I still had some hours until nightfall and another person to call upon, so I walked down the Old Vaina streets, slightly broader than those of the New Town below, but not by much, until I came across a large brick warehouse abuzz with activity.
In the open space before the building’s large wooden doors, two young men fussed about a large block of marble, white with swirls of blue-gray, chiseling at it delicately with a few taps at a time, small pieces no larger than a coin sloughing off with each effort. Between each assault on the stone, the two men stood back to look at the results of their work, occasionally conferring with glances and hushed remarks, their faces scrunched with worry and second-guessing.
They looked to me as I approached, saw my sword and staff, the wand at my side. Neither flinched nor made the sign of the Tree. These young men came from the City; they’d seen my kind before, commonly enough that our existence had become mundane to them, just another fact of life, like the Ilessin street gangs, or the mechanica on the docks.
“Ovaelo?” I asked.
They pointed inside the building perfunctorily before returning to their discussion, it subsequently becoming more heated as they whispered to one another in forceful outbursts that only just qualified as whispers.
Having no curiosity for the results of their conference, I went to a small wooden door in the brick of the wall that ran perpendicular to the wall in which the large doors had been set, forming an “L” between them.
The interior of the warehouse presented a strange chiaroscuro, mostly darkened compared to the brightness of the outside, with bright alchemical lamps shining upon each of the workstations where apprentices began works that their master would finish, blocking in basic shapes, ensuring proper perspective, and painting the first levels of shadow and highlight from the initial colors. Young men and women alike, all with the same look of intensity upon them as the men I’d encountered outside. In its uniformity I saw that the expression carried with it not only focus, but fear. Their master treated them harshly, brooked few mistakes, had no compunctions about letting them go and replacing them with other eager young artists.
The painter Ovaelo had a reputation in the City for being something of a mad genius, one of the most celebrated (and expensive) of the Sisters’ artists in several media, as the various projects at work in this makeshift studio attested. Most of the apprentices here worked around several smaller trestle tables pushed together to form a long rectangle, each station holding canvas on easel. There were, of course, the two men outside preparing quarried stone for sculpting, and in one of the corners of warehouse’s large central room, another apprentice, perhaps the oldest of them, worked at a piece of wood, gouging splinters out to form an image in relief—the beginnings of a woodcut.
The images in production had various subjects and stages of completion. Many displayed scenes from the Book—the Aenyr Ithladen spiriting away the child Ashaera as the Cantic authorities searched for her, Ashaera on the Tree before her sincerest followers, the first appearance of Ashaera to those same followers after they had seen her die, various stories of events in the early life of those who maintained faith in The One. Then there were those paintings that depicted stories from the legends of Creation, from the First War and the remaking of the Avar, stories that intertwined with those of the Book, but, by some at least, were held to be of a separate kind, either by origin or meaning. Amongst these: the Firstborn Nyryna, Annyn and Qaidha being gifted the three moons after Elqadh and Ellembea created them; Sedhwe’s creation of Daea; Eqata’s creation of the Verge.
Those apprentices who looked up at me at all from their painting quickly determined that their work demanded their attention more than I and settled back into their frozen faces of determined fixation motivated by both ambition and fear. The one working at the woodcut, however, stepped away from the block to meet me. He took a look at my worn and faded outfit and did his best to hide his disapproval—which effort was neither good nor successful
“I’m sorry, sir, but we cannot take on any more work at present. If you will leave your name and where you may be found, I’m sure my master will send for you when we do have availability—if we are not occupied with current projects until our return to Ilessa.” For a man in clothes rougher than mine, splattered with paint and clay, with oils for finishing wood and perhaps a little blood from mistakes with the tools of the trade, he looked down his nose at me as if he’d had much practice at the technique. Supposing who he worked for, I supposed he had.
