Dawn had come and gone by the time Thais found herself stood before the Greenwood home. It was very early still. Earlier than Thais could remember calling in a long time, but waiting had not been an option. The girl wanted to put her plan into action immediately and for that she needed the Greenwoods. Only they knew the location of the person Thais was keen to find.
After knocking firmly on the old door Thais stepped forward and pushed into it, leading her straight into the heaving nucleus of the ramshackle house.
“Mind where you’re going young lady,” a thick and heavily accented voice warned the child. “Here, take these and follow me!”
Thais stumbled under the weight of the heavy wet sheets she had just been delivered and with a disgruntled expression she looked up from the yellowed material to see Granny Whinny, the Greenwood matriarch, bustling through the hubbub towards the back door.
“But Granny Whinny, I came to see Kaio and Rachel,” Thais tried to no avail, her complaint falling short of the formidable large woman amidst the loud banter in the busy kitchen. With a slight grumble the girl hurried to join the elderly battle-axe in the garden where a dusty stretch of lawn had been battled into submission by the stampede of dozens of young feet. The yard was long and thin and had become a depository for an array of items that could only truly be described as rubbish. Hanging limply from one end to the other stood a washing line, where the large and hardened figure of Granny Whinny now stood, brazenly hanging her wet sheets up to dry in the crisp sunshine, her large bulk moving gracefully to a rhythm she had perfected over a long and hard life.
“Granny Whinny I’ve come to find Kaio and Rachel,” Thais repeated once she had come to stand at the old woman’s side, the sopping sheets seeping through her cardigan and onto her loose shirt.
“And you will find them up in their room when you’re done. I sent them up two hours ago to beat the mattresses and not heard a peep out of them since. No doubt they’ve found something suitably mischievous to distract themselves with.”
Thais nodded grimly; no doubt, though there would be no such reprieve for her it would seem. The girl squinted up into the bright sun to scan the scattered dusty windows. Kaio and Rachel’s window lay inched open
“Kaio! Rachel!” she called up.
“Hush Thais, you’ll wake the chickens,” a stern warning came from the matriarch. “I’ll let you go as soon as you’ve done your bit.”
Thais felt a little vexed at being collared into helping with the housework and she glared slightly at her friends’ foremother. Surely the old woman had plenty of her own grandchildren to aid with the chores? Did she really require the help of the heiress to the throne?
“And you can take that look off your face little one. Everybody helps in this house, even princesses.”
With a withering sigh Thais resigned herself to her fate and obligingly aided the elderly woman while the sounds of the busy household wafted out into the garden. All the while the girl eyed the weathered old woman, wondering whether she could muster the courage to ask her what she had intended to find out from her friends. Kaio and Rachel would certainly be able to find out the location of Alucia Dal Am from their foremother, though Thais knew they would not do so readily. Suffice to say they would sooner offer themselves up to the urchin gang from the peasant quarter Varanasi than take a role in Thais’ treacherous plan.
Alucia Dal Am’s reputation was notorious. Adults would not speak her name and children included her always as a villain in their games. She was a seer and had been made a pariah, though few of Thais’ friends knew why. Certainly, whenever Thais had mentioned the seer in either Gallus or Nana Darling’s presence, both had grown quiet and refused to discuss the subject at any length. The Greenwoods though, were different. It would seem that Granny Whinny shared a confidence with the outcast seer. Kaio and Rachel had always been loathe to ask however, as they were terrified to be implicated in a no-doubt foolish scheme that would see them put at the mercy of an enraged King Gallus. Many times before Thais had failed to gain their assistance when she had felt a need to find Alucia Dal Am and never before had she succeeded in doing so.
Perhaps the girl’s error had been in going through her protective friends. Did she have the authority to ask Granny Whinny herself? Did she dare?
“Granny Whinny can I ask you a question?”
“You may ask any question you like Thais,” the wise old woman spoke without looking up from her work. “Whether I will answer you however, remains to be seen.”
Thais steadied herself and set her jaw in determination.
“Where can I find Alucia Dal Am?” A moment of shock registered on the old woman’s face before she promptly looked up, her expression restored once more.
