Caplin decides to sell his cottage, a mysterious capybara holds the missing roosters under a spell, and Dobby and Gari enjoy a seedy banquet as the palace prepares for Sylvia’s imminent visit.
This part introduces a couple new characters, in case you think you missed something. You didn’t. Here’s a link if you decide to start reading at the beginning. There’s also a moderately helpful chart below that lists the rodents. Recommended snack: Any banquet will do, if you sprinkle poppy and sesame seeds all over everything. Soundtrack: Love Potion No. 9
Caplin looked at the text message, and then scrolled back up to the photos Dobby had texted earlier. His little brother was a bother, sometimes. What were the photos of, anyway? Nothing that was his responsibility. A random little warehouse and an industrial kitchen. Woohoo. Not his. Who cares? And why was Dobby checking on the cottage, all of a sudden. What did vegetables and outbuildings have to do with anything? Why was Gari there? He should have gotten rid of that shack a long time ago. His life revolved around the Guardia Principale, now. Then he remembered about his mother’s birthday party. Hmph. If he went to the party, they would make a big stinking deal of it. But it was his mother, and well— . He sighed. He didn’t have to tell anyone. He could go at the last minute, get in, get out. But it was a lunchtime event. He would have to drive up the day before. No, maybe tomorrow. Call an agent, see about selling the place. Go to the party. He’d never have to go there ever again. Yeah, he could handle staying there a couple days if it was the very last time.
The sun set on the principality as twenty four roosters flew down and lined up along the road at the edge of the forest. They perched high in the forest overlooking the field during the day after the prince discovered the illegal fields. Ever since they had joined the Guardia Principale, their days had been the same, until now. Serving in the Guardia Principale wasn’t at all what they expected. An eccentric black capybara had given them corn juice and repeated the same orders as they drank: plant the seed, tend the fields, make the cakes, box them up, and sleep, sleep, sleep. The work was easy, the food was provided, and at the end of the day, the perches were safe and the cottage was warm. In the beginning, they had asked about pay, and vacation time, and it seemed to be a decent situation. But it had been months since any of them had asked any questions, and they had lost the desire to do anything except plant the seed, tend the fields, make the cakes, box them up, and sleep. Oh sure, they had vegetable garden duty between crops, like now, but that was the same every day, too. All of it was the same every day, and none of them cared to ask any questions.
The black capybara was not really black, but she was dressed head to toe in black gauzy robes topped by an incongruous crooked cone of a cap. Her nose was dusky, and her expressionless black eyes held them near to her. The roosters had never thought of her as an ordinary brown capybara. Early on, one of them had defied her and she had withheld the corn juice until they persuaded him to behave. He had sent a small packet of seed off with a crow. They never saw him do it again, though some said they had seen the crow on multiple occasions afterward. The odd capybara was on the path before them now.
“There has been another intruder at the cottage. We will not go home tonight. Follow me.” And she turned and led them to their new roosting place.
Thursday brought another beautiful sunny morning to the principality. Dobby and Gari had been up late the night before, drinking root beer floats, playing scrabble, and working on a gigantic puzzle. They had both eaten a bit too much corn on the cob and were sleeping late. Rodney paced and both Kipling and Vincent were on duty but neither of them felt compelled to wake the exhausted prince.
“I understand your dilemma,” said Kipling. “However, a rested and enthusiastic prince, fresh from breakfast, will be much more use to the project than one who feels he has been unjustifiably awakened. Don’t forget that Garibaldi is here, and our prince is certain to wish to appear as though he is the master, not you. He does have his pride, after all. You have all day to prepare the zeppelin and it does appear to be nearly operational already. Isn’t that so?”
Vincent, the tiny vole watched the negotiations intently. Kipling was a master of diplomacy, and with so many strong personalities in play, Vincent was rather glad to be his second. Several naked mole rats sat on tiny red cushions with bags of popcorn, watching the show.
“Sylvia will arrive tomorrow and I want to be certain the safety precautions, for the children, you know, will be adequate,” said Rodney. “That is well beyond my area of expertise, as you might imagine. Tomorrow’s test flight will be far more serious than their little rafting adventure last weekend. I want everyone to be safe.”
Vincent stepped forward with confidence. “If the children’s safety is a concern, you want to talk to Garibaldi, not our Prince. Garibaldi has extensive babysitting experience with these very children, and will be much more attuned to their needs than the Prince. I heard him stirring a few minutes ago, and he may well be available already. Let’s go down to the breakfast room together.”
