When I arrived at the library, I shooed the animals away and climbed the steps. Jamaini citizens in fine velvet cloaks and silk tunics were coming and going, taking out books and returning them. The guards ignored me as I passed through the pillars into the entrance hall beyond.
I stepped inside and instantly my jaw dropped. I gazed upwards in amazement. It must have been at least twenty storeys high. Books were stacked on shelves along the round walls, from the floor right to the very top. Staircases zigzagged up the walls, leading to platforms where you could browse the higher shelves. The platforms at the top were so far away I could barely make them out. Just looking at them made me dizzy. Oh God! Where to begin? There must have been well over a million books to choose from.
I was standing there, my head tilted back, my mouth open in bewilderment and my heart sunk to the ground when I felt something tap my knee. I looked down to see a very short, elderly man with a long grey beard, peering up at me through thick spectacles.
“May I help you, Your Massiveness?” he said in a soft voice, bowing deeply. I wasn’t very tall for my age and this was the first time I’d ever been addressed as “Your Massiveness”.
“Y. . . yes,” I stammered, crouching a little. It felt strange to be so much higher than a grown-up. “I’m looking for information about the Imperial Garden.”
“Ah! You’ll want the local history section, Your Humungousness,” he explained with a gracious smile and another bow. “That’s over here. Up these stairs to the sixth platform. Everything ever written about the Imperial Garden is in that section.”
“Thank you,” I nodded and turned my eyes towards where his gnarled finger was pointing. I gulped. My stomach turned a somersault.
“It’s a pleasure to serve Your Giganticness,” the short man said, bowing again so low this time, his beard touched the floor, and shuffled off.
I mustered my courage and hurried up the staircase he’d indicated, gripping the handrail and trying not to look down. Higher and higher I climbed, counting the platforms breathlessly as I went. When at last I reached the sixth platform, I was gasping for air. The muscles in my legs were trembling and my hands ached from holding the handrail so tightly. Chest heaving, I fixed my eyes on the shelves in front of me and tried not to think about the steep drop behind.
My heart fell. There were at hundreds of books in front of me. I scanned the titles: How the Imperial Garden was Built, King Edward the Generous: Founder of the Imperial Garden, Notable Head Gardeners of the Imperial Garden, The Botanical Expeditions of Sir Cuthbert the Crooked — plenty of books about the Garden’s history. I searched for something that looked like it might tell me what I would find inside its walls.
Finally my eyes fell on a slim volume entitled The Imperial Garden’s Legendary Plants of Power. This looked hopeful. I pulled it out and it fell open on a full colour painting. As soon as I set eyes on it, my blood ran cold. It showed an ancient-looking tree with a thick trunk and gold heart-shaped leaves. Its bark was smooth and dark, almost black and it was covered in small fruits, the size of cherries. All were a livid, dangerous red. All except one — one single fruit right at the top of the tree — which was white. It stood out from the rest of the crop despite its small size. A shiver ran down my spine. There was something sinister about this tree. Something I couldn’t explain but I felt very strongly. Just looking at the picture made my skin crawl. I breathed in deeply to calm myself and read the words on the opposite page.
The Plague Tree
The Plague Tree is one of the most powerful plants, rumoured to grow in the Imperial Garden. Legend has it that every fifteen years it produces a crop of red fruits and one single white fruit. The red fruits can be made into a potion that causes Red Plague – a plague so virulent, it can wipe out a whole city. Its only known antidote is a potion made from the white fruit, which has to be picked on the full moon night. The wood of the Plague Tree is said to be one of the hardest known to man. It does not give up its fruits easily. The stems must be cut with a sharp knife.
I turned the page, not wanting to look at it anymore. There was no information about whereabouts in the garden it was located. I flicked through the rest of the book – nothing. With a sigh, I put it back on the shelf and picked another book at random. This one was a heavy, leather-bound tome with gold embossed lettering: The Complete Guide to Everything Known about the Imperial Garden. It would take me a few hours to wade through it, I thought, but it might turn up something useful. As I tried to wrestle it from the shelf, without falling backwards off the platform, a small booklet which had been tucked in next to it, fell out and landed face up at my feet. The Imperial Garden: A Short History. Abandoning my struggle, I knelt down and opened it at the first page.
The Secret Garden
The Imperial Garden was founded in the reign of King Edward the Generous, to provide medicinal herbs for the palace doctors. Some of the most powerful plants in the world are housed within its walls. Its secrets have been passed down through generations of Secret Gardeners. Besides the King, only they are allowed to enter the Garden. Only they know its layout and the location of its plants. They each swear an oath never to divulge this information. No maps may be drawn, no instructions written and no one should ever be told where any of the plants can be found. The punishment for breaking this vow is death.
I closed the book and put it back. That was pretty clear.
The library was another dead end. Descending the staircase, I hung on to the handrail and turned my head towards the bookshelves so as not to see the drop. It wasn’t that I was afraid of heights. After all I’d soared through the sky in the body of a dove. But that was different. This body was a lot heavier and it didn’t have wings. With each downwards step, my spirits sunk lower. By the time I reached the library floor, I’d hit rock bottom.
As I stepped out into the magnificent city, its colours shining in the midday sun, I felt worse than I’d ever felt. Since I’d entered the palace, I’d been so focused on the task ahead, my mind had had no room for thoughts of Poppy, lying ill in bed back home, feverish, coughing, most likely dying. Now the sadness welled up inside my heart. My dear sister! How many other people in Frailing were crying by the bedside of their sick loved ones? I’d been their only hope. If I’d managed to find the Plaguesbane and take it home, everyone would have been saved but the full moon was tonight. I would never find it now. I’d failed. All was lost because of me.
My face crumpled and the sobs exploded out of me. I stumbled down the library steps, tears streaming down my face, soaking into the neckline of Jemima’s dress. I didn’t even try to wipe them away. The people coming and going glanced at me but nobody stopped. I wandered blindly down a random street. The dogs trotting beside me looked up at me, their big soulful eyes full of concern, making me cry even harder. The street I was in now was almost deserted. Utterly defeated, I toppled to my knees and wailed aloud. I cried my heart out, my body shaking with long, racking sobs. Wet noses nudged my chin and rough tongues licked my face, but I carried on howling as if the world had ended. To all intents and purposes, for me, it had.
My misery was interrupted by a very loud meow, right in my ear. I jerked my head up in surprise and through my tears I saw a pure white cat with piercing blue eyes standing directly in front of me. She wore an imperious expression and obviously had something important to say.
“Meow!” Louder this time and more insistent. I hiccupped back my sobs and blinked at her. She took a few steps away from me, tail high in the air and then turned back to face me.
“Meow!” again, impatient now, like she was talking to a naughty child who was refusing to obey. I had nothing better to do so I pushed myself up off my knees and wiped my face with the back of my hand. She walked a little further this time, twisted her head towards me and meowed again as if to say, Come on. I haven’t got all day. Despair had worn away my resistance. Dumbly, I set off after her. We were in a different part of the city now. The streets were narrower and the buildings smaller and less richly decorated but still distinctly Quaini.
The white cat processed down the middle of the street, as if it belonged to her and everyone else should get out of her way. The strays and I followed behind like ducklings after their mother. She turned right, the left, then right again and finally stopped in front of a bright orange door in a deserted side street. She rose up on her hind legs and clawed the door, flakes of orange paint fell to the ground. Then she turned and meowed. This meow said, No need to thank me. I was just doing my job. And with that she strolled away.
The door opened and I nearly collapsed in shock.
There in front of me was the woman I’d seen on the hill with the long blonde hair and the white shawl.