ROLAND LOWERED the paintbrush and frowned. Still not the right shade. Damn. With a sigh he went back to his palette and mixed once again. The client had been clear on what color and shade she wanted—it was to be the blue of the sky just after a storm at sunset—and he was determined to deliver as promised. He had a love-hate relationship with commissions. He loved creating art for himself and the enjoyment of others, and clients paid well for his skills, yet if the proposed piece didn’t speak to him, it was extremely hard to find any enthusiasm to create it. He would always rather work on his own pieces, but he needed to feed himself, after all. He didn’t get many chances to put on an art show.
Especially considering much of his private collection dealt with demons. If anyone found that out, he’d probably be questioned regarding his sanity or labeled a traitor.
He couldn’t help his strange, dark pull toward the volatile cousins of angels. He was an artist, and he saw beauty in many things. Even disturbing things.
Roland lifted his paintbrush once again and tested the color. Perfect. Now he could continue with the sky portion before descending to the battle scene below. His client was the wife of Commander Mykial, and she insisted on a painting depicting her husband’s triumphant routing of a demon horde. The battle happened ten years earlier and it was still one of his finest moments. Delighted with his progress, Roland continued with the piece, barely noticing when the door to his studio opened. He caught a whiff of the intruder’s scent and smiled.
“Ever heard of knocking, Gabryl?”
“You told me once a knock disturbed you more than a silent approach.”
“Ah, so you do listen to me. I’m flattered.”
Gabryl snorted and knew better than to hover when Roland was working. He stayed near the door and waited for Roland to turn around. They’d been friends for years and casual lovers since reaching adulthood, so it wasn’t surprising Gabryl knew his quirks.
Roland didn’t rush himself, and Gabryl was the definition of patience. Once he was satisfied, Roland set his tools aside and finally turned to regard Gabryl.
Gabryl was a fine specimen of masculinity. His piercing green eyes were the first thing to capture Roland’s attention all those years ago. His large golden wings contrasted nicely with his black hair, so dark that blue highlights could be seen when he flew under the sun. His skin was burnished gold in stark contrast to Roland’s porcelain white. He was tall and broad and intelligent, and Roland had used his imposing form as a model for several commissions over the years. He was pleasing inside and out, and it was little wonder Roland had taken to him so quickly.
Unfortunately, despite all that, he never considered pairing with him. Beyond the obvious objection that they were both male and couldn’t produce children—though surrogates were a clear way around that—there wasn’t any passion. Roland would receive contentment if he bonded with Gabryl. That wasn’t horrible by any means, and, in fact, many angels made such a relationship their life’s goal. Passion wasn’t something highly regarded.
Roland could only surmise his artist’s heart refused to settle for anything so mundane. More was the pity since he was quite fond of Gabryl, and he knew the affection was mutual.
He grabbed a cloth and wiped his hands. “To what do I owe this pleasure? Haven’t seen you in nearly a month.”
“I got roped into implementing a new categorizing system for the library.”
Roland raised an eyebrow. “I highly doubt anyone can rope you into anything, dear. You volunteered, didn’t you?”
Gabryl grinned and shrugged.
Roland chuckled. “Knowledge keepers. If you’re not teaching half-asleep students, you have your faces in books.”
“Artists. If you’re not painting, you’re looking for paint or mixing paint, or howling that you don’t have the right color of paint.”
Roland laughed outright at that. “Damn you! You know me too well.”
“Do you ever expect me to forget the meltdown of winter ’66 when you chucked that easel at me?”
Guffawing, Roland managed to peck a kiss to Gabryl’s cheek. “And I’m sure I will be apologizing for that for the rest of my life. Truly I am sorry. I am a temperamental artist and can’t handle it when my supplies betray me.”
With an indulgent smile, Gabryl returned the kiss. “I have a meltdown when I see students crease pages. I understand.”
Roland patted his shoulder before moving to his large and generous paint supply. And, of course, realized he was out of a color he needed—a shade of pink for the sunset. At this rate he feared the painting would never be done.
He sighed long and low. “Typical,” he mumbled.
“Is that for Dina?”
Roland glanced at Gabryl as he nodded to the painting currently causing him a headache.
“Yes. And she was disturbingly precise about everything, right down to color shades and placement of things. I normally wouldn’t take such dictation from a client but, well, you know. Mykial’s wife. I couldn’t exactly say no.”
Gabryl nodded. “She and my brother are quite controlling and rigid. They are well suited.”
“Can’t argue that.”
“He said something rather disturbing to me the other day,” Gabryl said a moment later, voice low and cautious.
Roland looked over his shoulder. “Everything Mykial says to you is disturbing. Talk about a meltdown king. He has us both beat.”
Usually that would get at least a smile, if not a laugh. This time, however, Gabryl simply stared at him, expression hard.
Frowning, Roland turned fully toward him. “I’m listening.”
Gabryl blew out a breath. “This is in confidence.”
“As it always is. You know my lips are sealed.”
He nodded. “He came to me with questions yesterday, and they troubled me. I asked my own before I would answer his, and he finally broke down and told me the reason for his need of my assistance. He wanted me to look at records of dragon sightings, going as far back as possible.”
