To Andrys Tarrant,
Hotel Paradisio, Suite
Regarding the work you contracted this past Friday atmy establishment, specifically the ceremonial breastplate with yellow gold decorative motifs: If it is your intention to wear this item, then I will need to see you some time soon to verify its proportions. If it is meant for display purposes only, such a meeting will not be necessary, although you are, of course, welcome to come see our progress any time it pleases you.
Please let me know which is the case as soon as possible, so that we can complete this project with all good speed.
Yours in service,
Standing outside the shop, Andrys found himself shivering. Was
inside? He didn’t know if he hoped for that or feared it—or both in combination—but there was no denying that she had utterly obsessed him. He had dreamed of her practically every night, her dark eyes haunting his nightmare-laden sleep. He had drunk himself into insensibility more than once to try to make her image fade from his brain, but it had only grown stronger. And now he was here, and in all likelihood she was inside . . . and he didn’t know how to speak to her. Was it because of her beauty, or his weakened condition, or some strange combination of the two? He had always known how to handle women before, even in the depths of his depression; what made this one so different?
With a shaking hand he brushed back his hair, trying to tame it into some semblance of order. A hopeless gesture. Calesta had ordered him to let it grow, and though the reason for that was something Andrys couldn’t begin to guess at, like all of Calesta’s orders it was meant to be obeyed. Did the demon really have a greater plan, Andrys sometimes wondered, or was he just toying with a wounded soul, seeing how long it would take Gerald Tarrant’s last descendant to break? He didn’t dare think about that. He needed the illusion of purpose even more than he needed its substance. The demon hated Gerald Tarrant every bit as much as he did, and had sworn the sorcerer’s destruction. That was enough, wasn’t it? Who cared what the details of his strategem were, if in the end the battle was won? Who cared if Andrys understood it?
He opened his leather satchel to made sure the painting was still there. It was. Hateful, hateful thing! It made his heart knot up just to look at it, rolled up into a tight little tube as if it were just some innocuous work of art being carted home from the decorator’s. Amazing, what kind of power a simple object could have. He hoped he wouldn’t have to unroll it. He hoped they wouldn’t need to see it. He prayed that someday he would be free to burn it, along with all the hateful memories it conjured.
With a trembling hand he reached out to open the door. Bells jingled merrily as he turned the knob and pushed it open, a discordant counterpoint to his mood. He tried to relax as he stepped inside, and tried to force himself to walk in such a way that his movements would seem natural. Women could sense it when you weren’t comfortable with yourself, and it made them nervous.
She was with a customer, a woman wrapped in fur and draped in oversized jewelery. She looked up and saw him, and it seemed to him that her smile broadened.
Just a moment,
her expression promised, and he thought that her eyes lingered on him for a moment before she turned her attention back to her customer. He forced himself to look elsewhere, wandering about the shop as he studied the works of art displayed there. Gentle, graceful silver forms: it seemed to him that he could pick out which were hers and which had been crafted by another hand. Delicate webworks, sinuous twinings, leaves and vines and wildlife ornaments so delicate that he feared to touch them. So like their maker, he thought. What would it be like to feel that delicate skin in his hands?
Easy, Andri. Easy.
His heart was pounding so loudly he wondered if she could hear it.
Take it slow.
The bells rang as the door slammed shut, and he dared to turn around—and found her eyes fixed on him, those beautiful dark eyes which he knew so well from his dreams. His breath caught in his throat.
“Well. Welcome back.” Smiling, she fixed a stray lock of hair in place; was she aware of the sexual interest that gesture communicated? She seemed at once an innocent, untested by the world, and a confident, enticing woman. It was a heady combination. “Have you decided to order some more regalia?”
He leaned against the counter with what he hoped was an easy grace; he had never felt less natural in his life. “Not quite.” He glanced back toward the display of her work with studied casualness, then back to her again. “It occurred to me I forgot something the last time I was here.”
“Oh? And what was that?”
He met her eyes then, and held them. “You never told me your name.”
