The girl bathed in the stream nearby her little home. The water was fresh and cool on her skin. For a while she simply stood there, feeling the stream as it ran past, caressing her little, naked body. She tried to scrub her body – face, hair, fingers, nails, toes – to get them sparkling for the queen, but they did not seem as pink as they once were.
Her pack had followed her. The rambunctious pups splashed into the water, diving, and playing, biting and scratching at the water’s rolling surface.
‘No! Out!’ she had yelled at them, pointing to the edge of the stream. The Lady Kavain had specifically said she should not smell of dog so she couldn’t risk having their smell rub off on her again.
The dogs had immediately stopped in their play and sulked out of the stream, tails down, heads low.
She had turned her back on them and continued bathing.
Immersing her head in the water, the girl held her breath. She looked up through the water, at the patterns that danced on the surface, the way the light outlined every ripple. Then a shape shadowed her vision, big and dark and green.
She quickly came out of the water, gasping for the air she didn’t notice she needed.
‘I’m glad you took my advice, sweet girl,’ said Kavain with a toothy smile. She stood there on the opposite side to the dogs, as majestic as she had been the last time the girl had seen her. She had something black draped over her arm, her other hand on the hilt of her sword.
The girl tried to cover herself up. ‘Yes, Lady Kavain,’ she said.
‘Shall we go?’ asked Kavain. ‘Come, let me help you dress.’ The Dracorlla woman held a scaled palm out for the girl. Her talons were as dark as her horns and just as sharp.
The girl hesitantly took the offered hand and got out of the water. She dried off as best she could and then allowed Kavain to help her into the elegant black gown. It was made of fine lace and fabric, embroidered with the patterns of vines and roses. It was the most beautiful dress she had ever seen, finer than any of the dresses she had seen worn by the ‘daydream mothers’ out the window.
‘Do you think she will like me? The queen, I mean,’ asked the girl, looking at her reflection in the stream. She watched as Kavain came to stand next to her, her reflection also in the water, her face was slightly sad. The girl looked up at the beautiful Dracorlla woman, but if there was ever sadness on her face it was gone.
‘Yes, sweet girl. She will love you,’ said Kavain. ‘But we must be off. It is a long walk to the castle.’
The girl picked up the hem of her dress like she had seen the ladies in the street do. ‘Okay, I will just go say goodbye to …’ Kavain put a clawed hand on her shoulder to stop her.
‘No, we must go. They …’ she was about to say ‘are just dogs,’ but she checked herself. ‘… Will understand.’
They began the walk through the woods towards the castle. The girl looked back towards her home and on the other side of the stream she could just make out the shape of Fury, standing and watching her leave.
The castle rose up high and strong above them. The white stones shone brightly, glistening and smooth. The girl had to crane her neck up to see the tops of the spiraling turrets.
They stepped out onto white cobblestones that cut through a mossy garden, spotted with minimal plant life, a few lonely rose bushes here, a crop of low laying bushes there. It was empty and open. There was a drawbridge lowering at the end of the white cobble road. The girl looked back to the tangled forest behind her. She much preferred it to this stagnant manicured thing.
There were workers out in the garden, trimming bushes and plucking out weeds. From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw them as small, hunched things with brown mottled skin, but when she looked at them directly they looked as human as she did.
As they passed, each one of the groundskeepers stood and waved to them. The girl waved back, smiling.
She looked to Lady Kavain, but the Dracorlla woman simply ignored them and kept on walking.
They entered the halls of the castle. Servants busily ran about, all of them smiling and waving to the girl, but it was quiet, not one of them spoke.
The halls were full of doors and passage ways, all of them lit with candles and fireplaces. There was not a single shadow in the place. There were so many candles burning and fireplaces roaring that it hurt the girl’s eyes and made her start to perspire under the elaborate dress.
They passed by a hallway that seemed slightly dimmer than the rest of the place. The girl couldn’t help but peer down it, pausing for a moment. It seemed to circle around, sloping downwards into the bowls of the castle.
Lady Kavain noticed that the girl had stopped walking and she turned round. ‘That’s the crypts,’ she said plainly.
‘Crypts?’ The girl shivered at the thought of the dead below her feet.
‘Yes, that is where all the past kings and queens are lain to rest. Come, sweet girl, we mustn’t keep the queen waiting. It is almost nightfall.’
The girl looked out one of the stain glass windows as they passed by it. It looked as bright outside as it always did in Evermeer. Night was a fictional thing there. A made up time.
They arrived at a pair of large ornate doors, carved from the palest wood. ‘This is where I leave you,’ said Lady Kavain.
‘What? Are you not going to join us for the feast?’ asked the girl.
‘No, sweet girl. I must return home to my family. They will be expecting me and the queen has excused me for tonight,’ she explained.
The girl leaped forward and hugged the tall dragon lady, her scales were cold and hard like stone.
Kavain did not return the hug, she simply pushed the girl away, nodded and then walked back down the hall from where they had come.
The girl watched the Dracorlla woman disappear around a corner, without looking back, and thought, ‘How am I getting home?’
But before she could call out to ask, the doors behind her opened with a loud crack and she spun to see one of the servants, head bowed, holding the door open for her. The servant waved a hand, beckoning her inside.
It was hot inside the giant throne room, several hearths burned brightly along the walls and more dotted the floor within large metal bowls set in pits. There was a ridge inset in the walls that ran all the way around the room that was lit with a line of fire. More than a dozen giant chandeliers hung low, smothered with candles and dripping with the wax from years past.
An extravagantly long table was set out in the middle, large enough that the entire orphanage and more could feast on it. And, at the head of the table, sat the queen on her rainbow throne. She was beautiful, dressed all in white. Her dress had a high fluffy fur collar that ruffled around her ears. Her hair was golden and sat atop her head in intricate braids. Her face was angelic and serene. A slightly smiled kissed one side of her mouth but did not reach her eyes.