“You wish to find Alucia Dal Am?” Whinny asked severely.
“I know of none other.”
“He doesn’t know,” Thais quickly cut in, her tone stern. “He wouldn’t understand.”
“No! I daresay he of all people would have something to say about the matter.” Thais eyed the matriarch imploringly, but said nothing. She could not very well demand the old woman directly defy the king. For the longest time woman and girl watched one another, a torrent of thoughts pulling them through the motions. A lone crow squawked from the rafters of the Greenwood home, it’s cry echoing about the frosty yard.
The elderly woman seemed stuck in a painful memory. Her face was contorted while her old mind pondered this peculiar turn of events. Defy the King of Denari and lead his child to the old seer? She could be banished for such an act, but Alucia Dal Am was a friend. She knew what the old seer had asked of her the last time she met. She knew what she had to do. After all, according to the seer, she had already done it.
“There is a lane,” Whinny finally spoke quickly in a hoarse whisper. “It lies off the Appian Road in Varanasi. You will know it by the absence of any windows. Midway down this lane lies a door to an alchemist. The door is green with a brass knocker in the form of a dragon. Knock three times and walk straight in. Do not talk to the alchemist. Take yourself up the stairs and here you will find a red door. Again you must knock three times, immediately after which you will recite the first paragraph of the Book of Aius and state your name and your reason for being there.”
Thais nodded, her eyes wide while her keen mind committed the elderly woman’s words to memory. She would not forget the instructions. Silence permeated where moments before Whinny’s hurried whisper had filled Thais’ mind with purpose.
“Thank you,” the girl whispered, wary to break the silence of the yard.
“You’re not to tell anyone I told you this, do you understand Thais?” The princess nodded quickly and for a moment longer the matriarch held the girl’s gaze, her eyes piercing the filaments of Thais’ thoughts carelessly laid bare on her youthful face, before she turned away, her eyes seeking her work once more.
As though the discussion had not taken place the elderly woman took up a tune and hummed her way through her morning’s work while the youngster at her side let her dark brooding eyes drop to the frost bitten dust of the floor. She seemed apparently marvelled by the redness, the coarseness, of Granny Whinny’s bare feet. The trials during the old woman’s life seemed so very far away to the child; Whinny’s advanced age was a remorse Thais would never truly understand. Old age was a concept so very alien to the elves from which Thais’ mother had sprung. The coming of the mortal humans had left within each of them a resonance of deep sorrow.
From within the crooked abode the sound of clattering feet on the stairs preceded the arrival of Thais’ comrades, who poured out into the yard and out to the pair hard at work with the fluidity of a whirlwind.
“You are early!” the boy first accused, before a lanky arm collared the royal girl about the shoulders and pulled her to his side in a half-hearted embrace of welcome.
“We weren’t expecting you till noon at least,” Rachel added sensibly, a warm smile extending her own greeting to the visitor.
“You speak as if I never arrive anywhere on time.”
“Just a moment,” Kaio scoffed loudly, his gleaming eyes displaying only fondness and affection. “Are you telling me that you, Thais of Apollo’s House, have ever arrived anywhere on time, let alone several hours early?” A quick thump later and the boy was laughing heartily, rubbing his arm where Thais’ fist had connected with it in a moment of fiery petulance. “Point taken.”
“Granny Whinny can Thais come along now?” Rachel asked, silencing her cousin with a pointed look. “I am sure she didn’t come all this way to help you hang out the washing.”
“No indeed,” Whinny chuckled. “Yet the work must still be done. Would you like to offer yourself in her place?” Rachel glanced to the princess, who was at this moment giving her a wry smile.
“If we all help, it’ll go much quicker,” the sensible girl announced and after pushing back a lock of fire-red hair, she rolled back her sleeves and reached into the pile of clean sheets. “Kaio, grab the other end will you?”
Reluctantly the boy helped and within no time the washing line sagged heavily under the weight of a full set of clean sheets. Whinny thanked the children warmly and gave them leave to go, a reprieve the children did not need repeating. As they fled Thais turned at the door and looked out at the elderly woman. Their eyes met and for a moment the child sensed a deep sorrow within the old woman.
