Where I thought we stood at the far end of the gallery, a wide corridor now opened in front of us, lit by smaller chandeliers, and like the corridor downstairs, a current pulled us into the middle of it. Instead of art, this hall contained a clutter of market stalls and tents like an oriental souk. Color and glitter and the smell of sweets made me dizzy. I wanted to stop and study everything, and Owen paused to let me get my bearings.
Jewelry glittered with gold and silver and colored stones, and my fingers itched to run over silk the color of blood or sky or morning mist.
On a puppet stage, a punch and Judy act played in which Punch, hardly looking like a puppet at all, savagely murdered the other characters one after the other, and the blood looked and smelled real.
People browsed feverishly from stall to tent to table, touching, smelling, searching as if they desperately needed something they couldn’t name.
“Would you like to stay a while?” Owen asked in my ear.
For an answer, I pushed into the crowd, driving forward down the middle of the wide corridor. I didn’t see vendors in the stalls. Whoever took payment from the shoppers remained in shadow or they were only shadow to begin with. “There’s no money,” I said. “They’re not paying.”
“Oh, they pay.” Owen chortled. “Just not in coins.”
“In starving souls?” I asked.
“What good are they to you?”
“There’s power in vanity.”
“What do they get out of it?”
“The memory of something only a very few have ever seen. Some come once and are content. Others return over and over, trying to recapture that first rapturous moment of satisfaction.”
“As you like. You don’t want to pause a moment and look? Does nothing appeal to you?”
I wanted to stop at every stall and touch and look and buy. Fabrics and scarves and fans and ornaments and talismans and sweets and all for the price of a tiny piece of soul that I would never miss. “Are you trying to tempt me?”
“Are you tempted?”
“No,” I said, and if it was a lie, it was only a small one.
The light began to fade gradually from the hot yellow of candles to a colder shade. The crowd grew thinner and the booths and tents further apart until the light of the chandeliers faded, replaced by the smoky light of torches mounted on the stone walls.
We passed ghosts—hollow, near translucent people trudging down the corridor in the same direction as ourselves. They saw Owen, and their haggard faces lifted, but they faded from sight behind us as Owen whisked me by at a pace they couldn’t match, though I didn’t feel that I was walking very fast at all. An old woman raised her hand as if she meant to stop us. I looked over my shoulder at the place where she had been.
“On their way to bargain with the king,” Owen said. “They would ask me to intercede for them, but I’m on a special errand tonight.” His hand squeezed mine against his arm. Without the massed candles overhead, his touch chilled me again.
“What do they want?” I asked, staring at a child who looked twelve but had old, bitter eyes.
“Youth, age, fortune, fame, love, revenge. All the momentary things you people think you must have at a wish. That child has lived for ninety years. He had a wish granted to return to the moment when his life went wrong and fix it. Now he regrets his choice and would beg the king to reverse it, but like your brother, he no longer has anything to offer us.”
“What did he give for the first wish?”
“Everything he accomplished in his first life.”
The walls turned to stone, and we kept walking. They went from stone blocks to the walls of a cave, and I began to shiver between the cold of the cave and the cold of Owen’s touch.
My teeth had begun to chatter when I saw the great golden doors four or five yards high at the end of the hall. The grotesque in the center matched the one on the doors downstairs. The portals opened at our approach, and we stopped in the doorway.
Dim yellow light fell from arched windows in high walls, and though I had entered the hotel in full night, the light from the windows suggested day.
The walls themselves were too deep in shadow and the ceiling too high to reveal details. The only clear object in the room was a throne. Heaps of pottery and statuary, instruments and books and jewelry cluttered the five stairs around the dais of the throne. On its seat towered a figure in long gold robes embroidered in red and green. A wreath of holly and mistletoe circled his brow, and above it, a crown of white bone rose from his forehead. He wore over his face a golden mask, the gaping visage from the doors. Swags of greenery draped his chair and his shoulders and fell over the floor.
I would have stepped forward, but Owen held me back. A man knelt at the foot of the heap of treasures, leaning forward, speaking to the indifferent king. The petitioner raised a flat square shape. Recognizing the object as a canvas, I recognized the petitioner as Briar. He extended it toward the figure on the throne.
Owen shook his head. “My king can’t give him what he wants no matter what he offers in return.”
At a sharp word from the king, Briar dropped the painting and offered another, but the king waved a black-gloved hand in dismissal.
