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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Caput Mortuum

Andrew Kaye is a writer and cartoonist from the suburban wilderness of Northern Virginia. This is his fifth appearance in Daily Science Fiction. Feel free to bother him at andrewkaye.livejournal.com or twitter.com/andrewkaye.
The Master's voice trickles from the speaking tube. "Renán," he says, his voice an urgent orange but matte with kindness, "please come downstairs."
Renán doesn't want to leave behind his canvas and his paint. But he's a good servant. He comes when he's called.
Master is waiting in the foyer in his hat and his coat and his comfortable boots. Somber colors, ubiquitous. Two parts bone char, one part umber. Renán smiles. Master is wearing cologne. Renán can see it hanging on his neck and chest in motes of pale blue and verdigris, the smell a wet blend of the two.
"I've received word that my order is complete," Master says. He reaches into his pocket, removes the Special Glasses. "The couriers are detained this afternoon, so I'd like you to come with me to pick it up. But please wear the spectacles," Master says. "We'll be out among people, and I don't want you getting distracted by the colors."
Renán doesn't like the Special Glasses. Renán doesn't complain. The Glasses are heavy on his face, make his nose hurt and his ears itch. The Glasses have dark lenses. They bathe the world in shadow.
Renán follows Master's too-black boots through too-black streets. He tries not to look at the sky. It's the sunny season: always brief, always beautiful. In a week the winds will come, the ash will return, the sky will grow heavy with gray and with brown. Sepia days and starless nights. He can't bear to see the sun in shadow.
Master's boots leave gray footprints on the paving stones. Renán mimics Master's shuffle. He frowns. The walk is different. Master is different. Renán thinks he looks uncomfortable, even scared--pale and crumpled gray-green. Renán rarely sees Master when he is Among People. His face has changed in ways that even the Special Glasses can't conceal.
Master usually has such a paintable face. The smile. The eyes. The glyph tattoos along his cheek: alchemist's marks, dark green-black like ornamental jade. A paintable face, yes, but one he is never allowed to paint. Renán does not want to paint it now. It looks too pale, a canvas smeared with turpentine. It scares him. He tries not to think about it.
"Master...?" Renán asks, hating the soggy gray croak his voice becomes through the Glasses' shadow. "Where are we going?"
"To the gunsmith," Master says, gray tinged with brown.
Renán beams. This is an Important Errand. His hands begin to twitch.
"Nearly there," Master adds. He gestures down the street toward a two-story building. Holes line the outside wall where the second story rests atop the first. Renán thinks he sees a faerie slouched in one of these holes, just above the door. There's something metallic in the faerie's hands: a tiny glamlock rifle.
"This is a faerie gunsmith's," Renán says. There's a sign above the door. He can't read it. Can't read anything. Forgot how. The Special Glasses stain the sign worse than age and ash. The blue is muddy, the white like a tobacco chewer's teeth. The Special Glasses fail to stain his excitement.
"All gunsmiths are faeries," Master says. "Only faeries forge glamlocks."
Renán grins. Renán likes faeries. Faeries make colors, practically perspire them. He can see the aura surrounding the gunsmith guard, though not the subtleties in color. Magic winks along the glamlock barrel like dull fireflies. Renán's ears itch. He rubs at them, furiously. Lets the Special Glasses slide down his nose as he follows Master inside.
The room is bare: single desk, several chairs, all simple and unadorned. Even these are a delight. Renán gasps at the shades of sienna and umber and ochre. His eyes follow the patterns in the wood grain.
A faerie sits cross-legged on the desktop, pen scratching out sums. Her skin is three parts beige and one part sinopia, her shoulders and clothing stippled carbon black. Renán can see the magic of her aura moving like heat around her entire body, a mirage of aquamarine and cerulean and a dozen subtle shades between.
The faerie looks up from her paperwork with shiny black eyes. When she speaks, Renán sees the magic ripple. "Can I help you?"
Master smiles. It's not his usual smile. "Señorita Libélula, correct?"
The faeries wings vibrate, lifting her several inches above the table. Her shadow tints the wood burnt umber. Soot falls from her wings, specks of gray and black. She scowls. "I am. And you are...?"
Master laughs pink and tangerine with nervousness. "I'm sorry, señorita. I forgot we haven't met outside of telegrams. My name is Esteban Soliente," he says. "My couriers are unavailable, so I came for this month's order myself. I've brought the receipt, if that helps."
