2- In Which Elena Conquers a Corset

Based solely on his size and age, the man who apparently had pulled Elena up from the inviting rope ladder was certainly a far cry from someone who should theoretically be able to carry her weight. He was an old man, but not so old that it was crippling; he was in at a seasoned age, somewhere in between the father and the grandfather generations. Elena speculated that one time, long ago, he was probably a very attractive man. The creases under his eyes were barely there and his black hair was peppered gray. Whether he was old or young, attractive or unattractive, Elena distinctly knew he was kind and gentle just by the smooth way he smiled at her as she pushed herself to her feet after climbing up into the bottom of the castle.

The man closed the hatch over the ladder without taking a moment to hesitate. After Elena steadied herself, she observed the interior of the castle to discover she was in a courtyard and, by all accounts, it looked just like a beautiful garden (with colors that would probably force tears upon her if they were splattered against her windshield) that happened to be hovering in the air. There were trees, flowers and even grass, and no indication that the vegetation might be affected by high altitudes. The courtyard was surrounded by stone walls that loomed overhead so Elena could not see beyond them.

When she turned, that was when her jaw dropped. You see, she's from upstate New York (which is very different from New York City) so she's rarely seen anything beyond silos and hills. It doesn't take much to get grander than a silo or a hill, and the vision of the extravagant castle resting just beyond the wall was almost a little too much for her to take in at first. She's not prone to fainting spells, but if she were, she may have fainted just then.

"Elena Lash, I presume?" the old man asked after a bit of quietness that Elena had hardly realized she'd allowed.

She turned around when she heard him speak and, for a moment, was almost unsure if he was speaking to her. Though, it should have been obvious she was the one he was speaking to, on account of the fact that he said her name.

"Yes," she said with a faint nod.

Again, like the handlebar mustache guy buying mustache wax, Elena was more amazed with the back story of this flying castle/ship, than she was about the fact that it existed. She wanted to know why it was there, when it had gotten there, and where it was going.

When she sorted out her priorities, she finally realized that the old man also knew what her name was, which was reason for concern.

"How did you know my name?" she asked him.

"My name is Professor Milton Steinorth," said the old man, extending his hand in a rather dainty fashion in order to collect her hand. She held out her hand with intentions to shake his, but he took her fingertips and leaned over, kissing her knuckles with great care, and then let her go. "I know most things."

She evaluated what he was wearing, now: a coat that extended past his knees and a white shirt underneath that was tucked into his pants that were pulled way to high to be anything considered comfortable. His boots had heels, oddly, and his peppered hair was mostly covered by a top-hat that made him at least eight inches taller, though it drooped just a little bit. He was rather thin, and created an image about him that made him look like a cane for a much larger person.

He removed his hat in a grand sweeping sort of motion, crossing his hand across his body, and bowing deeply to show his respect for Elena (why he respected her, she couldn't imagine). Elena was not sure how she was supposed to respond to something like that, so she hesitantly bent her legs slightly to make some sort of half-hearted attempt at a curtsy. Steinorth did not even see it, though, because he was still fully engaged in his bow, and must have remained in that position for an uncomfortable minute, before finally standing up straight again and placing his hat back where it belonged.

"Is this your castle?" Elena asked, partially over her mild shock.

Steinorth laughed heartily at the prospect. "No, Miss," he replied. "This belongs to our great King."

"It's the Kingdom of the Clouds," Elena murmured, turning her head to look at the magnificent castle again. She wasn't sure where the title had come from; perhaps deep in her subconscious, because somehow she felt as though she had read it before.

"Very good," Steinorth remarked. "Then surely you know of our plight already. And you have come not too soon: we've lost the Chaste Beauty to The Others, and our quest to get her back as been rather less than successful thus far."

The words Steinorth said certainly were English, but as far as Elena was concerned, they didn't make any cohesive sense. Chaste Beauty? The Others? Quest?

