Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
Eugenia finished my hair, bobbed, and left me gazing out the window, twisting the single silver ring on my thumb.
Perhaps this was a mistake, and I shouldn’t be going to Pergamia after all. I had no idea what was waiting for me in the north. Maybe it was malevol- ent. Maybe it wanted me for evil purposes and I should be resisting, not acquiescing.
As I imagined not getting into the carriage that waited downstairs and instead waving goodbye to Renata and Lilith as they set out for the north, pain flooded my body and my stomach cramped violently. It felt like my bones were being torn out of my body. Bent double, I gasped for air.
I screamed in my head.
I’ll get in the coach, I promise. Please stop
, I begged. After a minute the pain subsided, as if whatever it was had been satisfied. The phantom? The singers? I slowly stood up straight. It seemed that not going north was a physical impossibility. I cursed the thing that had stolen my ring. It must have known I would have second thoughts at the last minute and had taken it for some evil, manipulating purpose.
Lilith was at my door. ‘Ready?’ She looked pale and scared, but for the first time in weeks, she looked hopeful. And beautiful. Her long hair had been set in waves that cascaded down her back. She wore a pure white cloak edged with white fox fur, and in her hair was a silver circlet that signified she was the First Daughter of the House of Amentia.
‘Just about. I’ll meet you downstairs.’ I needed to take a few deep breaths and compose myself.
The coachmen came in and started carting my boxes downstairs. There were an awful lot of them. It was astounding the number of dresses, cloaks, hats and pairs of shoes Renata thought I would need. And I wasn’t even the one getting married.
I fastened on my gauntlet and whistled to Griffin. She came hurtling in through the window, her beak bloodied. A swift pang went through me at the sight, and I tried not to let the delicious scent of her fresh kill reach my nostrils.
Our coach stood on the flagstones, looking like an ornamented, oversized white pumpkin that had been hollowed out and upholstered with red velvet. Six white horses with red plumes were hitched to it and they pranced impatiently on the frosty ground, snorting vapour from their nostrils. In front were two horsemen holding the Amentine banner. Against a red background was a griffin, its lion claws bared and fire curling from its beak. It was the namesake for my own Griffin, both golden and triumphant.
Bringing up the rear of our convoy was the servant’s coach, and more horsemen carrying pikes. As far as royal processions went, it was tiny.
As soon as Lilith saw me with Leap and Griffin she looked livid. ‘You are not bringing those filthy creatures into the carriage.’
Renata was already seated inside and she leaned out the window, impatient to get going. ‘Now what is it?’
‘Mother, Zeraphina wants to bring her pets with her. Tell her they’re disgusting and they’re not getting into the carriage.’
‘She’s quite right, Zeraphina,’ Renata said. ‘You’ll have to leave them here.’
My mouth fell open. ‘Leave them here? I can’t leave them here. Who would look after them?’
‘No one needs to look after them. They’re wild animals.’ Lilith said this as if I was quite thick.
‘Sister, I don’t
them anywhere. They follow me. If I get in that coach they’re going to want to get in after me. I can’t help it.’
Lilith folded her arms. ‘Then I’m not getting in.’
‘Zeraphina.’ Renata’s voice held a warning note.
‘Wait. Give me a moment.’ I looked around for a place to put them. I picked Leap up and took him to the servants’ coach. ‘Excuse me,’ I said through the window. ‘Could you please take my cat? He’s very friendly.’ I handed a puzzled Leap through the window and prayed he would behave. Then I strode back to our carriage and put Griffin on some curly ornamentation next to the driver. She could hunt as she needed and keep an eye on things, as she liked to do. I wasn’t worried she’d get lost. She and Leap seemed to be able to home in on me as if I were a beacon.
‘There. Doesn’t she look regal?’ I smirked at Lilith and got into the coach.
Grudgingly, she got in behind me.
We were on our way to the north.
’d forgotten how deadly dull and uncomfortable travelling by coach could be. After only three days sheer boredom had sunk in so deeply that we could do nothing but stare out the window at the barren, mountainous landscape. Books and small games lay forgotten in our laps. Snow had begun to fall, and while it was pretty it turned everything a uniform colour. This made the landscape even less interesting to look at, as snow here looked the same as snow there.
