The diamond horse, p.1

The Diamond Horse, page 1

 

The Diamond Horse
 


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The Diamond Horse


  Copyright

  First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Children’s Books 2016

  HarperCollins Children’s Books is a division of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd

  1 London Bridge Street

  London SE1 9GH

  The HarperCollins website address is

  www.harpercollins.co.uk

  Text copyright © Stacy Gregg, 2016

  Cover images (girl, face) © Stephen Smith/Getty Images; all other images © Shutterstock.com; decorative illustration © Shutterstock

  Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2016

  Stacy Gregg asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

  A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

  Source ISBN: 9780008124397

  Ebook Edition © 2016 ISBN: 9780008124410

  Version: 2016-08-22

  For Celeste

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Prologue

  Chapter 1: The Snow Palace of Count Orlov

  Chapter 2: The Moscow Spectacular

  Chapter 3: Black Diamond

  Chapter 4: Boris and Igor

  Chapter 5: Dark Water

  Chapter 6: The Academy

  Chapter 7: Son of Smetanka

  Chapter 8: Hidden Nature

  Chapter 9: The Madness of Ivan

  Chapter 10: Flying Changes

  Chapter 11: The Grand Ball

  Chapter 12: The Race

  Chapter 13: Winter’s Howl

  Chapter 14: Reach for the Stars

  Chapter 15: Frozen

  Epilogue

  Keep Reading

  Other books by Stacy Gregg

  About the Publisher

  Prologue

  As the blizzard closed in, Anna Orlov struggled to make out the lights of the palace on the horizon. Their starry shimmer had been the beacon guiding her home, but as their glow became obscured by the snowstorm Anna felt as if she was fading too. Submerged deep beneath the snowdrifts, her feet had long ago turned numb, and her heavy skirts, soaked through and stiff with ice, threatened to drag her down with every step.

  Yet it was not her own failing strength that worried her most. It was Drakon. The race across the taiga had left her horse ragged with exhaustion, and the wound on his shoulder had opened into a raw slash of crimson that seeped into his silver dapples. As he stumbled alongside her in the deep snow, Anna’s heart was breaking. With every step she could hear the dark rasp of his mighty lungs, his wide fluted nostrils misting hot plumes into the frozen air.

  Dragon’s breath. That was how it looked. And hadn’t Drakon always reminded her of a dragon? Something about the shape of his head, that great, solid slab of his mighty jawbone, the way it narrowed to the slender taper of his fine muzzle.With enormous Asiatic eyes, dark and intense, trimmed with long lashes, his features would have been better suited to a dragon. That was how he had been given his name.

  The rest of Drakon was no less peculiar. His body was out of all proportion for he had been born with an extra rib, which elongated his physique, making him as lean and sleek as a racing hound. He was all muscle and sinew, with a dapple-grey coat strung over a bony frame. His legs, buried deep in the snowdrifts, were so long they looked like they belonged to another creature entirely. They gave him his power, made him swift and sure-footed across the treacherous black ice of the frozen rivers.

  Drakon’s strides had pounded out a relentless drumbeat across the Russian taiga, but their cadence had weakened until now it had become a desperate struggle to place one hoof in front of the other.

  “Come on! It is not much further,” Anna promised her horse. But in reality, she had no idea how far away the palace was, or even if it was ahead of them at all. There was nothing to guide her any more. Just the snow and the darkness, her numb feet and ice-bitten cheeks, singing with the pain of air so cold it pierced her brain.

  “We must keep moving, Drakon …”

  With his head hanging low, the horse managed to take another step, then suddenly he lurched sideways, his legs buckling beneath him.

  “Drakon!”

  Anna flung herself at him, clinging to his neck. Her fur-gloved fingers twisted into the rope of the stallion’s silvery mane. “Drakon, please! Please …”

  Drakon was a dead weight plummeting, his magnificent swan neck twisting and jerking as he went down. Anna gasped as she felt the sting of the snow flung up in his wake like an ocean wave striking a ship’s bow.

  Shocked by the fall, the horse instinctively tried to get back to his feet, forelegs twitching as he struggled, swinging his neck to raise his head. Then, with a pitiful groan, he gave in to exhaustion and collapsed back into the icy drifts.

  “Niet!” Anna’s hands grabbed at him, tearing his mane as she tried to drag him to his feet once more. “Niet! Drakon! Get up!”

  It was no good. How could she possibly lift the horse when she had barely enough strength to hold herself upright?

  Anna straightened up, panting from the effort of trying to raise Drakon, and looked around. The blizzard swirled about her and she couldn’t see a thing. She had no idea what direction the palace might be in. Even if she could make it home and raise a search party, how would they ever find Drakon out here in the snow? Already his silver dapples were barely visible against the drifts, and the white powder kept steadily falling, so that soon it would blanket and disguise him completely.

  Niet. It was hopeless.

  Anna’s gloved hands fumbled to loosen the belt on her thick sable fur coat. She already felt frozen to the bone, but as the fur fell away from her bare shoulders and the last remnants of body heat were stolen she realised there were greater pains to endure. Beneath the fur she had worn her grey satin gown, corseted so tight at the waist it made her slight twelve-year-old physique appear even more fragile and birdlike. Her skin was the palest alabaster and she looked almost translucent against the snow as she dropped to her knees next to Drakon. With trembling hands, she draped her coat so that it covered the chest and shoulders of her horse.

