I managed to wrestle a semi-palatable meal out of Mr. Stinky Teabag. Not something you’d go out of your way to ever eat again, but no one’s throwing up. Yet.
“Torvold mentioned you were on a quest, dear?” Tudie asks after she had thoroughly chewed, swallowed, and made certain it stayed down.
“Mmm,” I mumble around my stringy mouthful.
I hold an apologetic hand to my mouth as I chew and chew. I’m hoping they’ll get bored and move on to another topic of conversation. No such luck. I mentally scramble. What do I know about Princess Pleasant?
“You all know that Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer has demanded my hand in marriage,” I say tremulously.
My voice is shaking because I’m nervous, and kind of chilly to be honest, but with my expression partly hidden in the dim firelight, my thin, shaky voice could be construed as distraught. I see Torvold clench his hands into fists across the fire.
“Yes. We’ve heard,” Dex says consolingly. She puts a hand over mine and squeezes.
“No one wants that, dearie,” Tudie assures me. Then she laughs. “Whoever you marry would be the next king, wouldn’t he?”
“Quite so,” I reply. They all look at me expectantly. Where the hell am I going with this? Nowhere. I’m going nowhere.
Why didn’t I read the whole book before I signed up for this? Why did I sign up for this in the first place? Sure, my life was a mess. My parents split up, I had to leave L.A. and move to Fresno with my mom and go to a new school. I basically have no friends now. My old friends kept in touch for a bit, but when your lives are going in separate directions, there really isn’t that much to talk about anymore.
I roll my eyes and I’m surprised to notice that I’m actually crying.
“There, there, dearie,” Tudie says as she wraps me up in a squishy hug. “You’re going to get through this. I know it seems hard now, but you are going to make it through. I promise you.”
“I’m throwing my life away,” I blubber into Tudie’s shoulder. Of course, I’m talking about my actual life now, not Princess Pleasant’s, but I don’t really care. I can’t believe it got this bad and I really need to cry on someone’s shoulder about it.
After I’m cried out, Tudie sits me up again and looks me in the eye. “You can’t marry him,” she says.
I wipe my eyes and stare at her. What can you say when you and the person you’re talking to are having two different conversations?
“Unless you were planning on killing him on your wedding night,” Jackanet says softly-but-not-that-softly from the other side of the fire.
“You’re out of line,” Torvold says. He doesn’t raise his voice, but there’s a dangerous edge to it.
Jackanet stands and removes his cap. “Milord, after witnessing her—er—creative handling of what has become our dinner, I am merely noting that our beloved princess is quite brave, and well as attractive.” Jackanet executes a complicated bow in my direction that includes several twirly hand movements. Then he coughs, but his cough sounds suspiciously like “concealed weapons!” but Torvold doesn’t seem to understand.
“You think it’s all well and good for a young lady to offer up her…,” Dex gestures to my lady parts but is too angry and flustered to say it, “self to a loathsome man?” She throws a bit of chimera-griff at him. “She’s a person, not bait!”
Jackanet catches the meat and holds it up. “If she treats Asphodel like she did this chimera-griff,” he says, shaking it at her, “her self will be fine, and we can all wake up the day after singing and dancing!”
“Enough!” Torvold yells. Everyone falls silent. “If we sacrifice the best of ourselves so that the rest may live, what’s the point of living at all?” Torvold turns to me and his big, brown eyes melt into mine. “I was chosen to protect Virtue. And I will protect yours, my princess.”
He strides away from the fire and into the darkness alone.
After a beat, Jackanet sighs. “He’s a good man, my master. Got no common sense, though.”
“Lucky for us,” Dex retorts, giving a watered-down laugh. Jackanet smiles warmly back at her and nods. They turn to me.
“I suppose you’re one of us now,” Jackanet tells me.
I don’t know what that means, but it’s nice to be included. “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like I’ve had anyone on my side,” I say.
“Whatever happens, whatever you and father have planned, we’ll sort it out together,” Tudie says, patting my hand. “Cheer up, dearie. We’re not going to let you go through this alone, but you will get through it.”
I smile at all of them, because they really have made me feel better even if they have no idea what’s really going on.
“Thank you for trying to help,” I say. “But I’m the only one who can do this,” I reply gently.
I wake the next morning to the sound of bickering.
“It said go up the River of Tears to other side of the Forest of Woe. That means upstream,” Dex complains loudly.
I open my eyes. Jackanet and the two White Witches are standing in a huddle not too far away from my head and bending over a piece of parchment.
“Up means north,” Jackanet disagrees, snatching the parchment from Fortitude’s hands and waving it in Dexterity’s face.
