The Thought That Counts

Issue #250, Special Double-Issue

“...wanted me to marry Logo the tanner. He’s got a beautiful home, she said, and you soon get used to the smell. Mother, I said, I don’t want to get used to the smell. I don’t ever want to be the sort of person who doesn’t notice the stink of sheep’s brains. She just looked at me. That’s when I knew I had to leave.”

I decided I didn’t like her mother. Priorities all wrong. Egging her on to marry defenceless tanners when she should have been teaching her not to talk to strange men in stagecoaches. Which raises the incidental question; am I a strange man? I guess, on balance, yes. Decide for yourself.

“So I went home, slung all the stuff I needed into a bag, and here I am, on my way to the big city. My name’s Sinneva, by the way.”

“Constantius,” I lied. “Pleased to meet you.”

Another lie, but she smiled. “Are you a priest?”

Two reasons why a man might be wearing ecclesiastical vestments in a coach on the four-way to Sempa Sacona. One, he’s a priest. Or two, the lock on the vestment cupboard at the Blue Light monastery is so pathetic a blind man could open it with a sprig of damp heather. “Yes,” I said. “Sort of.”

“Are you going to Sempa?”

“Stopping off,” I said. “On my way somewhere else.”

“It’ll be my first time in the big city,” she said, “I’m looking forward to it so much. All my life I’ve wanted to go there. Is it really as wonderful as they say it is?”

“Depends on what you like,” I said.

“I’m going to be an artist,” she said. “Somewhere like Sempa, you can make a living as an artist. I do portraits. I’m not terribly good at it.”

That would explain the bag full of little pottery jars nestling between her feet. I’d sort of looked at them sideways when she first got on the coach. Worth money to somebody, but rather a specialised market. Besides, I’m through with all that sort of thing.

“Funny you should say that,” I said. “I’m interested in paint.”

“Painting.”

“Paint,” I said. “I dabble a bit in alchemy, and I reckon it might be possible to make synthetic blue. Instead of having to grind up ruinously expensive lapis lazulae in a pestle and mortar.” She didn’t say anything, so I went on: “There’s definitely a demand for it. A genuine deep royal blue at a fraction of the price. A man could make a nice little bit of money that way.”

“I’ve never used blue.”

“Too expensive?”

She nodded. “That’s why I started doing portraits, you don’t have to have any sky.”

“There you are, then,” I said. “When I’ve perfected my synthetic blue, you can do portraits of people outdoors. You could corner the market.”

She looked at me. Strange man, she was thinking. At this point, her mother’s awful warning should have leapt into her mind and shut her up like a vault, but no such luck. “People like to be painted in their houses,” she said, “surrounded by all their possessions. It’s the convention. That way, you can see how rich and powerful they are, and what exquisite taste they have. Outdoors, they could be anybody.”

“Ah,” I said gravely. “I see.”

“Not that I want to be constrained by conventions,” she said, looking out of the window. “I want to paint what I really see. Does that make any sense to you?”

“As opposed to what other people see? Or what’s actually there?”

I was starting to get on her nerves. Well; it had taken long enough. “What I see,” she said. “Which may not be the same thing as what you see.”

“Because I’m not particularly observant, and may have missed something.”

“Because I see the world as it could be.”

“Ah.” I pulled a couple of walnuts out of my pocket and cracked them together in my palm. I have very strong hands. “In that case, maybe you should consider religious subjects. The spiritual dimension.”

“Women aren’t allowed to paint icons. You should know that, being a priest.”

“Sort of a priest. And I didn’t specify icons.”

“If it’s a portrait and religious, it’s an icon. So I can’t do those, it’s illegal.”

“I read somewhere,” I said, quoting myself—well, I sometimes read my own books, when all else fails— “that the object of portraiture is to capture the soul of the sitter.”

“That’s an interesting way of putting it.”

Thank you, I nearly said. “I reckon you’d have to know a lot about human nature. Do you?”

“Everybody does, don’t they? Like fish know about water.”

And still thirty miles to go until we reached Sempa. But you don’t get to choose your travelling companions on the public coach. Next time, if there’s any justice, I’ll get a couple of rich tallow-chandlers who think they’re good at playing cards for money.

Actually, I was telling the truth about blue paint. I came across the tantalising possibility a few years back, when I was making my living as a fraudulent alchemist, and I dream of the day when I can settle down and do the thing properly, in peace and quiet, not always having to jump out of windows in the middle of the night to avoid creditors, disillusioned investors, or the Watch. It’s a sad thing to say about yourself, but I’m not the most honest, upright citizen you’re ever likely to meet—which Sinneva the would-be portrait painter should’ve noticed at first glance if she was in any way suited to her chosen profession. I won’t tell you my name, because you’d recognise it immediately; and either you’d say, My God, it’s him, or, Oh God, it’s him, depending on the context in which you’ve heard of me. But you will have heard of me. Everybody has.

The reason I’d come to Sempa was to see the Polyglypton brothers. If you know Sempa, you’ll know their stall; it’s under the lime tree in the old Bird Market, and you’ve probably spent far more money there than you care to admit. They have their warehouse and scriptorium (rather a grand name for a long, draughty shed) out back of the stockyards, where the air is always heavy with the stench of blood. You get used to it, so they tell me, but I can’t imagine how.

