The damned shadows did me in. They should have been blue. Yellowish light should cast blue or violet shadows, every artist learned that. While disregard for basic colour principles was new and exciting in paint, in life it was awful.
This evening, the gallery’s shadows were an unsavory shade of red, somewhere between wine vomited down the balustrade and the bloodstains I tried to suck out of my only silk waistcoat. Worse, no two of them lay at the same angle. The wrongness of it was sickening. Rather than lean on a wall, I wrapped one arm beneath my ribs and hoped the hallucination would wear off soon. They never lasted more than several hours.
When Lady Aloysia approached me, I assumed she was another figment. Of all the people from the London scene—her? Here? Now? I remembered her as a prickly, puny creature, always picking at a scab. This woman was no less small, her features sharper, if anything, but the elegance was a surprise. Her hair was pinned up in heavy auburn coils, as severe and shining as her black gown. Her chin was high, her gaze level.
She would have grown up, of course. She’d been married and gone for years. Only a hallucination, I thought, could account for her reappearance.
Then she spoke. “Why are you staring at me, Mr. Darling?”
“So it is you.” I swept her a bow. My stomach lurched as the shadows bent with me. “I hadn’t known you were in Austria, else I’d have dropped you a line.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” said Lady Aloysia. “But I understand you are attempting to be polite.”
Ill as I felt, falling into the old style of banter was easier than not. “I wouldn’t make the effort for just anyone.”
“Isn’t it fortunate, then, that we both decided to attend this party? Otherwise our paths might never have crossed.”
The opening of a new exhibition drew out Vienna’s rich avant-garde, wasps to the golden dome of the Secessionists’ hive. I might have had work to show if I were in better shape. I could hardly paint when I was cursed with a reality intent on making itself art.
I ought to have tried consulting a magician sooner, but there weren’t many of them, especially of a decent caliber. Now I’d come across one of the finest. If anybody could help, it was Lady Aloysia.
Of all people, I thought again, with fresh suspicion. I’d been caught in her chains of coincidence before. Best to ride it out and hope nothing too dreadful happened, though nothing ever had. Well, not to me. Not because of her.
“What brought you here?” I asked. “To Vienna, I mean. The gallery. Both?”
“Blame my husband,” said Lady Aloysia. “He’s convincing someone or other to part with a certain 11th century ivory casket. It supposedly transformed severed fingers into rubies. You?”
“Vee got me an invitation to show my paintings here, two years ago. On that very wall,” I added, gesturing to where my demon-saints once clawed after redemption. The present offering was a lascivious bounty of flesh and gold, whose frame cast its shadow upward instead of down. I gave it a wry smile. “He expected me back in England after the exhibition.”
“And Vladimir’s expectations must be defied.” Ah, yes. Lady Aloysia spoke from experience. With careful detachment she asked, “You are happy?”
“Ja, danke, mir geht es gut,” I replied, “though I wish my German were better.”
She fixed me with a long look. “You can tell me the truth later.”
When I returned the question, she pointed out her husband, the Honourable Alexander Selwyn. He stood some ways apart from us, deep in negotiations with an equally blond and bearded captain of industry.
“Alexander collects antique instruments of the occult,” Lady Aloysia explained. “The artefacts themselves are none of my concern, but their collectors…” She released a tense, slow breath. “He believes I am of use.”
As she watched her husband laugh, I watched her. How poised she was, and entirely still—less like a statue than a hunting falcon, proud of her hard-won patience but resentful of its necessity. She wasn’t happy, either. This was her way of admitting it.
“Never mind that magic is not for purchase. One might as well put a price on infinity.” Her lips thinned. “And there are far better ways to dispose of such large sums.”
“Rent,” I suggested. Mine was three months behind.
Lady Aloysia tilted her head at me. After an awkward pause, during which I failed to find any words, she turned back to the art.
The painting before us lent its colour to the room. One figure’s cheek was a tender, burning, cadmium red, as though the skin were scrubbed off. The vertebrae were picked out in gold. The ribs were stark in Chinese white and Prussian blue. It would fetch a magnificent price.
Lady Aloysia waited for me to share my artist’s opinion.
“It’s good,” I said.
“Yours are too.”
There was no responding to that.
Though I had called in my last favour for an invitation to tonight’s opening, all I’d done with it was scurry away from the nice gents who might secure me a commission. They won’t remember your work, a voice within myself had hissed. You haven’t finished a piece since, oh, when was it, 1906? As soon as I’d arrived, I’d spiraled into another bout of self-pitying self-hatred—why try to rescuscitate such an obviously dead career?—and the shadow-curse came upon me once again.
Now was not the time to dredge up this pathetic nonsense.
“These objects you mentioned,” I said, finding another subject, “how many of them are forgeries? It’d be rather simple, I should think. Find an antique, draw up a faded letter or two, a bill of sale, make it special. Anyone could do it. I could do it, even.”
An awful light entered Lady Aloysia’s eyes. “We could.”
“I was joking. Wasn’t I?”
“I am not,” she said. “Who do you suppose is meant to gauge the authenticity? Not of the artefacts, but of the people selling them.”
I followed her gaze to Mr. Selwyn and Austrian capitalist.
