Princess between Worlds (5 page)

BOOK: Princess between Worlds
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Annie agreed. She was sweating with the coat on, and the air on her face felt far too warm for there to be snow. Pushing back her hood, she took off her coat
and ran her fingers through her hair. She could hear the sound of splashing water now. When she looked for the source, she spotted a stone circle surrounding a fountain where water rose into the air and cascaded down in droplets. The most unusual thing about the fountain was the cloud of mist that hung over it, hiding the water one moment and revealing it the next.

“Why is it warm here when it's so cold just beyond the walls?” Liam wondered aloud.

“It must be magic,” Annie said. “But if it is, it won't last long with me here. Look at that fountain. Do you see the cloud above it?”

“That's odd,” said Liam. “Do you think the water is warm, too?”

They strode to the fountain with their coats draped over their arms. Annie sat on the stone edging and reached her hand toward the water. She was about to touch it when Liam saw what she was doing and said, “Wait! We don't know if it's safe. Is that steam or mist coming off it?”

Annie pulled her hand back and peered down into the water. It wasn't boiling or anything, but Liam was right; they didn't know what the water vapor meant. They were both standing by the fountain when they heard shouting. Turning to look, they saw a small boy run through an open doorway, laughing. Wearing just an under-tunic, he had the rolling gait of a very young child. He was darting
across the courtyard when a young woman dressed in a rich-blue, shapeless gown ran through the same doorway, calling, “Marco!” followed by something in a language that Annie didn't understand.

Catching up with the child, the woman swung him off his feet and twirled him around. Another woman bustled after her, carrying a blanket. Annie had a feeling that the second woman was a servant; although they were both dressed in the same style, the second woman's gown was made from a coarser fabric and she nodded in deference to the younger woman before handing her the blanket.

The young woman was talking to the little boy when he noticed Annie and Liam. He said something to the woman and she turned her head to look at them. Surprised, she pulled the little boy closer to her. When a bearded man came through the doorway a moment later, she called to him, again in the language that Annie didn't understand.

Like the women, the man was wearing a shapeless garment that covered him from neck to feet. The blue fabric was finer than that of the older woman's, and he had the bearing of a man in charge when he started toward Annie and Liam.

Liam moved toward Annie so that he was standing slightly in front of her while touching her arm with his. She noticed that he held one hand near the pocket
where he had tucked the postcards, and was holding the medallion with the other.

“We didn't mean to surprise you,” Liam said as the man drew close. “My name is Prince Liam, and this is my wife, Princess Annabelle. We've come to visit, but if this isn't a good time, we can leave.”

Annie hoped the man could speak the same language, and was relieved when he said, “Welcome to Westerling! You have arrived at a most propitious time. We rarely have visitors during Shumra. Are you here to join us in meditation?”

“Actually, we were just married and are on our grand tour. A friend gave us a magical gift that will take us to far-off lands,” Liam said, patting the medallion. “We wanted to visit places that we had never seen before.”

“Then you are doubly welcome here,” said the man. “You honor us with your presence at such an important point in your lives. I am King Lalidama and this is my wife, Queen Shareeza. The runaway child is our son, Prince Marco.”

When the little boy looked up at them with laughing eyes, Annie felt her heart melt.

“You must have powerful magic here, to make the air of your palace so warm when there is snow all around you,” said Liam.

“That is not magic, other than the magic that nature gives us. Our palace is built above hot springs that keep
us warm no matter how cold the weather. Come. Join us! We were about to break our fast as a family as we do every morning.”

Westerling!
Annie thought as Liam accepted the invitation.
That's where the mystics live!

She and Liam had met someone who had claimed to be a prince from Westerling, but was really the adolescent son of a nasty witch. They had later learned that the prince of the far-off land was a two-year-old named Marco. Annie was excited to finally meet him.

