“You didn’t come here for this.” He tilted his chin toward the painting on the wall. The current had stopped for the young man and me for the moment, leaving us alone in our own little backwater.
“These others come to satisfy their vanity. What did you come for?” he asked with the curl of a half smile on his lips.
My mouth felt dry and my arm increasingly cold. “I saw you with my brother.”
The smile stretched to both sides of his face. “The clever twin. The talented twin. The special one.”
My shoulders stiffened. “Where is he?”
The young man pursed his lips. “I couldn’t say exactly. Shall we find him together?” He pulled my arm through his and placed his free hand over mine. The double chill of his arm and hand made my fingers cold. I tried to pull away, but my hand wouldn’t come free. He tucked me closer to his side and began to walk as the cold crept through my coat.
“It’s rather charming to see you,” he said as we floated down a side-stream of our own, separate from the feverish crowd.
“Who are you? His dealer?”
A sidewise look and that curl of a smile. “I’m Owen Smith, Persis Mitchell, and I’m just a go-between and an errand boy, a dogsbody running this way and that at my master’s bidding.” He said it half mockingly as if he were making a joke that might be at my expense or his own.
I snorted. “Smith? Is that supposed to be your real name?”
“One of them. I have dozens.”
False identities confirmed my suspicion that there was something illegal, or at best semi-legal going on. Art fraud or drugs. Drugs would explain the mood of the crowd. Some combination of rave and costume party. My theory didn’t cover the Babel of languages or the transformation of the building. I wondered if I had already been drugged without knowing it. Maybe something on the handle of the outer door, a hallucinogen absorbed through the skin.
“Who is the dealer?” I demanded.
He half-lidded his eyes as if thinking. “I suppose you’ll have to meet him if you want your brother back, but I advise you to reconsider. Your brother has had his heart’s desire. Take him now, and he’ll be as ordinary as you.” He flicked that one-sided curl of a smile again. “Can you think of a worse fate?” He tipped his head toward the wall, and I halted with a gasp.
This was Briar, this modest canvas. I knew his style and hand, but it was also me, my straight black hair, my round face, short nose and fair, lightly freckled skin. Briar had painted me in chiaroscuro, a figure in deep shadow hunched behind the counter at Lost Treasures, frowning down at a ledger like an old-fashioned account book with a quill in my hand and ink on my fingers. In the background, darkened shelves suggested collections of dusty junk. It was the best thing I had ever seen him do, and it was cruel. The expression on the figure’s face told every secret that could be known about me. She was ordinary—not pretty or clever or charismatic, alone in a darkened room with nothing of any value about her.
I tried to avert my face so the young man wouldn’t see the stinging spill of tears down my cheeks, but he took me and squared me to the painting of myself.
He leaned his face over my shoulder, his cold cheek chilling mine and turning tears to frost. “Watch,” he whispered.
The portrait began to change without changing. Now the shadowed shelves behind the figure hinted at grinning totems, bits and pieces of castoff things heavy with history and implication. The figure’s face still bent over the book, but her raised eyes looked out of the canvas from under her brows, and it wasn’t numbers or lists she wrote in the ledger but names and fates.
“There’s truth in the gifts they make for us,” Owen said. He caught my hand again and pulled it under his elbow. “Greater truths and lesser ones.” He nodded toward the portrait behind me. “That is one of the greater truths, I think.”
We had begun to drift again, still in our own sidestream but moving down the hallway. The young man scanned the costumed crowd. “Most of our guests see only shadows if they see the truth at all. Even your brother sees only the gift of what he could never have been.”
I stiffened. “He’s a great painter.”
“Don’t make him more than he is, Persis,” the young man said. “The clever twin, the talented one, but he never had the sight of a master.”
Another of Briar’s paintings caught my eye, a landscape that made my breath catch. Beside it hung a sketch mounted on board, the simple lines of a nude that seemed to breathe. We passed nine more of Briar’s canvases, all haunted, all breathtaking.
“Marvelous, aren’t they?” Owen said.
The paintings in his studio were good, but not like this. I thought of Briar’s feverish concentration. “What did you do to him?”
“He begged the king for a favor, and the king granted him his wish.”
“What did he wish for?”
“What do you think?” Owen asked in return.
Briar scowling over his canvas, jaw tight, angry, dissatisfied. “To be a genius.”
Owen squeezed my arm in approval. “My king can’t change a duck into a swan, but he can squeeze all the grace of a duck into a moment of swanishness. Unfortunately for the duck, gifts of that kind take a toll.”
