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Authors: Rhiannon Hart

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BOOK: Blood Song: The First Book of Lharmell
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‘I just want her to do her duty. I’ve always treated her well, haven’t I?’

What was appropriate here? A hug? Gushing assurance? I wasn’t sure I could manage the proper sincerity at that moment so I settled for a nod.

‘How did this happen?’ she said softly. ‘Amentia was struggling when I became queen, but things were never this bad. Winter has eclipsed all other seasons.’ She sighed. ‘At times like this I wish your father was still alive.’

I was surprised, as I rarely heard her speak of him.

‘He would have no qualms about beating her into it.’

Oh.

Renata smiled weakly. ‘Off you go.’

I paced dreamily down the corridor to my room.

My senses tingled. I breathed deeply, smelling the damp stone of the castle, the snow on the wind. I fancied I could hear small creatures crawling among the leaf litter in the forest.

We reached my bedroom and Griffin flew from my wrist, out the open window and into the night. Leap sat with me on the windowsill and we gazed towards the north. The horizon was darkest there and where the clouds parted I could see a sky scattered heavily with stars. I felt the tug again. That place I had seen, the land of keening voices and great black trees, it lay in that direction. And it was calling to me.

––

I lay awake most of the night, feeling the pull of the north like a compass needle to a magnet. What did it mean that I felt the blood-hunger just seconds after I saw the vision of that strange land? The hunger frightened me, and I was ashamed of it. I feared what would happen to me if someone found out about it. It wasn’t normal to crave blood. It was monstrous, but monsters were no more than made-up creatures in tales to scare little children, or the delusions of a mad person. Did that make me mad?

The compulsion to go north nagged at me through the night. I argued with myself, back and forth, reasoning that I might discover what was wrong with me if I went northward, and then that it was foolish to even contemplate such a thing. It could be terribly dangerous. There was something not right about that black forest.

Sometime before dawn, restlessness forced my decision. It was foolish to remain at home if Lilith travelled northwards to meet Prince Amis. Cowering at home would accomplish nothing.

If she would go.

The hunger thrummed through me. She must go.

When the keep began to stir, I wrapped a wool shawl around my nightgown and, taking my tea tray with me, I paced the freezing flagstones to Lilith’s room.

She was curled on her bedroom chair and wrapped in a blanket, her tea tray lying untouched beside her. I poured her a cup, added lemon and sugar and handed it to her. She accepted it automatically, still gazing out the window at the freezing morning. From this high up we could see the tree-tops of the surrounding forest and a lot of heavy grey cloud. Far off, the Teripsiin Mountains rose steeply, their caps permanently frozen white and disappearing into the overcast sky.

‘Thinking about Lester?’ I asked.

She nodded.

I sat down on the rug at her feet, curling the fur from her bed around me. Despite the fires burning in the grates, the tapestries on the walls and the thick rugs on the floor, our rooms were always chilly.

From the doorway I saw Leap approaching, his eyes on my lap and a purr starting up. He liked to be cuddled on cold mornings but I surreptitiously shooed him away, not wanting to provoke Lilith. He stopped, his eyes widening. Then he gave a quick lash of his tail and stalked off.

‘Sister,’ I began. ‘I must confess that I never liked Lester. He lacked northern manners, don’t you agree?’

Lilith glared down at me. ‘What would you know about northern manners? You’ve never been to the north.’

‘Well, neither have you,’ I pointed out. ‘Shouldn’t you see it before you become an old married woman? Even if you decide not to marry Prince Amis, you should at least travel a little.’

Lilith turned her pale face back to the window. ‘Zeraphina, why in the world do you even care?’ Her voice was incredibly tired.

That stung. I cared about things.

I cared about the north.

I squashed that thought and tried another tack. ‘Lester wouldn’t want you sitting around pining yourself to death, would he?’

Lilith shrugged. The dull morning light made her look colourless, and her wan features told me that she hadn’t slept well the night before, or any night since Lester had died.

‘A change of scenery might help, mightn’t it? It could be like a holiday. We could go to the north and –’ I shrugged – ‘just look around.’ I winced. I was making it sound as inconsequential as a picnic.

‘I want to forget him,’ Lilith whispered. ‘I just want everything to stop. I try to look ahead and it’s like there’s nothing there.’ Her eyes were bleak.

