An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
“I see.” I watched his fingers travel down my chest. “You have a facility. Do you undress people often?”
“You do everything often when you have enough time,” he said. I wondered how he was going to strip the vest from me when my hands were clamped to the ottoman and then he passed it through my arms. I shuddered, tried to pull away as he gathered my blouse at my waist and plucked it free of me, leaving me nude save for my pants and boots and…
“Ah,” he said, thin fingers scooping the pendant up. “You’re wearing it.”
“My captors seemed to have overlooked it,” I said. I had forgotten it myself.
He glanced at me with his heavy-lidded eyes. “No doubt,” he said.
“So,” I said. “Now you will show me the illusion of a life without pain, is that it?”
“Ah,” he said, and laughed to himself. “No. No, I will show you the pain of a life without illusions.” He hooked his foot through the base of the mirror and pulled it over. “Enough talk. It’s time you saw yourself.” And then he slipped around behind me, set his hands on my face and pulled, like he had gripped my skin and was yanking it off my body and everything in me resisted. I would have screamed had I had a voice, but it overwhelmed me, the nausea, the sickness of it, the fingers cutting, clawing, sucking. It was like the room with the elves but worse, a thousand times worse, a violation a thousand times more intimate. I thought I would die—
—and then it sloughed off and the pain vanished. Completely. I glanced up in wild shock and froze.
Behind me the elf smiled, draping his arms around my shoulders and leaning down to rest his cheek against my hair and meet my eyes in the mirror. My eyes. My sea-by-storm-and-starlight eyes. The milk and moonlit cream of my skin. My hair draped to my lap like the velvet nap of the finest gown, droplets of water-jeweled light clinging to its edges. My body grown slim and gracile and glass-edged, refracted from the prism of life.
“My God,” I whispered, a tear darting down one cheek, and it shone.
“The prince lives,” the elf murmured, and he sounded smug.
I swallowed. “That can’t… this can’t… this is falsehood.”
“Your human seeming is the falsehood,” the elf said. “A glamour maintained by the magic in your blood, enchanted to forever feed on itself.”
“What?” I whispered.
“You have been wearing a mask,” he said. “A twisting of your own self by your blood to, I suppose, keep you hidden in plain view. But you have grown too large for the mask, and it takes more and more of you to hold it in place, and now it leeches from your body for fuel. The enchantment was put in place before you came into your power. It is destroying you.”
I stared at myself in disbelief.
“Would you like to move?” the sorcerer asked mildly. He caressed the thorned gossamer chains, unmaking them. “Lift your hands.”
I did. No pain. Just the opposite… a gliding warmth, an ease that made me feel as if I belonged to movement, as if I was the breath of the world and stillness belonged only to that slight hesitation between breaths, to the peace of death. I swallowed and looked at my palms, turned my hands. They were mine, yes, but far more refined. More finished.
“Observe,” the elf said. “Your skin can also give you pleasure.” And he set his lips to the slope of my shoulder and breathed on my skin, warmed it, rolled his lower lip against it. I shivered, and when his teeth rasped against the pendant’s chain and plucked at it I swayed toward him, overcome.
He smiled. “Stand. Move. Try your flesh.”
I said, hoarse, “I’m afraid to,” and even my voice had changed, had gained layers, like the currents beneath the surface of the sea.
“Because?” he asked.
“I don’t want to get used to it,” I said, another tear streaking my cheek. And then to my horror I began to weep, and even crying felt good, felt fine, as if my eyes had grown soft and wet on their own.
“But you can keep it,” he said, caressing my hair.
“If I do something for you,” I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. “Is that right?”
He considered, then reached past me to the desk. There he gathered a crystal die between his fingertips, rolling it as if to caress its surface. He dropped it and glanced at the number. “I suppose so.”
“You suppose?” I asked. “Do you make all your decisions by rolling dice?”
“Yes,” he said. “I do now, anyway. It adds a random element to my life that is otherwise utterly lacking. So now… ah, I suppose I will have to force you to perform a quest for me.”
I could barely believe him. “Just like that, you have decided on something so important.”
“It’s important to you,” he said, leaning back behind me and resuming his stroking of my hair. “Nothing is important to me anymore. Which makes giving you a task a burden.” He sighed. “But we must, we must. Let’s see. I don’t want the bother of keeping you here, so I must send you away. To learn or fetch something. Ah, no. There is something that could be of use to me. I had forgotten.”
“What’s that?” I asked, trying to be suspicious and feeling only a piercing joy so close to sorrow I could not keep my breath, my composure.
“Your brother,” he said. “I would like you to bring me your brother. He has something I’d like to have.”
I glanced at his face in the mirror, found nothing in it: no avarice, no greed, no hunger. Only the same smooth mask. “My brother. The king.”
“Yes,” he said.
“You can keep a tower afloat and strip me clean of an enchantment no one else has even been able to see,” I said, “And you expect me to believe you can’t find another elf and drag him into your lair?”
“Oh, I could,” he said. “I know where he is. But if I did so, it would precipitate another war.”
“Another war,” I repeated.
“I would win,” he said, playing with my hair. “But it would be boring. I’ve done wars before. They hold nothing for me now.” He said, “Besides, I would have to coerce the king to leave with me, and that would be tiresome.”
“And he would just come with me,” I said.
“You are his brother,” the elf said. “I am given to understand he holds such things in high esteem.”
“You probably want to torture him,” I said.
He considered, slowly winding my hair between his fingers. “No,” he said. “At least, I don’t think so. I’ve seen every possible reaction to torture. There’s nothing interesting about it anymore.”
I stared at him. “You mean to tell me you don’t torture people because it doesn’t provide you with enough entertainment?”
“If you torture enough people, you soon discover that one person’s scream is very like the next’s,” he said. “They begin to blend.”
My new skin pebbled into gooseflesh and–God help me!—even that felt good.
“Bring me your brother,” he said. “I will undo this thing from you permanently.”
“Will you promise not to hurt him?” I asked.
He laughed then, that caress of a voice. “Oh, my dear, dear prince.” He lowered his mouth to my neck and breathed on it, licked my skin. “Haven’t you learned that there is no telling what will hurt someone? I could make such a promise, but what a futile promise it would be. Here I have given you your heart’s desire and you are weeping.”
“Do you want me to stop?” he whispered against my skin, sweeping my hair from the back of my neck.
Yes, I thought, and also no, and his arms slid around me from behind.
“Come,” he said. “We’ll dance and you will see what a wonderful gift it is to wear no masks.”
I wanted no such thing, but he turned me in his arms and it was so easy, so easy to move, to twist, to gather that purple mane in my limber fingers. I felt hot as sunlight, as summer, and the other was so cool, so accepting. It bled together, the cold and the fever, the ease, the pleasure, the shimmer of skin and light, and I didn’t know if I kissed a woman or a man or an elf or a demon, or even if it mattered… only that my body oh God my body worked and it yearned.
I knew it was wrong. But I wanted it anyway.
Is this the part where we say “Oh Morgan No”?
Anyway, the answer to the riddle, at last! I hope it has been worth the wait. :D
The Devil’s Offer
Don’t worry if that doesn’t look like the Sidithin in your head… he changes shape. -_-