The best color to paint with is blood.
— JÖN ITO, FAMOUS LAST WORDS
Erik opened a heavy, iron-strapped door into the anteroom of his personal apartments and stepped inside. Four women sat on top of cushioned chairs before an unlit fireplace dressed in dark gowns. The music stopped and four pairs of eyes turned towards him.
Despite himself, Erik slowed, and then stopped. He looked down at the brightly colored carpets that covered the floor in layers and then back at the women. Furthest from the door sat his wife, Hanna Ito. She was enjoying the musical performance of her three personal attendants before he had interrupted their recital. Súla held a zither in her pink hands, and for some reason, the names of the other two noble ladies escaped him. Their names would come to him later, he knew.
“That will be all,” Hanna said. There was a cold edge to her soft voice.
Erik stood as still as a stone. The attendants placed their instruments down on top of a small table and curtsied deeply as they passed him on their way out of the room.
The silence stretched into uncomfortableness as Erik studied his wife. Her golden hair was hidden under a dark shawl; the period of mourning after the death of a husband called for the formality of a shawl. There had always been a sadness trapped within her blue orbs, but today the sorrow seemed more salient. Has she been crying?
Unlikely, Erik shook his head. She would no more shed a tear over me than a stone would bleed.
“I think you would have been happier if you were born a man.” Erik joked with a tired half-smile, continuing a conversation they had from the day before.
“Perhaps. . . .” Hanna shrugged as if he had a point. “But then again if I had been born a boy I wouldn’t still have my eyes.”
Suddenly Erik felt weary to the bone, drained of all vital verve. Every conversation with Hanna was like a pitched battle. He turned away from the hurt in her eyes and listened to the wind whistle past the brocaded curtains that covered the arrowslits. The apartment had been beautified by her feminine touch, a far cry from the way it used to look when they first arrived.
“Can we not… please, just for the day…”—his knuckles whitened on the hilt of his sword. I can’t change what was done. — “Loving you is like embracing a cactus. The more I pull you close, the deeper you wound.”
“You love me now?” she asked briskly. She rearranged a strand of hair which had fallen across her apple shaped face.
Mother, she’s beautiful. Erik watched her with a frown. His heart ached with longing; she never looked more radiant and seductive. All the things he could not say ran through his head, but none of it showed on his face. “Is that all you heard?”
“Isn’t that what I was meant to? I’m not one of your…” —she left the word ‘whores’ unsaid. — “Pretty words won’t make me swoon.”
Erik strode forward and ran the knuckle of his index finger along Hanna’s cheek. “You thought I was dead, isn’t that a cause for some kind of celebration,” he asked with an almost formal air.
“You’re right,” she said a little less petulant. She gestured to a broad table in the middle of the room. “Come, Husband. Sit and allow me to serve you.” She spoke submissively in a gentle way that almost seemed lovingly, like an adolescent girl to her first sweetheart.
As Erik followed Hanna to the table, he wondered what emotion she was truly feeling now. She was better at the Game of Faces than he was. He only ever saw what she wanted him to. Hanna pulled the chair out from the table and its stout legs scratched against the carpet with something of the sound of a sword scraping off armor.
Erik sat down behind the ornately worked table, making sure he did not allow all of his weight to rest on the cushioned seat. The ruined chair in Asbjörn’s room had taught him a valuable lesson that he did not mean to repeat.
He smiled as Hanna picked up a silver pitcher etched with curling grapevines and poured wine into a bowl. For a moment he could almost pretend she loved him. He wished it was true and that she did not hate him deep in the marrow of her bones.
“Thank you,” he said respectfully, trying his best to sound genuine and heartfelt.
“You’re welcome, Husband” she replied as she set the pitcher back down on the heavily built table. “I live to serve.”
Ignoring her last comment, Erik picked up the bowl with both hands and brought it to his lips. The scent of fermented grapes assaulted his nostrils. He imagined he could smell that soft earth of the Vindurian vineyard that grapes were grown in. The smile slipped from his face. Under the aroma of dirt and grapes was another fragrance, a hint of decay.
