Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes truth.
Lying on the cold stone of a man-sized altar, Erik winced as he squinted his just opened eyes. Partly to protect them from the sudden brightness, but mostly to block out the smiling countenance of the Eternal Father that stared down at him from the center of a once-bright mural. He had always hated the image of the Lord of the Hosts and it had nothing to do with the blood-stained cloth tied around the god’s eyes. It was the smile, always depicted much too wide, as if the Eternal Father was laughing at him. Idly he wondered whether artists purposefully tried to make all images of the Eternal Father as disconcerting as possible. At least the mural kept him from thinking about how he could sense the Celestial Dragon lurking within his mind.
I suppose in the end there are only two choices: laugh at the absurdity or cry. He stopped fingering the hilt of the sword resting on his chest.
Taking a deep breath, Erik sat up and the sword tumbled to the floor. From the corner of his eye, he saw the blur of a female servant arranging flowers on top of a small wooden table. The woman froze, and their eyes met in a quarter second of a shared glance. Her pupils widened, and the muscles under her skin stretched and flexed. She moved as if trapped within a jar of molasses. A red vase slipped from her fingers, falling with an eternal slowness that seemed to defy logic.
There was an essential banality to the shape of the woman’s face that made her seem forgettable, just another one of the hundred liveried servants who worked within Hjörtur. Her odor assaulted him, adding an odd intimacy that went beyond sight and touch; he could taste the stain of her personal dirt on the tip of his tongue. She smelled like pollen and fornication.
The expansion of Erik’s lungs ceased and time lurched back into its normal rhythm. A shrill shriek echoed through the shrine—a hollowed out hole in the side of the Rin Mountains—and the falling vase crashed to the floor. Broken pieces scattered into every direction.
Before Erik could more than blink, the woman had dashed out of the room, leaving a person-sized hole in the piece of white paper that covered the opening of the shrine.
Confused, Erik hopped off of the altar. He felt. . . different. Minutes passed as he observed himself, touching his arms and chest through his blue robe held in place by the red sash tied around his waist. He could sense an aura of a horrible vitality trapped under his skin, composed of all the lives the Celestial Dragon had devoured. It made him feel. . . powerful.
He closed and opened his hands, ignoring the sound of heavy footsteps rushing towards his location. His mind grasped onto the strange sensation writhing and shifting beneath his flesh. Mouth opened in shock, he watched his skin unfold into red petals and tendrils that latched onto his robe. The intricate puzzle of flesh drew his silk garment inward, then settled back down. Now, even the leather sandals he had worn were gone.
At that moment four soldiers rushed into the shrine. Erik squinted at them. Early morning sunlight streamed through the door, glittering off of armor and the iron-tipped spears pointed in his direction. Not a murmur came from the soldiers. They stood frozen in a moment of incomprehensible terror as their eyes fought with their intellects, trying to make sense of such an impossibility.
With a start, Erik remembered his nakedness. He watched the eyes of the armored men drift downwards. A fleeting sensation of embarrassment touched him before breaking apart under an onslaught of pride. His blood roared with a sickening smugness. It was only natural for others to stand in awe and terror in his presence. Their fears bred a sense of arousal. A part of him began to grow—
“Turn around!” Erik barked.
Years of ingrained training asserted its self, and the soldiers obeyed, moving as one. For a moment the sound of rustled plate-and-mail armor filled the room with a metallic din. Then the armored men came to a stop with the butt of their spears slamming down onto the stone floor.
Erik shivered. Pride warred with embarrassment for dominance and embarrassment won, pinking his cheeks with mortification. He could feel the Celestial Dragon’s emotions bleed over, making him feel things he would rather not.
This body belongs to me, Erik raged at it. Do you understand?
The only reply came as a distant pang of hunger.
Erik jerked around, grunting at the Celestial Dragon’s response, to stare at the broken pieces of the red vase that littered the floor in an odd pattern. The beauty of their arrangement filled him with a sense of loss and longing. Sadness pooled in his eyes until he thought he might cry.
Startled, he gave his head a shake. I have to keep it together. I can’t let myself fall apart, not now. Not here.
He concentrated on his body and envisioned the blue robe he had worn, remembering the sensation of its soft silk against his flesh. A moment later his body itched and burned like ten thousand ants poked and prodded him from within. Surprised, he watched the impossible happen. His skin oozed, changing slowly until it had transformed into the robe.
