Malcolm Pinecone woke with a smile on his face, hugging his pillow. It was the feather in his mouth that tipped him off to what he was kissing. Sonia was half-bird, he would swear under oath, but even so she did not have feathers. Ah, Sonia. Her hair was like a raven’s wing, her eyes were as blue as a jay, she made love with the wildness of a raptor –
And she was as impossible to tame as an eagle. And what was more, she was gone.
Blinking, Malcolm sat up in bed and winced, but only a bit; the hangover wasn’t that bad and indeed he hadn’t been too dreadfully drunk last night. Not on wine, anyway. What there was of it he killed with a hair of the dog followed by a whole pot of strong tea, and only after drinking it and washing his face did he glance at the clock and see that it was almost noon.
Damn! No time for breakfast even if his stomach could handle it; he had an appointment at one to work on Princess Luisa’s portrait – a lucrative commission indeed and she was a pretty little thing even if also arrogant, spoiled, petulant, and prone to behavior likely to get Malcolm banned from the city for life.
And later that afternoon he had a visit scheduled with Aunt Anne. He knew not why, but guessed it had something to do with politics. It usually did with her.
It was going to be a busy day, and of course he had no idea what would follow it in terms of where he stood with Sonia. Normally, he would have said that when a woman fell into his arms and his bed, made wondrous sounds in the course of doings thereafter, and kissed him with a wide, satisfied smile on her face, this would indicate that their relationship was in good shape at least for the moment. With Sonia, it indicated nothing except that Malcolm had given the raptor bird what she desired, for the night that she desired it.
Malcolm threw on some clean clothes of more or less noble and un-rumpled appearance, rolled up his painting gown and tucked it under an arm, and flew out the door, locking it behind him. He did not live in the wealthiest part of town, since his foster parents would have proven a crimp on his lifestyle and from his earnings as an artist he could not afford to live like a nobleman. That meant he had a longer walk to the palace than he would have had from the Pinecone mansion. He got to the front gates, was admitted by the guards, and found the studio that King Marcus had given him for the purpose of painting the princess with fifteen minutes to spare not counting the time that her highness would probably be late. Malcolm flung his painting gown on over his clothes, pulled the cover off the half-finished portrait on the easel, and prepared his paints.
For a wonder, Princess Luisa arrived on time. She wore a thoughtful frown. A slim girl with thick, glossy brown hair hanging to her shoulders, lustrous big brown eyes and a clear complexion, she was quite the treat if one went by looks alone.
“Good afternoon, highness.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Pinecone.” That was proper address; although ostensibly a noble’s son, Malcolm was not a noble himself. “Will this be the last sitting?”
“Perhaps, although we’d be better off with one more. I could finish it now with no more sittings, but to capture you at your best I think today and one more would be ideal.”
Luisa sat in the same chair she had occupied in the previous three sessions. She wore the same dark-green gown and the same necklace of pearls and the same little tiara of white gold and diamonds. She moved into the right position without Malcolm even having to correct her and attempted to fix the smile on her face that showed in the portrait. She did not quite succeed, but Malcolm didn’t say anything about that, as he was going to be concentrating on her hair and her hands today rather than her face.
He mixed the paints to achieve five different hues which he would apply to the canvas to create the effect he wanted and started to work. The princess’s hair had the most fascinating natural black highlights in it, and reflected the light just so, and Malcolm was at pains to catch this in the portrait as he thought it added much to the girl’s beauty. A man’s eyes would be drawn to her big, soulful eyes, quite kissable mouth, and creamy skin, or perhaps to the delicate swell of her breasts and the slim legs wrapped by the gown, but it was often the details half-seen that framed the focus of the gaze to amplify attractiveness, much as the harmonious chords and background notes of a song lifted it above what the simple melody conveyed.
As he worked, Malcolm could not help noticing that Luisa was no longer even trying to smile, but frowned at the ground, without however changing the position of her head – he would have had to admonish her for that.
“Is something wrong, your highness?”
“Do you think I’m pretty, Mr. Pinecone?”
“Yes, highness. You are a very pretty girl indeed.”
“Are you just saying that because you have to be nice to me?”
“Ah. No – but it’s true I might say you were pretty even if I thought you weren’t. All I can do is honestly say that I honestly think you’re a very pretty girl.”
“So how can I know you really think so?”
“Well, if you hold your pose for just a bit longer, you can come and look at how I’ve painted you, which is nearly finished, and tell me if you think the girl in the portrait is pretty.”
“That won’t tell me anything. You might paint me prettier than I am just to make my father happy because he’s the king.”
