Seymour had fallen deeply asleep, his breathing falling into the familiar pattern that Seoc knew from a week’s worth of nights spent by his side. Slowly and gently, so as not to wake him, the human turned in the Aechyed’s arms so that they lay face to face. He lifted his hand, softly touching Seymour’s forehead. His skin burned with fever.
“Puir Sey,” he whispered. “You ha’e no’ been tellin’ me the whole truth, ha’e you?”
Just tired, he had said. Not really hungry. As if he were too embarrassed to admit to Seoc that he was ill. What did he think Seoc would do if he had told him? Run away? But that was absurd.
The dog, which had hopped down to the floor once the bed grew too crowded, whimpered and curled up on the hearthrug. Seymour shifted in his sleep, tightening his embrace and drawing Seoc close against his body. His lips moved, perhaps in attempt to communicate something from the world of dreams, but he made no sound.
Suddenly, Seoc heard footsteps in the corridor, not the light, hurried footfalls of a servant, but the sharp, directed ones that could only be produced by someone important who had a clear destination in mind. He tensed as the footsteps stopped directly outside the door.
The doorknob turned, and Seoc prepared himself to roll off the mattress and hide under the bed, but despite the silent panic growing in his chest, he remembered that the door was latched. He looked, just to make sure, and was relieved to see he was right. The metal latch, glistening in the firelight, was secured across the top of the door.
He decided to wake Seymour just in case the intruder was not discouraged.
“What is it?” the Aechyed moaned sleepily, rubbing his eyes.
“Shh,” Seoc advised, holding his finger to his lips. “Someone’s tryin’ ta get in!”
“It’s fine,” Seymour yawned. “There’s the latch there…oh, fuck.”
They both watched, temporarily paralyzed by fear, as the latch glowed blue and began to draw back seemingly of its own accord. The door swung slowly open, revealing the silhouette of a tall, thin man wearing a flowing cloak and carrying a sword.
The man stepped into the room. The moment his foot made contact with the floor beyond the threshold, blue sparks came up around it, and the stone beneath it began to move, crawling as if covered in snakes—but they weren’t snakes, Seoc could tell, even in the dim light. They were vines. Thorny ones. Thick cords of brier rose, sprouting from the ground and coiling around the ankles of its captives as they tried to leap from the bed and flee.
Seoc cried out as the thorns punctured his skin. He tried to struggle free, but the cruel restraints only grew tighter.
“Stop!” Seymour was screaming at the intruder. “Don’t hurt him! Henry, please! Don’t hurt him!”
Henry did not reply. Holding his sword parallel to his body, he picked his way through the tangle of vines growing out from between the stones of the floor, then, upon reaching Seoc, raised the blade to the smaller man’s throat.
The nightmare seized Seoc’s mind and smothered him in its humid grasp. He was at the same time acutely aware of the present, and yet somewhere else entirely. Back in a dark room in the house in Iliathor, the sweaty fingers of a middle-aged man clasped about his neck—not to kill, but to restrain.
“DON’T HURT HIM!” Seymour bellowed. “DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Henry asked.
“He never did anything to you!” Seymour replied. His voice was hoarse from shouting. “He never did you any wrong!”
“Oh, but you did.”
“Then put your sword to my neck! Punish me, if you must. Do what you will to me. Just leave Seoc alone!”
He was weeping now. Seoc couldn’t turn his head to see his face, but he could hear the tears in his voice.
“I trusted you, de Winter!” Henry snarled, spraying the side of Seoc’s face with spittle. “I know I was a fool to do so, I knew it even then, but I trusted you! I thought you loved me!”
“You thought wrong.”
“Yes,” Henry spat, suddenly lowering his sword and sheathing it. “I can see that now. I can see that I should have known better. I’m stupid and ugly. Nothing to compare to your pretty little freak!” He came face to face with Seoc and pinched his cheek, pulling the skin sideways. Seoc would have slapped his hand away, but the vines had bound his arms to his sides. “What if I cut off his nose? Would you still love him? If I cut out his tongue, would you still kiss him? If I were to burn his face, so that his skin melted and sagged, would you still look at him?”
“Leave him alone!” Seymour barked, struggling against the vines that held him prisoner.
Henry ignored him, continuing to stare Seoc, wolfishly, in the eyes. “Ah, but he is so pretty. It would be a shame to disfigure such a lovely countenance. Perhaps I shall only kill him, have him taxidermied, and keep him to look upon.”
“You’re mad, Henry.”
“What difference does it make?”
“You’re better than this, Henry. You aren’t a bad person!”
“I’m a murderer, Seymour,” the young man whispered harshly. “What if I kill him? Would you kill me?”
“No,” Seymour replied.
“Would you hate me?”
Seymour thought about it. “No.”
“Would you tell anyone I’d done it?”
“Then what do I have to lose?” Henry demanded, fingering the hilt of his sword.
“Well, I don’t think you’d be too happy with what I would do,” Seymour replied cryptically.
“Oh, do tell,” the mage sneered. “What would you do?”
“I’d kill myself.”
Seymour looked at him sincerely. “Do you think I have anything else to live for?”