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briars are but armaments of beauty

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You are cold. (When are you not?)

Without the warmth of another by your side, blood seems to flow sluggishly through veins stark against your skin, pallid fingers swiftly approaching numbness from the lack thereof. Father - Pretzel, that is - had handed you a coat the first time you had met him, eyes averted and tone brusque upon seeing your attire.

It was far too revealing for his tastes, you supposed; had he ever beheld such a sight before? You couldn’t help but tease him as his ears flushed, the only betrayal of his attempt at austerity.

You’d tossed it back, savoring the muffled complaint as the cloth met his face. You’d chuckled, mirth alight in your eyes before you explaining, “Wearing a coat won’t help me any, you know. Blood is the only thing that can bring me warmth.”  

“Is that so?” Pretzel was not one for many words, but even this response from him seemed sorely lacking. But what else could he say? You did not fault him for this, as your words had caused him to fall deep into thought - and perhaps a little pity, judging from the slight crease in his brow.

Pity did little to help, but you had appreciated the sentiment, nonetheless. Few offered concern on your part, isolated as you were.

It seemed to you that he was not accustomed to casual conversation. Perhaps he had devoted himself to the matters of the divine to such an extent, leaving little time to spare for trivial matters such as small talk.

Pretzel did, however, pray often, which is one thing you can begrudgingly admire him for - gloved hands clasped together as his voice rings out, breaking the static silence that tends to typically surround you. He does not mumble but nor does he shout - he speaks quietly yet enunciates clearly; even so, he is at a distance from which you cannot make out his words.

The two of you had come to a tentative agreement: to give the other a reasonable amount of space especially, Pretzel had made you promise, while he was praying. Ah, perhaps another time you’d tease him until his ears flushed red, his rosary beads rattling until he disappeared from your sight.

It is quiet in the cathedral; there are no voices singing to heaven here. Exalted hymns do not echo through its holy halls, nor do flickering candles illuminate its decrepit aisles. You think it might have been a place for the devout, once - sonorous voices blending in harmonious unity, uplifted like angels in bittersweet lamentation. The roof extends impossibly high, as if the higher it climbed the more likely the divine would hear. Its sole adherent, nonetheless, carries on its faith as if its services had never ended.

But you do not believe in such things - for you have never been granted such mercy. Never has salvation shone upon you from above. There had never been any angels to save you from your descent - craving the iron tang of blood, heart racing at even the prospect of that haematic hue.

Your smile has always been inviting - a spider beckoning to the unwitting fly. Come into my parlor, you - the spider - croon, your grin glimmering like gossamer thread, sneer deadly as an inescapable snare. Few damsels dare linger in your presence long, not counting your iron maiden - a design with hands covering eyes unwilling to bear witness to the fate that awaits them, a starched-stiff noble ruff almost mundane in comparison to the spikes protruding from its frame.

Every rose guards its beauty, and you are no exception: these are your thorns.

 

-

 

There are hands entwined in yours, your dance partner’s gloves immaculate and delicately sewn. Although you are cold, as you have always been, warmth lights a spark in your chest as you lead in a three-four waltz. Lips painted in rouge and a dress embroidered with golden thread indicate her status in high society: a member of nobility, and no less.

There is laughter and there is music, a string quartet to match the extravagance of the evening festivities. It creates an atmosphere of elegance as couples twirl about the shining floors, heels clicking and wine glasses clinking in merriment. You let go of her hand - and this is your first mistake.

It is unfortunate that all things must come to an end; this instance is no exception.

You can never escape its taint, its allure, even now - the baying for blood that begins, at first no more than a whisper, a croon that eventually escalates into a ghastly wail. This is where it begins - your Master Attendant, bathing in the blood of the innocent, employing you to be her unwilling accomplice.

The blood on your hands is forever stained. You cannot wash it away; neither holy water nor the will of saints will grant you salvation.

