Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
Look at the little bastard with the animals.
Servants began dishing out food from silver platters. A girl offered me something that looked like a big roasted chicken.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Peacock, Your Highness.’
‘What is peacock?’
The girl looked at me strangely.
‘A peacock is a bird with a big fancy tail,’ Rodden Lothskorn said, helping himself to the roasted meat.
I was reminded of the bird we had seen coming into the grounds. ‘Not . . .’ I said hesitantly. ‘Not the ones that have all the eyes on their tail and sound very sad?’
I shook my head at the serving girl. ‘No, thank you.’ They
them? I thought they had just been to look at. I wondered if it could have been the same one I’d admired, and felt a little sick. After that, nothing at the table looked particularly appetising, but I helped myself to something leafy to give the pretence of eating.
‘I’m afraid we don’t have any mice,’ said Rodden, ‘but would you like to try some quail?’
I turned to him in surprise. ‘I beg your pardon?’
He was holding out a platter of tiny roasted birds to Griffin. ‘I was talking to your eagle.’
Griffin’s eyes blazed, and then she snatched a quail in her beak and flew off into a dark corner.
There was a trill and Leap jumped into my lap. He’d twigged that food was on offer and he wasn’t getting any. I got a bit of miscellaneous meat for him, hoping it wasn’t dolphin or unicorn.
Rodden stopped eating and looked at Leap. ‘Where did you get a Verapinian drain-cat?’
‘A drain-cat from Verapine,’ he said.
‘Oh, that’s much clearer,’ I muttered.
He was smiling, looking at Leap, but his eyes flashed to me for a second. The smile changed his whole countenance, and I found myself wishing he’d looked at me the way he was looking at my cat when he’d offered his arm. I might have been rather more disposed to accept it.
‘Verapine is very far away,’ he said. ‘It’s a slum country, and drain-cats live in the city’s sewage pipes.’
‘Sewerage?’ I looked at Leap. ‘No wonder you left.’
‘You can tell by his eyes that he’s used to being in the dark,’ Rodden continued. ‘And water would run right off that silvery coat of his.’ He gave Leap’s cheek a scratch and, traitorously, Leap purred and closed his eyes.
What an odd man. Not three words to me, but he goes all gooey over a lady’s pet. The look that had come into his eyes as he’d spoken of Verapine had been one of true affection, as if he knew the place well. There was something foreign to his countenance; the planes of his face were broader and more sculpted than the narrow, soft faces of the northern Brivorans, and the combination of dark hair and olive skin made him stand out in a room full of fair-skinned blonds. It seemed Rodden Lothskorn, as close as he was to the king, wasn’t Pergamian at all.
‘Where did you get him?’ Rodden asked.
I shrugged. ‘He just turned up one day. I’ve had him ever since.’
After regarding me for a moment, he stood. ‘Please excuse me,’ he said, inclining his head. ‘I hope you have a pleasant evening.’
I watched his broad back retreating. He stooped to murmur in the king’s ear. My heart leapt into mouth, certain they were speaking of me; but the king merely toasted Rodden with his goblet, and the dark-haired man left the hall without a back- ward glance.
I had an uneasy feeling that I’d just been subjected to a test, and I wasn’t sure if I’d passed or failed.
Next to me, Amis was engrossed in Lilith, and everyone else was too far away to start up a conversation with. Even the serving girls skipped over me, and I spoke to no one for the rest of the dinner.
‘He’s falling for you,’ Renata said to Lilith as we made our way back to our rooms. The two walked side by side, hands clasped in excitement.
‘Do you really think so?’
‘Oh, yes, darling. He didn’t talk to anyone else all night.’
I rolled my eyes. Tell me about it.
‘I’m going to bed,’ I said as soon as we entered our apartment, not that they noticed. I closed my door on their twittering and stood on my balcony. I could feel the blood-hunger humming in the recesses of my mind. My eyes searched the northern sky, yearning for something, like a bird with her wings clipped.
It was a clear night, but very dark. I watched the stars, too keyed-up to sleep. I was looking at a constellation when I saw, from right to left, a group of stars wink out, and then reappear.
That was strange. I studied the sky harder. I saw nothing for a few minutes, and then I saw it again: a group of stars disappeared and then reappeared. It was a while before I realised what was happening. Something was passing in front of the stars, blocking out their light. Whatever it was moved too fast to be cloud. Leap had his paws up on the ledge and was staring at the sky. He saw it too.
The wind picked up and then all over the sky stars were winking on and off. A whisper of song reached my ears. It grew louder, and I recognised it as the same keening I had heard in my not-dream the night before we left Amentia. I leaned out from the balcony, craning my neck for a better view. From below and above, I heard running feet and hushed, urgent shouts: soldiers. They seemed to be reacting as if to an attack, but as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the sleeping castle. I saw the outline of an archer atop a wall, his bow and arrow trained on the heavens.
