Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
Rodden and I stepped towards each other, raising our right hands to take the other’s. We turned, our clasped hands a pivot. There were not many places to look. Most couples gazed into each other’s eyes, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I was terrified I was about to give myself away. I stared at our joined hands, my fingers intertwined with his. At last, after eight beats that had seemed like an eternity, we unclasped and paced in a wide arc, moving up the row. The dance was a continuous one, everyone repeating the movements until the line had cycled through once. As we came together again, Rodden murmured, ‘Are you counting the beats in your head?’
‘You look like you’re concentrating very hard.’
Yes, on not giving myself away to
. ‘I’ve never danced this one before, not properly.’
‘I would never have guessed.’ His voice was level and I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or sarcastic.
I had resolved that it was safer to keep my mouth shut, but I couldn’t help myself. I had just one week in Pergamia and I suddenly felt a burning desire to show this trumped-up politician that, while he might be able to terrify his own people into silence, he didn’t scare me.
‘My cat saw something in the sky last night,’ I said, hoping he wouldn’t guess this was a half-truth. Leap had seen it, but I’d seen it first. ‘He kept staring, but I couldn’t see anything. It was so dark.’
‘Bats,’ he said curtly.
‘Oh. The soldiers started making an awful racket. Are they scared of bats?’
We parted for a moment, turned away, turned in again, then reclasped our hands and circled in the other direction.
‘Her Majesty the Queen is terrified of bats and has given orders to shoot them down. A fool’s errand.’
‘Oh, I see.’
The dance ended and he bowed to me. I dropped into a curtsey and before I could rise he had stridden off.
Carmelina was instantly at my side. ‘Was that Rodden? He never dances, never ever.’
‘I’m honoured,’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘He didn’t want to, you know. It was stupid protocol that made him ask.’ Over Carmelina’s shoulder I saw Queen Ulah disappear onto the terrace with her husband, laughing and talking as she went. A woman terrified of bats wouldn’t go into the open air at night. ‘Carmelina, is your mother afraid of bats?’
She gave me an odd look. ‘Bats? No. What makes you ask?’
‘Oh, nothing. Shall we get some water?’ I turned and saw Rodden watching us. His eyes burned with anger – he’d seen me question Carmelina.
The irony was that even though it had been him doing the lying, I was the one in trouble: he knew I was on to him, and that could only make things all the more dangerous for me.
started my detective work the very next morning. Questioning Rodden had been a mistake, but it wasn’t one I was going to make twice. There were hundreds of people in this castle who must know something and so far I had barely talked to any of them.
I scrunched my hair as it dried, making it look rumpled as if I’d just gotten out of bed. I had a pink off-the-shoulder gown that made me look a bit like a dessert, and I put a geranium behind my ear. Feeling quite ridiculous, I applied a little rouge to my lips and practised smiling flirtatiously and batting my eyelashes in the mirror.
There were archery ranges in the bailey and, as I was feeling a little rusty, it would be a good place to practise as well as meet a few soldiers. I left Leap curled up on my bed and didn’t put on my gauntlet, wanting to appear like any other court lady. But that begged the question: did court ladies practise archery? Never mind, the plan would have to do. It was the only one I had.
The range was deserted when I arrived, so I shot a few arrows for myself. There were all perfect shots; it seemed I wasn’t rusty after all. I was yanking the arrows out of the board when I heard a few deep male voices. Four soldiers came onto the range, jostling each other and kicking up dust.
‘Right, you lot!’ bellowed one of the men. ‘Show me you’re not a bunch of little girlies and give me some bullseyes.’ He looked at me and winked. I forced myself to smile back. Judging from the decorations on his uniform he was the captain, and as I paced back to my firing spot I let my body go languid, trying for a sexy, swaying walk but certain I just looked boneless. I clutched my bow awkwardly, notched up an arrow, pulled back with a deliberately weak arm and fired. The arrow bounced off the target and fell into the dust. I giggled and stomped my foot. Then I rolled my eyes and played with my hair. Was it too much?
A few of the soldiers guffawed.
I notched up another arrow, and as I drew back on the string I shut my eyes and turned my face away as if I was scared to look.
‘Here, here, here,’ the captain said, coming over. He held out a meaty hand for the bow. Testing the string he said, ‘Why, this is a big bow for such a li’l lady. You should ’ave something for your weight class.’
Idiotically, I’d brought my own bow with me. It was large and obviously for a man. My arms had grown rather strong over the years – stronger than they probably should have, no matter how much archery practice I’d done.
I gave the soldier a vacant look.
‘You need something smaller, honey,’ he explained.
‘Oh?’ I said, fluttering my lashes at him. ‘I had no idea.’ I saw a gooey look come into his eyes.
‘Well, you’ll just have to sort that out later, lovey. But meanwhile, you’re gripping it all wrong. Let me show you.’
From behind, he put his arms around me and the bow in my grasp. He smelt vile, like sour wine and unwashed clothes, and his stubble scratched my cheek, but I kept an inane smile on my face. Together we notched up an arrow, drew back and fired. The arrow sank into the board, albeit at the very edge.
