Magic and mayhem abound in this middle-grade fantasy adventure from Julie Berry, the author of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place.
Young dairymaid Begonia has lost her cow Alfalfa. So she has set off on a search across the countryside even though she has nothing but a magical map to guide her. Along the way she meets a mother and baby, a woodcutter, a very dirty young man, and an eight-foot ostrich.
Meanwhile, the emperor has gone missing from the royal palace in a most mysterious manner. Was it murder? Was it magic? It will take all of Begonia's wits to save the empire and get Alfalfa home safely.
The Emperor's Ostrich:
“Cheeky commentary about class and feminism, giggle-inducing wordplay, and jokes about the ridiculousness of imperial overindulgence round out this story. Readers looking for easy laughs will find them here.” Kirkus Reviews
“Berry (The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place) creates a lively, magic-laced folktale featuring a self-centered emperor, a dairymaid, a farmer boy with grand romantic ideals, and two very stubborn animals. . . . Whimsical details, including an enchanted map and a pot of mustard that changes flavor, will delight readers, and the nonstop action will keep them on the edge of their seats.” Publishers Weekly
"This whimsical, rambling adventure also serves as a coming-of-age tale. . . . This novel is well written and well executed, with Berry's clear prose holding together a complicated plot and increasingly eccentric cast of characters. . . . Give to kids who enjoy a clever story and don't mind a strong dose of silliness, or to anyone who loves the idea of a cow who becomes besotted with an ostrich." School Library Journal
About the Author
Julie Berry is the author of many books for children and young adults including The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. She lives in southern California with her husband and four sons.
Read an Excerpt
The Emperor's Ostrich
By Julie Berry
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2017 Julie Berry
All rights reserved.
OF CATS AND MILK, AND ROYAL RUDENESS
Midnight, in the palace.
Quiet lay smooth like a shine on burnished gold, like the nap on brushed velvet. The Singers of Songs for the Evening Shift breathed slowly, then sang again in low, soothing tones into brass pipes that fed their notes into the Imperial Bedchamber. Their voices blended like water in songs so gentle they could break your heart.
The emperor's cupbearer's young second assistant approached the bedroom door bearing a chalice on a tray. Its foamy warm milk surface never stirred. Imperial cupbearers could carry loaded trays across lava fields without the slightest motion rippling the surface of His Exalted Magnificence's drink. Or so they liked to think.
The second assistant bowed to the porter at the door. The porter's gaze moved slightly toward a flank of guards concealed by tall scarlet drapes. The chief guard, dressed in a soldier's gear, stepped forward and motioned to his lieutenant.
"The emperor's milk."
The lieutenant bowed to his captain and removed from his pocket his own less glorious cup. The cupbearer's second assistant poured an ounce of warm milk into the soldier's cup, then wiped the rim of the emperor's chalice.
The lieutenant guard slowly drank his portion. He wiped clean his own small cup and slipped it back into his pocket. They all waited, their ears cocked as though straining to hear the sounds in his belly. Just once, the lieutenant thought, it would be interesting if something actually did happen. But that something would likely begin with the stopping of his own heart. Such could be the unhappy fate of an Imperial Warm Milk Taster.
The lieutenant rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. He took a deep, healthy, thoroughly unpoisoned breath.
"Very well then," said the porter to the second assistant. "You will proceed?"
The bearer of the Imperial Warm Milk Cup nodded. It was good of the porter not to treat him like a youth and mention that this was his first time in the sacred bedchamber. "I will proceed."
The porter tapped a teakwood mallet against a hollow silver flute mounted to the wall. A chime hung in the air, then faded. It was answered by a muffled chime from within the bedchamber.
The cupbearer's second assistant felt the muscles in his legs contract. He wiggled his toes inside his shiny new shoes. The porter produced a key from one of his pockets, unlocked the great bedchamber door, and swung it open.
Step after solemn step led the cupbearer's second assistant through the great dim cathedral of a bedchamber, past trickling marble pools where orchids dozed and golden carp flicked their tails, past shocking statues of former empresses and candle-lit shrines to heroic ancestor-emperors from days gone by. Outside, in the palace pleasure gardens, a bird of paradise sang.
A pair of lamps by the Imperial Bed cast a warm red glow upon white silk damask bedclothes. The emperor lay in the middle of the bed, little more than a fitful, restless, thrashing lump beneath blankets and sheets. So much space around him, and so much luxury, marveled the cupbearer's second assistant, and yet he's all alone.
"I don't feel like milk tonight," said the lump.
The cupbearer bowed and turned to leave.
