The Man Behind the Mask
For me, it was love at first sight.
Okay, okay. Nobody believes in love at first sight anymore. It’s like disco. Or the dickey. Went out decades ago, isn’t coming back, no matter how many brave fools try to resurrect it.
And, you may ask, how would I, Dulcinea Samples, a semi dewy-eyed young thing of twenty-four, even know about a dickey?
My mom used to wear them. She’s wearing one, in fact, in the family portrait that sits on our mantel back home in Bakersfield. The outline of it is just visible beneath her v-neck sweater.
My mom’s a true romantic. She’s always claimed she fell in love with Dad at first sight.
As I said, like the dickey. People don’t do that anymore.
But my mom did. And there’s more. Witness my name. How many people get named after the purer-than-pure alter ego of the barmaid whore heroine in Man of La Mancha? With a last name like Samples? Hel-lo?
Just call me Dulcie. Please.
And back to my mom. Yeah. Romantic. Capital R. And I know some of it rubbed off on me, though I swear I always tried my best to keep my romantic impulses strictly under control. They’re about as useful as a dickey if you’re a single girl living in East Hollywood. Not to mention, a lot more dangerous. Get too romantic in East Hollywood—really, in any part of L.A.—and there’s no telling what could happen to you. Did you see Mulholland Drive? Enough said.
And maybe that was part of it—why I fell in love with this certain guy at first sight. Because that first sight didn’t happen in L.A., where I understood the hazards and would have had my guard up. Not in L.A. but in a ballroom in a palace in a tiny island country called Gullandria.
He was a prince—did I mention that?
And not just as in “a prince of a guy.” No. I mean a real, bona fide, son-of-a-king type of prince. A Gullandrian prince. That’s right, Gullandria. Remember? That island country I mentioned?
Gullandria is a story in itself. Picture the Shetland Islands. Get an image of Norway. And then, midway between the two, a little to the north, put a heart-shaped island maybe a hundred and fifty miles across at the widest part—you know, ventricle to ventricle? Lots of dramatic, jewel-blue fjords. Mountains to the north and rolling lowlands in the south. A capital city named Lysgard. “Lys” means light. And the king’s palace, which stands on a hilltop just outside the capital? Isenhalla; Ice-hall. Oh, I love that.
Now, the deal about Gullandria is the people there never completely gave up their Norse heritage. That would be Norse as in Vikings. Dragon-prowed longships; Odin and Thor and the gang? You’re following, I hope.
Because I truly am getting to the part about the prince and me.
On the evening in question, there I stood in the aforementioned ballroom. I was wearing one of the two dresses I owned that was even marginally suited to such a strictly white-tie event—a midnight blue strapless ankle-length A-line Jessica McClintock, a dress I bought in a moment of wild spending abandon. At Nordstrom. Yes, on sale. After-Christmas, if you just have to know. At the time of the purchase, I felt positively giddy about wasting money I didn’t really have, a giddiness compounded by a burning awareness of my own foolishness. I knew I’d never find a place to actually wear such a dress, proms and senior balls and the like being pretty much a thing of the past for me by then.
But see? Wild spending abandon and utter foolishness are good things—now and then. You might get invited to a palace ball in some fascinating northern island state. I did.
So you understand. The dress was fine. It showed off my best features: breasts. And skimmed forgivingly over my worst: a not-concave stomach and hips I liked to think of as generous on days when I wasn’t consumed with body-image issues. I’d been in Gullandria since the day before when the royal jet flew me in from L.A. Picture it. Just the pilot, a flight attendant and me, the passenger-of-honor, on my way to attend the wedding of my best friend, Brit Thorson.
That night I stood a little off to the side in my pretty blue Jessica McClintock, heart beating too fast with nerves and excitement, hoping I wouldn’t end up doing something really gauche that would remind everyone of the basic truth that I was, after all, a bright but ordinary girl from Bakersfield who dreamt of someday actually selling one of the novels she’d written; a girl who, until the day before, had never set foot in a royal palace in her life.
