Early one morning, Volteron Dul Termes, the magician, left a warehouse in the southern quarter of the city and walked along the Ria Velia while it still lay in shadow. Within less than half an hour he had reached the Western Gate, and gone beyond it into the Beast Market, which was just then beginning to stir. There, he went up to a horse merchant and bought an old, sturdy mare from him. He then rode off along the Ria Velia, a busy cobbled street which by and by turned into a wide, much used thoroughfare. Taking a smaller road, he later made for the coast.
Not many people noticed him, and certainly none of the merchants who made their way to and from the city. The horse seller, when he was asked a week later, did have a vague memory of him, as did a few passersby. A tall, bony, impressive man, he strode hastily but stiffly, as though wounded.
Only after two days had elapsed did they find the corpse of the painter, Master Ilios, sprawled on his back under a length of stiff canvas, his blood pooled thick beneath him, mingling with paint, the stench of rot covered by that of turpentine. By then, however, Dul Termes was long gone, his trail lost among the myriads of ports, bays, cliffs, and islets of the coast, and since then he has not been seen there.
Still, a few months later, in a city far from the Inner Sea, a man could be seen who might have been mistaken for the magician, though he was far gaunter and paler. In inns and streets and in the dark, he spoke and spoke alone, telling the story of the painter, who had been his victim, and who had no one else now. When the story was done he told it again, speaking to a rapt audience seen only by him, and again, and again. Over the years the tale grew more rehearsed, though no less mad and muttered, and the man’s life seemed to have withered around it.
* * *
An explosion. An eruption. A briny puddle. The Inner Sea, a splash of water on a beach, a gasping man. His life began earlier, yet to us he was only an image of terrible loss. It is hard to convey what Tars meant to us. Even I, born a goat-herder on rocky hillside, had heard of it and of the legend of its bliss. It was, then it wasn’t, and only he remained to remind us that it had not been a dream.
Tars! Blessed isle! Beautiful, wealthy, forbidden. Not a man had set foot on the island who had not been born there. Sailors were allowed on the wooden pontoons in the harbour of Semla but not one inch farther, and no man who had been born on Tars had ever set foot on any other shore, though some had sailed the Inner Sea. But the legend of Tars, nonetheless, escaped on the wind and the wine-dark breath of seafarers, who had seen the fair slopes of the hills, and the palaces, and the towers that soared to the heavens, the wind whistling between them as through one great harp. . . . They told stories of its loveliness, the happiness of its inhabitants, the deep knowledge of its scholars, the wisdom of its rulers. Nothing ever changed on Tars, they said; nothing ever needed change. O, the songs of the unshared bliss of Tars! With what enthusiasm they were sung, and how they galled, too!
One night it foundered, was torn apart, dropped to the bottom of the sea. The sound of the explosion was heard all around the Inner Sea. Why? My master, a true believer, spent months trying to discover the reason and the way. He had faith in his magic (though sometimes, for convenience, he would supplement his spells with a little potion or sleight of hand), and he had faith in Tars, the fount of all occult knowledge and supernatural workings. But he could find nothing, and by the time I left (taking most of his coloured powders and clinking runes) he was distracted enough not to notice my theft for—oh, long enough. For him, and all others, there was no sense for the catastrophe in Tars.
But as for Master Ilios: he was found three days after the disaster, a gasping fish on a beach, pale and green and flapping weakly, grasping at the air and stuttering words of destruction, fire, water, steam, death. His sea-soaked garb was drab. So who was he? Nothing but the lowest of artisans, a hired brush, who stared at walls, drawing in palaces the arabesques and frescoes on which his betters rested their bliss-drunk eyes.
It did not matter. They took him out of his briny puddle, carried him into a hut, then into an inn, undressed him, dried him, dressed him, and all the while he spoke only of fair Tars, destroyed, and they nodded sagely, having heard the explosion, seen the fine ash rain down, and the stones too that had fallen from the sky (killing, it was said, a few sheep). But it seemed to him that they did not understand, could not understand—hence the inane, unstoppable, apocalyptic babbling.
Among these curious onlookers was a servant of the duke of Respetzi, who promptly wrote to his master. Said master was quick to detect the increase in fame this little piece of speaking flotsam and jetsam might bring him. A carriage was dispatched, and the still-shocked Ilios bundled up, promised food and drink, and whisked away. The duke gave him rooms, shook his hands, wept on his shoulder, pressing him against his perfumed bosom in commiseration. He also took one look at Ilios’s robes and promised him ten more, richer and more suited to his eminence, and had twenty made for his own use, though of velvet, brocade, and silk: Tarsan fashion, the height of refinement, copied a thousand times in the following years. (Ilios, tired and raspy voiced, had not managed to say loud enough that the robe was a gift from his innkeeper host.)
