The House of Unrighteous Images

by Megan Arkenberg

At any giv­en moment, there are almost five thou­sand paint­ings in the House of Unright­eous Images. They hang on the rough-plas­tered walls, or stand in uneven stacks on the water-stained floor. Some can­vas­es are bro­ken from their frames, rolled tight­ly and stuffed into dent­ed fil­ing cab­i­nets. The air smells of damp and cold met­al, of flak­ing paint and cheap can­vas, of sta­ples and bro­ken wood. 

A few of the paint­ings are great crim­i­nals; satires of the Eter­nal Empress, her fine eyes nar­rowed and silt­ed like a snake's, or folk paint­ings of shep­herds and veiled girls and women dying cloth—glorifications of the past, the back­ward, and the Ene­my. A great major­i­ty, how­ev­er, are guilty of minor crimes. They are not enthu­si­as­tic enough in their por­tray­al of life in the shad­ow of the Empress, steel-bright and singing like engines, or they bear and unfor­tu­nate resem­blance to a man or woman or aes­thet­ic that has fall­en out of favor. Some sim­ply hung in the wrong place, over the wrong table or the wrong bed. 

All of them are slat­ed for exe­cu­tion. The fur­nace in the court­yard burns always white-hot, fed by pic­ture frames and the bones of can­vas­es, fling­ing sparks onto the tile roof like fall­en stars. But the wheels of jus­tice turn slow­ly, even in the shad­ow of the Eter­nal Empress. Some paint­ings hang here for years, fad­ing in the rain-soaked sun­light, mold­ing in the damp, haunt­ing the prison guards who day and night pace the cold and wind­ing halls beneath the curi­ous faces of the damned. 

Amelia Valen want­ed to become an artist. She begged her aunts for oils and brush­es, pas­tels and exot­ic papers, and she set a lit­tle easel on the stair­case land­ing behind their apart­ment, where the light was clear and the air was dry. When she grew old­er, she took to sketch­ing the peo­ple she met on the streets; dye-women with their bright­ly-col­ored hands, and fish-women in their smocks, and women from the tall red-cur­tained build­ings at the edge of town that her aunts for­bid her to vis­it. One day, a man in one of the red-cur­tained hous­es saw Amelia paint­ing. He told her that she showed tal­ent, that her work was very good, and gave her the name of a school where she could become even better—and attract the wealth­i­est patrons. 

Then the Eter­nal Empress arose, and the school was burned with every­one who taught there, and Amelia Valen became a guard in the House of Unright­eous Images, because she claimed to know some­thing about paintings. 

But the more she paces these cold and wind­ing halls, day and night, while the fur­nace flings white sparks into the sky and the rain enfolds the win­dows like a blue cur­tain, the less cer­tain she becomes. There are paint­ings here that even she does not under­stand; jagged yel­low things with too many eyes, land­scapes that look like dream­ing mon­sters, blots of light and col­or that fall togeth­er dif­fer­ent­ly if you stand too close. These are kept in their own room, sep­a­rate from the satires and the folk art and the pic­tures whose crime was belong­ing to the wrong man. 

The room is at the top floor of the House of Unright­eous Images, over­look­ing the court­yard and its fur­nace, locked behind thick doors, cov­ered in paper and cloth. It is as though the paint­ings are poi­so­nous, Amelia thinks; as though they could infect the oth­er paint­ings, the guards, the very air with their curi­ous unfath­omable sins. As though they know a ter­ri­ble secret, and must be put away and gagged lest they reveal it to the world. 

Offi­cial­ly, there is no con­nec­tion between an artist and his work. A man may be hung at the Pil­lars, or drowned in the riv­er, or stood against a wall on the out­skirts of the city and shot while his paint­ings remain safe in his stu­dio, or muse­um exhibits, or hang­ing on a wire above his lover's bed. A paint­ing may be burned while its artist reads a news­pa­per at a table in the back of a café, sip­ping absinthe or cold cof­fee or vod­ka from the bot­tle. But the guards are obser­vant in the House of Unright­eous Images, and they know that a paint­ing and an artist can die for each other's sins as eas­i­ly as a woman and her lover, a tree and its poi­so­nous fruit. 

Take for exam­ple the paint­ing in Amelia Valen's hands. She is sure there is noth­ing objec­tion­able about it; a small thing, one foot square, of an apple in a man's cal­loused hand. The apple is smooth, gleam­ing, relent­less­ly red, so pol­ished that the man's jagged fin­ger­nails bite into their own reflec­tion. The woman who paint­ed it was shot this morn­ing, shot past recog­ni­tion, shot until the brick wall behind her crum­bled away into flakes of clay and blood. They say she sold infor­ma­tion to the Ene­my in exchange for bread. Amelia does not doubt this, not exact­ly; but no one can tell her the rea­son for the burn­ing of the apple in its rough and des­per­ate caress. 

