Beatrice tried not to fidget in her eagerness to catch a glimpse of the box. Mother stood beside her and Beatrice could feel her disapproval. She forced herself to look elsewhere, and turned her attention to the Contessa's sleek brown horses, kicking up a flurry of dust over the cobblestones. Beautiful creatures, and the light was perfect.
Father rode in under the archway, followed by a half dozen House guards. As he passed Beatrice, he acknowledged her with a nod, his stern features briefly relaxing into a smile.
The Contessa stepped down from her carriage, moving with a grace as smooth as flowing water. Her family wealth was displayed on her long fingers: the cut gems of her rings sparkling sharply beneath the summer sun. Mother greeted the Contessa with her customary calm, while Beatrice curtseyed and then smiled, as prettily as she could. They'd had so few visitors in the past couple of months, as plague had swept through the region and most families had kept to their estates.
The Contessa da Saluzzo was a tall, lean woman dressed in embroidered green silk. Her eyes were a dazzling blue and her voice a soft, sensual breeze punctuated by laughter that rang like tiny silver bells. Beatrice wondered how much of what she saw was the true Contessa and how much was what Mother had transfigured in her painting.
"Darling girl," said the Contessa, and kissed Beatrice's forehead before she turned her attention to Mother. "Antonia, so good of you to find time for me at such short notice."
"Not at all," said Mother. "I understand there is to be royal attendance at Cardinal Aragona's banquet."
The Contessa laughed. "You're well informed. I suppose I'm not the first to change their fashions to better suit His Grace's guests? It's a nonsense, but society is fickle and unkind."
As Mother and the Contessa talked, servants bustled around them. Luggage was removed from the carriage. The horses were taken to the stables to be fed and watered, and the House servants showed the Contessa's attendants to their rooms. Indoors, lemon water, sweetened with clover honey, was served. Beatrice excused herself as soon as she could and slipped away to the stables. There she found Father grooming his favourite chestnut mare. When he saw his daughter he put aside his curry comb and lifted her in his arms, spinning her round once. She was too old for such games, perhaps, but there was no-one watching so she didn't mind so much.
"However did the maids get you into that dress, dear heart?" he asked.
Beatrice huffed and tugged at her sleeves. "I know how to properly greet a great lady. Besides, Mother said it was important."
Father glanced at the stable doors: the courtyard was quiet, with only a young stable-hand sweeping the flagstones clean. "The Contessa's always been one of your mother's most generous patrons," he said.
Beatrice scrunched up her face. "Mother didn't want me to greet her because she's important. I don't get to see the important guests."
He looked down at her, eyebrows raised. "Oh?"
"One of the Papess's cardinals was here last month. That's an important visitor, and he came even though the plague was still in the village. And Mother didn't want me to greet him."
Father glanced out at the courtyard again. "A cardinal, really?"
"It was quietly done, but I know he was here. He talked to Mother for hours," said Beatrice, and she couldn't help sounding a little smug.
Father frowned. "You mustn't bribe the servants to inform to you against your mother."
"I bribed no-one," said Beatrice. "No money at all, only words. I should know what goes on in my own home."
Father shook his head, and his voice grew low and serious. "You're a clever girl, Beatrice, but you lack discretion. If you must do such things, do not boast about them, not to anyone."
Beatrice felt herself flush; she hated to disappoint Father. "What does the Contessa want Mother to transfigure?" she said, eager to change the subject.
Father shrugged. "Perhaps there's a new fancy for brown eyes?"
"If it's a simple thing, maybe Mother would let me watch?"
"She won't, Beatrice. Don't ask." His voice was hard. Beatrice scuffed the heel of her boot along the stone floor, trapping a stray piece of hay beneath her foot.
"Don't look so petulant, you knew what the answer would be," said Father. "It's a good day for archery practice, or fishing. Take your books and spend the afternoon by the river if you like."
"I've sketches to work on," she said, doing her best to keep her tone neutral.
Beatrice sat by her bedroom window, catching the knife-bright afternoon light as she sketched the stables below. Her charcoal strokes were swift and certain as they broke up the clean white of the paper.