“That gentleman there, then,” I said, imagining myself in the Austrian’s shoes. That they stood atop skewed red shadows was beside the point. “Is he playing your lord and master false?”
“Oh. Him? I cannot say that I care.”
Though I did not particularly care about her husband’s enterprise either, Mr. Selwyn was a stranger to me. I bore him no grudge. Yet I had no other talents, no other way of placating my landlady short of selling myself, for which I was a little old, and I hadn’t got the local slang.
“Don’t tell me you think it wrong,” Lady Aloysia said. “You once declared you had the moral backbone of a jellyfish.”
It had not been my finest moment. “There’s still some squish,” I admitted.
“If it will satisfy any newfound scruples, I will donate my share to charity.”
At least some good would result from this business, then. If we tried it, but I knew Lady Aloysia’s decision was made. Impulsive though she was, she always followed through.
And I did not like to say no to a magician so bent on conducting another of her experiments. Her hypothesis was always, Who will stop me?
No one, the only acceptable answer.
Having parted ways with the Austrian, apparently successful, the smiling Mr. Selwyn rejoined his wife. She introduced me as Mr. Nicholas Darling, an old friend.
That was one way to describe our acquaintance.
I ignored the memory of Vladimir’s whine: Darling Nicky, don’t be jealous of my girl.
We exchanged pleasantries, botched utterly on my part when I rambled through another wave of shadow-induced nausea, but Mr. Selwyn laughed and laid his hand on Lady Aloysia’s rigid back. As he escorted her to the next room, she raised her voice to say, “You know, you might have another portrait done…”
Having made up her own mind, Lady Aloysia assumed my collaboration was a matter of course. I supposed it was. No other plans appeared on my barren schedule.
She and I next met at an antiquarian bookshop whose offerings Mr. Selwyn disdained as too new. I would have tried the auction houses first, but as one would expect, they were too often frequented by Mr. Selwyn and his fellow collectors.
They went to be sociable, Lady Aloysia told me, or to acquire more commonplace pieces. The gentlemen would conduct their other transactions privately—and, if they were so fortunate, with Lady Aloysia as facilitator. Her husband lent her talents to his friends.
“What do you do to the liars?” I asked as she and I poked through the shop.
“I request the truth.”
I blanched. “All of it?”
It was a heavier penalty than I’d expected. First, I recalled, she would reel out whatever scum floated at the top of her target’s mind. Then she would tighten the string, let the doomed bastard keep talking, talking, until he had dredged up all the filth of his soul.
“If it comes to that, I’d rather you just kill me,” I joked, in response to which I received an inscrutable blink. Lady Aloysia had always been too damned serious, too inclined to see meaning in every thoughtless little thing. I tried again. “What sort of object are we looking for?”
“Something.” She led with her chin into a sharp turn. “We will chance upon it eventually.”
The odds seemed unpromising. Even a small bookshop might hold infinite junk.
“So,” I began, and then hesitated.
Following my gaze to the shopkeeper, Lady Aloysia understood. “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” she asked. The man bowed his assent. She tugged at her glove and nodded, satisfied. “We are speaking too quickly for him to understand us. Go on.”
“I was only wondering whether you’d decided to defraud your husband before the honeymoon, or after.”
That almost got a smile out of her. “I knew I would do something with him when I married him. I had not decided what. I wanted to remove myself from Vladimir, and Alexander was going to Hong Kong. It seemed almost far enough.”
I wrinkled my nose at an old volume of poetry.
“We went to Paris after that,” she continued, laying a finger on the book—as if shushing it—and shaking her head as she moved past me. “Then Rome, then Berlin. Now Vienna. I haven’t been home for six years. He’d only returned to England long enough to acquire a suitable wife. He got me instead, but that was his own fault. As I said: I am useful to him.” She pivoted, suddenly, and looked me in the eye. “How were things in London? Before you left.”
“Terrible, thanks for asking,” I answered. It was only reflex. Not magic.
Quickly, I moved on to the other people we had in common. Ruta Wolf had got herself jailed at another suffrage demonstration, Tristan Bell was illustrating fat pink cherubs to advertise ladies’ skin creams, things of that nature. Lady Aloysia seemed willing to listen, even though my news was years out of date. I’d stopped corresponding with my friends when I’d stopped having any success to share.
As I talked, I felt as though I were toeing the edge of some enormous crevasse, a split down to the bones of the world.
“You needn’t tell me about Vladimir if you don’t want to,” she said.
She was not so very changed from the Lady Aloysia I remembered. That girl had never failed to make a conversation as uncomfortable as possible.
I shoved the poetry book onto the shelf. “I don’t.”
“I am reminded of several points in my husband’s favour. He is not cruel to me. He does not live beyond his means. While he enjoys certain risks, he keeps his various speculations well in hand. He has got far more money than is necessary for any one person, which you and I will shortly help to address.” As if in salute, she set her black velvet picture hat at a more rakish angle. “At any rate, both he and I are ambitious, even though our philosophies are opposed.”
Lady Aloysia’s escape had turned out better than mine. She’d married into a career, of sorts, and gained a certain renown. Redistributing her husband’s wealth—for charitable purposes, so she said—would be a nicely drastic rebellion, though if all went well, he’d never know she’d defied his control.
