Lessig suddenly paled, the thick red wine swirling in the bowl of his goblet as his eyes darted to the open window, his ears vibrating horribly in the cool quiet night—
With a shudder, Lessig forced himself to swallow, the very wine in his mouth having turned sour at the repetition of the sound. Likewise, on the table, the half-carved roast now turned sickly and grey, and the food already in his belly solidified into an acidic and indigestible mass.
The servants continued to look away politely, staring dully and variously at the silverware or the candles or the buttons on their sleeves. Lessig knew they had grown accustomed to such fits over the years—these violent losses of appetite, these sudden shifts of mood—
But did they hear—? Did they themselves suspect the reason—? It seemed to Lessig the sounds were growing louder. At the very least, the night sky was certainly noticeably darker, with new patches of bare blackness clearly visible amid the stars, if only anyone cared to look—!
Lessig’s mouth opened and made a sound like a croak. Then, weakly, he added: “I’ve finished with my dinner. Take it away—take it away!”
Oh how that damnable scraping flayed his very nerves! But what could he do? What could he do?
Nothing! Save that he could fly from the dining room to his bedchamber, as he had done so many nights before, flinging open the doors that led to the broad balcony outside. And there, if he turned to face the half-finished lighthouse that rose from the bay below the palace—that tall tower creeping up into the sky, its stark white granite face shining almost phosphorescently in the starglow—yes, the grand ambition into which he had poured all of the principality’s treasure, to the extent of mortgaging the precious farmland and forests that surrounded the capital—
Yes, if he turned to that—to his great lighthouse—would he not see the horror there!
There, along the side of the tower—those long dark limbs! Those pencil-thin shadows, like the legs of a harvestman, draping the side of the lighthouse, stretching storey after storey, hundreds of feet long if they were a yard.
And, at the top, one arm lightly looped around the skeleton of the spire—the other arm lost in the blackness of the night, but raised—certainly raised, Lessig knew!—up overhead, with the sickle-shaped skinning knife clutched in the hand, rasping across the vault of the sky with that horrible sound—
All night long, like dry leaves rattling in the wind—or the sea clattering over the pebbles on the beach—
Damn him, damn him, the Skinner of the Sky!
The next morning, Lessig rose early and dressed himself. He had slept hardly at all, and was too nervous and furious to wait for his valet to bring the coffee, or the bowl of shaving water, or even his clothes. Instead, he ventured into the cool cedar-smelling dark of the wardrobe himself, and came out dressed in a bright tunic that was all the more garish next to his bone-pale face and hands.
But Lessig didn’t stop to look in the glass. Instead, he descended the long sweeping marble staircase from his bedchamber to the front hall, and let himself out upon steps still wet and soapy from the brushing of the surprised charwoman.
So went her brush upon the stone of the steps.
Until Lessig turned and glared at her, hissing a command that sent her fleeing around the back of the palace with her brush and pail, the tails of her cap flying behind her.
At the bay, the labourers were already busy at the lighthouse. They used long heavy poles to unload granite blocks from the barges in the canal, pushing them on rollers up to the base of the scaffolding, and then hauling with grease and rope higher and higher—up the long ramps that led to the top of the spire, filling in block by block the facade of the lighthouse.
The lighthouse, yes! And beyond that—the sea! Its roaring swells bearing countless ships laden with riches plundered from both East and West. Bearing them to the ports of Spain and France and Portugal—but soon, once the lighthouse was finished, here as well! Soon to Lessig’s own humble port—!
It wasn’t for Lessig’s own profit alone that the Skinner had been summoned and engaged. It was for the benefit of them all, down to the least of his subjects!
And yet, if any of these workmen should ever realize the wage that Lessig had agreed to pay, would they not truss him like a lamb, carry him to the top of the scaffolding, and throw him over the edge into the sea?
Heaven keep them blind! prayed Lessig. At least until they could see the result, and judge for themselves whether he had acted wisely… Surely, kings had been executed before for less. But just as surely, no king had ever acted so much in the interest of his people either!
Hunting among the workmen, Lessig at first could see nothing of the Skinner. But as he walked around the base of the lighthouse, he spied a shadowy figure high up in the scaffolding, a granite block hoisted on its shoulder, wending its way up amid the slower-moving blocks—the figure carrying that massive block as though it were nothing more than a wooden trunk, carrying it alone and unaided, all the way to the very top of the unfinished tower—
But even so, the tower was so tall! Even with the supernatural help of the Skinner, it took so long! Would it never be finished? Though the wheel of progress creaked forward day by day, the lighthouse’s skeleton taking shape and the facade slowly filling in—still, would it never be finished at last?
That night, Lessig ate his supper early and retired to his bedchamber. He had meant to wait for the Skinner to come down from the tower and to have it out with him—to demand to know when the lighthouse would be finished, when their contract would be ended, when the night would be silent of the awful scraping of that sickle knife—
But his courage had failed him.
Instead, he stood now at the door to his balcony, his eyes fixed on the lighthouse that threatened to bankrupt the principality—and worse!—as he waited for the horrible sound to begin again.
But instead, something else happened.
Instead, Lessig seemed to see a long shadow extend through the nighttime streets of the capital, snaking out from the base of the lighthouse—barely visible in the darkness, more a change in the quality of the shadows than the casting of a new one—on and on, up through the empty streets, up to the palace itself, up even to the very balcony on which Lessig was standing—
He took a startled step back—
And the Skinner suddenly stepped out of the shadows to stop him, a long dark arm reaching out to grab hold of Lessig’s robe, detaining him just inside the door to his bedchamber.
