The Next Knight

The Next Knight

By Katie Flack

Content warning: Self harm

What made Sir Anders perfect was that he was the same as the rest. A carbon copy. Those smug eyes, that haughty gait, not to mention the muscular arms and chain mail, announcing his prowess with each clink bouncing off the stone walls. Oh, how his eyes glowed with those reverberations. The way his lips quirked with the throne room’s attention. The young man had a scarcely marked face, an unbroken kind of optimism. Must have been freshly dubbed. Yes, Queen Sunniva thought, he would do.

            She ought to have remembered him, but as she sat in her tall, plush throne, watching Anders march confidently into the room, he looked so like the others Sunniva could hardly keep a straight face. Yes, another knight in the throne room. Yes, another body cast off to the horizon. Send him, send him, send him.

            King Victor watched his wife carefully, wondering if she felt this familiar look. He wondered if her grand mind could see beyond its wise focus—what thoughtful decrees she was cooking up like candied dates. Victor waited for her words. He waited for her thoughts.

            “Sir Anders,” Sunniva suddenly began, flicking her tongue carefully against the roof of her mouth—precise. “Harousa is honored by your courage and dedication. The crown recognizes your good deeds and your years of training under Sir Logan of Briarbush. You are a reflection of all the strength, wisdom and loyalty of the Harousan people.” Victor watched her. She looked at him; he smiled supportively at her. A good choice, he thought. She always makes the finest choices. “As such,” Sunniva continued, “I am honored to call upon you in our darkest hour. For fifteen dreadful years, our dearest Princess Maylisetta has been held hostage, a captive of the dark dragon Aleksei. I call upon you, Sir Anders Carmichael, to do what no knight has been able to do for this kingdom—return her to her people.”

            Anders bowed his head, clenching his tunic discreetly between his fingers. “You have my word, good Queen. I shall end her captivity—” Anders swallowed. “—or die.”

            Sunniva and Victor exchanged a glance—some hopeful musing of relief coursing in a shared stream through their bodies. The last time they’d seen Maylisetta… Victor’s throat tightened. Sunniva’s chest went rigid.

            The queen turned back to Anders. He saw her: straight-spined, elegant, regal as ever, the whisper of some unnameable harsh or soft thing in her dark eye. She was beautiful—she was terrifying. “Your virtue is a gift to this kingdom.”

            Anders kept his head down. Anders kept his head down. Anders kept his head down.

*          *          *

            That very afternoon, Anders set off. There was no one to bid him farewell but his servants, and they kept their remarks as brief as their feeble lips dared. Anders could not bring himself to offer them a thing should he die. Anders had already determined that he should not die. Anders had a preplanned arrangement with the devil and was ready to belt it out the moment he saw the slightest flicker of death—lest he end up like Wyatt. His throat clenched. Anders’ lifelong friend—dead at the hands of this very quest. Body never even recovered. Never even recovered. Knightly oaths be damned, Anders was going to marry Princess Maylisetta Guilhermina Esme Clementine de Eastaughffe. He would do what it took—he would have what it took and he would have her. It was significant consolation as he saddled his horse Jack and left Carmichael Manor.

            It was a cloudy afternoon and Anders was rather peeved. Should it rain, his journey would take days longer and he was not in the mood for waiting. He was not in the mood for thinking. If Anders were to stop and think—

            Shush! he scolded himself internally. Anders scoffed. He scoffed. Scoffed. He dug his nails, short be they may, into his palm and focused on the bite of the points in his skin. Paper-thin keratin forcing its way into soft flesh—unyielding as a knight. When he could feel the flesh bowing, releasing its own stringy drips down his hand, Anders was satisfied. Anders felt the wisps of pain course through him, the gnaw of fire at his thin skin. Burn, burn, burn, burn, burn.

            Jack’s hooves trotted against the dirt. A comfortable clacking that fueled Anders’ ears. The path was dwindling as they neared the edge of the village. Women and children watched them pass with awe. Their eyes followed his horseback form. He accepted favors—flowers and kerchiefs. Men bobbed their heads at Anders. They bobbed their heads at Anders. He cleared his throat.

            The forest came up soon, and Jack sidestepped rocks and roots and logs. “Well then,” Anders said—to no one. “Here we go.” He combed through Jack’s mane, promptly wiping out his blood. “Here we go.”

