4 sites with reference photos for artists

Acrylic painting based on a photo I took. 16x20" canvas.

Acrylic painting based on a photo I took. 16×20″ canvas.

I’m learning to paint in acrylic. I have excellent brushes (these and these), wonderful paints, dozens of blank canvases, and not many ideas.

So I go outside and take some pictures, and a few of them seem to be worth painting. I’m not a great photographer, though… I’ve taken about ten thousand pictures in the last few years, and I’m pretty happy with a couple of hundred, maybe. You can see some of them at my Flickr page.

Okay, since that hasn’t given me everything I wanted, I turn to the Internet to find images that I could paint. And I immediately run into a snag: copyright.

I’m not opposed to practising my painting techniques on any old image I can find, but on the off chance I want to sell a painting (or give one away – much more common) I don’t want any legal entanglements. Plus, copyrighted images are copyrighted for a reason; I certainly don’t want to deny anyone the opportunity to monetize their work.

So Creative Commons stuff and Public Domain stuff are great.

I have four sources I typically use for my paintings (apart from my own photos). There are others, but many sites require that their images not be used digitally, which I understand but can’t live with.


This excellent photo sharing site has a good Creative Commons licence search/filter. I go to the CC-BY licence, generally; I find the “Share Alike” licences confusing (what if you combine images with different licences?) and the “Non-Commercial” licences don’t meet my needs. [On a side note, this is also a great backup service for your own photos.]

Smithsonian Art Museum

The Smithsonian has a nice collection of stuff. Most of it is copyrighted and not okay for my purposes, but I found some good paintings by Edward Mitchell Bannister that are in the public domain (he died in 1901).

WetCanvas Artist Reference Library

This is a community for artists. The interface is a little dated, but there is a large reference library for artists that can be helpful.

Morgue File

This is the best one. Really high quality images and a pretty liberal licence (just shy of public domain), and many have higher quality versions that you can license if you need them. Lots of great photography here. I’m currently working on a painting of this, and I’m planning to paint this, this, this and this. And yes, they do explain the creepy name.

Learning about Said Bookisms

The first page of notes I wrote about the world I'm creating. The handstitched leather notebook was romantic, but I'm using Google Docs now.

The first page of notes I wrote about the world I’m creating. The handstitched leather notebook was romantic, but I’m using Google Docs now.

What’s a “Said Bookism”?

I recently listened to Writing Excuses Season 1 Episode 35 (“Voice, Tone and Style”) and was struck by an almost sidebar conversation about never using “said bookisms” and “Tom Swifties”. I hadn’t heard of these terms before.

Their point was basically that you should write dialogue with the words said and asked but not more “exciting” words like huffed, explained, queried, exclaimed and so on. I’m sure I remember being explicitly taught to “liven up” my writing by replacing those boring old words.

I mentioned it to my family today, and my wife pointed out that children writing dialogue often end up with a structure like this:

“Where are you going?” asked Jim.

“To the ball field,” said Sam.

“Are you going to play ball?” asked Jim.

“If there’s anyone there,” said Sam.

“I went yesterday and there was no one there,” said Jim.

“I hope we can play,” said Sam.

I agree that this dialogue is terrible, and that the temptation to fix it would be to replace said and asked. I wonder now instead if the dialogue needs a little setting, a little description of what the characters look like or a feeling… and a little something worth talking about.

My Own Writing

Okay, so I was a little worried. What did my own writing look like? I took a quick look at the short story I recently posted here. I hadn’t been thinking about this, so I expected something pretty awful. I was pleasantly suprised, though: I mostly use said in my dialogue.

It didn’t hurt that there were only two people in nearly every scene. They spoke to each other, so it was pretty easy to tell who was doing the talking without having to tag them. In the scene with three people talking, here’s what I did:

“Good morning, Aunt Sarah,” Whip said as he was setting out the mugs next to the pot of oatmeal on the table. “How did you sleep?”

She smiled at him. “Very well, thank you, Whip. I feel quite rested this morning.” She sat at the table as he ladled a steaming bowl for her. She was dressed for the day already in practical cotton pants and tunic, both brown to match her husband’s. “And you? Were you able to get to sleep last night?”

Whip ran a hand through his dark, unkempt hair. “Yes, I was. I had a peaceful night, for a change.”

I only used said once, and I didn’t use any other tags to indicate who was talking. The paragraphing does that pretty much on its own, so I didn’t bother, I guess. It wasn’t conscious, so I’m not really sure.

Two Other Resources

Just in case the Writing Excuses guys were out to lunch (unlikely), I figured I’d quickly Google the concept. They were justified in their criticisms of the said bookism. Here are a couple of the more interesting articles:



Feedback Welcome

If you have some thoughts you’d like to share I’d appreciate it. I’m pretty much getting feedback from blog readers and Twitter, so I’m hoping you’ll weigh in on both the topic and on my writing. Thanks!

