I die for the thirty-second time in a parlor.
Lit only by a shaft of light from a flickering lamppost outside the window, I sprawl helpless on beautiful carpet, my long pale hair entwined with bloody strings, my budding scream sliced away by steel.
As my cartilage and arteries leak blood into my severed esophagus, the hot liquid flows straggling into my lungs until my breath drowns in shallow puddles, my head too light, my lungs sloshing too heavy with dark liquid.
As gently as waves lapping at a shore, I suffocate with sweet, soft invasion, on scarlet ribbons. With fading breath, my mind goes languid.
My murderer looms like a shade poised beyond the lamplight’s grasp, a figment of human wrought by the night’s caprice, a silhouette cut by the merciless rim of a dagger.
Beneath my weighted lids, I watch the moths in lamplight beyond the glass.
They whirl on drunken wings.
I wake alone—as always, with everyone murdered months ago…or years?—and only sunbeams remain to embrace me.
Their glossy heat skips warmth across my cheeks and forehead, and my parched lips which stick together, chapped and dry.
My eyelids flutter open, and the world is uncurtained.
Here is the stage: a sun-washed parlor; a plaster ceiling molded with curlicues and twining vines; a maroon-and-ivory upholstered chair, its back curved like a stern matron; and a hearth unstirred, its fire unstoked, with any remnants of heat gone ash-cold; and beneath me, a carpet matted with clotted blood.
A cerulean gown glimmers around my body like swaths of pearlescent sky…a sky smeared with dried blood.
I lever myself up on shaking elbows, and old blood flakes off like black snow.
They’re mere vestiges of attempted murder, for beneath the skin of my throat coated rust-red, my flesh knits flawless and unscarred.
You cannot murder a girl bound by curse.
Waking from murder always leaves me restless. Aimless, I meander the labyrinthine halls of my palatial mansion.
A fairytale construct of grand façade, it rises rife with turrets and towers strewn with lavish extravagance. Within its spacious halls, glittering gold candelabra threaded with cobwebs vie with crystal chandeliers webbed thick with dust. Mahogany tables hold desiccated flowers, and gilded mirrors strive to entice me with my reflection as I wander.
I am not cajoled. I know what would look back at me.
Lips gone luridly ruby-red from biting.
Grey irises darting here and darting there, trying to catch the constant anxiety that flits around me.
Papery purplish bruises painting circles under my eyes.
The silver hair of someone five times my true age of nineteen.
And blood dried all down my throat.
Thank you, no, thank you, I don’t need to see that.
A faint sound brings a traitorous leap of hope to my heart, but I tamp it down.
Loneliness is a trickster like that. It beguiles me into believing the creaks of the mansion could be a person, a friend, a potential lover, or a fantastical being just launched in a rustle of gossamer wings.
I imagine it. Turning the corner to a small dragon on a span of membraned wings. A whiff of steam from scaly nostrils.
Of course nothing’s there.
Nothing would thrive in this atmosphere of neglect, not even I, who merely exist, setting one foot into the next and the next through rooms filled with shelves of fanciful inventions, wind-up birds that chirp cheerily on command, gadgets tinkered into reality that speak of generations of brilliant minds.
No one’s cared for anything here for months. The dust coating the floor tiles has been scuffed in places only by recent footfalls.
Mine, and my murderer’s.
No one else comes here.
Except for the girl in the morning.
And the boy in the eve.
I meet her at the gate, a basket full of food on her arm and a basket full of trinkets on mine.
We exchange baskets and smiles, mine tentative and restrained, but hers?
Her smile dons the confidence of freedom.
The freedom to roam outside these gates. To rove the market and gather fruit, bread, cheese, to barter with vendors and flirt with whom she will.
She has the look of one who knows how. That saucy lift of her chin, the brazen black strands of hair, the curvy swish of her hips, her self-assured sashay.
Beyond her, a white gravel path meanders through a field of wildflowers.
Somewhere beyond the small wood lay the town.
The town I protect.
The town where a grown man hurts a powerless boy.
I’ve always fallen in love with wounded creatures.
Today, I find the boy in the same place, curled up beneath the roses.
