Front Door
Library
Blog
Gallery
Armory
Study
Neighbors
Gift Shop
 
     
     

Tanilith

This story was written in January of 2006. It was originally included in an Art Book circle - that is, a group of friends sent each other blank books, and took turns filling them in. This story went in Sapphire-chan's book. It is set in Bordertown, which was home to a series of shared-world anthologies edited by Terri Windling.

IV. The Realization

“Enough.”

Tanilith sat on the edge of the low stone wall and looked out across the rolling hills of her home. The sun was setting, painting the sky with an incredible display of colors, and the whole of the land seemed to be holding its breath. Birds and beasts had fallen silent; even the wind was still.

It was indescribably beautiful, and Tanilith was utterly sick of it.

She had taken pains to be sure that she was completely alone: no small feat in this land, for a member of her House. But this was a feeling that had been growing on her for a very long time – forever, she sometimes thought. She felt a need to explore it, but it was not a thing that she could indulge in any sort of company. Solitude had been worth the effort.

“Enough,” she said again.

I. The Contest

Three weeks earlier

Amarin drew back from the point of Tanilith’s blade, the fingers of his left hand twisting as he conjured with them. A shield of shimmering silver formed in front of his hand, and he used it to beat her blade aside. His blade came forward in a quick double-feint, trying to recapture the initiative.

Tanilith retreated, but only for a single step. She was watching him, calculating. Amarin was skilled; there was no denying it. He was a little taller than she, his hair wheat to the honey color of hers. Handsome, if that had been any sort of consideration in the midst of a competition.

The second feint became a thrust, aimed at her eyes: impossible to ignore. She murmured a single syllable as her hand twisted up, and a glove of purest gold – so pure it might have been woven from sunlight – coalesced around her hand as she swept his point aside. She made no effort to grasp his blade, knowing that he would already be sending – something – along it. Unneeded, her magical gauntlet dispersed.

There. She shifted the angle of her own blade, launching the tip towards his extended right arm. He swept out with his conjured shield, but the edge fell short by a rose petal’s thickness. Her tip speared the inside of his wrist, and his blade hit the ground as his arm went numb. The shield dissipated immediately, but before he could call the weapon into his left hand Tanilith slipped forward and tapped him in the center of the chest. His body froze as her blade delivered its spell, the one she would have used an instant earlier if she had been sure of reaching her target. Elvish swordplay was a thing of subtlety and refinement, whose conjured effects were used only as they were needed.

Off-balance and unable to move, Amarin started to fall. It wouldn’t have hurt him – the spell which held him frozen would also keep him from breaking – but Tanilith lowered her point and extended her left hand to steady him. It required only a little pressure, applied at the proper point, and it spared his dignity a little. Though he seldom beat her, Amarin was a worthy opponent, and he always treated her decently.

Ishannarith,” announced the Judge. It is over. The word was spoken in the older, more formal language, which was always used in these tournaments. “Inushal, Tanilith.” Tanilith has won.

Tanilith stepped back and released her spell. Amarin caught his balance with a small movement, little more than the sliding of a single foot. He made a formal obeisance, acknowledging his defeat. A less polite opponent might have retrieved his blade first, but Amarin was content to salute her without it.

She saluted him with her blade: a mark of respect returned. Sheathing it first would have indicated disrespect for his blade-skills, if not for Amarin himself. Then, restless, she turned from the ring.

Her blade-Master, Inyalya Senuil, was seated with the rest of her students. Tanilith paused at the edge of the ring and addressed her: “Mita sho tabrin theyir.” I am deeply grateful for your excellent teaching. It was the customary end to each match, delivered by the winner to his or her teacher since the world first rose out of chaos.

Inyalya rewarded her with a small smile, and Tanilith stepped out of the ring and approached.

“Well executed,” said the blade-Master, as Tanilith joined the other students at her feet. Tanilith turned her head, looking back at the ring, and Inyalya asked: “Is something amiss?”

“Your teaching brings me victory, and victory honors my House.” Tanilith’s voice was flat, dissatisfied. “What could be amiss?”

“What indeed?” asked Inyalya. “Is it the young lord?”

Tanilith shook her head. “Amarin fought his best.”

“Then the tournament itself,” said the blade-Master. “I know my lessons do not please you.”

Her words prompted gasps from several of the other students, and Tanilith stiffened. “Master, no. I respect–”
“Of course you do.” Inyalya’s words stopped her. “You are a diligent student, Tanilith, but I am too old for you to trick. You respect me, and you respect the art, but it does not stir your blood.”

Tanilith lowered her eyes, a tacit acknowledgement.

“Even so,” said her teacher, “You are a good student. I would rather have a dozen of your sort, than one who is passionate about the art but lacks the patience for study.”