“True, I might. Of course, you can use a mirror and compare that to the portrait.”
“Yes, but I’m a girl, and also I’m – me. I know what I look like. But how can I know if men find me pretty? How can I know I’m not fooling myself?”
“I don’t know, your highness. I suppose you could tell from the way they behave towards you, but then again you are a princess, and people’s behavior will be shaped by that to a certain degree.”
“I know. Nobody ever forgets that I’m a princess. That way I can never forget it.”
“Would you want to?”
“I suppose I can understand that.”
“I know you never forget I’m a princess. Sometimes I wish you would.”
“If I wasn’t a princess, would you kiss me, Malcolm?”
She got up, which both irritated Malcolm, who wasn’t finished with the work he wanted to get done today on her portrait, and alarmed him, and crossed to the door of the studio. A single guard stood outside the door; Malcolm was not considered a threat to the royal damsel but the guard and the open door were maintained for the sake of propriety. The princess took hold of the doorknob, leaned out and said something to the guard that Malcolm could not quite hear – and shut and locked the door.
She turned and advanced on Malcolm with a smile on her face and that light in her eyes, and now Malcolm was really alarmed.
“There,” she said. “I’ve talked to the guard and he won’t come in or say anything. Whatever we do, no one will ever know.” She stroked his arm with one hand, reached up with the other to untie the neck-cord holding up his painting gown, and lifted her face towards his. “Now you can forget I’m a princess, Malcolm. Show me you think I’m pretty! Kiss me! Ravish me without any concern for my station!”
“Your highness, I –”
She pouted. “Don’t call me that! Call me Luisa! Forget I’m a princess. If you like me, you’ll kiss me, Malcolm.” She flung her arms about him and her mint-scented breath was on his face.
Footsteps thundered down the hall outside the door. Malcolm took Princess Luisa’s shoulders and pushed her away from him. She squealed in protest.
“What’s going on in there!” cried a voice that Malcolm recognized as that of Queen Denise, Luisa’s mother. Luisa recognized the voice as well and hastened to put some distance between her and Malcolm.
“Nothing? Why is the door locked, then?” The Queen proceeded to remedy that situation with her keys and flung the door wide. By this time Malcolm had taken his painting gown off the rest of the way and was standing by the portrait giving it an appraising look, while Luisa stood a discrete and respectful distance behind him and pretended to do the same. Both of them looked up in surprise, or the semblance thereof, to see the frowning, formidable face of Denise, a handsome older version of her daughter, standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips.
The Queen looked from Malcolm to her daughter and back again, then back to Luisa. She fixed the princess with a steely gaze, her face stern and motherly. “Luisa,” she said, “when you are sitting for your portrait, the door of the studio is to remain open at all times. I thought that was clear.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. Mr. Pinecone was working on the portrait and he said the light wasn’t quite right, and you know how the light from the windows across the hall comes through the door, so I thought I could shut the door and the light might be better, that’s all.”
“Indeed? Then why was the door locked, young lady?”
“I don’t know, Mother. I didn’t mean to lock it, but sometimes the latch catches when I close a door. It’s how the doors are made.”
“Strange that that never happens when I close a door.”
“Here, let me show you.” Luisa stepped around her glowering mother to the door, pulled it closed, and with a deft flick of her wrist neatly locked it. “See? It was just a mistake. Mr. Pinecone was answering a question for me about how he mixes the colors when you came in. It was all perfectly innocent.”
The Queen tapped her foot, arms folded over her breasts. “Luisa, in the future, if it becomes necessary to close the door in order to achieve proper lighting, your guard will be inside the studio, not outside it. And the door will not be locked. You will examine it after closing to ensure this. No excuses will be accepted. Do you understand?”
“Your majesty,” said Malcolm, “I can assure you that no improper –”
“Oh, please don’t bother, Mr. Pinecone,” said Queen Denise. “You are both still dressed, after all. Any improper behavior, as you were about to say, was nipped in the bud by my arrival, and I am also certain from long acquaintance with my daughter that any such goings-on were initiated by her and not by you. And finally, I am quite certain there will be no repetition.” She glared at Luisa, who glared back. “As that is the case, I don’t believe it will be necessary for me to mention any of this to the King.” She took her eyes from her wayward child and set them instead on the nearly-finished portrait. The Queen smiled and nodded. “Well, Mr. Pinecone, I can certainly see that you deserve your reputation. Excellent work! Will you need Luisa for any more sittings, sir?”
