Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 2
Stories
The Yazoo Queen
by Orson Scott Card
Salt of Judas
by Eric James Stone
The Mooncalfe
by David Farland
Audience
by Ty Franck
I Am the Queen
by William Saxton
Zoo
by Al Sarrantonio
Adrift
by Scott D. Danielson
From the Ender Saga
Pretty Boy
by Orson Scott Card
Audio Bonus
Middle Woman
Read by Mary Robinette Kowal
Dissertation
On Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Holly Lawford-Smith
Column - I Screen the Body Eclectic
Special Software Bonus
I-Wei's Amazing Clocks
by I-Wei Huang

Salt of Judas
Artwork by Deena Warner
Salt of Judas
    by Eric James Stone

Osbert Peale did not paint portraits when he sat on his stool beside the Avon. He painted Tewkesbury Abbey or one of the footbridges over the river. Sometimes he portrayed the boatmen on the water or passersby on land, but those people were merely parts of the landscape. Only in his narrow rented room above the butcher's did he paint portraits, and those he never showed to anyone for fear they would laugh.

Every portrait was of Her. He'd begun to paint Her portrait even before he discovered that Her name was Amelia. He said that delightful name occasionally to himself as he drew in charcoal the curve of Her neck or used the painting knife to soften the glow of Her cheek. But in his mind She remained most often Her. And though he often whispered -- to himself -- that he loved Her, he knew that a wealthy landowner's daughter like Her would never love a humble artist like him.

As he sat beside the river, palette in one hand and knife in the other, creating landscapes in oil, he always watched for Her, since She often strolled along the footpath with Her companions. On occasion She would stop and look at his work in progress, and Osbert would then find it difficult to breathe as he painted with trembling hand. But except in his imagination She had never spoken to him, nor he to Her. His love for Her was a secret he kept from all the world.

He was using the blending knife to darken the shadows of an overcast sky on his canvas when a deep voice came from behind him.

"I understand you paint portraits."

Osbert turned his head to look up at the stranger. The man was bald as an egg, and under the darkening sky his skin seemed Lead White with a touch of Ultramarine Blue. He wore a red vest -- Cadmium Red darkened perhaps by Burnt Sienna -- over a white silk shirt, black breeches and white stockings. The buckles on his

shoes glinted gold even without direct sunlight. Although Osbert had been in Tewkesbury less than a year, he thought he knew everyone of consequence in the town. This man must be a wealthy traveler, perhaps brought here by the convergence of the Avon and the Severn rivers.

"You are mistaken, sir. I am only a landscape painter."

The stranger nodded slowly. "Where do you buy your oils?"

"From Barber the apothecary. He has a shop on Church Street."

"From now on, you will buy them from me." The stranger spoke as if stating an obvious fact.

"But Barber has always--"

"Barber has sold his shop to me. I am the new apothecary."

"Oh." Osbert did not know what else to say. Barber had been a friendly fellow, quite unlike this brusque man. But possibly the new apothecary would become more amiable in time.

"Soon you will want to bring life to your portraits. Come to me then." The apothecary turned and strode away.

"I don't paint portraits," Osbert called after him, but the bald head made no acknowledgment.

*

In the dim morning light that came through his one small window, Osbert looked at the latest portrait of Her. She was tilting Her head inquisitively, and Her lips were pursed slightly, as if She were about to ask a question.

"You wish to know my name, milady? I am Osbert Peale, at your service. Or perhaps you wonder what it is I will be painting today? I believe I shall attempt once more to capture the spirit of Tewkesbury Abbey.

"Or do you merely wish to inquire whether I think it will rain? Yes, that must be it, for the weather will do quite well as a subject of conversation with someone when you have nothing else in common."

He fell silent. This piece was his best, seeming to catch a moment before motion rather than an eternal pose.

Soon you will want to bring life to your portraits. Come to me then.

What had the apothecary meant? Could he have known of Osbert's secret portraits?

What would it be like to touch Her, to feel the softness of Her skin? Osbert reached out and gently stroked Her face. His fingers came away wet with paint.

