by M. R. Herbert
Edited by Maurice Broaddus
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
2954 words — Reading time: around 14 minutes
Ashi doesn’t know where the bodies go when he finishes, and he doesn’t care.
When he finally lets his hand fall, slender fingers and silver brush dripping with black ink that vanishes before reaching the cold tiles below, he cares only that Vana will be breathing again.
The lines of glowing white that he painted through the air — a shining, hollow, three-dimensional portrait of Vana — are already starting to fade. Ashi does not need to check to know that it worked. The fact that he is still standing — that the world is still turning — is proof enough.
In this, his Creativity has been tested and proven.
The guards outside Vana’s bedchambers never comment on Ashi’s unmistakable burnout. He is Vana’s painter: they, like anyone who knows even part of the truth about the heir’s illnesses, will assume he has been painting to save her life. And if they know enough about Creation to see that Ashi is more exhausted than he should be, on those days when he stumbles back down to her rooms after hours in his studio, they have not yet reported him.
Vana’s rooms are still and silent and dim. The red curtains let in a single line of sunshine, golden dust motes tumbling through it, and the air is heavy after his light-filled studio. Ashi approaches the low bed with leaden steps, the hem of his robe brushing softly across the stone floor, his eyes drawn to the figure lying under the thin white sheets. The figure’s chest rises and falls. His own constricts in relief.
Vana is alive.
“How many more lives will you destroy in your selfishness?” Nima’s voice is sharp, a knife from the darkest corner of the room.
Ashi’s eyes slide to her, a lighter shadow against the wall that pushes off and stalks towards him while he searches for an answer. Her presence does not surprise him. It was Nima who brought him news of Vana’s death, quietly, privately — a courtesy, perhaps, to give him the choice. As though she had not known what ink Ashi had been preparing from the moment they discovered Vana had been poisoned again. As though she did not know what he would paint.
Yet the quiet tells him she told no-one else.
Nima faces Ashi over the bed, expressionless. “This is the fourth one, Ashi. You’re not saving her. She’s gone.”
“She’s not,” he snarls, because the woman sleeping before them is Vana. A Vana buried under a life of other circumstances. But he is an artist — he has painted her a new canvas to colour.
“This person will never be her.” Nima’s eyes pierce into his soul.
Ashi looks at their new Vana, her brows furrowing as she dreams. Almost identical to the original. The same dark skin, the same perfect hands, though her thick black hair is longer by half a finger. A difference so small that perhaps only Ashi would notice — only he, who has followed Vana’s steps for years, who has painted her more times than he can count. On parchment, in graphite; on tile, in glaze; on canvas, in oils. Whatever parts of Vana’s smile, her charity, her warmth that he could capture in those official pieces has had no place in his recent works — on air, in ink that changes from void-black to shining white and fragments into the space between the lines. In these there is only desperation, only determination, only refusal that his last official work of Vana should be for her memorial. These will never be viewed by the court.
Nima still wears a white ribbon in her dark hair. A subtle reminder of the same grief that inspired Ashi to Create like never before, in rage and refusal and hope — to paint a solution that Nima refuses to accept, and the defiance in her eyes is cold. If loyalty to Vana once drew them together, the painter and the bodyguard, it died with the original.
“She can be her,” Ashi whispers, a promise to himself.
There is nothing to mourn. Vana — a Vana, the Vana, it hardly matters now it’s done — is with them again. And he pays the price of his successes with every breath, in the knowledge that soon he will reach his final burnout, the one no artist recovers from with mere rest.
The other costs — those to other lives, to other worlds — are out of sight. So he forces them from his mind.
“And how long will this one last?”
“We’ll keep her alive,” Ashi says, as though this time it will be different. As though this time, they will not come for Vana when he is forced to sleep or fulfil his other duties. As though the regent does not know that the only thing standing between him and an indisputable claim to the throne is Vana, and that the only thing standing between him and Vana is Ashi.
The broken, poisoned body of the last Vana is nowhere to be seen. Whether it goes to the world he has drawn this Vana from, or to some abandoned reach of their own world, Ashi does not know. No bodies have ever been found.
And Vana is alive. So he does not care.
When Vana has recovered enough to eat, Nima brews her soup. And then tests it for poison, in case the ingredients themselves have been tainted, in case the bowl was lined with it, carefully-measured spoonfuls stirred into a concoction of her own Creation. Ashi watches from the door of the kitchens, reluctant to be away from Vana’s side but even more reluctant to let her consume anything he cannot prove is clean. The few servants awake at this late hour give them both a wide berth.
