He stood before the picture, a luke-warm cup of tea in one hand, the forefinger of the other involved in tracing the thin metal lip of the polished bone cup. His eyes were unreadable as they slid across the painting.
A shame about the subject matter, Soren thought, and took a sip of his tea.
The portrait, rendered in luminescent oils, featured a dusky-skinned woman standing with her back to the viewer. Her long, glossy black hair had been pulled back from a square, high-cheekboned face, and the hint of a smile played across her lips. A colorful sarong wrapped her lithe, golden-skinned body. She seemed alive, preserved in a perfect moment of time, with the barest glimpse of an indomitable spirit visible in her dark eyes. Her image breathed.
Soren set his teacup down on a nearby stool and picked up a pen and clipboard. For a moment longer he stared at the painting, the pen twirling between his fingers. Then the instrument met the paper and scratched across the clipboard's surface. The sharp sounds echoed in the gallery's silence.
He started at the shout but grasped control of himself quickly. He turned in a slow, leisurely motion, his expression a carefully schooled blend of irritation and indifference.
The owner of the house stood in the doorway. A squat, solidly built man of fifty or sixty, his thin hair had fled the crown of his head completely, retreating to a lowland ring just above the ears. A generous helping of age-spots graced bare skin. Rings twinkled silver, blue, and gold on his fat knuckles. The man shuffled toward him with the help of a glass-topped cane. Soren watched his progress placidly.
"Citizen Grisht," he said, offering a slight bow in the foot of personal space the old man left him. Grisht squinted up at him near-sightedly.
"I was told you ordered that painting taken down," he rumbled. "Why was that necessary?"
Soren remained unruffled.
"I merely wished for the chance to study it closely."
"What for?" the old man bellowed. His voice collapsed on the last word, dissolving into a fit of harsh, racking coughs. Grisht pulled a square of linen free from his waist-coat pocket and held it over his wide mouth.
Soren waited for the attack to subside before replying, "To determine its acceptability."
Grisht's small, cloudy-blue eyes narrowed, nearly disappearing in the loose flesh of his face. His hand clenched around the damp handkerchief, aged tendons standing out in harsh relief to the parchment-pale skin. His breath wheezed through his mouth.
"And?" he demanded. His face held a fierceness that Soren had a hard time reconciling with his squat countenance.
"I'm afraid I have determined it inappropriate for private ownership."
"I've had that painting for sixty years!" Grisht exploded, pushing closer to Soren, forcing the younger man to move back to avoid being cuffed with the heavy cane. "How dare you!" The cane struck the stone floor and the sound rang like a bell toll through the chamber.
"Its subject matter could be construed to indicate support for the Kreen Island Nation," Soren said. "Also, the artist has made use of colors reserved for portraits of governors. Hardly a suitable possession for a citizen of your status."
"Preposterous!" Grisht sputtered. "It's in a private collection!"
The hint of a smile touched Soren's lips as he bowed his head, spreading his hands helplessly.
"My lord Citizen, I'm afraid my hands are tied. The painting features an enemy of the state and incorporates restricted colors. I'm afraid there is simply nothing I can, in all good conscience, do. You will be fined and the painting will be destroyed."
"No, you Committee bastard!" Grisht shouted. "That painting is staying right where it is!"
Anger pricked at Soren and he covered it by pulling out his pocket watch and flipping up the tarnished silver cover. Half past four. Well after his work day should have ended.
"It won't be destroyed!"
Soren's irritation grew. It was the end of the day and he was tired; tired of ordering servants to fetch ladders and lower old paintings from their dusty perches on high walls, tired of standing in a tight, dim, windowless room, and immensely tired of an old man who refused to accept reality.
"I have made my decision and filled out a report." Soren bent and retrieved his canvas carryall from where it leaned against the stool's legs. He slid his clipboard and pen into the appropriate pouches.
The blood drained from Grisht's face, leaving it a faded, doughy off-white, a shade that Soren found particularly repulsive.
"You can't," the old man said again, his voice a whisper with nothing but a shadow behind it.
Soren stared down into the other man's face and some emotion passed through him, confusing him. His emotions, even to him, were amorphous, strange things, often better ignored and pushed aside. But this one . . . what was it . . . nostalgia? A degree of pity? Pity was not an emotion that sat well with him, nor one that related to his work in the least. Besides, it was hardly as if he were consigning the man to a life of bondage. He half-turned, and his eye fell across the painting and remained fixed there. Something seemed to hang in the air above him, a great weight preparing to fall . . .but upon him or the old man, he did not know.
