It Began with a Dragon
Two days after departing the hot, wet lands of Theraine, Gray and Tell stopped for the night in a small town called Tharsat. It was named after a highwayman who, three hundred years earlier, had hidden in a cellar to escape the soldiers trying to arrest him. Though they searched for him for hours, the prince’s men never discovered the cellar’s hidden door, and after they’d given up in frustration, the jeweler who owned the cellar laughed and laughed and invited Tharsat to stay in his cellar for as long as he wished.
Proud of its dubious heritage, the town of Tharsat later erected a statue of the highwayman in the central square. Gray and Tell could see it from their table in the inn’s dining room.
Evening was upon them. The sky was trading out its last red hues for a handful of stars, yet the statue of Tharsat the highwayman gleamed beneath the light of lanterns that had been carefully positioned to reveal its glory. Benches surrounded it in a half circle.
“Why,” Tell asked, peering through the window, “is the highwayman holding a dragon?”
The seemingly limp body of a rock dragon hung from the statue’s right hand. The thin wings draped down like a cape to brush the statue’s boots.
Gray chuckled. “As the story goes, when Tharsat emerged from the cellar, he was attacked by a rock dragon. A young one. He’d lost his weapons while trying to escape the soldiers, so he grabbed it and broke its neck.”
“Like he would a chicken.”
“Yes, but with fire.”
Tell leaned forward and picked up his teacup, which a servant had refilled for him a few moments earlier. But he didn’t drink from it; he just cradled it in his hands and looked at Gray across the table. A moment passed in silence.
“I have made an observation.”
Gray hid a smile. “Have you?”
This was getting to be a common occurrence with Tell—the feeler would make observations. That was what he called them, but when he spoke, they would not be “observations” like others would make. They would be profound thoughts, something that existed in full accordance with his name. Intelligence. A boy who learned quickly and saw the world through the eyes of understanding. A difficult road had been thrust upon him, and what he “understood” to be true was not always accurate, but it was always insightful and he was learning.
Considering their recent excursion into Theraine, Gray expected an observation about that country—how different it was from the deserts of Dasken, how different the people were. Perhaps Tell would even comment on Theraine’s prophet.
He did not, however, expect Tell to choose a topic that, until this moment, the boy had never shown interest in.
“Shel Galen,” Tell said, staring into his teacup, “is a trusted source of information, isn’t he?”
Gray stared at the boy in surprise. Clearing his throat, he replied, “Yes. But how is this one of your observations?”
They had not seen Shel—or Nari, the young healer who journeyed with him—in several days. Business, if it could be called that, had forced Gray northwest into Theraine, and he had taken Tell with him, so the boy could learn what was true. Tell had been nursing a strange hostility toward the man whose name he had spoken with peace and calm just now.
Tell shrugged one shoulder. He wouldn’t meet Gray’s gaze, something Gray noted and it caused him to wonder.
After nearly a full minute of silence, the boy said, “It is growing more and more difficult for me to keep my opinion of Shel Galen.” His voice tightened. “Even though, in the same breath, I am convinced that—” He paused and released his breath in a sigh. “No, I am not. I am convinced of nothing.” The muscles moved in his throat as he swallowed hard. “Except that you seem to think well of me.”
The words were said with hesitance, as if the boy expected to be corrected. But when Gray did not correct him, Tell continued, “Every time you speak of Shel, I can feel how fond of him you are. My gift tells me exactly what you feel toward him, and…and it makes it very difficult for me to keep a negative opinion of a man for whom you feel such affection. I would have to think less of you, and I…I couldn’t do that.”
Gray waited, watching him across the table.
The boy set his teacup down without drinking from it. He met Gray’s gaze now, and there was a glimmer of light in his dark eyes. “But I will say that you do not like Shel nearly as much as you like Hamal, his grandson. Every time you mention Hamal’s name, it is like you are speaking of the dearly loved brother who taught you to ride a horse, or to swim, or to do something else that you have always needed to do, and you are so very, very pleased that he went out of his way to do this thing for you. Your delight is almost comical, in fact.” Tell’s lips twitched. “Your affection for Hamal is filled with laughter. That is the only way I know to describe it. And it makes me want to meet him, to see what sort of person causes you to be this joyful.”
Gray smiled widely. But before he could respond, a presence approached the table. He sensed it before his eyes perceived it and looked up to see the innkeeper walking toward them, navigating his ample bulk around empty chairs. The room wasn’t large, and it seemed even smaller now that their host had joined them.
“Pardon, sirs,” the innkeeper said, “but did you mention a healer named Hamal? A boy who is known for performing healings that other healers would, er, consider difficult?” He looked back and forth between Gray and Tell.
Now this was an interesting thing. Gray leaned back in his chair and studied their host. Sweat clung to the man’s brow. He had not shaved in two days, and an invisible but very present cloud of garlic accompanied him from the kitchen.
“Yes,” Gray said at last.
Relief spilled through the innkeeper’s eyes. “Good. This is good. Something was left here for you two weeks ago, with specific instructions that it be given to the first people who spoke of Hamal the healer.” The innkeeper turned and gestured emphatically with a thick hand to the servant who was poking his head out of the kitchen.
The young man pulled back into the kitchen, and the door swung shut behind him. It jerked open again a moment later, and the servant hurried forward with a thin bundle gripped tightly in both hands. He gave it to the innkeeper, who set it gingerly next to Gray’s plate on the table.
It was a bag made of plain but sturdy fabric, tied shut with a black cord. Some kind of green sauce had splattered the bottom half of the bag, suggesting the bag had spent the last two weeks in the kitchen on the counter.
Though he had heard the brief story perfectly well the first time, Gray still asked, “Someone left this here…for the guest who spoke of Hamal?”
