The line between art and magic is a treacherous thing.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
I didn’t hear the first knock. It blended into the patter of rain against my window.
The full moon was shining brightly that night, penetrating storm clouds and my oiled cloth blinds to cast white pallor into my studio. I wouldn’t ordinarily have been working so late, but my commission was overdue so the moonlight was a boon. Supplementing with candles and my oil lamp, I had just enough light to work by.
The painting showed a winter landscape of my patron’s fortress. Massive stone cylinders rose out of relentless white. A frozen river wended diagonally from the eastern tower to the edge of the panel.
I’d gone out to sketch the fortress three months ago. At first, my patron had been afraid the building would decay if I sketched on the spot. I explained to him that the magic doesn’t work like that, but he still kept an anxious eye on the stones as my stylus crossed my tablet.
Magic frightens people almost as much as it intrigues them.
I mixed pale blue oils and dabbed color on to the painted riverbank. As my brush touched the panel, the water in the pitcher beside me began to tremble. A measure of liquid disappeared, as though swallowed past invisible lips. The painted river attained a new dimension, becoming tangibly cold.
A second knock sounded, followed by a third. Finally jarred from my concentration, I traded my brush and palette for the oil lamp and hastened to answer.
One of Lisane’s apprentices stood outside, water beading across his slender brows. His gloved hands shivered around the handle of his lantern. I recognized the boy from the last holiday I’d spent at Lisane's manor—Giatro. His infatuation with Lisane had been obvious. He’d followed her, lurking like a shadow cast against the wall, always ceding her the light as though she were the main figure in a composition and he a hastily brushed afterthought.
I’d been the same way when I was her apprentice.
Rain pelted the cobbles behind him. Giatro’s gaze flickered like a wavering candle flame across my face. “Mistress Renn, I have a message.”
“Come inside. I’ll boil some water. You must be freezing.”
I stepped aside to admit him. Giatro remained in the doorway. “Mistress Lisane has taken ill. She says she won’t last the night.”
Giatro’s voice was newly tenor, but grief gave it gravity beyond his years. Lisane dying? Rain tipped from the gutters above my house, pouring onto the cobbles like water from a pitcher.
“Has she summoned a physic?”
“One came last night.”
“And there’s nothing . . .?” I trailed off.
Giatro inclined his head. A droplet ran down the bridge of his nose and splashed across his hands. As it went, it reflected the hazel of his eyes, the silver buttons on his coat, the slick black of the cobbles.
“She wants you to come,” he said.
“Is the hall big enough for all her old apprentices?”
“She only asked for you.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d once thought I was special to Lisane. The intervening years had shown otherwise—or so I’d thought.
“Why?” I asked.
“Please,” Giatro said. “Will you come?”
Giatro’s lantern swung, casting weird patterns of light and shadow across our bodies. White petals driven down by the rain lay crushed in the grooves between cobbles, releasing scents of perfume and soil.
I pulled my cloak from its hook and followed him into the rain.
I was taught to paint by Lisane da Patagnia, whose skill at rendering inner lives transformed portraiture. She painted aristocrats and merchants—and sometimes others who could afford her fee—in luminous colors against stark backgrounds. Even when she painted merchant’s wives in sumptuous golden gowns or dukes wearing ermine stoles, her paintings always drew the viewer’s eye toward the plain oval of the face.
Her early work conceded to prevailing aesthetics. She softened sharp features and strengthened weak chins. The familiar iconography of portraiture crowded the panels: bowls of fruit to indicate fertility, velvets for wealth, laurel leaves for authority.
As her work gained acclaim, she eschewed such contrivances. Her compositions became increasingly spare. She painted her subjects emerging, solitary, from darkness or fields of color. She detailed their expressions with an unflinching gaze—pinched lips and watery eyes, crooked noses and sagging jowls. Yet each flawed face contained its own ineffable intrigue. It was impossible to look away.
Hints of magic sparkled across the panels, softening the fur on a collar or sluicing red in a raised wine glass. Her paintings flirted with magic, using its spare presence to captivate, just as Lisane herself might tantalize lovers with a hint of bare shoulder, inviting them to imagine more.
Lisane was born the bastard child of a maid who worked in the house of Ruschio di Gael, an artist renowned for shimmering sfumato. He was famously debauched—a drunkard—but he was also a man with modern ideas. When he saw Lisane sketching faces with charcoal in the kitchen, he decided to let her sit with his students.
She soon became his best pupil—the only genius who emerged from his school, just as he had been the only genius to emerge from the school of Umo Doani Nazatore, whose revolutionary invention of linear perspective had sparked the modern artistic renewal.
Lisane da Patagnia, Ruschio di Gael, Umo Doani Nazatore—a line of geniuses stretching back through time like links in a chain, each creating a kind of beauty the world had never seen. Every one of us who came to study with Lisane hoped to be the next genius to emerge from that line.
I was no exception.
It was summer when I first came to Lisane’s house. The sun shone brightly, casting rose and gold across squared stone rooftops, glimmering through circular leaded windows, emboldening the trumpet-shaped blooms that peaked out of alleys and window boxes. Women sat at upper-story windows, watching events in the streets, their heads and shoulders forming intriguing triangles. Shadows fell everywhere, rounding curves, crisscrossing cobbles, shading secretive recesses.
