Dragomir sighed. Turlane was on his way to the feasting hall and Dragomir could taste his bitter spirit in the next room. The Prince of Shadows had commissioned a celebration of drunkenness and gluttony- both which Dragomir abhorred- observing his fifth year as Warlord of the West.
Dragomir looked around at the main hall’s furnishings. Though men and women were scurrying about deftly and silently serving mulled wine, the sound decibel in the room was enough to drive a deaf man insane. Dragomir inhaled the scene though. He would commit even the tiniest elements to memory and perhaps make sketches and paintings to sell to the royal family as keepsakes. Dragomir’s dark, hooded eyes caught a stunning piece mounted upon the eastern wall. The blade was pitted with rust, but so finely wrought that the rust seemed to be part of the piece as shadows are to everyday life. Dragomir imagined himself on a mountaintop, the sun shining golden on his armour with the fine sword in his hands, but then retreated to the mirth in his mind at the idea. He was far too sparrow-boned to be a warrior; his slight frame, though lanky, would never support the armour or the equipment.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” A voice sprung from behind him. Burgone’s speech was lazy and loud, intentionally breaking Dragomir’s concentration. “The motif, I mean. I’ve never seen so much gold in one place. I can’t believe he isn’t afraid of thieves disguised as starving artists.” Burgone pulled nervously at his lips while laughing loudly and gazing longingly at the golden walls and weapons.
Dragomir smiled also, but not at Burgone’s joke. The man had been his assistant for a little over two years now. The poor man was also not blessed with a handsome physical disposition and was often kidded about it; his face was far too broad and flat, and his bones were bowed by years of poor nutrition, betraying his peasant stock and giving him a look of humility coupled with charm. His eyes crossed slightly, his nose was much too small for his face, and, Dragomir noticed, not for the first time, the man spent far too much time worrying the skin of his widow’s peak. It gleamed a bright cherry color because of this incessant rubbing. Dragomir chuckled to himself. The man had no idea how comic he was through guise alone. Dragomir would have loved to sketch Burgone if only the man would not take offense to it, and while Burgone was not the best assistant Dragomir had ever had, he did have the most personality and wit.
“Well, what do you think Drag?” Burgone said, shoving his elbow into Dragomir’s ribs.
Dragomir pushed Burgone’s elbow back towards the little man, swatting playfully at him, his tone mocking and unabashed. “Yes, yes, the vain and ludicrous actions of the man doing his whole palace in a precious substance are splendid.” He then stared gravely at Burgone and mumbled, “but I believe blood and carnage would have been more appropriate to surround himself with.”
Burgone’s smile faded as his green eyes dashed crazily around the room. “You can’t say that here Drag, especially since we’re both going to be rich for months after this.” The open, frowning face had spread back into that infectious smile that Burgone was blessed with. “It’s positively wondrous.” Burgone sighed loudly in mock contentment. “Hey Drag, do you ever wonder what you would have been if not a painter? I think I would have liked to have been a doctor. I was always wonderful at lancing boils.” The stocky man chuckled and continued to chatter away about the gross medical condition.
Dragomir rolled his eyes; it was impossible to be serious around the assistant. The two years spent with the stocky man had improved Dragomir’s temperament considerably in all areas except the corner in which he kept Turlane, the Prince of Shadows. Dragomir also knew that Burgone was nowhere near as greedy as he pretended to be. Just last month the assistant had made an extremely large, anonymous donation to the Falcon Order of Priests in the southern nation of Detra Esdon Grasia. Of course, now, in the forsaken cesspit of Hadae, Turlane’s palace-city, there were no priests. No seers or mystics of any talent who could attest to the Great One’s plans. Turlane had crucified them all in his second year of leadership. Dragomir had only been protected because of his bloodline.
Dragomir’s good humor faded though Burgone still chattered on with humorous comments on the absurdities of the human body. He needed a vision right now-he could not hide behind his family’s blood forever. One of Turlane’s false mystics would accuse Dragomir of plotting against the Prince of Shadows and order him tried. He would then be allowed to take poison or die by combat.