Briar cried out as if he had been cut, and I jerked my hand, trying to go to him, but Owen restrained me. Briar said something, pleading, but the king rose from the throne. He must have been taller than any man I had ever seen, taller even than the viking in the lobby. He repeated the sharp word and pointed at the door.
Briar staggered to his feet. Head down, he tottered toward us.
“Briar,” I said.
He raised his head and saw me in the doorway. His mouth fell open. “What are you doing here?”
Then he saw Owen, and his face tightened with anger. “What are you doing with him?”
I reached out to him, mirror and opposite of the gesture of the king, but he didn’t see me.
“Not so special as you thought, Briar?” Owen said, but he didn’t say it cruelly. “Go home, clever twin. The wiser twin has her own business with the king.”
Briar recoiled, his face twisted between despair and shame and betrayal. “Go ahead,” he snapped at me. “Make a deal and see what it gets you.”
Owen shrugged. “You made the deal and took the gift. You still have some left. Use it to create a few more great things and be content when it is gone.”
Briar hissed a curse at both of us and blundered through the doors and down the hall. I called his name, but he disappeared like the shadow people.
“It isn’t release that he wants,” Owen said. “Do you still want to make your bargain?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“As you like.” He led me down the center of the room toward the throne. The king had resumed his seat. His black-gloved hands rested on the arms of his chair, and he watched our approach, impassive in his mask.
Owen halted at the foot of the tall throne and bowed his head. “I found a kitten lost in our halls, my king. What should we do with her?” He curled his sidewise smile and looked up at the king from the corner of his eye.
A voice grated from behind the mask. “Is this one more amusing than the brother?”
“Infinitely, my king.”
The mask turned toward me. “Persis Mitchell, we know you,” he grated. “What do you want from us?”
I raised my voice. “I want my brother back.”
The black-gloved fingers played the arms of the throne. “We do not hold him.”
“I want you to reverse what you did to him.”
“We cannot restore what is already used.”
“Then give him back what’s left.”
“He already has it.”
“Give it back to him the way it was. He’s paid his end of the bargain. He gave you thirteen paintings.”
“And one of those of unusual value,” Owen put in.
The king growled like stone grating against stone. “What do you offer in return?”
Owen made his eyes wide. “Can you ask, my king? You have seen the painting by the clever twin.”
“To reverse my own gift is not small.” The king leaned back and played his fingers on the arms of his throne again. A moment later, he leaned forward. “One service.”
“What?” I asked.
“What service, my king?” Owen said, which wasn’t what I meant.
“To be called for at my choosing,” the king rasped. “One service in the real world where I and my agents cannot go.”
Owen slitted his eyes. “The service asked may not, in itself, be in opposition to the laws, moral or physical, of the real lands.”
The king leaned back. “Acceptable.”
“Nor, in itself, perilous to Persis’ life,” Owen added.
The king made the grating sound again. “Am I the custodian of mortal things?”
“I remind you the favor you would grant is but a small thing in the great scheme.”
The king inhaled a raw, wet breath and let it out with a rasp. “I accept both terms, but I will bargain no further. She will perform a service to me at a time of my choosing under the constraints my servant has named, and we will reverse the gift we granted her brother. He will have only what is naturally left to him of his potential. Do you bind yourself to these terms, Persis Mitchell?”
Owen said, “Persis Mitchell declares the terms, including the constraints added by herself, to be acceptable to her, and she binds herself to them.”
The king leaned back in the throne. “The bargain is made. Your brother is as he was.”
Owen bowed his head. “Thank you, my king. I’ll leave you to your meditations and disturb you no more.”
He hustled me out of the chamber. Outside in the corridor, the golden doors swung silently shut until they met in the middle of the gargoyle face.
I turned to Owen. “That’s all there is to it? He says Briar is back to normal and he is?”
“Would you like me to steal upon your brother while he sleeps and drop on his lids the nectar of a flower that grows nowhere but at the furthest end of the world?” Owen drew me away from the doors.
In this place, I supposed it made as much sense as anything for a curse to be ended in a moment without ceremony. “What kind of service does he want me to do for him?”
He squeezed my arm under his. “No telling. He might want an object or a piece of information, or a message carried to someone he can’t reach. When he does, he’ll send me to you. I told you I’m his lackey and running boy, and I can go about a bit in the real world on fleeting errands.”