As her fingers danced over a row of leather spines, shadows roiled beneath them with almost puppyish enthusiasm. Yes, I thought at them, I do notice the subtle play of light on the gold tooling, since you simply must draw attention to it.
I wondered, then, how to explain the curse so as not to elicit her pity. Could I phrase it as a curiosity, a challenge? She’d appreciate an analytical approach.
I was still working up the nerve to ask her when she knelt before a low shelf and murmured, “Aha.”
I could wait.
Every bookshop of this kind seemed to have at least one corner devoted to miscellaneous bric-à-brac. From the pile she selected a lone chess piece, a carved amber ram’s head with a rose inscribed on its base. Eighteenth century, I guessed. I could not tell whether it was a bishop, knight, or rook.
“Not much of an enticement without the set,” I pointed out.
“Unless it was cursed and cast away,” Lady Aloysia replied.
It cost only ten kronen. I stared as she gave the shopkeeper the remainder of her month’s allowance, equivalent to about one hundred pounds. His thanks were profuse and astonished.
“Alexander is generous with his spoils,” she said to me, “but I am not in need.”
“You could save it,” I said.
She blinked again. “For what?”
“Anything you like?”
“Oh,” she said. “No. Not I.” As we stepped outside, bracing ourselves for the wind, she pressed the chess piece into my hand. “Remember that for yourself.”
Fair, forty, and robust, a regular brick, Mr. Selwyn was not my preferred style of sitter, but that was the nature of the work. Portraiture was supposed to pay for the exhibition pieces, my gruesome, beautiful boys. For about eighteen months I’d lived carefully off the proceeds from the first show. Within the past six months, the money had almost entirely run out, and still I had failed to create anything new.
My keenest patron had always been Vladimir. I had painted him how he most wanted to be seen—in the nude, mainly, but I was committed to depicting more than prettiness. Vain as Vladimir was, he simply adored when I made him a horror. His joints fascinated me, raw knuckles and wrists, all that articulate gristle on which the eye could chew.
He was a magician. That unearthly glamour of his would sink his chosen boys and girls, smiling, to the most abject of bended knees. He felt he was owed it. Though his family languished in exile, he was also an actual prince. Artists were his court, intoxication his state.
I’d realised he was vile, of course. Vile was what I deserved. Dearest Vee agreed.
I’m lucky I found you, he’d say, brushing his finger across my lower lip. You’re wicked enough to properly appreciate me. Because he said it, it was true.
When at last I was able to breathe without him—in the cool grandeur of Vienna where I understood one word in ten, where I could have myself to myself—I sold my return tickets to London and claimed the first empty lodgings I found. Over the next few weeks, the gallery administrators passed along eight excruciating letters to which I did not reply. Vladimir’s ninth letter demanded I return the last picture I’d painted of him. I sent nothing.
From then on, I was cursed. He’d cursed me. Unnecessarily, as it happened. I was already convinced of my incompetence.
At any rate, I’d had training enough to grind out a few gesture drawings of Mr. Selwyn, having been invited to do so at his and Lady Aloysia’s stylish residence. Mr. Selwyn himself met me in the main foyer, shook my hand, and then led me up the echoing marble stairs and into their flat. Since I was there on business, I wasn’t given a tour. I only caught glimpses of ebony cabinets, of geometric lamps and high, pale walls: a modern, perfect simplicity. Too perfect. Too calculated. The Selwyns had not troubled to make the place their own.
Mr. Selwyn’s study—heaped with crates, cases, and account books left by some secretary or other—was the only room that had any life.
He sat across from me, bright in the yellow afternoon. Certainly, yes, he could smoke his pipe. No, he needn’t remain particularly still.
He looked sceptical. “You’ve got to get it right, haven’t you? Measure the proportions? The last fellow, an Italian I think, he’d hold up his pencil at me.”
I gritted my teeth behind my smile. “Every artist works differently.”
Mr. Selwyn was so kind as to share his many opinions on art. And on hounds, though it had been some time since he’d enjoyed a good hunt. “Unless,” he added, with the twinkle of a favourite joke, “it was for my collection.” He urged me to have a look around his study.
The sixteenth-century Venetian stiletto dagger had salted wounds with the tears of its previous victims. The bell-shaped, beaded gold earrings, of indeterminate Byzantine origin, rang in the wearer’s ears whenever she heard someone say aletheia. The lute, the cricket cage, the rhyton—all of them had enacted various delicate vengeances.
When I picked up my pencil again, I stifled a groan. After a mere ten minutes, the shadows had stretched long over Mr. Selwyn’s face. His nose cast a thick fuchsia slash across his cheek. He breathed smoke into the light, now blue.
“You’re a friend of Aloysia’s, then,” he said, as though he hadn’t been waiting the entire afternoon to mention her.
Nor did I miss the slight emphasis he put on friend. Would I blush? Flinch? Would I protest too heavily, assure him that she and I hadn’t met above three times? Though if I really were nursing a hopeless infatuation with his wife, Mr. Selwyn would be more gratified than jealous. Poor, insignificant Nick Darling was no threat, and then—I had just seen his collection. He got a thrill out of possessing what other men could never have.