"Oh, give me some, since you're here." The emperor squirmed into an upright position, and the servant reached forward with the cup to press it against His Radiance's lower lip. Even in the dim light, the cupbearer was dazzled by the luster of the emperor's silk pajamas and the glint of his golden earrings. Rubies clustered like worshippers across his royal fingers, and his face gleamed where the Ladies of Imperial Ablutions had anointed his skin with hazelnut oil. The long tails of his Imperial Mustache curled in divinely royal spirals of blackest jet. These long mustaches were a point of extreme pride for the emperor. Many an older man could not produce such beauties, and he, not yet twenty-two!
Yet for all this magnificent splendor, the young cupbearer couldn't suppress an irreverent thought. My youngest cousin could wrestle him to the ground easily. And Divine Emperor or no, he still has pimples.
The emperor sniffed the fragrant warm milk and wrinkled his nose. "Never mind, set it on the table. No. It will spill. Set it on that table. No, don't. I don't want it. Pour it out for the cat."
The cupbearer turned, and turned again with each new instruction, keeping his face and the surface of the milk eternally still. In all his training in how to bear, pour, and proffer the emperor's beverages, the cupbearer's second assistant had not fully anticipated how to endure the emperor himself.
"Your Luminous Grace must be looking forward to your birthday," he ventured, and immediately he regretted it, but there was no stopping his tongue now. "Twenty-two is an auspicious age for a ruler ..." His voice trailed off in terror. A cupbearer only spoke when spoken to!
Time quivered like a dewdrop on a petal in the palace pleasure gardens.
The emperor leaned forward. "Who are you," he said, so slowly, so softly, "to address words to me?" The cupbearer trembled. What would come next? A month in the dungeons? He held his breath and waited to greet his fate.
"Give the milk to the cat."
The second assistant nearly jiggled the milk in grateful joy. "Yes, Your Radiance. Immediately, Your Radiance. Thank you, Your Merciful Radiance."
The cupbearer's second assistant turned toward the ivory bowl the emperor had indicated and wondered in his innermost heart if it was too late for him to return home to his uncle's pig farm and live out his days serving more pleasant creatures. At least the emperor didn't smell like a pig. The young servant knelt before the Imperial Cat's bowl to pour. The cat, a gray Persian, lay on a velvet ottoman and watched the proceedings with bored yellow eyes.
The cupbearer tilted the chalice.
The cupbearer caught in midair the drop that had escaped.
The emperor's chest heaved. He clapped his hand against his forehead, clinking the rings on his fingers. "Why have I never seen? Why have the priests not remembered? Demons consort with cats!" He seized the mallet hanging next to the silver flute on his wall, the twin of that which the porter rang, and attacked the flute. Mad notes jangled in the air. He fumed at the second assistant. "Why did you come in here to disturb me with wretched milk?"
The cupbearer set down his tray and prostrated himself on the carpet. To grovel or to run away and not stop running were his only options. Servants had died for less than bringing milk to a fickle-minded monarch who had demanded milk. Or wishing him a happy birthday. Anger the emperor, and old age might never touch your brow. Or so the older palace servants often said. At the time, the cupbearer thought they were teasing him.
Doors from every direction opened, and servants, butlers, guards, the chancellor, a priest, a dancer, a masseuse, a cook, and a confectioner appeared with the speed of leopards and the poise of acrobats, all armed with the tools of their trades. The cat leaped off its ottoman and dove under the Imperial Bed in one smooth swoop.
"The cat," the emperor hissed. "Banish the cat. Cats consort with demons. Why did none of you think of this before now?"
Jellied fruits quivered on the confectioner's tray. The dancer's finger tambourines jingled uncertainly. The priest took a silent step back and hid behind the cook. Only the cupbearer's second assistant, lying still upon the carpet, could see the cat crouched under the massive bed, its golden eyes reflecting light borrowed from a distant candle.
The old chancellor spoke. "Glorious Lord," he said in a voice that almost hinted that he found these words amusing, "cats have been part of your royal family's lives for generations. Your exalted mother had three of them and found them bringers of good luck. I recall how you yourself had a beloved kitten when you were young —"
"Never mind when I was young!" shrieked the emperor. "I am no longer young. I'm an Emperor in Fullness now." Eyebrows rose among the servants, though this was reckless of their owners. "Ahem. Or I will be one in a week. So don't tell me what to do, Chancellor. You know how it vexes me. Now rid me of this pestilent cat!"
The cupbearer's second assistant wormed his body under the bed. In the black gloom underneath the mattress, the cat's reflective yellow eyes stared at him. "Here, pooss, pooss," the cupbearer whispered. The cat made no movement. He stretched out a hand and seized the Imperial Cat by the loose skin behind its head. It yowled and curled its body around to lash at him with clawed hind feet. But he did not let go. He pulled the cat out and held it dangling high. His pig-farming cousins had taught him this trick with their own rat-catching cats. Unpleasant though it looked, it didn't hurt the cat.
