Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 23A, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.
Tag Archives: novels
Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 22B, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.
Hello all! This post was previously Chapter 22A, but has now been removed. But don’t despair! Why Polly? will soon be available in its entirety on Amazon.
In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.
– Howl’s Moving Castle (yes, again)
I love this opening because it establishes so clearly that this novel is going to poke fun at fairy-tales. The eldest of three? Isn’t that the one who’s supposed to fail “first and worst” in all the stories you’ve ever heart?
Novel openings are so important because they are what’s going to draw you in, and tell you what kind of book this is going to be. As much as I love reading, I have to admit I’m always nervous when starting a new book. I never know if I’ll like the characters, or if I can trust the author. So an opening that invites me in and makes me comfortable is essential to me.
By the way, here’s a neat list of clever openings lines that I found online the other day. Not sure if the analysis of why the lines work is always spot on – you can’t always explain the magic of words in words – but it’s fun to read, anyway. Plus, Jane Austen makes the list.
The Story So Far: Polly, a princess, an Enchanter, and his apprentice discover they are all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can Polly get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? Can she avoid embarrassment at court long enough to prevent the jadess from controlling the Rajah? And … what does the jadess want with Polly? Chapter 1 is here.
Chapter 20: Delivery of Flowers
I did get sick. I woke up the next morning with a headache and a fever, and my legs shook like crazy when I stood up. I heard a knock on my door and called out to Maria to come in. She looked worried when she saw me.
“Oh Polly, are you sick?” she asked, coming towards me and laying a hand on my forehead. Her hand felt pleasantly cool. “You are! You must go and lie down, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but you certainly can’t go to court. I’ll go tell the Enchanter.”
“Oh, but I have to!” I cried. I kept standing up, even though my legs quivered like jelly beneath me. This was terrible. The jadess could do so much if I was gone.
Instantly I felt ashamed of how lax I had been lately. How many times had I let the Rajah out of my sigh, or had forgotten to watch him? Not too many, but half the time I had nearly forgotten why I was at court, with all the court intrigues going on around me. I had no idea of who the jadess could be yet, or if she was even at court. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach, on top of the nausea that was already there.
“Nonsense,” said Maria. “The court can get on without you.” I’d forgotten she didn’t know my real pretence. I struggled uselessly, as she firmly pushed me back to my bed.
“Please,” I said, “I’ll be fine after breakfast. Just let me go down and eat something.”
She stepped back and surveyed my cotton and lace nightgown. “Well, you’re decent at least. Maybe you should go down and have little breakfast, but I don’t think you should go to court today.”
So I dizzily and shakily made my way down all the steps to the first floor kitchen, and collapsed in a chair by the fire. Paulina was making breakfast, but she stopped when she saw me.
“Oh Polly, you look terrible!” she cried. “It must be from the rain last night. If Casper makes you go to court today I’ll – I don’t know what I’ll do!”
I laughed weakly at her attempts to be fierce. She was such a pretty, dainty, blond little princess it really was quite comical.
I gave her the same spiel about being fine after breakfast, but I think she believed it even less than Maria had. And I wasn’t sure I believed it either. It took inhuman effort to keep myself sitting upright in my chair.
Then Casper came in, all dressed for court.
“Polly, you’re sick,” he said accusingly.
“Not really,” I protested weakly.
“Go right back up to bed,” he ordered, “Before you collapse, or get the rest of us sick.”
“But – what about the court?” I asked him, feeling surprised.
“We’ll figure something out,” he replied. “Now go upstairs.”
“Please,” Paulina said. “I think she’d be more comfortable if I just made a bed up down here. And it would be easier for us to take care of her.”
Casper shrugged and threw up his hands. “You women do what you want. It’s only my house.”
I smiled weakly at Paulina. I certainly didn’t relish the idea of lying on the third floor all by myself all day.
Then Maria came in. She faced the Enchanter on her tiptoes, so she could look him in the eye, and began bullying him to let me stay home, until Paulina told her I already was. Then she helped Paulina make up a bed for me in the kitchen.
“You know, we were so worried yesterday,” Maria said, tucking the sheets in around me. The bed felt heavenly. “When we arrived at the stables and saw Shenaira without a rider we didn’t know what to think. The whole court was frantic. They were all certain you had fallen off, but I knew you had been keeping your seat well the whole ride there, so I feared worse things. Then the Enchanter turned up, and he told us he was going to look for you, starting with the streets of Araba.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “It was stupid of me.” My eyes drifted shut.
“Oh, I’m not blaming you,” said Maria. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I drifted into a restless sleep after that. When I woke up Maria had left, and it was still rather early in the morning. Casper was sitting with his feet up on the table (he would persist in doing that!) and Paulina was washing up. She turned to me.
“I’ve got breakfast for you, if you can stomach it,” she said.
I struggled into a half-sitting position. Come to think of it, I was hungry. I wasn’t sick to my stomach, I just had a miserable cold.
She brought me orange juice, gruel and some figs. I began eating it, wincing when food touched my sore throat, and feeling my head pounding between my ears. I felt so sick, but it was nice to eat.
“So, is the jadess having a field day while I’m lying here?” I asked.
“No,” said Casper. “I sent Stefan to court. Some desperate question on magical matters pertaining to the kingdom needing an answer from the Rajah, but if Stefan’s clever he’ll manage to stay there all day.”
I relaxed a little, relieved at that. I’d managed to finish my breakfast, and Paulina took the tray away.
It was so comfortable to lie there, in the Angarian-style kitchen I’d been missing without realising it. I really hadn’t realised how exhausting court had been, and how much it had changed my routine. I soon felt as if I’d hardly ever left, but I wondered how Paulina, Stefan, and the Enchanter felt. They’d probably all gotten into their own little routine without me, and I’d disrupted it. Especially Stefan’s having to intrude at court all day!
