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Year:
2010
Publisher:
Simon Pulse
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9781442403383
Series:
Once Upon a Time Fairytales 18
File:
EPUB, 277 KB
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The World Above

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The Works of M E Braddon

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“I’m sorry I never really believed,” I said.

“Not the way Jack did.”



“It doesn’t make any difference,” my mother replied. Her eyes focused on the beanstalk for a moment, then returned to mine. “You believe now. Be safe and smart up there, my Gen. Be yourself.”

Before I could answer, my mother turned away and walked quickly toward the house. I turned to face the beanstalk.

There is no going back now, I thought.

For better or worse, there was only going forward. There was only going up. Seizing the trunk of the beanstalk with both hands, I pushed off from the World Below and began to climb.





“ONCE UPON A TIME”

IS TIMELESS WITH THESE RETOLD TALES:




Beauty Sleep

Cameron Dokey



Midnight Pearls

Debbie Viguié



Scarlet Moon

Debbie Viguié



Snow

Tracy Lynn



Water Song

Suzanne Weyn



The Storyteller’s Daughter

Cameron Dokey



Before Midnight

Cameron Dokey



Golden

Cameron Dokey



The Rose Bride

Nancy Holder



Sunlight and Shadow

Cameron Dokey



The Crimson Thread

Suzanne Weyn



Belle

Cameron Dokey



The Night Dance

Suzanne Weyn



Wild Orchid

Cameron Dokey



The Diamond Secret

Suzanne Weyn



Winter’s Child

Cameron Dokey



Violet Eyes

Debbie Viguié





CAMERON DOKEY





If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”



This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.





SIMON PULSE

An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division

1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

www.SimonandSchuster.com

First Simon Pulse paperback edition June 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Cameron Dokey

A; ll rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

SIMON PULSE and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

For information about special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales at 1-866-506-1949 or business@simonandschuster.com.

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For more information or to book an event contact the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau at 1-866-248-3049 or visit our website at www.simonspeakers.com.

The text of this book was set in Adobe Jenson.

Manufactured in the United States of America

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

Library of Congress Control Number 2009938357

ISBN 978-1-4424-0337-6

ISBN 978-1-4424-0338-3 (eBook)





For Keek





PROLOGUE




Confession: I never intended to go looking for adventure. One came looking for me anyhow. And not just any old adventure. A really, really big one. The kind of adventure that changes your life. It certainly changed mine. Though, for the record, it was all Jack’s fault.

Most things are.

Don’t get me wrong. Jack is my brother, my twin, in fact, and I love him with all my heart. But if ever there was a magnet for adventure, or rather, misadventure, Jack would be it. All during our childhood, he was forever getting into what our mother called “scrapes,” most likely because a lot of scrapes (and also scratches) were actually involved.

Jack is my fraternal twin, not my identical twin, by the way. I’m a girl, not a boy. And before you leap to any conclusions, my name is not Jackie. It’s Gen, short for Gentian, a wildflower that grows on the hills near the farm that is our home. Mama says she named me this because the gentian blossom is the exact same color blue as my eyes. Also the color of Jack’s. Our hair, as long as I’m taking a moment to provide some physical description, is blond.

But here a difference arises. Jack’s hair is a color that can only be described as golden. You know, like the sun. Mine is more like clover honey, a little darker and more serious. Just like the rest of me, my hair calls a little bit less attention to itself than Jack’s does.

And this external feature, so easy to dismiss, actually reveals quite a lot about us. It provides a glimpse of who we are inside. Jack is the dreamer. I’m the planner. Jack is happiest when he’s the center of attention. Me, I much prefer to stay in the background.

Which actually leads me back to where I started. Adventure. My having to go on one.

I began by climbing up a beanstalk.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the story. Or at least you think you are. “Jack and the Beanstalk.” That’s what our tale is usually called. But there’s a problem with that title. Actually, there’s more than one. Whose name do you see there? Just Jack’s. It doesn’t mention me at all.

Not only that, it gives the impression there was only one beanstalk involved, when in fact there were many.

I’m thinking it’s time to set the record straight. To share the true story. Not because I want to be the center of attention, but because the longer version of the tale is actually a whole lot more interesting than the shorter one.

My family, which consisted of Jack, our mother, and me, lived on a small farm. In good times we grew enough to feed ourselves and have some left to sell on market days in the nearest town. But we had not had a good year for several years running. The truth is that we were poor. So poor that one day we made a bitter decision: We had no choice but to sell our cow.

The cow’s name was Agapanthus, something else most versions of our story leave out. And this is a shame, as Agapanthus is a pretty great name, as names for cows go. It’s also a blue flower, just in case you were wondering. Agapanthus produced the sweetest milk for miles around. This made selling the cow herself a pretty good plan, even if none of us cared for it much. Jack cared for it least of all.

“But I don’t want to sell her,” he said. He, Mama, and I were standing in the barn. It had once contained several cows and an old horse to help pull the plow. Now only Agapanthus was left.

“I don’t see why we have to,” Jack went on now.

“Because it’s the only option we have left,” I said as patiently as I could. We’d been going over the same ground for what felt like hours. “We have to be able to plant, Jack. It’s either that, or leave the farm. The money Agapanthus will bring should be enough to buy some clover seeds to help keep the fields healthy this winter, with enough left over to buy the seeds we need in spring as well. Then, if the weather will just cooperate and the crops do well—”

“Now who’s being a dreamer?” Jack cut me off. “Neither of those things happened this year, not to mention last year, or the year before.”

“Which isn’t the same as saying they won’t next year,” I said, trying not to let my voice rise. “And if they do, we’ll have enough to feed ourselves and take to market to sell besides, just like we used to. We might even earn enough money to buy Agapanthus back.”

“Not very likely,” Jack scoffed. He moved to throw an arm around the cow’s neck, as if to protect her. Agapanthus butted her head against his shoulder. “Only a fool would let her go.”

“Or someone desperate,” I answered steadily. “A person brave enough to face the fact that they’re out of options.”

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, our mother intervened. “My children,” she said. “Enough.”

Jack shut his mouth with a snap, but he still glared at me. As far as he was concerned, the decision to sell the cow was all my doing. Hence, my fault.

“I don’t like it any better than you do, Jack, but I think Gen is right,” our mother went on. “We have to sell the cow. We can’t afford to lose the farm. There is nowhere else for us to go.”

There was a moment’s silence while my mother’s words hung in the air like dust. We all knew she was right. But knowing a difficult truth inside your head and hearing it spoken are two very different things.

“Then let me be the one to take her,” Jack said, speaking up first and thereby foiling the plan I was about to propose: I should be the one to take the cow to market. Of the three of us, I would be able to obtain the most money for her. I drove the hardest bargains.

But now that Jack had spoken, I knew what our mother would decide. Though our outlook and temperaments were very different, Jack and I didn’t actually argue all that often. Something about us being twins, I suppose. When we did disagree, however, our mother almost always took Jack’s side.

“Very well,” she said, agreeing to his proposal. “But be ready to take the cow to market first thing tomorrow morning.”

And so, early the next day, still scowling to show how much he disapproved, Jack set off with Agapanthus. I probably don’t have to tell you what happened next. Jack and the cow never made it to market. They didn’t even make it all the way to town. Because along the way, Jack encountered an old woman who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: seven beans with mysterious and magical properties in exchange for our cow.

It’s usually at this point that the storyteller pauses, allowing two things to happen: The storyteller gets to catch his or her breath, and the listeners have an opportunity to share their opinions about Jack’s decision.

The general consensus is that my brother was an idiot. Quite literally, a bean-brain. And it is most certainly true that when Jack came home that afternoon and revealed what he had done, our mother wept. This cannot be denied.

Tears of rage. Tears of despair. That’s what most versions of our story tell you. But I’m here to tell you the truth. My mother’s tears were neither of those things. Instead they were tears of joy.

My mother recognized those beans. She had waited a long time for them. Sixteen years to be precise, as long as Jack and I had been alive. She knew those beans were magic. Why? Because my mother had once planted a bean just like them herself, to grow a beanstalk of her own, a beanstalk that had saved all our lives.

You know those bedtime stories your parents told you when you were little? The ones populated by fairies and dragons, by damsels in distress and knights in shining armor? I hope you’re sitting down. Because I’m here to tell you that they’re all true. They just didn’t happen in this world, the one where you and I were born and raised, the one my mother always called “the World Below.” They happened in the land of my mother’s birth, which should have been the land of Jack’s and mine. A land of countless possibilities, including the ones that only magic can provide. A land that hovers out of sight, floating just above the clouds.

A land called the World Above.

My mother told bedtime stories too, of all shapes, sizes, and varieties. But the one she told most often was the tale of how and why the first magic bean was planted, how its beanstalk came to grow, and why it was cut down. The tale of how we’d stopped being sky dwellers and had become residents of the World Below.

It begins the way all good tales do. With Once upon a time . . .





ONE




Once upon a time, a royal duke ruled over a small but prosperous kingdom. His name was Roland des Jardins. He was a wise and generous ruler, and his people flourished under his stewardship. There was only one cloud on the kingdom’s horizon. Duke Roland was childless.

His duchess had died in childbirth many years before. The infant had perished also. Heartbroken by these events, Duke Roland had never remarried. By the time this story came to pass, the duke was getting on in years, though he was still hale and hearty. Still, it was a problem that he had no son to carry on the family name, no daughter to be the apple of her father’s eye. You’ve probably heard enough stories like this to understand the reason why.

Without a child, girl or boy, the duke had no heir. No one to succeed him and rule when he was gone. And when there’s no clear contender for a throne, the less than clear ones always, well, contend. They compete and argue with one another. It’s part of what the word means, after all. And all this uncertainty, this contention, meant that, although the duke’s kingdom was at peace with its neighbors, it bore within it the spark to be at war with itself.

Now, there resided in Roland des Jardins’ household a young nobleman named Guy de Trabant. Guy’s father, Horace de Trabant, had been Duke Roland’s closest childhood friend. He was also a duke, a ruler in his own right. His lands and those of Duke Roland bordered each other. It had been the two dukes’ fondest hope that one day they would have children who would grow up to marry, thereby uniting the two kingdoms. Sadly, this dream had not come true.

First Roland des Jardins’ wife died, and their infant child shortly thereafter. Then Horace de Trabant perished of the sweating sickness when his own son, Guy, was little more than a boy. As was the custom at that time, Duke Horace’s widow sent her son to live with his father’s friend, so that he might be raised in a duke’s household and learn how to govern.

Many years went by. Guy de Trabant flourished under Duke Roland’s care. He was everything a young nobleman should be. He was strong and handsome, brave in the face of his adversaries, generous to those less fortunate. He was, in fact, the old duke’s successor in all but name. No one doubted that Duke Roland would name Guy de Trabant his heir. The two kingdoms would thereby be united, though admittedly not quite in the way that the two fathers had originally hoped.

