The Ivory Sun was brilliant on the day the orphan arrived at the Citadel of Six-and-Twenty Wonders. She had come across a desert and a half, from a small mountain town of no repute, a town with only three moons and no stars at all to speak of. The girl’s name was Rayyana, and she had come to the Citadel to paint.
She walked through the outermost gate of the city of Queniyya twelve minutes after dawn, entered the palace at half past ten, and slipped inside the office of the Court Pintador an hour before noon tea. She carried nothing but a small burlap sack in one hand and a portfolio of old paintings and drawings in the other. The Pintador was caught off-guard from the start; she bore no formal letters of introduction or tokens of past patronage, and placed her portfolio on his desk with nary a curtsy nor bow.
He looked down at her over the edge of his spectacles, twisting the clockwork gears on the side so he could see her properly. She was a small dark thing, like a smudge of charcoal on vellum. Her horns were taller than was fashionable for women at the time, perhaps adding three inches to her otherwise unimpressive height.
“My name is Rayyana,” she said, looking up at the Pintador with unblinking eyes. “And I would like to paint for the Contessa.”
Such forwardness! Letting out an awkward cough, he reached for her portfolio rather than trying to come up with a proper response. Stifling the urge to make inroads on small talk, he flipped though the sheaf of loose canvas and parchment, taking in the lines of ochre pen and washes of umber ink. There were little clockwork sparrows that seemed as if they might fly from the pages, hazy washes of sky and sea and smoke, hands and eyes and horns that by themselves conveyed more emotion than many finished portraits he’d seen. He frowned; this was all highly irregular.
“This is all well and good, but where are the heraldries, the astrologies, the cosmograms, the tarochi pictograms? Has no one taught you these things?”
“…No, your lordship?”
He had expected her to lie; artists were notorious liars, after all. What he did not know was that Rayyana, just like her paintings, was highly irregular. She had told the truth because she always told the truth; there had been no stars in her village to teach her how to spin lies or weave false smiles.
She was looking at her feet now, and at once the Pintador felt guilty. How was she to have learned the right and proper way to depict the distinguished while living in some backwater village with a mere three moons? The Pintador himself sometimes forgot which side to put a subject’s major arcana on, and whether the sigils of knights were to have moons dexter or moons sinister, and if alizarin-glaze was an acceptable thematic color for a portrait of a widowed clockmaker having an affair with an archdama’s son. “What can you do then?”
“Paint?” she said, although she sounded unsure enough that the Pintador would have been inclined to doubt her had he not seen her work.
“Hmm,” he said, taking pity on her. “Well, perhaps we can find some work for you.” He shuffled through a stack of portrait request forms, taking care to avoid any submitted by figures of exceptional importance. Finally he found three at the bottom of the stack that lacked any references to old family names held, great deeds done, or large sums of money owned. “I can give you three commissions,” he said, handing the papers over to her. “You will paint them to the best of your ability, and if they are pleased they will pay you, and perhaps recommend you to their associates. Do you understand?”
The girl nodded twice in rapid succession before reaching to take her portfolio back from the counter. The Pintador noticed that her hands were shaking like the track before an oncoming train; he wondered if she was excited or afraid, and felt a brief twist of regret for the difficulty of the portraits he had given her.
Once the elation in Rayyana’s stomach had calmed to the point where she was once again capable of walking without breaking into hops and skips, she went in search of a place to live. She finally found lodging in a small side building of the citadel that a tarnished brass plaque called the Forsythia court. The rooms lived up to their name; a sharp thicket of yellow flowers crowded the courtyard so thoroughly that the paths between them were invisible, and any brave enough to enter the fray of twigs and blossoms were soon reduced to bobbing heads and horns barely cresting the flowers.
She set down her bags on the lintel and gazed about, hardly believing her good fortune. The walls were not paneled in rosewood or brass as had come into vogue in more recent years, and the floor was a rather unfashionable wood parquet, but to Rayyana it was a veritable palace. There were dozens of little shelves carved into the limestone, with tiny sconces and buttresses to support them all. More importantly, the diamond panes were wide and let in plenty of light to paint by.
After inspecting the rooms she laid out the contents of her portfolio and valise: the sum of her worldly possessions. There were exactly four old paintings of home, two rolls of canvas, eight tubes of paint, tinctures of linseed and turpentine, a packet of oxhair brushes, and a single change of clothes.