A tug came at his sleeve. “Look Drag, there he is.” Dragomir followed Burgone’s gaze to the main entrance. Burgone began muttering angrily and rummaging in a canvas bag as the Warlord approached the artist.
Turlane Dega was taller than his father Silas had been. Other than that, he was a living replica of his father, mirroring the angular face and soft, green eyes under a close-cropped head of blonde hair. The man’s presence echoed Silas also, but whereas the Warlord of the West had merely been competitive and arrogant, his twenty-five year old son was the embodiment of cruelty. Dragomir forced himself to masked distaste as the young man approached.
Just seeing the offspring of Silas Dega reminded Dragomir of the day in his apartments, when Silas had first told him of his intentions to rid himself of threat. It had been just after he had sacked the capital of Aerona. Dragomir had been a mere twenty years old and completely devoted to his lord. His father’s bloodline had secured him the position of first councilor.
Dragomir had instinctively argued upon hearing the news: “You must not go, my lord. She will sense your spirit and there will be an ambush. You know that she is more adept in identifying spirit trails than any of her family was.”
Silas Dega had of course flashed his radiant smile at Dragomir. “My dear Dragomir, how many times must I ask you? Call me by my given name. Mother has more respect for the Great One than to name her only child ‘my lord.’” Silas had paused to look himself over in the mirror. “She will sense my spirit and seek to lure me in, true enough. She still believes her family is alive. But think on this: What is the hunt without the prey’s fight for survival?”
“I do not know my lord,” Dragomir had answered truthfully. “Perhaps acceptance of one’s fate?”
The thoughtful pause from Silas Dega seemed out of character for the man. Silas Dega’s tone lost the unwavering confidence he commanded. “It is murder, Dragomir, and I am no murderer. I am a conqueror, a hero to the outcasts who travel to these western lands.” He then spread his arms wide and grinned. Dragomir recalled that handsome smile as the epitome of Silas. “Take care of the nation while I’m gone, Dragomir. Turlane is far too reckless to watch over it and I’ll not have Shamfi thinking he can usurp me while I’m gone.”
With that, Silas had ridden from the gates of Hadae into the bordering lands of Aerona. There, he had been slain by Erin Elizabeth, the dark princess of the thrones of North and South. She now effectively controlled Detra Esdon Grasia to the south, once her mother’s homeland, and through corrupt political manipulation of those once loyal to Silas, had regained Aerona.
The Warlord of the West had been a great swordsman, but Dragomir never did concern himself over what killed Silas. Anything could have happened during the sword fight. A blade could have snapped, the sword could easily have slipped from Silas’s hand, or… even so… the Dark Princess could have easily defeated him through skill. Dragomir could have walked the spirit paths, following Silas’s heady metallic scent to the point in time of his death, but he had chosen not to. The men who had traveled with Silas had never spoken of the great leader’s death. Thus it was that Dragomir had never discovered why they had spared the Dark Princess from revenge.
Dragomir’s attention to the memory faded as the Prince of Shadows advanced. The man was splendidly dressed in a russet brown to compliment the gold motif, but Dragomir knew that it was only because Turlane couldn’t afford the gold threads he coveted. The treasury was broke; the gold motif of the palace was fashioned from conquered lands.
“My good artist in residence,” Turlane said, bowing slightly. The words flew from the lord’s mouth like a sparrow that dives from the hawk, as did his gaze. “It is wonderful to see you Dragomir. I wondered where you’ve been for the past year; I’ve heard so little of your travels.”
So even the royal scouts hadn’t been able to keep up with his project, Dragomir thought. He responded coolly, “I did a little traveling in the east. Burgone and I visited some of the religious orders in the nation of Aerona.” Turlane would at least have known that much. “Their relics and artwork have always fascinated me. I am hoping to one day revive the Juminji style of painting.” The lie flowed smoothly from Dragomir’s lips as he privately brought to memory the solicitation of funds from high-ranking Aeronian earls to fund a rebellion.
