Basil hated painting portraits.
He hated them as much as he hated painting nature landscapes. Just what the world needed, another artist to capture some stranger’s visage on a canvas. And how pretentious, for someone to commission a painting of their own face to hang on their wall. Pretentious and incredibly vain.
But who was he to complain? It paid the bills. Or it would, when he finished.
Basil’s nose wrinkled. Flowery perfume trickled up his nostrils as the older woman leaned over his shoulder. He hated that even more. People who inspected his work while he was still moving the brush across the canvas.
Mrs. Delevan’s clunky pearl necklace kept knocking against his cheek as she glanced back and forth between his work and her daughter. The young Miss Delevan posed with her hands in her lap, chin straight in the air. She sat before three open windows, curtains floating in the air in a way that was delicately graceful.
Mrs. Delevan gave off an unsatisfied snort. Basil bristled.
“You got her chin all wrong, dear.” The rich of Foundum were all the same. Rich humans especially. Such an odd thing. Wars that took place long before any of them were born split elves up into nomadic tribes, and all the city dwelling folk took to sticking their noses up at them for destroying their own society. Even if Basil was barely an elf to begin with.
He pursed her lips. “Your daughter has a very strong jaw.” Sharper than his. He imagined she could crack nuts with a single clench of her jaw.
The young Miss Delevan gasped, and started fiddling with her high collar as if that would hide her natural features. Basil saw nothing wrong with them, and even if he did, he wasn’t going to lie to the canvas. Where was his integrity as an artist if he started doing that?
“Paint it softer.”
Basil bit the inside of his cheek.
“Your daughter has a very lovely jaw, ma’am–”
“–Mr. Duran, I’m doing you a favor.” Her words hit home and Basil set down his easel on his knee.
Yes, he supposed she was doing him a favor. Over a decade ago, Basil worked on the design team of her husband’s small marketing company. He’d blown him under his desk. Basil only worked there for a day and quit because it was so not his style. But, Mr. Delevan stalked him for a month much to the shame of his wife. He supposed she didn’t like him much even if her husband jumped from one young lover to the next and Basil was hardly special, but if he wanted to start painting for the rich she was his way in.
Although, when he showed up on her doorstep a few days ago he made sure to remind her he still had all those letters her husband wrote him.
He didn’t, but the look on her face was worth the lie.
Sighing, Basil shook his head. “Ma’am, what I paint isn’t going to change your daughter’s face.”
The young Miss Delevan gasped as she jumped up from her stool, covering her chin with her hands. “Mama! Make him change it. Stewert can’t see!”
Basil raised an eyebrow. Surely this Stewert had already seen her face, and if he hadn’t they could only avoid the truth for so long.
Mrs. Delevan leaned closer. Her perfume invaded her noise, the smell of her breath sharp with the olive and onion spread she licked off her crackers. He almost gasped as his eyes watered.
“I can go to a hundred other artists. Fix her chin or you can walk out the door.”
Miss Delevan clawed at her face. “Why would you even say anything!” she wailed. “I forgot all about my chin!”
He opened his mouth to say something, but before he did Mrs. Delevan started shouting back at her daughter. And her breath, her breath! It stung his face and almost knocked him off his chair.
So, Basil did the wise thing.
He walked out the door.
He dragged his unfinished portrait behind him out into the snowy afternoon. On Brecken Hill, the roads were clean and free of muddy slush. The snowflakes fell gently down onto the paved stone roads. The large mansions surrounded him. He looked up the road, then down the road. The Delevan shouts still loud in his ear as he started down the hill, coming from the open windows.
He was going to have to find another way to make money.
Gill said nothing more about their bills or how much they owed, and he knew he was going to keep that to himself. The least Basil could do was try to help. After all, he never had trouble finding work. Keeping a job, now that was the problem.
A ringing bell caught his attention. Basil kept walking. Trying not to lose his footing while trudging down a hill with a canvas in his arms was hard work and it demanded all of his focus. His boots slipped over the layer of icy old snow that covered the stones. The new flakes that fell from the sky landed on his face. He couldn’t even fix his scarf.
