The morning after his courting of Sylvie, Kleitos Leonidas rose before dawn began to pink the eastern sky, turned off the lights she habitually left blazing all night to annoy her neighbors and threaded his way through the oaks to the lake’s edge. The moon had gone down some hours before and had anyone been up to observe they might have wondered how he managed to move so easily by only the weak illumination of the stars.
He tamped tobacco into his pipe, lit it, and stood gazing into the water for some minutes. During the night frost had crept from the shore to the lake shallows, and the same observer might wonder how Kleitos could stand unmoving, barefoot and bare-chested, apparently unperturbed by the chill morning air. Because of course in this world of science and reason, there are no such things as magicians or merfolk. Or other older, darker beings.
With moonlight and Sylvie’s spotlights absent the mer city was invisible to Kleitos and, more importantly, he was invisible to it. If his hypotheses and calculations were correct, however, the dim glow of his pipe should serve as a signal to a different denizen of the lake whom he very much desired to see; and indeed after a time a dark shape undulated beneath the surface of the water, heading toward the shore. When it approached within a few feet of where Kleitos stood that scion of an ancient family rapped sharply on the ice with his heel to make a small, clear space.
Moments later a misshapen head emerged, gasping, its pupils the same color as the embers of Kleitos’ pipe. “Boss!” the creature – for though it resembled a human in its rough lineaments skin the texture of cooling lava and a voice like hissing steam suggested stranger origins – exclaimed. “I gotta say you’re a sight for sore eyes. How long has it been? You here to break me out of this algae-infested dump?”
“Twenty six years,” Kleitos replied. “And yes, that is my intention.”
“Great!” The creature tried to step onto the shore but was snapped back into the water with a loud splash. “Uh, boss?”
“Patience, Azar.” He took a draw on his pipe and for a moment the embers flared more brightly. “There is still work to be done, and I have only just arrived. A stable bridge between worlds remains to be constructed.”
Azar narrowed his weak fiery eyes. “You’re not trying the painting trick again, are you? Because that didn’t work so well with the oil island down south.”
“The technique was without flaw,” Kleitos scowled. He could see that when he retrieved Azar at last his manservant was going to require a refresher course in decorum. “Moru moving you before I could complete the painting was an unforeseen development.”
“Ummmm,” Azar hesitated before speaking, shifting nervously, “couldn’t we foresee it this time too?”
Kleitos’ scowl deepened. “I could leave you there, if you prefer.”
Azar waved his hands in agitation, steam trails bubbling in the wake of his motion. “No, no! You don’t know what it’s like down here, boss, all moldy and smelly and damp.” He sniffled in self-pity. “I just don’t want to end up on the lam last like time. I don’t think I could take that hopping between swimming pools and hot tubs all over again. Give me the sweet smell of sulfur over chlorine any day.”
“Then take my word for it when I say Moru will remain here. This time I have bait for the hook.”
“What could you have for a mer –“ his eyes glinted in sudden comprehension. “You have a girl.”
“I have the girl,” Kleitos corrected him. “The one you foolishly revealed yourself to while I was concluding my business with her father.”
“I still say,” his manservant grew testy, for they’d had this argument before Moru managed to evade Kleitos’ grasp all those years ago, “that having his kid drowned by a mer would have put a serious damper on your negotiations.” He flinched at Kleitos’ expression and added hastily, “But there are other ways of looking at it.”
Kleitos emptied his pipe on the frozen ground and extinguished its embers with the ball of his bare foot. “It will take some weeks to bring the two worlds into adequate congruence. But be vigilant from this time forward; the lord of the western merfolk is not a clever creature, but nonetheless your window of opportunity may be small. When Moru calls you to him for an explanation of my presence – and he will – this is what you will say. And while his gaze is fixed on me and my paramour, this is what you will do.”
Azar listened intently, standing as tall as his deformed, dwarfish body would permit and saluted as his employer fell silent. “You got it, boss!”
* * *
When Kleitos Leonidas painted, the world conformed to the canvas of his vision. When he made love, his lover conformed to the will of his desire. If he painted an overcast day, clouds gathered overhead. If he sketched an oak fallen in water, a tree came crashing down. Early every morning he carried easel, pigments and canvas to the lake’s edge and painted until dusk. His process was, as Sylvie remarked, peculiar. He painted the silt on the lake floor. Then he painted the canvas over in white. He painted the algae and larvae which attracted the ducks to feed. Then he painted over the canvas again. Nearly a month passed in this way, painstaking work done and then obliterated before he came to surfaces visible to the casual gaze, and these he did not unmake.
He spent nearly two months rendering Sylvie’s lake in precise photographic detail, sometimes as it was, sometimes as he wished it to be and it subsequently became. Sylvie’s own creative endeavors lay largely neglected, for he encouraged her to sit beside him with repeated flattering references to her muse-like nature. Sometimes she pouted a little, for he seldom spoke while he was working. But he cast her the occasional smoldering glance, and cooked for her in the evenings, and made love to her at night, and it sufficed to keep her where he wanted her: obsessed with her looks to please him and unaware of covetous eyes watching from the shallows as Kleitos sketched in the lines of the shimmering mer city beneath the surface of the duck-filled lake.
* * *
“How much longer?” Sylvie tried, not very successfully, to keep a plaintive note from her voice as she knelt beside the lake in a stiff pose.
