Porett offered the visitor a chair - she looked like she needed
one. He didn't recall ever having met anyone this old before, she must have
been approaching her century. Hunched, shrunken, yet with jarringly lush
white hair cascading around her shoulders. Surely not spelled that way, but
uneasily unnatural. She was spry enough, whatever, as she sat herself
down, still clutching the flat, brown package she carried.
"It is good of you to see me, Lord Porett," she said, her strong, musical accent still apparent, despite the cracks in her voice.
"I was intrigued, old lady. You are an Elet, here, in Trilith, wandering free, yet our king has ordered the arrest of anyone who merely speaks your language. You arrive at my door with a battered old parcel, and say you want to bribe me. Me! One of the wealthiest people in the world! Yet you are clearly not mad. Since you are also no threat, I indulged my curiosity. As, I think, you knew I would."
"I shall be brief." She smiled. "In your country, all artistic people, they are treated with contempt. There is no strong historical tradition of patronage, because your forebears, they had neither a powerful religion nor rulers with a desire to flaunt riches. Instead, their creative energies were turned towards the philosophical, the mathematical, the scientific. Even your literature and architecture are poor by international standards. Other peoples regard you as hard-edged, uncultured boors. Rather than accept their judgement, however, your own society adopts an attitude of productive superiority, scorning the arts as a non-intellectual waste of time, an excuse for stuffy elitism by pompous individuals who wallow in the critical appreciation of worthless objects within a self- imposed framework completely without foundation in the real world." She took several panting short breaths; that last sentence had been too long for her...
"Sounds like you don't like art."
"Lord Porett, it sounds like you do. In that respect, you are different from your fellows, and I might yet reach you to prevent your doing something very stupid." She undid the knot on her burden, pulled aside the leathery wrapping paper. A painting. "What do you think of her."
Porett gasped, felt himself do it but couldn't cut out. "She's beautiful!" A woman, looking into a mirror, that's all. But the reflection, her face. He was hit so hard it was almost physical. "She looks real, so alive! I can't, I'm, she's magnificent!"
The crone nodded, slowly, sagely. "In an hour, she'll be dead, and she knows it."
Dead? "But she looks so proud, noble, she's exuding contentment. Hell, I feel I could touch her!"
"She is Naemi. Her legend is well known among my people; it partners that of Tuudhan, which is their story from his side."
Porett was still reeling. The brushwork was just perfect, the composition supremely balanced, but the subject, the sheer beauty of that face. Gods, how he wished he could paint! He glanced at the old woman, simply grateful for her showing him it. She was smiling, nodding. He had to know, asked: "What's her story? Why could she move the artist to such genius?"
She chuckled. "`The artist'? Do you not recognise the work of Bakaresa? He who painted "The Desire of Being", which you so admired in Taltu's Resdav Collection?"
He stared at her a moment, then at the painting. Yes, there was a resemblance, the use of colour, something about the lighting, the woman's dress... So this must be a couple of hundred years old. But why did he paint it? And how had the Elets come by it?
"At a time far in the past there lived a woman," she began. "Wealthy, she was, powerful - a queen, you might say - and her name was Naemi. She was very handsome, and was often told that she was surely the most beautiful of women in the world. This, she felt was true, and relished it. A travelling minstrel came one day, and hearing of her boast expressed distrust. He knew of tell that greatly beauteous women lived in numbers to the west, beyond the land of tall and slender trees. A man called Tuudhan dwelling there was said to have the skill of `phacing' - bringing out the beauty women all possess by nature."
She cleared her throat, looked into Porett's studious eyes, continued. "Naemi was outraged! Therefore, she issued grand instructions that this sorcerer be brought to her domain. Upon her words, an expedition was begun, and one year later to the day, it made return. Tuudhan was thus a captive. Naemi ordered him to phace her beauty. He refused, and said she was already beautiful enough. She asked him whether she was the most beauteous of women in the world, but he said no, and so she locked him in a cell.
Every morning, she would visit him and ask if he would make her beauty grow. Yet every morning, he would shake his head. Each time he did so, Naemi hung a thread of gold about his neck, and after many months, the weight lay deep. It hurt him much, but still he kept resolve. Then, at a time one year exactly after Naemi first entreated him, Tuudhan gave his consent. He would make her more beautiful, but not redress the consequences of her wish.
So Naemi took away his necklace, wound of golden thread. She sent for oils and aromatic spices from afar, which Tuudhan then distilled to form his special mix. A year it took before the preparation was complete, a period in which Queen Naemi grew forlorn. But then, at last, three years since he was captured, Tuudhan's task was done.