Then something completely unexpected occurred. Roland des Jardins fell in love.

It happened at Guy de Trabant’s wedding. Among the guests was a young woman named Celine Marchand. She was of good but minor birth, her father being a somewhat impoverished nobleman whose estate lay near the border of the de Trabant lands. Under ordinary circumstances, she might never have come to Duke Roland’s attention at all. But the lady Celine was special. She had what they call “a way” about her. It didn’t hurt, of course, that she was absolutely lovely.

Her hair was as blond as corn silk, her eyes as blue as a summer sky. She had one dimple in her chin and one in each of her cheeks when she smiled, which she did often. Her lips were full and red as ripe strawberries. Nor was this all. Lady Celine was also well-spoken, intelligent, and kind. Duke Roland fell in love at first sight, and the wonder of it was that Celine loved the duke as well.

So bright and shining was the love between them that not even the most cynical courtiers whispered that Celine Marchand had used artful wiles to snare a powerful older man in order to better her position in the world. All it took was one look at the couple to see that they were meant for each other.

Duke Roland and Lady Celine were married three months after Guy de Trabant. Then Roland des Jardins’ subjects held their collective breath, praying for nature to take its course. For it seemed impossible that, after waiting so long for a second chance at happiness, the fates would not grant Duke Roland a child.

There was one person, of course, who, in his heart, could not bring himself to wish the old duke joy. Naturally, that person was Guy de Trabant. For if the new duchess bore a child, Guy’s chance to become Duke Roland’s heir would be over and done with forever.

If I’m to remain true to the way my mother always told the tale, this is where I must pause. I must gaze into space, as she always did, as though I can actually see events unfolding before my eyes. When I do this, I am using my imagination. But when my mother did it, she was looking back onto the scenes from her own life.

When she spoke of Celine Marchand, my mother was talking about herself.

It was always Jack who broke the silence, who brought my mother back to the here and now.

“What happened then, Mama?” he would ask, even though, by the time Jack was old enough to do this, we both knew the story by heart.

“What happened next?” my mother always echoed, as she pulled her attention back to the World Below. Sometimes her eyes held the sheen of tears, though never once did Jack and I see them fall.

“Injustice,” my mother said. “That is what happened next, my son. Ingratitude begetting sorrow. I feel the wrongness of what happened as clearly today as I did long ago.”

Desperate to obtain that which he had spent a lifetime believing would one day be his, Guy de Trabant had rallied the most contentious of Duke Roland’s nobles in an attempt to seize the duke’s crown. The battle for possession of the palace was brief but bloody. When it was over, the old duke lay dead, and the young man he had loved like a son was on his throne. But Guy de Trabant’s rule could not yet be considered secure, for though the castle was searched from top to bottom not once, not twice, but three times, the duchess was nowhere to be found.

As it happened, she was less than a day’s journey away. Duchess Celine had left early in the morning to visit her childhood nurse, an old wise woman named Rowan. The duchess had told no one but her husband of her plans. She had made the journey in the hope of confirming a suspicion that had recently taken root in her mind.

Duchess Celine believed she was with child.

By the time the duchess reached the wise woman’s cottage, long shadows had begun to fall. Rowan helped the duchess tend to her horse, and then the two women went inside the cottage. They shared the evening meal together, and afterward the duchess insisted on doing all the washing up. Then, at long last, the two sat down before a bright and cheery fire, for although the day had been fine, the nights were beginning to turn cold.

“So,” Rowan said after a few moments of contented silence. “How long have you known?”

At this the duchess gave a quick laugh. “I didn’t know,” she confessed. “Not for sure. Not until just now. It’s why I came to see you. But I’ve suspected for almost a month.”

“Your news will bring great happiness,” Rowan said.

To which the duchess answered, “I hope so.”

“Did I mention that it’s twins?” the old wise woman asked. At which the duchess laughed once more.

“You know perfectly well you didn’t,” she replied. She rested a hand on her belly, as if she could already distinguish between the two children growing there. “Two,” she said, her face thoughtful. “I hope it’s one of each, a girl and a boy.”

“Have you told Duke Roland yet?” the wise woman asked.

Celine shook her head. “No. I wanted to wait until I had seen you. I didn’t want to raise false hopes.”

It was at precisely that moment that a gust of wind blew down the chimney, sending out a shower of sparks. Startled, the two women leaped to their feet to stamp them out. But even when the sparks were extinguished, the wind was not. It prowled through the branches of the trees outside the house, making a noise that was a lament and warning all at once. The old wise woman cocked her head, as if the wind were speaking a language she could understand.

“What is it?” Celine asked, for the voice of the wind was making her anxious. “What is wrong?”

“We must wait for the morning to know for sure, I think,” her old nurse said. But she moved to take Celine’s face between her hands and gazed into her eyes for a very long time. So long that the young woman began to tremble. For it seemed to her that, though her old nurse’s hands were warm, and though the fire still burned in the grate, the room had suddenly grown cold. A cold that was finding a way inside her, burrowing straight toward her heart.

“No,” she whispered. “No.”

“Let us wait and see,” the wise woman counseled. “By its very nature, wind is impetuous. Sometimes it exaggerates things or misunderstands.”

But by the morning, the voice of the wind was not alone. Word of what had happened in the palace began to spread through the countryside, told by the hushed and fearful voices of Duke Roland’s former subjects. In this way, the duchess learned that her worst fears had been realized. Her husband was dead. She herself was in great danger. Her unborn children were Duke Roland’s true heirs. They must be protected at all costs.

“Ah, Roland! I should have told you,” Celine whispered, as the tears streamed down her cheeks. “I wish I had. At least then you could have died with this joy in your heart.”

“His heart was full of joy already,” Rowan said. “For he loved you well.”

“As I loved him,” Celine replied.

At this the old woman gave a brisk nod. “Even so. Dry your eyes. You must not pour this love away in grief. You will need it to sustain you in what is to come. There is only one place where you and your children will be safe. You know that, don’t you?”

Celine took the deepest breath of her life. She could feel it expanding her lungs, then streaming throughout her body, all the way down to the tips of her fingers and toes. She let it out and did a very unduchess-like thing. She wiped the sleeve of her dress across her face to dry her eyes. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.

“I know what must be done,” Duchess Celine said. “Show me how to reach the World Below.”





TWO




In the end, it was simple. As simple as growing a beanstalk.

Both women knew there was no time to waste. Guy de Trabant would soon discover where the duchess had gone. Quickly but without letting their actions escalate their fear, Celine and Rowan made their preparations. First Rowan went into her kitchen and took a small green bowl down from the highest shelf. The two women peered inside. Nestled in the very bottom was a single bean, speckled red and white.

“Take this,” Rowan instructed, as she upended the bowl, tipping the seed into Celine’s palm. “Walk to the far end of my vegetable garden. Turn so that your back is to the meadow, and then throw the bean over your left shoulder. Don’t look to see where it lands, but return to me at once.”

Though her knees were inclined to wobble just a little when she walked, Celine followed her old nurse’s instructions. Her curiosity was great, but she did not turn around to see where the bean fell. Instead, as soon as the speckled seed had left her hand, she returned to the cottage.

“Work with me now,” Rowan said. Together, the two women filled a large shawl with things to help Celine start a new life in the World Below.

Seeds from the wise woman’s garden and orchard. A small pouch of gold coins. Various other sensible things it would be too long and boring to recount. Finally, though it made the bundle heavy, the wise woman added a hatchet. Then she tied the shawl twice. Once so that nothing could fall out, and a second time to make it nestle against the small of Celine’s back, leaving her arms free for climbing. Finally she threw Celine’s cloak over her shoulders and tied the drawstrings at the throat.

“Now,” Rowan said, “let us go to the edge of the garden and see what has grown.”

Together, the old woman and the young one walked to the place where the garden ended and a great meadow rolled beyond. The meadow was as flat as a pancake. At this time of year, summer just easing into fall, the grass was brown. But poking up through it was a sudden burst of bright green leaves covered with red speckles.

It was a beanstalk.

“Very good,” the wise woman said. “That is fast work. It must have fallen onto fertile ground in the World Below.” For that is what the magic bean had done. It had slipped through the World Above and fallen all the way down to the World Below.

“We should give it a few more moments, I think. Just long enough to say good-bye.”

The duchess threw her arms around her nurse and held on tight. Though the desire to weep filled her chest until she thought her heart would drown, she did not utter a single sound. She did not let a single tear fall.

“Listen to me, Celine,” Rowan said. She swayed gently from side to side, rocking the grown woman as she once had the child. “I won’t tell you not to feel bereft, not to be afraid. You will be both. But know this: You will not be forgotten. Always I will hold you in my heart.

“When the time is right, a messenger will come to the World Below. You and your children will be given the means to return to the World Above. It may be many years before this day comes, but never doubt that it will. Prepare your children well.”

“I won’t and I will,” Celine said quietly. “I promise on the love I gave my husband.”

“Then the time has come for you to climb down the beanstalk,” Rowan said. The two women released each other. “When you reach the World Below, take out the hatchet and chop the beanstalk to the ground. Once you have done this, there will be no mark in this world to show where you have gone.”

“But what if Guy de Trabant suspects?” Celine asked in a whisper.

Rowan gave a snort. “So what if he does? Guy de Trabant is going to have his hands full in this world. He will have no time to be worried about anything he might suspect of the World Below. You and your children will be safe there, Celine. Now trust me, and go.”

And so the duchess Celine climbed down the beanstalk, down through the clouds and the wide-open sky, and alighted at last in the World Below. The moment her feet touched the ground, she immediately did as her old nurse had instructed. She took the bundle off her back, unfolded it, removed the hatchet, and chopped down the beanstalk.

It did not fall straight, as a tree might, but wound around in a great green coil, settling to the earth with a rustle and a sigh. The duchess gazed at the beanstalk in astonishment. For now that it lay on the ground, she could not imagine how it could have carried her from one world to another. It looked too thin, too delicate, too short. Yet all the while Celine had been climbing down, she had never doubted for a moment that the beanstalk would take her where she needed to go.

On impulse, she lifted it up and slipped it onto her shoulder. It seemed the proper thing to do somehow. Then she reknotted the shawl, slung it over the other shoulder, and looked around her. The beanstalk had taken her to a fold of gently rolling hills. In the distance, Celine thought she could see a ribbon of road.

“No time like the present,” she murmured. With determined steps, she began to make her way toward the road.

“And that is how we came to dwell in the World Below.”