As Annie and Liam followed the king and his family into the palace, they couldn't keep from staring. The walls and floors were as white as the snow in the mountains, while the ceiling was covered with blue tiles the color of the sky. Murals depicting scenes from nature had been painted on some of the walls. A glimpse through an open doorway revealed men and women seated cross-legged in a circle, their eyes closed and their faces serene. All were wearing the same shapeless gowns as the king and queen, although the colors varied.

They had been in the palace for only a few minutes when the serving woman whisked the little prince away. No one seemed to react when a large golden-colored cat passed them as it prowled the hallways. It spared them only the briefest of glances before moving on. The cat made her think of Edda, and how comforting it had been to have the dog close by, if only for a little while.

They finally reached a large, open room with windows looking out over the mountains. The tables were low to the floor, and there were no chairs or benches. Instead there were pillows placed on the floor on three sides of the table. A bowl held an arrangement of delicate white and yellow flowers, scenting the air with their perfume. The king and queen waited patiently while a serving woman hurried to bring more pillows for the guests, and other servants brought bowls of fresh fruit, cooked grains rich with spices, and eggs cooked in a milky broth. Cups of sparkling water were set on the table along with clay pitchers dripping with condensation.

Annie and Liam waited for the king and queen to sit, but no one moved toward the table until the serving woman brought the prince to the room, dressed in a garment like his parents'. The king sat first with his wife and son on either side of him. Annie and Liam sat farther down the table. The little boy squirmed until his mother served him grain and eggs. His father didn't seem to notice as Marco devoured the first few bites, then began to play with his food. The queen chided her son, telling him to stop. He did, but began to fidget again.

“Your palace is lovely,” Annie said, breaking the silence as everyone helped themselves to the food. “And the view is extraordinary.”

“You are most gracious,” said the king. “However, we are more interested in the tranquillity of our surroundings
than in the outward appearance. The palace was built to encourage meditation.”

Marco reached for a piece of egg. It was soft from the milky broth, a texture he seemed to like. He laughed as he squeezed it with his hand, and the egg oozed out between his fingers. Queen Shareeza sighed and wiped his hand clean with a cloth she pulled from the folds of her garment.

“You said that hot springs keep your palace warm,” said Annie. “Do you use magic for anything here? The last place we visited was made strong through magic.”

The king shook his head. “This is a peaceful kingdom. The mountains are protection enough.” He turned to his food and studied it as if he'd never seen anything like it before. Using a shallow spoon, he scooped up a bite of grain and began to eat.

Although Queen Shareeza had food on her own trencher, she was more intent on tending to her son. The little prince was pushing his grain to the sides of his plate, making a mushy wall. The queen looked as if she wanted to say something, but didn't after a quick glance at her husband.

Liam was enjoying his breakfast and didn't notice anything going on around him. The silence lengthened while the king chewed each bite slowly and methodically. Annie was used to lively conservations during a meal. It bothered her that no one was talking. “The flowers are
beautiful,” she finally said. “Where do you get fresh flowers among all this snow? Do you grow them here at your palace?”

“They came from somewhere out there,” the king said, waving his hand toward the window.

For the first time, the queen looked interested. “There is a meadow filled with flowers that grow even in the snow,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “You can almost see it from here.” She pointed out the window to a narrow pass that widened out farther up the slope. “It is my favorite place to visit when I have the time. I saw a snow owl there once, and I often see rock dodgers.”

“What are rock dodgers?” asked Liam.

“They're like rabbits, only bigger and plumper. People in the city in which I grew up prized them for their meat. Which we do not eat here,” she said, glancing at her husband.

“Rock dodgers? Interesting,” said Liam.

When no one seemed inclined to talk any longer, Annie gave up. She ate the grain and a small fruit that reminded her of a plum, but wasn't interested in the eggs after seeing Marco play with his.

After a while, the little boy began to kick the table. His mother sighed and gestured to a servant hidden behind the door. The woman whisked Marco away, whispering something that managed to quiet the little boy.

