Malcolm watched Aunt Anne disappear through the door of the Singer’s shrine. He hoped she would be all right. He’d spoken confidently about his father’s forgiving nature and it made sense logically, in that if the Lord of Art really was pissed at Aunt Anne he’d surely have zapped her with a bolt of lightning or something long ago. Still, Malcolm couldn’t claim to actually know the god. He’d only met him once and the gods were mysterious and incomprehensible, or so their priests often said.
She’d be fine. He put Aunt Anne out of his mind and went to see if Sonia was in the herb shop. But the door was locked and he remembered that it was Sunday and the store was closed, like a lot of other businesses. After trying the locked door he went to Sonia’s apartment instead, but she didn’t answer his knock. Evidently she was away from home. Probably making love with someone else. He shook his head and sighed.
Malcolm had fallen in love many times, but never with someone who loved him in return, and many times women had gone loopy over Malcolm when he didn’t love them. There was some kind of problem with his synchronization. He wondered why that was. Maybe he didn’t really want to be happy in love. Maybe it would take him away from his art. He’d known artists who wanted nothing to do with love for that reason. He’d known other artists who were more like Malcolm himself, having a string of passionate affairs that never lasted and gave them plenty of material to turn into art, but nothing in the way of happiness, except briefly. Maybe happiness and art were incompatible. Or no, that wasn’t it, but more that art was a jealous mistress. She wouldn’t tolerate any rivals, although she was willing to put up with a man having a fling now and then, so long as he brought home tribute from it to please and honor art herself. She poured out happiness like a river on those she loved, but there was no way she would accept some other woman making Malcolm happier than she did.
Speaking of which, Malcolm had some paintings at home he could be working on. First, though, since he obviously couldn’t have Sonia, he wanted a drink.
The Golden Scale was a medium-nice tavern on East Grand Street about a quarter mile from Malcolm’s house. It was a frequent haunt of artists, poets, writers, musicians, and other devotees of Malcolm’s papa, as well as shopkeepers, carpenters, and similar middle-class sorts. There was usually a decent act in the afternoons and evenings. As he approached the door, he heard drums and pipes and cymbals. No one was singing. He understood why as soon as he came in the door. A woman danced to the music, some kind of hip-shimmying thing with her arms overhead and breasts bobbing beautifully, dressed in a skirt that swung with her movements and revealed her bare feet and ankles, her top tied beneath her breasts to expose her well-muscled tummy. A jewel in her navel winked in the lamplight. It looked like a diamond but surely wasn’t. Her hair was long and brown with reddish highlights, her eyes black and smiling. Her mouth smiled, too, and the smile widened when she saw Malcolm, while she put a bit of extra wiggle into her dance. Men stared at her with goggle eyes and slack mouths, their breaths coming fast and hot.
One of those stupefied men sat alone at a table. Malcolm sat down beside him. “Hi, David.”
David started and turned to look at Malcolm. “Hello, Malcolm. What’s new?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Hopeless love, mess-making on the canvas, visits to the palace to dine on caviar and white wine.”
David laughed. “What do you think of Isabel?”
“Who? Oh, the dancer. She’s pretty.”
The barmaid stopped by at that moment and took Malcolm’s order for a beer.
“Pretty! Is that all you can say?”
“All right, she’s a sexy dancer, too.”
“Never seen anything like it.”
“How many beers have you already had?”
“I hear you.”
They both sipped their drinks and watched the dance. Isabel danced over to their table, smiling. Malcolm found himself mildly entranced by the white gem in her navel as it flashed in the light. The rest of her, lightly sweaty skin, swaying hips on a level with Malcolm’s face, was as intoxicating in its way as the beer. Lifting his eyes to hers, he found her grinning as she let her shimmy move up her body until it reached her breasts and gave him a pair of moving targets for his vision. That drew his attention away from her face, but clearly that was her intention – not that there was anything wrong with her face. In fact, there was nothing wrong with any part of her that he could see, and he could see quite a lot. Isabel laughed and turned about. Glancing coquettishly at Malcolm over her shoulder while the crowd let out a whoop and a holler, she danced around the room to give some attention to the other patrons.
“Still writing poetry, David?”
“Of course. I may write one to Isabel. Or I may change my mind once I sober up enough to do it. I got the feeling just now that she wanted you to give her a poem, too. A long one, with rigid meter and a hard, pounding rhythm.”
Malcolm laughed. “What makes you say that?”
“Oh, just a hunch, based on the way she was practically undressing and rubbing herself within inches of your face.”
“She was not.”
“I exaggerate somewhat. It’s a poet’s prerogative. She’ll no doubt leave the undressing part until you’re in private, and content herself with a bit of discrete rubbing under the table.”
Malcolm said nothing, but shook his head and took a long pull of his beer. That emptied it and he ordered another.