‘There’s the north,’ I offered.

‘Do shut up about the north. You’re as bad as Mother.’

We fell silent. I was out of ideas so I poured myself some tea and clutched the cup between my hands, the warmth spreading through my fingers.

Outside, the sky was heavy with snow. Soon a powdery white layer would blanket the land and Amentia would grow even colder and bleaker. Another harvest season had come to an end and the granaries were near-empty. The people were living on the stores that were meant for next season’s planting. Mother would have her work cut out assuring them that first Lester’s kingdom and now Amis’s would bail us out.

I would turn seventeen next autumn – nearly a year away, but not long enough as far as I was concerned. For all I knew, Renata had already sent the letters out. Advertising her daughter. I shivered, and not from the cold. I dreaded another’s hands on me. They would find out what I was. They would be able to feel it through my skin, the monster that tormented me, that had dark hungers and urges I didn’t understand. Or the hunger would give me away, the fits that left me gasping and writhing on the floor. Fortunately they remained unwitnessed, but it was only a matter of time.

But what if rather than marrying some prince, I had another destiny, one that lay to the north? I had to find out why I was being called there.

‘I hear it’s warm in the north,’ I said. ‘You could escape the winter. Go swimming. Pick berries.’

Lilith was silent, but I could see her thinking about it. She hated winter in Amentia.

‘Wouldn’t that be nicer than being cooped up in this gloomy old castle for three or four months? It’s going to be a hard winter, you know. Don’t you feel you’ll just go mad here?’

Lilith groaned. ‘Oh, all right! I’ll go, I’ll go.’

I gave a yip of delight and clutched her arm.

‘Watch the tea! Why are you so excited?’

My whole body was zinging.
The north!
I knew it was unreasonable to be reacting this way and I tried to rein in my enthusiasm. ‘Well, I’m going with you, of course. I’m sick of the cold, too.’

Lilith gave me a questioning look, but didn’t say anything.

I should have been ashamed of my lies, but all I felt was the most intense exhilaration. We were going to the north.

––

Mother was ecstatic when we told her the news. She was poring over the latest figures from the treasury when I yanked Lilith into her chamber.

‘We’re going!’ I cried.

She was ecstatic, I was ecstatic, but the bride-to-be looked positively miserable.

‘I’m not even out of mourning,’ she complained. ‘It’s unseemly.’

‘Mourning is for peasants,’ Renata proclaimed, and called in her lady-in-waiting. ‘Eugenia, summon the tailor, the dressmaker – Wakefield, not that second-rate one – milliner, corsetière, shoemaker, coach-maker, perfumier, and cosmetician. And the hairdresser.’ The woman bobbed and went to leave. ‘And take those dreadful papers away,’ Renata called, pointing to the accounts. ‘Tell the treasurer I’m not to be bothered with them any more.’

‘Mother!’ Lilith was aghast. ‘Won’t all that be terribly expensive?’

‘Do you think we’re going to turn up at the House of Pergamon dressed in sackcloth and ashes with our begging bowls out?’

Soon the nine most prestigious couturiers in the queendom were gathered in Renata’s quarters. She lined them up and lectured them like they were about to go into battle. ‘We’re going to need travelling clothes. The people must see our procession through the cities, and it’s got to look good. We need to raise morale. Then we’ll need more clothes for when we reach Pergamia; lighter, more summery ones, and these ones have to look very good. Then we’re going to need more for our stay at the palace, and these ones have to look
stunning
. Plus there’s the trousseau for Lilith.’

‘I’m not even betrothed yet,’ Lilith protested.

‘As good as, darling. Do you want a Pergamian tailor designing your wedding dress? No, we’ll get it made here.’

‘Don’t you think it’s a little presumptuous that I show up at this stranger’s palace with my wedding clothes?’

‘No, it’s expected. I know best, Lilith.’

I felt myself grow anxious. How long was this all going to take? I had thought we would just pack up and leave.

Renata turned back to the assembled craftspeople. ‘Now, this is the most important part: this isn’t Varlint we’re going to, it’s Pergamia. We need to look rich. So rich that we’re not even aware of how many pots of gold we have lying around. Those mousey clothes that Lilith wore for her last betrothal just won’t do.’ She clapped her hands. ‘Now go! I want to see styles and fabric samples this afternoon.’ Renata sighed happily and turned back to us. ‘This is going to be fun.’

