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Key of light, p.3
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       Key of Light, p.3

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
 

  “Did he get it?” Zoe wondered.

  “The mortal maid chose, and loved, and gave up her world for his.” Pitte rested his hands on his knees. “There was anger in the worlds of gods, of mortals, and in that mystical half-world of the faeries. No mortal was to pass through the Curtain. Yet that most essential rule was now broken. A mortal woman had been taken from her world and into theirs, married to and bedded by their future king for no reason more important than love.”

  “What’s more important than love?” Malory asked and earned a slow, quiet look from Pitte.

  “Some would say nothing, others would say honor, truth, loyalty. Others did, and for the first time in the memory of the gods, there was dissension, rebellion. The balance was shaken. The young god-king, crowned now, was strong and withstood this. And the mortal maid was beautiful and true. Some were swayed to accept her, and others plotted in secret.”

  There was a whip of outrage in his voice, and a sudden cold fierceness that made Malory think of the stone warriors again.

  “Battles fought in the open could be quelled, but others were devised in secret chambers, and these ate at the foundation of the world.

  “It came to pass that the god-king’s wife bore three children, three daughters, demigoddesses with mortal souls. On their birth, their father gifted each with a jeweled amulet, for protection. They learned the ways of their father’s world, and of their mother’s. Their beauty, their innocence, softened many hearts, turned many minds. For some years there was peace again. And the daughters grew to young women, devoted to each other, each with a talent that enhanced and completed those of her sisters.”

  He paused again, as if gathering himself. “They harmed no one, brought only light and beauty to both sides of the Curtain. But there remained shadows. One coveted what they had that no god could claim. Through sorcery, through envy, despite all precautions, they were taken into the half-world. The spell cast plunged them into eternal sleep, a living death. And sleeping, they were sent back through the Curtain, their mortal souls locked in a box that has three keys. Not even their father’s power can break the locks. Until the keys turn, one, by two, by three, the daughters are trapped in an enchanted sleep and their souls weep in a prison of glass.”

  “Where are the keys?” Malory asked. “And why can’t the box be opened by enchantment since it was locked by it?”

  “Where they are is a puzzle. Many magicks and spells have been cast to unlock the box, all have failed—but there are clues. The souls are mortal, and only mortal hands can turn the keys.”

  “My invitation said I was the key.” Malory glanced at Dana and Zoe, got nods of confirmation. “What do we have to do with some mythological legend?”

  “I have something to show you.” Pitte rose, gestured toward the archway. “I hope it interests you.”

  “The storm’s getting worse.” Zoe sent a wary look toward the windows. “I need to start home.”

  “Please, indulge me.”

  “We’ll all leave together.” Malory gave Zoe’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Let’s just see what it is he wants to show us first. I hope you’ll invite me back at some point,” she continued as she walked to the doorway to join Pitte and Rowena. “I’d very much like to see more of your art collection, and perhaps repay the favor by giving you a private tour of The Gallery.”

  “You’ll certainly be welcome back.” Pitte took her arm lightly and led her down the wide hall. “It would be a pleasure for Rowena and me to discuss our collection with someone who understands and appreciates it.”

  He turned toward another archway. “I hope you’ll understand and appreciate this particular piece of it.”

  Over another fireplace that roared with flame was a painting that towered to the ceiling.

  The colors were so vivid, so rich, the style so bold and strong, that Malory’s art lover’s heart took one fast leap. The portrait was of three women, young, beautiful, in flowing gowns of sapphire, of ruby, of emerald. The one in blue, with golden curls rioting to her waist, sat on a bench that circled a pool. She held a small gold harp.

  Seated on the silver tiles at her feet, the girl in red had a scroll and quill in her lap and her hand on her sister’s—for surely they were sisters—knee. Beside them, the girl in green stood, a chubby black puppy in the crook of her arm and a short silver sword at her hip. A heartbreak of flowers spilled around them.

