Sagasu was watching the child in the corner. The corner was dark, and the child was dark. Its mouth was open, always.
Sagasu was grinding butterfly’s wings. He was mixing them with chalk dust and melted ox fat. He used a pestle and mortar and he ground them so the smell of ivory burning filled the air, and he clicked his teeth and sometimes he spat into the paste.
He shaved a hammer and dropped the fine iron filings into the mixtures.
He poured them out into a dimpled tray of eight metal cups, each as big as an egg, and then he set them in the oven, and then he waited.
The room was cold, but Sagasu was used to that. The glass in his iron-clad windows was frosted in spidery traces of white.
Outside, a soft wind blew scurries of snow down the bleak fortress walls and out over the barren beach, dusting round dead cockles and the casts of frozen sea worms.
The child in the corner stood with its mouth gaping open and black, the whites of its eyes gleaming, and Sagasu watched it back.
The oven began to smoke.
Sagasu turned from the laborious etching of curlicued motifs into a mounted slab of slate-colored gravel, the preparatory for the work, and ducked to retrieve the pod of eggcups.
They bubbled and steamed, the colors topaz, lime green, maroon, obsidian blue, fire-flower, iron-oak bland, copper filigree, and amethyst. He drew a stopper of clear liquid from the top drawer of his chopping block desk, exhumed the pipette and dripped a single drop into each eggcup.
The mixture roiled, steamed, and set.
Sagasu dipped a finger into the obsidian blue. It smudged and held firm. He licked his finger.
“Good,” he said, soft as the wind through the cracks in the windows.
He set the horse hair woven canvas on the bolted cannon mount, over the slate-gravel slab, and screwed in the stops. He angled it so it caught the wintry blur of light through the frosted windows, snowflake shadows flickering with the waving of the willows in the wind outside.
His roving eyes settled on his brush. A single thread of human hair.
He looked to the child, and he spoke one word.
“Now we make it right,” he said.
The child stood still and did not move. His palms pressed outwards against the clammy blue walls. The smell of damp poured from his mouth. The crush of springs inside his jaw, the cold chase of metal along the gum-lines like a surgeon’s brace. He held the walls and watched Sagasu.
Sagasu dipped the hair and began the work.
He started with cobalt and outlined the wracked figure of the child, filling some half
of the canvas, his head haloed by the apparatus, his limbs grotesque in their whiteness on the easel. He dipped and painted a single stroke, and then he dipped again, and the child stood and did nothing.
Sagasu followed the etched trails underlying the horse-hair weave, dropping runnels of the oily powder goop into their channels, watching the ooze and sludge of gravity carry them through, completing the frame, the outline of the walls and the shackles on the child’s ankles and knees and thighs and torso and hips.
He moved through to maroon, and he dashed scribbles of motion in the air, on the easel, over his own fingers, and dribbling in fine lines from the child’s open, airless mouth.
The child’s open mouth began to bleed, in line with the painting.
Sagasu watched. He painted in the trails down the child’s concave chest, each rib an indentation, an unexpected angle, each cell somehow born into the picture and somehow left dead with the child.
The child watched and was still. Not because he wanted to, but for the lack of a voice, and the lack of muscle to move.
Sagasu lashed in the details of the face a line at a time, a stroke at a time.
Outside the palace on the blasted cliff, an army rode up to the open drawbridge. They cantered up on horses as thin as wraiths, their pelts ragged and mottled through with the wear of skin on skin. Mounted atop their bone-bridge backs rode the Emperor’s men.
Their faces gray and set, they moved in perfect synchrony, every glance, every raised steel eyebrow an exercise in fluid perfection, their granite eyes the same as the darkening sky. They rode up decked in lacquered flutes of armor, strip-linked over their hard flesh, each brushing off the cold, rubbing away the chill. They trotted their bony steeds up to the knoll of the castle’s entrance fork, over the lifeless frozen sea.
The lead rider, a gryphon’s red feather wound about his bicep and pluming down the fingers of his right hand like a still spray of blood, dismounted and walked up to the rock of the castle. He touched the icy stone and he looked amongst his gray compatriots and he spoke in a slate-gray voice.
“We could be too late,” he said. “He’s already begun.”
He drew his curved katana. The blade sang in the gloaming of the moon’s set through the silver clouds above..Lights danced the stars’ motion across its surface.
He moved it to catch them better, aligning his bones into one shape, perfecting the form, extending his being down into the blade.
The riders about him dismounted. They stepped to the rock and took up their places beside him, and each to a man drew his katana. The air hummed the pitch of steel and starlight and frost on the wind, then they fell as one upon the rock.
Sagasu knew they were coming. He painted faster, the hair a whip in his clenched fingers, oil and grease whetting down his fingers and slimming them to poker-sharp edges, points lit by reflection.
With every lash stroke the child’s form was further enlivened on the canvas, until it began to sway against the cream backdrop, and soon the colors were spilling freely and dripping from the lower lip, sizzling lurid colors down the cannon mount tripod.
His arms whirled and Sagasu lost all sense of time. His finger became the brush and he fed his energy through it directly into the opus, and he watched the silent scream of the child shift, shade by shade, floating into the painting.
