Authors: Ava Zavora
“Good evening, my lord,” I finally say, my hands folded in front of me.
Your voice is measured and strained. You look at the wine next to you, then the key dangling from my wrist. You do not ask me why I have let myself in your room at this late hour, uninvited.
I unfold my hands and untie the silk sash around my waist. I tremble as I let my robe fall slowly to the ground. Although I am near enough to feel the heat from the flames licking my bare skin, I shiver.
You do not move as I stand before you. Neither do your eyes roam me, the way others do, even when I am fully clothed.
“Do I not please you?” I ask.
You breathe deeply, your eyes briefly closing. “You do not need me to tell you how beautiful you are.”
I ask, on the edge of hysteria, voice shrill. "What do you know of my needs?" You watch me, I think, fully resigned to hearing what I have to say. "I have been assured since birth that I am, indeed, beautiful," I say matter-of-factly, without any pleasure or pride, "yet my husband will not touch me." I kneel before you, searching your locked face. "Why?"
You say nothing, but flinch ever so slightly at my nearness. Something is clenched and about to rear were I to touch you.
"Am I so repulsive to you?" I ask softly, as if calming a wild thing caught in the woods and lean a fraction closer. "I have had nothing but time on my hands to wonder what it is I have done to drive you away from me or what I haven’t done to prove myself to you. Have I not made it clear enough that I am at your feet? You have only--"
"I cannot satisfy you," you interrupt as you abruptly rise from your chair and walk away from me. "I am so very sorry," you say gently as you stare at the fire, not even granting me the full weight of your glance.
"Cannot?" I ask stupidly, still kneeling by your empty chair. "Or will not?" I swallow the painful knot of tears in my throat and stand, without coming closer. "We were close once. Before. Remember?" I am halting and force down my hand, which wants to reach to you. “Tell me what it is I need to do. Is this another test I must pass? Is there a task I must complete so that all will be right between us?"
You consider your words carefully before turning towards me. "There is nothing you can do, no wrong that you can right. There is nothing you need to prove. Please believe me when I say that you have not erred."
"Is there someone else?"
You shake your head sorrowfully. "I have been selfish and unfair. I have taken so much from you, you who had walked into the darkness to save your father and then saved me, and for this I honor---"
"That is all I am," I ask painfully, "a debt to be discharged?" You do not disagree. "Is my love so accursed that I must suffer every day and every night? You know better than anyone, don't you, how I suffer?" I have come closer with every accusatory word so that you cannot escape my anguish.
"You’re distressing yourself. Let me call for one of your handmaidens--."
“No!" I scream. "Stop treating me like a child. Haven’t I done all that has been required of me? I came here willingly in my father’s place. I’ve kept the bargain that I had no part in making. And when I was given a choice, I chose you--not the land that has been restored to you, not the wealth nor the power, not even the beauty that you now wear, but the beast whose heart beats in here." And with this I place my hand on your chest and press my whole body against yours. “I know you better than you think."
For the first time I am so close that I can feel the beating of your heart and I think for a moment that perhaps there is light in the darkness, but in the next beat, it is smothered by the panic in your face. Somehow you disentangle yourself from my arms and stand aside, your breaths deep and labored as if it had cost you greatly to do so.
Looking down in a gesture of defeat, you say quietly, "Believe me when I say that I know how difficult it has been for you and deeply regret being the cause of your suffering." You start walking away and I am struck by the cruelty of your grace. “But I am unable to give you what you want.”
Remaining with your back to me you say, "I will understand if you wish to take comfort elsewhere." In the silence that follows, I struggle to comprehend what you have just given leave for me to do, perhaps what you had expected me to do once we were wed.
"Comfort elsewhere?" I repeat slowly. I catch my reflection in the mirror, the flawless luminescence of my skin, radiant with undying fire, every inch useless in its perfection. I can think of a half dozen men who would kill for a chance to comfort me, but the thought of them, or anyone in your place fills me with great sadness. Something in the slump of your shoulders suggests that it was not easy for you to wound me so and had there been an alternative, you would have taken it.
"Help me," I beg, "to understand. I know that I am not quick, that I have no talent for anything but being beautiful, but I know this much, whatever magic love is, it is stronger than the curse that enslaved you. It cannot ever be broken nor usurped, even when it is not returned."
I can see that you're not unmoved but still you say nothing. "You tell me that there is nothing I can do, but in this you are perhaps mistaken. Whatever it is that you’re keeping from me---you don’t need to face it alone. Just let me show you."
Again impenetrable silence.
“I have not erred? Then why do you punish me?”
“If our marriage is a punishment, then perhaps..." Your words trail off and I see in your face what you cannot voice.
One by one my arguments fall lifeless all around us like dead birds from the sky. It is hard for me to imagine now that my words ever had the power to change anything at all.
