Authors: Julia Golding
Tags: #General, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Social Issues, #Royalty, #Juvenile Nonfiction
The Fourth Crown Princess of the Blue Crescent Islands had sixteen rituals to observe from the moment of waking to when she broke her fast. These included getting out of bed on the right-hand side; turning to the east to bow to the sun; submitting to having her hair groomed with forty strokes from a silver-backed brush by the Under Mistress of the Royal Chamber; and--
Princess Taoshira paused.
What have I forgotten? Goddess rot the Etiquette
Mistress's rule book, I know there's something else.
"Your fingerbowl, Your Highness," intoned the Senior Mistress of the Chamber, holding out a bronze basin.
Fingerbowl! Why do I always forget the fingerbowl?
Taoshira rinsed her fingertips delicately and dried them on a white linen towel.
chimed in another voice in her head,
because when you were at
before you were chosen as princess
you had to wash your hands
under the pump in the yard, jostling the serving girls for your place in the
Taoshira, or Tashi as she used to be known to her family, almost smiled at the recollection--then remembered that the Crown Princess was not allowed to show emotion until she had said the Four Blessings, the true beginning of the day in the Royal Palace, and accompanied the words with the
"Eternal Goddess of Mystery, give our people wisdom"
(touching her head);
"Gracious Mother of Mercy, look upon our people with compassion"
hand on heart);
"Kind Sister of Healing, bless all who are ill"
"Joyful Child of Hope, prosper our work this day"
(fingers arched, thumbs
touching in a triangle).
The four attendants gathered in her bedchamber gave the required response in unison: "As the Goddess wills."
Tashi was relieved that was over. She liked the morning prayer to the four faces of the Mother Goddess but had not yet got used to the fact that she was now an official priestess for the entire nation. If she forgot to say it--or even fluffed the words--her people believed that dire consequences would be felt throughout the land. It had been very different mumbling the same prayers to herself up on the hills of her family's estate on Kai, the northernmost of the islands that made up the Blue Crescent, named for the curving shape of the isles in the Sapphire Ocean. In those days, as a faithful Kaian, she had said the words with only her goats to hear her as the sun broke over the jagged crests of the
Marine Mountains. She had never dreamed that she would be snatched from that life as abruptly as a kid is plucked from the ground by a bird of prey.
From insignificant daughter of an impoverished matriarch, she had become one of the four most powerful women in her world.
Tashi stood with arms outstretched as the Assistant Under Mistress of the Chamber removed her nightgown. That was another thing that had taken a lot of getting used to: standing stark naked in front of her attendants with only her long fair hair to veil her while they went through the ceremonial dressing.
Over the last four years, from blushing furiously she had progressed to thinking of other things while they fussed over her. The ceremony had its set order: first placing on the white silk under-robe, then the sleeveless orange tunic of the Fourth Crown Princess, next the flamboyant embroidered gown (today was one of her favorites--the dragonfly design), and finally the orange sash.
Four items of clothing. Her life was ruled by that number. It had decided her fate when the last Fourth Crown Princess had met an untimely death at the age of twenty. The Blue Crescent Islands always had four crown princesses, one from each isle of Rama, Lir-Salu, Phonilara, and Kai. It had been the princess from the smallest and most northern island that had died, so the priests and priestesses of Kai had gathered to identify the next candidate.
Their choice was restricted to all eligible twelve-year-old girls of matriarchal families.
Normally, the choice fell on the greatest and most wealthy households, but it seemed that in Tashi's year something had gone awry and she--the
youngest daughter of a family whose claim to matriarchal nobility was largely on paper--had been chosen. Her family had long since ceased to be noticed at court, their wealth dwindling until they had become hill farmers in an obscure province.
There had been no question that she would accept the role. Tashi had known that her family would benefit hugely from having their daughter at the seat of government--and she also shared the belief that the Goddess's hand was behind such decisions, no matter how imperfect her human agents.
Though Tashi had wondered many times over the years that had
transformed her from free-living goat herder to a key part of the most formal court in the known world, whether the Mother had not chosen her for a bit of light relief from her three co-rulers. She sometimes felt she was more court jester than ruler as she struggled to submit to her new life.
Only to herself would she admit that the ceremonies and duties were driving her mad; and yet she was committed to repeating the same pattern day in, day out for the rest of her life, for the good of the nation.
The Etiquette Mistress, one of the highest ranking officials in the court, arrived even before the breakfast.
"Now, Crown Princess, shall we resume our lesson on the right degree of bow to give the Gerfalian ambassadors?" she asked, opening her scroll at the correct place.
"As the Goddess wil s," replied Tashi, keeping her face inscrutable.
Ramil ac Burinholt, Prince of Gerfal, had risen before the sun for the hunt.
The dawn had found him and his friends riding pellmell through the Royal Forest, leaping fallen trees, whooping with excitement as they picked up a trail. Ramil loved the reckless speed of the chase and rode like the wind when the mood took him. His mother had originally come from the hot deserts of the far south, princess of a dark-skinned people known as the Horse Followers. His friends always said it was her blood in him that caught fire when he and his stallion, Leap, set off on one of their mad careers through the forest, leaving all the others behind. The professional huntsmen just shook their heads in despair and let the young Prince go, knowing from experience that he would return when it suited him, having caught nothing.
At one with his galloping horse, Ramil entered a state of pure happiness.
The greens, oranges, golds, reds, and browns flashed by as Leap streaked through the trees. Twigs snatched at Ramil's clothes but were unable to catch him. The rush of air was cool on skin. Harness jingled and leather creaked in a tuneful counterpoint to the rapid thud-thud of the hooves. Leap's footing was sure; he was fresh, ready to run for as long as his rider wished. It was their great game, their moment of release from stable and council chamber.
