Chapter One: Dodo StoryCair Paravel, Grantville, Early Spring 1635
They were on holiday enjoying the warmest day of the year yet on the broad back porch of the rambling old house named after a castle in Narnia. Princess Kristina's Swedish guards were invited to have a glass or two of lemonade for which they thanked her profusely before becoming part of the backyard scenery again. It was story time; the young girl sat in rapt attention as her friend and sometimes supervisor Caroline Platzer read aloud in the comfortable twang of up-time English. The book was Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and the princess, at a most precocious nine years old, could certainly have read it for herself, but it was much more fun to listen to Caroline, especially since she used funny voices for many of the characters.
They had just reached the point where everyone had run a "caucus race" (in which everyone runs but no one wins) and Alice had finished awarding prizes to all the participants when the Mouse pointed out that Alice herself had not received one.
"'Of course,' the Dodo'," whom Caroline chose to characterize with a Foghorn Leghorn old time southern drawl, "replied very gravely. 'What else have you got in your pocket?' he went on, turning to Alice.
"'Only a thimble,' said Alice sadly.'" Caroline wondered if Kristina was aware that she always tried to read the part of Alice in her best imitation of the princess herself.
"'Hand it over here,' said the Dodo.
"'Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying 'We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble'; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.'"
Kristina laughed. "But her prize was something that already belonged to her, Caroline!"
"I think it was the spirit of the thing that mattered; finishing the ceremony correctly whether it made any sense or not."
Kristina nodded, being well aware of the importance of ceremonies, as well as their tendency to be illogical. She was required to attend many such in her capacity as princess and usually found them to be a dreadful bore. Kristina was also aware that although Alice's adventures were written as a children's story they often contained satires of adult activities, even if she wasn't always quite sure which they referred to. Getting a prize that already belonged to you seemed quite in keeping with the silliness she had witnessed in royal doings. Before Caroline could begin reading again, Kristina asked, "Caroline, just what is a dodo?"
"It was a kind of bird. Here, in the illustration." Caroline turned the book around, a hardcover that had come through the Ring of Fire, to show Kristina the original John Tenniel illustration from the now never-to-be Victorian Age.
"What a strange looking bird! Are dodos a real animal or a make believe one?"
"Actually, dodos were real, although they did look pretty weird." Caroline saw something flash in Kristina's large and liquid brown eyes.
"What do you mean 'were'?" Kristina handed the book back to Caroline with a tremendously serious look on her young face.
The princess could be extremely sensitive and Caroline knew the sad story of the dodo's demise would not go over well. She also knew it was much better to just level with Kristina, or face the consequences of a lie, even a white one, later. The girl was truly a prodigy, scary smart just like her father.
"Well, there aren't any more dodos, Kristina. They're all extinct."
"Like the dinosaurs?"
"Yes, well, kind of. No one is completely sure how the dinosaurs died out but we do know what happened to the dodos . . . " Caroline saw a shadow cross those great, dark eyes, so much more aware than other children her age.
Kristina pursed her lips and blew out a thin puff of disgust. "I suppose it was people then."
Caroline nodded solemnly. "I'm afraid so. From what I recall they lived on a small island with no dangerous animals to eat them. They had never seen humans before and didn't know that they should run away. I think sailors ate them all. By my time the dodo had become a symbol for endangered species, a reminder of our responsibility to protect animals."
"That's just not fair, they didn't even know they were in danger! Why didn't anyone try to stop those sailors from killing them all?"
"I don't know, Kristina, it was a very long time ago."
Kristina's eyebrow's arched. "How long ago did the last dodos die, Caroline?"
Caroline felt a brief shiver; the small town normalness of quiet backyards and shady porches during this springtime visit to Grantville tended to make her almost forget. How long ago indeed? She sat frozen there, with her mouth partially open while the princess's eyes narrowed, lightning quick thought taking place behind them.
"The library," Kristina announced, jumping up and ran into the house so fast she left behind a breezy wake to gently riffle the pages of Wonderland.