The breakfast room, like most of the palace, was not a room at all. It was a small terrace located to take advantage of the morning sun. It was also as far away from the bustle of the workshops as possible. Rodney nodded to the contingent of naked mole rats who stood up, clutching their bags of popcorn, and followed the millwright and the valet through the allees and pathways that led to the sunny breakfast room. They found Gari enjoying a cappuccino and croissant at the table nearest the small water feature with trained koi. It was apparent from the number of guinea pigs darting beneath the other tables that a small crowd had recently left the terrace. Rodney sat down at the table with Gari and the naked mole rats gathered at the edge of the koi pond to enjoy the exhibition.
“Morning,” said Rodney. “I hear you are the voice of authority regarding the children’s safety. They arrive tomorrow for the test flight and, among other loose ends, I need to figure out how to accommodate them. There are many things I can leave to the last minute, but that is not one of them.”
Gari finished chewing and took a sip of his coffee before answering. Rodney looked perturbed, as he was used to barking orders, and the naked mole rats were obedient to a fault. Gari considered the question carefully as he gazed into the distance where Charlie and Hamish tended the fields. He took another sip of coffee.
“Sylvia and I have had several discussions regarding the children and the configuration of Newt’s interior. Dobby’s salon concept works for adults, but the open windows and simple lap belts will never do for excitable young squirrels. They will want to be free to run around and see out all of the windows. Frankly, under the most boring situations they don’t sit still long, and this is going to be terribly exciting. And yet the last thing we need is bouncing squirrels everywhere at once.”
“So,” said Rodney. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Here’s Sylvia’s idea, but you will have to work out the mechanics of it. She felt that a cargo net hung at the ceiling would provide them with a safe way to get to all the windows. Squirrels are better at clinging than sitting still,” said Gari, smiling at the gruff millwright. “They will be perfectly safe on the cargo net, and in an emergency, they can pop through at any safe location. I discussed this with the interior decorator earlier, at breakfast. She will measure newt and create a net that will match the decor. She’ll show you where to weld fasteners. You might have to rehang the chandeliers.”
Rodney just stared at the capybara for a moment. “So no seatbelts? No safety devices at all?”
“You haven’t seen them in action, have you? Sylvia said this would be our best bet. It ought to keep them busy and happy, and out of our way. They stick like Velcro to just about anything, but only if they want to,” said Gari. “I just remembered that she asked me to check on the winch. She wasn’t sure whether or not the Dobster had passed that message along.”
“Yes. She will be pleased to note that I have installed winches at each end. You never know who will be driving,” said Rodney. “Oops, I said that out loud, didn’t I?”
“What?” Gari was watching the distant fields, again. “What are those sheep up to now?”
Rodney turned to look where Charlie and Hamish were working. “Oh, they’re watering the cut flower beds. The Prince wants flower garlands hung up all over the palace, big bouquets on every terrace, posies for Sylvia and Sali, he’s going all out.”
“None for his mother?”
“Uh, not that I heard about. He’s giving her a painting, but he’s not taking it to the party. It’s by Will Bullas, he got her the original of The Capybara Club. For now, it’s hung up in the front parlor. You can’t miss it, a really fine piece of work,” said Rodney. “Worth a small fortune, too.”
“Nice. I’ve seen a print. Striking resemblance to the Prince and Caplin. I suppose I could be the third,” said Gari.
Rodney raised his eyebrows at this. There was a commotion in the kitchen, signaling the approach of Prince Dobalob. The Prince, himself, walked directly to the vista point and watched the sheep with approval. Then he turned to Rodney and Gari, said good morning, and sat down. The dainty rattan chair creaked as first a red cushion and then the prince’s enormous bottom strained the structural stability of the breakfast room furniture.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” said Dobby. “ Is there anything left?” A pair of undersized rabbits strained to push the kitchen cart to the table. One removed several covered platters to the table while the other fussed over cappuccinos all around. The larger of the two rabbits uncovered the platters with a flourish.
“Well, now,” said the prince. “This is more like it!”
Every single muffin, tart, and even toast was sprinkled with bird seed. There were plain seed cakes, frosted seed cakes, cakes with sunflower only, whole sorghum cakes, and tiny seed balls with a honey dipping sauce. There were even teeny tiny sugar coated seeds that looked like mice with sugar-coated stems resembling tails.
“You weren’t kidding when you said you asked Charlie and Hamish to go back for a few boxes of seed cakes,” said Gari. “Did they haul a whole bin of seed, too?”
“Figured they might as well,” said Dobby. “They are about to harvest that field, whoever “they” is. I’m wondering now if Caplin had something to do with it, after all. I never heard back from him, though that’s not unusual. Still, you’d think he might be curious about what’s going on there, even if he doesn’t care about the place.”