Erik’s heart roared at the strangeness of it all. The silk garment looked no different, yet it yielded strangely to his touch, almost like it had become a part of his body. Was that because it was? Or because he could not remember how real silk should feel? Hastily, he spun back towards the door at the sound of rushing feet.
Viscount Baldur, a solid, gray-haired man, pushed past the soldiers into the shrine. At sixty-five years old, he still looked as lethal and dangerous as any man in his prime. Dressed in a green robe that did little to hide his bulging muscles, he held himself with a grace one would expect from someone given command over Hjörtur.
Behind a mask of apathy, Erik gazed at the Viscount’s shocked face. According to the information, he had received before setting out for Hjörtur, Baldur had a perverse fascination with little boys. Erik had witnessed nothing that gave weight to the rumors. But that along with the fact that Baldur had supported one of Erik’s uncles for the throne had led to him being stationed kilometers away from civilization. The struggle for the throne was always a brutal and bloody, leaving many suffering from its after-effects long after the succession ended.
“How?” Baldur asked. His hand drifted towards the sword at his waist. “You were dead. I’m sure of it.” A hard edge had crept into his voice.
Erik took a slow breath. This was a dangerous moment. If handled wrong, it would spell disaster. The four warring nations of the island of Daði were all united in their fear of the unknown. And the rank of Viscount signified that a Cultivator could channel any two of the Four Aspects of the Abyss at the same time, which made Baldur much stronger than him.
“What are members of my family called?” Erik asked. He understood that answering a question with a question was a good way of disrupting the flow of someone else’s thoughts.
Baldur shoulders sagged as he stared at Erik quizzically.
Perfect, Erik thought. He turned his back to the Viscount and picked up his sword. From his mother, Erik had learned renunciation of excess and acceptance of personal sacrifice. Yet from his father, he had learned strategy and the act of subjugating others to his will.
Erik pulled the blade an inch out of its sheath and studied its razor-sharp edge. “The moniker given to the Royal House of Ito, name it,” he said, trying again.
“The Undying,” Baldur replied in a cold voice. He frowned, seemingly perplexed by Erik’s line of questioning.
“Louder!” Erik slammed his sword back into its sheath. This was not about Baldur. Erik needed the soldiers to hear so they could share the knowledge with their comrades in arms. From them, the story would spread like poison dropped into a well, tainting the whole of the citadel with misinformation.
Baldur’s lips thinned and his eyes shimmered with a dangerous light. “The Royal House of Ito is known as the Undying,” he said, not a decibel louder.
“Has my father been informed about what happened?” Erik asked quickly, not giving Baldur a chance to pick at the seeds that had just been planted.
“No,” Baldur said. “I was just penning a letter to him when—”
“Good,” Erik said, masking the shaking of his hand behind the act of securing his sword on his sash. “The other members of my hunting party. . . w—are there any other survivors?”
Baldur lowered his eyes. “I’m afraid you’re the only one.”
Erik bowed his head to hide the relief that flashed across his face. He grieved for those who lost their lives, but what they had seen would be impossible to explain away. Self-preservation always won out in the end.
The alien consciousness inside him rippled with amusement.
Erik straightened with an almost lugubrious solemnity and murmured, “I didn’t know them all well, but they were good fellows. May the Eternal Father ease their journey along the Great Cycle.”
“Well said, my prince,” Baldur nodded in approval. “Can you tell me what happened in the forest?”
Erik blinked as if remembering a terrible spectacle. “I’d rather not speak on it. Not yet. . . it’s too soon, the memory is still too fresh. I. . . I. . . .” He trailed off, staggering toward the door. Looking hurt or bewildered was never a challenge for Erik; he had years of emotional trauma to call upon. There was nothing fake about the pain in his eyes.
“There’s something else,” Baldur added.
Erik stopped and turned back towards the Viscount. “What is it?” His mind ran with a hundred different dreadful possibilities before he stilled it with a thought.
“It’s about Asbjörn,” Baldur said. “He thought you were dead. We all thought this.”
Erik’s fists tightened until his knuckles cracked. “What did he do?” He asked. He had an idea, but he hoped it was untrue. Please, let me be wrong.
“He tried to kill himself,” Baldur responded and continued by telling Erik the story of what happened in the forest. “Only Asbjörn has been severely injured,” Baldur finished.
The news struck Erik hard. He closed his eyes against the sudden pain. Asbjörn had always been touched by a profound sadness; this was what had drawn Erik to him. Erik had seen in him what he felt in himself: loneliness.
Erik opened his eyes. “Where is he?”
“His room,” Baldur replied.
