A tangle of gold, p.26
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       A Tangle of Gold, p.26

           Jaclyn Moriarty
 

  After that, the room had been moody and depressed. They’d decided to reconvene the next afternoon.

  The next day—yesterday—everyone had returned to the Baranski farmhouse. Once again, there’d been dejection.

  Then the mad thing had happened.

  A woman and a girl had turned up.

  The right ones.

  The missing Queen and Princess.

  They’d got themselves back from the World.

  *

  Which sure changed the mood! Everything bleak and then ding dong! (or knock, knock, actually—they hadn’t rung a doorbell)—the solution! It was like having a huge assignment for school, and not even knowing how to start the research, then someone hands you the final product: printed, ring-bound and with a fancy heading on the title page.

  Ha. She’d spent too much time in the Farms. School assignments in her previous life were never printed and bound, you just messaged them in.

  Anyhow, there they were, Queen and Princess, two complete assignments on the porch. A bit battered, though, as if the printer had mangled some of the pages.

  Petra had opened the front door, recognised them right away, and hustled them into the Baranski living room. The reunion went like this: the Queen and Princess stood on one side of the room, while the King and other Princess stood on the other side. There was a long, gaping silence. Their eyes began to gleam sort of insanely, then slow tears fell from all of their eyes. Then they rushed together and turned themselves into a giant, swaying tree.

  Keira had actually found it quite moving.

  ‘Where were you? How’d you get here? What happened?’ the King gasped and stuttered.

  The Queen said they’d been together, in Cambridge, England, the World, the whole time. The Princess said they’d ‘stumbled’ themselves home. (Petra seemed to know what that meant; everyone else just flickered their eyes at each other, like, ‘Huh?’ and then flickered back with, ‘Oh well, go on.’)

  They’d arrived in a town called Ruleton, they said, in the south of the Farms, and walked here through the night. The Sheriff was saying, ‘Well, now, how in the heck did you know to walk here, of all places?’ when the next surprising thing happened.

  Abel Baranski walked into the room, wanting to know what all the commotion was about—he’d been upstairs making a phone call—so, of course, everyone wanted to show him the Queen and Princess. The tree broke apart, obligingly, but instead of saying, ‘Well, how about that! It’s their Majesties!’ or whatever, he shouted: ‘Holly! Madeleine!’

  Madeleine, the Girl-from-the-World, and her mother, had been the Princess and the Queen all along.

  That startled Keira into quiet. She stepped back and whispered to Gabe: ‘I wasn’t very respectful to Madeleine in my notes to her. I mean, I didn’t treat her like a princess at all,’ and Gabe said, ‘Well, you don’t seem altogether the respectful type, Keira. So I wouldn’t worry.’ This was true. She’d never been remotely courteous to Princess Ko, for example. So she cheered up and turned back to the commotion.

  Only, it had stopped. The Queen and Princess were revealing the final twist. Prince Chyba was dead. He had died in the World, of heart failure.

  Keira’s first thought was that this was quite good.

  It meant everything was squared off. No loose ends in the World. The entire Royal Family accounted for.

  But then she remembered that Chyba was a person, maybe even a nice person? She looked across at the Royals and felt guilty. The four had separated. Their faces, which they were trying to hide behind their hands, were ugly.

  Keira walked out of the room, out of the house, through a gate and across a field. She kept walking until she reached a greenhouse, and then she stood outside this, kicking at the dirt for a while. Eventually, she turned around and went back to the house.

  The others were now sitting in a close circle, talking softly.

  The King was strumming on the guitar, now and then pausing mid-strum to breathe a short laugh at something someone said. People were sharing stories about Chyba—it was mainly the Sheriff, Jimmy, Petra and Abel doing the sharing, which was odd, as they’d never met Prince Chyba. Their stories came from newspapers they’d read over the years. But the Royals seemed to like hearing them.

  Chyba had found an injured lion cub on the side of a street when he was six, apparently, and he’d hidden it in his coat, and taken it home to raise. There’d been trouble when it was discovered, almost fully-grown in the pantry of the White Palace. At twelve, Chyba had decided to single-handedly broker a peace deal with the Kingdom of Aldhibah by sending them his deftball card collection.