Hanna stood with her hands folded in front of her, calm as the surface of a tranquil pond. All her murky depths were hidden from view. “Something wrong, Husband?”
Erik extended his arms towards her. “Drink,” he said while closely observing her face.
Amusement curved her pink lips. Hanna took the bowl from Erik and drank.
Time and motion slowed; appalled, Erik watched droplets and little rivers of wine lazily fly towards his face from Hanna’s mouth. Caught by surprise, he closed his eyes, protecting them by instinct. He felt the wine hit his closed eyelids and cascade down his face, sluggishly making its way to the carpeted floor without a care in the world.
Erik’s eyes snapped open in panic when he felt a knife slash across his throat, painting his chest bright red. From the way the blade burned, he knew it was made of orichalc. Nothing else wounded Cultivators and sorcerers the way it did.
Erik winced from the blow and fell backwards overturning his chair. His leg banged against the bottom of the table, launching something that three strong men would have had trouble lifting into the air. The table slammed into the tapestried wall behind Erik and then came crashing to the floor in a shower of splinters.
Hanna’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. She looked away from the ruined table and moved towards Erik with her knife at the ready, traveling over the now wine stain carpets.
Erik tried to speak but only blood came out. He could feel it spew out from the wound on his neck, roiling and chaotic. The agony brought tears to his eyes; it was a sharp pain that only grew worse as moments slipped past.
Rikka and Óla. Those were the names of Hanna’s other two personal attendants. Their names suddenly appeared in his mind. He started to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, but the hurt turned the laughter into a groan.
Hanna kneeled down in a pool of growing fluid and ran a blood-soaked hand through his hair. He watched her desperate for an answer. Why? His lips opened and closed like a fish trapped on land. Why?
Hanna peered down at him with torment filled eyes. “I made a promise to myself,” she said. “Do you understand?”
No. He did not understand. What she had done did not compute, it did not make sense. Strangely, he thought he loved her more in that moment than any other time before. She looked so luminous and complicated. He wanted to understand. He wanted to envelop her in his arms and shield her from the world.
Hanna pressed her lips to his forehead. Tears leaked from her eyes, mixing with the droplets of blood that stained her pale cheeks. She straightened and pointed the knife at her heart. “Goodbye, Erik—”
That was only the third time she had ever referred to him by his given name. The first time was ten years ago when he found her crying in a darkened hallway. She used to be one of those silent feral children who always seemed glued to the shadows. The second time was three months ago on their wedding day. He remembered it started to snow as they huddled together in that little chapel.
“—the Eternal Father willing we will meet again in another life,” she continued morosely. Hanna closed her eyes and drove the blade towards her own heart.
No! Erik reached out and grabbed her hand, stopping the knife an inch away from her heart. Hanna’s eyes snapped open in horror. She struggled against him, trying to impale herself on the knife. He wrapped his free hand around her neck and kept her chest separate from the pointy end of the blade.
Tiny blood bubbles ballooned and popped as air escaped from the slit on Erik’s throat. He squeezed the hand wrapped around Hanna’s long neck. Watching the light go out of her eyes hurt him more than his wound. He sobbed like a beaten child when she lost consciousness.
Erik cradled Hanna on his chest while he peeled the knife from her unconscious fingers. His heart thumped like a race horse. He dropped the blade onto the carpeted floor and stared up at the ceiling. He was dying… again.
Hanna’s weight on his chest began to become unbearable. He rolled her off with a wretched gasp. They lay there, side by side, as husband and wife in a pool of cooling scarlet.
As Erik’s chest rose and fell at an ever slower pace, he reached out and took hold of Hanna’s hand, intertwining their fingers. He remembered the mournful song Súla, Rikka, and Óla were playing from earlier. It was a fitting piece of funeral music, he decided. He played it in his head as his body shredded from the sudden chill. He could no longer feel his fingers. He could no longer feel his hands.
Erik drifted away and lost awareness of his surroundings. He focused on the taste of blood in his mouth. The copper tang grounded him in the now. A teaspoon of the crimson sea in his mouth slid down his throat and oozed its way into his stomach.
