Ris pushed the door closed with his back.

Ris pushed the door closed with his back. A last gust of winter whirled in behind him and fluttered the flames of the lamps, but the haze that filled the room stopped the delicate scent of wet pines outside. 

He knew better than to prop open the door. The damp draft would only serve to seep stale odors of smoke and vomit out of every curtain, every skin, every scrap of fabric in the house.

His father lifted his head off the rug and squinted up at him. “Well?”


“She can stay.”

His father grunted. His head wavered like a reflection in an unsteady basin, but he did not lay it down.

Ris took a step towards his bedchamber.


Ris stopped. He pretended to straighten his glove.



“I was simply going to tell her – ”


Ris stepped onto the rug and began to crouch, but his father snapped his fingers behind his head. Ris sighed and padded around the bearskin to the pipe.

His father tried to pull himself up by one knee, flailing the other arm through the air as if he thought he were underwater and could push himself along.

Ris snorted. The air was so opaque it was almost conceivable. He delivered a helpful shove to his father’s shoulder as he went by. In his imagination he added just enough force to tip him all the way over and launch him face-​​first into the fire.

He delivered a helpful shove to his father's shoulder.

Ris folded his legs and settled on the edge of the rug. The pipe’s wide platter presented an excuse for him to avoid sitting at his father’s side.

“The elf Sorin greets you, my father.”

His father hacked to clear his throat and spat into a cup. “I don’t care what he said to me. I want to know what he said to you.”

“Naturally. I – ”

“Pass me the pipe.”

His father’s arm swung out to the side and stopped, wavering, before Ris’s face. The chubby hand was buffed, oiled, and manicured to a newborn softness, but it jittered with tremors from a lifetime of breathing poison.

“Haven’t you had enough?”

His father’s hand clenched into a fat fist. Ris held his breath and waited – cross-​​eyed, petrified – for it to crash into his face.

His father said, “One of us clearly hasn’t. You first.”

The arm flapped harmlessly back across his father’s knee. Ris exhaled.

'That's Sorin's hospitality.'

“That’s Sorin’s hospitality,” his father grumbled. “How many times did he forget you were standing there?”

Ris rocked onto his knee to peer down through the column of smoke into the bowl of the pipe. A puff of air sufficed to redden the smoldering coals, and the clumsy twist of honeyed thatch had not yet collapsed into ash around them. His father had lit another pipe in the hour he had been out.

“He wasn’t bad tonight.”

Sorin had been too shaken up by the previous night’s events to escape into poetic fugues, but Ris thought it unwise to say so to his father.

“Well? What did he say?”

“He said she could stay. He isn’t going to tell the elf Saralla. He means to forget it ever happened.”

Ris held the mouthpiece of the pipe out to his father, hoping he had already forgotten his command. 

His father shoved it back at him. “You’re going to need that more than I.”

Ris clasped the pipe against his breastbone. He realized he had not heard so much as a rustle from his bedchamber since he had come in. Aside from the hissing lamps and the labored breathing of his father, there was not a sound to be heard in all the house. For an hour his father and his wife had been left alone. A chill dread trickled down his spine.

Ris pressed the pipe to his lips and sucked in all the smoke he could hold. The acrid air smothered the icy-​​sweet breaths of pine needles and ferns he had been saving in the depths of his lungs, but he needed the smoke more.

He needed the smoke more.

The first image that bloomed into his mind was the blue-​​lipped, bloodless face of his wife. He exhaled in a gasp. If his father ever laid so much as a finger on her…

His father muttered, “He probably already has.”

Ris choked in surprise and coughed on the torrid smoke that billowed from his own lungs. He held the hose away from his body like a snake that might strike a second time.

His father plucked it from his fingers and waved his hand past Ris’s face to waft the worst of the smoke away.

“Already forgotten it ever happened, I mean.”

His father took a slow pull on the pipe, scarcely rumbling the water in its base. Ris’s drifting senses told him the faint gurgling came from his own stomach, and his chronic nausea woke to hurl itself against the walls of his gut. He swallowed, but bile burned like fire coals in the back of his throat. He sat forward and clamped an arm across his belly, dreaming miserably of his bed – and of a warm, living wife who was so silent simply because she awaited him in it.

His father tipped back his head and blew a stem of smoke into the air. “What I want to know,” he whispered, breaking the pillar into clouds with his turbulent breath, “is how the elf Sorin learned of it in the first place. Did he tell you?”

'Did he tell you?'

“It was the unnamed elf himself, my father.”

His father’s hand fell, and Ris jolted upright. The hose flopped to the floor and writhed.

“Do you tell me that ass-​​licking dog had the insolence to go first to the Khor?”

