Red Paint, Crimson Blood is proud to be on the Summer Reading Trail.
The road was muddy as we traveled through Bucharest proper. It bogged down the wheels and made the journey slow. The sky was overcast and the winter chill pierced my bones through my coat. A dense fog rose up from the river, dancing around the iron skirts of the castle. The water in the cesspool surrounding the palace reminded me of frankincense sickened with sulfur.
“Foul air,” I grunted. I took my scarf and covered the bottom half of my face.
The hidden sun must have shrunk closer to the horizon because the daylight dimmed. The carriage hit a deep rut, rattling my traveling locker full of paints and canvases. The last thing I needed was for my livelihood to spill. It would take weeks to send to Hungary for more paints. I didn’t want to anger Dracula. He’d commissioned me to paint his portrait. It was a job I couldn’t refuse knowing his fickle temper.
I leaned over and pounded my fist against the wall of the carriage where the driver sat on the opposite side. “Slow down!” I shouted.
Nothing. Typical, really. These people were subservient to Dracula. No one else mattered but their prince. I slide back in my seat as the carriage started up a steep incline on its final approach toward the castle.
The frankincense gave way to a putrid smell. I leaned forward to look out the window, almost afraid of what the stench suggested.
My eyes grew wide at the gruesome sight. Lined on both sides of the red stained dirt road were several rows of stakes, their pointy tips impaling the rigid bodies through the heart or through the neck. Entrails hung loosely out of the torsos. Vultures picked at the pasty skin.
I couldn’t look. I ripped off my scarf and spit dry heaves onto the floor of the carriage. It was Dracula’s doing. Everyone knew he impaled his foes. Some said he was fascinated with blood, a taste he acquired when the Turks held him in captivity as a young boy. Some said he wasn’t in his right mind. The church didn’t seem to care as long as Dracula killed the Turks and saved Constantinople from the infidels.
I rose and wiped my lips with the back of my hand. Dracula was a man not to be crossed. His bloodlust could not be denied. I would have to tread carefully with him.
The carriage pulled up to the gate and I felt an unnatural chill pass over me. My commission to paint his portrait no longer had any appeal. The drawbridge descended and the carriage entered the courtyard, stopping in front of the castle steps.
Servants raced out the front door, some holding torches in order to cast light upon us. They hurried about, grabbing my locker full of paints and my traveling bags. I squeezed my hands as I watched them, praying they wouldn’t break anything.
His voice was deep and commanding, distinctive in its authority. I paused a minute before I turned around to look upon him.
“Dracula,” I said.
He smiled. I believed it was his attempt to put me at ease, but it was awkward. His thick, unheeding mustache hid the corners of his lips. He wore a coat of brilliant red and his boots were black. As the overcast sky turned dark, the lit torches that hung on the castle wall covered Dracula in deep shadows.
“How was your journey?” he asked.
“A little unpleasant,” I admitted. Dracula was known for his unflinching desire for the truth. Depending on his mood, a lie, even for pleasantries’ sake, could evoke pain or death. Once an envoy from Rus appeared before Dracula and refused to remove their caps from their heads. When Dracula asked why, they explained it was for religious reasons. Dracula was disgusted by the extravagant display of their clothes, as he thought the religious order should dress more humbly. To that end, he had their caps painfully nailed to their heads.
“Why?” he asked.
“The smell, Your Majesty,” I replied.
He chuckled. “A message to the Turks. I will defend Wallachia with a ferocity that knows no bounds. Now, come inside. You must be hungry. I’ll allow you to sup.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
He turned around and walked up the palace steps. As I ascended behind him, I noticed a woman standing just off to the side of the entrance. She wore nice clothes made of fine silk, but they were too flimsy for the winter. Her left eye appeared bruised.
“Go to my room, woman,” Dracula ordered.
She nodded her head, smiled, and left. I knew then she was his mistress. What she endured at his hands, I could only guess.
The castle was compact. The halls were lit with more torches, yet I couldn’t shake the draft that roamed through the halls. Dracula led me into a banquet room where I found a table prepared with our dinner. He pointed to my seat and took his own at the head of the table. I paused, waiting for him. He offered no prayer. Instead, he dived into his food.
