Breezes of brilliant hues flowed from the Painter’s brushes to stroke the canvas with shadow and light. This evening, a summer night indefinite in time, she danced a mirror upon the canvas, sunset flashing through the paint-flecked gate as it flashed through the real gate outside.
Yet it was a broken mirror in one aspect: in the real world, the gate was locked and could not be opened by her. Her patron refused to release her, save when she needed inspiration, a new scene to paint. Then she went boarded up in a carriage and concealed from prying eyes. By these machinations, the Duke hoped to convince the City the paintings were his, but rumors of the Painter were enough to sustain the truth of her work. There was too much of her in the paintings, too much life, too much brilliance set free.
She had never painted the gate before, open or closed. Every one of the Duke’s tamed gardens and exotic curiosities had been depicted by her hand – but never the gate. It was the one pain in her heart, and it ached to look at the reminder of her captivity.
Even as she painted it, the gate changed in her mind. It became a thing of light and hope, beckoning, inviting… as if the world in canvas were as real as the world in flesh.
She sensed when the Duke entered the room and did not turn, rapt upon the tumult of tones. He would often watch her for a time, but never interrupted her.
The Painter finished smoothing the last daubed shadow and turned to face him. She did not need to stand back or study her work to know it was complete. The rich orange sun gleamed, bathing the path outside in promise.
The Duke’s eyes flashed with a moment’s wonder, but he dismissed it. “I wish you would do portraits,” he said. “That’s where the money and the fame is. The artist who captured my late wife works for the High King now.”
She thought of the cold, pale likeness hanging in the great hall, trapped more completely than she, and suppressed a shudder.
“I am done,” she said.
“Good. My cousin in the treasury has need of new adornment to -”
“I didn’t mean with this painting.” His eyes widened, for she had never interrupted him. Before he could react, she continued, “I meant with working for you. The paints run dry. I am done.” She felt her breath and her heart echo in her ears, a fearful thrum.
The Duke paused, his first reaction panic, and then fury. “You can’t. My reputation – our reputation -” He grabbed her arm. She recoiled; he tried to wrench her around, and instead lost his grip. She tumbled into the still-damp canvas.
She fell through… and kept falling through an expanse of green. She should have felt fear and instead felt like a bird with new wings, tumbling towards the skies. She landed with a gentle stop on a mossy path. The stones under her hand were indistinct blurs of grey and green, more suggestion than reality. She inhaled, delight and consternation both as she realized what had happened.
The Painter had become part of the painting.
It was not, she thought, such an impossible idea – obviously, considering it had happened, but there was power and possibility in the images she created. Why couldn’t there be life within them? She thought then of the Duke, who had hurled her here. She craned her head up and found the sky above a void the color of blank canvas. She had not painted it; it did not exist.
Could he see her within the painting? What if he smashed it? Fear riveted her to the spot; she lifted up her hands to shield her face, masking the brilliant color that surrounded her. Terror consumed her in a flash of fire… and then faded when her world remained, a soft, silent place with orange light that pierced through her fingers.
She remembered the gate and lowered her hands, breathing until her body quieted. It stood before her, beckoning into an endless sunset. Tranquility filled her as if poured like water, and to the surface rose the hope she had felt while painting. She walked into the light.
She blinked and found herself on a snow-swept hillside dotted with old-woman trees in white veils. The cold refreshed without chilling her; the wind tickled her skin and breathed winter’s secrets down her neck, as welcoming as an old friend. She turned her face up – oh, there was sky here, lavender fading into deep blue and inked with stars – and reveled.
She recognized the scene: it was another of her paintings, a much older composition from the year before her brother had sailed beyond the City. Her hands moved, tracing brushstrokes she almost remembered and lingering over the details. The scenery moved, subtly, breathing – the optical illusion of paint placed just so.
The Painter walked onwards and emerged under a summer waterfall, then into a field of flowers. It didn’t take long to realize all the paintings were hers, and though she felt the same wonder that had inspired her to craft them, the familiarity began to pale, and she missed the City. She tried to think of a way out… but she had always painted scenes from nature, not cityscapes with their limitless doors.
