Authors: Ellen Renner
Don’t miss the exciting extract of the sequel to Castle of Shadows at the end of this book!
For Kit and Zubin
In the midnight darkness of Quale Castle, a woman
emerged from the Queen’s chamber. She carried a small
carpet bag and wore the travelling clothes of an upper-
The woman mounted the stairs to the second floor, her
shadow trailing in the candlelight. At the top of the stairs
she hesitated, glancing round as though fearful of being
overlooked. She hurried down the corridor, eased open a
door and slipped inside.
A four-poster bed, its hangings pulled against the
treachery of draughts, stood in the middle of the room. The
woman placed her candlestick on a table. The flame grew
long and thin. She pulled back the bed-curtains and stood
gazing down at a sleeping child, a small girl with a pale
face and a tumble of dark red curls. The woman sighed
once, softly. As if a spell had been broken, the child’s eyes
‘Go back to sleep, Charlie. I didn’t mean to wake you.
Sleep now. I love you. Remember that.’
The woman took her daughter’s face between her hands
and stared at it until the child felt the breath catch in her
throat and the first cold squirm of fear uncurl in her belly.
Her mother kissed her, then rose and left the room without
a backward glance. The glow-worm trail of candlelight
faded. The bed-curtains gaped, but darkness hung thick
The child’s fear returned – and grew…
‘Hold it there, you scrounging, nibbling limb of Satan!’ A bony fist grabbed the back of Charlie’s dress. She was lifted into the air and shaken like a rat in the jaws of a terrier.
She stuffed the stolen food into her mouth and chewed furiously, trying to swallow before either the cheese or the shaking choked her dead. She had a mouthful of dry flakes and no spittle to wash it down. Crumbs spewed from her mouth and nose. The fist gave a ferocious shake, and she coughed out the cheese. It plopped onto the flagstones in a dusty heap. Charlie followed it.
‘Oh, look what you done!’ moaned the fist’s owner. ‘That were to be my dinner. Been looking forward to it all week. Kept it from the rats and from that nasty old Watch scrounging my kitchen at night worse than any rat. I been dreaming of rarebit sizzling and golden on a thick slice of toast. And now look at it! Not fit for the cat!’
Charlie stood and rubbed elbows and knees. ‘Sorry, Maria, I didn’t know you were saving it for yourself.’
The cook bent down, elevating her skinny behind and resting her large red hands on her knees. She considered the grey mess between her boots. Then she raised her long neck and considered Charlie. Charlie did not think
it was a friendly consider. She got her running muscles ready. Maria had a good strong throwing arm.
‘I don’t know what is going to become of you.’ The cook unfolded and speared Charlie with a look of severe disappointment. ‘Or any of us, for that matter. But
didn’t ought to steal. It may be all right for some, but princesses didn’t ought to steal.’
‘Then you should have asked for summat,’ Maria snapped. ‘You know I’ll always give you a morsel if you ask nice. Providing I got a bit the old witch won’t miss, that she ain’t counted and catalogued and marked down in her book.’
‘An apple?’ Charlie wheedled. ‘Just one wrinkly old apple?’
‘Might of done,’ Maria said, ‘if you’d not just spat me dinner out all over the floor. Now scat!’ She reached a lanky arm for a wooden platter. Charlie gave a squeal of dismay. She made it through the door a second before the platter.
She paused for breath in the servants’ hall. Maria wouldn’t leave the warmth of the kitchen for the slender joy of thumping her. The hall was a gloomy brown room with a trestle table where the servants perched along a narrow bench to eat their meals, like so many shabby starlings. Charlie’s eyes swept the room in vain: not a crumb to be seen, not a biscuit tin, a jam jar, a sticky spoon in sight.
Footsteps approached the door. She was trapped. None of the cupboards were big enough to hide in. If it was the O’Dair… Charlie squeezed into the corner made by the dresser and wall, as the door swung open and the upper parlour maid and third footman clattered in.
‘…seven crates of playing cards I toted up there. Have you seen that room? And himself? Upside down and wisty? Fair give me the collywobbles!’ The footman shivered until his rusty black coat-tails flapped.
‘Course not,’ snapped the parlour maid. ‘Not my business.’
‘He ought to be put away.’
Crammed in her corner, Charlie felt sick. The servants never talked about her father in front of her. She had long ago guessed what they must think of him, but hearing it was different. Worst of all was her fear that they might be right.
‘You keep a civil tongue in your head, boy,’ said the maid. ‘He
the King, cards or no cards.’
