Chapter 25 The Flying Strawberry
The door led them out into an alley between two buildings. A parade had begun, weaving its way in front of the theater. Valeena had just shut the door when it burst open again, the Queen wedging her round body through the opening, tearing her dress in the process.
“Dragon!” Was all she managed to say, waddling quickly towards the parade. Princess Aurory appeared next, buttercream was smudged on her face as she shoved a sweet donut in her face. Her olive eyes met Valeena’s and she sneered at her, saying nothing as she followed her mother. The Queen was now in the middle of the street trying to climb on the back of the cloth dragon, the poor dancers underneath groaning from her weight.
Valeena was a little confused as to why Princess Aurory did not say anything. She clearly recognized Valeena but had said nothing. She watched as the Princess stood on the sidewalk, laughing and choking. The Queen had managed to straddle the neck of the fake dragon and was pumping her fist in the air shouting for them to go faster.
“Valeena?” It was Akari. They had run down the backside of the long building, leaving Valeena behind. Akari was peering around the side of the wall, motioning for her to follow them. The four of them kept in the shadows, keeping their fans over their faces as they made their way to the edge of town.
They entered a grove of trees at the edge of the desert where they quickly discarded the Kimono, draping them as delicately as they could over a tree branch, not wanting to damage the beautiful fabric.
“I am never wearing one of these again!” Rowan said, draping his over the branch lightly. “This, however, maybe,” He said it to the wig, causing Akari to giggle.
“It suited you well!” She commented, removing her own wig and shaking her hair free.
Valeena closed her eyes and soon a light rain began to fall. They used the moist leaves to wash the makeup off of their faces, dropping the used leaves on the ground, making it look like a grotesque murder had occurred.
“Caspian makes a lot of sense.” Rowan was saying as they began their journey through the thin trees that grew in the yellow sands. “He would never side with the Queen.” Petals from the cherry blossoms back in the city still floated gently in the breeze and the sweet sound of songbirds could be heard.
“Are you certain?” Valeena asked loudly as she was trailing behind the group. An annoyed look from Aira suggested that they had already been over this. Valeena felt embarrassment pick at her cheeks once more from her selfish night in the grass.
“You really do not know anything!” Aira said, rolling her silver eyes and turning away.
Akari quickly came to Valeena’s defense, “Hey, that isn’t very nice!” She then faced Valeena as she said in a matter of fact tone, “Caspian is your uncle, remember?”
Valeena nodded but felt a bit shocked at the news. She did not know the Queen even had a brother as she never mentioned him. And why was he the king of a different kingdom?
“He married the Queen of Caspian and took the family name. He wanted to separate himself from Maylee.” Akari was explaining as if she could read minds. There was so much about the world Valeena did not know. She looked at her feet as they stepped out of the sweet-smelling trees and out into the warm, afternoon sun.
The countryside was simply beautiful. Vibrant trees dotted the lush green area leading to golden colored hills. The desert had tapered out, piles of sand laying in the grass like a child’s sand box overflowing into the yard. It was odd to see the ocean of sand mixing with the vibrant grass.
Several tiny butterflies fluttered about, dancing in the cool afternoon breeze. The sky was clear, not even a cloud mark the brilliant blue canvas. Under its beauty, Valeena did not feel so grumpy anymore. A type of serenity was building in her heart and she smiled at nothing. Akari stuck her arms out and began to spin in a circle, the butterflies floating around her.
“Hey, what is that?” Akari asked suddenly, stopping mid spin to stare out over the hills. A blister of red was rising over the green grass, bobbing in the sky like a boat on the water.
Rowan scratched the back of his head but had no answer to offer. He playfully shoved Aira, who stumbled to the side but did not fall, glaring at the Reap. But her face still appeared cheerful.
“I’ll race you to it!” Rowan announced loudly, tearing off through the blades of grass, sending the butterflies fleeing for the safety of the sky.
“Elves were built for running you fool!” Aira announced, running as gracefully as a gazelle through the tall grass, passing the heavy footed Rowan in no time.
“Hey!” He laughed as she flew by, her long legs never slowing.
Akari and Valeena did their best to keep up but they were no match for them. Valeena was slightly faster than Akari, but not by much. She was surprised by how much stamina she now had, remembering how winded she had became on her first journey. They met up with a smug looking elf and an out of breath Reap at the top of the hill.
