“Princess Pleasant,” Asphodel says in a purring voice, “I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you decided to accept my offer.”
He stands and comes toward me. I shift my weight, but then I decide that I’m not going to give this guy any ground, and I plant my feet. He gets uncomfortably close to me, and I’m expecting him to stink—a hint of corpse, maybe, considering the whole necromancer vibe—but no. He’s got a spicy, incense smell that’s a little churchy, but thoroughly attractive.
Let me reiterate. Asphodel is gorgeous. He’s like a puma, with black hair and pale skin and interestingly shaped hazel eyes. I know he’s probably about a thousand years old, but he doesn’t look older than mid-twenties at most. He’s elegantly built, and although not much taller than me, I can tell from the way his doublet fits snugly across his chest and shoulders and tapers into a sharp V down to his hips, that he is fully shredded under there. I have no doubt this guy can swing a sword and I don’t want him swinging it anywhere near Torvold.
“Sorry for the delay,” I reply. “I was detained.”
He narrows his eyes at me, and I force myself to hold his gaze. I’m shaking, and he knows it, but I’ve already decided that I am not going to back up and I am not going to look away. He gives me a slow, feline smile and glances down at my dress.
“I see you must have encountered many difficulties, and I do so wish to hear about all of them, my betrothed.” He spins away from me and walks down the dais as he speaks. “There’s a room prepared for you. We’ll dine together when you have had a chance to refresh yourself.”
As soon as he leaves the audience chamber and disappears through an arched doorway behind the throne, my knees give out and I sink down into a chair. This seat is not comfortable. I realize that’s because I’m sitting on smoked quartz. Which is what Asphodel’s throne is made out of. I jump up, but no one is here to see my faux-pas. Which is disturbing.
I come down off the dais. I go to the back wall, where Asphodel disappeared, and peek my head under the archway. I find green-glowing sconces barely lighting a long hallway. There’s a suit walking towards me, and I don’t mean a businessman.
A man’s doublet and breeches—but just the doublet and breeches with no man in them—are walking down the hallway. He, and I’m just picking the most obvious pronoun here because I’m assuming that if one were gender fluid and bodiless, one would dress according to one’s sexual identity.
Anyway, he “sees” me and beckons with a sleeve for me to follow him. He turns and starts walking back the way he came, so I follow. The sconces flare on as we pass and dim behind us, as if conserving energy.
“Very green,” I mumble. I chuckle at my lame joke. I may as well take the laughs while I can get them.
The hallway ends at the base of a stone staircase that spirals into uncertain space at improbable angles, like an M.C. Escher drawing. I can’t see the top. I hike up my skirts and get to climbing. I’m ready for a grueling ascent up Mount Douchebag, but instead, after what feels like only a floor or two, Ghost Suit breaks to the right and goes down a hallway, sconces flaring with green light as he passes.
I look down the way we came and wish I hadn’t. The M.C. Escher effect is much more disturbing when you add in vertigo. I back away from the edge and reach for a wall.
“Note to self. Never look down,” I mumble as I follow Ghost Suit. We pass a lone window. It’s just a slit in the wall, more suited for shooting arrows out than letting light in. I look out of it eagerly anyway, only to see that I am twenty stories high and surrounded by bats in the air and skeletons on the ground. “Or out. Don’t look down or out. Got it.”
Ghost Suit glances back at me? Not sure about that because he doesn’t have a head, but I think I notice a tilting of the shape of his shoulders under the doublet as if he were glancing back.
“Oh, do keep going,” I say. “I’m just admiring the splendor of my new abode.”
Ghost Suit pauses momentarily, as if noting my sarcasm, and then stiffly leads me into a dead end. There are no doors anywhere. Either Ghost Suit is going to kill me, or this is my room.
“I did hope for more furniture, “ I say gesturing to the bare stone surrounding me, “but I’m sure I’ll make do.” I grin at him winningly.
Ghost Suit pauses for a moment. I see his doublet swell as if he is taking a breath to answer me, but then he lets the breath out in defeat and turns back to the wall. He raises an empty sleeve and rests it on the stone wall.
The highly polished black stone moves and folds and turns into an arched entry above an ebony door. Ghost Suit pushes it open for me and bows, gesturing with one sweeping motion of an empty sleeve for me to enter my rooms.
The entire suite is made from white stone, not black. The ceiling is vaulted and there are two enormous windows on the far wall. One of them even has a window seat with lots of fluffy pillows and cushions. The sky outside is still dark, but I think a can make out a hint of sunset light coming in through the glass.
The four-poster bed is draped with airy white linen and covered with white and pale pink bedding. The thick rug on the floor is mostly off-white, dappled with washed-out red. I notice an artfully faded rose pattern. Across from the bed there is a vanity covered in crystal bottles that are filled with perfumes and cosmetics. The drawer of the vanity is pulled open to reveal a stunning ruby necklace and matching ruby earrings. Next to the vanity is a changing screen. Draped over the side of the screen is a pink and red kirtle and a white silk smock to wear under it.
