The Great Hunt(10)By: Wendy Higgins
Wyneth lay curled in the middle of the bed, a grievous sight. The princess rarely found reason to cry, but she feared she might now. She climbed onto the bed and curled herself around Wyneth, swallowing back the burn of moisture. Aerity pressed her cheek to the back of her cousin’s head and rested her palm against her arm.
“I’m so sorry.” Aerity’s voice shook.
Her cousin’s words came out garbled and nearly unrecognizable. “It can’t be real, Aer. Tell me it’s not real.”
“Oh, sweet Wyn . . .” The princess’s heart swelled with grief.
An anguished moan rose from Wyneth, and her whole body rattled, making Aerity break out into gooseflesh at the mournful sound. Wyneth fumbled weakly for Aerity’s fingers. The princess reached out and grabbed her cousin’s searching hand, lifting it to her cheek.
Together, they held tight to each other and cried.
Breakfast in the formal dining room was a drab affair. The room felt stifled by the dead air, and the heavily embroidered curtains hung limp without the sea breeze. Aerity doubted that opening the castle windows during the day would lure the beast, but her father and his men weren’t taking any chances.
Princess Aerity glanced around at the somber faces of her parents, aunts, and uncles. Everyone but Wyneth was present. Her young cousins seemed to have caught the grim mood of the room, which further plummeted as a messenger arrived and whispered in the king’s ear.
Her father’s face fell into stern lines as he sent the messenger away. His jaw muscles tightened. The adults and Aerity set their utensils down while the children continued to fuss among themselves, pushing their food around.
“What’s happened now?” whispered Queen Leighlane.
Fury burned underneath the king’s response. “Two of the royal guards were killed during their night hunt.”
Aerity’s stomach constricted. She thought of Harrison and was glad he was part of the navy and not the guard.
The queen and Aerity’s two aunts shared troubled glances, and her uncles pushed away their plates. Breakfast was over.
Rumors flew through the castle all day.
Princess Aerity didn’t know either of the victims or their families, but it still grieved her. Panic rose as the restless energy around the castle grew. Aerity eavesdropped on the adult conversations, wishing her parents would include her. She was seventeen, after all, and she’d be queen someday.
She heard one of the guards had still been alive when they found him, but not for long. His injuries had been too grave for the royal doctors. Even Mrs. Rathbrook could not repair a body when its internal organs had been haphazardly ripped out.
Aerity wished she hadn’t sought out the gruesome details.
How had the great beast gotten past the castle wall to attack? The wall was incredibly tall. If it somehow climbed over, it would have surely been spotted by the myriad of guards stationed at the perimeter. The only other way in or out was to swim the waterways, which were deep and wide, with powerful currents.
The thought of the great beast being able to swim sent a shiver zinging across Aerity’s skin.
Even worse, what if there was more than one beast? Animals didn’t simply appear from nowhere as lone entities.
Her breakfast churned in her stomach. She stood and motioned Vixie to accompany her to High Hall while the others finished.
In the echoing High Hall, with the doors shut, Aerity stepped out of her layered skirts, wearing only her overblouse and leggings. She coated her hands in powdered rosin from a bowl. Vixie sat on the floor cross-legged and watched as Aerity ran her hands down the flowing red silks. She bundled each of the two strands in her hands. This was where she could clear her mind, letting her body and the silks work together as one. She’d been working on a routine all summer in preparation for the fall gala, and though plans had been stopped, Aerity continued to practice.
She used the curves of her body and her limbs, twining the silks like ropes about her, testing the strength of each move with gentle tugs to make sure she was prepared to move to the next position. Aerity climbed as high as she could, the silks wound tightly around her feet, then leaned back and spun a bit to circle the fabric around her waist. She heard Vixie gasp as she let go with her hands and leaned back, glorifying in the stretch of her arched back, grabbing hold of her pointed foot.
“You’re so high. . . .” Vixie’s fearful whisper filled the room.
Aerity smiled to herself and moved to hang upside down fully, suspended with the cloths pinching her thighs and hips securely. She grasped the hanging silks and waved them at her sister below. Ironically, they were both frightened of the other’s talents—Vixie was afraid of heights, and Aerity couldn’t imagine performing on the back of a moving horse.
“Come up and get me,” Aerity teased.
“Not on your life. Come down here and be my horse. I miss riding.”
Aerity swiveled, repositioning, and rolled downward at top speed, stopping herself just before the bottom, tensing all her muscles as she hung perpendicular to the floor.
“Show-off.” Vixie, the master of showing off, leaped forward in a handspring, then dived again and walked on her hands in a circle around the dangling Aerity. “Come on, Sister. I need a horse.”