With this sentence, my mother always ended her story, blew out the candle, and kissed us good night. But Jack and I both knew what had followed. Our mother had used Rowan’s gold coins to buy a farm not far from where she had first arrived in the World Below. It was close enough to a village that she did not feel all alone, but far enough away to be safe from prying eyes.

There, almost precisely eight months to the day after the events of her story, Jack and I were born. I was actually the first to put in my appearance, just in case you’re wondering. My mother always said it explained my strange affection for the World Below. And this brings me to the most important difference between my brother and me.

Jack believed my mother’s tale with his whole heart. He believed in the World Above. But try as I might, I could never quite bring myself to do so. My heart was too tied to the World Below.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not calling my mother a liar. It’s just that I could never make myself take her story for the literal truth. After all, she told it as a bedtime story. A way to lull Jack and me to sleep each night, so that we would be inspired when we awoke the next morning.

Everyone needs to believe that they are special, different from those around them. That’s what my mother’s story always seemed like to me. A charm, a way to get us through hard times. But even as I appreciated the story she told, I never believed that it was true. Not the way Jack did, in my innermost heart of hearts.

That is, not until the day that Jack set off with Agapanthus and returned with a handful of beans instead of a pocketful of coins. Seven little beans, white with red speckles, the sight of which made my mother sit down abruptly in what was left of the carrot patch, laughing and crying at the same time.

That was when I realized my mother had meant every word of her bedtime story. It had been true, all of it. And I knew, in that moment, that nothing in our lives was ever going to be the same.

There would be a beanstalk in our future.

I could only hope I wouldn’t have to be the one to climb it.





THREE




I needn’t have worried. Jack was always going to be the one to go. It was actually something of a wonder he’d brought the beans home at all and hadn’t simply tossed them over his shoulder immediately after he and the old woman completed their transaction.

For once in his life, however, Jack used his head. He kept it out of the clouds and squarely on his shoulders. Those beans were important. When a thing is important, you have to take extra care to get it right. That meant bringing the beans straight home to our mother.

“Well, my dears,” my mother said. She dried her eyes but made no move to get up out of the carrot patch. “This is a momentous day, no two ways about it.”

“That means it’s a big deal,” I said.

Jack made a rude sound. “I know what it means, Gen, thank you very much. I’m not the simpleton you’d like to make me out to be. I was smart enough to take the old woman’s bargain, wasn’t I?”

“Children, children,” my mother said. But I could tell from the curve of her lips that she was holding back a smile. She extended a hand. As Jack’s were full of beans, I was the one who reached out and helped her up.

“What do I have to do to grow a beanstalk?” Jack demanded, as soon as Mama was on her feet. “Just throw it over my left shoulder, right?” He turned and raised one arm as if to complete the action.

“Jack,” my mother said, her voice like the snap of a whip. “Stop right now.”

Jack’s arm jerked to a stop, and his eyes went wide with astonishment. I might have been tempted to laugh if I hadn’t been so surprised myself. Our mother never raised her voice.

“I’m sorry,” Mama went on, in a tone I recognized. She moved to Jack and put a hand on his still upraised arm. Slowly he lowered it. “I didn’t mean to sound so harsh, my son. But there are still many things you need to know before you can attempt a journey to the World Above.”

Mama turned then and walked briskly toward the house.

“Come inside, both of you,” she called over her shoulder. “We have many things to discuss.”

“You might as well say it,” I said as Jack and I fell into step together. “Otherwise you’ll explode. Then I’ll be the one who has to climb up some stupid beanstalk.”

“It won’t be stupid,” Jack said. “It will be stupendous.” Before I realized what he intended, he caught me by both hands. “Think about it, Gen!” he cried, as he began to spin us both around. “Magic beans. Magic beanstalks.”

“Jack,” I protested, even as I caught his excitement. “You’ll make me dizzy. Stop.”

“Not until you confess you’re a tiny bit interested in the World Above,” he said. He leaned back, his hold on my hands the only thing keeping me from flying. “Come on, Gen. Come on.”

“Oh, all right,” I cried out. “Just a tiny little bit.”

Jack stopped, pulling me to him in a breathless hug. I felt the way his heart beat, fast, against mine.

“Oh, and by the way,” he whispered in my ear. “I told you so.”

By the time we reached the house, Mama was seated in her favorite chair, by the window. In her lap she cradled the sugar bowl. It was one of the truly fine pieces that we owned, pristine white porcelain with a smattering of pale pink roses painted around its fat middle. The lid had a knob like a rosebud. Two handles stuck out like bent elbows on either side. Lovely as it was, we hadn’t used the sugar bowl much lately. It had been empty for quite some time. Sugar is expensive, and we’d had no money to pay for such luxuries.

While I took a moment to wonder why on earth Mama was holding the sugar bowl, Jack seemed to grasp the significance at once. He tumbled the beans into it. They landed with a high, clattering sound. Mama put on the lid, then placed the bowl on the windowsill beside her chair. Now I could see that her lap contained another object as well, though I couldn’t yet make out what it was.

“Sit down, children,” my mother said. Jack and I settled down on the braided rug before her, our knees bumping together the same way they had when we were small.

“Tell me what you make of this, Gen,” my mother went on. She held out the object she’d been holding in her lap. It was a piece of cloth. Somewhat surprised she hadn’t offered it to Jack first, I took the scrap and held it up to the light.

“Well, it’s wool, for starters,” I said. I could tell that right off. Of the finest weave that I had ever seen or felt. The color appeared faded, but I thought it had once been a rich forest green.

“It is, indeed,” my mother said. “It was once part of a cloak.”

“Your cloak?” I asked quickly. “The one from the story? You mean this came from the World Above?”

Beside me, Jack shifted, as if holding back the impulse to snatch it away so he could examine it for himself.

My mother nodded. “As it turned out, I was glad Rowan insisted I bring it along. I cut it into baby blankets when you and Jack were born. But this piece I kept whole. Can you figure out why?”

“Because there’s something on it,” I said at once. “It’s embroidered.” I squinted a little and leaned closer to the window. “It’s a shield, quartered.” The scrap of cloth fell from my hands and into my lap as the realization hit. “It’s a coat of arms.”

At this, Jack decided he’d had enough. “Let me see it,” he demanded. I handed him the scrap of wool, the images I’d seen whirling through my mind.

The upper left-hand corner of the shield showed a sack overflowing with gold coins. Beside the sack, upper right, was a bird with its wings spread open wide. In the lower left, below the sack, was a type of harp called a lyre.

I knew it was a lyre because I can actually play one. To tell you the truth, I play pretty well. I was taught by a traveling musician who came to our village for one of the harvest festival celebrations. I’d been so intrigued, I’d attended every single performance. Delighted by the young girl who’d watched his performance so intently, the musician had asked Mama’s permission to give me lessons. He’d even gone so far as to give me the gift of an old instrument when he moved on to another town.

Mama always claimed that my love of music was proof that I was my father’s daughter, proof of my ties to the World Above. I finally thought I understood.

In the lower right corner of the shield was a beanstalk.

All of a sudden, I sat up a little bit straighter. “Jack,” I said. “Let me see that again.”

“Why?” Jack countered at once, as much out of habit as anything else. “Did you see the beanstalk?”

“That’s why I want it back,” I said.

Scowling, a surefire sign he was curious but would never admit it, Jack handed over the scrap of wool. Again I held it up to the light.

“The beanstalk is newer than the other images,” I said. I lowered the cloth and looked into my mother’s face. The face of the woman in her stories, I thought. The face of a woman once named Celine Marchand. There was the single dimple in her chin, but until today it had been a long time since I had seen my mother smile. The World Below had offered its protection, but life here had not always been kind.

“You added the beanstalk,” I said. “After coming to the World Below.”

The dimples in my mother’s cheeks put in a brief appearance. She is so beautiful, still so beautiful when she smiles, I thought. No wonder the father I had never known had fallen in love with her at first sight.

“I wondered how long it would take you to notice that,” my mother said. “You’re right. I stitched the beanstalk that first winter, while I was waiting for you and Jack to be born.”

“Before or after you cut the cloak up for our blankets?”

The dimples put in another swift appearance. “Before. It was a cold winter. The cloak covered my lap and helped to keep me warm.”

“But what does it all mean?” Jack demanded. “Why wait to tell us now?”

“These are the symbols of our family’s power,” my mother replied. “Of the covenant between us and those we once governed. I didn’t tell you about them before because . . .” She paused.

“Because they were so specific,” I said suddenly. I was good at solving puzzles. It was part of my ability to make a plan.

I glanced sidelong at Jack. “Specific enough to give us away if someone I know couldn’t keep quiet about them.”

“Hey,” Jack protested.

“I’m sorry to say this, Jack,” our mother told him. “But Gen is right. You do have a tendency to speak before you think, no matter who’s around.”

I wasn’t sure who was more surprised, Jack or I. Mama almost never criticizes him, perhaps because they’re so close. Even when she does point out some flaw, she almost always lets Jack off the hook with little more than a scolding.

“It’s just part of my exuberant nature,” Jack said with a grin. When he does that, he has the same two dimples in his cheeks as Mama.

Mama sighed. Here we go again, I thought. Those dimples, so much like her own, get her every time. I just have the one in my chin. It’s less charming, apparently, since you can see it all the time.

“So it is,” she said. “And that is one of the things I love best about you, as you well know.” Jack had the grace to look down. “But pay attention. Gen really does have a point.

“A country lad boasting of being more than what he seems is nothing special. There are lads all over the World Below who do. Lads whose dreams are larger than the circumstances of their lives. But a lad who boasts and can back it up by describing his family’s coat of arms, that kind of a lad calls a particular kind of attention to himself, attention we still cannot afford.”

Jack frowned. He rubbed his fingers over the ridges in the braided rug.

“All right,” he finally acknowledged. “I see the point.”

The point, I noticed. Not Gen’s point. I bit down on my tongue.

“Why are these symbols on our coat of arms, Mama?” I said instead. “How did our family come by them?”

“That is a good story too,” our mother said. “One I’ve long wished to tell you.

“Many years ago, one of your father’s ancestors gave shelter to a wizard. He did this out of the goodness of his heart, without knowing who the man was. In gratitude, the wizard gave him three magical gifts designed to help him govern wisely and well.

“The first was a sack of gold with the power to refill itself, a demonstration of the way a kingdom will prosper when it is justly governed. The second was a goose who could lay eggs with yolks so rich and golden that, even if all the crops in the kingdom should fail, the people would never go hungry. The third was a harp with a voice so pure it could speak the truth of its own accord. Your father’s ancestor accepted the gifts with thanks. Then he incorporated them into the family’s coat of arms.”

“But what about the beanstalk?” Jack asked.

