Chapter 16: The Imperial Garden

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Just then I heard a chattering sound above my head and a squirrel dropped down on the grass in front of me.

Perfect! I took a deep breath and brought my mind and body to stillness. Standing on its hind legs, the squirrel looked at me out of its black eyes and twitched its nose. I reached out and touched its furry head. The wave rippled over me from my feet to my head. My stomach swooped as if I was falling and I shrank down small, my skin tingled as red fur sprouted all over it. It was the strangest sensation as my tailbone grew longer and curled up behind me. My ears lengthened and grew tufty. My front teeth sharpened. When the transformation was complete, I hopped out of the dress, and bounced around in a circle, testing my new arms and legs and getting used to my new senses.

I twitched my new nose. Its sense of smell was acute. The rich scent of the nuts hanging from the tree above was enticing and delicious but I had no time to waste. I bounded over to the wall. The stones were uneven, providing plenty of handholds. If I grabbed on and heaved myself up . . . Next thing I knew I was running vertically up the wall, a thrill electrifying my little body. It was almost as exhilarating as flying. My tiny hands and feet knew exactly where to place themselves and I scrambled up in no time. Soon I was perched on top of the wall looking down into the forbidden garden, my tail instinctively counterbalancing my weight so I didn't topple over.

Darkness had fallen. The rising moon bathed the garden in its silvery light. It was eerily beautiful — the beds of flowers, herb bushes and fruit trees, the cobbled walkways meandering between them, the silent pools of lilies and lotuses, white moonlight reflecting off their still waters. I scampered halfway down the other side of the wall, then jumped the rest of the way and landed on all fours on one of the cobbled paths. I looked around — with eyes on either side of my head, I barely needed to move my neck. This pathway was wider and straighter than the others and led in towards the middle of the garden. This must be one of the wheel's spokes, I thought and started scurrying along it.

The Garden's varied scents wafted towards me on the evening breeze. To my sensitive nose they were intoxicating: stronger, more vivid and rounded than any I'd experienced with my human nose. Some I recognised: lavender, mint, hyssop, comfrey. Some were new to me: fragrant, spicy, exotic aromas, rich with the promise of unknown powers. I longed to follow them, to wander off the path and explore, to discover these mysterious plants.

No! I had to remember why I'd come here. I put my head down and carried on running, faster now and more determined.

As I approached the centre, all at once I was hit by new, even more powerful fragrances. If the garden's other smells were a whisper, these were a huge booming thunderclap. Bright, vibrant smells that filled me with joy, hope and a sense of optimism, dark, insidious smells that filled me with terror and foreboding and made my little body tremble. They were so overpowering, they made my head spin, my fur stand on end and my limbs lose strength. It took all my concentration to keep running towards them.

At last I saw the great wheel shaped bed that housed the Plants of Power ahead of me. I sensed its aura of promise and danger and a shiver of fear and excitement shook my body. Mustering my courage, I scampered up the path towards the shadowy tree that grew in the wheel's centre.

Suddenly there I was, standing on my hind legs in front of the legendary Plague Tree, my stomach clenched with dread. I gazed up at its branches, heart-shaped leaves and red fruits, my breath coming much too fast, my body almost paralysed with fear. It had the most powerful smell of all: sharp, acrid, acidic, powerfully toxic but at the same time I detected a different smell underneath the poison smell. This one was sweet and exotic. It reminded me of the one time in my life I'd eaten a mango. A Quaini fruit seller had come to Frailing with a cartful of unfamiliar fruit. Cook had bought a mango for the Royal Table and Annifer had given me a piece to try. It was the most delicious thing I'd ever tasted.

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