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Story 2

Lindsey Duncan

Lindsey Duncan is a chef/pastry chef, professional Celtic harp performer and writer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications, including Abyss and Apex, Leading Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy, Reflection's Edge, and GUD. She has been writing since her fingers first touched keys at the age of eight and feels that music and language are inextricably linked.

Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing, and her soft science novel, Scylla and Charybdis, is forthcoming from Grimbold Books.

She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with two white puffballs (Bichon Frises), Peri and Lexi. She can be found on the web at



By Lindsey Duncan


            I spent the morning courting inspiration, only to find she was a devoted wife with fifteen thousand children.  The fact I was working on a project for myself rather than one of many finicky, demanding patrons made my failure more disheartening.  I was even working with some of my best paint, infused with the essence of fairy laughter and solstice sunrises.

            I watched a cobalt blue streak ooze down the canvas.  The painting was meant to portray the birth of a dream, its family gathered around:  a conceptual piece, not of interest to nobles and rich merchants who wanted garish flourishes and personal immortality.  Most of the time, I enjoyed their compositions, but occasionally, my muse got surly and I threatened to become a difficult artist.  To forestall the transformation, I turned to projects like this.

            I stared morosely as paint pooled.

            In the time it took the drop to fall, the door burst open, two armed men stormed in, and they took their first casualty in the form of the largest blank canvas.  I yelped and held my palette like a shield.  For someone who didn’t know me, it might have been intimidating:  I was a big man, mostly shoulder with long limbs.  The thick, blonde fringe of beard and hair gave me a fierce look, paint-spattered or not.  Unfortunately, I had only a glare for weapon.

            “Are you Anaphys Velorien, the artist?” the slighter warrior demanded. 

            I looked askance at his sword, trying to hide the dry taste of fear in my mouth.  “Do you honestly expect me to answer when you come barging in here?”

            Outside the rented studio, church bells boomed the hour.  The lead man made a token attempt to be heard, then shrugged and grabbed me.  I shoved the palette in his face and succeeded in wrenching free, only to stumble backwards into his companion, who twisted my arm up behind me.  Panic speared through me.

            “Very striking pattern on your face, milord,” I said as the sixth toll sounded.  “Can we talk about --”

            There were times when there was no point in finishing a question.  I could tell by the look on the man’s face that this was one of them.  He said something; my ears rang with the bells and the hum of my blood as I realized they meant to kill me -- for what possible reason?  I stayed out of politics and the beds of daughters and wives, despite a number of embarrassing and clever attempts.  As for my work, I derived my materials from the essence of my subjects, which made it difficult to create an unflattering portrait or inglorious mural.

            I would have been indignant if I hadn’t been so frightened.  I had gone to multiple kinds of trouble to be inoffensive, and these gentlemen seemed determined to think the worst.  But none of that mattered now.  My heart swelled with paintings undone.

            “Scream all you like,” the lead man said, “no one will hear it over the bells.”  He rested the tip of his blade at my breastbone, drew it back …

            A fury in the guise of a rainbow swept into the studio.  A high kick knocked the sword aside, and my captor threw me down to avoid the next blow.  I rolled under an easel, pulling up onto my elbows to stare at the fight.  A petite humanoid figure spun, whirled, flowed between them, alight with chaotic flickers of violent color.  The weapon that met those of my adversaries was a thing of beauty, a kiss of silver, and I found myself wishing I could capture its essence for the next epic battle I had to portray.

            Assuming I lived long enough.

            Common sense asserted itself, and I crawled for the door.  Before I could much move, however, the fight was over, the men had fled, and my rescuer watched their retreat.

            The bell tolled the fourteenth -- its last hour.  It had taken no longer than that.

            The figure was as slight as it -- she, I felt sure, though the head was hairless and the fluid body barely given to curves -- had seemed during the fight.  She was a strange creature, face almost featureless, more of an apperture than a mouth and holes for ears, but gorgeous round eyes the color of milk.  Her skin, I realized, was white; colors reflected across it like light on an opal.

            I knew what she was, though it had been a long time since I had seen an Irhyen on the continent.  Her nature was less astonishing than her sudden appearance here.  She sheathed her sword, turning to me.

            “Thank you for saving me,” I said as my heart calmed.  I was too relieved to feel foolish at how inadequate the words were.  “Would you tell me your name?”

            A ripple of dubious blue and greys played across her cheek and faded.  She started to turn away.

            “I can understand you, actually,” I said.

            Surprise, orange, flickered down one hand.  The other, still on the blade hilt, shot off staccato sparks of anxiety.

            “I travel a lot for commissions,” I explained.  “And I like languages.  You can better speak to a person’s soul if you understand the elements they use to communicate.”  I turned my attention to my canvas -- upside down and torn in two places.  It worked.  “Why didn’t I think of that?”

            Her hand on my shoulder, insistent, the complicated pattern of jagged lines telling me the men would go for reinforcements.  “More?” I asked, my fear trickling back.  “Who are these people?  What do they want with me?  And why are you here?”

            She shrugged, her tones blank.

            Not even an answer on the count where she could -- herself.  No time to analyze the mystery.  “Let me throw a few things in a satchel,” I said.  “I have paints worth … well, when next am I going to meet a dying dragon?”

            She waved me to continue and took up watch by the window.  I tried to guess how old she was.  The Iryhen face with its rudimentary features was hard to read; she could be just out of adolescence, or decades older than my thirty-seven years.  She wore a mercenary insignia on her sleeve, a blue flame.

            I packed hurriedly.  No time for value judgements, though I knew I would regret some omissions later.  The best paints, my lucky brushes, my contacts book -- enough.  “I’m ready,” I said.

            A grey glimmer and she moved to the door; she extended her hand to halt me and checked the street.  Then she walked out.

