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By the way, no laughing allowed! I am a novice writer — at best. But we all have to start somewhere, right? So, no ridicule but constructive criticism is always appreciated!

There once lived two children, a brother and a sister named Beatrix and Bartholomew Button. Beatrix was the eldest at 11 years old. She was tall and thin with a mass of chaotic red-gold tresses that fell to her shoulders. Bart, by comparison, was rather small, round and possessed coal-black hair that stuck straight up in all sorts of angles that could not be tamed. He was eight years old, three years younger than his sister to the very day — they shared the same birthday. Rather than being raised by their mother and father, they lived with their Uncle Horace and Aunt Hildegard. This was not because they were orphans — at least, not that they knew of. The fact of the matter was that they did not really know where their parents were or whether or not they were well.

Four years earlier, they were all sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast when Bea and Bart’s parents announced that they were taking an expedition to Africa to study the rare Ruddy-Bellied Shadow Monkeys of the Eastern Plain and that they would return in a month.

“Do not be sad, children. You will stay with your uncle and aunt in the city,” their mother, Betty, told them as she passed the milk.

“And when we return, we will bring you back t-shirts that say ‘My Parents Went to Africa to Study the Rare Ruddy-Bellied Shadow Monkeys of the Eastern Plain and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt’!” promised their father, Byron, with a laugh as he poured himself more coffee. Bea and Bart were not excited by this prospect, not even with the enticement that they would have new t-shirts when it was all done, but, alas, they were merely children. They were not in the position to argue.

“Can we bring Muffin with us?” Bea inquired politely. Muffin was the family dog, a large, black mutt that weighed more than both children put together.

“No, Muffin will be staying in a kennel,” Mother answered without looking up from the newspaper. “Your aunt and uncle do not care for dogs and it would be too much to ask them to look after all of you.” And that was that.

By the end of the week, Bea and Bart found themselves standing on their uncle and aunt’s front step. They lived in a large, old house right in the middle of the city with an imposing iron fence and a mailbox that read ‘The Higginbottoms’ in fancy gold script. Mother and Father had dressed them in their Sunday best despite it only being Wednesday, Bea in her pink dress with the ruffle trim and Bart in his powder blue suit. They both wore straw hats that where far too large for their heads and each carried a small, brown leather suitcase.

“Be good!” shouted their mother from the car as she blew them kisses. “Behave yourselves!” called their father as he put the car into gear.  Then they drove off and that was the last anyone ever heard from them.

At first, Uncle Horace and Aunt Hildegard were gracious – if not stiff and formal – hosts. They gave each child their own room, hired a nanny to look after Bart during the day while Bea was at school, and always served dinner in the fancy dining room under a grand chandelier that seemed to split the light into a million rainbows. However, after a month turned into two and two months turned into half a year, their uncle and aunt began to grow tired of their presence and all their fatiguing questions about when their parents would return. They moved the children into the same room (although they were kind enough to give each child their own bed). They fired Nanny Loretta and would just leave Bart in a crate with the gardener, old Mr. Spoonweather, as he tended their rose bushes. They even stopped serving dinner in the dining room, instead sending the children to eat in the kitchen with the servants. Finally, after a year turned into two, their uncle and aunt moved them into the attic and, for all intents and purposes, forgot about them. When Bea and Bart would come down the stairs every morning, they were mistaken for the help and would be put to work scrubbing the floors and beating the curtains.

Each night, they would climb into bed, pull the covers up over their heads and Bea would tell Bart stories. Sometimes she would tell him stories about their parents in Africa. Sometimes she would tell him stories about fictional places and magical lands. Sometimes she would tell him stories about the adventures they would have if they ran away. Sometimes she would give her brother a choice: left or right? The shortcut through the dark, creepy woods or the long road well-traveled? Answer the knock at the door or run and hide? Sometimes, he would make the right choice and those were when he would feel the proudest. Sometimes, he would choose poorly and Bea would have to guide him to the right answer when it came to his next choice. No matter what he chose, right or wrong, he would always fall asleep before the end because he was a little boy and little boys do not have much stamina to stay up very long past bedtime.

