Rolland, hood up and head down, stared at Advisor Jolm and Detector Jedri’s shoes. Following at the heels of men who knew their way made navigating the inner city’s bustling streets far easier than it had been earlier that morning.
Rolland trailed behind Adviser Jolm, who trailed behind Detector Jedri. Jolm seemed every bit the subservient adviser in Jedri’s presence, almost as if he were a different person. Rolland had hoped the relationship between adviser and advised would be more casual than he’d been taught. He knew it was naive, but when it came time for him to advise someone, he hoped to become their friend as well.
Jolm and Jedri did not look like friends. Their relationship was all business and proper. Jedri had barely looked at Jolm, and he had not once addressed Rolland.
The Merchantry was a large establishment. It wasn’t actually called the Merchantry. The sign hanging over the place said Bellamy & Chell. It was a restaurant, but it was no ordinary restaurant. It was the hub of inner city business. The Merchantry was its less official name, yet everyone in Ashrennon called it that. It was where noble and common merchants alike made deals. Where travelling traders took their orders and worked out their contracts. It was the type of place Rolland thought he would find himself during his apprenticeship, but he’d not expected to walk in with a detector.
Though Rolland had never set foot inside the Merchantry before, when he walked through the ornate doors and saw all the merchants and nobles, men and women, negotiating and talking on table after table in the expansive room, he felt in his element. Arithmetic, numbers, business. That was what he had a knack for. He noticed a few lighttouched in the room. Most stood behind those they served, though a few sat with them. That will be me, one day.
Stairs ran up on either side of the restaurant, leading to the second floor where there were private boxes for deals to be struck. It was one of those stairways that Detector Jedri walked toward. A staff member stood behind a tall table by the landing of each set of stairs. When the woman at the set of stairs they approached noticed Jedri’s uniform and the two lighttouched in tow, her gaze fell to the ground and she waved them through.
Rolland glanced a list of names on the table—those permitted to walk up these stairs. What would it cost to rent a table in this place, let alone a private box on the second floor?
The nobles and merchants on the first floor had looked well dressed and dignified, but those Rolland glanced on the second floor bordered on ostentatious. Rolland wondered what it would be like to choose what he could wear each and every day, and decided it would probably be a hassle.
Detector Jedri strode down the hall of doors to private rooms. They passed several waiters carrying trays of dishes and cups of tea, their steps quick and fluid as they made their way back and forth through the doors, always knocking before entering, so they would not overhear something that wasn’t supposed to be overheard.
Detector Jedri didn’t knock. When they made it to the end of the hall, he turned to the last door on the left and opened it was no warning. He strolled through it as if he owned the room. Jolm followed swiftly on his heels. Rolland shuffled in behind them.
The room was larger than Rolland had thought it would be. There was a dining table in the middle and couches with plush cushions to one side. Three men sat at the dinning table, eating fine food and drinking fine wine.
‘Gentleman.’ Detector Jedri pulled out a chair and sat. ‘Nice to see you all again.’
Two of the men wore similar outfits. Bright, colourful tunics that looked garish to Rolland. So much colour. Even his own purple robes were of a muted tone. The sleeves of the tunics were flared open, which seemed to be the fashion. Both of their tunics had golden buttons holding them together. One was old. Grey hair, grey beard. The other much younger. Brown hair, no beard. Rolland assumed they were father and son. The last man in the room stood out the most because his clothes weren’t ostentatious at all. He wore a simple brown tunic, the fabric not shiny like the others. His buttons were a rich, yet modest, bronze, and he looked to be at least forty.
They all wore the same frown.
The older man spoke first. ‘Ah, Detector Jedri. Always such a pleasure to have you burst in unannounced.’ The man glanced behind Jedri. ‘I see you have two advisers today. Business is a hard thing to grasp, I guess a little help never hurt.’
‘Yes, it is all rather confusing. I always have so many questions. For instance, why is a noble family such as yours associating so often with, well, the likes of him?’ Jedri nodded at the man in the brown tunic. ‘Seems a suspicious thing, that.’
