Two moons prior…
Van Zandt Palace, Dardania Kingdom
LADY CECELIA VAN ZANDT STARED at her king sprawled back in his mahogany and golden chair, his plump hands resting atop his prominent belly. He was contemplating his giant ruby ring on his porky finger, ignoring her speech of plea.
She felt quite annoyed by his lack of interest. He looked as though he were about to fall asleep, but she knew he wasn’t because he was now playing with the ring.
How could he not care? He was her king and, more than that, her uncle. How can he act as though he has not a care in the world? My mother is dying, for God’s sake.
“Surely, sire,” she said, staring at his hazel eyes and chubby face. “Could you not send your most trusted and strong soldiers to fetch it?” She raised her hand in the air to stress her point. “There are many strong soldiers in our kingdom.”
“My dear child,” he said, finally looking at her. “You are young and your mind is weak with neither thought of danger nor death. Listen well, child…”
Cecelia grimaced. She wasn’t a child anymore. She had seen ten and nine summers past, and that made her a grown person. Of course, the king didn’t think thus.
She was petite and, to her annoyance, came short on all the womanly traits men seemed to adore. She was too thin, her hair too dark, and her skin not at all petal white, as fashion required. This was because she’d spent too much time in the sun. She knew people had been comparing her to Queen Eliza Van Zandt, Lady Rosanna Van Dyck, and Lady Juliet Van Dyck, who were all fair beauties.
“I will not send my soldiers to die,” the king said abruptly.
“But, sire, ’tis the only way Mother can live. The healer said she will soon die if we do not do something. The Pearl of Life will cure the poison.”
“There is nothing we can do,” he said slowly.
Cecelia was angry. There was always a solution to a problem, but the king was a narrow-minded man. She knew he would prefer to do what was safe for him.
She fisted her hands and said through gritted teeth, “You do not care for your brother’s wife, then?”
King Leroi Van Zandt turned to look at his niece, his hazel eyes narrowed in distaste as he took in her person.
“Child,” he said, sitting up straight in his large, dominating chair. “I do care for your mother.” He lied and felt no guilt because it came too easy these days. “It is simply too dangerous even for an excellently trained soldier. I do not care to let my men set foot in that forbidden land. The creatures that inhabit that sea of death and those monsters roaming in that forbidden forest, not to mention the demons themselves.”
“But Mother’s life depends on—”
“Have you ever met a demon?” he asked.
Cecelia closed her eyes. Her heart began to beat faster. Her mind flashed back to that night three years ago when she’d first sighted the demons. They were monstrous creatures with two thick, black horns on their heads, faces and large bear-like bodies resembling a beast. She shivered as she remembered the fire burning down walls and furniture, devouring everything in sight, and the figures of demons shrouding around her.
She fluttered her eyes open and looked at her uncle.
“Nay?” King Leroi smiled as he looked at her shaking her head. “I imagine they would give you nightmares for weeks to come.”
Cecelia was still shaking. It was not only weeks. It was years.
“Monstrous creatures they are. Met one many years ago. Killed ten of my soldiers on the spot, ripping them to pieces.”
Cecelia paled and her stomach hollowed.
King Leroi smiled inwardly. “You are afraid at the thought?”
Cecelia clamped her lips together in response.
“Aye, you are not unfounded to be afraid of them. I am a good king. You must appreciate that I am, and this kingdom is protecting you from them.” He leaned forward, his small eyes scrutinizing her. “Do you appreciate what I’ve done for you and your family?”
Cecelia couldn’t look at him. Instead, she stared at the polished marble floor of white and gold. She felt quite numb.
“Aye, I do,” she softly replied.
He smiled, his plump cheeks nearly covering his small eyes as he did so. “Then you know it is for the best to leave things be.”
She looked up at him then, her brown eyes misting with tears. “You will not send the soldiers to the Demon Kingdom?”
“Nay,” came the harsh reply.
Cecelia had to control her anger by fisting her hands. Her knuckles began to turn white. She felt a sense of defeat. All of her planning from the previous three nights had come to naught. All her plausible explanations as to why this Pearl of Life—a mysterious seed that grew within a giant clam in the Demon Kingdom, which, according to rumors, had the power to cure her mother from the Westwick poison—was to no avail.
“We will not talk of this in the future. Perhaps it is God’s will that your mother would leave us soon,” he said, looking heavenward and crossing himself.
Nay! Cecelia cried in her heart. ’Tis not God’s will that Mother would die soon.
“You are dismissed.”
Cecelia curtsied, and turning on her heel, she left the king’s private study.
In the long corridor, she was still feeling defeated and angry when she met the two women she most wanted to avoid. Even though she’d heard the clop-clops of their backless mules, she couldn’t escape them as she did not know where an alternative exit was except for the one shown to her by a footman. That exit was at the end of the corridor, behind the two vile women.
