Chapter Seven: The Luck of the Draw

(A/N: I apologize once more for the long wait between chapters. Hope you enjoy this update! The journey begins! Ahahahaha!)

The stars were taking their places in the dark velvet sky as Erik and Sadira set off into the night. The fastest way to Ashraf was through the Elburz mountains. Erik knew most of the routes, he had made sure of it—at least this way, he did not run the risk of being seen.

He rode ever faster, the night wind rippling through his cloak and tearing at his mask. Another figure, that of Sadira and her horse, was growing steadily closer. Poor child. It had been obvious from the moment she'd set eyes on the horses he'd chosen that she had never ridden before.

"It's just that they're so tall," she'd said, looking warily at the two horses. "How are you supposed to stay on? And what if they throw you, or bite you?"

He had laughed; a harsh, grating sound. "Are you telling me that a girl who will sneak into the bedroom of the most feared man in Persia is afraid to ride a horse?"

Her dark eyes had lowered to the ground. "My mistress used to ride often. She wanted to teach me, but…yes, I was afraid."

"Be afraid if you like," he had said, "But do not let the horse know you are afraid! Her name is Marjan, and she's quite gentle. Mount on the left side, and climb into the saddle. Like this."

He had tried to move as slowly as possible, so that Sadira might see how it was done. Once he had mounted his own horse, he had motioned for Sadira to do the same.

Sadira had complied, rather shakily. But she made it into the saddle relatively unscathed. For her part, Marjan seemed almost bored. Erik's own horse, Xerxes, shifted as though impatient to move.

"Now, nudge him with your heels, like so." He nudged his own horse, who promptly walked few steps forward.

Sadira dug her heels into the horse's sides. Nothing happened. Throwing Erik a somewhat helpless look, she tried again.

The second time, Marjan took off like a shot, kicking up clouds of dust. Sadira had uttered a sharp cry, and Erik rode after her.

Finally, he caught up with Sadira and Marjan, reaching out with one bony hand to steady the horse. It wasn't working.

"STOP!" he bellowed. The horse immediately stopped moving. Sadira was staring at him, her eyes very wide. Glancing down at her hands gripping the reins, he saw that her knuckles were white.

"You nudged too hard," Erik explained. "I should have warned you. Are you hurt?"

"No, I don't think so," Sadira replied, still looking as though she'd seen a ghost. "I just couldn't stop her."

"That's easy," Erik said. "All you must do is pull back on the reins and say 'Stop' or 'Whoa' or something to that effect. Marjan is well-trained. She'll know what you mean."

It was strange. In the past few weeks, he'd had more normal conversations with people than he could ever remember having in his entire life. It couldn't last, of course. Nothing good could possibly survive in such a cruel world. Erik had learned that lesson many years ago.

And yet, here was this little maid, putting her trust—and her life—in his hands. For some reason, he did not want her innocence to be destroyed. It was a beautiful fantasy, believing that human beings were basically good and kind. He had no right to destroy it, nor did anyone else.

Perhaps Mirza Taqui Khan taught her that, he thought bitterly. Yet another part of a world I can never enter.

She was looking at him a bit strangely now. "Erik? Are you angry with me?"

"No," he replied, a little too quickly. "Come now. We must reach Ashraf before the children reach adulthood!"

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Sadira was not sure how long they had been riding. She was still nervous, and Marjan seemed to sense it. Erik had told her she would have to work hard to win the animal's respect. At the moment, she was far too tired to care.

"How far have we gone?" she asked, hoping her tone was not too plaintive. Riding on horseback was very different from riding in a litter with her lady, as she had done every other time she had left the palace.

"About two or three miles, judging by the stars," Erik replied.

Sadira looked up. The stars did not look any different to her.

"We'll stop here for the rest of the night," Erik said, pointing toward an outcropping of rocks just ahead of them. Upon closer inspection, they formed a crude shelter that would protect occupants from the worst of the rain or wind. "I built a whole chain of shelters throughout these mountains."

"You built all of them?" Sadira asked, dismounting rather awkwardly from Marjan. "Why?"

Erik's golden eyes glittered in the starlight, seeming to glow. "Because I wish to avoid humanity. And what better place for a monster to hide than in a cave?"

Sadira did not know how to respond. Instead, she decided to focus on practical matters. "Shall I set out the blankets?"

"Yes," Erik replied, pulling back on the reins and dismounting. "I shall start a fire."

The shelter was roomier than it looked from the outside—quite comfortable, though she would not wish to stay there for a lengthy amount of time. She could not quite stand up, so she knelt down to set out the supplies they would need for the night.

