Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
‘What?’ came the response.
‘It’s, uh, just me.’ I came into the room.
Rodden was at his desk poring over some books which he immediately closed. ‘I told you. I hid all the evidence.’
‘Very funny.’ I sat on the edge of his desk, peering at the spines of the books. He turned them away from me. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Habit.’
‘What do you want?’ It seemed Rodden had given up brooding just for the wedding and now he was back to his normal, irate self.
‘I need a favour.’
‘Now, there’s a surprise.’
‘Why are you always so grumpy?’
‘Why are you always so annoying?’
I shrugged. ‘Enjoy it while you can. I’ll be gone the day after tomorrow.’
He sat silently, his arms folded. Waiting.
‘I need you to get me some of that laudanum stuff. A big bottle. Enough to knock me out till I get to Amentia.’
‘Certainly not. Laudanum is highly addictive. You’ll be hooked after a week. I thought you said you were strong enough to do this.’
‘Conscious, you mean? Are you joking? I go into cold sweats just thinking about it.’
‘You have to try. You can’t take laudanum for the rest of your life. You’ll turn into a zombie.’
‘A zombie is better than a harming.’
He narrowed his eyes at me. ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘Then tell me and I will.’
He sighed. We were back to that old argument.
When he spoke again his voice was softer. ‘You forgot yesterday. Twice. I could see it in your eyes.’
I looked at my hands in my lap. At the rings on my thumbs. Yesterday, I had forgotten because of him. ‘I don’t think I can do it by myself.’
‘Come on, Zeraphina. You’re stronger than that.’
I looked out an arrow slit. I could see the sea from this height; the northern horizon.
‘Oh, all right,’ he said. He went to the bench. There was the clink of glass as he searched among various bottles. He came back and put a very small vial into my hand. ‘It’s enough for one dose. Swallow it just before you get into the carriage. All of it at once. And don’t tell your mother.’ He closed my hand around it. ‘And then try to forget everything. Marry someone in the south. Far, far to the south.’
I nodded. ‘Thank you.’
He held my hand for a moment longer. ‘All right.’ He looked back to his books and I knew I’d been dismissed. I hovered for a moment, wondering if that was it; if the last time I ever saw him I would be looking at the top of his head. ‘Bye,’ I muttered, and turned away.
I emerged at the bottom of the stairs, tucking the tiny bottle of oblivion into my sleeve.
I was sitting on the terrace when the knock came at the door. It was the morning of the ball being thrown in my honour, and I was trying to come up with a way of getting out of it. I wasn’t in the mood for a dance. A book lay forgotten in my lap and a cold glass of water was sweating at my elbow. Leap was basking in the sun, belly-up to catch the rays. Griffin had disappeared, but in my mind’s eye I could see her circling over the wilderness that grew to the north of the grounds. I was getting better at this mind-communication thing. It would be my one comfort on the journey home, after the laudanum had worn off.
‘Zeraphina!’ Renata called. ‘There’s something here for you.’
A huge paper box was perched on the ottoman, done up with a gold ribbon.
‘Who is it from?’ I asked.
‘How should I know?’
I pulled the ribbon off and opened the box. Underneath layers of tissue was a mask: it was a costume for the masquerade ball. Renata had already found me a plain silver mask to wear with one of my dresses, but this was something else. It was heavy and golden, and instead of a nose it had a beak. From the eye-holes dripped tears of diamonds.
Underneath the mask was a dress, and I pulled it out. It was of the richest blue satin, with a tailored bodice like an Amentine gown and a long train. The train was made of golden feathers, dotted with hundreds of blue and green eyes. ‘It’s a peacock costume.’ I thought of the creature’s plaintive cries, so beautiful and yet so sad. The diamond tears on the mask made sense now.
‘I can see that. Who is it from?’
There was no note. But I knew. ‘It’s from Rodden.’
‘Oh, really.’ She pursed her lips. ‘Doesn’t he know that only the male peacocks are blue? Peahens are brown.’
I shrugged, transfixed by the beautiful dress. ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s just a costume.’ I took the whole package to my room and closed the door. As soon as I’d seen the dress I’d known what Rodden was trying to tell me: the peacock was a reminder that I could put the Lharmellins out of my mind if I really wanted to. It was strange that he’d drawn me northwards only to want to send me back almost immediately. Strange and infuriating. But I had his assurance that he and Amis would keep Lilith safe, and their union meant my people wouldn’t starve.