As I walked there across the Victory Bridge I amused myself with the thought of Sinneva the aspiring artist; suppose she managed to land the job of her dreams, doing the illustrations for the extra-special-deluxe editions (no, not those ones, they don’t let women work on those). She’d turn up for her first day at work, and the smell would hit her like a hammer—a tannery is roses and lavender compared to what the breeze wafts down from the slaughteryards—and someone would grin at her and say, it’s all right, you get used to it. I stopped at the outer gate and splashed a fat blob of attar of violets onto the lapels of my coat. It helped, but not very much.

Sivia and Massimo Polyglypton receive visitors in their office, which is more a sort of hayloft over the warehouse; you climb up a ladder, for crying out loud. I’d never met them before. Sivia is tall and thin, Massimo looks like the sort of man they hire to throw undesirables out of brothels. They told me to sit down and offered me ginger tea.

“We liked it,” Massimo said, “very much. But—”

“But?”

They looked at each other. “I mean, it’s very clever,” Sivia said. “Well argued and very well written. It’s just—”

“What?”

Awkward pause. “I think,” Massimo said, “the word we’re looking for is ‘derivative’.”

Derivative. Good word; not one you’d expect to hear in a loft downwind of an abbatoir. “Derivative of what?”

Massimo pursed his lips. “You’ve read the Metaphysics, obviously.”

The book he mentioned wasn’t called that. I’ve changed the name. Why shouldn’t I? I wrote the damn thing. “Well, yes.”

“And Reflections on the Abyss and Sunrise.

“Oh yes.”

“That’s what we’re getting at,” Sivia said apologetically. “Frankly, if He’d written this, we’d be all over it like ants on a dead donkey. Coming from you, though—”

“Someone nobody’s ever heard of,” Massimo added.

“It’s a question of authority,” Sivia said. “Credibility. To get away with the sort of thing you’re saying here, you need to be—well, someone like Him. You think all this is very startling and original, but if He says it, obviously there must be something to it. No disrespect, but you don’t carry that weight. You haven’t earned that right to be listened to. It’s not the same.”

Annoying, because the Him they were talking about was, of course, me; universally respected as one of the greatest philosophers of my generation but wanted in all the major jurisdictions for every crime in the book short of actual murder. “I see your point,” I said. “So, you don’t want it.”

They looked at each other. “We didn’t say that.”

“Ah. So what are you saying?”

They said it, and then we haggled a bit, and the upshot was, I settled for thirty angels instead of the seventy-five we’d originally agreed. Annoying, because I needed the money, but thirty angels was twenty-nine angels ninety kreuzer more than I had in the whole world at that time (that’s putting the value of one set of stolen ecclesiastical vestments at ten kreuzer), so I was, of course, pleased to accept.

Not, I reflected as I scrambled back down that ridiculous ladder, that I had much to complain about. Writing the wretched thing had kept me mildly amused through the long dreary months I’d spent holed up in a half-derelict sawmill in the hill country north of Copis City, waiting for the fuss to die down after one of my more misguided indiscretions; the parchment and ink had cost me maybe two kreuzer, so nobody could pretend I wasn’t well ahead of the game. Even so. To be fined forty-five angels for not being me when I really am me is a bit hard. And since being me is such a wretched, troublesome business at the best of times, it sort of rubs salt into the wound, if you see what I mean.

But never mind. There I was in Sempa Secona, a place where there were no outstanding warrants for my arrest and no extradition treaties with either the Eastern or Western empire, with thirty gold angels in my pocket. For once in my life, I could walk down the street without looking for places to run to if I heard someone yell my name. That set me thinking: artificial blue paint. Well, a man has to have a dream. The fact that mine is so utterly prosaic is neither here nor there.

I hired a shed not far from the bone mills, for thirty kreuzer a week. One unfortunate by-product of alchemy is the smell (you get used to it, but...); my neighbours at the bone works would be in no position to get stroppy about a few noxious fumes, except on the grounds of breach of monopoly. I managed to buy the glassware ridiculously cheap from someone’s gullible widow, with enough left over to keep me in stale bread and no-longer-perfectly-fresh salt fish for several months, by which time I was absolutely certain I’d have cracked the last few remaining problems. A life of honest endeavour; well, why not? Everyone ought to try it at least once before he dies.

I won’t bore you with the results of my researches. Suffice it to say, I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that making artificial blue paint using certain specific ingredients and a certain method, which I won’t specify here, is absolutely impossible. As a scientist, I was pleased to have added to the sum of human knowledge. As a moral philosopher, I was able to conclude that living a pure and upright life doesn’t of itself lead to happiness or even peace of mind. The day before the money finally ran out, I did come across a tantalising possibility which, one of these days, I really must get around to following up, since it might just be the missing ingredient that would make all the difference; but of course I was in no position to do anything about it at that time, so I sold the glassware for even less than I paid for it and wandered into the centre of town, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

A number of rather unpleasant things have happened to me over the years in and around law courts, so I really can’t tell you what possessed me to drift across Haymarket and down the Snailshell into the Forum of Justice. But I did, and sure enough, it being a week-day in Middle Term, the court was sitting. I guess the novelty of the situation—a court of law in session, and me not being the unwilling centre of attention—piqued my interest; anyhow, I sat down on an empty seat in the back row, next to couple of fat rich women eating apples, to watch the show. It was a fairly slow day, interlocutories in disputes over shipping manifests and bills of lading, and I was just about to leave when the magistrate banged his little hammer and four grim-looking gaolers led out, in chains, my annoying young friend from the coach; yes, her, the would-be portrait artist.

