Emma smiled inwardly but also outwardly. How could she not? Despite his misfortunes and lack of manners, August was a delight. In two hours they had become the best of friends. He was shy at first, afraid to eat what food Emma offered even though the food laid out had hardly been touched. She wanted to ease his anxiety, so she let him take her place at the table and pulled a stool from one of the cleaning closets to sit beside him. There he warmed up a bit, picking grapes from a bowl to drinking a whole goblet of water.
Emma refilled it happily.
She spoke while he ate and watched as grapes became bread, then bread became a turkey leg. Soon he was taking generous helpings and adding in his own piece when Emma asked. She knew his answers were sincere and true. It was her own special quirk after all, to know when people were lying. He seemed like such an honest boy that the darkness creeping in her heart nipped at the thought. Honest boys don’t go snooping around private estates. Especially when that estate was made a Kingdom by the self-proclaimed King Rothbart.
Then again his curiosity had taken over, which Emma noted as he talked on and on about the trouble he got into back home. His Papa was a stern man with a knack for lecturing, but he loved August. He probably loved him so much that he let his boy have adventures even though he had a streak of bad luck that followed. She wished she could assure his father that August was okay, that he was alive for the time being.
“Emma, hey, are you okay?” August’s greasy turkey fingers poked at her shoulder. She jumped.
“You talk a lot.” She chuckled.
The wooden boy grinned, “It’s one of my many charming qualities. The King has said so himself.”
“King? What King? My father doesn’t even pay me any compliments.” Her tone was harsh and biting, which was why she regretted it the second August frowned.
“Begging your pardon, but your father is a false King.”
It was Emma’s turn to frown, “I know that.”
August sat back in his seat, observing Emma with the most peculiar expression that it made her uncomfortable to sit still. They were getting along so well, too.
“Where I’m from your father is rumored to be a powerful sorcerer. He was exiled the same time that the Red Queen was overthrown.”
Emma had no idea who the Red Queen was and what it meant to be overthrown or exiled, but she knew how powerful her father’s sorcery was. How powerful it remains. After all it is his magic that binds her to the pond as a swan each sunrise. A detail that she had yet to mention to August.
“Where are you from, August?”
“The Enchanted Forest.” He said proudly, his eyes sparkling with the reflection of that notion as he crossed his arms and tipped his chin upwards. Emma giggled. He held himself like a Knight or a Prince.
“That sounds wonderful. What’s it like?” She leaned forward onto her elbows. If her father had stayed she was sure this would be some form of misconduct on her part.
“Home? It’s beautiful. It’s like every fairytale with none of the bad stuff. I mean there’s a kind King and a brave Queen, loyal subjects that are more like family, celebrations, good food, fairy magic, love, and everyday is like this dream you don’t want to wake up from!” Augusts excitement was contagious.
Emma felt herself smiling bigger than before, “You said the King commented on your charm. You met him?”
“I didn’t just meet him. I know him. We play chess when I visit with my Papa and I usually beat him.” The pride in his response is so full and pure, Emma can’t help but feel a little jealous of him. The royals are friends with him. Her father, a false King, can’t even be bothered to spend an entire night with her unless it suits his mood.
“So the King must take time off from ruling. What does the Queen do?”
August grins like he’s about to share a big secret and Emma waits. He must be about 10 or 11, but it’s hard to tell with the enchantment.
“It’s the Queen’s kingdom. She inherited it from her father or was supposed to before the Red Queen murdered him.”
“What? Why would she do that?”
“She wanted power. She was only reigning Queen for a decade or so. Your father? I think he had something to do with all of it because it got him exiled, right? Must have been bad. After the Red Queen was overthrown and banished, Snow White took her place as the rightful heir and restored the Kingdom. There was a wedding, some bad stuff happened, and I think there was something else...I don’t remember. All I know now is that the Kingdom is pretty much peaceful.” August stretched high above his head and slumped backwards sleepily. Emma hardly felt tired at all.
“What’s the Queen like?”
“Snow White? She’s fair-skinned, dark haired, and her face is round like a plum. She’s beautiful and nice. Her laugh isn’t like anything you would expect. It’s loud and contagious, like her smile. You just can’t help but smile when you’re with her having fun. I’ve only seen her sad a handful of times.