He was paraded from parlour to ballroom and back. And what was he? they asked. Back in Tars. A painter? But that was marvellous! A gifted people—he must paint again. (Again he was unable to say that for the most part he had painted walls, following the instructions of his taskmaster.) He was swathed in luxurious clothes, perfumed, powdered, taken here and there in carriages, and for all this paid not with coin but with words—words of Tars, its beauty and its end.
I do not know how he felt then. By the time I met him the novelty of tragedy had worn off. He did not say, I did not ask, and who can know the workings of the mind of a man of Tars? He had had all and lost all, we thought. I do not think he realised, at times. I think that he must have awoken and believed himself back on his sunlit island—and then that he must have sunk his head into lavender-scented silk, not the humble pillow of his hard little cot on Tars, and wept and sneezed with grief into his fine sheets. At times he must have groped for the dim, receding memory of his land; sometimes he must have wanted to drink it clean off his brain, to drown the sound of remembered lutes in the bustle and shrieks of the duke’s ballrooms.
His grief had partly, temporarily stupefied him—but not so much that he did not sometimes think of the future. Shrewdness and practical matters warded him from deeper thoughts. He hadn’t been a great painter, not in the way they had thought him to be, but he learned. He had a deft hand and a keen eye, and he taught himself, painting serving wenches who pitied him, unlaced their lace caps though not much more, kitchen boys and stable boys. Afterward, he painted the children of the rich—plump, rude, sad little boys and girls—then their parents.
I saw some of those paintings. We shared many of our patrons, and in a way our work was not always dissimilar: often, the casting of a fair reflection, the transformation of images. I saw his work evolve, from the cold, flat, precise faces of his early days. (I can see his kitchen maids, bending over his shoulder, adjusting their curls—Is this really how I look?—having only seen their reflections on the back of cooking pots.) Later, he grew better. Life and light infused his paintings. The duke, vexed because he had not been the first to be portrayed, almost threw him out but swallowed his anger eventually and hired him for an entire year and a half: during that time Ilios painted the duke three times, his children twice, his horses three times, his wife once, the dogs twice. The paintings were all hung in one bright, glass-roofed circular room. They were life-size, and visitors were known to be startled by this assembly of staring, repeated people: ladies and lords would, on entering, clutch their ribboned bosoms, shriek, dance away on the tiled floor, then laugh and examine the paintings, sighing and whistling and puffing away their admiration.
A year or so after his arrival, having amassed a good deal of money, he went to a ship’s captain and paid for his passage across the sea, to where Tars had once been. To his dismay, a flotilla of patrons and admirers followed, some in another ship, some (thanks to the captain’s indiscretion and greed) on the one he had himself commandeered.
They sailed for three days, in grey, tepid weather. On the morning of the fourth day the sky was clear. Soon, the captain said, they’d be within sight of the isle—or would have been, had it still existed. Ilios clung to the railing and tried to ignore the chattering on deck, watching the prow slice the limpid, jewellike, all-devouring sea.
At last the captain, slapping Ilios’s shoulder, pointed to some spot. “There!” he said. From the water a knuckle of bare rock emerged, a thin, misshapen band of land, a finger from a submerged hand. The roots of the islet could be guessed at, shifting and dark, to a few yards below the surface, and then—nothing. Hills and streets and palaces and streams—nothing but salt water. He wept in his hands while a few noblemen, who for all their pride and wealth had never been allowed to set foot on Tars, clambered atop the rock and filled their pockets with pebbles and dust.
Was it the sight of that abyss, where irretrievable Tars lay? At that moment the convergence of our fates (as I would tell my patrons) began; in brief, he became miserable enough to wish to seek out my services.
* * *
I met him through one of our common patrons, one Artelia Deregni—a rich, merry merchant’s widow with friendly, gold-ringed, pawing hands. I had cured her of a certain ache, and since then was also paid to help her communicate with the dead in the presence of her friends. I suspect she was something of a sceptic and an actress herself, though she never admitted as much. When I came in that day Master Ilios was painting her portrait. I would have waited in the antechamber, where she stored marvellous candied fruits, but she had me shown in. There she sat, ensconced in her armchair, a jolly puff of purple silk, gilt lace, and fat; and there, dark and narrow, sitting on a stool before her, a square of canvas between them, was Ilios.
