Back when I was having drawing lessons, I asked my art teacher, Mr. Lukian, about the effect of the Arvintan portrait, which made the figures of Queen Olivia and Eugenia III seem so different from the evidence of history.
“It is artistic license,” he said, as if he were actually teaching me something new. This was in fact a ubiquitous and beloved phrase for him, and it seemed to be capable of answering virtually any question about art. Mr. Lukian seemed to see the interaction between a physical object and its painted image as a kind of transubstantiation, or some mystical union. For him, a painted representation and its referent are briefly one and the same thing in the moment of artistic production; the near-divine powers of the artist enable the object to become invested with something of the character it is afforded in a picture. ‘Artistic license’, for him, is a sort of ultimate creative ability: it can alter the world just by seeking to capture it.
“The artist is bringing out Eugenia III here,” he gushed, wafting his hand before the print as it lay on the table, but not daring to touch it. Perhaps he felt that artistic license extended to merely touching the print, and the whole concept of Eugenia III risked being altered forever by his fingerprints. “The original artist did her something of a disservice; do you recall the original?” He gestured to the print of Eugenia’s actual portrait, which was also on the table. “There is such reservation here. A person cannot be reserved in a place as magnificent as the Glass Palace. Awed, perhaps, but certainly not reserved. The whole idea is contrary to human nature! But in his copy, the new artist rebuilds her composure! Now, there are some who would accuse him of mere speculation; of narrowing down human nature to a set of predictable reactions. This is nonsense. Art may be all about producing the unexpected, but when it degrades itself to this level! Something must be done.”
“But what is so special about portraits within portraits?” I asked, already too exhausted to care much about the answer.
Mr. Lukian had a habit of pausing with his eyes closed before answering, as if to repress the impatient retort that had jumped into his throat at my ignorance, and he did so now. “Don’t you see?” he said when he had recovered. “The artistic world knows this. Your oldest sister certainly understands this; she and I discussed it at length yesterday, and she could comprehend it instantly! When a portrait is copied, the artist is himself representing the artistic license of another; not merely appropriating an imperfect worldly form. He takes it upon himself to capture the creation of another with a creation of his own. And when he includes this in his own representation of reality, he gives to us the full spectrum of his powers as an artist!”
It may come as little surprise to you to learn that Mr. Lukian is himself Arvintan, and therefore apparently bound to defend whatever strange Arvintan quirks I might notice in a painting. I have no idea whether Arvintan artists themselves actually believe this, and I didn’t argue, because it is hazardous to contradict eccentrics. Beside me, several of my classmates stifled laughs at his passionate tirade, and my friend, Adeline Tabloh, mischievously raised her eyebrows as though to question how I could not have known something so self-evident.
I should also point out that it had somehow taken me years to realise that the portrait I actually saw being painted that day in Arivintia was the same one I was analysing now, in my art lesson with Mr. Lukian. The still, pitifully timid Eugenia-Gwendolyn of my early childhood was so impossible to reconcile with the regal, ferocious girl in the picture that the notion never even occurred to me. It is a strange experience, like suddenly discovering a photograph that depicts an event you thought was a dream. I knew Arvintan artists could be terribly unrealistic, and I should have allowed for the distortions of memory, but it remained impossible. I had to search my mind for a while before I remembered that isolated moment in Arivintia Palace back when I was six, finding out all at once that what stood before me were real people rather than dolls.
In any case, like many Arvintans, Mr. Lukian likes Queen Eugenia III, and he typically went to great lengths to draw her into whatever conversation was currently in progress. Arvinta has a number of semi-legendary monarchs with cult-like followings, like the warrior brothers Timothy and Jonah. For many years, until I was at least ten years old, I was not even completely convinced that these people had actually existed, because in my imagination they were so interwoven with fictional stories about similarly idealistic heroes.
Eugenia III has always had a special appeal as a symbol of survival and rebirth. She ruled nearly four hundred years before the time I sat staring at the reproduction of her portrait in Cassandra’s sitting room, but for many people the start of her reign signalled a new age in the history of Islandia, and every nation within it.