The day had gone down into blue-shadowed dusk when her first visitor arrived, so quietly that she almost missed him standing in the hallway.
He was a wispy man that seemed almost a moving painting himself, built of hazy brushstrokes and soft shadows rather than flesh or blood. A large bronze tea kettle nestled on the crown of his head, issuing occasional clouds of steam and spiced scents.
He stepped into her apartment, taking in her old canvases and tiny valise with unblinking eyes. “The tea today is lemon zest,” he finally said. He had a deep, sonorous voice that swelled to fill the room as if it were an oven filled with rising bread. He kept his gaze trained on the windows and the forsythia beyond as he spoke; Rayyana wondered if he even knew she was there. “With infusions of clover-honey, grapefruit rind, and tentative optimism in the face of new opportunities.”
He faded into the shadow of the hall with as little fanfare as he had arrived by. Rayyana contemplated the empty doorway for a moment before shrugging. As omens went, that was as good as any. She had always liked lemon.
A fortnight later, Rayyana waited with baited breath for her first client, heart pitter-pattering like faulty clockwork against the lining of her chest. She had taken extra care to wipe all the paint stains from her hands and face, and had braided her hair into seven parts rather than her usual three. She held an old rag soaked in turpentine, clenching and unclenching it in a peculiar sort of rhythm. Her client, a Sir Hassino De’Saleniyya, had an impressive list of accolades and awards to his name, according to the notes the Pintador had given her. Order of the Iridium Eye, second class. Three Jade Turtles, awarded for exceptional assistance to the High Nobility. Chief Dentist to the Duquessa of the Waxworks. What must such a man look like? She pictured towering antlers, each horn sharp enough to break skin. His eyes would be sharp too: pale and flinty like a January sky. Would he walk like a normal man, or would every step be a stride, every pause an attack lying in wait? The more Rayyana thought, the more twisted the rag in her hands became, until it resembled the burls of an ancient oak tree.
When the door to her workshop swung open half an hour after noon tea and Sir Hassino, it came as something of a shock that he looked quite normal. He only had two horns, and they were no more fancifully curved than her father’s or brother’s had been. The cloth of his suit was fine but plain, his face had been carved with the sort of soft wrinkles that might touch any older gentleman, and he had no alchemically, mechanically, or magically enhanced limbs to speak of. Rayyana found that she was almost disappointed.
Unfortunately, he seemed equally disappointed by her.
“I have been valet to three generals in the Imperial Army, and head dentist to the Duquessa of the Waxworks herself! I will not be painted by some two-bit starless slip of a girl who cannot even be bothered to paint my heraldry correctly, or come up with a proper bouquet of theme colors!”
If he was so important, why was he hiding as a miscellaneous hanger-on in the court of a provincial Contessa? But though she’d not been raised at court, Rayyana did have some measure of tact and abstained from asking.
“Perhaps I don’t know sinister from dexter, my lord,” she said, steering him away from the door and onto a small stool she had set up by her easel. “But I believe I know a thing or two about painting people, and you are, after all, a person.” Realizing this could be taken as impertinence, she hurriedly added “and a very celebrated one at that.”
“See that you remember it. And paint me in a flattering and youthful light,” he said as he settled onto the stool, “or I’ll have you blacklisted from ever working in Queniyya again.”
Rayyana approximated what she assumed a curtsy might look like, smiling nervously. She fumbled for a stick of charcoal and began sketching the lines of his tight knit eyebrows and pursed lips. After a few tense moments her hands had stopped shaking, and the lines became smooth. She kept drawing; what else could she do?
The Tea Cavaliere, as she had decided to name him, stopped by in the evening, after Hassino had left. “The tea today is peony. Fragile and minty, with a slight aftertaste of worry,” he murmured, leaving a steaming cup on her side table before stepping back into the dusk of the garden.
She needn’t have worried; her next client, a Sir Bernadio De’Salacca, was all smiles and graceful bows as he entered her studio.
“My dear Dama Rayyana, I’m ever so chuffed to make your acquaintance,” he said with a grin.
She doubted he could’ve managed to match Hassino in imperious fury even if he’d wanted to; Bernadio seemed younger even than her, and had horns so gently curved that a pair of plump sparrows had ventured in from the garden to perch upon them.
He moseyed into the studio with soft steps, taking the time to ooh and aah at the canvases and sketches she had propped up on her sideboard. So appreciative were his comments about her work, and so inoffensive his manner, that Rayyana found herself quite at ease.
