|Shadow and Light
Author: Nightsfury PM
"Sooner or later, death comes for everyone, my friend." Zevran Arainai. Who should know that better than an assassin? But not all such arrivals are unwelcome.Rated: Fiction T - English - Zevran A. - Words: 4,267 - Reviews: 5 - Favs: 10 - Follows: 1 - Published: 12-27-10 - Status: Complete - id: 6595565
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I suppose because I've been working on Zevran's backstory (As the Crow Flies) is why this tale came about. It's set years laters then 'Crow'. Zevran is a full assassin, but the events here happen well before the incident with Rinna.
I lean toward the Spanish side of the Spain/Italy divide for Antiva. The first time I heard Zevran's voice, I thought Antonio Banderas had somehow been talked into doing the voice acting. (One can dream, *sighs*). That said, a day set aside to honor and remember the dead is found in a lot cultures. So, it seemed fitting to have the 'Day of the Dead' as a back-drop for this tale.
How appropriate, Zevran thought with an ironic smile when he noted the completion date on the contract. Dia de los Muertos. Someone has an ironic sense of humor. Or a perverted one. He shrugged and tucked his copy inside a black scroll case before locking it away in the small iron chest beside his bed. Either way, it didn't matter. The day after tomorrow, the mark, one Dimas Recesvinto, would be dead – "food for worms, fish-bait, a feast for crows, and all such poetic nonsense" the contract had said, the wording added at the behest of the one who had taken it out on the mark. Zevran chuckled at that last, somewhere between a ghastly pun and an unyielding truth for the assassin.
He stretched and leaned back in his comfortably padded chair, a glass of fine Antivan brandy, still untouched, on his desk. The amber liquid glowed in the late afternoon sun that slanted through his bedroom window. Even the shadow cast by the glass seemed edged in gilt. Honey fingers slipped under the bowl as he cradled it in his hand, and let his body warm the liquor.
It tasted like mid-day sun and cool shadows, with a hint of cloves and anise. He let it roll around his mouth before sliding down his throat, trailing heat and spice, as he considered this contract. Unusual, in more than one respect, it had requested him by name. Really, was he getting that famous? A pleasant notion, if a slightly unsettling one, to have one's name bandied about. Still, pour enough gold into any request and someone would see it done. Even the Crows would bend their own rules about bidding a contract if enough sovereigns were offered.
Zevran settled back and watched as day slipped into night. Gold yielded to deep pink along the western horizon. When stray wisps of clouds turned the color of blood-red wine, he lit a lamp, and then placed it on the table beside his bed before returning to his chair. Shadow and light mingled on the horizon as the day died away till only a wash of deep sapphire-gray blurred the line where sea and sky met.
When he finished the brandy he turned and saw the shadows folded around his bed, hiding the timbered ceiling. He thought about slipping outside and down the street to a corner tavern where a tryst with one of the bar maids shared the same price with some of its better wines. Ah, time enough to celebrate tomorrow night after the hit.
He pulled off his clothes and slid under the light quilt of red and gold, the bright colors bleeding away as he turned down the lamp wick. He watched, his head pillowed under his arm, as the flame pulled down to a tight narrow band of dark blue light that gathered itself up from the edges of the wick before disappearing in a thin wisp of shadow-gray smoke.
Late in the afternoon, when the sun shone down like poured honey, Zevran drifted along the edges of Antiva City's central square and nibbled on a sweet-bread skull while he watched celebrants drift from stall to stall, buying skeletons of spun sugar to give to their children, or leave on the grave sites where the ashes of the 'dear departed' were interred. He wondered if any of those he'd helped leave this world would be enjoying the sweet confections, or the bottles of wine, or atole, the chantry sisters were blessing by the large oval fountain in the center of the square. Probably not, since most of his marks had 'had it coming' for one reason or another, slavers, smugglers, corrupt politicians who would sell their own kin if it was to their advantage. In fact, his last mark had done just that, selling his sister to pay off a gambling debt. Never thinking that her lover would be the one to buy her, and then take out a contract with the Crows for revenge. Rather then leaving offerings of wine and sweets, the sister and her lover would be dancing on his grave, most like.
