THE IDEA CAME TO HER in the middle of the night. It was so simple, yet why had she not thought of it earlier? Cecelia was excited. She knew she must save her mother, and all she had to do was to fetch the Pearl of Life herself.
As soon as the idea formed in her head, she slumped her shoulders. The journey, as the king had told her, was fraught with danger and unknown creatures. Then there were the demons themselves to deal with. How was she ever going to get to the Demon Kingdom?
Nay, she must not think too much. She would just have to do it no matter what. Her mother’s life was very important. Without her, Rosevalley would not rise again.
Cecelia drifted off to sleep with the thought of her beautiful land coming back to life.
She spent the next three days planning and packing. She didn’t tell anyone, especially not her mother. She knew the woman would forbid her from acting out her plan.
Finally, it was her last night, and as usual, she and Brian were having dinner with their mother. The food was delicious, but Cecelia couldn’t taste anything apart from the bitterness in her mouth. She supposed it was because of the fear, the doubt in her own ability that she hid deep in her heart.
“You look pale, darling,” the countess said.
“Oh.” Cecelia turned to look at her mother.
“Is something the matter?”
“Nay.” Cecelia lowered her soft-brown eyes.
“Destiny, my darling, has a way of finding us.”
Cecelia lifted her face to look at her mother. The woman had a fatigued paleness about her that made Cecelia’s heart ache in her chest. “Mother, you are tired. Brian.” She looked at her brother.
The youth nodded, got up, and kissed Margaret on the cheek. “Good night, Mother,” he said.
“Good night, darling,” the countess whispered and touched his cheek. Brian nodded and then left the room.
“Was the food to your liking?” Cecelia asked, tucking the sheets around her mother.
Margaret nodded and yawned. Then she closed her eyes. Cecelia sat and clasped her mother’s hand in hers. She brought it to her lips and gave it a gentle kiss. “I love you,” she whispered with her eyes closed.
“Please don’t do it.”
Cecelia darted her eyes to her mother in surprise. “You knew?”
“I am your mother, Celia. You are so like your father, so determined and stubborn,” the countess said tiredly.
“I am his daughter after all.” Cecelia smiled.
“I know I cannot stop you. But I’m afraid. What if you are not here when—”
“Hush, Mother, do not speak of such. Milan the healer will look after you well. I promise I will be back with the Pearl of Life as soon as I get it.”
“When will you leave?”
“Before the sunrise.”
“As a lad. There are travelers leaving the city. I will go with them, and then—”
“I am worried.”
“I will find a way, Mother. I’ve already packed. There are gold coins.”
“How will you protect yourself from thefts?”
“I have father’s smallsword and dagger.”
“And the creatures in the forbidden forest?” the countess prompted.
“I pray to God for his aid.” She bowed her head as tears flowed from her eyes.
“My darling, you will die,” the countess said in anguish.
“Nay, Mother,” Cecelia said, shaking her head. “I will not die. I will come back with the Pearl of Life… for you.”
“My life is not worth this dangerous journey. I am ashamed of myself. I am your mother, yet I bring danger to your life.”
“Nay, Mother, it is the demons that should be ashamed of themselves, for they were the ones that attacked our land and killed Father,” Cecelia said bitterly.
“You have hatred in you against the demons?” the countess questioned.
“Aye, I despise them.”
“Sometimes, my darling, the ugliest demon could have the kindest of heart. It is the one with beauty that is ugly on the inside.”
“You speak in riddles. I do not understand.” Cecelia looked up to her mother, frowning.
“You will in time.” The countess patted her daughter’s hand. “Will you look after yourself, my darling?”
“God be with you,” the countess said, closing her eyes.
Cecelia knew her mother was tired. She leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I love you.”
Countess Rosevalley smiled with her eyes still closed.
Cecelia left her mother and went into her own bedroom. She saw her brother sitting on the sofa near the hearth, reading the history of Rosevalley Island by Lord Mark Van Cortlandt, the wizard, died three years ago defending her father against the demon.
She came to sit beside him and looked over his shoulder.
“Our island is interesting. I miss our home.”
“I, too, miss our home,” Cecelia said, resting her cheek against his. “I remember the rose field in summer, the wildflowers, the vineyard, and the smells of grapes and lavender and honeysuckle. I remember our castle, our bedchamber looking over the vast blue ocean. I remember seeing Father’s grand ship, the Lady Emerald, sailing into our harbor with goods from other kingdoms. I remember riding my mare, Snow, all white and so beautiful and so gentle. I remember many things, and I wonder, Brian, if we will ever have those things again.”
“Will the king restore Rosevalley for us?” Brian asked, closing the book.
“I hope so. He has promised.” When she said that, she knew in her gut that the king would not help them. He was too busy trying to sort out the war between his kingdom and Virdis Kingdom to have time to think about anything else, least of all the building of Rosevalley.
“He has done naught but promise. I do not trust him.” Brian turned to look at her, his hands clutching the book.
