The heat was stifling, but at least the apartment had a nice cross-breeze.
Sarah had shrugged off the warnings about Tuscan summers when she’d rented an apartment without an air conditioner, but there were times when she wondered if that might have been hasty. The view, though—an endless expanse of green fields and the faint glimmer of the ocean in the distance—made up for it.
She had just finished smashing up some ice cubes to mix with fresh raspberries and a glass of club soda when she heard a knock at the door. Wrapping her stained fingers in a towel, she answered it to find the building’s manager standing outside with a basket.
“Ah, Saarah, buona serata,” the short, graying figure in front of her said, his face as usual lit up in a red-faced smile. “Lovely sunset, no?”
“Si, Signior Nunzio, it is.”
“Saarah, Saarah, call me nonno, everybody does, I tell you.” He did his best to look stern.
Sarah laughed. “Okay, nonno.” She glanced at the basket. “Cosa c'è nel…basket?”
He held it out to her and lifted the cloth cover to reveal a round loaf of focaccia. “My wife, she make this. Too much for us. For you.”
Sarah didn’t take the bread, even though the aroma was intoxicating. “Really, nonno, you can’t keep giving me food like this, I can’t eat it all on my own.”
He pushed the basket into her hands. “And what will I tell my wife, I bring this back? She is insulted, no? No, you must take.”
Sarah resisted one more time, fairly familiar with the ritual at this point. “Per favore, your wife shouldn’t be going to all this trouble—“
“Trouble? Is no trouble, she love cooking!” He took the focaccia out of the basket, wrapped it in the cloth cover, and firmly pressed it into her hands. “No more argue, you eat.”
Sarah smiled and gave a little nod of her head to show defeat. “Grazie.”
“And how is the novella?”
“Not bad. I got a lot done today, it’s about half finished now.”
“Magnifico! This countryside, is good for creative spirit, no?”
Sarah nodded and gently moved to shut the door, knowing that Mr. Nunzio could keep her occupied with conversation for a good half hour if she allowed him. At least he’d heeded her gentle requests not to knock between ten a.m. and five p.m. “I’d better get back to work, actually. Thank you for the focaccia.”
“Eat all, you need strength. All you American girls, too skinny.”
Sarah gave a small wave as she closed the door. “Will do, nonno. Lo prometto.”
She tore off a hunk of the focaccia and popped it into her mouth, closing her eyes as fresh olive oil and salt hit her tongue. She’d tried to explain to Mr. Nunzio about carbs, but he didn’t seem to care, and after two weeks in Tuscany she didn’t really care either.
The ice cubes on her cutting board had started to melt, so she quickly finished hammering them into smaller pieces, chopped up some of the raspberries, and poured everything into the glass of club soda before returning to her desk by the window. If she were at home she imagined she’d feel guilty about eating a whole loaf of bread right before dinner, but this vacation had a way of banishing guilt.
It had also been a long time since she’d felt so content. The sadness was still there, a cool little stone in the corner of her mind, but it didn’t chill her as powerfully as it once had.
A breezed rustled her hair slightly, and with it came now-familiar sounds from down below—people returning home from work, neighbors greeting each other with kisses in the street. Anghiari was picturesque, but it was enough off the tourist track that it wasn’t inundated daily by buses or hikers.
She had finished half the focaccia, drained half her glass, and started on a new paragraph when there was another knock at the door. Sarah rolled her eyes, wondering if she could simply ignore it—Mr. Nunzio was overly chatty, but usually good about letting her work when she needed to. Which made her pause—if he was knocking again, maybe something was wrong.
She got up, focaccia in hand (perhaps to prove to him that she was definitely eating it and had no intention of insulting his wife’s cooking), and opened the door…
…to find the Goblin King standing in front of her.
Later Sarah would wonder how she must have looked to him in that moment—slightly sweaty, her shoulder-length hair pulled back from her face with a kerchief, a loaf of bread in her hand (and probably crumbs on her lips). Black tank top, cutoff jean shorts, purple Havaianas.
