The First Tale of Yun Tianming “The New Royal Painter”
A long time ago, there was a kingdom called the Storyless Kingdom.
This kingdom had no stories. For a kingdom, not having any stories was a good thing. The people of such a kingdom were the happiest. Stories meant twists and catastrophes.
The Storyless Kingdom had a wise king, a kind queen, a group of just, capable ministers, and hardworking, honest common people. Life in the kingdom was as placid as a mirror: Yesterday was like today, and today is like tomorrow; last year was like this year, and this year is like next year. There were never any stories.
Until the princes and the princess grew up.
The king had two sons: Prince Deep Water and Prince Ice Sand. He also had a daughter: Princess Dewdrop.
As a child, Prince Deep Water had gone to Tomb Island in the middle of the Glutton’s Sea and never returned. As for why, that’s a story for later.
Prince Ice Sand grew up by the side of the king and queen, and they worried about him a great deal. The child was smart, but from a young age, he showed a cruel streak. He directed the servants to collect small animals from outside the palace, and he pretended he was the emperor of the animals. His “subjects” were his slaves, and if they disobeyed him even a little, he ordered them beheaded. Often, at the end of one of his play sessions, all the animals were dead, and he stood in a pool of blood, laughing hysterically.…
As he grew older, the prince became more restrained. He was a man of few words, and his gaze was somber. But the king knew that the wolf had only hidden his teeth, and in Prince Ice Sand’s heart was a hibernating poisonous snake, waiting for the right moment to emerge. Ultimately, the king decided to not make him the crown prince, instead designating Princess Dewdrop the heir apparent. The Storyless Kingdom would eventually have a queen regnant.
If the good character the king and queen passed on to their children was a fixed quantity, then Princess Dewdrop must have inherited the portion Prince Ice Sand lacked. She was smart, kind, and beautiful beyond measure. When she walked about during the day, the sun dimmed its light, shamed by the comparison; when she took a stroll at night, the moon opened its eyes wide to get a better look; when she spoke, the birds stopped twittering to listen; and when she traipsed over barren ground, flowers bloomed. The people loved the thought of having her as their queen, and the ministers were certain to dedicate themselves to helping her. Even Prince Ice Sand voiced no objections, though his gaze became even more somber and cold.
And so, story came to the Storyless Kingdom.
The king made his announcement about the new plan of succession on his sixtieth birthday. On that night, the kingdom celebrated: Fireworks turned the sky into a splendid garden, and the brilliant lights everywhere transformed the palace into a crystalline, magical place. There was laughter and joyful conversation everywhere, and wine flowed like rivers.…
Everyone was happy, and even Prince Ice Sand’s cold heart seemed to have melted. Contrary to his typical moody silence, he humbly wished his father a happy birthday, and expressed his desire that the king live as long as the sun, bathing the kingdom with his light. He also declared his support for the king’s decision, saying that Dewdrop really was better suited to be the monarch than he. He congratulated his little sister and said he hoped that she would learn more of the skills for ruling a kingdom from their father so that she could discharge her future duties well. His sincerity and generosity moved everyone present.
“My son, I’m greatly pleased to see you like this,” the king said, and caressed the prince’s head. “I want it to be like this moment, always.”
A minister suggested that a large painting of the scene should be made and hung in the palace to help remember this night.
The king shook his head. “The royal painter is old. The world is shrouded by a fog in his eyes, and his hands tremble so much that he can no longer capture the joy in our faces.”
“I was just about to get to that.” Prince Ice Sand bowed deeply. “Father, allow me to present you with a new painter.”
The prince turned and nodded, and the new painter came in. He was an older boy, about fourteen or fifteen years of age. Wrapped in a friar’s gray hooded mantle, he resembled a terrified mouse among the bejeweled guests standing in the splendor of the palace. As he approached, he huddled and compressed his already-thin body to be even smaller, as though he were trying to avoid invisible brambles all around him.
The king was a bit disappointed by the sight. “He’s so young! Does he have enough skill?”