“You are wise,” she said. “The last I heard, the king has ordered the rebuilding of Rosevalley Castle. But why he didn’t allow me to go and see to its progress, no matter that I’ve asked him many times, I do not know. He said I am a woman and do not know these things. He has a lord there working for him. I wonder, I just wonder if he was ever going to let us return to our homeland.” Cecelia sighed after she had said that.
Perhaps, she thought, her suspicion of the king trying to imprison them here had gotten to her imaginative mind. Why would he want to keep them away from their home anyway? Sure, Rosevalley was a very rich island. Could that be the reason? Because the king wanted to control their vast wealth? By controlling them here?
“I only wish we didn’t have to live here. The place is big and nice, but the people…”
Cecelia turned her attention to her brother then. “I know,” she said, knowing those other youths who were sons of the princes, lords, and ministers living in the palace had bullied him, as had both Lady Rosanna and Lady Juliet who had always been bullying her. Not to mention Queen Eliza herself.
“Brian?” she started.
“Hmm?” The youth turned to her, his brown eyes very much like their father’s, large and warm.
She swallowed hard because she was afraid to tell him what she was going to do, afraid he would suffer without her here.
“I must leave for a time,” she began.
“Why? What for?” Brian frowned.
“Will you promise not to tell anyone?” She touched him, her hands clutching onto his shoulders.
“What’s this, Celia? Why are you being so secretive? Why are you leaving?”
“Just promise me, please?”
Brian stared and then nodded. “Aye, I promise.”
She took a deep breath and said, “I am going to the Demon Kingdom.”
He just stared at her as if she were mad.
“What? That’s suicide!”
“To fetch the Pearl of Life,” she explained quickly.
“But, Celia, ’tis dangerous!”
“I know, but Mother’s life… The king, I have pleaded with him. He would not agree.”
“Don’t go. You will die and Mother will die. I will have no one,” he said in anguish.
“Do not speak of such, brother. I will not die. Mother will not die. And you, Brian, will not be alone. That much I promise you.” She touched her fingers to his face and looked deep into his eyes. They stared at each other as they read each other’s thoughts and feelings.
“When will you leave?” he said at last.
“Tomorrow, at dawn.”
“Promise me you will look after Mother.”
“I… I promise.”
“Study hard. You are going to be the next Earl of Rosevalley. I love you, Brian.” She hugged him tight.
“And I you.”
“Now go.” She pushed him away. “I must get some sleep before the sunrise.”
Brian stiffly got up, clutching the book in one hand and the other still holding on to hers.
“You must go,” she said.
He nodded and lowered himself to kiss her forehead. “Good night, Celia,” he said and left her.
Cecelia went to her wardrobe and took out her packing. Her satchel wasn’t large. It contained only the essentials. She laid out the man’s garments on her bed, the set she had asked her elderly maid Agnes to steal from a stable boy the other night. A commoner’s clothing was what she needed for this journey.
“My lady, I know I shouldn’t speak,” the maid said at the door as Cecelia was brushing out her long tresses.
“Then don’t, Agnes,” Cecelia said, putting down the brush.
“Help me off with this gown,” Cecelia instructed. “I must rest before the journey.”
The maid sighed and then said meekly, “Aye, my lady.”
Agnes helped Cecelia take of her sack-back gown. Once the heavy fabric was off her body, she felt light and airy. A feeling she wished she could experience more often. But it was impossible with these types of gown and the many petticoats, not to mention the corset she had to wear while at the palace. If she were back home at Rosevalley Island, she’d wear breeches. She smiled a little then. Aye, she’d wear breeches again soon enough.
“Don’t forget, if anyone asks,” Cecelia began, “tell them I’m with Mother, looking after her. I am sure none would visit her, for her condition is getting worse.”
Agnes nodded as she untied the strings of the corset around Cecelia’s back. “I am sure they will not visit her, my lady, for I have heard the maids have rumored that the poison is contagious and will spread to others within a foot away.”
“And you, Agnes? Do you fear the poison?” Cecelia turned to look at the fifty-summers-old woman who had been looking after her since she was a wee baby.
Cecelia lifted her hands and Agnes removed the corset from her body.
Agnes said, “Nay, my lady, I’ve known of the Westwick’s poison. It will kill the person it has infected but will not spread to others.”
Cecelia had to smile then. “You are not dimwitted like they are,” she said.
The maid grinned at the compliment.
Once Cecelia was in her nightgown, she turned to the older woman and said, “Do you think I am dimwitted, Agnes?”
Agnes looked at her beautiful lady long and hard. She sighed, her heart heavy in her chest. Then she shook her head and said, “You are not dimwitted, just too brave for your own good and for loving your family too much.”
“Thanks, Agnes.” Cecelia smiled.
“Sleep well, my lady. I will pray to God for you every night. May you return unharmed.”
“Thank you, Agnes,” Cecelia said as she climbed into bed.
* * * * *