Queen Eugenia III came to the throne in 1475, the year the Arvintan War ended. Her mother, Queen Olivia, had been ruling for over fifteen years when, as the history books tell me, her existing hysteria and fanatical nationalism reached a new extreme, and she developed a strange, impossible plan to conquer the whole of Islandia. At this time, Arvinta was still ruled by autocracy, and even the senior nobles whose support Olivia needed to remain in power were a disorganised group who seemed to lack any power of expression. Though technically insane at this point, Olivia was a genius of manipulation. Ever since the advent of the unified Arvintan monarchy in the twelfth century, kings and queens had needed to retain a psychological hold over their nobles, for the simple reason that Arvintan sovereigns had always ruled through cultivating a unique combination of fear and admiration. The crown passed swiftly and logically from parent to child, and often from sibling to sibling according to birth order, but the length of a monarch’s reign was far more dependent on their ability to maintain this balance. As venerated as they sometimes are, kings like Timothy and Jonah often suffered as a result of their warlike natures, unable to keep peace with their ambitious brothers or sisters, and it could be very dangerous to allow too much power to whoever stood next in line to the throne (this, in case you haven’t guessed, is the origin of the obsolete title that continues to be given to second-born royal children). Within the reign of a single Rowenian monarch in the thirteenth century, Arvinta could get through four or five. As the most remote of the islands, it has always had a defensive, secretive mentality. After several years on the throne with no interruption, therefore, it is scarcely surprising that Queen Olivia developed her delusional state of mind.
She had a hold over people that made opposition practically impossible, and her primary method of maintaining this control was to disallow anyone in the court’s circle to trust anyone else. When her nobles walked through the huge, dark stone corridors of Arivintia Palace, every face they encountered was suspicious, multi-faceted, enigmatic. The penalties for disobedience and disloyalty were harsh, and Olivia did not hesitate to make examples of the people she wanted gone. Until 1467, for example, the rocky outlying islands of Dierfon and Elania were presided over by separate Grand Dukes from the Grey and Havelin families, which were powerful and ancient, and had inhabited the islands for centuries before the new Arvintan monarchy had come into being. As Olivia’s paranoia expanded, however, their titles and wealth were confiscated as a result of a general charge of ‘treason’. The two ruling Grand Dukes and their close family members were imprisoned, and the Grand Duchies were obliterated. A similar fate met the powerful Talrin family, whose hold over the eastern Rocana region had been maintained for centuries.
As a result, it had become very clear that Queen Olivia required power above all else, and was incapable of allowing any other person to possess it. Her own husband had nothing of his own. His name was Reginald Trevelyan, and he came from a small pool of noble Arvintan families out of which almost every Arvintan monarch had hitherto chosen their spouse. He and their children were rather like ornaments, or a sort of miniature model army. The eldest child, Princess Eugenia, had a powerful mind but no voice. The Arvintan practice of sending the royal children away at the age of seven to the Lyceum in Arivintia to be educated was still in force, and Eugenia and her younger siblings largely remained out of both sight and mind during their mother’s reign. Unsurprisingly, an Arvintan royal child’s entry into the Lyceum has always been seen as an excellent opportunity for a first formal portrait, and Princess Eugenia’s shows a stern-faced young girl with clasped hands that are unnaturally poised in midair, almost to the level of her shoulders. She faces her viewer head-on with a lazy sort of stare and perfectly symmetrical features. There are no cracks in her surface. She is the epitome of composure.
Nevertheless, all, of course, was not well. Even as Queen Olivia continued to regularly produce children (eleven in total) and have screaming rows with her elusive husband, her ambition grew. She became fixated on stories about former warrior monarchs. She felt that the particularly warlike nature of the Medieval Arvintan monarchy was a sign that the eventual take-over of Islandia by Arvinta was a fate destined by the Almighty. She became an expert on long-ago battles, and considered herself qualified to pinpoint where and why each one had gone wrong for Arvinta. It was around this time, the early 1470s, that Arvintan labourers were ordered to divert their attention from the harvest and begin to build an immense fleet of ships, virtually obliterating the forests of northern and western Arvinta. That year, 1473, many ordinary people in Arvinta starved to death or found themselves homeless, and none of the other islands were aware of what was happening. The only clue that my ancestors in Rowenia could have had, as they stared at Arvinta’s moon-like sillhouette from the same windows I looked through, would have been the subtly diminishing cover of trees on the island’s surface, as if Queen Olivia were gradually purging her kingdom of any extraneous detail that could interrupt its savagely smooth exterior.
The real mystery of Queen Olivia, and the reason why historians have always found her reign so interesting, centres on the almost total silence of her Arvintan contemporaries. Even as they starved and froze, her subjects and their neighbours failed to utter a word in protest. Her most senior nobles continued to grovel at her feet even as she confiscated their territories and birthrights with a single signature. Indeed, as if in character, Olivia’s signature consisted of the words ‘Olivia Regina’, with mere lines following the large ‘O’ and ‘R’. It was as if she considered her time too precious, or her arm too tired, for her to be able to write her own name in full.
