This weeks Fantasy Sci-Fi Network new release is from author Joshua Grasso. The Astrologer's Portrait, released on July 5th is this talented English Professor's second book... and well worth the look.
The Royal Astrologer was dead. Shortly after eight o’clock he tumbled to his death from the highest tower in the palace. According to the testimony of a handful of onlookers, there was a violent crash (the window), a pained cry (the Astrologer), a tremendous clatter (a series of coins which clattered onto the courtyard) and a resounding thump (the body). There wasn’t much left to parade around the streets in the morning, so it was a very hushed-up, discreet affair, much like the man himself. No one quite knew what he did in the queen’s employ. After all, the title “astrologer” is a rather ambiguous term. To some, he read the stars and charted their invisible trajectories. To others, he was a dabbler in witchcraft and the magical arts, bringing some unspeakable doom upon the kingdom. But if you asked the queen she would probably call him a “sponge” and insist that his room was fumigated as thoroughly as possible.
The only question was what to do with the late Astrologer’s effects. In his room he had amassed a prodigious collection of artifacts, from paintings, sculptures, books, diagrams, maps, experiments, crystals, and other, less recognizable items that were promptly thrown in the trash. The queen had everything catalogued and put up for auction, which attracted a steady stream of collectors and connoisseurs. Apparently the Astrologer—who never contributed a single krouck to the court’s coffers—was sitting on a fortune worth several hundred thousand fobs. Priceless weapons and faded maps changed hands and brought a girlish smile to the queen’s lips. How nice to suddenly stumble into a neglected fortune and not have to dirty one’s hands with the transaction! She called her chief attendant aside and commanded him to find out how many other octogenarians were in her employ; she was particularly interested if any of them might be willing to depart for their final journey before rather than after the upcoming ball season, the cost of which went up every year and promised to bankrupt her.
Prince Harold sullenly appeared at the auction. His mother insisted that he have more of a presence at state functions, as the people needed to see him take an active interest in the state…or at least believe he could crawl out of bed before noon on occasion. Crossing his arms, he leaned against a darkened corner of the room with his personal servant, Dimitri. The two made unflattering remarks about the men in attendance, particularly one simpering, mustachioed nitwit who pawed every item with a scaly hand and purred, “ah…delicious, quite delicious.” Dimitri spoke little English (or so he claimed) and limited his remarks to, “man has head of block, yes?”
“Yes, he’s a blockhead,” Harold agreed. “I’ve seen him at my mother’s council before…says yes, yes to everything you say, even if you complained of gout or constipation. A first rate villain.”
“And see there—gentleman with ass face,” Dimitri snickered.
“Ah, now you’re being unkind. That’s Count Scarmento, the greatest gossip in the kingdom. It’s said that no reputation is safe once he gets a mind to ruin it. I don’t know a woman in the kingdom who can out-malice him; he has the heart of a jackal.”
“Smell like one, too,” Dimitri said.
The Queen finally spotted her son and with a look of patient disappointment, signaled him over. The prince took his leave of Dimitri—who avoided the Queen like the plague—and sauntered over to her, careful not to seem indifferent or obliging. It didn’t work.
“Need I remind you that fashionably late is ten minutes late, not an hour,” she scolded, smoothing his shirt. “Disgraceful. I only ask you for a few minutes out of your day—minutes, need I remind you, that will add years to your reign as king.”
“I have nothing to do here,” Harold said, moving aside. “Besides, how can I bid on anything...someone stopped my allowance.”
“My son, gambling is a black mark on the royal family. I clearly had to step in when you lost our southern estates in a silly card game—what was it called?”
“Indeed. At least you might have had the foresight to gamble away our disastrous colonial possessions,” she sighed. “My sister died of that ghastly tropical disease there…terribly unfashionable.”
“I’m not interested in money,” he said, glowering at anyone in eyesight. “So what’s this about, mother? Marriage? Do you plan to couple me off with some pock-marked, toothless relation in the back of beyond?”
