Rosemary decorates the homes of the capital city’s rich and famous by day and reads trashy novels by night. Between the two—not to mention her extensive previous résumé—she has a finely-honed sense of the absurd. Still, even she’s a little surprised when she meets the king by chance…and falls in love.
She’s not half as astonished as he is. King or not, Lucien knows perfectly well he’s not the kind of man with whom women fall madly in love. But for that matter, it’s hardly sensible he’s the king, either: he’s a pianist, not a politician. His magic won’t even let him tell a lie. That’s awkward enough in international diplomacy, but very inconvenient when he’s head over heels for a woman he thinks he can’t have.
But nothing will stop Rosemary from finding out if this really is true love: not even the stubbornness of the king himself.
Even if that means she has to blackmail him. With the best of intentions, of course.
ATLANTIDE. A nation of North America extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, bordered by Canada and México. In prehistory, the land was populated by a variety of human cultures, who by the time of first European contact in the 16th century had been largely driven north or south by the Fée people (themselves immigrants, see Tudhedhan). The territory had no name as a whole until given the name “Atlantide” by an anonymous Frenchman, after the mythical island discussed in dialogues of Plato. The nation itself declared sovereignty in 1620 after fighting off French and British control under the leadership of King Alexandre Phyestaiou (qv)....
—from the Condensed Encyclopædia Atlantidica, 1982 ed.
Queen Kocha of Atlantide—rather boringly known as “The Great”—may well have been one of the lights of the eighteenth century, but she’d had terrible taste in furniture.
The Queen’s two overstuffed chairs hulked in the middle of the water-stained sitting room like floral rhinocerii. Rosemary could not tell whether the pattern on their upholstery was due to mold or bad taste, but she had the sinking suspicion it was the latter. Certainly, the walnut legs carved to look like Chinese dogs could not be blamed on anything else.
Usually, Rosemary would have winced and looked away. Not this time.
This time, it was her job, as one-half of Rosenblum & Meldhaury Interiors, to make the chairs look good.
She stared down at them with a frown. Her fingers drummed on her chin. Inside her sensible flat shoes, her toes wiggled like the ten little piggies gone wild. She found it hard to think without moving; and she needed to think right now.
Rosemary Rosenblum was a shapely woman with dark eyes that showed warmth and (usually) good humor. The cinnamon-colored pantsuit she was wearing accentuated both the olive complexion she had inherited from a Spanish grandmother and the brunette hair that fell just past her shoulders.
It had once been mentioned to her, by a very-shortly-to-be-ex boyfriend, that she could have been quite a beauty—if only she would give up fidgeting, grinning at inappropriate moments, and wearing unattractively comfortable shoes. In response, she had grinned, at what had surely been an inappropriate moment...
...from his point of view.
Abruptly, her fingers stopped drumming. She turned to look at Sasha Meldhaury, who was seated at the enormous mahogany table that was the only furniture in the room other than the chairs.
Sasha’s face, which had the angular features of a full-blooded Fée, was curled up in a scowl of concentration as she held out her sketchpad at arm’s length to glare at it. Then, as Rosemary watched, the face was hidden by a fringe of dishwater-blond hair when Sasha bent to attack the pad with an eraser once more. She was supposed to be sketching the sitting room’s three tall windows, but it seemed like she’d rubbed out more lines than she’d put down.
“In the future,” Rosemary said conversationally, “we’re going to refuse the nasty jobs with ‘sorry, we’re too busy.’”
Sasha peered back over her shoulder. “Chairs getting to you, are they?”
“They might like to—but that’s why I’m standing well away from them.”
Sasha gave one of her high whooping laughs.
“Now remember,” she said, mimicking the Palace Curator’s cultured drawl about three octaves too high: “It is an honor to even be in the same room as these chairs. It does not matter that their upholstery seems to have been replaced by floral-patterned fungus. Nor that they smell like month-old fish. No, what we must remember is that these very chairs were once personally acquainted by Her Majesty Kocha the Great’s satin-wrapped ass. In fact, some think her fourth son may have been conceived...”
