The sight of Blaine, slumped over, with his face in his hands, tugged at Chris’s heartstrings. He and Darren approached the boy slowly, calling out softly, so as not to startle him.
“Blaine? Are you alright?”
Blaine immediately popped up to a standing position, bravely trying to put his game face on. “I’m fine,” he said, but the dullness in his eyes and the flatness of his voice gave away his feeling of despair. He barely glanced at Chris and Darren, and showed no sign of recognizing either one of them.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Darren asked compassionately.
“No, thank you. I need to get back to work, so please excuse me.” Without a backwards look, he gathered up the wood he’d been chopping and carried it into a nearby shack, closing the door firmly behind him.
“It breaks my heart to see him hurting like that,” Darren murmured.
“I know, Dare. Me too,” Chris replied, squeezing his hand. “But if things here are going the way they did in my book, then something should be happening soon to cheer him up.”
Before Darren could respond, they heard a song coming from the large manor house behind the shack.
“Oh, the day is here, and so am I,
To wistfully dream of birds that fly.
If I had legs I’d see the world and travel away,
But I’m only a harp, and this is where I shall stay.”
“That’s the song I wrote for the magic harp,” Chris said excitedly. “Let’s go see who’s singing.”
Approaching the manor, Chris and Darren saw a golden harp standing behind an open window. As they drew closer, they recognized the figure.
“You’re Unique!” Darren exclaimed.
“Of course I am,” the singer replied. “How many magic harps do you think there are?”
“Just you, I guess.”
“That’s what I thought. If you’re looking for Blaine, I think he’s in his workshop.”
“We saw him. He seemed kind of depressed.”
“Oh, yes, he’s always like that on Saturdays. You see, at the end of every week, Queen Red Riding Hood summons him to the castle and proposes to him. Poor thing, she’s had a crush on him since they were kids. He hates to disappoint her, and he always brings her a handmade basket to take the sting out of his refusal. But how could he possibly accept, when his heart belongs to someone else?”
“Who?” Darren asked, pretty sure he knew the answer.
“He won’t say. All I know is, something is keeping them apart, and it’s tearing him up inside.”
Just then, Blaine emerged from the shack, carrying a basket that he’d obviously made from the pieces of wood he’d been chopping.
“I have an idea,” the magic harp called out to him. “Why don’t you take these two with you to the castle? They can be a little buffer between you and Her Royal Highness.”
Blaine didn’t seem enthusiastic about the prospect, but he didn’t outright refuse, so Chris and Darren followed him up to the castle. They introduced themselves, and explained that this was their first time visiting the Red Riding Hood Kingdom.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Blaine replied with practiced politeness, but the flatness of his voice and the way in which he’d still barely glanced at them belied his words.
When they reached the castle, a guard nodded to them and allowed them to enter. Blaine led the way down a long passageway. The walls were decorated with portrait after portrait of Queen Red Riding Hood. They had obviously been painted over the span of many years, as they showed her at various ages, from little girl to young woman. Her outfits became more and more elaborate as she got older, with embroidered animal sweaters giving way to elegant gowns, but in each portrait she was wearing one of her trademark hooded red capes.
“It’s Rachel!” Darren gasped.
Blaine’s head whipped around sharply, and he stared at Chris and Darren as though he was noticing his companions for the first time. “Queen Red does not appreciate anyone taking the liberty of using her given name,” he said stiffly. “And I thought you said you’d never been here before,” he added, sounding suspicious. “How do you even know Queen Red’s real name?”
Chris elbowed Darren hard in the ribs, signaling him to shut up.
“Oh, is Queen Red Riding Hood named Rachel?” Chris asked, thinking quickly on his feet. “What a coincidence. She looks just like a friend of ours with the same name. Maybe they’re distant cousins.”
If Blaine hadn’t been so focused on pining for his absent love, he might have pursued the matter further, but as it was, he let it drop. He continued to lead them down the corridor, finally pausing in the doorway of the Throne Room.
“Blaine! You’re here! Come on in!” an excited (and familiar) voice called from across the room.
Blaine reluctantly entered the room, with Chris and Darren trailing along behind him. They spotted Rachel perched elegantly on an ornate throne. When she caught sight of Chris and Darren, the welcoming smile that had lit her face at the sight of Blaine fell a bit.
“I thought it would just be the two of us this afternoon,” she said with a little pout. “Who have you brought with you?”
“This is Chris, and this is Darren. They’ve never been to the Red Riding Hood Kingdom before, and they wanted to see your castle.
“Well, it is quite the tourist attraction,” Rachel acknowledged, preening a bit. Then, peering at them more closely, she asked, “Have we met before? You both look kind of familiar.”
