“Where’s the princess?”
Even the trees seemed to be asking one another the question. Astrid watched as they swayed, interlocking branches rustling, as if they were passing the message along from one to the other, until the whole forest moved back and forth with the words as its rhythm.
Astrid locked a hand around one of the gold-gilt bars in front of her and pushed. The heart-shaped padlock holding the gates of the academy together rattled, but the gates remained firmly shut. Only Madame Avery had the key.
“She’s not here,” Astrid called, without turning to look at Bette, instead staring deeper into Glistenfell Woods. The breeze scuffed dead leaves, all warm hues of yellow and brown along the ground and more fell to join them, all the time whispering the same question. The setting sun bathed everything in golden light, even Astrid’s orange dress.
“That much I can see.” Gravel crunched under Bette’s feet as she came to stand beside Astrid staring out at the world beyond the confines of Avery’s Academy. “But where could she have gone?”
The question, the question for which Astrid wished she had an answer.
It had first bubbled from their Embroidery class that morning, then muttered in the dining room at lunchtime. For half of their duelling session the Final Years listened to Madame Hearing bark it at them. It had been scribbled on notes passed between First Years in Geometry, roared by the cook over the sound of the fire downstairs, it had even escaped through the crack under Madame Avery’s office door. But there was no answer to accompany it, just a hopeless mystery with no ending.
Astrid tore her eyes away from the winding path that led on from the Academy gates and vanished into the shadows of the forest. She turned and leant against the gate, both hands behind her back, curled around one of the smooth bars. She stared up at the Avery ancestral home, the honey-coloured stone seeming richer than ever in the setting sun. It had been Astrid who had suggested that they begin a search and the younger girls were keen to agree with her, eyes wide and heads bobbing as if they were at sea. They had set out in pairs, radiating through the house and grounds. Astrid, along with Bette, had taken it upon herself to make the longest walk, the whole way down the drive. But there was no trace of her, no delicate footprints or long silvery hairs caught on branches. There was just the grass and gravel and the two well-worn trenches where carriage and cart wheels trundled along.
“Paulina is still in the stables, and I doubt Alicia started on foot,” said Bette, her voice full of the logic and calm that made her famous. A wide section of pale brown hair had escaped her bun as they hurried down here, and now she was trying to tuck it back behind her ear as best she could. “So I don’t think she left by herself.”
Astrid shook her head. “I never thought she did. Come on. We should head back.”
They both hopped back up onto the lawn and walked back towards the house. It was perfectly symmetrical apart from the tower on the right, built by Madame Avery’s grandfather. He had intended to build its match on the left, but the money ran short and now the tower stood as a cruel reminder of the Avery family’s misfortune and near destitution. For the past ten years, however, the estate had thrived and been filled with the vivacity of the girls attending Avery’s Academy for Future Female Rulers. For six of those years, Astrid had eaten with Alicia on her right, Bette on her left, slept with Alicia on her right, Bette on her left. Now she walked with Bette on her right and nothing to her left.
The anxiety rose off the crowd of students and staff like steam. Astrid and Bette approached, and faces slowly swimming into focus as they drew closer. Standing on the top step was Madame Avery, the sapphires in her iron grey hair and her thick fingers glinting in the dying light. She gave them a querying look, but Astrid shook her head.
“Nothing. We went down as far as the gate, there’s no sign of her.”
Madame Avery looked resigned. “A pity. You were the last ones back, and you two so rarely let me down.” She sighed and ushered them all inside. “Come along girls. I will send a messenger to Cadoras and we will start a search outside the grounds. But the dinner bell is about to ring- I suggest you go straight to the dining room, don’t worry about changing, just for tonight.”
This was a surprise in itself, not to be told to dress for dinner and Astrid did a quick search for the face of Antonia Daspire. Antonia was, as Astrid expected, horrified at the idea of going for dinner in her yellow day dress printed with tiny blossoms, her ample curls bundled up on the top of her head. She looked around for Bette but she had already disappeared, so instead Astrid braced herself against the tide of younger students surging inside, waiting until she had free passage to Antonia.
“I think she’s been kidnapped.” Astrid looked down to see the bright hazel eyes of Genevieve Ribbon, crinkled and twinkling as Genevieve grinned up at her. “And I think we should go and rescue her.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous, Gen.” Antonia had covered the distance herself, looking as if she were gliding rather than walking, as she had spent years training herself to do. “She’s eloped with Sir Nathaniel. Anyone can see that.”
Astrid gave a snort of derision, although her heart skipped a beat. “That’s a silly thing to say, Toni. If they’re to be married anyway, why would they elope?”
“Because arranged marriage is wrong.” Genevieve retained the mantra she had kept for the past six years. Astrid usually could only roll her eyes but the notion seemed as plausible as anything else as to where Alicia had gone. As they walked through the hallway, though, the words began to nag at her.
“But…” She said it very quietly, almost without noticing. Astrid knew that really, she didn’t want to voice this argument to her two friends and hoped they hadn’t heard. But they stopped on the threshold of the dining room and in unison turned to face her, their faces full of expectation.
“But what?” Antonia demanded, one hand on her hip and her whole body tilted so that that hip jutted out.
“But she would have told me.”
The words seemed very small and naïve as they passed her lips, a schoolgirl’s faith against the troubles and evil of the whole world, a wish upon a star or a coin echoing as it fell into a well. She knew it was stupid, beyond stupid, but Astrid clung to the thought all the same, the only thing of which she was certain.