*

The wooden sign showing a mortar and pestle still hung over the door, but someone had painted over the name Barber and replaced it with Dyer. Osbert hesitated before opening the door and walking into the shop.

"Ah, the young artist." The bald man rose from his seat behind the counter, ducking his head to avoid various bottles that hung from the ceiling beams. "I knew you would come."

"I need linseed oil."

"That is all you wish?"

"Yes." A sudden sweat broke out on Osbert's brow, though the air was cool in the darkened shop.

The apothecary rummaged around under the counter, clinking bottles together. "How is your portrait work progressing?"

"I paint landscapes."

"So you said. So you said." The apothecary rose from behind the counter and held out a corked bottle. "I'll put it on your account. Barber said you paid him monthly without fail. I like a man who keeps his bargains."

"Thank you." Osbert took the bottle and quickly exited. Once he was sure the man could not see him through the shop windows, he shuddered in relief. He didn't like the way those dark eyes seemed to look past his own.

*

As days became shorter and the weather cooler, Osbert saw Her less frequently on Her walks. And since there were fewer daylight hours for painting landscapes, he spent more time in his cramped room painting portraits by the light of an oil lamp. Often he would paint through the night: a portrait of Her smiling coyly or laughing or merely looking to the horizon.

Over the past three nights he had experimented with painting a sequence of small portraits capturing different positions as Her head turned until Her eyes seemed to look into his. Now as he looked from one painting to the next in order, it was almost as if She moved. Almost.

Soon you will want to bring life to your portraits. Come to me then.

*

Three times he walked past the apothecary's door before he went inside.

"Ah, the young artist." The apothecary rose to his feet. "More linseed oil? Some White Lead, perhaps?"

"What did you mean?"

The apothecary raised a dark eyebrow. "I am surprised, however, that you are running low on supplies so soon, since the weather is not generally fit for painting landscapes."

Osbert pointed his index finger at the man. "You said I should come to you if I wanted to give life to my portraits. What did you mean?"

The apothecary nodded. "Now you are ready."

"Ready for what?"

"Ready to give life to your work. Are you a religious man, Master Peale?"

Osbert blinked. "I . . . I'm a God-fearing man, if that's what you mean."

"God-fearing. A good word." The apothecary smiled, his teeth gleaming in the dark shop. "I, too, am God-fearing, you could say."

"Enough of this. What do you know of my painting portraits? What do you mean by 'give life'?"

"You paint portraits of a young lady, perhaps? Someone you desire, but who remains forever beyond your reach?"

Osbert couldn't think what to say. The apothecary seemed to know him intimately.

"You paint her portrait till you know her face better than your own. But you do not know her voice, her touch. She is no more alive to you than a stone." He tapped the stone pestle on the counter. "But there are . . . other arts beyond the art of painting."

"You practice the arts of witchcraft," Osbert said in astonished realization. He knew he should denounce the apothecary to the Church immediately, but curiosity restrained him.

"Those who fear its power may call it witchcraft. It is nothing more than knowledge, and knowledge is neither good nor evil. 'Tis the use that makes it so."

"Yet you talk of giving life to the creations of men. Surely that is blasphemy, as only God can create life."

The apothecary smiled again. "You are wise for one so young. But I speak not of creating life, but of giving it. Tell me, what is it that makes a man live?"

Osbert pressed his lips together as he thought. "The spirit -- the soul."

"And if a painting had a soul?"

"But how is that possible? A soul comes from God, and He would not give one to a mere painting."

"There are heathen tribes who believe that a painting steals the soul of the person portrayed. That is not true -- to steal someone's soul into a painting requires the application of magics far beyond their primitive superstitions." The apothecary waved a hand dismissively, then pointed at Osbert. "However, you have a soul. If you are willing to give up part of yours to make the painting live, that is within my power."

Osbert stepped back. "You want me to give you part of my soul? So you can drag me down to damnation piece by piece?"

"No, you would not give it to me. You would give it to the painting, give life to the portrait."

Though the response allayed Osbert's suspicions somewhat, he asked, "And what benefit do you receive from this, then, that you would risk hanging as a witch?"

