A magnificent viscorcat paws at the trunk of the coil tree, yearning for a summer sun spot up in the branches, his black fur glossed from grooming. The cat’s rider, a girl no more than thirteen, slides from his back.
Impatient, the cat claws neat lines down through the bark. “Go ahead, Dukas,” says the girl, running her hand from his neck to his tail, tracing sturdy links of spine through the fur. The cat leaps into the tree and stretches out on a sun-warmed branch.
The girl is tempted to follow. She has wandered far from her lakeside caves, feeling confident as a queen. Her realm has provided everything she might need–nourishment, shelter, color, and materials for her art. But she has yet to offer something in response.
She descends through fern fronds into a quiet glen and finds a place to rest, sitting against a young cloudgrasper tree. Rummaging through her ribbon-weave bag, she considers an array of unfinished crafts. Blue curtains–she’s making them for Krawg, the old man who rescued her from the wilderness when she was a baby. The floppy, fur-spun hats are for the Gatherers. There are lake-fishing lures of dragonfly wings and throwing dice fashioned from acorns. But none of these seems the right subject for this afternoon’s play. She shoves them back inside and listens to the trees’ ideas.
A murmur of water deep underground draws her into a stroll around a flowered mound of stones, a weathered well. Something about that distant song is familiar. How curious, she thinks. Why would anyone need a well here?
She climbs up on the wellstones. Ivy has stitched the well’s mouth shut, shielding it from summer’s slow, golden dust. She tears the ivy loose and shoves her head in, then withdraws, brushing cobwebs and tiny white spiders from her silverbrown hair. Her eyes are wide. The sad, familiar music of the rushing water far below inspires her to imagine its source–a place of fierce purity, high above the world, in skies alive with color and light.
Inside the well a rope is bound to an iron ring. She seizes it and feels resistance. Persisting, she pulls until a sturdy bucket appears. Swirling water mirrors the layered ceiling of dark boughs, delicate leaves, the shining sky. She splashes it across her face. It is surprisingly warm.
She pours the water over the wellstones, washing away dust, webs, fragments of leaves, old spider-egg sacs. Beetles scramble, looking for new homes.
Arranging small glass jars of dye beside her, she takes tiny brushes of vawn-tail hair and sets about painting.
She daubs one wellstone, pauses, considers what should come next. Proceeding like a worryworm, she feels around for a sure step, then teases the air before her in search of the next certainty. She examines the cloudgrasper, its bark green as olives. She scoops up handfuls of leaves, lays them over each other, holds them up to the light. Mixing the paints and spreading them thick and bright across another boulder, she considers how the colors fit. She wishes for more stones, a larger well, something mountain-sized.
When she is finished, Dukas has dropped down from the tree, disgruntled by the fading sunlight. He sniffs at the well, blinks, and sneezes in disgust.
The girl scowls. “Thanks for nothing.”
Dukas slinks off to search for a madweed patch where he can roll and dream, leaving her to grumble. “But I suppose you’re right,” she sighs. “I mean, what’s the use?” She shrugs and tosses the paintbrush aside. “Who’s ever gonna see it? Just a pile of painted stones. In a few harsh winters, it’ll all be gone.”
The cat snarls, dragging his claws down the trunk of a maple this time.
“Hunting and eating. That’s all you think about. You know you’ll be fed by sundown. I’m hungry too. I just can’t say for what.”
A cloud passes over, hastening the night.
“We should go.”
While she gathers up her brushes and jars, buds open on the frail stems, blessing the glen with their tiny, cerulean stars. “Why bother?” she snaps at the flowers. “Nobody notices.”
But as she sits back down before their constellations, she relaxes, seduced by the light. “Dukas, have you seen the beastman who comes to my caves?
He comes to see the colors. And he’s got a strange liking for blue. He should see this.”
She shivers. The tree shadows have shifted, darkening every color they find.
“He doesn’t hurt me. Never has. But I wonder what he’s like when he’s out on his own.” She sighs. “No. I don’t wonder. I think I know.”
She plucks a cluster of the blooms, careful to draw the shallow, fragile roots along with them. She’ll replant them where she lives. They’re a color with possibilities. “A little something I’m working on,” she mumbles. “Another splash of nothing.”
When she’s gone, the starflowers go on glowing, testifying to the water beneath their roots, raising their own version of its song in perfume and light. Even if no travelers ever pause to observe, they shine as if for joy.