Authors: Imogen Rossi
For Fiona McLaughlin
Colours swirled in the air like ink dropped into clear water. Thin trails of pigment
leaked from the surface of every painting in the throne room of La Luminosa. A beat seemed to pulse behind each one, as if some enormous heart was pumping out the colours. The courtiers who'd been waiting for an audience with Duchess Catriona stared in amazement, muttering and clutching their fans. Even the palace guards' faces were full of wonder.
But Bianca di Lombardi felt nothing but dread.
Somewhere behind those paintings there was another world â Oscurita, the Dark City, where there was no sunlight. And from where the Duchess Edita was about to invade.
Bianca forced herself to turn away from the hypnotic, swirling colours and face her own Duchess. âThey're coming through, right now!'
Please believe me,
she added, to herself.
Duchess Catriona rose from the throne and turned to the Captain of the Guard.
âCaptain Raphaeli, call your forces together,' she announced in a clear, fearless voice. âWe must prepare for war.'
Bianca could have wept with relief at the Duchess's trust in her. Without it Â â¦Â well, they would be completely unprepared for the battle. The death toll wouldn't bear thinking about.
âGuards! To me!' Captain Raphaeli yelled, jamming a golden helmet down over his thick, curly hair.
Bianca needed to ready herself, too. She looked around the throne room of La Luminosa for something she could use as a weapon. Spotting a long candlestick on a table beside the throne, she picked it up, gripping it like a club. Beside her, Cosimo clenched his fists. Bianca was willing to bet that he hadn't thought his first action as Master Artist of La Luminosa would be to fight an invasion.
âSend word to the barracks,' Captain Raphaeli said. âRaise the army. Tell them we're under attack from inside the palace.' The armour of the palace guards flashed in the sunlight as they pushed through the crowd of nobles and hurried up the marble steps to the throne. They surrounded the Duchess, Bianca and Cosimo. On Raphaeli's command they drew their swords and held their spears pointing outwards.
Most of the nobles were unarmed. It had been decades since the people of La Luminosa carried weaponry. A few had ornamental daggers, which they drew from their colourful gowns and robes, but they were more for show than for fighting. The nobles gasped and tripped over each other in their attempts to huddle together at the foot of the steps to the throne, standing as close to Raphaeli and the guards as they dared.
âSecretary Franco, come here,' ordered the Duchess. The guards parted to let an elderly man in a sunflower-yellow robe come to the Duchess's side. He had skin as brown as Bianca's friend Marco's, creased and crinkled in worry lines across his forehead. âSecretary Franco, how do we defend the city from an attack from the inside?'
âThe first thing we need to do', said Secretary Franco, âis remove Your Highness to the White Tower. And Lady Bianca, too,' he said, with a slightly suspicious glance at Bianca. âUntil her Oscuritan heritage is Â â¦Â confirmed.'
Was he calling her a liar? Bianca had only just found out she was the daughter of the
Duchess of Oscurita â Saralinda. She might have been raised as an artist's apprentice, but this discovery meant that she was royal through and through.
âAbsolutely not,' said Duchess Catriona. âI will fight for my city and my crown alongside my loyal guards. I'll defend them until my last breath.'
Bianca hefted the candlestick and nodded her agreement. She might be a Lady in Oscurita but she was determined to protect her home and her friends in La Luminosa, no matter what. Even if that meant going to war against her own aunt Â â¦Â
âDo not be foolish, Your Highness,' Secretary Franco said. âYou have no heir! Your crown will be worth nothing to any of us if you are killed in the first skirmish. This is not a child's game. This is war!'
Duchess Catriona bristled, and Bianca took an involuntary half-step back.
âYou're quite right, Franco,' she snapped. âI'm no longer a little girl playing heroes at my father's feet. I am your Duchess, and I will face this invasion with my sword in my hand.'
A few of the nobles gasped and fanned themselves, and Bianca scowled at them. They were acting as if they were watching Marco's harlequin troupe performing a play! Franco looked as if he was going to speak again, but Catriona seized her skirts and wheeled around in a flutter of red silk.
âCaptain Raphaeli, send for my armour, at once!' she snapped. âAnd don't you dare try to convince me to run, too, Raphaeli, I won't hear it!'
âThere isn't time,' Captain Raphaeli said. âReady your arms, guards,' he commanded. âWe fight for La Luminosa, and for our Duchess!'
A cry went up from the guards, and they raised their spears and swords so that the sharp edges glinted in the sunlight. Suddenly, with a sucking noise, the streams of colour in the air started to retreat. They flowed back into their paintings and vanished.
This is it.
Bianca held her breath and clutched the candlestick in her shaking hands. Any second now the magical painted doors would burst open with soldiers in dark plate armour climbing out of the paintings, clutching their pointed silver spears and carrying the deep purple banners of Oscurita Â â¦Â
Bianca was ready. She would fight.
But then Â â¦Â nothing.
âWhat Â â¦Â What happened?' Cosimo muttered.
âIt seems that
has happened,' said Secretary Franco coolly.
A confused silence descended on the throne room. Bianca's heart pounded in her chest. This had to be a trick. Edita must have a plan, to catch them unawares.
Captain Raphaeli turned to the woman at his side and muttered under his breath, âSergeant Forza, I want to know if anything's come through the paintings elsewhere in the city.'
Forza gave him a sharp salute and broke ranks. The sound of her armour clanking as she ran echoed around the hushed throne room.
Then muttering and sighs of relief started to go up from the courtiers huddled at the foot of the steps, and some of the guards lowered their swords.