‘There!’ he said, beaming at me. ‘Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?’
I twirled the bow in my hands. ‘Why, not at all, sir. You soldiers are certainly very . . . capable,’ I said, letting my eyes linger over his uniform. Inside his armour, the captain puffed up like a popinjay. I looked around, up at the soldiers on the parapets. ‘This palace seems to be so heavily guarded,’ I continued. ‘Why is that?’
‘Why, now, you’re not to concern yourself with such things, lovey. You just let Hoggit take care of it.’
Hoggit. The name was as endearing as his face. I twirled a strand of hair in my fingers, forcing myself to look up at him wide-eyed. ‘But we’re not in any danger, are we? What with the war and all?’
‘No, honey, no. Them dirty Lharmellins –’
‘Captain Hoggit,’ an imperious voice called from the entrance to the range. ‘Is there something you should be doing, or would you like me to find something for you?’
Rodden Lothskorn. I dropped the hair I was twirling and folded my arms angrily. Just when I was about to discover something useful.
‘Ah, yessir. Going right now. Men!’ Hoggit bellowed, and his soldiers fell in behind him and moved out.
Rodden strolled over to me, hands behind his back. His eyes took in the reddened lips, the tousled hair. My cheeks started to burn. I itched to tug at the neckline of my gown, to pat down my hair.
‘I’ve been watching you. That was either quite a performance or you’re a terrible archer.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ I said, keeping my voice languid. I notched up an arrow and fired. The arrow sank into the very centre of the target. ‘What do you think?’
Rodden looked at the arrow, then at me. His eyes bored into mine as though he could see straight through me. He took the bow from me, weighing it in his hands and testing the string.
Damn, damn, damn! I really should have found a ladies’ bow.
‘Your hair. Those eyes,’ he said, and I could tell he wasn’t referring to my make-up. ‘This bow. That shot. Your questions. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.’ He handed back the bow. ‘I’ll be watching you.’
I wasn’t going to let him see that he’d rattled me. ‘I’m looking forward to it,’ I said, and swept past him, putting a little waggle in my step. This flirting thing wasn’t so hard after all.
‘Don’t be a tart,’ he called.
My face burned, but I forced myself to continue across the bailey without changing my walk. As soon as I was inside the keep I dropped my bow and pressed my back against the cold, stone wall. Damn him! Was I ever going to find out anything useful?
Rodden had left me no choice. Questions weren’t getting me anywhere. I would have to snoop.
But what with endless dinners, toasts and high teas to celebrate Amis and Lilith’s betrothal, I found it difficult to get away. I was constantly stuffed with food, plied with cordials and wines and surrounded by tedious people. Nobody seemed to know anything about the war, or they just weren’t telling. Didn’t they care that it was going on right over their heads?
I was sitting within a gaggle of Amis’s aunts. All they wanted to talk about was the bride and stuff themselves with tiny pink cakes. After refusing a third glass of wine because I was starting to feel tipsy, I gazed around at the sitting room. It was pink and frilly and belonged to Queen Ulah’s sister, Rupa, who lived at court year-long. Rupa was onto her fourth glass and becoming quite cheerful indeed. She and her sisters, Calli and Munah, were discussing the men at court and ranking them in order of attractiveness.
‘The Earl of Federna!’ shrieked Calli. ‘Now there’s a man you can hold on to.’
‘Yes, all three hundred pounds of him. Honestly, dear, must you always choose the fatties?’ said Munah, shoving another cream cake into her jowls.
‘Oh, let her have the fatties. More young and handsome ones for the rest of us, eh?’ Rupa nudged her neighbour, which set the others off and I found I was being hit repeatedly in the ribs by corpulent elbows.
‘Speaking of young and handsome,’ continued Rupa, ‘how about that strapping Lothskorn fellow? You know, the prince’s friend.’
The other aunts clapped and screeched their agreement. I hid a smirk, wondering what Rodden would make of his admirers.
Rupa turned to me. ‘You know him. I saw you sitting next to him at high table. What do you think of Lothskorn?’
I considered this. It would be imprudent to say I thought he was devious, rude and untrustworthy, but I was damned if I was going to gush about him to amuse these women. Just remembering the way he’d eyed me on the archery range yesterday as he’d weighed my bow in his hands was enough to make my blood boil. ‘He certainly seems committed to keeping the city secure.’ There, that was truthful and even mildly complimentary, which was more than he deserved in the circumstances. ‘Which reminds me, this war –’
‘I like it when he broods!’ interrupted Calli.
‘He’s always brooding,’ said Rupa. ‘He broods while he eats.’
‘But we won’t see him tonight, ladies,’ said Munah. ‘He’s off on a little patrol until tomorrow. I told him he’d be sorely missed at dinner tonight, and he gave me the most gentlemanly bow. For all he’s a commoner, he cuts a finer figure on a horse than any other man at court.’
Away until tomorrow? That gave me an idea. Now all I needed to do was extricate myself from the aunts. They were already babbling about some baron, so I stood up and said, ‘Nature calls!’ They didn’t pause for breath as I made my way out.
