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Oberta 16, 1542
Six months before the Dawngate opened

They wound through a series of narrow, dusty yellow alleys. Overhead, layers of rickety wooden balconies hung with washing turned the westering sun into a patchwork of red and turquoise, cool shadows and hot, bright color. Mothers were talking across the space, passing each other ingredients for dinner, toys left behind, bits of gossip.

A pack of feral children pelted down the cracked stones, led by a smudge-faced girl carrying a faded blue ball. The two men flattened themselves against the wall to let them pass.

“I’m sorry for the surroundings,” the smaller said, mopping his brow with a scrap of cloth. “We’ve tried to persuade her to move out of the vaapi. Maybe to the dormitories. At least to lodging in a better neighborhood. But she just won’t leave.”

The larger man looked upwards, observed the play of light and shadow through the balconies and fabric. Listened to the ever-changing music of children laughing and shouting. He twisted the end of his immaculate moustache, and said nothing.

“Yes. Well,” the small man said. “The door on the right. At the far end. By the hay stack?”

They were nearly there when there was a shriek from overhead.

The small man cringed, put his hands over his head, and threw himself against the opposite wall. The larger looked up, took a step back from the pile of hay, and watched as a girl floomped into it from somewhere up above.

Straw and dust flew everywhere. The women on the balconies fell silent for a moment, then heads were shaken, eyes were rolled, and conversations started back up again.

The girl, lying on her back, coughed and grinned up at them. Her unbound hair was tinted blue, spilling like a waterfall over the side of pile.

“Mistakes were made,” she said cheerfully.

“Oh my law,” a high, quavering voice floated down. “You alive, Zeri?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Zeri waved up at a dark-haired girl leaning over the edge of the roof. “I think we need to move them farther from the edge.”

The girl on the roof sank her fingers into her hair. “Or maybe you could stop trying to do cartwheels up here? Please? Maybe?”

“Don’t be so conventional, Rannah,” the blue-haired girl laughed at the sky.

The small man cleared his throat significantly and brushed straw dust from his sleeves. “Zeri, this is Renzo ehl Tamahid. Virtuoso Renzo. I told you we were coming?”

“Oh, neat. The guy who turned down the Chair of Nishi’an?” She twisted herself through something like a backwards somersault to get to her feet, and scruffed the straw out of her hair. It ended up looking messier for the attention. “Good to meet you, pops,” she said brightly.

“Pops?” Renzo echoed faintly.

The smaller man visibly wilted. “An expression of… um, respect?” He sent a look of appeal towards the girl.

“There could be only one Philosopher-King of Nishi’an,” Renzo said. “Seljust.”

“Huh. Don’t think I know his work.” The faint freckles on Zeri’s sun-browned cheeks scrunched up as she smiled. “That,” she pointed up at Renzo’s face, “is an absolutely fantastic moustache. Can I touch it?”

“Certainly not,” Renzo boomed richly, startling a perching roller into a flash of turquoise and indigo feathers. “Renzo’s moustache must remain impeccable. Flawless. A glistening beacon, inspiring others to pursue facial greatness. You cannot simply,” his hand wandered off into the air, fingers grasping at some elusive concept, “simply touch such majesty. Renzo must forbid it. Perhaps,” he suggested kindly, “Zeri could grow her own moustache?”

Zeri was silent for a moment, her eyebrows sailing off somewhere high above her vivid hazel eyes. “…Wow,” she said at last. She glanced at the smaller man and asked, “Is he always this third-person-y?”

“Perhaps we should have this conversation upstairs?” He squeaked.

* * *

Zeri’s lodging was on the top floor, the cheapest. She said goodbye to her friend at the door as the men squeezed up the narrow, unlit stairs. The wooden slats creaked worryingly under Renzo.

“I’ll see you in studio tomorrow, right?” Rannah asked, then leaned in to whisper, “You’re not gonna get expelled are you? The Provost seemed pretty mad.”

