Disclaimer: This story borrows approximately four paragraphs from Susan Kay's novel, Phantom. Aside from those paragraphs, to which I claim no right, the words are mine. The characters, though, are Kay's. And of course, Gaston Leroux's. Thank you for reading.
"To refuse me now is to refuse the shah himself," said Erik steadily. "If you resist I shall take you by force and then return you to execution at his hands. But only come to me willingly this one night and I swear you shall go free at dawn. One night buys you the rest of your life and the means to spend it in honorable comfort. And perhaps, after all, that night will not be so terrible as you fear..."
As he bent to offer the girl his hand, she began to tremble uncontrollably, but she dared not refuse. She knew what happened to those who did not obey the shah's wishes.
She did not take the proffered hand, but instead stood up on her own, head bowed, giving her tacit assent to his proposition.
"Leave us!" he commanded with an imperious gesture, and the eunuch seemed only too glad to obey.
The daroga lingered, eyes narrowed as he moved slowly toward the door. "Erik," he began softly, though whether in question or entreaty it was difficult to tell.
"I do not repeat myself," said Erik in dangerously soft tones, and after only a moment's worth of hesitation, the daroga left.
Two fingers gently lifted her chin, and she shivered at the coldness of his touch. Etiquette demanded that she not meet the eyes of her master, but out of some hideous curiosity, she could not help but look up. He did not seem to mind.
His eyes were unreadable behind the mask: dark and noticeably uneven. She shrank into herself as he studied her, but forced herself to remember that if she wanted to stay alive, she must keep her composure. So she did not flinch, even as one of his cold fingers moved to bestow the lightest of caresses upon her cheek.
He stood perfectly still except for the movement of his fingers, and it disquieted her. Finally, fearing that she might betray her anxiety if she stood before him any longer, she lowered her eyes again, inclining her head in a show of submission. "Now, master?" she said. "Or do you wish to wait?"
She saw him tense as he pulled his hand away. After a moment of silence, he made an elegant gesture that indicated a door on the far side of the chamber. "Beyond that door," he said, "you will find everything that you might need to wash and prepare yourself. You may take as long as you like. I will wait here."
She murmured words of thanks, bowing before she made her escape. Her feet carried her swiftly through the door, relaxing only when it was safely shut behind her.
With a shuddering sigh, she sank to the floor of the immense bath, taking little notice of the expensive amenities that surrounded her. But as she took breath after breath in attempt to steady her nerves, she only found herself becoming more and more agitated. Would he be gentle with her? She had felt his light touch upon her skin just now, but it had only been moments before that he had flown into a rage, his melodic voice turning harsh and frightening as he looked at her.
She feared that if she said one word that displeased him, he would become like that again, transforming before her eyes into something very different than the hypnotic sorcerer about whom the khanum's favourites spoke so often. She feared he would become the thing beneath the mask: the monstrous thing that she had never seen with her own eyes, but that the harem women would only mention in hushed tones and vague words.
She wondered if, without the eunuch and the daroga there to prevent him doing so, he would kill her.
Before she could stop herself, she burst into tears. She was careful to keep them silent, lest he should hear, but she let herself cry till she could cry no more. Then, feeling oddly refreshed, she began to wipe her eyes carefully dry and perfume herself, preparing herself both physically and mentally for what was inevitably to come.
Erik paced steadily across the floor, wondering how long it would take for her to make her escape. There was a window in that room, wide enough for a young girl to climb through with little trouble should she choose. There were knives in that room, or at least one knife that he knew of, which was not so well-hidden that a determined person should not be able to find it and end her life. She might drown herself; she might hang herself; of all this he was more than aware.
And if she chose to end her life at her own hand, so be it. It would undoubtedly be a more suitable option than allowing the shah – or worse, the khanum – to end it for her.
Still, he could not help retaining some small vestige of hope that she might not take any of the escape routes he had plainly offered her. Might she be willing, after all, to fulfill her duty?
Minutes, long minutes, passed, and though no sound emanated from beyond the door, Erik grew more and more certain that she had decided to end her life rather than come to his bed.
He sat silently, passing a careless hand over the mask and feeling himself slide into a morose mood.
And then, four words, nearly soft enough to be inaudible: "I am ready, master."
He turned slowly to face her, his manner betraying no emotion whatsoever. "Have you been told to call me master?" he asked. She nodded, and he rose and started toward her. "My name is Erik, and you may address me as such," he said, and it was obvious that he was keeping his voice deliberately in check. "Neither I nor anyone else is your master, child. Do you understand that?"