Moving to my chamber door, I listened. There was no sound from without so I inched it open. All clear. I sneaked out of the apartment and into the corridor, intent on getting to the northern parapet. I slipped along the landings, keeping to the shadows. Leap paced beside me, silent on his velvet paws.
I searched for a doorway that would lead upwards. I found one, and hurried up a spiral staircase that I hoped led to the battlements and not up a turret. After a few turns I came out into the parapet. I kept to the shadows, not wanting to attract the attention of a soldier with a loaded bow.
I could tell from the alignment of the stars that my sense of direction was right: I was at the northernmost part of the keep. Forty yards away was the turret closest to Lharmell, the topmost arrow slot gleaming with a sickly orange light. I wondered if it could be a beacon of some sort for the Lharmellins. But that would make whoever was responsible for the light a traitor to Pergamia.
The wind dropped suddenly and the singing died away, replaced by the earthly mutterings of soldiers. The sky had emptied and they were going back to their posts. I peeled myself out of the shadows and left the parapet, casting one last longing look at the stars.
Back in my room, I crawled under the mosquito netting that hung over my bed, Leap burrowing in with me. From a chest of drawers, Griffin ruffled her feathers in her sleep. She, stuffed full of quail, hadn’t woken.
Long into the night I watched for the twin blue glows that would announce my ghostly visitor, but they never came.
ood morning!’ Lilith cried, flinging my bedroom door open.
I knew that tone: she was unbearably, infuriatingly in love. I threw the bedclothes over my face. ‘You didn’t take long,’ I muttered.
‘To what? Get up? It’s nearly mid-morning, sleepyhead.’
I heard her go to the window and, with relish, take a deep breath of Pergamian air.
‘Had sweet dreams about princey, did we?’
Lilith flounced over and sat on my bed. ‘Oh, Fina, he’s perfect! So handsome and so charming.’
‘A handsome and charming prince. How very original of him.’
She poked me in the side. ‘Why are you so grumpy this morning? Look, it’s gorgeous outside.’ She ran to the balcony again.
‘Ow,’ I said, rubbing my side and emerging from swathes of netting.
‘Amis is going to take us on a tour of the grounds this morning.’
‘Oh, goody.’ I would have to watch while they canoodled in the arbours.
At the breakfast table Renata poured me a glass of something orange.
‘It’s orange juice,’ she said.
‘I can see that,’ I muttered, swiping my hair out of my eyes. ‘What if I want red juice, or blue juice?’
‘It’s not named for its colour, you silly girl. It’s named after the fruit.
.’ She pointed at something round and, funnily enough, orange, in the fruit bowl. ‘Now drink up. Carmelina can’t wait to get to know you.’
I drained my glass. Carmelina. That would be the cheerful blonde girl from the night before. She looked perky and excitable, two things I wasn’t in the mood for. What on earth would we talk about? Boys? But then again, Carmelina might know something about Lharmell.
They were waiting for us down in the courtyard. Amis offered Lilith his arm and they smiled at each other with sunny faces. I walked beside Carmelina, a girl whose step was as bouncy as her hair.
‘Wasn’t last night absolutely boring?’ she asked, as the four of us strolled out the gates and into the grounds.
‘Very,’ I said.
‘Being at high table is like being an animal in a zoo. Everyone always stares and it puts me off my food. I thought I might get to sit next to you, which would have been fun, but then Rodden took you away to the other end and I had to sit next to your mother. Not that there’s anything wrong with your mother! But Rodden’s as stiff as a corpse, so I was thinking, poor you. Did he say anything?’
‘Not really. He said more to my eagle.’
‘Ugh, that’s so like him. He never has time for girls.’
We were both holding parasols as the sun was very fierce. Carmelina crossed her eyes to try to look at her nose. ‘I think I’m getting freckles. It’s not very fashionable to have freckles right now. I wish I had skin like yours. It’s like that white stone, what’s it again? Ala-something.’
‘Alabaster?’ I asked.
‘Yes, that’s the one. Not a single freckle.’
The grounds were even more beautiful on foot. We were following a little winding path and the grass all around was springy and emerald green, dotted here and there with flower beds. We didn’t have flowers at our palace. There had been daffodils and bluebells in spring when I was young but they hadn’t flowered in a few years. They’d been killed by the frosts.
We passed an idyllic spot with a large sundial bordered with yellow flowers and garden benches. Then there was a fountain spraying jets of water into the clear morning air, with creepers growing up its basin. Amis gave Lilith a coin and she tossed it in, making a wish. Carmelina made a gagging sound. I was inclined to agree with her. There was something distasteful about watching your own sibling court.
‘Where are your cat and your bird?’ Carmelina asked.