The innkeeper nodded, jowls swaying. “Yes, and she was quite…stern about it. We were instructed to be very careful, very cautious, and to give it only to you.” The way he said the word stern suggested that it was not his first choice of descriptions. Frightening, perhaps, seemed a more likely contender.
“What name did she leave?” Gray asked.
“For such a worthy task, she surely must have paid you.”
“I—” The large man shut his mouth and shifted. “Er, twenty torrin, I think it was.”
Gray glanced across the table at Tell, who shook his head. That, clearly, was not the actual amount, but even twenty torrin could walk a long road here in Ser-Hina, this close to the Ar Pik border. A short time ago, Shel Galen had purchased Tell in Ar Pik for three torrin—a miserably small amount when a person’s life was involved. Yet the seller had not thought to ask for more.
“Describe her to me.”
The innkeeper shifted again, twisting his hands in folds of the splattered apron he wore across his girth. “Naught much to tell, sir. She was a little older than she first appeared, perhaps forty years old—”
Behind the innkeeper, the servant sucked in a startled breath.
“—and she wore her hair in a braid, and she was…quite beautiful.”
The servant was nodding in agreement even before the innkeeper had finished his thought. So the woman was very beautiful, then. Beautiful and terrifying.
The innkeeper gestured toward his chest, near the collar of his tunic. “There was a tattoo under her, ah, cloak. I could see part of it when she moved.”
“But not enough to see what the tattoo was.”
“Thank you.” Gray looked back to the bag. “Those are my questions. You may go if you wish.”
The innkeeper and his servant vanished into the kitchen as quickly as they could.
When they had gone, Tell slid around the table to sit in the chair next to Gray. He leaned forward and reported in a whisper, “She paid him much more than twenty torrin. His nervousness became outright fear when you asked him about the amount. And the servant? It was like this was the first woman he had ever seen; he thought her quite beautiful indeed, and yet he was afraid of her, too. I don’t think she threatened either of them, but there was something about her that made them cautious.”
Gray laughed, keeping his voice low. “And this is why it is beneficial to travel with a feeler. He will do all your hard work for you.”
The boy grinned, clearly pleased.
“Now, what do you think about this?” Gray nodded toward the bag.
Tell’s brows drew together as he frowned. “It’s about the size of a letter.”
“And it is concealed in cloth because…?”
Tell hesitated. “Because the sender knew it would be kept in the kitchen for two weeks? Obviously, she’s prophetic to some measure. A seer perhaps, though the innkeeper did not describe her as such, and it seems like he would have done so, if it were true. She knew I would speak about Hamal and that I would do so at this inn.”
Tell blinked. “It was delivered by a woman. You heard them.”
“It was certainly delivered by a woman.” Gray worked to keep the humor out of his eyes. “But that doesn’t mean she wrote it. Perhaps it was written by a man who employs a lovely servant. Or perhaps the writer of this letter is uncommonly ugly, and he compensates for the state of his face by having the letter delivered by a woman who is so beautiful that everyone will remember her.”
Tell laughed. “Very well. The writer of the letter is an ugly man.”
“Shall we open it and confirm our theory?”
As Gray cut the knotted cord with a knife he pulled from his boot, he said, “In all seriousness, I am not yet certain about the writer of this letter. However, I will say that I make a habit of avoiding prophets as often as I can—because of this very thing. Seers are more polite, while prophets always have something to say and, for whatever reason, don’t feel like they can say it in normal fashion. It must be delivered two weeks in advance and kept in the kitchen.”
“Or it’s written underwater, and the scroll will disintegrate if it’s brought out into the air,” Tell suggested.
“Or that,” Gray agreed and tilted the bag to discover that a letter did, indeed, wait inside.
The cream-colored envelope was larger than some, about the length of a book cover, and it was sealed with scarlet wax pressed with an unfamiliar emblem. An ornate eye, clearly crafted by an artist.
This is unexpected. Gray studied the eye for a moment before breathing a sigh. The Prophet of Theraine used no such emblem—and surely this would have been a much easier encounter, for everyone involved, if the writer of the letter turned out to be Hamal’s Uncle Kent. Gray didn’t feel comfortable around any prophet, but Kent would always be his first choice if a prophet insisted on being involved in something. Officially called the Prophet of Theraine, Uncle Kent did not seal or otherwise mark his missives with an eye. He would probably think it boastful.
But if this didn’t come from Kent, that left only one other possibility, and it did not seem likely either. The sea did not follow the traditions found on land. If they felt a need to seal something, they likely would not use common elements like red wax and parchment made from what grew from the soil. As Tell had just pointed out, the e’nethaine preferred to keep their writings underwater. So this could not be from the e’nethaine prophet Gray had recently met either.
“Do you have any idea of who wrote this?” Tell asked, leaning as close as he could from his chair. Peering over Gray’s arm, he studied the envelope as if he could read the words on the other side of the seal.
Gray gave the boy a sideways glance. Again, he worked to keep the humor from his expression and, as best he could, out of his emotions as well. “There is only one possibility that I can see.”
“Yes? And it is?”
“Clearly, this is the work of the Prophet of King’s Barrow.”
Tell’s head snapped up. His eyes narrowed as he obviously tried to read Gray’s emotions. “There is no prophet in King’s Barrow.”
“That,” Gray replied, sliding his knife through the red wax seal, “is not exactly true. But for our purposes here, you are correct. He could not have sent this.”
“There is a prophet in King’s Barrow?” the boy demanded. “Where? Who is it? How do you know this?”
“Tell, Tell,” Gray chided, shaking his head. “You’re getting distracted.”
“If I’m distracted, it’s your fault.”
“May I open the letter now?”
“Yes. Please do.”
Gray pulled open the envelope.
– 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.