Where foundlings hide, p.21
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       Where Foundlings Hide, p.21

           KL Mitchelson
 
Chapter Twenty-One

  Lana balances precariously on the edge of the cliff. When she turns, her face is streaked with tears, but she is smiling. “It’s OK, Casey. It was supposed to be like this.” She raises her arms, like a bird stretching its wings, then she steps off the edge.

  I wake with a jolt, my head filled with images of Lana falling from the cliff.

  I drag myself out of bed, through the lounge where the artificial sunlight streams in through the windows, warm and painfully bright, and into the bathroom. I try out the shower this time – a miniature waterfall hidden behind a partition – and I stay under the flow until I can no longer hear Lana’s voice ringing in my ears.

  I emerge from the bathroom some time later, pink and fragrant, like a freshly cut rose, clouds of steam billowing behind me.

  I find Aimee waiting patiently on the sofa, her legs crossed at the ankles, her hands arranged on her lap. “Morning. Your Aunt sent up some breakfast.” She gestures at a tray on the coffee table, laden with food.

  My stomach growls at the sight. “Great, I’m starving.”

  “You want tea?”

  I nod and Aimee pours us both a cup from a strange, cuboid pot. She beams at me as I sit down beside her, and I imagine her as part of my small friendship group back home, curled up on one of the squashy sofas in the sixth form lounge. The thought makes me return her smile.

  I pile watermelon and strawberries into a bowl, then I top it with a creamy yoghurt that smells like coconut and vanilla.

  “Where’s Alistair?” I ask, in between mouthfuls. “I thought you two came as a pair?”

  Aimee laughs and shakes her head, her short, platinum hair dancing around her ears. “He’s gone to Earth,” she nibbles delicately on a slice of apple. “Roma asked if I would help you get ready for the council meeting.”

  My stomach lurches and I push my breakfast away. “I’d forgotten about that.”

  Aimee starts rifling through a bag at her feet. “You’ll be fine. Plus, you’ll get to meet my father.”

  “Your father?”

  “Yeah, he’s the leader of the Haler Household.”

  “He is?” I look at her in surprise. Roma has summoned Aimee here to do my hair and makeup, like some kind of hired help, but she’s the child of a Displacian leader.

  Aimee doesn’t seem to mind, in fact, she appears to be enjoying herself, humming away as she empties the contents of her bag and arranges her makeup in an orderly line.

  Aimee is small and unassuming, childlike in form, but she is superior to me in every way. As if in agreement with me, Aimee places her palm over an old scar on my elbow. I feel the heat radiating from her skin to mine, and when she lifts her hand the scar is gone, my skin smooth.

  “We must have missed that last night.” She smiles.

  Aimee styles my hair in a loose braid around my head and applies light makeup – just a coating of mascara and a lip stain in carnation-pink.

  Next, she hands me a knee-length dress of lavender-blue from the well-stocked closet in my bedroom, along with flat sandals adorned with tiny diamantes that make them look more like jewellery than shoes. She raises an eyebrow when she finds my crown discarded on the floor, but she arranges it on my head without saying a word.

  The Agents stationed in the corridor give a mumbled greeting of ‘good morning’ when we finally emerge from my quarters, and Aimee engages in some pleasantries with them before ushering me down the stairs.

  Outside, the artificial sky is a shimmering amber, and the heat wraps around me like a warm blanket. I find Roma and Ivy at the gates, both looking regal in floor-length dresses of royal-blue that tie at the neck. Roma’s bodyguards hover nearby, scanning the surrounding trees.

  Aimee pulls me into a swift hug and then bids us goodbye.

  “You’re not coming with us?”

  She screws up her nose. “Politics isn’t really my thing, besides, I’ve got a shift at the hospital.”

  She laughs at my bemused expression. “Displacian’s get sick too you know. I’ll see you again soon.”

  I watch as she departs, her arms swinging casually at her sides. I wish that I could go with her to see the hospital, to see more of this rogue planet.

  “Don’t worry, you’ll get to see more of Displacia on our way to the council meeting.” Roma says.

  My stomach lurches again at the thought of meeting the council members, but Roma smiles reassuringly. “You won’t be expected to say anything at the meeting, I will do the talking.”

  The wind picks up suddenly, whipping the stray strands of hair over my face. A low thrumming sounds overhead. The tops of the trees start to sway as a small aircraft appears above us, six legs protruding from its sides like an insect. It looks like an overgrown version of the tiny electronic bug Caleb showed me in the labs. It lowers to the ground on the far side of the gates and a panel in the side slides open with a hiss.

  The aircraft is made mostly of glass, so I see Caleb before he emerges from the belly. He jumps to the ground with that familiar, self-assured grin on his face and my cheeks flush as I remember our kiss last night.

  “Your majesty.” Caleb smirks as he holds out a hand to me.

  “My niece is more than capable of finding her own way on board,” Roma says as she strides past Caleb into the aircraft. “And lose the smile. You’re lucky to be coming with us at all.”