That wasn’t how I saw it as I walked to Lisane’s house that morning, holding the hand of the journeywoman who’d met my boat. It was Lisane who would teach me how to dissect the world into shapes and shadows. That day, I was still ignorant, overawed by the chaos and clamor of beautiful, crowded Patagnia.
The journeywoman, whose name was Orla, led me through an ironwork gate and small formal garden and into Lisane’s mansion. Russet tile spanned beneath painted plaster ceilings. A narrow hallway wended east to the kitchen at the back of the house; a staircase led to the mistress’s rooms. Orla guided me through an archway into the teaching studio.
The room was large enough to hold a court banquet. An enormous window filled one wall, its wooden shutters thrown wide to admit sunlight and fresh air. Journeymen and apprentices crowded the room, their conversations echoing off of the wide walls. A circle of easels stood in the room’s center; the nearest one displayed an unfinished still life of a dragonfly with carnelian wings.
“Is that Renn?” inquired an alto voice.
I looked up to behold my new mistress. Lisane stood taller than most men, piled auburn hair adding to her height. Her features were so sharp they looked as though they’d been cut out with a knife. She wore a saffron-hued inset over a white chemise, triangles of lace at her throat and cuffs.
A man, who I later learned was her fiancé, stood beside her, clearly annoyed by the interruption of my presence.
Orla nudged me forward. I stumbled, too dazzled by Lisane to mind my feet. “I'm Renn.”
“I brought her straight from the ship,” said Orla.
“Unharmed by her travels, I see. Well, what did you think of the water?” Lisane bent to address me as if I were a child even though I’d already reached my full, diminutive height by age thirteen. She examined my face the way I’d later learn she looked at things she wanted to paint—assessing, absorbing.
Her eyes were the shade of a cloudless sky, the perfect complement to her dress. My heart raced.
Lisane straightened. She addressed the man beside her. “This will only take a moment, Damaro. Go on without me.”
Damaro’s irritation was clear, but he leaned in to kiss the convex line of Lisane’s cheek. “I'll see you at the grotta.”
He departed and Lisane turned her full attention toward me. I felt like a lamp catching fire.
“Do you know why we agreed to let you study here?” she asked.
“I have an eye for color and composition,” I said, repeating what her man had told my father.
“And something else,” said Lisane. “Has anyone ever told you how guild painters catch the essence of their subjects?”
I shook my head.
Lisane rested her hand on my shoulder, giving me a warm smile. She looked to Orla. “Give our new apprentice a demonstration.”
Orla was several years older than me, plump with peach-soft skin and strikingly pretty features. When dealing with the sailors, she’d seemed competent and authoritative, perhaps shading into bossy. She’d always been kind—if abrupt—on the ship. Now she looked down at me with suspicious, disdainful eyes. “Yes, mistress,” she said.
At the time, I didn’t understand why her demeanor had changed so rapidly. Now I know she must have been looking at Lisane’s hand on my shoulder and seething with jealousy.
She approached the easel holding the unfinished dragonfly painting and made a show of regarding the panel from different angles. When she was ready to begin painting, she reached into a pouch at her waist and drew out a dead dragonfly pinned to a sheet of vellum. She laid the insect on a small table beside her easel. I recognized it immediately as the same dragonfly as the one depicted in the painting.
Orla wet her brush and feathered in the web of the painted dragonfly’s wing. The real dragonfly’s wing tip turned ashen and blew to dust.
“Orla’s been here for several years,” Lisane said. “She’ll leave soon to set up her own house. When you’ve been here as long as Orla has, we’ll teach you to paint like that.”
Perfecting a mix of ginger and white, Orla brushed highlights across the painted carapace. The dragonfly on the vellum shuddered and disintegrated. The painted wings acquired a new, subtle shimmer, a sense of incipient flight.
My heart fluttered. I thought it was love of painting—and it was—love of painting, love of Lisane, two crushed dyes blending into a rich new hue.
Giatro led me, as Orla once had, into Lisane’s courtyard. Rain pooled in the bowls of upturned leaves, weighing them until they bowed, pouring out their fill. We entered the main room. The tile was swept cleaner than I’d ever seen it, no doubt by the restless hands of grieving apprentices. Through the arched door, I glimpsed the darkened studio, echoes of rain casting navy gloom across the walls.
Giatro started up the steps to Lisane’s room. He paused, lantern uplifted as if he were a messenger on a hill, signaling to troops below. Gathering my skirts, I followed him up.
In her private chamber, Lisane leaned against her ornate headboard, her bedside lamp casting a yellow glow over her face and hands, the lace cuffs and collar of her nightdress receding into shadow. Her face was hollowed by illness, reddened eyes staring blankly upward. I was surprised when she called out.
“You brought Renn?”
Giatro began to reply. Lisane cut him off.
“There’s nothing else I need from you. Leave and get some sleep. Renn, come in.”
Giatro glared at me, suspicious and jealous—but also afraid for Lisane. He made his way out, letting the lantern swing low so that it illuminated his calves.
I moved toward Lisane’s bed. Familiar smells of wood polish and drying oils infused the air. My eyes traced the regimented angles of the furniture and the contrasting curves of the scrollwork decorating the walls. I remembered lying on Lisane’s bed during cloudy mornings, staring up at her vaulted ceiling and mapping out its lines and arches in the sketchbook of my mind’s eye.