 

-

 

You awake shivering (more than usual, that is), sweat slick on your skin. You’re reaching - for something, anything - a hand, perhaps, wanting to deny the reality of your sins, grasping nothing in fists clenched tight, nails biting crescents  against your palms. Your vision is hazy in the dim - it is barely dawn, it seems, rosy clouds sparse against the deep velvet of the horizon.

There is a candle burning: hot wax slowly yet surely consumed as it wards off the remnants of tenebrous night. In fact, there are several, casting sinister shadows that dance across your disheveled visage; you take a few moments to compose yourself before speaking.

“Can’t sleep?” Even so, your voice has an edge to it - exhaustion giving the two words a raggedness you’re too tired to mask.

Father seems to reciprocate the sentiment, slumped on one of the neighboring pews. The bags beneath his eyes are dark as the burden he always tries to bear. “In the name of the Lord, I shall bestow His Judgment,” Father had told you once, stoic as always. He wants to save you, in a sense; at that, you cannot help but scoff. Had he witnessed what you had done? O holy Father, do you think yourself saintly enough to grant me absolution?

“It appears that it eludes me, no matter how I reach for it.”

He sighs, and his words bring you out of your thoughts. The boundaries between the two of you are tenuous in the early hours, battered by your mutual sense of fatigue. For that very reason, you suppose you cannot be blamed for the words that suddenly spill from your mouth on impulse.

“Care to dance?”

There is a silence. It grows long enough to be considered awkward before Father lets out a sigh.

“...I must confess...I do not know how.”

You want to laugh - the priest confessing? Should it not have been the other way around? Even so - you hold it back, for his sake; there seems to be a genuine vulnerability there. You resist the urge to mock his inability - best to stay on the better side of your captor.

“Oh, is that so? Then - join me, and I’ll lead.” You extend a hand, skin ghostly white, almost enveloped in the embrace of shadows. Sensing his hesitation you add, “I don’t bite. Oh, and - dancing is not a sin, is it?”

“No,” Father responds as he takes hold of your hand, grip firm and hands warm,“it is not.”

If Father is afraid, at grasping a murderer’s hand - he dares not show it, although his eyes do widen slightly at the iciness of your palms. What is he doing - dancing with his captive, the one under his lock and key? If asked, you are unsure if even he knew the answer. Perhaps it is the delirium these hours have wrought, illuminated in lighting almost amorous. That is, it would have been amorous, were it not for a priest and his prisoner taking the stage.

Although his eyes widen slightly, his grip does not loosen as he watches you guide him through the steps to a fairly simple waltz.

“You certainly weren’t kidding - about being cold.”

Perhaps he’d underestimated the extent of your affliction. It would not come to a surprise if he had - few were ever prepared for it.

You don’t respond. Instead, you cannot help but ask the question that has been plaguing your mind - haunting you like a spectre you cannot escape, no matter how far you run from its thrall. Do you think I can be saved?

But Father breaches the subject first, saving you the trouble.

“I want to grant you absolution.”

Haloed in sparse lighting, his hair gleams gold - eyes piercing, clearer than any of the crystal glassware you’ve seen. Like an angel - sanctified and ethereal, a being of the heavens brought down to earth. You want to believe him - that shining covenant, lustrous as the promise of a pearl - but of course, you cannot. For someone so stiff, so pious - it is almost endearing, this naivety.

You laugh and laugh, leaning in close - his chiseled features, as if carved from stone twisting in unease, and rightfully so - because aren’t you a sinner? You dare not indulge him with a false hope, because you are not so cruel to extinguish that light.

“You think you can wash away the blood on my hands, O Merciful One?” You giggle, stepping back as you double over in mirth. You’d imagine his expression would be a delight to witness. “Ahahaha, don’t speak to me of salvation. You haven’t seen with your own eyes what I’ve done. Even so - even then - is it really absolution when I cannot stop? Even now, I can hear it - the beating of your heart. I could -”

Father catches you as you nearly trip over yourself in the midst of your rambling, nearing incoherency; odd how he is more coordinated in this moment than when you had been taking the lead. His expression is unreadable, his voice low.