Malcolm was strongly tempted to say “no,” but found he couldn’t; art outweighed other considerations including, it seemed, survival. “I think one more session will be necessary, your majesty. Perhaps two, but more likely just one.”
“Very well. Would you be able to return tomorrow afternoon, then?”
“Yes, your majesty. I had planned on it, in fact.”
“How very wonderful. I am sure it will be a productive session and that King Marcus will be delighted with the results. Don’t you agree, my dear?”
“Oh, yes, Mother. Mr. Pinecone is a wonderful artist.” Luisa held her hand out and Malcolm, more than a little self-consciously, kissed it. “I do look forward to seeing you again tomorrow, sir, and learning your answer to the question I posed earlier. Thank you so much for taking the time to instruct me in these matters.”
With a smile and a bow, Malcolm made his escape and barely breathed until the palace doors shut behind him.
“Come in, Malcolm. I’m glad you could make it.”
Lawrence, the old butler with the gray mustache and pot belly that Malcolm had known since childhood, opened the door for him and Aunt Anne, dressed in a casual white summer blouse and an ankle-length yellow skirt, stepped forward and held out her arms. Malcolm embraced her briefly while the butler closed the door behind him.
“We’ll be in the blue sitting room, Lawrence,” Aunt Anne said to the butler. “A pot of tea if you please and – some lunch?” The last was directed towards Malcolm.
“Absolutely. Didn’t have time for breakfast, I’m afraid, Aunt Anne. I’m starved.”
“Lunch, then. Nothing too fancy, Lawrence, just the cold roast, warmed up with gravy, and some bread and fruit salad.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He bowed and headed for the kitchen, while Malcolm followed Aunt Anne to the blue sitting room. Malcolm’s spinster aunt Anne Fircone was his foster-mother’s younger sister. She had been quite the head-turner in her younger days and was still, at thirty-nine, a lovely woman with copper-hued hair and fair skin and big green eyes. Her body had filled out somewhat from the slimness of her youth, but was still squeezable, as Malcolm had thought from the first time he noticed girls as anything but an annoyance. Not that he would ever have told her so. Aunt Anne could be a bit intimidating.
The blue sitting room was called that from the sky-blue color of the walls and the royal blue furniture, all of it fine quality and very expensive, as was the art on the walls, except of course for an original Pinecone still-life which Malcolm had given her for free two years back. Aunt Anne seated herself on a couch by a small table and invited Malcolm to sit on another across from her.
They waited and engaged in small talk for a few minutes until Lawrence appeared with a tray of food and plates, a pot of tea, and a bottle of red wine, which Anne had not asked for but Lawrence knew Malcolm would prefer to tea at this hour. The bottle was opened and already well breathed, and Lawrence poured Malcolm a glass, poured Anne a cup of tea and added milk, and served two plates with roast pork in gravy and fruit salad. The bread was warm under a cloth and a crock of butter sat nearby with a knife. Lawrence bowed once more and left.
“I spoke with your mother day before yesterday,” Anne said while Malcolm made up for his missed breakfast. The roast was excellent. So was the wine.
“Or I should say, your foster mother.”
“Ah. Well. My secret’s out, then.”
“I’m family, Malcolm, so no. But I did want to talk to you about it, mainly to verify what she said. She told me that your real mother is a goddess.”
Malcolm nodded. “Shavana, Mother of Life. Yes.” He took another sip. “Crazy sounding, isn’t it?”
“Frankly, no. What do you know about my daughter, your cousin Agnes?”
“She used to pull my hair when I was little. I pulled hers back. We played mud-pies and both of us got spankings for it. She grew into a real honey and I fell in love with her for about six months a few years ago. She –”
Anne laughed. “No, I mean about her birth and who her father is.”
“Thornton Peachstone, wasn’t it?” The whole business had been a wild scandal from just before Malcolm was born.
“That was the story your grandfather put out. Thornton was a fourth noble son on hard times without a title, and Father paid him to support the story. It probably did him no harm to claim he got me pregnant – he’s a man and the rules of the game aren’t fair. But no, Thornton wasn’t the father. He and I were never lovers.”
“Oh. Umm – dare I ask who the father was, Aunt Anne?”
“He was a god. I don’t know which one for certain except that I’m sure it wasn’t the Singer. I would have known him, I think. From his appearance, he could have been the Hunter, or the Trickster, or the Warrior. I don’t know which. He told me his name was Randall, which was surely a lie.”
“I – see.”