After tethering the horses on a narrow rock, Erik began preparations to start the fire.

From the inside of the shelter, Sadira watched Erik work. He'd brought some kindling in his pack, which he had made into a small pile. Taking a flint from his pocket, he struck once, twice, and finally a spark appeared.

Reflections from the newly born flame danced on the surface of his mask, casting an eerie light on those motionless features.

Sadira had never seen Erik's face. She had heard stories, of course, from the ladies-in-waiting who had been in attendance at Erik's presentation to the khanum.

"A face like a skeleton buried for three hundred years, and risen from the grave!" one had said.

"His eyes are burning with the fires of hell!" claimed another.

"He is a demon! No human could have a face like that!" the youngest had cried.

Watching him now, intent on his fire, Sadira could not help but shiver. What lay beyond that mask that inspired such horror? She was curious, of course, but she was not about to attempt finding out. Sadira had a feeling that asking Erik to remove his mask would be suicidal at best.

"Do…do you want me to do anything else?" she asked tentatively, as she finished arranging the blankets.

Erik looked up sharply, as though he had just noticed that she was still there. "No. If you like, you can sleep. I will be there shortly."

Curling up on the blankets, Sadira felt warm and safe next to the small fire. She had to trust Erik—there was no one else. There was no reason not to trust him. He had never broken his word so far.

That was when the full impact of their journey hit her. Sadira's eyelids flickered, then closed.

In moments, she was asleep.

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"Sometimes," Nadir remarked, "I wonder if you are suicidal, Captain."

Sebastien turned, his blue-green eyes alight with mischief. "You can call me Sebastien, if you like. It's hard to share near-death experiences with people and still insist on formality."

Nadir sighed. It had been hours since Erik and Sadira had left on their journey, and he had accepted Sebastien's invitation to stay aboard the ship a bit longer. Judging by the view from the captain's porthole, it was still well into the night. The captain had poured them both coffee, which they were now drinking at the table, by the bright light of the ship's lanterns.

"Don't change the subject, Sebastien," Nadir said at last. "Erik is dangerous. It is not wise to provoke him."

Sebastien looked up. "I thought he was your friend."

"He is. That doesn't mean he isn't dangerous. To truly be someone's friend, you must see the worst in them and care for them anyway." Nadir was struck by the emotion in his words. "Erik and I have seen the worst in each other."

"What do you mean?" Sebastien asked quietly.

Nadir could not meet Sebastien's eyes. He turned to the porthole as he spoke.

"A few months ago, my son died of a long and painful illness. He was suffering…and Erik had been his friend as well as mine. Reza—my son—had a peaceful, painless death because of Erik. I almost wouldn't let him. I…I was selfish."

"I'm sorry about your son," Sebastien said, his voice soft. "I don't believe that you were selfish in the least. It's only natural to want to keep the ones we love with us, for as long as possible."

Nadir smiled sardonically. "Whether it is in their best interest or not? Perhaps someday you will know what it is to be a father…but I hope to Allah you never know what it is to watch your child suffer."

"I hope not. I doubt that I could handle it as well as you seem to be doing. Anyone else would have hanged themselves by now," Sebastien replied.

Nadir laughed, but there was no mirth in the sound. "I did try to kill myself, shortly after that. Erik stopped me. He saved my life. He said it was because, as Reza had been all that I had….I was all that he had. I did not try again."

"I think I understand now," Sebastien remarked, leaning heavily on the table as he stood up gingerly. "And again, I am sorry. Erik is lucky to have a friend like you."

"As I am lucky to know him," Nadir responded, with a genuine smile.

Sebastien sighed. "In any case, I probably shouldn't have been so brusque earlier. I have a tendency to let whatever is in my head come out of my mouth, without bothering to consider the consequences. But I meant what I said. I was genuinely concerned for Sadira. And," he added, glancing at Nadir, "I am not afraid of Erik."

"I know," Nadir replied. "But you need not seek to prove your valor. Erik and I have seen it for ourselves."

A sudden meow interrupted them. Pirate the cat was rubbing himself against Sebastien's ankles. The cat had been an unexpected gift from Erik to Sebastien, upon discovering how well the two had bonded during Sebastien's stay in Erik's chambers.

Both Nadir and Sebastien laughed, grateful for the release of tension.

"He's just hungry," Sebastien commented, as Pirate leapt onto the table. He reached down to pet the cat, who purred loudly in response. "I ought to see if Jacques can spare anything from the galley."

Nadir stared in disbelief. "That behemoth is your cook?"

Sebastien smiled. "Jacques is large, but he's loyal as they come—and, yes, an excellent cook to boot. Can I interest you in leftovers as well?"

