Painted

We haven’t actually played out any lessons from Master Mernath yet so I can’t write about those, but some have definitely taken place.

It was still warm. We still lived mostly outside. Ashti went to the Guild school to read books in the library, like the book the size of a baby crib with all the animals in the world. She’d be able to tell her class much more about animals when the school started again! But she didn’t find the woman with a fish tail that had been in our priestess’ animal book, perhaps because it wasn’t a real animal at all!

Sometimes she took books home to read under the alder tree, aloud to the children if they were the right kind of books, like history. It was a pity I was never at home for that because I’d always liked history when I was in school and I’d like to know more! But we were working very hard at the smithy, the hot weather didn’t matter there because it was hot work anyway.

On the Day of Anshen Ashti wanted to go and talk to the painter girl about the mice on her feet. We saw her after the temple service, walking through town with her sister. The two girls recognised us, “you’re the people Rhinla painted when you were kissing on the bridge! Will you come and eat at our house?”

That was exactly what we wanted! But there were too many of us to arrive without warning, so we asked Arni to take the children home and gave her money to buy pasties at the bridge. (And we completely forgot to go to the Temple of Mizran to get Arni’s ten shillings for her! But there was enough for today, at least.)

The girls took us to a house between other houses in a narrow street, where the master we’d seen painting was at the door. “Guests?” he asked. “Oh, it’s you! Have you come to see our work?”

“Yes, please,” we said, “and we’ve probably got some work for Rhinla to do, we’ll talk about that later.”

“I’ll cook,” the other girl said, “you show them the pictures!”

The master and Rhinla took us upstairs to their workroom. There were pictures against the wall, pictures on the wall, pictures on wooden things like the one they’d used at the bridge, pots of paint and paintbrushes. And a lot of things I couldn’t recognise, but I suppose painters wouldn’t recognise some of my tools either!

There was one painting of a big piece of roast meat, almost finished. “Master Jeran let me do that!” Rhinla said, and then showed me the model for the painting that looked really like a piece of meat, except that it was made of clay! “I made that first,” she said, “made it in the right shape and painted it so it looks like the real thing, because if I had the real thing it would go bad before the painting is finished. Or we’d get hungry and eat it by mistake. Or the mice would eat it. Or the cat would eat it.”

“Is it for an eating-house?” I asked.

“Yes! For the Crown.” That was as posh as the Three Kings! We’d passed it a couple of times but had never dared go in. Perhaps Vurian would take us, if we could catch him when he wasn’t insanely busy, but we’d only seen him (and Mialle for that matter) from a distance in the temple.

The drawings that Rhinla and Master Jeran had made of us on the bridge were hanging on a wall, side by side. Master Jeran’s looked as if he’d been working on it some more.

Then Rhinla’s sister (Lesla, she was called, I remembered) shouted “Food is ready!” from downstairs, and we all sat under the cherry-tree in the yard where there was a big stack of pancakes and cheese and fruit and cream and honey. No cherries, it was too late for that, but small sweet plums. Master Jeran had a small jug of wine, and the rest of us a large jug of weak ale to share.

“About that piece of work,” Rhinla said when we were licking the last of the grease and cream off our hands, “can you tell me more?” She got more and more excited as Ashti explained. “How do you do that? Prick in your skin? Can you teach me that?” Then she took us to the workshop again and asked Ashti to undress. “I want to see my whole canvas before I start drawing,” she said.

What surprised her most was the white hair between Ashti’s legs. “Is that real?” she asked.

“It grew that way, yes, I didn’t bleach it or anything.”

“Hm, if you want a cat there –” and she drew the front end of a cat, so the hair was the cat’s belly, and a dark pillow around the cat so it was white against it. “And the tail at the back!” she said. Then she got very excited and drew the mice, and some grass and herbs and flowers, and rubbed out the pillow and made it into a piece of dark shadow. “You need a tree!” The tree went up Ashti’s side. “Do you want your whole body done?”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Ashti said. “But it’s — well, I’ve got the snakes, and if I get more of my skin painted the snakes won’t be — they won’t mean that much.”

“The snakes mean you’re a priestess, right? Who made them?”

“My grandmother did. They mean I was a priestess when I got them. I don’t think I’m a priestess right now.”

“What’s it made of? The paint, the ink, whatever?”

“Charcoal and water and a bit of oil. You do it with a splinter of wood, or a needle made of silver or bone, and push the ink under the skin.”

“Can you teach me?”

“I’ll have to, if you’re going to paint me in places I can’t reach, right?”

But before they got round to that, Rhinla drew Ashti’s legs and hips full of more leaves and grasses, and a tree on her back. Her belly and breasts and shoulders were still bare, and the snakes went round her wrists and then round another time and half a time.

Then Master Jeran came up and he was very interested. “You could put mongooses on the arms,” he said.

