Before today, the scariest moment of Roselle's seventeen years of life was probably when she was eight years old and climbing the neighbors' apple tree for the first time. Until that day, the worst thievery she had attempted was and extra piece of cake after her birthday, and that had failed. When she began climbing, her foot couldn't get a grip, and she almost fell several times. When she finally made it to the top, she only picked one apple before Mam Epsen came out, and she had to scurry back down before she was caught.
That moment ran through Roselle's mind when Halzor touched her back to escort her out of the kitchen. What a coward I was, she thought. That moment was no scarier than a little thunderstorm. The ribbons holding her gown closed in the back did not cover her back very well, and she could feel the chill of Halzor's fingers and the slight prick of his claws on her skin.
Roselle sat back down in the chair she had been in and brushed a strand of orange hair behind her ear. "Now tell me what's wro—what's going on."
"Wrong, indeed," Halzor said. "I was very wrong."
"Well, what happened?"
Halzor leaned back. Roselle wondered why his chair had not broken to bits yet.
"Were you ever taught of the war between Keroldon and Simanda?"
Roselle shook her head. Simanda was a country across the Brendel River, a reserved land that hadn't been in contact with Keroldon in centuries.
Halzor closed his eyes and nodded, as if he expected that answer. "Three hundred and seventy-two years ago, I was the Prince of Keroldon, son of Queen Moubrela II. Like I said, we were at war with Simanda. The war lasted five years, and in the fourth year, my mother decided to marry me off to the princess of Simanda, Elarie, and end the war. When I found out, I was angry and disgusted with my mother's decision. So I killed her, and I became King of Keroldon."
"And I will admit, as I have many times before, that King Halzor was a horrible ruler. Tyrannous, egocentric, bloodthirsty—I destroyed anyone who stood in my way. A year after my coronation, I ordered an attack on the Castle Rivane, home of Princess Elarie and her family. It was a bloody battle that lasted several hours before we actually got to the castle itself. Once inside, I personally killed Princess Elarie. Afterward, it was a matter of minutes until the rest of the royal family was forced to escape in hiding."
Halzor stopped and leaned forward. "I can see what you're thinking, and it's not what it seems. Perhaps I should show you the rest."
Roselle did not answer. How could he speak so calmly about committing such deeds? She was reminded of Dalinn and the ghostly servants.
"I don't see how this has anything to do with me," Roselle said. "Except for the fact that I am at a banquet with a monster who turns out to be a murderous king—and what were the words you used? Tyrannous, egocentric, bloodthirsty?"
Halzor's contented-looking face twitched. "Only one has ever dared to insult me such. I advise you not to do as he did."
Halzor pulled something from the folds of his cape. It was an ordinary playing card—queen of spades. Halzor slid the card across the weathered wood of the table, towards Roselle.
"A card from the hand of the devil himself," Halzor explained. "It remembers where it has been, what it has seen. Touch it, and you will see too."
Roselle hesitated, but then she laid her hand on the card.
There is a young, regal-looking man sitting on a steel chair at a glass table. Another man is at the other end of the table, shuffling a deck of cards. He smiles, revealing pointed teeth
"Tsk, tsk, Mister Prince," the card-dealer says. He lays the cards across the table.
"King," the other man corrects.
The card-dealer wags an accusing finger in the king's direction. "No, no, no, Prince Halzor the First of Keroldon." He slides a card across the table. Halzor picks it up and sees a jack—with his face.
"Oh, dear, Mister Prince, you must control yourself," the other man scolds. "For the sake of your dear old mum."
He slides another card across the table—queen of spades, with the face of Queen Moubrela II.
"Poor Moubrela," the man says. "Such a pretty lady 'Twas a sad day when she died."
He raises an eyebrow. "I don't suppose you would have an idea about how that happened?"
"Do not waste my time with this nonsense," Halzor growls. "You have no idea what royal life is like."
"Oh, no, but I do," the man says. "Much too many monarchs end up with me. Oh, how wonderful you humans are. So simple, so ready to do wrong. Oh, but pardon me, I'm getting ahead of myself. I know your name, but you don't know mine. Truly, I am known by many names, some less favorable than others, but I believe the one that suits me best is Lucifer. Now, about Moubrela."
"That woman was a cowardly fool of a queen," Halzor says. "She was selfish and weak."