“It’s running out. He’s losing all the talent he ever had.”
He shrugged. “Ask him if the price was worth paying. He made us thirteen paintings whose genius surpasses anything he could have created in his own time. He is here tonight to make the same bargain again.”
I could believe it. Improvident Briar would spend a lifetime’s talent in an hour to create a single great thing, then spend his life clawing to regain it.
“What do you get out of it?” I demanded.
“You’ve seen. Thirteen paintings, the best he made, but we would have been content with one.” He curled his mouth and winked at me.
My mouth felt dry. “What do you want a picture of me for?”
He shrugged. “Not the painting itself. From the moment my king saw what the clever twin painted inside your picture, we wanted you.”
“What for?” I asked again. My hand on his arm felt numb with cold, and I had to clench my teeth so they wouldn’t chatter.
He grinned, and I thought for a moment he had the pointed teeth of a fox. “A little of this and a bit of that.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“It’s all the answer there is. Ask me another.”
“What will Briar have to pay this time?”
“An arm, you mean? A leg? A soul?” He laughed. “What he wants, we can no longer give. The king will send him home.”
“It’s not completely gone. You could put him back the way he was. He wouldn’t be as good as he was before, but he would still have something.”
The young man’s eyebrows rose. “You know your brother best. Would he think that was a kindness?”
“Briar doesn’t know what he wants,” I snapped. “He’s a spoiled little prince who thinks he’s entitled to everything he dreams up.”
Owen laughed and squeezed my freezing arm. “Now there’s a truth with two faces. Well, I’ll grant that you know better, Persis Mitchell. If you made a bargain for your brother, what would you ask for?”
Wary, I said, “What would be the price?”
“That would be at the discretion of my king, but he has an interest in you, so I doubt the cost would be fatal.”
I studied his piquant profile for signs he was joking.
He raised one brow. “I’m not the king. I can’t bargain in his place, so there’s no harm in telling me what you would wish for. I could advise you as to the wisdom of your choice.”
“Would you advise me? Or would you trick me?”
“A fair question.” He slitted his eyes in thought. “I think I would deal evenly with you.”
“Would you tell me if you weren’t?”
“No.” He grinned again. “But I find I like you. I thought I would when I saw the portrait, and when I saw you at the window, I knew.” He squeezed my arm. “I like you very well, I think.”
His affection could freeze to the bone. “I want him to let Briar go.”
He clicked his tongue. “Send him back to a life of mediocrity?”
I set my jaw. “Yes.”
“Ah yes, the wise twin, the practical one.”
“He could give you that,” Owen said. “The question will be what he demands in return.”
The crowd had become thinner as we talked as if people had been drifting away, though I had seen no doors on either side, but yellow light began to brighten the hall, and we came to a wide, sweeping stair carpeted in red and gold. The masquers climbed ahead of us in their costumes and their glittering ornaments, laughing and chattering among themselves, their faces flushed with greed.
Owen and I climbed along with them, still at our own pace. The light grew brighter, and I saw ahead a chandelier aflame with candles dripping wax onto the floor. We came to the top of the stairs and stepped onto a broad balcony. I recognized the rail across the front as the same that had hung broken from the balcony above the lobby I had seen through the front window of the hotel, and I couldn’t make out how we had walked such a long way and gone such a short distance.
I pulled toward the banister. Owen kept an icy grip on my hand but let me draw him until I stood at the rail and looked down over an enormous ballroom bigger by a hundred times than the lobby that should have been below.
An evergreen twenty feet tall stood mid-floor, as if it had grown there. It glittered with garland and glass and gold, and candles burned on its branches instead of colored lights. Mirrors hung on every wall from the floor to the ceiling and reflected the tree in an endless forest of light. Above the tree, another chandelier of gilded antlers hung over the ballroom, bigger than the one at the top of the stairs, and the space was hot with candles, hot enough to make the chill of my companion’s touch feel pleasant.
Garland draped the walls and swagged across the mirrors. Dancers reflected in the glass whirled and parted and came together in patterns that made an arcane sense. They danced in mismatched couples, a medieval lord with a Victorian lady, a flapper with a man in a boxy jacket from the nineteen fifties, a Viking with a goth girl, most of them anachronisms in the formal dance accompanied by medieval flutes, horns and drums in a pagan melody older than written history.
In the lilt of the music, I found myself dancing with the young man, my hand in his chill one and his breath cooling my heat-flushed face. I broke away and stood blinking in the spell of light and music and the smell of evergreen and melting wax. Something pricked my head. I pulled off a circlet of holly heavy with red berries which I dropped to the floor, the berries rolling away and disappearing, invisible against the red and gold of the carpet.