Then there is the paint­ing in the locked room at the top of the House of Unright­eous Images, and the boy named Icharus Heclo—but Amelia does not like to think about him. 

At this moment, Icharus Heclo is stand­ing in front of a wall. He is pale, slen­der and not par­tic­u­lar­ly tall, and his dark hair is rather des­per­ate­ly in need of a trim. He wears thick oval glass­es with sil­ver frames; one of the lens­es is cracked, and his brown eye is mul­ti­plied spi­der-like in its depths. The oth­er eye is swollen shut. He licks his dry lips, winc­ing as his tongue brush­es a deep ver­ti­cal split. 

Icharus has been in prison for thir­teen months. This is a long time as far as prison sen­tences go; the Eter­nal Empress prefers to put her crim­i­nals to work, break­ing stone, build­ing rail­roads, drain­ing swamps. The only men in prison are those who are too dan­ger­ous to put in chains, or those await­ing exe­cu­tion, or those with whom no one knows what to do—and it is an open secret among the guards that these are one and the same. 

So there it is, the thought Amelia Valen does not want to think—Icharus Heclo is await­ing his exe­cu­tion. For what, he isn't quite sure. Nei­ther are the men lined up before him, down on one knee, test­ing the heft of their rifles. He has spent thir­teen months in a damp prison cell so that his judges could for­mu­late a plau­si­ble excuse, and per­haps they have succeeded—enough to sooth their con­sciences, at any rate. They feel no need or duty to share this excuse with any­one else, not even the exe­cu­tion­ers, much less the condemned. 

Amelia Valen, who has spent far too many nights pac­ing a cer­tain locked room at the top of the House of Unright­eous Images, believes she knows why Icharus Heclo is going to die. It is all because of a paint­ing he did over a year ago, a paint­ing of a red-haired sub­ject in a room full of paint­ings, look­ing at what is either a win­dow or a pic­ture of a flame—a paint­ing, Amelia Valen believes, of herself. 

On maps of the House of Unright­eous Images—which are, as a rule, kept hid­den in a fil­ing cab­i­net in one of the dank sub-cellars—the locked room on the top floor has a name. It is called the Hall of Mis­di­rect­ed Visions. Almost as though it were a bench at the train sta­tion for pas­sen­gers who have board­ed the wrong car, and the black-uni­formed guards who sweep through it quick­ly on their night­ly rounds are the unhelp­ful tick­et-sell­ers with their vague and incom­plete maps, pow­er­less to direct the lost to their prop­er des­ti­na­tion. In the­o­ry, the paint­ings in this room rep­re­sent the mean­der­ing and mis­aimed aspi­ra­tions of unsan­i­tary minds, all of which will short­ly be scoured away by the steely bright­ness of the Empress's shad­ow. In prac­tice, this is where the offi­cials lock away the paint­ings that scare them. 

Amelia is afraid of Icharus Heclo's painting.

It is not par­tic­u­lar­ly abstract, nor par­tic­u­lar­ly skilled; the brush­work is broad and thick, the oil paint slapped on too quick­ly, so that in places it has already begun to crack. It came to the House thir­teen months ago in a crate of oth­er paint­ings, guilty of hang­ing in a traitor's gallery, and lay for weeks on top of a stack in a front room. The androg­y­nous subject's hair was what caught Amelia's atten­tion; near­ly black at first, it seemed to bright­en before her eyes, becom­ing auburn, becom­ing car­rot-red, becom­ing the deep burn­ing crim­son of her own hair in the sun­light. What seemed at first to be an artist's stu­dio now looked like some­thing else entire­ly, some­thing hung with strange col­ors and odd angles and dizzy­ing slash­es of light. The subject's smock, once flow­ing and white, became black, became high-col­lared, became a coat with steel buttons. 

Amelia moved the paint­ing to the bot­tom of the stack. She broke its frame and threw the lit­tle brass plaque that said "Study by Icharus Heclo" into the court­yard furnace. 

The next day, the paint­ing was hang­ing over the stairs. 

