Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl
Text copyright^©^ 2015 Jon Jacks
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‘For Sale: Child’s crib, never used’
Island Chronicle, Personal Announcements Page
This was the very first time I had ever seen photographs of the Gorgesque: I had seen innumerable paintings, of course, proudly gracing the rooms and halls of the homes I’d visited, but this new innovation, fresh from the mainland, somehow captured the sharp separation of beauty and ugliness with a starkness no other portraits had managed.
Perhaps the chiaroscuro, the lack of colour, emphasised the sitters’ divine and grotesque natures. Perhaps sensing this, some of the sitters had insisted on the wearing of the half veil, something no Gorgesque would ever contemplate when having their portrait painted.
In life, the half veil serves as a tease, awaiting the reveal of the horror beneath: yet here, of course, the veil can’t be turned aside, and so all we see is the sheer perfection, the view of their imperfections denied us.
When I’m asked to pose, when I too have joined the Gorgesque, will I seek to hide my hideousness too?
‘A shame, a true shame; the way they insisted on retaining the veil, don’t you think, Señorista Teresimo?’
I’d become so entranced by the pictures displayed upon the wall that I’d failed to detect the approach of the photographer until he was standing directly alongside me.
If Katerina were here, she’d be scandalised.
I thought I was in this room on my own, that Katerina and her parents were in discussion with Señorat Holandros regarding organising a sitting.
I’m lost for words.
A male Grotesgeous is not supposed to approach, let alone talk to, a female of the Gorgesque (or even one, like me, a few months off from having the operation). They must be granted permission to do so: and even then, it would only ever be under the eyes of a chaperone.
Yet this is a Grotesgeous with unnatural airs about him, a graceful manner, an elegant way of dressing. Obviously, his expertise in this new and much in demand innovation has granted him a self-confidence sadly lacking in most Grotesgeous.
‘I…I find them beautiful,’ I say, wondering if he knows that I’m lying, fearing his whole reason for approaching me is his observation of my admiration for the way his work had captured the horror of the Gorgesque.
He nods, apparently accepting my lie.
It’s hard to tell, of course, what he really thinks, the expression on one side of his face coming across as startling different on the other, with what appears to be a pensive frown on his right transformed into a doubtful, almost accusing grimace on his left.
When he’d spoken of ‘shame’, was he speaking aesthetically, believing as many do that true beauty lies in the celebration of complete opposites, the ugly and beautiful made one, not two? Or was he referring to the shame of the sitters, their refusal to freely display this merging of opposites as a reminder that good and evil lies within each of us, no matter our outward exterior.
As part of the creed states, ‘We should show with spiritual pride that we have cast aside material pride.’
Señorat Holandros has no veil. Grotesgeous are not expected to wear one, for they have gained in the transference, receiving beauty. His donor no doubt wears his veil proudly, displaying every now and again his share of the ugliness Señorat Holandros had originally suffered.
Katerina is scandalised! I can tell by her tone of disgust and anguish.
Ironically, as Señorat Holandros and I both turn to see her standing in the doorway, he’s the one who manages to retain his composure, I’m the one who whirls around excitedly on the balls of my feet, as if still a child.
Like me Katerina still retains her natural beauty, her birthday almost as far off as mine. Of course, until she’s welcomed into the ranks of the Gorgesque, her dress has to remain plain and unflattering, despite the wealth of her parents.
‘I beg your forgiveness, Señorista Delmestra.’
The young photographer remained calm, despite Katerina’s scolding frown. He gave a slight, demure bow of his head by way of an apology.
‘It was just that Señorista Teresimo appeared intrigued by my works, and I simply meant to offer her an explanation of the process, if any were required.’
He ever so fleetingly glanced my way, doubtlessly hoping I would take his side and spare him a scandal and the subsequent opprobrium of the island’s society.
‘This is true, Katerina,’ I lied. ‘I find it quite remarkable, don’t you, the way he has so accurately captured life on nothing but ingeniously treated glass?’
Within Señorat Holandros’s eyes I caught what I thought was a grateful glint.
‘Then Andraetra, I fear that you’re the one who’s acting irresponsibly!’
She swooped across the floor towards me, the base of her full length dress swishing across the polished wooden boards like urgently drawn drapes. With a final admonishing glower at poor Señorat Holandros, she wrapped a protective arm around my bared shoulders, leading me back towards the doorway by which she’d entered.
‘Don’t worry: my poor brother won’t hear of this!’ she hissed tearfully in my ear.
As we exited Señorat Holandros’s studio, a cooling wind was coming in off the sea, rippling through the thick, almost rubbery leaves of the trees. It was a wind that also sent the vast white sails of the ships billowing, scudding clouds against the black smoke erupting from the tall, dark chimney of a paddle steamer.
Will Pavro be returning soon on one of these ships?
He’d been studying on the mainland, but he would have to return soon to prepare for the transference. Very few people left the island again once they’d undergone the transformation; a conversion not just of our physicality, but thereby also of our very souls.
The illumination of our better natures through the recognition of our lower selves.
Of course, few people from the mainland understood or appreciated the spiritual depths of our version of the faith: they were, rather, usually horrified by what they witnessed on our island, to the extent that few people visited anymore. They found both the Gorgesque and the Grotesgeous equally repulsive, incapable of perceiving that one had sacrificed beauty, whereas the other had received it.
Naturally, the island’s alien fauna and its many, overly large insects also dissuaded visitors to our shores. I had always presumed that, in these terms at least, our island was much like any other tropical island, but apparently our insects were terrifying, our trees and bushes bizarre at best, disconcerting at worst.
Personally, I found the startling iridescence of the blooms, blazing against a setting of dark greens, more pleasing than any items of jewellery. Even the insects, with their sheens of glistening emerald, of ruby, of sapphire, were gorgeous if admittedly dangerous.
Taking a cue from the spectacular colours of our island paradise, the carriage awaiting us was every bit as gaily decorated, its innumerable and elaborately enamelled carvings of saints and their religious exploits making it the equivalent of any church altar.
It was a bravura display of wealth, of good fortune, both of which the Delmestra dynasty had had in abundance, almost from the day they’d alighted on these shores.
Accordingly, the interior was one of sternness and darkness, austere in its simplicity of poor leather and barely padded wooden seats. It was deliberately uncomfortable, such that many ladies secretly padded out the bustles of their dresses to grant some degree of cushioning.
Doñasta Delmestra refrained from utilising such niceties. She was already seated within the carriage, alongside Doñas Delmestra, their hideousness unveiled and freely displayed to each other, his right to her left.
Again, whenever I saw the Delmestras seated like this, I couldn’t help but wonder if Pavro and I would follow their lead or – like most newlyweds – risk a period in which we’d sit with our better sides to each other. It was frowned upon, naturally, by every strata of society, yet forgiven by most provided it was only a brief foolishness.
The Delmestras were in love, I was sure of it.
Doñas Delmestra, like Pavro, had the flamboyant flare of thick hair that somehow brought the two halves of his face together, such that he wore his ugliness with the certainty of a war hero displaying a war wound, almost as if it were a medal. Doñasta Delmestra on the other hand, despite the warped hideousness of the left-hand side of her face, still shone with a wondrous beauty whenever she utilised her veil, a beauty fully apparent in Katerina’s untouched face.
Today, however, that natural beauty that existed within both of them was apparently strained, the skin tightened, the eyes dark and deeply set.
They had been crying: the dark eyeliner surrounding their eyes, despite having been carefully reapplied at some point recently, had run with the tears, the staining apparent within the otherwise flawless perfection of their painstakingly applied cosmetics. (Of course, Doñasta Delmestra’s darker side remained completely untouched.)
And yet: they smiled every now and again, almost blissfully. As if they had received, while attending the photographer’s studios, an almost divine intervention, rewarding them with a knowledge denied anyone else.
How could I read such a fabulous belief into the most simple of smiles?
Because even Doñasta Delmestra’s ugliness shone as if illuminated by God himself.
It would be impolite of me to ask any of the Delmestras what had happened in the studio.
Or, at least, it would be ill-mannered to ask the adult Delmestras: as soon as we arrived home, I intended to ask Katerina why they all seemed to be hovering between both agony and joy, grief and bliss.
Although there was little difference in our ages, the difference between us being only a matter of months, Katerina tended to treat me the way an older sister would: with a great deal of loving admonishment, protection, and scolding, along with good measures of both educational advice and scorn. As a ward of her parents since my own had died while I was still ridiculously young, I couldn’t expect fairer treatment, for it meant I was regarded by all of the Delmestras as a natural part of their family rather than an unwanted intrusion.
My betrothal and eventual marriage to Pavro would cement that link between us. Finally, I really would be a Delmestra, not just an honorary member.
And that, of course, only made Katerina all the more protective of me, for she knew her twin brother’s happiness was utterly dependent upon my own wellbeing. Similarly, too, she had all the more reason to ensure I didn’t stray from any correct modes of behaviour, such as talking while unchaperoned to an unattached male, and a lowly Grotesgeous at that.
Across from me, Doñas Delmestra uncharacteristically reached out to grasp the hand of his wife. She clutched his hand gratefully, tightly, her eyes glistening with tears of joy.
That was one thing the transference could never change: the eyes.
If not actually a window to the soul, as some people claim, then I can sincerely vouch that eyes always reveal when a person is hiding something.
I stared intently into Katerina’s eyes as I finally asked the question I’d been meaning to ask since boarding the carriage outside of Señorat Holandros’s studio.
‘Is it Parvo? Has anything happened to Pavro?’
Naturally, I couldn’t work out how our visit to a photographer’s studio would have anything to do with Pavro. Yet during the ride home I had every now and again caught the odd surreptitious glance my way – the eyes again, you see – from each of them that seemed to imply they were holding something from me, that they were pondering if or when they should bring me in on their secret.
On being asked my question, Katerina’s whole body went rigid, her face stark, signs of a raging internal war as she tried to work out what she should tell me, what must remain hidden.
She nodded, an abrupt nod, as if forced from her.
‘Is…is he all right?’ I asked, unsure why I was asking such a question.
Surely, if anything terrible had happened to him, the Delmestras would be entirely distraught. And how would a visit to a photographer’s divulge bad news regarding him anyway?
Katerina grimaced edgily, her face briefly that of the Gorgesque she would soon be.
‘He…he’s going to be fine,’ she blurted out.
‘Has he been ill? Is he recovering?’
I grasped Katerina’s hands nervously.
‘Yes, yes; recovering,’ she said, avoiding my quizzical gaze.
‘Katerina, please! What’s going on? Why would you find out all this at an art studio?’
Her hands apprehensively tightened around mine.
‘It’s more than a studio! It’s…’
Her brow creased as she searched for the right words.
‘Did you see the portraits of the younger people?’
‘Why yes, of course; I was most surprised that they were on display – and that Señorat Holandros hasn’t been arrested, and his works destroyed!’
No portraiture was allowed of anyone pre-transference: it was regarded as too sinful to celebrate the beauty of youth.
‘A fashion – of sorts: perhaps practice would be a better term – has come about on the mainland: the merging of this new innovation of photography with, er, an older profession…’
Once again she was struggling for words, uneasy, and avoiding my gaze.
‘Katerina!’ I snapped in irate frustration. ‘What has happened to Pavro?’
‘Andraetra: please! I’m trying to think of the best way of describing a difficult – a complicated – situation: so you don’t go jumping to the wrong conclusions, and cause yourself unnecessary distress!’
‘So, so what is it Katerina? Why did you mention those illegal portraits? What do you mean “older profession”? You’re not making any sense, and it’s all simply causing me to worry as I try and make sense of it all!’
‘Those pictures: they aren’t illegal.’
She took a deep breath.
‘Now, remember what I said about not jumping to false conclusions: but those people, Andraetra, are dead!’
‘Dead?’ I repeated doubtfully. ‘But – they all looked so alive! They were doing things! Reading! With their families! Getting married, even!’
They weren’t pictures of people laid out ready for burial, the way we normally expect to see dead people. They didn’t have their eyes closed either: they were open, as if still looking out on life, looking towards a future.
In the wedding photo – wait!
Which one was the dead one? The groom? Or the bride – she didn’t have her veil drawn, which I might have expected if they really had posed the poor girl while she remained completely lifeless.
‘Grindfarg – that’s Señorat Holandros’s partner–’
As Katerina said this she shuddered, as if her meeting with this Grindfarg had not been a pleasant encounter. I noted that, unusually for her, she hadn’t granted him the courtesy of using any title.
– ‘well he’s the mortician: and he said that they have special stands, glazes for the eyes–’
‘Katerina! You still haven’t explained what all this has to do with Pavro! What do morticians and pictures of dead people have to do with Pavro?’
My tone was insistent now, even though I found it impossible to believe that Pavro could also be dead: why would Katerina and her parents seem so blissfully joyful if he were dead?
She grasped my hands excitedly, her eyes sparkling with elation.
‘Andraetra! All those were old portraits, taken long before the very latest innovations. Now, Grindfarg assures us, he can bring the dead back to life!’
‘Back to life? Who needs bringing back to life?’
If Katerina had thought her comments were going to in some way reassure me everything was fine, she had been mistaken.
It sounded more and more to me as if Pavro had been killed in some way.
‘Not back to life. Awakened!’ Katerina insisted, as if talking to a naïve child.
‘Then he’s not dead? He’s just ill – asleep?’ I said hopefully.
‘Yes, yes – asleep,’ Katerina replied, yet with a tone implying she preferred to speak in these terms rather than admitting Pavro was dead.
‘No one told me Pavro was – asleep!’
I was shaking, a mix of disbelief, horror, anger: and I wasn’t quite sure in what proportions
And yes, I couldn’t use the word dead either!
‘We didn’t know! How could we?’
Katerina managed to say this with a face wiped clean of any expression but total innocence, as if it were patently obvious that they’d had no way of knowing.
‘We only found out ourselves when we visited the studio!’
Once again, she says this with eyes glittering with the glaze of joyous truth.
‘Señorat Holandros told you Pavro was dead?’
I’m unable to keep the disbelief out of my voice.
Her sparkling eyes welled up, tears of elation becoming those of grief, as if she had only tenuously suspended her belief that Pavo was really dead, and that now that assurance was crumbling, the doubts circulating once more.
‘Not dead, not dead!’ she insisted. ‘Asleep – as you’ve already said, Andraetra! That’s what Grindfarg – an awful man, a truly awful man, but a genius, Andraetra, a miracle worker! – that’s what he said: that if we catch them in time, we can reawaken our lost ones back to the world of the living! Don’t you see, Andraetra? We can afford this remarkable process. Mother and Father will pay anything to have dear Pavro returned to us! So there’s absolutely no need to worry, Andraetra! Pavro will be with us once more – and soon!’