The blood set his insides on fire and awakened the Hunger. He jolted back into full consciousness, gaping like a hung man. It felt like liquid magma was rushing through his veins setting aflame everything it touched.
In the midst of the agony, Erik became aware of distant droplets; little islands of infinity that once were a part of him. No, they were still part of him. He called to the separated parts and the spilled gore that had pooled around him began to crawl up his body, similar to tiny red ants, marching their way home. Like spilled ink in reverse, the once blood-drenched carpet became almost spotless. After the last drop of darkening vital fluid crawled its way into Erik’s throat, his flesh rippled and healed without scarring.
Whole again, Erik stood up, with his belly churning with hunger, and gazed at Hanna with a growing sense of horror. He gripped his aching stomach as the Celestial Dragon rose to the surface of his mind.
No! Erik yelled in his head. She’s not food.
Erik wrapped his mind in the feeling of love he felt for Hanna. The Celestial Dragon wailed in pain; love was the antithesis to its very existence. It sank back down below the depths of Erik’s conscious mind. He could feel its hate like burning coal at the back of his brain. It had been repelled, but not defeated. He knew their war was not over.
Erik opened the eyes he did not realize he had closed and did his best to still his thundering heart. It felt like it was trying to escape from his chest. He frowned down at Hanna with his hands resting on his knees.
“How did we get here?” He asked no one in particular.
After a moment or two spent in self-repudiation, he picked up Hanna and carried her into the bedroom. He marveled at how light she felt in his arms, it was as if he was carrying a feathered pillow. The bedroom was just as elaborately decorated as the anteroom, if not more so. A bed large enough for four sat on a red-and-blue tiled platform. Next to an arrowslit, a massive wardrobe crowded half the room, and through a closed door opposite the wardrobe was a bathing room.
Erik sat Hanna down in one of the room’s three cushioned chairs. He left her slumped over in the chair as he frantically searched through the wardrobe. He ripped a pink garment into strips and used the strips to bind Hanna’s legs and arms to the chair. Lastly, he gagged her so she could not scream for help.
His hands shook. He felt overwhelmed; everything was falling apart. All his perfectly arranged plans were in disarray. He needed to get away and clear his head. He needed to get away! In a daze, he drifted into the anteroom and then out of the apartments. He stopped, blinking in surprise as he came face to face with Kai and the other three soldiers.
In the mad intensity of the last few minutes, Erik had forgotten he had told them to wait. Why had he asked them to wait in the first place? It was not like he needed them for protection. He was a Cultivator, he could rip through ordinary mortals like sheets of paper. Did I see this coming?
Ignoring the question on Kai’s face, he said, “Remain here with your men and guard this door. Do not allow anyone to enter without my permission, and I mean anyone. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, my prince. You can count on me and my men,” Kai replied. “No one will enter while we still draw breath.”
Leaving the soldiers, Erik walked down the corridor. The moment he disappeared from view he leaned against the wall and tried to take comfort in the hard stone under his shoulder. Eyes blank, feeling lost, he stared at the empty corridor and replayed the scenes from his anteroom chamber. She tried to kill me, really kill me. What has changed between now and yesterday? He closed his eyes, but he could still see her looming over him with erotic drops of his own blood dripping from her chin. I died, that’s the only thing that changed from her perspective. Why would finding out I was still alive make her want to kill me and herself?
Erik opened his eyes and tried to walk naturally down the corridor like someone without the weight of the world on his shoulders. None of his self-reflection was really helping. The only person that held the answers to his questions was Hanna and at the moment she was not talking. He wandered through the citadel, paying no mind to where he went, so long as it was in the opposite direction from where he came.
The citadel still bustled with news of his resurrection; he saw it in the faces of the liveried servants who bowed and curtsied as he traveled past. He heard it the excited din of voices and clattering pots that filled the kitchen once people returned to their tasks.
