Key of valor, p.28
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       Key of Valor, p.28

         Part #3 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  “Figures.” He grumbled it as wedding plans flew around the table.

  WHEN the meal was finished, they gathered in the room where the portrait of the daughters looked down on them. The fire burned in the hearth, red and gold flames. A hundred candles glowed with light.

  “I’m nervous,” Zoe whispered and groped for Brad’s hand. “Kind of silly to be nervous now.”

  He brought her hand to his lips. “All in a day’s work for you, champ.”

  She laughed, but her stomach did a quick flip when Pitte lifted the Box of Souls.

  “An artist, a scholar, a warrior.” He set the box on its pedestal while the blue lights inside pulsed. “Inside and out, mirror and echo. Through their hearts, their minds, their valor, the last lock can be opened.”

  He stepped to the side, a soldier, while Rowena moved to her place to flank the box. “Please,” she said to Zoe, “send them home.”

  Her stomach calmed, and her heart beat steady as she crossed the room. She felt the shape of the key in her hand, and its warmth as she looked at the final lock. And the lights that fluttered inside the glass like wings.

  She took one long breath, held it, then slid the key into the lock and turned it.

  Heat spread along her fingers. Light burst, white and pure and bright. With wonder, she watched the lid of the box fly open, saw the glass seem to explode without sound and send crystals spiraling into the air.

  The three blue lights soared free, spinning, spinning into a circle linked by the blur like the tail of a comet. The air sparkled, white and blue.

  Dazed, she heard Simon shout out, “Hey, cool!” and reached up, fascinated, to touch one of those whirling lights.

  For an instant, it lay in her palm. The beauty of it, the joy of it rushed into her with such force, such intimacy, she was staggered.

  She stared, dumbfounded, as she saw both Malory and Dana standing as she was, hands outstretched, each with a pulsing blue light cupped in her palm.

  We’ve touched souls, she realized.

  Then the lights seemed to leap, rushing in a kind of joyful madness from hand to hand, spinning flirtatiously around the men, playfully around a laughing Simon, over the heads of the dogs, before they shot to Rowena and Pitte to hover where they’d both gone reverently to their knees.

  “It’s so beautiful.” Malory gripped Zoe’s hand, reached for Dana’s. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”

  Once more, the three lights rose in a perfect circle, then separated and arrowed toward the portrait. And into it.

  The painting shimmered, its already rich colors deepened. Zoe swore, that for just a moment, she heard three hearts begin to beat once more.

  Then all was still.

  “They are free.” Rowena’s voice trembled with tears. “They are home.”

  She moved to the three women. “This is a debt that can never be paid. What we give you is a token only.” She stepped closer to kiss each of them on the cheek in turn. “Please, sit. I know you have much to do for tomorrow, but we still have one or two things to discuss.”

  “I’m not sure I can talk sensibly right now.” Zoe pressed her hands to her mouth and stared at the portrait. “Or ever again.”

  “Champagne.” Rowena threw back her head and laughed. “We’ll have champagne to celebrate this great day. To celebrate our joy, and your fortune.”

  She spun away to fetch the flutes Pitte was already pouring. “Thanksgiving.” Her face glowed as she handed out the glasses. “Oh, it’s such a day for it. Life finds its way, doesn’t it? And you have found yours.”

  “We’ll get the business out of the way,” Pitte began. “The funds will be transferred to your accounts immediately, as agreed.”

  “No.” Dana sat down, sipped her champagne, and caught Zoe’s smirk out of the corner of her eye as Pitte blinked.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Do you want more?” In a gesture of acceptance, Rowena lifted a hand. “Don’t tell me a bargain is a bargain,” she said before Pitte could speak. “If they want more than the agreed-upon amount, they’ll have more.”

  “No,” Dana said again. “We don’t want more. We don’t want any.” She jabbed a finger in the air toward Brad. “Mr. Business?”

  “The parties waive payment,” Brad began. Enjoying himself, loving these women. “After discussing the contractual terms, an agreement was reached, unanimously, to refuse any further monetary remuneration.”

  He drew forth a paper he’d written up, hurriedly, at their instructions, which they had signed. And he, Flynn, Jordan—and Simon—had witnessed. “This document, though informal, is self-explanatory and valid.”

  He held it out, waited for Pitte to come over and take it.

  “Payment was agreed,” he began.

  “That was before.” Malory looked up at the portrait. “Before we knew you, or them. When it was a kind of challenging game. We can’t take money for this.”

  “We took the down payment,” Dana put in. “And we’re not giving it back because, well, it’s gone.” She shrugged carelessly. “But we’re not going to get rich off their souls.”

  “The money means nothing to us,” Rowena began.

  “No.” Zoe nodded. “But it means something to us, so we can’t. Wherever we go from here, whatever we make, we’ll do it on our own, and together. That’s our decision and we . . . we expect you to honor it,” she finished.