“No, he… went afterwards.” Ris’s gaze darted between his father’s knotted profile and the twitching hose. “He went to demand punishment for his crime.”

Ris could taste the menace his father exhaled: his quickening breath beat stale air out of dark corners of his lungs.

“And he was allowed to live?”

“He was blinded again, my father. He was damned.”

His father lifted his arm back onto his knee and puffed quietly at the pipe. The tamed hose swung in a slow arc.

Ris risked a glance back at the door. Why, why so silent? Madra paced when she was distressed. She sometimes tore her own gowns with her anxious twisting and tugging at her sleeves.

'To think I believed it was the elf Tashnu who told him.'

His father muttered, “To think I believed it was the elf Tashnu who told him.”

Ris wrinkled his nose. “Why would Nush do something like that?”

His father inhaled deeply from the pipe and held his breath. His thick neck slackened and his head sank, until he appeared asleep and even – for an electrifying instant – dead.

Then he exhaled a cloud of smoke over his shoulder at Ris. “Having tired of insulting your blessed sister, he goes on to disgrace your wife and rob you of your honor.”

Ris held his breath until the air had cleared enough to let him see through to his father’s head: wavering and twitching again, very much alive.

“On the contrary, my father, I believe Nush was only trying to prevent the thing from getting out. The unnamed elf probably would have run up and down the court banging the gongs if Nush hadn’t been there. ‘Look at me! Aren’t I infamous!’”

Ris chuckled.

Ris chuckled, but his father’s breathing remained steady and deep, and no hint of a smile softened his voice when he spoke.

“A pity I wasn’t here last night. I would have given the dog his punishment. Kicked him down the stairs carrying his eyes folded up in a bloody rag.”

His father tossed down the pipe, and the mouthpiece clattered onto the tray. Ris heard a hissing intake of breath from his bedchamber. He closed his eyes and let his tense shoulders sink in relief.

Then his father’s hand clamped down on one of them, jolting him stiff with fear.

“But there will be other nights. Help me up, Ris.”

Ris scrambled to rise, dragging his father’s floundering body up with him. 

“What are you going to do, my father? It’s late – ”

His father shoved him against the door. “I’m going to bed! Because it’s late! By my mother.”

His father shoved him away.

He took a staggering step on his own. For a moment it looked as if he would fall face-​​first onto the tiles, but Ris would have no such luck.

He shuffled his feet the rest of the way, never lifting them from the floor. His slippers hissed across the aged ceramic until he stopped at the foot of the stairs.


“My father?”

His father switched to the guttural cant that few elves understood – none of them ladies.

'Punish her.'

“Punish her. If you don’t, I will.”

Ris’s mouth swilled with acrid saliva. He swallowed, trying to sluice out the fire in the back of his throat. It burned all the way down into his belly.

“Yes, my father.”

'Yes, my father.'

His father snorted and shook his head in disgust.

Ris watched him lumber up the stairs until his fat feet had disappeared into the darkness above. Then, at last, he opened the door.

Madra stood just beyond it, scarcely out of the quarter circle of its swing. His gaze ran her up and down, but he saw no bruises, no rips, no spots of blood. The cold dignity of her face told him nothing, but the light flashing on her iridescent laces betrayed her shallow panting. And if she still wore her riding gown, it meant she feared she would have to fly.

The cold dignity of her face told him nothing.

Ris pushed the door closed behind him and waited for its click.

He whispered, “All is forgiven. You have nothing to fear.”

She only blinked at him, but the crystals on her pendant began to tremble against her forehead. Their tiny facets twinkled like stars.

Ris took a step closer. He straightened his shoulders and thrust out his chest, hoping to remind her of his strength – of how much she owed to it, how much she needed it.

It would be tonight, he told himself. She could not refuse him tonight. He lifted the trailing end of her lace…

Madra turned away. Ris felt the ribbon slide through its bow, but at the first hint of tension it slipped out of his gloved fingers.

He chuckled and followed her. “Madra! You don’t have to go anywhere tonight. Let’s get undressed and go to bed. I just spent the evening matching the elf Sorin rhyme for rhyme. You have no idea how exhausting that is.”

'You have no idea how exhausting that is.'

“Good night, Ris.”

“My darling!” Ris laughed again. “Do you know how many ways there are to say: ‘My wife is an angel who redeems us with her crimes and blesses us beyond our worth with her virtuous deeds?’ Come to bed and I shall try to remember a few of them for you.”

He laid his hand on the narrowest point of her waist and stroked it down her hip.

Madra sank her fingernails into his glove and yanked his hand down. “Don’t touch me.”



