One Little Room an Everywhere, K.J. Parker

Illustration by Kathleen Jennings

(c) 2012 Kathleen Jennings

“Well now,” he said, giving me a sad smile. “What on earth are we going to do with you?”

A valid question, to which I’ve never been able to think of an answer. “I thought,” I lied, “maybe teaching?”

He shook his head slowly. “I wouldn’t, if I were you,” he said. “It takes a special sort of person to teach. Besides–” He didn’t need to say it, and wisely saved his breath.

I’d wanted to be a Brother of the Studium, an adept, a practitioner, a wizard, for as long as I could remember. “All right,” I said, “what about commercial work? I understand they’re crying out for qualified men in East Permia.”

“Yes,” he said. “But it wouldn’t suit you. Commercial calls for certain qualities which maybe aren’t your strongest suits. And–” He hesitated. “To be brutally frank, the Studium has a duty to ensure that the candidates we recommend for placements abroad meet certain standards. We have a reputation, which we’ve worked hard to build up. No, I can’t honestly say we could support you if you chose to go down that road.”

I nodded. None of this was coming as an earth-shattering surprise to me. “Fine,” I said. “So what would you suggest?”

He looked at me for about as long as it takes to recite the Abbreviated Creed. “You know,” he said, “there’s a wide selection of highly rewarding careers outside the profession which you might well consider. Your qualifications,” he glanced down at the file, “such as they are, ought really to be a gateway to your true vocation, not a cage holding you back from doing what you were born to do. Which could well,” he added gently, “be something not directly involving the day-to-day use of the talent. Let’s see, now,” he went on, grabbing the file as though it were a friendly hand and he was drowning, “you’ve got lots and lots of outside interests, according to what it says here. Painting. Play-acting. And I see you play the bassoon.”

“Not very well,” I said.

He nodded. He believed me. “A marked creative streak,” he carried on. “Maybe something in the fine arts.” He paused. “Well, perhaps not. But connected to the fine arts, perhaps. Brother Perceptuus says you’re good with figures. Accountancy–”

As soon as it was polite to do so, I thanked him and left. I bore him no ill will. I’d come to the same conclusion quite some time ago. Ten years in the Studium, studying the Science, wasted.

Not quite. If I’d been completely useless and talentless, they’d have thrown me out when I was twelve. I have the innate ability. I can do quite a wide range of Forms, some of them very well indeed. I can do Rooms, and I was third in my class in Voices in sixth year. But there are things I can’t do, no matter how hard I try, and they happen to be basic, fundamental skills, without which I couldn’t possibly cope in any form of practice. I can’t See worth a damn: it’s humiliating, really. We went on a field trip to a battlefield once, and I just stood there, while all the rest of the class were talking to people I couldn’t see or hear, watching invisible armies sweeping across the meadow, minutely describing things that to me simply weren’t there. The Brother was very kind to me, but I could feel his contempt. I’d have quit the Studium then and there if I’d had any place to go.

 

#

 

There I was, then; twenty-five years old, penniless, unqualified – I had my basic degree, but with no references or recommendations, it was useless for all practical purposes – no family to sponge off, nothing.

Again, not strictly true. When you leave, you’re supposed to hand in your textbooks, which are of course restricted texts, illegal to own for non-adepts. I guess I had things on my mind. I neglected to give my books back when I left, and when a nice man in the booksellers’ quarter offered me sixty-five angels for the set, I hesitated, but only long enough for him to say all right, seventy.

One of those seventy angels bought me enough industrial-strength brandy to drown my conscience and my sorrows. Five of them got me an attic room for a month in the Tanneries. I put aside twenty-five quarters for food and so forth; the rest I spent on paints, brushes, eighth-inch ten-year-seasoned limewood boards, gesso, a fine-tooth saw, a framer’s hammer, twelve sticks of willow charcoal, two quarters’ worth of wire nails and ten sheets of gold leaf. Then I went to the Golden Spire temple, by way of the dockyards (you can always pick up a few scraps of sixteenth-inch veneer offcuts from the trash bins outside the Arsenal) and spent a day making sketches.

I spoilt three good boards and a quarter of a sheet of the gold leaf before I came up with anything that looked like anything. The fourth board was more or less all right, but I looked at it for a bit and threw it on the fire. The fifth attempt I gilded, framed and took down to the Golden Spire steps. An hour later, I’d sold it, for nine angels. And that was that. In the few seconds it took for me to let go of the board and accept the coins, I was transformed – greater and more wonderful magic than any Form I’d learned at the Studium – into a professional iconographer.

It’s a wonderful feeling when, after a quarter of a century of frustrating bewilderment, you finally find out who you are. I won’t say it didn’t come as a surprise, but really, I didn’t mind in the least. I imagine it’s what coming home must feel like, though of course I wouldn’t know about that.

 

#

 

In orthodox icon-painting, there are nine subjects:

  1. the victory of the Invincible Sun;
  2. the ascent of the Invincible Sun;
  3. the triumph of the Invincible Sun;
  4. the Invincible Sun in glory;
  5. the Invincible Sun, wearing lorus and divitision and holding labarum and globus cruciger, receiving the homage of the First Emperor;
  6. the Invincible Sun, crowned, wearing chlamys and holding acacia, giving the key of the City to the First Emperor;
  7. as three, but the Invincible Sun wears the double crown without pendetilia;
  8. the transmigration of the Invincible Sun; and
  9. the coronation of the Invincible Sun.

