He was sweating. “What’ve you got for me?” he said.

I smiled at him. “One archduke,” I said, quickly glancing round to make sure no-one could hear. “Four marquises, two first cousins of an earl, six wealthy silk merchants, a field marshal, an admiral, a brevet major of dragoons, and a small brown dog.”

He picked up the bag, as though he could tell if I was lying just by the weight. It clinked softly. “What’s with the dog?” he said.

“I felt like it.”

He was a tall man, about forty, bald patch like a monk’s tonsure, big nose. Ugly but interesting face. Expensive, sombre clothes in shades of dark brown and dove grey. I’d have enjoyed painting him, for several reasons. Sorry, private joke. “Two hundred gulden.”

“Very funny.”

He was staring at the bag, like he could see through the cloth. For all I know, he could. But that sort of thing doesn’t impress me any more. “Aristocrats,” he said disdainfully. “Soldiers. All I ever get from you is blue-bloods. What I need is intellectuals.”

“Some of them are quite bright.”

“Fox-hunters,” he said, with a faint curl of the upper lip. Bet he practised it in the mirror.

“Well-educated,” I pointed out. “Finest education money can buy.”

“What I want,” he said, glaring at me, “is philosophers. Scientists. Poets.”

I was hungry. I’d skipped breakfast again. “Poets and philosophers can’t afford to have their portraits painted,” I told him. “And on what you pay me I can’t afford to do work for free.”

“Right. So that explains the dog?”

“Like I told you. I felt like it.” I waggled the bag under his nose. He winced.

“Three hundred,” he said. “Don’t shake it around like that, for crying out loud.”

The urge to draw him was overpowering. Just a quick charcoal sketch, on the tablecloth? But he’d see me. “Besides,” I pointed out, “you’re forgetting or being wilfully blind to the tradition of the noble dilettante. The archduke’s one of the leading authorities on the later dialogues of Saloninus.”

He tried not to show it, but I could see the frisson of lust slide over him. “The archduke—”

I grinned. “No names,” I said. “No names, no indictable complicity. But yes, him. And one of the silk merchants is a notable alchemist.”

He looked up sharply. “Porphyrius?”

I clicked my tongue. “I said, no names.”

“You killed Porphyrius.”

Silly me. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might be friends. “Of course not. Go round and call on him this minute. He’s perfectly healthy.”

“You know what I mean,” he growled. “Still—”

That old academic curiosity, it wins out every time. I saw where my mistake could now be useful. “Five hundred and fifty gulden,” I said.

“For pity’s sake, woman. I haven’t got that sort of—”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll take my merchandise elsewhere.”

Got him. The thought of someone else, one of his rivals, getting his friend— Really, I should’ve asked for the round six hundred. Six-fifty, even. “This is the very last time,” he said, “that I do business with you.”

I relaxed. “We’ll see,” I said, and beckoned the waiter. “Let’s celebrate the deal,” I said. “A bottle of the ’46 and a plate of honeycakes, please.”

The waiter withdrew, visibly shaken. “You’re buying,” I said.

“No I’m not.”

“Yes you are. A lady never pays.”

Alas, not true. Five hundred and fifty gulden sounds like an absolute fortune, probably because it is. But— The nearest comparison is a heavy fall of snow. You wake up and the whole world is buried in white. You could fill a million carts and barely touch the surface. Noon and bright sunlight, all gone, as though it had never been. By the time I got home, having made various business calls, I was left with thirty-seven gulden seventy-five. Still a huge amount of money, by one of my sets of standards; enough to buy a farm, or a half-share in a small merchant ship. But not enough. Never enough.

“I don’t need you here all the time,” I told him.

“Oh.” He looked disconcerted; disappointed, even. “I thought—”

“It’s not how I work.” Understatement of the century. “How I go about it is, I make a series of sketches from life, charcoal mostly, some pen and ink, and then I do the actual painting from them.”

“That’s unusual, isn’t it?”

I smiled. “Very,” I said. “But it means a busy man like you doesn’t have to spend hours of his valuable time sitting perfectly still in a chair.”

He shrugged. The light fell across his face like a birthmark. “Actually,” he said, “I was looking forward to it. I don’t get many chances to sit perfectly still and stare into space.”

My hand was starting to shake as I adjusted my grip on the charcoal. It usually does. I like to pretend it’s guilt, the last vestiges of decent feeling. But I have a nasty suspicion it’s the excitement of the—kill? Oh, let’s not mince words. “Up to you,” I said. “If you’d like to come here and sit, please, feel free. I can always work in the other room.”

“Surely it’s south-facing.” He frowned. “Don’t you need the light?”

“I paint by the inner light,” I said. I tried to make it sound like I was being facetious.

The point is, I’m an exceptionally good artist. If there’s a tragedy here, that’s it. The things I could’ve done, the work I could’ve produced, if only—

But.

I’d have been perfectly happy staying at home in the country and painting cows, and waterfalls, and meadows of spring flowers, and cheerful, contented country people going about their appointed tasks. Mid-morning, after a leisurely breakfast (with my husband, before he set off for hunting or inspecting the spring wheat or meeting the tenants, whatever the hell it is that men of my class do all day), my maids would pack my paints and easel onto the dog-cart, and the coachman would drive me to some idyllic spot; I’d paint for an hour or so, until it was time to get back to supervise lunch. And people would complement me on my work; it really is very good, they’d say, every bit as good as the professionals. And I would be, would have been, perfectly happy.

Didn’t work out like that. Ah well; no use moping after what you could never have had, even if it was always so close, all through my childhood—I always felt that if I tried I could reach out with my arm and with just a little bit more effort I could pull it down off the tree and have it. I grew out of that, in due course. It made me sullen and sharp-tongued, qualities that didn’t actually help the issue very much.

Or I could, in spite of being plain and just a bit too poor, have grabbed life by the scruff of the neck, forced the world to acknowledge me; the finest artist of her age, just look at—(insert here a list of the masterpieces I could have painted, would have painted if things had turned out just a little bit different; the thickness of a sheet of paper is all that divides me from those unattained possibilities). It all comes down to such tiny differences; if I was one inch taller, then by standing on tiptoe and really, really straining, I could reach the apple on the branch. But when you lack it, one inch, half-inch, quarter-inch is the same as a mile. Depends where you’re standing. In my line of work, we call it perspective.