She looked away, but not before he had caught the flash of interest in her eyes. “Narilka,” she said softly. “Narilka Lessing.”
Lilting, exotic, almost Earth-like in its rhythm. He was about to say something about how very beautiful the name was, how well it suited its owner, when the back door of the shop swung open and hit the wall, shattering the fragile spell between them.
“Nari, could you—Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we had a customer.” The intruder was a heavyset man with a thick head of gray hair, a lined face etched in patterns of affection, and a strong, slightly coarse voice. He nodded slightly in acknowledgment of Andrys’ presence, a gesture at once proud and professional. “Please forgive me, Mer. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“This is Andrys Tarrant,” the girl said, before he had a chance to respond himself.
The man’s face lit up at the sound of his name. “Indeed?” He came forward toward Andrys, offering a hand. “An honor, Mer Tarrant. Gresham Alder, at your service.”
“The honor is mine,” he responded formally. The man’s hand was warm and rough-skinned, his grip strong; he hoped he couldn’t feel him trembling as they shook. “I got your letter. I’m anxious to see your work.”
“Not all that impressive in its current state, I’m afraid. Now, as for Narilka’s....” He beamed at the girl, and in that moment Andrys knew with unerring instinct that they had discussed him; the man’s praise was his gesture of approval. For an instant he sensed the depth and complexity of their relationship, the degree to which she would rely on him for advice in all things. “Why don’t you show him the crown, Nari?”
Her cheeks flushed slightly at the implied praise. “It’s only half-finished,” she told Andrys.
“I’d love to see it.”
She led him through the door at the back of the shop, into the workroom beyond. Two heavy wood tables supported a plethora of tools, stacks of wire, canisters and flasks and narrow burners whose doused wicks gave off a strange acidic smell. One slender vise held a blackened silver ring, clearly in the process of being polished, and another gripped a small figurine whose upper half was inlaid with tiny stones. These things he saw peripherally as he followed the girl through the workroom, mesmerized by the play of lamplight upon her hair. It wasn’t until they approached the second table that he saw the object laid out upon its surface clearly enough to react to it.
It was the coronet. Not rounded yet, but laid out flat atop the table, with his drawing spread out above it. Delicate figures of exquisitely fine detail supported the central sun motif, which was the focal point of the piece. There were still empty spaces where other figures would be added, and the whole of it was stained black from the process of its manufacture, but there was no denying that even in this incomplete state it was a masterful work.
For a moment he forgot what it was, what price the original had demanded of his family, and could only whisper, “It’s beautiful. Just beautiful.” He reached out to touch it but then drew back, wary of the memories such contact might conjure.
“It’s all right,” she prompted. “It’s strong enough.”
He forced himself to reach out and touch the slender figures. The metal was cold, surprisingly lifeless. What had he expected? It was only an ornament—half-finished at that—whose place in history was assured by its power as a symbol, not some intrinsic malignance. Why then did he shiver as he touched it?
“Have you thought about the armor?” the silversmith asked him, when he finally turned away from the worktable. When he didn’t answer, the man pressed, “Whether you’ll want to wear it?”
He hesitated. The truth was, he didn’t know how to answer. Calesta hadn’t responded to his appeal for information on the matter, leaving him to guess at the demon’s intentions. “I’d guess I should have that option,” he dared. “Is it too much trouble?”
“Not at all. I just need to check the waist length, to see that the peplum sits properly. Your drawings were geared toward a taller man... which doesn’t mean there’s a problem, necessarily. Figure types vary in proportion as well as height.”
It came to him suddenly, unwelcome knowledge that brought panic in its wake. They wanted him to try it on. Here. Now.
In front of the girl,
he despaired, as the gray-haired man lifted up the heavy armor and offered it to him. He couldn’t. Could he?
