Disclaimer: The characters, and any settings or events relating to The Merlin Conspiracy are the property of Diana Wynne Jones. I am simply playing with her ideas.
Predictably, it was raining when we arrived in Blest. There were these great, horrible storm clouds thrashing about in the sky, though I don't even think that Romanov noticed. Grundo did: he just smiled, and muttered something about Daniel working harder than ever. Because the Merlin knew, Blest needed some rain. Ever since the whole conspiracy fiasco five years ago, Blest had been in drought. The balance, you see, had to right itself. The Isles needed time to heal.
I was just glad I hadn't had to put up with it. So far as Grundo could tell in his letters from Roddy, it was bloody hot.
We stepped onto the footpath in front of Maxwell Hyde's home, and out of habit, I glanced up and down the street. All the tall, London-ish terrace houses were still standing, like something out of a pop-up picture book, although here and there the paint was peeling. They looked a lot more normal than they had last time - as though someone lived there, now. It felt nicer, somehow, to see them flawed; more homelike, maybe.
Romanov raised his
eyebrows. "Arianrhod wasn't exaggerating about the heat," he murmured - which was really a
rather trivial remark from someone as important as Romanov.
Although he'd become a lot more normal now that he had a son again. Grundo grounded him, I think.
Dora appeared at the door, and it took her a minute or so to recognise us all.
"Nick!" she exclaimed suddenly. "How was India?"
Romanov took it upon himself to smile and politely greet her, while Grundo and I dodged past her and into the living room. It looked just as it had the night that Ap Nudd and his lot had come trampling through it, and for a moment I was a little worried, until Toby – a taller, older Toby – stuck his head around from the hall and apologised for Dora's housekeeping skills.
"Grandad isn't home at the moment," he explained with a shrug as we all sat around the kitchen table again, just like old times. "He's been in Salisbury with Roddy for a few weeks, helping her prepare."
You see, Roddy was the entire reason that Romanov, Grundo and I were back in Blest. For that matter, personally, I think Roddy was the only reason (or person, rather) that I'd willingly return to Blest for. Thinking of… it… only makes me wince - but I don't like to talk about the past. The future is much more important.
Mrs Candace was retiring soon, and from what Toby told us, it seemed she'd handed a lot of her duties over to Roddy already.
It felt strange for a while, but it was as we were just sitting there, examining each other, that I began to really notice how much we'd all grown. Grundo's nose no longer looked so long in his full adult face, and he'd kept his dusting of youthful freckles. Toby was no longer so scrawny, either; instead, he was a tall and gangly teenager, albeit with those familiar, rather intense brown eyes and a shy expression. It was strange, this business of being adults. Or, in their case, almost adults, I suppose.
At that moment, Romanov and Dora appeared in the kitchen, and Romanov looked a little pained.
"Right boys," he said. "It appears we've come to the wrong place. Roddy's ball is in Salisbury."
"We're going to Salisbury, then?"
This, after all, did appear to be the logical solution.
Toby and Dora came with us, Dora hanging damply onto my hand and Toby and Grundo awkwardly gripping wrists. Romanov walked in front, too dignified to resort to guiding someone down the grassy hillside between worlds - especially someone as painfully ignorant to magick as Dora seemed to be.
The hill ended at a wall of green hedging, which I found most peculiar. Grundo, however, didn't miss a step, and cleverly opened the heavily disguised gate. He winked at me as we all trouped past.
To be honest, I was rather nervous about seeing Roddy again after so long. If the past five years had taught me anything, I'd learnt that can people change, and yet stay exactly the same. What if things were different, now? I'd been busy on the island, and she had been learning…
Actually I wasn't entirely sure of what Roddy was learning to do.
Mrs Candace smiled at me kindly and squeezed my gloved hand. She was all dressed up in her Lady's regalia, which basically included a dainty little tiara and a magical pendant that went around her neck, glittering with bits of stone and jewels from all over Blest. She looked magnificent, but I did worry about her making it all the way down those stairs in her dress.
The herald opened a single leaf of the double doors and tapped his staff to announce us. "The Lady of Governance, Evangeline Candace. Arianrhod Hyde, apprentice to the Lady of Governance."
Together we walked down
the old stone stairs of the Salisbury Castle ballroom, which were covered by a flowing
piece of red carpet to mark the special occasion. The entire Court
was gathered for the retirement celebration, and I could see Mam and Dad from the corner of my eye,
standing a little to the side and applauding enthusiastically.