Then he sat down by her easel, and began to discuss his portrait. “My father would like me painted with ibex horns, or perhaps rhinoceros horns if you think the canvas has room and it wouldn’t interfere with the heraldry.”
Rayyana looked back at him to make sure she had heard correctly. “You… you don’t have ibex or rhinoceros horns.”
Barnadio blinked, as if the notion hadn’t quite occurred to him. “Well no, but how could I ever show off a portrait in which I have these?” he asked, pointing to his own diminutive horns, and the sparrows that had settled upon them.
“I think they’re very nice,” she answered truthfully. “They’re quite a bit bigger than mine. And it seems silly to give you different horns than the ones you have. It is after all, a portrait of you.”
Bernadio flushed. “I’m supposed to be a soldier, and soldiers have tall horns.”
Rayyana considered pointing out that her father and brother had both fought in the Obsidian Wars, and neither had horns longer than a hand span. But somehow she doubted that would persuade him either; courtiers seemed to take a rather dismissive view of anyone who lived outside the light of at least nine moons. She thought for a moment, recalling what the Pintador’s notes had told her about the boy. “My lord… aren’t you a poet?”
Bernadio sighed and looked out her window like he would rather fling himself into the mounds of fallen forsythia than continue this particular line of inquiry. “What I am and what I should be are two very different things. My lord father does not approve of my art, and I would rather he not disapprove of my portrait as well,” he said with exaggerated slowness. “And besides, this portrait is to be sent to my fiancée in Fiorentia; she’s never seen me before. What woman would see a portrait of a small-horned man and be eager to marry him?”
Rayyana only found herself growing more confused. “So you want me to lie?”
He winced. “I wouldn’t expect a peasant to understand.”
It would have stung more, but she conceded that she really didn’t understand, no more than she had understood Hassino’s insistence on the importance of heraldry or theme colors. Perhaps these were things that could only be understood by nobles, things she had no way of wrapping her head around. In any case, Bernadio seemed set on horns he did not have, and she would do her best to oblige him.
So she readjusted herself in her seat, picked up her sticks of charcoal, and tried to imagine what fearsome ibex horns would look like on the brow of a poet.
The Tea Cavaliere stopped by that evening and handed her a small porcelain cup filled to the brim with steaming tea. “The tea today is rooibos,” he said by way of explanation. “With tentative notes of hopefulness masking a growing feeling of dread.”
She met her third client two days later and immediately found her charming, an assessment which she would quickly revise. Dama Qatarin was an angel-faced girl of eight, possessing the kind of porcelain skin and flaxen locks that doll makers would have eagerly modeled their wares on. Painting Dama Qatarin would not have been a problem at all, were it not for three things.
First, Qatarin had an attitude not-so-vaguely reminiscent of spoilt milk. She was the sort of girl that asked for a clockwork pony on her name-day and received five, with matching bits and bridles made of cloth-of-gold and ivory samite. Charming as long as things went her way, tears and tantrums sprung up whenever anyone told her “no.”
Second, Qatarin’s most prized pet was a Obyssian minotaur named Orazia. It was a seething grunting beast of misshapen hooves and drool-soaked fangs, abhorrent to everyone but Qatarin, who liked to dress it in bows and tutus that matched her dresses. Wherever the little girl went, Orazia followed.
Third, Dama Salmine, the girl’s mother, insisted with varying levels of shrillness that under absolutely no circumstances was Orazia to be included in Qatarin’s portrait.
“The beast is not at all appropriate for the portrait of a Dama! Surely you understand this!” the woman yelled, gesticulating at Rayyana and Qatarin in turn.
Rayyana glanced over at the minotaur, who was currently gnawing on the leg of her painting easel. “I… suppose I understand, my lady.”
Qatarin, on the other hand, did not at all understand. “Orazia simply must be in my painting, mama! I shall bite the painter if she doesn’t include Orazia!”
Rayyana eyed Qatarin’s bared incisors, which were rather formidable for a girl of her age, before turning back to her mother. “What would you like me to do, my lady?”
Dama Salmine shrugged. “Paint her with an ocelot or a pheasant or some other ladylike creature. I barely care, but I won’t have that thing glaring down at visitors in the portrait gallery.”
An ocelot that wasn’t there. First smoother skin, then taller horns, now imaginary animals. Rayyana was amazed the requests of the nobility were still managing to surprise her.