  I raise an eyebrow at Caleb and he smiles sheepishly as he ushers me inside.

  Once we are all seated on comfortably cool, leather seats, the panel closes and the aircraft starts to rise smoothly from the ground, making me clutch the armrests of my seat.

  Caleb sits beside me, so close that I can hear his light breath. His arms are bare in a navy, sleeveless t-shirt and I feel the warmth radiating from his skin.

  I peer through the glass as the Vedmak Household becomes smaller and smaller. From this height, it looks like a toy village – lots of tiny houses surrounded by trees and perfectly-green lawns, the Atrium rising up in the middle, dazzling in the sunlight.

  When I start to feel dizzy from the height, I focus instead on the mechanics of the aircraft, much of which is visible through the glass casing. There are no wings, like those on an aeroplane, and the aircraft’s propellers are located underneath.

  “It’s a hovercraft.” Caleb explains, “So it doesn’t need wings.”

  “Stay out of my mind, Caleb.” I frown.

  He looks over his shoulder and then shifts across to another seat by the cockpit without saying a word, folding his arms peevishly across his chest. I follow his gaze and find Roma watching him with narrowed eyes.

  We pass over fields of green and yellow, the shadow of the hovercraft drifting like a black bumble-bee across the landscape. I see craggy hills and mountains scattered with trees, and in the distance, a clear sea as still as glass.

  Ivy slides into the seat beside me. “You don’t miss home.” It’s a statement, not a question.

  “I’ve only been away five minutes,” I chew my lip. “I mean I miss my friends, but home just doesn’t feel the same anymore.”

  “Without Lana?”

  “Without the lie.” I say it to hurt her, it’s the surveillance system I’m really thinking about, the ultimate invasion of my privacy.

  Ivy looks upset, so I hastily change the subject. “Why is Roma so bothered about Caleb and me? It was just a kiss.”

  Ivy glances over her shoulder at Roma, she’s looking intently out of the window, but I have no doubt that she’s listening in. “It wasn’t the kiss. It was what Caleb showed you.” Ivy says.

  “The surveillance system?”

  Ivy nods. “Caleb thought he was helping, but your time here on Displacia is temporary. When you return to Earth, how will you feel knowing that your every move is being monitored?”

  I know exactly how I’ll feel, I’ll be angry enough to smash up every electronic device around me. “Can’t it stop? Lana’s gone now. There’s no need to watch me an
ymore.”

  Ivy looks like she’s considering her next words, but then the aircraft dips unexpectedly, and I leave my stomach up in the air. I look out of the window as the hovercraft touches down by a busy marketplace, making the dirt from the ground billow up into the air.

  Roma’s bodyguards exit first, scanning the crowd for any sign of danger. Roma steps out next, closely followed by Ivy and Caleb. I stay fixed in my seat, watching the crowd outside with both intrigue and fear. Most of them are dressed in scant outfits of burnt orange, but there are others dressed more modestly in outfits of white, blue or brown. Some pay no attention to the hovercraft, as though it’s a regular occurrence to have one land by the marketplace, others stop to watch the company of people disembarking.

  Caleb turns in the doorway, half in the light. “Come on,” he says. “You’ll be fine.”

  I take a breath and climb out of my seat, my wet palms sliding against the leather.

  Roma strides ahead into the crowd, with Esther on point and Cain and Hamish following close behind.

  The crowd parts to let them pass, calling out greetings and patting Roma’s arms, as though she is a talisman that will bring them good luck. She seems unperturbed by their attention, smiling graciously and placing her own hands on top of theirs.

  They do the same with Ivy, but they merely nod in Caleb’s direction, and, as I pass, they just stare openly.

  “Ivy and Roma are very well respected here,” Caleb explains. “And not just because they’re royalty. People here remember the sacrifice they made.”

  “Sacrifice?”

  “They gave up their brother to save Displacia.” He says, leaning in so those around us can’t hear.

  I feel a sudden rush of affection towards my two adoptive aunts, trying to imagine what it must’ve been like for them, having a brother who was intent on destroying their world. With a pang, I remember that he was also Lana’s father, and I turn my attention instead to the sights and the sounds around me.

  I try to take everything in, while simultaneously making myself as narrow as possible, drawing my shoulders in towards my chest to avoid accidentally touching anyone.

  There are vendors selling a variety of foods, colourful spices, lush fruits, soft fabrics, jewellery inlaid with bright gems, ornaments made from brass and silver and flowers that give off a mixture of heady scents.

  I see a lady selling fruit from a basket and I find myself staring at the pattern of vines and leaves painted on her skin in gold, a sheath of thin, orange fabric draped around her body.

  The golden tattoos snake up her neck and swirl around the corners of her lips. Her thick, chestnut hair falls in waves to her waist, wild and ruffled.

  She presses an apple into my hand, smiling widely at me. “Welcome, Princess.” She says, with a knowing smile.