The prince bowed again. “Father, this is Needle-Eye, from He’ershingenmosiken. He’s the best student of the great painter Master Ethereal. He began studying with the master at the age of five, and after ten years, has learned everything the great man can teach him. He is as sensitive to the colors and shapes of the world as we are to a red-hot branding iron. This sensitivity is then fixed and expressed by his paintbrush. Other than Master Ethereal himself, there is none with such skill in the world.” The prince turned to Needle-Eye. “As the royal painter, you may look at the king directly without a breach in etiquette.”
Needle-Eye looked up at the king, and then lowered his eyes again.
The king was surprised. “Child, your gaze is as piercing as a sword unsheathed next to a roaring fire. It’s at odds with your youth.”
Needle-Eye spoke for the first time. “Your Majesty, dread sovereign, please excuse a lowly painter if he has given offense. My eyes are a painter’s eyes. A painter must paint first in the heart. I have already drawn in my heart an image of you, and of your dignity and wisdom. These I will transfer to the painting.”
“You may also look at the queen,” the prince said.
Needle-Eye looked at the queen, then lowered his eyes. “Your Majesty, most honored queen, please forgive a lowly painter’s breach of decorum. I have already drawn in my heart an image of you, and of your nobility and elegance. These I will transfer to the painting.”
“Look at the princess, the future queen regnant. You must paint her as well.”
Needle-Eye took even less time to look at the princess. After the briefest of glances, he lowered his head and said, “Your Royal Highness, beloved princess of the people, please condone my lapse in courtly habits. Your beauty pains me like the midday sun, and I will, for the first time, feel the inadequacy of my paintbrush. But I have already drawn in my heart an image of you, and of your nonpareil loveliness. These I will transfer to the painting.”
Then the prince asked Needle-Eye to look at each minister. He did, resting his gaze only briefly on each face. He lowered his eyes. “Your Honors, please excuse a lowly painter’s offenses. I have already drawn in my heart an image of you, and of your talents and intellects. These I will transfer to the painting.”
The celebration continued, and Prince Ice Sand pulled Needle-Eye into a corner. In a whisper, he asked, “Have you memorized all of them?”
Needle-Eye kept his head low, his face entirely hidden within the shadow of his hood. The cape appeared empty, containing only shadows and no substance. “Yes, my king.”
“Everything, my king. I can now paint a picture of each strand of hair on their bodies and head, and it will be an exact replica of the original.”
* * *
The celebration ended after midnight. The lights in the palace went out, one after another. It was the darkest hour before dawn: The moon had already set, and dark clouds, like a curtain, veiled the sky from west to east. The earth was submerged in ink. A chill wind blew through, and birds shivered in their nests, while terrified flowers folded their petals together.
Like ghosts, two horses emerged from the palace and sped west. The riders were Needle-Eye and Prince Ice Sand. They came to an underground bunker a few miles from the palace. It seemed sunken into the deepest sea of night: dank, gloomy, like the belly of a cold-blooded beast in deep slumber. Their two shadows swayed and flickered in torchlight, and their bodies were but two dark spots at the end of the long shadows. Needle-Eye took a scroll out of a canvas bag and unrolled it: a painting, about as long as a man was tall. It was the portrait of an old man. White hair and beard surrounded his face like silver flames, and his piercing gaze was very similar to Needle-Eye’s, though endowed with more depth. The portrait showed off the skill of the painter—lifelike, with every detail captured.
“My king, this is—was—my teacher, Master Ethereal.”
The prince nodded. “Excellent. It was a smart decision to paint him first.”
“Yes, I had to, so that he would not paint me first.” With great care, Needle-Eye hung the portrait on the damp wall. “All right, now I can get to work on the new pictures for you.”
From a corner of the bunker, Needle-Eye retrieved a roll of something snowy white. “My king, this is a section of the trunk of a snow-wave tree of He’ershingenmosiken. When the tree reaches a hundred years of age, the trunk can be unrolled like paper—the perfect medium for painting. My magic is only effective when I paint on snow-wave paper.” He placed the roll on a stone table, unrolled a section, and pressed it under an obsidian slab. Then he took a sharp knife and cut the paper against the edge of the slab. When he lifted off the
slab, the section of cut paper was pressed flat against the table. The pure white surface seemed to glow by itself.
