Authors: Rhiannon Hart
Tags: #Teen Fiction
‘If you really love your sister, you’ll leave.’
‘If? What do you mean, if? Of course I love my sister.’
He gave a short laugh. ‘Now, Zeraphina. We both know that’s a lie. I’ve been watching you. This wedding is just subterfuge. You’ve barely been at your sister’s side the whole time you’ve been here. Now, if you go home, I might be convinced that you’re innocent in all this. If you don’t . . .’ He shrugged. ‘I won’t be held responsible for what happens to you.’
My mouth fell open. He was threatening me.
‘What gives you the right to talk to me this way?’ My voice sounded shrill and afraid even to my own ears. ‘I do love my sister and I’m not going anywhere until Lilith is married.’
He glared at me, considering this. ‘Fine. Stay for the wedding, but then you go. No snooping, no questioning the soldiers or anyone else. And you remember, one word from me to the king, and this wedding’s off, and you and your sister and your beggar-woman of a mother will have to slink back to the block of ice you call home. But I’d rather not have to resort to such drastic measures. Amis is already besotted with Lilith and there’s no reason for him to suffer because of you.’ He pointed a finger right at my nose. ‘But if I get even a whisper that you’ve been disobeying my orders . . .’ He let the words hang in the air.
I smacked his hand away. ‘Give me my ring back.’
I scoffed at that. ‘It’s a trinket. What use is it to you for security?’
‘None of your business. Now, are you going to get out of my room, or am I going to have to talk to the king?’
I pushed past him, fists clenched at my sides. ‘You don’t scare me with your empty threats. I know you’re up to something. So guess what? It’s going to be
from now on.’
A taunting smile curved his lips. ‘You won’t discover anything.’
‘Well, we’ll see.’ I gave him one final glare before I tore down the stairs. I didn’t stop running until I was in my room where I stood, back to the door, shaking uncontrollably.
he next day all I wanted to do was stomp around the grounds and glare up at the northern turret. I had told Rodden I would be watching him, after all, and this was the best plan I had come up with so far. But I wasn’t even allowed that luxury. It had been decided that we were to go on a shopping expedition into the city. When I say it had been decided, I mean that Renata had decided and we all had to go along with it. Lilith was very happy to, and so was Carmelina. I was bullied into it.
‘Daughter, it’s such a nice day, and we haven’t seen anything of the city yet.’
a nice day. Every day was a nice day in Pergamia, it seemed, and I was beginning to wish for some Amentine gloom. I hadn’t slept well the night before. My mind had been haunted with visions of blazing blue eyes staring into mine. I had been hot and restless, and felt claustrophobic inside the mosquito netting over my bed. So I’d paced the room like a caged animal, wishing I could fly out the window as Griffin had done earlier in the evening. Leap had been sprawled on the cold stone floor, belly up, trying to catch a breeze. I’d rubbed him with my foot and tried to think of a plan. Any plan. But I didn’t even know where to start. Rodden’s threat of calling the wedding off might not have been as hollow as I first thought. Who knew how far his influence went with the king?
We rode down to the markets on horseback flanked by two armed guards. I hadn’t been on a horse in years and I clung one-handed to the side-saddle. My other hand was clamped atop my head, keeping my broad-brimmed hat from blowing off in the stiff breeze. The sun was blazing hot and I was taking no chances with my ‘alabaster’ skin – I could be burnt to a frazzle on a day like this.
The others looked effortless and graceful on their horses, which made me even crankier. Lilith wore a trailing cream gown and rode a smart white horse. In one relaxed hand she held the reins, and the other lay in her lap. She held her head regally and I could see a dreamy look in her eyes that betrayed her private thoughts. I was quite certain she was head over heels in love with Amis, and the whole of Pergamia too. Renata’s back was as straight as a ramrod and her triumphant expression was befitting one whose daughter was about to marry the most powerful prince in the land. Then there was me, the sack of potatoes in a saddle, and Carmelina bringing up the rear. Her horse was wandering lazily under a slack rein. The princess gazed out at the heat-shimmered olive groves, day-dreaming no doubt.
‘Do hurry up, Carmelina,’ I called over my shoulder. Under my breath I added, ‘Let’s get this over with.’
Carmelina clicked her tongue and trotted up beside me. ‘What’s gotten into you, Zeraphina?’
‘What? What do you mean by that?’
‘You’re very cranky today. What’s wrong?’
‘The heat,’ I said. The heat was becoming my excuse for everything.
She sighed, eyes on the clear blue sky. ‘It’s such a beautiful day.’
I pinched the bridge of my nose, certain I had a headache coming on. ‘I really wish people would stop saying that.’
Carmelina laughed. ‘You
in a sulk. Here, have a crystallised strawberry.’
‘No. Thank you.’ There was nothing more annoying, I decided, than a girl your own age treating you like a child and offering you sweeties.