‘What good is he?’ The footman was new – a gangling, yellow-haired boy with acne. ‘Worse’n no king! We should have had a revolution same’s the Esceanians. Cut off his head! He’d never miss it! Mad as an hatter and no blame use to anyone. Country’s going down the plinker, and he’s playing at jackstraws!’
Charlie darted forward. She wanted to hit the footman, to kick him as hard as she could on both his skinny shins. Anything to fight the wave of panic sweeping over her.
Years ago, the last king of Esceania, King Charles the Twelfth, had been executed by guillotine. There was a large painting of his last moments (with the King looking very heroic, if rather plump) in the library. The image floated in ront of her eyes, only it was her father she saw kneeling before the guillotine, hands tied, head raised in calm defiance. She blinked back tears and paused long enough to look for a weapon. Something heavy and hard!
Martha, the parlour maid, turned a scandalised face on the footman. ‘Don’t you let O’Dair hear you talking that way, Alfie Postlethwaite,’ she gasped. ‘She’ll have your scalp! She don’t put up with no Republican nonsense.’
They saw Charlie and snapped their mouths shut like a pair of carp.
‘You shouldn’t be here!’ Martha had gone bright red. ‘You know O’Dair don’t allow you in the servants’ quarters.’
‘I heard you!’ To her fury and shame, Charlie’s voice wobbled. She stood in the middle of the room and shook from head to toe, unable even to speak.
‘Yeah?’ The footman smirked at her. ‘What you gonna do about it? Tell Daddy on us?’
‘Stow it, Alfie!’ snapped the maid. ‘You got no reason to be nasty to the kid. You’d best make yourself scarce,’ she said to Charlie. ‘O’Dair’ll be along any minute.’
Charlie gave Alfie Postlethwaite her most evil glare before stalking from the room.
‘Poxy-nosed scarecrow!’ she muttered. ‘I’ll show him!’ She slid out the scullery door into the back yard that served the kitchen. She was not supposed to go into the Castle gardens without permission: Old Foss, the gardener, had complained one too many times to Mrs O’Dair about stolen apples and inventive booby traps. But today she would risk being caught out of bounds, even if it meant a week on stale bread and cabbage water.
The yew hedges had not been pruned for years. They leant over the yard, tall green-black waves threatening to crash onto the cobbles. Charlie stopped for a moment and cocked her head like a robin, listening. Then she darted to a corner of the yard where the hedge was leggy and sparse. In a moment, she had wriggled through. She crouched at the base of the hedge, scouting for enemies.
The autumn sunshine was so sharp it made the air vibrate. For a moment, she wanted to twirl like a wild thing, crunch through the frosted grass in the tree-shadows, run and run until she collapsed in a heap. But she didn’t dare. Besides, she wasn’t here to play. She was here to pay out Alfie Postlethwaite.
Charlie took off, sprinting across the shrivelled grass and into the old orchard, weaving through the corpses of apple and pear trees. Her heart was thudding from running and the thrill of disobedience.
In the distance, beneath the trills of birdsong, Old Foss’s grumble wormed through the undergrowth. She
sped up, skirting the high brick walls of the kitchen garden, where the gardener did daily battle against weeds and old age. Breathless, she peeked through the gate. He and the boy were inside, hoeing the endless rows of winter cabbages. Charlie slipped past the gate, and her heart sang with victory.
She trotted past the end of the wall, past blinded greenhouses and rotting sheds, past hillocks of mouldering compost. And there it was: the brown and black mountain of strawy manure, steaming in the sunshine. Her nose wrinkled at the rich smells trickling out of it. She pulled a rusty pencil tin from her skirt pocket and squatted to scoop the tin full of the ooziest lumps she could find, using a spoon she had stolen from the scullery. It was absorbing work, and she grinned, imagining Alfie’s face in the morning.
‘Oi! Get out of it!’ A hand grabbed her shoulder and spun her round. Tin and spoon went flying. Charlie’s foot slipped, and she plopped, with a squelch, onto the manure. The gardener’s boy stood looking down at her, hands on hips, eyes dancing. ‘Little Princess Muckheap,’ he said and laughed.
‘You rotten toad!’ She scrambled up, fists clenched. Then she stopped. Tobias was a year older – a year taller and stronger – and she knew from experience that if she hit him, he would hit her back.
‘Give me one good reason,’ he said, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully, ‘why I shouldn’t call old Fossy.’
‘Because that would make you a snivelling, sneaking worm – as well as a toad!’ spat Charlie.
Tobias grinned. His light blue eyes gleamed in the midst of his brownness – brown hair, brown face, brown freckles. She longed to punch his brown nose and see if he still smiled. In all their years of warfare, she had never once managed to make him lose his temper. It was one of the things she hated most about him.