Her children have always been cited as the key examples of this effect. When Crown Princess Eugenia entered the Lyceum at seven years old, it had been devoid of royal children for several years. The Lyceum was a sort of academy, apparently founded nearly a thousand years ago, and it has always been casually attached to the University of Arivintia. The children of the monarch (and, in many cases, their siblings’ children) were sent away from the palace in childhood to live amongst tutors and scholars from the university, in order to gain a sort of elite education that it was perceived they would need for their future roles running the kingdom or performing public duties. Despite its romantic portrayal in literature and art, the Lyceum seems to have had a rather abstract and unspecified role. From what I have heard, the royal children were given no organised educational system of their own, but were expected rather to bask in the general intellectual atmosphere of the university. Lessons were given according to the whims and patience of the children’s intellectual guardians. It was also customary for the sovereign to play no part in their children’s education, and to provide no interference into the mysterious, sacred world of scholarship. For years, as a result, Arvintan princes and princesses would see little of their parents or the royal court, and because the entirety of their education was meant to take place across just nine years, the system was intense and exhausting, consuming the whole of childhood. They would only re-emerge into public life at the age of sixteen, fully ‘educated’ and prepared to make their official debut.
The Lyceum went out of fashion around the beginning of the seventeenth century, when it began to be believed that royal children should be raised in the same environment in which they would spend the rest of their lives. The system did continue to exist, but children were educated within the walls of Arivintia Palace and were usually fully visible to the court and the public alike throughout their childhoods. When Princess Eugenia was growing up in the fifteenth century, however, the Lyceum was still operating in its traditional sense, and Queen Olivia seems to have relished the opportunity to pass her children into the hands of others. But the reason Queen Olivia’s children are such a source of curiosity is that each and every one of them seems to have emerged from this chaotic upbringing, in the midst of one of the most oppressive political systems in history, as virtual prodigies. When Princess Eugenia made her debut at her mother’s court, she spoke at least five languages, read Latin and Greek, was highly proficient in mathematics, literature, history, geography and philosophy, and was an extremely gifted artist and musician. As her younger siblings gradually left the Lyceum, each of them promised to be no less gifted than their sister, and each had their own particular gift. Princess Isabella, for example, was the author of a book on Latin grammar that is still used as a textbook in many Arvintan schools. Princess Olivia, the third daughter, composed some of Arvinta’s finest polyphonies, and her twin brother Eric composed for the lute and harpsichord. Prince Cyril was an accomplished poet, and in old age he continued to write poetry under pseudonyms.
Queen Olivia proudly showcased her children at every opportunity, claiming that their success was the product of Arvinta’s superior minds and the royal education system. She began to insist that her family showed signs of belonging to a superior royal caste, and that this in turn was evidence that the Arvintan royal family had been selected by a higher power as the rightful rulers of Islandia. As a result, she had a moral right, even a duty, to conquer the unenlightened lands beyond Arvinta and distribute them among her descendants, whose advanced wisdom would correct a world that she saw as morally damaged. With her modestly-sized army and newly-built, untested fleet of ships, therefore, she was certain that the Almighty would find favour with her and ensure success in all her endeavours.
The reality was not quite as marvellous as this. It subsequently emerged that, rather than relying on divinely-inspired abilities, the royal children’s intellects had benefitted from the tremendous effort of virtually the entire University of Arivintia. Far from the free intellectual environment it had always been, the university had been hijacked by Queen Olivia’s delusions. The academics and students alike had become slaves to the princes’ and princesses’ educations. For each child that entered the Lyceum, a specific talent was meticulously chosen, and the child would then relentlessly be drilled in that skill. The methods for this often bordered on the cruel: the children were forced to stay awake late into the night and were harshly punished for small mistakes. They were forbidden to interact with anyone beyond their circle of tutors and minders, and rarely even saw each other. The fact that all the work they went on to produce was their own is not so much an indictment of their own abilities (and they were certainly intelligent), but evidence of the true extent of the labour they were put through. As with so many other areas of Arvintan life at the time, the people involved seem to have declined to intervene or object in any way.
Queen Olivia had the element of surprise on her side when her army invaded the south coast of Matalie in 1474; an element that initially proved devastating. Much of southern Matalie is covered by a region known as Havilund, which is famed for its olive trees, beautiful beaches and rustic, picturesque houses. Contemporary accounts of the invasion by the region’s inhabitants convey nothing but pure terror. In the ostentatious style of fifteenth-century Arvinta, the ships built by the kingdom’s labourers were bigger beyond anything the rural peasants of Matalie could have dreamed of. They travelled in an eerie, deadly-straight formation, so in seconds witnesses would have gone from seeing nothing but the hazy line of the Arvintan coast to seeing dozens of enormous ships in a line, advancing rapidly towards them. In the confusion, it was a while before anyone thought to send for help, and by the time messengers reached the Grand Duchal court in the capital, Torquen, Olivia’s army had landed and had begun plundering the coastal villages. After no war for several centuries, Matalie had neither the resources nor the mentality to repel the attack, and within a couple of days the Arvintan army had claimed Havilund.