She knelt before a stream and parted the waters, painting a whirlpool with her hands. The landscape did not respond as her pigments did in the real world. She picked flowers and attempted to grind them up to make pigment of her own. They simply melted, more dream than substance. A slow dread formed in the base of her throat and spread through her body. What if she never found a path out of the paintings?
She was not sure how much time passed, but she never grew hungry or thirsty, and what little weariness she felt shifted with the landscape: the most dark and dreary of her compositions made her feel old and brittle, just as those of light and beauty gave her back years she had never realized were lost. As she wandered through the suspended scenes, she remembered a painting she had done years ago, her last before she entered the Duke’s service. It might be her way out.
She had no clear plan in finding it: the landscape seemed to pay no mind to season, distance or chronology, much less her mood or desires. But though painting had been her life, her output was finite, and she knew she would come upon the place she sought.
She found it at last, a balding hillside with a cottage nestled between its knees. The door was almost invisible, faded into the surrounding wood, but it was real – real enough she could grasp the handle and pull it open. Blank canvas lay beyond.
Hope leapt; the Painter braced herself on the threshold. Could it be so simple? She didn’t remember what had become of the painting and thus where she might end up, but as long as she could return to the real world, she could find her way to the City.
She stepped through the doorway… and found herself in a painting that was not her own. She recognized it instantly from the sharp, clear colors and the cold lines – and the fact she was not alone.
Seated on a velvet couch in the middle of the elegant stone-hewn room was a woman with skin like the petals of a lily and hair of gold and smoke. A sage-hued gown draped about her form, concealing more than highlighting her slender curves. Every inch of her was perfectly rendered; there was nothing left to the imagination.
The Lady – or rather, her image – rose with a glad cry. “Oh, you can’t imagine how good it is to see your face,” she said, flurrying over. “How did you come here?” She paused, her eyes bright with anxiety. “Did he… kill you, too?”
It took the Painter a moment to hear the implications. She wanted to be surprised, but all she felt was numb sorrow. The Lady had been a joyous young woman; she deserved better.
“He didn’t kill me,” she said. “He knocked me over, and I fell into one of my paintings.” It seemed incredible when she described it – but how was it more strange than speaking to the likeness of a dead woman? “I’ve been wandering through my work ever since.” She glanced around her, taking in the baroque, meticulous style and noting the mirror on the far wall – the side of the room unseen in the original painting.
The Lady must have seen the question in her eyes, for she clasped her hands together. “I know how you came here, then,” she said… and her face turned apologetic. “My husband had one of your old canvasses repurposed for my portrait.”
The Painter shook her head; she wasn’t offended.
“I am so glad you found your way here, even if it was at expense of a tragedy,” the Lady continued. “I’ve longed so much to hear a voice other than his, praising my beauty and lecturing about the way I protected it – or didn’t… I thought his temper was charming once, the sign of a passionate spirit, but now I’m just sick of it.”
“You can hear him?” the Painter asked. “How?”
The Lady waved one pearly hand at the mirror. “All it ever shows is the great hall, and the only person I ever see through the glass is him,” she said. “Every time he walks by, I can see him, but he seems oblivious to me… even though he’s looking at me. It’s really not very different than when I was alive,” she added thoughtfully.
The Painter shuddered, but the speech filled her with hope. If it was the Lady’s window to a world she could not enter, might it allow another – someone who was meant to be flesh and blood – to pass through? But she could not tell that wistful, desperate face she already hoped to leave, so she asked instead about the painted chamber and how the Lady spent her time there.
“It is very dull,” the Lady said with a sigh. “I have finished my embroidery so many times I’ve lost track – and only to find it unfinished as soon as I snip the last thread. I have read all three books many times, and drunk myself giddy on the wine.”
The Painter was only briefly surprised the books in this depiction were real: even though their pages were out of sight to the view, it made sense with the artist’s attention to minute detail. “What are the books -”
“I’ve heard myself talk endlessly, too,” the Lady interjected. “What I would love more than anything is to hear about you: how you came here, the places you passed through, what the City has become… please?”