‘Toad or worm,’ he said, ‘either one can get you nicked. And then Fossy’ll take you straight to Devil O’Dair. I
not fetch Fossy, but it’ll cost you.’
‘What do you want?’ As if she didn’t know. The smugness spread over his face was past enduring.
‘Let me think.’ He scratched his head. ‘What could you possibly have that I’d want? You ain’t got no money, and I don’t play with dolls—’
‘Neither do I!’
‘—so I guess it’ll have to be another book. It’s called
One Thousand and One Arabian Nights
. Bring it to the summerhouse eight o’clock tomorrow morning.’
‘Tomorrow morning!’ Charlie’s heart sank. He meant it. If she didn’t deliver, he would serve her up to Fossy and smirk while he did it. Rot and blast Tobias Petch! ‘That’s not enough time!’ she grumbled. ‘What if I can’t get in the library tonight? Watch might be hanging round. And the morning’s the worst time to try and get out of the Castle. I’d have to get past O’Dair and Maria.’
‘That won’t wash, Charlie.’ He shook his head. ‘Climb
out a window if you got to. You done it plenty of times. And make sure you hang on till I get there. ’Tain’t always easy getting away.’
‘What if I can’t find the book?’
‘Then Fossy’ll learn about your visit to the muckheap.’
‘You make me sick!’ Charlie said.
‘Good.’ Tobias grinned the self-satisfied grin of the victor. ‘I’d be going if I was you. Fossy’s nearly done weeding.’
There was nothing to do except leave. She rescued the pencil tin and spoon. Most of the manure was still in the tin. She closed the lid and shoved everything in her pocket.
‘What do you want that stuff for anyway?’ Tobias asked.
‘To put in your porridge!’ She stuck out her tongue and ran.
Charlie knew all about the dangers of air: its currents, eddies, disastrous gusts. Air, being invisible, was all too easy to forget. Charlie never forgot. With the ease of years of practice, she slipped through the door of her father’s chamber, lowered herself onto the floor and tried to breathe as little as possible.
Twenty feet above her head, the King hung upside down from a scaffold pole. His long red hair was tied back and, as an anti-gravity measure, his jacket was buttoned to his trousers. He was about to place the final card on top of the thirty-seventh tower of his castle. Charlie held her breath. Thirty-seven towers would be a new record.
A wall of windows formed the south side of the chamber. Five and a half years of dust overlaid the glass, interrupting the sunlight and mingling with it, until the King seemed to float in a golden haze of dust motes. Gingerly, holding the card between the tips of his two longest fingers, he stretched down and, with the merest flip, slid it into place. Although the impact could not have been greater than that of a feather, it was enough to make the entire tower quiver. The shaking slowed and stopped. The tower was complete.
Her father hung by his knees for a moment, admiring his handiwork. Then he reached out an arm and began his descent, swinging from his hands like an orang-utan. He glided from one scaffold pole to another, twisting between towers, skimming over crenellations. Charlie almost forgot her worries as she watched. He was a magical sight: every movement slow and controlled, calculated to weave through the air with the least possible disturbance. He landed with the grace of an acrobat and stood with his arms crossed, gazing up at his creation.
She stared at his back. Was this the right time? Should she wait a while longer? All day her ears had been ringing with Alfie’s voice saying, ‘
Cut off his head!
It wasn’t the footman she was afraid of – it was those he was parroting. Alfie was the sort of dim-noll who never had his own thoughts but borrowed other people’s. Charlie often stole scraps of the newspapers the maids used to lay the fires. She knew times were hard and agitators were at work in the Kingdom: Republicans and worse – Radicals and Revolutionaries – who hated the very idea of a king. She feared Radicals and Revolutionaries more than she feared the dark.
She would have to risk it. ‘Father?’ She spoke in barely a whisper and waited. ‘Father?’ she said again, a touch louder.
‘What? Is someone here?’ The King’s voice was faint from disuse.
‘Behind you, Father,’ she whispered.
‘Is that you, Charlotte?’ He turned to gaze at a spot a few inches over her head. ‘Are you well?’
‘Quite well, Father.’
‘Good, good. Run along, child. I’ve just completed the thirty-seventh tower, you know.’
‘Yes, Father.’ Charlie took a deep breath. Talking with her father was like making friends with a kitten someone had beaten. You had to be patient, or he would take fright and scamper away. ‘A new record.’
‘Clever girl. Just so. A new record. And now I’m planning the thirty-eighth. So run along. Creep along, I mean…you know what I mean. Good girl. And mind not to breathe too much as you go.’ He made vague shooing motions with his fingers.