  The stories went on. People laughed. Sometimes the Queen said gently that she suspected that story wasn’t true.

  ‘He never stopped talking,’ one of the Princesses said, and the other one said, ‘I know,’ but none of the Royals offered an anecdote.

  Each time the King paused in strumming, the Sheriff would suggest another song that he knew to be a Prince Chyba favourite. (The Sheriff owned souvenir albums on all the Royals, he explained.)

  ‘Oh,’ Princess Jupiter said suddenly, ‘just before he died, he said to tell his family hey, and that we have to remember to feed the dragons at the Bay of Munting, because that’s where they go when they’ve lost their hunting eyes.’

  Everyone went very quiet. Keira noticed shoulders shuddering.

  Keira was about to leave again when somebody asked whether Chyba had had a heart condition.

  ‘Well, that I don’t know,’ the Sheriff admitted.

  ‘He didn’t,’ the Queen said, and there was a long pause.

  Petra said, ‘I keep wondering if maybe there’s something about the World that makes people from Cello get sick?’

  The King set down his guitar, frowning.

  ‘I did a lot of World Studies,’ Petra explained, ‘and I remember reading a theory that Cellians lose themselves completely in the World: not just their memories but, eventually, their health as well? Eventually, they die. It was only a theory, though, and nobody seemed to credit it much.’

  ‘I had migraines when I was in the World,’ the King said, ‘and haven’t had them since I got back.’

  ‘I had asthma.’ Abel raised his eyebrows. ‘Thought it was allergies, but maybe . . .’

  Gabe pointed out that the non-princess had mentioned eczema, and the non-queen, rheumatoid arthritis. The real princess said she’d had a lot of nose bleeds, then she turned uncertainly to the Queen.

  ‘I was pretty sick too,’ the Queen said carefully. ‘I guess I should see a doctor sometime to—find out if I’m better?’

  ‘It was the World that killed Chyba?’ the Sheriff asked slowly.

  Nobody said anything, and Keira felt an immense weight in the room. She thought about the crack in the air of the restaurant corridor, and how she’d untangled it, and it had tangled, and she’d untangled, and it had tangled, and she imagined, for a moment, the young Prince standing on the other side, alive, hopeful, waiting to come through.

  From there, the conversation drifted into talk about life in the World, and they all compared false memories and laughed at each other’s inventions. The Queen and Princess talked about friends they’d made there, including teenagers called Belle and Jack. Abel had plenty to say about Belle and Jack, too, and then he said, wasn’t it the darndest thing, how he’d been living downstairs from the Queen and Princess of Cello all that time? Never even knowing he himself was from Cello, or even remembering what Cello was?

  ‘Well, no wonder you were drawn to Holly and Madeleine!’ the Sheriff exclaimed. ‘They were the Queen and Princess! A part of you probably knew that, or at least knew they were from Cello!’

  Abel laughed and looked at his wife. Petra’s face said she was reserving judgement. But she changed her position in her chair, to one that seemed a little more relaxed.

  The King leaned over to the Queen, stroked her hair and said, ‘I’ll never lose you again.’

  It had been getting
darker and chillier for the last half-hour, and now seemed like exactly the right, sad and beautiful moment for the evening to end and everyone to get some sleep.

  The Sheriff pushed back his chair. ‘Well,’ he began.

  But that was when things began to shift out of alignment.

  The Queen said she wanted to call Prince Tippett in the Magical North. There was an argument. It was a mild argument, with everyone still using their gentle, loving voices, but basically the other adults said it was too dangerous. Hostiles would be monitoring phone calls to the Palace, they said. The Queen insisted. Eventually, they persuaded her to wait, but her shoulders were high and her face was closed.

  Next, the Queen and Princess asked everyone to please call them Holly and Madeleine from now on. They’d discussed this on their walk here, they said. They’d become more like ‘themselves’ in the World and wanted to hold onto that.

