Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
For the wedding, we three wore gowns in the Amentine style, but in summery Pergamian fabrics. Lilith wore white, I was in pale, rosy pink and Renata’s gown was deep magenta. I was finding it hard to breath in my corset, and I could barely keep still long enough for Eugenia to make me up.
Renata checked the hour-candle: it was time. She nodded to Lilith and we fell in behind her. Renata was wearing her crown and I had a delicate garland of roses in my hair. Lilith wore a thin white veil sewn to her silver circlet.
The ceremony was to take place in a rose arbour in the garden. We met Amis in the throne room, Renata presenting her eldest to him formally, as if for the first time. The pair bowed with the requis- ite stiffness, but I could see smiles hovering at the corners of their mouths.
In the Pergamian royal family, it was the king and queen who performed the marriage ceremony. The son or daughter had to present their betrothed and then swear all the things they would and would not do from this day forth, and generally sum up why their parents should consent to the match.
I was so busy scanning for Rodden’s dark hair and brooding features as I walked to my place in front that I barely registered the beauty of the rose arbour. By the time I’d reached the front, curtseyed to the king and queen on their ubiquitous thrones, and moved to one side, I knew he wasn’t there. Unable to help myself, I kept glancing over my shoulder at the court seated behind me until Renata gave me a stern look.
I couldn’t believe Rodden was missing the wedding of his best friend. I had desperately wanted to talk to him before anyone promised anything to anyone. If I didn’t like his response I could still have a fainting fit and halt the proceedings until I came up with another plan. There didn’t seem much point in fainting now. I would just have to track him down after the ceremony.
The irony of his absence hadn’t escaped me: I’d spent my whole time in Pergamia trying to avoid Rodden, and as soon as I wanted him around, he disappeared.
Then Amis was bringing Lilith up the aisle to his parents. I looked at them, and my anxieties were soothed enough to watch the ceremony, if not actually listen to the words. The pair knelt before the king and queen, bowing their heads. King Askar began a long speech, something about the might of Pergamia and its great, illustrious history. Then Queen Ulah made an even longer speech about the sanctity of marriage. Amis’s aunts had snagged a front row seat and I could hear them hiccupping and blowing loudly into handkerchiefs as they wept. Carmelina, standing at the front with me, was tearing up too.
Nothing really filtered through to me until right at the end. Amis had finished his lengthy promises to Lilith and was telling the king and queen why he wanted to marry her. He was looking at Lilith with an open face and a gaze of pure love.
‘. . . met her it was like I already knew her. It was like remembering, not learning; seeing, instead of just looking; and not only hearing, but sensing and knowing and feeling all at once. Because we are the same, deep down. And nothing can change that.’
The words were meant to be words of joy, but they stung me. I realised then that no one was ever going to stand up in front of a room full of people and say such things to me. I couldn’t let anyone see me how I really was, because I was a monster. I would never find that one person who, deep down, was the same as me. I felt tears start, and I was angry with myself for crying, for feeling sorry for myself. But then Lilith and Amis were standing, facing us all, and everyone was crying, so I let the tears fall over the smile that I made myself wear, for them, because they were in love. And I felt that part of me that was happy for them and I cherished it. Because that part was human, and it was the part that I fervently hoped was the real me.
inally, at the wedding feast, he was there. We were celebrating outdoors in the sunshine and I spotted him making his way over the grounds to the banquet from quite far off, so I slipped away from the high table, scooted in a wide arc and intercepted him.
Rodden looked around and saw me hiding behind an oak. He gave me a curious look.
I waved him over. ‘Where have you been?’ I hissed.
He instantly looked annoyed. ‘Well, I would tell you, but I’ve just remembered it’s none of your business.’
‘Don’t be so snippy. What was going on this morning? Were we being attacked?’
Rodden looked around. We weren’t far from the others. ‘Will you keep your voice down?’ he said, through gritted teeth. ‘I told you, it’s none of your –’
‘Yes, yes, none of my business. I didn’t want to talk to you about that, anyway. I want to make a deal with you.’
