"I'm so sorry, I was incredibly unfair to you. You're a wonderful mother. I don't expect forgiveness, but please know that I wasn't myself when I said those things to you!"
It was awfully confusing talking to the strange gentleman in the mismatched suit. He was like a little dancing monkey, with his funny clothes and exaggerated gestures. She especially liked his cowlick, which made his head resemble a drooping flyfruit. If only he would stop talking. The conversation had stagnated long ago, and his droning was giving her a headache. She tried contributing like Ms. Gretchen always taught her, but the man gave no opportunity for interjection. Awful conversation skills, she remarked.
"…and again, I'm so incredibly sorry. I'd be honored to help you find your daughter."
Cat waited a minute to make sure he'd actually stopped talking, before starting "Gee, thanks, mister. That's awfully kind of you." All this talking had tired her out, and she hadn't been paying much attention to what he was saying. Hopefully, she said the right thing. Ms. Gretchen always told her to be polite, and she figured it wouldn't hurt to be nice.
The man looked puzzled. "Oh. Um. Well, you're welcome, I guess."
"Okay, I don't want to talk to you anymore. Goodbye!" She smiled and skipped away from the man, whose mouth hung open in surprise. It made him look even more like a drooping flyfruit, she thought and wondered if any drooping flyplants grew in the room. They only sprouted in tropical climates, but here it didn’t matter – all sorts of plants grew in the dance hall. There was an arctic smallmonger blooming beside a fairyflower bush, and Cat even passed a fiery foottail, which only grew in boiling water. The room was fascinating.
She was so absorbed by a particularly ripe red-faced howlervine that she almost ran into the Attendant. It was like the man had stepped out from thin air; where once was emptiness now he stood, huge and looming. He cleared his throat. "Excuse me, sir, madame. I'm terribly sorry but I'll need the two of you to step out of the room for a few moments. We need to prepare for our departure ball." One of his eyes, she noticed, glinted brighter than the other.
"Right now?", spoke the confusing monkey man from earlier. "There must be fewer than fifteen minutes before the ball. What in the sky could you be preparing for?"
"I'm deeply sorry, sir. There were unforeseen difficulties in our planning. But I assure you, everything will be proceeding on time. We just need to make some last-minute arrangements." He eyed the man's mismatched suit and Cat's dirty pink dress. "Before then, might I suggest you take the time to change into more appropriate attire?"
"What?", huffed Cat, "But I wanted to see all the plants!"
"Then I suggest you visit our botanical garden."
Cat's eyes lit up. "You have a botanical garden? Golly, I'd love to see it!"
"Just out the door and up the stairs to your left, miss," said the Attendant dismissively.
There was no need to tell her twice, she was out the door like an oiled weasel. Immediately she was struck by the wind, which whipped all around her. Now that they were really moving, the deck swayed sickeningly and furious winds tore in every direction. Everywhere was the deafening roar of propellers. She didn't wait to scramble up the staircase and raced to the door of the greenhouse.
It was warm in the greenhouse, and humid too. Though small, the garden more than made up for it in the sheer variety of plants. They burst from the ground, the walls, even the ceiling. Cat thought she'd never seen anything so wonderful in her life. She turned to close the door behind her, but a hand caught it and the monkey man let himself in behind her.
"What about your daughter?" he cried.
"I don't have a daughter," said Cat indignantly. “Come on, let’s look at plants.”
The confounded man followed Cat as she strolled between the planters. "That's a Grubelwatt Eyeswatter," she said, pointing to an oddly muscular vine, "Famous for swatting Grubelwatt in the eye. And that's a Grubelwatt Kneescratcher." A bright pink brush, about the size of a large duck, trembled as she walked by. "Famous for scratching Grubelwatt on the knee. And that's a-"
"Hold on a second! Back there, you said you lost your daughter in the dance hall!"
She looked at him blankly.
"Sarah! Remember? You said her name is Sarah!"
"Your daughter!" In frustration, the man slapped his forehead. "Stars, am I going mad?"
Cat patted the man on the shoulder. "Are you angry?"
"Yes! I mean no! I just wanted to apologize for insulting you, that’s all. And you’re making it incredibly difficult.” He took a deep breath. “You seriously don’t remember what you told me? The things I said to you?”
“Nope!” Cat sat down on a bench, her knees creaking in thanks. “You sound angry. Ms. Gretchen says you should never be angry. It’s no good for your brains.” She gestured to the empty bench beside her, and the man hesitantly sat beside her. In a low voice, Cat whispered “Ms. Gretchen says never to talk to strangers. But you seem nice. Don’t tell her we’re speaking!”
“…Okay.” He picked up a leaf and tugged at it idly. Then, in a cheerful voice, he asked: “What’s your name? Mine’s Rupert Rupert.”
She giggled. “That’s a funny name! My name’s Cat.” She purred and licked the back of her hand. “That’s because I’m a cat, see?”
Rupert smiled. “Right. I see the resemblance. Hey, since you know so much about plants, why don’t you show me around the garden a bit more?”
After a few minutes of walking, Rupert stopped before a thicket of orange vines. “What are these?” On numerous vines and branches hung strange, fuzzy fruit. “I see them everywhere, even on different plant species.” He reached out to pick one but Cat interrupted by pulling his sleeve. Pushing aside leaves to get a better look, Cat squinted up at the things. Although her eyesight was deteriorating, she could more than make out the telltale bulges and curves.
“Wow, that’s weird,” she said, picking up a long branch and poking at the thing. A few hits and it dropped, squirming when it hit the ground. Rupert cringed when he saw the now-obvious furry maggot. “Adam’s ticks. I wonder why they’re here. Wait, don’t kill it!”
“What?” Rupert’s boot held poised precariously above the maggot, in a primed stomping position. “Why not?”
“They’re perfectly harmless! Please don’t kill it!”
“It’s disgusting.” Suddenly, he shook his head and stepped back, holding a hand to his mouth. “I mean no. Okay. I’ll let it go.”
Being careful not to touch it, Cat picked it up with the stick and raised it back to its vine. “It’s not disgusting, by the way.” Rupert watched as the Adam’s tick settled onto the vine and became still, somehow resembling a fuzzy peach. “When they’re in this stage, they’ll hibernate and eat the chloro-serum oozed from some plants. That’s why they don’t move. But in a few weeks, when they’ve eaten enough, they burst from their old bodies into beautiful Adam’s flies! Isn’t that great? Mister?”
Rupert was hunched over, hands balled into fists, a scowl frozen on his face. Slowly, he reached into his jacket and pulled free a silvery flask which he forced open and drank desperately from.
“Mister? Are you okay? Ms. Gretchen says drinking is a sin, you know.”
“Shut up! I’m okay!” He shook his head, slowly becoming relaxed. “I’m okay. Yes. Ms. Gretchen is right. Don’t drink.” Shivering as if he had a fever, Rupert tucked the flask back into his coat and squinted at the Adam’s tick. Now that he looked closer, he could see it clung onto the vine by a sucker-like mouth. “What’s chloro-serum?”
“Hmm, I can’t remember. Some kind of sap that a few plants make.” She paused. “It’s actually really weird there are so many ticks here. Usually, they’re only found around battlefields or slaughterhouses.”
Cat was interrupted by a loud crash. Suddenly, the ship jerked and a violent tremor shook the deck like an earthquake. The stone beneath their feet grew warmer, and the deck lurched sickeningly. She sensed a movement deep beneath her in the heart of the ship, as if a massive machine had shifted imperceptibly below them. The two looked at each other in concern, just as a horn blared. It was time for the ball.