            I scuttled after in undignified fashion, anxious to stay close.  “Can I know your name?”

            Irony produced blotches of ochre on her face.  There were neither letters nor sounds in her language, despite the complexity that could be conveyed by color, shape and movement.

            “I’d like to know,” I said.

            From the area over her heart, deep sunset purple, fading into silver -- reaching out radiant tendrils of summer sky to curl, fish-playful, up her arms.  As the color faded, she lifted her hand and traced letters in the air:  Aura.

            “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Aura.”

            She thanked me, then shot off a curlique of teal I couldn’t understand.  It might be regional dialect:  I had encountered mainly coastal Irhyen while painting church murals for the human fortress at Taghe.  Or maybe I was rustier than I had thought, for that was fifteen years ago, before the Jarrish king decided that keeping the island as a protectorate was more trouble than it was worth.

            The wide terracotta streets were packed with bodies, shoving, pushing, debating in a patina of different languages.  The city of Muirren lay on the landbridge between steamy Cadesci to the south and the rolling wilds of Laer Norran to the north.  It maintained its independence due to sea routes and a complex tangle of alliances, and would probably continue to do so.  Two things in this world were eternal:  good art, and Muirren independence.

            Not that I came here to have immortality rub off on me.  After a stint in Cadesci, what I wanted to rub off on me were cool sea breezes.

The jostling made me nervous, and I pressed closer to Aura.  Then I saw it.  The two men shouldn’t have been wea
            ring heavy cloaks in summer, nor trying so hard to look as if they were loitering at vendors’ stalls.

“Aura …” I muttered.

She silenced me with a twitch of her hand and guided me down a side-street.  Vine-encrusted balconies hung over the cobblestones, casting blue shadow.  The darkness deepened my anxiety.

“Where is this taking us?” I asked.  She answered with a pulse of grey.  “Nowhere?  Then why are we --” the shape on her skin, a series of flat lines, stopped me.  I hissed in a frantic breath.  “You want to wait for --”

            She stepped on my foot.  I shut up.

            We halted halfway down the street, under a flapping layer of laundry.  Aura’s skin took on a slate hue -- a pose of watchfulness that almost faded into the walls.  The cloaked figures stepped around the corner.  They paused, noting my protector, then advanced with purpose.

            A flash of red from Aura.  I turned and yelped.  Behind us, coming in from the next intersection, were the men who had attacked me.  All four were armed -- blast Muirren’s generous weapons laws.  I kept the panicked gibbering inside my head.  Aura was good, I had already seen that, but she’d had surprise on her side the first time and half as many fighters to deal with.

            “Whatever he’s paying you, my mistress can double it,” said one of the cloaked figures.  I glanced at Aura and saw hints of amber; the offer amused her.  Her sword slid out.

            She took a step forward -- leaving me to the mercy of the other pair, who quickened their stride with mismatched smirks.  I cleared my throat.  “Unless you think I can defeat him by painting his portrait …”

            They closed, too fast.  The stouter one reached for me … and Aura spun, quicker than flickering torch light.  Her blade lanced down his arm, laying open a long, nasty wound.  While he reeled, she grabbed him and used his momentum to slam him into the wall.

            One down, but no more room for surprise.  I swung myself against the other wall as the thugs rushed in.  Aura planted herself so they couldn’t reach me without passing her -- and that, with her expertise, was a foolish manuever.

            She made no sound as one warrior jabbed low and scored a shallow cut on her thigh.  She retaliated with a feinted thrust and used the distraction to slam her foot into his midsection.  He stumbled backwards, giving her a moment of breathing room as the others flanked her.  Stunned and dizzied, I had no room to breathe at all.

            I gripped my satchel like a cudgel and tried to find an opening, but the whirl of bodies was such I was afraid I would hit her.  The shadows shifted above, I looked up to see a flicker of motion on the roof … and a fifth form landed on top of me, dragging me down.

            I yowled and tried to push myself up and my assailant off.  He forced my head onto the pavement so hard my eyes rang.  I gulped for breath, the satchel pressed against my chest.  I hoped distantly the paint tubes were secured.

            He leaned down, speaking in my ear.  “Don’t struggle.  This won’t hurt.”

            I jerked my head up, hoping to hit him in the face.  He laughed and shoved me down again.  Brushes jabbed into my ribs; I felt the rim of a metal vial.  I remembered what was in it.

            I scrabbled with the arm pinned beneath me -- the other was flush to the wall; no help there -- for the tie on the satchel.  I shoved my hand inside, hunting.

            I stiffened when I felt metal against my neck, terror flashing through me.  “Isn’t it usual to give a man a last request?” I asked, desperate for more time.

            “Sorry.  I’m in a hurry.”  Under other circumstances, I would have approved of his wit.

            I wrenched the vial out and dragged my arm free.  He interpreted it as futile struggle and laughed again.  The blade pulled away for the killing strike.

            I popped the cork out of the vial and threw it backwards with the little force I could muster.  My attacker howled as black, incomprehensible midnight surrounded him.  I felt him shift, jerking upwards, and I shoved away from the wall.

            He fell away.  I scrambled to my feet, vaguely aware of the clash of bodies to my right.  Aura had the upper hand, but that wouldn’t matter if I got myself killed.  Nightfall paint clung to the man, surrounding him in a cloud of obscurity no light could pierce.  I had gone to the northern reaches for the essence of that paint, waited in the heart of winter in a place where sunrise was a month away … and it had done the trick.

            He snarled.  “Blast your tricks, you lily-faced coward --”

I hesitated, knowing I should do something to press the advantage, but not sure what.  I decided to swing a punch at where I guessed his face would be, from the sound of the voice.