The painter retrieved his implements from the canvas bag and laid them out. “My king, look at these brushes, made from the ear tufts of the wolves found in He’ershingenmosiken. The paints are also from there: The red is made from the blood of giant bats; the black is the ink of squids caught in the deep sea; the blue and the yellow are extracted from meteorites.… All the paints must be mixed with the tears of a species of giant bird called the moon-blanket bird—”
“Just get on with it,” the prince said.
“Of course, of course. Who should I paint first?” “The king.”
Needle-Eye picked up his brush. He worked casually, a dab here, a streak there. Gradually, various colors appeared on the paper, but no shape could be discerned. It was as if the paper had been laid out in a multicolored rain, and drops of all hues continuously fell onto the paper. Over time, the paper was filled with colors—a chaotic swirl, like a garden trampled by rampaging horses. The brush continued to glide through this maze of colors, as though the painter’s hand no longer guided it, but it was leading the painter’s hand. Puzzled, the prince watched from the side. He wanted to ask questions, but the movements of the colors emerging and gathering had a hypnotic effect, and he was mesmerized.
Then, in a moment, as though a rippling surface suddenly froze, all the random spots connected to each other, and all the colors had meaning. Shapes appeared, and quickly turned crystal clear.
The prince saw a portrait of the king. The king was dressed like he had been earlier at the palace: a golden crown on his head and a magnificent ceremonial robe draped over his body. But the expression on his face was different: There was no longer dignity and wisdom in his eyes. Instead, a complex mixture of emotions could be detected: awakening from a dream, confusion, shock, sorrow … and behind them all was a terror that couldn’t be fully expressed, as though his closest companion was attacking him with a sword.
“The portrait of the king is finished,” said Needle-Eye.
“Very good.” The prince nodded at the portrait. The torches reflected in his irises, as though his soul burned in deep wells.
* * *
Miles away in the palace, the king disappeared from his bedchamber. In his bed, held up by posts carved into the shapes of four gods, the blankets still retained his body heat, and the sheets still retained the impression of his weight. But of his body, there was no trace.
* * *
The prince picked up the finished painting and threw it on the floor. “I will have this mounted and framed and hang it on the wall here. I’ll come here from time to time to look at it. Paint the queen next.”
Needle-Eye flattened another sheet of snow-wave paper with the obsidian slab, and began to paint the queen’s portrait. This time, the prince did not stand to the side to observe, but paced around in the bunker. The empty space echoed with his repetitive footsteps. This time, the painting was done in only half the time it
took to do the first.
“My king, the portrait of the queen is finished.” “Very good.”
* * *
In the palace, the queen disappeared from her bedchamber. In her bed, held up by posts carved into the shapes of four angels, the blankets still retained her body heat, and the sheets still retained the impression of her weight. But of her body, there was no trace.
In the garden outside the palace, a hound seemed to detect something and barked loudly a few times. But the sounds were instantaneously swallowed up by the boundless darkness, and it fell silent in fear. Trembling as it shrank into seclusion, it melded with the night.
* * *
“Is the princess next?” asked Needle-Eye.
“No, paint the ministers first. They are more dangerous. Of course, paint only those ministers who are loyal to my father. Do you remember them?”
“Of course, I remember everything. I can paint a picture of each strand of hair on their bodies and head—” “Just do it. Hurry. You must finish before sunrise.”
“That will not be a problem, my king. Before dawn, I will paint a portrait of each minister loyal to the old king, and the princess.”
Needle-Eye flattened several sheets of snow-wave paper and began to paint like mad. Every time he finished a portrait, the subject disappeared from his or her bed. As the night flew by, the enemies of Prince Ice Sand turned one by one into pictures on the wall of the bunker.
* * *
Princess Dewdrop was awakened by insistent, loud knocks. No one had ever dared to knock on her door like this before. She got up and came to the door, which had just been opened by Auntie Wide.