"Come, you will be having your audience with the King very soon," said Steinorth, putting his long arm around Elena to guide her towards the drawbridge which separated the courtyard from the castle. "Might I recommend a wardrobe change before you see his majesty?"

Elena nodded simply. Despite the utter weirdness of the current situation, she did not find herself alarmed or scared. In fact, the only emotion she was really feeling was curiosity. Only good could come from this, couldn't it?

Steinorth clapped his hands twice once he was in front of the drawbridge, and it slowly began to lower. Elena watched as it extended and rest at her feet. Steinorth guided her through and it felt as though she wasn't even totally inside the castle before the drawbridge began to close behind her.

"In times of war, we must be careful," Steinorth explained when he perhaps noticed Elena a little hesitant with how fast the drawbridge had closed up behind her.

"War?" Elena repeated. "With The Others? The ones who kidnapped the Chaste Beauty—or whatever you called her?"

"The Chaste Beauty…" Steinorth reminisced with utter sadness filling his warm eyes. He was truly heartbroken over the girl's loss. "The Chaste Beauty was a bit of an oracle; occasionally, she had visions that foretold the future. As a matter of fact, she was even able to foretell her own kidnapping, but the vision was so vague, that she couldn't pinpoint exactly when or where it would take place. "The Others took her quite without permission and disappeared without a trace. There was no way to track them or find their Chaste Beauty, so the Kingdom of Clouds was on the search for her."

"I see," Elena agreed. "So what does any of that have to do with me?"

He led her down the hallways of the castle. The rooms were dark aside from the torches that lined the walls, and the carpets were red and thick so Elena nearly tripped whenever one carpet ended and the next one began. When they came to a large window that had a balcony, Steinorth invited her to step out onto the balcony.

She did so, and she was quite amazed; she was over the wall and overlooking the ground below her. There was her car shrinking into the distance; fifty feet, one hundred feet! It soon looked like just a toy car as the castle climbed higher into the air. She could see the entire hill, then the entire town; she pinpointed her school for the professor and he laughed at the idea of attending a public academy.

Her wonderment passed, as it will with young girls, and she recalled that the professor had failed to answer her question. "What does the Chaste Beauty's kidnapping have to do with me?" she repeated.

"Are you asking me why we have chosen you to come to the Kingdom of Clouds? To meet the King?"

"Yes, essentially."

Steinorth once again guided her back into the hallways. "The King will make things clear for you," he assured her. "For now, I will wait out here. You may go inside and find yourself with all the help you need."

Elena agreed, for now (and only for now) and pushed open the heavy wooden door while Steinorth waited patiently where he stood. Elena was immediately greeted by three cheery girls dressed in matching uniforms that hardly seemed practical for getting very much of anything done: long gray dresses that poofed and dragged on the ground, and white aprons with sleeves that frilled at the wrist. They each had one long braid to suit them, and ridiculous square shaped hats. Their faces were almost indistinguishable from one another, but that may have just been because there really wasn't any reason to remember who they were.

They pampered Elena, and it was certainly refreshing. They sat her down on a fluffy white stool and removed her raincoat (it was supposed to rain that day, but thus far it was all clear skies). They tugged at her hair and decided to wash it to better tame it. They remarked on how soft her hair was, and Elena scarcely knew how to take a compliment, so she only shyly thanked them. (Maybe she would not have thanked them if she knew they were practically conditioned to compliment anything about the lady they were serving.)

Elena was a little shy, but she reasoned these three women were a lot like doctors, in that they had dressed plenty of naked girls before in their lives, so it's not as though her naked body should be anything remarkable. And rest assured, it certainly was not; it's not as though Elena was particularly ugly, but she was not particularly perfect either. She had some scabs here and there, and perhaps too much weight in places like her thighs and underarms. She imagined she looked larger without her clothes on; Elena was normally fairly adept at dressing herself to make her body type look more flattering. No, she was not exceptionally gorgeous, but it didn't bother her.

