Light to See By
Gray sat on the edge of the dock and felt the water passing below his feet. It had become a dark, nearly invisible entity about half an hour earlier when the last of the moonlight had disappeared behind an approaching storm. There would be rain tonight. He could smell it on the breeze and could feel the river growing hopeful.
Footsteps sounded behind him. He didn’t bother to turn; he knew who had sought him out. Shel dropped down next to him, dangling his legs over the edge.
“You don’t need to tell me,” Gray said.
Shel sighed. “Which is why I haven’t.”
The air filled with quiet. The river murmured below them and Gray glanced up as the clouds flickered with lightning. He waited for as long as he could and then asked the question that hadn’t allowed him to sleep: “Is this what I have to expect now? Is this my future, Shel?”
The hour was late, nearly two o’clock in the morning. In all likelihood, the rest of their party was asleep back at the house, and rightly so, but here Gray sat because of a question, one that felt like iron shackles he couldn’t break, because he couldn’t actually see them. Few things in life were worse than a chain that could not be seen or predicted.
Shel sighed again. “At least for a time.”
Gray hissed between his teeth. “The man truly is insane. He attempts to be the savior and the villain in this story, and he cannot play both roles at once. They exist in contradiction, and he will be the villain in the end, no matter what he tries in the meantime.”
Shel expressed himself more calmly. “In his mind, I believe he sees himself only as the savior. Consider the story from his perspective. No doubt, he saw that Welk managed to evade you in Rak-Min, and so now the seer is giving you the opportunity to catch your prey. He is making certain you are able to do what you want to do by arranging the situation for you. You know—because he thinks he is your friend.”
“I am not his friend, Shel. His madness leads him down twisted paths.”
“Aye, that it does. More’s the pity.”
“He did not just warn me of the assassin, but he is also the ‘unexpected’ way in which the assassin learned of Tell in the first place. The seer made certain Welk would be a threat to us.”
“He did, though I don’t believe he would use the word threat.” Shel hesitated. “He wrote Welk a letter. I was aware of it at the time, but he worded it without names or many other details, so I did not realize what it meant until recently.”
For several minutes that felt much longer, they sat in water-tinged shadows. The wind increased and carried the distant roll of thunder.
“But,” Shel said at last, “I will say this. As strange and grievous as these circumstances may be, it is rather convenient to know where and when our enemy will appear instead of trying to speculate.”
“The seer thinks he’s helping us.” Gray grimaced.
“No,” Shel corrected. “The seer thinks he’s helping you. There is a difference.”
THE ASSASSIN NAMED WELK stepped onto Delmin Street right at five o’clock in the evening, exactly when he was expected. He appeared as a slightly stocky, unassuming man with a boyish face. Someone very innocent looking. Gray released his breath in an annoyed sigh. The man was a thiever, so anything was possible.
His arms folded, his face set in a scowl, Gray stood on the wooden walkway outside the house and thought about the number of interesting ways he could stop this man. He let his imagination tell him all manner of things until, beside him, Shel cleared his throat and commanded quietly, “Stop that.”
“You can’t see me. You have no idea what I’m doing.”
Sitting in the chair where the fisherman-guard had sat yesterday, Shel pretended a great interest in the large book spread out on his lap. He didn’t seem to notice when the assassin focused on him from the other side of the street. He didn’t even look up when Welk stopped right in front of him.
“Forgive me,” the assassin said, as polite as could be. “I couldn’t help but notice the book you’re reading. The History of Earth and Soil is a favorite of mine.”
Gray rolled his eyes. I’m sure.
The man kept talking. “I enjoy how Shel Galen writes about the gods.” He shrugged. “As a sage, he obviously has wisdom about such things and can look into them more than the average man, so I find this book beneficial.”
Gray blinked. Oh. Perhaps Welk had actually read the book.
Shel lifted his head at last, shielding his eyes from the fading rays of early evening. He met Welk’s gaze and, after a moment, smiled broadly. Gray could see how the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, but he doubted such a thing would be visible to Welk. Gray had spent more than three lifetimes with Shel as a lander would count them; this allowed him certain privileges.
“I am always pleased to meet a fellow lover of books,” Shel replied, and Gray could perceive no hesitation or discomfort on his part at all. The sage tapped the open page before him. “This is the second time I’ve read this book.”
Gray nearly snorted.
Shel frowned up at the assassin. “That is what you remember the most about this book—what the author wrote about the gods?”
Welk nodded. “I found it fascinating, especially what he said about the Fallen Ones, the gods that were separated from the continent.”
