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  Imager

  ( Imager's portfolio - 1 )

  L. E. Modesitt

  L. E. Modesitt

  Imager

  1

  743 A.L.

  Commerce weighs value, yet such weight is but an

  image, and, as such, is an illusion.

  The bell announcing dinner rang twice, just twice, and no more, for it never did. Rousel leapt up from his table desk in the sitting room that adjoined our bedchambers, disarraying the stack of papers that represented a composition doubtless due in the morning. “I’m starved.”

  “You’re not. You’re merely hungry,” I pointed out, carefully placing a paperweight over the work on my table desk. “ ‘Starved’ means great physical deprivation and lack of nourishment. We don’t suffer either.”

  “I feel starved. Stop being such a pedant, Rhenn.” The heels of his shoes clattered on the back stairs leading down to the pantry off the dining chamber.

  Two weeks ago, Rousel couldn’t even have pronounced “pedant,” but he’d heard Master Sesiphus use it, and now he applied it to me as often as he could. Younger brothers were worse than vermin, because one could squash vermin and then bathe, something one could not do with younger brothers. With some fortune, since Father would really have preferred that I follow him as a factor but had acknowledged that I had little interest, I’d be out of the house before Culthyn was old enough to leave the nursery and eat with us. As for Khethila, she was almost old enough, but she was quiet and thoughtful. She liked it when I read to her, even things like my history assignments about people like Rex Regis or Rex Defou. Rousel had never liked my reading to him, but then, he’d never much cared for anything I did.

  By the time I reached the dining chamber, Father was walking through the archway from the parlor where he always had a single goblet of red wine-usually Dhuensa-before dinner. Mother was standing behind the chair at the other end of the oval table. I slipped behind my chair, on Father’s right. Rousel grinned at me, then cleared his face.

  “Promptness! That’s what I like. A time and a place for everything, and everything in its time and place.” Father cleared his throat, then set his near-empty goblet on the table and placed his hands on the back of the armed chair that was his.

  “For the grace and warmth from above, for the bounty of the earth below, for all the grace of the world and beyond, for your justice, and for your manifold and great mercies, we offer our thanks and gratitude, both now and evermore, in the spirit of that which cannot be named or imaged.”

  “In peace and harmony,” we all chorused, although I had my doubts about the presence and viability of either, even in L’Excelsis, crown city and capital of Solidar.

  Father settled into his chair at the end of the table with a contented sigh, and a glance at Mother. “Thank you, dear. Roast lamb, one of my favorites, and you had Riesela fix it just the way I prefer it.”

  If Mother had told the cook to fix lamb any other way, we all would have been treated to a long lecture on the glories of crisped roast lamb and the inadequacies of other preparations.

  After pouring a heavier red wine into his goblet and then into Mother’s, Father placed the carafe before me. I took about a third of a goblet, because that was what he’d declared as appropriate for me, and poured a quarter for Rousel.

  When Father finished carving and serving, Mother passed the rice casserole and the pickled beets. I took as little as I could of the beets.

  “How was your day, dear?” asked Mother.

  “Oh . . . the same as any other, I suppose. The Phlanysh wool is softer than last year, and that means that Wurys will complain. Last year he said it was too stringy and tough, and that he’d have to interweave with the Norinygan . . . and the finished Extelan gray is too light . . . But then he’s half Pharsi, and they quibble about everything.”

  Mother nodded. “They’re different. They work hard. You can’t complain about that, but they’re not our type.”

  “No, they’re not, but he does pay in gold, and that means I have to listen.”

  I managed to choke down the beets while Father offered another discourse on wool and the patterned weaving looms, and the shortcomings of those from a Pharsi background. I wasn’t about to mention that the prettiest and brightest girl at the grammaire was Remaya, and she was Pharsi.

  Abruptly, he looked at me. “You don’t seem terribly interested in what feeds you, Rhennthyl.”

