By the time I left the residence of the im Vardi, the suns had more than peeked out from the horizon and begun their daily ascent; even now, the promised heat of the day declared itself at the edge of sensation, though the distance of Vaina from the Inner Sea spared us some of the humidity of the Sisters. For this I was thankful.
Ovaelo’s apprentices had risen early as well, perhaps earlier than I, and work had already begun inside and outside of the brick warehouse he had claimed for his workshop. I ignored those meandering around the outside of the building, their jerkins hanging open, untied, and their general appearance of those exerting more effort to look like they’re doing work without actually doing any than the work itself would require. In response, I assumed incompetence.
The inside of the workshop had much the same appearance as the first time I’d entered: a general blanket of darkness punctuated by alchemical lamps at the various workstations, the spilled illumination from those devices providing just enough to see the rest of the interior in shades of grays and blacks. None looked up at my entrance, as they’d committed themselves too desperately to the completion of their relegated tasks to give any attention to ought else.
I shattered this focus with a word, bellowing, “Ovaelo,” with as much bass and authority as I could summon. The name burst forth not as question but as statement, demand. There were starts and curses amongst the apprentices; at least one had jerked an errant brush across the canvas, creating a gash of color that would require hours to remedy. An atmosphere of threatening tension flared briefly as the young men and women shared angry glances with one another and considered riot. But this was not Ilessa, and the wayward behavior of unruly apprentices would not be so lightly tolerated in Vaina. Besides, when they saw the intruder upon their concentration, they quickly considered better of threats and resigned themselves to my presence, almost with a collective sigh.
“Master Ovaelo is not here,” one spoke up, though I could not their face behind a masking halo of bright light. “He’s gone early to the home of the im Norreni to work on a commission for them.”
“Fine,” I said, and made my way to the back room where I’d encountered the madman before. None followed and I closed the door behind me after igniting the alchemical lamps within.
Ovaelo’s personal workspace had been wracked by chaos, the outward demonstration of a mind too generative of creative ideas to bother with the petty requirements of everyday life. For all the mess, though, the tools of his trade—those he hadn’t taken with him, at least, had been immaculately cleaned and organized on a purpose-built desk in the room’s corner. The bristles of each brush had been obsessively cleaned, trimmed with impressive precision into various shapes and points.
Around the room, though, discarded works littered the floor—pieces of sketched-upon parchment strewn about, canvases begun and then stripped from their frames in a burst of frustration or a change of whim, half-finished paintings stacked in corners or leaned against the walls in precarious piles. I wondered briefly whether madness and genius must accompany one another, but recalled myself to the task at hand.
One by one, I sifted through the disarray of the canvases, discovering that some had in fact been finished and simply tossed aside. Some had clearly been started by the apprentices, with Ovaelo’s master strokes atop the blocking and basic shading of his underlings. Others appeared to have been ceased mid-stroke. There were paintings of nightmare creatures, of scenes from history and legend, of persons perhaps both real and imagined.
Among them, I found a finished canvas, recent by the look of the congealed and thickly painted oils atop it. A young man, one with features not too distant from those of Daedys and his family, nude with sword in hand, standing atop some slain beast of amorphous design, the pose in the style of ancient Cantic works, the scene undoubtedly from some tale I’d either forgotten or never read. The man had been painted with painful precision, every sinew and muscle highlighted with realistic intimacy and accuracy. The expression on the subject’s face held the hint of a sly smirk, ambiguously both inviting and derisive. I was convicted that I’d found a painting of Orren, one that told me far more than the painter himself had confessed. So far, at least.
I swept the painting up in an oil-stained dropcloth that lay under the easel in the center of the room, wrapped it to conceal the work within, and made my way from Ovaelo’s chamber, ignoring the protests of the apprentices who considered me a thief but lacked the will to stop me.
Only upon exiting the building did I realize that I didn’t know where to find the home of the im Norreni, though it couldn’t be easy to miss. I looked to one of the slacking apprentices leaning against the side of the brickwork in the building’s shadow, already evading the heat of the day’s suns. “Which way did your master go?” I asked.