“Lady Cecelia Van Zandt, already back from whispering your wicked thoughts to the king?” Rosanna sneered, folding her arms across her generous bosom.
Cecelia looked at the blond-haired woman. She was, as usual, exquisitely beautiful today, dressed in a silk lavender gown. Her silver-blond tresses were styled into ringlets about her head, thus showing off her slender, swan-like neck, which was adorned with a large ruby and gold necklace of an intricate design.
“What did you say to him?” Juliet, the younger sister, said, grabbing hold of Cecelia’s arm and nudging her toward them.
Cecelia glanced at Juliet. She was also very pretty today, dressed in a pastel silk gown and her honey-blond hair styled into ringlets on her head.
“Nothing that concerns you,” Cecelia said, shook her arm free, and moved aside to pass them.
Rosanna smoothly stepped in front of her, stopping her escape. “Tell me or suffer the consequence,” the woman said, her green eyes so sharp Cecelia thought if they were real blades, her smooth cheek would be cut by now.
Though she was afraid, she stood her ground and tilted her head a notch higher so her eyes met Rosanna’s.
“I said nothing that concerns you,” she repeated without showing her fear.
“Insolence!” Rosanna snapped and slapped Cecelia’s right cheek.
Cecelia took a deep breath as she fisted her hands. Slowly, she turned to glare at the woman. She itched to retaliate but knew she would only get into more trouble, for Queen Eliza would soon hear of their fights and would, as always, punish her.
“You will not talk of such to me again, do you hear?” Rosanna hissed. “I am the queen’s cousin. I have all the power, and you have none. It is as well that you know your place here. You should thank the good king for taking you and your family under his wing, for providing you and your family food and shelter after the attack. You should thank the Lord you are still living and breathing this day and not being ripped to pieces by those demons.”
Cecelia squared her shoulders and said, “I do thank God for his mercy every evening tide afore retiring to bed, Lady Rosanna.”
“So what did you talk to the king about?” Juliet asked, yanking at Cecelia’s sleeve.
Cecelia didn’t answer.
Rosanna frowned and her lips thinned into a line. “Tell me now!” she said and yanked her again.
“The Pearl of Life,” Cecelia said.
Both women stared at her in disbelief.
“The Pearl of Life?” Rosanna repeated. “You cannot think to ask the king to dispatch his soldiers to retrieve it, can you?”
Cecelia didn’t answer. She made a move to leave.
“Do you?” Rosanna snapped, grabbing Cecelia’s arm and yanking her back.
“Aye,” Cecelia said and shifted her arm free.
“But it is in the Demon Kingdom, somewhere in the cave deep in the forbidden forest where the terrible monsters live. ’Tis the demon king’s treasure. The creature won’t allow you. The men will die.”
Cecelia ignored the women’s barks of outrage and turned to go.
“You would let the brave soldiers die to save your useless mother?” Rosanna said.
Cecelia twisted around and slapped Rosanna on the cheek. She felt oddly satisfied. To hell with Queen Eliza, she thought. If the news of this small fight reached the woman’s ear and later she got the punishment, so be it.
Rosanna’s mouth hung open in disbelief.
“My mother is not useless,” Cecelia said in a low, heated voice. “She is a great woman, a great lady. She is Countess of Rosevalley, who loves her people.”
“And why is the great Rosevalley gone, turned into ash overnight? Because your dear father was useless, that’s why,” Rosanna snapped.
“It was the demons. It had nothing to do with him,” Cecelia said angrily, tears brewing in her eyes.
“It’s because your father was weak. That was why he couldn’t handle a few demons,” Rosanna said.
“It wasn’t just a few demons,” Cecelia defended. Inside, she felt hopeless, and she knew no matter how hard she tried to argue with them, she would still lose.
“How do you know it wasn’t just a few demons?” Juliet asked.
“I know,” Cecelia said and knew they were laughing at her acting like a child, defending her hero father, Prince Peter Van Zandt, Earl of Rosevalley. In her heart, she knew it wasn’t just a few demons. There was a whole army of them. She had seen them herself. They had attacked at night, killing anyone in sight. It was a miracle she, her mother, and her brother had escaped at all.
She looked at Juliet, and without another word, turned and walked as fast as she could from the corridor.
“Where are you going? Come back here. I’m not finished with you,” Rosanna yelled.
Cecelia ignored her shout of outrage and walked faster, her shoes clip-clopping against the polished floor.
She exited the king’s wing and entered the courtyard. Though the bright sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the flowers were beautiful and blooming in all different shades of the rainbow, she didn’t see them, and if she did, she wouldn’t appreciate them.