He folded his arms. ‘You don’t have anything I want.’
‘Oh, really? The other day you said you wanted my hand in marriage.’
‘That was just to see the look on your face.’
‘And how was it?’
I could only imagine.
I took a deep breath. ‘I know too much. You want me gone. I’ll go home if you keep Lilith safe.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘Come on! It’s easy. I’ll go quietly back to Amentia, not tell anyone about what you are and what you’re doing –’
‘You don’t know what I’m doing.’
‘That’s beside the point. You’re up to no good, and if I had five minutes in your room I’d find out what. But I promise never to even think of you again, if you, when the time comes, whatever it involves, will make sure that Lilith is far, far away from any trouble.’ There. It was exactly what he wanted. He would have to agree.
He shook his head. ‘I can’t.’
‘What do you mean, you can’t? You run this place and you can’t see that my sister conveniently goes on holiday before things get blown sky-high?’
His coolness angered me. It was my sister’s life we were talking about, and he was acting as if I was asking him to pass the salt. I gave up bargaining and resorted to threats. ‘Yes, you can. You will. Or I’m going to stay and kick up a fuss about the ring. About everything.’
‘Suit yourself. No one will believe you. And it’s not as if you’ll find any evidence now. I’ve been more careful since I found you under my bed.’
Threats weren’t working. I tried to appeal to his humanity; what was left of it, at any rate. ‘Where’s your compassion? Have the Lharmellins taken it all?’
I could see this was irritating him rather than persuading him. He pitched his voice low and leaned towards me. ‘If you’re so noble and good,’ he said, ‘why haven’t you told everyone what I am already? Or what you suspected about yourself even before you got in that carriage? Why would you keep such things to yourself? Could it possibly have been because it was in your own best interests?’
‘I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Getting everyone into.’
‘Rubbish. You’ve been suffering the hunger for years. And you don’t know why, do you? Let me guess. It started when you were twelve, thirteen? Mild at first, but it has increased as you’ve travelled northwards?’
It had started around the time of my first bleeding. How did he know such a thing? But Lilith was foremost in my mind.
‘So you won’t help me?’
He studied my face. ‘Can you even make it back to Amentia? You’ve come so close to Lharmell. There will be a lot of pain if you try to leave.’
I nodded. I would try, for Lilith’s sake. I had felt a little of that pain already. As long as I had laudanum I would be able to make it.
‘And if I try to make sure that Lilith’s safe, you’ll go home quietly?’
‘Promise. You need to
she’ll be safe.’
‘I can’t promise anything. But between Amis and me, she should be safe.’
I nodded. I trusted Amis.
Rodden was grave for a moment, and then gave me a rueful smile. ‘You’ve given me quite a run for my money. You might even be strong enough to stay put in Amentia, what do you think?’
That was rich, considering he was the one who’d drawn me here. ‘If I’m left in peace,’ I said tartly. But in an odd way, I would miss him. Like a good sparring partner, he seemed to bring out the best in me. Despite the uncertainty and fear of the past weeks, I had felt more alive than I ever had in my life. I was tempted to tell him so as he stood before me, all his sarcasm and prickliness gone. He leaned against the tree, his eyes still on my face. I felt my face grow warm under his gaze, and I couldn’t help wondering how it would have been if circumstances were different – if we weren’t enemies, for one. ‘Rodden . . .’ I began.
‘Yoo-hoo! Darlings!’ It was Rupa. She’d spotted us and was coming over. ‘Are we to have another wedding before the year is out?’ She thought she’d caught a pair of lovers in a tryst behind a tree.
He bowed. ‘Perhaps, madam,’ he said, and offered me his arm.
I thought Rodden would disappear as soon as I was seated back at the table, but he sat down next to me. We kept a careful silence for a while, but the beautiful day and festive mood softened us, and I soon found he was passing me dishes and filling my glass as if we were the lovers Rupa had flushed from the garden.
‘Where are Leap and Griffin?’ he asked.
‘In my room. Lilith doesn’t like them much so I thought it best they didn’t come to the wedding.’
‘Call them down.’
