She was a lady-in-waiting for the High Duchess of Camberie. Not that the Duchess would accept much waiting-on. Mostly the Duchess would take care of her own necessaries, and just liked to have a lady-in-waiting for show. The lady in question didn’t mind. It gave her more freedom to do whatever it was she wished to do. And mainly what she wished to do was paint.
She would gather parchment and vellum fragments from the scribes-in-court. They tended to cut off the extra material to create a relatively uniform shape for their official declarations. She would graciously ask the scribes if they would permit her to collect the scraps, and they were always happy to oblige, knowing the quality of the work she did.
The paints she would mix herself. A market stall stowed away on Well Street sold the mineral chalks -- red and yellow and blue and white. Sometimes she would make ink from the flowers in her garden. The red rose was the perfect shade of pink to hue the lips of fine ladies.
Everyone from the visiting dignitaries down to the milk maids would visit her. She didn’t care about rank. The payment she requested was one tenth of a week’s salary, no matter what that salary may be. The indentured servants would pay nothing. Often times, the farmers would pay her in eggs or quarter-bushels of wheat. The brewer would pay her a stein. And Prince Edmund from the Severed Isles would pay her three bars of gold and no less. She did not particularly enjoy painting Prince Edmund.
They would sit down in a room full of sunlight, and she would observe them from many angles, drinking in their light and shadow, their swells and crevasses, their wrinkles and glimmers. She painted counts and countesses dark and brooding as befit their nature. The loveworn lass seeking to gift her portrait to a departing soldier she painted in a rosy light. The paintings seemed to come alive. But once, she found she did not have a deep enough blue to match the ocean eyes of a young man. She sent him away with a portrait unfinished in her mind, but he seemed happy enough.
They all loved their scraps of parchment. She knew there were some who would carry her portrait of their lover never far from their heart. But they knew not her name: they simply called her the Paintress, and after a time, she called herself that also. And after a longer time, she knew not her own name, and could not find it within the deepest reaches of her memory. It was a quiet mourning she lamented, something deep and aching that only the stroke of a brush could alleviate somewhat. Something that pulled her away from what she was and couldn’t know, and toward something she wasn’t and could know to the very bone.
And she painted. Sometimes, when there was no one clamouring for a portrait (which was rare), she painted the flowers in the field and how they tilted and twirled. They looked like the Duchess’s tatted lace, she thought, but with a crimson drop of blood, like the Duchess had pricked herself on the pin.
Not even the flowers knew her name. They never whispered it on a breeze to her. Spiteful things, keeping something like that hidden away from her.
One day, she was standing at the intersection of three corridors, looking out the lanclet window where a fourth might have gone. A young girl in an ebony dress that marked mourning bounded up to her. She smiled shyly up at the Paintress and held out a rolled-up parchment toward her. As she took it, the girl’s deep blue eyes glimmered.
“I made this. For you,” she breathed, then skipped away.
The Paintress stared after the girl who was so chipper despite the mourning clothes. Something had seemed strangely familiar about her. She looked down at the parchment in her hands, and unscrolled it.
It was a painting. Of her. Of the one whose name no one remembered. She wondered why the little girl had painted her. But more, she wondered at the disturbing fact that in the painting she had no eyes. At all. It as if the little girl had forgotten to include the eyes. That she had eyes. But she couldn’t have forgotten, could she? She had painted the rest of her face flawlessly!
Her mouth went dry and her head started to ache as she stared at the picture. She felt a pain start behind her eyes and rubbed at them. Then, rolling the parchment back up, she went to bed. While she slept, her mind wove nightmares.
When she awoke, she was not what she once was. She was not herself, though no one noticed right away. Eventually, however, they stopped flooding to her door, and soon, she was painting more flowers than faces. Her portraits had stopped breathing. They were no longer alive. They eyes didn’t twinkle and the cheeks didn’t blush. The red rose petal ink soured, and the world seemed gray. Very, very gray. Almost as if her eyes really were fading away to nothing.
The sky always rained and reflected into the ocean and the houses on the hills looked carved of stone and the grasses in the field set to mouldering and little girls’ eyes matched their mourning dresses -- ebony with ivory circling ‘round.
Her Duchess didn’t want her. The scribes didn’t let her harvest vellum scraps, claiming that they needed them. The mineral-chalk seller closed up shop. The red drop of blood in the tatted lace of the flowers had turned black as midnight’s blinking eye. She didn’t even have a name to claim her. There was nowhere for her to go but among the flowers. So she sat down and wept.
She sat in the field until dusk sank dark upon the sky.
And then she heard a whisper. It felt like a beckoning.
She looked up, eyes still wet with tears.
She looked up, and she met the first drop of color she had seen in what seemed like years.
Blue eyes. The boy smiled. He held up tatted lace with a blood-red center.
She reached for the flower, but she passed right through his hand.
When he spoke, he spoke to her mind. I will be your eyes.
And she knew her name.