By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. Soft grey smoke curled under my feet, and the cracks and pops of the catching flames covered the sound of my footsteps. Fire licked at my ankles, but did not burn.
“It’s smoky, I know,” he said hastily. He shoved his hands in the deep, paint-stained pockets of his cardigan. “I tried to leave the smoke out, but —“
“Emiel,” I interrupted. “It’s beautiful. I mean it. The smoke doesn’t burn at all.”
To demonstrate, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. There was smoke, but it didn’t catch in the lungs or sting the eyes. It warmed me from the inside, like fresh-pressed cider or a banked fire, until, impossibly, I could actually taste apples on my tongue and feel radiant heat on my hands. My eyes snapped open.
“How did you do that?”
Emiel fought back a smile.
“Once I figured out how to paint the smoke but keep it from stinging, it wasn’t hard to add in a little extra.”
I looked at the scene around us. Leaves skittered underfoot, rendered in brush strokes so soft and precise that they could only belong to Emiel. They swept the gaze around the scene dizzyingly fast, telling me — look. Take in the autumn haze. Glide over each flaming halo. Land to rest on the distant, dusky hills.
Over the years at the academy, my own style had settled into an almost hesitant abstraction. Like I couldn’t quite bear to look at what I had made.
This painting was stunning. It was a sanctuary. It was something no one had ever seen before, not since Chal Benevolent first discovered how to step inside his creations. Walking through a painting was always disorienting, but this was something else. I could taste and smell and feel things that simply weren’t there. It wasn’t possible, but the sweetness still lingering on my tongue couldn’t be ignored.
“I don’t even see any apples. Are they in an underlayer? Did you paint over them?”
Emiel’s smile overtook him.
“Good guess, but no. I didn’t paint any. From the moment I took my brushes out, I thought about the afternoon Bardo gave that lecture on impressionism and sensory blurring. I took my easel down to the river after class. Between the wind and the river, so swollen with rain, my hands froze in minutes.”
The memory came over me in an instant.
“When we first met.”
“I fumbled every brush stroke until you came along. You saw me, shivering and this close to scrapping a good canvas, and scrambled down the banks. Didn’t think twice.”
“We shared my cider.”
“And you saved me from stubbornness-induced hypothermia.”
As the memory sharpened into focus, the sensations grew stronger, deeper. Sweetness met sour and underneath the warmth was something silver, bright, clear. I felt the river and knew the rain even as I shuffled my feet in the burning leaves.
“Bardo has to give you a recommendation. Hell, she should skip to the end and give you her job.”
Emiel’s smile softened. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Where’s the edge?”
He grinned. “No idea. But I bet I can find it before you can.”
“I didn’t take you for a betting man.”
“Is it really a bet when you’re so slow?”
He broke into a run and I started after him, watching the leaves and fire slink between his scuffed boots, quick as foxes. When he finally stopped, breathless with hands braced on his knees, neither of us had felt the telltale pressure of the interior’s edge. I had never been in a painting this large before.
Emiel looked to me. “How’s your final coming along? Can I see it?”
I thought of the canvas, shoved under my bed.
“It’s okay. I’m a little stuck.”
The painting was still a mess of bland base colors and muddy shadows. I could barely stick a finger in it, let alone step inside. I hadn’t touched it in a week.
“I’m happy to take a look, if you want. You’re a great painter, Luce. I don’t care what Bardo says.”
I kicked at a leaf, trying to stomp out one of the dying embers, but it persisted.
“Well, I care. The board cares. So do all of my future employers.”
Emiel lay flat on the leaves and let the flames flicker between his fingers. I laid down next to him. From the ground, the coils of smoke wreathed the hills and looked like distant clouds.
“Do you ever think about becoming something other than a painter?” He asked.
“You mean abandoning the great education gifted to us by the Benevolent Academy?” I thought of my parents back home and little Gen, growing up on rations. If I could get a good placement as a painter, they could have dinner parties for the whole town, every single night. “No. Never. Why? Have you?”
“You tell me. Can’t you feel it?”
The moment he said it, I could. The stirring of the leaves turned restless. They hummed like bees swarming with a subdued, waiting anger, not ready to strike but not willing to be quiet. The color of the hills shifted. I wanted to ask what he used — prussian blue, violet? — to make such deep, dimensional shadows, but then Emiel started to speak, each word low and deliberate.
“We’ve been here for 10 years, Luce. We paint a world we’ve barely seen, and where do our efforts go? Not to the museums. Not to people. Don’t you think it’s a little sad? Nobody but you and me and Bardo will stand in here and know this feeling.”
This feeling. I wanted to stay here, immersed in this autumnal place forever, trading quiet words and questioning everything. Instead, I laughed and struggled to my feet.