She stared at her friends, waiting for the bombardment. But Genevieve’s features smoothened, the creases of a frown no longer joining her freckles, and Antonia sighed, dropping that jaunty hip. “I suppose that’s true,” she said
“Besides,” Astrid said, her courage building again. “Nat is far too honourable to do a thing like that.”
“If you say so.” Antonia did not seem convinced. Astrid glanced at Genevieve, who was one of Nathaniel’s oldest friends, but she had already turned on the spot and was stalking towards their table at the top of the Dining Room.
The three of them sat down in their usual spots at the Final Year table, but a seat separated each of them. Alicia’s chair, with a crown carved into the back of it to mark her place, sat like a question mark to Astrid’s right, Bette’s place to her left.
“Wonder where Bette’s gone,” she said.
“I think she’s run away too,” Genevieve said, a wicked sparkle in her hazel eyes. Astrid said nothing. The space between Genevieve and Antonia was, too, empty, but that was no mystery. Even six years under Madame Avery’s instruction still couldn’t persuade Setter Polaris, Countess of the remote and mysterious Jagged Isle, to go to a meal she didn’t wish to attend.
The conversation bubbled at the lower tables where the younger girls sat all converged on one topic- the topic of the hour. The question.
“Where’s the princess?”
Ever since she had failed to come back to Embroidery that morning, the question hadn’t left Astrid’s own mind. At lunch every movement caused her to twist in her seat in case Alicia had just come in the door. All through duelling practice, her magic glowed pink and yellow and all colours apart from the pure white she was supposed to be producing, too distracted by thoughts of her best friend. The rest of the afternoon had been wasted on the fruitless search of the grounds, without even a hint of where she might be.
“Perhaps she went to the palace today instead of tomorrow,” she suggested.
“But why? Besides, Paulina is still in the stables and none of the carriages have been taken. I’m sure she would have informed Madame Avery,” said Antonia.
“Maybe her parents wanted to speak to her,” Astrid said, though what could it be that couldn’t wait until the girls went to the palace tomorrow, or that couldn’t have been sent with a bird?
There was the scrape of chair legs on flagstones as the girls all stood up and the staff paraded in. Madame Avery motioned for them all to sit once she had reached her own chair in the middle of the high table. They sat and began to help themselves to bread as the soup course was brought in. Chatter rose again, although nothing was said at the Final Year table, all three girls deep in their own thoughts, although Astrid knew those thoughts were all quite similar.
Then the heavy oak door was heaved open, and the hall stared at Bette Cheslin, her eyes wide, that section of hair escaped over her right ear once more. Bette’s hands clutched something red, like a drop of blood made large, clutched to the blue bodice of her dress.
“It’s Alicia,” she said faintly into the deathly quiet. “She’s been taken.”
Someone screamed and then everyone screamed and held each other and put the princess down as a lost cause and wondered if that meant that Prince Sebastian would now be king and was he betrothed and could she now be queen and the hall nearly fell into chaos.
Madame Avery was quick to put a stop to such shenanigans. She stood up, the sound of her chair scraping back on the wooden stage heard over everything else, but it wasn’t enough to stop the growing hysteria. Assuming her most authoritarian expression, she grabbed her dessert spoon and tapped her claret glass, just once, and said, “Ladies.”
That one word was enough to remind the girls of their station. They were future rulers. They would one day rule parts of the country of Samina, like Genevieve and Astrid, or perhaps one of the islands or groups out in the Archipelago of the Merle Sea like Antonia and Bette. It was not appropriate for them to cry, or scream, or gossip. All at once, the girls were all sat back in their hard wooden chairs, food untouched, hands folded demurely in their laps. Their eyes, though, couldn’t resist staring at Bette, the mysterious scarlet clue in her hands.
“Bette dear, perhaps you had better show me what you found.” Madame Avery beckoned her.
On uncertain feet, Bette went up the middle aisle. Her footsteps echoed over the otherwise entirely silent room as ascended the few stairs to the stage where the high table was.
It was a rose. A deep red rose a few of the bushes in the centre of Astrid’s rose garden at home. It was in full bloom, the outermost petals just beginning to curl.
“It’s a rose with a charred stem,” Bette explained. The silence was eerie as all the girls strained to hear her soft voice. “It can’t be from our gardens, all our roses are dead. It’s some sort of signature- something telling us who the kidnappers are and what they want.”
Madame Avery visibly paled, but she took the rose of Bette and smiled. “Don’t be so fanciful, Bette, she hasn’t been kidnapped. Never fear girls, we’ll have our princess back safe and sound by tomorrow!”
She sat down to murmurs of confusion but no one dared oppose this statement. The girls mainly turned back to their food. Slowly, the conversational hum returned, all the girls becoming more confident in speaking when more of the others were already speaking, the privacy of a crowded room coming back to them, and behind the backs of the Archipelago girls, the Saminan girls wondered if this had anything to do with negotiations.
Astrid slowly picked up her soup spoon, but couldn’t take her eyes off the high table. The staff seemed equally worried, but Madame Avery smiled to Madame Grey and made a joke. They both feigned laughter and turned back to their food.
Astrid was sure she was the only one saw the headmistress wipe droplets of sweat off her forehead.