A Ghostly Story
This was why Gray didn’t like the prophetic.
According to the seer’s missive, soldiers were coming to arrest Braidek—likely because of this business with the town administrator; that seemed a logical conclusion. But they would not arrive until after Braidek tried to kill Gray.
And therein lay the prophetic “snarl.”
The implication was that if Gray stayed right where he was and watched from a distance, nothing would happen. Perhaps the soldiers would never come. But if he let Braidek try to kill him, the soldiers would likely arrive in the next few minutes, and this whole matter could be settled with enough time for Gray to get a few hours of sleep tonight.
So what would he do? Would he choose the sand spiders and sleep, or would he choose no sand spiders and no sleep? Gray blew out his breath in a sigh, thinking of the prophets and seers he avoided and the ones he hadn’t been able to avoid, through no fault of his own. Prophecies caused questions he didn’t need. The king paid him to take questions and find answers, and he didn’t need a prophecy to make his job more difficult.
Pulling back from the porch, he reached his hands high above his head and stretched, fingers extended, until he felt his shoulder pop. On the way back down he shifted, adding his shadow to that of the house. He took a deep breath and then walked out into the moonlight in full view of the two men on the rear porch.
All conversation halted.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Gray said in as pleasant a voice as he could manage. It wasn’t entirely pleasant because he was still thinking of a seer he didn’t like. “I apologize for the interruption, but I have received word from a seer that one of you is going to try to kill me.” He held up his hand in a calming gesture. “Please don’t be alarmed. I will let you decide which one; however, I would appreciate it if you could make this decision quickly, as I have a long day tomorrow and would like to return to bed.”
The two men stared at him.
“No?” Gray said, looking back and forth between them. “I was hoping that would be enough.” With a shrug, he added, “You see, I knew a man in King’s Barrow who was famous for his temper. He once beat a servant who didn’t make his tea properly—his tea. How ridiculous. And on another occasion, he killed a man who interrupted him in the middle of a speech. So you can see why I expected an interruption to win me an immediate interview. Truly, it is unfortunate that I don’t have any tea things at hand. If only I had come better prepared.”
The man who wasn’t Braidek shifted in his chair.
Interesting, Gray thought.
“This same man,” he continued, “delighted in alchemists and their…unique abilities. Just killing a man is not always enough, you know. Sometimes it’s good to teach a lesson on the deathbed, to show someone the wrong he’s done to you. Alchemists are quite good with such things, and this man took full advantage of their gift. Of course, he had a tendency to kill his alchemists, too, so after a while it was difficult for him to find new ones. He deeply regretted that he himself had not been born an alchemist. After all, what good is a thiever in King’s Barrow?”
In the moonlight Braidek glanced at the man next to him. That man, the one who wasn’t Braidek, turned slowly and set his mug of ale on the floor next to his chair.
Gray nodded. “Thievers can make a good living in Dasken. There’s a place for them here, but in King’s Barrow?” He laughed derisively. “A talented thiever—indeed, a man of great skill—is considered nothing more than a child in King’s Barrow. A little thieving child who should be locked away at the first indiscretion. Even alchemists are held in higher esteem.”
Braidek leaned forward. In a tight voice he said, “I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but you should leave. Now.”
“You don’t know what I am trying to do? I apologize. I thought I was clear—I need one of you to try to kill me, so I can go back to bed.” Gray shook his head. “All this because of a seer. What nonsense. I know that seers are often held in high esteem, employed by kings and other people of power, but what good are they? Trying to influence other people’s lives.” He grunted. “But at least they aren’t thievers. There is one good point in the midst of everything else.”
That almost bought him the response he was after. Still leaning forward, Braidek twitched and beside him the other man growled. Gray glanced at the second man, trying to place him. Was this the older brother? Braidek’s file had listed two siblings: two brothers. It couldn’t be the younger brother because he was currently sitting in the king’s prison after trying to murder an official in King’s Bay. If this man was Braidek’s older brother, it explained why Braidek deferred to him. And why Gray’s words provoked him. They came from a family of thievers—men and women who had long felt King’s Barrow’s prejudice against their gift.
The older brother was called Chairn.