“You, me, Bardo, and whatever railroad baron wins it at the government auction.”
Emiel laughed too, and the flames leapt up around him. “Right, how could I forget?” He glanced at his watch.
“We didn’t find the edge. We could walk a little longer,” I said.
Emiel shook his head.
“Not if you still care about what Bardo thinks. It’s almost class time.”
I reached out a hand to help him up and too soon, we stood hesitating at the near-invisible seam between the painted world and the one we had set aside for a moment.
It must have been something in the swirls of paint that took my sense of time. Maybe, someday, Emiel could teach me how to paint hills like that. It might not even be in me, given the bright and bland scenes that plagued my work. And yet, I was sure I found something familiar in those hills. I recognized a kind of tenacity that refused neat closure: the sway before the sleep; always ending, but never quite gone to ground.
Class passed quickly. Emiel offered to paint together. It was either show him the mess on my canvas or light it on fire, drop out and go home, so I clasped his hands.
“Emiel, you’re a saint. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
His eyes widened. “Wait, who thinks I’m not a saint?”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s the spirit. Go on, I’ll meet you by the river. I’m just going to offer Bardo my last shred of dignity in exchange for an extension. And for god’s sake, bring some gloves this time, you waif.”
I headed towards Professor Bardo’s office. The three flights of narrow stairs felt designed to wear away any willpower by the time you reached her door. I held off from knocking until I could breathe properly again. But then, I heard voices from the other side. Not just voices, but clipped, efficient voices, slick and cold as sterile metal. I peered through the keyhole.
Bardo sat at her desk. She never looked like an artist. Her wardrobe consisted entirely of various shades between purple and brown, and her stony face only lit up when giving a particularly cutting critique. Now, though, red splotched her cheeks and rimmed her eyes.
“He’s talented, but he’s not ready.”
Two men in trim suits pursed their lips in unison.
“It’s not a matter of ready,” one said.
“He can continue his education at the center,” added the other.
Bardo’s lips pressed into a thin line. “He’s just a boy.”
“If your reports are true, he’s much more than that. Imagine, for a moment, you’re a prisoner. You step into a sensory landscape tailored to your crimes.”
The other one smiled. “Prisons are very interested. Punishment, interrogation — the applications are endless.”
Bardo rifled through papers on her desk and tried to push something into the tall man’s hand. Emiel’s first painting of the river. I remember stepping inside. I was so shy then; so was he. But our eyes met, reflected and distorted in eddies around the river bend, and that was it. He knew I saw what he meant to show.
Bardo pled with the men. “Look at his work, please, just for a moment. He’s not — he doesn’t paint what you’re talking about. His landscapes — “
“His landscapes are irrelevant.”
The door let out a groan. All eyes snapped to it. I wrenched my eye away from the keyhole, heart pounding. I raced down the stairs two, three at a time, feet catching on the buckled carpet but never stopping until I reached the river bank. The rock slope was steep and still slick with rain, just as it had been that afternoon so many years ago. Emiel waved, showing off his gloves. Already they were smeared with paint.
I told him everything. He shook his head, but not with disbelief. I could tell, he had thought about this possibility before. How many nights had I slept soundly and dreamed of painting a masterpiece, had he laid beside me, feet dangling off the too-short dorm beds, and called the same thing a nightmare?
“They can’t assign me anywhere if I’m not a painter. I’ll drop out.”
I shook my head.
“No. I will. I’ll go to Bardo this afternoon. I’ll show her my work and tell her that the academy is too much for me. You haven’t seen it, but trust me — it’s believable. I’ll ask to bring it home with me anyway. Say it has sentimental value.”
Emiel threw up his hands. “I don’t see how that fixes anything.”
“Think about it. I’ll swap out the paintings. You can’t hide inside my painting, but you could hide in yours. I’ll board the train with it rolled up in my pack, and you inside. I’ll get off at a random stop, get a room for the night. When it’s safe to come out, I’ll tell you.”
I could see him thinking through the possibilities. If he stayed or tried to petition for a different assignment, he would end up producing work for a series of grisly ends. If he left, he would have to discard everything from this life. Either way, Emiel would disappear.
“And then we run. Who knows? Maybe just my landscapes are doomed. I bet I could make it as a portrait artist.”
He didn’t laugh. I sighed.
“Can you think of a better way to smuggle you off campus? Besides. If you disappear now, they might just forget you. But Emiel, if they step inside that painting — if they know what you’re really capable of — they’ll never stop.” I closed my eyes briefly and listened to the river. I could still feel the rush from being in the painting, the chill subtle yet quick against my skin. “I know I wouldn’t.”