Doing her best to ignore visions of fang-based trauma, Rayyana offered Dama Salmine a weak smile. “I will do my very best, my lady.”
From the other side of the room, Qatarin began to wail.
The moons waxed and waned, the Season of Sun Streaked Meadows gave way to the Season of Barren Branches. The wisteria flowers began to wilt in evening frosts and fall onto the garden pathways, leaving them a muddy gold. Rayyana’s days had settled into a rhythm ordered by the chimes of the citadel’s nine clockwork bells. She would wake at the first, paint until the seventh, sup at the eighth, and spend the dwindled twilight before the ninth wondering what she was doing with her life in general, and why she was in Queniyya in particular.
There were small issues, rubbing at her everyday like burrs on the hocks of a horse. She still had no notion of how to curtsy, what the appropriate greetings for different members of court were, what sort of masques were acceptable for the season, or how to gently derail the flow of conversation from the details of a lady’s latest tryst when her husband was present. Yet these were trivialities; none of it would have mattered in the least to Rayyana if she had been able to find solace in the sluicing of oil across canvas.
That was the root of her unease: the paintings. Some days she would sit before her easel for hours on end, paint drying on the brush in her hand. Other days she would work feverishly, slashing at the canvas with more and more violence until a hapless stroke of her pallet knife ruined all she’d done. Even on the days she managed a half-passable study of one of her clients, she would stare at the canvas and know in her heart Hassino or Bernadio or Qatarin would never accept it.
Hassino’s always had too many wrinkles, Bernadio’s horns were ever too simple, and the ladylike ocelots and quails sketched into Qatarin’s lap always began to develop fangs and cloven hooves when she wasn’t paying attention to what she was doing.
“This simply won’t do,” Bernadio finally remarked, his eyebrows knotting like the words physically pained him. “I think perhaps it best I cancel my contract.”
Rayyana looked down at the sketches she had shown him, sketches of awkward horns and stilted warrior poses. “P-perhaps another session, maybe if I change the angle-“
“Dama Rayyana. I believe I will take my leave now. May the moons smile on you.”
And with that he was backing out of her workroom, tipping his hat once, lips pursed in a moue of regret. She watched him go in silence, not trusting herself to come up with the right words, or any words at all.
Sinking down to her knees as he shut the door, Rayyana stared dumbly at the now useless sketches in her hands. She took a breath to steady herself and calm down the quivering pitter-patter of her heart. She could live with one fewer commission; she had two others. Closing her eyes, she prayed to the three moons of her old home and the countless moons of Queniyya that the other two portraits would not meet similar ends.
Perhaps the moons had more important things to do that listen to the wishes of little girls, she reflected later that day as Hassino yelled at her, the preliminary studies of his portrait crumpled in his iron fingers.
“You moonless girl, what have you done?” His lips curled over in a fascinating moue of fury. Rayyana found that she quite wished to sketch it, though she conceded it might be inappropriate to do so, considering the circumstances. “You gave me wrinkles? Wrinkles on the Head Dentist of the Waxworks?!”
Rayyana, who not for the first time wondered why anyone cared how many moons her village had, bit her lip. “But my lord… that’s what you look like.”
If his anger had simmered before, that sent it boiling over the edge of the proverbial kettle. “No more!” he screamed, spittle flying everywhere. “I will paint my own portrait before I accept one from the likes of you!”
He stormed off, and she was left alone in the ringing echo of his words. Or perhaps not alone; a moment later she saw that the Tea Cavaliere was perched on a stool in the hallway, a steaming cup cradled in his hands.
“And what do you want?”
“The tea today is Ceylonese, with a primary flavor of panic, framed with smoky accents of inadequacy and fear,” he announced.
She had to have the feelings inside her, why did he have to let them out to pollute the room too? Rolling her eyes in disgust at, she slammed the door and began to pick up the mess left by the angry noble.
By the time Qatarin arrived with her mother and pet minotaur in tow, Rayyana was at her wit’s end, fears twisting themselves up inside her until she felt like she had become over-thinned oil paint slipping down the side of a canvas. All she wanted was a simple span of silence, broken only by the scrape of her pallete knife across linen and the swish of oxhair bristles in turpentine.
Of course, no one else that day seemed to have cared how Rayyana felt, and she supposed she shouldn’t have expected Qatarin and her mother to be any exception.