Having covered a mile in this fashion, Leap barely slowed for the stream that crossed their path, jumping it in one bound. Once on the other side, he pulled up by a thicket of hawthorn and snickered to his rider.
"What's the matter, boy?" Ramil asked, patting his mount's sweat-stained neck.
Leap shook his black mane and snorted, shifting his hooves nervously.
In the joy of the ride, Ramil had almost forgotten the purpose of their outing this morning, but he trusted the stallion's instincts, not to mention his sense of smell. He reached for one of the short spears strapped to his back.
"We're close, are we?"
Ramil strained his hearing, listening for the tell-tale sound of snuffing or movement in the undergrowth. The ancient trees of the Royal Hunting Forest were particularly gnarled and squat in this part, as if like old men, they had stopped growing taller and started putting on weight round their middles.
Dark green holly and brambles swallowed up the space beneath the oak canopy. Plenty of places to hide; very hard to see. He nudged the horse forward. There! Definitely something moving through the bushes. Ramil shifted his grip on the spear and held it ready over his shoulder.
Twigs snapped aside as a boar erupted from the undergrowth. Stubby tusks lowered, it charged towards the horse and rider. Leap side-stepped deftly, moving to give Ramil a clear shot with his spear. The boar passed them and reached the bank, trapped between huntsman
and water. With gritty spirit, it wheeled round to face the spear, small black eyes glaring. Ramil rose in the stirrups, paused, and then let the weapon drop.
"Lucky for you that my friends were not here, brother," he addressed the boar. Replacing the spear in its holster, he spurred Leap forward, jumping back over the stream, leaving a confused boar in sole possession of the bank.
"Fine prince I am." Ramil chuckled, apologizing to Leap with a pat. "But we have meat and he was magnificent--a fine sire for lots more boars just like him, don't you think?"
A horn sounded in the trees to the east, summoning the stray Prince to return to the hunt. Ramil and Leap trotted back at peace with each other. As they neared the old road, three young lords on fine horses joined them.
"There you are, Ramil!" called Hortlan, the Prince's cousin. "So what have you caught?" He gave Ramil a huge grin, already knowing from the empty space on the pommel that the chase had been fruitless.
"I had him. I was this close!" replied Ramil, holding up a gloved hand, finger and thumb indicating the distance. "A massive boar, enough to feed the whole household for a week!"
"And?" Hortlan mocked, giving no credence to his cousin's description.
"He charged and I--" Ramil began to laugh, both at himself and at his friend's expression of scepticism. "And I ran for it."
"Now that I don't believe!" Hortlan slapped Ramil on the back. With his long light-brown hair and blue eyes, Hortlan was as unlike his curly black-haired, dark-eyed cousin as one could get. "A Burinholt run from a little hairy pig?
Ramil shrugged. "All right, all right, I made that part up."
"And the boar too, if you ask me," muttered Lord Yendral to the trees, but loud enough for all to hear.
"Ramil the Unblooded, that's what we should call you. Bane of every hunt,"
quipped Lord Usk, son of the Gerfalian Prime Minister. A big-framed youth, he had the reddish-brown hair of his Brigardian mother. "My father should propose a law to keep you in the castle come winter. We'll all starve otherwise."
Ramil bowed in his saddle. "Thank you for that vote of confidence in me, my friends. Come, let us take back the tale of my heroic deeds to the castle and dine on fresh air and spring water in my honor."
Ramil always insisted on grooming his own horse, so he waved away the stable boys waiting in the courtyard for the huntsmen's return. The stables were his favorite part of the royal palace, built within the walls of the old fortress, the castle keep. The first King Burinholt had established his throne in dark days when the Gerfafians were little better than raiding barbarians.
The core of his old coastal stronghold reflected these times: a simple round tower, a landmark to ships at sea, built on a
motte, with the rest of the castle sheltered in the bailey. Times had changed for the kingdom: no enemies had come knocking at the door for so long that the palace had spread down the hill in more elegant and much less
defensible buildings. A splendid feasting hall now sat on a low promontory opposite the original tower; its high windows and vaulted roof, decked with beautiful stone pinnacles, was in clear view of every house in the valley.
Ramil knew that his people thought of the feasting hall as the center of power, but he preferred to think of the modest round keep as the true heart of the kingdom. It was where the King and his family still lived, simple in their tastes and dress when not on show.
Ramil hummed a folk song to Leap as he groomed him. He loved the deep colors of the horse's coat. Unless you were this close, you would call him black but Ramil knew he was really a deep blue--the color, his mother had claimed, of the night sky over the desert. Leap, a birthday present, was one of the last links to her since her death seven years ago. She had died giving birth to his little sister, Briony, a honey-skinned creature with round scared eyes, an exchange for the vibrant Queen Zarai of Gerfal. The entire nation had mourned Zarai. Ramil had found it hard not to hold his mother's death against the little girl, her only fault being that she had been born.
Ramil wondered if he over-compensated by being too kind and polite to the young Princess, rarely if ever showing her the rough-and-tumble, easy love of a
brother. She had always treated him with suspicion as if she sensed his resentment. They spent little time together, but still he felt as if he had let down his mother by somehow failing to love his sister enough.
"I know, I'll teach her to ride," Ramil told Leap. "I'll get a nice docile pony and take her round the palace park tomorrow. She's half Horse Follower too: maybe that will set things right between us."