The chickens wandered around the courtyard, pecking at the grassy bits between the stones and fluffing their feathers in the dust. Irena crouched down and poked the scrawny plants with curious fingers. The chickens, wary at first, soon got used to her. The first one, the one that she thought of as her own because she had discovered it, would now almost tolerate her awkward attempts to stroke it, as she coaxed it back under the arches.
'Come on birdie...'
She grubbed up a few of the weeds with her fingers and held them out in front of the chicken, moving her hands back and forth as the chicken turned its head this way and that. Frustrated, she dropped the weeds back on the ground, and grabbed at the chicken's tail, almost overbalancing in the process. It let out a frightened squawk, flapping its wings in her face.
Undeterred, she pulled the chicken gradually backwards and scooped her free hand underneath, avoiding the scrabbling claws. As she released the tail feathers, the chicken made a frantic escape attempt, but Irena's grasp was determined. She clamped a hand firmly over its back and held it under her coat.
'Just stay still...' She wasn't sure herself quite why she wanted the bird, only that it was something alive, and undemanding. Underneath the soft feathers it felt tough and wiry, but also fragile - as though if she held too tightly it would break. She loosened her grip, and the chicken, sensing weakness, tried to flap away. She curved her arm around it, feeling the brush of feathers against her wrist, and the comforting warmth from its body through her coat.
The kitchen door burst open. A tall girl in a grey dress ran out into the courtyard and looked around. She bent down, and seized the nearest chicken by the tail feathers. In one swift movement she had grabbed the legs of the chicken in one hand and the neck with the other; the chicken lay limp in her hands.
Eyes wide, Irena instinctively pulled her chicken closer, hiding it in the folds of her coat and half turning her body as if to protect it. The chicken gave a muffled squawk and tried to fluff its feathers.
The older girl looked straight at Irena. "Wh...where did you come from? Hey...come back!"
Irena didn't know why the girl could see her now. She only knew that she needed to get as far away as possible from the bird-killing girl. She ran along a sort of brick tunnel that had light wells cut into the roof. In the distance she could hear the other girl yelling, 'Well, I hope they catch you, chicken-thief!'
This was the second time today she'd been called a thief. They just didn't understand. They were only lower servants after all, and couldn't be expected to know who she was.
The tunnel stopped abruptly, and she ran into sunlight. She'd never been in this part of the gardens before. Tall dark trees were planted in regimented lines, stretching into the distance. The terraces were marked by low white walls and divided by steps that descended to a long rectangular pool. The water glittered fiercely in the hot sun. The shadows cast by the trees striped the ground in yellow and black. It was cool where the shadows fell, and Irena sank onto the dusty ground, resting her back against one of the walls. She cradled the chicken in her arms. It continued to cluck in an outraged manner that reminded her of nurse, when nurse was being particularly energetic in her scolding.
'You sound like nurse, birdie.' Her mouth crinkled into a slow smile as she pictured nurse, covered in feathers. She started stroking the chicken again, running her hand along its feathers, and it settled down into her lap. 'I wonder what nurse is doing right now...'
She closed her eyes, her arm still curved possessively around the chicken. The day was so hot, and she hadn't had anything to eat. She could look for Etta afterwards, and then Etta would call for the Bath-Mistress, and bring water, and towels. And then someone would bring food...and then....and then...
The loud cackling of the chicken jolted her out of her sleep. She pushed it off her lap and looked up into the shocked face of a palace guard. He prodded at her with the staff end of his spear.
'Ow! That hurt...stop it!'
She batted out at the spear with her right arm, and rolled away to the side. The chicken had flapped to the top of the low wall, and she snatched it up into her arms.
The guard stepped back, horror evident in his face. 'What are you...some kind of Northwitch spy as well as a chicken-thief?' His eyes narrowed, 'I should take you straight to Lord Alaric...'
'I'm not a thief!' Her voice sounded shrill, and she angrily blinked away the tears in her eyes. 'I'm...' She swallowed down the lump in her throat and tilted her chin defiantly, 'I'm Princess Irena Imaldi...and....and I'm so glad that you can see me...'
The guard started to laugh, and then stopped, frowning, 'Hey, why couldn't I see you earlier? Tell me that, eh, Northwitch?' He moved forward, stretching out a hand to grab her arm.
Irena evaded him easily, as he stumbled forward. The chicken began cackling again, and she held it at arm's length, having to shout over the noise, 'I don't know...I don't know! I woke up this morning and I was invisible, and there was another girl who looked like me, and now I don't know how to get back to my rooms!'
His face cleared, and he drew his arm back, nodding slowly. 'Better get you back to your rooms then, Princess.'
She felt relief wash over her. At last, someone believed her. 'I will see that you are mentioned favourably in the reports.'
'Very kind of you, Princess.' He mumbled, tugging his tunic straight. 'Uh...this way?'
They walked through the formal gardens, under the tall trees, until they reached a door set far back into the thickness of the wall. It was a chalky blue, and contrasted strongly with the pale, creamy plaster of the wall. Irena hesitated. She'd never seen this door before, and it looked more worn than the palace doors she knew, although the carvings were very fine, twisting over the wood in the shape of a living tree. The guard noticed her reluctance, and held her arm tightly.
'Just through here, Princess, and you'll be back in your rooms in no time, but you can't take that chicken with you now...'
She tried to pull away, but he was far too strong for her. He dashed the chicken from her arms and wrenched the door open a little. The faithless chicken, unharmed, fluffed its feathers and wandered away.
'Don't struggle now, Princess, there's a good girl.'
Furious, she ignored him, and tugged and twisted in an effort to get away, 'You lied! You said you'd take me back!' His grip, although not painful, was firm, and she had no hope of escaping.
Something like sympathy appeared on his face, 'For your own good, girlie...if I took you there it'd only be more trouble. You should tell your family to mind you better.' He opened the door fully and pushed her through it, gently but firmly. 'You go on home now,' he said, his voice cut off by the door shutting, with Irena on the other side. She made a feeble attempt to bash her fists against the wood, but her strength gave out, and she turned around with a despairing cry and slid to the ground. She saw a cobbled street, and a painted wall, and then everything went black.