The bridge over the fifth and final moat circling Foxwood Castle fed the speeding carriage carrying Larissa, Reggie and Bea into and through a wide-open arched gateway entrance in the high stone wall surrounding well, surrounding whatever lies within that I'm being fed to, thought Larissa. The gateway opening looked to her like a giant's yawning mouth, the raised section of jail-cell gate flashing overhead, with its long row of gleaming spiked tips, being the giant's fearsome teeth.
Larissa assumed they were entering the "garage" of the Castle. But no! They had passed through yet another surrounding protective wall and were still about a football field or so away from the front entrance of the Castle. What lay between was a beautifully landscaped courtyard, like a perfectly sculpted green lawn but with statues, little fountains, sitting benches and garland-covered gazebos. The lawn radiated out over a hundred yards all the way around the Castle (as Reggie explained). There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of fox folk in their finest velveteen outfits milling about on the great lawn or gathered in groups looking to be in deep discussion. As the carriage proceeded up the main driveway to the Castle's front entrance, she could see that there were many pedestrian-sized gateways in the courtyard wall, and that there was not just the one wide carriage road entering the grounds, but many walkways extending across the five moats in all directions from the Castle, like rays extending from the sun.
"It's called the Public Green," said Bea. "Anyone and everyone from Foxwood or even the Wolfen folk from the Steppes beyond Foxwood are invited to come here with suggestions for the Council Princesses."
"Or grievances," interjected Reggie.
Bea scowled. "Oh, now, who could have a grievance, living here in Foxwood?" she almost snorted.
"The people of the Northern Forest the sprites, the faeries, the Hermit Foxes, not to mention the Cat Queen," answered Reggie.
"Oh, I've never seen those people here, ever, in Athena," said Bea. "And I could little care what that conniver Morgana has to complain about! She's a troublemaker, I say!"
Larissa thought she detected, for the first time, an actual hint of anger in sweet Bea's voice at the mention of "the Cat Queen." Bea almost hissed out the name "Morgana." But it was the "faerie" reference that most powerfully piqued Larissa's interest.
"There are real live faeries in Foxwood?!"
Reggie smiled his toothy smile. "Oh we'll have to make sure you see some of the faerie folk on your visit! They're quite lovely; like little winged dolls. But they mainly stick to the Northern Forest. I suppose we should organize a "field trip" into the edges of the Forest."
Bea was again agitated by Reggie's words.
"There's plenty going on right here in Foxwood for Larissa to enjoy without her falling down some crazy savant fox's foxhole in The Forest! She may well still be here to witness the return of the King! Anton himself will be retaking his seat on the Gemmed Throne and you'll have Larissa off in the haunted woods being chased into the barbed blackberry bramble bushes by the sprites, no doubt!"
"Now, now, Bea," said Reggie in his best soothing tone, "you know I would never take Larissa into the Northern Forest without a Wolfen Guard escort, two or maybe even three of them."
Larissa was trying to process all the incoming data as fast as it all spilled out of the burbling Reggie and Bea, but it was difficult to decide as to whom and what to ask for further elaboration and explication about first.
" 'The Wolfen?' " asked Larissa. "These are wolf people just like you're fox people? Are they nice like you guys or scary like werewolves in wolfman movies?"
"Well, said Reggie, "I'm not familiar with 'wolfman movies,' but our Wolfen cousins are quite bigger and more powerful than we fox brothers. And they can be quite fierce when confronting intruders or the rare criminal malcontent in Foxwood or the Steppes. But for a thousand years now or so they've been our guardians and the protectors of the Kingdom. They're more like Foxwood's friendly, even if very intimidating, police force."
"Well, they still scare me," said Bea, "even if they're always so courteous and polite to me."
Reggie winked at Larissa. "Heaven knows what mischief Bea would be up to were it not for our ever vigilant Wolfen Guard deterrent."
Bea giggled as Larissa pressed on for more information.
"And the 'sprites' chase people around in the forest?"
"Oh," laughed Reggie, "Bea was just being dramatic. The sprites are little winged forest folk about the same size, hummingbird-to-chubby-chickadee-sized, as the Faerie Queens, but a different folk all together! The faeries are beautiful creatures who dart about in the night, playing their faerie games, and I don't really know what else. But they're absolutely harmless. The sprites are red-eyed little devil-looking fellows who are full of mischief. They love to spread embarrassing rumors amongst the fox and wolfen folk and they especially like to gossip about the Council Princesses and all our other respected and honorable Foxwood authorities."
Larissa was enthralled by the idea of tiny winged pranksters tweaking the noses of the Kingdom's powerful potentates. "So they do speak, like you do?"