“But you regret it, do you not? You were not always like this.”

“Yes,” you whisper into his ear as your head rests on his shoulder, the metal of his pauldron cool against your skin, and it is answer enough.

 

 

 


 

 

There is a princess in a gauzy dress, diaphanous cloth draped over her legs, feet bare against the black. Her veil does little to conceal the sharpness of her smile, stark against the swirling shadows. When she laughs, it feels as if your veins fill with ice.

“Father, won’t you save me?” She speaks, more taunt than plea, the lilt of her voice more amused than desperate. If you squint, you can make out the outline of so many candles - but for what purpose?

You soon find out when they’re lit by an invisible hand, flames flickering into existence one by one. Slowly, they stave off the darkness, revealing so many mirrors - some coated in a layer of dust, others shining as if they had just been polished. Some have frames of gilt, embellished with lavish designs of winding rose vines and wicked thorns. Others are bare, crude constructions of unsanded planks and rusted nails.

“Won’t you -” The voice is a whisper, breath warm by your ear. You flinch, whirling around - but there is nothing but laughter. The candles flicker and dance, the scene swaying before your eyes like a mirage.

“- stay with me?” She whispers, low and sultry, and even you are not immune to her siren song. But you steel yourself against her sway, for you have sworn against temptation - and you will not falter in your oath.

“Hahaha...heheheh…” The laughter crackles with static, fractals of fragmented sound dissolving into hysterics.

“Won’t you? Won’t you? Won’t you?” Again and again, frenzied giggles resonate through the space, filling every crevice and cleft with its maddening noise.

Her voice echoes and echoes with the sound of a thousand voices and a thousand reflections, surrounding you from every angle. You struggle to find your voice, to surge against the onslaught of sound for some semblance of a reply. The voices crescendo, louder and louder and louder, reaching almost a feverish pitch as they struggle to be heard. To your misfortune, it’s more cacophony than a chorus; the dissonance makes you grit your teeth.

The moment you open your mouth, cracks spread across the mirrors. At the barest act of defiance, they shatter. The sound is like a gunshot, and you startle as their shimmering slivers fall into the depths of darkness like glittering rain. Beautiful, yet deadly - just like a rose and its thorns.

You realize at last that she is no princess, for Bloody Mary stands before you with a smile, hands stained in sanguine. (Red as roses, red as blood.)

You are no stranger to his misdeeds, but seeing it firsthand is another matter altogether. The sight makes your stomach curl; you cannot help but look away.

“If you fail,” the voice whispers, “this is what I will become.”

 

-

 

The dream only steels your resolve. If it had been unyielding as stone before, your resolve becomes iron.

Although it may have only been a dream, its ill omen drives you to stricter, harsher measures. Perhaps it is a vision, or perhaps not - but further precautions would do little harm.

You're not doing enough. It is never enough.

You cannot let such a wretched fate befall the one under your care. Even if he hates you, even if he despises every drop of blood that runs through your veins - it is a price you would willingly pay for his salvation.

It must be done, you try to convince yourself, fighting the guilt that rises in you for what you are about to put your fellow food soul through. Even so… he is a murderer; he has slain many without remorse for the sake of his warmth. You are granting him the only mercy you know.

“Father Kirchner,” you welcome your brethren at the door, hating how your breath catches in your throat, “it has been a while, has it not?”

 

 

 


 

 

Do silence that pretty little mouth of yours, darling. Shut up. If you don’t close that mouth of yours, I’ll gladly oblige. A blade against your throat will be all it takes to keep you quiet, pressed cold against your perfect porcelain skin. Pity, really, it’s so pretty…

You imagine a thousand words you could say to that wretched priest, but none make it through your lips. You abhor the captivity with every fiber of your being; you want to see the stretch of sky once more. You were never meant to be caged, for your blood sings for blood, for warmth - for the world has always been so cold.

How had it come to this?

An endless spill of meaningless words floods your ears, each word another futile drop to your ever-growing pool of irritation.