Lisane stank of sweat and illness. I resisted the urge to take her hand.
She said, “I've been meaning to ask you here for the past few weeks, but foolishly set it aside. I need to make dispensations for the future.”
My mind raced to catch her meaning. “I'd be honored to take over your house.”
Lisane gave a dry, rattling laugh. “Orla will take the house. She has her own students. She’ll know what to do.”
I struggled to conceal my resentment, but I knew my expression must have betrayed me. Lisane had always said that a gifted portraitist must be able to unlock the secrets of the face, and Lisane was the best portraitist who’d ever lived.
“I see,” I said, tone flat. “Then what do you want from me?”
“I want you to paint me.”
This time, I didn’t even try to hide my frown.
Long ago, Lisane had dismissed my chances of becoming a master. She’d said that depending on magic was the sign of an inferior artist. It was true. I was inferior. I couldn’t make paintings seem real using only oils the way that Lisane and Orla could. That was why I eked out a meager career painting landscapes and still lifes that I could magically endow with a semblance of life—never portraits.
“I want you to paint me into the canvas,” said Lisane. “Tonight. Quickly. Before I die.”
Painters bide uneasily with the church.
The highest levels of the hierarchy have ruled that our magic does not come from the devil—although from time to time, the lesser clergy decry the vague, dark forces they imagine we employ.
Painting a man with magic is another matter, however. According to the church, employing magic to paint a man is a sin for two reasons. First because it is murder, and second because it may interfere with the dispensation of his soul. In case anyone should take a different view, the church is prepared to enforce their assertions with faggots and flame.
We have our own reasons for avoiding that kind of magic. We have records—diaries and observations carefully copied and passed down through generations—detailing what happens to those who try to paint men with magic. Such a painter need not fear the stake. The act itself will drive him mad.
Those who believe in demons say that opening oneself to so much magic creates an opportunity for infernal creatures to crawl inside and hollow you like a husk.
Lisane does not believe in demons.
She told me once that she believed the old artists had gone insane for the same reasons that painters sometimes used to perish from mixing poisoned dyes.
“We learned what ingredients made them deadly,” she said, “and we developed better techniques.
“We strove. We learned. We innovated. Once, art was confined to flatness, but Umo Doani Nazatore gave us the secret to dimension. Given enough time, we will demolish all the barriers that stand in our way.
“Someone will find a way to paint a man with magic.”
During the first months of my apprenticeship, I rarely saw Lisane. I caught glimpses of her remote figure as she drifted past with a manner as stately as a sailboat on a windless sea. I treasured the moments when she stood in the studio speaking to Orla or one of the other journeymen, her hands drawing shapes in the air as she explained the principles of linear perspective.
My painting progressed slowly. Magic was for journeymen and older apprentices, so I was a slave to mundane methodology. My eye for color was thwarted by my impatience. Other apprentices mixed their oils with turpentine in exacting proportions, coating their panels with heavy layers at first and then lightening the mixture until the top layers were almost all oil. I painted like my mother cooked, in haphazard dashes and dollops. My colors muddied. My paint cracked. Left to myself, I’d spend hours trying to catch the way the light pooled on the rim of a porcelain bowl, and then dash in the rest with harsh, rapid strokes.
Orla was patient with me. She tempered her sighs as she led me, time after time, back to the dyes to reconsider my pigments. Patiently, she described how each hue was created. She showed me how to dab a thread of grey onto a hint of yellow and create the color of lamplight shining from shadow. Overexcited, I’d rush back to my panel and ruin the day’s work with ill considered swipes.
Other apprentices quickly surpassed me. I was used to being the quickest child, able to decide whether to taunt my peers with their limitations or be magnanimous in success. Now I was the object of pity and patience. I liked it not at all.
Nights, I dreamed of Lisane, not knowing why she towered in my vision, her long, pale skirts swishing over me as if I were the tile in her entryway, my form supine beneath their cool caress.
After a year, I finally finished a painting that Orla deemed worth showing Lisane. It depicted an old, lopsided clay urn, with only one remaining handle. For once, my cracked paint worked with the subject, suggesting an imperfect glaze.
Lisane came to view my work that evening. She was sumptuously dressed for a banquet at another artist’s residence. Her umber silk gown rustled as she walked. Jewels flashed at her throat and wrists.
She examined the brushwork and reached out to touch one of the spidery cracks. “I'm sure you've done your best,” she told Orla, “but it’s clear that Renn requires intervention. Send her to my rooms when she’s done with whatever chores you’ve assigned her.”
Lisane was diffident when she gave her instructions, neither looking at me nor speaking with particular emotion. Orla watched me though, anger simmering behind her eyes, fingers clenching around her brush.
“I’d go mad,” I protested.
Lying in her deathbed, Lisane bided my statement of the obvious, expression unchanged.
“They’d burn me alive.”
She waved her hand. “I’ve made arrangements to have the painting stored in secret until after your natural death.”
“But your remains—”
”My agents have located some poor wretch suffering from ague. They rescued her from the gutter and installed her at one of my properties for her last days. I’m told she has the misfortune to resemble me in this miserable condition.”
“And what? You propose to kill her and replace your body with hers?”
“That is my proposition.”
“You've been intimate with half the guild. They’ll know it isn’t you.”
“Orla will take care of it. The face is only another kind of canvas.”