A bit more writing; first-person perspective story “Whip’s Attempt”

I enjoyed writing the short story I posted in my last blog entry. It took quite a while, and I spent a fair bit of time editing it, and I’m pretty happy with it. It’s the first piece of fiction I’ve written since high school [which was a surprisingly long time ago].

Lately I’ve been listening to Writing Excuses, a podcast hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells. It came up when I searched for podcasts about writing, and I listened to it first because of Brandon Sanderson. For one thing, he has a great first name. For another, he wrote the Mistborn series, which I found frustratingly fantastic (I’ll probably explain that sometime, but not today). I also just listened to Legion on Audible, which is a compelling novella of his that I got for free a little while ago.  (On a side note, the narration was good too.)

So I gave the podcast a listen. And although I was sort of looking for writing “advice”, I realized from their light-hearted conversation about the craft that I really didn’t know very much (and in spite of their disclaimer at the beginning, they know a ton). And it’s only been a few days, so I still don’t know much. Fortunately, I’m not trying to monetize anything here, so I can make any mistakes I want to in my stories without worrying about whether someone will buy them.

I listened to an episode (Season 1, Episode 23) about viewpoint, and I thought it would be fun to write a scene in the first-person perspective. So I took the initial few paragraphs from my story, changed some motivations and details, and wrote a two-page scene. It was fun, fast, and about 1000 words. No one has given me feedback or edited it for me, so no promises on quality. I haven’t even carefully read it through yet myself, to be perfectly honest. Here it is; I called it “Whip’s Attempt”.

He was going to watch me lose control of the magic. I knew it, and I’m sure he expected it, but he looked at me hopefully anyway. Uncle Winston sat across from me and looked hopefully into my eyes, urging me silently to try. Aunt Sarah sat in her chair in the far corner of the room, pretending to read and trying to look disinterested. Both of them cared far too much, and it hurt knowing I would fail.

I clenched my teeth and looked down at the tiny objects. My right hand held a steel cube, about a centimetre on each side. It was a bit dull, and the corners were slightly worn. I squeezed it between my thumb and forefinger, hard, but there was no give. In my left hand was a gem, so small that someone might mistake it for a bit of sand if they didn’t look closely. In the light of the candle on the table beside me, the stone sometimes looked black, sometimes blue. It didn’t much matter, since the spell wouldn’t work for me. I might as well have been holding a blueberry.

Uncle Winston was trying to teach me the magic. He was an Infuser, as were both my parents, and he was trying to make me an Infuser too. I was ten years old, and it was time. Maybe a little past time, I had to admit to myself. I believed that I had the talent for it, but I could never make it work. Something in me was… wrong… or missing, or something. I couldn’t figure it out.

Uncle Winston tried hard. He didn’t understand either. He’d tell me I was close, or “next time”, or a dozen other encouraging phrases that couldn’t help, and sometimes made me feel worse. I was disappointing him, and I would be a disappointment to my parents. When they returned from the Capital City to find their son hadn’t cast a spell in spite of six months of training… well, I didn’t want to consider that too closely. I had about three weeks left to make sure that didn’t come to pass.

Aunt Sarah wanted to help too. She wasn’t an Infuser. She didn’t work at all, as far as I could see. That was rare anywhere in Sentrane, but unheard of in a small village like Lower Nist. She mostly sat and read, sometimes tidied up the small home or went to a friend’s place to visit. She did cook most meals for their cobbled-together family, although Uncle Winston made breakfast each morning. Aunt Sarah didn’t talk much, but her words were always encouraging, comforting, and understanding.

But the magic was something I had to do myself, and as much as my family wished I was successful, I wasn’t. In fact, I think that the harder I tried, the worse it got. The last attempt had been a brutal failure; my left arm still hurt from the sting of the magic from my wrist to my elbow.

I breathed in deep, letting the wind whistle through my teeth before exhaling quickly and completely. Then I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the shape of the magic as I moulded the spell.

The tiny, insignificant gem had about a dozen facets. I focused my thoughts on it, on pouring my will and intention into the stone. I wanted my magic to Soften the steel cube, to make it malleable in my hands. I gathered up that idea and sent it hurtling into the rock.

My eyes were closed, but I could feel the magic rocketing around inside the tiny gem, facet to facet, sending a vibration into my palm. The stone started to whine and hum, and I sensed the magic was nearly harnessed. Tentatively, I directed my thoughts to pushing the energies across the gap between my palms, from the gem to the cube.

