Warnings: Violence, gore, some sick implications but nothing explicit.
At the christening, the demon was there.
It seemed at first he might have been an illusion. There'd been just a flash of him, of golden hair and dark cloth and slow feline smile, as Albert had held Elissa up to the blessing of the bishops and of Hikusaak, to the view of the gathered crowd. There'd been just a flash of him; Albert froze once the image registered, his eyes snapping back to search for the languid movement of the shark among the fish. But that flash of him was gone.
His wife saw his hesitation as indecision. When the priest took Elissa from him, to anoint her head with holy oils, he felt Lydia's small cool hand on the back of his. "Are you sure about this?" she asked, her quiet voice slipping under the hymn of thanksgiving. She didn't look at the Bishop Sival; she didn't need to; she had been expressing her misgivings since the Bishop first offered to be godfather to Elissa.
"It's a coup d'etat, Lydia," he murmured back, as he had so many times before. The familiarity of the words helped him keep his voice steady. "The Bishop's star is on the rise, and he'll take us with him."
"Yes," she agreed simply, dissatisfaction in her voice as the choir finished in a grand resolution of its major chord and the priest turned to the Bishop.
"Will you, Bishop Sival, before the eyes of our Lord Hikusaak," the priest said, his ancient and strained voice, magnified a hundred times by the rune upon his forehead, echoing off the marble walls of the circular temple, "take this child to your bosom, cherish her as though she were your own? Will you be father to her?"
Albert repressed distaste as the oiliest "I shall" he'd ever heard rose from his right.
"And you, Lady Sival, before the eyes of our Lord Hikusaak," the priest continued, "will you too accept this child as your own?"
"I will," came the voice of the Lady from Albert and Lydia's left.
"Then," the priest said, "let it be known that Elissa Eleanor Adriana Silverberg has come to the world." At this, the choir burst into loud song, drowning out the cries of his daughter as the priest submerged her once, twice, three times in consecrated water. Lydia came forward and received the squalling child, wrapped her in a winding sheet, and handed her to Albert and he turned back to the assembled throng and held her to them, something within him quite satisfied at the awe he could see.
Then, mismatched eyes and a slow smile, catching his gaze. This time, as no other time, the dark figure remained, reached up to tip his hat, standing in the crowd like a great cat in the grasses. His eyes and his grace promised much.
The choir sang its final chord, and Albert came back to himself. He lowered his daughter. When he looked up again, Yuber was gone, nothing but misgivings to show that he was ever there.
Albert saw him frequently after that, just the ghostly image of him. Perhaps it was simply the crawling of the skin after the suggestion of bugs, but still, every time, he slapped at the sensation. Every time, he turned to look. Every time, the demon was gone.
It was summer, so the windows were open to the warm night. Beside him, Lydia slept undisturbed, her not-quite snores attesting to the depth of her rest. She was most beautiful at night, was his first thought as he came awake and saw her beside him; she was most beautiful on a summer night when the windows were open and the moonlight streamed in and across her face.
His second thought, however, was to wonder what woke him and not her. It wasn't Elissa; Lydia was a lighter sleeper than he was; she was always the one to wake when their daughter cried. And Elissa hadn't cried for several months besides; the last time had been when she'd had a nightmare and ended up sleeping in their bed.
So it wasn't Elissa, but he felt quite certain it was something.
When he slid out from under the covers and from bed, pulled a shirt on against the chill, Lydia woke with a snort. "Albert...?" she asked sleepily.
"It's nothing," he said, pushing his feet into slippers. "Go back to sleep." She hmmed, and he hesitated with his hand on the door until her quiet snores broke the stillness once again. Then he left her.
There was light beneath Elissa's door. And although Elissa knew how to light a candle or a lantern, even though she was old enough now, she wouldn't, insisting instead that he or Lydia do it for her, just as she would have them snuff out the flame at night, as though it was their touch that would protect her from the dark.
Albert opened the door, froze.
Elissa slept, face pressed into the lines of a bad dream, beneath the demon's bared swords.
"Get away from her," Albert ordered in an explosive whisper. Even through the intervening years, he found, he hadn't lost the knack for commanding the demon; the twin swords slid from view, and the hat-brim tilted back so that he could see those shaded eyes.