“There have been a significant lack of sightings recently. They’ve been steadily dropping for the past decade and, in the last couple of years, have nearly ceased altogether.”
“Um, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that a good thing?”
“Not in the least.”
“Now I’m confused.”
Gabryl began pacing, his proud wings fluttering in agitation, his purple robe swishing around his legs. “Dragons seek to dominate and destroy. They target each other because of the challenge and prestige in victory. Sometimes they lead demon hordes against each other as well, showing off their military prowess.”
Roland nodded, still confused.
“They’ve left us alone because they’ve been so focused on each other. But what if there are only a handful left? Or, by the Light, only one left? What do you think happens then?” Gabryl stopped pacing and stared.
Roland blinked. “Oh.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Oh. They might start focusing on us. The last dragon or dragons standing will be the fiercest and most cunning of their kind. They or it will also rally the demons and could lead them in an assault against us.”
Roland swallowed hard. “Why would they give a bird’s ass about us?”
“Territory. Dominance. Arrogance. Take your pick. We have wealth up here, beauty and life. Why wouldn’t they want that as well?”
Cold slithered in Roland’s gut, and he rubbed his stomach. Though angels were naturally cool, his skin temperature dropped several more degrees, and he shivered.
“One dragon in particular has started to make a name for himself.”
Despite his dread, he was fascinated. “Who?”
“Asagoroth.” Gabryl shuddered when he said the name. “Every demon captured speaks of him in reverent tones, as if he was the One Who Brought the Light. He also doesn’t fear being noticed. He’s the only dragon our patrols have reported seeing the last couple of years. One demon even told Mykial that Asagoroth had observed the battle between two dragons and waited until they were clearly exhausted before killing both. The more he wins, the more demons that will follow him.”
“What will Mykial do?”
Gabryl shook his head. “He’ll bring the information to the high chancellor. I don’t know what she’ll do from there. As commander, he can only recommend. Hopefully she agrees to more guards at our outer posts, at least.”
“The very least.” Roland grimaced. “You know how to bring me down, don’t you, Gabby?”
Gabryl glared. “Don’t call me that.”
Roland smirked, though it was tight. Another shiver went through him as the looming threat of a dragon or full-scale demon attack haunted his thoughts. Gabryl sighed and tugged him into a hug, holding him tightly. Roland rested his head on Gabryl’s large shoulder and closed his eyes.
“Be careful, Ro,” he said softly. “I know you sneak out to our outer borders to get items for your paints. Maybe hold off on that. Or go with a guard or something. Keep your eyes open.”
Smiling at his worry, Roland kissed his cheek. “I will.”
Gabryl returned the kiss, and for a tense moment, they stared at each other before Gabryl stepped back. He cleared his throat. Roland chuckled slightly.
“It’s time for supper,” Gabryl said. “I’m eating with Mykial tonight. You should join us.”
“I don’t want to intrude—”
“Don’t be an idiot.” Gabryl playfully shoved him. “My nephews are asking for you and you won’t have to talk to Dina about the painting since it’s supposed to be a surprise.”
“Glad you told me.” Roland put away his supplies before tossing a clean sheet over the canvas. “I might have asked her something about it.”
“I wouldn’t if you don’t want your feathers plucked.”
Roland winced. “Don’t say such things!”
Gabryl laughed and slung an arm across Roland’s shoulders to lead him out of the studio. They flew through the twilight as the city slowed its usual activity in favor of rest and sleep. Emphoria was the capital city of the Upper Realm and the jewel of the angels. She gleamed and shone in vivid and arresting colors found nowhere in nature. Tall, sharp spires erupted out of the clouds, ruby and sapphire and emerald with some carnelian and topaz thrown in. The city was perfect from its layout to its function, and the shimmering surfaces reflected the light of stars and sun, absorbing the heat. Glass walkways connected each building, creating patterns and spirals. Whenever Roland flew over the city, he could see the intricate design, the grand intent of the architect centuries before clearly shining through.
However, despite the perfection, or perhaps because of it, the city also felt distant and aloof, like the angels who called her home. She was a work of art he could appreciate and admire. Yet she also seemed unreal and stagnant, unchanging, a portrait that would hang on a wall, permanent.
Roland often enjoyed the little imperfections or chance errors that gave life to one of his paintings. When everything went according to plan, he would always feel a pang of disappointment. He recognized his oddities and concluded they were part of his nature as an artist. Other artists he knew also expressed some quirks, though they all kept such things hidden from anyone of a noncreative mind. It never paid to be too different from the general masses.
Perhaps this difference was what the seer saw at his birth and she labeled him artist so his oddities would be overlooked. Although he doubted even she would accept his demon portraits and his secret desire to see a demon up close. How could he faithfully represent them if all he had were crude illustrations in those old tomes Gabryl cared for so diligently? Roland couldn’t help but be a little insulted by the illustrators’ obvious bias against demons. They couldn’t be that horrid and ugly, could they? He doubted it. Angels and demons were cousins, of sorts, and he’d heard a few soldiers say they didn’t look all that different—the dissimilarities were mostly in their coloring, wing shape, and presence of horns.