So I do this instead. A quarter of an inch is all it takes to separate heaven from hell.

My clients don’t negotiate with me direct, face to face. They send people. The Patriarch Sighvat sent an archdeacon. I think His Grace the archdeacon was nervous at the prospect of having to spend time alone with, you know, a woman. One look at me and he relaxed visibly.

“His Grace will wish to be seen three-quarter face,” he said. “He will of course wear the divitision and formal dalmatic.”

“Naturally.”

He peered at me down far more nose than any contingency could ever justify. “You know what a dalmatic is?”

I smiled. “It’s a wide, long-sleeved tunic with a broad strip of embroidery down the front,” I said. “A formal dalmatic is blood red, knee-length. I have a book,” I explained. “With pictures.”

Eventually he had no choice but to address the question of money. “His Grace feels that a fee of fifty gulden will be satisfactory.”

I tried to look sad. “That’s a shame,” I said. “I would’ve liked to paint His Grace. He has interesting bone structure.”

There was a moment of dead silence. I kept perfectly still, smiling sweetly.

“Fifty-five.”

“Am I right in thinking,” I asked, “that His Grace has written a series of exegitical commentaries on Carchedonius’ Metaphysics?

He didn’t know. Look at faces all day, you learn to read them. “His Grace is a pre-eminent scholar.”

Translates as; always got his head stuck in a book. My mother said the same about me. “Seventy gulden.”

“Sixty-five.”

“It’ll be an honour to paint His Grace. When will it be convenient for him to sit for me?”

Well, I’d been specifically asked for intellectuals, so I could afford to be beaten out of five gulden. “His Grace feels it would be more appropriate for you to call on him.”

It’s the light, I explained. It’s technical. He didn’t like it, but he was even less keen on jeopardising the mission. “His Grace will be pleased to sit for you at noon tomorrow.”

I shook my head. Noon light very bad. Early morning much better. He agreed, reluctantly. I specified one hour after sunrise; just because I could, I guess. (Another thing my mother used to say: don’t play with your food.)

He stood up to go, paused to admire the icon on my wall. “Is that—?”

“Genuine?” I did my silvery laugh. “Sadly, no. It’s a copy. I painted it.”

“Remarkable.”

“Thank you.”

Actually, it’s genuine, cost me a fortune. My one indulgence. “His Grace would be pleased to buy it,” he said.

Would he now. “I’m afraid it’s not for sale.”

“His Grace would be prepared to offer forty gulden.”

I winced. I paid ten. Still. “It’s not for sale,” I repeated. “It wouldn’t be right, selling a copy. Besides, I did it for my own devotional use, as an act of penance. Taking money for it would undo all the good work, don’t you think?”

“His Grace would grant you absolution.”

Sorry, but I don’t take absolution from strange men. “Let me think about it,” I said.

He pulled a grumpy face. “As you wish. Peace be upon you.”

“Thank you,” I said politely. Always say thank you, even for presents you didn’t want.

This matter of a quarter-inch, and the difference it makes.

I refer you to Saloninus, On Beauty, chapter twenty-six, paragraph four. You’ll recall that Saloninus proves, mathematically and by examples drawn from great art, that the divide between beautiful and ugly is almost exactly a quarter of an inch—fifteen sixty-fourths of an inch, to be precise. Take the most beautiful nose you can think of, and shorten it, or lengthen it, one quarter inch. Result; ugliness. Same goes for lips, chins, distance between eyes, all the geometrical relationships that make up the human face. Seven thirty-seconds longer or shorter you can get away with, but fifteen sixty-fourths is the killer. It’s an absolute rule, infallible, inflexible.

It’s also true. I proved it once. I did a series of self-portraits—possibly the best work, the second best work I’ve ever done, certainly the most lifelike—and when they were finished, I moved the various features about, to scale, in proportion. A quarter of an inch here and there made me into a goddess.

Well, I exaggerate slightly. Nice-looking, anyhow; nice enough looking to get a husband, have my choice of two or three. Cross-reference with a mirror, measure carefully with calipers. Saloninus was right. A quarter inch separates warthog-ugly from beauty, what I am from what I should have been, hell from heaven. I soaked a rag in turpentine and wiped my face off the panels, leaving a neck, hair and a gap in between. Now that’s what I call a portrait.

To paint the Patriarch Sighvat I made myself a brush.

To make a brush fit to paint the Vice-regent of the Earth, brother of the Invincible Sun, first of all you need a woodcock. You probably know more about birds than I do; apparently a woodcock is a little fluttery thing, lives by pecking worms out of the mud with its ridiculously long beak. Anyway, they’re notoriously hard to catch, which makes them expensive. Also, they don’t live around here—don’t ask me why; we have worms, we have mud, but apparently not the right sort—so they have to be fetched down from the North at vast expense, packed in crates of ice. People eat them, so I’m told; rich people, naturally. Takes three of the little buggers to make a snack. Tastes like chicken. Why bother?

But the pin feathers of a woodcock make the very best paint-brushes. They’re tiny, about as long as a fingernail, and you have to know what to look for. You find them on the outside of the crook of the wing—where the index finger would be, if a wing was a hand. Be very careful pulling them out; use tweezers and extreme care, or you’ll crumple them up and they’ll be useless. I have a tiny little pair of silver tweezers, which I use for this purpose only.

Consider the feather. Consider the various categories of its usefulness. The Invincible Sun designed them to make possible the unimaginable miracle of flight, something a bird can do and we brilliant, resourceful, educated humans can’t. So we kill the stupid, magically gifted birds and pull out their amazing feathers, stuff pillows with them, fletch arrows, or throw them away. The birds, you see, have a talent, an ability that supercedes anything we can do in godlike proportion—them up there, us down here, utterly divided and distinct from each other; except that birds are too thick to figure out that the white sticky stuff daubed all over the branches is birdlime, and all the divine grace and engineering of their wings won’t save them once they touch their claws to it.

I assume the Invincible Sun intended it to be that way. Otherwise, why did He equip the woodcock with a feather that makes the best possible paintbrush?