"Its destruction would be a great loss," he heard himself say. Grisht's breath caught in his throat and he peered suspiciously at Soren. Soren's eyes snapped from the painting and fastened on Grisht's.
"A bribe then?" Grisht panted eagerly.
Soren's slim, fox-smile edged across his face.
"A choice," he said softly. The instincts of a natural orator were within him, and he unconsciously paused for effect. "A man comes later this evening to remove the painting. He delivers it either to my house, or a bonfire."
Grisht blinked in confusion, the words not sinking in immediately. When they finally did, Soren had the dubious pleasure of watching the man's face undergo an inspirational series of contortions--from disbelief to scarlet rage--before settling on grim acceptance.
Soren swept past the man, topping the four shallow risers, and stood patiently beside the door.
"Have someone bring my coat, please," he said.
There was a long pause before Grisht spoke, and neither one of them moved.
"All right," he muttered, his voice hoarse. "All right. Take it then. I won't see it burned, even if it means giving it to a leech like you."
The old man stamped across the floor, his cane striking a chime from the stones with each step. He paused, wheezing, on the top step, and his eyes once again found Soren's. Soren was surprised and mildly horrified to see fat tears dripping down the old man's jowls.
"I hope it brings you nothing but misery," Grisht whispered harshly. Then he shoved open the door, stepped past Soren, and yelled for a servant to bring his coat.
The mid-winter sky outside was a clear, pale blue with a bright curl of moon visible just over the tops of the buildings across the street. Soren cut a stark figure, wrapped dark on a colorless day. He stood at the top of the wide granite steps leading down to the street from Grisht's immense front doors. Wind snatched at the hem of his coat and flapped the fabric. He flipped up his collar and settled his bag across his shoulders.
He was not worried about any sort of retribution on Grisht's part, whether legal or otherwise, and it showed in his manner and step. Likewise, guilt was kept easily at bay. Grisht knew better, as did all prominent citizens, than to dispute a councilman. Life tended to grow difficult for such individuals. No, his claim to the painting would not be challenged. Soren was gifted with near phenomenal abilities to read people, and he knew that, despite Grisht's emotional display, the painting would be in his home before midnight.
Soren took a deep breath of the sharp air, enjoying the nip of it in his nose and lungs, the clean purity of it. The whisper of a scent tickled his nose, a cloying, sharp smell that touched a response from some place deep in his mind.
Soren turned a corner and a sound he had filed away as wind revealed itself as the roar of a bonfire. Several students stood off on the sidelines, glowering disapproval, while saffron-robed Council Officials darted back and forth from the gaping entrance of a university library, bearing armloads of books, which they tossed into the blaze. A column of black smoke rose from the mound, carrying glowing embers and charred scraps of paper. With each armload, a fresh shower of sparks eddied upward.
Another round of banned books from the Committee, Soren thought distantly. He felt nothing, beyond a flush of approval, along with the contempt most of the favored felt for the General Citizenry. Who knew what thoughts could be sparked by books? The Council knew.
And I do the Council's work.
The Officials seemed to have things under control, but he had seen such situations escalate quickly to where the city-guard found itself hard-pressed to restore order. Soren moved over one street and hailed a passing cab.
He arrived home half an hour later, prepared to fall into a favorite chair. His house sat on a quiet side-street with a front door of plain, unornamented wood. Obscurity, he'd discovered, served better than a dozen house-guards during a riot. A servant girl met him at the door and took his coat.
"Tea, Kyre, in my study," he said shortly.
"My lord," the maid began, bowing her head and remaining bent, a sign that she had either a request to make or news to give. Servants were taught early on not to make eye contact with their master while speaking.
"Teys is here. In your study."
His sister's son, who was still reeling from the recent loss of his wife. A tragedy, and Teys was understandably having a difficult time reclaiming the proper degree of cool detachment that society demanded of a man of his status. So he had been packed off to Soren's house to recover from his grief, safely removed from society's criticism and velvet cruelty.
"Spiced ambrey, please," he said. Kyre nodded serenely, deepening her bow as she did so, then straightened and left. Soren smiled and shook his head. He would have to speak to his house-master about the girl. She should have known to wait for his permission before turning away.