            Jack breathed.

            Anders sighed.

            A tree with three clean nicks flowed past like a vertical river. Wyatt’s face flashed through Anders’ head—green eyes and grinning and growing hair and gash after gash after gash carving his temples.

            Anders twisted the reins around his not-quite-scabbing palm. He twisted the leather into his cut until it bit him and the wound widened and frowned at him. Anders clenched his teeth together tight. The leather burned, burned, burned. Blood trickled hot down his wrist, dribbled on Jack’s back. Anders swallowed. Anders wiped it away.

            Think about the princess, think about the princess, the sweet-lipped, sweet-eyed, all-yours princess.

            For hours, Anders rode, clinging to this gilded image until the sun bled out the last of its color. By then, Jack was panting so hard that Anders knew they had to stop—didn’t want to push the horse too far. Fortunately, a vaulted-roofed inn was tucked into the edges of a nearby village. Anders secured Jack in the stables and entered the building itself.

            The interior was dark and ever-musty as any building was musty. A hearth illuminated the room a shadowy orange, contouring its quaint chairs and table and decor and people. Anders was rather perturbed—of course he had not been expecting the riches of the nobility throughout his journey, but this… He was still hoping for a bit more substance, a bit less smallness, than this. Anders rubbed at his bruising scabby wound and approached the innkeeper’s desk.

            Such a gangly man awaited him there—clothed in such a ragged tunic. Ragged as the splintering soul which from Wyatt was robbed. Anders swallowed. Anders clenched his fists. Anders was stronger than this man would ever be.

“I’d like a room for the night.” He looked the innkeeper up and down—dirty. His cuticles were jagged, the flesh of his fingers red, rubbed raw. There was no reason for this man to present himself in this manner when he made such wages—lazy.

“Of course.” He gave him the price. “Does that sound reasonable?”

“I have gold. Do you doubt that I have gold?”

“No, sir. I was only ensuring that my price was feasible for you.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“I can’t say that I do.”

“Well, I’m Sir Anders Carmichael. I was page and squire to Sir Logan of Briarbush himself. Yes, I have gold.”

The man was unfazed. “My mistake, sir. Your room key.”

Anders snatched it sourly and stomped off to his room. No respect nowadays, not an ounce of respect, not when Anders was what he was—courageous, strong, mighty. Anders… Anders was somebody and yet nobody even… He clenched his jaw. He opened his door.

The room was as quaint as the rest of the inn. When Anders rescued Princess Maylisetta… when he married her… when he was king… Well. He would not be staying in these places anymore, now would he?

Anders washed his face and slept, the lost weight of chain mail freeing his shoulders.

He did not know it, but a visitor came while he was in the motherly grips of slumber. And not the welcome kind.

Aleksei the dark dragon was not so as he had been named. He was a pastel, grassy color with dulled spikes and horns. In the right lighting, his face seemed to be shaped into a polite smile. But there was no lighting in this room—nor a witness.

As Anders slept, Aleksei floated in through the windows and watched with purple eyes. Aleksei watched. Aleksei observed. Aleksei thought. He thought of Etta back in the tower. He thought of the knights that came before. He thought of this man sleeping here now. In his bed, tossing and turning, hand tattooed with webs of dried blood. Young. Perhaps a bit wild, Aleksei guessed. Reckless.

Etta did not know that Aleksei had come. Did not know that Aleksei had left the tower. Did not know that he was worried about her, afraid that she’d get her sights set on another doomed knight.

Etta could not know, Aleksei thought. Etta could not know. Etta could not know.

Neatly by the door was a pair of boots. Black leather and well-polished. They appeared to have been cleaned this very night—they were cleaned this very night. Aleksei outstretched his jeweled claw and scooped up the shoes. Yes, he took them gently in his grasp. Lightweight. High quality. And Aleksei the dark dragon dove diligently out the window from whence he came. Aleksei flew off thinking of Etta and this thoughtless sleeping man and the shoes he now carried off. The shoes he now carried off into the black, stardusted night.

Etta would not know.

When Anders woke, he found his shoes vanished. His face went red as blood. For he knew the culprit—Anders knew there was only one culprit. Only one he had offended, only one who would dare, only one with dirtied fingernails and heart.

Anders pounded out of his room—bare feet clapping against the rough wood floors.