Naturally, I wanted to believe everything Katerina was telling me – well no, not the bit about Pavro being dead, obviously! But if he were, if he had died – than yes, I wanted to believe he could be restored back to life!
But – it just wasn’t possible, was it?
It went against all the laws of nature.
Katerina embraced me warmly, lovingly; desperately. It was a hug that tightened the longer she held on to me.
‘I know it sounds ridiculous,’ she admitted, no doubt having caught the look of disbelief on my face. ‘But on the mainland, there are new discoveries every day, the most remarkable inventions! And this Grindfarg has been able to combine all the very latest revolutions in science with our island’s own religiously administered surgical procedures–’
She said it as if repeating verbatim Grindfarg’s own explanation of how his procedure had become possible.
It was true, however, that we were now witnessing the transformation of our understanding and control of the world on an almost weekly basis, while the perfected techniques of our administration of the transference was universally admired.
If the best of these two worlds were combined – then who knows what could be achieved?
– ‘and instigate a revival of the flesh of those we falsely thought had already passed on and were beyond our help!’
Katerina had proof of what seemed to be an outrageously unbelievable claim.
Portraits of Pavro.
‘Like the ones in which the dead have been posed?’ I asked, a shiver of dread passing over me.
Katerina nodded, but added more excitedly, ‘But later ones too, we’re he’s quite obviously alive once more!’
Now we were both perfectly silent as we stood in the hallway by the library door, hoping no one would catch us here as Katerina turned the key in the lock as quietly as possible.
Katerina and Pavro had made the key between them, when their father had insisted he would keep under lock and key books they weren’t entitled to read until they’d undergone the transference. Katerina had briefly taken the key from their father’s study, pressing it hard into a bar of soap Pavro had ‘borrowed’ from the laundry maids. Using this imprint as a guide, Pavro had filed away the extraneous metal of an almost similar key once used to open another interior, yet less important door.
Katerina’s father had slipped the folio of glass plates into the drawer of a specially cleared section of his desk.
Grindfarg had warned them all that they shouldn’t show these photographs to anyone. Not only was the procedure a closely guarded secret, known only to those wealthy and willing enough to utilise it, but as soon as it was obvious to everyone that Pavro was alive the glass plate images would immediately become illegal and therefore dangerous.
The glass plates were heavier than I’d expected them to be. And yes, they clearly showed Pavro, posed in similar situations to those I had witnessed at the studio: seated in a chair, uncharacteristically smoking a long, thin cigarillo; standing by an elaborate fireplace, as if deep in thought and (perhaps) contemplating the meaning of life; looking back at us, pen in hand and hovering over a sheet paper, as if about to set out a letter or, even, begin to draw our portrait (which he had once been more than capable of doing, with admirable skill).
As if these were not amazing enough, the other glass plates were far more remarkable still.
He looked back at us, smiling, as if sharing a private joke. Or displaying relief, maybe even joy, at being back once again within our own world.
Of course, it could have been that this Grindfarg and Señorat Holandros had simply and callously remoulded his face in some way, forcing it into a smile.
As if to curb any such foolish doubts, the next glass plate in the carefully packed pile showed Pavro standing by the fireplace once more: but this time, as well as openly smiling, and standing well away from any supporting structure, he was mischievously lifting a leg clear of the ground.
It was an almost comical image.
A nervous laugh, one of relief and surprise.
Katerina giggled along with me.
I placed a hand on her arm: she still hadn’t explained how Señorat Holandros had informed them of Pavro’s death.
‘I’m sorry, I’m ever, ever so sorry,’ Katrina began, tearful once more when I asked her this question again, ‘but Parvo insisted we couldn’t let you know the truth: he’s been ill, ill for quite a time, and he’d gone to the mainland seeking treatment, not to study!’
I should be angry that Katrina and her parents had kept the truth from me: but, I reasoned, if Pavro had assured them that he didn’t want me to know, what else could they do? Obviously, he’d wanted to spare me the anxiety of wondering if the treatment would be successful or not.
‘And so Señorat Holandros, and this Grindfarg: where do they come in?’
‘Father had heard whispers of this “technique” they’d developed: he insisted that Pavro should meet with them, just in case the treatment failed to work – and so that, of course, any necessary preliminary procedures were followed. It’s fortunate the meeting was arranged, for Pavro die– fell asleep while they were out there.’
‘So when do we see him?’ I asked, excited at last, having finally accepted that – as bizarre and impossible as all this sounded – these photographs proved that every implausible thing Katerina had said to me was undoubtedly true.
‘The procedure’s not quite complete, Grindfarg told us: but Pavro should be returning to the island on the next available ship!’
It seemed unbelievable to me: not only was Pavro at last retuning, but he was returning from another realm completely!
What tales would he have to tell? Would he be able to recall his short sojourn in the netherworld?
And I now had (or at least knew of the existence of!) portraits that saved his untouched beauty forever.
Within a few months, along with Katerina, he would undergo the transference.
He had shown me the drawings made of his intended (his intended, that is, for the procedure of the transference), just as Katerina had shown me the illustrations made of her own intended. Thus I had a good idea of what the new, Gorgesque Pavro would look like.
For better or worse!
He was also naturally aware of what I would look like after the transference. I had freely shown him the illustrations that had been made of my own intended, a young girl of (of course!) my height and my build, if not (equally obviously!) of my refined beauty.
Courundia: that was her name.
Of low intelligence, it seemed, not that it mattered.
Her life one of low achievements, of endless poverty.
As a receiver of my beauty, would her situation improve?
Unlike Señorat Holandros, it appeared that few Grotesgeous made use of their new advantages. Rather, they tended to end up living in the slum district of Relando, a strange half-life of living – I’d been reliably informed, by those who had visited the area on well-protected, guided tours – a perverted mirror image of the districts inhabited by the Gorgesque.
I glanced into my dressing table mirror, trying to imagine what I would look like when I was half me, half Courundia.
I shuddered in horror, in loathing of both her and what would be the new me.
It wasn’t a fair exchange!
I had only a few months to live with my untouched beauty: and then I would come of age.
I would be a Gorgesque!
The benefits it brought, I believed, were completely outweighed by the deliberate destruction of my face. The face I’d lived with for all my life so far – but no: that wasn’t true, was it?
The face I’d had as a young child wasn’t this one. The face I’d had at ten wasn’t this one. Even my face of just a year ago had been softer, plumper – far more childish than I’d thought at the time.
So, which face was the real me?
If I look at my reflection within the darkness of the window, my face lit on one side by the waxen light of the oil lamp, the other side left semi-transparent, such that I can see the night-shrouded garden beyond the glass, it affords me some idea of what I may soon look like: the angel and the devil, light and darkness combined.
It’s not a pleasant sight.
Within that dark façade, I catch the flickering of flames, as if it is indeed the Devil incarnate, bringing his flames of Hell with him.
But of course, it’s only the flaring lamps of a carriage, rushing down the long drive leading towards the Delmestra mansion.
It’s a strange time to be visiting, this late at night, when travellers on the roads can fall prey to the bands of deserters and disaffected rebels who have put aside their differences to take up the relatively easier life of bandits and cutthroats.
Apart from the flickering of the lamps, the carriage and its team of horses are as dark as the night they plough through. It could be nothing more than a solidified shadow, come to life somehow.
Odder still, whenever it’s silhouetted against a slightly lighter background of dimly moonlit trees, it appears to me to be a riderless carriage, the seat on top of the cab where the driver normally sits being completely empty. Despite this, when the carriage draws up outside the elaborately carved porch enveloping the main doors, it does so quite regularly and smoothly, such that I could swear the horses must possess a remarkable degree of training and intelligence.
The carriage door swings open: and what could be its glowing white soul steps out from its black interior.
Even as I shake my head to clear my confusion, and force myself to focus my gaze to ensure I’m seeing everything correctly within the darkness, I still find it hard to call what I’m seeing a ‘man’.
Although the height of an exceptionally small man, maybe even a dwarf, the carriage’s occupant looks more like a hideously overgrown baby, the flesh bulbously full and milk white, the hair a light smattering of fluff. His dress is that of a dapper gent, however, light grey evening suit and long, almost gossamer cloak, enveloping him like the sac surrounding a newly born foal.
He steps away from the carriage, once again leaving the horses completely unattended and without the slightest word of command or instruction to them, as if totally confident in their ability to know that they should wait here until his business was done.
I jump, startled, as the door to my room harshly clacks with the rapping of an urgent knock.
Flinging open the door, Katerina rushes in without any further propriety.
‘It’s him!’ she declares, almost breathless with either excitement or horror. ‘It’s Grindfarg!’
‘Payment: he’s come for payment, obviously!’
Still breathless, Katerina stands alongside me as we stare out into the darkness, where the team of dark horses and the black carriage patiently wait for their master to return.
Grindfarg had stepped inside the house without knocking, without waiting for the approach of any doorman. We heard none of the enraged queries of any servant or maid that we would normally expect, so his visit could hardly be completely unexpected.
‘How much? How much did your parents offer him?’ I ask.
How much would they pay to ensure Pavro lives?
How much would I pay?
Even with my own life!
‘I don’t know,’ Katerina admits. ‘I was sent away, to look for you, when Grindfarg brought up “delicate matters”.’
‘Could it be trick?’ I whisper fearfully. ‘Couldn’t they have posed poor Pavro to look alive after all? I mean, so they could cheat your parents out of money?’
‘Huh, my father’s hardly the easiest to be cheated out of money! Grindfarg and his photographer would eventually pay with their lives if they tried.’
I had always wondered if, behind Doñas Delmestra’s leisurely, unflustered manner, his apparently kindly nature, there was the rod of steel that enabled him to successfully run his extensive plantations and business empire. Now I had confirmation that he was a far more determined and ruthless man than I had ever imagined.
‘Will it be money they’re asked for?’
I shiver with dread as I ask this; how can you raise a dead man other than by resorting to the dark arts?
The slaves working on the plantations had almost successfully revolted and overrun our best troops just a few years before I’d been born, the many rumours being that they had used magic from their homelands to give their fighters extra levels of courage, even make them impervious to our musket bullets. Some had said they had even raised their dead, as zombies, using voodoo.
Katerina was standing so close to me, she sensed my shudder of revulsion.
‘A payment of souls, you mean?’ she asks, with no hint of horror in her voice. ‘A soul given up to the Devil when we die?’
‘Or, maybe, it’s even something to do with this new innovation: this photography? It captures our likeness – and I’ve heard some say it can only do that by capturing our very essence, perhaps even our souls!’
Fortunately, now at last Katerina chuckles, if a little grimly.
‘Andraetra: these are the fears of children, of the primitive indians,’ she scolds, yet with scant seriousness. ‘Although…if that were true, is that how this Grindfarg works? Capturing souls in Señorat Holandros’s camera, transferring them to the dead – for the right price, of course!’
Before I can whirl around to catch Katerina’s expression, to check if she’s joking or being perfectly serious, the door to the house opens, throwing out a pyramid of yellow light across the gravel, reaching out towards the dark carriage.
Grindfarg steps out into the light, struggling with the weight of two heavy caskets he’s carrying, one to each shoulder. He’s almost bowed under this great burden, each casket – if filled, which I suspect they probably are – being more than enough to cause problems for any full-sized, well-built man.
Behind him steps Doñas and Doñasta Delmestra, an arm wrapped tenderly around the waist of each other, as if for support. They offer neither aid nor encouragement to the struggling Grindfarg but, it appears to me, Grindfarg neither expects nor requires it.
The hideous man stands towards the back of the black carriage and, with a simple tip of his upper torso, lets the caskets slip from his shoulders into an already opened luggage compartment, swiftly and deftly sealing them inside as he pulls back into place its thick wooden cover.
As he completes his action, almost as if it has all somehow set in motion the release of a catch, the door to the carriage’s cab opens once more.
Another figure steps out of the cab. This time, however, it’s a dark, unsteady character, tall and slim.
As he steps down to the ground, Doñasta Delmestra rushes forward to warmly, hungrily embrace him, to steady him and prevent him stumbling.
I catch a glimpse of his delicately angled face in the glow of the lamps.
Pavro was confined to his room where, we were sternly informed by Doñasta Delmestra, he must rest: yes, she understood our urgency to see more of him, to at least just be with him, to talk to him – but he was still weak, and we could only prolong the length of his recovery be insisting on this.
It might be indeed, she warned us, that we would endanger his recovery: and so it was far better for all of us if we demonstrated patience.
Once he was well, well then, naturally, we would be able to spend as much time as we wished with him!
Of course, we had seen him up close. That night we’d seen him first brought here, neither Katerina nor I could contain ourselves: we had rushed outside, as eager to embrace and welcome him as his mother had been.
As we’d dashed through the door, however, elatedly crying out Pavro’s name, Doñas Delmestra had immediately whirled around on his heels, stretching out his powerful arms either side to grasp us both around our waists and draw us to a sudden halt, warning us from approaching too close.
‘He’s weak, weaker than he looks!’
At least Pavro had managed to reward our efforts to greet him with a wan smile. It gave me hope that his resurrection had been a genuine one, that he was not some mindless zombie conjured up out of the ground by jungle magic.
His eyes weren’t dead: they sparkled, displaying his glee at seeing us. I read into that radiance perhaps far more than I should have: that he wanted me to draw close, to hold me as much as I wished to hold him, yet he feared his weakness would leave me wanting more than he could give.
Grindfarg had completely ignored the little drama taking place around him. He’d swept behind Pavro and his supportive mother, hurriedly clambering back into the dark carriage interior.
Without a word of command to the team of horses, the carriage rumbled into motion across the gravel, a swift trot almost instantly becoming a careering gallop as soon as they had cleared the curve of the circular section of drive.
‘But he’d looked so well in the photographic portraits!’ Katerina had complained sulkily as Pavro was unsteadily helped up the curling stairs to his room by Doñas Delmestra.
‘It was the initial elation, overcoming his weariness,’ Doñasta Delmestra said, doubtlessly repeating Grindfarg’s own explanation.
Since that night, neither Katerina nor I had seen anything more of Pavro.
But he was improving remarkably swiftly, Doñasta Delmestra proudly informed us almost hourly.
At last, he’d managed to speak, if a little croakily, a touch too painfully for him.
He’d said he wanted to prove to everyone as soon as possible that he was ready to see us.
That, thankfully, what he was suffering from wasn’t exactly contagious, was it?
Doñasta Delmestra had been shocked by that. But Parvo had just grinned at her horrified expression: and that was a sure sign to all of us that we didn’t have much longer to wait before we’d all be able to visit him without worrying about wearing him out too much.
When the maid informed me that both Doñas and Doñasta Delmestra wished to see me in the study, I wasn’t quite sure if I was more worried or perplexed: it sounded serious, and yet I couldn’t think of any reason for the Delmestras to insist on such a formal meeting.