I didn’t hate to disappoint him. “We were part of the same informal arts society, of sorts.”
He sipped at his pipe. “Peculiar girl, isn’t she?”
“She’s a magician.”
“Yes. Fascinating tricks, but damned unfair for the rest of us, I say. We can’t fish out her secrets on a whim.” He snorted.
My hand stilled. Surely he did not suspect what Lady Aloysia and I were about to do.
But he went on. “She likes you, your sort.” Artists? Sodomites? “A friend of hers ought to be a friend of mine, if it pleases her to introduce us—and a gentleman must please his wife whenever he can. Of course, I’ve no doubts as to the quality of your work.”
Another metaphorical abyss opened before me, and once again I’d been invited to dive in. Either of the Selwyns might have learned the trick from the other. What a splendid pair! He’d shown that trace of vulnerability only to lure me out. He knew I was after something from him. I had the commission, obviously, but a man in my position must be angling for more. He wanted the power of giving it to me.
Here it was, my chance to gain a substantial sum of money by fooling a man whose only actual crime, as far as I could tell, was being a pompous ass.
On the other hand, he was a pompous ass.
With false nonchalance, I said, “I was hoping to speak with Lady Aloysia, actually, about an old enchanted object I have. Do you know Prince Vladimir Koldunov?”
“That wastrel cousin of hers? We exchanged some heated words, I think, but beyond that I am happy to say—no.”
If only I could so easily dismiss the man who’d ruled and ruined my life.
“He and I were quite good friends,” I said, swallowing. “Once. He gave me the object in question.” I described the ram’s head chess piece. A rook, I’d decided. “There’s an emblem on the bottom, too, a rose.”
Almost imperceptibly, Mr. Selwyn’s posture changed. He had a sleek, acquisitive look about him that reminded me of Vladimir, an air of feigned ease.
This, I suddenly realised, was how his portrait ought to be. The long shadows, the slender triangles of light. The stark geometry of his cheek, his nose. The smoke curling from his mouth, the windows spilling their gold at his feet.
“Given its relation to magic, I don’t blame you for thinking of Aloysia—but this sort of thing isn’t her specialty.” Mr. Selwyn leaned back. “The next time you’re here, you might bring it to me.”
The rook found a new home beneath my desk, where I’d accidentally dropped it. I hadn’t thought to pick it up. It was gathering an appropriate layer of dust as it soaked in the turpentine fumes. Unless I needed a gulp of air, the windows of my flat remained closed. I wasn’t foolish enough to pit my radiator against the whole of February.
It was snowing when I looked out at the chilly grey street and saw Lady Aloysia descend from her car. She removed one black glove, kissed her middle finger, and tapped it on the side of my building—which she then entered with defiant confidence, daring the world to acknowledge she’d done anything strange.
I opened my door with a flourish. “I’d apologise for the state of things, but I assume your delicate sensibilities won’t be offended.”
“I try not to be hypocritical,” she agreed.
Worse than hypocrisy, she noticed. Seen through her eyes, the detritus of my life was made obvious to mine. Rubbish, stained clothes, crusts of dried paint. There wasn’t alcohol, at any rate. No opium either, nor any of its derivatives, a miserable dependency I’d made myself sweat out when the hallucinations began. Morphine had nothing to do with them after all.
Most of the place was filled with either old or unfinished work, including the piece Lady Aloysia had ostensibly come to inspect. In the week since Mr. Selwyn’s last sitting, when I showed him the rook to his much-disguised interest, I’d only blocked out his head. I had not even begun to falsify the rook’s provenance.
It was amazing how little an artist could accomplish when he woke at noon and performed his ritual self-castigation until three, at which point the sun began to set. I couldn’t start anything with bad light. So, after I’d grimly masticated several mouthfuls of three-day-old bread, I would fall into my cot and beg the shadows to let me sleep.
The cot was where I sat. Lady Aloysia could have the chair if she decided to stop prowling.
She would pick out a body’s ripest innard, I reflected, as she tipped a particular canvas away from the wall I’d turned it against. Subject aside, and to hell with him, the piece was the best I’d shown. I kept it, I had to, but I could no longer look.
Nothing I’d create would ever be as good. Though I might sling oils across a canvas in some pleasant way, I had lost the ability to paint. I’d been able to do that much when I was with Vladimir. He may have disparaged my looks, my actions, and my feelings, but he always praised my paintings to the stars above. Because of him, the old unhappy Nick Darling had a career. The new unhappy Nick Darling had the remains thereof.
I had this awful picture, too, and I had its mental reproduction—its flaws painted over, oh, thousands of times, its perfections lovingly traced. It was a masterpiece of the mind. It was a torture in which I could safely indulge.
Never mind that it wasn’t the picture that had done this to me, unless part of the curse was my being unable to let it go.
Lady Aloysia showed nothing of what she felt, said nothing. Neither did I. Gently, she let the canvas down.
She moved to her husband’s portrait, over which I had flung a dirty shirt. As though teasing an invisible string, she rolled her middle finger against her thumb. Even this slight, contemplative movement made me uneasy.
After a time, she said, “Alexander relies more upon me than his own discernment. I know you would rather take pride in worthy work, but he’ll not give it more than a glance.”
