The final moments of the zombie summit were, as Dragomir had predicted, spectacular. Disgusting, but spectacular.
From the moment Dragomir revealed his alliance with the rats - however tentative it may have been - the zombies seemed delighted to make his acquaintance. The clans fawned over him endlessly, presenting him with lavish gifts, the finest accommodations, and servants who would bend to his every beck and call. And, of course, they would happily join his army against the Non. Of course they would.
Dragomir suspected that the zombie willingness to please was feigned. He knew all too well the kind of control the rats exercised over the dead, and he suspected they could do the same to zombies. Unlike angry ghosts, however, the ambling undead hid behind good manners and flattery. Plenty of shifty gazes and veiled, suggestive language told Dragomir more truth than he needed, and since he’d won their allegiance, Dragomir didn’t care what the zombies really thought. If they fought the Non, they were fine.
Negotiations with the zombies had taken roughly five minutes of Dragomir’s time. Concluding the negotiations… now that was a trickier matter. The Sky Bitch had been parked outside the growing zombie campgrounds for several weeks, now, its crew growing ever uneasier the longer they spent in Non territory. The Non didn’t seem to care about the zombies, however, and they allowed the clans to gather peacefully. Dragomir didn’t understand why Kierkegaard was willing to leave their meeting unmolested - surely he knew by now - but he kept scouts watching in all directions regardless.
The zombies, Dragomir had been reminded, were sticklers for two things: tradition and ceremony. They were the fanciest folk he’d ever met, even if their finery was old, tattered, and covered in aged, tacky gore. They wore their suits and dresses with pride, and when the last of the clans finally arrived to pay homage to their new commander-in-chief, their greatest chiefs personally presented Dragomir with a battered, moth-eaten military outfit. It was covered in more tassels than any suit had a right to bear.
“You look like a rug,” Libby commented, watching Dragomir with a smirk as he inspected himself in a mirror. “The folks back home’re gonna laugh you right out of the military.”
“Gee, thanks.” Dragomir glared moodily at the oversized general’s cap, perched half-cocked on his head. It was, somehow, even baggier than the travelling hat he’d worn during his trip through the Imperium. “I wanna suit like yours. Yours is all trim. And it has cool buttons.”
Libby smoothed her captain’s uniform, pleased. “Damn right it has cool buttons.”
That conversation took place roughly twenty minutes before Titan Blue and Evangelina destroyed the zombie’s collective marketplace. By the time the battle was over, Dragomir had forgotten all about his silly military outfit - though he was forced to recall it pretty quickly, as the zombies dragged him away from his daughter and off to their closing ceremonies. No amount of complaining got him out of this ‘honour’.
It was… a sight.
Not since his days on the walls of Castle BadMemories, watching over the Neck, had Dragomir witnessed such a dramatic spectacle of flying guts and flailing limbs. Every motion, every twist of a torso, every delighted roar of the zombie horde served to bring Dragomir’s breakfast a little bit closer to his uvula. By the end he was quite thoroughly sick, and his retching was only made worse when an enormous wave of ox blood splashed him in the face. He blacked out when an eyeball somehow rolled its way into his mouth.
When he woke up, Dragomir was completely clean, his uniform as dry and mothy as it had ever been. He was still in the care of the zombies, and he had no desire to discover how they’d so thoroughly cleansed him. Judging by his attendant’s gleeful, half-rotten face, though, Dragomir suspected that his reaction was exactly what they’d wanted.
Dragomir woke up three hours before the moon’s rise. By the time it was perched high in the sky, its lidless eye inspecting a bank of massing clouds that threatened winter, Dragomir had finished his prep work. He was ready to talk.
Boarding the Sky Bitch, his squirming diary under one arm, Dragomir clomped quietly through the engineering section, eyes on his feet. Nearby workers watched him pass with trepidation, some saluting, some waving, most exchanging uneasy glances. No one ever quite seemed to know what to do when Dragomir was around, because he had no official military rank. Pagan had insisted Dragomir take some title, but Dragomir couldn’t quite bring himself to do it.
I’d feel fake, he thought, eyes focused on the far end of engineering, wishing the network of gears that made the ship fly would spring to life and drown out the lonely thunk of his footsteps. He didn’t want to look anyone in the eye. I already feel pretty damned fake, and I don’t wanna push it too far.
Deep in the bowels of the Sky Bitch were a pair of small, cramped prison cells. Dragomir had never visited them before, and he was confident that no one had ever spent time in either one - save, perhaps, the occasional bored and drunken crew member, mistaking the tiny cots for their own bed. Today, though, they finally had an honest-to-gods occupant.
Pagan was waiting for Dragomir in the hallway leading to the cells, his cane propped against the wall. He was reading a small, dusty book, and he snapped it shut at Dragomir’s approach. “Commander.”
“Stop calling me that,” Dragomir said, without enthusiasm. “You know I hate it.”
“I’ll keep making suggestions until you find one that suits you,” Pagan replied, shrugging. “He’s ready. Are you?”
Dragomir’s mouth dried, and the lump in his throat suggested he was anything but ready. Nevertheless, he nodded.
“Fine.” Pagan motioned him into the cramped jail. “Shall I accompany you? Or do you want privacy?”
“Privacy,” Dragomir said at once. “And tell Libby to turn the ship on. Doesn’t have to go anywhere, I just want lots of noise.”
“Ah.” Pagan stroked a set of invisible whiskers, apparently protruding outward and upward from his not-inconsequential beard. “Is it like that?”
Dragomir got the hint. “Yep. Get to it, advisor.”
Nodding and throwing a casual salute, Pagan left. The clunk of his armour echoed down the hallway for several minutes, fading into the distance - and, eventually, covered by the hum of the Sky Bitch’s engines as they shuddered to life. Dragomir waited for the ship to rev to full steam before entering the jail, and he jammed the door shut behind him with a chair. At the very least it would buy him a few moments should anyone try to enter.
The jail’s single prisoner sat cross-legged on a rough cot just barely big enough to accommodate his middle-aged bulk. He, too, was reading a book, but he didn’t close it when Dragomir entered. With his broken fingers tightly-wrapped, he didn’t look capable of turning the pages. He simply looked up and smiled through the wrap of his cloak.
“Hello, Dragomir the Guard,” said The Baron, lifting a bandaged hand in greeting. “It has been a long time.”