"What benefit? You would pay me, of course."

"I'm not wealthy. I have but twenty pounds a year bequeathed by my uncle. It is enough to live on, but painting is my one luxury." Osbert hoped someday to paint well enough to sell his work, but that day was still to come.

"I will not charge much. The ingredients I require are not costly, excepting the salt. Shall we say, eight shillings?"

Almost half a pound. But to have Her speak to him, to be able to touch Her would be worth that price. "How do I know I will get my money's worth?"

"You are a man who fulfills his bargains; so am I. I will add the cost to your bill. If you are not satisfied, you can merely refuse to pay."

With such an offer, how could the apothecary possibly swindle him? What suspicions could remain? "How is it done?"

"We will need to cut off a piece of your soul and grind it to a powder you can mix with your paint. Then whatever portrait you paint will be given life."

"The soul is immaterial. How can it be cut or ground?"

The apothecary sighed. "Not everything the Church teaches you is to be believed. The soul is not immaterial; it is a material more refined, more pure than base matter. That is how it can occupy the same space as your body. The trick is to get part of the soul to separate itself from the body, so it can be removed without harming the flesh."

The apothecary turned and reached for a metal saltcellar on the top shelf behind him. "Salt is a symbol of purity because it prevents corruption. That's why it's used for protection against evil spirits. The purity of salt has power."

Osbert nodded.

"But the salt I have here is not common salt. During the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot knocked over a dish of salt. That salt became cursed for all eternity. And I have some of it here."

Skepticism returned to Osbert's mind. "I cannot believe you have the very same salt that was at the Last Supper?"

"It matters not what you believe. The power of the salt is real." The apothecary smiled. "But you are a clever young man to see that this is not the very same salt. The spilt salt was collected by one who recognized its power. And when that cursed salt is mixed with uncursed salt, the curse spreads. As it says in the Bible, 'If the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?' So this is known as the Salt of Judas or Traitor's Salt. The grains may not be the same, but the curse is."

Osbert stared in fascination at the saltcellar. "What does the curse do?"

"As normal salt is repellent to an evil spirit, Salt of Judas is repellent to a good spirit, only far stronger in its effects. Place your left hand on the counter here, fingers spread apart."

Osbert did as he was told.

The apothecary reached out and gripped Osbert's wrist with fingers hard and cold as iron. "This will be painful, but no real harm will come to you."

"Painful?" Osbert almost tried to pull his arm back, but the apothecary's grip held him fast.

"It will not last long." The apothecary sprinkled salt onto Osbert's little finger.

Osbert's knees buckled as he felt fire spread across his hand and into his forearm. He exhaled a choking scream, then found himself unable to draw breath. The apothecary's icy fingers tightened on his wrist. His vision blurred with tears, but he thought he saw a wavering tendril of fire rise from the knuckle of his little finger.

"There it is." The apothecary's voice was calm. He had put down the saltcellar and now held a pair of shears. Deftly he snipped the tendril of fire just above the knuckle. The tendril writhed on the counter, leaving scorch marks where it touched. "Looks very much like a salted slug, does it not?"

Still unable to breathe, Osbert tried to yank his hand away, but the apothecary did not let go.

"Oh, yes. The pain." The apothecary pulled Osbert's hand several inches away from the tendril, then poured some water from a bottle onto Osbert's little finger. "Holy water, to wash away the salt. The pain should subside." He finally let go of Osbert's wrist.

Clasping at his finger to make certain it was still there, Osbert realized the pain was easing. He was able to breathe again, and he took several deep breaths to steady himself before shouting, "What did you do to me?"

"Just what I said I would. I sprinkled Salt of Judas on part of your body to force your soul out of that part, allowing me to clip it off." The apothecary used tongs to pick up the tendril of soul and drop it in the mortar. He added some dried leaves, which burst into flames. "The salt also corrupted it enough that we can see it and even touch it." He took a pestle and began pounding it in the mortar. "There are many who say that the curse on the Salt of Judas is the curse of Hell itself, and that the pain you felt is what a damned soul will feel for all eternity, but I don't know that is so."

