I leave the cart and go to find Gertie to ask a favor. It’s kind of a big one.
She is busy haggling with the town elders about the minstrel’s payment. The elders don’t want to pay anything, considering the attack. Gertie isn’t having that. I step back when I realize that this is going to be a lengthy exchange. Maybe Bashan can grant me the favor. Jackanet finds me on my way to locate Bashan.
“May I have word, princess?” Jackanet asks.
I stop with a frown. Jackanet and I have never really seen eye to eye on things. “Depends on the word,” I reply.
He smiles and nods. “You and I have been at cross purposes, haven’t we?”
“I’m not exactly sure what your purpose is,” I reply honestly.
“I suspect you are not entirely sure what your purpose is, either,” he rebuts, smirking.
He’s got me there, and he knows it. “What do you wish to say?” I ask bluntly.
“I wish to ask if you go now to the Ebon Spire.”
I cross my arms. “Why do you want to know?”
“For I must find something to distract Torvold so that by the time he learns you have gone, it will be too late for him to chase after you.”
Unbelievable. He’s so eager for me to go to my doom. He doesn’t even look sorry for me.
“What did I ever do to you?” I ask him. “Why do you hate me so much?”
He looks stunned. “Princess, I don’t hate you,” he says.
“But you are awfully eager for me to go to Asphodel.”
“Not because I wish you dead.”
Jackanet throws his hat on the ground and kicks it. His frustration can’t simply be from me misunderstanding him. It must be from everyone misunderstanding him, including Torvold.
“Because you are more suited to facing Asphodel than Torvold!” he yells, totally losing it. “Torvold is honorable, and Asphodel has not fought a clean fight in his life. He fights dirty! And that’s why Asphodel will win if Torvold faces him! But you know how to fight dirty. You could kill Asphodel.”
“No, I can’t! I don’t have a Puce Pinkerknuckle! I don’t have Calx!” I yell back.
“You’ve got a bloody unicorn!” Jackanet hollers, throwing his hands around. “Did you see what that miserable animal did to the Thralls?”
I come to a full stop.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. Come to think of it, that crystal swirl in Rancor’s horn looks an awful lot like the sparkly edge on Calx. “Do you think Rancor’s horn will work on Asphodel?”
“I don’t know, but if there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that you will find a way. No matter what the situation is—whether it’s with a unicorn, a copper pan, or a giant pair of bollox, it doesn’t matter. You will do what you have to do to stay alive,” Jackanet laughs sadly, “rather than keep to the rules of chivalry and die a heroic death like Torvold would.”
I look away and try to not picture Torvold dying. Again. It seems to be the only thing I can think of lately.
“I don’t want that,” I whisper.
“I know you don’t.” He smiles, considering something. “Maybe we haven’t been at cross purposes after all.”
Something in his voice has changed. I look Jackanet over carefully. He’s sloppy. He pays no deference to anyone, and he doesn’t really squire all that much, either. I have to use my imagination more than my eyes to peer underneath the layers of grime, but I can finally make out the true color of his tunic.
“You’re a White Witch.”
He straightens his shoulders and tips his chin up. Jackanet suddenly looks younger and cleaner.
“I am Loyalty, though Torvold doesn’t know it,” he says, his voice taking on a deeper timbre. “I chose him because he is all the Virtues in one, and if he lives, we all do. Please, Princess.”
“Princess,” I repeat. “Do you know what I really am?” I ask. “Do Tudie and Dex know, too?”
“We all know you’re a hero,” he replies, avoiding a direct answer. “And we believe you were sent here to save Torvold—not the other way around.”
I have to die so all Virtue can live? That’s frigging fantastic. But even as I think it, I know it’s not about me. I had already decided to go, even before Jackanet and I had this conversation because there’s one thing I know about this stupid asshole book.
Torvold can’t die.
I roll my eyes. “Help me find Bashan,” I tell Jackanet.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because I need him and his minstrels to watch over my dad and keep him hidden and moving around while I go to the blasted Ebon Spire and find some way to get wretched Asphodel to impale himself on Rancor’s face,” I say testily. “I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
Loyalty chuckles quietly. “There is one thing about this entire situation that I don’t wonder about.”
I give him some side-eye. He and I aren’t square yet. “Pray, what could that be?”
“I don’t wonder why Torvold loves you,” he says. “I can see why.”
Okay. I guess that makes us square, though I don’t quite know what to do with that statement.
“What-what do you mean, he loves me?” I stammer.
“You could be a bit smarter, though,” he says briskly. “When are you off?”
He had to ruin it. “I leave post haste.”
“Right.” He nods sharply. “Bashan’s there.” He points to Bashan, who is loading up trunks onto one of the carts. “You deal with him and I’ll go tell Torvold that a village half a day’s ride up the road is on fire. You let out as soon as Torvold rides, and you’ll be at the Ebon Spire by night fall. Even if Torvold were to gallop after you as soon as he got back to Market Town, he wouldn’t get there in time.”
I nod, take a breath, and march over to Bashan. He agrees to take care of my father. I agree to reward him. Faith steps on Bashan’s toes and says that the minstrels will care for the king, no payment required.
Right on cue, Torvold comes riding up on Thunder in a tizzy.
“I must depart, Princess. There are people who need my aid,” he says, wheeling Thunder under him in a shower of hooves and sod. “I will return before daybreak tomorrow,” he promises.
“Godspeed, good Sir Knight,” I say, pushing my voice past the catch in my throat. “And have a care with yourself while I am not there to care for you.”
He looks down at me while Thunder prances under him. He touches his heart, his eyes reaching into mine. Then he tears away.
I don’t say goodbye to Tudie and Dex. I don’t know why I don’t. I never really said goodbye to my friends in L.A. either. I sort of crept out of town, too embarrassed that my family was such a mess that I had to leave.
I shoulder my pack and start walking. Rancor trots up behind me. He nudges my shoulder. I look at him. He nudges me again, but harder, like he’s trying to knock me over.
“What is your problem?” I ask him.
Rancor trots in front of me. Then he lowers himself down on his front knees. It’s not a natural or comfortable position for an equine. He lays his head down deferentially over one leg, and I realize he’s inviting me to ride him.
I get a little emotional. First of all, because Rancor is stunningly beautiful when he isn’t trying to bite, and second because I really need some help right now.
“Thank you,” I whisper as I climb up onto his back.
I’ve ridden a few horses. It’s terribly uncomfortable and a lot of work, even with a saddle. But I am not uncomfortable astride Rancor. You’d think that the whole bareback thing would be absolutely intolerable, considering a woman’s anatomy and a horse’s backbone, but apparently riding a unicorn is nothing like riding a horse.
As soon as I am settled, and my hands are resting on either side of his neck, Rancor launches into a run. I float on top of him effortlessly.
It’s the smoothest ride into hell you could imagine.