About mid-morning Paulina picked up a basket and told me she was going to market. I wondered at her going alone, but she seemed used to it by now. Casper went into his workshop then too, leaving me all alone.
I’d forgotten how boring it was to be sick. I lay, flat on my back, staring at the ceiling, too tired to do anything but desperately bored doing nothing. The painful ache was more miserable now in the back of my throat, and I had nothing to take my mind off it. Basically, there was nothing to do but sleep, and I can only do that for a couple minutes at a time. I envied Paulina, who could just leave.
Faraway in the depths of the house I could hear the ticking of the clock Paulina and I had wound up the day we’d searched the whole house for the object Casper’s magic might come from. At first it was nice, because it broke the silence and kept me from going crazy, but after a while the ticking itself began driving me crazy. I sneezed violently into my handkerchief. The only good thing about having the clock wound up was that I could keep track of time if I counted the rings.
But my! time went by so slowly!
I had a book, but my arms soon tired of holding it up, and my eyes ached from reading it. Irritably I put it down. In the workshop adjacent to the kitchen I could faintly hear the Enchanter moving around, and I wondered what he was doing. Radagast padded in to check on me once, then padded back out again.
That was too bad. I would have welcomed the company.
Then there was a rap on the door. At first I thought it was Paulina, but I realised she would have just walked in. Casper poked his head out of his workshop and looked at me.
“Can’t you get it?” he asked. “Well, I guess not.” Sighing, as if to say ‘look how much work you’re putting me through!’ he went out into the entrance hall. I snorted after him. Still looking for sympathy, and who was the sick one?
I heard a muffled conversation, and then he came back. Well, it was slightly hard to tell, because he was almost completely covered in a bouquet of roses, but I was sure it was him. The roses were pink and rather clashed with his hair.
“Get-well-flowers,” he said from underneath them. “Where do you want them?”
I stared at them. “Um, on the table, I guess. Are they really for me?”
“Do you see anyone else sick in this house?” he asked. “Ouch!” A rose had stabbed him, and a drop of blood formed on his finger.
“Quit whining,” I said. “You’re an Enchanter. Heal it.”
“You still don’t understand magic, do you,” Casper replied, shaking his head. “It can be a force to move and build things. And it can be solidified, to create things, but the solidification has to be maintained. Now,” he held up his finger, “I could create a piece of skin to fix this, but I’d either have to maintain it for the rest of my life, or I’d have to take it off someday and leave it to heal on its own. And I’m telling you, the more things you’re maintaining at the moment, the harder it is to do new magic.”
“Oh,” I said. I looked at the flowers. They really were beautiful.
“Who’re they from?” I asked. Casper threw the card at me.
“Carmen!” I said. “Maria must have told her I was sick. She says she was very glad to hear I got home safely, and she hopes I’ll enjoy the roses.”
“You might, but I’m not,” Casper replied, sucking his bleeding finger with an almost sulky expression on his face. I laughed.
“Well, she didn’t send them to you, did she?” I said.
Paulina came back from market, and exclaimed over my roses. Then she put her purchases away and began putting the flowers in water so they’d keep longer. She was more skilled at handling them than Casper, because she didn’t get pricked once.
Casper went out somewhere then, and Paulina made me some chicken broth. It was very good, but not exactly like Gretchen used to make for me when I’d gotten sick before. I finished it all off and smiled at her.
“I would say you officially know how to cook,” I told her.
“Well, I’m getting lots of practice now that you’re not here so often,” she replied. “But I’m not sure I like doing it all the time, like you do. Though I think if I ever get back to Angaria I’ll cook myself, however un-princesslike it is, every once in a while.”
“You do that,” I laughed. “Shock the pompous court out of their wits.”
She smiled and had started washing up my bowl and spoon when there was another knock on the door. So she went to get it. When she came back she had a large bouquet of tiger lilies in her hands.
“Well, look at this,” she said. “It’s from Earl Hearn. He hopes you get well soon too.”
Not long after that the door was rapped again. This time Paulina came back with hibiscus, from Earl Seanit. Soon the kitchen was crowded with flowers from my well-wishers, roses and violets, gladiolas and lilies, carnations, tulips, lotus flowers and orchids. The tallest one was an arrangement of hollyhock and spiky leaves, and the largest was an arrangement of yellow lilies from Lady Indira. There was a large assortment of roses, mostly from the earls, and some rather spectacular pansies. The kitchen was beginning to look like a jungle.
“They’re all so beautiful,” I murmured, smelling a bouquet of purple roses. It surprised me the court all thought so well of me. Not surprisingly there was none from Cassandra, but rather surprisingly some of Mandarine’s group had sent their well-wishes. I was not sure whether that was because they liked me, even though I was on Carmen’s side, or if it was because they wanted me back at court they could continue plaguing me, or if they were only doing it because the rest of the court was.
Paulina came back into the kitchen from answering the door. “Well, someone’s slightly more creative,” she said. She was holding a cut-glass bowl full of brilliant water lilies I opened the card.
“It’s from the Rajah,” I said. “How nice of him.” Somehow I just couldn’t think of him as Rinaldo.
There was no room on the table for the display, so Paulina squished it onto the mantle beside Earl Seanit’s hibiscus. It made Earl Laftan’s orchids look in danger of falling off the other end, but there was no other place for them.
The door was rapped again, and Paulina sighed. But it was not more flowers at the door, only Maria come to visit me. She looked relieved when she heard the Enchanter was out. They were civil to each other, but she certainly didn’t like him much.
“Oh, how nice,” she said when she saw my array of bouquets. “Are they all from the court?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “If you see any of them, please tell them thanks.”
Paulina offered her tea and spicy cakes, but Maria declined. Since Maria was now there to keep me company Paulina decided to get out and play ball with Radagast. Maria and I were left facing each other.
“Did you go to court today?” I asked. She shook her head.
“Only to tell them you were sick,” she replied.
I reached out to straighten an arrangement of lotus flowers that was within arms reach of my bed.
