I wake to the low, grey light of predawn.
I have thirteen days left. Thirteen days of pretending to be Princess Pleasant until I can get out of here. I’m starting to feel—not like a liar, exactly, because I haven’t actually lied.
Okay, yes, I feel like a liar!
But the very nature of my predicament is based on me pretending to be someone I’m not. It’s not my fault it’s starting to feel real. And it’s not my fault that Torvold is so upset I’m supposedly on a dangerous quest that I never specifically spelled out to anyone. He just assumed.
Anyway, whatever quest I could be on would be a dangerous one, given the state of thing here in Lucitopia. Just because he’s tearing himself up inside, thinking I’m going to sacrifice myself to an evil, undead sorcerer isn’t much worse than me…I don’t know…fighting a dragon or something.
I stare up at the ceiling. I’m on the edge of the bed with the pretty floral-patterned bedspread. Dex is next to me, Tudie is next to her, and Jackanet is at our feet. I roll over onto my stomach and face Torvold lying on the floor next to me. He’s wide awake. Calx is in his hand as if he spent the night with it unsheathed.
“Did you sleep at all?” I whisper to him.
He shrugs in a non-committal way. “You?” he whispers back.
I shrug back.
“Are you frightened the Thrall will return?” he asks.
I frown, thinking about my sleepless night. “I’m doubting my course of action,” I admit honestly.
He smiles up at me. His tired eyes look relieved. “Good.”
I take a moment to really look him over. And not in a hormonal way, for a change. This is a guy who just spent the night on the floor, holding a sword that probably weighs about twenty pounds, after crossing a forest and fighting battles, all so he can protect other people. If I want to be the hero of my own story, I’d better start taking my cues from him.
“If you had a chance to strike at someone who had destroyed so much and hurt so many, wouldn’t you take the risk?” I ask him.
He swallows hard and looks away. “It matters not what I would do. You are too important to endanger yourself, princess.”
“I’m no more important than anyone in this room,” I whisper. “And less than some.” He looks back at me, eyes burning, ready to argue, but I don’t let him. “I’m handy with small blades, but I’ll need to be prepared for any misfortune in order to confront Asphodel.” My mouth goes dry, because now I’m actually considering this madness. “You could teach me.”
He shakes his head, and it hurts me that he won’t teach me. I look away from him, and I’m about to turn over but he reaches up to stop me.
“I know you’re brave and I know you can fight,” he whispers, and again I see that impressed look on his face. “But I’m the only one who can kill Asphodel.” He touches Calx beside him to remind me.
“Oh, that’s right,” I mutter, face falling. “I’m not the bearer of the Puce Pinkerknuckle.” I look at him mischievously. “Tudie doesn’t believe it exists.”
He grins at me and moves as if to roll over and show me his butt. “Do you want to see it?”
“No,” I giggle quietly, smacking his chest. He captures my hand and keeps it.
“I don’t know if it’s really there or not,” he jokes, tugging me toward him. “I’ve never been able to bend that way.”
I’m trying not to laugh too hard or fall out of the bed. I don’t want to wake the others just yet. I want him to myself for as long I can have him.
Because Torvold won’t get close enough to kill Asphodel until about three quarters of the way through the book. It’s the one thing I know for certain. Torvold the Bold heroically challenges Asphodel at the battle of Knob Knoll, and he dies.
Torvold sees my mirth dissolve and he holds my hand tightly against his chest.
“Aid me in my quest and abandon your own.” He stops himself, like he knows what he’s asking is tantamount to treason, but he sticks to his guns and continues. “You could save many lives, but the one thing you cannot do is kill Asphodel. Please, Princess.”
“But Jackanet thinks I could…”
“Jackanet is searching for any way to spare me,” Torvold interrupts gently. “He is the one who suggested to the other knights that I protect the Virtues, rather than ride out and demand single combat against Asphodel.”
I frown. “Why would he do that?”
“He’s worried I’ll lose,” Torvold says. He rubs my fingers in his. “I was sent on this quest as a diversion, but I know there is only one resolution to this war.”
And so do I. I’ve had plenty of reason to dislike the author of this book in the past—the ax in the face spell comes to mind—but never so much as now.
We stay like that for a long time. Me looking down on him from the edge of the bed, and him holding my hand against his chest until the room turns pink with newborn light.
The others wake, and we rattle around the cottage, looking for food, heating water to freshen up, and generally pulling ourselves together before we head out again.
Torvold goes to the stables to feed Thunder while the rest of us rob the joint.
“Who was our hostess, and where did she go?” I ask as I ransack her kitchen. I look up and notice Tudie, Dex, and Jackanet sharing a look. “What?” I ask, throwing my hands up.
“You didn’t recognize her?” Dex asks.
“Should I have?” I reply.
“Come on now,” Jackanet says, disbelievingly. His eyebrows have practically disappeared into his hairline.
“What?” I repeat, this time feeling put-upon. “I didn’t recognize her! Who is she?”