It’s white noise that you tune out with gritted teeth and a furrowed brow, a distraction of hazy static you’re forced to bear. Your nails dig crescents into your palms, the biting sensation one of the few physical reminders in your delirium. You are still trapped here.

I can’t focus. I can’t focus. I can’t focus. You want it to stop. Oh, Lord that Pretzel prays to, you want it to stop. You want it to stop. Why won’t they shut up?

Holy hymnals buzz like a den of hornets, words unintelligible to your mind in a daze. Humming, it makes its home inside your head. You want it out. Get out ! you hiss, clutching at your temples, wanting to scream. Whatever they’re doing must have some sort of placebo effect, surely, because none of this is helping, none of this is working.

Cold water splashes over your robes, soaking your hair. Salt water has a lower freezing point than ordinary water, after all, and salt is essential for any purification rite. It’s freezing. Humiliating, even if no one is laughing. Perhaps the one laughing is you, in the hilarity that hysteria brings. Ha. Haha. Haha haha !

You can’t take much more of this. You have to get out of here - otherwise, you’d be driven mad.

 

-

 

You loathe the sessions in the purification chamber in the most. Listening to the chants and prayers of the priests does little to improve your mood; even your ever-present smirk has turned into a thunderous scowl.

“Lord,” the priests chorus, voices unified in prayer, “grant this sinner absolution.” Over and over and over and over, it is all you hear.

Often, Pretzel waits outside the chamber with that inscrutable expression of his. As if he is carved of marble, he appears stern and statuesque - but you know that there is far more than simply solemnity lying beneath his stoic exterior.

Sometimes, the cadence of Pretzel’s voice is what lulls you to fitful dreams drenched in red. He recites Scripture, for it is likely all he knows.

You do not know why he offers you this kindness - what are you, another of his charity cases? But there are moments where he offers a rare smile suffused in sunlight, reserved only for you, and your traitorous heart skips a beat.

The smile directed to his fellow priests is not quite the same - more familial, perhaps, yet stiffer - as if formality dictated the limitations of his warmth.

You bide your time, for he is only holding your bloodthirst at bay. After all, there is no prison nor cage that can hold you captive for long; you would bend bars of iron, if it meant you could pursue your desires.

If it is Steak you seek, then you will pursue him as a predator does its prey; you shiver in delight at the thought: for the hot-blooded youth’s heat, warmer than anyone you had ever seen before. To bring vengeance to your Master Attendant’s killer, Red Wine, would be a delight just as sweet.

But there are moments where doubt gives you pause - when Pretzel tells you he has faith in your rehabilitation, that he believes you can be better than this. Where is this belief coming from? you ask as you always have, shaking your head, you have faith in even a murderer?

He does not give a response, standing in front of a wall with stained glass windows. Your breath catches in your throat as you take in the scene, eyes widening. You cannot help but stare.

No matter how deep the frown, you’ve come to find his honest expression almost charming. Anger and anguish, shame and guilt, and the rarest of them of them all - happiness - are displayed for all to see before they’re hidden beneath a stoic facade. A shame, really - you would like to see more of that smile.

Dyed in the mosaic’s many colors, he looks the part: the very picture of divinity. Illuminated in their light, he appears ethereal; it is a look you think befitting of a messenger of God.

You understand, all at once: that you have never belonged here, among an angel brought to earth.

 

-

 

“Darling,” you’d called him, the first time the two of you had met.

“Please, do not refer to me with such familiarity.” You could have sworn you saw his eye twitch, ears reddening as suddenly became interested in the stained glass windows lining the walls. How endearing.

“Then what should I call you?”

“...Humans tend to refer to priests as ‘Father.’ I suppose that title would be suitable.”

Looking back, the memory is oddly bittersweet. Back when things were far simpler, back when resentment hadn’t begun to burn in your heart. But no matter how it raged, it could never drown out the tender feelings of then and now.