“It was nice of the court to send me flowers,” I said. “But –“ I hesitated and looked at Maria. I didn’t want to sound rude.
“I mean, I’ve always heard Chaldea has had hard times since the League of Enchanters left,” I continued. “But when I go to court there’s all these jewels, fancy dresses, finery… And now they’ve all sent me flowers. I used to be a flower girl, you know, I know all these would cost a lot.”
Maria snorted. “That’s the court ladies for you! They never bother their pretty little heads with finances, so how could they be expected to know? Half their families are barely making it now-a-days as it is, and yet they spend money like water!”
“That’s why,” she looked at me, “It would be such an unsuitable match if the Rajah were to marry one of them.”
She got up and paced the room, around the flower-laden table. “And the earls aren’t much better. Most of the young ones are spoiled sons, whose fathers just give them what they want. And the older ones are too pompous to see what’s in front of their faces. Since the time of the Rajah’s grandfather things have been going downhill, because the magic that was maintaining them was taken away, and this whole country’s getting poorer. But does the court see that?”
“I was right then,” I said. “I told the Rajah Chaldea needed the League of Enchanters.”
“Does it ever!” Maria exclaimed. “I tell you, when I’m the Rajah’s wife I’ll do my best to re-establish it. We need it, it’s absolutely plain. One blasted Enchanter certainly can’t do it all.”
I looked at her. She was completely self-assured as she spoke.
“Do you love the Rajah?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. I’d half expected her to be as cynical about love as Janeira, but I was glad she was not.
“I think relations with Sabea could be restored,” she continued, softer. “Ties between our countries have always been strong. All we need to do is humble ourselves a bit.”
I watched her. “You could do it,” I said. “I can see you doing it.”
She let out a long sigh. “I have remained away from court for – what, a month now? And when I returned to ride with you to Benishada, the Rajah greeted me as if we had seen each other yesterday. I do not believe – he notices whether I am there or not.”
I stared at her. “So that is why you are re-ordering your estate.”
“Yes,” she said, staring at the explosion of flowers sitting on the table. “Yes, that is why I am…”
I swallowed a reply to that, because I was not sure she wanted to hear reassurances from the girl who had received a boatload of flowers, including some from the Rajah, after only one day missing from court.
The Story So Far: Polly, kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee and thrown in with a princess, discovers that she and her new companions are all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.
Chapter 16B: Duelling the Tigress
Every day after that I practised with rapiers, and my restlessness abated. Perhaps I had only been in need of exercise. Though while you were out in the sun sweating your brains out you felt like a wreck, afterwards a feeling of pleasant exhaustion crept over you, and you felt content. Or, after a bath at least. Rapier duelling got me too dirty, and court dress after court dress got wrecked.
“What do you do to your clothes?” Maria gasped, examining the ruined bundle that had been my tangerine robe. Then she picked up a striped gold and white silk. It wasn’t in much better shape.
She looked at me accusingly. “You’ve been rapier duelling, haven’t you?”
“How – how did you know?” I asked faintly.
“You think I don’t know a rapier’s work when I see it?” she snorted. “I’ve been waiting for the day when I wouldn’t be the only woman at court to practice rapiers with the earls, but little did I guess you’d be the one to join me!”
“I’m only learning,” I tried to explain.
“But you should have told me!” she exclaimed. “Now, today I’ll order you some proper duelling clothes, and hope they’ll be ready by tomorrow. You can’t keep going through dresses like this. And I’ll get you duelling undergarments; you can’t wear a girdle – if you haven’t realised by now.”
Then she dressed me in dusky yellow satin and began giving me tips on rapier fighting. It seemed she was really into duelling, she had continued her lessons in it past the level women were required to go, and even practised at court when she was there. She said she was still practising now. We’d taken two pokers from beside the fire and were clashing at each other when Stefan poked his head around the door.
“I heard lots of noise,” he explained. “And Paulina wants to know if you’re coming down for breakfast.”
“Oh!” said Maria. “We’d better hurry.”
That day, as I entered the throne room, Janeira came up to me excitedly.
“You’ve got to see what we’ve got!” she said. “Come with me.” And so I followed her to where the other women from Carmen’s group were standing.
“Ah Penelope, you’re here finally,” Carmen said as I came up. I winced inwardly. I was still not used to being called Penelope.
Then from behind her back she pulled out a long cloth bundle. I thought I knew what it was from the shape of it, but I untied the string anyway. Out fell a narrow rapier, of the very finest and strongest steel, suitably whippy (bendable, but not too much so), with a grip that moulded to my hand and a sturdy leather sheath. At the tip of the sheath a circlet of rubies glinted.
“Oh, but I couldn’t possibly accept…” I trailed off.
“This was my old blade,” Carmen replied, “I will lend it to you – it is made for a sword-maiden.”
Hesitantly I picked it up, then whistled it through the air.
“I’ll accept it then,” I told her quietly. She broke into a smile.
“You are quite a determined girl,” she said. “We see you out there, no matter how disapprovingly those pompous officers are whispering, like a ferocious tigress, and never giving up, no matter what those earls send you.”
“You could join me,” I offered.
“I would,” she said. “But what would the Rajah think?”
I should have known.
I would have liked to say my rapier-ship improved drastically because of that, but really every little improvement I made came because of grindingly hard work. But each morning Maria would take me down to the Peak’s entrance hall, where there was more room, and showed me her techniques and ‘the sword-maiden’s techniques’ (which, she would say contemptuously, those earls didn’t know a thing about). That helped me most, and every once in a while I could surprise the earl I was practising against with one of her tricks. Then they would laugh and say I reminded them of Maria DeAballah.
“She’s a cat, that one,” Earl Rojah told me, “As focused as anything when she fights, keeping her temper down for once; she’s not so hotly fierce as you. But if she’s a cat, then you’re a tigress.” And after that to tease me they’d call me the Tigress.