At first the magic obeyed me. Tendrils began to leak from the facets, waving about as though in a strong wind, the wind of my will. I couldn’t see them, but I knew where they were. I pushed them towards the cube aggressively, bending them to my will. They struggled, but were swept up in the power of my command. Some began to wrap the steel, and I could feel its structure responding with a vibration of its own. It was working.

But then I felt the first sting. A tendril had escaped my harness or my notice, I didn’t know which, and was flapping free of the bundle I held with my mind. It lashed at my forearm, hot and sharp, leaving magical welts I knew I wouldn’t be able to see. The burning was intense, and I instantly felt the tears in my eyes. The panic I knew too well started to overtake my thoughts, and I quickly lost control of the threads of magic that had crossed the divide. They whipped back and slapped at me, ravaging my right arm again. Anger and disappointment warred with fear and pain. I cried out and threw the stone and the still-hard cube to the floor, my eyes snapping open.

I watched as the hope died on Uncle Winston’s face. His blue eyes were open wide at first, but they settled as they always did. Then his “you’ll get there” expression appeared.

“Next time,” he said. He had the same exaggerated confidence he’d been trying to bolster me with all evening. “Next time you’ll get it. You were this close,” he said, fingers only centimetres apart before him. “Tomorrow, you’ll do it. You’ll see, trust me. You’re not the first frustrated person to sit in that chair.”

Aunt Sarah didn’t even look up from her book. I was just as glad. I felt sick with shame already; I didn’t need to see her look of understanding and encouragement.

I needed to escape their patience. I wanted to get away, to wallow in the failure that I had claimed yet again. To sulk and pout and kick at stones and maybe scream at the stars a little. That would make me feel better, or at least different. Anything to escape their limitless understanding and my intolerable weakness. “I’m going to get some firewood,” I announced, my voice raspy and cracking at the words. I stumbled out the door and into the darkness.

I wrote a short story! Here it is!

I wrote a short story. I was thinking about making it part of a long story (i.e. a novel) but I don’t know if I really want to. I’m not sure where I’ll go with it, but I figured it was worth sharing. It was certainly fun trying to design a magic system that makes sense but isn’t like others I’ve read about. Feel free to give me feedback here or on Twitter (https://twitter.com/bgrasley).

In case you use a Kindle, here is a .mobi file that you can use. For other e-Readers, here is an .epub file that might be better.

Whip concentrated, focusing his thoughts on the objects in his hands, willing the power to obey him. He tried to relax, to settle his mind and let the magic flow out of him, but he could feel the failure again. The spell did not work. The small, metal cube in his right hand was not Softened, and the tiny, blue gem in his left hand felt warm but lifeless.

He sat back and opened his eyes. An old man sat across from him, leaning forward slightly. His white hair was cropped close, and his thin hands were clasped before him. He peered at the boy from across the scarred, oaken table, anticipation and excitement in his bright blue eyes. Upon seeing the look on Whip’s face the man’s eyes softened with a kind of compassionate understanding the boy had seen too many times before.

“Next time,” he said quietly, with a confidence Whip did not himself feel.

This was the fourth attempt of the evening, and the fourth failure. He had been struggling to make the magic work for about three hours, judging by how the darkness had descended upon their home, and Whip knew that there wouldn’t be a fifth chance today. Besides, he was tired and, he could admit, just a bit cranky. Neither condition would help him where magic was concerned. He shook his head in frustration, his straight, dark hair falling into his eyes.

“Next time,” his uncle said again, and the boy borrowed a little confidence from the old man. He could hear the genuine conviction in his gravelly voice, the honest belief that the young lad had the ability and the skill to perform the spell. “Next time, you’ll get it. You were this close,” he said, fingers only centimetres apart before him. “Tomorrow, you’ll do it. You’ll see, trust me. You’re not the first frustrated person to sit in that chair.”

Whip stood, groaning, stretching out his growing frame in all directions. “Okay, I guess I’ll go get the firewood,” he said, glancing up hopefully.

Uncle Winston laughed. “Go to bed, my boy. Can’t have you stumbling around in the dark carrying wood, now, can I? We’ll get it in the morning. Now kiss your aunt goodnight.”

Whip nodded quickly, relieved. “Thanks again for working with me, Uncle Winston. I promise I’ll get it right tomorrow.”

The white-haired man stood and laid a thin, paper-skinned hand on the youngster’s shoulder. “I know you will,” he said very seriously. “Next time.”

Whip walked over to the large, soft chair in the corner of the room where his elderly Aunt Sarah sat wrapped in a thick blanket and reading a large, leather-bound tome. Whip leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “Good night, Aunt Sarah. I love you.”

