Gray had been in the fortress of Fao only once before tonight. Yes, the purpose of that visit had been the king’s business, but he had walked through the front gate like a lander, letting everyone see him. He had asked questions of a soldier and then departed. Collecting information in public seemed much less an offense than collecting it in private.
At this hour, the fortress’s guest hall was practically silent. The stone walls were covered with expensive tapestries, and a network of silver lanterns hung from the ceiling. The elegance was here, just as it was at the inn in Green Spring, which Tell had declared too expensive for him. However, the elegance here in Ra-Faal was heavier and a little colder, partly because this was a fortress and partly because the prince was a seer.
The air in the hall smelled strongly of the sea, which meant that at least one of the servants stationed here was e’nethaine. Gray suspected it was more like two or three because the scent was strong. If his situation were different and he claimed Dasken as his homeland, he would choose Ra-Faal as well. But he would choose a city closer to the sea.
Gray accompanied Tell as servants escorted the boy to a room with white walls and white furs on the floor—there was very little color to the place, but it offered greater warmth than the hall just outside the door. Tell looked around with a scowl.
“I will be in the next room,” Gray told him.
Tell snorted. “Not the entire night, I imagine.”
“I would like to remind you that your current situation is not my fault.”
Tell waved him away. “I know, I know. Just go and let me get some sleep. Unfortunately, I think it likely that I will dream of her tonight, and I’m not the one in love with her.”
With a wide grin, Gray jogged from the room. He glanced into the next room to make certain it was indeed meant for him and then ducked into a small passageway running from the guest hall to what he suspected was the kitchen. There he shifted in privacy, fading from the view of all eyes but those that belonged to the sea. He couldn’t do much about those.
Stepping back into the main hallway, he frowned at the line of heavy, ornate doors standing silently to the left and right of him. He had eight rooms he would have to check to find her. But she was here, close by for the first time in days.
The first four rooms he checked were empty.
The fifth was not.
SHE WAS STILL AWAKE.
Gray slid beneath the open door, and as the soles of his boots touched the stone floor, she lifted her head off her knees. She wasn’t lying down in the bed but sat curled up against the elaborate headboard. The moment he saw her, he felt like laughing. What was she doing, sitting up in this manner? Was she waiting for him?
“Gray?” she whispered into the shadows.
His lips bent in a smile he couldn’t have stopped even if he’d tried. He shifted, taking visible form as he walked toward the bed. She sucked in her breath and quickly crawled from the pillows, sliding off the bed.
As if she were a woman from the continent, she wore a nightdress and robe, both of which were long enough to brush the floor. They seemed like strangely foreign things to be hanging off her shoulders—clothing that didn’t suit her. Did she still have trouble sleeping, so far from the sea?
Nari didn’t hesitate as she came to join him. In the pale light of the small lamp that burned between the windows, she didn’t look offended that Gray had appeared in her chamber in the middle of the night, nor did she play with him and make him try to guess what she was thinking. He could see exactly what she was thinking. It was as if the words were written across her face.
She stretched out her hands to him, and Gray didn’t hesitate either. He had no hesitations concerning this woman, and even if his mind somehow wanted to argue against this match, he didn’t think his gift would allow it. As he finally—finally—wrapped his arms around her, it was like everything within him, including his gift, sighed in relief.
This was an interesting predicament. He was sworn to the throne of King’s Barrow. For a time that was greater than that of her parents and their parents before them, Gray had served that throne, and his gift had been content. But now he felt the flicker of wonder. What would it be like ten years from now, when he still worked for the king but his gift was happy with a different target—the woman now in his arms? He had never needed to ask that question before and, in truth, didn’t know what to do with it now. Would he be torn between the two? Would the tension bother him? Would he care? He pushed the thought away.
Drawing her with him over to the couch, he sat with her on his lap, his arms around her.
“Tell me everything,” he said.
“No,” she replied and kissed him, her hands on his face.
A GOOD DEAL OF TIME LATER, she answered his request.
“The prince of Ra-Faal is polite and distant, the way I would expect a seer from the continent to be. He has been kind to me, though surely his gift has told him how much I do not care for his fortress, buried here in the heart of the city. I spend most of my time in his gardens, where the air is wet like it is on the islands and the servants have hung dozens of salt lamps, which tell me about the sea. Have you seen his gardens, Gray? You would delight in them.” Her voice grew more animated. “They are built in what seems to be large wells. I can hear rushing water no matter where I am, and there are multiple waterfalls. You would appreciate them in every respect.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “The servants hung more salt lamps when they realized how much I liked them.”