Rosemary squawked with laughter.
“Not so loud! You’ll get us sacked.”
“Since we didn’t want the job in the first place,” Sasha said cheerfully, “I’d be doing us a favor. You ought to thank me.”
Rosemary sighed. When the request from the Palace had come in, they had thought they were being clever by quoting a price for the work that was too high for any sane person to accept. Then Curator Ramachandra Z. Hurem had called them—and they had realized their mistake.
“Well, maybe we didn’t want it, but now that we’ve got it, I’d rather not get thrown out on our ears in disgrace. If you don’t mind.”
Sasha shrugged. “Suit yourself. There’s no one around anyway.” Then, a puzzled crease appearing between her well-plucked eyebrows, she twisted all the way around to hook one tan elbow over the chair’s back. “Honestly, I’m not sure anyone comes up here at all. How else would no one notice that this room had turned into a lake for two months, right? And earlier, I had to wander around opening doors looking for the loo because I couldn’t find someone to tell me where it was.”
Rosemary had noticed how quiet the Palace was today. Even downstairs, which had been a madhouse of activity the first time they’d come in to meet Mr Hurem. Was something wrong...?
But something else occurred to her.
“Good Gods! You didn’t run across any state secrets, did you?”
Sasha threw her head back and laughed, a high I’ve-been-naughty-and-I-liked-it-laugh.
“You read too many cheesy novels.”
Rosemary would not argue with that. She did read a lot of cheesy novels. It was inevitable that they would tinge her worldview.
“Well, it’s just that if you’re going to be taken by the secret police, I’d like to have advance warning so I can flee the country. Does Palestine have an extradition treaty, do you know? Or maybe Mexico; my Spanish is not too bad.”
That was an overstatement, as Rosemary had learned Spanish working in a restaurant kitchen, so her vocabulary covered food, sex, invective and very little else. But she felt no need to enlighten Sasha about that and spoil a good joke.
“I can’t imagine how you think Atlantide could have a secret anything with as many magicians as we’ve got!” Sasha scolded. “But no, dear heart, have no fear. I saw nothing but a great many rooms in dire need of our services. Someone had a most unfortunate love of gory foxhunting scenes. The same bastard who upholstered the chairs, I bet. A pox on his house!”
“No cursing on the job, please. Our insurance doesn’t cover it.”
Sasha blinked at her with wide, innocent eyes. “No?”
“No,” said Rosemary firmly.
“It’s just, I make very good curses. I think you should know.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
When this was done with, she decided, she was going to reward herself by cutting the pages of the hardbound Northanger Abbey (in translation) her father had given her last year for Hanukkah. She had been saving it for just the right moment—and she could imagine no better moment than the end of a royally-sized debacle.
“I’m going to fetch the Heiser book out of the car. I think there might be a turquoise in there that would...” she gestured at the chairs “...reduce their proclivity for inducing nausea.”
Sasha cackled. “Don’t get lost on your way back.”
Forty-five minutes later, as Rosemary wandered the deserted corridors of the third floor, she wondered if Sasha hadn’t inadvertently jinxed her. The lower floors, while noticeably quieter than on their previous visits, were still full of people. She didn’t understand why the third floor was treated as if it didn’t exist.
She knew from her reading that it had been intended to serve as the royal residence; but even if it did once, she thought with conviction, it didn’t now. No one could possibly live in a place and leave it this devoid of life.
She stopped to lean against the wall and rub her feet. (They hurt at the slightest provocation, and they’d been amply provoked today.) She decided it was too horrible a thought to contemplate.
But then, she thought, moving on in a random direction, she was quite used to being awakened by Sasha and her beau-of-the-moment bumping around half-drunk in the living room at two a.m. Perhaps others wouldn’t be so bothered by this isolation.
All she knew was that she was starting to take an unhealthy amount of comfort from the presence of vacuum tracks on a few of the carpets—as the sole sign of recent human occupation.