I still didn’t have the answers I craved. But with these comforts, and the tiny bottle of laudanum to help me, I could find the strength to go home.
ow that Lilith was safely married, my mother could turn to her Next Big Project: me.
‘You haven’t met nearly enough men,’ she reproached as Eugenia expertly did my hair. She swept my hair off my neck into a twist, and little golden clips studded with blue-green jewels were placed among my curls.
‘I’ve met men. I nearly married one. Don’t you remember?’ I turned my head this way and that, admiring the sparkling clips in the mirror. I often felt detached from the whole affair of dressing for dinner and parties, as if I were a doll, but I found tonight was different. I wanted to do justice to the dress. It was strapless, the bodice peacock-blue and edged in gold, full skirted at the front and gathered into an elaborate, foaming bustle of satin and peacock feathers at the back. I insisted that every inch of bare skin was powdered with gold: my shoulders, décolletage, and the lower part of my face. The golden mask would cover my eyes, and my lips were painted with more gold. I carried a golden fan that, when it was opened, revealed hundreds of eyes and looked exactly like a peacock’s tail. It belonged to Queen Ulah, and she’d insisted I borrow it when she heard about my costume. I opened it and practised fluttering it coquettishly.
Renata wasn’t amused by my comment. ‘How could I forget, Daughter? You were a cat’s whisker away from life as a politician’s wife.’ She said this as if it were the most loathsome thing in the world. I remembered how she treated her own politicians: like something to be scraped off a shoe. ‘Amis’s aunts have some unmarried sons. Prince Phillip sounds like a very sweet young man. Calli and I will introduce you tonight.’
‘I’m not marrying a Pergamian,’ I insisted. It would be too close to Lharmell for my comfort.
Renata fastened on my mask and stepped back to look at me. ‘Turn, darling, turn.’
I turned, and all the gold dust and jewels sparkled in the candlelight. The dress made pleasant swishing sounds on the floor.
‘I don’t like to say this about my own daughter as it’s rather conceited of me, but you are stunning.’ She frowned. ‘So why is it crying? The mask, I mean.’
I looked in the mirror at the glittering tears that the bird, that I, was shedding. ‘Because it’s sad?’
Renata’s frown deepened. ‘You’d better stay far away from that Rodden Lothskorn tonight. I don’t want you near him.’
‘Why ever not?’
‘Because he’s in love with you. Now, come on. Let’s go and find this prince.’ Renata pulled her own black mask over her eyes and we made our way to the ballroom.
I allowed myself a secret smile. Now that Rodden was forbidden to see me, he was sure to turn up. I don’t know why I should care if he was there or not. But it would be an awful pity if he missed seeing the dress.
The great hall was a heaving, swirling, mad rush of colours and unfamiliar people. The chandeliers had been lowered to just above the reach of the dancers and the walls had been strung with gold ribbons and baubles. The alacrity with which the Pergamians were able to throw party after party amazed me.
I had my fan open and fluttering the minute I stepped into the room; it was incredibly hot. As we moved through the anonymous mass of people, first a poodle, then a seahorse, and then some sort of bird of paradise screeched my name and kissed me. They must have recognised me from the archery tournament, but I had no idea who they were or how they knew me in my costume. A clutch of pretty swans waved to me, and I thought perhaps they were the teenage girls who’d smiled shyly at me as they’d taken their marks at the tournament.
I suddenly felt like the guest of honour after all. I was quite pleased with myself for having made such an impression in less than a fortnight.
‘Yoo-hoo! Renata! Over here.’ It was Calli, standing at the refreshments table. She held a napkin in her palm loaded with canapés. Next to her stood a young man in white satin with a mass of cotton wool on his head. When he saw me he gasped and clutched my hand.
‘My dear, you look absolutely gorgeous.’
‘Thank you, ah . . . Phillip?’
‘Yes, Princess, this is my son,’ Calli interjected. ‘Doesn’t he look adorable?’
I looked at the man again, wondering what he could be. ‘Whipped cream?’ I guessed.
‘He’s a cloud, silly! A cloud!’ screeched Calli, and her pink tiered dress bounced up and down. She, it seemed, was dressed as a cake.
‘Phillip, why don’t you get Zeraphina some punch and take her out on the terrace?’ suggested Renata.
