The Silent City: Part Three
Etana stumbled through the double line of guards, Deena springing enthusiastically after her. The guard that had grabbed her was now motionless once more, but another paw shot out to take hold of the stumbling Draik – this one beige and sparkling with gold and silver and rubies and emeralds.
“Oh, my dear! Now, this won’t do at all.” The Lupe, who towered over Etana and Deena, made a soft, almost mocking, clucking sound, tilting Etana’s chin up so as to see her face better. “You may have been white when you left your home but now I fear you may be forever stained brown.” Again she clucked, turning Etana’s face left and right, “Well, not to worry, not to worry, my dear. There’s plenty of time before supper.” She patted Etana on the cheek and smiled, then reached for a small silver bell that hung from her neck and shook it daintily. An impossibly neat pink Zafara stepped placidly through the doorway behind the Lupe, eyes somewhat unfocussed and glazed.
“Now, dear, this is Elsa. She’s very good with these things; she’ll have you tidy and ready for polite society in no time at all! Off you go, now, while my knights talk to your... well, guards, as you call them.”
Luke stepped forward protectively, paw on the hilt of his sword. “She doesn’t go anywhere without a Thornstonian escort.”
“Oh, of course! I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it be any other way.” Then she paused, looking between Luke, Ashie and Deena as if trying to judge their suitability. “You,” she pointed a paw at Deena, “you seem the most obvious choice. Now, hurry along, girls!”
Inside was as grand and sparkling as outside; white stone walls decked in beautiful portraits, white stone floors paved with golden rugs. Elsa turned sharply left and led them through the glimmering new world, through a pale-wood door and up a spiralling white staircase with a white hand rail and white lace curtains framing every slim window. Even their footsteps were silent in this unnervingly calm world.
* * *
Elsa scrubbed Etana’s face, arms, legs, tail and wings with rose scented cream mixed with sand; she put oil and rags in her hair; she painted black ink around her eyes and dusted pink powder all over the place; she poked, prodded and generally preened the advisor so much that Etana was soon glaring, her paw hovering by her belt. Yet not once did Elsa speak.
When finally this was finished Etana slumped back in the chair, eyes closed, but immediately someone tapped her shoulder. Deena jerked her head, signalling towards Elsa – and Elsa was pointing at a line of mannequins.
“I think,” Deena moved closer to the mannequins, “she wants you to pick a dress...”
Etana looked incredulously at what was on offer: all pale; all spangling with jewels or beads; all intricate, detailed gowns that looked uncomfortable and unpractical. Etana’s glare deepened.
“Oh, Etana, pick this one! It looks fit for a queen...” Deena giggled, touching the silky fabric of a faded sage green gown, strings of jade beads hanging around the waist like a handful of thin belts.
Reluctantly Etana agreed. Her waist looked funny; she couldn’t wear her own belt over the top of the gentle gown so she wore it underneath, with the dagger strapped to one wrist and the slumberberry potion strapped to the other, just in case. She was glad the gown had long, loose sleeves to conceal her hidden weapons.
Elsa nodded, and pointed towards the door. Supper time.
* * *
Etana supposed this was a feast but the tables were pitifully empty. A handful of sedate, elegant female guests laughed with each other and talked lightly of unimportant things, while a sparse band played golden string instruments at the end of the banqueting hall. Etana’s guards stood stiffly behind her and she longed to turn away from this dull discussion and talk to Luke, Deena and Ashie instead – but every now and then something interesting would be said, or Queen Melesse, still exaggeratedly pleasant, would attempt to include her in the dull conversation.
“Of course,” said one Faerie Bori, waving a paw woven with jewels, “there are always those unruly hooligans in the forest to take into consideration – I understand you have a similar problem, Lady Etana?”
“It’s just Etana,” Etana corrected awkwardly, putting down her silver fork, “and actually that was all over before I joined the Table.”