Nadir chuckled. "I think not, Sebastien. I had best be on my way."

"In that case, good night," Sebastien said, with a polite nod.

"Goodnight, my friend," Nadir responded, smiling.

He stepped out of the cabin and into the cool night air. Somewhere, he knew, Erik and Sadira were beginning their journey. Nadir had the utmost faith in his friend—when Erik set himself to task, little could distract him. That quality had proven to be both a blessing and a curse.

Ah, Erik…I would see you set free from this place. I would see your genius allowed to roam free, and mankind to accept you. I would see you find love, and have it returned. If it were in my power to do all of this, I would. Alas, I am but one man. And all I can offer you is my own friendship.

I wish to Allah that were enough.

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The next morning, Pareesa woke up from her ever-thinning haze to the sound of the cabin door opening. A sudden wave of fear gripped her—what if it was Erik, back to finish her off for good? But no, he had never been here. She had been dreaming.

But it had felt so real…she had heard the floorboards creaking underneath his feet, felt the wind that caused his cape to billow softly…

The anger that had radiated from those golden eyes…frightening, all-consuming fury…that was the image that haunted the back of her mind.

Opening her eyes, she peered over the edge of her blankets.

"Oh, you're awake," Captain de Chagny said cheerfully, setting down a tray of food on the table next to her hammock. "I brought you something. Jacques' specialty. Have you ever tried crepes?"

Pareesa sat up, and glanced at the plate. "No, I haven't. It looks…"

She wanted to say delicious, but the very smell made her sick. What she wouldn't give for her opium pipe right now…

No. No! Not when she was so close. Not when she would soon have her children back, and escape this horrible place for good. But then, how could she face her children, after what she had allowed to happen to them? Would they blame her?

Did the others blame her? Sadira, the captain, and the daroga? Did they believe her a failure as well?

"You look troubled," the Captain said gently, his blue-green eyes meeting her brown ones. "You needn't worry about the children. They'll be fine."

"I hope so," Pareesa replied, looking down at the tray of food. "I wish I could have gone with Sadira. I don't like the idea of her traveling alone with some strange man."

"Her guide is a man of honor," Captain de Chagny said, "I made sure of that before they left."

Pareesa snorted. It was involuntary, and extremely unladylike. "Men say that, but no matter how often they give their word, the moment they have the opportunity…they become savage beasts."

The Captain's eyebrows shot up. He looked as surprised as she felt at the harsh, bitter tone her voice had taken.

"Not all of us, my lady," he said after a moment's pause. "Some men are, I can't argue with that. But I am not. Nor are a good many of my sailors."

"Are you certain of that, Captain?"

"Fairly certain," the Captain replied, looking as though he were remembering something very unpleasant. "In any case, you needn't worry for Sadira. She seems to be a girl with a good deal of courage."

Pareesa smiled a little, the memory of her friend pulling her out of her black thoughts. "She is. You should have seen her when she first came to the palace. She was a little child who didn't speak a word of Farsi. She's come quite a long way."

Whereas I seem to have regressed, Pareesa thought darkly. I should have been searching for my children, instead of smoking opium and letting my husband—

A horrible thought had suddenly occurred to her. If Ahmad found her—but no, she could not allow herself to consider that. The possibility was too frightening. His fury would be the death of her, she was certain of that. Ahmad would not let her live for her transgressions. Even if he did, Pareesa was sure that the alternative would be far worse than any death sentence, however creative.

"My lady, you're shivering," the Captain spoke up. "Shall I find you another blanket?"

Pareesa couldn't meet his eyes. "Yes, please."

While Captain de Chagny rifled through the nearest trunk for a spare blanket, Pareesa busied herself with breakfast. The crepes had little taste--but then, most food held no taste for her anymore. It was sustenance, and she forced herself to choke it down.

The captain came back a moment later, draping the spare blanket over her. "There you are. Is that better?"

"Yes, Captain" Pareesa replied automatically. She could not meet his eyes.

"My lady, are you sure..." Captain de Chagny paused, searching for the words. "I know I'm a stranger, but clearly something troubles you. Please trust me...I'm here to help you."

"No one can help me."

"I don't believe that. Not if you still want to be helped," he replied.

Pareesa looked up sharply. "And if I don't? What will you do then?"

Captain de Chagny raised an eyebrow. "Not a bad question, my lady. I hadn't considered that possibility."

Her temper flared. "It is not a question of wanting to be helped or not, Captain. It is impossible. Can you bring the dead back to life? Can you turn back time? If so, perhaps you might assist me!"