“Ah,” Turlane breathed heavily. “The Juminji.” He stroked his bare chin and gazed coldly at the artist. “Isn’t that the style in which the upper regions of the body are significantly bigger than the lower half? I must admit that I have never understood that.” Turlane’s eyes widened in anticipation for Dragomir’s reaction.
Instead of stumbling, Dragomir presented a tight, controlled smile. “Yes, my lord, you are correct, but I pray, allow me to enlighten you.” Turlane’s handsome stare was completely focused now. “There is a special emphasis to those regions to either signify a vast amount of knowledge,” Dragomir paused significantly, “or a vast amount of ego.” The Prince’s greasy smile faded as Dragomir continued, “There has been dispute for years over which is correct, although the latter is suspected.”
Turlane’s face crumpled into anger and his eyes smoldered a dangerous ivy color. “Perhaps the artist just did not have the proper perspective,” he snapped and turned, his routine “enjoy your evening” lost in the crowd of voices as he walked away. Dragomir watched as the Prince of Shadows incorporated himself into an upper class crowd, smiling and absorbing the compliments that were given by sniveling dukes and earls.
Burgone cleared his throat from behind the artist. “You may now remember your humble indentured servant exists now. I’d hate for you to waste all of the daggers in your eyes on that poor, misguided soul. Allow me to give you the opportunity to spread the warmth.”
Dragomir turned and smiled at the man. The widow’s peak was a shade less than Turlane’s scarlet face. “Sorry Burg, I thought that perhaps you had gotten lost in that canvas bag looking for supplies.” Dragomir laughed loudly, his good spirits returned by Turlane’s reaction. He saw Turlane turn and throw a malicious glance at him at the sound of laughter.
Burgone forced a scowl. “You break my heart! I thought you’d want to introduce the Prince to me: the famed Burgone. Why there’s no better apprentice in the land!” He jabbed his thumb into his chest while he attempted baleful eyes.
Dragomir gasped with heavy sarcasm, slapping Burgone on the back. “A bumbling apprentice of two years? You’re not even a journeyman yet and you want to meet a prince? What ever shall I do with you?”
Burgone’s chubby face took on an obscenely serious look.
“Well,” he said with a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “If you ever hear that the Prince needs that boil of an ego lanced, I’ve got this fine sewing needle that needs to be broken in. I’d love to take a stab at him.”
Wendyll watched as the painter went to his room. The dark and dreary hall was beginning to play havoc with his ability to stay awake, but then again, Turlane had said that the hall would have to be dark. He could barely make out the outline of… what was his name?… Oh yes, Dragomir. The man was impossibly hard to miss. He was taller than ordinary men and as skinny as a rail to boot, so he was easy to spot in a crowd. Wendyll smiled. Good thing there wasn’t a crowd though. Wendyll didn’t like crowds much. They were always noisy and someone was always bumping into you. The only time Wendyll liked a crowd was during the executions. Then, everyone was still and quiet. No one was loud unless they lit the fires. Then Wendyll would get loud, too, but only so he wouldn’t feel left out. He would rather just watch the flames lick the air.
Dragomir slammed the door and Wendyll lost all thoughts of crowds. He was supposed to have killed the man in the hallway, making it look like there would be no one to blame. He shrugged. Dead was dead. Did it matter where?
Wendyll approached the door and put his ear up to it. There was no noise from within. Surely a man must make some noise before bed! Perhaps he had been so tired that he had just gone straight to bed instead of undressing. Wendyll hadn’t even heard his boots hit the floor. No matter. Whether Dragomir died in the hall, in the bed, on top of the roof- it wasn’t important. Turlane had said just make sure he was dead.
Wendyll opened the door. The room was pitch black, and like the hallway, did nothing for his increasing drowsiness. Didn’t anyone ever put a light on in this big rock of a castle? Wendyll strained his eyes against the dark. It was still useless. It was like having a blanket thrown over your head and being tossed into a barrel. And Wendyll knew what that felt like- his brother had been a demon disguised as his father’s eldest son.
Wendyll squinted some more to no avail. There was nothing. He would have to go all the way back to the scullery and get a candle just to kill the man. That was too bad, too, because his paintings were really good.