  There were trees with jeweled fruit dripping from the branches, and in the cerulean sky both birds and faeries were on the wing.

  Enthralled, Malory was halfway across the room for a closer look when her heart gave another, harder knock. The girl in blue had her face.

  Younger, she thought as she came to an abrupt halt. Certainly more beautiful. The skin was luminous, the eyes deeper, bluer, the hair more luxurious and romantic. But there was no mistaking the power of the resemblance, nor, she saw as she steadied herself, the resemblance between the others in the portrait and the other two guests at Warrior’s Peak.

  “Magnificent work. A master’s work,” Malory said, and was amazed at how calm her voice sounded through the buzzing in her ears.

  “They look like us.” There was wonder in the words as Zoe moved beside Malory. “How can they?”

  “Good question.” And suspicion in Dana’s. “How did the three of us come to be used as models for what is, obviously, a portrait of the three sisters in the story you just told us?”

  “It was painted before you were born. Before your parents, your grandparents, and those who sired them were born.” Rowena walked toward the portrait, stood below it with her hands folded at her waist. “Its age can be verified through tests. Isn’t that so, Malory?”

  “Yes. Its approximate age can be authenticated, but whatever its age, you haven’t answered Zoe’s question.”

  The smile that spread on Rowena’s face seemed to hold both approval and amusement. “No, I haven’t. What else do you see in the painting?”

  Malory reached in her purse, took out a pair of black-framed, rectangular glasses. She slipped them on and made a more thorough study.

  “A key, in the right corner of the sky. It seems to be a bird until you look closely. A second one there, on the branch of a tree, almost hidden by the leaves and fruit. And the third, just visible under the surface of the pool. There’s a shadow there, in the trees. In the form of a man, maybe a woman. Just the hint of something dark watching them. Another shadow, just sliding onto the silver tile at the edge. A snake. Ah, and here, in the far background.”

  She lost herself in the painting, forgot herself and stepped up onto the hearth. “There’s a couple—a man and a woman—embracing. The woman is robed, richly, with the purple symbolizing a woman of rank. And the man is garbed like a soldier. A warrior. There’s a raven in the tree just above them. A symbol of impending doom. Just as the sky here is darker, with storm lights. A threat. The sisters are unaware of the threat. They look forward, grouped together, the crown of their ranks glinting in the sunlight that washes this area of the foreground. There’s a sense of companionship and affection between them, and the white dove here, on the edge of the pool, is their purity. Each wears an amulet, the same shape and size, with the jewel reflecting the color of their gown. They are a unit, yet individuals. It’s magnificent work. You can almost see them breathe.”

  “You have a discerning eye.” Pitte touched Rowena’s arm as he nodded at Malory. “It’s the prize of the collection.”

  “And still,” Dana pointed out, “you haven’t answered the question.”

  “Magick couldn’t break the spell that locked the souls of the king’s daughters in a box of glass. Sorcerers were called, and wizards and witches from all the worlds. But no magicks could unbind the curse. So another was cast. In this world, in every generation, three women are born who will come together in one place, at one time. They are not sisters, they are not gods, but mortal women. And they are the only ones who can release the innocents.”

  “An
d you want us to believe that we’re those women?” Dana’s brows arched. There was a tickle in her throat, but it didn’t feel like laughter. “That we just happen to look like the women in this painting?”

  “Nothing just happens. And whether you believe or not changes little.” Pitte held out his hands toward them. “You are the chosen, and I am charged to tell you.”

  “Well, you’ve told us, so now—”

  “And to make you this offer,” he continued before Dana could finish. “You will each have, in turn, one phase of the moon to find one of the three keys. If within the twenty-eight days the first fails, the matter is done. If the first succeeds, the second’s time begins. But if the second fails within her time, the matter is done. If all three keys are brought to this place, before the end of the third moon, you will be given a boon.”

  “What sort of boon?” Zoe asked.

  “One million dollars. Each.”

