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In The King's Likeness

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*

 

Develop your senses—especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

 

*

 

Silver motes of dust were visible in the rays of light that streamed through the room at differing angles. Ceiling to floor windowed doors lined one wall, and there was a skylight up above crafted from the finest of glasses. Much of which had been left slightly open to encourage the circulation of otherwise stale air. 

 

Sitting among gilded frames waiting to be hung around the palace, a small group of vampires–like marble cut artwork themselves–had flocked together on top of the divans available for their expendable comfort. 

 

Few could attest to the opportunity to rest on the room’s furniture draped with plush furs. And so while there were no celebrations to mark the moment, the sheer reality of peace among neverending clamor was more than enough reason to cherish their closeness. 

 

Not unlike a butterfly, stopping to examine the folds of a flower, taking a taste of the nectar, and floating to the neighboring flower, a man moved about the room. His steps were intentional. A choreographed dance. Although it would appear that he merely wandered between the gilded frames as a young woman sat with her head fit snugly into the shoulder of an older woman playing with her hair. Across from them, another young woman poked around at the three tiers of a tea stand stocked with blood-stained snacks. 

 

“They look fine, Corin,” the young woman on the larger of the divans said.

 

“You’re one to talk.”

 

“Now, I, unfortunately, cannot encourage you two to fight. But I agree with Natalia. If you continue to touch the sweets anymore, we might very well taste you in them, Corin.”

 

“I don’t see that as a bad thing.” 

 

The oldest took a moment to turn her attention back to her husband lingering at one of his landscapes–with the colors of dying autumn, most surely. 

 

“Will you hang it?”

 

His lips curled up at her awareness. The way she could name the location of each piece of his heart and soul powdered throughout the room with the same precision as he made his chest throb. 

 

“Possibly.”

 

She hummed and a few beats passed. “Should our girls have a say?”

 

“The one of Rex,” Corin said without looking away from the tea stand. 

 

“Quite vain of you. We already see enough of your likeness around the palace,” Natalia said with an innocent smile. 

 

Corin let out an amused scoff. 

 

“Yes, and please remove one of the velvet cakes before you continue to grope at them. I don’t want it tasting like that cheap citrus body spray you wear.”

 

“Cheap! Cheap is how I would describe those homely curtains hanging above your eyes.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Oh.”

 

“What a bite. I’m nearly convinced that you two have the venom of Sulpicia coursing through your veins instead,” the older woman said, not without laughing. 

 

“Newborn babies are quite fussy, no doubt. Natalia, if it’s too much for you, I think we could remove-”

 

“No. If I could interrupt, Corin, I think you should-”

 

“Natalia.”

 

It had been said softly many times in the same few seconds, but the man saying her name a final time pulled Natalia away from her sisterly row. She shot up from the divan and smoothed out her clothing to make her way over to him. 

 

“Yes?”

 

He flicked his eyes over to her and worked to press out whatever lines had naturally formed on his face, hoping to ease the evident tension in the young woman’s shoulders with a warm look of his own. She almost missed his smile by taking an inessential blink or two. 

 

“This is your first time here. It would be ignorant to have you choose without knowing the selection at your disposal.”

 

“Alright.” 

 

And so the two began to float from frame to frame. 

 

In the far corner of the room, most remote from the rest of the art, there was a canvas hidden beneath a dozen or so others. 

 

It was strange. 

 

Natalia couldn’t understand how she knew of its presence in the room. But she came to it like a Marionette pulled by a translucent thread. Unthinkingly, she uncovered the canvas and then stilled. But then the man behind her spoke, startling her from her trance.

 

“I’d almost forgotten about this one.”

 

“In the same way you’ve forgotten every twist and turn of my figure, Caius. Now tell her. I’m sure she’d love to know.”

 

Natalia surely did not want to come across as if she had any say in the matter and could force the man to speak on unfavored matters against his will. But with the backing of her Mother and Queen, why wouldn’t she have felt more courageous than usual? 

 

Something about the portrait spoke to her. She’d seen this before. In more ways than one, she would have said. The fierce lines of the man’s face. The color of his hair. And the red of his eyes. If she wasn’t sure that she still had her eyes trained on the dried pigments, she would have thought the subject of the portrait had climbed off the canvas to stand beside her. 

 

But what's more, everything about the technique sat in the doorframe of her recognition. The precision of the face’s proportions and how the familiar sharpness of the face had been buffed out with smoky brush strokes and dark shadows. 

 

She both had and had not seen work like this before. Almost…anachronistic. 

 

It all left her confused.

 

Natalia looked back at the man. And as if on cue, he spoke.

 

“You see, my child. The day was unnaturally overcast.” 

 

*

 

Observe the light and consider its beauty. Blink your eyes and look at it. That which you see was not there at first, and that which was there is there no more.