‘Eagle,’ I corrected. ‘Leap is asleep on my bed and Griffin is hunting.’ I shaded my eyes against the sun and looked up. There was a speck in the sky over a distant part of the grounds. ‘There she is.’ The speck suddenly dropped, falling from the sky at an alarming rate. Carmelina gasped, probably wondering if Griffin had just had a heart attack. Then she reappeared, flapping her wings and carrying something in her claws.
‘Is she dangerous? I’d be worried she’d peck my eyes out.’
‘Certainly not. I’ll show you.’ I stuck two fingers in my mouth and whistled, making everyone jump. Lilith looked around sharply.
? I mouthed at her. If she was going to bill and coo like a demented dove, I would make my own fun. Everyone watched as Griffin flew towards my raised arm and settled on my gauntleted wrist, a mouse dangling from her claws.
‘Ick,’ said Carmelina, eyeing the sharp beak that was presently tearing the little mouse to shreds.
Amis came over. ‘Isn’t she a beauty!’ he said. ‘Some of the soldiers hunt with falcons but I’ve never seen one like this before.’
‘She’s an eagle,’ I said, not even trying to keep the smugness from my voice.
Lilith hung back, grimacing at the gruesome spectacle of my bird gulping down strings of intest- ine. She glared at me behind Amis’s back, so I gave a soft whistle and Griffin flew off.
Patrols were marching through the gardens but they kept their distance from us, being as discreet as soldiers in clanking armour could be. Archers stood atop the surrounding walls, eyes on the horizon.
I waited until Lilith and Amis were a safe distance away before asking, ‘You’ve certainly got a lot of guards. Is it always like this?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Carmelina. ‘Rodden’s orders.’
‘Rodden Lothskorn? What has it got to do with him?’
‘He’s the king’s advisor. And Amis’s best friend.’
That explained his place at the high table. ‘But he’s so young,’ I protested. I had imagined the king would surround himself with a lot of stuffy yes-men, not take advice from a young man.
‘He’s twenty-two, I think. But he’s very smart. He knows all about the war.’ Here, Carmelina coloured up.
‘The war?’ I asked very casually, admiring a shrub.
Carmelina gave a little laugh. ‘Oh, nothing. You know. Grown-up stuff. Very dull. Would you like a peppermint?’ She offered me a sweet from a little paper bag.
I sucked on the lolly for a moment, thinking. ‘Carmelina, what do you know about Lharmell?’
Carmelina’s eyes widened in horror. ‘Shh! We’re not supposed to talk about that place. They might hear you.’
This was more like it. She did know something, and the way she was reacting, it was juicy, too. Still, I didn’t want to appear too eager. ‘Who? Lilith and Amis?’
‘No,’ she said in a whisper. ‘The Lharmellins.’
I looked around. ‘Are we being spied on?’
Carmelina looked around too, her eyes darting into the shadowy parts of the gardens. ‘We could be. Who knows? They’ve got strange powers.’ She gripped my arm, staring into my eyes. ‘They’re not human.’
I suddenly felt a bit sick. ‘Oh, really?’ I said, trying to keep my voice light. ‘What are they?’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know, but they’re dangerous. They like blood. You know, to
My mouth dropped open.
At the same time as I was revolted, I felt the hunger flare up inside at the mention of blood.
Carmelina saw the horrified expression on my face and nodded. ‘I know. It’s ghastly, isn’t it? But Rodden says we’re not to talk about it. We’re just to get on with things and he will deal with it. Let’s catch up with the others.’ She grabbed my hand and tugged me along, as if we could leave our conversation behind like a bit of unappealing scenery.
The events at dinner suddenly took on a whole new meaning. I remembered the cold looks Rodden had given me, the suspicion in his eyes. The way he’d looked at me as if I were the enemy. What if I was the enemy – the bastard child of a Lharmellin? Could my mother have betrayed my father with a monster? She’d lied to me about my illness. Maybe she’d lied about who my father was as well. It would explain my terrible hunger for blood.
I yanked my arm from Carmelina’s grasp. ‘Why are you at war with the Lharmellins? What have they done?’
Carmelina shot a glance at me, nodding surreptitiously towards Amis and Lilith. ‘Oh yes, the ducks are lovely,’ she said for their benefit. Then she hissed, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about it. Rodden would be very angry with me.’
I spent the rest of the excursion smiling and admiring the ducks, the trees and even more flowers, and looking like I was having a jolly good time. On the inside I was in turmoil. It didn’t make sense that Renata would bring me to Pergamia and let me be exposed as one of their enemy. I thought of the king and queen’s beaming smiles. They hadn’t looked suspicious of me. No one had been anything less than welcoming to me. Except Rodden. There was something about him that I didn’t like, and now to find out that he had everybody too scared to even say ‘Lharmellin’
made me wonder what he was afraid of.
