She breezed through his door, ringing the bell like a music box, and tossed coins across his table. They clinked together, flashed gold, and he found himself wandering out of a painting of clouds and into her eyes.
“Sky Painter of Pigment Street,” she said to him, heavy skirts and petticoats gripped in her palms. “You paint the stars at night and the sun in the day. You paint clouds and wind and rain and snow. I would like you to paint something for me.”
He swallowed and murmured, “My name is Hue.” Pushing aside the coins, he added, after a moment rearranging his thoughts, “And I paint what I feel like painting, what I am drawn to paint. I don’t paint for gold.”
“But the player troupe on Globe Street acts for my gold, and the musician on Cello Street plays for my gold. No artist has rejected gold from the daughter of the Earl of Clockwork Street.”
He saw her then, really saw her past her storm cloud eyes. He saw the gold in her hair beneath her hat and the swoop of a delicately curved neck colored like copper. More importantly, he saw the Earl’s straight nose, and straight mouth, and stubborn set to the jaw. She was indeed the Earl’s daughter, but made with softness and light.
“Perhaps,” he sighed finally, finding his words, “that is how things work on your Street, but this is Pigment Street and our Duke does not care about the Earl of Clockwork Street.”
She caught her lip between her teeth. He smiled and picked up his brush, drawing a jagged line of lightning across a canvas, until it flashed outside the window. The Earl’s daughter jumped, then pressed her fingers to the window glass. “No, I won’t paint for gold,” Hue said, “but I will paint for you.” He dipped his brush in paint. “What would you like?”
She turned to look at him as if trying to figure him out, trying to find his turning pins and windup gears. “You’re different,” she murmured, “you’re different from those on Clockwork Street.” Her eyes, so gray before, lightened, her cheeks suddenly flushed and she turned to the window again. “Paint rain for me,” she breathed. “Paint rain out of a stormy sky. Paint thunderheads and clouds and lightning that splits the heavens.”
He nodded, hand drawn to his brush by the tremor in her voice. “What is it in the sky,” he asked softly, “in the rain, in the sun that you cannot find on Clockwork Street?”
“Life, magic, flowers. Flowers will grow with rain. Flowers of all colors. I’ve never seen flowers. They are things that grow without gears and are tinted in shades other than bronze and nickel and gold. Such things are only stories on my Street.”
He paused with his brush on the canvas. “Rain will cause rust. The Earl will be angry.”
She said nothing. Rain pattered on the sidewalk. “What will you take in payment,” she asked finally, “if you won’t accept my gold?”
“Nothing,” he smiled. “I paint what wants to be painted, what I want to paint.”
She smiled then and his heart stopped beating and melted.
The Earl of Clockwork Street came into his shop two days later, bound on either side by metal guards with whirligig eyes. “You made it rain,” the Earl growled as the painter stood, knees trembling with shock and fear. “You made it rain on Clockwork Street and half our doors are rusted solid. Our guards are frozen and our steam machines are stuck in place. Who put you up to this? Was it your Duke?”
A knife flashed and Hue swallowed. “No.”
“Did someone order it?”
Eyes like storm clouds flashed in memory. “I don’t know. I just paint what I choose to paint. What I want to paint.”
“Then don’t paint this again.” He leaned close, scented like oil and smelting stones. “Paint rain again and it will be war between our Streets.”
She came the following day. Her eye was blackened, tinted on the edges with old copper and heather.
“Did the flowers come?” he asked, pretending ignorance and blindness.
“No, they didn’t. Nothing green, nothing new. Everything is bronze and rust colored now.” Her voice was sad. “Can you make it rain again, Hue? And then the sun shine? I’ve heard that flowers need both.” He glanced at her eye again and she covered it with a gloved hand. “Please?”
Memories of guards with whirligig eyes fought with the sound of her voice. He asked, “And start a war between the Streets?”
Her smile turned tight like the thin sickle of the horned moon. “He was here.”
“I’m sorry.” She turned to go. “I shouldn’t have left my Street.”
He caught her hand. “You could stay on Pigment Street,” he said recklessly, “where life is in color not clockwork.”
“Then you really would start a war between the streets.”
“I will do it for you. I will paint rain for you. Enough rain and sun to make the Street blossom.”
“No.” She reached out and touched his cheek with a fingertip. “It’s not worth it and perhaps flowers aren’t meant for a street of clockwork.”
She left him, breezing back through his door, and leaving his heart in his throat. As the latch caught, the Sky Painter of Pigment Street picked up a brush.
He painted for three days, not leaving his house, not eating, or sleeping. He painted the sky as he never had before, with all his heart, with all his soul. He painted with the Earl’s clockwork army flitting in his mind, and pushed it aside with the thought of storm gray eyes and wishes of flowers in a place of mechanical things. He painted until the sky was full and then he sat back in his chair and smiled.
On that day, flowers rained down on Clockwork Street.
Jennifer R. Fierro is a lover of speculative fiction and sometimes writes in Virginia. Other times she writes in South Dakota, where she also tries to convince college students that science is cool.