I end up eating in the kitchen with Ghost Suit and Ghost Dress.
Their dinner, which they share with me, is a hearty vegetable stew, black bread smothered with a thick slab of butter, and a glass of milk.
While my hosts don’t talk at all, they move around in a comfortable way, like two dance partners who know the steps to every song. Even the song that goes we have a crying teenaged girl at our table. Let’s feed her and tell her everything will be better in the morning. It’s a complicated song, but they’re pros, apparently, because they don’t miss a beat.
“I’m such an idiot,” I say, blubbering into my stew. “You didn’t see Torvold at the minstrel show, so you don’t know, but even though Torvold knew it was an act, he practically killed Tanil when Tanil looked at my boobs. It’s like Torvold can’t keep a cool head where I’m concerned. And Asphodel is going to use that to kill him.”
Ghost Dress nudges my forearm with her invisible fingers, guiding the forgotten spoon I’m holding to my lips. I take a sip of my stew. I have a few more sips because it’s delicious, and then I remember another point.
“And he totally took the bait when that bandit—” I gasp and drop my spoon. Both Ghost Suit and Dress jump. “It was Gingivitis!” I proclaim, pointing a finger skyward, like I’m Sherlock cracking the case. “He’s the informant who told Asphodel how irrational Torvold is about me!” I lean back in my chair. “If I ever see that guy again, I’m going to punch him right in his gangrenous stink hole.”
Ghost Suit and Ghost Dress both pause and share what I’m assuming is a look. I go back to my dinner. I eat a few more bites before another wave of how could I have been such an idiot washes over me.
“And I thought my coming here would save him, even though I know how this ends.” I say, fresh tears stinging my eyes. “But—worse. It turns out I’m the thing that’s gets him killed. I should have read the beginning of the book. I would have found out that I’m in it!” I laugh-cry hysterically. “Is Irony a frigging Virtue? Because she definitely isn't dead!” I shovel some bread in my mouth. Damn, that’s good. “I mean,” I mumble incoherently as I shove more buttered bread in my mouth, “coo I ger mo stoopid?”
Ghost Dress stands and comes around the back of my chair to give me an invisible hug. I cry and chew and cry some more before I swallow and wipe my face.
“I was supposed to be the hero, and I’m crying all the time. I hate it when the girl cries all the time. What a terrible story.” This strikes me as funny, so I have a laugh. My laugh falls into a sigh, and I’m finally past the worst of it. “Now that I’ve completely lost my readers, I think it’s time for bed.”
Ghost Suit leads while Ghost Dress walks beside me, carrying the glass of milk. We go down a flight of steps rather than up. At a random wall with no dead end, Ghost Suit stops and puts his hand against the stones. They slide over each other and fold back to reveal my ebony door. Ghost Suit opens it and lets me into my room. He bows to me in lieu of saying goodnight.
I stop and put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” I tell him. I look between him and Ghost Dress. “Do you two have kids?”
They shuffle and twist their sleeves, and tip toward each other and then away again. Ghost Suit must be shaking his head because his cravat is wiggling back and forth.
“Well, that’s too bad. You would have been greats parents. You listen really well.” I take the milk from Ghost Dress. “I can get myself undressed. I want to be alone right now.”
It turns out, I couldn’t get myself undressed. Not entirely.***
I get the arm bands off the voluminous sleeves of my smock, and I remove the overskirt leaving just the silk slip, but the bodice of the kirtle is pretty much padlocked to my ribcage. I drink my milk, clean the makeup off my face, and I must lie down at some point because I wake up in the middle of the night sprawled across my bed like I’d just flopped down there.
The door to my room is open.
I listen for any sound. I check the shadows for Ghost Dress or some other article of haunted clothing. When I’m satisfied that no one is going to jump out at me I feel for the dagger I put in my bodice before dinner, note that it’s still there, and tiptoe out the door.