“I’ll be fine,” Zeri smirked, and tugged on one of the other girl’s braids. “Go on.”

“I mean,” Rannah hesitated. She glanced up the stairs at Renzo, who magnanimously pretended not to see. “That’s a Virtuoso, Zee. He could have you exiled or something.”

The walls of Zeri’s room had once been whitewashed plaster, but were now painted floor to ceiling with loops and swirls of brilliant color. At least Renzo suspected they ran to the floor, which was difficult to spot under the piles of clothes, dropcloths, canvases, and random debris. Against one wall, a shelf of pottery and small sculptures sagged free of the wall, propped up by an unoccupied easel. A large window, crooked shutters thrown wide, looked out over the square.

The entire space smelled richly of curry spice and fish, from families cooking dinner below, the restaurant at street level, and food carts sizzling in the square. The air was dim and rosy with evening light, faintly smoky. The shouting of hungry children and drunken laborers filtered through the thin walls.

“I’d offer you something,” she told them, plopping into a tumbling pile of paint-spattered, primary-colored pillows, “but all I’ve got here is some figs. I usually eat in the square.” She waved her hand at the mess, her knees at the same height as her head. “Sit wherever.”

“I’ll stand. Thanks. Thank you,” the smaller man said, looking around with what he probably thought was well-concealed revulsion. “I am here to introduce you. Do the appropriate paperwork. Make sure everything has the appropriate seals – you do have your personal seal, don’t you?”

“Sure. It’s over there. I think,” she waved at a jumble of fired-clay study figurines. Renzo narrowed his eyes and took them in with a glance. Reasonably skilled. Her hands were clearly unpracticed in the medium, but the concepts were good. One in particular possessed a striking sense of motion. Unfortunately, the material she’d chosen hadn’t the strength to hold up to the distribution of weight; it had snapped in half.

He stroked his moustache absently. Her medium was paint. One needn’t worry about mass and balance in illustration. She could run wild with exotic proportion and position. She needed to learn restraint. But only enough to know how the rules could be broken.

“I expect you know why the Virtuoso is here?”

“The nude of the Provost?” Zeri suggested. “I can totally explain that.”

Rezno let the smaller man blather on, something about the sacred master-pupil relationship, while Zeri looked bored. Her eyes continually flickered away, dancing around Renzo’s edges like curious moths. He was silly, this small man, this Hateen. His sort was necessary – for him, numbers and organization were art. Renzo had seen Hateen’s chambers. Papers passed through hands as if they were the gears of a fine western timepiece. Numbers crystallized into columns and sums of transparent beauty. It was admirable. Unquestionably an art of high order. Alas; it had bored Renzo to weeping.

Renzo moved to the window to study the view.

Below, the square filled with milling evening crowds. Carts sold grilled kebobs and trinkets. Water plashed in a large fountain surrounded by rioting children, courting teenagers, weary adults. A dark-haired woman slapped out complex patterns on a lap-drum while a greying man wove thick tapestries of sound from a massive stringed instrument.

On all sides of the fountain rose vaapi, sprawling multistory complexes build of mud-brick and plaster. Each was a self-contained world of shops, workshops, and cramped apartments around a central courtyard. The slums were filled with vaapi, the poor packed tight between the expanding parks, academies, and manors of the artisans.

Renzo had not entered a vaap in many years, not since he was a boy. Before he’d been Discovered. Zeri’s room smelled… as he remembered. Pungent cooking spices lay heavy over the reek of too many bodies too close together. Stale beer, old vomit. The faint, cloying, immovable stench of urine. He placed one massive hand on the window frame and ran his calloused fingers lightly down the dusty, crumbling surface, felt the pits and crannies in the plaster. Zeri had painted the wall in brilliant emerald hues, shapes and patterns that suggested the play of light and shadow on jungle ferns.

