I wake to the low, grey light of predawn.
I have thirteen days left. Thirteen days of pretending to be Princess Pleasant until I can get out of here. I’m starting to feel—not like a liar, exactly, because I haven’t actually lied.
Okay, yes, I feel like a liar!
But the very nature of my predicament is based on me pretending to be someone I’m not. It’s not my fault it’s starting to feel real. And it’s not my fault that Torvold is so upset I’m supposedly on a dangerous quest that I never specifically spelled out to anyone. He just assumed.
Anyway, whatever quest I could be on would be a dangerous one, given the state of thing here in Lucitopia. Just because he’s tearing himself up inside, thinking I’m going to sacrifice myself to an evil, undead sorcerer isn’t much worse than me…I don’t know…fighting a dragon or something.
I stare up at the ceiling. I’m on the edge of the bed with the pretty floral-patterned bedspread. Dex is next to me, Tudie is next to her, and Jackanet is at our feet. I roll over onto my stomach and face Torvold lying on the floor next to me. He’s wide awake. Calx is in his hand as if he spent the night with it unsheathed.
“Did you sleep at all?” I whisper to him.
He shrugs in a non-committal way. “You?” he whispers back.
I shrug back.
“Are you frightened the Thrall will return?” he asks.
I frown, thinking about my sleepless night. “I’m doubting my course of action,” I admit honestly.
He smiles up at me. His tired eyes look relieved. “Good.”
I take a moment to really look him over. And not in a hormonal way, for a change. This is a guy who just spent the night on the floor, holding a sword that probably weighs about twenty pounds, after crossing a forest and fighting battles, all so he can protect other people. If I want to be the hero of my own story, I’d better start taking my cues from him.
“If you had a chance to strike at someone who had destroyed so much and hurt so many, wouldn’t you take the risk?” I ask him.
He swallows hard and looks away. “It matters not what I would do. You are too important to endanger yourself, princess.”
“I’m no more important than anyone in this room,” I whisper. “And less than some.” He looks back at me, eyes burning, ready to argue, but I don’t let him. “I’m handy with small blades, but I’ll need to be prepared for any misfortune in order to confront Asphodel.” My mouth goes dry, because now I’m actually considering this madness. “You could teach me.”
He shakes his head, and it hurts me that he won’t teach me. I look away from him, and I’m about to turn over but he reaches up to stop me.
“I know you’re brave and I know you can fight,” he whispers, and again I see that impressed look on his face. “But I’m the only one who can kill Asphodel.” He touches Calx beside him to remind me.
“Oh, that’s right,” I mutter, face falling. “I’m not the bearer of the Puce Pinkerknuckle.” I look at him mischievously. “Tudie doesn’t believe it exists.”
He grins at me and moves as if to roll over and show me his butt. “Do you want to see it?”
“No,” I giggle quietly, smacking his chest. He captures my hand and keeps it.
“I don’t know if it’s really there or not,” he jokes, tugging me toward him. “I’ve never been able to bend that way.”
I’m trying not to laugh too hard or fall out of the bed. I don’t want to wake the others just yet. I want him to myself for as long I can have him.
Because Torvold won’t get close enough to kill Asphodel until about three quarters of the way through the book. It’s the one thing I know for certain. Torvold the Bold heroically challenges Asphodel at the battle of Knob Knoll, and he dies.
Torvold sees my mirth dissolve and he holds my hand tightly against his chest.
“Aid me in my quest and abandon your own.” He stops himself, like he knows what he’s asking is tantamount to treason, but he sticks to his guns and continues. “You could save many lives, but the one thing you cannot do is kill Asphodel. Please, Princess.”
“But Jackanet thinks I could…”
“Jackanet is searching for any way to spare me,” Torvold interrupts gently. “He is the one who suggested to the other knights that I protect the Virtues, rather than ride out and demand single combat against Asphodel.”
I frown. “Why would he do that?”
“He’s worried I’ll lose,” Torvold says. He rubs my fingers in his. “I was sent on this quest as a diversion, but I know there is only one resolution to this war.”
And so do I. I’ve had plenty of reason to dislike the author of this book in the past—the ax in the face spell comes to mind—but never so much as now.
We stay like that for a long time. Me looking down on him from the edge of the bed, and him holding my hand against his chest until the room turns pink with newborn light.
The others wake, and we rattle around the cottage, looking for food, heating water to freshen up, and generally pulling ourselves together before we head out again.
Torvold goes to the stables to feed Thunder while the rest of us rob the joint.
“Who was our hostess, and where did she go?” I ask as I ransack her kitchen. I look up and notice Tudie, Dex, and Jackanet sharing a look. “What?” I ask, throwing my hands up.
“You didn’t recognize her?” Dex asks.
“Should I have?” I reply.
“Come on now,” Jackanet says, disbelievingly. His eyebrows have practically disappeared into his hairline.
“What?” I repeat, this time feeling put-upon. “I didn’t recognize her! Who is she?”
“Just like a woman,” Jackanet grumbles as he turns away from me. He starts gathering up provisions with a little more force than necessary. “She knocked Torvold halfway to his maker, but you? Didn’t even recognize her.”
I look around. Everyone is suspiciously busy at the moment. “I have no idea what’s going on,” I announce.
“It’s alright, dearie,” Tudie says gently. “You’ll know who she is when you know. No one can explain it to you. We’ll have to leave it at that.”
“It’s comforting to know she’s still out there,” Jackanet says quietly, almost reverently. “I wonder if the other two are faring as well.”
“What other two?” I ask, growing testy. “She’s part of a set, I’m assuming?”
“The Big Three,” Dex says, nodding. “Without them, Lucitopia is lost.”
We are back on the road before midday, and though we are following an actual road across the Fields of Plenty, I don’t know where it leads. Or where I’m going. Or what I’m doing with my life in general.
Torvold has fallen back with Jackanet, and the two of them are deep in discussion. I hover for a while but give up when I see that they are not about to break apart.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I ask Dex.
“Our hostess last night—” she says, but I interrupt.
“You’re really not going to tell me who she was?” I ask, flabbergasted.
“I can’t,” Dex complains. “It’s one of those life revelation things. You’ve got to go through it yourself. Now, do you want me to answer your question or not?”
“Yes,” I sigh, rolling my eye.
“Our hostess told Torvold that another of the Big Three is traveling with some minstrels. While our hostess never really dies, which I’ve unfortunately come to learn, the other two in the Big Three can.”
I frown as I walk. “When did Torvold talk to her?” I ask.
Dex shrugs. “After we fell asleep, I expect. He must have awoken and the two of them shared words.”
I can’t help but think about how pretty she was, and how amazing she smelled, and—not going to lie—how incredible her body was. Even if you don’t lean that way, she was hot. The kind of hot that would make anybody want a slice.
“Huh,” I say, glancing back at Torvold.
Dex squints at me. “Huh, what?” she asks.
I walk casually. Bored, even. “It’s just, he and I spoke before the rest of you woke and he didn’t mention that he’d shared words with her.” Okay, that sounded jealous even to me.
Dex suppresses a smile. “Must have slipped his mind.”
I’m stewing. It’s silly to keep thinking about this. There are other ways for me to spend my time, like figuring out what my quest is going to be. I definitely can’t follow Torvold around like a lost little puppy, living off his reflected glory. If I’m going to get out of here—and I am getting out of here—I have to stop going with the flow and be an active character. I can’t let some guy make all the important decisions for me. I hate girls like that. It’s like, get your own quest, sweetie, and stop following Mr. Muscles around.
Tudie comes alongside me. She’s practically jogging to keep up.
“We’ve all stopped for lunch,” she says, gesturing back the way we came.
I stop and glance back. I can’t even see anyone. “How far back?” I ask. The Fields of Plenty have turned into rolling hills, scattered with clumps of trees. At some point while I stomped along, the scenery changed.
“Er—far,” she says, grimacing.
“I have food in my pack,” I say, feeling sheepish. “Doesn’t make sense for us to go all the way back now.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she agrees. Tudie takes me by the arm and walks me a little further up the road. “Let’s find a nice place to sit in the shade and talk over whatever’s bothering you.”
We walk along in silence for a while, heading for a copse of trees just a bit off the road, when I get a funny feeling. It’s the duck feeling—not quite as serious as the run like hell feeling, but in the same ballpark. I’ve learned to listen to feelings like that, so I duck and pull Tudie down with me.
I shush her before she can yelp or ask a stupid question like what’s going on when I obviously don’t know what’s going on because I’m crouching down behind a bush.
We both hear voices coming from the copse of trees. Then we hear a rough voice being raised, followed by splintering and a discordant twanging sound. Something musical just got broken.
“It could be the minstrels we’re looking for,” Tudie guesses hopefully. She’s keeping her voice down, though.
“Possibly,” I allow. “But I don’t think they’d smash their instruments.”
“Bandits, then,” Tudie decides. “Do you think they saw us coming up the road?”
I shrug. “If they did, they’ll send someone to get us.”
“Should we run back for Torvold?”
“They’ll definitely see us then, and if they have horses, they’ll catch us. Our best bet is to stay hidden, get closer, and try to find out if it’s safe to approach them or not.”
Tudie nods once, ready to go into stealth mode, and she and I creep through the bushes toward the voices until we’re close enough to see what’s going on.
We find two festively painted carts among the trees. Both have been ransacked, and one is missing a wheel. Sparkly costumes and make-up pots are tossed across the leaflitter. There are a few wigs scattered here and there as well. Tudie and I frown at each other and keep our heads down as we get closer.
We peek into a small clearing among the trees and see seven rough men standing in a strategic circle. They are definitely bandits. They have horses. And they’ve got a bunch of underfed, pale, and arty-looking people tied up on the ground.
One of the captives is set apart from the rest. She’s only about seven years old. She has long, straight, black hair and almond-shaped eyes. And she’s wearing a white dress.
We reach the edge of the Forest of Woe by sunset, which is a terrible time to get anywhere in Lucitopia. It’s not dark enough to arrive unseen, but it won’t be light out long enough to put some real distance between you and whoever decides to start chasing you.
Late afternoon is good. I can work with a late afternoon arrival, but evening? Just terrible.
In Lucitopia, there aren’t gradual changes from one kind of scenery to another. When a forest ends, it ends. Just like on a map. We stay hidden in the line of trees.
“That must be Temperance’s cottage,” Dex whispers.
Laid out in front of us are the Fields of Plenty. Right on the edge of Woe and Plenty is a small, sturdy looking cottage. The wattle and daub walls are whitewashed, the shutters are a sensible black, and the thatched roof is full, but not overstuffed like in some fairy tales. A squat windmill churns the River of Tears, turning all that sorrow into labor, and around it pools a medium-sized pond with some very ordinary ducks floating on top.
“All of you wait here,” Torvold tells us. “I’ll go scout for bandits.”
