This one is also from the Mars subplot...
I don’t know how soon this letter can reach you. Where are you now? I have no idea. With luck, you are on Earth, but I’ll assume the worst and that you’ve gone to Venus and that a reply is many days away. Do you ever think about what you have done to me, sending me to Mars and into the thrall of Carthoris? I can tell you that the romantic pop-culture Terran notion of the jeddaks and warlords of Mars as being some kind of noble princes sublime in their virtue is wholly ridiculous. Carthoris, at least, is nothing but a fraud, a poseur, a crass party-boy, a liar and perhaps even a monster. He is, at the very least, my personal nemesis at the moment.
Dear A-R, I think I may have fallen in love here in the palace of Kasei Vallis. Not with Carthoris as was intended—and as should have been obvious from my previous letters to you—but with this young cook, Dagen, who works here, the chef of the day-to-day kitchen. He looks like the food he cooks: shimmering, bright, piping with steam; he smells like it, too: sweet, sour, bitter, like half-alien spices gathered in the wilds of Olympos. Carthoris discovered my liaison with this servant, and he, the tyrant Carthoris, who can and does have all the lovers he could possibly ever want, has decided that I may not have any but him. For some bizarre reason, the prince who cares for no one has decided to be jealous of me. He has placed Dagen under arrest. He makes him sit in a disgusting jail cell in a disused wing of the palace. It’s nearly as miserable for the rest of the household as it is for Dagen since the cuisine has suffered horribly in recent days.
I know what you’ll say, A-R, that this whole situation is my own stupid fault. If I had fulfilled my assignment here, gained Carthoris’ confidence as I was expected, and never wandered into the kitchen in the first place then my boy Dagen would never have suffered so (by virtue of having never had the misfortune of having met me). But that’s not why I am writing to you now. I need you to examine the attached image and tell me what in hell it is.
At first glance, it appears to be a painting of a man peering into a pool, reflected in a haze of water or painterly plasma. But then look at it again. Does it look differently now? Is there still a reflection there? Or are there several reflections, images within images? And does the position of the man change? Does he sometimes stand instead of kneel? A strange visual phenomenon surrounds this painting, and it survives even in photos of it and copies of copies of copies of photos. One can even alter these photos electronically, and its weirdness persists.
A-R, the original of the painting is here in Carthoris’ palace, in his bedroom, in fact. It was created by Dagen, and it consists of layer upon layer of—I think—paints and charcoal and inks and pastels. The jeddak discovered it and brought it to his own quarters (where he lingers in front of it for much of the day) and he demands that I explain it or that I extract an explanation of it from Dagen. He wants me in particular to solve this puzzle because, he says, it is an image of me! Look at it, A-R, and tell me: is this really an image of me? I can’t tell, and it’s hard for me to look at it. I was allowed to speak with Dagen in jail this morning and I asked him. He says he painted it almost a year ago, long before he ever met me. Yet he thinks it could actually be my portrait. He cannot explain how this is possible. I asked him if he could remember why he was inspired to paint it. He says he cannot. I asked him if he can explain its inherent weirdness, why its apparent content shifts and moves from one viewing to the next. He says he has no idea what I am talking about. But Carthoris sees it, too, as does everyone else who has looked at it either in person or in reproduction.
When I look at it, I try not to see myself. I don’t know why, but it fills me with horror. But I do look at it anyway. It’s hard to resist. Sometimes I think the man in the image looks much as I do now in my role as little more than a house-slave of the jeddak of Kasei Vallis. But sometimes I seem to be wearing outré garb, like a character from a Steam-London fantasy novel or a character from an Apocalypse-Then movie. The layers of the image shift somehow and it changes without one being able to actually see the instant of the change.
You have so much science knowledge, A-R. Can you please try to explain this? This is not just to satisfy my curiosity. My own well-being, and Dagen’s more importantly, probably depend upon a resolution to this mystery that will satisfy Carthoris. My god, A-R, could this somehow be an image from real life?
Yours in peril,