Whip’s aunt was a lovely woman, with straight, evenly grey hair left unbound and smooth, flawless skin. Whip was often amazed at how beautiful she was, and even more amazed that she was over seventy years old. To reach that age was not so rare, but to do so while remaining youthful was. Most people in the village believed that Winston had something to do with Sarah’s longevity and excellent preservation. If he did, Whip didn’t know yet how that could be possible. Certainly his uncle hadn’t talked about Infusions that could work to prevent aging, and Winston had clearly aged himself, but Aunt Sarah was unaccountably stunning.

“I love you too,” his aunt replied with a smile, pulling him in for a long hug. “You be careful, and have a good sleep tonight,” she added in a whisper.

Whip smiled back at her. “I will,” he answered quietly, then pulled back from the embrace. He walked to the back of the small home to the tiny room that was his own. There was just enough candlelight for him to see by as he found his way to his bed. Slowly his body warmed the heavy, woolen blankets, and he hunkered in contentedly.

“You push him too hard.” Sarah’s voice barely reached the back bedroom, but Whip was able to make out the softly-spoken words.

“Nonsense,” Uncle Winston replied, less quietly. Whip could almost see him settling into his favourite chair next to his wife’s. “He needs time, and encouragement, and above all confidence. That’s what I’m trying to give him. He’ll get there, I’m sure of it.”

“But at what cost? Day after day you drive him, and day after day he is crushed. This can’t be good for him, and I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

“Crushed? I hardly think the boy was crushed by his failures today. I thought he seemed rather relaxed at the last.”

Whip heard Aunt Sarah huff at his uncle. “He was relaxed? Exhausted is more like it. You keep doing this, you’ll hurt him.”

Winston’s voice was grave. “I won’t hurt him. He means far too much to me to risk in pursuit of magic, although it is important. I’m moving forward cautiously; I won’t endanger him.”

“And now you’ve promised him he’ll succeed tomorrow? Can you keep that promise?”

Whip held his breath during the pause in the conversation.

“I can.”


Whip awakened the next morning to the smell of oatmeal simmering and the sound of Uncle Winston rummaging in a cupboard. He rose a bit reluctantly, the chill of the morning much less appealing than the coziness of his bed. The sun had not yet risen, but the sky was lightening perceptibly.

“Good morning,” Uncle Winston said, looking over as Whip entered the kitchen. He was dressed in his usual brown leather jerkin and sturdy cotton pants. The candles in the kitchen threw shadows across his clean-shaven face, deepening the lines earned from many years spent working outdoors.

Whip loved his uncle. The old man was almost like a father to him, as his own father was away working in the capital city. It had been about three months since either of the boy’s parents had been to the village of Lower Nist, and he missed them both terribly.

His father worked as an Infuser specializing in spells to Brighten and Darken, and so the capital city was the most lucrative place to work. He was employed by a large Spellhouse, and his skills were always in high demand.

Whip’s mother was also an Infuser, but she worked instead to Heat and Chill at the same establishment. Her skills were at least as well-developed as her husband’s, and together they drew substantial paycheques. A portion of these they sent along for Winston and Sarah as they cared for and raised their son.

“Good morning to you, Uncle Winston,” Whip replied, smiling fondly at the elderly man. He saw that his uncle had just discovered the coffee grounds he had been searching for and he set about helping him to brew the hot drink.

Whip heard a small noise. He looked behind him to see Aunt Sarah emerging from the bedroom she shared with Uncle Winston.

“Good morning, Aunt Sarah,” Whip said as he was setting out the mugs next to the pot of oatmeal on the table. “How did you sleep?”

She smiled at him. “Very well, thank you, Whip. I feel quite rested this morning.” She sat at the table as he ladled a steaming bowl for her. She was dressed for the day already in practical cotton pants and tunic, both brown to match her husband’s. “And you? Were you able to get to sleep last night?”

Whip ran a hand through his dark, unkempt hair. “Yes, I was. I had a peaceful night, for a change.”

Winston looked up at that, his eyes narrowing slightly. Then his expression returned to normal, and breakfast proceeded as it usually did.

Eventually, Winston pushed himself back from his empty bowl and held his cooling mug of coffee in both hands. He looked across to Whip for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision.

“All right, my boy, we’re heading to the City.”

Whip looked up sharply, confused and a little alarmed. “The City? I thought we were going to be working on spellcasting again today.”

Winston smiled at him. “We are. That’s why we’re going.”


Lower Nist was about four hours from Godwin City on horseback. The City was the seat of power in the Godwin province, and it lay very near the centre of the Godwin lands. The kingdom of Sentrane was divided into dozens of these provinces; Godwin was a larger one on the eastern coast of the kingdom. It was ruled by Lord Patrick Godwin, who had succeeded his father nearly thirty years prior. The province was very successful; its harbours and forests were both significant in its economy. Lord Godwin managed the province’s resources very well and maintained a relatively safe region. Sentrane was a fairly lawful and orderly place, and Godwin was an exemplary province.