“You,” he snarled—snarled like a dragon, like a knight disgraced. “You will return my shoes.”

The innkeeper frowned. “Excuse me?”

“I awoke to the disappearance of my shoes, shoes I paid a mighty sum of gold for. You stole them for you knew of my noble birth. You stole them for you knew of me. You stole them for you knew you could. I order you to return my shoes.”

“I haven’t stolen your shoes.”

“I insist you have.”

“I haven’t a need for your shoes—you have womanly feet.”

Anders froze—Anders seethed—Anders melted. “These feet of the Carmichael family, these feet that have seen men dead, these feet that have traveled the earth—you call these feet womanly?”

The innkeeper wordlessly stuck out his own foot—thicker, wider, longer than Anders’.

Anders narrowed his eyes. “I know you stole my shoes.”

“Search my inn,” the man said plainly. “I have not stolen your shoes.”

Anders accepted the deal. Anders turned over the desk, the parlor, the rooms unoccupied and otherwise. He searched the perimeter, he threw apart cushions and floorboards and frames. Anders found no such shoes.

He returned to the man ashamed. “I have found no shoes.”

“I suggest a visit to the cobbler in that case, sir.” The gangly, dirty man watched him. “May the Lord guide you on your quest.”

Anders grumbled his way out of the inn. He would find shoes and then focus on his genuine quest. This gangly man would be sorry when Anders was king… Maylisetta… and—and Wyatt… Anders shook his head. Anders took a breath. Anders walked barefoot to the stables.

After saddling Jack, he rode down to the local cordwainer and requested new shoes. The things he found were fine enough, but his shoes. He liked his shoes. These new things immediately dug into his feet like the stones which carved them. Sharp shoes. Feeble feet. Anders the adolescent.

He clenched his teeth. It was all for the cause. It was all for the cause. It was all for the cause. Anders needed to find Maylisetta. These shoes, unpleasant as they were, would carry him to her. No one could doubt him then. No one would doubt him then. Anders’ true colors would be cast in gold for the kingdom of Harousa—his bravery would hang thick on tongues and ears like rich molasses. Sweet and smoky and savored. Envied.

And Wyatt… Anders shook his head. He would not think of Wyatt.

New shoes in place, Anders took off once more. He considered the princess—his princess, his princess, his bride-to-be. Fifteen years imprisoned. Fifteen years. The king and queen had always been tight-lipped about the circumstances of her kidnapping. There were plenty of rumors: a two-faced guard, a runaway, a curse at birth, a castle-scaling assassin, a child trafficker. To Anders, it didn’t matter. To Anders, it was a matter of justice being served, of the scales being righted—Anders would set things right and prove himself to all. To all. Anders couldn’t fathom how long the dark dragon had succeeded. Succeeded at leaving this girl in the dark… In a tower in the dark, up high in the dark, in pain and alone…

Anders planned to smite him.

*          *          *

            During the next day’s travels, Anders hardly spared a thought for anything. No, he only thought of his Maylisetta, all alone in some dark, musty tower. Dust spiraling through the air, coating her down to her eyelashes. Cold and trembling—frigid winds stabbing through the windows and curtains—stabbing through her chest. And Anders. Anders did not stand idle, no. Anders scaled the tower. Anders slayed the dragon. Anders cradled the princess in his arms and carried her off on horseback—to safety. He would keep her safe. He would keep her safe. He would keep her safe. Everyone would watch as he kept her safe. He and he alone.

            When Anders was a young child, his father thought him too sensitive. It was true—he would get touched by small things: fields of poppies, injured animals, grieving widows. He sobbed far past his crib—the very reason his father sent him off as a page. The training—it took that out of him. It made him whole. Anders’ father died just after he became a squire, and Anders did not shed a tear.

            He thought now that his father would be proud. Proud of all he was and would be.

            At the end of Anders’ day through woods and fields and bitter cold, he was awaited by another inn. Anders paid his dues and went off to the local tavern, aching though his feet were. Flaming candelabras lit the large square space, scattered with patrons at tables and tables. The men were telling stories and laughing and drinking—merry. Finally, Anders thought, he had found a worthy establishment.

            The area was quite full and he wasn’t so keen on drinking alone, so Anders planted himself with a group of men—most near his age or older. His chain mail clinked as he sat, but only one man acknowledged him.

