As I mentioned yesterday, ILLUSTRATED GIRL (the first book in the Lucitopia anthology) is now available on Amazon for free for the next 3 days!
If this is the first time you're hearing about it, where the hell have you been!? The story is a humorous slant on the princess fairy tale, about a girl who ends up stuck in her favorite book with only 15 days to find her way out.
I loved The Princess Bride, and grew up reading Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Hitchhiker's Guide by Douglas Adams. Unfortunately, this book is nowhere near as good as any of those stories!
That being said, it's a really fun read. It's got knights, magic, quests, and a real dick of a unicorn. And, if you don't like it, you won't have to ask for your money back, because it's free!! It's a win win!! :)
Seriously, I hope it brightens your day. We can all use a good laugh right about now. I know I sure can.
Here's the link to ILLUSTRATED GIRL.
Yesterday, Stephenie Meyer announced that she is finally releasing another book in the Twilight Saga, after a twelve-year delay. For those of you who don't know, in August of 2008 Stephenie Meyer abruptly stopped working on Midnight Sun (which retells the events of the Twilight books from Edward's perspective), and shelved it after twelve chapters were leaked online. So far everyone has had a strong opinion about it. Lots of big feels about this series. Lot of love and a lot of hate. Some feel it's overkill to release another book after so many years, while others welcome the news.
Personally, I enjoyed the series immensely. I read every book like I was gobbling down popcorn. Yes, I was aware that there were some problems with the plotting, the worldbuilding, the characters, yada, yada, yada, and I just didn’t care. I was hooked! Hooked, I tell you! And there is real talent in that. There’s luck, too, and great timing, but that’s true for any book that hits it that big. As for whether I will be reading more about Edward and Bella, I'm not sure that I need to. That series already holds a special place in my heart.
One of the things I kept reading online was that, Twilight stan or not, if you got a book deal after 2008 in the YA genre, Stephenie Meyer helped you get it. And I have to agree with that one. I got a book deal after Twilight, and I know for a fact it was because Twilight was a huge hit, so thank you Stephanie Meyers. And thank you for a thoroughly entertaining series.
That’s how long I was mentally gone from the “real world.” Physically, I never left. I find myself in a hospital. My father has had a heart attack. He survived but I haven’t been allowed to see him yet.
I’ve been here all day and part of the night, apparently, although I don’t remember getting the phone call while I was at the flea market on the corner of Melrose and Fairfax. I was killing time before I was supposed to meet my dad for lunch, looking through a pile of used books. I don’t remember driving to Cedar Sinai hospital and sitting for hours in a chair in a hallway. My mom says I slept through most of it, and I do have a horrible kink in my neck, so it must be true.
Here’s how I know Lucitopia was not an illusion.
One: my hair is about a foot longer. I can’t sit on it, but it’s thick, shiny, and nearly to my waist. A year without hot tools and it’s like I’ve got a new head of hair. Two: my complexion is crystal clear. No sugar or preservatives has given me super-model skin. I’ll miss candy and Doritos, but I already know I can live without them. Three: I can still throw a blade. I went down to the cafeteria, boosted a knife, waited until a hallway was clear and I sunk that bugger right into the hole of the A in the “Must Wash Hands” sign. That is not the sort of thing I could have learned in a few hours.
And last: My heart is breaking. I don’t know when—or if—I’ll ever see Torvold again. I know he’s a real boy from this world or I would still be in Lucitopia. The one condition of my leaving was that I had to get a real boy to kiss me so Torvold must be real. He knows I’m from Fresno, but apart from that he knows nothing about me. He’ll have to find me in city of over half a million people—if he’s even back in this world. I have no idea what his condition for leaving Lucitopia was, but it probably wasn’t the same as mine. A year in there was one day out here. Who knows how long he’ll spend in there? When he does get out, I could be ancient history to him.
I’m going to have to leave L.A. and go home soon, so I can shower and make it to school. My mom said I didn’t have to go in today, but I really want to. I want to try to make friends. I’ve spent too much time locked in a tower.
“Here’s the doctor,” my mom says, relieved. She stands to greet him.
My father’s surgeon looks suspiciously like Bashan. I stand and smile at him, narrowing my eyes as if to ask, do you know me? He ignores my look and gives a quick run-down of my dad’s health.
“We put in two stents, and the surgery went well,” Bashan-as-a-surgeon says. “He’ll still groggy, but you can go in and see him now if you want.”
“Thank you doctor,” my mom says, and we both go into the recovery room.
My dad is hooked up to a dozen machines. He looks papery and hollow. Tanil and Gertie are there as nurses. They promised to look after my dad for me, and they did. I thank them as they adjust the curtains around my dad’s recovery bed, but they don’t seem to recognize me either.
And that brings up another horrendous possibility. I could run into Torvold, like I am currently running into some of the other cast member from my ultimate cosplay in Lucitopia, and he might not know me.
“There are my girls,” my dad says, still goofy from the drugs. My mom frowns, but she doesn’t correct him. We sit on either side of him and take his hands.
“I missed you so much,” he tells me. “I had the strangest dream. You were in a tower. You were painting red arrows on the walls with lipstick.”
I smile at my dad. “I missed you too, dad,” I say.
“We should spend more time together,” he says, his eyes shutting.
Me and my mom share a look. She raises an eyebrow as if to ask me if that’s what I want. I nod.
“We will,” I promise.
It’s a long drive. Four hours back to Fresno from Hollywood, even at 3 a.m. with no traffic. I get home and there’s a white horse standing in my front yard.
Rancor, minus the sparkly horn, is waiting impatiently for me. He’s already eaten all my mom’s roses and he’s pulled up half the grass in the yard. What a jerk. I couldn’t love any animal more. He sees me and whickers.
“You miss me?” I ask as I rub his soft nose. He lets me put my arms around his neck and rest there for a little while. “Want some salt?” Rancor sneezes. “Come on. I’ll get you some salt.”
He follows me into the house. I don’t even try to get him to stay outside because I know he won’t. He stands in my kitchen as I pour salt on my palm and let him lick it. I do a quick Internet search for a local barn where I can stable him.
There are a ton of stables around Fresno, and lucky for me horse people wake up early. I find a stable that specializes in “difficult or abused” animals, and they even do pick-ups. I give them a call and they promise to be over in half an hour.
“Want some candy?” I ask Rancor. He tosses his head. I go get my mom’s gummy bear stash out of the cabinet over the refrigerator. “I’m going to shower for school while you eat these,” I tell him. “Don’t chew on anything else.”
I take the most amazing shower of my life, except that Rancor comes into the bathroom while I’m in there and drinks a tub-full of water. I condition my luxurious hair, and I don’t blow dry it.
When the horse people come with their trailer, I walk out of the house with Rancor following me. They give both of us strange looks, but I just smile like nothing weird is going on and lead Rancor to the back of the trailer.
“You’ve got to get in there,” I tell him. He stamps a foot. “No, I’m serious. You can’t live in my room. My mom will freak out. But I’ll come visit you every day after school.”
Rancor nibbles on my sleeve and gets into the trailer. I go to the driver. “Don’t try to touch him,” I warn her while I sign some papers. “Just open the trailer doors and tell him where you want him to go. He might listen to you, he might not. I’ll be by later to feed him.”
She takes my money warily and drives off.
I can barely remember where my classes are or what the heck is going on in any of them. It has been a year for me since I sat here. I smile at people. I nod at familiar faces. I chat with a nice girl as we go from one class to another.
And then I see him.
He’s hard to miss. Torvold the Bold is coming down the hallway toward me. He is head and shoulders above everyone else. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt and he’s chatting with other athletic-looking boys who are probably the popular portion of some treasured sports team here in Fresno.
I stop dead, terrified he won’t recognize me. He seems to belong here, and I never did. He’s also definitely a senior, while I am a junior, and from the way everyone watches his every move, it looks like he’s the jewel of the school while I am practically a ghost. What am I going to do? Walk up to him and ask, “Slay any evil sorcerer’s lately?”
But he sees me, and he stops. He walks away from all of his friends. He comes straight to me. He stops right in front of me.
“What’s your name? “ he asks.
“Holly,” I say. “What’s yours?”
“Jake,” I repeat. It’s perfect. He’s such a Jake.
“Holly,” he says, and the way he says it makes a glitter bomb go off in my chest.
We crash into each other.
He lifts me up, hugging me and laughing. I’m laughing and trying not to cry. Hoots and hollers erupt from everyone, especially his friends. He ignores everyone but me.
“I’ve been looking for you since I got back yesterday,” he whispers in my ear. “I went online, but I didn’t know your real name.” He pulls back so he can look at me, but he doesn’t put me down. “Do you have any idea how many high schools there are in Fresno?”