“Do you mean the portrait or the forgery?”
“Yes,” she said. “Are the materials sufficient?”
During her husband’s last sitting, without my having asked, she’d slipped me a few sample records of provenance he would not miss—along with new tubes of indigo, cobalt violet, and crimson lake.
“You know they are.”
“I know.” The corner of her mouth turned upward. “Have you given thought to a story?”
“No,” I said. “But let me see. There once was a ram’s head for chess, that wept blood and left quite a mess….”
Lady Aloysia sighed. “When I said that he would not pay too much attention, I did not mean that you should stop trying altogether.”
“You come up with the story, then.”
“You’re the one who will tell it,” she countered. “I am only there to reassure my husband of your honest intentions. Don’t pout. You were the one who said you could pull this off, and you ought to follow through. Finish something. It’s hard, I know—I truly do, don’t think I am being glib—but it will be good for you.”
Just because she was right didn’t mean I would admit it to her.
Our silence was filled with the ever-present rattle of the cars and carriages outside. I shut my eyes, scowling, but opened them again when the floorboards creaked. She’d knelt to fetch the rook out of its pile.
“I never thought I was particularly fortunate in Alexander,” she said, holding it to the light, “but few other men would have tolerated the magic. I could make do with him. I had plans. So had he, for his remarkable wife. Very well. When expectations are small, it’s easy to comply. Isn’t it? But as soon as one gives in, they always grow.” She set the rook on the window sill.
I had been Vladimir’s willing lover. Lady Aloysia hadn’t had the choice. She’d grown up as his pet, his princess, the precocious changeling child kept close upon his knee. Our parties had been no place for the eighteen-year-old daughter of an earl, even if she’d sneaked out to us of her own accord. Even if her skill far surpassed Vladimir’s.
Which she had demonstrated when Vladimir tried to persuade her—and he could be very persuasive—not to marry her boring antiques collector. She retaliated, of course. In front of our whole circle she made him recite a florid and frankly obscene monologue, how he truly felt about her, his favourite girl. After a lifetime of his attentions, she was unsurprised. We were embarrassed. Vee was furious, pathetic, pained.
I stayed with him for another four years.
“I always fancied I was looking out for you back then,” I murmured. “In my way.”
“Now we can look out for each other.”
A kaleidoscopic shadow-play bloomed across the wall. Blankly, I stared at it. Pretty though the red flashes were, like stained glass, my spirits were low enough without the curse’s help. “I already agreed to this scheme. I need the money.”
“You need more.”
“What else is there, then? What did you read up here?” I tapped the side of my head. “Damned unnerving, you know, though I suppose that’s the point.”
“I did not read anything,” Lady Aloysia said. “Not in the way you mean. You are clearly struggling with your art, and I want to help. I was waiting for you to ask.”
I glanced at her. “You’ll not think I’m just another fellow who’s using you?”
“Not just,” she said, wry. “Shall we balance the ledgers again, for our pride? If you complete something for me, either the portrait or the forgery, then I will consult with you about this magical problem you are having.”
My first, perverse instinct was to refuse. How dare she outright offer the advice I was going to request on my own? Eventually. Sometime before never. But this, too, Lady Aloysia would understand, and not only because she’d opened an eye inside my head.
Whenever Vladimir’s parties had become too debauched, I’d always bribed another of the young women to hire a cab and take the drugged or drunken Lady Aloysia home. It was the very least I could have done. Jealous, Vee called me. Of a barely-conscious girl, hardly more than a child? She had never acknowledged the assistance. It must have been too exhausting to feel grateful for the help she’d convinced herself she didn’t deserve.
Perhaps that was only me.
With a groan, I extended my hand. “Deal.”
Her grip was firm, her little bones like steel beneath her suede glove.
“In the meantime, monetary assistance is yours for the asking. I can always have Alexander advance a portion of your commission. Or,” she added, turning towards the door, “you could sell that picture of Vladimir.”
Thanks to Lady Aloysia’s deranged benevolence, our bookseller friend was glad to supply me with an unsalvageable eighteenth-century book on garden snails, on whose blank end-pages I had written a vague and horrifically misspelled letter. It had taken me a single hour of active effort. Though my sense of accomplishment was similarly brief, I’d expected no more from a task I’d chosen for its ease.
“I used a real quill,” I said, pointing at a blot. “And I bleached the ink a bit, with lemon juice and light.”
“ ‘Most Unfortunate Sir, I rellinquish to you this acursed Thing,’ ” Aloysia read. “You have been enjoying yourself.”
Had I? We were at the other exhibition space in the city, the Künstlerhaus, a bastion of the wholesome and conventional, a cage for tepid state-sanctioned culture and so on, and on, and on. Lady Aloysia had dragged me there so that I might feel the freedom of purely ideological complaint. Academic art was a waste of technical mastery, I’d grumbled, exaggerating my opinions for her amusement. Was she amused? It didn’t matter.
We stood beside the balustrade that overlooked the floor below, next to the central marble staircase. No other visitors glanced at us as they descended the stair into a vast abyss.
“None of them can tell we’re in silhouette, with that strong light from behind us,” I said, gesturing at the otherworldly gold that issued from the galleries. “Can you?”
