The girl lay, face bloodless and sweat-marked, dark hair plastered to her forehead. The room was astir with activity, shadows of people dancing past, tripping over her face and cutting through the bright morning sunlight as she stared unbinkingly ahead. Her eyes were glassy; she lay as if she were dead, paying no attention to the movement around her.
She took a short, pained breath, and her eyelids fluttered rapidly. She sat up in bed as if she had been jolted by contained lightning. A snap of her fingers and a woman was at her side.
She cut her off. "You wish to see the child, Lady Gaetana?"
She did not look at him; her gaxe trained on the windows ahead. "My paints ," she corrected.
"But, Lady, you have a daughter to attend to."
"I have work to attend to," replied the girl. " Paints ."
Some days later, the girl crept into the pink-and-white chamber that held the cradle. A formal, exquisite room with vaulted ceilings, it resembled nothing like an ordinary nursery. The girl, dressed in spattered smocks and looking pale and agitated, not at all like a new mother ought to look, seemed a phantom of sorts in the room, clinging to the painted walls and looking over, across the top of the cradle, to the other side of the room, as if the child and cradle did not exist, or as if she were remembering a thing that had once been there. She left, wordlessly, without so much as a glance at the child.
She knew she could not look, for she had heard the servants speak in the room when they thought she was sleeping after the birthing. The child had light hair, light eyes, light skin. She would not look at it.
The woman told the girl that this would not help her case, this refusal to be seen with the child. She did not care. She knew she could not look. And it did not help her case, to be seen as a cold, uncaring woman and not a generous and forgiving mother with a mother's unconditional love for her child no matter what the sins that brought it into the world. The man would walk free.
Not that there was ever a question otherwise, as the girl insisted to the woman when they heard the news. The point had not been to convict him; no man had ever been accused in such a trial in the memory of the city, and the thought that he would be convicted was laughable. But he was her rival, and the place she could damage him most was not a physical one, nor was it in the anguish of imprisonment. It was in reputation. He would never sell another canvas as long as people heard his name and thought of the brave girl who had stood up in court, in tears, and named him as her aggressor.
That was enough, said the girl, to know that her name would be remembered as a signature on her work, hangin g in the greatest homes, and that his would be remembered as an historical footnote in the first trial of such a kind in the memory of the city. Future generations would not hear his name and think, art. They would hear his name and think, rape.
Her piece being said, the girl returned to work and did not venture into the room where the child was again.
The fourth year from the child's birth marked a plague year. In the large house protected by constantly-burning fires, the woman slept safely. The girl worked fiercely, as busy as ever, perhaps busier as her fellows and rivals sickened and died in the city below.
For the first time in four years, the girl received a message from her father. He, too, had taken ill, it seemed, with a large commission on his hands, and did she want the piece instead? He would , just this once, give her name to the sponsor, and she had better be grateful and not expect any favors in the future. That was all the note said. She crumpled it, threw it on the fire, and smiled coldly as she composed her response. Her name would be known before her father's.
So she worked. She worked until she was gaunt and thinner than before, when she had been painfully thin, and her skin took on a grayish hue. Not yet twenty, streaks of gray showed in her dark hair. One day, her brush faltered.
She went back to the woman's house, where she lived and the child lived, though they lived separately and the child belonged more to the woman than to the girl, which was how the girl had wished it.
At twilight she went back to the room that looked unlike a nursery and for the first time bent over the sleeping child. Her breath was hot and labored, her hands and forehead moist. She looked down at the child, who did indeed have light hair and light eyes and light skin, and shuddered with distaste. "It cannot outlive me," she whispered hoarsely to the cool breeze that blew through valanced, gauzy curtains. "It cannot be remembered before me." She kissed the sleeping child on the mouth and left.
The girl collapsed in the hall outside the child's room.
The next day, and the next, the girl feverishly insisted on continuing her work, despite the clear signs that she had fallen victim. The child, too, had taken ill, and was kept under constant watch by one of the woman's physicians. But the girl refused to see a doctor, though she accepted new handkerchief as quickly as she disposed of blood-soaked ones, and continued to work.
When the commission was completed, she set down her brush, cast a discriminating eye over the piece, nodded in utmost satisfaction, and collapsed in convulsions once more. She would not rise.
In the weeks after the funeral, a man came to call at the woman's house, where the woman lived and the child lived, and the woman, though not the child's mother, was the nearest the child had ever had. It was not the man, not the child's father who had paid for his crimes in reputation, but another man, another father.
The woman entertained him as a guest and served him tea from her second-best service though his clothing, too, was spattered with paint as the girl's had been. She did not ask him what his business was, for she knew what it was, and she knew that he would tell her when the time came.
"I have come about the child," the man said finally.
"The child will live," replied the woman.
"I have come to do my responsibility by the child, as its grandfather," said the man.
"You never did your responsibility by your own child," replied the woman.
"I wish to make amends," said the man.
"You would have the child as an apprentice? To mix your paints? The child is blind."
The man hesitated, for the woman knew that that was as the man had intended. "I would have the child to raise as my own, to feed and clothe," he said, faltering, for he could not back out when he had already claimed his responsibility.
The woman smiled cruelly, a smile reserved for those she held in the least regard. "You have not the means to care for the child as I would, nor the love. You do not know the child. I would guess," she said, a wicked gleam in her eye, as she took two miniature portraits from a side table, "that you do not even know the child's sex."
Again, the man hesitated. Even if he did not really wish to take the child, this he should know. "The child is a girl?" he said, and it as obviously a question no matter how sure he attempted to sound.
Putting one of the portraits aside, the woman shook her head in disgust. She showed him the other, a painting of a charming little boy of four, with light hair, light eyes, and light skin.
The man left in shame.