  “Get out of town!” Dana snorted, then stared at her two companions. “Oh, come on, ladies. This is just screwy. Easy for him to toss money around like confetti when we’d be off on some wild-goose chase for a trio of keys that don’t exist in the first place.”

  “And if they did—” Her eyes brilliant, Zoe turned toward Dana. “If they did, wouldn’t you want a chance to find them? The chance for that kind of money?”

  “What chance? It’s a great big world out there. How do you expect to find a little gold key?”

  “You will be given, each in turn, a guide.” Rowena gestured to a small chest. “This we can do, if all agree. You may work together. In fact, we hope that you will. You must all agree. If one refuses the challenge, it’s done. If all accept the challenge and the terms, you’ll each be given twenty-five thousand dollars. It remains yours whether you fail or succeed.”

  “Wait a minute, wait a minute.” Malory held up a hand, then pulled off her glasses. “Wait a minute,” she repeated. “You’re saying if we agree to look for these keys, just to look for them, we get twenty-five K? Free and clear?”

  “The amount will be deposited in an account of your choosing. Immediately,” Pitte stated.

  “Oh, my God!” Zoe clasped her hands. “Oh, my God,” she repeated and sat down heavily. “This has got to be a dream.”

  “A scam, you mean. What’s the catch?” Dana questioned. “What’s the fine print?”

  “If you fail, any one of you, the penalty for all will be a year of your lives.”

  “What, like in jail?” Malory demanded.

  “No.” Rowena motioned to a servant to enter with a coffee cart. “A year of your life will not exist.”

  “Poof!” Dana snapped her fingers. “Like magic.”

  “The keys exist. Not in this house,” Rowena murmured, “but in this world, this place. This we are able to do. More we are not allowed to say, although we may offer a little guidance. The quest isn’t simple, so you will be rewarded for the attempt. Should you succeed, the reward is greater. Should you fail, there is penalty. Please, take this time to discuss it. Pitte and I will give you some privacy.”

  They walked out of the room, and Rowena turned back to slide the wide pocket doors shut.

  “This,” Dana said as she plucked a tiny cream puff from the dessert tray, “is a nuthouse. And if either of you is actually considering playing along with these fruitcakes, you belong in this nuthouse.”

  “Let me just say one thing.” Malory poured a cup of coffee, stirred in two lumps of sugar. “Twenty-five thousand dollars. Each.”

  “You don’t really believe they’re going to plunk down seventy-five large because we say, oh, sure, we’ll look for the keys. The ones that unlock the box holding the souls of a trio of demigoddesses.”

  Malory debated over a mini éclair. “Only one way to find out.”

  “They look like us.” Ignoring the coffee and pastries, Zoe stood beneath the painting, staring up. “So much like us.”

  “Yes, they do, and that’s just creepy.” Dana nodded when Malory held up the coffeepot. “Why paint the three of us together that way? We’ve never met before tonight. And the idea of somebody watching us, taking pictures or sketches or whatever so they could put this portrait together, spooks me.”

  “It wasn’t something painted on a whim, or quickly.” Malory handed Dana the coffee cup. “It’s a masterpiece—the skill, the scope, the detail. Someone poured himself or herself into that piece, someone with incredible talent. And it took an incredible amount of work. If this is a scam, it’s an elaborate one. Plus, what’s the point? I’m broke. You?”

  Dana puffed out her cheeks. “Close enough.”

  “I’ve got some savings,” Zoe put in. “But I’m going to go through them pretty quick if I don’t get another job, and fast. I don’t know a lot about it, but it doesn’t look like these people would be after the little bit of money we’ve got.”

  “Agreed. You want some coffee?”

  “Thanks.” She turned back to them and spread her hands. “Look, you all don’t know me, and you’ve got no reason to care, but I could really use this money.” Zoe came forward. “Twenty-five thousand would be like a miracle. Security for my son, a chance maybe to do what I’ve always wanted. Have my own little salon. All we have to do is say yes. So we look for some keys. It’s not illegal.”