And in the corner, the silent wail of the child began to fade, the shackles growing loose around its dimming shape, and silver tears winked in and out of existence in its white and wide open eyes.
The blades carved into the walls of the castle, layer by layer, gouging through the protective layers of martyred bone, slicing the rock and digging out the cysts of rage, wending past swaddled skin upon skin of memory, Sagasu’s life drawn up to defend him, sewn into the stone of his keep, the storm of bile gathered about his heart like a hideous hissing armor. They tore through his abandoned childhood, his tears, the steel in the eyes of a hundred abusers, their hands like claws and their potions rancid and vile and their food the laughter of violent times. They raged through the remembered pasts of pain and sorrow, as his friends were slain in the summer wars, killed by the madness of the summer lords, their fire overthrowing all his cool planning, their brilliance scorching the remnants of his flags and once-proud pennanted honor.
They ripped through his heart and his mind, exposed in the very rock of his fortress.
And the men in gray knew that Sagasu was inside, and he was nearing his goal.
The lead rider with the red gryphon feather passed through the wall just as the spirit of summer was forever sucked into the painting, just as Sagasu dropped his single hair brush and breathed out his last, his soul stolen by the furious art, by the painting of the boy itself.
Sagasu’s final exhale spoke to the red-feathered leader, as his men backed away from the puckered wound in the castle’s side, as it sealed itself over and the spell became complete. His sigh spoke silently, and it wasn’t said in words, and it didn’t need to be, for the leader read it as surely as he read the empty shackles in the corner where once a small child stood, and he read it in the black and blazing inferno of paint whorled upon the canvas under the dead wizard’s hand, its surface coruscating and rumbling. He read it and it said “at last,” the sigh spoken from a lifetime of remembered sorrow.
The red-feathered leader ran to the easel and drew off the painting. It scalded his mailed fists, and he felt the sizzle of his flesh beneath the summer spirit’s onslaught, its desperate attempts to free itself from the burning black tomb. He ran with the painting from the dungeon and up the spiraled stair-cases, past room after room of mounded skulls, the mementoes of all Sagasu’s dead armies, past room after room of memories creaking with the weight and anger of age and dissatisfaction.
And as he raced upwards, the castle began to collapse. It rumbled and buckled in on itself as Sagasu’s final sigh reached down into the depths of his fortress’ foundations and pulled itself up and out of life by the hearthstones. And the red-feathered leader raced and winged his way to the apex of the towers, to the coronet, to the crown, to the ceasefire summit where he could once and for all-
Sagasu’s final sigh rang out.
The riders on the cliff-top fell upon their backs, dead. Their grey flesh coiled about them and shrunk like worm-flesh under the sun, their eyes wrinkled black coals, their fingers the bone and scale of lizards and the sloughed-off skin of snakes. The waves beyond the empty beach set as jagged as marble, soon to collapse into powder. The shimmering of the moon itself stilled, soon to freeze into the very air, waiting for the slightest movement, the final word, the slightest breath of life, to crash down as gristle and nothing noise, broken as ground butterfly wings.
And he raced for the top.
At the top he found the last vestiges of Sagasu, his wisps of spirit lingering long enough to blow the final breath upon the world, with the gods of sun and fire and life encaged forever in his masterwork.
The red rider held up the painting before his eyes to shield himself from the outreaching tendrils of the spell, his warmth sustained only in the wake of Sagasu’s passing, his spirit the last remaining life. And he spoke with all the power and all the lust for life he could muster after the sixteen-month voyage through the north to Sagasu’s kingdom, after watching the disbelief of his men as the freezing land slowly culled their massive strength, after hearing their distant calls for help as he left them one by one behind.
He spoke with the memory of his army, and he spoke for the sun god trapped in the painting, and he spoke for innocence as well as guilt.
“Sagasu,” he called, and Sagasu heard, and knew that here was another whose soul had suffered, and he listened for the moment it took to draw close, lingered long enough to sow a single seed of doubt.
“Sagasu, I have lost as much as you. All men know what I have endured. I have journeyed to be here at the end, with you. I have lost my family. I have lost my men. I have lost all but my soul, and I stand here on the brink with you, and I tell you, this is not right. For this to be the end of all, it is not right.”
Sagasu’s spirit said nothing, but its fleeting pause was long enough for the red rider to sink his sword through the edge of the rumbling painting, and snag with it the withering ghost trails of Sagasu’s spirit, passing through and slamming into the grindstone of the tower’s rampart on the other side.
Sagasu saw and he screamed.
The sky erupted into light.
And the chained spirit of the sun sped through the etched sword from the prison painting, up into the wisps of Sagasu. Then it exploded.
Everything turned white.
And stayed white.
And then there was the sound of the sea. The sound of waves lapping the beach. And then there was a green meadow on a cliff. And there were trees. Butterflies swam lazily on the warm breeze as blue skies opened their bosom over the green land. And there was a fair-headed child sitting in the grass. A butterfly landed on the child’s nose, and it spoke these words with its wings.
“Try again, Sagasu.”
And the child knew nothing but the words of the butterfly, which kissed his face with its wings and left color trails dancing before his eyes. “Try again.”
Then it sped away, and the child was left alone.