I smile into his eyes. “I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again,” I say. “And here you are.” Our faces are so close our noses are nearly touching.
“A-hem,” says a disapproving adult voice. “Mr. Lopez, please release that young lady.”
We both turn our heads to see Temperance (I guess she’s a teacher) watching us with her arms crossed. Jake puts me down, but I don’t want to step away from him.
“Meet me in the senior parking lot after school,” Jake says as the bell rings and our audience breaks up. “I have something that belongs to you.”
“Okay,” I say warily. What could he possibly have of mine?
For the rest of the day I find I have a lot of people who are interested in talking to me. It appears Jake Lopez is kind of a big deal in our little pocket of this world. He’s almost as famous and beloved here as Torvold the Bold was in Lucitopia. He’s the captain of pretty much everything athletic and academic, and though heavily chased by every girl in the school, from what I gather, our familiarity in the hallways was heretofore unheard of. Jake Lopez, it seems, has been saving himself for the right girl.
He is the flower of Virtue.
By the time the day is over, and I make it out to the senior parking lot I’m spinning. Seeing him leaning against a silver motorcycle does nothing but add to my dizziness.
“Oh good,” he says, grinning as I walk toward him. “You made it through the metal detectors. I thought I’d be waiting forever while security kept finding blades hidden in your clothes.”
I jokingly frisk myself as I walk toward him. “You can only really hide daggers in either a corset or garters. Jeans and a blouse just don’t have the structure to pull it off.” I’m standing next to him now and I really want to be closer. I gesture to his bike. “Is this Thunder?”
He smiles and shakes his head. A bit sad. “No. Nothing can ever replace him.”
“I know,” I say quietly. We stand there forever, just looking. A million questions, but all I can do is stare.
He holds out his helmet. “Put this on.”
I put on his helmet as he straddles the bike. “What about you? Do you have another helmet?” I ask.
“I’ve done more dangerous things without armor,” he replies without sounding like he’s boasting. “And we’re not going far.”
I climb on behind him. I can’t see a thing back here. Jake is just too big. “I think I prefer riding in front of you,” I say. Then I wrap my arms and legs around him and give what I just said a second thought.
He brushes his hands along the outside of my thighs and turns his head to the side toward me. “I’ll take either,” he says, a little breathless, and then he puts both hands on the handles, flips a foot, and we’re off.
Jake brings me back to his house. It’s a modest suburban home with a two-car garage and a pool out back. Inside, the walls are covered with pictures of Jake and his family.
There’s one wall with framed ribbons and American flags. Lots of medals from war, and then pictures of a particular brand of firemen out here in the West called the Smokejumpers. They literally jump into raging fires to save lives.
“I was wrong,” I admit. “I guess there are a lot of heroes in Fresno.”
“I’m looking at one,” Jake says. He’s looking at me.
I blush and go back to the pictures. A guy named Manuel Lopez is in a lot of them. I’m assuming that’s Jake’s dad because he looks like Jake after fighting the Thralls. In one picture, Manuel is covered in ash and smiling with an arm thrown over a buddy. The buddy’s birth and death date are stamped in gold under the picture. A lot of Smokejumpers die.
“Is this your dad?” I ask, pointing to Manuel.
Jake nods, smiling. “He’s sleeping right now,” he says quietly. “He had a three-day shift.”
He takes my hand and leads me past the kitchen and the dining room and up a flight of stairs.
He brings me to his bedroom. On his bedside table is huge leather-bound book with the word LUCITOPIA embossed on the bejeweled front cover.
“Have you read the whole book?” I ask him, reaching for it.
“Of course” he says, confused. “You haven’t?”
“No,” I admit sheepishly. I touch the cover with my hands. “Wait,” I say, stepping back. “You knew how our story would end?”
“Almost?” he says, like he’s trying to remember a dream. “There are so many stories. And they’re always changing.” He frowns as he thinks about it. “I knew parts of it.”
“Me too!” I say. “But I never knew all the details.”
He smiles, nodding. “It was the same for me.”
I look at the book. “Are we in there now?”
“No,” he says. “Our story is locked. I think other people might be able to read it, but I couldn’t find us in there anymore.”
I look at him, and I can’t seem to stop. This could become a habit.
He shakes himself and reaches under his pillow. He pulls something out and holds it behind his back.
“Is that for me?” I ask, grinning. I move closer to him.
“It’s yours,” he says carefully. “I promised I would guard it, though I thought about taking it,” he admits.
He pulls his hand out from behind his back and holds out my maiden’s circlet.
I can’t breathe. I touch my forehead where it used to rest. I wore it for a year. I don’t know what to say.
“Here,” Jake whispers, and he puts it back on my brow.
His hands run down either side of my face, then my throat, then he’s pulling me to him and he’s kissing me. The falling, floating, flying feeling has nothing to do with an interdimensional shift this time. It’s all Jake.
We jump apart. Jake’s dad is standing in the doorway in a t-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t know how we woke him, seeing as how we were whispering. He must have a chastity detector in his brain. I hastily take off my maiden’s circlet and hide it behind my back.
“Jake. No girls in your bedroom,” his dad says gently, and a little disappointed, actually.
“We’re coming right now,” Jake says. He holds my hand tightly in his as he brings me to the door. He glances back at me. “I was just giving something back to her. For now.”
Embarrassed but cheeky. Absolutely devastating.
“Will you stay for dinner?” Jake asks as we go down the stairs.
I frown. “I want to, but I can’t.”
He stops even though we’re not all the way down yet. I’m one stair over him which puts us almost eye to eye. “Why not?” He’s serious and a little worried. Like maybe things are different between us now that we’re back here. He’s frigging adorable.
“I have a very important quest,” I reply, breaking into a smile.
“Tell me your quest, Princess, and I will aid you in it,” he says. His smile is so close to mine our lips are nearly touching.
“Okay,” I say, shrugging. “But he bites.”
Right from the start, it’s clear which way this battle is going to go.
It’s not just a question of numbers (Asphodel has more) it’s that the touch of the Thralls is poisonous to normal people, and only Torvold can actually kill them with Calx.
The regular foot soldiers only have the power to hold back the Thralls temporarily. They can bludgeon them into immobility, as I did with my pan, but bludgeoning takes time. They bludgeon away, and it saves some of their lives, but it’s not a way to win.
Torvold needs to be everywhere at once, and he nearly is. Great plumes of smoke and ash fly up and around him as he makes wide sweeping motions with Calx. He scythes through the ranks of Thralls with as much economy of motion as can be, but no one could keep that up forever.
And Asphodel sits on his horse, waving a hand to conduct his gory orchestra, not even breaking a sweat.
“Aren’t you going to fight?” I ask, when I can no longer hold back the tightness in my chest.
“If Torvold manages to get through my army and challenge me, I will fight him.” He leans over in his saddle and smiles at me. “Don’t want to tire myself out beforehand, now do I?”
I glance down at his sword. I can’t help it. I want to grab it and kill him right now. He sees my eyes drop down and laughs his cruel laugh.
“Still wondering if you could snatch up my sword before I can? Any time you want to find out, try it.”
I look away. I need to find something I can use against him. I have to come up with a plan. You know…the thing I’ve never had? Yeah, one of those.
“You’re not going to use magic?” I ask tightly.
“Why waste my energy creating an illusion?” he replies.
I look out at the battle, and I can see Torvold halfway through the sea of Thralls, and though he fights on, even from here it’s obvious that his strength is flagging. I take a deep breath, trying not to scream or cry or do something really dumb like hurl myself at Asphodel’s head, when I see it.
There’s a bright flash of white, thrashing hooves, and rainbow light refracting off a spiral horn of bone and crystal. Rancor comes charging up from behind Torvold, impaling Thralls and bucking like a bronco.
Whatever magical crystal is in his horn must be in his hooves, too, for every time his kicks a Thrall it bursts into ash. Rancor twists out oddly, and screams (very unnerving to hear an equine scream) and I think he’s foaming at the mouth. He tears through Thralls like a kid through wrapping paper on Christmas.
Rancor has gone bat-shit crazy.
And it isn’t pretty. It’s like watching a beauty queen completely lose her tiddly-winks, tear out her hair extensions, and make one of those drama-tragedy-mask faces with mascara running down her face. It’s not easy to watch, is all I’m saying.
Rancor runs out in front of Torvold and starts blazing a path for him, giving Torvold a much-needed break. Even if Torvold wanted to raise his sword at a Thrall, Rancor wouldn’t let him. It’s as if that deranged unicorn had decided that every single one of the Thralls was his to kill.