  “Honor,” Pitte said slowly, “is beyond price. I am humbled by yours.”

  “Then let’s drink.” Grinning, Dana lifted her glass. “It’ll be the first time I ever drank to turning down a million.”

  Rowena walked to Zoe’s side. “If I could have a moment with you, in private.”

  She’d been waiting, and though Zoe stood, she stayed where she was. “You’re going to offer me a boon, the way you did when Malory and Dana found their keys. Isn’t that right?”

  “Yes.” Rowena quirked her eyebrows. “Here, there?”

  “Yes, please.”

  “Very well. You know the debt is deep. As you were the last, you know most of all how deep, how impossible to pay. But whatever you want that I’m able to give is yours.”

  “Malory and Dana didn’t ask for anything.”

  “No. Still—”

  “But I’m going to.”

  “Ah.” Pleased, Rowena took her hand. “What will you?”

  “It seems to me that since we unlocked the box, that even if I ask for something you can’t handle—”

  “I can handle quite a bit,” Rowena said with a laugh. “I promise you.”

  “But if you can’t, that under the circumstances, there are others who know what happened here, what I did, and they could get it for me.”

  “You intrigue me.” Rowena angled her head. “I believe you can have whatever you like. As I told you, our king loves his daughters and would surely repay you for all you’ve done. What do you wish, Zoe?”

  “That you and Pitte be allowed to go home.”

  Rowena’s fingers went limp on hers, dropped away. “I don’t understand you.”

  “That’s what I want. It’s what I decided to ask for even before I knew it was what they wanted.” She gestured to the portrait. “They touched us, and the six of us were like one for that moment. It’s what we want.”

  Pitte stepped forward to lay his hand on Rowena’s shoulder. “We’re responsible for our own prison.”

  “No, Kane is,” Dana interrupted. “And I like to think he’s writhing in hell. Whatever part you played, you’ve paid for. The daughters understand that.”

  “You told me you weren’t forgiven,” Zoe continued. “But those most hurt never blamed you. And you kept your bargain, your word, your honor for three thousand years. Whatever rules you broke were only to spare lives after Kane crossed the line. I’m asking that you not be punished for that.”

  “It’s not something . . .” With a helpless look at Pitte, Rowena shook her head.

  “I wouldn’
t argue with her.” Giving Simon’s hair a quick ruffle, Brad sent Zoe a warm look. “She’s a very determined woman.”

  “And a generous one.” Moved beyond measure, Rowena pressed her palm to her heart. “But we have no power for this thing you ask.”

  “The king does. Will he tell me no? Will he tell them no?” With her mind made up, Zoe pointed to the portrait. “If he does, he may be a god, but he doesn’t know squat about justice.”

  “Careful.” Weakly, Pitte held up a warning hand. “Even a warrior so well proven should have care when she speaks of a king.”

  There were times to lay down the sword, Zoe remembered. And there were times to fight. She drew herself up. “He gave me a sword, and I used it. I fought for his children, and I helped save them.”

  She turned in a circle, studied the faces of her friends, her family. “Everyone in this room worked and risked and struggled to free them, to send them home. This is what I want in payment. This is my balance. If he’s any kind of a king, any kind of a father, he’ll give it to me.”

  Thunder boomed, not only outside but seemingly in the room itself. The great house shook, and in the hearth flames leaped.

  “Boy.” Dana swallowed hard, and snuck her hand into Jordan’s. “I hope that’s a yes.”

  On a small cry, Rowena pressed herself against Pitte. The words she spoke were foreign, drenched in emotion, as his were when he whispered in response.

  Utter peace settled over his face before he buried it in her hair.

  “I’d say that’s a big yes,” Jordan decided. “You’re a stand-up woman, Zoe.”

  “Well.” She picked up her glass now, amused to see her own fingers tremble. “Whew.”

  “In all the years since I came here,” Pitte said quietly. “In all the endless hours and days of longing for home, I never knew I would miss anything from this world. I will miss you.” With Rowena tight to his side, he bent down to kiss Zoe. “I will miss all of you.”

  “We will not forget you.” Rowena stepped away from Pitte to drop into a deep curtsy, then chuckled as Moe pranced over to lick her face. “And there is much I will miss. Take care of them, my handsome warrior.” She kissed Moe’s nose. “Take care of each other. The gods are grateful to you all.”

  She straightened, smiled beautifully. “Sisters, brothers. Friends. Our thanks to you, and our blessings on you.” She held out her hand for Pitte’s.

  Their fingers linked, and they were gone.

  THE next day, at six-forty-five P.M., Dana closed the door of Indulgence, locked it. Turning, she grinned at her friends, then slid down into a heap on the floor.

  “Are we sure that’s everybody? Are we sure it’s just us left in here?” Zoe demanded.

  “It’s just us,” Malory assured her.

  “Holy jumping Jesus!” She shouted it and leaped into the air. “We rocked!”