Caroline closed the book. She looked up unto the crystal clear blue of the seventeenth-century sky.
"How long ago?" Caroline whispered, caught up in the princess' excitement herself now, goose bumps forming on her arms. "Or, when?"
She followed Kristina into the converted sitting room that served as Cair Paravel's library, where Kristina stood on a step stool with her nose deep in an up-time encyclopedia, eyes focused in careful study. At last she looked up at Caroline, her cheeks flushed with excitement, her voice tense.
"We still have time."
Pam Miller's House, Grantville
Thorsten Engler surveyed the wide, sloping front yard from the street, wondering if there was indeed a house up there somewhere behind all the gigantic flowers; these were either some strange early blooming up-time variety or the product of magic. He found the narrow concrete walk, almost a tunnel, and started up it. A breeze rustled the bright green stalks that stood nearly as tall himself, the large flower heads with their still unripe seed pod faces and bright yellow petals seemed to nod at him in greeting. He had never seen anything like them before, and wondered if perhaps he had wandered into one of the princess's fairy tales.
At last he reached a funny-looking little pink house, really just a rectangular box with a door, a curtained picture window and a concrete front porch. The sight of a porcelain garden gnome lurking under a bush below the window actually made him jump; he wouldn't have been surprised if it had doffed his hat to him in such odd surrounds. He pushed the tiny doorbell button and heard electric bells chime within.
Shortly, the door opened to reveal a middle-aged woman wearing a green sweatshirt covered in a rainbow splatter of paint, faded blue jeans and muddy boots. Her age might have been anywhere between late thirties to late forties, it was always so hard to tell with up-timer women. In any case, she appeared to be very physically fit. She wasn't exactly pretty but she wasn't unattractive, either; she had a broad, serious face colored in the ruddy tan of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors all year long. Her dishwater blonde hair was pulled back in a business-like ponytail, the hairstyle showing off her best feature; steel grey eyes with flecks of a winter sky's blue. They were the eyes of a keen observer, like a soldier's eyes, and as a soldier himself Thorsten recognized their power.
"Yes?" she asked. Her alto voice was polite but by no means filled with patience.
"Pardon me for bothering you, ma'am," Thorsten replied in the West Virginia style English he had been practicing. "Are you Miss Pam Miller?"
"That's Ms. Miller, and, if you're here because your church, school, barn or castle has a bat infestation you are out of luck. I am not in the bat removal business, never was!"
"No, I am not here about bats, ma'am, er, Ms. Miller. I am Thorsten Engler, the, uh, Count of Narnia." How he had gone from being a simple soldier to a count was a chain of events that still amazed Thorsten, and he wasn't sure he would ever be comfortable with the title. This was made worse by the quizzical look Pam Miller regarded him with.
"The count of what?" Those eyes could freeze a pond in summer, if they chose to.
"The Count of Narnia, ma'am. The district used to be called Nutschall but Princess Kristina had it renamed to honor her favorite children's stories. Actually, I'm here as her representative and at her request." Thorsten found himself feeling flustered, there was something formidable about this woman.
"Here at the princess' request, huh? Well, these days who knows what the hell might happen next? Come on in then, Count of Narnia, but if you brought any satyrs or talking hedgehogs with you they are going to have to wait outside." With that she motioned for him to follow her into the house.
Thorsten entered a space that might have once been a twentieth-century living room. All that could be seen of that former role was a lumpy old sofa along one wall. The rest of the room was filled with art supplies and various canvases featuring works in various stages of completion. The floor was completely covered in paint stained drop cloths. Apparently the artist was going through a "birds" period. Thorsten thought the drawings and paintings of avian life were quite realistic. He noticed a large hand-painted poster of a black and orange bird he had never seen before. Its uneven lettering proclaimed "Don't Shoot, I'm an American!" Obviously the work of a child rather than the house's artist, but still quite well done. On an incredibly cluttered desk he saw a hand-printed manuscript titled Birds of the USE.
"So, it appears I have come to the right place. You must indeed be the celebrated 'Bird Lady' of Grantville!'