He glanced around the tiny room – most of the walls were painted shades of blue and green – and then back out, at the red and yellow landscape.

He looked up from the square, across rooftops strewn with greenery. Kitchen gardens bursting with fragrant sprays of herbs; fruit-bearing vines scaling rickety arbors. Terraces of squash and aubergines. In the pale distance loomed one of the vast aqueducts that carried water from mountains on the edge of vision. Beyond that, sky and desert hazed together somewhere in the nebulous distance. It was darkening; in the morning, the rising sun would fill the room with light.

Hateen had been blathering at Zeri for some time. Renzo turned back to see one side of her face had drawn up in an eloquent expression of disbelief. Her hands had tightened into fists.

“In conclusion,” Hateen whined, “we simply can no longer allow you to live under these conditions. Take whatever… items you wish to keep, and we’ll make sure the rest is bur- er, we’ll make sure this place is left in reasonable condition.”

“What was Zeri doing on the roof?” Renzo asked suddenly.

She blinked and looked at him directly. “We all get some roof space for a garden. Everyone in the building. I’ve got some lilies.”

“Lillies,” he repeated, dubiously.

“Sure, why not?”

“Not spices? Not vegetables?”

“You don’t want to see my cooking,” Zeri said. “Honest.”

“Zeri could sell them to her neighbors,” Renzo suggested. “Trade them for her meals.”

She made a face and waved dismissively. “First of all: bleh. Second of all: Zeri tells the esteemed Virtuoso, ‘Don’t narrate me.’ And third of all, there is no third of all.”

“It takes a great deal of work to grow a garden in our lands,” Renzo rumbled. “Even with the water from the mountains. Renzo knows. He has designed gardens. But woe! Renzo’s thumbs are not green. His gardens will not grow. Oh!” he wailed, “Oh, Renzo’s tragic thumbs!”

“Wow,” Zeri said. “You get more interesting every time you open your mouth.”

“You get nothing from your work?”

“I – they’re pretty. I like to look at them.”

Renzo gestured grandly about Zeri’s hovel. Indeed, it was impossible for Renzo to gesture any other way. “Renzo sees nothing here that resembles a lily. You get no inspiration from them?”

“Sure I do,” she countered, a pugnacious look springing to her face. She jabbed a finger at a canvas of pale shades, half-hidden behind a pile of dirty laundry. “Colors,” she said. Then she waved at the tumble of half-finished, oval-limbed figurines. “Shapes. But I can’t improve a lily, and I’m not going to just copy it.”

“Ah,” Renzo said. “So Zeri does know her limits.”

A tremor of anger passed through her. Impossibly, she found a way to go more limp, to sprawl more sloppily across her pile of pillows. “So what is this?” she flopped a hand at them. “You guys just dropped in to tell me that I suck, my art sucks, and I live in a sucky place?”

“You are being-“ Hateen began.

“Renzo came to see how worthy you are,” Renzo’s voice rolled over the smaller man’s like thunder.

“Great.” She twisted a strand of aqua hair around her finger, impatiently. “Worthy of what?”

“Of being the apprentice, the protégé, the sidekick,” he raised his arms over his head triumphantly, almost cratering the low ceiling, “of the glorious Renzo!”

She watched him silently, expectantly.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” Hateen asked.

“Oh.” Her face screwed up. “I guess I was waiting for a punchline?” She scratched her head, pulled out a bit of straw, and tossed it carelessly on to a pile of laundry. “Sure.”

Hateen looked ill. “’Sure?’” he echoed, uncertainly.

“I mean, he’s a sculptor, so I don’t know how much I’ll learn about painting. But yeah. Sounds fun,” she said. “Just one thing. I’m not moving in with him. And I’m not going to some academy dorm. I’m staying right here,” she said, firmly.

Hateen’s already pinched face practically imploded. “That is-!”

“Acceptable,” Renzo boomed.

“What?” Hateen said, weakly.

Continued...

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