"No harm," the demon said, the quirk in his lips speaking differently.
"Why are you here?" Albert asked, still in a whisper. Perhaps it was stupid, but he didn't want Elissa to wake and see this relic of his past.
"Why would I be here?" Yuber asked, his voice jarringly loud in the nighttime hush. He took a single step forward, his smile even wider, and Albert took a deep breath to steady himself.
"I don't know," Albert whispered. "I never much understood the perversity of your mind. Let's step outside."
"No," Yuber said, and laughed when Albert blinked.
Uncertain, Albert said, "I don't want to wake up my daughter."
"I want to see her awake," Yuber said with a slow malice, turning back towards the sleeping child. "Will she know me? Will she fear me? She is your spawn, after all." He reached down toward Elissa, and Albert forced himself to walk forward, to push the demon's hand aside and step between him and his daughter.
"Stop it," Albert growled. "Don't touch her, or I'll..."
Yuber smiled wide when he didn't finish. "Or you'll what? You'll kill me?" He raised his eyebrows. "You'll hit me?" He laughed, a quiet laugh, full of cruelty. "If you could do either, boy, I'd be very much surprised." A quick movement, and suddenly the demon's blade was drawn and menacing, suddenly there was coldness at Albert's throat and a humorless smile in Yuber's eyes. "See?" he said as Albert tried to figure out how to get away from the blade. "For all that your daughter sleeps, there, for all that you might love her or might place in her all your aspirations, all your ambitions that will die with you, I could slice her open, now, split her from head to toe, twist her little limbs from her body, and all you could do would be to watch."
Albert swallowed. "Stop," he said. "You can't. We agreed - "
"Ahhh," Yuber murmured, his voice hot against Albert's face. "The agreement, yes. Let's discuss that contract." He drew his sword back slightly, nodded downward. "Sit, please."
Albert glanced down, looked back up, and sat on the edge of his daughter's bed. She stirred at that, and he should have expected that she would, she was always so sensitive to motion - she stirred, and her eyes opened, and she whispered, "Papa?"
"Hush," he said. "Go back to sleep."
But she propped herself up on her elbow, rubbing at her eyes. "What?"
He looked up at Yuber, who was leaning indolently against the wall next to the door, a smile curving his lips, then back at his daughter who stared at the demon. "It's nothing, Elissa. Go back to sleep, I said."
"What's wrong?" she asked, sitting up fully. "Who's that?"
"That's..." Albert looked up at the demon. "A friend of mine." He pressed at her back. "Go run to your mother."
"No," the demon said, running his finger along the edge of his sword. "She should stay."
Albert swallowed against his dry mouth. "All right," he said, and reached out his arm. Elissa pressed herself against his side, and he curved his arm around her little shoulders and stared the demon down, his daughter at his side making him a little bolder. "You want to discuss," he said. "Discuss."
A tiny smile, then the demon said, "You remember the terms."
"I do," Albert said.
"Then you should know why I'm here."
Albert shook his head. "I'm sorry, but as I said before - "
"You owe me lives, Silverberg." The demon smiled as Albert could think of nothing to say. "You promised me lives, and you didn't come through. You broke the contract."
Albert's heart beat harder; his throat tightened. "No," he said, then louder, "No. No, the contract was dissolved - our witness was dead; the contract is no more. You disappeared. If anyone, you broke it. I - " He was babbling now, he knew it. "This is outrageous. This is outrageous. You can't possibly expect..."
"Papa?" Elissa asked, her small hands digging into his side, almost painful in their grip. He stroked her head softly without taking his eyes from Yuber, took a deep breath and steadied himself. He needed his wits about him now.
When he was ready, he said, firmly, "I won't allow it."
"No?" Yuber asked, and laughed. Elissa pressed her face into Albert's shirt at the sound of it. "Try and stop me. Go on. Try." With a neat toss, he flipped his sword around so that he held it by the blade, the hilt toward Albert. When Albert hesitated, the demon nodded. "Go on."