Dexterity snatches it away from him. “You nincompoop. Up means upriver. How many quests have you gone on?”
“I’ve been on many quests!” Jackanet insists. He tries to snatch the parchment out of Dexterity’s hands, but she’s too dexterous, obviously. She holds it away from him and he jumps after it a few times before realizing that his behavior is undignified and gives up.
I sit up.
“Good morning, Princess,” says a deep voice.
I turn and see Sir Torvold crouching down by the fire. He hasn’t put his chainmail on yet. He’s just wearing the leathers and linens that go under it. The neck of his shirt where the strings lace it up have fallen open and I can see copious amounts of collarbone. You wouldn’t think collarbones were super sexy, unless you saw them framed by a linen shirt that was casually unlaced at the neck early in the morning and falling open like it could even go down the chest a bit then maybe even over to show just a hint of the shoulder, and then damn. That is some sexy collarbone.
You know what? I’ve just figured out why it’s so sexy. He’s fully dressed, but I know I’m seeing what, in this era, are technically his underthings. He’s cooking in medieval lingerie, basically. I blush and look away.
“That depends,” I say. “What’s for breakfast?”
I couldn’t stomach a round two of Mr. Stinky Teabag. Later, when I’m starving, sure. Being squeamish is just silly when you’re out in the wild, but I’d have to be stupid hungry to attempt it.
Sir Torvold tilts the pot toward me. “Porridge,” he says, smiling as if he guessed I was dreading last night’s leftovers. He sniffs the steam and scrunches his nose. “But it’s missing something.”
I reach into my pillow/satchel and pull out a generous sized wallet. “Salt,” I say, smiling and shaking it.
“That’s all salt?” he asks. I grin in answer and kneel down next to him by the fire.
“It’s a luxury, I know, but it makes everything better,” I say, sprinkling a pinch into the porridge.
He looks back into the pot and stirs. “That’s generous of you,” he says.
I don’t know what to say. Salt is a form of currency here—like gold, only more useful. If he knew I came from a place where we put it on the ground to melt snow in the winter he’d probably freak out. And in fourteen days, I fully intend to be back in that world, throwing salt around like confetti on New Year’s, so there’s no point in being stingy with what I’ve got with me. I’m not generous. I’m just leaving. I can’t explain that so instead, I sit here awkwardly and listen to Torvold’s peanut gallery argue with each other about which way to go while he spoons sticky porridge into five bowls.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I ask him quietly.
He nods, grinning. “They love to argue, though. I figured I’ll let them have at it for a while.”
After a few more moments, Torvold raises his voice pleasantly to cut through the squabbling. “We’re going upriver,” he announces. “That is where the White Witch Temperance was last seen.”
Dex gives Jackanet a smug look. “Shut it,” Jackanet grumbles at her, then goes to brush Thunder.
Torvold hands me my bowl. “Your destination lies upriver, then?” he asks, avoiding my eyes. “Then you’ll go west?”
I rapidly spoon hot porridge into my mouth rather than answer, but Torvold is waiting for my answer with a strident look on his face.
“We’ll all go together for as long as we can,” Tudie says briskly. She takes her bowl and sits down next to me.
Dex sits down on my other side. “And who knows? As we travel along things could change. The princess might find that her quest has changed as well.”
Torvold seems to brighten with that thought. “Indeed,” he says optimistically. He smiles at me, even though he’s still talking to Dex. “Even now Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer could be gasping his last.”
I smile back at him, my cheeks warming, while my breakfast congeals in my bowl. Tudie elbows me. I look away from Torvold and get busy with eating.
After taking care of our personal hygiene issues (which each of us urgently needs after a few bites of medieval porridge) we head out together upriver. This time I insist that the White Witches ride Thunder. Jackanet leads the horse, as Thunder is bred for battle and impossible to ride unless you are made of solid muscle and wearing spurs. Torvold and I walk beside them.
“How is it you were chosen for this quest, good sir knight?” I ask.
“I’m the only one who can protect them, really,” he says, frowning down at his feet.
“Why is that?” I ask, raising an eyebrow. “Surely there are many knights who are great fighters.”
“It’s his sword, Calx,” Dexterity says. “It’s the only thing that can kill Asphodel.”
“It’s not the sword,” Jackanet groans, as if they’ve had this argument a thousand times. “It’s the birthmark.”
“He’s not going to kill the sorcerer with a bloody birthmark!” Fortitude hollers, like she’s on her last nerve. Then she puts a shocked hand to her lips. “Excuse me, milady.” Nobody waits to see if I’m offended.