The Appian Road lay to the very east of the merchant quarter Acrabar. It connected the tradesmen to the vast army of labourers and peasants, who dominated the outer extremities of the city, encompassed it in fact in the peasant quarter known as Varanasi. One side of the Appian Road housed shops and businesses, while the other boasted taverns and boarding houses for the men who travelled from afar to work in the sprawling city.
It was one of the more notoriously seamy highroads in the city and well famed for the vicious battles that had been waged there between rivalling gangs. A melting pot of cultures had made the border between Acrabar and Varanasi their home and within the perimeter of a mere square mile a very well embedded community of Farojians had become neighbours with one of the most established Tituan gangs in the city. The Farojian people had fled their native land Faro many decades ago, to escape the wars and the suffering. But now pure Denarien hatred raged against the exotic foreignness of their new neighbours and spats were frequent and fierce.
It would seem the Tituan working class were not yet ready to forgive the Farojian people for the atrocities and massacres their Emperor had once ordained. It mattered not that those who had come to settle in Denari had done so to escape the iron fist of the Emperor Thayos, all that mattered was their blood: they were Farojian, foreigners, and they were to be hated.
Thais and her companions rarely strayed into Varanasi. They enjoyed a friendly rivalry with a gang of children there and felt always at the risk of outmanoeuvre should they stray from their home turf. The Appian Road teemed with the threat of unprompted violent outbursts also, which brought about a rare case of sensibility in the princess. Though she would be loathe to refrain from enjoying a good fight, the girl was also aware that her safety and more importantly the safety of her friends could be compromised should she lead them all into a battle. The princess of the city could be a useful bartering chip in the hands of a less scrupulous combatant.
As such when Kaio and Rachel realised that their friend’s roaming of the streets, which had seemed haphazard at first did indeed have a determined direction towards the notorious street they started to cast one another questioning glances. They allowed Thais to believe she was a master at the act of keeping her agenda hidden, though in truth they were too keenly tuned into the girl’s thoughts and expressions to allow themselves to be hoodwinked by her subtleties. Both had no doubt their ringleader had already brewed a plan she was executing without delay. Similarly, both knew that nothing they could do would dissuade the royal girl from her course of action once she had made up her mind; no matter how perilous her mission seemed to those with a more level head and a more healthy sense of personal safety.
Once they had reached the teeming hive of shady activity along the Appian Road Thais did not feign a surprised expression. Instead she nodded with a steely air to her friends and carried on her course. They were helpless but to follow. The fair girl’s eyes strayed from one side of the lane to the next, her gaze seeking out the twists and turns of the alleyways darting off into treacherous neighbourhoods and slums.
“I think once more our friend is stumbling head strong into another blunder cousin,” Kaio whispered to his flame-haired accomplice with a rueful smile.
“What made you come to that conclusion Kaio?” the girl countered him roguishly. “Could it be the fact that we are strolling down the Appian Road in clear daylight or the fact that she hasn’t spoken a word to us in at least half an hour?” Kaio glowered at his cousin before he burst into a run to catch Thais’ side.
“Are you ready to tell us where you’re taking us princess?”
The short girl at his side cast the young man a fond scowl and shook her head, her eyes glinting with the deviousness of her plan.
“Well perhaps we’ll refuse to come with you if you don’t reveal your intentions,” Rachel now chimed in amusedly, a smile pulling at her freckled face, which broadened when she saw the rise and fall of Thais’ complacent shrug.
“You can do what you want friend, I won’t stand in your way.”
While Thais led the way, her chin held high in what could be called her iconic pose, Kaio and Rachel fell into step behind her and exchanged amused smirks. They would never abandon Thais to the troubles she landed herself in. Over their long years of friendship the pair had grown very fond of and fiercely loyal to their headstrong ringleader.
On they ambled, meandering through a crowd so varied that had they not been on a predetermined route then surely the three children would have loved to slink into a doorway and sit and observe the patrons of the Appian Road. Thais’ eyes though, cared not for the interesting people jostling past her, but stayed fixed on the passing alleyways, seeking out the one Granny Whinny had described.