Four gaolers; in my prime I only ever merited three, and I was pretty hot stuff, though I do say so myself. True, she was taller than average and no willow-wand, but four kettlehats, for crying out loud. What could she possibly have done? And, come to that, was it something so awful that the authorities might be interested in her known associates? I kept perfectly still and started paying attention.

It was a simple short-form arraignment, rather than the actual trial. The prisoner Sinneva was accused of treason, attempted murder, and grievous bodily harm. She had entered a plea of Not Guilty, and the prosecutor was asking the magistrates to commit her for immediate trial.

The magistrate asked if the prisoner had a lawyer. The prosecutor didn’t actually grin; none of the accredited public defenders were prepared to represent her. And therefore -

Remind me, when I’ve got five minutes, to have my legs cut off. They’ve come in useful over the years—running away, they’re really good at that—but on this occasion they got me into serious trouble, and I can’t risk them doing it again. They stood me up—I swear, I had nothing to do with it—and there I was, on my feet and listening in horror to my own voice, asking permission to approach the bench.

The magistrate looked at me, took in the ecclesiastical gown, and nodded. So, feeling incredibly bewildered and stupid, I waddled slowly down the main aisle until I was practically nose to nose with the magistrate, a small, red-faced man with thick wavy white hair. I cleared my throat. “This woman,” I said, “has no representation.”

“That’s right.”

“On a capital charge.”

He peered at me. “I don’t know you,” he said.

“I’m from out of town. Is this how you do things in Sempa?”

He sniggered. “No, not in the normal course of things. Are you a lawyer?”

“Yes,” I said—truthfully, as it happens; at least, I have four degrees in civil and criminal law, though most of my experience has been on the other side of the fence, so to speak. “Constantius of Beloisa. I have diplomas from the Studium, the Imperial Institute in Mavortis, the Purple Chamber in Scona—”

“Mphm.” He was impressed. “You don’t want to get mixed up in this, trust me.”

I gave him a polite scowl. “I make formal application to defend this prisoner.”

“Don’t you want to know what she’s done?”

“Is alleged to have done. No, not particularly.”

A gentle sigh. “All right, mister Out-of-Town, and on your own head be it. Duly accredited.” He looked at me. “Give your address to the clerk, you’ll be notified.”

I hesitated. “The fee,” I said.

“Ah.” He looked at me again, taking in the frayed cuffs of the robe, the sweatstains inside the collar. “Standard rates, one angel twenty a day. Want me to cross you off the docket?”

“It’s not about the money,” I said.

“Of course not. Dismissed.”

Naturally, I asked around. Information wasn’t hard to come by; it was the scandal of the month. This weird female had blown into town, nobody knew where she’d come from, and set up a stall in the market; your portrait painted, one angel. No takers, naturally; so she started doing portraits for free, and actually they were really rather good; you know how crazy fashions suddenly spring up out of nowhere, suddenly she was the new big thing. You had to have your portrait painted by the little peasant girl, or you were nobody. Soon she had a waiting list long as your arm.

Naturally, the best people wanted to jump the queue, started offering her good money. She refused; one angel, no more, no less. Now an angel is a tidy sum in some contexts; you could buy the farm I was raised on for three angels, including the live and dead stock, the standing crops, and my kid brother. In Sempa, you could live elegantly on one angel for a month, or any-bloody-fashion for a year. But the high class portrait artists, who were suddenly finding themselves with time on their hands ever since Sinneva showed up, routinely charged fifty angels for a cameo, three times that for a regular canvas. This curious reluctance on her part to make out like a bandit had been duly noted as significant, in the light of what followed.

The first case was Governor Scaevola, just back from three years in one of the northern provinces. There’s a saying in revenue circles; the good shepherd shears his sheep, he doesn’t skin them. Scaevola flayed his sheep alive, and was therefore nicely set up for life when he came home. He was one of her first high-class commissions; and three days after his portrait was delivered—he was delighted with it, by all accounts, and so was his wife—they found him in his study late one night, sitting in the dark, not moving at all, staring at the wall.

After that, Senator Juppito, the Friend of the Poor; the Lady Iphianassa, patroness of the arts and Sempra’s leading society hostess; Genseric, the banker; Mediobarzanes, the playwright; Massimo Polyglypton the bookseller (oh dear, I thought, never mind), and half a dozen others—all the same, struck dumb and motionless, empty-eyed and living-dead, soon after the little peasant girl had painted their portraits.