She’s also fierce and brave! When she escaped the Queen’s hold she was only 16 and I heard she lived off the land for two years, running from the law. She’s had all kinds of adventures and plenty of trouble on her own. That’s the kind of ruler she is, too. It shows. During all that time she never backed down, she always stood up for her people and did what was right. She rallied the Resistance and stormed the castle. They had the most powerful fairy on their side, too, and it won them the Kingdom. Everyone still talks about it! Oh, I bet if you could just meet her you would be so amazed.”
“You would introduce me?” Emma wanted to meet Snow White more than anything. She wanted to know someone so magnificent, so traveled and brave. Her own mother was a stranger to her and this Queen? She was someone Emma could look up to the way August did.
“Absolutely! We could even sneak out when your father is gone.” His voice dropped to a whisper. The offer was so tempting that Emma nearly grabbed her cloak. She was itching for adventure, for something other than her own little pond and patch of grass.
Then the world came crashing down, just like that. The pond! Once the sun cleared the trees overlooking the estate, Emma had to be in her pond or something terrible would happen. It happened only once before and she learned her lesson. Besides, her father was crazy not stupid. He laid enchantments everywhere. There was no way out and no way in, not unless he wanted it to be that way. If August got through, and he was here, then it was because her father dropped the enchantments long enough to trap him.
Emma almost cried, “Impossible.”
“We’ll be back before he even knows you’re gone!” He didn’t get it. He didn’t understand.
“No, August we can’t. We can’t go anywhere. My father has his ways to keep us in and everyone else out. Besides...there’s one other thing,” she could feel the tears springing up and wiped them away just as quickly.
“My father...he did something...it’s like a spell, similar to the one he placed on you but mine is different. Mine is more...it’s just his way.”
August’s eye grew wide, “He spelled you?”
“I’m sure he has his reasons.” She shrugged. His reasons were all the same: to protect her, to keep her safe, to keep her his prisoner, to be sure that she could never escape him. None of them were any good though.
“What did he do to you?”
Emma wanted to change the subject desperately, “Why don’t I show you to a room first? We have a few more hours before sunrise. It’s easier to show you than to explain, okay?”
August nodded. Emma was glad that he did not question her further or say anything about how strange she was. Instead he prattled on about the castle or mansion, neither of which he could distinguish for sure so he called it both. He was a funny boy. Emma was not happy that her father had taken him from his father but she was thankful, if anything, that he was in her company. She would have to care for him and keep an eye on him until her father returned from his trip.
Hopefully by the time he returned she would be able to convince him that August was too valuable, too good to be disposed of. Even if he hated for it, she would try to convince her father that August stay and be her ‘little brother’.
“It looks like the sun is going to come up soon.” August peeked out the window of his new room. They had spent the last hour pulling sheets off of furniture, clearing away dead bugs, and beating dust out of rugs. It was a distraction from the coming sun that was coming to an unhappy close.
Emma came beside him at the window and sighed, “Looks like it.”
“You look scared.”
“I am scared.” She smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile like the ones she had shared with August during their stories and jokes. This was a smile that was resigned to misery.
“You don’t have to be. We’re friends now, you and I.” August’s hand found hers and she held it tightly.
“Come on then. It’s a bit of a walk from here.”
The pair took the same path that Emma and the hag had walked before. August filled the usual silence but it was nervous chatter, nothing important. He was just as scared as she was and he had no idea what to expect. It was false hope that Emma clung to. Maybe today she wouldn’t transform. Maybe, by some divine salvation, August’s arrival signaled the end of her lonely world.
Then the sun was rising and Emma was knee deep in pond water with August looking on. She kept her gown on, knowing that it would just float ashore after her transformation and someone would bring a fresh one. Hopefully the hag left instructions for the boy in her stead.
“Emma!” His voice was frantic but she did not look.
When the sun spilled over the trees it consumed Emma. The light wrapped her up like a warm embrace. It made her smaller, less herself, and more birdlike. First the fingers and arms to wings and then her body followed right down to the ruffled feathers of her chest. Once it was done, Emma dunked her head into the cool water and flapped her wings.
If it wasn’t for her new form, she would have tried to comfort the wooden boy collapsed on the shore. Instead she folded in on herself and closed off from the world.