“People either fight or cooperate with injustice.”
Daniel was on his way back to the village. The wheels of the coach drearily squeaked in rhythm with his unhappy thoughts. Reclining back on the seat, the young man thought that his life now resembled a river with slippery stones and new tributaries.
The river burst into Daniel’s quiet, humdrum life when those peasants ran into his hut and dragged him to the forest. It was then that he first laid eyes on those attractive features, which were wet with tears and rain. At the time, Daniel did not realize where he had seen that face before. People knew the Empress by her image in portraits and a good reputation that was passed by word of mouth. But who could have thought that Her Majesty herself would make her way right into the hands of a peasant doctor? His thoughts smoothly drifted to their first and, possibly, last embrace in the bathroom. With trepidation, he recalled the fragrance and silkiness of her exquisite body, the moisture of her lips, the firmness of her breasts… Then the touching images were replaced by a magnificent castle, a sumptuous feast and the Emperor’s piercing eyes. But how sad were Elizabeth’s eyes when they carried her to the castle! In his mind’s eye, Daniel kept replaying their secret eye contact with Elizabeth, the chill in her voice when she said farewell, and the sweaty palm that handed him the scroll. The gift!
Daniel took out the package from the travelling case, which the servants had placed between the seats. He was not in a rush to untie the ribbon. He wanted to have his fill of looking at it—for it was tied by Elizabeth’s tender hands. How he remembered those hands…
The gravel rustled under the carriage wheels. Daniel removed the ribbon and took another few minutes to unwrap the paper. His hand reached in to grasp a silver case with glittering stones. Inside the case, he found a portrait of an enchanting young woman in a pale blue veil and graceful mother-of-pearl crown. Elizabeth told Daniel how as a young girl, she had learned to make her dreams come true through paints. So this portrait must have been the work of her hands.
Daniel envisioned the young woman in front of a mirror, with her concentrated expression and her paint-smeared fingers… She dreamt of becoming a queen, and so she did. The physician could make out her tender soul in the image, like a butterfly fluttering in the midst of nacreous pebbles and beads. But now this little girl has become a powerful, wise Empress, and her pictures will never be na;ve and ethereal again…
After arriving to his humble abode, Daniel set the portrait onto his bedside table…
In the morning, just as the two had agreed, Daniel awaited the Emperor, who chose to bring his friend to the village. Hearing the clutter of wheels, the young man came out of the hut and greeted Lara Ju and Antonio with a bow of the head.
The lady cordially replied in kind, with a bright smile spreading over her face.
Once they were inside his simple but well lit and clean cabinet, Daniel asked the lady what was bothering her. She imparted that her skin has hurt ever since she was a child. It didn’t bother her all the time, although sometimes there are times when even the slightest touch irritates her to tears. A doctor once told her that her skin was slowly dying, and sooner or later it would begin to peel and become covered in patches and ulcers. What’s more, this disease is incurable. Lara began crying, reached for a handkerchief and wiped her eyes.
“And you believed the doctor who told you this?” Daniel marveled. “What if he was a charlatan?”
“No!” the woman exclaimed, “He is a decent doctor.”
Daniel turned to the Emperor, “I have to examine the patient. All of her.”
“You mean…” Antonio’s face fell, “She has to undress?”
“Exactly,” Daniel replied matter-of-factly.
Lara obeyed without saying a word. Driven by fear and hope, she did not even wait for the Emperor’s consent. Daniel allowed Lara to keep her lower undergarment on, but asked her to remove the upper one. He led the nude woman to the window in order to examine her skin in the sunlight. Antonio intently watched the physician’s fingers. Daniel repeatedly palpated the areas that might be the focal points of the malady. He then checked the skin’s reaction to several mixtures and, after that, gave the patient a mixture to drink. He carefully observed whether it affected her well-being.
The Emperor was losing his patience and let out a deliberate cough, but the young physician continued to examine the patient over and over again, and even requested to dribble one of her tears onto a piece of glass. Exhausted and worried, Lara easily broke out crying. The Emperor was closely watching the physician’s machinations as he set mysterious medicinal substances out on the table.
Bored, Antonio began scrutinizing the books and instruments in the glass cabinets on the cupboard. Then, wishing to give his legs a stretch, he wandered somewhere and ended up right next to Lara, who lay on the trestle bed. He saw a large, pallid birthmark under her left shoulder blade. How strange—Antonio had never noticed it before. The birthmark was covered by a hairy, velvety layer. So that’s why Lara never let him kiss her back… Could it be that she was ashamed of her lovely birthmark? Maybe someone had made fun of her when she was a child?
Antonio felt an urge to step even closer to his lover, but the physician stopped him with an austere look and asked the patient, “Lara, are you bothered by this papilloma?
