Oil and Dust (The Elemental Artist Book One) by Jami Fairleigh
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Title: Oil and Dust
Author: Jami Fairleigh
I wished I’d been born two hundred years ago.
Before technology died.
Before the world died.
What would it have been like to ride in an autocraft, to float in a mechanical bubble out of the sun and rain and insects? Even when I closed my eyes, I couldn’t imagine traveling so fast you could cross a landscape in hours and days instead of months and years.
If I’d been born two hundred years ago, if I’d been born into the world of technology, I’d know who and where my parents were. More importantly, they’d know me. It was what I couldn’t wrap my mind around—the family-shaped gaps in my mind and heart. With luck, I’d find my answers, but it didn’t feel like they were coming soon.
The gray sky darkened my mood, and glancing up, I urged my horses into a faster walk. If I didn’t reach the lake soon, I’d have no chance of booking passage on a ship before the onset of rough weather.
It had taken ten arduous days to pick our way through the wilderness of the White Mountains, and I was eager to talk with the traders who sailed the lake. Reliable news was always scarce, but as the year slipped into fall, the flow of information stopped while travelers overwintered, nestling into cozy communities.
No one wanted to be in the wilderness once a New England winter began.
In the tales from Before, people had enjoyed instant access to news the planet over. Legend said if an earthquake happened at the far reaches of the globe, the entire world tuned in to discuss the deaths, destruction, and impact.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I believed in such things.
If I had access to an endless stream of information, how would I choose what to focus on? I’d find the world’s problems too distracting—any artist would.
Once you learned to restructure reality, the itch to fix or control the chaos was strong.
After graduation, I’d chosen to search for my family instead of accepting a residency in a community. While I hadn’t been my own man long enough to regret my decision, the memory of the roar of disapproval from the masters and other students at the abbey still made me flush with shame.
Nevertheless, I loved being on the road. Despite the hardships, the past five months had solifidied my desire to continue traveling. For the first time in my life, I determined where I went, and when, and how far. Responsible for only myself, my dog, and my two horses, my job was as simple as filling our bellies and finding a place to sleep.
“The unknown awaits us around the next bend in the road, eh, Charcoal? We are men of action.”
Charcoal barked once in agreement, trotting alongside Oxide, my riding horse.
Oxide quickened his pace, his saddle creaking and buckles jangling—a sure sign we were approaching people. Magnesium, my packhorse, crowded forward, and I twitched the rope to warn him back. He ignored my warning, and Oxide pinned his ears and snaked his head to the side, hip twitching as he kicked with his rear foot. Magnesium snorted as Oxide’s foot thumped into his chest, shaking his head with displeasure.
“I warned you,” I said to the packhorse as he fell back into line.
Rounding a bend, I glimpsed buildings through the trees and whistled for my dog to heel. I needn’t have bothered. Charcoal typically had better manners than the people I met on the road.
Finding a community on the edge of the wilderness was disappointing. The courtesy of the road demanded I stop to share news and gossip, and leaving would be difficult once they knew who I was.
I hated being the center of attention.
Although adept at entertaining a small family, I found interacting with a large group draining. After the solitude of the abandoned lanes and byways, and the peaceful company of whirring insects and chattering birds, human voices were grating. I didn’t make it past the trees before the first cries began.
Sighing, I halted Oxide. Meeting communities was always the same, and I gathered my energy. As we waited at the edge of the wood, Oxide tensed beneath me. Like me, he preferred the quiet emptiness of the road.
People hurried toward us, shouting for others to join. Everyone greeted all travelers thus, but when they learned I was an artist, I knew the community would buzz with excitement.
A teenager with a shock of curly hair was the first to reach us, sweat glistening on his forehead from his haste. “Are you the artist?”
My eyes widened, and I nodded. “Yes, I’m—”
The lad left before I finished, racing toward a squat house on the corner of the green. How had he known to expect me?
“Heya, Traveler,” said a breathless woman, her face flushed.