The three women did not comment or even seem to notice her curves. They suited her with a corset, which is not nearly as glamorous as one might think. In fact, all it really does is keep a maiden from breathing properly, which is of course what led them to fainting spells (on account of the fact that they just couldn't breathe). Elena quietly asked that they loosened it a bit, but the maids worried that she would not fit into the small dress they had picked out for her if they loosened the corset too much.

Thankfully, the dress slipped over Elena's head and settled nicely on her. It was an elegant burgundy with gold lining that trailed around the hem and the cuffs. The collar buttoned up conservatively and tightly at her neck, with white ruffles cascading from what appeared to be under her chin, and about halfway down her chest. The sleeves were long and tied up with golden lace, fitted tightly so Elena would not be permitted to roll up her sleeves if she found herself warm (or if she felt a faint coming on, which just might happen, what with that corset on and all).

The dress seemed a touch too long, but the maids told her not to worry as they sat her down and slipped tall white boots on her feet. The boots buttoned almost up to her knees and held in place like a pair of skinny-jeans; not terribly comfortable. All around, Elena lost her enamor with the old Victorian ladies who looked so elegant and beautiful in their dresses. All she felt was constricted, stuffy and hot (like warm—not like sexy).

They curled her hair and arranged it so the cascading brown swirls resembled the fluffed similarly to the white fabric arranged around her neck. An elegant matching pin was placed at the root of her hair as one of the maids decorated her face with powder and other old-fashioned make-up. It took a considerably long time, Elena griped to herself, and she was all the while becoming increasingly annoyed with the transformation she was going through just to learn what she was even doing there.

Time passed, and eventually the maids were satisfied with what they had accomplished enough to allow her to leave. Elena examined herself closely in the mirror and didn't think she really resembled Elena Lash anymore—in fact, she wagered she looked much more like…Lady Elena Lash…of…Vanderbilt Hall, or something equally nonsensical and utterly made up.

"There she is," Steinorth announced as Elena came through the door with the three maids applauding. Steinorth thanked the maids for doing their job so well, and then took Elena back down the hallway they had taken to get to that place.

"Am I meeting the King now?" Elena asked, putting her hand on her waist where the corset constricted her. It forced her to stand up straight because there was simply no other place for her spine to go but up as high as it could.

"His majesty is waiting to see you as we speak," Steinorth said reassuringly.

Steinorth did another one of his grand sweeping bows as he reached a large set of double doors. There was a pair of guards standing outside the doors, wearing matching burgundy uniforms (yes, the same color as Elena's dress), who bowed back to Steinorth. They simultaneously reached out and opened the two doors, pushing them forward to reveal the long entrance to an enormous room.

Elena swallowed hard, and suddenly became aware of the loud whirring beneath her, as if a hundred helicopters were used to keep the castle afloat. Somehow, Elena didn't think that a castle that didn't have electricity and dressed its guests in corsets and Victorian gowns would also have helicopters. Then again, it's not as though it made any sense that the castle was floating at all, but that was just an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.

Steinorth cleared his throat in support of her endeavor of taking the first step. Finally, she began to stride, her legs heavy and weighted under all the fabric and buttons. Though, once she got started, she found it was much easier to keep pressing forward, and gained some momentum. Sure enough, she was fairly close to her destination, which was an elevated platform that was about three feet off the ground. The platform had an oversized throne on it, as if the King was supposed to be about twenty-five feet tall.

But no, this King was not twenty-five feet tall. He was averaged sized, or maybe even a little on the short side. One might think he would construct a throne that was slightly smaller than it should have been in order to make him seem larger, rather than getting a large throne designed to make him seem smaller. Regardless of his thought process behind the construction of his fabulous chair, he was there in all his glory: King of the Kingdom of Clouds. Which sounded rather redundant. She guessed the double mention of 'king' in the title was only meant to draw attention to the fact that, yes, he really is important.

