Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
‘Why is there no one to meet us?’ Lilith asked.
Anxiety passed over Renata’s features. This clearly wasn’t a good sign.
Lilith began to look green again.
From across the courtyard a very handsomely dressed man approached, nose raised to the sky. He walked straight up to Renata and bowed from the waist until his back was completely level with his hips. He righted himself, and in a voice altogether too loud given we were standing quite close, he announced, ‘Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, welcome to the House of Pergamia. The king and queen hope that you had a swift and agreeable journey.’ He gave a half bow and held out an arm, indicating that we should follow him. ‘Your chambers await.’ He led us through the main entrance – ‘Thank goodness we’re not going in the tradesmen’s door,’ hissed Renata – which was huge and grand like the rest of the palace. It was bordered with tall marble columns and the floor was laid with more marble. I realised the reason for it once we were inside. As well as being ornamental, the marble was blessedly cool. We were led up grand, sweeping staircases and along airy landings dotted with suits of armour and portraits of the relations. Portly women and bearded men abounded, all looking quite plain and severe. I hoped, for Lilith’s sake, that Amis had fared better.
As soon as we were alone in our apartment, a suite of three bed chambers with a shared living room, Lilith and I flopped onto couches. She smiled at me wearily. We had arrived.
Renata paced, reading the rooms like a gypsy poring over a palm. ‘The bedrooms face west, which gives a good view of the city, but I’m not altogether sure that they are the best in the palace – not counting the king and queen’s, of course. The beds are entirely too small, and I’m really not sure about the size of this living room.’
It was far grander than anything we had at home. On the rose-streaked marble floor stood a low table, bordered by three ample couches and loaded with plush cushions. In a raised alcove we had a breakfast table with a huge bowl of exotic fruits on it, and around the walls were some beautiful artworks: delicately painted silk screens, ornate candelabra and the most delicate china vases.
‘Perhaps I misjudged the importance of our visit,’ Renata fretted. She paced back and forth, eyeing the vases (‘elegant’), the plasterwork on the ceiling (‘ornate’), and the paintings (‘ugly, but expensive-looking’). Fingering the silk curtains that led to an enormous sunny terrace, she pronounced, ‘Well, we’re not ridiculously important, but we’re not embarrassingly lowly either.’ She sniffed. ‘It will have to do.’
I rolled my eyes. What was she going to do, march out and demand a room change?
We sat under the awning on the terrace, gulping pomegranate and lime cordial and staring at the view. The whole city was spread out below us, grid-like and with many spires, gardens and ornate buildings. I hoped we would get to go down into the town and walk around. I had never been in such a populous place before and wanted to haggle in the markets over trinkets and eat from street-vendor’s stalls.
Before the footman had left our quarters he’d announced that there was to be a reception in our honour that evening. Renata told us that it would be a lengthy affair so we retired to our respective rooms to take an afternoon nap. I was too keyed-up to sleep so I sat on my private balcony, gazing at the city. A servant had somehow got Leap and Griffin into my room, and after greeting me with purrs and squawks they sat and stared at the view with the same wide-eyed wonder as me.
I was here, in the north.
Phantom, do your worst.
eventually dropped off to sleep, but the nap wasn’t nearly long enough. Renata was soon shaking me awake. With a bleariness that only comes from sleeping in the afternoon, I dragged myself out of bed and into a steaming bath. As I washed my hair I could see out the balcony door. It was nearing dusk and a thousand little lights had sprung up all over the city. A bath with a view: it was too luxurious. It was also a novelty not to have the bathwater turn icy after only a few minutes. I sniffed the fragrant air, smelling the sea and jasmine flowers growing in the garden.
On the terrace, the last of the sun’s rays dried my hair. I combed it into a river of black that cascaded down my back. Looking to the north I saw a sparkle that must be the sea: the Straits of Unctium. Beyond that must be Lharmell, invisible over the horizon. I wondered how far it was. How long it would take to get there by seacraft.