He popped the last bit of pastry into his mouth as he sauntered over to a stall selling candy skulls glazed in every color of the rainbow, the eyes delicately outlined in contrasting colors, and bright flowers painted on the cheeks or forehead. He bought the dozen that the contract had specified, then one more when he spotted a little girl, about seven, sitting on the edge of the fountain, swinging her legs and looking bored. Dressed in a miniature version of a novice's robes, an orphan or an extra mouth no one had wanted, and taken in by the sisters to raise. There were worse fates, even if she'd have no choice about her life.
Fortune, as Zevran was fond of boasting, favored him, sending a gaggle of people to the nearby sisters seeking the Maker's blessings on their offerings. Distracted by the requests and the clink of coins dropped into the offering bowl, the clerics never noticed as he slipped past them and crouched down near the girl. She eyed the treat in his hand, and then glanced at the sisters.
"Ah, a secret just between us, little one, yes? Something sweet to savor after prayers tonight," he whispered as he held it out to her.
"Thank you, ser," she mouthed as her fingers closed around it. It disappeared in the pocket of her robes, and she smiled, the brilliance of it unmarred by the gap where a milk tooth had fallen out. Zevran smiled and inclined his head, then glided away before he could be spotted and chastised for 'spoiling' her, and the treat confiscated.
When he arrived at the opposite side of the broad square, he slipped into a narrow side alley. Half-way down it, he took to the rooftops; the candy skulls safely tucked in his cloak pocket. Settling into the broad shadow cast by a nearby building, he pulled up his cloak hood and settled to waiting. The contract had been quite specific about arriving two hours before sunset. And the mark's house in the well-to-do section of the artist's quarter was only a few blocks away.
Zevran's hand curled around his dagger as he thought about the unusual nature of this contract, with so many specifics, down to the color of his clothes. A suspicion started forming in the back of his mind. Most of those who paid to have someone killed were usually not concerned with such details. How soon it could be done was usually the only thing uppermost in their minds. He could have dressed like a chantry sister and danced a tarantella afterwards, for all they cared. Well, speculating on the reasons gave him something with which to pass the few hours till he needed to leave.
A small square table covered with a bright green linen cloth held a carafe of deep red wine, an unopened bottle (probably the same vintage as the carafe), two glasses of fine lead crystal, napkins that matched the table cloth, and a small oval plate of bright yellow porcelain. Exactly what the contract detailed, Zevran thought as he landed without a sound on the balcony.
"I'm pleased by your promptness," a man's voice made of smoke and satin said behind him. "Though, I would have expected no less from a man with your sense of… professionalism."
Zevran pivoted, his dagger already in his hand. A human dressed in plain black trousers, flecked with multi-colored bits of paint tucked into scuffed black boots, stood before him. The sleeves of his plain linen shirt –also paint-flecked- were rolled up to his elbows.
"Oh, you're acquainted with my work?"
"I admire expertise…in any form."
"Master Dimas Recesvinto, I assume," Zevran said as he slipped his dagger back into its sheath.
The man chuckled. "Ah, I see you've discerned my little secret. I was hoping we might spin this out a bit longer. No matter." He motioned to the table. "Please, make yourself comfortable. You are still, after all, my guest. And we have till sunrise tomorrow to conclude our business. Time enough to enjoy a glass of wine and some conversation, wouldn't you say?"
Zevran flashed a radiant smile. "I could say many things. Is there something in particular you wish to hear?"
"Whatever crosses your mind. Tell me the darkest secrets in your heart, if you wish." He motioned again to the table. "Please."
The assassin nodded and slid into a chair, then pulled out the small sack of almond paste skulls and placed them next to the yellow plate. Zevran studied the man as he reached for the sack. A human of late middle years, with just a hint of thickening around his waist, but still lithe and strong looking. Short dark hair threaded with silver, as was the short neat beard he cultivated. Not a handsome face, but definitely a compelling one. It invited a closer look, to see what lay behind the fine lines gathering at the corners of his light brown eyes. Why would such a man be looking to end his life in the prime of his years?