Rodden’s quarters, I’d discovered, were in the northernmost turret and not in the main keep – the same turret I’d seen the orange glow coming from the previous night. Was he signalling to the enemy?
Whether he was a spy or not, there could be all kinds of information about Lharmell in his room: maps, books, military plans. Anything would help.
From the bailey I crept up the stone staircase to the parapet in the dusky light, careful that a patrol had just marched past and disappeared round a corner. I didn’t want to run into Hoggit and have to explain what a ‘little lady’ was doing on the battlements. I hurried along the walkway, feeling giddy from the wine I’d drunk and the strong wind buffeting my body.
I reached the stone archway at the base of the turret, glanced quickly around me, and dashed up the staircase.
I emerged, breathless, in one large room. It was cluttered with Rodden’s things: books piled on tables, cloaks flung hastily over chairs, a bed strewn with tangled sheets. Several dirty dishes were piled against one wall, dirty clothes against another. It was evident that he didn’t allow the servants up here to clean.
I looked around, wondering where to start. Against one wall was a bench covered in papers and strange-looking instruments. I walked over and picked up a glass beaker filled with a thick orange sludge. I sniffed. It smelt awful, like burnt hair and rotten eggs. There were more beakers blown into bulbous shapes and mounted on metal stands, boxes of strange metals and crystals, and an odd thing about a foot tall with two glass circles at the top. It seemed to be made for looking through. I peeked into the eye-pieces but could see nothing. These were the trappings of a mad alchemist’s laboratory. What on earth was he up to?
I heard a rustling sound and turned. There was a rabbit hutch on the floor. Smiling, I knelt down to look at it. Several fluffy brown rabbits were sitting on straw, munching carrots. I poked my finger through the wire to scratch one behind an ear, and the others came hopping over. I would never have guessed that such a serious man as Rodden kept bunnies for pets.
To my horror, I heard someone climbing the stairs. I looked around for a hiding spot, a closet maybe, but there didn’t appear to be one. I felt panic rise like a tide in my chest: I was about to be caught in Rodden’s room. Then I saw the bed. There was a narrow gap between the frame and the floor. I squeezed myself underneath just moments before whoever it was emerged from the stairwell. I could see only ankle-high but whoever it was wore dusty riding boots and seemed to know his way around. It had to be Rodden. He walked slowly across the room, as if he were bone tired. I willed him to walk right out again, but instead the boots came closer. This was just my dumb luck. He was coming over to the bed. He came right up to it and sat down heavily.
‘What the hell –’ Rodden leapt up again. He groped under the bed, caught my arm and pulled me bodily out from underneath it. Before I knew it I was on my feet, dangling by my wrist and staring into his blazing eyes.
‘You!’ he said, practically throwing my arm back at me.
‘Ow,’ I said, rubbing my wrist.
He looked furious. ‘What are you doing in here?’
I suddenly felt very angry with him. He kept popping up at the most inopportune moments. ‘You,’ I said, pointing a finger right at his nose, ‘were supposed to be on patrol.’
He gave a short laugh. ‘You conniving little –’ He stopped. ‘And just what were you doing up here? Snooping, no doubt. You’ve done nothing but snoop since you got here.’ He sniffed, frowning. ‘And have you been drinking?’
I deflated a little. I had been hoping he wouldn’t notice. What a wonderful impression I was making on him, first as a tart and now as a lush. I was just starting to feel the first pangs of mortification when I noticed something. He’d pulled his cloak and jacket off before he’d sat down on the bed and he stood before me in his shirtsleeves. The shirt was open at the neck revealing a strong brown throat. There was a silver chain around his neck, and something hanging from the chain.
I went still, my eyes fixed on his throat. ‘What’s that?’
He looked confused for a moment, and his hand went up to his neck.
It was my silver ring. The one the phantom had stolen from my room the night before our departure from Amentia.
He muttered a curse and dropped his head forward.
I took a step back, forgetting the bed was behind me, and I sat down hard. He was the blue-eyed phantom. I should have seen it before. His eyes were the same white-blue as mine.
‘What are you?’ I whispered.
‘What am I?’ he repeated, standing over me. ‘What are
‘You were in my room in Amentia. You stole my ring. What the hell is going on?’
Shaking his head, he buttoned the neck of his shirt.
I grabbed his arms. ‘You have to tell me! Look at my eyes. They’re the same as yours. What did this to me? We’re the same, aren’t we?’
He shook me off. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’re nothing like me.’ He paced away, hand to his mouth. He turned back. ‘You have to leave.’
I rose. ‘No, not until you tell me what’s going on.’
‘No, I mean go back to Amentia. Right now. Before it’s too late.’
‘Too late? What are you going to do? What’s going to happen here? My sister lives here now – she’s going to marry the prince. I have to warn her if it isn’t safe.’
‘It’s you,’ he said coldly. ‘You’re what’s going to happen. You’re putting us all in danger.’
‘You’re lying. I haven’t done anything. You’re just worried I’m going to find out what you’re up to.’