“Are you here to lay the fire?”
Wendyll jumped at the sudden voice penetrating the darkness. It was soft but masculine, and strangely comforting. “Um… something like that,” he said, unsure of how to answer.
There was a glow from the corner of the room. “I’m sorry there wasn’t any light,” the man said in a friendly tone. “I like to clear my mind after festivities. The wine gets to me and I find that I can’t hold a picture of the events in my mind if I don’t concentrate for a moment.”
Wendyll’s eyes followed the candle as the man approached. He wasn’t very old. He might have been twenty or twenty-five, but no more. His features were well defined. He was very skeletal and his skin was pasty white. His eyes were a strange green- like those jewels Turlane had showed him once. His long, dark hair was tied back. The man was dressed in such pretty colors that all Wendyll could do was look at him for a moment.
There was a cold silence accented by the flickering candlelight. “You have pretty clothes,” Wendyll suddenly blurted, his mind gone blank.
The man smiled. “Thanks. Here, let me light a few more candles. I must admit that I have no idea how to lay a fire and I’m glad that you’re here because for a late spring night, it’s pretty cold.” There was a comfortable pause as Wendyll watched the man light more candles. “I’m Dragomir, by the way.” He finished lighting the last candle.
“Wendyll,” came his reply as he began to lay the fire. He was confused, but that didn’t matter. He’d lay the fire and then kill the man. Maybe then he could take the body somewhere and Turlane would let him sleep in this warm room. The man remained quiet as Wendyll laid the fire.
Dragomir seated himself by the newly sprung flames in an oaken chair. “Once again, thanks. I’ll let your overseer know that you’re doing such a good job. Turlane is probably hard pressed to keep good help like you.” He removed a writing tablet and some charcoal from a canvas bag and began to sketch a picture onto its surface.
“Uh… yeah… good night.” Wendyll quickly shut the door behind him as he raced from the room. What just happened? Fine then, the man could sketch a little and sit by the fire, but eventually he’d have to go to sleep and then…
“Oh, hey lad,” came a friendly voice, this one deep and resonant. This man was very round and portly, but the smile was kind. Why were these people so happy? Did it really pay that well to be an artist?
Wendyll mumbled a hello and crept speedily down the hall, ignoring the newcomer’s farewell. He paused to watch the fat little man slip into Dragomir’s room. The man was carrying a tray of fruit and a second canvas bag. A servant? Turlane didn’t say anything about a servant. Would he have to kill him, too? Horribly confused now, Wendyll moved clumsily down the hall and into the scullery, his bowels turned to water over the thought of failure. Turlane would be mad, and Wendyll was already trembling. He began to pack up some of what he owned and shoved it into a sack.
“Did you see the look on his face?” Burgone said, laughing as Dragomir finished up a sketch.
Dragomir grinned also. “Yes, but I had him confused first, my dear friend. I had him lay a fire and then I sat as calm as could be. He was trained to act, not react.”
“So do you think he’ll come back?” Burgone asked, his mood obviously still light.
Dragomir thought for a moment. This was the quality of assassins the Prince of Shadows had at his disposal? The man had been easily led, but he had also been a fool. Dragomir shuddered to think what Turlane would do to the poor boy. He was no more than an adolescent, but he would probably not live to see the morn if Turlane’s temper followed routine. Dragomir felt a stab of guilt for making a fool out of the boy. Recognizing Wendyll as an assassin would have been the polite thing to do. Fighting him would have been the honorable course of action. Unfortunately for poor Wendyll, Dragomir was neither polite nor honorable. No matter how many pawns like Wendyll died as an indirect result of the rebellion, getting Turlane out of power was the top priority.
If Turlane fell out of power, that meant that his high advisor and so-called priest would try to take over. Shamfi was ill-suited to any task of authority. The man was perhaps more of a maniac than the Prince of Shadows. He would murder half of the civilization just for amusement.
“Drag, don’t you ever listen to me?” Burgone whined. He had a wedge of cheese in one hand and a rope in the other. “Should we eat first or just go ahead and leave this forsaken place?”