As I entered the study, their stern and rigid demeanour made me instantly all the more anxious and confused: what could have happened?
‘Pavro? It isn’t Pavro, is it?’ I asked fearfully.
Thankfully, the grim expressions fell from their faces to be immediately replaced by ones of wide-eyed surprise (Doñasta Delmestra explaining later that they were shocked I could think they would inform me of any setback in his health in such a callously officious manner).
‘No, no: of course not, my dear!’ Doñas Delmestra quickly assured me. ‘Yet there is something of major importance that does concern you!’
With a graceful wave of a hand, he indicated the official letters and documents laid out across the nearby table. I recognised the style of these forms: they carried similar emblems to those I had received regarding notice of my intended, whose face I would be sharing after the transference.
As I was a ward of the Delmestras’ it was perfectly natural for them to open any correspondence I received; indeed, it was expected of them, as they were now my legal guardians, whereas I had few rights until the time of my transference.
‘It’s your intended, Andraetra,’ Doñasta Delmestra said grimly. ‘She’s absconded: no one knows where she has gone.’
‘Courundia,’ I said, vaguely recalling the girl’s name.
Why had she fled? She would be the one receiving beauty, not ugliness?
If anyone should be fleeing, it should be me.
‘Not to worry, my dear,’ Doñas Delmestra said. ‘They are already preparing your second choice, so there is no real possibility that your transference need be delayed in anyway.’
My second choice?
As if I had any option.
I’d had no say in the choosing of Courundia.
The choice had been God’s, and God’s alone.
An intended had to quite naturally share many similarities with those they would be partnered with. A similarity of the bone structure lying beneath the face, a similarity in the proportion between chin, cheek, and the hollows of the eyes: though, of course, the removed skin would allow for a certain amount of manipulation, of stretching.
There were other, more minor similarities that were also sought, I’d been reliably informed, to ensure a successful operation. If these weren’t adhered to, the newly attached face would wither, die; rot.
I knew this for sure because I had seen it happen. This, indeed, was the punishment meted out to anyone foolish enough to try and avoid their transference by fleeing.
When the absconder was caught – and oh yes, they were always caught – a form of transference went ahead anyway, but one involving the face of an animal, the resultant creature (what else could you call them?) being a terrifying hybrid.
These poor souls would be put on display within a town’s square, entirely naked and chained to a post, as if they were indeed nothing but the very lowliest of beasts. Here they were left to fend for themselves, with nothing to shelter them from or cover themselves against the extremes of weather, living off any scraps dropped by passers-by, or the rotten food hurled at them by gleefully cruel crowds.
Many people would replace the food with stones.
If the beast was lucky, such a stone might strike him or her on her temple, allowing them to at last move on to a better world. (Though the creed assures us these beasts have no place reserved for them in the hereafter, I find it hard to believe our creator could be so cruel.)
‘You’ll soon be receiving the illustrations made of your second choice,’ Doñas Delmestra reassured me, a beaming smile lighting up both sides of his face. ‘Giving you plenty of time to prepare for and adapt to the new way you will look!’
Parvo is sitting up in bed, his upper body covered with a loose night shirt.
He smiles as I enter, moves as if about to get out of bed; I rush towards him, stopping him, telling him not to be so stupid, that he still needs rest.
As we draw close together, so close together after being so long apart, as we touch each other, our flesh touching after so long apart, our faces draw even closer, our lips closer still; and they touch too, no longer parted.
The warmth of his flesh is as it has always being; there was none of the coldness that I feared there might be.
I find it hard to believe that he has been raised from amongst the dead.
He suffers only a slight weakness, his muscles only slightly wasted through inaction. His skin, too, is blanched, as he’s benefited from little sun.
In every other way, however, this is the Pavro I’ve always known.
Questioning how I am, how I’ve been, allowing me hardly any time to ask after him, as if our positions are reversed and I’m the one whom everyone has been worrying about.
‘Why wouldn’t you let me know you’d been ill?’ I finally manage to blurt out, still a little hurt and angry that he’d withheld all this from me.
‘Ill?’ he says, as if surprised. ‘It was hardly an illness, Ant,’ he adds with a bewildered chuckle, calling me by the pet name I’d been awarded since moving in with the Delmestras. ‘I didn’t want to get shot!’
‘Shot? What do you mean, “shot”?’
I’m so startled by this that I pull back urgently from him.
‘Ahh; no one’s told you, have they?’ he mutters shamefully, his face creasing with a dawning realisation.
‘Told me what? No, they didn’t tell me you’d been shot! They said you’d been ill, that you were on the mainland receiving treatment!’
Once again he shakes his head ashamedly, yet says, ‘Yes, yes; I suppose it does make sense–’
‘How’s it make sense?’ I snap. ‘Katerina told me you were ill, and that’s why you’d died! Now you’re saying you’d really been shot! Who shot you? Who tried to kill you?’
‘Soldiers, of course!’ he says, with a tone of assurance implying it should be obvious.
As he spoke, he pulled his night shirt aside a little, revealing the healed wound just above his heart.
Instinctively, I reached out to touch the scarred flesh, my fingers, my whole arm abruptly tingling with the strange thrill of touching his bared chest.
He grasped my hand, held it tighter still over his heart.
‘I thought they might tell you the truth – but it would have been too dangerous! For them, for you!’
As he says this, the implication of his words, of the wound, dawns on me
‘The revolution? You’ve been fighting with the revolutionary forces?’
I’m staggered by his stupidity, his lack of consideration for his family’s wellbeing. If anyone is caught fighting or even simply supporting the revolutionaries, the entire family is arrested and imprisoned, no matter how powerful or well-connected they might be.
And that, of course, is why I’d been lied to about Pavro’s disappearance from the Delmestra household without any word of goodbye, or letter of explanation.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says now, firmly grasping my hand all the harder to prevent me from angrily pulling away from him. ‘I didn’t mean to get caught up in it all! It was a friend – he was in trouble, so I helped him escape…’
‘And then you couldn’t get back?’
He nodded, head down, hiding his embarrassment.
I lightly caressed the slight indent in his flesh where the musket ball had entered.
‘They…removed the lead, yes?’
The lead ball, if left within the wound, could still poison him.
He nods again, but this time without embarrassment.
‘More than that,’ he admits. ‘Somehow, they also completely repaired the wound: last time I saw it, before I passed out, it was still a massive gash. I’d overheard the surgeons in what served as our hospital out there: they said it was inoperable, that I should be removed to…the area where people were sent to die.’
‘They? The ones who repaired you, I mean: you mean the photographer, this Grindfarg?’
I get another nod from him.
‘Holandros, he’d been out in the field, taking images of the dead out there. When he saw me, still barely alive, he said he recognised me as a Delmestra: said that, for the right fee, he could give me back my life…’
‘And you agreed?’
‘What else was I supposed to do? I left with him, in his carriage.’
‘How did they do it? Is it connected with these photographs he takes? The use of chemicals, the…stealing of souls?’
I say this last part hesitantly, expecting him to laugh a little, mocking my childishness for even contemplating something so obviously foolish.
He doesn’t laugh. He frowns, his face serious.
‘I’ve no idea how they do it,’ he admits. ‘But if they didn’t: believe me, Ant, I’d now be lying in my grave!’
It felt odd, knowing that everyone had lied to me.
Yes, of course, I understood their reasons: no one wants to risk the authorities finding out that a family member is fighting for the revolutionaries.
Whole plantations have been raised to the ground, the earth salted, making the soil unusable for the rest of time.
Everyone can be killed, if the crime is regarded as serious enough.
Ironically, only the slaves are spared death.
They can hardly be held responsible for the foolishness of their masters, after all.
Besides, they are too valuable to be wasted in such a ridiculously irresponsible manner.
They’re sold on.
The vengeful mass slaughter that had followed their own abortive revolution had only resulted in the remainder increasing in value. (The island’s own rebellion against the mainland rulers, of course, is celebrated with resplendent statues of our heroes, many standing alongside monuments to those who threw off the yoke of the empire.)
Of course, new slaves are being continually brought onto the island, but most soon succumb to our climate, to the insects that spare no one from their venomous or merely highly infectious bites. Those slaves who have been born here are therefore the most treasured, having become relatively well acclimatised to their surroundings.
They know, too, which insects to avoid, which appear threatening but which are effectively harmless (they just appear horrendous, it not being unknown for a visitor from the mainland to die of shock or heart failure when an otherwise gorgeously iridescent creature the size of a spindly-legged kitten lands on their arm).
The present rebellion doesn’t seek to free these slaves. Our economy would collapse without them. It seeks, it claims, to free us. And that, of course, can only be achieved by placing its leaders in power, replacing the theocracy that rules us.
One thing they promise their supporters is the outlawing of the transference.
Is Pavro against it?
Does he dread the destruction of his beauty as much as I do?
When I’d first moved in to live with the Delmestras after the deaths of my own parents, Katerina hadn’t taken kindly to me at all.
She’d regarded me, she would admit with embarrassed laughter much later, as an interloper, someone who might steal her own fair share of the obviously limited love of her parents.
I was so much prettier than her after all, she had ashamedly added.
Then one night, as I lay drowsy and half asleep in my bed, she came to my room, wondering if I knew a way of gently opening her prized and delicate little timepiece.
There was no need to force it, I showed her, making it open for me with only the merest of tender touches. In return, she introduced me to her secret garden, with its velvety-petalled blooms, its glistening pool of honeyed waters, its sweetly delicious spring, rippling as if with the utmost pleasure within its softly contoured hollow.
After that, we would share our secret longings with each other in whispers, for tongues can travel anywhere.
My longing, of course, eventually turned to Pavro. And when I admitted this to Katerina, far from being upset, she pronounced herself happy and delighted.
For wasn’t he her twin?
And so wasn’t this perfectly right, the ideal solution?
As Pavro lay drowsy and half asleep in his bed, I came to his room.
‘What was it like?’ I ask as we contentedly lie within each other’s arms. ‘Dying I mean: what was it like?’
He shakes his head a little, as if trying to clear it of any faulty, fogging memories.
‘I can’t quite remember,’ he says, unable to hide the disappointment within his voice. ‘Do we recall what it’s like as we go to sleep?’
‘No bright lights, darkness, rolling hills?’
He shakes his head again, this time as his answer to my query.
‘Maybe I wasn’t dead long enough,’ he suggests not a little sadly, as if realising he’d missed out on or been denied the chance to see what lay beyond for all of us. ‘And, before you ask your next question, when I realised I was alive, it was just as if I’d woken up: nothing more, nothing less.’
‘Nothing more, nothing less, than coming back to life,’ I correct him with a delicate kiss to his badly shaven cheek.
He shrugs, grins.
‘Why me, though?’
He says it as if he’s been pondering this very question for quite a while now. Pondering it and failed to come up with an adequate answer.
‘Didn’t you say,’ I point out, in case he’s forgotten, ‘that it’s an expensive process?’
He frowns as if considering this, as if it’s something he’s already considered a number of times and dismissed as being irrelevant.
‘There was one week when we were defending an old ruin, some ancient missionary building. We were fighting off attack after attack, the soldiers being relentlessly sent against us. We thought we’d have to fall to their attacks eventually: particularly on the last day, when waves of them just kept on rolling towards us, despite our cutting them down line by line. The ground was littered with bodies of both the dead and badly wounded who, when night thankfully came, we could hear moaning for help, for water. No one was giving quarter you see, not even to allow the removal of the dead and wounded, as there was no trust between us: we each thought the other would use any lull to at least send spies across, or lay traps. Yet when it was completely dark – it was the first perfectly moonless night – the moans of the dying became piercing screams, terrifying shrieks that made us all shiver with fright. And in the morning, the ground was completely cleared; as if the dead had got up and simply walked away.’
I rise up on my elbows, gaze directly into his eyes.
‘So? So the soldiers used the cover of darkness to remove their dead!’
Once more, he shakes his head, combining it with a grimace of anxiety.
‘The next morning, a group of their officers approached us under a white flag: demanding to know what we’d done with their wounded!’
‘I’m taking you to meet your new intended,’ Doñas Delmestra declared proudly when I politely queried his request that I join him on a journey into town immediately after breakfast.
‘But…such a thing isn’t allowed!’ I said, scandalised by the notion, let alone the actual act.
No one was ever supposed to meet their intended, not even after the transference. Of course, accidental meetings couldn’t be completely prevented, yet these were incredibly rare, the Gorgesque and Grotesgeous being wholly different strata of society and therefore tending to gather in entirely separate areas.
(I’d heard that such meetings were invariably a disappointment for the Gorgesque, who complained that the Grotesgeous were surprisingly inadequate when it came to wearing the beauty bestowed upon them: they wore their new faces not with pride and sufferance, but with shame and anger, such that even the most gorgeous of features palled and sagged.)
‘These are special circumstances,’ Doñas Delmestra reminded me with a pleasant grin. ‘Besides, I’ve been granted special permission by the council: if I can’t use my considerable contacts to aid my young ward in this most difficult of times, then what is the point of them?’
Naturally, I thanked Doñas Delmestra for his consideration, yet even so I couldn’t help but feel nervous about meeting the person whose face I would soon be sharing: what did she think of the forthcoming operation?
Surely she couldn’t resent the choice that had been made for her, my beauty being regularly recognised and commented upon by many of the young beaus who frequented the dances and soirees either organised or attended by the Delmestras. But who was to say that she didn’t, like many prospective Grotesgeous, bizarrely feel that we were stealing something from them, resulting in a wholly unnecessary and bitter resentment.
‘Don’t worry, my dear,’ Doñas Delmestra said, placing a reassuring hand over mine as we travelled in the carriage, perhaps having noted my apprehensiveness, ‘I assure you this won’t be anywhere near as bad as you fear it will be!’
A knowing smile appeared at the very edges of his lips, along with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, as if there was an amusing secret he was aware of yet unwilling to share at this particular moment. Indeed, it soon dawned on me that we were heading not directly into town as I’d first presumed, but towards Señorat Holandros’s art studio.
Once again, Doñas Delmestra detected my unease and, unable to see me suffer so any longer, he divulged at last his secret.
‘We have a portrait of your newly intended,’ he admitted, reassuring me once again with hands placed tenderly upon mine. ‘And it reveals things about her that no illustration could ever hope to display!’
Had Señorat Holandros’s photograph captured the poor girl’s soul?
Was it this that was somehow keeping Pavro alive?
No no! What a ridiculous thought!
Parvo had been brought back to life before Courundia, my original intended, had run away. So, even if these glass plates of Señorat Holandros’s could indeed steal our very essence, it would have been too late to aid Pavro’s resurrection.