Angels were supposed to hate demons. He didn’t. They fascinated him. It was something he’d never told anyone, not even Gabryl.
His interest in the forbidden wouldn’t be casually overlooked, artist or not.
Gabryl led the way into Mykial’s home, set in the emerald spire that was reserved for command staff. The golden spire of the high chancellor was close by, the tallest in the city. His sister lived there since she was the next in line to be high chancellor, the angels’ ultimate ruler.
Even as his heart grew heavy with longing to see his sister, loud hoots and hollers brought him back to the present. He grinned as he quickly shimmered his wings insubstantial to prevent them from being abused by rambunctious boys. He knelt and nearly toppled over as Gavreel and Cassiel dove into his arms.
They proceeded to ramble on about several things at once and Roland merely nodded and made noncommittal noises as the boys each vied for his attention.
“Oh, I see how it is,” Gabryl said with an exaggerated sigh. “No love for your father’s brother.”
Cassiel, the younger one and future healer, quickly pushed away from Roland before latching his arms around Gabryl’s waist. With an amused smile, Gabryl ruffled Cassiel’s blond head.
“Thank you, lad.”
“Boys, you seem to forget that not everyone wants to be clobbered the moment they step inside.”
Roland looked up as Mykial strode down the hallway separating the entryway from the living room. Never one to look frazzled, he was as perfectly coiffed in his home as in public and gave Roland and Gabryl polite nods as he gripped his sons’ collars and tugged them back.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Gabryl said. “I invited Roland to join us.”
“I would never mind. He’s always welcome.” Mykial graced him with a friendly smile and a glimmer of warmth in his amber eyes. Such things were rare on his stern face. He was a soldier to the core and not one prone to foolishness. Roland smiled back and nodded.
“Thank you. Dina’s cooking is not something I would ever pass up.”
A delighted twinkle entered Mykial’s eyes as he led them into the dining room. “Why do you think I was so eager to marry her?”
“I can think of another reason.” Gabryl elbowed his brother in the ribs.
Mykial scowled and made sure his sons were seated. As soon as their father arrived, they grew silent and watchful. Not fearful, Roland was glad to see, but alert and ready to follow orders. With parents as strict as theirs, he wasn’t surprised they were taught obedience first and foremost. It was the best quality an angel could have, after all.
When Dina stepped in with a large bowl of salad, Mykial instantly walked over to grab it from her. Roland and Gabryl followed suit and took the bowls of fruit and goblets of wine to the table. After they were all seated, the boys continued to be silent as the adults talked.
“Roland, I hope your projects are going well,” Dina said, her blue eyes intent on his face as she took a sip of her wine.
He gave her a reassuring smile. “They’ve never been smoother.”
He noticed her instant relief only because he’d known her for years in intimate settings like this. Anyone else would think her aloof and untouched by anything—the perfect commander’s wife.
“Have you seen Anpiel?” Roland asked.
Mykial smiled slightly. “Yes. She does your family proud. We will have many good years ahead with her in the lead.”
Roland sat straighter in his chair. Mykial didn’t give praise to just anyone. Gabryl and Mykial carried most of the conversation while Roland and Dina exchanged a few looks when the brothers fell to bickering.
Evening passed rapidly into night, and Roland was soon saying farewell. Mykial led him to the door while Gabryl stayed behind with Dina, talking about a book or something. Dina also worked in the library and they could go on for hours about something they’d read or wanted to read.
“I meant what I said before,” Mykial said. “You are always welcome here.”
“Thank you. You have a beautiful home. It’s a nice change of pace from my solitary studio. Sometimes I forget to look up from a canvas and see the world.”
Mykial snorted. “The price you pay as an artist.”
Roland laughed. “I suppose it is. Have a good night.”
He turned back. Mykial’s face was a mask once more and his posture was rigid and formal. The sudden change put Roland on alert.
“I think it may be time to consider your future.”
He blinked. “Pardon?”
“I would be honored to have you part of my family.”
“Oh. I’m the one who’d be honored, truly, but Gabryl and I—”
“Are old enough to understand that you have duties and responsibilities to your people. There are several recently orphaned children in need of parents, and I think you and Gabryl would be a good fit for a few of them.”
Roland swallowed hard, trying not to panic. Mykial had influence, sure, but he couldn’t force Roland or Gabryl to do anything they didn’t want to. He’d known Mykial long enough to understand his words came from a place of love and concern despite his overbearing demeanor.
“I would have to talk to Gabryl first,” Roland said, forcing his tone to stay light. “There are a lot of things to consider. You know that.”
“You’ve had time to consider them. Neither of you are lads anymore.”
“No, we’re not. I understand what you’re saying. I do. Now I need you to take a step back.”
Mykial’s jaw clenched, but he nodded.
Roland offered a smile before turning and leaving, his heart thudding. He flew through the dark night, the spires offering faint light for him to see. Once he was closed off in his studio, he could breathe easier again. He didn’t appreciate Mykial’s meddling or insistence, but he also couldn’t deny his friend had a point.
Now he desperately needed to go on his hunt for paint supplies if for nothing else than to clear his head.