The short story that follows was inspired by the work of the spiffing artist Claudette Anne Pearson, and one image in particular that Claudette posted on Twitter as part of a Halloween Advent Calendar project (reproduced here with thanks).
It’s great, isn’t it? You can check out more of Claudette’s work, all of it brilliant, here.
As for the story itself … I’ve never written anything so directly inspired by the work of another Creative, and it was a strange, but fun, experience, like I was working on a cover version of a much-admired song. I can hear my voice in there, but it’s threaded with the melody of Claudette’s work from the first word to the last. So, with grateful thanks to Claudette for the inspiration and friendship, here it is …
Our Empress is dying.
As the Lord Physician, I am the only man permitted to be in her presence as the hour draws near, though I can sense the guards in the next chamber, ready to carry out her last command to them, to kill me if I fail.
She sleeps now, and the room is near-silent, save for the soft humming of machines and the rasping, rattling ebb and flow of the Empress’s breath as her withered lungs struggle to function. I look down at the wizened figure on the bed before me, already corpse-white, and imagine that its brittle, empty bones must be as thin as the dozens of hooked wires that puncture her papyrus-like skin, linking her to the machines dispassionately recording the decline of pressures and pulses. She wears the Crimson Gown of the Imperial House, as is traditional for this night. She wears her Crown of Skulls, as she does in the portrait above her bed.
The portrait shows her almost a century ago, when my own Mentor was the Lord Physician. The image had been wrought by the land’s most revered artist, and was as haunting now as when the last bristle had slipped from the wet canvas, the union of creation complete. Within the ornate frame, the Empress had been captured at the apex of her beauty and vitality. Braids the hue of embers cascaded from beneath her Crown of Skulls, caressing her sharp, strong features, flushed with the bloom of youth. Her eyes were so blue that they were almost the colour of moonlight, and so bright, so hungry for life, that they might have been painted with a brush dipped into her soul.
I hear soft footsteps and turn to see one of her Handmaidens approaching. She carries a sealed metal box inlaid with black onyx, and as she hands it to me I see that her nails have been chewed down to the quick. Above the machine hum and the tidal, dying breaths, I think I can almost hear the girl’s heartbeat pounding high in her throat, and it occurs to me that the guards have orders to end her life too, should I not succeed.
I am an old man, my grey hair thinning, my once-fine countenance drawn now and hawk-like. My hands are still steady enough to wield a scalpel, as balanced as in my youth, but their contours are like the cartography of some ancient territory, the dark islands that come with age surfacing amid a sea of wrinkles, the thick blue veins winding like rivers towards a mountain range of knuckles. I am old, and fear death, and a shiver of pity and love runs through me for the Handmaiden, with no more than twenty summers in her wake and facing the same fate as me.
Nothing is said, though. I take the box and place it on the table, unsealing the lid to inspect the black shapes within. The room is dim, merely candlelit, and yet the shapes react as though the thin glow is dazzling to their flat, murky eyes. They are creatures of the soil and the rock, harvested from their underground channels and lairs by the Imperial Gatherers. They squirm now in their metal prison, the oiled scales armouring their serpentine bodies clicking wetly as they writhe against each other.
Only two of them left, though. Two out of thirteen. The Gatherers are still searching, with a Legion at every compass point, but the creature’s nests remain undiscovered. Perhaps they had found new places to hide, or perhaps these two specimens are the last in the land. Whichever the case, the slithering, crackling things in this box have become the most valuable treasure imaginable.
Suddenly the Empress arches on the bed, a long, gasping cry escaping her parched lips, and from the next chamber, I imagine I hear the sound of swords being unsheathed. I glance at the Handmaiden and see her dark eyes widening as she hurries to the Empress’s side. She places her soft hands on the old woman’s bony shoulders, easing her gently back on to the bed, quietly mouthing words of comfort.
The twigs of the Empress’s fingers claw at the bed sheets, clutching handfuls of silk, and when I see how her eyelids are flickering, see the thin crescents of cataract-glazed white, I know that it is almost time.
A tray of forceps glimmers in the candlelight. I select one and reach into the metal box, closing the pincers around one of the creatures. It thrashes in the steel embrace, its scales clicking madly, and the other creature seems to entwine itself a little tighter around its captured companion, as though afraid of being alone.
I pull the creature free, though, lifting it smoothly from the box, and turn back to the Empress.