I hit something with a meaty thwack.  It wasn’t his face; he twisted with the blow and grabbed my shoulder hard enough that pain flared.  The knife skittered across my ribs.

Aura, blazing white, dove across the distance and vanished into the shadows.  A solid thunk, and nightfall dropped, landing to swirl at our ankles.  She ventured a green glow of satisfaction.

Breathing heavily, I took stock.  Two men unconscious, another down with a gut wound, and the last beating a retreat.  I stared at the injured man, still dazed, not wholly believing we were safe.

Aura made an agitated gesture at the shadows.

“Erm, you’ll have to wash off the paint,” I said.  “If it only got on his clothing, we could just --”

She crossed the street and picked up a wash bucket.  Grimy water and suds splashed down over the blanket of night, which dissolved into smoke and drifted down the street.

Damp paint rolled off my assailant’s shoulders; one drop hovered on his cheek.  He blinked muzzily, starting to rise.  Aura stepped on his shoulder, planting the point of her blade at his throat.

“Talk,” I translated her flash of red -- rather unnecessarily, I thought.

He glared.  “Call your vermin off, Anaphys.”

“She says she’s not averse to killing you,” I said.

The man swallowed.  “You’re not bluffing, are you?”

I spread my hands.  “I’m not.”  She was -- at least, I hoped that was what the crumbling edges of blue meant.  Irhyen weren’t good at lying; luckily, he couldn’t understand her.

“Gods.”  He closed his eyes.  “Queen Idalia of Cadesci sent us to kill you.”

I sucked in a sharp breath.  “Why?”

“Because of the painting!” he snapped.  “You perverted her likeness -- the portrait was supposed to be a courtship gift to king Saelan.  Instead of sealing the alliance with Laer Norran, it convinced him she was untrustworthy and ruthless.”

Perturbed and indignant both, I opened my mouth to protest that I didn’t make false likenesses, that if I had used her essence, it was the truth.  Aura warned me with blood hue, and I subsided.  “Surely the queen can’t think it was deliberate malice?” I said.

He shrugged.  “Doesn’t matter what your intentions were.  You did it, painter -- you suffer for it.”

My life flowed out of my control.  A queen wanted me dead for breaking an alliance, and she would have it.  Where could I hide?  How could I make a living in exile?  My stomach knotted around protests of innocence.  All these years and effort avoiding the labyrinth of politics, and it had still found me.

“Is your pet going to kill me now, Anaphys?”

Aura’s gaze never wavered as she made her reply, curt lines of maroon and shadow.  “You can go,” I said.  “You won’t have a second chance.”

He snorted his opinion of that.  “The Muirren guard --”

“Won’t take sides,” I said.  “Aura?  Can we leave?”

For answer, she turned and strode up the street.  I rushed after, gathering my satchel.

We passed onto sunny avenues.  “Well, you heard it,” I said, trying to keep my voice light as my heart hammered, “I’m a doomed man.  I guess we part ways here?”

Her reply, in bright violet and elaborate flourishes, surprised me.  “I’m not sure you can help,” I said.  “I appreciate the offer, but leaving Muirren just means they won’t have church bells to hide behind, next time.”

She paused, a hand reaching out to touch my shoulder.  Before she made contact, she hesitated, a faint rosy flush showing under her skin.  Some reactions don’t need translation.

She continued, quick snaps of color.  “I can’t ask you to take me any farther than the Laer Norran border,” I said.  “I can’t pay you enough, unless you’ll take paint.”

Aura didn’t answer, glancing down cross streets.  The broken shape of Muirren’s old wall -- before the city had expanded to both shores -- meandered between two businesses.  A group of children knelt by the base, scratching with chalky stones.  I smiled, for the other day, I’d joined them.  The mermaid resting on an upper rock was now festooned with enthusiastic trimmings.

Aura glanced at me, seemed to catch my expression.  Amber ripples of amusement crossed her frame, and she resumed walking.

We exited by the north gate and entered a mercenary camp along the beach.  Dusty, hard-edged men greeted Aura with shouts, and she responded with orange fireworks.  They didn’t seem to understand, but grinned and waved her on.

An older man with a bristly beard approached.  “So this is the mission you had to go on?” he asked.  When Aura nodded, he fixed his attention on me.  “You’d better be worth it.  And don’t get her killed -- Aura is one of my best fighters.”

“She ah, doesn’t seem to be giving me much choice in the matter,” I said.

He laughed.  “Bloody hard to argue with someone who can’t talk back, isn’t it?  She’s been saving up her leave for three years.  If she wants to spend it on you, who am I to argue?”

We continued, angling towards a tent along the treeline.  “Your leave?” I asked.

Quick, compact circles of blue.  She was not a woman prone to carousing, but had been waiting for an adventure worthy of her curiosity.

Instead, I thought, she ended up with me.  Humbled, I started to protest.  Then, I tumbled to a halt.

Lounging belly-up in front of the tent, oblivious to the world, was the largest cat I had ever … no, that doesn’t properly describe it.  Imagine something the size of a small elephant, only lean, sleek and rippling ebon and blue.  The feline’s fur was luminous, a black echo of Aura’s skin.  She was gorgeous; she also set off the instincts of a rabbit inside me.

Aura made a throaty, atonal sound.  I jumped; one almost never heard the Irhyen vocalize.  The feline rolled to her feet and bounded over, a night-sky flurry of fur as she rubbed her face in Aura’s.  I backed off, pondering the best place to hide.

“Oh, I see,” I muttered, taking refuge behind humor.  “You brought me here to be a snack.”

Aura stroked the feline above her nose -- amber again.  She made the introduction with two identical crescents of blue.

“Mirror?” I said.  The feline mewed in assent and nuzzled me.  It was all I could do not to hit the ground with a yelp.  “Ah, hello, Mirror.”

