Excerpt: Alexey Dyed in Red

The Palace Dyed in Red towered over the cold city of Kalinstad. It sprawled over the mountainside, carved out of its wintry rock, and lit up prettily at night with its famous colored lanterns. Snow fell in all seasons but one, Little Summer, but the rest of the year was blanketed in layers of quiet white. The residents worshipped only the Queen of Cold and her son Quiet Death, unlike the rest of the Empire of Zhakieve, which bowed to others such as Raize the Burning One or Mother Glacier. They minded the Blue Emperor’s words and laws, respected him well enough and not grudgingly, but kept to themselves in all other matters.

Alexey loved Kalinstad. His heart swept away whenever he beheld the wondrous sight of heavy woolen skirts twirling in the light of a thousand different lanterns, glowing a thousand different colors, as soft snow fell on the choir’s voices resonating from the pavilion. He had not left since he had arrived, not once in a hundred years, and felt for the first time in his life that he knew peace.

He passed every day without a trace of longing for his all but forgotten homeland, his faded memories filled with damp green places that speckled with rippling starlight and the flashing eyes of predators. The nights in those wet, dark places had been long and colder than the winds of Lonely Winter. He had fled his homeland, but what had chased him from it was a mystery, a memory long lost.

He could only see the gold light of hunters with wicked bows and the snapping red teeth of wolves. Their whines and howls pursued him over the ocean waters and chased him even into dreams. But that was all. The rest had been lost to time, to some trauma he could not bring himself to remember. Alexey was more than happy to serve silently in the Palace Dyed in Red and forget all else. And Kalinstad, though at first wary of the ragged warlock who had stumbled onto their ornate streets, bleeding and starved, had welcomed him wholeheartedly.

Sometimes, when he sat outside alone under a flickering lamp and ate a sticky sweet from his favorite bakery, Alexey felt he might have indeed obtained happiness.

Yet the thought did not sit well with him. Happiness was too much to ask for, whether it be for a lifetime or only a brief moment. He knew deep inside himself that happiness would never be his, no matter how much he desired it. He would not be greedy, only grateful. To this promise he stuck fast. He contented himself doing odd jobs for the masters of the Palace Dyed in Red, in return for a room tucked into the corner of one of its many towers, and steady meals. They had even given him clothes, all black with fur trim that belonged to the elusive, grinning dark foxes rumored to have died with legend. He ruffled the fur of his cloak now, admiring its loveliness despite its age and tarnished luster.

His hand dropped away from the trim and curled around the book he carried in his other arm. A story about a peasant doomed to serve as a false king, it was one of his favorites to borrow from the Fragrant Library. The library, buried deep in the Palace, had earned its name from the wood used to make the bookshelves. They emitted a strange barrage of smells, all pleasing to the senses, and all foreign in origin. The tale of how they were made and what they were made from was forgotten, much like Alexey’s memories. He made his way into the Fragrant Library, the delicate odors wafting into his nose, to return the book and snatch away a new one.

Pausing before the double doors opened for receiving patrons, he opened the book and skimmed through his favorite parts one last time. He smiled at the crinkled page, ran his gloved fingers over the paper, and closed the book with a snap. The peasant’s pleas with the crooked god to spare his family lingered in his head as he strode up to a grand desk carved out of gleaming wood, piled with papers and books and inkwells.

“Fiori, I return this to you,” he handing the book over to a man with light brown hair. His solemn green eyes were flat and almond-shaped. His coloring was similar to Alexey’s, whose peach skin tended to stand out among the snow-kissed people of Kalinstad. “I fear I may keep it overlong if I don’t hand it over now.”

The man, Master Librarian Fiori Notalban, twitched his lips. It was as close to a smile he was going to get. “Thank you, Darkrow.”

Alexey’s eyebrows furrowed at the title, but he quickly smoothed his expression. The people of Kalinstad had given him the strange title along with the black clothes. He wasn’t sure what it meant, nor had anyone been clear on its significance. The most he understood was that a Darkrow was a guardian of sorts, one who wielded enormous power.

“You don’t mind if I putter about, do you?” Alexey’s fingers tingled with anticipation. Past the foyer was an atrium with four stories of towering bookshelves and coiling staircases, a breathtaking sight.