There were many riders and wagons on the road into town and we proceeded slowly, but not by design. Passers-by stopped to rubberneck at the bride-to-be and the foreign queen. As we descended into the market square, I groaned. It was packed, barely room to walk, let alone ride a horse through. We tethered our mounts at a nearby tea shop.
‘Carmelina,’ Renata said. ‘Where is the best place to buy fabric? Zeraphina and I will need lots of new dresses in the Pergamian style for when we return to Amentia. We’re going to start a trend, aren’t we, Daughter?’
‘Hmph,’ I said.
Renata slapped a coin purse in my hand and hissed, ‘Since you left that cat at the palace I was hoping to see you without a puss on today.’
Carmelina danced around me. ‘I think she’s jealous of Princess Lilith, my Queen. She wishes she was about to marry someone as handsome as my brother.’
The rotten little suck.
We shopped. I gazed, uninterested, at the stalls. It wasn’t as exciting as it had looked from my window. There was a lot of junk for sale: cheap trinkets that looked like they’d turn your neck and earlobes green; drums made from badly cured animal skins; wonky pottery. As we progressed the wares improved in quality, but nothing took my fancy. As the others pawed bolts of fabric, I dawdled at a book stall. I could feel one of the guards’ eyes on me, nervous that I might wander off, no doubt. There were a lot of tawdry novels and dusty books in strange languages. I picked up a particularly old and worn-out volume titled
Creetchers Moste Fowl
. The title was vaguely amusing. Did it contain monstrous chickens? I thumbed through it, preoccupied by thoughts of Rodden with my ring around his neck. But then I did a double take. There was a crude sketch of a cloaked creature on one of the pages, and beneath it in curly script were the words ‘The Lharmellins’.
My head snapped up. ‘How much?’ I asked the stall-keeper, waving the book under his nose. I gave him the coins and, as the book was small and I could think of nowhere else to conceal it, I shoved it down the front of my dress.
I hurried back to the others and saw Renata holding up some striped red fabric.
‘Lovely, Mother, just what I need. You should get it. All done? I think it’s about time we were getting back. We don’t want to be late for the banquet tonight.’ There was to be yet another dinner in honour of the happy couple. The gorging, it seemed, was to be endless.
‘With your colouring? Nonsense, darling.’ Renata put the fabric down. ‘It’s scarcely two hours past midday, and this fabric is revolting. You just browse away and we’ll be done in no time.’
I scowled. I knew what ‘no time’ meant when she was shopping. It meant until the end of time. I pulled Carmelina away from a basket of ribbons. The time for subterfuge was over. ‘What’s Rodden up to in his turret? He’s got all sorts of strange paraphernalia up there. And rabbits as well.’
Carmelina studied my face. ‘How do you know what he’s got in his room?’
‘I went up there, you ninny,’ I hissed. ‘But that’s not the point. It looks like he’s doing all sorts of experiments and things. And he stole something from me.’ I held my hand aloft. ‘My thumb ring.’
Carmelina looked at my hand. ‘There
a ring on your thumb.’
‘My other ring, silly. I had two.’ I knew I shouldn’t be saying any of this to Carmelina. At best, she’d think I was mad. At worst, she would tell her father and then I’d be for it.
‘What would Rodden want with your ring?’
‘I don’t know. But he threatened me.’
‘When did he threaten you?’
‘When he found me in his room.’
Carmelina clasped her hands over her mouth in horror. ‘Are you stark staring mad?’ she asked. ‘Couldn’t you have been more careful?’
‘I was careful,’ I hissed. ‘I hid under the bed.’
‘And how did that work out for you?’
‘Oh, shut up. He’s up to something,’ I said. ‘And I don’t like it. He’s . . .’ And I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘He’s a spy,’ I blurted.
Carmelina looked at me like I was nuttier than nougat.
I grabbed her arm. ‘You need to tell me what it is he does all day. I know he’s up to something.’
‘Zeraphina, I think your brain is melting in the heat. You need to stop thinking about Rodden.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘I mean I think you’ve got a bit of a thing for him and it’s making you crazy.’ She patted my hand. ‘I’ve seen this before. He has that effect on girls who’ve been shut up in gloomy old castles all their lives and have nothing to look forward to but a paunchy, balding husband. You wouldn’t be the first to try to elope with him. But really, Zeraphina, he’s not interested.’
I took my hand from her matronly grasp. ‘I’ll be with the horses when you’re all done,’ I muttered. I stomped off into the crowd, furious with everyone, including myself. I shouldn’t have opened my big, fat mouth.
Down the front of my dress the book was getting all sweaty and uncomfortable, but I left it there. I didn’t want Renata or Rodden or somebody else taking it away from me before I could read it.
As soon as I was alone in my room I tore the book out and flicked to the page I had seen at the bookstall. I studied the sketch. The Lharmellin looked horrid; long and thin and cloaked in black, floating just above the rocky ground. Black trees grew around it. A lipless mouth bared dozens of thin, pointy teeth in a grotesque grimace. Light blazed from its eyes, eyes that seemed to have neither pupils nor irises, made huge by sunken cheeks. The thing was looking straight out of the page, and I couldn’t get over the impression that it was looking right at me. Its withered fingers were outstretched and it seemed to be reaching for me with its clawed hands. In the background was a craggy mountain range, desolate and treeless. It looked just like the place in my vision.
