Chapter 1: Waking Up
Your head is heavy on the pillow, but the twittering of birds just beyond the window pokes and prods at your leaden unconsciousness. You roll to one side, then onto your back again. A gleaming face blocks out the ceiling when you will your eyes to open.
The face evolves wondrously with joy, crinkling in all the most endearing places and glinting like precious jewels. "You've kept us waiting an eternity, my darling. Why don't you follow me to the parlor?"
This voice is a spell, absolutely. Without thought, you might just float up, a weightless adjoining concept, and follow it anywhere. But when your feet touch the floor, your skull becomes a cup of sloshing liquid. You groan and grope at the sides of your head.
A steady hand touches the small of your back, traces up your spine, and alights on your shoulder. "Don't fret. You're only groggy. You've overslept. Here, let me help you-"
The sloshing sensation in your head makes it hard to concentrate, but you're lucid enough to realize this situation is strange. Why is this man's face familiar, but you can't remember your relationship to him? Why were you sleeping in a room you can't recall having ever entered? Who is waiting for you? What's going on in the parlor?
Questions crash inside your mind like boulders, colliding with one another and compounding. The bird call outside seems to grow in urgency until it's a warbling screech stabbing you in the temple.
You groan again, overwhelmed, and draw back from the virtual stranger. His cool fingers slip from your arms like a smile turning into a frown. But when you look at him with confusion marked between your brows, his expression is as pleasant as before.
You try to summon your voice, but only rasping breath passes your lips. He takes in your look of alarm and, before you can claw at your neck in panic, he makes a placating gesture and bends close.
"Shh, shhh. It's alright, darling. It'll return, in time," he murmurs. "Sleep such as you've just awakened from does damage in countless ways. Time is a thief." His tone wilts in sadness at the end.
After a pause- during which he fails to meet your gaze and his is far away -he recovers from this momentary melancholy and gives you a dazzling smile, one of tenderness and promises.
"Come with me, dear. Everyone is aching to see you, and you must be hungry and thirsty. I'll answer your questions. It'll all be fine." He takes a step back toward the bedroom door, his intense, cherry red eyes never leaving your face, and offers his hand for you to take.
Though your veins feel like live wires and your intuition begs for you to heed its warnings, you tentatively place your hand in his. His palm is cool against yours, and its dry smoothness reminds you of snake scales. This doesn't deter you. In fact, it incites a strange compulsion to draw closer to his side.
The pair of you exit the bedroom and advance through the claustrophobic, burgundy-carpeted halls. You feel him watching you as you examine the framed paintings hanging on the walls along the way. Many of these are large pieces that would stand as tall as your waist were they grounded. They depict scenes of morbidity- war, hunting, and things more speculative, like Hell and Purgatory.
The images sharpen your awareness. Though, you have no more luck recalling your surroundings or understanding the situation you've found yourself in. Your body still drags and creaks, less than helpful. You're not sure you'd be able to break into a run if necessity called for it.
You lean into him for support despite your frantic bewilderment. What other choice do you have? Besides, his manner has remained the same since you awoke: calm, reassuring, even slightly protective.
But how can you ignore the possessive edge to his words? My darling. My dear. Come with me. Your eyes flick worriedly to and away from the alabaster fingers that curl over your own as you grip onto his arm.
You knew this person, once. But right now, you don't dare to imagine in what capacity. The idea of his expectations scares you, and you have other concerns to prioritize- like the mystery of what awaits you in the parlor, what will happen when you get there.
Who are you? Where did you come from?
You've been walking for what feels like a long while- but has probably only been a couple minutes -when his hypnotic voice interrupts the quiet. "We're nearly there, my sweet."
The comment invites a fresh bout of anxiety and you blink rapidly. You've noticed only three windows so far, all of them veiled by opaque draperies. How many stories would you fall if you climbed out of one? Ah, it would be a futile attempt anyway. You're fairly sure he would stop you before you could get the window open.
Rounding a corner, your scheming is abruptly cut off by the sight of ebony double-doors. These doors are different from others you've passed. All the rest were single and their geometry simple. These feature intricate patterns, like figures engaged in ballet, carved masterfully into the borders.
You instinctively resist his inexorable advance, freeing your hand from beneath his. You lose your balance and stumble into a painting on the wall. It starts to fall, but is caught by a blur of white- the man's hand.
He holds it by the bottom of the frame as though the impressive size of it weighs nothing at all, and he stares at you with wide eyes. You stare back with eyes just as wide. For the first time, his face is unreadably blank.
You don't realize you've been holding your breath until the pounding in your head transforms into creeping blackness at the edges of your vision. Suddenly, you're cradled in his arms where he kneels on the floor. The painting is propped against the wall next to you.
You meet one another's intent, stunned gaze. His expression is still indecipherable. You breathe in shallow gasps. You're unsure if your voice will come to your rescue this time, or if it's still in hibernation. You hesitate to test it, not wanting to face the horror of the latter.
After a moment, he swallows hard and averts his eyes from you. "Why are you so frightened?" It doesn't sound like the question is directed at you. Rather, it sounds as though he's asking himself. There's sincere hurt in his voice.
You continue to stare at him helplessly. You don't know what you should say, if speaking is even in the cards. Can you actually trust this man? What does he want from you?
Eventually, he sighs in resignation and raises you both to your feet. He holds you by your shoulders, but his grip isn't tight, more there to help you balance than anything else. He looks at the floor, at the space between your bare toes- your nails are neatly trimmed, you notice -and the pointed tips of his shiny black loafers.
"You don't remember me at all, do you?" he murmurs. He peeks at you almost sheepishly from under the thick fringes of his powdery white lashes.
You should shake your head, but the longer you hold his gaze, the more unsure you become. Like before in the bedroom, the slim edges and angles of his face, the prominence of his brilliant scarlet eyes, the subtlety of his forehead framed by lightning-bright locks of pin-straight hair- all these features coalesce into an identity that you are positive is familiar.
You scowl at him, torn. "I... don't know," you say finally, your voice crackly from disuse.
His eyes claim yours, flaring with urgent ecstasy. His pale lips part in a small, awestruck smile. "Anastasia..." When he says the name, his tone is reverent.
You realize it must be your name. It feels right, anyway.
You stare back at him. Your lungs are frozen. Your arms are slack. So is your expression. Your heart flutters wildly in your chest.
You know him. That's not up for debate anymore. And you have a compelling theory as to the nature of your relationship. But you don't remember anything of your past, the one you shared with him or otherwise.
"Come," he says, taking a backward step and drawing your pliant form along with him.
You recall where you're headed and your apprehension on the matter. You gasp and lock down.
He weaves his fingers through yours and exerts the slightest pressure. "Please. I swear, nothing bad will happen to you, my dear. They only want to welcome you home. We've prepared a feast. You're celebrated on this day. Please, trust me."
How can you trust him when your mind is so barren? When your past is gone and the future has no foundation?
Yet you give one jerky nod and fit yourself close beside him. His pleasure is apparent in his radiant grin as he leads you to the ebony doors. He merely sweeps his arm toward them and they are cast open, never once having been touched.