“No, Tudie,” Dex corrects, “Jackanet means it’s because of the birthmark Torvold can kill Asphodel with the sword. Sir Torvold has a birthmark shaped like a Puce Pinkerknuckle, which means he’s the chosen one who can wield the sword.”
“There’s no such thing a Puce Pinkerknuckle,” Tudie grumbles.
“It’s not the sword! I’m telling you, the birthmark’s poison,” Jackanet insists. “Asphodel will touch it and die because it’s not of this world.”
“He won’t touch—" Tudie breaks off for a moment, like what Jackanet just said was so overwhelmingly stupid she doesn’t know where to begin. “The sword is not of this world, you idiot. The birthmark just means that Torvold can wield it and the sword is the only thing that can kill Asphodel!”
“Made of sky metal, that sword,” Dex adds, winking at me.
“No it isn’t,” Tudie says, pinching her lips together. “It was forged in the belly of a dragon.”
“Nonsense. How would you get a blacksmith in there?”
“I dunno. It’s not of this world.”
Jackanet is shaking his head. “No, it’s the birthmark that’s not from this world—have either of you even read the prophecy?”
“How can the Puce Pinkerknuckle be not of this world? It’s on Torvold’s arse!” Fortitude shouts.
Torvold shoots me a horrified look, and I have to cover my mouth to keep from doing one of my hideous snort-laughs.
“Puce Pinkerknuckle,” Jackanet insists.
“That’s not—!” Tudie stops herself again and takes a deep breath.
Torvold holds my elbow and slows his steps. I slow down with him.
“They’ll go on like this for another hour at least,” he whispers in my ear. We drop back even farther, but they don’t notice.
“Is it true?” I ask.
“What? The sword or the birthmark?” he replies, giving me a roguish smile though his blush. And if you’ve never seen that combination of embarrassed and cheeky before in a guy, I just want to let you know that it is absolutely devastating.
I shake my head and look down to hide the fact that it suddenly feels extremely hot in this corset.
“Is it true that you’re the only one who can kill Asphodel?” I ask.
“I have a mark. Don’t know what a Pinkerknuckle is, so I suppose it could be one.”
“And what about the sword?”
“Calx,” he says, like he’s saying the name of a friend. He draws his sword and lays it across his arm to show me the blade.
It does not shine. In fact, it is made of a dark, dirty looking metal, as if it had been lying in ashes, except for the edge. All the way around the cutting edge of the blade sparkles. It looks like diamond. I reach out to feel it, and Torvold pulls Calx away quickly.
“It will burn you if you touch it,” he warns me.
I frown up at him. “Is it hot?”
“Not to me, but to everyone else, it feels like it was just pulled from the fire.” He sheathes his sword. “It’s the only weapon Asphodel fears. That is why I was chosen for this quest. I’m the only one who can protect the Virtues from him.”
“Huh,” I say, remembering something I read once. “Calx is the residue left by a burnt mineral.”
Torvold smiles. “I know,” he replies, looking at me strangely. “An alchemist told me that. How did you know?”
Yeah. How would I know that?
“There’s not much to do in a tower besides read,” I say.
“You can read?” he asks, surprised.
I nod and shrug at the same time, like it’s no big deal, but it is a big deal. There are probably five people in this whole world who can read, and as a person of the female persuasion, I’m not supposed to be one of them. Unbelievably sexist, but also true.
“I can as well,” he says, like he’s admitting something he’s supposed to keep hidden for manly reasons. “I was not supposed to be a knight.” He looks down and stops himself from continuing.
I tilt my head to the side, so I can see his expression better. “What were you supposed to be?” I ask.
He lifts his head to answer and takes a breath and…wow. We are extremely close together. Like, I’m almost wearing his clothes right now. There’s a slight breeze that blows a tress of my shampoo commercial-perfect hair gently across my cheek. Torvold catches it and smooths it back from my face. He leaves his hand there for a moment, barely touching the edge of my jaw.
Torvold and I jump apart. The peanut gallery has come back for us. Jackanet is glaring at me, Dex is trying not to giggle, and Tudie looks a little worried, but not surprised.
“I think we should all stay together, don’t you dearie?” Tudie says as she comes back, takes my hand, and walks beside me for the rest of the morning.
That was close. Torvold’s the hero of this book. Everybody’s routing for Torvold. Readers aren’t going to like me if they think I’m playing him. I have to be more careful.
From now on, no more fraught pauses where I stand there staring at him like he’s a pint of ice cream and I’m a warm spoon. Torvold and I are just going to be friends. Cohorts. Co-questers. And that’s it.