The artist unsealed the scroll with trembling fingers. It was a summons from the emperor himself. After decades of work, he might finally have a patron. The artist did a little victory dance and grabbed his purse. This called for cake with dinner.
The next morning, he packed up his paints and brushed and canvases. He sent them ahead and asked the messenger to leave them in his new studio. Then he packed up his clothes and books and personal items and cancelled the rest of his lease.
He said goodbye to his neighbors and waited for his ride to the palace. He had no idea what to expect, so he dressed in his nicest clothes. But, he was brought straight to his rooms and served a nice meal. He would meet with the emperor the next morning.
So, the next morning he re-wore his nicest clothes, doing his best to smooth out the wrinkles. He tried to give himself a pep talk. “Stop worrying. This is every artist’s dream. Your paintings will hang in the palace and live on forever. This is the next best thing to immortality. You’ve finally made it.”
A guard escorted him in to see the emperor. The artist bowed. The emperor smiled. “Ah yes. Welcome. I am impressed with your talent. I think that your paintings are just what I’m looking for.”
“What would you like me to paint?” the artist asked. “A portrait? I am well-known for my portraits.”
The emperor laughed. “Oh no, that wouldn’t do. I need you to paint food. The tastier looking, the better.”
“Food?” the artist asked. “Like a still life? Would you like me to include some mementos in the picture?”
“No, I think that would be a mistake,” the emperor said. “Just paint food. Bring me the first painting at the end of the week. If it pleases me, I will have a contract for you to sign.”
“Thank you,” the artist said. He bowed and left.
He spent the next week painting tempting, almost-real food on a blurry background. Melty cheese, crisp toast, and jewel-like berries seemed to float on the surface of the canvas. He was constantly ordering new models for his work from the kitchen, because he kept taking bites of things absent-mindedly as he worked. It was a long week.
The emperor was thrilled with his painting. “It’s perfect,” he said. “Here’s the contract.”
The artist accepted the first scroll from the emperor’s advisor. He signed the non-disclosure agreement, and then he was handed the contract. He started reading through it and then paused. “This is a contract for a chef,” he said. “I’m an artist.”
“Of course you are,” the emperor said. “But you are painting meals, so you are a chef.”
“But they aren’t really meals,” the artist said. “Even if they’re meals for the eyes, eyes don’t eat.”
“But this isn’t a meal for the eyes,” the emperor said. “Come with me and bring your painting.”
The artist followed the emperor and his advisor through a maze of hallways. Finally they stopped in front of a large door. The emperor pushed it open. He smiled as a large furry thing rushed forward and leaned against him.
It had black fur and giant eyes as blue as the sky. And it had a giant mouth full of very sharp teeth. No one else in the room looked at all nervous about the emperor petting the scary furry thing, so the artist tried to be brave. When it came over to sniff at him, he took a deep breath and managed to not run away screaming.
“I think she likes you already,” the emperor said. “That’s wonderful. Give her the painting.”
The artist made himself hold out the canvas. The furry thing ripped it away from him and ate it in a few messy bites. It was gone. The thing made a warbling noise, and the emperor clapped his hands.
He turned to the artist. “You see. You’re a chef, and a very good one. If you keep painting this well, I’ll double your salary.”
“Come this way, and we’ll finish the paperwork,” the advisor said. They left the emperor and the furry thing behind and walked down the hall to the empty room.
The artist stared at the contract. Was this the end of his dreams for the next best thing to immortality? Would all of his work be eaten? He looked up at the advisor. “Will I be able to paint other pictures? Pictures that will hang in the palace and not get eaten?”
The advisor smiled. “I’ll add it to your contract. If you paint one meal a week, you will be permitted to paint one official portrait of the emperor each year.”
“Show me where to sign,” the artist said. And when he went back to his rooms he did a little victory dance and ordered a cake from the kitchen. He made sure to sketch it before he ate it.