The City Dreams of Bird-Men

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city dreams of bird men
Image Credit: Public Domain: Leonardo da Vinci - http://www.drawingsofleonardo.org/

Eliška huddled in her laboratory during that short autumn before the predicted onset of the Dark. She poured over her star-maps, scrawled calculations on a black ink diagram of planetary epicycles. She hefted bound volumes of research by Copernicus and Kepler, Brahe and Galileo, about Mars and the moon, about the ascendency of Mercury and the dangers of spotting a comet in Taurus.

She scoured the stars for a sign that the Bird-Men would return, a sign she knew would never appear.

Seven days before the Dark was predicted to sweep through the city, Eliška hunched over the Dutch spyglass she’d inherited from her father, charting yet another comet in Taurus. She was sucking on a piece of an Italian orange—the third-to-last she had left—and scratching with her quill when a hollow knock on the door echoed throughout her laboratory.

Eliška threw her quill down. “Come in.”

Her maidservant entered, dropped a curtsey. “Pardon, Mistress, someone’s here to see you.”

Eliška scraped her chair back over the flagstone floor and stood. The first thought that leapt into her mind was, Perhaps it’s Johann. She hated herself for that.

She hurried down the dark steps to her poorly lit antechamber.

The man who turned from the mullioned windows was not Johann: this man was short, with black leather hip boots and snow in his hair.

“Erazim Pesmet,” she said. Her former apprentice had grown thin in the five years since she’d seen him. “What brings you here?”

A smile spread across Pesmet’s face and he clasped her hand with a man’s assurance. “Well met, Mistress Knopf.”

“Did you wish to return to my service?”

“On the contrary, I come as a messenger from the Monastic Order of the Relics. I’ve been traveling the continent finding holy objects for them, and I’ve just returned from Vienna with something that we think will be of great interest to you.” Pesmet pulled aside the window curtain and studied the dark world outside. “It involves the Bird-Men.”

Eliška waited.

“It’s not here,” Pesmet said. “It’s at the monastery. A half-day’s ride.”

“The stars say the Dark will arrive by Christmastide,” Eliška said. “You know the emperor requires that I continue researching the—”

“You don’t believe the Bird-Men will ever return.”

“I didn’t say—”

“Come now, Eliška, I know you. But I’ve also seen the Dark first-hand, in Styria and Austria. It’s… you must come with me, you must.”

Could she justify spending a day riding hard through the countryside to examine some charlatan’s trick at the monastery?

But she remembered Pesmet’s boyish enthusiasm for her blue-and-gold inlaid model of the planets, his struggle to understand Jupiter’s orbit. How could she shatter his faith that the Bird-Men would return in time to save them from the Dark?

And why should she stay in the city, at her telescope, searching the stars for a sign that she would never see?

“Meet me at first light on the east side of the bridge,” Eliška said.

Eliška had learned the story of the Bird-Men from her father, in her girlhood. She would peer over his shoulder as he studied Mars’ orbit and he would describe how the Bird-Men had come to the city, why they had abandoned it and how they would return someday. Two centuries ago, a great inventor built a creature with the body of a man. It was made of sturdy wire with wire-and-feather wings protruding from his back and a head built of dozens of tiny bird-statues sculpted from porcelain imported from the East and patterned with swirls and icons. The inventor secretly practiced astral magic. He invoked the power of the planets to give the Bird-Man life, then whispered “Go forth, and save the city.” The Bird-Man flapped across the unpaved streets of the Old Town and rose between the wattle-roofed houses and the church spires.

The Bird-Man plucked a child from between the wheels of a carriage. He visited a coughing woman’s deathbed and brought roses back to her cheeks. He touched the face of a crying young lady in the market and her smile lit up like a summer morning. He saved two bankers running from a mob, and a heartbroken old man about to jump from the black-slate roof of town hall. The inventor built more Bird-Men until the city streets swarmed with them and its citizens walked happy and proud along the river under the shadow of the castle.

But as the inventor strode the streets of the city admiring his creations, the king seethed with jealousy. Word had trickled across the river to the castle that the inventor had received offers from other cities that coveted the Bird-Men. The king wanted to keep the famous Bird-Men for his own kingdom, so he locked the inventor in a dungeon and ordered his execution before he could ever build another Bird-Man.

