Giulia picked up the lyre and played—the notes were clear and slow, as gentle as a lullaby. They filled the air with their sweetness, circling them and evaporating into the night.
Antonius watched the blue and amber flames as they crackled upwards, repeating the same patterns into infinity. He felt his body move to the rhythms, and realised they all moved in tandem around the fire. The music, the flames, and the night were as much a part of them as the blood coursing through their veins. The pace quickened and they followed, twisting and turning with fluidity.
Antonius’ mind was clear and untroubled. At the same time, he watched Giulia’s russet hair swing across her back and the long line of her slender white arm as she moved with perfect grace. He felt the eyes of many upon him, but he was not afraid. It was a sense of being held in the embrace of the observation, as if he were returning to the home of a friend that was as familiar as it was strange. Glancing at Giulia, he saw she scattered herbs into the flames. His nose twitched as their combined scent wafted towards him—sage, elderflower, cloves, and others. Three crystals were then released into the fire—purple, white, and gold. Several loud cracks erupted into the air and multi-coloured sparks flew, with a hiss and a whine. In a low voice Savinus chanted. It was a mellifluous language he had heard during the rituals at the blue cave. He spread his arms in an outward motion, as if clearing away smoke.
Then, as if a cord had abruptly been severed, he was in another place. He was surrounded by pale yellow grass as high as his waist in a field, bathed in sunlight. A low hum, like a swarm of bees, filled his ears. In the distance, a lone figure walked towards him, parting the grass with a gnarled stick. His robes were deep purple, tied at the waist with a gold cord. As he came closer, Antonius could see his deep-set brown eyes and close cropped grey hair. His face was pale with a strong jaw. He smiled and his eyes radiated warmth.
The voice was assured yet gentle. As soon as it came into his mind he felt at ease.
Who are you? I feel there are others but I cannot see them.
I am Arion. I come to you with ten others, the spirit protectors of Savinus. We thought it best not to overwhelm you. As his original guide, it was decided I should appear. We welcome you to this place, sacred to the followers of the way. The way is all around you—it is in the trees, the stars, the animals, and through your own body. You must keep your mind and body free from impurities and all will be revealed. Spend quiet time in your mind, without distraction. Do not hate those who show ignorance, they too are emanations of the great spirit. They are not ready to realise all that is around us. Your powers are great and will only increase with time. Be patient. You have many years to realise your potential. We will be here to guide you. Savinus will teach you the incantation, then you must sit in a quiet place in nature, and we will come.
The Orange Grove
Charlotte beamed, her words gushed as she conversed. Her gaiety worried Henriette. She noticed the way the princess’s eyes kept returning to the door.
Muffled voices and footsteps could be heard from the hallway. The door opened and it was Thierry. He approached the princess and whispered in her ear. She nodded, and took a sip of her tea.
He withdrew, and opened the door further. Henriette’s heart thudded in her chest. Her hand flew to her mouth and she stood, trembling as she placed her cup and saucer on the table with a rattle.
It was Amalia, her hair pulled back tightly, wearing the blue serge pinafore of the convent. The child’s eyes were as frightened as a deer caught in front of a carriage.
‘Hello, Maman. I knew you would ask me to come one day.’
Thierry cleared his throat. ‘Miss Amalia d’Augustin,’ he intoned, his face impassive.
The women gaped, their eyes moving from the girl, to Henriette and back again. Solange spluttered and choked on her pastry, spitting it into a napkin. The prince’s adam’s apple worked furiously in his throat and he stared at Amalia as if she were a ghost. Time stilled and Henriette rose in silence.
The prince stood and walked towards the girl. ‘Come child, you may sit with us.’
‘Hello, Amalia,’ said Henriette, her voice shaking.
Her face brightened as she sat down next to Henriette.
‘So Maman, aren’t you going to introduce me?’
Henriette felt the heat of blood in her cheeks.
‘Solange, this is your half-sister. She lives at the convent.’
Solange’s mouth was slack as she examined the girl from head to foot. Her eyes filmed with tears.
‘Why didn’t you tell me, Maman?’
Charlotte snickered. ‘That’s an excellent question, Solange, one that begs for an answer. Tell us, Henriette, why keep this lovely child, this human being, a secret from us all?’
‘Other than you, Your Highnesses, most people do what they can to survive. The world is a harsh place and does not allow for error. I kept my daughter secret, because otherwise, I would never have gained a place here at the château.’
The stunned silence filled the room once more. Henriette’s answer had not erased the look of scorn from Charlotte’s face. Yet what alarmed her was the way the prince’s face had morphed into a mask of contempt. He tapped his foot on the Persian rug and left his tea untouched. His hands gripped his knees, the knuckles showing white.
Amalia appeared not to notice the brittle atmosphere. ‘Maman, I’ve been good you know. I’ve not been cutting myself and I’ve learnt the whole book of Job by heart.’ She reached forward, snatched a large éclair and stuffed it into her mouth. She chewed loudly and wiped an ooze of cream with the back of her hand.
Without hesitation, she reached for another. Her mother took her hand and placed it on her lap.
Amalia glared at her. ‘I’m allowed. That’s what they’re there for, to be eaten. You’re rude, Maman. What kind of a hostess are you?’ She turned to her audience, her smile hard-edged and manic.
‘Maman is ashamed of me. She lives here and thinks she is better than her own daughter. Isn’t that terrible? Do you know, she tries to buy me off with dresses, but I show her, I show her what I think of that, don’t I, Maman?’
Henriette’s posture had slumped and she twisted a napkin in her hands, her face crimson. She remained silent.
‘I burn them. I burn them to ashes and one day, if she doesn’t start to treat me with love, I’ll burn her too!’
Henriette stood, her arms shaking and her lips pressed together. ‘That’s quite enough, Amalia. Come child,’ she grasped her arm and pulled her upright, marching her to the door.
Charlotte was triumphant. ‘Oh, but she must stay. She’s more entertaining than an opera ballet. Don’t be so cruel, Henriette.’
The prince let out a sharp exhalation, as if he had been holding his breath. He rose abruptly and made for the door, escorting Henriette out to the hallway with his hand at her elbow. Amalia was dragged along, muttering ‘Bitch, bitch, bitch’ under her breath.