“Who is that girl over there?” Claire whispered to Jewel. It was lunchtime, Claire’s favorite part of the day. Larkspur Academy’s cafeteria was big and bright; sunlight streamed in from the tall dome-shaped windows. There were rows and rows of glossy mahogany tables with long benches on either side. The students all had lunch at the same time, so the room was filled with kids of different ages and backgrounds. Claire enjoyed meeting her people in such a casual setting; she got to know them for who they truly were. There were the obvious jocks and cheerleaders, bookworms and nerds. But there were also a large number of quiet, nearly invisible individuals who seemed to wish they could just disappear. These were the students who intrigued Claire the most.
“You mean Freaky Finley?” Jewel replied with a covert nod toward the young girl sitting two rows over. Finley was a sixth grader. She was small for her age, but wore a very large chip on her shoulder.
“Yes. What’s her story?”
“Yes. You see, there’s a part of me that wants to dislike her. She stares at me and makes me uncomfortable. Her smile seems more of a smirk and she smells funny. But my mother says that before we decide to dislike someone, we need to know their story. I’m curious about that awful pin that she wears, and why her hands are always covered in cuts and bruises.”
“You talkin’ about Fin?” Bradley had just sat down across from Jewel and Claire.
“Claire wants to know her story,” Jewel replied, swiping a fingerful of mashed potatoes from Bradley’s tray.
Bradley smacked her hand playfully.“Her mom’s a witch. Everyone knows that.”
“We don’t know that for sure.” It was Thomas, looking down at his tray as he tried to spear a forkful of peas. Though Thomas and Bradley were twins, their personalities were very different. Claire enjoyed Bradley’s silliness, if not his pranks. But Thomas’ quiet thoughtfulness and compassion for others never failed to tug at her heartstrings.
“What do we know for sure?” Claire asked.
“Well, let’s see,” Jewel looked up at the wood-beamed ceiling, “she lives with her mom, no dad. They live in Dungeoness. She’s a sixth grader…I guess that’s it.” Jewel brought her eyes back to Claire’s shining face, then risked a glance at Finley. She looked like a battered scarecrow compared to the princess. And her eyes made Jewel uneasy. One was a very pale blue; the other was two different colors; half of the iris was brown, the other half celery green. She looked away quickly when Finley turned her motley gaze toward Jewel and her friends.
“It sounds to me like we have a very important job to do,” Claire told her friends.
“What’s that?” Bradley asked, resting his elbows on the table and leaning way in toward Claire, as if she were about to send him on a secret mission.
“Find out Finley’s story.”
That evening in the castle library, her favorite room in the castle, Claire sat in front of the wall of windows that overlooked Larkspur’s villages. Luminara sat with her.
“I recognize the name,” Luminara said, after Claire asked if she knew anything about Finley’s family.
“Her mother, Elisha, used to be an exceptional violinist. But when her husband left, she seemed to vanish as well.”
“Why did her husband leave?”
“No one knows for sure. It’s all a very sad mystery, I’m afraid.”
“Finley wears a pin. Every day it’s pinned to her sweater. It’s an awful sight: a bird with chains wrapped around its body, holding down its wings. Why would she be so attached to such a thing?”
“Oh. Oh my,” is all Luminara said in reply.
“What is it, Luminara?”
“I’m afraid Elisha has offered her daughter to the Dungeoness Regulators.”
“To the what?”
“Father has been trying for years to disband them, but the governor insists that they are needed to keep his district in order. When a resident fails to pay their rent, they have the option to turn over their eldest child to the DR. That child is then put to work to help pay off the parent’s debt. The children are usually stronger and better equipped to work than their fallen parents. The pin is a brand of sorts, making sure it is known who owns the child. It is barbaric.”
“But Finley still attends school.”
“In some cases the children are allowed to finish school. But I am certain she is being worked to the bone before and after classes each day.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
“We’ll have to think on it, Little Light. Perhaps an answer will come with the dawn.”
The next day, Claire told Jewel, Thomas, and Bradley all she had learned from Luminara.
“So, now what?” Jewel asked.
“We should follow her after school; see where she goes,” Bradley said.
“But what good will that do? I think we need to find her mom. If she was once a great violinist, she could be great again, right?” Claire’s eyes were shimmering with hope.
“Depends on how broken she is,” Thomas said in almost a whisper.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” But Claire was determined to try. If she could find a better way to help this family, other than offering a child to work hard labor to help pay the bills, it could be the beginning of the end for the Dungeoness Regulators!
Finley’s home was a hovel; nothing more than a shack. The stench that reached out to Claire and the others was the same stench that clung to Finley, that kept the other children at arm’s length. Claire tapped on the door that hung lopsidedly on one hinge. Nothing. She tapped again. There was a shuffling sound on the other side, and then the door scraped open just an inch.
“She’s not home yet,” came a scarred voice from inside. “Can’t you give her a moment’s rest? Can’t you give my daughter just one moment to sit with her ailing mother when she comes home from school?”
“Elisha? It’s Princess Claire. May I come in?” Claire could see one bloodshed eye peek through the crack of the open door. She focused on her glow, allowed it to shimmer to the surface of her skin. The eye closed and opened again.
“It is you.”