“Don’t be silly,” the queen smiled, taking his arm, “our family has always boasted a remarkable set of teeth. Though a few pock-marks never hurt anyone...”
Harold was appalled. Marriage? That was the end of every respectable prince in history. Before long, he would have to share his bed with an insistent, harpy of a wife and herd thankless children to and fro under the watchful eye of society. Why couldn’t things remain as they were? Here he could do nothing, think whatever he liked, lose track of the days, and celebrate each bottomless night. Was it so much to ask that one prince out of a thousand could shirk his duties and become a nothing, a nobody, and a none-of-your-business?
“At least smile once in a while,” the queen said, pushing him forward. “Go bid on something. I’ll pay for it, of course. Surely you have some interests. See if they have any of those antique goblin idols. They would look marvelous in your room…whichever room you frequent these days.”
The prince muttered a “yes, mother” and ambled off to a corner of the room, where several connoisseurs were ransacking the Astrologer’s collection of warm-weather walking gloves. The gentlemen smiled knowingly as he approached, though the prince had no interest in gloves—they merely obliged one to shake more hands than necessary. Instead, he leafed through a few books—none in any language he understood or cared to learn—and perused a series of maps. Most were blatantly wrong, inserting fabled lands at the edge of discovery, complete with bogus attractions, such as “Rivers of Gold,” and “Isles of Virginity.” How many voyagers relied on these maps to find a safe haven, perhaps fleeing a violent hurricane, only to find—more ocean? How many cities of gold, once plotted, had vanished into thin air? Everyone lies to us, he thought to himself, tracing his finger around an optimistic coastline. Better to die at once with the truth than live endlessly with their lies…and be forced to lie yourself.
At that moment he looked up and saw it. A portrait. Or was it? If so, it was like no other portrait he had never seen…so real he swore the woman was standing before him herself. The portrait was of a girl in her early twenties, wearing a dress with elaborate frills at the sleeves and the collar. The sleeves ended slightly past her elbows, with both prominently displayed in the portrait. One rested elegantly against a divan, allowing the lower half of the arm to drape luxuriously against the fabric, a single finger extending to touch a small, metallic box. The other elbow rested against her waist, extending the arm to her lap, where she supported the box. A book of some sort was propped open in her lap, though the box, rather than the book, seemed to command her attention. The young lady’s hair was bound behind her head in a sumptuous bow, blinding the viewer with the radiance of her white flesh, from forehead to bosom. The lady’s expression was the most notable feature of the portrait: the eyes were not typical of a society lady, being bored and severe; instead, they shone out with curiosity and interest. A sincere, unaffected smile spread over her face, balancing a short, full nose and a roundish face. All of this blended harmoniously with her periwinkle dress, which matched—not exactly, but close enough—her searching eyes.
Time melted away. The sounds and movement behind him faded into the faintest whisper. All he saw was the woman, frozen and in constant motion. She seemed to invite his stare, to be aware of her golden frame. However, it wasn’t the eye of society she desired, but the gaze of one individual—someone she had long expected and could now indulge in eager conversation. The pain of not entering into that conversation, of not being able to shatter the silence with a single word, was unbearable to the prince. He reached out to touch the frame.
“No one’s bid on this one yet, Your Grace,” a gentleman said, coming up behind him. “The suggest price is thirty krouck, but for a member of the family, I could easily lose one or two of the items…”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said, reluctantly turning away from it. “I’m no art connoisseur. What do I know about painting?”
“Oh, I thought…my mistake,” the gentleman bowed.
Harold almost turned away, but catching her eyes which seemed to know him...
“Wait—look, you say no one’s bid on it?”
“Not a soul, Your Grace.”
“Well…I should buy something, just for appearance’s sake. And if nobody wants it…” Harold trailed off, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Fine: I’ll give you fifty krouck. And I want it set up in the closet gallery, immediately, today. Go.”
