Tales of Meerstrand (II): The Painter.

Continued from Tales of Meerstrand (I): The Painter.

And so they went, a painter with the tools of his trade spread all over his clothes, led by five knights in full red metal armour, faceless and silent, pushing away people that weren’t quick enough to move themselves out of the way. Today there were a conspicuously large crowd in the street, as if a whole caravan of people moved in the same direction.

Meerstrand is a predominately human city and its streets showed it: humans of various financial situations and social statuses were working, sailing, buying and selling in this city for centuries, with or without a kingdom to rule over it, but the same humans were unafraid to exclude others from the same trades, giving Meerstrand its fabled reputation of “humans first”. With efficient whale hunters and a strong fleet, traders and crafters in Meerstrand enjoyed good, free, profitable life, that is, until The Four came to be. Born out of counter movement to the old Forsenite Kingdom, The Four led the Meerstrand independence movement as a spiritual liberation from praying to dark, relentless forces of nature that knew no mercy and vowed to bend nature to the will of the people and never let petty kings bow their heads against the evil of nature. Because the war went well, The Four gained ground in hearts and minds of people, but The Watchers (as the leaders of the four temples were called, but Fabian always wondered what exactly were they watching) declined to mention that bending the nature to their will also included the nature of people that prayed to The Four for mercy against their suffering. And so now, among other things, on a whim of any of the Watchers, a master painter could be summoned in not much more than his breeches to the Temple without any explanation.

As the group moved, the mass of people on a cobbled main street that connects the market (called Kuppela by the locals from times in memoriam and no new belief could change so things) to the Temples Square grew, yet still giving way to the Knight-Protectors and their escortee. Fabian could hear people whispering among themselves.

“There’s a burning soon. What in The Four’s name Master Fabian did, Nalani save him.” a woman whispered, who Fabian remembered being a flower vendor, passing his house on the way to the market every morning. He ordered Pik to buy fresh flowers from her every morning for him to sketch over the day.

A loud, deep caught, followed be a yellow, bubbly piece of phlegm landing on Fabian’s right moccasin.

“Filthy adulterer! Serves him right to feel the purifying flames of Agni! To the logs, this filthy dog!” a large man with rags for clothes and calluses all over his large hands and shoulders, giving away his trade of dock worker, was aiming for more spit before being pushed back into the crowd by Knight-Protectors.

Fabian swallowed a sudden sickness rising from his stomach while shaking his foot to get off the phlegm, and thought to himself whether Watcher Brenton ordered him to the Temple at this time on purpose and what he could have possibly done, maybe that nude portrait was a bit much, but the anonymous lady with a mask that organised painting that took all night and half a day through a mute servant seemed very discreet and the painting indeed came out beautifully, although Fabian distinctly remembers he wanted to choose a different tone for the bed sheet underneath the lady’s body, but some wraith clearly guided his hand to pick the shade that made lady’s skin paler. Was that the reason that, if at all, the mysterious lady (noble by the look of her) lodged a complaint or otherwise tainted him in the eyes of the most notoriously ascetic Watcher of them all.

With thoughts of panic wrangling in his head, Fabian and his captors (?) approached the Temple square, with four tall, round towers at each corner. The square was cobbled and filled with a crowd of onlookers, facing tall, almost 10 meter grey marble statue, with 4 figures facing the towers, each holding up marble bowls, one with water gently falling down (for goddess of the seas Nanami), another with a fir tree growing in the bowl, filled with earth (for god of Earth Avani), third with fire roaring upwards (god of fire Agni) and last with a column of steam going upwards (for goddess of air Nalani). The statue was rumoured to have cost a fortune and emptied the city’s coffers significantly, which resulted in higher taxes on traders and lodgers, which angered the dwarves significantly, as their kingdoms did a lot of trading from the north with Meerstrand. Worse, it’s rumoured even more silently that to make those divine symbols work so high up, magic was used by the Orcittian wizards, but this trail of thought was quickly silenced.

Now the site lured pilgrims and beggars on normal days, who would come to pray for divine favour or bless their silver spoons (that recently is done discreetly, as it was an old custom and Watchers and Knight-Protectors looked down unkindly to such displays of old faith), but today, as on every end of workdays, the four marble incarnations of their supposed divine gods observed burnings of heretics. These were, in order from most to least common: criminals of various origins, but mostly barbarians or elves that escaped their masters, gnomes and halflings, branded specifically as thieves, unregistered sorcerers and wizards, named general danger to society, unlucky noble lords caught in illegality or cheating (or with a wrong book, etc), artist and learned men and women (Fabian, if the Watchers were to go through his painting and reading collection, would certainly end up on the holy fire), and very rarely, tieflings, for their appearance of purple, red and dark skin, horns and tails was a clear indication of consorting with evil forces of nature and unknown dark magics.

