Tea time was over, and the staff set back to work. The clanging of pots and pans, chopping of knives, and other kitchen sounds became alive once again. Poppy was left with no choice but to wait it out.
Venturing into the hallways at day was typically safe during the time from two o’clock until three, but at any other time the hallways were bustling with maids, servants, guards, cleaning staff, and just about anyone else. Her only option was to wait until the day crew left.
Travelling at night was dangerous but possible. Poppy’s main concern was avoiding the kitchen’s night staff, but she should be fine once she reaches the hall. Typically only the very few traverse the halls at night, and the dim lamplight worked in her favor. If she hugged the wall on her way back, there was very little chance she’d be seen.
Poppy sat against the wall with her legs hugged to her chest. Things wouldn’t be so damn difficult if she just had wings. A minority, they’d called her. An accident. A mistake.
Fairies were born with beautiful wings, and, similarly to fingerprints, no pair was ever the exact same. Wings could be rounded and pink with swirling patterns, green and spiky with jagged edges, or just about anything in between. Glittering fairy dust would generate from them, creating magic. Not Poppy, though. She’d been the first fairy born without wings in what she knew to be a long while. A reject referred to as a pixie so as to give the unfairness of it all a name. Like she wasn’t even a member of her own race.
She idly combed her fingers through her hair, pulling the long braid loose. Her hair had gotten so long these past several years that she’d formed the habit of playing with it whenever her hands were idle. It nearly reached past her lower waist now and she had to be careful when sitting down or else let the strands brush the ground.
At least she’d had the mind to hold onto her satchel. It stayed securely strapped across her shoulder, and nothing had fallen out except for a handful of grain she hadn’t properly closed the lid to. Damn that prince. Who did he think he was, jostling her around like that? She was small compared to him; he might have squished her with those tongues!
But, then again, what would that matter in the eyes of a royal, no, a giant? Anything smaller than them was regarded as an insect. Even the dogs they kept in the kennels were trained to do exactly as they said, and discarded of once they were no longer useful. It made Poppy sick.
She wouldn’t have stayed in this castle if she’d had another choice, but she was limited in her options. After all, how could she survive in the outdoor world without wings? She’d be better off scrounging for food like some peasant for the rest of her days. At least then no wild animals would eat her, not that there were many who would eat a fairy, or even a pixie. It was the dumber animals she had to look out for; the ones who didn’t realize she was a friend and not food.
Not to mention surviving against the elements. That was an entirely different ordeal.
Poppy relaxed against the wall and sighed, letting her eyes close for a moment. She wanted to go home and not leave her bed for a long time. Sleeping her stress away was almost as good as, if not better, than eating her stress away. Unfortunately, she hadn’t managed to snag any sweets. The taste of crisp apple and tangy orange still resonated on her tongue, haunting her with its delicious memory.
A scratching sound came from not far away, then a pattering of feet. Poppy opened her eyes to see a small field mouse staring at her from a foot away.
“Hello?” she said questioningly.
The small beast stared at her for a second longer, slowly turned around, then scurried down along the wall, behind the coverage of the ovens. Did it want her to follow it?
Poppy had never become very friendly with the mice. Her and them seemed to upkeep the neighborly actions of not drawing attention to each other just fine, but did little else to show their awareness of each other. It was more of a peaceful cohabitation than anything else.
Still, if this mouse was trying to tell her something it’d probably be best if she listened. Poppy was anything but ignorant.
She stood and briefly wiped the dust off her rump before jogging after the mouse. It paused beside a corner in the wall and looked at her before scurrying off again. It was definitely leading her somewhere then. Despite herself, Poppy felt a small kernel of excitement in her chest. Perhaps today would mark a change in dynamic of her relationship with the mice.
Then she saw it, a mouse trap located between the freezer box and counter. Sometimes when the traps are signaled to go off, instead of snapping the mouse’s neck or back like intended, they pin the poor creature in such a way that they’re still alive but unable to escape. This was currently the case, as a mouse was pinned down by the wire pushing into its torso. It looked incredibly painful and Poppy couldn’t help but empathize.
Several mice surrounded the ensnared one, and they each looked to Poppy as if for guidance. She suddenly felt nervous, having them all stare at her. The expectation in the air was palpable, and her palms beaded with sweat.
The trap was simple; the wire was pulled back to a certain extent in order to lock it in. Then, for the wire to let loose a small pressure plate must be stepped on or brushed against. Poppy glimpsed the hunk of dry cheese meant to tempt the mice into stepping on the plate. It was discarded to the side, gathering dust on the floor.
Poppy’s cold heart was warmed at the sight. She shook her shoulders loose and approached the trap, careful not to make any sudden movements so as to not frighten the poor thing any more. She could hear its rapid breathing, it was more urgent than his brothers’ and sisters’. The wire looked like it was pushing down hard enough to make his breaths extremely shallow. He’d pass out if she didn’t hurry.