I’d had an escort when the evening started, a dapper prince who appeared at the door to my room and brought me to the ballroom. I’d lost track of him early on.
That was okay with me. It wasn’t like I even knew the guy. And I wasn’t left dangling. Brit kept dropping by to check on me, to whisper funny comments in my ear on the whole Norse-based culture thing—Gullandrians, remember, were Vikings at heart—and to introduce me to a stunning array of friends and relatives whose names I forgot as soon as they were told to me.
Brit was not your average best friend. For starters, she was a princess. A princess born in Gullandria, one of three fraternal-triplet princesses. When Brit was still a baby, her mom the queen, left her dad the king, and took the girls to Sacramento, where they grew up blond and beautiful and rich—and about as American as anybody can get.
And beyond the princess angle, Brit was not a person you messed with. She had a high pain threshold and a scary kind of fearlessness. Once, two years before the night in the ballroom, I watched her go after a guy who’d displayed the bad judgment to try and stick up a coffee shop while Brit and I were standing at the register, waiting to pay after a little serious pigging out on chili dogs and fries. The guy ordered us—and everyone else in the place—to hit the floor. We all did as we were told. Except for Brit. She dived for the guy’s knees. Took him down, too—though he put a couple of rounds in the ceiling before the cooks lurched to life and gave her a hand.
As I said, fearless. A fearless tall, blond California-girl princess. And my best friend in the world.
About the fifth time she came by, she edged good and close and murmured in my ear, “Note the redhead.” I noted. Drop-dead gorgeous, in petal pink satin—which I would never dare to wear—the redhead whirled by in the arms of some prince or other.
We were up to the ears in princes at that palace. From what I understood, every male noble, or jarl as they called themselves, was a prince. And they were all eligible to someday become king.
But I wasn’t really thinking about the rules of Gullandrian succession at that moment. Right then, I was wondering why I couldn’t be that kind of redhead—the kind like the woman waltzing past Brit and me. The sleek kind, you know? The kind with a waterfall of red silk for hair, with porcelain skin, a cameo-perfect face and a Halle Berry body.
“The Lady Kaarin Karlsmon,” Brit whispered, as I reminded myself to get a grip and be at peace with being me. “So very well-bred. And nice, I guess—in her own oh-so-aristocratic way. Always laughs at the right places. But just a little too cagey, if you know what I mean.”
I gave my friend a look. “So and?” Grinning, blue eyes agleam, Brit wiggled her eyebrows. I leaned a little closer. “Tell.”
“Tell what?” asked a male voice behind us.
It was Prince Eric Greyfell, Brit’s fiancé. He wrapped his arms loosely around his bride-to-be and nuzzled her hair.
Brit leaned into his embrace with a happy sigh, the black chiffon overlay of her gown—Vera Wang, no doubt about it—shimmering against the matte black of his tux. “Just girl talk.” She turned her head and whispered to him, only a few words. Something that would have been meaningless to me, I’d bet. Something intimate.
I looked at the silver disc that hung from a heavy chain around her neck. It was an intricate design, like a thousand coiling snakes. Fascinating.
But even more interesting to me was the red burst of angry-looking scar tissue about six inches from it, at the soft, incurving spot where Brit’s left shoulder met her torso. The fresh scar kept peeking out from beneath the halter top of her fabulous dress. I wondered, as I’d been wondering since I first spotted it, where it had come from.
Some stick-up guy who’d shot my friend instead of the ceiling? I was keeping myself from asking her about it. I wanted details—hey, I’m a writer. I always want details—and I knew I wouldn’t get them that night. Brit was in serious mingle mode, dropping by, flitting off. You can bet I planned to pry the whole story out of her if we ever got a little time to ourselves. I had a lot of questions to ask her once I got her alone. It had been six months or so since she’d left L.A. We had some catching up to do.
Eric spared a glance for me. “Dulcie, forgive my intrusion.”
