Farmers." The weathered, soil-caked hand of a beanish farmer was being shook by a dazzling, smiling, all-too-familiar figure.
The plumber frowned. "Luigi's subscribed to that rag," he stated flatly. "He can't get enough of it. There's stacks of 'em currently burying our coffee table at home."
Daisy looked up at him. "Now that you mention it, he was kinda eager to take the post in when I saw him today."
"Who could blame him?" Toadette interjected, wonder in her voice. "He's actually seen the place. The beutiful old buildings in Beanbean Castle Town, the sandy beaches at Gwarhar Lagoon, the vintages at Château de Chucklehuck... I'm soooo jealous!"
The visit that Mario, Peach and their entourage had made some time previously to the country had inspired a mini-boom in tourism to the place, and for a few months now, the Beanish way of life had become wildly popular with the youth of the Mushroom Kingdom. The opening of the new Starbeans had been a massive publicity event, to which Mario and Luigi had been welcomed as VIP guests. The Beanish celebrities who had been invited, however, all politely declined. Although the Beanbean Kingdom was a peaceable nation, there were less enthused people who were quick to point out the persistent low-level snobbishness that pervaded Beanish culture.
The energy of the conversation petered out as everyone noticed Mario's grim expression. He leant a fist against his cheek, staring down at the tabloid.
"He's been obsessed," he murmured. "He's been even quieter and more preoccupied than normal. The Beanish Prince gave him this shiny yellow rose. He kept the thing by his side constantly while we were there. The moment we got home he planted it in the garden, and he's fussed over it every day since. He keeps on inventing excuses not to go out... I'm really worried about him..."
Before anyone could say anything else, a flurry of noise and activity at the front door alerted the group. A mob of patrons were milling about excitedly, as the maître d' lead a tall, flamboyantly dressed Mushroom man up to a reserved table on the mezzanine. He casually waved off his fervent fans, leaving the Starbeans staff to manage the animated herd. His many gold rings glinted in the evening sunlight.
"Looks like they might need an army of bouncers here, too," Mario commented. "Who is that guy, anyway?"
The Mushroom man flicked back his purple cape. As his gaze flittered over to Mario's table, his face lit up with delighted recognition.
Toad got up from his place at the table, and the two embraced like brothers.
"Guys, this is Mannie Muscaria, one of the court musicians. He and I often work together at the castle."
"He's not just ANY court musician," Toadette added, "He's the greatest guitarist of his generation! Toadovsky, Master Poet, the Great Kondonini... he can shred them all!"
Mannie Muscaria chuckled bombastically. "Please, please. My art in itself is praise enough." He made a show of flourishing his expert fingers, his gold rings glinting all the brighter. His dark eyes settled upon Mario, and they narrowed.
"Would it be too much to ask if I joined your party, Mario? I have often seen you rushing about the castle, but have never had a chance to really meet you. It would be marvellous to pick the brain of such a monumentous national hero."
The plumber felt a little like a strain of bacteria being examined under a microscope. Nevertheless, he scrabbled up along the table, allowing the musician to sit down (it turned out that everyone had to move along a fair way - Mannie Muscaria's physique was as hefty as his reputation).
Eventually the food arrived, and the group all quite happily fell to eating.
"So," Mannie Muscaria slurred through a mouthful of fricassed goomba in hee bean consommé, "as you are all so close to the Princess, I imagine you would have some understanding of her personal musical predilections."
Mario looked up quizzically from his risotto. "Huh?"
"He's asking about Peach's taste in music," Daisy translated.
Mario shrugged. "It's not really something that I have time to ask about when I'm trying to rescue her from the claws of crazed, villainous reptile kings."
"Apart from listening to the royal chamber orchestra at recitals," Toad mused, "I've sometimes known her to chill out to love ballads by Chanterelle..."
