And As the Green Lion
Swallows the Sun

An apparition -- very still, limned half in shadow in venerable warm tones -- across from him sits Allezan Terkanos the First, Emperor of Rakavia, Protector of the Northwest, prim and proper, tall and noble and not at all gaunt, a closed-mouth smile growing up and into his lips, his cheeks as he cocks his head, waiting for an answer.

Erazmos continues painting; he loads his brush, meets his target to make siege upon its values and saturations -- deep ocean greens and those warmer still crawl across the canvas. “If I am to be honest, Your Majesty,” he says, “you will be disappointed if you expect much from me. I believe your recent advances to the East and South have been utterly despicable; you are ravenous -- your gluttony lacks restraint. That is all your actions tell me.”

The emperor’s head turns again, amused; his skin of bonhomie hides very well raw meat -- it is no wonder he is so skillful at his job of conquest. “Do you really think so?” the tyrant asks, as if Erazmos has betrayed him, as if Erazmos has bitten off, in the few times they have faced one another, enough of his being to be capable of betrayal.

The artist cares not for direct assault. “Yes,” he says, easy as can be, and moves his brush to stain the portrait-robes in blood.

“Gluttony, gluttony,” says the great man, without the slightest anger or remorse, his colors laid not unlike impasto, his eyes -- too large, an aestheticist would say, upon the frail turns of his brow - grown dark by the light. The sun, Erazmos’ dearest ally and sole supply line, has begun to slink out of sight. “So long as I live, all swallowed by mother Rakavia shall never be spat out - neither you nor I nor the foreign peasants of Fuccalia, or Aremawi, or Kunais.”

The smile adorning his small mouth shows pale teeth, and the flash of gums. Erazmos does not paint them -- he makes war upon the shadow of the tyrant’s right cheek.

“You know, these lands to the East and South - these distant peoples you seem to feel so dearly for; they, too, suffer under the might of tyrants. Are my acts not liberations? As I crest over the high clouds, I see already the wombs of graves, and the broken, bleeding noses of hills and crooked mountains. They are already so! I have but consumed half-dead things, begging for mercy -- my mercy.”

The emperor sweeps a hand down his own jaw and ear for nary a moment; the fine red-gold hair he pushes into place is coated in neither paint nor blood. The dancing of his fingertips makes deep black shadow puppets mime agonies across the frame of his long face -- calcination, indeed.

“So you are a carrion-eater then, I see,” Erazmos bites -- a sharp fire of voice. He dares a glance at the emperor, who remains dutifully still upon the small and plain wooden stool. “You assume many things of me -- and wrong things, indeed. I care not for foreign kings; their designs, flayed and rich with blood, ring unjust to me as vividly as yours do.”

“So it is a matter of principle, then,” says the emperor, waving lightly in dismissal before lowering his hand back down to meet the other half of his frail knuckles. “In all my years I find you cannot change people -- no one can change a person. But their designs, their god-rulers, are so very vulnerable. Butcher the body, cut open the stomach, and inside will writhe the digested. I remember, once, my mother the Empress was poisoned at my birthday dinner; rushing to her side the doctor bid her drink some fluid that induced vomiting, and out spilled the poison, alongside bile, and acid, and blood.”

The artist grimaces -- but he does not lie, and say he is sorry for its happening. With steady aim he studs the embroidery of the tyrant’s waist sash with pale yellow. The sun is nearly gone now, two dwindling candles all the reinforcements he has; the emperor looks very human, the half seen in the heavy darkness -- lux in tenebris, so says the motto of the Terkanoses -- and the light makes longer and abyssal black the plane of his nose, the ripple of old pockmarks, and the creases under one pearl eye.

He remembers well the tight grip of his daughter Zulaine’s little hand as the two walked past courtiers and nobles, of her unsubtle and in-vain attempts to brush dried paint and dirt off her robes and his breeches, of the chessboard motions at which the palace citizens moved through their lives -- no, no, sirs, ma'ams, the emperor has requested the painter's presence personally. And the emperor -- the pale, thin, indomitable emperor -- in a deep maroon tunic folded left over right, pressing his hands behind his back and smiling as golden, fever-white light shone upon him, asking: I hear you are the best in all of Rakavia, sir; would you be opposed to painting my portrait?

“You are wrong, sir; you can change people,” he says, “violence easily can form a new man out of the clay of another; and peace too, albeit less so.” Poverty also, as he well knows, but he does not say that -- by deduction, poverty is still violence.

The emperor trails a single finger upon the rim of the candle holder that sits by him. “You would not believe that, if you saw the stubbornness and greed of my courts,” he says, lightly.

“If I may,” says Erazmos, “but your court is a wild pack of cannibalistic beasts -- and thus, it is still violence.”

For a second, the emperor goes very quiet; still, too, like Erazmos’ own painted idol of him. His hand moves from its place caressing the candle. Very delicately, he raises his palm to his mouth to laugh. It’s a high and reedy sound, more of a giggle than anything else; Erazmos hides his own smile behind the tall canvas.

“You are correct, however,” says the artist, “in the fragility of gods. But it is so: their bones are made of lies, and their sinew is wound from faith -- and fermenting lies and faith bury themselves deep into the human psyche.”