“Your Majesty,” the gentleman bowed, and immediately set about removing the portrait.
At the same moment, Dimitri, having assured himself that the queen was nowhere about, stole to the prince’s side.
“Ah—she look like weasel face,” Dimitri said, clasping his shoulder. “Very good quality in woman, yes?”
The queen had arranged a match between her son and the daughter of the respected, if widely despised, Baron Vysotsky. She had never seen the daughter personally, though the miniature that was sent of her with the Baron’s acceptance was nothing to crow about. Despite the obvious skill of the painter, the daughter had a sense of heaviness that had nothing to do with weight. Her eyes, expression, hair, all seemed ponderous and frightening. For a moment she wondered if her son deserved this. In the end she supposed it was for his own good, and what’s more, for her own good, since the kingdom was particularly low on cash at the moment. Marriage always supplemented the coffers handsomely. Whether or not one’s son would be happy was of small account. He would be happy with the money he could waste gambling and indulging in simple-minded mischief. Men were easy that way; so much more difficult for women, whose vices demanded both skill and art.
The prince had little reaction to his mother’s plans. Instead of telling him in person—for she feared a scene, and he was famous for scenes—she sent him a letter. The letter consisted of six pages of gossip and intrigue; however, buried in the middle was the following sentence, which laid everything out in clear and simple Yazik: “I have made certain plans of a not entirely matrimonial nature which may, in time, grow into a specific engagement between two not so disagreeable people upon whom the kingdom, and indeed, the entire world, would not look unfavorably upon should it be announced in the fullness of time.” Harold tossed the letter aside and returned to the portrait.
Who was she? Was she still alive? Could they ever meet? Was this her exact likeness? Or was she too beautiful even for the poetry of art? He secretly believed the latter; something about the portrait rang true to him. This was her, or an impression of her that the artist saw and felt was more than mere appearance. If he could see her, even if she was twenty years older, he would recognize her at a glance. If not for the eyes, for her movements—for indeed, the portrait seemed to move for him—the turn of her head, her gait, even the sound of her voice.
“This is silly…it’s just a portrait. She might even be imaginary, like those fabled continents on the map,” he thought, his finger tracing the embellishments of the frame. “Who’s to say if she ever lived or died? What does it matter? But she is here…and for whatever it’s worth, she’s mine.”
Nevertheless, the possibility upset him: this could be a real woman. From her look he would say she was foreign, or at least from one of the outlying provinces. The clothing didn’t look too outdated, though it wasn’t what was worn here—the style was too flamboyant for their reserved, cautious taste. It could be recent, particularly as the Astrologer traveled widely in the world and might have purchased the portrait from the artist (or the sitter?) himself. But how could he know? He knew nothing of art, the styles, the techniques…the portrait might have been painted five centuries ago for all he knew. Were women even that beautiful five centuries ago? Surely not…
Suddenly all his art and history lessons—or the lack thereof—made a deep impression on him. He had largely ignored his private tutor, whose turgid lessons in philosophy convinced him that the ancients were born postmortem. If only his tutor had told him that his love life depended on a thorough knowledge of art history...then he might have listened.
Suddenly it dawned on him: the Royal Academy! He would summon the greatest art professors and have them disrobe her on the spot (her secrets, that is). He ran upstairs to his rooms and kicked Dimitri awake, who had been slumbering on and off for days.
“Why to kick me?” Dimitri grumbled, wiping the drool from his mouth.
“I’m writing a letter,” the prince said, searching for paper on and under the bed. “You will take it directly to the Royal Academy. Wait for their response.”
“Academy? Why I to go there?”
“The portrait, you simpleton. I want to know where it’s from.”
Dimitri smiled drunkenly; not that he was drunk—truth be told, he rarely drank—but he knew it made him look foolish, and therefore, charming.
“Ah, is all clear now,” he said. “Your mother will have painting for daughter-in-law.”
