“Have you been to the Galleries before?” Liam asked as we walked.
“No.” I felt my cheeks heat at the admission, then reminded myself I was being ridiculous. The Galleries were open to all, on paper at least. But going there as a non-Benzarian, especially a young male, was simply not done. I’d tried, when I was still a child and more defiant, and promptly been ushered out.
Liam, glanced at me as he walked through the maze of works in the huge storage space. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m guessing you had trouble being admitted the same as other friends and artists I know who are not of Society. The policies here, or rather how they are practiced, are so far out of date. So passé and discriminatory. I’m working to change that.” He squeezed my arm and stopped. “And you will be helping to make that happen.”
He chuckled and waved his arm out. “With these.”
I blinked and it took me a moment of stupidity before I realized we were standing before my paintings.
“Did you already examine them?” I thought they had only just arrived.
“Not these, not closely. Stewart had shown me sketches and pointed out your murals, though, and I have no doubt we will be adding something of yours to our collection.”
All I could do was stare as Liam let go of my arm and stepped up close to my works. I was torn between joy that Liam already liked what he’d seen, and complete rage that Stewart had obviously been working behind my back. When had he swiped my sketchpads? When had he managed to lure Sir Liam out to the Gallows to view my “murals”?
I had to hold back a snort at the term. Most would have called the works of graffiti a scar on the side of old, historical buildings. In the Artist Gallows the authorities were too used to avoiding the “uncouth” inhabitants to bother to remove them, however. That worked just fine for me and many others who lived in that part of town. But to think that this man, this Benzarian, had actually ventured into the back alleys of the Gallows to view my work there, that was unheard of.
“You’ve been to the Gallows?”
“Hmm?” he said, slipping on an eyeglass to look at a part of my painting in detail. He continued without looking up, “Oh, yes. So many of the most promising young artists evolve there.”
“Do they? I don’t hear of many artists from the Gallows being shown here at the Galleries.”
Liam looked up at me briefly and shrugged. “That’s generally because they are no longer in the Gallows, once their work becomes known.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. To leave for better parts of the city once one had the means and money was common, but… I had pride in where I lived; I couldn’t imagine leaving, not completely—though I knew Stewart was hoping for it.
As Liam continued to inspect some parts of the same painting, I was reminded that I am not a patient man. I waited for Liam to say something--anything—about my works, and willed myself not to fidget. My will was tested as every moment ticked by. I dearly wanted to demand he talk to me already.
Liam picked up one of my smaller pieces and held it out before him. “This will need a better frame,” he said, as if he was speaking to himself.
“Well, that frame was more an idea of what I wanted. I mean, I don’t have many resources and—”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Liam muttered, setting the piece down and propping up another, larger painting. Most of my works tended to be on large canvases. I withheld a sigh.
When I’d met Liam, only shortly before, I’d liked him. Now I was beginning to think he was an ass.
“Umm, so… What do you think?” I finally asked. He was lucky I was asking nicely when I wanted to shout at him. Stewart had better give me credit later for being so well-behaved.
“Hmm? Oh, they’re lovely!” Liam said, straightening back up from where he’d been examining the work. He smiled and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. “I was making you worry, wasn’t I? My apologies,” he said. “Adaine chides me constantly on how lost I become when looking at pieces I love.”
That he loved? Was he just spurting out comments or was he serious?
“Oh, this one is quite lovely!” he said, setting aside one work and holding up another. “The Galleries are currently all a-flutter for romanticism such as this.”
“Romantic? It’s landscape.”
Liam gave a musical laugh. “But romanticism means the work is an idealized representation of nature, which is it, yes? That’s all that is meant by the term.” He finally met my gaze and seemed to study me with the same thoroughness he had the painting. “You’re family is from where originally? Sepkiara?”
I held my temper. Was this going to be an issue? Hadn’t Stewart made my background clear? Apparently not. I pursed my lips and steeled myself before answering a bit defiantly, “Yes.”
He nodded, looking pleased for some reason. “I thought as much. Sepkins seem to have a love of the outdoors and put exploration above appearance.”
Liam blinked. “Your tan. Benzarians are so obsessed with fair skin, despite the beauty of their natural olive complexion, and their preference has grown into the general population here. The Sepkins I’ve met don’t care for that, which I admire.”
I exhaled, letting my temper ease.
He smiled, as if reading my thoughts. “I am being incorrigible, aren’t I? I apologize. I’m often being reminded of my lack of tack, but I fail just the same.”
“Yes, well. You are not what I expected.”
“I hear that quite often.”
I couldn’t hold back a chortle. “I would guess so.”
Turning back to the painting, Liam noted, “There’s only two of these landscapes. Where did your inspiration stem from?”
“You mean, how did I make such detailed landscapes in the middle of Capital City?” I chortled.
He nodded with sincere eagerness, which disarmed me, and I found myself explaining, “I have distant family still in the mountains of Sepkiara. A few years ago I decided to make a trip there. I’d met another man from near the same region who was returning there, so I went along.”
“That’s not close,” Liam replied, eyebrows raised.
With a laugh I nodded. “Quite true. I couldn’t have afforded it normally, but Lefah spoke of how dearly he wished to share of the beauty of his travels with his family, so I offered to do sketches for him along the road, on vellum. He’d saved a good amount of money working here as a dockhand and had enough to supply me with art supplies, food, and my own tent and blankets in return.”