There are those who take the view that the limited range of subject matter in iconography tends to stifle creativity and holds back the development of the graphic arts. This is simply and demonstrably untrue. Look at icons painted a thousand years ago and you’ll see significant differences. In Category 5, for example, a thousand years ago the Invincible Sun held the labarum in his left hand and the globus in his right; these days, it’s the other way around. Category 7 was added as recently as AUC 1744, so it’s barely five hundred years old. On a more intangible level, stylistic innovation is the only real constant; just look at the different ways in which shading is used by Symbatus, say, and Laelianus. Or take the single tear on the Sun’s face in Category 2. Scylitzes uses at least four distinct colors, from dove grey to pure linen white. Macrianus, by contrast, merely hints at its presence with a fleck of silver, visible only from certain angles. And Corydon notoriously left it out altogether in his great Recessional Triptych – which led, of course, to his temporary anathemisation, furious debates in the Golden Chapter, and a serious riot in Ap’ Escatoy. Sorry, but no; anyone who says that the conventions are a limiting factor in iconography is missing the point completely. That’s like saying all people are identical and interchangeable just because they have one head and two legs.

Anyhow, the conventions suit me just fine. They’re a wonderful thing if you can paint the Invincible Sun, and I can. Partly it’s a gift I was born with. Mostly, though, it’s cheating.

 

#

 

I wasn’t there when the silk merchant in Conessus beat his wife to death with a footstool, nor when that deranged woman set fire to the orphanage in Salim Beal. When those terrible murders were going on in the potters’ quarter I was out of town, delivering two Category Fours to the Glorious Hope monastery. Quite obviously I had nothing to do with the plague in Antecyra, nor could anybody possibly hold me responsible in any way for the Boc Bohec earthquake, the Seal Island tidal wave, the flooding in Sembrai or the outbreak of the Second Vesani War. True, I was in the City when Senator Bryennius killed his children and their nurse, and when the Olybrias family were all found dead in their beds. I was in the City; so were approximately two hundred and fifty thousand other people. There’s not a single shred of evidence to connect me to any of these terrible things. And, true, I have the ability, which I was born with; so were the six hundred or so adepts of the Studium, not to mention the staff, students and visiting fellows of the six daughter academies spread across the empire, and the unquantified number of untrained and unidentified talented who have the misfortune to live in foreign lands. I tell myself that I worry too much about these things.

 

#

 

I cheat.

You must promise not to tell anybody. For one thing, it’d destroy my reputation, and the price of my canvasses would plummet, causing distress and financial loss to all the innocent people who’ve spent so much money buying them. Also, it’s against the law. Actually, I’m not sure how anybody could bring a prosecution, since offences involving misuse of the talent are covered by canon law and therefore can’t be prosecuted by a civil authority, but since I never qualified I’m not officially an adept and therefore can’t be tried in front of an ecclesiastical court. It’s one of those grey areas, and I have no particular desire to be the cause of a bright light being brought to shine on it.

I mentioned that I can do some Forms. One of these is a tricky little thing called talis artifex. You won’t find it in any of the books, even if you were allowed to read them. Talis artifex is proscribed, which means it’s illegal to use: also to copy out, quote from, refer to in passing, even in an approved scholarly commentary, or even to know by heart. But – well, you can’t really expect scientists to destroy data once it’s been discovered, or scholars to burn authentic source material. Worse than murder, to the academic mindset. So talis artifex still exists, in the fifth volume of the Appendix to the Universal Concordat, which is located on the closed shelves on the west wall of the South Hall of the New Library, on the third floor, next to the fine stained-glass window with the scenes from the Ascension, by Scylitzes. I guess that if anyone’s to blame, it’s the architect who built the South Hall, and thought it’d be a good idea to have a drainpipe running down that side of the building so close to the window; or possibly the leadsmith who made the drainpipe, and decided it’d look better with the fluted neo-Romantic decorative twiddles, which really do look very fine but which provide excellent footholds for bad people, like me, who have other uses for drainpipes beside the collection and removal of rainwater.

(Here let the record show that the Brother who did my careers interview neglected to mention one of my most significant talents, namely climbing up things in the dark. He can’t be blamed for that, since I’ve tried to keep it quiet, for various reasons. Still.)

So; on a moonless night in my second year, I made the acquaintance of talis artifex. Needless to say I’d never heard of it, and the book doesn’t actually tell you what it does and what it’s for; it just sets out the words and tells you what Room you need to be in and what you have to do once the words take effect. I copied it out on a scrap of waste parchment, along with a bunch of other equally illegal Forms from the same source, went back to my cell and tried to figure out what I’d just got hold of.

A problem that inevitably goes with stealing illegal Forms you don’t understand is that there’s nobody you can ask. Presumably somewhere in the Studium there was someone who knew how you made the thing work, and what you had to look out for, and all that; but it goes without saying, I couldn’t expect any help from anyone. All I could do was try it out and see if I could figure it out for myself. Not such a problem for an accomplished adept, but for someone like me, painfully aware of his own shortcomings, it was rather a daunting prospect. Still, with the likelihood of being thrown out of the Studium at any moment hanging over me, and the sure and certain knowledge that I’d have a living to make and precious few assets to help me make it, I couldn’t afford to turn my back on anything that might prove useful in my near and unpromising future. If it’s banned, I argued, it must do something, and that something must be pretty big and powerful; in which case, in the right circumstances, it’s got to be worth something to somebody. It’s reasoning like that, of course, which led the Order to prohibit such things in the first place. I only wish they’d made a better job of it.

