Andrea le Scorier lies atop her scaffolding beneath the arch of the northwest chancel's ceiling, her bare arm crusted to the elbow with paint. She is unmasked, an unthinkable prospect outside the walls of Resplendent Orchid, and dressed only in plain black robes. Above her a painting is taking shape, a fresco depicting the Three Gods and their Lesser Emanations, the thousandfold avatars of their desires and dreams. Monkey, the burning ape with his fiery coat and clever eyes. The Eel Queen, sleek, beautiful and almost human but for her gills and the hint of teeth behind her smile. Last the Hollow God, the glass-bottle man. He's the most challenging, his subtle shades and empty angles.
She nearly drops her brush, but manages merely to slop paint all over her already-stained sleeve. Twisting her sore neck and rolling onto her side she squints down at the floor where her twin brother, the Daimyo Claude de Scorier, stands. She wets her lips, nervous. “What is it, Claude?”
“Come down. We have business to discuss.”
Andrea scrambles to the scaffold's edge and swings her legs out over the void, fumbling for the ladder. She leaves her brush, her paints, and with her own good arm makes the laborious descent to the chancel's bamboo floor. The chancel echoes, its tall, narrow windows throwing spears of light over the seasoned wood. Claude stands at the center of one, haloed from behind like a fleshly statue of the Machi Living Sun. “What is it?” Andrea says again. The look in Claude's mismatched eyes, one green, the other blue, unnerves her. Something is wrong.
He sucks his teeth, his little nervous tic. “The Red Turbans have disbanded. The Raptor massacred the rebel army and took Stephane de Pare captive last night at Iron Wind Field.”
Andrea smiles. “He's won, then.”
“This is a dangerous time for us.” Claude takes her hand and squeezes it.
“Our uncle is a hero, the savior of the Empire.” She frees her hand, tucks a few loose hairs back behind her ear and kisses her brother on the cheek. “You never know when to be happy.”
Claude snorts. He pulls away. “He has the loyalty of the army and the love of the commons. The Shogun is thirty, childless, and prickly. The Senate decays a little more each day and the Cabals hate each other so much there's no room in their heart for another grudge. To be a hero is to be feared.”
“Hush, brother,” Andrea says. “You are too dour.” She smiles to take the sting from her remonstrance and kisses him again, on the lips this time. He returns the kiss. His hands undo the sash at her robe's waist with less difficult than she has undoing it herself, and then his fingers are in her and she is biting his lip hard enough to make him grunt with pain.
After, while Claude lies sleeping on the dusty canvas, Andrea climbs her scaffolding to paint. The Hollow God comes quickly now, escaping her brush in a rush of blues and whites, greys in narrow little strokes. He is a man, a vessel, a temple to himself. Since childhood he has been her confidante more than any other of the quarrelsome pantheon. She gives him no definite features, just the suggestion of a transparent face. He sits hunched and brooding behind the others and in his eyes is something Andrea had not meant to put there, a look of hollow longing tempered with regret.
It is hours before she finishes, and when she climbs down from her scaffolding her back is sore, her arm stiff with overuse. The stump of the other, that useless knob of flesh and bone protruding from her left shoulder, aches fiercely. She thinks sometimes that knotted up within it is every failed idea, every messy brushstroke and misplaced accent. Outside the windows it is dark and the cicadas have begun to sing. The servants are well-practiced at ignoring the Daimyo's business, but even they will begin looking for him if she does not rouse him soon. She kneels beside him on the canvas and smooths his fine black hair back from his brow with her paint-spattered hand. “Wake up, Claude.”
He grunts, stretches, and slumps forward with his elbows on his knees. He looks sullen as he always does after they share in one another.
“No sulking, dearest,” Andrea cautions. “You're ugly when you pout.”
Claude snorts, but he gets to his feet and smooths his robes. “Ugly, am I?” He kisses her stained hands, her neck, her ears. “No, no.” His lips brush the fine hairs on the back of her neck. “You think I'm beautiful.” His hand slides inside her robe to squeeze her breast.
She laughs and pushes him away with her shoulder. “Not now,” she says, teasing with her eyes as she reties her sash. “Daimyo de Roquefort's stewards will be here in half an hour.”
Claude's expression darkens. “I'd sooner have them in the moat than here to dine with us.”
“You know this has to happen.” Andrea feels it too, the wrenching in her gut at the idea of sharing him, her brother, her other half. Claude, though, lacks her restraint. She must be strong for him. “Mother is dying and Resplendent Orchid needs...needs an heir.”
Tears threaten at the corners of his dark brown eyes. “No. I'll sire no sons but yours.”
Andrea shakes her head, blinking back her own tears. The ache of the children she'll never give him gnaws at her like a disease. “You know the Shogun would only have them drowned.” She kisses him chastely on the cheek and departs the shrine. In her apartments her dead slaves prepare her for the evening reception of the Daimyo's stewards. Their cold grey hands lave her skin with scented oils, braid her hair into an artful knot held up with skewers of ashwood and steel, dress her first in thick linen and then in silk patterned with embroidered cherry trees. At two and thirty she is past marrying age, consigned by her missing arm to spinsterhood. If not for her brother, no man would ever deign to touch her, to love her, not when her deformity might carry on to any children she bore.
Her mask comes last, borne out on a silken pillow by two dead and wizened dwarfs. They were a gift to her mother from the late Daimyo le Francois, a great alchemist and an ardent suitor for Linnea le Scorier's hand after the death of her third husband, Andrea and Claude's father, Giacomo. Now they serve Andrea, freaks waiting upon a freak. She holds still as the mask, a regal and aquiline thing of beaten brass as smooth as water, is fitted to her face and bound around her head with silken ribbons. She touches it with her fingers, feels the cold metal as the dwarfs retreat back into their alcove to carry on decaying into dust.
The stewards come bearing their mistress's face. Angelique, the youngest daughter of Daimyo de Roquefort. Plain, Andrea thinks from where she sits on a woven reed mat, her one hand resting on the warm, dry snout of her dwarf carnotaur, Vaselias. The horned saurian snorts warm, meat-smelling breath across her face as together they watch Claude play the gracious host, exclaiming over every dish brought out by the dead slaves, complimenting the stewards on their conversation, their shamisen playing, their singing. He dances with one or two, but all the while his eyes linger with Andrea even as the Daimyo's daughter's face spins with him.
Angelique le Roquefort comes late. She arrives on gallus-back with an escort of her father's knights, a short woman, her mother's lovely mask covering her face. The Lady Camilla had been a famous beauty. On the steps of Resplendent Orchid, Andrea and Claude wait with the stewards and six of the household deadguard. Andrea's arm aches from painting, from the familiar rigor of eating one-handed, from sex. How many more times would they have that? Not many.
"My lord de Scorier," says the woman as two of her men help her to dismount, "your uncle's victory brings great honor to the Shogunate."
"My lady is kind to say so," Claude says, "and my uncle is a bold man, but his victory is not mine."
In a private room the Daimyo's daughter removes her mask, unlacing it with deft fingers in the flickering candlelight. The stewards around her bow their heads. Claude hides his disappointment well, but Andrea can see the sulk building behind his eyes.
Angelique is plain, she thinks, but her eyes are a lovely shade of yellow.