Author's note- reading Chapter One is advised but not necessary! In essence, Astrid and her friends are students of Avery's Academy for Future Female Rulers. Earlier in the day, Astrid's best friend, Crown Princess Alicia, vanished without a trace. None of the staff seem very concerned. Nathaniel is Alicia's nearly-fiancé, and a close friend of Genevieve and Astrid. Sorry this chapter is so long!
“So if Liss doesn’t come back does that mean that Sebastian becomes king?”
Antonia lay back on the pink quilt that covered the feather eiderdown of her bed. Her hairbrush dropped out of her brown hand and lay abandoned beside her as she stared up at the vaulted roof, the maple beams ascending in a spiral to the top of the tower.
“Toni, don’t say such things. Alicia is fine, I’m sure of it.” Astrid was tearful, and pacing the room as she was so wont to do before an exam or a ball or any other cause of anxiety. “She’s just gotten cold feet about graduation. Or something…”
“Hardly. Besides, as you said yourself, she would have told you,” Antonia said. She picked up the hairbrush again, brandishing it like a teacher’s pointer. “I think it’s some idiots who think this is going to help the islander case. Not that it is, of course.”
That was the one thought Astrid couldn’t shake. She perched on the end of Alicia’s bed- the only one in the room with a canopy to show her station above the others. “Where is everybody anyway?”
“Bette’s no doubt in the reading room. Genevieve went down to the stables. Where Setter is is anyone’s guess.”
Astrid sighed. “I just wish I didn’t feel so helpless about it.”
“And just what are you planning on doing?” Antonia sat up. “She could be anywhere, she could be with anyone, she could be doing anything. You’re just going to grab Callista’s reins and go into the wilderness, calling her name?”
“If that’s what it takes, yes.”
“I wouldn’t bother, myself,” Antonia said vaguely, climbing up and going to her wardrobe to complete her post-dinner ritual of deciding what she would wear the next morning.
“How can you be so callous, Toni? She’s our friend.”
“Your friend,” Antonia corrected. “In case you’ve forgotten - and I doubt you have - Alicia and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye.”
Of course Astrid hadn’t forgotten, she had simply assumed that after six years spent together in one room, surely there must have been some affection between the two. But as Genevieve always said, Time didn’t necessarily breed love. Except Genevieve usually meant this in terms of arranged marriages, not concerning the Princess of Samina and the Lady of Blue Wall.
Blue Wall had entered the Archipelago Treaty only seventy years ago, sixty years after all the other islands. It didn’t consider itself a normal case. With their idyllic island further south, their dark skin and the variety of colours and spices that peppered their lives that didn’t feature further north, Blue Wall considered themselves entirely separate to the rest of the Archipelago, and they did not sit easy under the Treaty. Especially not the recent suggested changes. And, the same way that the Lord of Blue Wall did not exactly accept King Sinclair as his ruler, so Antonia could not entirely accept Alicia as hers, couldn’t agree to Alicia’s status as the favourite and best of all the staff and students alike.
Restless and bothered by Antonia’s indifference, Astrid went to find the others.
The reading room was in the main body of the house, a small chamber adjacent to the huge library that had once served as a reception room, judging by the fresco of the Summer Goddess and her maids on the ceiling, all dressed in wispy pink silk, their faces simpering. From the age of twelve, Bette had colonised one of the hard wooden chairs at a desk, always with a scattering of texts in front of her, dissecting every sentence and gobbling up every piece of information she could find.
She was there now, of course, the only one in there. While the Final Year girls finished in a matter of weeks, the rest of the school would continue into the winter. Exams wouldn’t loom for another two months. Bette was a solitary figure at the centre table and she smiled as Astrid came in, but the smile was a diluted version of Bette’s usual glee.
“I take it you’re worried about Liss, and not just using this as a chance for gossip,” Astrid said, dragging up one of the leather upholstered chairs that she, along with the majority of the girls, preferred to the hard wooden backs.
“Of course I am,” Bette said and held up the tome in front of her for Astrid to see the title. “I’m currently researching all the disappearances, kidnappings and abductions that have happened in Alicia’s family over the past six hundred years.”