 

#

 

To perform talis artifex, you need to be in the east Room on the fifth floor. Rooms have never been a problem for me. All I have to do is close my eyes and imagine a door in the nearest wall. I open the door, and there’s a staircase. Up the staircase; there’s a first floor landing with four doors at the cardinal points, or I can carry on up to the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth floors. Actually, I’d never ventured beyond the fifth floor, because in order to survive up there, so our lecturer told us in First Year, you need to be at least competent in mundus vergens, which I’ve never been able to do. Still, that leaves twenty of the twenty-four Rooms that I can get to and work in, so I’ve never lost much sleep over it.

Fifth east is not one of my favorites. According to the Appendix to the Universal Concordat, it exists in the same elevation of the same plane as Absolute One; which means, in the split second during which you cross the threshold and shut the door carefully behind you, technically speaking you’re dead. Of course you come to life again the moment the door closes, which is nice, but you have to die again when you leave. In practice, you’re dead for such a short fragment of time that your heart doesn’t have a chance to stop beating, and you’re not supposed to be able to notice anything at all. But I always get a sort of choking fit, like I’m suffocating. Purely my imagination, of course, but none the less upsetting for all that. Also, there’s something about the Room itself that always gives me a splitting headache – not while I’m there, not after I leave and come back to the here and now, but forty-eight hours later, infallibly, like clockwork, every time. Renovare dolorem won’t shake it, and neither will willow-bark tea. I just have to lie down with the blinds drawn and keep still and quiet until about half an hour after Vespers, by which point it begins to wear off, though it leaves me weak and shaky. You look like death, people say to me when they see me like that, and I nod and say, yes, and hope they’ll go away.

But fifth east is where you have to go to do talis artifex, so I go there. The first time – remember, at this point I had no idea what talis artifex does or what was supposed to happen – I walked in and closed the door behind me, and there was this man sitting in a chair looking down at something he was resting on his knee. I couldn’t see his face or what he was up to because he had the light from the window behind him.

“Oh,” he said, looking up, “it’s you.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“About time you showed up,” he said; and that was when I realized what was wrong, or at least very unusual. It made me choose my words carefully.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but do you know me?”

That didn’t deserve a reply, apparently. “It’s all ready for you,” he said, and then I could see what he was doing. He was painting an icon. He gave it a sort of oh-well-could-be-worse sideways glance, then picked it up carefully by the edges and held it out at me. “There you go,” he said. “Careful, the gesso’s still a bit tacky.”

I didn’t take it, naturally. “Excuse me,” I said, “but what’s this for?”

He gave me a bewildered look; then he started to laugh. “Oh for crying out loud,” he said. “You don’t know, do you?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t–”

“You don’t know what it’s for.” He gave me an enormous smirky grin and put the icon back on his knee. Suddenly I wanted it more than anything in the whole world. “You don’t know,” he taunted me. “You clown.”

“All right.” By then I was too angry to give a damn about anything. “Let me see if I can guess.”

He shook his head. “Not in a million years.”

Talis artifex,” I said (he winced), “meaning ‘such a craftsman’.”

“So what?”

And suddenly I knew. No idea how. Well, in retrospect, I have several viable hypotheses, but now of course it’s far too late. “It’s a Form for creating things,” I said. “Artefacts. Works of art.”

He raised his eyebrows. I could see him quite clearly now. He was an old man, bald, fat, many chins, liver spots on scalp and hands, pale blue eyes. “Not bad,” he said. “Not art, necessarily. Anything you like, so long as it’s made by human hands.”

“But the very best quality.”

“Of course,” he replied gravely. “In all other respects I may be ethically bankrupt, but I give value for money. Ask anybody.” He held the icon out again. “You want it or not?”

I hesitated. “When I get back–”

He frowned at me. “What do you want, a user’s manual? Take it, or go away. Your choice.”

It was a Category 6, outstanding, magnificent; and when I got back, opened my eyes and found myself sitting in the chair I’d been sitting in when I closed my eyes a fraction of a second earlier, there it was, in my hands, the gesso still gleaming slightly on top of the gold leaf. I could distinctly remember having painted it; every step of its creation, the planning, the composition, the charcoal sketches, drawing the outlines, grinding and mixing the colors, the painting, the fixing, applying the gesso, gently pressing down the gold leaf, the final inking in of the names and signature with the pin-feather of a woodcock. Only I hadn’t bought my paints or sold my textbooks yet. I was still a student in good standing at the Studium, and I’d never painted an icon in my life. Didn’t know how to, in fact.

I said it was a Category 6, and it was. I’ve also talked briefly about the creative dynamic between innovation and tradition. My innovation – I distinctly remembered making the decision and executing it – was to paint a small window in the wall of the City gatehouse, just above and to the left of the First Emperor’s head.

I knew exactly what to do. I wrapped an old pillowcase around it, took it to a patch of waste ground I know out back of the Excise warehouse, drenched it in lamp-oil and set light to it. It burned with a green flame, which was weird.

 

#

 

Let me rephrase that slightly. I knew exactly what had to be done. I have this instinct, in fact, for knowing what has to be done – the right thing, the proper course of action, and of course its antithesis, the wrong thing, the very bad thing. Trouble is, I don’t always follow that instinct. Not, I hasten to add, because I’m particularly reckless, feckless, irresponsible or plain stupid. It’s always circumstance, bad luck, unforeseeable supervening factors, someone else’s fault. In this case, it was leaving the Studium with no useful qualifications, no money, nowhere to go. I knew exactly what had to be done and what had to be not-done. No grey areas this time. Perfect noonday clarity. But what can you do?