He crouches down low and disappears into the waving field of some kind of grain. I’m not a farmer, but it waves, so I’m going to guess rye? Barley?
We see Torvold appear again next to one of the windows. He looks inside. He sneaks around to the front door. He lifts the latch and opens it.
And goes flying through the air.
He’s thrown twenty feet away from the cottage and lands flat on his back. He doesn’t get up. I know it has to be a spell, which are illusion, but I’m sprinting alongside Jackanet anyway. We both get to him at the same time. Jackanet throws himself down on his knees next to Torvold.
“Master! Are you injured?” he asks pleadingly.
Torvold doesn’t move.
“Torvold,” I say. Not a twitch. I crouch down next to him and put my hand on his chest. I can feel his heart beating and I don’t see any blood. But if he got hit with a spell why isn’t he screaming? “Torvold, wake up,” I say more sharply.
I see motion by the cottage door out of the corner of my eye, and without thinking, I turn and throw one of the blades from my bodice. I hit my mark perfectly, pinning her to the doorframe by her clothes.
Wait a second.
She’s absolutely gorgeous. She has dark skin, long curly black hair, killer bod, maybe in her early-twenties, and definitely not a bandit. The woman looks from her sleeve and back to me in surprise. It’s a white sleeve. I think I just threw a knife at Temperance. I grimace and get up.
“Excellent throw, princess!” she says.
“I’m really sorry,” I say, already coming to her to pull out the blade. Tudie and Dex join us at jog, and Thunder trails behind them.
“You didn’t even nick me,” Temperance says, eyes still wide with surprise.
“I think that was more luck than anything else,” I say, tugging the blade out of the doorframe. “Sorry about your dress.”
“Not at all,” she replies cheerily. “I have more inside just like it.”
“Are you both done discussing your wardrobes?” Jackanet interrupts. We turn to see him gesture frantically to Torvold’s unconscious body.
I turn back to Temperance with a worried look on my face.
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” she says with a wave of her hand. “He got hit pretty hard, but he’ll sleep it off.”
“Does it hurt?” I ask.
“No,” she replies, grinning. “It feels wonderful.”
She narrows her eyes at me and then nods, as if she just figured something out.
She turns back to Torvold and mutters, “Who’s a big boy? We’re probably going to need that horse to help drag him inside unless we take the chainmail off first. Right! Who wants to undress him?”
Jackanet unbuckles Torvold’s mail and slides it off of him. When he picks it up to carry it into the cottage, Jackanet has to puts his shoulder under it. Must weight forty or fifty pounds.
“That helped, but there is still a lot of fine young man here to carry,” Temperance says, in a very intemperate way, I might add. “Everyone! Choose a body part.”
I end up with a foot. Between the five of us, we manage to wrangle Torvold into the small, neat cottage and dump him on top of Temperance’s bed.
“We should probably take his boots off,” I say after I notice the coverlet with the lovely flower pattern on it. I reach for the boot nearest me, but Jackanet shoos me away.
“Off, off,” he mutters, still upset about seeing Torvold fly through the air like that. It was really scary. I’m still shaking a little, to be honest.
Temperance touches Jackanet on the shoulder. “He’ll be fine. He’s having wonderful dreams right now, I assure you,” she says.
There’s something about the way she talks that takes the worry and the irritation away. Even Jackanet, who does not warm to newcomers quickly, can’t help but give in and join us by the fire for some tea. She’s got cookies. I haven’t had sugar since I got here, which might explain my crystal-clear complexion, but right now I’m not worried about a break out.
After we’ve all dug into her butter cookies with jam and gone back for seconds, Temperance settles back stirring her chamomile tea and looking us over.
“Now may I ask why the young knight was peeking in my window?” she says good-naturedly.
“Oh, we’ve come to save you, dearie,” Tudie says, patting her knee.
Tudie goes on to explain who they are, and about Torvold’s quest. She leaves me mostly out of it, saying only that they encountered me in great need and now we travel together. While Fortitude soldiers on through the backstory, Temperance eyes me over the rim of her teacup, sizing me up. There’s no judgement in her, not in a mean way, but she is measuring me. Like a doctor checking my height, she just wants to know how much I’ve grown.
“So, you see, Temperance, it’s vitally important you come with Torvold, as he is the only one who can protect you,” Tudie finishes soundly.
“You think I’m Temperance?” the White Witch asks. She laughs warmly and shakes her head. “No, I’m not Temperance, although she was here a few weeks ago. She loves to stop in to lecture me every now and again, but she never stays long.”
“Who are you, then?” Jackanet blurts out.
The White Witch smiles at him. “You know me,” she says in that dulcet voice of hers. Jackanet’s face goes soft and he leans back, nodding a little.
“Yes, milady,” he whispers.
She stands, and I get a whiff of her perfume. Apples and vanilla, magnolia and spice, and something animal underneath that’s kind of gnarly, but I keep trying to get another whiff of it anyway.
“I’ll tend the horse,” she says. “You should all get some rest.”
I suddenly feel like I can’t keep my eyes open. I want to ask who she is, but I’m too busy falling asleep. I’ll ask tomorrow.
I wake to a muffled thump.
A slippery, acid feeling floods my stomach. I listen and hear other ears listening for mine. I know you’re wondering how ears can hear other ears listening, but just trust me. When there are no electrical appliances charging, no planes flying overhead, no neighbors of any kind for miles, and you are a hotter commodity than a mature IRA, you get really good at hearing the different kinds of dark. This dark has ears in it, and they are listening to see if mine are listening back.
Which they are. Which those ears probably know at this point.
It’s a race now. A stealthy, tiptoeing, sliding your daggers out slowly kind of race. I peel myself off the floor and pad over Dex’s sleeping body, then skootch around Tudie. I have to dart from there to get to the darkest shadow in the corner by the window without passing through the moonlight coming through it. When I get there, I turn and lean my back up against the wall.
I feel something tall and firm behind me, but it’s definitely not a wall. A big arm crosses my body and a warm hand cups my mouth. Lips press against my ear.
“Shh,” Torvold whispers. Instant shivers go down my spine, which is pressed right up against his chest.
I nod, and he lets go of my mouth, but that hand floats down to my shoulder and holds there, keeping my back flat against him so we both fit inside this shadow. His back is pressed to the wall and he cranes his head to the side to look out the window. I look out with him, sure he can feel my heart beating in my throat.
He tilts his head down until his lips touch my ear again. “There are four outside and one on the roof,” he whispers so softly that if he weren’t this close I couldn’t hear him.
I nod again and focus on the fireplace. The fire went out hours ago, but I can hear a faint scratching in there.
Tilting my head back so my lips can reach his ear I whisper, “He’s coming down the chimney.”
I slide one of my sleeve daggers out, point to my chest to indicate myself, and then I point to the fireplace.
Torvold leans slightly to the side so he can look me in the eye. He’s surprised for a moment, then he smiles. It’s a sly smile. I think I impressed him. It feels pretty good to have a monster-slaying badass like Torvold think I might be kind of a badass, too.
I’m supposed to be moving right now. I just indicated that the chimney was my post, and that’s where I should be headed, but instead I’m still leaning back against Torvold and I’m tilted to the side so I can stare up at him. He is mighty comfortable. And beautiful.
And that’s enough of that.
I slink out of our hiding place and dance over the sleeping bodies. I get to the fireplace and stand beside it. Torvold has already made it to the cottage door, and he’s looking across the room at me. I signal that I’m ready, and he yanks the door open and runs out with a mighty battle cry.
Everyone in the cottage wakes, and they all jump up. I wave frantically at everyone, finger to my lips, and then point at the fireplace so they know that someone is coming down it.
“It must be bandits outside!” I yell. “Come, lets to the windows!” I make a shooing motion with my hand to get them to go.
Jackanet understands what I’m doing. He starts corralling Tudie and Dex toward the other side of the cottage. “Ho! Torvold the Bold fights for our lives! Let us watch!” he yells like the stiffest middle school kid with one line in the show.
I grimace. Jackanet grimaces back. We’ll never win any Oscars.
Old Saint Dick stuck up the chimney knows this is his cue to climb down, sneak up behind someone watching the show outside, take a hostage, and then the bandits would have us.
But this ain’t my first rodeo. I ready my dagger in one hand. I grab a copper pan off the mantel and hold it in the other, just to be sure.
I see a foot set down in the grate.
There’s something wrong with it. Actually, make that a couple of somethings. First of all, it doesn’t have a boot on it. Second, it’s got really long toenails. Third, it’s a putrid green-grey color.
A matching putrid hand snakes down and clasps the edge of the fireplace, and then a gaunt face appears. It has two bulbous, lidless eyes and no nose. Or rather, it had a nose once, but that must have rotted off because instead this guy just has those long holes like you see on a skull. Most of his lips are gone, too. But that’s not strange. That’s just another extra on The Walking Dead.
He pokes his head and shoulders out, now that he sees everyone looking out the windows with their backs to fireplace like a bunch of rubes, and I can see the side of his neck has slits on it. Like gills. They open and suck in air. I think he tasted me, because his head snaps around and he looks right at me. I immediately clunk him with the copper pan.
He makes this congested orca call, think Flipper but way more phlegm, and he lunges for me. I whack him again. He crawls a little closer to me. I give him another clang upside the head. He twitches, and yep, that does it for me. I whale on him a good six or seven times. Then I take a beat to readjust my grip. I choke the handle in both hands and I go to town on him like I’m chopping wood.
He doesn’t move. The rest of his body slithers down to fall on top of him as if his bones are made of rubber. Really stinky rubber. Should have dubbed him Jingle Smells. I whack him just one more time for good measure.
By now the rest of the gang are standing next to me with shocked looks on their faces—except for Jackanet. He knows I’ve got rage. We get a snoot full of hot garbage stench and pinch our noses closed. We all sound likes ducks when we talk.
“This is terrible,” Jackanet quacks, gesticulating wildly.
“I know. He’ll stink up Temperance’s cottage for weeks,” I quack, looking for the White Witch who is definitely not Temperance. Where is she?
“No, no, you don’t understand!” Jackanet stomps a foot. I giggle. He looks and sounds like a big baby. “That’s a drawl!” he quacks.
“A drawl?” I quack back. “What’s that?”
“Not a drawl,” Jackanet lets go of his nose momentarily, “a Thrall!” He pinches his nose closed again.
“Oh, well, I think I got some Thrall on my skirt,” I quack, pointing at a little spatter at the hem. I notice that the Thrall is not moving. “Do you think I killed him?” I ask Tudie anxiously. I’ve never killed anything even remotely human-shaped before.
“I hope so,” she quacks. “Put the poor thing out of his misery.”
“Don’t take your eyes off that one,” Jackanet quacks as he hustles to the door. “I’ve got to help Torvold!”