As the inventor knelt before the executioner’s blade, he muttered a few words and that night all the Bird-Men rustled into the air and flew away from the city’s red roofs. Since then, floodwater had poured out of the river and sluiced over its embankments. Plague and Hungarian fever had each swept through the city, and for one week a century ago the entire city had gone blind. Its sons marched off to wars with the Turks or Austrians, and children died in the wombs of its daughters.

For two centuries, the Imperial Inventors had labored to build new Bird-Men, and the Imperial Alchemists had tried to convert lumpy metal statues into shining gold saviors, and the Imperial Astrologer had studied the stars, searching for a sign of the Bird-Men’s return.

“They will return, sweetling,” Eliška’s father would tell her, “and if they don’t return, we will force them to return.”

But then her father had died pursuing the Bird-Men, and Eliška, barely a woman, her eyes swimming with tears, had told her mother she knew, deep in her gut, that the city’s saviors would never return. “He was a fool to even try,” she had said.

And yet the emperor, discovering her prowess with the telescope, had appointed her the first woman Imperial Astrologer to replace her father. She resigned herself to life in a laboratory.

The sky spread silk-gray above the frozen river as Eliška crossed the bridge the morning after Pesmet’s visit. She drew her green cloak tighter as she strode past the blank-eyed black statues that lined the bridge, martyrs of long-ago wars and treasons, each staring down at her sorrowfully. Hard bits of snow blew off the frozen ice that lined the bridge’s stone railings.

As she reached the river’s far shore, Johann’s house loomed out of the row of stone buildings along the embankment. A figure, all darkness, stood on the steps.

“Johann.” She made herself look at him, at his blue eyes not looking at her, at his raw red hands that grasped hers less and less frequently. “You’ve returned from Munich.”

“I didn’t expect to see you at such an early hour.” He studied the bare trees and red roofs strung along the opposite bank of the river.

“Did you bring any oranges?” She smiled, remembering when her smile could pull a corresponding grin from him.

“Yes,” he said, not smiling. “They’ll be for sale at the market.”

“You used to…” She swallowed. “You used to give me oranges.”

“I have a trade to conduct. I can’t simply give away oranges to just anyone.”

Eliška hissed out a cloud of breath.

“Eliška—”

“Maybe I’ll see you before the Dark comes,” she snapped, looking up at the mullioned windows of his house, shut tight for the winter. “Maybe I won’t.”

She marched off, blinking hard, trying to stave off the tightness in her throat.

Eliška had witnessed heartbreak at an early age: her father had broken her mother’s heart when he’d used astral magic, when he had implored Mercury to give him flight so he could search for the Bird-Men. The wings caused him to overbalance on his horse and fall, the snap of his spine echoing through the clean autumn air. For many years she had thought that was the only kind of heartbreak: loss through separation or death. But in the past months Johann had taught her a different kind of heartbreak, the kind where your heart cracked just a little, day after day, from a harsh word, or a scornful gaze, all building to a creeping suspicion that seeped in through the cracks in your heart, that he never loved you, after all.

“Mistress.” Pesmet appeared at the base of the bridge, two horses snorting behind him. “Are you prepared? I saw you speaking to Master Johann. Did you tell him how long you’ll be away?”

“Master Johann couldn’t give a whit how long I’ll be away.” Eliška seized one set of reins from Pesmet’s leather glove and wondered how she could have been foolish enough to believe that a man could sustain his love for a woman like her, wedded to the emperor’s wishes and the vicissitudes of the stars.

As her horse followed Pesmet’s out of the city, she knew that the men, women and children who slumbered inside half-timbered houses, clutching dolls and each other—the butchers and servants and blacksmiths and priests and apprentices and old women—they all dreamed of their salvation swooping out of the sky to shelter them from the Dark. She had seen them walking the city streets, bumping into each other because their noses pointed towards the sky, searching for a fluttering wing, the glint of a wire ribcage.

The city dreams of Bird-Men , Eliška thought. They are all fools.

The Monastic Order of the Relics stood, a stone chapel and cloister, in the center of a snowy field that rippled off to the thin line of a creek. Two crows lifted off the single tree in the field, squawking. Eliška swung off her horse and followed Pesmet to the door of the chapel.