 

#

 

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Epistemius.

No it isn’t, of course. You couldn’t pronounce my name. Actually, it’s been so long since I was around native no-Vei speakers, I couldn’t pronounce my name. But when I joined the Studium, naturally I took a name in religion, like you do. I called myself after a twelfth-century Patriarch of Perimadeia – if you’re trying to figure out who I am, you can look up the list, but it won’t do you much good; there were thirty-six Patriarchs in the course of the twelfth century, and all of them named themselves after Fathers of the Early Temple, so go fish. Then, when I left the Studium and set up as a professional artist, naturally I chose myself a nom de brosse, like you do. I chose Epistemius in honor of Epistemius of Tyana, an unjustly neglected Desert school master of the early Mannerist period. Actually, I chose the name because my original idea was to forge Epistemius icons, and the law says that if you sign your actual name to a painting, even if it’s a perfect copy of someone else’s work, that’s not a crime. You see; always anxious to obey the law and do the right thing. Story of my fucking life.

The forgery thing never got off the ground. No need. Thanks to talis artifex, my artistic career hit the ground running. The ninth icon I painted sold for a hundred and six angels, an obscene amount of money, more than my poor old father made in a year fair-copying writs and title deeds in a law office. That was just the start. My fifteenth icon was commissioned at one thousand angels. I’ll write that again, so there’s no mistake. One thousand angels. Ridiculous.

At that point, I realized it was time to quit. I was still living in the squalid dump in the Tanneries, with three angels left out of the proceeds of selling the textbooks, plus the eighteen hundred-odd I’d made from my fifteen sales. I hadn’t spent a single trachy on anything except rent, food, paints, very occasionally a bottle of bleach-grade domestic red to help me get over the after-painting horrors I mentioned earlier. Eighteen hundred angels; I could’ve bought a farm, or a ship, or a share in an established business. All my troubles were over, and the mind-crushing dread that had been haunting me ever since I realized I wasn’t going to make the grade at the Studium had at some point evaporated and drifted away, without my even noticing it was gone. Three months of earning my own living, and I didn’t have to any more. Set up for life. Free and clear. Mission accomplished, job done, the rest of the day’s your own. Oh yes.

Time to quit, but I didn’t. Since then I’ve often asked myself why, and the answer’s stupidly simple. People kept asking me to paint icons, and offering me silly amounts of money; and I thought, all right, one more trip, just one more, and that’ll be that. But it was so hard to say no when abbots and viscounts and chairmen of companies came to call on me – they came to me, up my seven flights of stairs to my desperately-needs-painting doesn’t-quite-close-properly door in the stinking heart of the Tanneries, and they were polite, respectful, anxious, keen, desperate to get the chance to buy a genuine Epistemius, so they wouldn’t be left out. I tried to shoo them away by doubling my price; two thousand angels, or I wouldn’t lay a finger on a brush. They’d look round at the grey patches on the walls and the cobwebs on the ceiling and the blue mould on the wedge of stale cheese on the windowsill, and they’d say, two thousand, no problem, would you like me to write you a draft now? I’m far too weak to resist that kind of bullying. I gave in. I knew it was the wrong thing to do. I always know.

 

#

 

There was this client. He was a dealer in cotton, ivory and nutmeg, fifty-six years old, member of the Board of Trade, governor of his local Temple. His daughter was getting married, and he needed a special gift for his son-in-law’s parents; father was a judge, mother was an off-relation of the Vatatzes, so it’d have to be something really outstanding. He knew for a fact that they were buying him a snow-white eagle; “and I don’t do falconry, I don’t have the time, I hate the outdoors, but they’ll expect me to go hawking with them on the Downs, so I’ll just have to grin and bear it. You understand, I’m sure. I need to be able to hold my own, to fight back, or they’ll swamp me. Please,” he said, “can you help me? Money isn’t an issue.”

My heart bled for him, as I’m sure yours would have done; so, for three thousand angels I agreed to paint him a Category 6. He was delighted. I could see him filling up with joy, like he was a jug or something. “That’s fantastic,” he said. “Really wonderful, the best news I’ve had all year. When will it be ready?”

“I’m a bit busy right now,” I said. “But before the spring, definitely.”

He looked at me. “The wedding’s in ten days,” he said.

I always tell them I’m busy. It’s not true. “Fine,” I told him. “It’ll be ready.”

I used to paint at an old beechwood kitchen table. It was already there when I moved in. I shifted it a little so it was next to the window, to catch as much light as possible. Silly, really. Given my method of creating works of art, I could just as easily have worked in a pitch-black cellar with my hands tied behind my back. All I needed was a wall, to imagine a door in. I didn’t even have to be able to see the wall, just as long as I knew it was there. But I’d read somewhere about real artists’ studios, and they have four really big windows, one in each wall, so they can get all the light that’s going, every degree and gradation. It’s supposed to be different for iconographers, who paint by the inner light. Zeuxis was blind, and Symbatus used to paint with his eyes shut. Bardanes the Younger worked in a tower with solid walls and a single small hole in the roof, so that all the light came from above. I think I liked sitting by the window because it meant I could look out, let me rephrase that, so I could look down, on the heads of the poor people in the street, one of whom I would’ve been, if I hadn’t found a good way of cheating.

