Poppy followed the sullen servant as she slunk, shoulders hunched, down a long corridor, the wall of which was decorated with a long faded tapestry depicting bloody battle scenes – soldiers on horseback being pierced by arrows, having their limbs hacked off with swords, being impaled on spears, lying dismembered in pools of blood.
They must have needed quite a few spools of red yarn to make this, Poppy thought.
She rubbed her forehead. Her brain was throbbing with the beginnings of a tension headache and looking at this carnage was making it worse. Ivy led her up a wide stone staircase into what appeared to be the royal apartments. A long, high-ceilinged room with life-sized portraits of the royal family hung on the wall. The painting in the middle depicted a younger, healthier King Fenwick with a crown on his head and a purple velvet cloak trimmed with white fur over his shoulders. His hair and beard were as thick and brown as Larnick’s and his brown eyes sharp and clear. He wore a serene, noble expression. The portrait to its left showed a boyish Larnick playing with some beagle puppies. This smiling, carefree lad seemed a million miles removed from the surly young man who’d stomped past her earlier.
But it was the portrait to the right that really caught Poppy’s attention. It showed an ethereally beautiful woman in a long white dress, sitting on a swing that hung from the bough of a tree. Dark curls framed her heart-shaped face and soft brown eyes smiled out at you, kind, generous eyes, you couldn’t help but smile back at. She held the swing’s rope in one hand and the other clasped a yellow rose to her chest.
On the other side of the room, opposite the portraits were three wooden doors. Ivy stopped in front of the last one and turned the handle. As soon as the door swung open, Poppy saw why it was called the White Bear Room.
It contained all the furniture you’d normally find in a royal bedroom – a dark red velvet curtained four poster bed, a mahogany wardrobe, dressing table with mirror, wash stand and fireplace but right in the middle of the room facing the door stood a gigantic stuffed white bear, glass eyes staring, paws raised above its head, teeth bared as if ready to attack. The fur on its flank was stained red in places as was the fur around its snout.
My goodness, Poppy thought, how will I ever get to sleep with that in the room?
The tapestry that hung on the wall showed a group of fur-clad hunters in a snowy landscape. Some of them were driving spears into the body of an identical white bear that stood in the exact same position as the one in the middle of the room. Others were lying in patches of red snow, their severed arms and legs strewn around the scene haphazardly.
I wonder if I could put a sheet over the bear and turn the tapestry to face the wall, Poppy pondered to herself.
She followed Ivy into the room, giving the ferocious occupant as wide a berth as possible. Annifer’s trunk had been left next to the wardrobe. Poppy opened the lid to unpack it but Ivy edged her out of the way,
‘Allow me, Princess.’ Her words were polite but her tone left Poppy feeling like a scolded child. While Ivy took out Annifer’s jewelry box and bone-handled hair brush and placed them neatly on the dressing table, Poppy unclasped her travelling cloak, pulled off her tunic and poured water into the enamel wash basin. The silence between them was oppressive. She’d never been able to go for long without talking.
‘Have you worked here long?’ Poppy’s voice came out a bit too high as she tried for a breezy, casual tone to mask her nervousness.
‘Since I was old enough to hold a hairbrush,’ Ivy replied, not looking up from the cream silk evening gown she was smoothing out before hanging it in the wardrobe. ‘My mother was Queen Katerina’s maid. She was training me to take over the job from her but then the queen died.’ Poppy sat at the dressing table and undid the ribbon on her messy plait.
‘Oh, I see. Does your mother still live in the castle?’
‘Dead too. Lung fever. We had it bad here last summer. Lost nearly half the courtiers.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ Her fingers stopped unpicking the braid. ‘How awful for you! We had it in Frailing last year too, Annifer got it first . . . I mean I got it first and then my maid did.’
‘How many did you lose?’
‘Er . . . I don’t think we lost any, actually. The Wise Women worked very hard. My sis . . . one of our kitchen maids who’s training to be a Wise Woman brewed up a remedy from herbs, a really stinky one, and we had to drink it twice a day and then go and walk around the garden to get fresh air into our lungs. We got better within a few days.’
‘Hmph!’ Ivy snorted as she knelt down to line Annifer’s shoes up in pairs at the bottom of the wardrobe, ‘You were lucky. We don’t have no Wise Women here. The doctors did the best they could for the sick people; they bled them and gave them pig offal to eat but it didn’t work. The fever lost its hold when the wintertime came though. Just the old ones affected now.’
Poppy was drying her face. She lowered the towel and cast Ivy a meaningful glance. ‘Like the king.’
Ivy swallowed and nodded sadly. ‘Some say it was your messenger that brought the fever to Crosstain in the first place.’
‘The one that that told the king you couldn’t marry Prince Larnick coz yer cat was pregnant.’
‘Oh no!’ Poppy froze, her eyes stretched, her mouth agape with horror. Ivy’s severe face softened a little.
‘I don’t believe it though. And even if it is true, it would have got here sooner or later. Lung fever spreads like wildfire through the continent of Tarth when it strikes.
‘That’s true,’ Poppy agreed, but it explains some of the hostility, she thought to herself. They blame Annifer for the last fever outbreak and they’re suspicious of foreigners because with no Wise Women they’re much more vulnerable to diseases brought in from outside Crosstain.
Ivy stood behind Poppy, Annifer’s brush in her hand and their eyes met in the mirror. The corners of Ivy’s mouth twitched involuntarily into something that was almost a smile. She got to work teasing the tangles out of Poppy’s hair, smoothing it back from her forehead with her hand. The touch felt good. It left her head feeling tingly and eased the throbbing. This must be what a cat being stroked must feel like, she thought and drifted into a peaceful trance. By the time Ivy was done replaiting her hair, Poppy’s headache was completely gone.
Next Ivy helped her into a purple velvet gown. It was one that Annifer particularly hated and Poppy chuckled silently remembering all the times she’d had to coax and cajole her mistress into it. With an emerald tiara, necklace, earrings and bracelets to accessorize, Poppy looked and felt every inch the princess. Ivy’s eyes twinkled and for the first time her face cracked into a genuine smile. Then her forehead creased with concern,
‘You’ll freeze to death in that great banqueting hall and none of your cloaks will be warm enough. Wait here.’ She hurried out of the room, only to return minutes later with armfuls of fine fur cloaks.
‘These were Queen Katerina’s. I guess she doesn’t need them anymore.’ She draped a floor length white fur around Poppy’s shoulders causing Poppy to shoot a guilty glance at the bear in the middle of the room.
‘Come on,’ Ivy brushed a piece of fluff off Poppy’s shoulder, ‘I’ll take you down to dinner.’