We had almost reached the end of the gallery when the king pulled to a stop so suddenly I almost bumped into him. “And here we are. Mademoiselle, your elephant.”
I followed the sweep of his arm. Above my head in the second to the last bay loomed a most fantastical creature. It towered over the human figures in the painting, filling almost half the frame with its bulk. Its round body perched on four straight legs, thick as marble columns. From its head, which seemed too small for a creature of that size, drooped a long, rope-like nose that brushed the ground—the trunk, my father used to call it in his fantastical stories. Two sharp horns, longer than a man’s arm, pierced the face at the base of this trunk; large ears, limp as linen sheets, hung on either side of the face like a wimple. The one visible eye, a mere slit in the gray-white skin, seemed fixed on some inner vista, as if the creature, accustomed to the astounded gazes of onlookers, tolerated the assault with a detachment born of long experience. A gold-tooled caparison, decorated with fleurs-de-lis and a monogrammed “F”, covered the elephant’s back; strapped to its broad brow, a medal portraying the likeness of a salamander sprouted three plumes that curled about the giant’s head like a crown. Symbols representing the elements lay at the creature’s feet: the world subject to its imposing authority.
“The elephant, figure of wisdom and royalty. I’d like to believe the likeness rests in the sagacity of our gazes, but I suspect it has more to do with the length of our noses.” The king formed his thumb and forefinger into an L and fit it to the center of his face.
“Magnificent,” I breathed, hardly believing such an animal existed.
The king burst out laughing. “My nose or the elephant? Your candor refreshes like a cooling draught, mademoiselle.” The pealing of the chapel bell interrupted him, and he frowned as he counted the hour. “I’d intended to watch you work, but I’ve spent far too much time talking as it is. I have greatly enjoyed your company, and must chide your father for hiding you away.”
I dropped a low curtsey, my tongue tripping over itself as I attempted to thank him for the singular favor of this visit.
“Only the first of many,” he promised, extending a hand to help me rise, “provided you tame the elephant. Leave the sketch on the table on your way out.” With a wink, he turned and headed for the far door. The splendor of the gallery seemed to fade with each of his steps as he passed back through it.