He creaked it open and she wrinkled her frozen nostrils against the musty smell of dust and churchyards. As she stepped inside, her eyes adjusted to the dim light. Inside the chapel loomed broken skulls lining shelves, columns, the crease between the wall and the ceiling. Femurs striped the walls like half-timbering on a house, and fingerbones and hipbones were arranged in a shield pattern on one wall. In the center of the chapel stood a pedestal, lit by the weak sunbeams falling from the high windows. On the pedestal sat a rough piece of uncut glass; the glass cradled a feather.

Eliška was about to ask Pesmet why this feather sat on a pedestal as though it were a holy relic, but then she let her eyes rest on the feather, on the pale brown downiness fading to white, the brittle calamus—and a hazy, long-forgotten emotion tugged at her stomach.

“That’s from a Bird-Man,” she said.

“Indeed it is.”

Behind Pesmet, two more monks had emerged, their white robes trailing against the dusty floor. One of them spoke, barely moving his mouth as he talked, the effect rather disconcerting. “Pesmet received it from a trader, during his travels to the east. They say it came from the far north, from the lands above the kingdoms of the Swedes and Tartars.”

“How…” Eliška reached towards the feather, stopping her fingers just inches from the feather’s brittle barb. “So the Bird-Men are still alive, somewhere.”

The monk who had spoken looked at her as though he expected her to fall to her knees and thank them for saving the city.

“I don’t see how this changes anything,” she said, although hope continued to swell inside her stomach. “Whether the Bird-Men are with the Tartars or on the moon, they’re not here.”

“Ah,” Pesmet said. “But we want you to bring them here.”

“No, absolutely not. Pesmet, you should have told these men that I read the stars’ predictions. I don’t influence them.”

“Mistress, I know you keep a copy of Picatrix in your drawer.”

“Astral magic is for charlatans and necromancers,” Eliška said, remembering the arch of her father’s back as, weighted by his wings, he toppled backwards off his horse.

“Eliška.” Pesmet stepped forward, his hip-boots clacking on the floor. “Do you know what the Dark does to a person?”

“Of course I—”

“Yes, you’ve heard what it does. But have you seen it? Have you seen the haunted look in the eyes of a man afflicted with the Dark, the green pockmarks that appear on the arms as the disease approaches? Have you seen the trembling hands and the snarling teeth of madness? Have you seen how it spreads from person to person, faster than the plague? Have you—”

“I’m not a magician. I’m a scientist. I do not practice astral magic.”

“You will,” the monk said. He palmed a key ring, and bowed his head to her. “I don’t need to tell you, Mistress Eliška, that you have five days.”

“What are you—”

“We’ve laid out supplies, and there’s a fire burning in the apse.” The monks swept towards the door, Pesmet keeping pace.

Eliška raced after them, shouting curses on their order, but when she reached the top of the stairs, they had already shut and bolted the door behind them.

Eliška thought of her two remaining oranges, growing mealy in a bowl in the larder. She thought of Johann and her broken heart, and how she might never see his blue eyes again, might never repair whatever had broken between them. She thought of how she only had four days to escape from the monks and return to the city before its blank-eyed statues, its frozen river, and black-spired cathedrals fell under the Dark.

But she wouldn’t use astral magic, either to escape or to summon the Bird-Men. She wasn’t a witch. If her father’s death had taught her anything, it was that influencing the stars never worked how you expected, that astral magic always slithered and coiled around your ankle or wrist or throat while you were busy admiring the results.

The chapel door creaked open, and Pesmet shuffled in. She seized the glass-and-feather relic and held it over the fire. “Let me go,” she snarled, “or I’ll burn it.”

Pesmet stayed in the shadows by the door. “Have you begun work on the magic yet?”

“I’ll burn it.” Eliška dangled the feather over the flame. Heat crawled up her hand.

“Mistress, I don’t believe you’ll burn it.” Pesmet blinked rapidly, just as he had when he was her apprentice struggling to understand a concept. “I think despite what you say, you want the Bird-Men to return badly enough that you—”

“Don’t you challenge me,” Eliška snarled. “Didn’t you learn anything as my apprentice? Did I use astral magic to save my mother from the Hungarian fever, or to make myself an ordinary life?” Or to make Johann love me again?

“But why not? Why not save our city?”

