It was dark. All about me trees were crashing to the ground. Great tall trees. Someone was chopping them down. Chop, chop, chop. Someone was knocking at the door. Knock, knock, knock. My head was on the desk. My new desk. I must have fallen asleep. The light hurt my eyes.
That lieutenant woman stuck her head round the door. ‘You decent?’ she went. I don’t know what she thought I might be doing and it’s lucky I didn’t speculate out loud, because the next thing out of that prim little mouth of hers was, ‘There’s a royal princess outside for you. I’ve tried telling her to wait for the chief to come back, but she’s insisting she’ll only talk to you.’
Must have made quite an impression last night, I thought. I laced my shirt up at the neck and fisted the sleep out my eyes and spat on my fingers and dragged them through my hair. The lieutenant stood there wearing a face like she’d got words stuck between her teeth. But it was an entirely different royal princess the broad showed in. Not much more than two-thirds Coral’s height, though that wasn’t saying as much as it might: the Princess Coral was almost as tall as I was. A pock kid, perhaps ten or eleven. Hard to tell she was so thin. She had rose-pink beads braided in her dull brown hair. The bits that poked out of her frilly pink dress had much the colour of onion skin, and all the fancy clothes in the capital couldn’t make an onion smell like an orchid. Must be the prince’s baby sister.
Got to admit the kid had balls though. She was raking me up and down just like I was raking her up and down. ‘You don’t look much like a hero,’ she said.
‘I’m no hero, princess.’
‘Father says you are.’
‘Just goes to show even kings aren’t always right.’ Surely even a kid this age had to understand her father’s wits had sailed west years ago? They’d be halfway to Selidor by now, I reckoned.
‘You are Bittern, aren’t you?’
‘That’s what they call me. What can I call you?’
‘You may call me Pebble,’ she said, with the air of one granting a royal favour. Which I suppose she was. ‘Nearly everyone calls me that, except Coral.’
‘That what your name means?’ The real thing had so many syllables I thought it probably needed some sort of special permit to take it out for a spin.
‘No, paíbanha’s a kind of flower.’
‘I’ll bet it’s a pretty flower,’ put in the lieutenant. She’d hung around for some reason. Probably thought the princess needed a chaperone. ‘A pretty little flower for a pretty little girl.’
‘I’ve never seen one, they don’t grow in Havnor,’ the princess said coldly. I was beginning to warm to the girl. When she added, ‘you don’t need to stay now I’ve found Officer Bittern,’ I was ready to cheer and throw paíbanha petals.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘I think I can handle one itty bitty princess all by myself.’
The lieutenant gave me a dirty look but she understood a royal dismissal as well as I did. When she’d gone, the princess said, ‘You don’t like her either. Good.’
I didn’t think explaining that the broad’s poncy accent got right up my nose was going to get the two of us very far. ‘So, Pebble,’ I said instead. ‘What was it you came down here to consult me about?’
‘I know something bad’s happened to my brother,’ she went, ‘but no-one will tell me what it is! My maid just clucks like she’s turned into one of the ducks in the gardens and my governess is nearly as bad. Coral says I’m too young to understand, and they won’t let me in to see Father. But I’m not too young to understand! I’m not! I’m not!’
Ten in ivory was beginning to look like small change. I hated these conversations even when the kid couldn’t have me imprisoned or exiled or executed if I made her cry. ‘Of course you’re not,’ I said. I waved her to a seat and dropped down to the floor beside her with my back against the wall and hoped she was too young to count just how many different ways her royal dignity had been offended. ‘Your brother the prince, Anthar—’
She giggled. ‘Anthar,’ she corrected. She pronounced the name the way everybody else did. I’d been going for her older sister’s version.
‘Your brother, Anthar … vanished, yesterday evening.’ I explained about the Ministry logs and how they could track people by their true name, especially anybody who’d been named by the Ministry. It was all supposed to be hush-hush but I figured the princess had a right to know. Fuck, everybody on the island had a right to know. The girl didn’t cry and she didn’t interrupt. ‘My guess is nobody’s told you anything because nobody has a clue what it means. It shouldn’t even be possible.’
‘So the Ministry can’t see me because I haven’t been named yet?’ The princess bounced out of the chair, pushed it under the window and knelt up on it with her pointy nose just shy of the glass. ‘They don’t know I’m here?’
I joined her. It was lucky we were both skinny because the window wasn’t very wide. There wasn’t much of a view. The sun was beginning to burn off the fog and you could see this cupboard they’d allocated me overlooked the central courtyard. It’d probably once enclosed a garden but the benches were snow white with seagull shit and the single tree was leafless all year round. Nobody ever went out there in my day, and it didn’t look like things had changed. ‘The name your mother gave you’ll work like clockwork till your naming day,’ I said. ‘But you’re only, what, twelfth in line to the throne?’
‘Thirteenth. And Pearl’s breeding again.’ She gave a little parody of a shudder. I wondered if it was copied from Coral. ‘She’s like a cat that has a litter every spring.’
