What the Artist Revealed
When Tell stepped into the room, it was like the air changed.
If they were outside, Gray would have thought the wind changed or he might have started looking around for unexpected water, something he could feel. He stared at Tell and, for just a few seconds, allowed his gaze to focus on someone other than the assassin sitting across from Shel at the table.
Something was different about the boy.
Following Nari out of the kitchen, Tell balanced three very full platters in his arms. Gray could see the confidence in the set of his shoulders, the way the boy held his head. His face bore no fear. Gray did not like this situation and knew his emotions pumped like water into the air for any feeler to sense, but Tell—a feeler—wasn’t the one who was upset. Indeed, it looked like he might break into a smile at any moment.
Gray blinked and turned his attention to Nari. What did you say to him? I know you said something. Look at his face—you said something.
Welk politely leaned back from the table as Nari and Tell approached. His gaze instantly fastened on Nari and his eyes widened. He quite nearly gaped at her, and she, with a grace Gray certainly could not have produced himself in this moment, ignored him.
“Ah, thank you, my dear,” Shel said. He turned to his guest and spoke with an edge in his voice, as if to make certain he had the man’s attention. “Allow me to make introductions.”
Welk eventually looked over at him.
“This is Nari, my ward from the islands. I asked her to prepare one of my favorite meals. Indeed, this is the best meal I’ve had anywhere—and I am widely traveled. I have never found a mainlander who can make these dishes the same way a trueborn Islander can; it seems to take the knowledge and experience of the South Islands itself. She was born there.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Welk said, clear appreciation shining in his expression.
Gray appreciated that no one could see his expression in this moment.
“And this,” Shel said, motioning toward Tell, “is my other ward—but him you already know.”
Welk’s gaze had pinned itself to Nari again, but at Shel’s words, he managed to pull his attention away from her and turned to Shel with a frown. “Pardon?” He put on an amused smile. “How do I already know him?”
Shel nodded. “He is the only surviving son of Tallus Rayme and heir to the throne of Rak Min. That is why you’re here, isn’t it? Because you were hired to kill Tallus and his sons? Come, come. You can be honest with me.”
Welk blinked. Then blinked again. His smile seemed frozen on his lips.
“It is my understanding that you are attempting to impress your employer by coming all this way to kill Tallus’s last remaining child, a boy most of the country is unaware of. You are a man of uncommon determination. That much I’ll say.”
Welk didn’t speak or move, but his face slowly turned a miserable shade of green, and not even his talent as a thiever could conceal his discomfort.
After a few moments of silence, Shel continued, “Well, just so everything is as clear as possible to you, this is Tallus’s last son. But he will not suffer the same fate that befell the other members of his family.”
Shel pointed at Welk across the table. “Allow me to be clear about this as well. When I say this boy is my ward, I mean it. This means that if you make a single move against him tonight, it will be with the last breath you take, the last beat of your heart, and the final use of your gift.” Shel shrugged. “If this pleases you, then embrace the risk. But—again—we have an Islander in the house. This means we have at our disposal a healer who is one of the foremost authorities in poisons, so I’ll tell you now that your risk will not be worth it. Just let it go.”
As far as threats went, this one was fairly peaceful. But the colors on Welk’s face warped even more.
With a smooth movement that turned his point into a double-handed shrug, Shel said, “I just want to be certain you understand the table that has been set for you and that you willingly took your chair. At this table, I suggest that you do only what you pretended to do at the beginning—to love information. Sit with me and chat about books and life, and enjoy one of the best meals you will ever have. I trust all of this will be acceptable to you.” He paused. “You may answer me.”
Welk sat there stiffly. After a long moment, he nodded once.
“Good,” Shel replied.
And that was what the sage did. For the next two hours, he talked about books with a man who had committed the most heinous murders in the last three centuries.
Welk gradually appeared to lose his tension, as if he thought he might survive this sudden upheaval after all.
JUST AT THE TWO-HOUR MARK, the moment Gray awaited finally arrived.
Salmas the artist stood up off the floor and walked over to him.
“Sir,” he said, keeping his voice at a soft whisper so as not to disturb the conversation at the table. “I’ve completed my assignment.”
“Tell me,” Gray replied, his gaze on Welk. He didn’t bother to look at Salmas; it would do him no good. With the other man in a shifted state, Gray wouldn’t be able to see him clearly. Not even their full-blooded cousins could see one another in detail when they were shifted.
Sounding more like a soldier than an artist, Salmas gave his report. “Welk grew up in a large house in a dry, fairly barren portion of land. It is an arid countryside without much growth. I mention this because the house is still very much a part of his thoughts. I would guess he still works there. Three men at the house have greatly influenced him. Here are their portraits.”
Salmas held out three pieces of paper that grew clear and distinct as Gray took them. Frowning at Welk—and then at Shel for putting Gray through all of this—he looked down into three different faces, each man carefully and artfully done. Salmas might prefer glass, but his work in pencil was a true credit to his gift. He had even managed to capture a sense of what each man was like behind the eyes. It was as if these men were real and in the room or at least were people Salmas knew.
