The demon inside him tried to send him to sleep, and Snowe could taste and feel the casual, possessive kindness in this offer. The thing of fire and hatred within him had grown fond of him during their travels, and offered him the refuge of darkness while it raged and burned. He could accept his defeat and fade, and stars, he was so tired - he was so tempted.
To close his eyes, and to open them later, on some unfamiliar shore, surrounded by the charred and twisted corpses of everybody he ever cared about - and hold himself blamelessly violated. He could go insane then, maybe. It sounded restful.
He stayed awake. The demon let him keep full control of his senses, and overlaid them with his own. The acrid smell of smoke and burning flesh, the tackiness of Astra's blood drying on his arms, the desperate cries of the Sabine people, the pitching of ship's deck under his unsteady feet. His horror, blended with the demon's gleeful, childish pleasure, inseparable in his head.
His entire body sang with readiness, awake and alert as it hadn't been in weeks, months. He could feel every grove of the worn knife handle his fingers were clenched around, every movement of his mouth spitting triumphal obscenities. Searing heat in his eyes, wide open, seared with heat, watching the carnage with avid hunger.
He saw Astra, cradled in Erio's arms, her eyes beginning to glaze over. Richard, collapsing at his feet. Vera, trying to put up the fires creeping up to the engines with her bare hands. Relenia, trying to hide her daughter in the folds of her cloak. Hiante, caught up in flames.
He strained against the demon's hold - it seemed impossible that he couldn't control his limbs when his senses so acutely belonged to him - and was swatted away with effortless amusement. Tsk, the demon said, look but don't touch.
A child was screaming. He was out of time.
He made himself stop fighting for possession of his arms, made himself let go of the sensations - the dull shock of impact traveling down the blade, the warmth of somebody's spilled blood, the crackle of burning wood. Instead, he traveled inside himself - down the stone hallways of his memory, past the rows of carefully locked doors.
He didn't have a plan, or rather, he couldn't afford to think of one, not with the demon listening in on his thoughts. But if he felt the demon's hatred and delight so clearly, unable to separate it from his own sick horror, then it could mean...
Only one chance, and it had to be done right. And so he found the door he had sworn never to open again, a heavy wooden door with a small barred window cut into it, that screeched on its hinges when he pulled it open.
His feet carried him over the threshold, and the memory folded around him, unbearably vivid: the skin of his wrists bubbling under the heated metal of the manacles, the sharp tang of ozone. His mother's lovely, pale face twisted in sneering anger, the indifferent precision of his father's lightning bolts.
He let it in, let it flood him - his body folding in on itself in agony, voiding itself, his voice tearing itself apart, and the pleading, and they still wouldn't stop, and wouldn't stop, and wouldn't -
And then the demon, enraged, called down the fire to roar through the memory, obliterating stone and flesh alike, and in this fraction of a moment Snowe stole control over his abandoned body.
Less than several seconds. Just enough to fumble, without thought, with the leather bag at his belt, and take out a star, and cram it into his mouth.
The demon howled in his head, reverberating through his teeth and the bones of his skull; the demon took back possession of Snowe's hands to claw at his throat, to split the skin of his neck, drawing blood, too late.
Blissfully too late.
The star slid down sweetly, a small crude thing of such impossible weight and meaning. Of such light. Down and down, unspooling him, washing him clean thread by thread. A whole universe of promises building out of his soul and flesh and bones.
Snowe wished he could see it: the fires going out, torn and charred flesh mending itself, spilled blood returning to the bodies it abandoned and restoring its flow. Last chance to fix everything, and he'd gotten it just right, and there would be no more opportunities to mess up. A perfect last act to the tale.
And the prince, he whispered through his unraveling, smiling lips, closed his eyes.
It was agony, of course; but for no longer than eternity. And then, finally, it was dark and quiet.
Disappointingly, the dreams still came; nothing beautiful or particularly scary, just snatches of voices and colors. Movement, pain; a vicious whispered argument over his head; the sight of his own hand, fish-white with fingers dyed rusty red, hanging lifelessly off the edge of the bed. The fleeting sensation of touch against his forehead, tepid water sliding down his throat, setting the abraded flesh there afire. The bitter taste of ash.
Not dreams, then; he resisted the notion for as long as he was able to, curling in on himself tighter and tighter, but eventually his body betrayed him once again.
He opened his eyes to the worn planks of the ship cabin's ceiling.
"Oh finally," Erio said, and sharply clicked his tongue. "Do you know how boring it is to watch somebody sleep?"
Snowe tried to open his mouth, and the air hitting his throat made him gag and cough and brought tears to his eyes. "Stop it," Erio said in sharp annoyance, but then he helped Snowe turn on to his side so he could cough without choking, and his hands were careful and precise. He had cleaned up Snowe's abraded wrists with the same abstract kindness, back in the Sepulchre, and now it must mean that Astra was still alive.
Talking was out of the question, but Snowe managed to make a questioning, suitably pathetic sound, and the second round of hacking and spitting blood and bile it brought up was worth it. He was becoming aware of his body and regretted it: the bandages around his throat, the heavy painful lethargy of his arms and legs, the sensation of burned out emptiness in his core.
Erio wiped his face with a rag, when the fit was over, and set him back on the bed, hiking him up to half-sit, leaning on the piled-up pillows. Snowe found, unpleasantly, that he could not manage to turn or hold up his head by himself.