“You came to see me today, Prince?”
Lessig wrenched himself away from the grasping spider-like hand. “I did!”
“Very well—here I am. What is it that you desire?”
“The lighthouse—” stammered Lessig.
The Skinner smiled in his awful face, pale cheeks billowing out underneath his cavernous black eyesockets, an expanse of forehead shining from under the brim of his black hat—and, worst of all, the bright glittering of the hundreds of stars from between the flat tombstones of his teeth—hundreds and hundreds of stars, each one scraped from the sky after a day of work and fixed in his mouth like a diamond in a circlet—
“The most wonderful lighthouse!” crowed the Skinner. “Just as you asked for—the greatest and grandest, to bring all the merchants of the world to your port, their ships laden with gold and spices and coffee and sugar to enrich you—!” The Skinner smiled his awful smile again. “And your subjects as well, O Prince.”
Lessig sucked in his breath, his hatred rising as the brightness of the stars flashed at him from among the Skinner’s teeth. “Yes, damn you, but how long? How long until it is finished?”
The Skinner shrugged his shoulders, and drifted meltingly into the night, half disappearing in the shadows, seemingly buffeted by the warm land breeze. “Who knows, Prince? Who knows? Have you not heard of cathedrals and temples that take hundreds of years to build?”
Lessig hissed and pointed a finger at the Skinner. “That’s why I engaged you—to shorten the time!”
The Skinner only shrugged again. “And it will be shortened. It won’t take as long as that—” The Skinner held out his hand and a silvery scroll seemed to materialize in it. “But if you are unhappy with the pace of my work, you may always terminate our contract.”
Lessig paled. That would mean bankruptcy for sure! The lighthouse never finished, the wealth of the principality sunk into a useless folly, and he himself to go begging among the greedy neighbouring kings for someone to swallow up his little land and let him keep his head on his neck—
“Never!” hissed Lessig.
The Skinner smiled his terrible bright smile again. “Then perhaps another form of payment could be arranged instead…” Before Lessig’s eyes, the silvery scroll curved and flattened, growing harder and brighter, changing shape into the crescent moon of the skinning knife that Lessig had seen so many times before—
“What do you mean?”
The Skinner ran the sharp edge of the skinning knife along his sleeve, the bright steel giving off a hollow ring as it slipped along the fabric. “Oh, not so much. A shilling size, perhaps, each night?” The knife twisted suddenly in the Skinner’s hand, pirouetting along the sleeve as the blade twirled in a tight circle. Then the Skinner grinned horribly. “Shall we start on your back?”
Lessig felt his fury leap. “Don’t you know it’s a crime to so much as touch my person—?”
The Skinner shrugged again, cutting off Lessig’s rebuke, the knife withering into a bundle of silver threads that melted into the Skinner’s palm. “As you wish, Prince. I am perfectly happy to continue with our original arrangement if you prefer. After all, it is not as if you pay the price—”
And with that, the Skinner leapt off the balcony and snapped back along the elongated shadow lines to the base of the lighthouse, lost in the folds of deep darkness there. A moment later, Lessig thought he could see the long flickering whiskers of his limbs scaling the lighthouse again.
Just then, for a moment, it was in his throat to call the Skinner back, to take him up on the option, to offer instead his shoulder or his thigh to the knife—
But then Lessig shuddered. To be skinned thus, slowly, inexorably, one shilling-sized scab at a time—to be in constant pain from the open sores, clothes ever sticking to his exposed flesh, scars lacing his body—and the flies, no doubt, searching out the bloody wounds under his bandages at night—
What was one less star each night, after all, when compared to that? What was one less pinprick of light in the sky—owned by no one, used by no one, profiting no one, and costing no one anything when it was taken away?
Much better to keep to that arrangement—until the lighthouse started drawing ships at least, and Lessig could pay for more workers in the usual way. He squinted into the night at the tower, attempting to assess its progress since the Skinner had arrived. Two years more, perhaps, before the beacon could be lit. Three, at the most.
Lessig hugged his arms to himself, feeling his skin prickle as a shiver ran down his spine. Yes, it was a good bargain. Just one less star each night—and there seemed to be limitless thousands of them! Even now, when Lessig could see the bare spots worn black by the Skinner’s knife already—even now there were still limitless thousands left—!
With a sudden bang, Lessig slammed the balcony doors and turned to the pillowy, muffled oblivion of his bed. His valet was standing inside—mute, disinterested, stiff as always, staring off into space with no more apparent intelligence than a tin soldier.
Heaven keep them blind! So had Lessig prayed before, and certainly the valet looked blind enough.
But would Lessig know if the man saw? Would he know if any of them suspected? How could a prince ever hope for confidences from his subjects? Blank expressions and cool assent were the only responses he had ever received.
If only he knew that he was doing right! If only he had someone else to rely on, someone to advise him—
Ah, he would rely on those limitless stars instead! Limitless! Yes, limitless enough! Enough to last until, until—
Until the lighthouse was finished—
Until they were all satisfied at last—
Until that knife had scraped its last against the sky—
Story copyright © 2015 by M. Bennardo
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Cherry Valance
M. Bennardo‘s short stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and others. He is also co-editor of the MACHINE OF DEATH series of anthologies. He lives in Kent, Ohio.
Cherry Valance is the professional pseudonym of Ottawa-based visual artist and model Jaclyn Bates. She graduated from the University of Ottawa with a Bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts, minoring in Art History and Theory. Valance continues her practice through commissions and independent art modelling. She is honoured to be a part of this publication and hopes you enjoy her work.