She stepped away, but not quite beyond the quarter circle of his swinging fist. She could not have more precisely turned her back to him. She pretended to fear him, but he did not believe she did. She knew he would never hurt her, or she would not take so many risks. 

He stepped up behind her – near enough to hook his arm around her neck and break it – and she did not flinch.

He whispered, “After what I did for you tonight.”

She tossed her head. “And where were you last night?”

'And where were you last night?'

“It doesn’t matter where I was – where I wanted to be was here. And so I would have been if you had spared me so much as half a smile yesterday.”

She snorted and shook her head in disgust.

“Madra, everyone expects us to have a baby in the autumn. What are we going to tell them?”

She folded her arms and flopped against the pillar. “Tell them you couldn’t get it up, Ris. Everyone is likely to believe that.”

'Tell them you couldn't get it up, Ris.'

Ris sucked in a breath, and a second, and a third. Like an icy stream, the air was too cold, too clean to be borne for more than a moment. He nearly went out into the sitting room to finish the pipe. He nearly went out into the night.

Then he heard his father’s hacking cough racketing through the apartment upstairs, and he remembered his threat. He could not leave his wife alone.

He lowered his head nearer to hers and whispered, “Madra, please – ”

She jerked her face to the side and waved her hand between them, wafting his breath away.

“Forgive me, my darling – I scarcely touched it. My father wanted to talk. Madra – ”

She arched herself away from him. Ris paused and thought of soft things – warm taffy, baby rabbits, the velvety dust in which songbirds bathed and fluffed – and tried to infuse such softness into his words.

Ris paused and thought of soft things.

“Wouldn’t you like to have a little baby in the house again, dear? Don’t you miss those days? And won’t the girls have fun, dressing her up and playing games with her? And teaching her how to giggle and act perfectly innocent when Daddy comes home and finds his bathtub full of tadpoles? Remember that? ‘I guess you can take your bath in the pond, Daddy!’”

Madra relaxed against the pillar. She did not lift her face to him, but she opened her lips and breathed, warming and sweetening the air between them. She was more intoxicating than any drug Ris had ever found.

Madra relaxed against the pillar.

“Don’t you want to know her?” he whispered. “This new little elf? She won’t be exactly like Ria, of course. She’ll be her own sweet self. She could be anything…”

Nevertheless Ris believed he already saw her nature in his dreams: his little baby Sunshine, who would bring warmth and light to their home again. He imagined her heedlessly flinging open doors and clearing away decades of smoke and misery with her beloved summer breezes. He even saw her sneaking into her mother’s room to light a fire amidst the ashes.

“She could be a boy.” Madra’s voice was husky, though he had not seen her shed a tear.

“A girl!” he whispered. “A girl!”

He laid a hand on her belly – hesitant, at first, but once she had flattened her back against the pillar and could go no further, he held her still. He longed to feel her soft belly swelling and hardening again with his child. It was the closest he had ever come to sharing a body with her.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work,” she muttered. “It could be a boy.”

“It will be a girl, my darling – ”

“And I cannot do that again. It would kill me. Bear a son, and raise him, and love him, and watch him turn into you.

She put such venom in the last word that Ris pulled his hand away on his own.

Ris pulled his hand away on his own.

“Better I should strangle him at birth. And that would kill me, too.”

Ris swallowed, trying to ease his burning throat. He mouthed, “A girl…”

His father hacked and coughed upstairs. Clearer than any hallucination – clearer than any sunmote dream of unborn daughters – Ris saw his father’s porcine body rolling around half-​​dressed on the bed, choking, his hair stuck to his sweaty back, his face red and his eyes bulging from lack of air. Ever since Pol’s death, the old elf had been killing himself at double speed, but it was not quite fast enough. If he did not die during the night, Ris would have to convince him he had punished his wife.

Ris would have to convince him he had punished his wife.

In their youth, he and she had used to break the law together. They had drunk animal milk, ridden donkeys, ventured out onto the water in little boats: they had watched the men and tried every forbidden thing they saw.

And in those days when he went out at night it was with her: to learn how to mate as the men did. They had giggled at first – collapsed with laughter every time she attempted a womanly moan or a shriek – but they had soon learned the transcendent truth of the passion they mimed. In the unlit corners of the men’s world they had strained together in strange positions, and forgotten for a few moments the sordid misery of their life among the elves.

They had even dared bring the knowledge back with them for impromptu fugues. Miria had been conceived in her parents’ bed, but her mother had been propped up on elbows and knees like a beast, her hair twined about Ris’s hand, and her back arched until his cock speared her belly at such a sublime angle that her moans had made his father fear he had murdered her.