She tried rolling it tight­ly and stuff­ing it into a cab­i­net, and plac­ing it between the wall and the back of anoth­er paint­ing, and dig­ging a hole in the sub-cellar's dirt floor and bury­ing it in the damp. It always came back, always appeared at her favorite places on her rounds: the Hall of For­got­ten Faces, by the por­traits of crim­i­nals, or the Hall of Back­ward Think­ing, by the pic­tures of dye-women and whores. It appeared on a third-floor land­ing where the light was clear and the air was dry. It was Amelia her­self who moved it to the Hall of Mis­di­rect­ed Visions, hop­ing to trap it there—and it is true that, once it hung in the locked upstairs room, Icharus Heclo's study stopped fol­low­ing her through the House. 

But more and more, Amelia found her­self drawn to the upstairs room, to its gagged and poi­so­nous images, their unfath­omable pro­gress­es halt­ed by the furnace's relent­less light. 

This morn­ing, a guard cleaned out the fur­nace in the House of Unright­eous Images, prepar­ing it for today's exe­cu­tions. There will not be many: the apple in the man's hand, and a por­trait of a peas­ant girl weav­ing a cloak of sheep's wool. Perhaps—this has by no means been announced officially—a study of a red-haired woman watch­ing some­thing burn. The clean­ing is not nec­es­sary, but the guard felt a strange com­pul­sion to do it, to turn the ash of frames and can­vas­es loose on the autumn wind. In the very back of the fur­nace, he found a thin brass plate, appar­ent­ly undam­aged by the fire. In deep smooth-lined let­ters it said "Study by Amelia Valen." 

Icharus Heclo was arrest­ed thir­teen months ago in the apart­ment he shared with his aunts. The ladies were old and prac­ti­cal­ly-mind­ed, and they did not par­tic­u­lar­ly approve of their nephew's ambi­tion to become an artist; but he was so per­sis­tent in his beg­ging that they bought him oils and can­vas­es, pas­tels and expen­sive papers, a lit­tle easel he could set up on the land­ing, where the light was good. In time they became quite fond of Icharus and his curi­ous pic­tures, and they wept and screamed most piteous­ly when both were tak­en away. 

Now, as he stands in front of the clay-brick wall and watch­es his exe­cu­tion­ers test the heft of their rifles, Icharus remem­bers the best paint­ing he has ever done. He called it a study at the time, as though there was more work to be done on it, but in truth, he had been pleased with every brush­stroke. It showed him­self, or a ver­sion of him­self, in the spa­cious stu­dio of a great house, like the ones on the edge of the city that the Eter­nal Empress now uses to store what her sol­diers con­fis­cate. He thought it was a paint­ing of the future, of the life that would one day be his—but now he knows that the future in his paint­ing is unat­tain­able, that the world has, as it were, board­ed the wrong train, and he will nev­er be more than what he is: a poor artist, await­ing his execution. 

One by one, the strands of his too-long hair are turn­ing red. 

Amelia Valen is hold­ing the pic­ture of an apple in a man's cal­loused hand, but she is think­ing of Icharus Heclo. She does not want to think about him. She does not want to think of the black mouths of rifles or the white-hot flames of the fur­nace, or the paint­ing that hangs in the Hall of Mis­di­rect­ed Visions, a paint­ing that is not par­tic­u­lar­ly skilled but that is more than she, at this moment, after so many years on the wrong side of brush­es and can­vas, could cre­ate. She does not want to think about the future in which she once believed, the future where she lived in a house like this one and paint­ed pic­tures like these; she does not want to think about the fact that she is, more than any­thing, jeal­ous of the woman who paint­ed the apple in the man's hand and of the boy named Icharus Heclo, jeal­ous of the girl she could have been, once, if the school hadn't burned, if she hadn't claimed to know so much about paint­ings when the sol­diers came to her door, if she hadn’t been afraid. She does not want to think about the regret that has hung for so long on the wall of her heart, the regret that she has tried for so long to silence, and to lock away. 

Icharus Heclo is hold­ing a pic­ture of an apple in a man's cal­loused hand, and in the court­yard below the win­dow, the fur­nace burns white-hot. 

Amelia Valen is stand­ing in front of a wall, watch­ing her exe­cu­tion­ers test the heft of their rifles, and she is an artist. 

And at this moment, almost five thou­sand paint­ings hang in the House of Unright­eous Images, fad­ing in the rain-soaked sun­light, mold­ing in the damp, mak­ing their curi­ous and unfath­omable pro­gress­es by the furnace's relent­less light. 

Megan Arken­berg is a stu­dent in Wis­con­sin. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fan­ta­sy Mag­a­zine, Strange Hori­zons, Ideo­mancer, and dozens of oth­er places. She edits the online mag­a­zines Mir­ror Dance and Lacu­na

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