Had Noah not finally placed the smell, he might have thought the goblets filled with wine, but a wine that was somehow too thick, too red. Clinks of goblets toasting to good health echoed around the hall. The feasters smiled at one another, drank deeply, wiped crimson droplets from stained lips. Noah’s gorge rose. He looked incredulously at the prince, who grinned large, and the nightmare continued.
The thin black-clad man appeared in front of the table holding a silver basin. This he placed before the prince, then clapped and beckoned toward a shadowed, high-arched doorway. Two servants emerged, pulling a tall apparatus slowly into the dim light. It was a bizarre, gangly thing, made of iron bars and cord set on small wooden wheels, somewhat resembling a gallows. A young woman, barely more than a girl, hung head-down, back curved and stretched over metal framework of the apparatus. She was alive, moaning dreamily as if drugged. Despite being swollen and red from hanging upside-down, her face was beautiful. Her hair fell loosely down in satin curls that waved as the apparatus stopped, and through his increasing sickness, Noah caught the faint scent of roses.
The girl’s head hung over the silver bowl; her hair almost brushed the bowl’s edges. Almost delirious with incredulity, Noah whispered. “No.” He shoved up from the table, scattering his silverware. A leatherclad fist hit him squarely behind the ear, stunning him. Hands grabbed him by the hair and neck and forced him back down. His cheek pressed against a silver plate; spittle from his quick, heavy breaths marred the girl’s reflection at the plate’s edge, but he could still make out the black sleeve and thin white hand, the curved knife that drew closer to engorged veins in a slender neck. Noah closed his eyes and cried.
He opened his eyes, hoping to awake. Instead, he saw blood. Pulsating rivulets of bright-red mixed with steady flows of maroon, all meeting and mixing and masking the girl’s face with macabre, meandering stripes until the blood soaked into her blonde hair and turned it dark. The clear, sharp drips onto silver became the wet sounds of liquid pouring into liquid as the bowl rapidly filled. The prince put his lips to the rippling red surface and took a sip.
“The rose is a very nice touch, Etien.” He smiled benignly at the man in black, a crimson grin against white skin.
“Thank you, my lord.”
“I think that will be all for now, Etien, this looks to be quite enough. Take it away – and don’t waste any, it bleeds still.”
Servants returned, bowed, and dragged the apparatus with the dead girl away from whence it came; one held a wooden basin under the dripping hair to catch the blood that still flowed from the long neck wound. Noah coughed, sick to his very soul and spirit.
“Let our guest up, if you please.” The prince waved to the unseen figures behind Noah, still holding him pressed to the table. Noah swayed in his seat as if he were drunk; some small part of his mind, some courageous subconscious spark, steeled him for whatever horrors were next, then his senses rebelled utterly. He vomited across the silverware and onto the floor.
With an animal’s reflexes, the prince pushed himself from his seat. He frowned, a faint look of disgust edging his features.
“Well, my appetite is gone.” The prince stood, and a servant was at the table before he called. “Clean this up, will you? Noah, walk with me again.”
A woman with drooping jowls and golden rings through her ears and nose noticed the prince stand. She turned and sent him an inquisitive look. The prince’s handsome face smiled broadly. “Excuse me, everyone,” he called. “I leave you now, but please continue without me. Enjoy!” The woman happily resumed her meal.
Strong hands pushed Noah behind the prince. Two burly men in piecemeal leather armor, scarred like the servants and bearing scars of battle besides, walked to either side and behind the missioner. Their hands lay lightly on the hilts of sheathed, curving swords. Noah stumbled along, numb with horror. The prince seemed oblivious to his state, though, and began speaking once more.
“Noah, let me share my view of the world. It is this. We are animals – intelligent, cultured, but animals nonetheless. As the stronger predator thrives while the weaker starves and the prey is eaten, so it is with us. Those people outside these walls? They are as cattle to us, as sheep to be slaughtered. Your myths and fantasies cannot protect them, any more than they protect you now. What say you to that?”
An ember of defiance gave fire to Noah’s defense of his faith. “Do what you will to me. I am a tool. The seed of truth has been planted in your lands, prince, and it will grow, all the more if it is watered with the blood of martyrs.”
The prince laughed. “Poetic! Vomit on your chin, but a gilded tongue! I will try to match you. You speak of your precious converts, yes? Come, let me show you why I will not worry on them.”