For a moment he couldn’t seem to make himself move. The strap of his leather pack seemed to burn into his shoulder, reminding him of the hateful thing inside it. Then, stiffly, he released it and let it slide to the floor. The girl caught it up and for one mad moment he wanted to grab it away from her, lest that
somehow contaminate her as well. He forced himself not to move, to draw in a deep breath, then to step forward and let metal plates be fitted around his body. Cold, so cold. The weight of it was heavy on his shoulders and it crushed his velveteen jacket against his body; even as Gresham Alder explained the nature of the garments he should wear beneath it he felt himself struggling for breath, trying not to be overcome by the suggestive power of this fitting.
“Fine,” the armorer murmured, as he turned Andrys with steady hands. A tug at the waist, a pull at the arm-hole. “It’ll be fine.” And then he was facing the man and looking up into his eyes, and the smith asked, “Would you like to see it?” And he nodded, because he knew there was no other acceptable response.
The girl had brought a mirror, and now she held it before him. Trembling, he placed himself so that he could see his reflection. At first there was only a blur of gray, as if his eyes were unwilling to acknowledge what was before him... and then it came into focus suddenly, all of it, and it was too much. Too much! Gold sun splayed across his chest, gold wires coiling about its rays, pectoral and abdominal muscles sculpted like living flesh. Bold in its artwork, perfect in its craftsmanship, and oh, so familiar! Hateful, terrifying relic! He felt the metal burning where it touched him, hot through his clothing, acid-sharp;
armor, brought back to life by the power of gold and craftsmanship. But even that wasn’t the worst of it. It was when he looked at the whole image, from top to toe, from the shaggy long hair to the black leather boots to the breastplate with the sun in between, that golden sun so like and unlike Earth‘s, that face so like a killer’s—
The sickness rose up in him with numbling force, too fast and too hard for him to fight it; helplessly, he fell to his knees, hot bile welling up in his throat as his body fought to shake off the power of that hated image. Then the horror of it was too much at last, and his body convulsed, spewing out the bile and the terror and the bitter exhaustion in one wretched flood of vomit. Seconds only, but it seemed an eternity. He brought his hand up to his mouth quickly, hiding behind it as he wiped his mouth clean with the silk cuff of his shirt sleeve; his cheeks burned hot with shame. He could sense the girl standing behind him, and her proximity increased his humiliation a thousandfold. How could he ever face these people again? How could he ever face
It was Gresham Alder who knelt by his side, muttering words meant to bridge that awkward moment. Andrys heard himself apologizing profusely, offering to clean up, insisting... but his offers were set aside, politely but firmly.
he thought bitterly.
They don’t want me around here any longer than I have to
be. As the smith helped him to his feet, he dared to meet the girl’s eyes—just for an instant—and the pity he saw in them made his shame burn even hotter. No hope of getting to know her now, not after a fiasco like this. That knowledge hurt worse than all the fear and shame combined.
Somehow he pulled himself together. Saying the necessary words as he wrested the cursed breastplate from his torso, making the requisite excuses... somehow he managed to take up his bag again and get out of the shop without further catastrophe. He didn’t even check to see that the rolled-up painting was still in it, but took off at a run down the narrow street. Feet pounding on cobblestones, shame pounding in his temples. When he reached the Hotel Paradisio, the doorman wouldn’t let him in, so wild-eyed and disar rayed did he appear; he had to search through his bag with shaking hands to produce his key as proof of residency, and even then the doorman insisted on es corting him to the door of his suite. Taking care to steer him clear of the other guests. What did it matter? What did anything matter? He fell to his knees as the door slammed shut behind him, hot tears flowing down his cheeks. God in heaven, how long could he go on like this?
“What do you want?” he begged aloud. Willing Calesta to hear him, to answer. “What’s the point of this? Tell me!” But there was no response. At last he struggled to his feet and staggered over to his bureau, where a flask of Jaggonath brandy awaited him. Disdaining glasses, he upended it and drank directly from its narrow neck, feeling the powerful liquid burn its way down his throat. Not enough. Not enough. Stumbling over to the table at his bedside, he caught up a small glass vial; black pills winked at him from within, promising the ultimate forgetfulness. It was dangerous to drink and then take these, too, he knew that. But what did it matter? Did he really want to live another day? Did he dare to face