"Oh, yes," said Reggie. "Quite a bit too much. The faeries have their own language that none of us foxes and wolves have ever been able to understand. But the sprites 'speak faerie.' Of course, you wouldn't trust a sprite for an accurate translation of a happy hound's happy bark, let alone any message of importance from one of the faerie queens!"
"Wow," sighed Larissa. "This is all just too cool."
"I thought it might be," said Bea helpfully. "I brought a sweater for you, dear, just in case."
The carriage jolted to a stop just outside the enormous open doors of Foxwood Castle's main entrance. The old gray fox coachman clamored down from his perch to open the carriage side-door and help Larissa, Bea, and Reggie out of the coach. There were a number of fox folk walking in and out of the great doors of the entrance hallway. Larissa tried, with little success, not to stare at the different varieties of fox faces, most of them red-furred, some gray-furred, a few white-furred or black-furred. The fox folk seemed just as transfixed by her presence, stopping to smile and say "hello" before moving on. Some of the fox gentlemen shook hands with Reggie, as if to congratulate him on doing such a fine job of bringing Larissa to Foxwood. A few of the fox ladies insisted on giving Larissa a big hug and then a tickly kiss on the cheek (such long whiskers!), which embarrassed Larissa a bit and made her blush. She always hated it when she blushed. Reggie tried to appear unaffected by the attention, but Bea was fairly bursting with pride and excitement to be hosting the new Visitor.
"I thought there would be some kind of fancy royal welcoming committee of some sort," said Bea. "Surely, they knew we were coming?"
"That coachman was a bit heavy on the ponies with his whip," said Reggie. "Maybe we're a little early. I'm sure someone will greet us soon to take us in."
Larissa was suddenly mortified at the thought of being made even more the center of attention! She was just a standard-issue human schoolgirl of no particular note, she thought to herself, but she was already feeling like some sort of freak that everyone was wanting to get a look at. How she wished she could suddenly grow a big fluffy red tail and turn into just another no-big-deal walking talking fox of no particular interest oh, to just be normal like the others!
In Larissa's guest bedroom, back at Reggie and Bea's cottage, there had appeared, upon her second morning in residence, a large wicker basket full of her favorite clothes from home, all freshly laundered and neatly folded. Here, at Foxwood Castle, she wondered if she might fit in better if she had something more "native" to wear, rather than the blue work-shirt, blue-jeans and black sneakers (her usual home uniform) that she was currently wearing. She started to ask Bea if there was a "Foxwood Mall" when an eruption of shouting and clattering and the sound of boots running on polished stone burst forth from inside the Castle's cavernous front foyer. A coterie of foxes all dressed in matching velvety red fringed jackets (with the funniest shoulder epaulets!), blue breeches and pointed half-boots came scrambling out the front entranceway and hastily assembled themselves into two facing rows across the walkway just in front of Larissa and her hosts. They hoisted aloft the long golden horns they had brought for the occasion and blew a brief, bracing fanfare into the late morning breeze. Then they lowered their horns and stood silently at rigid attention. A small crowd of fox folk began forming up just behind Larissa, Reggie and Bea, waiting to see what there might be to see. Larissa watched as well, wondering what important person might be arriving or departing to such an ovation.
"Who's coming?" Larissa whispered to Bea.
Bea laughed and hugged the clueless girl. " 'Who's coming?' ! Why, you are, Larissa! This is all for you!"
The fox folk standing nearby laughed softly and began to quietly applaud the coming of the newest Visitor. Larissa cringed inwardly and blushed outwardly, smiling a slightly embarrassed smile and offering a trembling, half-hearted wave to her new "fans" who continued to gather all around her.
"So what do I do?" whispered Larissa to Reggie.
"Oh, nothing, I think," replied Reggie. "I believe they make it all happen for you quite automatically and worry-free."
"Well, I'm feeling really cornered and kinda stuck right now
" whispered Larissa.
A rolling, unfurling red carpet appeared from inside the Castle, covering the polished flag-stones and filling the space between the two rows of royal fox trumpeters and stopping just inches from Larissa's sneakered toes. And then there was only the bated breath of the gathered fox folk to disturb the sudden prevailing silence
A silence that lasted one perfectly dramatic moment.
"Lord Chamberlain Reynard!" boomed a deafeningly loud voice from inside the Castle. Larissa jumped involuntarily at the sudden, almost violent announcement, clutching Bea's furry paw.
"Who said that?!" whispered Larissa.
"Reynard, of course," whispered Reggie, rolling his eyes.
"Shush!" whispered Bea, scowling at Reggie.