Dimas gazed down at the blue glazed skull in his hand. Zevran detected the faintest tremor in the fine boned fingers as the human studied the bright yellow daisies painted on the cheeks. "Ah, you stopped by Senora Avariz's stall, I see. Such exquisite work." He set it back on the plate and the rest quickly followed. The tremor in his fingers increased as he reached for the wine carafe. Dimas grimaced and rested his hand on the table.
He watched the tremors rippling through his fingers. "An illness that plagues my mother's bloodline. Some say it was a punishment from the Maker for a heinous sin committed by some long ago ancestor." He glanced up. "Healers call it Nevarra's Syndrome. It's a long dying."
The tremors stopped and Dimas held up his hand, studying his fingers. "It shows first in the hands, small tremors that come and go." He glanced at the assassin. "They've become more frequent in the last year. Many days, I can't even hold a pen or a brush. Little by little, the body wastes away. I have no wish to spend the last year of my life lying in my own filth and fighting for every breath. Long before then, I'll lose the ability to paint." He shook his head. "The chantry won't help me die. And I don't have any knowledge of poisons. So…"
"You took out a contract on yourself," Zevran finished for him.
Dimas shrugged. "Why not?"
Well, this was certainly a first, Zevran thought as Dimas poured wine for both of them. As the evening was warm, he loosened his cloak and let it fall over the back of his chair.
"I was right about that deep green. It suits you quite well," Dimas said, handing him one of the fine crystal glasses.
Zevran chuckled. "Ah, were you planning on painting my portrait?"
"Much as I would like that, we don't have time to do it properly." Dimas' hand curled around the stem, and he studied the wine in his glass. "A sketch, if you will permit me. Keep it, if it pleases you." He waved a hand. "Or burn it, if that seems wiser."
Zevran considered while he sampled the excellent wine. He shrugged. "Why not?"
Dimas smiled and rose, then hurried into the cluttered room beyond the balcony doors. He retrieved a sketchbook and a small silver box from a round table, then returned to his chair.
"Shall I strike a pose?" Zevran said, holding up the wine glass in his right hand and gesturing dramatically with his left.
Dimas laughed and shook his head, his light brown eyes dancing. For a moment, caught by the liquid joy of it, the assassin thought it a pity that this man would be dead before sunrise.
While the human sketched, his hands steady for the moment, Zevran enjoyed the wine and nibbled on an almond skull. Dimas paused from time to time, exchanging whatever colored pencil he'd been using for another, laying the old one in the lid of the silver box. If a pencil was too short to hold comfortably, he inserted it into a small silver holder.
"You know, in some ways, we're not so different," Dimas remarked, pausing to take a sip of wine. When he put his glass down, he rested his right hand on the table near it.
"Oh?" Though he had always considered dealing death an art form, Zevran had the feeling the painter meant something else.
The human's gaze shifted past Zevran to the harbor. "Shadow and light," he said softly, then looked back at the assassin. "Both our lives are defined by shadow and light. Are you familiar with the concept of negative space?"
Zevran shook his head. "My education in art, alas, has been sadly neglected."
"It's the space around what you're drawing." Dimas held up his left hand. "Sometimes, it's easier to paint the spaces between the fingers, around the wrist, and so on, then the hand itself. The artist focuses on the interplay of light and shadow around the object."
"Hmm, so you use shadow and light to discover the shape of something, yes?" Dimas smiled, his eyes dancing. Zevran chuckled. "Ah, I understand. But it would seem this is, rather, a difference between us. I use the shadows to hide from the light, to avoid being discovered."
Dimas shook his head. "It still defines what you are."
The assassin shrugged. He glanced down at the human's right hand, still resting near his wine glass, before his own closed gently around it.
"Perhaps we could explore the shape of this space that lies between us, yes?" Ones last hours should be pleasant, after all.
Dimas gazed down, then shook his head, gently disentangling his fingers from Zevran's. "Even if I was inclined that way, this vile sickness has already robbed me of that pleasure."