Here it is, Gray thought. The reason Welk was so comfortable with death.
Shel and Welk fell into a seemingly easy conversation that seemed to mock the circumstances. One of these men had come to kill a boy in the other’s care. The other man was fully aware of this and yet managed to keep his peace much better than Gray did.
This was not the first time Gray had been involved in a ploy. Something that was not what it seemed. However, it was the first time that ploy involved two people he cared for at a depth that still caught him off guard. Nari and Tell. He had heard Shel’s plan and agreed to it—he still agreed to it—but he hadn’t realized how much he would hate it in the moment. It didn’t matter that Victor was the most skilled, most dedicated person Gray employed, nor did it matter that Eban Salmas would be able to stop Welk himself, simply because he had the advantage of being e’nethaine. Gray bore tension like blood in his body.
A few weeks ago, Tell had claimed Gray was fearless.
Well, now the boy knew that wasn’t exactly the case.
After a few minutes of conversation, Shel invited Welk to have supper with them and Welk, of course, readily agreed. So Shel opened the door and let him into the house. As the door shut behind them, Gray slid through the rapidly closing space and took up position against the wall.
The house Shel had rented mirrored its brothers and sisters on both sides of the street. Gray had done a quick—and private—inspection yesterday, and every house on this street had one main room with a bedroom, sometimes two, in the back and a kitchen along the northern wall. The kitchen sat against the house almost like an external hallway. The position of its door didn’t allow anyone in the main room to see into the kitchen itself, so that was where Lukas and Tell had taken up residence. Nari was back there as well because of a strange but noticeably “sage” reason. As this was the assassin’s last meal as a free man, Shel had asked her to cook a popular dish from the islands. Something Welk would not soon forget.
Gray scowled. Wisdom, at times, was truly beyond understanding.
In their shifted forms, Victor stood next to the kitchen door and Salmas sat on the floor in the corner, his drawing supplies on his lap.
With his book tucked under his arm, Shel walked across the room and stuck his head into the kitchen. “I’m back, my dear, and I’ve brought one more for supper. How soon until it is ready?”
“Three minutes,” Gray heard Nari reply. “Go sit down. I can take care of everything.”
“Are you certain you don’t need any assistance?”
Gray could just imagine the look Shel received in response to that question.
“Please go,” Nari said.
With a grin, Shel returned to the table, and he and Welk sat down across from each other.
“This book,” Shel said, setting the volume between them on the table. “It was written several years ago, you know, and two things in particular stand out to me about the Fallen Ones.”
Welk smiled. “Please share with me.”
“Oh, I intend to. The first is that they are not gods at all. There are very few words in the king’s tongue that can be used to describe the deepest kind of darkness—darkness where there is no light at all. Because of this lack in the king’s tongue, we call them gods because of their temporary and fleeting signs of strength. It is clear they are not gifted people, but neither are they truly ‘gods.’ Nothing that has been created is a god. The true sign of a god is that which has not been created—it simply is. So the Fallen Ones cannot be held to the same measurement as the gods we worship here on the continent, because there is no comparison between them. There is no wisdom in darkness, because darkness has no light to see by. That is how darkness functions. And those who worship the Fallen Ones become like them.”
Welk had lost his smile. “And what is your second point?”
“That is my second point. It is unwise to seek wisdom from darkness because the only ‘wisdom’ it can offer you is darkness. No light. Nothing to see by. So whatever longs for darkness eventually becomes darkness, while those who long for light eventually become light. Indeed, they have so much light that the darkness cannot be found in them.”
“You have a…unique view of the world, my friend.”
“Do I?” Shel tapped the book that lay between them on the table. “This book says everything I just told you. You have read this book, and yet it is a wonder you did not seem to notice what the author said. The warnings he gave. Why is that, do you think?”
Welk stared at Shel a moment then seemed to relax. He shrugged and offered a faint smile. “Darkness doesn’t frighten me the way it frightens others. I have learned how to see in the dark, despite my circumstances.”
“Ah. How fortunate for you,” Shel murmured.
Welk nodded toward the book. “What do you think of the author’s comments about the North Territory?” His boyish face brightened. “Oh, and the treasure hidden in Dursen Head?”
There the conversation turned.
Welk listened attentively to Shel’s description of the northern coastline and asked questions like he intended to visit the area next week. Gray heard all about the history of Dursen Head, the prophecies concerning the “treasure” buried there, and what great minds had said about it through the years. Truly, the conversation was a reader’s dream.
He leaned against the wall and he waited.
– H –
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Copyright notice: © 2019 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.