Before Lor’s death, Ris’s father had believed he regularly beat his wife. They could fool him again. She only had to let him. She only had to let herself.

He whispered, “Madra, my love – ”

She shoved him off and stepped back. “No.”


Her pendant sparkled and her ribbons flashed. The harsh shadows of the smokeless air deepened every line on her face.

“No. I cannot. I cannot carry a child nine moons in my womb, not knowing whether it’s a girl or a monster.”

'No.  I cannot.'

In his desire for her, Ris had almost forgotten their duty to have a daughter. That could wait for another night – another season. Perhaps he could remind her of some of the other tricks they had learned from the men…

“The one thing I will never forgive your poor mother is her nursing you at her breast. I doubt she ever forgave herself.”

“No.” Ris’s gloves strained across his knuckles and squashed his fingertips, wakening a throbbing pain in nails chewed down to the bloody quick. “You ought to know – you loved our son.”

“Our son died before I learned to loathe him!”

Ris clapped his hands over his ears. “No! No!”

If not for him, his mother would have died dozens of times – and she had known it. Dozens of times he had pulled his raging father off her, and when his father would turn on him, his mother would step back into the fray. By dividing the beatings between the two of them they had survived.

He was the one who always took the blame, always served as bait, always acted as a distraction – and his mother had known it. 

He was the one who always took the blame.

He was the one who slept in his sister’s bed when his father came home early, his lust unsated. He was the one who had helped Perala flee into a precocious marriage and taken the beating when their father had learned.

He was the one who had loved his wife so hard that his father had considered her sufficiently punished for all her petty crimes and never touched her.

He was the one who had found the idea of the girls’ tower room, and invented the princess story that made the delicate rope bridge seem part of a game to them, and defended them from lumbering monsters too heavy for its span.

He was the one who had prevented his father from initiating Lor into his world. He had kept the boy so tragically innocent that he had been tricked by a kisór dog, but at least he had died before he could sin. It was Madra’s abominable nephew who was the monster, and he wondered how many bloody messes Sorin would have to ritually punish before the old kook figured it out – but there had been nothing wrong with Lor.

He had protected them all. He had saved everyone but himself. And his mother had known it.

“She loved me. She always told me so.”

“She cursed the day you were born!”

'She cursed the day you were born!'

“She cursed the day, but not the son! Not the daughter! She cursed the days on which she bore us because without those days she could have let herself die! But she loved us! Enough to live!”

“Then your mother was a fool. Why should a dear elf such as she want to die when monsters are allowed to survive?”

She turned her back to him again, stepped closer to the bed. He could have bowled her over onto the mattress with one swing of his arm.

She turned her back to him again.

“I don’t want to die, Ris.” She smoothed her gown over the curves of her waist. “Some days I do wish I could kill.”

Ris’s breath came faster, seeping smoke out of dark corners of his lungs. It was not yet stale. Entire constellations of stars burst and fizzled in the periphery of his mind.

“Do it, then. Kill me. See how long you would last without me.”

“Hmm!” She twined a curl of hair around her finger and cocked her hip. “I think you would like that. But it’s worth a try. You might get it up after all, one last time.”

He grabbed her arm and spun her around. She had so failed to anticipate his move that a shout of surprise escaped her. Ris realized he might fool his father simply by scaring her. He grasped her other arm and shook her.

“Look at me when you say shit like that! Look me in the eyes!”

He grasped her other arm and shook her.

Madra looked him in the eyes, but she only gaped at him. In his mouth the taste of smoke mingled with her sweet breath.

“You don’t dare, do you? You don’t dare! When I have always satisfied your every desire! Given you everything I am, body and soul! And because once, in my grief, I could not get it up, you think you have the right…”

He bent her back, he squeezed her arms, but she made no further sound. Ris was already running out of ideas.

His father had gone quiet upstairs. He must have been holding back his coughs, straining to hear. It was too much to hope that he was simply dead.

“No, my wife. You do not have the right.”

Ris grabbed her shoulders and flung the two of them down on the bed, careful not to let his weight fall on her body.

Ris grabbed her shoulders and flung the two of them down on the bed.

He knocked the breath out of her when she landed, but she did not cry out.

“Let’s see whether I can get it up, shall we?”

He freed one hand and slid it down onto her breast. It had slipped out of the stiff cup of her riding dress, and it rolled soft and loose beneath his hand, just as he remembered it. Even through layers of gown and his leather glove, his thumb found her nipple: stiff with cold or arousal or fear. He scarcely knew which he wanted it to be.

“Since it seems to worry you so much, hmm?”

