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. So intent was he on what he intended to say he did not notice the four women seated beside the lit fireplace until the music stopped. They turned to regard him, foreheads marked with soot, dressed in flowing dark gowns.
Despite himself, Erik slowed and then faltered. 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 with a gilded zither draped across her lap and her golden hair hidden behind a dark shawl. Her eyes held him captive in oceans of blue. There had always been a sadness trapped within them, but today the sorrow seemed more salient. More. . . .
Has she been crying, he wondered. An instant later, he dismissed the idea. Hanna remained a mystery, to him at least, but he was certain she would not cry over his death. Would she?
He pulled his eyes away from her and scanned the three other women who sat cast in the red and orange light of the hearthfire. Súla, he recognized immediately, and the two other ladies were named Rikka and Óla. Both were thin women with angular faces, but the first had freckles and the second a small mole on left side of her cheek.
Hanna rearranged a strand of hair that had fallen across her face. “Thank you, that will be all.” Notwithstanding the look in her eyes, her voice was soft and almost warm. Not for Erik’s sake, or not solely; Hanna always sounded gracious and heartfelt while in the presence of others.
The serving women rose from their seats with a flutter of dresses, faces affixed with pleasant looking smiles. They took the zither from Hanna’s lap and placing it on top of a small table. Then they curtsied first to Hanna then Erik, passing by him on their way out of the room.
The anteroom fell silent. Hanna had been peering into the fire, but after the door had closed behind the serving women, she turned to regard Erik once again. Her expression was unreadable, revealing nothing of what she thought or felt.
Erik stood as still as a stone, thinking. Beautiful. She’s so beautiful. His heart ached with longing; she never looked more radiant and seductive than at that moment half pitched in the flickering light. All the things he wanted to but could not say ran through his head, yet none of it showed on his face.
“I think you would have been happier if you were born a man,” Erik joked, continuing a conversation they had from the day before.
“Perhaps. . . .” Hanna shrugged as if Erik had a point. There was not even the hint of humor in her voice, though, just cold evenness. “But then again if I had been born a boy I wouldn’t still have my eyes.”
Her words struck Erik like a blow to the gut. He suddenly felt bone-weary and 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 arrow-slits masquerading as windows. 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 softly.
Erik frowned. “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, but it rang through the room louder than if it had been spoken. — “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.”
“You’re right.” 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.” Her voice was now submissive and loving, like an adolescent girl to her first sweetheart. And her eyes sparkled with all the warmth of the crackling fire.
Erik followed Hanna to the table, wondering what emotions her facade concealed. She was better at the Game of Faces than he was, having mastered the art of hiding her true self behind a permanent mask. He knew he only ever saw what she wanted him to, and at the moment that was the image of a dutiful wife.
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 he did not mean to repeat.
Hanna poured wine into a bowl from a silver pitcher etched with curling grapevines. For a moment Erik could almost pretend she loved him. He wished it was true. He wished she did not hate him deep in the marrow of her bones.
“Thank you,” he said, trying his best to sound genuine and heartfelt.
“You’re welcome, Husband.” Hanna set the pitcher back down on the table. “I live to serve.”
Erik snorted and picked up the bowl with both hands. He brought it to his lips, inhaling its aroma. The scent of fermented grapes assaulted his nostrils, and Erik imagined he could almost smell that soft earth of the Vindurian vineyard that grapes had been grown within. He frowned, fear rising. Under the aroma of dirt and grapes was another fragrance, a hint of wrongness. A hint of decay.
“Something wrong?” Hanna asked. She stood with her hands folded in front of her, calm as the surface of a tranquil pond, all her murky depths hidden from view.
“Drink.” Erik extended his arms towards her, closely observing her face. Hanna laughed, amusement curving her pink lips as she took the bowl and drank.
Time and motion slowed; appalled, Erik watched droplets, and little rivers of wine fly towards his face from Hanna’s mouth. Caught by surprise, he closed his eyes, protecting them by instinct. Wine struck his eyelids and cascaded down his face, sluggishly making its way to the carpeted floor. What is she doing? Did she just try to poison me?