He turned as I came in, mumbling a greeting. But when Artelia called me and named my profession, something more than surprise shot through his eyes. Desire, I said to myself, so much better than mere gullibility; an active, poignant longing for something. I must make inquiries about him, I thought, noting that while packing his paints and brushes he kept stealing glances at me. Lay bait. But there was no need for that: in the following weeks, as I learned from my gossipy patrons and fellow magicians, he made inquiries about me.
He learned about my skills, my deeds, my well-deserved reputation—well-deserved, I say, because of all the work I’d put into it, not necessarily true. He could have been an enamoured young maid, and I the mysterious stranger—or was it the other way round? Then, nearly a month after we’d first met, he came to me.
* * *
I spied him from a first-floor window. He was garbed richly, fashionably, in a dark red velvet doublet, breeches, with a half-cloak pinned to his right shoulder; but he shifted from one foot to the other like an impatient child. I let him wait for a minute or two before pulling the rope that by means of pulleys and wheels opened the front door soundlessly. He looked a little surprised as the door swung back before him, but walked in at once.
I found him in the antechamber and led him to my parlour, where sputtering candles burned between dark walls. He followed me, aloof yet fretful, and I could not help but feel thrilled, in spite of myself. But then I had not spent fifteen years apprenticed to my old fool of a master without having some of his superstition rub off on me . . . and yet, how unremarkable he looked, too, how—like all my clients—pathetic in his longing. At first he merely sat, observing and wringing his hands a little under pretence of twisting a ring on his finger. At last he spoke.
“You will think me mad,” he said.
How often I had heard those words, or some variation, uttered by my clients, usually before their trite, tepid version of a perversion I had heard a hundred times before. But Ilios, unlike most, seemed neither brash and boastful nor slimy with the taint of fear. He looked resigned and too quiet.
“No, my lord. I would see a brave man, one to which I would harness my powers without shame or fear.”
The glance he cast at me was unexpectedly sharp, dark brows furrowing suddenly.
“Without shame or fear, yes. But can you do it?”
“There is little that lies beyond my powers. Tell me.”
He nodded, but since he did not appear to continue, I rose and poured him some wine from a silver decanter into a gilded glass. It was sweet, spiced wine, and quite strong, though the taste of sugar hid that of alcohol. He drained it at once and I, to put him more at ease, took a more cautious sip. Sighing, he leant back in his armchair, and laid one brown, narrow hand across his eyes. Well, I was accustomed to waiting.
A minute or two elapsed and again he sighed, but this time he spoke too, weary and low. His hand slipped from his brow.
“Your business is the making real of things thought impossible, is it not?”
I nodded, but he was not looking at me.
“And I am a painter, as you know.”
“I know.” Quietly, smoothly, like a voice in his thoughts. Again his hand twisted nervously.
“Have you ever tried to make a painting come alive?”
This was a novel request, and for a moment I was dumb. But then, was not half my trade in such illusions? The business of loss, bringing the dead back to a dim, brief (painted, wigged) life?
“It has not yet been attempted,” I answered. “But if all my learning is true, then it may be possible.”
“You will try, then?”
“I will.” A pause. “I will need time.”
“Of course. And money, I assume.”
“It will be an honour to work for you, my lord.”
Again that quick, rueful glance—the eyes of one who, I suspected, had been ignored for most of his life before being showered all at once with honours, graciousness, flattery, gifts. Well, I had been apprenticed fifteen years to a mangy alchemist, and before that a peasant’s son; before rising all at once. I knew that gaze, had mistrusted offers given too freely, suspecting them of not being free at all, and so I changed my tune—a little.
“I will require money, of course. But as I said, I have never attempted the deed, and so do not know how much will be needed. Shall we agree to work together, nonetheless?”
He acquiesced, wary of me and, I suspect, of his own hope.
“You will need to see the painting, of course.”
“Of course. I shall come, unless you prefer to bring—”
“No, no,” he said, laughing nervously. “You must come.”
That time, as I bade him goodbye, I did not understand. I imagined the portrait he wanted me to bring to life. Some beauty, probably, a bright youth with shining eye and smooth flesh, and an inward, still smile. I thought of the accomplice I might need to hire, some player bought with Ilios’s coin to fulfil his painter’s fantasies.