A corner of Gray’s mouth pulled up as he remembered how the guards at the gate had reacted when he’d mentioned Shel Galen’s name. “Any friend of Lukas Fao’s is considered highly esteemed here in the city.” He kissed the top of her head. “When did Shel leave?”
“Five days ago.”
So—the day before Gray had received the seer’s letter. Gray released his breath in a sigh, wondering what Shel had found when he’d reached the palace in Rak-Min. Chaos. Mourning. Tallus Rayme was well respected throughout Dasken; the entire country would feel his loss, though the news had yet to spread.
“He and I had just sat down to a private supper in the gardens,” Nari said, beginning the story. “And Shel dropped his spoon. It clattered on the table and then slid off to fall against the stones. His face lost its color and I grew alarmed—for I had never seen such a look with him. He stood up and said he had to leave, but not to worry, for he thought it likely that you would return in the next few days.” She set her hand on Gray’s chest. “And so you have. The prince has treated me well in Shel’s absence. Thankfully he does not often invite me to eat at his table with him and his other guests. There are too many rules at a prince’s table, and everyone stares at me because I do otherwise. I follow other rules.”
“They stare because you are beautiful.”
Her head lifted and she met his gaze. The lamplight filled her cocoa-colored eyes. “Do you know why Shel had to leave so swiftly?”
Taking a deep breath, he began to tell her what he could about the seer, everything that was not directly associated with the king. He told her about their journey and described what it was like to be in Theraine again—how the air smelled like the sea no matter where you were or what you were doing. She would like it there, for it would remind her of home.
She fell asleep around five in the morning, her head on his shoulder. The first lights of day were beginning to spill through the room, and as Gray held her and listened to her breathe, he knew that his gift had never been this delighted with his work for the king. Not even once.
TWO DAYS LATER, Gray, Nari, and Tell were examining an old book in Lukas’s library when Shel unexpectedly stepped around a bookcase and dropped into the empty chair next to Nari. He had obviously just returned; his clothing was rumpled, and there was a piece of grass or hay stuck to the shoulder of his tunic. Nari leaned over and brushed the grass away.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said and then leaned against the table and rested his head against a copy of History of Earth and Soil, a book he himself had written about five hundred years earlier. With his head still down, he sighed and said, “Gray.”
Shel waited a moment before looking up. “The seer’s name is Gannon Dre. He is certainly a seer, yes, but a type of seer that is uncommon. Something unexpected. The ancient name for his specific gift is telest, which means ‘one who works with light’ or ‘one who uses light.’ He is, unfortunately, something like a prophet.”
Gray felt himself frown. “A prophet.”
“He is not a prophet, but he is like a prophet. He lacks a prophet’s heart, as you have seen. And my friend Lukas is correct.”
For the first time, Shel seemed to recognize that it was his book lying in front of him. He poked at it with one finger, frowning at the title or more likely the artist’s styling of that title. “Gannon Dre is insane. His mind is no longer whole, and it makes him unstable in more ways than I would expect. For instance, this whole business with you. He seems to have collected you as a friend.” Shel paused. “He’s written you another letter, if you’re interested.”
Gray had to work to keep his mouth shut. It would not be wise of him to say the word that came immediately to mind.
Shel watched him. “I know,” he said quietly. “But this time, it is a short letter. A single word, in fact, and I found I was not offended by that word.”
Gray didn’t wish to know. He shook his head, thus ending a conversation about a letter he didn’t wish, and yet that letter would surely be delivered to him anyway. “You and the prince have discussed Gannon Dre?”
“Yes. I know many things about him, but unfortunately, I didn’t realize the extent of his bizarre interest in you until after you’d left.”
“Don’t call him bizarre, Shel.”
“Why ever not? He is bizarre.”
Gray gave him a look. “Whenever you use that word, the situation doesn’t go well for me. There was that time in Riverstone when you said a man’s behavior was bizarre, and not two hours later, that man shot me.”
Shel grinned. “You lived. You were fine.”
“And then there was the time when you said a little girl was bizarre. A little girl carrying a book. And she turned out to be a thiever—who was actually a man—and he had a sword.”
Shel started laughing.
“A very large sword, and all I had was a knife.”
“My dear man, I have seen you respond to difficult situations numerous times, and I must say that the next time someone threatens you, I fully intend to sit back and just laugh.”
“Much as you’re doing now.”
“Exactly as I’m doing now.”
– 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.