A FLATTERING LIKENESS
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?”
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.
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
“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
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.
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
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
She shrugged, her
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.
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?”
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
“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:
“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.
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
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
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
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
“Talk,” I translated her
flash of red -- rather unnecessarily, I thought.
He glared. “Call your vermin
“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.
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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,
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
“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
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
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
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
I stared into the night, my
worries catching up to me. “I wish I knew what to
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
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
“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
Her skin turned amber again,
a little darker, bluer -- wry humor, mixed with
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
Her tail swung, playfully
batting me upside the head. “I surrender,” I
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
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
“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
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
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
“Eh, what?” She repeated the
sequence. “Let me splash some water on my face, would
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
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
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
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,
As for Aura and I, we sat
motionless, braced in our respective positions. As
the creatures disappeared around the bend, she looked
“I was worried about you,” I
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,
She shook her head and did
not reply, but wavering blue doubt made itself known.
Like any Irhyen, transparent.
And at the same time,
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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,
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
Among the bursts,
lightning-snaps and burning tones, I detected one
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
“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
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
“What’s that, then?” he
“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
At the door to the portrait
hall, one more barrier: it was locked, presumably to
prevent mere peasants from gazing upon the royal
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
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
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
“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
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
“I asked you to give me a
second chance, your majesty,” Idalia said -- her tone
“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
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
“Indeed, painter, you have
occasional flashes of brilliance,” the queen said
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
“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
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
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
“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.