Most of the monsters you will meet look just like you and me, son.
— VILHELM ITO, TO ERIK
Erik hoped that his relationship with Hanna would go smoothly, and since his first resurrection, it seemed to do so. He hoped that it would even as she glared up at him from the bed, clothed in a sheer, white nightgown, cheeks flushed with rage, eyes manic with pain. Lightning crackled outside the arrow-slits, bright enough to battle with the glow of the fireplace. Wind lashed the curtains and rain wailed out in the night, turning the silence into a mournful dirge.
“Hanna,” he began then closed his mouth. What could he say that would even start to bridge this new divide? The look in her eyes hurt. He had warned her what he was. He told her that one day she might bore him, though it was not that—he was far from over the way she made him feel.
“Answer me!” she said.
Thunder rolled then stilled, and the chamber rang with a distant knock at the anteroom door. Erik turned from Hanna, moving toward the—
“Don’t you dare. . . .” Her voice trailed off and he jaw snapped shut.
Erik paused with his hand on the door and turned back to face her. The knock came again, this time twice as loud. Hanna took a deep breath, regaining her former calm. She cooled as if ice water had been interjected into her veins. Within seconds she oozed the regal composer of an empress, and all of her murky depths were hidden behind a mask. A mask he knew all too well.
“Go,” she said.
He looked between her and the door and was reminded of the last time she said that word to him. The difference between those to two moments hollowed him with regret. How did we get here?
Wood banged with the pounding of a hard fist.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you so much that I overcame The Change for you.”
Hanna laughed. “Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? How many Fiendlords have there been over the years? Do you think that you’re the only one that has loved someone? Why did none of their love matter when they murdered their own families and friends?”
“None of them loved like me.”
“Asbjörn didn’t love hard enough?” she asked softly. “Is that what you’re saying? That the man that loved you like a son, didn’t love deep enough?”
He straightened as if struck.
“You’re a fool. What you did didn’t have anything to do with love. If it did, you wouldn’t be the only one that fought off the madness. You’re alive because of who you are, because of what you’ve become. Love has nothing to do with why you’re still alive.”
“As promised the knife in my gut.” Erik smiled though he felt like smashing furniture against the wall. “Did you enjoy it? Did it make you hurt any less?”
“Prince Erik,” a distant voice called.
“Go and don’t bother coming back.” She got under the blankets and turned her back to him. “Find somewhere else to lay your head.”
Erik left the bedchamber, wiping tears from his eyes. Hanna’s words wounded him deeply. He touched his stomach and expected his fingers to come away stained with blood, but they were unsoiled. The hurt was only in his mind.
The voices remained silent and for that small mercy, he was thankful. He collected himself before the door, then opened it. Kai stood on the other side, his armor dented from the earlier battle, yet it seemed he had taken time to get rid of the stains.
“Sorry to wake you—”
Erik stepped out into the hall and shut the door behind him. “What is it?
“Númi was just found unconscious outside the outer gate,” Kai said in one breath. “I thought you’d want to know.”
Erik froze. If it was not one thing, it was another. He had allowed Númi to live because of Patrick. He had not wanted to deprive the Lightbender of his father so soon after losing Asbjörn to the madness.
Don’t even think of touching him, Patrick said. I don’t care what he says or does, I won’t allow any harm to come to him.
Erik walked beside Kai as the man guided him down the corridor. “You did well. Thank you for bringing this to me.”
Kai simply nodded.
Ignore me all you want, I don’t care, Patrick said. As long as you heed my warning.
Erik frowned. He was long past sick of the sound of the Lightbender’s voice. What kind of monster do you think I am.
The worse sort. Patrick snarled. The sort that thinks he’s a good guy. If you were saner, you’d at least realize the error of your ways instead of elevating your miss deeds as the holiest of acts.
“My Prince,” Kai said hesitantly, “do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Is it about Súla?” Erik smirked as the large man blushed.
“How. . . .” He swallowed. “Yes.”
Erik favored Kai with a small chuckle that sounded false to his own ears. Though he tried to pretend otherwise, Hanna’s words stilled weighed heavily on his mind. “Hanna mentioned how you two were mooning over each other.”
Kai hung his head in apparent shame. “I didn’t know it was so obvious. I find her simulating in so many ways.”
Erik smiled wider.
“Not in that way,” Kai went on in a hurry after catching a look at the Prince’s grin. “Well, in that way, but there is so much more to her. She has so many hidden levels, and when she laughs, I can’t help but be reminded of how beautiful the world can be.”