“Absolutely not! I will not pay money for this sorry excuse for a work of art!” Dama Salmine’s eyes blazed as she gestured at her daughter’s portrait. “I asked for an ocelot or a oheasant; you think I cannot see those hooves? This contract is over!” And with that she spun around, striding from the room.
Rayyana stood in the echoing silence of the room for a moment, tongue stuttering to catch up with the Dama. At last, when it became clear that the woman did not plan to return, Rayyana became aware of a vague crunching sound. She turned slowly, almost tripping the edge of the oriental carpet when she saw Orazia in the corner, chewing on one of her precious roles of canvas. Qatarin stood next to the beast and patted her fur with one hand while the other rested in a balled fist on her hip.
“You left Orazia out of my picture. I shan’t pose for you anymore,” she said with the certainty of a child who has always and will always get exactly what she wants. “And if you try and make me I shall run about in circles and eat your paint and tell all my friends that you painted me with bat ears.” She curtsied once, then strutted out of the room, Orazia trailing after her.
As Rayyana moved to clean up the minotaur’s mess and struggled not to cry, she saw a flash of bronze in the hallway.
The Tea Cavaliere poked his head through the door a moment later, took in the ruined mess of her workshop with silent eyes. “The tea today is Assam, and tastes strongly of futility, with brisk notes of bitter guilt and subtle undertones of cedar and despair.”
It was suddenly all too much. She found she couldn’t breathe; the iron ache in her throat had become too biting, too bitter. Slumping down onto the floor, she clenched her hands into fists over and over again, as if she might go mad if she stayed still. She had no clients, and nothing left to her name but ruined scraps of canvas and a few half-finished paintings that no one wanted. She had given everything to come here, only to find that she was in every way subpar here, a cockroach that was not even useful enough to be crushed into pigment. The moons here were strange, there were too many stars, and no one wanted to understand her, much less give her a piece of earth to stand on.
As a rule she hated crying, but she found she could hardly help it.
The Tea Cavaliere watched for several long moments as she cried. “When it comes to tea,” he finally said, “taste is always a matter of…taste.”
Rayyana could only shake her head; she had no time for this.
As he turned to leave he paused by the door and looked over his shoulder, as if seized by an afterthought. “If a cup of tea does truly go bitter, it’s sometimes best to empty it out and pour another.”
A hush filled the room in the wake of his words and the thump of the door closing behind him, a stifling quiet that pressed against Rayyana from all sides. She sat on the floor as the minutes ticked by, as the room darkened and the sparrow song from the garden dropped away.
The thought chimed again and again in her head: there was nothing left she could do. She stared at the door, realizing no one would be coming to open it, not Hassino, not Bernadio, not Qatarin, and not the Tea Cavaliere. She was alone.
And suddenly she began to laugh. There was nothing she had to do, and no one would bother her. She was free. Free to paint. With dry eyes and hands no longer shaking she lifted herself from the floor, reached for her brushes, and got to work.
In the months that followed she slept rarely and went outside never. In her fevered fugue of portraiture, she remembered to eat only about half the time, and only ever in distraction, a dripping brush tucked behind her ear while she held a sandwich in one hand, the other hand still at work with a second brush.
The first portrait she finished was Bernadio’s. When at last she laid the brush down she could only stare at the canvas, a kind of dull shock pulsating in her temples. Somehow when she’d started painting the notion of finishing, or what would come after, simply hadn’t occurred to her. Should she take it out and give it to him? Burn it? Bury it in the garden?
But no, she had work left yet. Gently setting the portrait on one of the room’s now dust-covered chairs, she pulled out another of her old works, coated it in gesso, and got to work smoothing the paint into the soft shapes of a little girl, and after a moment’s hesitation, a gnarled minotaur as well.
When she finished Qatarin’s portrait she wasn’t sure whether days or months had passed, but the idea of stopping didn’t even occur this time. After the first two, Hassino’s portrait was simple, an exercise in soft lines and more gentleness in the brushwork than he had ever shown to her himself.
She almost stopped at three, but then the last of her old canvases caught her eye. It had been a study of the night sky over her old village: three moons bathed the desert in shades of jade and gold and ivory, and if there were no stars, no stars were needed.
An idea for a final, fourth portrait sprouted in her head. With a slight shrug, she reached for her gesso once again. A trader from Balensiyya had once told her that four was a lucky number, after all.
When she finally emerged from the depths of her workroom into the moonlight of the Forsythia court, she saw that it was spring, and yellow buds had begun to dot the bare branches of the garden. All in all, she had painted for nine months. She nodded to herself as she felt the night wind on her brow. It took nine months to make a child, and what was art after all, if not a kind of progeny?
