The Illuminator’s Shadow

I murmured the words, running one fingertip in a caress down the painted beak of a gray pigeon, colored and shaded using my charcoal-smudged fingers and even an outline of paint I had made from colors filtched from the pockets of a coat the guards had given Mother. When a person died here, their belongings were divided up and given to others in a raffle. The pigeon’s feathers shuffled and it looked like it was going to begin preening, but then the animal fell back to the paper and life went away. I sighed.

Ever since the illuminator had shown me a brightly colored moth–he called it a butterfly, though it in no way resembled butter with its gold and emerald wings–he had sketched for my curious amusement, then spoke words to it and let it flutter free, I had been secretly trying to do the same. It was dangerous, and I never forgot those few lessons he had given me. One day, the guards came to his shop while he was gone and burned everything. A couple mornings later, Mother gave me his remaining paints, his brushes, his paper stack–what was left, of course. She said it was for safekeeping, but her eyes shone. I never saw my mentor again, never heard another word from him. And I wasn’t as good as he had been. I avoided wasting his precious colors for as long as I could, but one day I noticed they were drying out–and that would be a true waste. I used the last of his pigments five years ago. The pigments from the dead man’s coat were: indigo, vermilion, and ocher. I used them scantily, but I had a craving for red ocher or anything red, even though I couldn’t display my works once I’d finished. Neither could I use them now anyways–stains on my hands would be an instant ticket to disappear like my mentor had, and my hand was getting a good deal of attention lately.

“Marie!” Mother called up the stairs.

“Coming!” I hoped this time she needed help with baking, and she was not calling me to entertain yet another “prospect” the guards had sent to grovel for my hand. It would not be long before I had no choice in the matter–our government issued a decree that all eligible men and women should be wed and produce children. I had no desire to be used as a human brood cow the way that ranchers kept their best cows and heifers to make an even better calf crop for next year.

My hopes of kneading another “poor man’s loaf” were dashed when I laid eyes on the not-so-young man before me. On the other hand, he wasn’t old enough to be robbing the cradle–he just looked it. Strain and stress had turned his brown hair salt-and-pepper. He wore an officer’s uniform, though I couldn’t determine his rank–we didn’t see many soldiers in this end of the country, but it confirmed the whispered rumors that the Resistance was back and gaining strength.

I hated the way his almost-black eyes luxuriated over my breasts and hips. Not once did he meet my eyes, merely gave my facial features a passing glance to ensure they were pleasing. The baggy, flour-dusted apron did not seem enough of a barrier between us. I tried to not curl my lips in disgust.

“You’ll do,” he said calmly, with a hint of a sigh, as though he were settling for me.

“I’ll do for what?” I hissed, though I should have bit my tongue. Pointless question, really, as I already knew what he wanted me for.

He smiled. “A surrogate.”

I had not been expecting that.

He continued. “My wife is an important woman–too important to risk bearing my son. That is where you come in. I understand you have rejected a record number of prospective husbands, so you are at the top of my list.”

A pan clattered out of the oven–I hoped Mother hadn’t ruined the loaf, we couldn’t waste an ounce of the precious flour we finally had. But, it was warning enough to curb my fire. I lowered my eyes and played the submissive, meek role expected of me. “Very well, Sir. May I ask for at least one more night in my maiden’s bed?”

The man gave an exaggerated sigh, “I was going to leave this afternoon.”

“With respect, Sir,” I said, “it would be remiss of me as your servant to not report that a storm is coming in and we would be wiser to leave once it has let up.”

I needed time to burn the drawings and paintings I had labored over, time to erase any sign that I was an artist. I had not known if I could trust the prospects with my grave secret, but I knew one thing for certain: I was worse than dead should a soldier find me out.

The General graciously permitted me one last night with my mother, leaving me with the promise that he would come bright and early to claim me and head down the road. I doubted he would wake earlier than we bakers did, but I couldn’t risk it.

Over our bread and baked potato supper, Mother whispered, “You can’t go with him.”

“I know.”

She shook her head sadly, “If only we had a horse. Anything slower, he will surely catch you.”

But I had an idea. A desperate, crazy idea. “Do you think it will rain tonight?”

And that is the end of today’s Tuesday Tale. Come on back here next Tuesday for the continuation.

—I take an hour a day to write “free” to help get myself into the work mode. Each day has/will have a theme, and the length will vary. Please excuse any obvious grammatical or story errors, as I don’t take the time to edit these. They are “raw”. Thank you in advance for your understanding!—

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