“No. Is that always what your visions are like?”
“No,” I sighed, “no, no,” as Lady Aloysia withdrew a journal and pen from her handbag.
Now was the time. I looked down. There was the abyss, dim red stars peering up from its depths. More fool was I, for daring to think in visual metaphors. I hadn’t meant the curse to take them as a suggestion.
Lady Aloysia wouldn’t disbelieve what I was about to say. She wouldn’t explain it into nothing. Her opinion of me wouldn’t turn for the worse. Nowhere would I find a more understanding ear. I’d never expected her, of all people, to be kind.
I drew a thick breath. “Since you asked…”
She documented my descriptions: the headaches, the nausea, the unpredictability. How the visions swung between affection and spite, as though a fairy from the fourth dimension were throwing a tantrum because I wasn’t thankful enough for its blessings.
Her expression sharpened. “And to stop them, what have you tried?”
“I swore off morphine? And I went to an eye doctor, who referred me to a head doctor—a psychoanalyst. I presented myself as a fascinating case study, only he seemed more interested in my boring old homosexuality, so that was no good.”
Talking to Lady Aloysia was far easier than to the psychoanalyst. One way or another, she’d got her hooks in my tongue. It probably wasn’t magic; selecting my next words felt like grinding a mouthful of loose teeth.
“If there wasn’t a logical explanation, it meant—I felt—no matter what I did, I couldn’t—” I slumped over the balustrade.
“I understand.” Lady Aloysia closed her journal. “I can do nothing for you.”
“But.” She raised a finger. “Anybody can be a magician.”
The noise I made was unpleasant. “Oh, no—”
“Listen. Anybody can do magic, and magic can be anything. I was not born with talent. I made a choice, a conscious decision, and I practised.” Compulsively, as I understood it. To call it choice was debatable, I thought, just as she added, “One’s unconscious will may assert itself, especially if one is already apt to reinvent reality—which you do, Nick. Are you certain the magic doesn’t originate with you?”
Coughing, I hauled myself upright. “I beg your pardon? No. No, he was the one who started it, he had to have done.”
“Perhaps, but could Vladimir keep a curse alive for two years?”
“He’s petty enough.” Though he was not blessed with perseverance. “You’re saying it’s my fault.”
“Fault is not the right word,” she said. “Certain things in this world, or beyond it, are out of our control. We are left to carry on as best we can.”
“It seems like you’ve got control.”
“I win small battles, having accepted that chaos will triumph in the end.” Lady Aloysia’s mouth twisted. “Not that winning or losing mean anything to an incomprehensible, unquantifiable, and unprovable cosmic force that cannot care, feel, or think—much less about mere humans. I find the notion comforting.”
Magic did not care what I mistakes I’d made with Vladimir. I did.
“I’m not a magician,” I said.
“No?” She studied me. “Art is magic.”
Several days later, I confronted the canvas.
I had the pencil sketches, the turpentine, the only two brushes—out of the twenty I owned—that I ever used. I had my palette, the skinned-over paints now peeled to reveal their freshly oozing hearts. Propped against the books I’d scavenged, I had the mirror.
My weak chin and hatchet nose were nothing like Mr. Selwyn’s, but the basic shape was enough. An old trick. Mr. Selwyn would hate to know I’d painted his face by way of mine.
I wasn’t one for self-portraits. I was meant to be the observer, not the observed. I used my body, made of myself the bones on which beauty was built. I was only the artist. At my best, I was a conduit through which the world relayed its suggestions: Have you tried looking at me like this? Every picture was a new reality. The truths were infinite.
Though I could accept that art was magic, the act of painting felt much the same as it ever had. I did not soar on any wings of inspiration. Nor did I fall into the depths of some trancelike absorption in which every stroke carried me to the next. Nor did I despair. I worked.
I glanced at the mirror, glanced again, and sighed. “Must you?”
My reflection was reversed. Or, rather, it wasn’t. I appeared not as I’d see myself in the mirror, but as everyone else saw me. And I was—what? A slight and not especially attractive man in his thirties, heavy about the eyes, in desperate need of a haircut. I looked like myself. Just myself. Magic had gone easy on me this time. Even though the inverse angles weren’t entirely helpful as reference, the lights and shadows belonged to a clear day.
“Is that all?” I asked.
The challenge went unmet.
Frustrated though I was, I could go on like this. I simply had to think harder about facial anatomy instead of just laying out the lines I saw. The mental exercise would be good for me. And I hadn’t crawled back into bed at the first difficulty, even though I was forced to contemplate the fundamental structure of my unlovely self.
This portrait would be the first thing I finished—and I would finish it—in the two years I’d needed to lose. I’d had to sweat out Vladimir until I reclaimed the beginnings of the artist I actually was. The portrait wouldn’t be particularly good, that I knew, but in it there would be none of him.
It was the only piece, they’d say, completed by this semi-obscure British painter during his bleak Vienna period. I could do nothing more. Not here.
Rectangles was my first impression of the Selwyns’ formal drawing room, followed by my second: more rectangles. It would have seemed too empty but for the details, like the sparkling strips of mosaic that bordered the windows.
