I shuffled down the gangplank, trying my best to avoid eye contact.
“Welcome to Branten,” the creature said. “This visit is a most… pleasant surprise.”
That was easy for it to say. It didn’t have to travel across the Barren Sea on the King’s errand. And amongst these abominations! “I’m here to pick up the portrait.” The words stuck in my mouth. “From the artist.”
“Ah,” it said, eyeing the passenger ship I had arrived on. “Will your companions be joining us?”
I had drawn the short straw. “No.”
“In that case, I can take you.” Its voice was far too earnest for the occasion.
I followed the thing into the city. The beasts had made a decent enough living for themselves in this place, with permanent dwellings and cobbled streets, but I couldn’t help myself. With its back turned to me, I chanced a look.
The thing was thin — deathly thin — as if half-starved. Its head was matted down with the coarse, straw-like hair of an animal. It was a wonder these creatures had managed to survive this long. If the wind didn’t break them in two, I couldn’t imagine how they suffered each other enough to procreate.
Before long, it led me to a large brick structure with a pair of narrow, wooden doors. It opened one of them for me and I squeezed myself through. The scene inside was ghastly. The place was filled with them. I couldn’t bear looking at their ghostly features and turned away before I lost the contents of my stomach. My captain had better pay me extra for this, was all I could think.
Perhaps seeing the look of revulsion on my face, the thing that had led me here spoke faintly over my shoulder. “I think you would feel more comfortable to wait in the other room.”
I waved it on and it brought me into a side room. There, I watched out a window as I waited, observing the things walk about on the street outside. Some pushed carts while others carried boxes and barrels to and fro. Those stumpy appendages! It was a wonder they could get anything done.
A short time later, one of them walked into the room. It held the portrait I had come for in both hands and set it against the wall. Keeping my eyes down, I looked to the art wrapped up in cloth. The thing — the artist, I presumed — sidled up next to me. His breath was deplorable. What vile things did this creature consume?
“I had hoped your king would pick the portrait up personally,” it said.
We would never allow our king to be exposed to such rank creatures. “The king is very busy.”
It made a disturbing sound with its throat. “You have to understand, I’m very proud of this portrait. It was my first time painting a… you know.”
I couldn’t understand why the king had agreed to let this thing do what it had done. There was no way it could portray our image as well as one of our own could. But the king had accepted it for the sake of foreign relations. “The king is honored.”
It shrugged its narrow shoulders and reached down to the portrait. Untying the string on the back, I couldn’t help but laugh at the thing’s struggle to work the knot with its tiny fingers. But when it finally got it undone, and the cloth fell, I was taken aback by what I saw.
“How have you done this?” I asked. “It’s tremendous.”
The artist scrunched its face up. A smile, perhaps? “I’m glad you like it.”
I gazed down at the masterpiece without words to utter. The king’s likeness had been captured perfectly by this artist. The bold ridges that made up the forehead, the stately tentacles that hung over the maw — every detail was exact.
The artist pursed its thin lips. “I lived in your country for six months, making detailed sketches.”
I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine staying in this place another five minutes, let alone another six months. “It’s flawless.”
It wrapped the portrait back up and handed it to me. After I took it, the artist extended its hand. I had heard about this custom before. I placed my tentacle in its hand and we shook.
“I hope this will mark the beginning of better relations between our two peoples,” it said.
I couldn’t say whether or not that would be the case, but I couldn’t explain this portrait. If this artist was capable of such things, maybe I’d underestimated these people. And what of those back home? Would they believe, based on this portrait alone?
I looked down at the portrait, then up to the artist. “The King would expect to meet the artist of such a magnificent painting.”
It pursed its lips. “I’m afraid I have pressing matters to attend to here.” Its eyes drifted to the window behind me. “But your people are welcome to visit… if they’re interested.”
The thought had never occurred to me. Could my people stay among the beasts of Branten? Would we ever become accustomed to the sight of them? Their stench? A thought nagged at me. If they were capable of such artistry, what else were they capable of? Were they beasts at all?
“How did you come to paint this in the first place?” I asked.
It narrowed its eyes. “Upon your King’s request, of course.”
The answer took me by surprise. Had the King seen something special in this one? These people? Another thought occurred to me. If the King was testing them, this would be the proof that they were more than we thought. That would affect everything. Culture, society, the economy — would never be the same. And the King would be the first to know.
Dreams of discovery and riches swirled around my head. I followed the artist’s gaze out the window. “Branten seems nice this time of year.”
J.D. Carelli is an ESL teacher by day and a fantasy writer by night. The rest of the time he spends with his wife and daughter on a tropical island in Southern China. As a child, he fully believed that he could control The Force, and has been trying to reclaim that feeling on the page ever since. You can find out more about him at www.jdcarelli.com or on Twitter @jdcarelli.