Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from Imager by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., the beginning of an epic fantasy series by the author of the Saga of Recluce. The next book, Assassin’s Price, will be available on June 27th.
Although Rhennthyl is the son of a leading wool merchant in L’Excelsis, the capital of Solidar, the most powerful nation on Terahnar, he has spent years becoming a journeyman artist and is skilled and diligent enough to be considered for the status of master artisan—in another two years. Then, in a single moment, his entire life is transformed when his master patron is killed in a flash fire, and Rhenn discovers he is an imager—one of the few in the entire world of Terahnar who can visualize things and make them real.
He must leave his family and join the Collegium of Imagisle. Imagers live separately from the rest of society because of their abilities (they can do accidental magic even while asleep), and because they are both feared and vulnerable. In this new life, Rhenn discovers that all too many of the “truths” he knew were nothing of the sort. Every day brings a new threat to his life. He makes a powerful enemy while righting a wrong, and begins to learn to do magic in secret.
Commerce weighs value, yet such weight is but an image, and, as such, is an illusion.
The bell announcing dinner rang twice, just twice, and no more, for it never did. Rousel leapt up from his table desk in the sitting room that adjoined our bedchambers, disarraying the stack of papers that represented a composition doubtless due in the morning. “I’m starved.”
“You’re not. You’re merely hungry,” I pointed out, carefully placing a paperweight over the work on my table desk. “‘Starved’ means great physical deprivation and lack of nourishment. We don’t suffer either.”
“I feel starved. Stop being such a pedant, Rhenn.” The heels of his shoes clattered on the back stairs leading down to the pantry off the dining chamber.
Two weeks ago, Rousel couldn’t even have pronounced “pedant,” but he’d heard Master Sesiphus use it, and now he applied it to me as often as he could. Younger brothers were worse than vermin, because one could squash vermin and then bathe, something one could not do with younger brothers. With some fortune, since Father would really have preferred that I follow him as a factor but had acknowledged that I had little interest, I’d be out of the house before Culthyn was old enough to leave the nursery and eat with us. As for Khethila, she was almost old enough, but she was quiet and thoughtful. She liked it when I read to her, even things like my history assignments about people like Rex Regis or Rex Defou. Rousel had never liked my reading to him, but then, he’d never much cared for anything I did.
By the time I reached the dining chamber, Father was walking through the archway from the parlor where he always had a single goblet of red wine—usually Dhuensa—before dinner. Mother was standing behind the chair at the other end of the oval table. I slipped behind my chair, on Father’s right. Rousel grinned at me, then cleared his face.
“Promptness! That’s what I like. A time and a place for everything, and everything in its time and place.” Father cleared his throat, then set his near-empty goblet on the table and placed his hands on the back of the armed chair that was his.
“For the grace and warmth from above, for the bounty of the earth below, for all the grace of the world and beyond, for your justice, and for your manifold and great mercies, we offer our thanks and gratitude, both now and evermore, in the spirit of that which cannot be named or imaged.”
“In peace and harmony,” we all chorused, although I had my doubts about the presence and viability of either, even in L’Excelsis, crown city and capital of Solidar.
Father settled into his chair at the end of the table with a contented sigh, and a glance at Mother. “Thank you, dear. Roast lamb, one of my favorites, and you had Riesela fix it just the way I prefer it.”
If Mother had told the cook to fix lamb any other way, we all would have been treated to a long lecture on the glories of crisped roast lamb and the inadequacies of other preparations.
After pouring a heavier red wine into his goblet and then into Mother’s, Father placed the carafe before me. I took about a third of a goblet, because that was what he’d declared as appropriate for me, and poured a quarter for Rousel.
When Father finished carving and serving, Mother passed the rice casserole and the pickled beets. I took as little as I could of the beets.
“How was your day, dear?” asked Mother.
“Oh…the same as any other, I suppose. The Phlanysh wool is softer than last year, and that means that Wurys will complain. Last year he said it was too stringy and tough, and that he’d have to interweave with the Norinygan…and the finished Extelan gray is too light…But then he’s half Pharsi, and they quibble about everything.”
Mother nodded. “They’re different. They work hard. You can’t complain about that, but they’re not our type.”
“No, they’re not, but he does pay in gold, and that means I have to listen.”
I managed to choke down the beets while Father offered another discourse on wool and the patterned weaving looms, and the shortcomings of those from a Pharsi background. I wasn’t about to mention that the prettiest and brightest girl at the grammaire was Remaya, and she was Pharsi.
Abruptly, he looked at me. “You don’t seem terribly interested in what feeds you, Rhennthyl.”
“Sir…I was listening closely. You were pointing out that, while the pattern blocks used by the new weaving machinery produced a tighter thread weave, the women loom tenders have gotten more careless and that means that spoilage is up, which increases costs—”
“Enough. I know you listen, but I have great doubts that you care, or even appreciate what brings in the golds for this household. At times, I wonder if you don’t listen to the secret whispers of the Namer.”
“Chenkyr…” cautioned Mother.
Father sighed as only he could sigh. “Enough of that. What did you learn of interest at grammaire today?”
It wasn’t so much what I’d learned as what I’d been thinking about. “Father…lead is heavier than copper or silver. It’s even heavier than gold, but it’s cheaper. I thought you said that we used copper, silver, and gold for coins because they were heavier and harder for evil imagers to counterfeit.”
