There were plenty of reason for Michael Alberti to worry about the work he was doing. The tools he was given were the best; the electrical arc sparking at the heat- end was steady, perfect to carve clean, flowing lines. The brands, the inks and needles were no less luxurious. He knew most of colleagues working beside him as well, some of them personally and the rest by reputation.
They were the best artists in the city of Strathchylde, and the whole of the Eastern Sun Emirates, working together in the magnificent gardens of the Patriarch’s palace on a single task. All of them were sweating under the Terra Novan suns, while the fragrance of the Patriarch’s blooming flowers was the undertone to the peculiar smell of loose electricity and seared flesh. Theirs would be a living masterpiece. Michael leaned back in his stool, looking up at his handiwork while an attentive servant toweled off the sweat from his brow.
Michael was staring at the back a young warrior, barely of age, with blood trickling from the lines Michael had just carved into him. He was Michael’s canvas. The young man was bare to his waist, taking slow, strained breaths, forcing himself to relax even when Michael bit into his skin with the electric cutter. It sizzled, searing off flesh in delicate lines.
Those lines curved into the arabesque shapes Michael was told to copy. It was a single page, a verse from an Old Earth poem surrounded by exquisite filigree. Michael read the verse in silence, trying to puzzle out its meaning just as he had for hours.
Then to the rolling Heav’n itself I cried,
Asking, “What Lamp had Destiny to guide her little children stumbling in the Dark?”
And – “A blind Understanding!” Heav’n replied.
This, on the back of one of the Patriarch’s personal guard, worried him. A hundred other such young men stood in front of artists like Michael. They had their own pages to copy, some of them with verses, some of them with images full of color and detail. The Patriarch himself, a young man called Oliver Masao, was on a dais working Michael and his colleagues do their work. He was surrounded by the usual retinue of noblemen and hanger’s on, drinking wine and laughing softly.
Patriarch Masao was just a few year-cycles older than these warriors, swaddled in majestic robes of purple and gold thread. He watched his warriors closely, unlike his cajoling company which was entirely disinterested in the ritual. Patriarch Masao was judging them, picking them apart through a vaguely narrowed glare. He kept his refined expression faintly pursed and critical. He was powdered and painted like a harlequin, his usual manner, though without even a hint of perspiration on his smooth brow.
His servants came and went from the dais like worker bees to the hive’s core. The servants, dressed in no less magnificent robes of silver and green, carried remarks from the Patriarch to the artists, though he never seemed to actually speak to any of them.
Senior members of the Ethereal Guard watched on as well, standing off to the side, as their newest members received their final honor. All of them were soldiers, men of bloody work. Much bloodier than Michael’s, in any case. Those older warriors were scarred by their original mistress as well, Matriarch Masao, when they came into her service. Their scars were much less ambitious, merely flowers. Roses and orchids, depicted with bright pink lines across the battle-hardened hide of her own bodyguards. Matriarch Masao loved her garden, in which Michael now sat, decorating her son’s guards. They watched on, now.
Before that small crowd, the young men and women of Patriarch Masao’s new army proved their loyalty and tenacity by standing in perfect order while the artists did their work.
They were entering the sixth hour of their ordeal, the last of a lifetime of training and indoctrination.
“Is something wrong, sire?”, the servant standing by Michael asked after a couple of idle minutes.
“These inks are wrong, mix them again”, Michael replied dismissively, thrusting the palette into the servant’s grasp. The servant took it and bowed low. “Of course, sire”, the servant replied, earnest and cool, before turning on his heel and hurrying off.
Michael stole a glance to the craftsman sitting next to him a couple of feet away. It was Robertus Mandelbech, a portly man a few cycle-years his senior, and his intimate rival. They caught each other’s eye and Robertus tossed a bloody rag at his own attendant’s chest, who, like Michael’s bowed low and hurried off. That bought them a few minutes of relative privacy, amidst the electric snaps and pained sighs of the work.
“This isn’t right”, Michael said plainly. He wasn’t one for subterfuge. “It’s some sort of snide joke, of mockery. Why would the Patriarch do this?”