One morning, when they went downstairs, the house was more abuzz than usual. Most days were busy but not hectic. Today, everyone was running about as if the house was on fire. Bea stopped one of the maids, a pretty young woman named Emily, to ask her what the hullabaloo was all about.

“Mr. and Mrs. Higginbottom are holding a ball tonight,” she explained with breathless impatience, anxious to answer their questions and get back to work. “They have invited all of high society to come. I hear there is even going to be royalty in attendance!”

“A king? A queen?” asked Bea excitedly. “A prince or princess?” guessed Bart with a gasp. Emily shook her head and said that she didn’t rightly know and that if she didn’t get back to work, she’d be sacked. They let her run off to polish the silver and then hurried off themselves to scrub the floors in the ballroom. It took an exceedingly long time and they didn’t get the chance to eat lunch, not even a little snack. By the end of the day, their tummies where rumbling horribly.

“I can’t even hear myself think over this racket,” Bart complained when his stomach gurgled particularly loud. Taking her brother’s hand, Bea led him to the kitchen. Oh, what a hive of activity that place was! There were ten chefs and each chef had ten assistants and each assistant had ten assistants of their own. Every food that could be imagined was being made: soups, salads, breads and meats. There were cakes layered so high that they nearly reached ceiling and bowls upon bowls of the most amazing candied fruits. There was ice cream, pies, jellies and custards. A roast pig was being turned on a spit and Bea lost count of how many racks of lambs and roast chickens were being made. The sight and smell of all this made the children nearly faint from hunger.

“We’ll just get ourselves a plate,” Bea told her brother. “They won’t even notice.” But the chefs, the chefs’ assistants, and the chefs’ assistants’ assistants certainly did notice and the children were chased out of the kitchen immediately. Retreating up to the attic, they crawled under the covers and Bea tried to distract her brother with stories but it was no good: all her stories ended up being about food and feasts.

“Do you think we will die?” whimpered Bart. “Do you think we will die of starvation?” Bea rolled over and threw her arm across him, squeezing him tight.

“Not this night,” she assured him. “We have been hungrier than this, I am certain of it. We just need to get to sleep and it will be better in the morning. The party will be over and everything will be back to normal. Cook will give us toast with jam and a hard-boiled egg and we won’t even remember how hungry we were. So just go to sleep and try to dream of good things.”

But try as they might, they could not fall asleep. They could hear the party downstairs, the clinking of glasses and the scrape of silverware against fine china. The music the band was playing drifted up through the floorboards and merriment filled their ears even when they covered them with their hands.

“Well, if we are going to be kept up, we might as well sneak down and spy on the party,” Bart suggested. “And it’s not every day that one gets to see royalty,” Bea concurred. Slipping out of bed, they tiptoed down the stairs—past the fourth floor, the third landing, the second hallway until they arrived on the main level. They crept by the dining room, the room where they used to take their own meals, and continued on to the ballroom. They lingered just outside, staying in the shadows while they gathered their courage.

“What if we’re caught?” Bart said anxiously, starting to lose his nerve. “Then we make something up. We tell them that someone was at the door and that they gave us a message for Lady Brandywine that we need to give her right away,” Bea answered slowly, her words picking up steam as the idea solidified. “But what if there is no Lady Brandywine?” her brother countered. “Then we tell them that we must have gotten the name mixed up. They will come up with the rest themselves.” Confidence restored, they joined the party.

It was easy to stay out of the way – by sticking close to the walls, they were able to hide behind the drapery whenever they came upon a window and trust me when I say, this ballroom had a great many windows. Once they had found the perfect hiding spot – out of the way but offering a great view – they settled in to watch the spectacle. Never before had they seen such fine ladies and gentlemen.  The gowns the women wore were made from the finest silks in every color of the rainbow. The men wore suits that were impeccably tailored and even the fattest of their lot looked dashing and handsome. Together they danced courtly dances, only the barest touch allowed. Whenever the song would conclude, the men would bow at the waist and the women would dip into low curtsies.