“Plenty interesting, nothing useful.” Bette sighed. “I mean, it could be to do with the Archipelago negotiations but I can’t understand why anybody would think it was a good idea. The negotiations have thus far been peaceful and fruitful, and nobody wants it any other way.”
“It could be commoners. Without any aristocratic intervention. Maybe they feel strongly about it.”
Bette smiled another sad, watered-down smile. “What commoner feels strongly about the people who rule them, as long as they rule with a gentle hand?”
Astrid thought about the people at home on the Hazel Peninsula, about Ceci’s carers, their maid Cara, about the fishmonger and the glovemaker in Farthestown, the ships’ crews. She knew they would hate to see the Race family usurped from their perch, should it come to that. But would they kidnap a princess for the sake of a family who had ruled them without being questioned for three hundred years?
“So maybe it wasn’t a political move,” Astrid said, slumping in her chair and looking at the cherubs dancing on the ceiling. “Maybe it was one of Sir Nathaniel’s rivals.”
“And they intend on wooing her having stolen her from all she loves?”
“It’s simply a thought. I just don’t understand who would do this.”
“Neither can I.” Bette began to speak in that rushed manner that proved she was still thinking the words as they came out. “And how did they get in and take Liss without being seen? It couldn’t have been more than half an hour since she left the drawing room to get her thimble and then none of us could find her all morning and I just assumed she had taken ill or something, or waylaid by Madame Avery, and then-“
“Then she was gone.” Astrid sat back. “She wasn’t planning on going anywhere. But how can she just have disappeared?”
“Someone must have snuck in and gotten her out. It’s just a question of who, why and where they’ve taken her.”
Both of them slumped in their chairs, ready to contemplate this. Before Astrid even had her thoughts gathered to begin, the double oak doors burst open with such force that it could only be one person. “So, who’s coming to rescue Liss?”
Genevieve stood in the doorway with her skirts hitched up around her knees and her legs wide apart. She was wearing brown leather riding boots and had tied a thin strip of black cloth over her flaming hair that still moved around her head like snakes even though the rest of her was stock still. But most shocking of all was that in her right hand, Genevieve held one of the blunt swords that usually graced the drawing room wall as part of a pair. Astrid couldn’t stop the laughter escaping from her throat.
“What are you doing?”
“This is generally how knights dress to rescue damsels in distress, is it not?” Genevieve twirled around and held the sword out as if to threaten them. “Well, ladies, I believe we have a damsel to rescue.”
“Put the sword down, Gen,” Bette said laughing. “You’ll put an eye out. Besides, who are you going to attack with that thing?”
Genevieve twisted around and performed a few fencing moves in mid-air. “Whoever gets in my way! The princess must be saved at all costs!”
“And where exactly do you intend to begin looking?” Astrid asked.
“Ah. Well, that’s why I came here. I figured Bette would have an idea.” Genevieve plonked down on another of the chairs. “And also that it would be more fun with more people.”
Astrid’s smile fell away. “This isn’t an opportunity to have fun, Gen, it’s serious.”
“There’s always room for fun. Come on! Let’s rack our brains. Who would want to take Alicia? What motives are there?”
Once again, they went through every possibility- kidnap, elopement, running away, murder. But none of the answers seemed to fit just right.
The clock in the reading room whirled and clicked and then finally struck out the half hour in tinny tones. They piled the books neatly on the table and wandered back up to their tower room. The tower, the folly of Madame Avery’s grandfather who drank and gambled away his family’s fortune, had not been used in years. But the year Astrid began at the Academy, the girls were so numerous that the First Years were put in a makeshift dormitory up here. The six of them had enjoyed themselves so much though that they had been allowed to keep their tower room for the rest of their school careers. With only weeks left, part of Astrid couldn’t wait to be at home, with her sister Ceci’s room next to hers, the salty breeze rolling in her windows in the mornings. But she would still miss this room, the smell of old wood and the window above her dresser.
They reached the room to find Antonia still engrossed in her nightly vanity rituals, rubbing lemon oil into her elbows and rose petal lotion into her hands. She watched them all with the midnight blue eyes that marked her out not just as an uncommonly pretty Blue Wall girl, but a very real, very rare true beauty.