Owen’s clothes had changed from jeans and shirt to skin-tight leather pants and a green woolen surcoat over something like a white silk blouse with full sleeves. He wore a crown of mistletoe on his dark head and raised his pointed brows when he saw I noticed.
He took the wreath from his head, spun it once on his finger and flipped it into the air where it disappeared.
I refused to stare or blink at the cheap sleight of hand.
He took my arm in his again, and I was grateful for the icy chill against the heat of candles and so many dancing bodies.
“They’ve come to dance down the dark,” Owen said. He steered me away from the ballroom toward the back of the gallery. “At the turn of seasons, we let them come from wherever and whenever they belong and revel with us.”
“How generous,” I said, meaning otherwise.
That sidewise curl of a smile. “They might return to their own times and places a little thinner than they came.”
I remembered the high color in the people’s cheeks and the hint of hysteria in their laughter, and I didn’t think he meant thinner in a physical sense. “A spiritual weight-loss plan?” I said.
He chuckled. “We give good value for what we receive.”
He swept a hand around to indicate the people now filing through five pairs of great doors.
We stopped in the nearest doorway where another gallery overlooked a stage on which a single dancer in white glided and leaped and swayed to a melody that made me want to rise up on my own toes. Her grace seemed hardly human as if the dancer had gone away, leaving only the dance itself gliding around the stage among feather-flakes of snow—white snow, white trees, white dancer—the only color on the stage the red of her shoes that left red tracks behind her on the snow-dusted stage.
I studied the faces of the audience. Every eye glittered. Every mouth hung slack, every cheek burned.
Owen guided me to the next door. On the stage, a young man sat under a spotlight, cradling a guitar. The goth girl with the laces up her sides leaned forward in her seat, lips parted, greedy eyes pinned on the boy’s dark face. His fingers moved on the strings, and I shivered as the music pricked up my spine. His voice joined the guitar—plaintive, beautiful and despairing.
Tears blurred my eyes and thickened my throat. I had been alone most of my life, the one forgotten the moment I left a room. The one trying alway to keep up with Briar who hardly knew other people existed without him.
The boy sang all that, but I couldn’t make out the words. If I could understand what he was saying, I could prune away every ordinary thing about me and make myself sleek and interesting, bright and brilliant as my brother. I tugged against Owen’s arm.
He pulled me back. “Lovely, isn’t he?” he murmured. “He was a talented boy, singing on the street for pennies in an old guitar case and aching for something he couldn’t reach.”
My lashes felt heavy with tears, and my face was wet. “Is this what he wanted?” I asked, sharp because my heart still hurt.
“More than anything in life.”
“That’s crazy.” My voice still shook as the song spilled out of the concert hall.
“To the wise twin, perhaps. But to the clever twin?” He shrugged. “So much to capture in paint or music or movement and so little time in a mortal life.”
In the darkened gallery, the goth girl wept, her eyes still riveted on the stage.
Owen strolled me past more doors, more galleries, more stages, more dancers, more music. We passed a library, its shelves disappearing into distance, where readers sat with backs against the shelves, their faces bent over books and scrolls, mouths slack, eyes racing over words as if they must read everything in a single night.
Another door opened on a feast hall, and Owen paused outside. He tipped his head to bid me look. A long table ran down the length of the room, dressed in silver and linen and heaped with food. A boar lay on a huge platter, meat carved away from its bones, the head intact. People in every kind of costume ate as if they had been starved for centuries, snatching at everything in reach, pushing food into their mouths, staining the tablecloth and their clothes, gulping wine and beer and mead and spilling it down their chins. My stomach churned, and I looked away.
Between the doors hung paintings and tapestries. Art stood in alcoves and niches and on plinths, and it all shone with the light of thousands of artists burning out like shooting stars.
The gallery came to an end, and Owen halted, tilting me a measuring look. “You see what your brother begged for. Would you still take it away from him?”
I thought of the boy with the guitar and the dancer with the bloody feet. “Yes,” I said.
“Then you would bargain with my king?”
He stepped back a bit and studied me. His lips formed a childish pout. “What a shame. And I do like you so very well, too.”
“Trying to frighten me?” I asked.
His little curling sidewise smile. “Bargaining with my King is never safe. Look what it’s done to your brother.” He hugged my arm to his side again. “But sometimes I amuse my king. He might deal well with you for my sake.”