The Painter: Part Two
Without realizing it, Emma fell into the simple pattern of life at the palace. She was brought luxurious meals, soft, bitter beets in watery pink sweet yet savory sauce, types of exotic meat with the bones removed, the skin crackly but not burnt, the meat itself warm and juicy.
She would receive slices of fruits, sweet and flavorful; watermelon with an icy green rind and a rich crunchy inside, wonderfully pale red; she had tasted star fruit for the first time in her life: It had sour, sticky juice that ran through her fingers when you took a bite from it, and the fruit was fleshy and stuck between her teeth. She admired its rich, golden tones, and she imagined them being plucked from star trees, growing in the night sky. It was even star shaped, and she imagined making a future painting of it.
Mostly, other than maids stopping to give her food, she was left alone, which suited her just fine. Every morning, she would wake up from her peach toned bed with white rustling silken sheets, and she would watch the sunrise. It would inspire her, and then, she would stray to the paints that lined her wall.
The room was no more than seven paces wide and long, with one window to look out of on a fantastic view off of the side of the mountain, but the side that the bed wasn't on was the side that the paints were on. The shelves went from floor to ceiling, and wall-to-wall. The shelves themselves were light maple, sanded smooth but not polished, and they were encrusted with paint splatters that no maid had been able to clean or scrape away.
The paints were even more than the one she had had in the first encounter with the King; they extended from milky almond colors, cool and sweet, to piercing fuchsia that made her eyes smart and her brain go fuzzy. Sometimes, she would spend hours just pondering the hundreds of colors, marveling the pale violet rose colors that she could almost imagine blooming into a ravishing garden beneath her hands, sallow icy cyan, that gave a deadly impression, as if one touch would chill her through the bone to the marrow.
There were colors that shouldn't have existed, such as indigo with a shot of wheat grain through it, that smelled of lilies and baking bread. Blue coral-pink that smelled of the ocean made her light headed, as if she had been very suddenly submerged down to the depths of the ocean and then pulled back up. She spent an especially long time swirling a finger around dreamily in a small pot of green, that if you looked at too closely appeared to be nothing more than a dark green, but when you drew back, you could hear the jingle of bells, you could smell holly and mint, and you could almost see snow falling. It had streaks of red that, no matter how much one mixed, would not mix with the green.
When she was left to her own devices, it was easy to lose herself in the colors. Sometimes she would go into a trancelike state, only waking hours later, finding beautiful paintings she could barely remember painting.
For the first few weeks, all she painted was scenes that she had been asked to paint, pretty faeries, fluttering their wings and smiling at her coyly, mountaintops and castles looking suspiciously like the one in which she was housed, and only slightly plump Gelerts. The maids would bring her notes on what the painting should be of, and couriers would come to take the painting away the moment it was finished- sometimes before it had even dried.
But, as the King slowly forgot about his new toy of a court painter, she was let paint her own paintings more often. The paintings were that cascaded from her fingertips were strange and unusual, one time, she painted a faerie Mynci, encompassed by flocks of butterflies, carrying a burning flower as her wand. Even though Emma herself was the painter, she always had trouble shaking off the feeling that the Mynci was watching her, anticipating.
Other times, she would paint glorious floral meadows like oases surrounded by menacing forests. Once, she painted a Lupe standing over the body of another on the rocky plains, howling to the moon, the tears running down his face ablaze with pearly light.
There was a Cybunny, turned to stone by a curse in the middle of an airy green forest. Though Emma didn't know why, she had added a wooden Ixi, his face an image of horror and despair. He would shake his head slowly sometimes, as benefitted a wooden creature.
Some of her paintings alarmed her; the Lupe would howl and grieve until she couldn't bear to watch anymore. Sometimes he would turn and snarl at her as if to blame her for his sadness. The Cybunny was painted in a position that appeared to be staring at the Emma, as if condemning her. Emma was glad the wooden Ixi never twisted to look at her.