I was directed to a plain, graceful wooden chair. Mr. Selwyn eased onto the complementary settee, claiming the room’s sole patch of sun. Lady Aloysia rang for tea before placing herself at her husband’s arm.
“What an interesting use of colour.” Mr. Selwyn indicated the portrait, vibrant and large. It had barely fit into the car he’d sent for me. “I had not realised—and it is no bad thing, mind—that you would be taking such an experimental approach.”
Too late to change it now.
“I am so glad you appreciate Mr. Darling’s eye,” said Lady Aloysia.
The tea arrived. A maid poured three cups, the first of which Lady Aloysia passed to her husband. I pilfered a cake from its shapely stand.
“Now,” said Mr. Selwyn, “let’s see that chess piece again, shall we?”
I dug it out of my pocket and placed it on the low table between us.
“My dear, if you would?”
I recognised the stiletto, served discreetly with the tea, as part of Mr. Selwyn’s collection. Lady Aloysia unbuttoned her soft white sleeve, turned over her wrist, and nicked a vein. I winced. She did not. Angling her hand, she let three drops of blood spill into her tea. After touching her middle finger to her wrist, she swept more blood around the cup’s gleaming, golden rim. She laid the dagger on a saucer and tied a wedge of gauze to her wound.
Here’s a hint from one professional to another, I had drawled, half-drunk, when Lady Aloysia and I first met. You draw the knife down your wrist, not across—in response to which she rightfully snapped, I know what I am about.
Shadows buoyed her hands as she lifted the cup to her lips.
Mr. Selwyn, at least, was enjoying the performance.
“At this point,” Lady Aloysia continued, “I would either ask our connoisseur to test me with a lie, or I might draw some insignificant secret directly from his tongue. Then I would repeat the exercise with my husband. Since you are familiar with my abilities, Mr. Darling…”
“There is no need,” Mr. Selwyn finished. “Simply tell us what you know about this piece.”
Also from my waistcoat pocket, I pulled out the forged letter, appropriately brittle and foxed, and folded as though it had once borne a seal. “As I said before, Prince Vladimir—a magician himself—gave it to me. The original enchanter meant to get the better of a cheating colleague. Whoever captured this rook would fail to win any other game, ever again.”
Mr. Selwyn held out his hand to receive the letter.
I cleared my throat. “Once the cheater caught on, he went to some effort, described there,” gesturing, “to rid himself of it.”
“Yes, I see.” He skimmed what I’d written. “Very good. Though none of this is authenticated, you understand,” he said, not unkindly. Panicky heat rose in my chest even as he continued, “It is often the case with these things. Nothing is certain—unless these remarkable properties should manifest, which my wife assures me is most improbable.”
I tried a smile. “I’m afraid this is all I’ve got for you.”
“And I expected no more,” Mr. Selwyn said. “You haven’t my resources.”
He adopted the same lord-of-the-manor lounge as in his portrait. Well-rendered on my part, then. The very sunlight seemed starker around him, as though he were cut from the painting’s elsewhere and pasted into this uncomfortable tableau. If this was magic, it had successfully caught my attention without any nauseating effects, thank goodness. I felt ill for entirely different reasons.
Lady Aloysia was the huntress again: her glance pierced her husband’s skull. Watching her fingers twitch, I wanted nothing more than to scurry beneath one of the glossy black-and-gold cabinets. She sensed untruth, perhaps, a lie not our own. Did Mr. Selwyn suspect something amiss?
“Well.” I swallowed. “Ah. If you need time to conduct more research, we could always continue this later?”
As Mr. Selwyn leaned into a show of thought, Lady Aloysia’s stare snapped to me.
Sweat moistened my only clean shirt. I wouldn’t blame Aloysia, I told myself. I could endure whatever penalty her husband asked her to inflict. She would oblige him. Better to be a tamed falcon than a trapped canary. I shouldn’t expect her to compromise what security she’d found, not on my behalf.
Perhaps she’d let me off as easily as she could, for both our sakes. Mr. Selwyn didn’t need to learn what she and I had lived through. She could play it so as to wrench embarrassing childhood stories out of me instead of blackmail fodder, or worse. After all, I wasn’t Vladimir. I once chose to stay with him, true, but I also chose to leave.
Steeling herself, Lady Aloysia hooked two fingers beneath her bandage. There was no scab for her to pick.
Finally, Mr. Selwyn said, “No, no, that will not be necessary. I will, of course, inform you if I later find anything of interest.” Seeming suddenly to notice Lady Aloysia’s tension, he rested his hand on hers. “Anything wrong, my dear? Does Mr. Darling speak the truth?”
“It’s nothing.” She raised her chin at me. “He does.”
After settling upon a price of two thousand, he and I each signed two typewritten contracts. The final sale verbiage reassured me, especially since it meant something to him that Lady Aloysia added her own initials in blood. Further reassurance came with the two cheques Mr. Selwyn made out: one thousand for the portrait, which was rather more than he had previously offered, and two thousand for the rook.
When I thanked him, he replied, “Oh, you are quite welcome.”
Everything was amiable as we shook hands. Even Lady Aloysia gamely accepted her husband’s approval, a bristling blond kiss pressed upon her cheek.
