Sonia had just finished counting the cash in the till and selecting the herbs for display on the countertop when the door chime sounded and someone came in. She hadn’t begun her daily prayer and blessing by lighting the incense yet and certainly hadn’t had time to finish it. Usually no customers came in this early in the day. She kicked herself mentally and resolved to start earlier from now on.
But when she saw the young man with the bulky paper-wrapped flat oblong cradled awkwardly in his arms, she relaxed: he wasn’t her customer, she was his.
“Malcolm, you’re early!”
Malcolm set the package down after a bit of searching revealed a just-large-enough clear space on the counter. He grinned, showing pretty white teeth in a face so handsome it was positively unfair, framed in curls the color of caramel, and warm hazel eyes. “I didn’t touch a drop last night, and I barely slept. Put the last touches on it in the wee hours and then caught a couple of winks while it dried before bringing it here first thing.”
Sonia laughed. “Malcolm, I do believe you hardly slept and that you finished it in the wee hours, but that you never touched a drop I don’t believe for a second.”
“Ah, you misjudge me, Sonia. Why, your beauty is all the intoxication I need, and the thought that I painted this for you kept me working with no awareness of the time.”
Sonia shook her head. “You’re an incorrigible rascal, Malcolm Pinecone. Well, let’s see it, then.”
Making her a courtly bow, Malcolm pulled the wrap off the painting and held it up for her to see. The painting showed a small clearing in a forest in autumn and a woman wearing a long white robe and hood. The woman stood with bowed head and the hood obscured her face, but one long, spiral lock of hair spilled down onto her breast, the same midnight shade as Sonia’s own. A hawk perched on the woman’s right shoulder, while a snow-white owl nestled in her hands. The leaves on the trees showed a perfect dance of fall colors with a few of them caught drifting downwards on the gentle breeze that ruffled the woman’s hair and the feathers of the birds. Although the woman’s face was invisible inside the hood, her body’s tension seemed to convey rejection of civilized life and preference for the honest company of her raptor friends.
“Magnificent,” she whispered.
“You like it?”
“Malcolm, it’s – you’ve outdone yourself. It’s perfect.” She smiled and hugged him. “How much do I owe you?”
“Not a penny. It’s a gift.”
“Malcolm, I can’t do that. You put so much work into it.”
“It was a labor of love.”
She shook her head. “You don’t love me, Malcolm.”
He sighed. “Sonia, I keep telling you that I do, you keep telling me I don’t. Which of us knows me better, I ask you?”
“You may know you better, Malcolm, but I know love for the lie that it is. Let’s not talk of that anymore. We’ll just fight again and I don’t want to fight.”
“If you insist.” He looked sad, as he always did when she rebuffed his talk of love. Sonia often wished he would just make lustful advances like all the other men and not talk nonsense. She might even say yes. He was pretty enough to deserve a yes, if only he would make her an offer she could take seriously.
“So how much?”
“Well, if you really want to pay for what you can have as a gift, how about a promise to sit for a portrait.”
“Oh, Malcolm, that’s almost as bad as your talk of love.”
“Sonia, my sweet, you may mock me as a lover, you may laugh at my heart, but as an artist I deserve your respect. If I say that with you as my subject I could paint a wonder to last for ages and inspire the awe of men when the mountains are dust, preserving your loveliness down the cataracts of time, I speak only the truth. Believe me, Sonia, I would take that opportunity as payment for this, which merely hints at you, over many times my weight in gold.”
Sonia smiled. She couldn’t help it. Malcolm was a wonderful artist, and when he spoke of that passion she believed him.
“You really want to paint me?”
“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.”
“No? Do you mean you want to paint everyone whose portraits emerge from your studio?”
He laughed. “Gods, no. But I seldom ask people to sit for portraits. They ask me. And they pay me, too. I’d rather do that than any other form of work that comes to mind, don’t get me wrong. But only rarely does a subject come along to make me feel the blood of the Singer himself in my veins, and Sonia, you are that subject. Will you?”
She shook her head, still smiling. But then she said, “Yes. Yes, I will.”
Malcolm beamed, took her in his arms, and kissed her on both cheeks. After which he continued to hold her.
And kissed her on the mouth. Hard. Passionately.
“Mmmf!” she said, which was as close to his name as she could come under the circumstances. He let her go, panting a bit. So was she.
“Well.” She tugged her dress down into place. It had become rumpled.
“You are not. Neither am I, to be honest. You just surprised me.”
Smiling, she took his head in her hands and kissed him back, with a bit less force than he had done, but with considerable feeling.
“When do you want me to sit for the portrait?”
“Um. Let me think about it. I have to consult my schedule, but –”
“When do you have free for dinner, then?”
“Perfect. I close the shop at sunset.”
“I’ll be here.”
“I hope you have the whole night free.”
He blinked. “I’ll, um, make certain of it.”
He shook his head. “You’re a strange woman, Sonia.”
“Are you complaining?”
“Not in the least.”
“And no more talk of love?”
“Ah, Sonia, I can’t help what my heart feels.”
“I suppose I’ll have to live with it, then. But try to keep the mention of it to a minimum, say no more than once in the evening.”