He didn’t speak, only pointed. It was enough, and I set out in the direction he’d indicated, Ovaelo’s painting wrapped and secured under my arm. While the canvas and its frame were not heavy, the size of the work, which strained the last two joints of my fingers to keep a grip on the thing, made the journey less than comfortable and soured my mood. If it had ever been well inclined in the first place.
As I suspected, the home of the im Norrene family attempted no humility. Wherever possible, the edifice employed large stones, taller and wider than myself, carefully shaped using the town’s stone mill. The only brick of the building served to patch holes between the older stones—these had been painted in grays and tans to match the original colors of construction, but the attentive eye found them quickly given the great disparity in size between the stones used in the general construction and the clusters of small, rectangular brick sealed with copious mortar. A low stone wall, topped by an elegant wrought-iron fence in a style often found in the Sisters, separated the home from the street—or rather, the dirt path that served as a street in the New Town.
The iron double-gate in this wall had been swung open and left there; the one retainer of the family left to stand guard sat slumped against the wall near the home’s great door, snoring softly. Apparently the im Norreni had little fear of intruders or assailants, much to my advantage.
After watching the guardsman briefly to ensure that he slept deeply, I quietly strode past, gently trying the door. Finding it unlocked and easy on its hinges, I let myself inside.
The home matched the opulence of the other prominent families of Vaina; I need not describe it again, I think. In the middle of this complex lay a courtyard, decorated in its corners with some vegetation and brass statuary but open in the center and on long, evenly cobbled walkways centered on each side of the square.
A haven for the natural light of the suns, now sufficiently-risen to provide adequate illumination into this interior space, the courtyard proved the prime spot for Ovaelo’s work, and this is where I found him, the rest of the family and their servants gathered at the courtyard’s perimeter watching as the artist made an initial sketch of their eldest and most eligible daughter, a young woman of homely features but an impressive bearing that held a beauty all its own.
A piece of parchment stretched taut over the backing plate of the easel Ovaelo had brought with him, somehow secured to the device so that it made no movement as the artist slashed at it in short, sharp strokes with a piece of charcoal. Every few attacks he would step back from the easel, look afresh at his subject, frown, and select a different stick of charcoal from the small table the family had brought in for him to unfurl his roll of tools atop.
Murmurs began to run through the gathered groups, perhaps a dozen people, as my presence became known. A thin, well-dressed woman in a dark-colored dress tailored for active work—perhaps a riding dress—stepped forward into the courtyard as the wave of whispers reached her, her eyes clearly focused on me. Though my height, she managed to look down her nose at me, her hair in two tight buns high atop either side of her head, stray wisps extending out from them like seeking tendrils, like tiny bits of easy-going character attempting to escape the straight-laced form of their master. She reminded me too much of several tutors I had in my youth, forcing me to resist the automatic response of the embarrassed schoolboy.
“Who are you?” She asked, imperiously, though her pursed lips gave away her lack of surety. With the covered painting under my arm, I might well be one of Ovaelo’s apprentices, in which case she would have every right to scold and heap scorn upon me. But apprentice artists do not wear swords, as a general rule, and my clothing, though travel-worn and not comparable to her own finery, did bear the remnants of the dress of one of station and authority. When she made the sign of the Tree, I understood that she’d put enough of the details together to identify me.
Despite her warding gesture, she initiated a curtsy to follow. Not a deep or thorough one, not the kind she’d give to Lord Aryden, but just enough to make it difficult for one of my ambiguous social status to complain. Not that I had any interest in doing so.
“My lord thaumaturge,” she said with feigned welcome, “my apologies that my servants were so distracted as to require you to show yourself in.”
“Think nothing of it, Mistress im Norrene,” I told her. I realized I had no idea of her given name, hoped that we could end the formalities before this became evident. “I regret the intrusion upon your home, but I’m afraid I have pressing business with Master Ovaelo,” I said, tapping the covered canvas with my left hand.
Only now did the madman look to me, his hair wild as before, eyes bloodshot, visage dark and haughty with the judgment of a man who assumes he has no equals, in intelligence and creativity if not in social standing. He turned his head ever so slightly at seeing the package wrapped underneath my arm, but I could not judge the meaning of the movement.