I smiled. “Nothing to forgive.” What can I say about Eric? It’s all good. Tall and lean and…intense. Brown hair, grayish green eyes in which you could see compassion and considerable intelligence. This was the second time I’d met him, the first being the day before, when Brit introduced us. I knew right away that he was like Brit. Not to be messed with. But so honorable it made you want to hug him.
Brit eased herself around so she could face him. She gazed up at him and he looked back at her and—whoa. Call it heat, call it lust, call it passion…call it love.
I want that, I thought. I want what they have ...
Little did I know.
Eric looked at me again. “May I steal her away?”
I had to stifle a dizzy giggle. It made me feel giddy as buying my blue Jessica McClintock, just to be around all that love and passion. “I’d say you already have.”
“Don’t imagine it was an easy task.” He was faking a frown.
“Oh, I don’t. Not for a second.” I laughed then. And Eric and I shared a moment of perfect understanding. We both knew Brit.
Brit gave my arm a squeeze. “I’ll be back.”
I grinned and nodded and off they went. I stared after them for a moment or two, no doubt looking wide-eyed and dreamy. Then I caught myself and jerked my gaze up—way up—toward the arching vaulted ceiling. When in doubt, especially at Isenhalla where there’s no shortage of awesome things to look at, study the architecture.
The grand ballroom had plenty for a girl from Bakersfield to ogle. For instance: a musician’s balcony about thirty feet up, extending the length of the wall opposite the one where I stood. There was an entire orchestra up there, I swear. The sound of their music was achingly beautiful, big enough to fill every last apse of that ballroom, big enough to swell and soar between the thick stone columns that marched along the sides of the room, and farther, into the shadowed spaces on the other side of those columns, and even farther than that—through the arching oak doors, out to the gallery, on past the high leaded windows and into the icy early-December darkness beyond.
Overhead, massive iron chandeliers, blazing bright, hung from thick black chains. On the side walls trefoil stained glass windows glittered, four-panel lancet windows below, also of stained glass. On one side, the windows held out the night. On the other, they stood between the ballroom and the gallery.
At my end of the rectangular room: a two story-high fireplace. I swear to you, that fireplace was big enough to roast a couple of reindeer and a wild boar or two and still have plenty of room to spare. The fireplace led the eye up again, to arch upon arch, all very Gothic-looking, only somehow more opulent. The sheer complexity of it could make you dizzy.
I stared up at all those interlocking arches until my neck got a slight crick in it. About then, it occurred to me that I’d lurked near that giant fireplace for too long, alternately gazing at the ceiling and into the fire where three whole tree trunks burned. Not that anyone was looking at me, or would even have cared if they were. But still. I had my pride and a firm determination not to sink too deeply into wallflower mode.
I began working my way to the other end of the ballroom, smiling brightly at faces I’d never seen before—and a few I’d been introduced to but whose names were already lost somewhere in the unattended recesses of my mind. As a rule, I’m pretty good with names. But not that night. I guess I was kind of on overload. Mountains of new data coming my way, no time to process.
Eventually I reached the other end of the room and just kept going, beneath the balcony on which the full-size orchestra was now playing something very Strauss. I finally came to a stop about four feet from a wall on which hung a huge, obviously antique tapestry. And I am not kidding when I say huge. The gorgeous thing started just below the balcony above and ended about a foot from the inlaid hardwood floor. It stretched a good ten feet in either direction. I stepped back a little and tried to take it all in.
And I know what you’re thinking. There I was, a guest at the ball, surrounded by handsome Nordic types with “prince” in their names, and I was studying the ceiling and gaping at a rug.
What can I say? It’s how I am. Two summers before, Brit and I had done Route 66—you know the song right? We did it backwards. From San Bernardino all the way to St. Louis. We stopped in a lot of small towns, each complete with its own trés atmospheric seedy bar. Brit would be hanging out with the locals in the main room, doing shots, and getting hit on. And me? I’m in the back, copying the graffiti off the ladies room walls. You’d be amazed the bits of life-wisdom and philosophy, the stories of love and loss, you can find on the walls of a toilet stall, stuff I knew I’d use later, in some book or other.