Being unable to bear the gloom of these paintings, Emma hid them under her bed. She dwelled not on these paintings, but tried to focus on her happier paintings. As if trying to cheer up the sad blue Lupe in the other painting, she painted a much older version of him into a forest, smiling indulgently at a petite pale blue Xweetok with curiously pale eyes who was trotting along beside him.
Appearing to be ten years old, she seemed to be to be prattling on about something. The focal point of the painting was the Xweetok and the Lupe, and the background of trees and darkness slid past easily as they walked. As the paint dried, she became transfixed, wondering where they were going and if they would ever get there. She began to wonder whom she was painting, and who they might have been if they had ever actually existed.
Hesitantly, she reached and touched the painting, as if she could feel the trees rushing by beneath her fingertips. The paint was wet, and touching it sent a small electric shock through her fingers. Startled, she pulled back, only to realize that her fingers were not wet at all. They were warm and dry. She stroked the painting once more, and her hand went into the picture like pushing through water.
Shrieking, she tumbled into the painting headfirst.
Emma hit the ground roughly, and was briefly thankful that she had painted the ground strewn with pine needles, making a springy landing.
She looked up and saw the Lupe and the Xweetok peering at her confusedly. "Are you alright?" cried the Xweetok, her pale eyes open wide. "Where did you come from? It's like you fell from the sky." She looked up cautiously. "But you can't see the sun today..."
"You can never see the sun," griped the Lupe. "Not since long ago. When I came here, almost thirty years ago, you could see the sun. But the sun's clouded now." He made a sound of distaste in his throat.
Indeed, the sun was invisible. The sky was a blue-grey sheet, but the sun was nowhere to be seen.
"Where am I?" queried Emma, feeling almost like a character in a book, asking the most overused line in existence.
The girl shrugged. "The woods."
Emma detected a headache coming on. She shook her head, though it only made the headache worse. "Which woods?" She refrained from adding on, "There are a thousand different 'woods' in the world, and do you expect me to know which is which?" Trying desperately hard not to get frustrated at the sweet looking little girl, she bit her lip until it bled.
The Xweetok smiled brightly, her tail swishing amiably.
Emma narrowed her eyes and nearly made a rude and snappy retort, but the old Lupe interrupted her as she opened her mouth.
"What's that?" growled the Lupe, raising his thin paw and pointing his dry, cracked nose towards something behind her. Emma whipped around and spotted a small frame of light, a bit smaller than the painting she had come through. And shrinking.
"Oh!" squealed Emma, quite taken by surprise. The window of light was like a reverse painting of her castle room. As she and the Lupe and the Xweetok stared at it, it dimmed.
With a start, she realized the paint, the wet paint that she had touched and been pulled into, was drying. If the painting dried completely, she might not be able to get back through. "I have to get back! If the paint dries-" She lunged for the light, now shrinking rapidly. Fleetingly, Emma wondered if she would fit.
"What? Paint- drying- what? Is that how you got here? I don't even know your name!"
"Emma!" called Emma as she hurtled through the air, right toward the picture.
"Ellie!" called back the Xweetok.
Try as she might, Emma couldn't convince herself it had been nothing more than a dream. She painted more, each as bewitching and fascinating as the next, but none of them could she enter. Admittedly, she marred many a painting, poking and prodding while the paint was still wet, but succeeded in nothing but making unsightly fingerprints in the paint.
The other painting, of the cloudy forest and the Lupe and the Xweetok- Ellie- had dried, and was no more special than any of her other paintings, though still quite noteworthy.
And, though there was no proof, it had seemed so real, and the young maid who came through to bring meals every day had inquired why there were pine needles on the ground of the chamber. Emma had shaken her head and mumbled something about blustery days and open windows.
Then, out of the blue, after Emma hadn't heard a word from the king for weeks, she was summoned. "Girl!" the King bellowed as she quaked nervously on the steps in front of his throne. "Girl! Can your paintings show what is happening elsewhere?"
"Yes, sir, I suppose so, sir," Emma whispered.
He nodded his head eagerly, making the green sack of skin and fur under his chin bulge sickeningly. "So, if I asked you to paint me a picture of the Duke of Dogwood's forces, you could do so?"