My father was an idiot. He once told me, in all seriousness, that he was without question the most intelligent man I would ever meet in my entire life. On one level, I’m sure he was right. He was a scholar by inclination and training. What he didn’t know about history, literature, and art wasn’t worth knowing. He was so smart, he was able to throw up a thriving law practice in his early forties and retire to his library and his study. He was clever enough to predict the Scherian war five years before anyone else, shrewd enough to invest the family fortune in shipyards (having foreseen that the war would be mostly at sea), wise enough to sell out of shipbuilding six months before war was declared and the shipyards were appropriated by the Crown; smart and clever and shrewd and wise enough to reinvest the substantial profit he made, along with the original capital, in the Neumis goldfields, literally weeks before the gold price shot up tenfold overnight.

His only mistake, if you can call it that, was assuming the Cure Hardy would ally with us, rather than the Scherians. That was unfortunate, because as soon as the Cure Hardy joined up with Scheria, they occupied the goldfields and our investment was wiped out in a fingersnap. To be fair to him, it was a pretty close-run thing—most of the tribespeople wanted to join us, but the tribal chiefs liked the Scherians’ gifts slightly more than ours. It was one of those balanced-on-a-razor things, you see; a quarter of an inch, maybe, certainly no more.

Pity and despise the poor bird, who can fly (on wings of paper, soaring above the heads of pedestrian, mundane humans) but who’s too dumb to suspect the white-smeared branch may not be all it seems. All right; idiot may be a trifle harsh. Unfortunate and foolish; is that better? But the division between getting it right and getting it wrong—fifteen sixty-fourths, give or take—might as well be the width of the Eastern Sea, when the bailiff’s men come to take your furniture away. And his books; they took all his books, loaded them on a cart and wheeled it round to a dealer, who glanced at them, pointed out that there wasn’t much call for that sort of thing, and gave them ninety trachy for the lot.

I was the one who found him, hanging in the coach house. Thanks, dad.

I make no excuses for what I do. On that day, my thirteenth birthday, I learnt an essential lesson about the value of money. Money, I suddenly realised (sort of a revelation, but without angels and sunbeams) is life; absence of money brings death. And we—my mother, my brothers and I—had no money at all. What to do?

Do you know the City at all? Maybe you don’t. My studio was at the junction of Goosefair and Foregate, right at the top of the South Hill, highest and most expensive district south of the River. Also the only place in Town where you can get decent light more than five hours a day; everywhere else, the buildings are so close together that everyone is in everyone else’s shade. The rent on that place was unbelievable, but my clients liked it because it was walking distance from home—not that they walked; they arrived in chairs and carriages. I was up two flights of stairs (they moaned about that) for the same reason that I lived on top of the hill. The very best light. And nobody could see in through the window. I also had the floor below and the cellar, but that wasn’t common knowledge.

The Patriarch turned out to be rather a nice old man. He’d have been quite distinguished-looking, if it wasn’t for the way his nose ended in a distinct knob. He had a full head of snow-white hair, fine and rather lifeless, which for some reason he saw fit to part down the middle. The trimmed moustache and tiny chin-tuft beard were the pinnacle of style fifty years ago (study portraiture and you get a working knowledge of men’s fashions through the ages, absolutely free). Pale blue eyes, but not watery-pale. His lips were thin and moist. Rumour had it that he kept six mistresses, including a mother-daughter pair; but you know what? Half the time, I think Rumour makes stuff up.

Anyway, I was perfectly safe. Like Senoebis; six hundred years of peace, because the Senoebites have nothing anybody could possibly want to take away from them. “This portrait,” I said. “Where’s it going to hang?”

He did something with his mouth that expressed mild embarrassment extremely well. “In the chapter-house at the Silver Wing,” he said. “They insisted. One doesn’t want to cause offence by refusing too often.”

I paused for a moment and pictured the place in my mind. Bare golden stone, high vaulted roof, sidelit, the glass mostly red and blue. “Would you mind standing up for just a moment?”

He raised an eyebrow and stood up. I rotated his chair forty degrees north-east. “Ah,” he said, “the light.”

“I paint by the inner light,” I told him. “But sometimes it needs a little prompting.”

That got me a little smile; I squiggled it down in coarse charcoal sweeps before it got away. Naturally I wouldn’t paint him smiling, but it helps to understand the mechanism of the face, if that makes any sense; where the various bits go to when they move. “I’m going to sketch you from lots of different angles,” I said. “Otherwise you’ll come out looking all flat. Please just carry on looking straight ahead, and try and pretend I’m not here.”

“I was very taken with your portrait of the Marchioness Svangerd,” he said to the wall, as I snuck round the side of him like an outflanking army.

“Thank you,” I said. “Though I have to say, I don’t think it was terribly like her, somehow.”

“I think that was why I liked it.”

Ecclesiastical wit. I was honoured. I looked round to see if there was a clerk hovering in the shadows to write it all down. “I do try not to improve people,” I said.

“Ah. Pity. So many people could do with improvement.”

“True. But I prefer to bring out the best of what’s actually there.”

“Indeed. Which aspect of me will you be focussing on?”

“Your compassion.”

“Oh.” Bewilderment, probably, rather than disappointment. “Oh well, carry on.”

Most painters establish proportions by variants on the rule-of-thumb principle—you’ve seen them hold a brush upright at arm’s length and squint at it. What they’re thinking is: his head’s from the tip of the bristles to the top of the ferrule. Then, once you’ve got the head, you can go by the rules—from the collar-bone to the ankles is eight heads, and so on. I pretend to do all that, because it’s expected, but really I work entirely by eye. I guess perspectives and proportions just come intuitively to me; like there are people who can add up columns of figures at a glance, or catch a ball with their eyes shut. It’s another way of saying: I know what’s right without having to think. And what’s wrong, naturally.

Most of what I do is wrong. I don’t think about it.

It helps if you make conversation. “Can I ask your professional opinion?”

Again I’d surprised him. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be interested.”

“My father was a scholar,” I said. Men find that an acceptable explanation.

“What did you want to—?”

