The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, by Henri Rousseau
Pippa finished the jig with a flourish and raised her bow in the air. Its tip tapped the dingy rafter above her, and she hastily lowered it. But she smiled and bowed, along with Rosalind and Leo, as the audience clapped and whistled. "Thank you! Thank you!" Pippa called out, flushed with the thrill of a well-played set. She caught a meaningful glance from Leo. "And good night!"
"What, already?" The landlord stepped forward as the performers filed off the stage. "'Taint even midnight. They was just gettin' warmed up."
Leo brushed past the man, latching his lute case. Rosalind stopped, smoothing a stray lock of blond hair behind her ear. "Sorry, sir. Band policy."
"But . . ."
Rosalind shrugged, taking her flute apart. The landlord stepped back on the stage, facing the already grumbling crowd. "One more round of applause for Leo and the Nightmares! And anyone for one more round?" A stale bun bounced off the wall behind him, and he quickly stepped down.
"It's all for the best, sir." Pippa settled her fiddle and stood up. "You really want this rabble here all night? Turn 'em out and get yourself some sleep."
The landlord sighed. "Very well. Meg'll show you to your room."
"Thank you kindly, but we can't take one of your fine rooms. Save them for your paying guests," Rosalind said.
"But that's what's done! I give you room and board, you play your tunes and attract custom."
"It's all right, we'll take coin instead," said Rosalind.
"And breakfast," added Pippa.
The landlord buried his face in his hands, his business model overturned by some upstart young minstrels. Thinking of a loophole, he looked up, but they were gone.
Pippa and Rosalind scurried to the stable and ducked into an empty stall.
"Whew," said Rosalind, pulling off her boots. "I thought he'd never let us go."
Pippa buried her fiddle case in the manger, and sneezed. "Unlike old Count Droopy-Jowls, who couldn't wait for us to leave."
"I think we've improved a lot since then." Rosalind folded her dress and placed it in a clean corner. "If we played for the Count again, he wouldn't even recognize us."
"Except for the name he gave us." Pippa sneezed again. She selected a comb from the tack wall and blew out the lantern before dashing back to the stall and undressing herself. "Do you think he'd remove the curse?"
Rosalind untied her braid and shook out her hair. She shrugged, stretched, and whinnied. Pippa had seen her sister's body transform into a beautiful palomino every night for months, but she still wondered: Why does she go first?
After another sneeze, Pippa had completed her own transformation. She was able to understand Rosalind again.
"--not so bad, really," Rosalind was saying.
"There are advantages," Pippa agreed, and took a deep breath through her enlarged nostrils. "It cures my hay fever, every night." She kicked the comb toward Rosalind's head. "And I can grow my own bow-hair. Would you mind combing the loose hairs from my tail?"
"I think I have some, too," Rosalind nickered before grasping the comb with her teeth.
"I think we could use this more to our advantage, though." Pippa pawed at the floor as Rosalind combed her. "We could travel so much faster if we went at night, as horses. Then we could play in more towns, get paid more often. Why won't Leo let us?"
Rosalind dropped the comb. "It's hard on him, being the big brother and the only one who doesn't change."
"We're strong enough to carry the bags and Leo. He hardly touches his food anymore. He can't be that heavy."
"Leo needs his beauty sleep." Rosalind snorted. "And so do I."
Pippa combed Rosalind's tail next, and could tell her sister was dropping off to sleep. But when she set the comb aside, full of useful hairs, Pippa felt wide awake. And curious. Where did Leo spend the nights, anyway? He wouldn't take a room in any inn, and he never came to the stables with the girls. She decided to take a trot around the village.
Pippa searched high and low, but didn't see any sign of her brother in the village. She checked the surrounding fields, stopping for the occasional mouthful of clover, then decided to venture into the wilds. The full moon cast plenty of light, enough to show that her brother was nowhere to be found.
The moon was sinking, and Pippa's eyes were growing bleary, when she finally spotted a figure on the ground. The moonlight threw the man's face into shadow, but glinted off the strings of a lute. It had to be Leo. She studied him for a moment. It might be nice, sleeping out here under the stars. He certainly looked peaceful enough. Did he just need some alone time, away from greedy landlords and drunken villagers and nightmarish sisters?
Pippa was about to wake Leo and ask, then remembered that he wouldn't understand a word she said. Dawn was coming soon, and with it, her re-transformation; she should return to the stable. But something caught her eye as she turned away, and she froze, one hoof in the air.
An enormous lion padded out from behind a boulder. His sleek mane shone in the moonlight, but blood stained his chin. The lion strode silently, straight to Leo's sleeping form.
Pippa couldn't help it. She screamed, her horse-voice full of terror. The lion lifted his head, looking at her with sorrowful eyes. Pippa wheeled about and galloped back to the inn.
The lion sighed. He had tried so hard not to frighten anyone.
He reached across the still body and strummed the lute strings with one great claw. He couldn't really play it, though, not like this. Which was probably the worst part of the Count's curse. Leo stretched his four legs and settled down, hoping for a catnap before the dawn came, when he would reinhabit his human body.
Then, it seemed, he'd have to do some explaining to his sisters.