"Ah, a pity. I suspect I could have changed your mind about such things."
The human shook his head. "No, I don't think you could have. I've only shared my bed with two - both women. The first…well, let's just say I was very young and very stupid in my arrogance. I let her slip away. The second…" He gazed down at the sketchbook. "I lost her, too. She died…many years ago. Whatever passion I had left, I poured into my work. Art is a jealous lover. Let her into your life, and there's little room for one of flesh and blood."
He resumed sketching, and Zevran settled back in his chair, savoring the excellent vintage his host had poured. It seemed he finished his sketch just as the sun started to sink into the horizon. Or perhaps he'd stopped because the faint tremors had returned to his hands. Whichever reason, Dimas laid aside his sketchbook and pencils, said something about getting a lamp or two, then rose and slipped back into his workroom. While Dimas rummaged around, Zevran emptied a small vial of poison into the human's wine glass. Something 'quiet and as painless as possible' the contract had specified.
Dimas returned with two lamps, both lit, and set them on the table. With a taper, he transferred the flame to a large one suspended from the trellis that shaded the balcony. His laid his closed sketchbook next to the plate of candy skulls, the silver pencil holder on top of it.
Zevran motioned to the book. "May I?"
Dimas shook his head. "I would prefer…afterwards."
"As you wish."
The human plucked up the blue-glazed skull he'd admired earlier. It trembled in his hand. He grimaced, but didn't set it down. "We're a strange people, we Antivans. Painting death with pretty colors. Trying to make the bitter…sweet."
"Sooner or later, death comes for everyone, my friend. So, why not 'paint it with pretty colors?' Ones last hours should be sweet. Enjoy what time is left to you. Even if you lived a hundred years beyond this night, it would still be gone by sunrise, never to return."
Dimas' thumb brushed across the skull. "That seems a strange sentiment for an assassin."
Zevran laughed and re-filled his glass. He motioned with the carafe to Dimas, who nodded.
"Perhaps, but I've always believed we should enjoy whatever time we have. Pleasures are fleeting. Enjoy them when they come, even if they arrive at the end."
Dimas took a long pull on his glass. "Ah, a philosopher, as well as an assassin?"
Zevran waved his hand. "Hardly. I speak from…shall we say, practical experience?"
The human leaned forward, one forearm resting on the table. "And may I ask just how much time is left to me?"
"In an hour or so, you'll start to feel the effects. A warm drowsiness, quite pleasant, really."
Dimas stared at his glass. "You poisoned the wine?"
"Yes, a bit…hmmm, prosaic, I'll admit. But the mix is most effective when taken in wine. And you were expecting something like that, yes? It seemed to take you some time to find those lamps."
"I know…it's just…" He shook his head, then made a small, soft sound almost like a sigh as he leaned back in his chair. "One thing to imagine it, another to know it for a fact." He glanced at the lamp. "Will…will it take long, once it starts?"
"Not very. You'll fall asleep first. Then the heart gradually slows till it stops beating."
Dimas nodded, then took a tiny bite of the skull in his hand. He closed his eyes as he savored the sweet almond paste, not opening them until he finished the treat.
"Do you know how to play Wicked Grace?" Dimas asked, unexpectedly.
Zevran smiled. "Of course. Though I might have to charge you extra, since it wasn't specified in the contract."
"You can take it from your winnings. I play badly," Dimas said and pulled a deck from his pocket. By now the sun was almost down. Zevran cleared a space in the center of the table, where the soft lamplight filled up the space between them. Shadows drifted around the edges of the two men, getting deeper as night rose around them.
The human was right. He did play badly, and Zevran ended up with a tall stack of sovereigns by the time the poison mix started to take effect. Dimas leaned back, his eyes closing and the cards sliding from his fingers. He jerked awake, and a trace of fear showed in his eyes.
Zevran rose and picked up a lamp, before he slipped a hand under the human's arm. "Come, time to rest, I think." Dimas stumbled to his feet, leaning on the assassin. Zevran guided him to the makeshift bed set up in his workroom. "You know, I heard a story when I was a child that, sometimes, Andraste herself comes to escort the soul to the Maker."