“Need any help?” The voice that greeted him was grumpy. Basil didn’t need to turn his head to know Wyn had appeared beside him. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the pile of rags that concealed the small girl. She walked her bicycle beside her, her basket full of brown bundles.
“You would help me?” Wyn never liked him. She liked Gill.
“We’re going in the same direction.”
Headed towards downtown, or so it seemed. But Basil supposed he should wonder why Wyn was also in the land of the rich. As far as he knew, she lived with her precious warlock.
“I’m making a detour.”
“Hm.” She nodded. “Is Mr. Duran in the shop then?”
“You’re standing right next to him.”
Wyn grumbled under her breath. “I meant the other Mr. Duran. The–”
“–useful one. I know. He should be.” Basil left that morning after breakfast and Gill said nothing about what he would be doing for the day. That usually meant the usual, if something was out of schedule than Gill would feel the need to tell him and not a moment sooner. Basil could already see him, wearing his apron as he raced back and forth between his stoves or watering his plants. Busy work.
“Why aren’t you there?” she asked after a moment. Wyn brushed her scarfs out the way, her small eyes peering at the painting he tried to carry in his hands. When he first arrived, he’d come by cab and hadn’t thought to make it wait. He was hoping this would all go so well that along with his handsome pay Mrs. Delevan would give him a ride home. Perhaps that would happen after she wrote a raving review for all her friends.
Luck was not on his side, it seemed.
“Work? Mr. Duran says you never work.”
“Did he?” Perhaps Basil never had such a dedicated job as Gill but he’d worked more jobs than he could count since leaving school. Fourteen years worth of jobs. And besides that, he was still a painter. Even if he hardly sold a painting. “I’ll show him.”
Basil stopped walking. His boots skidded to stop on the slippery stones. He held up his portrait for Wyn to see.
“How much would you pay for this?”
A long pause followed. “It’s unfinished.”
“Yes,” he said with a sigh. “But how much?”
Wyn cocked her head to the side. “Would you paint me?”
“You?” Really, the last thing he wanted was to paint another portrait and he hadn’t really even been serious about taking money from a child.
But…he supposed there was something else Wyn could do.
Basil set the painting down. He bent his knees so he was eye-level with Wyn. “How about this, child, you do me a favor and I’ll paint your portrait?”
Her eyes lit up. “Really?”
“What’s the favor?”
* * *
His detour took him back to East Foundum. The trading district. His ears filled with echoing shouts from the deck of ships. The streets were filled with market stalls and carts filled with goods. Low hanging clotheslines with dripping clothes fresh from the dye pots and people weaving and knitting on the side of the road.
Basil ducked into the alleyway and up to an open doorway.
His parents hardly ever locked their door.
“Grandma!” He shouted as he edged down the narrow hallway. “Free painting!”
Grandma Imra seemed to stay in the same spot day in night. He found her in the living room, sitting in her chair. She had a thin book in her hands, probably one of her detective stories. She met him with a wrinkled smile as he appeared in the doorway.
Ancient as she was, he could understand why she didn’t move around so much. She was wrapped in a thick shawl. At her age, her skin looked more like the twisted surface of tree bark. Dark and decorated. Her long ears twitched with every sound. Pointy like Gill’s, but hers drooped and had holes from old piercings that never closed.
“I love your free paintings, Sil.” Grandma Imra nodded to a stack of paintings in the corner, a graveyard for all his unfinished projects. “Put them with the others.
He set the painting down and came to kneel beside her chair. Basil planted a kiss on his grandmother’s cheek as he placed a hand over hers.
“So good to see you again.” He nuzzled close. Basil didn’t make visits back home nearly as much as he would like to.
She leaned her head against his. “How’s Gilverd?”
“Fine.” His grandmother didn’t need to know about their piling debts. “Did you know we went to the woods a while ago? Can you imagine, me in the wild?”
She snorted. “That’s my Sil, never liked to get his hands dirty.”
“Oh no.” Grandma Imra dropped her book and placed a hand over her heard. “What’s wrong?”
“Why would you assume something’s wrong?”
“You never go to your dad unless something’s wrong. What is it?”
“–Oh gods. Is Gilverd dying? You’re dying? One of you got someone pregnant? You need a place to hide a dead body? Just burn it, Sil.”