Her gaze was that of a pleading child, and the Painter surrendered, recounting her journey and the decision that had started it. The Lady shook her head.
“I would have been terrified,” she said, “but I know what he’s capable of. I have no memory of dying – that happened after the portrait was painted, obviously – but he described his hands around my throat, and there will never be justice.”
The Painter allowed herself a glance at the mirror. “There might be.” She walked over to the far wall, touching the surface. Her fingers broke the surface like the water of a pool and touched cold, empty air. Her heart quickened… but when she pressed closer to the glass, it resisted her. Did it need more strength than she had? It was worth a try. “I have an idea,” she continued.
The Lady listened to the plan in silence. Childhood left her eyes; they turned still and sure. “Yes,” she said. “The next time he enters.”
The Painter could judge time no more surely in here than in the woods and meadows and fields, but the Lady was thirsty for conversation, and it seemed moments before the sound of footsteps echoed through the chamber, as if coming from some other room that did not exist – at least not in the depiction.
The Lady tensed like a doe, her eyes wide; the Painter squeezed her shoulder, then hurried to stand next to the mirror, pressed up against the panel where they thought the Duke would not be able to see her.
“What if he doesn’t come close enough?” she whispered.
The Painter had wondered that, herself. “Then we’ll try another time,” she said, feeling her heart shiver in anticipation and fear. What if this didn’t work? She could think of several ways it might fail, and some exposed her to the Duke’s wrath… or to more permanent confinement in this painted world.
“Ah, there you are,” the Duke’s voice said. He paused, chuckling at his own wit. “Of course. Where else would you be?” His tone softened. “It’s comforting to know you’re here.”
The Painter found herself startled: she had never thought of him as lonely. Was that why he had kept them both locked away? She twisted her head, but could see only looming shadows in the mirror.
“I do miss you, but I didn’t have a choice. A lord of my rank has to be obeyed absolutely, or the others undermine him.”
The shadows shifted and drew closer. She braced her far hand, waiting.
“You’re even prettier like this, it might please you to know. No little twitterings, trying to feign intelligence -”
That had to be close enough. The Painter whirled, her hand skipping across and through the liquid glass. Her fingers slipped, scritched – and latched into silk.
She whirled to face the mirror and pulled with all her strength. He fought against her; an arm struck the side of her face, leaving her dizzied and bruised – and somehow suspended, neither completely in the painting nor in the real world. Her foot skidded across stone that was both real and meticulously painted, smooth as glass. She caught a flash of the great hall out of the corner of her eye and spun toward it.
“Where did you come from?” He reeled back from her, momentum spiraling him around in the other direction. She could see the Lady’s velvet couch behind him.
Now was the moment. “The place you sent me,” she said. Blindly, trusting – hoping – she let go.
He shoved back against her so hard she toppled. She had a dizzying sense of falling – which ended with a hard smack onto cold stone. The chill and pain radiated through her bones… and the impact told her she had returned even before she opened her eyes and found herself in a large chamber interpreted by no artist’s hand. She picked herself up off the floor and glanced about.
It was a rich room, carpet and drapes of dark green velvet, but it had no soul. The wide, ostentatious windows seemed to invite light but reject warmth. The fixtures gleamed as if new.
The portrait of the Lady was precise in every detail the Painter had seen from within, but the composition of the scene had changed. It now depicted what seemed to be a loving reunion, husband and wife locked in an embrace. The couple stood such that the Lady’s face looked out upon the viewer. Her smile was dark and triumphant… and in the hand pressed to the Duke’s back, she held the embroidery scissors.
The Painter turned and walked out of the study. She did not look back.
Instead, her feet carried her, knowing the way instinctively, to the front gate, the vista she had painted unknown days before. The green of summer greeted her, but had it been days, weeks – or an entire year? She steadied herself at the threshold, then bent to remove the wooden bar. It fell with a thump to the cobbled path.
She pushed open the gate and walked into the light.