“That’s what I mean, Rhennthyl.” He sighed even more loudly. “You ask a question like that, but when I ask you to help in the counting house, you can’t be bothered to work out the cost of an extra tariff of a copper…or work out the costs for guards on a summer consignment of bolts of Acoman prime wool to Nacliano. It isn’t as though you had no head for figures, but you do not care to be accurate if something doesn’t interest you. What metals the Council uses for coins matters little if one has no coins to count. No matter how much a man likes his work, there will be parts of it that are less pleasing—or even displeasing. You seem to think that everything should be pleasing or interesting. Life doesn’t oblige us in that fashion.”
“Don’t be that hard on the boy, Chenkyr.” Mother’s voice was patient. “Not everyone is meant to be a factor.”
“His willfulness makes an ob look flexible, Maelyna.”
“Even the obdurates have their place.”
I couldn’t help thinking I’d rather be an obdurate than a mal. Most people were malleables of one sort or another, changing their views or opinions whenever someone roared at them, like Father.
“Exactly!” exclaimed Father. “As servants to imagers and little else. I don’t want one of my sons a lackey because he won’t think about anything except what interests or pleases him. The world isn’t a kind place for inflexible stubbornness and unthinking questioning.”
“How can a question be unthinking?” I wanted to know. “You have to think even to ask one.”
My father’s sigh was more like a roar. Then he glared at me. “When you ask a question to which you would already know the answer if you stopped to think, or when you ask a question to which no one knows the answer. In both cases, you’re wasting your time and someone else’s.”
“But how do I know when no one knows the answer if I don’t ask the question?”
“Rhennthyl! There you go again. Do you want to eat cold rice in the kitchen?”
“Rousel,” said Father, pointedly avoiding looking in my direction, “how are you coming with your calculations and figures?”
“Master Sesiphus says that I have a good head for figures. My last two examinations have been perfect.”
Of course they had been. What was so hard about adding up columns of numbers that never changed? Or dividing them, or multiplying them? Rousel was more than a little careless about numbers and anything else when no one was looking or checking on him.
I cut several more thin morsels of the lamb. It was good, especially the edge of the meat where the fat and seasonings were all crisped together. The wine wasn’t bad, either, but it was hard to sit there and listen to Father draw out Rousel.
Authority always trumps reason, unless reason is the authority.
The Council of Solidar opened the Chateau of the Council to the public exactly twice a year, at the last day of summer, the thirty-fifth of Juyn, and at the depth of winter, the thirty-fifth of Ianus. Father insisted that I come with him because I’d just turned fourteen and finished the grammaire. In another month I’d begin my apprenticeship with Master Caliostrus, one of the more successful portraiturists in L’Excelsis.
“Since you cannot and will not be a factor, Rhenn, you need to see what great art really is.” My father must have said that at least three times while we rode in the carriage along the Boulevard D’Este and across Pont D’Nord and then another mille along the Boulevard D’Ouest. Once we reached the base of Council Hill, we had to leave the carriage and wait in a long queue under a white sun that blistered down through the pale blue summer sky. The gate-house ahead of us was built of alabaster, as was the Chateau above, but the surface of the stones of both had been strengthened by imagers centuries and centuries before, supposedly by those of Rex Regis after he had taken L’Excelsis from the Bovarians and made it the capital of the land he had unified and renamed Solidar. The walls shimmered white and inviolate, as pristine as the day they were laid, sort of like an eternal virgin, I thought, trying not to snigger at the thought.
“Rhenn, you are not to exhibit amusement at the misfortunes of others.” Father’s eyes darted toward a crafter who was looking down at a spreading dark brown stain across his trousers. He still held the handle of the clay jug that he had swung up to drink. Fragments of pottery and a dark splotch on the wall suggested he’d been less than careful in lifting his jug.
“Sir, I was thinking of a terrible joke that Jacquyl told yesterday. Seeing the gate house reminded me of it.”
“Likely story.” The good-natured gruffness of his response suggested that he believed me, or at least that he knew I was not laughing at the poor crafter, a mason’s apprentice or junior journeyman, I would have judged by the stone dust on his sleeves.
A good glass passed before we reached the head of the queue short of the burnished bronze gates and the gate house. The Council guard there stood in the shadow of the tiny portico, but sweat had dampened the pale blue linen of his uniform tunic into a darker shade.
“The next ten of you,” the guard announced.
Father strode ahead. He always walked quickly, as if he might miss something if he weren’t the first one. The paved walks were white granite, flanked by boxwood hedges in stone beds. “See those hedges, Rhenn. That’s what a hedge should look like, not with twigs and leaves sticking out haphazardly.”
“Yes, sir.” Rousel was supposed to have trimmed the little branches on our hedge, after I cut the larger ones, but he’d gone off to play. There’d been little point in saying so, because Father would just have said that it was my responsibility. But if I’d dragged Rousel back, he would have complained, and then Father would have punished me for being too strict.
After we walked up the wide white stone steps, Father cleared his throat. “There are three arches—a main arch flanked by two smaller arches. All three lead into the Grand Foyer.”
I didn’t say anything. We’d studied the Chateau in grammaire, and I knew that.
Father took the center archway and hurried inside, out of the blazing sun. It wasn’t that much cooler, but being out of the sun was a relief. I glanced up at the faux dome of the foyer.
Father followed my eyes and gestured upward. “You see the stonework there?”
“It looks well done.” It wasn’t stonework at all, but flat painting designed to trick the eye into believing it was stonework.
“You think you could do better?”
“No, sir.” Father was always doing that—comparing me to an experienced artisan or factor or crafter. Of course I wasn’t that good. That didn’t mean I couldn’t be in time.