“Ah, right,” I said. I confined his forehead, nose and jaw inside a rather cavalier sweep of the charcoal. “What do you make of the doctrine of the dual procession of the Divine Aura?”

Naughty of me, I guess, to lead with something like that. “The dual procession—?”

“Only,” I went on, “it seems a bit over-complicated, to a layman like me. To say that the Aura proceeds simultaneously and equally from the Body Spiritual and the Body Material; how would you reconcile that with the economy principle and Saloninus’s Razor?”

He blinked. “Well,” he said.

I waited. I filled in the time outlining the bags under his eyes.

“It may seem complicated on a simplistic level,” he said eventually. “Considered ontologically, it’s in fact a sublime example of the overarching unity of Form. What I mean by that is—”

“I see,” I said. “But in that case, what about the implications for the material transmigration of the soul? I’m assuming you’re going to tell me that the Aura transubstantiates in the same way as the soul transmigrates, through grace into essence, from essence into affirmation.”

“Yes.”

“I’m with you so far,” I said. “I think. But in that case, surely you’re implying that the soul is capable of reduction into physical form.”

I had an idea I was beginning to annoy him. “I don’t think so.”

“Well, it follows, doesn’t it? If the Aura can proceed from the physical, then so can the soul. And, by the same token, it can also proceed to the physical.” I did my silvery laugh again. “Which means in theory you could, I don’t know, distil it in an alembic and bottle it. Which is—”

“Not possible,” he said firmly.

“No, of course not. Though I gather there’s a sort of fringe group of alchemists—”

“Heretics,” he said. “Heretics and blasphemers. I do hope you haven’t been filling your mind with that sort of nonsense.”

“Of course not,” I said primly. “It’s impossible, like you said. All I was wondering was, why is it impossible? It’s just me being stupid, I know, but I can’t seem to grasp the theory.”

“Read Pacatian,” he snapped. “It’s all in there, everything you need to know.”

“Pacatian.” I did a dumb-show of making a note of the name on the back of my hand in charcoal. Let the record show, however, that I first read Pacatian when I was nine, and a dozen times since then, and he’s about as convincing as a one-sided coin. “Thank you,” I said. “You’ve set my mind at rest.” Which, poor devil, he had.

My brothers, let it be said, are nothing like my father, or my mother, or me. They’ve got energy, drive, a sort of restless vitality that’s practically irresistible—rest a kettle on their heads, my mother used to say, it’ll boil before you can count to ten. Add to that charm, good looks, and a moderate amount of brains; look out, world, here they come.

My father’s death and our complete and utter ruin did slow them down just a little. They were away at the time, at the University. Bohemund was in his final year, Amalric in his third, Juifrez had only been there three months when the news reached them. Naturally, they came straight back, riding through the night (completely unnecessary; a man who’s dead today will almost certainly still be dead tomorrow, and the next day, worse luck; I guess they were so fired up with tormented energy, it was either some dramatic feat of endurance or spontaneous combustion), and practically their first words were; it’s all right, mum, don’t worry, sis, we’ll get it all back, and more, you’ll see. It, you’ll have observed, not him. They’re wired, but not stupid. They know the dead don’t return, and that if anything is to be done, it must be with the living. They were determined to do something. They always are.

Among the few assets remaining to us was a tiny patch of barren rock up in the Crowfoot Mountains. We still owned it because nobody was prepared to buy it, or even give my father fifty gulden on it as security. Understandable. Mondelice (the Delectable Mountain; cartographers’ humour) sits on the flat Crow plains like a scab on smooth skin, with the Redwater curling round it like a cat’s tail. Generations of my mother’s family have been unable to sell it. They call it the Redwater because the river runs red; there’s some sort of poisonous salt in the rocks, which the snow-melt dissolves and washes down off the mountain. There are no fish in the Redwater, no grass grows on its banks. There are a few spindly willows; they last about ten years and then die. You can’t graze livestock anywhere near there; sheep just die, even goats. It’s two days across the plains in a cart to the nearest town, so quarrying would be prohibitively expensive. Besides, the rock is crumbly red sandstone, not much good, and there’s dozens of better sites much closer to civilisation, with better access and drinking water that doesn’t kill you. Also, bear in mind that we owned the mountain, not the plain, and there’s no public road; to get there, you cross about seven different owners’ land. Add to all that the fact that it’s searingly hot in summer and lethally cold in winter. Did I say tiny, by the way? Actually, it’s twice the size of the City, and you can see it from miles away. Anyway; we had that, and the town house, and a back-sun vineyard in the Mesoge, and that was it.

My brothers called Mother and me into Father’s study. On the desk was a big sheaf of old parchment. The title deeds, they said, to Mondelice.

Mother pulled a sad face. “Put them away,” she said. “You know as well as I do. It’s useless.”

Bohemund did his big smile. “Agreed,” he said. “But did you ever stop and ask yourself, why is it useless?”

Mother’s lived with Mondelice all her life. She grew up with her father moaning about it. He included it in her dowry as a joke. “Well,” she said, icy patient, “it’s poisonous.”

“Mphm. Why is it poisonous?”

When Bohemund dies, they’ll carve why? on his headstone. “Because it is,” Mother said. “There’s something nasty in the rocks. You know that.”

But all three of them were grinning. “Iron,” Bohemund said.

“You what?”

“That’s what turns the river red,” Amalric said. He had one finger inserted in between the pages of a book. He flipped it open, spun it round and pointed. “It’s rust. Got to be. Look, it says, in Sulpicius’s Minerals. There’s a river in Aelia, just like the Redwater. Right next to the biggest iron ore mine in the world.”

Mother frowned. “What’s he talking about?”

“Don’t you get it?” Bohemund was starting to fizz. “We’re rich.”

“Iron,” Amalric said. “You know how much the price of iron’s gone up since the war? Two hundred per cent. Since we lost Scheria, every scrap of iron we use has to come on a ship to Lonazep and then overland in a cart two hundred miles just to reach the border.”

“And here we are,” put in Juifrez, “most likely sitting on the biggest deposit of iron in the world. A whole mountain made of the stuff. No wonder it kills all the fish.”