“No, it’s early enough for you to wander like a vagrant. But need I remind you that the Vivid Archive is off-limits, Alexey?” Fiori replied. He steepled his fingers and gave a stern look over his glasses. His sharp green eyes flashed expectantly in the morning light. He was teasing.

Alexey blushed. “Never fear. I remember well the tongue-lashing you gave me after I was caught, Fiori.”

“I daresay you were only sorry to be caught, Alexey. I personally would love to know how in the world you got in without the key.” Alexey smiled sheepishly and Fiori rolled his eyes. “I can smell the muffin you have hidden in your pocket, scamp. No food.” He held out his hand. Alexey grumbled and took out the muffin wrapped in linen, slapping it into Fiori’s palm. Fiori smirked at him and took a large bite. Alexey choked. “Delicious. Thank you for breakfast, Alexey, I didn’t have time to eat this morning.”

“That’s my food,” Alexey said hotly. He reached for it and Fiori stuffed the rest in his mouth quickly. Gasping indignantly, Alexey kicked the desk, making sure he scuffed it, as Fiori smirked through a mouthful of muffin. Bits fell out of his mouth as he swallowed it, coughing a little. Deflating, Alexey muttered, “Spiteful.”

“And you’re not? How many boot marks are on this desk, I wonder,” Fiori quipped. Alexey made a rude face. “Take yourself off—the book on stars you wanted was returned yesterday. It awaits you in that battered old chair you insist upon using.” Fiori waved a hand at him and Alexey stuck out his tongue before leaving.

He swept up the staircase to third floor, feet taking him to his favorite spot, and spent the morning tucked into a rickety red armchair by a small window. The glass was frosted over but well made. Little draft seeped through, despite the heavy snows and fierce wind that shrieked the end to Little Winter. He barely noticed as the time inched past, immersed in his text on the old star gods, until raised voices forced his attention away. He marked his place and then retraced his steps, the little blue book tucked securely under his arm. He emerged on the second floor, peeking over the railing to see Fiori arguing with Linish, the First Chamberlain. Alexey quickly backed into the shadows and observed the two as they bickered.

“You do not lie?” Fiori asked. He was half out of his chair, his hands fisted on the smooth wood of his desk. Several stacks of books had tipped over and scattered across the floor. Alexey frowned. Fiori treated books like gold and diamonds. Something was amiss. “Two Darkrow have arrived in Kalinstad?”

“The news was just delivered at the front doors of the Palace. The second they were spotted a message was sent to warn us. But they’re not common Darkrow, even though Darkrow are rare enough as it is,” Linish replied. His face was pinched, his fiery hair standing up in all directions. “They’re the rumored demons summoned by the late Darkrow Clyish Gorchev. As we speak, they are riding toward the Palace Dyed in Red, their steeds nothing more than shadow and ash.”

Fiori stood fully. “We’ve been caught by surprise.”

“Those two are notorious for being strict on all matters. They say never has a person existed to soften their edges.” Linish scowled, grey eyes flashing. “I must find a way to appease them—which is why I’ve come to seek your help, Master Notalban. I plan to bring them here for a tour. May I count on your assistance?”

Fiori nodded. “I shall tidy up and prepare for their arrival.”

“Good. The Chamberlain Apprentice can direct the servants to arrange chambers for them.” Linish shook his head. “Who in the six deaths would brave the weather so close to Lonely Winter? Ah, but they are Darkrow, and demons to boot. They are second only to the Blue Emperor himself, his loathsome pets.”

Fiori frowned. “You call a Darkrow loathsome?”

Linish frowned. “It is an honor, Master Librarian, to be called Darkrow. It’s their demon blood that presents a problem. They should have never been made Darkrow.” A servant rushed into the entrance of the Fragrant Library. Linish glanced at him before straightening his jacket. “I must leave and attend to them now. Hopefully—” He shook his head, then gave a sharp nod to Fiori and strode from the foyer of the library, boots clicking on the dyed marble tile.

Alexey scooted further into the shadows to think as Fiori hurriedly organized his desk and sorted the books away. Two Darkrow had entered Kalinstad for—he paused. He did not know. Linish had not said; likely he did not know either, not if they had come so suddenly.