 

-

 

“I could kill you,” you’d said once in a fit of anger, pitiful as water dripped from your hair. Salt stung your eyes from the holy water, mixing with the hot tears that threatened to spill. You imagined you looked like a bedraggled cat, and the thought only made your ire grow, simmering in your veins.

“But you wouldn’t,” Pretzel told you, voice soft, and you knew he was right. Because he had been the only one to offer you kindness at your lowest.

He was always going on about saving you, because he believed in you more than you ever would yourself.

 

-

 

Night has fallen. Though you are unsure how much time has passed since those wretched days, the wind nipping at your already chilled skin indicates it’s already autumn. It makes you shiver. You twine your fingers around the chilled wine glass’ stem all the tighter.

Oktoberfest, or as the locals call it, Wiesn, is right around the corner. At least, that’s what the colorful flyers proclaim, shoved into your hands before you could even protest.

The effervescent rush, the rustle of organza. The smoothness of silk, the taste of freedom. Melting honey-like on your tongue, brilliant and bright. You savor the sweetness before you hear the sound of familiar footsteps, brisk yet unhurried in their strides. The man slows to match your stride.

“Somehow...I am not surprised Sekt is to your tastes,” Pretzel speaks, voice low, smooth as glass of Schnaps. He doesn’t miss the way your eyes light up, a shower of sparks. Words bubbling and bursting on your tongue, so very like the champagne you relish with every sip.

He knows you are no stranger to bitterness. Perhaps it’s why you love the sweetness, the crystal clarity, the sharpness of ice.

“You drink, Father? Or is it against your faith?” You laugh, offering your glass for him for a taste — all mocking and mirth.

You don’t allow him time to answer before adding, “Then again… like Belloc said. Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine.”

Father’s expression is probably the closest to amused you’ve seen it. You step closer, but he doesn’t step back. A one-sided bout of tango. He doesn’t back down, meeting your eyes. There’s a gleam in them, a challenge. He’s almost smiling as he listens.

“At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!”

It takes a moment for Father to string together a coherent response. Only now does he step back. Your foreheads had nearly touched; you could catch a hint of sandalwood and myrrh.

You pride yourself in this shameless lack, this breach of boundaries without remorse. You don’t know if he would ever be so bold to do the same. All propriety, this man.

“Deo gratias,” he says wryly, with a little cough to compose himself. “A little wine cannot hurt, I suppose. In moderation, or times of celebration.”

Munich is relatively safe at night. Roaming the city after dark is not out of question, aside from certain areas. Among the crowds, tourists are an easier target for being pickpocketed. Luckily, as long as you employ common sense, the risk is low.

“Keep an eye out for your wallet,” Pretzel had advised you one afternoon, “the pickpockets do not discriminate.” You huff. Like a pickpocket would ever get the upper hand on you.

You take him by the arm as you saunter through the darkened streets, laughing at his raised eyebrow. You’re delighted he doesn’t refuse.

As you walk through the night, you encounter a garden of roses, abloom even in October.  Uncaring of thorns, you crouch down to pluck one from its place. Their scent is refreshing - crisp and clean, so unlike the stale, dusty air of your former prison.

You’re on a looser leash than ever, as of late. He has learned the treatments do little to help you, so they have halted entirely. Though he still gives some of your actions a second glance, he does not hound your every step.

You have made no mentions of pursuing Steak, as of late. Oddly enough, it is the last thing that comes to mind, though your breath hitches at the thought of warmth.

(I am a murderer, you would remind him, if you were as honorable as him. What are you doing, letting me loose? But now and then, he gives you a look that says: I know. You will never understand the faith he has in you.)

But for some reason — you find yourself here to stay. Until Oktoberfest is over, you tell yourself, and maybe by then it won’t be a lie.

You present it to Pretzel with a grin, even if his disapproving stare makes you feel the part of a chastised child. Even so, he takes it — after he makes you promise not to steal again. He’s too good, that man, though too prim and proper for your tastes. You sulk, but not for long.

