The greater the intellect, the more one is alone.
— MATANGI, SHE-WHO-IS-CHAINED
Standing as far away from the small mirror as he was, Erik’s breath should not have fogged the glass, but it had. Vapor climbed up the blue-eyed man’s prison like frost, creeping higher with a crackling that sent a tingle down Erik’s spine. He shivered and balled his hands into fists. His teeth wanted to chatter. The longer he looked at the silent shrieking face, the more he felt his bones might shatter, that. . . .
“Da, what’s wrong?” Elina questioned, her voice rising with a note of worry.
Erik blinked and wrenched his gaze from the mirror. For a second, all he could do was stare at her and weather the violent palpitations of his heart. “What color are my eyes?”
“They’re. . . .” Elina searched his face with her own creased into a frown. “They’re green like mine.”
Erik glanced at the mirror, and his green-eyed reflection peered back at him. Did I just imagine the whole thing? No, it can’t be! I’m sure he was there. He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. I’m not mad. I’m not! His head spun with a sense of vertigo. What’s going on? Who am I? Why can’t I remember anything?
“Da, come eat.” Elina tugged at Erik’s hand, leading him towards the table.
Dara rose from her seat at the head of the table, her every movement controlled as if that single action had been practiced a thousand times until grace imbued every shift and gesture. She lifted herself onto the tips of her toes when he came to a stop in front of her and pecked him on the lips. It was a kiss devoid of passion, more a ritual greeting between partners. Yet he trembled at the brief contact and his breath quickened. The wonder of familiarity filled him, the wondrous rush of being home after a long absence, shrouding him in the warmth, suffusing him with joy.
“You’re right,” Dara told Elina, “he smells—”
“Pretty,” Elina smiled.
“Yes . . . very pretty.” Dara guided Erik into her former seat as her eyes shifted to Kendra who still loomed beside the door. “My husband will be taking a bath after breakfast.”
“Yes, Mistress, I’ll have one readied,” Kendra murmured in a grave tone, then curtsied. The twinkle in her eye belied the seriousness of her expression, and she even winked at Erik before she pulled the door shut behind herself.
“I don’t smell that bad? Do I?” Erik took another sniff of himself.
“Of course not, dear,” Dara said, her voice as smooth as the surface of a tranquil pond. “You smell like flowers. This we’ve already established.” She took a seat beside him, and Elina covered her own mouth to stifle a giggle.
Erik looked from Elina’s grinning countenance to Dara’s gentle smile. “I see, you two conspire against me.” It took effort to keep his voice level, but inside he was a trembling twine of joy from head to toe. Familial bonds wrapped ever tighter around his pulsing heart.
“We do, but only ever to your benefit,” Dara said, then gestured at the table. “Now eat, we have a big day ahead.”
“Da, did you forget?” Elina said, staring at him with incredulous eyes. “Today’s the Renewal. You promised we’d go.”
Erik picked up a silver fork and studied the fried eggs, apple slices, and strips of what looked like bacon arrayed on his plate. He sensed Elina’s glare like heat from a fire. “No, I didn’t forget.” I can’t let my daughter think I’m a fool. “I was . . . wondering if you’ve kept up with your studies. Explain the nature of the Renewal.”
“It’s the day the Jain monks come to renew Wolfville’s wardstones.” Elina sat up straight and went stiff, peeking at him from the corner of her eyes. “It only happens once every five years. Unlike other towns, Wolfville isn’t wealthy enough to afford a Jain chapter house, so a visit by the monks is always a cause for celebration.”
Silence. Mother and daughter both turned to look at Erik expectantly.
“Fantastic,” he nodded, unsure. “I . . . couldn’t have put it better myself.”
Elina’s face lit up like a torch in a darkened room, and she appeared about ready to dance the jig. Dara, on the other hand, just regarded him with the same calm and serene expression she had worn since he met her. He shifted slightly in his seat and smiled.