She purred, tail swaying.

Aura explained, and I gaped.  “You ride her?”  The corollary occurred to me, “You want me to ride her?”

She nodded.  I groaned.  Mirror took that as a signal to knock me over with one paw.

“She’s trying to kill me,” I said as Aura helped me up.  At her reply, I protested, “You don’t need to use claws when you’re that big.”

Aura rubbed the feline’s chin, then indicated I should do the same.  Nervously, I extended my hand, feeling through the mass of fur until I touched something I thought was bone.  I rubbed gingerly.

Gold eyes closed to slits, and the thrum of Mirror’s purr flowed down my arm.  The sleek body relaxed.  I wanted to be frightened, but it was hard to feel so with the vibrations moving through me.

Aura disassembled the tent and packed.  I thought about offering to help, but she seemed to know where everything went, and I wasn’t sure I could pull my hand away from her mount.  The last time I had seen a Great Cat had been -- well, from a safe distance.  A few species could tame them, but not humans.  Their young bonded to scents, and I suppose we smelled bad.

Aura lifted a saddle onto Mirror’s back and cinched it.  She beckoned me.  I patted Mirror’s chin one more time and braved the climb, holding my breath the whole way.  Aura settled in front, tapped the pommels on either side to show me where to hold, then stretched forward and patted the feline on the neck.

Mirror took off at a lope.  It surprised me how smooth it was, though still disconcerting -- like riding a mudslide.  The horses were confined on the far side of camp, but from the whinnies, that wasn’t far enough.  I couldn’t say I blamed them.

Aura applied more pressure against the feline’s left flank, and we veered -- not towards the road but following the shore.  The world blurred, even when Mirror slowed to mince over patches of sand or mud.  I was nearly thrown from her back when she abruptly sat down to clean one paw.

A cascade of vivid color from Aura, not without sympathy.  She thumped Mirror on the back of the head.  The feline gathered herself up with a stomach-tossing shake and -- tail a flag behind her -- continued north.


I don’t know how many miles we crossed.  Muirren shrank to a speck.  Aura eased Mirror to a halt and hopped down.  I slid after, and my body still rocking as if we were in motion.

The night was clear and warm.  Aura set the tent up.  Spotting wild blueberries near our campsite, I offered to cook, and made a decent meal of traveling rations.  Mirror bounded off; Aura seemed unconcerned.

I stared into the night, my worries catching up to me.  “I wish I knew what to do.”

She regarded me with waves of layered greens, hands on her knees.

“I could create another painting,” I admitted.  “To avoid the same result, I would have to use different essences -- but no one would know the difference.  Except me.”  There was the issue, and I rubbed my eyes.  “That would be meddling, playing politics.  I don’t do that.”

A cynic’s splash of maroon pointed out I had already done so.

“Yes,” I said, “but that was an accident.”  The color deepened, swirled outwards.  “Dozens of times?  I wouldn’t go that far, Aura.”

Her next question had me frowning thoughtfully.  “If I did?  I’d paint the symbolic birth of the joined nation.  A six-sided map illuminated with the fruits of prosperity, the royal couple with hands joined … their vassals and servants gathered around them …”  It built in my head, forming from little details first -- the butterfly lighting on the corner of the map, Idalia’s elaborate braids, chubby children in the crowd.  I lost myself in the intricacy of it -- pure beauty.

I shook it off.  “Moot point.”

She didn’t persist; comfortable stillness stretched between us, the only movement from furtive wisps of clouds.  Finally, she shimmered in blue.

“That’s a good question,” I said.  “I’d want the essence of the birth of something beautiful, majestic -- something that would translate without making the royals horse-faced.”  That gave me an idea, and I laughed.  “Unicorns would do.”

She tipped her head, reminded me with earthen brown over her collarbone that we were near unicorn territory.

“Wouldn’t do any good,” I said.  “I hope this doesn’t surprise you at my age, but I’m not a virgin.”

Rose and high-tone pink interrupted Aura’s hues.  Other colors flicked and vanished before they could settle, her version of speechless.

“Err … oh,” I said, not much more intelligently.  “I didn’t mean to pry.  As I said, it’s moot,” I pushed on, anxious to change the subject.  “Maybe I’ll go east and work with the Sanddancers.  That far from Cadesci, you won’t have to worry about protecting me.”  I tried to sound brave:  I didn’t want her to feel she had to shepherd me.  Truth be told, I was also tempted by the canvas I saw in my head, so I was trying not to leave gaps for argument.

Her skin turned amber again, a little darker, bluer -- wry humor, mixed with sadness.

“I’m not stubborn,” I said, touched by her concern.  “Just doubtful.  If Saelan was warned off by a true likeness of her, then who am I to put his kingdom in danger?”

Aura shook her head, a languid play of blues touched with orange.  She had been a mercenary for years.  She had seen many people ally themselves with questionable forces and do great things.  A man who had been warned could enter such an alliance with open eyes.

I frowned.  “Maybe -- maybe.  I just don’t want to meddle.  Where would it end?”

She leaned forward, firelight reflected in her eyes.  Her reply was measured, thoughtful.  I considered it -- maybe I wasn’t meddling.  Maybe this was just a matter of fixing something I had knocked awry.

And saving myself, which was not an inconsiderable point.  I was silently grateful she hadn’t mentioned that -- leave a man a little pride.

“You’re right,” I said.  “I’m standing on principle when that could get my legs chopped off.  I need this painting, and for that, I need unicorn essence.  I can’t ask you for any more help, but -”

Aura reached over; her hand hovered, then squeezed mine, her touch cool and silky like the stone she resembled.  I felt a flicker of warmth at the contact.  Her fingers tingled with lilacs and greens -- reassurance, gratitude -- and then she pulled away.  Colder colors followed.