  “Sir . . . I was listening closely. You were pointing out that, while the pattern blocks used by the new weaving machinery produced a tighter thread weave, the women loom tenders have gotten more careless and that means that spoilage is up, which increases costs-”

  “Enough. I know you listen, but I have great doubts that you care, or even appreciate what brings in the golds for this household. At times, I wonder if you don’t listen to the secret whispers of the Namer.”

  “Chenkyr . . .” cautioned Mother.

  Father sighed as only he could sigh. “Enough of that. What did you learn of interest at grammaire today?”

  It wasn’t so much what I’d learned as what I’d been thinking about. “Father . . . lead is heavier than copper or silver. It’s even heavier than gold, but it’s cheaper. I thought you said that we used copper, silver, and gold for coins because they were heavier and harder for evil imagers to counterfeit.”

  “That’s what I mean, Rhennthyl.” He sighed even more loudly. “You ask a question like that, but when I ask you to help in the counting house, you can’t be bothered to work out the cost of an extra tariff of a copper . . . or work out the costs for guards on a summer consignment of bolts of Acoman prime wool to Nacliano. It isn’t as though you had no head for figures, but you do not care to be accurate if something doesn’t interest you. What metals the Council uses for coins matters little if one has no coins to count. No matter how much a man likes his work, there will be parts of it that are less pleasing-or even displeasing. You seem to think that everything should be pleasing or interesting. Life doesn’t oblige us in that fashion.”

  “Don’t be that hard on the boy, Chenkyr.” Mother’s voice was patient. “Not everyone is meant to be a factor.”

  “His willfulness makes an ob look flexible, Maelyna.”

  “Even the obdurates have their place.”

  I couldn’t help thinking I’d rather be an obdurate than a mal. Most people were malleables of one sort or another, changing their views or opinions whenever someone roared at them, like Father.

  “Exactly!” exclaimed Father. “As servants to imagers and little else. I don’t want one of my sons a lackey because he won’t think about anything except what interests or pleases him. The world isn’t a kind place for inflexible stubbornness and unthinking questioning.”

  “How can a question be unthinking?” I wanted to know. “You have to think even to ask one.”

  My father’s sigh was more like a roar. Then he glared at me. “When you ask a question to which you would already know the answer if you stopped to think, or when you ask a question to which no one knows the answer. In both cases, you’re wasting your time and someone else’s.”

  “But how do I know when no one knows the answer if I don’t ask the question?”

  “Rhennthyl! There you go again. Do you want to eat cold rice in the kitchen?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Rousel,” said Father, pointedly avoiding looking in my direction, “how are you coming with your calculations and figures?”

  “Master Sesiphus says that I have a good head for figures. My last two examinations have been perfect.”

  Of course they had been. What was so hard about adding up columns of numbers that never changed? Or dividing them, or multiplying them? Rousel was more than a little careless about n
umbers and anything else when no one was looking or checking on him.

  I cut several more thin morsels of the lamb. It was good, especially the edge of the meat where the fat and seasonings were all crisped together. The wine wasn’t bad, either, but it was hard to sit there and listen to Father draw out Rousel.

  2

  745 A.L.

  Authority always trumps reason, unless reason is the authority.

  The Council of Solidar opened the Chateau of the Council to the public exactly twice a year, at the last day of summer, the thirty-fifth of Juyn, and at the depth of winter, the thirty-fifth of Ianus. Father insisted that I come with him because I’d just turned fourteen and finished the grammaire. In another month I’d begin my apprenticeship with Master Caliostrus, one of the more successful portraiturists in L’Excelsis.