            “Fancy yourself a knight?” the young man asked. He had green eyes. Green eyes.

            Anders staggered though he was sitting. His stomach turned and writhed. “After seventeen years of training, I’d hope so.”

            The man nodded and his blond hair flopped in his face. Flopped in his face and it could have been caught in the gleaming sun on a hot day in Sir Logan’s great hall, two boys laughing themselves to exhaustion over a thing that never was, over a thing meant to shrivel and die with the words in their throats. “So it’s as hard as they say? Not another of those bullshit nobility things? Or are you just a smartass?”

            A living Wyatt that still danced in his mind’s eye said yes, Anders was a smartass. Yes, Anders was all bullshit. Yes, he said it with a teasing glint in his eye that proclaimed brotherhood, that proclaimed love, that promised never to abandon Anders because he knew that Anders didn’t have any family didn’t have any friends didn’t have a thing ahead of him—no, he had Wyatt. Anders clenched his jaw, dug his nails into his barely sealed scab. Hot, thick blood dripped down his palm. “I’ve been called a smartass. I don’t think I’m trying to be.” A drink was set before him. Anders choked on a sip.

            This green-eyed, blond-haired, Wyatt-faced man grinned. He grinned. Grinned, grinned, grinned, grinned, grinned. Laughed. “Can’t take your liquor either? Shit, man, what kinda knight are you?”

            Anders’ throat tightened. Wyatt’s twisted face echoed through his head. He could feel himself tripping and falling as he sat in his seat—he could feel himself diving headfirst without his own consent, gasping and screaming and screaming and falling and falling and falling. Spiraling down down down. He tried to catch himself, but it was too late—his eyes burned, the world went blurry.

            With a rapid vigor, Anders blinked it back, put on a false smile, dug his bloody fingers into his wound.

            But the non-Wyatt frowned at him in the deepest, most peculiar of ways. “What’s wrong with you?”

            Anders pushed up from his seat and rushed out without a breath. He heaved once he was out of the building, and the liquid was pushing at the backs of his eyes—hot. Anders—he trod across the dirt path to the inn. He pushed his way inside and he pushed his way past people and he pushed his way past the looks, the looks, the looks.

            The key fumbled in his shaky, bloody hands, but he unlocked his door. He unlocked his door and shut himself inside.

            And Anders let out a soft cry.

            He collapsed to his knees and let out a soft cry.

            Because Wyatt… Wyatt who he traded dares and secrets and stories with… Wyatt who he could confide in from youth to adulthood, who could always beat him in combat, who taught him how to tame a horse, who smirked last time he saw him and jokingly stole his pocketknife, saying he’d return it with the princess… Wyatt who never came back… Wyatt was dead!

            Anders cried and rubbed his hands at his cheeks, smearing blood with the tears.

            Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

            He caught a glimpse of himself in a bedside mirror—red and puffy and curled up into himself like a small child. Like an infant.

            No. No, Anders could not be this.

            Calmly, he stood, tears flowing down his face and neck silently. He removed his chain mail and tunic, exposing his bare chest. Then, he lit the hearth. Beside it lay a fire poker. Anders took it and held it into the flames. They danced and flickered and flew over the steel points. When its tip growed a warm red, Anders took a deep breath. Then, in a single motion, he swiveled it around and stuck it into his ribs. It burned. It sizzled and hissed. The room went hot white.

            Anders bit his tongue until it bled, but he would not scream. He would not scream.

            A snake’s fangs had pierced his ribs, were lingering, shifting their daggers about the skewered flesh, slowly dripping in pints of liquid fire that ebbed and flowed with the tides of his blood and all was fire, all was fire, all was fire. After just another moment, he removed it. Anders gasped—the burn curling around his ribs, needles in his stomach and chest. Anders threw the fire poker back to its place.

In the little mirror, he observed the wound. Red, raw, waxy. A reminder. A warning.

He wiped the last tear from his cheek.

Once the burn faded to a deep, achy sting, Anders permitted himself to sleep.

Again, Aleksei visited him this night. The man looked a bit more of a mess than the day prior, but he was getting close. He was getting close.

Aleksei bit his scaly lip, thinking. But his mind was preoccupied with the musings: Etta couldn’t know he was here, Etta couldn’t know he was here, Aleksei had to get back within the hour or else Etta—Etta would know. Etta could not—would not—know.