Maybe Ghost Suit and Ghost Dress are letting me go? While I worry for them, if I can get away from Asphodel he won’t be able to use me against Torvold, and maybe Torvold can kill Asphodel and set them free. Or avenge their brutal deaths is more likely. Asphodel is definitely the vindictive type.
Just because the door is open doesn’t mean I’m not still locked in a cage. I need breadcrumbs or some string. There’s neither of those things, unless I want to start ripping up my sheets, and that would take too much time. Instead, I grab one of my cosmetics. The huge pot of bright red lipstick/blush should work.
I go out into the hallway, and mark the stone to the right of my doorway with a red X. Then I paint an arrow on the stone in the direction I’m going. Every time I change direction, I’ll put an arrow, so I can at least get back to my room.
I have a plan.
Down the hallway until there’s a turn. Put an arrow. Run down the next hallway. Find a staircase. Put and arrow and go up. Run down that hallway. Go along a steeply curved hallway. Put an arrow just to be safe. See another flight of stairs. Go up them, put another arrow. Take the only hallway available. Leave another red arrow. Find a doorway. It has a big red X next to it. I’m back at my room. Thump head against door. Maybe I can climb out the windows in my room?
I go back inside. My room has changed. Instead of window seats on the far wall, there are French doors and a balcony. The doors are open. I can smell the blooming night jasmine coming in on a summer breeze. I go out on the balcony and see Asphodel standing there, looking out at the stars.
I’m not afraid. I don’t feel any kind of threat from him, even though I’m only partially dressed and he’s barefoot and bare chested and only wearing a pair of breeches. I was right about his body. He isn’t bulky, but what he’s got is shredded. I go and stand next to him and look up.
“They’re not real,” he tells me. The stars are too big and too close. Galaxies swirl. The astrological ocean above us shimmers, bathing both of our upturned faces with opalescent light.
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” I ask. I feel for my knife.
“We both are,” he replies. “We’re trapped in a dream.” He looks at me, and his eyes are full of so much hurt and yearning it makes my breath catch. “I want to wake up.”
“I’ll help you,” I say. I pull out my knife and dive forward, aiming for his throat.
I’m fast. He’s just a little bit faster. He lifts his left hand and deflects my blade. I graze the back of his hand, and though I’ve drawn blood, it’s hardly fatal.
He pulls me close with one arm and catches my wrist with the other. He squeezes my captured hand, spreading the base of my thumb until he opens my palm and I drop my knife. It’s not comfortable, but it doesn’t hurt. He’s not trying to hurt me. His eyes are wide with vulnerability, not anger. It’s almost as if he’s a real person and not a cookie-cutter evil sorcerer.
“You almost caught me,” he whispers.
Still holding me against him with one arm, he lets go of my hand, so he can reach up and stroke my cheek. For a dream, this feels pretty authentic. And, not going to lie (and why should I because it’s just a dream and people do the weirdest things in their dreams) but it feels really good.
“I can’t die this way,” he tells me.
“Of course you can’t,” I say. I want to reach up and wrap my arms around his neck, so I do. I press myself against him. “It’s just a dream.”
He inhales a shaky breath, then he lowers his head to kiss me.
I bolt up in bed, rubbing furiously at my lips and making blech noises.
“So gross!” I yell after I feel like I’ve wiped all of Asphodel’s dream spit off of me. I look around. It’s dawn. I’m alone and lying on top of the covers.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed and notice I’m still wearing my shoes. I go to the vanity. The red cosmetics pot is there. It’s full.
“Just a dream,” I sigh deeply. And nothing pokes me in the ribs.
I feel inside the bodice of my dress for my knife. It’s not there. I look for my other knives, hidden about the room. They’re all gone. I run to where the door should be and start hitting the white stone with my hands.
“Open this door, Asphodel!” I scream. “I said, open it, you little,” I struggle inarticulately here for a bit, “sneaky…dream…invading…monster!” Is that a succubus? No—what’s the other one? “Incubus! You’re an incubus!”