Jackanet throws himself out the cottage door, and Dex sighs mightily and follows him. “I’d better make sure he doesn’t get killed,” she quacks.
I know this is all very serious stuff, but it’s hard to feel grim when everyone is quacking.
I listen for the sounds of fighting outside, but all I can hear is Jackanet calling for his master. I look at Tudie.
“Should I be worried?” I quack at her.
Tudie shrugs. “Probably,” she quacks back.
A minute later I hear Torvold calling out in the distance. A few moments after that, I hear him run back into the yard. He’s scolding Jackanet.
“You mustn’t let her out here! Get back inside, Dex, please,” he says.
A moment later, Jackanet and Dex are pushed inside by Torvold. There are black splatters on his white linen shirt and his chest is heaving. That’s a lot of chest to heave, by the way. He comes directly to me.
“Are you injured?” he asks. His eyes are big and soft, though his voice is rough. “Did you touch it at all, or did you get it with just the blade of the dagger?”
“No,” I quack. I realize I’m still holding my nose. I am utterly ridiculous. I drop my hand. “I didn’t use my dagger, I used this.” I hold up the copper pan.
Torvold lets out a sigh and clasps my upper arm. For just a moment he drops his forehead to touch mine. Then he jerks away and goes to the rubbery heap of moldering scabs and fishy phlegm on the hearth. He raises Calx.
“I think it’s dead,” I interject, but he cuts its head off without pausing.
The Thrall bursts into flames. There’s a quick, agonized scream as it twitches and shrivels and turns to powdery white-grey ash faster than if it were made of tissue paper.
Torvold sighs with relief. “Now it’s dead,” he says, looking back up at me. “I’m so sorry. I never would have left you to face this alone if I knew it was a Thrall. I ran out, thinking they were men.” He combs a hand through his hair. “I should have watched them longer, but I…you woke and I...” he trails off. Looking at me.
Everyone is silent. I shrug. “All is well, Sir Torvold,” I say quietly. “I managed it.”
I look down at my pan and notice that the goo from the Thrall that was on it has burnt away as well. And so has the spatter on the hem of my dress. I look at Torvold’s shirt and notice that the black marks on it are actually burn holes. Even the stench is gone. It burned away.
I’ve lived in Lucitopia for nearly a year and I’ve never heard mention of a Thrall.
“Someone please explain what a Thrall is,” I say. “And tell me why I’ve never heard of one before.”
They share a look, like no one wants to have this conversation.
Dex is the first to speak up. “They are the Thrall of Asphodel,” she says. “They were people once, but to avoid death, they gave themselves to Asphodel. In exchange he changes them. He controls them completely and they cannot die by any agent of this land. Even their touch is poison.”
I nod in understanding, but I’m still wary.
“That explains why my pan was ineffectual, but they shriveled when touched by Calx. That also explains why Sir Torvold was so afeard when he realized he’d left me to deal with one on my own, unwarned as I am about their poisonous touch.” I try to meet every single one of their gazes, but they all look away from mine. “Yet methinks there is some other foul mischief you have not revealed.”
“You’ve been in your tower for a long time, dearie,” Tudie says, shifting from foot to foot. “And then all of a sudden you set out on this quest.” She stops and looks at Dex.
Dex starts over. “You haven’t seen your father in a while,” she says reasonably. “And there have been a lot of changes.”
They pause. “And?” I urge.
“You know he had to leave the palace, don’t you?” Tudie says hesitantly.
“And there was that hag who drained him dry,” Dex adds.
“What happened to my father?” I demand. I know they’re talking about the king, and not my real dad, but they might as well be.
Before I came to Lucitopia a year ago I hadn’t seen my father in eight months. He used to be a big player in Hollywood, but he lost his job when the studio “restructured” (a.k.a. lost a boatload of money when a film turned into a billion-dollar flop) and they fired half of the mid-level executives. My dad lost his house. The woman he left my mother for—a little starlet who was gorgeous on the outside and a hag on the inside—took pretty much everything else he owned.
My dad’s not perfect. Scratch that. My dad is a horse’s ass, but he’s still my dad and I am worried about him. The doctors don’t measure his blood pressure in systolic over diastolic anymore, but in how many days away from a heart attack he is.
“If you have word of my father, you must tell me,” I say. I have to stop to swallow the lump in my throat. “I haven’t seen him in so long.” Why is it hard to say that? I must really miss him. I thought I never wanted to see him again, but I guess I do.
“There’s been rumor that the king has become a Thrall of Asphodel,” Jackanet admits sadly.
“Anything he might have told you,” Dex begins.
“Any quest he might have given you, is most likely the will of Asphodel,” Tudie finishes.
Torvold takes a step toward me, but he stops himself and says, “Don’t marry him.” His voice is husky and low. “Please, princess.”
Jackanet turns to Torvold. “Milord, if she could get close to Asphodel by accepting his proposal of marriage, she could be the only one—”
“It’s a trap!” Torvold thunders.
“It most certainly is, but hear me out,” Jackanet pleads. Torvold pivots on his heel and walks out of the cottage toward the stables.
“Did you see her with the pan?” Jackanet yells after him, but it’s no use. Torvold will not listen.
I have to sit. I meander over to a chair and sink down into it. “I don’t know what to do,” I say quietly.
No one answers me.
I managed to wrestle a semi-palatable meal out of Mr. Stinky Teabag. Not something you’d go out of your way to ever eat again, but no one’s throwing up. Yet.
“Torvold mentioned you were on a quest, dear?” Tudie asks after she had thoroughly chewed, swallowed, and made certain it stayed down.
“Mmm,” I mumble around my stringy mouthful.
I hold an apologetic hand to my mouth as I chew and chew. I’m hoping they’ll get bored and move on to another topic of conversation. No such luck. I mentally scramble. What do I know about Princess Pleasant?
“You all know that Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer has demanded my hand in marriage,” I say tremulously.
My voice is shaking because I’m nervous, and kind of chilly to be honest, but with my expression partly hidden in the dim firelight, my thin, shaky voice could be construed as distraught. I see Torvold clench his hands into fists across the fire.
“Yes. We’ve heard,” Dex says consolingly. She puts a hand over mine and squeezes.
“No one wants that, dearie,” Tudie assures me. Then she laughs. “Whoever you marry would be the next king, wouldn’t he?”
“Quite so,” I reply. They all look at me expectantly. Where the hell am I going with this? Nowhere. I’m going nowhere.
Why didn’t I read the whole book before I signed up for this? Why did I sign up for this in the first place? Sure, my life was a mess. My parents split up, I had to leave L.A. and move to Fresno with my mom and go to a new school. I basically have no friends now. My old friends kept in touch for a bit, but when your lives are going in separate directions, there really isn’t that much to talk about anymore.
I roll my eyes and I’m surprised to notice that I’m actually crying.
“There, there, dearie,” Tudie says as she wraps me up in a squishy hug. “You’re going to get through this. I know it seems hard now, but you are going to make it through. I promise you.”
“I’m throwing my life away,” I blubber into Tudie’s shoulder. Of course, I’m talking about my actual life now, not Princess Pleasant’s, but I don’t really care. I can’t believe it got this bad and I really need to cry on someone’s shoulder about it.
After I’m cried out, Tudie sits me up again and looks me in the eye. “You can’t marry him,” she says.
I wipe my eyes and stare at her. What can you say when you and the person you’re talking to are having two different conversations?
“Unless you were planning on killing him on your wedding night,” Jackanet says softly-but-not-that-softly from the other side of the fire.
“You’re out of line,” Torvold says. He doesn’t raise his voice, but there’s a dangerous edge to it.
Jackanet stands and removes his cap. “Milord, after witnessing her—er—creative handling of what has become our dinner, I am merely noting that our beloved princess is quite brave, and well as attractive.” Jackanet executes a complicated bow in my direction that includes several twirly hand movements. Then he coughs, but his cough sounds suspiciously like “concealed weapons!” but Torvold doesn’t seem to understand.
“You think it’s all well and good for a young lady to offer up her…,” Dex gestures to my lady parts but is too angry and flustered to say it, “self to a loathsome man?” She throws a bit of chimera-griff at him. “She’s a person, not bait!”
Jackanet catches the meat and holds it up. “If she treats Asphodel like she did this chimera-griff,” he says, shaking it at her, “her self will be fine, and we can all wake up the day after singing and dancing!”
“Enough!” Torvold yells. Everyone falls silent. “If we sacrifice the best of ourselves so that the rest may live, what’s the point of living at all?” Torvold turns to me and his big, brown eyes melt into mine. “I was chosen to protect Virtue. And I will protect yours, my princess.”
He strides away from the fire and into the darkness alone.
After a beat, Jackanet sighs. “He’s a good man, my master. Got no common sense, though.”
“Lucky for us,” Dex retorts, giving a watered-down laugh. Jackanet smiles warmly back at her and nods. They turn to me.
“I suppose you’re one of us now,” Jackanet tells me.
I don’t know what that means, but it’s nice to be included. “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like I’ve had anyone on my side,” I say.
“Whatever happens, whatever you and father have planned, we’ll sort it out together,” Tudie says, patting my hand. “Cheer up, dearie. We’re not going to let you go through this alone, but you will get through it.”
I smile at all of them, because they really have made me feel better even if they have no idea what’s really going on.
“Thank you for trying to help,” I say. “But I’m the only one who can do this,” I reply gently.
I wake the next morning to the sound of bickering.
“It said go up the River of Tears to other side of the Forest of Woe. That means upstream,” Dex complains loudly.
I open my eyes. Jackanet and the two White Witches are standing in a huddle not too far away from my head and bending over a piece of parchment.
“Up means north,” Jackanet disagrees, snatching the parchment from Fortitude’s hands and waving it in Dexterity’s face.
Dexterity snatches it away from him. “You nincompoop. Up means upriver. How many quests have you gone on?”
“I’ve been on many quests!” Jackanet insists. He tries to snatch the parchment out of Dexterity’s hands, but she’s too dexterous, obviously. She holds it away from him and he jumps after it a few times before realizing that his behavior is undignified and gives up.
I sit up.
“Good morning, Princess,” says a deep voice.
I turn and see Sir Torvold crouching down by the fire. He hasn’t put his chainmail on yet. He’s just wearing the leathers and linens that go under it. The neck of his shirt where the strings lace it up have fallen open and I can see copious amounts of collarbone. You wouldn’t think collarbones were super sexy, unless you saw them framed by a linen shirt that was casually unlaced at the neck early in the morning and falling open like it could even go down the chest a bit then maybe even over to show just a hint of the shoulder, and then damn. That is some sexy collarbone.
You know what? I’ve just figured out why it’s so sexy. He’s fully dressed, but I know I’m seeing what, in this era, are technically his underthings. He’s cooking in medieval lingerie, basically. I blush and look away.