On Señorat Holandros’s walls, the portraits of the dead stare out at me accusingly, perhaps even mockingly; if this new process truly depended upon its ability to capture souls, then how had it managed to replicate the perfect likeness of these, whose souls had already been claimed by God?
And what, too, of the Gorgesque who had agreed to have their portraits displayed here? Would they willingly allow their souls to be taken from them? These, too, look out at me, sternly and proudly, sneering at my foolishness.
It’s all merely the capturing of light and shadow, chemically transformed to become permanent and solidified upon Señorat Holandros’s sheets of treated glass. There can’t be any capturing of souls involved, unless it’s Señorat Holandros’s soul that has been sold to the Devil, granting him in kind these dark skills.
Perhaps, therefore, each new picture draws upon that soul, taking its own sliver of being, the only way to bestow this sense of an unworldly life upon his portraits.
A couple upon the wall glare at me doubtfully, their hideous sides presented to each other, their gracious ones shining out upon the world.
The portrait of my intended displays no gracious side.
It is pure hideousness.
Far more hideous, even, than Courundia; or is that the glass plate I hold so delicately within my hands is an entirely truthful rendition, whereas the drawing of Courundia was merely an artist’s interpretation, dependent upon his own observations and skills?
I shudder involuntary.
As always, Doñas Delmestra is aware of and upset by my discomfort.
‘It is better, Andraetra, that you see this reality now: rather than be fooled by a foolish, inept artist, who can never prepare you for what you will awake to after your transference.’
I detect within his mournful tone a recollection of his own misery when he had first seen the result of his operation. Is that why he’s now working with Señorat Holandros? Does he see the photographer’s skills as a means to ensure everyone about to come of age is fully aware of what their change will entail?
‘It isn’t as terrible as you might presume, my dear,’ Doñas Delmestra adds kindly, ‘for your own bone structure, your own proud bearing, can make all the difference to what you make of their hideousness.’
‘Few people, Señorista, will be presented with such a truly terrible visage.’
Grindfarg, who had demurely presented me with the initially veiled plate, hangs his head miserably, as if empathising with my horror. I’m sure, however, that I detect the light of pure glee in his bulbous eyes, eyes as white as small waspnests.
‘It is, of course, because the Señorista is herself graced with such enviable beauty.’
He reaches over towards a nearby bench, where he had earlier placed another covered package.
‘I’ve witnessed for myself,’ he continues, picking up the package once more, ‘the unbelievable consoling power inherent within Señorat Holandros’s portraits: many remain eternally grateful to him for restoring a semblance of life to loved ones they’d believed entirely lost to them, forging a connection even with those who now lie at peace within the beyond.’
He hands me the package, taking from me the uncovered glass plate in exchange.
I carefully pull back one flap of the veiling cloth, seeing at first what appears to be nothing more than another – equally hideous, even though her face appears much smaller here – picture of my intended.
On pulling back the second flap, however, and revealing the whole picture, I find myself looking at a Gorgesque.
For a brief, terrifying moment, I fear that I’m somehow looking at myself directly after the transference.
Even worse, I’m wearing a wedding dress, as if preparing for my marriage to Pavro.
Yet of course, it’s not me. Nor is it me as I’ll appear once I’m of age.
The clue lies within the wedding gown.
My intended has actually been combined with the picture of the dead girl I’d seen on my last visit here, the one posing as if she were taking part in her marriage ceremony.
‘This innovatory technique can serve as a way of showing us exactly what we will look like after our transference, Andraetra!’ Doñas Delmestra announces excitedly.
I shake my head in disbelief.
‘No, Doñas Delmestra: I will not appear like this, for this girl isn’t me, will never be me!’ I protest irately, throwing the glass plate to the floor, watching it shatter and splinter with unrestrained joy.
Grindfarg seems undisturbed by my destruction of the photographic image, rubbing his hands in what could only be a falsely humble manner.
‘It would be intended, in actual practice,’ he says, his voice somehow pleading and oily, while also being firm and brooking no disagreement, ‘that we use the images of both those taking part in the transference: the combination therefore being fully accurate!’
I glare at Doñas Delmestra in surprise. How could he associate himself with such a process, one that could in no way be described as legal or even wise.
‘I know what you mean to say, my dear,’ Doñas Delmestra says, unperturbed by either my fury or my rudeness. ‘But any plate displaying only an unblemished beauty would be almost instantly destroyed: and as for the combined images, how could anyone complain of a portrait of a Gorgesque?’
‘No one, I’m sure, would risk having their portrait taken!’ I insist huffily.
‘But – we already have a beautiful image of the Gorgesque Pavro!’ Señorat Holandros smugly announces, stepping into the room with yet another covered plate.
I’m standing before a plush chaise longue, replicating the same rigid manner that my intended had taken when she too had been photographed.
Señorat Holandros has carefully arranged everything, including the way the light pours in through the large studio windows. To keep me steady, after warning me that any move will only blur the resultant image, he’s braced me within the grip of a metallic stand and its many arms and clasps.
This will be hidden on the final portrait, he assures me, veiled by my heavily layered dress and the various props he has set around me: a lampstand, drapes, pillows.
I’ve seen the Gorgesque Pavro.
His face was gruesome; yes, even his handsome side, as if it were uncontrollably blending with the ugliness.
It’s not, of course, the way I’m used to seeing him.
I should have resisted the urge to uncover the glass plate handed to me by the smirking, knowing Señorat Holandros.
For a brief moment, I thought I was about to hand it back to him with an imperious frown: yet I didn’t.
I pulled aside the veil.
Saw my Pavro as he will one day be.
As I’d seen him as he will be on my wedding day, then I believe it only fair that I offer him the opportunity to view the Gorgesque Andraetra.
Of course, Pavro hadn’t specifically posed for this portrayal of the future Gorgesque: he had already had his image captured, one proving his soul had left him, the other that it had been miraculously returned to him.
It was one of these pictures that had obviously been combined with a portrait of his own intended.
Nevertheless, I had now seen the Gorgesque Pavro. And he must see me too.
Besides, Doñas Delmestra had pleaded with me to accept the invite to have my portrait taken. This, he admitted ashamedly, was a part of the price negotiated to ensure Pavro’s resurrection; that he would endorse this new technique of Señorat Holandros’s, persuading the council to accept it as an important improvement of the usual transference procedure.
‘Think about it, please Andraetra!’ he had continued. ‘Can’t you really see the advantages of all this? Are you truly unaware of the shock you’ll suffer when you first catch sight of yourself in a mirror after the operation? Doñasta Delmestra was distraught, almost unable to speak, for months afterwards! If we’d had the chance to prepare ourselves in this way, we would have leapt at such an opportunity!’
Señorat Holandros had warned me to prepare for the brightness of the magnesium flash.
Yet when he lit it, it was like the exploding of a sun.
Or like the opening of the heavens and the acceptance of my soul.
All I can see is that same bright light, as if the flare is continuing to blaze forever.
Fortunately, I’m not too startled by all this because I sense someone swiftly approaching me, offering me a guiding arm as I move away from the seat; guiding me, too, back towards where I vaguely remember entering the photographic workshop.
‘What’s happened, Señorat Holandros?’ Doñas Delmestra cries out from somewhere within that sheet of pure whiteness. ‘I can’t see anything!’
‘Far too much magnesium!’ Señorat Holandros apologises, a hint of fury in his voice. ‘I’m not sure how it happened!’
Grindfarg must be the one silently and rapidly leading me out of the studio!
I try to pull away, but the grip on my arm and around my waist is too strong.
‘Trust me!’ a girl’s voice urgently hisses close into my ear. ‘You’re in danger if you don’t come with me!’
The shock of hearing such an authoritative feminine voice makes me obey.
That, and the disquiet I’ve felt ever since I first entered Señorat Holandros’s studio.
I don’t even bother asking who she is, until I believe we’re out of the workshop, and I know that no one can hear me.
‘Who are you?’ I whisper, still unable to see anything, although now the odd hazy shape intrudes into the shock of whiteness.
She chuckles grimly.
‘Maybe you should regard it as a sort of elopement,’ she snorts, guiding me up into the waiting carriage.
Am I being rescued? Or abducted?
Whether she’s Courundia or my new intended, she’s certainly skilled at handling a team of horses.
The carriage is racing along the beaten track. She still manages to keep it firmly under control even when she directs it off the path, taking it across a wild patch of country.
At first, of course, I can only guess all this by the way the carriage violently rocks, but bit by bit, I regain my sight. My rescuer or abductor, whichever she is, is seated in the driver’s seat, using the whip sparingly yet expertly, letting it crack the air above the horses rather than across their backs.
After a while, she slews the carriage to an abrupt halt, leaping down with a remarkably impressive agility and helping me step out from the carriage.
It’s Courundia: even though the accuracy of the illustrations I’d received was lamentable, there was enough similarity for me to recognise her.
It makes sense, after all, for hadn’t I been told that she had fled, fearing the transference?
And yet here she was, standing alongside me anyway.
Which made me think it wasn’t me she’d run away from.
Not that she stands alongside me for more time than it takes to ensure I’m safely on the rocky ground. She deftly slips the carriage’s harnesses and shaft off the two horses, walking them clear.
Then, still without a word of explanation, she puts her shoulder to the front of the carriage, forcing the wheels into an edgy, resistant movement, at last saying to me, ‘You could give a hand, you know?’
I join her in pushing the carriage back, away from the patiently and bemusedly waiting horses. The carriage begins to move easily, effortlessly in fact, until I feel it pulling away from me as it begins to roll down a slight incline.
The slight incline becomes a sharp one, the carriage bucking crazily as it careers away from us, gathering speed, pieces of it now splintering off.
Then it tips over the edge of a cliff, vanishing completely from view with a final groan of cracking wood.
Somehow, I sense it’s a metaphor for an abrupt and precipitous change in my life.
Courundia has given me her wide-brimmed hat, ‘to keep the sun off that pretty face.’
It even comes with a half veil, leading me to suspect it wasn’t originally hers.
Oh, and it would probably cost a year’s earnings of the most professional of workers too.
She says she’ll get me some new clothes too, ones more suited to the new life I’ve been thrown into. Ones to replace the dress she cut away and tore, using it as padding to create a reasonably comfortable saddle for me, albeit one that ‘you have to ride like a man; not like some precocious lady expecting to ride side-saddle!’
I’ve never met anyone so adept at anything she turns her hands to. Never met anyone so confident in her abilities, either.
And yet – she’s so ugly!
How can anyone who looks like Courundia have any confidence at all?
‘Are you sure I was in danger back there?’ I demand, not a little petulantly I must admit.
I’m hot, thirsty, uncomfortable.
I’ve no idea what the route home is, but we seem to be drawing farther away from the plantations rather than heading towards them. The fields of tall-stalked sugarcane, the weary black figures moving amongst them, lie far below us as we ride across apparently endless stony hills.
‘I mean,’ I say, elaborating on my point, ‘if I really had been in any danger, Doñas Delmestra would have made sure I didn’t come to any harm; I am about to marry his son, after all!’
‘Ah, that’ll be the son who died: Pavro? But not to worry: for he came back to life too, didn’t he?’
‘I know; and I also know he’s not the Pavro you know!’
‘How could you possibly know that?’ I respond bitterly. ‘I’ve known…known him in far more ways than you can imagine!’
She ignores the rage of my reply, her own response being calm and measured
‘How do you think he was “revived”?’
She chuckles mockingly.
‘And so,’ she says, ‘I suppose you must think of the transference as being a “miracle” too? I mean, has anyone ever really explained how such an amazing feat is possible? Taking someone’s God given beauty – such as yours – and matching it with God’s curse – such as mine!’
Her already disfigured face creases into a bitter grimace.
‘We do it for the benefit of such as yourself; by God’s good grace!’ I say assuredly.
‘Ah, so you were looking forward to it, were you? Sharing my face?’
‘Well…it’s…it’s by order of the creed–’
‘Ah yes, the creed! Of course! How stupid of me!’
She whirls on me within her makeshift saddle, her face now all the more contorted with anger.
‘And where do I, where do people like me, fit into this creed, do you think?’ she sneers.
‘But you’re receivers of beauty, not–’
‘Not granters of your good grace? Is that it? That’s what you’re going to tell me? Hasn’t it ever dawned on people like you that, just maybe, we don’t look forward to the transference either? I know; I’m hideous, with my God given ugliness. But it’s me!’
‘I think you should take me back now.’
I speak bluntly, as authoritatively as I can manage.
‘Didn’t you hear me, or didn’t you believe me?’ she asks calmly. ‘Pavro isn’t Pavro!’
‘Who is he then? If you mean you think there’s been some kind of body swap, then I can assure you he–’
‘It’s his body: it’s just not your Pavro!’
‘I’ve talked to him! It’s Pavro, undoubtedly! You don’t know him; I do!’
My insistence has hints of the hysterical.
‘I saw him die.’ Courundia remains calm. ‘Then they – Señorat Holandros, this Grindfarg – they came and doused all the oil lamps; for they live in darkness.’
She glances my way, pausing while she lets me take this odd fact in.
‘I’ve heard there are a lot of light-sensitive chemicals–’
She cuts me off with a shake of her head.
‘No; they live in the darkness. No lamps, not even candles: not until someone like you visits.’
‘Maybe they’ve become sensitive to the light: like the mercury a hatter uses makes him a little crazed.’
She shrugs, like she accepts this might be possible, yet she remains doubtful.
‘But…’I say, wanting to hear more of what had happened to Pavro, ‘you said you saw Pavro die?’
‘With no light, it was naturally hard to make out what happened next. I just heard a sort of slithering, or maybe even a rapid clicking – I can’t be sure, I’ve never heard anything like that before – across the floor. Then a, maybe a – sort of chewing?’
I squirm as she describes this noises.
‘A soul?’ I say, recalling my conversation with Katerina. ‘Could it be the return of the soul?’
‘A noisy soul, if that’s what it was,’ Courundia says dismissively.
‘What were you doing there? In Señorat Holandros studio? I mean, how did you get there?’
‘Originally, I’d come looking for you: we’re only given the names of our intended. I…I knew you must be beautiful…’
She hides her face, as if in shame, as if aware of and attempting to hide her ugliness.
I touched her wrist consolingly; but she snapped her arm back, alarmed and perhaps angered by my pity for her.
‘Beauty doesn’t concern me as much as it does you!’ she snapped. ‘Just as you fear the transference – oh yes, I know you fear “sharing” my ugliness – I’ve no wish to be changed into someone I don’t recognise!’
‘It’s necessary for our inner comfort, the betterment of our inner natures.’
It’s just a line of the creed, drummed into us since we were children.
‘And me?’ Courundia is still furious. ‘Inside, I’m a more beautiful person than you could ever hope to be!’