“You are a very strange woman, Sonia.”
“It’s not my fault, Malcolm. It’s my parentage.”
“And I can’t help loving you. That’s my parentage.”
She hung the painting on the wall at the back of the shop after he left, and had plenty of time to perform her morning ritual before her first customer came in. That was well. The worship of the Old Gods was not as scandalous today as it had been when she was a little girl, but the two that Sonia invoked still provoked sideways looks – one of them in particular – and she preferred to keep her devotion to them secret. Nor were they necessarily the most appropriate deities to call upon for a woman running an herb shop. But they were very special to Sonia and had been ever since she had learned of them on her fifteenth birthday.
The shop grew busy shortly after that, and it wasn’t until almost time to close that she thought about Malcolm’s strange reference to his parentage. What did he mean by that? He was the son of Lord Andrew Pinecone, who was hardly a romantic. Did he mean his mother? Was there anything unusual about her? Sonia couldn’t remember.
It would probably lead to more soppy talk about love, which was annoying, but she was curious enough to want to ask him even so.
“Oh, that.” Malcolm cut a precise bit of roast beef around where his fork skewered it with perfectly-schooled lord’s-son elegance and popped it into his mouth. He didn’t answer immediately, being also trained not to talk with his mouth full.
“Oh. Do noblemen do that?”
“Occasionally. In this case, my par – my adoptive parents didn’t have much choice. My mother brought me into the house, walking right through the locked door past the servants and the guards, fixed my – that is, fixed Lady Pinecone with her eyes, handed me over, said ‘Take care of him,’ and left. Of course I don’t remember that.”
“But Lady Pinecone told you about it later?”
“Eventually. With a lot of prodding. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
“Perhaps to someone else it would. What it sounds like to me is that your mother is a goddess.”
He nodded. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this.”
“I have that effect on people sometimes.”
“I also can’t believe you’re not laughing.”
“Well, I’m not. How did you get your mother to tell you? Your foster mother I mean.”
“It all stemmed from my painting. I started when I was four years old. My cousin Reginald paints, too, strictly amateur but not too bad. We went to visit my uncle’s estate when I was four and Reginald showed me what he was doing with the paints and I got interested. So when I got home I begged and wheedled until Father set me up with my own little studio and I started painting. I wasn’t very good then. But I got better and I studied with some of the best artists in Watercourse, Flaxseed and Peartree among them. And I got really good. Horace Flaxseed said I had more talent than he did. I don’t know if he was right, but I am good.”
“So how does this lead to who your real mother is?”
“By way of the Shrine of the Singer.”
“Naturally I gravitated to that worship. Lots of artists do. I prayed to the Lord of Art for inspiration and donated some of my work to his shrine. They’ve got paintings of mine there to this day, although I think the priests also sold some of them. Anyway I was in one of the private meditation rooms they have there, praying, with my eyes closed, and I suddenly heard someone right beside me playing an ambertone.”
“You guessed it. I opened my eyes and there he was, with his hands moving on the strings like a blur, like the wind itself, drawing such music from them that it would make your heart sing just to hear it, and he smiled at me and said, ‘Hello, son. I thought it was time we got to know each other.’”
“Are you pulling my leg, Malcolm?”
“I swear I’m telling the whole truth, may I break my fingers if I lie and never paint again.”
“So the Singer is your father?”
“Wow. Double god-born. So who’s your mother?”
“I’ll get to that. Let me tell the story.”
“All right.” Sonia sipped her wine, which was much better than she could usually afford. “Go on.”
“Well, as you might expect – I was just fifteen then, in fact it was my fifteenth birthday – I wasn’t sure if it had really happened or just been a hallucination. You know, with the incense in the air and all that meditation and chanting, sometimes you can see the most amazing visions. But Johnny the Singer told me that he loved me and had been watching over me since I was born, and that I was destined to be the greatest painter in a thousand years. I liked the sound of that. But he also said I was going to have to pass through a storm of fire and blood before I achieved my full potential.”
“What does that mean?”
“I have no idea. You see why I thought it might be a hallucination. It was just strange, there I am praying and suddenly this blond guy with an ambertone pops into the room, tells me he’s the God of Art and my father and that he loves me, and then promises me I’m going to be this wonderful artist after going through something bloody awful, and then he’s gone. So I finished my prayers and went outside for some fresh air. But when I got home and I told my parents about the experience they went white. And that’s when they admitted I was adopted.”
“How did you feel about that?”
“Confused. And they wouldn’t tell me anything more except that I was adopted. They hadn’t even known who my father was, or my mother either, until that moment. But the strange thing is that they didn’t even seem to doubt that my vision had been real. The idea that I was the son of a god didn’t bother them at all, as if they expected it. And then that night, I woke up and there was a naked woman sitting in my chair.”
Sonia laughed. “I bet that wasn’t the first time.”
“Well, you’re right, but the only naked women who had been in my room up to then were the apprentice cook and the maid. And this naked woman definitely wasn’t either of them. She looked like a South Island woman. I don’t mean like one of the faerie-folk, either, I mean the natives with their dark skin and wavy dark hair. Not only that, but she had flowering vines wrapped around her arms and legs like she was a tree or something.”
