I ran across a lovely comment about Mother of Souls on Twitter: "[HRJ] continues to set the gold standard for her subgenre." (Of course, now I'm idly speculating on which of the several possible subgenres could be meant.) Rest assured that I will continue to try to be a gold standard for whaterver I'm writing. Oh, but of course today's blog title refers to the artist in the excerpt below!
It keeps getting harder and harder to select teasers that don't give away key plot points. I think this one will do. Princess Anna has been commissioning portraits of selected members of her court, including some monumental works that show off what she considers some of her key assets. One of those key assets is her Royal Thaumaturgist, Margerit Sovitre, but another is her alchemist, Antuniet Chazillen. The princess has hired a peculiarly talented painter, Olimpia Hankez to depict the creation of the mystic gemstones that sealed Antuniet's appointment, and that calls for a reunion of the haphazard team that helped to create them. Jeanne is amused to recreate her role as laboratory assistant.
Chapter 25 - Jeanne
While Antuniet and the apprentices attempted to carry on their work, Jeanne took her turn posing. She was to stand before the furnace holding out her hands as if carrying a sealed crucible to be placed in the blaze. At first she’d been afraid she’d be asked to hold one of the heavy vessels while Hankez sketched and frowned and scribbled color studies in pastel. But before her arms even had time to become tired, she was told, “Enough. I have the hands. And you may sit now for the head study.”
It was hard not to smile at the peremptory commands. It wasn’t simply that Olimpia Hankez was famed enough that people put up with it. It was that you understood you were in the presence of a master who wouldn’t waste your time and expected you not to waste hers.
Jeanne passed the time by trying to recapture her thoughts and feelings from the days the painting was meant to portray. Scarcely two years past and it seemed like another age entirely, one when she and Antuniet were still fumbling their way toward a place where both their hearts could live. Their hearts…her eyes went, as always, to the irregular crimson stone that lay on Antuniet’s breast. I don’t know if it will come through the fire, but it’s yours, if you will have it. She had been speaking of the stone and her heart both. She watched Antuniet straighten momentarily and stretch to ease her back. They were still going through fires, but now they entered them together.
“Perfect.” Maisetra Hankez set down her tools and signaled an end to the sitting. “You captured the spirit of transformation I was looking for.”
Jeanne stood and stretched in echo of Antuniet’s gesture. “May I see?”
The painter examined her critically. “If you wish. Not everyone cares to.”
What sort of warning was that? Jeanne waited until Maisetra Hankez had cleared her things away then stood before the easel where several sheets of paper were clipped with sketches in various levels of detail. The last one, still commanding the center of the space, was in many ways the simplest. Only a few spare lines in pencil, without any of the color that was roughed in on the more complete ones. But Jeanne could see what Hankez had meant. The expression that had been captured showed none of her private thoughts, but said plainly, we will come through the fire and we will be transformed.
Jeanne let out an admiring sigh. It would be almost insulting to praise Maisetra Hankez’s skill. This went beyond mere talent. She peered more closely at some of the other drawings. It was like a child’s puzzle blocks with little bits of a larger picture scattered here and there. An alembic, a mortar, a pair of hands grinding, the play of light from the furnace on a faceless figure who was working the gears for the alignment.
There were a few head studies as well, but not ones intended for the larger arrangement. These seemed to be quick sketches, snatched at a moment’s whim when the subject was unaware. There was one of Antuniet frowning over some problem. Another capturing a rare expression of tenderness that made you wonder what she’d been gazing at in that moment. There were several of Anna: laughing, studious, biting her lip over some perplexity, and one simply staring thoughtfully into space. The last was finished almost to the point of being a portrait, perhaps from the length of time available, though it was barely larger than thumb-sized. It had that captivating quality of Hankez’s best work.