“I am coming to that,” said my mother. “It turned out that the wizard had a fourth gift to bestow, one not as pleasant as the others. He looked into the future and saw that a great sadness would befall our house. He could not see precisely how it would come about, or even what it was. So the wizard made a prophecy, which was also something of a riddle:

“‘That which has taken you away from all you love will also be the means to restore you.’ Your father’s ancestor then decreed that the final quarter of the shield must be left blank until the riddle could be solved.”

“A beanstalk,” I murmured, brushing my fingers over the stitches my mother had made.

“A beanstalk,” my mother agreed, nodding.

“But it was Guy de Trabant who took everything you loved away,” Jack protested. “Not that I’d want to see his face on our family coat of arms.”

“That’s not what the prophecy said,” I countered before Mama could respond. “It doesn’t say, ‘that which has taken what you love away from you,’ it says ‘that which has taken you away from all you love.’”

“Even so,” my mother said. “And the thing that did that was a beanstalk. Now, at last, the second part of the wizard’s prophecy has come true. Jack’s beans will provide us with the means to return to the World Above.”

My mother rose to her feet, her blue eyes shining with a light that I had never seen there before.

“But we will not stop there, my children. We will not simply return. We will do more. We will drive the usurper Guy de Trabant from our lands. We will reclaim what is rightfully ours!”





FOUR




There was a silence so profound you could have heard a feather drop.

“How?”

My mother’s brow furrowed. “What?”

“There, you see? That’s just it!” I cried, surging to my feet. “How are we supposed to reclaim all that is rightfully ours? Guy de Trabant has already killed to claim a kingdom. He’s hardly going to welcome us with open arms.”

“Well, we’ll just have to think of something,” Jack said. He stood up too and stepped to Mama’s side, wrapping a possessive arm around her shoulders. “We’ll think of a way.”

“Yes,” I said. “But how will we know if what we think up is possible? It’s been sixteen years since Mama escaped. All we know are the old stories. None of us has any idea what’s happened in the World Above during her absence. It is possible Guy de Trabant could actually be dead.”

“No,” my mother said at once, absolute certainty in her tone. She gave Jack’s shoulder a pat. He released her and stepped away. “I know it doesn’t make much sense, but if he had ceased to breathe, I believe that I would know.”

“All right, we’ll take it as a given that he’s still alive,” I said. “Alive and in control. He must have friends.”

Jack made a rude sound.

“Okay, perhaps not friends,” I said. “But surely he has allies. People he feels he can count on if trouble arrives. We have no one. We don’t know anyone. We don’t know what’s going on.”

“Then that’s our plan right there,” Jack said, his tone triumphant. “One of us must go to the World Above, first to gather information about the current state of affairs, second to see if anyone might be persuaded to join our cause. It can be—what do you call it—a reconnaissance mission.”

“You mean you’d be going,” I said.

“So what if I do?” Jack countered. “I found the beans, didn’t I? I was the one who saw the chance and took it. You’d never have done that in a million years. You wouldn’t have given that old woman the time of day. Oh, you’d have been polite. No doubt about that. But you wouldn’t have listened. You wouldn’t have wanted to listen. You’d have kept right on going, and our chance to return to the World Above would have been lost.”

“Why must you always try to put me in the wrong?” I asked. “Just because I don’t see what’s so bad about the World Below?”

“I’m not trying to put you in the wrong,” Jack said. “I’m trying to make a point.”

“What?”

Jack dragged frustrated fingers through his hair. “You just said it yourself: You don’t see what’s so bad about the World Below. For the record, I never said anything was. But here’s the difference between us, Gen. You don’t see what might be special about the World Above. You don’t want to. You never even really believed it was real until now.

“That’s why I should be the one to go. Because I want to. Because I’ve always wanted to. Because I believe in the World Above.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to ignore the way his words stung. “Let’s say you’re right. I have a point too, Jack, and it’s just as good as any of yours. All you can do is gather information and come right back home. Nothing more. No getting distracted. No adventures. There’s too much at stake.”

Jack’s face flushed. “I know what’s at stake,” he said. “Stop treating me like a child.”

“Enough!” my mother finally cried, silencing us. “Both of you make good points. I agree with Jack. He is the right one to go. But I also agree with Gen. You must proceed with caution, my son.”

She stepped forward and laid a hand on each of our shoulders. “This opportunity will be a challenge for both of you,” she said. “Though for different reasons. For you, Jack, perhaps because you want it too much. And for you, Gen, because you want it too little. Your heart is so tied to the World Below.”

“What’s so wrong about that?” I asked, my voice small, even to my own ears.

“Only this,” my mother replied. “It may be your place of birth, but it is not your true home, my Gen. That place must be the World Above. The World Above is the keeper of your past. Until you have seen it for yourself, you cannot know where your future lies.”

“And in the present,” Jack broke in, “there is still the small matter of growing a magic beanstalk.”

My mother laughed suddenly, the sound as bright and clear as the light on a summer morning. She caught us close to her in a hug.

“My children, my children, what am I going to do with you?” she inquired with a smile. “One wants to drag her feet, while the other can’t wait to fly.”

She released us, and we all took a step back.

“Well, Gen? What do you think? What plan shall we make to satisfy Jack’s desire to grow a magic beanstalk?”

“I think you mean giant magic beanstalk,” I said. “Which means we should call as little attention to it as possible.”

“You can’t be serious,” Jack protested.

“I’m absolutely serious,” I said. “You have to wait for nightfall.”





Jack tossed the first bean over his shoulder just as the moon began to rise. After additional discussion, it had been decided that the cornfield was the perfect place to grow a magic beanstalk.

The field was tucked between two of the many hills surrounding our farm. This would make the beanstalk difficult to see from a distance, and if someone did notice that one stalk in the cornfield seemed a bit taller than the rest, well, what of it? With the breeze moving through the field, causing the cornstalks to sway and dance, anything different could be dismissed as nothing more than a trick of the light.

It is difficult to get people in the World Below to see what they don’t expect to see. Mama has remarked on this more than once. Even I have to admit it’s true. Now we would make this fact work for our cause.

And so, just as the pale face of the moon peered up over the horizon, Jack and I walked to the cornfield while Mama stayed in the house. I think both Jack and I were surprised that Mama didn’t come along. But she’d instructed us to go together. So that’s what we did, traversing the distance between the house and the cornfield in absolute silence. At the edge of the field, Jack paused, then turned his back to the rows of corn.

“Count for me, will you?” he asked. He gave a sudden, sheepish grin. “I know it’s only to three, but I’m terrified I’m going to get it wrong, somehow.”

For once I didn’t tease him. Probably because I knew exactly how he felt.

“On three, then,” I said.

Jack nodded.

“One. Two. Three.”

With one quick, smooth motion, Jack tossed the bean over his left shoulder.

I swore I saw it flying through the air, a tiny white speck tumbling end over end against the darkened sky. But in the interests of truth, I must admit that I might have made this up. It could have been a trick of the light combined with my own desire. As Jack let the bean fly, the wind came up, causing the cornstalks to rustle and sway, almost as if they were conversing with one another.

Jack stood for a moment, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. I saw his chest heave and realized he was breathing hard, as if he’d run a race and put on a final burst of speed to reach the finish line.

“Don’t do it, Jack,” I said suddenly. “Don’t turn around.”

For Mama had said that it was important to let magic run its own course. Trying to influence it could spell disaster. For this reason, Jack must not look back. He must not watch to see where the bean had fallen. I could do so, Mama said, as I was not the one who would be climbing the beanstalk.

“I know,” Jack said. “I know.”

I moved to his side and took him by the arm. He was quivering, his whole body vibrating like one of the plucked strings on my harp.

“Let’s go in,” I said softly. “We’ll come back at first light.”

Jack reached out to grasp me by both elbows. “It’s happening, Gen. It’s really happening. I’m going to go to the World Above.”

“You’re going to go to the World Above,” I said. “Always assuming some crow didn’t get to that bean as soon as it hit the ground.”

Jack gave a sudden laugh. I felt the tension leave his body.

“Good old Gen,” he said. “Always trying to make sure I don’t get too far ahead of myself.”

“Self-defense,” I said. “Slowing you down’s the only way I can keep up.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jack said. He pulled me forward into a fierce hug. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I said as I hugged him back. We stepped apart and I put my hands on Jack’s shoulders, the better to peer up into his face.

“Jack, you will be careful, won’t you?”

“Of course I’ll be careful,” he said. Then he made a face. “At least I’ll try. But you heard Mama, Gen. Ultimately, we are going back to reclaim what Guy de Trabant stole from us. Sooner or later, there are bound to be some risks involved.”

He broke free of my hold to take a few steps away. Jack literally thinks best on his feet, preferably when he’s using them to go somewhere.

“I just wish I could figure out a way to prove who I am—who we are,” he went on. “I don’t want people to think I’m just another usurper.”

I hesitated a moment. “I’ve been thinking about that too,” I acknowledged.

Jack spun back around. Before I realized what he intended, he caught me up in his arms, twirling me around.

“You’ve got a plan, don’t you?” he cried. “I knew it. I knew I could count on you. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

“No, I don’t have a plan.” I gasped, clinging to his shoulders as air filled my skirts like a bell. “Not a full-fledged one, anyhow. It’s just an idea, Jack. Now put me down.”

“Full-fledged?” Jack echoed with a laugh. But at least he set me down. “Who in the World Below says stuff like that?”

“Clearly,” I said as I did my best to smooth my hair and skirts, “only someone who comes from the World Above. And it was never my intention to let you down. I don’t know why you have to say a thing like that.”

Jack sobered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

“You’re Mama’s favorite,” I told him, the words tumbling out before I could stop them. “We both know it’s true, so don’t bother to deny it. It’s because of the way I feel about the World Below. But I’m just as much a part of this family as you are, Jack. I’d never let you down.”

I began to stomp my way back to the house.

“Gen, wait,” Jack said. I heard the quick sound of his feet. “I didn’t mean it like that. You’re making too much of it. How come we’ve spent the whole day fighting? I don’t want us to.”

“I don’t want us to fight either,” I said. I stopped walking as the extent of the truth of this struck me.

“Then what do you want?”

“I want you to come home safe,” I said.

“I want that too,” Jack said. “But what if home turns out to be the World Above?”

“It doesn’t make a difference,” I said. “I just want you to be safe, that’s all. I don’t want you to end up sacrificed to Guy de Trabant’s ambition like our father was.”

Or your own ambition, for that matter, I thought.

“I’ll be careful. I swear I will,” Jack vowed. “Just say you’ll do one thing for me.”

“What’s that?”

“Wish me luck.”

“Good luck, Jack,” I said. And I meant it with all my heart.

That was the moment I felt it. I can’t explain how. I felt the magic take root and the beanstalk begin to grow.

“You know,” Jack said as he slung an arm around my shoulders, “we make a pretty good team, whether you like to admit it or not. You provide the plan; I provide the quick thinking if anything goes wrong.”