For some reason I’ve never understood, Mother listened to Juifrez. The other two she was more or less immune to, had been since they were toddlers, but she had some weird notion Juifrez is smart. “That can’t be right,” she said. “My father—”

“He thought it was just a heap of toxic rock,” Amalric said. “It’s understandable. We’ve all been taught that for generations; Mondelice is useless, don’t even think about it.”

“Maybe,” I put in, “for a good reason.”

Nobody heard me. “It can’t hurt to find out,” Juifrez said. “I mean, if we’re wrong, we’re wrong. And if we’re right—”

So off they went to Mondelice. Forget the word went, it’s hopelessly inadequate. They wore out six horses galloping to Mondelice up the Great North Road, no nonsense about stopping to sleep or eat. My father always reckoned his sons moved at the speed of narrative; they could cover a thousand miles in the space of some time later they arrived at their destination. Distance is meaningless to people like that. And, almost before anyone had noticed they’d gone, they were back. It’s iron, they yelled (stumbling in through the door, riding-coats caked in dust and mud, faces ash-white with exhaustion). It’s iron all right. We brought back samples. Look!

So that was it. In the nick of time, my brothers had found the treasure that had been there right under our noses all along; curtain, applause, house lights, all bow. But there was one small problem.

One of the reasons my work is so expensive (though the clients don’t know this, of course) is that I do everything twice. One canvas, one exact copy. When they’re both finished, I stand back and look at them—because no exact copy is ever exact—and decide which one’s best; qualify that, which one’s most lifelike. That one I keep. The other one goes to the client.

The Patriarch was delighted; he sent a clerk to tell me so. I even got a bonus, which I confess I hadn’t been expecting, and which made me feel bad. I consoled myself by thinking of the tenant farmers in the Mesoge whose rents make it possible for the Patriarchs to have their portraits painted by the likes of me.

The other copy, the one I kept, I hung in my cellar. I was incredibly lucky there. Of course, everybody knows how the City was rebuilt after the Fire, a quarter of a mile to the east of the old site; and how, when they were digging the foundations, they literally fell into the ruins of a much, much older city, so old that nobody knows who the builders were or what became of them. Slightly less well known is the extent to which the forgotten ancients were cleverer and more advanced than us—for example, they had a huge network of underground cisterns and sewers (just think of it; all the yucky stuff was flushed away down tunnels into an underground river, instead of being slung out the window into the street). One tiny portion of that network lies directly under the building where I live, and I have the use of it, for an extra ninety trachy a week. My gallery.

You’d never think it had once been a watercourse. It’s bone dry, with a high vaulted roof supported by a dozen fluted granite columns, crowned with Archaic capitals. I went to a great deal of trouble to get the lighting right. I installed forty-seven large oil lamps and six chandeliers—you can adjust the height by an ingenious system of ratchets and pulleys, which I designed myself. Excuse me for boasting, but it really is the finest art display in the world (I’m talking about the room, not its contents). I’ve got fifty yards of wall space. I’m rapidly running out of room. Soon I’ll have to have a gallery built round the walls, and a staircase, to give me a second storey.

In the middle of the floor, I have this drawing-table. It’s lit by a dozen lamps backed with mirrors, to close in the light. That’s where I do my best work.

I had my specialist instruments made by a clockmaker. I didn’t tell him what they were for, and he didn’t ask. I gave him the drawings, which were so detailed as to be entirely unambiguous, and told him they were a present for my father. He looked at me and suggested a price. I didn’t argue.

Among the things he made me was a magnifying glass. It’s a wonderful thing. Basically, take an inch-thick circle of clear glass, grind the edges thin, leaving the centre thick. I read about it in a book. The writer said such a thing ought to be theoretically possible, though he never tried to make one himself. The clockmaker told me it was the most amazing thing he’d ever come across in all his life. I ought to—correction, we ought to go into business making the things, we’d be rich, it was the sort of opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime. I smiled at him. You’ve got ever such an interesting face, I told him; would you mind terribly much if I did your portrait? For free, naturally. He jumped at the chance, and now he’s seventeenth from the doorway on the right as you come in.

With my wonderful glass, I can read the calibrations on the unbelievably precise calipers the clockmaker made for me. He had to use the glass to engrave them. To the naked eye, they’re invisible. Precision, it goes without saying, is the very essence of what I do. Seven thirty-seconds, remember? Only, with my wonderful instruments, I can be ever so more precise than that. I work in ten-thousands of an inch, to a margin of error of plus or minus two ten-thousandths.

I measured up the Patriarch, reducing the intervals between the features of his face to absolute numbers. For measuring the angles, I had the clockmaker make me a protractor. It’s two sheets of thin glass with single threads of spider’s web silk sandwiched between them. If you know of anything thinner, please let me know. It’s the crudest instrument in the box, and one of these days I’ll make a mistake with it, and God only knows what’ll happen.

Once you’ve got the numbers, the rest is just melodrama. I find it tedious and rather distasteful. I’m a scientist and an artist, after all, not a witch. Still, it works.

I’m as jumpy as a cat when I’m working. The slightest noise, and—

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Luckily I’d just managed to grab hold of the tiny bottle before it tipped over. “Who the hell are you?”

“I knocked,” he said, “and called out, but I guess you didn’t hear me.”

I scowled at him, trying my best to look furious rather than terrified. Just as well I’ve got the face for it. “So you barged in anyway. All right, what do you want?”

“Just a minute or two of your time.”

Not everyone in this town who dresses like a priest is one, so he could have been a lawyer or one of the high-up administrative grades, except people like that don’t make house calls. “You’re collecting for something.”

Little smile. “No,” he said. Then he told me my name (which, as it happens, I already knew) and asked if I was the famous society artist.

“You want your portrait painted.”

“No.” Shake of the head. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

I looked at him. He was making me very nervous. “Oh come on,” I said. “You’re not that bad.”

He had very pale blue eyes, and a snub nose; about my age, maybe a year younger. And I’ve seen and made the best of enough receding hairlines to know that in his case, the tonsure had been no great loss. Yes, of course I judge by appearances, they’re my job. On which basis I made up my mind about him on one second flat, exactly the same way people make their minds up about me.

“Nice of you to say so,” he said, “though even little white lies are still a sin. But that wasn’t what I meant.”

“Perhaps you’d better leave.”