“It has been a long day,” I agreed.  “I could use some sleep.”  Her response puzzld me and worried I had offended her, but there were no notes of pain to her hues.  “Thank you again, Aura.  I won’t ever be able to repay you.”

A fleeting wisp of purple acknowledged me.  She banked the fire.  I thought worries would plague me, but exhaustion won, and I slept deeply.


I woke staring at Mirror’s ears.  I stifled the shout before I made a fool of myself.  The feline, it seemed, slept with her head at Aura’s feet.

I’ve always felt looking on someone when they sleep is intrusive, a glimpse into a world meant to be hidden, but I couldn’t resist.  Aura slept with her head pillowed on her hands, face compressed into three simple, tranquil lines.  Faint glimmers of her name colors -- silver, purple and blue -- ebbed in waves across her skin.  A picture of perfection that warmed my heart.

My fingers itched, and I obeyed, sneaking my sketchpad out of the satchel.  I laid light lines, the impression of her folded hands.

Aura stirred, eyes opening.  I dropped my work hastily, hiding it under my bedroll.  She focused on me, nodded good morning, then made a remark in browns.

“Then we’d better get moving, hadn’t we?” I asked.

We rode for three days at a pace faster than any horse could manage.  The landbridge widened; scrub forest dominated, then gave way to plains.  Mirror took several rivers at a leap that made my insides lurch.

I had expected a hunt before we found a herd roaming this part of Laer Norran.  I was surprised, then, when unicorns materialized on the horizon like a desert mirage.  Their outlines danced with the summer sun and flirted with insubstantiality, but they were real:  powerful, white equines with long horns, black at the base, then red, and white at the tip.

Aura halted our mount.  She started to explain --

“I know,” I said, “they’d spook at the scent.”  Then I stared.  “You want me to watch Mirror?  I don’t think --”  But it was too late for objection:  she vanished, leaving me to fidget on the feline’s back and hope she didn’t decide to do anything rash.

Mirror plopped onto her hindquarters.  While I struggled to stay in the saddle, she washed one paw.

I felt brave enough to reprimand her.  “You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you.”

Her tail swung, playfully batting me upside the head.  “I surrender,” I muttered.

Aura returned moments later, tones inquiring after what I needed in a unicorn.

“It needs to be no more than a year old,” I said.  My heart squeezed as, without another flicker, she swung into the saddle.  “Not here?”

She patted Mirror’s neck with vigor, and we bounded away.

I worried as we rode:  what if we couldn’t find a herd with a young unicorn?  Unicorns were very fecund -- ironic for a species so attracted to purity, but I supposed frequent reproduction was the only way they could preserve their numbers.  Too many hunted them for the properties of their horns, and they were spiritually delicate.  They could be poisoned by the slightest hint of corruption.

It started to drizzle as we stopped for the night.  Mirror disappeared to find her own shelter.  As we huddled in the tent, I tried to draw Aura out.

“I know the isle somewhat,” I said.  “Where are you from?”

Her response was brief -- not curt, but contained.

“I spent half a year on the near coast,” I said, a little daunted by her vagueness.  “Beautiful country.  The air was lined with silver.  Why did you decide to leave?”

This seemed to fluster her, crackle-lines of yellow breaking her answer.  She had heard stories and seen images that made her curious about life beyond the island.

“What do you think?” I asked, genuinely curious.  “Did it meet your expectations?”

The glow behind the colors started subtle and turned luminous as she recalled:  the endless ocean of gold that was the Kasairh Desert.  The child’s hodgepodge of buildings in Seripi, where her mercenary troupe made their defense.  The soaring spires of churches and trees twice their size.

I watched her with a quiet sense of wonder.  Here was a woman who saw art in the world, even if she didn’t think of it as such.  I was mesmerized and profoundly grateful our paths had crossed.

“I as well,” I said when she finished, the glow fading.  “Every day, I thank the people who set me on the path I follow today.”  I paused.  “Well, not so much the being chased by an irate queen part.”

Aura nodded, amber trickling across her features.  After that, conversation was easier, snippets of our travels -- mine to paint, hers to defend.  Three days flew as we sought the elusive creatures.

Just after twilight, we entered woods with a stream running through.  Aura went ahead.  I endured Mirror’s antics with good grace born of the hope it would soon end.

Aura returned with green notes of triumph.  An infant, still nursing.  Could I work with that?

I would have hugged her, but she was on the ground and I clung to the saddle.  “Perfect,” I said.

I spent that night tweaking a rough sketch of the painting.  Something looked wrong, and I kept erasing the left side.  “The royal guardsman here, like his companion on the right -- no.  Just no.”

Aura touched my arm with a soothing shimmer of light blue, reminding me I had plenty of time.  To be honest, the touch soothed me more than the comment.

“You’re right,” I said.  I applied the putty eraser with vigor until the offending guardsman disappeared.  Then I put it away.

I found a patch of sage and Aura caught a rabbit, so we ate well that night.  I dozed -- overslept -- and was awakened by a gentle tap.

“Eh, what?”  She repeated the sequence.  “Let me splash some water on my face, would you?”

I picked a spot by the water’s edge with mossy rocks -- and nearby, a gnarled tree with comfortable handholds.  I pulled myself up awkwardly, wedging my leg against a limb.  I clutched a tube of paint base.  Aura settled on the rock and looked up with an inquiring ripple.

“Think pure thoughts,” I said.  “Sunlight.  Things and people you love.  The last charitible act you did -- err, before you met me, that is.”  I ignored the smirking golden burst.  “Whatever divine beliefs you have.”

She nodded and closed her eyes.  The glow started subtle, intensifying the white of her skin, then deepened, illuminating her until she shimmered like a star.  Color faded, absorbed into the dazzling white, and again I was dazzled by the artist’s soul under her skin.  I couldn’t have looked away; I was so absorbed I almost missed their arrival.

