SEVEN PRINCES (2)
City of Men and Giants
In the twenty-sixth year of his reign madness came to the King of New Udurum. It did not fall upon him like a flood, but grew like a creeping fungus in the hollows of his mind. At first he hid the madness from his Queen, his children, and his subjects, but eventually he could no longer steady his shaking hands or hold the gaze of his advisors during council.
Udurum was a city of both Men and Giants. The power of King Vod had fostered an era of peace between the two races for almost three decades. Vod himself was both Man and Giant, and therefore the city’s perfect monarch. He was born as a Giant, grew into a sorcerer, and became a man to marry a human girl. He slew Omagh the Serpent-Father and rebuilt the fallen city of Giantkind. Now, twenty-five years after he forged a path through the mountains and began the reconstruction of New Udurum, his children were grown and he felt the call of an old curse. This was the source of his madness.
The children of King Vod and Queen Shaira were neither Giant nor human, but a new breed all their own. His first son Fangodrel was pale of skin, with sable hair and the anguished soul of a poet. These were altogether human qualities. His second and third sons likewise stood no taller than average Men, but they carried the strength of Giants in their modest frames, and their skins were the color of tempered bronze. These were Tadarus and Vireon, whom many called his “true sons”. His daughter, youngest of the brood, was named Sharadza. She took after Queen Shaira, almost a mirror image of her mother, yet in her fifteenth year was already as tall as her brothers.
When Vod began ignoring his royal duties, his court began to grumble. Both Men and Giants feared his dissolution as an effective monarch. His uncle, the Giant called Fangodrim the Gray, tried to quell the fears of the court as best he could. But even he knew that Vod’s rule sat in peril.
When the chill of early fall began to invade the warmth of late summer, Vod called for his children. “Bring them all before me,” he told Fangodrim. A cadre of servants ran along the gigantic corridors of the palace in search of Vod’s offspring.
Sharadza sat beneath the spreading arms of a great oak, listening to the Storyteller. The leaves had turned from green to orange and red; the rest of the courtyard’s lush foliage was following suit. All the colors of the rainbow revealed themselves in this miniature version of the deep forest beyond the city walls. She was not permitted to exit the gates of New Udurum, not without the escort of her father, and he had not taken her into the forest since last season. Here, beneath trees grown safely within the palace grounds, she got a taste of those wild autumn colors, but in her heart she longed to walk among the colossal Uyga trees once again. The sun shone brightly through the turning leaves, but had lost its heat. The faintest breath of winter blew on the wind today. She sat on a stone bench as the old man finished his tale.
“So the God of the Sky had no choice but to recognize the Sea God as his equal. But still sometimes the Sky and Sea fight one another, and these battles Men call hurricanes. Doomed is the ship that ventures across the waves while these two deities are in dispute.” The old man turned his head to better meet the eyes of the Princess. “Are you troubled, Majesty?” he asked.
Sharadza had been distracted by the varicolored leaves blown upon the wind. Beyond the tops of the palace walls, gray clouds poured across the sky. Soon the season of storms would be upon them, and then the crystal purity of winter. She did not mind that chilliest of seasons, but fall was her favorite. Each tree seemed hung with fabulous jewels. She smiled at the old man. It really was not fair to invite him here and pay less than full attention to his stories.
“Forgive me, Fellow,” she said. “I am somewhat distracted these days.”
The old man smiled. He ran a hand through his short white beard and nodded. “You are growing up,” he sighed. “Mayhap you do not care for my stories any longer.”
“No, don’t think that,” she said, taking his wrinkled hand in hers. “I treasure your visits, I really do. You know so many tales that I could never find in the library.”
Old Fellow grinned. “Would you have another?” he asked.
Sharadza rose and walked about the oak tree, trailing her fingers along its rough bark. “Tell me what you know of my father,” she said. “Tell me about Old Udurum. Before I was born.”
“Ah,” said the Storyteller. “You had better ask the King for stories of his youth. He would tell them better than I.”
“But you know he won’t talk to me,” she said, blinking her green eyes at him. “I hardly see him . . . He’s always in a meeting, or in council, or off brooding in the forest with his Giant cousins. He forgets I even exist.”
