Authors: Barbara Else
Tags: #Fantasy, #magical realism, #Teenage
in five parts all about bad choices
with illustrations by Sam Broad
to good companions
Once upon a time, the world was rich in magic. It was used wisely, not wasted on anything selfish or mean-spirited. It was saved for important things like making sure babies slept safe in their cots, that people had enough to eat, and that the world was peaceful. There were dangers, as there always is with magic. But there was also common sense. Some people began to experiment with science and machines, and that was all right. You see, everyone thought somebody was in charge.
â Polly, The Travelling Restaurant
how to leave
the City of Spires
how to cross
the Stones of Beyond
how to travel to
and many temptations
what to do when you've escaped
but only so far
how to leave the
City of Spires
hoping for toast
Hodie trudged past the elephant house (which hadn't smelled of elephant for years) and the army barracks (which smelled of gunpowder and sword polish). He took the path through the Grand Palace herb garden (lavender, sage and thyme) and sat on the kitchen step where he smelled porridge.
If the cook was in a good mood she might give him some leftover toast. There might be a rasher of bacon. Maybe there'd be a poached egg with a broken yolk that the cook hadn't liked to serve to King Jasper or his sister, Queen Sibilla. Of course, sometimes there was nothing at all.
Whatever the servants might bring out would be cold by now, but Hodie couldn't remember eating anything that wasn't. A hot egg would probably taste awful.
He picked at a new hole in the side of his boot, then made himself stop it. When these ones fell apart, he'd never find another pair.
Chickens argued and scratched in the dirt. Through the window came the voice of Mrs Emily, the housekeeper, scolding the staff while she had a cup of tea.
“No more of your gossip where the little Queen can hear. She was upset when she came down to breakfast.”
Pots and pans clattered about. “They're all sailing for the Eastern Isle today and she'll be nervous.” It was the cook. “Any girl in her shoes would be on edge.”
“It's nothing to do with the Eastern Isle,” snapped Mrs Emily. “She heard someone complain she wasn't trying hard enough to be Queen. Thank your lucky stars that Lady Helen didn't hear of it. There's no fury like a mother guarding her child.”
Could that be true? Hodie had no idea.
“Why are they going to the Eastern Isle anyway?” asked the new footman with the whiny voice.
“Oo,” said a maid, “they're searching for the missing Ties.”
“The Ties?” said the footman. “What Ties?”
“They're some treasures that are all to do with magic,” said another maid. “They must be like a golden harness. Oo, for when the King and Queen ride the dragon-eagles.”
“Did you hear what I said about gossip!” Mrs Emily clashed her tea cup.
“Their journey's overdue, my granddad reckons.” It was the burly footman this time. “We need The Ties now, before Um'Binnia declares war on us.”
“Oo, true,” the first maid said. “My auntie says we'll need the help of a lot more magic before we can stand with â I mean âwithstand' â Um'Binnia.”
“Get on with the royal packing!” said Mrs Emily.
Hodie stopped listening. He was only the odd-job boy, so their talk was none of his business â but he'd still like a bite of breakfast.
He'd just nerved himself to stand up and tap on the door to ask after scraps when he heard someone marching into the kitchen with a military jangle of equipment.
“Message for the royal parents, Mrs Emily.” (Hodie recognised one of the officers.) “I'd prefer you to take it up, if you'd be so kind. It's from Um'Binnia.”
There was silence. It meant everyone was watching the housekeeper open the message. Hodie wished the window was lower so he could see too.
“Greetings to the royal family of Fontania â¦” Mrs Emily let out the sort of shriek that meant it would be wise to keep out of her way for several hours. “The Um'Binnians are coming to stay! They'll be here in thirty minutes! The Emperor, the Princessa, the Commander, and a dozen officers! The message says, âA Friendly Visit!'”
“Splitting my sides laughing,” said the burly footman. “Friendly Um'Binnians?”