As she sketched, she imagined giving the horses majestic wings and her own mare a shining silver coat. She thought of painting herself with the Contessa's dazzling blue eyes, and getting rid of all her freckles.
She couldn't do any of that with her useless sketches. Frustration ached within her. The horses became unruly, the stable boy bad-tempered. She looked at his expression and felt a stab of guilt. The boy had lost his father, their stable master, in the plague. After the gem blue lines had appeared on his skin, Mother had kept him isolated and done all she could to make his last lingering weeks as comfortable as possible.
Beatrice's charcoal moved across the paper, altering the boy's expression into wide-eyed sadness, but it didn't make any difference. She stopped and took a breath, staring at what she'd done before she crumpled the paper and tossed it to the floor. Perhaps it was her anger that kept her from Mother's secrets.
"It wasn't as bad as all that, surely," said Mother, behind her. Beatrice jumped to her feet, startled.
"I'm sorry. I-"
"I watched, child. I saw." Mother looked at her impassively. Expression unreadable, her eyes grey and serene.
Beatrice picked up the paper and smoothed it out. She handed it to Mother. "It's just the stable."
Mother's eyes lightened as she looked at Beatrice's work. "There are many academies that would accept you," she said. "I wish you'd give proper consideration to where you'd like to go."
"So you've nothing left to teach me?"
"Beatrice." Mother did not sound angry - Beatrice had never known her to raise her voice - but her tone still warned her to watch her words. "The Contessa will be sitting for me this evening. Do I need to confine you to your rooms?"
Even if she was locked in, Beatrice knew how to sneak out her window and down the vines to freedom. Mother would have House guards stationed near the studio though; she always did when a patron sat for her, and Beatrice had never been quick or quiet enough to slip past them. But Mother looked weary, and Beatrice had no wish to embarrass her in front of the Contessa.
"I'll behave, I promise," she said. Mother smiled and handed back her sketch.
"The academies. Think on it, Beatrice. You're almost old enough for a formal apprenticeship," she said, and then she was gone.
Beatrice pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. Tears burnt beneath her skin but she was determined she would not to cry.
She took a fresh sheet of paper and began to draw again. This time it was the Contessa da Saluzzo she shaped into being. She captured her warmth, her sense of purpose and the strength of her presence in gentle, precise lines. She flattered, but she did not distort. For a few moments, she imagined the Contessa before her, remade moment by moment, but that only brought back the hollow ache.
By the time she tidied away her instruments the sun was low in the sky and the tower bell was tolling for dinner.
That night Beatrice propped her drawing of the Contessa on the chair facing her bed. She curled up under the blankets, watched over by her creation, but she couldn't sleep. Eventually she slipped out of her room and headed towards Mother's studio.
The villa was quiet. No-one would be awake now except for the gate guard. Beatrice moved from shadow to shadow, guided by faint starlight and a sure knowledge of her home.
The studio was locked, but Beatrice had mastered the lock years ago and opened it with ease. Slowly, she pushed the door open, holding her breath and hoping it wouldn't creak too loudly.
Inside, she lit an oil lamp. Its warm glow danced with the wispy moonlight that snuck in through the tall windows and cast the room in fluidic, uncertain shadows. She paused at the great oak cabinet that dominated the north wall. That was where Mother kept her brushes and her paints. There was more to her art than her tools, Beatrice knew, and yet she was rarely allowed to even look at them.
She hesitated a moment, then pressed her hand to the cabinet. Of course, it was locked, and this was a lock that wouldn't yield to any subtle method she knew.
Beatrice turned to the centre of the room and the light of her lamp caught the shape of Mother's easel. It stood alone, covered by a cloth. Beatrice's heart thumped, fierce with excitement.
Carefully, her hands trembling, she removed the cloth and held up her lamp. Even in the imperfect light the portrait made her catch her breath. She shivered as she stared at those blue eyes; it was so easy to believe they were real, that this painted woman was real, and watching her. Beatrice reached out, letting her fingertips brush the canvas.
She examined the painting, comparing it to what she remembered from the Contessa's last visit. Two snakes were still entwined in one corner; in another, a cornucopia overflowed with fruit. The Contessa herself lay naked and relaxed on crimson cushions. There were only a few changes made as far as Beatrice could see: Mother had added radiant flecks of golden blonde to the Contessa's hair, and her forehead had been subtly lengthened.