Perhaps no longer a boy, but a young man, his torn pants too short for his eighteen-year-old frame, his ripped shirt revealing a lean-muscled torso, his square jaw sharply defined beneath unevenly shorn hair, the strands the earth-black of onyx.
As I kneel in the soft, damp loam, he cracks open one swollen-shut eye, its iris so dark as to be a near-fathomless chasm. A thousand words speak within, spinning a hundred memories of us meeting like this before. In sun and blooms, in rain and mud, and, once, in starlit night.
He’s beaten, bruised. A busted lip.
A smile like it hurts him to breathe.
His back is bloodied today, crusted to his shirt.
He rolls upright with difficulty, swishing aside the rosebush’s branches and wincing away the smile. He turns his back to me and sits cross-legged in the weedy dirt. “Can you get it off?”
I must try, although the sight of his blood makes me cringe, and having to scoot close to him makes my stupid heart race.
But I compress my nerves and, with utmost care, I peel the tattered shirt from his midriff, then ease it up over his overheated skin.
Every near contact of my fingers close to his skin makes my insides jump.
As he lifts his arms, he groans—quietly, almost inaudibly, but I catch it because the birds never sing when he comes, and the crickets don’t chirp, and his every escaped moan resounds in the silence of my gut, where it houses my guilt.
The ragged, blood-spattered shirt slides over shoulders, off his arms, and then flutters to the dirt from my hand.
I glance at his back again…and lose my breath, for on his golden skin, skin the shade of butter-cream in the sunshine, spreads a tattoo of raven wings. So stunningly rendered, they seem ready to unfold from his shoulders, every feather depicted in immaculate detail. I swear the breeze ruffles their vanes.
Entranced, I graze my fingertips along its texture.
Only his smooth flesh slides beneath my skin, not feathers, but he goes utterly still beneath my touch.
Realizing what I’m doing, I freeze the breath within my chest.
My fingertips go still upon his skin.
A moment of…something…locks us in place.
I free us as I draw back, ashamed, for he is two years younger than I, and abused, and I just stroked his skin without permission.
“I’m sorry.” My voice is a raspy croak, but he twists around, his look intense—always intense.
“Don’t.” His voice is as raspy as mine, but no apology taints it, only a ferocious ire. “Any touch come with sweetness, not abuse, is welcome. And yours—”
“Mine?” I prompt when he doesn’t finish.
Those chasm-deep eyes invite me to leap in deep. “Will you let me in today?”
I let him in every day, but still he asks as if one day I shall revoke the invitation into my hollow mansion of echoes and neglect.
He speaks little, his speeches sparse, but he makes up for it in intensity.
Every minute we’re together, he makes me feel like an enigma he could solve if only he stares hard enough into my eyes, long enough for me to open up my soul.
He stares while I cleanse his wounds with cool water and a clean rag, while I gather together apples and bread and butter and he wolfs them down as if his family starves him as well as beats him—and perhaps they do—and he stares while we sit side by side on the rose divan in the library, in the rays of diminishing afternoon, and I read to him my favorite books, some bloody, some whimsical, and some as discomfiting as history ever is.
As he watches me constantly, he also listens, avid, engaged by every word, absorbed by every nuance, and attuned to every shift of my expression.
Sometimes his brow furrows at a passage, unhappy with a bad turn or a bad choice—or no choice at all.
Even more rarely, something makes him smile—or not smile, but almost. Perhaps a flicker of one, gone by the time I look up.
Never does anything make him laugh, though. Always, the awareness runs too close to the surface that after this respite in my rose garden, after the apples in my kitchen and the histories in my library, he will have to return home, a slave to whippings and rage until the time his father will rend him apart so far that nothing will be able to put him together again or pick him up, and he will not even be able to crawl to my roses for me to find him again.
What will I do then, unable to leave my mansion to find him?
I could save him before that happens.
He knows it, too, as well as the consequences if I did: dooming everyone in the town to a war—an enemy—that my family has magically protected them from for centuries.
He says nothing about it, how I could free him to the utter devastation of everything else, but he looks at me as if one day he might summon the courage to ask anyway.
Perhaps when he is certain the answer will be yes.