The men hurrah Rancor, fanning the flames of Rancor’s insane charge. Torvold is very good at killing Thralls. Rancor is exceptional. It’s as if he were made for it. At one point it looks like Rancor just can’t help himself anymore and he starts running over Thralls, galloping over them and gleefully turning them into ash.
“That blasted unicorn,” Asphodel says, grinding his teeth.
“He is a perfect menace,” I say lovingly, like that ball of murderous crazy was my special little man.
I just hope that Asphodel doesn’t summon the bats as they seemed to be more effective at deterring Rancor than Thralls. But as Rancor mows down row after row of Thralls, and bats don’t appear, I suspect that Asphodel can’t call for them. I approached the Ebon Spire at sunset, when bats usually come out, and though it feels like the battle has gone on for hours, it is still mid-day here on Knob Knoll.
Asphodel kicks his mount forward. Torvold has made it through the Thralls with his bannerman, Jackanet the Loyal, holding his colors high. Fortitude stands beside Loyalty. She strips off a white glove and throws it to the ground. Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer has been officially challenged by Torvold the Bold, Champion of Virtue, and he has no choice but to face him in single combat.
The Thralls stop fighting and pull back. The armies of men disengage as well. One of the Thralls limps forward and picks up the white glove thrown by Fortitude and carries it to Asphodel. Asphodel takes the glove and removes one of his own, finger by finger. Then he throws it to the ground.
The armies part. Rancor patrols the ground between them, snorting, but he does not attack. The two knights dismount, remove their helmets, unsheathe their swords, and walk to the cleared, flat ground atop Knob Knoll.
Asphodel is smiling.
This is exactly what he’s been waiting for. For all my worry about Torvold tiring himself to the point of exhaustion, or flying into an unbalanced rage over me, the truth is that Asphodel might be a good enough fighter to beat him even without any tricks.
He did say that Torvold was the best knight he’d encountered in a hundred years, but I don’t think you can know something like that without first being able to kill a hundred years’ worth of darn good knights.
If Torvold fights, he will lose. If he loses, Lucitopia dies. Torvold can’t fight. It goes against everything he is, but the only sure way to save Virtue is for him to turn around and walk away. I watch him mount Knob Knoll in his golden armor, the picture of heroism, and I realize that he’s the one who should’ve hid in the tower.
Asphodel is waiting on one side of the clearing. Torvold positions himself across from his foe. I must stop this. I see Faith, Hope, and Love standing on a far hill, watching.
Jump. And the net will appear.
I jump off my horse. I run between the two knights. I hold up my scarlet-clad arms and shout,
“If we sacrifice the best of ourselves so that the rest may live, what’s the point of living at all?”
Torvold stops, recognizing his own words. I turn to him.
“You are the best of us Torvold, not me,” I say. “Asphodel doesn’t want to be king, he wants to kill you because if he kills you…”
And then I feel a hot throbbing hole open up in my middle. I look down and see the tip of a broadsword sticking out of my bellybutton.
I should have come up with a plan.
That whole notion of jumping and the net appearing? Utter garbage. Just a bad idea all around.
Of all the ways I could have died protecting Torvold I can think of about a dozen that would have been more effective than this. Jumping in front of Asphodel’s killing blow, for instance, or pulling a Rancor and just going bat-shit crazy on Asphodel would have been much more useful ways to get myself impaled. But this is embarrassing.
“I’m so sorry,” I say to Torvold.
I see his face crumble. Then Asphodel pulls the blade back out—way more painful than going in, by the way—and I topple to the side. Asphodel steps over me to strike at Torvold, and Torvold parries.
Then a sound comes out of Torvold. It’s not really a battle cry, it’s much more personal and painful to listen to. A storm unleashes on Asphodel. Torvold is hitting Asphodel so hard I hear the clanging of their swords through the ground. The blows are fast and punishing, and I have no idea if this is great swordsmanship or not, but I don’t see how anything could handle being pounded on that way for very long.
I feel something soft and hairy nibbling on my head. Then Rancor’s warm tongue slops across my face. He’s trying to drink my tears. The only problem is, I’m not crying. I’m in a universe of pain, but I’m not heartbroken. I’m actually too cheesed off by the idiotic way I’ve thrown away my one shot at a heroic death to cry over the fact that I’m dying.
Torvold strikes Asphodel so hard on the breastplate that his armor comes off on one shoulder. The loose armor disrupts Asphodel’s ability to swing and he has to back up and unhook the straps on the other shoulder, abandoning the chest and back plate altogether. Without the armor, Asphodel is more exposed, but he is also faster and lighter.
Oh no. Asphodel just disarmed Torvold. Calx comes flying in my direction and nearly kills me a second time. Asphodel brings his sword down on Torvold, but Torvold grabs his wrist with both hands and then pulls Asphodel into his knee.
Asphodel lets out a giant oof sound and then Torvold opens up on him. He knees Asphodel in the gut over and over, every time jamming his knee harder into Asphodel’s solar plexus. Finally, Asphodel drops his sword, and then it becomes a fist fight.
Calx is just a foot away from me. This sucks worse than any period cramp I have ever had in my entire life, but I roll over onto my hands and knees. When I don’t black out from the pain, I do a little baby crawl to Calx.
I know if I touch Calx it will burn, but maybe the burning will distract me from the giant hole in my colon.
The brawl has come to the ground. Torvold is doing something to Asphodel’s arm that look like an MMA move. Not that I’m an expert in mixed martial arts, or anything. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t have jujitsu in these types of stories, but I guess if it works it works.
I reach out and grab Calx, thinking I’ll just get it over with, but when I touch the metal it doesn’t burn at all. In fact, as soon as my hand is all the way around the hilt, I feel a jolt of energy and the pain from my wound isn’t that bad anymore.
I stand up. I walk over to the struggling knights. Asphodel has gotten on top Torvold. Calx pulls me forward until I am holding the blade to Asphodel’s chest.
Both knights look up at me and freeze.
“Impossible,” Asphodel says through swollen lips and broken teeth. “No one from this world can wield that sword!”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m from Fresno,” I say.
Asphodel makes a move to dive for his sword, and I stab him right through the heart.
And that’s all I got.
I see the ground rushing up and then it stops and I’m lying next to Asphodel. His left hand, bare from throwing down his glove to accept Torvold’s challenge, is right in front of my face. Across the back of it is the cut I gave him in my dream. He was there, in my dream. Maybe it wasn’t even a dream. Maybe I only thought it was a dream because it felt so surreal. That cut on his hand is real enough.
That lying sack of—
“Princess!” Torvold sobs, lifting me into his arms.
He holds me to him and cries. At least I’m not the one crying this time. I’d love to wipe his tears away, but Rancor’s gone and shoved his fat head in between us and I can’t even see Torvold. I can’t see anything, actually. I’m definitely dying. Maybe I’m already dead.
I feel gooey.
I open my eyes and see Torvold’s expectant face. I see all of their faces hovering over me—Dex, Tudie, and Jackanet, Thunder and Rancor, Faith, Hope and Love. Even Griselda is here. Still don’t know who she really is, but I’m just happy to be able to see anybody right now. I feel inside the hole in my dress and am delighted to find that there is no hole in my belly anymore.
I sit up and laugh. Torvold laughs and hugs me. Somewhere in there he took off his breastplate and I can feel his chest against mine. I’m laughing and crying and Rancor is sneaking a lick even though these are definitely tears of joy and not heartbreak.
I pull back and look around. All of the Thralls are gone. A middle-aged man and woman are standing behind the Virtues, smiling. She’s wearing a grey dress. I smile and wave at them.
“That’s it?” I ask Hope. “It’s over?”
“It’s over,” she says. “All of the souls Asphodel captured are free, including your father’s. You’re a hero.”
I look at Torvold and he hugs me again. “I thought you were dead,” he whispers.
“Me too,” I whisper back. We stay like that for a long time.
“Why don’t we see to the wounded?” Love says. I open my eyes and see her shooing everyone away from Torvold and I. “You, too, Temperance,” she says to Griselda, dragging her away.
“That’s who she is,” I mumble. “Temperance.”
“Glad she’s gone, then,” Torvold says. He’s doing that cheeky-yet-blushing thing that I find absolutely devastating.
He pushes my hair behind my shoulder. I know I’m covered in glittery unicorn snot, and he’s covered in sweat and dirt and lots of other nasty things from fighting a battle and grappling with an evil sorcerer to the death, but neither of us care.
He kisses me. It feels like falling and floating and flying and…like something else. Something I’ve felt before. A barfy butterfly. We both pull back and look at each other, like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Oh no. Torvold narrows his eyes at me.