“Nonsense, Majesty,” said Fellow, rising from his stone seat. His back was slightly bent, and he supported himself with a tall, roughly carved cane. His robes were a patchwork of motley, as if he wore all the shades of the fall leaves, a myriad of colors spread across the fabric of his flowing raiment. Yet Fellow wore such colors all year round. He had very little taste when it came to matters of style. She had given him gifts of silken tunics, delicate scarves woven in Shar Dni, and other garments worthy of a nobleman’s closet, but he refused to wear any of them. He would, however, accept whatever jewels or coins she managed to wheedle from her parents. Even Storytellers had to eat, and Fellow was little more than a vagabond. Yet he was so much more.
“Your father cherishes you, as does your kind mother,” said Fellow in the tone of an encouraging schoolmaster, which he was not. Sharadza’s tutors were never so informal with her, nor did she relish spending time with them the way she savored her every rendezvous with the Storyteller. He wandered the streets of the city between visits, telling his stories on street corners and in wine shops, earning his daily bread by weaving tales for the weary Men and Giants of Udurum.
“What do you know of him?” she asked, challenging Fellow to spill any secrets he might possess.
The old man licked his dry lips. “I know that he built New Udurum on the ruins of the old city, after the Lord of Serpents destroyed it.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“Yes, but did you know the young Vod was born a Giant but was raised by human parents?”
Sharadza nodded, sitting back down on the cold bench. Thunder rolled low in the distance, like the pounding of great breakers at the edge of a distant sea. She had heard rumors of her father’s human parents, but he never spoke of them to her.
“Oh, they did not know he was a Giant at first, just a very large baby,” said the Storyteller. “But they soon found out when he grew too fast.” His voice sank to a whisper. “They say his human father abandoned him, but his mother never did. She died not long after the building of the new city.”
“She would have been my grandmother,” said Sharadza.
“Not entirely,” said Fellow, “for she was never related to your father by blood.”
“What about the Serpent Lord? Is it true my father slew him?”
“Yes,” said the Storyteller. “By virtue of his sorcery, the same powers that make him both Giant and Man, your father destroyed the oldest enemy of Giant-kind. His magic made him tall as the Grim Mountains, and he wrestled with the Great Wyrm, his flesh burned by the great fires that it spit in his face. Their battle took place right here, among the ruins of Old Udurum. Nearly all the Giants had been slain and their city toppled. When young Vod crushed the life out of the monster, he vowed to rebuild the city. That is why we have this capital of Giants and Men. Your father brought peace to the Great Ones and the Small Ones. He is a hero. Never forget that.”
Sharadza nodded. How could she ever forget the legacy of her father? But there was much she still did not understand. The wind caught up her long black curls, and she brushed them away from her face.
“Is it true the Giants are dying?” she asked.
The Storyteller frowned at her. “Since the destruction of Old
Udurum, no Giantess has borne a child. Some say the dying Serpent Lord put a curse on his enemies, and that is the reason why the she-Giants are barren. If your father had not fallen in love with your mother, a human, you and your brothers might never have been born at all! The Giants who live among us now are old. Yes, they are a dying breed, and they know it. Little more than a thousand still walk the world, and by the time your own children are grown someday, they may all be gone.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” Sharadza asked. Such finality made her want to cry. Her cousins were Giants, so if they died a part of her died with them. Her father’s best friend was his uncle Fangodrim, who was uncle to her as well.
“Likely not,” said Fellow. “These things are decided by higher powers than you or I. But remember that it is not death that counts in the end, but a life lived well.”
Sharadza smiled through her brimming tears. Fellow was always saying things like that. “Jewels of wisdom” he sometimes called them. It was one of the things she loved about him.
“Fellow,” she said, “I have another question for you.”
“Of course, Majesty.”
“How did my father learn sorcery? Was he born with it?”
Fellow sat quietly for a moment. Sharadza heard the moaning wind and a peal of approaching thunder.
“I’d best tell that story another time,” said the old man.
“Because your mother is coming.”
“Oh! You must hide. I’m not supposed to be listening to your tales. She says you’re a liar and not to be trusted.”
Fellow smiled at her, the skin about his gray eyes wrinkling. “Do you believe that, Princess?”