At first she told herself that endless hours sitting idle while her lover worked was a lark, a reminiscence of great romance in the mode of Picasso and Marie-Therese, Raphael and La Fornarina, Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet. She liked to imagine another artist just out of sight behind them, Monet or Seurat or Van Gogh perhaps, painting she and Kleitos and her pretty, sparkling clear lake.
But as spring withered into summer ennui crept into her spirit and limbs, and the lake mirrored her discontent. Though she ran the pump all day and night the water level receded, and what remained turned the color of old pea soup and smelled like dying fish. A fallen oak began to rot but Kleitos grew so irritated when she spoke of having it removed that she finally agreed to let it lie until the painting was done – but not a moment longer, she vowed silently to herself as noisy, dirty ducks flocked to feed on algae among its twigs and a rusted barrel popped up from seemingly nowhere between its limbs. It grew increasingly difficult to banish the echo of her ex-husband’s voice. You don’t understand nature, Sylvia.
Her interest waxed anew when Kleitos said that he was almost finished, requiring only one small addition to make the work complete: Sylvie herself, gazing at her reflection in the lake. As he made the request he handed her a package, wrapped in a translucent paper hand painted with delicate, iridescent fish scales, strangely cold and damp to the touch. “I commissioned this especially for you,” he said. “Perhaps you will do me the honor of wearing it?”
In spite of her excitement she opened the package carefully to avoid damaging the delicate paper, images of one sophisticated look after another dancing through her mind. So she felt a crushing disappointment as she lifted from the box a frumpy, ruffled confection that fell to just the middle of the knee, empire-waisted with a pink satin ribbon encircling her bust line, all like a schoolgirl’s frock. “There is a certain effect I desire to achieve with the portrait,” he said, half-apologetically as if he divined her displeasure. “But if you’d rather not…”
It seemed a small enough request; she swallowed her distaste and retreated to the bedroom to change. As she slipped the frock over her head a long-forgotten nightmare from her childhood tickled at the periphery of her mind: a frightened little girl in the same white dress, a green-haired creature with pig-like eyes. She gasped in alarm but then Kleitos was behind her, tying the pink ribbon with caressing fingers in the middle of her back, and it seemed silly to be frightened of an old, bad dream. They made love by the lake on a green-checked blanket, before he started to paint. “The neighbors –“ she protested, a little feebly.
“Let them watch, and envy me,” he murmured as he kissed her and then was silent for a time. “Afterglow,” he said with satisfaction as he posed her like a doll, kneeling quite nearer to the water’s edge and the nasty ducks than she liked. “That’s what I’m looking for. Just hold that.”
The fabric scratched, and after fifteen minutes with aching knees and cramping toes she asked, “How much longer?”
“Just another moment,” Kleitos replied. “And…now.”
Her sigh of relief turned to a scream as the creature from her childhood nightmares rose out of the lake: a scaly face all the more terrifying for its vestiges of humanity, green hair and green teeth framing lascivious pig eyes and a bright red nose. Reaching out with covetous, froglike hands, it seized her and pulled her under the water. Wiry arms held her down as she fought to escape, but terror gave her strength and breaking free she clawed her way to the shore, reaching out to Kleitos for help.
But no help came. His hands remained tucked in his pockets and he stood by and watched, a small smile playing about the corners of his mouth, as a dream made flesh dragged her back into its fatal embrace.
* * *
Kleitos and Moru stared at the body floating between them, hair fanned like seaweed in the water. “You made sport with my bride,” Moru accused Kleitos. “And knew she would die when you gave her to me.”
Kleitos gave a noncommittal grunt and turned to his long lost manservant, who in the commotion of Moru’s passion and Sylvie’s drowning had wasted no time clambering across the fallen oak onto the shore. “It appears, Azar, that you were mistaken in believing her amphibious.”
“I’m sorry, boss,” the imp said in a tone dripping with insincerity. “I’ll do better next time.”
“Cheat!” Moru bared his green fangs. “You promised her to me in trade!”
“And there she is.” Kleitos smiled thinly and gestured at the corpse in the water.
The merman hissed at him. “You knew she would die. I call foul.”
Kleitos shrugged and turned away. “Fair is foul and foul is fair and possession is nine-tenths of the law. I’m the one with my valet back, on the terra firma. And it’s hardly my fault if your research into contemporary human anatomy was shoddy. Come, Azar. It’s nearly time for lunch.”
“I hate you!” Moru let out a shrill watery scream.
“I’d be very disappointed if you didn’t.” He paused for a moment, studying Sylvie’s gently bobbing form. “Go play with your corpse. She can provide a few days’ pleasure before she starts to rot. You’re not much of a conversationalist anyway. In truth, neither was she.”
* * *
When Kleitos Leonidas took up permanent residence in Sylvie’s house after her unfortunate suicide the neighbors asked surprisingly few questions. Perhaps it was because they were used to seeing him around, or because he and his manservant, a pitiable dwarf with strange orange eyes, were both polite and generous.
But more likely it was because he stopped running the lake pump and let the water evaporate with the summer season. Or because he had all the spotlights ripped out, along with the palm trees, leaving only the oaks and the soft hooting of owls in the dark – though never when he was nearby. The kitchen shone white while Azar prepared dinner, and after that the house was lit only by the soft amber glow of candlelight.