A lander artist would be able to produce something similar if he could maintain a firm grasp on his subject for an extended period of time. But Salmas wasn’t a full-blooded lander.
The first man was tall. Gray wasn’t sure how Salmas had managed to convey that detail, but it was there; the man was tall and thin and anxious about life. Worry lines clung between his brows, and his lips were parted as if he had just seen something terrible. Truly, the detail in the image was extraordinary. Though the completion of these images had taken two hours, this was worth all of Gray’s angst.
He frowned as he studied the image. The first man looked like Welk. Something about the eyes and mouth. His father? Perhaps Welk wasn’t using his gift as much as Gray assumed.
The second man had a round, thick face that seemed wet. Gray actually tipped the image downward to see if it really did glisten. A corpulent man sweating. Welk’s connection with this man Gray couldn’t tell, but he found it interesting that there was no warmth in the image. A heavy frown of disapproval was fixed in the man’s features. An interesting thing this said about Welk and his childhood influences—his father was scared and this man had no approval. This was how Welk thought of this individual at a core level; he was someone who held his approval beyond Welk’s grasp.
Gray adjusted the pages to look at the third man. Here, at last, was a smiling face. But Salmas had managed to capture the cunning in the man’s eyes. Gray knew instantly that this was not a relationship that allowed Welk freedom; this man wanted something from him. He was a conniver.
This one, Gray thought. This is the man we want. He arranged the portraits so the last was first.
“Keep your eyes on Welk,” he told Salmas.
The artist replied, “Yes, sir.”
Crossing the room, Gray stepped into the kitchen and found Lukas leaning against the counter, his arms folded. Tension seemed to ride his form as if he didn’t like this waiting game anymore than Gray did. Gray could appreciate this.
Lukas surely had sensed his coming but still flinched as Gray suddenly appeared before him.
“Your artist is an excellent investment,” Gray said quietly and handed over the images.
Replying with only a grunt, the seer frowned at the top portrait, the one of the man who smiled. He glanced at the others, but that one, the first one, held his attention just as Gray had known it would.
Gray waited as Lukas used his gift.
Eventually the seer sighed deeply and looked up. “I can’t tell you his name. But I can tell you he does not reside here in Dasken. This is a king’s man—he is from King’s Barrow.”
Gray worked the tension from his jaw. A king’s man. That made this situation bitter indeed. “Salmas says the employer lives in an arid place. Barren and dry. Any direction you can offer would be of benefit.”
Again Lukas studied the image, his silver eyes narrowed. Two or three long minutes passed before he said, “Look for him in the East Territory. That was likely your plan already, for there are few truly arid places in King’s Barrow. But where this man resides, the ground is red as if stained with spilled blood—old blood. Some kind of massacre happened there many years ago. It was either the death of many people, or it was a gross betrayal. I can’t always tell the difference in my visions.”
Gray glanced at him. It was interesting to see a sage’s influence upon a man who valued wisdom. Lukas was remarkably honest for a seer-prince. Most men in his position would surely feel the need to be something else.
Lukas paused, his gaze still taken with the picture in his hands. “There’s something here. Something about this man is wrong.”
“Wrong in what way?”
“I cannot tell you with certainty, but I look at him and can see the darkness residing within him. It is like a shadow that fills his entire form. I would say he has stepped beyond the reach of wisdom to actually embrace the reach of darkness—its likes and desires. I have never seen before what I see with this man. Even here in this picture, it is like the image is filled with shadow. Caution will be needed with this man, for there is wickedness inside of him.”
He sounded like Shel. Thinking of the conversation he’d just been forced to endure in the other room, Gray asked, “Is it like he loves the Fallen Ones?”
“Yes—exactly like that. The gods of darkness.”
Gray sighed. “Then this is our man.”
Lukas handed the pictures back to him. “As you are well aware, my men will arrest Welk the moment he steps from the house. In honor of the House of Rayme, I will ensure that judgment upon him is swift. However, you can be certain that I will conduct a thorough investigation before removing his head. If any additional details are brought into the light, I will be certain you know of them.”
The word investigation meant something different here in Dasken than it did in King’s Barrow; there was an absence of concern here for known criminals. Gray had no doubt that Lukas’s investigation would be thorough indeed.
“She told him he was a prince of the realm.”
Gray looked up. “Your highness?”
Lukas nodded. “Tell—Intelligence. I heard Nari tell him that he was a prince of the realm, and it was time for him to stop thinking like one who is cast off and more like one who is chosen. The boy took her words to heart. He believed her and it impacted him.”
Gray didn’t know what to say. He rarely did when a seer looked at him and read his thoughts.
From this moment forward, he considered the prince of Ra-Faal a personal friend.
– 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.