Every so often we would pass through a village or city and have to plaster fake smiles on our faces and wave endlessly at the towns- people. All throughout Amentia, everyone looked overworked, underfed, and desperate. I watched Lilith’s face as we travelled through the worst parts and she would bite her lip in consternation. If Renata hadn’t convinced her that this arranged marriage was critical for the welfare of the people, then these sights would.
‘How far is it to Pergamia now?’ I asked Renata for the umpteenth time.
‘Darling,’ Renata said, not bothering to drag her gaze from the window. ‘If yesterday we were fifteen days away from the capital, how many days away do you think we are now?’
‘That means there’s still another day before we even get out of Amentia. I’m freezing.’ Lilith stamped her feet on the carriage floor.
We were all numb with cold from so much inactivity. Renata had her hands buried in an enormous fur muff and we all wore several layers, but still the cold seeped into our bones.
Some nights we stayed at an inn and could have a hot meal in front of a fire before sleeping in a warm bed. Other times we simply changed horses and continued on into the night, chewing bread and cheese and trying to sleep while we were jostled this way and that every time the carriage hit a pothole. Which was often. The roads in Amentia were in a bad state.
‘My behind has gone to sleep,’ I muttered, rubbing at it. I wanted to practise my archery and I was heartily sick of being dressed in so much finery in order to do nothing but sit in a coach all day.
Lilith shifted in her seat. ‘Mother, tell us about Pergamia.’
Renata sighed but then slowly sat up. ‘All right.’
I turned my attention to her, mildly interested. Pergamia was in the north, after all.
‘Pergamia is a very large country,’ she said, as if reciting words from a textbook. ‘It’s about the size of eleven Amentias. Many hundreds of thousands of people live there, mostly in the cities along the coast of the Straits of Unctium. The coast is spectacular, I’m told. White sandy beaches, crystal clear water. The capital, which is where we’re going, is Xallentaria. It’s filled with artisans and dressmakers, and as a nation they are very particular about aesthetics, which is why I took such care over our attire. They’re very strict about protocol and rank, but throw some of the most wildly extravagant parties in all the land. Agriculture is their largest industry, but what they don’t have are tin, copper and iron. That’s where Amentia comes in, because the Teripsiin Mountains are full of metals. We just don’t have the resources and equipment to mine them. Once Lilith has married Amis, we can forge a trade agreement between our two countries and get our economy moving again.’
‘A trade agreement,’ Lilith echoed, looking as if she didn’t enjoy hearing her impending marriage put in purely economic terms.
‘What about Lharmell?’ I asked.
I had never seen my mother go white, but just then she turned the same colour as the snow outside. ‘What
Lharmell?’ she asked.
‘I understand they’re at war.’
‘I see. And what else do you know about that place?’
I shrugged. ‘Pretty much nothing.’
I caught a flash of relief in Renata’s eyes, and my curiosity was piqued. There
something strange about Lharmell, and she knew what it was.
‘Did you know that there’s only one book in the library at home that refers to it?’ I asked.
‘Actually, I did know that.’ Renata’s eyes turned steely. ‘Daughter, people do not talk about that place, especially in Pergamia. In light of where we’re going I’d like you to remember that.’ She turned and looked out the window.
‘No, Zeraphina, we are not discussing this. Please read your book.’
I fumed, angry at being blockaded. Why was everyone and everything so reluctant to tell me anything about Lharmell? If she knew that the library contained barely a mention of the place, then she must have been the one to see to its censorship. I couldn’t imagine why she would do such a thing. If the blue-eyed phantom ever showed up again I would certainly fire a few questions at it about its homeland.
I glared at the window and my reflection glared back at me. Ice-blue eyes! The phantom’s eyes were exactly like mine – not the same shape, but definitely the same unusual colour. Did it have the same sickness as me as a child? But that was silly, because what sort of sickness could a phantom catch? Unless it wasn’t really a phantom. I had heard of powerful magicians who were said to send their souls long distances in a matter of moments. If we were the same, was I a magician too? But surely, such things were only stories.