* * *
But he’d meant what he said: I must come to him. He gave me an address, which turned out to be that of a former warehouse that he used now as a workshop. I went there and he met me, alighting from a carriage. He was dressed more plainly this time, wearing only simple linen clothes beneath his rich cloak. Taking a key from his belt he opened the door to the warehouse, went in and bade me follow. A whiff of musty spice reached me as I stepped in, as well as a hint of overripe fruit—the former contents of the house, not quite overcome by the smell of paint.
And there was the painting. I had expected some small piece of canvas, but there it hung from the rafters, huge. Ilios must have needed a ladder to reach the top—and indeed one stood leaning against the wall. I had seen some great pictures, but this was larger than all of them, filling all my sight, and in the gloom of the warehouse it was dark, indiscernible.
Ilios came up behind me.
“Here,” he said, pressing a little purse, fat with coin, into my hands. “For coming.” As I opened my mouth to protest he added, “I would hate to owe you anything. Stay here; I’ll open the doors so you’ll see better.”
Clack, clack went the window shutters and the doors even as he moved soundlessly between them, a mere shadow; with each clack a portion of the painting was revealed, clearer and clearer.
Tars floated out to me. Out of the night and into a clear, soft sunrise it came. For the most part it was dark, hiding the rising sun, but light was spreading across the calm, still sea, and limned the city’s tall towers and parapets. Yet night lingered also, shadows and mist.
He had painted his island large and with many details, but for a few moments I was overwhelmed by the general impression. At first I could see no man or woman in the painting, but then there were small, smudged silhouettes in the shadows. A few only, and for the most part the city seemed asleep . . . and yet there was life in it, I knew, from the tiny, bright flag that flapped in the breeze on top of a tower, and the few lit windows, and the risen dust in the streets.
* * *
He tugged at my sleeve—I must have stood for a long while, silent, gaping.
“Could you do it?”
His voice echoed through the warehouse. And I, who had been a frequent quack and counterfeiter for so many years, felt the best, most honest, silliest impulse: I truly wanted to make it come true.
In the following weeks, I unearthed my former master’s hoard of crumbling codices, and spent hours poring over them, inhaling dust and fragments of old paper. I looked for elixirs and spells, things I would normally have scoffed at, but which I was willing to try for the sake of this bright, disappeared island and its orphan, its maker. And yet there was so little. Oh, there were spells: spells for the restoration of lost (missed, needed, loved) things—by which, unfortunately, paltry items were meant, keys and coins and tools. . . . Spells to defy death. Spells for rising out of water. Spells for the creation of images, and spells for making dreams come true. Spells by which disease drawn on paper might become disease striking. So many spells and so many tricks to fulfil a thousand yearnings—and not one powerful enough for my purpose. But I kept searching.
Combining those spells was hard and uncertain work. I had little trust in our chances, or, come to think of it, my abilities; for many years I had found it too easy to resort to sleight of hand and tricks of light. All at once I was required to have faith.
I can’t quite recall how I came upon the precious combination. I was not thinking anymore, having foregone method for chance. I was then working in one corner of the warehouse, as far away from Ilios as possible, so that we would not disturb one another. I had set one of his paintings (a preliminary study of some dull, dead-eyed duke’s son) on an easel, between two candles set close enough to light the surface of the picture with a shifting brilliance, but far enough not to stain it with soot as well. Then I had gone on to work the spell, drawing lines in chalk, putting semiprecious stones here and there, sprinkling spicy, exotic powders. I even used a smear of some fantastical creature’s blood: phoenix or griffin, elephant or crocodile—or possibly lizard, rat, or hen.
I had circled the painting several times. Now I came back to the front, hunched still to look at my work, and, at the upper limit of my sight, caught a glimpse of white. Slowly, I drew myself up. A drop of sweat snaked down my spine, beneath wool.
Before my eyes the painting shone greenly, and a silhouette rose: pale, unbreathing. Almost but not quite still, as if caught in slow, slow time. A trailing sleeve fluttered in an unfelt breeze, but moved as if in water, and shifted like a drowned thing. With each moment the silhouette seemed to grow more solid and more thick, and then withdrew, paling and fading into darkness again.
It had lasted for a minute or an hour. It had not made a sound, nor had I. Ilios had carried on with his painting, unaware. I wiped my sweaty brow, and quietened my fast beating heart. It had stared with oily eyes.
I had done what I was expected to do. Paid to do. What Ilios wanted. And yet I felt no sense of accomplishment. What I had imagined? Sparkling light and life, congratulations? That night I did not speak to Ilios of my discovery but went to bed, and dreamt of that silent, painted man, who stared with living eyes. I had never achieved so much, and dreaded to think too much; I did not believe, and yet by then my life had acquired the fluid, treacherous consistency of a dream, where one thing may be held true, and in the same instant, not so. . . .