Lower Nist was a small village in the eastern half of the Godwin province. It was about halfway between Godwin City and the ocean that made up the eastern border of the province; the wide Godwin River (as it was called in that part of the country) flowed along the south edge of the community. It was a village for farmers, a small hub of trade for the region, and a stopping place for traders travelling down the river towards the coastal cities.

Being the only Infuser in Lower Nist, Winston was known to everyone in the town. As he and Whip left their home riding horses laden for the short journey, several people called out to them from houses, shops and stalls. Uncle Winston greeted everyone politely and by name, making pleasantries about livestock, family, the weather, and other staples of rural life. Emotions churned inside Whip, and he chafed at the delays along the road. Uncle Winston had refused to explain any more about the trip until they were away from the village, but it seemed he was in no hurry to leave. The boy tried to keep his feelings in check and be patient with the old man.

Eventually the wide, hard-packed road narrowed to a pair of wagon tracks stretching across the greening grassland towards the horizon. The sun was at their backs as they rode west toward the City, and the day was quite warm for Spring.

Winston turned in his saddle to regard the child that was his charge. “All right, boy, I’d say you’ve waited long enough,” he said with a knowing smile. Whip’s heart leaped in his chest – finally he’d know what was happening. “We’re going to see a teacher, an Infuser, in the City. Someone who can help you, who can help us both.”

Whip felt excitement laced with a little fear at the man’s words. “Lord Godwin’s Infuser? Barogo?” Each Lord traditionally kept an Infuser on staff for his use only; Lord Godwin’s was a large, fierce man named Barogo. He had been born and raised in the Godwin province and was a childhood friend of Lord Godwin’s. When the Lord took up his duties, he named Barogo his Infuser, a position of great honour.

And Barogo was a very skilled Infuser; he frequently won trophies in the Infusion Games each Fall. Lord Godwin himself was perhaps more powerful, in most skills, but having a loyal man of Barogo’s skill on his personal staff helped to ensure his seat in the province.

Winston shook his head. “No, Whip, we won’t be going to see Barogo, and that’s just as well. Barogo has little time for people like us, and he’s not a particularly kind man.” Winston’s lips were pursed slightly, and his brow furrowed. He looked hard at Whip. “I expect you to keep that last observation to yourself. No, this trip we’ll be going to see Nairis.”

Whip cocked his head to one side. “Nairis? Who’s that?”

The man’s eyes focused on the horizon they rode towards. “Nairis was my teacher. She taught me the magic, and she taught your parents.”

Whip dimly recalled the name now; he had overheard his father mention Nairis to Uncle Winston when he’d left the boy in his care. His parents would have had to learn the skills from someone, since a latent talent in Infusing rarely manifested itself without training and practice. He knew that his parents had met in the City and had also been married there about fifteen years ago. He also knew that his uncle had lived there at that time with Aunt Sarah while working. Whip’s excitement grew at the thought of meeting the person who taught both his parents and his uncle the secrets of the magic.

Uncle Winston continued. “Nairis has been teaching youngsters to use the magic for a very, very long time. She taught me when I was a little younger than you, and she was a master even then.”

“How old is she?” Whip asked.

Uncle Winston snorted. “Old enough, I suppose. I’ve never asked, and neither should you.” He cocked an eyebrow at the boy, who had the sense to look sheepish. “Anyway, I believe she can help you to learn the art of Infusing. She certainly helped me.”

“What did she do for you?”

The man was quiet for a moment and sat very still on the grey mare. “She has a skill that I do not. She can… see… the magic when others are performing it. She knows exactly what you’re doing, and how, and can show you what to do differently. When I was young and learning, I struggled just as you do now. I was… stuck, I suppose. I could feel the power there, inside me, and I knew what was possible. But I couldn’t make it happen. I couldn’t complete a spell, even though I could begin one. And I believe it’s the same with you.”

Whip thought about what his uncle was telling him. The feelings he described were very much like what the boy felt when trying to cast a spell. The magic was real, and he could tell he was accessing it, somehow, but it never quite came together as he thought it should. It was like having all of the pieces to a puzzle, but never quite having them all put together at once. Whip knew at once that his problem was the same, but he didn’t know how to fix it.

“What did she do that helped?”

Uncle Winston struggled with his words a little. “She just… showed me what to think. No, more like how to think. What to focus on, what to ignore…. It’s very difficult to explain. She helped me to see what the magic should look like, and feel like.”

Whip was a little confused about what the old lady could tell him about how to think, but he knew that the magic depended on focus and thought, so it made sense that the solution to his problem would be a mental solution.


