At dawn on the first day of spring, I wake to the clamour of the gentlemen leaving the city on their horses, the morning sun glinting on the bright barbs of their hunting spears and the iron talons of their giant hawks. It is late afternoon by the time their triumphant bugles signal their return from the Waste. I open my workshop and prepare my tools—my scalpels, scissors, sewing palm, and stuffer. I will have a special commission this evening.
Tomorrow, there will be a grand banquet to celebrate the slaying of a beast of the Waste and the lord who slew it. And, as has become the mode since the invention of the photographic technique, the lady of that manor will have her portrait taken with the creature before it's placed in an oak-panelled gallery to gather dust.
To make the dead and eviscerated thing look alive again—that is my task, my craft. Some ladies like the beasts posed as loyal pets, the long, muscular bodies curling about their middles in a protective gesture. Others want them draped like babes so they may cradle the great horned heads in their doting arms. The beasts of the Waste are fierce creatures, with teeth the size of carving knives and clusters of spines as long and sharp as knitting needles bursting from their thick pelts, but the portraits always render them faintly ridiculous.
A knock on the door of my workshop signals my commission has arrived.
The messenger wears the livery of Lord Montgomery, and the instructions tell me that it is his youngest daughter, Clementia, not his wife who will be posing with the beast.
She has requested the beast's horns be garlanded with flowers; it must be smiling, with its teeth pulled back from the gums and glossy with saliva; its lips must be red as a summer rose. She wants it to appear as her plaything—a grotesque teddy bear dolled up in bows and ribbons.
If I had a moment to think, the request might turn my stomach. But I must get to work immediately if I'm to deliver the beast in time. I examine the damage carefully. This beast is a female. Blood cakes the coarse fur where the barbed spear found its mark and ragged gouges gape on her back where the iron talons took hold. A noble sport, the gentlemen call it. I am not wealthy or powerful enough to disagree, but I take a moment to place my hand on the beast's side, to honour the last of her warmth with a respectful touch.
Beneath the fur, I feel something. A heartbeat. A tiny, faint pulse of life.
With my sharpest scalpel, I make an incision in the abdomen, thrust my hands into the wound and pull out a pup. So close to being born. No wonder her wounds were so numerous. She must have fought fiercely, madly, to protect it, to the very end.
I know what's expected of me. I should continue my work, throw the pup into the fire, but something in its blind whining gives me pause. It strikes me that I have only ever seen these beasts as corpses. This is the first time I have ever held one alive.
My breath catches—rather than make something wretched and lifeless appear living, I could instead bring this tenuous life back from the brink of death. Failure to complete my charge will invoke intense displeasure from His Lordship and most likely be my ruin, but, to my surprise, the thought barely afflicts me. I rush to the linen closet for some blankets and set water to boil in the copper. I rummage through the pantry and find some thick cream I'm sure will nourish the poor thing.
I return to the workshop ready to attend to my new task, but the pup's whines have stopped. I put down the blanket and the cream and rest my hand on its tiny body, feel its terrible stillness.
Gently, I place it back inside its mother. To rob her of it now seems unthinkable.
I sit for a long time. Until the candle gutters. Then I light another and resume my work.
When I deliver the creature the next morning, the lords and ladies will applaud my craft, and Clementia will grin and giggle at just how well I have executed her instructions—no one will notice the difference, so subtle is it, between this beast and the others I have prepared in the past. But years from now, when she is grown, with her own circle of friends each as young and powerful and bold as she—when they look at her portrait, which she shows them passingly with mock embarrassment, they will not see the wild red eyes of a beast of the Waste, but the sad, desolate gaze of a mother who has lost her child. And perhaps that will be enough to spark something deep within them, to make them declare with clear voice and fervent conviction—No more of this, no more.