“My Henry would never have put up with it, but while he’s away I just can’t stand to stay in the forest manor. I decided it would be much more sensible to move in to the city, and there are plenty of houses to choose from! I was quite shocked to find the old Cricket house completely abandoned. They even left that beautiful piano I was always admiring – just left it!”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, April,” Melesse chipped in loudly, frowning in her usual overdramatic manner, “I will have my knights scour your area of the forest immediately. There’s always room in the dungeons for a few more rule breakers.” She flicked a paw towards one of her knights, who bowed politely and left the room.
Etana dared glance over her shoulder. She instantly met Luke’s gaze, glad to see that he, too, was frowning slightly. He gave an almost invisible shrug, and Etana turned back to the table. Where had all these pets disappeared to?
* * *
“Your Majesty,” Etana began, perched uncomfortably on the edge of a fat sofa in one of Melesse’s private chambers. This room was as white as the rest of the palace, with a scattering of comfortable chairs and pale-wood bookcases, and an enormous mirror dominating most of one wall. However, rather than do the predictable thing and show reflections, the mirror was busily showing an aerial view of Rosesand, punctuated with close ups of certain areas. Etana tried to ignore the mirror, focussing instead on Melesse’s excessively interested face. “Queen Alastrine is very anxious about the state of affairs between the once Sister Realms.”
“That’s quite understandable,” Melesse said cheerfully. “It’s not easy to be Queen, dear.”
“Uhm, yes.” Etana shifted uneasily, digging into the knowledge of formalities that was growing dust at the back of her mind, “Ma’am, my Queen sent me here as a royal messenger, to convey to you a very important request; official peace and sisterhood.”
“What a charming idea,” Melesse grinned, truly looking enchanted, “and presumably I’d go down in history for being one of the three queens to renew the Treaty of Sisterhood?”
“Well, presumably,” Etana answered with a frown. Melesse’s cooperation was unexpected and disorientating; Etana felt lost. She shot a quick glance at the mirror, as though the map of Rosesand might guide her.
“What a charming idea!” Melesse said again. “The details, dear?”
“The details are to be discussed at the next full moon, at the ancient spot known as Meetingplace. It is hoped that all three queens will unite to agree on the terms of the new treaty.” Etana smiled, a little hesitantly. This was too easy; much too easy.
“How apt,” Melesse said, grinning again, “well, my dear, what a lovely surprise! How glad I am you came. Please, allow me to lend you a messenger to run ahead to Thornstone and deliver my acceptance to this Queen Alastrine of yours. It’s the absolute least I can do! Then you can stay on here and travel to Meetingplace with me, and from there you can return home with your own queen.”
“Thank you, Ma’am, but I have some messages to send home myself, and I get the feeling one of my guards is getting quite homesick,” Etana lied, unsure why; all she knew was that there was more to learn about Rosesand, and if she left now Alice would only get half the information. “I would, however, be honoured to stay on here in Rosesand.”
Luke was waiting outside the door. Etana got the distinct impression he’d been listening, ear pressed to the wood, just seconds before. She smiled, and they strode quickly around the corner, into the silence once more.
“I don’t trust her,” Luke mumbled, barely moving his mouth.
“Something’s definitely not right here,” Etana agreed, “I said we’d stay on until the meeting. I know I’ve done what I was sent here to do, but it just... it doesn’t feel like it’s over.”
“The longer we stay here the more chances there are for me to fail, Etana,” Luke said tensely. “You have to compensate me by being doubly careful until we leave this unnatural place.”
Etana stopped walking. It seemed to take Luke a moment to notice, but then he turned back, eyebrows raised. Somehow Etana was only half-seeing Luke, for directly in front of her companion stood the shimmering glass Zafara, smiling.
“Tricks,” said a soft voice, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere, filled with shadows and stars and headaches and laughter. Luke was gazing straight through the newcomer, looking concernedly at Etana. She thought his lips were moving but this surely wasn’t his voice; this voice belonged to someone only half there... then he wasn’t there at all.
To be continued...