Erik exited the shrine onto a gallery that overlooked most of Hjörtur. The ancient architecture that usually dwarfed him looked smaller from the air. Huge square banners etched with the symbol of the Royal House of Ito whipped in the wind atop of the towers below him. Despite the view, he knew most of the citadel remained hidden. Like many former sorcerer strongholds, Hjörtur had countless tunnels and rooms built underground, most of which had gone unexplored for centuries.
Over the last three months, Erik had done his best to bring Hjörtur back to working order, turning his banishment from the capital into a positive. It had been over three hundred years since the Dökk Wars when the half-human creatures called Dökk had tried to swarm the lands to the south, and the citadel had fallen into disrepair. His father wanted him to suffer, but he had grown to love the fortress. It moved him in inexplicable ways, touching on a darkness he had always done his best to keep locked away.
Erik turned from the view and glanced back at Baldur standing inside the shrine. He shook his head and walked towards the broad stairway that connected the hollowed out hole in the side of the mountain to the rest of Hjörtur. Without being asked, the soldiers fell in around him, acting as an honor guard. They made the long climb down in silence and pushed their way through a wooden door at the end of the stairway.
The rough stone walls of the halls of Hjörtur were sparsely decorated with old tapestries and faded painted screens. Servants in blue-and-red stopped in the middle of their tasks to stare at Erik as if seeing a ghost. With every look of surprise, the ground seemed to shift beneath Erik. The eyes caged him in, trapped him within a prison. He did his best to keep his back straight and his face blank, but he was secretly overjoyed when they reached the men’s apartments.
He entered Asbjörn’s room, leaving the soldiers standing guard outside the door. It was a small chamber with a pair of narrow arrow-slits looking down on one of the inner courtyards. Its only real embellishment, the prodigious bed which Asbjörn lay upon and a large wardrobe pushed up against a wall.
Dark even in the daylight, Asbjörn seemed made of shadows; there was an unstableness to his form, like a gust of wind would be enough to make him dissipate. His large forever drooping eyes lay closed, and his chest rose and fell with a rugged sounding breath. A layer of sweat sat on top of the white bandage wrapped around his chest.
Saddened, Erik took a seat on the cushioned chair next to the bed. He lowered his arms, which he had hidden in the opposite sleeves of his blue silk robe, and leaned forward on the chair. It creaked dangerously under him.
Old friend, what have you done? Erik used his index finger to draw a circle on his own thigh. There was something soothing about circles that had always quieted his raging passions. A circle was a complete entirety all on its own; it needed nothing but itself to be whole. There was something beautiful about that Erik thought.
He stood up and began pacing back and forth at the foot of the bed. He imagined he could see the invisible thread of his life stretching off into the distance. It was all by its self, separated from all the other threads that made up the Grand Tapestry.
I will not lose myself in a roiling sea of self-pity, he told himself.
The wooden door flew open, and Súla erupted into the room out of breath. She was one of Erik’s wife’s personal attendants. With her large chest and small face, she looked like a tiny bird trapped within a piece of dark cloth. Sweat dripped down her painted cheeks, making a ruin of her otherwise dazzling countenance.
Erik watched the different emotions play across her face. First came shock, then fear, and finally relief. Each emotion was like its own distinct portrait. Ever since waking up, time seemed to move at a slower pace, allowing Erik to analyze others with a kind of clarity he had not had before.
Súla curtsied and squeaked, “Forgive me, my Prince.” Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her in her mad rush to exit the room.
The noise jolted Asbjörn awake, snapping his eyes open with the sudden clamor. He looked around the room in confusion until his eyes settled on Erik.
The sound of Asbjörn’s panicked heartbeat filled Erik’s ears. He turned and looked into Asbjörn’s gray eyes. It had only been a few minutes but the looks of fear and shock on the faces of others had become tiresome. The novelty of their expressions had grown dull through repetition. Erik wished Asbjörn’s face revealed something new.
“You’ve come to haunt me,” Asbjörn said, as if in a nightmare.
“I’m no ghost,” Erik responded, taking a seat once again. The chair creaked under him, but he ignored it. The Prince felt awkward and did not know what to do with his hands. First, he placed them on his knees, then dropped them at his side.
“I failed you,” Asbjörn muttered in between a fit of coughs.
“No,” Erik replied. The pain in Asbjörn’s voice cut through him. All Erik wanted to do was reach out and console him, but he did not. He was not a child any longer; he was confined by the expectations of his caste and his sex, even in private. Men did not hold each other’s hands to shelter them from hurt.