Renata and Eugenia were both tending to Lilith so I dressed myself in the metallic silver gown laid out for me. Then I sat in the living room twisting my one silver ring on my thumb and wondering when something was going to happen. I was impatient for it, my stomach hovering high in my chest with anticipation and fear.
Lilith was cranky and didn’t want to be bothered with hot-irons for her hair or pots of rouge for her lips and cheeks. Batting the women away, she said, ‘Oh, what’s the bother? The servant said it would just be a little celebration.’
Renata caught her daughter’s chin in her hand. ‘This will be the first time you are to meet Prince Amis. Tonight will be almost as big as your wedding feast, you silly girl.’
Lilith pulled away. ‘Then why did he say it?’ she asked sulkily.
‘Because,’ Renata said, ‘in court, a “little celebration” is code for a great big fuss! Now stand still.’
When she’d done with Lilith, Renata stood us side by side in front of a large mirror. ‘Look at yourselves, my beautiful girls,’ she whispered.
We looked, and never before had I been more aware of the difference between us. Lilith was in a gown of the purest white, and her red-gold hair was curled delicately round her face. In contrast, my hair and dress shone darkly, and black kohl around my eyes made me look quite striking. Pointing first at my reflection and then at her own, Lilith said in surprise, ‘You look like the moon, and I look like the sun.’
I saw that she was right. We were two sides of the same coin: she of the day and I of the night. It felt like an omen. I recalled the black forest and a shiver of trepidation ran down my spine.
‘Did you do this on purpose?’ Lilith asked Renata.
Renata was fiddling with her hair in the mirror. ‘Of course, darling. Everyone’s going to see how different the two of you are anyway, so it’s best to emphasise it now rather than let them think I’m trying to cover up a bastard child.’
But was she? The question burned in my mind. What else could explain the way I looked?
I felt a warm body press against my leg and bent to see luminous green eyes looking up at me. Having been parted from me for such an exceptional length of time, Leap and Griffin were both adamant they were coming to dinner. I tried to coax them back to my room, but Renata said, to my surprise, ‘No, take your little pets with you. They’re quite strange-looking and might impress the court.’
Renata looked to the heavens. ‘When will you girls start to realise that in these matters, I know best?’
I ran to get my gauntlet before she could change her mind. While I was fastening it on, Renata tutted and said, ‘It does quite ruin the outfit, though.’
A liveried footman led us through labyrinthine corridors to the great hall. Suddenly struck by nerves, Lilith took my arm. ‘What if he’s an absolute troll?’ she hissed, looking warily at Renata’s back.
‘Well,’ I whispered, ‘either you marry him and have a tribe of little trolls, or you’ll have to fake your own death. Because Mother’s not letting you get out of this alive, is she?’
Lilith gave me a tense glance and shook her head. She was looking slightly green again.
We arrived at a huge set of ornate doors. From behind them we could hear the chatter of what sounded like hundreds of people.
The doors swung open, revealing a cavernous space hung with crystal chandeliers. It was filled with guests, all talking and laughing loudly, and so far oblivious to our presence.
A panicked thought flashed through my mind. We might stand like this all night, completely ignored. What if the king and queen had forgotten they’d even sent for us? It had taken us weeks to get here.
I saw my own fears echoed threefold on Lilith’s face, and for an instant I was afraid she was going to turn tail and run.
The footman stepped forward. He held a staff that he banged on the marble floor three times. It made a sound like the tolling of a bell, and echoed around the room. Everyone fell silent and hundreds of faces turned to us in unison. Never in my life had I been in a room with so many people, all looking towards me at once.
There was a strained moment when no one moved, and then, as one, the court dipped into curtseys and bows, the only noise the rustle of the women’s satin dresses.
‘His Royal Highness, Prince Amis of Pergamia,’ the footman bellowed.
The crowd parted, and pacing towards us was a golden-haired young man. He was pale and slender like many of the other men in the room, but had a jaunty step and a twinkle in his eye. Not a troll. Rather handsome, in fact, and not daunting in the slightest.
