That was it. No amount of pigment slathered on would more accurately capture the image in his mind. He doubted the canvas could bear much more weight, though he had been assured the frame was sturdy enough to bear all of his inadequacies.
That was how Rifthone put it, at any length. He slapped the broad feathertail brush down onto the table beside the palette of warm ambers, seafoams and stark, muddy greys. It was not right, not by any measure. The young, skinny yellow skinned Alruna chittered in frustration, then set about cleaning his implements.
“It is unfair punish my tools for my poor show,” he murmured as cool water flowed over his thin fingered hands. His temper receded like a foaming shore, and his mind began to clear. He did not hear the stealthy leather heeled footsteps behind him. An orange-yellow arm snaked around his waist, grasped a painting knife and yanked it away before it could be detected.
“Would I improve it if I dashed some of this, here?”
He spun on one foot with a brush angled like a bladed weapon at the intruder. As he took stock of the fellow and his arm dropped. He trilled softly and said, “Alt, you should be — ”
“Listening to Reefscott prattle about the deepest depths of the canyons of Cray,” he interrupted. His narrow shoulders slumped in his silk finery. “You’ve no notion of the boredom that possesses my thoughts. I am constantly reminded that my future is not my own.”
“And you are jealous of me.”
“Aye, Diver, I am,” replied the older of the two young males, looking him emphatically in the eye.
Diver trilled and said, “There are many who would succeed you, should you abdicate, Prince Alturian.”
He heard him, but was not fully focused on his words, fixated on a mirror in which he could not help preening. He spun with extra energy to conceal any appearance of neglect and spouted, “I could never disappoint Father. It is what he desires most in all of the blessed seas.”
“Aye, aye. As you say,” Diver said, as he had before, and expected to again. Alturian’s emphatic mannerisms wearied him.
As Diver began to undo his much stained smock, Prince Alturian ceased his hand and tugged. Diver gasped as he was unbalanced, trying to hang up the slip of protective fabric. He said, “What is it?”
A twinkle glinted in his eyes and he said, “Come my dearest friend. Let us go.”
Diver rolled his eyes. “Go? Again? We’ll be caught.”
“No we shall not be caught. Siltflare is home. His daughter is ill.”
Diver’s exasperation evaporated and his annoyance fled. He said, “Is she really?”
“Oh, I could not tell, and nor do I worry,” he said with a flicker of annoyance. “The shivers are going around, but we’ve not caught them, and if we stay above them, we won’t!” He pulled Diver’s arm and when Diver would not budge, Alt was aghast, then gloomy. He pouted. “You don’t want to.”
“What choice have I?” Diver sighed, then said, “it’s not safe, but… I’ll not let you risk your limbs alone.”
What he meant was, he didn’t want to be left out of the excitement. It was a noble gesture that was in fact self serving. Diver called it tricky, but his father, Lord Bravemire, called it diplomacy. Alt hopped on the spot and made gleeful noises. He then made for the upper floor like his life depended upon it, all with Diver in tow.
Servants and guests either chuckled or took no notice of the freewheeling pair. There was absolutely nothing unusual about them. Alturian and Diver had been pond brothers since their spawning, and their fondness for each other was welcomed and encouraged. Lord Bravemire assigned very little stock to the function of caste, but was swift to assign roles where natural aptitude was discovered. Nonetheless, Diver was not exclusively of royal blood, and not in Bravemire’s direct lineage.
Of course this did not perturb the young hireling. They stopped, at last, at the top of Entmoor, where a wall protected the centermost of three towers. It was eye wateringly tall. Its gleaming den-quartz white stones and maroon slate roofs were marvelous to behold, and perilous to climb. This, naturally, drew the young males of Entmoor Castle to the call like the ringing echo of a dinner bell.
Posted guards did not prevail against their ingenuity, either, for they were rambunctious and eager for the prize. They stood at the base of the watchtower and sought for any eyes that might unveil their purpose prematurely. Alt’s delight was buried under deliberate calm, but not very deeply.
He cast eyes from one end of the wall to the other as Diver automatically checked the other one hundred and eighty degrees. They waited for a moment, then searched again. If any fellow was going to appear, it would have been right then. But none did. Alt winked at Diver and he shed his homespun, expensive fine-threaded magenta jacket.
“Ready up, Slowsmoke.”
“It’s ‘Seasmoke’, or do you prefer Prince Sulkmire?” Diver countered. With an erstwhile grin, he cast off his sturdy caramel-brown leather jacket and began to study the wall for foot and hand holds. Both had an advantage as tree climbers, but even so the stone was not comfortable to scale. Diver, as a trainee guard, was both limber and agile, which made him a near even match for Alt’s more relaxed attitude about physical discipline.
