The Constellation of Sylvie (Sylvie Cycle Series)by Roderick Townley
It's not easy being a heroine inside a story that no one is reading.
But Princess Sylvie has an even bigger problem: By chance, she and the other characters from The Great Good Thing and Into the Labyrinth find themselves launched into outer space bound for the moons of Jupiter! Here they must learn to act out their book's plot while/i>/i>/b>… See more details below
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It's not easy being a heroine inside a story that no one is reading.
But Princess Sylvie has an even bigger problem: By chance, she and the other characters from The Great Good Thing and Into the Labyrinth find themselves launched into outer space bound for the moons of Jupiter! Here they must learn to act out their book's plot while floating weightlessly through the pages.
If life is bizarre for Sylvie, it turns grim for the astronauts when their spaceship misses reentry to Earth's atmosphere. Equally disastrous, the aging process has somehow reversed itself, regressing the crew toward babyhood. Birth, death, and infinity become fatally intertwined. What, from inside her book, can Sylvie do? How can she save the doomed ship, the astronauts she has grown to care for, and even the book she lives in?
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Silence. The commas hung down, as if exhausted, below the lines of type. Even the exclamation points sagged. The king's oak trees stood deathly still, their leaves like leather gloves. In the entire forest of words, the only moving things were the tiny hands of a fly preening itself. Life was quiet these days inside the old book, now that the story had fallen out of fashion -- in fact, out of print -- but there had always been little scurrying sounds, the distant halloo of a shepherd, or the lapping of water on the shore of the Mere of Remind. This was different.
Just then the bushes swished loudly, and the head of a young girl popped up through the leaves. She was quite a sight. Her long brown hair was a tangle of coming-down braids, her travel cape covered with stickery twigs and smears of dirt. Her green eyes were all attention.
"What's happening? Can you tell?"
She was speaking to a boulder not far from where she stood. Well, it looked like a boulder. In fact, it was a tortoise, its huge head swiveling toward her. Princess Sylvie often spoke to the animals in her story, using little endearments, and she seemed not to mind that they never answered. The tortoise was a particular favorite, and she sometimes sat on its back taking exceedingly slow rides around her father's kingdom. She'd never had time for such lolling about when the book was in bookstores -- even on the Internet. She had begun thinking of that time as the good old days, forgetting how stressful it had been. Living inside a book can be more work than you'd think.
Not lately, though. What was the good of having an amazing story if no one read it? Yes, there was that one Reader, alively girl named Angie, who for a while had carried the book around with her everywhere, sneaking glances at it at the dinner table or during important grown-up parties her parents gave at a place they kept calling the white house. (Did they have another house of a different color?) But now even Angie was gone.
Sylvie pulled several eucalyptus leaves from under her cape and fed them to the tortoise. "There you go. You like that?" The creature regarded her without expression, making a mess of the leaves in its beaklike mouth.
"That's all I've got!" Sylvie said brightly, then turned and ran over to an ancient oak tree that dominated this part of the forest. She scampered halfway up, quick as a squirrel, to her favorite perch. From there, the world looked the same as always, but it was as motionless as an illustration. Something had definitely changed.
Tucking her tongue against the back of her teeth, she let out a high whistle. The sound faded away immediately, as if the air were dead. She whistled again, louder than before. At last the sound of beating wings could be heard, and then a great snowy owl appeared over the rim of Humped Mountain and swerved toward her.
This was another magical creature, like the tortoise and the invisible fish that lived in the Mere of Remind; and like them, it was far larger than its counterpart in the outside world -- large enough to pick up a gangly twelve-year-old and carry her wherever she wished. This always amazed Sylvie, because the owl was blind, its eyes milky and useless; yet it found its way. In the weary weeks between Readers she had tried to train the owl, although she was never able to tame it completely.
"Come, little one," she called, watching it sail closer. She often called her animals "little," no matter how enormous they were. "Take me to Laurel."
The bird's shadow blocked the sun, and Sylvie squinted up at the wings fanning above her. Sylvie had long ago sewn special eyelets into the shoulders of a harness she wore under her cape, so that the owl could lift her without hurting her or tearing her clothes. Now the creature slipped its talons through the loops and heaved itself upward, yanking the princess over the treetops.
The kingdom lay below them: the mountain and the Mere, shepherds' huts and pinewoods, and off to the west the dark walls of the castle. Usually farmers and tradespeople would crowd the castle gates at this time of day, shouting and jostling. Sylvie veered nearer. The drawbridge was deserted, and the lily-covered moat lay half in sunlight, half in blue shadow.