If missing shoes would not stop this so-called knight, Aleksei wagered that another malfunction might turn him back. With his massive claws, Aleksei bent the door jamb so it could not be opened. On his way out, he bent the window frame so it would not budge. Surely this man would see that he was being sabotaged. Surely this man would turn back. For Etta’s sake, he had to. He had to. For Etta’s sake. Aleksei’s chest took on weight just considering the alternative—this knight’s demise—the devastation Etta would feel.

Aleksei assured himself that this would send the knight a message—it had to. Then, he flew off.

When Anders woke up in the morning, he found that his door could not be opened. He grit his teeth. The perfect way to begin the final leg of his journey—the day he would rescue Princess Maylisetta. Anders rammed his shoulder into the door—nothing. Rocked it with his shield and sword hilt—nothing. Kicked it with his nooses of new shoes—nothing.

He made his way to the window next, but of course, it didn’t shift in the slightest.

Anders sighed. Anders sighed. Anders sighed.

It was last resorts now. He threw his shield at the glass. It shattered instantaneously. And Anders hoisted himself up and crawled through. He almost enjoyed the way the remaining shards dug at his skin, slicing open his face, reopening his hand wound and carving more, nicking his shins. When he landed on the ground, warm blood seeping through his clothes, Anders felt it was fitting. Fitting for he. He a knight unremarkable, unfit, unconditioned—

No, he told himself. No, he was more than that man in the tavern saw. No, he was someone new today—someone deserving. And his chain mail protected him elsewhere—his hard work ever his life force. Anders hoisted himself up, retrieved his shield and fetched Jack from the stables.

Then, he rode.

For hours, he rode toward the tower. He rode toward the tower. His princess, his bride, his future. Anders rode for Wyatt, for his father, for himself—to finally be proven as that strong, fearless man he was.

The tower finally appeared in the distance, a dark silhouette obscured by fog, still miles off but standing tall amidst the stretching shadows of thick trees. Like a phantom observer amidst the dust of the battlefield. A flag amidst the fight. Anders rode on.

Little did he know that Aleksei sat hidden in the woods, claws tucked beneath his body, waiting for Anders lest he arrive.

When the dark dragon saw the broken, bloodied man riding confidently down the path, Aleksei’s chest pounded. His breath quickened. Impossible. Impossible. Aleksei narrowed his eyes. Aleksei lunged.

Anders screamed. Pinning him to the dirt was a green-faced dragon, its teeth mere inches from his face. Anders screamed. Anders kicked and thrashed, but the dragon was holding him down and the dragon was the size of several horses. He gasped for breath—its claws dug into his shoulders. Its wings still beat above him—its full body weight not in use. Anders paused. Anders narrowed his eyes—his opponent did not think him worthy.

“Knight,” Aleksei began, shouting over the boom of his flapping wings, “Turn back now. I will not permit you to see the princess.”

“I’m not asking permission,” Anders growled. “I can fight you in your fullest strength. I shall snuff you out like a candle for what you did to Wyatt!”

Aleksei didn’t know what he was talking about, but he also didn’t have to ask. “Please,” he urged the knight, “I beg you to turn back now. You don’t know what awaits you. You cannot survive this journey and I do not wish to harm you.”

“I can choose my own battles! I can fight my own battles! I’m a knight! Dubbed by Queen Sunniva herself! If you doubt her strength then by all means, deny me a fair battle, but I don’t think you’d dare question her authority.”

“Please.” Almost a whimper.

“Give me a fair fight,” Anders snarled.

Aleksei sighed. Aleksei bowed his head. Aleksei released him. But Aleksei carried off his horse.

Anders let out a scream—a war cry. He tried to chase him, tried to retrieve Jack, but the dragon was flying away from the tower. This was a part of his plan. Anders skidded to a halt in the dirt and shouted some obscene things at the dragon flying off. “You can take my horse, but you won’t stop me from saving the princess!” he called out—almost a dare. Anders’ burn reignited at the very notion of the dragon’s pity—its audacity. To think Anders so pathetic an opponent… His face felt hot.

But he would not be distracted.

Anders swiveled on his heel in the dust and marched toward the tower. Marched on his own two feet. If he could see it, he could make it there. If he could see it, he would make it there. He would make it there. Despite the new leather cutting into his feet. No, it didn’t matter. When he was king, he would need never walk again. When he was king, he would need never wear such unfit, unpalatable shoes again. Never again.