I heard Lilith let out the breath she’d been holding.
The prince smiled and held out his hands to Renata, clasping hers in his. ‘It
a pleasure to meet you, my queen. And your lovely daughters.’ His eyes flashed to Lilith, a smile curving his lips.
Renata inclined her head. ‘And it is a great pleasure to meet you, Prince Amis. May I present my eldest daughter, Princess Lilith?’
‘Indeed you can,’ he exclaimed. He took Lilith’s hand, bowing over it and kissing it with some enthusiasm. ‘My lady,’ he said. There was a look in his eyes as he regarded Lilith, intense and responsive. I think he liked what he saw.
‘And may I present my youngest daughter, Princess Zeraphina.’
Amis reached for my hands and seemed to notice for the first time that there was an eagle perched on one of them. With her glittering black eyes and sharp beak, it was difficult for others to tell the difference between Griffin being friendly and Griffin about to strike. I, on the other hand, could tell she was in a very good mood.
‘Oh – ah, hello,’ he said to me, taking back his hands. His smile faltered and he settled for a little nod. Then he jumped. Leap was curling around his ankles, gazing up at the prince and purring audibly. Amis tried to step away from his coiling body but Leap was quite insistent with his affection. He was leaving silvery hair on the prince’s white stockings.
‘What nice, erm, pets,’ Amis said, still trying to step out of Leap’s way.
‘Thank you, your highness,’ I said. ‘Leap,’ I hissed, and he made his way back to my side.
Amis took Lilith’s arm and said to all of us, ‘Do come and meet my parents. I know they’re dying to meet you.’
We paced through the crowd, all eyes on us. I drew quite as many stares as Lilith. All were in full court dress, the women in floaty silk gowns much like our own, the men in well-cut trousers and frothy shirts. Coiffures were not limited to the ladies; it seemed that in Pergamia the men liked to dress as fancifully as their partners.
Across an expanse of blue-and-gold carpet, the king and queen were seated on their thrones. Behind them hung the Pergamian standard, a hefty golden sword on a blue background. The king had a more-salt-than-pepper beard and the queen was a little on the dumpy side, rather like the portraits of past Pergamian royals. They were dressed in golden robes and very heavy-looking crowns, and their eyes were fixed on a point somewhere above our heads. They seemed rather aloof, but as we neared they broke into friendly smiles. To their left stood a girl, grinning at us. She had curly blonde hair like Amis’s and I guessed she was his sister.
At the king’s right hand was a dark-haired man about Amis’s age. He had his hands clasped behind his back and watched our approach gravely. I found he drew my gaze, and he was conspicuous not only by his simple attire of black trousers and white shirt, but the way he held himself; with strength and pride. With his broad shoulders and strong features he made the other men in their powdered wigs and lacy cravats seem slight and silly. I saw his eyes widen as he regarded first Leap, then Griffin, and then me. I thought good manners would make him look away, but he kept staring. My cheeks grew hot, and I wondered what he thought gave him the right to look so candidly at me.
A herald with a long feather in his cap stepped forward. He blew a horn and, in a pealing voice, began to make the introductions. ‘Their Majesties King Askar and Queen Ulah, rulers of the House of Pergamia, Saviours of Brivora and Protectors of the Free World.’
I resisted the urge to raise my eyebrows at such a lavish introduction. It seemed Their Royal Majesties had high opinions of themselves.
The herald continued. ‘Her Royal Highness Princess Carmelina, Daughter of the House of Pergamia.’
Carmelina curtseyed, and a smile dimpled her features.
‘The Honourable Rodden Lothskorn.’
The dark-haired man lowered his head in what barely passed as a bow. He clearly wasn’t one of the family, but was being introduced as if he was as important as any of them. As he raised his head he caught me staring, and my eyes snapped back to the king.
The herald took a huge breath and cried, ‘Presenting Her Majesty Queen Renata Octavia, ruler of the House of Amentia.’ Renata stepped forward and dropped into a low curtsey which she held for several moments.