Auntie Wide had been Dewdrop’s wet nurse, and then cared for her as she grew up. The princess felt closer to her than even her own mother, the queen. Auntie Wide stared at the captain of the palace guards outside the door, whose armor still gave off the chill air of the night.
“Have you gone mad? How dare you wake the princess! She hasn’t been sleeping well the last few nights.” The captain ignored Auntie Wide. He bowed slightly to Dewdrop. “Princess, someone wants to see you.”
Then he stepped aside, revealing an old man.
The old man’s white hair and beard surrounded his face like silver flames. His gaze was both sharp and deep. This was the man who had been in the first portrait shown to the prince by Needle-Eye. His face and cape were caked with grime, his boots were covered in mud, and he carried a large canvas bag on his back; clearly, he had been on a long journey.
But, oddly, he was holding up an umbrella. Stranger still was the fashion in which he held it: The umbrella spun nonstop in his hand. A closer examination of the umbrella revealed his reason: The pole and the canopy
were both pure black, and at the tip of each rib was a small sphere made of some translucent, weighty stone. The stretchers for the ribs within the umbrella were all broken and could not hold the canopy up. Only by spinning the umbrella continuously to make the stones fly up could the canopy be kept open.
“How can you allow random strangers in here? And such a strange old man at that,” said Auntie Wide. “The sentries stopped him, of course, but he said”—the captain of the guards gave an anxious look to the
princess—“that the king is already gone.”
“What are you talking about? You are mad!” Auntie Wide shouted.
But the princess said nothing. Her hands clutched at the front of her nightgown.
“But the king really has disappeared, as has the queen. My men said that both bedchambers were empty.” The princess cried out and held on to Auntie Wide for support.
The old man spoke. “Your Royal Highness, please let me explain.”
“Master, please come in,” the princess said. Then she turned to the captain. “Guard this door.”
Still spinning the umbrella, the old man bowed to the princess, as though respecting her for her calmness in the face of a crisis.
“Why are you spinning that umbrella like some clown?” Auntie Wide asked. “I must keep this umbrella open lest I disappear like the king and the queen.”
“Then come in with the umbrella,” the princess said. Auntie Wide opened the door more so that the old man could come in with the spinning umbrella.
Once inside, the man set down the canvas bag on his back and let out an exhausted sigh. But the umbrella never stopped moving in his hand, and the small stone balls along the rim of the canopy flickered in the candlelight, casting bright spots along the walls like racing stars.
“I am Ethereal, a painter from He’ershingenmosiken. The new royal painter, Needle-Eye, is—was—my student.”
“I’ve met him,” said the princess.
“Did he look at you?” Ethereal asked, anxious. “Yes, of course.”
“Terrible news, Princess. Terrible!” Ethereal sighed. “He is a devil. With his devilish art, he paints people into pictures.”
“That’s a lot of wasted breath,” said Auntie Wide. “Isn’t the job of a painter to paint people into pictures?” “You misunderstand me,” said Ethereal. “After he paints a portrait, the subject is gone. A live person turns
into a dead picture.”
“Then we must dispatch men to kill him right away.”
The captain poked his head into the room. “I’ve sent all the guards. We can’t find him. I wanted to find the minister of war and ask him to mobilize the capital garrison. But Master Ethereal said that the minister of war is probably already gone as well.”
Ethereal shook his head. “More soldiers won’t be of any use. Prince Ice Sand and Needle-Eye are certainly no longer anywhere near the palace. Needle-Eye could be painting anywhere in the world and still kill everyone here.”
“Did you say Prince Ice Sand?” asked Auntie Wide.
“Yes. The prince wants to wield Needle-Eye as a weapon and eliminate the king and all those loyal to him, so that he can become the king.”
Ethereal saw that the princess, Auntie Wide, and the captain of the guards were not surprised by this revelation.
“We have to worry about the matter at hand! Needle-Eye could be painting the princess any second—he might already be doing it right now.” Auntie Wide wrapped her arms around the princess, as if she could keep her safe.
Ethereal continued. “Only I can stop Needle-Eye. He’s already painted me, but this umbrella can ensure that I don’t disappear. If I paint him, he’ll be gone.”
