In amongst all these people, the guards on the gates paid me no attention.
Keeping my head down and trying not to draw attention to myself, I followed the crowd through the wide streets. We walked in silence, turning left, then right, then left again until the buildings at the corner of my vision had spaced out, the paved road had ended and we were tramping along a stony path up a grassy hill.
I’d seen this hill from the air when I flew in; it was the highest point in Jamain. When we reached the top, I finally raised my eyes. Thousands of Jamaini citizens were making their way up the hill from all different directions, like columns of ants. My breath caught in my throat. I’d never seen so many people collected together in one place, it was overwhelming and a bit frightening. One by one they sat down on the grass facing east. I did the same.
Not far off, a group of guards was clearing a space in the crowd and laying down expensive looking rugs and velvet cushions. The bugles sounded and a gold palanquin, hung with red velvet curtains and carried by eight burly slaves appeared over the brow of the hill. Grunting, the slaves set it down and from inside emerged the King and Queen. I recognised them from pictures I’d seen in books in Castle Merlax’s library. They had the same red hair and fine features as Jemima.
Two more palanquins arrived behind the first. From one stepped Jemima and a young boy who must have been her brother. From the other stepped her uncle Morwain, his long red hair lifting in the breeze, his nostrils flared, his cold green eyes roving over the assembled company. My stomach lurched when I saw him and I shuffled behind an elderly couple to be out of the range of his gaze. Peeking out, I watched the royal party take their seats. The King’s forehead was wrinkled in a troubled expression and his wife wore a smile that didn’t extend to her eyes. Jemima’s shoulders were hunched, she held her little brother’s hand tightly and sat down as far away from Morwain as possible. She fidgeted uncomfortably and threw him nervous glances every now and again. Morwain was the only one who looked perfectly at ease. He held his head high and grinned nastily.
From up here I could see the palace clearly and the Imperial Garden behind, surrounded by its high wall. My heart sank when I saw how huge it was. Looking for one fruit on one tree in a garden that size would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Everyone’s eyes were trained on the horizon, where a patch of sky over the sea was getting lighter and lighter. Not far in front of me, a tall elegant woman with long blonde hair and a white shawl wrapped over her shoulders, sat cross-legged on the grass She was talking to a young boy of about nine.
“Look over there. Legend has it that if the sun comes up unobstructed, Quain will be safe and prosperous throughout the next year. But if a cloud passes in front of the sun before it’s risen clear of the water, that means danger for the kingdom.”
I looked at the sky. A couple of wispy clouds floated harmlessly on the breeze, but they were nowhere near the patch of light. All at once a yellow point of light peaked its head over the sea, dazzling us with its brightness. As we watched it grow bigger, the atmosphere changed. From total stillness, suddenly a wind came up from the south, blowing one of the little clouds ever closer to the yellow ball. There were sharp intakes of breath all around and the people clasped their hands over their mouths as the dark strip of cloud passed over the face of the rising sun.
The silence that followed bristled with trepidation. Everyone sat there, nobody moved, nobody spoke. After what seemed like hours but was probably no more than a minute, the King raised his hand and the guards helped him to his feet. He took his wife’s arm, she was dabbing her eyes with a silk handkerchief, and led her back to their palanquin. Jemima and her brother followed, heads downcast. Behind them, Morwain was the only one smiling.
“That hasn’t happened in years,” the blonde woman whispered to the boy. “Let’s not worry though. If we’re careful I’m sure nothing will happen to us. Go and find your mother, I’ll see you soon, my dear.”
“Bye, Auntie,” he shouted as he ran off into the crowd. The woman stood up but before she turned to go she made a circle with her thumb and forefinger and held it to her heart. I started with surprise. That was a secret Wise Women’s sign. Was it possible that she was a Wise Woman? But hadn’t Matilda told me all the Wise Women had left Quain? Whatever the truth, I felt sure this woman could help me. I launched myself after her, hoping to catch her before she disappeared into the crowd, but right at that moment a voice behind me bellowed out,
“Seize that girl!” and strong fingers tightened around my arm, pulling me backwards.