Just in front of us was an older and all too bulbous man in a threadbare and once-white linen overshirt. He had planted himself before the first portrait on the wall on the right-hand outer wall of the foyer, cocking his head one way and then another. I started to move around him, but Father reached out and grasped my arm.
“Take your time. Study each one carefully, especially the portraits. You’re the one who’s going to be a portraiturist. You won’t have another chance to see these for a time.”
After the older man finally moved, Father pointed to the image of a trim black-haired man with sweeping mustaches in a black dress uniform with silver-banded cuffs. “That’s a portrait of Seleandyr. He was the one who led the Council in the trade war against Caenen and Stakanar…”
I’d seen Factor Councilor Seleandyr before, if only from the balcony when Father had hosted the cloth factors’ fall reception, and he’d never been that slender. Hs mustaches had drooped, as had his belly, and his thin hair had kept falling down over a low forehead.
“…managed to keep matters from getting out of hand and made sure that the taxes to support the war were only temporary. His death last Fevier was a great loss…”
I’d heard the rumors that his death hadn’t been from age, but from sweetmeats transformed into pitricine, after he’d eaten them, by an imager whose niece he’d procured for his son. Seleus had sworn it was true.
The next artistic object was a bust, and again we had to wait for the gyrations of the bulbous fellow before Father led me forward. “Charyn. He was the last rex of Solidar, and the one who founded the first Council…”
I knew all too well those details of history, but all I could do was listen.
We made half a circuit of the foyer and reached the point where it opened, through three arches that mirrored those of the outer entry, onto the landing at the base of the grand alabaster staircase leading up to the Council chambers. Father marched right up to where the guards were posted. On the pedestals that formed the base of the rose marble balustrade of each side were a pair of sculpted statues—a winged man and a winged woman.
“Angelias—they’re the work of the great Pierryl, Pierryl the Younger, that is. What do you think of them?” Father turned to me.
“The workmanship is excellent, sir.”
“They’re great art, Rhenn,” murmured my father. “Can’t you see that?”
“Father…the carving is outstanding, but they’re ridiculous. Those tiny wings wouldn’t lift a buzzard, let alone a child, and certainly not a man or woman.” I didn’t mention that each wing feather had been sculpted to a length of nine digits, not quite the ten of a full foot, and that wings that small would not have had individual feathers that large.
Father began to get red in the face. “We will have a talk later, young man.”
“A sea eagle has wings almost that broad, and the largest weigh but half a stone.”
“An angelia is not an eagle,” snapped my father.
“No, sir. They’re much larger, and they would need far larger wings to support themselves if they were truly to fly.”
I’d said too much, but Father’s opinions on art were limited by his own shortcomings and lack of understanding. I managed to placate him with pleasant inanities and agreements for the rest of our visit, consoling myself that, by the next time the Chateau was open to the people of L’Excelsis, I would be apprenticed and studying under Master Caliostrus.
In art and in life, what is not portrayed can be as a vital as what is.
At breakfast that first Mardi in Juyn I sat near the end of the long table—as usual, because the only one junior to me was Stanus, who’d just become an apprentice. He sat on the other side and one place farther toward the end. Shienna was to my right, and Marcyl was across from me, with Olavya to his left and Ostrius on his father’s right.
“I’ll need some golds from the strongbox after breakfast,” Caliostrus said to his wife Almaya, seated to his left. “I can get some imagers’ green from Rhenius.”
“I’m certain it’s less dear than from Apalant.” Her voice cut like a knife.
“You’re the one who insists on the strongbox and keeping all the golds here.”
“After what happened to my father when the Banque D’Rivages failed, and the Pharsi lenders came to collect…”
“I know. I know.” Caliostrus looked down the long table. “Tomorrow, Craftmaster Weidyn will be here at the eighth glass of the morning. He will be here for two glasses.”
What Caliostrus was also saying was that he didn’t want the sitting disturbed, but why would he ask that for a craftmaster, rather than a High Holder or a factorius? I’d heard Weidyn’s name at my parents’ table, but couldn’t recall his guild.
“Why is he a craftmaster, Father?” Marcyl’s big black eyes fixed on Caliostrus.
“Because he’s one of the best cabinetmakers in all of L’Excelsis. That’s why.”
“It might be nice to have something of his,” suggested Almaya.
“It would indeed, but it’s less than likely,” replied Master Caliostrus. “A single sideboard of his, and that’d be one of the plainer ones, would fetch at least a hundred golds. That’s if it ever came up for sale, but his work never does. People commission him a year in advance.”
“They commission you in advance, dear,” offered Almaya.
Despite her words, Master Caliostrus was fortunate, I knew, if a patron commissioned a portrait a season in advance—and paid upon completion and delivery of the framed work. That was one reason why I was the only journeyman in the household, besides Ostrius, who would soon doubtless become a junior master, and who would in time inherit his father’s studio.
“But not so far in advance. People feel that cabinets and sideboards last longer than portraits. They do not. One only has to look at the artwork in the Chateau of the Council to see that. The chests and sideboards commissioned when Riodeux painted Rex Charyn have long since been turned to kindling and burned, but people still marvel at the portrait.”
“And the bust,” I added.
“The bust is by Pierryl the Elder and is far inferior to the portrait,” declared Caliostrus. “Pierryl and his son—Pierryl the Younger—were diligent hacks compared to Riodeux. Sculptors have but to remove stone from stone. It is tedious, but it is more a craft than an art.”