She kissed his cheek. “Of course not. Now go. I hear her steps along the walk.”
Fellow turned toward the tall hedge and disappeared into the leaves. He would find his way back out onto the streets of New Udurum by a hidden path she had shown him months ago. She could not explain her mother’s distrust of the Storyteller, but she knew in her heart it was baseless, so she smuggled him into the royal gardens whenever she could, at least once a week. She began to think of him as her grandfather, albeit a grandfather she could never publicly acknowledge. She had learned much from his stories, and there was much more to discover.
Queen Shaira rounded the corner of the hedge maze with two palace guards in tow. Shaira was not a tall woman, but her presence loomed as that of a Giantess. Her hair was dark and her eyes bright as emeralds, both like her daughter’s. Looking at her mother, standing there in her gown of purple silk and white brocade, a crown of silver and diamond circling her brow, Sharadza knew exactly what she would look like when she was grown. There could be no doubt that she would be the spitting image of her beautiful and regal mother. At the age of forty-five, Shaira retained every bit of her beauty, and this gave Sharadza no small comfort.
Her mother called her name, and smiled at her in that loving way that nobody else could ever smile. In the warmth of that smile, the day felt a bit less cool.The blaze of summer lived in her mother’s green eyes. Maybe it was the fact that Shaira had grown up in a desert kingdom, or maybe her love itself was the source of the heat.
Sharadza ran to embrace the Queen.
“What are you doing out here, Little One?” asked Shaira. Even though Sharadza stood taller than her mother already, Shaira still called her by that nickname. She felt comfortably small in her mother’s arms. It had always been so.
“Admiring the leaves,” she answered. “Aren’t they beautiful?” She cast her gaze upward at the splendid fall colors.
Her mother gave her a quizzical look, as if suspecting that she told only part of the truth. “Your father summons you before the throne,” she said, running her hands along Sharadza’s hair, smoothing the dark curls.
“Me?” Sharadza asked, stunned by the news.
“You and your brothers,” said her mother, and the Princess saw a worried look pass across her face like a shadow passing across the face of the sun.
“What is the matter?” Sharadza asked.
“Come,” said the Queen. “We shall soon know.”
She followed her mother across the grand courtyard as big wet drops of rain began to fall. The sound of the drops hitting the leaves was a chorus of whispers. Then a blast of thunder split the sky, and she entered the palace proper.
Mother and daughter walked toward the King’s hall as the storm broke against monolithic walls built by the hands of Giants.
Not far from Udurum’s gates, beneath the branches of enormous trees, a gathering of Giants stood in a circle about two struggling figures. By the purple cloaks and blackened bronze they wore, these Uduru were known to all as the King’s Warriors. They howled and leaped and shouted curses, but their great axes, swords, and hammers hung sheathed on their backs. Their eyes focused on the two man-sized combatants at their center.
Among the brown leaves lying big as shields on the forest floor, two sinewy, broad-chested youths rolled in a contest of power and stamina. Straining muscles gleamed with sweat, and the wrestlers breathed through gritted teeth. A pulp of leaves and mud smeared their bodies. The Giants, each standing three times the height of the wrestlers, shouted and waved bags of gold above the peaks of black war helms.
“Tadarus!” some shouted.
“Vireon!” cried others.
On the ground, Vireon stared up into his brother’s face, feeling the weight of him like a boulder against his chest. Their arms locked together like the trunks of young oaks. Vireon’s legs shot upward, his heels dug into Tadarus’ abdomen, and his brother went flying. The giants roared. Now both brothers stood on their feet, coiled in the manner of crouching tigers. Tadarus laughed. Vireon smiled back at him.
“My little brother!” roared Tadarus. “You know I will beat you. I always do.”
Now Vireon laughed to show his defiance. “You are but one year my senior. And youth has its advantages.”
Shoulders slammed together and the Giants reeled from the sheer force of their collision. Once more the brothers stood locked in stalemate.
Vireon wondered who would tire first. If he could simply outlast his brother, he would win. The Giants would never underestimate him again.
They might have been twins, these two, but for Vireon’s more narrow face and slightly lesser height. They shared the same jet-black hair, the same sky-blue eyes, and the strength of raging Uduru.