“Wait. Did you say you were from Fresno?” he asks. He doesn’t have a British accent anymore.
“Oh shi—” we both say.
And I’m out of Lucitopia.
I sit on a white canopy bed, the bed of every girl’s dream, staring at a gorgeous red dress, the dress of every girl’s dream, wondering how the hell I wound up in such a nightmare.
I have no time left. I’ve spent a year trapped in Lucitopia. A year doing the silliest things, like individually clipping every split end off of every single hair on my head or digging through apothecary books looking for the medieval equivalent of a tampon. I threw knives at a wall for eight hours straight every day for five months. I made my own toothbrush. Those last two were good choices, actually, but there were so many moments of my life here in Lucitopia that I wasted, and now I’m out of time.
I stand, wearing just a light slip, and let Ghost Dress lace me into the heaps of silk and bone that are my skirts and kirtle. If Asphodel thinks his sword is heavy, he should try wearing this dress for twelve hours. Men always measure strength in brute force but make any one of them carry around a skirt like this while wearing a suffocating corset and I guarantee he’ll faint before lunch.
I could try to fight him. I could make Asphodel drag me to the battle, but that would only strengthen his position. Torvold would lose his mind if he saw me kicking and screaming. The more distraught I am, the more distraught Torvold will be.
Rather than try the blunt-force approach, I’m selecting the wait and watch option. If I stay close to Asphodel, which is where he needs me in order to inflame Torvold, I just might find some way to kill Asphodel before he kills Torvold.
I hope. I don’t know why I’m still hoping. I know how this ends. But still. I hope with all my heart.
Ghost Dress leads me outside the Ebon Spire to the open area between it and the iron gates. As soon as I pass through the arch, I freeze.
A sea of Thralls stands packed like kernels of corn on a cob in front of me. Asphodel sits atop his black warhorse, gleaming darkly in is black armor. His helm rests on the pommel in front of him, leaving his head bare, so I can see his gorgeous face. Next to him is another mount with no rider. She is an elegant white mare who wishes she was as beautiful as Rancor, but no equine will ever be as lovely to me as that fancy jerk.
Asphodel waves a hand and the sea of rotting flesh parts in front of me, making a corridor to my mount. There is no stench, no smell at all, and I don’t know if that’s real or if Asphodel has created some kind of illusion in order to be able to stand being among his creations. I take a deep breath and walk toward my horse, and as I do I see a familiar face appear among the Thralls. It’s Gingivitis.
I don’t know why it hurts me to see him as a Thrall, but it does. Not an hour ago, that blank eyed fish-zombie was a person. I never knew his name. I never bothered to ask, but he was still a person. Granted, he was a loathsome person who leered at me, held a knife to child’s throat, and had probably done way worse things in his malodourous existence, but that doesn’t matter. No soul deserves to be a Thrall. Not even the ones I don’t like.
I walk through the sea of damnation that Asphodel created, my heart chilling with every tortured orca-call that barks from their melting bodies. I mount my elegant white horse. She doesn’t even try to bite me, which is just sad. When I’m settled, I look over at Asphodel.
“Did you like my gift?” he asks.
I pause, thinking carefully. “What gift is that, seeing as how you’ve given me so many.”
He smirks, detecting my bitterness. He cocks one finger at the crowd, beckoning. Thrall Gingivitis lurches forward and stands in front of me.
“This gift. He offered you insult, did he not?”
“Yes,” I whisper, staring at him. His two front teeth are gone. I guess I knocked out the second when I hit him on my way out the door.
“I punished him for you. Not the wedding present you asked for, but exemplary of my affection for you.”
“Yes. I understand that now.”
“Shall we wed before or after the battle, my betrothed?” Asphodel asks in an offhand way while I stare at the tortured thing before me.
I hate Asphodel. I’ve never hated anything before. Not even Lucitopia. I think of dreaming about kissing him, and I want to throw up. I can’t believe I thought he was anything other than evil. It’s right there in his name—Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer. They don’t give out names like that on accident, but I allowed myself to get reeled in by the pretty package, thinking that there had to be some buried hurt inside of him that could explain or even excuse his actions just because he’s got bedroom eyes and great abs. I am a giant fool. On the inside Asphodel is as gruesome as his Thralls.
I look over at him, plastering a bright yet brittle smile on my face.
“I don’t fancy myself old enough to be a widow, so let’s set the date for after you confront Sir Torvold the Bold, shall we?” I bat my eyelashes at him in a mockery of flirtation.
He kicks his mount into movement. If he’s smiling, it’s not because he’s thinking happy thoughts.
Remember those rolling hills Rancor and I rode past on our way to the Ebon Spire? Well, it turns out, one of them is Knob Knoll.
There’s nothing remarkable about it. You can’t tell the difference between Knob Knoll and the scores of other hills around it. I don’t even see any knobs. Unless you count the giant one in black armor sitting on the horse next to me.
“You look amused, Princess,” Asphodel comments. “May I ask why?”
I look out from the top of the hill, my bottom lip quivering with a smothered laugh, but I manage to hold my tongue. I’ve already learned that Asphodel leaves no slight unpunished.
“Ah. Here’s your paramour now.”
At first, I don’t know what he’s talking about. All I see is a smudge on the horizon. That smudge turns into an ant swarm, which becomes an army marching over the hills.
There are many banners. Some are checked, some striped, some have the image of an animal like a chimera-griff. Beneath each banner is a man riding a horse, and behind him march all the men who fight for that knight. I count over a dozen different banners with scores of men following them.
“All the good men left in the world,” Asphodel says.
In the middle front rides a huge knight in golden armor astride a white stallion. On either side of him ride five women, one girl, and one man all dressed in white. The banner above his head is a golden angel on a white field.
“He’s late,” Asphodel mumbles. “Not as eager to win you back as I’d thought.”
“You needn’t keep speaking on my account, my betrothed,” I say in honied tones. “If ever you grow tired of your own voice, rest assured, I stopped listening to you hours ago.”
Asphodel laughs in spite of himself. “Maybe I will marry you after the battle, for I find you continually amusing. And I like to keep those I’ve conquered close. Speaking of which.” He turns in his saddle and snaps.
Ghost Suit and Ghost Dress ride up on pair of old dun-colored nags. Their defining clothes are slouched down in attitudes of defeat. Neither of their collars are turned in my direction, which means they can’t look at me.
“Tell me, Princess. Have you ever heard of a cautionary tale?” Asphodel asks.
“I’ve read every kind of tale you can imagine,” I reply tightly. “And you should know, that in nearly every story, the evil sorcerer dies.”
He nods and looks out at the massing army and the bright crush of banners, armor, and shining young faces in every hue. At the forefront is Sir Torvold the Bold, flanked by Virtue.
“Let your heart flutter for Sir Torvold while it may, Princess,” Asphodel says, sneering. “He won’t look this good for much longer.”
Asphodel is right about one thing. My heart is fluttering. It’s Midsummer’s Day and the air is warm, so like Asphodel Torvold has his helm hooked to the pommel of his saddle rather than sweating underneath it before the battle has begun. His dark hair and tanned skin show up sharply against his golden armor. He is twice as broad and an entire head taller than any other man on the field, but he is no brute. His shoulders are enormous because he’s carrying all of Lucitopia on top of them.
Now that they are closer, I can see the Virtues flanking him. Loyalty rides close, but a little behind and to the left with Fortitude and Dexterity. With them is the Great Griselda. No idea which Virtue she is, but I should have guessed she was one of them.
In line with Torvold, and to his right, is Faith, Mother Maybe, and our mysterious hostess. I know who she is, and now that I can make out her face I can’t believe I didn’t recognize her at first sight. She is Love.
Love rides closest to Torvold, just to his right. Next to her is Mother Maybe, but now that I see Faith on her other side, I know Mother Maybe’s true name. Hope. Faith, Hope, and Love ride with Torvold.
“My heart doesn’t flutter because Torvold looks good,” I say quietly. “It flutters because he is good.”
“He is the flower of all virtue,” Asphodel says mockingly. Then in the silence that follows he truly hears his words and the truth in them shines through.
“He is the flower of all Virtue,” Asphodel repeats slowly, and this time we both hear the capital letter on Virtue. “He is their Champion.”
I shake my head. “No,” I say, but Asphodel already knows he’s figured it out.
“Thank you, Princess. They say Love never dies, though I’ve tried.” Asphodel drops his head, shaking it while he smiles ruefully. “But I don’t have to kill Love. I just have to kill Torvold, and Love will die.”
“You’re wrong,” I say.
“Don’t lie to me,” Asphodel growls. “I’ve searched for this for too long.”
