Rolland had no classes on the days of his apprenticeship, and Jolm sent him back to the academy early every day, which left him with a lot of spare time. The first day he’d walked straight back to the academy and got some extra time in the library. But, after awhile, he started to get a little braver. He began wandering the streets of Ashrennon, trying to get a feel for the place he’d lived in all his life, but had been locked away from for the past five years of it.
At first, he walked through the inner city, never too far from the academy. Then he realised, when he got back, no one ever asked him where he’d been. No one asked him why he was late. So he ventured farther out into the city.
People looked at him strangely, or rather, pointedly didn’t look at him strangely. They glanced his way or tried to avoid him entirely. It made Rolland uncomfortable, people being afraid of him, or disgusted by him, or simply disregarding him completely. But it had its benefits. He never had to push his way through crowds in the market. He hadn’t noticed it right away, because when he left the academy the first time, he’d been too overwhelmed by everything to notice the little things, but it was as if he had a bubble surrounding him. No one got close if they could help it.
The merchants, always so chatty, trying to flag down every possible customer, never tried to get his attention. Never looked at him. Not even the beggars sitting on street sides tried to accost him. Of course, it would have been useless if any of them had, it wasn’t as if he had any money. Advisers were paid, but students and apprentices certainly weren’t. Rolland often wished he had money, especially when he passed by delicious looking market stalls.
On the third week of his apprenticeship he stumbled upon the city’s library and got more than a little bit excited. It was freely open to nobles, whilst commoners had to pay a fee. Though Rolland was neither a noble nor a commoner. There was a library at the academy, of course, but over the years he’d pored over it inch by inch and read most everything that interested him.
He still knew so little of the outside world.
Rolland may have abandoned any hope of ever seeing the other side of the Tall Wall, but he wanted to know what was out there. He needed to know. Maybe he would find something at the city library that the academy didn’t have. After all—as he’d noticed when he’d stepped into Headmaster Kell’s office—there were more books in Ashrennon than the academy held.
He walked up to the library doors, trying to measure his stride so as not to seem in a rush. He didn’t know if he was allowed in the library, but so far no one outside of Jolm or a passing guard had so much as talked to him. He doubted the library would have guards. If he walked in and looked as if he were supposed to be there, perhaps he would get away with it. He doubted the attendants would want to talk to a lighttouched.
He opened one of the doors. Rolland cringed as it creaked far louder than he’d expected. A woman sat behind the counter in a small entryway, idly reading a book. She glanced at him, then her eyes flitted back down when she saw the robes. Past the counter was another set of doors with glass windows at eye level. Rolland peered through and saw stacks of books inside. He pulled his hood lower, then walked toward it, eyes downcast, sleeves over his hands.
He was a step away from the door when the attendant cleared her throat.
Rolland stopped and turned around. She did not look in his direction, but she tapped a ledger on the counter. He walked over and looked at the ledger. The opened page had the day’s date written in print on the top, with a list of names and signatures scrawled underneath. He grabbed the quill and went to write his own name, then hesitated. Was he allowed to be here? Maybe he should turn around, walk out of here.
Was it worth getting in trouble with the masters because he wanted to read some books?
Rolland dipped the quill and wrote in the ledger. He returned the quill to its holder and looked at what he’d written. He sighed. This was probably a bad idea.
No. It was definitely a bad idea.
He turned on his heel and strode through the set of doors into the library proper, sorely hoping the attendant wouldn’t check the name he wrote. Or, if she did, hoping she wouldn’t know what Adviser Jolm looked like.
The door swung closed behind him. All thoughts of the very dumb thing he’d done drifted away. He’d thought the academy’s library had been large, but standing in front of the lines and lines of shelves, he realised this one must be twice its size, if not bigger. He smiled. Maybe he would get in trouble, but at least he would get to spend part of his day here.
He stood there a long moment, staring at all the books. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly.
Then he got to work.
After a few minutes of searching he realised the library was an absolute mess. Whatever system they used, if it could be called that, was nowhere near as thorough as the system used in the academy. Everything was alphabetic by author. Everything. There were no sections for different subjects. Which meant a book of romance sat next to a book of numbers, which sat next to a book of history. It absolutely baffled him.