She ran across the courtyard, passing the exotic pond swimming with Koi and turtles, the great magnolia trees blooming with white and pink blossoms, and the bushes of bright-red roses that would have made her smile and entered the corridor of the north wing.
This wing was assigned to her family three years ago when they had arrived under the king’s aid after the demons’ attack.
Cecelia was very glad that this north wing was old and not very elegant as were the other three in the palace. And furthermore, because the wing faced north, this meant it was colder than the rest, which both the king and queen themselves, not to mention Rosanna and Juliet, disliked immensely. Hence, they had never come to visit. Not that they wanted to anyway. Queen Eliza had never liked her mother, a fact Cecelia found most suitable to her since her mother, and herself of course, had never liked her in return.
Cecelia came to a grand foyer decorated with a light rose-pink and royal-purple drapes over the long windows. The grand stairs were made of white marble and the large walls were hung with paintings of previous kings, queens, and lords of the kingdom—her ancestors.
She climbed the stairs and then came across the corridor. Turning to her right, she came to a huge door. She stood there for a moment to calm her nerves. Once she was composed, she walked into her mother’s bedchamber.
Closing the door behind her, she wiped her tears clean. She didn’t want her mother to see her crying. The woman already had enough trouble as it was.
“Mother?” she called into the large, elegant room.
“Celia, my darling?” She heard her mother’s hoarse voice and her heart nearly broke. She walked toward the large four-poster bed in the center of the room.
Lady Margaret Van Zandt, Countess of Rosevalley, was sitting between large pillows, and her fragile figure only confirmed Cecelia’s suspicion that her mother was getting weaker.
“Mother,” she said, taking a seat on the side of the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Margaret said, trying to smile but failing.
Cecelia knew it was painful to even lift those once beautiful lips. Her mother tried for her sake, she knew.
“I can hear the bees buzzing and the birds singing,” her mother whispered. “So beautiful in spring, don’t you think, darling?”
Cecelia agreed without much thought.
“The festival will be so lovely with wildflowers everywhere.” Margaret reached out her frail hand to touch her daughter’s.
“I won’t be joining,” Cecelia said as she lifted her mother’s hand to her lips. She kissed it and then gently moved it to touch her cheek.
“Why?” Margaret asked, watching her daughter with interest.
“It will be no joy without you there.”
“Nonsense.” The countess frowned. “I want you to go and enjoy the festival. Take your brother with you. Perhaps this time, you will find a fine young man—”
“Mother, you are weak. Do not talk more,” Cecelia said firmly, resting her mother’s hand back on the bedding. She moved up to tuck the blanket around the woman.
Margaret looked at her daughter and knew Cecelia didn’t like talking about finding a husband. She knew it was the very least important matter for her daughter to consider, for her small shoulders were already heavily burdened with many other problems. She knew she and her sickness was one of them.
She changed the subject to ease her daughter’s mind. “Aye, I am tired. Pass me some tea, darling.”
Cecelia poured her mother a cup of tea and helped her as she drank the warm, dark liquid. After her mother had finished, she helped her settle back in bed. The countess was just closing her eyes when Cecelia broke the silence.
“I’ve been to see the king,” she began.
Margaret reached for Cecelia’s hand. “Do not bother him. He has enough on his mind already. The war—”
“Mother, please stop. Where have you heard of such?”
“The maid and the healer.” Margaret opened her eyes just a little to look at her daughter.
“They gossip too much. But you are important, too. The poison… the healer said it has reached your heart. I’m so afraid.”
“Perhaps it is time for me to go.”
“Please, Mother, do not speak of such.” Cecelia shook her head as tears started to brew in her eyes.
“We are only mortal, here to live in this world for a short time and then be taken away again. Even demons, they too will die someday—”
“Please do not speak of them. Not the demons. They have caused us enough pain,” Cecelia said, her heart raging with hatred at the mere mention of them.
“Your father was a brave man, Celia. He stood up to them. He was a great lord and a great warrior.”
“I am proud of him,” Cecelia said, touching her mother’s hand to her cheek again.
The countess sighed.
“The Pearl of Life—” Cecelia brought up the subject.
“Do not speak of it, Celia. Let fate take its course.” When Margaret looked at her daughter, there was a command in her brown eyes that Cecelia found hard to disobey. She was a good daughter, and she must do as she was told. So she dropped the subject. She didn’t want her mother to think too much, for the mere act of thinking itself, the healer had told her, would also increase the poison’s power.
“I will let you rest now,” she said.
After helping her mother comfortably settle in bed, she left.
In her own bedchamber, Cecelia was deep in thought, planning what would be the best course of action to save her mother’s life. There must be a way to get the Pearl of Life. Her previous solution was to plead with the king for his help, but now that wasn’t possible. Another idea that came to her mind was to hire a well-trained soldier to retrieve the item. But who would risk their life to go into the Demon Kingdom? There were too many unknown creatures along the dangerous journey already and many unknown obstacles they must overcome in order to reach the kingdom itself. The very word demon would send people shaking with fear. A demon could suck the blood out of a man and then rip his body to a thousand pieces.