I didn’t want punch on the terrace, I wanted to stay right where I was and play spot the harming. But Renata gave me a hard look, so I accepted the cup and Phillip’s arm and we made our way outside where it was blissfully cool.
‘The cloud thing was Mother’s idea. I wanted to be a stallion but she thought I didn’t have the figure for it.’
He was a tiny bit plump, but it was nothing a horse costume wouldn’t cover. ‘Oh, I didn’t choose my costume either,’ I said airily. I took a big gulp of punch. It was very good indeed. Some sort of exotic fruit mixture, I guessed. I drained the glass.
‘Yes, but yours is perfect.’ He was looking through the windows to the dance floor, but the gauzy curtains made it very hard to make anyone out.
‘Looking for someone?’ I asked.
‘Yes, a snake and an ostrich. They’re my friends, Corrin and Windsor. You’ll have to meet them, they’re such fun.’ He noticed my empty glass. ‘Like another?’
As he went I saw him do a double take on a man dressed in a bullfighter’s costume, and then give a blacksmith an admiring glance. It occurred to me that perhaps Phillip liked men in the way that girls liked men. Calli and Renata would be disappointed. All the matchmaking in the world wasn’t going to do me any good with Phillip.
When he came back I decided to get things moving. I greedily drank half my punch and said, quite loudly, ‘So, have you noticed how many bats there are around here?’ This sounded like a Dangerous Conversation, and I waited for a dark-haired man to spring out of nowhere and start berating me.
‘Why are you shouting? No, can’t say that I have. Tell me about the tournament,’ he said, eyes aglow. ‘It was so thrilling. What’s this Lothskorn fellow really like?’
‘Arrogant. And a bit of a jerk,’ I said, and he looked crestfallen. ‘Phillip, don’t take this the wrong way, but do you like . . . men?’
He looked around us and said softly, ‘I rather have to say that I do, but don’t tell Mother, eh?’ Through his mask I saw him wink. He elbowed me. ‘Dreadfully disappointed, aren’t you, that you won’t be spending the rest of your life married to a cloud? Now, come on, you have to tell me. Who do you really like?’
I thought for a moment. ‘The Earl of Federna.’ He was the large man that Calli had professed to admire at the tea party in Rupa’s suite.
Phillip looked at me, stricken with horror. Then he started to laugh. ‘You had me for a second there! Oh, you had me! Nice deflection, but I know who you –’
I downed the rest of my punch. ‘I might just get some more,’ I said, waving my glass.
‘He’s not by the refreshments. I already checked for you.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I called over my shoulder.
Drat. Why did everybody think they knew all about me just because of some silly competition? I refilled my punch glass and stood in a corner, sipping it. It really was very good punch. I finished the glass and started to feel a bit light-headed. It must have been the heat. I brandished my fan and started flapping it in my face. My eyes scanned the crowd, but I didn’t see anyone I knew. Then an ostrich flounced by and I guessed that it was Corrin. Or Windsor.
On an impulse I stepped straight into the dancers and let them carry me off, moving with their tide like a grain of sand on the beach. There were no rigid rows tonight. The musicians were playing some sort of waltz and people danced in pairs or groups or simply moved around erratic- ally, laughing at nothing that I could see. As I moved deeper into the crowd the costumes became more and more grotesque. There was a weasel and a great clawed badger and strange things with long curved noses. A coven of witches cackled and waved their pointed yellow fingernails in the air. I was shoved this way and that by a bevy of court jesters doing some sort of coordinated tumbling routine in the tight space. Heat rose in my cheeks and I felt woozy. I wanted to get out – out into the fresh air where I could
again. But I was trapped in a mass of people and I couldn’t move and I was hot but there wasn’t enough room to use my fan and I was being pushed and pulled around by the heaving bodies and people kept screeching and saying my name over and over and I wished they would stop and –
And I knew that not-voice. I felt hands on my waist and they turned me, and I was looking up at a dark-haired man in a golden mask with a beak, and he was wearing a peacock-blue jacket.
‘I was told you were at the refreshments table,’ he said.
My vision cleared, and it was like we were the only people for miles around. All sound and movement fell away as I looked into his blue eyes behind his mask. ‘Who said that?’
‘A little cloud you ditched.’ He took my hand, held it aloft and turned me slowly. I looked back at him over my shoulder, a smile curving my golden lips. My skirts brushed against his legs as I completed the turn.
‘Very nice,’ he murmured when I was looking up at him again. His hands found my waist again, as if he was holding me apart from the mêlée around us.
