The Kidnapped Smile
“I’m perfectly fine. Now stop being so silly.” Placing a painted hand on The Thinker’s bronze arm, Mona Lisa patted it.
“But child. The attempts.”
“Failed. And now you and Father have me tucked away in this fortress. Worry not.” Without giving him a chance to argue more, Mona Lisa turned and glided down the stone steps of the castle.
Artania’s leader leaned over the parapet of the castle gazing at the renaissance city below. Florence. Red tile roofs topped sunflower yellow or misty white walls. Crushed granite alleyways and cobblestone side streets zig-zagged from one end of the town to the other. The Arno River snaked through this muted palette as gently as dear Mona Lisa’s smile.
Mona Lisa. Ever since the attempted kidnapping, she had stayed within these castle walls. Making the sweet child restless. Today was the first time he’d agreed to let her stroll along the river. Accompanied by soldiers in striped bloomers and metal helmets of course.
“Nicolo, you must be ever vigilant. You know what will happen if the Shadow Swine capture the Smiling One,” he had ordered the guardsman earlier.
“Yes, as do all citizens, whether they be painting, sculpture or sketch,” Nicolo said.
“Keep her close. Keep her safe.”
“I do swear,” the guardsman said, bowing with one hand across his chest.
Nicolo’s presence should have calmed The Thinker’s fears, but for some reason he still felt uneasy. All around, soldiers patrolled the parapet wall or stood guard behind the notched battlements in the rectangular towers.
The iron grating of the portcullis was down leaving only doors vulnerable. And after the last kidnapper had made his way inside, The Thinker had ordered them locked at all times. Even so he knew that in these terrible times anything could happen.
His bronze gaze rested on the river and the short docks built beside the walkway. The Smiling One emerged from the doorway below and gave him a short wave before turning toward the cobblestone path skirting the river. All was as it should be.
He had just relaxed his shoulders when a flash caught his eye. He shouldn’t be there!
A man dressed in rags leapt out of one of the rowboats tied to the dock and began running toward Mona Lisa. But with her back to him, she didn’t notice
“Lisa!” The Thinker cried.
When she turned, the snarling man grabbed her by the arm and began pulling her toward his boat.
“Let me go!” Mona Lisa screamed.
Soldiers appeared and rushed down the embankment, Guardsman Nicolo in the lead.
Mona Lisa strained against the beggar’s grip. But it was no good. He was half a head taller and probably outweighed her by fifty pounds. He dragged her ever closer to the rowboat. A few more feet and they’d be on the river.
“No!” Mona Lisa cried, clutching her veil in a milk white grasp.
“Halt,” Nicolo cried, booted feet flying toward the dock. “Halt, I say!” He sprung over the cobblestone path and drew his sword.
The ragged man dragged her closer to the water. The Smiling One’s feet skidded over wood.
“Hurry,” The Thinker whispered.
As soon as they reached the dock’s edge, the beggar shoved Mona Lisa behind him. And turned.
With a snaggle-toothed grin, he bent forward and unleashed a tremendous kick. Crying out, the painted girl hurled upwards. She shot over pilings arcing toward the river below.
The Thinker’s bronze heart froze. He gripped the coping stone tighter.
Mona Lisa splashed and disappeared beneath the murmuring waters.
All eyes turned toward the river. Every Artanian from castle keep to the guard tower and down the stony walls held a breath. Waiting in silence.
But the waters remained calm.
“Find her!” the bronze man cried.
With a desperate leap, Nicolo dove into the River Arno. The Thinker scanned east and west for a veiled head but only the guardsman surfaced.
Nicolo submerged again, his booted feet kicking deeper. Only to break the surface for quick gulp of air before diving down. Twice. Three times. Seven.
When the exhausted soldier floated up after the twenty-fifth descent, he turned to the gathered crowd with a sad shake of his head. “She is gone.”
The Thinker fell back against the wall and sunk to the ground. “All is lost.”
Bartholomew Borax III woke with a start. Was that a girl screaming? He blinked and for a few terrifying moments thought it might be Mother.
Seeing things that weren’t there.
Even though they were tucked deeply under the covers, Bartholomew’s hands turned to ice. Opening and closing his stiff fingers, the twelve-year-old sat up and cocked an ear.
Then he remembered the joyful dream.
He folded back the covers and slipped into his monogrammed robe before padding over to and opening the wooden screens that separated his room into two sections. The other half of his bedroom suite had a fireplace painted so brilliantly white you’d think it had never been used. Ignoring both the cold hearth and the leather loveseat in front of it, he headed straight for his writing desk, yanked open the drawer, and felt around for the latch to his secret compartment. He pulled out five pencils and laid them in a neat row.
Closing his eyes, he started to recall the dream. But the images were already fading replaced by the memory of school the previous day. Eyes narrowed, he tried to return to a place where three generations painted side by side. He had just sketched an outline of Grandfather holding his brush aloft next to Father when the memories made him drop his pencil.
He couldn’t create this morning.
Trudging into the adjoining bathroom he took a moment to glare at his reflection in the mirrored wall before he stepped into the glass-enclosed shower.
“Another F!” He turned the chrome shower handles on full blast and thrust his head under the spout. Trying to wash yesterday away.
“I see wealth and brains don’t always go together.” His algebra teacher, Ms. Buttsfert had smirked as she handed Bartholomew back his latest test. “Bring it back signed tomorrow,” she ordered, her double chin waggling with each word.