II. The Painting

Three days earlier

“Good,” said Marith e’Leura. “Not perfect, but good. To match the Kikara style, you must use shorter strokes. Kikara was quite clear that one must only touch the canvas gently, sensitively, and above all briefly.”

“Briefly,” said Tanilith, glancing from the delicate lines of her landscape to the face of her teacher. “Yes, paint-Master.”

Marith moved to his next student, and Tanilith set her painting aside and placed another canvas on her easel. She knew better than to point out that her painting avoided the complete Kikara style deliberately. ‘Who are you?’ he would ask, as he had before, ‘to correct Kikara’s style?’

He didn’t seem to understand that she didn’t want to correct it. She only wanted to do something of her own.
Inralia leaned over as Tanilith finished the preliminary lines of her next attempt. “What are you doing?” she asked, looking puzzled.

“A painting in the Kikara style,” said Tanilith. “Absolutely, perfectly, in the Kikara style.”

“But… the Kikara style is the pinnacle of landscape paintings,” said Inralia, her own efforts forgotten as she stared at the shapes on her friend’s canvas.

“I know,” said Tanilith shortly. “That’s why this will be a painting of a toaster.”

III. The Conversation

Three hours earlier

“Disturbing words have reached our ears,” said Lady Marilia, sitting straight-backed in her tall chair.

“Yes, mother.” Tanilith lowered her eyes. A formal summons to meet with her mother might mean many things, but when the Lady sat in that particular chair it never boded well.

“First we hear that you are discontent with your lessons in the blade, though your teacher holds you in esteem and you bring honor to our house in Tourney. Then we hear that you mocked your paint-Master to his face.”

“Mother, no!” Tanilith raised her voice in protest. “I only told him that I was not Kikara.”

Her mother looked down at her. “You did more than that, child.”

Tanilith lowered her eyes. “I reminded him that if Kikara had painted only as the Masters taught him, he would not be counted among the Masters himself.”

“You sullied Kikara’s style by using to create a painting of some sort of foul human artifact. You mocked the Masters, and your teacher.”

“I…” Tanilith hesitated. “I meant no disrespect.”

“And now I hear…” Her mother stopped. “Where did you learn of such a thing?”

Tanilith looked away. She knew she was in trouble, and she accepted that. She had left them – her parents, her teachers – with very little choice except to treat her this way. Refusing to answer would not improve the situation, but on her life she could think of no way to reply.

After a moment her mother said, “Have you been entering those… clubs?”

Surprised, Tanilith shook her head. “No, mother. On my honor, no. What I know of human artifice, I learned… elsewhere. You know how children are.”

Her mother looked at her sternly, but Tanilith met her eyes. They were, she thought, at an impasse of sorts. She had told her mother something – that she had not entered the strange, subversive Underhill clubs where illicit human music was played – but not where she had learned of humankind and its creations. Her mother would guess that she had been exposed by her friends, but not which friends or where… and her mother would know that Tanilith would not want to tell her those things.

She could push, of course, and force her daughter either to tell, or to defy her directly. Instead, she hesitated. “I’m of a mind to withdraw you from that trip,” she said.

“If you like, mother. I try to be a dutiful daughter. Command me to stay, and I will.” Tanilith was suddenly scared. She had been looking forward to the trip to Bordertown, the chance to see its newer arts and its reinvention of the classical styles. It had occurred to her when she began to paint that paint-Master Marith might refuse to take her, but she had never imagined that her own mother might refuse to let her go. And yet… to show any sign of interest, or panic, would be to give away her weakness. Her only defense was to let her mother think that she cared little either way. And I do. There are worse things that could happen. If I don’t go now, I will go later.

“Promise me you will never enter those clubs,” her mother said sharply. Then she sniffed, almost as if she were amused. “At least until you are married, and your actions will only embarrass some other House.”

“You have my word,” Tanilith said immediately. “Thank you, mother.”

V. The Decision

“A dutiful daughter,” Tanilith said to herself. “An apt student. An imitator of other people’s arts. Is that all that I am? Is that all that I will be?”

She watched the velvet darkness slowly gather, and heard the first of the night-birds clear its throat.

“No,” she said to the empty air. “It’s not enough.”

VI. The Trial

“Name?” The guard looked bored. He had interviewed a dozen people in her group alone; Earth and Sky knew how many he had seen over the course of the day, asking the same questions and watching his spells of truth and intention.

“Tanilith.” She answered automatically; she was thinking about painting. Blade-Master Inyalya had been right: the art of the sword held little interest for her. Instead, she had been considering how she might have painted the Borderwall in the style of Kikara: short brush strokes, delicately touching the canvas, colors added in incremental layers. Even so, she was not sure she could capture the subtlety of the working that divided human lands from the True and Only Realm, but it was the attempt that mattered. In her mind, she traced each movement, each layer, careful to match Kikara’s techniques.