“And she smiled at me and hugged me, which created a slightly embarrassing situation especially after she told me she was my mother.”
Sonia, unfortunately, was taking another sip of wine at that moment and narrowly kept herself from spewing it all over the table. Miraculously, she didn’t choke, either.
“So there I was with this beautiful naked woman in my arms and I had the hots for her like you wouldn’t believe and then she tells me she’s my mother. So I felt like the biggest pervert in all creation.”
The danger of choking was becoming dire. “Wait, please wait.” She swallowed very carefully and set the glass down. “All right. Go on.”
“It’s not funny,” Malcolm said indignantly.
“Yes it is.”
“Malcolm, yes, it’s funny. It’s hilarious. Think about it.”
“Well . . .”
“Anyway, go on. You didn’t do it with her, did you?”
“Of course not!”
“Okay, I believe you.”
“But she told me she was my mother and that her name was Shavana, which of course I recognized. And that’s how I learned my parentage. My mother – that is, Lady Pinecone – later confirmed that a naked brown woman with blooming vines all over her had given me to her and said to take care of me. So there you have it. Now you know. My father’s the Lord of Art and that’s why I’m a great artist, and my mother is the Mother of Life and that’s why I can’t help but love you. Because you’re so alive.”
“Why are you unwilling to talk of love, Sonia? We’ve known each other for – gods, it must be –”
“All of three months, Malcolm.”
“That’s long enough to know a person’s soul.” He sighed and fiddled with his wineglass. “It’s funny, most women talk of love while men try to avoid it.”
“Malcolm, I’m not ‘most women.’ Are you ‘most men’? No, you are not. Most men can’t paint like you can. Most men aren’t nearly so good-looking. And you know you are so don’t look modest.” Malcolm laughed. “And most men aren’t goddess-born. I don’t expect you to be like other men. So why do you expect me to be like other women?”
He nodded. “Fair point. Even if you aren’t goddess-born.”
She grinned and took another sip of wine to hide it.
“Of course I shouldn’t assume that, either. I’ll probably find out the Lord of Shadow is your father.”
This time she managed not to choke at all.
Sonia got up quietly in the deep night, leaving Malcolm sleeping like a stone. She had enjoyed their lovemaking, but didn’t want to be there when he woke and have to endure more nonsense. It was worth the risk of walking home after dark, or so she thought as she slipped out the door.
When she saw the three young toughs shadowing her, she began to reconsider. But then it was too late.
They surrounded her on a deserted narrow lane just a few blocks from her home, three men in their twenties, scruff-bearded and unkempt and nasty in both person and attitude. They were not obviously armed except with youth and masculine strength. There might be knives concealed in their clothes, though.
“Look what we have here,” one said.
“Bet she has money on her,” said another.
“That’d be a nice bonus,” said the third. “Got plenty on her worth the taking even without it, though.”
Sonia cringed against the wall. She uttered a low moan, exactly like a helpless, frightened woman. One of the men advanced to almost within arms’ reach.
“Let’s see what’s under that dress, girl. Take it off.”
Sonia’s eyes went from one to another of them, looking for any give or sympathy but finding none. With trembling hands, she reached up and slipped one sleeve of her dress off her shoulder and down her arm, then the other. It fell bunched around her waist, uncovering her breasts.
It also left her hands free, but the men didn’t notice that.
The closest one grinned and reached out with both hands for her breasts. With a guttural cry and clenched teeth, Sonia thrust the fingers of her right hand into his face, puncturing his eyes and gripping the bones of his skull as he screamed.
The other two men backed away.
Sonia glared at them. Harsh cries cut the air along with the beat of wings. A pair of owls dived on the would-be rapists in a flurry of claws and beaks. Howling, arms over their heads, bleeding in several places, the men turned and ran. The owls pursued, but Sonia did not.
The man she had blinded lay on the ground, his hands over his face, gibbering wordlessly. Sonia kicked him hard in the head. Carefully putting her dress back on so as to avoid getting it bloody, she turned and walked away.
She had almost reached the public fountain near her home when another man whispered her name. She turned and saw him leaning against the wall, wrapped in a cloak and hood.
“That was beautiful, Sonia. They deserved every bit of their pain and more.”
“Yes? I’m glad you liked it, Edwin, though I’d have liked better to avoid it. What do you want?”
“To extend the offer once again.”
“Why bother? I’ll just refuse it again.”
“More than ever, I see that your blood runs true. The People of the Shadow need you, Shadow’s Daughter.”
“But I don’t need them, Edwin.”
“You do, Sonia. You will always be an outcast among the followers of the light. Only with your own kind will you ever find acceptance.”
“My own kind? But Edwin, I am Light’s daughter as much as I am Shadow’s. Who are my own kind? You? I hardly think so. Perhaps I impress you. You do not impress me. Now go away.”
“I will go for now. But I will be back, Sonia Sandburr. You will join us in the end.”
The man faded into the shadows that he worshiped. Sonia was alone once more.
She allowed herself one shivering taste before she washed the blood from her hand in the public fountain. Then she went inside, locked her door, and slept.
Or continue to Chapter Four.