“Heya, Lady.” I pointed at the lad who’d reached the squat building. “He scarpered as soon as I—”
“Confirmed you’re the artist?” she interrupted. “He’s gone to get Administrator Oldham. She’ll be glad to see you at last. Here she comes now.”
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A large lady bustled toward me, her expression both expectant and cross. I’d not yet met the woman, and somehow, I’d already annoyed her. Dismounting, I straightened my coat, feeling like a schoolboy.
“Artist, please meet Victoria Oldham of—”
“Of Hamilton,” Oldham snapped.
“Pleasure,” I said with a small bow. “Well met, Ms. Oldham. I’m Matthew Sugiyama.”
“Administrator Oldham,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “Administrator of Hamilton.”
I scrambled to find the proper words. “How lovely to find you here at the edge of the wilds.”
Lovely it was not proving to be.
“Young man, I am quite put out.”
“Why? We expected you Tuesday last.”
“Me? But why?” What did she mean? I was traveling for myself; I had no itinerary, no specific destination.
“They didn’t provide you with the name of our community?”
“Provided with... by whom?” My mind raced as I tried to make sense of her words.
“The headmaster at Popham Abbey.”
My stomach churned. “I beg pardon, Administrator, but I’ve never heard of Hamilton.”
“Outrageous. You’ve accepted our commission and are to be our artist of residence.”
Though I knew she was mistaken, a sour taste filled my mouth. “I’ve accepted no commissions.”
“You have. Here, I have the letter.” Theatrically, she pulled a letter from her clutch and opened it with a flourish. The people crowded closer to listen, and I fought the urge to push them away from me.
“My dear Administrator Oldham,” she read, “I am pleased to inform you Artist Sugiyama accepts your commission. He should reach you by the 22nd of September. As discussed, he will stay for five years upon which he will be free to extend his commission or choose another. Yours faithfully, Headmaster T.”
“May I see it?” I held out my hand.
Administrator Oldham stared at me before extending the document. The crowd leaned in, and again, I tamped the urge to wave my arms and reestablish my personal space.
The paper, thick and oily, shook as I skimmed the document. Astonishment rising over my ire, I read it again, the words trembling on the page.
“We prepared our nest dwelling for you and planned a welcome ceremony. You’re an entire week late.”
Swallowing, I willed my pulse to slow. “I’m afraid I know nothing about this.”
She snatched the letter back. “Is there another Artist Sugiyama?”
Oxide tossed his head, and I patted his muscled neck, grateful for the distraction.
“Not at Popham. Perhaps you corresponded with another abbey?” I kept my voice measured, reasonable, and confident.
“I did not! Young man, I’m losing my patience. Are you saying you will not be living in Hamilton?”
“But the letter! Your headmaster promised.”
“Headmaster Sinclair runs Popham Abbey. There’s no master with a ‘T’ surname. It looks like someone has played a trick.”
“A nasty trick,” murmured a woman. “Come, Victoria, let me get you some water.”
“Maybe a chair,” said Administrator Oldham. “I’m feeling faint.”
My mind galloped, searching for answers. “Administrator, I’m sorry for the confusion.”
Why was I apologizing? I wasn’t sorry; it was my life someone was trying to commandeer. But why? Were they trying to stop me from finding my birth family?
“Will you reconsider? You could make a pleasant life for yourself here in Hamilton.”
My refusal to join a community had created an uproar at the abbey. Headmaster Sinclair had been furious when I refused to consider the commissions offered...
“You are not a minstrel!” Headmaster Sinclair had shouted. “Artists do not wander.”
Astonished by the venom in his voice, I’d lost mine.
Headmaster Sinclair was a mild-mannered man, soft-spoken and thoughtful, and his display of temper unnerved me. His voice thundered in the stone room, reverberating off every surface, muting the crashing waves outside.
“Tell me who my family is,” I said, determined to stay calm, attempting to muster authority. I was failing, and the large breakfast I’d eaten sat uneasily in my gut.
Salt and bile rose in my throat.
Headmaster Sinclair spluttered. “Your recalcitrance—the cheek! It is not within my power to say more.”