“You will have a month, at most,” Nima tells Ashi. There is no resignation in Nima’s tone, no warning, only pure pragmatism.
“She needs time to learn.”
“The king won’t wait for that.”
Nima calls the regent ‘king’, now. She has ever since finding out what Ashi’s paintings were really doing. It does not matter to her what Ashi had intended for them, only the reality they resulted in.
“We’ll protect her.”
But the regent’s poisons have been insidious, relentless, and there is nothing they can do to prove it is him. Nima’s trained tongue has not been enough to find the right mixes to detect them, and even Ashi’s fingers cannot draw lines fast enough to save Vana from the ones Nima misses. They have not yet found the poisons’ designers.
Nima’s mixture steams gently in its cup, the odour turning sour, its Creativity expended.
“She won’t be Vana,” Nima says again. This time it is not an accusation.
“She will learn.” He knows the penalties for impersonating the heir, for conspiracy against the throne — even if that throne is held only by a regent.
The last Vana died before she had a chance to become someone more than the blank sketch Ashi provided her with, to become like the original. He will not fail this time.
It takes three weeks for Vana to recover strength enough that they can no longer keep her confined to the safety of her rooms. Just three weeks, and she returns to the court, smiling, almost free from the illness that — to her knowledge — stole her memories and her strength. A full month passes, and still Vana lives, and for the first time since she died, Ashi dares to hope that she will survive until her coronation. The poisons that still slip their way into Vana’s food are found by Nima, who siphons them into lodestones that crackle and burn and are buried where they can dilute harmlessly into soil.
Ashi knows — he cannot help but know — that for all her appearances, this is not Vana. But there is something about this Vana, in the way she moves, in the way she speaks, that echoes the original like none of the others ever did.
For it was never Vana’s outside that would give her away. His first success made Ashi realise what must have happened, how his art had twisted between his vision and reality. He painted a Vana that was not their Vana, could never be their Vana. A Vana identical in form, alien in spirit — who answered to a different name, who raged and cried and fought him, leaving wounds that linger still, though the physical ones have long since healed.
When she died, Ashi painted over the next Vana’s memories before she awoke. And the next’s. And this Vana’s, too. Painted her into a blank canvas, with only a simple sketch containing all his memories of the original — nothing more than an outline to be built upon.
But this Vana plays her part better than Ashi could have dreamed. Her secret, quiet smiles, the ones given only to him, have yet to resurface. But in this Vana, Ashi believes they will.
So for the first time in what feels like years, Ashi finds himself smiling, even as he paints ward after ward around her sleeping figure, even as Nima burns her fingers and tongue on the regent’s poisons.
Nima protests when Vana asks Ashi — and him alone — to accompany her into the gardens after their evening meal, but the heir’s demands cannot be argued with, and in that this Vana knows her rank almost too well. Ashi knows it would be safer with Nima there. Yet he remains silent as they argue, and Nima backs down, and so it is only he and Vana that walk the stone paths beneath the banyan trees around the palace.
In Ashi’s company, in the garden scattered with guards, Vana should be safe. Their view of the palace is broken by the spreading trees, their branches sweeping across the space between paths. The quiet that falls in this dappled place is heavy, and though Ashi has dreamt of such moments for years, he cannot help but watch their backs, cannot help but stay alert. He can no longer remember the last time he slept without a brush and inkwell near at hand.
“I want to go back,” Vana says after a time, neither of them quite looking at the other.
His shoulders want to sink. But Ashi offers her his arm, his long sleeve of embroidered yellow and gold a contrast to the dark skin they both share, and turns in the direction of the palace.
“I don’t mean there.” Vana moves towards a stone bench, further down the path, and watches him until he joins her, four hands apart as her rank requires. “I mean to where I came from. To the place in my dreams.”
“They are dreams,” Ashi says, too slowly. Whatever words he might have imagined exchanging in seclusion, these are not them.
She is calmer, far calmer than she should be. He is as cold as the stone they sit on.
“But I remember another name. And I know what Creativity is capable of. I remember—”
But whatever Vana remembers is stolen by coughing. And when Ashi reaches to support her, he feels the heat of her skin, notices only now the flush in her cheeks too intense to have been caused by their conversation. An erratic beat pulses in her veins, an unnatural counterpoint to her heart.