Clouds began to congeal overhead as Anders walked along the dirt path. Anders kept at his pace—right foot then left, right foot then left, right foot then left. The sky darkened several shades by the time the path dwindled into nothing. Nothing. Through the forest was his only choice—and it was worth it. Worth it every time he imagined his Maylisetta’s beautiful face, every time he imagined Queen Sunniva’s gratitude, every time he imagined the kingdom bowing at his feet—willfully burrowing themselves into the dust before him. And Wyatt—he did not think of Wyatt. Only of the pulsing burn against his ribs.

The trees shifted closer together, their leaves thicker, their roots interwoven on the forest floor. Like wounds healed over. Like lovers made one. Anders climbed through. Anders made his way.

After a time, the trees were so thick he could not see the horizon, much less the tower. It was his compass he trusted, the directions he’d been given. He knew he was close—he could feel it if he could not see it. Throughout the forest, the slow, drawn-out cooing of mourning doves echoed against the trees. Hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo. Hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo. The sounds wrapped around his head and imprinted into his brain. The sounds fueled his every step, encouraged him to break from these trees, stagger forward with his bleeding, burning feet. Anders’ head was beginning to throb. Anders’ stomach was beginning to wobble with lack of food. Anders marched on.

When he finally reached the clearing, solitary drops of rain began to pitter patter down from the charcoal sky. But Anders barely felt them. For as he craned his neck skyward, he found a tall, tall, tall stone tower with an orange glow emanating from a high, high, high window.

Anders could not help but gape.

Before attempting anything further, Anders stopped to make himself presentable. With a handkerchief and some water from his canteen, he cleaned the blood from his feet, from his face, from his hands. His hands. The handkerchief was red and brown when he was satisfied—the rain was falling down in a steady stream, not a pitter patter. Anders combed his hair back from his scalp. Anders hoped he looked nice.

The sudden shock of breathlessness: did Wyatt stand in these grasses and do the same? Did his blood permeate these very grounds? Did—?

Anders jabbed his thumb into his burn wound. He sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. He pulled back his thumb carefully, carefully, carefully.

His eyes shot to the tower.

His hands gripped his shield and sword.

His feet dug into the grass.

Anders was ready.

Getting inside was no arduous feat. Strangely enough, the door was not locked. Once within the tower’s walls, he found the dragon was nowhere in sight and the stairs were stunningly simple to navigate. As he climbed them, Anders wondered if he scared the dragon off and the princess left things accessible as a favor to him. Anders was certainly the first to have it this easy—seven knights wouldn’t be killed on a journey such as this. Not such as this.

Anders shook his head and kept climbing. It didn’t matter what the conditions were for the others—he was the one who did it. He was the one who made it, who was saving the princess. Anders and Anders alone. The best of them all.

Finally: the door.

Anders approached it with caution, almost hesitation. He breathed. He breathed. He breathed. His future lay before him. Anders need only open the door.

He swung it open.

The room was a perfect circle, rather small for a princess but enchanting in an intangible way. An ornate crimson rug covered the stone floor, tapestries of reds and oranges adorning the walls. There was a rocking chair beside the hearth, a massive bookcase, a loom. And before the window, beside the balcony: a bed of scarlet silk and gossamer. Roses in bloom wrapped around the bedposts, dropped their petals bedside. A womanly body lay in slumber atop the blankets, hands folded modestly over her fine red dress.

Anders could scarcely breathe. With a shudder, he set down his shield and sword. He stepped forward. He stepped forward. He stepped forward. Anders made little steps until her face was in sight.

It was she: Princess Maylisetta Guilhermina Esme Clementine de Eastaughffe. The one Anders sought this whole time. Her hair was long and dark with red poppies tucked into its strands. Her face was peaceful and serene, at rest. She was smaller than he expected—short and sturdy—healthy-looking. Strong. She looked like the queen, little traces of the king filling the gaps. She was beautiful. She was beautiful, and she was all his.

Now, it was Anders’ turn.

He reached forward and parted the gossamer curtain. Blood pumped, pumped, pumped through his veins. His head was a thunderstorm, a daydream, an anthill. Anders bent down on a knee, ignoring the ache of his feet. Anders licked his lips. With his scabbed-over hand, he cupped Maylisetta’s face. Anders looked at it—so serene. So tranquil. Perfect.