When Dara only continued to stare, Erik returned his attention to his plate. He felt like a pretender and believed she could see it, but it did not seem to matter. Erik’s chest clenched and the tension he was only vaguely aware of melted in a sense of bliss. He wanted to remember this moment forever and fear he might forget it too.
“What’s wrong, Da?” Elina inquired.
“Nothing.” Uneasily, Erik looked around the room. “I have this sense of foreboding deep in my bones as if something bad will happen, or maybe it already has. . . .” He trailed off, shivering, and scrubbed his hand through his hair. “Yet, I don’t know if I have ever been happier. I love you. Have I ever told you that?”
Dara stood from her seat. “I think it’s time for your bath.”
“I haven’t finished eating yet,” he protested.
“You’re frightening your daughter.”
The tightness around Elina’s eyes told Erik Dara was telling the truth. He hastily averted his gaze and stood while clearing his throat. “I’m sorry. I never met to upset you,” he told Elina, then followed Dara out the room.
After the door had closed behind them, she led him down the hallway in silence. Lamplight bathed the bright paintings that hung on the dark panel walls with a warm glow. Each new canvas depicted scenes of ever wilder debauchery; throngs of naked men and women, clothed only in animal masks, bodies twisted into impossible positions, lips contorted in pleasure. Erik peered at them doubtfully, then pulled his attention back onto Dara.
“I didn’t mean to scare Elina,” he told her.
“Your problem, Erik,” Dara said, “is that you feel too much, or at least you pretend to.”
“What do you mean by that?” Erik yanked Dara to a stop.
Dara gazed at the hand that gripped her arm, with a broad grin that never reached her green eyes. Despite its broadness, the smile gave the impression of gathering thunderclouds.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, releasing her arm.
“Do you want to beat me, Erik?”
Dara’s smile widened further as she seemed to transform before his eyes. Her air of calm and reserve melted like ice under the noonday sun, and a note of allure and seductive glamor crept into her being; it was in the way she tilted her head and in the way she stretched each breath until they seemed to simmer. “Are you sure? Tie me up and bend me over your knee.” She leaned into him while running her long nails across his neck. “I know you would like that.”
“Stop!” Erik’s breath caught in his throat, but not with need. He took a quick step back, searching Dara’s face to find the reason for his sudden disquiet. She watched him with slightly parted lips and a hunger that seemed to quicken her pulse. Her metamorphosis was flawless . . . except it was not. There was something about her eyes that remained the same, a coldness that seemed to observe him behind the facade of lust. “You never have to pretend to be other than you are,” he continued after a moment. “Not with me. I love you for you.”
Dara laughed and the longing that had imbued her a second before evaporated. “Is this the part where I swoon?” Erik’s expression soured, but that only appeared to increase her amusement. “What a pair we make, a spider and a fox. How long will we last I wonder?”
“Until all the lights have gone out in the night sky,” Erik replied as if by habit. “Until nothing is left but darkness.”
“There you go being overly poetic again.” Dara sighed and started down the hallway once more. “Let’s get you bathed and who knows maybe when you don’t reek like another woman’s vaginal secretions your words will have more of an effect on me.”
Mouth opened wide, Erik stumbled after Dara, almost tripping over his own legs in his haste to catch up with her. He closed his mouth then opened it again, ready to speak, but at the last instant, he thought better of it. What could he even say in response? Sorry? None of the explanations that rattled around his head felt like they would do any good, and the truth just seemed too fanciful to be believed by anyone.
Shrouded in silence, Dara led him into a green tiled bathing chamber on the first floor. Blue and red phoenixes decorated the white ceiling, beneath which window-seats adorned with cupboards sat. The centerpiece of the room, the stone bath was attached to the wall and was supplied by two large copper taps, one for hot water and another for the cold. In another small room, directly behind the bath, a charcoal- fired stove heated the water for the first tap, glimpsed through the opened door.