Who would do this? What better way to restrict knowledge than putting it all in one place, in a scattered mess, so no one could ever find the information they needed.
His first day in the city’s library ended up being a fruitless endeavour. He became frustrated with the organisational skills of whoever ran the library and left early. The next few days he didn’t return. Instead, in his free time, he walked through the city. He relaxed a little, too, when after a week had passed he’d realised his writing of Jolm’s name in the ledger had gone unnoticed. He would return to the library in time, he was sure, once he’d stocked up on a little more patience.
After one month of his half year apprenticeship, Rolland still hadn’t learnt a thing from Adviser Jolm. Jolm barely spoke to Rolland, and still sent him home early each day. Detector Jedri had yet to say a single word to him. His Reading skills were improving, though, simply because every time he was with Jolm he got a chance to use them.
Today, they were heading back to the Merchantry. Rolland hid his smile when he found out. He was still enamoured by the place, the people, the business. Jedri walked into Bellamy & Chell with Jolm and Rolland in tow. He made straight for the stairs, as Rolland had expected. They always visited important people at the Merchantry.
Rolland followed the detector and his adviser to the last room on the left. Over the past few weeks, Rolland had noticed a pattern in the people the detector had spoken with. Jedri was focused on gathering information about the lord they’d visited on Rolland’s first day. Lord Teiran. Rolland recognised the name from his studies, and though the family had never been related to the royals, they had a very long line. They were well respected in Ashrennon.
Except by Detector Jedri.
Jedri was convinced Lord Teiran was in the business of breaking laws, that he was hiding his profits and defrauding the tax collectors. From all the interviews Roland had observed in the past month, he was starting to think the same.
Jedri had a spring in his step and a smile on his face. In his hand he held a Captain’s Petition, which allowed him to interview most anyone, assuming they weren’t the king. He flew the door open. The same three men sat at the table. Lord Teiran looked as colourful as ever, all but for his grey hairs. Narin Teiran, Lord Teiran’s son, sat next to his father. Narin’s eyes twitched when his gaze fell on the paper in Jedri’s hands.
The man in the brown tunic was there too, a familiar frown set on his face. His name was Trey Alrin. The Inner Guard Detector’s Division had been trying to pin something on him for a very long time. He was, allegedly, one of the heads of organised crime within the city.
Rolland hadn’t thought that possible. How could there be such people in Ashrennon? Surely, with all the walking lie detectors around, they would only have to ask him a few questions until he incriminated himself? But, as Rolland was learning from his apprenticeship, crime within Ashrennon was far more complicated than that. There were ways to lie to someone with the sight, ways to twist one’s words, change their meaning. Or simply have other people handle the criminal activity, so it was not a lie when a man said he’d never broken the law.
Trey Alrin had never broken the law, but, coincidentally, many people associated with him turned out to be criminals.
The first time Rolland had walked into that room with the detector and Jolm, he’d not realised what was going on. He hadn’t known the people Jedri spoke to. Now he knew, it made him nervous. Alert. Trey Alrin was a dangerous man. And Lord Teiran? Well, he was a lord. That was enough.
Detector Jedri had it out for some very important people. Rolland didn’t know how comfortable he felt being at his side.
At least it was interesting.
Jedri pulled out a chair and sat, placed the paper on the table, turned it around, and straightened it out with his hands. He poked it with a finger and wore a thin, lopsided smile. ‘There’s your Captain’s Petition, my lord.’
The first time they’d been there, Jedri walked out saying Teiran had been nervous. Rolland hadn’t noticed the nervousness. Now, Rolland felt it, clear as day. He didn’t even need the sight to read it on the man’s face. If Jedri had been able to acquire a Captain’s Petition for the likes of a lord, it meant they had something on him, and Teiran was well aware of that fact.
Lord Teiran composed himself. He opened his hands. ‘Please, Detector, ask me anything,’ Teiran said. Jedri simply smiled and pointed at the last line of the document. Teiran squinted, leaning forward. His eyes widened, and he read out the name. ‘Narin Teiran.’
The petition was for his son.