“Let’s stay a bit,” Dragomir said, his eyes dancing with mischief. “I’ve heard that Turlane gives a fine feast for breakfast and I’d hate to leave on an empty stomach.” He added a few more lines to the portrait of Lady Shasta he was working on. The creases of her dress were giving him trouble.
Burgone shrugged and tucked the rope back into the bag and placed the cheese back onto the tray. “Well, since it’s your idea, I think you should be on watch duty first. I’m all up for leaving. G’night.” Dragomir watched as Burgone laid his cloak on the floor and just as quickly fell asleep on it. The poor man had an absolute disdain for beds. Made a man too careless, he said.
Dragomir sat, unable to draw anymore. Turlane’s only full-blooded sister looked lovely and positively breathtaking in that red gown tonight, but he was just not doing her any justice with his charcoals. He put the work aside and tried to think through his visits to Aerona. The priests had at first been discourteous to the very young former first councilor of Silas Dega, but when they realized that he was not a spy, they welcomed his cause warmly.
Turlane was destroying the nation that Silas had worked so hard to build; there was no doubt about that. Of course others did nothing. They wanted to watch the Prince of Shadows crumble slowly so they could become rich off his excessive wars. The merchants supplied cannon and swords. Why should they throw away profits for the poor? Dragomir wanted the process accelerated; he would not watch his people suffer a fool of a leader. They deserved better than that. There were people starving all over Hadae and beyond because of the wars with the Dark Princess and the tribes across the water.
“And do you desire the crown yourself, lord Dragomir?” Yawa, the high priest of the Falcon Order has asked him upon their discussion of the downfall of Turlane. “You know that people will want a strong leader to take the place of the one you are disposing of.” Yawa’s eyebrows lifted like a gull’s wings in flight. The man’s hair was iron gray and his face a fine scroll of wrinkles. He had been a priest all his life; serving the Great One was his one passion in life; his second was the welfare of the people of the civilized world.
“I have no desire to rule.” Dragomir answered plainly. It was true. Dragomir was no leader of men- he had no fiery speeches, no passion for manipulation, and no iron fist to rule an army.
“Well, then who, boy? You really cannot expect the downfall of a monarch without squabbles for power, can you? It will be chaos!” Yawa’s face was quite animated at this point.
Dragomir had smiled slowly, spreading his hands wide. “Do not concern yourself, holy one. I have someone in mind.”
Dragomir watched the shadows playing on the wall. The conversation with Yawa had extended into treaties to be made after the downfall of Turlane, but he was in no mood to think on such things. In the morning he and Burgone would stroll into the grand breakfast room and he would revel in the look on Turlane’s face. It was almost too perfect.
The artist sat back in the deep chair, enjoying the silence and pushing Burgone with his foot when he snored too loudly. All in all, the plans were firming up. Turlane could not trace Dragomir’s actions and his hired killer had been thwarted by the quick thinking of Burgone and himself. Dragomir had instinctively known that Turlane would send an assassin and had warned Burgone. Luckily Burgone was adept at playing by ear.
The silence of the night stretched on. Dragomir thought about waking Burgone in order to get some sleep himself, but the little man just looked too comfortable. Dragomir chuckled softly; he’d have plenty of time to sleep when he was dead, why bother now?
That brief thought of dying did not disturb him. In truth, he expected that his dangerous mission would catch up with him. All of the “donations” to Aeronian monasteries would eventually filter to the west. It would sink through Turlane’s thick skull sometime soon, and Dragomir’s days as a rebel would be over. Dragomir sighed. He would miss the sweetness of life: the taste of berries on the Aerona slopes, going riding on clear summer nights, discovering a new brush stroke that produced fantastic results.
Of all things sweet, he would miss Shasta the most though. Dragomir closed his eyes and imagined her in that red dress once more. Dragomir opened his eyes with a start- dozing was dangerous. He thought to wake Burgone up for the change of watch, but the next thing he knew, he held a girl in a red dress as they danced through his realm of dreams.