"Wrong! Haha!" Lucifer flips the car with Moubrela over. Instead of seeing the back of the card, Halzor is faced with a picture of a pretty blonde-haired girl writing a letter. There is a silver tiara on the table beside her hand.
"Recognize this lovely lass?" Lucifer says. "Princess Elarie of Simanda. Another death you should be quite knowledgeable about. Oh, yes, Mister Prince. You have many deaths to account for."
Lucifer flips the card over and over. Halzor sees Moubrela sipping poisoned soup as he looks on. The princess, stabbed through the heart, her pink bodice quickly darkening. Hangings and torturing and beheadings of everyone who ever crossed him. Lucifer stops flipping the card, and Halzor sees himself laying facedown on the ground with an arrow in his back, as his army marches on without him.
Lucifer grins. "Murder is a serious thing, Mister Prince. It can't be justified." He laughs.
"The cards have been dealt, Mister Prince." Lucifer tosses the deck of cards from hand to hand, then displays them between his fingers. "And guess who has the winning hand?"
"This is an outrage!' Halzor yells, standing up. "I demand to see the one in charge of all this.
"That would be me," Lucifer grins. "Although you could take it up with dear old Dad. Be careful, though—you don't want to be cast out into oblivion! And I'd steer clear of the one with injured hands. If you ask me, he deserved it all. Well, the pain of it. My plan was better! Give Father the glory—pah! That's what he said, but that wasn't exactly what happened, now was it? No, my idiot brother gets the love and the fame and celebrations and books to tell of all his great deeds, and what do I get? I'm cast out! And then I have to babysit all you simpleminded nincompoops, pardon me. Now, where was I?"
"I'll do it," Halzor blurted.
Lucifer's cunning grin shrunk, the corners of his mouth withdrawing. "Excuse me?"
"I'll take your place," Halzor clarified. "I'll get your glory back, everything you want."
The grin returned, and the white triangles of his teeth glinted. "How cute. And how do you plan to do that?"
"Give me time. I'll put it all right. Let me live a little longer. Ten years, that's all I ask. Then you'll have your glory."
"Oh, but ten years is far too short," Lucifer said. "You can stay as long as you want. As long as it takes for you to find a way for me to take my brother's glory. Oh yes, Mister Prince. As long as it takes."
Roselle gasped and withdrew her hand. Halzor still sat before her, no longer the handsome young king he had been.
"He sent me back, yes," he said, "but I had become a monster. My castle was sent away, along with everyone in it. All my servants eventually died, and now their ghosts wander the halls and haunt the chambers. All except Dalinn."
"That's…horrifying," Roselle breathed. "I can't believe it. He…you…"
"Lucifer has anger against the world. All emotion and feeling escaped eons ago."
Roselle did not speak. She was too frightened.
"Dalinn," Halzor called. "Bring the harp."
After situating the last piece of bread carefully on the platter, Dalinn was ready to bring the food to Halzor and Roselle.
"All right," he said to himself. He picked up the platter and started walking towards the door. When Halzor called his name, surprise nearly made him drop the platter.
"Yes, sir," Dalinn said quickly. He set the platter back on the counter and exited the kitchen the back way. He navigated the hallways and finally made it to the great door with the brass knocker.
Dalinn opened the door and faced a dark staircase. He easily scaled it and came to a lesser door.
He hesitated. He had never been alone in his master's chamber, even after the battle. But eventually sense won over, and he opened the door.
Nothing but the harp, a small dresser, and a tattered, worn bed.
Dalinn crossed the room and laid his hand on the harp's golden column. The spot he touched instantly warmed and shimmered a little. Tentatively, Dalinn curled his fingers around the metal of the harp.
Welcome back, master, the harp purred.
Dalinn smiled. It had been so long since he had even touched the magnificent instrument. He reached over and plucked one of the strings.
A single wondrous, clear, beautiful, amazing, perfect note rang through the dismal chamber, flooding the room with that one glorious sound until it faded out and stopped.
Dalinn took his hand off the harp. Immediately it dimmed and Dalinn frowned. He touched it again, and felt joyous. When he picked it up, the golden body felt as light as if it were filled with air.
Dalinn raced down the stairs and through the doors. He entered the dining room.
Roselle turned, and her green eyes darted toward the harp. Halzor nodded, and Dalinn set the harp down.