Emma drew a sharp breath. "Yes, your majesty," she replied, quite faintly. Even so, the soft utterance resonated throughout the throne room. Perhaps, thought Emma, the throne room had been designed to make the King's loud voice sound even louder, in which case the King had brilliant engineers who evidently needed a pay raise, and decorators who ought to be fired.
"Superb." The King beamed, looking like a child learning his first big word. "Bring out the paints!" A huge canvas, as three times as tall as Emma and four times as wide, was brought out on wheels, and Emma, though she had always thought she could paint anything, couldn't help but notice that the canvas alone was quite daunting.
He will want to use your talent for his sinful purposes, her mother had warned. But then, Emma was distracted by the paints: her entire shelf had been removed from her quarters and brought to the throne room. There were two worn out looking couriers pulling it, and two exhausted couriers pushing it.
"Paint!" commanded the King, throwing his arms up. A foul smell permeated the room, and he quickly put them down as a few ladies in posh dresses swooned, a naughty look dawning on his face. "Do not leave a single soldier uncounted!"
Feeling nauseated, Emma picked up a paint brush and it swooped over that canvas. The canvas was rough and Emma could see that it had been manufactured hastily. After coming accustomed to the silky canvases that she had been supplied with, Emma couldn't help but feel annoyed.
The sunset came and went, and finally Emma pronounced that she could not paint by firelight alone, and that the painting, half done as it was, would be finished the next day. The King, trusting in her prowess, waved his hand and sent her on her way.
Emma hastened to her chamber as fast as she could, then plopped down on her cot to think. In an instant, she knew what had to be done. Certainly, she could not finish the painting. Her mother had been born in the Duke of Dogwood's forests. If she succeeded in doing this for the King, heaven knows what would come next. The Duke himself, most likely.
There was no way to escape the castle, every exit was heavily guarded, the mountain was small, and it would take her days to make it down, within which time she would be caught.
No, there was only one way. And unfortunately, it required the shelf of paint that was still in the throne room.
Quite suddenly, Emma was glad she had had the foresight to keep a couple of paint brushes under her bed. They were dusty and small, missing most of their bristles, but she could work with them, she knew. The only thing she needed now, was some paint. Perhaps a jar had fallen off the shelf.
After many minutes of scouring her room by candlelight, Emma resigned to the fact that there was no paint left in her room. But, she was pleased to see, there was one wet painting. She had been working on a miamouse in a field, nibbling on a nut, during midday before the King had called for her. Around the middle, the paint was still drying.
Without knowing what she was going to paint, Emma swiped her paint brush across the wet part of the canvas, leaving a muddy streak. The new painting, on an old, dusty canvas, progressed quickly under her deft fingertips.
Finally, the painting of the miamouse was tacky and refused to yield any more of its paint; the background and part of the foreground to the new painting was done. It was a forest, the same forest that she had painted before. There was also the beginnings of the Xweetok, however, the white undertones of the painting was all that had been completed, leaving the Xweetok pale and scrawny. But the paint had run dry, and this was her only chance. Surely once the King truly knew how far her powers extended, he would never let her out of his sight.
The painting was barely as big as her splayed out hand. Tentatively, Emma reached forward to touch it. Her skin met the quickly drying paint. Would it work? Nothing happened for another second. Then, slowly, agonizingly, Emma felt her consciousness recognize another place. And she collapsed.
"Where did you come from?" Emma opened her eyes groggily to see a Xweetok staring at her, their faces only inches apart.
"I- do I know you?" Emma asked.
"I don't think so. Not many people do," replied the Xweetok.
"Yes, but what's your name?" hurried Emma.
"Ellie," whispered the Xweetok. "My name is Ellie."
The next morning, when the couriers came to rouse her so she could finish the painting, they came to her room and found it empty except for a tiny, half finished painting of a white Xweetok. It was dry, and it left no hints of where Emma might be.
Though they searched everywhere for the court painter, they never did find her.