He sighed good-naturedly. Such were the trials of attempting to maintain a proper household in such chaotic times. Soren straightened his collar, unconsciously undoing the topmost button. He moved softly across the carpets, through the waiting hall and toward the back of the house and his study. He couldn't help but feel put out by his nephew's presence. He imagined he could already sense that presence pervading his house. A man's home, under proper conditions, was not to be used to entertain guests, but to be left to the man. He wished he could have sent Teys to a hotel, but knew that if the boy was in no shape to withstand simple family gatherings, he would be equally helpless at one of the communal dinners most hotels required of their patrons.
Teys was as much a mess as he had feared. The young man looked shrunken as he sat in an oversized chair, engulfed in a sea of burgundy velvet. His face, at first glance, appeared clear of emotions, but Soren's trained eye could easily see the torrent of thoughts swimming beneath his false veneer of calm.
Teys stood when his uncle entered the room and Soren noticed how much weight the boy had dropped. He looked as if an errant breeze could easily have snapped him in half.
"Uncle." Teys' voice was hollow, and when Soren nodded, he fell back into the chair as if even that small exercise had been exhausting.
Yes, he could see why the boy had been sent to him. Vague irritation filtered across his mind, and shame that a member of his family could be deprived of their control so easily. Rage, fear, grief, all such emotions were acceptable from the lower classes, but more was to be expected of the elite--particularly those representing the new government. That an older citizen like Grisht lost his hold was understandable considering his age, but such a lack in a young, strong man like Teys was unforgivable.
Soren breathed an inward sigh, eased himself into a chair, and attempted to fill the hour before supper with noncommittal banter. Kyre's arrival with the ambrey he had requested came as a relief, the heavy gold liquid glimmering from within cut-crystal glasses and dusted with a spoonful of finely ground spice. The girl tended to the study's large hearth while the two men sipped at their drinks.
Kyre finished prodding the fire and stood. As she passed Soren she bent and whispered into his ear, "A package has arrived for you. The house-master would like to know where you wish it placed. It is rather . . . large."
So, Grisht had actually sent it. Soren had half expected the old man to opt for its destruction out of spite. He allowed a smile to touch his lips before replying: "The library, Kyre."
"Yes, sir. " She bowed again before exiting the room.
The painting had crossed his threshold and was here to stay.
Soren was unconcerned about his staff. They were properly trained, respectful. They knew better than to question him, or to talk about anything that transpired in his house. After all, who in their right mind would hire a loose-lipped servant?
"Shall we move to the dining room?" he asked Teys, setting his glass down and standing. "I believe dinner is ready."
In the hour before bed, he ducked into the library and admired his latest acquisition. The painting had been unwrapped and propped against a chair, waiting to be hung. Lamplight flashed off the gilded frame and sank into the canvas, adding to the painting's depth and dimensionality. The Islander girl's eyes shone as he met them. Her expression challenged more than he remembered and yet at the same time remained secretive and alluring. The winds which played with the slim strands of her hair and the liquid fall of her garment seemed almost tangible.
The screams woke him in the quiet of the early morning. Soren lay still, listening to them, unsure whether they were part of the material world or the products of his dreams. Within moments his befuddlement fled and he leaped out of bed.
Two house-servants ran past his door as he opened it. Soren snatched the arm of the one closest to him and pulled the man to his side.
"What's going on?" he demanded, irritation barely obscuring his growing fear and the sense of his lack of control over the situation.
The servant, an older man, his face chalky, swallowed hard before speaking.
"It-it's nothing, Sir. J-just go on back to bed. We'll take care of it. "
Soren stared hard at the man. Never before had anyone lied to him so blatantly. He knew that the man was only doing his job; unless the master of the house was threatened, disturbing matters were to be cleaned up quickly, and presented to him at a decent hour.
"Just go back to bed, Sir," the servant pleaded. He yanked his sleeve free and sprinted after his fellow. Soren scowled and set off after him, struggling to ignore the wails.
The screams emanated from the library, but even had he been deaf, he would have known that. Servants crowded in a knot around the door and more streamed into the hall every second. The servant he had followed pushed his way through the mass of people and won his way into the room. Soren was impressed.
"Here, move aside!" Soren ordered. Servants hesitated before slowly opening a path for him. As his foot crossed the threshold the screams stopped and for a moment he hoped they'd been silenced. Then he realized that whoever voiced them had merely been drawing a breath to continue his tirade.
The lighting in the chamber was dim, but strong and merciless enough to illuminate the scene of utter chaos before him.