Tadarus slammed Vireon’s back against a tree trunk. The monolithic Uyga trunk trembled, bark exploded, and the last of the tree’s faded leaves fell in a slow rain about the brothers as they wrestled. The Giants howled at this display of strength, and Vireon leapt forward, flipping over his brother’s head. They rolled together longwise through a debris of branch, bark, and leaf. Dead wood cracked beneath their bodies.
At the end of the roll, Vireon arose first, his arms still locked on his brother’s shoulders. He took advantage of Tadarus’ split second of disorientation and hurled him through the air, screaming after him. Tadarus crashed through a pine tree as thick as his waist, shearing it in half. Both he and the upper half of the tree fell with a double crash into the forest beyond the ring of bewildered Giants.
Vireon stood panting in the center of the chattering Uduru. The thrill of victory was a momentary sensation, replaced by instant worry for his brother, who lay somewhere in the shadows of the great trees.
“What excellence!” growled Boroldun the Bear-Fang. “The younger triumphs at last!”
“Hail, Vireon the Younger!” bellowed Danthus the Sharp-Tooth. “I knew your day would come!”
The Giants exchanged bags of gold, precious jewels, and other baubles as the supporters of Vireon claimed their winnings. Vireon payed them no attention, but leaped across the stump of the felled tree to find his brother. Tadarus lay among a knot of big ferns growing about a wedge-shaped boulder. Vireon feared the big rock had brained his brother.
Gods of Earth and Sky, let him be well.
Vireon bent low over his brother. “Tadarus?”
Without opening his eyes, Tadarus sprang up and knocked Vireon off his feet with the force of his shoulder. Vireon’s posterior met the ground, and he stared up into the grinning face of his brother.
“Did you think you had actually hurt me?” Tadarus said. A few Giants came tromping near, flattening the undergrowth with their every step. Some of them shouted to their fellows that Tadarus was fine – of course. The elder brother offered his hand, and Vireon took it. Now they stood together as the Giants looked upon them with admiration.
“I beat you,” said Vireon.
“So you did,” said Tadarus, smiling. “And you killed a tree.”
The Giants laughed, thunder among the redwoods.
“I say your next bout should be fought on the plains of the Stormlands, or perhaps the top of a mountain!” said the Sharp-Tooth. “To avoid more casualties of nature!”
The Giants and Tadarus laughed. Vireon saw no humor. He regretted the felling of the pine. He would carry it back to the palace for the woodcarvers, or at the least to stoke the fires of the kitchens. Even a tree’s death must serve a purpose.
“I am proud of you, brother,” said Tadarus. Once more he placed his hands on Vireon’s shoulders, warmly this time. His white teeth showed in the forest gloom as he looked his brother in the eye. “You have proven yourself my equal this day. And won a ton of loot for old Sharp-Tooth!”
Vireon at last smiled. His beefy chest swelled. He loved his brother. Only praise from his father could find more currency in his heart.
“I stand amazed, yet again,” said the Sharp-Tooth to his fellows. Most of the Giants wandered toward the city gates as drops of rain began to fall, but three of the Sharp-Tooth’s fellows lingered, his steadfast drinking companions, Dabruz the Flame-Heart, Grodulum the Hammer, and Hrolgar the Iron-Foot. “These whelps are sturdy as Uduru, though they could pass for Men in any kingdom south of the Grim.”
“The True Sons of Vod!” said the Iron-Foot. “They are both men and giants.”
“Perhaps we’re neither,” said Tadarus, sharing a gourd of cool water with Vireon. “Perhaps we are something new. Mother said we carry the best of both races in our blood. Perhaps there is no name for what we are.”
“Aye,” said Danthus. “You speak with your father’s wisdom. But here, Vireon, take you this hammer won from Ohlung the Bear-Slayer.” He held the great weapon out to Vireon. The length of it was greater than half the youth’s body, but he grabbed its haft and lifted it above his head, testing its balance. It was a Giant’s weapon, forged in the smithies of Old Udurum, before the coming of the Serpent Father. Its pitted head was carved into the likeness of a grinning demon, and a band of beaten bronze wound about the dark stone.
“It is a good hammer,” said Vireon, admiring the ancient signs of the Uduru carved into the back of the demon-head. “But too unsubtle for me. I think my brother should have it.”