And there was nothing else for it: the following night, I called Ilios to my corner of the warehouse, having previously requested another painting (I did not want to see the man again—not alive, not painted, not brought to this artificial life—and besides, a veil of something like smoke had marred it after all) and drawn most of the spell already. I said nothing; he stood in front of the picture while I put the finishing touches.
From his sharply drawn breath I knew the spell had worked. Moving quickly toward him, I saw what had made him gasp: the woman he had painted, standing before him. Behind her, on the painting, a livid brilliance crept. I did not know who she was, what chambermaid or noblewoman had let herself be painted, if indeed she bore any resemblance to her model or was only Ilios’s creation—and mine! This time I noticed more: the slickness of her cheek, the unformed mass of shining brown that was her hair. Ilios had only painted her from the lap up, and so from there down she was only an approximation of being, trailing off to the floor. But with every minute she grew more solid, under her painter’s gaze. I did not hear him breathe; he stood still and clenched, and so did I, and so did she.
Then, slowly, she lifted her head, and looked at him. Met his gaze, I think. And she walked forward, and though her eyes did not leave Ilios, she raised her hand, and dipped her fingers into the flame of a candle, and pinched the wick.
In the semidarkness Ilios gasped again, and stumbled forward. She was only half a thing, and then, as Ilios’s feet undid the designs I had wrought, she vanished.
After a while I lit the candle again. The painting, like the one before, seemed veiled by soot. Ilios sat on the floor, breathing hard, sallow faced. I helped him up and led him away, towards his own painting of Tars and a chair into which he sank gratefully. For a long moment he sat with his head in his hands.
When he raised his face again he seemed shaken still, and yet appeared to be recovering his calm more rapidly than I had expected.
“She was real, was she not?” he asked. “She put out the candle.”
I thought of the smudge of soot on her fingers, and the thin shell of wax that had adhered to her fingertips, and fluttered to the floor as she vanished. Yes, I said to myself, she was real, after a fashion; and yet you only make yourself a city of ghosts. But I had pledged to aid him.
“I think she was,” I merely said.
“This is good,” he said, nodding to me. “Well done.”
I bowed my head.
“I did not think—” He paused, and stared ahead, and took a deep breath. “I did not believe it would work. Somehow I had no hope.”
Perhaps he thought I answered merely out of politeness. But I did understand, though he had previously displayed no sign of lacking faith.
“Will you be able to do this again?” he asked. There was a new, fixed brightness in his eyes.
“I think so.” (Did I? Did I? Not a single man or woman but an entire land? Was he already infecting me with his sick faith again, his insincere, desperate hope?)
“Good.” Once again he nodded, wearily.
We parted soon after, and I went to my apartments and there spent another uneasy night.
I set out to work. But I did it slowly. Ilios reluctantly agreed to let me try more before embarking on our final, great endeavour. But it was necessary, I thought, and he had to agree, for the ghosts I had made him lasted but for a short time. So I made him new ones, each time with a shudder of dread, and made my spell stronger, clearer. And each time they remained longer, and in Ilios’s absence (I had not dared make him come) they roamed the room, caring nothing for me, real and silent and terrible.
I also had to replenish my supplies, making my way through the city’s seediest markets in search of esoteric materials, paying with Ilios’s coin. But at last I was ready, and for three days worked almost continuously, while Ilios fretted, went drinking, and came back soon after, moaning and trembling (he was as ill-equipped for drunkenness as he was desperate to be drunk), stayed slumped in an old armchair, eyes glazed, hands twitching with nervousness.
Then it was done—almost done. I roused Ilios from his stupor, and he went to stand in front of his painting, looking ill. Under his gaze I set the last stones in my design, the design I had found, perfected, before which I had sweated and shuddered.
Nothing happened. Ilios, not knowing that I had finished, said nothing for a while, until he noticed my perplexity.
“It did not work, did it?” he said, sourly. If he had looked ill before he looked sicker now, and yet relieved as well. He turned to face the darkness, leaving me to stare at his bowed, shaking shoulders.
“Perhaps it did,” I said. “We would not know until. . . .”
But he turned again and shook his head.