‘Please, let me stay.’ Desperation made her voice shake. ‘You know I can be quiet! I won’t move at all. But first…may I speak with you? It’s very important!’
The King frowned. His face clouded, and she held her breath. ‘I don’t know, child…oh, very well. I will talk to you in a little while. You must be patient. Proceedings are at a delicate point. If you stay you must promise not to disturb the air.’
Charlie almost gave a gusty sigh of relief. She caught her breath just in time. ‘I promise.’
‘Good girl.’ He smiled at her right elbow, turned away, leapt onto the scaffold tower and began to climb.
. Something wheezed through the antechamber towards them. Dangling above the portcullis, the
King tilted his head, listening. He sighed. ‘It’s her, Charlotte. A pity. Perhaps she won’t stay long.’
Charlie could have shouted with frustration. But she allowed herself only a stifled groan. She pressed against the wall as Mrs O’Dair swept into the room, a colossus in black silk. The housekeeper’s corsets creaked. Her long skirts billowed, rousing the air, chasing the dust into miniature tornadoes. Charlie smothered a sneeze. The card castle shivered and shifted.
‘Please! Madam!’ The King’s voice floated down. ‘Your skirts, madam! Control your skirts!’
‘Nonsense!’ rapped Mrs O’Dair. But she stood still, and the billow of black subsided.
Charlie was close enough to O’Dair to smell her: a mixture of mothballs, oil of cloves and cold mutton. She edged away, praying she hadn’t been spotted.
‘The child will leave.’ The housekeeper’s massive head, its black hair subdued into a knot at the back of her neck, never moved. She did not even glance at Charlie.
‘Father!’ Charlie cast an imploring look at the King.
Her father turned to gaze up at his towers. He cleared his throat. ‘Charlotte would like to stay, I believe. I think she can be trusted to keep still, Mrs O’Dair. You needn’t worry.’
‘The child will leave,’ O’Dair repeated. ‘I have brought your medicine. I insist you come and take it now. And then you must rest.’
Her father sighed and began the climb down. Charlie
blinked back tears. Hatred burned like a lump of coal in her throat. She swallowed it and edged past the housekeeper towards the door. A hand the size of a dinner plate shot out and grabbed her shoulder.
is that awful smell?’ Mrs O’Dair’s large nose curled in disgust.
Too late, Charlie remembered the pencil tin. Still full of manure. Still in her pocket. She had lived with it so long she no longer smelt it. Thoroughly warmed, the contents of the tin exuded odour with renewed vigour. The smell was richer, deeper, exquisitely pungent. Charlie stank.
‘It’s um…it’s only…’
‘You filthy little—’ The hand on Charlie’s shoulder tightened like a vice.
‘What’s all this?’ The King leapt to the ground. He peered at the air beside Mrs O’Dair’s left ear. ‘Is there a problem?’ he asked.
‘No, Your Majesty, not at all,’ soothed Mrs O’Dair. ‘Merely that I believe Princess Charlotte to be in need of a bath.’
The King’s gaze hovered over Charlie’s head. He sniffed the air. ‘Oh dear,’ he said and cleared his throat. ‘You are somewhat…fragrant, child. Perhaps a bath––’ ‘I shall see to it myself,’ Mrs O’Dair said. ‘Once you have taken your medicine.’ Her grip slacked. Charlie flinched away and dodged out the door, the housekeeper’s hiss of anger hard on her heels. But even as she fled, she knew
her escape was temporary. Mrs O’Dair might forget to feed Charlie or give her new clothes. She never forgot to punish her.
Scrubbed raw as a new potato, her stomach a knot of emptiness, Charlie lay in bed and hated Mrs O’Dair. Then she hated Alfie for wanting to cut off her father’s head. Finally, she settled down to hate Tobias Petch. She had plenty of practice.
Charlie had woken one morning, soon after her sixth birthday, to find that her mother had disappeared. Weeks later, when she was able to notice things, Charlie found that Foss had a new gardener’s boy. Although she knew it was stupid, she couldn’t help connecting the two: her mother’s departure and Tobias’s arrival.
It didn’t help that from the very first he had refused to play with her when she managed to escape into the gardens. Or that he was a year older and thought he was cleverer. Or that when she told him her secrets, he never told her anything at all. All of that made it easy to hate Tobias Petch, but the thing that made it easiest of all was his mother.
In the months following the Queen’s disappearance, Charlie’s life had changed completely. Her father hid himself away in his private apartments and began his first, tiny card castle. Courtiers and guests vanished from the Castle, along with most of the servants. Soon afterwards,
the housekeeper dismissed Nurse and banished Charlie to the east attics, where she was expected to stay out of sight and hearing. Charlie grew larger, but her meals did not grow with her. If she demanded more, she was locked in her room with nothing to eat except stale bread and cabbage water.
