CECELIA WOKE UP TO THE sound of laughter. She turned her head toward the window as a gentle breeze caressed her face. She sat up and looked about her surroundings. The sun was starting to set. How long had she been sleeping? She was about to get up when she saw a woman standing at the opened doorway. Her blond hair floated all the way down to her waist. Her blue eyes and fair skin made Cecelia catch her breath. Never before had she seen such beauty.
Both Lady Rosanna and Lady Juliet could never compare to this one, she thought.
“I apologize if I bother you,” the woman said.
“Nay, you did not bother me at all,” Cecelia said, blushing, for she knew she was staring. She couldn’t help herself, of course. “’Tis me who should apologize. I’m ogling at you,” she admitted.
“I am used to it,” Vera said and laughed. She came to Cecelia and touched her arm. “I thank you for saving my son.”
Cecelia widened her eyes. “You’re Lucifer’s mother?”
The woman smiled. “Aye, I was told by the king that I should not be here disturbing your rest, but I cannot wait. You see, Lucifer is very dear to me.” Her eyes softened.
“I understand,” Cecelia said, thinking about her mother and Brian. Her heart suddenly constricted. It had been three full weeks now.
“Oh Lord,” Vera said, “do forgive me, but I am a bad hostess indeed.”
For a moment, Cecelia forgot she was supposed to be her brother. She quickly nodded at the woman who was now curtsying to her as to a king.
“Welcome, Brian, to the Demon Kingdom.”
Cecelia’s heart kicked in her chest. She blinked and stared wide-eyed at the woman. “Demon what?”
Vera looked up to her then and repeated, “Demon Kingdom.”
“You are?” Cecelia stared at the woman.
“Lady Vera McNamara, wife of Lord Adam McNamara who is a cousin of the king,” she provided.
“But… but,” Cecelia stammered, shaking her head in disbelief.
Vera raised her brows. “But what?”
“But you are not… demon-like, hideous,” Cecelia finished, blushing, for she knew she sounded stupid even in her own confused mind.
Vera laughed. She couldn’t help herself, for she too had once thought of demons as hideous, monstrous creatures who merely lived to kill. That, however, changed when she had met Adam.
“My dear boy, what did you expect? Demons looking like monster?”
“Well, yes, I saw demons. They have beastlike bodies and faces like wolves.”
“Do stop there, Brian. But if those are the demons you have just described, they are child’s play,” Vera said, though she didn’t at all sound very concerned or put off because Cecelia had just looked down on her husband’s kind.
“I didn’t expect demons to look like humans,” Cecelia said.
“Oh, do not be surprised, my dear boy. Demons are much the same as human.” She smiled. “Now enough talk. ’Tis getting late. Dinner is on soon. Would you like me to help you clean up?”
Cecelia clamped her lips and her cheeks turned crimson. “Nay, but thank you,” she said quickly.
“Very well, then. Those are your clothing for now. I do hope they will fit your small frame. Do you always keep your hair so long?”
Cecelia touched her messy hair that was still tied at the nape of her neck with a black ribbon. “Aye, ’tis our fashion at the moment where I come from,” she lied.
“Our men like to keep their hair short. It is a fashion led by Gerick. You could say he is the handsomest demon in our kingdom. The females fall for him no matter their age. Drake, our king, he is different. He likes his hair long. It reminds him of freedom, like when he was a prince. He likes sailing his own ship and does as he pleases. He has been to many kingdoms. But no matter, here I am muttering about things you must find very boring. I will leave you to your bathing now,” she said, thanked Cecelia once again for saving her son, and then left.
Not long afterward, two maids brought in a hot tub, which they placed near the brightly lit hearth. Cecelia was able to bathe in peace once they had left. She stayed in the tub for half an hour, enjoying the lovely scent of herbs and rose petals and the warm water. She closed her eyes and relaxed her tense, tired body. When the water had gotten cold, she climbed out and got dressed in the breeches, shirt, and coat provided by Vera. Once her dark hair was slightly dried by the fire, she tied it at the nape of her neck with her black ribbon.
She was walking out into the corridor when Lucifer rushed from the corner and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Brian!” he squealed.
“Come, come,” the boy said, pulling her by the hand. “Dinner is starting. This way. I get the honor of showing you to the dining chamber.”
“Oh!” she said, allowing the young demon to drag her across the great hallway.
Without Lucifer’s aid, she was sure she would get lost indeed, for the castle was a maze of a place. There were so many doors that she couldn’t keep count. The castle was beautifully furnished and artfully designed. Numerous gigantic paintings of demons in generations past were hung on the walls. Many were males and a few were females. Their hair colors were all different, but their features, to Cecelia’s interest, were all very similar.