Vireon passed the hammer to Tadarus, who grinned at him again and took the war hammer, swinging it about him a few times playfully. “A fine weapon,” said Tadarus. “But you won. It should be yours!” He offered it back to Vireon.
“And as mine, it is also mine to give!” Vireon rammed his elbow into Tadarus’ tight stomach. Tadarus grunted, then laughed. He nodded, and the argument was done.
The rain fell now in pleasant sheets, so the brothers washed the earth from their bodies while cold winds blew through the upper leaves. The Giants stood counting their loot, heedless of the rising storm.
“Now,” said Tadarus, banging his fists together with fresh vigor. “Which one of you Uduru will challenge me and my brother? Let’s have a real wrestling match!” The Giants roared their mirth at him, and Vireon went to fetch the felled tree. “None will wrestle you, Prince,” said the Sharp-Tooth. “For there is the off chance that you might win. And no Giant could stand being bested by such a small thing.”
Tadarus laughed. “Then flee, Giants! Or face my wrath!” He lunged at the Uduru, and they scattered among the trees, laughing at his temerity, dropping coins and jewels in their wake. Vireon joined his brother, the slain tree slung over one shoulder. Tadarus took up his hammer.
“Thank you, Brother,” said Tadarus. “For the hammer.”
Vireon grinned. “It was the least I could do after humiliating you in front of the Uduru.”
Tadarus looked at his brother with a semblance of anger on his handsome face.
“Do you imply that you could best me twice?” he asked.
Vireon grinned. “Three times, even.”
Tadarus threw down his hammer, and Vireon his tree trunk. Again they faced each other, crouching ready to spring. The rain pelted them and thunder rolled among the deeps of the forest.
A different thunder, that of a horse’s hooves pounding the wet earth, met Vireon’s ears. He turned his head just as Tadarus slammed into him. They rolled through the mud for a short while until the voice calling them rose above the sound of the storm.
“Prince Tadarus! Prince Vireon! The King commands your presence!” The hooded cloak of the King’s Messenger shone brightly violet during a brief flare of lightning. A black steed, caparisoned in jewels and silk, had carried the rider to them. His name was Tumond, a good man. And he only carried important messages for the King of New Udurum. For Father to summon them in such a manner, the matter must be of great urgency.
Tadarus knew these things as well as Vireon. The brothers rose from their mud-fight, took up hammer and tree, and ran beside the horse as it galloped across the field toward the black towers of the city.
Lightning bolts hurtled madly across the black sky as the brothers ran. Orange watch-fires burned along the city wall in gigantic braziers. The Princes followed the herald onto the wide street called Giant’s Way. All eyes large and small turned to catch a glimpse as they jogged toward the spires of jet and basalt that marked the palace of Vod, living heart of the City of Men and Giants.
The eldest Prince of New Udurum stood near a north-facing window high in a tower of the gargantuan palace. Fangodrel watched the thunderheads rolling in and casting their shadows across the great forest. The rolling landscape was a panoply of colors as far as the eye could see, an ocean of autumn leaves in every shade of the rainbow save one. All the green had bled away from the world, and the myriad hues of autumn stood triumphant. A chill wind stole through the open window and raked his chest with icy fingers.
The wide chamber lay shrouded in the gloom of a small brazier topped with low-burning flames. On the bed behind him the servant girl Yazmilla lay senseless among the silken pillows. Her flesh had not been enough to quench his restless hunger. At least her ceaseless yammering had stopped, now that she was unconscious. Now he might have chance for concentration.
He turned his attention to the parchment on his writing table. The poem was almost finished. A few more lines would bring the piece to a transcendent climax. Forty-two lines were ideal. The first thirty had taken a month of agonizing introspection . . . long walks beneath the cold moon . . . a hundred meditations in the moldy air of the city graveyard. Every line was a piece of his soul, a shard of truth, jagged and dangerous to the touch. The splinters of his essential self. This would be his greatest work, a poem that would shame all the hundreds that came before it. His crowning achievement in the realm of verse. If he could only finish it.