I stared blankly at Lisane. Feverish sweat damped her brow, but she lay calmly despite the pain she must have been enduring.
“All this planning . . .” I mumbled. “How many people have you told?”
“A few, only a few. They understand. I’ve given my life to art. Why should I stop now? One last devotion, painted by my most gifted pupil.”
I scoffed. “I'm not your most gifted pupil.”
“Not at painting, no. But at magic . . .”
“Depending on magic is the mark of an inferior artist. That’s what you say, isn’t it?”
Lisane shifted finally, the first sign of perturbation she’d given since I entered the room. She pushed aside the crisp bed linens as she struggled to sit higher. I moved to help, but Lisane pushed me away as she achieved her new position. She looked small, her shoulders pressed against the enormous, dark triangle of the headboard. Her face flushed with exertion. She leveled her gaze at mine.
“Painting requires many techniques. That’s always been your downfall. You’ve only mastered one.” She paused, her breathing labored. “The true difference between master and student isn’t knowing how to use the techniques at one’s command. It’s knowing when to use them. That’s always been my talent. I know when to use my tools. Now it’s time to use you.”
I stood still for a moment, hating her. Yet I couldn’t help being flattered as well, that of all her former students and lovers, it was me who she’d asked to memorialize her, to remake her as paint.
“I’ll go mad,” I repeated.
“Perhaps not,” she said. “Maybe you’re skilled enough to escape it. Who knows?”
The light flickered over her face, luminescence blending with shadow.
“Then again, perhaps you will,” she added. “And so? What is art but madness anyway?”
Through all the fog of love and hatred that had always kept me from seeing Lisane clearly, I nevertheless recognized what she was offering. This was my chance to transcend forgettable snowscapes.
“I'll paint you,” I said.
Lisane smiled. It was clear she’d never believed I might decline.
At first, no one was alarmed when Lisane’s school failed to produce a great painter.
Lisane still had time to train a protégé. Meanwhile, her students made modest careers painting murals or illustrating pages of expensive books. A few made names for themselves as portraitists, traveling throughout the ducal cities, taking on clients who couldn’t afford to travel to Patagnia and pay Lisane’s fee.
Five years passed. Ten. Fifteen. Some whispered that Lisane would be the end of her artistic line. Others countered that she was still young. Prudent voices prompted that genius was not like a crop to be planted in summer and harvested in the spring—that sometimes more than one brilliant voice would emerge in a generation, while other generations lay fallow. No blame attached, they said. It was simply the way of things.
Such good sense might have taken root if Lisane hadn’t given in to her frustrations. Rumors spread. Someone’s cook had overheard Lisane raging at her journeymen, accusing them of being lazy and venal and squandering her tutelage. Someone’s sister who dabbled in oils had gone to buy dyes and seen Lisane pass by three of her former students, refusing to stop when they called her by name.
Other women fell into fits of guilt about barren bellies, but Lisane was responsible for continuing a greater line.
Then the nadir—Firo Torreschi, a minor artist and one of Lisane’s past favorites, returned from Senze with the news that he was being patronized by an elected official. He insisted on attending a banquet at Lisane’s home later that week, during which he presented her with a small still life painted on a convex mirror. According to the gossips’ recounting, Lisane held the painting in her hand for a silent minute, and then shouted for him to be thrown out of her house, the painting after.
Now that Lisane’s frustrations were officially public, the wags frenzied with gossip. Those who’d nursed grudges against the flamboyant portraitist hinted that her lack of a protégé was no surprise given her heritage. How were students supposed to be properly nurtured by some slop’s bastard daughter?
By the time I left Lisane’s school to take my own commissions, it was clear the place had become nothing but a source of bitterness for her. She resented each moment she spent teaching students whose failures reminded her of her own. She allowed the journeymen to take over more and more of the instruction—but still, she kept the school open, hoping a student would appear who was worthy of becoming her protégé.
The day Lisane first summoned me to her chamber, I was newly fourteen, my birthday just passed. I was still ignorant of what all Patagnia knew—that Lisane would never marry her fiancé or anyone else. Lisane slept with aristocrats, artists, anyone she found alluring. In public, she boasted that she’d never spent more than one night in anyone’s bed. In private, she’d eye someone’s blushing wife and admit that she had occasionally spent a second night in a marital bed—with a different partner.
Few women could have escaped censure for such behavior, but Lisane was an exception to every convention. She was a genius.
Lisane had another famous peculiarity—from time to time, she chose an apprentice to share her bed. She selected boys and girls, well-bred and bastards, talented painters and those who struggled. Once she was through with them, the only trait they had in common was that they were all passionately, relentlessly fixated on Lisane.
I knew none of this as I entered her chamber that night. She was sitting in a high-backed chair, her garment partially unbuttoned, her jewels discarded in a glimmering heap atop a nearby chest.
She watched, heavy lidded, as I gazed around the room with awe. I’d only seen one painting of Lisane’s before—a small canvas that hung near the house’s entrance, showing a disheveled child standing in an archway. (It was a self portrait, I was later informed, of Lisane remembering what it was like to have been a child looking in on the world of wealth and art from the outside.) Lisane’s room was filled with her sketches. Some were drawn on fresh, expensive sheets, while others were scrawled hastily in book margins, as if Lisane had been overtaken by an irresistible inspiration. One series showed dozens of figures contorting into different positions. Another depicted a cathedral from an array of perspectives, each rendered with dizzyingly crisp two- or three-point perspective.
