With one slender finger, Rachel pushed the crystal king onto its side with a click. It rocked back and forth on its round base on the marble chessboard.
Her father’s eyes flitted over the chessboard, tracing lines of power. “What the hell do you think your doing?”
“Don’t be stupid! Why would you resign? Your king isn’t in any danger.”
“I’m going to lose. I made a mistake, early on.”
He glowered at his twelve-year old daughter, letting his disappointment show. Beneath it, she sensed a simmering anger but could not fathom its source. “Stop being infantile. Pick up your queen. Play it to the end.”
“But…” she hesitated, rechecking possible moves, calculating their outcomes. “I’m going to lose. You’ve won, Daddy.” She glanced up and gave him an uncertain smile. “You’ve won.”
“Bullshit. Don’t be a coward. Play it through!”
Again, she looked down at the board, the pieces, searching for some missed opportunity, some lateral, seemingly insignificant move that would change the outcome, but as hard as she looked, she couldn’t see one. She admitted that, perhaps, she was just not smart enough, not strategically adept enough to spot a way to save the game, but, in that case, she’d never find it anyway.
“No. There’s no point. I can’t see any way to win.”
The speed and ferocity of his movement stopped her breath and left the blood singing like flies in her eardrums. He stood. The chair he had been sitting in tipped back and clattered onto the floor. With one long-fingered, elegant hand he swept the board clean, sending the dark and light pieces of carved crystal flying across the room. With each impact, pieces detonated against the cool marble floor of the study, sending little storms of opaque and translucent shards into the air, before gravity dragged them tinkling back to earth.
“You selfish, moronic, spineless little bitch!” he bellowed.
Stalking from the room, he slammed the heavy oak door behind him with such force, the latch did not catch, and the door swung wide again. He hadn’t wanted to win a game of chess, Rachel realized. He had wanted to savour the total annihilation of his opponent, whoever they might be.
For a long time, Rachel sat like a statue, for fear that the even the slightest movement would cause her to come apart like the chess pieces. Then she slipped down out of the high backed chair, onto the floor and walked, barefoot, across the wasteland.
* * *
Slim and elegant, the black lacquer box glinted in the lamplight. She couldn’t pull her gaze from it. For an eternal moment, the small receptacle became the entirety of her universe.
“Does it scare you?” asked Robert, kneeling down beside her hip, cradling it in his large hands.
Rachel’s attention wavered to his lean face, all sharp lines and planes. But the call was too strong and she resettled her gaze on the box. Her instinct was to deny any fear. Her pride and her sense of self seemed to depend on her ability to show nothing – especially now. And yet, to withhold the truth there and then, and to him, would be unforgivable and shameful. She couldn’t do that either.
Quite suddenly the deep woven carpet she was lying on was not enough. She could feel the cruel ungiving hardwood floor beneath it. Suddenly there was a draft of cold air that fluttered over her bare legs and raised goosebumps all over her flesh. Her mouth was dry and her stomach a tightly held fist.
“Yes.” A quiet, breathy word inflected as a question.
She’d given him the answer he wanted. That was evident in the way his lips pursed as he opened the lid and surveyed the box’s contents in silent, private enjoyment. Then he turned it around for her to see. An ebony stylus nestled, pen-like, in a bed of white silk. At its tip a tiny, bright steel blade caught sparks of light as he tilted the box.
Once revealed, the contents lost their fascination. Not because the blade was small, or because the knife looked so much like a writing implement. This, she thought, was not in fact the instrument of her torture. Her attention shifted back up to Robert’s guarded and immobile face. Nor is he, she added to herself.
Three cuts. That was the agreement, and he had given her a word to use if she could not go through with it. Kumquat. She rolled the word around in her mind. Its syllables gluey and prehensile, sticking to the edges of her thoughts like a jellyfish. When he’d given it to her, she’d told him she didn’t need one, but he’d insisted. Now the word had taken on a multi-armed, slithering, suffocating presence.
“Have you decided where?”
That had also been part of the agreement. She would let him cut her, but she got to choose where. Even at the time, it had bothered her that he’d given her the responsibility of that decision. All she wanted was the discipline to go through with it, to prove to herself that she could lie still and let it happen.
“No. You chose.”
“Rachel, that was not the deal.”
“I don’t want to choose.”
His eyes narrowed, his brows drew together as his gaze locked with hers. “Why?”
She took a deep breath and fought not to look away. “I don’t care where.”
“I’ll cut you where it shows, pet, if you don’t choose.”
She wet her dry lips with her tongue. “That’s fine,” she said, too fast.
“Is it?” There was a hint of anger in Robert’s voice. He tilted his head and gave her a smile that didn’t reach is eyes. “On the face?”
That, Rachel knew, was an attempt on his part to shock her into seriousness. She was serious â€“ horribly, fundamentally serious. She tried again. “I don’t want to decide where. I want to be relieved of that decision,” she let her hand rest on his thigh. “Can you make it for me?”
“That’s an awful lot of trust.”
She looked down at the hand, flattened out against the warmth of his leg. “Yes. It is. I trust you, you see. It’s myself I’m not so sure of.”