“I will need a moment alone, Mistress,” I continued.
When neither I nor Ovaelo moved, she took my meaning. Clapping her hands, she ordered the gathered household to disperse until summoned again. The young lady standing as the painter’s subject disappeared faster than I could manage with the Art—apparently she did not enjoy standing still for so long.
After a few moments of the crowd meandering to and fro, being unsuccessfully herded by the im Norrene matriarch, the last of the stragglers finally removed themselves from our presence, leaving me alone once again with the artist.
He looked at the covered item under my arm and stroked his wild mustache and goatee with his left hand. “Now is hardly the time to make good on our arrangement,” he said, matter-of-factly.
I moved into the light of the courtyard now, stepping confidently toward him now that I had some leverage. I set the canvas, still covered, atop the ledge of the easel and leaned it back so that it rested covering the charcoal sketch. Ovaelo grimaced and ripped the oil-cloth free of the painting, revealing Orren’s nude form staring back at him with that enigmatic smirk. The man’s mouth dropped slightly agape before his brows furrowed and he poked at me with the charcoal, leaving little black splotches on my vest where he made contact. “Now what is all of this about?” he asked, the sharpness of his voice born of annoyedness rather than the fear or embarrassment I’d expected.
I should’ve known. “This is the boy, Orren, is it not?” I pressed.
“No. It is the likeness of the boy Orren, to be sure, but this is Xendarnus, a legendary hero of the Cantic Empire in its crusades. Do you not know your mythology, lord thaumaturge?”
I nearly punched a whole through the canvas right there, but I caught myself and recentered before allowing him to get the upper hand with such childish deflections.
“Master painter; he’s naked.”
“And? Lord thaumaturge, you are from Ilessa, surely you know how to appreciate the male form.”
“I don’t care that you’ve painted a nude man, Ovaelo. I care that you’ve painted this man nude.”
“A lover?” Ovaelo asked.
“Not mine, you fool, yours!” I worried for a moment that my voice carried far enough that the im Norreni might overhear, but then I wondered whether it would matter regardless.
“No,” the painter returned, straight-faced. “Not a lover. Not my lover, at least.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I did not love him, though he tried his best to make me.”
“So you were more than companions cavorting at the taverns, then?”
“Did we fuck, do you mean? We did, and delightfully so. Delicious as it was, though, the rest of the boy’s plots and schemes made the cost dearer than deserved.”
I thought to make an accusation, but I couldn’t tell whether the man was too mad to understand the implications of his admissions or simply didn’t care—or perhaps he was innocent of any wrongdoing altogether. Instead, I pried further. “What cost?”
“He only slept with me because he wanted me to make an apprentice of him, to take him back to Ilessa with me. Said he needed to escape this place, be his own man.”
“Did you agree?”
“Hah! Not in a thousand years would I have taken that boy as an apprentice. Not if he fucked like the Sapphire Queen herself! There was no talent within him, and I am far too great an artist to suffer the talentless in my company.”
“What happened when you told him, ‘no’?”
“The threats of a cantankerous youth, of course, all acid and vinegar.”
“What kind of threats?”
“He threatened to tell others of our affair, of course. I laughed in his face at the quaintness of his bucolic notion. Perhaps the prudes of a backwater such as this give scorn to such matters, but I am Ilessin. I know what it is to be alive, and human, and passionate—and that there can be no stigma in that. When he saw the threat was empty, he called me some names, though the ones I returned were far better. Then he said the strangest thing; I suppose intending another threat.”
“What was that?”
“He said something about serving a power greater than I fathomed, greater even than Lord Aryden, and I should take care not to cross him again.”
“What do you think he meant by that?”
“I thought what any good Ilessin would think—he’s spying for someone. Maybe another petty lord, maybe one of the Houses. Did you ever think how or why Meradhvor might have taken an interest in the amn Vaini in the first place?”