"First of all," Erio said briskly, "everybody is alive. Your star trick healed everybody, and once your passenger stopped fanning the flames, we managed to put them out without further damage. On that end everything is fine."
"Secondly, you're the dumbest damn moron I've ever met. Why didn't you tell anybody about your dreams? You knew this thing was focused on Astra, and you just - "
And I just didn't want to believe it, Snowe didn't say; even if he could make his throat make words, he knew there were no excuses.
"She's fine," Erio said. "You were in time, if only just. She's the one who patched your throat up. Did you even realize that the star healing was a death spell?"
If only, Snowe thought with weary indifference; he couldn't catch up to his own feelings. His body wouldn't obey him beyond a feeble twitch of his fingers, but Erio interpreted it correctly.
"You should be dead right now, yes. You would be dead, but it turns out your pet demon really doesn't want to lose his host. If you die, he dies too. He held you together for just long enough for Astra to get there with healing magic."
The shock of Erio's words fell like a bolt of lighting. Snowe jolted off the bed, for a moment clear of the chains of exhaustion. He collapsed on himself pretty much immediately, panting through the pain; his fingers spasmed on the blanket. The demon, alive?
He felt acutely grateful then that it was Erio by his bedside, Erio with his knives and his poison. He would understand.
But it wouldn't be necessary, and maybe that's what Erio had come for in the first place. Seemed strange for him to play nursemaid before delivering on mercy, but Erio was properly vindictive when Astra was concerned; perhaps he wanted Snowe to really understand the depth of his transgression, first.
It took almost all he had, but he managed. Tilted his head back, baring his throat, and slanted his eyes at the knife at Erio's hip, and back to his face. Opened his hands, palms up in supplication. Mouthed please.
Erio stared at him for so long Snowe began worrying if he was supposed to do something else - ask forgiveness? Beg more elaborately? And then Erio slapped his palm against his face and made a long groan of heartfelt frustration.
"Out of interest," he muttered from behind his fingers, "if it was not me here but, say, that Vera lady, what you would've done? Asked her to clobber you to death with her workbook?"
He leaned over and took merciless hold of Snowe's chin, making Snowe meet his eyes. "You are an idiot. Do you think I'd let Astra waste all that time and tears and healing on you to waltz in and just kill you afterward? Do you think I want to go out and explain to all the nice worried people jostling for the chance to mop your fevered brow that oops, sorry, I slipped and fell on him with my dagger out? How does it even work out in your head?"
"Too... dangerous," Snowe managed to croak. "I have to..."
"You have to shut up and lie down and stop trying to fix things by yourself for once in your stupid royal life."
His irritation, Snowe had to decide, sounded, for all intents and purposes... fond. It made Snowe's head ache; he felt like he had been left behind a bend somewhere in this conversation, and couldn't find his way around it. He nodded just in case, wide-eyed.
Erio let go of his chin, and got up, walking outside of Snowe's range of vision. There was a clink of the glass and a sound of pouring water, and Snowe involuntarily licked his lips.
When Erio came back with a cup, he took it directly to Snowe's lips, helping him tilt his head back. The water was shockingly cold; it hurt his throat and soothed it at once, and made the inside of Snowe's head feel clearer, sharper.
"Listen well, idiot prince," Erio said. "The demon is alive and inside of you, yes, but between the damage from the star and the effort of keeping you alive, he barely has enough oompf left in him to stay dormant. For now, he's not a problem, and before he becomes a problem again, I'll teach you how to deal with him."
He tilted the glass up again. "Which, for the record, is something I could've done for you literally any moment if you've thought to tell me about an angry demon obsessed with killing Astra living in your head."
Snowe choked on water and doubled over in another coughing fit, Erio's words reverberating through his mind. At any moment? At any moment? He could've prevented it?
"Oh hell," Erio said over his head, distantly dismayed, "no, don't - Astra's going to kill me. Stop, Snowe, come on, I'll give you more water."
He couldn't have stopped if his life had depended on it. He shook, folded in on himself, uncontrollable tears staining his blanket and pouring over his fingers.
Irritation clear in his voice, Erio said, "This better never leave this room." And then he put his arms around Snowe - unexpectedly warm, and steady, smelling of medicinal herbs and smoke - and pulled Snowe up, folded Snowe's face into his shoulder, and stayed, solid and immobile, until Snowe cried himself empty and still.
Then he settled Snowe back into the pillows, firmly but not unkind, and wiped snot and tears first from Snowe's face and then from his own lapels. "Should've held out for Hiante," he said, "if you wanted a hug, the man is a hugging fiend. Better now?"
This was a question quite beyond Snowe's ken right now, and it must have shown. "Hey," Erio said quietly. "You fucked up, but you fixed it, okay? You should learn to know when to ask for help, but we know you tried your best."
Improbably, Snowe's eyes stung again; but this time the tears slipped out painlessly, silently.
"Okay, I draw a line at cuddling," Erio said. "Go to sleep, Snowe. I swear you can rest freely."
A moment and Erio was gone. Then Vera and Richard came, and scolded him, and hugged him, and cried over him, and wiped his face, and changed the bandages around his throat, and didn't need him to talk at all.
Vera's hands were unblemished by burns, and Richard's shirt was whole and clean and had no blood on it. Every time Snowe blinked it took him longer and longer to open his eyes again.
Then Richard sat by his bed and took one of Snowe's hands. Vera sang a lullaby for him.
When he fell asleep this time, there were no more dreams.