 

#

 

So anyway, I painted the poor fool his Category 6, or at least it got painted while I sat with my eyes shut; a day for everything to dry properly – tell me why, for crying out loud, if it’s all done by magic, why is it always still slightly wet? Would it kill them to dry the paint and cure the gesso, just once? – and then send a page round to say it’s ready for collection. I made them come to me, of course. Catch me climbing up and down all those stairs. Bad enough doing it in Rooms, where you never get tired or out of breath—

He was thrilled with it, naturally. I got my draft, drawn on the Tarasius Brothers, so as good as a big stack of coins and far less heavy to cart about. Thanks, I said; no, thank you, he said, and left. And, as he walked through the door (I guess he thought I couldn’t see him at that angle) his face changed slightly. Just a hint of – oh, I don’t know. Maybe I got away with it, maybe I fooled him. Maybe a touch of spite, gloating, savage happiness. And maybe I imagined it.

But I wasn’t there, I really and truly wasn’t anywhere near, I have witnesses, when a Court of Appeals judge strangled his aristocratic wife with his bare hands before slashing his wrists with a razor. When I heard about it, in some bakehouse somewhere, I didn’t make the connection straight away. It was only later, when I overheard someone saying that the wife was a Vatatzes on her mother’s side and the family were furious, up in arms, that I remembered what my client had told me, and the look on his face I wasn’t supposed to see.

 

#

 

What do you take me for? Some kind of hero? What did I do? I did nothing. I thought about it, a lot, but I was able to persuade myself that there was insufficient evidence to form anything apart from a purely intuitive connection between the unfortunate judge and my icon and the prohibition on talis artifex. The latter, I’ll admit, had given me a degree of concern, but there were all sorts of good reasons why the Studium should’ve decided to outlaw such a confoundedly useful Form. Think about it. If any adept could perform any work of art or craft simply by going to a Room and placing an order, it’d be the ruination of artisan industry right across the Empire. We exist by permission of the untalented. They put up with us partly because they really have no idea what we can or can’t do, partly because we keep ourselves to ourselves and don’t throw our weight around. Upset that delicate balance and you’d have riots and adepts burnt alive in the streets (which is precisely what happened in Auxentia about ninety years ago). Now that’s a perfectly good reason for prohibiting talis artifex; logical, reasonable and no need to dream up anything dark and sinister to account for the ban. That’s what I told myself, and I ended up believing it. I don’t know. Maybe I should’ve been a lawyer.

But then there was the silk merchant in Conessus, and the fire in Salim Beal, and a bunch of other sad news items, and I went to the Bank and asked how much money there was in my account, and the clerk went away and looked in the book, and when he came back he was much more polite than he had been; he offered me a seat and a glass of wine, and was there anything else he could do for me? I walked home slowly. The whole point of painting icons was making money, surely; enough money to live on, to be comfortable, not to have to worry any more. Well, I’d reached that point, passed it, all my troubles were over. It occurred to me that I was still living in a horrible dark, damp room in the Tanneries and eating stale bread and cheese that was only fit for pigs or students, as if I was still waiting for something. But that something had happened, and it had all worked out just fine, so why was I still there? Why was I still painting icons?

Not, it goes without saying, because I’m a natural born artist who lives only to create things of beauty and joy forever. I don’t actually know if I can paint; I haven’t tried since I was sixteen. Certainly not because I’m driven by my faith to glorify the Invincible Sun, since I don’t believe in Him and I never have. The best explanation I could come up with was that I’d become addicted to making money. I believe it’s a common complaint among people who used to be poor, and who can never quite bring themselves to believe that they’ve got enough now and will never be poor again. Just another five hundred or another thousand, they tell themselves, to be on the safe side, just in case, because you never know. I could believe that that was me; but even if that was what was keeping me in the nasty attic room doing illegal magic, there was no reason why I had to carry on that way. Other methods of making money – respectable methods, practically harmless – were now open to me. I could buy into a trading company, or get a farm or two, or invest in a building consortium in the City. Obviously, there’s no way of making money that doesn’t hurt somebody somewhere, but there are degrees of scale and immediacy. A merchant prince or a banker or a wealthy landowner isn’t generally required to take responsibility for the people he cheats, screws and starves; society couldn’t function if that were the case. It was time, I couldn’t help thinking, that I got out of icon painting and into some decent line of business.

 

#

 

But you know how it is. A good night’s sleep, followed by an early morning visit from the president and guardians of the Scriveners’ Guild – two thousand angels for a Category 1, to be hung above the altar in the new chapel they were building at the Guildhouse. One possible explanation I hadn’t really considered: maybe I just don’t like saying no to people. Anyway, I took the commission. They were delighted; and so what if their joy came from knowing that they were going to get a genuine Epistemius, while their deadly rivals in the Clerks’ Federation had nothing more impressive in their chapel than a small, smoke-blackened bit of old plank optimistically attributed to Narses the Elder. Joy is joy, and it’s contagious.

 

#

 

So, after a light lunch and an hour reading Saloninus’ Essays (which always helps me clear my mind), I closed my eyes and thought of a door. It swung open, and there were the stairs, and shortly afterwards I closed the door of fifth east carefully behind me.