The Contessa's arms, however, perplexed Beatrice: fresh paint, she was certain, but nothing had been altered. Perhaps the painting had been damaged? There were ways to ward it against fire and flood, but Beatrice knew there could be vicious rivalries between artists where the battle-lines were drawn across the portraits of their most prestigious patrons.
If nothing had changed on the surface, perhaps something had changed underneath? Beatrice took her knife from her boot. Her throat was tight with fear, but the giddy possibility of learning some secret of Mother's wasworth any punishment.
Carefully, oh so carefully, she began to scrape away the paint from the Contessa's left forearm. The paint curled easily beneath her knife. Beatrice stared down at the next layer of paint and frowned. She picked up the oil lamp and brought it close. It took her a few moments for the import of what she saw to sink in.
Fine blue streaks snaked up the Contessa's forearm like some pagan tattoo. Beatrice knew that blue, that rich gem-like blue, as dazzling and undeniable as the Contessa's eyes, was the first sign of plague.
She started back in fear. It was only a painting, but it was one of Mother's paintings. Could painted plague infect her?
She didn't know, but what of the real Contessa: she was in their home, eating their food, breathing their air, and plague-ridden. Beatrice shivered as she stared at the canvas. Those were Mother's brushstrokes; she knew what was wrong with the Contessa, and Mother would never have let her into their home if it would put everyone there at risk.
Perhaps this painting was some part of a treatment. Such a thing could surely be possible? Or perhaps it was the painting reflecting the disease already in the Contessa's body, and Mother was helping to conceal the effects? The questions that whirled round Beatrice's mind were ones that only Mother could answer.
When Beatrice finally returned to her room, her feet and her hands were cold and the light from the oil lamp flickered wearily. She pulled the chair with the picture of the Contessa closer to her bed, before crawling under her blankets.
Mother took her aside after breakfast, out to the small courtyard beneath the bell tower. Beatrice's stomach was full of oats and fresh milk and golden honey, fuelling her bravery. "Is the Contessa dying?" she asked, before Mother could say a word about what Beatrice's intrusion into Mother's studio.
Mother stared down at her, eyes blazing with a cold, hard fury that made her seem a stranger. For a moment, Beatrice was convinced she was going to strike her. But the moment passed, and when she spoke her voice was mirror-calm. "If you ever do anything like that again, I shall send you to the Convent of St. Martinique and I will tell the sisters to never let you near paints nor paper again. You will pray in the chapel and toil in the fields and that will be your lot." She took a short, shallow breath. "Do you understand?"
Beatrice could say nothing. Her mouth was dry as sun-baked sand, but she managed a small nod. Mother did not make idle threats.
"Sit," she commanded, and Beatrice sat on the stone bench. The marble stole the warmth from her skin. Mother sat next to her. For a few minutes there was a silence, one that Beatrice didn't understand, but knew enough not to break. Finally, Mother spoke: "There are unpleasant necessities in my work. They are my burden; they should not be yours."
Beatrice thought differently, but kept that to herself. She remembered the visit from the cardinal, and the look in Father's eyes when she'd spoken of it. They wished to protect her, but she wanted no shields; she wanted them to remember this was her House, and home too. "Is she dying?" she asked again.
"What about us? The plague killed thousands in-"
"It's not infectious until the fever sets in. By that time, she will no longer be in our home."
"You can save her?"
Mother shook her head. "You misunderstand: I want her dead. I painted the infection."
"But she's your friend."
"First she is my patron." Mother sighed softly. "The Cardinal who visited came on behalf of the Papess herself: my work has caught her attention, as have some of the Contessa's less wise political choices. One way or another, she will be gone. If I co-operate, I secure our family a more powerful benefactor; if I refuse, we will still lose our protector, one way or another, but also gain an enemy we cannot stand against. Do you see?"
Beatrice nodded. Mother took her hand. Her skin was soft, her fingers strong. "But when you're gone-" Beatrice said.
"It will be over. You'll find other ways to make your way in the world." She looked down at Beatrice. "Kinder ways."
"So I'm to be a dirt common artist commissioned by merchant princes and petty aristocrats," she muttered.