Grandad was standing by the King, whispering something into Prince Edmund's ear. The prince nodded curtly and smiled at me. I felt my heart do a funny flip-flop of nervousness, and I reminded myself to smile back as we stopped before the thrones to curtsy.
"Would you care for a dance, Miss Hyde?"
I turned from the conversation I was having with my Grandad to find the Prince smiling handsomely at me. I blushed, cursing my elegant hair arrangement and consequentially, my inability to hide my shyness behind the black wriggles of my hair.
"It would be my pleasure, your Royal Highness."
"Please," he smiled. "Just Ed, Arianrhod."
Ed and I went on to the dance floor and began revolving quite politely. Unfortunately the Prince turned out to be insufferably dull, something that I sourly admitted to Grandad when the dance had finished. Grandad just wiggled his eyebrows at me.
"It would be a wonderful thing for the Crown Prince to marry the future Lady of Governance," he told me softly. Oh excellent, I thought: a Marriage Conspiracy.
Before I had time to reply, Grandad looked past me and smiled.
"Ah, they're here, finally. A little late, I grant you, but – turn around, Roddy."
I obeyed him, still frowning. The look of disgust melted from my face when I saw who was making their way across the ballroom toward me.
He ducked his head shyly, but he returned my hug with equal fierceness and strength. Dora then gave me a bump on my cheek, and Toby and I shook hands. Romanov had already been called away, and that just left one more person to greet.
I nearly fell over with shock when I first saw Roddy. She looked, of all things, like a Lady. Her black hair was pinned up quite nicely, with just two wispy wriggles free to frame her face. She was beautiful. Well - rather, she'd always been beautiful, but maybe I'd forgotten just how much.
The colour of her eyes was accentuated by the matching deep blue dress she wore, and she smiled at me, her lips forming my name. I was almost too dazed to reply. I know I had resolved to win her over, but that plan had been put on a bit of a back-burner after I'd returned home and then to Romanov's island.
Right then and there, though, I decided to honour my promise.
I think Nick shocked everyone when he kissed my hand. Well, everyone but Dora, that is. My aunt leaned over, quite encouragingly, and reassured me that that was how people greeted each other in the Orient. Somehow, I doubted from the look in Nick's face that he had ever greeted Dora like that.
The ball seemed to get into full swing once Romanov arrived, and I spent the next four hours greeting various courtiers who came up to congratulate me on making something of myself. Every time I tried to talk to Nick, though - and I mean really catch up - Edmund appeared to urgently introduce me to every noble and foreign dignitary in the place. That got to be a little bit too much after four hours, and my feet were aching from my high heels like you wouldn't believe, so I escaped to the balcony.
It was raining, but luckily the balcony was magically shielded, so I didn't even get wet when I leaned on the railing. Not that I would have minded. Of all of the things that I missed from travelling on Progress, the fact that I missed the rain was perhaps the most surprising. Or perhaps not, since we'd been in drought for about five years now.
I jumped a bit, turning to find my Grandfather Gwyn standing beside me. He was still the tall, imposing Welshman I had first met five years ago: but now I noticed the secret twinkle in his eyes, and that prevented him from looking so scary.
He smiled gravely and kissed me on the cheek.
"I am proud of you, Granddaughter."
I'd waited five years to hear him say that, ever since the Merlin incident. I reached up and kissed his cheek, equally as grave.
"Thank you," I whispered, shocked and flattered.
Next thing I knew Grandfather Gwyn was gone and there was altogether someone different standing beside me.
"Hello," he said softly. His skin was tanned now, so it was really quite dark, but his eyes were still as intelligent as I remembered. He really was very tall now, and much older. I remembered that he was maybe a year older than me to begin with, and I had just turned twenty.
"Hello," I replied equally as softly, and we looked at each other.
Back then, last time we'd seen each other, I'd known he'd had a sort of 'thing' for me. Now, I wasn't so sure. His smile was perfectly friendly, but something else lingered, hidden, in those eyes - an emotion I couldn't quite read. Surprise? Shock? Anger? Although, he shouldn't have been jealous. He, after all, was apprenticed to Romanov himself.
"I missed you," he admitted then, scratching the back of his head in a distinctly embarrassed manner, and the look in his eyes vanished.
I couldn't help but grin. "I doubt you missed my yelling."
He grinned too, then, white teeth flashing in the dark. "But I love cross Roddy. You used to get all flushed and pretty…"
He broke off, and I could have sworn he was blushing. Then again, maybe not. It was dark after all.