Lucifer turned to the right, and before she knew it, she was walking along a very high-ceilinged corridor with huge red drapes hanging against enormous glass windows. She looked about her in fascination, for there were more interesting paintings. One caught her eyes. She couldn’t help but stare at it as she walked.
The eyes in the painting gazed down at her as if perceiving deep into her soul. The dark-gray color seemed, to her very imaginative mind, to be burning with smoke. The shoulder-length, dark-chestnut hair, strong, prominent jaws, and high cheekbones quickened her beating heart. Surely, she had never seen a more darkly handsome man in her life. But then, she reasoned with herself, this was no man; this was a demon. But demons were supposed to be ugly, not so pleasing to look at that it set her heart to jumping hazardously. And it wasn’t even the real demon she was looking at. It was merely a painting.
“We’re almost there,” Lucifer said.
“’Tis rather a long way,” she said, tearing her gaze from the painting and concentrating on trying not to get lost the next time she was to come to the dining room. But then, she thought, there would be no next time, for she planned to get the pearl as soon as possible and leave. She knew her mother was getting weaker by the day, and it was wise not to waste more time.
They were turning another corner when she heard the humming of laughter and buzzing of conversation.
“We’re here,” Lucifer announced, leading her toward the huge open double door.
She hesitated. She wasn’t used to barging into a room full of people she didn’t know.
“Come on.” Lucifer pulled her hand.
She stood rooted to her spot. “I…” She wanted to turn back.
“There you are,” Vera called, appearing at the door. She glided toward them. “Come along, Brian. Do not be bashful.” She laughed, and Cecelia blushed.
Vera took her hand and led her into the dining room. Cecelia stared fixedly at the polished floor the whole time she was being dragged in. They stopped behind a huge mahogany dining table.
“Brian, ’tis a pleasure to have you here. We wanted to thank you for helping our son,” Vera started. “Brian, may I introduce you to our king?”
Cecelia didn’t turn her face to look at the demon king. She fixed her gaze on the beautifully designed cutlery and plates on the table. She was about to curtsy when she hesitated, remembering she was not Lady Cecelia Van Zandt right then, but young Lord Brian Van Zandt. She bowed her head instead.
“Lift your face, boy. I am not pleased to look at your head when I am addressing to you.”
Cecelia’s heart kicked in her chest. The deep timber turned her stomach hollow. She took a deep breath, and summoning all her courage, she lifted her head. Her dark-brown eyes met a pair of stormy-gray ones. Her heart drummed in her chest. The sound was so loud in her own ears she was surprised no one was complaining about it.
“That’s better,” Drake said, a hint of a smile on his lips.
Cecelia couldn’t stop staring at him. He was the demon she had seen in the painting. He was the demon king.
“How do you find yourself in such a situation, boy?” he asked.
Cecelia blinked. She didn’t know how to reply, and the room turned silent. Everyone was watching her and waiting for her answer. Her throat became dry and her cheeks reddened with embarrassment.
Vera saw this and said, “This is not the time to ask young Brian questions, Drake. Now, Brian.” She touched Cecelia’s arm and turned her toward her husband. “This is my husband, Lord Adam McNamara. That’s Lord Julius Falkland, the wise wizard.”
Cecelia turned to the long, blond-haired male with pale blue eyes nodding his head at her.
“Lord Gerick McNamara, the king’s cousin and my husband’s younger brother.” Vera introduced her to a very handsome young demon with pale gray eyes and ash-blond hair.
“And that is Commander Leon. He’s a distant relation to the king.”
Cecelia nodded toward the dark haired demon with hazel green eyes. He nodded back.
“Well, that’s everybody.” Vera sighed. “Let’s dine, shall we?”
They all took their places along the table. Drake took the head, while Adam took the other end. Everyone else took the side chairs. Cecelia found herself facing Commander Leon. On her left was Lucifer and to her right, Vera.
“’Tis great this night I get to dine with everyone,” Lucifer whispered to her.
She raised her brows. “You do not dine with them daily?”
“No.” The boy shook his head. “I am too young to dine with everyone yet, but tonight, it’s different. It’s a feast.” He giggled.
The first course arrived. Footmen with fine velvet uniforms of black and purple carried trays into the room. One placed a small round and deep plate of fairy-embossed design in front of her. She looked into the bowl. It was soup of a thick, creamy color.
“It’s seafood soup,” Lucifer whispered.