  Once again, there was a mild, loving argument. The King was opposed. He wanted his real family back, he said, not distorted and artificial constructs created by the subconscious. That seemed an impressive sentence, and everyone looked to the Queen for her reaction.

  She pointed out that ‘Holly’ was her actual middle name, which must be where her subconscious had found it, so nothing distorted about that, and anyway, her real name had been Claire before the Royal PR Department made her change it to Lyra when she married the King.

  So Queen Lyra, she said, was the artificial construct all along.

  ‘Well, Jupiter’s been Jupiter all her life,’ Princess Ko put in, and the Queen said yes, but the PR Department had named all their children, and she’d always found the names a bit ridiculous, and actually preferred Madeleine.

  ‘You always found my name ridiculous?’ Princess Ko said coolly. ‘What name would you find preferable then?’

  Her sister told a story about how she’d been emailing the non-princess in Berlin, which was funny, she said, because it was like she’d been emailing herself, but the point was, now she thought of that girl as Jupiter which made her even more Madeleine, so there was that.

  Most people were bewildered by this, partly because they were trying to keep up with the loop in logic, and partly because they didn’t know what emailing was.

  The King interrupted the bewilderment by kissing the Queen’s head again—this time it was more of a bump of his mouth followed by a delicate removal of one of the Queen’s hairs from his lips—and saying: ‘I’m just happy to have them back, whatever their names. Our family will spend a night together, under one roof, for the first time in over a year. Assuming the Baranskis have room for us all?’

  ‘Of course,’ Abel and Petra said together.

  ‘I’m not staying here,’ Princess Ko asserted. ‘I need to be with Sergio and Samuel. I’ll go back to—whatsit?’ She looked over at Gabe, biting her lip.

  ‘Gabe,’ he said.

  ‘Gabe’s house,’ she said firmly.

  ‘I’d like to be with Ko,’ the other Princess said, and she also looked at Gabe. ‘Can I stay too?’

  Gabe scratched his head. ‘I guess if you don’t mind the attic?’

  Unexpectedly, the Princess laughed at this.

  ‘Well, I want to be with my daughters,’ the Queen declared.

  ‘In that case . . .’ The King stood. ‘I’ll come to Gabe’s house too.’

  ‘There won’t be enough room,’ the Queen told him. ‘You’d better stay here.’

  ‘Well, I guess we could find . . .’ Gabe began.

  ‘There won’t be enough room,’ the Queen repeated firmly.

  *

  So now it was early the next morning.

  The King was still at the Baranski farmhouse.

  The Queen and Princess—or Holly and Madeleine, if that was so important to them—were sleeping upstairs in the attic. Princess Ko was in Gabe’s parents’ room. Sergio and Samuel were downstairs in the basement.

  She, Keira, was already awake. A night-dweller on Farms time. Crazy. But it made her sort of proud. She was washing up her breakfast things, which was ridiculous. They should have a machine to do this! Still. It made you feel good, soap suds washing whiteness right across a plate.

  Gabe was outside on the roof of the barn, horses were stampeding, and a Spitting Fuchsia was falling. The Colour had probably spooked the horses, she realised, but what must those horses’ feet be doing to the crops?

  Hooves, she realised.

  That’s what you called horses’ feet.

  Then she remembered Sergio’s obsession with horses.

  ‘Sergio!’ she called out in the direction of the basement.

  After a moment, Sergio shot up the stairs, smiling his familiar Sergio smile, and moving with his Sergio deer-like spring.

  ‘It is as beautiful as ever to behold you, Keira,’ he cried. ‘I find that I cannot believe it is truly you.’

  ‘Thanks, but you see those horses?’

  Ten minutes later, Sergio was outside in the snow, still in his pyjamas, surrounded by trembling horses. He was stroking and talking to each in turn, and then he was leading them slowly down the drive.

  The farmhands stood watching in amazement. The Spitting Fuchsia faded.

  From the roof of the barn, Gabe looked across at the house, caught sight of Keira at the kitchen window, and raised a hand to her.