“He really, really didn’t want to come to the party,” said Gari. “I can see him waiting until next week to respond. Easier to avoid the hullabaloo that way. And I don’t see how he could have anything to do with the seed business. Somebody deliberately cleared your forest to plant the fields and he’s distant, but not mean spirited. I can’t see him doing that. Naw, somebody knew he never comes around. That’s a very sophisticated operation and they knew nobody was checking on the place.”
“You’re making me feel worse about this, you know,” said Dobby. “I was supposed to watch over it for him, and I failed.”
“No you didn’t,” said Gari. “Well, you failed, that’s for sure.” Rodney made a little choking sound from the far side of the table, and excused himself from the table. “But I mean that he never asked you to watch it for him, you volunteered. He tried to talk you out of it, said he’d rather sell it. The only reason you said you’d look after it was to keep him from selling it out of the family. It’s useful as a buffer between the principality and the Schist’s mess of a kingdom. Personally, I think it’s a nice property and the cottage has kind of a homey vintage character. I gotta say that’s a beauty of a vegetable garden. And the outbuildings, well, they’re a nice asset. Creepy as the situation is, It’s even better than before. Probably nicer than if he had been taking care of it. He would have added a parking lot full of jeeps and some funky canvas tents. You did good, but we’ve gotta get those roosters out of there. So weird. What did Moneypenny say? Did she see anything overnight?”
“No, but I’m not surprised. Someone is as spooked as we are. She’s tapped some naked mole rats to watch the monitors, cover all the shifts. But, no, nobody showed. Nobody tended the garden, nobody slept in the cabin on those roosts. We left the outbuildings open so Charlie and Hamish could pilfer the shelves, and they straightened the padlocks afterwards. They still look like they’re locked from what we can see on the monitors but nobody’s been there since they left.” Dobby ate a few more seed cakes. “Creepy is an understatement. You about ready to go down to the workshop? We have a full day ahead of us. If Moneypenny sees anything she’ll text me. Let’s go.
Caplin requisitioned a small Jeep from the company garage and drove toward the principality and his nuisance of a cottage. This is exactly why he had wanted to get rid of it. This would be a couple days wasted, plus it meant he couldn’t really avoid his mother’s stupid party. Why did her birthdays seem to happen every other month? Wasn’t once a year the point of the thing? Maybe it just seemed constant. When had he last seen his mother, anyway? He honestly couldn’t remember.
This part of the road was familiar to him. He often brought his platoon into the little hamlet on his way to check on one of the outposts. He had no idea what they did there. Waste time, no doubt. He had important business throughout the various kingdoms. No dilly dallying for Captain Caplin, no siree, Bob. The forest looked light and airy in the sunlight today, not dark and brooding. In fact, wait, no, he thought he caught a glimpse all the way through. But that would be impossible. The forest was dense and extended forever that direction. There it was again, a sunny clearing beyond the woods that followed the road. At the next place where the road shoulder was wide enough, he pulled over and got out. He stepped into the woods but it was dense with underbrush near the road. As he crashed through the brush toward the light he caught an unsavory whiff. He stopped and his feet began to steam in his boots. Fire swamp! No, it couldn’t be, not here! This had always been forest, but he noticed the quiet. No birds, no insects. He had taken a couple more steps in, and now his feet were toasting in the heavy boots. He turned and ran back to the road, eyes focused straight ahead, careful not to stumble. Who knows what lived there, now. Nothing pleasant, that’s for sure. He removed his smoking boots and drove barefoot to the little hamlet. Avoiding the disgraceful excuse of a restaurant, he pulled into a tavern, took a dark corner table, and ordered a bucket of corn on the cob. A raven perched on the tavern sign, eyeing the Jeep with suspicion.
The black capybara called the roosters to attention and they lined up in front of her. It had been months since they had questioned their leader, but in the last few days, it seemed less like a finely tuned military mission and more like hide and seek. Everything kept changing. They didn’t go to the fields or even the vegetable garden. They slept in trees, moving from branch to branch. It felt like something important was about to happen.
“it’s time to harvest the vegetable garden,” she said. “This will not be a phased harvest like the fields. We harvest all. Teams of three, as before. One to haul the wagon, one to pick, one to load. Harvest everything and don’t tidy or clean the garden beds. No composting. Load the wagons sky high as quickly as possible and leave as a group. No slackers. Understand? We’ll start at dusk. Back to the trees for now.”
To be continued . . .
The Capybara Club is available here.
The scrappy Cast of Characters:
This story needs a lot more illustrations! Select an event from this story (how about the roosters?), draw a picture of it, and send me an email. I’ll reply so that you can attach a digital copy of your masterpiece to it. I’ll add it to the story!
Or, if you’d rather help with the glossary, send me the list of words you had to look up (or should have looked up, but didn’t!). Someday, I will start putting together the glossary. Do know what a Koi is?