A grey dress comes out of the corner—just a dress, mind you. There’s no portly woman who’s about two inches shorter than me inside the dress. Ghost Dress curtsies to me and then starts fluttering about, trying to shoo me into a small room off of the main room, which turns out to be a decent sized water closet. And, yes, there is actually running water in here, although I don’t think it’s a closet. Water flows down two opposite walls. One side is cold water, and the other side is hot.
On the cold side there are two basins on stands with holes in the center of them. One is about sink height, and the other is about toilet height. Water flows into them constantly and goes down the respective drains.
On the hot side of the room, a large pool has been sunk into the floor. Since the water in it neither drops in level nor overflows while I’m watching it, I assume it must drain slowly from the bottom somewhere. There are rose petals strewn in the water, and the air is full of their perfume.
Ghost Dress starts unlacing my much-abused green dress, which would be hard to do with just sleeves. I guess she has invisible fingers. While I can’t hear Ghost Dress giving me a lecture about what I’ve done to my dress, and how shocking it is for a young lady like myself to be riding unicorns up to the strongholds of evil sorcerers, I get the gist of the lecture anyway. Body language can be very communicative. Even if one doesn’t have a body.
We both hear a clanking sound as the dress drops to the white marble floor, and I cringe. Those were the blades I managed to stow in the skirt. She turns abruptly away, busying herself with nothing as far as I can tell, and I fish the knives out while she pretends not to notice anything. Then she gathers up my dress and leaves me to burn it, probably.
I go to the edge of the pool and find steps. I walk down them into the most incredible bath I have ever taken in my entire life. It’s been a year since I’ve had a hot bath that didn’t require me to first chop the firewood, then haul bucket after bucket of water up a tower to then light a fire, heat the water and finally take a hot bath. I’d given up on the concept completely about eight months ago and since then I’ve settled for standing in a single bucket of lukewarm water and splashing the worst of the gunk of Lucitopia off of me.
I submerge. I wash my hair. I rub out the knots in my neck and the soreness in my calves. I lean back with my head resting on the lip of the pool and listen to the sound of the water running down the walls. I want to live in this room for the rest of my life.
My eyes snap open. I’m sure that’s exactly what Asphodel intended when he prepared this room for me. None of this is real. It’s magic, and therefore just an illusion. I just might be standing in a bucket of lukewarm water, pouring water over my head with a ladle, thinking I’m floating in a luxurious pool of hot, scented water.
I stand up and get out of the tub. I towel off, wrap myself in a bath sheet, and go to the vanity. I comb the tangles out of my wet hair, then smell the perfumes. They are all rose scents, but each of them has a different secondary note. One is candy, one is powder, one is spice. I spray myself with the spicy one because I already know what he likes.
I put my makeup on while my hair dries. When I stand, Ghost Dress is waiting with the white underdress across her sleeves. She pops it over my head and goes for the kirtle.
There’s a difference between a dress and what I’m getting into now. A dress, even one with a corset like the kind I’ve been wearing, is not the complicated situation that this contraption is. A kirtle is laced up the front to squeeze your boobs and waist, but this kirtle also has one cuff that ties around the upper arm and another that ties around the forearm. The silk of the underdress (called a smock) puffs out between the ties on the arms, and everything has to be arranged just so, or you look like a couch with the stuffing coming out.
Then there’s the skirt. There’s enough fabric in mine to make a three-person tent. Wearing a skirt that sleeps three requires more balance than you’d think. So many places to hide knives.
Once we have the kirtle tied off right, it’s time for the jewels. Rubies do look lovely with my coloring and I have to admit, the overall effect of the dress, the makeup, the heady scent of the perfume, and the jewels makes me look and feel like the princess I wished so desperately to be when I saw that print of Princess Pleasant in this stupid book.
All of this for a dress. I look into the vanity mirror at Ghost Dress standing anxiously behind me. She seems to want to say something to me, but of course, she can’t because she’s just a dress. I flounce my skirt one last time, making sure none of my knives poke anything vital if I move around.
“I probably shouldn’t keep him waiting any longer,” I announce.
Ghost Dress turns and walks to the wall where the door should be. She raises her sleeve as if to touch the wall, but she stops and faces me. I think she’s trying to warn me.
“I know he’s going to try to trick me,” I say, smiling. “You probably came here with a plan and you wound up a dress. You and your counterpart out there—the Ghost Suit. You two are a couple, right?”
Ghost Dress’ shoulders bounce as if she’s laughing or shaking her head or maybe both. She throws up her sleeves as if to say you guessed right.
“Well, I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I never have. But this,” I gesture to the princess costume, “is not what I want anymore.”
She shrugs at me as if to ask, then, what do you want?
A few days ago I would have shouted that I wanted to get out of here, and I still do, but of all the things I’ve grown to want over the past few days, leaving has fallen way down on my list.
“I don’t know,” I admit.