"I wish I had both skills," Captain de Chagny replied honestly. Pareesa was temporarily disconcerted. She had expected something like Sadira's terminal optimism, or her mother's insincerity.

"How would you use them?" she asked.

He smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I would bring back the members of my crew that fell in the line of duty, and go back to being a bored young aristocrat. I can't do it now, after seeing so much of the world. Once, believe it or not, I set out for adventure."

"And now?" Pareesa prompted.

He sighed. "As it turns out, I've found that adventure has a high cost. Friends and shipmates, for example."

Pareesa considered this, as a sudden vision of her late husband came to mind. "Love has a high cost, also."

"True," Captain de Chagny agreed. "Of course, one could argue that love is yet another kind of adventure."

"Perhaps," Pareesa replied, fighting back the wave of memories that threatened to overwhelm her. Mirza's arms around her, the soft summer breeze surrounding them as they watched the children play in the courtyard…

She swallowed hard, banishing her tears to the back of her throat. Clearing it abruptly, she asked, "Will you tell me about your family, Captain?"

"Sebastien," he corrected her automatically. "And yes, if you like. It's a bit dull, in all honesty."

"I don't mind."

Sebastien considered. "If I do, will you eat the rest of that crepe?"

Pareesa looked down at her plate. A crepe and a half remained of her meal. She had no appetite, but she could not sit alone in her cabin, either. Somehow, she did not wish to be alone right now.

"You have a bargain," she said.

Sebastien bowed as best he could while sitting down. "Well, then, let me aquaint you with the illustrious Chagny family. The current head of the family is my oldest brother, Philibert, the Comte de Chagny. His wife is a sweet lady—you'd like her, I think. Isabelle's a bit of a romantic, but she has a sense of humor. They've got a little boy, Phillipe. As fine a lad as I've ever seen. Named after one of my older brothers. I made Philibert promise to name the next boy after me."

"How many brothers do you have?" she asked.

"Four, including myself. And a sister. I'm in the middle," Sebastien replied.

Pareesa smiled, feeling a little envious. "You must miss them."

She would give anything to have parents and siblings that she missed. Did her own children miss her? A loving family was precious…and she had been a part of one, even if she had not had one herself. The guilt of allowing circumstances to tear her from her family was almost unbearable.

"Sometimes," Sebastien responded. "We got along most of the time, but I couldn't…I could never seem to keep my mouth shut when I was supposed to."

"Isn't that merely honesty?"

He smiled mischievously. "In good society, they just call it bad manners."

She laughed, surprising herself. Pareesa had never expected to laugh again. In the past few months, there had been precious little to laugh about.

"And now," Sebastien said, picking up Pareesa's fork and holding it out to her, "I believe we had a bargain?"

Smiling, she took it from him. "Oh, very well. I'll try."

He nodded, handing her a napkin as well. "That's really all any of us can do, isn't it?"

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"Erik?" Sadira inquired from beside him, as they rode along their trail. The sun was high as they reached a bend in the path. Though not entirely unpleasant, he could see that it was beginning to take its toll on Sadira. She kept trying to shade her eyes, which was no easy task when also trying to hold onto the horse's reins with both hands.

At last, he spotted a small grove of trees ahead, which provided an inviting shade.

"Yes?" he replied, expecting for her to ask for a short reprieve. Though, in all fairness, for someone as unused to travel as Sadira was, she was doing quite well. He could have traveled faster on his own, but then, some things simply couldn't be helped. "We'll stop in a moment."

"It's not really that…" Sadira began hesitatingly, "It's just…I've been thinking. What if we run into trouble in Ashraf?"

Erik considered. "If we do, leave it to me."

She sighed. "I just mean…if we run into trouble, I don't like the idea of being helpless. I can't fight or shoot or anything like that. I was wondering if…if perhaps you might teach me to…"

"Teach you to fight? I would rather not. Teaching you to fight would lead to teaching you to kill…and I do not believe that you would want that," he said after a moment's pause.

"I don't want to kill anyone," Sadira responded quietly. "If you can show me how to defend myself, I would feel much better. That's all."

Erik turned in his saddle to look at her. Her tone of voice was polite, as always, but her expression was firm and resolute. It was a practical suggestion, but he had to admit that part of his reluctance stemmed from his own pride. The idea of his not always being able to protect her had obviously already occurred to Sadira. He loathed considering the possibility, but now that he was faced with it...

"The best thing is to use what you already know," he said at last. "Use what you are skilled at when fighting off an attacker."

Sadira stared in disbelief. "Like what? Braiding their hair?" She immediately clapped her hand over her mouth, shocked at her own sarcastic outburst.