Lisane watched me stare until, at last, with a contemplative tilt of her head, she asked, “Have you tried magic yet?”
I shook my head. Magic was not for apprentices. That much I knew.
“This might be interesting,” she said.
She took me by the shoulders and directed me to a small easel where a spoiled panel had been prepared for new work. She gave me a horsehair brush and withdrew a moist cloth from her palette, revealing usable oils.
“What should I have you paint?” she murmured to herself, looking me over as if she were testing a composition.
She moved to the chest, shifting her jewelry so she could open the heavy lid. From inside, she dug out a worn velvet slipper.
“Feel the texture of this,” she instructed, extending the slipper. “Feel how soft it is. Run your fingers against the nap and see how it becomes rough.”
I did as she said, marveling in the delicate sensation. Spontaneously, I rubbed my cheek against it. The fabric felt rich, sensual. It smelled musty, like old sweat, but also held lighter scents underneath, reminiscent of perfumed people dancing in elegant halls.
“Ordinarily, you’d paint an impression of the slipper before transferring its essence,” said Lisane, “but let’s experiment. Pull the softness on to the panel with your brush.”
I stared at her, unsure. “I don't know how.”
“Follow your instincts.”
I dabbed my brush into faint yellow and turned to the panel. I concentrated on the memory of the slipper’s softness against my cheek. The bristles compressed against the panel as I made my first stroke.
Lisane inhaled sharply. “Well,” she said with a hint of amazement.
I turned back to see her staring thoughtfully at the panel, her usual air of detachment replaced with surprise. The slipper in her hands had begun turning ashen, but Lisane paid it no heed.
She reached toward my brushstroke. I watched as her finger neared; it did seem soft, as if she might brush real velvet instead of wood. She halted a moment before touching the oil, as if reminding herself that it was only an illusion.
She looked down at me, her expression changed from indulgent amusement to something else entirely. “You’ll never be a great painter. But the magic . . .”
I didn’t even hear what she said next. My heart beat at a furious pace. I knew she was going to kiss me a moment before she did. I closed my eyes to savor the feeling of her lips, softer than any velvet.
Once I consented, the house went into tumult. Lisane called Giatro to give him the news. Apprentices went out to notify journeymen and masters who had their part to play in the plan, preparing the ague victim and running errands elsewhere in the city.
A determined young journeywoman began setting up a canvas on an easel in Lisane’s chamber. I knew Lisane preferred canvases, but I had always worked on wood; I protested that I should be allowed to choose my materials, but the journeywoman informed me in a flat voice that Lisane had given specific instructions. Lisane, lying with her eyes closed, added nothing. The journeywoman hurried me out the door so she could begin laying out her bundled supplies.
I went downstairs. Through the archway, I glimpsed the teaching hall which resounded with voices and footsteps. Orla's name rang back and forth, an acoustic centerpiece to their plans.
I ducked away from the activity, moving into the kitchen where I’d sometimes spent time as an apprentice, sitting alone with a pan of coals after the cook had gone to bed. I was surprised to see Giatro seated on a bench by the fireplace, slumped over with his hands resting on his knees. Firelight lit the planes of his face with saffron, amber, and crimson. Smoke billowing from the low fire made his body smudged and indistinct.
The smoke stung my throat. Giatro looked up as I dabbed my watering eyes. He slid over on the bench, making room for me to sit beside him.
“People will find out.” His voice was a low grumble, thick with smoke and emotion.
I gestured toward the hall. “I thought all this uproar was supposed to prevent that.”
“It’s against the law,” he protested. “It’s not . . . it’s not right. You could still say no.”
A passionate flush made his skin ruddy underneath the flickering colors. He seemed so young, even though I’d been no older when I started sleeping in Lisane’s bed. “Lisane, she . . . favors you . . . am I right?”
His flush deepened. He looked away.
“I know how—how hard it is to let go of someone when you feel that way, whether it’s an illness that comes between you, or something else.” I paused. “She’s not going to live through this whether or not I paint her. You know that, don’t you?”
Giatro turned beseechingly toward me. His position shifted the play of shadows and light. His right half brightened while his left fell into darkness, dividing his face vertically into yellow and black like a festival mask. “What will happen to her soul?”
“I don't know,” I said, as gently as I could.
My other answer—the genuine one—was that I didn’t care.
I never knew which were more splendid: the nights I spent in Lisane’s bed, or the mornings I spent drawing by her window.
At dawn, she would pull back the heavy drapes that curtained the bed from the world at night, and I’d get up to throw open the wooden shutters, letting in the sun and fresh air. Below, women made their way through the streets, chattering as they carried jugs to the river. Early light brought out undertones of rose and lavender in the nearby stone buildings and dazzled off the cathedral dome just visible in the distance. Peddlers carrying meat and fruit stopped to knock at familiar doors, waiting for gruff-countenanced cooks to emerge and haggle. Breezes carried the scent of their wares to our window, along with the echoes of women’s chatter and footsteps on the cobbles.
Lisane reclined on the bed, watching as I sketched. She gave me fresh paper to work with instead of the wax tablets the apprentices used, which never took precise lines, however sharp the stylus.
