The servant James walked up the stairs quickly, balancing the tray on his fingertips. After a moment he paused to adjust it and attempt to stop his knees knocking.
He was rather apprehensive, you see, due to his status of being a newer servant to the castle as well as his destination. The highest room in the castle was forbidden to most, with only the King, Princesses, and select servants allowed in. Why, you ask? To this I tell you only that it was the residence of the Artist.
Most artists, as you know, are not typically revered, and this was not quite the case with our Artist either. However, while he was not worshipped, he had never been seen in person and was a subject of great curiosity and wonder. A total of two pieces of his art had been released to the public: the oft-displayed portrait of the king in his stately robes, and a simple painting of a street on the town. And yet, however simple these paintings were, everyone who saw them agreed that they had never seen better. Now, back to our servant.
As he climbed the stairs to the top tower, his mind raced. What could he expect from this room, this man? Perhaps it would be nothing at all, James thought. Perhaps it would be simply a room the Royal Family went to while alone. But then, why would he be bringing a meal up?
He stepped up the last step and took a deep breath before rapping three times on the door. After only a second, he pushed it open.
It was a very simply attired room, one with bare walls and very little furniture. All James could see was a plainly dressed bed and a table covered in brushes, canvas, clay, and the like. The Artist sat at this table, facing away from the door. He did not turn around, but paused and visibly stiffened when the servant opened the door.
“What do you want?” he said sharply.
James shrank back. “I-I bring your meal, sir.”
The Artist pointed to a rather well-camouflaged table in the corner. “Put it there.” Then he turned back to the clay figure he was molding.
Quietly James did so. But though you would expect him to leave as soon as he could, he lingered, hoping to see some of the infamous art that was hidden to most eyes. Unfortunately for him, the Artist noticed very quickly. “Why do you loiter so?” he demanded. His eyes were bright and dangerous as he glared at the servant. “Return to the kitchen, or whatever place you were sent from.”
“Yes, sir. I will, sir.”
He scurried out of the room as fast as he’d entered, practically running down the steps back downstairs. At the bottom, he stopped and sat to catch his breath.
Even though James had been in the room for no longer than two minutes, it had been an experience. The Artist, he could already tell, was not a person to be trifled with. And the room itself…it had such a feeling about it, a feeling that made him want to leave and stay simultaneously. He almost went back up, just to see if it would be the same. But just as he stood up, a young handmaid by the name of Margery walked up, looking more than a bit concerned.
“James, sir, are you well?” she asked him. “You look quite pale!” Then she looked up the stairs behind him, and her eyes widened. “Have you been to wait on the Artist?”
James frowned. “In fact, I have. It was a most interesting experience. Why do you ask?”
“Have you not heard?” Margery said incredulously. “Tales are told that the Artist has the Royal Family bewitched!”
“Bewitched?” the servant echoed.
“Bewitched,” responded Margery. “They say his art contains untold magic that keeps all under his control, even us servants. That’s why he stays here; he uses them to bend the kingdom at his every whim. Several of us have tried to inform the Family of this, but they have never believed us.”
The servant, dumbstruck, sat back down. Could it be true? He looked back up the stairs behind him, wondering. It was certainly a ridiculous idea, but not entirely implausible.
As he followed Margery back to the kitchen, their conversation walked around his brain as though it had always been there, and he could think of nothing else for the remainder of his day.
In the servants’ chamber that night, the servant rolled over. What was he thinking? He couldn’t possibly go back to the Artist’s room. If the accusations of Margery and the other servants were correct, if the Artist was using magic, he would have to avoid it at all costs. But that couldn’t be true!
Finally he could bear it no longer. He crept out of his bed and out of the servants’ quarters. He cringed mightily when the door creaked, obviously a bad sign. Getting captured could get him shunned, even removed from the castle’s service.
“James?” a voice whispered. James nearly jumped out of his skin as he turned. But it was only Margery, sleep in her eyes and still in her handmaid’s uniform. “What are you doing?”
James’s heart sank. He had counted on a quiet trip, but now it appeared that he was to bring Margery. Oh, well. He waved his hand in a motion to come forward and relayed his tale as they traveled throughout the castle toward the stairs that led to the Artist’s room.
They paused at the bottom. The stairs were far more ominous at night than they were in the sunlit daytime, and a shiver ran down the spines of both James and Margery.
“I can’t,” Margery said shakily as she peered up the staircase. “I can’t.” She rushed back toward the servants’ quarters, her apron covering her terrified, reddening face.
That left James to brave the climb to the Artist’s room alone. Isn’t this lovely! He thought. A dark staircase and menacing destination, all for me.
He climbed slowly, and nearly turned back more than once. What if there was magic? What if the Artist found out he was there? But he plodded on regardless of these worries.
At last he reached the top, where the Artist’s door was firmly closed. He did not knock, but gingerly twisted the knob. It made no noise as James released the breath he’d been holding and crept forward into the room.
The Artist’s bed was empty, as was his chair at the table, and he was nowhere to be seen. Curious, James thought. But it seemed he’d been right about the room – that feeling still permeated it.
As he looked around, his eyes fell upon a pencil-and-ink drawing on the table that he was drawn to. Even in black and white, it was exquisite, even outshining (by James’s thoughts) his best work. In fact, this had to be the most cleanly done, detailed, perfect drawing he’d ever seen. Suddenly James was overcome with an extreme need to take it with him. He glanced around the room once more to ensure that it was empty, but this time his luck had run out. Not two steps behind him stood the Artist, his eyes wide, angry, and red.
“What are you doing here?” he said in a dangerous, controlled whisper. “You should not be here.”
“Please, sir, please, I just—“ James tried desperately to save himself, but it didn’t appear to be working, as the Artist’s face simply grew angrier and his eyes redder. James finally gave up and pressed himself against the door, which had somehow closed behind him. And, oh, how he shook! His worst fear had become reality, and it was not pleasant.
The Artist, having noticed James’ fear, followed him with slow steps. Again he repeated, “You should not be here.”
James tried again to plead for his safety, but this time no words would come. In this situation, however, it did not mean that he couldn’t think of any. Rather that he simply couldn’t:his mouth would not open. Now his fear crossed with confusion. “What is this?” he tried to say.
The Artist did not respond. He raised his hand in the air, and it glowed with a dandelion-yellow light. The room was lit bright as day. As James’ eyes widened and the Artist’s hand grew brighter, he began to yelp. He was filled with pain as he had never felt before, as though he were being burned alive.
“Stop! Please stop!” the servant cried more than once. But the Artist only greatened the pain until James was no more, simply a shell of a man created to do his bidding. As the servant regained consciousness (with great effort, I might add), a grin slowly spread across the Artist’s face.
“Return to where you came from,” he said, “and come back in the morning. 10 am.”
James walked back out with something of a dazed expression on his face, unaware of what had just happened. The Artist, who’d exhausted himself with the effort, laid down in his own bed to sleep and contemplate what he’d done.
It was the last thing he’d needed to prepare.