‘My mother says only male peacocks are blue. The girls are brown.’
‘Would you rather have a brown dress?’
‘Have you been drinking the punch?’ he asked.
‘Yes, three glasses.’
‘Don’t have any more.’
‘Because now that a weasel, a snake and a swan have been at it, it’s more rum than anything else.’
‘A little swan, too? And I thought they were such nice girls.’
‘Do you want to sit down?’
I didn’t feel hot any more, or out of breath. And I didn’t want him to let go of me or the world might slide out of control again. ‘No!’ I said, a little too loudly. ‘I want to dance.’
He slid a hand to the small of my back and took one of mine in his, and we were off, whirling with the others. The chandeliers spun overhead. I was smiling, my feet somehow knowing the unfamiliar but simple steps. Now
was a dance. My cheek just grazed the shoulder of his dark blue jacket. The punch made me bold, and instead of ducking my head I held his steady blue gaze. We danced on and on, until finally the last strains of music died away.
We came to a stop in a darkened alcove, and though we were hemmed in by the crowd, it seemed as though we were completely alone. His hands were on my waist again, gripping tightly. He stood close, and I tipped my head back so I could look up at him. I saw his eyes drop to my gold-painted mouth, and my breath caught in my throat.
Zeraphina . . .
His voice had no earthly sound. I felt as if I knew him as well as I knew myself. I recognised something within him. I remembered Amis’s vows.
Because deep down, we’re the same
. . .
His hands slid to caress my back. I felt a sweet-sharp tug on my insides. He must have felt it too as his eyes flared in response. And then his mouth descended on mine. I fell into the kiss, my hands smoothing up his chest. In my mind’s eye I saw a blazing thread running between us, taut and humming. I not only saw it, but felt it and heard it, too; it hummed on a sweet frequency, like the yearning notes of a violin.
He pulled back and looked at me in astonishment, his lips parted. Then his eyes dropped to my neck, curved and exposed. We were breathing heavily and I felt his breath on my bare shoulders.
He ducked his head and I felt his lips just graze my throat. I was drunk not on the punch now, but intoxicated by his nearness.
A thought brushed the edge of my consciousness with frantic, beating wings, and I frowned slightly. Was there something I was forgetting?
Because deep down, we’re the same
. . .
I felt his breath again on my throat, and the gentleness of his lips became a hard pressure.
The warmth that radiated through my body condensed suddenly, becoming a cold, hard mass of fear.
He’s going to bite me!
My eyes snapped open. The spell cast by the evening and the dress suddenly fell away. What was I doing, kissing a man who’d proved again and again that he was not to be trusted. I’d forgotten everything,
he wanted me to.
I tried to pull myself from his grasp, but his hands help me tightly. ‘Let go of me!’ I cried, and remembered the heavy gold fan that dangled from one wrist. I gripped it, and landed a thwack on his hands. His grip loosened momentarily and I pulled away. I fought to find a way out of the pressing bodies, knowing he was behind me, chasing me. But I was faster, nipping through narrow gaps in the crowd before he could even spot them. I fled the hall, tearing down corridors and quickly losing myself in unfamiliar turns. I could hear him calling my name, his pounding feet. A door, I needed a door in a stone wall. I needed to get away. I finally found a stairwell and tore up it. And then suddenly I was out in the night and under the stars.
I held my breath for a moment, straining for the sound of running feet, but heard nothing. I slumped in relief. A breeze started to blow and I lifted my arms, grateful for the cool air as I was perspiring in my gown. The parapet was spinning so I closed my eyes. I heard a snatch of music and thought the musicians had started up again.
There was a beating sound in the air and a sharp clack like the one Griffin’s talons made when she landed on stone.
The music wasn’t coming from the great hall. It was floating on the wind; haunting and pain- fully sweet.
I opened my eyes. I could just make out a large, dark shape.
Griffin? What have you done to yourself?
It looked a lot like Griffin, except this bird stood half as tall as me again. The moon came out and I saw it towering over me; it had the lethal curved beak, sooty feathers and powerful talons of a bird of prey. If I wasn’t used to being around eagles I might have had hysterics. But I knew what to be afraid of, and it wasn’t a bird. It was a dark-haired, slippery trickster who was after my blood. As I approached, the bird crouched down and I saw that it wore a bridle of sorts, and a saddle was nestled between its wings.