The job of the artist

“The job of the artist doesn’t end with drawings of structure and anatomy.”

Rolling his eyes, Rhyllyn resisted the urge to sigh. “What does that have to do with—Ow!” He jerked forward, holding his head with both hands. “What was that for?”

“I saw that.” His brother leveled a claw with his nose, scowling. “Now shush, I’m trying to talk.”

Rhyllyn lowered his eyes, shifting his guitar on his lap. He wasn’t in the mood for a lecture after hours of fruitless practice, but there wasn’t any avoiding it. There was no one as bullheaded as his elder brother. “But what does that have to do with what I’m doing?”

“Everything.” Rune dropped to sit on the couch opposite, resting his elbows on his knees and frowning at the low table between them. “Accuracy isn’t even the most important thing, but that’s what you’re stuck on. You’re putting so much effort into having every note perfect that you’re forgetting everything else. But go sit and watch the painters studying at that college of yours, and you’ll see they have the same problem as you. No matter how perfect their form, they’re still missing something. All they’re doing is replicating work done by masters.”

Snorting, Rhyllyn slid his fingers over the strings, listening to the whisper of sound that echoed in the instrument’s body. “Having every note right should count for something.”

“If it did, would you be here sulking right now?”

He didn’t reply, running his hand over the strings again. It was a trick question, anyway. Either he accidentally acknowledged that he was sulking, or he denied it and proved himself sulky.

“Your problem is that there’s no passion in what you’re doing,” Rune continued. “No feeling. If a piece can’t evoke emotion, then what purpose does it have?”

“You sound like one of my professors when you talk like that,” Rhyllyn said. “Did you study with them?”

Rune shook his head. “No, but I had a thorough education.”

Shrugging, Rhyllyn pretended it didn’t matter. “Anyway, how am I supposed to have any passion for it? This song was assigned to me, I didn’t pick it. I wouldn’t have picked a love ballad, I don’t know anything about love.”

“Well, maybe you should learn.”

The suggestion made a chill run right through him. It took everything Rhyllyn had not to shudder. “You know how old I am, right?”

His brother only raised a brow.

It was an ambiguous question, anyway; his growth had slowed after his magic stirred, and he’d been stuck in the body of a teenager for longer than he liked. It wasn’t as bad as it could be, since he was surrounded by mages at the college, but he’d always thought he’d be old and grown and married when he was thirty. Not that he would look half his age and feel it, too.

Of course, in retrospect, maybe magic slowing his aging was a blessing. He couldn’t picture trying to live like an adult. Goodness knew he didn’t feel like one.

“What would you know, anyway?” Rhyllyn muttered, looking away. “You don’t have any women in your life, either.”

The corner of Rune’s mouth twitched. Rhyllyn thought he’d struck a nerve until his brother shrugged, pushing himself up from the couch.

“Maybe you should read on it,” Rune said. “There are plenty of books in the study. Maybe reading some of the old romantic legends would help get you in the spirit of the song before you have to perform it.”

“Where are you going?” Rhyllyn turned to watch him leave.

“Upstairs. I’ll see you in the morning. If you don’t keep me up all night with that thing.” Rune gave the instrument a dirty look before slipping out of the parlor.

Rhyllyn frowned. Perhaps he had struck a nerve after all.

He didn’t mean to rile his brother; it just couldn’t be avoided, sometimes. The man was foul-tempered and incredibly stubborn, and as Rhyllyn came into his own, he found they clashed more often.

And yet the bond between them was unwavering. They shared no blood and aside from their claws, scales and unusual eyes, there was no resemblance between them. Rune had adopted him as brother by choice and had always treated him as a sibling might, though his role had been closer to that of father in the early years. He’d related a lot of wisdom in the years they’d been together, Rhyllyn admitted; he just didn’t want to hear any of it right now.

Instead he sulked, hunching over his guitar, picking at the strings without letting them sing. The way he saw it, he was allowed a little sulking. None of this had been his choice. He’d wanted to learn the lute, but his instructor thought his claws and missing fingers would hinder him on the strings, so he’d been given a guitar instead. He’d wanted to play a war ballad for his performance, but his instructor thought his preferred piece too advanced, so he’d been assigned a traditional love ballad instead. He’d wanted to make his music into his career, but his brother and Alira—the mage being the closest thing to a mother Rhyllyn had—both pushed him to prioritize his magic studies first.

It wasn’t that he didn’t understand their reasoning. He understood perfectly. The problem was that he just didn’t agree. Regardless of what Rune and Alira said, music was his greatest gift, not his magic. Rune had often told him that there would be time for music after he had the foundations of magic beneath his belt, but he didn’t see why he couldn’t study them in tandem.

But he had his assignments now, and he couldn’t sulk over them forever. Sulking didn’t excuse him from having to play the piece in public.

He stretched and sighed, sliding off the couch and padding across the soft carpet. The rest of the house was quiet, as usual; it was just the two of them at the manor, plus Alira, whenever she visited from the Royal City. Most of the oil lamps had been extinguished, but the one in the entryway was still lit, as was the one in the study. Rhyllyn snorted at that, shifting his guitar to his other hand as he moved in that direction. His brother knew him well.

Books already waited on the desk, all with unfamiliar titles. Unlike his brother, Rhyllyn didn’t read for pleasure. He leaned his guitar against the edge of the desk, settling on the chair before it and reaching for the first book on the pile. Reading wasn’t how he wanted to spend the night, but Rune was right; it was a good way to make himself familiar with the work ahead of him.

Turning a few pages in, he skimmed the words without real interest. Here and there he found pages with notes on the margins, written in a strange script he couldn’t read. His brow furrowed. The farther into the book he went, the more notes there were, coupled with tiny drawings.

The next book was filled with the same, empty spaces around the page filled with the same looping script and drawings. The illustrations were odd, little more than fleeting glimpses of something. The shape of an eye, the impression of a woman’s profile, dark hair cascading over a shoulder.

And then the written text changed. No longer the strange letters that hovered on the edge of familiarity, the notes were scrawled in the letters of the trade tongue. Words he knew, written in a hand he recognized.

All of a sudden it made him uncomfortable, as if he were viewing something he shouldn’t.

The meanings of the stories on the pages changed, no longer the frivolous tales he’d assumed. Instead he saw fervor, hurt and longing; a dissonance of emotions that consumed a person who never showed anything but strength.

Slowly, he turned the pages of all the books before him, finally settling on a page that showed a fine-featured silhouette.

Passion, his brother had said.

Rhyllyn hadn’t understood, mistaking passion for romance. It was something else, something more powerful, something that swept someone up and burned within them for the rest of their days.

His music lacked passion, and yet passion was what had driven him to it in the first place.

The weight of what sat before him didn’t escape his notice; it was intensely personal, private, and yet had been shared. Squeezing his eyes closed, he exhaled. “Thank you, brother,” he murmured.

Studying the woman’s silhouette on the page before him, he picked up his guitar.


This week’s prompt was a little unusual, directing me to use the first line of the last paragraph of page 51 in the book nearest to me. The book nearest to me was actually a paperback copy of Death of the Sun, and it felt really weird trying to do a prompt off a line I’d written! So I used the second-closest book, instead.

My line is from Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist by James Gurney: “The job of the artist doesn’t end with drawings of structure and anatomy.”

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