“That depends,” I say. “What’s for breakfast?”
I couldn’t stomach a round two of Mr. Stinky Teabag. Later, when I’m starving, sure. Being squeamish is just silly when you’re out in the wild, but I’d have to be stupid hungry to attempt it.
Sir Torvold tilts the pot toward me. “Porridge,” he says, smiling as if he guessed I was dreading last night’s leftovers. He sniffs the steam and scrunches his nose. “But it’s missing something.”
I reach into my pillow/satchel and pull out a generous sized wallet. “Salt,” I say, smiling and shaking it.
“That’s all salt?” he asks. I grin in answer and kneel down next to him by the fire.
“It’s a luxury, I know, but it makes everything better,” I say, sprinkling a pinch into the porridge.
He looks back into the pot and stirs. “That’s generous of you,” he says.
I don’t know what to say. Salt is a form of currency here—like gold, only more useful. If he knew I came from a place where we put it on the ground to melt snow in the winter he’d probably freak out. And in fourteen days, I fully intend to be back in that world, throwing salt around like confetti on New Year’s, so there’s no point in being stingy with what I’ve got with me. I’m not generous. I’m just leaving. I can’t explain that so instead, I sit here awkwardly and listen to Torvold’s peanut gallery argue with each other about which way to go while he spoons sticky porridge into five bowls.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I ask him quietly.
He nods, grinning. “They love to argue, though. I figured I’ll let them have at it for a while.”
After a few more moments, Torvold raises his voice pleasantly to cut through the squabbling. “We’re going upriver,” he announces. “That is where the White Witch Temperance was last seen.”
Dex gives Jackanet a smug look. “Shut it,” Jackanet grumbles at her, then goes to brush Thunder.
Torvold hands me my bowl. “Your destination lies upriver, then?” he asks, avoiding my eyes. “Then you’ll go west?”
I rapidly spoon hot porridge into my mouth rather than answer, but Torvold is waiting for my answer with a strident look on his face.
“We’ll all go together for as long as we can,” Tudie says briskly. She takes her bowl and sits down next to me.
Dex sits down on my other side. “And who knows? As we travel along things could change. The princess might find that her quest has changed as well.”
Torvold seems to brighten with that thought. “Indeed,” he says optimistically. He smiles at me, even though he’s still talking to Dex. “Even now Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer could be gasping his last.”
I smile back at him, my cheeks warming, while my breakfast congeals in my bowl. Tudie elbows me. I look away from Torvold and get busy with eating.
After taking care of our personal hygiene issues (which each of us urgently needs after a few bites of medieval porridge) we head out together upriver. This time I insist that the White Witches ride Thunder. Jackanet leads the horse, as Thunder is bred for battle and impossible to ride unless you are made of solid muscle and wearing spurs. Torvold and I walk beside them.
“How is it you were chosen for this quest, good sir knight?” I ask.
“I’m the only one who can protect them, really,” he says, frowning down at his feet.
“Why is that?” I ask, raising an eyebrow. “Surely there are many knights who are great fighters.”
“It’s his sword, Calx,” Dexterity says. “It’s the only thing that can kill Asphodel.”
“It’s not the sword,” Jackanet groans, as if they’ve had this argument a thousand times. “It’s the birthmark.”
“He’s not going to kill the sorcerer with a bloody birthmark!” Fortitude hollers, like she’s on her last nerve. Then she puts a shocked hand to her lips. “Excuse me, milady.” Nobody waits to see if I’m offended.
“No, Tudie,” Dex corrects, “Jackanet means it’s because of the birthmark Torvold can kill Asphodel with the sword. Sir Torvold has a birthmark shaped like a Puce Pinkerknuckle, which means he’s the chosen one who can wield the sword.”
“There’s no such thing a Puce Pinkerknuckle,” Tudie grumbles.
“It’s not the sword! I’m telling you, the birthmark’s poison,” Jackanet insists. “Asphodel will touch it and die because it’s not of this world.”
“He won’t touch—" Tudie breaks off for a moment, like what Jackanet just said was so overwhelmingly stupid she doesn’t know where to begin. “The sword is not of this world, you idiot. The birthmark just means that Torvold can wield it and the sword is the only thing that can kill Asphodel!”
“Made of sky metal, that sword,” Dex adds, winking at me.
“No it isn’t,” Tudie says, pinching her lips together. “It was forged in the belly of a dragon.”
“Nonsense. How would you get a blacksmith in there?”
“I dunno. It’s not of this world.”
Jackanet is shaking his head. “No, it’s the birthmark that’s not from this world—have either of you even read the prophecy?”
“How can the Puce Pinkerknuckle be not of this world? It’s on Torvold’s arse!” Fortitude shouts.
Torvold shoots me a horrified look, and I have to cover my mouth to keep from doing one of my hideous snort-laughs.
“Puce Pinkerknuckle,” Jackanet insists.
“That’s not—!” Tudie stops herself again and takes a deep breath.
Torvold holds my elbow and slows his steps. I slow down with him.
“They’ll go on like this for another hour at least,” he whispers in my ear. We drop back even farther, but they don’t notice.
“Is it true?” I ask.
“What? The sword or the birthmark?” he replies, giving me a roguish smile though his blush. And if you’ve never seen that combination of embarrassed and cheeky before in a guy, I just want to let you know that it is absolutely devastating.
I shake my head and look down to hide the fact that it suddenly feels extremely hot in this corset.
“Is it true that you’re the only one who can kill Asphodel?” I ask.
“I have a mark. Don’t know what a Pinkerknuckle is, so I suppose it could be one.”
“And what about the sword?”
“Calx,” he says, like he’s saying the name of a friend. He draws his sword and lays it across his arm to show me the blade.
It does not shine. In fact, it is made of a dark, dirty looking metal, as if it had been lying in ashes, except for the edge. All the way around the cutting edge of the blade sparkles. It looks like diamond. I reach out to feel it, and Torvold pulls Calx away quickly.
“It will burn you if you touch it,” he warns me.
I frown up at him. “Is it hot?”
“Not to me, but to everyone else, it feels like it was just pulled from the fire.” He sheathes his sword. “It’s the only weapon Asphodel fears. That is why I was chosen for this quest. I’m the only one who can protect the Virtues from him.”
“Huh,” I say, remembering something I read once. “Calx is the residue left by a burnt mineral.”
Torvold smiles. “I know,” he replies, looking at me strangely. “An alchemist told me that. How did you know?”
Yeah. How would I know that?
“There’s not much to do in a tower besides read,” I say.
“You can read?” he asks, surprised.
I nod and shrug at the same time, like it’s no big deal, but it is a big deal. There are probably five people in this whole world who can read, and as a person of the female persuasion, I’m not supposed to be one of them. Unbelievably sexist, but also true.
“I can as well,” he says, like he’s admitting something he’s supposed to keep hidden for manly reasons. “I was not supposed to be a knight.” He looks down and stops himself from continuing.
I tilt my head to the side, so I can see his expression better. “What were you supposed to be?” I ask.
He lifts his head to answer and takes a breath and…wow. We are extremely close together. Like, I’m almost wearing his clothes right now. There’s a slight breeze that blows a tress of my shampoo commercial-perfect hair gently across my cheek. Torvold catches it and smooths it back from my face. He leaves his hand there for a moment, barely touching the edge of my jaw.
Torvold and I jump apart. The peanut gallery has come back for us. Jackanet is glaring at me, Dex is trying not to giggle, and Tudie looks a little worried, but not surprised.
“I think we should all stay together, don’t you dearie?” Tudie says as she comes back, takes my hand, and walks beside me for the rest of the morning.
That was close. Torvold’s the hero of this book. Everybody’s routing for Torvold. Readers aren’t going to like me if they think I’m playing him. I have to be more careful.
From now on, no more fraught pauses where I stand there staring at him like he’s a pint of ice cream and I’m a warm spoon. Torvold and I are just going to be friends. Cohorts. Co-questers. And that’s it.
Here’s how I know it’s a real monster and not just a spell.
One: this is the Forest of Woe, which is known for its monsters and not its spells. Two: spells tend to hit you right away, not stand there yelling at you for a while. If this monster was a spell, I’d both see it and be getting gnawed on by it at the same time. And three: Torvold sees it, too.
Casting a spell on more than one person is really difficult. Not impossible, but difficult, and not something that sorcerers leave lying around in a forest. If a sorcerer was going to spend the life force necessary to cast a spell on more than one person, said sorcerer wouldn’t just drop it in a forest that had perfectly real monsters of its own.
This monster is completely real. And completely terrifying.
I’m heading back into the river for a third time, but Torvold catches me yet again. He pulls out his sword with one hand and hoists me over one of his shoulders with the other.
“Fear not, my princess,” he shouts as he runs into the rushing river, “these types of beasts loathe water.”
I push against Torvold’s back so I can prop myself up and see behind us while he runs. The view isn’t good.
“Yes, well, this one can fly,” I shout over the sound of the river.
The lion-lizard-eagle flaps its great wings twice and it’s over the river and landing on the far bank before I’m done warning Torvold. The monster starts striding back and forth on the river bank, waiting for dinner to be done washing itself and get in his belly.
Torvold switches gears quickly. He stops where he is, wades to about mid-river, finds a rock and puts me on it.
“Fear not—” Torvold begins, but I cut him off.
“You’ve got to stop saying that. Fear is an entirely appropriate sentiment, given the situation.”
He grins at me. Hello, dimple. Nice to know your owner has a sense of humor.
“Stay here. I’ll go kill it,” he says simply. He brandishes his sword once and charges through the water as if he were on flat ground. I would be eating gravel right now if I tried that.
Torvold scrambles for the bank, but here he’s at a serious disadvantage. He’s got to fight the thing uphill across broken ground. Not to mention the fact that the monster is about fifteen feet tall and nearly three times as long.
I see him lose his footing and think, well that was nice while it lasted, and then Torvold feints to the side on his perfectly solid footing as the monster dips his head down to snap him up. Torvold swings his sword up and around and nearly chops the lion head off. Unfortunately, the mane is probably two feet thick and all that gets cut off is a hank of fur.
Torvold rolls easily up onto the bank next to the monster as it rears back, enraged. He crouches down into a fighting stance, rushes in, but thinks better of it when the reptilian tail swings around and practically knocks him down. Torvold tries another approach only to find flashing talons almost piercing his chest.
The knight and the monster start circling each other, sizing each other up.
“I’ll lead him away. You cross back to other side and find Jackanet. If I do not return, good luck on your quest, princess,” Torvold yells to me, never taking his eyes off the beast.
Torvold starts to back up the far bank to lead the beast away, but as he does so, the long tail that is now facing me shoots out. I try to jump into the river as soon as I see what old anaconda-rear is about, but he catches me in midair. The tail coils around my waist so tightly I feel like I’m going to puke.
