Only Love is Deathless
Sita Bethel © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Košmar slammed the lager to the back of his throat and sighed. The pub was alive with Shrovetide festivities. Music and playful shrieks echoed from one end of the tavern to the other while mead and vodka flowed from bottles to cups to mouths faster than hands could pour it. He glanced at the dancers, thinking maybe he had drunk enough to give dancing a try. The music changed and a cheer rang from the crowds. Everyone clapped in unison as they formed a circle on the dance floor. They wore linen garments dyed green and purple. Crowns of corn poppies, baby’s breath, and sweet basil topped the heads of both the women and the men. Košmar himself wore faded riding leathers and a felted wool cloak which had once been deep sable but now was the gray of watered-down ink.
Before he could stand and sneak closer to the crowd, a lad in an ugly woolen slouch cap sat across from him. Košmar blinked, examining his cornflower-blue eyes. The lad set a key on the table between them, stood, and vanished into the crowd. Košmar picked up the key, noticing the flash of a gold coin below it. Košmar’s jaw dropped. A flaming falcon was stamped into the coin and on the other side a crown.
He slipped the gold into his vest pocket and rushed to the third room in the back. The man in the woolen cap sat cross-legged in a chair near the hearth of the room. His eyes flicked upward as he gazed at Košmar.
“Remove your cap.” Košmar dropped to the edge of the bed, crossing his arms over his chest.
“The coin wasn’t enough?”
“Most nobles have gold coins.” Košmar shrugged.
“Very well.” The stranger stood.
He tugged the cap away from his scalp and shook his head. Long strands of pure citrine glittered as they fell to his waist. The princes of Zetva were rumored to have magical hair the color of citrines or yellow sapphires. The man in front of Košmar could only be one of those two princes.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, my liege?” Košmar bowed forward from his position on the bed.
The prince dropped into his chair. “They say you’ll do any task for the right price.”
“Most any.” Košmar chose his words. “I’m not an assassin. I’m more of an adventurer.”
“I do not need an assassin. I need a husband.”
“Don’t we all, but I’m sure your father, the king, would be more qualified at arranging a marriage than me.” Košmar laughed.
“Everyone in the royal court is a weasel, and the neighboring kingdoms are full of ambitious vipers looking to strengthen their own positions of power. No, Košmar Marelock, I do not want you to find a husband for me—I want you to wed me.”
Košmar laughed until he choked. He fell onto the mattress, coughing into his fist. The prince peered over him, long, jeweled hair hanging from his face and flashing in the hearthlight.
“Not forever. I need a farce wedding and a sham spouse, and after a year or so, we’ll divorce in private, I’ll pay you for your troubles, and you can run back to your adventures.”
“Farce wedding?” Košmar sucked in a breath, recovering from his outburst. “Gotta admit, I’m fascinated. Why would a prince need to fake his own wedding?”
“Will you take the job or not?”
“You haven’t given me enough information to decide.”
“I’m the oldest.” The prince shrugged.
“So you’re…” Košmar wracked his memory for what he’d heard of politics. “Prince…Dobrina?”
“My little brother is Dobrina. I’m Prince Sreka.”
“Pleasure to meet you.” Košmar held out his hand.
Sreka hesitated before extending his hand. Košmar took it and used Sreka’s grip to pull himself to his feet before shaking their clasped hands. After the friendly greeting, he brought Sreka’s hand to his lips and kissed the prince’s knuckles.
“My liege, my name is Košmar.”
“I know. I sought you out, remember?”
“Need to have a proper introduction if we’re going to be business partners. So you’re the oldest, but your father is in good health. Surely you have more time to find a spouse?”
“Dobrina is in love. The law demands I marry first, but I have no interest in the suitors who plague me night and day. So, to rid myself of their presence and give my brother the happiness he deserves, I need a surrogate to play the role of my affectionate husband.”
“Lemme get this straight. You bring me home to Dad; we hold hands and take lingering walks in the gardens at night to convince everyone we’re in love, and after we’re married, all I have to do is stick around stuffing my face and sleeping on top of a goose-down mattress? And after a year of this you’re going to pay me for the trouble?”
“You’ll be sleeping on the couch within my private chambers. I have no intention of sharing my bed with a man I do not love.”
“Here. Do you see this? Do you feel this?” Košmar pounded the old, sagging mattress beneath him with his closed fist. “And don’t even get close enough to smell it. I spend most my nights in a tent in the woods or on rented beds.”
“My…condolences.” Sreka wrinkled his face.