Whatever Mr. Selwyn had been dishonest about was a question for Lady Aloysia, not me. Two thousand pounds were mine. Whether I had earned this fortune, or even deserved it, was irrelevant. I had freedom. The better question was what I’d do with it.
In case the subject himself wasn’t suggestive enough, I called the painting of Vladimir ‘Dionysos’. I could have cosied up to whoever bought it, but the thought of playing that game again was noxious to me, like drinking turpentine.
Mr. Selwyn was a far less demanding benefactor. He even lent me his car again, so that I could lug my old canvases to the auction house he’d recommended.
When the first of my pieces went on the block, I stepped into the hall for a smoke. Little luxuries were once again within my power to obtain, thankfully for my nerves. I dared not watch the proceedings, in case I should lose my mind and demand the blasted things back. No sense in seeking out reasons to pity myself if it’d only provoke more visions, which had eased considerably ever since I’d acknowledged I was their source.
I leaned on a column and lit my pipe. Shortly thereafter, the Selwyns came into view.
They were in conversation with three other gentlemen, presumably fellow collectors. It was with conscious deference that they ignored Lady Aloysia, which favour she was all too willing to return. When she noticed me, she brightened. A word to her husband, and he glanced over, smiled, touched the brim of his hat. Unwinding herself from his elbow, Lady Aloysia made her way to me.
I offered her a drag. “Here’s to victory, right?”
“Hashish?” She eyed the pipe. “If Alexander weren’t here…”
On cue, his wife’s presence having sufficiently carried his point, Mr. Selwyn ushered the gentlemen and their business elsewhere. As they passed us, nods all around, I almost missed his murmur: “—sold me the lost rook—”
Lady Aloysia’s earrings flashed as her head turned.
The men rounded a corner. She pinched the air, paused, and beckoned me to follow her.
“—for only two thousand. It’ll be worth fifty to whoever has the rest of the Rosenkreuz set. The boy would’ve settled for less, I’ve no doubt, he hadn’t any idea what it was, but I thought I’d do him a good turn. My wife’s friend, you know—”
Lady Aloysia and I watched the gentlemen progress down the hall.
She shared my thought, I knew. We were meant to overhear him.
“Of all the nerve,” I said, hissing smoke as though I were a fitful baby dragon.
As opposed to Lady Aloysia, whose hand covered a sudden wide and lovely smile. “Mr. Darling, I have a request. Bring my half of our profit—in ten and twenty kronen notes, please—to the Aspern Bridge at six o’clock, the morning after next.”
“You will see.” Absurdly, she laughed. “What a coincidence!”
The city was indigo at that hour, touched with mauve blue. Colour welled in the canal, washed over the stone lions and angels that guarded the bridge. Lady Aloysia waited along one of the pedestrian paths along either side, shielded from the early traffic. She had peeled back the velvet cuff from her wrist and, as she gazed out over the water, was idly probing the cut.
I heaved the valise I’d brought onto the ledge between us. “Here you are, madame. What now?”
Whatever she was planning had best be worth it. Not only was there the inconvenience of visiting the bank, there was the embarrassment of making that poor clerk change a thousand-pound cheque into small Austrian bills.
The wind snatched a curl from Lady Aloysia’s pompadour as she turned away from the canal to face me. “First, we must ensure everything is loose.”
My suspicions only increased as I helped her to separate the bundles. When it became too difficult otherwise, we removed our gloves. A stray edge bit into her finger. She smiled to herself and licked away the blood.
I sighed. “It’s magic, then.”
Shivering, we made quick work of the rest. Crisp sheaves of kronen soon overflowed the valise. Without hesitation, Lady Aloysia gathered a fistful and—as I sharply inhaled—extended her arm over the ledge. The wind picked up. She let go.
The bills winged beyond our sight.
“That charity you mentioned—would it happen to be your First and Only Church of Metaphysical Chaos?”
“Call it a tithe to entropy. I pay my respects whenever I can.” Lady Aloysia tucked the loose curl into place. “It will find the people who need it.”
Paper bills could just as well get caught in a vehicle’s undercarriage, or disintegrate in the canal. Then again, there was a true thrill in disposing of so much wealth, so utterly and irrevocably. Mr. Selwyn wouldn’t miss it. The struggling housewife, now, or the cab driver, or the petty charlatan—whoever chanced upon that extra ten kronen note would put it to better use.
“Precisely,” Lady Aloysia said. “You understand. So.” Reaching for another round, she asked, “Do you want to throw money off of a bridge with me?”
The valise was soon empty, the kronen blown away. We stood in silence, listening to a distant bell. The faint beginnings of dawn shivered in a barge’s wake.
“Tell me, Nick,” she said, “what will you do?”
What a relief, to have a ready answer. “Travel, I think.”
“I am glad.”
I shrugged. “You could leave, too. Wherever you wanted, without anyone to stop you.”
“Yes.” Lady Aloysia pulled on her gloves. “But we are going back to London soon. I am looking forward to it. There are so many things I can do.”
Which, coming from her, was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever heard. I wished her well. Me, I was dreaming of somewhere I hadn’t ruined, somewhere new. Italy, perhaps, or Greece. Somewhere full of colour and light.