He, of course, looked as though the weather hadn’t touched him, in an ensemble of leather, metal, and silk that would surely have been sweltering for anyone else. His hair was similarly unfazed by the heat or the humidity.
He smiled at her as if his presence on her doorstep were every bit as ordinary as Mr. Nunzio coming to deliver a loaf of bread and gave a little bow. “Sarah. It truly has been—“
She shut the door in his face and locked it.
Her heart was pounding. In the ten years since that night she’d mostly convinced herself that she’d dreamed it all, even if her own occasional dreams of that time felt alarmingly realistic. But now her old nemesis was standing outside her door.
Maybe the heat’s getting to me. Maybe no one actually knocked at the door, and I didn’t see what I think I saw.
She turned back toward her desk and screamed.
The Goblin King was sitting on her windowsill and doing a very good job of making it look like a throne.
She pointed a finger at him. “How—what are y-you—“
“If you’re going to be so rude as to shut a door in my face, Sarah, I see no reason to stand on ceremony and wait to be invited in.”
Sarah shook her head as if trying to clear her mind. “But how can you—I didn’t invite you in here!”
He chuckled. “No, you didn’t. But given that I am not a vampire, that matters little.” He examined one of the metal studs on his jacket. “That doesn’t work for vampires, either, for future reference. Should you one day find yourself dealing with one.”
Sarah sighed, realized she was still holding the focaccia, and set it on her kitchen counter. “Why are you here, for God’s sake?”
He spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to take in both the apartment and the view. “Who wouldn't want to be here, Sarah?”
“For the love of—I will straight up murder you if you answer questions with questions, I lost patience with those sorts of games a long time ago.”
The king smirked and crossed his arms. “Intriguing. You were never very patient to begin with, as I recall.”
“Will you please just answer the damn question?”
He sighed. “Surely you spent enough time with my goblins to understand why one might need a vacation from such creatures every decade or so.”
Sarah folded her arms and then let them fall to her sides again when she realized she was imitating his body language. “Again, doesn’t explain why you’re here, in this apartment, with me, when you could have gone anywhere in Italy. Or, you know, to a different country.”
The smirk returned. “Am I to believe that you never thought of me once in all these years?”
Her mind flashed to a few rather vivid dreams from her late teenage years, and a particular one from college that had been quite…specific. She gritted her teeth to fight the rising blush in her cheeks.
“Nope,” she said, the word coming out much more high-pitched than she would have liked. “Can’t say that I did.”
He crossed the small room to her with unearthly grace and speed, and she felt for the first time in ten years that overwhelming sense of powerlessness mixed with a kind of anticipation, a feeling that sent tingles to all of her extremities. Even if he didn’t physically tower over her the way he used to, the sheer power of his presence was still there.
“You intrigued me, then,” he said, his voice a strange mix of sensual and flippant. “I was curious to see what you had become.”
“Well, you’ve seen me. Mission accomplished.”
His eyes traveled over her very, very carefully. “Hardly.”
Sarah threw up her hands. “Not that I’d expect you to understand, being so much wiser and more powerful than us puny mortals, but…I am actually starting to feel good again, after a long time of not feeling good.” She clenched her hands into fists at her sides. “And I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t fuck that up.”
He looked genuinely sad. Not that she trusted her perception where he was concerned. “You truly wish for me to leave?”
She nodded, ignoring that tiny ember of curiosity that had sparked in the back of her mind. “Yeah. Do I have to, like, wish you away? Or can you just walk out the door, or, I dunno, fly out the window.”
He smirked, though it seemed tinged with a very slight hurt now. “No, you needn’t wish for anything. I’ll be on my way—“
“Good, thank y—“
“—for a price.”
She resisted the urge to throw the half-eaten focaccia loaf at him. “Ohhh no. I did not spend four years studying folklore and classical mythology to be so stupid as to trade favors with a Goblin King.”
“I haven’t even told you my price.”