They stood against the wall, just out of arms reach of each other, hands fanned and three toed feet bare. Alt laid out the terms of the challenge — as if they ever changed: “We climb to the top, else we drop! To the victor, the glory! Ready?”
I’ll not let him beat me, Diver thought, heart already thudding with excitement. “Aye, lest you decide you’ve better to do.”
“Oh Diver, you’ll rue the day you cast aspersions upon the blood of a Bravemire! Now climb!”
Diver paced himself by moving no more quickly than his opponent. Was the shadow of muscle on Alturian’s arms more than imagination? Diver’s breath came more quickly as his body began to heat up in the sun, and his muscles relaxed. The steady pad-thap pad-thap of their hands and feet seemed to thin as whistling air enclosed them.
As they approached the halfway mark, Diver expected Alt to slow or try to catch his arm or leg in some foolhardy recklessness. Not this time. He heard the same rhythm of movement that he utilized. Just enough effort and no more. Even the extra grip of the slightest outcropping would hasten his upward movement.
The sun blasted them with light over the treetops, and Diver could see the shimmer of the falls cascading down into Trickledown lake, upon which Entmoor was situated. Now the sun posed a risk: Over exposure and exhaustion. With no way to express body heat apart from the breeze that picked up at this height, they both slowed down out of necessity.
“Move to the shadow, Diver!” Alt teased, and Diver did not answer. The orange skinned Alruna took a hint from this and reserved his strength. At two thirds the height of the tower, climbing on the shaded side posed a greater danger than exhaustion: Losing one’s strength in the cool and taking a fall.
Diver breathed evenly, thinking of nothing other than the effort it took to move his limbs and how much heat his body retained when he did. They had not yet reached the tower windows, and they were both reduced to a crawl. It was just after midday, when most of the court of Entmoor were coping with the head by taking naps and staying in temperate rooms.
But this would not be the case for much longer. Diver was summarily impressed with Alt’s progress. While he had the advantage of royal blood, the competition was pushing him to work for a change. Should he try too much harder, Diver would be disgraced, but he did not worry about that just then.
How he does love to complain, Diver mused. There, there is the window. I can touch it. Oh, hot stone makes this rigour no less painful!
Healing from the burns this climb inflicted was typically time enough for suspicions to be allayed for a while, but Alturian’s patience was erratic. Diver could never reason why. He had begun to work his way around the window. A costly but necessary maneuver.
In his peripheral vision Diver could see that Alt was having some difficulty maintaining his speed, but judged that he was in no danger. Still, he paused to gauge his movements: At second glance he noticed that his limbs shook and his eyes seemed unfocused. Diver held his position and trilled a warning note that Alt recognized.
When Alt replied the note was reedy and thin, and at the very moment his hands lifted he slapped them back down again. Diver swallowed nervously. He turned around and clung to the wall with his back to it, eyes on every nearby surface. That in itself was a move he had thought about but never tried.
We are too high now to leap down safely, and Alt could snap his neck if he falls, Diver thought. Lord Bravemire would kill me. What can I do?
Alt blinked slowly and started to move up, but his hand would not find purchase. As he slipped, Diver ceased to think. He pushed off the wall and cannonballed into Alt’s midsection. He wrapped his arms around his waist and used the momentum to spin as they angled toward the outer wall.
“Legs up!” he cried, and Alt complied as best he could. Diver bundled his legs up then let his feet and bum touch the wall. He called out, “kick!”
Alt and he sprang from the wall and back toward the tower. They were headed for the shaded portion, and the frozen gasps of a small group of trainee guards. They were going to land on them… that’s it! Land on them!
“Aykin! Mewlet! Catch us!”
The two he identified were sharp minded and physically robust, so they literally rounded up the dozen trainees and formed a circle, hands interlinked to form a makeshift springboard. Diver inhaled as they careened toward the circle, and shut his eyes. They weren’t going to make it!
“They’s over, they’s over… Hurry lads!”
At the last moment everything seemed to fall away, and Diver felt the cool touch of stone on his back. He opened his eyes, and nothing seemed to make sense. Where were the trainees? How were they alive? He sat up, and smiled. An arrangement of splayed out Alruna lay about them, each grinning like satisfied idiots. Alturian was dazed, but smiling as bright as the sun shone above. Akyin slapped Alturian’s back in a firm show of approval.
“Got some blood in ‘im he does!” he chirped. “Right lads?”
The cacophony of their cheers filled Diver and Alt with ridiculous pride that was cut all too short when they heard the snap of the Queen’s high pitch. The trainees began to disperse, but she called them to attention sharply as she pounded out into the open from a nearby doorway.
Alt grinned at Diver as if to say, she’ll skin us, but it was worth it.