He had locked himself in his study, sealed the lock with a key and pushed his desk against the frame. Moons rose and suns fell and he ignored the pleas. His advisors, his priests, his own children. All were sent from the door with a bark and a crash of fist against wood. Only his wife was brave enough to withstand the bellows. She whispered at him through the keyhole and he felt her words as he had felt the ooze of the witch’s touch. A hand on his arm, fingertips over his brow, a palm down his chest. Dayas squeezed his eyes shut.
‘Be gone, Auretta.’
He stripped. Threw off the crown and unfastened his waistcoat. Kicked off his boots and breeches. The brush of cotton and silk against his skin was too much. The hairs on his calves, his chest, his knuckles—too much. He stood naked in front of the firelight and endured the heat. Waited for it to catch and crisp. When that failed, he stood rigid until the flame turned to ember and the chill of the marble walls had seeped into his bones. Then he rang for more wood.
He ordered the servant to leave it, pressed his ear to the door and waited for the pitter-pat of retreating footsteps. Then he slipped, still naked, into the hall and retrieved his prize.
So it went for another six-day. Wood and blaze and ash. Pressing ever closer, edging back just before he burned, until he could no longer feel the difference between warmth and chill and he put his clothes back on and opened the door.
Things were not the same.
Auretta’s belly had swelled enough to span the front of her gown. The sight of it mocked him and he avoided looking whenever possible. When night came and they laid down to share their bed, Dayas stared across the valley of quilt to his beautiful wife and swallowed back bile. He watched her, wide-eyed in the dark, until her long lashes fluttered down over her cheeks. Then he slid from the bed and went to sit by the smoking grate.
As months passed, the belly grew and grew. And Dayas shrank and shrank.
He flinched from every touch, ignored every entreating eye, avoided prayer and cleansing and banished the servants meant to dress him. His skin grew numb, blind to contact. When Auretta sat by the fire one brisk fall afternoon, knitting a coronation blanket and gasped, hand to her gut, and said, ‘Dayas, it’s kicking,’ he left the room.
‘I miss my husband.’
She said it to the dark. To the canopy above their unsleeping eyes. The distance in the bed had grown. He wondered if she had gone as numb as he.
‘So do I.’
But she was not a selfish woman. She did not ask again. She went to her birthing bed without asking. She screamed up at the ceiling, hands clenched into fists on sheets when they should have been wound in his. Even as the blood soaked the mattress, as her blinks turned slow and her breathing unsteady—even then she only managed his name. And still, there was no question in it.
Dayas sat beside the stiffening corpse until the dim hours of the morning. He watched her face become less and less hers, stiffened and brittle, and only when he was trembling from the guilt of what he’d done, did he lay his hand over hers.
It was cold.
Tess Hunter began her career in screenwriting, specializing in genre television. Her SF screenplay placed in the semi-finals of the PAGE Awards. She eventually turned to prose, completing two novels, and procuring an MA in Professional Writing. Tess currently lives in Colorado and is seeking representation. She tweets @tesshunter and her website is tesshunter.com