The first time the scion of House Dragon painted the eyeless girl, he was only six years old. She was nothing but a face shaped with finger smears of brown, a darker crooked line that might've been a sad smile, and huge, swirling black holes where her eyes should be.
"I don't know how to save her," he said to his mother when he presented the art to her.
His mother accepted the soft parchment, doing her best to hide the horror she felt at the red-rimmed, furious eyeholes in her son's painting. Casually, she asked, "Why is she in danger?"
"I don't know."
"What happened to her eyes?"
"Nothing yet." The little boy shrugged.
Though the Dragon consort asked a few more delicate questions, he could give her no answers. But he drew the eyeless girl again and again, and told his nurse about her, and his aunt, and his father eventually. That was a mistake, because he was far too old for imaginary friends, his father growled. The consort promised her husband, the Dragon regent, it was only childish play, and their son would grow out of it.
Better an imaginary friend, she thought, than the truth she suspected deep in her heart: her son had been gifted with a boon, but it was a prophetic one, and prophecy always, always drove the wielder mad.
The people of Pyrlanum would never accept a regent with such a wild boon, and to shield her eldest son, the consort extracted a promise from him to stop talking about the girl, and certainly to stop painting her. He must never paint anything from a dream or vision. It was dangerous. The young scion agreed, thrilled to have such an illicit thing binding him with his mother.
And he kept his promise for two entire years, until his mother was murdered.
The day she died, the consort and the scion were pruning in their private garden. She injured herself on a few reckless roses, and when she gasped, the scion saw a flash of vision, in strokes of vivid paint: a fan of dark blue skirts against the harsh black-and- white checkered floor of his mother's solar, golden sunlight smeared in streaks, and a kiss of crimson splattered at her mouth and in her hair. A spilled cup near her hand, leaking sickly green.
It would have been a beautiful painting, had he been allowed to create it.
But the scion had learned his lesson well. His boon was a curse and he did not say or do anything.
Later, when his mother lay dead on the marble floor, the boy realized this was not a game, not a thrilling secret: it was a matter of life and death. Had he been braver, he might have saved his mother from the poison in that cup.
He wailed and clawed at his hair until his aunt, his mother's sister, gathered him up in her arms. "What happened, little dragon, who did this?"
The scion hugged her neck so tightly. "Don't tell anyone," he begged. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I couldn't save her, I didn't even try! I'm sorry! Please."
"Hush, hush, it's all right."
"I didn't save her," he whispered, sobbing. "I have to save her." "It's too late, little dragon," his aunt murmured.
"No," he said again and again. He threw himself away from his aunt and ran to his rooms. Found chalk and old cracked paint pots and ripped paper out of books in a tantrum. The scion drew and drew, scrawling images of that eyeless girl. He refused food, he refused his father and his baby brother, he refused everything but paint, and finally he locked the door, screaming to be left alone unless anybody was going to help.
When his aunt had the door kicked in, the scion's room was a disaster of paintings and spilled color. Wasted effort, childish, ugly pictures. Blurs and shapes that looked like nothing but impressions of landscapes or people, castles and gardens and ships and massive, ancient creatures the Houses called their empyreals. A figure of fire, broad winged and gorgeous. The eyeless girl. His aunt recognized the monsters, if not the girl. Dragon, gryphon, barghest, sphinx, cockatrice, kraken. And the First Phoenix.
But the scion tore the phoenix painting down the middle and threw a heavy book at his aunt. "Bring me a master, to show me how it's done," he cried. "I have to find her. It's soon."
"What is soon?" asked his aunt. She put her arm around him. "Who is she?"
"You'll see," the young scion said, pulling away.