“Where did you get that dress?” a short red-faced noblewoman with a heavy jaw and eyes bulging out of her head screamed into my face.
“I . . . I . . .” I faltered, stunned. She turned to the guard who was holding my arm.
“Who is she?” I looked at him. It was the guard who had accompanied me to Jemima’s room the day before.
“One of the slaves who works in the kitchens, my lady. Served the Princess lunch in her bedroom yesterday.”
“That explains it,” the red woman hissed, flecking my face with spit. I recoiled, my skin turning to goose flesh. Her face was inches from mine. “You stole that dress from the Princess’s bedroom.” She poked me hard in the chest. “How dare you! Bring her before the princess right away!” She waddled off at top speed, towards one of the palanquins up ahead and I was hauled stumbling after her.
“Stop! Stop the Princess’s palanquin!” She waved her arms above her head.” Stop immediately!” The slaves did as they were told.
“Princess! Princess!” she called out, wrenching the velvet curtain aside and revealing a startled Jemima. “I’ve caught this slave girl, trying to steal your dress!” She put her hands on her hips and stuck her large chin out in triumph as the guard thrust me to my knees. Trembling, I raised my head. Jemima’s eyes widened in recognition, her lips parted in surprise. The little Prince peeped at me curiously from behind his sister.
“I . . . she . . . no, you’re mistaken,” Jemima stammered.
“Mistaken, Princess? But this is your silver velvet, I’d know it anywhere. I’ve dressed you in it enough times. This slave has stolen it and escaped from the palace.”
“No, I mean it is my dress, yes. But she hasn’t stolen it. I . . . lent it to her.”
“What?” The woman shrieked with indignation. “Why would you lend your dress to a slave?” She turned her nose up, injecting the word “slave” with as much disgust as she could muster.
“She . . . I . . . wanted her to go to the Ancient Library and get some books for me. She only had her slaves’ tunic and they don’t allow slaves into the library so I lent her one of my dresses . . . So Slave!” she scrunched her eyebrows together and addressed me in a commanding voice. “I suggest you go straight to the library and don’t waste any more time.” She wagged a finger at me. “Lady Agnes, I thank you for your concern but everything really is under control.” Jemima pulled the curtain shut, leaving Lady Agnes standing there, open-mouthed. The guard let go of my arm and I sprinted off into the crowd before they could change their minds.
When I was at a safe enough distance I stopped to catch my breath. My heart was beating ten to the dozen and I was shaking all over but I had to find the woman in the white shawl. I jostled my way through the crowd, turning in circles, craning my neck, standing on tiptoe, looking everywhere for a glimpse of her.
But it was hopeless. There were thousands of people soberly making their way back down the hill into Jamain. I’d never find her now. Dejected, I walked with them, absentmindedly stroking the silky-soft head of one of the dogs who’d started following me, a docile long-haired afghan hound.
What to do now? Ilfred and the Secret Gardeners were the only ones who knew where to find the Plague Tree. The Gardeners were under a sleeping spell and Ilfred was so heavily guarded I had no hope of getting to him. With each step I turned it over in my mind. I couldn’t figure out a way forward.
Suddenly it hit me and I stopped in my tracks. The library! Hadn’t Jemima sent me to the library? The Ancient Library of Jamain was famous as the depository of the collected knowledge and wisdom of all the kingdoms of Tarth. Surely I’d find some information there. Maybe even a map of the Imperial Garden. I scanned the city below and quickly identified the library’s white marble tower. I quickened my pace as I neared it, happy to have a destination.
As we got down into Jamain the crowd dispersed, everyone going their separate ways. Keeping the tower in sight I progressed through the marble streets, the afghan by my side and the usual collection of dogs and cats behind. There was even a stray donkey following me this time. I glanced around. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself and the menagerie certainly wasn’t helping. But nobody seemed to be paying me any attention. They were all distracted by the sunrise omen, all worried about the danger it foretold.