She did not, but she nodded again, for fear of incurring his anger should she do otherwise.
He was silent again for a moment, but in that moment she felt something about him change. She wasn't sure what it was exactly, but he suddenly felt less like a wild predator, looming over his captured prey. He was more human somehow.
"My bedchamber, mademoiselle," he said, indicating the room with another gesture of his strangely graceful hand.
She did not know what the last word meant, but it was not her place to ask. She did not think it sounded threatening, though, so she put it out of her mind for the time being.
The sorcerer's bedchamber was a dark place, rich with materials of red, black, and gold. She could not imagine that even the king of kings could have had a room more magnificent than the sorcerer's.
She bowed to him again, demonstrating her willingness despite the anxiety that was beginning to creep over her again. "You may undress if you wish," he said, and she nodded.
But as she made to remove her garments, she noticed that her hands had begun to shake.
He noticed too.
Moving toward her with a few soundless steps, he inquired, "Do you still wish to lie with me?"
Clasping her hands together in hopes of stopping them shaking, she said, "I wish to fulfill my duty to you, master." She paused, realizing her mistake. "Erik." The name felt strange on her tongue.
"That is not what I asked you," he said, and she heard a dangerous undertone in his voice. "I did not ask about your duty. I asked if you wish to lie with me."
"Yes," she said automatically, before her tongue could find the courage to say anything else.
When he did not reply, she found herself looking up at him again. The eyes behind the mask did not look back at her; instead, they stared sadly at a point just beyond her. His lips murmured something, but she could not make it out. Then, without warning, he looked at her again. "Very well," he said.
And then, he began to sing.
She had heard of the supernatural vocal powers he possessed, of course, but rumor was nothing compared to reality. His voice, superhumanly powerful and infinitely gentle, enveloped her like a warm mist, inviting her to dwell without fear, without pain, inside its protective shroud. She did not understand the words, and the melody seemed foreign, but she understood the song, for he shaped it with his eyes, with his hands, and she fell into it without protest.
His long, thin fingers beckoned her, and she went toward him, allowing him to touch her face and arms. The song vibrated through him and into her as he caressed her, and she leaned into his embrace, eager for more. Deft fingers loosened her garments, letting them slide to the floor, and she pressed against him. The song grew louder.
She clung to him as he removed his own clothing, and touched his bare skin with her hands. He was at least as thin as she, and deathly pale against her dark Persian skin, but she let these thoughts pass in and out of her mind like water. The only thing she cared about was touch. She wanted the song to live inside her as well, and she searched with childishly curious fingers for its source. Her hands moved across his back, along his chest, and slowly upwards. He had left the mask on – why had he left the mask on? she wondered vaguely – and her hand reached for it...
He moved away from her, and she heard herself cry out. But he reached a hand out for her, and she followed. He guided her onto the bed, and she lay on her back, silently begging him to touch her again. His hands began to give the song to her again, as they traced the shape of her shoulders against the coverlet. As they touched her breasts and stroked her belly. As they began to explore her hips, her thighs, and what lay between.
She opened her legs, inviting him in, and she felt him arranging himself on top of her. She watched his eyes, clouded with desire, staring at her and through her as he moved, and she watched his throat vibrate as he sang. The song was deeper now, though it retained all of its initial beauty and more, and it wavered as he pushed himself into her.
"Oh," she heard herself say, but it was not a cry of pain. She knew there should be pain, and she was even vaguely aware that there was pain… but as long as he sang, it simply didn't exist.
She felt him pushing into her again and again, and suddenly he stopped. He stopped pushing, and he stopped singing. He tensed, she felt his release inside of her, and he pulled out, breathing heavily.
And the mist of the song receded.
She looked at him as if for the first time, naked except for the mask. And she realized what had just happened. "Oh," she said again, and she heard a tremor of fear in her own voice.
He looked sharply at her, his eyes questioning and wary, and she bit her lip to keep herself from crying out as the pain of entry hit her full force for the first time.
Wordlessly, he removed himself from the bed and covered himself in a long robe. "It hurts you," he said after a moment, and even though she shook her head in protest, he curtly added, "I'm sorry."
Etiquette demanded that she take the blame upon herself; he had only done what a man was supposed to do, after all. But before she could make any protest, he left the room.
Unsure of what to do, she crawled out of the bed and found her clothing. No sooner had she dressed than he returned, revealing to her a very small jar containing a creamy substance.