“I’m not marrying her, just satisfying my artistic curiosity,” the prince said, removing a crumpled sheaf from between the mattress. “Besides, this has nothing to do with my mother. At least, not yet.”
Dimitri watched the prince hastily scribble out a letter, which he promptly sealed and thrust into his hands.
“I to go now?” Dimitri asked.
“Damn you, yes. You do have duties, the occasional commission to earn your pay. Loafing and drinking you can do on your own time.”
Harold pushed him out the door and collapsed on his bed, thoughts of the woman spinning around him. He could see her in motion, opening the box to show him a key that she placed in his hand. The rustle of her skirts swept over his body, covering his arms and legs with gooseflesh. So close—and yet, he could never truly know her, share her thoughts. No woman he had ever known or flirted with compared to this single glimpse of a phantom creature. What bothered him more than anything was that the artist was there. When he took up his brush to paint her (in the same room!), he looked and said, “yes, I want the world to see this,” which meant that he wasn’t alone, but was the second—if not thousandth—person to see her like this. She could never truly be his, nor he her own.
An hour or two later—though it felt like a full calendar month to the prince—Dimitri entered the room with an eccentric-looking gentleman, clearly a professor from the university. The professor, who introduced himself vaguely as “an eternal student of the arts,” made an awkward bow—which emptied the contents of his pockets on the floor. Coins, miniature globes, tops, and jacks bounced and clattered at their feet, which the professor made no attempt to pick up. Grimacing, the prince kicked them aside and ushered him to the portrait. Without saying a word, he simply gestured to it, as if to say, “now you see why you’ve come!” He expected the professor to fall back in awe, to gingerly step forward with outstretched hands to assure its reality. In short, he expected him to confirm what he already knew: that this was a work of outstanding genius that should, in good conscience, be displayed in the Royal Assembly. Instead, the professor took out a cracked monocle and craned his neck forward to inspect it, sniffling and muttering faintly.
“Who is she?” the professor finally asked.
“I...I have no idea. I was rather hoping...you could tell me.”
“I find her very pretty. Well, not so much pretty as...”
“Mmm, no, that’s not the word...”
“No, doesn’t start with an M,” he frowned.
“Ah yes, but instead of that, something that suggests a sense of...oh, I can never remember the word...” he grunted.
Harold ran through a dozen adjectives in his head, offered a few, but each one was brusquely dismissed. What arcane, academic word was he searching for that could possibly capture the divine, intoxicating sense of beauty that this portrait alone possessed?
“Ah, there is it,” he suddenly shouted, stamping his foot. “Old!”
“Old?” Harold exclaimed.
“Yes, the very word! Don’t you think so? Something about the way she’s looking at me...her eyes, I suppose. Very old, even antique.”
“So you’re saying...she’s an antique?” Harold asked, with evident pain.
“Older than me, I imagine!” he laughed. “That’s why they call them ‘old souls.’ Sometimes even children have the look of a wizened sage. Something to do with past lives, I suppose. Or maybe it’s just her hairdo.”
“So you mean her—she’s the one that’s old? Not the painting?” Harold asked, almost seizing him in his arms.
“The picture? Oh, heavens no, it might have been painted yesterday—look at the paint,” he said, tapping it. “5-10 years, no more, maybe less,” he said, with a chuckle. “I meant the woman herself. She strikes me as...oh I couldn’t say...89?”
“89? This girl?”
“Yes, it is the eyes—how they stare at you!” he said, shaking his head. “Never seen a student with eyes like that. Definitely an old soul.”
“But the painting itself, it’s new, right? It might have been painted recently, a few years ago, of a living woman?”
“When else might it have been painted?” he shrugged. “And as for a living woman, well, anything might have happened since then. A plague; an overturned coach; a bad childbirth; even a bad fall could end things like that. You would have to ask the painter. Very accomplished fellow, though I can’t say I can place him or the model...I’ll have to consult the Directory. If only I could find the key...I seem to have misplaced it after my last lecture.”