“The Patriarch is free to thumb his nose at anything he wishes to do so”, Robertus replied, wiping the back of the young woman he was working on. She had a fountain already sketched out in bloody lines. Robertus was much quicker than Michael and he had moved on to tattooing the colors onto her skin. “As his subjects, his patronage is a great honor”
“Have you any idea what this book was about? This is Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat! It’s about the freedom and the value of human life”, Michael realized a little too late his voice was rising. He bit it back, hissing out of the corner of his mouth. “For these children to be marked with this, it’s mocking something like the ideal of freedom itself. They’re meant to kill and die for the Patriarch! They’re not free; they’re battlefield slaves! Isn’t that a form of desecration? What point is He trying to make?”
Robertus glanced an unspoken warning his way before clearing his throat. “I know what the Rubaiyat is. Don’t take me for a rube”, he muttered at first, before letting his voice slip to a more public tone. “Where would we be if we questioned the will of the Patriarch? His wisdom goes beyond our understanding. Much like the workings of, for example, destiny. There is no law but his, after all. Yes? ”
Michael acquiesced silently, wiping away a trickle pouring out of the filigree he just carved. More had been said than had been spoken. Michael was far too tired and nowhere near clever enough to argue Robertus’ point. The work was only a little easier on the artists than it was on the subjects.
Before either of them could get back to their work, however, a third servant slipped in between them from the rows of soldiers and artists. He came from the dais. His robe had its gold thread woven into the green thread in the pattern of the Masao royal house, granting him the weight of authority of the Patriarch, without the lofty elegance.
“Grand masters”, the elder servant spoke with a low voice that carried. The other servants drew subtly tense around them. Michael felt a dreadful chill worming up along his spine, though he continued to work as though he was only peripherally aware of the intrusion.
The older servant went on. “My Master, the glory of the endless day, sent me to express his satisfaction that masters such as Alberti and Mandelbech reached their peak during his reign”, the senior servant said as he stood between the artists, regal in his own terrible way.
“He noticed you were having a conversation, and would be quite pleased to be included in whatever discussion men of such renown and skill would have with one another.”
“I was remarking on the beauty of Master Michael Alberti’s detail work, good sir”, Robertus replied with the proper measure of deference and condescension, without looking up from the thread of water he was inking on the warrior-woman’s back, “There, I believe he is my superior”
“Is that so?”, the servant asked with just enough surprised in his voice to sound sincere, “He believed he heard one of you mention a certain book.”
“Yes, that was me”, Michael confessed, half-turning to Robertus and the servant, catching the latter’s eye again. He saw a warning in them. “I recognized the verse I was tasked with writing. It struck me as a most beautiful and inspired choice.”
The servant smiled and bowed. “I will bring your praise to my Patriarch, good citizens. He is most pleased with your efforts, and I’m sure he would like to discuss the wisdom of Khayyam with you, master Alberti.” Robertus had turned back to his work.
“The Patriarch would honor me ten thousand times my worth with the privilege of a conversation”, Michael replied, smiling a little brighter than he intended and bowing his head. The servant bowed his back and hurried off between the rows of soldiers.
Michael kept his expression studiously blank from then on, focusing on how the skin took the precise burn from his instrument. From then on, he worked with renewed fervor, sure that this warrior’s back was the last chance he would have to create a masterpiece in his life.
The soldier bore the pain well. Others groaned and trembled, while Michael’s canvas just squeezed his fists shut tighter and tighter as he drove in the burner, and then the blade, and finally the needle into him.
“Master Alberti”, the soldier whispered through his clenched teeth.
“Don’t interrupt me, boy. I’ll be done soon enough”, Michael replied, pressing his palm on the young man’s back to steady him as he tilted the needle up to achieve a particular effect for the shadow of a particular curving letter.”
“Master Alberti, please, I must ask”, the soldier insisted.
“What is it?”, Michael hissed impatiently, immediately regretting it. “And what is your name, my son?”
“I’m Virhem, Master. I’m to swear my strength and breath to the Patriarch”, the soldier replied.
“Ask your question then, Virhem”, Michael said, concentrating still.
“What does it mean? The poem?”, Virhem asked.
“Why, it’s obvious, young Virhem”, Michael replied, “It means… It means there is no star that guides a man through his life, from the night before his birth to his night in the grave.”