After years of asking about my family, I hadn’t expected to learn anything today, but his refusal disappointed me. “Fine. I’ll find them myself.”
I glanced around the familiar office, seeking answers. This could be the last time I would visit the room where I’d spent many happy hours drawing. A room which smelled like my boyhood—salt and books and stone. “I shall travel.”
“To where? Please, Matthew, be sensible. These are marvelous commissions—communities blessed with sense and situation.”
“I cannot settle until I find my people. When I find my family, I’ll know who I am. Only then will I entertain offers and commissions. Not before.”
He stalked to the window, blocking the light.
I shivered. “Are my things my own?”
“How will you travel?”
“I’ll need horses and equipment.”
“Ah.” Headmaster Sinclair nodded, sinking into a chair. A cloud of dust spiraled in the light from the window. “Yes, and you have neither.”
Tasting freedom, I continued, “I’ll procure what I need.”
“I’ll trade my skills.”
“You’d peddle your art? Are you mad? It’s not what we’ve trained you for!”
“I’ve decided, Headmaster. With respect, I leave at week’s end.”
“My boy, you’re making a dreadful mistake. I’m afraid the world will not live up to your expectations.”
I kneeled before him, placing my hand on his knee, bony and frail beneath his heavy robes. “Won’t you reconsider, Headmaster? I need to know who my family is, where I come from.”
He seemed to waver. His lips parted and his chin wobbled. “We’ll miss you, Matthew.”
This was it. I’d chosen my fate.
My chest flooded—sorrow and wild excitement battling with heart-thumping knocks. I’d done it. I’d broken the yoke of my training.
Until I learned where I came from and why they’d abandoned me, I refused to settle.
I deserved the whole truth.
Victoria Oldham stared at me.
Chilled and hungry, I’d hoped for an offer of hospitality. A night off the road would have meant a bath and fresh horses in the morning.
It would also give me a chance to reexamine the letter.
However, I didn’t want to rekindle their hopes they could induce me to stay.
“I’m sorry, Administrator Oldham, but I must continue my journey. I’m on my way to meet my friend, Liang Zhen.”
Until I’d said it out loud, I hadn’t had a plan, but why not visit Zhen? He’d graduated the year before, and I was curious what the last year had been like for him.
“I had such plans,” she said faintly, as if I’d woken her from a beautiful dream. “What is to become of Hamilton?”
“Are you sure you won’t stay awhile, Artist Sugiyama?” asked a man. “We had a feast planned in your honor.”
Their hopeful faces tugged at my heart. I hated to disappoint them, but I couldn’t eat and leave them empty-handed. My stomach grumbled, and I reached for a compromise.
“Why don’t you give me a tour of your community? If I find a project I have time to help with, I’ll paint for you and stay for the feast. Otherwise, I’ll be on my way. Agreed?”
The people nodded, their eyes lighting with hope.
I relaxed, releasing tension I hadn’t realized I was holding. My mouth watered at the anticipation of a hot meal. A feast, the man had said. Still, out of prudence, I checked, “You understand I’ll decide how much aid to provide?”
Victoria Oldham lifted her chin. “Artist Sugiyama, we understand how the world works.”
“Very well, lead on.”
Leaves crunched underfoot as we walked, the snick-snick reminding me of autumns past. Hamilton wasn’t large, and the tour didn’t take long. Twenty dwellings wrapped around three sides of the center green. Larger buildings sat on the north side, the three nearest scorched. The charred-wood smell was acrid and clung to the air, making me feel even more grimy.
“Our smithy,” said Oldham. “Such a shame. I’m not sure we’ll manage repairs before winter arrives.”
A quick glance at the sky told me how much daylight I had left. “Mmm. Lucky you stopped the spread of flame. I have time to restore the damaged buildings.”
Oldham’s eyes widened, and murmurs rustled around me.
“All three? Very generous, Artist Sugiyama. We’re honored.”
I bowed. “At your service, Administrator. I’ll set up my easel here.”
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