I would describe the dinner table—the gold flatware, the linen napkins, and the crystal glasses.
I would tell you about the heavenly smell—the bowls heaped with lush fruits of every hue, whole fish with salt crusting their scales, and the steaming, saucy platters of meats and vegetable.
But you already know all of this is probably illusion, and the only purpose a detailed description could serve would be to entice you to put this book down and go get a snack.
Go get a snack.
There are mince meat pies and roasted ducks, glazed with something sticky and sweet. There are creamed potatoes and spears of asparagus. There are loaves of crusty bread and bricks of hard cheeses.
And cake. Lots of cake, some frosted and dusted with powdered sugar, and some topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. There are puff pastries and cookies and candied fruits.
Even from across the room the food has enveloped my attention to the exclusion of all else. It isn’t until I’m just a few steps away that I notice I’m not alone.
Asphodel gets up and stands behind his seat at the head of the table. My stride hitches with surprise and I stop. He bows to me.
“Is something amiss, Princess?” Asphodel inquires.
“I didn’t expect you to be here,” I reply honestly. “I thought you would—”
“Make you wait?” he guesses, grinning. I nod, and he continues. “There was a time when I would have played a game like that to prove I was more important than my guest.”
“And now you have no need to prove it because everyone knows it,” I say, my face the picture of innocence.
He smiles, amused. “Please. Do sit.”
Instead of putting me at the other end of the table, my setting is close to Asphodel’s right. The table is lit with candelabras, and the soft glow warms a small sphere around our seats. Despite the cavernous room and the oversized furniture and the heavy rugs on the floor, the use of candlelight rather than those eerie green sconces makes our place at the table look intimate.
I take my seat and fold my hands in my lap.
“Whatever you wish to eat will appear on you plate, Princess,” he tells me.
I look at my plate. Though I see the air over it shifting and darkening, nothing appears. I laugh when my plate goes as blank as my mind. I don’t know what I want—indecision is sort of my thing right now. Plus, I’m rather turned off by the food porn, to tell you the truth. I don’t want any of it, and I don’t know why. It looks incredible, but I would no more eat the food on this table than I would the picture of a pie.
“Is something wrong?” Asphodel asks. “If there is a delicacy you’d rather have that isn’t on the table—”
“No,” I say, sitting back in my chair.
Asphodel’s face is frozen. “Please, don’t be shy, my betrothed. You must be famished after your travels.”
“I’m quite content,” I say, shrugging a shoulder. “If I am to eat, I want it to be real food. Illusion cannot nourish me.”
It’s like I ripped the rug out from under him. He leans back and considers me for a long time.
“You were warned?” he asks narrowing his eyes at me.
“About what?” I ask in return. “That you are evil, and I shouldn’t trust you?”
“I am no more evil than you are,” he tells me in his purring voice. “And I, too, long for what is real. One could even say it has become my defining purpose.”
I have no idea what he means by that. “Yet you live in an illusion,” I say, gesturing to the cavernous hall around us.
“And you don’t?” he asks.
He waves a hand and the food disappears. The table is empty except for the candelabras and our place settings. Asphodel leans around his high-backed chair and snaps his fingers. Ghost Suit hurries forward out of the shadows.
“Bring us real food,” Asphodel orders.
Ghost Suit leaves us, and Asphodel and I stare at each other. Ever since I got out of the tub, there’s something that’s been bothering me. I have to ask.
“Am I naked and dirty right now?” I blurt out.
I’ve managed to stump him. “I don’t understand—”
“The bath. The dress. Are they real or am I sitting here naked and covered in filth?”
Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer chuckles. When he isn’t mocking me, his laugh is infectious. “Your room and everything in it is real, although the view is not.”
“Oh good,” I sigh.
He tips his head to the side, considering me. “You came down here, sat at the table, and have engaged in this discourse, knowing full well that there was a chance you did so while naked?”
“I figured you’ve seen worse things.”
He shakes his head with a bemused smile on his face. “You surprise me, Princess.”
I think of the knives I’ve got stowed in this boat of a dress. “May I continue to do so,” I reply, smiling back.
Maybe he catches the edge of malice in my tone because I think I see his eyes flash, and whatever warmth had been in his smile vanishes.
“So, Princess. Tell me about your travels. From the state of you when you arrived, I would say they were arduous.”
“Indeed. I encountered ruffians,” I say.
His eyes widen, playing his part. “And yet you made it here? Unmolested?”
“I had a champion.”
Asphodel leans forward. “Do tell me his name, so I may reward him.”
“I also encountered Thralls,” I continue, ignoring his request. “Which reminds me, what do you plan on giving me as a wedding present?”
He frowns, not able to follow my train of thought. “Tell me what you desire, and I shall do my best to make it yours.”
“I desire for you to release my father’s soul, and the souls of all those you have enslaved.” He laughs in my face. It’s not his nice laugh, but I was expecting as much. “You have no need to make vassals of the dead,” I counter cheerily. “For when we are wed the whole kingdom will be yours.”
Asphodel leans an elbow on the table and props his chin on his fist as he looks at me, fascinated. “You’re assuming what I want is to be king.”
Hang on. “Has that not been your demand?”
“Well, yes, but it was meant to be an impossible one.” He makes a pouty face—a really good-looking pouty face, but still one I want to punch. “Poor girl. You came here thinking you had something I wanted, but I don’t want to rule this land. I want to destroy it.”
I stare at him for a while. In books, every evil sorcerer wants to destroy the world, but when you get down to brass tacks, that makes no sense.
“Why?” I ask. I’m still trying to get my head around it. “Why would anyone want that? You live here, don’t you?”
Asphodel stands. “My reasons are my own. And you, child, could scarce understand them.”
As he walks away, I stand and call after him. “Then I may leave?”
He stops and turns. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“You have no need of me,” I say, resisting the urge to beg. “May I go?”
“Oh, no,” he says, amused. “Sir Torvold the Bold is the best knight I’ve encountered in a hundred years. I wouldn’t dream of facing him without some kind of edge. My informant tells me he’s quite taken with you. Imagine how distraught he’ll be when he sees you by my side at Knob Knoll.” He saunters out of the room and calls over his shoulder, “Enjoy your real food, Princess.”