This time the victims were a beat up gnome, an unfamiliar woman with haphazardly shaved head and empty look, bruises and chain marks over her rag-covered body and a young elven boy, no more than 12 years old, crying and struggling to escape the inevitable. Fabian wasn’t a fan of these burnings and often questioned why children need to suffer so much to “cleanse their souls of natural sin”, but only silently, as the Knight-Protectors led him on towards the furthest right tower where the Fire Watcher resided.

All four towers were built with stone, imported from the dwarven mines and Fire Temple was no different. Huge two sided wooden door, now opened fully to intake all the pilgrims and midday followers coming to pay their respects to the fire god. Fabian was led through the threshold and into a specious round prayer hall, where people were already taking seats on cold marble benches and four fire clerics lighting censers full of herbs. There was only one more door, much smaller, but still wooden, at the other side of the hall and Fabian was shoved right through them, finding himself in a long corridor and past that – in a square garden, corridors surrounding it with many doors in them and not a single person on any of the benches. Right across and in front of Fabian there was a mansion, tall and wide marble stairs leading up to an impressive, ornamented door that was but the beginning of the ensemble of grandiose stain glass windows, each with a different scene about The Four. As an artist, even in a very uncertain predicament, Fabian had to admire the craftsmanship of the manor, however his captors (?) did not allow for any moment of dally and so he was marched up the grand stairs, pushed through heavy door and this journey ended at the entrance hall, where with polished marble floor and stairs on each side, large black chandelier filed with unlit candles and completely white walls.

The Knight-Protector commander pushed Fabian forwards and their group stood in line behind him, as if waiting.

“So, gentlemen, where to next?” Fabian pangs of worry rising inside his chest and he desperately wanted for this day to end: just find out what Fire Watcher wants, do it and get out. Knight-Protectors were known for their cruelty since they took over the Tower prison and Fabian did not want to end up at their mercy for reasons outside (or almost outside) of his control. His thoughts, however, were interrupted by loud footsteps, sound coming from above. He heard a door bang open and a man, followed by other Knight-Protectors, appeared in the first balcony right above. Fabian instantly recognized Watcher Brenton, not so much from seeing him often, but from his legendary fire scars, covering his entire forehead and left side of his face. Fabian felt more than he saw how the Watcher studied him from tip to toe and this look sent shivers down his spine.

“Captain, lead him to the resting room. Lady Josephine will take it from here.”

“Yes, Fire Watcher” the captain behind banged his chest, making a loud clacking sound that echoed throughout the hall.

Just as he suddenly appeared, Fire Watcher Brenton vanished behind marble railing and Fabian, although not a superstitious man nor guided by premonition often, somehow thought he saw that man for the last time. He was guided up the stairs, to the third floor, led through marble and carved wood corridors with many doors, secured by same Knight-Protectors, into the bowels of this mansion, when finally, in front of odd black door at the top of another endless staircase, he was pushed through the threshold and finally left alone.

Fabian found himself in a narrow room, floor of red carpet and walls of red velour, no windows, but light coming out of candles on each lining of the wall, and a strange rod in a holster, made up of weathered gold and incrusted by pale blue gem that seemed to emit a light from within. The painter found himself mesmerized by this gem, as if a magpie would be lured by a piece of reflecting glass, and in his mind’s eye already imagined technique he would use to paint this beautiful gem and at the same time doubting himself if ever such beauty could be laid out on canvas, because the light was surely otherworldly.

“Mesmerizing, isn’t it?” a voice, low and soft like satin reached Fabian’s ears, breaking his sudden infatuation with the mysterious gem: he flinched and saw another space in the room which he could not have missed if he wasn’t lured by the light coming out of that gem. The narrow room he entered was merely a corridor that turned suddenly right to open another space, where stood only a black fainting sofa (Fabian shuddered on the inside, as he came to calling that piece of furniture so, because his models usually fainted on them while on long posing sessions), a small round tea table with a brass candle holder next to it and an easel with pigments and paints prepared.

But the most important item in that picture was a woman, whose voice startled Fabian so and he quickly surmised this was Lady Josephine, but unlike how he imagined her to be anything from a matron to a nickname for a torture device, this woman was elegant, long black hair, same colour dress, buttoned at the front and barely holding (to Fabian’s great misfortune) a pair of perky breasts and come to think of it, that dress was just visible through enough to drive a man insane and although Fabian was not immune to femininity in general, his uncertain predicament made him careful and suspicious. What was stranger than this whole day was the fact that Lady Josephine, was, in fact, an elf, but with ears intact, still pointy and without the look of a certain humble lap dog one gets used to in Meerstrand, rather, she had an air of superiority and her full, openly smirking lips and intense blue eyes made Fabian somewhat uncomfortable.