“Then start painting!” said Auntie Wide. “I’ll hold up the umbrella for you.”
Ethereal shook his head again. “No. The magic only works if I paint on snow-wave paper. But the paper I have with me hasn’t been flattened, and cannot be used for painting.”
Auntie Wide opened the master painter’s canvas bag and retrieved a section of a snow-wave tree. The bark had already been peeled off, revealing the paper roll underneath. Auntie Wide and the princess unrolled a section, and the white paper seemed to brighten the room. They tried to flatten the paper on the floor, but no matter how much they pressed, as soon as they let go, the paper rolled back up.
The painter said, “It won’t work. Only a slate made from the obsidian of He’ershingenmosiken can flatten snow-wave paper. That type of obsidian is very rare, and I only had one slab, which Needle-Eye stole from me.”
“There’s really nothing else that will flatten this?”
“No. Only the obsidian from He’ershingenmosiken will do the job. I was hoping to get the obsidian slab back from Needle-Eye.”
“He’ershingenmosiken? Obsidian?” Auntie Wide slapped her forehead. “I have an iron that I use for pressing the princess’s best formal gowns. It was made in He’ershingenmosiken, and it’s obsidian!”
“That might work!”
Auntie Wide dashed out of the room and returned soon with a shiny black iron. She and the princess once again unrolled a section of the snow-wave scroll, and she pressed the iron against a corner for a few seconds. She lifted the iron, and the corner remained flat.
“Hold the umbrella for me, please, and I’ll flatten the paper,” Ethereal said to Auntie Wide. As he handed the umbrella over, he said, “Keep it spinning! If it ever falls closed, I’ll disappear.” He watched until Auntie Wide was spinning the umbrella overhead to his satisfaction. Then he squatted and began to flatten the paper, one small section at a time.
“Can’t you fix the stretchers for the ribs?” asked the princess as she stared at the spinning umbrella.
“The umbrella did have stretchers.” The painter continued to press the paper as he answered. “This umbrella has an unusual history. In the past, other painters of He’ershingenmosiken also had Needle-Eye’s and my skill. Besides people, they were also able to capture animals and plants. One day, an abyss dragon came to our land. The dragon was black in color, and it could fly as well as swim in the deep sea. Three painters painted it, but it continued to fly and swim. Then, the painters pooled their money and hired a magic warrior, who finally managed to slay the dragon with a fire sword. The struggle was so fierce that the ocean near
He’ershingenmosiken boiled. Most of the abyss dragon’s body was burnt to charcoal, but I was able to collect some body parts out of the ashes to make this umbrella. The canopy is made from the dragon’s wing membranes, and the pole, handle, and ribs were all made from the dragon’s bones. The stones you see at the tips of the ribs were taken from the ashes of the dragon’s kidneys. The umbrella has the power to protect the user from being painted into a picture.
“Later, the stretchers broke, and I tried to repair it with bamboo stretchers, but found the umbrella’s magic disappeared. I took the bamboo out, and the magic returned. Then I tried to hold the canopy up with my hand, and that didn’t work either. Apparently, no foreign material of any kind could be used in the umbrella. But I don’t have any more dragon bones, and this is the only way to keep the umbrella open.…”
The clock in the corner of the room sounded. Ethereal looked up and saw it was almost sunrise. He looked down and saw that only about a palm’s width of the snow-wave paper lay flat on the floor, not enough for a painting. He dropped the iron and sighed.
“There’s no time. It will take too long for me to paint my portrait of Needle-Eye, but he could be done with his painting of the princess at any moment. You two.” He pointed at Auntie Wide and the captain. “Has Needle-Eye seen you?”
“I’m sure he hasn’t seen me,” said Auntie Wide.
“I saw him from a distance when he came into the palace,” said the captain. “But I’m sure he didn’t see me.”
“Good.” Ethereal stood up. “Please accompany the princess to the Glutton’s Sea, and find Prince Deep Water on Tomb Island.”