  “It’s just like the old days, Drakon. Riding in the woods …” Anna murmured as she arranged the fur and then manoeuvred herself beneath it so that she was nestled into the crook of her horse’s forelimbs, tucked up against his ribcage.

  “Remember how we slept underneath the stars? With the rugs laid beneath us and Vasily tending the fire pit to heat his urn of spiced honey tea, and Igor whimpering as he dreamt of chasing timber wolves …”

  She whispered on to her horse and tugged the fur coat up to her chest. As she did this, her gloved fingertips brushed against the chain round her neck. The necklace was still there. After all they had been through, it was a miracle that it had not been lost.

  With frozen hands she clasped the stone and repeated the ritual that had comforted her ever since she had been ten years old. Ever since the fateful day that her mother had placed the precious gift round her daughter’s neck.

  Anna raised the black gem up to her face, holding it close so that she could gaze upon its dark beauty as her mother’s words came back to her:

  “Never see
k to understand its power. And do not try to control it. Past and present and future all lie within this necklace, but it is the stone that decides what you will see.”

  Anna gazed deep into the diamond. The brilliant cut refracted and reflected her vision, splintering the world into a million tiny pieces, as infinite as the snowflakes that flurried around her. Then the stars turned dark and she saw the amber glint of a tiger’s eye, the flash of his stripes and the low rumble of his growl.

  Instinctively, Anna clutched her hands to her throat and the diamond slipped from her fingers. Then, with her skin as pale and cold as the snow that surrounded her, she fell back at last against her beloved horse.

  CHAPTER 1

  The Snow Palace of Count Orlov

  Three years earlier …

  Anna ran through the palace corridors, her breath coming in quick, painful gasps, her heart pounding. Behind her, the rumbling growl of the wolfhound became more menacing as he grew nearer, closing in on her with every stride.

  “Niet! Please! Stop!”

  The marble floors were slippery beneath her feet and as she rounded the corner by the grand ballroom, Anna found herself sliding out of control. Her shoulder glanced hard into the corner of a gigantic oil painting of her father, Count Orlov, mounted on horseback and brandishing a sabre, and tilted it dangerously to one side.

  The hound lost his balance on the corner too. As she pelted away, Anna heard the thin screech of his claws as he scrambled frantically to get a foothold, paws skidding across the glassy surface. Then he was up and running again, gaining on her once more. Anna threw a look back over her shoulder and the choking pain in her chest made it impossible to run any more.

  She was simply laughing too hard.

  She collapsed forward, her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath and giggling madly. “Wait, Igor …”

  The puppy did not stop. Delighted to have bested her, he made a dramatic leap into the air and came crashing down on top of his mistress.

  “Igor!” Anna shrieked as she went down in a heap on the floor, the skirts of her silk gown entangling them both. She rolled on to her back with the borzoi on top of her. Igor was still play-growling and refusing to give up the game, making darting lunges at her face as she fended him off.

  “Igor, niet!” Anna grappled the snarling bundle of fluff out from the folds of her gown and held him aloft in both hands so that he was dangling above her. Suspended in mid-air, Igor wriggled and squirmed, his little legs waving about wildly, his mouth wide open in a toothy grin. “You are so fearsome!” Anna teased him. “Oh, but I am terrified of you, such a big powerful wolfhound you are, Igor!”

  Igor swooped down and his pink, wet tongue slushed over Anna’s cheek. “Ick! Doggy breath!” She screwed up her face in revulsion. “Come on, Igor! Be a good borzoi now!”

  Borzoi – the word meant “swift”. Anna’s father, Count Orlov, had given this name to his hounds because, as he often boasted, “they are the fastest in all of Russia”.

  In the royal court of Empress Catherine they praised Count Orlov as an “alchemist of nature”. He was a magician, the master of the dark art of manipulating bloodlines to create strange and fantastical new beasts.

  To Anna, who had grown up at Khrenovsky, their palace estate, surrounded by her father’s “living experiments”, it seemed commonplace to share her home with a menagerie of rare and exotic animals.

  It felt perfectly natural that a pair of Amur leopards in black velvet collars roamed the palace halls, although Katia, the head of housekeeping, was less than impressed when they clambered all over the velvet chaise longues in the drawing room. The cooks too, were not so happy that a family of cheeky long-tailed squirrels had taken up residence in the kitchen and would leave half-gnawed loaves of bread and nibbled apples in their wake.

  Count Orlov gave the animals free rein and no room in the palace was sacred. The chandeliers in the grand ballroom were alive with the beating wings of the butterflies who clustered around the crystals. Pythons lazed in the bathtubs and refused to budge. When Anna entered the drawing room for breakfast the air would be filled with green-throated parakeets, thrashing the air with vermilion wings.