Sempa is a rational, secular sort of place. They repealed their witchcraft laws about seventy years ago, and people only go to Temple to be seen in their new clothes. Be that as it may. There’s only so much weird stuff people can take before they start jumping to conclusions. Poor little Sinneva was arrested and slung in jail, while they tried to figure out what to charge her with.

First, they had a go with administering a noxious substance, arguing that she must have poisoned their drinks. But she always painted her subjects at their houses—she didn’t seem to have a studio or anything like that, and she lived in a nasty little garret over a fishmonger’s, where presumably she was in the process of getting used to the smell when they took her away. They examined her paints and solvents, but all they found was the usual stuff that every artist uses; besides, if it was something she was using that had done the damage, surely she’d have poisoned herself in the process. The debate moved up to the Senate, where Juppito’s mob, the Optimates, tried to ram through a new witchcraft law, applicable retroactively. But the Popular Tendency talked it out of time, simply because it was the Optimates who’d proposed it, and so nothing could be achieved that way. Meanwhile, the families of the victims were howling for something to be done, and the attorney general was up for re-election. He resolved to charge her with treason, attempted murder, and grievous bodily harm, on the strict understanding that anyone who defended her would never work in Sempa again, and trusted in Justice to run its ineluctable course.

As accredited counsel for the defence, I had the right to make certain investigations. So there I was, with two kettlehats making me nervous, climbing the stairs to Sinneva’s rotten little lodgings and wishing, really wishing, I’d never got involved.

The kettlehats were along to make sure I didn’t touch anything or interfere with evidence. They had a really quiet morning. It was a tiny little room under the eaves; bed, chair, second-best dress hanging behind the door, plain plank table with half a loaf of stale bread and a pitcher of badly gone-off milk, and a copy of Human, All Too Human open at the bit about the immortality of the soul (which nearly made me smile; I remember writing it, with a murderous hangover and the rain dripping through the roof), and that was it, nothing else whatsoever. Evidentially neutral; no hit list or subversive literature, correspondence with fellow-conspirators, jars of poisonous chemicals; no evidence that the stupid girl had been spending her new-found wealth on anything nice, which is what any normal, innocent person in her circumstances would surely have done. No money, come to that. Her known commissions must have netted her at least forty angels; the rent on the garret was three kreuzer a week—she was robbed, if you ask me—and bread and milk, ten kreuzers a month, tops. Where was the rest of it? In a bank? Or was she sending it home to her poor impoverished parents? Unlikely, I thought, given the terms on which she’d parted from them, but I wasn’t going to tell the prosecutors that. Even so; I felt like I’d been dealt a piss-poor hand with which to defend the stupid child. Served me right, I suppose, for sticking my nose in.

It was what wasn’t there, of course, that interested me. For that, I could see no alternative but to visit my client, something I really didn’t want to do. Also, if the hypothesis I’d formed about five seconds after hearing the facts in the case was true, there was nothing she could tell me that would be any use to me in getting her neck out of the noose. No, the hell with that. I was going to have to wing it, make it up as I went along. So happens I’m good at that—very good indeed, which is how come I’m still alive and writing this. Actually, I told myself, I’d had so little experience with positive favourable evidence (because I’ve always been guilty as charged), probably this wouldn’t be a good time to start trying to learn how to use it. Stick with what you know, is my motto.

I took a deep breath. “Your honour,” I said, “I’ve listened with great interest to the facts in this case, so ably presented by my learned friend. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when he stopped where he did. I was expecting so much more. I was waiting patiently for evidence—hard evidence—connecting my client in any way to the tragic events we’ve just had described to us. Surely, I said to myself, there must be something. But apparently not. My learned friend has just told you that he rests his case. Being a fair-minded man, I would like to give him one last chance to add to what he’s just said. No? Sure? Very well. But please, don’t say I didn’t give you every opportunity.

“Let’s consider the facts. My client, an innocent country girl, comes to this great city to fulfil her lifelong ambition. She is a naturally talented, I may say quite brilliant, artist; entirely self-taught, I might add, she’s never had the benefit of any formal education—unless my learned friend would care to tell us about it, the schools she’s studied at, the masters she’s been apprenticed to. No? Are you absolutely sure? Very well. No formal education whatsoever. She grew up milking cows, churning butter, sweeping floors, and dreaming of a better life.

“After only a week or so in this uniquely cultured and appreciative city, her talents were recognised. Despite her disadvantages of class and gender, this plucky and determined young woman starts to make a name for herself. Clients besiege her door with commissions. My learned friend has tried to make her refusal to gouge her clientele for large sums of money into something sinister. I see it as evidence of the purity and integrity of her artistic nature. This poor innocent child, living only for her art, wasn’t interested in money, or status, or any of the glittering distractions of the world. All she wanted to do was the one thing she’d always wanted to do. What, I ask you, could be more natural?

“And so she painted portraits, at least forty of them that we know about. And of these forty clients, a dozen have—most unfortunately—fallen ill. I feel sure that nobody has more sympathy for them and their families than my client. But what the prosecutor has signally failed to do—because it’s impossible—is establish any faint thread of a connection between these misfortunes and my client. Unless and until he can do so, I honestly believe there’s no case to answer.

