Chapter 22: One Thousand Gold Coins

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I whipped around and shot off across the courtyard back towards the palace.

I was heading for the dungeon to tell Gerda what I'd heard when suddenly I had an idea. Instead of taking the down staircase to the dungeon, I started leaping up the wooden staircase that led to the higher floors. My body was lithe and fast so I reached the top in no time. I turned and bounded down the corridor that led to Jemima's room. In front of the Peacock Doors stood a guard, his hand resting on the hilt of the sword he wore at his waist. I slowed to a walk, my mind racing.

How will I get past him? I hadn't thought of this. But as soon as I approached, his face broke into a toothy grin and he bent down and patted me on the head. I wagged my tail.

"Come to see your Chihuahua friend, 'ave you?" The greyhound was obviously a regular visitor to Jemima's room, luckily for me. "In you go. Don't wake the princess." He cracked one of the doors open just wide enough for me to squeeze through. In the darkness, I could just make out Jemima asleep in her four-poster bed, her little dog curled up on the pillow beside her. I ran over to the bed, took the covers in my teeth and dragged them off. The Chihuahua started awake. Jemima groaned and rubbed her eyes. I stood on my hind legs with my front paws on the bed and barked.

"What's going on?" Jemima sat up sleepily, her brow furrowed. I grabbed the leg of her pale pink pyjamas in my teeth and tugged it. "Hey! What are you doing?" I tugged on her pyjama leg again. "I think he wants me to go with him, Sparkle." She patted her Chihuahua's head. "Stay here, I'll be back soon."

She got to her feet and pulled on a white silk dressing gown which had been hanging from a chair by the bed, tied the cord round her waist and followed me to the door.

"Just going to the water closet," she told the guard and followed me along the corridor and down the stairs, jogging to keep up. I hurtled across the kitchen to the open door with the Princess at my heels. At the threshold to the courtyard, I stopped abruptly and Jemima skidded to a halt behind me. On the path up ahead of us, one of the guards was leading a tall fat bald man in a long brown cloak towards the Gardener's Tower.

"That's our Head Cook," Jemima whispered. "Where's he going at this time of night?"

We tailed him silently at a safe distance. The cook disappeared into the tower, the guard pulling the door closed behind him. Together we crept up to the closed door and Jemima's pressed her ear to it. My sharp canine ears could clearly hear what was being said inside but Jemima shook her head. We'd have to get closer. Holding her breath, Jemima eased the door open and slipped through. She tiptoed up the dark spiral staircase inside with me close behind. We stopped outside a heavy wooden door. Jemima inclined her head towards it and listened.

"It's a terrible risk you're asking me to take, Morwain. If I'm caught I'll be burned for a traitor." The Head Cook's voice was theatrical, over expressive.

"It's completely undetectable. You won't be caught."

The Cook was silent.

"Maybe this will sweeten it for you," Morwain hissed. There was a bang as if something heavy had been put on a wooden table, then the chink of coins. "One thousand gold coins; five hundred now and five hundred when you've accomplished your mission."

"How can I be sure you'll make the next payment?"

"You have my word."

"Your word means nothing," snapped the Cook. "I want it in writing."

"Very well." There was the scratching sound of a quill on paper and Morwain spoke.

"I, Morwain, future king of Quain, do hereby swear to pay Percy, Head Cook of the Royal Household, the sum of five hundred gold coins on completion of his mission: the murder of King Edmund and Prince Alexander by poisoning."

My ears pricked up. My fur stood on end. Jemima clasped both hands to her mouth in horror, her eyes stretched wide.

"I have to tell Father," she gasped and raced off down the stairs. I was right behind her. She was going so fast, she lost her footing and fell down the last few steps. Her arm flailed out, trying to grab the handrail but she missed and landed with a thump on her back, her right leg bent at an awkward angle beneath her.

Jemima grimaced, mouth open in a silent cry of pain. I ran towards her but in my greyhound body, there was nothing I could do to help. She clenched her fists, rolled onto her front and crawled over to the tower wall on her elbows and knees. Bracing her hands against the tower wall, she leant all her weight on her left leg and tried to pull herself up. Face screwed up in pain, she struggled into an upright position. But when she put her right foot down she winced and crumpled to the ground. Her ankle was clearly broken.

The sound of a door opening and slamming shut. Footsteps on the stairs behind us. My heart drummed in my rib cage. I needed to be human again. I concentrated and the wave came over me, my fur disappeared, my flesh returned and my body grew till I was Daisy again, on my hands and knees on the ground. Jemima stared at me, eyes wide as saucers, mouth open in a perfect O. I staggered to my feet, thrust my arms under her armpits and dragged the shocked Princess behind the tower out of sight.

I leaned my head round the side of the tower and watched the cook walk back to the palace, staggering under the weight of a huge bag of coins. I shivered in the cold night air. Jemima blinked, then wordlessly shrugged off her dressing gown and handed it to me. Tying the cord around my waist, I looked at her ankle; it had already started to swell. I was going to have to try and mend it. I knelt down, closed my eyes and tried to feel the healing fire burning inside my heart.

Nothing happened. I tried again. Still nothing. Every time I felt a flame ignite inside my heart it was as if a dark wind coming from the tower blew it out.  Panic rose inside me. This wasn't going to work.

"Father's tower's on the other side of the palace," Jemima whispered, her voice shaking. The only way to get there now was by hobbling across the courtyard, round the side of the palace and along its front wall. I helped Jemima to her feet. With her left arm around my shoulders and my right arm around her waist, we hobbled slowly back towards the palace. Jemima winced with every step.

Suddenly I stumbled, my right leg crumpled beneath me and we both fell sideways into the wagon. The crash ripped through the silent night air. A window high up in the tower flew open and Morwain's head shot out. He looked down at us, his green eyes burning, his upper lip curled in a leer of rage and hatred.

"You!" he spat. Then a horrible smile spread across his face and his voice changed to a sickly simper.

"How good of you to come! You can be the first to try out my new poison."

Thanks for reading this chapter.

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