‘They’re too far away. They won’t hear me.’
‘With your mind. Like I showed you.’
I looked at him doubtfully. I hadn’t tried the mind-calling thing again. I didn’t believe I could do it.
‘Go on,’ he urged. ‘Close your eyes if it helps. Picture them as if you’re in the same room, show them a picture of where you are, and ask them to come to you.’
I closed my eyes. In my mind’s eye I saw them in my room; Leap curled up on the bed, Griffin nodding off on the bedpost.
, I thought with all my might.
Come to the gardens?
They both sat up and looked around, as if hearing something far off. Then the picture faded.
‘Did it work?’ he asked.
I looked around. ‘You tell me.’ I felt silly and stabbed my fork into some beans. Then the court gave a collective gasp and I looked up to see Griffin flying low over the tables, fast as an arrow. She wheeled and dove again. With each pass the gasps grew louder. Then Rodden threw a quail into the air and she caught it in her talons, and everyone applauded.
I heard a trill at my feet and looked down. Big green eyes stared up at me. ‘Leap!’ He jumped into my lap and started sniffing at my plate. I looked at him in wonderment. ‘It actually worked.’
Rodden shrugged. ‘Of course.’ He made it sound as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
‘Rodden!’ King Askar stood, brandishing a wine glass. He looked a little drunk. ‘There you are, my boy. I’ve just remembered: you promised to give that pretty girl whatever she desired, and the poor thing has had nothing from you.’
I raised my hand and opened my mouth, about to explain about the ring, but Rodden grabbed it and held it under the table. Oh, right. It was a secret.
‘Your Majesty,’ said Rodden. ‘We were just discussing it. In honour of her departure with her mother, Zeraphina would like a ball, the day after tomorrow. A masquerade ball.’
A dance? If I wished for anything it wouldn’t be a silly dance. But, as usual, Rodden had made it impossible for me to protest as the king and court were already laughing and clapping their approval.
Rodden was still holding my hand under the table. I was surprised that his touch didn’t make me uncomfortable; I didn’t shy away, afraid that he could sense what I was through his skin. But then, he already knew. Again, I felt myself wishing things had been different between us. I wouldn’t have to hide my true nature from a man who already knew what I was.
‘I would have preferred a new bow,’ I said quietly, pulling my hand from his grasp. There was no point wishing for something that could never be.
‘Most girls prefer dances.’
‘I’m not most girls.’
‘I’ve noticed,’ he said, looking at the hand I’d taken from him, now resting on the table.
I sat back, gazing around at the tables. Everyone was having such a good time, talking and laughing. Celebrating. Lilith and Amis were in a crowd of well-wishers, opening pretty coloured gifts. Renata had been cornered by the aunts, but she didn’t look too upset about it. The four were screeching away about something. Rodden and I were conspicuous by our subdued manner, the only ones talking and eating quietly.
Rodden followed my gaze around the party.
‘I wish you would just tell me what was going on. I’d feel much better about leaving Lilith if I knew.’
‘I’ve told you that I’ll guard her. You’ll have to be content with that.’
‘But if I only knew I might be able to put it out of my mind.’
‘You’re reasoning makes no sense,’ he scoffed.
‘Yes, it does. I’m a very curious person. I’d be able to forget about –’
‘Drop it, Zeraphina.’ The frown had returned to his brow.
I was silent until Carmelina took me away for a walk. ‘I had to get away from that table. I was eating myself into oblivion! And you looked like you needed rescuing from Rodden. He looks so morbid today,’ she said when we were out of earshot.
‘Yes, he’s in a bad mood. As usual. Thanks.’ We walked towards the sundial on the far side of the grounds.
‘When I looked over earlier you were chatting quite nicely. What happened?’ She was needling me for gossip. Ever since Rodden announced the tournament people had been whispering about a secret engagement.
‘We don’t really chat. We’ve reached a sort of understanding, I guess.’
‘What, he gives you your ring back and you stop telling everyone he’s a spy?’
I reddened. I’d forgotten my outburst to Carmelina at the markets. ‘Something like that,’ I muttered.