“Astral magic never works as you expect it to. I taught you that. I’ve studied the stars, and the Bird-Men aren’t coming back before the Dark. They’re simply not.”

“Eliška.” Pesmet inclined his head towards her. “Why have you spent your entire life searching for signs that the Bird-Men might return?”

“Because it’s part of my duties as Imperial—”

“I think, despite what you say, you still believe that they might save the city. I think it’s because you secretly harbor that most heady of elixirs: hope.”

“When did you become such a scholar of human nature?” Eliška snarled. “‘That most heady of elixirs’? Did the monks teach you to say such things?” She stepped forward. “Let me go. I command you, let—”

“Stay back,” Pesmet shouted, his voice edged with a new harshness. He stepped into the weak light seeping from the sole window. His arms were covered in pale-green pockmarks, puckering his skin and matting his arm hair. Eliška snatched up her cloak and pressed a corner over her mouth.

“Stay away from me,” she said, trying to calculate when and if she had touched Pesmet, if she might be contaminated with the Dark.

“I suppose I contracted it in Vienna,” Pesmet said, not looking at her. “They’re terribly itchy, and they burn. It’s impossible to forget, even for a moment.”

Eliska pressed her hands against her stomach, withholding a comforting pat on the old apprentice’s arm. He was lost now, forever, and she knew she would never be able to touch him again. Pesmet walked from the chapel, his boots clicking on the stone floor.

Eliška paced her room until the sun set. Based on what the Imperial Physicians knew of the Dark, Pesmet had a day at most before the Dark swept through his mind. Part of her mourned Pesmet, who she still saw as the eager boy studying star charts at her side, but part of her hated him and his monks for trapping her here, in these waning days of her life. And a sliver of her wondered if perhaps Pesmet was right, if perhaps she wanted to race home and check the star charts because after all one cobwebbed corner of her heart hoped that the Bird-Men might return.

The sun set early on the third-to-last day.

Eliška thought of Johann, of sending him a letter before the Dark descended on them. She thought of her two remaining oranges and the red roofs of the city and its bridges and of her laboratory and, yes, of her star charts and whether they might tell a different tale if she had the chance to read them again.

It wouldn’t take strong astral magic to force the monks and Pesmet to unlock her door and leave the monastery. She wouldn’t have to embody one of the planets or even invoke much of their power. It would only take a simple spell.

She walked to the table in the apse where the monks had arranged supplies. She inscribed a scrap of linen with an image of Mars in ascendance. She sprinkled dried laurel and bat’s blood onto the linen, wrapped it around a clay goblet.

She told herself she needed to escape. She needed to mend things with Johann. She needed to check her star-charts.

She tossed the linen-wrapped goblet into the fire.

“Unlock the chapel door,” she whispered. “And then leave. Walk away from here. Go anywhere.”

The fire hissed and spat crimson sparks. Smoke puffed into the room. Eliška coughed, and her head pounded. She bent over the table and her body buzzed.

Then the scrape of a lock echoed through the chapel.

She bounced on her boot-heels, waiting for them to leave. For an hour, she made herself stand still, until the monks had enough time to shuffle off across the snowy field, until there was no chance of them seeing her and forcing her back into the chapel. She knocked over a chair as she raced to the door, but hesitated just before she pushed it open.

Returning to the pedestal, she scooped up the Bird-Man feather and concealed it under her cloak. Then she raced back again through the chapel, past long shadows trailing out of the skulls and femurs, and into the hollow bowl of the night-dark field.

As she hurried towards the stables, she tripped over something and sprawled into the snow.

“Mistress.” Pesmet, eyes gleaming, clawed at her cloak-hem. She clapped her hands over her mouth and lurched away from him. His arms and face were unmarked, unnaturally smooth—a sign that the Dark had advanced. “Mistress… they went…” He frowned, and although he looked at her eyes, she could tell he no longer saw her and instead only saw the snowy field and the chapel behind her. “Hello?” he whispered. “Is anyone there?”

“Pesmet.” But she knew that the Dark had consumed him—the Dark that rendered its victims unable to see or hear other humans.

“Am I alone out here?”

Her heart beat faster at the fear in his voice, the trembling around the word ‘alone’. In two days I will walk through the city and see no one… I will eat oranges alone for the rest of my life…I will walk the embankments of the river, dying of the Dark, and see only stone and shadow.