I’d heard Master Caliostrus declaim on that before. To create the impression of life and light on the flat surface of a canvas did take not only craftsmanship but an artistic sense. No one ever expected a bust or a statue to look alive, but merely to present an accurate representation, but everyone expected the best portraits to be good enough that the subject looked as though he could step out of the canvas and resume what he had been doing.
“Why do they get more golds than you, Father?” Marcyl persisted.
“Because what people will pay for often has no relation to its true value.” Caliostrus lifted a large mug of tea, slurping slightly as he drank, not that he didn’t slurp whenever he drank. Then he turned to me. “As for you, Rhennthyl, you also have a commission, far more modest, but one must begin somewhere.”
“Sir?” I inclined my head, as much to conceal my surprise as anything. At last, after all the studies, all the criticism from Master Caliostrus, and all the glasses spent grinding and stirring and watching simmering pots of oils and waxes and solvents and pigments, I would have a chance to show what I had learned and could do on a canvas for a real patron. I thought Ostrius might also have been surprised, since most junior commissions went to him.
“Craftmaster Weidyn’s youngest daughter has never had a portrait. She’s but eight, and I suggested you could do credible work.”
“When will I start, sir?”
“Tomorrow as well.” Caliostrus smiled. “You will have to work in her favorite doll and her cat.”
The doll certainly wouldn’t be a problem, but, for some reason, few cats cared for me, and that could pose a problem. “The cat…?”
“I suggested that the cat be added later, after you had designed the composition, but I wanted you to know that you would have to work in the creature.”
“I want several possible rough designs ready for me by the end of the day. Oh…she is a redhead, I’m told.”
That made everything worse. A redhead? Their color and complexion were difficult to capture on canvas without making them appear wan and pale. Once more, Caliostrus had presented me with something in a light that seemed far more charitable than it was in fact. A redhead—that was just the sort of portrait where an excellent effort would look merely adequate, and a good effort would come across as poor. That was another reason why I’d gotten the commission, instead of Ostrius. “I will most certainly have my work cut out for me, sir.”
“Nonsense, Rhennthyl. A portrait is a portrait, and each commission is an opportunity.”
“Yes, sir.” I would just have to deal with another one of Master Caliostrus’s near-insurmountable opportunities, that and Ostrius’s concealed smirk from across the table. Stanus just looked bewildered.
Even as a recent apprentice, Stanus should have known the problems of portraying redheads. I’d heard that those were even less than the difficulties involved in living with them, but I’d been unfortunate enough in dealing with young women that I had no experience by which to judge such a statement.
“The designs before dinner, Rhennthyl, remember!”
“Yes, sir.” How could I possibly forget?
The most critical are not the successful, nor the complete failures, but those who might have achieved something of worth, save for small but crucial faults within themselves, for they can seldom bear the thought of how close they came to greatness.
Mistress Aeylana D’Weidyn twitched, then shifted her weight in the high-backed chair. After Aeylana’s first sitting, I’d accompanied Aeylana and her aunt back to their home—if a small chateau three times the size of my parents’ dwelling and grounds could be termed “home.” While at the Chateau Weidyn, I had not only made a sketch of the actual chair that would be in the portrait, but also made the acquaintance of Charbon—a rather oversized feline with sleepy yellow eyes and a deep black coat—and done several quick sketches of him as well, one with Aeylana holding him.
Aeylana Weidyn was anything but an ideal subject. Even at age eight, she was lanky, with big bones and hands, freckles and a fair skin, and fine orange-red hair that, despite the dark green hair band, had a tendency to fly in all directions. Her eyes were a warm brown that somehow clashed with everything, and her eyebrows were so light and fine that she looked to have none at all.
“If you would please look in the direction of the easel, Mistress Aeylana?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was thinking about Charbon. He will be in the portrait, will he not?”
“Yes, he will.” In fact, I actually had painted much of Charbon, as if he had been sitting erect and regal upon the edge of the seat of the chair beside Aeylana. “He is most handsome.”
“He’s my cat.”
I had some doubts about any cat being a possession, but did not have time to say anything because, at that very moment, Ostrius opened the studio door and marched over to my easel.
He did not even look in the direction of Aeylana Weidyn—or her aunt, who was accompanying her to the sittings. “Rhenn…did you finish compounding the deep brown?”
“No. There wasn’t time before the sitting.”
“When will you learn to finish things?” he snapped.
“I worked on it all morning,” I said quietly.
“You didn’t finish, and we don’t have enough of the deep brown.”
He didn’t. That was what he meant. “Your father expects me to do a sitting when the patron is here. I’ll get back to it once she leaves.”
“You’d better.” Without another word, he stalked off.
The aunt said nothing, but her eyes expressed more than any words she might have spoken as she watched Ostrius close the studio door with a firmness just short of slamming it.
“I don’t—” began Aeylana.
“That will be all, Aeylana,” the aunt said firmly.
“If you would please look at the easel, mistress,” I repeated.
“I can do that.”
She could. She just couldn’t keep doing it for long.
I looked at the left side of her head, just forward and above the ear. Her hair had been a problem, because it was too bright to be captured fairly by any of the earthen reds, and the madder red would fade, while vermilion would darken at the edges where it touched the skin tones. Calizarin red didn’t blend well with the naranje orange, unless mixed with at least a little of one of the ochres, but I’d worked in a tiny mixture of yellow and dull red ochre as a binder between the calizarin and the naranje. Even Master Caliostrus had nodded approval at that.