“I can guarantee it’ll be too high.”
He smiled. “One kiss.”
She blinked. “One…what?”
“I believe you understood me.”
Sarah shook her head. “Aren’t there, like, immortal fairy women lining up to kiss your boots back where you come from?”
“There may well be.” His piercing gaze made eye contact hard to maintain. “But I want a kiss from you.”
“And you really won’t get the hell out of here until I give it to you?”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine.” Sarah reached for his face and made to kiss him on the cheek.
“Oh, no, that won’t do at all.”
She pointed a finger at him. “See? There’s a catch, there’s always a goddamn—“
He gripped her outstretched finger and very slowly lowered it to her side, and she shivered at the strength in that small act. “If you want me to leave,” he said quietly, “you will kiss me as if it were the first and last kiss you will ever give. As if you were pouring all your dreams into me through my lips. As if,” and here he ran a gloved finger slowly over her palm, “you had been waiting for this kiss all your life, and it were finally here.”
Sarah felt dizzy. She absently wondered if the circular motion of his finger was hypnotizing her in some way.
“Not that I’m…completely inexperienced,” she said, her breath catching slightly, “but I’m not sure I can pour all of that into one kiss.”
His smile was positively feral. “I have complete faith in you.”
“And then you’ll go?”
He gave that little bow again. “On my word as a king.”
He was probably lying. She didn’t really believe all the stories about fair folk being unable to lie. But he might not be. It might work.
And she suddenly didn’t mind the price.
I’m a good kisser, she thought to herself as she slowly reached up to smooth a strand of hair away from his cheek and cup the left side of his face. And hey, I used to act. This won’t be that hard.
She kept her eyes open until the last possible moment and pulled him down toward her mouth, letting a whisper of breath tickle him before she pressed her lips against his. He was warm, so warm and inviting when she had imagined he’d be cold and unyielding, and that made it easy to pour everything he’d asked for into that kiss, all her want and unfulfilled desires and dreams, and even all of the pain that she’d felt over the past year.
In the end she wasn’t really sure it was acting.
He was the one who finally pulled away, and where she expected to see a smug look of victory she saw only surprise, and maybe even a bit of delight. His grin was infectious.
“My faith was not misplaced,” he said.
She swallowed hard. “Right then. Off you go.”
He bowed slightly lower this time. “I am a man of my word.”
He moved toward the door, and Sarah’s knees felt slightly wobbly. Dammit, one kiss and I’m a cliche.
But then she noticed that the chain on her deadbolt was rattling slightly. In front of her, the king reached out a hand to steady himself against the wall, something she felt fairly sure he’d never done before.
She gritted her teeth. “Dammit, are you magicking things?”
He turned, and she was surprised to see alarm on his face. “I assure you, this is not my—“
And then the faint rattling became a cacophony, and that very short briefing that Mr. Nunzio had given her when she moved in came back in sharp detail.
“Quake,” she whispered. And then louder, “Quake!”
The Goblin King stared at her as if she were speaking a foreign language. “Sarah, what are you—“
She grabbed his arm. “Under the table, now!”
She pulled him under the table and said a silent prayer of thanks that it was large enough to accommodate a small Italian family as they crouched beneath it. Around them the shaking continued. She shrieked as a small cup fell from a shelf and shattered on the floor. Outside she thought she could hear someone screaming.
The king still managed to look unruffled, though slightly less so. “And here I always believed the mortal world was mostly free of danger, at least compared to mine,” he shouted over the din.
Sarah gripped the table leg. It’s not stopping. Why is it not stopping? I don’t want to die here, I don’t want to die here…
She hadn’t realized that she’d said that last part out loud until the king grabbed her and pulled her close. “You’re not going to die, Sarah.”
Sarah was too shocked to pull away. “How the hell do you know that?” she shouted.
She felt a sudden tingling sensation that seemed to travel from where the tips of his fingers gripped her shoulders, all the way down her body to her toes. She shrieked as another cup fell from a shelf, bounced near the table…
…and then bounced away as if it had hit an invisible wall.