Carmelina gave me a sidelong glance. ‘You know, I think I’ll miss you, Zeraphina. You’re the most interesting thing to happen around here for a long time. That tournament! My heart was in my mouth the whole time. At first I thought he was going to let you win, but you should have seen the strain on his face. He must really want to marry you.’ Carmelina flopped down on a bench, eyeing me carefully.
I plucked a yellow flower and began tearing it to shreds. ‘No. He just wanted to win, same as me.’ I wanted to tell Carmelina that if she was bored after I left, all she needed to do was look up into the night sky. The Lharmellins certainly weren’t going to bore anyone.
‘Excuse me, ladies.’
I turned and saw Rodden.
‘I was hoping I could borrow Zeraphina for a moment.’
‘Oh, borrow away.’ Carmelina flashed me a knowing smile.
He held out his arm, and after a moment I took it. Carmelina was being a pain, anyway.
Rodden led me away from the feast into a darker part of the grounds where I’d never been before. The laughter and voices disappeared behind us, muffled by distance and foliage. I could hear only the twittering of birds. I wondered if I should be afraid, but Rodden had that look on his face, the one he’d had earlier when we’d just been ourselves, and not enemies.
‘Where are you taking me?’
‘Shh,’ he admonished.
We didn’t seem to be on any sort of path, and had to keep ducking under ferns and trailing willows as we made our way into thicker undergrowth. Just before Rodden pulled away a palm frond, he turned to me and put his finger to his lips.
We stepped into a little glade. The sunlight filtered through the canopy and lay dappled on the grass. He stood behind me, hands on my shoulders, directing my gaze.
‘Wait,’ he murmured.
Then, out of the darkness, shy as anything, stepped a beautiful blue bird. It was the peacock. With dainty steps it made its way to the middle of the glade, its feathery golden tail trailing over the grass. It paused, as if posing for us. Then it slowly raised its tail and it spread like a fan. I gasped, despite the caution to be silent. It was even more beautiful close up. Hundreds of blue and green eyes shimmered in the afternoon light. The peacock stood for a moment, as if knowing it was being admired, and then slowly lowered its tail and disappeared back into the bushes.
‘Oh, it’s so beautiful,’ I cried, turning to Rodden. ‘It doesn’t seem real. It’s like somebody crafted it out of jewels and feathers.’
Rodden was smiling down at me, and I sensed unspoken words.
‘What?’ I asked.
He shook his head and led me back to the wedding feast. By the time we were nearing the tables, I felt my good mood seep away. Lilith. Lharmell. It all came rushing back to me. Rodden must have seen the look on my face because he stopped and turned to me.
‘Did you forget? Just for a moment?’ He nodded his head in the direction we had come.
I realised he was referring to the peacock. I had forgotten the whole sorry mess, just for a moment. I grinned up at him. ‘Yes, I did. For the very first time.’ He smiled too, and we were smiling at each other out of genuine happiness. That was a first too. And then I realised, looking at him, I had forgotten again. And I began to laugh.
Just as Renata had predicted, there was a bedsheet hanging in the great hall the next morning, proof to everyone that Lilith had been a virgin on her wedding night. I sat next to her on the dais and helped myself to fruit.
‘I’m so embarrassed,’ Lilith hissed. ‘Do you think they can take it down yet?’ She looked a little pink but happy, too.
I gave her a nudge. ‘How was it?’ She’d been as white as her flimsy nightgown when everyone had crowded into Amis’s bedchamber the previous night to tuck in the bride and groom.
Lilith blushed again and smiled. ‘It was . . . nice. I mean, I knew what to expect, sort of, but at the same time I didn’t. Hush now, Amis is coming.’
As Amis came up to the high table, everyone gathered in the hall erupted into lewd cheers and catcalls. Lilith ducked her face behind her hand.
Rodden hadn’t appeared yet and I desperately wanted to talk to him. Before the applause died down, I slipped away and out a side door, making my way to the northern turret. At the top of the stairs, I knocked on the banister to announce my arrival, and to prove that I wasn’t there to snoop.