I gave a snort. “Which it almost always does. Could that be because you change the plan the minute it’s made? Wait a minute. Yes, I do believe that could account for it.”

Jack gave my shoulders a quick, hard squeeze. “Cut it out.”

“If you’re trying to ask me whether or not I’ve been figuring out a way for you to prove who you really are, the answer is yes,” I said. “It has to do with our family’s coat of arms. . . .”





FIVE




Jack and I talked well into the night, whispering with our heads together and our bodies stretched out in opposite directions on the soft braided rug. We’d often done this when we were small, on winter nights when the warmest place to sleep was in front of the fire. Just as the sun came up, Jack shook me awake.

“Wake up, sleepyhead,” he said. “Come see what’s in the cornfield.”

Five minutes later Jack, Mama, and I stood gazing up into the leaves of an enormous beanstalk.

I’d known it would be there. Hadn’t I felt the moment it began to grow? Even so, it was hard to believe a vine could stretch up and up and up until it was lost to sight among the clouds. It swayed ever so slightly in the early morning breeze; its red and green speckled leaves made a strangely soothing sound. The stalk itself was as wide around as Jack was, as if it had been custom grown. Which, of course, it had.

“It’s beautiful,” breathed my mother.

“It is,” I acknowledged. I bit down on my tongue. It didn’t do any good. “It’s also impossible!” I burst out. “Jack can’t climb that. It will never hold him.”

“One just like it held me,” my mother reminded me.

“But Mama—”

“It’s all right, Gen,” Jack interrupted to silence me. “It may look impossible. But somehow I think that it’s supposed to. The World Above and the World Below aren’t supposed to be joined together. People aren’t supposed to travel back and forth. To do so takes courage. It takes—”

“A leap of faith,” I finished for him on a sigh. My mother made an approving sound. She moved to stand between us, linking arms, so that we formed a chain. Together, we all stood gazing at the beanstalk. It flicked its leaves at us, as if waving hello.

“You should go soon, Jack,” Mama said softly. “The sun is almost up.”

“I’m really going to do it,” Jack said, his voice reverent. “I’m going to climb a magic beanstalk.”

Twenty minutes later all was in readiness. Jack had wolfed down a breakfast of all his favorite foods, then settled the pack he and Mama had prepared onto his shoulders. The three of us returned to the cornfield and the beanstalk.

“What will we do if someone comes by?” I asked suddenly.

“Easy,” Mama declared stoutly. “We’ll simply pretend the beanstalk isn’t there.”

I gave a startled laugh. “Mama, that will never work. Not even our neighbors are that gullible.”

“Don’t be so sure,” my mother answered. “If there’s one thing people in the World Below hate, it’s for others to think they’re foolish. If we pretend the beanstalk isn’t there, it won’t be. You mark my words.

“People in the World Above, on the other hand,” she continued, turning to Jack, “expect to be surprised. That’s why your best course of action will be to be precisely what you seem, my son.”

Jack made a face. “A country bumpkin.”

“Better a live country bumpkin than a dead nobleman,” my mother said bluntly. She laid a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Do just as we discussed. Find out as much as you can about the current situation, then come right back. After that, we can put Gen to work on a plan.”

Jack raised a hand to cover Mama’s, giving it a squeeze. “I know what to do, Mama. I’ll be careful, I promise.”

“Then I wish you luck, my son.”

Jack turned and met my eyes. “I’ll be back soon,” he said.

“I’ll be waiting for you,” I replied.

Without another word, Jack strode to the beanstalk and laid a hand against its trunk. I saw the way he leaned against it, as if testing his weight against its strength. Then he tipped his head back, as if he could already see the World Above, floating somewhere high above him. His face filled with emotion. Never in all my life, neither before nor since, have I seen more joy than I did in Jack’s face the instant before he began to climb that beanstalk.

Good luck, Jack, I thought. I love you.

Jack set a foot against the trunk, wrapped his arms around it, and boosted himself up. Then, just as if he was climbing a tree, he began to climb the beanstalk. Mama and I stood watching as he made his way into the sky, until the light of the sun made tears fill our eyes and we had no choice but to look down.





SIX




Jack was gone all that day, and the next one as well. Mama and I did our best to keep ourselves busy. On the first day, we cleaned the house from top to bottom. Sheets washed, bedding aired, floors swept and scrubbed, windows polished until they sparkled. Mama even tied her biggest apron around her oldest dress and blacked the stove. By the time we tumbled into bed that night, I was so tired that I had no choice but to sleep soundly. Yet all through the night, I dreamed of beanstalks.

On the second day, I worked in the kitchen vegetable garden, just as I did every autumn. Turning over the soil in the beds, trying to inspire the dry soil with my care so that better times might come. My mother stayed in the kitchen, making the little we had go as far as possible, working the only kind of magic she had ever been able to conjure up in the World Below.

The shadows lengthened until at last it was too dark for me to stay outdoors any longer, until my mother had to light the lamps and cover the dishes of food she’d prepared, and still Jack had not come home. I washed my hands and we sat together in the kitchen, making a meal of cheese and bread and apples.

How much longer? I wondered. How long did it even take to reach the World Above?

How long before Mama and I decided that Jack was in trouble? How long before one of us had to go up after him to find out what was wrong?

After supper, I washed the dishes. By mutual yet silent consent, Mama and I remained in the kitchen. Mama brought out her sewing, while I prepared a goose quill pen and set to making a list of what I hoped to plant next spring—and the neighbors from whom I hoped to acquire the seed to do so. Then I added a third column: what I might be able to barter for the seed, as it seemed unlikely we’d be able to pay for it. The scratch of the sharpened quill against the paper was the only sound in the room.

“What are you doing, Gen?” my mother asked finally.

Her voice sounded rusty, as if she’d forgotten the use of it in just one day.

“I’m making a list,” I answered, hoping to discourage further discussion. I was pretty sure my mother was hoping we wouldn’t still be here in the spring. She was hoping we’d be back where she thought we belonged—in the World Above.

Mama sighed. “I can see that you’re making a list,” she said mildly. “I was hoping you’d care to share what kind.”

I explained. My mother’s hands paused, her needle poised above the sewing. Then she plunged the sharp point into the fabric.

“You’re planning pretty far ahead, aren’t you?”

Somebody around here has to, I thought. Someone willing to admit we might all still be living here next spring.

“I have to, Mama,” I said instead. “It’s my nature.”

Mama set her sewing down on the table and reached across its smooth, scrubbed surface to lay a hand on my arm.

“I know it is, sweetheart. Your father was just the same.” She sighed again, and I thought it sounded sad this time. “Perhaps I should have told you before now.”

I felt a strange tightness wrap itself around my chest.

“You hardly ever talk about Papa at all,” I said. “Except in your bedtime stories.”

“I know,” my mother said quickly. “And I’m sorry for it. I didn’t mean not to speak of him, it’s just—”

But what she would have said next I never knew, for at precisely that moment, the kitchen door flew open. Jack stood on the threshold. In one hand he clutched an all but empty sack. Cradled in the nook of his other arm was the sorriest excuse for a goose I’d ever seen in my life. My mother stood up so quickly, her chair tipped over backward.

“Jack!” she cried. “Thank goodness you’re home! What have you done?”

“What Gen and I planned that I would do, if I had the chance,” Jack said simply, though I could see the way his chest heaved as if he’d been running. He set the sack on the table with a faint chink and extended the goose toward my mother even as his eyes met mine.

“Gen,” my brother said, “I wonder if you’d be so good as to go and chop down the beanstalk.”

“Take the lantern,” my mother said as she reached for the bedraggled goose. “It’s dark. There, sweetheart,” she went on, as she took the exhausted creature into her arms. “You know me, don’t you? There now. It’s going to be all right.”

“There’s some food on the sideboard,” I said to Jack. Snatching up the axe, I went out into the night and closed the door behind me.

When I came back, Jack and Mama were seated across from each other at the table. The loaf of bread Mama had baked was half eaten. The cheese was gone. The goose was wrapped in a blanket and tucked into an old apple picking basket beside my mother’s feet. It seemed to hold its head up a little more strongly, I thought.

“Gen,” Jack said as I came in. I returned the axe to its place near the stove. Chopping down the beanstalk had been easier than I expected. Now that Jack was once more safe in the World Below, it was almost as if the beanstalk had wanted to be chopped down.

“Mama made pie! If you want a piece, you’d better come and cut it now. The only time I can remember being as hungry as this was after I climbed up the beanstalk.”

“Is everything all right?” my mother asked. It was a general enough question, but I knew what she meant. There’d been nobody on the beanstalk when I chopped it down. No one trying to follow Jack back to the World Below.

“Fine,” I replied. I approached the table, and Mama cut me a slice of pie.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Jack said, as if he’d suddenly realized something. “I thought there wasn’t any sugar. How can there be pie?”

“A mother has to have some secrets,” Mama said with a smile.

“Jack,” I said, pulling the plate with my slice of pie on it toward me. It was a large piece, I was happy to note. “Shut up and eat. Or if you have to talk, tell us about the World Above. I know the plan was to try and reclaim the wizard’s gifts, but I never dreamed you would do it so quickly. How did you manage it?”

“I didn’t, not really,” Jack confessed. He took an enormous bite of pie, chewing slowly as he savored the taste. It was apple, his favorite and mine. “It was Shannon and Sean.”

“Shannon and Sean?” my mother asked sharply. “Who are they?”

Jack dished up another forkful of pie. “Sean is a giant, and Shannon is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, Mama. They’re brother and sister, though you’d never know it to look at them. Shannon’s not much taller than Gen is, while Sean towers over me. They live in the castle that used to be Duke Roland’s. It’s kind of a long story.”

I took a bite of pie. It was perfect, simple as it was. And all of a sudden I found myself afraid. What if there was nothing as wonderful yet simple as this in the World Above? Mama wanted us to return to the World Above to reclaim all our family had lost, not least of which was a kingdom and a crown.

But would returning to the World Above take things away as well? Things we wouldn’t even know were valuable until after they were gone? Like the ability to sit together in the kitchen, enjoying a well-made piece of pie.

“Tell us your story, Jack,” my mother said.

And so Jack began to tell of his journey up the beanstalk into the World Above.





SEVEN




“I climbed almost all day,” Jack said. “Or at least I think I did. It was almost dark by the time I reached the World Above. And the funny thing was that I ended up in a cornfield, just like where I’d started out. I even had one moment where I thought I’d gone terribly wrong somehow and had ended up back in the World Below.

“Then I saw Sean. After that, I was pretty sure I was in the right place.”

“But why would Guy de Trabant go to all the trouble to steal our father’s castle only to abandon it to a family of giants?” I inquired.