The faerie ignores the yellowing paper. Whistles sharp and silver from behind her teeth. Several faeries lift off from behind the desk, fly to the back rooms like slow, sooty dragonflies. They don't use the human-sized door, ferret into holes similar to those outside. Renán can feel heat from those holes, red and orange against his skin. Somewhere behind that wall, glamlocks are being forged in fire and magic.
Renán's eyes wander. The wall. The floor. The ceiling. He gasps.
Magic is accumulating in the rafters, probably has been for years. It sloshes and swirls like an upside-down ocean. Ultramarine becomes indigo, blends with purple ochre, becomes something else entirely. Renán's fingers move as if searching for brushes. He is unable to suppress a juvenile giggle.
"What's wrong with him?" the faerie says.
Master sighs. "He has prismatic blight, I'm afraid. He's hyperaware of colors, even those humans can't normally see. But it's... degenerative. His mind... well, his mind isn't what it used to be, and isn't getting any better. Renán? Please, joven, put the spectacles back on."
Renán speaks in a cream-colored mumble. "I need to paint it. I need to paint the ceiling like the magic does. Coat the canvas in sprays and waves--flat brushes, stiff bristles, bit of water, fan between colors," he says, and his cream-colored mumble thins into an excited white. "I need to paint it, Master! Please!"
"You can paint when we get home." Master's voice is iron, oxidizes immediately. He sighs. "Patience, Renán. I'll even buy you some new canvasses on the way back."
Renán composes himself, slides the Special Glasses up his nose. He blushes, his shame as bright and pink as the shadowy lenses allow. He had embarrassed Master. While on an Important Errand.
The faeries return, a box carried among them. A familiar box in a familiar style. Wood like raw sienna, grain nearly golden. Unreadable label in weathered gamboge.
"You order an awful lot of glamlock cartridges, Señor Soliente," the faerie says. She squints her eyes. "You must be one hell of a marksman."
Master hesitates. "Yes. Well. I don't know if I'd say that. I find glamlocks intriguing--magic-fueled firearms and all that. But I'm hardly a marksman. Hardly." He shrugs. "Practice makes perfect, yes?"
"I heard you use the cartridges for experiments."
"Really?" Master's voice is again pink and tangerine. "And who told you that?"
"Word gets around," the faerie says. "I like to know my clientele."
Renán barely pays attention. He watches the ceiling, fighting the urge to tear the Special Glasses from his face.
The windows face sunset. The windows are open. Outside, walls and paving stones glow with the reds and oranges and purples of a melting sorbet. Inside, the carpets are sectioned into bright squares of gold and white. It will be dark soon. The colors will fade to gray, and the gray will slowly darken into black, like iron gall.
Renán paints.
Renán is comfortable, surrounded by paint and soon-to-be-paint. Vials of ground azurite and orpiment. Jars of murex shells and cochineal carapaces and madder roots. And Master had bought him canvas, beautiful canvas, smooth as snakeskin and white as underbellies.
Renán lets the sunlight choose his colors. He streaks the underbelly white with pale brick and stained stucco and terracotta and the copper-red skin of the men in the street. He smiles. The colors dance.
"Renán?" Master's voice travels down the hallway, follows him through the door. "Renán, let's shut these windows, shall we?" He snuffs out the sunlight. Curtains drawn. The room goes twilight gray-purple.
"My reds are cold," Renán says sadly, pawing the canvas, trying to push away the shadows as if they're cobwebs. "I was painting the light."
"I'm sorry, jovencito, but there are other things to paint. We have work to do."
Work. Renán doesn't mind work. Work means colors.
He repositions his canvasses to face the far wall, a wall cleared of furniture and ornaments so that only the faint eggshell white of its surface shows. Master wheels over the barrier, braces it against the wall. From his bag he pulls a thin sheet of metal. Locks it into the barricade. The sight amuses Renán; it looks very much like a metal canvass on a heavy, wheeled easel.
Master goes to the shelves, finds his Dangerous Box, the one Renán is not supposed to touch. It's two parts burnt umber and one part beige, with delicate brass clasps. Master opens it, reveals an elegant glamlock pistol that glitters like mother-of-pearl.
"I'll be trying the electrum composite today," Master says, loading one of the new cartridges into the pistol. "Paint what you see."
Renán nods. Readies his brushes. There were no orders Renán enjoyed more.
Paint what you see.