"You have damned me." His vision dimmed as despair filled his heart. "I have been touched by the curse of Judas."

The apothecary laughed. "You are a good man, Osbert Peale. If your soul were not good, the Salt of Judas would not cause you pain." The apothecary looked in the mortar, ground the mixture a little more, then removed the pestle. "Now, take this powder--"

He tilted the mortar and poured an ash-white powder onto a sheet of paper, which he expertly folded. "--mix it with linseed oil, then blend it with the paint on your next portrait."

Osbert looked at the packet but made no move to take it.

"Come now. Are you going to waste all the pain you've suffered? Take it."

Osbert slowly reached out his hand.

*

The gray light of dawn diffused from the window, blending with the yellow from the oil lamp. Still wet, a portrait of Her stood lifeless on the easel. On his palette, still unused, was some of the soul-paint.

Osbert feared it would not work. And he feared it would. The events of the night before were becoming confused in his mind. Was the apothecary a charlatan or a puissant witch? Osbert rubbed the little finger of his left hand. It had felt a little numb during the night, then prickly, but seemed almost normal now. Perhaps it was getting accustomed to missing its soul.

He took his blender and dipped it in the translucent soul-paint, then carefully began applying it to her face. Now that he had started, he worked feverishly until there was none of the substance left on his palette.

On the canvas, nothing had changed: Her eyes still looked to the distance, Her serious expression remained frozen in oils. The pain, the fright, his work -- all were for naught. Osbert threw down his palette and painting knife, then stretched himself out in exhaustion upon his cot.

He would deal with the fraudulent apothecary later.

*

When he woke up, the first thing he saw was Her smile.

*

A week later -- seven portraits later -- Osbert hurried into the apothecary shop and closed the door. "I need to make more soul-paint. And it needs to be stronger."

"Soul-paint? Apropos." The apothecary's teeth glinted in his smile. "Run out already, have you?"

"She smiles at me. She gazes into my eyes. But She doesn't talk, and when I try to touch Her, I can sense Her movement but She still feels like paint."

Nodding, the apothecary said, "Yes, a higher concentration is needed to give the portrait more vitality. But that would require a larger portion of your soul. Are you willing to give it?"

The pain hadn't been too much to endure, had it? And it had been over quickly, had it not? "How much would I need?"

The apothecary bobbed his head back and forth in thought. "For talking and touching, let me see . . . . Perhaps, to be on the safe side, we should take the whole hand."

Osbert clenched his left hand into a fist, then opened it again, looking at it carefully. "Will it make a difference to my hand, not having a soul? My finger felt strange that first night."

"Oh, my dear boy! Is that what you thought?" The apothecary laughed. "You do not have a soulless finger, nor will you have a soulless hand. The rest of your soul extends to fill the empty parts. It is the same with fat men -- they do not have more of a soul than thin men; their souls just stretch to fill their bulk."

Osbert's relief at this explanation made him realize how much he had feared having a part of his body without a soul. He rolled up his sleeve and put his left hand down on the counter.

*

Three days later his tongue was still sore from having bitten it during the agony of the salt on his hand, but he was otherwise recovered from the ordeal. Nonetheless, now that he had a sufficient supply of the soul-paint, he was glad he would not need to go through that again.

Osbert glanced at a portrait he had finished the previous week. Her face smiled at him, and Her eyelashes fluttered demurely. But that portrait was imperfect, flawed.

He would create a new portrait. This would be his best work, perfectly capturing Her eyes, Her hair, the flush of Her cheek. And this one would speak to him.

*

"Back again, my young friend?" The apothecary rose to greet him.

"Her portrait has stopped talking to me. She still smiles, but the earlier ones no longer smile. They are utterly lifeless!" Osbert gripped the edge of the counter.

Running a palm over the smooth dome of his head, the apothecary said, "Interesting. The ground-up soul must be gradually escaping the paint."

"How do I stop it?"

"It is returning to its natural state. I do not think it can be stopped."