"Dalinn found this harp centuries ago, when he was a young boy," Halzor said. "He played it as my minstrel before the battle. I did not know it at first, but the harp has unnatural qualities. You might even call it magical."
Dalinn nodded. It was most definitely magical.
"Ownership of the harp slowed Dalinn's aging and vulnerability. By the time he was eighteen years old, he was virtually immortal. When he turned twenty, his aging had stopped completely.
"After the battle, the light power of the harp linked with the dark power of Lucifer's curse over the castle. The harp was able to weaken the curse, but not very much. It is able to be broken, and if it is, everything will return as if the curse was never inflicted. Unfortunately, the harp has also put a time limit upon us, and it is nearly up. If the curse is not broken within the month, this castle and everyone in it will simply cease to exist. I was able to manipulate some of the harp's magic into three ordinary beans, which Dalinn used to seek out the proper person to break Lucifer's curse."
"And…you think…you think it's…me?" Roselle asked, quietly and incredulously. She turned to Dalinn. "You were the old man in the marketplace?"
"The cloak I was wearing concealed more than a normal cloak should," Dalinn said.
Roselle looked down at the tablecloth. Her lips moved soundlessly, as if she was trying to tell herself something. She finally looked up.
"I don't know why it's me," Roselle said. "I mean, I'm nobody. But if it really is me, I want to try."
Roselle hid her awful fear under a pretense of confidence. She felt slightly angry with Dalinn for bringing her to a castle that might mean the end of her existence if she did not break the curse within the month. On top of that, Roselle figured she had about a nonexistent chance of breaking a curse set by the devil. And on top of that, she had no idea what to try or how to begin.
"I just have one question, though," Roselle lied. "Dalinn, if you were the old man I sold Sibyl to…what did you do with Sibyl?"
Dalinn turned pink. "Oh, um…why?"
Roselle shrugged. "Just curious."
"Oh. I, uh…I left it. Her. I'm not sure what happened. Sorry."
A smile twitched at the corner of Roselle's lips. "Oh, it doesn't matter. She was worthless anyway."
Dalinn's shoulders relaxed.
"Dalinn," Halzor said, "would you indulge us with some dinner music?"
"Dinner!" Dalinn exclaimed. "Of course! Be right back…"
He rushed into the kitchen and rushed back out with two plates in one hand and two glasses full of clear liquid on a plate in the other hand. He set a plate and a glass in front of Roselle and Halzor each and went back into the kitchen, coming back a few times with platters of bread, cheese, and tomatoes.
"Thank you," Roselle said. She smiled.
"Now, for the music," Halzor said.
Dalinn nodded. He went over to the harp—a wonderful, gorgeous instrument made of pure gold, as it appeared—and knelt down. He began to play a soft introduction, then settled into a light, sad melody. He started to sing.
"When daylight turns to rosy blue
The sun begins to set
The dark is slowly creeping, but
It isn't nighttime yet
The air is cool, but home is warm
So home is where I'll go
I'll see you waiting at the door
To welcome me, I know."
Roselle knew this song. Her mother used to sing it to her to help her fall asleep when she was young. Her soprano voice took up immediately after Dalinn sang the previous line.
You're where you belong now
Stay at home
You're always in my heart
This is home
And where we sing the song now—"
Dalinn joined her on the last line, harmonizing perfectly and creating a lovely duet.
"For home is where we'll stay,
And we can never break apart."
Dalinn plucked the last note. He gave a small smile. Roselle smiled back.
"Aha," Halzor said. "So you do sing."
Roselle felt her cheeks warm. "Oh, well…not really. I don't—I mean, that was just—my mother—no. I don't sing. That was just a lullaby my mother used to sing to me…Dalinn, how did you know that song?"
"I didn't," Dalinn admitted. "It was all the harp."
Roselle was skeptical for a moment, but then she remembered Halzor called it magical. Of course.
"Now, please," Halzor said. "We must partake of this lovely meal our cook has prepared."
Roselle remembered the food. She noticed that she had not eaten since breakfast, and she promptly took a piece of bread. Halzor made no attempt to take his own food. Roselle became a bit self-conscious, and did not want to eat until he had his food, so not to seem rude.
"Oh, don't mind me," Halzor said. "Food is a pleasure I no longer have use for."
"Oh," Roselle said. "All right then."
She tentatively took a bite, aware and slightly embarrassed that she was the only one eating and that the other two in the room simply sat there.
