Wow! Is it almost April already? Where is the time going?
I have to admit that in my fantasies, I thought I would be most of the way to cured by now, since I’m spending the spring on medical leave. Alas, that is not the case. While I can certainly see signs of improvement, it’s been a slow, frustrating process with lots of ups and downs, and a *lot* of feeling miserable. I am trying to be Zen about it.
In the meantime, I have managed to get a fair amount of writing done. On the fantasy front, I’ve been working on a trilogy of novellas set in a kind of alternative Renaissance Florence. And I’m thrilled to say that Advance Review Copies of The Shadowy Man, the first story in the series, are available in the Dark Sci-Fi and Fantasy Giveaway!
You can grab a copy of The Shadowy Man, plus many more dark sci fi & fantasy works, here.
The opening scene of The Shadowy Man came to me in a dream, as did a lot of the basic story. Sometimes things work out like that. The series is unusual for me in having a male protagonist, although I use it explore things that are maybe not so stereotypically “masculine,” such as fear, anxiety, and care for a young child. Anyway, without further ado, here’s the opening scene to The Shadowy Man:
The painting was not going well.
The Prince was supposed to be practicing still lifes under Giacomo’s direction. At the moment, the dish of pears sat smugly in their ray of warm light, while on the canvas several amorphous blobs lurked malignantly in a pool of dirty yellow.
“I hate painting,” said the Prince. He gave Giacomo a pathetic look. “It’s not very good, is it?” he asked pitifully. “It’s ruined, isn’t it?” A note of hope crept into his voice.
Giacomo looked the canvas over, squinting and tilting his head this way and that. “I think it’s beyond fixing,” he agreed solemnly.
“Hurrah! Scrubbing out!” The Prince snatched up his largest brush from the easel, ground it into the palette in order to get the wildest mix of colors possible, and began making large circular strokes, mashing the brush flat against the canvas.
“Is this how you would do it when you were a boy?” he asked after a moment, pausing to survey his progress. He was a pale child, and his cheeks and the tip of his nose had gone pink with excitement.
“Sometimes I would do it like this,” Giacomo told him, taking the brush and making violent vertical strokes. “Scrubbing out” was a treat Giacomo’s father had permitted him to ease the disappointment of a bad picture, and now he was passing it on to the Prince.
“Let me!” shrieked the Prince, grabbing the brush back and copying Giacomo’s motions. “Take that!” he cried exultantly. “And that! En garde!” A vicious jab caused the easel to go toppling over. There was a long loud crash, combined with the distinctive high notes of breaking glass.
“Oh.” The Prince surveyed the damage he had caused. Giacomo had jerked him out of harm’s way as soon as the easel had started to go over. The Prince wriggled in his arms. “Put me down,” he demanded.
Giacomo deposited him on the table, next to the pears. “Don’t move till I clean up the broken glass,” he ordered.
“I want to help,” insisted the Prince. “I’m nine; I don’t need to be carried around like a baby. Oh Giaco! I got paint all over your tunic!” He had still been holding his brush when Giacomo had grabbed him.
“It doesn’t matter,” Giacomo assured him. “In fact, I think it’s your best work of the day! It was a boring tunic. Now it looks much brighter!”
The Prince’s lower lip stopped quivering. “Really?”
“Really. I like it much better than before. And I think the rug has been improved immensely, as well.” Pots of paint and oil, along with the palette and the still-wet canvas, had converted the pale blue rug into a fantastic nightmare of color.
Before Giacomo could pick up any of the glass, there was a knock at the door, immediately followed by the appearance of the head maid.
“Her Majesty…” She caught sight of the mess on the rug. Her thin aristocratic nose seemed to become slightly thinner and more aristocratic. “Is here,” she finished. “She wishes to visit Prince Luca immediately.”
“Send her up,” said Giacomo. The head maid gave one last look at the rug and retreated. The sound of many ladies making a noisy progression up the spiral staircase to the Prince’s tower was becoming menacingly clear.
“Oh Giaco!” wailed the Prince. Giacomo winked at him.
The Queen, as was her habit, burst imperiously into the room and stood framed by the doorway, her current favorites amongst her ladies-in-waiting arranged in a tableau behind her. Most of them, Giacomo noticed, were out of breath from the brisk climb. The Queen, whose lung capacity was legendary, didn’t seem to have suffered at all, despite her tightly-laced stays.
“Come here, Luca!” she ordered. She had been an accomplished singer before she had become Queen, and she still had a high ringing voice that filled whatever space she was currently occupying. She still also had a singer’s bosom, which also filled whatever space it was currently occupying. She liked to crush her children’s faces against said bosom whenever she embraced them, possibly as a way of making up for giving them over to wet nurses. The Prince always complained that she caught his ears painfully on her stays. Giacomo knew that lately he had begun to be embarrassed by having his faced pressed into such an expanse of bare breast, and had started actively avoiding his mother’s caresses whenever possible. And in fact, this time he said, “Giaco told me to stay on the table, Mamma.”