Kendra regarded Erik with a smile from beside the bath when he entered. She dropped orange peels into the steaming wash water and approached him, eyes twinkling with mirth. “That was quick, I didn’t expect you so soon.”
“Are you two planning to cook me?” Erik asked, eying the green and orange bits floating in the bath. “It smells good, though. What’s all in there?”
“You would be so lucky,” Dara drawled from beside him.
Kendra laughed. “Sage, marjoram, chamomile, rosemary, and of course orange peels.” She reached out and unbuttoned his coat.
“What are you doing?” Erik grabbed her hand. “I can do that by myself.”
Kendra took a step back, surprised. She gripped her hands and sent Dara a confused look before clearing her face of all emotion. “Since when? Did I do something wrong?” Somehow the last question seemed as if it was directed more to Dara than himself.
“That will be all, Kendra,” Dara admonished, her tone biting. “Elina is still in the dining room, make sure she hasn’t gotten into any mischief.”
“Yes, Mistress.” Kendra curtsied and rushed out of the room, almost at a run.
Guilt made Erik raise his hand to stop her, but she was gone before he could formulate his thoughts into words. He dropped his hand and turned to Dara, shame-faced.
She clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “That was very poorly done, Husband. She deserved better.”
“I’m not a child, I can undress myself,” Erik said, but his heart was not in it. He knew he had done something wrong, but he did not understand why.
“Then why are you acting like one?”
Erik removed his clothing under the glare of Dara’s icy stare. Naked, he gingerly stepped into the bath, winching silently as he became accustomed to the near scolding water. Dara placed a long shaving board across the bath and lathered his face with a brush. His eyes went to the gleaming blade that rested on top of the board, with a hint of concern.
“Kendra is the most loyal person in our employment.” Dara picked up the blade with a slow and steady hand. “She has earned whatever privileges you’ve bestowed upon her.”
“I—” Erik began, then stopped as Dara yanked his head back and placed the blade to his neck. He swallowed the lump of fear in his throat and stared up at the red and blue phoenixes. She won’t kill me, he thought with certainty. Yet there was this nagging doubt. What if I’m wrong?
Dara shaved Erik’s neck with a growing sense of menace. “I don’t know what type of game you’re playing today, and I don’t care. If you ever treat Kendra like that again, you and I will have words, Husband. Very strong words. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” he grunted as the blade nicked him and a drop of blood ran down his throat.
“Good. Now, hurry up. Elina and I will meet you at the front hall.” Dara cleaned the straight razor with a cloth and placed it back on the board.
Erik put a hand on the cut and watched Dara walk out of the room. Are all women insane? He shook his head and pushed the thought away. He doubted he could unravel the mystery that was the female mind at that moment, so he got back to the business at hand.
A half an hour later, clothed in a blue coat that matched both of his wife and daughter’s dresses, Erik strode down the street with his family. Elina clung to his and Dara’s hand, swinging back and forth, bursting into giggles every time her feet left the ground. Erik smiled down at Elina, then raised his head, and for a moment he thought he saw a woman with blonde hair duck back behind a building at the sight of him, but he could not be sure. There were too many people on the streets, all of them hurrying in the same direction.
“Enough,” Dara said, bringing an end to Elina’s fun.
A transient gust of wind brought the sound of voices raised in a song from the center of the village, and the tantalizing fragrance of freshly baked pies. The celebrations had already begun. A path cleared for Erik and his family without them having to push as they drew nearer to the heart of the village. Above the heads of the throng, a two-story tall obelisk could be seen jutting out from the ground.
Erik frowned at the guards with rusted swords and mismatched armor that had the area around the giant wardstone cordoned off. Behind the armored men, stood three monks, dressed in gray, wool robes. All three were bald except for a ring of hair that wrapped around their heads and, each one’s face was animated by a strange sameness, similar to what plagued those born with mental disabilities. The first monk wore a white cloth over his mouth, the second monk held a walking staff, and the third monk had a strip of linen wrapped around his eyes.