“Which ones do you think are royalty?” Bea posed to her brother. A determined expression took over Bart’s face and he poked his tongue out the corner of his mouth — doing this helps the thinking process, you know. His eyes went from person to person, studying them each for a moment before moving on.

“How about him? He looks very important,” her brother offered, pointing out a particularly tall and stern looking gentleman with a full head of silver hair slicked back to his shoulders in soft waves.  He kept one hand tucked away against the small of his back and with the other, he carried a cane that was tipped with silver and had an ivory handle carved in the shape of a roaring lion.  “I don’t know,” Bea replied with a dose of skepticism. “He has the cane because he walks with a limp and you know that royalty do not have physical imperfections.” Her brother nodded reluctantly, muttering something about the possibility that the man obtained a leg injury while fighting an angry bear rather than it being a birth deformity before resuming his search.

“Her!” Bart declared after a time, pointing to a plump lady with dimples. She wore a dress made of feathers and her brown locks were piled high atop her head, styled to look like a bird cage. In fact, there was a bird inside her hairdo, a live bird that flitted from one side to the other. “I think you may be right,” Bea said slowly after a long moment spent assessing the woman. “I do not think anyone other than royalty would use live animals as a fashion accessory!” However, just after saying that, a fellow approached and addressed the woman as ‘Mrs. Hartley’ so the children resumed their search of the party-goers.

There were tall people and short people, skinny folks and fat ones, ladies with squeaky voices and men with boisterous laughs. They were all very fine in their silks and satins and whenever Bea or Bart thought they had discovered the royal guests, they were proven wrong by something or another. They even mistook their aunt and uncle for royalty for a moment before realizing their error.

Suddenly, trumpets blared and the party grew quiet, all eyes turning to the entrance. “Is that him?” asked Bart, tugging on his sister’s arm excitedly as a rather average looking fellow with a bald head and big, bushy mustache strolled into the room. However, before Bea could answer, the man raised his voice to address the party.

“All rise for Her Royal Highness Princess Pazima, Duchess of the Deep, Countess of the Callous Crag, Baroness Beneath the Bedrock.”

In walked the most amazing woman, a woman unlike any the children had ever seen in their short lives. She was impossibly tall, at least seven feet in height, and reed thin without being gaunt. Her complexion was fair to the point of being bloodless and her pale blue eyes were large, too large for her narrow face. Straight, silver hair fell past her shoulders, down her back and trailed behind her like a train. The dress she wore was pure white, so close in color to her skin that it was hard to tell where she ended and the garment began. Oddly enough, she wore no shoes and though her bare feet looked perfectly clean, she left dirty footprints with every step she took. The only piece of jewelry she wore was a large ruby pendant on a silver chain around her neck, the gemstone lying nestled against her bosom. It was hard to guess her age – she could have been as young as 20 or as old as 50. There were no lines on her face but her eyes held wisdom only gained through many years of living.

No one spoke a word as she walked across the room. In fact, it seemed as if people hardly dared to breathe. Princess Pazima settled herself upon a seat on the dais at one end of the room and her attendant took up a spot beside her. There she waited, silent and still, but for what no one seemed to know. After five minutes of absolute silence, it looked as if she were about to speak when the unthinkable happened: Bart’s tummy rumbled.

Under normal circumstances, there would be no possible way anyone would have been able to hear this unless they had been standing right beside him. Yet, somehow, the sound seemed to carry and fill the room, growing louder and louder until every set of eyes – include those of the princess – stared at the drapes where the grumbling had come from.

“Stop it! Make it stop!” Bea whispered urgently, pressing her hands against her brother’s belly as if that could silence his hunger. “I can’t!” he cried desperately and they both shrieked as the drapes were suddenly yanked aside. Aunt Hildegard stood there and stared at them for a moment with a look of utter shock on her face. Quickly – too quickly – her expression melted into anger.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed lowly, her face growing redder by the moment. The party-goers began to crowd around them, peering down at Beatrix and Bartholomew with curiosity and disdain. Yanking them to their feet, their aunt grabbed them each by an ear and started to drag them from the ballroom when she was stopped by the attendant to the royal guest. “Princess Pazima would like to speak with these children,” he told Aunt Hildegard who could not have been more surprised or embarrassed. “O-of course, of course,” she stammered before changing direction and pulling the siblings to the dais. Bea and Bart were, frankly, terrified and neither could decide if they were more afraid of their aunt or the strange woman they were being brought to.