Also, in my defense that night in the ballroom, let me say that you would have to see the rug. We are talking intricate. At first glance, it seemed just swirls of muted color. And then there was that moment when it all spun into focus and I saw that it was a huge, gnarled tree with roots running everywhere and some kind of serpent-creature wrapped through those roots, defining the center of a series of circles, one on top of the other. In the branches perched an eagle, with some other smaller bird woven inside the eagle’s head. There were elves, dwarves, men or maybe gods armed with shields and swords, a dragon, deer—four bucks, with huge racks—women in long gowns with twining golden hair, crone-like figures leering with what I felt certain must be evil intent. I saw a squirrel that seemed to zip along the curve of a root and fountains that shimmered, as if truly wet…
I found it enchanting and wondrous and I shamelessly stared.
Someone behind my left shoulder said, “That tapestry is to represent Yggdrasil, what we call the world tree, or the guardian tree.” The voice was male—low and with a ring of authority, yet faintly thready, as with age.
I turned to find a gaunt old man with long silver hair and a wispy beard to match. He had one of those faces that are all sharp bone and shadow, as if his flesh had melted away over the years, leaving the vulnerable shape of his skull revealed beneath the papery skin. His silver-gray eyes were sunken way down in their sockets. And they seemed, somehow, to glow there in the pools of darkness surrounding them. Eerie.
But not scary. He looked otherworldly and infinitely wise. As if he could not only read your mind but also accept absolutely anything he found in there, no matter how evil or petty or banal. He also looked vaguely familiar, though I was certain I would have remembered if I’d met him before.
“Yggdrasil,” I repeated, enchanted. The ygg was pronounced ig—short i—and the rest of the vowels were short as well, the same as the way you would say, Clearasil, with ig substituted for the first syllable. “I’ve never heard it pronounced before.”
“The world tree—some sources say an ash tree, some a yew—links and shelters the nine worlds of Norse cosmology,” the old man intoned. He gestured with a graceful, skeletal hand. “Within the roots, you see the three levels of the worlds.” He looked at me again, one grizzled brow lifting. “Ah, but you know this, do you not?”
“I have a…general understanding, I guess you could say.” Back when I wrote my epic fantasy—no snickering, please. Every budding writer should try her hand at epic fantasy—I did a little studying up on the major myth-systems. Including the Norse one.
The old man chuckled then, a dry but friendly sound. “A general understanding is quite enough, for a pretty young American. May I call you Dulcinea? It is a name as sweet as its meaning, a name that suits you well.”
Anyone else would have gotten an automatic Please don’t. I really do prefer Dulcie. But somehow, Dulcinea sounded just right when this magical old guy said it. Plus, he’d said I was sweet to match my name. From him, that sounded like high praise. “Thank you. Dulcinea is fine. And you’re…?”
“Prince Medwyn Greyfell.”
The metaphorical light-bulb went on over my head. No wonder he knew who I was. “You’re Eric’s father.”
“And there you have it.” He gave me a small smile. Brit had mentioned him more than once. Besides being Eric’s father, Prince Medwyn was also the second most powerful man in Gullandria, the king’s top advisor, the one they called the grand counselor.
Prince Medwyn held out that pale, veined hand. I gave him mine. He brought my hand close and brushed his thin, dry lips—so lightly, the whisper of dragon-fly wings—against my knuckles.
I realized I adored him. Who wouldn’t? “Tell me more.”
“Oh, anything. The Norse myths. Who wove this tapestry and how old it is…”
“In 1640, it was presented as a gift from the King of Bohemia to King Velief Danelaw, in appreciation of Gullandria’s support in convincing the Swedes to withdraw from Bohemian soil. The creator, more likely than not a woman, as women are the weavers in our lands, is not known.”
