The Artist

artist: cabecadaShe hadn’t known Stephen long; he’d come into their lives a few months ago. He had emerged from that mental twilight that always separates the us from the others and had joined their friend group with all the ease of a cat settling onto its perch. Even though he was the youngest of them – only seventeen – sometimes he seemed as though he were the most adult, the only one among them fully formed and ready to take on the world.

He had always been so comfortable with himself. It was what made the funeral so strange – the stiffness and awkwardness with which he lay in the coffin. He seemed ready to leap up at any moment, straighten his tux, and go play the part of best man for some older friend’s wedding.

Did he really look so solemn in life? she wondered as her hand skated across the page. Should she look just as solemn? Most others did. Anna was seated across the room, sobbing into a black lace handkerchief. Then again, that numb and callous part of her brain reminded her, Anna had a flair for drama. She was probably the only person in the city who even had a black lace handkerchief.

Anna had also been Stephen’s girlfriend.

She hated funerals. She hated the way that no one seemed comfortable in their grief, and that no one seemed to know what to say. And she was no better than anyone else. She only knew how to talk with her hands, and she did so now, sketching without really thinking. Because thinking would make her just as uncomfortable as the rest of them.

No one noticed her as she sat with her open pad. Or if they did, they pretended not to. They wanted their time alone with him to seem real, perhaps – as though they were in a little bubble around the sarcophagus, and only they could speak, and only he could listen. They murmured and they cried, and they said goodbye. And as they left the church, she heard many of them say, “why?”

As if the corpse would sit up and reply, or the church would split and some angel would emerge from the steeple to tell them. Maybe they wanted reassurance, that this death had some grand significance and the young, brilliant man had been taken for a reason. Whether the reason was there or not, it was an answer they would never get. And if they could, she wondered as she drew, would they have been able to handle the answer they got? Would they even have been able to understand it?

Drawing was the one thing she had really shared with Stephen. She was always a little too quiet, a little too off to the sidelines while he seemed caught in the spotlight on a regular basis. But they were in art class together, and it was the one place in which she seemed to outshine him. He wasn’t jealous of her talent, just admiring. He’d asked her once to make a portrait of him.

“If you don’t think it’s too weird,” he’d said with the half-smile that seemed to get him anything.

Well, she was making his portrait now.

She became aware, suddenly, of a presence just above and behind her. She picked up her pencil and half turned to see who it was, and found herself staring into the red-rimmed eyes of Anna. She still held that ridiculous lace handkerchief and she leaned over to scrutinize the sketch. Her eyes wandered over the shape of his head, his eyes, the bridge of his nose. Then she hissed with all the venom of a rattlesnake, “It looks nothing like him.”

Anna stalked up to the coffin, looked down for a moment on the last expression of her beloved, and burst into a loud wail, throwing herself down over the upper half of his body. The artist held up her sketch and compared it to the corpse that was now being given the extra burden of his former girlfriend, who didn’t seem inclined to let go or even muffle her shrieking.

Anna was right. It looked nothing like he did now.

It looked the way he used to, when they sat together in art class. Pensive, focused, iconic. And with a strength hidden in him that couldn’t be expressed through that stiff stillness.

The artist closed her sketch pad and stood. The others could mourn their dead comrade in his wooden box. She, at least, would leave with something living.

***

Thanks to cabecada for the inspirational piece of art, which was originally brought to my attention by bwthoughts. I wish I could have done it better justice but sometimes I guess you just have to put out what’s on your mind.

If you’re interested in getting some of your own art exhibited on this page, why not send it on over, or link me to its location? Visit the Call for Art page for more information. And, of course, comments and constructive criticisms are always welcome.

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Tracks, Chapter Nine: Rain and Mud

Click here to read the previous chapter, or here to read from the beginning.

***

“Who was he?” Phillip said. He looked no better than usual – the circles under his eyes were dark as bruises and the flesh hung loose from his cheeks. His rich velvet collar no longer hugged his neck and beads of sweat could be seen where  his neck met his shoulders. He picked up his cup of wine with trembling hands. Perhaps if they weren’t so weighted down with rings, the Falconer thought, they wouldn’t shake so much.

“He was a man of trivial importance,” the Falconer replied. “Some part of the vaster network, but hardly clever enough to be a ringleader.”

The man had been caught trying to dig his way under the city wall, accessing some of the old sapping tunnels that had been under the city since the Dark wars. He’d acted confused when they first took him, then defiant, as though he could withstand their questioning. Needless to say, he didn’t think so now.

“So? What do you have from him?”