"I missed you too," I told him. "I need my calm, rational Nick to keep me sane."
It was true, I suppose.
Someone cleared his throat from the doorway, and I turned to see Ed hanging around like a bad smell.
"Arianrhod, my mother is simply dying to make your acquaintance."
That's when I knew: I'd already been introduced to the Queen, and although I don't know how things work in Denmark, I was fairly sure it wasn't normal to be introduced twice.
"I'm sorry, your Highness," I said shortly. "I'm busy."
The Prince gaped. So did Nick.
"I – I don't think I understand you, Arianrhod… did you just reject my mother's request?"
"No," I told him firmly. "I'm rejecting you. Go away, please."
I turned to smile at Nick, and that's when he kissed me.
The Prince stood in the doorway making little noises of fury. They were rather like squeaks that carried in the rush of air from the ballroom towards us, dulled by the incredible sensation we were both experiencing. My eyes were closed, of course, so I couldn't see Ed, but I could imagine the angry red blotches rising on his face, like they had done so often in the past, when we were younger. Hold on, I thought. Why on earth am I imagining an angry Crown Prince when Nick is kissing me?
So, I simply stopped thinking. Instead, I wrapped my arms around his neck, and kissed him back.
When Nick pulled away from me, the Prince had gone.
I leant back against the railing and looked into the ballroom. It didn't seem that anyone at all had noticed. Nick shoved his hands into his pockets, and looked at me shyly.
I nearly fell over when Roddy kissed me back. I mean, she'd always looked so beautiful when she was cross, and there she was being cross at someone that wasn't me. Moreover, she was being cross on my behalf. It was easily the most stunning thing I had ever witnessed.
I pulled away after a little while and looked at her. She smiled calmly and leant back against the railing, gazing back into the ballroom.
"Quite a party," she remarked easily, and I laughed.
I leant beside her, and she glanced at me with a smile.
"It's enormous," I agreed. "But rather long and dull."
"Oh yes, these things can go on for days on end," she murmured dryly, turning her back on it all to look out at the rain. "Did I tell you? Aunt Judith sent the Izzies home by magick just before you came."
"Oh." I wasn't sorry I had missed that bit of excitement.
"How are the dear old Izzies?" I asked absently.
She grinned wickedly. "Oh, darling, they are simply luminous!" she announced, mimicry scarily accurate.
I shook my head. "Heaven help the day the Izzies are set loose on the Royal court."
"Oh," said Roddy lightly. "I don't really care. We won't have to put up with them."
"Good," I said, and took her hand as if that was all the answer I needed.
Nick and I stood together on the balcony, holding hands, for quite some time. It was nice, after so many months of preparation and stress, to be able to stand and watch the rain with him as though nothing else mattered.
Grundo came out and joined us after a while. If he noticed we were holding hands, he didn't say anything.
"Nice ball," he murmured, stretching out his own hand to catch a droplet of water.
"Mmm," Nick added, gently untangling our fingers. "Actually, I think I might go back inside. Romanov promised to introduce me to the new Merlin, you know."
We watched him leave in silence. He'd grown so tall I couldn't believe it… but then again, looking at Grundo, I couldn't believe how much he had grown either. I tweaked his nose affectionately.
"So how's life on the island?" I asked him.
Grundo shrugged. "Better. Lonely, sometimes, but better."
I nodded. "Good," I told him. He was the closest to a brother I have ever had, and I was glad he was happy. "It gets lonely here too, sometimes."
He smiled wryly."Oh, I don't think Nick will let you stay lonely for too long."
Sometimes, Grundo surprised me. Now was one of those times. I glanced at him, grinning sheepishly.
"So," he said. "Are you going to marry him?"
At that point I gave in; I couldn't help myself. Two marriage conspiracies in one day was quite enough. I sat down on the cold stone balcony, and laughed. Grundo looked a little worried as he knelt beside me. "Roddy –?"
"Roddy, are you all right?"
Nick was back, offering his hand to help me up. I accepted it gratefully, pulling him down beside me instead. I took Grundo's hand with my free one, and together, the three of us looked back out at the rain. Water was pooling in the distant fields now - such a change from the usual crisply scorched grass.
Author's Note: I noticed a while back that there was a sad deficiency of Merlin Conspiracy stories (and in fact I believe this may be the only one), so I decided to write my own… I hope you guys liked it! As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, criticisms, appreciations...
Thank you for reading, and thank you so much for all the reviews I've already received!