I brushed aside the accusation, at least for now. It was a possibility I couldn’t dismiss, but I presently had no evidence to suggest any tie between Orren and an outside power. “You parted ways after this fight?”
“Not before he stole some of my coin, but at that point, it seemed a small price to pay to be rid of him. I’d tired of him, and it was clear that he’d been having affairs with others throughout our relationship.”
He’d given me a motive, there was no doubt, but I couldn’t help but feel that he’d have stopped his mouth despite his narcissism had he anything to conceal.“That bothered you? Jealousy is unbefitting the cultured Ilessin such as yourself.”
“Hah,” he barked. “In and of itself, of course not. But it was only more proof that his interest in me was pecuniary and not truly passionate, and I must admit my heart took a blow from that knowledge.”
“Who might the other affair have been with?”
“This he never let on. I detected it in the small things, implications of his speech, inconsistencies of explanations about where he’d been when we were not together. You know what I mean, I’m sure. One has a sort of…intuition, about these things.”
“Did he mention Nilma, or the Lady Vesonna? Could it have been one of them?”
“More than once I had to listen to him drone on about one or the other. Insufferable, it was. He complained incessantly about his ill treatment at the hands of the Lady Vesonna, though it seemed bitterness that she’d rejected his attentions more than that she’d committed any true offense. With Nilma, it was the opposite. He heaped scorn upon her because she was smitten with him and he held no desire for her. Failed to see the incongruity in the two complaints. Alas, I am a painter and a sculptor, and no poet, or it would be the start of a wonderful tale of love and betrayal.” He smiled at me, devilish, knowing full well he could be describing the nature of the truth I currently sought.
“Nilma had some affection for the boy?” I asked, my interest piqued.
“Orren said so. Though, as I’ve mentioned the boy had no talent for art, so I wouldn’t place any wagers on his seeing the truth as it really is.” While speaking, Ovaelo removed the painting of the boy from his easel, leaning it against one of the contraption’s feet. I’d disturbed his work for too long and he intended to continue with it during our interview.
Someone had lied. Either Orren or Nilma. Given his reputation, it would be easy indeed to cast aside this hearsay as egotistical fantasy, but the girl had gone out of her way to feign a certain distance from intimacy with the young scoundrel, just as one rejected might. Perhaps she neglected to mention these affections for fear that suspicion might fall upon her. Perhaps she had good reason for that fear. It would explain why she had been singled out by the spirit, but Lady Aevala suffered the worst of the specter’s predations, making me unwilling to accept such a straightforward hypothesis as the jilted lover murdering the object of her desire—despite the weapon-like precision with which Nilma had moved her needles.
“But you think neither was his paramour?”
“No. The boy was cunning, but not so subtle as to disguise his feelings and motivations with such pretense.”
“Anything else you can tell me about him? Any detail might prove useful.”
Ovaelo made some casual scratches at the background of his sketch while thinking, wild hair bouncing slightly with his violent movements. “He would leave in the middle of the night, sometimes. Return hours later sweaty and exhausted—but without the reek of an amorous affair upon him. The smell of grass and ash, an aura about him that made one’s hair stand on end. Subtle, but noticeable to one already suspicious of his departure. I figured he was messing with the mechanica the Meradhvor envoy had brought with him, trying to find some way to steal them or gain some other advantage.”
I perked up at this. A minor aside for the painter, but to me, a lead of potentially great value.
At about this time, the mistress of the house peeked out from one of the perimeter hallways to check in on us. I nodded to her and waved her forward, picking up the painting of Orren/Xendarnus as she approached, careful not to allow her to see any of it before I covered it again in the oil cloth.
“My apologies for the interruption,” I told Mistress im Norrene. “Master Ovaelo has addressed the matter to great satisfaction; it seems a small misunderstanding on my part in retrospect. I’m embarrassed to have wasted everyone’s time, in fact. I’ll trouble you no more and leave the master painter to his work.”
I’d turned to leave even before she could answer. Behind me, I could hear her clap her hands loudly to summon the rest of the household, the kind of action that could only be successful in such a large building if she’d commanded respect and authority such that everyone had been waiting and listening for just such a sign.
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