The Falconer pulled a sheet of paper from his coat-pocket. Unfolding it, he handed it over to the king. “A confession,” he began. “And two names. Jeremy Saul – that was the clerk His Majesty attempted to investigate last week – and Hastor Plumm. Our informant claims that Plumm is the man who made the bombs.”

“Mmm.” Phillip took another sip of wine and said over the rim of the glass, “Do you believe him?”

“I do not think we will find a man named Hastor Plumm in the city, whether he ever existed or not. As for Saul, he was very careful to destroy what parts of his office might still be of use to us after his bomb went off. My men have taken the fragments for analysis, but I doubt we’ll have relevant information in good time.”

“You will, of course, still look for this Plumm.”

“Of course,” the Falconer allowed. “And there may yet be names to extract from our dear friend. Perhaps he thought that jotting down one or two would suffice.” Yet he couldn’t know more than four or five of the other participants. No one so low on the ladder would have many names to give up.

“Very well. There is one thing more, Falconer.” Phillip pushed a small piece of paper across the table. It was signed and affixed with his seal. “Lord Enbar is to be the new ambassador to the Darklands. He was scheduled to leave last week. Every day he is delayed is a little more embarrassing to us – so unless he’s involved in this scheme, give this to your guards. They will allow his party past the city gate.”

The Falconer bowed. He recognised a dismissal. And he had much yet to do.

***

Rain and mud. It seemed to be everywhere. The rain trickled down his neck and somehow got between his skin and his shirt, making everything damp and cold even though he was wearing his leather alchemist’s coat. The tips of his boots were not, he had discovered, waterproof, and his toes hadn’t been dry for days now.

He’d gotten rid of his horse after the second day. He probably shouldn’t have stolen it in the first place – but speed was of the essence that close to Siege City. He could’ve gotten twice as much for the horse, he thought as he tugged his coat this way and that in a vain attempt to repel more rain. On the other hand, the man who bought it wasn’t the kind to go to the authorities. Better to cover his tracks than make a little more money.

From then on he’d walked along the road, begging rides from anyone going his direction. Sometimes they let him up, sometimes they pretended they couldn’t see him. Sometimes he had to show a little money first. And he hadn’t slept in a proper bed for nine days, since he’d bolted. Which made the sight of the Red Rose Inn the most welcome thing he’d seen since he’d passed through the gates of Siege City.

It was the only inn along this road for perhaps a day’s ride in either direction, and its size reflected the number of customers it was always sure to have. The long, low buildings were for the poorer ones, who could be sure of a meal, shelter from the elements, and good conversation, even though they’d have no privacy. In other journey’s he’d paid to sleep in those rooms. They provided a fun enough evening, though you always had to keep a hand on your most valuable items.

But not tonight. He skirted the wide buildings and headed for the taller one in the centre, the one for rich men. His privacy would be respected there, and no one would ask questions.

It didn’t hurt that someone else was paying his bill.

When he entered he removed his broad brown hat, shaking water from the brim. Then he approached the high, dark desk, where an apprehensive porter was eyeing him. He didn’t blame the man. He hadn’t shaved since he’d left the city, and his beard had always grown in rather patchy. Mud streaked his thin face and his hair was greasy and needed trimming. He looked more like a vagabond than a functioning member of society.

The porter was trained not to judge by appearances, but he did not seem easy until he’d read over the traveler’s note a good few times. Then he begged his guest’s pardon, but it would be a few moments while he alerted Lord Sand of the man’s arrival.

The porter was evidently hoping that Lord Sand would come down himself, denounce the wretch and have him turned away from the inn. But the servant he sent came back with a note and a purse, and the porter had to allow the scraggly traveler admittance.

“Room fourteen is free for you,” he said with evident disdain, and handed the man a key. The servant who had delivered Lord Sand’s note took his bag and preceded him up the stairs.

The room was likely the smallest the Red Rose Inn had available, but it was more than spacious enough for him. The room was well insulated, with soft rugs all over the floor and a tall bed that would have fit two of him with room to spare. A fire was already lit in the grate. The wide windows were shuttered and the noise of the yard was muffled to a discontent muttering. He felt warmer already.

“I’ll have a bath before my evening meal,” he said. In reply, the servant handed him a note.

Come directly to room 23.

***

“I hope you don’t mind the smell,” he said as he entered a minute later. He had shrugged off his coat and now that the shirt underneath was exposed for the first time in days, it exuded a faint whiff of mildew. Among other things.

The man he faced seemed not to care. He was impeccably dressed and bathed, as though he were about to receive an important guest, or go to the theatre. He wore a tailored waistcoat and silk kerchief, despite the warmth of his room. Currently, he was seated in a fat armchair with his feet up on a little stool. A book rested in one hand. “Help yourself to some wine, Mr Plumm,” he said, and gestured to a bottle of rich red wine sitting next to a plate of game. A half-full glass sat on the table just beside him.