“I’m not here to commission something,” I growled, “I am here to speak with your master. I am Lord Iaren amn Ennoc, thaumaturge of Ilessa, working on behalf of Lord Aryden amn Vaina, and I have questions for Ovaelo.”
Disdain turned to nervousness. “I am sorry my lord, but my master wishes not to be disturbed—and I must admit he may be in no condition to answer your questions at present. Could I beg of you to return tomorrow?”
“You could not. Where is he?”
Without additional words, the apprentice pointed behind himself to a door separating the main warehouse space from an additional room, perhaps one intended to be an office or the like.
I pushed past the man, his shoulder spinning away from mine as I brushed him, and stopped at the door briefly. I could hear singing from the other side. A bawdy tavern song from the Gracaelas Street brothels in the City, the words slurred but, ingeniously, chosen to remain relatively intelligible when sung in such condition and manner.
Waiting for the end of the verse—it seemed the appropriate thing to do—I pushed the door open enough to pass through it, shutting it quietly behind me.
Not quietly enough. A crescendo of verbal assault greeted me, starting low and baritone and rising in pitch, tenor and volume as it lengthened. “You fucking pissant, apprentice, shit in your breeches and more wax than brains in your head! Did I not fucking tell you to leave me the fuck alone, damn you? I don’t care what you’ve fucked up, or why, or how, so you can keep your bitching and belly-aching to yourself. This is not the fucking time for teaching! It is a time for you to learn to unfuck your own mistakes! Though it’s too late for your mother to cram you back into her womb, and that would be the ultimate amends for your pathetic fucking life and work! Do not even speak! Turn your ass around and hope you don’t get my boot in it as you’re leaving, you incompetent gutter snipe, you drab of distemper, you whore of watercolor, you harlot of hues, you punk of pigments! Go fuck yourself with your brushes; it’s the most pleasure you’ll get from them! And most of all: Leave. Me. The. Fuck. Alone!”
When he stopped to catch his breath, he heard me laughing—I hadn’t had the pleasure of such a creative string of profanities since leaving the City and couldn’t help myself. He almost started anew, further incensed by my audacity and foolish lack of fear of his retribution, but he noticed that I was not one of his apprentices and held back.
His hair and beard flew wild about him, jutting out at such odd angles as to nearly give the impression that he was underwater. He’d clearly neither trimmed nor brushed his locks in some time, his glassy and bloodshot eyes spoke of one who has stayed awake for days through sheer determination, supplemented by alchemical concoctions mixed with copious amounts of alcohol or other drugs. He looked every part a madman, his mouth smiling wide in an indecipherable expression, the lines of his cheeks and brow furrowed with meaningless fury.
To say that the smell of drink wafted from him is too soft an expression. Rather, it hung about him in a heavy cloud, like the poisonous aura of some fell creature of Sedhwe or Daea, intoxicating simply to contact.
His shirt had been torn open down the middle, his vest unlaced and also hanging free to the sides, exposing his hairy paunch, covered in splotches of blue and green, red and orange, paint that had made its way onto him rather than his canvas and that he’d never thought to disturb once so deposited. His pants, thankfully, remained laced tight, though he’d lost his hose and shoes somewhere along the way.
He pointed his brush at me like a wand, as if he intended some working of transmutation to change me into something less vexing but could not remember the formula or the words. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked instead.
“Lord Aryden’s investigator. You can call me Iaren.”
“Investigator or not, fuck off! You’ve ruined my muse.”
“If it’s already been ruined, Master Ovaelo, you have time to answer some questions.”
“Fuck your questions! It’s bad enough I have to remain in this backwater at some petty lord’s command, I’ll not be further insulted by being forced to answer your inane inquiries.”
“The sooner you answer my questions, the sooner I’ll be gone and you’ll be able to resume your work.”
The brush in his hand now pointed more like dagger than wand, and he stabbed the air with it as if a threat. “A few words and my apprentices will be happy to throw you out on your ass and I’ll have no need to answer anything.”