Elina followed the direction of Erik’s gaze. “Did you know Jain monks take a vow of nonviolence? They won’t even kill a fly.” She shuddered, her eyes round with disgust. “Isn’t that gross, Da? Them sitting there covered in flies and not doing anything about it.”
Erik smiled down at her. “You don’t say.”
“It’s true!” Elina dropped his and Dara’s hand and began ticking off points on her small fingers. “And they live in triads. Three men with one name. . . . Or is it three men with one brain? I can’t remember which one it is. Anyway, since the day their order was founded no one has ever been to their main monastery. Nobody even knows where it is.”
“Who told you all this?”
“Ma did. She says it’s important I know things other than how to lay on my back. I don’t get what she meant by that. What’s so wrong with laying on my back? Should I lay on my front?” Elina tugged on Erik’s hand and whispered in a voice that might as well have been a shout, “Da, do you know what she meant by that?”
Erik remained silent and glanced at Dara; she rose an eyebrow at him.
“Da, look it’s Sir Ebbi, Sir Carl, and Sir Fritz.” Elina pointed at the wagon train making its way down the main street, across from where they stood.
A hush fell over the gathering, and it had nothing to do with top-knotted Lightbender sitting atop each wagon. It was the monster each wagon dragged behind it or held caged that caught everyone’s attention.
The ground shook and Erik’s gaze shifted from the one-eyed warrior Elina had said was Sir Ebbi to the young four-tusked mammoth that stumbled behind his wagon. Two meters tall and covered with long, brown hair, its eyes flicked from side to side in terror, but it only held Erik’s focus for a moment. In the back of the second wagon, a wounded dire wolf pup, thinned by starvation and separated from its two front legs, lay chained, whining in a high-pitched voice.
“Ma, what’s that?” Elina exclaimed.
Caged in the back of the third wagon sat a creature with a body of an ox, the face of a dragon, and the antlers of a deer. Partially covered in blue scales, it gazed back at them with an air of pride. It’s thick white eyelashes and gray beard gave it an air of nobility.
“A qilin,” Dara replied. “They’re vile creatures who live alone and mate once every ten years. I’m surprised they could capture it alive. There are some who claim qilins are the ones who instigate the beast swarms. But that is only a rumor. What do we say about rumors?”
Elina looked up at her mother. “T-that . . . only one tenth of what they claim should be believed?”
“Are you asking or are you telling me?”
“Telling!” Elina proclaimed.
The crowd cheered as the wagon train rode into the village center. Guards rushed to unlatch the four-tusked mammoth from the back of Ebbi’s cart, carefully dragging the wounded beast next to the wardstone and chaining it to a large stone post. Then they moved to the other wagons, doing the same thing.
The monk with the staff lifted it into the air, and the crowd quieted. “The price has been paid, and the bargain has been struck.” An instant later, dreadful words of harrowing power spewed from his mouth; incomprehensible and unpronounceable they twisted the minds of all who heard them. None more than Erik’s.
Erik stumbled back. Chaos reigned around him. He clutched at his thigh, trying with little success to steady the spinning world that dragged at his mind. Colors slipped past him until they all whirled into a rainbow. The only two who seemingly had no trouble at all were the other two monks; while their brother continued to speak in the strange tongue, they made bizarre hand signs as they circled clockwise around the wardstone, shifting towards the stone posts. Their hands flashed and flickered in the air like a fish swimming upstream, somehow both fast and slow.
The Lightbenders standing beside the chained monsters dealt the creatures death blows. Then the inscribed runes that covered the surface of the stone obelisks glowed with power, drawing the fresh blood into the air. Like long, scarlet ribbons, the life fluid danced around the wardstone, moving in tune with the monks hand signs until they sank into the surface of the wardstone.
Erik stood stiffly as the world stilled its mad dance. The warm air whipped past, bringing with it the odor of stale sweat, the tang of fresh meat, and the stink of fear. The obelisk seemed to pulse and throb before him, panting, eager for more.