Slowly, Albert disentangled Elissa's fingers from his shirt and stood, looked down at the sword and back at the demon's face, then down again. Behind him, the candle flickered in the breeze from the window, casting his shadow long against the wall before him and sending Yuber's face into grotesquerie. His daughter whimpered. A night-bird trilled.
He reached out and took the blade from the demon. It was heavier than he had expected, the point dipping until he grabbed it with his free hand; even more surprising, it was simple steel.
"Strike me." The demon spread his arms, leaving himself open.
This was an opportunity. He knew that. He would do something incredibly clever, vanquish the devil, and they would repeat it for years afterward, sing about it in taverns everywhere from Toran to Falena, they would tell about it and say, there was a strategist, the greatest man to come from the Silverbergs and damn if that wasn't saying a lot -
He was still standing there, his arms getting tired and his mind still blank.
Yuber's night vision was excellent. He couldn't blind him. He could...trip him; no, he couldn't trip him, he was agile as anything. He could trick him. Brilliant, how? Damn it all. He could throw the sword, grab Elissa and run - out the third-story window. No. The demon wouldn't kill him, maybe, he could create a distraction, get the door open, but no, the demon would kill him, damn it all -
He'd taken too long. With one fluid motion, Yuber pushed off the wall, drew his other sword, snaked it around Albert's only defense to toss it clattering to the side and grabbed Albert from behind, pressed the edge of the steel to Albert's throat. Elissa screamed, long, loud, and piercing.
The door opened, and he whispered a curse, that Lydia would be such a fool, and he raised his voice to yell, "No, run, Lydia, run - "
But she came into the room, all naïveté, unknowing of crime or of battle, and she pressed herself against the wall, pressed her hands over her mouth, whispered, "Oh my god - "
"Ah," Yuber laughed against Albert as he strained away from the blade. "Such an honor, to meet the tool of Silverberg's ambitions."
"Albert..." Lydia whispered, horrified.
"Run," Albert said. "Run, damn you."
"No," Yuber said, his voice deep and amused. "No, do stay. Sit, please. This won't take long." At his command, Lydia slid to the floor, her eyes wide and horrified, and the demon laughed aloud in delight. His mouth moved close enough to Albert's ear that he could hear the motion of the demon's lips. "Now, I am a generous soul, I am a kindly man. And though I am here to claim what's mine, I will give you a choice."
With great effort, Albert held himself still as he whispered, "And what choice is that?"
"A simple one," Yuber said. "I want one life. Just one. You may choose which one that is." With that, he released Albert, pushed him hard enough to make him hit the wall next to his wife. Elissa, wailing, threw her arms around his leg as Lydia rose to grasp his hand in hers.
But Albert couldn't respond to either of them. He couldn't understand. "You want..." The demon raised his eyebrows, tilted his head to the side, smiled, and Albert shook his head. "I can't."
"Come, boy, you've made more difficult decisions than merely that in your short span here," the demon said. "A thousand lives before you, and you've never once hesitated. A hundred thousand and you barely blinked. What's one?"
Savagely, Albert spat: "And you're one to lecture me about killing!"
"I have great experience," Yuber said with a smile. "I'm quite qualified."
Lydia whimpered. "Oh god, oh god, oh god," she whispered, over and over, until Albert turned to her, snapped, "Will you please stop that," and she gasped and shut her mouth, tears spilling over from her eyes.
"I..." Albert started. "If we can make a deal - "
"No," the demon said calmly.
"Hear me out. I'm a man of influence now. I can pull the strings, I can - I can ensure a war. I can make Harmonia go to war. There will be - " He shook his head, gestured in a grand circle with his arm. "Thousands upon thousands, just for you - "
"But I'm so thoroughly enjoying this one," Yuber said with a vicious smile. "Choose." And he ran his finger down his blade, his smile promise.
His eyes traveled from the demon over to his lovely wife, her face beautiful even as she wept, even as her eyes were red, then down to Elissa, little Elissa, hiding herself against him, as though by covering her eyes every evil of the world would disappear. He dropped his hand down to smooth back her hair, the very shade of his father's hair, and he pressed Lydia's hand with all his strength.
He opened his mouth, closed it. Opened it again.