"Oh yeah!" Daisy piped up. "She loves that mushy stuff. You should have heard her do karaoke at my last birthday party. She and all the girls had one too many strawberry daquiris - she leaned right into the microphone and hit a note so high it shattered the cocktail glass that Birdo was holding!"
Mannie Muscaria shrieked and snorted with laughter, his face growing a brilliant red. His fork clattered to the table. The maestro continued wheezing and spluttering, and Daisy was the first person to realise something was amiss.
Diners at nearby tables gawked in horror as the Mushroom man flailed about wildly, choking on a munitious sliver of goomba meat. Mario leapt into action, lifting the massive bulk of Mannie Muscaria to his feet and giving him an almighty whallop on the back. The piece of meat was dislodged and rocketed across the room, landing with a spectacular splash in an elderly lady's glass of Chuckola Reserve.
Everyone cheered, excluding the elderly lady, who simply wiped a splatter of Chuckola reserve off her white lacy blouse.
"Another victory for the hero of the Mushroom Kingdom!" The maître d' announced. "Mario, you and your friends eat on the house tonight!" Upon hearing these words, Daisy and Toadette instantly reached for the dessert menu.
"I don't quite know what to say..." Mannie Muscaria said to Mario, "You have saved my life... but how on earth can I repay a man of your stature?"
Mario shook his head and sat back down. "It's fine."
"Really," Mannie Muscaria insisted. "would you like a gift? A favour? If you or any of your friends want free music lessons, you need only ask."
Mario's eyes drifted back to the newspaper that still lay upon the table, and the photo of the Beanish Prince that graced it.
"Actually, now that you mention it..."
Luigi opened up his musty smelling guitar case, starting slightly as Mannie Muscaria snatched the humble instrument and tutted, wasting no time in re-stringing it.
"You can't make music with an instrument you do not nuture," he muttered. "This guitar is crying out for someone to hold it."
He still wasn't entirely sure why he was there. Mario had rattled on at him about developing outside interests and focusing his mind on something productive, before he took off to help quell a reptillian pirate seige taking place in Rogueport.
It was true Luigi had always had a certain affinity for playing the guitar. As a teenager, he'd cherised various rock star idols, and his parents had paid for enough private lessons to enable him to bumble his way through many of the pop anthems of the day. However, as his plumbing apprenticeship began with his brother & father, and his displacement to the Mushroom Kingdom had led to a new life altogether, it had been a hobby that had simply fallen by the wayside.
And so, Mario had now arranged lessons with one of the Kingdom's finest court musicians. Instead of an exciting opportunity, Luigi approached this new endeavour with a sense of dread. A musical master like Mannie Muscaria would no doubt have high, exacting standards of his pupil - much higher than that of his old tutor, a burnout hippie rocker teaching pop tunes to kids for ten bucks a lesson.
"Your brother tells me you have had lessons before," the musician noted, one angular eyebrow rising slightly. "Show me what you can do."
Luigi gave a weak, apologetic smile, stated that he was rusty, and struggled his way through an old Freddie Mercury number. He tried to ignore the subtle wincing of his teacher at every sour note and staggered beat. It was decided a total overhaul was required, and the next hour was spent in a dogged combing of the fundamentals - tuning, fingering, and the most basic of major chords.
Rubbing his temples with pudgy beringed hands, Mannie Muscaria declared it was time for a break.
"The Princess said she would attend to us in the gazebo with some tea and cakes," he said, a gleam coming to his eyes.
"Can I take this to practice?" Luigi asked, grabbing the neck of his guitar.
"Do as you please," the maestro responded dismissively, "just don't expect me to listen that closely."
Student shuffled after teacher, and they made their way out to the castle gardens. In the centre of the flower garden sat a domed gazebo, its balustrade adorned with twisting filigrees of white iron. Upon a table in its centre sat a high tea service, complete with platters of delicate sandwiches and petits fours. There also sat a note written in rosy ink, upon parchment with the royal letterhead:
I would have loved to join you, but the parlimentary conference on surplus investment from the resources boom was moved to today. I am afraid I will be very busy, but please enjoy these pastries I baked for you. Luigi, I wish you much luck in your music lessons. Sir Amanito, I know you will look after him.