I never knew what Mandarine’s group thought of my duelling, or even what Cassandra thought for that matter. They all watched me with reserved faces, but they didn’t spite me at all when I had a rapier in my hand. Until I blew up at Mandarine one day and told her she could spite me as much as she wished because I’d never turn a rapier on a weaponless person, at which she just smiled and pulled up her skirt to reveal a rapier strapped to the bottom of her girdle.
“I just don’t want to end up duelling at court,” she told me acidly. “Unlike some people. It has never been – how shall I say – proper for a lady?”
All the women had rapiers on their girdles, I learned later, for what was the use of knowing rapier duelling if you didn’t have a rapier when you needed it? After that I strapped my rapier to my girdle too when I wasn’t using it. But at least Mandarine understood the gist of my speech, and no longer stayed silent when I was around. She wasn’t nearly as fun that way.
Cassandra had been bitter ever since I’d fought back against her, but she no longer mocked me, only watched me with a strange light in her eyes. So I settled for ignoring her. At least Carmen was happier that way.
My real friend at court was Janeira; we would walk together during our daily promenades and confide in each other. She didn’t seem to be as sure of herself as Carmen and Mandarine were, but she was slowly fitting in. She had a cutting way of remarking on the others’ manners, though, as if she had little use for other people’s feelings.
The clothes Maria had gotten me had taken a couple days to be ready, which meant a few more of my court dresses got wrecked (a scarlet one, a peacock blue, and a dull smoke grey I’d never really liked). But when they did arrive I found them entirely useful. They consisted of a pair of pants, too baggy to be real pants, but divided so they couldn’t be a real skirt, made of sturdy brown and coming to mid-calf. They were immeasurably cooler and easier to move in. The shirt was tight, with straps making an X across my chest and torso since I didn’t wear a girdle for duelling, and sleeves that ended like a cap over my shoulders.
Duelling seemed to break up the monotony of the court days, so that I looked forward to court more. And my friendships with the other ladies improved, as they cheered me on, and teasingly took up my nickname of ‘Tigress’. Well, at least it was better than Penelope.
When Maria and I practised rapiers in the entrance hall I don’t think the Enchanter knew we were there. I don’t think he even knew I’d taken up rapiers. He was seldom awake at that time, unless he was going to the Palace, and then he only came for breakfast at the last minute. But Stefan and Paulina sometimes watched, and though I offered to teach Paulina she shook her head. Radagast thought it was all a game and ran in circles around us as we fought, barking.
I still wore court dresses to court, and changed into my rapier-clothes before my lessons. I had to admit Maria had wonderful taste, and some of them I wore quite often, like the crimson one she’d bought me first. Then there was a peacock blue velvet, with white lacing down the front and white ruffles, which I wore on days I felt like being more subdued. My fanciest one was of silk, with a swirling skirt of all the colours in the rainbow stitched together with gold thread, with a bodice of gold and edged all along the hems with diamonds. Quite frankly I felt like a court jester in it; we were wearing the same colours. And then there was Maria’s favourite, a gown of turquoise with black buttons of jet and black flowers embroidered up my bodice.
“It makes your eyes look so big and blue,” she said. But Casper didn’t like it, and he told me so quite rudely. Perhaps it was because it was Maria’s favourite.
But my rapier-clothes were indisputably the most comfortable clothes I’d ever owned. I thought if I could bring them back to Angaria I would, except people would look at me funny if I wore them there.
I was wearing them and sitting on the fence of the practice yard one day, taking a short break and sipping water from a water-skin. There was a slight breeze, thankfully, and I let it blow the wisps of hair off my face. I didn’t put my hair up for duelling anymore, and instead just tied back my hair with ribbon like I always had in Angaria. In front of me the earls fought back and forth, the steady clash! clash! of their rapiers rhythmic on my ears. Earl Seanit came up to me.
“Are you waiting for a partner?” he asked.
“No, just getting a sip of water,” I replied. “But I’ll duel with you if you want.”
I picked my rapier up and took up my stance against him. He faced me, we did a quick ceremonial bow, then each did a jab-thrust towards each other’s rapier, which was what usually started off the match. I concentrated on blocking his stabs, on the defensive as I usually was at first. Earl Seanit knew this and pressed hard with his attacks. His aim was probably to prevent me from ever being able to go on the offensive.
“You’ve got to stop being so predictable,” he panted.
“Oh yes?” I said, and made my move. A quick step to the left to fake him out, then around him to the right, and my rapier almost whipped through his defence to the white patch on his chest. He grinned.
“A touch faster next time,” he said. “You’ve got to work on you foot-work.”
I nodded. I knew.
Suddenly there was a pause and he hesitated in his movement, and I lunged forward to nick his white patch in half before realising what he was looking at. Then I turned, and I saw the Rajah behind me, with a gleaming rapier in hand.
“If you would permit, Earl Seanit,” he said to us, “I would like to see myself how the Lady Penelope everyone is talking about fights.”
I gaped at him. I couldn’t fight the Rajah! What if I hurt him or something?
Earl Seanit smiled and put a hand on my shoulder.
“ ‘Luck,” he said in a low voice, “But I think you can take him. Just don’t let the fact he’s Rajah overwhelm you. He can take care of himself.”
So I faced off with the Rajah, my hands both clasped tightly around the handle of my rapier to give a bow, then switched to my right-hand to give the quick jab-thrust. He surprised me by the quickness of his, and I barely turned it aside. I realised with some shock that the Rajah was left-handed.
He was skilled, and I realised my normal tactics wouldn’t do. I got stuck in some places and was forced to be creative, concentrating hard on where I stepped so I could point my rapier where I wanted it to be. He’s probably duelled with Maria DeAballah hundreds of times, I realised, and knows all her tricks. Okay, so I was in a bit of a tight spot.