The Palace had been commissioned by Queen Kocha—she of the chairs—who, perhaps inspired by Louis XIV’s ongoing little project, Versailles, had expanded her predecessor’s plans into something worthy of the word palace, a long city of a building in three stories. Perhaps the nicest thing that could be said about it, on the outside, was that it did not want for columns. After having evil dreams of grappling with gilded cupids, Rosemary had been deeply grateful to discover that the inside had been re-done over the years by Sadie Khaupech, the two Ruznes, and Coyote Morein in successively simpler taste.
But now she found herself wishing that the decor was a bit less simple. She turned a corner and found herself in a hall identical to all the others—plush-carpeted, well-lit, painted a relentlessly cheerful yellow. For a second, she stared down it, feeling a flush creep across her face.
Then she threw the paint sample book up in the air.
“Oh, DAMN IT!” she bellowed. “Who designed this deathtrap? If I die in here, I’m going to look him up in the afterlife and slap him and all of his progenitors, both genetic and—and—artistically formative!”
That was better. It had been too quiet.
She snatched the sample book up from the floor and stomped on, red-faced but feeling rather better.
Then she heard it. Faintly at first, and she held her breath to listen. It wasn’t her imagination: someone was listening to music. She went towards the sound. She wasn’t going to settle for directions; no, someone was going to show her the way. She smiled a small grim smile, having a delightful fantasy of adding a “wasted time fee” onto the bill.
The music was definitely coming from that room. She pressed her ear against the door and then pushed it open without knocking, readying a complaint—
—Which died on her lips when she saw who it was behind the piano.
Oh—Gods. What was he doing here? Wasn’t Parliament in session? Had he seen her? Well, he knew she was here. Should she go away? If she did go, should she apologize for her intrusion? Should she run as fast as possible and then move to Canada?
At that moment, the King of Atlantide shifted his hands over the keys and brought them down. And the thunderous chord grabbed her spine and rattled her ribs; and the music chased all thoughts from her head.
She’d known, as everyone knew, that he’d been a pianist before he’d become king. But it had never occurred to her that he might have been a great pianist.
She had thought, before, that no real people ever actually stood with their mouths hanging open. She was wrong. Rosemary, whose sole personal experience of music had been two agonizing years of clarinet in school, fifteen years ago, could not do anything but listen. She did not know how long she stood by the door, book of paint samples clutched forgotten in her hand.
Finally, the last note pealed and faded, and there was silence.
After a long moment, he lifted his head and looked at her for the first time. She stared at him, feeling as if she had just disembarked from a ship after a stormy passage. As far as she’d known, music was good only for dancing to, but was unimportant in itself. How could she have gone her entire life without knowing that music was this? Had it not been this before; or had she somehow failed to hear it?
“What was that?” she asked. She was embarrassed to discover that she could not speak above a whisper. “The music, I mean?”
“Rachmaninoff’s second sonata.” And it was that same deep voice that she’d heard on the radio, but it was quiet now, and touched with some emotion she could not identify. Was he upset that she’d come in? No, not that.
“It was—” she began, and then realized that she did not have any adjectives sufficient. “Very—ah—”
The edge of his mouth twisted upwards in a smile, but it was not the quick, easy smile that she had seen a hundred times in the news. “Yes,” he agreed. “Rachmaninoff is—very.”
He had made the joke at some expense, she knew suddenly and intimately. (Was that how it felt when you could See?) But once she knew it, it caused an ache in her throat. She had never really thought about him as her king—had had no reason to think about him. She paid no attention to politics. But now she knew that she had been proud of him ever since she had watched his swearing-in after Coyote Morein’s death, and it had been so obvious that he had wanted to say “No.”
He was her king, she thought; like her father, or her brother, or her lover. She swallowed.
“Is something the matter?” she said, and took one step towards him. He started to shake his head and say “N—”; and then he stopped, winced, and carefully closed the lid over the keys, and got up. Though she knew he was only a few years older than she was, the lines around his eyes made him look older. “I was trying to write a eulogy.”