He took up a white-feathered quill and dipped its point into a cup of black ink. The point hovered over his parchment. His mind reeled with blank frustration. He hesitated. A drop of ink fell onto the page, blotting like black blood. His left fist clenched, fingernails digging into his palm, and he bit his lip until it bled. His red eyes watered, and he threw the quill across the room like a dart. He stuffed the unfinished poem into the drawer of the table, slamming it shut.
Inspiration is a fickle whore.
The sleeping girl would wake soon, whimpering and crying, begging for more of the bloodflower. He lifted to his lips the long pipe, carved from white oak into the shape of a many-legged Serpent of legend. Touching a candle’s flame to the round bowl in the back of the Serpent’s skull, he inhaled the sweet crimson vapor. It sang in his veins and sent sparks flying behind his eyes, so that he imagined it was his skull, not the Serpent’s, to which he touched the flame. Leaning his head back, he slumped onto a divan of burgundy velvet. From his reclining position he watched the stormclouds moving toward the window. A few wet drops blew in to kiss his naked skin.
The lights of the city were kindled below as the day turned to night; a million tiny jewels spread in secret patterns far below the tower chamber. He drew another lungful of the bloodflower smoke into his lungs, and watched lightning caper among the thunderheads. He enjoyed the advent of a storm, the casting of light into darkness, the warm air growing cold, the faint stench of fear that rose from the streets as the commoners fled for shelter. He brought the Serpent’s tail to his lips once more. Now thunder rang inside his skull, shaking his very bones with its violence. He fell prone on the divan, trembling, moaning his pleasure to the corners of the dim chamber.
The girl must have heard him. She raised bleary eyes toward him and staggered to his side on the narrow couch. She placed a long-nailed hand upon his white breast. He flicked it away. He would touch her only when he pleased. She was merely a servant, and should know better than to touch him when she chose.
“My Prince,” she mumbled, her pouting lips close to his ear. “Let me taste the smoke with you again.”
He passed her the pipe and the candle. She inhaled, coughing, and lay back on the couch beside him. The candle fell from her fingers and singed the rug. He rushed to grab it, but its flame had scored a black mark into the vermilion fabric. He grabbed her by the neck and slapped her face. She awoke, staring into his black jewel eyes, timid as a cornered hare. Her fear reignited his desire.
“I could have you whipped for that,” he whispered in the breathy tone of a lover, but his threat was a bludgeon of iron. “Or thrown from the roof of this tower.”
“I’m so sorry, My Prince,” she muttered. Silly wench, nothing but a scullery maid he’d pulled from the kitchens a week ago. She made an interesting plaything for a while, but he had grown bored of her. She was barely seventeen years and knew nothing. He was Fangodrel, and had celebrated his manhood at fifteen – ten years ago.
“Perhaps,” he told her, “you can earn my favor once again.”
He took her, this time on the divan, and far more roughly than before. The rain fell in silver sheets beyond the window as the black clouds moved in to separate palace and sky. He wrapped his hands about her throat, the bloodflower singing in his veins. Flames seemed to burst from his eyes as he took his pleasure. His body moved of its own volition, while his mind floated in a miasma of swirling crimson. The bloodflower danced in his vision, telling its tale of endless secrets. He listened . . . at the edge of awareness . . . he burned . . . he almost, almost understood. The flames faded.
When he was finished, cold rain blew in through the window and the storm still raged. The girl lay limp in his hands. He pulled away. Her neck bore a purple ring, and his fingers were numb.
Lightning threw mock daylight into the chamber, and for an instant he saw himself in the oval mirror on his far wall. A pale, emaciated figure bending over the pink and lifeless carcass of a slain animal. He stared into his own eyes for an eternal instant. Then the chamber plunged into darkness again. The coals in the brazier had burned out, moistened by the big raindrops blowing through the window.
He stood and fastened the obsidian panes into place, shutting out the storm. He re-lit the candle with a tinder stick and held it over the body of Yazmilla. So beautiful she was, even in death. More beautiful even, for the absolute stillness of her features, the cool pleasantness of her pallid skin.
A pounding at his chamber door brought him out of the trance, and he turned from the dead girl to face the oak-and-bronze portal.
“What is it?” he bellowed.