“Reason for visiting Bordertown?”

The painting wavered, but held. “I’m an art student,” she said, which avoided the question but wouldn’t alarm the truth spells. “I’m here to see Bordertown’s paintings.”

In her mind, she went back to the canvas, putting the final touches on her creation. She might not ever be able to paint it, but in her mind’s eye she could see how it should look.

The guard hesitated, but his spells revealed nothing untoward. If the girl seemed a little distracted, well then, and what did he expect from an artist? “Pass,” he said.

Tanilith moved on, and Inralia stepped up the guard.

VII. The Experience

Three days later

They had spent the first two days in the elegant art galleries of the upper city, and Tanilith could not help but be disappointed. The work here was progressive, to be sure, but it still seemed very formal. She saw considerable skill in execution, but none of the boundary-destroying imagination she had hoped for. She could produce art like this, but she could never be satisfied with it.

But on the third day paint-Master Marith e’Leura scandalized half the class by taking them into the lower city to see some of the smaller, less esteemed galleries. “Remember,” he had told them, “that the human world has its painters as well, crude and unsophisticated as they may be. The works you have seen so far have been influenced by their exposure to these other styles; now I want you to see what those influences are.”

It was a long walk. Magic worked poorly here (the paint-Master said it was tainted by nearness to the human world, as so many other things were) and there were no sensible means of transportation. Tanilith’s legs and feet were aching by the time they reached the lower city, and the charms she muttered to restore them fizzled and died, leaving only a faint scent of lavender on the air. The buildings here were the remains of a human city, stone and brick and concrete, low and heavy compared to the gleaming, slender elegance of the towers in the True Lands. It was not as dirty as she had been led to expect, but she was disappointed nevertheless. What manner of art could possibly spring from such dreary surroundings as these?

Inralia stayed close at Tanilith’s side, looking around with a mixture of fear and disbelief, as if she half-expected to be assaulted on the spot. Certainly, the streets were busy; and crowds were mostly of commoners; and many of those commoners were human, the bulk of them unnaturally short and squat, dark of hair and eye. But Tanilith thought her friend was overreacting, even when thick-built human in a black leather jacket cut through the center of the class as if unaware that they traveled as a group. He reeked of sweat and other, unfamiliar things, and he showed not the faintest awareness of the courtesies, or even that any such things were owed.

Amarin moved up beside Inralia, opposite Tanilith. “Be at ease,” he said softly. “He was not worth your notice.”

Inralia frowned at him, but seemed to relax. Tanilith glanced at him curiously, but he only met her eyes briefly and then looked away. With friends on either side of her, Inralia appeared to relax even further. “It’s as foul as my father said it was,” she remarked.

This time Tanilith looked away, her eyes falling on a young man who moved gracefully past them. He was too tall, too slender to be human, but his olive skin and almost-black hair were too dark to be otherwise. A halfbreed. She’d heard that was possible, but wasn’t sure she’d believed it until now. The young man wore a sword at his hip, belted over a silver jacket, and people made way for him as they did not do for the paint-Master and his noble students.

“Very different from home,” Amarin remarked tactfully, answering Inralia without (quite) agreeing with her.

“Here,” said the paint-Master, and they turned into a grubby brick building, passing under a metal gate and through a narrow wooden door. With the gate down, the entire front of the building would be closed off; were such precautions necessary, here?

The inside of the building was a sharp contrast to the outside. Soft lighting filled a long, low-ceilinged room which had been broken up with a series of partitions and high counter along part of one wall. Stronger lights had been arranged in some arcane fashion to fall upon specific paintings, where they hung upon the walls and the partitions. An elegant vinework tracery had been sculpted into the wall just below the ceiling, and painted over with considerable care. Soft music flowed into the room from several points; Tanilith picked out the black mesh of its sources and decided that it, like the lights, must be delivered by some human artifice. Still, the effect was salutary.

A single human woman, sleepy-eyed and red-haired, straightened up from behind the counter and called them a greeting. It was politely worded and given in their own tongue, though with a truly atrocious accent. Paint-Master Marith replied grudgingly with his name and their business, and the human returned her attention to whatever had occupied her previously.

Tanilith was already moving away, towards the nearest of the pictures. It was crude, and a little garish; dabs and strokes of color delivered with a great deal of force onto the canvas. She could almost see the artist at work, furious with concentration and hurry, slapping his paints down so that he could finish before… what? Before he lost the light? Before his inspiration left him? Before he had to go make dinner?