“Where’s Setter?” Bette asked, looking around as she unlaced her bodice.
“Haven’t seen her all day,” Antonia said. “Maybe she’s gone Liss-hunting.”
“We should all go Liss-hunting, I was just saying,” Genevieve said, picking a letter up off Antonia’s desk and casually reading it before Antonia snatched it away. “But we wouldn’t know where to start.”
Setter had slipped into the room unnoticed as she had done throughout their six years, her auburn hair hanging like the ears of the dog after which her poor, clueless father had named her. The story went that her mother had died in childbirth and her father, thinking of how other little girls were named after beautiful flowers and beautiful places, named her after a beautiful creature.
Astrid and Bette turned to face her but the others’ patience for Setter had run out long ago. “Really, Setter?” Bette asked kindly.
“It was a dragon.”
Antonia snorted loudly and Astrid found herself biting the inside of her lip. “Really?” Bette continued as sincerely as she could.
“That’s why the rose was burnt. When you breathe fire it’s difficult not to burn things.”
“You do realise that dragon magic hasn’t been used in sixty years, Setter? Not since King Robert destroyed the last curse and outlawed its use.” asked Genevieve.
“Fifty eight, and yes, technically, but there are plenty of old contracts that it was used in, one of them might have broken.”
Dragons were a very old form of magical security that had slowly died out as negotiation became more useful and the magical families became a dying breed. If someone was to break a contract, the dragon would come after them on behalf of the other party. A dragon may only seem like shadow and smoke, but if it wanted you, it- and the fire it breathed- was very, very real.
“So you think Alicia signed a contract without telling anyone, and now the dragon has her in its lair.” Antonia was not convinced, and had clearly run out of patience for the discussion.
“Yes,” said Setter simply. “Or something to that effect.”
Astrid could feel the temperature in the room slowly rising. “Setter, I don’t know what has taken Liss, if something has, but I don’t think it’s a dragon.”
“Well I do,” Setter said. “Of course, you’re free to believe whatever you like. I know most of you don’t really trust my judgment that much.” She retreated into her bed, falling with an ethereal grace onto the pillows, making shadows on the wall with her slender hands.
Astrid sighed and went to her own bedside, unbuttoning the orange dress and letting it fall in a heap to the floor, stepping out of it and opened the trunk at the end of her bed to find a long white nightgown to put on. She slipped it over her head, feeling the soft linen brush against her legs and ankles. Her window faced the front gardens, the driveway, the gates. As she unpinned her hair, she looked out over the heads Glistenfell Woods, like low-flying dark clouds under the night sky. She picked up her horsehair brush and began to struggle with the tangles, pulling hairs out at the root. Usually, every night at school she and Alicia gave each other’s hair the required hundred strokes. Astrid was used to silver silk running under her hands, rather than her own straw-like hair. At home, her sister Ceci always wanted to brush Astrid’s thick yellow locks instead of her own wispy brown hair. Astrid smiled at the thought of Ceci, she would see her kind face again so soon.
Her attention was drawn to a gleam in the distance as the golden gates of the Academy swung open.
“Who’s coming this late?” she murmured, so softly that none of the others had heard her. Slowly, three figures on horseback began to solidify. Two inky black horses, one bay.
She threw her brush down on her bed and said, “Gen, get your jacket.”
“Where are you going?” Antonia asked as Astrid snatched her own discarded green jacket from her bedpost.
“Sir Nathaniel Bolt, Squire Charlie Ribbon and Sir George Sigrid are coming up the drive.”
Genevieve looked stunned. “They do realise it’s not my birthday until next month, don’t they?” she said, but pulled a long dark blue coat over her nightgown.
“The two of you surely aren’t going to go down like that,” Antonia said in horror.
But Astrid wasn’t listening, still shoving a heel into a slipper as she hurtled out the door and used a hand to swing herself around the spiral staircase, Genevieve rushing after her. Her heart was thumping, her stomach turning somersaults inside her, but as she emerged onto the main school landing and raced down the stairs, she couldn’t stop a smile spreading across her face.
Because if there was one person who knew where Alicia was, it was Nathaniel Bolt.