TWO

I
t was a living hell.

Renata was belting the tailor over the head with his own designs. ‘Rubbish! Rot! Pigswill!’ she cried, punctuating each of her words with a fresh thwack.

The milliner and the corsetière stood in the corner, knowing it was their turn next.

Lilith and I were sitting on a couch in Renata’s sitting room, surrounded by fabric samples, ribbons, buttons, beadwork and sketches. It was the third day of preparation and we were both beginning to think that wintering in the palace wouldn’t be so bad after all.

‘We may as
well
turn up in sackcloth and ashes rather than these designs. But perhaps even that would be beyond your skill? Now go away and come back when you can produce something that doesn’t make me want to boil you in oil.’

The tailor tried to retrieve his designs from Renata, but she brandished them again and he scuttled off.

‘Next!’ Renata said, throwing the drawings onto the fire.

‘She’s in her element, isn’t she?’ Lilith whispered to me.

I nodded. ‘I’ve never seen her like this. Not even when we went to Varlint.’

‘Do you think she really needs us?’

‘If we ask to leave, what are the chances she’ll throw
us
on the fire?’ I asked. ‘But then again, I don’t see why I have to be here –’

Lilith gripped my arm. ‘If you leave me with her I’ll make my new husband find you a saggy old duke to marry. One with warts,’ she hissed.

Renata came over with a scrap of lace from the corsetière. ‘How about this for your wedding night, Lilith?’

Lilith snatched it away, going red. ‘Mother!’ She dropped her voice to a whisper, glancing at the milliner. ‘There are men in the room.’

‘Don’t be so precious, darling. Everyone in court is going to see you tucked up in bed in this nightgown.’

Lilith stopped going red and turned white. ‘What?’

‘Oh, didn’t you know? They practically turn the wedding night into a carnival in Pergamia,’ Renata said, holding the fabric up to the light. ‘And then there’s the morning after.’

‘What happens the morning after?’ I asked.

‘They display the bedsheet.’

Lilith looked horrified. She was so shy of her body that even I hadn’t seen her in less than her nightgown since she was eight. ‘Why do they display the bedsheet?’

‘So that everyone knows that the bride was pure, and that any child that turns up nine months later almost definitely belongs to the husband.’


Almost
definitely?’

‘Yes, darling. Brides have been known to have indiscretions after the sheet is taken down.’

‘I would never!’

‘Yes, yes, of course. You know, I always thought it would be rather odd, having breakfast in court under the conjugal evidence,’ Renata mused. ‘But that’s just the way they do things in Pergamia.’

I began to snort with laughter. Lilith pinched my arm.

‘Ow! What? It’s funny,’ I protested.

––

Amid the chaos of our preparations, I found myself needing – longing – to know more about the north. I couldn’t wait any longer.

A few days later, while Renata and Lilith were occupied with wedding dresses, I snuck down to the library. I pushed the huge oak doors open and they groaned on their hinges. We didn’t use the place much, not since Lilith and I had finished our schooling. It contained lots of stuffy books, the sort you read only if you’re made to.

It was dark, but I hadn’t brought a candle with me. I knew I wouldn’t need it as my eyesight was excellent. I sniffed and smelt mildew and mice, a wholly disgusting odour. Leap smelt it too, and got wide-eyed and disappeared among the stacks. Almost immediately a petrified squeaking started up.

I walked around in the gloom, trying to remember where the geography books were kept. There was mathematics, and science . . . I spied them on a high shelf and wheeled the ladder over. Perched on the fifth rung I ran my fingers over the spines:
History of the World
and
Atlas of the World
, just what I needed. The atlas was a huge book, more than half the length of my body, and after I pulled it from the shelf I had to drop it to the ground. It landed with a
whump
that
sent clouds of dust into the air. I climbed down after it with the history book and took them both to a table.

I opened the atlas first. On the inside cover was a huge map of the world, marked out by a grid. I quickly found Amentia, a pitifully small country on the continent of Brivora. Tracing my finger northwards I found Pergamia, a large nation that covered all of northern Brivora. North of Pergamia a white hole stared out at me, as if the cartographer had gone for a cup of tea and forgotten to finish the map. I frowned. That was odd. Was it uncharted territory, or a section that had been left deliberately blank? If the latter, the purpose of such a thing evaded me.