The two armies face off against each other over a flat bit of ground between the hills. On one side are the Thralls. On the other are humans. There are more Thralls than humans. Asphodel stays on top of Knob Knoll, but Torvold rides Thunder up to the front line.
Torvold dons his helmet. He draws Calx. I can’t hear his battle cry, but I see Thunder rear up on his hind legs, and I hear the answering shout from his army. Then they charge.
Yup. Total badass.
I end up eating in the kitchen with Ghost Suit and Ghost Dress.
Their dinner, which they share with me, is a hearty vegetable stew, black bread smothered with a thick slab of butter, and a glass of milk.
While my hosts don’t talk at all, they move around in a comfortable way, like two dance partners who know the steps to every song. Even the song that goes we have a crying teenaged girl at our table. Let’s feed her and tell her everything will be better in the morning. It’s a complicated song, but they’re pros, apparently, because they don’t miss a beat.
“I’m such an idiot,” I say, blubbering into my stew. “You didn’t see Torvold at the minstrel show, so you don’t know, but even though Torvold knew it was an act, he practically killed Tanil when Tanil looked at my boobs. It’s like Torvold can’t keep a cool head where I’m concerned. And Asphodel is going to use that to kill him.”
Ghost Dress nudges my forearm with her invisible fingers, guiding the forgotten spoon I’m holding to my lips. I take a sip of my stew. I have a few more sips because it’s delicious, and then I remember another point.
“And he totally took the bait when that bandit—” I gasp and drop my spoon. Both Ghost Suit and Dress jump. “It was Gingivitis!” I proclaim, pointing a finger skyward, like I’m Sherlock cracking the case. “He’s the informant who told Asphodel how irrational Torvold is about me!” I lean back in my chair. “If I ever see that guy again, I’m going to punch him right in his gangrenous stink hole.”
Ghost Suit and Ghost Dress both pause and share what I’m assuming is a look. I go back to my dinner. I eat a few more bites before another wave of how could I have been such an idiot washes over me.
“And I thought my coming here would save him, even though I know how this ends.” I say, fresh tears stinging my eyes. “But—worse. It turns out I’m the thing that’s gets him killed. I should have read the beginning of the book. I would have found out that I’m in it!” I laugh-cry hysterically. “Is Irony a frigging Virtue? Because she definitely isn't dead!” I shovel some bread in my mouth. Damn, that’s good. “I mean,” I mumble incoherently as I shove more buttered bread in my mouth, “coo I ger mo stoopid?”
Ghost Dress stands and comes around the back of my chair to give me an invisible hug. I cry and chew and cry some more before I swallow and wipe my face.
“I was supposed to be the hero, and I’m crying all the time. I hate it when the girl cries all the time. What a terrible story.” This strikes me as funny, so I have a laugh. My laugh falls into a sigh, and I’m finally past the worst of it. “Now that I’ve completely lost my readers, I think it’s time for bed.”
Ghost Suit leads while Ghost Dress walks beside me, carrying the glass of milk. We go down a flight of steps rather than up. At a random wall with no dead end, Ghost Suit stops and puts his hand against the stones. They slide over each other and fold back to reveal my ebony door. Ghost Suit opens it and lets me into my room. He bows to me in lieu of saying goodnight.
I stop and put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” I tell him. I look between him and Ghost Dress. “Do you two have kids?”
They shuffle and twist their sleeves, and tip toward each other and then away again. Ghost Suit must be shaking his head because his cravat is wiggling back and forth.
“Well, that’s too bad. You would have been greats parents. You listen really well.” I take the milk from Ghost Dress. “I can get myself undressed. I want to be alone right now.”
It turns out, I couldn’t get myself undressed. Not entirely.***
I get the arm bands off the voluminous sleeves of my smock, and I remove the overskirt leaving just the silk slip, but the bodice of the kirtle is pretty much padlocked to my ribcage. I drink my milk, clean the makeup off my face, and I must lie down at some point because I wake up in the middle of the night sprawled across my bed like I’d just flopped down there.
The door to my room is open.
I listen for any sound. I check the shadows for Ghost Dress or some other article of haunted clothing. When I’m satisfied that no one is going to jump out at me I feel for the dagger I put in my bodice before dinner, note that it’s still there, and tiptoe out the door.
Maybe Ghost Suit and Ghost Dress are letting me go? While I worry for them, if I can get away from Asphodel he won’t be able to use me against Torvold, and maybe Torvold can kill Asphodel and set them free. Or avenge their brutal deaths is more likely. Asphodel is definitely the vindictive type.
Just because the door is open doesn’t mean I’m not still locked in a cage. I need breadcrumbs or some string. There’s neither of those things, unless I want to start ripping up my sheets, and that would take too much time. Instead, I grab one of my cosmetics. The huge pot of bright red lipstick/blush should work.
I go out into the hallway, and mark the stone to the right of my doorway with a red X. Then I paint an arrow on the stone in the direction I’m going. Every time I change direction, I’ll put an arrow, so I can at least get back to my room.
I have a plan.
Down the hallway until there’s a turn. Put an arrow. Run down the next hallway. Find a staircase. Put and arrow and go up. Run down that hallway. Go along a steeply curved hallway. Put an arrow just to be safe. See another flight of stairs. Go up them, put another arrow. Take the only hallway available. Leave another red arrow. Find a doorway. It has a big red X next to it. I’m back at my room. Thump head against door. Maybe I can climb out the windows in my room?
I go back inside. My room has changed. Instead of window seats on the far wall, there are French doors and a balcony. The doors are open. I can smell the blooming night jasmine coming in on a summer breeze. I go out on the balcony and see Asphodel standing there, looking out at the stars.
I’m not afraid. I don’t feel any kind of threat from him, even though I’m only partially dressed and he’s barefoot and bare chested and only wearing a pair of breeches. I was right about his body. He isn’t bulky, but what he’s got is shredded. I go and stand next to him and look up.
“They’re not real,” he tells me. The stars are too big and too close. Galaxies swirl. The astrological ocean above us shimmers, bathing both of our upturned faces with opalescent light.
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” I ask. I feel for my knife.
“We both are,” he replies. “We’re trapped in a dream.” He looks at me, and his eyes are full of so much hurt and yearning it makes my breath catch. “I want to wake up.”
“I’ll help you,” I say. I pull out my knife and dive forward, aiming for his throat.
I’m fast. He’s just a little bit faster. He lifts his left hand and deflects my blade. I graze the back of his hand, and though I’ve drawn blood, it’s hardly fatal.
He pulls me close with one arm and catches my wrist with the other. He squeezes my captured hand, spreading the base of my thumb until he opens my palm and I drop my knife. It’s not comfortable, but it doesn’t hurt. He’s not trying to hurt me. His eyes are wide with vulnerability, not anger. It’s almost as if he’s a real person and not a cookie-cutter evil sorcerer.
“You almost caught me,” he whispers.
Still holding me against him with one arm, he lets go of my hand, so he can reach up and stroke my cheek. For a dream, this feels pretty authentic. And, not going to lie (and why should I because it’s just a dream and people do the weirdest things in their dreams) but it feels really good.
“I can’t die this way,” he tells me.
“Of course you can’t,” I say. I want to reach up and wrap my arms around his neck, so I do. I press myself against him. “It’s just a dream.”
He inhales a shaky breath, then he lowers his head to kiss me.
I bolt up in bed, rubbing furiously at my lips and making blech noises.
“So gross!” I yell after I feel like I’ve wiped all of Asphodel’s dream spit off of me. I look around. It’s dawn. I’m alone and lying on top of the covers.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed and notice I’m still wearing my shoes. I go to the vanity. The red cosmetics pot is there. It’s full.
“Just a dream,” I sigh deeply. And nothing pokes me in the ribs.
I feel inside the bodice of my dress for my knife. It’s not there. I look for my other knives, hidden about the room. They’re all gone. I run to where the door should be and start hitting the white stone with my hands.
“Open this door, Asphodel!” I scream. “I said, open it, you little,” I struggle inarticulately here for a bit, “sneaky…dream…invading…monster!” Is that a succubus? No—what’s the other one? “Incubus! You’re an incubus!”
The rocks shift and fold, revealing the door which bursts open, knocking me back. Ghost Dress hurries into the room, her empty sleeves flapping wildly. She reaches to help me off the floor, but I stand up and charge right past her.
“Asphodel!” I yell as I storm down the hallway. I have no idea which way to go, but I don’t care. “Where are you?!” I scream. Ghost Dress flaps her sleeves in front of me trying to get me to stop, but I keep barreling onward. I see doors up ahead.
“You show yourself, you coward!” I say, going to the first door I come to and pushing it open. “You conniving…!”