“I asked Sean that very question,” Jack answered, as he took another bite of pie. “He couldn’t say, for certain. He was just a baby when his family first moved in. Sean and Shannon’s father, Clarence, was the giant Guy de Trabant chose.”

“Perhaps de Trabant couldn’t live with himself,” I surmised. “He couldn’t bear to live in the castle he’d killed for. He didn’t need to. He had one of his own. One he could inhabit without guilt. And it’s not as if he gave up Duke Roland’s lands. He still kept those.”

“I think you’re right on all counts, Gen,” my mother put in quietly. “Not only that, the de Trabant castle is built like a fortress. I saw it once, as a child. It’s situated at the crest of a hill, if I remember correctly. No one can approach without being seen. Guy de Trabant would have felt, and been, well protected there.”

“And in the meantime,” I filled in thoughtfully, “to make sure no other ambitious man would try to steal from him, he installed a giant in Duke Roland’s castle.”

“I think that must be it,” Jack agreed.

“But where did he find a giant in the first place?” I wondered. “Where did Clarence come from?”

“I asked Sean and Shannon about that,” Jack said. “And they said their father never spoke about his origins. It was one of two topics that they were forbidden to mention. The other was their mother, who died when they were born. They didn’t come right out and say this, but I gathered things were kind of grim when Shannon and Sean were growing up. This only fed the stories about a ferocious giant living in the castle.”

“Stories that Guy de Trabant had no doubt started himself, to discourage other potential usurpers,” I said.

Jack nodded. “But something happened to Clarence as time went by,” he went on. “Shannon said she thought her father fell in love. Not with another person, but with many. He fell in love with Duke Roland’s former subjects. He saw the way they struggled to make ends meet, yet still kept their spirits strong. He discovered that he wanted to be more than just a tool to frighten others. He wanted to belong. He wanted his children to feel as if they had a true home.

“So, slowly but surely, Clarence set to work to rebuild the land that Guy de Trabant had first stolen and then abandoned to neglect. As they grew old enough, Sean and Shannon helped him. Father and son traveled from village to village, helping with the harvest, or mending a broken roof or fence, whatever needed to be done. Shannon stayed on in the castle, where she tended an enormous vegetable garden.”

Jack smiled at me. “You’d like that about her, Gen. In fact, I think you’d just plain like her. Shannon reminded me of you, right off. She’s no-nonsense, practical, and straightforward.”

“Don’t forget the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen,” I teased.

Jack colored.

“Is Clarence still alive?” my mother asked.

Jack shook his head. “No. He died about a year ago. All Duke Roland’s former subjects mourned him. Since then, Sean and Shannon have stayed on in the castle, carrying on in their father’s footsteps.”

“It’s a lovely story,” I said. “Filled with hope. But why would total strangers tell you their life story, Jack? Why would they think you wanted to know it?”

Jack winced, as if he’d known this question was coming. “You’re not going to like this,” he said. “They told me their story because I told them mine.”

I sat bolt upright in horror. “What? The whole idea was to keep your identity a secret!”

“I know,” Jack replied in a pleading tone. “But if you’d been there, you’d have done the same, Gen. I just know it. There was just something about them . . . it’s as if they already knew me somehow. And then, when I saw the goose and recognized her as one of the wizard’s gifts, that sort of settled things. I told them my story, and they told me theirs. Afterward they brought out the sack of coins. Guy de Trabant had left it behind too.”

“It seems strange that he would leave the wizard’s gifts,” I said more calmly. “I wonder why.”

“Perhaps they reminded him of the wrongs he had committed, the ones he is still committing,” my mother suggested in a hard voice. She gestured toward the goose in its basket at her feet. It was sleeping now, its head tucked beneath one wing. It looked peaceful, but exhausted. The sack of coins lay flat on the table beside the empty pie plate. To look at the sack, you would have thought that it was empty as well.

“All you have to do is look at either of these things to know that something is terribly wrong with the way our former kingdom is being governed. Or, more accurately, not governed,” my mother went on. “My guess is that Guy de Trabant didn’t want these reminders of his failure.”

“What about the lyre?” I asked. “Did he leave that as well?”

Jack shook his head. “No. That’s the one thing Guy de Trabant took with him. Rumor has it that he almost never lets it out of his sight, and that he uses the lyre to help govern his own people, rather than using his own judgment.”

Jack ate the last forkful of pie, then pushed his plate away as if his hunger had finally been satisfied.

“Winning back the lyre is going to be a challenge.”

“One you think you know how to meet,” I said. The look on Jack’s face told me he’d been doing something out of character. He’d been developing a plan of his own.

“Not yet, but I think I know how to discover if a how is even possible,” Jack replied.

Mama leaned in, suddenly intent. “What are you thinking, Jack?” she asked.

“Twice a month, Guy de Trabant holds a court of assizes. Any of his subjects may come before him to present a grievance or a matter that needs to be settled.”

“And de Trabant uses the harp to help him pass judgment,” I said.

“That’s it, precisely.” Jack nodded. “If I could find a way—”

“Are you mad?” I broke in before he could complete the thought. “Think of all the people who might see you, not to mention the soldiers. Both de Trabant and the harp are bound to be heavily guarded. We don’t even really know what the fortress looks like. We know it’s on top of a hill, but what else? Even assuming you could manage to get to the harp, how would you escape with it?”

“Thank you for asking me the same questions I’ve been asking myself,” Jack said testily. “How is this helping?”

“It helps to clarify just what you’re up against, Jack,” Mama said.

“I know what I’m up against,” Jack said stubbornly. He looked between the two of us, his gaze finally settling on our mother. “Don’t you even want me to try? I thought this was what you wanted me to do, Mama. To return to the World Above and reclaim all that is rightfully ours.”

“And so I do,” replied our mother. “But . . .” She paused, trying to select the right words. “These last couple of days, while Gen and I waited, I came to understand what it would mean to lose you. I want you to take your place as your father’s rightful heir with all my heart, Jack. I want to see you sitting on his throne. But I want to keep you alive and well more. If you were to be captured or killed—”

“I won’t be,” Jack said in quick reassurance, reaching across the table to grasp her hand. “I won’t be, Mama.”

“Then listen to your sister,” Mama said. “She wants you to succeed as much as I do.”

“Of course I do,” I said quietly. “Though you know . . . officially, I’m the rightful heir to the throne, not you. I am five minutes older. And there’s nothing that says a girl can’t succeed.”

Jack’s mouth dropped open, as did Mama’s. I might have been tempted to laugh, were it not for the twist of pain in my heart. Sensible Gen, boring Gen with her strange affection for the World Below. Who would have considered her for a crown in the World Above?

“Fortunately for you,” I went on, “I have no desire to sit on a throne. But if that’s what you want, then we should get you there in one piece.”

Jack took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, as if expelling his preconceived notions along with his breath.

“All right, then,” he said. “What did you do with that pen and paper, Mama?”

“I put them on the sideboard.”

Jack fetched the inkpot, quill, and paper I’d been using earlier, then returned to the table. He placed the paper on the table, turning the sheets over so that my handwriting was facedown. If he’d noticed the nature of the lists I’d been making, he gave no sign. He opened the inkpot and dipped the quill into the ink.

“Now,” he said, “I am going to pretend I’m Gen. I’m going to make a list of all the things we think I need to find out before I attempt to win back the lyre. That will be one column. All the potential pitfalls will go in another. Then I’ll return to the World Above and get our questions answered. I’ll add more as they come up. I’ll do whatever it takes to create a plan we believe can be successful.

“But you have to understand something.” He looked at me and then our mother. “If I’m going to do this, if I’m really going to win back Roland des Jardins’ crown, then sooner or later, I’m going to have to take a risk. There’s simply no way around it. Either you trust me to take the right chance at the right time, or you don’t. And if you don’t, I’ll do this completely on my own. My plan, my risk, my chance to win back what’s rightfully ours.”

“Ours,” I replied. “That’s the key word, Jack. Of course I want to help you. What you’re doing is for all of us.” I slid the paper in front of me, then extended my hand, palm up, for the quill.

“You should let me write the list,” I said. “Your handwriting is atrocious.”

Jack laughed and surrendered the quill.

“Question one,” I said as I dipped the quill into the inkpot and wrote the number. “How do you get from Duke Roland’s castle to Guy de Trabant’s fortress?”





EIGHT




It took three days of making lists, of tossing ideas back and forth, but finally the morning arrived when Jack, Mama, and I stood beside another beanstalk. This one looked slightly different from the first. It was still green and tall. But where the first beanstalk had reminded me of a tree, the second seemed more like a vine. More sinuous and thinner than the first, it seemed to twist and turn into the sky on its way to the World Above. I wondered if the difference was significant. There were five magic beans left now.

The change of seasons had begun in earnest, summer into autumn. Yesterday had been hot and fair, but overnight the temperature dropped. Fog had crept in, spreading its damp white fingers into every nook and cranny of our farm. Beside us, the beanstalk twisted upward, disappearing into the mist.

“You remember what to do?” Jack asked me, as he shouldered his pack.

“I remember,” I assured him.

Jack was referring to the very last item we’d added to the list. A plan that called for me to go up the beanstalk.

According to Jack, Sean had estimated it would take about a week on foot to reach Guy de Trabant’s fortress. Once Jack and Sean arrived, they would wait for the next court of assizes, which was held in the castle’s great hall. Since the sessions took place every other week, with luck, the two boys shouldn’t have to wait long.

The irony of one of the magical emblems on our coat of arms being used by Duke Guy to govern his own people wisely while ours remained neglected was a sore point. It was just one of the injustices that could be remedied if Jack was able to steal back the harp.

We’d decided to allow Jack four weeks to travel to de Trabant’s castle, see the harp for himself, assess the overall situation, then come back home. If he had not returned within that time, I’d toss a bean over my own shoulder and go up after him.

Mama and I would chop down this beanstalk tomorrow, when we were sure Jack had had plenty of time to reach the World Above. After that, he would literally be cut off from the World Below. But he’d travel with a bean in his pocket, as I would, assuming I had to go. That left two beans to remain with our mother.

“Well,” Jack said. “Here I go.”

Mama threw her arms around him and held him close. “Good luck,” she whispered. “I am proud of you, my son.”

She stepped back, and I moved in for a hug of my own. Jack gave me a squeeze so powerful I swore I felt my ribs crack.

“You know,” he murmured, for my ears alone, “I almost want you to come after me. You need an adventure of your own. And I’d really like for you to meet Shannon.”

“The most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen,” I teased, even as I tightened my hold.

“You’ll see what I mean when you meet her, however it happens.”

Jack released me and turned to face the beanstalk. Without another word, he walked to the sinuous green trunk, set his foot against it, grasped the leaves firmly with both hands, and began to climb. The last I saw of him was one brown boot-clad foot, disappearing into the clouds.