Before they knew it, they were standing in front of the princess.

She observed them coolly before beckoning them to come closer. Bea looked at Bart and Bart looked at Bea, each seemingly frozen in place. The boy’s tummy rumbled again, even more loudly this time, and the sound echoed throughout the chamber.

“Why do you make that horrible noise?” the princess asked, her voice smooth, low and without much inflection. It was hard to even see her lips move but they must have, right? “I’m hungry,” Bart explained pathetically. This seemed to baffle the woman.

“Why are you hungry?” Bart opened his mouth but no words came out, the poor boy uncertain as to what he should say. Should he just admit that they missed lunch and dinner because of their chores? Or should he start at the beginning and explain how they came to live here in the first place? Before he could decide, his sister piped up: “We haven’t eaten since yesterday.” Aunt Hildegard looked as if she would beat them senseless the first chance she got and whispered furiously to Uncle Horace who seemed scarcely more pleased with the children than his wife.

“Eaten?” the princess repeated back to the siblings, her tone bemused.

“You know, food,” Bea answered slowly, not certain where the difficulty in understanding this was coming from.  “Normally we have breakfast, lunch and dinner but today we were too busy.”

“So if we bring this one food,” Princess Pazima pointed a long, slender finger at Bart. “He will stop making that terrible noise?” The boy nodded, having finally recovered himself, but Bea quickly interjected.

“I’m hungry, too. I have no idea what sounds I will make if I do not get some food soon. Since I am bigger than him, they will probably be even more horrifying.” With that, the pair of them were promptly seated at a table just below the dais and brought plate after plate of food. “Keep them appeased,” Pazima murmured to her attendant with a tinge of disgust in her tone. It was meant for his ears alone but Bea and Bart were close enough that they heard as well. The party started up again, people heading to the dance floor as the band resumed the entertainment. Several groups would stare at the children, some openly and some surreptitiously, and whisper amongst themselves.

“I’m tired. Do you think we can go now?” Bart mumbled to his sister after they were quite sated, speaking to her out the corner of his mouth. Bea shook her head and told him that they were better off staying put, that their uncle and aunt would certainly pounce on them the moment they were out of view of their guests. That was a confrontation neither one of them were looking forward to.

The party lasted longer than they did and, at some point, they fell asleep where they sat. When Bea slipped into slumber, she dreamed that a shadow of Princess Pazima approached and whispered in her ear: “Visit me under the hill if you wish to find what you seek.” The words were like a bitter winter wind, chilling her to her core and unsettling all the other dreams she had after that.

When they woke up, it was morning and they were tucked in their bed up in the attic. “Did that really happen? Were we really at a party?” Bart wondered aloud as he yawned. Bea wasn’t entirely certain but she did not feel hungry and decided that it was unlikely that they both had the same exact dream.

“Bart, I think we should leave. I think we should leave and go find mom and dad,” Bea announced suddenly, turning to look her brother in the eye. “Obviously they are in trouble otherwise they would have come back by now. There’s nothing keeping us here. Clearly Uncle Horace and Aunt Hildegard don’t want us other than to help the servants with chores. I say we get some food from the kitchen, pack our things and get out of here.” Bart gave this only a moment’s thought before he nodded in wholehearted agreement. “But first,” he replied. “Let’s go to the kennel and get Muffin.” The siblings agreed to this plan, got dressed and made their way downstairs. Before they could make it to the kitchen though, Aunt Hildegard caught them.

“You two will come with me!” she bellowed shrilly, yanking the children down the hall by their arms. She brought them to Uncle Horace’s office where he was sitting at his desk waiting for them. His fingers were pressed together, his brow furrowed and he looked troubled, deeply troubled. He motioned for them to come forward but when they moved to take a seat, he shook a fat finger at them. “You will remain standing,” he told them crossly. He sighed deeply and it caused his chins to ripple and quiver; Bart began to giggle at the sight of it but Bea elbowed him quiet.

