Sunday, 1 December 2013

[Northspell 5] the princess goes outside

The kitchens were vast. Irena wandered through a cavernous room at least as large as the grand reception hall upstairs, with a high curved ceiling, and yet more rooms leading off it. There were so many people hurrying from one place to another that she often had to duck out of the way to avoid being jostled. She wasn't used to having to make way for other people. The noise, too, was almost more than she could stand - such a din of doors slamming, and people shouting, that she longed for the still quiet of her own rooms.

And it was hot. Fiercely hot. A great fire filled the whole of the far wall, and there were even more fires on the other walls, behind thick metal doors. She made her way to the end of the room, where there was only a small boy crouching by the fire, turning a handle over and over again, causing...something...on the fire to rotate, releasing a smell that made her mouth water. It made her think of the dinners she was sometimes given, as a special treat if there had been a state banquet. Nurse always said such food was too rich for children, and although she could not forbid the food being sent to the nursery, she made the princess take horrible, bitter-tasting powders afterwards, 'to settle her stomach'. But all the medicine in the world couldn't take away the remembered mix of flavours that teased the princess through the weeks of plain food and cold porridge.

The boy let out a screech and threw himself on the floor in front of the princess. She stepped back quickly. A man in a stained apron peeled off from the crowd, picked the boy up, and flung him roughly back to the side of the fire.

"It's just a spark, boy - you'll soon get used to it. Now stop that squalling."

With a sniff, the boy began turning the handle again. He rubbed a tattered sleeve over his eyes and shifted his position so his back was to the room. When he thought no one was looking he slipped one red and blistered thumb into his mouth. Irena edged past him towards the doorway in the corner. No one was there, and she half ran, half stumbled into a short passageway, lit only by the grey light filtering through a dusty pane of glass above the door.

The temperature was cooler here. She could feel the cold of the stone through her thin silk slippers, and a draught crept along the floor. Unconsciously echoing the movement of the boy, she raised an arm to her forehead. She felt hot, and then cold, and then hot again - too hot. A wave of sickness came over her, and she crouched to the floor, trying to soak up the cold through the skin of her hands. She breathed slowly, in and out, in and out, until the sick feeling left her, huddled on the floor in her nightgown and torn coat, shivering in the draught from the door.

She raised herself up on shaky legs, and shuffled along to the end of the passage, using the wall as support until her feet felt more sure of themselves. The latch lifted easily, and the door swung inwards, letting sunlight spill into the murky half-light of the passage. Irena stepped out into the courtyard, leaving the door moving gently back and forth in the cool breeze. It was warm in the sun, and she raised her arm again, this time to shade her eyes from the bright light.

The white walls of the palace rose all around her. A tree grew out of a big pot in one corner, the trunk twisted in on itself like when the Bath-Mistress wrung out the face-cloth at wash time. Creamy flowers that looked like handkerchiefs were poised delicately on the end of branches, or lay scattered on the ground beneath the tree. Bits of green pushed up from between the cobbles around the water basin. Irena dipped her hands into the water and, after a moment of hesitation, rubbed them on her face. She had a feeling this wasn't the right thing to do - washing her face all by herself, and with no cloth, or towel... but nurse wasn't here, and Etta wasn't here, and the Bath-Mistress certainly wasn't here. She rubbed her hands dry on her coat, and turned her face to the sun. The steady drip...drip...drip of the water from the spout filled the courtyard, and her eyes felt heavy.

She ducked into the shade of the arches that ran along one side of the courtyard, and slid her feet gloriously along the tiles in a way that was strictly forbidden. Most things were forbidden. She yawned, stretching her mouth as wide as it would go, and didn't even raise a hand to cover it. Close by the inner wall there was a muddle of thin-slatted wooden boxes, and a pile of dried grasses spilling out of a sack. She sank down onto the sweet-smelling grass and pillowed her head on her arms. Drifting in and out of sleep, she heard small noises next to her head: soft chirrups and rustlings and a tap tap scratch that seemed to be coming from the boxes. Propping herself up on one elbow, she pushed the lid off the nearest box.

There was a bright eye, and a black curve of a beak. Irena pulled her head back sharply. She sat back, and gave the box a quick shove with her foot. This resulted in a squawk, and a renewed fit of rustling. Cautiously, she drew close again, and peered over the side. The bird, fluffed up and indignant, was chit-chittering away to itself. She reached a hand in to stroke the glossy black feathers, and found them as silky to the touch as the ones that covered her winter caps. The bird grew quiet as she continued stroking, and she risked slipping her other hand in to lift it out. It didn't like this, and became a wild, scratching thing that seemed to be all feathers and claw. She pushed it from her, and watched as it crossed the courtyard in a strange hopping run, and took refuge under the shade of the tree.