Anna leant back against the rough barked Marosa tree. Pale pink buds were forming on the end of the bare branches and, while the nights were still chilly, the days had begun to warm up. It was delightful to take a brief respite from her duties amongst the beauties of the palace gardens. The Kapok was in one of his good moods and had given in to Prince Naetok’s pleas for a ‘horsie ride’. Little Lakwi was snuggled up in her mother’s lap, playing with her skystone rattle.
The peacefulness of the garden scene contrasted to the frenetic activity in the palace, as Madomo Bitjanan supervised the preparations for the hunting expedition soon to be undertaken by the royal entourage. The Kapok had insisted Kupanna Suraya take a few hours break with him form the constant demands of a thousand little decisions.
Rianda strolled over to Anna and sat down. The young noblewoman was in charge of the nursery. Possessing a classic beauty, she had hopes of making a fine marriage with one of the young scions that often attended Naetok’s fifteen year old half-brother, prince Rokkan. The crown prince however had been visiting his mother’s family in faraway Silisea for almost half the year now.
Rianda tucked a strand of her chocolate-brown hair behind her ear. ‘You will find the palace quiet once we leave, Anna sweetie, but a little home bird like you will enjoy that.’
Anna picked a white blossom nestled in the grass and threaded it into the chain of flowers on her lap. ‘Has the Kapok agreed to Naetok going with the hunting party then, my Lady?’
Rianda dropped her voice. ‘Yes. The Kupanna wants the princess to come too, but the Kapok is adamant that toddlers and hunting expeditions don’t mix. Nor will he hear of his wife staying behind.’
‘The Kupanna can’t persuade him otherwise.’
‘She is the only one that has much influence with him, but there are times when even she can’t change his mind.’
The thoughtful silence that fell between them was shattered by three long blasts of a horn from the front gate.
Rianda sat up, her green eyes shining. ‘That’s Prince Rokkan’s signal. He must be back from the south.’
The Kupanna paused in stroking her daughter’s chestnut locks. A soft smile spread across her lovely face.
‘Martal, my dear, should will we greet Rokkan in the Great Hall?’
The Kapok stopped prancing about, a laughing Naetok clinging to his back.
‘Am I a servant to go running after new arrivals? The Prince can come to us.’ He fixed Anna with his eyes. ‘Don’t lounge about girl, put the food out. We’ll eat now.’
Her heart thumping, Anna scrambled to her feet. She took a richly woven rug draped over the big picnic hamper and spread it over the grassed area. Kneeling beside the rug, she placed the platters of food and flasks of drink out for the family to enjoy.
The sun beamed down as small finches chirped in the fragrant flower laden bushes. A tarrawong chortled nearby. Despite the idyllic scene, tension seemed to crackle in the air. Even Prince Naetok ate quietly, his eyes fixed on his plate. Lakwi sat in Anna’s lap, picking at a honeyed treat. The Kapok tapped an inpatient rhythm on the rim of his golden plate, the lines in his bronzed face growing deeper by the second.
Anna started at the sound of boots on the flagstones. A tall broad shouldered lad came striding around the low garden wall and along the path towards them. His eyes were the startling colour of molten honey. The huge bulk of the palace with its steep tiled roof, multitude of windows and balconies loomed behind him. He came to a halt some paces in front of the Kapok, a smile curving up his tan face.
‘Father.’ He dropped to one knee, head bowed.
Martal Kapok tore a piece of maize bread into fragments with powerful fingers, his lips in a thin line.
‘What do you mean by keeping me waiting, Rokkan? It’s almost an hour since you came in the gate.’
‘I beg your pardon, your Majesty. I was seeing to my horse and dogs.’
‘And their comfort is more important than mine?’
‘No, of course not, Father.’
‘The Spring festival has been and gone. I expected you many days ago.’
‘Did you not receive the message from Queen Megarra begging your indulgence? She wished me to attend the Double Moon ceremony…’
The Kapok growled. ‘Sometimes I wonder if you forget you are a prince of Tamra.’
‘Not at all, your Majesty.’ The lad swallowed, his golden eyes bright. ‘You send me to Silisea to learn…’
‘What, now this is my fault? You are insolent.’
At the Kapok’s harsh tone, little Lakwi began to sob quietly. She clung to Anna’s neck. Anna patted the child’s slight back and looked around for the rattle to distract her but could not find it.
The Prince lowered his forehead to the ground. ‘I am sorry…’
His eyes like slits, the Kapok jumped up. ‘So am I, boy, so am I. We are leaving tomorrow but since you value our company so little, you can stay behind with your sister.’
The prince’s shoulders tightened. ‘As you wish.’
The Kupanna leaned forward, her face creased with concern. ‘My dear, don’t you think…’
Her husband swung round. ‘Don’t think to cozen me out of this, Suraya. I will not tolerate insolence, even from my son.’
With that he strode off down the path.
Naetok grinned. ‘Papa, is angry with you Rokku.’
The older prince sat back on his heels, his hands clenched at his sides. ‘As always.’ He took a deep breath and met his step-mother’s troubled gaze. ‘Your Majesty.’
‘It’s good to see you home again, Rokku.’ She scooped up the hiccoughing Lakwi. ‘Come, let’s go inside. Can you pack up Anna, dear?’
‘Yes, your Majesty.’
As the others left, Anna stacked the dirty platters into the basket. The little princess was adorable and the Kupanna was kind. Yet there was so much she did not understand here. Closing her eyes, she could imagine the feel of the pestle in her hand, the aromatic smell of herbs and her mother humming as she compounded potions. She could hear the happy laughter of her sisters as they went about their chores. Her throat tightened. Would she ever be able to go home?
Continued in Part Five: Fever