“Then what does he need me for? If he wants something fetched and carried, he can send you.”
“Not me,” he said. “I have no power in the real world. A messenger I can be, to one of his agents, but not an agent myself.”
We passed through the market. The shoppers had turned from browsing to snatching and pawing like the diners at the feast. I glimpsed Briar ahead, shoving through the crowd, his face raw with desperation and bitterness.
"He doesn’t look any different,” I said to Owen.
“He might stay until dawn when the doors close on the real world, but when he leaves us, or we leave him, he will be at home asleep, and when he wakes, he will be just as you have asked us to make him.”
Emerging from the market, we came out on the gallery overlooking the ballroom and the tree alight with candles. I didn’t see Briar anywhere.
Owen’s cold breath froze my ear. “What about you, Persis Mitchell? Will you stay and dance down the dark with us?”
And like before, I found myself dancing in his embrace with holly in my hair and mistletoe in his.
“Stay like the rest of them?” I asked, trying to stop my feet and shake the holly off my head.
“Are you like them, Persis Mitchell?”
I freed my hand and threw the prickling holly from my head. “I have to go.” I wanted to get away from him and the starving, bottomless souls and get home and find Briar and see if he was really back to normal.
He pouted and sighed. “Well, we’ll dance again at the equinox when the world balances on its axis. The doors will open across time and space, and I’ll save one especially for you.”
He freed me from the dance and pulled my arm through his again, and we started down the stairs.
“I have what I want,” I said. “I don’t need to come back.”
He clicked his tongue. “You have a debt to the king. You would show good faith by visiting us, if only when we are dancing.”
The gallery corridor below was empty. All the masquers had arrived and gone inside. I saw Briar’s portrait of me, and this time, the under-image was stronger, and she seemed to look straight at me. I looked aside. “You said that was the only time people could get here.”
He tilted his head. “I also told you I could come and go in the real world a bit, and though I don’t have power there, I can still open a door.”
We had come to the outer lobby, the dark little antechamber with the broken balcony rail. The only sign of the unreal world was the great door with its gaping masque amid carved vines. As he spoke, Owen had laid his hand on the door. His clothes had reverted to denim and cotton, but he still wore the mistletoe wreath.
He leaned close to my cheek, and his breath was cool but not freezing. “I do like you very well, Persis Mitchell.”
Then he took my hand and opened the door, and although we were back in the real world, I was dancing again without knowing how it happened, and as I spun under his arm, I stepped through the door and it closed behind me.
I found myself standing in the dark under the viaduct feeling unnatural and unreal. I looked back at the single front door and its plain latch. Through the window, the broken banister hung over the empty lobby—no Owen, no Briar, no chandelier, no costumed dancers. I had been in a hurry to leave. Now I felt like a moth when the candle’s been snuffed.
I trudged through the thick drops of sleet back to Briar’s studio where I had left my car. I let myself into the building and climbed the stairs. Briar hadn’t been back since my first visit, but a few things had changed.
The seashore painting on the easel was still as good as anything he had ever done, but it lacked the depth and intensity I had first seen in it. It was Briar’s typical work, the sort of thing people want to hang on their walls. I opened the drying racks and looked at the pieces there. All Briar’s work—good, pleasant, skillful, but not brilliant.
I left the studio and found Briar in his apartment, sound asleep on top of his blankets. I shook him awake, and he raised his head.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
He rubbed his hand through his tangled hair and looked around as if he didn’t know where he was. “What time is it?”
“It’s four in the morning. Where have you been?”
He flopped back on the bed. “Right here. I came home after you left the studio.”
“You didn’t go somewhere else first?”
“Right, I forgot. I went to Seattle Center to get a prostitute. She’s around here somewhere.”
I didn’t want to be the first to bring up the hotel or the king. “You don’t remember seeing me?”
He draped one arm over his eyes, got a whiff of himself and made a face. “Of course I remember seeing you. I just said I came home after I saw you at the studio.”
I chewed the inside of my lip. “Where have you been for the last three months?”
“Do you have butter in your ears, Perse? I told you I’ve been getting ready for the new show at the gallery.”
No, he hadn’t said anything about the new show, but he thought he had been getting ready for it, and the pictures had changed.