“Consider the so-called victims. All of them are in late middle age or older. All of them—how can I put it delicately?—have enjoyed to the full the delights of the table and the wine cellar. All of them are men and women of great spirit and passion, with a tendency—a perfectly natural, indeed laudable tendency—to express themselves fully, to take matters to heart, to get excited and passionate about things they feel strongly about.

“In my hand, I have a copy of the standard work on diseases of the heart and brain, written by no less an authority than—” Well, modesty forbids. “In the passage in front of me, the distinguished author describes the causes, symptoms, and effects of a stroke. I won’t take up the court’s time by reading it aloud, the matter is common knowledge. A stroke is an affliction of the brain, caused by an interruption of the blood supply. It leaves the victim paralysed, unable to speak or move. It is caused by excessive eating and drinking, combined with violent exertion of the body, mind, or spirit.

“Consider what you know about the alleged victims in this case, all prominent members of society. They all ate and drank to excess; they all were involved in public life, in politics, government or the arts; they lived passionate, stressful lives. They were, in short, prime candidates for the terrible illness I’ve just told you about. That this scourge should have come upon them, cutting them down in their prime, depriving us of their talents and their usefulness to our society, is to be deeply regretted. For once, the word ‘tragedy’ would scarcely be an overstatement. But to ascribe these disasters to my poor young client—on what grounds? I have heard none today, and once again, I call on my learned friend to enlighten me. Nothing more? Nothing at all? Well, then.

“Just in case you still aren’t convinced, let me point out a few more relevant details. This comprehensive and universally respected book in my hand contains no mention of any poison, drug, or artificial stimulant capable of deliberately causing a stroke. Leave aside the fact that no chemical apparatus was found in my client’s possession; ask yourself this: could this simple country girl have discovered or invented such a poison, on her own, uneducated, brought up among the cows and goats? I think not. As it happens, I know a little about alchemy. It would take a genius a lifetime of research to come up with such a complex toxin. My client is nineteen years old. Draw what conclusions you wish.

“As I’ve already mentioned; as the prosecutor himself admits; my client has painted at least forty portraits, almost certainly more. Twelve from forty leaves twenty-eight. If my learned friend’s allegations have any substance at all, there should be at least twenty-eight other helpless victims in this city, sitting in chairs, staring helplessly at the wall. If so, we haven’t heard about them, and their existence is therefore not admissible in evidence. In fact—I’ve made my own enquiries, since the prosecutor seems to have neglected to do so—all twenty-eight are in perfect health. Among them, please note, are senators, members of the aristocracy, leading figures in commerce, business, and the arts.

“My learned friend made a perfunctory effort to connect the status of the alleged victims to their dreadful fate, as though my client had sought to strike down the flowers of our society. The fact is, all her customers came to her clamouring to be painted; she didn’t choose them, they chose her. Twenty-eight rich, famous, influential, talented men and women were painted by my client and have suffered no ill-effects. Once again, the facts don’t simply speak for themselves, they shout at the tops of their voices.

“Recently, the wise and distinguished Senate of this city ruled unambiguously that there is no such thing as witchcraft or sorcery. But witchcraft and sorcery, I put it to you, are precisely what my client is accused of; tacitly, because to say so openly would be to invite ridicule. Therefore, for consistency’s sake, if for no other reason, I call on this rational, truth-loving court to dismiss these ridiculous charges and let my poor, long-suffering client go free. I rest my case.”

God, I’m good, though I do say so myself. The magistrate shook his head, blinked a couple of times like a dazzled rabbit, and said the magic words: case dismissed. You could have heard a pin drop.

I left, quickly.

Having done what I’d set out to do, I rushed off down West Street, through Absolution Square, short-cut through the Shambles, up Pin Street. I’d known from the outset that the wretched girl had to have a studio somewhere, or where else did she keep her paints, her easel and her money? I’m good at ferreting out stuff like that, so it hadn’t taken me long to discover where it was. I hadn’t gone there, because—well, like I said, nothing helpful to my case to be learned there. Now that I’d won, however, I had no such compunction. I wanted, make that needed, to know.

Stupid cheap lock, I don’t know why anyone bothers with them. Inside, I saw a chair, facing a shuttered window; two shelves lined with little pottery jars; two easels, on which rested two portraits of the same man, almost but not quite identical; a cheap earthenware plate; a pestle and a mortar; a tinderbox.

Oh God, I said to myself. Here we go again.

I thought; this time, I’m not involved. Nothing to do with me. True, I stuck my oar in, but even so, none of this is my responsibility, my job, my fault. I can just go a long way away and be free and clear. Above all, I owe no duty of care to the truth—me, of all people, perish the thought.

More to the point; if I interfere, what can I possibly achieve? Nothing.

I walked down to the Flawless Diamonds, where the stagecoaches leave for Mezentia and all points west. I had just enough money for the fare. The stage pulled in. Mezentia is lovely in the spring, when the cherry trees are in blossom. All aboard, they called out. It left without me.

Truth is, despite ferocious competition for the job, I am and always have been my own worst enemy.