Stepping quickly forward, to avoid being elbowed or kicked into silence by Chris, Darren gushed, “Oh, no, I’m sure we’ve never met. Because there’s no way I could possibly have forgotten such beauty.”
Wrapping his arm none-too-gently around Darren’s shoulders, Chris hissed in his ear, “Don’t you think you’re laying it on a little thick?”
But the smile blossoming across Rachel’s face (I have to remember to call her Queen Red, Chris reminded himself) showed clearly that Darren’s words had done the trick. She was now perfectly happy to have additional guests.
“Would you like a tour of the castle? I can summon a servant to show you around.”
“Thank you. That would be great,” Darren enthused.
Rachel picked up a little bell and was about to ring it when Blaine stopped her. “I don’t want to make extra work for any of your servants. Since I’m the one who brought Chris and Darren here, I’ll give them a tour.”
Rachel seemed disappointed that her plan to get Blaine alone had been foiled, but she quickly rallied. “How kind of you. But then, you’re always so kind. I have an idea – let’s all tour the castle together,” she said brightly.
The four of them set off, with Rachel happily playing the role of tour guide. She went into great detail in her description of every portrait of her they passed: from the artist who painted it, to the seamstress who created the outfit she was wearing in it, to what song she’d been singing while she posed.
“I’m sure Blaine has told you all about my incredible singing voice,” she said, lowering her eyes in false modesty.
Blaine shot Chris an imploring look, so he quickly agreed. “Yes, of course. We’d be so honored if you’d sing for us.”
“Well, the acoustics in these corridors are simply atrocious, but once we’re back in the Throne Room, you might be able to persuade me…”
The promise of an audience seemed to encourage Rachel to cut the tour short, and she soon led them back to the room where they’d first met. She sat down on her throne, patting the matching throne next to it with a significant glance at Blaine.
“You know, the Red Riding Hood Kingdom isn’t much of a kingdom without a king,” Rachel said coquettishly. “Have you given any more thought to what we discussed last week?”
“I’m sorry, Red,” Blaine said, looking down at the floor. “I just can’t.”
Rachel didn’t seem at all surprised by his words. With a determined expression on her face, she rose from her throne and began to belt out a song.
Don't tell me not to live,
Just sit and putter,
Life's candy and the sun's
A ball of butter.
Don't bring around a cloud
To rain on my parade!
As annoying as he’d sometimes found Rachel’s character, Chris had never had anything but the highest admiration for her voice. He listened raptly as her song filled the Throne Room.
Don't tell me not to fly--
I've simply got to.
If someone takes a spill,
It's me and not you.
Who told you you're allowed
To rain on my parade!
Blaine was obviously embarrassed by the passion behind Rachel’s singing. He didn’t seem to know where to fix his eyes, glancing helplessly at Chris and Darren, then back at the floor, then out the window.
But whether I'm the rose
Of sheer perfection,
Or freckle on the nose
Of life's complexion,
The cinder or the shiny apple of its eye,
I gotta fly once,
I gotta try once,
Only can die once, right, sir?
Suddenly Blaine’s whole face lit up. Chris followed his gaze, and saw a white dove fluttering toward the open window. He smiled to himself, knowing what it signified.
Ooh, life is juicy,
Juicy, and you see
I gotta have my bite, sir!
Get ready for me, love,
Cause I'm a comer,
I simply gotta march,
My heart's a drummer.
Nobody, no, nobody
Is gonna rain on my parade!
As she finished her song, Rachel noticed the delighted expression on Blaine’s face, and was clearly thrilled by his reaction. She curtseyed prettily, as Chris and Darren applauded. However, her face flushed with anger as she realized that Blaine’s attention was focused not on her, but on the white dove that had perched on the windowsill.
Chris quickly tried to defuse the impending explosion. “Wow! Queen Red, your voice is truly amazing! Even all of the lavish praise we heard from Blaine, here,” and he nudged Blaine sharply as he said this, “couldn’t do it justice.”
Blaine recovered his good manners enough to say, “Yes, Red, it’s always such a pleasure to hear you sing.” But his attention was clearly still miles away.
“Well, I could perform another song, if you insist,” Rachel began, but Blaine cut her off.
“I’m sorry, but I really must go. I’ll see you next week.” And with one last glance at the white dove, Blaine strode purposefully out of the Throne Room.
Chris and Darren quickly followed suit, leaving a sputtering Rachel behind. As they made their way out of the castle, Darren turned to Chris, asking, “Do you think that dove means what I think it means?”
“Oh, I can’t wait for tonight!”