He allows you to pin the rose to his robe: silken, ceremonial raiment, a flattering fit for his figure. You make sure to tell him this. You double over laughing as he reddens to match the rose you’d given him. He turns away, embarrassed, but you take hold of his wrist.

“What is your opinion on Lebkuchenherz?”

He gently pries off your icy fingers, one by one. He fiddles with the chains wound round his gauntlets in thought.

“Those gingerbread hearts...the kind couples give to each other at Weisn , correct? If you are matchmaking, I must warn you: though I am a priest, matrimony is not my forte.”

“No, well...you don’t dislike the taste, do you?”

“I am not averse to it, no.”

“Perfect.”

“Just what are you planning?”

A beat of silence. Two. The street lights flicker over your face, a portrait in chiaroscuro: shadows and light, waltzing even when you’re standing still. It’s always a dance, between the two of you.

“You’ll have to see for yourself, Father. Wait a few weeks’ time, and you’ll have your answer.”

 

-

 

Once, you contented yourself with warmth from distant fires. Indulging in humans’ presence, slinging an arm over their shoulders. You were always tactile, to seek out whatever warmth you could. Whatever means were at your disposal, you would seek it: a moth drawn to so many flames.

Before you knew it, you coveted that feeling more and more. The time came when you could not distinguish your Master’s desire from yours.

A food soul is often influenced by their Master, after all. More often than not, food souls danced to their Masters’ whims. Their sentiments would seem as one, through the tether the contract brought.

You hated the cloying scent of blood, yet there was no other option available. You stole their flames to warm yourself, the guilt searing against your skin. So many precious lives, extinguished by your hand. So many threads of fate, severed with a single blade. Soon, all you could taste were ashes.

Master, a baroness, feared being cast away. She thought there was no beauty in the progression of age: crow’s feet at her eyes, paper-thin skin losing the supple smoothness of youth. High society placed so much stock in appearances. Peer pressure took its toll on her.

Only you knew how she spent myriad hours on powders and creams, wanting to be wanted. Wanting to be worth something.

“They only see what’s on the outside, darling,” you tried to assure her, “not your heart. There are things far more important than beauty they’ll never see.”

She did not listen. How could she, with everyone telling her otherwise?

 

-

 

The Lebkuchenherz is still warm when you hand it to him, paper bag and all. The weather is just brisk enough for a coat and scarf (not that you could tell the difference) but snow has yet to fall. Good enough for the two of you to reconvene, at any rate.

You’re careful with it, though - wouldn’t want to smear the icing. Your mouth waters at its spicy-sweet scent, itching for just one taste. You sigh as you pat the space next to you, sprawled lazily with a smile. The park bench has just enough space for two.

(The vendor asked, “Giving it to your darling?” She bid you luck with wink and a grin, a feeling that filled you with warmth. It surprised you - that for once, it was not accompanied by guilt.

You laughed, heart light and eyes glinting with mischief. “Something like that.”)

“Why am I not surprised?” Pretzel shakes his head, exasperated. He settles by your side, posture rigid as always. (You stifle a snort. That man never changes.)

His lips hint at something close to a smile, opening the brown paper bag to peer inside.

His eyebrows are near his hairline when he reads the letters the icing spell out, looping letters lurid blue and brilliant white.

Du bist alles fur mich. (You’re everything to me.)

He coughs, awkwardly. The tips of his ears redden just enough for you to notice. You’re grinning from ear to ear as he sputters, left scrambling for some semblance of composure.

He begins to laugh, the mellow sound making your heart race. It flutters clumsily like a baby bird’s first flight.

Good timing, you congratulate yourself. The sun is just beginning to set. Its rays curl around the chiseled line of his jaw, setting his piercing eyes slight.

This is the man who has granted you a second chance, and you would do well not to waste it.

Maybe you will never be forgiven, and rightfully so. You suffer the consequences, as you should. But you will put heaven and hell in motion to make amends.

He breaks the Lebkuchenherz in half, offering a piece to you. You take it, and realize: if there is anything in this world to believe in, it is this.

Hope.