Lying on the floor, writhing and bucking like a wild thing, three men fighting to hold him down.
One man, his face red and straining and glistening with sweat, struggled to keep the boy's left arm pressed flat against the floor. Teys' tendons stood out as sharply as cords, his knuckles dead white and near to bursting out of his skin. Something flashed in the lamplight and Soren realized his nephew held a letter-opener like a dagger. Teys screamed and howled, his face so completely warped by fury as to be unrecognizable.
"Burn it!" Teys' screamed. "It's a demon!"
Soren drove himself from his shock and moved forward, and as he did so, Teys, with an inhuman burst of strength, wrenched his arm free. The letter-opener glittered as it arced, slashing a servant's arm, and the man cried out. All three leaped back, one holding his wounded comrade. Soren saw blood stain the sleeve of the servant's torn night-shirt.
Teys panted viciously, spit flecking his lips, his face bruised from some blow, sustained, doubtless, when the men had attempted to restrain him. With a cry he threw himself at the painting which, Soren noticed belatedly, had a sheet thrown across it. The boy planted the knife in the center of the canvas. With a sharp popping sound the blade pierced both sheet and linen, driving through clean to the hilt. With a dry rasp, the boy pulled the weapon free and raised it for another blow.
One of the house-servants slammed a fist across the back of Teys' skull before that second blow could fall. Soren stood, frozen by the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. His mind groped for an explanation for Teys' behavior and settled finally on the silvery-clear thought--Mad, he's gone mad!
Teys cried out and slumped forward. The letter-opener fell from his slack fingers, struck the carpet's edge, and was kicked into a far corner by the servant who had hit him.
"Get the damn doctor!" the man barked, and Soren could hear the command being repeated further down the hall. Two other men lifted Teys' unresisting form and carried him out of the library. Neither looked at Soren as they passed. In the hallway, the other servants melted away, leaving him facing the third man. The servant wordlessly retrieved the letter-opener.
"My Lord." He offered Soren a taut bow and left, following the others into the house's midnight darkness.
Soren's eyes raked over the room, absorbing the damage. Two of his favorite chairs had been knocked over. He set both back upon their feet. A handful of books were scattered near one of the chairs. He picked them up and stacked them on the chair's seat. Silence rang in the room, broken only by the hissing of the gas jets. With the books and chairs tidied, he found himself doubting what he had just seen.
No doubt. A few spots of blood gleamed from the carpet.
I'll have that looked after in the morning, he thought, and collapsed into one of the chairs. Tremors ran along his limbs. He could not imagine what had driven Teys to such actions. He could only hope that the apparent madness was temporary.
Soren drew a deep, shuddering breath, and saw again Teys' face, twisted into a mask of rage; saw the boy's arm lift, the flash of the blade, heard the sound it had made as it struck -
He leaped to his feet and ran halfway across the room. The sheet that Teys' had, for whatever reason, thrown across the canvas, sagged off of one corner, and the gas-light flashed off the frame's gilded edge. Trembling, Soren pulled it free, the sheet falling to the floor and piling around his ankles like a snow-drift. Blood drained from his face as a dull buzz filled his ears. The rest of the room faded away as his mind struggled to accept what lay before it.
The portrait of the islander girl had disappeared. In its place was the warm, blond tranquility of Teys' wife Cerina, her summer-blue eyes lilting and joyous. The gash Teys' knife had made slit one of her bare arms, but left her face untouched.
Soren stumbled backward. A chair caught him at the backs of his knees and he folded into it. His eyes never left the painting. He could find no answer for the two-fold question of where the painting he had taken from Grisht's had gone and where this one had come from. Had Teys' brought it with him? Had the house-master misunderstood him, and taken Grisht's painting to another room? His mind struggled, running circles around itself, before one simple observation stopped him.
The frame. The painting's frame was identical to the one Grisht's painting had come in.
He was wrong. He must be.
Sudden energy sparked through him and he lunged to his feet. But even as he sought to disprove his first observation, a second popped into his mind. The style of Cerina's painting was remarkably similar to that of the islander. Soren had studied enough art to recognize the same hand at work, the same use of color and shadow, of expression and form.
On a mantle behind him, the library's clock struck one. Soren jumped, but could not take his eyes from the painting.
A trick. It has to be, he told himself frantically. It was a trick of some kind, though who would do such a thing, or would have the means to do it, he could not even begin to guess. He shook his head and ran his hands over the painting. It was dry, even cracked with age in a few places along the edges, where the varnish had not been thick enough.