Erik laughed. He hadn't thought the girl was even acquainted with the concept of sarcasm. After a moment, she laughed, too.

"That is another thing," he continued, smoothly changing the subject. "Your laugh is...shall we say...rather effeminate. Can you do it again, more deeply?

Sadira attempted to lower her voice, achieving a poor falsetto. "Ha ha ha!"

He couldn't help it. Erik started to laugh again, harder.

Sadira tried again. "Ah ha ha ha!" Now she was imitating his laugh. Before they knew it, they were both laughing.

This must be the way normal people interact, Erik thought. It was almost alien to him, talking like this with a woman. Strange how it wasn't much different from talking with Nadir. The idea that he could have more than one friend—or, more accurately, that more than one person would wish to befriend him at any given time—was a new revelation for Erik.

But you're not her friend, came the irritating, familiar voice at the back of Erik's mind. She needs you, that's the only reason she trusts you. If she saw your face, saw what you were truly capable of…she would turn away. And can you deny that she would have every reason to?

Erik had long ago ceased to wonder what his life would have been like had he not been cursed with this face. To his view, there were simply too many other important things that needed doing---especially since he'd arrived in Persia. The khanum goaded him every chance she got about his face, but her style of mocking was very different compared to what Erik was used to. It was slow, subtle and cruel…like a poisonous viper.

That wasn't a bad comparison, actually. The khanum was very snakelike, although that could very well have been an insult to snakes worldwide.

Thinking of the khanum had brought him out of his good mood. His eyes fixed on the road ahead, as they directed their horses into the shade.

"We'll rest here," he said brusquely. Sadira looked surprised, but did not offer a reply. She merely dismounted, and gave the reins to Erik, who tethered the two horses.

"I'm sorry if I've been too bold," she said, in an almost inaudible voice. "I didn't mean to offend—"

"You didn't!" he snapped. "I was merely…thinking of something else, far less pleasant."

Sadira sat down on the ground, leaning against a nearby tree. Erik stood with his hand braced on another tree, glaring at the sky that peeked through the leaves above. He hated Shaheen Khanum, and her desire for increasingly more grotesque deaths. Yet he could not pretend that he had not experienced a certain thrill in taking another human life. It was almost a kind of revenge on mankind—it gave him the satisfaction of knowing that he had triumphed in some small way over the very beings that shunned him.

Erik had separated himself from the human race long ago. And only a few moments prior, he had felt as though he were as much a part of the human race as Captain de Chagny, or Nadir. At the same time, however, he felt…tainted, as though he was not worthy of interacting with other people. He had killed for pleasure. Even if he were not afflicted with a monstrous face, this in itself would be enough to isolate him.

A small cough from nearby jolted him out of his reverie, and suddenly reminded him that there was, in fact, another person in the clearing with him.

"Pardon me," Sadira said tentatively. "But M—I mean, Erik, there's something you should see."

"What is it?"

Sadira stood up, and pointed toward the path. "Someone is coming."

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Nadir caught sight of himself in the shining surface of the golden vase placed next to the door of the throne room. He looked harried and anxious, not to mention tired. Upon his return in the early hours of the morning, he had managed a few precious hours of sleep before the inevitable summons from the shah.

Nasir Shah would want to know why Nadir had not accompanied Erik to Ashraf. He had rehearsed what he was going to say, and hoped that the shah would believe him. To even think of telling the truth was as good as penning his death warrant.

"Yes, O Shadow of God. Erik and I have conspired to rescue your sister from her marriage, reunite her with her children, and defy you under your very nose! What do you think of that, you jumped-up little poppinjay?"

Defying the royal family was one thing Nadir had never thought that he would do. Until he'd met Erik, the mere thought of defiance would have filled him with terror. To a certain extent, it still did. But that terror was mingled with a new, even more powerful feeling. The feeling that came from doing what you knew to be right, regardless of the consequences.

Nadir still considered the consequences, of course. He was Nadir Khan, Daroga of Mazenderan. By nature he was cautious—it was that skill that had allowed him to stay alive in the shah's treacherous court for so long.

Erik had performed for many people over the years, both rich and poor. Nadir could sympathize, as he had been performing for the shah and the khanum ever since he had entered the court. Perhaps that was one of the reasons he and Erik had become friends.

The mask that Erik wore was carefully made, and visible to all. The mask that Nadir wore was just as carefully made, but it was invisible to all but Erik.

Now he stood on the threshold of the throne room, waiting for the guard to notice and announce his presence. It was not something he was looking forward to. But for now, it was time to put on his own mask—and pray to Allah that it did not slip.