 

Let me take you back a few years; I won’t specify how many, because I don’t suppose you’ll believe me. I was a student at what was at that time the finest university in the world, though it’s gone downhill a lot since then. I wasn’t the smartest kid in my year, not by a mile. I did my best to make up for my shortcomings through diligence and determined effort. You have faith in stuff like that, when you’re young.

I don’t know when I first noticed her. She wasn’t a student (no women at the university in my day) but she wasn’t a local’s daughter. She hung around in the square and the library forecourt, sketching in inks or charcoal; she wore a big straw hat which shaded out her face, and there never seemed to be anybody chaperoning her or keeping an eye on her, which was odd enough in itself. I can’t say I remember any of my fellow students making any sort of play for her whatsoever, which was stranger still. It was almost as though she was invisible and only I could see her. Now there’s a thought.

I have my faults, but chivvying unattached females isn’t one of them. Besides, in those days I was desperately earnest, and I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life: graduate, join a respectable Order, teach, research, write papers, win a chair, tenured professor by the time I was thirty-five. It was all I’d ever wanted.

But things weren’t going all that well. I was smart but not quite smart enough. I could feel the boundaries of my abilities, and I knew that what I wanted to achieve was just the other side of the rope. I could picture myself getting stuck somewhere in the middle, like a man stranded halfway up a mountain, unable to go further up or turn back. I could see myself scraping a doctorate; then what? Fine if I had private means; I could spend the rest of my life floating around the university, taking twenty years to write a modest paper on some peripheral issue, adding a footnote to the great book of human knowledge. But I had a living to earn, and for that I would have to be good enough, not just quite good, and there were so many better men than me. So, in due course, the scholarship money would run out and then it’d be back on the coach, back home, to the farm, or else a job as a clerk or a tutor to some rich man’s loathsome son. It’s a dreadful thing to be twenty-one and realise that you have no future after all.

Which may go some way to explain what I was doing on the bridge (not the famous one; the other one, about half a mile downstream), one foot on the parapet, staring down into the water. Whether I was thinking about jumping, or using the thought of jumping to force things back into perspective, I really don’t know; anyway, I was too preoccupied to notice someone walk up behind me until I eventually took a step back and trod on someone’s toe.

“It’s quite all right,” she said, grinning at me. “I’m just glad you decided not to.”

I looked at her. “That obvious?”

She had the enormous hat pushed back on her head, so I could see her face. Not beautiful exactly but striking. “You’d be amazed how many boys your age come and stand on this bridge, thinking what you were just thinking. Hardly any of them actually do it. What’s the matter? Debts, exams, girl trouble?”

You know how easy, how fatally easy, it is to tell things to a stranger you wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else. Also, unlike anyone I’d ever met in my entire life, she sounded interested. So I told her, the whole story, everything. She didn’t interrupt, and when I finally ran dry, she smiled at me. “Is that all?” she said.

I pulled a face. “I know,” I said, “it does all sound a bit stupid when you say it out loud. And of course there’s millions of people in the world far worse off than me—”

“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You have a real problem, a very serious one. I’d be suicidal too, in your shoes, if there wasn’t a perfectly simple way out.”

She’d lost me. “What?”

And then she’d linked her arm through mine, and we were walking side by side, down the broad steps to the towpath. “You come here a lot,” she said.

“My lodgings are just down there,” I said, pointing vaguely. Poor Town. Well, she’d probably guessed that from the deplorable state of my shoes, if she was even remotely observant. “I take the short cut through Long Meadow to the Schools.” I stopped. She grinned.

“I’ve noticed you,” she said. Curious way of putting it, I thought at the time. “You’ve got an interesting face.”

Of course, she was an artist. “Interesting,” I said. “That’s not actually a compliment.”

“It’s a statement of fact.”

“Ah,” I said. “One of those.”

When I left my room that morning, I hadn’t decided what I was going to do with the day; either a short drop and a splash, or go to the library and read Psammetichus on essential transfiguration. What I hadn’t anticipated, one little bit, was a stroll along the riverbank with a girl in a straw hat. “What perfectly simple way out?” I asked her.

“I’ll tell you, if you’re good,” she said. “Later,” she added. “Right, here we are. Now stand under that willow-tree over there and look thoughtful.”

Out with the slate, the sheet of paper, and the stick of charcoal. Ah, I thought.

“You’re going to be Parthenius,” she explained, “and the river’s the Aurus, and somewhere over there out back of the charcoal sheds is presumably violet-crowned Olessa, though of course that won’t be in the picture. No, keep still, you’re no use to me if you keep moving about.”

Keeping still isn’t one of my strong points, as various law officers have discovered the hard way over the years. But I tried my best, and eventually she said, “All right, you can breathe now.”

My left foot had gone to sleep. “Can I see?”

She turned the slate to her chest. “It’s only a sketch.”

“What on earth is the point of a picture if people can’t look at it?”

“It’s not terribly good,” she said. “Now turn that way, and look melancholy. No, that’s not melancholy, it’s heartburn. That’s better. Hold it exactly like that.”