I think the normal reaction would have been to dismiss the night in the hotel as a dream, but maybe I wasn’t quite as normal as I had been. I never doubted it had really happened. Even when I left Briar’s apartment and spent an hour walking up and down under the viaduct without finding the hotel, the memory felt perfectly natural, as if people regularly stumbled into supernatural masquerades held on midwinter night in derelict hotels.
Briar, on the other hand, seemed to have no memory of midwinter night or much of the months leading up to it. At least if he did, he wasn’t admitting.
Briar brought Gracia to Christmas dinner with our parents. I watched him twining his fingers through hers. She looked down at their linked hands with an expression of dazzled bemusement behind the rims of her big round glasses.
Over turkey and gravy, Briar announced that Gracia had gotten him a commission to do cover art for a small book publisher based in Seattle.
“They’re thrilled to get him,” Gracia squeaked.
Dad nodded enthusiastically. “Great to have something steady to fall back on.” As if Briar hadn’t been supporting himself comfortably without “something steady” for the last ten years.
Did he have enough talent left, I wondered. I said, “I thought that kind of thing wasn’t real art.”
Mom made an urgent, for goodness’ sake shut up face.
Briar shrugged and reached for more sweet potatoes with the hand that wasn’t holding Gracia’s under the table. “So what?”
I picked at my turkey. A week ago, my brother would have snapped the head off anyone who suggested working on commission.
Mom asked Gracia if they were finding enough things for the new show.
Gracia straightened, her pixie face lifting as she launched into her favorite subject. “Oh, lots. The stuff he’s been doing lately is just wonderful, but of course, it’s all brilliant. It’s just a matter of choosing a theme…”
Gracia could go on praising Briar’s genius for half an hour at a time.
“Have you been painting this week?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Too busy.”
I picked through the rest of my dinner with a weight on my chest. The king had apparently filled his part of the bargain. He had reversed whatever had made my brother paint so many brilliant, haunted canvases and given him back whatever was left of the talent he had been burning out, but the result wasn’t exactly Briar. I wondered if I would ever be able to look at my twin without feeling I had stolen something from him.
Briar never gave his own paintings as Christmas or birthday presents, but when it came time for him to distribute his gifts, he said, “I found this at the studio. I don’t remember when I did it, but I thought you’d like it.”
He handed me a flat oblong wrapped in glitter-dusted paper. Opening it, I looked down at a portrait of me. It wasn’t the one from the gallery in the hotel. This was Briar’s ordinary work again. It showed me wearing a circlet of holly around my head. Snow dusted my hair and the shoulders of my red wool coat. In the background, ivy grew over a dark wall. The Persis in the painting frowned at the artist as if she couldn’t understand why he was painting her.
I tilted the canvas to catch the light squarely, and in the moving shadows, a gaping gargoyle masque seemed to glance out of the wall among the vines and disappear. I blinked and turned the painting again, trying to catch the light at the same angle, but the illusion didn’t reoccur.
“When did you paint this?” I asked.
He had been whispering something in Gracia’s ear that made her cheeks flush. He raised his head. “I don’t know. I found it in the middle of a stack of canvases I haven’t looked at in years.
“But this is my red wool coat.”
He snorted. “You’ve always had a red coat. Every time you wear one out, you get a new one just like it.”
At nine o’clock, I stood on the sidewalk with my hand resting on the top of my car. Behind me, Briar and Gracia were still saying goodbye. Mom had realized belatedly that my brother hadn’t brought Gracia as his gallery agent, and she hugged Gracia with the desperate hope of a starving soul.
The front yard looked over Lincoln park, black with the outlines of trees beyond the arc lights. Something had caught my attention among the trees, but I couldn’t see it clearly. I blinked and squinted and shaded my eyes. For a moment, a light seemed to beam out of the forest while spectral pipes and horns and drums played in my ear. As my eyes slipped across it again, the light framed a figure I thought I almost recognized. Then light and music disappeared
I climbed in my car, started the engine and pulled out onto Fauntleroy way. Following the winding street out to the West Seattle Bridge, I tried to recall the figure I had seen for a moment in the light. The only feature I remembered clearly was the wreath it had worn on its head, and I felt almost entirely sure if I had been close enough, I would have seen it was mistletoe.
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Treasure hunter Audette Godfrey has gone everywhere and done everything. Now she's after one last treasure--the one that will take her where no-one has ever gone before. All she has to do is reach it before the cultists, who want it for their own terrible purposes, and evade the bounty hunter on her trail.
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