“Eat, Kostov. I have served boar and potatoes.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” I picked up the meat in my hands and began to eat.
“Each morning at nine, I’ll allow you one hour to paint my portrait. Be quick and efficient. I have no patience for such frivolities. I only do this because my people have the right to know what their ruler looks like, and…” he paused.
“And?” I prompted.
“I want the Turks to know the face of their tormentor.”
I heard a servant cough. My eyes cut in his direction. He was shorter than Dracula. He looked oddly Romanian, with his thin black hair, and loathsome eyes. He also shared the same aquiline nose that Dracula had. His clothes were an awkward fit, bulky on his slender frame.
“Do you understand the importance of this undertaking?” Dracula asked. I watched him sip a deep red liquid from his goblet. I’d never seen wine so red. Not even the wine in my own glass was as deep a color.
“Yes, of course I do, Your Majesty,” I answered.
“Good. Don’t keep me past an hour, Kostov. I have much work to do to secure my throne.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
He smiled. Red liquid seeped past his lips and he flicked out his tongue to catch it, unwilling to waste a drop.
I was up early the next morning at sunrise, laying out my paints and canvas in the room Dracula ordered me to paint his portrait in. A window looked out onto the Dîmboviţa River. As my eyes cast downward, I could see the water level in the river was significantly lower than what it should be, even for winter. My eyes caressed the length of the river, and I noted that a little further up a contingent of workers about thirty strong were working hard to build a dam to divert the water near the castle. I wondered why that was. What was Dracula planning? Just how soon did he expect the Turks to attack him? Certainly, they had to know a winter offensive was foolish.
The door creaked open and I spun around.
“Prepare for Dracula. He will arrive shortly,” a servant announced.
“Thank you,” I said. Upon further inspection, I recognized the servant from the banquet room the night before. While he seemed to fit his clothes and he was dressed in Wallachian colors, something appeared off to me. It was then that I noticed his eyes. They weren’t as round as a Romanian’s, no, they struck me as having a bit of a slant, like an Oriental’s eyes. Still, it wasn’t a distinctive feature, and I had to seriously evaluate him to recognize it.
Dracula walked in, followed by two guards. “Kostov, are you ready?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. Can you sit on the chair near the window. I need the light.”
He said nothing as he took his seat. I reached for my brush and began to paint. Dracula wore a heavy coat with a red velvet collar. His hair was deep brown with chestnut highlights. It was long, past his shoulders, and wavy, yet it was brushed neatly. This gave his gaunt frame a more filled out appearance. His sharp cheeks hinted of the ancient nobility in his blood. His eyes were round, yet cold, devoid of emotion and trust. After a long period of silence, Dracula spoke up.
“I don’t like the way you look at me, Kostov,” he said.
I paused, structuring my reply carefully in my head before speaking. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but I have to study your features if you want me to depict an accurate likeness on the canvas.”
“Perhaps if I talk a little, you’ll grow more at ease?” I suggested.
“Do you have a brother or a sister?” I asked.
“I had a brother – Radu. He’s dead now. The Turks called him ‘Radu the Handsome’,” Dracula said.
“Was he in favor with the Turks?” I ventured to ask.
Dracula spit on the floor before replying. “Yes. The Turks held us both for ransom when we were younger. The Sultan favored him because of his looks. He grew to accept their ways and the Turks lauded him with gifts.”
“You didn’t care for that?” I asked, continuing to paint.
“Radu betrayed his blood by accepting Turkish ways,” Dracula answered.
“How did he die?” I asked.
Before Dracula answered, the door opened. A servant appeared. He bowed and waited for Dracula to acknowledge him.
“Do you have a sample of the coin?” Dracula asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the servant.
The servant held up a brilliant gold coin. The sun beamed off it, sending a prism of light into the room. Dracula smiled that unusual smile, still hidden by the thickness of his mustache.
“Good. How soon can we complete a mint?” asked Dracula.
“The goldsmith said two weeks, Your Majesty.”
“Tell him he has one.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The servant gave Dracula the coin and quickly departed.
It would be an impossible task to complete in a week. It was the middle of winter and it would be a challenge to keep the fire at a temperature needed for minting.
“How long will you need to finish this painting?” asked Dracula. He fidgeted in his seat.
