To love is to bleed.
— MATANGI, SHE-WHO-IS-CHAINED
“I understand.” Erik made himself meet Dara’s look with resolve. It was not easy. There was something in her eyes that made him feel like an insect dangling in a spider’s web. He loomed over her, but at that moment she terrified him. “What now?”
Dara studied Erik with her head tilted to one side, and it was all he could do not to reach out and flick her in her forehead. “Now we prepare for war,” she said. “But first you need a bath.”
“Is that really necessary—” Erik began.
She stopped Erik with a hand and led him inside the manor. “It’s the small things that keep you going at the end of the world. Your words husband, not mine.” Dara picked up a little bell that laid on a table within the front hall and rang it.
“Da!” Elina screamed in excitement as she and Kendra rounded the corner.
Erik smiled at her, a lightness in his eyes. “Elina,” he whispered. His voice was soft. Maybe too soft. All the tension in his shoulders seemed to loosen at the sight of her.
Elina dropped Kendra’s hand and rushed towards her father, dirty blonde curls bouncing with every step she took over the polished stone floor. Abruptly she came to a stop two meters away from Erik and held her finger up to her nose.
“What wrong?” Erik asked with knowing smile.
Elina sniffed. “Da, you smell—”
Keeping the blanket in place with one, Erik yanked his daughter to his chest, ignoring her shrieks. “I know. I know. I smell foul.” He laughed while he jovially showered her cheeks with kisses.
“No, Da!” Elina hollered, struggling to break free. Holding her one handed was like wrestling an eel, Erik soon came to realize. “Let me go!” She giggled as Erik’s facial hair tickled her face. “Please, Da. I didn’t mean it. I’ll be good!”
Erik gazed at Elina’s now grime covered cheeks. Am I really that dirty? You were in the bottom of a pit. “You promise? You’ll listen to your mother and do as you’re told?”
“I’ll be good. I’ll be good,” she promised, nodding her head furiously.
Erik gave her one last kiss, then gently set her back down on the ground. Elina back away from Erik then sent him a glare after wiping at her face. She mumbled something that Erik could not quite make out, then chortled in a manner that would have seemed menacing if not for its cuteness.
“What was that?” he asked.
Elina’s eyes gleamed mischievously. “Nothing, Da,” she smiled all sugar and spice.
Dara rounded on them, a tightness to her mouth. “Are you both done.” She turned towards Kendra without giving them a chance to respond. “Has a bath been readied?”
“Yes, Mistress,” Kendra responded. Her eyes twinkled with mirth while the rest of her managed to maintain her professional demeanor. It was evident to Erik that she knew better than to give voice to her amusement.
“There has been a change in plans; we’re no longer attending the Renewal.” Elina opened her mouth to protest, but Dara stilled her tongue with a look. “Gather the hens; we’ve been surrounded by a mountain of daggers.”
Face as white as a sheet of paper, Kendra stammered, “I-I understand.” She tugged at Elina’s hand. “Come on, Elina. We have to get the others.”
“No, buts,” Kendra admonished. “Let’s go. Your father has to bathe. I’m sure you’ll see him after.” Reluctantly, Elina followed as Kendra led her away.
A thought struck Erik as he watched his daughter leave. Her hair is done differently. Isn’t it? He was sure that her hair was straight last time around, and now it was in curls. What happened to cause that change? What else is different? He could feel the slow creeping tentacle of fear drawing near.
“What is it?” Dara asked with a frown.
Erik shook away his doubt. “Nothing.” I’ll find out soon enough if what I remember was just a dream. Eternal Father, please let it be a dream. I don’t want to see the people I love die. “I just hope I’m wrong about all this.”
“I see,” Dara replied. Without another word, she turned away and began making her way down the hallway. There was a seductive quality in the way she moved that drew Erik’s eyes to her posterior. Head held high, shoulders back, she walked with her arms swinging loosely back and forth while her hips swivel from side-to-side. She stopped, sending him a look over her shoulder, and then continued on her way.
Erik hurried after Dara. Despite her mesmerizing gait, he could feel a sense of cold hostility emanating off of her. It confused him. He did not understand from where it stemmed. Or maybe he did. His memories of the distance past were jumbled, but he had ample evidence that he was unfaithful husband.
“Are you jealous,” he asked after the silence dragged on too long.
“My love for Elina.” Erik jolted to a halt. He had meant to say ‘Hanna.’ He had no idea why he said ‘Elina’ instead, but somehow the answer it felt more right.
Dara turned back towards him. “Do you remember the night we first met?”
Erik did not respond. He could not bring himself to reply in the negative or even worse lie.
“All the other guest were caught in the thrill of revelry, but not you. No, you were standing in a darkened corner by yourself, a forlorn look in your eyes as you gazed out at the night sky. Such a tragic figure you painted; the. . . .”
A little stab of memory made the hallway distort, and Erik could suddenly hear the faint sound of music and light ringing of feminine laughter. His nose filled with the alluring musk of ladies perfume and the scent of freshly washed bodies. He reached out a hand to press against a window and everything disappeared like morning dew under the heat of the afternoon sun.
Dara smiled in remembrance. “I sent a few girls your way, but you rejected their company. They told me you said that you wanted to be alone.”
Using Dara’s words as a touchstone, Erik searched for the memory that had slipped through his grasp, but it proved elusive. Every time he thought he had it cornered; it escaped deeper into the inner contours of his mind. It was a maddening feel coming so close, but ending in failure. Giving up, he allowed Dara to take his arm and guide him into the green tiled bathroom, where the ceiling was decorated with blue and red phoenixes on a white background.