I’ve found him. Asphodel is standing at the back of the room, clad in black leather. A suit of black armor hangs on a rack next to him, and Ghost Suit stands behind him, just about to lay the chainmail over Asphodel’s shoulders.
“Bloody hell,” says a voice just off to my left on the entrance side of the room. It’s Gingivitis. I march over to him. “What are you doing, running around in your under…”
I sucker punch him before he can say another word. His head snaps back and he clutches his face with yelp. Blood gushes from behind his hands.
“You knocked out my tooth!” he groans.
“I saved it from a slow death.”
“You stupid bitch!”
That does it. I stride forward to hit him again, but I feel a leather glove wrap around my wrist.
“That’s quite enough, Princess,” Asphodel says as he hauls me back against him. I turn in his arms and push against his chest.
“Let go of me you…dream,” still not sold on incubus. I blather for a moment and then blurt out, “molester!”
He releases me immediately. “What are you talking about?” he asks, eyes flashing.
“You forced yourself into my dream last night. You kissed me while I was dream-addled!” I accuse. “You took liberties!”
“I did nothing of the sort!” Asphodel yells back. His chest is swelling with incensed breaths. I glare up into his face. He’s not accustomed to getting this angry, and it’s tipped him off balance. He’s searching for words that won’t come. He spins away from me, but I follow close on his heels as he strides back to his armor.
“Then where are my knives?” I pester. “How did you know about them, unless you invaded my dream last night?”
“I’ve always known about them.” He turns to face me, calm and cool again. “After your first encounter with my associate here,” he waves a desultory hand at Gingivitis, “He made me well aware of your,” he glances down at my torso, “hidden armory. I had your knives removed.”
“But my dream,” I insist.
“Was your own,” he snaps, almost losing his cool again. “I cannot force myself into your dreams.”
“Oh,” I say, rocking back on my heels. “Well, that’s a relief.” Actually, it’s not a relief. Why did I have a sexy dream about Asphodel, and not Torvold? I search his eyes for a lie, but he looks down to straighten his gloves.
“Now if you please, I must get dressed for battle,” he says, dismissing me.
I’d forgotten—how could I have forgotten that? Today is the battle of Knob Knoll, and I haven’t even come close to killing Asphodel. I don’t think I could manage it now, unarmed, while he stands inches away from his gleaming broadsword.
I glance back at him and realize he saw me looking at his sword. For just a moment he looks hurt. Then his eyes narrow and his lips press together in a sneering smile.
“Even if you were strong enough to lift it, you’d never get to it before me,” he says, his voice low and dangerous. He’s a puma again, and I’m something in the bunny-slash-deer category. But I’m a proud bunny-slash-deer.
“I prefer daggers anyway,” I retort.
His eyes flash as he takes a breath, but I twirl away from him before he can say something pithier than I can. I feel the ends of my ridiculously long hair flinging out and brushing against his chest as I do so. I march to the door. I marched in here and I am going to march out again, even though I don’t really have a reason to march anymore. It’s the principle of the thing.
Unfortunately I have to pass Gingivitis on my way out. He’s leering at my legs through the clingy silk slip that (I realize a bit too late) is just shy of see-through.
“You should get dressed, too, Princess,” Gingivitis says quietly enough that Asphodel can’t hear.
“Oh, you think I should get dressed?” I ask in a patronizing sing-song as I saunter flirtatiously toward him. Then I sucker punch him again. While he howls on the floor I step over him and say, “Don’t ever call me a bitch.”
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.”
“Princess Pleasant,” Asphodel says in a purring voice, “I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you decided to accept my offer.”
He stands and comes toward me. I shift my weight, but then I decide that I’m not going to give this guy any ground, and I plant my feet. He gets uncomfortably close to me, and I’m expecting him to stink—a hint of corpse, maybe, considering the whole necromancer vibe—but no. He’s got a spicy, incense smell that’s a little churchy, but thoroughly attractive.
Let me reiterate. Asphodel is gorgeous. He’s like a puma, with black hair and pale skin and interestingly shaped hazel eyes. I know he’s probably about a thousand years old, but he doesn’t look older than mid-twenties at most. He’s elegantly built, and although not much taller than me, I can tell from the way his doublet fits snugly across his chest and shoulders and tapers into a sharp V down to his hips, that he is fully shredded under there. I have no doubt this guy can swing a sword and I don’t want him swinging it anywhere near Torvold.
“Sorry for the delay,” I reply. “I was detained.”
He narrows his eyes at me, and I force myself to hold his gaze. I’m shaking, and he knows it, but I’ve already decided that I am not going to back up and I am not going to look away. He gives me a slow, feline smile and glances down at my dress.
“I see you must have encountered many difficulties, and I do so wish to hear about all of them, my betrothed.” He spins away from me and walks down the dais as he speaks. “There’s a room prepared for you. We’ll dine together when you have had a chance to refresh yourself.”
As soon as he leaves the audience chamber and disappears through an arched doorway behind the throne, my knees give out and I sink down into a chair. This seat is not comfortable. I realize that’s because I’m sitting on smoked quartz. Which is what Asphodel’s throne is made out of. I jump up, but no one is here to see my faux-pas. Which is disturbing.
I come down off the dais. I go to the back wall, where Asphodel disappeared, and peek my head under the archway. I find green-glowing sconces barely lighting a long hallway. There’s a suit walking towards me, and I don’t mean a businessman.
A man’s doublet and breeches—but just the doublet and breeches with no man in them—are walking down the hallway. He, and I’m just picking the most obvious pronoun here because I’m assuming that if one were gender fluid and bodiless, one would dress according to one’s sexual identity.
Anyway, he “sees” me and beckons with a sleeve for me to follow him. He turns and starts walking back the way he came, so I follow. The sconces flare on as we pass and dim behind us, as if conserving energy.
“Very green,” I mumble. I chuckle at my lame joke. I may as well take the laughs while I can get them.
The hallway ends at the base of a stone staircase that spirals into uncertain space at improbable angles, like an M.C. Escher drawing. I can’t see the top. I hike up my skirts and get to climbing. I’m ready for a grueling ascent up Mount Douchebag, but instead, after what feels like only a floor or two, Ghost Suit breaks to the right and goes down a hallway, sconces flaring with green light as he passes.
I look down the way we came and wish I hadn’t. The M.C. Escher effect is much more disturbing when you add in vertigo. I back away from the edge and reach for a wall.
“Note to self. Never look down,” I mumble as I follow Ghost Suit. We pass a lone window. It’s just a slit in the wall, more suited for shooting arrows out than letting light in. I look out of it eagerly anyway, only to see that I am twenty stories high and surrounded by bats in the air and skeletons on the ground. “Or out. Don’t look down or out. Got it.”
Ghost Suit glances back at me? Not sure about that because he doesn’t have a head, but I think I notice a tilting of the shape of his shoulders under the doublet as if he were glancing back.
“Oh, do keep going,” I say. “I’m just admiring the splendor of my new abode.”
Ghost Suit pauses momentarily, as if noting my sarcasm, and then stiffly leads me into a dead end. There are no doors anywhere. Either Ghost Suit is going to kill me, or this is my room.
“I did hope for more furniture, “ I say gesturing to the bare stone surrounding me, “but I’m sure I’ll make do.” I grin at him winningly.
Ghost Suit pauses for a moment. I see his doublet swell as if he is taking a breath to answer me, but then he lets the breath out in defeat and turns back to the wall. He raises an empty sleeve and rests it on the stone wall.
The highly polished black stone moves and folds and turns into an arched entry above an ebony door. Ghost Suit pushes it open for me and bows, gesturing with one sweeping motion of an empty sleeve for me to enter my rooms.
The entire suite is made from white stone, not black. The ceiling is vaulted and there are two enormous windows on the far wall. One of them even has a window seat with lots of fluffy pillows and cushions. The sky outside is still dark, but I think a can make out a hint of sunset light coming in through the glass.
The four-poster bed is draped with airy white linen and covered with white and pale pink bedding. The thick rug on the floor is mostly off-white, dappled with washed-out red. I notice an artfully faded rose pattern. Across from the bed there is a vanity covered in crystal bottles that are filled with perfumes and cosmetics. The drawer of the vanity is pulled open to reveal a stunning ruby necklace and matching ruby earrings. Next to the vanity is a changing screen. Draped over the side of the screen is a pink and red kirtle and a white silk smock to wear under it.
A grey dress comes out of the corner—just a dress, mind you. There’s no portly woman who’s about two inches shorter than me inside the dress. Ghost Dress curtsies to me and then starts fluttering about, trying to shoo me into a small room off of the main room, which turns out to be a decent sized water closet. And, yes, there is actually running water in here, although I don’t think it’s a closet. Water flows down two opposite walls. One side is cold water, and the other side is hot.