"If there is a debt to be repaid, then repay it to me, on my terms. Don't you think I am owed?" You turn your head back to me, your eyes in a grave and silent plea.
"You do not love me." I say these words calmly, in a guise of acceptance and reason. "I offer you everything and you want none of it. I will trouble you no more. But in exchange, I ask only one thing." You wait without a word.
Without hesitation you shake your head.
"That is all I ask. You withhold from me everything else--give me this one small thing and I will never ask anything of you again."
"No!" You shout and I am startled. This is the first time you have raised your voice in anger. "This will never be."
"Never?" The finality of that word sits bitterly between us.
You again avert your gaze from mine. "If it is a child you wish, you may obtain one by other means. I will claim any child you bear, however many you wish to have, but I will not inflict on another the curse that runs through my veins." At long last, I understand but it gives me no comfort to hear how broken you are. "In time you will realize that you are not without the keys to your own happiness. I will not stand in your way." You pick up my robe and give it back to me without once meeting my eyes.
"You are the key to my happiness! Let me in, please, before it is too late," I plead as you turn away from me once more. I am one of those helpless birds that beats itself senseless against immoveable rocks again and again, never stopping until it is dead. “Please, look at me.”
"It is out of my control."
Something cracks within me. I have nothing else but the red vial concealed in the pocket of my robe. My fingers find it and within seconds, I have spilled its contents all over me. The intoxicating perfume of a freshly slaughtered lamb strangles the air. You smell before you see the thick blood that dresses me.
The effect is instantaneous. Your hands clench like claws, the baring of your teeth, your eyes crazed with an overwhelming, sudden hunger, and your whole body is poised to pounce, the muscles rigid with barely contained frenzy.
Shaking, I approach you, blood running down my breasts, between my thighs, down to the floor. I can see that you are using all of your control to keep from taking me, so I force your face to the blood on me. You growl fiercely, struggling to resist, but I can sense your hunger overpowering you.
Shhh,” I hush. “This is what you want,” I say before tasting your bloodied lips.
I am filled with ecstasy for at long last, I feel you succumb to me, your hands grasping my flesh so tightly that I scream in pain, but oh, what a sweet pain it is when you start to ride against me, your mouth sucking hungrily each drop of innocent blood I’ve spilt. My longing is unleashed and tears flow freely as you lick the inside of my thighs and then the exquisitely agonizing moment when you enter me---We are one, finally, and you are mine.
“I love you,” I whisper softly.
Dreadful stillness and then you scream the inhuman scream of an animal in unimaginable pain. You fall away to the floor where you thrash wildly, your hands on your head, terror bombarding your senses. I cry out in horror. There is no recognition in your mad eyes as they roll in their sockets, your bloody face a frightening mask of torment.
I reach a hand to calm you but at my touch, you throw me away from you in one violent swing.
Darkness meets me as I hit the cold stone floor.
Half a day passes before I awaken in my own bed, alone, one side of my body bruised purple and black and my head gripped in an excruciating vise. I limp to your empty room where servants have cleared away most of the damage, but I can still see the deep gashes on the walls, some blood on the floor and the drapes that had been savagely torn. No one can tell me where you have gone and it is with pity that I am told you have left no message for me.
In the days that follow, I hear of your travels in far off lands, across mountains and forests, it seems to the edge of the world. I hoard every crumb of news, thankful for whatever magic keeps you alive. Months pass and when my belly does not grow large, I withdraw into my chamber and weep as if you had died.
My grief makes me lovelier still. In your absence, lord and peasant alike, even kings make bold advances in the name of love, enthralled by the fame of my beauty. I banish them all, one by one, and the castle slowly empties of life.
The distant hour arrives when you do come home, many days after I had taken poison that had kept me in a sleeping death. As if I were a princess in a fairy tale, I awaken on the day of your return. You are thinner, darker, your beauty sharpened by months of wandering. You are wary as you look down on me.
“Will you stay for good?” are my first words.
With the slightest pause, you touch my cheek briefly. Your hand is steady as you tell me to rest.
You do not leave again and slowly I regain my strength. You are kind and attentive and even manage to touch me once or twice. No mention is made of the night before you left.
We have finished dining, you and I. When the last dish has been taken away, all that can be heard is the crackling of the fire. By your intense scrutiny of it, I know that you wish to escape the room. I have drunk more than I should have tonight, despite your curt orders for the wine to be taken away.
You dread, not the evening’s close, but the eventual approach of the question that needs answering, the past that did not die among the roses. You wish to go, but ever the gentleman you have become, you stay in polite civility. A night will come when I know you’ll cease to even dine with me in private—you’ll find some excuse.
I rise and you are a half-a-second in following. I stumble---the room is spinning. You hesitate for a fraction in steadying me; there are no servants around to do it for you. I know how it pains you to have to touch me when we are not in front of others.