One week went by, and then another. My mother and I did our best to keep ourselves occupied. We spent several days over the hot stove turning the last of the late harvest fruits and vegetables into preserves or pickles. Mama did piles of mending, while I cleaned out the barn. We worked so hard I almost didn’t have time to worry about what was happening to Jack.

Almost. Almost. Because the truth was that it was all a ruse. Mama knew it just as well as I did. Even as our hands flew from one task to another, our minds were fixed on the World Above.

By the middle of the third week, I think both Mama and I knew the truth. Jack was not coming home. This was not to say that something dire had occurred. It might be that it had taken longer to reach de Trabant’s fortress than Sean the giant had predicted, which could mean, in turn, that it would take Jack longer to return home. Perhaps Jack had even discovered an unexpected way to get close to the harp and was attempting to get it back.

The trouble was, maybe’s and perhapses were all Mama and I had. We didn’t know. And the only way to turn uncertainties into understanding was for me to journey to the World Above.

“It’s all my fault,” I said at dinner that night, the fear I’d been harboring ever since Jack had vanished up the beanstalk at long last bursting out. “If I hadn’t suggested that Jack try to use the wizard’s gifts to prove who he was in the first place—”

“No,” my mother said firmly. Fear and frustration ran through her voice. “If anything, the fault is mine. I’m the one who filled both your heads with tall tales.”

She threw her hands up, the way you do when you concede an argument even though you think you’re right.

“I just wanted you to know who you really are,” she said. “Is that so wrong?”

“Of course it isn’t,” I answered at once. “It’s just . . .” I paused. “It’s not a story anymore, is it? I guess it never really was. Our father really was murdered. If Guy de Trabant could have caught you, there’s every chance he would have killed you as well.”

“And now,” my mother said, “for all we know, Jack may be in the same danger.”

“We don’t know,” I replied. “That’s the problem.” I pushed my plate of food away. I wasn’t eating it anyhow. “The good news is that I can remedy that fact.” I stood up. “And I should do so.”

“I just wish we knew more about this Sean and Shannon,” my mother said as she rose in her turn. She went into the kitchen and got down the sugar bowl. “What if they’re not as virtuous as they seem? What if they’re leading Jack into a trap of some kind?”

“Jack’s a pretty good judge of character, Mama,” I consoled. “If he thinks we can trust them, my guess is that we can.”

“You’re right. I know you’re right,” said my mother. She removed the lid from the sugar bowl. Heads close together, we peered inside. Just four speckled beans remained.

“They look like four wishes,” I said softly.

“Perhaps they are,” my mother replied. Carefully she tipped one of the beans into my outstretched palm. “That’s a rather fanciful notion for you, Gen.”

I gave a quick laugh that didn’t sound all that convincing, even to my own ears. “Maybe I’m practicing for the World Above.”

I closed my hand around the bean. I could feel it, pressing into the center of my palm. “I think I’d like to go to the cornfield by myself, if that’s all right.”

“Of course it is, sweetheart,” said my mother. “Just don’t think about it too much. Trust the magic.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try.”

“But you’re not a tryer, are you?” my mother said. “You’re a doer, Gen. I think you have been from the day you were born. I used to think it was your affinity to the World Below, but now I’m not so sure. I think it’s just the way you are, and I am glad for it.”

“Thank you, Mama,” I said, surprised.

My mother bent to kiss my cheek. “Go along now. And remember—don’t stop to think too much along the way.”

I did my best. Honestly, I did. But all the way to the cornfield, with the bean clutched tightly in my palm, I wondered. If, in my innermost heart of hearts, I still harbored a tiny seed of doubt, would the magic work? Could my attachment to the World Below, which I’d secretly always been so proud of, doom my brother to destruction in the World Above?

You’re failing already, Gen, I thought as I reached the cornfield. Since Jack had grown the last beanstalk, our neighbors had come to help us harvest the corn. Jack’s absence had been noticed, but not spoken of. I had seen the worry, and the judgment, in the other men’s eyes. My mother needed all the help she could get. Where was her son? There was no way to explain. I wondered what the neighbors would think when our family disappeared entirely. If we did. If we didn’t, we would face hard times.

I gazed at the cornfield. It looked as bleak as my sudden turn of thought. Where before tall stalks had stood, now there was nothing but stubble. My beanstalk, assuming I could actually get one to grow, would have no camouflage.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere, I thought. It was time to see if I could find it. Turning my back to the field, I planted my feet and whispered a quick prayer to whoever might be listening.

Please, I thought. Let me succeed in spite of myself.

I let the bean fly. I did not turn to try and see where it landed. I tried to trust the magic, to let it take its course.

Now there was only one thing I could do: wait for morning.

“Well,” my mother said the following day. “So much for your concerns.”

I had grown a beanstalk all right, a sinewy column of green reaching into the sky. It swayed despite there being no breeze, and looked as if a puff of air might knock it down.

But when I set my hand on the trunk, I felt the beanstalk’s inner core of strength. Felt that it possessed a single desire: to carry me and only me from the World Below to the World Above. The fluttering leaves reminded me of waving hands, beckoning me upward.

“You take good care now, Gen,” my mother said.

“I will. Don’t forget to chop down the beanstalk.”

“I’ll remember,” she said quietly, and I realized that for the first time in sixteen years my mother would be all alone. Alone in the place that had been both her sanctuary and her exile. I opened my mouth to say something, but Mama spoke first.

“I’m proud of you, Gen.” At her words I let go of the beanstalk. “I’ve always been proud of you. I probably haven’t said that as much as I should.”

My eyes filled with tears, but I did not let them fall. In this, at least, I was my mother’s daughter.

“I understand, Mama,” I said quietly. Now that I was about to embark on an adventure of my own, a great peace seemed to come over me. “You and Jack are so much more alike. And he’s so . . . charming. Don’t you dare tell him I said that. If you do, I’ll just deny it.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” my mother said with the faintest hint of a smile. The kind that caused only one dimple to appear, rather than two. “But I mean it, you know.”

“I’m sorry I never really believed,” I said. “Not the way Jack did.”

“It doesn’t make any difference,” my mother replied. Her eyes focused on the beanstalk for a moment, then returned to mine. “You believe now. Be safe and smart up there, my Gen. Be yourself.”

Before I could answer, she turned away and walked quickly toward the house. I turned to face the beanstalk.

There is no going back now, I thought.

For better or worse, there was only going forward. There was only going up. Seizing the trunk of the beanstalk with both hands, I pushed off from the World Below and began to climb.





NINE




How shall I tell you? How shall I even begin to describe what it was like to climb that beanstalk?

It was hard. A lot harder than I thought it would be, and it wasn’t just that the climb was long or that my dratted skirts slowed me down. I’d never been one of those girls who longed to do everything the boys did. Why should I? I did most of Jack’s chores anyway. But scrambling up that beanstalk hand over hand, hour after hour, I wished I’d had the foresight to put on a pair of pants.

Climbing a beanstalk is not like climbing a tree. A tree trunk is firm and hard. It feels unyielding beneath your feet and hands. Even when the wind moves through its branches, a tree feels solid. You can remind yourself that the tree lives and breathes, just as you do yourself. If you really put your imagination to work, you can conjure up an image of sap flowing, deep within. But it’s difficult to really feel this beneath your hands.

From the moment I first touched it, I knew that the beanstalk was different. Never in my life had I felt anything so magical, so alive.

The surface of the stalk was slightly tacky, which helped my hands maintain a firm grip, and kept my feet from slipping as I braced myself. The stalk itself was precisely the right diameter for me. Thick enough so that I could get a good grip, my fingers just touching as I closed my hand around it, but not so thick that my hands grew tired.

Leaves sprang from the stalk with what I can only describe as wild abandon. Some stayed in close, as if huddled against the stalk for protection; others unfurled into the open air, as if eager to explore. But no matter where they were, the leaves never stopped moving. The slightest breath of air made them dance and flutter.

Though I soon found I could rely on its sturdiness and strength (besides, having committed myself, what choice did I have?), it was slightly disconcerting to realize that not just the leaves, but the entire beanstalk itself, was always in motion. It swayed ever so slightly. Whether this was the result of my own movement, or was simply an attribute of all magic beanstalks, I had no way to discover.

I soon found myself settling into a rhythm, grasping a set of leaves with my right hand, boosting myself upward with my right foot braced against the trunk, then repeating the actions on the opposite side. I grew tired. I stopped to catch my breath, leaning my forehead against the great green trunk. My breath my own once more, I recommenced my climb.

Birds fluttered around my head, as if curious about this new creature invading their airy realm. But finally even those dropped away as I continued to climb. Hand over hand, hour after hour, up, up, up, until the very notion of the passage of time lost all meaning. There was only me and the beanstalk. All around us, the wide-open sky, the great expanse between the World Below and the World Above.

I did not look down.

It never even occurred to me to do this, believe it or not. All my energy, all my attention, was focused on going up. The higher I climbed, the more filled with possibilities the air seemed to become.

It got cooler too, after a while. Thin wisps of cloud drifted by. Gradually they became more dense, finally coalescing into a cloud so thick I could barely see the beanstalk. I could hear my heart, thundering inside my chest. My breath, whooshing in, puffed out white to become one with the cloud.

Surely I must be almost there, I thought. For what else could this be but the layer of cloud that Mama had always claimed divided the World Above and the World Below?

Reach with the right hand, boost with the right foot. Reach with the left hand, boost with the left foot. Keep going. Keep going. You can do this, Gen, I thought. Jack had done it twice. I’d never prove myself to be my father’s daughter if I couldn’t even do it once.

As if thinking of my father had been a secret password, my head popped out through the cloud. The sun was so dazzling I squinted my eyes nearly shut. Slowly I eased my right eyelid open, and then the left, blinking rapidly in astonishment.

Oh my, I thought.

I was in the World Above. Or at least my head and shoulders were. The rest of me was still in transition, below the cloud layer.

The new world rested on the surface of the cloud as if the mist was some strange bedrock. No wonder this is a place where magic happens, I thought. I pulled myself a little farther up the beanstalk, far enough to rest my elbows on the soil of the World Above. I could see the top of the beanstalk now, waving back and forth as if offering its congratulations.

I looked around. To tell you the absolute truth, the World Above looked an awful lot like the World Below, except for the fact that the ground didn’t look quite solid. In places, the land looked as dense and permanent as it was in the World Below. But in others, like around the beanstalk, for example, the cloud showed through, as if revealing a hidden portal.

Then, as I watched, the land shifted, sliding along the layer of cloud. And just like that, nearly all evidence of the cloud was gone.