Now it’s a well-known fact about Rooms that they’re rarely the same twice. There’s a bucketload of theories to explain it; the truth is, nobody knows and practitioners don’t really care. On this occasion, fifth east was looking particularly fine. The walls were covered in the most exquisite mosaic – hunting and pastoral scenes, I think – while the ceiling was a gilded fresco in the style of Dalassenus, a sort of giant Category Five but with attendant troops of angels and transcended saints watching from the sidelines. There was a stunning rose window, with blue, yellow and red glass, which drew the accents out of the walls and sort of mixed with them, creating colors I’m not sure I’d ever seen before. Instead of the usual table there was a great big marble slab, behind which sat a short, thin dark-haired young man with a weak, unshaven chin and huge brown eyes with bags under them. He looked up at me and gave me a shy smile. He was me.

Well, you see all sorts of weird stuff, and mostly it doesn’t mean a damn thing. “Hello,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

I tried not to stare. “I want an icon,” I said.

“Of course you do.” He was still smiling in that awkward, anxious-to-please way I really wish I could grow out of some day. “What’ve you got in mind? Any particular category?”

“One,” I said.

He nodded. “That shouldn’t be a problem. How big?”

I always ask that; because people never tell you unless you ask, and if it’s not the size they wanted, you get the blame. “About so big,” I said, doing the hand movement my Scrivener friends had done two hours earlier. “Gilded, of course.”

“Naturally.” Of course gilded. Icons are always gilded, but customers keep telling me like I don’t know my own business. “When do you need it by?”

“Soon as possible.” I looked at him. He was making notes, in my tiny, neat-looking-but-very-hard-to-read handwriting; Cat 1, m, gld’d, asap. Nobody on earth writes like me. Nobody else can read what I’ve written. I couldn’t stand it any longer. “Who are you?” I said.

It’s the one question you don’t ask. He gave me a slightly hungry expression. “You want to know my name?”

Trick question, of course. “You’re Epistemius.”

“That’s right.” He nodded happily. “An assumed name, of course, the name used by whoever it is who paints Epistemius’s paintings. Was that the answer you wanted?”

I got the feeling I was being let off the hook, given a second chance. “I’m sorry,” I said quickly.

“Not at all.” His smile faded. “If I were you,” he said, “I’d get out of here, right now. And I don’t think I’d come back.”

“If you were me.”

He smiled feebly and nodded. “I know,” he said. “But it’s good advice. You’d do well to follow it.”

I took a step back, then hesitated. “My icon,” I said.

“What? Oh.” He nodded and handed it to me. “You do know what’ll happen, don’t you?” he said sadly.

“No.”

“Ah well.”

“What? What’ll happen?”

“It won’t be your fault.” He looked straight at me. I looked away. “It’s an interesting idea,” he went on. “Supposing you knew there was something you could do, and it’d lead to something bad, but nobody would ever blame you for it. It’s better than the perfect crime, because even if there was such a thing, there’s always the possibility that you could confess, and then they’d take you away and hang you. But if this something couldn’t possibly be your fault, even if you confessed, nobody would listen.”

“What? What something?”

“You mustn’t blame yourself,” he said. “Please bear that in mind. You’re not responsible.”

The room was getting dark. I looked past him, and saw that the window was closed and shuttered. One of the few things I learned at the Studium was, don’t hang around in dark Rooms.

“Goodbye,” he called out after me as I opened the door. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

 

#

 

It was a beautiful icon, though I do say so myself. Into it, someone had poured all the sins and sorrows of the world, above which the Invincible Sun rose in glory, rising from them but completely unsullied and untouched, pure triumphant innocence, His face perfectly serene, the absence of expression that includes all possible expressions, just as rivers drain into the sea. I wish I’d painted that, I said to myself, and I signed it. In passing I noticed that the window in the tower in the background (my own unique touch; my sole contribution to iconography) was closed and shuttered; also, that all the light in the picture was coming from the front.

 

#

 

I waited, and nothing happened. I waited two days, two weeks, two months, still nothing. Finally I couldn’t bear it any longer, so I went to the Scriveners’ Guildhouse and asked if I could see my icon.

They were delighted to show it to me. The great hall smelt new; drying plaster, a faint sweet smell of new wood, a hint of mustiness from the priceless antique tapestries on the walls. My icon hung in the nave, where the light of three tall, narrow stained glass windows met. The gold burned on a plain white wall. The colors rose up to meet me. “Far be it from me,” the President whispered to me, “but I really do think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.”

I wasn’t looking at the icon. I was examining the interior of the chapel for obvious fire risks, flaws in the masonry, architects’ miscalculations. It all looked safe and solid enough, but you can never be sure, can you?

 

#

 

Three months, and it was tearing me apart. Nothing. Meanwhile, the Scriveners had been showing off their new treasure to anybody they could catch. Seventeen commissions I was offered; name your own price, money no object. They looked stunned when I refused, and offered me more money, still more money, which I declined with a nauseated look on my face, as though they were offering to pay me in worms and sheeps’ guts. I’m terribly sorry, I told them, but I’ve retired. No, really. The genius has left me, I told them; I was only ever a mere vessel for the clarity of the Invincible Sun, which He saw fit to bestow on me for a short time, and which He had now seen fit to withdraw. Not for me to argue, I told them; blessed be His name. And they looked at me, and thought of a number, and doubled it.

 

#

 

So I went to the Studium. It was the first time I’d been back. The porter recognized me, hesitated, remembered that I was now respectable and famous, and gave me a polite smile. Delighted to see me, and would I just wait there while he fetched the Dean and Chapter?

I didn’t want to see the Dean and Chapter. “Father Methodius,” I told him. “If he’s not too busy.”