Grisht must have done this somehow. He must have heard that Teys' was going to be staying here, must have gotten this, replaced the other . . .
The scenario rang false before he had half-finished thinking it out, but there simply was no other alternative, none at all . . .
Soren struggled to catch his breath as his chest tightened. Cerina's painted eyes held his with a vitality and surety that had never been possessed by the real Cerina, a rather retiring, vapid girl, taken to simple pursuits and few thoughts other than which party would require her attendance next. These eyes shimmered and sang, and slowly swirled from blue into brown.
The change occurred so suddenly he had no way of knowing when he first noticed. A minute or an hour--time, the room, the world seemed to have slipped away from him, leaving only a flat square of floorboards, himself, and the painting.
Whose now brown eyes were filled with originality, with creativity, with love.
Soren gasped but could not move, could not look away. As if it had waited only for him to notice, changes were now taking place all over the canvas, and though they seemed to be happening very quickly, he could still discern each as it occurred. The background: it had been a bright, out-doors scene, a branch heavy with spring-time blossoms arching over Cerina's head. Now the lighting shifted, grading into that of a well-lit solar--a room crowded with an artist's paraphernalia. Cerina's figure drew farther away, lengthening, her pale blue dress fading into a long, wine-colored smock, her hair darkening into a straight, waist-length fall of sable brilliance. Her sweet, heart-shaped face narrowed, the features rearranging themselves, shifting like smoke before settling into their new configuration.
A dull whine filled Soren's throat and tears stung his eyes as, from the frame's unchanged patina, his mother stared out at him.
She stood behind a canvas mounted on an easel, a palette in her hands and tubes of paint scattered around her feet. She smiled out at the viewer, a brush held in her left hand a few inches above the surface of the canvas.
Soren's legs buckled and he fell to the floor, hands slack between his knees, and still his eyes never left the painting. His mind skipped back five years, to the very first stirrings of the Revolution, to his anger at his mother for not understanding the importance of the movement. His father had died ten years before that, the summer of his eleventh birthday, and since then his mother had cared less and less for anything besides painting. She even taught, taking on a girl from one of the lower servant's households. She had never understood.
Never, he thought fiercely, never, even when she was dying of tuberculosis, contracted from her precious student. No matter how many times he had tried to explain to her, to make her see the importance of it all. Her art had destroyed her reason, her self-control, herself.
Blackness surrounded him and he found himself transported to a bleak winter day, the skies a mass of leaden clouds and stinging white snow-flakes. The day's overwhelming grayness was broken only by the orange flames of the fire he stood before, and the sparks it threw upwards as he added each new canvas. He had not dressed for the weather and the cold bit and gnawed at him but he ignored it, conscious only of the fire. He refused to let his gaze wander as he added his mother's paintings to it, one by one. The flames leaped, swirled . . .
Only now a form writhed at their center. A charred shape that swirled, coalesced into eyes and stared at him from his mother's face, a face of fire.
Soren screamed and buried his face in his hands. Tears ran helplessly down his cheeks. When he finally dared to raise his eyes, he found himself in his library, and his mother still stared at him from the painting.
Grisht moved as quickly as he was able. Cold days affected his arthritis more than others and the old wound on his leg made itself known more of late. He cursed as he stumped along, careful of his cane's placement, not wanting to add the aggravation of a spill to an already grueling week.
Not in front of that bastard, he thought.
Two worried-looking servants stood beside his front door and he waved them away with an impatient hand, though he noticed they did not go far. He paused only long enough to compose himself before he flung the door open and glared at the person who stood outside.
"Well, what do you want now? To take another--" The words died as Soren's eyes met his. The younger man appeared to have aged overnight. Dark circles stained the skin around his eyes and the expression on his pale, drawn face bordered what Grisht would have called fear.
Soren's voice was lifeless as he lifted a large, paper-wrapped package and passed it through the portal. One of the servants ran forward and took hold of the object, steadying it beside a mystified Grisht.
"What are you doing?" Grisht asked. The other man gave him a searching look and turned away.
"But . . . for where?" Grisht sputtered, even as he wondered why he cared.
"Anywhere, other than here," Soren said softly, and walked down the steps. A cab waited for him at the curb.
x x x
Art and beauty be in the eye of the beholder. Looks like Soren needs an opthamologist--or maybe just a swift kick in the butt. Your comments?