Poppy set her hands beneath the wire and slowly lifted, testing its strength. It was extremely difficult, but not impossible, and slowly but surely she lifted the wire higher and higher. It violently dug into her hands, but the second it was lifted high enough, the mouse darted out from beneath it and she was free to let it go. It snapped back into place with deadly speed.
Poppy hissed through her teeth and looked at the red lines marring her palms. She flexed her fingers and clenched her hands into fists, testing the ligaments. They hurt like a bitch, but seemed fine. If she had access to ice, that would’ve been great, but alas.
The mice surrounded their injured family member and nudged him lovingly with their noses. They looked happy, despite having no facial expressions. Poppy smiled a bit and shrugged before turning in the way she came from. She’d find a spot to rest until nightfall.
Her muscles ached from the events of today. Her biceps and shoulders were especially sore, and her hands were spasming from that sudden burst of effort. She could have slept on the dirty ground and not cared.
Something bumped the middle of her back. She looked behind her to see the same mouse who’d fetched her before. “What?” Poppy asked. “Is there anything else?”
The mouse blinked its beady black eyes at her. It pushed her.
“Huh?” she exclaimed, surprised. “Whaddya doing? I just helped you!”
It shoved her again. And again. Its nose looked cute but was surprisingly forceful.
“Alright, fuzzball,” Poppy grimaced and rubbed her bicep, “keep pushing me and you’ll regret it. I could turn you into a soft carpet if I wanted to.”
The mouse stared a moment longer, then rammed into her legs so that she flew over its back. “Hey!” Poppy shrieked and quickly covered her mouth. The kitchen was too loud for her to be heard anyway, but still.
With Poppy strewn over the mouse’s back, it galloped off in the opposite direction of where she’d been heading. The ride was bumpy and Poppy could feel her limbs jerking and her stomach tossing with every bump. She fought to right herself upward, but it was difficult while the ride was already in motion.
“This is kidnapping,” she hissed vehemently while finally sorting herself into a sitting position. She wasn’t sure where to put her hands, so she leaned forward and gently wrapped her arms around the mouse’s neck. “Where are you taking me anyway?”
While the mouse couldn’t verbally reply, it could certainly show her. Poppy had to swallow her scream as the mouse went darting directly into the middle of the kitchen. It passed over the tile, an unseen creature among a dozen giants, and darted into the pantry. Poppy had to forcibly unclench her teeth once they were hidden beneath the pantry racks. She also loosened her grip a bit, fearing she’d choke the beast out.
This is okay. This is okay, she kept repeating to herself, a mantra in her head. Somehow the mouse had timed it perfectly so that he flashed through the kitchen at the precise time no one would be looking. Poppy wished she had that courage. Or speed.
Poppy had to hold on tightly as the mouse climbed up the racks, its tiny hands and feet surprisingly dexterous. She idly wondered how heavy she was, but her weight didn’t appear to bother the mouse. How kind.
At the very top of the racks and on the far wall was an air vent. The bottom right corner of the air filter had been chewed through, and it was this opening the mouse dashed for at full speed. Poppy didn’t have time to think about it, but she at least ducked in time so her head missed the narrow opening.
They were in the air vents. Poppy had thought about traveling through the walls before but never tried it because it had been the mice’s territory. Not to mention, she’d probably get lost and starve to death. But perhaps this was the mouse’s way of giving her permission and showing her the way.
Poppy hadn’t expected anything in return for her good deed, but she’d take this. If it turned out the vents were an easier way of navigation, her life could become incredibly easier. The only problem was that the vents were pitch-black and she could only tell they were taking sharp turns from the inertia. If they had been going slower she could try to create a light with her pixie dust, but she wasn’t about to make any demands. Worst case scenario, the mouse would abandon her there.
Several turns and one short yet terrifying drop later, the mouse came to a slow stop. Poppy was admittedly feeling a bit queasy after such a turbulent ride in utter darkness. There had been a spot or two of light, which she guessed were other entrances to the vents, but it seemed this one was their stop.
Poppy slowly slid off the mouse’s back and felt dizzy for a moment as she tried to ground herself. The mouse nudged her side, and then there was a splinter of light as it pushed its head against something cloth. She squinted and reached her hand out, fingers brushing something rough. Poppy clenched the cloth and yanked it aside.
They were staring at her room. This vent led directly to the guest bedroom Poppy slept in, its entrance hidden behind the large quilt hung on the wall over the giant-sized bed. With the light coming in, she could see the filter had been pulled inward, disposed of on the vent floor. It was worn from being tread on by little feet.
Poppy turned to the mouse and bowed her head. “Thank you. So much.”
She believed he understood her as he blinked at her, then trotted back the way he came. His little, pattering feet echoed down the vents for a short while.