“But … even if we get to the Glutton’s Sea, we can’t get onto Tomb Island. You know that the sea has—” “Cross that bridge when you get to it. This is the only way. By dawn, all the ministers loyal to the king will
have been painted into pictures, and Prince Ice Sand will have control of the capital garrison and the palace guards. He will seize the throne, and only Prince Deep Water can stop him.”
“If Prince Deep Water returns to the palace, won’t Needle-Eye paint him into a picture as well?” asked the princess.
“Don’t worry. Needle-Eye will not be able to paint Prince Deep Water. The prince is the only person in the kingdom who cannot be painted by Needle-Eye. Luckily, I only taught Needle-Eye how to paint in the Western style, but never taught him Eastern painting.”
The princess and the other two weren’t sure what the master painter was talking about, but Ethereal didn’t elaborate. He went on. “You must bring Deep Water back to the palace and kill Needle-Eye. Then you must find the painting of the princess and burn it. It’s the only way to keep her safe.”
“What if we can find the paintings of the king and the queen—”
“Your Royal Highness, it’s too late. They’re gone. They’re now only paintings. If you find them, don’t burn them. Keep them for memory.”
Grief crushed Princess Dewdrop, and she fell to the floor sobbing.
“Princess, now is not the time for sorrow. If you want to avenge your father and mother, you had better be on your way.” The old master turned to Auntie Wide and the captain. “Remember, until you locate and destroy the princess’s portrait, you must keep the umbrella open over her. She can’t be without its protection,
not even for a second.” He took the umbrella from Auntie Wide’s hands, and kept spinning it. “Don’t spin it too slowly, because it will fall closed; but don’t spin it too fast, because the umbrella is old, and it may fall apart. The umbrella is alive, in a sense. If you spin it too slow, it will cry out like a bird. Listen—” He slowed down the spinning until the stones at the rim of the canopy began to droop, and the umbrella emitted a nightingale-like sound. The slower he spun it, the louder the noise. The old master sped up the spinning. “If you spin it too fast, it will ring like a bell. Like this—” The old master spun the umbrella even faster, and the umbrella began to sound like a wind chime, but faster and louder. “All right. Now protect the princess.” He handed the umbrella back to Auntie Wide.
“Master Ethereal, let’s leave together,” Princess Dewdrop said, looking up with tear-filled eyes.
“No. The dragon umbrella is only able to protect one person. If two individuals who have been painted by Needle-Eye try to use it together, they’ll both die a terrible death: Half of each person will be painted into the picture, and the other half will remain under the umbrella.… Now raise the umbrella over the princess and go! Each moment you delay increases the danger. Needle-Eye may finish the picture any moment now!”
Auntie Wide kept spinning the umbrella over the old master. She looked at the princess, then back to the painter, hesitating.
“I taught that vile spawn how to paint. Death is what I deserve. What are you waiting for? Do you want to see the princess disappear before your eyes?”
Auntie Wide shivered. She moved the umbrella over the princess.
The old painter stroked his beard and smiled. “It’s all right. I’ve painted all my life. To be turned into a painting is not a bad way to go. I trust my student’s technique. The portrait will be excellent.…”
As he spoke, his body slowly became transparent, then faded away like a wisp of fog.
Princess Dewdrop stared at the empty space where the painter had been and muttered, “Let’s go. To the Glutton’s Sea.”
Auntie Wide said to the captain, “Can you keep the umbrella up for a while? I need to go pack.”
The captain took over. “Hurry! Prince Ice Sand’s men are everywhere. We’ll have trouble getting away after daylight.”
“But I have to pack! The princess has never been away. I’ve got to take her traveling cloak and boots, and lots of clothes, and her water, and … also the bath soap from He’ershingenmosiken—she can’t sleep if she doesn’t bathe with it.…” Auntie Wide continued to mutter as she left.
Half an hour later, by the faint glow of dawn, a light carriage left the palace from a side door. The captain drove. In the carriage were the princess and Auntie Wide, who held up the spinning umbrella. They were all dressed as commoners, and the carriage soon disappeared in the fog.
In that distant underground bunker, Needle-Eye had just completed the portrait of Princess Dewdrop. “This is the most beautiful portrait I’ve ever painted,” he said to Prince Ice Sand.
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