She taught me the principles of composition. One morning she saw me begin sketching a set of majolica dishes she’d lain on a chest beneath the window. “What are you doing?” she demanded, roused from her bed. “You can’t just draw what you see. First you have to arrange it into art.”
She taught me to arrange objects so they created drama with different shapes and sizes. The eye was drawn to curves, she said, and to triangles. A tea cup’s handle could gesture the eye toward a pitcher, which in turn rose tower-like above a stack of plates. Or a platter might lead the eye to a tall candlestick, which in turn would draw the viewer’s attention to a silver finger bowl set behind the others as if it were an afterthought.
“Art is lain out in shapes,” she said, “and brought to life with color.”
She instructed me in linear perspective, the technique that had been invented by her teacher’s teacher, Umo Doani Nazatore. Begin by viewing your composition as a window on another plane, she said, teaching me to draw the painstaking lines that determined whether surfaces should be lengthened or foreshortened.
I loved the beautiful work that could be created using linear perspective—but I was not made for methodical measurements. I worked for hours, struggling to sketch the lines correctly, but they always came out sloppy and badly placed.
When my eyes welled with frustration, Lisane was always there to lay kisses on my clumsy fingers and up my arm, her body pressed against my back, her breath warm in my hair.
“Let me show you again,” she’d say, guiding my hand so the art was drawn from our mingling.
Lisane looked mad under the flickering oil lamps. Yellow light highlighted her sallow undertones and brightened her feverish eyes.
I suddenly did not want to paint her at all. “We should wait until morning,” I said, gesturing to the shutters.
Lisane gave a fervent shake of her head. “It must be now.”
“The light . . .”
“There’s plenty of light.”
Giatro’s objections didn’t seem so easily dismissed anymore. “What will happen to your soul if I—”
“My soul! Spare me your maundering. Paint! It must be now!”
I forced my fingers to remain steady around the brush.
The journeywoman had lain out a rainbow of mixed paints, preserved wet and ready by techniques I didn’t know. I dabbed carnelian onto horsehair. The shade was a vivid memory—the same as Orla’s long-ago dragonfly wings—wholly inappropriate for sallow Lisane.
I went to wash the brush. Lisane called out, “Use the red.”
I turned back. She’d pulled herself up against the headboard. The whites of her eyes were clouded and bloodshot. Her mouth gaped into a grotesque expression.
Her tone was like a knife. “Did you think painting a person would be like painting a slipper?”
“Don't think. Paint!”
With an ordinary object, one begins by painting a representation. The careful painter will render a detailed facsimile. Magic can be done with less—even a hint of yellow can steal a measure of velvet softness—but there must always be something that reflects the real object.
Or so I’d believed.
I mixed carnelian and yellow, slopping them on in messy, concentric whorls. When my brush seemed inadequate, I used my fingers, my palms, my face, whatever parts of my body I could bring into contact with the canvas.
Lisane’s breath hissed through her lungs. I turned, afraid I would see that she’d disintegrated into a heap of ashes—but she was still there, leaning toward me, wearing a predatory look.
“Keep painting,” she said. “You’re doing it. You see?”
The whites of her eyes were wholly red. Her skin dripped like wax, hanging in folds from her skinny bones.
“Stop staring at me! Paint!”
She shrieked with all the remaining power in her withered lungs.
“Paint, blast you! Paint!”
The slipper had turned to ash. People decayed in different ways.
“She’ll get bored with you,” Orla said one afternoon when I was late for instruction, my clothing still rumpled from Lisane’s bed. Her tone was low, but jagged with resentment.
I tried to pass her and gather my wax tablet. She caught my shoulder.
“It happens to all of us,” she said. “It happened to me. It happened to Xello. It happened before him, too, to Rey and Cosiata and I don’t know how many others. Most of us are from the city. At least we knew what she does. It’s not fair that no one told you.”
I felt flushed. I tried to pull away. She held fast.
“Did she teach you magic, Renn? Tepri said you told her that Lisane showed you how to paint velvet.”
“Tepri’s a liar.”
“I’m trying to help you, Renn!” Orla shook her head. “Lisane is getting desperate. She’s started doing strange things to the apprentices—she says if normal teaching techniques only produce normal students, then she has to act exceptional. She wouldn’t let me learn any magic at all until I’d mastered everything else. Now I can hardly use it. It’s like a limb that atrophied. What’s going to happen to you?”
I held still, breathing hard. Orla’s grip was painful on my shoulder, but that didn’t matter. I couldn’t accept what she was saying about Lisane.
“There’s a reason no one teaches magic to apprentices, Renn. It changes how they relate to art. She’s going to ruin your ability to paint—if she hasn’t already. And then she’s going to throw you out of her bed, too. You won’t have the art. You won’t have her. You won’t have anything.”
She tried to hold my gaze. Her eyes were too deep. I turned my head.
She released my shoulder. Her next words were so soft I barely heard them. “I didn’t believe it either,” she said, her skirts rustling as she turned to leave.
It should have taken longer, but the magic was feverish. Morning came. Day passed. Night fell again. My brush moved with impossible speed and surety.
I’d known Lisane before. Now I knew her better than I’d ever known anything.
I painted the furled anger of her childhood, growing up in the shadow of her household’s disdain. A crack of possibility opened when Signore di Gael accepted her as a student—but even that joy was tempered by her simmering fury at always being treated as less than, as if she were some kind of dog that had jumped onto the table in the middle of a banquet and insisted on eating his supper off of silver dishes.