Will it be?
I can no longer tell, for every day that he appears with another injury, it adds another lash to my too-flayed soul. His tortured looks peel me apart layer by layer, until every word he speaks from those bruised-smile lips burrows into my guilt, until I think he must hate me, although he doesn’t show it.
Even now, as his fingertips venture over my knuckles and my voice falters at the first time he’s dared touch me—perhaps emboldened by my own caress—I think he must be searching for weakness rather than affection. But—
“Sanguine…” The way he speaks my name tells a different story, a beggar’s tale, and I lift my eyes to his penetrating gaze.
He shifts closer, and the concentration of power and intensity between us ramps up till I can scarcely breathe.
His fingertips on my jaw feel like both claiming and a release in one, releasing me from broken wings to soar again—or to sail the wind for the first time ever. Liberated, weightless, too far from the ground that offered me stability, I feel like I’m hurtling, euphoric, terrified, toward a boundless sky.
I inhale the sweet leather of books and his feathery scent.
He’s so close, my elation rampant inside, and then…
He kisses with the same intensity with which he looks.
But the feeling—the feeling is a thousand times more incredible.
In the blood-red dusk, he leaves me with my lips flushed and swollen with passion. His eyes glitter when he looks at them, his own lips lush from mine and curving upward on his satisfaction. There’s no doubt that he likes what he’s done, and that I like it, too, and that we will do it again. But—
Is there not always a ‘but’?
Is there love within his heart, I can’t help but wonder, or is it merely the gleam of lust within him, the thrill of two young bodies locking mouths and breath and seeking a relief from too much yearning? His thirst wants quenched, and I’ve just become a vessel that lets him drink deep.
But something else drinks of me more, and the time has come to slake it.
As long as the mists screen our town from those outside, we will survive.
So said my father, when he taught me the duty that all of us in my family must shoulder: the bloodletting.
As I stood watching, enrapt, the blood dripping from his slit skin, curiosity bloomed upon my lips and found expression: “What if you don’t give it blood, Father?”
“Then the spells would fade and the enemy outside would annihilate us all. You can’t let that happen, Sang.”
“And what would happen if our blood runs out?”
“It won’t.” Father, too, watched his blood stream thick and red-black. “As long as the spell drinks, one of us will live to feed it.”
After the others were murdered, I tested that truth. Gripped in a thrall of grief for my mother, my father, my brother, I tried multiple times.
I tried exsanguination, the slice of a blade across wrists.
Shivers, pervasive cold, unable to escape the vehement shuddering in my core. Freezing.
Then waking weak and pale but with my heartbeat pumping blood beneath flesh.
I tried a leap from a tower.
Impact, violently winded, my bones crunched, cracked, pain jolting through my spine, my head splitting in an inescapable ache.
Then waking tender and sore but with my bones whole.
I tried starvation.
Unable to move, I lay listless, sure I’d beat the curse that time.
But then came the bugs, spiders, flies, swarming. They climbed, crawled, or flew into my mouth, squeezing between my lips and forcing themselves past my silent shrieks and down my throat to their deaths so I may live.
That was the last time I tried.
A murderer may try to kill me, but they cannot stop it any more than I could.
I am the only one left of my line, and I am the magic’s sustenance.
I glide down worn stone stairs deep beneath the mansion, and in the sphere of my candle’s radiance, I kneel on a mosaicked floor.
A blade presses against my flesh, then I open my vein and tilt my wrist above a bottomless hole.
I let my blood pour into the magic, and in so doing, for another day, I protect every living soul within these walls from the war and destruction outside the mists.
Which means I make the choice to imprison my boy with his abuser another day, and I pray he will survive to kiss me again, and I’m ashamed.
I no longer know whether I spill my blood into good, or evil.
The next day, the girl trades her wares for my baubles with a troubled mien.
Something’s amiss, her smile of freedom pinned down to a butterfly board by grief.
The boy does not come at all.
I wait for him, of course, by the rose arbor, in the scatter of shed petals dying upon the sward.
I bite my lips to a plump, jeweled red until they shine blood-bright from the hunger of my anxiety. In the rippled reflection of the fish pond, they match the rose-red hue that lacerated his skin.