“Lady Josephine, I presume?” he started politely, testing the waters, quickly trying to remember if he’d ever seen her before, but gods know anyone would remember this kind of woman. He could only assume she was from Orcittia, the empire of the elves across the sea. Nowhere else do elves look so superior than in that desert oasis their gods obviously blessed with milk and honey.

“Indeed. Watcher Brenton was very expedient in bringing you here on such short notice.”

“My dear lady, I will take the opportunity to ask why was I summoned here. I’m afraid I have not been informed.”

“Oh but those soldiers are never too polite, are they? But neither are you too bright.” Fabian thought he heard true annoyance in her voice, but for some reason that sent a ball of cold down his spine “you are here because of what you do best, Master Fabian – portraits” she raised her rigorous black eyebrow but a millimeter “I would like you to paint mine.”

Fabian was left slightly surprised and relieved.

“But of course. If I may be so bold, this secrecy and display of power was not necessary, I would have accepted your order anyway.”

“My dear Master Fabian” she sat down on the fainting sofa, leaning against the back “this particular picture will need to be painted right away and under very exact specifications of light, arrangement and items surrounding myself. It will be in your jurisdiction to execute my will onto the canvas. Is that an order you are willing to take?” she was openly mocking him in the last sentence. Fabian looked at the door that was closed behind him and for a split second remembered Patrician’s warm skin he was kissing not so long ago and somewhat nostalgically wished he could be back there with her.

“I don’t see I have much choice, Lady Josephine”

“See? You’re not so clueless after all” she giggled somewhat devilishly and that giggle made Fabian’s mouth dry up immediately. He could not understand why he was scared of this woman, for the first time in his life, for him she seemed like an alluring, beautiful flower with sweetest aroma that inclined you to touch it, belladonna like, but more grandiose and he felt if he got too close to that allure, he would surely die in the most painful manner.

Lady Josephine clapped twice and a secret door opened behind her. Two men came in, dressed in fire cleric gowns and with stone faces, without even looking at him, brought in the most eclectic items he’d ever seen in one place: a red sea bass in a brass bowl (this fish was also a symbol on a Meerstrand’s crest), a silver dagger, a large wooden box with an iron clasp on it, a gold-lined bowl of clear water, and with a second round, an almost perfectly triangle stone, a line of incense in a golden holster and a small silver spoon that seemed the oldest thing in this room if one didn’t count the weathered golden staff with an alluring gem.

“These are the still life pieces for you” Lady Josephine instructed when the clerics left “let us arrange them now.”

Fabian had to admit it to himself that this was the single strangest thing he has ever done for a painting under the strangest circumstances in his life and he wondered whether this was the culmination of his life: to do strange things with this strange she-elf in this strange room with strange items and light.

Lady Josephine instructed him to put the water bowl in front of the sofa on the ground, as well as the rock, which turned out quite heavy, but he managed to pull it on the right side of the bowl. Then Lady Josephine asked him to prepare the paints and canvas while she took the silver dagger and opened the clasp with it. Fabian froze for a good minute when a large snake crawled out of the box and was stepping back when Lady Josephine raised her index finger, ordering him silently not to move and sitting down on the sofa where the snake appeared to follower her.

But that was not the strangest thing, for then this elven woman bared her pale, fully ripened body, leaving the shade of a dress dropping down on her shoulders and nothing to cover her and then stabbed the motionless sea bass with the dagger, lifted it upside down and leaned onto the fainting sofa, the snake going up her flawless naked body and stopping when its head reached the ridge between Lady Josephine’s breasts and did not move from that position again. The silver spoon stayed where it was initially planted: at the round table next to the incense.

“Master Fabian, before you start, if you would be so kind as to start the incense” she gestured towards the holster on the round table at her feet. Fabian carefully went there and held the flimsy stick against the candle fire.

“You have your scene, please paint it in full and with utmost attention to detail.”

“But my fair lady, this might take days.” he was estimating three.

“I am patient. Very patient. Now start.”

Fabian sighed and kicked off his moccasins (he always painted barefoot).

Fabian of Rholands never painted with such fervor before. What started as a strange ordeal that may cost his life ended up a near masterpiece, when hour after hour he transferred the dead fish on a dagger, the stone and a bowl of water and then that naked woman with a snake on her chest, looking at the incense with a silver spoon, one foot touching the stone gently, one hand on the back of the couch while the other was holding up the sea bass that started leaking fluids and blood.