We ended up spending the rest of the day together, and the next day, and the day after that, but still she hadn’t told me the perfectly simple way out. I tried reminding her tactfully, but she changed the subject. Besides, I’d sort of figured it out for myself by that point. The simple way out of my frustration and despair was to fall in love with a wonderful girl, which apparently I’d now done. Silly me for not having thought of it earlier.

“What would you like,” she asked me, at some point, “most of all in the whole world?”

We were watching the swans on the river. Apparently they mate for life. “That’s a good question,” I said.

“Pretend I’m a goddess or a witch and I can grant wishes. Money?”

“Money isn’t everything,” I said. “No, what I’d like is to be clever.”

She pulled her poor-baby face. “You are clever.”

“I wish I was the cleverest, wisest man who ever lived.”

“Mphm.” She nodded. “You’re sure you wouldn’t rather have the money instead?”

“The wisest man who ever lived would never be short of money,” I said. “But a lot of rich men are idiots.”

“All right, then,” she said, and threw a crust for the ducks.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

She frowned at me. At that precise moment I was being Teudra dividing the upper and lower heavens, which is a confoundedly tricky pose to hold for more than ten minutes. “What?”

“It’s a very personal question. You may not want to—”

“Keep still. What?”

I couldn’t draw a deep breath without wobbling, so I just made myself say it. “Where does all the money come from?”

“Oh, that.” What had she been expecting me to ask? “I’ve got a rich uncle in Permia. I’m all he’s got, and he wants me to enjoy myself. What do you want to do most in the whole world, he said, and I told him, this. So here I am.”

“Ah.”

“Talking of which.” She appeared to be peering past my ear, looking intently at something that wasn’t there. Painters do that. “What do you want, most in the whole world?”

“Right now? To itch my nose.”

“Tough. What else?”

“To stay here like this, with you, forever.” Well, it seemed the thing to say at the time.

“I see,” she said clinically. “So as far as you’re concerned, this is the perfect moment.”

“Apart from the itch. Look, do you think I could just—?”

“No.” She took a step back and looked at me, or at the god creating the firmament through me his temporary proxy. “I once read that if there’s a moment so perfect that it couldn’t possibly be improved upon, it could never ever be any better than this in any respect whatsoever, then Time would stop still, everything would be trapped motionless like a fly in amber, and that would be the end of the world.” She squidged the end of her brush between her fingers. “That’s what made me want to paint.”

“To bring about the end of the world? A bit antisocial.”

“The perfect moment, captured for ever,” she said. “A painter can do that. No more old age, no more death. In a painting, you can be forever young, beautiful and happy. There would be no later, no decay, no decline, no consequences.”

“I don’t see a future in it.”

She clicked her tongue to acknowledge the wordplay. “All right, relax, before you fall over. Take the weight off your feet, I’ll make us some tea.”

She made the most wonderful tea, full of obscure, delicate scents and flavours. I sat on a chair, massaging the calves of my legs. She perched in the window-seat, with the light behind her.

“And that’s not all I can do,” she went on. “I can make people what they want to be. I can make old women look young, poor men look rich, sad people look happy.”

“Stupid into clever?”

“Piece of cake.” She turned the easel slightly. “See for yourself.”

She really was very good. Teudra, not only as the Creator, but in his aspect of bringer of wisdom; perfectly represented, a whole college of theologians couldn’t have found fault with it. And yet it still looked just like me; weird.

“Anyway,” she said, turning the easel back. “How are you getting on with Induiomarus?”

“Going through it like a knife through butter,” I said cheerfully, and it was true. Ever since I’d met her, the standard of my work had improved dramatically; all my tutors had commented on it. Hence Induiomarus; we weren’t supposed to get on to him until third year, but there I was, soaring through the notoriously obscure and elliptical Shadow Analects like an eagle. “Actually, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

“Is that right?”

I nodded. “He says everything in this really cryptic, mystical, up-himself way, but actually what he’s saying is pretty obvious. And I think I’ve caught him out in a false premise.”

“Ooh,” she squeaked. She was alarmingly well-read. “Which bit?”

“Book seven, the clockmaker analogy. I don’t think it works, because if the clock is found lying on the seashore—”

“How’s it supposed to have got there? Yes, I wondered about that, too.”

I gazed at her. Talk about your perfect moment. “I’m so glad I met you,” I said.

She was excited. She’d gotten a commission to paint a portrait of the Professor of Alchemical Theory. I was stunned. As far as I was concerned, the man was a god. “How on earth did you manage that?” I asked.

“Through my uncle,” she said. “He knows all sorts of people.”

“All the best portrait artists do it,” she explained. “Move, you’re in my light.”

She was sitting in her studio, with her back to the window. Before her were two easels, on which stood two almost but not quite exactly identical paintings of an old man with a bald head and whiskers. “You paint two pictures,” she said, “precisely the same. But one of them will be perfect.”

“The one on the left,” I said.

“You see? It works. It’s an old trick. I read about it in a book somewhere.”

“Twice the work,” I said.

“That’s why the best artists get paid ridiculous sums of money.”

I studied the painting for a moment. “I’ve never met him,” I said. “But I feel like I’ve known him all my life.”