I turned to the tapestry again. “Artist unknown…” A heated flush crept up my cheeks. “I hate that. Someone labored for months, or even years, creating something so beautiful. And in the end, who remembers her name?”
“Alas, Dulcinea. You do speak true.”
“It’s as if the artist never even existed. It’s just not…” Turning, I saw that the place where the old man had stood was empty. I blinked and glanced around. Nothing. He was gone.
It was pretty bizarre, how fast he’d vanished. And right in the middle of my sentence, too. Yet strangely, I felt neither dissed nor deserted. There was something about him. You just knew the everyday rules of conduct didn’t apply in his case. Like he was above them, or beyond them….
With a sigh, I turned to the tapestry again. By then, I’d forgotten all about my firm intention to avoid acting the wallflower. I was thinking of Medwyn, getting that hungry feeling I get when I meet someone interesting, hoping I’d see him again, planning to have a list of questions ready next time.
When I went back home to L.A., I wanted to have loads of Gullandrian background material. I tried to do that wherever I went, to take lots of notes, to get my questions about the place answered and to keep a computer journal of my impressions. I planned to write a lot of books in my life. Every location was a potential setting for a novel. Up till then, the farthest I’d been from California was a trip to New York City, in the spring, right after 911. I’d seen ground zero, walked down Park Avenue, visited SoHo and the Village. I’d come home deeply moved, full to bursting with ideas and possibilities. I hadn’t written my New York novel yet. Give me time. Same thing with Gullandria. I would take it all in, and take notes, as well. And someday…
“Dulce?” It was Brit, jerking me out of my authorly delusions of grandeur and back to the here and now. I was still facing the tapestry and away from her, but from the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a black tux: a man, standing beside her. More cheerful greetings, another name for me to instantly forget….
I turned with a big, hello-and-nice-to-meet-you smile.
And there he was.
What can I tell you? That the world stopped? That the stars went supernova?
It was nothing like that.
It was everything like that.
“My brother, Prince Valbrand.” Brit’s voice seemed to come from somewhere down at the other end of a very long tunnel. She was so far away, she almost wasn’t there. Not to me.
The music, the glittering lights, the rise and fall of laughter and conversation around us…everything was overshadowed. Eclipsed.
He filled up the world. He had dark brown hair and eyes to match. A tender mouth—half of one, anyway. He was tall. Lean. Too lean, really, but with strong, wide shoulders.
And all that is…only fact. The full reality was so much grander, so much more complete. He was the handsomest man I’d ever seen—and the most terrifying.
How can I tell you?
How can I make you see?
Half of his face appeared to have melted. Remember that old Mel Gibson movie, The Man Without a Face? That was Valbrand. It happened, I’d been told, in an accident at sea that almost killed him. An accident that included second and third-degree burns from temple to jaw on the left side—burns never treated, that healed on their own.
Brit had prepared me, or at least she’d tried to. We’d had a few minutes alone the day before and she’d told me of his injuries, so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself, gaping like an idiot the first time I saw him, so that I wouldn’t pile any more hurt on all that had already been done to him.
So much for Brit’s thoughtful preparations. I saw him and the world spun away and I flat-out gaped. Rudely. Blatantly.
There was a sudden, welling pressure at the back of my throat. I was so busy staring, I didn’t make myself swallow the emotion down. My eyes brimmed and two fat tears escaped. They slid over the dam of my lower lids and trailed down my cheeks.
They felt hot. Scalding. Should I have swiped them away? Probably. Tried to hide them? I suppose.
But I didn’t. I only tipped my face to him, higher, as if to display both my face—and those tears.
Somewhere, in some part of me, I realized that Brit had to be thinking she couldn’t take me anywhere.
But it wasn’t something I could control. It was love like a thunderbolt. And it was my heart breaking.
For what I saw in his lightless eyes.
What he was once. What he had become.
For all that was lost.
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