For a few minutes he said nothing, his eyes fixed on some dark corner of the dimly lit room, then he nodded and she felt a sense of relief. “Are you sure?” he asked, resettling his gaze on her.
She gave him a curt nod. “Where would it turn you on the most to do it?”
A crook of a smile tugged at the corners of his lips. “Where does the idea of it scare you the most?”
“Where do you feel that fear the most?”
Closing her eyes, she took a gulping breath and let it out slowly. It emerged in a broken, stuttered stream of air. “My stomach…” she whispered, letting one hand slide over her belly. The muscles beneath the surface jumped and twitched, even at her own familiar touch. Then, without thinking, her hand travelled upwards, over the swell of her breasts and settled just above them. She pushed her palm into the plane of it, feeling the bones beneath. “And my chest.”
In almost an echo of her contact, he laid one large, warm hand over hers. “There?”
It would have been so much more symmetrical if they both had the same motives for playing their parts in this. But that was not so, and she knew it. The reasons why Robert anticipated the pain he was about to cause her with pleasure was not entirely a mystery to her, but neither were they clear. She knew their origins lay in like ghosts in some long extinguished furnace. That to try and enumerate them or turn them into words would not bear translation. All memory is not language, she thought.
Her heart thundered in her chest. She wondered if he could feel it through her hand, whether he liked it. A surge of isolation overtook her. Was it supposed to feel like this? Perhaps if she had been the sort of person who was wired for pain, a masochist, it wouldn’t feel so lonely, so frozen. Even with his hand over hers, he felt a million miles away. And perhaps that was part of what he liked, that she was prey, that there was no connection between them. But, of all the feelings she had anticipated, this wasn’t one of them.
“Kiss me. Please. Kiss me first. Can you do that?” The words came out in a fountain of desperation. And suddenly she was not sure of what she would do if he refused.
But Robert didn’t. Leaning forward, he slipped a hand beneath her neck and pressed his mouth to hers. The scent of him, his taste, the heat of his lips reminded her of who he was. It didn’t banish the fear, but it put it into context for her. A cut. It’s just a cut, she told herself, before giving over to the kiss.
As he kissed her, his fingers grazed over the skin he would breach. Moving her hand away, she felt the pads of each of his fingers trace paths across her flesh. Even as he did, the kiss changed into something more sexual, more feral. It was still Robert, but Rachel thought that, for the first time, she was meeting some other part of him. Not Jekyll to Hyde change. More like he had let someone slither in beside him and share his skin.
He pulled away from her. “Okay?”
Rachel looked into his dilated pupils for a moment, nodding. “I am.”
There was a tension that had stolen over his face, she wasn’t sure when, but it was there as he pulled the nest of white silk out of the box. Her fingers shook as she undid the first button on her cotton shirt, and the next and the next, pulling the sides apart to offer him a wide expanse of skin that sloped upwards at the swells of each breast. She hadn’t worn a bra and the nipples she exposed were hard little knots of mulberry coloured flesh. It was fear that had tightened them, not arousal. She wondered if he’d know that. But of course he would. He’d done this before.
“…like a patient etherized upon a table,” she muttered, feeling nothing of the sort. But the description of Eliot’s evening horizon found resonance nonetheless.
Without warning, he hoisted her torso up and shifted in behind her, until she sat between his legs, leaning back against his chest. “That’s better,” he said, settling himself.
Turning her head, she could see the tendons standing out against his throat, his Adam’s apple. She inhaled the scent of his skin. The arm around her waist pulled her snug against him. It was a strange position, the way that lovers might lay together in a bathtub. And that didn’t seem right either. Because what he was going to do to her was something that lovers are never supposed to do to each other.
As he let the square of white silk drop onto her chest, it slid over her breasts and puddled at her stomach. The little knife was in his hand; its blade threw off shardlets of light dancing over her skin. A wave of panic bubbled up from under where the silk had settled.
“Oh…” she whimpered, “Do it fast. Please.”
Robert moved his head, pushing his chin, his cheek through the mass of her unruly dark hair. “No, love,” he whispered. He turned his hand and brushed the back of it against the left side of her chest, just above the swell. “Sh-h.”
Without knowing it, she’d clutched at his other arm, digging her fingers into his forearm. The musculature of her stomach rippled, betraying the microspasms beneath. Her jaw ached from the pressure of clenching her teeth so hard.
“Relax. Take a big breath.”
Only then did she realize she’d been holding it. She tried to do as he said, but her chest was so tight, it would not expand. All she could take were shallow, rapid sips of air, like someone breathing in water, drowning.
The blade was cool against her skin. He pressed and the flesh valleyed for a moment before he drew the blade across it, splitting it in a shallow cut. At first there was nothing, no blood, no sensation. Then later â€“ Rachel had no idea how much later, for time had somehow become stretched and misshapen â€“ a cold burn radiated out from the cut. As it did, a thin line of blood came welling up, budding and beading along the line of the incision.
