The Second Letter
“Do you know what this says?” Gray asked as he broke the seal.
Amie Avi shook her head. “I do not. Once he writes your name across the page, the letter is sealed to all eyes but yours, because of the par’salthaine. Not even he can see what it says.”
“He paid a lawmaker from Audofek?”
She blinked once. That, as small as it was, was the only sign she gave of potential surprise. “Yes.”
“Why send me letters at all?”
This question, so it seemed, she had planned in advance to answer. Her voice was smooth and there was even the suggestion of helpfulness as she replied, “Because he has seen that you will help him preserve the earth. You help to save it, which is his goal.”
Gray glanced at her.
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “It is true. You are able to do something that no one else can do, and he is convinced that when the time comes, you will help him. This means that he sees himself as your benefactor.” When he said nothing, just looked at her, she repeated, “That is how he sees it.”
“He is fortunate to possess your good favor.” Gray was polite.
To that she said nothing.
As he slid the letter from the envelope, Gray recognized the same elegant penmanship as before. It was almost as if the seer were an artist. He frowned, annoyed at the thought, and began to read.
On the night you read this, Tallus Rayme and two of his three sons will be assassinated by a thiever named Welk. Quite by accident, Welk has learned about Remembrance and he, in a desire to prove himself to his employer, will come for Intelligence in two weeks’ time.
Intelligence is now the heir to the throne of Rak-Min. It would be good if you kept him alive.
He read the letter three times.
Amie Avi began speaking again, but Gray heard her words from a distance, like a thought that didn’t fully form. He looked back at the door, where Tell hid in the hallway, and several things went through Gray’s head at once.
Intelligence Rayme. He was the son of Tallus Rayme—the illegitimate son, granted, but one who would be formally recognized if Tallus but spent a few minutes in his presence. That was the kind of man Tallus was: one who knew the worth of those around him, and he would surely recognize the excellence contained within his feeler son.
Tallus had, after all, recognized Remembrance’s worth. She had been just a slave in the palace, and a feeler at that, but Tallus had fallen madly in love with her, and secret letters had passed between them—between a slave woman and the most powerful man in the province.
Tallus was the king’s cousin, just as Tell was. Gray knew what the king would say, if he were here. He knew what the king would want—what Gray had vowed to do and what a lawmaker compelled him to do through ink and parchment when Gray had given his service to the king of King’s Barrow.
He dropped the letter.
Amie Avi called out to him, but he did not stop to listen to her. He didn’t want anything to do with her master and, therefore, further conversation with her in this moment would be of no benefit.
The seer revealed himself with this letter. It was like Gray could see him clearly; the seer was a man who had little regard for the lives around him and was instead focused only on his own wants, on what he desired to see happen. He had obviously perceived Tallus’s assassination long before it occurred, yet he wrote now? He had waited to speak of it? Why? Gray could sense the man’s arrogance until it became like something he could taste. He could see it even in the letter itself—the way the seer insisted on beauty and perfection, even though the recipient of the letter didn’t want it in the first place.
Gray turned and strode through the open doorway.
Out in the hall, Tell was sitting on a bench, his back bent, his shoulders curled forward as if he could feel point by point exactly what the seer’s letter said and knew everything it implied. If anyone else came upon him right now, the stranger would think he was in physical pain. When Tell saw Gray, he leapt to his feet, alarm in his eyes.
Gray didn’t say a word. He just grabbed Tell’s arm and started pulling him toward the steps at the end of the hall. Down the stairs. Through the main room. They passed beneath gold and silver work on the ceiling, extravagant images of the gods, embroidered silk tapestries, and elegance meant for kings and queens. Out the door, into the night.
Once on the street, Gray finally spoke. “We need to hurry.”
Tell fell into step beside him and they ran together, side by side, beneath a moon that watched anxiously from a clear sky. Street lamps slid past them. Coaches. The laughter of people visiting with one another late at night. With Tell trying to keep up beside him, Gray could not sprint as he wished to.
They ran through the city until they reached the public garden, the one built around Green Spring, the city’s water supply. There Gray grabbed Tell’s arm a second time and they halted.
The garden was mostly quiet at this hour. Lovers walked arm and arm down the winding paths. To the east, a small building sat near the hole in the earth where the spring bubbled up. Despite the hour, the windows glowed with warm, welcoming light. It was a tiny shop that sold drink and food items and small trinkets that travelers might buy.
“What’s happening?” Tell asked in a harsh, fear-filled whisper as Gray let go of him next to a bench a few paces away from the shop. The light was weaker here.