Osbert looked at his hand. "Is it coming back into me?"

"I doubt that. You voluntarily surrendered it, so it no longer pertains to you."

"What can be done? I need Her."

With an appraising eye, the apothecary looked him up and down. "Perhaps an arm? Just from the elbow down? We'll have to do it piece by piece, though, to fit in the mortar."

*

The banging on the door roused Osbert from sleep. The afternoon daylight cutting into the room hurt his eyes. He stumbled to the door and opened it a crack.

It was his landlord, the butcher. "Peale, I'm giving you till Saturday to come up with two months' rent, or you'll have to leave."

Desperate confusion swirled in Osbert's mind. He was two months late with rent? "You'll get the money. It's just that my mother's sister is ill, and the leech-- "

"I thought you said it was your father's sister."

Had he said that? "This is a difficult time. Illness sweeping through my family's village." He coughed. Why did his chest hurt so?

The butcher took a step back. "You don't look well yourself."

"I'm fine. You'll get your money. Just give me some time."

"Hmph." The butcher turned and went down the stairs.

Osbert sat down on his cot.

"You seem ill, my love." Her voice was melodious, and Osbert felt better just hearing it.

"I'm just tired, is all." He lay back and closed his eyes. Late with the rent? Lying to his landlord? What was wrong with him?

He felt Her palm on his forehead. "You're burning up. It's a fever. You need help."

A fever? The apothecary could help. Yes, he must go to the apothecary.

He staggered down the stairs and out onto the street. He was exhausted by the time he reached the apothecary shop, and once inside he allowed himself to sink to the floor.

*

He awoke in a strange room, surrounded by portraits of Her. One of them smiled at him as he sat up.

"Where am I?" he asked Her.

Her shoulders shrugged slightly, but She did not answer.

Osbert walked unsteadily to the door, opened it and looked out. The scents of the apothecary shop met him. "Hallo?" he called out.

"Ah, you are recovered at last," said the apothecary from below. "We were quite worried about you."

"We?"

"The young lady of your portraits and I. Gave us quite a scare, you did."

"What am I doing here? What are my paintings doing here?"

"When you fell ill, you came to me. I then discovered that you were unable to pay the rent for your prior room, so I had everything brought here."

A fog seemed to lift from his mind. He walked down the stairs to confront the apothecary. "That was your fault. I couldn't pay the rent because I spent all my money on soul-paint."

"It does no good to blame me. It was all by your choice. How was I to know you were spending too much?"

Still weak in his legs, Osbert sat down on the floor.

"But you have no worries now, my boy. You can stay here with me, as I can spare the room."

"Thank you." Did he really want to stay here? Where else could he go? Then he remembered Her. "The portraits! She didn't talk to me, She only smiled."

"Yes, it's been too long. The power of your soul-paint is fading."

"I need more."

The apothecary smiled. "You are sure? Your soul is stretched so thin I estimate we'd need to take both legs now to have enough."

"Yes, I'm sure." She'd help nurse him back to health, so he owed it to Her to bring Her back to life.

The apothecary reached up for the saltcellar.

*

"I think I would like to see one of your landscapes," She said one morning.

"What?"

"You used to paint landscapes, did you not? I should very much like to see one. You have such a talent for painting."

"Then see one you shall. I'll go out and paint one today."

She smiled brightly. "Just for me?"

"Just for you."

He scraped an old canvas, removing one of Her lifeless portraits. After gathering his paints, he went downstairs.

"Going somewhere?" asked the apothecary, who was putting on his coat to leave.

"I'm going to paint a landscape."

The apothecary frowned. "Are you sure that's wise? The spring weather is rather damp, and you are still weak. There is illness about - I am going to treat someone even now."

"It's for Her. She wants to see a landscape."

"Ah, well if she wants it, how can you refuse? Just don't stay out too long."

*

He sat on his stool on the bank of the Avon. The canvas before him held only a half-hearted charcoal sketch. It had been so long since he had done a landscape that nothing seemed right.

"Trouble painting?" A man's voice came from behind him.