They did not talk much, only about practicalities of the painting: would the lady want her forearm covered with fish’s fluids in the painting (yes), would the water need to be still or rippling (still), would the incense need to be still steaming, as it ran out, leaving the fragrance of strange, earthy tones Fabian didn’t encounter before (yes, steaming). Lady Josephine was indifferent to him, only answering bare necessities and patiently sitting in the same position. Only once she asked him a single question:

“Where are you from, Master Fabian of Rholands?”

“Meerstrand, as is most of my family” he answered in the second day, as he was sitting down on a small hassock and eating a piece of bread on one of their breaks while paint layer was drying.

“So you lived here all your life?”

“I did travel quite a lot, even to Orcittia” Fabian dropped the name intentionally, looking for ways to connect with this mysterious woman “but yes, I live and create here.”

“And do you like this city?” Lady Josephine either pretended to or completely ignored his attempts at communication.

“Yes” he answered truthfully “I am in love with this city more every day, so changing and yet to constant. No other place makes me feel so at home.”

Lady Josephine just nodded ever so slightly, acknowledging his answer, but not venturing further.

After three days of practically non-stop wielding of brushes (out of which he slept all two instances of two hours – four in total, time only measured in candles changed by clerics regularly), Fabian declared to himself that under these strange circumstances he indeed managed to create an otherworldly masterpiece of surreal proportions. Although his painting was rather large for a portrait at two by two meters, it was bursting with detail and almost lifelike figures, replicated from this room.

“I usually only show my portraits to their owners as grand exhibits” Fabian sighed, tired, unwashed, his soles and his back hurting, more stains all over his face “but in this situation, please, Lady Josephine” he moved away by a few steps, gesturing her towards the image.

Lady Josephine now covered up and, leaving the snake and the dead fish (incense now barely masked the rotting stench) on the couch, but dagger still in hand, briskly walked over to the painting and planted her intense gaze on it. Fabian found her hard to read, but even he could see a satisfied smile playing on her lips as she studied the details on the canvas.

“My, my, Master Fabian. You are all they talk about” she announced “this is definitely your best work yet and it will serve me well.”

“I did my best to serve, Lady Josephine.”

Fabian, as tired as he was, felt exhilarated to hear these words of phrase. Perhaps, as strange as it is, and The Four were strange gods after all, full of new surprises, this was only another order (he is unlikely to get paid for it, but it didn’t matter anymore) and he delivered it to highest standard. And although this Lady Josephine was a strange person from overseas, and an elf to boot, he was sure she was grateful when he felt her fingers touch his tired shoulder and her breath reach his neck and her lavender smell tickle his nose so up close his head started spinning.

“I thank you for your service, Master Fabian” she whispered so softly, as if a mother saying goodnight to her son “I’m looking forward to our future cooperation.”

As she said that, Fabian felt an excruciating burning sensation on her shoulder where Lady Josephine’s hand was touching him and a smell of smelting iron reached his nose while pain intensified as he heard sizzling of his own flesh and, could it be, the sound of sand falling on itself. Fabian didn’t see it as his eyes watered from pain, but Lady Josephine moved around without letting his shoulder go and planted her lips on top of his and the painter could feel his mouth heat up like hot steam was being blown and yelled out in pain as he could swear his tongue rolled back and his mouth started melting.

All sensation ceased in one minute, as Fabian collapsed on the floor, his dirty jerkin burn and steam coming off of his shoulder where a black charred mark of a four-finger hand and an eye in the middle now was permanently imprinted on his shoulder.

Josephine sighed and clapped her hands twice: the secret door opened again and two clerics, this time followed by Watcher Brenton himself, came in and started clearing away the painting items. Grizzled Fire Watcher stepped over the painter’s tortured body and looked at his work – a true masterpiece.

“He did it well” he nodded, inspecting the details on canvas “what do you want to do with him?”

“Leave him be for now” Lady Josephine stroked Fire Watcher’s cheek absently as both were staring at the painting “I trust his discretion and he might come in handy. Such talent should not go to waste.”

“We should send the painting to Orcittia as soon as it dries. They will be pleased.” Brenton caught her hand and kissed it with his half-melted lips. He couldn’t see the hellish fires in Josephine’s eyes as soon as he mentioned them.

“Yes, my Watcher, they will.”

Author’s note: Meerstrand is a fictional city I’ve created in my head, set in a fantasy world also created in my head. If you find any name, person or location familiar, it is only by chance. This world has little to do with the real one.

Picture credit: “Girl with dasy” by Alphonse Mucha, 1900. Currently displayed in Museum of Decorative arts in Prague.

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