Queen Shareeza had just picked up her spoon to start eating, when the king set his on the edge of his trencher and said to Annie and Liam, “You are welcome to stay as long as you would like. However, we won't be able to talk to you again until dusk, when we eat our next meal. Queen Shareeza and I spend most of our day in meditation. You may join us if you'd like, but we won't insist, as you are visitors. If you'd prefer, feel free to explore the palace. All we ask is that you do not disturb anyone who is meditating. Come, my dear. It is time.” He held out his hand to his wife, who reluctantly set down her spoon.

Annie had the feeling that the king was the only one who was enthusiastic about meditating. Although she was curious about how they did it, she wasn't interested enough to spend the entire day finding out.

After King Lalidama and Queen Shareeza left the room, Annie and Liam followed them to the door. When the king and queen turned left, Annie and Liam turned right. Walking to the end of the hallway, they set about exploring the palace and were continually surprised when they came across something new and different.

The palace was so unlike anywhere else they'd been that Annie found herself gawking again. In one room they found a pool where red and gold fish swam, swishing their long, plumed tails. The kitchen was down another hallway. It was roomy and had three ovens, each big enough to roast an ox. The cooks were very nice and
gave Annie and Liam pieces of flat bread smeared with a crunchy nut spread.

They found a room filled with boots and coats and hats for wearing in the snow. The door beside it led outside. Another door opened into a room filled with racks holding bows and arrows, swords and spears. “An armory!” Liam said. “Why would mystics have weapons like these? I thought the king said that the mountains were all the protection they need.”

“I don't know,” said Annie. “But don't most people keep the doors to their armory locked?”

“Yes, they do,” Liam said, looking puzzled.

Continuing their search, they came across a stairwell leading to the second floor. The railings were carved in delicate swoops and whirls, and the steps themselves were covered in intricate mosaics. When Annie and Liam peeked inside an open door, they saw the little prince sitting on the floor, playing with a young woman. Voices drew them down the hallway, where a wide archway opened into a room filled with people. The king was sitting on the floor, facing the others. His eyes were closed and he was swaying slowly from side to side, chanting. The rest of the people were copying him. Only the queen, who was seated near the archway, turned to see Annie and Liam. Shaking her head, she held her finger to her lips. Annie and Liam crept away to explore farther down the hall.

They were standing on a balcony that looked over a large interior courtyard when a man with a short beard approached. “I would show you to the room you will be using, should you care to rest,” he told them.

The man took them down a different corridor and opened a door, ushering them into a large room with a low table, a few benches against the wall, and a bed on a platform. The bed was covered with brightly colored pillows and was so inviting that Annie was tempted to lie down right then. She made herself wait until the man left, closing the door behind him. Tossing her coat on a bench, she threw herself on the pile of pillows. “This has to be the most comfortable bed ever!” she exclaimed.

“I found something even better,” said Liam. “Come look at this!”

Annie groaned and sat up. “It had better be worth it,” she told him. “Because this bed is spectacular.”

“So is this,” Liam said, gesturing to a curtain on the back wall. When he saw that she was watching, he pulled the curtain open, revealing a balcony that looked over the wall surrounding the palace at the mountains beyond. Annie gasped. The view was magnificent.

It hadn't been as easy to see from the ground floor with the wall blocking much of the view, but the palace was built high in the mountains in a valley nestled between three peaks. A pair of eagles soared above the valley. Wispy clouds gathered around the peaks, catching
the sunlight in a golden glow that made them look like halos.

“No wonder they find this conducive to meditating,” said Annie. “I could look at this all day, too.”

“Say, isn't that the meadow that Shareeza told us about?” Liam said, pointing toward a pass not far from the palace. “What would you say about a little walk?”

Annie sighed. She would like nothing better than to relax in the palace, but she knew that Liam preferred action over sitting around. He would get bored quickly, and a bored Liam could be a grumpy Liam. Maybe if they went for a walk now, he would be happy to relax later. “I suppose . . .”

BOOK: Princess between Worlds
2.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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