And then the most dapper and dashing and, well, courtly gentleman fox that Larissa had yet seen came striding (almost strutting, she thought) down the red carpet toward Larissa, Reggie and Bea. He was distinctly taller (almost six foot!) than the other foxes and his fur was a shining silver color. His eyes were not really the usual fox-yellow at all. They were a gleaming gold. But it was his overall attitude his bearing that announced his having some position amongst Royalty. He stood not just as stiff and straight as a fence post, but in an almost haughty and aloof manner. (Larissa was pretty sure "haughty" and "aloof" were the proper words to describe how Lord Chamberlain Reynard looked to her, and glad that she regularly perused (another favorite word) her Word Power vocabulary builder book when she was really bored. Who knew she would one day have an adventure requiring precisely accurate character descriptions for the proper later recounting of that adventure?!)
The Lord Chamberlain Reynard strode right toward Larissa like a stern schoolmaster about to scold a disobedient schoolchild. Larissa feared he was mad at her. But then, as he abruptly halted at the end of the red carpet only inches from the her, he bowed low, most obsequiously, with one sweeping silver paw extended invitingly, as if to indicate "come right this way, all this is yours!" And the sudden presentation of his overly toothy fangy smile was equally as obsequious, it seemed to Larissa. But Reggie and Bea seemed quite awed and overwhelmed in the presence of this figure of most minor Royalty. Larissa could feel their paws trembling slightly as they held her hands.
"Welcome to Foxwood Castle, Larissa. May your visit be a most memorable and propitious one."
"Thank you, Lord Chamberlain," said Bea, quietly and respectfully.
"Thank you, Lord Chamberlain," said Reggie, quietly and respectfully.
Larissa said nothing, distracted by the intricate stitching of Reynard's gray, pin-striped jacket, and by the magnificent ruffles of his royal blouse that spilled out of his jacket sleeves and collared his royal neck. Reynard actually wore spats on his highly polished shoes! So Bea redirected Larissa's focus with a discreet elbow jab to her ribs.
"Oh, yeah, thanks," said Larissa, cheerfully. "Um
thanks for the carriage and the horns and the carpet and everything."
Reggie grinned and raised a paw to cover his strangled snort of delight.
So Bea elbowed him, too, but a bit harder.
"How delightful you are, my lovely Larissa," said Reynard, still smiling broadly and pretending not to be offended by Larissa's lacking of the state of total awestruckness in which he felt his royal title totally deserving of her being. But how could she be all that impressed? She remembered reading in History class that a "chamberlain" was simply the supervisor of a royal household. Back home, Larissa's friend Lupe's mom was the Head of Housekeeping at the Holiday Inn next to the turnpike. So, big whoop, right? Nobody trembled in Lupe's mom's presence.
As Larissa thought her thoughts, Reggie and Bea were thinking their thoughts, which were very similar thoughts, as Reggie's and Bea's thoughts tended to be remarkably synchronized in most matters. They thought, Larissa can't possibly understand how much power Reynard commands! His was a unique catbird's seat "behind-the-scenes" position of running the royal household, supervising all the butlers and maids and cooks and servers and physicians and nurses and gardeners and beekeepers and tailors and tinkers and craftsman and blacksmiths and horsemen and messengers and artists and musicians and dancers and astrologers. His power was the power of possessing every secret, of knowing every private personal relationship, of having the ability to press at every fear and weakness of every non-Royal staff person within the Castle. And those staffers had eyes and ears that every day were close enough to see and hear the secrets of the members of Higher Royalty those above Reynard whom Reynard had no "official" power over. Few of the Royals above Lord Chamberlain Reynard were fully aware of how vulnerable they truly were to him, of how much of their power over him he had cunningly bled away from them with his constant collection of their most closely held secrets, stolen away one by one by one
Reggie and Bea shivered simultaneously.
It's amazing, thought Reggie, and also thought Bea at exactly the same time, how the least of Foxwood's citizenry, the commoner peasant fox folk way out in the twelve Provinces, foxes like us, know so much about the romantic entanglements, the personal feuds, and the brewing political games going on in Foxwood Castle even more than the actual Royal "players" involved! But such is the blindness with which great egotisticalness and vanity afflicts the hearts and minds of the Royals. And such is the wonder of the fox folk's Kingdom-wide peer-to-peer "gossip & rumor dissemination network," created over the centuries out of the necessity to semi-satiate the insatiable "hunger" of the fox folk's innate "fox-inquisitiveness."
We must alert Larissa to the importance of never accidentally insulting Lord Reynard at the earliest opportunity! thought Reggie and Bea, who were still thinking the same thoughts at exactly the same time.