“What are those?” I asked.

“A kind of little fox, from foreign parts. They eat snakes.”

“I don’t think I want anything that eats something on my body!” Ashti said. “The cat is watching the mice but the mice can get away.”

“Hm, let me have the charcoal.” Master Jeran drew more plants on Ashti’s arms, as if it was grassland going down to the water, with a tiny frog in it. Rhinla drew another frog on her other arm, and the frogs were both very different but they were both really frogs, as if they could jump away just like that! “Can you do a hedgehog?” I asked Rhinla, and yes, she rubbed out her frog and put a little hedgehog there.

“I could start on it now if you show me how to do it,” Rhinla said. “Does it hurt a lot?”

“Like pinpricks,” Ashti said. “But a lot of pinpricks.”

“Can you teach me how to do it too?” Master Jeran asked.

“Of course,” Ashti said, and she asked Rhinla to bring her the things she needed and mixed the ink. Then she thought of something neither of us had thought of before. “How much will it cost?”

The master and the journeyman looked at each other, then nodded. “If you teach Rhinla and me how to do this and she can practice her artistry on you, nothing at all,” Master Jeran said. “You might be starting a fashion, and when the nobles come we’ll have an advantage when we can already do this. I don’t think anyone in this country who isn’t a priestess of Naigha has their body painted like this.”

Ashti showed Rhinla how to put the ink under the skin, on a bit of her foot that was going to have a mouse on it anyway, and Rhinla got the hang of it almost at once. Master Jeran watched every bit of it. “Can I do a piece?” he asked, but Ashti said, “No! I’d like everything on my body to be done by the same artist.”

Rhinla had done the whole front of the cat now, and the tail on the back, as if the cat was rolling on the ground between Ashti’s legs. “Oh! I know!” she said, and took the charcoal again and drew a pair of babies on Ashti’s still bare belly, sucking each other’s thumb. I let Ashti look through my eyes, and she liked it!

“Can you do only black?” Rhinla asked. “What about colours? Green for the leaves, and red for the berries?”

But that made Master Jeran very angry. “Haven’t you learned yet what I’ve been teaching you for the past year and more? Every pigment other than pure charcoal is poisonous. Red is dead. If you get copper or ultramarine or anything in a wound, it goes all through your body to make you sick. And what are all those pinpricks you’re making? Wounds.”

Rhinla shrugged and got back to work, and I finished what I’d been thinking. “Master? If you want to do some of that, could you give me bracelets on my arms?” And I pointed it out on the thickest part of my forearms, three fingers wide.

“Only if Ashti approves,” he said, and I couldn’t very well ask her now, because Rhinla was now working on a really sensitive bit of her skin and I went to sit next her to hold her hand.

It was hours until she was finished! And that was only the cat, Ashti’s feet and the plants on her arms that the snakes were disappearing in. Ashti rinsed all the charcoal off in a tub downstairs, put her clothes on and gave me her loincloth to carry. “I’ll have to sleep on my back!” she said. “And then I’ll lie on the tail but that’s only a little bit.”

I asked her about the bracelets, but she said “Not until I’m finished. I want to make love with you at least once when I’m all painted and you’re still all white.”

The children and Arni were wondering what we’d been doing all afternoon, and when Ashti showed them they were kind of shocked, but in the next few days they got used to it.

After a couple of days Rhinla visited us in the evening, “might as well do the babies before you get real big. I don’t know what will happen to your skin when your belly grows! And then when they’re born you’ll get thin again. How does that go with old priestesses who get fat?”

“Priestesses don’t get fat,” Ashti said. “Only thinner. My grandmother has really thin arms, like sticks, and the skin hangs from them like a bag. Snakes and all. Like paper.”

Ashti sat down with her back against the wall of the house, and of course all the neighbours came to look. Some thought it was scandalous, but I heard some wives whisper to their husbands. Perhaps Ashti was really starting a fashion! An Ishey woman leaned over the fence and said, “Can they do something for our skin too? Asa paints herself with henna for feasts, and when she rinses it off it’s dark red on her skin. But that wouldn’t show on mine. White ink would be nice.”

“Master Jeran said that all other colours than black are poisonous,” I said. “And I don’t think that white ink even exists. But perhaps you should talk to Rhinla or to the master himself.”

When it became too dark to do any more Rhinla said, “I’ll show you how all of it is going to be! But I need it to be really dark for that.” We took her to our bedroom, the children and Arni too. Ashti stood there naked, and Rhinla drew on her body exactly as she’d done it with the charcoal, only in lines of light!

Arvin put a finger in his mouth — that’s what he does when he’s thinking. “Those leaves on your arms, does that mean that the snakes can’t grow any more?”

“Yes,” Ashti said. “No, I mean. They can’t.”

“So we’re all staying with you forever?” And that made Ashti cry, and nod, and hug him.