The white folds of her throat have begun to quiver, to ripple, as her mouth falls open and she sighs, some coppery, gangrenous whisper. The Handmaiden flinches, but keeps her hands pressed to the old woman’s shoulders. The Empress’s tongue slides forth to taste her grey teeth, and the wrinkled hollow of her throat pulses faster and faster, until the thin, sunken skin splits, blossoms into bloodless petals. As I draw nearer, I can see the purple-black workings of her throat, and the dark, shrivelled form being expelled from the opening like some nightmare birth.
An inch of the withered shape emerges from the cavity; her throat spasms, again and again, ejecting another segment, then another, until one last convulsive tremor forces the last of it out of her. The thing falls to rest on the front of her Gown, its scales splintered and shedding, the body within them a wasted, blackened husk.
Our Empress Eternal, our beloved Parasite, has used up another life, another century of stolen heartbeats. She sinks back into her bed sheets, her wrinkled brow beaded with sweat. The fleshy petals flanking her throat flutter gently now, as her unnatural mouth releases something like a fetid, contented sigh.
I nod to the Handmaiden, and she steps away, her black hair stuck to her forehead in wet strings, the candlelight sharp in the corners of her dark eyes.
The creature whips back and forth, perhaps sensing its damnation, but my hands are still strong, and steady, and I squeeze the forceps tighter against its struggles. But then … I find myself hesitating, my fear that the guard’s cold steel might be warmed by my blood little more than a receding distraction.
In this critical moment, this mortal void between the expulsion of one creature and the implantation of another, the Empress’s life is as transient and as fragile as my own. If I wait … just wait … then the centuries will draw level with and consume her. In a spasm of dissolution, she will become nothing more than dust and ash.
What I am tasked to do is an abomination, a defiance of the natural order of things. The injustice of it boils in my chest, until my brain spills its cold logic into my heart. Behind my eyes, I feel its chill trickling down, to sting my sinuses and numb my tongue.
I can choose to die, but the Handmaiden’s fate is not mine to decide. I lean forward, lowering the thrashing, clicking creature in the forceps towards the cavity. I can feel the Handmaiden watching me, and still I wonder if I am saving or cursing us both.
The fleshy petals of the Empress’s throat twitch hungrily as the forceps descend, stretching forward to enclose the jolting, terrified body. I can feel the creature being tugged from my grip, and unlock the metal fingers, allowing it to be drawn shuddering into the maw. Behind me, the last of the things thrashes in its metal prison, the scrape of scales against the walls of the box sounding like screams.
The hollow of her throat folds shut, the skin meshing seamlessly as though sewn with invisible stitches. There will be no scar. There never has been.
The rejuvenation is already beginning as I use the forceps to pluck the dead, depleted creature from where it fell. The Handmaiden approaches with another box, this one plain, wooden, like a coffin. I drop the crumpled corpse into it and she withdraws, taking it for whatever disposal awaits.
The Empress and I are alone. Her skin is already smoothing, already beginning to glow with youth. Her hair thickens, the locks flooding with colour as they fall from beneath her Crown of Skulls. Her Crimson Gown ripples and shifts as the body within changes, bones strengthening, sheathed in fresh, taut muscle. She will sleep now, and when she wakes, the portrait above her bed will be as a looking glass. There is nothing more I can do here.
But as I seal the metal box with its solitary captive, as I turn to leave the chamber, I hear a voice, weak and rasping.
Slowly, I turn, my heart like a footprint in snow. Her eyes are open, the cataracts gone. They are blue, almost the colour of moonlight. So bright. So hungry for life.
‘I felt you.’ she tells me. ‘Sensed you. You faltered.’
My lips part but I find no reply. The box in my hands feels heavier suddenly, its occupant silent.
‘It matters not, for I am alive.’ she says, her voice growing stronger, younger, with every syllable. ‘And you are not the first. They all falter.’ She glances at the box. ‘Have the Gatherers discovered more?’
I shake my head. Outside the chamber, I can hear the guards stirring.
‘Then teach your successor well, Lord Physician. I want no hesitation next time.’ She closes her eyes. ‘Leave Us now. We must rest.’
I depart the chamber, and find the guards glaring at me, their bloodlust denied, their fingers tapping fitfully on the hilts of their dry swords. Their Captain takes the box from me, to secure it in some lightless vault for another century, and as he does so I see something of myself that is alien and terrifying, and know that I am lost.
My hands are shaking.