I bit my bottom lip and retorted his blade, and whipped my rapier in a sort of twisty whistle at him. He turned it aside, his dark eyes intense, his hawkish face calm and focused. I whirled out of the way of his blade just in time. My rapier vibrated in my hands.
Just one more jab, I thought, but I didn’t have him. From nowhere he was able to make his rapier whip up to mine.
“So, I finally get to try my skill against the little Tigress,” he said, then grunted as my blade swung at him. “Earl Parfin was right, you do learn quickly. But you leave openings…” He thrust.
“Can’t expect me to catch them all,” I gasped, retreating a step. He followed up with another attack. I ignored the drip of sweat running down my nose and concentrated on the person in front of me.
“Most Exalted Rajah, I must ask you to forgive any hurt I inflict on your royal person,” I told him. I made a botched attack, and was just barely able to stop his retort.
“Do you think you can hurt me?” he asked, amused.
“Just wait and see,” I hissed back.
And then I really bit down. Sometimes when I fought it was as if something inside me clicked, and there was nothing else in my world except my rapier and my opponent’s, and the stances and moves just flowed out of me. All around me I could feel heat, the heat of the Chaldean sun baking on the flagstones, the heat of my exertion as I moved, the heat of my concentration, the heat in my mouth as I bit down and lunged…
The Rajah staggered back with a bit of a stunned expression on his face, his white patch dangling off his chest in two ragged halves. I caught myself and let my rapier arm drop to my side, staring.
“So,” he said. “I see now why you are called a Tigress.”
Feeling eyes on my back I turned. And there was Casper, leaning on the fence and watching me with that typical, irritating and amused smile of his.
Just to be clear, nothing in this story is meant to represent reality.
The Story So Far: Polly, kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee and thrown in with a princess, discovers that she and her new companions are all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.
Chapter 16A: Rapier against Rapier
“Where were you?” Paulina asked as soon as I stumbled in the door. “I was beginning to get worried!”
“I went to see the market,” I said. I covered up a yawn. After a long day at court, and then a walk through the market, I was tired. “I hope nobody went looking for me.”
“No, but I was going to ask Stefan to,” she replied.
I smiled at her. “I’m flattered you care that much.”
I had some supper, vegetable pie made by Paulina (with just a touch too much salt for my taste, thought I didn’t tell her) and went to bed. But I couldn’t sleep. I lay there for quite a while, staring up at the canopy over my bed, and alternately opening and closing the shutter to let more moonlight in or to block it out.
I’m sure that gypsy was surprised when I mentioned Casper had a diamond coat, I thought. He knows something. I wondered what it meant.
And I would have set out to ask the gypsy about it the next day if I hadn’t remembered he’d said he was leaving Araba.
I was restless at court, and paced so much the other ladies asked me if anything was wrong. I said nothing, for it something was I could not put my finger on it. Perhaps I was just bored with court and the same routine day after day.
So one day, while the ladies of the court were watching the earls duel under the hot Chaldean sun, I picked up a rapier, with both hands between my palms, and held it straight up in front of me as I face them.
“Why don’t you teach me to use this?” I asked the earls. They all stopped to look at me. In one long loop I threw the rapier up, so it came spiralling back down to the ground towards me, and allowed it to stick tip-down in the dirt.
“Careful!” Earl Parfin gasped, taking an impulsive step towards me. “Lady, it’s sharp.”
Of course I knew it was sharp. I’d tested it with the tip of my finger, and drew it away with a red stain appearing on it. The rapier was long and thin, a needle-like piece of metal that was almost whippy, and its handle was fitted to the hand and covered with leather. Experimentally I waved it back and forth, listening to its whistle.
“Do you not know how to use it?” Lady Carmen asked. Her green eyes were surprised. I lowered the rapier.
“No,” I said, “Do you?”
“All noblewomen do,” she replied. “Know the basics, at least. In case – they ever have need to protect themselves. Would you allow me?” She held out her hand.
I gave the rapier, and she held it confidently. Then she began a brief sparring march with an earl, and she was good, if not as practised as them. They seemed to know that, and intentionally slowed their strokes.
“I’ve only ever used my fists,” I told her, “For protection, and it’s been a long time since I’ve used them. Unless you count…” I glanced shamefully at Cassandra, remembering the brawl in the throne room. Perhaps that was why Carmen and Mandarine hadn’t used fists when they fought, because when Chaldean women were seriously fighting they used rapiers.
“Does it work?” Carmen asked.
“Quite often,” I replied, “If you punch in the right places, and with the right strength.”
Then I turned back to the earls. “But my question was, can you teach me?”
They looked from the rapier, and back to me. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any…” one started, but Earl Laftan and Earl Seanit, whom I knew quite well, stepped forward.
“We would be honoured to teach you,” Earl Seanit said, with a half-bow. But there was a mischievous glint in his eyes.
Rapier duelling, I soon discovered, was the hottest and most sweatiest work there could be. And I hadn’t even started real duelling yet, just the basic forms, exercises and rules. Girdles were the absolute worst thing to wear for it. After a couple of minutes I excused myself and took it off, along with my pinkish-orange ametrine belt, necklace, bracelets and earrings, but my tangerine robe I could do nothing about. I resigned myself to getting it covered in sweat, dirt, and blood when I nicked myself. As I soon learned, my wrists weren’t used to holding a rapier, and weren’t strong enough to control it properly.
I looked up from my complicated move and twist manoeuvre to see what the earls wore for duelling. Each of them still had on a suit jacket and their cravat, but they had wide baggy trousers on instead of suit pants, which were much more suitable for getting caked in sweat and mud, and they had taken off their maroon capes. Their jackets looked dusty, but they seemed more adept at keeping it down than I was. On their left side, over their heart, they each wore a white patch which, if ripped by their opponent’s rapier, indicated a kill. Rapiers were used for protection, but when practising and in tournaments, they didn’t fight to the death.