At the end of that first, horrible year, despite everything, Charlie had grown so much that she struggled to get into her clothes, and O’Dair had grudgingly sent the Castle seamstress to her attic room. The woman uncurled her tape measure and stretched it around Charlie’s chest and waist, and along her shoulders and arms. ‘Oh dear,’ said the seamstress, as she jotted down the measurements.
‘Is something wrong?’ Charlie liked this woman. She was gentle and nervous, with dark hair the colour of conkers and sad brown eyes. She had curtsied to Charlie and called her ‘Your Highness’ – something Mrs O’Dair and her new servants never did.
‘Don’t mind me, ma’am,’ the seamstress said. ‘It’s just that you’re so very thin. You need to eat up more, if you don’t mind my saying so. Why, my Toby would make two of you!’
Charlie stared at her, amazed. It had never occurred to her that the gardener’s boy might have a family or, indeed, exist at all outside the Castle grounds. ‘Are you Tobias’s mother?’
‘Yes, ma’am, I’m Rose Petch,’ she said, and blushed.
She bustled about, tidying her things back into her basket, but Charlie had seen love and pride flare in the brown eyes, burning away every trace of sadness and timidity. Rose Petch, she knew, would never abandon her child the way Charlie’s mother had abandoned her. She whirled away from the pain of that thought and attacked her clothes, wrestling into her worn petticoats and tight dress. She shoved her arm into a sleeve and heard the sound of ripping fabric.
‘Gracious!’ Rose cried. ‘That dress is half rotten, child. Take it off again, and I’ll mend that quick as blinking. Come, let me help you.’
Charlie stood, trembling, torn nearly in two by jealousy and longing, as Rose helped her undress. She turned her face away so that Tobias’s mother would not see the tears in her eyes.
Now she stared up at the darkness, remembering. Her eyes were dry. The pangs in her stomach had settled into a steady ache, and she pushed all thoughts of her mother out of her head. She’d had practice of that, too. She threw off her covers, shivering as the chill struck her. She pulled on her boots, took the pencil tin and one of her precious candles, and crept out of her room. Even without Tobias’s blackmail, her fear of the dark would not have kept her in her room tonight. At least there was a moon. Watery light seeped in at the windows – just enough to keep her heart from pounding and her breath from gulping.
Charlie pattered down three staircases without pausing. Each was larger and better carpeted than the last. She knew where she was from the thickness of the carpets: thin drugget for the attics, smooth flat weave for the fifth floor, thin pile for the fourth. When her boots sank into the plush of the third floor, Charlie knew it was time for caution.
No one slept on the third floor now. Moonlight cast dim shadows between the windows, chequering the corridor in silver and black. She fled from shadow to shadow, running silently on the thick carpet, feeling the emptiness behind the closed doors, listening for Watch. She reached the stair to the west wing without incident and began to climb. Her luck was holding.
The servants’ bedrooms were in an attic like her own, with bare wooden doors and a narrow strip of drugget carpet tacked down the centre of the floorboards. Faint snores and sighings muttered through the doors. Beside each stood a pair of boots. The Castle no longer kept a boot-boy. As the youngest and newest footman, Alfie’s first job of the day was to clean all the boots.
She fished the pencil tin from her pocket. There were only three footmen: three pairs of men’s boots. Two pairs had worn heels and scuffed toes. That left the last pair, its leather stiff and shiny. She emptied the contents of the pencil tin into the shiny boots. A snore gurgled beneath the door. Charlie grinned.
All her nerves had disappeared by the time she got to
the library. It had been an easy journey: no sign of Watch. And the library was one of her favourite places, a room of long windows, leather sofas and high-backed chairs made for snuggling into. Books marched around the walls and into the room itself, dividing it into nooks and corners smelling of inked paper and ageing leather.
She struck a match and lit her candle. Her luck continued: it only took an inch of the precious wax to find Tobias’s book. She tugged its heavy weight off the shelf and carried it to a table to have a closer look. She put down the candlestick and leant over the book, touching the faded gold letters of its title with her finger. The ghost of a memory teased her. She knew this book. She had once before traced her fingers along these very letters. But when? She was trying to remember when the door rattled.
Charlie blew out the candle, grabbed Tobias’s book and dived behind the nearest chair. The door thudded open. Lantern light invaded the room, followed by a thin man dressed in a greasy leather poacher’s jacket and baggy trousers. He had a thatch of grey hair and hollow cheeks. His nose and chin curved to meet each other. Her luck had run out: it was Watch.