The rocks shift and fold, revealing the door which bursts open, knocking me back. Ghost Dress hurries into the room, her empty sleeves flapping wildly. She reaches to help me off the floor, but I stand up and charge right past her.
“Asphodel!” I yell as I storm down the hallway. I have no idea which way to go, but I don’t care. “Where are you?!” I scream. Ghost Dress flaps her sleeves in front of me trying to get me to stop, but I keep barreling onward. I see doors up ahead.
“You show yourself, you coward!” I say, going to the first door I come to and pushing it open. “You conniving…!”
I’ve found him. Asphodel is standing at the back of the room, clad in black leather. A suit of black armor hangs on a rack next to him, and Ghost Suit stands behind him, just about to lay the chainmail over Asphodel’s shoulders.
“Bloody hell,” says a voice just off to my left on the entrance side of the room. It’s Gingivitis. I march over to him. “What are you doing, running around in your under…”
I sucker punch him before he can say another word. His head snaps back and he clutches his face with yelp. Blood gushes from behind his hands.
“You knocked out my tooth!” he groans.
“I saved it from a slow death.”
“You stupid bitch!”
That does it. I stride forward to hit him again, but I feel a leather glove wrap around my wrist.
“That’s quite enough, Princess,” Asphodel says as he hauls me back against him. I turn in his arms and push against his chest.
“Let go of me you…dream,” still not sold on incubus. I blather for a moment and then blurt out, “molester!”
He releases me immediately. “What are you talking about?” he asks, eyes flashing.
“You forced yourself into my dream last night. You kissed me while I was dream-addled!” I accuse. “You took liberties!”
“I did nothing of the sort!” Asphodel yells back. His chest is swelling with incensed breaths. I glare up into his face. He’s not accustomed to getting this angry, and it’s tipped him off balance. He’s searching for words that won’t come. He spins away from me, but I follow close on his heels as he strides back to his armor.
“Then where are my knives?” I pester. “How did you know about them, unless you invaded my dream last night?”
“I’ve always known about them.” He turns to face me, calm and cool again. “After your first encounter with my associate here,” he waves a desultory hand at Gingivitis, “He made me well aware of your,” he glances down at my torso, “hidden armory. I had your knives removed.”
“But my dream,” I insist.
“Was your own,” he snaps, almost losing his cool again. “I cannot force myself into your dreams.”
“Oh,” I say, rocking back on my heels. “Well, that’s a relief.” Actually, it’s not a relief. Why did I have a sexy dream about Asphodel, and not Torvold? I search his eyes for a lie, but he looks down to straighten his gloves.
“Now if you please, I must get dressed for battle,” he says, dismissing me.
I’d forgotten—how could I have forgotten that? Today is the battle of Knob Knoll, and I haven’t even come close to killing Asphodel. I don’t think I could manage it now, unarmed, while he stands inches away from his gleaming broadsword.
I glance back at him and realize he saw me looking at his sword. For just a moment he looks hurt. Then his eyes narrow and his lips press together in a sneering smile.
“Even if you were strong enough to lift it, you’d never get to it before me,” he says, his voice low and dangerous. He’s a puma again, and I’m something in the bunny-slash-deer category. But I’m a proud bunny-slash-deer.
“I prefer daggers anyway,” I retort.
His eyes flash as he takes a breath, but I twirl away from him before he can say something pithier than I can. I feel the ends of my ridiculously long hair flinging out and brushing against his chest as I do so. I march to the door. I marched in here and I am going to march out again, even though I don’t really have a reason to march anymore. It’s the principle of the thing.
Unfortunately I have to pass Gingivitis on my way out. He’s leering at my legs through the clingy silk slip that (I realize a bit too late) is just shy of see-through.
“You should get dressed, too, Princess,” Gingivitis says quietly enough that Asphodel can’t hear.
“Oh, you think I should get dressed?” I ask in a patronizing sing-song as I saunter flirtatiously toward him. Then I sucker punch him again. While he howls on the floor I step over him and say, “Don’t ever call me a bitch.”