“Shame on you, Malcolm, you loathsome aristocratic parasite, preying on the virtue of innocent maidens of the common folk – or in this case, the lack of virtue of not-so-innocent girls of dubious maidenhood, but the principle is the same. Or nearly so.”
Malcolm frowned. “What are you talking about, David?”
“Just repeating some choice and pungent verbiage I heard in West Gate Park last night. You should probably pay attention the next time it happens. Dress yourself in your most dressed-down starving artist raiment and they’ll never suspect. You’d make the perfect spy for the aristocracy. There were quite a lot of people there listening to some rabble-rousing speaker. He seemed to be trying to rouse the rabble to storm through the noble quarter burning houses and dangling aristocratic parasites like yourself from lampposts.”
“I don’t live in the noble quarter.”
“True. I spoke in generalities only. Your parents would probably be a preferred target anyway, being both richer and more elderly. In any case, he wasn’t terribly good and the rabble did not rouse sufficiently for anything rash. But it was an impressive-sized rabble nonetheless, and a better speaker might have turned it into a dangerous mob. A word to the wise, Malcolm, that’s all I’m giving you. There’s something happening and I’m not altogether sure I like it, even though I’m a commoner myself and not an aristocratic parasitic corrupter of young girls like some I could mention.”
“Probably nothing, David. People have to blow off steam. It was harmless anyway.”
“Last night, yes. Tomorrow night, who knows? Oh, look, here comes Isabel.”
The music had stopped and indeed here came Isabel over to their table, smiling and swaying her hips only a little less blatantly than she had while the music played.
“Mind if I join you boys in a drink?” she said.
“If it’s a really big one and we both take off all our clothes first,” David said. “I’ve been accused of swimming in beer at times, but I’ve never done it literally and certainly not with a beautiful woman.”
She laughed and sat down next to Malcolm, who smiled and called to the barmaid to order another round of ale for all three of them.
“Where did you learn to dance like that?” he said.
“In Thurbia, believe it or not.”
“Thurbia? Thurbia where the women all wear shapeless sacks covering their bodies and hoods over their faces to conceal them from men’s lusts?”
“The same. The men go into taverns, no women allowed except the dancers, and women trained in that kind of dancing have them drooling all over their shoes. They so seldom see women without those shapeless sacks, except their wives, that it’s very exciting for them.”
“In truth, it was pretty exciting for me, too,” David said. Isabel smiled at him noncommittally and drew a long drink of her ale, holding her mug with her right hand while her left, true to David’s prediction, explored the contours of Malcolm’s right leg under the table.
After another few minutes and another beer, her exploration became a bit bolder and Malcolm’s response to it more encouraging, and as soon as David left them for the privy to pay rent on his beer she leaned over and whispered in his ear, “I’m a bad girl, aren’t I?”
“Bad as I’ve ever encountered – in a good way,” he whispered back.
“Would you like to take me home and punish me?”
“You certainly deserve it.”
“Oh, I do. And you’re just the man to give it to me.”
Grinning, Malcolm left a tip for the barmaid and rose a bit unsteadily from his seat. He left the Golden Scale with his arm around Isabel’s waist.
Late that night, Malcolm woke to the feeling that something was very, very wrong. His head hurt, but that wasn’t it. Then he remembered who he’d come home with and observed her absence from the bed.
Rising quietly, he left the bedroom and found Isabel, fully dressed, reaching up to pull his sword down from where it hung on the wall. He crossed the room cat-like on his bare feet, twisted her left arm behind her back and pushed her hard into the wall while she squealed. Holding her against the wall with his left hand, he reached up and drew the sword – a commoner’s short-sword; Malcolm was not a knight and so was not entitled to a chloron – and pressed it against Isabel’s throat. Her eyes opened wide and she became very quiet.
“Empty your purse on the table,” he said. She nodded.
She opened her purse and dumped it on the table, watching him the whole time. “I’m sorry. Don’t hurt me.”
Malcolm noted the gleam of gold coins along with some silver and copper. A glance across the room revealed his cash drawer open and empty. With his left hand, he scooped the silver and copper into her purse along with one gold coin. “Payment for services rendered. Get out.”
Wide-eyed and silent, Isabel nodded, picked up her purse and ran out the front door. Malcolm pulled it shut behind her and locked it. He put away his money, sheathed his sword and left it on the table, and went back to bed, thinking that it served him right. It hadn’t been Isabel he’d wanted in his bed anyway.
He woke up at ten in the morning for a change, which gave him plenty of time to recover from last night’s indulgence, eat well, and bathe before he set out for the palace and his afternoon appointment with Luisa’s portrait. As he was about to leave he noticed his sword on the table. He picked it up, intending to hang it back on the wall. Hefting its weight, he was consumed by a feeling that he wanted it with him. He didn’t know why. He tucked it into his painting robe for concealment. Not that he had to conceal it. As a noble’s son, he had the right to enter the palace armed, but there would be questions and he preferred to avoid them, especially since he wasn’t sure why he was bringing it anyway.
