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Never to Behold Again

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood, and together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. The first book of her Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her other works include the Doppelganger duology, the urban fantasy Wilders series, the Onyx Court historical fantasies, the Varekai novellas, and over sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. For more information, visit swantower.com, her Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon at patreon.com/swan_tower.

Beauty is a consumable thing. We eat it with our eyes, wear it down with our gazes. A sunset or a flower may take our breath away because we see it for so short a time; the next day the flower has wilted, and the next evening's sunset is not the one we saw before. But everyone has had the experience of purchasing a thing--a sculpture, a vase, a piece of jewelry--which was utterly striking when it was new, only to find that its charm palls after it is looked at too often. This is not simply habituation. The beauty is consumed in the looking.
I did not care about money when my daughter wed, not for its own sake. I wanted some untouched beauty.
Money is why ambitious families lock their most beautiful daughters away, to be attended to only in darkness, or by blind slaves. They choose the girls at an early age, no older than six, and they seclude them behind walls and veils until it is time for them to marry. Wealthy men will pay an absurd bride price for a young woman who has not been seen in a decade or more. Her beauty will be pristine, unmarred by other people's eyes. Of course their own greedy gazes often ruin their prizes before long, dulling the new wife's shine--but until then, they have what few others can say they possess.
That, not money, is what drove me. Through the long years in which my daughter grew unseen, I gave careful thought to my choice, considering and discarding the possibilities. By the time she married, I knew: an ink painting by the master Kilungte. His style is minimalist; each work is completed in a single sitting. Even the artist's own gaze has little chance to diminish the perfection of the result.
I looked at it once, when I received it. I stared at it without blinking, until my eyes burned so badly I could keep them open no longer. Then, with them shut, I covered the painting. And I have not looked at it since.
No one but me knows where it is. I can't risk someone else damaging it, eating away at the beauty I sacrificed so much to acquire. Perhaps I will look at it one more time before I die--I haven't decided. It will be lesser then, reduced by that first viewing. Perhaps it is better to remember it only as it was.
I will not say what the painting depicts. Words cannot suffice. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and no one will ever truly see it again.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 17th, 2022


Author Comments

Isabel Yap's short story collection Never Have I Ever introduced me to the tradition of binukot, girls raised in strict seclusion. This story is not about binukot as they exist in the real world, but it gave me the idea of beauty being eroded by people looking at it, and a parent raising a secluded daughter in order to obtain a piece of unsullied art.

- Marie Brennan
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