“Today?” said the cook. “Without any warning?”
“And I have to tell Their Majesties and their parents!” cried Mrs Emily.
“Dr Ludlow's at the wharves, stocking up the
,” said the whiny footman.
“We know that, you silly egg! He's Their Majesties' father. He still has to be told.” Mrs Emily began to rattle out orders.
The Grand Palace erupted with the crisis of finding enough pillows and good towels. Hodie heard the muttering of the cook working out what to do about lunch for all those extras. He actually had to jump aside when King Jasper's fiancÃ©e, Lady Beatrix, came dashing out the back door with a face like thunder to fetch a carriage.
“You should have found The Ties years ago!” she shouted up at a second-storey window. “I'm going on the
anyway!” She gave a sarcastic curtsey, then blew two fat kisses that you could tell she meant â one would be for the King, and probably the other was for his sister, Queen Sibilla.
Everyone heard King Jasper slam down to his workshop.
Hodie also heard that the King and Queen's mother, Lady Helen, actually said the Royal Swear Word. (It's in very tiny letters at the end of the book. Nobody must see you look at it.)
All it meant for Hodie was today he wouldn't even have a slice of toast.
breakfast again a week later
Hodie waited on the kitchen step again. The chickens nattered and the Palace cats lazed, ears twitching. The Um'Binnians were still here, so this week the royal scraps had been delicious.
He'd only seen the Um'Binnians from a distance: one portly Emperor, who waxed his ginger moustache into a new design each day; one Princessa, who was a full-grown woman and wore jewels on her slippers; and Commander Gree'sle, a skinny man with a pencil-thin moustache who kept a smile on all the time although it never looked sincere. Mrs Emily had told Hodie to stay out of sight because it wasn't a tidy thing, an odd-job boy.
He heard her now, through the open window. “King Jasper refused to sit at breakfast again this morning. He whisked a plate of oatmeal off to his workshop. Lady Helen is being so polite to the Um'Binnians it makes my teeth ache. Poor little Queen Sibilla looks bored beyond death.”
Hodie didn't think Sibilla ever had much fun being Queen. One time, he'd seen her pick her nose and Lady Helen growled at her. It was much better to be an odd-job boy with no parents. The only risk was irregular meals. He tried to see it as a daily sort-of adventure.
A puff of wind pushed his fringe out of his eyes. The pair of scruffy grey squirrels chittered in the walnut tree. One leapt onto the roof of the King's workshop, sat for a good scratch under both front leg-pits, then spotted Hodie. It scooted down the drainpipe and ran over to nibble the new string he'd fastened round his boot to hold it together.
“Careful,” Hodie said. “You'll tie your guts into a parcel.”
A door banged in the kitchen. “More bacon for the Emperor of Um'Binnia!”
“That's his third helping on top of porridge!” cried the cook. Bacon on a plate of porridge? No one had ever given Hodie that across the doorstep.
“I found out why he won't use normal spoons,” said Mrs Emily. “When he looks in them, his reflection is all askew.”
“The vanity!” The cook clattered dishes and pots.
“And they still haven't said what day they're leaving,” the housekeeper growled.
“That's the top-most rudeness in a guest,” the cook replied.
If you asked Hodie, Emperor Prowdd'on was top-most in many of the ways to be selfish and rude. Hodie had overheard a lot around the Palace. He'd also seen Commander Gree'sle and his officers poking about in all sorts of corners, and that was definitely not good manners. Hodie suspected they were snooping to make sure a war with Fontania would be worth it.
“Er,” said one of the maids, “that boy's on the doorstep.”
There was a pause, a quiet curse, and the back door opened. The cook frowned at Hodie. She dropped a bruised banana on his plate, and a burnt slice of toast with no butter. The skinny housemaid poured a splash of milk into Hodie's mug. It didn't even fill it to halfway.
“Thank you,” said Hodie clearly. If he mumbled, the cook might think he'd said “silly old goat” or something worse, and there'd be no dinner.