 

*

 

The skies were gray and the air around the man felt heavy although imperceptible to the eye. 

 

Something about the day did not feel quite right, and deep within his bones, he knew this to be true. So he hurried to the comfortable and quiet Florentine dwelling place that the Servite had seen fit to lend to him during his time in the area.

 

Incrementally, the atmosphere grew more airless as a cool fog took over the streets. 

 

The man waded through the fog for a reasonable amount of time, noticing how silent the streets had become. A quip had been ready on his tongue. But then he saw it

 

A wraith. 

 

It could have come from the clouds–maybe even a grave. It had some sort of business with the owner of the shop known only for the lush rolls of bread produced inside of it every day. 

 

The pale wraith stood outside of the shop, with hair and skin whiter than a winter’s snowfall. Where its once roving eyes would have been sitting, there were garnets pressed into the sockets. Connecting the lower region of its facial features to one of its brows was a jagged scar spanning un palmo –the length of a hand. The scar had been born of slightly raised, silver skin stacked on top of what was an otherwise smooth face. 

 

Poor creature. 

 

The man’s legs fought, contrasted with an innate fear and aesthetic curiosity by the wraith’s appearance. Ultimately, he took a step back. 

 

It both lingered at the scene and vanished, like a reflection kicked apart by a skipping stone. A few blinks of the eyes had trapped a faint image of the wraith in the man’s mind despite it having left the storefront. 

 

The man huffed and laughed at his reaction. 

 

Nothing but a trick of the light carried out by fatigue. 

 

He collected his composure and continued his walk home in a mood that he would have described as ‘unbothered’. This self-description would change as he sat wide awake three hours past Compline under the flaxen sheets which kept him warm throughout the night. 

 

I’ve been possessed. 

 

The man could not say if the thought was directed toward the spirit he had seen earlier on the streets, or if the desire to create had taken over his limbs and nerves, but he slid from his pallet with no further question. A faithful acolyte to either if not both. 

 

His feet softly tapped across the floors of his dwelling place to get out the materials needed to sketch the mania away that crawled and tore holes inside him, living vicariously through his every move, dictating when he had dedicated enough time and could be granted the peace of sleep. 

 

He traced out the shapes of wide-reared horses meant to be recreated and eventually rendered as a part of his most recent assignment of a vast mural. But his muse stared back impatiently at him from the corner of his mind– the wraith. 

 

What had the flesh been wearing when it was separated from its soul? What was the era of its passing away? 

 

The man shook hard and fast from a tremor that traveled up his spine. 

 

It couldn’t have been wearing the clothes a living man would. 

 

But yes, the wraith manifested in his mind’s eye dressed in shadow-dark robes free from the haze of incorporeality. Exactly as he had seen it when he focused so much of his breath on its eyes hours prior. 

 

Death itself, and not one of its translucent subjects. 

 

Manipulated by some unseen force, the man switched to a lopsided square of coal and began to scrawl around about a new page. In moments, he’d gotten a firm hold of the garment the white creature had been wearing; though he stopped at its shoulders in favor of its face, deciding to test out a full portrait. 

 

He was willing to do whatever was required to rid his head of the pale image from the streets that day to be reunited with sleep. 

 

The loose lines of the wraith’s face sitting on the pedestal of its cloaked bust seemed to flicker to life on the page by candlelight. The movement of the coal lines sent a wave of discomfort through his stomach. And yet, he discounted the sensation in him and the dancing sketch as sleeplessness. 

 

Marking the night as complete, the man quickly leaned in and extinguished the flame with his breath, casting the room into complete darkness. 

 

*

 

As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.

 

*

 

Lithe, niveous fingertips pecked around at the different brushes on the tabletop, with their flat and angled heads taken from the hairs of domesticated beasts. The fingers lingered next at the pieces of coals that were still warm to the touch from recent use. Afterwhich, two steps were taken. Soundless. They were all that was needed to reach the owner’s destination.

 

A full hand and wrist this time reached out with the intent to take a firm hold of the sketch. The rag sheet piece of paper brushing up against the wood of the table was the only sound in the lightless dwelling place. In full clarity, however, the tentative planning of a man’s face and body were seen on the sheet. One to three beats of careful analysis passed and the hand returned the sketch.

 

Its owner progressed deeper into the home, following the echo of soft snores. 

 

*

 

To become an artist you have to be curious. 



*

 

After having the soundest round of sleep that he had ever known, the man woke up to the same gray skies and cloak-heavy air from the day before. 

 

What should have felt concerning was his unusual disorientation regarding what time of day it was exactly. Without the sun’s readily visible presence from the heavens, he could not be certain as to whether the day had truly just begun or if Florence had made it halfway through it. 

 

He lived within a timeless vase at that moment and something was holding the seal on tight. 