“Three weeks,” I replied. I deliberately asked for an additional week, knowing he would dock me a week.
“You have two,” he said. “I’ll pay you 500 Lei with my newly minted gold. Is that acceptable?”
It was a fair amount. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
Dracula seemed to finally study my appearance, as we continued with the session. His eyes bored like a candle’s flame into mine, piercing my reasoning. I felt my heart begin to pound. He sneered at me and then broke out into a rich laugh.
“Have no fear, Kostov. You’ve found favor with me. You are honest and mind your own business. I appreciate that,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” I replied.
“Did you know this is the third time for me on the Wallachian throne, Kostov?” Dracula volunteered. “These are troubling times for my people. The Turkish threat will destroy Wallachia if I let it, and I won’t. I promise you that.”
“I believe you,” I answered.
He let me paint a little longer before he stood up and walked out without saying another word.
I kept to my business in the castle, despite my desire to know more. Why was Dracula building a dam on the river? How did Radu die? I feared if I sought out the answers, I might anger Dracula, and I couldn’t afford that.
As each night fell, I spied a controlled fire in the distance from my window, and I knew it was the goldsmith hard at work. Then toward the end of the week, I saw Dracula in the courtyard of the castle inspecting newly cast iron barrels. He seemed pleased at the craftsmanship and rewarded the ironworkers with over 300 Lei. Not just a fair sum, but also an exorbitant amount. It was unlike him.
I went back to my painting, trying to work on it from memory, but my thoughts were overtaken with what was going on around me. What was Dracula up to? While he appeared firmly in command, he was acting like he should expect the unexpected.
It was cold in my room. I got up from my bed and went to the fireplace, adding a log and stoking the ambers until they flared up. I heard a loud clanking noise coming from the direction of my window. Unable to guess what it could be, I walked to the glass, casting my eyes downward.
Torches lit up the riverbank. Approximately thirty peasants were filling the cast iron barrels I’d seen before with newly minted coins, silver bars, and precious gems. After they were filled, they were rolled down to the riverbed, which had now been completely emptied of water by the dam. The peasants were burying Dracula’s treasure under the water. Brilliant, I chuckled to myself, hiding his riches in the riverbed just below his castle. But why? What did he fear? I backed away from the window lest he see me.
I pondered that question the next day, not daring to ask Dracula during his sitting. He appeared irritable and testy, as if he had a lot on his mind. Before he left he demanded to see my progress. I was almost done, taking my time on his nose and eyes, wanting to get their regal features just right. He was pleased with the result and left without another word.
As soon as he departed, I made my way to the kitchen feigning hunger. As the serving maids fawned over me, I kept an ear out for rumors and gossip.
There was talk that the Turks were staging another offensive despite the season, and Dracula was preparing for a winter battle. There was also a rumor that the Wallachian boyars wanted to overthrow Dracula for good, having had enough of his rule and his idea of punishment. I inwardly chuckled. The Turks and boyars would have to be fools to go after Dracula. Death by impalement should be enough of a deterrent against an attack of rebellion. How could anyone seriously plot against Dracula knowing his bloodlust? They were fools to try.
That night, I awoke to the tormented screams of men just outside my window, shattering the peace of my dreams. I ran over to the glass, clutching the window frame. There was Dracula in the courtyard, his unusual servant by his side, watching as thirty men from the night before were beheaded and impaled. Dracula’s eyes glowed yellow as the moon cast its approving light on him. He drank their fresh blood from a silver goblet. Why had Dracula impaled the ironworkers? I backed away from the window slowly, breathing hard and fast, yet confident that Dracula had not seen me spying on him. Still, for the first time, I feared I wouldn’t leave Bucharest alive.
I finished my painting on time and presented it to Dracula, who paid me on the spot. He approved of the likeness and ordered it hung in the main hall of the castle for all to see. I asked him if I could stay in Bucharest an extra week to spend my money and he said yes. After our meeting, I went to my room, praying I could escape from his castle under the cover of darkness.