The emperor broke off scolding the chancellor and turned to regard the cupbearer's second assistant and his furious trophy. A beautiful smile curved underneath the spirals of his flawless Imperial Mustaches.
"Thank you, servant," he said. A thrill of holy joy ran down the cupbearer's spine. "Henceforth, I pronounce you Imperial Butler. Now I can rest. Banish the cat, banish all cats, and bring me new warm milk. That milk is now cold."
The original butler melted into the shadows, as did the others who had leaped to the summons. The old chancellor tottered off to the stacks of paperwork involved in actually running an empire. The newly knighted Imperial Butler handed the cat to the Imperial Cat Keeper, an old lady who fled the room before the emperor could decide to execute the Imperial Cat, or all the cats in the empire.
Serenity returned to the bedchamber.
The former cupbearer's second assistant returned with a new chalice of warm milk, again poison-tested by a bored guard.
The emperor drank his milk and closed his eyes.
A cart of supremely irritated palace cats rumbled off into the night. Villagers along their route dreamed of yowling fiends and wondered what curse their nightmares might foretell.
The guards shifted their feet silently and watched their breaths push the red drapes ever so slightly forward.
The new Imperial Butler visited the wardrobe to request the elegant uniform and glittering shoes befitting his new rank. He switched bedchambers with the demoted butler and contemplated sending a letter home to his mother with the proud news. Uncle Moon's pig farm, indeed!
Exotic birds in the palace pleasure gardens settled into their nests and tucked their lordly beaks under their riotously colored wings. Peace and order reigned supreme.
And then ...
Somewhere in the smallest hours, a tortured scream ripped through the quiet palace. To their astonishment and horror, no one, neither guard nor dancer nor baker nor butler, could open the doors to the Imperial Bedchamber to help. The peepholes that allowed the guards to monitor the emperor's safety had been fused shut. Any hand that dared to touch the latch of the emperor's door burned with a red-hot brand, leaving a wound slow to heal.
Guards pounded and cursed. Servants paced and prayed. Dark forces must be at work.
How dark, indeed, they couldn't fully know until the next morning, when the locks finally yielded and the new butler found the Imperial Bed empty and its sheets disheveled. The emperor himself was nowhere to be seen. His gold ear jewels and ruby rings lay on the floor near his bed.
One window stood open, and the butler ran to see what it might reveal. Outside in the palace pleasure gardens, not a flower was out of place, nor a creature disturbed.
Except, they learned later, for one. With hordes of servants scouring every corner of the castle and grounds, scarcely anyone took notice when, at dinnertime, the Keeper of the Imperial Aviary reported one missing ostrich.CHAPTER 2
WHAT A PEACOCK MIGHT HAVE HEARD
If a peacock had been strutting near the Pools of Celestial Vision in the gardens outside the Heavenly Hall of the Ancestors not long before the emperor disappeared in the small hours of the night — if hours even matter in the Heavenly Hall, and who can say? — he might, if he'd listened, have overheard this conversation.
A grandfather spirit perched precariously upon the head of a dragon statue, frowning into the tranquil waters, with his chin sinking irritably into his hand.
"Did you see that? Did you see that?"
The peacock might have turned his beaky face this way and that, as peacocks do, searching to find the person the grandfather spirit was speaking to, until a grandmother spirit in fluttery, pearly robes blinked into view upon the dragon's spine.
"What, dearie? See what?" She squinted into the waters. "Oh. Him? You're the only one who bothers with watching him. I have the loveliest great-great great-granddaughters right now, and I'm so taken by the clever things they do. Why, just this morning —"
"He banished a cat!"
The grandmother spirit paused. "He did?"
The grandfather spirit nodded. "He's not even sorry. He's sleeping now, without a care in the world."
"Well," the grandmother spirit said briskly, "this can be fixed. If he unbanishes the cat, apologizes enough, and offers enough treats, in time, he'll be forgiven. The bad luck ..."
"He's got the heart of a rotten onion and the spine of a soup noodle."
"Mmm, noodles ... I miss noodles."
"Stop changing the subject with food." The grandfather spirit climbed to his feet and stood on the dragon's impressive snout. This would've upset the peacock, no doubt, but by then a peahen would likely have appeared, and the peacock would've fanned his feathers and strutted for her entertainment, forgetting all else. Silly, vain peacock!
"His twenty-second birthday feast is soon," the grandfather spirit said darkly.
The grandmother beamed. "Emperor in Fullness! How nice."
But the grandfather could only growl. "He's not ready. Can you imagine what will happen to the empire when the chancellor turns the scepter over to him?"