The man in the brown tunic said nothing.
‘Really, Detector, you’re here about that?’ The older man leant forward. ‘Have your truth seers look at me when I say this.’
Rolland looked to Jolm, then brought his eyes level with the older man’s. It had been so long since he’d looked into someone’s eyes and not seen the glow of another lighttouched.
The hatred hit Rolland like a wave. It wasn’t something he could see, exactly. He felt it. His fists clenched in his long sleeves. He let out a breath and glanced at Jolm. Jolm’s face was blank. As an advanced reader, he would be almost unaffected by another’s emotions.
Rolland, looking back into the older man’s eyes, relaxed his hands. This is not me. This is not my rage. He let the feelings go, detaching himself from them, putting the rage in a box in his mind—somewhere he could observe it without being affected by it. A bead of sweat formed on his forehead. His breathing no longer shuddered.
‘My business with this man is purely legitimate.’ The older man waved a hand to the man in brown, then locked eyes with Jolm and Rolland, then settled his gaze back on the detector.
The rage is for him, for the detector, Rolland thought.
‘I have broken no laws,’ the man said. ‘I pay my taxes like everyone else.’
Rolland saw no flicker, felt no sense that the man was lying.
Jolm whispered something into the detector’s ear. Rolland took that as a cue to look back at the floor.
‘Now, I think you have tested my hospitality long enough,’ the older man said. ‘If you wish to speak with me again, I’ll expect you to bring a captain’s petition. I will not be so accommodating next time without one.’
Jedri sat for a long moment, not looking as if he were about to move. Then he pushed his chair back, making an awful noise on the wood floors and no doubt leaving a mark, and stood. ‘I hope I haven’t inconvenienced you, my lord.’ Though his words sounded deferential, he did not so much as bow his head.
Lord? thought Rolland, Jedri spoke this way with a lord?
Jedri turned from the men on the table and started toward the door. ‘Until next time.’
Detector Jedri didn’t say a word as they walked out of the Merchantry. Rolland thought they might stop at another room, or, when they walked down the stairs, another table. But the detector simply walked out of Bellamy & Chell with Jolm and Jolm’s apprentice trailing behind. Had they come all this way for that?
‘We’ve got them.’ Detector Jedri tucked his hands in his pockets and slowed his stride.
‘Yes, it would seem that way,’ Jolm said.
‘He was nervous, and abrupt, far more terse than usual. There’s definitely something going on here,’ Jedri said.
Rolland ran the conversation over in his mind. When he’d looked in the man’s eyes, he’d not felt any nervousness. Rage, perhaps annoyance once he’d isolated the emotions, but nothing implying the man was nervous.
Of course, Rolland was never good at Reading. Jolm must have seen something he didn’t. He also wondered how the detector was so confident there was something going on. The man had told the truth. Rolland could at least tell that much. He would have to ask Jolm later.
If Jolm was willing to share.
There wasn’t much more to his apprenticeship that day. They hadn’t walked back to the inner guards’ building like Rolland had assumed. The detector instead talked to lowly merchants with small stalls at the market. Store owners of small places and large places, cheap places and expensive places. Rolland listened, but didn’t feel like he knew what he should be listening for. Jolm had not told him much. After what felt like only a few hours of work, Jolm dismissed Rolland and sent him back to the academy. Rolland wondered if he just wanted him out of the way.
He walked back through the busy streets feeling like he’d learnt nothing. In his mind, he kept returning to that moment in the Merchantry, when he’d looked into the eyes of the grey-haired lord.
He’d felt it, strong and clear. His hand was still sore where his fingernails had dug into his palm as he’d clenched his fists.
The detector had said the man was nervous, and Jolm had not contradicted him. Rolland had to have done something wrong. Hadn’t he? I’m a bad reader, he thought. Jolm wouldn’t have lied.
Lighttouched aren’t allowed to lie.
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.