âOrders, sir?' said one of the soldiers.
Captain Raphaeli didn't lower his sword, but he didn't answer the soldier either.
âPerhaps it was some amusing demonstration,' said Lady Giuliana, snapping open her fan. âMaster Cosimo, have you added even more enchantments to the Duchess's paintings?' Bianca felt her face flush as several of the other nobles looked up at her and Cosimo.
âArtists are eccentrics, after all,' said her companion, putting away a dagger so encrusted with jewels it probably wouldn't even cut through butter. Bianca recognised him: Lord Cassio, one of the Duchess's more slimy and annoying courtiers. He turned and gave Secretary Franco a mocking smile. âThe palace has become a place full of pranks and laughter these days. Perhaps dear young Bianca and Her Glorious Highness have invented this magical dark city to have a little bit of fun with us all. We are all enjoying it very much, are we not?' He gave a forced laugh and looked around at the other courtiers, who faked laughter along with him.
Secretary Franco didn't smile, and neither did Bianca. Her heart was still hammering and her palms on the candlestick were damp with sweat. She glanced around at the paintings, still expecting them to burst open and Oscuritan soldiers to burst through, swords raised.
âThis isn't a joke!' she snapped. âI was there. In Oscurita. Edita opened the ways between the paintings. She
she was planning to invade!'
âCome, Bianca, really?' said Lady Giuliana, in an infuriatingly calm voice. âYou expect us to believe in an invading army marching through the paintings?'
âYes! Cosimo, Your Highness, tell them! Art is my life, these paintings are my family's legacy. I would never say such a thing if it wasn't true.'
âStill,' Duchess Catriona said, in a thoughtful voice that made Bianca's heart sink, âI see no invaders here. Bianca, are you
about what you saw? There can be no doubt about this. I called for the whole army to be raised. I was about to order the palace emptied and the city evacuated. You realise how much trouble that would've caused the people?'
âI know what I saw and heard,' Bianca said firmly. âWe should still begin evacuating â'
She was cut off by a loud creak and a bang as the doors of the throne room were suddenly thrown open. Captain Raphaeli raised his sword and jumped in front of Catriona. Bianca turned with her heart in her mouth Â â¦Â but it was just a servant, standing in the doorway with a heavy, lumpy bundle in his arms, sweat dripping from his hair and his shoulders shaking as he gasped for breath.
âI bring Your Highness's armour!' he gulped.
Titters of laughter rippled through the crowd of courtiers. Bianca cringed. Catriona's face flushed deep red and then drained of all colour again, her birthmark standing out bright against her cheek. She turned a look of pale, embarrassed fury on the courtiers, and they stopped laughing at once.
The servant carried the carefully wrapped armour up to the throne steps and laid it at Catriona's feet.
âYour Highness,' said Bianca gently. âWe're friends, aren't we? You know I wouldn't lie about this.'
âYour Highness,' Cosimo spoke up â bravely, Bianca thought, considering the look that Duchess Catriona gave him. âFrom everything I've seen in the last few hours and everything Marco the tumbler told the apprentices about Oscurita Â â¦Â I believe Bianca.'
Bianca heard Lady Giuliana's strident voice again, speaking in a whisper that could be heard all around the room. âDon't they make a striking pair of advisors for such a young Duchess? An apprentice who claims to be a princess and a master artist barely out of boyhood. Like a group of children playing kings and queens.'
Duchess Catriona stamped her foot. âShut up, Giuliana!' She bent down, grabbed a golden gauntlet from the top of the pile of armour and threw it hard across the room. It missed Giuliana and flew into a painting of Queen Verity of Caledonia. The gauntlet hit the Queen squarely in the shoulder and caught the canvas, tearing it right down the middle as it clattered to the ground.
Bianca gasped and her hands flew to her mouth. That painting was one of Master di Lombardi's first great masterpieces.
âOh Â â¦Â Bianca, look what you made me do now,' Catriona said quietly, and shook her head.
Beside her, Secretary Franco let out a long, exasperated sigh. âYour Highness, you know I have the greatest respect for you. But perhaps if you don't wish your people to think of you as a child, you should try to rise above temper tantrums!' His voice rose, almost to a snarl, and Bianca braced herself for Catriona to use her whole suit of armour as a weapon and hit him with it. But to Bianca's surprise, Duchess Catriona looked at the floor.
âAnd Lady Bianca, Master Cosimo,' Franco said, turning to them. âI respect your profession. I know that Lady Bianca has been of great help to the Duchess in the past.' His voice softened, but he was firm. âBut perhaps in the future it would be better if the defence of the city was left up to the Duchess's expert advisors.'
Bianca put her candlestick back down on the table by the throne with a heavy and deliberate
. âDuchess Edita still has my mother captive, Secretary Franco. She's mustering the Resistance in Oscurita. I did what I thought was right, and I'm not going to stop doing that just because I've had fewer birthdays than you.' She turned to Duchess Catriona. âPlease be careful, Your Highness. I don't think â'
âThank you, Bianca, you may go,' said Duchess Catriona.
Bianca's mouth dropped open. She had thought her friend trusted her, but Catriona didn't meet her eyes â she turned to Franco and Raphaeli. âI want to be absolutely sure that we are safe,' she said. âIf this had been a real invasion, we might have been caught unawares.'
Bianca turned, not waiting for Cosimo, and walked out of the throne room. She had been humiliated. And worse, no one believed exactly how much danger they were in.