  2

  Over the next few weeks, winter settled in, and Bonfire was thrashed by a Colour storm.

  The warning bells rang almost continually. Rare Colours—Colours that people had forgotten existed—hurtled through the town: Corals, Jades and Saffrons. They were accompanied by more common, vicious Colours, like Greys and Purples, and by sly Colours, brazen Colours, and Colours that ricocheted and clashed.

  School was cancelled. The town was in lockdown. In the splinters between Colours, people rushed out to gather food and water, and to repair or reinforce security shutters.

  Gabe and his farmhands dragged tarpaulins over crops and harvested what they could, sprinting for cover when the bells started up again. Sometimes Gabe didn’t have time to get back to the house and he’d spend the night in the barn or in the farmhands’ quarters.

  In the farmhouse, Keira became boss. She knew where the bath towels were, and how you worked the tricky hot water tap. She could handle the coffee machine, and she’d watched Gabe often enough to take over the cooking.

  The others in the house respected her authority. She liked this. There was very little else that she liked about the others.

  The Queen almost never left the attic, except for meals. When she came downstairs she smiled remotely. She offered to help in the kitchen, but then she’d pick up a knife and her hand would tremble, and she’d put it back down, smile her teary smile, and try again. It took an hour for her to chop an onion.

  Madeleine was as silent as her mother but in a grim, angry way. This was unexpected. It was true that the Girl-in-the-World used to write furious notes, but Keira had always regarded the fury as flimsy and papery. Something you could blow away with a puff of air. Of course, that might have been because the fury was written on paper. Anyway, it surprised Keira to pass Madeleine on the staircase and feel as if she was passing a girl-shaped brick of rage. Or to sense some fierce energy in the corner of the living room and realise it was Madeleine, curled up in an armchair, staring into space. She was always curled up in that armchair. Sometimes she spent the night there. But when she did come into the kitchen, it took Madeleine about three seconds to chop an onion.

  Princess Ko would disappear for hours, then turn up and say she’d been there all along. When she was there, she was also angry, but noisily. She slammed doors and shouted. She was angry with Samuel for being sick, and angry with Sergio for not being able to help him—apparently, Samuel only had enough medication to last another month, and Ko wanted Sergio to fly across the Kingdom and find more, which Sergio would have done but the sky was full of Colours—and angry with the Colours for filling the sky, trapping her in this house, a
nd angry with the warning bells for being so jangly. She’d never liked jangling of any kind, she said. She was angry with her brother, for dying. She was also angry with her mother and sister for having been in the World, and for having forgotten her existence, and for being back from the World now, and, most of all, it seemed, for drinking so much tea. She was sure they never used to drink tea.

  ‘It’s from living in England,’ they explained.

  ‘I don’t even know what England is,’ Ko roared. ‘Stop using stupid words like England!’

  *

  With Keira, Princess Ko was formal and she refused to make eye contact. This made sense because they’d always despised each other, but if their eyes had met they might have realised that they also respected each other, and that they both felt proud of what they’d achieved on the R.Y.A., and both felt battered by the way the Kingdom had turned on them, and both felt terrified by how sick Samuel was. So, it would be a mistake, to let their eyes meet. At least, that’s what Keira assumed was going on.

  Sergio was okay, but he spent most of his time spoonfeeding Samuel medicine and water. When Keira went down to the basement to do laundry, she would look across at Samuel, lying in the campbed with his rasping breath, and his flaking skin and strange welts, and she’d feel like either slapping him or bursting into tears. Stupid boy, poisoning himself with Olde Quainte magic. He couldn’t even speak! And he used to have so much to say! It used to drive Keira insane, the way Samuel spoke, and now his silence made her want to throttle him.

  It really undermined the experience of doing laundry. Pulling soft, warm linen from the drying machine might have been pleasant if it hadn’t been for the silent, dying boy.

  The other annoying thing was that the King kept turning up at the door. ‘Cut it out,’ Keira said to him each time he arrived. ‘You’re going to get yourself killed out there!’

 
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