On the cold side there are two basins on stands with holes in the center of them. One is about sink height, and the other is about toilet height. Water flows into them constantly and goes down the respective drains.
On the hot side of the room, a large pool has been sunk into the floor. Since the water in it neither drops in level nor overflows while I’m watching it, I assume it must drain slowly from the bottom somewhere. There are rose petals strewn in the water, and the air is full of their perfume.
Ghost Dress starts unlacing my much-abused green dress, which would be hard to do with just sleeves. I guess she has invisible fingers. While I can’t hear Ghost Dress giving me a lecture about what I’ve done to my dress, and how shocking it is for a young lady like myself to be riding unicorns up to the strongholds of evil sorcerers, I get the gist of the lecture anyway. Body language can be very communicative. Even if one doesn’t have a body.
We both hear a clanking sound as the dress drops to the white marble floor, and I cringe. Those were the blades I managed to stow in the skirt. She turns abruptly away, busying herself with nothing as far as I can tell, and I fish the knives out while she pretends not to notice anything. Then she gathers up my dress and leaves me to burn it, probably.
I go to the edge of the pool and find steps. I walk down them into the most incredible bath I have ever taken in my entire life. It’s been a year since I’ve had a hot bath that didn’t require me to first chop the firewood, then haul bucket after bucket of water up a tower to then light a fire, heat the water and finally take a hot bath. I’d given up on the concept completely about eight months ago and since then I’ve settled for standing in a single bucket of lukewarm water and splashing the worst of the gunk of Lucitopia off of me.
I submerge. I wash my hair. I rub out the knots in my neck and the soreness in my calves. I lean back with my head resting on the lip of the pool and listen to the sound of the water running down the walls. I want to live in this room for the rest of my life.
My eyes snap open. I’m sure that’s exactly what Asphodel intended when he prepared this room for me. None of this is real. It’s magic, and therefore just an illusion. I just might be standing in a bucket of lukewarm water, pouring water over my head with a ladle, thinking I’m floating in a luxurious pool of hot, scented water.
I stand up and get out of the tub. I towel off, wrap myself in a bath sheet, and go to the vanity. I comb the tangles out of my wet hair, then smell the perfumes. They are all rose scents, but each of them has a different secondary note. One is candy, one is powder, one is spice. I spray myself with the spicy one because I already know what he likes.
I put my makeup on while my hair dries. When I stand, Ghost Dress is waiting with the white underdress across her sleeves. She pops it over my head and goes for the kirtle.
There’s a difference between a dress and what I’m getting into now. A dress, even one with a corset like the kind I’ve been wearing, is not the complicated situation that this contraption is. A kirtle is laced up the front to squeeze your boobs and waist, but this kirtle also has one cuff that ties around the upper arm and another that ties around the forearm. The silk of the underdress (called a smock) puffs out between the ties on the arms, and everything has to be arranged just so, or you look like a couch with the stuffing coming out.
Then there’s the skirt. There’s enough fabric in mine to make a three-person tent. Wearing a skirt that sleeps three requires more balance than you’d think. So many places to hide knives.
Once we have the kirtle tied off right, it’s time for the jewels. Rubies do look lovely with my coloring and I have to admit, the overall effect of the dress, the makeup, the heady scent of the perfume, and the jewels makes me look and feel like the princess I wished so desperately to be when I saw that print of Princess Pleasant in this stupid book.
All of this for a dress. I look into the vanity mirror at Ghost Dress standing anxiously behind me. She seems to want to say something to me, but of course, she can’t because she’s just a dress. I flounce my skirt one last time, making sure none of my knives poke anything vital if I move around.
“I probably shouldn’t keep him waiting any longer,” I announce.
Ghost Dress turns and walks to the wall where the door should be. She raises her sleeve as if to touch the wall, but she stops and faces me. I think she’s trying to warn me.
“I know he’s going to try to trick me,” I say, smiling. “You probably came here with a plan and you wound up a dress. You and your counterpart out there—the Ghost Suit. You two are a couple, right?”
Ghost Dress’ shoulders bounce as if she’s laughing or shaking her head or maybe both. She throws up her sleeves as if to say you guessed right.
“Well, I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I never have. But this,” I gesture to the princess costume, “is not what I want anymore.”
She shrugs at me as if to ask, then, what do you want?
A few days ago I would have shouted that I wanted to get out of here, and I still do, but of all the things I’ve grown to want over the past few days, leaving has fallen way down on my list.
“I don’t know,” I admit.
Rancor and I gallop past bucolic fields and rolling hills, until we suddenly enter the sfumato zone.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like; apart from saying it’s probably exactly like being in a place that has been liberally shaded with a charcoal pencil. The sky darkens as if I’ve entered a dense forest, but there are no trees overhead. I’ve seen my fair share of smog living in LA. I’ve also even seen what it’s like when wildfires throw so much ash into the air it makes midday looks like sunset, but there is no smoke or ash in the atmosphere here. It’s just darker air.
Nothing grows here. The ground is covered in dead weeds that is noticeably absent of the usual insect life. Not even the wind stirs. Rancor and I seem to be the only things moving across this landscape. We crest a hill and see a bowl-shaped valley that stretches as far as the eye can see. In the center of the valley is a tall, black tower that jabs into the murky sky. I’m guessing this is the Ebon Spire. It’s really big. Methinks someone is overcompensating.
There is no sneaking up on Asphodel. The valley surrounding the Ebon Spire is so wide in all directions that someone inside the tower would only have to glance out a window, say, twice a day, to spot an intruder approaching from very far away. I guess my only option is to gallop up to the front gate on my gleaming white unicorn and hope someone lets me in.
I allow myself a moment of hysterical laughter as I picture wandering around the outside of the Ebon Spire calling, “Hello? Evil Sorcerer? Still want to marry me? Totally okay if you’ve changed your mind!”
But I know my laughter is just pent up nerves, and it’s either laugh or scream. I should have taken a moment to come up with a plan first, but I never do that. In fact, I think I spend more time wondering why I don’t stop to plan than I do actually stopping and thinking of a plan.
As I get closer, I can’t laugh because nothing is funny anymore. The ground becomes very uneven and Rancor has to slow down to a walk.
What I think at first are rocks sticking up out of the dirt, on closer inspection become bits and pieces of armor. Bent swords and broken spears are strewn about, and among the rusting weapons and rotting leathers are bones. This is the sight of an enormous battle. One fought long ago. Either everyone died, and no one was left to bury the dead, or the living were too afraid to come back to get the bodies.
They were left here to rot. Which isn’t just unsanitary, it’s the ultimate jerk-off move. From the look of things, it seems to have happened so long ago I can’t imagine Asphodel could be to blame. Unless he is hella old. Which he could be. He is a sorcerer. Best just assume he did it. I can’t imagine anyone moving into a high-value property like this and opting to keep the dead army in the yard.
This guy is really starting to piss me off. Mr. Abracadirtbag up there in his enormous African-American penis complex turned my dad into an undead swamp thing, he leaves fallen soldiers to rot rather than give them an honorable burial, and he’s supposed to kill Torvold in two days. Unless I kill him first. Which I will, dang it.
I’m working myself up into a decent-sized murderous rage when I see a cloud rise up from the top of the Ebon Spire. As it nears, I think it’s a flock of birds. The flock billows and flashes, and then tightens and heads right for me.
But it’s not birds. It’s bats.
I hate to buy into stereotypes, but bats are creepy. The squeaking, the shivering, the way they crawl around on their knuckles—all of it gives me the heebie-jeebies. If mammals were supposed to fly, more of us would do it, but it’s just bats and one squirrel who doesn’t even really fly. It just glides. All I’m saying is, evolution has spoken on the whole flying mammal thing. Bats are weird.
They swarm around us. Rancor tries to slash them with his horn, but only manages in turning a few of them into puffs of smoke. They flap at me with their wings and I have to throw my arms up to protect my eyes. They land on Rancor and start to claw and bite.
It’s been way too long since my last booster shot. I start tearing the nasty little things off of us. Rancor rears up and accidentally throws me to the ground. I see bats crawling all over his flanks and jump up to get them off of him.
As soon as I take a step toward Rancor, I feel something cold and hard wrap around my ankle, stopping me. That better not be what I think it is.
I look down. A skeleton grins up at me. In a fully instinctual ick response, I punt his skull with my free foot. It goes flying, but the rest of him hangs onto my ankle. More skeletons are rising from the sod between me and Rancor. The bats are all over Rancor now, and I can see blood streaking his white hide. They’re pushing him farther and farther away from me.