The Kalinen, the massive area surrounding Kalinstad, was nothing more than a barren wasteland of snow and mountain rock. Kalinstad itself was carved straight from the enormous Kalinard mountain range. They must have traveled hard and fast, for Little Winter was ending and Lonely Winter was hot on its heels. This also meant they would be staying in Kalinstad until the end of Lonely Winter, because to travel even a mile beyond the city during the blizzards the Queen of Cold sent them would mean death. Even for Darkrow, such a thing would be impossibly arrogant. Alexey tapped his lip. However, they were not only Darkrow, but demons. He did not know what such a combination could achieve.

Fiori shut the doors to the Fragrant Library. Alexey wasn’t surprised by this. The doors were embellished with twisting friezes depicting scenes from local folklore, carved out of strange, smooth wood that smelled like chrysanthemums. Hopefully the Darkrow would be suitably awed when Linish brought them, though if they came from the Blue Emperor himself that meant they were from the capital Zhakieva, said to be the only place more stunning than Kalinstad.

Something in the air changed before he could think further, becoming colder and hotter all at once, and Alexey quietly shook out his cloak. His clothes were perfect for slinking in the shadows. He moved to hide behind a bookshelf that was placed directly next to the stairs and kneeled to watch. Fiori fussed with his overcoat and hair for a few moments, muttering, and stiffened when the doors jiggled briefly before being thrown open. He bowed as Linish swept in with two of the fairest, darkest creatures Alexey had ever seen.

The first detail that struck him was how alike they looked. Light, cream colored hair framed their delicate faces, which were pearly white. No rose color showed on their cheeks from the cold, nor did their lips have any particular hue. Not that they were hideous either, quite the opposite in fact—Alexey thought they were beautiful, like the finest portraits come to life. Only their heights and eyes were different. The taller one had eyes so pale Alexey could not tell their true color from his hiding place behind the bookshelf; he would have to move significantly closer to see if they were silver or blue. The shorter one had eyes that were rippling, inky black.

They wore clothes remarkably similar to Alexey’s own garb—the uniform of a Darkrow. Thick black wolf fur lined the inside of their heavy black cloaks. They wore black gloves and boots, and Alexey was sure that if he could see their bodies only more black clothing would be found. Their sleek cloaks were so well made they seemed glossy even from a distance. Alexey’s uniform was similar, yes, but old and the style outdated. He felt downright shabby looking at them, and even more so an imposter. Why did the people of Kalinstad call him Darkrow? With the real things standing quietly pressed against each other in the foyer of the Fragrant Library, Alexey could not see how he was qualified to be considered one of their kind.

“Darkrow Porfiry, Darkrow Vasiliy, the people of Kalinstad welcome you to our Fragrant Library,” Linish said and bowed. “Please relax in these settings while your chambers are prepared. Master Librarian Fiori Notalban will attend to your needs. I shall call for a meal to be brought.”

The two Darkrow nodded, their demeanors solemn and bored. Alexey winced. They were unimpressed and—he peered closer—they looked tired. Neither one of them had given the slightest twitch at their names. It would be impossible to address a specific one unless either Fiori or Linish risked guessing who was who. Alexey had a feeling the Darkrow didn’t care, nor would they answer if asked. Linish left the room and Fiori straightened his deep green overcoat, waving his hand graciously.

“Do you wish to see some part of the Fragrant Library in particular or shall I proceed with a general tour until your meals have arrived, Darkrow?” Fiori asked.

The Darkrow ignored him as they slowly surveyed their surroundings, their heads moving in unison. Alexey receded into the shadows more when he thought the taller Darkrow’s eyes landed on him, but they moved past his hiding place smoothly. His body tingling all over, Alexey breathed a quiet sigh of relief and shunted away the feeling of disappointment. Fiori had completely forgotten he was still in the library; that, or he expected Alexey to still be tucked securely away in the rickety armchair, nose buried in a book.

Finally, the Darkrow acknowledged him. The shorter one spoke, his voice deeper than Alexey expected, and said, “A tour would be fine, Master Notalban.”

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