It was probably treasonous even to think about that one. ‘Anyhow the men at the Ministry are very busy right now looking for your brother,’ I went instead. ‘They’ll all think you’re tucked up safely in the palace.’
‘I’m safer here with you,’ she said, twisting round to look up at me.
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. Safer! With an old hazia-head like Bittern! I’d ask her where she got such a damn fool idea but I knew. The king thought I’d saved his life. I needed a drink.
I’d checked out the desk drawers for liquor earlier and there wasn’t anything else big enough to stash a bottle in. Either the room’s previous owner had been the single teetotal CHOP in history or he’d had chance to clear out all his booze before he left. I stuck my head out the corridor and hollered in the direction that lieutenant broad had disappeared and ordered up the canteen’s best stab at coffee and whatever baby princesses drank. Turned out the kid had got herself a taste for rushwash tea, of all things. Her nurse must have come from Gont or the Reaches or somewhere. Sedge had been born in some village up on the mountain and boasted he’d never lost his simple tastes, and even he couldn’t stomach that rot.
It came in delicate china cups with little painted roses on them. The equally delicate lacquered tray had lemon and honey and milk all laid out nicely like an old maid’s tea party. I couldn’t imagine where the cook had laid his hands on the stuff.
‘Ah, you drink kahwa,’ said the princess. ‘Father likes kahwa. He says it reminds him of mother. Anthar used to drink it with him—before he went to college, I mean.’ She spooned honey into her tea. ‘He says it tastes like mud.’ The slops the canteen had served up in the fancy cup might have tasted of mud, for all I could tell.
‘Tell me about the prince your brother,’ I said.
She put her cup down on the window ledge and climbed back onto the chair. ‘He’s my brother,’ she said. ‘Do you have a brother?’
‘Haven’t seen him in five years.’
‘Did he vanish too?’
‘None of your business, princess.’ I gulped down the rest of my coffee and put my empty cup down next to her full one. Carefully. The thing probably belonged to the cook’s old granny. ‘Your brother. Anthar. He doesn’t like coffee. What does he like?’ The princess kept her trap shut tight. But this wasn’t just some Poxtown kid taking the piss however pale her skin looked so I tried a few guesses to get her going. ‘Plays? Dances?’
She gave one sharp shake of her head so the beads on her braids snapped round and slapped her on the cheek.
This time the beads made like those bead curtains over the entrance to the back room when the dealer’s just cut off your credit.
‘Not hunting then,’ I said when I could get a word in over all the click-clacking.
‘He likes riding in the forest, in among all the trees,’ she started, and once she’d started like a true woman she just didn’t stop. ‘He likes trees. I like the sea better. We’re never allowed to swim in the bay, only in the shallow little pool in the gardens. It’s boring. And we’re never allowed to go out sailing on our own, or when the wind whips up the waves. He wants to learn to work the weather so we’ll always be safe.’ She picked up her cup and put it down again.
‘Anything else he wants to learn?’
‘Healing. Because of Father.’ So the kid did know. ‘But I think his favourite subject might be history. He likes names and dates and lists and those genie-things. And he’s always talking about all the great mages in the songs, the ones who sailed round the world and talked to dragons. My governess says there never were any mages or any dragons, it’s all just that meta-thingy. You know. Where something exciting really means something dull. But Anthar thinks they really lived, just like the tales say.’ She picked up her tea again, for real this time. I kept my mouth shut and let the kid’s mind work. She was never going to compete with her elder sister in the looks department but I was beginning to wonder whether she’d inherited the same brains. ‘He wants to be a mage when he grows up, I think. He’s got a lot of power, you know.’ I nodded but she was still looking out the window. The thinning fog smeared the sun, pale as milk, across half the sky. ‘Do you think he could somehow have tricked the Ministry’s tracking thing?’
I’d been wondering the same thing. A kid with a big gift and an even bigger yen to be anyone except the heir to the throne and anywhere except the big city. ‘It’s not supposed to be possible.’
‘Then how did it happen?’
‘You’ve hit the thousand gold piece question right on the head there, kiddo.’
‘I think he might have known about it, the tracking thing.’ And here it was, the reason little Princess Pebble had tripped all the way down here in her shiny princess shoes. There always was one and it nearly always fell out if you waited long enough. The chief said folks just wanted to tell the truth and you just had to have the patience to listen. ‘When I last saw him he said not to trust anyone. He went on and on about some big conspiracy or other. I don’t know. I can’t remember. I wasn’t really listening properly. He was always going on about something. Whale hunting. Trees dying. You know.’
I didn’t. Nobody I knew cared a damn about whales or trees. ‘Did he mention names? Prince Malachite?’
‘Oh, no! Mal’s his friend. When he first came I didn’t like him much. But he knocked down some boys who called Anthar names while they were practising net-ball together, and then they were friends. You don’t suspect him, do you?’
To my mind it felt a bit fishy everybody going out their way to give young Malachite alibis and testimonials. But I could afford to let him lie for now. The thing about fish was the stink only got worse the longer it rotted.