Rows of mahogany and red velvet chairs had been set up on one side of the vast ballroom. The courtiers bustled to their seats excitedly chattering about the revels they were about to witness.
A hush fell on the assembly as Poppy entered, dressed in a coral pink silk gown, pearls at her ears and throat, half of her long dark hair in a braid knotted into a bun at the back of her head, the rest cascading down the side of her face.
All eyes upon her, Poppy took her place in the front row in between father and son. She clamped her teeth together to stop her jaw gaping open in wonder at the sheer magnificence of the space. Her eyes stretched as she gazed upon the shiny pink granite pillars which held up the intricately carved white marble ceiling, the dozens of chandeliers set with beeswax candles which lit the room brightly and scented it with honey, the walls painted with exquisite friezes of flowers and fruits. She settled herself into her seat. Her heart was lighter now. For the first time, it didn’t feel like she was sitting between two repelling magnets. The faces on either side of her looked clearer, brighter somehow. Larnick ‘s even looked like it might be in danger of breaking into a smile. Poppy wondered if his facial muscles would even remember how to do it. The king clapped his hands.
‘Let the revels begin!’ His voice was resonant and powerful. A wave of surprise rippled through the audience. It was a long time since they’d heard him sound like that.
There was a burst of joyful noise as the actors ran, cartwheeled and tumbled onto the stage. Men, women, young, old, all the colours of the rainbow represented in their costumes, singing, banging drums, playing lutes, harps and flutes. It was a merry cacophony. The courtiers applauded and roared their appreciation. Then the players drew back and the room fell into an expectant silence as the play began.
A tall, elegant woman, radiantly beautiful, with long chestnut brown hair and sparkling green eyes glided onto the stage. The moment she appeared, Larnick sat bolt upright. Poppy watched him out of the corner of her eyes. His breathing had quickened, his face softened and he gazed at her with a desperate longing. Poppy had no doubt that this was the face of a man in love. This must be Jess, Poppy thought, the woman Larnick has lost his heart to.
She sang a plaintive song, her crystal voice resonating through the cavernous space. A song about her beloved only child who had been killed and eaten by a giant. On her knees she appealed to the actor playing the village elder to find a way to conquer the giants.
Suddenly men on stilts wearing grimacing giant-masks burst onto stage amidst a thunder of drums. They seized the screaming children by the hair and dragged them away. There was much lamenting until finally the village elder summoned the Golden Knight, who rode in, golden armour shining, mounted on a unicorn (which Poppy could tell was a white horse with a painted wooden horn, carved into a spiral, stuck to his head.)
Then there was a terrific battle, one knight against a dozen giants, who fell one by one with much wailing and heartfelt dramatic expression, to his expertly wielded wooden sword. Falling from stilts required tremendous acrobatic skill, Poppy watched through her fingers, terrified the actors would hurt themselves. After much rejoicing and celebrating in the village, the production finished with a rousing rendition of ‘My Country Brave.’ The audience cheered and stamped their feet. The actors came back for encore after encore, flushed and elated, until eventually the courtiers began to disperse. Larnick rushed to congratulate the players, one in particular. Poppy could tell by her eyes, Jess felt the same way about Larnick. She steered the king away towards his apartments before he noticed.
‘Larnick and my wife used to sing My Country Brave as a duet, you know,’ he said, face shining as he remembered. ‘Such beautiful voices, they blended so perfectly. He hasn’t sung since Katerina died.’ Poppy patted him on the arm.
‘Well, maybe he’ll sing again one day. You never know. Goodnight, Your Majesty.’
‘Good night, Princess and . . . thank you.’
Ivy brushed Poppy’s hair, enthusing all the time about how wonderful it was to see Larnick and the king laugh together, ‘Just like they did when the queen was alive.’
She yawned as she helped Poppy into her nightdress. ‘I don’t know why I’m so tired tonight.’ Poppy knew why. Healing took a lot out of you, she’d seen how drained it left her sister sometimes. Even if she was right and Ivy had uncommonly strong healing powers that she wasn’t aware of yet, she’d need to recuperate after today.
‘Go to bed now, Ivy. And don’t come tomorrow morning, I’ll dress myself.’
As soon as she’d left, Poppy pulled off the nightdress, threw on one of Annifer’s scruffy green dresses and pocketed the bear-handled key which she’d hidden under her pillow. She laced up her boots and draped a black fur around her shoulders, tying it at the front. Lastly she snatched Annifer’s small glass-stoppered bottle of rose perfume oil off the dressing table and slipped it into her other pocket.
She listened at the wall until she could hear snoring from the other side. Then tiptoed out the door, only to come back in seconds later. She’d forgotten there was always a guard outside the king’s room. She couldn’t let him see her leaving the castle in the dead of night. Oh well, there’s only one thing for it.
She hefted the sash window open, climbed through to sit on the ledge and grabbed hold of the creeper that grew up the castle wall. Holding tightly, she swung her body out and slotted her feet into footholds among the branches. One hand and one foot at a time she lowered herself down the wall until a downwards glance told her she was close enough to the bottom to jump the rest of the way without hurting herself. She pushed off the wall and freefell through the air, landing with a bump on her hands and knees in the earth of the still-bare flowerbed, tearing her dress on a rosebush thorn. Grinning, she picked herself up and wiped her muddy hands on Annifer’s dress.
Poppy’s Plan Stage Two is underway.