He slid the book off her lap. “I think you’ve been reading too many of those books, Grandma. No one’s dying. No one’s pregnant.”
She pursed her lips. “Don’t spit in the face of my intuition.”
Basil sighed. She was right. He loved his family dearly, but he really did only see his dad these days if he needed help. He massaged her hand. “Just…when you see dad can you tell him to ring me?”
Frowning, Grandma Imra snatched her hand away from his. She palmed both sides of his face and held him close, squishing him between her hands.
“You stay out of trouble, Sil. Don’t tell the others but you were always my favorite grandchild.”
“Nice.” Sage’s voice came from the doorway. His younger brother slouched against the wall. He slid a cigarette between his lips as he brushed greasy hair out of his eyes. Sage still lived at home. As a trained chef, he helped their parents out in the small restaurant they owned.
Basil stuck his tongue out at him once Grandma Imra let him go. “I’m still the favorite.”
Sage rolled his eyes. “You’re a big child, is what you are. Grandma, stop babying him.”
Basil stood up, brushing off his knees. Grandma Imra scooted to the end of her chair to reach down and grab her book. Her bones cracked loudly as she moved.
“I love you too,” she said. “Just not as much as Sil.”
“That really hurts, you know? What are you gonna do if I jump off a building?”
“Honey, you get to my age and you learn to stop dwelling on the dead.”
Basil wrapped his arm around him on his way out the living room. “Give your dear brother a ride home?”
Sage groaned. “I just got home.”
“You only have one brother.”
“One too many.”
* * *
By the time Basil got home, Gill was cleaning the kitchen. And he frowned as he passed the clock on the wall. Home later than usual.
Knowing Gill, he probably heard him open the door to the shop and knew it was him, but still, his shoulders hunched as he scrubbed the table almost furiously. Basil stood in the threshold. He knocked on the wall.
“Mr. Duran?” He kept his voice just above a whisper. Gill’s ears twitched. There was no problem coming home later than usual, he just tended to tell Gill ahead of time. And he’d gotten sidetracked with Wyn and the ride home with Sage took longer than he expected because his brother was…
Well, his brother.
“I left your food in the oven,” Gill mumbled.
“No ‘welcome home’?” Basil opened his arms for a hug as Gill passed by him, throwing the dirty rag in the bin.
The next time Gill spoke, his voice came from the bedroom. “I don’t like eating alone, Basil.”
He followed him. Gill stood before their dressing. His shirt was on the floor, his hands searching the drawer for his nightclothes.
“Darling…I was out. I stopped by to see my grandma I didn’t know it was going to take this long.”
“You could have told me.”
“I called Pinkie. He didn’t know where you were.”
“I’ve already apologized.”
“I don’t like worrying about you, Basil.” His hands were shaking and he closed the drawer with a loud bang.
Basil didn’t know what to do, or what to say. He usually lingered right on the land of giving Gill a reason to be upset. He so rarely raised his voice at him let alone close something hard enough to shake the room.
So, he just stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Gill’s shoulders. He was still cold from the outside, arms slightly damp from the snowflakes that managed to slip through his coat. Basil buried his head between Gill’s head and shoulder.
“I am sorry,” he whispered. Gill was never alone. First, he had people he traveled with, then he had him, and perhaps Basil’s sudden deviation from their schedule threw him off balance. He should have said something.
But he also didn’t want Gill to know that he was worried about him either. Money problems were usually none of his concern, and it was shameful enough that his own husband didn’t believe he could do much to help.
“I went home. I should have told you.”
Gill leaned into him, sighing. “I thought you might have gone there. I just…”
Basil shushed him. He kissed the base of Gill’s neck. “I’ll make it up to you,” Basil purred.
Gill rubbed his arm with his hand. “I think I might be too tired for that.”
“I’ll find another way then.” He kissed Gill again before pulling away.
Gill narrowed his eyes. “Should I be worried?”
Basil did a twirl on his way out the bedroom. Gill called after him.
But his lips were sealed.
All Basil knew, was that he would find a way to fix this.
One way or another.
Psst. This is the end. Like what I do? Help a brother out.