In January 2020, I took part in an auction to benefit relief efforts for the Australian wildfires. The prize I offered was to write some kind of epilogue or missing scene for one of my novels, and the prompt I got was to write about the alternate universe where Erec survived the end of Crimson Bound.
In the darkest shadows of the wood stands a house.
In the darkest shadows of the Château, there was a prison cell.
As Rachelle walked down the corridors to that cell, she kept thinking of the house thatched with bones, and the path to it that she had walked in her dreams, and again when she was dead. Her chest grew tighter with every step. She didn’t want to be here.
It was three days since she had defeated the Devourer. She had just told Armand that she was going to do this, and he had pressed a kiss she didn’t deserve to her forehead and said, Of course you will.
And yet, she was afraid. But fear had never stopped her yet.
There were two guards outside the door of the cell. They both looked dubiously at her, but Rachelle showed them the letter that Prince Raoul had given her, and they reluctantly unbolted the door for her. She stepped inside.
Erec d’Anjou’s eyes glittered in the dim light, his smile a vicious slash of white teeth. He sat leaning against the wall in a posture of such lordly indolence, the shackles on his wrists seemed almost invisible.
Her stomach was suddenly a roil of hate and fear and shame and—yes, even now—a bit of the old desire.
“Ah, the gracious lady herself,” said Erec, his voice honeyed and vicious. “Come to preach or come to gloat?”
Rachelle flinched back a step. She hadn’t expected his anger to hurt this much . . . but she’d never been any good at predicting him.
Then she crossed her arms and stared him down.
“Actually,” she said after several moments of silence, “I’m here to offer you mercy. If you’ll take it.”
Erec arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“The bloodborn are gone,” said Rachelle. “The forestborn too. But the Forest is still alive, though less menacing. And our King-to-be is still going to need . . . enforcers. I begged him for mercy, and I explained your talents, and he’s willing to commute your death-sentence if you work for him under my supervision.”
“Under you,” said Erec, and Rachelle could hear the echo of his bitter, terrible pride.
The same pride that had made him nearly turn back to look at the Devourer and lose himself—until she had tackled him to the ground and covered his eyes and bitten his lips with something not even close to a kiss, and shouted into his face, You don’t get to escape, you don’t get to give up, you don’t get the easy way out—
Until now, those were the last words Rachelle had said to him. When she’d woken up in Armand’s arms, Erec had already revived and been dragged away.
“Tell me,” he said, “my lady, why do think I’d prefer that to death?”
Fury sparked behind Rachelle’s ribs.
“Well,” she said, “you thought I would prefer serving you to death.”
“I wanted you to be strong,” Erec snarled. “I tried to make you strong, when you were too afraid. But you—all you want me to be is a captive lion in a cage.”
Without the Devourer’s strength in him, Erec was more vicious barn-cat than lion. But it wasn’t worth telling him that, not when Rachelle’s heart was breaking for another reason.
“You said you loved my strength,” she whispered. “But the world you wanted would have broken me.”
A thought bubbled up inside her, at once resentful and desperately sad: Did you only like me strong so you could have the thrill of mastering me?
“Endless Night would have made you undying and without weakness,” said Erec, as absolutely convinced of himself as ever.
Rachelle sighed, wondering if she had come down here on a fool’s errand.
“I would have been undying and without weakness and broken,” she said flatly. “Now I offer you the same choice: will you live as a broken, hobbled thing? Or will you die?”
She didn’t know what she would do if Erec picked the second option.
His shoulders shook with laughter. “I should have expected that at some point you’d try whoring yourself with a saint.”
Rachelle snorted, her shoulders lightening at the pettiness of the accusation. “Truly, you must be feeling very insecure to use that insult.”
“It hardly seems fair,” said Erec without missing a beat. “I only put a knife in your throat, while Vareilles put a sword through your heart. And yet you think I am the enemy, and prefer his kisses to mine.”
Rachelle bared her teeth. “Maybe I prefer a man who can finish what he starts.”
He looked at her for a moment, and Rachelle realized he was actually trying to figure out if she’d ever slept with Armand.
Let him imagine being cast aside for once.
‘I’m not Armand’s mistress,” said Rachelle after a short silence. “I’m not yours either.”
“Oh, have you sworn yourself to our dear Bishop like Mademoiselle Leblanc?”
“I don’t belong to anyone,” Rachelle snapped.
She wanted to belong to Armand. Still, always, forever. But—
“Rachelle,” he had said to her in the garden. “We didn’t make any promises. If you want to leave, you have every right. And I have no idea what I’m going to do with myself now. But I would like you to be there while I find out.”
Tears stung at her eyes. “I want to be there as well,” Rachelle whispered. “Only . . .”
The words came out in a rush. “Erec’s alive because I dragged him back. And I still—I am so sorry for all I did with him, you have no idea how much—but I still want to save him.”
Understanding lit Armand’s face. “You have saved him.”
“I begged Prince Raoul for nearly an hour this afternoon. Yes.” She drew a breath. “I want to be with you. But I can’t do it until I know that Erec won’t hurt more people. Until I know I know I can be true to you. Until—“
Until she knew herself, that was the long and the short of it. She had lived so long with doom upon her head and the Devourer’s power in her veins and Erec’s binding on her finger, and she just didn’t know herself anymore.
She looked into Armand’s eyes, and found only understanding and compassion.
“Rachelle,” he said quietly, “I wake up some mornings and for a moment I can’t tell if I’m the only one inside my head. I don’t think either of us knows what we are.” He smiled softly, sadly, steadfastly. “And of course I’ll wait for you.”
Rachelle drew a breath and met Erec’s eyes. “Do you know why I stepped off the path and spoke to you, that first day in the Forest? Why I stripped off all my protections, on that last moonless night?”
Erec grinned at her. “For the same reason you cut your aunt’s throat. Because you knew that you were a wild, ruthless creature and always would be.”
“No.” Rachelle stepped forward, furious and ashamed and pitying all at once. She knelt before Erec and grabbed his chin. “I did it because I wanted to protect Gévaudan. Because I was ready to be killed or even damned if it saved people. I’m still that willing. And if you get in my way again—if you hurt more people, dear to me or not—I will destroy you.”
For a handful of heartbeats, they stared at each other.
Then Erec chuckled softly. “Oh, my lady. As if I’d do anything but live. Put me in your holy chains; they can’t be worse than the Devourer’s.”
Rachelle hadn’t realized how worried she’d been until now, when her shoulders relaxed and the dread coiled at the bottom of her stomach unspooled.
“I’m not here to chain you,” she said. The key was heavy in her hand, but it turned easily in the padlocks of Erec’s shackles. “Maybe someday you’ll understand what I really want. For now—there are people on the southern coast offering human sacrifices to the Devourer. We leave tonight.”
“Oh?” Erec quirked an eyebrow, rubbing his wrists. “Idiot farmers offering human sacrifice—what’s that to me?”
Rachelle seized his forearm and hauled him to his feet. “It’s something that matters to me,” she said. “If you want to live, then don’t disappoint me again.”
“How could I, handsome as I am?”
Rachelle’s nails dug into his skin. “Don’t betray me again.”
“Ah,” Erec said airily, heedlessly, ruthlessly. “Of course. How could I?”
“In ten thousand ways,” Rachelle snapped.
“Then why are you so afraid I’ll beguile you?” Erec smiled sharply. “Is it so terrible to think I could offer you better satisfaction than Vareilles?
Rachelle smiled back, sad and hopeful at once. “Maybe someday you’ll understand that I want more than satisfaction.”