‘A beautiful person? A girl who steals?’
‘A girl who has to steal to keep you clothed,’ she fumes, indicating my veiled hat with an accusatorially pointing finger. ‘What right do you have to judge the way I’ve been forced to live? Why have I to suffer for your ridiculous religious beliefs?’
‘You don’t believe–’
‘Of course I don’t believe nonsense like that! And you, do you really know everything there is to know about your so called religion?’
‘That’s for our Priestas to–’
‘To tell you what to do? How to behave?’
I’m incensed by Courundia’s unfair accusation.
No one understood the difficulties of recognising our darker sides better than the members of our Church. Chosen at an early age from only the best families, trained remorselessly for their future roles as guiding Priestas, they weren’t allowed the luxury of undergoing a transference to make that recognition easier: rather, they have to constantly suffer the far more onerous task of continually bearing in mind the poverty of their condition, never allowing themselves any freedom from that burdensome thought.
‘Do you even know how it’s done, this “transference”?’ Courundia persists. ‘We can’t even remove a bullet safely, without causing gangrene: and yet we can transpose one half of a face onto another! Tell me, Andraetra; do you truly think you’ll benefit from sharing my face?’
She glares at me, staring directly into my face: displaying her hideousness far more clearly than even one of Señorat Holandros photographs could ever manage.
Ashamedly, I shake my head.
We keep to the hills, despite the discomfort of the traveling. There are too many army and revolutionary deserters lying in wait on the roads.
Having informed me of the dangers I face alone on the roads, Courundia has let me know I can leave her anytime I want to. She only wants to show me how people like her live, in the hope that I might persuade my father to use his power and contacts to make changes.
She’s disappointed when I tell her I’m not really a Delmestra; that I’m only their ward.
‘I’ll show you anyhow,’ she says miserably. ‘Perhaps you’ll have to marry your Pavro after all: maybe he can make the changes we need.’
‘He was fighting for the revolutionaries. That’s how he died; shot by the soldiers.’
She grins wanly, maybe because she’s thankful for my concern, maybe because she’s amused by my naiveté.
‘These revolutions: they just replace one set of powerful people with another set of powerful people. That’s all they’re ever for.’
It abruptly dawns on me that Courundia’s description of what she had witnessed happening to Pavro didn’t make sense; if she had come looking for me, and followed the Delmestra’s carriage to the studio, then Pavro would have already been resurrected when we all arrived there!
She couldn’t possibly have seen him die!
She had lied.
Everyone lies to me!
When we come to a veiling, small copse of trees, itself situated within a hollow hiding it from most of the surrounding hilltops, Courundia calls a halt, slipping down from her mount with enviable agility and ease.
After helping me down from my own horse, with a reassurance that this was a far more hospitable place than it might appear, she immediately began digging into the soil beneath one of the smaller bushes.
‘I prepared all this earlier, a sort of place I knew I could always fall back on if I hit trouble,’ she says as she digs out a number of cases, each one battered and filthy but containing fresh, expensive clothes.
‘As purloined from the very best in society,’ she grins happily, tossing me a blouse, trousers, and even riding boots, all of the very best tailoring and materials. ‘I knew you’d hardly be dressed for a long ride,’ she adds, indicating my torn dress with a nod of her head.
‘So, you’d intended kidnapping me all along?’ I scoff, refusing to appear grateful for the soft, clean clothes.
‘I’d intended persuading you to come with me: and only a Gorgesque would be out travelling with her “servant”, not some girl who’s not yet come of age.’
‘You’ve thought of everything,’ I reply scornfully. ‘Oh, apart from food and water.’
‘Trees mean water,’ Courundia says, pointing off toward a large stone I soon realise is covering another hole she’s dug earlier, this time to unearth an underground spring. ‘As for food,’ she adds, standing up and heading off towards an outcrop of rocks, ‘I’ve got traps set up all around here: and at least one of them should have caught something that hasn’t already been eaten by any other vermin or insects around here.’
Naturally, I really am extremely impressed, yet I keep my tone mocking, resentful that she’s abducted me, lied to me.
‘I’m ugly,’ she says, glancing back over her shoulder with a smile, ‘not stupid!’
No could accuse Courundia of being stupid.
When she lights the fire to cook the rabbit she’s caught, together with the oddly-shaped root vegetables she’s managed to dig up from somewhere beneath the bushes, she makes sure it’s not going to draw too much attention by building it in yet another pit she’s dug. Similarly, the smoke is dissipated by an upper layering of branches and leaves, not that there’s much of a plume to hide anyway, for she’s chosen her flammable materials well.
As soon as the food’s cooked, she puts the fire out, using large stones she’d placed inside the fire pit as heated blocks to grant us some warmth as we settle down for the night. The harnesses and what remains of my dress serve as our beds.
Every move she makes is quick, graceful, athletically smooth and accomplished.
Her face may be hideous, but her body could have been sculpted to ensure survival. At last, I can understand how she managed to shadow both myself and anyone working within the art studio without being discovered or even heard.
It would take an amazing amount of skill to accomplish that: especially with someone like the odious, serpentine Grindfarg perpetually hanging around.
‘When you took me, when the magnesium flashed: why didn’t I hear Grindfarg?’ I recall hearing the others, but not him, the one most likely to suspect something odd was happening and react to it. ‘Had you…done something to him?’
Courundia nods, grins mischievously.
‘He was the only one who could have given me any real trouble: so when the magnesium went “bang”, so did his head!’
‘You killed him?’
With a pang of shame, I realise I’m hoping the answer is ‘yes’.
She shakes her head, pouts and grimaces thoughtfully, as if aware yet somehow regretting that she would never really be capable of anything so terrible.
‘That would have made too much noise!’ she chuckles grimly.
In the morning, I wake to an already cooked breakfast of more rabbit, more roasted roots. A layer of hot stones keeps off the worst of the dawn chill.
Courundia offers me yet another fresh blouse, pointing out that we wouldn’t be coming back here anyway. She changes into fresh clothing herself, briefly and partially stripping off to reveal a taut body, the undulating muscles decorated with colourful tattoos.
She catches me looking at the tattoos, notes my surprise.
‘Sorry, I shouldn’t stare.’ I apologise, averting my eyes shamefully. ‘I’ve…I’ve never seen tattoos before and…and…’
‘And you never thought you’d see them on a “lady”, right?’
I nod, still ashamed.
‘Well you, haven’t,’ she says with a laugh. ‘Because I’m not a lady, am I?’
As if to back up her statement with ever more proof, she flexes her muscles the way a man would: causing the tattoos to move, the bright disc of a glistening moon shifting slightly within its surrounding darkness.
There are other tattoos of the moon, some almost completely veiled, others the crescent of the new moon. It reminds me of the stained glass portrayals of our religious texts proudly displayed within our churches and cathedrals.
The darkness and the light: the way the transference helps us recognise our endangering darkness, as well as our redeeming inner light.
‘I thought you said the creed was nonsense,’ I snort triumphantly, indicating the way the moon lights up so many repeated areas of darkness upon her skin.
‘It’s an older religion,’ she confidently snorts back. ‘One yours stole its better ideas from.’
‘And you believe this?’ I scoff.
She shrugs noncommittally.
‘All religion, at best, simply seeks to give reason to the unreasonable.’
With first a lithe twist this way, another even more malleable twist that way, she indicates the scenes upon her body as if revealing a sacred text to me.
‘Through our mortal father, we are at best earthly shepherds fearful of the Old Crone, granted knowledge of the darkness within us; itself granting us a recognition of the merest glimmer of light within us that is our salvation.’
Another twist of her waist, a turn of her shoulders, brings another scene to my attention, one of a sparkling new moon whose bright glow has no visibly hard edges.
‘Through our Divine Mother, we are the Royal Daughter herself, the reawakened new beginning.’
She slips on her blouse, drawing an end to her show.
‘In terms of the moon, there’s always more than one ending, countless new beginnings,’ she adds, nonchalantly buttoning the blouse.
‘And this, you think – this notion of inner darkness and light, I mean – is where the idea of the transference came from?’
‘A twisted version of it,’ she agrees with a nod. ‘And like all twisted versions of a religion, it’s introduced to grant someone, somewhere, extra powers over us.’
As she dresses, I’ve put on my fresh blouse too, surprised once again by its quality: its previous owner must have been a powerful person in her own right. I feel weirdly glamorous in this exotically wonderful riding gear, its very elegance and expensive cut granting me a grace and sense of confidence I never realised I so naturally possessed.
‘If I believed your version,’ Courundia continues, quickly moving on to the final preparations in making the horses ready, ‘then what hope would there be for me? My ugliness would be a sure sign that I was full of only irredeemable darkness: and that, of course, is exactly how I’m supposed to feel!’
‘If there’s really a glimmer of goodness in you – then why did you lie to me about seeing Pavro die?’
She turns around, seems surprised by the way I’m glaring hatefully at her.
‘Lie?’ She briefly frowns bemusedly then, with a shake of her head, as if clearing it of a confusing fog, firmly declares, ‘I told you what I saw, what I heard, what I sensed. That’s the truth according to my creed!’
She pauses, frowning a little as if pondering this.
‘In fact, no; that’s not true – I have been hiding something from you.’
‘What?’ I ask triumphantly, glad to have at least prised this small admission out of her.
‘When I saw him die–’ she waves a hand violently in the air, stilling the beginnings of my protests – ‘he knelt on the floor, placing a dark box before him, then took out from a sheath on its top a long-bladed knife: and then he plunged the knife deeply into his chest, just above his heart.’
Far down in a valley, a battle is taking place.
The multiple cracks of massed gunfire is muted way up here, despite its dull echoes. Vast plumes of smoke drifts across and veil everything, such that all those men could be fighting for nothing more than the possession of an empire of clouds.
They could be insects, they’re so small, many clad in bright blue or green, those opposing them mostly garbed in black. They move in their ordered formations, slowly moving squares or rectangles, until one of them breaks and scatters, leaving lifeless husks lying upon the ground.
We draw as far aside from the battle as we can, not wishing to meet up with any wayward formations, scouting patrols, or those fleeing the worst of the fighting.
Apart from this fear that the battle might inadvertently catch up with us in this way, I feel quite regal, quite distanced from it all, observing it from my exulted position. Courundia, however, glances down at it all with anxious frowns, intensely focusing now and again on a particularly violent section of the fight, glumly sighing as if somehow aware of and caught up in each individual trauma.
Distracted in this way, she uncharacteristically fails to either hear or respond to the clack of what could be a disturbed stone off to our other side, the side on which the high hill we’re on falls away too steeply for anyone to safely approach us.
The hill’s steep incline briefly drops completely away, forming the slightest of cliff faces before leavening out into a relatively smoother drop. It’s here that I spot amongst the dull rocks and stones the bright fluttering flame of a lance pennant. Looking a little harder this way, I detect other flashes of colour: the sheer black of another lancer’s wide brimmed hat, the yellow of another’s jacket.
It’s a small section of mounted lancers, perhaps scouts who have found themselves misdirected by the few and awkward paths around here.
They’re all still too far off to have attracted Courundia’s attention; she’s more concerned with checking we’re not being approached by the easier trails leading up from the battlefield.
It flashes through my mind that I should warn her; a flash of thought that abruptly transforms into an admonishment not to be so stupid.
This girl has endlessly lied to me.
And now she has even made the outrageous claim that Pavro committed suicide!
With a sudden, fierce jerk of the horse’s reins, I pull my mount sharply around.
I dig my knees hard into the flanks, urging the mare into action, whipping her on either side of her neck with my reins, spurring it into a swiftly accelerating gallop.
Courundia whirls around on her horse, obviously wondering what’s going on.
But she’s too late; she can’t stop me now.
I’m dangerously careering down the rocky incline of the hill, the angrily clattering hooves of my mount struggling to keep any real purchase on the slipping and sliding stones.
‘Help me, help me!’ I yell out to the lancers now curiously glancing my way. ‘I’ve been kidnapped!’
‘No no! You’ll kill yourself!’ Courundia screams after me.
I don’t know if she’s also chasing after me. It’s too dangerous for me to try and even briefly glance over my shoulder to check, for my mount is finding it increasingly difficult to remain upright.
The incline’s too steep. The ground too unstable.
After a quick observation of their surroundings, the lancers have begun hurriedly clambering up a rock fall that’s transformed a small section of the steeper drop into a reasonably accessible slope. A few of them are letting their lances drop to the floor, reaching alongside themselves to grasp instead the short barrelled muskets sheathed on their mounts’ flanks.
Courundia must be either in close pursuit, or attempting to ride away.
I spin around a little in what passes for a saddle on my mare. Courundia is trying to ride away, realising she has no hope of preventing me from reaching the oncoming lancers.
There’s a crack of a musket going off, then another.
‘No, don’t shoot her–’
But my cry’s too late, drowned out too much in the cracking gunfire.
Courundia and her horse stumble, pitch forward clumsily; and she’s brought down to the ground amidst the nauseating spurting of blood.
Then, suddenly, I’m falling too.
‘Falling’ is an inadequate word to describe what really happens to me.
Momentarily hurtling through space; that would be a more apt description.
As my horse crumples beneath me, no longer able to keep on her feet, the steep incline finally proving too much for her, I’m thrown forward. Arms flailing, incapable of maintaining any control over my flight, I land with a series of sickening crunches on one side, my face taking most of the impact.
The momentum of my ‘fall’ continues to carry me forward, scraping me hard over sharp rocks and stones, every one of which seems to take delight in shredding at my flesh, or gouging as deeply as it can. My right eye in particular feels as if it’s about to be entirely torn from its relentlessly pummelled and stretched socket.
Fortunately, after a few brutal seconds of this agonising punishment, I drift out of consciousness.
The voice is worried; a man’s, deep and authoritative.
He’s close alongside me, kneeling by me I think, as he tries to tenderly turn me over to face him.
I’m still lying face down. Still dazed.
Still wracked with an agonising pain that strikes me everywhere all at once, as if every bone is broken, every muscle sorely torn or at least bruised.
Everything appears red and fluid to me: I’m looking through a sheen of blood covering my eyes, I think, I hope. As I slowly and painfully turn to face the man, I see him smile in relief that I’m alive, that I’m at least moving a little.
He’s a Gorgesque, a captain, I think.
His eyes open wide; he’s either startled or horrified or both. It seems to me that he has to stop himself from lurching away from me.
The blood: I must look a complete mess, probably far worse than I actually am.
He turns away from me, calling over to his men to hurry up with the bandages and water.
‘How…how do you know my name?’ I ask.
‘We were sent out searching for you, Señorista,’ the captain answers as one of his men also kneels by me, soaking some bandages in water poured from a flask.
‘How did you recognise me?’
