Poppy woke early and sat bolt upright in bed.
Overnight an idea had formed in her head and she was eager to put it into action. She thrust the curtains aside and jumped out of bed. Ivy was kneeling by the grate, coaxing a fire to life.
‘Take me to the kitchens, Ivy!’ she ordered. Ivy started and turned on her knees.
‘What? In your nightgown?’
‘Oh, er, no. Hang on a tick.’ Poppy rummaged in the wardrobe until she found a plain green tunic – the kind Annifer would wear everyday if Poppy wasn’t there to force her into more royally appropriate garments. She pulled it on over her nightgown and quickly tied her hair up in a ribbon. ‘Now, kitchens, please!’
Poppy followed a bemused but unquestioning Ivy down flight after flight of stone steps, muttering cryptically to herself, ‘Dragonbreath – that’s the one that tastes rotten and sage, plenty of that. Thyme, I think. Marshmallow, perhaps?’ They trotted at quite a pace through the servants’ quarters until Ivy pushed open the double doors that led into the royal kitchens. A dozen white-aproned and bonneted kitchen maids looked up as they burst through the door.
‘Show me where the herb cupboard is and give me a kettle, some fresh water and an empty jar!’ Poppy demanded. ‘Er . . . I mean, please show me where the herb cupboard is and give me a kettle, some fresh water and an empty jar,’ she corrected herself. The kitchen staff stared at her eyebrows raised in perplexed expressions, but nobody moved.
‘This is the Princess Annifer of Frailing,’ Ivy explained, addressing a large cross-looking, red-faced woman who appeared to be in charge. ‘Best do what she asks.’
The woman frowned, wiped her flour covered hands on her apron and lifted a copper kettle onto the stove with a clang. She filled it with water from a jug and fanned the flame beneath it.
With a suspicious glare at Poppy, she pointed a fat finger at a wooden cupboard in the corner.
”Erbs and empty jars are in there, Yer ‘ighness.’
Poppy snatched the doors open and started going through the jars inside, squinting at their labels, unscrewing the lids and sniffing them.
‘This one, yes, definitely this one,’ she handed the selected jars to Ivy. ‘This one too . . . Can’t see dragonbreath. Maybe they call it something different here . . . ? What’s this? Firegrass. Pooh! Yes, that’s it. I’d never forget that smell.’
When they had five jars and one empty between them, she found a space on the big table in the middle of the room, between two puzzled kitchen maids who were peeling potatoes. Then she began emptying a little of each into the empty jar, ‘A bit more of this one. That’s enough of this one, I think. Just a pinch more from this jar.’ She gave it a final sniff and her lips stretched into a smile. ‘That’s it! Perfect!’
She screwed the lid shut and gave it a good shake before tipping two spoons’ worth into the kettle of simmering water and covering it.
‘Now, we wait for it to brew.’ Poppy tapped her feet and hummed tunelessly, lifting the lid and sniffing the concoction at regular intervals. After a few minutes she shouted, ‘It’s ready! Ivy, get me a tray, a mug and a strainer.’
Next thing Ivy knew she was dashing back up the stairs towards the royal apartments behind Poppy, who was carrying the tray with the mug, kettle and strainer on, her face screwed up in concentration, trying not to spill the precious brew.
‘Which is the king’s room?’ Poppy asked just as the sound of a violent fit of coughing from behind the door in the middle, directly opposite the king’s portrait, answered her question for her. A guard in a thick leather tunic with a sword at his belt stood outside. Poppy squared up to him.
‘I am Princess Annifer of Frailing and I have something for the king.’ He narrowed his eyes and looked from Poppy to Ivy who was nodding encouragingly, then opened the door and disappeared inside, closing it behind him. Seconds later, he opened it wide and gestured to the two girls to come in.
Poppy squinted her eyes, turning her nose up at the musty smell that hit her nose. The room was dimly lit but she could see that it was laid out in the same way as hers, except instead of a bear a huge stuffed white stag stood in the middle of the room and the tapestry on the wall portrayed its capture and killing. The curtains surrounding the king’s four-poster bed were purple velvet. He sat, propped up with pillows, his face drawn with pain and exhaustion, his complexion almost grey.
‘Princess?’ he asked, his voice no more than a hoarse whisper. Poppy had a moment’s misgiving when she saw how very ill he looked but batted it down and stepped forward.
‘I’ve made a remedy for you, Your Majesty. When I had the lung fever last year, my sis . . . I mean, one of the Frailing Wise Women gave it to me twice a day and I was better in a week. Completely better, fit as a fiddle, bouncing like a newborn baby I was. Will . . . will you try it?’
‘My dear . . . cough, cough . . . .Crosstain’s finest doctors have bled me and . . .’
‘Try it, Your Majesty, please.’ Ivy’s voice was so insistent and the king’s power of resistance so low, he sighed and nodded.
‘Very well. Bring it here.’
The girls perched on either side of the bed and Poppy gently placed the tray on the king’s lap. She poured out a mug and held it to his lips. After a mouthful, he spluttered it out.
‘Yes, I know,’ Poppy nodded, ‘but you know what they say: The worse it tastes, the better it acts. At least, that’s what they say in Frailing.’
She lifted the mug and he sipped once again. There was more spluttering and Ivy put a steadying hand to his shoulder. The moment she touched him, Poppy saw a faint white glow appear around her hand — an indistinct pale phosphorescence, a light that wasn’t static but seemed to be flowing from Ivy’s hand into the king’s body.
Poppy blinked hard and looked again to make sure her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her but there it was again: a glowing white light like an aura from Ivy’s wrist to the tips of her fingers. A light Poppy had seen many times before. When Ivy removed her hand sparks crackled between her palm and the king’s shoulder. Poppy’s eyes widened in amazement but neither Ivy nor the king seemed to have noticed anything unusual. Could it be . . . ? Poppy thought.
After a few more minutes of sipping and spluttering, the king had drained the whole mug down.
‘And now a turn round the garden to get fresh air into your lungs.’ Poppy announced in her best school mistress voice, lifting the tray off the king’s lap. ‘Ivy and I will help you.’
‘Alright,’ the king chuckled, ‘We’ll walk around my private garden. No one’s bossed me around like this since Katerina . . .’ He left the sentence unfinished.
Ivy took him by the arm and helped him stagger to his feet. Once again, Poppy saw a white light shine weakly where she touched his arm.
As Poppy put the tray down on the bedside table, she noticed a hook hanging behind the king’s bed. From the hook dangled a long key with a handle shaped like a bear. She paused briefly as the glimmer of an idea passed across her forehead, then turned and took the king’s other arm.