The queen allowed her gaze to drop floorwards, to the mess on the rug and Giacomo on one knee beside it.
“Explain!” Her voice reached such a pitch that Giacomo suffered a faint twinge on behalf of the windows.
“I humbly apologize, Your Majesty,” he said. “It was all my fault. His Highness had finished his still life, and I was showing him a defensive move, and I accidentally crashed into the easel and knocked everything over.”
The Queen inhaled sharply, and then went a little purple in the face as she stifled a coughing fit brought on by the strong scent of paint. When she had recovered herself, she said, “I am seriously displeased with you! The Prince has no need to be practicing the defensive arts: that’s why we keep you. It is your responsibility to defend him, with your life if necessary! The Prince must study true art! As the youngest son, he must grace the Court like a Maestro!” Her tone changed from reprimand to interrogation. “His performance was creditable, I hope?”
“Quite creditable, for a boy his age, Your Majesty,” answered Giacomo. The kindness of fate had caused the canvas to land face-down.
“Tomorrow, have him do the same study and present it to me,” the Queen commanded. “The delegation from La Valle del Sole will be visiting. The Duco del Sole has been putting on the most ridiculous airs about his son’s achievements. I want to teach him a lesson.” She gave the floor a look of distaste, and began backing out the door. “Remember, Luca, you must be a credit to your father!” she said, and left, her ladies-in-waiting forming up behind her. Giacomo noticed that their gowns were the seven basic colors, and they lined up according to their place in the color spectrum.
“Oh Giaco!” The Prince flung himself off the table. Only Giacomo’s quick catch saved him from landing on the broken glass.
“Thank you, Giaco, thank you, thank you, thank you!” the Prince said into Giacomo’s neck. “You saved me, Giaco, you saved me!” He pulled himself away from Giacomo’s shoulder and sat up on his still-bent knee. “But what am I going to do about tomorrow?” he asked despairingly. “I won’t be able to do a good job of it next time either.”
“I’ll help,” promised Giacomo.
“You paint so well,” said the Prince with breathless admiration. “Will you do the whole thing?” he continued hopefully.
“You should do at least a little bit,” Giacomo told him. “Otherwise you’ll never learn, and someday you’re going to have to do it all by yourself.”
The Prince sighed in resigned acceptance, and allowed Giacomo to deposit him back on the table. Giacomo called a maid to come help clean up the mess, and listened sympathetically as she wrung her hands and lamented about the trouble she was going to get into over the ruined rug. He told her to blame everything on him. Then it was time for the Prince’s lesson with the dancing master, and then with the fencing master (by far the Prince’s favorite lesson of the day–Giacomo had to wrest the wooden practice sword from him by force, enduring several painful swats in the process), and then it was suppertime, and then it was bedtime.
“You’ll be in the next room, won’t you, Giaco?” the Prince asked anxiously, once he had been tucked in. Although he tried to hide it, the Prince was still a little afraid of the dark, and sometimes even crept into Giacomo’s room in the middle of the night.
“I will later, but right now I have to go see someone.”
“Whom? Why do you have to see him? Is he someone I know?”
“He’s just an old friend, no one you know. I’ll be back soon. Ulricco will be guarding the door.”
“Oh.” The Prince thought for a moment. “Don’t stay out too late. Ulricco’s a good guard, I guess, but you’re ever so much better.”
Privately, Giacomo agreed. Ulricco was a big hearty man who had caught the King’s eye during the last battle with the del Sole duchy, when he had held a narrow defile single-handedly, cutting down man after man. After the battle the King had made him one of the King’s Best Fifty, who guarded the Castello degli Eredi, the small separate keep for the royal children.
“And it really was single-handedly,” Ulricco liked to say whenever he described the battle, which was often. “Because I only ever use one hand to hold my sword!” And he would caress his sword, which for most men would have been a two-handed broadsword, suggestively. After a while Giacomo had grown tired of this and asked Ulricco to be his training partner. He had disarmed Ulricco after half-a-dozen strokes.
“Single combat is a chancy thing,” Giacomo had told him consolingly. “You never know who’s going to win.”
Afterwards, Ulricco had continued to tell his story, but he also started holding his sword with both hands whenever he trained with Giacomo.
“I’ll come look in on you when I get back,” promised Giacomo. He used to kiss the Prince on the forehead when he left him for the night, but lately the Prince had started to complain that he wasn’t a baby, so Giacomo only winked at him as he went out the door.
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