“Oh God!” The sound came out in a rush of air she didn’t even know she had possessed between her clenched teeth, and his mouth was at hers, lips hovering so close she could feel the heat of them. As she spoke them, he inhaled, taking in the breath she’d just released in pain.
Almost immediately he tightened his grip around her waist, just before the instinct to move overtook her.
The word…what the fuck was the word? She searched her mind for it frantically, watching the first fat drop of blood tear from the edge of the cut and begin a slow journey over her left breast. Behind her, Robert gave a subtle shudder against her back, and she felt his cock, which had been only vaguely awake before, swell and press into her spine.
It was impossible to take her eyes off the blood. The adrenalin hit her veins like ice, setting her arms and legs tingling. And now there was no problem filling her lungs, she was panting, almost hyperventilating. Rachel clamped her mouth shut and breathed through her nose.
“Oh…oh my God,” she repeated. “Robert, I…”
But his mouth was pressed against her cheek, warming it. Lips moving in a secret, silent language. The stylus held between his long fingers like a pen, he drew the tip of his index finger through the first rivulet of blood, jarring a second red pearl free, sending it racing down to catch up with the first, leaving a crimson proof of its journey in its wake.
Then the blade was back, poised perhaps an inch above the first cut. He held it there, steady, even though she could feel his heart thudding against his chest. “Yes?”
Rachel opened her mouth to speak, but only a wordless whimper came out. The wound at her chest was beginning to throb dully.
“Tell me yes, Rachel.” He pressed the words into her ear. “Tell me you love me, and say yes.”
She closed her eyes, turning her head towards his voice. “Yes, I do. I love you.”
The second cut she felt much sooner. Perhaps because the nerves in the area came alive in anticipation. She fought the urge to look down and see what the blade had done. Instead she gasped at air turned thick and rich with the smell of his skin, and expelled it in a high, tight whine. The second bright flare of pain raced out from the site of its inception, over her skin, up her neck, down over her breast, and across.
His hand cupped her jaw, pulling her mouth to his, taking the sound of her pain in. Drinking it like some rare elixir. He made a low, raw noise in his throat and kissed her, his parted lips covering hers. The arousal was unmistakable. His own breath was ragged, jaw set with the tension of it. The kiss was hungry, full of lust, infectious. But more of a shock was the sudden ache she felt between her clenched thighs and the hot flood of wetness that followed.
For some inexplicable reason, the arousal embarrassed her. All she had hoped for was the discipline to sit still and tolerate the pain. To see passed it. To conquer it and defeat it by force of will. There was no banishing of fear, she knew. Only the strength to swallow it down and keep it buried in her belly. She had not expected any of this to arouse her.
As if he read her mind, or read her body through his own, Robert moved his hips against her, grinding his almost painfully hard erection against her back. She wanted him inside her, with a strange fury that practically erased everything else. So intense was that single, gnawing, concrete need, that her interior muscles spasmed at the thought of it, releasing another hot gush of fluids that trickled between her legs and soaked the back of her skirt.
“Last one,” he said. “Tell me.”
Only then did she lower her gaze to her chest. The second neat cut was the same length as the first. Three more trails of red gleamed over her pale skin, one had joined an earlier stream and followed an easier path, along the upper curve of her breast and down between her cleavage. A bright red blossom stained the white silk beneath it. It pulled the carmine into a star-like pattern as the thirsty weave drew the moisture one way and the weft pulled it another.
“Yes. I love you.”
The question hung in the air. Still? She puzzled. The question seemed absurd. How could one cut, two cuts, three cuts make a difference? Five? Ten?
Then she understood, as if some Byzantine saint had cast his gaze in her direction and illuminated an ancient mosaic floor, laid with dark secrets. Perhaps she didn’t know the specifics of his secret wound, but the form of them, the outline, the dimensions were clear.
How old are we when we are promised unconditional love, she wondered. And how long, in the slumber of childhood, do we assume its existence. What shifts, what deforms in us when, in a blinding, burning flash, we realize it’s a lie?
Rachel reached up, threading her fingers through Robert’s dark hair. “Of course,” she murmured. “Still.”
This time, she watched him pause before he made the cut. His hand was not quite as steady as before. The blade wavered just a little as it pulled the last track through her skin. When the sharp sting came, it took her breath, like before, but she smiled into it, and the moment it began to erupt in the familiar string of gleaming rubies, she raised her face to his and kissed him, releasing the pain into his mouth. The little knife sounded like a pencil as it dropped and rolled away across the floor.
Turning in his arms, she straddled him, fighting with his belt, the button at his waistband, his zip, hardly able to breathe as she devoured his mouth. He let her struggle for a while, and she could sense his amusement at the urgency of her efforts, before pushing her skirt up over her hips. She started to come the very moment she sank down onto his freed cock.
He growled and wrapped his arms around her waist, arching his hips up into the tight seizure of her flesh. Every thrust pushed a jagged sob from her throat. It took only moments, it seemed, before she felt him swell and throb. Only then did she stop feeding on his mouth. Only when he gasped and erupted inside her did she see the abstract pattern of blood she had left imprinted on his crisp white shirt.
We each leave strange marks upon the other.