There is suddenly a lot more noise. I can hear Sir Torvold shouting to me, the flapping of wings, and the ringing of a sword against tough scales. The lion’s head of the monster starts roaring in pain, but the tail keeps coiling me in. Torvold is fighting like crazy up there as he tries to save me, but in the meantime, I’m rolled up like a burrito underneath this monster’s butthole.
It is pungent down here. And I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got monster balls resting on my forehead right now.
My arms are squeezed close enough together that I can just barely graze the hilt of one of the blades that I’ve got tucked up my left sleeve with my right fingertips. I inch the blade out and nick myself pretty good as I spin it around, but I do finally manage to get the hilt held solidly in my right fist. Then I bring it around sharply and cut into a coil of monster muscle.
That loosens his grip enough that I can yank my arms out, but the blade stays stuck inside of Mr. Stinky Teabag. My other blades are in my bodice, garters, and my boots and as such they are inaccessible right now. Since I can’t get his balls off my mind, I grab two big hunks of them and then squeeze and twist.
The monster makes a yelping sound that’s legitimately pathetic. He tries to drop me and fly away, but I don’t let go of him. I’m too terrified that he’ll slash me with the talons on his hind legs as I fall past them. Not to mention the fact that I could break a leg in a bad landing. There’s no emergency room in Lucitopia. You break a leg, you’ve got a limp for the rest of your life.
The monster’s flapping his wings, trying to get airborne, and I’m swinging from his junk like a baller hanging from the rim, still twisting and grinding whatever he’s got in there like I’m wringing out a pair of wet jeans. Finally, the monster drops back down to earth and keels over.
Torvold vaults onto the monster’s belly and slashes it open with a swing that would have every golfer in my world drooling. The beast makes a screeching sound. I decide it’s safe to let go and I roll off to the side as Torvold searches under the opened scales for the heart. When he finds it, he drives his blade home, putting the poor creature out of his misery.
Torvold jumps down next to me. “You’re bleeding,” he says urgently.
He tries to gather me up in his arms again, but at this point I think I’ve spent more time being carried around by him than on my own two feet.
“I need no assistance, brave knight—no more than you’ve supplied by killing this hideous beast,” I say, holding up a hand to stop him. He looks dismayed and I realize my hand is covered in blood.
“Your hand,” he says, unbuckling his chain mail at the shoulder. Underneath is a white linen shirt.
“Tis but a scratch,” I protest, but he’s already taking off his shirt. I stop talking and just let it happen.
Wow. I never realized how mesmerizing muscles could be. I mean, I’ve always liked them, but Torvold’s are hypnotic. He’s not puffed up or anything, but everything flows from his broad chest and shoulders, down his rippling six pack, to trim hips, in such a harmonious way. Even his back is carved out of thick, curved muscle and his skin is so smooth. I wonder if he shaves—no, that’s silly. Guy here don’t shave their bodies.
Torvold is just about to start ripping up his shirt, most likely to make bandages for my hand, when we hear Thunder whinny.
“That was horrible!” Jackanet shouts. He’s leading Thunder across the river. On the stallion’s back are two barefooted women in white dresses.
Torvold stands and bows to them, and then puts on his shirt. Unfortunately.
“Good. You’re here,” Torvold says hurriedly as Jackanet arrives on our side of the bank. “I need bandages.” He looks Jackanet over. “What’s wrong with you? You’re as pale as a sheet.”
“I’ve never seen an animal so horribly abused,” Jackanet says as he digs in the horse’s saddle bags.
“What are you talking about? You’ve seen me slay dozens of monsters,” Torvold replies as he takes some cloths from his squire.
“Not you—her! Did you see how she was swinging from that poor chimera-griff’s bollocks?”
“Jackanet,” Torvold scolds, as he wraps my hand. “Language.”
“But it’s true!” Jackanet continues pointing at me. “She was ringing his bells like there was a village on fire!”
Torvold is blushing and angry and sputtering, and I figure the best way to handle it is to ignore it.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, good squire,” I say. “But Sir Torvold was quite the hero this afternoon. He saved me from being carried off by that chimera-griff.”
“I can’t take all the praise. You fought bravely, too, princess,” Torvold insists. I can feel my cheeks heat up at the compliment. But princesses aren’t supposed to do things like swing from giant scrotums.
“She’s the one who did him in,” Jackanet insists.
“I was merely holding on for dear life until Sir Torvold could come to my rescue,” I say. That sounded princess-y.
Jackanet gives me a disbelieving look, followed by a wary one, like he’s deciding to keep his eye on me.
As Torvold finishes with my bandages, Jackanet turns to help the two women down from Thunder’s back.
“Princess Pleasant, this is the White Witch Fortitude,” Torvold gestures to a stout little woman, maybe in her mid-thirties, with big brown eyes and a long shiny black braid. Her caramel-colored face is round and jolly, yet there is something about her eyes that say she’s not as soft on the inside as she is on the outside.
I curtsey to her, “Your Grace,” I say.
“No, no. Just call me Tudie, dear. I don’t stand on ceremony,” she says with a crisp nod.
I smile at her while Torvold directs me to the other White Witch. “And this is Dexterity,” he informs me.
I’m momentarily thrown while I have a quick mental debate as to whether or not dexterity could be considered a virtue, but I recover fast and give her a semi-decent curtsey.
“Call me Dex,” Dexterity tells me. She has an open, earnest smile. I smile back at her, deciding immediately that I like her.
Dexterity is in her late twenties, and she wears her blonde hair cropped close across the back and around the ears, but she leaves a grown-out mop on top. She’s got long features and long, lanky limbs. She moves in a loose way, like she’s built out of rubber bands. Standing next to short and stout Fortitude, they look like a Vaudeville comedy act.
“I’m honored,” I tell them, and I’m happy to note that I’m telling the truth. “You may call me—”and here I pause for a moment.
I’ve always hated the name Princess Pleasant. The writer really phoned it in on that one, but I can’t think of a snazzy way to shorten it. Plezdoesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
“Don’t trouble yourself, dearie,” Tudie says, waving it away. “We’ll come up with something to call you as we travel apace together, to be sure.”
“Come, let us move away from this gory sight,” Sir Torvold says considerately. “We can sup together, and the princess can tell us all about her perilous quest.”
Crap. I’d rather fight another monster. The party starts to move upstream from the dead chimera-griff, but I hang back.
“I left my…er…pack back there,” I say.
Jackanet unhooks my pack from the pommel of Thunder’s saddle and passes it to me. “You left it on the other side of the river.”
“Right! Many thanks, trusty squire, for retrieving it for me,” I say while I sling my pack over my shoulder. “I meant something else I dropped in the fight.”
I run back and hastily pull my knife out of poor Mr. Stinky Teabag. He was just doing what monsters do. I give him a little pet and whisper, “sorry,” as I clean my blade hastily in the grass. As I’m sliding the blade back into my arm sheath, I catch Jackanet watching me. He hustles off as soon as we make eye contact.
I join the group again and there’s a little argument about who is going to ride on Thunder. Everyone insists that I ride because I’m injured, but mostly because I’m a princess, I suspect. I can’t really wiggle out of it, though I don’t feel right about making two Virtues walk.
We travel upstream until we find a good spot to camp for the night. I’m thinking about what my quest should be the whole way, but I can’t come up with anything both believable and heroic.
“This looks like a favorable place to pass the night,” Torvold declares. The spot he’s picked is close to the riverbank, but far enough away to be dry. There’s a lovely shade tree to sleep under. I look up into the branches to make sure there are no nests above us. I don’t want to get pooped on in the middle of the night. And, yes, it has happened to me before.
While I’m looking up into the branches for any possible late-night bombardiers, I feel Torvold’s huge, warm hands wrap around my waist. I stiffen with surprise, but he’s already sliding me out of the saddle and setting me down on the ground between him and Thunder.
We are awfully close together. I stare at his chest for a moment, thinking about what’s under all that chain mail, before I look up at him. Another beam of light is filtering down through the leaves and landing perfectly on his head like a halo. The writer must have spent a lot of time describing the light around Torvold, although I bet this guy would look good in the dark. Not that you can see anything in the dark. Why am I think about being in the dark with Torvold?
“I have to unsaddle Thunder,” he tells me.
“Oh, right,” I say, hastily stepping aside when I realize he’s been waiting for me to move. I resist the urge to smack myself on the forehead and nonchalantly go over to the White Witches like I didn’t just make a fool of myself.
Dex pulls out a pocketknife and some flint. She spins the little blade in her fingers, and quicker than I can see she’s got a spark smoldering in a small pile of leaves and tinder.
“You’re quite good at that,” I remark, impressed.
“I am dexterous,” Dex replies, giving me a little wink.
“Show off,” Jackanet snorts.
“He’s just jealous because he can’t start a fire,” Tudie whispers to me, loudly enough for the squire to hear. She’s already got her knitting out, and the needles are clacking away in her hands.
Grumbling, Jackanet goes to collect wood while Torvold joins us at the fire’s edge with a black pot and a haunch of monster meat.
“I’d like to say that I know the perfect way to prepare chimera-griff, but sadly, I do not,” he says with a sheepish grin.
I take a look at the haunch Torvold’s holding. It still a few feathers clinging to it.
“Looks more like poultry than snake. Probably from the eagle portion. I’d go with rosemary,” I say, already digging in my pack for the herb. “And lots of salt.”
Torvold looks taken aback. “Have you eaten snake, my princess?”
Yes, actually, I have. It’s amazing what you’ll eat when you’ve been plunked down in the middle of horrid fairy tale after being hoodwinked by a diabolical used-book saleswoman. Can’t tell Torvold that, obviously.
“At court, once,” I say airily. “It’s considered a delicacy by some.”
Dex and Tudie exchange a look but say nothing to contradict me.
“Indeed?” Torvold replies, considering it. He smiles broadly. “It is fortunate we have you here, then, princess.”
I inherit the pot and the monster meat. I’d go wash my hands, but I think it’s a little late for that.
I’ve done the shift through time, space, and most likely reality itself once before to get to Lucitopia, but it’s still really disorienting.
Being instantaneously placed somewhere and somewhen else is a complete who’s-your-daddy of all your senses. There’s a feeling of apprehension, like a giant butterfly in your stomach-- except not a good butterfly. A barfy one. Everything looks wavy around the edges, but it’s more than a visual change. There’s a temperature shift, too, and the smells in the air are completely different. Oh, and just a suggestion, if you’re walking stop.
Suddenly blinded by bright sunlight, I take a step and put my foot down on a loose rock. I think I recover for a second, only to realize that, no, I do not have my balance yet because I’m not standing on the flat bottom of a tent anymore, but on a slope. Then, while I’m waving my arms about and doing some kind of goofy hip thrust that probably looks a lot like the Pee-Wee Herman dance, I pitch head-long into a gurgling stream, scraping the palms of my hands on the gravel at the bottom and soaking myself with cold mountain melt water.