Then there was the glory of painting. The splendor, the fascination—the recognition! Praise temporarily chased away her anger. Lisane sought accolades from patrons, esteem from peers, devotion from admirers. Nothing salved her better than the adulation of her student lovers whose kisses mingled awe and desire. She left them smoldering as she passed from one to the next, always seeking new, white-hot passions.
The figure in the bed had become even more frail now. Her bulbous head loomed above her withered torso, dominated by bloodshot eyes and cavernous mouth.
“Keep painting!” Rage hissed through Lisane’s teeth. The painting had stripped her façade, leaving nothing but furious ambition.
There were things I had to know.
“Why did you teach me magic before I knew how to paint?”
She loosed a feral snarl.
“The usual techniques weren’t working,” she said. “I had to innovate, to use a different tool.”
I’d known the answer, but to hear it—I simmered with bitterness. “You ruined me.”
She jabbed a desiccated finger toward the canvas. “If I hadn’t dared to risk breaking you, you’d never have made that! You’d be some ordinary Orla, preparing to take my house and leave a legacy of mediocrity. You’re my true heir. The only one who was worth my time.”
“If I’m your heir, then give me the house.”
“What would you do with it? Paint miserable nothings? Paint the dying until someone turned you in and they dragged you through the streets? You’re the last of my line. In a hundred years, when there’s no one left to be punished, my estate will bring out the painting. Then they’ll see. They’ll see what you did. They’ll see what I made you.”
Her teeth shone with saliva. Her fingers clutched the air.
I wanted to flee. I wanted to kill her. I did the latter. I did it with paint.
Lisane didn’t even say she didn’t want me anymore. She just barred her door and told the cook’s son to keep me out.
Despite his crippled left foot, the cook’s son was enormous—the size of the duke’s dancing bears. Not that he needed much strength to deter me, fourteen years old and still the size of a younger child.
I flailed against him. “I always come in the evening. That’s what I do! Ask her! She’ll tell you to let me in! She’ll tell you—”
By now an expert in detaining Lisane’s rejected lovers, Colu caught my fists as I tried to pound his chest. He let me thrash until I began to cry and then he led me quietly downstairs. I expected him to return me to the apprentices’ quarters, but instead he took me to the kitchen and sat me before the foul mouth of the oven.
He brought me a stale sweet from the previous day. I nibbled on its edges, devoid of appetite. “It’s what she does,” he said. “Nothing to do with you.” Sotto voce, he added, “Best forget it.”
I should have listened.
Instead, I waited until evening when Lisane met with the journeymen to discuss the apprentices’ work. The other apprentices were doing chores or snatching a few moments to sit outside with a crust from supper, enjoying the last of the night. I lingered in the shadows behind the archway until I couldn’t bear it anymore.
I threw myself at her skirts. The journeymen drew back, laughing nervously. “Renn!” Orla exclaimed, reaching to pull me away. I ignored the plump fingers stretching toward me.
“It's a mistake!” I shouted. “Tell Colu you didn’t mean it. I don’t know what I did, but I won’t do it again. Please! Let me come back. I’ll get better at painting, I promise. I’ll do whatever you want.”
I still remember the look of disgust on her face as she pried me away from her skirts.
Even then, I could have left. Instead, I ran to the bench beneath the window and began smashing the dye pots.
Someone moved to restrain me but Lisane held up her hand to stop him. “Let the creature tire itself.”
I ran back to the easels and toppled them, one by one. Half-painted panels clattered across the floor. I cracked one against the wall. Wood splintered. I reached for a second. Finally, Lisane decided she’d had enough.
“Where is this one’s work?” she demanded.
Orla was crouching by the wall, her hands thrown over her face like a painted mourner. I thought she was ashamed of me, but now I wonder if she wasn’t feeling a deeper shame. What similar scenes might played out before I entered the house?
Slowly, she lowered her hands and raised her eyes. “In there, mistress,” she said, gesturing vaguely to the heap of panels.
“Locate it,” said Lisane. “Now, please.”
Laboriously, as if pushing herself through an invisible substance, Orla went to the middle of the room and dug through the pile until she found my most recent effort. She laid it carefully on the floor.
Lisane gave it a brief, disgusted glance. “This one’s work is not improving.”
Her gaze moved from the painting up to me, her expression displaying utter loathing. She shook her head and swept out of the room, leaving others to straighten the mess.
Orla began picking up the panels. One by one, the other journeymen stooped to help. A sweet-smelling dusk breeze blew through the open shutters, ruffling their sleeves. It was dim and the shadows were gathering.
Angry oranges now, bright and uncompromising, jagging down the canvas like lightning bolts. Snarls of unflinching, determined white, tangling in the corners and then stretching into tendrils, writhing blindly toward something neither they nor I could reach.
When I finished at last, I steeled my nerve to turn back to the bed. Lisane was gone—not a husk, not an ash, not a trace. Only her rumpled sheets remained beneath her enormous headboard.
Whatever had happened to her soul, it was finished now.
I stood shaking by her empty bed for a long time, wondering if I was mad. I did not feel mad, but I did feel different: a trifle colder, a trifle more resolute.
The angle of the sun’s rays shifted through the shutters, creeping toward me across the floor. Eventually, Orla came up the stairs. She lingered in the doorway, holding a lit candle even though it was daytime, her head bowed as if she was afraid to see what I’d done.