“Perhaps.” He nodded. “I’m small and weedy and I don’t know the first thing about fighting or anything like that, and we’re underground, so nobody’s likely to see or hear anything. And you’re right, who would miss me? I didn’t tell anybody where I was going.”

Mind-reading is of course impossible, even for a fully trained adept of the Studium, or at least that’s what they tell us. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He didn’t react to that at all. “Do you mind if I sit down?”

“Yes.”

“Fair enough. You painted all of these?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “In case you were wondering,” he said, “I can’t prove a damn thing. Certainly not enough to make charges stick in a court of law. Actually,” he added with a grin, “I don’t think there is a law that covers what you do, and nobody’s going to be passing one in a hurry, everybody would think he was mad. I mean, it’s not murder, or grievous bodily harm, or administering a noxious substance with intent. I’ve got to hand it to you, you’re clean as a whistle.”

“Who are you?”

He smiled awkwardly. “Eustatius,” he said. “At least, that’s my name in religion. I’m from Scheria originally, so you probably couldn’t pronounce what my mother used to call me. I’m a junior deacon of the Studium, currently assigned to field duty.”

“Good for you,” I said. “And what exactly am I supposed to have done?”

He sighed. “Oh, don’t make me say it,” he said, “it sounds so silly. And, like I just said, I can’t prove it. Sure, I can point out that in the last year, forty-six people, rich and famous and influential people, who’ve had their portraits painted by you have suffered catastrophic strokes, leaving them paralysed and catatonic. But you would then point out, equally truthfully, that sixty-seven equally rich, famous and influential people have also been painted by you and are as fit as fiddles. And then you’d challenge me to tell the jury exactly how you’re supposed to have done these dreadful things, and I’d just shrug and admit I don’t have a clue, beyond basic philosophical and theological theory.”

He was looking past me, at the bookshelf; Pacatian, and Saloninus’s Existence and Reality. I winced. A bit like hanging the murder weapon on your wall, mounted on a little plaque.

“In case you’re wondering,” he went on—he seemed to like that phrase—“I’m a duly ordained priest.”

“Good for you. So what?”

“Duly authorised,” he said, “to hear confessions, and bound not to repeat them. Not even if ordered to do so by a court. Not even if they torture me. And if I did, it wouldn’t be admissible in evidence.”

I looked him straight in the eye. Long practice. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m not religious.”

“Me neither. I’m a scientist. And I’m curious. And I can’t prove anything, but sometimes there are circumstances where my order feels obliged to take action that isn’t strictly in accordance with due process, and to be brutally frank, you don’t have any relatives or friends who could make trouble for us if we did. And as the field officer assigned to your case—” He gave me a sort of dying-lamb look. “Tell me how you do it, that’s all I want to know. And then I’ll go back to my superiors and tell them the whole thing’s just a string of coincidences and you’re just a harmless working girl. Please?”

There was one small problem; namely, in order to gouge unlimited wealth out of Mondelice, we needed a little bit of working capital—a few measly thousands, fleabites, the sort of sum we could make in a couple of hours once we were up and running and in full production. Or, if you cared to look at it from a slightly different perspective, a vast fortune; roughly the same as it would cost to buy a cattle ranch, or build and equip three warships, or a small aqueduct.

At this point, opinions started to differ, like a beam of wood splintering. Mother said, let’s just sell it for what we can get, now that we can prove it’s worth something. Bohemund said, don’t be stupid, we still owe God knows how much, they only leave us alone because they know we’re broke; if anybody thought we had anything worth having, all he’d have to do would be buy up our debts for a trachy on the gulden and then he could take it from us for practically nothing. Juifrez said, fine, in that case, we’ll borrow the money. Using what as security, said Bohemund; you can’t have been listening, because the moment we tell anyone we’ve got something, they’ll be on us like wolves.

“Fine,” I said. “We’ll just have to raise it some other way. Work for it, something like that.”

They all looked at me. “Sweetheart,” my mother said, “if we could earn that sort of money, we wouldn’t need Mondelice. We wouldn’t need anything. But we can’t.” She turned back to Juifrez. “Surely we can find someone who’ll give us something for it. Just enough to clear the mortgages off the vineyard, and then we could sell this house and move to the country.”

“I know a way to make money,” I said.

“Will somebody put a cloth over her or something?” Amalric said. “She’s starting to get on my nerves.”

So I moved out. Nobody was happy about this, me included. My mother pointed out that a young single girl living on her own was either a whore or begging to be treated like one, and quite apart from anything else, the shame and dishonour I would bring on my family— We haven’t spoken since.

I found out what to do from my father’s research notes. He had a whole shelf of notebooks, tastefully bound in mellow brown calf, which nobody had ever read. I missed him so much. His handwriting was very distinctive—at first sight it looked classically neat and elegant, but when you tried to read it, you could barely make it out—and even if I couldn’t understand what it was about, at least it was a little part of him, my father still present in the world in some form. Like a portrait, I guess, which is why people want the damn things; you can still see his face, even though he’s dead.

Dad always had to know best, and he loved picking fights with dead scholars. In the seventh volume of his collected notes and observations, he really tore into Modestus of Apamene (who lived six hundred years ago) because Modestus believed that it might be possible—purely theoretically—to reduce a man’s soul into material form, on the same principle as the dual procession of the Divine Aura as outlined in Pacatian and developed by Saloninus in the third book of the Republic. Dad wasn’t impressed by any of that. It can’t be done, he reckoned; and to prove it, he scrawled page after page after page of complex mathematical calculations (so that’s what he used to get up to, locked away in his study, with my brothers and me forbidden to make the slightest sound, on pain of death) leading to the triumphant conclusion that Modestus was a fool and a rogue. What Dad proposed doing about that, he didn’t say, but digging up his bones and flinging them into the sea would probably have been a good starting-off point.

Except that Dad got his sums wrong. It was only a tiny little slip, and if I wasn’t unnaturally good at figures (a secret I’ve kept to myself all my life, since nobody likes a smartass, particularly if she’s a girl) I’d never have picked up on it. But there it was, a very small difference between what he thought was true and the truth.

So I did the sums again, having made the very slight adjustment, and you know what?