She shook her head. It didn’t matter. This was what she had been looking for: this sense that painting was worth doing, not for the acclaim it brought her house or as a vacant imitation of the skills of the Masters, but in its own right. The thing in itself, she thought.

“Just so,” said the paint-Master, misinterpreting her gesture. “I warned you that these would be crude and clumsy, but you needed to see them.” The rest of the class gathered around as he raised a hand to indicate the pointing. “Consider the way in which this artist uses his paint. Wasteful, compared to the elegance of a Kikara or Lorinim…”

VIII The Escape

Tanilith listened to him talk, and managed not to smile. She glanced once at the circle of faces around them, and was disturbed to find Amarin’s eyes on her; the others were watching the paint-Master.

She hung back a little when Marith finished speaking and moved on to the next piece of art. This one wasn’t even a painting; at least, not exclusively. Layers of thick paper, dead leaves, and a bit of string had been placed on the canvas beneath the paint, giving it an odd, artificial sense of depth. In some ways she liked it better than the first piece; what it lacked in urgency it made up in experimentation. The paint-Master, of course, had no kinds words for such a bastardized technique.

The next painting was on the opposite side of the partition, and once the paint-Master was behind it and the rest of the students were focused on him, Tanilith found it easy enough to walk over to the counter. She couldn’t go out the front door; it had a little bell, which would alert the paint-Master immediately.

“How may I help you?” The woman’s accent was so terrible that it took Tanilith a moment to sort through the words… and the she hesitated, unable to begin with what she really wanted to ask.

“Forgive him,” she said. “He speaks only what he knows.”

The woman smiled and lowered his voice further. “All is well. We have visitors like him, and most often they only end by encouraging others to buy.”

Tanilith took a second to be sure she had heard the humor correctly, then smiled. “Do you have a back door?” she asked softly.

The woman bent over the desk, writing quickly with an oddly-shaped instrument. Tanilith felt her stomach drop, sure that she had offended the woman somehow. She would be lucky if the human only ignored her; a few of the right words, spoken loudly, would ensure that Tanilith would be bundled back across the border in disgrace.

She had just started to step back when the woman handed her a piece of paper. I hope she writes better than she speaks, Tanilith thought, then chided herself for being uncharitable. She spoke none of the human languages at all, and so had no room to criticize.

The words on the paper were an address. “There’s a door behind the last row.” The woman kept her voice low and made no other movements. “Go straight down the hall, and out the door at the end.” She nodded at the paper. “The people there can help you, if you desire.”

“Thank you,” said Tanilith, slipping unconsciously into the older, formal language. The woman nodded as if she understood, then went back to her work as Tanilith slipped back to join the class. She needed only one thing more: an opportunity.

She followed the others around the room, watching their movements – and particular the paint-Masters – with the same focused precision that she had used in the Tourney. Her timing was flawless: paint-Master Marith finished his commentary and turned away, and the rest of the class turned to follow, and she took a single step back, placing herself behind the last partition. The hallway was right in front of her, made narrow by a stack of boxes on one side, and she slipped lightly down it to the door.

It was fashioned after the human style, light metal with a round knob. She could detect no spells upon it. If it has any human security, I’m trapped. Her heart was beating faster, but when she tried the knob it clicked sharply and the door opened.

She slipped outside, listening for any sounds of disturbance as she pulled it closed behind her. Then she turned, regarding the dirty alley behind the gallery…

And barely stifled a shriek as Amarin touched her arm. How?

But she knew. He’d been watching her, and he’d guessed – somehow, when even Inralia had not the least inkling – what she meant to do. And he’d seen how she would have to proceed, and he’d preceded her.

“I don’t…” Her voice trembled, shaming her, and she swallowed and began again. “I don’t think I can explain. I’m a valued member of a successful House; how can I not be happy with my life?”

But Amarin shook his head gently. “I don’t understand your discontent, Tanilith, but I do see it. And if you will allow it, I would walk a while with you.”

It was a delicately phrased offer, with no hint of what he might do if she refused. But… she didn’t think he would interfere, even if she refused. And she was alone, and scared, and it would be good to have a familiar face for company in such a strange, bastard place as this.

“Yes,” she said. “I will allow it.”

He smiled. “My heart is gladdened. Do you know where we’re going?”

“No…” Thinking of the piece of paper in her belt, she added: “…but I have an idea where to start.”

His smile broadened, and he motioned for her to proceed. “All good projects begin with an idea.”

The End
The Beginning?

The Bordertown world was created by, and is copyrighted by, Terri Windling. The world, its landmarks, and its characters are used with her permission only. All rights to Borderland material are reserved by Ms. Windling and the authors of the Borderland books.