Stop gawking like a tourist and get a move on, Gen, I thought. I wasn’t sure what would happen if the World Above shifted when I was still half in, half out, but I was absolutely sure I didn’t want to find out.

Using the ground itself for leverage, I dug my elbows in and gave myself a boost, pulling my legs up into the World Above. Quickly I rolled away from the beanstalk and lay flat on my back. I lay still for a moment, stretched full length.

I’m here, I thought. This is real. I am in the World Above.

For a moment I was dizzy, as if my body could not decide to which world it belonged. I closed my eyes, taking deep, steadying breaths. The air smelled sweet, like honey.

When I opened my eyes, the beanstalk was gone.

All right, that’s it, I thought. I scrambled to my feet, filled with determination to be about my mission. Which way to Father’s castle? I wondered. How can I find Shannon and Sean?

As it happened, my questions were answered before I could take so much as a step.

“Well, it’s about time,” an exasperated voice behind me said. “What took you so long?”





TEN




I spun around. Standing before me, hands on hips, was the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen. A riot of dark curls danced around her face. Her skin was golden, as if from long hours in the sun. She had bright eyes of a color I can only describe as violet. I couldn’t quite read the expression in them. Hope, fear, irritation, and curiosity were all crowded in together. She wore a simple countrywoman’s garments, just as I did. Sturdy shoes. A dress of brown homespun with an apron over it.

“You’re Shannon,” I blurted out. Hardly the most brilliant way to start.

“And you’re Gen,” she responded.

We continued to stare at each other.

“You don’t look as much like Jack as I thought you would.”

“That’s because we’re really not that much alike,” I answered, then bit my tongue. Confessing how different Jack and I were might not be such a good idea, I realized. After all, Shannon and her brother had helped Jack. Liking him had to account for at least part of why they’d done so.

“You, on the other hand, are exactly as Jack described,” I said, determined to get it right this time. “He said you were the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.”

“He did not,” Shannon protested at once. But her face had flared a bright red. Even as she made her swift denial, I saw the hope leap into her eyes.

So the attraction is mutual, I thought. Had she and Jack fallen in love? What would it feel like to do this so suddenly? To fall in love at first sight?

“He did too,” I said with a smile. We sounded like a couple of bickering six-year-olds. “I don’t suppose you happen to know where he is.”

“Not precisely,” Shannon replied, her blush vanishing abruptly. “He and Sean—that’s my brother—set out for the de Trabant lands almost a month ago. I don’t know what’s happened to them, but I’m starting to fear the worst. But you know all this. It’s why you’ve come. Jack said you would, if things went . . . wrong.”

“We don’t know that anything’s wrong,” I said forcefully, as if a firm tone would convince us both.

“Why don’t you let me take your pack?” Shannon offered. “You must be tired and hungry after your climb. Come up to the house and we can decide what to do next.”

The house, of course, was actually a castle, my parents’ former home.

“We’ve done our best to maintain things,” Shannon said as we walked. My beanstalk had not been quite as obliging as Jack’s when it came to location. It had deposited me a bit farther away from the castle. The farmer in whose field my beanstalk had appeared had been keeping an eye on it, waiting to see who it might bring to the World Above. At the first sight of me, he’d run to fetch Shannon.

“But there are only two of us now,” Shannon went on. “Even when our father was alive, it was a lot to take care of. We really only live in the rooms off the kitchen. They’re easier to heat in winter, and in summer I’m close to the garden.”

“I’m sure you made the right choices,” I said. We walked in silence for a moment or two. I kept my eyes focused on the short grass of the path in front of us. When I spoke, I wanted to make sure I said precisely what I meant.

“From what Jack told Mama and me, you and your family put the people of what used to be Duke Roland’s kingdom first. No one in our family is going to find fault with that. I’d like to think it’s what we would have done ourselves.”

I could feel Shannon’s eyes on me as we walked along.

“I think I like you,” she finally said. “I wasn’t sure I would.”

I gave a quick laugh. “Well, that’s honest. To return the favor, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to come to the World Above. I wasn’t sure I believed it existed until Jack grew that first beanstalk.”

“I can understand that,” Shannon said.

I stopped walking. “What?”

“Well, it only stands to reason,” she said, coming to a halt in her turn. “Jack said you were the practical one, the one who gets things done. I don’t imagine that leaves much time for daydreaming, even if you had the inclination for it.”

“It doesn’t,” I said. “You’re absolutely right.”

Shannon and I fell into step again. We continued in silence for several moments.

“Do you know that you’re the first, the only, person who’s ever understood that?” I asked finally. “Don’t you think that’s ironic?. The only person to understand why I never really believed in the World Above is the first person I meet once I get there. So, for the record, I think I like you, too.”

Shannon smiled. “That’s a pretty good sign. And now we know two things we have in common.”

“What’s the other one?”

“Being practical,” Shannon replied.

We reached the span of a stone bridge, long but so narrow the two of us brushed shoulders as we continued to walk side by side. Beneath us was a deep, wide expanse. Ahead of us was a great building cut from the same stone as the bridge, a somber, cloudy-day gray. But every now and then, as the sun glanced off it, I thought I caught glimpses of different colors running through it. Amber. Silver. Gold. Its towers seemed imposing yet somehow graceful at the same time.

This is it, I thought. This castle had been my parents’ home, the one my mother had come to as a bride. The one she’d left to confirm her dearest hope, only to be kept away by Guy de Trabant’s coup sixteen years ago.

Oh, Mama! How I wish that you could be here! I swear to you I’ll find the way soon, I thought.

“Speaking of practical,” I said when I’d finally found my voice, “I assume this bridge is narrow to help keep invaders at bay.”

“It is,” Shannon said, nodding. I caught the way she turned her head to look at me. I was pretty sure I knew what we were both thinking. In the end, the bridge hadn’t done any good. The “invader” who had robbed my father of both his kingdom and his life had had no need to cross it. He was already inside.

“We’re crossing what used to be the moat,” Shannon went on. “After Guy de Trabant abandoned the castle, the water dried up. I don’t know why, but it’s turned out all right. The moat bed has some of the best soil in the country.”

“So you turned it into a garden,” I said, suddenly delighted. I stopped, leaning out to gaze over the side.

“Gardens,” Shannon corrected. Now that I had stopped to look closely, I could see that she was right. The moat bed was filled with individual garden plots. Even when they looked to be growing precisely the same things, each was still slightly different from the one beside it. A woman with a bright kerchief on her head looked up and waved. I waved back.

“It looks like a patchwork quilt,” I said.

Shannon smiled. “We started by giving everyone in the closest village a plot,” she explained, “then expanded to other villages when we discovered we had room enough. When you add what’s grown here to what I raise on the castle grounds and what people grow on their own lands, nobody goes hungry. We pool our resources.”

“It’s a fine idea,” I said. “And a fine piece of work. You should be proud.” Shannon remained silent, her eyes focused on some point in the distance.

“But it’s not the same, is it?” I asked quietly. “It’s not the same as being a famous giant. It’s not the same as traveling through the countryside being hailed as a hero.”

“Not a hero—not exactly,” Shannon said quickly. “And that’s not why Sean does it, nor Papa before him.”

“No,” I said. “Of course not. Still, you’re the one in your family who’s different, aren’t you? Just like I’m the one who’s different in mine.”

“It’s silly, really.” Shannon shrugged. “I mean, it’s not as if I actually want to be a giant. Do you have any idea what it takes to make a set of Sean’s clothes?”

“No, but I’ll bet you do, right down to how many stitches it takes to set in a sleeve or mend a hole in his trousers.”

Shannon gave a snort. “It depends on the size of the hole, though as a general rule, think large.”

I smiled. “Jack’s holes might not be so big, but I bet there were more of them. He got into every kind of scrape imaginable as a boy. Nothing Mama ever said could convince him not to fill his clothes quite so full of holes. Sometimes she couldn’t even figure out how they’d got there.”

Shannon matched my smile with one of her own. But I saw the way her hands gripped the top of the stone wall until her knuckles turned white. I saw the way the edges of her lips quivered even as she turned them up.

“I bet neither of us would complain about mending again,” she said, “if only Sean and Jack would come home.”

“We’re going to find them,” I said, reaching to cover one of her hands with mine. “We’re going to find a way, you and I. That’s why you send the practical ones in last, the ones who don’t care about having an adventure.”

I gave her fingers a squeeze, and then let go. “But first I need a nap and something to eat. I hate to sound like a wimp, but I’m exhausted.”

“Of course you’re tired,” Shannon said. “You just climbed a magic beanstalk.”

“I did, didn’t I?” I said. I gazed over the side of the stone bridge, out into the World Above.

Was the green here more vivid, or was that just my imagination? Was the air filled with sweeter smells? I tilted my head back to watch a flock of birds as it wheeled across the sky. They were of no kind I recognized.

“I really, really did. I’m still not quite sure how.”

“You climbed the beanstalk the same way you do everything else,” Shannon said simply.

“By doing it,” I replied.

This time she laughed, the sound pure and high. Above our heads, I heard one of the birds call, as if in answer. I felt my heart lift, rising to join the sound.

“Okay, now I really like you,” Shannon said. And I knew it was because I’d given the same answer she would have herself.

“I’m really glad to hear it,” I answered.

Side by side we entered the great stone castle. With enough practice, I thought I just might be able to make it feel like coming home.





ELEVEN




“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” I said some time later. Shannon and I were seated at the wide trestle table in the castle’s sunny kitchen. Above our heads, herbs hung upside down to dry on a rack suspended from the ceiling. They gave the room a pungent yet homey smell.

Like Jack, climbing a beanstalk had given me a healthy appetite. The remains of the meal Shannon and I had, including the best bread I’d ever tasted, lay on the table before us.

“What do you want to know?” Shannon asked now.

“Why did you help Jack in the first place?” I asked. “I mean, aside from the—” Suddenly afraid I might give offense, I broke off.

“I think the word you’re afraid to say is ‘obvious,’” Shannon said with a chuckle.

“I’m sorry. It’s really none of my business how you and Jack feel about each other. But he was pretty clear about his feelings for you. What does it feel like to fall in love so suddenly?”

Shannon made a wry face. “Sort of like falling down a hole. The ground beneath you disappears without warning, and your stomach goes right up into your throat.”

“I don’t think I’ll try it,” I teased. “It doesn’t sound all that pleasant.”

“It’s not so bad,” Shannon said. We smiled at each other. “But we both digress. What was it you really wanted to know?”

“Why you and Sean helped Jack,” I replied. “You pretty much had to take him on faith. He had no real way of proving he was who he said he was.”

“As a matter of fact, he did,” Shannon countered. She got to her feet. “He just didn’t know it. Sean and I weren’t sure if we should show him this. He had such stars in his eyes about the World Above. But I think it’s safe to show you. Come on.”

With Shannon in th