“What is that?” Valeena asked as a giant red, strawberry-shaped balloon bobbed in the grass like a buoy out at sea. Pink rope was holding the balloon, one end attached to a large woven basket with streamers trailing off the sides. A door on a makeshift home was wide open, the sound of pots crashing and items being tossed could be heard from within. Wild strawberries grew next to the home, reminding Valeena of the massive fruit back in Vaughnstein.
“I know him!” Akari spoke, reaching out to the balloon but not touching it. “He comes to Kingyosou to watch me dance sometimes. He is always talking about his flying balloon!” She stood on the tips of her toes, admiring the red, strawberry balloon which smelled just like the fruit it was modeled after.
A loud crash followed by a string of curse words came from somewhere within the home. Rowan was the first to enter the building, seeing if anyone could use his help. The interior was a disaster; broken furniture lay on its sides and stacks of paper were piled everywhere. A large blue print of the balloon was taped haphazardly to the wall, the top left corner pulled away and flipped over the paper.
“Get out! No one laughs at Tellah!” A man in his late fifties was shouting as he peered around a stack of papers. "I don't need anyone's help in my own affairs!"
“Akari!” He shoved the stack over as he stumbled to greet the young girl. “You finally made it!”
Akari laughed and did her best not to make a sour face at the mess as she stepped into the disaster of a home.
“Does it work?” She asked, looking back outside at the lovely balloon.
“Well, yes and, um, no,” Tellah said, pushing his half-moon glasses further on his nose. “I need fire. You see, my last attempt ran on propane, but that fuel is so hard to find and coal is out of the question since the goblins and such. I figured if I am able to just use fire and the wind, maybe I can fly it.”
“We can help!” Rowan shouted a little too enthusiastically, nudging Aira in the ribs. She looked annoyed and walked out of the house, mumbling about it smelling like dirt and farts.
Tellah looked skeptical but followed Rowan out of the pigsty and to the edge of the basket on the giant balloon.
“Promise me you won’t laugh?” He said, waiting until they all had responded, Aira simply crossing her arms and looking away. “Don’t laugh!” He repeated, “But I have been using the, um, strawberries as a fuel source.”
Rowan tried very hard not to laugh and instead turned it into a cough, turning his back to the man. His lips were pressed tightly together, his shoulders shaking. Rowan stood, hunched over, snorting as he did a terrible job at hiding his laughter. Akari looked at the massive strawberries and then back at the balloon in wonder.
“Did it work?”
The aging man looked ashamed and did not offer an answer immediately. “I enchanted the strawberries to burn slowly, they smell wonderful but…” He was speaking quickly as embarrassment burned on his face.
“But…?” Valeena asked, looking at the strawberry patch. She had not noticed before, but the berries were much larger than normal strawberries. They hung heavily from the vines and most of them were resting on the ground.
“They, um, keep exploding.” Tellah finished, a little ashamed by his admission. He played with the hem of his long, frayed, purple robe. Rowan was now lying on the ground, smacking his fist into the brittle green grass, tears pouring out of his scarlet eyes as he laughed freely.
Aira kicked him hard in the ribs and he held up a hand, apologizing as he struggled to compose himself. He stood up, wiping tears from his eyes and crossing his arms, his cheeks puffing every now and then as he fought back a laugh.
“I made it here from, um, Vaughnstein, using coal, propane and um, the…strawberries.” The word strawberry was barely audible as he did his best to ignore Rowan.
“When can we leave?” Akari asked, placing a hand on the balloon with a hopeful smile.
Tellah looked very excited as he nearly shouted, “Now!” No one paid Rowan any attention as he turned his back, his shoulders shaking with quiet laughter.
Valeena followed her friends into the woven basket and watched as the old man filled the pot with giant strawberries. Only three would fit at a time, Tellah hanging one over the edge for back up. He placed a few smaller ones in a bucket and set it beside him.
Rowan had been instructed to light them slowly, (and to stop laughing!) and to try not to let them get too hot. The smell of strawberry jam filled the air, making Valeena hungry. She wondered how upset Tellah would be if she ate one of the strawberries.
Valeena watched as the balloon filled with the hot, sweet-scented air and lifted off the ground with ease. Aira sat on the bottom of the basket, hugging her knees and keeping her head down.