“Is your couch more comfortable than this?”
“By far. The fibers are woven from silk imported from—”
“Say no more. I’m your man.” Košmar jumped to his feet. “Let’s see, we’ll need a public introduction. How do we want to play this?”
“The simpler the better,” Sreka said.
“No, no. We need a story to tell. Something for the scullery maids to whisper about as they scrub pots. You should rescue me—from a dragon.”
“Why? It sounds like the plot to a romance novel.” Sreka rubbed the bridge of his nose. “And shouldn’t you save me from the dragon? I’m the one you should be wooing.”
“I rescue people from dragons all the time, but when do I ever get to sit back and swoon for a hero? Never. If we’re going to play the lovers, let’s have fun with it.”
“Or is palace life too exciting for you already?”
Sreka paused midcomplaint. He stared at Košmar for a long time. Košmar smirked.
“I’m right, aren’t I? You’re bored out of your skull in that castle. You’d love to play the hero for a day and scoop a handsome, swarthy stranger into your arms before carrying him off to your palace.”
“You shouldn’t assume I find you handsome.”
“Doesn’t matter, everyone else will. You can pretend if you don’t fancy my looks.” Košmar winked.
“There’s one problem with your plan. We don’t have a dragon who will play along with our scam.”
“Watch this.” Košmar walked to the fire, holding his hands to it.
He gestured with his fingers and pulled a section of the flames toward him. The fire resembled freshly pulled sugar in the candy-maker’s shop. It flowered and twirled with color, and Košmar molded it into the shape of a dragon the size of a hunting hound. The flames cooled, hardening to bright, poisonous green scales. The creature roared and lunged for Sreka’s shins. When Košmar snapped his fingers, the dragon dissolved into smoke that spread between them in a gray haze.
“Yes, an illusion. Are you familiar with the northern road leading through the Czerwony Woods and into the mountains?”
“No one goes there because of bandits.”
“But there is a royal hunting ground near there, yes?”
“There is.” Sreka nodded.
“Plan a hunting trip one week from today. Arrive at dawn, and make sure you’re near where the northern road enters the forest an hour into your hunt.”
“How will I find you?”
“The roars and screams should be a good indication.” Košmar grinned.
Sreka mirrored him. “I confess, I’m looking forward to our official meeting.”
“Until fate brings us together, my love.” Košmar dropped to one knee, kissing Sreka’s hand.
“No need for theatrics when we’re alone.” Sreka averted his eyes.
“Best to get into character now.” Košmar plopped onto the worn mattress beside him. “You already paid for the room?”
“Yes?” Sreka twisted his jeweled hair into a rope and tucked it back into his woolen cap.
“No use letting a bed go to waste. I’ll see you in a week.” Košmar rolled up in the threadbare woolen blanket and shut his eyes.
“Sweet dreams, Košmar.”
Košmar snorted after he heard the door shut.
“Pretty funny for a prince to tell a nightmare to have sweet dreams.” Košmar kept the fire burning in the hearth but blew out the lantern on each side of the bed. The darkness hugged him close as he slept.
Carnival came and went, and the celebrations were replaced by fasting and long Sunday masses. A week after his meeting with Košmar, Sreka sat at his vanity. A servant braided his hair so it wouldn’t tangle or blow into his face as he hunted. Sreka sipped from the ceramic mug he held, enjoying the warmth of his coffee. His eyes burned from waking before sunrise, and he yawned into his hand. A knock interrupted the early morning quiet.
“Aren’t you ready yet? You were the one who suggested we hunt.” Dobrina’s reflection appeared in the mirror.
He was younger, but taller, and more orange highlighted his citrine hair which he always kept twisted into a knot. The servant stepped away. Sreka slung the braid over his shoulder.
“I’m ready now, but I’m surprised you’re coming along instead of sneaking off to meet Ubavina in secret.”
“She’s visiting her cousins near the riverlands.” Dobrina shrugged.
“So you’re only spending time with me because you’re out of other options?” Sreka punched Dobrina’s shoulder.
“Yes. You’re my last resort.” He laughed and shoved Sreka in return.
“Asshole.” Sreka gave his little brother another shove. “Race you to the stables.”
He dashed out the door and through the hallway with Dobrina cursing and chasing after him. Sreka flew past the head maid, who shouted they were too old to be running in the halls, but both brothers ignored her. They’d chased through the same corridors as children and as growing youths, and now they were grown, but they were no less brothers, so they raced through the palace, crashing against the stable door—Dobrina before Sreka.
