The Royal Companion(11)

By: Tanya Bird

‘Children do that with their lips when they are shy or nervous. You will need to learn better ways of dealing with nerves.’

Aldara relaxed her lips. ‘Yes, my lady.’

By that stage Idalia had slipped into a light green silk dress that gathered at the shoulders. The neck was lined with small emeralds, and the back was open, revealing her creamy skin.

‘Fix her hair, and I’ll come back and show you how to paint faces,’ Fedora said.

Aldara stood with her hands at her side, looking at the mass of chestnut hair. Idalia caught her eye in the mirror and signalled for her to come closer.

‘Fedora may seem hard, but the lessons she teaches are essential to your success here,’ she said, handing Aldara a comb. ‘She was the king’s Companion before me, and she has been at Archdale since she was fourteen years old. There is no better teacher for this life.’

Aldara began to twist Idalia’s hair into a bun. ‘Why is she no longer his Companion?’

Idalia handed her a jewelled comb. ‘Look around you. I am the oldest Companion here. The novelty does not last long for men who have women at their disposal. Youth does not last. The lucky ones stay on to mentor, but even that cannot last.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because of what they represent.’

Aldara thought for a moment. ‘And what of the unlucky ones?’

Idalia looked at her in the mirror. ‘It would be uncomfortable for all to have former Companions running about the castle doing laundry and serving food. Companions have one purpose, and when they are past that purpose, they go.’

‘Go where?’ Her eyes did not leave the mirror.

Idalia shrugged. ‘Some place where beauty and talent go to die.’

Fedora walked back into the room and picked up paints from the table. ‘Watch and remember,’ she said to Aldara.

Aldara knew she needed to learn more than she needed to breathe. She did not want to disappear. The only talents she had brought with her were farming and horse related, and she was certain her fence repairing skills would impress no one.

Fedora finished applying final touches of paint to Idalia’s lips and took a step back to inspect her work. ‘You will accompany Idalia to the king’s quarters and return as soon as she is accepted by the king’s guard. You will speak to no one. When you return, you and Hali will assist some of the others to prepare for a gathering tonight. Am I understood?’

‘Yes, my lady.’

Aldara had no idea where she was going. She followed Idalia and made mental maps in her head so she could find her way back. She struggled to focus with all the distractions. The coloured glass windows in the corridors depicted graphic images she would have to look at on the walk back. Idalia did not speak one word to her. With her head high, she floated, green silk sweeping the floor behind her. They arrived at a guarded double wooden door. The guard opened it without speaking. He nodded at Idalia and then glanced at Aldara. She kept her eyes on the ground in front of her.

‘Thank you, Aldara. You can return to your quarters,’ Idalia said, passing the guard.

Aldara gave a small curtsy and turned as the doors closed behind her. She paused for a moment and looked both ways down the corridor. Breathe. The sound of approaching footsteps made her hold her breath again. When she looked to her right, she saw four women walking towards her. The woman at the front had a gold crown weaved through her honey hair. Aldara’s eyes went to her slim, youthful face with its well-proportioned features and vibrant green eyes. Those eyes were looking directly at her, filled with disapproval. The giant corridor did not seem wide enough suddenly. She backed up against the door in a panic, but the guard pushed her forwards again. Princess Cora’s eyes were locked on hers. She stopped walking, and the other ladies immediately stopped behind her.

‘Where is your decency? How dare you not curtsy before the Princess of Syrasan?’

Her venomous tone did not match her appearance. Aldara’s gaze moved down her embroidered dress before settling on the floor. ‘Forgive me, my lady,’ she said, dropping into a curtsy. She remained there, hoping the princess would move on. No such luck. Before she had a chance to stand, she heard footsteps approaching on her left. She glanced up just as Fedora came to a stop next to her.