Erik's Reward

Erik had seen the woman's quick glance before, watching him between the parallel lines of her veils as he passed through the harem six months ago. She had looked him in the eyes then, and so he remembered her. It was rare for a woman to meet his yellow gaze; and though Tehran was less superstitious in ways than the small rural town of his childhood, people still feared the devil's work and clutched at talismans when he was near.

Perhaps she had watched him that day out of curiosity, as he walked through the sea of bewitching temptation on the demand of the little Sultana. Men were normally not allowed in the ladies sanctuary. He was an exception. He was always an exception-too monstrous to be truly considered a man. And possibly the Sultana enjoyed watching his discomfort in that room of shrouded sexuality, and the discomfort of the girls as well.

This woman did not look uneasy though. The murky green eyes shone steadily as she watched him, no longer in her temple, but in his, alone on her knees before him, a kingly gift. Only one week ago Erik completed the palace, the great wonder of tricks and illusions, and he knew, as he guided the rapt Shah through the labyrinth of hidden halls, that he had truly pleased the Shadow of God. This creature was his reward. And though he knew that he would not be able to carry through with her designed purpose, lest she scream or withdraw at his approach, he took pleasure in the thought that he might have her near him, for a time, so that he could see something astonishing and beautiful in life.

"Will you show me your face?" he asked gently, and he guessed that she smiled by the narrowing of her eyes.

Her hands rose, painted in henna, to the veil clasp by her ear, and the red lines swam across her skin like streaming water. The silver coins that decorated the fabric jingled as it dropped to her chin and Erik saw that she did smile, softly and pleasantly. He wondered, briefly, why should she should be so unafraid here, under these circumstances? Was it right? But such a question was useless in her mesmerizing presence; this was the first time a woman had smiled upon him and he was unprepared for its hypnotic effect. Wouldn't this smile, aimed at a monster like himself, be unusual under any circumstances? Besides, what did it matter if it was strange, so long as she might continue to look at him like that; like he was an ordinary man, who could hope for love and redemption.

"I am not of the customs of this country," he said. "You need not kneel for me." He held out his hand for her, hopeful but full of fear. In a swift movement the red painted fingers touched him, and the rustling creature was on her feet. She paused a moment, then curtsied low.

"I thank you, Lord from the West." Her voice was low and sibilant, like wind in the poplars in the hot summers of Normandy.

Erik laughed, childishly delighted by her flattering mistake, and he longed suddenly that the Daroga were here, so that he might brag on his conceit. But he was not there, and indeed Erik rued bitterly that he had not seen him for a month or more, and thought it unfair that people should always be around when their company is not desired, but always be absent when it is. And so he was brought quickly to the ground. "I am no Lord, madam, but a creature without history or family. You may call me Erik, though it is a name that I come by through chance alone."

"Are not all of our lives slaves to chance, Erik?" she asked.

"Chance, and what a man will make of it," he said.

"Yes, and women too." Her eyebrows arched, and Erik wondered if the suggestiveness of her expression was deliberate. Did she mean to give him some sign, some indication of her intentions? Was she determined to fulfill her obligations? Was it really possible for such a thing to happen for him? Erik began to feel overwhelmed, nervous beyond speech. Quickly he moved to the cupboard in the corner and removed from it a hoarded bottle of cherry brandy.

"You don't mind?" he asked, showing her the dark glass vessel.

"Of course not," she shook her head, and the coins rattled. "Please, I am here for your pleasure, Sir. The reverse is not true."

Erik poured himself a glass. He hesitated for a moment and left the room. In his dark bedroom, he quickly raised his mask and drank, taking a second helping with shaking hands before carefully lowering the mask back into place. He set the bottle on the bureau and returned to the sitting room. The woman was where he had left her, standing in the middle of the room, and he started.

"I am sorry," he said, and he gestured hurriedly to a low chair. "Please, how rude of me."

She took the seat and Erik watched delighted and curious as she moved in her strange feminine way. It was enchanting for him to see this creature animated and alive, eclipsing all other objects of beauty in the room. He sat across from her, and for some hours he contented to gaze at her, see her smile at his conversation, and watch her smooth her voluminous pants or adjust her heavy headdress. The evening waned and Erik retreated to his room from time to time to take another drink when his nervous excitement became too great to bear.

After a time she questioned him about the apartment: was the design from his imagination? She seemed deeply impressed with his taste and wealth.

"Might I see the other rooms as well?" she asked, and he acquiesced, though he gestured for her to enter his room alone; the temptation of being in that space with her would be painful. She vanished but for a moment before reappearing excited and enthralled. They sat again, but Erik was so overwhelmed by her apparent pleasure that very soon he rose to fetch another drink.

He swallowed the entire glass in one mouthful, and within moments he felt it…something unnatural, beyond the alcohol, hit him with full force, and reality faded as the glass fell from his hand.

He staggered back into the room, mask askew, and collapsed on the sofa. The woman watched him still, though warily now, without a smile. Her silhouette grew soft in his eyes, and her face became silver and cold like the headdress that glinted in the dim light. Visions overlapped and the candles multiplied and splayed out so that where there were three, now shone six. The world seemed to recede, and though it had caused him grief beyond measure in the past, still he reached out to grasp it, lest he lose it forever. But, alas, there was nothing to hold on to, and he fell back on the sofa helpless and unmoving. The woman's face appeared before him once more, above him and she seemed suddenly tall, awesome and terrible. In fragmented images he saw her pull the veil from her head and bend low over him, her hair loose and tumbling. His hands lifted without his will, though he felt only the touch of the metal and silk on his wrists as she tied him.

Straightening again, she lifted one foot onto the sofa, placing it next to his head. Her hands reached inside the hem of her pants, and withdrew something long and thin that had been concealed within the folds of the fabric. A needle perhaps, though elaborately wrought and delicate. A pressure on his forehead prevented him from rising to see, and he struggled feebly until she brought it close enough to examine. Too close now, over his left eye. He could only make out the pointed bottom and incredibly, it was lowered still, so that it was mere inches from his eye. She said nothing, her hands didn't shake. She pierced his eyes; first the left, then the right.

Not one moan escaped his lips, though he trembled violently; his limbs wanted to twist, but they were heavy with paralysis. The world was utterly dark.

The only sound was her voice, and it murmured to itself, "Yellow eyes…such an abomination was never meant to exist." Footsteps sounded in the blackness, receding to the door, and as he heard it open, a breeze swept through the room, and flowed under his mask. It was unnaturally cold, and he realized that his face was wet. An image of color exploded into his mind more vibrant than anything he had seen with those ghastly eyes. Red! And it consumed him as it covered his face-the face that, with a surprising pang of sorrow, he knew he would never look upon again.

"Is it done?" asked a new voice from the door.

And her voice sounded, for the last time, in answer. "Bring him to the Shah…he will not be a threat…his execution can commence without trickery or escape. But hurry; at sunrise he will revive and his wrath will be terrible. If the stories one hears are true, he can vanish still, though bound and blind."

Arms collected him, lifting him as if he were no more than a sick child and he dreamed that it was his mother's loving embrace, the embrace that he had always longed for and had never known. She was taking him to the garden at dawn, in a white dress that swayed softly in the tall grey grass, and the wind rustled in the poplars, sibilant, like the voice of a beautiful woman.