“Dammit.” Sreka panted against the door. “Taller and faster. I’m the cursed brother.”
“Not cursed,” Dobrina said. “Because at least you’ll never have to hide in a hayloft to hold your lover at night.”
“Don’t worry. I’m meeting every suitor who visits. I’ll find one who doesn’t bore me to tears.” Sreka burst into laughter. “Eventually.”
“Don’t rush.” Dobrina bumped their shoulders together. “I lament, but I’d never want you to settle for my sake.”
“I won’t.” Sreka elbowed his brother. “Come on. We’re going to be late to our own hunt.”
“You’re going to be late to your hunt,” Dobrina teased.
Servants handed them their horses, already saddled and prepared for hunting. Other attendants equipped them with long hunting knives and bows. They mounted and rode along the path to where the rest of their party waited for them.
“There are my sons.” The king beamed when he saw them arrive. “First one who shoots a boar this morning earns a gift.”
Sreka and Dobrina exchanged competitive glances at each other. They and the other five members of the party trotted to the denser areas of the hunting grounds. Dobrina shot three rabbits, but Sreka ignored the hares and squirrels, wanting boar—or a dragon when the time was right. His breath puffed from his mouth in bursts as he searched the forest for game.
The gray of dawn gradually warmed to pale yellows. The last clusters of snow glittered in the light. In the coming weeks, the stubborn patches of snow clinging to the shadowed areas of the forest would melt, and irises and buttercups would smother the landscape. Poppies already crowded near the trees and along the paths.
“It’s a bad omen,” Grizi, one of the three advisors to the throne, whispered at the king.
“If poppies were a bad omen, every spring would be a disaster.” Dobrina laughed. “And yesterday you swore you saw an evil wizard in your tea leaves. I swear, Grizi, constantly living on the verge of panic can’t be healthy for you.”
“I know what I saw in my tea cup yesterday. Poppies on their own are not enough to be an omen, but poppies in the tree shadow scattered in the snow like a spray of blood the day after seeing a wizard in my leaves—”
“Hush.” Sreka held up his hand as he peered through the woods.
The scrape of fur against twigs drew his attention to his left. He raised his bow, but lowered it when he saw the doe searching for grass among the snow banks.
“You have a clean shot, my lord,” Sir Nikola said.
“Let her go,” Dobrina said. “She’s more useful if she breeds a strong buck to hunt next spring.”
“I have my heart set on boar,” Sreka agreed. Dobrina hated when anyone shot a doe.
The horses reared as a roar shook the oak branches. Sreka calmed his horse, turning her in the direction of the noise.
“See? The omens were correct,” Grizi hissed.
“Sounds bigger than a doe. Let’s take a look.” Sreka nudged his horse forward.
“Sreka, are you crazy?” Dobrina rode after him.
Another roar. A flock of larks scattered through the forest as they flew in the opposite direction. Sreka leaned forward, nudging his mare to ride faster.
“Definitely a dragon,” Dobrina finished his sentence, keeping up with Sreka as the others lagged behind.
“Perfect! A good deal more exciting than a boar, don’t you agree?”
“Well, if you’re going to be a fool, I might as well keep you company.” Dobrina followed as Sreka veered to the right.
They rode ahead of the others. Grizi shouted for them to wait, but neither of them listened. The oak, spruce, and birch trees thinned as they neared the northern road. Another roar shook the trees, and curses echoed after the noise. A wide clearing separated the patrolled royal hunting grounds from the public road and wild forest. On the far side of the road, in a glen of budding apple trees, Košmar fought an emerald-green dragon.
Despite having seen the illusion in the inn beforehand, Sreka’s breath hitched as he saw the beast looming above the tree line. Košmar stabbed it with his sword, but the blade stuck into the scaly hide, and he had to roll aside without his weapon to avoid the fire bursting from one of the dragon’s three heads. Sreka raised his bow, aiming and nocking an arrow before loosing it onto the beast. When his arrow plunged into one of the creature’s eyes, it screeched, flailing its heads.
“Nice shot!” Dobrina cheered.
Dobrina loosed an arrow as well, but the shot flew low and stuck into the dragon’s flank. Košmar used the distraction to lunge back for his weapon, working it from the tough hide before darting away again. Sreka shot another arrow. The dragon moved his head and the arrow flew over it. Growling, Sreka jumped off his horse. She retreated into the hunting grounds, and Sreka charged toward the creature. He sank three more shots into the dragon, but couldn’t blind any of the heads because the dragon was wary of his attacks and dodged when it could. The serpent-like monster edged closer to Sreka, but Košmar did his best to slow the creature’s progress. His sword skills were impressive. Not a stroke wasted on flourish or bravado. Every slash, every thrust cut into the dragon’s flesh.