The pair plodded between farmers’ fields for a couple of hours before stopping at a swift stream for a brief rest and a snack. Whip drew a package of cheese, apples and flatbread from the saddlebag on his small mare and spread it out on a large, flat rock near the water. Winston stood lost in thought at the water’s edge, gazing at the sun-dappled pebbles below the surface. Eventually he turned away and joined Whip for the light meal.

“Are you nervous, lad?”

Whip swallowed the apple slice he was chewing and nodded.

“There’s no need to be. I’m sure my saying it doesn’t really help how you’re feeling, but I’ll say it anyway. There is nothing to fear in the City while you’re with me, and Nairis is a kind and excellent woman.”

Whip continued to eat without speaking, looking down at his food, trying to decide how to say what he was thinking. “I’m not afraid to go to the City, Uncle,” he started. “I’m… I’m afraid I might not be able to do the magic, even with her help. I don’t want to fail you.” His voice broke a little on the last phrase, and his ears and cheeks were flushed. He did not look up.

Winston moved over beside the boy and placed an arm across his slim shoulders. “You have the talent; you just need to develop the skill. You’ve told me you can feel the magic working, that you’re… aware of it. I can’t see the effects of your attempts, and you need some feedback from someone who can see just what you’re doing and help to you see how to do it better. You’re close, I’m sure. That’s why your Infusion attempts are taking so long now. You hold the magic in your hands while you’re trying to gem that cube… you need a little push, that’s all. Then you’ll feel differently about, well, everything.”


It was past noon when the pair first glimpsed Godwin City. They were walking through a hilly region when they crested a rise at the edge of a large valley. Far down in the centre of the valley lay the sprawling city surrounding a great square keep. The stone walls of the castle extended thirty metres into the sky and were easily five metres thick. The edges were covered in crenellations like hundreds of teeth; towers rose high into the air like fists at the corners of the keep. A massive drawbridge was lowered across the moat, which appeared grey even in the sunlight. Whip shuddered slightly in spite of the warmth of the day; the seat of Godwin’s power was not an inviting place.

But Uncle Winston seemed energized at the sight. “Come on, lad,” he said as he clucked to his horse. “We’ll be at the gates in about a half hour.”

Whip reluctantly nudged his horse to keep up.

They descended the side of the valley and soon could no longer see the imposing structure as they entered a forested area. As they rode, Whip worried about what would happen upon their arrival at the forbidding castle. He wondered what kind of army was posted there, and what he would do if he became separated from his uncle. He didn’t know anyone in the City; the only names he knew were Nairis, Barogo, and Lord Godwin, and he wasn’t sure if they would help him. Although his uncle was well known in Lower Nist, Whip wasn’t sure of his status here in the centre of the province.

“Relax, Whip. It’ll be fine,” Uncle Winston said to him quietly. “Godwin City is an orderly place, and we’re welcome there. And Nairis is an old friend, as I’ve told you.”

Whip nodded, embarrassed that his uncle had guessed his childish fears. He shook himself, sat straighter in the saddle, and tried with little success to let the tension drain from his shoulders. He promised himself that he wouldn’t let his anxiety show in his face.

A short time later they broke from the cover of the trees and could see the keep again. It was even more impressive from their new perspective, and Whip said so.

“Yes, it’s a magnificent building. It was built nearly five hundred years ago by the Lord of that time. It has never been taken by an enemy force. And that perhaps makes it a little scary-looking, as well,” he added with a wink. Whip allowed himself a small smile at that.

They rode along the cobbled streets surrounded by wooden buildings of every shape, though none more than a storey in height. Whip could see taverns and inns, shops and warehouses, and smaller buildings he supposed were residences. There were people everywhere, mostly well-dressed and very busy-looking. They bustled around without talking much to one another, as though they were all strangers. That is not to say it was quiet, however. The shopkeepers and vendors still shouted from their doors and stalls, striving to catch the attention of the passing throng. Animals bleated and whinnied, bayed and squawked, barked and yowled. There was also a good deal of noise from work crews who shouted instructions, orders and insults to one another over the rest of the din.

Whip found the whole experience a bit unsettling; he was used to the peace of Lower Nist. The villagers could be rowdy at times as well, but theirs was a friendly clamour; this was laced with something unpleasant.

Uncle Winston rode his mare implacably forward, keeping hold of Whip’s reins as well. His earlier confidence in the safety of the town seemed misplaced to the boy, whose fears resurfaced with a vengeance.

But finally they left the crowd and arrived at the lowered drawbridge. There were a few people crossing into or away from the keep, and the pair fell in behind a young man and woman in finely tailored clothes who were chatting amiably with each other.

The guards at the gates wore steel breastplates, red leather leggings and polished, red-plumed helms. Both had sheathed swords with leather-wrapped handles at their sides. One man was considerably younger than the other; both were clean-shaven. They asked the young couple a few questions, but seemed to know them rather well. They were sent along into the castle.