“Euphronius says the job of the artist is to capture the soul of the sitter.”

I smiled. “Well, you’ve done that all right,” I said.

“I’ll make us some tea.”

Three days later, the Professor suffered a devastating stroke. He was found in his study, surrounded by his books, mouth lolling open, eyes fixed on the wall. He never moved again.

“Just as well I got cash on delivery,” she said. “For the painting.”

That struck me as a bit insensitive. “At least his family will be able to remember him as he was,” I said. “Thanks to you.”

“When he was perfect.” She smiled at me. “That’s the point,” she said.

She went to bed early. I sat up finishing an essay. As I sprinkled it with sand to blot the ink, I remembered that she’d left the lamp lit in her studio. That would never do; smoke from a guttering wick, with all that drying paint. I went in to put it out.

There was a distinct smell of burning; not just the lamp. I noticed a little brass stove, the sort that elegant people use for making omelettes at the table. There was something in it, smouldering. I investigated. The charred ends of splintered limewood board, the stuff she used to paint on. I looked round and saw the two easels. On one of them was a finished portrait. I recognised it at once; my tutor, Lacasta, the most amazing likeness. The other easel was empty.

Three days later, Lacasta had a stroke.

(I only found out how she did it years later, in a digression in a book about witchcraft among the Permian nomads. To steal someone’s soul, apparently, you paint a picture of the victim, burn it and grind the ashes up fine, into dust, which you seal in a small pottery jar. When you want to consume the soul, thereby adding its wisdom, force of character and other virtues to your own, you mix the dust with certain herbs and make an infusion; a bit like tea. All complete nonsense, of course, said the book I read; there’s no such thing as sympathetic magic, and probably just as well.)

I was out of there like a shot, as you can imagine. I ran up the street in my nightshirt, hammered on the door of a good-natured friend, borrowed a change of clothes and two angels, and caught the night mail to Solitene. From there I wrote to my supervisor explaining that for urgent personal reasons I could no longer continue my studies at the university; however, I would be eternally grateful if he would write me a letter of recommendation to the faculty at the Golden Hook. The letter arrived by return, and it must have said something nice because the Dean of the Hook gave me a place on the spot. A year later I graduated top of the class, was awarded a fellowship, assistant professor eighteen months later, all the rest of it. Some bad stuff happened after that, but it’s not relevant to this story.

 

She was in her studio when I got there. She looked different. She reminded me a lot of someone I used to know. “Hello, you,” she said.

“You again,” I said.

She smiled at me. “I’ve missed you,” she said.

Behind her, the shelves were empty. On the floor, about a dozen little pottery jars, with their lids off. She had a little brass stove, on which sat a silver kettle. She’d just made a pot of tea.

“It wasn’t a coincidence, was it?” I said. “You being on that coach.”

“It was awfully sweet of you to defend me,” she said. “Did you know it was me?”

“No.”

“Fibber. Of course, they couldn’t have hurt me. Nobody can hurt me, physically. Would you like some tea?”

“No, thank you.”

“I made it for you.”

I stood there rooted to the spot. “How did you find me?”

“Very easily,” she said. “I only started looking recently. You see, I was very much in love with you back then, and when you ran away I was heartbroken, but then I met someone else and we were very happy together for a very long time. And then he ran away too, and I remembered you. Sure you don’t want some? It’s good for you.”

I felt sick. “You ruined my life,” I said.

“Rubbish.” She had a nice smile. “I asked you what you wanted, and you said, to be the wisest, cleverest man who ever lived. And you said money wasn’t everything, and you’d always be able to get some from somewhere. I gave you what you wanted, because I loved you.”

I managed not to scream at her. “You made me a thief,” I said. “A con man. Some days I wake up and even I can’t remember which name I’m using.”

“You can be anyone you want to be. That’s another special gift.”

I looked at her. “I don’t think I’ve got anything more to say to you,” I told her. “I don’t ever want to see you again. Don’t come near me. Just leave me alone.”

She shrugged. “You don’t mean that.”

“Trust me.”

A little sigh. “You won’t know it’s me, the next time, and the time after that.”

“Yes,” I said. “I will.”

“You didn’t in Blemya.”

Oh God, I thought. But she’d died, surely. “Keep away from me,” I said. “Do you understand?”

She didn’t say a word, just carried on smiling like an angel. I reached the door.

“Cobalt,” she said. “It’s what you’ve been missing. For the blue paint. I love you,” she said.

“See you in Hell,” I said, and slammed the door.

Knowing her, I probably will. One day I’ll be sitting there, burning quietly, up to my manacled ankles in molten sulphur, and there she’ll be, smiling, holding a bunch of keys and a teabowl.

Draw your own conclusions about the doctrine of the perfect moment. For me, the world ended a long time ago.


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K.J. Parker is the author of the best-selling 'Engineer' trilogy (Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil, The Escapement) as well as the previous 'Fencer' (The Colours in the Steel, The Belly of the Bow, The Proof House) and 'Scavenger' (Shadow, Pattern, Memory) trilogies, and has twice won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. K.J. Parker also writes under the name Tom Holt.

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