  “Since you cannot and will not be a factor, Rhenn, you need to see what great art really is.” My father must have said that at least three times while we rode in the carriage along the Boulevard D’Este and across Pont D’Nord and then another mille along the Boulevard D’Ouest. Once we reached the base of Council Hill, we had to leave the carriage and wait in a long queue under a white sun that blistered down through the pale blue summer sky. The gatehouse ahead of us was built of alabaster, as was the Chateau above, but the surface of the stones of both had been strengthened by imagers centuries and centuries before, supposedly by those of Rex Regis after he had taken L’Excelsis from the Bovarians and made it the capital of the land he had unified and renamed Solidar. The walls shimmered white and inviolate, as pristine as the day they were laid, sort of like an eternal virgin, I thought, trying not to snigger at the thought.

  “Rhenn, you are not to exhibit amusement at the misfortunes of others.” Father’s eyes darted toward a crafter who was looking down at a spreading dark brown stain across his trousers. He still held the handle of the clay jug that he had swung up to drink. Fragments of pottery and a dark splotch on the wall suggested he’d been less than careful in lifting his jug.

  “Sir, I was thinking of a terrible joke that Jacquyl told yesterday. Seeing the gatehouse reminded me of it.”

  “Likely story.” The good-natured gruffness of his response suggested that he believed me, or at least that he knew I was not laughing at the poor crafter, a mason’s apprentice or junior journeyman, I would have judged by the stone dust on his sleeves.

  A good glass passed before we reached the head of the queue short of the burnished bronze gates and the gatehouse. The Council guard there stood in the shadow of the tiny portico, but sweat had dampened the pale blue linen of his uniform tunic into a darker shade.

  “The next ten of you,” the guard announced.

  Father strode ahead. He always walked quickly, as if he might miss something if he weren’t the first one. The paved walks were white granite, flanked by boxwood hedges in stone beds. “See those hedges, Rhenn. That’s what a hedge should look like, not with twigs and leaves sticking out haphazardly.”

  “Yes, sir.” Rousel was supposed to have trimmed the little branches on our hedge, after I cut the larger ones, but he’d gone off to play. There’d been little point in saying so, because Father would just have said that it was my responsibility. But if I’d dragged Rousel back, he would have complained, and then Father would have punished me for being too strict.

  After we walked up the wide white stone steps, Father cleared his throat. “There are three arches-a main arch flanked by two smaller arches. All three lead into the Grand Foyer.”

  I didn’t say anything. We’d studied the Chateau in grammaire, and I knew that.

  Father took the center archway and hurried inside, out of the blazing sun. It wasn’t that much cooler, but being out of the sun was a relief. I glanced up at the faux dome of the foyer.

  Father followed my eyes and gestured upward. “You see the stonework there?”

  “It looks well done.” It wasn’t stonework at all, but flat painting designed to trick the eye into believing it was stonework.

  “You think you could do better?”

  “No, sir.” Father was always doing that-comparing me to an experienced artisan or factor or crafter. Of course I wasn’t that good. That didn’t mean I couldn’t be in time.

  Just in front of us was an older and all too bulbous man in a threadbare and once-white linen overshirt. He had planted himself before the first portrait on the wall on the right-hand outer wall of the foyer, cocking his head one way and then another. I started to move around him, but Father reached out and grasped my arm.

  “Take your time. Study each one carefully, especially the portraits. You’re the one who’s going to be a portraiturist. You won’t have another chance to see these for a time.”

  After the older man finally moved, Father pointed to the image of a trim black-haired man with sweeping mustaches in a black dress uniform with silver-banded cuffs. “That’s a portrait of Seleandyr. He was the one who led the Council in the trade war against Caenen and Stakanar . . .”

  I’d seen Factor Councilor Seleandyr before, if only from the balcony when Father had hosted the cloth factors’ fall reception, and he’d never been that slender. Hs mustaches had drooped, as had his belly, and his thin hair had kept falling down over a low forehead.

  “. . . managed to keep matters from getting out of hand and made sure that the taxes to support the war were only temporary. His death last Fevier was a great loss . . .”

  I’d heard the rumors that his death hadn’t been from age, but from sweetmeats transformed into pitricine, after he’d eaten them, by an imager whose niece he’d procured for his son. Seleus had sworn it was true.