 

But this concern had been assuaged by the program of action he had in store. The sketch of the wraith, which he had decided he would paint. A portrait. Something different. 

 

The man thought about the course he would take to capture not only what he saw back when he was in front of the store that produced the rolls, but also what he had felt then, and the morbid feelings that carried on into the previous night. Just how could he meld the image burned into his mind and feelings branded on his heart together as though the canvas was laid out on the Forge of Hephaestus?

 

Silver wings churned the air carrying them as a tiny butterfly flew into his line of vision. 

 

It must have followed on my heels yesterday. Trapped throughout the night.

 

With thin, radiant wings, the butterfly fluttered around the man, taking in the scent of his freshly washed skin before landing on his shoulder masked by a colorful tunic. 

 

As the fragile thing made acquaintances with the man on his way to the makeshift studio he had made in his home, for the time being, he mused to himself at the organic construction of its wings and the veins in them. 

 

A feat of symmetry. 

 

The butterfly had seen enough of the man and sped off ahead of him into the next room, to which he continued his way. 

 

He took a final breath to warm up his lungs for action and then stepped through the doorframe and froze. 

 

It sat on the lone stool in the studio, with legs that touched the floor and an equally as tall torso. Were it standing, the man was sure it would have dwarfed him. The wraith, Death itself, sat before him with perfect poise. 

 

It did not move upon his entrance into the small room. It did not blink. It did not rise and fall with breath. It did not speak. 

 

The man took a half step forward and it remained still. 

 

It was nearly impossible to articulate, but while the body on the stool did not move and almost resembled that of an inanimate sculpture, he could feel a sentient aura circling it. Though its eyes were fixed on him, not steering to the left or right as he shifted from foot to foot to examine it, he knew it watched intently.

 

Taking the opportunity to get closer than he had when on the street the day before, the man took several more shaky steps over to the stool. 

 

It was dressed in a black overcoat overtop of a thin white blouse with a ruffled collar and sleeves that peaked out from under the stiffer black fabric. It wore black breeches to match. 

 

The man’s eyes trailed up to the wraith’s face. The more he stared, the more he felt compelled to admit that the thing in front of him was a man in the same way he was, or similar if not the same. 

 

The scar caught the man’s attention the most. 

 

He was now within a bent arm’s reach of the body, and so he leaned in to trace the raised, silver flesh… 

 

[“He put his hands on you?” ]

 

[ “I said he tried. Now hush, my child.” ]

 

…but in seconds, his wrist was grabbed by what felt like a sheet of ice so cold that it burned. 

 

Its voice was even more chilling and certain. 

 

“I’ve heard much about you, Leonardo.”

 

There was a long silence as the man thought deeply about his response. 

 

“Have you now? Well, I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t the slightest clue who you are.” He let out a hearty laugh that masked the tension riddling his body.

 

“I would hope not.” There was not a trace of offense in its voice. But the wraith’s eyes blazed the color of a burnt rose as he spoke. Darker than seconds before. It left the man mesmerized. 

 

The two stared at one another for a few more moments. And the man could now discern where the wraith’s neck turned slightly, moving as the shadows do minute by minute. 

 

“What…are…you?”

 

I am interested in seeing how to plan to go about this portrait you’ve seemed to commission for me. So make haste,” the wraith said. 

 

Leonardo chuckled. “Ah, yes. I assumed you were of important blood of some sort; even more so now with your statement.”

 

The wraith quirked one of his brows and hummed. 

 

“You see, one cannot rush art. I might be able to explain more about that through your sitting.”

 

Intrigue melted into a dangerous look of amusement. 

 

“I would love nothing more than to see what you of all people have to say about art.

 

*

 

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do. 

 

*

 

Natalia looked quickly to Caius beside her. Her lips rippled as she attempted to keep in the laugh about to rip through the room. 


“He-” she wheezed. “You two got into a shouting match?”

 

“Oh, my child. I did nothing of the sort. He was the one dribbling with rage like a mad dog when I criticized his inability to see his endeavors through to the end.” 

 

“He couldn’t have been that bad. The painting came out quite nice.”

 

The older woman licked her lips clean of the bloody vanilla frosting that had dressed her lips while eating one of the treats on the tea stand. Then she stood to join the two. 

 

A young blond man appeared, playfully taking her seat. He reached out to grab the remaining bite of the treat hidden in her hand with a sly grin that compelled her to sit back down beside him. “Il tuo cucciolotto, sì?”

 

Caius peered at them from across the room with a longing.  

 

“I can assure you that Leonardo wasn’t as bad as he sounds,” the older woman said, speaking to Natalia. “Your Father has gotten into larger brawls before over his craft.”

 

Corin and the newly arrived man both murmured in agreement. 

 

Caius and Natalia stared back at the portrait for another few moments before floating to the next of the gilded frames. 

 

“I can show you the one she speaks of if you’d like?”