An hour later, Poppy settled herself between Larnick and the king in the Royal Box. She was dressed in an emerald green silk gown with a sable fur and a diamond tiara. King Fenwick wore a long burgundy velvet robe and his golden crown, studded with rubies. Larnick’s robe was purple velvet, a circlet of gold over his wavy hair. Poppy plucked nervously at the hem of her fur as the guards pulled back the gates and a sea of people flooded into the arena.
There were exclamations and gesticulations when they saw the central stake free of bear but draped in colourful ribbons and the walls of the arena swathed in shiny material. The hubbub rose to a crescendo as the guards directed them up to their seats. Poppy gulped, her stomach clenching. Had Larnick been right? Would there be a riot?
The king leant across Poppy and addressed his son.
‘Larnick, you’re the right person to calm the crowd.’
‘You’ll be king one day. It’s time you took over some of my duties.’
Larnick took a deep breath and rose to his feet. He exited the Royal Box and walked solemnly down the steps and out onto the arena’s sandy floor. Gradually the people fell silent and turned their eyes towards him. He turned on the spot, looking up and surveying all the faces staring back at him, then opened his arms wide and spoke.
‘Dear Friends! Brothers and sisters of Crosstain!’ his voice echoed around the vast space, surprising Poppy with its resonance. ‘I, Prince Larnick, my father, King Fenwick of Crosstain and the Princess Annifer of Frailing,’ he held his hand towards the Royal Box, ‘welcome you to the Loskan arena.’ There were nods and murmurs from the audience. Poppy briefly looked around to see where Princess Annifer was before remembering that Princess Annifer meant her.
‘You came here expecting to see bear-baiting but last night the bear broke free and escaped.’ This was met with gasps. ‘So there will be no fight. But worry not because we have something even better in store for you. It is our pleasure to offer you a very special royal entertainment which has never before been witnessed outside the castle walls.’ He paused for effect, the crowd hanging on his every word.
‘Here today, the king’s very own Royal Revelers will perform for your delight and entertainment, their spectacular production of The Golden Knight and the Giants!’
With a sweeping gesture he retired to his seat while the performers careered onto stage in an explosion of noise and colour. The audience sat in stunned silence while the brightly dressed entertainers back-flipped, danced, sang and played their instruments on the sand below them. The children were the first to react, jumping up and down in their places, clapping and cheering excitedly and soon the whole crowd were stamping their feet and shouting, caught up in the enthusiasm.
When Jess glided into the arena, poised and magnificent, whispers of sh! went round the spectators. Hush descended on the stadium and everyone tuned in to the chestnut-haired soprano. From the opening notes of her mournful melody, she had them enchanted. Hearts swelled with the music, eyes glistened with tears, mouths hung open in wonder.
The play unfolded as it had the night before but with far more drama and intensity. The actors rose to the occasion, giving the performance of their lives. The audience booed the villains, cheered the heroes, gasped at the unexpected and by the final chorus of ‘My Country Brave’, they were on their feet, cheering and clapping their hands above their heads. Poppy patted Larnick on the knee.
‘Go and sing with them.’
‘Go and sing with them. Your father told me you know that song. You’re the prince, think how happy your people would be if you sang for them. Go!’
Shocked into obedience, his eyes shining with eagerness, Larnick once again walked down to the arena. As he stepped onto the sand everyone fell quiet. He made his way towards Jess who was standing in the middle. All eyes were on him, he breathed in, opened his mouth and for the first time since his mother’s death, Prince Larnick sang. His voice a rich tenor, smooth as silk and sonorous as a bell, charmed the ears of his listeners. Jess joined her sweet voice to his and they sang together in entrancing harmony. A sigh of contentment rippled through the assembly.
When they alighted delicately on the song’s final note, Poppy cast her eyes around the stadium – handkerchiefs were dabbing wet eyes wherever she looked. After a moment’s delicious silence, the crowd erupted in wild applause, stamping and whooping their approval. Jess took Larnick’s hand and together they took their bow.
Just then there was a disturbance at the gate. The performers scattered as a disheveled man, his hair matted with blood and his cloak torn, galloped into the arena on a dusty grey horse. Confusion rippled through the crowd and the cheering stopped abruptly. The rider steered his mount in front of the Royal Box. One look at his face told Poppy something was very wrong.
‘Your Majesty,’ the messenger panted. ‘There’s been an attack. Two villages in the north have been hit.’ His shoulders rose and fell with each ragged breath. ‘Wiped out. No survivors.’
King Fenwick sprang to his feet. ‘Who attacked them?’
‘Your Majesty, it was . . .’ the messenger broke off, emotion constricting his throat.
‘Speak, man! Who attacked them?’ the king commanded.
‘It was giants.’