Master fires his glamlock. A white-hot crack, a blue comet. Anyone could see that. But Renán is Gifted. He sees all things and the color of all things. He sees the magic of the glamlock and the magic of its bullets. He sees the colors that flare across the thin metal sheet and around it and above it. He needs two canvasses just to paint it properly.
The first canvas shows the parts of magic the metal absorbs. Reds riot across its surface in angular branches. Red veins. Red lightning. Half-a-dozen shades of vivid crimson and violent carmine. The first painting is filled with anger. The colors are hot with it. Renán can feel them steam.
The second canvas is far more colorful. Renán spends more time on it, wants to get it right. Precise. These are the colors the metal repels, the bits of magic that smoke and crumble away. Renán paints curling shapes in cobalt blue and antimony yellow and three different types of cadmium pigment, dapples them with indigo, flecks the canvas with aureolin and raw sienna. Renán can see anger in this one, too. A different anger. One born from disappointment, from the pain of being cast aside. Renán is sweating when he finishes.
He shows Master his paintings. Master frowns. Master is never pleased.
"Another failure," he mutters.
"They aren't... beautiful?"
"Of course they're beautiful, Renán. But I'm not looking for beauty." He points to the first canvas. "If I've done my alchemy correctly, that should be blank. All of the magic, all of the colors, would be deflected." Renán's shoulders sag. Blank is not a color he's familiar with.
Master sets the glamlock down, sits beside Renán. "I'll get it right eventually," he says, the optimism clouded like the water in a jar of soiled brushes. "Eventually the secret to the Universal Barrier will be unlocked. Just think, Renán! Magic-proof armor!"
Renán does not know why magic-proof armor is important or exciting. He tries to imagine what it would look like, paints a picture of it in his mind.
Master scrutinizes the paintings once more. "It's always the reds," he says. "The reds are always absorbed."
"Red ochre and alizarin," Renán says automatically. "A touch of royal purple and bone char, too. It's... a very pretty failure, Master."
Then: chaos. Windows shatter. Drapes part. Purple-hued light spills onto the floor, glitters off broken glass. A figure steps into the room. His boots crunch as he steps forward. Mother-of-pearl flashes in his hand. "Señor Soliente, of the Alchemist's Guild?"
Master's eyes widen. He scrambles for his glamlock.
Renán hears the sharp, silver click. "Don't move, señor. You understand why I'm here?"
"I haven't done anything wrong!" Master shouts in defiance. "You have no right--"
"I just do what I'm paid to do, señor. And I've been paid well. A lot of folks think your work is dangerous for business." He smirks down the barrel. "Find your Universal Barrier yet?"
"...No."
"Good. That'll make this easier, then."
A white-hot crack. A blue comet. Renán watches the colors streak through the air.
The glamlock's magic hits Master in the torso. It courses across his body like spilled ink. Master's eyes bulge. His body stiffens, convulses. His chest bursts open. Crimson splashes out. Master crumples and falls, hits the floor with a single, short gasp of gray.
Renán is stunned. Renán finds it hard to move.
He lurches toward Master. Looks into his face. It's relaxed. Pale, but relaxed. Almost like he's sleeping.
"Just a job, joven, just a job." The man speaks, but Renán is not listening, the voice cloaked in so much shadow that it blends into the background. "You get that body taken care of, you hear?" Renán does not. He does not see the man smile and nod, does not hear the crunching of glass as the man turns to leave. The man does not have a paintable face.
The curtains close. Envelop the light. Two parts purple ochre and three parts carbon black.
There is red. Everywhere. Master is losing so much that Renán can't hold it in. He doesn't know what to do. He doesn't understand death. He doesn't understand medicine or prayer. Not anymore. Maybe not ever. The only thing he understands now is painting.
With sticky fingers, Renán goes to his brushes. He paints what he sees. He paints his master's death in sanguine and shadow.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 9th, 2012


I love it when a title says everything I need it to. Caput mortuum is a term that would be familiar to Renán and his master, as it’s used by both painters and alchemists. In alchemy, it refers to a useless, leftover substance, and its symbol is a stylized skull. It’s also an iron oxide pigment, a dark brownish purple that reminds me of dried blood.

While not explicitly stated, "Caput Mortuum" takes place in the city of Caldierra, one of the locations in my story "A Reason to Fear Life, a Reason to Crave Death" from issue 23 of Electric Velocipede. I return to this world quite a bit in my writing, and I don’t think I'll ever get it out of my system.

- Andrew Kaye

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