Osbert turned to see an elderly monk from the abbey. "Yes, I'm afraid I'm somewhat out of practice."

The monk nodded. "I recall having seen you painting many a day last year, but not in recent months."

"I've been ill."

"Ah."

The silence stretched. Osbert raised his charcoal to the canvas, then brought it back down. He turned to look at the monk again. "Is it a sin to paint a portrait of . . . of a young lady?"

The monk raised his eyebrows. "I've never been asked that before."

"Is it?"

"The Muslim believes all images of people are prohibited. And I've read of primitive tribes that believe an image can trap the soul of the person portrayed. But portraiture in itself is not against the laws of Christ."

Osbert nodded gratefully, though the talk of souls trapped in images came uncomfortably close to his secret.

"But this young lady whose portrait you paint - is there perhaps more to it than that? Is that what troubles you?"

Suddenly Osbert no longer wanted to talk to this monk. He stood up. "I've been outside too long. I must get back. My health, you understand."

The monk nodded. "May God speed your recovery."

*

In the middle of the night Osbert awoke to pounding on the door of the shop. He heard the apothecary call out that he was coming.

"I wonder who is ill tonight." Her voice was concerned.

"I'll find out," he said. Rising from his bed, he opened the door and crept out to sit on the stairs and eavesdrop.

A man was speaking, an edge of desperation in his voice. "- grows ever weaker. It's as if the very life were being drained from her body."

The apothecary's voice was sympathetic. "I don't know what else is to be done but help her sleep better. This illness is beyond my power to aid."

"I don't understand it. My daughter was always a picture of health, until last autumn."

"It is most mysterious."

"Is there nothing in your books? Please, you must help my Amelia. I'll pay whatever you ask."

"I am sorry," said the apothecary. "Take this powder to ease her rest. That is all I can do."

Osbert barely heard the door of the shop shut. His mind was awhirl. Amelia. Was this coincidence? No. His portraits of Her were somehow harming the real young woman, drawing the life out of her. He tried to reject the thought, but he remembered the primitive belief the monk had mentioned about images trapping the soul of the person portrayed. The apothecary had mentioned it, too, Osbert recalled now. It had to be true - he was the cause of Amelia's suffering.

He rose to his feet and descended the stairs. The apothecary was sitting in his chair behind the counter. On seeing Osbert, he rose to his feet.

Clenching his fists, Osbert said, "What have you done to Amelia?"

"I've done nothing to the young lady."

"It's me, isn't it? My portraits are stealing pieces of her soul."

"You imagine things, dear boy. Go back to bed and get some rest." The apothecary didn't look him in the eye.

"How do I set things right?"

The apothecary sighed. "You can't. By painting her image with the soul-paint, you have robbed that girl of most of her soul, binding it permanently away from her. She will die shortly, and it is your obsession that has killed her."

What could Osbert do? "I'll destroy the paintings. Burn them all."

"Ignorant child. You are dealing with magics of the soul. Mere flames cannot break such bindings."

Osbert lunged forward and grabbed at the apothecary, who broke the grip with ease and pushed him to the floor.

Tears of hopelessness welled in his eyes, then began to flow down his cheeks. "Dear God, what have I done?"

The apothecary laughed. "Yes, now you call out to Him. Far too late, of course."

Wiping at the tears on his face, Osbert realized he was damned. Step by step, he had brought ruin upon himself and Amelia.

And then as he licked at his lips, he tasted his tears. Salt. The Salt of Judas.

He rose to his feet. The apothecary had moved to the doorway and was bolting it shut. Osbert climbed up on the counter and grabbed the saltcellar from the top shelf behind it. The apothecary spotted him as he climbed down from the counter.

"What are you doing? Give that back!" The apothecary's voice was angry.

Osbert ran up the stairs to his room, locked the door and pulled off his nightshirt.

"Stop!" yelled the apothecary from below.

Ordinary flames might not burn the paintings and release the pieces of Amelia's soul, but perhaps the magical fire of his burning soul could. He hurriedly piled the portraits of Amelia in the middle of the room as the apothecary banged on the door. He could hear the voice of the portraits asking what he was doing.