That night, my dreams assaulted me fast and furiously, one after the other, refusing to let me wake up, leaving me to witness Dracula’s unsavory life. He was ransomed to the Turks by his father when he was ten, living under the Sultan’s roof until he was eighteen when he made his escape. He had invited Radu to escape with him, but his brother declined, and Dracula hated him from that moment on, fully believing him to be a traitor. Dracula’s father was killed and his older brother was buried alive by his foes, making way for Dracula to ascend to the throne. Dracula vowed vengeance on his enemies. I saw his bloodlust fueled to orgasmic heights as he impaled those who opposed him. Then I saw a shadow chop off Dracula’s head. I woke up, determined to leave Bucharest immediately.
The next day, I quietly went about my preparations to leave, but to my surprise, Dracula was nowhere to be found. The kitchen workers said he had gone off to battle, to face the Turks near Snagov. With that knowledge, I decided to stay. Two days later, riders from the Snagov monastery arrived and reported that Dracula was dead. They had found his decapitated body in the lake around the church. No one knew what to do, and I deemed it an appropriate time to make my exit from Wallachia.
As the castle’s servants plundered about, I went to the riverbank, hoping to find Dracula’s treasure, despite the fact the dam had been opened and the river was at its normal levels.
I paced the muddy riverbank, trying to figure out a way to get at least one barrel from the water, but no plan came to me. By now, news of Dracula’s death was filtering throughout Bucharest, and for my own safety, I decided to abandon my quest and come back at a later time when the political climate was more secure. After all, I was the only one who knew where Dracula’s gold was buried. He’d impaled everyone else who knew.
As I walked along the riverbank, I spied the golden tint of a coin where the water met the mud out of the corner of my eye. Delighted, I bent down to pick it up. Cold shivers ripped down my spine. I felt a bloodlust I never had before, and an unnerving desire for revenge. I stumbled away from the water, scared, yet hungry for the power of complete control. I clawed at my clothes, trying to rip them off, wanting to wear something more regal. My eyes went dark, then I saw Dracula’s Oriental servant wielding an iron sword. The swing was quick. The blade was sharp. Dracula’s head rolled off his body, blood spurting all over the trusted servant. Then I knew that servant had been a Turk, sent by the Sultan to infiltrate Dracula’s castle and kill him. He committed his deed in Bucharest just before Dracula rode to face the Turks. I knew all this because Dracula’s spirit had fled into his treasure, and because I was the first one to touch a piece of it, it raced into me. I yelled from the horror and collapsed on the ground, aware that my future actions would not be my own.
Time passed, a week or two, I wasn’t sure. I was weary, drained of my emotions, guided by Dracula’s spirit, desperate for revenge. With my money, I made my way to Constantinople where I found Dracula’s head exposed on a high stake in front of the Sultan’s mosque for all to see. Dracula forced me to buy a variety of killing instruments at a local bazaar. After I had done so, we made our way to Sultan Mehmed II’s palace.
It was dark when I attempted my entry, and Dracula’s personal knowledge of the palace allowed me to slither in unnoticed through a secret back door. How he hated the Turks and all they had done to his family in the name of the Lord. The hate permeated every bone in my body, making me physically sick, but still, I couldn’t stop my actions. I wasn’t as strong in body as Dracula was in spirit.
I traveled the dark halls, using secret passageways, until I found what I was looking for – the killer’s bedroom. I pushed the door open.
“Get up! Only a coward would deliver such a killing blow from behind!” I bellowed.
The Turk rose from the bed, pushing the girl he was sleeping with to the floor.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Dracula, Prince of Wallachia.”
He laughed. “I killed that fool with my own hands.”
“You don’t look like a Turk,” I replied. Dracula had finally realized what I had determined a couple of weeks ago.
The Turk grabbed a sword off his nightstand. “And you don’t look like my dead uncle.”
“Uncle?” I choked. Dracula’s spirit was stunned.
“I am Radu’s son with Sherdizade, the Sultan’s daughter,” he proudly announced.
“No!” I screamed. Dracula forced my body to pounce on the Turk. Dracula was overwhelmed by disgust as he had no idea his brother, Radu, who he detested, had embraced the Turkish ways to the point of taking a wife and spawning with them.
In the fierceness of my attack, my dagger slashed true, driving into the Turk’s heart. Then in one last attempt, he swung his sword at me. I wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way. He pierced my torso, letting my blood spill onto the floor. I knew I wouldn’t recover as my crimson blood spilled onto a canvas of red betrayal.