They moved as softly as dreams, even the baby with his wobbling limbs and stub horn, the three colors blended into marbled mottle.  He couldn’t be more than two weeks old, hanging close to his mother’s side.  She stepped to ensure he never fell behind, an arched movement that put me in mind of royal mares prancing -- but no horse could hope to match her form.

Aura cracked open one eye and gasped.  The colors flickered, then glowed with renewed splendor as she realized what she was seeing.  She inclined her head, a seated courtesy.

I let out a breath, slowly.  Even the sound of my heart seemed to be part of the mesmerizing scene.  Mother and child moved closer, stopping two paces away in the shallows.  The mare snorted, nudging her foal with her nose.  It seemed to be a mother’s universal “stay put” gesture as she advanced, lowering her head.  Her horn brushed Aura’s shoulder.

I suddenly remembered my mission and scrambled for the tube, removing the cap.  I squinted, imagining the view as canvas before me.  In that blurry vision, trees looked like swirled blobs of paint; the stream might have been daubed by a brush.  I opened my eyes, allowing that veneer of memory to color the figures below.

Aura reached up as if to touch the side of the unicorn’s face, but hesitated.  The infant nickered, wobbling in place.  Ever so carefully, I reached into the heart of that imaginary painting and with a flick of my hand, drew a shimmering brushful of the colt’s essence.

Careful, then; a delicate process.  Before my time, painters with the talent for gathering essence came about once every few generations.  Now I heard rumors there was a woman in the east, some youngsters in familiar climes.  Perhaps some day I would find one, teach him where I had learned by trial and error.

I threaded the essence into the tube; it coalesced into shiny silver-white.  I held my breath, trying not to rush.  Aura seemed content; she made a sound of surprise as the babe wobbled up and lipped her hair.  It was such an idyllic scene I had a hard time remembering the danger.  A unicorn roused was a fiercesome creature.

I finished drawing the essence and capped the tube.  I leaned forward to signal Aura.

The mare snorted, her head jerking up.  Aura flinched; the horn passed within an inch of her ear.  Dark, wild eyes fixed on my position.  Nostrils flared.

I held up my hands and leaned back, feeling the fear rise:  not for myself, but for her, seated, vulnerable.  I swung my leg over the branch, planning to leap down and attract the mare’s attention.  If nothing else, I could draw her from Aura.

The unicorn snorted again, this time more softly.  Her head lowered, the tip of the horn hovering in my direction.  She turned, swinging the way she had come.  Some comment in equine -- or the unicorn variant -- called her colt away from Aura.  The pair ambled up the stream, unconcerned, unhurried.

As for Aura and I, we sat motionless, braced in our respective positions.  As the creatures disappeared around the bend, she looked up.

“I was worried about you,” I said.

Her eyes widened, accompanied by sharp flashes of gold -- realization.

I colored.  “Sacrifice?  Noble thoughts?  Nothing like that.  You’re the only thing standing between me and an angry monarch, remember.”

She shook her head and did not reply, but wavering blue doubt made itself known.  Like any Irhyen, transparent.

And at the same time, completely mysterious.

“We’ve got it,” I continued, and smiled at her question.  “Laer Norran’s capital.  This painting is a gift best presented to the king -- he’s the one who has to change his mind, after all.”


We reached Odrisil before sunset on the third day.  Unlike Muirren, Odrisil stood sentry behind massive bounding walls, its streets a testament to clever planning both for industry and defense.  I glanced nervously in the direction of the guardsposts we passed.

Aura scolded me with twinges of orange.  I protested, “What if Idalia’s agents -” she cut me off.  I sighed.  “I know, this would be the last place they’d look.  I can’t help it.”

I nodded at her suggestion.  “All right.  I find it easier to paint in the open, and it’s warm enough to camp.  I suspect Mirror will be happier, too.”  I startled myself with the words:  I would never have thought I was fond of her, but there it was.  The feline hadn’t crossed the city line with us -- her kind wasn’t recognized as domestic.

Aura shimmered with lilac pleasure.  I grinned.  “First, supplies.”

I already had my brushes and best paints -- all that remained were extra colors, an easel and a canvas.  Still anxious that an assassin would find us looking for these items, I didn’t bother to haggle, but as we left the last shop, two old women chatting caught my attention.

“I’ve heard queen Idalia is coming here,” said one.  “To negotiate.  Like a merchant!”

“And us to be the goods for sale,” the other muttered.  “When does she come?”

“Three weeks.  The harbor will be tied up for days …”

“I guess I have a deadline now,” I said to Aura.  “I always did work better like that.”

We left the city, striking out for the northern hills.  There was good camping on ground too thin for crops.  I set up to the east where I could watch the sunrise, but close enough to the tent to rush inside in case of rain.  As for a softer bed, I hardly missed it.  I often slept on a plank-board floor; this was little different.

“Now that I have more paint base, ladies,” I said -- feeling faintly ridiculous as I included Mirror in this speech, “I’d like to ask a favor of you both.  Would you lend me your essence for my collection?”

Aura responded swiftly, brightly -- a hint of rose beneath the orange.  Mirror bumped her head against my shoulder, and I scratched her chin.  “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Aura’s paint echoed her name:  purple, silver and blue, depending on the light and angle.  Mirror’s was darker than her fur, and a decent substitute for the nightfall paint I had used up.

After sketching broad outlines onto the canvas, it became clear to me the project would take every moment until the queen arrived, twenty-eight hours a day.  And -- belatedly, unforgivably so -- I began to worry about what Aura had given up to guard me.

“There’s plenty of opportunities for a mercenary in Odrisil,” I said.  “You should look around.  Take some work.”