But the wonderful Chaldean hairstyle for men, which Casper had adopted, was absolutely unsuited to duelling. Their pompadours came undone almost immediately, and if they kept anything in them as Casper had said, they’d taken it out beforehand, anticipating this. Dust and sweat got into it, making it hang over their foreheads in greasy strands, but I’m sure my hair couldn’t have looked much worse.
About the only good thing about having my hair piled up and high on the crown of my head was that it was kept out of my face. Otherwise it was much too lumpy, and kept falling out. But my! was that Chaldean sun ever hot. I could just feel it reflecting down into the rapier courtyard and baking off the flagstones beneath my feet.
The skirt of my dress got shredded, for whenever I moved either my rapier or my opponent’s got caught in it, tearing it. It was a good thing I had under-drawers on, or else it would’ve been positively indecent.
The women on the sidelines all laughed and cheered me on, giving me pointers from their own experience. I think it amused them to see a clumsy Angarian like me attempt the graceful but dangerous rapier dance. A few of them looked almost like they wanted to join me, but I guess it wasn’t considered proper for a lady to show off her rapier talents at court, only men. Which made me wonder what I was doing.
Carmen even told me as much afterwards, but added, “It’s all right for you, of course, since you’ve never learned. But I was surprised when you asked them to teach you.”
“So shall I keep on?” I said.
“Oh yes!” she replied. “I’d love for you to learn. But under any other circumstances… well, we find it strange. Though you aren’t exactly a conformist, are you?”
This chapter finds Polly continuing in her attempts to foil the jadess’s plans at the Palace. Polly, while impersonating the princess, has been kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee… and meets the very princess she was impersonating. It is revealed they all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.
Chapter 14 C: Black Eye!
And that was how I came to be viewed as being part of Carmen’s group. It rather improved things to have a side you belonged to. It seemed they’d been curious about me before, but hadn’t been sure if I’d run off to Mandarine’s side or not. So I spent some of my days describing Angaria to them, and they told me more about Chaldea. Now that they’d actually unbent a little, they actually explained a bit about how the court society functioned. They re-introduced me to all the earls again too.
“Isn’t Enchanter Raleigh rich and famous, though?” Clio asked when I’d finished describing my life as a flower girl to her. I bit my lip – maybe I should have left that last description out. Then I shrugged.
“He’s nothing much in Angaria, is he?” I said. “And I’d never known him very well until I visited him.”
Fortunately, Clio accepted this.
Janeira had chosen Carmen’s side too, mostly because I had. We would talk a lot together. Our agreement was that this whole rivalry business would be over if the Rajah would just stand up and actually pick someone, but the Rajah did not seem inclined to do so.
Mandarine’s group avoided me now, or shot barbed remarks at me. But I did not really mind this, I was quite good at shooting barbed remarks back, and then Carmen’s group would giggle behind their fans and congratulate me. They all accepted me, except, it seemed Cassandra.
“She’s just still sour the Enchanter jilted her,” Rianne told me. “She was rather proud before, and no one had done that to her before. I think she fancies you ought to apologise.
“For his behaviour?” I asked, and gave a little snort. “I’m not responsible for – er – my cousin.”
“She seems to think you are,” Rianne replied.
And Cassandra did seem to think so. She tried her best to make my life miserable for me. Luckily Carmen told her to quit it, and the others in the groups protected me from her. But she did not give up.
“Can’t you be more graceful, cousin of the Enchanter?” she mocked when I tripped on the stairs. She’d never call me by name, I was only ‘cousin of the Enchanter’. I shot her a dirty look back.
The Rajah seemed to notice me very little, which was just fine by me. The others all thought up every manner of outrageous plot to get his attention, but never to much avail. I was content to stay in the background and keep an eye on him. Slowly I was perfecting my technique.
I hope you’re frustrated, blasted jadess, I thought.
I was not much at the Magician’s Peak anymore. Only at breakfast times and dinner, otherwise I was at court. Paulina took over the making of the meals, and she seemed much happier, perhaps because she could get out now, and went to the market every day with Stefan. Stefan tried to keep an eye on Casper too, since he was the one most at risk from the jadess, but Casper was not easy to keep an eye on. He said he wasn’t going to let the jadess interfere with his life.
“He takes too many risks around her,” Stefan said. “He always has.”
“Even when he rescued us, right?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yes. I insisted on coming too, or else who knows what would have happened if the jadess found him there? Even though we’d been able to keep an eye on her with the silver screen beforehand.”
Casper was still trying to fix the silver screen, but without much luck. He’d order Rubion silver again, but it would take months to get here by caravan.
He teased me when he saw me in my court clothes, calling me ‘little Chaldean court lady’ and other absurd titles. I think it amused him to see me dressed up like that. I certainly didn’t look anything like myself.
I often wished I could just stay at the peak I missed the way things had been before, just me and Paulina, and the enchanters. It was not because I could boss people around, whatever Casper said. I seldom bossed people, though I liked to annoy him. Paulina and Stefan would’ve listened to me too readily.
But I missed cooking meals, and teaching Paulina. Sometimes meals would come out a little strange because she’d been experimenting, and I wished I could give her tips. I wanted to wear the plain, comfortable dresses I’d sewn, and I never wanted to see my girdle again. But regardless, I had to go on.
I was going to get the jadess for this, someday.
Once in a while, though, it was kind of fun to pretend to be upper crust, to parade around in my finery, and to rub elbows with lords and earls. This was not something I would ever get to do in Angaria.
Carmen tried to teach me the art of flirting, but I resisted her efforts until she gave up. The earls weren’t put off by my straightforwardness, but Carmen lamented that this way the Rajah would pay no attention to me. Honestly, sometimes she reminded me of Gretchen.
The earls said they put up with me because there were no other blonds at court, and we became friends; I would tease them, and they would heckle me back. But if the Rajah would come up, with a puzzled expression on his kingly face, I would retreat to the background. It was bad enough I had to be at court and look like I was chasing him, it would be worse if I actually made a fool of myself attempting to talk to him. The earls all asked me where in the world I thought I was disappearing to, and that I’d never get the Rajah’s attention that way, but I would just shrug.
