The sorrow visited upon Salvació House due to the murder of his wife Aurelia seemed to have little adverse effect on Cristian Salazar, outwardly at least. If anything, the man appeared to adopt a more benevolent attitude towards those who had once shunned and despised him. Now, Cristian’s reputation was reborn; he cast himself as a selfless benefactor, no longer the hated foreigner but respected by all. The misdemeanours of the past had been forgotten, unmentioned and dismissed by the natives of Carliton. But Salazar did not forget. Nor did he disregard Beatriz’s ever-shifting lies about Aurelia’s death: her blaming of Mrs Pierce, a serving woman from the town, for allowing the murderer Gabriel Holland to enter Salvació.
Cristian slowly gained the townspeople’s loyalty. Not a few of the local girls came to work for him, and the folk who benefited from his largesse would defend him to the death, an irony not lost on Salazar. Those who avoided his company were of little concern, for they would know him well in time.
While Cristian grieved privately, Beatriz, his cousin and constant companion, spent her hours alone in the forest or in contemplation within Aurelia’s mausoleum. Peace descended on the town of Carliton, or so it seemed. And as if to herald the Salazar’s personal renaissance, Lucas Pierce, aged seven, helped celebrate Cristian’s birthday by gorging on the poisoned cake reserved for the child.
The party was going so well, Salazar thought, and now, to his amusement, the guests pleaded for the entertainment to end; a few of the men wept as they begged him in vain. But they found their pleas cut short—they could not help but stare in silence at their strange host. Black hair had been combed back, revealing a forehead unmarked by the passage of time. Likewise, his dark and pointed face betrayed no sign of great age at first glance, although when light struck the skin around his eyes, it revealed itself to be heavily-lined, cracked even. Long, slim brows and a thin moustache gave him the look of a nobleman from centuries past. He was old and young, all at once, both sinister and glorious.
Wooden chairs lay on their backs upon the street, broken strands of coloured bunting trailed in the dust as children and their parents fought viciously for the toys and trinkets that Beatriz had thrown at their feet. Discordant music, without visible source but heard by all, seemed to goad the revellers into further desperation, and they clawed at their rivals’ faces until the flesh was torn and bleeding. Salazar’s expression varied from moment to moment; first, a wide, exaggerated smile, now a look of sheer contempt as he peered at the families pushing and shoving each other to lay claim upon rancid pieces of meat, beset by flies.
As the manic requiem faded into silence, the celebrants staggered to their homes, hugging the tawdry gifts to their chests. Only young Lucas remained at the table, the colour of his face matching the blue frosted birthday cake. As his weeping mother cradled his body, Salazar lingered to watch for a moment. He leant his head to one side, gathered himself and then spat with force upon them. Cristian and Beatriz started to stroll back to Salvació House, their expressions speaking of mutual satisfaction. The party was over, but the games had just begun.
In the evening, the families regarded the spoils for which they had risked their lives. Cristian’s charity provoked a mixed reception; for every exclamation of joy, there was a corresponding lament. Soon enough, even those who had considered themselves most fortunate had reason to curse and weep.
The dolls which little girls cradled in their arms fell apart, leaving their new owners with wailing, limbless playthings that wept dirty tears. Tin soldiers revealed themselves to be as fierce as their real-life counterparts; the boys who marched them to war soon found their hands ravaged by stinging cuts and snaking scars. Cavalry horses waded in blood across living room battlefields to the cries of their commanders.
At night, as Carliton’s young climbed the stairs to their rooms, the shadow of long, crooked fingers matched the rise and fall of each step until they grasped at the children’s bare legs. In bed at last, peeping above the make-believe security of thin cotton blankets, the boys and girls saw their nurseries come alive; shrill, mournful wailing sounded from toy prams which had never held a human child; stark moonlight flowed over Fuselian rocking horses, all bloodstained teeth and wild, terrifying eyes. When a brave few children sought sanctuary in locked bathrooms, clouded mirrors showed their faces as old and bereft of joy.
Outside, it seemed that a whirlwind rushed through the streets, the darkness flowing along the thin gaps in the brickwork, covering the eyes of stone saints upon the church facade. Alatiel had taken the night as her disguise. She hammered at doors—teasing the terrified families, for in truth she could enter their homes at will—and her fingers rapped on windows until the glass fractured and fell apart like thin winter ice. The sound of screaming told the whole town that she had taken another child into her hateful embrace. By morning, Cristian’s grand illusion would end, his victims resuming their lives in blissful ignorance of his sport.
And within the west tower of Salvació House stood Beatriz Salazar, her right hand lightly caressing her cousin’s back, much to his irritation. Beatriz spoke, almost to herself at first.
“Ours…” she said, and turned to face her cousin, “All ours…why not end their lives tonight?”
Cristian broke away and headed back inside Salvació, words of reproach trailing in his wake.
“No. We will allow them hope; then, they will know misery—have you forgotten Aurelia so soon?”
“Yes, you are right, of course. Let them suffer…let them bleed.”