Liam shook his head. “I may have to stop being annoyed with Adaine when he calls me soft; I don’t think I could manage such a journey.” I shrugged. “In any case,” he went on, “I’m happy you had the opportunity to go. Your work is wonderful, Rua. I would love for you to attend the next meeting of the Gallery Committee with me. If you are planning to show here, it’s the first step.”
“I would join you?”
“Of course. I can introduce you to some of the women behind the scenes, help you make connections.”
“But, I thought…”
“Because you are not Benzarian, you would not be able to attend such functions?”
“Don’t think of it. I am often the bridge between Society and new artists who are not Benzarian. In fact the first artist I brought to them was my partner, who is not Benzarian.”
Interesting. “She must be a talent.”
“He is, yes!” he replied without missing a beat. Then he laughed. “You didn’t know it was Adaine? I thought that bit of gossip had gone everywhere by now. I’m quite relieved it hasn’t.”
Why had I assumed that Adaine was just a paramour? Why had I assumed that, even disowned, there must have been a woman who supported Liam? I must’ve looked as dumbfounded as I felt. He laughed. “Did I surprise you again?”
“I know I can be a bit…forthright.”
“Yes. Well, I’ve found it doesn’t pay to beat around the bush, as it were. I’m sure you know my background. Some people take issue with me. I’d rather not deal with such people. If anyone has a problem with me, I’d rather know right from the start.”
He chuckled, hearing the wariness in my tone. “I have also learned to keep my mouth shut regarding my clients’ lives. I can be trusted, I assure you. When it comes to myself, however,” he shrugged, “I suppose after growing up a cloistered Benzarian boy I find a perverse pleasure in being so honest now.”
That I could grant a smile to; I’d felt stifled just being around Benzarians before moving to the Gallows.
“You’ve said several of the works please you, and mentioned the Committee meeting, but does that officially mean…” Lord, I hated being so hesitant, so anxious. I had to be certain, however. Liam could appreciate my work and want to groom me, but where he considered my current works ready for display was something else.
“Will I be accepting these works? Yes, Rua, there are several pieces here I very much wish to display, soon. I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear.” He was beaming and I smiled right back. This was the break I’d been waiting for, dreaming of—yet it all felt surreal. Somehow I couldn’t rejoice because I was waiting for Liam to change his mind or for myself to wake up.
“You look shocked,” said with a chuckle.
Liam shook his head, but kept smiling. “It amazes me how many talented artists go unknown and underappreciated in the Capital.”
I bit my lip. “Well, I can’t very well blame the city. Outside of the murals—which aren’t officially licensed and are often painted over—I haven’t publically displayed my works before.”
Liam simply nodded. “I thought as much. Though I will say that will likely work to your advantage here.”
“How so?” Being a nobody would help?
His smile quirked and I felt as if he heard my other words without me saying them. “Because Society adores ‘discovering’ new talent—and taking credit for their success. More than that, if you were well-known in the wrong quarters, they’d find you undesirable.”
“But I’m from the Gallows!” I sputtered, spreading my hands.
Liam patted my shoulder and said with knowing, “Oh, but they will feel you weren’t appreciated there. Society will see you as a diamond in the rough and try to ‘save’ you from your circumstances.”
“My circumstances are fine,” a bit defensively. I couldn’t help it.
“Don’t misunderstand me. I have no problem with your living situation. Others will. And if you show here, you have to know that people of Society will see your work and you’ll have to deal with how they view you as well.”
“Then I just won’t come to the showings.”
With a chuff and shake of his head, Liam reminded me, “That’s not how it works at the Galleries.”
Though it was my first visit there, I knew enough about the Galleries to know that was true. That didn’t mean I liked or approved of how matters were handled, however, or that I’d be willing to go along with the games and politics played.
Liam blew out a long breath and I expected him to tell me I could kindly take my works with me as I was shown to the door, but he didn’t. Instead, he put a hand on my arm and guided me once more through the maze of stored art. “It’s a lot to take in, I know,” he said with patience. “I have had artists refuse me, and you won’t anger me if you do, though I can’t say I won’t be disappointed. Just give yourself some time and space to think matters over.”
I nodded, then considered his words. “I have time to consider it?”
We stopped and he nodded. “You do, but I can’t keep your work on hand here for more than a seven-day without a contract or the Gallery could be charged for confiscation.”
“Oh.” I was beginning to feel snowed under by this place and all its regulations.
“Honestly it’s done to protect the artists, so that no work can be stolen, dishonestly sold or reproduced.”
“Oh.” I was a word wizard in front of this man, it seemed.
“Take my advice, wander through the Galleries while you’re here. Let yourself get a feel for the space. Your intuition will help guide you to the answers.”
“It may guide my decision, but I’ll need more than that to get through this maze of a building,” I told him
Liam laughed and motioned to a page already waiting near the door I’d originally come through.
“Chaulty will give you a tour. I will see that your pieces not being shown are sent back to you—and I will await your answer, with hope.”
I shook the hand he offered and returned his smile. As I walked away and he turned to call other workers over to get back to what must be the constant re-organization of the storage space, I had to marvel. He was a disowned son, in the heart of a country that didn’t tolerate any young single Benzarian men not to be properly wed and owned. How he’d managed to get where he was baffled and inspired me.
How my own journey within the art world would continue was still unknown to me, though. Still up in the air. Promising, but scary as shit at the same time.
“Which wing would you care to visit?” the page asked politely.
All of them was what I wanted to say, but that would likely take an entire day, if not longer. So I would have to choose.
“The Romantics?” I said with a shrug.
He brightened. “Very good, this way.” And with that I stepped deeper into the world of the Galleries.