“Luce, this is mad. What if they don’t let you take the painting with you? What if you get caught swapping them? There’s too much that could go wrong. I can’t let you to do this.”
I looked him steady in the eye.
“You can. If you trust me half as much as I trust you, you can.”
He packed up his easel while I scaled the rocks. We would meet at the dorms in an hour.
Bardo didn’t fight to convince me to stay. Halfway through my muddled explanation and apology she rapped her knuckles on the mahogany of her desk and asked, “What time should I book your ticket? 2 or 2:30?”
I found Emiel sitting at the edge of my dorm bed, cradling his painting.
“Did it work?”
“So far.” Kneeling down, I pulled my unfinished canvas from its cobwebbed purgatory “Convincing Bardo that my career was doomed was the easy part.”
Emiel studied the painting, struggling to find an appropriate reaction.
I held up a finger in warning. “Don’t even start. At least I get to burn it to hide the evidence. I’ll get off the train as soon as we’re out of this jurisdiction, but I don’t know how long that will be. You have to focus. If you let your mind wander, even for a second, you could fall out. That means you can’t think about dinner, or class, or cardigans, or whatever inanities usually —”
“Luce,” he said, and slid off the bed. “Didn’t you recognize the colors? Focus is the one thing I’m not worried about. When I was painting, I wasn’t just thinking about that afternoon, or the river, or the cider.” He picked up a strand of my hair and twisted it around his fingers, watching it flash copper in the dull light of the dorm. He caught my eye in the dusty mirror. “I was thinking about you. That’s something I could do forever.”
He smiled and stepped into the painting.
“Well, what am I supposed to do with that,” I muttered.
Not much, I supposed, except roll up the painting and catch our train. As I stuffed my pack with the last essentials, train snacks and unmatched socks, and disposed of my aborted final, I caught my eye in the mirror. I saw its blue for what felt like the first time: an iris like a clear evening, with violet softness at the edge.
Behind the train window, the hills blurred into a ribbon of green and brown. Leaving campus had been easy enough. Bardo simply sent me off with a guard and a letter of explanation that would never reach my parents. The guard unlocked the Academy gates, and I passed through their iron-wrought spires with very little ceremony and not a trace of regret. My last glimpse of campus was the two men in suits, striding purposefully towards the dorms; they ignored the path and trampled the grass.
I would never tell Emiel how close our escape had really been. He would stay in the painting until it was safe, and I was glad for it. He didn’t have to avoid the curious glances of other passengers, watch the train car doors for silhouettes, or shrink back with bone-deep fear at the hiss of the train slowing to a stop. I tapped out an anxious rhythm on the painting and its protective case.
My hands came away warm.
I looked down to see a thin curl of smoke escape just as the smell hit me: not apples or rain, but the acrid scent of burning paint and paper.
“Emiel,” I whispered. “What have you done?”
I slung the case over my shoulder, swallowing a wince as it singed the skin through my shirt. I hurried toward the bathroom. Step after step, eyes down, until I could put it out. It was only a few cars away.
The train shuddered to a stop, throwing me off balance. The doors flew open and I hit a man boarding the train square in the chest. “Excuse me,” I mumbled over my shoulder. Cool eyes appraised me, and then the case on my shoulder. I noticed the clean lines of the man’s suit.
I abandoned careful steps for an all-out sprint. Reaching the bathroom, I slammed the door and jammed the lock. It had to hold. Rapid knocks rained down, at odds with the soothing, sibilant voice that encouraged me to unlock the door and return to my seat. Faintly, I realized that the man was calling out my full name.
I ripped off the cover and slipped the painting from its case, wincing as smoke choked the tiny room. The painting wasn’t on fire, not really; it spilled tiny flames that pooled on the floor, like maple sugar droplets from a tapped tree.
“Emiel,” I coughed, and stepped into the painting.
He caught me as I stumbled into the glowing leaves.
“Luce, what’s happening? You smell like smoke. Real smoke.”
“The painting,” I rasped. “It’s leaking, somehow. There’s fire, and smoke, and the men are outside the door.”
Emiel’s eyes widened and he pointed at the threshold behind me. I whirled to watch flames trace the invisible seam that joined the painted world to the real one. The painting must be catching fire itself now. Soon, Emiel’s master work would be nothing but a pile of ash in a locked train bathroom.
“We could still make it out.”
I felt callouses and dried paint against my palm as Emiel clasped my hand. “But we haven’t found the edge yet.”
I took a deep breath, cleansing the last trace of smoke from my lungs. “To the end?”
Emiel smiled. Sweetness slipped down our throats and settled in our stomachs. We ran on and on, further still, until the fire was gone and the blue hills ran beside us.