He pushed his way through an iron-bound door and found himself in a large courtyard that the Lightbenders used for their sword practice. A group of twenty Lightbenders stood in small knots, dispersed throughout the courtyard as they watched two shirtless men, one young and one old, swing swords at each other. Stripped to the waist, a light coat of sweat glistened on the two men’s chests and arms as they danced on top of the hard-packed earth, encircled by four knee-high braziers that blazed under the afternoon sun. The faint smell of burnt wood in the air made Erik’s nose twitch.
The swift clang-click-clang sound of swords meeting grew louder as Erik moved closer to the combatants. He knew one of the men well, Sir Númi Maida. He had led Erik’s honor guard from the capital. The kingdom of Vindur was founded as a meritocracy; all Lightbenders held the rank of Knight, the lowest level of nobility. During the Third Apocalypse, only Cultivators and Lightbenders were able to protect humankind from the hordes of marauding monsters. As such they occupied a place of power and respect within society, then and now.
Númi’s gray topknot bounced off his heavily muscled shoulder as he blocked the sword thrust of his much younger opponent. The scars from countless previous battles crisscrossed Númi’s puckered skin with white lines. His sword danced in his hands as he moved sideways, meeting his opponent’s attacks with perfect stance and form.
Erik marveled at Númi’s skill with the sword. It was commonly said that one Lightbender was the match for ten ordinary soldiers and that one Cultivator was equal to ten Lightbenders. Erik did not necessarily agree with the latter, especially applied to low-level Cultivators. From his personal experience, ten well-trained Lightbenders could easily take apart most Baron ranked Cultivators, himself included.
The eyes of the watching Lightbenders prickled Erik’s skin as they scrutinized him from the corner of their eyes. None of them turned to face or acknowledge him. It was a form of subtle disrespect that his father would never have accepted. They thought less of him, but this was nothing new to him.
Númi swung his sword around himself in a circle and then aimed it at his opponent. Blinding white light flared from the tip of the sword and flew through the air with the speed of an arrow.
First Ray of Morning Light, Erik named the attack in his mind. It was an attack solely powered by prana. When done successfully it separated Lightbenders from their inner void by overwhelming them with emotion.
The wave of glaring white light crashed into the young Lightbender’s chest like a tidal wave against the shore and then faded away like a mirage. Dazed, but otherwise unharmed; the young Lightbender stared lost in some inner turmoil that brought tears to his eyes as the flat of Númi’s sword slammed into his chest. The young man’s legs crumbled as though they were weeks old bread smashed against an anvil.
Númi turned to face Erik with a thin smile that did not quite reach his eyes, leaving his opponent on all fours gasping for breath. “So the rumors are true,” he said holding Erik captive with his icy blue gaze.
Númi had reason to hate him, Erik realized. His son, Sir Patrick Maida, was one of the men he took hunting in the forest the day before. Erik could sense the tension in the bodies of the Lightbenders who watched from the sidelines.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Sir Númi. Patrick served—”
Interrupting, Númi said, “How old do you think I am?” Without giving Erik a chance to respond, he continued. “I’ll be ninety years old this winter. I’ve lost children before, my prince, to sickness, to hunger… The world is cruel. It makes meals out of the weak.” The hate in his voice grew stronger. “The Eternal Father blessed me with twenty children, nineteen girls and one boy. What I don’t understand is how you’re still alive and my only son is now dead?”
“I’m not sure I know how to answer your question.” Erik paused. He looked like he gave the question some serious thought. “Luck… I stand here because of luck.”
“Would you do me the honor of sparring with me, my prince?” My prince was made to sound like a slur. The truth was the honorific ‘my prince’ was nothing more than a courtesy given to Erik because of his father’s status. He had yet to participate in the Grand Assessment and earn a place among the peerage.
As tall as Erik was, Númi stood taller still and far more heavily muscled. The sound of wood popping within a nearby brazier filled the sudden silence as Númi’s body seemed to tremble with a palpable menace.
From a young age, princes and princesses were taught the Game of Faces. They would spend hours in front of mirrors learning to move their faces into the semblance of real emotions. It was not difficult for Erik to keep the fear he felt from touching his face. “It would be my pleasure,” he replied as if there was nothing else he would rather do.