The man who starts gently dabbing at my face with the soaked bandages looks as worried as the captain. He’s neither Gorgesque nor a lowly Grotesgeous, just a regular soldier.
‘I was given a…a portrait,’ the captain answers unsurely, giving me the impression he’s not quite sure if he’s used the correct term.
‘A photograph?’ I say helpfully, squealing a little in pain as the bandages seem to catch on some grit caught within my skin.
‘Photograph; yes, that’s right, Señorista,’ the captain replies brightly. ‘So remarkably accurate: you were beautiful, Señorista Teresimo!’
His eyes widen in horror once more, but this time, I think, because it’s just dawned on him what he’s just said.
It’s too late: I’d heard his words.
You were beautiful.
‘It…it’s just one side of your face, Señorista!’
The captain means to reassure me, obviously.
After all, isn’t one side of his face remarkably hideous?
‘Courundia – is she…?’
I saw her fall, the soldiers shooting at her.
I didn’t want her to die. I just wanted to escape her, to return to the Delmestras; to Pavro.
I try and sit up a little more, so I can look over to where I saw her and her horse fall.
It’s a very painful exercise, despite requiring relatively little movement.
‘Courundia?’ The captain frowns, confused. ‘Ah! The other girl!’
My horse lies just a little up the incline from where I ended up, its body torn and bloodied, the legs oddly angled and undoubtedly broken. She’s unmoving, dead.
At least Courundia appears unarmed. She’s being led down the hill, her hands bound behind her back. It must have been her horse that had been shot from beneath her, causing them both to stumble and fall.
‘She’s under arrest, don’t worry!’ the captain declares assuredly, obviously mistaking the reasons for my concern.
As she passes close by, Courundia looks over our way, her face abruptly creased with distress as she sees the state I’m in.
Despite her bound hands, she attempts to rush towards me. The guarding soldiers, however, catch her hard by the shoulders, dragging her back.
‘Please, take care of her!’ I plead to the soldiers, each of whom rewards me with a perplexed grin.
‘I’m sorry!’ I shout towards Courundia. ‘I needed to get back: back to Pavro!’
What will he think when he sees my badly gouged face?
I allow myself a relieved chuckle.
Isn’t that, after all, what the Gorgesque is all about?
The dark side, our devilish side, and the side of our inner light.
The grotesque merged with the gorgeous.
I stop laughing.
It’s my right side that’s disfigured.
And that, of course, is supposed to be my beautiful side.
‘Do you have a mirror?’
It’s a simple enough request, and yet it seems to fill the faces of both the captain and his soldier with horror.
They swap doubtful glances with each other.
The captain shakes his head.
‘No, sorry, Señorista; there is no need for a lancer troop to carry a mirror with them!’
The soldier eyes his superior suspiciously, no doubt aware of the lie.
Don’t our soldiers carry mirrors to use as a way of signalling to each other over long distances?
‘Have you anything shiny then, that I could see myself in? Polished metal, maybe?’
Once again, I see the exchanging of anxious glances, the shaking of the captain’s head.
‘No, Señorista: sorry!’
‘What did I look like’ I ask, curious. ‘In the photograph, I mean?’
‘I have it, Señorista! You looked–’
Yet again, the captain abruptly stops himself from saying any more.
‘You have it? Can I see it?’
‘Is…is that wise, Señorista?’
I nod, only to immediately regret doing so: any move, even the slightest, is still agonisingly painful.
Raising an arm, briefly turning away from me, the captain signals to an especially smart soldier holding the reins of two horses.
‘The satchel; on my horse,’ he yells.
Within the satchel, of course, there’s a covered package.
A glass plate.
As the captain helps support my back as I sit up, I unveil the sheet of chemically transformed glass.
It’s me, standing before the chaise longue, perhaps way too brightly lit, caught in the sunburst glare of an overloaded magnesium pan.
My eyes are closed, as if I’m dead, posed to just merely appear alive.
My beauty is captured here forever.
A reminder of how I used to look.
Yes, it truly, truly has captured my soul.
The soul that has just died within me.
For within the reflection of the glass against its backing of cloth, I can see my real face.
Within the real world, my beauty no longer exists.
I’ve twisted my hat around a little, so that the veil covers the disfigured side of my face.
Of course, it covers the right side of my face
Which means I’m not a Gorgesque: I’m a Grotesgeous.
Even the soldiers appear unsure as to how they should react to me.
The captain, naturally, remains entirely courteous. Yet as he rides alongside me I can sense his discomfort that his own disfigured side is presented to my beautiful side: which, of course, is not how it’s supposed to be at all!
He’s elegant, handsome too, in his way: in his Gorgesque way.
I will never be beautiful again; not even in a Gorgesque way.
I will be forever hideous, and in a lowly Grotesgeous way too.
More hideous than that, indeed, as I will possess no beautiful side whatsoever.
I am unmarriageable.
No one will ever accept me.
Yet if I’m feeling so ridiculously sorry for myself, whatever must poor Courundia be thinking of her own sorely fallen condition?
She’s still securely bound, her hands behind her back, a rope halter fixed around her neck and binding her to the harness of the horse she’s forced to walk behind. A soldier accompanies her, one taking his turn with her before being allowed to mount up again.
I’ve been granted the use of one of their mounts.
As befits a Gorgesque: but not, naturally, a Grotesgeous.
The captain won’t allow me to approach Courundia: not even to ask if she’s been injured in any way by her fall.
He’s anxious for my safety.
The Delmestras have offered a huge reward for my safe return, he’s informed me.
As he’d said this, I wondered if I’d caught a glint of anxiety in his eyes: does this count as a ‘safe’ return?
Will I still be worth the reward money originally offered?
It could be I’m being ungenerous.
It may well be that no such thoughts passed through the captain’s mind.
But they surely passed through mine.
The travelling’s easier on the roads, now that we’ve come down from the higher reaches of the hills. Yet the soldiers have a nervousness about them, a wariness that’s replaced the air of ease they had while we came down from the mountains.
Although held proudly upright, their lances twitch at every odd sound of movement that erupts from the clusters of boulders or bushes we pass.
I find it hard to believe anyone would be foolish enough to attack a troop of smartly-attired lancers: in fact, even as the captain keels over, a bloody hole having suddenly appeared in the centre of his chest, I remain in a strange state of disbelief.
At first, I couldn’t understand the abrupt loss of order and cohesion amongst what had originally been a tightly knit group of soldiers.
Then I heard the blood-freezing yells of our attackers, more animal howl than shout. Our assailants moved with breath-taking speed and agility, swarming through and amongst us so suddenly that I could have sworn they had sprung up from the ground itself.
Dust and dirt clung to them, or hovered about them as sepia coloured clouds as they struck out mercilessly with swords or fired their muskets. Their faces were wild, the wildness of animals; which it seemed many of them actually were, their faces covered with thick fur, their snouts large, jaws wide and snarling.
The men around me screamed in terror as they fell or were brutally pulled from their rearing horses, disappearing under the clubbing of gun butts, the slashing of blades or even their own lances.
If any of our attackers died, I didn’t see it. Every solider fell, however, thankfully swiftly in most cases.
The only survivors of the platoon were Courundia and myself, both of us being almost instantly surrounded by triumphantly whooping hybrid men and women.
‘What of the girl, we don’t need her do we?’ someone hollered out.
‘Check her out, she might have a tattoo!’ another snarled.
Two of the attackers sprang towards the still firmly bound Courundia, ripping her blouse from her. She remained imperiously proud, despite her nakedness.
‘It’s a good one; worth a bit, I reckon!’ the semi-fox-headed man holding the largest shred of Courundia’s blouse yelled gleefully.
‘Should we just kill her anyway, slice off what we need?’
‘And how do you intend keeping it fresh and alive,’ a man tightly holding the reins of my severely frightened horse cried back without even glancing their way.
His eyes were locked on me, enjoying and hungrily devouring the fear he detected there.
Half his head was that of a dog.
His long, red tongue slavered as he spoke.
‘And as for this beauty, the Delmestras will be paying out far more for her than even they’d intended!’
If they see that my beauty has become seriously flawed, will they no longer see me as someone it’s worth keeping alive?
Will anyone amongst these beasts realise that I’m veiling the wrong side of my face?
T hey each take great delight in calming the terrified horses, only to instantly execute them with a sharp stab of a lance to the heart. As the light goes out of the horses’ bulbously horrified eyes, as their legs give way and they crumple to the ground, these half- beast, half men laugh. The only horse they spare is the one I’m riding, which also now serves as the horse Courundia is tied to and has to walk behind.
For some reason, too, they take care to save the satchel containing the glass plate of my image, tightly strapping this to my mount’s harness: I can’t see how they would even know of the photograph’s existence, let alone have any use for it.
For the most part, they’re still covered in dust, dust I now realise they’ve deliberately covered themselves in. They had dug holes close alongside the road, some even lying within the road itself, and here they had lain in wait for the arrival of our small column.
In what I take at first to be a rare display of kindness, one of the bestial men takes a jacket from one of the dead soldiers and drapes it around poor Courundia’s bared shoulders.
‘Don’t want the sun ruining our merchandise, do we?’ he says with a delighted snigger.
The sun was harsh.
Every now and again, I glanced back towards Courundia, wishing there was something I could do to help her.
Not that she appeared to be seeking pity: she still remained proud and resolute, refusing to be bowed by the cruel way she was being treated.
At least her hands had now been tied before her rather than behind her back, but this was only to make it easier for the men to fix her to the horse.
The beasts rode along the road with no fear of attack. They had their own horses, it had turned out, horses that seem used to the hideous visages of these men, for they show none of the terror exhibited by the soldiers’ mounts.
We hadn’t been traveling far when one of the other men rode up alongside the dog-headed man to draw his attention to a dust cloud on the road behind us, one that surely heralds the swift approach of either a hefty carriage or another large band of mounted men. Flicking open and extending a telescope, the dog-man languidly swung around in his saddle, looking back and studying the approaching men with complete nonchalance.
‘It’s the troop we killed earlier.’
He slipped the telescope back into its pocket, with no hint of surprise on either side of his warped face. Neither did he display any sense of urgency, for he allowed his men to continue their steady, unhurried pace along the dusty track.
The troop of galloping men soon caught up with us, the gaily fluttering pennants of their rigidly upright lances flickering like red streaks above the veiling dust their mounts were throwing up. One of the soldiers no longer wore a yellow jacket, while another had to share a horse, ungainly clinging on behind one of the other riders.
If I’d had any doubts that these were indeed the men I’d seen killed only moments ago, this was immediately dispelled when the once handsome captain gave me a smart salute of recognition as he and his troops drew closer, deftly riding in amongst us.
The captain drew up alongside the dog-faced leader, yet made no effort to join in conversation with him. Despite this, something must have passed between them, for Dogface suddenly glowered my way, a mix of possibly bewilderment and irritation causing him to almost growl.
With a furious flick of his reins, and the merest dig of his heels, he pulled his mount right across our column until he was close by me. Rising high in his saddle and reaching across, he wrenched the veil away from my face.
And this man with the face of a dog observed me with glaring-eyed horror.
‘Hold her!’ Dogface snarled.
On his growled command, the men nearest to me abruptly urged their horses to draw close to mine, stretching out with grasping hands to grab me around the shoulders and arms.
I was too slow to react and fight them off. Yet Courundia was far more instinctive in her actions, throwing herself forward and leaping up against my mount’s flanks in an attempt to keep the men from taking hold of me.
Even if she’d had her hands free, I doubt if she’d have had much of a chance of helping me. Despite the vigour of her struggles, she herself was brutally knocked and dragged clear.
‘Watch her tattoos; don’t damage them!’ someone callously ordered.
I was firmly held, such that no amount of squirming was going to result in me being released. With a signal of a waved hand from Dogface, the men pulled back hard on my shoulders, painfully bending me backwards in my saddle.
Dogface drew closer still, leaning over me as if preparing for a kiss.
Hands abruptly clasped around my eyes, effectively blindfolding me, throwing me into an edgy darkness. Then another large hand completely enveloped my nose, such that I feared I was going to be smothered.
Instead, there was the strangest sensation of water trickling down my nose, causing me to gag, like someone drowning. I tried to shake my face from side to side to prevent this, but it was all to no avail; I was far too firmly held.
The water – which wasn’t much more, I now realised with relief, than the slightest dribble – streamed off to the right side of my face, flowing beneath my skin, spreading out and making even the muscles (it seemed to me) rise and fall in undulating waves.
The pain of stretched, torn skin instantly vanished.
Then the waters, or whatever they were, poured back out, defying gravity, surging up my nose, rushing back into the hand they seemed to have emanated from.
As the hands grasping my shoulders at last let me go, letting me sit up with a gasp of relief once more, I saw that the captain was now also alongside me: and, with a gracious smile, he was offering me the semaphore mirror he’d originally denied possessing.
I glanced into the glittering mirror.
I was entirely beautiful once more.
As we continued along the road with our resplendent escort of previously butchered soldiers, no one bothered talking. They were, for the most part, perfectly silent, the last words I’d heard being those directed at me by Dogface, letting me know he hadn’t restored my beauty purely for my own benefit: ‘I wouldn’t like all our work to be in vain.’
Everything about these people, it seemed, revolved around transactions, the money they would make.
At last, ahead of us I began to catch the first signs of what could only be some kind of township: the smoke curling up like dark serpents from chimneys; the glow of the domes and spires of the upper reaches of the taller buildings.
By me, one of the bestial men shrugged, shivered, as if attempting to ease strained muscles after the long and uncomfortable journey.
Then his face quivered, rippled, the animal side of his face in particular quaking and even moving as if made abruptly fluid.
The fur retreated into the skin, the snout shrunk, the maw contracted, shrivelled.
And within a moment, he had the face of a perfectly normal man.
One by one, the faces of the beasts around me quivered, rippled, and flowed back to being perfectly human once more.
The last to undergo the transformation was Dogface: as if he preferred being half animal, and held off from making the change until the very last moment.
I presumed they’d changed their faces – however they’d managed it – to ensure the town’s inhabitants weren’t terrified by their arrival. Yet the town was no normal town, being rather one of almost compete deterioration: one of those settlements abandoned long ago when water was found to be in short supply, or a gold rush had come to an end.
Moreover, the majority of people living here were no less deformed than the men had appeared while being half beast, half man. Many appeared to be in an even worse state, their flesh apparently rotting, falling from them in shreds or even clumps as they wandered, seemingly aimlessly, up the high street. Still more sported badly healed wounds, everything from sabre slashes to the truly horrific damage caused by a cannonball or shot.
As we rode by them, they eyed us with little interest, even the presence of the smartly attired soldiers failing to inspire within them either respect or nervousness.