"Why are you staring at me?" she asked. "You're making me self-conscious."
Dalinn immediately looked away.
"Perhaps we should be getting on," Halzor said, rising from his chair. "You may not feel the same, but I had a lovely time."
Roselle nodded and set her piece of bread back down. Halzor left.
"You can take your food to your room and eat it there if you want," Dalinn said. He stood up. Roselle put a few pieces of bread, cheese, and tomato on her plate, stood up, and began walking to her chamber.
"Good night, milady," Dalinn said as Roselle opened her door.
Roselle set the plate on the dresser. She smiled, then her countenance changed. "Actually, could you come in for a moment?"
Dalinn's face turned red. "Um, ah…"
"Oh," Roselle clarified, feeling her own cheeks flush. "Just…about the…curse."
Dalinn relaxed. Roselle opened the door wider and they both entered. Roselle closed the door and sat on the bed. Dalinn hesitated, but then he made himself comfortable in the plush lavender chair across from the bed.
Roselle sighed. "I don't know how I'm going to do this," she admitted. "I mean, I have no idea even what I should be trying to do. What exactly am I trying to accomplish?"
"Well, somehow you have to do something stronger than Lucifer's power," Dalinn guessed. "You have to prove that Halzor can be worthy to enter into a different afterlife."
"And how do I do that?" Roselle asked.
Dalinn looked at the ceiling, thinking. "I suppose the big thing that got him where he is now is that he never loved anyone. That's what needs to change. He hasn't loved anyone since before he was born. No love for over three hundred years—if that can change, if you can change that—I think that's what's going to break the curse."
"He just needs to love someone?" Roselle said, her voice betraying incredulity and a bit of indignation. "Well, why couldn't you do that? Why do I have to be here?"
"I think who he loves plays a part in it too."
Roselle's jaw dropped. "I have to make him love me? I don't want him to love me! He's repulsive and inhuman and—and—"
"Disgustingly polite, frustratingly guiltless, infuriatingly cordial?" Dalinn finished.
Roselle laid her hands in her lap. "Well, what about his deal? If he can keep his end of the deal, won't the curse be lifted?"
"No," Dalinn said. "Lucifer knew the task was impossible, and didn't expect it to happen. And, even if he did, Lucifer would still leave him like this."
Roselle flopped down onto the fluffy mattress, sinking a few inches into the soft material. The deep blue of her dress contrasted with the purplish-pink of the bedcovers. She crossed her hands across her chest.
"Thanks," she said. "For the dinner. And the song."
Dalinn smiled weakly. "You're welcome, milady." He stood up from the chair and headed toward the door.
"Oh," Roselle said, remembering the strange doorknob. She hurried over and opened the door for him. Dalinn stepped out.
"Good night, milady," Dalinn said.
Roselle smiled. "Good night, Dalinn."
Roselle untied the last ribbon and sighed. That bodice was squeezing the breath out of her. The loosened sleeves slipped off her shoulders as she walked over to where she had left her dress from home. The thin gray fabric was almost brown with dirt, and it looked like such a small piece of clothing compared to the full-skirted gown and many petticoats she wore now.
Roselle pulled off her indigo dress, stockings, petticoats and shift and put her old dress on. The material felt comfortable and familiar against her skin—not as smooth or silky as the elegant gown, but more homelike.
Roselle was suddenly struck with an attack of homesickness. Her mother was probably sick with worry for her. Roselle had been gone for hours—what was Geda thinking right now? Was she frantically pacing the tiny kitchen, wondering when her daughter would return? Had she attempted to climb the beanstalk herself, despite her old age and frail condition?
The more Roselle thought about her mother, the more certain she felt that Geda needed her back home. Mam Epsen still expected four orins, and Roselle had already passed her deadline, with the debt unpaid. Mam Epsen would probably blame Geda for Roselle's disappearance, and try to take the money from her.
Roselle quietly stepped over to the door and opened it, peering out into the dark corridor. She considered sneaking out, but then weighed that against getting lost in the unlit maze of hallways. In addition, there was also Halzor and his ghostly servants to worry about. Perhaps in the morning, when the sun was up and Roselle could see around herself.
Roselle closed the door and retreated to her bed. And even though the bed was cozily warm and luxuriously soft, it was a while before she finally managed to seize a few hours of fitful sleep that night.