There is no hope for her now.
Cecelia threw herself on her bed, helpless. She lay there for how long she did not know, deep in thought. She was also beginning to get a bad headache.
She lifted her head and saw her brother at the door. She quickly sat up as her brother walked into the room. She saw his left boot was ripped at the heel, his breeches and coat were smudged with dirt, as was his young, handsome face, and his dark hair was tousled.
“How was the hunt?” she asked, not surprised at all at the fact that her brother looked like he’d been beaten severely. His skin was so pale that it worried her.
Brian Van Zandt came to sit beside her on the large, four-poster bed. She frowned when she saw his dark, scowled face. She knew he must have been silently raging inside. She knew he felt trapped and worthless. He craved to do much, much more. Her heart ached for him.
“They left you in the forest alone again?”
Brian frowned fiercely and then reluctantly nodded.
“They will get it back one day, Brian. You will see,” she said, wiping the dirt from his cheek.
“How is Mother?”
She didn’t know whether to tell him the truth of their mother’s condition or not. She knew if she lied to him, it wouldn’t sit well with her.
“She is getting worse, Brian.”
“Why isn’t the king sending his soldiers to fetch the Pearl of Life?” Brian snapped angrily.
“It is too dangerous. The journey is long and there are many unknown creatures. There are also the demons,” Cecelia explained.
“If only I were healthier, then I would go myself and fetch it,” Brian said, nodding his head and squaring his jaw Cecelia had seen their father do so many times before. She heard the bravery in his seventeen-year-old voice. “If only… if only I were not so sickly. This body of mine.”
He was referring to his chronic condition that had caused him much pain during the nights. Ever since the sickness had struck two and a half years ago, a sickness no one knew the name nor had ever heard of, he had been coughing and his whole body aching severely. He was always tired and so very pale. Most of the time, he couldn’t breathe easily. The healer said strenuous exertion could kill him, which she feared might just happen if he continued to burn himself out just to prove to those other youths that he was capable of standing on his own two feet, that he wasn’t just a pampered young lord.
Looking at him now, Cecelia thought how different he was years ago when they’d been back at Rosevalley Island. The younger Brian had always been so outgoing and active. He had love exploring and riding and practicing his smallsword against her, sharpening his skills. If it weren’t for the infection, he would have grown to be a fine young man, strong and powerful. A young man who could one day take back Rosevalley Island. But fate had dealt them a dreadful blow. Now he could do naught of those things he loved, those things that would make him stronger, for in doing so, it could kill him.
“And if only I were born a boy,” Cecelia said absentmindedly, nodding her head.
“Aye, then you could become a soldier and you could go to the Demon Kingdom and fetch the Pearl of Life.”
“You must not forget I must first fight the demon king, for the Pearl of Life belongs to him.”
“Aye,” the youth said, nodding. “I trust you would beat him. After all, you are very good with the smallsword. I know your fencing is unparalleled, but those teachers and lords, they don’t know you know how to fence, let alone lift a smallsword.”
“The demon king is a very powerful warrior, Brian. How could I defeat him? I am only a woman with a woman’s strength.”
Brian eyed her. The innocent look in his brown eyes nearly made Cecelia forget everything, and she wished she were once again a child. Then she would have no worries. But that is not to be.
“Father was huge, but Mother was still able to defeat him,” he said, thinking about those times long ago when their father had surrendered to their mother when they’d been fighting with words.
Cecelia widened her eyes. “They are different, Brian. The demon king is a demon. He is not a man.”
“What is the difference?” Brian asked. “Surely demons are like humans, too? Surely they look very much like us?”
Cecelia thought even though Brian was seventeen, his life had been quite sheltered, as was she, for they had been exiled here in this northern castle since Rosevalley had fallen. He didn’t have friends, nor she. They went through life without much experience of the outside world. Thus, he didn’t know demons were creatures to fear. He didn’t know they were monsters that killed without mercy. He didn’t know they were hideous beings with beastlike bodies and faces resembling wolves. But she knew because she had seen them.
“Well, for one thing, demons are demons,” she explained weakly.
“Celia, I just know you’ll defeat this demon when you meet him,” Brian said. “I will go wash up. I smell very bad.” He kissed her on the cheek, stood, and then slowly limped out the door.
Alone, Cecelia turned to look out her window into the large city below the palace. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She wondered if she were to meet this demon king, would she be able to defeat him? She doubted it. She would probably faint on the spot just looking at him. Nay, she would never meet him. That she was certain of.
* * * * *