“What was that?” the woman asked, feeling at a loss. “Do you mean my birthmark?”
“Yes, if you want to call it that. It’s actually an epidermal nevus, commonly known as “swine skin,” if you’ll excuse me for saying. The reason is because it is covered by hair follicles, that’s all. Nevi are usually congenital and do not pose any threat to one’s health.”
“It doesn’t bother me. Except perhaps in the aesthetic sense.”
Lara lay on her stomach with her head turned toward Antonio, allowing him to see her embarrassment and blushing countenance. The Emperor felt like a barbarian who has barged into this defenseless woman’s secret world. Cursing himself, he quietly made his way out of the cabinet.
“Idiot! I’m no better than a dog that cannot leave its mistress’ side…” He wanted to step outside into the yard, but for curiosity’s sake, he cracked open the door of the adjacent room. “Let me just glimpse for a moment at how talented paupers live…”
Daniel’s bedroom was clean, but excessively modest. Antonio did not like anything here. Although on second thought, there was a marvelous item on the bedside table. He decided to take a look at the picture and froze in his tracks. Elizabeth?! Here?! Antonio recalled how his wife-to-be had showed him her works, how he was enraptured by her gift, and how this very portrait in blue had touched the Emperor’s heart.
“You painted yourself?” Antonio had asked back then in surprise.
“I don’t know,” Eliz smiled self-consciously. “I just drew a princess.”
“Yes, my princess, it’s you. Don’t try to hide it. I know that you love yourself, and I like that about you. If a woman loves herself, it means she is capable of loving others. And that’s just what I need,” an infatuated Antonio had jubilated back then. “I will turn you into a queen! And what would my princess like for breakfast?”
Antonio remembered the image of Elizabeth ten years ago.
“Don’t leave me, don’t ever leave me! Do you promise me that, my princess?” the Emperor stealthily spoke with the portrait. But at that moment, he felt as if he had been knocked senseless,
“Oh God, where in the world did the physician get this portrait?!”
On the way back, everyone in the carriage was completely silent. Exhausted, Lara fell fast asleep, while the Emperor was deep in thought. The unpleasant and repugnant diagnosis of her “swine skin” ate away at his sick imagination.
Antonio envisioned Lara being a petite pink piglet, and himself—an obtrusive dog compulsively trying to lick the forbidden place. By the end of the trip, Antonio’s brain was nearly corroded by the strange, hideous images. He needed to take his medicine immediately, yet he dreaded another failure in bed, so he hoped to make it for just a little bit longer without pills.
Suddenly, the thought crossed his mind that his lover’s disease may somehow be related to his infirmity, and that this point of intersection unites them more than anything else. Antonio understood Lara better than anyone else because he personally knew just how hypochondria corrodes the brain. They both lived with the fear that one unlucky day, the disease will begin to progress and will end their lives like an unfinished love story.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was in perfect health, which seemed to the Emperor like a violation of the laws of the universe. He and Lara suffered, while Elizabeth was the picture of radiant health, unusual talent, and she had a lavish castle and the status of the Empress in addition. And if all that weren’t enough, the universe has also endowed her with two beautiful sons. Why do some people have it all while some have just a pathetic portion of happiness? Is that fair?
Now Antonio understood why he always felt inadequate next to his wife. He envied her love of life, became frantic and tried to spoil her mood. And she only calmly asked him, “Honey, did you remember to take your medicine?” Elizabeth did not even suspect that her husband has been pill-free for a year now, not taking the drugs that were supposed to balance his psychological condition. She was overbearingly caring, and her kind intentions elicited an unhealthy protest in him.
Lara, on the other hand, was delighted to accept her lover’s concern. Next to her, he felt “all-powerful,” while next to Elizabeth he turned into an all-powerful slave. Damning the universe, the Emperor did not even notice how unfair he was being to his wife.
Elizabeth was looking for salvation from the affliction that befell her. Her remarkable kindness, the likes of which is shared only by angels in the heavens, caused her to feel concern not only for her own family, but also Ju’s. If Lara were to lose her husband, she would eventually discover that the Emperor doesn’t even come close to what she had known. Lara knows nothing of Antonio’s infirmity, and when their love degenerates into habit, she will open her eyes to the truth.
Elizabeth was already used to the pain, as if she had been pricked with a needle in the same place for so long, the wound has become an integral part of her life by now. And the things Elizabeth has endured were just around the corner for Lara.
Antonio was drowning and saving only his own self! Lara would soon be the last straw to be broken by him. So what was the right choice now: to let Lara assume the heavy burden that would pull her to the sea bottom, or to warn her? And what if Lara won’t believe her? Or if she selects the somber fate nonetheless?
Tormented by doubt, Elizabeth reached the conclusion that she cannot get in Lara’s way. The only right course of action was to leave everything to the will of God.