  Caleb takes my elbow and steers me urgently onwards, his alarm searing into my skin. “She’s a Dryad.” He says.

  I crane my head to look back at the decorated woman. “And?”

  “They see visions in fire, she might look for you in the flames.”

  “Can she really do that?”

  Caleb frowns. “They’ve told us things before, but their visions can be pretty abstract, and massively open to interpretation. Still, it’s best not take the risk.”

  I look back at the woman, now deep in conversation with another figure swathed in orange. “Are they all Dryad’s, the ones wearing orange?”

  Caleb nods. “We’re very proud of our heritage, our choice of outfits represent who we are and what we can do.”

  “So the Dryad’s wear orange,” I say. “And the Vedmak’s…” I look down at my own outfit and Caleb’s navy t-shirt. “The Vedmak’s are blue,”

  “The colour of royalty,” Caleb adds with a wink.

  “The Smiths’ wear green, and the Haler’s white…” I continue, thinking of Alistair and Amy, Nicholas, and the Smith boy at the fence. “Who does that leave?”

  “The Wanderers and the Morgana’s,” Caleb says. “Wanderers wear brown; you might see them around the Vedmak Household. They’re represented on the council, but they don’t contribute directly to the Conservation Programme, so they serve other Households in order to be entitled to the same privileges as the rest of us.”

  “What kind of privileges?”

  “Using the portals to travel to and from Earth, trading,” Caleb says. “The Wanderers run a kind of black market in Displacia. They import things from Earth that we don’t manufacture here, and they trade them to Displacian’s who are unable or unwilling to travel to Earth themselves.”

  I see the people dressed in brown, lost amongst the crowd of orange. Some of them look much shabbier than the other Displacian’s gathered in the marketplace.

  “And the Dryad’s sell fruit?”

  “They produce most of the food in Displacia,” Caleb says. “They grow crops and harvest anything that can be grown from the ground, then they bring it here to trade.”

  As we move along the stalls, the vendors give Roma jewellery and flowers, waving her away and wishing her well when she tries to press gold coins into their hands.

  I see a man in brown handing her a Spanish fan edged in red lace. Roma takes it gratefully and wafts herself as she continues on through the marketplace.

  “They love her.” I say.

  “There are many who still don’t trust the Vedmak’s,” Caleb says. “Some called for the royal family to be overturned after the war, but they love Roma all the same.”

  As we reach the last of the stalls, the road slopes up into a steep hill, the pavements lined with more people who call out greetings as we pass.

  “The Royal Road.” Caleb says with a smirk.

  The crowd shower the ground ahead of us with petals and my heart almost stops when I hear someone in the crowd call out “Princess Acacia.”

  I keep my head down and walk closer to Ivy. “I thought no one knew Acacia was here.”

  “Displacia is notorious for gossip,” Ivy shrugs. “So things have a habit of slipping out.”

  Despite Ivy’s calm demeanour, her explanation sends a shiver down my spine, it snakes down my back like an ice-cold trickle of water. What would a crowd of this magnitude do if they learnt the truth about their Princess?

  “Then what’s with all the cloak and dagger, that big reveal last night?”

  Ivy smiles apologetically. “Roma has a fondness for grandeur, but the Vedmak’s were genuinely surprised to see you. They’ve probably shared the news of your arrival with the other Households since the party.”

  I keep my gaze averted from the crowd as we continue up the hill, and when we finally reach the summit, I find myself looking up at a tall building that appears to be made entirely from gold. It has four tall towers at its corners, each topped with a spire. I lean forward, resting my hands on my knees. “Couldn’t the hovercraft have dropped us off up here?” I say, breathlessly.

  “The walk to the palace is tradition.” Ivy laughs, nodding in the direction of the golden building.

  “And you’re supposed to be a Foundling, strong and healthy,” Roma adds with a whisper. “So control your breathing.”

  I raise my chin and try to breathe steadily, in through my nose and out through my mouth, like I do when I’m running. Eventually my breathing slows, but I feel a bead of sweat trickling down my back and the stray strands of hair that escaped Aimee’s deft hands are stuck to my neck.

  The palace is surrounded by a tall, ornate fence, just like the one at the Vedmak Household. The gates open as we approach and the crowd presses forward as we make our way into a grand courtyard. The gates close behind us, separating us from the crowd, and we’re marched towards a shaded veranda by guards wearing sleeveless uniforms of cobalt blue.

  A group stands between the shadowy columns, Nicholas amongst them, smiling widely and looking much younger in combats and a green t-shirt.

  “Your majesties, I hope you are all well rest
ed after last night’s festivities.” He clasps hands with Roma, Ivy and then me. He is still wearing the leather gloves, despite the heat. “May I introduce Lieutenant Haydn Smith, he and his men are providing the external security around your Household.”

  The Lieutenant steps forward and my mouth falls open when I see the familiar dark eyes and wavy hair. “It’s you.”

 

 
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