“We would have known,” he said. Had we not been witness to that sickly, creeping brightness before the dimming, on the other paintings? It had not occurred there. Ilios, staggering in either anger or despair, left, and I did too. But he came back, and so did I, and without a word we set out again. He painted with trembling hands now, but they stilled as soon as his brush touched the canvas.
But whatever we lacked I could not find. Something eluded us, and as time went by and I checked my pattern again and again I could not believe it was insignificant, a simple omission; no, whatever eluded us must be crucial. I think he knew it too. I think his hands trembled because of that, not the wine he was imbibing. I watched him, fingers and cheek and hair daubed with paint, fumbling with his brushes, his palette, his knives.
Up on his ladder he clenched a knife sticky with dark red paint, and applied himself to his painting. He had used it to paint, and now scraped back a small, unsatisfactory portion of his picture; he kept his palette knives sharp for precisely that purpose. But he shook, and wounded himself. It must have been a deep cut, because blood welled up immediately on his hand. With a muffled curse he let the knife drop.
It fell to the floor with clatter and all at once the painting was lit with that accursed brilliance. It flared up and disappeared at once. On the floor the red paint, mingled with his blood, smoked. Ilios looked on, ashen. Immediately we knew, as we perhaps always had, what had been lacking, and must be given up.
He said nothing, and nor did I. But we both knew. We were not surprised when two or three days later reports came of fishermen surprised by a glow on the still sea, a nightly mirage, a silent ship of shadows and sunrise, so large it might have been an island. Yet Ilios when he heard grabbed his head with both hands and sat, curled and clenched and inconsolable, on an old stool. He did not ask me anything. I think he wept.
For three days I did not see him. The warehouse was locked, its shutters drawn. I knocked and prowled for a few hours, not even knowing whether he was inside or not. I went to his apartments, but he was nowhere to be found. I did not dare enter the warehouse, dreading what I might find there. I feared for him. Thought he might have sacrificed himself, perhaps. Been overcome by despair. Was he not a weak, slender, shy thing, with a poor head for wine, and tears, and trembling hands? And enough grief to kill a man? And yet he had survived his great disaster.
On the fourth day I gritted my teeth and went to the warehouse. It was early still, before dawn on a winter’s day; I had risen only a few hours after going to bed, and found myself unable to go back to sleep. The warehouse stood at the corner of two empty streets, dark against a sky that was barely lighter; with its high, steep sloping roof and wooden sides, it looked almost like the hull of a great ship, waiting in the night.
I went to the door and tried to open it, without much hope, thinking it locked, as it had been for the past three days. But the high wooden door swung back before my touch and, as I stepped into the dark, closed soundlessly behind me, and on the dusty floor a triangle of grey light diminished and vanished. In the dark there was a rustle and a murmur: I am sorry.
I think he truly was: sorry and angry, desperate and desperate to live, too. The knife ripped my coat, my doublet, and grazed my ribs. Pain shot through my side, but at once I was moving, trying to wrestle the knife from his hands. We struggled blindly, and poorly: he felt too guilty, I think, though determined, and however enraged I was then, I must have faintly hoped that perhaps he was only under a temporary fit of madness. I grabbed the wrist of the hand that held the knife, and he kicked me; I grasped his curls and he writhed, hissed, wept, bit, punched.
For a moment we were apart. I heard his breathing and the sound of him, moving blindly. And I could feel his closeness, his breath warm against my cheek. Then, we were fighting again—for how long, I do not know. I was stronger, but he was not afraid—not of me.
Then he was silent and still, and so was I. I arose, pained, and groped my way to the shutters; I opened one and turned. He was lying on his back, close to his painting. Blood was seeping from him, from a wound I—I think it was I—had given him. He was ashen already, his lips bloodless, growing more colourless by the second. He said nothing, looked at me.
I went to him, and turned him towards his painting, his island, which the creeping dawn slowly, slowly lit. Without saying a word, merely looking, he died.
I wrapped him in his painting when he was gone. I wonder, now, if red paint alone would not have done the trick, better than blood. A mockery of blood for a mockery of truth.
* * *
And so he told his story, again and again, farther and farther from the Inner Sea, in lands where they had never heard of Tars, where they thought him mad, or lying, an inventor of tales. He spoke to all who would listen, and when none would, to the dark. But with each telling the story changed, almost imperceptibly, and grew—for plainly the ending did not please him—until at last, long after his death, Ilios awoke, and arose into a clear morning, to faint sunlight upon a still and oily sea, and the towers of Tars before him.
Marie Clementel lives near Paris, where she is currently studying for a master’s degree in English. This is her first published short story.