“So you understand I’m disposed to give more credit to a story like yours. And there are similar stories cropping up more and more. The gods have been busy these years since the faerie-folk came back, and a great many women have carried their children. People like you, children of goddesses, are rarer but they’re happening, too. It’s like the old legends are coming true. But what I really want to know is this, Malcolm. The Mother of Life is your mother. Who is your father?”
“The Singer. At least that’s what he told me.”
Anne sighed and sipped her tea. “I had a feeling that might be so.”
“Well, I probably inherited my artistic talent from him. But what does it matter?”
“Have you read The Book of the Gods, Malcolm?”
“Yes. Glanced at it, anyway. Why?”
Anne leaned over and lifted a book from another of the little tables about the room. It was a copy of The Book of the Gods. She opened it to a place near the end and began to read.
“‘The Lord of Art is the youngest of the gods. He was born a man of the city of Watercourse in the Kingdom of Grandlock, gifted in music and fair of face. A student of the magic arts, he was discovered by the enforcers of law and convicted of witchcraft. He was sentenced to death by hanging, but he escaped through the door in the Green Stone Tower and climbed the stair to Faerie.’” She closed the book and set it aside. She took a deep breath. “I knew him then, before he became a god – something I still find hard to understand or believe. His name was Johnny Silverbell. He was a merchant’s son, a student at the university, and my lover.”
“Your lover,” Malcolm said. “But he was not a god then.”
Anne shook her head. “No. And Malcolm, I betrayed him. I testified at his trial, saying that he had cast spells on me to make me his lover. It’s my fault that he was convicted and sentenced to hang. I can still see the look on his face as I was giving my testimony. I think I will see it until I die.”
“So. Well, Aunt Anne, that was certainly not a good thing, but – well, obviously he didn’t die. He’s doing well now, being a god and all. So you did him no harm.”
“I intended to, though, and for the shallowest of reasons.”
“Did he do it?”
“Did he do what?”
“Cast spells on you.”
“Oh. I don’t know. He said he didn’t. Oh, Malcolm, probably not. He was a good man. Better than I deserved, though I didn’t think so at the time, because he was a commoner. I said those things in court to save myself from my father’s anger, from being disinherited. For that, I condemned a good man to die, and I have been ashamed of myself ever since.”
“Well, it could be worse, Aunt Anne. I mean, he could be dead, and then you’d feel worse, wouldn’t you?”
She laughed. “Oh, Malcolm. You’re my favorite nephew, did you know that? But it’s better that he’s alive – and worse. Better for my conscience, but now he’s a god – so they say – and I keep wondering, what if he resents me for what I did? What if someday he takes revenge?”
“Aunt Anne, if he wanted revenge on you surely he’d have taken it by now.”
“Look, if it really bothers you, why not go make an offering at his shrine?”
She frowned. “I hadn’t thought of that. You mean, just go in the shrine and make an offering like I was an artist looking for his blessing?”
“But I’m not much of an artist, Malcolm. Certainly not like you.”
“Well, then you’re a penitent looking for forgiveness.”
“Isn’t that what you want? You want my divine daddy to say, ‘It’s all right, Anne, I forgive you.’ Don’t you?”
“I guess – maybe I do. Do you think he might?”
“I don’t know. It’s not like he pops in to the shrine every day for afternoon tea, but he did show up once for me, unless it was a hallucination. Maybe he would for you, too.”
“That’s kind of a frightening thought.”
“Well, he’s not too scary as gods go. I mean, there aren’t any stories about him drowning whole countries like Pashi, or striking an army dead in the field like Olthas, or sinking a fleet of ships in a storm like Prathur, or Illowara’s vengeance that she took on all of the judges at witch trials until they changed the laws. What’s the worst that could happen?”
She winced. “The worst is that he’ll afflict me with some horrible curse, like a wasting disease or madness or something.” She took a deep breath. “Malcolm, you’re right. If he was going to do that he’d have done it already. I probably would have if our positions were reversed. So most likely either he’ll show up and I’ll be forgiven, or nothing will happen at all, and I’ll figure I tried and just have to live with the guilt.”
“There you go, Aunt Anne.”
“Well, then.” She stood up. “No time like the present. Will you come with me?”
“To the shrine?”
“Sure. You should probably do your meditation and offering by yourself, though.”
She nodded, saying nothing.
The two of them left her house in the late afternoon and made their way through the streets to the small building where artists came to pray to the youngest of the gods. When they reached the door, Aunt Anne turned to Malcolm and hugged him, trembling.
“I’m scared, Malcolm.”
Malcolm said nothing, but held her – she was, in fact, nicely squeezable still, but he had no intention of saying so – until she gathered her courage and walked through the door.
Or continue to Chapter Five.