With a loud groaned, the chair snapped under Erik’s weight. His back met the floor with a dull thud, sending pieces of wood tumbling through the air. Splinters poked into his back but did not cut into his flesh.
“Are you all right?” Asbjörn asked.
For a moment Erik could only gape at him. I’ve gotten heavier. Much heavier. What else would explain this? The chair was made of thick mahogany; it should not have broken under his weight.
Erik stood up and gave a bark of laughter. “No, I’m not fine. I don’t understand why I’m still alive. I should be dead, Asbjörn, but here I am. The thing that attacked us was a breed of dragon I’ve never seen or heard of, not even in the Encyclopedia of Named Beasts.”
“Describe it,” Asbjörn said.
“It was as large as one of Hjörtur’s ramparts. Its scales were gold and black, and its jaw was filled with man-sized teeth. We were too weak. Our attacks did it little damage.” Erik paused as if catching his breath and then continued. “It was a mistake coming here. I see that now. I thought I was so smart. Hjörtur was going to be the answer to all my problems.”
Asbjörn sat up with a grunt of pain. “It was a good plan. It still is a good plan. Out here you’re protected from your brothers’ plots, and you have time to train.”
“The Grand Assessment is in forty-two days,” Erik whispered to himself, less as a reminder and more to divert from the conversation about the attack. Asbjörn seldom seemed willing to let any investigation lie until he had learned all you knew unless you distracted him.
“Plenty of time.” Once a year in Vetur, the capital city of Vindur, any Cultivator above the age of twenty-five could compete for rank and lands during the Grand Assessment. “I have no doubt that you’ll be ready by then.” Asbjörn’s voice bubbled with forced enthusiasm.
“I have to face up to the fact that my abilities lie elsewhere. I’m a terrible Cultivator.”
“That’s not true, and you know it,” Asbjörn growled. “You can draw from the Abyss. Do you know how many would kill for that ability?”
“Barely, not enough to. . . .” Erik sighed. “To lie on the bed of purple was always a fools dream.” On the island of Daði, the color purple was reserved for Kings and Princes of the Blood; it meant death for anyone else to wear it.
“You are the best of them, no one else but you should inherit the throne,” Asbjörn told him.
The conviction in Asbjörn’s eyes made Erik feel dirty like he had covered himself in a layer of filth. He turned away from Asbjörn’s piercing gaze. I don’t deserve such loyalty and trust. “I should let you rest. My wife probably still thinks I’m dead. I should remedy that.”
Asbjörn gingerly lay back down on the bed. “I rarely agree with your father, but he was right about her. She’s dangerous.”
Erik paused with his hand on the door. “All women are dangerous. Your words, not mine.” He turned around long enough to see Asbjörn’s lips twist into a rueful smile. Then he hurried out the room.
The voices of the soldiers who stood guard outside the door were pitched low in a quiet conversation. “He was naked. . . how did he. . . .” They straightened and fell into silence as Erik walked out among them.
“Where to next, my prince?” asked a square-jawed soldier with high cheekbones and thin lips. Almost as tall as Erik and twice as board shouldered, he loomed large, but like his comrades he kept his eyes down when facing Erik.
“My chambers,” Erik replied. “What’s your name?”
The soldier’s head jerked up, and he blinked, looking surprised by the question. “My what?” he asked.
“Kai, my Prince. My name is Kai.”
Erik nodded and did his best to seem appreciative. “Would you and your men care to accompany me for a little while longer?”
“We would be honored to,” Kai said. “Isn’t that right, men?” The three other soldiers replied with loud affirmations.
Erik allowed Kai to lead the way. As they navigated their way through the torch-lit corridors, he reflected on how the smallest things seemed to please people who were starved for appreciation. That’s part of the reason we keep ourselves at a distance from our servants, the Prince mused, doing his best to distract himself. He did not want to think about what had happened in the forest the day before. The impossibility of the situation grated at his sensibility, but now was not the time for such questions. He had always been able to separate his mind into different boxes, which allowed him to approach anything with a degree of calm.
It worked. Full of inconsequential thoughts he arrived at the door to his personal apartment. The soulful lamentations of a zither, flute, and plucked lute emanated from behind the closed door. Erik paused, savoring the judicious ornamentation that washed upon him. It filled him with a sense of nervousness.
“Wait here. I won’t be long,” Erik commanded. The soldiers bowed stiffly, hand to heart. A sign of affirmation and obedience.
Ignoring them, Erik stilled the shaking of his fingers and reached for the door.