She reached out to touch the space that the cup had hit and the king grabbed her arm and pulled it back. “You don’t want to do that,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
She laughed. “Protecting me? Last time I saw you you sent a machine made of knives after me.”
“You needed me to be frightening back then. You don’t need that now.”
“Oh, I love it when men tell me what I n—“
“If you don’t mind, Sarah, I really need to concentrate for this to work.”
She shut her mouth and closed her eyes, willing the horrible shaking to stop, absently noticing the scent of leather and a sort of spice that seemed centered around the Goblin King’s chest. The tingling sensation faltered, and his grip seemed to tighten, his hands shaking slightly…
…and then the din subsided and the ground stopped shaking.
Sarah’s heart was beating wildly in her chest. Her tank top felt soaked with sweat. The king released her, and it took her a moment to scuttle away from him and out from under the table, which she then leaned on, her legs less than steady.
Half her dishes lay shattered on the floor, but other than that the apartment seemed to be undamaged. She went to the window and saw people rushing outside holding crying children, talking animatedly. At least no one looked severely injured. She pulled out her cell phone but couldn’t get any reception.
She went to the door and struggled for a moment to get it open, stepped outside, and shrieked.
The staircase was a shambles. There were two large holes in the steps, and looking upward she saw sky peeking through several other large holes in the ceiling. Walking down those stairs looked distinctly dangerous.
She should have expected that Mr. Nunzio would be first on the scene. “Nonno! Are you all right? Is everyone—“
“Saarah, non muoverti! No move! Is no safe!”
“Not safe? Is the apartment building going to fall down?”
“No, no.” Mr. Nunzio was sweating even more profusely than usual, his white hair disheveled and hanging in his face. “Appartamento is okay. Just this staircase—roof, pieces of roof from next door, they fell. Damage. Please stay, for now. I tell you when safe.”
She turned back to the apartment, relieved that the Goblin King had had the sense to stay out of sight. Though she was irked to see that he had returned to leaning against the window, seemingly unfazed by everything.
Sarah shut the door and brushed nonexistent dust off of her shirt. “Well then.”
“I’m alive. We’re alive.”
“My ability to survive was never in doubt.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine. Thanks for, whatever that invisible wall thing was that you did, you probably saved me a piece of broken glass in the eye.”
He bowed. “It was a trifle.”
She felt herself smiling and banished it quickly, clearing her throat. “I believe you were on your way out?”
The king put a hand to his heart. This time, she felt, his expression of pain was definitely fake. “Are you so eager to see me go?”
“I just had a near-death experience, I may not be able to leave this apartment for a while, and all I’ve got to eat is half a loaf of focaccia and half a bottle of wine, so yeah, I do not need you complicating things right now, if you please.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Complicating them how, exactly?”
Sarah gritted her teeth. “You gave your word.”
The king sighed. “So I did. Farewell, then, and I hope that gentleman downstairs finds a way to supply you with more food and drink.”
He raised his hands upward slowly and then gave them both a flick, rather like a cross between a magician and a dancer.
She saw a flicker of unease on his face, but he quickly dismissed it, closing his eyes and adopting a serene pose. His hands went up and he flicked them again.
She sighed. “What are you playing at now?”
He cleared his throat. “Believe me, Sarah, if I were playing at anything we would both be enjoying ourselves a great deal more.” He shook both of his hands. “This is…rare, but it does happen.”
Sarah felt uneasy. “What happens?”
The frustration on his face slowly changed to a mischievous smile. “Suffice it to say that I cannot remove myself from this place through magical means, and it would appear that neither of us can leave it through non-magical means.”
His grin was positively delighted as he strolled across the room and actually tapped her on the nose like a kitten. “Which means, precious, that for the time being, I’m not going anywhere.”
She stared open-mouthed as he reached over to the kitchen counter, tore off a hunk of focaccia, and popped it in his mouth. “Good thing we have bread.”