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.
At the back of the garden, they dashed down a flight of cut stone steps to a wide river, where a small rowboat was bobbing beside a dock, dwarfed by several other sailing craft. Except it wasn’t a river. It seemed to be a mirror-image reflection of the sky, but in fact it was a near-infinite abyss of sky itself, a mass of grey clouds. As they neared the dock, Rosalyn’s stomach lurched. She shut her eyes when Robert leaped into the little barque, not wanting to see him plummet to unseen depths. “Come on!” he called. “You're not afraid of boats, are you?”
She opened her eyes and saw that the boat was wobbling disconcertingly as he steadied himself. She willed herself to the end of the dock and gratefully took the hand he held out to her.
“That’s it,” he encouraged her as she eased her second foot off the dock. “Perfectly safe. Just takes a bit of getting used to.” He untied the rope and pushed away from the dock with one oar. Gripping the sides of the boat and keeping her eyes fixed on the gardens lining the banks of the river, Rosalyn sat bolt upright and immobile. She didn’t see any lifejackets in the bottom of the boat and based on previous experience, you couldn't swim through this stuff. How they were even floating was a mystery. The grey swirling clouds, though obscuring the blue sky above and below, seemed to be less thick than the fluffy white one she had landed on.
“That was close,” said Robert. “You saw that trapdoor in the nick of time.”
“Do you know who it was?”
“That younger footman, probably. He was whistling last night, too.”
Robert wanted to know what had happened and when she got to the part about her splitting headache (which was lessening somewhat), he agreed she had probably been given the same sleeping draught they had given to Jason.
“I was so thirsty, I would have drunk poison if they had offered it.”
“At least you slept, I guess.” He was panting with the effort of rowing. “Everything went wrong. We were supposed to sail in, get your brother, foil whatever scheme Scalamandre had. Instead, you got caught, too.”
“We escaped, didn’t we?” She wasn’t going to let him take all the credit for getting them out in one piece. "And we know what they are planning to do."
“Yes, but they know you’re gone and we’ve only got an hour til the castle grounds are crawling with aristocrats who could recognize Miss Bonvent.”
“What time is it?”
“Ten or so. At eleven guests start arriving for a buffet brunch and the Renewal ceremony starts shortly after noon.”
“I just realized I can’t pretend I’m your sister today!”
“That’s why we’re going by boat. Buys us a little more time to think of something.”
“Think of something! You mean you don’t know how I’m going to get past the guards this time? How about I'm your older sister?”
“I’m already taller than all of them, and no one in our family is, ah, fixed.”
That awful word again. One day she felt tiny and resented being treated like a baby, the next day, she felt like an great big oaf. It was like Alice in Wonderland and the “Drink me” bottle and the “Eat me” cake, except it wasn’t she who changed size but everyone else. But she was still being babied, and ferried around. Perhaps she should offer to row since she was bigger and possibly stronger today.
“Would you rather I row?” she offered.
“You ever row before?”
“No, but it doesn’t look hard.”
“Harder than it looks.” Robert was working up a sweat in the humid air. “I don’t have time to teach you. I’ll row. You think.”
“I wonder when Scalamandre is planning to pass my brother off as the prince.”
“Good question. They’re going to ask why he didn’t bring him yesterday as soon as they they arrived in town.”
“Well, no one saw my brother except me, and he can just say that one of his men found him by chance last night or this morning. He’ll find something convincing. What worries me is he was saying that Jason is starting to forget who his real family is with some drugs they’ve given him. If he doesn’t recognize me, no one will believe that I’m his sister because we look nothing alike. I’m adopted.” How would she persuade a king and queen when that slick, slimy natural-born liar of a Marquis would be right there?
They rounded a curve in the river and an island appeared in the distance, crowned by a four-turreted castle. “Is that it?” Rosalyn asked.
Robert craned around. “Yeah, almost there. We’ll go around to the delivery dock.” He pointed behind her with his chin, still rowing evenly. “Hey, look.”
Rosalyn turned, gripping the gunwales of the boat, to see a long, brightly painted barge gaining on them.
He stopped rowing. “This is great! If we can inch up beside it as it turns into the castle canal then we’ll escape being seen by the the guards and we can use their speed to arrive even faster.” His grey eyes were sparkling in anticipation. “We’ll have to time it just right. While I’m getting into the wake, you’ll have to lasso one of the dragon heads sticking out on the sides. See what I mean?”
“You want me to lasso something?” Rosalyn thought of all the disastrous gym classes where she had never been able to volley the ball or make a basket or hit any target when the game pressure was on. When she was just practicing, the ball would go where she wanted at least half of the time. But if their success depended on her unpredictable hand-eye coordination then Robert was not going to be impressed.
“Won’t people see us?”