Sometimes I think the earls resented that the ladies were all paying attention to the Rajah, and not to them. I told them all the ladies would all look to back to them again once the Rajah chose his bride, but they would just look at me with a sour expression on their face and say the Rajah was never going to choose, at this rate. Then they would go off and practice their rapier-fighting, to demonstrate their bravery. Often there were tournaments, and then we would all turn out to watch. The Rajah would compete too sometimes, and he won quite a bit, though not too much more than anybody else. It gave me a thrill to watch those long, narrow bits of steel clash and stab against each other.
It was the middle of summer in Chaldea, and it was hot. I wondered how the earls could stand rapier-fighting in the baking hot sun. I wasn’t doing anything but watching, and I felt faint. The only relief was in the cool, shady stone of the Palace, though often by late afternoon it would heat up too. It was nicest in the morning, when it was cool inside the Palace, and pleasantly warm outside.
Mandarine would actually faint, though I wasn’t sure if that was because she tied her girdle so tight, or she just liked everyone hovering around her. It didn’t work too well on the Rajah though, if it was a ploy: he would just wave his hand and order his servants to bring her water and fan her.
The ladies on Mandarine’s side were Lady Aurelia and Daina, Vianna, Suzanne, Delia, Yasmine, Marcia, Allaina, Nadia and Maylin. They did their best to spite us, and we did our best to spite them. On Carmen’s side were me, Janeira, Rianne and Clio, and Junina, Andrea, Indira, Malope, Hallia, Persis and Cerina. And, of course, Cassandra. She was as bitter as ever.
“Didn’t the Enchanter teach you manners?” she’d ask every time I made a mistake. “That’s the way we do it in Chaldea.”
My goodness, no wonder Casper had jilted her.
“Who said I cared how you do it in Chaldea?” I finally snapped back.
“Well, you do our best to dress like us,” she replied. “Pale-haired wench.”
The thing was, I couldn’t really insult her, for she really was beautiful. Definitely more beautiful than me. Otherwise I could have thought up equally cutting remarks about her, but with her flawless skin and bit, dark eyes I could think of nothing to criticize in her looks. I knew Carmen didn’t like us fighting, but it wasn’t her quarrel, and thankfully she didn’t interfere. I thought I could understand how she felt about Mandarine now.
One day I could stand it no longer. Cassandra pushed me just a little bit too far as we were standing one morning in the throne room, and I launched into her. I didn’t bother with little slaps and hair-pulling, like Carmen and Mandarine, but fought as I’d had to fight to protect myself from bullies when I’d still been young in Angaria. I hadn’t used it in a long time, and I was surprised I still remembered. Cassandra was surprised too, at first, then she fought back with equal vigour.
“Girls, stop it!” Carmen shrieked, horrified. I didn’t have to look at Mandarine to know she’d be smirking the spectacle. But I didn’t care about her.
“Lady Penelope!” It was one of the earls. “Ladies, stop that!” He tried to get in our way and got punched in the face.
I almost had Cassandra pinned, but then she elbowed me in the side, hard, and stepped on my foot at the same time. I gasped for breath. She elbowed me when I had precious little breath already, my lacing were tied so tight. Girdles were not made to fight in.
“Cat fight,” I heard another lord drawl. If he’d tried to interfere I would have scratched his eyes out. Luckily for him, he didn’t.
Then I could hear the Rajah calling for order, but I ignored him. Cassandra paused when she heard, which I took advantage of, then she ignored him too. I could hear horrified gasps echo around the room. But I was too busy to attend right then, Cassandra had kicked me in shins.
“You irritating little – flea!” I gasped, as she hung onto my back and draggled my hair. I’d bit back a vulgar Angarian insult just in time. We were at court.
I swung around and hit her with a rather off-centred punch. But she let go anyway.
Then suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulders, lifting me up, and I was dangling off the ground. Looking beside me I saw the Rajah, his dark eyes blazing with fury. The soldier holding me flanked his left side, and on his right one held Cassandra.
“Do you not listen to your ruler?” he said. I squirmed and the soldier let me fall to the floor. I rolled over to look up at him. He was far more interesting in his fury.
Beside me Cassandra was quivering. She was probably afraid she’d be kicked out of court, and then she lost all chance with the Rajah.
“Answer me!” he said thunderously. “Do you know what I say?”
“Y – yes, sire,” Cassandra stammered.
“How could we not, since you’re yelling so loud?” The words just found a way out of my mouth. I heard an anguished gasp from Carmen.
“Oh, you – blasted women!” he yelled. He stormed around the throne room and threw a stone crock to the ground, rather like Maria DeAballah had in the entrance hall of the Peak, except this crock looked bigger and heavier. The Rajah must be tremendously strong.
Damage control, damage control… time to think of something polite to say…
“I’m sorry, sire,” I told him. “Such behaviour is not fitting for a throne room. I should have taken it outside.”
He looked incensed. ‘Whatever practice you have in Angaria, young lady, you should not be fighting in court at all! Now, there may be some bad examples,” he glared furiously at Carmen and Mandarine, “But THAT IS NO EXCUSE!”
“Of course, sire,” I replied.
I realised I was goading him like I did Casper. He was reacting rather more satisfactorily than the Enchanter did, but I wasn’t sure how much more his Chaldean temper could take. I shut my mouth.
I did not trust myself to say a word as I let his tirade wash over me. He could probably see I wasn’t terrified by the look in my eyes, though Cassandra probably satisfied him. She was cowering on the floor.
“You do not hold proper respect for me,” he accused, his eyes shooting sparks at me.
“Oh the contrary, my lord,” I answered. “The higher fury you get into, the more respect I have. You might ask Casper how that works.”