Narin was an open book. Though Rolland’s skill in Reading had improved over the last few weeks, he was still on a lower level than he should have been. Even he found it easy to read Narin. The usual questions didn’t work, of course. Narin may have been easy to read, but he still knew how to trick the system. Unfortunately for Narin, however, they had more specific questions for him.
Every time Narin told a lie, Jolm tapped Jedri on the shoulder. They had other methods to relate this, of course. Ones less obvious to those they interviewed. But today’s interview had nothing to do with subtlety.
After an hour of questions they’d found out that the Teiran family had been defrauding the King’s taxes for the past two years. Though they weren’t able to incriminate Lord Teiran, they had more than enough to arrest his son, which would dent the family’s reputation. On top of that, the Teiran family were forced to pay back the defrauded taxes, with interest.
Throughout the questioning, Alrin had stayed quiet, his face impassive but intently focused. None of the questions during the interview had gotten him closer to being incriminated, but Rolland knew it made him nervous. When the detector finished interviewing Narin, it seemed as if it was all over. Jedri dipped a hand into his pocket then casually dropped a folded piece of paper onto the table.
Another petition. This time, for Trey Alrin.
A bead of sweat formed on the man’s brow, the only visible evidence of the nervousness Rolland felt from Alrin’s eyes.
‘Mr Alrin.’ Detector Jedri tipped his head back. ‘I’ve been waiting a long time for a chance to speak with you.’
Alrin looked at his hands, then sat up straight in his chair. ‘I’ve heard you have an… unusual interest in me. I can’t for the life of me imagine why.’ He smiled, all teeth. ‘I’m just a businessman.’
‘Yes, yes. I’ve heard a lot about your business. In fact, a lot of the inner guards have. There are a fair amount of nasty rumours running around about what it is you do.’ Jedri mirrored Alrin’s smile. ‘I’m here to ensure none of those nasty rumours are true. I’m sure you had nothing to do with’—he waved a hand at Narin—‘our misguided little lord.’ Jedri’s smile fell away. He leant forward, elbows on the table, and stared hard at Alrin. ‘Have you ever broken any laws, Mr Alrin?’
Rolland focused on Mr Alrin’s eyes, hoping to see the flicker of a lie.
‘No.’ Trey Alrin’s eyes offered nothing.
‘Have you stolen money before?’
The questions went on for some time. Not once did Rolland glean a hint of a lie. But Rolland knew, just like with Narin, Jedri was saving the good questions for last.
Detector Jedri paused and sighed.
Alrin relaxed. ‘If that is all—’
‘Actually, I have a couple more.’ Jedri didn’t smile. His face was as blank as a fresh sheet of parchment. ‘Do you know a woman named Kara?’
Alrin’s eyes flashed wide for a split second. He glanced at Jolm, than looked back at Jedri. ‘Yes.’ Truth.
But this truth was different. When Alrin had answered the other questions, Rolland had felt that he wasn’t lying. But rather than feeling like the truth, it had simply felt like… the absence of a lie. From this answer, Rolland felt far more.
‘And you’ve known her for a long time?’ Detector Jedri asked.
‘On the first day of each month, do you pay her an absurd amount of gold?’
‘No.’ Absence of lie.
‘Does money that was once in your possession find its way into hers?’
‘I’m a businessman, detector, money changes from my hands to others and back all the time. Money that once belonged to me is spread all throughout the city, you might even have some in your purse.’
This was the first time Alrin offered more than a yes or no answer.
Detector Jedri leant back in his chair. ‘Yes, but you can’t know that the coins in my pocket were once yours. Kara, on the other hand…’ Jedri tapped the Captain’s Petition. ‘Yes or no, Alrin.’
‘Yes,’ Alrin said with a grunt.
‘Thank you. Are you aware that Kara participates in criminal activity?’
‘I’m associated with many people, what they do with their time—’
‘Yes. Or. No.’
Alrin paused. ‘Yes.’
‘Does this criminal activity benefit you?’
Rolland felt it. The detector was heading in the right direction. Rolland glanced at Jolm. He wasn’t tapping Jedri’s shoulder. He wasn’t signalling the lie.
‘Has she been hiding your money?’
‘No.’ Another lie.
Still Jolm had not tapped Jedri’s shoulder.
‘Does she do your dirty work?’ Jedri sounded frustrated.