“No one’s aboard yet. They’re bringing it in for today’s ceremony. Later, after all the riders are sent out, the king and queen and the other aristocrats board this barge to go down to the mouth of the river with all the ships sent out to search. When we get close, the pilot and his crew will be looking ahead. Give them a wave so they’ll think we’re just out having fun.”
The barge was now almost on a level with them, its orange, pink, green and gold paint all the more brilliant against the grey skies. In the centre of the barge, the bridge stood a full storey higher than the brightly patterned canopies that had already been erected fore and aft to shade the passengers, not that it was very sunny. Since they stood so much higher than the deck of the barge, they might be able to block the pilot’s view of the little boat.
“Get ready,” said Robert. “The wake will rock us a bit as we get inside it. Then I’ll have to row like a galley slave.”
Rosalyn could see the faint line of wake stretching out toward them from the bow of the barge. Then suddenly, their own small craft rocked violently side to side as they hit the outward edge of the wake. Skillfully working one of the oars, Robert angled them to face the wake head on and brought them level with the middle of the barge. “Pick up the rope,” he panted. “Make a loop and knot the loose end.”
Rosalyn tried. “Bigger loop,” he corrected. Her fingers felt like clammy sausages. “That’s it,” Robert said. Had she really figured it out? That was a fluke and she hoped she’d have another lucky fluke when throwing the rope. She swung the loop around her head a few times and let it fly. It missed the outjutting dragon by an embarrassing yard.
“Again, again!” urged Robert. They were nearly at the end of the barge.
She reared back her arm and let the rope go again, closing her eyes to avoid the disappointment of seeing it miss. Thock. Her eyes flew open and she saw the loop had hooked the dragon’s neck. She couldn’t believe it.
Robert reached forward and took the rope from her hands. “Bravo. I’ll pull us in.”
Towed by the barge, the little rowboat glided along swiftly. Robert used one oar to keep the boat from banging into the side of the barge as it curved to the left, keeping them well out of sight behind its bulk.
As the two boats rounded the side of the castle, Robert watched for the key moment when he’d have to unhook his rope from the wooden dragon head. At this speed, he’d only have a few seconds or they’d be exposed. As they went under the main bridge leading to the castle grounds, Robert gave the rope a swift shake to flick it up and off. The loop had pulled too tight, however, and a after a few fruitless tries he gave up and started fumbling with the other end tied to the bow ring. “My best rope,” he grumbled. “I should have known.”
Robert’s efforts were making the rowboat rock again. “Sorry,” whispered Rosalyn, terrified.
“Never mind.” With a sigh, he let the rope go and picked up the oars again. The barge pulled past them and away to the right and they pulled over the wake once again to veer to the left, around to the delivery dock, where a black and red cargo barge was being unloaded. Its sides were dusty, instead of rusty, and men were going up and down its gangplank like ants carrying loads as big as themselves, though it was hard to tell if the crates were really big or if the men were really small. A guard was overseeing the proceedings looking as bored as a policeman on duty at a construction site. In fact, he seemed to be concentrating more on the sandwich he was eating than the stevedores. With luck, he wouldn’t even notice them come around on the far side of the barge.
Robert must have been think the same thing. He grinned as he worked the oars to bring them snugly into position near a set of stone steps that descended below them into the sky river. “Up you go,” whispered Robert, “I’ll steady her.”
It was slightly less nerve-wracking to get out than to get in, but she didn’t dare look down at the bottomless nothing that was somehow supporting them. She let out a breath of relief when she felt the solid stone beneath her feet.
Robert jumped out and tied up the rowboat. Motioning for her to follow, he said, “Stay low, keep behind me and let me do the talking.” From where she stood on the steps below the level of the dock, she saw that the men unloading the crates were stacking them into a wall that extended almost to the top of the stair. They sneaked up, staying out of view behind the line of crates that extended into a high-ceilinged garage of some sort.
When they reached the end of the wall of crates, Robert put his hands in his pockets and began humming, looking as nonchalant as he could. The men opening the crates looked at them curiously.
“Hiya Robbie,” said a man in a grubby wool cap. “You’re in late.”
“What’s with her?” He jerked his thumb toward Rosalyn.
“Ah, this is my cousin Bette. She’s come to help in the scullery today.”
The man looked her up and down, then laughed. “She’ll be handy for putting away the items on the top shelves, eh.”
“Yes, that’s the idea. Come on, Bette, this way.” He swept his arm in an “after you” gesture toward a set of rough stone steps worn with use down the centre. Inside, he led them on a rabbit-like path, backtracking and twisting down the maze-like corridors of the servants’ offices to avoid any more inquiring eyes. When they couldn’t hear any voices or footsteps he leaned against a whitewashed wall to catch his breath.
“We made it.” He exhaled noisily and ran his fingers through his hair. “I can’t believe it. Let’s find Cookie and fill her in. Follow me.”