It’s the tradition that former students who don’t make the grade as adepts but who then go on to make a fortune in the mundane world express their gratitude to the Studium by way of huge cash endowments. Father Methodius wasn’t too busy. Not at all.

“I expect you’re glad you followed my advice,” he said. He hadn’t changed at all. He was still round, circle-faced, still the thin white wreath hopelessly besieging the citadel of his tonsure. Was it possible, I wondered, as I sat down in the same chair I’d occupied for my careers interview, that no time at all had passed, and that everything I thought had happened had been an illusion or a dream? Obviously not; Father Methodius was pleased to see me. Therefore something must have happened. “We’ve been following your career with great interest,” he went on. “The foremost man in your field. We’re very proud of you.”

I can’t read minds — lex mentis, a Seventh-Year Form, though in theory it’s restricted. Father Methodius was an expert in lex mentis,–but I knew precisely what he was thinking. A genuine Epistemius would go very nicely in the Dawn chapel, just to the right of the big silver-gilt lectern. Naturally the Studium could afford to pay, but it hadn’t got to be offensively rich by paying for things it could get for free. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” I said. “The fact is, I have a confession to make.”

He wasn’t reading my mind. It’s one of those things you just don’t do, except in extreme circumstances. “Really?”

I nodded. I’d been dreading this moment, but now it had come, I felt curiously joyful. I’ve long suspected that I’ll feel that way when I’m on the point of death, though I’m in no great hurry to prove myself right. “I don’t actually paint icons,” I said. “I make them using an illegal Form.” I waited. He just looked at me. “Talis artifex.

He blinked. “Talis what?”

Now that was one possibility that simply hadn’t occurred to me; that talis artifex was so restricted, so secret, so deadly in its effects and consequences that even a Father and member of the Inner Chapter hadn’t heard of it. The thought was terrifying. “I read it in a restricted book,” I told him. “I broke into the library, shortly before I left here. I found it there and I’ve been using it ever since.” I was about to add I’m sorry or something like that, but it would’ve been ridiculous to apologize for a crime of such magnitude. I waited.

Eventually he frowned. “Talis–

Artifex. It enables you to create objects; works of art, handicrafts, the very best quality. You go to fifth east and tell the man there what you want, and when you get back, there it is, real and material. It’s in the fifth volume of the Appendix to the Universal Concordat.”

He closed his eyes and rubbed his eyelids, as if he’d got dust in them. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t remember it, and I’m quite familiar with the Appendix. In fact, the current edition is mostly my work. If there was a such a Form, I’d know about it.”

“It’s there all right,” I said.

“It’s impossible.” He was looking straight at me. “The process you describe. It can’t be done. People have tried, over the years, but it’s a direct breach of Anastasius’ fifth law of Matter and Energy. It’s – conjuring,” he said, pulling a slight face. “The sort of thing we like people to think we can do, but of course we can’t. I’m sorry, but–”

“Take me to the library,” I said. “I’ll show you.”

He took a great deal of convincing, but eventually we went to the library and stood where I’d been before, in the South Hall of the New Library. It looked quite different in daylight, of course, with the light pouring in through the great Scylitzes window. Now that did look familiar. It took me a moment to realize why. Someone had copied it to create the triptych effect in the Scriveners’ chapel, where my latest icon was hanging.

Father Methodius reached up onto a shelf and took down a book. “Here we are,” he said. “Now, you’re not allowed to look at this, so you’ll have to direct me to the place.”

“Right between ducis meliora and ruat caelum,” I told him. “About a third of the way through, on the right hand side.”

He gave me a ferocious look; I wasn’t supposed to know about ducis meliora or ruat caelum, both of which are heavy-duty military Forms and horribly dangerous. “We’re going to have to do something about security in this building,” he said. “Now then, let me see.”

He turned a few pages, found the place, looked at me.

“Well?” I said.

“There’s nothing here.” He hesitated, then spread his fingers to obscure the text. “See for yourself.”

I looked. Under his left thumb I could see a few words of the directions for ducis meliora. Under his right thumb, the opening rubric for ruat caelum. Between them, half an inch of blank pearl-grey vellum.

He closed the book and put it back. “You’re sure that was the place,” he said.

“Yes.”

He shook his head. “There’s no such Form,” he said. “As I told you, it’s impossible.”

“But I can do it. I’ve been doing it for years. I make my living–”

“We ought to go now,” he said. “We’re not supposed to be here.”

Halfway down the stairs he stopped dead. “Which Room did you say?” he asked me.

“Excuse me?”

“The Room you go to, to do this Form of yours. Which one?”

“Fifth east,” I told him. “You know. It’s the only Room with a window in it.”

His face was completely blank, just like the Invincible Sun in an icon. “There is no east Room on the fifth floor,” he said.

 

#

 

Well, how was I to know? I was a piss-poor student. There were thousands of things I didn’t know.

It took me quite some time to get away, to persuade Father Methodius that I wasn’t interested in coming back as a research fellow (with an honorary Deaconate, a research staff of twelve, an office on the third floor of the North tower). He wanted to tell me about the great discoveries of the past and the bunch of apparent misfits, losers and inadequates who’d made them; Phylax, who’d stumbled on lorica while chasing after the Philosopher’s Stone, or Agrigentarius, who’d spent twenty years jumping off tall buildings in the misguided belief he’d learned how to fly before isolating the root of fors partis. He made it sound like I fitted the mould exactly, and I could see his point. Furthermore, he went on, several of the giants of the past had refused to take any credit for their epoch-making discoveries, claiming that they’d been told of them by teachers who proved never to have existed, or that the Invincible Sun had appeared to them in dreams and dictated the exact words. That, he said, is part of the extraordinary mystery of creativity, as manifested in both art and the Science.