He leaned in and kissed her.

For a beat, he lingered within that moment—her soft lips upon his, his head swimming, heart thumping. Then, he pulled back. He pulled back expecting her to open her eyes, smile, thank him for breaking the curse, for the perilous journey he took, for saving her.

But she did not move.

Anders frowned. Her chest was rising and falling—she was not a corpse. Perhaps he had not done it correctly. He kissed her once more. But again when he looked, nothing.

Now, Anders was getting a bit agitated. He put himself in danger, he faced the dragon, he went on the quest—why would his bride not wake?

He determined he was not doing enough and made a grab for her dress—

She caught his wrist before he could touch her.

Her eyes flew open—dark.

She looked at him with murder in her gaze.

He was dead before he ever saw the dagger.

Anders’ corpse fell to the floor.

Etta stood over the knight’s body, blood dripping down her knife onto his chain mail. Her veins pounded with a delightful thrill—she finally found it in her to breathe—really breathe. Breathe in that breath of fresh air! Breathe in the freedom of a life ahead! Oh, what a promise! Oh, what a rush!

“Watch your hand, good knight, lest you trigger the wrong switch,” she advised the cadaver, walking about it in circles. “Really, haven’t you learned why I want you here?” Etta tsked to herself. This one was remarkably like the last. But oh, wasn’t that one like the one before? And he the one before that? But no, not exactly the same—this one’s skin was like hatching, red lines slicing across! She wondered what trouble he’d run into that the others had not! She frowned to herself, observing him as he lay there—powerless as he was unseeing. “Mummy and Daddy are a little slow on the uptake, I presume. I do wish I could tell them hello.”

Etta walked about studying him for a good sum of time, humming old hymns to herself. The delight was fading fast from her chest, so she waited to wipe away the blood, to hide away the dagger. She closed her eyes and relived the stab, the jolt, the obliviousness in his blue eyes. The squish of the flesh. The way his body fell. The thud on the floor. The thud on the floor. The thud on the floor.

Like power.

After a while, her stomach turned, and that was never a good sign. She threw down the dagger and cleaned the blood from her hand. Etta shut her eyes tight and curled up on her soft, comfortless bed.

A thump on her balcony. Etta tried to breathe—tried to breathe—tried to breathe.

“Hi, Aleksei,” she managed to murmur. Murmur, murmur, murmur. Her stomach was constricted by an anaconda, squirting its contents up to her esophagus. Oh goodness.

Aleksei simply breathed. His chest tightened as he surveyed the room—as the truth sunk in, softening and hardening him: a clenching pain. A few beats of silence. Utter silence. “I see your parents sent another knight.”

Etta could not respond.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t think I can,” she whimpered. Her blood was stuttering through her system. The room was whirling beneath her. The anaconda tightened its grip. “This is the ninth one.” Etta pulled herself from her pillows. Wrinkled her nose at the stench of the blood—oh shit, the blood. The blood… She looked at Aleksei. “What’s wrong with me?” she whispered. 

He looked back, but couldn’t smile. He was thinking of Etta as a little girl—so soft-spoken and frightened and sweet. So guilty, so well-meaning, so scared. His own daughter, his own friend. Aleksei looked at her now, blood trailing up her arms, and his throat tightened. “You can stop, Etta. You can always stop.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.” Etta looked down at her stained hands—trembling. She thought of the liquid delight in her chest—she thought of the vengeful snake in her stomach. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

Silence. Silence. Silence.

A whimper: “I don’t think I should live now.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Etta shook her head. Etta pinched her lips together tight. Etta closed her eyes against the tears.

“Do you want me to… take care of him?”

Etta nodded softly.

Aleksei tenderly scooped up the body and flew off—numb. All he could think was how he failed Etta… how he tried to stop this knight… how he tried to stop him…

Etta walked out onto her balcony and sat on the railing. She hummed. She hummed. She hummed with a desperation deep in the pit of her bowels—with a loathing lust on her slimy tongue. She didn’t hear a sound. There was only the squish of the flesh in her head, against her tingling hands. She thought of how she could have been a princess. She could have been a queen.

She would never be her mother.

Something throbbed in Etta’s stomach as she stared out at the horizon, waiting for movement on the treeline.