Something that burned with the coldness of winter slashed across his throat, and a wave of pain traveled through him. It was as if he had swallowed a vat of burning oil. His eyes snapped open, blood spewing from the wound on his neck. He gurgled in shock and agony, overturning his chair, banging his legs against the bottom of the table, launching something that three strong men would have had trouble lifting into the air. He collapsed to the carpeted floor, and a moment later the table slammed into the tapestried wall behind him, crashing to the floor in a shower of splinters. Fingers trembling, he pressed a hand to the gash, gasping, blinking.
Hanna looked away from the wreckage and down at him, frowning. Blood dripped from her cheeks. Red dripped from the dagger clutched in her fist. Another wave of pain surged through him.
He blinked up at her, mouth opening and closing. Why? Why?
“I made a promise to myself.” Hanna kneeled down in the pool of growing crimson and ran a hand through his hair. “A promise. Do you understand?”
No. He did not understand. What she had done did not make sense. None of it made any sense, yet strangely, he thought he loved her more at that moment than at any other time before. She looked so luminous and complicated. He wanted to . . . he wanted to. . . .
Hanna pressed her lips to his forehead, tears leaking from her eyes. “Goodbye, Erik—”
Something cracked within him. That was only the third time she had ever called him by his giving name. The first instance was over ten years ago, shortly after she had been brought to the Vetur as a prisoner of war. He had found her with her arms wrapped around her legs, weeping in a darkened hallway. She had once been one of those quiet, feral children who always seemed married to the shadows. Now . . . now she was so much more.
“—the Eternal Father willing we will meet again in another life.” Hanna closed her eyes and gripped the dagger with both hands, pointing it at herself.
Erik wailed. No! STOP!
Hanna plunged the blade forward. Erik grabbed her wrist, halting it an inch from her heart. Her eyes opened in horror, and he wrapped his free hand around her neck, preventing her from impaling herself, easily ignoring her struggles. She loomed above him, eyes bulging from the hand gripping and choking her. He could sense her pulse quicken beneath his blood-slicked fingers and watched her drift deeper into unconsciousness.
“Why. . . .” he whispered, tiny blood bubbles ballooning and popping as air escaped from the slit on his throat. Hanna slumped, and he rolled her onto her back with a wretched gasp. And for a time that seemed like an eternity, but could only have been an instant, they lay there, fingers intertwined, side by side, as husband and wife in a pool of cooling scarlet.
The world seemed to grow dull around him.
This can’t be happening! It can’t all end like this.
Pain made his vision blur with dark spots. His hand grew cold; then the sensation vanished, and suddenly he no longer sensed anything at all. Not pain. Not sorrow.
At that moment he grew aware of distant droplets. They were like little islands of infinity, whispering, murmuring just at the edge of his hearing. He reached for them, calling them with his mind.
Abruptly, the trickle of blood still flowing from the gash slowed; then it stopped as the surrounding gore boiled and churned, crawling back towards the wound, oozing inside him. Like spilled ink in reverse, within moments, the once red-drenched carpet became almost spotless.
Erik lurched to his feet, hand touching his throat. The wound had healed without scarring, but he did not have time to marvel at the miracle. A second later, a bottomless pit opened in his stomach, wobbling him with need. Staggering him with hunger.
For an instant, the world spun before him as the Celestial Dragon rose to the surface of his mind. He gazed at Hanna and found himself filled with an alien desire. An image flashed before him, a picture of himself ripping through Hanna’s flesh with his teeth and his claws.
No! Erik yelled at it. She’s not food.
Erik quivered, wrapping his mind in the sense of love he felt for Hanna. Energy surged through him, a torrent of power that swept the Celestial Dragon away. The monster howled, sinking back from where it came. Yet he could sense its hate like burning coals at the back of his brain. It had been repelled, but not defeated. Not yet. Perhaps not ever.