Dimas shook his head. "Don't care about…some dead prophet." He dropped onto the bed with a soft grunt. "But if Anna is there…that will be…enough."
Zevran stayed till he could no longer feel a pulse. He was a professional, after all. He studied the man's face, then pulled up a light linen sheet to his chest. Whoever found Dimas in the morning would assume he had died in his sleep.
He slipped back to the table and gathered his winnings into his purse. He hadn't even had to cheat. After a moment's consideration, the silver pencil holder followed, to be melted down into a flat disc and added to the others on his belt.
He gazed at the sketch book a long time before opening it. He flipped through it, pausing only once at a picture of a woman with dark, auburn hair and green eyes, like spring leaves. Pretty eyes, that sparkled and danced. Anna, it said in the bottom right corner next to a date. Today's, Zevran realized with a small start.
He fingered the page, then blew out a breath and turned it to find his own face gazing back at him. A half-smile tugged at the corners of the mouth, though something distant and guarded peered out of the eyes. Dimas had drawn him leaning back in the chair, holding a wine glass in his right hand. The spaces behind him were blurred, soft shapes and dark colors suggesting the buildings that lay between the human's house and the harbor. Nothing defined or clearly lit, but all in…shadow. While his portrait glowed in shades of amber, gold, and honey, the hue of his shirt the deep green of early summer, before the withering sun turned everything brown.
Zevran tilted his head, his eyes narrowing as he studied his portrait. Strange, to see oneself through another's eyes like this. He decided the human had been right though, the shadows did define him. And would he have it any other way?
Zevran smiled and pulled out his dagger, carefully running it down the far left edge of the paper to remove it from the sketchbook. He slipped back into the workroom and retrieved a small scroll case off the cluttered table, then slipped the rolled-up portrait inside it. He certainly didn't plan on displaying it, but it was a thing worth keeping. Only one detail remained. After the candy skulls were safely tucked away inside their bag in his cloak pocket, he rolled up the glasses in a linen napkin, using the second one to wrap the plate. He then bundled everything, except for the carafe, inside the tablecloth. The last thing he did was extinguish the lamps.
When his eyes had adjusted to the light of a full moon he took to the roofs, skimming across them till he came to a tiny cemetery tucked into the northern part of the city. At the crest of a small hill, the only guard was a chapel, closed and locked for the night. Between the small stone markers, moonlight glinted off a stray bottle here and there, but no one had lingered when the veil between this world and the Fade was at its thinnest.
He found the lemon tree, then the marker carved like a scallop shell beneath it. A name and dates had been chiseled on the left side, while the right was blank. Under the interlace of moon-cast shadows, he couldn't read the markings on the stone. But it was the only marker of its kind.
It took him only a few moments to lay out the wine and the plate of almond skulls. The scroll case with his portrait he tucked into his cloak pocket.
Zevran wondered, as he straightened the edge of the tablecloth, if the spirits really could savor the wine and treats laid out for them. He stood up and glanced around, then shrugged. No matter, his work was done.
He wasn't a man who made a habit of looking back, but Zevran paused this time when he turned to head for the gate. Perhaps it was the wind rising off the sea, sounding almost like a whisper of someone's name as it sifted through the branches of the lemon tree. Half-turning, he glanced behind him. A trick of moonlight, surely, coupled with old stories from his childhood, that made him think he saw shapes in the shadows between the patches of moonlight scattered over the gravesite. Shadows shaped like two lovers, their heads close, as if they were kissing. He blinked, and saw only scattered splotches of moonlight shifting restlessly with the night wind.
His hand curled around the hilt of his dagger. Hmmm, perhaps Anna had come for her painter? Zevran smiled. A pretty notion he couldn't verify this side of the Fade. Not that he was in any hurry to, at the moment.
Pulling up the hood of his cloak, he glided away, heading back to the city and a certain tavern where a pretty bar maid shared the same price with a bottle of good wine. The dead had been given their due, and while he didn't begrudge it, he preferred to embrace the pleasures of this world while he still could.