Pesmet’s eyes refocused and he gasped, a drowning man given one last mouthful of air. “They went to the city. You told them to go anywhere, and they went to the city.”

He pressed his baby-smooth hands against his eyes. “They went to the city and they have the Dark. They took horses.”

“They…”

But Pesmet shuddered and fell to his knees. “Isn’t anyone out here?” he howled, looking through her. “Please, where did everyone go?”

Eliška squeezed her eyes shut, then raced to the stables.

As she rode through the city walls, past the gold-lit windows sheltering husbands with their wives or mistresses, girls playing with poppets, boys pretending to be the soldiers they would never be, she knew they all hoped the Bird-Men would swoop down and wrap them in soft wings and cradle them with wire hands. She knew they hoped the Bird-Men’s porcelain birds would open their beaks and sing. She knew they hoped the Bird-Men would save them, save them from Pesmet’s fate, from the Dark, from plagues and war and floods and loneliness…

The city dreams of Bird-Men , Eliška thought. Can I fault them?

She raced up the stairs to her laboratory, carrying the smell of snow into the musty room, and pressed her eye to her telescope. She swept it over the bowl of the stars, searching for a sign of the Bird-Men’s return and then sagged against her table when she saw that the stars looked the same. The same reading she’d taken five days ago. Except…

Saturn in the eighth house. Saturn had been in the ninth house five days ago.

She scribbled on her star chart. She crouched next to her astronomical model and trailed her fingers against Saturn’s gold impassive curve as she realized: they didn’t have two days until the Dark arrived. They had one.

The Dark would arrive at dawn, along with the monks that Eliška’s magic had sent racing towards the city.

She buried her head in her hands. This was why she had avoided astral magic ever since her father had tumbled from his horse shining with the light of Mercury. This was why she had studied her star charts like a dutiful astronomer and stayed far, far away from witchcraft: because it never worked out the way you intended.

So the city had one night left, one night of laughter and tears, of drinking ale together and telling ghost stories and—

Eliška opened a drawer and lifted out her copy of Picatrix. She propped open the book, with its blood-red illustrations, and ripped a piece of linen off her skirt.

She had doomed the city to the Dark one day early through her use of astral magic. So now she must save it.

She concentrated on rehearsing the Latin incantations, focused on setting up her star chart and preparing her linen, not letting the gravity of what she was about to do overwhelm her.

At midnight, she walked to her window, looked across the way at the one house still glowing with candlelight at this hour, then past the silent snow-muted roofs to the faint distant stars above. She had always thought the stars looked strong, powerful—patricians and matricians willing to impart their secrets. She had never thought they looked fragile, as though one hard tap might shatter them.

She returned to her writing table and scribbled Johann a letter. She told him she still loved him, she hoped he felt the same and that he should meet her on this side of the bridge at dawn. She slipped the letter under her door for her chambermaid to post. Then she slid into her chair and lit a censer.

As blue smoke billowed through the room, she inscribed an image of the sun in the twelfth house on the rough linen. She draped the linen around the feather and balanced it on the censer.

The blue smoke came faster, choking the room, obscuring her planetary model, her star charts and bookshelves. She clasped her hands around the censer—it should have been hot, but it was cold as the ice on the river—and she incanted, she prayed, she hoped, she asked Mars to use force, Venus and the moon to use seduction, Mercury to use manipulation, and Saturn to use its darkness to ask the sun to grant her its anima motrix. She asked the planets to sing in their four-range voices, to change the plan the sun had laid out for their cursed city, the plan the stars had laid out for Eliška…

No , sang the planets. No, we won’t bequeath the power of our god to a human, the sun’s power changes a man.

“I’m not asking you. I’m demanding you,” she shouted as she shook the censer.

The smoke poured into her nostrils, and the dry air of the laboratory vanished. She rose over a plain that was covered in wild and untamed snow, snow that didn’t see sunlight this time of year.

She sensed the Bird-Men, sensed that they hid somewhere on this plain. She rose higher and her rays illumed the creatures sheltering in deep unbroken snow under bent pines. Beneath her light, the porcelain birds on their heads shone, and the frost and ice that lined their wire torsos glimmered.

Go.