He hated math. He hated numbers. You couldn’t be friends with a number. You couldn’t talk to them or learn about life from them. They just stood in neat little rows, like his mother, waiting for you to mess up so you’d have to wipe them away, make the paper all white and pretty, and start all over again.
When he’d opened his mouth to argue, Ms. Buttsfert gave him detention. Another thing to hide from Mother.
Bartholomew was good at forging signatures, but he couldn’t hide these grades for much longer. Mother had warned if he wasn’t Borax-excellent by the end of the month, it was homeschooling.
And he couldn’t face that loneliness again. Most of his life he’d been trapped in an antiseptic mansion with servants and Mr. White, his uptight British tutor as his only company. He’d only had real friends for a year.
Finally, in sixth grade Mother had allowed him to go to school. Instead of clear plexiglass desks in a room for one, he’d entered a brightly colored classroom filled with a jumble of scratched furniture. There were real kids smiling and chattering away, not just the soap sculptures or sketches from his imagination.
That’s when he befriended fellow artist, Alex.
From the moment he bumped into Alexander Devinci and caught glimpses of another world, he realized that something amazing was about to happen. He was on the cusp of adventures as compelling as any in his fantasy novels.
And would do just about anything to continue having them.
Below the surface of an art-created world, the screams pierced the air. Howls echoed down the mountainous stalagmite, over the sulfuric River of Lies, and throughout the cavernous Subterranea. Every Shadow Swine throughout Lord Sickhert’s domain froze, cringing at the sound.
“Noo! Stop! I can’t take it anymore.”
“Fool! You let them defeat you!”
“But they- Noo!”
“Shut-up, Captain!” the snaking voice hissed. “You deserve worse.”
The hunchbacked creature jerked, straining against the manacles that chained him to the cubicle walls. There Lord Sickhert punished any who displeased him. Many a Shadow Swine had felt these burning waters over the millennia, but this was Captain Sludge’s first time under the boiling steam.
He lurched toward the opening, but the chains recoiled like a bowstring. Twitching, Sludge tried to lean toward cooler air, but the guards shoved him back under the scalding spray and his spiked hair wilted in the steam.
When the handcuffs seared his slime-covered wrists, he writhed in pain. The boiling shower paused. Hot droplets dripped from the obsidian pipe above singeing his shoulders. Sludge shuddered. His yellow eyes looked up imploringly at his leader. But he knew there’d be no mercy there.
I have failed. All because of those idiot boys. Those whose dreams I so easily twist. He started to roar his rage but then another blast from the shower above silenced all sound and thought. Except pain, anger, revenge.
His naked back started to blister, gelatinous hide cracking and peeling like layers of bark in a forest fire. Long sheets of charred skin slid down his soaked black slacks into the drain.
Captain Sludge looked down at his large feet. Each claw on his toes had gone from glorious point to short stub.
“They completed the first task. You weren’t supposed to let that happen.”
“I was tricked… The boy Deliverer...”
“I made you captain to avoid such stealth.” Lord Sickhert narrowed his bone white eyes and pressed a crystalline button on the stalactite hanging down from the ceiling. Another scalding stream licked at Sludge’s head.
“Ahh! Please! My Lord, no! I’ll invade their dreams!”
“Fool! The Deliverers are too powerful now. Their Painted Knights never sleep.” Sickhert reached up to push the button again.
“But I captured...”
Lord Sickhert stopped just before his ashy gray finger reached the stalactite. “Abducted? Who?”
“The Smiling One.”
“Is this true?”
Sickhert nodded. His tall form stood as straight as a razor’s edge as he turned to address the two hunch-backed guards on either side of the Correction Chamber. “Release him.”
The henchmen unlocked the shackles on Sludge’s wrists and the burned creature collapsed into a heap on the floor. But he knew Sickhert was watching. Looking for weakness. Waiting for him to make another mistake. The one error that would cost him his life. Sludge would not make that mistake. He crawled to Sickhert’s feet.
“Thank you for sparing me, my Lord.” He opened his mouth to release the honorific spittle.
“Save your platitudes. Night falls soon in the West. Ready yourself to invade.”
I am spared! Sludge thought, yellow eyes brightening.
“I must consult The Lava Pool Gramarye,” Muttering to himself, Sickhert kicked Sludge out of the way. He strode from the room, long dark cape scraping the torture chamber’s floor like claws on skin.
Alexander Devinci stood at his mother’s bedside watching her sleep. Her dark curls framed her face like a halo. He thought about reaching out to touch them but didn’t. She needed her rest. Even after a year, her heart was still weak, but the color was returning to her cheeks.
Searching her face for every nuance, Alex took one more mind photo before tiptoeing out of the bedroom. With his fluffy-eared Australian Shepherd, Rembrandt, trailing behind, he headed straight for his art center in the garage.
It wasn’t as nice as the one back in Boulder, but Dad had managed to set up one corner with an easel, some crates full of palettes, and his paints. And if the side door was open, the light coming in was pretty cool.
He walked over to the wooden shelves on the wall and grabbed a piece of canvas before settling onto a paint splattered stool with Rembrandt at his feet.
“True art,” he said, remembering what the Artanians had told him the year before.
Alex had always loved to create but didn’t know that each painting had powers until sixth grade when he and Bartholomew had ventured into a magical world. There he discovered an amazing secret. All art was alive. Every time someone painted, sketched, or sculpted, a living creature was born in Artania.
But his and Bartholomew’s art did more than just give birth to a new Artanian. Theirs was special, very special.