The formidable front doors to Arcyn opened silently outward at Linna’s light tug on the brass handles; we went inside. The entrance foyer was an expansive circular space crowned with an arching glass skylight, high above. From both left and right of the main entrance, imposing staircases with ironwork balustrades swept up to a second floor. It felt like being in a cathedral, the way shafts of the late evening’s last light fell through a hush of dust motes onto the black and white tiles of the inlaid marble floor.
“Wow,” I said. There was a large, luminous painting facing the front doors yet set back in the round foyer, equidistant from the flanking staircases. The painting was taller than me—it seemed to be more or less floating in midair, though when I came toward it I saw that it was contained in a glass case suspended from nearly invisible steel wires that dangled from the ceiling. There was a row of lights set in the floor beneath it that gave the perfect illumination from below to balance the natural light from above. I was dazzled. “I mean, just, wow,” I said again.
“I know, right?” Linna stood next to me, frowning. “Pretty fancy. Not much doubt you’ve arrived at the home of someone incredibly rich and powerful and impressive.”
“It’s amazing.” Depicted in the painting were two figures dressed in similar lavender-hued robes, a man crouched or slumped down on the left, entangled in the gnarled branches of a tree—white blossoms were bursting out everywhere around him—and a tall, lithe woman on the right who stood over him, holding a book open and away from his eyes while her face was turned so that she looked directly down upon him.
“Edward Burne-Jones,” Linna said, “is the artist. ‘The Beguiling of Merlin,’ 1877. My father says it’s the original but I’m pretty sure the world thinks the original is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool, though maybe that’s the fake one, who knows.” She shrugged. “Anyway it’s Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, who’s putting Merlin into his endless sleep after he falls in love with her, because she’s young and beautiful and he’s Gandalf’s age and girls never look at him anymore except this one did, hey maybe she loves old guys, except no she just wants to learn your spells you fucking idiot and now that she’s got some power here she is with your Wizard’s book putting you to sleep and oh guess what, that means King Arthur makes really terrible decisions without you and Camelot is pretty much doomed now, just because you’re a creepy ancient bastard.”
“You’ve got some opinions about that story,” I commented. Maybe it was a trick of the lighting and the angle from which I was looking at the painting, but the perspective seemed to shift depending on where I focused. Viewed as a whole, they appeared to be looking right at each other, but when I focused on the figure of Nimue, she definitely seemed to spring into the foreground while Merlin receded into the background.
“Yeah, well,” Linna was saying, “it’s always the way tragedies are constructed, all the way through history. Old men are foolish when they should be wise. Young women should be innocent, but they’re evil.”
“Speak for yourself,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I’m not evil.”
She shook her head. “No one actually thinks that they’re stupid or evil. That’s decided by other people, those who come after you.”
We heard voices just then. Two men were coming down the left-hand staircase. Since Linna and I had been drawn toward the painting of Nimue and Merlin, we were partially hidden from view as they descended. I found that I knew one of the speakers: I recognized his laugh.
It was Devin Hanlon, the TV actor. “You’re not wrong, Severand,” he was saying to the other man. “We can’t invite the Arts Nexus people, they ruin every event in this town.”
The other man spoke with a cultured European accent in a rich and mellifluous Jeremy Irons voice that made me want to close my eyes and listen to him read poetry for days on end. “As long as you’re sure, Devin, that the Wellness Centre won’t get in trouble for slighting the Arts Nexus.”
“I’m not sure I care,” Hanlon replied. Their footsteps approached the bottom of the staircase. “It’s a gala for the benefit of the Wellness Centre, and we’ll damn well make sure we want who we want here that night.”
The two men emerged from the staircase and moved into the middle of the entrance foyer. Linna stepped forward.
“Father,” she said.
Devin Hanlon jumped back as if he was about to be attacked. The look on his face—I had to suppress a...