The grandmother spirit shrugged. "He'll have to start leading and learning from his mistakes the way all emperors do." She smiled. "I remember a Full Emperor's Scepter Feast when I was young. Let's see, now, what was that emperor's name? The tall one. He was so handsome, we girls all thought. They put paintings of him on banners throughout the empire."
The grandfather spirit waved his finger high in the air. "I've had it with the little toad. He's a disgrace to the family."
"Patience, old friend. You know what comes of getting angry. Havoc, that's what."
"The time for patience is past. The fate of the empire hangs in the balance. It's time someone taught that selfish rat a lesson."
The grandmother tugged at his sandaled feet. "Sit down. A toad, a rat ... he's a mortal. Don't expect too much. Besides, it's not your concern. Leave life to the living, I always say. Have you done your serenity exercises yet today?"
"You're always fussing at me. There's a time for serenity, and there's a time for action."
The grandmother spirit sighed. She blinked out of sight, reappearing moments later in a meditative pose, floating on a tiny lily pad in the pool.
"What are you planning?" she inquired. "That look of yours always worries me."
"You know we're not supposed to intervene."
"But we can intervene." And with a twiddle of his fingers, the grandfather spirit vanished, leaving the grandmother spirit alone with her troubled thoughts.
"You'd drive me to my grave if I weren't dead already," she muttered to her absent companion. "You know how it irks me when you make me break the rules." She peered thoughtfully into the pool until a small smile spread across her lips.
"Now I shall have to intervene, too, and send a helper along. I know just the girl for the job." And she was gone.
This is what a peacock would have heard if he'd been listening to this conversation in the gardens outside the Heavenly Hall of the Ancestors. But since peacocks can't understand a word that's spoken, the ancestor spirits' plans would remain a secret. For the time being.CHAPTER 3
INTERVENING, AND A PECULIAR PAIR
Moments later. One minute, perhaps, but not a feather more than two.
In the aviary, beyond the pleasure gardens, amid peeps and mutters and ruffling feathers, the birds of the Imperial Menagerie slept.
One ostrich, a splendid young male, found his sleep plucked away from him. Something hovered close beside him in the darkness, but not even the ostrich's enormous eyes could spot it. It stroked his back feathers, though, and the ostrich liked that.
"I have a mission for you, Friend," the something said.
The ostrich could no more understand words than bake a cake, but a picture filled his mind of a person, short and scrawny. Like an ostrich chick, if one thought about it with a very small brain. He could see him. Hear his voice. Smell his smell.
"Find him. Keep him safe."
Urgency. The ostrich felt it shooting through his long limbs. This human was his, now. He must find his man-chick. Never mind that this young ostrich had never yet found a mate, much less guarded a chick of his own. A father ostrich's protectiveness now surged through him. He rose and spread his sheltering wings. He was ready to run and, if need be, fight.
Excerpted from The Emperor's Ostrich by Julie Berry. Copyright © 2017 Julie Berry. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Of Cats and Milk, and Royal Rudeness,
2. What a Peacock Might Have Heard,
3. Intervening, and a Peculiar Pair,
4. A Milkmaid, and Her Wandering Cow,
5. Curious Encounters, and Dubious Gifts,
6. A Finder of Lost Things, and a Baffling Map,
7. Emptiness, and Palace Plotting,
8. A Choosy Cat, and a Horrid Beast,
9. A Nighttime Knock, and a Mother's Dilemma,
10. A Rude Encounter, and Nocturnal Terrors,
11. What a Pelican Ought to Have Realized,
12. Mounting Peril, and Unlikely Help,
13. More Dark Deeds on That Fateful Night,
14. A Strange Romance, and a Cow-Coaxing Compromise,
15. An Anxious Traveler, and Her Hurried Journey,
16. More Bickering, and a Bird-Back Boost,
17. Another Strange Romance, and Its Tragic Interruption,
18. A Carnival Man, and a Treacherous Plan,
19. One Bad Business, and Then Another,
20. What a Nesting Duck Might Have Seen,
21. Dungeons, and Unlikely Friends,
22. Meetings, but Not the Wished-for Kind,
23. Disbelief, and a Daring Proposition,
24. Lotus City, and Tackling Injustice,
25. Where a Cow Leads, and a Mother's Plea,
26. New Allies, and a Rescuer of Imprisoned Persons,
27. That Which Terrified a Stork,
28. Whispered Conversations, and an Underground Commotion,
29. Disbelief Once More, and a Surprise Encounter,
30. Reunions, Some of Which Are Welcome,
31. Too Many Emperors, and a Lemon Custard,
32. Squabbling Visitors, and Matters Involving Names,
33. A Comic Performance, and a Farewell to the Carnival,
34. One More Journey, and Parting Gifts,
Epilogue: An Ostrich Meets a Postrich,
Also by Julie Berry,
About the Author,