In response, I banged the butt of my staff on the stone floor, creating an echo that drew the artist’s attention to it. “I am a thaumaturge, Master Ovaelo. Your apprentices may fear your temper, but I will show them what true fear means should they raise their hands against me.”
He smiled, sincerely, at this, taking a step to the side while focusing on my face, his hands moving absentmindedly, as if drawing or painting something. “Yes! That look! That intensity! I should paint you. Would you allow me?”
I reeled with his sudden swing of mood like the horse I was riding jerked its course around like some cavalry maneuver for which I was woefully underprepared. “What?”
“Let me paint you and I’ll answer your questions.”
“Answer my questions and I’ll let you paint me.” I had neither time nor patience to sit for a painting at present, but we both hailed from Ilessa, and I figured I’d be able to delay my end of the bargain until our mutual return.
“Agreed. What would you ask me?” He wobbled and slurred his words as he spoke and I wondered how he could paint with any accuracy in such a condition. Not that I cared much about the answer.
“Tell me about working for Lord Aryden?”
“Not much different from working for any other nobleman. He’s overbearing and too used to getting his way, too ready to interrupt my flow with his amateurish and frankly asinine suggestions for my work, just as most of his peers are.”
“His people speak highly of him. They tell me they think of him as fair and compassionate in his rulership.”
“Probably because they never meet with him face to face. Hah! We all try to sell an image of ourselves to others, don’t we? Hell, that’s half of my fucking job—more than half! Help this merchant to seem pious in spite of his ill-gotten gains, make that slovenly lordling appear dashing and brave despite his obvious cravenness. And they pay handsomely for the privilege, for my images convey truth regardless of what the facts are!”
“Show me the painting of Aevala.”
“Alas, I cannot. It is with Lord Aryden.”
“Then tell me what truth you painted in it.”
“She, she required no dissembling as most do. Demure and pious, but intelligent and a witty conversationalist. There is much to refer her, and Lord Aryden is a lucky man. That is what I’ve attempted to convey in her painting, and that is more difficult than conveying any other sentiment. When the subject is true, where is there room for the imposition of my own truth?”
“How much longer would it take you to finish?”
“A day, perhaps, were I undisturbed. It’s more than half done, though between the Lady’s husband and the constant ministrations of that fool priest, Barro, I progressed but slowly.”
“Barro spends a lot of time with her?”
“Her personal confessor and advisor, he is.”
“What about after the appearance of the spirit? How long did you continue painting then?”
“I did not. Once her nightmares began, Lord Aryden pushed me into this dilapidated dump, telling me I could work for others in the town but could not leave until I finished Lady Aevala’s painting and he gave me leave.”
“So you did not encounter the spirit?”
“Never, though I suspect a revenant.”
“An interesting deduction, Master Artist, but I think not. This manifestation seems to be a disembodied spirit; I’ve heard no reports of an animated corpse being spotted.”
“No, I suppose not,” he agreed.
“Was the girl Nilma present while you were painting?”
“Any thoughts about her?”
“Few I’m afraid. An obedient and unobtrusive servant she seemed, but perhaps simply shy. She never spoke with me directly, but she did seem to open up in the servant Orren’s presence.”
“And did you have much interaction with him?”
“With Orren? Yes, we cavorted at the taverns together some evenings. He was a beautiful boy, and witty. But like a locust, also, eating his fill, leaving barrenness behind him and finding something else to destroy.”
“Gone from my presence, so as good as dead to me. Left Vaina, I’m told. At any rate, I expect never to see him again, and I’ll not lose sleep over that.”
“You seem to have come to a deep understanding of the boy in a short time. How is that?”
“That is the essence of the artist, to see much with little seeing. You, for instance, you are a man driven, by desire and ambition, but also by a need to forget something.”
“Hmph,” I deflected. “That’s all I have for you now, but I’ll return if I need anything further.”
“And to sit for my painting.”