Heart thundering, Erik opened eyes he had not realized he closed. Hanna lay on the floor, chest slowing rising and falling, next to the dagger that had almost taken his life. He sighed.
“How did we get here?” he wondered out loud.
Erik lifted Hanna into his arms and carried her into the bedroom, marveling at how light she seemed in his arms. It was as if he was hoisting 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 arrow-slit, a large wardrobe crowded half the room, and through a closed door opposite the wardrobe lay a bathing chamber. And a crackling fire blazed within a small hearth.
Ever so gently, he placed Hanna in the room’s only chair and searched through the wardrobe. He ripped a pink garment into strips and used the sections to bind her legs and arms to the chair, making sure to gag her so she could not scream for help. He straightened, studying his work. Hanna sat bond, eyes closed, head slumped forward, golden locks escaping her dark shawl to drape across her face.
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!
Dazed, Erik drifted into the anteroom and then out of the apartment. 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 instructed them to wait. Why had he told them to do that? It was not as if he needed them for protection. He was a Cultivator, he could rip through ordinary mortals like sheets of paper. Did I see this coming?
“My Prince, is everything—” Kai began.
“Guard the door,” Erik said, “and allow no one to enter. No one. Do you understand me?”
They bowed, hand to heart, faces marred by worry.
Erik leaned against the hallway wall the moment he rounded the corner, and the soldiers disappeared from view. Eyes blank, feeling lost, he stared at the empty corridor, replaying the scenes from his anteroom chamber. She tried to kill me. Why? What changed between now and yesterday? I died. But why would that make her want to kill herself and me?
He ran a hand through his hair and continued his journey. None of his self-reflection was actually helping. The only one 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 fortress still bustled with news of his resurrection. He saw it on the faces of the liveried servants who bowed and curtsied as he traveled past and heard it the excited din of voices and clattering pots that filled the kitchens and hallways.
Erik pushed his way through a door and found himself in a large courtyard without fountains or columned walkways, where the air rang with the swift clang-click-clang of swords. A group of twenty black-coated warriors stood in small knots, dispersed throughout the courtyard, watching 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 duo’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.
He approached the combatants, keeping his face impassive, nose twitching at the scent of burnt wood. He knew one man well, Sir Númi Maida, the aged Lightbender who led his honor guard from the capital. As tall as Erik was, Númi stood taller still and far more heavily muscled. His gray topknot bounced off his shoulder, and scars from countless previous battles crisscrossed his puckered skin. He moved like a dancer, longsword flowing in his hands, meeting his opponent’s attacks with perfect stance and form.
Erik marveled at Númi’s skill with the sword while the black-coated men scrutinized him from the corner of their eyes. None of them turned to face or acknowledge him. It was a form of subtle disrespect, or perhaps fear, either way, he ignored them.
Númi swung his longsword around himself in a circle, stopping with it aimed at his much younger opponent. A bar of silver light, thicker than a ribbon, flared from the tip of the weapon and flew forward with the speed of an arrow. It struck the young Lightbender’s chest and then faded away like a mirage. Dazed, but otherwise unharmed, the young man staggered, lost in some inner turmoil that brought tears to his eyes. The flat of Númi’s longsword slammed into his chest, and he collapsed to his knees, gasping.
Númi turned to face Erik. “So the rumors are true?” He flashed a thin smile that did not quite reach his blue eyes. The sound of wood popping within a nearby brazier filled the sudden silence as his body seemed to tremble with a palpable menace.
Erik realized that Númi had reason to hate him. His son, Sir Patrick Maida, was one of the Lightbenders he took hunting in the forest the day before. He sensed the tension in the bodies of the nearby Lightbenders who watched from the sidelines and chose his words with care. “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 a hundred and ten this winter. I’ve lost children before, my Prince, to sickness, to hunger. . . . The world is cruel. It makes a meal 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 breathed. “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 take part in the Grand Assessment and earn a place among the peerage.
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.