If no one was going to tell me what I needed to know, I would just have to find out myself.
I considered my options, which were few. I had seen Lilith flirt with Lester of Varlint, and that seemed to have got her anything she wanted. If I found the right person and flirted at them, they might start talking in order to show off. Perhaps a soldier. I could go all gooey over his uniform and shoot a few stealthy questions at him.
Later in the afternoon Renata and Lilith had tea with the king and queen and Amis. I suspected, as I hadn’t been invited, that it was to discuss the betrothal. I sat on my balcony, tossing an apple back and forth between my hands but not feeling hungry enough to bite into it. Leap sat on my lap, watching dragonflies dance above pots of gera- niums. The vivid blooms were beautiful, but I was heartily sick of looking at flowers. Instead, I gazed out over the city. I imagined that the streets were bustling with life. I suddenly longed for anonymity, to be one of the cityfolk buying potatoes or selling bolts of fabric. Anyone but a princess turning into a monster.
I heard Lilith and Renata come back. Carrying Leap with me, I went to my bedroom door. ‘How did it go?’
Renata clasped her hands under her chin. She looked at Lilith. ‘Do you want to tell her?’
Lilith looked like she could barely contain her excitement. ‘We’re betrothed, and . . .’ she paused for effect, ‘the wedding’s in
’ She ran to me and clasped her arms around me, not even noticing that she was hugging Leap too.
‘One week?’ I echoed. ‘That doesn’t give them much preparation time.’ And it wouldn’t give me much time to nose around, either. After the wedding I would be packed off home again. That is, if whatever had drawn me here allowed it. I thought of the crippling pain I had felt on the morning of the departure when I’d had second thoughts, and shuddered.
Renata flopped onto a settee. ‘Darling,’ she said. ‘They’ve been making the preparations for weeks. Which is why I knew to have Lilith’s dress made before we got here. I told you, Mother knows best.’ Her face shone. She loved it when she was right.
I kissed Lilith’s cheek. ‘I’m very happy for you,’ I said, hoping she couldn’t see the strain in my eyes. ‘I need a lie down. The heat’s getting to me.’
I lay beneath the gauzy netting wishing I was back in Amentia practising my archery, and that I had never heard of the blasted north.
Courtly dinners, it seemed, were to be a nightly affair. At the high table that evening I sat next to Carmelina while she chattered at me. She didn’t seem to notice that I didn’t chatter back. To be fair, if I hadn’t had a lot on my mind she might have been a pleasant diversion. But in my present agitated state she was grating on me. I couldn’t wait to get away, saying that I needed some fresh air as soon as the meal was over.
The trestles were packed away and I skirted the dancers that were assembling in two rows on the marble floor. I pushed aside the curtains that led to the terrace and stepped into the cool night air.
Music floated on the wind, but it was an earthly tune, coming from the court musicians. I turned and watched the dancers through the gauzy curtains. From where I stood they were an anonymous, homogenised group, whirling and stepping to the smart beat of the tambourine. A nasal horn bleated the melody. Renata had taught me the courtly dances, but I found them rigid. I had imagined a dance to be a fluid thing, open to whim and interpretation. But in fact it was as strict as a military parade. The girls stood in a row on one side, the men on the other, and they moved around in intricate but ordered patterns, now holding hands, now not, passing one another silently. Many of the women held their heads aloof the whole time, bestowing barely a glance on their partner. The whole affair seemed rather cold.
Now would be a good time to make my escape, but as I emerged back into the hall I ran straight into Rodden. I moved to side-step him, but he bowed. You can’t walk away when someone’s bowing at you, so I waited for him to straighten.
‘May I have the next dance?’ The words were colourless, automatic; it was barely a question. It was manners making him ask an unpartnered girl to dance. My refusal would be gratefully accepted.
‘No, sir, I mean to –’
‘As the sister of the bride you should be dancing,’ he interrupted. ‘If the king thinks you’re not en- joying yourself he will begin to wonder if you doubt Pergamia is good enough for your sister, and if the marriage should take place at all. You don’t want that, do you?’
For heaven’s sake, it was just a dance. ‘Indeed not, but . . .’
Rodden held out his hand as if my reply had been an assent. The next dance was beginning. He gave me a hard look. Perhaps it would be safer to go along with it; it might add authenticity to my pretence of being a normal human girl and not the offspring of their blood-drinking enemy. If that’s really what I was. I swept past him, ignoring his hand, and took my place. Rigid and cold, I thought. That’s what the dances were and that’s what I would be.
But the dance wasn’t rigid like I’d imagined. As my feet paced well-rehearsed steps, I found there were too many opportunities for glances, intimations. Every touch and turn held meaning and promise. I realised I’d had it all wrong. The ladies weren’t aloof, they were coquettish.