Had Ostrius been angry not just because I didn’t have the deep brown formulated when he wanted it, but because he realized I could do something with the pigments that he couldn’t?
I pushed that thought away. If I didn’t do well on the one portrait assignment I had, I wouldn’t get another any time soon. I concentrated on seeing Aeylana as she was, and on working on the hairline around her right ear.
By the time the glass chimed out from the nearest anomen tower, I thought I had that section right, and I smiled, both at Aeylana and her chaperone. “Two more sittings at most.”
“Good. It’s hard to sit still that long.”
“I apologize, sir.”
“I can remember when I was your age,” I said with a smile.
That got me a giggle in return.
In moments, the two had gathered themselves together and departed for the carriage waiting below. In scarcely longer than that, Master Caliostrus had entered the studio, his brow knit in a frown.
“Ostrius said that you had not finished the deep brown formulation and that you were less than deferential…”
“Sir, I was most deferential. I started directly after breakfast, Master Caliostrus, and I took no breaks, until just before Mistress Aeylana D’Weidyn was due to arrive. You told me never to be late in dealing with a patron, and I could not have begun the compounding yesterday, sir, because the raw earth did not arrive until just before dinner last night.”
“Ah…yes…” Caliostrus paused. “You will get to it right away?”
“As soon as I clean up brushes and trays, sir.”
“Good.” Almost as an afterthought, he glanced at the partial portrait, his eyes going to what I had painted of the cat. “You definitely have a talent for the cat. In time, if you work on that, along with other skills, it might prove…remunerative. Some of the wealthier older women in L’Excelsis do dote on…such companions.”
He stopped at the door and looked back. “Don’t be too long. Ostrius does need the brown.”
If Ostrius needed the brown so much, why wasn’t he down in the shed working on the formulation? Or, if he didn’t want to get dirty, he could have taught Stanus how to do it. But then, that was still dirty work and required patience, both of which Ostrius avoided whenever possible.
Mistaking a name for its substance is one of the roots of evil; holding to substance over names is a source of joy.
I never understood why so many people made a fuss about weddings. I certainly wondered that once again as I stood there in the garden courtyard of Remaya’s parents’ dwelling beside Rousel as we waited for Remaya to appear.
Weddings are merely an affirmation of what has already happened. They’re necessary for most people, as are the rings that symbolize them, because public affirmations strengthen private commitments, but by the time of the ceremony they’re usually foregone conclusions. If they’re not, there shouldn’t be a ceremony. After eight years of courting and unblemished affection, for Rousel and Remaya both the ceremony and the rings were more for everyone else than for them, but that is certainly the case for all too many ceremonies.
Ceremonies can also provide a different kind of closure. I hoped this one would, because I had been the one to find Remaya, and from me she had found Rousel. Likewise, after all the years of distrust of those of a Pharsi background, my parents had been forced to accept Remaya. How could they have not? She was beautiful and intelligent and loved Rousel, and her parents, while only tradespeople, were far from impoverished. It didn’t hurt that Rousel was following in Father’s footsteps as a wool factor, either.
“You have the ring?” Like all bridegrooms, Rousel wore a formal green waistcoat, trimmed in deep brown, with a matching green neck scarf.
“Right here.” I kept my voice low.
We stood in front of the left side of the arched canopy of flowers. Behind it, wearing green vestments, was Chorister Osyrahm. Behind us stood our family, Father and Mother on the right, then Culthyn and Khethila. Even with them, but to the right, were Remaya’s parents, and her older sister and two younger brothers.
A pair of viols began to play, indicating that Remaya had left the house and was approaching, but neither Rousel nor I looked back because we were not supposed to see her until she stood beside him. I did hear a few whispered comments from the small group of family and friends behind us, and all were about how beautiful she looked, but I knew that without looking. I’d known it far longer than Rousel, and with far less effect.
Before long, Remaya stepped up beside Rousel, and they exchanged glances and smiles. She wore a white gown, along with the bride’s sleeveless green vest, also trimmed in the same rich brown as Rousel’s.
Chorister Osyrahm smiled beatifically at both of them, then began to speak. “We are gathered here today in celebration of the decision of a man and a woman to join their lives as one. The name of a union between a man and a woman is not important, nor should anyone claim such, for the name should never overshadow the union itself. Rousel and Remaya have chosen each other as partners in life and in love, and we are here to witness the affirmation of that choice.”
He nodded for them to step forward under the canopy, then waited until they stood under the arch of flowers.
“In so much as the only true and meaningful commitments in life are made without deception and without reservation, and without a reliance on empty names and forms, do you, Rousel, affirm in full honesty that you commit your body, your spirit, and your free will to this woman, and that you will put no other before her, so long as you both shall live?”
Chorister Osyrahm then turned to Remaya and repeated the same charge and vows.
“I do.” Her voice was warm and husky.
“The rings, if you will.”
I handed the ring to Rousel.
After taking the simple gold bands, one from Rousel and one from Remaya, Osyrahm held them up so that all could see them before lowering them and addressing the couple. “These rings are a symbol of love, for gold cannot be changed, nor imaged into what it is not. In exchanging and accepting these rings, you have pledged that your love will be as unchanging as the gold of which they are made, that no tyranny of names substituting for substance shall ever cleave you apart, and that your love for each other will endure in times good and evil, through sickness and health, and in darkness and in light, so long as your spirits endure.” Then he returned the rings to them.
Remaya, in the Pharsi tradition, was the first to place her ring, easing it onto Rousel’s finger. Then he slipped his ring upon hers.