Lying back on the portraits, he unscrewed the top of the saltcellar and spilled the salt upon his chest.

His body spasmed as gouts of pale fire spread from his chest. The pain twisted his mind and all reason fled. All that remained was the desire to destroy the portraits. Flames surrounded him and then all went dark.

*

As he returned to consciousness, he felt a burning sensation over most of his body. The scent of smoke filled his nostrils. This must be hell, his eternal destiny. As he opened his eyes, though, he saw the old monk leaning over him, not a devil.

"He's awake," said the monk to someone outside Osbert's view. "Be still, young man. That you are alive is a miracle, though you have some burns on your body from the fire."

Osbert tried to speak, but at first could not find a voice in his dry throat. Finally he managed to whisper, "Where am I?"

"The infirmary at Tewksbury Abbey. Be still."

"Where is the apothecary?"

The monk shook his head. "He must have been consumed by the fire. We did not find his body."

Osbert found it hard to believe the apothecary was truly dead. "And my paintings?"

"They are destroyed. The entire building burned to ashes; there is nothing left. But you must rest. Go back to sleep."

*

Propped up on his bed in the infirmary, Osbert drank the broth that was supposed to restore his strength. It was no use, he knew - his strength was gone because he had given up most of his soul, not because of his injuries.

The one real comfort he had was that Amelia still lived, and was said to be recovering slowly. At least her death was not on his conscience.

The old monk arrived and sat on a stool by Osbert's bed. "I have something for you." He reached into a sack and brought out the saltcellar.

Osbert nearly spilled his broth. "Where did you get that?" he whispered.

"You were clutching it when we found you. It is a symbol of the miracle that saved you."

Saved? He could not be saved. "What do you mean?"

"After the fire burned out, no one thought anybody could have survived. But then you were found in the midst of the ashes, still alive, with a pile of salt on your chest and this saltcellar in your hand." The monk smiled. "I know salt is a preservative, but I didn't think it had quite so much power."

"That salt had magical properties." For what evil fate had the Salt of Judas saved him?

The monk laughed. "It is but ordinary salt." He opened up the saltcellar, dipped his finger in, and dabbed some crystals on his tongue. "See?"

Osbert held his breath for a moment, but nothing happened to the monk. "It cannot be. I saw it. The apothecary . . ."

The monk raised an eyebrow. "The apothecary claimed it was magical salt? I had my suspicions the man was a fraud."

"He was no fraud. At least, not the way you think." What purpose was there in hiding the truth? Osbert felt as if a burden lifted from his shoulders as he quietly began to tell the monk what he had done.

*

"So I tried to release Amelia's soul by burning the paintings with the magical fire, and that's the last thing I remember before I awoke after the fire," Osbert finished.

During Osbert's narration, the monk had not interrupted, although he had frowned at several points. Now the monk leaned forward and stared into Osbert's eyes. After a few seconds, he said, "You do not appear to be either a madman or a liar, and I cannot see why you would concoct such a tale. I believe you."

"Thank you." It was a relief to be believed. Osbert looked at the saltcellar still gripped in the monk's hands. "But I still don't understand why the Salt of Judas didn't burn you when you touched it. What happened to the curse?"

The monk looked up to the ceiling of the infirmary. Osbert followed his gaze, but he could see nothing.

The monk looked back down to Osbert. "The salt lost its savour through an act of betrayal. Perhaps it took an act of sacrifice to let it be salted again."

*

The canvas before him was nearly complete. The image of Tewkesbury Abbey was ethereal, wreathed in morning mist, though the actual mist had vanished hours ago. Osbert paused as he carefully considered where to add a little more shadow.

"You paint very well," said a voice over his shoulder.

He knew before turning that it was Amelia. She had recently begun taking walks again as she had recovered from her illness, and he had seen her every few days over the past month. But this was the first time she had spoken to him.

"Thank you, Miss." He turned back to the canvas.

"Perhaps one day you could paint a portrait of me," Amelia said.

"I only paint landscapes."


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