Age had stolen the peachy smoothness from my rival’s skin, but she’d gotten heavier instead of lining so she still looked young. Wrapped around the candle, her short fingers were rough, her knuckles knotted. Stained fingertips testified that she continued to paint even though many teachers became indolent once they had students.
She braced in the doorway, ready to defend herself. “I wasn’t sure if it was over,” she said, glancing at the empty bed for a moment before looking hastily away.
I wanted to berate her for standing in front of me, acting as if we were equals when Lisane had given her the house, had given her everything. Instead, I snapped, “There are no ghosts here.”
“Of course not,” she said, looking guiltily at the lit candle. Cautiously, she set it on Lisane’s bedside table before snuffing it out. “You’re not—” she began. “You don't seem—”
“I’m not mad.”
She peered shrewdly at my face. “No,” she said eventually. “You don't seem to be.”
“Did Lisane tell you I would be?”
“She said to be careful. She knew she was taking a risk.”
“You mean I was taking a risk.”
“Lisane thought you might have enough magic to protect you . . .” Orla said.
I shook my head. “It wasn’t the magic.”
Orla raised her brows. “No? Then what?”
I tried to imagine what it would have been like to paint a stranger, to be overwhelmed with all their unfamiliar memories and desires. I’d had a lifetime of bending myself around Lisane’s passions.
I didn’t want to discuss it with Orla. I gestured at the portrait to distract her. “It’s done.”
Orla had been avoiding the canvas until I called her attention to it. Now, at last, she turned.
A tremor ran through her body. She stepped carefully forward, approaching with a mixture of reverence and fear. She reached out to touch the surface and then pulled her hand back as if it were radiating heat.
“It . . .” she said. “I don’t know what it is. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It looks . . . determined. Passionate. Angry.”
She moved even closer, angling her head as if preparing for a kiss. The expression on her face was beatific. Wisps of hair fell loose from her cap and the morning light seemed to make her features glow. She reached out again. This time her fingers skimmed a white tendril.
As I watched Orla’s rapture, a sudden realization struck me. I no longer loved Lisane. Something had changed during the day and nights I’d spent painting. The expression on Orla’s face was familiar, but also foreign, a memory of something past.
Orla shook herself like a bird after a bath. She turned from the canvas. “We need to take it down to the cellars. Lisane left instructions. The journeymen are preparing. I’ll let them know it’s ready.”
“Must you?” I murmured despite myself.
She blinked at me as though I’d gone mad after all. “What else would we do?”
My gaze slanted away. “I'm being foolish.”
“No,” Orla said, almost sighing as she looked longingly over her shoulder. “Anyone would want to display it. It’s astonishing, Renn.” Her voice was quiet, but hard with pain. “She said it would be.”
Lisane, oh my Lisane. You spent your life making me. Then I spent my heart remaking you.
After the disaster in the studio, I never begged you to take me back again—but I still followed you when I could, hiding in the shadows so you wouldn’t know I was there. I watched you instruct the other students, and in those moments when your fingers inevitably intersected theirs, I imagined their coolness brushing mine. I reveled in your lingering scent. You smelled more like paint than flesh, but wasn’t that the way it should have been? You always cared more about art than bodies.
All of us watched you from the shadows. Orla and Giatro and Xello and Rey and Cosiata, back to the first. The painting of our lives shows you striding forth brilliantly into the light while the rest of us crouch in your wake, hastily sketched into the background by an artist late on his commission.
I watched from the top of the stairs while they prepared to take the portrait down to the cellars where it would bide until all of us were dead. A journeyman covered the wet canvas with a protective cloth. Another, holding a lit oil lamp aloft, led the way out. Orla followed, cradling the wrapped painting like an unwieldy child. Others trailed behind, solemn as a funeral procession.
Giatro was the last to go. He lingered in the lee of the doorway, watching the others. Even from a distance, I could see he hadn’t slept. His eyes were hollow and dark, smudged beneath with a color like ash. Without thinking, I saw him as a composition of shapes and colors: the oval of his head bowed toward the shaking rectangle of his chest, his newly shorn hair dark against his pale scalp.
He wept alone in the shadows for a few moments before departing.
When the hall was empty, I descended the stairs. I crossed away from the basement, my footsteps heavy on the russet tile, and pushed open the heavy oak door that guarded the manor from the street. The morning was overcast, the foliage deep emerald against the white. Complex shadows folded beneath the shrubbery, changing shape as the wind tousled the leaves. The sundial’s shadow fell, arrowlike, across stone and herringbone brick, pointing toward an early hour.
I could never paint anyone else into canvas, never make another masterpiece. I would always be surrounded by tools I could never master while being forbidden to use the one I could. I’d return to my cold studio to spend my life painting pedestrian landscapes for clients who wished they could afford better artists.
And yet, I’d gained something, too. I’d spent my life trying to please Lisane. Now I was finally free to move out of her shadow.
I trudged across the meandering pathways, enclosed by the heavy scents of late-blooming flowers and the whistle of lonely birds. Overhead, the clouds blew into new formations of grey and white. My hand lingered on the latch for a moment before I opened the gate and left Lisane behind.
“Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia” copyright © 2012 by Rachel Swirsky
Art copyright © 2012 by Sam Weber