When Winston and Whip approached, the guards took more interest.

“State your name and business,” the older of the two men said to Winston. His words fell from his mouth in a jumble; Whip had a hard time understanding him, he had spoken so quickly. The younger man looked hard at the boy, eyes narrowed.

“I am Winston Cooper, and this is my nephew, Whip. We’re here to see Nairis.”

Both guards raised their eyebrows at this. “Nairis? The Infuser?” asked the older guard.

Winston nodded. “That’s right. Nairis the Infuser. Is there a problem?”

The guards looked at one another; the younger man spoke this time. “Is she expecting you?” he asked a bit dubiously.

Winston smiled. “I imagine she is.”


Whip perched on a hard, wooden chair in a simple, elegant sitting room. He and his uncle had arrived at the home of Nairis and had been greeted at the door by a frail, elderly man in a crisp, white linen shirt and flowing black pants. Winston had hugged the man warmly, asking how he had been, and then motioned to the boy to follow as they entered the house. The man who had answered the door asked Whip to sit in the first room they came to, and he had left with his uncle. He returned a moment later with a cup of cold water with a slice of lemon in it and a plate with some pastries. Whip had gratefully accepted both.

Now he gazed around the sparsely furnished room with interest. The chair he sat on matched another beside him; both were made of dark, polished wood cut in straight, simple lines. There was another chair across from him that was cushioned; he supposed that was where Nairis sat when she entertained guests. The colours in the room were all dark browns and reds, from the cushions on the chair to the drapes covering the windows. Everything was finely made; not ornate, but of high quality. Whip was slightly uncomfortable as it seemed to him that he had entered the home of a quietly wealthy individual. The floor was made of a dark brown hardwood that he couldn’t identify, but the boards were smoothly finished and tightly fitted.

He lifted his gaze to discover a young woman looking intently at him from the doorway that led to the rest of the house. She was older than him; possibly in her twenties, Whip decided. She had long, straight, blonde hair tied back from her face, with stray wisps escaping capture on each side. She was fairly tall, and she wore a snug-fitting, red linen shirt and dark brown leather pants. Her feet were bare.

“Hello,” Whip said to her. It sounded like a question, and the woman did not answer. Instead she walked silently across the short distance between them and stopped in front of the boy. He looked up at her awkwardly from his seat, and started to rise.

“No.” She held out a hand, palm down. “Sit.” Whip settled back into the chair. The woman’s voice was deeper than he had expected, but still very feminine. Her green eyes were still fixed on his face, and he felt a heat rising up his neck and into his face at her scrutiny.

“Let me watch you,” she said then, and he saw that she was holding out the same metal cube and tiny blue gem that he had been using to cast the Soften spell the day before. He took the cube in his right hand and the gem in his left. He paused and looked up at her uncertainly.

“I am Nairis,” she told him. “I want you to cast a spell, and I will help you.” She stepped back from him and clasped her hands in front of her. “Please begin, and I will watch you.”

Whip felt a shudder of anxiety pass over him, but he dutifully closed his eyes and focused his attention on the objects in his hands.

Even with his eyes closed, he could tell that it was the gem in his left hand. It was different from other objects; he sensed that it was somehow more perfect than other things. It had more possibilities, more potential. It was an object that was made for magic. He bent his thoughts to Softening the cube through the blue stone, and could feel the tension begin to build between them. A heat that did not burn surrounded the gemstone as he poured himself into it, and Whip could feel that a tendril of magic had begun to escape through a facet. He directed its free end with his thoughts, pushing and prodding it across the gap between his hands.

Other tendrils began to leak from the gem as he emptied his will into it, too many for him to feel and react to. Some joined with the cube, and others snaked along his wrist or off into space. It was falling apart again; he knew that another failure was imminent.


His eyes snapped open to see Nairis only inches from his face. He leaped back with a startled cry, the gem and the cube falling to the floor on either side, the chair tumbling into the corner of the room. The young woman didn’t even blink at the outburst. Instead she reached down and gathered up the fallen items from the polished wood floor. Whip righted the chair and returned to his place warily.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” Nairis apologized, seeing his distress. “I want you to try again.”

Whip felt nauseated. His embarrassment was almost unbearable now. He knew that Nairis could see how inept he was, that he couldn’t perform a simple Softening, and now she amused herself by making him fumble through it again. “I – I don’t think I can,” he stuttered, wringing his hands and looking at the floor. Tears stung at the corners of his eyes, hot and unbidden.

She grabbed his right hand, opened it, and placed the cube in his palm again. She then opened his left hand and gave him a cut red gem about the size of a pea. “I think you can,” she almost whispered to him. She set a finger under his chin and lifted his face so that he would look at her. Her green eyes were astonishing to him. “You can,” she breathed at him, nodding.