  There were a few creatures that the Count considered too large or too wild to dwell inside the palace walls, and these were housed outdoors. Leading away from the grand western entrance of the palace there was a winding maze of topiary that led across the lawns to a series of elaborate gilt cages. Row upon row of these golden prisons housed animals gathered from all over Russia and the lands beyond. Two enormous Siberian bears, captured to be a mating pair, occupied one of the largest cages. Anna thought them a sadly ill-suited couple. The male was much older and more careworn than his mate, with a tattered coat and chunks ripped from his ears. He had a permanent scowl on his face and lumbered about his cage as if he was always spoiling for a fight. The female was much smaller and younger, and had glorious rich, dark brown fur. Her muzzle wrinkled when she growled, giving her a sweet expression, and her dark cherry eyes stared wistfully out through the bars, as if she were desperate to escape both captivity and her arranged marriage.

  In the golden cage beside the bears, silver foxes made themselves invisible during the day. Lurking underground in their burrow, they would emerge at nightfall to snap and snarl at each other over chopped-up chunks of meat that Anna had tossed into their cage, crunching the bones with their pointed canines.

  The beautiful musk deer who lived in the cage next door would shrink back as the foxes growled over their supper. Wide-eyed, with soft taupe fur, they seemed the most gentle of all the creatures in the menagerie, but they had needle teeth that protruded like vampires’ fangs from their velvet muzzles.

  The deer did not bite, but the little minks who scurried about in their long, low cage were savage. Their teeth, tiny and white, were as sharp as knives. “You will lose your fingers if you are not careful,” Vasily the groom would warn Anna when he found her stroking the baby minks through the grille of their cage.

  Vasily came up from the stables once a day to fill the cages with straw. He was different from the rest of the serfs in Count Orlov’s service. A head taller than any other man at the stables, he was broad-shouldered and strong. And while the other serfs had the appearance of boiled potatoes, Anna thought Vasily handsome, with his thick russet hair, high cheekbones and deep, brooding eyes.

  Sullen and serious, Vasily did not smile easily, and Anna liked to set herself the challenge of making him laugh.

  “I have taught the mink a new trick!” she would exclaim whenever he arrived with the straw for the cages. “Come and see!”

  The mink were untameable and their “tricks” mostly involved standing on their hind legs and nipping food from Anna’s fingers, which only made Vasily beg her to stop.

  “They will not hurt me,” Anna would laugh at him. She had no fear of any of the animals. Any … except the timber wolves. There was something in the way they glowered at her, shoulders hunched in menace as they paced the perimeter of their gilt cage, jaws hanging open, white teeth glistening. It was as if they were just waiting for the bars to part, biding their time until they could devour her.

  Once, her brother Ivan had dared her to go inside their cage. She had refused at first, but Ivan was good at bullying her into doing things she shouldn’t. He was three years older than Anna and in their lonely palace in the wilderness he was her only playmate.

  “This is the game,” he told her. “You walk in, and I will lock the gate behind you and then I count to ten and let you out again.”

  Anna looked at the wolves. They were pacing the bars, their hackles raised.

  “I don’t want to,” she said.

  “I knew you were a coward,” Ivan said.

  “I’m not a coward,” Anna insisted.

  “Then do it!”

  Anna pushed the fear down into her belly and stepped closer to the cage.

  Ivan kept goading her. “Pathetic baby sister!” he gloated.
You need to show them you are not afraid.”

  The wolf pack were waiting, pacing and watching her, glassy-eyed and panting, jaws open in anticipation. Anna didn’t want to get any closer, but Ivan kept taunting her.

  “Come on, open the door and get in the cage. What are you scared of? They will not bite …”

  Anna stepped forward and shut her eyes tight as she stretched out her hand to grasp the cage door. She began to swing the door back and as she did so the largest wolf lunged for her. He threw himself at the bars of the gate, shoulder-barging it with his full weight, trying to force his way through. He would have succeeded, if it were not for the giant of a man who stepped between the girl and the wolf. He thrust the gate shut and yanked Anna fiercely by the shoulder so that she was thrown back out of danger.

  Anna found herself sprawled on the ground, panting and looking up at her father, who towered over her like a monster. His face was crimson with rage, except for the thin white line of the scar that ran from his temple to his chin. Le Balafre – it was his nickname in the royal court, where they whispered it in French – Scarface.

  “Idiot child! What were you thinking?”

  “I wasn’t … Ivan dared me to do it!” Anna blurted out the words and instantly regretted them. Her brother had ways of making her pay if she told on him.

  Count Orlov turned to his son.

  “It was a game,” Ivan said airily. “We were only playing.”

  Many years later, Anna would look back on this moment and remember the sickening smile that had played on Ivan’s lips when he spoke.

  *

  “He hates me,” Anna complained to her mother, later that day.

  Anna was sitting cross-legged on a velvet cushion, watching with total absorption as her mother, the Countess, arranged her potions in front of the mirror to begin her toilette.

  “He doesn’t hate you, Anna,” the Countess replied, staring into the mirror and picking up a powder puff, buffing the powder into the alabaster skin of her décolletage. “He is envious, that is all. You have a way with animals, and a natural charm. Your brother on the other hand …” the Countess hesitated. “… Ivan is not so blessed as you.”

 
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