“From two have come one, and yet that unity shall enable each of you to live more joyfully, more fully, and more in harmony with that which was, is, and ever shall be.”
The chorister stepped back, and Rousel and Remaya kissed under the canopy of late-spring flowers.
Then they turned and faced family and friends. Remaya’s sister Semahla stepped forward and handed the small green wicker basket of flower petals to Rousel. He held it while she scooped out a handful and cast them forward and skyward. Then she took the basket, and he scattered his handful.
After that, they walked back toward the roofed section of the courtyard, and Semahla and I followed.
We had barely stepped into the shadows when Remaya turned back to me.
“Thank you so much, Rhenn.” Remaya’s smile was dazzling, but it always had been, even when I’d first seen her at the girls’ grammaire when she’d been twelve. “Without you, I would never have met Rousel, and never known this happiness, foretold as it was.”
Foretold. She’d said that when she had first laid eyes on Rousel. Those with the Pharsi blood have always been said to be able to see what will be before it comes to their eyes. “I’m so glad everything worked out for you two.” What else could I say? I managed a wide grin as I looked at Rousel. “You heard that, brother.”
He grinned back. “How could I forget?”
I loosened my own neck scarf, because the late-spring afternoon was warm, even in the shade, especially in the formal waistcoat and matching trousers. They were the finest I’d ever owned, and a gift from Rousel.
He’d been kind, and very matter-of-fact about it. When he’d given it to me, made-to-measure, he’d said, “I’m the one who wants you beside me. You’re an artist, and I can’t ask you to purchase a wedding suit. Besides, you can keep it for good occasions.”
I’d just leave it stored with my parents. I certainly wouldn’t need anything that fine for anything involving Master Caliostrus.
At that moment, everyone surged around Rousel and Remaya, and Semahla and I stepped back. I’d only met Semahla a handful of times, and she was certainly bright and pleasant, if more angular than her younger sister.
“The past few days must have been crowded,” I observed.
She laughed. “Hectic, but fun. Everyone likes Remaya. She’s always been the kind one.”
“I’m sure you are, as well.”
“It comes naturally to her. I have to try.”
I supposed I could have said the same about Rousel, except it would have been about charm. He could charm anyone, just by looking at them.
Serving girls appeared, carrying trays with goblets of sparkling grisio. I picked two goblets off a tray and offered one to Semahla.
“Thank you.” She inclined her head, then took a sip.
So did I. The coolness helped a dry throat.
“Rousel said you are a fine artist.”
“I am an artist. Some days I think I might someday become a master with a studio.”
“The portrait you did of Remaya is lovely. Everyone says so. Mother looks at it and wishes that Remaya would leave it with her.”
“Thank you.” I’d done the best I could. It had been my wedding gift to them. What else could I have given?
“Oh…Remaya needs me.” With that, Semahla slipped away.
That was for the best. I’d about run out of pleasantries, not that Remaya’s family weren’t good people. Her father was a spice broker, which placed him between a factor and a shop keeper, but meant he was still a tradesperson of sorts. Still, from the house, they certainly weren’t poor.
Rousel eased over to me. “How are you doing?”
“Fine. How about you?”
He grinned sheepishly. “I just wish the dinner and the toasts were all over.”
I could understand that. “You only have to do this once.”
“Twice. Once for me, and once for you. Maybe three times. Culthyn might want us.”
“You’re an optimist.”
“Now that you’ve made journeyman, you need to look around for someone,” Rousel said.
“I’m not ready for that. I only get my own commissions now and again.” I didn’t point out that I wasn’t a successful factor’s assistant, because both Father and Rousel would have noted that it had been my choice not to go into trade. But then, I would have made a botch of trade. “Besides, it will be almost another five years before I can even be considered as a master portraiturist. It might be years beyond that. The masters don’t easily approve other masters.”
“You can still look.”
I had looked, and she’d married Rousel. I just smiled. “We’ll see.”
“Rousel!” That was Remaya.
“You better go.”
“Don’t be too hard on me when you give your toast.”
“I won’t.” And I wouldn’t. We don’t choose where our hearts lead us.
An artist must appeal to perception, not accuracy.
Contrary to poetry and populisms, Avryl is far from the cruelest month of the ten. Rather Feuillyt is, for it is in the month after harvest when everyone comes to understand that the bounty of nature and man could have been far greater than it was, no matter how much better the gathering of grain and golds happened to be than in previous years. So it was no surprise to me when Master Caliostrus appeared on the twentieth of that Feuillyt, to stand behind my shoulder and peer at the uncompleted likeness upon my easel. The twentieth of every month is a Vendrei, of course, whether the year is 754, as it was, or any other year.
“That’s not an acceptable portrait, Rhennthyl.”
Without Factor Masgayl being present, I’d been working on the detailing of his crimson and gold brocade vest, a vest that, for all its richness, had seen better days, not that the portrait would show that. “Sir?”
“You can’t do that with the eyes.”
“But that’s the way the factorius looks, exactly the way he appears.” Incautious as that statement was, coming as it did from a journeyman portraiture artist to his master, we both knew that the portrait was far more flattering than the reality of Masgayl Factorius, one of the more junior, yet least self-effacing, factors in the city.
“It is not the way he looks,” replied Master Caliostrus, “not to himself and not to those who patronize his establishment, and not to his family.”
The problem was not with my eyes, but with those of Master Caliostrus, for his had become a slave to his desires for influential patrons, rather than lenses of artistic impartiality.