He drew a shuddering breath in through his mouth. He looked at the gem and could feel that it was beautifully formed and perfectly cut. It was far superior to the blue gem he had been using at Uncle Winston’s home. He realized he didn’t know where his uncle was, and looked up to see if he had entered the room. He hadn’t; Whip was alone with Nairis.

She hadn’t stopped staring at him. Her eyes were impossibly deep, and the intensity of her gaze made the boy nervous. Partly at her request and partly to escape the scrutiny, he closed his eyes again and began to cast the spell.

The new gem made the experience very different. Once again he willed himself into the stone, creating the magic from his thoughts and energy. Again the tendrils began to flow from the stone, but more easily this time. He could sense that they were… thicker, stronger than before. More magic was contained in each stray filament. Again, however, he could feel that he could not contain and direct them as he wished. As soon as he forced one bit of magic between the gem and the cube, he would feel that two others had escaped his notice and could not be reined in. Again a sense of panic and despair washed over him as he frantically tried to recover the magic that was bleeding from the stone.

Then suddenly he could see. His eyes were still closed, but he could see twin green fires before him. It took him a moment to realize he was looking into the eyes of Nairis, the master Infuser. She had wrapped her hands about his wrists and was looking intently once again into his own eyes. “Look at the magic,” she told him. “Look down.”

He obeyed, but he did not open his eyes. Instead, he directed his mind’s eye to the tattered spell he held in his hands. At once he could see all of the magic seeping and flowing from the gem; he quickly and easily gathered it up with his thoughts and sent it all streaming across in a great torrent to the cube in his right hand. It slammed into the tiny shape, wrapping it over and over in fine red lines until the entire object glowed with a ruddy fire. Both the gem and the cube flared once, and the spell was complete.

Whip sat back heavily, eyes flying open, breath coming in short gasps. Nairis held his wrists still, and he could see the triumph and exhilaration in her eyes. The glowing flames were no longer there, but the intensity remained. She smiled at him then, and laughed out loud with delight. Whip laughed then too, realizing what he had accomplished. The red gem in his hand was warm with the heat of magic, and there was an invisible connection between it and the now Softened cube. He squeezed the cube between his thumb and forefinger and felt it give easily to the slight pressure.

The woman released his wrists then, and stood. She looked at him almost affectionately, and Whip suddenly felt very close to her. He trusted her.

“I knew you could,” she told him quietly. “Now I want you to do it on your own.” She leaned over and laid a finger on the red gem that he still held out in his hand. Her brow furrowed and her lips pursed as she concentrated on the stone.

Whip felt a brief shock through his entire body. He spasmed slightly in both arms, but he did not drop the objects this time. Although he saw nothing happen, he felt her sever the connection between the gem and cube. Once again the stone became lifeless, an empty vessel waiting to be filled, and once again the cube became firm and unyielding.

Nairis took the gem from his hand and returned to him the tiny blue gem that he had been using before. After using the red gem, with its fine cut and excellent composition, his own gem felt cheap and gaudy. He looked at it with some distaste, for he saw now how inferior it was.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Nairis said. “Not every spell requires a treasured jewel to perform. Do it again.”

Chastised, Whip again closed his eyes to begin to Infuse the cube. Without her touch on his arms, he could not see the magic as it formed, but he seemed to have a better sense of how it spilled from the tiny gem. In just moments he had gathered up the weakly struggling threads of magic and formed the bond between the objects. Again he felt a flash as the spell quickened, although his mind’s eye could see only darkness.

He opened his eyes to look at her, and again saw a look of triumph written on her face. He glanced down at the cube and squeezed it again. It was soft enough to deform, although harder than the last spell had made it.

“The better gem makes a better spell,” she explained to him. “Your gem can’t focus as much magic as mine, so the spell will be weaker.”

Whip nodded in understanding, but then frowned. “Why couldn’t I see the magic this time?” he asked.

Nairis frowned as well. She looked at him for a long moment, then spoke. “You needed my help,” she said simply. “You can’t do that on your own.”

“Why not?”

She shook her head, still frowning. “You’re not ready yet. You’re just starting.”

“Teach me,” he said, emboldened by his successes with the cube. “Teach me to see the magic.”

She looked at him speculatively. “Your uncle will teach you to cast the spells. Learn to Soften and Harden, Brighten and Darken, and Heat and Chill. Then you may return to me, and I will consider helping you to learn to See.”

Whip felt the crush of disappointment, but bit back the tears as he realized what she had done for him already. He stood and crossed the floor to her, then hugged her fiercely. She tried to raise her arms in protest, then laughed and hugged him back. He released her and smiled sheepishly.

“How old are you?” he asked.

Nairis simply raised an eyebrow. She did not answer him.