“Please,” sneered the man as he picked up the bottle. “You know my name, just as I know yours.”

“I would not think you would wish to advertise your real name.” Daniel Gallow shut the book and set it down next to his wine glass.

“No one’s looking for John Bevy,” he said. “Not like you.”

“That is true,” Daniel allowed. “But you never know who might be listening.” He looked around the room as if to illustrate his point. It was a private dining parlour, set for two. Bevy took the hint and seated himself in front of a plate. “You can assure me that you came here quite alone?”

“Three days I’ve gone without seeing another soul.” He took a large bite of quail and washed it down with a gulp of wine. On the latter he coughed, and looked on the verge of spitting it out – then he seemed to remember where he was, and made an effort to swallow it instead. “Strong wine,” he commented.

“In the evening I prefer to have one glass of strong wine to three of a less potent variety,” Daniel said. “It helps me sleep.” He stood, and crossed to the table. “What will you do now?” he asked as he sat again, this time across from Bevy.

“Collect my money.” Bevy’s eyes flashed. “Disappear. I have a letter of apprenticeship from Daskill Lant that will get me work in Queensborough or some similar town.”

Daniel steepled his fingers. “I know Daskill Lant,” he said. “We paid him to acquire your materials.” He was frowning.

Bevy in his turn began to feel uneasy. He quashed the feeling with another bite of quail. “So?” he said, and took a sip of wine. It really was good when strong. He could see why a rich man might prefer to have it without water. But a poor man had to stretch a good thing, make it last. He had no doubt that Daniel Gallow had ordered the best wine the inn had to offer.

“So, when the Falconer finds him, the trail will inevitably lead to you. You, who left the city at such a perfect moment, with no apparent reason, just to look for work in a smaller city where you had no contacts and no hope to rise in rank. What was the point of calling yourself Hastor Plumm if your real name will soon be sought out in every alchemical den in the country?”

“Who says the Falconer will find Lant?” croaked Bevy. His throat was suddenly dry. More wine.

“The Falconer finds everyone, eventually. It’s only a matter of time.

“Well, if I can’t make my way, I’ll need something to live off.” Bevy glanced pointedly towards Daniel’s belt, where a fat purse sat attached by the strings.

The older man drew his thin lips back in what might have been a smile, but seemed more like a threat, a baring of teeth. He untied the purse and set it down on the table. Bevy paused in his eating to pick it up and appreciate the weight. “It’s good,” he said finally.

“It’s everything we agreed on.”

“Good, good,” he said again. “But that was before you put me out of work. How am I supposed to subsist without my endorsement from Lant?” He picked up the purse again. “Some secrets are heavy weights to carry,” he said ominously.

Daniel seemed unphased by his demand. He reached into his pocket and pulled out another purse. This was substantially smaller, but when he placed it into Bevy’s hand the man widened his eyes. “Gold,” he said simply. “Pure. It should help you on your new road.”

Bevy smiled, revealing browning, cracked teeth. “To your health,” he said, raising the glass. Daniel obliged, and they drank. The alchemist drained his cup to the dregs, and picked up the bottle. But it slipped from his grasp and clunked on the table. He stared at his hand. It had begun to tremble, and had turned deathly pale.

“I would drink to yours, but I am afraid it would do you no good,” Daniel said in a melancholy voice. Bevy turned wide, wild eyes on him. “It was in the glass,” he clarified. Bevy’s hands clenched convulsively. He opened his mouth, perhaps to shout, but the only noise that came out was a thin whistling as his throat began to close up.

“You were never as careful as we wished, you see.” He seemed to be apologizing. “Lant knew where you were going and who you were. Several of my agents saw you on the road. And…money.” He picked up both purses and swung the smaller one like a pendulum in front of Bevy’s rapidly discolouring face. “We knew you’d ask for more. And you’d bargain for our names. My colleague and I have risked it all for the sake of this one ideal. We can’t let you just sell it.”

Bevy’s clenched hands pushed down on the table and slowly he came away from his chair. His lips pulled back in one last sneer, and one leg moved forward. But his legs could no longer take his weight, and he sprawled on the floor, sputtering his last. Perhaps it was a curse, perhaps a prayer.

Daniel didn’t care, either way.

He had instructed the staff not to disturb him for the remainder of the evening. They would find the body mid morning, most likely, unless someone complained of the smell before then. And by that time, he would be deep into the tangled woods to the north, on his way to the next safe house.

***