I have my own views. I know that nine times out of ten, artistic creativity is the result of an alchemical reaction between a certain latent ability and a pressing need for money. Nor was I prepared to believe, even for a fleeting moment, that I was responsible for talis artifex. You’ve got to be a really exceptionally gifted adept to do research and come up with new Forms, and I’m hopeless, I know I am. No; I read it in a book, and that’s all there is to it.

 

#

 

The Scriveners’ chapel burned down. Apparently some careless idiot of a plasterer left a charcoal brazier burning overnight, to dry out wet plaster; it toppled over and sparks caught in the priceless old tapestries I’d admired so much, and the whole thing went up like a pine-resin torch. The roof-beams burned through, bringing that supremely graceful copper-plated dome crashing down, and the walls crumbled away like cake, and seven men who’d been trying to put the fire out were killed. The only thing that survived –

Yes. It was a miracle, they said. Everything else either burned or crushed or ruined beyond repair by smoke; but the Epistemius icon survived, completely unharmed. A clerk found it among the ashes. The frame was too hot to touch, but the icon itself was still perfect.

So I tried an experiment. Using intermediaries sworn to silence, I bought back, for three thousand angels, a Category Four I’d painted for six hundred. I rented a brickmaker’s kiln on the outskirts of the western suburbs, and told the man to stoke it up real good. A burn of best quality bricks takes three days and uses thirteen tons of first quality charcoal. When they raked it out afterwards, there was my icon, as good as new.

I promise you, I promise myself, if it had worked, I’d have got them back somehow – bought, stolen – and destroyed them, every last one, everything I ever painted and sold. But you can’t fight something like that. I sold the icon again, for four thousand.

 

#

 

Naturally, I speculate. I have theories.

Fact: during my career as an iconographer I painted thirty-six icons. With the money I got for my stolen textbooks, I bought forty-five boards. Four I wasted when I was just starting up before I was satisfied with the results. I have five boards left. Also, my stock of paints, paint ingredients, fixatives, gesso and gold leaf is very nearly exhausted. But, apart from the experiment I’ll tell you about in a moment, I’ve never knowingly picked up a paintbrush since I started shaving. I assumed that that was how it worked; that the Form, mystical and utterly transcendental but at the same time despicably cheapskate, required me to provide all the raw materials. Some Forms do actually work like that. Bizarre, I know, but that’s the Science for you.

Fact: after I failed to burn the icon, I took one of the five remaining boards and the leftover paints and stuff, sat down at my table and tried to paint a Category Three, myself, unaided. Actually, the result wasn’t so bad. Proportions, light and shade, use of color, composition, all perfectly acceptable; looking at it, you’d say it was the work of a technically accomplished amateur. But lifeless, devoid of power and passion, meaningless, dead. I washed the paint off with spirits of salt and scraped the board back to bare wood with a pad of sharkskin.

Fact: of the thirty-six Epistemius icons in existence, twenty-five have been owned by people or institutions that have come to harm in some way. The count so far stands at eighty-nine killed, sixty-seven injured. Of the other eleven, eight are in monasteries. One was stolen, and its whereabouts are unknown. Three of my icons have been involved in a series of misfortunes; in each case, after the death of the original owner, the icon was inherited by an heir who also came to grief. I haven’t included the death toll from the Antecyran plague, the Boc Bohec earthquake, the tidal wave, the Sembrai floods or the Vesani war, because the link is rather tenuous; in each case, my icon was displayed in a public building at the epicentre of the disaster, but I would like to point out that there have been any number of plagues, earthquakes, floods and wars in places where there isn’t a genuine Epistemius. Not everything is my fault.

I no longer paint, or practise the Science in any shape or form. Father Methodius died about eighteen months ago, killed by a collapsing floor in the West Gallery of the Studium. An unconfirmed report contended that he’d been using a room off the main Gallery as a studio for painting icons, though so far no examples of his work have come to light anywhere. I invested my money in a farm, a ropewalk, a copper mine, a coaching inn on the main East road, and two ships, one of which was lost with all hands off the Auxentine coast two months ago. But it was properly insured, and my other investments are doing very nicely.

I don’t blame myself. After all, a distinguished Father of the Studium certified that there’s no such Form as talis artifex, and that the effect I mistakenly attributed to it is impossible to achieve. Nothing can be proved or established. I’m in the clear, and all my troubles are over.

#

K.J. Parker was born long ago and far away, worked as a coin dealer, a dogsbody in an auction house and a lawyer, and has so far published thirteen novels, two novellas and a gaggle of short stories, including the “Fencer”, “Scavenger”, and “Engineer” trilogies, as well as standalone novels The Company, The Folding Knife, The Hammer, and Sharps, and novellas “Purple and Black” and “Blue and Gold”.  Married to a lawyer and living in the south west of England, K.J. Parker is a mediocre stockman and forester, a barely competent carpenter, blacksmith and machinist, a two-left-footed fencer, lacklustre archer, utility-grade armourer, accomplished textile worker and crack shot. K.J. Parker is not K.J. Parker’s real name. However, if K.J. Parker were to tell you K.J. Parker’s real name, it wouldn’t mean anything to you.