Violent sparks of color, along with a little red running up her neck.  Her eyes narrowed.

“Do you really think anyone is going to track me up here?” I asked.  “And I’m not trying to get rid of you.  I just don’t like forcing you to sit idle.”

She shook her head.  She didn’t mind; she couldn’t leave for as long as an assignment would take.

“Mirror would still be here,” I pointed out.  “Or is that your worry, that she’ll eat me?”

The feline mewed in protest from where she sunned herself.

Aura rewarded me with a passing trace of amber, but turned serious again.  Her response was more relaxed, tinged green, suggesting gladiator bouts instead.

“I pity the person who faces you,” I said.  “But I can take care of myself for an hour or two.”

She nodded, but that wasn’t her final word.  I squawked.

“That’s not fair,” I said.  “Didn’t I fend off their leader back in Muirren?”


Three weeks passed swiftly.  I found what was missing in my original sketch and the painting blossomed as it had in my mind’s eye:  the birth of a new alliance represented in a bejewelled map and the melting pot cluster of the monarchs’ subjects.  I had always been critical of my work, but this piece grew without flaw.  Nuances and invention imposed themselves on the canvas without my planning.

The Cadesci party did indeed lock up the harbor for days.  The city buzzed; Idalia was badly received.  The first feast had been cool, borderline hostile.

The next morning, I rose with the idea of reviewing the canvas, to scrub away final imperfections, correct the pink in a lady’s cheeks, make sure the sand of an isthmus glinted.  Instead, I found Aura rigid at the brink, her body a turbulent whirl of muddy color -- beyond translation.

“Aura?”  I said.  “What happened?”

Among the bursts, lightning-snaps and burning tones, I detected one theme:  Mirror.

I put my hands on her shoulders.  “What happened to Mirror?”

It came out in chaotic spurts.  Hunters for the royal zoo, a squad.  They had captured the feline, dragged her back for their exhibit.  There would be no arguing, no bartering.

“Oh, yes, there will,” I said, instantly resolved.  There was risk:  I didn’t care.  “I’m leaving now.”  At her blotch-hued question, I grabbed the flap of the tent and pulled until it ripped.  “Subterfuge.  Other than that, I have no idea.”

She hesitated, trickles of blue.

“I’m lost without you,” I said, “but I can manage this.”

Aura betrayed a flicker of pleasure -- fading fast, faltering.  She touched my arm, lightly, then continued.

“Hanging it over the banquet hall means waiting until tonight,” I said.  “But one of the first things monarchs do is they show off their family trees.  He’ll walk her through the portrait hall.  By high bell today.”

Even feeling the need to be quick, I had to take my time wrapping the canvas.  I whispered a blessing as I tied the ropes, as if I were presenting a daughter to Laer Norran rather than an inanimate object.

We entered the city as two penitents wrapped in rough cloth as the church bells called out the eighth hour.  In their echoes, I remembered the first time I had seen Aura.  Now she seemed frail as she had not then, a wisp of light.

Carts rattled through the palace arch into the low courtyard, filled with provisions.  We attached ourselves to one and ducked under the gate.  Seeing our burden, the guard stopped us.

“What’s that, then?” he demanded.

“Painting for the royal chapel, your worthy,” I said.  “May we pass?”

He squinted, and I feared he saw under Aura’s makeshift hood, but then he shrugged.  “Go on.  Report to the high priest.”

We trundled in the indicated direction into the shelter of overhanging trees.  Aura tapped my arm and led us away from the chapel towards an interior passage.  Then she hesitated.

I took the lead; I had been in enough palaces to navigate this one by feel.  It wasn’t easy:  I had never before appreciated how hard it was to sneak with something as wide as I was tall, and two-thirds that in height.  Twice, Aura jerked us to a halt so swiftly I almost toppled, while servants, guards or minor dignitaries sailed across the cross-corridors.

At the door to the portrait hall, one more barrier:  it was locked, presumably to prevent mere peasants from gazing upon the royal ancestors.

Aura swore in crimson and rust.  She looked as if she would break through the door with her bare hands.  I stopped her with a shake of my head and rooted behind the potted bluestar plant on the left side.

Riff-raff or not, maids still had to get in to remove the dust.

I appraised the portrait hall with a moment’s admiration.  Its east-facing side was window interspersed with niche walls, allowing light to stream on some paintings while keeping others in shadow.  Someone had taken care to show off each work of art to its best advantage.  The paintings were neither numerous nor varied -- Laer Norrans were too fond of the curlique knots and swirls that formed their signature motif, and chose only artists who were masters of the form -- but they were executed with great skill and attention to detail.  Some of the eyes were so real they might have been painted with essence.

Before that watchful horde, Aura and I wrestled the painting into the center.  Despite our relative sizes,  she did more of the wrestling.  We used a plant-pot to prop it up.  I stood back to unwrap it, then became self-conscious.

I laid my body against the side, pinning the cloth.  “Go hide in the last niche,” I said.  “I’ll join you shortly, but there’s something I need to do.”

Aura nodded and vanished into the hall.  I took from my pocket a brush and vial.  Careful to blend it into a noblewoman’s skirt, I signed the painting -- a cipher, not my usual mark.

Artists tend to forget these things.

I locked the doors and put the key back, then hurried after Aura.  I squeezed her shoulder.  “Good as done now,” I said.

A ripple of assent, but I could tell by the grey under it that she didn’t really believe me.  I wasn’t sure I did, either, and the ceaseless patter of ‘perhaps’ wound around my brain.

We waited in silence until the sound of footsteps and the stilted patter of court dialogue approached.  The royal escort threw open the doors.  Guards filed in, his and hers, wearing livery in Laer Norran veridian and Cadesci cream.