“Ho, there!” calls a young man’s voice.
And apparently, I’m about to get shot in the face with an arrow.
“Are you injured?” He sounds worried. About my well-being. That’s new.
I must have moved to a part of the book where Kindness hasn’t gotten the ax yet.
“No,” I say, switching to my fake British accent. My hair is plastered over my eyes. I inch out of the river on my hands and knees rather than attempt to stand up while still partially blinded.
“Stay where you are, milady. I will cross the river and assist you,” he says. I hear splashing and clanking coming toward me as I crawl. That clanking is probably armor. Hopefully, he’s a knight and not a bandit. Kindness is probably still around, but this is Lucitopia, after all. He could be a kind bandit.
“What horrible spell has abandoned you in such a state in the Forest of Woe? Was it Asphodel—damn his name!”
Passionate fellow. And that British accent he’s got makes everything sound more poetic.
“Ah. No. And you don’t have to—” I say, but he’s already lifting me up and carrying me.
I’d protest, but he moves fast. Before I have much of chance to push myself away from his chainmail covered chest, he places me down on a convenient hillock of grass. I throw my bedraggled hair off my face. It takes a few tries to get enough hair out of my face to see because the stupid circlet around my head keeps getting in the way. And I’ve got a ton of smooth, wavy, auburn hair that’s so long I can sit on it. Another image perk, curtesy of Lucitopia. In the real world my head is covered in something that looks suspiciously like rusty brown yeti fur. It’s dull, frizzy, and won’t grow much past my shoulders.
He looks stunned. “Princess Pleasant?” he says. Then he moves back and, distressingly, goes down on one knee in front of me. “What are you doing out here in the wild? You should be safe in your tower!”
“No more towers,” I say, stopping him right there. “I’m out in the wild because—”
Why am I out here in the wild? What could my character, the only child of the true king, be doing running around the dreaded Forest of Woe? I have no idea. I take my pack off my shoulder and start going through it, like I’m making sure nothing important is damaged, to give myself a chance to think.
In the small part of the book I had time to read before I said the spell and got myself stuck in here, Princess Pleasant is hidden away because Asphodel the Ghastly (at this point in the story not the king yet, but just Asphodel the Evil Sorcerer) has been demanding her hand in marriage so he can be the next king, and her father won’t allow it, because no one wants an evil sorcerer in the family. Or as a future king.
That’s the story as it is written. Princess Pleasant doesn’t even have any dialogue in the book, as far as I know. There’s just an illustration of her. She’s really pretty, and she’s wearing a great dress and golden circlet on her head, and I just loved the illustration as soon as I saw it. She was like that Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shallot, but less horsy-faced. She had great skin, great hair, a killer wardrobe, but that’s about all there is in the book about the character of Princess Pleasant. She isn’t even a full character, like Torvold is. She’s just an illustration.
I’m going to have to make up a damn good reason for me to be wandering around a monster-infested forest, or this knight is going to drag me back to some dumb tower, and I know how that ends for me. I want to get out of here, and the only direction Mother Maybe gave me was to make my story the one I’d want to read.
So, what would I want to read?
“I’m on an important quest…er…from my father…um…the king.” That didn’t sound wishy-washy at all. “I need your help, brave knight.”
He bows even lower, which shouldn’t be possible in chain mail, but he’s quite flexible, apparently.
“And I, Sir Torvold the Bold, will aid you in your quest, my princess,” he swears. He looks up at me.
Wow. He’s really good looking, but he’s not cute. He’s no baby face, even though I can tell he’s young—probably my age, maybe a year or two older. He’s got brown hair, brown eyes, and a cleft chin. It’s very hero-esque, that cleft. Not something I would personally choose if I had written this book, but it works. He’s got the whole sharp cheekbones and granite jaw thing going, and the cleft really pulls it all together. I bet he wasn’t one of those angelic looking little boys who people went goo-goo over, but you can tell he’s growing into himself. And several other people, from the size of him. He’s huge. Not in a freaky knuckle-dragging way, but tall and muscular and just, wow.
While I’m staring, something warm, soft and hairy blows hot air down my neck. I’m doing the Pee-Wee Herman again trying to get away from it and headed back into the river for another dunking, but Torvold catches me and swings me up in his arms. This guy is nimble.
“Fear not, my princess,” Sir Torvold says with a smile and a dimple. “That is my trusty steed, Thunder. Come, do your duty to her highness, Thunder.”
Sir Torvold places me back on my feet for the second time while I hold out my hand for the horse to sniff. I don’t have a lot of experience with horses, but they can’t be too different from dogs, can they? He nudges my hand and I pet him between the eyes.
Thunder is one of those horses with the furry hooves that I’ve only ever seen pulling giant sleighs in beer commercials during football games, except he’s all white. His face is bigger than my torso. He nods his head, tossing his long, silky mane and paws the ground with a hoof. Almost like he’s bowing, strangely enough.
“A-hem,” a small voice says from somewhere in the back. Since horse’s asses can’t speak, not even here in Lucitopia, I assume there’s someone else with us.
“Ah! And that’s my trusty squire, Jackanet the Tidy,” Torvold says heartily.
Jackanet comes out from behind Thunder twisting his cap in his hands. He gives me a very shaky bow and then stands again, still twisting his cap in filthy hands. His hose is wrinkled and slipping down on his scrawny legs, giving him baggy ankles. There are several gravy stains on his jerkin and his cape is covered in horse hair.
Jackanet the Tidy does not live up to the hype. I would accuse Sir Torvold of sarcasm, but I don’t think he knows what that is.
“Pleased to meet you?” Jackanet says uncertainly, probably because I’m still staring at him, trying to figure out if they’re both just messing with me or not. “Would you like me to help you…you know…tidy up?” he asks me.
“Oh, no,” I say too loudly. I’m a hot mess right now, but he’d definitely make it worse. And probably give me pink eye. “Modesty forbids it,” I say, playing the girl card.
He visibly relaxes and pets the horse’s flank, leaving dirty streaks behind. Poor horse.
“Well, I should go and find the…you know…” Jackanet says, sidling away from us with Thunder.
“Sorry, the what?” Sir Torvold says.
“The er-tues that we’re er-tecting,” he grumbles incoherently, glaring at Torvold.
Torvold scrunches up his face. “Have you got something in your throat, Jackanet?”
The squire gives his master a blank look followed by an eye roll, and then he simply walks away from us, taking the horse with him.
“And now, my princess, tell me your quest so I might aid you in it,” Sir Torvold says, not missing a beat in his up-beatness.
My quest. My quest? My quest, quest, questidty quest-quest. Not many q words are there? Crap. I don’t have a quest. I must deflect.
“How remiss of me, what is your quest, brave knight?”
“I have been given the sacred task of protecting Virtue itself. I must find and protect every White Witch still alive,” he replies gravely.
Now that’s a quest. But I wouldn’t go around announcing that if I were him. This is Lucitopia. Nobody tells anyone what they want unless they want that other person to try to take it away from them. Or make them pay double for it.
But that’s my Lucitopia, the one with no Virtue. I look at Torvold and know that he is from another place entirely, even if it does have the exact same name. And then I mentally translate what his squire was mumbling about.
“Oh! Is that’s what Squire Jackanet left to seek? Have you lost your Virtues?” I ask. Torvold blushes deeply and I backpedal. “Obviously, good sir, you are virtuous to the core, I only meant—”
“Yes, yes,” he says nodding a little too vigorously. “They are not my virtue—I’ve still got that—though I hope I have their Virtues in me as well.” He seems to realize that this is getting worse by the second. “I am the guardian of two White Witches. There. That’s what I’ll call them from now on. White Witches.”
“Much easier,” I agree. I’m nervous. I don’t know why. He basically just told me he was a big, hot virgin.
“But enough about my quest. Tell me yours, my princess.”
He’s on a quest to find and protect all that is good in the world. I don’t have anything that comes close to that. I’m going to have to vamp until I come up with something.
“My quest is so unexpected…and secret…and…and…clandestine that my father could trust none with it but me,” I say, waving one arm and clutching my bosom with the other.
I’ll give him a little of the old razzle dazzle until I can come up with a really good quest. No—a great quest. One that would definitely make tons of guys desperate to keep reading until they fall in love with me. Or girls. Still not picky, because that’s how these stories go, right? I’m convinced through the whole thing that I’m supposed to kiss a guy, but it turns out it’s a girl in the end. Well, I’m not getting hung up on that, I can tell you. I’d totally kiss a girl. Just saying, if any girls are reading this and want to give it a go, I am so game.
Still nothing, huh?
“Forgive me, Princess, but you seem distracted,” Torvold interjects politely.
“Just contemplating the onerous task I have been given, kind sir,” I reply. Onerous? I’ve got to stop using adjectives or I’m going to paint myself into a corner. Now I’ve got to come up with an onerous quest. Great.
His big brown eyes round with empathy. Holy gawd. They actually glimmer. A saintly beam of light has fallen through the trees, hit his face at just the right angle, and made his eyes freaking glimmer. These romance books. They’ll be the death of me.
“Share your burden with me. I will help you shoulder it,” he says in his deep, soft voice.
Wow. I just stare at him like a boob.
“How is your father?” he asks when I don’t answer.
“Not well,” I reply, thinking of my own father and too stunned by Sir Sexy to put my cosplay filter on.
But I get lucky. Sir Torvold is nodding sadly. “I’d heard. He’s been very ill for quite some time now.”
“We all hope for his recovery,” I say politely.
He looks uncertain, like he is about to say something, and then he changes his mind. He smiles winningly. “And now, princess,” he says, “what brings you here to the Forest of Woe?”
“Monster,” I say, pointing.
Because there is a giant lion-lizard-eagle monster coming up behind him.
They call it a market, but really, it’s more like a carnival. Except pretty much everyone looks like a skeevy Carnie, even the people who come here to buy stuff.
There are acrobats, artisans, games of chance, clowns (who are utterly terrifying) and jugglers. There are those dudes on stilts, strong men, and bearded ladies. There are food stands and magical animal auctions (two angry trolls dressed like pixies, and one very confused goose that probably does not lay golden eggs) and of course, there’s a greased-warthog-catching contest. I mean, who can pass up the chance to try and grab a greased warthog?
Hawkers tell me I’d be getting the opportunity of a lifetime—three beans could grow you a palace in the sky—as I walk by. The air smells like fried dough and cotton candy when I get a lucky twist in the breeze, and like foot and ass when I don’t. There’s a lot of energy and glitter, but like any carnival that isn’t part of an entertainment park owned by a massive corporation, there is also the dinginess of poverty creeping up all the brightly striped tents and banners like mold. Actually, I think most of it is mold.
