Rosalyn struggled with the branch that had somehow poked its way through the cloth, her fingers clumsy, every fiber of her being saying “Now’s not the time to be stopping! Go! Go! Go!” Forced to pause, she realized they could never outrun a pack of trained hunting hounds. Their only chance would be to do something the dogs couldn’t do. The thorns finally released their hold on Jason’s cloak, though not before pricking Rosalyn’s fingers. She sucked on her bleeding thumb and urged Jason onward.
Robert waved to her as soon as they came in sight. He was standing beside a heap of sitting guards, their backs to the wall, heads flopped backwards or forwards, mouths gaping open in deep sleep. He put his finger to his lips and brought out a huge metal key. It rasped in the lock and he froze, waiting to see how the guards would react. Nothing. They were out cold. Slowly, Robert pushed the iron gate forward, wincing every time it groaned on its hinges. When it was open a crack, he motioned for Rosalyn and Jason to slip through behind him and led them up and over the narrow brick-paved bridge that spanned the river. There was another gate on the far side but this time he was faster unlocking and opening it. Once through, he turned and locked it. They looked at each other and smiled in relief.
The Marquis of Scalamandre cleared his throat and smiled. “Your majesties, fellow aristocrats, guests of honour, I am flattered by your kind reception of this little pageant. I did not wish to change the script so near the end, when the good players had already devoted so much time and energy to rehearsing and perfecting the show, but there is an epilogue of sorts that I must recount to you all.” He paused for effect. “As you may have heard, I have been away in the mines, though the true nature of my business was not known to you until today. And it is with great joy that I announce today to you that my search was not fruitless!” He turned to the wings and called out, “Josephine!” The leading lady emerged, holding Jason by the hand, who looked dazed and allowed himself to be led to the Marquis, who grasped his other wrist. The audience gasped, and began buzzing with whispers.
“We are gathered together today,” a baritone voice intoned, “to recall the tragedy that has afflicted the royal family. We are gathered to express our devotion to their majesties and to pledge our time and resources to the relieving of their affliction.” The speaker continued in this formal way for a few minutes, ending at last by introducing the pageant that would, he explained, cast further light on the events and guide the search for the coming year. The audience applauded politely.
Cookie was in a meeting with the pastry chef (or at least Rosalyn assumed that’s who it was, as the woman’s apron was streaked with pink and yellow icing), the royal butcher (his apron was also streaked with pink) and the royal baker (his face had a dusty tinge). They were standing at one end of the kitchen on a raised platform like four generals strategizing, studying a wide sheet of paper unfurled on the marble work surface. They looked up from time to time to survey their respective sous-chefs working intently in the din of chopping, sizzling, clanging, pounding and slamming. It almost sounded like a battlefield.
Robert was already up the ladder, pushing hard against the trap door. He squeezed out from under its weight, then held it open at right angles for Rosalyn to climb out. They ran on tiptoes down the hallway, up a half-flight of stairs and out the back of the house into a decorative garden, all carefully pruned bushes and symmetrical gravel paths.
“This way!” Robert ducked low behind a row of manicured boxwoods and ran. The noise of their flying feet on the gravel could not go unnoticed, surely, but she was too afraid to look over her shoulder.
The cold woke her up. Her neck ached. She could barely move her fingers and her legs were numb. Her mouth ached, too, and something was obstructing her tongue.
She heard herself moan. Wisps of memory came floating up to the surface of her mind. She had found Jason. But that horrible man with the slick black hair was plotting to pass him off as the king’s son. She was tied to a straight-backed wooden chair with coarse ropes and her lips and tongue were forced out of shape by the handkerchief gag they had knotted around her head. But she wasn’t in the upstairs room anymore. It smelled musty here, and as her eyes adjusted to the dim light from a rectangular window high on the stone wall above her, she noticed row upon row of dusty black bottles lining one wall. So this was what they meant by “cellaring her”.
She must have fallen asleep. She woke to find her hands freezing and numb and her chest aching where the ropes bit into her and her mouth and throat dry as chalk. The room’s fire had burned low and the room was cold and dark. She became aware of voices coming up from the front of the house. She wished it was the voices of her parents, who would open the door, unbind her, hug her, kiss her cheeks and take both her and Jason home, not to mention giving the gun-slinging footman an indignant lecture. If only. She wondered for the hundredth time what her mother was doing right now and if she knew they were missing.
A stair creaked under Rosalyn’s foot. She froze, waiting for a door to open and flood the staircase with light. It was then she remembered Cookie had said not to take the backstairs, adding to her nervousness. At the second landing, she could see a line of light under the door and felt around for the handle. Opening it a crack, she saw a well-lit carpeted hallway, and four men standing along the wall holding torches. She ducked back behind the door to calm herself before taking a second look. Slowly peering around the door, she saw no men after all, but arm-shaped brackets holding gas lamps made to look like glowing torches. She wasn’t sure if it was artistic or eerie. However, with eight of these torches lining the walls and a peach-coloured plush carpet, it was nothing like the spooky hallway of her dream.
Promptly at nine, Robert knocked on the door. He had taken off his apron and was dressed in a dark shirt and trousers. He seemed nervous, but cheerful. “Old Uncle Oleander’s going to be surprised to see me. I’ve probably grown an arm’s length since he last saw me.”
“You do have a sister,” confirmed Gaétane. “The guards won’t stop you?”
“I have three sisters. One or the other of them is always tagging along. Has she got a bonnet, though? To hide her face?”
“Yes, it’s here,” Rosalyn said. It was the first time she had spoken directly to him and she was glad to hide her blushing cheeks under the bonnet as she tied it on.