She felt their resistance—but we were told, by our maker, to curse the city forever by our absence—but she only had to whisper Go once again and they rose out of the snow, shedding specks of frost from their wings as they flapped south.

Eliška shone in the sky for just a second, the kind of second you want to spend your whole life in. Then she opened her eyes in the laboratory, surrounded by clearing smoke and by her possessions, the possessions that had always defined her—Eliška, the woman who had followed what was written in the stars, until tonight.

She had done it. She had saved the city. She had dove into astral magic and come out the other side. Her body buzzed alive, as though she still glowed, still had the power to make the world turn to her will.

She paced her laboratory, eating an orange. Then, as dawn lightened the sky, she ran outside to meet Johann, and to see her Bird-Men.

Snow fell outdoors, fat white flakes blanketing the cobblestones of Golden Lane, obscuring the castle on the hill above her. She raced through the streets, her boots slipping, towards the shouts echoing from the riverbanks.

She stopped on the wide steps that led down the hill away from her laboratory and the castle. A dark crowd congregated on both sides of the silver-iced river, milling in the falling snow, streaming over the bridge between the blank-eyed statues.

“The Bird-Men!” shouted a man. “They’ve come! We’re saved!”

Cries of We’re saved, praise the Bird-Men, rose through the crowd.

Eliška craned her head towards the sky.

All she saw: fat flakes of snow drifting through lavender dawn.

Eliška drew her green cloak closer around her and surveyed the crowd standing ten deep along the frozen river. Every face looked up at the falling snow as though looking upon a lover returned from the Holy Land or a castle containing their heart’s desire. Some fell to their knees, weeping, curling into balls as though wings embraced them. Others held children towards the sky, held hands with grandmothers, brothers and sisters.

“Eliška!” The Imperial Physician raced down the steps towards her, his cheeks ruddy and his eyes glistening. “It’s a miracle!”

“I don’t…” Eliška blinked snow off her eyelashes. “I don’t see them.”

“What do you mean?” The Imperial Physician laughed, a giddy childish laugh, and held his arms towards the sky. His feet lifted off the ground and he soared towards the river, buoyed by nothing as he twisted like a marionette and laughed like a little boy.

The city laughed and cheered and cried tears of relief. She scanned the cluster of people near the bridge—no blue-eyed trader waited there. Instead, one of the monks she had banished from the monastery stumbled through the crowd; the Dark had arrived in the city.

Why weren’t the Bird-Men swooping down to protect her too? Why couldn’t she see them? Why didn’t they exist for her? Why had Johann stopped loving her?

She trained her eyes on the empty snowy sky leading to the dark spires of Old Town Square and raised her arm, a bare arm that emanated a silvery light, as though she still glowed with the power of the sun…

The sun’s power changes a man , the planets had said.

She couldn’t see the Bird-Men because right now, flush with the glow of the planets’ magic, she wasn’t part of the city. Perhaps she wasn’t even human.

She had saved the city, but she had doomed herself.

Eliška squeezed her eyes shut and thought:

Imagine Johann’s window creaking open, and imagine him bringing you basket upon basket of oranges until oranges spill out of your laboratory and cascade down the stairs.

Imagine sun striking the black spires and gold spheres atop the cathedrals, sending the city into a bright interplay of light and shadow and tomorrow.

Imagine the skin on your arms isn’t prickling, itching, burning beneath your green cloak.

Imagine that you can change the fate that the stars have written for you.

Imagine the Bird-Men are swooping around you too, folding you in their wings, singing with the porcelain statues on their heads, sheltering you from the Dark forever and ever.

When she opened her eyes something pale brown had stuck to her cloak. She pinched it between two fingers: it was a soft wispy feather, really nothing more than a piece of down.

Eliška pressed her feather to her lips, and pretended that any moment now, she would see Bird-Men in the falling snow.

end article

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Emily Cataneo

About Emily Cataneo

Emily B. Cataneo is a writer of dark fantasy and horror. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from the anthologies Chiral Mad 2, Qualia Nous, and Steampunk World, as well as the magazines Kaleidotrope, the Dark, Betwixt, and Interfictions Online: A Journal of Interstitial Arts. She is a 2013 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, N.H. Follow her adventures and misadventures at emilycataneo.com or on Twitter @emilycataneo.

  • Emily Cataneo has totally knocked this one out of the park. Gorgeous.