“The two of you show a remarkable amount of resilience,” Gray said. “It’s quite impressive, actually. As I said, I was hoping that—”
Chairn lifted his hand, the movement casual, but as he turned his hand over so his palm faced the stars, the moonlight gleamed across the hairy body of a sand spider that had not been there a moment earlier. He had crafted it to look like an older male. The younger ones were pale and golden like sand, but they blackened with age, making the telltale wheel on their backs appear nearly scarlet. The flesh along the creature’s head and the bulbous, hair-covered body reflected the pale light as if the spider were real—exactly as if it were real—and the pinchers the width of Gray’s thumb flexed together. He could almost imagine he heard the click, and he realized that Chairn was truly talented. His brother Braidek wanted to be an alchemist, but Chairn knew how to use his gift. The creature was large enough to cover the man’s entire palm and wrap its thick legs around the back of his hand. It shifted, moving in the moonlight, and looked so realistic that Gray had to fight off a shiver.
Sand spiders were, of course, one of the deadliest creatures on the continent. Before stopping your heart, their venom caused hallucinations—much like those painted by a thiever.
Finally, Gray thought, even as he tried not to look at the thiever’s little imaginary pet. He knew the spider wasn’t real, but that didn’t matter. The eyes were liars, very loud liars, and his imagination betrayed him. That was the true strength of the thiever gift—it stepped around human logic and reason and ran directly into the imagination.
“Leave,” Braidek commanded.
“No,” Gray replied. “You escaped me outside of Brannack when I arrested Finniker Dreifen, and it will not happen a second time.”
With a roar Braidek sprang from his chair and jerked a knife from his belt. His brother leapt to his feet as well, and as he did, the porch flooded with sand spiders; it flooded the way a river overflowed its banks. Huge black spiders swarmed across the wood. Gray’s mind instantly began to tell him what it would be like to be accosted by this many spiders, all at the same time, and he took a step back before he could stop himself.
He saw Braidek pull back his arm, knife held high. He saw the steadiness of the man’s hand, the look in his eyes. The blade left Braidek’s hand as if he were an archer.
A step or two behind his brother’s attack, Chairn leapt the railing and came at Gray with a knife of his own.
Gray waited for Braidek’s knife to reach him. He watched its hurtling approach and then turned slightly to watch its departure, spinning off toward the trees.
Chairn stumbled on the last step before reaching Gray. His eyes jumped wide and his mouth was still open, but the snarls emitting from him melted into something entirely different. He collided with Gray, or would have collided with Gray, and sprawled headlong in the grass because he couldn’t find his footing. The swarm of spiders disappeared as he fell. They vanished like a dismissed thought.
Over the next few moments, the night grew eerily quiet.
Gray looked at Chairn, who didn’t rise from the ground. The thiever had one hand under him, his other arm raised to protect his face. Turning, Gray looked to Braidek, who stood frozen—his arm still stretched out, hand still open—on the porch.
Both men gaped at him.
Gray slowly completed his shift. His visible form disappeared; his shadow on the grass vanished, and his assailants suddenly didn’t know where to look. Much later it occurred to him that he could have said something brilliant. He could have played with their heads. But at the time he didn’t think of it because his intention was simple: He just wanted to be done.
And that was what he did. He walked away, leaving the thievers sputtering and cursing and trying to figure out what had happened.
It was a ghost story. One of many told throughout Dasken.
He passed the Black River patrol on his way off the property and doubled back to briefly observe the brothers’ arrest.
THE NEXT MORNING when Gray awoke, the room was brighter than he expected, and Tell sat at the small table by the window, a cup of tea in his hand and a half-eaten breakfast roll lying on the plate. He was reading a book, but when he heard Gray begin to stir, he glanced over at him, both brows raised.
“So,” the boy said, setting his book aside. “How did it go?”
“What do you mean?”
Tell pointed at Gray’s boots lying in opposing directions on the floor. “You have mud on your boots. It wasn’t there yesterday.”
Gray sat up and peered over the edge of the bed. Sure enough, the sole of his left boot was slightly dirty, but just the left one, and Gray looked at Tell with a frown. “What did you do—examine my boots with a lens?”
Tell grinned. “I didn’t need a lens. This business with Koss—did you complete it? Is it done?” He paused. “Did he try to kill you?”
An odd kind of shadow went through the boy’s expression. He didn’t seem fully comfortable with this conversation, but still he asked, “What happened?”
Gray shrugged. “He missed.”
– H –
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Copyright notice: © 2018 by Lauren Stinton. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.