“When we brought you into our home, it was with the expectation that you would adhere to a certain code of conduct,” Uncle Horace started, his tone both wearied and annoyed. “In exchange for room, board, clothing and a fair salary, we require that you do your jobs diligently. Inviting yourself to our function and making a spectacle is absolutely and utterly unacceptable.”

“We’re sorry, Unc-..” started Bart but something occurred to Bea and she quickly clapped her hand over his mouth, taking over. “What he means to say is that we are very sorry, Mr. Higginbottom,” she said, realizing that Uncle Horace and Aunt Hildegard didn’t even remember who they were! It was becoming clear that they thought Beatrix and her brother were just members of their staff and had forgotten that they were actually family. This had not dawned on Bart yet so he simply stood there, looking at his sister oddly.

“I mean, you gave our guests the impression that we starve children! While we appreciate how hard you worked yesterday, you should have stopped to eat. It is your responsibility to make the staff mealtimes. It was not our fault that you missed them yesterday,” complained Aunt Hildegard, flailing her arms about dramatically. “All the best people were there last night! We even had the honor of having Princess Pazima attend our little fete! And you made us look horrible. You made us look like monsters!” She collapsed into a chair and fanned herself.

“Obviously, we are going to have to release you from our employ,” continued Uncle Horace. “I think it for the best that we part company. In appreciation of your up-until-last-night’s good service, you may have your future employers call us for a reference and we will be kind enough to not mention this most unfortunate incident. My wife and I ask that you collect your things and leave the premises at once.”

“And our wages?” Bea asked quickly. Bart stood there with his mouth hanging slack, staring at his sister as if she had lost her mind. Uncle Horace waved them off with a dismissive gesture. “I think it goes without saying that your behavior last night means you have forfeited your final pay.” Aunt Hildegard found her feet and began to usher the children from the room. However, Bea was determined and broke away, running back to Uncle Horace’s desk and leaning forward against it.

“It would be a pity if you were reported to the police,” she pressed. Bart squeaked out a pained protest, Aunt Hildegard twisting the boy’s arm in reaction to Beatrix’s impertinence. “Report us to the police?! Well, I never! Of all the devious, ungrateful, underhanded…” Uncle Horace sputtered angrily, his face growing red as a beet, but Bea cut him off before he could go much further. “Of course, if you gave us our final wages, I’m certain that we would be inclined to put this all behind us. No one has to know that you employ children and violate labor laws.” She added a polite ‘Sir’ after a moment’s hesitation.

Her uncle pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. When he finally moved to open his desk drawer, Aunt Hildegard shrieked in protest: “You aren’t going to actually pay these conniving urchins?!” She yanked on Bart’s arm again, making him cry out. “Tell your sister that there is no call to be so nasty.” Horace had more sense than his wife and he commanded her to release the boy. Bart went running over to his sister as soon as he was free of his aunt’s grasp, clinging onto Beatrix and sniffling with fright.

“Here you go then. Two weeks’ wages is fifty dollars – that is twenty-five for each of you. We will allow you to keep your clothing and you may have a final meal before you leave,” Uncle Horace said begrudgingly as he rose from behind his desk, towering over the two children. “Our business is concluded. I am telling my Master of Security that you are to be out of the house and off the grounds within one hour. If you linger any longer, we will call the police.” Their business concluded, he motioned for them to leave his office which they very promptly did.

“Fifty dollars!” Bart crowed once they were back in the attic, packing up their meager belongings. “We’re RICH!” His sister knew better but she let him bask in the notion for a while. Fifty dollars wouldn’t get them very far, probably not even halfway to Africa. Maybe they could use it to recover Muffin and in her opinion, that would be money well spent.

After they packed their things, had a bite to eat and said their goodbyes to the servants, they found themselves on the other side of the iron gate where they had been dropped off four years prior. Looking at her little brother, Beatrix smiled widely. “Let’s put our family back together again!”

And that’s when their adventures really began.