“My Prince, your Lord-King Father summons you.” A thin, reedy voice. “Even now he gathers in the Chamber of Audience all those of his household.”
Fangodrel watched the candle flame dance in the dead girl’s eyes, twin rubies captured in orbs of glass.
“My Prince?” came the voice again, through the heavy door.
“Rathwol, is that you?”
“Yes, My Lord. So sorry to trouble you. The summons comes from the King’s Viceroy.”
He stumbled to the door and unfastened the heavy chain. Opening it just enough, he motioned his body servant inside.
Rathwol entered, a slight man with a hawkish nose, his lavender tunic reeking of turnips, sweat, and sour ale. His bald pate was covered by a leather skullcap, and his tunic bore the fine gold trim of a palace servant, though it needed a good washing. He appeared to have crawled out of a gopher’s burrow somewhere. The man was an offense to royal sensibility, but he was very useful.
“Light a brazier,” Fangodrel commanded him, handing over the candle.
Rathwol followed the order, using a fine oil to ignite some coals in a dry bowl of hammered iron. His close-set eyes immediately fell upon the body of Yazmilla, lying on the soiled couch. Another man might have screamed in shock or revulsion, but Rathwol had seen much worse. He had prowled the streets of Uurz for twenty years before finagling his way onto the palace staff in New Udurum. Most likely he had fled his native city to avoid imprisonment. Fangodrel had never asked what crimes he may have committed, and he did not care. He only knew that Rathwol was a loyal subject, and a man who could keep his many secrets.
Fangodrel scrubbed himself with a towel and bowl of lemonwater. Rathwol bent to examine the dead girl’s neck, checking for a pulse.
“Oh, My Prince,” he muttered. “Here was a tasty bit of flesh for the nobbin’ . . . ”
“Get rid of her,” said Fangodrel, pulling on a pair of doe-skin leggings and boots of black leather. “Discreetly.”
Rathwol looked up at his master. “Into the furnace? Same as the others?”
“Need you ask, fool?” Fangodrel pulled on a high-collared tunic of green and silver, fastening it along the sternum with engraved buttons. “There’s a palm-weight sapphire in it for you.”
“My Lord is generous,” said Rathwol, his eyes turning back to the dead girl’s face.
“Get rid of that carpet, too,” said Fangodrel. “She burned it.”
Rain pelted against the window panes, like claws scratching at the inner hood of a coffin. Such thoughts made him wince, but it was only the lingering effect of the bloodflower. It always made him a bit morbid.
Rathwol laid the girl’s body gently on the ruined carpet and rolled it up.
“Get her clothes too,” said Fangodrel, motioning toward the bed.
Fangodrel checked himself in the big mirror. He combed his narrow mustache and groomed his short black beard into a single point in the style of Shar Dni. He wore his dark hair short, and he brushed it back from his forehead, running a handful of lamb grease through it and wiping his fingers clean on the towel. He hung an amulet of opal and emerald about his neck, and placed a thin circlet of platinum set with a single onyx on his forehead. This was the crown of the Eldest Prince, the Heir-Apparent to the throne of New Udurum. A cloak of green and silver completed his raiment.
His pale skin did not matter, he told himself. It did not matter that his lean, V-shaped face in no way resembled the broad, rough-hewn visage of his father, nor that his physical strength was a mere fraction of Tadarus or Vireon. None of these things mattered, for he was the Eldest Prince. Let men continue to call me Fangodrel the Pale, he told himself, for my skin will never be the umber shade of my brother. But none can deny that I am the heir to the Vod, King of Men and Giants.
Rathwol carried his burden to the door. There was no sign of the girl now inside the thick roll of carpet. Fangodrel, grimacing at the faint touch of dirty nails, slipped a jewel into the man’s sweaty hand just before he exited.
The Prince waited a moment after his body servant left, lingering just long enough to drink a gulp of red wine from a crystal goblet. Lightning flared outside the opaque windows, bolts of fire dripping from the Sky God’s fingertips.
Thunder boomed above the soaring towers as he left the chamber and descended a spiral staircase. As he walked he thought one last time of pretty Yazmilla. The girl had been a simpleton but she was not entirely without charms. Tonight he must find a replacement for her.
But first an audience with his noble father.
What could the old fool possibly want of him?