Harmless spells create the illusion of pomp and circumstance. Unicorns paw at the ground in front of gilded temples but turn the corner and you can see—in one glimpse out of a thousand—that it’s really just some sway backed nags in front of a tattered tent. Fireworks burst endlessly in the sky with no smoke or boom. Everything that is beautiful is magic, and magic is nothing but illusion. It's kind of sad, really.
And there aren’t any kids. That’s one of the weirdest things about Lucitopia. No babies, no children. I’m the youngest person here by far.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not baby-crazy or anything. I mean, I like babies. I used to babysit on the weekends for my neighbors, and they had this little boy who was kind of great because he used to laugh every time I blew raspberries on his cheek and he only cried when he had a wet diaper. His parents would leave for date night, we’d play ten minutes of peek-a-boo, I’d give him a bottle, a bath, and that kid was out like a light while I ate Doritos and read books on my phone until the ‘rents came home at midnight. I was basically getting paid to do what I would be doing on a Saturday night anyways, but without having to listen to my parents arguing in the background. Easy money.
I know babies can be really annoying. Except when there aren’t any. Just try to picture it. You look around and realize that you’re at a carnival, but there’s no one laughing or screaming because they’re so happy they can’t keep it in anymore. No one is jumping up and down in front of the glass blower because a person used fire to melt glass into syrup that became a dragon. There isn’t even anyone to run screaming from the terrifying clowns. That’s when you realize that kids are annoying, yes, but they are also supposed to be there. And there aren’t any here.
Lucitopia is dying.
Being the youngest person by an average of six decades does not mean that I don’t get harassed, by the way. Not in Lucitopia. Once, this dusty mummy of a dude tried to reverse whistle at me—you know, that type of whistle where they pretend you’re so hot that they got burned just looking at you and they suck the air in through their teeth? Yeah, well, while he was sucking in, his last tooth came out and he choked on it. I had to give him the Heimlich. Afterwards he asked me to marry him, which I though was decent of him, considering the unintentional intimacy of the maneuver.
“Buying or selling?” a thousand-year-old creep asks, right on cue. “Please tell me you’re selling.”
“Stow it Dracula, or I’ll plunk a stake in your heart,” I tell him.
I feign a British accent to fit in. Everyone here has a British accent. Don’t know why, exactly, except that British accents are pretty much required in these kinds of vaguely medieval magical epic fantasy stories. And if you think about it, how ridiculous would a movie about knights and sorcerers be if everyone had a Brooklyn accent?
Dracula laughs so hard he sends himself into a coughing fit. He has no idea what I’m talking about, of course. There is no Dracula in Lucitopia, I don’t think. He’s just having a laugh because I gave him some sass.
At this point I think the geezers at market just hassle me to see what I’ll say to them. We all sort of know each other by now—but only in a side-eyes sort of way, so sort of not at all, actually. I keep my hand on the dagger in my belt as I pass him, just in case, and quash a smile.
I shake my head at someone who’s paying a little too much attention to my satchel and when he abruptly abandons his attempted robbery I make my way down Fortune Alley, where all the old con-ladies flock together like a murder of crows.
“Come for your fortune, dearie?” cackles a fat woman with a sequins shawl, dyed black hair, and mawkishly painted-on lips.
“That’d be stupid,” I say bluntly. “There is no future here.”
She closes her mouth with a snap. Then she adjusts her shawl and sniffs, like she’s too good for me. Her eyes dart up to the golden circlet around my head.
“Why come down Fortune Alley, then princess?” she asks. “You won’t find anyone to kiss you here.”
I have to be careful, because one of the rules of being in Lucitopia is that I can’t let on to anyone that I’m from another world, or I’m stuck here forever. But if she already knows…
“You know how I have to be kissed by a real boy to get out of here?” I hazard.
“The Great Griselda sees all and knows all,” she intones.
“How fortuitous.” I get in her face. “Because I need to find Mother Maybe.”
“I know all, for a price,” Griselda corrects.
“Yeah,” I chuckle, pulling out my dagger. “But I bet you’ll tell all to save your life.” Her face goes blank. She’s not so sure she likes where this is headed anymore. “Didn’t see that coming, did you?” I say.
I’m being a jerk, but so is she. Why can’t anyone here just give me directions or help me find someone or not try and take me for every cent if I ask them for the frigging time of day? Everyone in Lucitopia is a jerk, and I hate having to be one in return.
And let me be clear about something. I’m not going to hurt her. But here in Lucitopia if you haul out your purse like a gap-toothed bumpkin and say how much every time someone tells you it’s going to cost you they never give you want you want. They just keep finding new and interesting ways to take your money while they lead you on a merry jaunt across this rat-infested hell. I don’t have the time for that.
“Just take me to Mother Maybe,” I tell her, shrugging tiredly. “If you do, I’ll give you enough money to buy ten sparkly shawls. Okay?”
She nods hastily, never taking her eyes off my dagger. I do sort of have a reputation for being good with a dagger. To be honest, in the beginning I got lucky. Couple of bandits, a few well thrown knives that by some miracle hit a few tender bits, and word got around. Then I practiced. A lot. I don’t know if I could live up the reputation I’ve got now, but like I said—bunch of old people. When the majority of my opponents would sooner throw their backs out than throw a dagger, I probably don’t have to be all that good to be considered amazing.
“This way,” Griselda says with far less cackle in her voice than previously.
As she walks in front of me, I notice the rounding in her back eases away and the fat in her middle stretches out as she stands up taller. She is neither short nor fat. Nor is she all that old. Maybe in her fifties? Not young, but certainly not old and feeble. In fact, she looks quite hale.
Griselda leads me down a few switchback alleys behind the main drag. The tents here are made of less garish material, but they’re cleaner and they reek less. She comes to a small canvass tent that’s a basic olive-green color and stops at the opening flap.
“I’m not saying she’ll help you,” Griselda says. She actually has a beautiful voice. A soft alto. “But she’s been waiting for you. Too long, I think.”
I don’t know what to say. This Griselda is much different from the Great Griselda who tried to swindle me. She seems almost stately is the only word that comes to mind.
I take a step. I don’t know why I’m hesitating. I shake myself and reach for my purse. A deal’s a deal. Griselda holds up a hand.
“Please,” she says, refusing to take my money. “Mother Maybe is waiting.” She holds the tent flap open for me and follows me in. “She’s here,” Griselda calls out.
“Well, well, well,” says a sighing voice.
Mother Maybe looks the same as she did at the swap meet on Fairfax and Santa Monica. Like a tatty Stevie Nicks. She wears fringed, dream-gypsy clothes that are a little worse for wear. She has thick, long, curly blonde hair, an upturned nose, and just enough of a figure left to let you know she was smoking hot about twenty years ago. She comes out from behind a partition that runs the length of the tent carrying a mug of tea that says unicorns are a-holes in worn words on the side of it.
She gives me a look that’s normally accompanied by a tisking sound, and then goes back to stirring her tea. “Finally done waiting for Prince Charming to come and save you?”
I hate it when people say well, well, well. I also hate it when they trap me in dangerous fairy tales. I should give her a piece of my mind. Too bad I’m still hung up on that last thing she said about waiting to be saved.
“What do you even mean by that? You’re the one—you told me I had to get someone to kiss me!” I stammer.
“And you thought the best way to go about that was to climb a tower and sit on your ass?” She perches a fist on her hip. “No wonder everyone stops reading you. You’re passive. No one likes a passive character.”
“I…was…I’m trying to not get killed!”
She smirks at me. “And you think trying not to get killed is going to win you a huge fan base, do you?”
My mouth is hanging open. I shut it and try to look outraged. “You never told me it was going to be like this.”
She makes a face like she knows I know I’m lying. “You came to my table and start digging through my books. I asked you what you like to read.” She gestures around her. “Ta-da!”
“You made me get this stupid book—and by the way, you are a terrible used book saleswoman because I specifically said that I liked a strong romance in my epic fantasy. Where’s the romance?” I put a fist on my hip to match hers, but it’s really just a watered-down version of hers. Fists on hips only work if you’ve got some meat there to really land it. I recover and get back to picking the bone I have with her. “And I never thought it would be real.”
She smiles at me. “But you hoped with all of your heart that it would be. I told you to be careful, that you couldn’t take it back, and you went right ahead and said the words.”
I don’t have an answer for her because she’s right. Crap, I think I might cry.
“I misjudged you, that’s true,” she admits, nodding sadly. “I thought you could be the one.”
“Oh. Great. You’re disappointed in me, now?” I retort. Good old sarcasm. Saving me from yet another emotional moment. “I stayed alive. I didn’t want to die like a—a”
“Like a hero,” she finishes for me.
“I’m from Fresno. There are no heroes in Fresno!”
She turns away from me, heading for the partition. She’s going to leave. She’s going to leave and I’m going to be stuck in miserable Lucitopia forever.
“Wait!” I plead. “You have to help me.”
“I don’t know what you think I can do for you. You had a shot, and you blew it. Everyone stops reading when you go and hide.”
“Then send me back to the middle of the book, where there are still people reading,” I whisper. “Send me back before the battle on Knob Knoll. Please. I still have fifteen days.”
“Fourteen and a half,” she corrects sternly.
“Better than nothing.”
She smiles. “That’s the spirit.”
Then she looks me over. She’s got green eyes—that kind of green that can be mistaken for blue unless you’re looking right into them. And she smells like patchouli, but not in a head-shop way. She smells nice, actually. Damn, she’s got great skin. Lucitopia’s one perk. I haven’t had a pimple since I got here, but in the real world I have a face full of acne. Too bad I haven’t been able to enjoy my newly awesome complexion because I’ve been too busy avoiding rape and pillage.
Mother Maybe turns to Griselda. “What do you think?” she asks her.
Griselda narrows her eyes, considering. “She’s got some skills now, but skipping back that far?” She shakes her head.
Mother Maybe smiles at her. “You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t cautious,” she says, and then she turns to me. “Okay. I’ll send you back, but on one condition.”
I roll my eyes. “Anything. And, yes, please, give me a condition or a clue or something because I have no idea what the heck you want from me.”
Mother Maybe pushes back a panel of the partition and gestures for me to go behind it. “No more waiting around to be saved. Make your life the story you’d want to read.”
Fifteen days. I still can’t believe my time is almost up. Three hundred and fifty days have passed since I got myself into this mess, and now I’ve only got one choice left to make. I can either give up, or I can keep doing what I’ve been doing for nearly a year, which is trying to find a real boy to kiss me and break this spell.
Not easy to do when you’ve been turned into an illustration in a book.
The book I live in is LONG. It has many characters, but mine doesn’t come in until nearly the end. Which is lucky for me because the beginning of this book has all kinds of monsters and stab-happy warriors, and a huge battle against an evil sorcerer. Spoiler alert. He wins. So, yeah, that’s the world I live in. The one ruled by an evil sorcerer turned king.