I turned to the history book. I eyed its title carefully, but it did indeed read
History of the World
. I would have been happier if the subtitle read
Yes, that’s the WHOLE world
, but it would have to do.

I scanned the index for an entry labelled ‘uncharted territory’, but there wasn’t one. The book didn’t have a map so it was impossible to compare it to the atlas. Not knowing what else to do, I looked up Pergamia. There was quite a long, boring passage about past kings and queens, commerce, population, agriculture and so on, but then a paragraph caught my eye:

Pergamia has long been at war with Lharmell. Little is known about the country other than that it lies to the north of the Straits of Unctium.

To the north! I read on excitedly.

Pergamia has never shared any knowledge of Lharmell or the Lharmellins with the rest of the world, and even many Pergamians know little of their northern neighbours.

There was no other mention of Lharmell on that page. I flicked to the index and looked it up, but there was no entry for it other than the one I had read. That was it? Two measly sentences about a whole country?

An investigation of the other history books failed to turn up any other mention of Lharmell. In frustration I hurled a pile of books to the floor and stalked out. Covered in cobwebs and with a mouse dangling limply from his jaws, Leap followed.

As I neared my bedroom I could hear Renata calling me. Her voice had taken on a shrill note and I realised she must have been calling for some time. She would want to talk about dresses or some such. Well, I wasn’t in the mood. I went to my room and slammed the door.

She stormed in after me. ‘Where have you been? The dressmaker is here for a fitting.’

I threw myself down on my bed. ‘I don’t feel like it.’

Renata put her hands on her hips. ‘Don’t be difficult, Zeraphina. No one’s making you go on this trip.’

I jumped up again. She had a point.

In her room, I tried on dress after dress.

‘Dark blue, mauve and black go best with her colouring,’ Renata told the dressmaker as she watched the proceedings with folded arms. ‘Cream as well, but we’ll save the light colours for Lilith. I’m not going to have another awkward time in Pergamia like we did in Varlint. We’re going to emphasise Zeraphina’s difference, have it all out in the open so people don’t gossip.’

My
difference
. She meant the way I looked. I was so starkly different from my mother and sister that people were wont to whisper about my parentage, which mortified me and whipped my mother into seething rages. She and Lilith had auburn hair and green eyes, as once had I. But as a child I caught a rare disease. It had almost killed me, and placed such stresses on my tiny body that it had leached the colour from my eyes until they resembled a lake under a thick layer of ice, and turned my hair only a few shades from the deepest black.

I stood, arms outstretched, in a gown made from yards and yards of wine-coloured satin while the dressmaker fiddled with the sleeves. They were fitted, and the gown was tight to the hips and flared out into a full skirt. My bust, what little there was of it, was being pushed violently upwards by a corset.

‘Perfect,’ Renata announced. ‘Now the Pergam- ian gowns.’

I breathed a sigh of relief when the corset came off. It would be too hot for such things in Pergamia. I was dressed in delicate sleeveless silk dresses and sandals with straps that coiled up my calves. I practised walking in the sweeping gowns, instructed by Renata how to show just the right amount of ankle.

‘She looks quite fetching. You know, Daughter, the winter court in Pergamia is going to be filled with single young princes. We can get a head-start on your betrothal. You’re not to go looking at the barons, though. A lady must always marry above her station.’

The pleasure I got from the pretty dresses dried up. I didn’t want to look fetching, not to barons and not to anyone else. ‘I’m only sixteen, Mother, remember?’

‘It’s never too early to start looking,’ Renata murmured as she twitched a fold of fabric into place. She looked up at the dressmaker. ‘Good. Have these ready by tomorrow. We leave in two days.’

Two days. I clutched my thumbs in my fists in anticipation.

––

I was gazing out my bedroom window at the north. The wind was blowing. I couldn’t move, but I could hear a keening on the wind, like a thousand voices raised in a strange chant. Harmonies eddied on the breeze like water in a stream. The notes rose and fell and tumbled over one another with exquisite unpredictability. I was mesmerised, and felt a little feverish.