Like the rotting, crumbling buildings around them, they appeared curiously soulless, with neither fear nor joy of the life passing around them. Not that the men around me seemed any more enthusiastic, our progress through town being unhurried, time apparently of no consequence to them.
The leader and a handful of his men peeled off from the rest, leaving the bulk of the riders to continue on their unrushed progress down the centre of town. He’d grasped the reins of my own mount, so I found myself heading down a narrower side street, Courundia also having no choice but to follow on behind me.
We arrived outside a surprisingly well-maintained and highly elaborate building, the men hitching our horses to the posts outside. As I was unceremoniously dragged down from my own mount, my hands were deftly roped together in front of me. Courundia was left with her hands firmly bound, but at last she was untied from my horse, the rope now used instead to heartlessly drag her along with us as we all made our way towards the building’s doorway.
I’d presumed we’d be entering a bar, the usual and favourite destination of any men after an arduous, hot and thirsty journey. Inside, however, it was actually quite dark, the only light being an eerie blood red glow that seemed to almost seep around the rooms rather than come from any noticeably direct source.
The bloodied radiance came from behind back-lit pictures fixed everywhere about the wall, as if it were a gallery of stained glass.
Yet these weren’t of glass, or of paint, but of flesh; tautly stretched like canvases over their frames, proudly displaying their tattoos as if they were works of art.
A couple of the men stopped by one of the displayed tattoos, admiring it as if it were a new exhibit. They tentatively touched the flesh, chuckling as the rearing stallion etched upon it apparently moved and came to life, the skin rippling as if muscles were still flexing beneath it.
‘Where’s Mistress Ottat?’ Dogface demanded of a man stepping out of a patch of darkness into the bloody light. ‘I’ve a new decoration for her,’ he added, indicating the tightly bound Courundia with a devilish grin.
Courundia gasped, as if the cruel fate awaiting her had only just dawned on her.
Her eyes, however, weren’t fixed with horror upon the framed tattoos but upon the man unhurriedly ambling more fully into the light.
He was perfectly white, perfectly bald, such that he appeared to be a hideously overgrown baby.
Just behind Grindfarg, another man stepped out into the red iridescence.
He too was perfectly white, perfectly bald. He too had all the appearance of being an overgrown baby.
Neither of them gave me a second glance.
All their interest was on poor Courundia. Clustering around her, they produced from their smartly-cut suits measuring tapes, chalk and knives, setting themselves to measuring up Courundia’s tattoos like hellish tailors.
Noticing my revulsion, Dogface mistook it for a reaction to the appearance of these men, who could have been Grindfarg’s triplets.
‘The midwives of this town, they’re always on the lookout for stillborns, see? Whether it’s one of their own making, or one they’ve come across through newspaper announcements of unused cribs, it’s all the same to them: pliable, unhardened, unformed flesh, they can raise just about any way they want to.’
A toad-like woman who could have been their grandmother, if such a thing were possible, next came into the light, looking Courundia up and down much as they were doing.
‘What’s for me today then, Cradjen?’ she asked with only the briefest of glances Dogface’s way before letting her appraising gaze fall upon me. ‘I don’t suppose this dainty piece of work has anything I might be interested in?’
Before I could respond in any way, I was suddenly grabbed tightly from behind, the grasping hands harder than iron in the violence of their grip.
‘Here you are!’ a guttural voice snorted hatefully in my ear.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the flash of perfectly white, perfectly bald flesh.
This really was Grindfarg.
I couldn’t break free of Grindfargs’s hold around my waist.
Even the efforts of Cradjen and his men couldn’t wrest me free of his iron-like grip, despite their recourse to pummelling him fiercely about the head, every blow of which he ignored as if they were only striking hard at a pillow.
‘This is my property!’ Cradjen snapped, though I wasn’t sure if he were talking to Grindfarg of Courundia, who also suddenly broke free of the two butcher’s assistants to try and rescue me.
Like Grindfarg, she no longer appeared to care about the beating she was receiving, so intent was her desire to help me.
It might have been a strange and complete stalemate if Señorat Holandros, the photographer, hadn’t walked in upon us.
For a happily grinning Pavro was also with him.
Everything happening around me came to a sudden halt.
Including, it must be said, all the usual the processes normally whirling around inside my head, all of which had been abruptly replaced by a deluge of questions
What was Pavro doing here?
What was he doing with Señorat Holandros?
Why had their appearance caused everyone to stop what they were doing?
Did the power, prestige and money of the Delmestras hold sway even here, in this hole dragged out of Hell?
Just how much weirder could my whole world become?
‘Pavro! What are you doing here?’
Unfortunately, I can only ask one question at a time.
‘And what are you doing with them?’
The second I’ve got to ask anyway, indicating both Señorat Holandros and Grindfarg with nods of my heads and a snort of disgust.
‘I’ve been searching for you: and they had contacts in places like this I couldn’t just ignore!’ Pavro explains with a joyful smile, drawing close to me, tenderly and elatedly kissing my cheek.
As he pulls back slightly, he frowns perplexedly at my bound hands, indicating that he wants them freeing: the odious Grindfarg being more than happy to oblige with the slash of a knife he seems to produce out of nowhere.
Everyone else is hanging back: even Cradjen, whom I assume is simply waiting for payment; even Courundia, whom can only be as dumbfounded as I am by Pavro’s presence.
‘Pavro, you have to help Courundia!’
Using my recently freed hands, I urgently grab hold of Pavro’s.
‘She’s going to be carved up, to make one of these awful pictures!’
I draw his attention to first Courundia and then the framed tattoo skins.
‘Courundia?’ Pavro repeats, as if startled by my concern for her. ‘Who’s sh– ah, wait, of course! The girl who abducted you? You want to help her, Ant?’
Despite his astonishment, he smiles as if amused by my innocence and kindness.
‘No one deserves to end up as someone’s decoration, Pavro!’ I insist vehemently.
‘She’s worth a terrible amount of money,’ the toad-like Mistress Ottat declares, stepping forward without a hint of shame.
‘How much to me, to let her go?’ Pavro asks confidently. ‘Provided, naturally,’ he adds with equal confidence, but this time directing his comment towards Courundia, ‘she agrees to be escorted from town as soon as she’s freed?’
Surprisingly, Courundia nods in acquiescence.
Even more surprisingly, Mistress Ottat nods in acquiescence to Pavro’s request too.
‘Then… Señorat Delmestra…to you…it must be free of charge,’ she says to Pavro, as if every word is being reluctantly forced up from within her deepest recesses.
‘Excellent!’ Pavro declares happily, using yet another quick, authoritative wave of a hand to command two of Cradjen’s men to immediately drag Courundia outside before there can be any protest or signs of discontent from anyone.
Even I’m not allowed time to say goodbye to her, yet I think it best that I don’t cause any delay that might cause anyone to question Pavro’s largesse. Besides, before I can ask Pavro permission to make sure she’s safe, he steps forwards once more and warmly, joyfully embraces me.
Alongside us, Cradjen growls miserably, drawing our attention back to him
‘Ah yes, yes,’ Pavro says, as if delighted that Cradjen has interrupted us, ‘the brave and fearless rescuer of my fair maiden, Andraetra! And how much do I owe you, my good man?’
Cradjen frowns, as if considering the sums he believes involved.
‘To you,’ he says finally, bitterly, as if resenting every word passing through his lips, ‘it’s all free.’
‘Why’s everyone letting you have everything for free?’
‘Oh, not everyone,’ Pavro insists in answer to my question. ‘Just the people we’ve been fortunate enough to meet here so far!’
I’ve never met anyone more unlikely to offer something for free that either Mistress Ottat or Cradjen. And yet the latter had also offered up for free the glass plate image of me he’d managed to safely rescue from the fight with the captain’s men; not that he possessed it any longer, as he had discovered when he’d glanced down at the table he’d placed it on after entering the tattoo gallery.
‘It was here!’ he’d assured Pavro furiously. ‘Someone’s taken it!’
‘Not to worry,’ Pavro had calmly reassured him, glancing my way with loving eyes, ‘we have the real thing safely restored to us after all!’
At the hotel Pavro has taken me to (it being ‘too late to risk a journey home on the roads’), the two rooms he requests for a night’s stay are, naturally, ‘free’.
‘You see,’ Pavro declares brightly, ‘these people aren’t anywhere near as bad as they appear, are they?’
‘There’s a cardinal staying with us,’ the lady behind the hotel’s reception desk declares archly, perhaps making an attempt to impress us. ‘A most insistent man he is too!’
I was impressed that the hotel was regarded as being worthy of a cardinal. It was the cardinals who represented our country in embassies abroad, being the only members of the island’s ruling class who wouldn’t cause an immediate sense of revulsion within any outsider they had to converse with.
A maid carrying a dimly burning oil lamp lit our way up the stairs to our rooms, Pavro accompanying us all the way as we first inspected my room, to ensure I was happy with it.
The room was quite dark, the heavy curtains at the window drawn, the oil lamps unlit, with even the one gracing the central table appearing long unused and dusty. Neither was there any fire in the grate, the maid apologising that ‘we weren’t prepared for unexpected guests at this late hour’.
On the table, near to the unlit lamp, there was a large device similar to the one Señorat Holandros had used to take his glass pate images, although this one, of course, had no stand. Despite this, at its rear it still had the dark cloak Señorat Holandros had hidden under as he had taken my photograph, although here it appeared to have been draped over some sort of framework, much as you would find supporting the bustle of a dress.
As it seemed that the maid was about to leave with Pavro for his room, having left the lit lamp on the table, the door behind us flew open, a man storming in without waiting for either an invite or an introduction.
‘I was told you’d be here,’ the man spat furiously at Pavro. ‘I’m not prepared to wait any longer, not when you know we need answers to these “revivals” of the dead on the battlefields: it seems a sure way to us to raise an indestructible army, who’s only purpose can be our overthrow!’
‘You may leave us, my dear,’ Pavro announced coolly and politely to the maid, letting her depart swiftly past the newcomer and through the still open door.
‘My apologies, Cardinal,’ he continued with hardly any break, granting a slight bow of his head in greeting to the furious man still standing between us and the door. ‘But as you can see, I was hoping to prepare you for my new guise.’
The Cardinal shrugged off Pavro’s strange comment with a nonchalant wave of a hand.
‘We were fully aware that a change must be in the offing: and when we heard of the unfortunate death of a young Delmestra, we realised the possibilities would be too irresistible to ignore.’
‘You know, you don’t look much like the overfed cardinals I usually deal with; do I detect a hint of growing distrust between formerly firm partners…?’
‘Well if one of those partners becomes dissatisfied and believes she should take more power for herself…?’
A figure stepped out of the surrounding darkness, even now her tread silent, unheard, her athletic skills making her as lithe and graceful as the most dangerous creature.
‘To think,’ Courundia said, by way of announcing her surprise arrival, ‘visitors to our island feared our overly large insects…’
‘And you are?’ the cardinal demanded of Courundia imperiously, obviously affronted by her appearance.
‘She’s of no importance: some petty thief,’ Pavro explained with a perplexed frown, as if as surprised by her return as I was. ‘Didn’t we make a deal that you leave us be?’
‘Your men thought I was easy meat,’ Courundia responded bitterly, ‘graciously allowing me to carve them up with their own swords. Though, of course, I wasn’t to know at first that simply lopping off their heads wouldn’t bring about their swift ends, as I’d expected. But you know, it’s shocking how much you can learn about a person by reading their spilt innards.’
‘So you know?’ the cardinal asked, eyeing her with a curious glint.
Pavro also observed her, but with a smile signalling an obviously growing respect,
‘Then like me, you must realise this is the true revolution, one allowing us to throw off any overlords! You do realise you remain your own master, with your own memories, your own mind? You can live almost endlessly – and using the glass plates we’re collecting as templates, we’ll be able to accurately replicate anyone we wish: no matter how beautiful.’
Courundia grimaced in disgust at Pavro.
‘No, not like that!’ she spat, as if completely repulsed by his words.
‘So, Courundia; you’re no friend of “hers”…’
Even as he spoke, the “cardinal’ leapt with an astonishing gracefulness towards Pavro, deftly producing two long stilettos from hidden pouches across his back.
‘Lock the doors so she can’t call for help!’ he yelled at Courundia as he plunged the two long blades deep within a shocked Pavro’s heart.
‘Help!’ I screamed, picking up an unlit lamp and bringing it down hard across the back of Courundia’s head.
The lamp shatters, pieces of ceramic and glass scattering everywhere, its oil sloshing over the unconscious Courundia as she slumps to the floor.
Parvo’s smiling, but I can’t understand why.
Not content with deeply embedding his stilettos within Pavro’s chest, the cardinal’s now using them to rapidly slice at the flesh, much as an accomplished chef deftly twirls his utensils.
Before I can fully turn and help Pavro, however, his attacker withdraws his blades: bringing out, pierced upon their tips, a squirming, shrieking, oversized maggot.
I’m horrified, almost physically sick.
‘It’s the queen, the Queen of Queens!’ Pavro’s assassin yells triumphantly as he continues to hack and slice with one blade at the firmly pinioned and howling, writhing larva.
I rush to Pavro’s side, supporting him in my arms as his legs crumple and his arms go limp.
From the deep, bloody wound the assassin’s created in Pavro’s chest, other insects, ones no bigger than the smallest midges, pour out like a brackish water. Still others stream out from his mouth, his nose, his ears.
This is what has been keeping him alive.
He’s become a nest, a living, breathing nest, to a colony of insects, commanded by their queen.
‘They like the warmth of the heart, but not the heat of the flame!’
The assassin’s not satisfied with endlessly slicing at the queen.
No doubt aware of her continuing power to control and manipulate her subjects, he takes her towards the flame of the oil lamp, chuckling evilly as she squeals in fear and agony, as she attempts to coil her body away from the hungrily licking fire.
With a hiss and splutter of roasting flesh, of bubbling juices, the queen vanishes in a roar of flame.
Pavro slumps completely within my arms, too heavy for me to support any longer. He slips out of my weakening, trembling grasp, slides out of my hands to the floor.
There’s nothing to keep him alive any longer.
The insects, each one hardly bigger than a speck of dust, dart aimlessly around the floor, a dark chaos, alive yet possessing no purpose.
Pavro’s assassin glances down at them scornfully, their queen now nothing more than a roasted hunk of seared flesh hanging from the end of his stiletto.
‘The power of the Queen of Queens lay in her irreplaceable intelligence: and that was her weakness, for without her guidance everything else collapses.’
He looks back towards the still darkened window, frowning thoughtfully, doubtlessly imagining what must now be happening in the rest of the town.
Now their Queen of Queens was dead, every man or woman who had been brought back to life must now also have collapsed like Pavro, the insects no longer under any direct or purposeful control.