Blind though it was, the owl soared over the parapets, then turned south past the rock-strewn hideout of the thieves. Their leader, a rogue prince named Riggeloff, was sitting at a makeshift table outside his tent playing chess with Hroth and barely looked up as Sylvie sailed overhead.
The owl flew on.
"Here!" cried Sylvie, seeing a familiar figure standing on the cliff overlooking the Mere. "Let me down, please." Sylvie always felt a little burst of excitement when she saw Laurel. Over a century ago Laurel had written the original story; The Great Good Thing, she'd called it. It was a lovely book, but it didn't find an audience until years after her death. Then, through a kind of miracle, it had been republished with Laurel herself written in as a minor character. It was her form of heaven, she had told Sylvie, to spend her afterlife inside her own story.
The bird plummeted to earth, landing so abruptly, it made Sylvie's stomach lurch. "We've got to work on that," she said a little shakily. The creature unhooked its talons and burst into the air.
The girl on the cliff was watching. "I was expecting you," Laurel said with a small smile. She seemed about Sylvie's age, but her face was narrower and her eyes, dark blue, had the look of someone much older.
"You were?" Sylvie said. "But I only just now decided to see you."
"Haven't you been listening to your Reader?" said the other. Her blue-hooded cloak matched her startling eyes. "I thought you always looked up at the Reader."
"I've been out in the forest with the tortoise."
"I don't mean in the last day or two."
Sylvie shrugged. "I guess I wasn't paying attention."
"Well, you've missed some interesting things. Pingree has stopped tormenting everyone with his jokes and sits scratching his thoughts between the lines of our story. Riggeloff has stopped his plundering and taken up chess. The thief Thomas has started bringing irises to Rosetta again."
"I knew about Thomas."
"But the main thing is...Have you really not been listening to the Reader?"
"You mean that girl Angie?"
"Of course Angie. She's the only Reader we've had for a year."
"Well, she's been overheard talking about..." Laurel shook her head. "I know it sounds crazy, but she's been talking about a spaceship of some kind."
"A what?" Princess Sylvie, whose story is set in the Middle Ages, had never heard of such a thing. "A ship in space? But there's no water."
"Where is the ship sailing?"
Laurel shrugged, but her eyes were alight. "To the stars, presumably."
"You can't always go by what Readers say. Their
dialogue isn't written down, and they don't remember what they said a minute ago."
"Are we supposed to be on it?"
"That's what I hear."
Sylvie was silent, her heart beating fast. "Laurel," she said, "remember how we used to talk about that?"
"Exploring the stars?"
Sylvie nodded quickly.
Her friend pressed her lips together. "It would be something, wouldn't it?"
Sylvie looked around at the unmoving grass and breezeless trees. "Is that why our story seems so...
different these days?"
"I don't know. Stuffy. Airless."
"I think our book has been put inside some sort of container."
"Does that mean we've already begun sailing?"
"Oh, I think we'll know when we take off. These ships make more commotion than you can imagine."
Sylvie squinted at the distant castle. "Who's that down there?"
In the valley several horsemen trotted along beside an ornate carriage as it rattled over the drawbridge. The travelers headed east through a beautifully described countryside while a plume of dust rose behind them.
"Looks like the king's carriage," Laurel said.
"Oh, good!" said Sylvie, who was anxious to see her parents again.
But the next moment she forgot all about the king and queen as the ground began to shudder and shift beneath her. A powerful earthquake -- that's what it felt like -- began rumbling, shaking the squirrels out of the trees and knocking two of the king's guards off their horses.
The carriage veered into a ditch, a wheel spinning. Sylvie grabbed Laurel's hand to steady herself while the tremors grew more violent. Several boulders came loose and tumbled down the mountain, flattening two adjectives before coming to rest in the middle of the road.
"Laurel!" cried Sylvie.
Laurel's teeth were chattering from the vibration. She lost her balance and fell down, pulling Sylvie with her. A great weight seemed to be pressing on them, and Sylvie could not get back on her feet. As the seconds passed the heaviness increased, until finally she couldn't lift her head or keep her lips from parting, pulled aside by a force several times the weight of gravity. If the force grew any stronger, she thought distractedly, it might pull the flesh from her bones! She wanted to shout something to Laurel, but it was useless to try.
Am I dying? Sylvie wondered. She, who had never grown a day older in the decades since her book was first published -- was she finally to find out what it was like to die?
Copyright © 2005 by Roderick Townley
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