“Oh—” Rosemary said. “Oh. I see. I’m so sorry.”
She had glanced briefly at this morning’s newspaper while crumpling it to be used as packing for a client’s antiques, and she now remembered the headline that had meant very little to her at the time: Local MP Helena Lefeber dies of heart attack, age 56. Rosemary thought she had voted for her.
“You should just play that,” she said.
He put his hands in his pockets, took them out again, turned his head, and gave every appearance of being a man who did not want to make a response: or one, she realized, who has to tell the truth, and can’t find it.
When it had been announced that he would succeed Coyote Morein, the press had speculated several forests’ worth of editorials as to whether the Leyadherch had been able to take his magician’s adversity into account in choosing him to be king: involuntary honesty and diplomatic service being (they agreed on this point at least) a hell of an awkward combination.
Eventually he said, “She preferred Debussy.”
Rosemary exhaled thoughtfully. This was a complicated answer, and although she had always chosen to be a happy person rather than a complicated one, she was fascinated by the idea that people had the choice.
Or not, perhaps....
The king rubbed his hand over his face. “Were you looking for me?”
With a shock, she realized that he thought she was Someone Important. She reddened.
“No. I was lost, and I heard.... I was looking for someone who could show me where the West Large Sitting Room is.”
“Ahh. So you must be the decorator.”
Now he came all the way out from behind the piano and stood before her, just two paces away. He stood and moved with the easy, relaxed grace of someone who had an innate sense of their own solidarity, and so did not have to pay attention to avoid knocking into things. He was the same person she’d seen in a hundred broadcasts: a slender man in a well-made black suit, just over average height, with regular features made not-handsome by the exceptionally long straight nose that was the fodder of caricaturists worldwide. He had the same black hair that stuck up in wild disarray like iron filings teased with a magnet; he had the same mellow voice and large mobile hands. But there was something about actually standing before the man and having him look at her, carefully, and finding out that his eyes were grey, that pleased Rosemary beyond all reason. She stopped blushing.
He bowed to her, smiling slightly, as if someone had told a joke at his expense. “Lucien Benedict.”
Of course, she thought in sudden sympathy. How ridiculous would it be to introduce yourself to someone who’s read about your private life in the paper?
“Whom do I have the honor of...?”
“I’m Rosemary Rosenblum, of Rosenblum and Meldhaury Interiors.” On an impulse, she met his slight smile with one of her own, and added, “Enchanted—Mr Benedict,” as she offered her hand.
Now he truly smiled: not at himself in dark amusement, but at her, in pleasure, because she had seen his humor and shared in it. Caught in his smile, she felt, but did not see, his fingers wrap around hers to shake her hand. She felt warmth seep from his hand down her arm, into her chest, to her stomach, and slowly through her limbs. For the second time in half an hour her world rattled and flipped. This time, however, she was fast enough to grab hold—just.
She released his hand.
“If you’d be so kind as to point me in the right direction, Your Majesty?” Rosemary forced herself to speak blandly. She made a gesture towards the door.
“Oh. Of course. No, I’ll show you. I’m not good at directions.”
A sharp worry suddenly cut through her strange sensation of floating. “You don’t live up here, do you? It’s so empty!” He shook his head and she was appeased. “Good, I’m glad,” she said decisively. “You would get so lonely. And it’s such a labyrinth—I was beginning to feel like a Minoan maiden.”
He had been in the middle of opening the door; but when she spoke, he turned and looked at her in what she thought was surprise. Then his face relaxed and he grinned, which made him look younger. He leaned towards her to offer her his arm. “Well,” he said, “I am fairly sure that I am not a Minotaur, if you’re willing to take the chance—” and she smiled as she took his arm, feeling, on having her fingertips rest against the wool of his sleeve, and the warmth underneath it, a happiness too great and too simple to be thought about. He flicked off the light when they left the room, and she was irrationally proud of her good taste in falling in love with a king who thought about saving electricity.