“Someone is going to die,” Gray replied, “unless I can stop it. Listen well, Tell. I need to leave you here for a little while.”
Ducking down, Gray dug out the water link that was carefully tucked away in a compartment on his boot. It was a single metal loop only slightly larger than a man’s ring. An expensive little piece, for something that looked fairly innocent. He snapped it in two and tossed the pieces down into the spring, where they landed without a splash. Such a small thing he had just done—such a hidden impact.
“Listen,” Gray said again, turning to face the boy. “An associate of mine will be here in less than half an hour. You’ll know him because he’s a feeler. He will ask you a question, and no matter what that question is, you will reply, ‘The water is clear tonight.’ Do you understand? You must say those words.”
Tell nodded hurriedly.
“Tell me the phrase. Repeat it to me.”
“The water is clear tonight.”
“Good—don’t forget to say it. And remember, it must be the first thing you say. My associate will stay with you until I return.” If there were time, Gray would tell the boy how much he would like this man, how the two of them would have an appreciation for each other. But for the moment, the words could not be said.
“Where are you going?” Tell asked.
“To a different province.” That was all Gray could say, the only answer he could give. This had become the king’s business.
Tell sucked in a breath. He appeared to freeze up and then quietly asked, “To Rak-Min?”
Gray’s gaze snapped to him, a question immediately on his lips, but he forced it away. “I’ll be back soon.” He pulled a knife from his belt and set it in Tell’s hand. As he felt the boy’s fingers tighten around it, Gray said, “Put it away. Don’t let anyone see it until it’s necessary.”
The boy moved to follow Gray’s directions.
Gray told him, “Be safe.” He nearly shivered at that quiet command. Be safe. Two words that seemed to hold the moon tonight.
Squeezing the boy’s shoulder, Gray jogged backward out of the light and there he shifted, joining the shadows in their invisibility. As one of the people inside the shop began to laugh—the sound lighthearted and frighteningly oblivious—Gray dove off the edge of the bank and into the frothing welcome of the spring.
Though only a few feet deep here at its head, the water closed in around him, comforting, checking in on him, but he ignored its request for play. Springs were always the same; again and again they desired merriment. Turning toward the manmade waterway that directed the current deeper into the city, he—finally—was able to apply himself and sprint in a way he could not do with Tell, or any other lander.
The water accepted him, recognizing him as its own. His anatomy knew the water and the water knew his anatomy. He followed its path but with a speed the water itself did not possess, passing around wells, down spillways, through pools, gaining speed as he traveled.
The grate that marked the spring’s exit from the city was plastered with old papers, sticks and brush, and other pieces of rubbish. No one cared what happened to the water after it left the city. Gray slid through the grate with his teeth clenched and then increased his pace.
TWENTY-THREE MILES west of Declan, the spring joined with Foris River. Here the smell and taste of the water changed, growing colder, more formal. This was the river of kings. A branch of this river connected with King’s River, the royal flow out of King’s Barrow. The earth itself respected the authority of the House of Rayme, and this, where Green Spring met Foris, was a juncture where Gray could sense that respect clearly. Shel Galen, if he were here, would have all sorts of names and explanations and interesting things to say about water and kings. Gray knew only some of these stories.
Gray ran for three hours, passing through towns, cities, and a host of bridges. A handful of times, he came upon those who lived or worked in the river, blood of his blood. They made room for him and his flight. He felt their eyes. But no one tried to stop him.
Long before daybreak, he reached Therbak, the capital city of Rak-Min. The moon still gleamed in its westward trek. The sky still boasted of all its stars, and a false sense of peace clung to the city.
Therbak was the largest city in the province. Gray had been here several times, the last being when he had discovered Remembrance and her affair with Tell’s father. Tonight he had returned for them—this time to protect the heart of their son, to save the boy’s remaining parent who, hopefully, was still alive.
Sliding through the city on paths known only to the e’nethaine, Gray reached the palace’s Athos Well, the deepest point of the building, and began to claw his way up its throat. The well’s stones were smooth and slippery, but they clearly had not been constructed with the e’nethaine in mind because Gray was in the palace less than two minutes after his fierce climb began. Once in the building proper, he ran—throwing water in his wake that would show anyone with even a child’s intelligence exactly where he had started and where he had gone. But tonight there wasn’t time for him to worry about such things.
He wanted Tallus to live. In this moment, Gray didn’t think of the king. The whole of his thoughts centered on a boy sitting on a bench and waiting for him back in Ser-Hina, a boy who had lost everything and could, this very night, lose everything again, without even knowing it existed.
Live, Gray ordered in silence.
For Tell’s sake.
– 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.