Vivien is much too weak to move. But she’s back to herself, she’s cold, and dependant on me to cover her nakedness with thick duvets, and to arrange her pillow.
“How could that possibly help?” I inquire, still unsure of what I heard.
“Please, just trust me Saph,” she says weakly.
“But I –”
“Their voices,” she continues, her eyes wide and fixed on a spot on the ceiling as if reliving the horrors of her recent past, “their voices seemed to ooze from under their hoods when they spoke, like the scraping song of devils. They kept me in chains, hanging from a rod like an animal to be roasted, that’s how they transported me back here. They thought I was out, but I was aware. Aware, but so afraid, that I seemed feverish and unconscious. They talked about the portrait you made of the Marquis, and what it meant. You must do the same for Zed Saphira, I beg of you, and you must do it fast.”
My eyes dart from her to Joyous, who slowly approached us again, and now listens intently. I can see in his eyes that he understands more than I do.
“But of, course,” he whispers as he wraps his mind around whatever Vivien means, then exclaims, “Of course!”
He clasps my shoulders and asks me what I need in order to paint, since my tools aren’t at the manor. I look around to gather my thoughts, but the only things I can think of on the spot are clay or anything pasty, even toothpaste and sauce. At Joyous’ signal the young butler flings the double doors open and speeds out into the corridor.
Joyous’ unsettling honey eyes inspect me from head to toes like those of a man who’s just had a revelation that he can’t get enough of.
“I still don’t understand, Joyous,” I mutter. “Even if this whole undertaking is supposed to help Zed in some way, I doubt it’ll work if I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“You didn’t know what you were doing when you painted Kieran either,” he replies like a Wiseman his disciple.
“Yes, but with Kieran I –” It hits me. “Of course . . . ”
In an instant all the sense in the world swirls and settles in my mind. I’d put what I felt for Kieran into the portrait I’d made of him, I’d used my bare hands on it, I tried so hard to feel him and understand him because, even though I wasn’t yet aware of it, I was in love with him despite the fear and the disapproval I felt of and for the persona he displayed.
I walk slowly to the window at the far end, the ragged rim of the asylum-patient gown I’m still wearing trailing after me on the floor, growing heavier with every step like cumbersome cloak. The huge responsibility starts weighing on my shoulders. I feel their presence out there, the presence of the Black Monks who stand ready to cast their curses against us, spitting out their plague like snakes their venom, and the realization that our small resistance group is just placing all their bets on me has me petrify with fear.
Neither Vivien nor Joyous say another word, but I can sense their eyes on my back. A wave of self-pity washes over me – they expect far too much. We’re all doomed, if all this depends on me. I crash on the floor, bracing myself and crying desperately. My eyeballs hurt, that’s how hard I press them against my knees.
“Saphira, there’s no time to lose,” Joyous says.
Indeed, no time to lose. I slowly gather myself off the floor, wiping my nose with the sleeve.
Joyous stands by the stove where a bed sheet now hangs from the mantelpiece, the sides of it spread and hooked around the side posts. It looks like a small cinema screen. This is the canvas I’m supposed to use, along with the sauce and toothpaste and crayons and other improvised tools that the young butler managed to find, and place at my disposal on a platter by the improvised canvas.
The young butler now also stares at me with wide hopeful eyes, while Joyous does the same in a more self-controlled way. As for Vivien, she’s lying behind me on the divan, but I feel the pressure of her expecting gaze.
With a trembling, dirty hand I take one of the crayons – soft tip, thick black lead; very good quality, who would’ve thought. Focusing on such details helps me mentally leave the surroundings, and ignore the pressure.
The crayon’s black lead tip touches the sheet, leaving a dusty trail behind as it slides downwards in what’s the first line of Zed’s stony cheek. It began, and it must be finished.
The next line is more confident, and the ones that follow slide from a softer hand, one that loses span and allows reflex and flowing moves to take over. There’s more tension in one side of Zed’s face – the one I drew with more controlled, reason-guided strokes in the beginning – but the other half loses the stony aspect, and reveals some of the softness of character I sensed beyond it during all the time I’ve known him. I immerse myself in his confession about how he met Kieran, feeling his loyalty, but also his vulnerability.
The scar Kieran had left on his face the night Zed attacked me was already only a fading white trail the last time I saw him, but I draw it nonetheless, making the portrait more human. I mix the materials the butler prepared, and use the pasty composition to build Zed’s features and the shades of a real-life face using my bare hands, just like I had with the picture of Kieran Slate.
And just like with that picture, I’m now fully drenched with the thick liquid of Zed’s vital energy. It seems to flow from my fingertips, smearing the face now looking at me from the white sheet.
With the last touch to his eyes he seems to come to life. I take a few steps back, marvelling at a mere sketch expressing the essence of the man so strongly. But soon a bubonic blister appears on the side of his forehead, looking as if someone were burning the sheet with a cigarette at first, and then spreading down his nose like a trail of popping black warts that take over all of the picture within moments. I climb up from the trance-like state I’ve been in, and can’t believe my own eyes.
“This is extraordinary,” Joyous whispers as he walks to my side, looking at the picture with a stricken expression of his ever-present grin. “The portrait absorbs the curse from the flesh. Everything that harmed Zed now passes over to the picture.”
“It worked!” Vivien manages with as much enthusiasm as she can muster, while the young butler inspects the blackening picture closely with an open mouth and trembling fingers seeking to touch it, but not quite daring to.
“It’s amazing, Saphira,” Joyous says. “You have the power to make . . . Oh my God . . .”
“Voodoo portraits,” the young butler finishes the sentence for him.
To be continued on Friday.
Stay tuned for a new chapter of The Executioner on Tuesday! Until then, enjoy the previous episodes here. If you don’t feel like waiting for the episodes, buy the whole book here, and enjoy a ride of suspense, mystery and love. Looking forward to reading from you! Love, Ana.