He reached farther down and yanked on the nearest handful of fabric, trying to pull her gown up around her legs. He was kneeling on it, and she was lying on it, and it went nowhere. She twisted her hips between his legs and panted past his ear, but she did not make a sound. Neither did his father.

Ris propped himself up on his elbow.

Ris propped himself up on his elbow and unbuckled his belt. She squirmed her hands beneath his shoulders and tried to shove him away, giving him something to strain against. He bent low, crushing her breasts beneath her forearms, and kissed his way up her neck with his tongue. She clamped her lips together and did not scream.

He lifted his head and snarled at her. “Come on!”

She had only to make a sound. One shriek and he would stop. He yanked at his belt, trying to pull it off. The jerks on his pants were maddening: he was already ferociously hard. She had only to turn her face to him and kiss him, and surrender to him, and he would make her wail like a cat, as she had in the hay-​​filled lofts of the men’s barns.

His belt slipped free, and he swung it out and whipped the mattress. He wanted his father to think he was whipping her. He wanted her to think he would. But she only turned her face left and right and grunted through her teeth in her struggles.

His belt slipped free.

“Come on!”

He tossed the belt against the wall to make his father hear the crack of the buckle. He fell onto his elbows and twisted her fingers up in his. He bore down with his weight until he crushed her breasts against his chest. She had only to plead with him! One shout of his name! Even a simple “No!” or a “Stop!”

“Come on!”

He was down to his last idea. He pressed his cheek against hers and opened his mouth to breathe. She stiffened and arched her back, driving her head into the mattress to escape him.

She stiffened and arched her back.

She knew what he was after. He knew what she feared: not what he would do to her, but what he was. He would make her scream as he had on their wedding night, when she had had her sole glimpse into the mind he had to peer through every fucking day.

“Come on, Madra,” he whispered. “Come to me. You can’t hold your breath forever.”

Her body shook with the strain. He ground his cock against her pelvis, trying to ease the ache of his desire – as he had been grinding himself against her for twenty years, driving himself deep inside of her, since he could not have her inside of him.

“Come on…”

She twisted her neck back almost to breaking.

She twisted her neck back almost to breaking and tried to steal a gasp of air. Ris had been waiting for it. He twisted her breath up like a fistful of hair and dragged her into his lungs.

As she passed through him, he felt a crushing grief such as he had never known: a mother’s for her son. He was heartbroken and humbled. He saw tears fall onto her lovely cheek from on high.

Then he saw himself.

Then he saw himself.

He was out of his own control. The beasts that prowled the abandoned courts of his mind raced towards her intrusion. They howled and hurled their bodies at the gates, chomped their jaws on the air, scrabbled up the walls with their claws. She was tender and sweet and full of love – an angel in more ways than he could ever tell – and she believed she could tame them. After twenty years she still secretly believed she could tame him.

She was about to be savaged.

He screamed as he had on their wedding night – screamed with her own voice until she heard his warning and fled. He let her go.

He screamed as he had on their wedding night.

He arched his body away from hers and sobbed harmlessly into her hair, but she kept on screaming.

He panted, “Madra!”

She screamed and screamed again – piercing whistles alongside his ear that must have sounded clear up into his father’s bed.

She screamed and screamed again.

Ris imagined the old monster holding his breath to better hear… slipping his chubby hand beneath the sheets to stroke himself while he listened…

Ris clapped his hand over her mouth and whispered, “Stop, stop!”

She twisted and moaned.

“Stop, stop! I wouldn’t do it! I didn’t mean it!”

She heaved herself up beneath his body, and he rolled off her.

“No! No!” She yanked at her skirts and staggered around the foot of the bed.

Ris rolled himself up against the headboard: as far from her as he could go, as small as he could make himself.

“Animal! How dare you? How dare you?”

'How dare you?'

“Forgive me, my darling. Please forgive me. I don’t know what came over me… I miss you so much…”

“No! You shall not make this my fault! And you wonder why I don’t want you to touch me! And you wonder why I don’t want to make any more elves like you!”

Ris buried his face in his gloves. He rubbed his cheeks, straining his flesh over his skull, straining the leather over his bleeding fingers. His father coughed. His beasts growled and huffed and trotted along the walls, snuffling for cracks.

Ris buried his face in his gloves.

He listened to Madra’s shivering, hiccuping breath as she sought to calm herself with her pacing. He heard a prickle of snapping threads. She must have torn a seam.

“I wish the elf Sorin had banished me! By my mother! I would call it a reward!”

Ris sniffed wryly into his hands. He wondered whether she realized the thought had come from his own mind. Secretly he had hoped the old kook would stand firm. If Sorin had banished Madra, he and Miria might have escaped too.

He and Miria might have escaped too.