“Rancor!” I shout to him over his frenzied whinnies. “Get out of here! Run back to Torvold!”
He fights more furiously, stabbing at both skeletons and bats alike. Puffs of ash and smoke blaze all around Rancor as he hits his stride, but even more skeleton rise up from below and more bats join the swarm from above. I know which way this is going to go.
“There’s nothing you can do for me! Asphodel won’t let you anywhere near him, but you can still help Sir Torvold. Rancor, you must go!”
Rancor resists for a few moments more, then finally gives in and runs back the way we came. As his white tail disappears over the crest of the bowl, the skeletons start to push me toward the huge iron gates of the Ebon Spire.
“I know the way,” I say, throwing their boney fingers off of me. So nasty. I flap my hands around my head to keep them from touching me and hot foot it toward the gate, so I don’t step on one of them. They see me go, and the skeletons sink back into the ground.
I tilt my head back and look up at the impressive architecture. It’s actually quite lovely, if you go for the black-on-black evil monolith with very few windows look.
“Asphodel! Let me in!” I yell, and my voice only wobbles a little.
The gate glows with a ghoulish green light and swings open by itself. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shaking all the way down to the ground at this point. Anger and adrenaline got me this far, but I’m running out of both. It just occurred to me that I could become one of those skeletons decorating the lawn, and I can’t make my feet take another step.
I hear the echo of laugher, coming from deep inside the tower. Asphodel is mocking me. I’m a teenager, I came here alone and sort of unarmed, and he’s mocking me for being scared?
What a dick.
I stomp through the gates, under the giant arching entryway, across a black marble audience chamber the size of a football field, right up to the onyx dais with the smoked quartz throne on top of it, look at the (okay, this throws me, but I’m furious so I roll with it) blazing hot snack on the throne and say,
“Does your offer of marriage still stand?”
I leave the cart and go to find Gertie to ask a favor. It’s kind of a big one.
She is busy haggling with the town elders about the minstrel’s payment. The elders don’t want to pay anything, considering the attack. Gertie isn’t having that. I step back when I realize that this is going to be a lengthy exchange. Maybe Bashan can grant me the favor. Jackanet finds me on my way to locate Bashan.
“May I have word, princess?” Jackanet asks.
I stop with a frown. Jackanet and I have never really seen eye to eye on things. “Depends on the word,” I reply.
He smiles and nods. “You and I have been at cross purposes, haven’t we?”
“I’m not exactly sure what your purpose is,” I reply honestly.
“I suspect you are not entirely sure what your purpose is, either,” he rebuts, smirking.
He’s got me there, and he knows it. “What do you wish to say?” I ask bluntly.
“I wish to ask if you go now to the Ebon Spire.”
I cross my arms. “Why do you want to know?”
“For I must find something to distract Torvold so that by the time he learns you have gone, it will be too late for him to chase after you.”
Unbelievable. He’s so eager for me to go to my doom. He doesn’t even look sorry for me.
“What did I ever do to you?” I ask him. “Why do you hate me so much?”
He looks stunned. “Princess, I don’t hate you,” he says.
“But you are awfully eager for me to go to Asphodel.”
“Not because I wish you dead.”
Jackanet throws his hat on the ground and kicks it. His frustration can’t simply be from me misunderstanding him. It must be from everyone misunderstanding him, including Torvold.
“Because you are more suited to facing Asphodel than Torvold!” he yells, totally losing it. “Torvold is honorable, and Asphodel has not fought a clean fight in his life. He fights dirty! And that’s why Asphodel will win if Torvold faces him! But you know how to fight dirty. You could kill Asphodel.”
“No, I can’t! I don’t have a Puce Pinkerknuckle! I don’t have Calx!” I yell back.
“You’ve got a bloody unicorn!” Jackanet hollers, throwing his hands around. “Did you see what that miserable animal did to the Thralls?”
I come to a full stop.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. Come to think of it, that crystal swirl in Rancor’s horn looks an awful lot like the sparkly edge on Calx. “Do you think Rancor’s horn will work on Asphodel?”
“I don’t know, but if there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that you will find a way. No matter what the situation is—whether it’s with a unicorn, a copper pan, or a giant pair of bollox, it doesn’t matter. You will do what you have to do to stay alive,” Jackanet laughs sadly, “rather than keep to the rules of chivalry and die a heroic death like Torvold would.”
I look away and try to not picture Torvold dying. Again. It seems to be the only thing I can think of lately.
“I don’t want that,” I whisper.
“I know you don’t.” He smiles, considering something. “Maybe we haven’t been at cross purposes after all.”
Something in his voice has changed. I look Jackanet over carefully. He’s sloppy. He pays no deference to anyone, and he doesn’t really squire all that much, either. I have to use my imagination more than my eyes to peer underneath the layers of grime, but I can finally make out the true color of his tunic.
“You’re a White Witch.”
He straightens his shoulders and tips his chin up. Jackanet suddenly looks younger and cleaner.
“I am Loyalty, though Torvold doesn’t know it,” he says, his voice taking on a deeper timbre. “I chose him because he is all the Virtues in one, and if he lives, we all do. Please, Princess.”
“Princess,” I repeat. “Do you know what I really am?” I ask. “Do Tudie and Dex know, too?”
“We all know you’re a hero,” he replies, avoiding a direct answer. “And we believe you were sent here to save Torvold—not the other way around.”
I have to die so all Virtue can live? That’s frigging fantastic. But even as I think it, I know it’s not about me. I had already decided to go, even before Jackanet and I had this conversation because there’s one thing I know about this stupid asshole book.
Torvold can’t die.
I roll my eyes. “Help me find Bashan,” I tell Jackanet.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because I need him and his minstrels to watch over my dad and keep him hidden and moving around while I go to the blasted Ebon Spire and find some way to get wretched Asphodel to impale himself on Rancor’s face,” I say testily. “I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
Loyalty chuckles quietly. “There is one thing about this entire situation that I don’t wonder about.”
I give him some side-eye. He and I aren’t square yet. “Pray, what could that be?”
“I don’t wonder why Torvold loves you,” he says. “I can see why.”
Okay. I guess that makes us square, though I don’t quite know what to do with that statement.
“What-what do you mean, he loves me?” I stammer.
“You could be a bit smarter, though,” he says briskly. “When are you off?”
He had to ruin it. “I leave post haste.”
“Right.” He nods sharply. “Bashan’s there.” He points to Bashan, who is loading up trunks onto one of the carts. “You deal with him and I’ll go tell Torvold that a village half a day’s ride up the road is on fire. You let out as soon as Torvold rides, and you’ll be at the Ebon Spire by night fall. Even if Torvold were to gallop after you as soon as he got back to Market Town, he wouldn’t get there in time.”
I nod, take a breath, and march over to Bashan. He agrees to take care of my father. I agree to reward him. Faith steps on Bashan’s toes and says that the minstrels will care for the king, no payment required.
Right on cue, Torvold comes riding up on Thunder in a tizzy.
“I must depart, Princess. There are people who need my aid,” he says, wheeling Thunder under him in a shower of hooves and sod. “I will return before daybreak tomorrow,” he promises.
“Godspeed, good Sir Knight,” I say, pushing my voice past the catch in my throat. “And have a care with yourself while I am not there to care for you.”
He looks down at me while Thunder prances under him. He touches his heart, his eyes reaching into mine. Then he tears away.
I don’t say goodbye to Tudie and Dex. I don’t know why I don’t. I never really said goodbye to my friends in L.A. either. I sort of crept out of town, too embarrassed that my family was such a mess that I had to leave.
I shoulder my pack and start walking. Rancor trots up behind me. He nudges my shoulder. I look at him. He nudges me again, but harder, like he’s trying to knock me over.
“What is your problem?” I ask him.
Rancor trots in front of me. Then he lowers himself down on his front knees. It’s not a natural or comfortable position for an equine. He lays his head down deferentially over one leg, and I realize he’s inviting me to ride him.
I get a little emotional. First of all, because Rancor is stunningly beautiful when he isn’t trying to bite, and second because I really need some help right now.
“Thank you,” I whisper as I climb up onto his back.
I’ve ridden a few horses. It’s terribly uncomfortable and a lot of work, even with a saddle. But I am not uncomfortable astride Rancor. You’d think that the whole bareback thing would be absolutely intolerable, considering a woman’s anatomy and a horse’s backbone, but apparently riding a unicorn is nothing like riding a horse.
As soon as I am settled, and my hands are resting on either side of his neck, Rancor launches into a run. I float on top of him effortlessly.
It’s the smoothest ride into hell you could imagine.