The softness evaporated from Mother's expression. "Enough, Beatrice. I don't expect to have to speak of this matter again."
Beatrice stood patiently as the Contessa made her goodbyes to Mother. Father had already left, early in the morning, with a small party on horseback to scout the road. The portrait had been secured in its iron box and Beatrice had not had another chance to look at it. She wasn't sure she'd even have dared after Mother's threat.
The Contessa looked down at her, favoured her with a slight smile, and Beatrice took her chance. She stepped forward. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the smallest movement from Mother. Beatrice curtsied quickly. "I'd be honoured it you'd accept a small gift," she said, and offered a leather folder. She could feel Mother's eyes on her.
The Contessa opened the folder and her smile lit up her eyes as her fingers brushed over the paper within. It was the portrait Beatrice had sketched of her. "How kind," the Contessa said softly. "A charming thought, truly." She twisted a silver ring off her finger and handed it to Beatrice. "Nothing so personal, but I hope you'll accept it nonetheless."
Beatrice thanked her and stepped back. The Contessa turned to Mother. "A pleasure as always, Antonia." She glanced at Beatrice. "And if you require a recommendation for Beatrice, my pen is at your disposal."
Two days later a rider from the city arrived at the villa carrying an urgent letter for Mother. Beatrice had just finished breakfast when the flustered young messenger dressed in da Saluzzo livery was brought into the main hall.
Mother's fingers rested briefly on the letter's wax seal before she prised it off. She read quickly. Beatrice tried not to watch her, stared down at her orange juice instead, but she couldn't help one or two glances.
"As soon as possible, of course," Mother told the rider. "You're welcome to refresh yourself in the servants' hall before you depart."
Once the messenger left the room, Beatrice couldn't bring herself to look up at all. Mother said nothing. The silence grew, becoming colder and stiller.
Beatrice's fingers tightened around her glass of orange juice. She felt suddenly and strangely calm. "I've finished breakfast. May I be excused?"
Beatrice spent the morning by the river. She sat on a great flat stone that tilted ever-so-slightly towards the rushing water. She sketched silver fish and curious brown birds before turning to her book on mathematics and working on exercises that she didn't care for but Father said were important.
Her solitude was broken near midday, when Mother approached, dressed in her riding clothes. "You should know, Beatrice, that the Contessa da Saluzza is dead."
She nodded. She knew, of course, what else could the message have been about? "That's what you wanted," she said, then instantly regretted it. She could see Mother's sadness. She kept it from her face, but her hands and shoulders weren't so well masked.
"The plague doesn't kill so quickly," Mother said.
Beatrice stared at the river, flowing. She could feel Mother's eyes on her, and she tried school her expression into disinterest, but Mother understood faces. She could read thoughts in a flick of the eye, secrets in a curl of the lips, and reveal them to the world in her brushstrokes.
"She was poisoned," Mother said. And then: "Beatrice?" Her voice cracked. "Tell me it wasn't you."
Beatrice did not dare take her eyes from the river. "The sketch," she said, "I impregnated the paper with poison. She held it in the courtyard for a few moments. I made sure it was slow-acting. I made sure it would breakdown quickly – anyone touching the paper half an hour later would've been fine, I'm sure. It's not as subtle as your art, I know, but you can see now, can't you? I'm ready for you to teach me." She held her hand out. "You see that now, don't you?"
The expected rebuke didn't come: when Mother spoke again her tone was brisk, business-like. "Her family wish to see me to deal with her portrait. I'm leaving this afternoon. I'll make sure to take care of your sketch as well, in case you've not been quite so careful as you believe." She took Beatrice's hand and held it tight, as though to impart strength, or take it. "When I return, we will begin your lessons. And, one day, you will truly understand what it is you've done."
Beatrice wanted to tell her that she knew what she'd done, that she'd saved herself, and her family. She wanted to thank her, and promise that she'd always be attentive and conscientious in her studies.
Instead she said nothing, but she knew that one day, Mother would understand.
©June, 2016 L. M. Myles
L. M. Myles lives and writes in the United Kingdom. Her work has been previously published in Cranky Ladies of History, Uncanny Magazine, and The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who.