This time, Elena felt much more equipped to do a proper curtsy, and she did. The King seemed entertained by her attempt to seem proper; he knew that even though she was dressed as a member of his court, she was not a member of his court. This King was no fool. He may be a little old (older than Steinorth) and not too adept in picking out furniture, but he knew his way around public relations.

"Elena Lash, I presume," he rumbled in a voice that sounded like any friendly grandpa.

Elena rose from her curtsy. "Yes," she said, wanting to comment on the fact that Steinorth had welcomed her in the same way.

"I am the King of the Clouds," said the King. "This is my Kingdom. Welcome."

"Thank you," said Elena, glancing around at the extravagant room one more time, wondering if he was referring only to the room when he introduced his kingdom.

"I assume Professor Steinorth has already explained to you our current dire situation," said the King, folding his hands and looking everlastingly concerned.

"He mentioned something about a Chaste Beauty and that she was kidnapped," Elena said, trying to remind herself to stand up straight if not just for the corset, but also because she was standing in front of royalty. "But he never really said what that had to do with me."

"You," the King began, "have Awakened."

Elena was utterly confused by the King's statement. "Awakened?" Elena questioned.

"Awakened as the new Chaste Beauty."

And now Elena was utterly utterly confused. "I don't have visions. I don't prophesize things like she did. I can't replace her."

The King chuckled in sort of a condescending kind of chuckle that Elena was not totally fond of. "It is your destiny," said the King. "It is what you have been chosen to do. I know how confusing this must be for you, but this is what you were born to do. Just knowing you are here will set the minds of the people at ease, and will keep the Seven Sons from jumping to any quick conclusions…"

Elena wasn't sure what she wanted to ask questions about first.

"When the Seven Sons learn the new Chaste Beauty has Awakened, they may seize that opportunity to strike," the King explained. He scrunched up his old-man-face a little bit and reconsidered his explanation. "Of course, the Seven Sons are also regularly compelled to attempt to kidnap the Chaste Beauty as well…"

"How do you know the Seven Sons didn't kidnap her?" Elena pleaded. She was a little concerned that she would be essentially used as cannon fodder. Strike that—quite concerned. Maybe even bordering on hysterical.

"Well, that's something you need to know about the Seven Sons," the King went on.

However, he didn't have time to continue. There was suddenly a great rumbling from outside the grand windows that went unmentioned until this point, and the constant whirring of the supposed helicopters underneath the castle seemed to skip a beat (I wouldn't bring up that whirring if it wasn't necessary for you to know about it). The King seemed concerned—quite concerned—almost hysterical, even, and stood up from his enormous throne.

"We can keep you save, Elena, as long as you allow us to," he practically bellowed at her.

Elena's mouth fell open, still a little taken aback and unsure how to react. She looked out the window and saw a giant black mass in the far distance moving closer to the castle at break-neck speed. Smaller shadows spurted off the giant one, and Elena realized what they were: cannon balls.

The weaponry careened with the Kingdom of Clouds, sending it flying backwards, knocking it off balance. Elena screamed as she fell over, falling in a heap, unable to move too quickly because of her corset. The Kingdom of Clouds began to tumble, turning on its side, and the torches dislodged from the wall.

Elena began to fall as well. She fell towards the windows on the other side of the room. Surely she would crash right through and fall back down to earth. Surely…

A wire trashcan hit the side of Elena's car. She awoke with a start, flailing slightly as she did, and gripped onto the steering wheel in terror. There was a storm outside; there was howling wind and rushing water. The wind swept a lone trashcan up off the ground and smashed it against Elena's car. It was startling and perhaps scratched the car but, all around, she was fine.

Elena stared out at the hill in front of her and it was as it always was. There was no giant floating castle. Professor Steinorth and the King were both oddly vivid elements of a strange dream. Elena could not recall exactly when she had dozed off, but she found herself rather glad that she wasn't tumbling out of a floating castle and careening down to the earth.