  The next artistic object was a bust, and again we had to wait for the gyrations of the bulbous fellow before Father led me forward. “Charyn. He was the last rex of Solidar, and the one who founded the first Council . . .”

  I knew all too well those details of history, but all I could do was listen.

  We made half a circuit of the foyer and reached the point where it opened, through three arches that mirrored those of the outer entry, onto the landing at the base of the grand alabaster staircase leading up to the Council chambers. Father marched right up to where the guards were posted. On the pedestals that formed the base of the rose marble balustrade of each side were a pair of sculpted statues-a winged man and a winged woman.

  “Angelias-they’re the work of the great Pierryl, Pierryl the Younger, that is. What do you think of them?” Father turned to me.

  “The workmanship is excellent, sir.”

  “They’re great art, Rhenn,” murmured my father. “Can’t you see that?”

  “Father . . . the carving is outstanding, but they’re ridiculous. Those tiny wings wouldn’t lift a buzzard, let alone a child, and certainly not a man or woman.” I didn’t mention that each wing feather had been sculpted to a length of nine digits, not quite the ten of a full foot, and that wings that small would not have had individual feathers that large.

  Father began to get red in the face. “We will have a talk later, young man.”

  “A sea eagle has wings almost that broad, and the largest weigh but half a stone.”

  “An angelia is not an eagle,” snapped my father.

  “No, sir. They’re much larger, and they would need far larger wings to support themselves if they were truly to fly.”

  “Rhenn! Enough.”

  I’d said too much, but Father’s opinions on art were limited by his own shortcomings and lack of understanding. I managed to placate him with pleasant inanities and agreements for the rest of our visit, consoling myself that, by the next time the Chateau was open to the people of L’Excelsis, I would be apprenticed and studying under Master Caliostrus.

  3

  750 A.L.

  In art and in life, what is not portrayed can be as a

  vital as what is.

  At breakfast that first Mardi in Juyn I sat near the end of the long table-as usual, because the only one junior to me was Sta
nus, who’d just become an apprentice. He sat on the other side and one place farther toward the end. Shienna was to my right, and Marcyl was across from me, with Olavya to his left and Ostrius on his father’s right.

  “I’ll need some golds from the strongbox after breakfast,” Caliostrus said to his wife Almaya, seated to his left. “I can get some imagers’ green from Rhenius.”

  “I’m certain it’s less dear than from Apalant.” Her voice cut like a knife.

  “You’re the one who insists on the strongbox and keeping all the golds here.”

  “After what happened to my father when the Banque D’Rivages failed, and the Pharsi lenders came to collect . . .”

  “I know. I know.” Caliostrus looked down the long table. “Tomorrow, Craftmaster Weidyn will be here at the eighth glass of the morning. He will be here for two glasses.”

  What Caliostrus was also saying was that he didn’t want the sitting disturbed, but why would he ask that for a craftmaster, rather than a High Holder or a factorius? I’d heard Weidyn’s name at my parents’ table, but couldn’t recall his guild.

  “Why is he a craftmaster, Father?” Marcyl’s big black eyes fixed on Caliostrus.

  “Because he’s one of the best cabinetmakers in all of L’Excelsis. That’s why.”

  “It might be nice to have something of his,” suggested Almaya.

  “It would indeed, but it’s less than likely,” replied Master Caliostrus. “A single sideboard of his, and that’d be one of the plainer ones, would fetch at least a hundred golds. That’s if it ever came up for sale, but his work never does. People commission him a year in advance.”

  “They commission you in advance, dear,” offered Almaya.

  Despite her words, Master Caliostrus was fortunate, I knew, if a patron commissioned a portrait a season in advance-and paid upon completion and delivery of the framed work. That was one reason why I was the only journeyman in the household, besides Ostrius, who would soon doubtless become a junior master, and who would in time inherit his father’s studio.

 
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