“Oh!” She nodded.
“How did you meet Lucifer?” Leon asked.
Cecelia turned to look at the demon. “In the ship,” she replied.
“How in the ship?”
“He saved me from those men’s beating,” Lucifer put in.
Everyone turned to look at Cecelia, including the stormy-gray eyes of the king. She blushed and lowered her eyes for receiving so much attention.
“Did those humans beat you, Lucifer?” Gerick asked, narrowing his eyes dangerously.
“Aye.” The boy nodded.
“What did he look like?” Gerick prompted. He needed to know which of those bastards they had killed that morning was responsible for Lucifer’s beating so he could throw his body into the wild and allow the beasts to eat his flesh. The rest he would be kind enough to bury in the forest near the cave, and maybe he’d consider carving their names on headstones, too, to warn off other stupid human intruders.
Lucifer cocked his little head to one side and said, “He has dark hair and he’s not that big, not like you, Uncle Gerick. You could beat him easily.”
Gerick smiled pleasantly at the compliment.
“Lucifer is a brave boy,” Cecelia said, looking at the cute boy smiling up at her.
“Of course he is. He’s my son,” Adam said, matter-of-fact.
“I don’t think I could have handled the situation as well as he did if I were five years old,” Cecelia said.
Drake looked at Cecelia. She caught his gaze for a split second and quickly lowered her eyes. She tried to concentrate on her food, but she couldn’t seem to do so because she could still feel his intense gaze on her person.
“I’m not five years old,” Lucifer announced.
Cecelia frowned and said, “Oh, I apologize. Six, then?”
Lucifer looked at her rather disappointedly.
“Lucifer, do not be rude,” Vera put in. “He didn’t mean to offend you in any way, Brian.”
“Aye, I’m six and a half,” Lucifer said proudly. “And I’m learning how to wield a sword.”
“Really?” Cecelia widened her eyes in surprise. “At six years old?” She turned to Vera. “But Lucifer is so young.”
“Brian, he’s a demon,” Gerick chimed in, as if that would explain everything.
Cecelia turned to Gerick even though she didn’t want to because she had to look at the king too, who was staring at her most intensely.
“And you, Brian?” Drake’s deep voice caused Cecelia to jump in her seat. “How many summers have you seen?”
“Nineteen summers, sire,” she replied without looking at him.
Drake narrowed his eyes and lifted a smile at her. “Nineteen? Where is your muscle, boy?”
Cecelia swallowed and blushed. She had forgotten she was supposed to be her brother. The fact that she was a woman meant her womanly body had no muscle like that of the males of her age.
“Drake, ’tis no way to converse during the meal,” Vera put in, patting Cecelia’s shoulder. “I’m sure Brian has his reason for not telling the truth of his age.”
“Why do you lie about your age?” Julius put in, frowning at her. “’Tis unwise at best, for wizards can find out with a mere look into your eyes.”
Cecelia frowned and lowered eyes to avoid Julius’s gaze.
“Come, let me look into your eyes so I can guess how old you truly are,” Julius said.
Cecelia started to feel very uncomfortable.
“Julius, you are making Brian blush,” Vera snapped.
“Blush? He can’t blush. He’s a man,” Gerick said, looking at Julius, expecting him to provide them with answer with his limitless knowledge.
Julius thought for a moment and then turned to look at Brian. “Perhaps humans are different?”
“Aye, humans are different,” Cecelia said, nodding her head. “Lucifer.” She turned to the young demon. “Can you take me around for a tour?”
“Oh, yes,” Lucifer said excitedly. “I will show you our stables, our garden, and our castle.”
Vera said, “It will have to be tomorrow. You two are tired. You need your rest, Brian.”
Thankfully, dinner went smoothly after that for Cecelia. Once it was over, she begged tiredness and left immediately. In the guest bedchamber, she lay in the large, soft bed, thinking about her mother and brother, wondering how they were getting on without her. She’d have to somehow find a way to get the Pearl of Life and then travel back home. She calculated that it had taken her three weeks to get to the Demon Kingdom, so it would presumably take her another three to four weeks to travel back, if she were lucky. That meant there was no time for her to waste.
The stables. Lucifer had said he would take her to see the stables tomorrow. That meant there would be horses. If most of their horses were like those she had seen when the king and his comrades had come to save her and Lucifer that morning, then she’d have a good chance of borrowing one of them to fetch the Pearl of Life. Perhaps Lucifer would also show her their port as well, for Vera had said the king loved to sail.
Nodding, she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, dreaming of the misty gray eyes boring into her person.
* * * * *