Carmelina had been right that day in the gardens: Lharmellins were not human. To think that a creature such as this existed just across the Straits of Unctium made me shiver. It was a relief that they looked so decidedly un-human. So what was I? The question burned in my mind.
I read the accompanying passage:
The moste Terrifying and Rottenn Speecies in all the land, this Lowely Creetcher hides in the tors of Lharmell, feasting on Blud from the Humans it kidnaps. Some they turn into Harmings, who are then maid to join there Sordid Ranks. The Lharmellins are impervious to Human weapons, and have only been thus far Contained to the tors by the Warm Climate surrounding Lharmell, as they are Reluctant to venture out of the colde.
I dropped the book in horror. Harmings? Human Lharmellins? I looked again at the picture. The Lharmellin had light blazing from its eyes, just like Rodden, the blue-eyed phantom, had. The sketch was in black and white, but I felt sure that if the artist had used colour, the light would be ice-blue.
Made to join their sordid ranks.
His eyes. The secrets. The strange goings-on in his room. Rodden was a harming? But did that mean I was, too?
Renata came in and I stuffed the book under a cushion. She held out a gown. ‘This one tonight, I think.’
I groaned. ‘Please. Not tonight. I’m too tired. I don’t feel well. I think I’ve got sunstroke.’
She placed a cool hand against my brow. ‘You don’t seem tired, you haven’t got a fever and you’re not burnt. Get dressed.’
The last thing I wanted to do was to act normal when I was worried there was a horrible lipless monster lurking inside me. I stomped around as I got ready, letting Renata know that I was seriously displeased. But stomping around on marble wasn’t nearly as effective as stomping around on the wooden floors at home, and it sent such terrible shocks up my legs, so I stopped.
While we walked to the great hall I pulled Lilith a few paces back. ‘Have you noticed anything strange going on?’ I whispered to her.
She looked at me in surprise. ‘Like what?’
‘Like with this war.’
‘Oh, Lothskorn’s got that under control,’ she said breezily.
‘Yes, but for whom?’
‘What do you mean?’
I searched her face. Her surprise was genuine. Either I was going mad or she was impervious to everything inside her wedding-bubble.
‘Oh, nothing,’ I muttered, and let go of her arm. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice: Carmelina already thought I was crazy. I didn’t want my own sister thinking the same thing.
To my chagrin, I had to sit next to Rodden again. He appeared at my side as soon as I entered the hall and offered his arm.
‘I thought you’d like to keep an eye on me,’ he murmured in my ear, as if we were conspirators. He smiled down at me, a mocking, unpleasant smile. Everyone was watching so I had to take his arm, though touching him made me shudder.
‘Are you cold, my dear?’ Rodden asked, all politeness.
‘Don’t talk to me, don’t look at me, and don’t touch me,’ I said, taking my arm back as soon as we reached the high table.
He snorted. ‘That’s rich, coming from someone I found only yesterday hiding under my bed. It’s me who should be warning you off.’
I took a sip of water and looked in the other direction.
‘Your Majesty.’ Rodden’s voice rang out. The whole court turned to look at him, including me. He was standing and looking at the king, a smile on his face and a devilish twinkle in his eye. I saw a few young women seated just below us nudge each other and whisper behind their hands.
‘Your Majesty,’ he said. ‘I am aware that preparations for the wedding of the prince and princess are going splendidly. As the happy occasion is still a few days off, I propose a small diversion.’ He glanced down at me, his grin wolfish.
‘Just the other day, Princess Zeraphina was boasting to me of her prowess with a bow. As you know, I like to dabble in the sport.’
The off-hand way he said it made me certain that ‘dabble’ was a gross understatement.
‘I would like to challenge Zeraphina to an archery tournament, winner takes all.’
Everyone turned to look at me in wonderment. The girls who had been admiring Rodden started to titter.
‘What a splendid idea!’ King Askar cried. Below us, the room broke out into approving applause.
‘If she wins, I promise to grant Zeraphina anything that it is in my power to give.’ Rodden turned to me, fingering the silver chain at his throat. ‘Do you agree, Zeraphina?’ he prompted.
I looked up at him, my eyes narrowed. Amusement was etched on his features. I did want my ring back, and King Askar was looking at me expectantly. I reasoned that if I refused it would disappoint the king, and Renata wouldn’t want me to do that. She was going to be upset enough about my boasting. Not that I
been boasting – not verbally anyway – but she wasn’t going to believe me now. Really, accepting the challenge would be the lesser of two evils. Also, I would definitely beat Rodden and nothing would give me more satisfaction. ‘I agree, Your Majesty,’ I said, inclining my head.