As for any other people in this town – those who live here either completely unaware or knowing of the way their friends had been colonised – they would probably panic and flee, fearing that they might be the next to abruptly lose their lives.
‘You used her?’ I glare at the assassin accusingly. ‘To fulfil this whole idea of the transference: and all just a way of ensuring the church had ultimate power over us all?’
He doesn’t appear in anyway embarrassed or ashamed by my allegation.
‘It was all so perfect at first, of course: as long as she was satisfied that her subjects lived in the relative safety and benefited from the capabilities of what, after all, would have been a dead – a wasted – human.’
‘But it…it’s horrific; sickening! To have these…things squirming about inside us!’
‘Really?’ He still appears completely at ease with my accusations. ‘Obviously, you fail to recognise that even you are being kept alive by countless, endlessly writhing creatures too small for you to even imagine. The Queen of Queens merely shepherded her charges to herd those who, in their turn, would control ever smaller creatures, repairing or even transforming damaged fles–’
His next, his last, expression is one of wide-eyed surprise, his voice abruptly choked off by a whirl of flying glass that instantly slices his throat.
I spin around to see who had thrown the shards of shattered lamp.
Whatever wounds Pavro had suffered during the assassin’s attack appeared to have vanished, the only sign that he had been severely injured being his ripped jacket and shirt, the blood that still dripped from his clothes here and there.
He mistakes the tortured look on my face for one of bafflement.
‘It was a queen: a Royal Sister who sacrificed herself so we’d learn the Church’s intentions.’
When he approaches me to place a comforting arm around me, I shudder, withdraw.
‘That…that thing…’ I stammer uneasily.
He laughs, as if my repulsion is ridiculous.
‘An honour,’ he states blissfully. ‘She came to me, recognising my importance to their great cause: the young queen who had originally granted me life willingly vacated my heart for her–’
‘How? How did such…an horrendous thing that size get inside of you?’
She couldn’t have entered through something as small as bullet wound, could she? I suppose, being malleable enough, she might have done.
And yet – he says a young queen vacated her position for this older queen. His wound would have been healed.
Is that what Courundia had seen and heard when she thought Pavro was dying? Had she simply witnessed the replacement of one queen for another, Pavro being allowed to briefly pass out while it was accomplished?
‘For most people, for me originally, the queen grows as her colony grows. But such a young queen can make mistakes–’
‘Those people I’ve seen who are rotting?’
He nods then, seeing that I’m becoming increasingly horrified by all this new information, tries to reassure me.
‘The older queens can keep you alive, keep you beautiful, almost endlessly!’
He reaches out, tenderly touches the repaired side of my face, as if aware of the damage I’d sustained there.
This time, I don’t recoil.
His touch still feels like that of Pavro’s.
His skin, his warmth, is that of Pavro’s
The loving glitter of his kind eyes: all Pavro’s too.
Responding to the touches of the Pavro I’ve always known, always loved, I caress the wound to his chest that is once again healing rapidly.
‘Yet I just saw your queen die!’ I whisper concernedly.
‘But we benefit from so many other means of communication…’
Stepping back from me a little, he drew my attention to a small line of almost microscopic insects leading from one of his feet towards the large, heavily curtained window.
‘Think about it, Andraetra: would that assassin have attacked you as mercilessly as he attacked me?’ Delicately placing a slender hand beneath my chin, he lifts my face up to his once more. ‘Men are enamoured by beauty, weakened or at least deliberating when they fall under its spell.’
Pulling aside from me once more, this time more urgently, he excitedly strode towards the drawn curtains, reaching up for the dangling cord that opened them.
‘We were going to bring you here anyway; that silly girl helped us all in the end!’
With a proud flourish, he drew the curtains aside.
It wasn’t a window behind the curtains after all.
It was a deep and dark alcove, featuring a large, throne-like chair.
And seated upon that throne was the most ancient, withered and exhausted woman I had ever seen.
‘Because the Queen of Queens, Andraetra, wants you to inherit all of her powers!’
‘She is indeed a rare beauty,’ the Queen of Queens croaked, speaking with what seems great difficultly.
If the Queen of Queens had ever been a ‘rare beauty’, it was a beauty that had long deserted her.
‘You…you can’t take me over,’ I insisted, stepping back even farther from her as I spoke. ‘I…I’m not dead!’
Noting my disgusted stare, the queen cackled like the witch she seemed to be.
‘I see you have your doubts suddenly, girl!’ she hissed. ‘But I’m centuries old: even I can’t remain beautiful forever – somethings do, inevitably, become irreparable. Though if you’d seen me only a month ago, even you girl, yes even you, would have envied my gorgeousness.’
If it were true that she had still been young and beautiful only a matter of weeks ago, then her deterioration had been swift and almost complete; she could hardly hold her head up, her neck was so scrawny and weak, while her voice – though still harsh and commanding – was strained and grating.
‘Your beauty will be preserved for hundreds of years, Andraetra!’ Pavro urged, his eyes wild with what could have been lust – but whether that was for me or for power, I wasn’t quite sure.
I shook my head, stepping even farther back from this hideously revolting queen.
‘No, no! I can’t do it, I can’t!’
‘Of course she can’t do it!’
The strident statement came from behind me.
It was Courundia who, no longer unconscious, had risen to her feet.
I gasped with relief.
‘Courundia!’ I rushed towards her, grabbing her hand. ‘We have to get out of here!’
She shrugged off my grasping hand with disgust, ignoring my urgent plea and determinedly looking instead towards the Queen of Queens.
‘But I can do it!’ she firmly declared.
Parvo stared at Courundia with distaste.
Yes, the real Pavro really did still exist somewhere within that stolen body.
Courundia couldn’t miss his sneer.
‘I was a little dazed,’ she announced with a fleeting glare my way, ‘but didn’t I hear you say you could replicate any beauty as long as you had the template?’
She lifted up the bag of the satchel slung across her shoulder; the satchel that had been tied to my horse.
Had Courundia taken it when she’d pretended to save me from Dogface?
Or had it simply fallen from my horse during that brief attack, and she’d picked it up and hidden it beneath her jacket?
‘The glass plate?’ Pavro asked, his face lighting up with interest.
The Queen of Queens laughed, but it seemed to me that she was impressed by Courundia’s resourcefulness and determination.
‘Yes, yes; why not?’ she wheezed tiredly. ‘It seems I can have beauty and brains.’
Courundia glanced my way again, and this time she was the one who was sneering.
‘Didn’t I say, Andraetra, that I was a more beautiful person inside than you could ever hope to be?’
‘Pavro! You can’t allow this!’
Was this the real Pavro?
Someone who hadn’t loved me for who I was, but purely for the way I looked?
Pavro smiled warmly, smoothly drawing closer towards me, the way he had whenever we had found ourselves alone, unchaperoned; and then we had kissed, no matter how briefly, relishing every second our lips remained together.
He kissed me now too, as warmly, as lovingly as he had ever done.
There was a momentary tickling of my skin where it touched his. A tickling that coursed a little up the inside of my nose.
I jerked back, recognising that awful sense of water streaming beneath my skin. This time, too, I felt it flooding underneath both sides of my face.
Pavro grinned as we urgently parted, the stream of minute insects taken by surprise, some of them falling into the space between us.
‘You always were a little shallow, Andraetra!’ Pavro chuckled.
Gently caressing the treated glass plate handed to him by Courundia, Pavro carefully placed it within the back of the photographic equipment standing upon the room’s central table.
It didn’t make any sense placing it there, did it?
Surely a used glass plate, its light-sensitive chemicals hardened, couldn’t be used to take any new portrait?
Besides, the lens was pointing to nothing but a surprisingly empty wall, one painted white rather than gaily decorated like the rest of the room.
A backdrop, perhaps, for whomever would stand there to have their portrait taken?
‘Kneel before me girl!’ the queen commanded imperiously, gently waving a long-bladed knife as if it were a sceptre; and, to my surprise, Courundia obeyed her without the slightest objection.
Pavro brought across to the kneeling Courundia a dark box, which he placed to one side of her. From a sheath affixed to its top, he drew out a long-bladed knife.
‘Don’t worry,’ Pavro announced coolly to Courundia, ‘there’s no sister waiting for you in this box.’
Suddenly, he made two quick slashes across Courundia’s chest.
As if sensing my apprehension, the insects skittering beneath my skin flexed my flesh slightly, a threat that they could do far more to me if I made the mistake of intervening.
The queen had also made two similar slashes across her own chest, the blade digging only into her dress, not her flesh. She pulled back the flap of her dress, revealing her bared breast beneath.
Pavro similarly pulled aside the flap of Courundia’s jacket, baring her chest.
‘I can do it for you,’ he offered, setting the tip of the blade just above Courundia’s heart, ‘if you don’t feel capable of…’
‘I can do it!’ Courundia replied determinedly, taking the knife out of Pavro’s hand.
She wiped the long blade on her jacket, as if to clean it, choosing the most oil-drenched part of her jacket, perhaps believing this would clean it better. She pressed down hard against the thick material, the oil seeping to the surface and running along the blade’s furrow, the furrow down which her own blood would soon run.
‘She is indeed a good host for me” the queen croaked as Pavro, returning to the table, picked up the lit lamp.
‘I was always at war within myself.’ Courundia smirked, briefly glancing my way again. ‘I may as well let all my inner, unseen creatures join in a panicked revolution against their masters.’
‘Simply follow my own actions,’ the queen explained to Courundia, raising the dagger up towards her chest, indenting its sharp tip into the flesh lying just above her heart. ‘Do it swiftly, then stand and embrace me, wound to wound.’
She plunged the knife home into her chest.
Courundia followed her action, her blade going in perhaps at far more of a downward angle, threatening to slice the beating heart lying beneath.
She gasped, along with me.
Insects streamed from her jacket, as if they had been waiting for this moment all along. They hurried down the blade, rapidly widening the wound as they did so, merging and washing away a little in the oil that streamed down the furrow.
Pavro either doused or abruptly lowered the lamp’s flame.
The room was plunged into the most complete darkness.
In the darkness, I heard Courundia’s approach towards the queen, the rustling of clothes as they warmly embraced.
There was a sickening sound of puckering flesh, of a squirming, a slithering.
Then something fell limply and heavily, in a crumpling of heavily layered material.
The lamp’s flame flickered into life once more.
What remained of the queen lay in a crumpled dark mass by the throne, now looking like nothing more than a bundle of unwanted rags.
Courundia looked no different to how she had before the light had been doused, her wound still not yet completely healed, a trail of blood and oil seeping from it.
Yet she smiled blissfully. Proudly.
The room darkened a little yet again, Pavro lifting the black cloak hanging from the back of the photographic contraption and slipping the lit lamp inside its supporting frame.
As he let the cloak fall completely about the frame, the room wasn’t plunged into complete darkness, however.
Rather, all the glow from the lamp was projected by the complicated system of lenses up onto the facing, blank wall.
Although, of course, the wall was no longer blank.
I was standing there, glowing as brightly as any angel.
It was the image that Señorat Holandros had captured of me within his chemically treated glass plate.
Here, though, I was life size, the image thrown up as a glittering presence upon the white wall by the projecting lamp.
Courundia unhurriedly, gracefully, moved into the streaming light, letting that image play about her own features, such that it was impossible to see any longer which was image and which was her.
And when she finally stepped away from the projected image, it was more difficult than ever to say who or what was walking away from whom.
For she now appeared every bit as beautiful as I appeared within that image.
She was every bit as beautiful as me.
She was a perfect replica of me, perfect in every detail.
Courundia elegantly stepped through the slightly, gently flickering light, giving me the most mocking of looks.
She approached Pavro confidently, brazenly throwing her arms about him: drawing him into a log, passionate kiss that Pavro had no inclination to resist.
She twirled Pavro around in her arms, as if already imagining the romantic dance, the happy times, they would share together.
Then she suddenly spun away from him, throwing back the black cloak of the lantern, picking up the blazing oil lamp: and shattered its fragile body of glass and ceramic hard against her bared chest.
The flames ran down the still visible wound, following the trail of oil that had entered via the blade’s long furrow.
The oil that already soaked Courundia’s jacket also instantly set aflame, adding a new ferocity to the freshly spilled oil that was already unquenchably blazing.
I rushed, screaming, towards Courundia, wondering what I could do. There was no hope of dousing the flames completely enveloping poor Courundia’s oil drenched body.
Even so, Pavro briefly made an attempt. Not to save Courundia, of course; but to save his queen.
But his queen was dying, already aflame within Courundia’s oil saturated wound, her oil sodden flesh.
Courundia still held the long-bladed knife. With a last, pained smile at me, she plunged it deep within her heart, pinioning the shrieking Queen of Queen’s there: and also, I prayed, saving herself from any further agony.
Pavro’s own actions were hurriedly becoming less coordinated as he, too, began to crumple limply, to swiftly die.
The insects that had originally been lying beneath my facial skin dribbled from my nose, a minor horror against the dismay of seeing Courundia’s flesh crinkle and warp in the intense, unstoppable heat of the flames.
It could have been the way the flames ate at her flesh, revealing the skull beneath, but I would have liked to think that, somehow, Courundia was smiling through all this; the unimaginable pain she would undoubtedly have suffered hopefully tempered by the knowledge that her sacrifice had saved us all.
I found that hard to believe, however.
The insects fled the crumpling bodies, scattering uncontrollably across the wooden boards, returning once more to their chaotic lives.
Poor Courundia briefly writhed upon the floor, the actions of the fiercely devouring flames rather than any sense of life remaining within her; then, thankfully, she lay perfectly still.
When the flames had at last died down enough for me to finally draw near to Courundia’s hideously contorted body, I could no longer recognise her.
Her seared flesh was still too hot for me to kiss: even so, wherever my tears fell, they cooled her reddened, steaming skin – kisses of love, in their kind.
It should have been a revolting experience for me, but it wasn’t.
Because I no longer saw this shell of flesh she presently occupied.
I saw, rather, the truly beautiful person who had always existed.
Who would always continue to exist, within my heart at least.
‘Yes, Courundia: you are a more beautiful person than I could ever be.’
My horse hadn’t fled: it was still tied to its post.
The town was quiet, deserted, with just a few horses left alive, aimlessly ambling along the streets. Other horses, those that had been taken over by a queen and her hive, lay dead upon the floor, lying alongside the empty shells of men and women.
As I mount up on my horse, I also wear my hat, slipping the veil over one side of my face.
The side of my face where Courundia would have been, if the Queen of Queens had still been alive to continue with her and the Church’s efforts to keep us subservient to them.
For I will be taking the veil.
As I reminder that, from now on, I’m half me – and half of the beautiful Courundia.
If you enjoyed reading this book, you might also enjoy (or you may know someone else who might enjoy) these other books by Jon Jacks.
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl