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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Thirteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2004 03:47 EDT



    So it was in such a wretched company that I arrived at the villa of Giaccomo Sanctissimo, Cardinal Ignomini

    Yet, despite the churlishness of his minions, I found the Cardinal himself a civil enough man. I was not kept waiting more than a few minutes before he appeared, and his Grace's reception was most cordial. He expressed great admiration for my portrait. To these happy sentiments, I responded with words which, though modest, implied that this simple portrait had barely scratched the surface of my talents.

    His Grace bade me walk with him through what he called his "modest villa," and urged me to spare no criticism of its aesthetic shortcomings. At first, I was reticent, for the politesse of the Cardinal's demeanor could not disguise from my artist's eye the acute intelligence and even keener pride which suffused his entire being. But, as time went on, I saw that the Cardinal's pride—overweening, if subtle, arrogance is perhaps the better way to put it—was not occasioned by self-satisfied coarseness of spirit, but by high and vaulting ambition. He had summoned me, I now surmised, precisely in order to ferret out the dross of his esthetic surroundings and replace them with such creations as might best surround his saintly person with a golden nimbus of artistic grandeur.

    I dare say I rose to the challenge.

    During the course of our talk, I had occasion to point out to him the loutish quality of Sfinctrian craftsmanship, and to suggest that he might find my services of use. It was at this juncture, as we passed from the Grand Loggia into the gardens down a miserable stairwell designed by Randomello, whose ignorance of proportion is well-known, that the Cardinal raked deeply into his throat and hawked up a huge lunger. Now as His Grace was a most delicate man, he was loath to deposit this noxious lump of phlegm upon the marble walk, and so he lofted it onto the nearest manservant. This led to a most intimate exchange between myself and the high prelate, in which the Prince of the Church indicated, on the one hand, his displeasure with the difficulty of retaining servants in these too liberal times, while yet, on the other, expressing a shrewd and realistic grasp of this selfsame modern world's inevitability.

    Seizing the moment, I advanced for his consideration a solution to his problem which was both practical and aesthetic. And thus was I commissioned to begin the famed Ignomini Spittoon.

    Not resting on my laurels, upon departing the villa I immediately made my way to the mansion of Luigi Carnale, Cardinal Fornacaese. For I remembered well my uncle Giotto's advice to seek work from at least two, preferably several, of the high dignitaries of the Church.

    "Never pays to depend on one client," my uncle explained. "And besides, they're an envious lot, your Ecclesiarchs—get two or more of them matching their art collections, you'll be rich and famous in no time, mark my words." And he should know!

    Following upon the coach and villa of Cardinal Ignomini, the mansion of Cardinal Fornacaese began to cast grave doubts in my mind concerning the devotion of the Ecclesiarchy's highest prelates to the simple life of poverty and righteousness. That was all the good, however, since however meritorious such a life might be to the tonsured soul, it was most deleterious to the advancement of the artistic purse. Many praises have been sung to the memory of holy ascetics, but none—not a one—was ever sung by an artisan, craftsman, or, for that matter, professional singer.

    Upon seeing it, Cardinal Fornacaese's mansion produced conflicting sentiments.

    On the one hand, much about it brought hope and joy to my heart:

    It was immense—vast in breadth, deep in length, tall in height; massive in construction; ornate in decoration. It was perfectly located—almost in the center of the city, a stone's throw from the Royal Palace, in an area possitively awash in wealth. All this spoke well for the Cardinal means.

    On the other hand, much about it brought despair and horror to my heart:

    It was immense—compensating, with gross weight of material and sheer scale of ornamentation, for the absence of any sense of balance and proportion beyond what might be expected from a barbarian chieftain. It was perfectly located—directly against the grim side of the Durance Pile, that horrid heap of stone within which lie immured countless victims of Sfinctrian law and custom.

    After presenting myself to the mansion's major domo, I was instructed to wait in a small antechamber, the which, in both its decor and ambiance, resembled nothing so much as the lounge of a brothel. I admit, the three ladies of the evening inhabiting the room may have had something to do with my impression. Other than the color of their hair and complexions—one a brunette, and dusky; one a blonde, and fair; one a redhead, and fairer still—they seemed much of a piece. They were not exactly young, but they were very pretty, very voluptuous, and about as soft-looking as so many stones.

    Upon my entrance, the trio fell silent and examined me much as housewives inspect the loins and chops at a butcher shop. To tell the truth, it was a bit disconcerting. As a rule, women tend to look upon me with favor, as I am—or so I have been told—not unpleasing to the female eye. But these ladies—ah, they were far beyond such petty things. It was the contents of my purse they were assessing, of this I had not the slightest doubt.

    Apparently, they assessed its likely contents as beneath contempt, for the pause in their conversation was extremely brief. I took a seat in a far corner of the room and did my best not to eavesdrop. A difficult task, that, for the content of their discourse was of such a nature as to put paid forever to the notion of women as the gentler sex. Had they been present, teamsters would have been struck dumb with linguistic awe; sailors would have fled in shame; soldiers would have fainted; psychiatrists should have been driven to madness or to a change of theory, which, all things considered, amounts to much the same thing.

    I myself, I am pleased to state, maintained my sang-froid.

    The central axis of their conversation was none other than the figure of Cardinal Fornacaese himself. This prelate the ladies viewed with high regard, for he possessed the four attributes which—in this they were in unanimity—are most to be cherished in the male sex: a purse large and loose, a passion frequent and uncontrolled, a member small and limp, and a stamina brief and easily exhausted.

    Shortly thereafter, the major domo reappeared and bade me follow him. Having ignored me completely since the first few seconds of my entry, the ladies now bestowed upon me looks of considerable ill-favor. These looks were shortly followed by a new round of conversation, the thrust of which was a sudden fear that the Cardinal had perhaps transferred his affections into a base and unnatural channel. I overheard only the first words of this exchange, which, under the circumstances, displeased me not at all. A catamite, indeed!

    My promenade through Cardinal Fornacaese's mansion was long and winding. I was soon quite lost, and could only hope that there was some rhyme and reason to the major domo's circuitous route, unlikely though that seemed. Fortunately, the Cardinal proved to be of a certain artistic temperament in the matter of his household decor and furnishings, and so I was not bored by the journey.

    Horrified, yes; aghast, to be sure; appalled, of a certainty. But bored, no.

    The entire place, insofar as the matter of its decor and furnishings was concerned, was devoted to debauchery. No other word will do. The statues of nude women which flanked every hallway like sentries were uniform both in the wretched quality of their workmanship and in the grotesque exaggeration of those features in which the female form is dissimilar from the male. The paintings of nude women which covered every wall of every room were but two-dimensional versions of the statues, and the occasional tapestry combined the worst features of both, inasmuch as the weavers had developed the hitherto unknown style of using clumps of thread to depict both breasts and, in one particularly excessive piece, labia.

    The doorway which proved to be the entrance to the Cardinal's private chamber was, not to my surprise, flanked by caryatids. Through this singular portal I was ushered into the presence of His Grace, Luigi Carnale, Cardinal Fornacaese.

    How to describe the Cardinal? His stature was short, and made shorter still by his stooped posture, the which was so extreme that at first I took him for a hunchback. This crushed posture, I had no doubt, had been produced by the weight of the world's sins, or, at least, those sins involving the seventh and tenth commandments. For the Cardinal, I suspected, had spent a considerable portion of his lifetime in the attempt to lighten the weight of these sins on humanity as a whole by assuming the burden himself. Such is the quiet heroism to which the clerical devotion is so oft given.

    Of the rest of his figure, I could make out little, since his body was covered by heavy satin robes. I deduced, however, from the scuttling nature of his locomotion, that the Cardinal's saintly ways had badly worn down the sundry joints of his limbs, if not the mortices of his soul.

    His face was likewise difficult to discern, for most of it was concealed by a cowl, and the Cardinal habitually kept his face turned down. In the gloom within, I was only able to discern a lumpish nose and the hint of a pair of fleshy lips.

    Though he lacked the suave style of Cardinal Ignomini, I will confess that Cardinal Fornacaese was polite enough. He enquired as to the purpose of my visit, listened patiently as I extolled the virtues of my artistic skills and talents, and then, after bidding me to be seated, spent some time in thought.

    Suddenly, he spoke.

    "I am afflicted with a problem, Sirra Sfondrati-Piccolomini. Calumny, sir. Calumny!"

    "No!" I gasped.

    "I am libeled in the press! Slandered in the salons!"

    "Impossible!" I exclaimed.

    "Vilified in the marketplace! Traduced in the haberdasheries! Maligned in the bakeries!"

    "It can't be true!" I cried, clasping my brow.

    "Derogated by counts! Disparaged by merchants! Defamed by paupers!"

    "How can this be?" I demanded, bellowing with fury, springing to my feet, my fists clenched and shaking above my head.

    The Cardinal shook his head, or so, at least, I interpreted the jiggle of his cowl.

    "Aye, aye," he muttered. "I am misunderstood, you see."

    He scuttled to a nearby wall and motioned to the portrait appended thereon.

    "'Tis due to such things as this," he grumbled. "My devotion to art has been misconstrued by coarse minds."

    I examined the portrait. Coarse minds, it was true, could conceivably misconstrue the aesthetic essence of the painting. Crude souls, not uplifted by higher thoughts, could, I was forced to admit, confuse the painting with a gynocological diagram and then, espying the lack of any medical equipment in the Cardinal's chamber, come to a dark suspicion. The more so, I thought, if such vulgar and low-thinking types were to notice the flock of ill-reputed women who streamed in and out of the Cardinal's mansion.

    "Dreadful," I muttered. "Quite a dreadful state of affairs."

    By happy chance, however, I was able to provide some assistance to the Cardinal in his distress. For, in the course of the next half hour, I was able to convince His Grace that his problem stemmed entirely from the plebeian craftsmanship of his various and sundry object d'art. The secret, as I explained to him, was simplicity itself. No depiction of the female form, no matter its pose or state of disrobement, can be misconstrued as anything but the highest art so long as the woman in question looks solemn. And so it was that I was commissioned to paint the now-legendary Fornacaese Tryptich.

    For my models I found it necessary to look no further than the three ladies whom I had earlier encountered in the Cardinal's antechamber. These lasses, once they discovered the true state of affairs and the lavish size of their fee, were cordiality itself. Indeed, I will say that I found them better models than most, for they found no difficulty whatsoever in maintaining utterly still postures for long periods of time. "A trick of the trade," they called it. The only difficulty was getting them to take seriously my admonishments to look solemn and thoughtful.

    That, and pacifying Hrundig. The swordmaster found their presence in my studio upsetting, the more so when he discovered the project would take at least two weeks, and was not reticent about making his feelings known. At first, I took his sentiments for prudery; and expressed my puzzlement, for I would have thought his mercenary past would long since have erased any vestiges of his blushing youth.

    "It's not that," he rasped. He glowered at the three women (whose names, or, perhaps I should say, whose professional cognomens, were Honey, Sugar and Candy). Being neither shy nor bashful, they glowered back, which brought forth from Hrundig a smile.

    "Always been partial to whores, actually," he said, nodding to them. "A more honest occupation than most—certainly more than mine. But that's not the problem. The problem's that Olga and the girls are going to be staying here for a while. They're coming next week, in fact."

    "Here?" I asked. "But why would—" The expression on Hrundig's face caused me to fall silent. Clearly, whatever lay behind this unexpected move was not to be spoken of publicly. I recovered quickly, I am pleased to say.

    "I'm sure she won't mind," I said firmly. "She's no stranger to art, and neither, for that matter, are the girls. They will hardly be shocked—and, I can assure you, my relationship with these fine ladies is entirely professional."

    "Certainly is," stated Honey cheerfully.

    "We offered, just to firm up the deal, but Benny'd have none of it," added Sugar.

    "Right proper gentleman he is," chimed in Candy, "and that's a rare commodity."

    Hrundig scowled. "I'm not worried about them being shocked. Quite the contrary! As soon as Beatrice sees what's up she'll want to pose herself—and like as not the other two also!"

    Honey, Sugar and Candy immediately began a vigorous protest at this looming transgression of their professional rights by rank and respectless amateurs, but I silenced them with a firm assurance that their jobs were most secure. I then bestowed upon Hrundig my finest glare.

    "Am I to be forever plagued by this?" I demanded. "If nothing else, Hrundig, understand this much: whatever I might do, there are certain things I will not do. In truth, I would greatly enjoy painting Beatrice's portrait—and that of Consuela and Deirdre—and especially in the nude. They are lovely and vibrant young women and I do not know a single artist worthy of the name—female as well as male—who is not inspired by such models. But one thing I would most certainly not do is sell such portraits—at least, not to such a pool of filth as Cardinal Fornacaese."

    "Here now!" protested Sugar. "What's this, then? We're good enough to sell to the Cardinal, but not some precious little damoiselles?"

    "Shut up," said Honey. "He's not insulting us, he's insulting the Cardinal. Which you've done yourself the plenty of times."

    "That's right," agreed Candy. "And besides, the precious little damoiselles aren't in the trade so they don't need to advertise. Whereas we "—here she grinned wickedly—"stand to make a bundle once the Cardinal's buddies—rich buddies, the lot of 'em—get a gander at the pictures."

    "Best business move we ever made," added Honey, "and we're getting well paid for it. So shut up."

    Sugar was abashed. And so, I was pleased to see, was Hrundig.

    "Well, I suppose," he grumbled. "But you wait and see if I'm not right!"



    Of course, he was right. No sooner had Madame Frissault and her daughters moved in than the girls began exploring. Honey, Sugar and Candy were not present, having left for the day, but there could be no mistaking the nature of the three very large portraits in the center of my studio.

    The girls stared at the portraits wide-eyed. Madame Frissault burst into riotous laughter.

    "Oh, Benvenuti—your uncle trained you well, the dog!" she gasped, wiping away tears. "Goya Sfrondrati-Piccolomini's Law of Nudes: If They Look Solemn It's Art, Even If It Does Make You Stiff."

    I grinned back at her. She examined the portraits more soberly, and shook her head.

    "But it's such a waste of talent," she muttered. She eyed her daughters, whose initial expressions of shock had now been replaced by intent scrutiny.

    "I can tell they'll be sneaking around and pestering you, anyway, soon enough. So go ahead, Benvenuti: paint my daughters in the nude."

    The girls flushed, but look pleased. Hrundig did not flush, but he did not look pleased. Madame Frissault glanced at him slily.

    "I suppose you'll insist on chaperoning the sessions, Hrundig?" she asked.

    To his credit, Hrundig responded with a wintry smile.

    "Oh, my. I don't think that'd be necessary. Benvenuti is the very soul of honor and propriety."

    Whereupon he left, with great dignity, sternly ignoring the girlish giggles which erupted behind his back. But, later, in our daily practice session, he pressed me hard. Very hard. I was younger than Hrundig, and bigger, and stronger, and faster, and had become, under his tutelage, an expert with all manner of edged weapons. But, in his own way, Hrundig was as much the embodiment of murder as Greyboar; and left me with no doubt, by the end of our session, that he was still the swordmaster.

    Yet, in truth, I found the task of painting the Frissault daughters a great pleasure. For the next week, I was working almost round the clock, what with painting the Cardinal's portraits in the daytime and the Frissault girls in the evening. I decided, at the outset, to paint the girls as an ensemble, rather than as separate portraits. This decision they did not, at first, greet with great pleasure. Indeed, they went so far as to accuse me of failing to distinguish between them as individuals; of sloppy, fuzzy-brained paternalism; of slippery, slipshod workmanship; of outright mysogyny.

    Their mother, however, stilled these outrageous charges quite firmly; then, to my astonishment and embarassment (and, I must admit, great pride), announced that I was a great artist and that one did not dictate to a great artist how to express his vision.

    Thereafter, the girls were cooperative, if a bit sullen. All the better—for I incorporated a trace of that childish sullenness into the portrait. They also attempted to emulate the poses, replete with false solemnity, of the models for the Cardinal's portrait—quite against the advice of both their mother and the models themselves (who had soon, now assured the girls were not competitors, taken an interest in the project).

    "You look ridiculous," reproved Madame Frissault. "Benvenuti, make them stop this nonsense!"

    "You can't pull it off, girls," chided Honey. "It matters too much to you. Benvenuti, don't let them do it!"

    But here, I stood firmly with the girls, and commanded all their critics to be silent. In so doing, I gained the firm allegiance of my young models, which, to be sure, was all to the good. Yet I had my own purpose in mind, for, in truth, what Madame Frissault would have called my "vision" of the portrait had now taken firm grip upon me, and the girls' awkward attempts at seductive poses were an integral part of it. There is nothing, to my mind, so preposterous as a nude portrait which pretends to be divorced from sexuality. The attempt to do so simply produces a kind of lasciviousness—an effect which, in point of fact, I was aiming for with deliberate energy in my portraits for the Cardinal. But in my portrait of the girls, the effect was, as it were, transformed from within. The essay of the Frissault daughters at seductiveness—yes, even lasciviousness—became transformed, on the canvas, into the purest innocence. Not the innocence of babes, which is as meaningless as the inevitable stolidity of a rock, or the greenness of a plant, but the true thing itself. In the first, innocence is due to absence; in the other, the true innocence, it emanates from the soul.

    In the end, when it was finished, I spent some long moments examining the portrait. For the first time in my life, I thought, I had created a perfect work of art. I had captured everything I wanted.

    "I will call it The Maidens," I announced.

    This brought, at first, vigorous denunciations from the girls; but, after they clustered about and studied the portrait, they fell silent. Madame Frissault, usually quick in her assessment, was also silent. So was Hrundig; and, more than silent, the ferocious swordmaster became, after a time, serene; and, finally, looked at me with me with real apology; and I was glad, for I treasured his friendship.

    Sugar, Honey and Candy were also present. As it happened, I had completed the Cardinal's portrait that day. But the three ladies had, by now, become interested in the other project, and so they had stayed after their final session to witness its completion.

    In the event, it was Honey who broke the silence.

    "I was like that, once," she said, and her voice contained a sadness. Not sadness for herself alone, but an ancient sadness; the sadness of an oft-abused and betrayed womankind.

    Madame Frissault sighed. "You have arrived at that special place, Benvenuti," she said softly. She turned and gazed at me warmly. "You have nothing more to learn from me. Or from your blessed and blasted uncles, for that matter."

    She then transferred her gaze to her daughters.

    "What do you think?" she asked them. The girls looked at her, at me, and back at their portrait. Beatrice was the first to speak.

    "It's wonderful, but—" A tear began to form in her eye, but it did not fall; and, after a time, disappeared. "I had hoped for something else." She stared at me solemnly.

    I spread my hands in a gesture of apology.

    "Don't be stupid, girl!" snapped Honey. To my surprise, there was much anger in her voice. "What do you want, love? There's more love in that painting than I've had in my whole life, and I'm ten years older than you, at the least."

    The prostitute looked back and forth between the portrait of the Frissault girls and those I had done for the Cardinal.

    "Those are junk, aren't they?" Her question was addressed to Madame Frissault. Madame Frissault glanced at the portraits and pursed her lips.

    "I wouldn't call them junk, Honey. They're extraordinarily well done. The technique is perfect, the skill of the brushstrokes is—"

    "They're junk," asserted Honey firmly. "High-priced and pretty, sure, but still junk. Just like me."

    I shook my head firmly. "Not the last, Honey. High-priced, yes. Oh, very high-priced, you can be sure—I intend to bleed the Cardinal quite well. And, yes, junk. But not like you. Not like you, at all."

    "Show her, Benvenuti," commanded Madame Frissault. "Show all three of them, if they want."

    "You mean, have him paint another portrait of us?" asked Sugar.

    "How long would it take?" This from Candy, skeptically.

    "Yeah, and how much would it cost?" demanded Sugar.

    I began to speak, but Madame Frissault cut me off.

    "For him to do a proper job would take at least a week. Probably longer. As for money, that can be handled either of two ways: If you wish, I will commission the portrait, and pay Benvenuti the full price for one of his portraits."

    I tried to speak again, but she stilled me with a gesture.

    "No more charity, Benvenuti!" she pronounced. Then, to the three women: "If I pay for the portrait, you will receive fees for your work as models. I won't pay as much as you're getting for the Cardinal's portraits, mind." She laughed. "Benvenuti's bleeding that robed fool liked a pig!" Then, soberly: "But I will pay the standard rate for professional models, which, at this moment in New Sfinctr, is [NOTE: WE NEED TO ESTABLISH EXACT CURRENCIES FOR THE DIFFERENT GROTAL STATES AS WELL AS OZAR]."

    Sugar and Candy glanced at each other.

    "Well, why not?" said Candy. "It's about what we'd make in—regular work."

    "Not quite," qualified Sugar, "but it's steadier, and a lot easier. Sure. What do say, Honey?"

    Honey, the redheaded one of the trio, had remained silent. Indeed, her eyes had never left Madame Frissault.

    "You said there was a second way to pay for it." Her voice was hesitant.

    "Yes, there is. You pay for the portrait yourself. And you model for nothing."

    "That's crazy!" protested Sugar.

    "Yeah, what's in it for us?" demanded Candy.

    There was no expression on Madame Frissault's face. "That depends on what you want. As far as money is concerned, there would be nothing in it for you now other than income lost twice over—the amount you would pay Benvenuti, and the amount you would lose from your normal trade. In the long run?" She examined the portrait of her daughters thoughtfully. "In ten years, his portrait of you will probably be worth as much money as any of you would make in a lifetime. In twenty years, it would probably be worth a small fortune. In thirty, a very large fortune."

    She looked back at the women. "Of course, that's just my speculation. The value of art work is always a bit unpredictable. But I've had a lot of experience, and I doubt I'm much mistaken."

    Candy and Sugar did not hesitate for more than a second before making clear, in no uncertain terms, their firm adherence to the principle that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, their disbelief in speculation, indeed, their utter skepticism concerning the future in general and the far-distant future in particular, including, in this latter category, all events projected to occur beyond next week. They looked fair to wax poetic on the subject, in fact, before Honey cut them short.

    "I don't care about any of that, anyway. I'll do it. I'll pay for it."

    Candy and Sugar gaped at her. Honey gave them a twisted smile. "And I'll pay your model fees—standard rates, mind you! Don't try any of your chiseling with me."

    She turned to me. "How much, Benvenuti?"

    Madame Frissault began to interrupt again, but this time I would have none of it.

    "I'll charge you what you earned for your work as a model for the Cardinal's portrait."

    "That's absurb, Benvenuti!" protested Madame Frissault. "That's not a tenth what the portrait will be worth—even today, much less in a few years."

    "And have you now appointed yourself my official agent, Madame?" I demanded, with equal vigor. Madame Frissault did not speak, but the fierce disapproval on her face was reply enough.

    "My unofficial agent, I see," I chuckled. I smiled at Honey.

    "My offer stands."



    Cardinal Fornacaese was quite delighted with the portraits which I delivered to him. Indeed, he waxed rhapsodic, after his own fashion; and, after observing the more conventional rhapsody waxed forth by Sfinctrian high society upon the official unveiling of the portraits, added a bonus to my already preposterous fee. I was suddenly deluged by commissions, most of them from the ecclesiarchy, and all of them lavish both in artistic ambition and financial compensation.

    But, though I gladly took on the commissions, my next project proved to be a reprise of my portraits for the Cardinal. With this one difference, beyond, of course, artistic intent: I decided to portray the three prostitutes as an ensemble, much as I had the Frissault daughters, rather than as a triptych.

    A week went by working on the portrait, and then another; in all, it required almost three weeks to finish. I found, once launched into it, that the project possessed me with an even greater fervor than had my portrait of the Frissault girls. When all was said and done, this was a portrait of women, not girls; and thus, inevitably, richer.

    Yet, despite the cost to her of paying her compatriots' modeling fees, Honey uttered not a peep of protest. And, despite her continuing disapproval of what she regarded as my financial foolishness, Madame Frissault spent many of her days observing my progress. Silently, but, it was quite obvious, with great approval.

    In the end, when it was done, I stepped back and allowed the three women and Madame Frissault to examine the completed portrait.

    After no little time had passed, I cleared my throat and announced:

    "I shall entitle it The Courtesans."

    "Oh, that's nice," said Candy.

    "The fuck you will," snarled Honey. "I paid for it, and I'll name it. You'll call it The Whores."

    Candy and Sugar looked pained, but Madame Frissault smiled gently. "She's right, Benvenuti. It's the perfect title."



    The Whores, thus, it was named. It hangs today in the Institute of Fine Art in New Sfinctr. That museum, created shortly after the revolution, was considered an upstart until, after fierce bidding, they obtained the portrait over competition from the Ozarean Museum of Art and the [need name of other museum] in Pludne. Shortly thereafter, the Frissaults donated The Maidens to the same museum, thereby assuring its international status. The museum chose to display the two portraits together, in a small room devoted to them alone. I have heard it said that few men, and no women, leave that room without tears in their eyes.

    But I leap far ahead of my tale. Upon completion of the portrait, I plunged into other work, and feverishly, for I had spent so much time on The Whores that I was far behind schedule on the many other commissions I had accepted. It soon became apparent that my makeshift studio above Hrundig's salle d'armes would no longer suffice for my needs. With no little regret, I found it necessary to obtain another, much larger, studio; and, since I was working almost round the clock, found it necessary to set up my lodgings there as well.

    It is not thus not surprising that, within a few days, I had quite put the memory of Honey and her commission out of my mind. So much the greater was my surprise, then, when she appeared at my studio late one evening, perhaps a month later.

    "Take a break, Benvenuti," she said, after I had ushered her in and she had removed her cloak. I was a bit taken aback to see that, under the heavy winter cloak, she was not wearing her usual provocative garments. Of course, even in normal clothing, there was no mistaking her sex.

    She glanced down at herself and smiled crookedly. "Never seen me like this, have you? Well, I decided to take the night off and pay you a visit."

    "I am delighted to see you. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

    "Always the gentleman!" she laughed. Then, suddenly, her face grew quite solemn—and no false solemnity, either, such as the expression she had worn when posing for the Cardinal's portrait.

    But, as always, the woman was not bashful; and, as always, spoke to the point.

    "I find, to my surprise, that I have a desire to make love." A wry laugh. "Strange, really. I haven't felt that way in—I don't know how long. But, that's the way I'm feeling. It's your fault, actually. I think it comes from my staring at that painting for too long. So, I figure you owe me the service. Besides, you're the only man I know that I'd want to make love to."

    I was quite speechless. I had been propositioned before, mind you. In fact, of late it seemed I was being bombarded with such offers as my reputation as an artist soared in Sfinctrian society. I had found, after the two brief encounters which I mentioned earlier, that my taste for such encounters had vanished entirely—and by no means solely due to my memory of Gwendolyn.

    Here, though, was something quite different. It was open, not veiled; blunt, not sly; direct, not coquettish; and it had more of friendship in it than of lust. I stared at the woman, still speechless.

    I have spoken before—boasted, perhaps—of the keenness of my artist's eye. I knew this woman's face well, had portrayed it twice over, and had even gleaned from it an artistic vision. Yet, I now realized that in all that time I had never really seen it as an individual face. Only now did she herself come into focus. Her hair was still red; her complexion was still very fair; her features were still pretty, if a bit worn at the edges. Nothing was different, really, except that for the first time, for me, that face belonged to her alone.

    I found that I was suddenly aroused. Indeed, fiercely aroused; which fact, given the vagaries of Sfinctrian male attire, was impossible to disguise.

    "Oh, good," Honey murmured, rising to her feet. "I was afraid I'd have to do a striptease, and I'd have felt ridiculous, seeing as how you spent weeks examining every inch of my naked body." She glanced down, and snickered. "But you never did that before."

    Sometime later, lying in bed, I whispered some affectionate words into her ear, along with her name.

    "My name isn't Honey," she whispered back. "It's Mathilda. But you have to keep it a secret. Matter of professional ethics, you know."

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