“You do not paint a man with deep-set beady eyes, even if his eyes are as hard and as tiny as those of a shrewt,” Caliostrus went on. “That is, if you wish to remain a portraiture artist in L’Excelsis. Without satisfied patrons, even if you become a master, you will not remain long an artist. You will not become a master, because I certainly cannot support or lend my name to a portraiturist who is insensible to the self-images of his potential patrons.”
“Then, Master Caliostrus,” I replied, gently setting my brush on the edge of the oils tray, “how am I to comply with the dictates of the guild? What of the goal of artistic precision?”
“Artistic precision, my dear Rennthyl, is the goal of obtaining the precise image that will please the patron. You most certainly did so in pleasing Craftmaster Weidyn and young Mistress Weidyn. So far, you also seem to be pleasing Mistress Thelya D’Scheorzyl and her parents.”
I had been able to please Master Weidyn because the true visage of his daughter had been pleasant enough and because he could not have cared less how true the portrait had been so long as his wife and daughter were content. The same looked possible with Thelya, although I had barely begun that portrait. I certainly had no problem with Caliostrus’s logic, nor with his desires to increase the girth of his wallet. My difficulty lay elsewhere. “As artists, do we not have a duty, in some fashion, to present an accurate and precise view of what lies before us?”
Caliostrus laughed, as I knew he would. “The only people in all of Solidar who reckon the need for a precision that grates upon all sensibilities are the Imagers of L’Excelsis. In fact, they might be the only ones in all of Terahnar. That is because power allows impartiality.”
“So you’re saying, master, that if I want to be impartial, I should not be a portraiturist, but an imager?”
“You don’t even want to try to be an imager, Rhennthyl. Renegade imagers, if they do more than minor imaging, risk their lives, even if the imagers do not catch them. In the outlying districts, imagers are considered disciples of the Namer, and people believe they create hidden names of ruin and despair with each image that they make real. Most of those who try to become true imagers die young, entering Imagisle by the Bridge of Hopes and departing in a cart over the Bridge of Stones. Most who do survive spend the rest of their lives slaving for their masters, trying to create images and devices that never were and never could be—or dying slowly as they fabricate parts of machines for the armagers of the Council.”
How was that so different from what I did, handling the portraits for those of lesser affluence for Master Caliostrus, mixing pigments, and combining oils, powdering charcoal, and a thousand other mundane and mind-numbing tasks?
“All you young artists think that you, too, could be great….” Caliostrus let his words die away into silence before punctuating the silence with a snort. “Greatness isn’t what you think it is, Rhennthyl. Be content to be a portraiturist. And fix those eyes.” He turned away without another utterance.
My corner of the large studio was the one in the southwest—where the light was harshest and brightest and washed out everything. But it did have a single window, one that was open because the fall air was cool, but not cold, and, while I’d always loved the use of oils to create, I’d never much cared for the odors of the paint. Most artists didn’t seem to mind, I supposed, because they only created a visual image, not one that embodied touch and taste and scent, although the very best paintings could evoke a sense of that.
From the far corner, Ostrius said, “He’s right, you know, Rhenn. In the end, all that matters is reputation and golds.” Standing by his easel, he held a palette knife he had just wiped clean. “The test of a reputation is whether the artist’s golds last as long as he lives.”
That was easy enough for him to say, since, as his father’s eldest, he’d inherit the studio and the reputation, not that the stocky Ostrius was not a capable portraiturist, for he was, and he’d just made master, if tacitly under the understanding that he would remain within his father’s studio for the near future. He was also anything but artistically adventurous.
“That observation is discouraging, true as it may be,” I pointed out.
“It doesn’t make it less accurate.”
Thinking about what Master Caliostrus and his son had said, before I lifted the brush to get back to detailing the vest of Masgayl Factorius, I glanced out the second-level window. As with most artists, Master Caliostrus had placed his workrooms and studios on the second level, with the gallery and storerooms below, and the family quarters above. From the heights of Martradon, one could see Imagisle a good three milles to the west, a granite ship pointed upstream in the River Aluse, its masts the twin towers of the Collegium Imago. From that distance the three bridges looked as slender as hawsers mooring that ship to the city that surrounded it.
The world and its parts are as they are; accuracy is a term man applies to his small creations.
At precisely one glass before noon on Lundi, Masgayl Factorius arrived at the second-floor door to Master Caliostrus’s studio. I had barely gotten there myself, after washing up, because I’d been working on grinding pigment stock in the shed in the rear courtyard, and the Belishan purple had been more than difficult to get off my fingers and from under my nails. I had to grind and mix the pigments—or those requiring greater care—not only for myself and Master Caliostrus, but also for Ostrius, who certainly couldn’t be bothered with such, and Stanus, who seemed unwilling to learn anything of any great difficulty.
My fingers were numb, of course, because Master Caliostrus didn’t believe in spending coppers on coal for heating wash water for apprentices or journeymen, at least not until the turn of winter. Yet a thorough washing was necessary, because the purple could pervade anything else I touched, and I didn’t want to spoil the portrait or one of the smaller studies I was working on to enter in the annual journeyman’s festival in Ianus, barely more than a month away.
“Good morning, honored factorius.” I held the studio door for him as he eased his bulk past me.
“Good day, such as it is.” He forced a smile. “Before we start, let me see what you have there, young Rhenn.”