I wanted to ask Renata about my sickness again, but I was sure she wouldn’t tell me anything new. I was livid with frustration until it occurred to me that I’d never asked Lilith. I didn’t want to talk of it in front of Renata as I knew she’d shut Lilith up, so I waited until night came and Renata started to snore.
The light from the moon was reflected off the snow and it was quite bright in the coach.
‘Lilith,’ I whispered. ‘Are you awake?’
‘Yes,’ she said, her voice very tired.
‘Do you remember how I got very sick as a baby?’
‘Yes, you nearly died.’
‘Do you remember what the sickness was called?’
Lilith frowned. ‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Can you try to remember? It might be important.’
‘I don’t know, why don’t you ask Mother?’
‘I want to hear it from you. Can’t you remember anything at all?’
She opened her eyes and looked out at the silver-glazed snow. When she spoke her voice seemed to come from far off, as if from the distance of our childhood. ‘I remember I was kept away from you. What you had was very contagious and for weeks I couldn’t come near you, or Mother, or your nurse, because they might have been carrying the disease on their clothes and hands. It was only dangerous if you were a child, you see. I could hear you coughing through the walls. And there was this funny sound you’d make right at the end of a bout of coughing. You’d be completely out of breath so you’d have to take a big gulp of air and it sounded like a
That sounded like the hundred-day cough, I thought. Whooping cough! Children died from it all the time in Amentia, and there was absolutely nothing about the disease that could turn a person’s eyes ice-blue and their hair black.
I sat back. ‘Thanks,’ I whispered.
Lilith shrugged and closed her eyes.
I looked at Renata, still sound asleep. If it wasn’t the hundred-day cough that had made me like I was, then what was she hiding from me?
‘Fina,’ Lilith said, using my childhood nickname. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve always had the feeling that you’re a bit different from us. Me and Mother, I mean. The sickness changed your colouring, but . . . It’s something else. I think . . . I think you see a different world to us. And because you see a different world it makes
a bit different.’ Lilith looked at me warily, as if worrying she’d upset me. ‘Not necessarily in a bad way,’ she added hastily. ‘Do you feel . . .?’ She trailed off.
Did the sickness change me on the inside, she was asking. ‘Different?’ I asked.
She nodded, regarding me closely.
This was my chance. I could tell her what I’d been hiding all these years. That I was afraid of myself and what I might do. What I could turn into. How scared I was. But how could I tell her that I dreamt of drinking blood, and that in my dreams I liked it?
‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘No different at all.’
Closer to Pergamia, the dreams got worse. One recurred nearly every night.
I was in a dark place, like a bedroom in the small hours of the morning, and there was something in my mouth. It was metallic, warm and rich.
I held something warm to my lips, and the blood filled my mouth over and over, and I swallowed greedily. It was the most delicious and reviving liquor, and I couldn’t get enough.
Finally, the flow stopped, and I realised what I was holding. It was an arm. Lilith’s arm.
I had opened her wrists to drink her blood. And I had drained her dry.
As the weather grew warmer, Mother and Lilith grew animated and excited. Once we crossed into Pergamia, they were unbearable.
I, on the other hand, could only feel an overwhelming sense of trepidation as the dream grew stronger. I smiled, tight-lipped, as they exclaimed over the green fields and the beautiful flowers. I agreed, ‘Yes, aren’t they
,’ but I just couldn’t rustle up any enthusiasm.
Occasionally I saw the blue-eyed phantom on the edge of my dreams as I was tortured with images of death and blood. Once, I woke in the middle of the night and saw twin blue points of light travelling next to the coach, but before I could yank the window down and have a proper look it had disappeared.
Give me back my ring!
I had called in my mind, but had heard nothing in reply. I began to fear the night and the dreams it would bring.
The morning we were to arrive at the palace, Renata snapped. ‘Why are you constantly moping, Zeraphina? Do you not like the beautiful sunny days, the fresh fruit and the stunning scenery? Are you wishing you were back in that cold, run-down castle of ours?’