“I am not afraid of heights, as my people live in the sky. I am not fond of flying!” She informed them, shaking her lovely head.
Aira was, however, very skilled at helping the winds carry the strawberry balloon into the sky, floating gracefully among the clouds that had sprung up. She did it with such ease that one would not have questioned she was currently terrified.
“Can this take us to Caspian?” Rowan asked, keeping a careful eye on the cooking strawberries, no longer finding it as amusing as he once had. The boiling strawberries looked dangerous, and he wanted to be no where near them if they decided to burst. Tellah shook his head no at Rowan's questions, enjoying the feel of the wind through his hair.
“Caspian is, um, a no-fly zone. We can land outside the castle walls, however, and you’ll have to, um, walk. Probably quite a bit, actually.” Tellah was saying, adjusting his glasses.
Valeena looked over the edge of the basket excitedly and down below. ‘The world seems so small from up here’, she thought as the balloon glided smoothly over the treetops. A crystal clear lake appeared as they came out from over the trees.
“Mermaids live in those waters,” Tellah informed them, throwing some fruit overboard, watching it splash into the water. “They love, um, strawberries and send the animals to steal them from me.” Akari giggled and placed her hands on her small hips.
“Mermaids? They do not live in lakes!”
Tellah held up a finger, “Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong! You see, um, there is an underwater tunnel that, um, leads out to the ocean. It’s a perfect spot to live as hunters won’t be looking here! See, look-look-look!” Tellah pointed out into the water where they could barely make out the silhouette of a body swimming just below the water’s surface.
“Oooh!” Akari gasped, leaning a bit farther over the edge and dropping a single berry down and into the water. “Can we get lower?” She asked, looking over her shoulder at Rowan.
“I’m not sure,” He replied, peeking into the pot of boiling berries. He dipped his finger into the pot and tasted the cooking strawberries. “Oh, that’s good!” He announced, smiling.
“Don’t eat our fuel!” Tellah scolded, lightly smacking at Rowan’s arm. “We still have a bit to go!”
The gentle wind changed suddenly and the balloon jerked violently in the air, nearly knocking Akari overboard. “Hey!” She cried out, grasping the basket tightly as the balloon pulled again upwards.
“That is not me!” Aira announced, her crystal glowing strong on her forehead. “There is another magic here!”
One of the strawberries popped and sent hot fruit into the air, nearly missing Rowan’s face. It was followed by another burst of fruit, this time landing on Aira’s arm.
“Oh, hot!” She cried out, wiping at her arm frantically as the smoldering fruit burned her flesh.
The wind turned to an icy breeze, carrying specks of snow and ice in it, the once hot, clear day was now being transformed into a snow storm. A screech from a bird sent chills through Valeena.
“Oh, no,” She said, peering out over the edge of the red balloon. “It’s a Thunderbird!”
As if on cue, the creature emerged out of the fog, circling the balloon. The creature was lovely, with a short, blue beak on a white head, large white wings with different shades of blue feathers, the body of a white horse with gray speckles on the hind legs, a fluffy fox like tail just under long, blue tail feathers.
“It must be, um, lost; they never come this far from the Forbidden Lands!” Tellah was saying over the wind. He was watching cautiously as the bird screeched again, its call sending forth more shards of ice.
The Thunderbird circled the balloon again, eyeing it suspiciously before pausing, hovering in the air with its large, powerful wings pulsing; sending gales of wind towards the giant strawberry. The balloon rocked, and fought to stay in the air.
Tellah raised his arms and waved them at the bird, “Shoo!” He said, ignoring the dumbfounded look on Rowan’s face. He could not believe the old man was attempting to shoo the giant bird away.
Valeena knew she was powerless against the flying beast and watched cautiously, holding tightly to the basket’s edge as the bird screeched again, pecking at the flying strawberry.
“Aw, shit!” Rowan said frantically, throwing a handful of the boiling fruit at the Thunderbird. He had forgotten he was immune to heat and the hot fruit did not damage his skin at all.
Each time a berry hit the beast, it stained its brilliant white body red. The bird, however, continued to peck at the balloon, puncturing the material.
They began to move out of control as the air shot out of the hole in the balloon, sending them on a downwards spiral towards the icy, water below.