Before too long the girl’s patience paid off when she came across the alleyway with no windows. It was a dark precarious sort of place and quite suddenly she became aware that she was leading her closest allies across the border into Varanasi without so much as a trace of a reason why. Feeling suddenly guilty at her aloofness the girl spun around catching her friends off guard.
“Crikey Thais! Calm down,” Kaio grumbled rubbing the back of his neck irritably.
“I can’t take you any further until I explain why we’re here,” the girl announced firmly, her dark eyes flitting between Rachel’s concerned gaze and Kaio’s mocking one.
“Well go on then, explain,” Rachel remarked with an impish smile when Thais chose to speak no further. Again the dark brooding eyes moved from one curious face to the next.
“I’m on my way to consult Alucia Dal Am.”
Instantly Kaio and Rachel’s matching green eyes widened in surprise and shock. The seer? What was their friend thinking? Alucia Dal Am’s notoriety and the king’s dislike for her were well renowned across the city. Certainly Thais had flatly disobeyed her father numerous times, but rarely did she choose a course of action that threw her so against her father’s principles and wishes. If he were to find out what the girl had done then Thais’ freedom would surely become far more curtailed?
“Thais are you mad?” Rachel finally demanded while she crossed her arms and assumed an expression that had on occasion swayed the princess away from a foolish decision. It would seem though that Thais’ scheming mind had already contemplated all the fateful consequences of her actions.
“My father left this morning. He took Avery, Thalius and Selmain with him. Nobody else! What’s more they were travelling to Inmuin. They have gone to the city if Khaled-Dîn.”
“Is this a good enough reason to get yourself banished to the dungeons for the rest of your life?”
“Oh don’t exaggerate Kaio!”
“Exaggerate? Thais your father would run that seer through if he could. How is he going to react to the news that you’ve walked right up to her and invited yourself in for tea?” Thais’ lip jutted out in anger, though her eyes twinkled in a hidden smile.
“And just how is he going to find out? He’s gone away for at least three weeks and by then I’m sure I’ll have found myself into a more immediate predicament for him to concern himself with.”
“A wonderful strategy if ever I heard one,” Kaio cut in dryly. “The problem being that somehow your father will find out what you have done. Be it the moment he returns, a week thence or five years time and when he does find out princess he’s going to flay you alive.”
Thais’ dark eyes narrowed in her temper and she turned her face from her friends, her eyes lingering on a rat shuffling through a heap of rubbish piled up against the alley wall. The girl was a dab hand at managing her fiery feelings even though her friends were to be found invoking them. Rarely did she allow anyone to speak reason about a particular course of action she was about to take and even more rarely still did she listen to their words and allow them to affect her judgement. Kaio and Rachel were two of the few who had such an effect on the girl and despite her steely determination to visit the seer Thais found her resolve wavering.
“Thais please see sense.” With a heavy sigh the princess turned her unreadable gaze onto Rachel’s concerned face. “You have pushed your father far enough in the past, but nothing could push him as far as you plan to this time. He will find out and when he does Kaio is right, you won’t be able to run around with us any longer. He might even send you off to some finishing school in Lapai Dabu.”
“He would not,” Thais groaned.
“Every other heiress in the Agea seems to be sent there. Why would your father spare you if you’re to go about the city flouting his rules?” Kaio cut in. Thais chose to ignore his stern words.
“I am going. Now you can join me or you stay here. It’s entirely up to you.” Without another word the girl spun on heel and started determinedly down the alley with no windows. Without so much as an exchanged withering glance the cousins bolted after her.
“You’re going to be the death of all three of us before this is through,” Kaio muttered amusedly once he had caught up with Thais’ powerful strides.
“Well I suppose there is some good fortune at least,” the fair girl countered, her tone suddenly light hearted and bright. “If I am to die, at least I’ll take you with me.”
Laughter accompanied the three children down the alleyway and for all pretences any semblance of an argument that had waged between them moments ago seemed a distant memory to three companions. Quite suddenly though the seriousness of their predicament came flooding back when Thais came to an abrupt halt in front of a green door with a brass knocker in the shape of a dragon.