Behind me my luggage was stacked in a huge pile. We were leaving for Pergamia in the morning.

But there was something else in my room. Something moving about. Awareness prickled down my spine. A faint, white-blue glow fell on the windowsill, the light coming from whatever was behind me. I wanted to turn but I was held captive by the song on the wind. Such beautiful music. So hypnotic. I yearned for the singers, to be with them, to join in their song. The thread anchored in my chest tugged hard.

The voices grew louder, and as the song began its crescendo I felt my heart contract with longing.

I’m coming
, I told the voices.
Please, wait for me.
I felt tears of despair prick my eyes. They were so very far away.

Behind me, the thing spoke, its voice faint but insistent over the strange music.

Zeraphina . . .

I started. It knew my name. I heard it not with my ears but from deep inside myself, as if it was speaking the word for my soul.

It was becoming difficult to breathe, each gasp now more painful than the last. I felt like I was being wrenched in two by my fear and desire.

The thing behind me was hovering close. My hands, resting on the windowsill, were bathed in its cold blue light. The being radiated chill, but as I was burning up the coolness was a balm. Then whatever it was touched me everywhere at once and I stopped thinking altogether.

I was enveloped in a tender embrace. Sweet coolness spread like running water through my body, dousing the burning hunger. The wind dropped, and with it the strange singing died away. I found I could move again.

I turned, and pale eyes stared into mine, dazzling me with their brilliance. In them was echoed my own feelings of intense longing. No one had ever looked at me that way before. So tender and yet so hungry.

I smiled into the blue eyes, enraptured by their glow.

Yes?
I said to it in my mind, unable to speak but sure it could hear me.
You called my name?

It didn’t respond, but stayed where it was, floating in front of me. The pleasant, shivery feeling made me bold. I reached out to touch it and
snap!
It disappeared like a candle being snuffed out. The sudden release made me stagger.

I looked about. I
was
standing in front of the window, and the cold, silent wind was whipping at my nightgown.

I heard growling, and searched the shadows for my cat. He was under the bed, rigid with fear. I dragged him out and held him, but he sat awkwardly in my arms, paws pressed against me as he stared wide-eyed around the room.

‘You saw it too?’ I muttered. I was suddenly frightened of the shadows. Like a child, I jumped into bed and pulled the covers over my head. Leap curled against my churning stomach. I shook with cold and fear, hoping it had all been a bad dream.

Sleep was beyond me. I lay awake, my mind racing, until the first light of dawn touched my windowsill. Then, made brave by the grey morning sun, I got up. I was already bathed and wrapped in a towel when Renata and her lady-in-waiting swept in. I didn’t have my own maid, something I was thankful for as it would have been ridiculous for me to get dressed up every day just to shoot my bow and arrow by myself. But Renata was adamant that on this trip we were all to be groomed within an inch of our lives every step of the way.

‘Eugenia is here to dress you and do your hair. Don’t dawdle,’ Renata said – quite unnecessarily, I felt, as I had already got myself up – before hurrying back to Lilith.

My travelling clothes for the first day of our journey had been laid out the night before. I had a mauve satin gown with a pearl-like lustre, cut in the Amentine style. Over it I would wear a black velvet hooded cloak lined with mauve silk.

I was putting on my jewellery while Eugenia did up the many little buttons at my back, when I noticed a piece was missing. I had two silver rings that I liked to wear on my thumbs, but one of them was gone. I couldn’t see it on the floor, and I was down on my knees scrabbling under the bed when Eugenia cried, ‘Your gown! Miss Zeraphina, your mother will go spare if you dirty it.’

It wasn’t under the bed. I stood quietly while Eugenia finished my toilet, but my mind was in turmoil. So it hadn’t been a bad dream. Both rings had been there the night before. I distinctly remembered having taken them off at bedtime and putting them in my jewellery box. Someone – or something – had stolen it in the night. The phantom? The thing had seemed intangible, a mere spirit as it had hovered before me. But perhaps it had form enough to steal things. I wondered what it might want with my ring. Conduct voodoo? Black magic? I thought it had spoken tenderly, but in hindsight I wondered if there had been a hint of menace in its tone.

BOOK: Blood Song: The First Book of Lharmell
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