And when she knew? Immediately, Naemi drank the potion, and her features changed. Her hair became more silky, straight away; her eyes turned brighter, clearer than before; her lips took on a deeper tint of red; and her complexion paled and evened. "Naemi," Tuudhan said, "I have to tell you all my phacings are constrained, and should you ever see your countenance in mirror, pool or glass, unstoppably your death will come one hour thence." So hearing this, and hesitating not a moment, Naemi took her looking-glass, and viewed her face. She smiled."
Porett waited, but the taleteller added nothing. Yet her story was incomplete! "She smiled?" he heard himself saying. "But why? She had only an hour to live!"
"Because, if even only for an hour, Naemi knew she was indeed most beautiful of women in the world."
He felt open-eye stunned. "I, I don't understand. She deliberately caused her own death, for the simple vanity of seeing herself as the world's greatest beauty? And she cherished it? That's," he stumbled for a word, could only manage "stupid!"
The old woman covered the painting again. "But is it so dissimilar to what you yourself intend to do? You would go to Elet to learn the secret of magic-destruction, when you surely realise that the power such knowledge endows is only transient. Merely possessing it is nothing: only by using it do you become mighty. Yet, by that very act of utilisation, you undermine magic itself - you start a rot - and, because of this, eventually the whole spell system will collapse. Your desire for primacy, it will have caused you to lose everything; and all for a fleeting moment of being the..." She read his eyes. "Well, you understand now."
He grinned, cynically. "Yes, you're right, I do. A trick. You make up a story, fake a painting to go with it, and allegorise it to what you suppose are my plans. Well in that respect, you're mistaken. I'm not interested in practising antimagic, only in finding how to stop its functioning. That's all. In your story, it would be like Naemi having Tuudhan put to death, rather than allow him to devalue beauty by making it commonplace."
She sighed. "You may lie to me, Lord Porett, but not to yourself. You know why you really want the secret, and how you intend to use it. Think well on what I have said. If you stay in Estavia this next month, and launch no expedition into Elet, you can have the Naemi canvas to keep."
"The bribe..." he murmured. "I'm almost tempted to accept, or to take it from you anyway, but I know it to be valueless. This painting of yours is a forgery, cooked by some mage to look ancient. It's no Bakaresa original."
Were those tears in her Eletic eyes? "You disbelieve, yet you have no proof..."
Foolish old maid. "I own the port of Trilith. Nothing enters here without my knowledge, and I can guarantee that no works of art such as this have been imported since I took control. There's a tight ban, Justan's fob to what you called the `productive superiority' lobby, coupled with the desire to stop large capital sums leaving the empire without tangible returns. So the only way your precious Bakaresa could find itself here is if this is where it was painted."
She began tying the string. "I was approached the day you visited the Resdav Collection. I came immediately, before you were lord incumbent. I have waited long, here in Trilith, hiding, hoping that I would not be required to offer you the most admired of all the paintings in Liagh Na Laerich." She rose, unsteadily, to her feet.
He iced up. "Nice try, old lady, but if you're so stuck on proof, how can I know that any of what you've said is true? The corny story, yes, you have that off cool like you tell it every day, but that doesn't mean the picture is genuine."
She glowered at him, suddenly, ferocious. He was seized by a wild, panicky thought that she was about to try tear out his throat, crazy! But instead she loosened, strangely, became calm, calm as death. Behind her eyes, the hatred was gone. "Davian painters," she began, her voice whited out of emotion, "were always inspired to their greatest works. One day, the master Bakaresa, on a visit to Seesel, chanced upon an Eletic fishing boat stranded by tides on the Schaaldt delta. There, he heard a maiden narrating the tale of Naemi to a group of Lowlanders, as payment for their help in freeing the vessel. He fell in love with her at once, despite her years - she was but sixteen, he in his fifties. The story she told so gripped him that he knew he had to paint it, and that only the girl herself could be his model. His love for her, and his sympathy with the legend, led him to create the most stupendous masterpiece of his career. After a week of fevered activity, he lay down his brushes, and perceived his work was supreme, that he could never again paint anything approaching its perfection. It was the sublime achievement of his lifetime as an artist, at last he was whole. So it was that he died an hour later, cradled in the arms of his," she checked herself, "inspiration."
"That's it? But what happened to the girl?" She said nothing, walked towards the door. "What happened to the girl? Tell me! What did she do with the painting?"
She turned. "One month from now."
No, how could she be? "Are you the girl?"
21st January 1999: isif73.htm