At this Pam Miller gave him a perfectly murderous look.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am, but you are the Pam Miller who is working with the school system to promote the protection of wildlife, particularly birds . . . are you not?"
The fierce looking woman softened her gaze somewhat. "Yeah, that's me. Is the princess interested in joining our summer birdwatching and nature program?"
"Well, perhaps she would be, the princess is interested in just about everything; she is an exceptionally clever young person. Actually, she has sent me here to invite you to visit her at her Grantville residence. She has a project related to the protection of a certain bird species that she wishes to consult with you on."
"I am sorry, but the princess prefers to tell you herself and has instructed me rather strongly not to 'spill the beans.'"
Pam Miller's eyebrows rose. "Well, I do love a mystery. All right then, I'm game. Never thought I'd be consulted by a princess." A hint of a smile had come to her rather stony face.
"I know the feeling," Thorsten confided with a cautious grin.
"Well," Pam declared, "no time like the present."
Pam asked Thorsten to wait on the porch for a moment as she gathered her bag and walking stick. She mumbled to herself as she ran a hand through escaped strands of her unruly hair.
"Meet the princess, huh?" Pam muttered to herself as she changed her top. "Sometimes down-time is like living in a magical kingdom that reeks of manure." She emerged a few minutes later with the same well worn jeans and mud-caked boots on but she had changed into a clean sweatshirt and denim jacket; Grantvillers being just as casual about a royal audience as they were everything else.
Thorsten, as a professional soldier, was impressed with the woman's pace as they walked quickly across town. He was pretty sure she could last all day in a forced march. Soon they arrived at an ornately decorated old mansion, one of the town's "painted ladies," occupying a spacious, fenced garden that took up at least half a block. It had been repainted in bright blue with yellow trim, the Swedish colors, and the front gate boasted an arch with a sign proclaiming Cair Paravel in a fanciful gold inlaid script.
Pam rolled her eyes at this bit of princessy excess but secretly thought it was kind of charming, too. Gawd, I'm going to meet a princess in Narnia, wonder if they have a talking lion? Pam made her face straight as they neared the gate.
There were several USE soldiers bearing shotguns standing guard, they nodded politely at her and one of them, a high school friend of her son Walt, greeted her with a hearty "Howdy, Ms. Miller! Welcome to the castle." She couldn't recall his name right then so she just said "Hi!" and gave him a friendly smile in lieu of any small talk as he unlocked the gate for her.
At the top of the stairs a woman dressed in casual up-time clothes met them. Thorsten introduced her as his fiancée, Caroline Platzer.
Caroline shook Pam's hand. "Thank you for coming, Ms. Miller. Princess Kristina is very excited about meeting you. She's recently developed a keen interest in birds."
"Well, that's good to hear. I've been promoting youth birding with the school district, perhaps she would like to join us sometime?" THAT would be some good PR for the summer nature program . . . Pam knew from the news that the princess had achieved great popularity in Grantville as well as throughout the odd, patchwork version of Germany they had become a part of, an impressive feat.
"I'll bet she would!" Caroline kept Pam's hand a moment longer to catch Pam's eye. "Ms. Miller, I should say that the princess has a very keen interest, intense actually. Kristina is an extremely intelligent and kindhearted girl. She is also a princess and so can be a bit demanding at times, although we are working on that. But I assure you, she means well! I do hope that you will be understanding."
"I'll keep that in mind. I've worked with kids quite a bit lately and raised one, too. Ms Platzer, are you the princess' teacher?"
"Do call me Caroline. Well, I'm kind of her cultural advisor, but mainly I'm her friend, and temporary governess on this visit. Her regular governess, Lady Ulrike, is on vacation." Pam could infer from the weight placed on that last word that said vacation might have been well earned and much needed. Pam blew back a wisp of hair that had come loose from her ponytail. She followed Caroline through the house to its library, thinking Good lord, I hope this kid isn't a royal monster. What am I doing here? She had met some royal types over the last couple of years and generally couldn't stand them.