“Oh, get out of my sight,” he yelled back. “And I’ll tell you if I’ll ever let you back into it!”
I hurried out of the room and down the hall, into the women’s room. I looked at myself in the mirror. Two black eyes bloomed spectacularly in my face, between strands of draggled hair. I sighed and began cleaning myself up.
Janeira found me there a while later.
“My goodness,” she said. “I’ve never seen the Rajah get into such a high fury before. He’s usually so emotionless.”
“Yeah, well, lucky me,” I said, “For managing to make him show emotion.”
She looked at me suddenly, then laughed. I could tell she thought I was crazy, but she didn’t seem to care.
“Well, Cassandra was spitting mad after you left,” she told me. “It looks like you’ve started another court rivalry.”
“With Cassandra, or with the Rajah?” I muttered back.
Go to Chapter 15A
This chapter finds Polly continuing in her attempts to foil the jadess’s plans at the Palace. Polly, while impersonating the princess, has been kidnapped by an enchanter and his trainee… where she meets the very princess she was impersonating. It is revealed they all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can she get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? And … why does the jadess want Polly? Chapter 1 is here.
Chapter 14B: Choosing Sides
I had been slightly put out at the Rajah for what he’d done to Casper, but now I’d met him I could see he thought he had no choice. Being a ruler always seems to get you stuck in pickles like that. It was wrong to stick Casper in Chaldea forever, and I’d tell him so if I got a chance, but I’d heard a million stories at court about how Chaldea’s fortunes had improved since they had an enchanter in the land again. And I felt a little sorry for the Rajah too, all those blasted women around him, never letting him escape, I wondered if he ever got any privacy.
Anyway, Casper didn’t seem to hate the Rajah personally, they were on quite good terms, but the Enchanter only chafed at the bounds that had been put on him. I wondered if there was a way they could resolve this mess.
But all in all I didn’t like court much, and I told Casper so. He only laughed.
“You just don’t like it because you can’t control it,” he said. “Like you run the Peak, and like you probably ran everyone’s lives in Angaria.”
“I was independent,” I replied. “I helped Gretchen support me.”
“I can imagine!” he said. I shot him a dirty look.
Maria continued to help and coach me. She got so many dresses for me their array startled me. Altogether, including the Chaldean robes Casper had first got me and the dresses I had made for myself, it was almost three times the number of dresses I’d ever owned in my life before this. They were wonderfully beautiful, but somehow they always made me fell like a doll dressed up for show.
I was wearing the lemon yellow one with pearls when Carmen blew her top again. Not at Mandarine this time, but in hysterical panic. It turned out the heirloom ring she’d been wearing, passed down through her family for generations, had been lost, and she’d just noticed. The ladies in her group all gathered around her and tried to sooth her frantic sobbing, while Mandarine and her friends gathered across from them and looked disdainful.
“Probably not as priceless as she’s making it out to be,” Janeira said, “But still, not a good thing to lose.”
The Rajah leaned back in his throne and positively rolled his eyes (I’d have sworn he did if I hadn’t known he was a ruler), while all the earls, lords, officers, and men in the Palace made valiant, manful hunts around the throne room for it. Most looked out of their wits at a lady in distress, and did their frantic best to find it. But it did not turn up. The ladies around Carmen, meanwhile, managed to calm her hysterical screams to soft, hiccoughing sniffles. If possible she looked even worse than when she’d been fighting with Mandarine.
She went to get cleaned up, but still looked positively miserable during our daily promenade. The men all shook their heads and muttered ‘poor little thing’. I’d thought her excitability would put them off, but they seemed to like a lady in distress.
“She’s always been excitable,” Janeira told me. “All her family is.”
We went in to lunch, a first course of cold, cucumber soup, followed by waldorfs, jellied salads, rolls with meat and gravy in them, and other dishes I did not see. Carmen sat across from me, with her two best friends, Clio and Rianne, sympathetically patting her arms while Mandarine glared and sniffed haughtily from down the table. I thought rather that Mandarine was jealous of all the attention Carmen was getting.
After lunch I went out to the front lawn. Tensions in the court were too stressful for me, and I had to get away, if only for a moment. The lawn was empty, and I wandered about restlessly. Over the lawn the Rajah’s peacocks stepped gracefully around me, and I fed them a few crumbs from lunch.
Then suddenly as I was bent down I saw a glint near a bush. Coming nearer to investigate I saw it was round and golden, with a brilliant green emerald set in it. If that wasn’t Carmen’s lamented lost heirloom ring, I didn’t know what was. She must have dropped it when she’d entered the Palace this morning.
As I bent to pick it up there was a voice behind me. I turned and saw Mandarine standing there, flanked on either side by Aurelia and Daina. She crossed her arms.
“You’ve found Carmen’s ring, haven’t you?” she said. “Give it to me.”
“So you can torment her with the fact you have it?” I asked. “Not on your life. I’ve had enough crying for one day. Besides, I don’t even know it’s hers.”
“I do,” she replied. “I’d recognize it anywhere. Give it to me.”
“Forget it,” I told her. “I already told you I wouldn’t.”
Just then another group of ladies rounded the corner. Carmen was among them. They stopped short when they saw us.
“Have it then,” Mandarine told me. She spat at my yellow slippered feet, then whirled away with Aurelia and Daina. Carmen looked at me.
“I found your ring,” I told Carmen. I tossed it to her, then set off down the gravelled paths, in the opposite direction Mandarine had gone.
Later Carmen came up to me, wanting to thank me, to my surprise. I told her it was only an accident I’d found it.
“Yes, but you could have given it to Mandarine,” she replied. “Are you on my side, or hers?”
Her slanted green eyes looked at me, being somehow enhanced by the French green dress she was wearing. She was offering me a place in her group. Now was the time for me to choose sides, and I sighed.
“I’d rather not be involved,” I said. “But at the moment I am rather disinclined to follow Mandarine.”