The cook gave an irritated sigh. “You can't expect to live like this for ever. The Palace needs a dozen odd-job men, not one half-grown boy.” She shut the door.
Hodie's heart felt as if it had been punched. Living in the Palace grounds was the only life he could remember.
He sat in the shadow of his lean-to behind the elephant house, peeled the banana and ate it in three bites. Hodie's father, Dardy, had been the odd-job man until he disappeared. A vanished odd-job man is no good. A vanished father is even worse â the thought made Hodie's throat feel as if it had a furball.
The thought of being thrown out made the furball seem bigger. But facts were facts, so he should think in a practical way. He could see it as a chance to better himself. After all, he could do with some bettering. But â what would he do? Where could he go?
There were four possible directions. Behind the City of Spires were cold high mountains. That would be no good without warm clothes and leak-proof boots.
He would not go north, to Um'Binnia. First you had to cross The Torrent on a terrifying bridge â the Bridge of Teeth. Then you had to find your way through the Stones of Beyond. Lately, he'd heard, the Um'Binnians had begun using wind-trains to travel through them. Even if Hodie dared cross The Torrent, he'd have to find his way to the Depot, the wind-station for the trains that took you over the Stones. Walk for more than a day, then climb into something that carried you through the air? Hodie would never be that stupid. Breakfast or no breakfast, he would throw up.
Third choice would be sailing east upon Old Ocean. But Hodie had no money to buy a ticket on a steamship or a sailing ship. He could offer to be an odd-job boy in a ship's crew â no, they might send him into the rigging where he'd absolutely definitely throw up.
Last choice was â¦ The second grey squirrel hopped up and eyed Hodie's toast.
? Hodie grinned. The squirrel took the crust with a bow and another
Where had he got to? Last direction. South. Green fields, open sky, waving corn, sheep, cows â¦ A job on a farm! He'd learned a lot about animals from Dardy. As well as being the odd-job man, his father had been the elephant keeper before the elephant died of old age. Until Dardy had disappeared, he'd been a good father. And he had been very good with elephants (one elephant, anyway).
Hodie's eyes turned watery. He was utterly sick of the Grand Palace and all its gossip. “Oo, babies not sleeping safe? We need stronger magic.” “Oo, Fontania needs a royal family that pays more attention to its magical abilities.” “Oo, what can the King be doing in his workshop? I hope it's magical experiments.”
he scoffed to himself. How could magic exist in a world where a boy's father was here one day but gone the next without a word? How could it exist in a world where a boy didn't know a thing about his mother? Well, he'd learned to live without parents, and he didn't need the Grand Palace either â especially if the Palace didn't need him. It was high time he left here. He would go south.
On a hook in his lean-to hung Hodie's jacket. There was a blanket on his mattress. Dardy's clothes were in the box at the end of the bigger mattress â just his satchel and jacket were missing, that was all, because the day Dardy never came back he had said he was off to the market.
In a box under Hodie's bed was a drawstring bag full of Hodie's mother's stuff. It was like any other old bag that gathered cobwebs till it was tossed into the rubbish. He hauled out the box, pulled open the drawstring bag and looked at the junk. There was a battered metal cup, and a spanner that was good for long thin spaces. Hodie remembered playing with it when he was three or four years old. His father had been annoyed, so Hodie had used it in secret after that, and not very often. The only other thing in the bag was a soft pouch containing some rough old beads. They might be worth something if they could be polished, but somehow Hodie doubted it. For a moment, though, he wished he could remember his mother. For just a moment it seemed sad that all she'd left him was useless old stuff.
He hung the bag on a hook in case he decided to take it with him. Right now he had to find a stronger bag that would hold as much food as he could scavenge from dinner. He'd do some odd jobs till then â like, the hinges of the side gate needed oiling, and the tap outside King Jasper's workshop window was dripping. Then, tomorrow, he'd be off.