"Princess Kristina, Pam Miller is here." Caroline announced as they entered a large, book cluttered room that also featured an impressive variety of Brillo the Ram memorabilia. Pam was something of a Brillo fan herself. At least she has some good taste.
Pam had expected to be confronted by a pretty little spoiled brat dressed in fluffy pink princess gowns and diamond-studded tiara. Instead, she found herself looking at . . . a kid. A rather gawky one, at that.
The princess wore white jeans, a Power Puff Girls T-shirt and a West Virginia Mountaineers baseball cap that strained to hold back a cascade of flyaway brown hair. She looked more like a playground tomboy than a prissy princess, and her hawkish nose and huge brown eyes were several sizes too large for a thin face that hadn't yet grown into them.
"You're here! Thanks for coming! I'm Kristina!" The princess marched enthusiastically over to Pam and stuck out her hand to shake. Pam took it a bit hesitantly. The princess had a strong grip for such a frail looking kid and there were even some calluses on that palm.
"May I call you Pam?" There was a slight accent but the princess was obviously comfortable with English.
"Uh, sure. So, I hear you are interested in birds, Princess."
"I am! I have heard about you from some of the kids at the school I know. I also quite supported your motion to move the American redbird as the USE's symbolic bird from unofficial status to official. I am quite tired of eagles. I think the new American birds are wonderful!"
"Apparently you do your homework, Princess."
"Pam, you can call me Kristina."
"I think Princess will do, for now." Pam's expression was politely impassive.
The princess looked a little taken aback by that, which was a good thing as far as Pam was concerned. She had been working with school children in the nature education program she had started and although she was more comfortable than she used to be, she felt a need to keep them at a certain distance; especially those who obviously wanted to be treated as adults. That, you have to earn, kid. Pam's sixth sense told her she was going to be pressed into service somehow so she was wary. Pam could be more than a little shy and she guarded her privacy fiercely.
The princess smiled a bit thinly and started again. "Please forgive me. I sometimes get a little carried away, or so I am told." That was said with a glance at Caroline, who responded by taking a close interest in the bookshelves. "Let's sit down and have a cup of tea and I will explain why I've asked you here."
Pam nodded in what she really hoped was a gracious sort of way and followed the princess to a tea table in the center of the room. A servant appeared from nowhere with tea. Pam noted that Kristina thanked the servant, which spoke well of the child. Thorsten excused himself from the proceedings and she saw Caroline roll her eyes as he made a hasty exit.
"Once a soldier, always a soldier," she said shaking her head with a mix of exasperation and affection. "My darling Thorsten is not much for tea time. He's going to go chew the fat with the guards."
"The men do love to shoot the shit," Kristina commented, eyeing Caroline to see her reaction. Pam couldn't help but let out a small laugh.
"Just because Lady Ulrike isn't here don't think you can get away with murder my dear." Caroline responded, favoring the princess with a crocodile smile. The princess flushed slightly, but still grinned at Pam, whom she had seen laugh at her little flirtation with adult language. Darn it all, Pam thought, maybe I'm going to like this oddball princess. She sure isn't acting much like Snow White so far.
Having had a sip of tea, Kristina focused on Pam with her enormous, soulful eyes. "Please allow me to cut to the chase, Pam. I want to consult with you on a very important matter concerning an endangered species."
Pam's eyebrows rose again, she had thought she might be here to supervise the building of a bird feeder or to tend an injured chick fallen from a nest. She was also impressed with the kid's vocabulary, the sign of an avid reader. "What species might that be?"
The princess produced her copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, opening it to the page of the caucus race.
"The dodo," she said with the breathy drama of a nine-year-old revealing a newly discovered wonder to her friends.
Pam studied the line drawing; the odd beak that stretched all the way to the back of the head in a long, skeptical scowl above which saucer-like eyes were mounted in bony turrets, looking more like some helmeted dinosaur than a bird. She shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry, Princess, but the dodo is extinct. There aren't any left."