“Yes. My sister, Luminara, remembers you, Elisha. May my friends and I please come in to talk with you?” The door scraped further across the stone floor of the shack. The smell swooshed into Claire’s nostrils, nearly gagging her. But she pasted a smile on her face and kept shining brightly. She felt Jewel grab the back of her sweater; she assumed it was for support, that Jewel was struggling with the thought of entering this den of horrors. She heard Bradley and Thomas follow, their feet crunching across the dirt and who-knew-what-else that littered the floor.
The shack was just one large room, a small bed was pushed up against one wall, the filthy bedding wadded up in the middle of the mattress. There was a pile of blankets on the floor next to the bed. Claire wondered which bed was Finley’s. There was a crude table with three rickety chairs around it that sat in front of a small fireplace. This is where the group settled—Jewel, Claire, and Elisha took the chairs, the boys remained standing. Claire looked around the room hoping to see a violin resting in a corner, but saw nothing but piles of dirty laundry, dirty dishes, and broken odds and ends. She looked into Elisha’s eyes, trying to send her Light into this sad, pitiful woman’s heart. But Elisha’s focus was not on Claire. She looked beyond Claire, as if seeing someone else in the corner behind her.
“My sister tells me that you were once an extraordinary violinist.”
“Hmph! Me? Extraordinary? Hmph!”
“My sister would not lie, Elisha. She believes in your talent, as do I. Will you play for us?” But the woman was gone again, staring into the corner.
“Mama? What is going on?—you? What are you doing here?” Finley dropped her book bag on the floor and rushed to her mother’s side. “Mama?” Elisha did not even look at her daughter. “What have you done to her? Why are you here?” The girl’s small frame seemed to grow two inches as she attempted to stand tall and strong, though she was actually small and weak. She turned her disturbing eyes to Claire, and Claire felt her glow subside; she felt sad and helpless. She wanted so badly to help this girl, to help this woman, but what could she do?
“We thought we might be able to help your family, Finley; to help your mother pick up her violin again.”
“Her violin? She sold that thing years ago. Does she look like she could play again? You need to leave.”
“Claire?” It was Thomas. He had wandered over to the fireplace. In his hand was a small, brown pouch. He sniffed it and drew back in disgust. “This is ramble root.”
“Don’t touch that!” Finley grabbed the pouch from Thomas and hugged it close to her body. “You need to go.”
“Finley, please…” Claire reached out to touch Finley’s hand.
“No! You think you can just waltz in here with your glow and your sweet words and fix everything, but you can’t! My mother is addicted to ramble root; it is the only thing that keeps the nightmares away. And I am the property of the DR. This is my life. I have accepted it, why can’t you?”
“I will not accept it. And I will not allow you to accept it.” Claire took Finley’s hand, not gently, but demandingly, her royal heir filling the room with a presence none of them could deny.
Elisha tore her eyes from the corner and looked now at her daughter. “Finley? You’re home.” For a brief moment, her eyes filled with joy; Claire seized the moment and took hold of Elisha’s hand, now holding both mother and daughter. She closed her eyes and summoned Luminara. Please, my sister, fill this room with Elisha’s music! It started low and indistinguishable, like the wind sweeping through the chimney. Then it grew and expanded, a sound so haunting that it raised the hair on the back of everyone’s necks.
“Oh,” Jewel said dreamily, “it’s divine.”
As the music swelled, Claire could hear a voice accompany the strings, a voice so pure and sweet that it brought tears to her eyes. She didn’t dare release the grip that she had on Elisha and Finley, and so the tears dripped like liquid diamonds down her shining cheeks. She felt a feathery touch wipe them away and opened her eyes to see Finley not only wiping away her tears, but singing while she did it. It was Finley’s voice filling the room with warmth and hope.
“Oh, Finley,” said Elisha, “you haven’t forgotten!”
“Forgotten?” Jewel asked, now standing between Bradley and Thomas, the three of them holding hands, in awe of the scene before them.
“My Finley sings like a bird…did sing like a…until they came for her.”
“I never forgot, Mama.” Finley didn’t bother to wipe away her own tears, they streamed down her cheeks like a river, dripping onto the ugly brass pin, the chained bird. “Your music and my voice are connected; one cannot survive without the other.”
Elisha fell into her daughter’s arms. “I have failed you.”
“Never! Father failed us! He was weak, and unworthy of our love! You have never left my side, and I will never leave yours!”
There was a pounding on the door. “Finley Kirk! To your post!”
“The DR! I must go!” Finley tore herself from her mother’s grip. “I’ll be back, Mama. I’ll always come back.”
“Wait!” Claire had to do something! But what?
“I must go, Claire. Thank you for coming. I mean it. I’ve been awful to you. I resented you—your brightness, your joy, your freedom. I was wrong. I didn’t really know you. Please forgive me.”
“I am not finished here, Finley. And out here, outside of the academy, I am Princess Claire of Larkspur. I may not have a great deal of authority, but I am related to the most powerful man in the land!”
With the king’s help, Claire moved Finley and her mother temporarily into the castle where they were each awarded the esteemed position of court performer, giving them the means to repay their debt to the district of Dungeoness.
The Dungeoness Regulators were on their way to being replaced by the Larkspur Recasting Commission, which would become affectionately known as Claire’s Cause, an organization dedicated to finding new work for down-on-their luck residents.
Finley Kirk is no longer known as Freaky Finley, because Princess Claire knew that before we decide to dislike someone, we need to know their story.