Giving the portraits to their new owners was not as hard as it should have been. It was almost an afterthought; a lone cloud remaining after the storm had already passed. Rayyana expected neither praise nor payment, and their opinions were no longer worth her tears.
Bernadio was the first to answer her invitation, nervously scratching at his horns as he entered the room. When he saw the portrait his mouth curled inward, almost as if he were in pain. “It’s… you have a gift, my dear.”
Rayyana inclined her head. “Thank you.”
He sighed, looking down at his feet. “But… I can’t accept it. You didn’t give me ibex horns or rhinocerous horns. I don’t look like a soldier.”
“No. You look like a poet. You look like you.”
He sighed again, biting his lip. “I can’t pay you. I gave my last copper to the Pintador yesterday, for another portrait contract.”
Rayyana smiled at him. “Keep it as a gift then.”
Qatarin’s mother came next, her mouth pinched at the impropriety of Rayyana’s summons as she stalked into the studio.
Her eyes skittered over the canvas, taking in the minotaur Rayyana had painted in her daughter’s lap. “I- this isn’t what I asked for.”
“It’s a portrait of your daughter.”
“I won’t pay for this.”
“Take it anyway. Feed it to Orazia if you really hate it that much.”
The Dama looked at her like she was mad; Rayyana wondered how often the nobility encountered gifts that were truly given with no strings attached. After a moment’s hesitation she clutched up the portrait and shuffled out of the room, muttering something about the strangeness of moonless folk as she went.
Rayyana couldn’t help but smile; she was halfway done.
Hassino came last and stayed the longest, staring at his canvas with wide eyes. “It’s me,” he murmured, over and over. “You painted… me.”
She left the final portrait on her sideboard, intending to hunt down the Tea Cavaliere the next day. It wasn’t until nightfall that she realized that the painting was already gone. A tiny teacup stood in its place. The sides were appliqued with glass flower petals and copper lace, and a plume of steam rose of the surface of the tea inside.
Rayyana lifted it and cradled it in her hands, breathing the scent in deep. It smelled like verbena and peace, mint and acceptance. She took a sip, and allowed herself to grin. It tasted even better than it smelled.
At sunrise on the anniversary of her arrival in Queniyya, Rayyana sat on her workbench and watched the light, dappled like a bruised peach, slide through her window. Her few remaining possessions sat in a valise at her feet. The last dribbles of her paint had long since been squeezed from their tubes; her canvas supply was reduced to tattered strips and frayed scraps. She had come to Queniyya poor, and was leaving a pauper.
Rayyana was finding it quite difficult to be properly upset about any of it. Far from worrying her, her empty pockets made her feel uncluttered, like a mountainside washed clean of its winter coat of dirt and pine needles by spring rains.
She had done what she had set out to do, and now there was nothing left to do but go. Albaja had nice weather this time of year, she had heard. And she’d always wanted to see the clockwork nightingales that lived in the Rain Gardens there. They had feathers of amethyst and iron, and could sing in seven languages that no one knew how to speak anymore. Nodding to herself, she stood up and brushed the last flakes of dried paint from her lap.
It was in that moment that the door swung open and the Contessa’s soldiers flooded the room. She knew them by the copper of their faceplates, the midnight velvet of their coats, and the polished silence of their gears as they moved. It occurred to her as they herded her out of the door that she had never seen such fine clockwork before.
They marched her out of the Forsythia Court and through the hall outside. Doors and stairs and windows flitted by them, but the soldiers ignored them as if they were no more than half-drawn sketches in the margins of a greater work. They began to pass halls Rayyana had never seen before, wondrous caverns that gleamed with silver buttresses and gem-glass mosaics that sprawled like fields of wildflowers across the floors.
In one hall a riot of blown glass orbs hung from the ceiling to imitate the movement of the planets; in the next all four walls were painted like the night sky as it had been before the first moon spawned any children. Another had willow trees made of emerald and amber surrounding a pool of pure sapphire, rippling to strands of an invisible breeze. Rayyana twisted her neck to get a closer look, but the company had already whirred onwards, further and further into the bowels of the Citadel. They marched down spindle-spiraled staircases and through small passages of rough-hewn rock, the air growing colder as they went. Rayyana felt frost on her lips and wondered if she would see the moons or the sky again, or if she was destined to march on forever, through halls that twisted on into the very depths of the earth.