Princess Peach <3"
"'Sir Amanito'?" Luigi enquired.
"'Mannie' is a nickname," Mannie Muscaria informed him. "My official title is 'Sir Amanito Muscaria of the Royal Chamber Orchestra, OMK, KRM'. I try to get her to call me 'Mannie'..." He sighed wistfully, and then plucked a delicate peach-flavoured confection off the platter, lightly inhaling its sweet aroma.
Luigi sipped at his unsweetened tea, then returned to remastering his chords. A major... C major... G major...
A few of his attempts at D major fell foul, and Luigi looked up at his tutor to make sure the man's ears weren't on the verge of bleeding. Instead, he was absently nibbling on a small cake, absorbed in staring at Peach's letter.
"She has a truly beautiful hand. Delicately curved, unhurried, feminine... it reflects her perfectly." He tucked the letter away in a fold of his cape, unashamed.
"She's a good woman," Luigi agreed, trying to sound disinterested. "I suppose she provides good conditions for the royal musicians."
"'Good conditions'? My boy, she is the kind of woman that madrigals and cansos were invented for! The amount of pieces I have composed about her has been compiled in two large volumes of their own!"
The relief of this ostentatious man's heart was suddenly on full display. They locked eyes for a few raw moments, until Luigi's face fell, focusing on his guitar strings and reddened fingertips. Mannie Muscaria turned away and stuffed himself with a few more pastries, pointedly staring out at the garden, while Luigi blankly fiddled with his instrument, at length settling upon a melacholy minor chord.
"Qui dove il mare luccica
e grida forte il vento
su una vecchia terrazza vicina al golfo di Surriento
un uomo abbraccia una ragazza
dopo che aveva pianto
poi si schiarisce la voce e ricomincia il canto:
Te voglio bene assai
ma tanto, tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai
che scioglie il sangue dint'e vene sai..."
Mannie Muscaria's hand had frozen over the platter, his attention arrested by the haunting verse. "What was that?"
"Something my Mama once sang to me," Luigi replied quietly.
"What language is it? I'm sure it cannot be any dialect of this country."
"And your Mama was from this 'Italia'?"
Luigi nodded. "Papa too. She was just a simple country girl from Umbria, he was a sweet-talking charmer from Napoli. He would serenade her with old Caruso canzone when they were young. Sometimes they would still sing them together in Brooklyn. For Mario and me."
Mannie Muscaria gave up processing all the unfamilar place names, and instead continued to marvel at the beautiful song. "There is a breath of genius in your performance. Here I thought you were a graceless clod, not beyond a mere hobbyist, but... well. The quality of your voice is nice enough, but the essence behind it is inspired. Almost celestial."
He then leant into his student. "You pine for someone."
Luigi's shoulders hunched, and he cringed.
"You must own the feeling!" The maestro exclaimed. The silverware and fine china rattled as his beringed hand struck the tabletop. "The pain, the passion, the astral highs and abysmal lows - THAT insanity is what stokes the fires of all artists' greatest works!" When you strum out your chords, grapple with your rhythm, when you sing with that sweet little lyric baritone of yours... do it in the name of your love!"
Luigi dared to look back up at his teacher, and felt heartened. Returning his hands to their position on the neck and belly of his guitar, he felt revived with a new energy.
Mannie Muscaria smiled widely, and watched his student fervently practice for a while, immensely pleased with himself. Eventually he spoke again: "I have heard you enjoy the company of that chubby little princess from Sarasaland..."
Luigi's concentration broke, and he laughed. "Oh, no. Daisy's a good friend, but it's not like that."
The maestro tented his hands. "Very well... then whom?"
Luigi ignored the question, focusing once again on the chords he was slowly extracting from his instrument.