Lightning sizzled along the window glass as the contracts were signed, then countersigned.
“You are the chosen,” Rowena said as she rose again. “Now it’s in your hands. Pitte?”
He walked back to the desk, picked up a carved box. “Inside are three disks. One has a figure of a key. The one who chooses that disk begins the quest.”
“I hope it’s not me.” With a shaky laugh, Zoe wiped her damp palms on her skirt. “I’m sorry, I’m just really nervous.” She closed her eyes, reached into the box. Keeping the disk clutched in her fist, she looked at Malory and Dana. “Let’s all look at the same time. Okay?”
“Fine. Here goes.” Dana reached in, kept the disk palmed against her side as Malory reached for the final one.
They stood in a circle, facing each other. Then held out the disks. “Wow.” Malory cleared her throat. “Lucky me,” she whispered as she saw the gold key etched into the white disk she had selected.
“You are the first,” Rowena said, walking to her. “Your time starts at sunrise tomorrow and ends at midnight on the twenty-eighth day thereafter.”
“But I get a guide, right. A map or something?”
Rowena opened the small chest and withdrew a paper, which she offered to Malory. She then spoke the words written on it.
“You must seek beauty, and truth and courage. One alone will never stand. Two without the third is incomplete. Search within and know what you have yet to know. Find what the dark covets most. Search without, where the light conquers shadows, as love conquers sorrow. Silver tears fall for the song she makes there, for it springs from souls. Look beyond and between, see where beauty blooms and the goddess sings. There may be fear, there may be grief, but the true heart vanquishes both. When you find what you seek, love will break the spell, and the heart will forge the key and bring it to light.”
Malory waited a beat. “That’s it? That’s supposed to be a clue?”
“I’m so glad I didn’t have to go first,” Zoe said.
“Wait—can’t you tell me anything else? You and Pitte already know where the keys are, right?”
“This is all we are allowed to give you, but you have all you need to have.” Rowena laid her hands on Malory’s shoulders, then kissed her cheeks. “Blessings on you.”
LATER Rowena stood, letting the fire warm her hands as she stared up at the painting. She felt Pitte come in to stand behind her, turned her face into his hand when he touched her cheek.
“I had higher hopes before they came,” he told her.
“They’re bright, resourceful. None are chosen who aren’t capable.”
“Yet we remain in this place, year by century by millennium.”
“Don’t.” She turned, slid her arms around his waist, pressed herself to him. “Don’t despair, my dearest love, before it really begins.”
“So many beginnings, but never an end.” He bent his head, touched his lips to her brow. “How this place crowds me.”
“We’ve done all that can be done.” She laid her cheek on his chest, comforted by the steady sound of his heartbeat. “Have a little faith. I liked them,” she added, and took his hand as they started toward the doors.
“They’re interesting enough. For mortals,” he replied.
As they passed through the archway, the roaring fire vanished and the lights snapped off, leaving behind a trail of gold in the dark.
SHE couldn’t say she hadn’t seen it coming. And James was certainly gentle, even paternal. But the boot was the boot however it was administered.
Being prepared, even having the miraculous cushion of the twenty-five thousand dollars now tucked away in her account—a fact that she had confirmed that morning—didn’t make being fired any less horrible and humiliating.
“Things change.” James P. Horace, natty as always in his bow tie and rimless glasses, spoke in modulated tones.
In all the years Malory had known him, she’d never heard him raise his voice. He could be absentminded, occasionally negligent about practicalities when it came to business, but he was unfailingly kind.
Even now his face held a patient and serene expression. A little like an aged cherub, Malory thought.