"Apply this where it hurts," he said, giving her the jar. "In a short while, it will cease to trouble you. You may stay in this room tonight, as I do not have another. I shan't disturb you. In the morning, as I promised, I shall make arrangements for your departure."
And without another word, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the room. He had meant to lie with her, to spend the night at her side, to kiss her, but he knew now that he could not. He had seen enough to know that it was out of the question: the way she came to him willingly while he sang… the way she shrank from him in fear when he was silent.
Should he ask her to kiss him, as he so wanted to, there would be no song to sway her response. No beauty to conceal what the mask would expose. That last realization had cut him like a knife, and he feared that if he should see her fright again, he might lose control altogether.
No. It was better that she slept alone, so that he could picture her sleeping peacefully and know that the images in his mind were true.
Erik hardly slept that night, and he was already awake and alert when Nadir came at dawn. "Good morning, daroga," he said, inviting the other man in with a careless wave of his hand.
"She is still here?" said Nadir, his forehead creased with worry.
"Where else would she be?" said Erik, the slyness in his voice betraying the feline smile beneath the mask.
Nadir frowned, but bit back whatever comment he had been about to make. "The khanum wants the sheets," he said instead. "As proof."
"The khanum!" Erik echoed. "I was under the impression that the girl was a gift from the shah."
Evidently irritated, Nadir shook his head. "You know as well as I do, Erik, who really sent her."
Turning from him with a small sigh, Erik said, "Yes." And after a moment's pause, "You may have the sheets when she wakes. I do not wish to disturb her."
Nadir blinked, as if registering for the first time that the deed had really been done. "Good," he said with no small measure of relief. "Just as well. She requests the girl's presence too." Nadir gave Erik a meaningful look, but Erik did not let on whether or not he had understood it.
"Tea, daroga?" he said, and they drank in silence as Erik refused to ask – and as Nadir refused to say.
When only a few hours later Erik was summoned to the window of the torture chamber, he found the khanum awaiting him on the balcony above… and the girl of the night before awaiting him at the window, guarded by two eunuchs.
"Erik," said the khanum. "I am told that you enjoyed my son's gift."
He inclined his head, not daring to think where this might lead.
"However," she continued, and he detected a disapproving frown coloring her words, "I am also told that she never saw your face."
"She did not wish to," said Erik dryly. "I chose to indulge her wishes."
"Indulge her wishes!" repeated the khanum with glee. "Indeed, Erik! Then perhaps you will allow me to indulge a little wish of my own."
He stared up at her, and the girl did the same.
"I wish that you would remove the mask," she said in mocking tones. "And let her see."
His fists clenched at his sides, but he did not otherwise move.
"Remove it now," the khanum hissed. "I want her to see what loved her last night."
"No, madame," he said in clipped tones.
"Ah," she said, letting the sound roll languidly through the chamber. "In that case… girl! Remove his mask."
She was too frightened to refuse. She approached him tentatively, like a small mouse trying to escape the notice of a large cat, and he, resigned, did not move to stop her.
He closed his eyes so as not to see her reaction, but her screams penetrated him to the core. Her screams, and the khanum's delighted laughter.
"Oh, take the child away!" he heard the khanum say, and the girl's screams of terror transformed into protests, which faded away.
A door slammed. The screaming stopped. Erik opened his eyes. "Draw back the curtain on the window," ordered the khanum.
His eyes hardened as he saw the girl within, shrieking with a voice that did not penetrate the torture chamber's walls, beating her hands against the glass.
"She did her duty, madame," he said icily. "I see no reason for her punishment."
"Knowledge," explained the khanum silkily. "Far worthier people have died for far lesser crimes than knowledge."
"Such knowledge should not be forced upon those who do not desire it," he replied. But he was still unsure of one thing: did she mean the knowledge of what lay beneath the mask, or the knowledge which the girl had gained the night before, and in which the khanum herself was supposedly above desiring?
"Nevertheless," said the khanum, "my entertainment will still take place entirely as planned."
"Then, madame, I regret it will take place in my absence."
And turning his back upon her rudely, Erik walked out of the harem without waiting to be dismissed.
He stalked blindly back to his apartment, her screams still ringing in his ears. He slammed the door, furious – furious with the khanum, of course, but even more so with himself. He should have let her go. The release had been sweet, of course, but it was not worth the price. She had had to give herself to a man she did not love – and there was no use trying to convince himself that she loved him in any way – and now she had been condemned to death.
For his part, he had allowed himself to enjoy this woman's touch, her softness, her willingness… only to have it all torn from him.
And he still would never know what it was like to be kissed.