The party halted.  I couldn’t see more than the backs of livery without leaning out of the alcove, but I could hear an indrawn breath and a deep male voice, “Steward, when was this installed?”

“You seem surprised, Saelan.”  I would know Idalia’s powerful but nasal voice anywhere.  “This was not, then, commissioned to flatter me?”

“It was not,” the voice answered -- Laer Norran’s king.  He sounded as if he were trying to conceal annoyance.  Soft steps as he moved.  When he spoke again, it was gentler, thoughtful.  “I must admit, it presents an appealing vision.”

Aura flashed a question; I shook my head.

“It does.”  Idalia sounded surprised, even though alliance had been her idea -- the thing she came to the kingdom to fight for.  “The artist’s portrayal of me …”

I held my breath, a painful clutch in my throat.  Would one of them see the falsehood, that it was mere paint?  Would the portrait be too strong in Saelan’s mind?  It occurred to me it might taken as mockery, if one detail was amiss, if one stroke had gone awry or laid the unicorn’s promise on too thickly.

“Whoever he was,” Saelan said, “he truly did the scene justice.”

I sagged against the wall -- yet even as I did, I noticed he praised the concept, not the queen.  It seemed Aura was right:  he could contemplate the alliance and make the best of even a dubious bride.

“I asked you to give me a second chance, your majesty,” Idalia said -- her tone almost humble.

“Perhaps I was too hasty.  This painting makes me ask questions.  Wonder at the possibilities.”  The steps continued; Saelan paced in front of the canvas.  “Worth a new beginning.”

“I owe a great debt, then, to the artist,” Idalia said.

“As do I, for presenting me with such a work.”  Saelan sounded puzzled.  “Yet I don’t understand -”

Aura stood before I could stop her.  The makeshift tent-cloak dropped from her shoulders.  She got two paces before the guards whirled in alarm.  Her sword sang out, blue and red clashing incandescent along her skin.

I stepped forward.  “She’s with me.”

Idalia hissed in a breath of recognition.  Her eyes were cold enough to freeze my spine, but that too-blue retreated as she considered reasons for my presence.  Her black hair was done in intricate braids; they reminded me of serpents.

“My name is Anaphys Velorien, your highnesses,” I said, kneeling.  “This is my companion, Aura.  I am responsible for the painting.”  And its results, I thought, meeting Idalia’s gaze.

“Indeed, painter, you have occasional flashes of brilliance,” the queen said sharply.

Saelan frowned and addressed her.  He was a small man, redheaded, baby-cheeked.  “Wasn’t the portrait --”

“A man can err,” I said, edging my body in front of Aura’s.  She flashed orange negation, but did not stop me.  “But he can fix those mistakes, and hope to be forgiven for them.”

Idalia was silent.  She could demand my head, but that would be admitting the second painting was as false as the first.  Finally, she said, “I am glad your vision is clear, Master Velorien.”

I felt giddy, past thought.  “Thank you, your highness.”

“It is a feast for the eyes,” Saelan said.  “I would be a poor king if I allowed you to leave without payment.”

“There is only one thing I want, your highness,” I said.  “A Great Cat, recently captured by your hunters.  Release her; she is no mere wild beast, but boon companion of the woman to whom I owe my life.”

Saelan blinked.  “Without hesitation.  Steward!  Handle it immediately.”

Rosey gratitude from Aura, muted in place of greens.

“She says you are wise and thanks you for your gift,” I said.

Aura offered a quick snap of amber and orange.  I smiled wryly; I knew what she meant.  It wasn’t his gift to give, but our purpose had succeeded.  The steward dispatched a guard at a run.

“Surely that is not enough,” Saelan continued.  “Perhaps, Idalia -- since this is to represent the birth of our alliance, and I hope will stand us in that stead -- you might assist?”

I thought Idalia was going to grow fangs and sink them into his neck -- or mine -- but she pulled her lips until the words came out pleasantly.  “I shall see to a monetary reward for the artist.  He will get what he deserves.”

If there was double meaning, Saelan seemed oblivious.  “I hope you will join us tonight at the feast, Master Velorien and … Aura.”  He smiled to the Irhyen.  She glimmered in reply.  “You should wait here for my steward,” he said, and turned to lead his fellow monarch deeper into the hall.

I fought to catch my breath, flush with relief.  “We’ve done it,” I said.  “We can -- Aura?”

She stared at the canvas, her skin a riot of surprise and appreciation.  On the left-hand side, one guard had been replaced by an Irhyen swordswoman, at attention in profile -- contrast to the others, who looked out at the viewer.  I couldn’t have rendered Mirror full-size, so she was a kitten at the woman’s feet, a splash of whimsy to the fierce protector.  In royal livery, she was radiant as a diamond and sharp as a blade.

“I hope you don’t mind,” I said.

She regarded me with tear-brightened eyes, then began to speak, the color trickling in subtle layers and flow -- a portrait in thought.  She dreamed of the world, she said, because of paintings on church walls at Taghe, and because of a painter who always had time to share stories with a child.  Who saw the world as a work of art.  As a child, she had fallen in love with him.

Her tones pinked as she finished the tale.  She had sought me out in Muirren and learned I was a marked man; found me just in time.  She had been surprised when I remembered the Irhyen language.

“Owe me?” I asked, amazed.  “If you owed me anything, you paid it three times over that first day.  Aura, I can’t live up to the portrait you painted in your mind.”

She waved to the canvas.

I blinked, feeling a prickle of tears.  I offered her my arm.  “Then let’s both try, shall we?”

She took it, and I felt a tremendous sense of contentment:  the world had balanced in its orbit, as if by our weight.  I wished I could bottle the feeling and paint it.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “but I’d be much happier if Mirror really was that size.”

Amber laughter, buoyant, completed the moment.




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