A cold wind swept up the alleyway twisting around the three children sending the chill through their moth eaten cardigans to their bones. Kaio and Rachel shivered while in between them Thais stared up at the window-less alchemist shop with a resolute glare. Dragging her eyes down to the swirling brass dragon she reached out and lifted the cold metal. Three times she let it drop sending a heavy echoing rumble through the rooms within before she pushed firmly into the green door. It opened with surprising ease and as instructed the princess walked in without a glance to the greying alchemist in the corner. Kaio and Rachel poured in after Thais as she made her way to the stairs. Their eyes though were drawn briefly to the gaunt man behind the counter and soon they wished they had not been. Sunken eyes were staring back at them from behind an unwashed heavily wrinkled mask of apathy. The alchemist seemed a character straight from one of Granny Whinny’s fables.
Wincing in the dim light Thais led the way up the winding rickety stairs. Dust fell on their heads as the three children crept through the dim towards the gloomy outline of a door. When the youngsters grew near it appeared to glow red like freshly drawn blood. An ominous weight in the air slowed the trio down and for the first time since setting out on her mission Thais felt unsure about what she was doing. What if her friends were right? What if Gallus had already been made aware of her plans through an unknown current Thais had somehow projected through the ether? What if he was already en route to return?
Shaking away her timidity Thais reached out and rapped her knuckles on the flaking paint of the door. A shower of dust fell from the shrouded ceiling leaving the children struggling against an array of sneezes.
“In the beginning there was only Aius and His kingdom Aeia. He knew not what had brought Him into existence. Indeed He didn’t know if He had been created at all. Father of time and existence, Aius is God of all things.” Thais recited the verse with ease. A lifetime of visiting Temple on Saturday’s had drummed the timeless words into the girl’s mind. When she came to a close Thais cleared her throat and looked squarely at the blood red door.
“I am Thais Mai Avani and I have come to seek out the seer Alucia Dal Am.”
A hollow silence came over the children while they waited in the gloom, their eyes piercing the redness of the peeling paint, willing to see what lay behind it. What secret hideout had the seer manufactured for herself in her state of outlaw in the king’s city?
A sudden creak preceded the door edging open allowing a waft of warm heavily incensed air to attack the children’s senses. One by one they winced and squinted their eyes into the hazy rooms beyond the door. Brightly coloured organza hung from the ceiling and the walls leaving not an inch of flaking plaster revealed. Candles clung to furniture, littered the cluttered floor and hung from suspect looking chandeliers. Books stood haphazardly arranged in toppling towers, dotted artlessly about the chambers and though there were plenty of cats sprawled around the abode there seemed to be no sign of the seer herself.
“Hello?” Thais called out, her voice escaping as a mere croak, apparently stolen away by an invisible foe. The silence reverberated back. Unsure the small girl glanced over her shoulders seeking out Rachel’s calming gaze. The silent question passed from the fair girl to the flame-haired one, ‘what do we do?’
Rachel however, for the first time in her life, had no answers and she merely shook her head unknowing. Kaio was too mesmerised by his surroundings to notice Thais’ probing eyes seeking him out next.
A cough from beyond a candle lit yellow curtain made the hair on all three children’s necks stand on end. Their wide eyes sought out the hazy figure behind the curtain.
“Never,” a disembodied voice emerged seeping with age and tiredness. “Never did I actually expect you to come.”
Despite the gravity of the situation Thais’ lip curled slightly. To her surprise the disembodied voice turned to a cynical cackle of mirth and promptly Thais’ face arranged itself into a more appropriate expression of reverence.
“You think me a poor seer if I had not foreseen your arrival. You wonder why you risked everything you hold dear, your freedom, to come and see me.” The fair girl gulped. “You need not worry child. Your bravery and the risks you have taken will be rewarded. I will be able to give you some of the answers you seek.”
A thunder of noise startled the children and they all jumped to one side as a tower of books tumbled to a jumbled heap on the ground. The cat responsible for the mess leapt away with a displeased yowl at its undignified accident. Thais and her companions watched its tabby tail disappearing around the red door before they turned their eyes back on the yellow organza curtain.
“By the Graces, where did she come from?” Kaio yelped. During the commotion Alucia Dal Am had risen and stood now barely a few inches from the children.
Her unseeing eyes were white.