Today, they provide shade to nothing but old blood: his spilled ache from past thrashings.
That night, I wander in worthless spate after worthless spate of listlessness. I pace and pause and peer through the gate, and I implore him to come. I linger, longing for him to limp up the path with his pained smile.
The only pained smile tonight, however, stirs upon my own lips.
I cave and I ask the girl. The next morning, beneath a damp, weeping sky that moistens the world beneath my feet to soggy ground, I ask: A boy, with tattooed wings? Where…
Her face crumples. Her brother.
Her brother! I think. But she mourns, and my off-rhythm heart has no time to brace.
Her confession shambles out:
A hard clout, a clumsy fall, his skull clipped and half-cleaved by an iron edge.
No more to rise.
I cannot feed it anymore.
This curse. The magic.
I will not sustain the protection of a town that did not protect the boy.
Once, I read that grief is only love with nowhere to go.
That is me now, my love on a blocked path with no fork in the way, no other avenue for it to tread.
In the furor of that uncaught love for him, I spare a small dab of wondering for myself.
If I do not feed the magic, will it cease feeding me? Will my murderer finally succeed, as the weakening magic cannot infuse my veins with magical life?
I cannot imagine…not waking up.
I still do wake, however, those first few nights, my hair sticky from waking in puddles of congealed black blood.
A slit throat, a smooth garrote.
Like some garish murderess, I bathe those mornings in bathwater turned scarlet.
Denied my blood, the magic dwindles.
The walls decline like stone slowly crumbling into my blood, pebbles beneath my skin rolling off the cliff of my heart.
As they collapse, I collapse, all within me folding in.
I should be shriveling up, but my skin glows a healthy, rosy peach; my eyes go olive-dark and oil-glossed. My love that has nowhere to go yearns to go beyond.
I sense the enemy scavenging the breadth of our decaying perimeter. They prowl there on clawed feet: monstrous, furred, fanged, tailed. Their presence rakes across my skin like fingernails scratching.
They’ve been craving to slay the last of my kind for centuries.
Now they can have us. Every wicked one. Every last bite.
The girl senses it, too, although her demeanor goes not terrified, but anticipatory. As taut as a bow, she’s as vivid and vibrant as violin strings in the culminating intensity of a masterpiece.
She wants out.
She stops killing me every night, for wasn’t it her? She who wanted me to stop the curse from trapping her here? Perhaps she has some lover beyond our boundaries, though I’ve no clue how she found one.
But her love still has somewhere to go, unlike mine, and now true freedom hovers near at hand, almost within her grasp. Why bother killing me anymore? I no longer bind anyone to this place.
And those in town all know that the boundaries wane.
When the last of the walls topple, I’m lying on the roof of my mansion beneath a sky of stars. The weightlessness of the magic remnants fading from my blood whirls through me like a thousand birds in flight.
I lie depleted but flying, vacant but brimming with laughter—or madness.
Wings swish through air.
Claws click on the roof.
The shadow of my kneeling enemy falls upon me.
The whisper of his breath upon my lips—like roses and bruises and…love.
I open my eyes to my wounded boy, all scraped with injuries beneath his tattered shirt of stains, his wrists a-clink with manacles, a buckled leather leash upon his neck, and at his back, a host of claws and fur and jutting jaws.
I thought him gone, and yet here he kneels with his hurting smile. Abused not by his father, but…
His sister—my would-be killer, the merry little murderess—stands purring behind him, unabashedly kissing the throat of the enemy queen.
The fanged queen bares bloodied teeth.
How many did she kill tonight?
Those I’d wrenched protection from. And for what?
Quivering like a melody, the girl scarcely tears her lips away from kissing the queen to strew together words. “I knew thinking my sweet idiot brother was gone would break you. What shall we do with them now, my queen?”
Blood-red lips peel back from blood-dotted fangs. The queen fans out her razor claws. “We need something to chase.” Her claw swipes down, severing the boy’s leash. “Now run.”
Here ya go so there ain't just two stories... :-D
Sonya Lano |
I die for the thirty-second time in a parlor.