“Just like a woman,” Jackanet grumbles as he turns away from me. He starts gathering up provisions with a little more force than necessary. “She knocked Torvold halfway to his maker, but you? Didn’t even recognize her.”
I look around. Everyone is suspiciously busy at the moment. “I have no idea what’s going on,” I announce.
“It’s alright, dearie,” Tudie says gently. “You’ll know who she is when you know. No one can explain it to you. We’ll have to leave it at that.”
“It’s comforting to know she’s still out there,” Jackanet says quietly, almost reverently. “I wonder if the other two are faring as well.”
“What other two?” I ask, growing testy. “She’s part of a set, I’m assuming?”
“The Big Three,” Dex says, nodding. “Without them, Lucitopia is lost.”
We are back on the road before midday, and though we are following an actual road across the Fields of Plenty, I don’t know where it leads. Or where I’m going. Or what I’m doing with my life in general.
Torvold has fallen back with Jackanet, and the two of them are deep in discussion. I hover for a while but give up when I see that they are not about to break apart.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I ask Dex.
“Our hostess last night—” she says, but I interrupt.
“You’re really not going to tell me who she was?” I ask, flabbergasted.
“I can’t,” Dex complains. “It’s one of those life revelation things. You’ve got to go through it yourself. Now, do you want me to answer your question or not?”
“Yes,” I sigh, rolling my eye.
“Our hostess told Torvold that another of the Big Three is traveling with some minstrels. While our hostess never really dies, which I’ve unfortunately come to learn, the other two in the Big Three can.”
I frown as I walk. “When did Torvold talk to her?” I ask.
Dex shrugs. “After we fell asleep, I expect. He must have awoken and the two of them shared words.”
I can’t help but think about how pretty she was, and how amazing she smelled, and—not going to lie—how incredible her body was. Even if you don’t lean that way, she was hot. The kind of hot that would make anybody want a slice.
“Huh,” I say, glancing back at Torvold.
Dex squints at me. “Huh, what?” she asks.
I walk casually. Bored, even. “It’s just, he and I spoke before the rest of you woke and he didn’t mention that he’d shared words with her.” Okay, that sounded jealous even to me.
Dex suppresses a smile. “Must have slipped his mind.”
I’m stewing. It’s silly to keep thinking about this. There are other ways for me to spend my time, like figuring out what my quest is going to be. I definitely can’t follow Torvold around like a lost little puppy, living off his reflected glory. If I’m going to get out of here—and I am getting out of here—I have to stop going with the flow and be an active character. I can’t let some guy make all the important decisions for me. I hate girls like that. It’s like, get your own quest, sweetie, and stop following Mr. Muscles around.
Tudie comes alongside me. She’s practically jogging to keep up.
“We’ve all stopped for lunch,” she says, gesturing back the way we came.
I stop and glance back. I can’t even see anyone. “How far back?” I ask. The Fields of Plenty have turned into rolling hills, scattered with clumps of trees. At some point while I stomped along, the scenery changed.
“Er—far,” she says, grimacing.
“I have food in my pack,” I say, feeling sheepish. “Doesn’t make sense for us to go all the way back now.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she agrees. Tudie takes me by the arm and walks me a little further up the road. “Let’s find a nice place to sit in the shade and talk over whatever’s bothering you.”
We walk along in silence for a while, heading for a copse of trees just a bit off the road, when I get a funny feeling. It’s the duck feeling—not quite as serious as the run like hell feeling, but in the same ballpark. I’ve learned to listen to feelings like that, so I duck and pull Tudie down with me.
I shush her before she can yelp or ask a stupid question like what’s going on when I obviously don’t know what’s going on because I’m crouching down behind a bush.
We both hear voices coming from the copse of trees. Then we hear a rough voice being raised, followed by splintering and a discordant twanging sound. Something musical just got broken.
“It could be the minstrels we’re looking for,” Tudie guesses hopefully. She’s keeping her voice down, though.
“Possibly,” I allow. “But I don’t think they’d smash their instruments.”
“Bandits, then,” Tudie decides. “Do you think they saw us coming up the road?”
I shrug. “If they did, they’ll send someone to get us.”
“Should we run back for Torvold?”
“They’ll definitely see us then, and if they have horses, they’ll catch us. Our best bet is to stay hidden, get closer, and try to find out if it’s safe to approach them or not.”
Tudie nods once, ready to go into stealth mode, and she and I creep through the bushes toward the voices until we’re close enough to see what’s going on.
We find two festively painted carts among the trees. Both have been ransacked, and one is missing a wheel. Sparkly costumes and make-up pots are tossed across the leaflitter. There are a few wigs scattered here and there as well. Tudie and I frown at each other and keep our heads down as we get closer.
We peek into a small clearing among the trees and see seven rough men standing in a strategic circle. They are definitely bandits. They have horses. And they’ve got a bunch of underfed, pale, and arty-looking people tied up on the ground.
One of the captives is set apart from the rest. She’s only about seven years old. She has long, straight, black hair and almond-shaped eyes. And she’s wearing a white dress.