‘No.’ Absence of lie.
Should Rolland speak up? Was he reading this wrong?
‘Are you defrauding the king’s taxes?’ Jedri’s voice grew louder.
Jedri slammed his fist on the table and stood. ‘Damn this!’
Trey Alrin smiled. Rolland wanted to say something. He’d seen the man lie, hadn’t he? Was Jolm misreading on purpose? I can’t speak here, in front of the others. If Jolm was lying… Rolland would have to approach Jedri later.
Jedri pulled Narin Teiran from his chair and pushed him toward the door. ‘We will speak again, Alrin. And as for you, my lord.’ He gave Lord Teiran a hard look. ‘You should be ashamed, making your son a patsy. If I were you I’d confess. It might be too late to help your son, but it’s never too late to help your conscience.’ He opened the door and pushed Narin through. Rolland and Jolm trailed behind him.
‘Damn that man,’ Jedri said, not seeming to care who at the Merchantry heard.
This was the first time Rolland had seen the detector angry. It was a frightening sight.
Rolland stared at the back of Jolm’s head as they made their way through the Merchantry, people left and right staring at the disgraced lord being lead out by the detector.
Jolm had lied, he must have. If Rolland, as an unskilled reader, could pick up Alrin’s lies… it was the only answer. Jolm was deceiving Jedri. But why? More importantly, would Rolland be able to prove it?
He had to talk to Jedri alone. He had to do something.
It was a silent walk back to the inner guards’ station. When they returned, Jedri left to process young lord Narin’s arrest, leaving Rolland alone with Adviser Jolm. Jolm bid Rolland to join him in his office.
‘Sit down, Rolland,’ Jolm said as they walked into the cramped room. Jolm sat behind his desk.
Rolland kept his eyes down as he sat opposite, avoiding the adviser’s gaze more than usual. Then he thought better of it. He pulled back his hood, straightened in his chair, and looked the adviser in the eyes.
‘Alrin lied, and you did nothing.’
‘Ah, you noticed that, did you? Perhaps you’re not as bad at reading as I thought.’ Jolm didn’t look worried, and his eyes gave up nothing despite Rolland’s sight. ‘That’s unfortunate for you.’
‘You committed treason.’
‘Did I? And how are you going to prove that?’
‘I’ll tell the masters. They’ll see I’m telling the truth.’
‘No. You won’t tell the masters.’
‘I will.’ Rolland stood and made for the door.
‘Tellan and Reeba Goslan,’ the adviser said. Rolland’s hand stopped short of the doorhandle. ‘They own a farm in outer-city west.’
Rolland turned around. Jolm was smiling.
‘You thought I wouldn’t do my research, boy? They had another child, you know, after you left for the academy. You have a little sister, Rolland.’ He paused. ‘Dangerous work, farming.’
Rolland stood, stock still, clenching his fists. ‘You wouldn’t.’
‘I would.’ Truth.
This man was lighttouched, an adviser to a detector, he lied, and now he was threatening Rolland’s family? He was everything the people on the street were afraid of when they saw Rolland’s robes. Maybe there was some truth in the old stories—a reason lighttouched were locked up in that academy.
‘You won’t tell the masters. You won’t say a word. Tomorrow you’ll come back here, you’ll follow me as usual, and you’ll do what I say. Is that clear?’
Rolland breathed heavy, his face flush, his heart beating so hard—
‘Is that clear, Rolland?’
‘You will say nothing.’
‘Yes.’ Absence of lie.
Jolm’s eyes narrowed at him. ‘She’s two years old, your sister. Looks just like her mother.’ Jolm paused, letting the implications sink in. ‘You’re dismissed for the day, Rolland.’
Rolland left. As fast as he could. He’d been planning to go back to the library, but that wasn’t going to happen. He’d been right. Alrin had lied. Jolm had done nothing
And there wasn’t a thing Rolland could do.
If Jolm was working for Trey Alrin, allegedly one of the city’s most dangerous men, Jolm could hurt Rolland’s family even if he got caught. Even if he was hanged. It wasn’t worth the risk.
Everything he’d learnt at the academy, to seek out the truth, to tell it, to walk the path given to him…
How was he supposed to do that now?
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.