  “We rocked, we rolled, we kicked retail ass,” Dana said from the floor. “I’ve never been so tired in my life. I may just sleep right here until we open again in the morning.”

  “We are such a hit. Did you see? Did you see how it all worked?” Her voice giddy, Malory spun in a circle. “Just the way we hoped. One of your manicure ladies bought my blown-glass bowl.”

  “And two of your art customers came up and booked a full-day spa package.”

  “I sold books to everyone who’s ever lived,” Dana chimed in and pillowed her head on her hands.

  “And I think every one of them came through my shop on the way to Zoe’s salon. And they loved it. How many times today did you hear people saying how pretty everything was, how much fun, how this was the best thing to happen to the Valley?”

  “I lost count.” Dana lifted her head. “I’m going to need another bookseller. Joanne and I couldn’t keep up.”

  “I’m going to have to order more supplies.” Zoe sent a look up the stairs. “I should probably go up and do inventory now.”

  “Hell with that.” Malory grabbed her arm. “We’re celebrating. There’s champagne in the kitchen.”

  “I’ve had more champagne these past three months than I’ve had in my entire life.” Dana blew out a breath. “But what the hell. Who’s going to carry me back there?”

  Zoe took one arm, Malory the other, and hauled her to her feet. “Thank God we don’t have to go home and cook,” Zoe said. “We’ve all got enough leftovers to deal. I can’t wait to tell Bradley and Simon about today. What they saw this morning was nothing.”

  “I’m hoping to con Jordan into rubbing my feet for an hour.” In the kitchen, Dana poked her head in the refrigerator for the champagne.

  “Just don’t forget, we need to start hammering out the wedding plans on Sunday. February’s closer than you think.”

  “Slave driver.” Dana came out with the bottle. “What have you got there, Zoe?”

  “It was on the counter.” The box she held was wrapped in silver paper, with a gold ribbon. Three gold keys dangled from the bow. “This isn’t any of your wrapping paper, is it, Malory?”

  “No. Gorgeous, though, I should find out where it came from. But it’s nothing one of my customers left behind.”

  “Maybe one of the guys snuck in and left it for us,” Dana suggested. She gave it a poke before she reached for glasses. “That would be kind of sweet.”

  “Only one way to find out.” Zoe picked carefully at the seams of the paper. “I can’t rip it, it’s too pretty.”

  “Take your time. Builds anticipation.” Malory leaned back on the counter while Dana opened the champagne. “God, I’m exhausted, but in the best possible way. Almost like having really great sex.”

  Malory glanced over at Zoe as Zoe lifted the lid. “What’ve we got?”

  “There are three smaller boxes inside. And a note.”

  She took the boxes out first. “They’re for us. Each one has one of our names. Gosh, the boxes look like real gold.”

  Dana lifted hers, then yipped when Malory slapped her hand. “Don’t open it yet. Let’s read the note.”

  “Jeez, you’re so strict. What does it say, Zoe?”

  “Oh. Oh! It’s from Rowena.” She held up the note so they could all gather around it to read.

  My dearest friends,

  I know this finds you well and happy, and am glad of it. Pitte and I send our love, and our gratitude. There is still work to do in our world, but balance is being restored. Already, celebrations are begun. While shadows are never dispelled completely, it is due to them the light shines bright.

  I send this as I sit in the garden and hear the voices that were silent for so long. There is joy in them, and in me.

  These three gifts are from the daughters, who wish you to have a token, one that both cherishes and honors the link you shared with them.

  Know that on the day of your weddings, there will be celebration here, on this side of the Curtain, and that the gods bless you and yours.

  My love to you, to your men, and to all you hold dear.

  Rowena

  “She sounds . . .peaceful.” Malory sighed. “I’m so happy for her.”

  Zoe laid the note down, brushed her fingers over it. “We should open the boxes together.”

  They picked them up, nodded, then opened the hinged lids.

  “Oh.” As did the others, Zoe lifted out the pendant on a long gold chain. “The pendants they wore in the painting. The ones Rowena said their father gave them.” She gently touched the deep green of the emerald cabochon.

  “They’re exquisite.” Staggered, Malory stared at the rich sapphire. “Just beautiful.”

  “And personal,” Dana finished, holding up her ruby. “A kind of family heirloom. You know, it may be a little hokey, that something old, something new business for brides. But, these sure qualify as old. I think we should all wear them at the wedding.”

  “That’s a wonderful idea. Zoe?”

  “It’s a perfect idea.” She slipped hers over her head, kept her hand loosely fisted around the stone. “I think we sh
ould have a toast. Somebody think of something.”

  “To beauty,” Malory said, lifting her glass. “To truth and to valor.”

  “To the Daughters of Glass,” Dana added.

  “And what the hell. To us.” Zoe held out her glass.

  As they clinked crystal together, the silver mist of the Curtain of Dreams slid gently closed.

  For now.

 
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