“So you believe my actions despicable, and you want me dead.” It is not a primer of guilt, nor a varnish of jesting -- it is a statement, simple and clean.

“Yes, of course,” Erazmos chuckles.

“For whom?” The emperor looks like he wants to lean forward, but restrains - he maintains the pose that Erazmos had so irritably picked for him, hours ago, days ago.

“My daughter,” comes the answer, “and my infant son.”

The emperor hums. “Your daughter -- Zulaine, is it not? I met her that day. She did not like me very much.”

“That she did not.”

“Like father, like daughter?”

“If you so wish.”

The artist’s prize for his daring charge is a lucky prisoner: a handful of quick chuckles. He advances his brush upon the white trim of the tyrant’s boots, which are not unlike lace. The emperor shifts his hands back to their proper place. “I admit the existence of genuine surprise at your acceptance of my commission, what with your foul attitude -- though I will also admit my disappointment as well. I had such hopes for dinner, sir! It is a shame I did not realize you were a Revolutionary. How rude of me.”

The artist frowns. Had he eaten the food of the courts, he has no doubt it would come back up, of his own volition or not, though he could not say exactly with what means. It is through consumption that one becomes something; perhaps fear, fear of absorption to the court, would drive him to illness at the stress of the idea. Perhaps his humors, his poor man’s stomach, ill-suited to the spiced-hot corpse of opulence, would reject the very food itself and throw it up. Throwing up is after all, by deduction, consumption -- and it is through this that the rats kick and squeal and war for the half-digested, half-rotted scraps. The congelation of violence is a contagious thing, not unlike plague.

“I will not stop the campaigns in the South and the East,” the emperor says, at the end of scruples, “for if we ever hope to contend with the ever-growing Fuccalian Empire we must gain territory to match their might.” There is a quiet and earnest tenderness to him, so unlike an emperor. He presses his hands together: weaver’s hands, artist’s hands, two partnered masters of the composition and manipulations of the courts and of war. They are draughtsman’s hands -- the hands that redraw maps, and the borders therein.

Erazmos sighs and paints the violet-bruised nails on those two hands, the hilt of his brush pressing against large calluses. Once again, almost nervously, he paints, he stabs, he entrenches deep lines under the state's eyes, and down his cheeks. They are lines too deep, shadows too heavy for a man of his age -- one could almost run their fingers down them, delicately, softly -- but they are nonetheless there; and Erazmos Iraskendin is always one for accuracy.

His eyes glance to the canvas, and then the man, and then the canvas again; he grits his teeth and says: “Perhaps the emperor does contain flaw, then,” as if he is about to weep. The man in front of him smiles affably under the sunset’s chiaroscuro, but the soft curves of paint on hemp-entrails display only a solemn dignity. In the world of false idols, the emperor sits, frank and true, a pale cadaver to be looked upon and admired -- the golden sun. None but Erazmos, it seems, knows it to be a thing devoured.

Some fickle thing -- a preformated and stunted creature -- glimmers in the emperor’s eyes. “Amend that statement, perhaps,” he teases. The artist tries to line those brown irises, those of his own creation, in that faint speckled white; it merely looks like tears. “Perhaps say: the emperor is all but flaw.”

He purses his lips and does not laugh. “I wish you would not say that,” Erazmos Iraskendin says and thinks of little Zulaine, who just earlier that day chased waterfowl until her knees were skinned. She ran over to him with tears in her eyes, and he shifted her infant brother from one arm to another to wrap her red-raw skin in gauze.

What does it matter if the emperor nurses wounds -- if different ones, but no less tender? That is -- he, of the dirt and of the grime, for certain, has been betrayed.

A part of him wants to stand. A part of him wants to go at the canvas with a knife, and make the flesh-fibers bleed their blood-rich blacks, whites, yellows, reds upon the floor of his studio. A part of him, a not-insignificant part, wants to release the violence he has inherited. Would it not be his right? The flesh of the emperor will feed his children and he for months -- maybe years.

But -- who is he kidding? The cheeks he paints are far too pale and prominent to feast from, or to caress, or to inspire men. The bones in them he would just vomit up -- a meatless corpse. An empty stomach, by deduction, is a stomach that devours, that never stops devouring; and an empty stomach, by design, is a stomach that will not revolt. It is one that will settle for the worst and most rotted meat, or perhaps the driest snakeskin, out of desperation if nothing else. Erazmos will not transmutate; he will not become a rat; he will not let it fall, the dark night of the soul. And yet, that pull, the very one exists beyond hunger but not beyond desire --

He goes to the emperor's left flank, and defines the lights and darks of the patterned brown robes that bury it. The light that bathes it is that of a stark sunlight gone hours ago; in immortalizing it on canvas he holds its memory high like the detached head of a prize of war.

Erazmos leans back. The man who will go down in history books raises an eyebrow. “Is it done?” he asks politely.

“Just about,” says the artist; and the putrefaction, the stella signata, too -- "Would you like to see?”

“Very much.” The emperor’s smile, at last, turns up the corners of his eyes.

The artist neither retreats nor advances; he holds his position steady, staring, as the emperor gets up from his stool. He watches, unwavering -- but without a single mote of fear. Allezan’s breath, warm, ghosts across his cheek and neck.

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CCXXX / 2022 © Pleurodelinae. Writing & subject matter is mine.