I have this wonderful memory for faces. If I meet someone just once, I can close my eyes and there’s the face, just so.

“That’s blackmail,” I said.

He shrugged. “It’s scholarship,” he said. “A man’s all-consuming need to know the truth, to add to the sum of human knowledge. Of course, the idea is, once you’ve learned something, you’re supposed to share it with other people, like they said I had to share my toys with my sisters when I was a kid. But I never liked doing that. I just want to know, for myself.”

“My father was like that,” I said.

“Well, there you go. You can understand. And I promise, I won’t tell anyone, ever. Or,” he added, turning his face to stone, “I can have you burned as a witch. Your choice.”

So I told him.

He didn’t believe me, of course. So I pulled out my notebooks and showed him the pages and pages and pages of scrawled mathematical calculations, which he obviously didn’t understand. But he had faith. “All right,” he said. “How do you actually do it?”

So I told him. After a bit he asked for a pen and some paper. No, I said, no notes. You never know whose hands notes might fall into. He sighed, but he’d come so close, so very close, within a quarter-inch of getting what he wanted, and having me killed wouldn’t make up for that, not one bit. He gave in. I like it when people are reasonable.

When he’d gone, I made a few sketches, while the memory was fresh in my mind.

My brothers decided they’d do it all themselves.

Nothing to it, really. Just hack galleries into the side of the mountain, drag out the ore, crush it, smelt it, stack the ingots, carry them down the mountain, load them on a cart, job done. They were strong as bears and proud as lions. They could do anything.

Actually, they really were as strong as bears, and utterly determined, and my God, they stuck at it. They had pickaxes and rakes and big wicker baskets; they’d traded their fine Permian horses for a dozen good oxen, guaranteed salted, which promptly caught the fever and died, so everything that went up or down the mountain went on their backs. The people who told me about it later said the locals thought they were mad. For one thing there was no water, apart from the red, poisonous stuff. As you know, a gallon of water weighs ten pounds. The nearest clean spring was a mile and a half away. But they’d made their minds up; wealth beyond their wildest dreams was there for the taking, and all that separated them from it was a little hard work and a little inconvenience. A matter of perspective, you see; compared to the rewards, the expenditure of effort was trivial. So they stuck at it, for three months, until a gallery caved in and broke Amalric’s back.

That week, I got three new commissions; also my first ever cancellation.

“Why’s he changed his mind?” I asked the clerk. His Grace had decided that it would be inappropriate. I asked what that meant, exactly, and got no answer.

Well; you can get so far and no further. I sat down and did some figuring. The cost of setting up a viable iron ore mine on Mondelice, doing everything properly, which is the only way—I’d found out all about it; read Auxellus on mining operations, talked to surveyors, contractors, gangmasters, hauliers, commodities merchants, compared prices on everything from shovel handles to flat-bottomed barges—was nine thousand, eight hundred gulden. So far, forgetting about the three new commissions, I’d earned nine thousand, four hundred. Almost there; so very, very close.

I sat and looked at the figures. Four hundred gulden. A trivial sum, or just slightly more than a stonemason in the slate quarries would be likely to earn in his lifetime. So I went back through my costings, to see if I could shave a little off here and there, like the industrious gentlemen who make their living clipping tiny little bits of silver off the edges of coins. But I’d done too good a job. Everything was pared right down to the bone.

Well, I thought. It’s begun. First the intellectually curious monk from the Studium, who by some weird coincidence had a massive stroke forty-eight hours after he visited me. Nothing could be proved, of course, but as he’d pointed out, the fine and upstanding scholars of the Studium don’t need evidence. And if I had an unfortunate accident (these old houses are firetraps, everyone knows that) who would miss me? But a Brother of the greatest house of learning in the world is a different matter entirely; if he’s not in his stall in Chapter, questions are asked.

My first cancellation; word starting to spread, you don’t want anything to do with her, bad things happen to her customers. Presumably the fine and upstanding scholars had been keeping a lid on the rumour while they conducted their scientifically organised investigations, waiting for enough instances, a sufficient ratio, to satisfy their particular version of the burden of proof. Quite possibly they’d sent poor Brother Eustatius along to see what would happen to him, like a canary in a coal mine. All in all, this would be a good time to run; don’t stop to gather your five most treasured possessions, or even put on your hat. Just go.

Four hundred gulden short. I thought of Amalric, my brother—apparently he still knew what was going on and could understand what was said to him, but the only part of him that moved was his eyes; his eyes could still follow you round the room, like a tricksy portrait. The nine thousand four hundred was safely invested with the Knights, along with my will; if anything happens to me, anything at all... Four hundred stupid gulden. That’s two more portraits and two more sales to my unpleasant friend, and was it really likely that I’d be around that long? To do one more, quite possibly. Two, though; no. The Studium is many things, but nobody can accuse them of inefficiency.

I consulted my diary. An appointment early in the morning, to paint a portrait of Her Grace the Countess—a fascinating woman, by all accounts; born in an obscure little village in the mountains, joined the Opera at age fifteen, married to the Count at eighteen, widowed at twenty-three; mistress of kings, prelates, and philosophers, the most celebrated and notorious patron of the arts in the Empire, officially still the fourth loveliest woman in the City; and it was a rush job, she needed the portrait as a birthday present for some hapless satellite or other, and she’d promised cash on delivery, and her word was as good as money in the bank. Seventy gulden from her, a hundred and thirty from my friend, who’d rather have all his teeth pulled with rusty pliers than miss out on a collector’s piece like that. Still two hundred short. So close, but not enough.

A family of five could live quite happily—luxuriously—on capital of nine thousand six hundred gulden. And, if Mondelice hadn’t turned out to be one huge iron nugget, we’d have been perfectly content to do just that (only, if there had been no Mondelice, I would never have gone into business or earned so much as a bent trachy). But if I simply went home and handed them a draft on the Knights, I knew perfectly well what they’d do. They’d charge ahead, spend the lot, cut just one or two little corners that couldn’t possibly matter; they’d be bankrupt within the year, or crushed to death under a collapsed roof, and this time everything would be gone. So close you could practically touch it, but not close enough.