“Can you find it?” Harold asked. “It’s very important!”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly remember, it was so long ago,” he sighed.
“But you said you just lost it—your last lecture, remember?”
“Indeed; I haven’t set foot in a classroom these ten years.”
“Ten years?” he repeated, aghast. “So what do you do at the university?”
“You know, I’m not entirely sure,” he said, eyes narrowing in thought. “I typically spend my days in the office, going through old papers...and then at some point I fall asleep. Then my servant wakes me for supper...usually something with broccoli, which I despise...and then I go back to the office to read something before I fall asleep. Not much time for the classroom. But the students seem very understanding; they don’t mind missing a few classes, as long as they graduate in the end.”
“But you’re sure...it’s a modern painting? Of a living—that is, of a woman who was until very recently, alive?”
“Certainly, I would stake my career on it. Wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so,” he said, lost in thought. “But how can I find her? Do you have any idea?”
“Ask a sorcerer. They have means of finding people, though they typically ask for something in return, always the thing you least want to give them.”
“Yes, but I don’t know any sorcerers,” he scowled, attempting to tug his beard (which had just begun to grow, and thus scarcely qualified).
“Try Turold,” the professor suggested.
“Oh, a splendid magician—a man of the first rank! Known far and wide for his wizarding wonders.”
“Excellent! Where can I find him?”
“I believe he was arrested last week.”
“You’re kidding!” Harold exclaimed. “On what charges?”
“I forget—I read about it in the papers. Something serious, I seem to recall. He might be on the next boat—exiled to the Colonies.”
“Dimitri! Pay the professor twenty krouck and see him out. Then go straight to the prison—get this Turold released at once!”
“Me? But where I to get such krouck?” Dimitri gasped.
“From the money you stole from my cabinet last week, you churl! Let bygones by bygones, just pay the professor.”
Dimitri grumbled something in Russian—though its intent was clear in any language—and led the professor out, who gave another clumsy bow, vomiting another series of baubles and trinkets.
“So you are alive,” Harold said, turning to the portrait. “I just pray this Turold fellow knows what he’s doing.”
The young woman in the portrait didn’t respond, though her eyes flickered with a hidden light. A light, the prince had already assured himself, that shone exclusively for him.
Why Grasso chooses to write Young Adult Fantasy;
"To me, Young Adult is not an age group as much as a framework: it allows for a very generous suspension of disbelief, where you can indulge in fantastic flights of fancy, while still grounding it all in a work of literary merit."
Also by Joshua Grasso;
Count Leopold always wondered about the strange chest sealed with three magic locks. His father warned him never to mention the Box—nor pry into the secret chamber where it was kept. Now the Box has begun speaking to Leopold, begging him to find the key and undo the hateful locks. If he does so, it promises him to fulfill his every desire, even offering him the hand of the forbidden—and forbiddingly named— Lady Mary Bianca Domenica de Grassini Algarotti. However, before unfastening the third lock he catches a glimpse of something unspeakable inside—and turns to the only man who shared his father’s secret, the legendary Conjurer-Magician, Hildigrim Blackbeard. A man who, if the stories are true, will exact a terrible price in return for his service.
About the Author;
Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. He received his Ph.D. from Miami University, specializing in British Literature from the long eighteenth century. As both a writer and teacher, he uses the past--whether its literature, art, music, or simply ideas--to help us see ourselves through the 'mirror' of time. Even with the passing of centuries, our reflection is remarkably consistent--if occasionally troubling. The Count of the Living Death is his first novel.
More from Joshua;
Website, The Virtual Astrolabe
Available from Amazon;
The Fantasy & Sci-Fi Network is a collection of authors, bloggers, and reviewers who are passionate about finding and creating quality fantasy/sci-fi books which are also teen safe (G, PG, or PG-13 rated). The FSF Network believes it is possible to create fantastic works of fantasy and science fiction without resorting to graphic violence, explicitly harsh language, or sex.
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