He reached the studio with plenty of time to prepare. He laid the sword on a table that held extra pigments, donned his paint-smeared robe, and prepared the colors he intended to use today. The princess arrived only a few minutes late.
“Good afternoon, Malcolm,” she said brightly.
“Good afternoon, your highness.”
“So this is the last session?”
“It should be, I think.”
“Malcolm, before we begin, I wish to apologize for what happened yesterday.”
Malcolm lifted a quizzical eyebrow.
“I acted most improperly and put you in a difficult situation. I should not have done that and I apologize.”
Malcolm bowed. “The difficulty was entirely offset by the flattery of your attention, your highness.”
Luisa giggled. “I promise I won’t lock the door or fling myself at you shamelessly or do anything to make difficulty between you and my parents or get you in trouble.”
“I am at once relieved and disappointed, your highness.”
“I realize now that I was going about things quite the wrong way. It was – immature. As the king’s only child, I must learn to be responsible, as I will someday be the ruling Queen.”
“A commendable –”
“So instead, I have asked my father to extend you an offer of marriage.”
“And – uh – what did his majesty say?” Oh, please, no!
“He said he would consider the matter. He did go so far as to promise to knight you upon completion of the portrait, so I believe he’s truly considering it and not just putting me off. For you to be a nobleman would be a prerequisite of the marriage, of course.”
“Of course.” Oh, gods, help me!
“It’s not necessary that I marry for political reasons, since I am going to be a ruling Queen, so my husband would not rule. I can marry for love – and I do love you, Malcolm.” She laid a hand on his arm. “I don’t ask you to say you love me. I don’t think I would believe you yet, after I was so foolish and childish yesterday. I know I will have to win your love. Also, my father has not really promised anything beyond the knighthood, so we will need to be discrete and proper. But I do want you to know that my heart is yours. You have won the love of the girl who will be Queen.”
Malcolm reflected that this was a most un-sixteen-year-old quality of thought and speech, and he wondered how much Queen Denise had to do with it all.
“So,” the princess continued, evidently not expecting a response, which was fortunate, “let’s finish the portrait and we can impress my father and get your title for you.” With that, she sat and assumed the correct pose.
Malcolm got to work. Luisa sat with a smug, satisfied smile on her face, which conformed well enough to the expression in the portrait. As Malcolm applied the pigments, all of his worries about Luisa’s latest lobbed explosive and Sonia’s heartlessness vanished. Art, his jealous mistress, wrapped him in her embrace and showered him with hot kisses and no other thoughts infiltrated his mind. Luisa’s thick, lustrous brown hair with its dark highlights, the delicate hands in her lap, the pretty face, the perfect skin, the sensuous mouth, the whimsy and mischief in her eyes and her smile, combined to present a view so sweet and appealing that Malcolm thought any man who didn’t actually know the princess would be smitten with her at first sight.
He had reached a point where he no longer needed to consult Luisa’s person for details, and thought he could make the portrait as near to perfection as his art ever approached, when loud noises interrupted from the hall outside the door. Shouts and the clash of metal on metal announced a fight. While Malcolm and Luisa stared at one another, frozen in shock, the guard cried out in pain and dismay.
Malcolm dropped his paintbrush and whipped off his robe. He spun to the table and drew his sword – now he knew why he needed to bring it – and thrust the princess behind him as he ran out into the hall. There he saw the guard desperately fencing with two attackers armed with short swords. A spill of blood down his left side showed where the attackers had struck home. In this age of firearms, soldiers no longer wore armor, but it would have been useful in this case as the attackers had no guns. The guard had not found opportunity to draw his own pistol.
Malcolm, not allowing himself to think, dived into the fight with a stroke at the nearest attacker that forced him to break off and retreat. As Malcolm pressed his attack, he realized this man was poorly-trained and not a particularly dangerous enemy. Only the two-to-one odds had allowed the guard to be wounded. Malcolm struck the man’s blade aside with reflexes honed by his own training, which was only what all noble sons received in childhood and adolescence but more than sufficient for this, and riposted with a thrust that impaled the attacker through the gut and out the back. Blood gushed over Malcolm’s hand and arm as the man grimaced in shock and pain and slumped to the floor.
He turned to the fight between the guard and the other attacker and found that it was over as well. Luisa had come from behind and broken a vase from a shelf in the studio over his head and the guard had finished him. The floor was a mess of blood. Malcolm’s clothes were ruined. Luisa’s pretty shoes were soaked and the hem of her dress too.
Footsteps echoed down the hall. Two more guards ran around the corner, pistols at the ready.
“Your highness, thank God you’re all right!” one of them said.
“What’s happening?” Malcolm asked.
“Assassins! Their majesties are both dead!”