I painted the Countess, and she took away the finished result while the paint was still wet. She paid cash, and a thirty gulden tip—ridiculously generous, but she could afford it and she was overjoyed with my work, proving that she was a woman of taste, because it was the best, second best, painting I’ve ever done. That’s me exactly, she said, several times; it’s like you’ve opened up my heart and looked inside. And thanks to you, I’ll be me for ever and ever, long after this flesh is dead and gone. I could see what she was getting at; a year or so later, and she wouldn’t be her any more. There would be slight changes, little differences, and she’d go from being the fourth loveliest woman in the City (with certificates to prove it) to a sad, hideous monster, a hermit crab in a brilliant pearl shell, a peasant family squatting in a ruined palace. You caught me just in time, she told me. Well.

Thirty gulden. Thirty gulden is a hell of a lot of money, but not enough, so she might as well not have bothered. And if she’d had thirty gulden when she was fifteen, she’d never have left the mountain village. She’d have stayed there, and married a carter or a farrier, and lived happily ever after. Or at any rate a damn sight longer.

I went to see my friend. I had a proposition for him.

“You’ve never told me,” I said. “What do you do with them all?”

He gave me a horrified look. “You don’t need to know that.”

“Actually,” I said.

“You don’t need to know.”

I opened my portfolio and showed him a charcoal sketch of the Countess. He went white as a sheet. “Yes,” I said.

“Her—”

“Yes.”

Actually, the way he managed to pull himself together was quite admirable. “We were lovers once,” he said. “Did you know that?”

“No. I need two hundred for her.”

“I haven’t got two hundred.” He wailed it at me, as if I’d got him stretched on a rack. I believed him.

“How much have you got?”

“A hundred and five. That’s all. That’s me wiped out.”

Yes, but I had the extra thirty, so that was all right. But no, it wasn’t. I needed more. “When you say wiped out—”

He was breathing fast and shallow. “There’s a few things I can sell,” he said. “A farm in the Mesoge, a half-share in a ship, some family silver.”

“Good,” I said, “because you’ll need the money. But first, you’ve got to tell me. What do you do with them?”

He explained. I’d broken him, I think, because it all came out in a rush. My guess is, he was relieved to be able to tell someone. He was, he told me, an alchemist. Like his father before him, he’d devoted his entire life to the search for immortality. Quite early on, he’d proved, mathematically, that eternal preservation of the physical is impossible, can’t be done (pages and pages and pages of calculations, no doubt); so he’d concentrated his researches on the doctrine of the dual procession of the Holy Aura—

“Oh,” I said. “That.”

Yes, that; and he was convinced that it was possible to reduce the very essence of a man’s intellect, character and memories into substantial form, something tangible, something—

“Something you can keep in a bottle.”

He gave me a look of pure loathing. “Yes,” he said. “Something you can keep in a bottle, for ever. True immortality. I know it can be done, and I’m so very close—”

I looked at him. “Sure it can be done,” I said. “Tell you what. Give me four hundred gulden and I’ll tell you how. It’s not that difficult. If a woman can do it, it can’t be.”

He shook his head, like a bull bothered by flies. “I don’t need to know that,” he said. “And I couldn’t do it, not to a living person, it’d be worse than murder.”

“So you pay me to—”

“Yes.” Hard to tell who he hated most, me or himself. “Because, you see, they don’t keep.” He stopped. I thought he was going to be sick. “Like apples, you know. If you don’t store them right, they go bad. But it’s not difficult, storing apples, so long as you know how. And I will,” he added savagely. “It’s just a matter of practice and experiment. I’m nearly there. It can only be something very slight.”

“Thank you,” I said. And then I told him my proposition.

I thought he was going to faint.

He accepted.

Ask any artist and they’ll tell you. The biggest test, the greatest achievement, is the successful self-portrait. I set up my easel (for the last time) and looked for the light. I paint by the inner light, but the other stuff helps too.

When he told me about the storage problems, the going bad, he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. And money is useful—it’s everything—but I didn’t get started in this business just for money.

And I’m an artist, and I’m good at it. I set up my mirror; back to the window, mirror towards it, so that the light was reflected onto my face. I laid out the basic lines in ochre, then built up in colour, shadows first, then the light. It’s a cliché, isn’t it, about not being able to look at yourself in the mirror when you’re ashamed of something. Now I’m more ashamed of what I’ve done than anyone else alive, but for me, looking in the mirror was the only way out, the only way I could put it right. Actually, that’s garbage. Skewed perspective. Hardly surprising. Live with someone like me for twenty-six years, of course you’ll end up seeing all twisted.

There’s a moment when it stops being just lines and shapes and it becomes a face; like a house when people move in. I took a step back and looked at her, me, on the canvas. Hello, I said.

The reason I started in the business was I missed my father, so very, very much. I would close my eyes and see his face, exactly, fresh, perfect in every detail. So I painted him; over and over and over again, that’s why I learned, that’s how I learned, and each painting was better than the last until finally I got it just right, the best, really the best work I’ve ever done. My father in his habit as he lived; that’s a quotation, isn’t it? Anyhow, it was him, looking back at me. And I remembered Modestus of Apamene, the fool and rogue who’d been right all along; and I thought, I can do it. I can bring him back.

And I did. I painted him, and I did the sums, and I reduced him, his intellect, character and memories, his very essence, and I put him in a bottle, for ever and ever. But my friend is right. Unless you store them right, they don’t keep. They go bad. And I really don’t want to talk about that.

My friend will pay four hundred gulden into my account with the Knights, and in exchange I’ll give him this self-portrait, of the most remarkable mind and soul he’ll ever encounter, he agrees with me on that, together with the formula, the pages and pages and pages of maths. He’s agreed to give me time to write this, which I’ve now done. He thinks he’s figured out what he was doing wrong with the storage; it was just a little thing, he says, a tiny adjustment.

I hope he’s right.

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K.J. Parker is the author of the best-selling 'Engineer' trilogy (Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil, The Escapement) as well as the previous 'Fencer' (The Colours in the Steel, The Belly of the Bow, The Proof House) and 'Scavenger' (Shadow, Pattern, Memory) trilogies, and has twice won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. K.J. Parker also writes under the name Tom Holt.

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