“Stay away!” Košmar shouted over the roars.
Sreka ignored him, aiming for one of the dragon’s eyes and cursing when he missed. Dobrina focused on body shots, waiting for when the dragon quartered in an attempt to hit his lungs, but a dragon was not a boar and his hide was too thick for their arrowheads to puncture anything important.
“You idiot! Arrows won’t hurt him! Run!” Košmar gritted his teeth.
Sreka nocked his bow and loosed an arrow. One of the dragon’s heads spewed fire at Sreka. The prince leapt backward as steam rose from where the fire struck the wet earth. The dragon inhaled for another fire attack. With a savage yell, Košmar plunged his blade into the left side of the creature’s chest. The leftmost head tossed backward, releasing a death wail before dropping to the ground. The creature snapped with his other jaws. One of the two remaining mouths caught Košmar in the thigh and the other his arm. The dragon lifted him into the air. The sword dropped from Košmar’s grip. The beast shook Košmar the same way a dog shakes an old ragdoll.
Illusion or not, Sreka reacted on instinct. He charged forward, dropping the bow and pulling his hunting knife. It was longer than a regular dagger, made for piercing through a boar in case of an emergency. The right head released Košmar, blowing fire at Sreka. He dodged, rolled, and sprang to his feet with the knife in hand. Supporting the base with his palm, he sank it to the hilt of the dragon’s rightmost side. The blade pierced through the dragon’s lung. The right head coughed a spray of blood. The last head dropped Košmar. Sreka caught him, but his weight knocked them both to the ground. Košmar’s abandoned sword winked in the sunlight. Sreka lunged for it, swinging and cutting halfway into the rightmost neck. He wrenched it free, dodging fire, teeth, and claws before darting close again, then plunging and twisting the sword into the dragon’s center heart.
Sreka jerked the sword with all his weight, but couldn’t dislodge it from the dragon. He jumped back as the dragon’s tail lashed at him. Sreka tripped over Košmar’s body, crashing into the damp earth. Blood stained the snow as the dragon coughed. He no longer breathed fire; instead, the dragon stumbled, fighting to live but already two-thirds dead. Sreka scrambled to his feet, dragging Košmar to the road. Dobrina remained on his horse, loosing arrow after arrow as the dragon stumbled after them.
“Out of arrows!” he shouted.
“Here!” Sreka tossed his quiver to his brother.
Sreka lay Košmar into a cluster of poppies. Košmar clutched the lapel of Sreka’s vest, dragging Sreka to the ground until his ear was pressed against Košmar’s lips. Sreka shivered at how searing hot Košmar’s blood felt against his palms, and he pressed his hands against Košmar’s wounds.
“Real,” Košmar muttered in a weak voice. “No magic.”
Sreka’s eyes widened. He jerked his head and stared at the monster which crashed into an apple tree before forcing itself up and charging again. The rest of their hunting party arrived, and with Sreka and Košmar out of the way, they had a clean shot at the dragon. The creature dropped to the ground midcharge, all three heads smacking against the road. Košmar went limp in Sreka’s arms.
“Yes!” Dobrina cheered. “Hope you’re happy, Sreka. You have your hunting trophy now.”
But Sreka was in shock as he stared at the dragon bleeding out and convulsing with his final breaths. What had happened? How had a real dragon appeared at the precise moment they were supposed to be fighting an imaginary one?
Sreka jerked his head toward Košmar. If the dragon was real, so were the injuries. Sreka scooped Košmar into his arms. Whistling, he called his mare to him. She hesitated, lingering near the rest of the hunting party, turned off by the hot copper scent of the dragon’s blood.
“I’m proud to see how well my sons have done in their first true battle,” the king said. “We’ll celebrate your kill tonight with a feast.”
“Sir,” Grizi warned. “It’s the first Friday of Lent. Fish would make for a poor feast.”
“Of course, how could I forget Lent.” The king shot Grizi a perturbed glance. “We’ll start the feast one minute past midnight—technically, it will be Saturday.”
“As the king desires.” Grizi sighed, unsatisfied with the answer but unable to protest.
“I’m taking this man to the physician.” Sreka hoisted Košmar’s body over the horse, ignoring the conversation.
“My prince, he won’t survive the ride,” one of the knights said.
“I have to try.” Sreka pulled himself into the saddle and used the road to rush to the palace.