The ice in Ashi’s chest spreads to his stomach, to his mind, to his arms and fingers. They are leaden as he wrenches a brush from his belt, tries to paint lines to counter this attack. The poison’s artistry is stronger than any Nima has turned away, locking and breaking and slowly erasing everything he has fought for. Hidden so cleverly that Nima could not have found it. And while Ashi knows there are none who can match his skill, there is always a measure of advantage to be had in the brute force of numbers. This has both strength and expertise, and his few lines twist and writhe uselessly along Vana’s skin.
His fingers are too slow, too heavy. Ink spatters across the stone, hissing into mist. By the time the shouts from the guards come, too distant and too quiet as his own vision starts to fade, Ashi knows it is already too late.
Ashi wakes. Vana does not.
It is Nima who brings him the news; a courtesy, perhaps, or an apology that he still lives. Vana has died, and this time the court was there to see it. This time, there is no chance for him to exchange her without everyone knowing what he has done. What he has been doing. Vana is gone, and there is guilt in every line of Nima’s body.
She did not miss those poisons. She designed them herself.
Ashi sits on the raised dais in his studio’s exact centre, bare toes pushed up against the slight lip. Despite the light streaming through the windows, the stone is cold. They have taken his brushes, all his inks, stripped the room bare of its furnishings. All that remains is this dais and the intricate lines that criss-cross the stonework, funnelling into the dry inkwells that line the walls. But they are empty, and there is nothing for him to channel his Creativity with.
“We could have made it,” Ashi tells Nima when she visits him again that evening. “She was learning.”
“Vana died last year, Ashi. The king would never have let her live.” Nima is stone, too. Unfeeling. “How many worlds would you have risked breaking before you accepted that?”
“If you had done your job the first time, this wouldn’t have happened.” He has nothing left to lose that he cares about. Rage weighs down his chest, fathomless, patient, empty. “You should have saved her.”
Nima doesn’t visit again.
No matter how many times Ashi told her that it was for the people’s sake — for the people, they needed Vana, not some usurper who was never born to rule — he knows what Nima believes. Knows the truths he denies even to himself.
But now the insurrection is over, victorious, and all disloyal ties must now be severed.
He will be executed at dawn.
The perfectly-spaced windows of his circular prison let in only blue sky, only light carried on soft currents of air. He remains on the dais until long after the sun has set.
He has no brushes. No ink. He has only his fingers and the strength of his will, and that will never be enough for another Vana. Ashi knows, all too well, what attempting that would cost him, and he has no time to rest, nothing he can prepare. Even if he could, she would be executed beside him. There is no way out.
Ashi paints with his hair and blood. Lines across his skin, tiny, intricate, his bleeding arm the first of the spell lines. His entire body becomes the work, encasing him even as he feels the last of his Creativity leach out, and the red lines begin to lift from his skin into the air. It is his portrait, but in reverse: not summoning, but sending.
Casting himself away.
If he cannot bring another Vana to this world, he will take himself to another. And if a different Ashi dies in his place tomorrow, then perhaps it will at last be over.
Whoever the Ashi was before him is quickly forgotten. There is only him now, alone, out of place, lacking something that he can’t quite put a finger on in this new world.
So Ashi fills a gallery with his dreams, fragments of a life half-remembered from a reality he can never return to. The critics call his paintings creative. The irony of their comments is not lost on him, though the magic is. But his skill remains, and it is this which has won him a place in his new world. A world of metal and smoke and the sharp, acrid scent of tar; of duller colours; of machines he could never have imagined. Yet there is space in this world for creation, and after a while he stops noticing the emptiness of the paint, the sterility of the canvas.
The days flow into months into years, and between the palaces and banyan trees and circular rooms, he paints her. Over and over and over again, more pieces than he dares to hang in the gallery, hoping that somewhere, someday, she will see them. That someday, somehow, she will come.
He does not know how else to find her.
And then it’s winter, three years since Ashi first woke to a cracked-tile bathroom and muddy water. He hears the bell from his back room, feels the rush of cold air as the door opens, and he finds her standing in front of a painting of a stone-lined courtyard he can only claim he imagined.
A Vana who is not his Vana. Yellow scarf hanging to her knees, black hair dusted with snow, twisted golden wires dangling from her ear. But in the set of her jaw and the glow in her eyes, there’s a familiarity that silences the greeting in his mouth.
“I’ve seen this place before,” she says. “Where is it?”
There is no answer he can give that she would believe. And he knows this is his only — his last — chance.
“I thought I’d dreamt it,” he says finally, weakly, because there is nothing else to tell her, because to her he cannot lie.
But she smiles. And it’s relief in her dark eyes, and something else — the glimmer of another time, another girl, another memory.
“We must be having the same dreams.”