But all things do come to an end, even the Citadel of Six-and-Twenty Wonders. After perhaps an hour of stairways and passages, the clockwork soldiers stopped in front of a simple iron door, stamped with a single unblemished moon. They stood in silence for three beats of a heart before turning, all as one, to face Rayyana.
She stared at the door for another moment, before shrugging and pushing it with gentle fingers. There was no need to imagine dragons or Fair Folk waiting for her in the unknown space behind it; better to assess what was there with her own two eyes. It swung open soundlessly, and Rayyana stepped inside.
A simple chair stood opposite from the door, and in it an older woman sat, watching her. She had silver eyes, laughing eyes: that was the first thing Rayyana noticed. The shadowed drapery of her gown, unadorned but of fine velvet, caught her attention next, and then the relaxed posture of her body. The thin golden circlet nestled amidst the silver of her hair was almost an afterthought; redundant.
Rayyana knelt low on the floor before the Contessa, letting her hair trail over the cobblestones. “Your Eminence.”
The woman ducked her head in return, never mind that etiquette dictated no such kindness was necessary. Rayyana liked her immediately.
“So. You are the painter that did the portrait of my husband.”
Husband? The portraits whirred through Rayyana’s mind, one by one like gears on a clockwork marionette. Not Qatarin, of course not; Bernadio was engaged to a Fiorenti; Hassino? But no, she’d heard that his wife was long dead, the stones of her mausoleum already smoothed by time and steady summer rains. Which meant-
“The Tea Cavaliere is the Conte?” she asked weakly.
A single eyebrow arched up towards the edge of the Contessa’s diadem. “Do you disapprove?”
A million apologies and half-truths surged forth, only to die on her lips. She could see nothing in the room that had been gilded or disguised, and Rayyana found she didn’t quite have the heart to change that. “I would not guess him to number among the most useful of husbands,” she finally said. “All he does is…”
“Describe the tea,” the Contessa finished. She seemed oddly untroubled that Rayyana had just insulted her consort; a faint smile played at the edges of her lips when she spoke. “I think you might find, my dear, that it is very useful to have a husband who describes the tea. He does not boast of things he has not done, or goad others into actions that would lead them to folly or ruin. He tells no untrue tales, spins no stories out of shadows, mutters no mummeries, and sings no stories that are not his to sing of. He simply tells of the tea, and he tells of it truly.” She tilted her head to the side, her eyes never leaving Rayyana. “I think you might understand that better than most.”
She thought of the delicacy of Bernadio’s horns and the joy in Qatarin’s eyes as her arms strained around her minotaur. She imagined the embroidered threads of age around Hassino’s eyes, and the pools of sapphire that rested between them. She nodded slowly, once, twice. “Perhaps, your eminence.”
The Contessa inclined her head in return, and for a threaded moment it was as if the world of rank and obligation that existed outside the chamber had fallen back, leaving the two of them as equals. Then the moment passed, and the Contessa straightened in her throne. “As it happens, I didn’t bring you here to speak of the Conte. I had heard that the Pintador did not deign to give you any new commissions.”
“That is true, your eminence.”
“If you are free then, would you perhaps consent to painting me?”
Rayyana blinked; once, twice. This was not a portrait of a minor noble’s castoff cousin, or a respectable valet faded from prominence. This was a chance that most artists only dreamed of, a chance that could wrest a painter from the backwater provinces and thrust her into the Courts of Jade, the Courts of Gold, the Courts of Ivory. An offer such as this could tip the balance of the scale so much that the name scrawled in the corner of a canvas was attended by more acclaim than the figure it accompanied.
Rayyana looked at the Contessa, and thought of none of these things. She thought about how she would shade the chiaroscuro of the Contessa’s dress, how to shadow the circlet on her brow, how to capture the lines on her face, the tightness in her joints, the immeasurable depth in her silvered eyes. She saw a challenge and felt a smile brimming on her lips; she loved challenges.
And so the orphan girl from the town with three moons and no stars, the girl who chose to paint things as they were rather than as others said them to be, bowed low. Then Rayyana, the woman whose name would come to grace the floors and walls and ceilings of the palaces of emperors, the woman whose frescoes and friezes would make high kings’ jaws drop in wonder and generals weep, raised her head in assent.
“Your eminence,” she said truthfully, for she was always truthful. “It would be my honor.”