  “There are no keys,” Dana insisted.

  “What if there are?” Zoe put her cup down without drinking. “I have to say, the idea of twenty-five thousand dollars really helps open my mind to possibilities. And a million?” She gave a quick, baffled laugh. “I can’t even think about it. It makes my stomach hurt.”

  “It’d be like a treasure hunt,” Malory murmured. “It could be fun. God knows, it could be profitable. Twenty-five thousand would really close the gap for me, and that’s a very practical priority just now. I might be able to have my own place, too. Not like The Gallery, but just a little place that spotlights artists and craftspeople.”

  It was a full ten years before that was due in the order of her life plan, but she could be flexible.

  “Nothing’s that simple. Nobody hands you money because you say you’ll do something.” Dana shook her head. “There’s got to be more under all this.”

  “Maybe they believe it. The story,” Malory added. “If you believed it, twenty-five thousand would be chump change. We’re talking souls here.” Unable to help herself, she looked back at the portrait. “A soul’s worth more than twenty-five thousand dollars.”

  Excitement bounced inside her like a bright red ball. She’d never had an adventure, certainly not a paying adventure. “They’ve got money, they’re eccentric, and they believe it. The fact is, going along with it sort of feels like we’re the ones pulling the scam. But I’m going to get over that.”

  “You’ll do it?” Zoe grabbed her arm. “You’re going to do it?”

  “It’s not every day you get paid to work for the gods. Come on, Dana, loosen up.”

  Dana’s brows drew together, her forehead forming a stubborn, vertical line between them. “It’s asking for trouble. I don’t know where or how, but it just feels like trouble.”

  “What would you do with twenty-five thousand?” Malory purred it, then offered another cream puff.

  “Invest what I could so I could have my own little bookstore.” Her sigh was wistful, and a sign that she was weakening. “I’d serve tea in the afternoons, wine in the evenings. Have readings. Oh, boy.”

  “It’s strange how we’re all having a job crisis, and that the thing we all want is to have our own place?” Zoe sent a wary look at the portrait again. “Don’t you think it’s strange?”

  “No more strange than being here in this fortress and talking about going on a treasure hunt. Well, I’m in a fix,” Dana muttered. “I say no, it kills it for both of you. Saying yes makes me feel like an idiot. I guess I’m an idiot.”

  “Yes?” With a hoot of laughter, Zoe threw her arms around Dana. “This is great! This is amazing!”

  “Take it
easy.” Chuckling, Dana patted Zoe on the back. “I guess this is the time to pull out the right quote. ‘One for all, and all for one.’ ”

  “I got a better one.” Malory picked up her cup again, lifted it in a toast. “ ‘Show me the money.’ ”

  As if on cue, the doors opened. Rowena entered first. “Shall we sit?”

  “We’ve decided to accept the . . .” Zoe trailed off, looked at Dana.

  “The challenge.”

  “Yes.” Rowena crossed her legs. “You’ll want to look over the contracts.”

  “Contracts?” Malory echoed.

  “Naturally. A name has power. The writing of one’s name, the promise of it, is necessary for all. Once you’re satisfied, we’ll select for the first key.”

  Pitte took papers out of a desk, handed one set to each woman. “They’re simple, I believe, and cover the terms already discussed. If you’ll write in where you wish the money to be sent, it will be done.”

  “Doesn’t it matter to you that we don’t believe in them?” Malory lifted a hand toward the portrait.

  “You’ll give your word that you’ll accept the terms. That’s enough for now,” Rowena told her.

  “Pretty straightforward for such an odd business,” Dana commented. And promised herself she would take the contract to a lawyer the next day to see if it was binding.

  Pitte handed her a pen. “As you are straightforward. If and when your turn comes, I know you’ll do all you can.”

  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.

  “Okay.”

  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.

  Chapter Three

  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.

 
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