Chapter 13: Sunrise

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In amongst all these people, the guards on the gates paid me no attention.

Keeping my head down and trying not to draw attention to myself, I followed the crowd through the wide streets. We walked in silence, turning left, then right, then left again until the buildings at the corner of my vision had spaced out, the paved road had ended and we were tramping along a stony path up a grassy hill.

I'd seen this hill from the air when I flew in; it was the highest point in Jamain. When we reached the top, I finally raised my eyes. Thousands of Jamaini citizens were making their way up the hill from all different directions, like columns of ants. My breath caught in my throat. I'd never seen so many people collected together in one place, it was overwhelming and a bit frightening. One by one they sat down on the grass facing east. I did the same.

Not far off, a group of guards was clearing a space in the crowd and laying down expensive looking rugs and velvet cushions. The bugles sounded and a gold palanquin, hung with red velvet curtains and carried by eight burly slaves appeared over the brow of the hill. Grunting, the slaves set it down and from inside emerged the King and Queen. I recognised them from pictures I'd seen in books in Castle Merlax's library. They had the same red hair and fine features as Jemima.

Two more palanquins arrived behind the first. From one stepped Jemima and a young boy who must have been her brother. From the other stepped her uncle Morwain, his long red hair lifting in the breeze, his nostrils flared, his cold green eyes roving over the assembled company. My stomach lurched when I saw him and I shuffled behind an elderly couple to be out of the range of his gaze. Peeking out, I watched the royal party take their seats. The King's forehead was wrinkled in a troubled expression and his wife wore a smile that didn't extend to her eyes. Jemima's shoulders were hunched, she held her little brother's hand tightly and sat down as far away from Morwain as possible. She fidgeted uncomfortably and threw him nervous glances every now and again. Morwain was the only one who looked perfectly at ease. He held his head high and grinned nastily.

From up here I could see the palace clearly and the Imperial Garden behind, surrounded by its high wall. My heart sank when I saw how huge it was. Looking for one fruit on one tree in a garden that size would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Everyone's eyes were trained on the horizon, where a patch of sky over the sea was getting lighter and lighter. Not far in front of me, a tall elegant woman with long blonde hair and a white shawl wrapped over her shoulders, sat cross-legged on the grass She was talking to a young boy of about nine.

"Look over there. Legend has it that if the sun comes up unobstructed, Quain will be safe and prosperous throughout the next year. But if a cloud passes in front of the sun before it's risen clear of the water, that means danger for the kingdom."

I looked at the sky. A couple of wispy clouds floated harmlessly on the breeze, but they were nowhere near the patch of light. All at once a yellow point of light peaked its head over the sea, dazzling us with its brightness. As we watched it grow bigger, the atmosphere changed. From total stillness, suddenly a wind came up from the south, blowing one of the little clouds ever closer to the yellow ball. There were sharp intakes of breath all around and the people clasped their hands over their mouths as the dark strip of cloud passed over the face of the rising sun.

The silence that followed bristled with trepidation. Everyone sat there, nobody moved, nobody spoke. After what seemed like hours but was probably no more than a minute, the King raised his hand and the guards helped him to his feet. He took his wife's arm, she was dabbing her eyes with a silk handkerchief, and led her back to their palanquin. Jemima and her brother followed, heads downcast. Behind them, Morwain was the only one smiling.

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