I spend most of my days hiding at the top of a tall tower because said evil sorcerer king is rattling around out there somewhere and there aren’t a lot of good characters left in this book. Most of the heroes died in the Great Battle between good and evil at Knob Knoll and the rest of almost-heroes (the ones with enough common sense to run for it when the battle went sideways) are being hunted down. So, you can see why I have hesitated to skip back a bunch of pages and go there.
Other characters who have survived up to the point where I come in have told me bits and pieces about what happened, and not kidding here, but I have about a snowball’s chance in hell of making it through one week in the majority of this book.
My problem is, all the real boys who read my book love the beginning, the middle, and most of the end. Then they stop reading before the final pages. They never make it to the part where I come in. Any eligible boy who might possibly fall madly in love with me when he reads about my imprisonment tends to get angry when the main character, some swashbuckling blockhead named Torvold, gets killed with only fifty pages left to go.
Readers start the book, and so far, every single one of them has stopped reading as soon as Torvold dies. One kid even put the book in the freezer to punish it, which I thought was a little excessive. Twenty-four prospective kissers have read my book in the past three hundred and fifty days, and not one of them has gotten all the way through to the words: THE END.
Now I’ve got just fifteen days, and then I’m stuck here. And I will definitely die here. People shoot each other in the face with arrows here. On a regular basis. They don’t even fight first, they just go, “Ho there! Stop or I’ll lose my arrow!” and then they don’t wait to see if the other guy stops, they just shoot.
It’s a miracle I’ve lasted this long. That’s not to say that I’m completely incapable of taking care of myself. Since I got trapped here I’ve gotten pretty handy with a dagger. Sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old virgins are a hot commodity in this book, and I have no intention of being carried off by anyone.
Even if I have learned to hold my own, I’m not meant for this type of life. Mostly because of the “commodity” thing that I just mentioned.
In this world women are ranked somewhere above goats, but definitely below horses. I’ve managed to reduce myself to an eyeroll every time someone says something dumbfoundingly misogynistic, rather than launch into a diatribe about it, but I’ve had it. The princess thing is not what I thought it was going to be. Not at all.
I’ve got to get out of here. I have to go back lots of pages, way before Mother Maybe tricked me, turned me into a character, and stuck me in this book. I have to find a way to get into this story before Torvold dies his heroically lame-brained death. If I can do that, there’s bound to be a reader out there who’ll fall in love with me and kiss me.
Or, failing that, at least I might get a pity kiss. I’ll take a kiss from anyone. Boy, girl, doesn’t matter to me. Lots of girls could be reading this story.
I am not picky. I might even kiss a girl and like it. Who knows? I’ve never kissed anyone so why limit myself so early in the game?
Someone, please, kiss me.
I know you’re reading this. It could be you, you know. You could be my hero.
Maybe no one is reading. I can’t tell if I’m being read or not. All I hear is gossip in the market about Jinksy the Blind Man who, paradoxically, can only see when a pair of giant eyes are hovering in the sky. The other characters in this book have no idea what that is, but I do. It’s a reader. Or at least I’ve always thought it was a reader.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I have no audience, and yet my story continues—my pathetic story of unobserved desperation. At least I know the answer to that question about the tree falling in the woods. It definitely makes a sound. And, if my life is any analogy, its saying ohcrapwhyme!
I’ll have to do this alone, I suppose.
Not exactly what I had in mind when I wished to live in in a world of knights and princesses and magic and…okay, yes, I admit it. Romance. Big, sweeping romance with life or death stakes, and a gorgeous boy who’d die for me. You know, real epic fantasy type stuff, with a steamy romance that makes you swoon when you read about it.
I used to do a lot of reading, and a lot of swooning. I made a wish and I got it, only to find that in the world of Lucitopia, if you walk around with your head in the clouds, someone will chop it off for you.
Today is market day. It’s the one day every month that the last few surviving non-evil people of Lucitopia get together to buy, sell, trade, beg, barter, and steal. And I know what you’re thinking—if someone steals, they’re one of the bad guys, right? Heck no. Real bad guys burn villages to the ground and carry off all the women under the age of twenty. Stealing is, like…nice here. Almost a compliment, really. If someone tries to take your stuff it’s because your stuff is useful, and they probably really need it.
I don’t even get upset about it because there are a lot of old people in this world. They’re all that’s left after the Final Battle that killed all the young men, and then after the battle, with all the young-maiden-carrying-off stuff. These old people are not as nimble as I am, and if they’ve mustered up the gumption to do a snatch-and-grab on a loaf of bread I’ve been stupid enough to leave sticking out of my satchel, I don’t try to chase them much. They never get more than a dozen paces before they have to stop and wheeze for a bit anyway. I usually let them have it.
If you don’t want to get robbed, stay in your tower. That’s just common sense.
But I’m okay with a completely non-violent and arthritically impaired mugging today because I heard last market day that Mother Maybe, the old boot who totally screwed me, is going to be there this time. News of her coming was quite a hullabaloo (I use words like hullabaloo now to fit in) because it was rumored that our new sovereign, King Asphodel the Ghastly, had killed her.
King Asphodel has been hunting down a lot of people since the Final Battle at Knob Knoll. It’s sort of his thing, actually. Even before he was King Asphodel the Ghastly, back when he was just Evil Sorcerer Asphodel, he had a thing for hunting people down. In his tumescent rise to glory, Asphodel killed off all the White Witches, who were the anthropomorphic personifications of all the Virtues. He took them out one by one, and thusly, clawed his way to the top of the poop-heap that is current Lucitopia.
Compassion was the first to go because, by nature, she was a giant sucker, quickly followed by Humility, who apologized through her own murder. Next went Cleanliness who was too busy mopping up the blood spilled by Compassion and Humility to protect herself, and then Punctuality who showed up right on time for her own funeral.
After that, Lucitopia went to hell in a handbasket. There isn’t even a record of when and how each of the White Witches was bumped off. Probably because Vigilance was killed before she could write it down.
That’s the world that I’m stuck in. Years spent reading about codes of chivalry and honor and grand gestures, and I get Lucitopia. Do you know what a knight is without Virtue? Meat in a tin can. About as appealing as cat food.
It’s so stinky here without Cleanliness, and everyone’s late now that Punctuality’s dead. I hate BO, I hate it when people don’t show up on time, and I can’t take it anymore. I feel like I’m always waiting around for smelly people. I’m getting out while I still can, even if it kills me.
I’ve packed a few things in my satchel just in case I’m able to set out from the market immediately. Of course, this is if I can get Mother Maybe to put me in the story earlier. I double check my pack, because you can never be too prepared.
I’ve got a bedroll, flint, and spare daggers—replacements for the ones I keep in my bodice, my garters, my sleeves. Oh, and my boots. I’ve got some traps, so I can feed myself. I’ve got a waterskin, and salt. I never understood how important salt was until I got here. Ever try to eat squirrel with no seasoning? If you haven’t, don’t. I’ve also got a few spells in here in case everything goes bunk.
I’m as prepared as I can get, I guess. Here I go, out of my nice, safe tower. The place I’ve called home since I’d been in Lucitopia for about a month. That was one entire month of eating squirrel with no salt, by the way. This tower was dry, stocked with all kinds of provisions, and it was easy to defend. Well, against a bunch of old people, I suppose.
I’m stalling. I know. It just really sucks out there. Okay. Here I go. One, two, three…
I heave my collection of skirts and corsets over the ledge and use the braid of crazy long hair left here by the former inhabitant (I assume she made it out okay) to lower myself down. Now I just have to navigate through the magical mine field around my tower. The mine field is harder to get through going out than coming in. I have a feeling the former owner of the hair was not exactly a willing participant in her tower habitation.
Magical spells come in all shapes and sizes, as you’d imagine, but they have a few basic design parameters in common. Most of them have a small radius of influence, and they only work a few times. Think of spells as semi-reusable land mines (if you step on one) or grenades (if you cast one). They are also one-hundred-percent illusion.
Magic doesn’t actually change anything, it only tricks your brain into believing something has happened. That being said, if your brain thinks a poisonous monster just bit your arm off, it’s still going to hurt. A lot. The spell will go away on its own eventually, but in the mean time you will not be able to see, use, or feel that arm—except for the excruciating agony that you would expect from having your arm bit off.
Of course, none of what I just said applies to really strong spells cast by great sorcerers. Those can change the world around them. Luckily, that kind of magic is extremely rare, difficult to do, and even a great sorcerer can only pull off a handful of them in a lifetime because they kind of almost kill the sorcerer to do them.
But illusion messes with your head enough, in my opinion. My first foray out of the tower, way back when I still believed in things like Kindness (dead) and Fairness (way dead), I stumbled over an ax-in-the-face spell. That was a very bad day. After a few hours of writhing around on the ground in blinding pain I concluded that it couldn’t be real. There was no way I could survive an ax in my face for longer than about a millisecond. From that point on, I understood how magic worked in this stupid book and now if something happens to me and it seems impossible, I call baloney and ignore it until it goes away.
Still, I place my boots carefully as I work my way across the open ground surrounding my tower and toward the outer stone wall circling the hold.
I know there’s a bug-crawling-all-over you spell at the gate between the outer stone wall and the path, thanks to some bandits who unsuccessfully tried to carry me off. I never go through the front gate. Instead I jump the wall to the right of it, put my skirts over my head to slog through some sludge, which I assume was some kind of moat at one time, scramble up the other bank and then haul myself up onto the path.
I’m damp, muddy, and cranky by the time I start my six-mile hike to the market.
Another lovely day dawns in Lucitopia.
I hope all of you had a wonderful time with your loved ones, and that you didn't have the misfortune of having a 7 hour travel delay leaving LAX like I did. Some of you saw my Instagram on that dreadful day, and yes, it felt as horrendous as I looked.
Anyway, my New Year's resolution is to be more active on social media, especially on my blog (I think I made that same promise last year, but I mean it this time!).
To prove it I will be posting the first 7 chapters of Lucitopia up on my blog for those of you who still haven't read it. The story is about a call-it-like-she-sees-it girl, who finds herself trapped in a book with 15 days to live, unless she can find a real boy and not a character in the book to fall in love with her and kiss her.
The first chapter will go up on Friday, and then every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, until all 7 are released.
If this is the first time you hear about Lucitopia -- where have you been!? It's already been viewed over 20k times on Radish, and has been really well received. (I've also made a resolution to toot my own horn more this year.) You can read the posts down below for more information.
Speaking of New Year's Resolutions, I'd love to hear about yours! Leave me a comment below and I will randomly pick one of you to receive a signed copy of one of my books, foreign covers included if I have it. :)
Best of luck!
May all your dreams come true!!