“That’s how you first peaked my interest,” she continued, tugging the blanket off of his shoulders. “I watched you for hours from a distance until I couldn’t take it anymore. I approached you—”
Suddenly Erik was there again. He stood with his back to the rest of revelers, dressed in a bright red coat with butterflies sewn into the sleeves, staring out at the night sky from behind the fox mask that sat on his face. An untouched bowl of wine lay on top of a small round table next to him.
He closed his eyes, savoring his isolation. He knew it would not last.
Opening his eyes, Erik caught the reflection of a naked woman with an eagle mask fondling the genitalia of two burly men on a nearby couch. He smiled. This was not the type of place any respectable member of the peerage would visit. Good thing I’m neither respectable nor a member of the peerage. Not officially. Not yet.
For a moment he imagined the look on his father’s face if he saw him at a place like this. He bit his lip to stop the laugh that was about to burst forth. He shook his head slightly. He had almost ruined the tragic air that he had spent so much time cultivating.
A woman slowly approached him from the other side of the room. Unlike most of the other females in the chamber, she was fully clothed. She wore a black dress with silver ornamentation and while everyone else had don masks of creatures that soared and stalked, she had chosen a spider. There was nothing attractive about her mask, but more eyes turned towards her than not. She held an appeal that went beyond the physical. Her presence demanded contemplation. It was something in her eyes. Something sharp and venomous.
The smile returned to Erik’s face as the woman came to a stop beside him. Her name was Dara, the owner of this house of ill repute. She watched him with her head tilted to the side as he gazed out of the window.
Erik allowed the silence to stretch into the realm of awkwardness. Wooing a woman such as this took patience, he knew. He had spent weeks just showing up to parties and events she had attended until she noticed his presence and became curious. They had never spoken before, but the first time he had seen her he had felt a resonance, a tingle of some unfathomable thing. Sleep had evaded him for days after that first sighting.
Dara was about to speak; Erik could feel it in the marrow of his bones. He opened his mouth and allowed his heart to guide his tongue, “What do you see when you look at me?”
“A boy playing at being a man,” Dara replied. She spoke as if she was his better and Erik had a feeling she would talk to him the same way even if she knew his true identity. He had yet to earn her respect.
Erik looked at Dara with his eyes bright with hurt. There was nothing fake about his pain; her words had stung. He felt wounded to the core. Slowly, he turned back towards the window.
“I’ve seen you here before,” Dara said. “More than a few times, but you never partake. Tell me are you afraid of sex or do you just like to watch?”
Erick drew a circle on the window. “There is no thrill in the hunt when your prey approaches you and places its neck in your maw. Not for me. I’ve grown tired of kittens with pretend claws.”
“Do you?” he questioned, turning the circle into a crude rendering of a spider.
Dara peered at the image, her facial expression hidden behind her mask. Finally, she spoke, “I think I do. You hunt those things that slip through the dark forest. The ones with claws and teeth that stalk you while you seek it.”
“Exactly, I hunt myself. Or something very much like me, a—”
“A predator,” Dara added helpfully.
Erik nodded. “I was thinking of another word, but close enough. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake interests me not at all. Without the risk of seeing your own blood on another’s teeth, what’s the point?” He turned to face Dara. “What do you see when you look at the night sky?”
“No,” she denied him, “you’ve already asked a question. Now it’s my turn.”
Dara took a step closer, filling Erik’s nostrils with her alluring scent. “What do you see when you look at me?
“I see someone. . . .” Erik pulled Dara close until their bodies pressed against each other. Strangely, he could feel Dara heartbeat through his hand on her back. It beat slow and steady as if he had not just violently grabbed her. “I see someone like me who’s learned to grow strong in broken places.” Their masks met in an imitation of a kiss.
Erik blinked and found himself back inside the green tiled bathroom, soaking within the steaming water of the stone bath. The sweet smell of orange peels, sage, marjoram, chamomile, and rosemary tickled his senses. He could feel his tensed muscles loosen under the influence of the warm fluid.
Dara clutched the back of Erik’s head and peered into his eyes. “That’s when I knew,” she whispered, “that we were meant for each other. That together we would—”
“Fuck them all,” Erik finished hoarsely. Then he tugged Dara into a long, fervent kiss. She gasped and almost fell into the bath with him. He could feel his stomach knot and the skin on his back crawl with desire. His muscles quivered uncontrollably, and everything but Dara blurred. Heat seared him to the bone, then went deeper still, touching parts of him he did not know existed. He closed his eyes as the fire consumed him from the inside and wished for the feeling never to stop.
After a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, the kiss came to an end when Dara pulled back. Her face looked exulted, her cheeks glowed with prominence, and her usually lifeless eyes sparkled with passion and suddenly seemed to be seeing into his innermost soul.
Erik yanked Dara into the bath and warm water splashed onto the green tiled floor. He ripped at her wet dress with teeth and his hands. Sharp fingernails dug into his back, making him growl with need. Desperately, he flicked his tongue inside her warm mouth.
Eyes widening in shock, Erik stepped back, half staggering until he caught himself on the edge of the bath. He touched his hand to his lip, and his fingers came away stained with crimson droplets. Dara’s laughter drew his eyes towards her. She smiled at him with his blood on her teeth. His throat tightened; she never looked more beautiful than at that moment.