It took effort for Erik to maintain his smile, and it seemed the Kai could sense his mood. When Kai fell silent, he remained so for a long while as they descended the stairs onto the main floor. Revelers filled the hallways, stumbling drunk from the feast that was taken place in the Great Hall to celebrate Viscount Henrik’s rule of the fortress.
A soldier stealing a kiss from a serving woman straighten when he caught sight of Erik. The man dropped a quick bow, his face flushed with alcohol and horror. A second behind him, the serving woman curtsied.
Erik ignored them. “The only advice I can give you is to enjoy the beginning because it doesn’t always remain so sweet. She might be enamored with you now, but it won’t last. It never lasts and that’s the sad part. She will start to test you, not from any malice, but more out of instinct. In most instances, they are not even aware of what they’re doing.”
Kai moved uncomfortably at Erik’s side, his finger thumbing the pommel of his longsword, his eyes flickering from Erik to the tapestries on the wall.
“She’ll try to change you, in small ways at first,” Erik said. “Perhaps you chew with your mouth open or you drink too much. And in the name of love, you’ll change for her. You’ll rationalize it in your own head. ‘I keep more food in my mouth when I chew with my mouthed closed anyway,’ you’ll tell yourself. But that’s just the beginning. If you let her she’ll change you into something she’s not attracted to anymore.”
“You make women sound so—”
“Yes,” Kai whispered. “Súla’s not like that. She’s sweet, she’s loving.”
Erik laughed, this time genuinely amused. He smacked Kai on his armored back. “Oh, my innocent friend, you’ll learn. Until you do listen to me and remember these words. The trick is false battlefronts. You must create false faults so that you can pretend to allow them to win when you change for them, and never actually change. This is the only way to make them love you forever.” He smacked Kai on the back again.
Kai staggered against the wall next to a door under guard by six Lightbenders. The warriors studied Erik and Kai with unblinking eyes. Erik nodded to the men and shifted his attention back to Kai, who straightened from his slumped over position, trying to conceal how the blow had injured him.
“Forgive me, Kai,” Erik said. “Sometimes I forget my own strength.”
“Nothing to forgive, my Prince.” Kai groaned behind clenched teeth.
Erik sent him a sad smile and entered the room. Inside a group of Læknar, dressed in a long, white-beaked vulture masks and a flowing red, linen robes, fussed over an unconscious man sprawled out on an operating table. The man’s bare chest was covered with faded scars, and his white topknot hung loosely from his head.
“My Prince,” a voice called from the side of the room.
Erik turned. Viscounts Gilbert and Henrik motioned to him. He joined them, doing his best to hide just how nervous he was. What Númi had witnessed could prove his undoing in so many ways.
“I was just going to send for you,” Gilbert said, then paused. “You appear in much better form than earlier.”
“Sleep will do that.” Erik shifted his attention to Henrik, who sipped from a bowl, eying the unconscious Lightbender. “And I apologize for not being able to attend your feast.”
Henrik waved the apology away. “No need. You’ve been to one feast you’ve been to thousands.” His eyes roamed Erik’s body for a sign of wounds before moving back to Númi. “I’m just glad you’re feeling much better.”
“Now, do you know what happened here?” Gilbert gestured at the table. “I’ve been told he and Asbjörn went out into the Northern Reaches to search for after you disappeared.”
“I didn’t disappear,” Erik said. “I was abducted.”
“Ah, I see.”
Erik lowered his gaze. “And before you ask, I’d rather not talk about it. Not here. Not at this moment.”
“I hope that you don’t mean for me to return to the capital empty-handed, my Prince,” Gilbert said with a slight edge in his voice. “Your father would not be pleased, not with me. Not with you.”
“No, I don’t,” Erik said softly. “I’ve changed my mind, I will be traveling back to the capital with you after all.”
Before the Viscount could reply, a gasp drew all of their attention to the table. The Læknar tried to calm Númi as he sat up. They pushed him back down none too gently, and Númi allowed them to until he locked eyes onto Erik.
No. No. Erik groaned.
“Monster!” Númi screamed.
The Lightbender flung away the hands holding him down and flopped onto the ground, belly first. Henrik screamed for his guards and the black-coated men rushed into the chamber, restraining Númi flailing form the best they could.
“Monster!” Númi yelled, his blue eyes filled with pure hatred.
Erik watched it all while maintaining his outer calm. Númi crawled toward the Viscounts and Erik, with a warrior’s arm wrapped around his neck, and two more pinning his legs to the floor.
Asbjörn’s laughter roared through Erik’s skull.