I closed the heavy oak door and followed the heavyset factorius to the easel in my corner of the studio. He stood before the easel, then brushed back his thick and oily gray hair and nodded. I had widened the eye spacing just a touch, as well as lightened the skin beneath the eyes a shade or so. That would reduce their apparent beadiness.
“Not so flattering as one might wish, but accurate, and adequate. You do have an excellent touch on the vest, as well as the fabric of the chair—even if I did bring you a sample.” He turned and moved toward the far plainer chair in which he sat for me, taking off his silver-trimmed traveling cloak to reveal the vest and jacket matching those in the portrait. “But my daughter insisted that I be depicted in a chair identifiable as mine. Daughters are a man’s joy and trouble. Sons are merely trouble.”
“We do our best to be more than adequate, sir.”
Masgayl laughed, a sound comprised of a certain emptiness as well as amusement and rue. “You’re more than adequate, young Rhenn, and adequate is more than sufficient. Now that I am a factorius, it will not do that my foyer is without a portrait, but one by a proclaimed master would only declare my arrogance. No…modesty suits me far better, and I will get a good work from you at a lower cost than from your master, and you will gain in reputation as others see your work.” He settled into the chair.
I adjusted the easel. “You do not fear that they will say you have no interest in great art, sir?”
“What they say and how they will act are not the same. They will act on the prices of my goods, not upon my appreciation of art. Besides, art is no more than a craft, one that takes talent, there is little point in denying that, but a craft nonetheless…”
As I worked to get the squint in his eyes better, and catch the little crease that ran above the main one than extended from his left eye upward for just a fraction of a span, I found myself thinking about the factorius’s point that art was but a craft. Could everything be reduced to little more than a craft, a set of skills that those with talent and determination could master? My brush almost wavered, and I pushed away the thoughts. For the moment, the portrait came first.
I had but worked less than half a glass when the studio door opened and Master Caliostrus entered, carefully carrying a canvas. A chill breeze swept into the studio, and with the wind came Stanus, lugging the master’s traveling case with its paints, oils, solvents, and brushes. Caliostrus let Stanus pass, then set the canvas on the nearest empty easel before closing the door. He turned and inclined his head to the rope factor. “Greetings, factorius. I had heard that you now have a new device for twisting and braiding cable for deep-sea vessels.”
“I’ve had it for two years. The demand is so great I have just completed installing a second.”
“That must have been what I heard. People are talking.”
Masgayl snorted. “They always talk. Only imagers never talk. They don’t need to. And artists and portraiturists shouldn’t say much, but let their work speak for them.”
“We do try, honored factorius. When you are finished with today’s sitting, would you like to see the work I am doing for the daughter of Imager Heisbyl?”
“I am certain it shows an excellently attractive woman. Whether or not it resembles the lady might well be another question.”
I almost missed a brush stroke at those words.
“All my work resembles those whom I portray, most honored Masgayl.”
“Oh…I’m quite assured that it does, perhaps on their best days in the best possible light.” The factorius offered an ironic laugh. “Your journeyman does you credit, Caliostrus.”
After what Masgayl had just said, I wasn’t certain that I wanted that credit, but I said nothing and switched my concentration to the drape and the play of the light on the right lower sleeve of the factor’s bastognan-brown jacket. There was something there. I could see it…
Then, it was there on the canvas, just as I had visualized it, but I wasn’t aware that I’d actually painted it. Still, the brushstrokes were there, if a touch more precise than usual, more the way I wished they were than they sometimes were.
“He has talent and promise, honored factorius, and, if he continues to listen,” Caliostrus added with a touch of asperity, “he might even have more commissions such as yours.”
That was a not-so-veiled reference to Masgayl’s beady eyes, and I attempted to work on the smaller left section of the sleeve, trying to get the fall of the light and the creases just right.
“He might indeed,” agreed the factorius politely. “Is that the portrait you mentioned, the one you put on the easel?”
“It is indeed. It is as of the moment most incomplete,” Caliostrus said before lifting the canvas and carrying to where Masgayl could see it.
“Ah, yes,” nodded the rope factor, “a most flattering image, but one certainly recognizable as the younger Mistress Heisbyl.”
“I’m glad that you find it so.” Caliostrus’s words were strained.
“Don’t mind me, master portraiturist. I’m cynical about far too much in life. I’d rather make cables for ships, but I also provide rope for the gaolers in at the Poignard Prison. We all have aspects of what we do that we could do without.”
Master Caliostrus retreated with the portrait. Once he had placed it on his working easel, he motioned for Stanus to leave and then followed, inclining his head to the factor just before he opened the studio door. “Until later, honored factorius.”
Once the door closed, I went back to working on the area around the factor’s eyes. Caliostrus had been right about one thing—the eyes were central to showing a true likeness.
When Masgayl finally rose at the end of the glass, he stretched, then began to don his cloak, which even he might need against a wind that was more indicative of the winter gusts of Ianus than reminiscent of the pleasant harvest breezes of Erntyn.
“Young Rhenn, you are most unusual for a portraiturist, even for a journeyman.” Masgayl smiled courteously, but for the first time, I could sense a ferocity behind the smile. “The advantage of commerce is that one can be accurate and prosper. Doing so is far more…difficult…when one’s craft depends on pleasing the perceptions of those who pay. Before long, you will doubtless have to choose between accuracy and perception…if you have not already done so.”
“Sir.” I just inclined my head politely. There was little I could or should have said, not given my position.
He smiled again, as if he had made a jest, then turned and left the studio. For a moment, I just stood with the chill wind of the coming winter gusting past me.
Copyright © 2010 by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
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