Where were our lengthy titles? Something like Presumptuous Ones from the Poorest Nation in the Land, or Desperate Ones of the Freezing Country would be fitting.
‘Princess Lilith Oriana, First Daughter of the House of Amentia.’ Lilith stepped forward to stand beside Renata and dropped into a very graceful curtsey. All eyes were on her, but she kept her serenity.
‘Princess Zeraphina Hermione, Second Daughter of the House of Amentia.’
Oh, golly. My turn. I checked that Griffin was settled securely on my wrist and that Leap hadn’t wandered off and together we stepped forward. Carmelina’s eyes grew round as saucers when she saw my animals. I curtseyed, wobbled, and Griffin had to flap her wings to keep her balance. Leap was staring at the king and queen with big green eyes. I hoped he wasn’t about to disgrace us by climbing the tapestries or, worse, washing his rear end. As I rose from my curtsey I saw Rodden Lothskorn raise an eyebrow, looking at my black hair. Then he glanced at Mother, then Lilith, then back at me, a question in his eyes. I felt my indignation rise. I could tell exactly what he was thinking, and even though I wondered it myself, he had no right.
‘What a pleasure it is to have you all here,’ King Askar boomed. ‘We hope your stay with us will be to your liking, and you will have many, many reasons to return.’ He smiled meaningfully at Lilith, and I saw the prince duck his head to hide a blush of pleasure.
Was it really to be this easy? Were we simply to arrive, and the deal was done?
In the midst of all the pleasant, smiling faces I caught sight of Lothskorn’s. He wasn’t smiling. I saw the muscles bunching in his jaw.
‘Thank you, my king,’ Renata said, curtseying again. Lilith and I hastily followed.
‘We are to have a little supper in your honour,’ trilled the queen, ‘and I do look forward to hearing all about you, my dears.’
Everyone broke rank and relaxed. Everyone, that was, except me. Even Lilith looked calm, gazing at Prince Amis like she’d never heard of Lester of Varlint. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Rodden Lothskorn regarding me, looking like he’d swallowed a lemon. I wondered if he was about to have a quiet word in the king’s ear – call off the betrothal due to the suspected illegitimacy of the queen’s youngest daughter.
My cheeks burned. If he said one word about me to the king I would sic Griffin onto him, court be damned.
The doors to the dining hall opened. The court musicians struck up a fanfare. Again, ‘little supper’ was a gross understatement. The high table was festooned with brass terrines, towering monuments of fruit, meats in aspic, and loaves of bread that resembled sculptures. The trestles below all but groaned under the weight of similar dishes, plus rows and rows of golden cups filled with wine and mead.
I saw Amis offer his arm to Lilith. A man in a sea-green jacket and fingers filled with gold rings approached me, ready to lead me to dinner, but to my annoyance, Rodden Lothskorn cut in front of him and offered me his arm.
‘Your Highness,’ he murmured.
I hesitated for a second and he cleared his throat meaningfully, insisting that I take his arm.
I fumed, but Renata was watching me so I threaded my hand through his proffered elbow.
As he led me through to dinner, I sneaked a closer look at him from beneath my lashes. His dark brows were drawn down in a most unpleasant expression, introspective and somewhat displeased. It was clear he took no pleasure in my company. Why offer his arm if he didn’t want to, and didn’t seem to have any intention of talking to me? It made no sense. Then I remembered what Renata had said about protocol. Maybe it was written in stone that arrogant jerks had to lead the younger sisters of future queens of the nation through to dinner.
It was rather hard on younger sisters, I thought.
Wordlessly, he led me to the high table and seated himself beside me. Amis was on my other side. Leap had already wandered off but Griffin settled herself on the back of my chair so she could glower at the room in general. The court took their seats at the lower table, and a buzz of chatter started up as the first inches were drained from the wine cups. It felt very strange to be at the dinner table with a crowd seated below us, as if we were actors in a play. I was aware that, while Lilith was drawing most of the stares, I was getting a few as well. I could well imagine what they were saying.