I straightened in my seat and tried to look happy. ‘No, Mother. I am tired of the journey, that is all. I haven’t been sleeping well.’ I glanced at Lilith. ‘And I’ve been thinking how lonely I shall be in Amentia with Lilith gone.’ I winced inwardly at my lie. Of course, that’s what should have been making me miserable, if I wasn’t so wrapped up in myself.
Lilith smiled and patted my hand. ‘Oh, Fina.’
Renata sat back, satisfied. ‘Yes, of course. As shall I. But don’t worry. As soon as we get home there’ll be no end of suitors calling for you. Lilith’s advantageous marriage is going to make you quite a catch, young lady,’ she assured me with a smile.
I groaned inwardly. Suitors. Something to look forward to.
‘Now,’ she said briskly, ‘wipe that mopey look off your face. We’ll be arriving at any moment and you need to look happy to be here. Lean forward and let me fix your hair.’
She pulled the curls Eugenia had set that morning into a soft halo round my face. We were all dressed in the Pergamian style: loose, toga-like gowns that were belted around the waist with braiding. The seams along the tops of the arms weren’t closed up, but instead attached at regular intervals by strips of fabric. The style showed our slender shoulders off to advantage and the dresses were very cool. They needed to be; the midday sun was fierce. Not used to it, we had taken to fanning ourselves with our books.
Xallentaria was bordered with fortifications, and as we crossed into the city proper I saw many soldiers patrolling the area and posted atop walls, their keen eyes trained on the sky and bows at the ready. What sort of enemy came from above? I looked up, but didn’t see anything except a vaulted blue sky.
On the shimmering horizon, beyond the domes and spires of the city, the palace rose, robust and proud, and gleaming in the midday sun.
Despite the presence of the soldiers the cityfolk looked cheerful enough and bustled about their business. There were women in gowns like our own. In twos and threes they sat under tea-house awnings, sipping from coloured glasses and nibbling sweets from tiny platters. Merchants plied their wares and children ran all over, playing tag and eliciting lazy calls from their parents to behave. Girls the same age as Lilith and me wandered here and there, holding parasols to protect their complexions and gossiping behind lacy fans.
The palace lay on the north-eastern side of the city at the end of a long, tree-lined boulevard. Lilith and I hung out the carriage windows and gawked at it until Renata dragged us back.
‘Act unimpressed,’ she told us. ‘You’re supposed to be princesses for goodness’ sake, not country bumpkins.’
I sat back, but tilted my head so I could see out the window. Everything was made of white stone and hurt the eyes to look at. The main keep, in which would be the great hall and living quarters of the king and queen and those at court, rose far above the outer walls, an immaculate, gleaming structure. I counted eighteen turrets, capped with gold and flying the nation’s blue-and-gold standard.
It made our own castle look like an outhouse.
I’d been expecting grand and ostentatious, but this was something else. This was splendour, and magnificence, and more than a little imposing.
‘Oh, dear,’ Lilith moaned, clutching her stomach and turning green. ‘I don’t feel very well. We
bumpkins, Mother. What am I even doing here?’
Renata, alarmed, began fanning her with a book. ‘Nonsense, Daughter. It’s just nerves. See how beautiful you look today? The air agrees with you.’
The palace’s outer walls were patrolled by soldiers marching along the wide stone parapets. We passed through the gates and into beautiful gardens with sweeping lawns. Wandering among the rich green foliage I saw a beautiful blue-and-green bird that made strange, sad cries. As we passed, it turned and regarded us with a regal gaze. Then its trailing golden tail rose and spread like a fan to reveal a hundred eyes.
Our little procession came to a halt within an enormous courtyard. The door of the carriage was opened by a footman, and Lilith and I stood blinking in the immense space, gazing up at the four white walls around us. The place was enormous. It was also empty except for soldiers posted at intervals along the walls and around the bailey. There was no welcoming ceremony, no fanfare. I looked around for the servants’ carriage and our guards but it seemed they had been diverted elsewhere. I wondered where Leap and Griffin were.