You must be careful, Willem had said. Do not let him know that you know. Speak as little as possible in his presence. And whatever you do, do not meet his eyes unless you must.
The next two days of Rolland’s apprenticeship were the most nerve wracking he’d ever experienced. It wasn’t difficult, not speaking in Jolm’s company. Nor were his duties difficult, considering how few duties he had.
It was, however, difficult to be in the same room as the man. Difficult to be deferential toward him. Subservient. Before, the man’s smug demeanour had been an annoyance. Now, it was painful. Rolland’s long won patience wore thin.
He’d spoken to Headmaster Kell with Master Willem at his side, and it had gone as well as he could have hoped. The masters would talk to the relevant parties at the King’s palace. There would be an enquiry. A quiet one. Headmaster Kell had even heard of Trey Alrin, which helped Rolland’s case. Safeguards were put in place to ensure Rolland’s family would be protected. Rolland had been honest—about everything—to the masters, and so far, it looked like he’d made the right decision.
On the last day of his apprenticeship for the week, he saw Detector Jedri growing ever more frustrated with his investigation. He’d had a huge lead that would have all but guaranteed Trey Alrin’s arrest, but it was thwarted, in moments, by Jolm’s deception. Rolland wished he could tell Detector Jedri that he was right, that Jolm was lying to him, but the masters had said they would handle it.
He didn’t want to get himself into any more trouble than he was already in.
When Jolm finally released him for the day, he was utterly relieved. He would have another four days until he had to deal with the adviser again, and if he were lucky, Jolm would be in chains by then. Just as Rolland was about to head off, this time in the direction of the city library, he got stopped by the detector himself. For the first time, Jedri addressed him.
‘Rayland, I wanted to ask you something,’ Jedri said in his rough voice.
Rolland wanted to correct the detector on his name, but thought better of it. Jolm was there, watching. He gave a hard look as Rolland trailed behind the detector. Do not meet his eyes unless you must. Rolland snapped his gaze away from the adviser. Rage, he thought. The man had felt like rage.
He looked at the back of Jedri’s shoes. Why would the detector want to talk to Rolland, after all this time? Was he suspicious? What would Jolm assume they were talking about? Rolland thought of his family again, the farm burning, his parents, his little sister… He shook those thoughts away. His family would be safe. The masters would make sure of that. He had nothing to worry about.
The detector’s office was almost as cramped as Jolm’s. A few shelves lined the walls with far more books than Rolland had expected a man like Jedri to possess. There were also some instruments he recognised. On his desk sat a magnifying glass, a compass, and… a mechanical clock—something Rolland had heard about, but never seen. He marvelled at it a moment, watching it tick as the detector sat behind his desk.
‘Close the door, please.’
Rolland did as the detector bid, then stood in front of the desk. Jedri had not asked him to sit down.
‘You’ve been privy to much over the last month.’ The detector didn’t look at Rolland as he spoke. ‘I’ve been working on this case for a long time, trying to catch Trey Alrin in the act. Everyone knows what he does, no one knows how. I had a lead, evidence I thought I could use. I just needed him to give me the right answers, and yet, he didn’t.’
The detector stopped for a moment, still not looking Rolland’s way. Rolland wondered if he was waiting for him to say something, but it felt like Jedri was talking to himself more than he was talking to Rolland.
‘I’ve been working with Jolm for a long time, and I’ve never once doubted his judgement. At least, not until the other day.’ The detector looked in Rolland’s direction, though not at his eyes. ‘Not until Trey Alrin. You were there, Rolland. Tell me, did you see anything I should know about?’
Rolland swallowed. The detector knew. Rolland didn’t know how, but he knew. Should Rolland tell him? The masters said to keep it quiet. That they had it under control. But should he lie to a detector? If he stayed silent too long, Jedri would know something was wrong.
‘No, sir. As far as I could tell, there was nothing unusual.’ Rolland, head down, almost winced at his words. He walked a path of truth… through a lie. In other circumstances, he might be tempted to smile at the moral conundrum.
The detector stared into nothing. The clock ticked. Rolland counted thirty strokes before Jedri spoke. ‘Very well, you can go.’
Rolland sighed as he closed the door behind him. The detector would understand. The masters would tell him why he lied. Rolland understood why they wanted to keep it quiet, he just wished it all happened a little faster. On Rolland’s way out of the inner guards’ station, he felt a shiver, and looked behind him.
Jolm was watching him. His eyes intent. In that short glance, Rolland felt the man’s rage again, burning hotter than before. He shrugged it off. He hadn’t said anything to the detector, hopefully Jolm would find that out for himself.
He set off toward the library. He needed to get out of his own head. He needed a break from all the worrying. He didn’t even mind having to deal with the city library’s horrible organisation system. He would pick a book and hope for the best.
It was the first time he’d been back to the library. The same attendant stood behind the desk. She tapped the ledger when she noticed him, as if to say she remembered he was the forgetful type. Rolland grabbed the quill and inked in Adviser Jolm’s name, feeling far less guilty than he had before about it. He walked through the doors of the library with a sigh. Seeing all the books lining the shelves gave him a sense of relief, a sense of the familiar—something he had lacked lately.
He wandered the stacks, trailing a finger along the spines until something caught his eye. The first book he picked up, coincidentally, turned out to be about lighttouched. It was an old book, perhaps a hundred years. It chronicled the abilities lighttouched had, abilities he recognised in himself, but it also talked of the risks. The author wrote about lighttouched in the city having far too many freedoms. From what Rolland could discern, lighttouched back then had fewer privileges than they did now. They were never to leave the house without their employer—then called ‘masters’, as if lighttouched were slaves. Those who betrayed this law were given harsh punishment. This punishment for the most part consisted of whipping, something Rolland was glad had fallen out of use at the academy. The worst offenders lost a hand, or both. There was a long list of incidents in the book. One of them pertained to the murder of a lighttouched’s master.
In a great rage, the lighttouched man took a knife from his master’s kitchen. He killed his master and went on a rampage through the streets, ending in the death of a further three citizens before he was taken down by a brave individual. It is incidents like these that spur my argument. Lighttouched, though their abilities might sound useful, are nothing more than animals, and they should be treated as such.
Rolland snapped the book closed, shutting his eyes as dust shot from the pages. This was why Master Willem wanted to handle it quietly, why books like these weren’t found in the academy’s library. The academy, though feared by many in the city, was well respected. Somehow, the masters had earned that respect in the last hundred years. If word of a corrupt adviser got out…
He slipped the book back onto the shelf, with no plan on ever looking at it again, then left the library. The streets seemed quiet. Strange, considering the time of day, though it didn’t bother Rolland. It meant less dirty looks. Well, less dirty glances. No one would look at a lighttouched.
What would it have been like walking the streets a hundred years ago, or even when Willem had been young? Rolland shuddered. Ashrennon may have come a long way, but lighttouched were still not accepted.
Perhaps they never would be.
After a while, the quiet streets began to unnerve him. Usually they would be bustling with people, yet only a few stragglers walked by. He wanted to raise his head, throw off his hood and look around. There was an itch on his back. Nothing felt right.
Somewhere deep inside him a warning went off.
Rolland was being followed. He hadn’t seen anyone, but he felt it. He didn’t know if it was because he was lighttouched or not, but he was sure. Someone followed him through the quiet streets. He quickened his stride, abandoning his wandering shuffle. The academy was only a few blocks away. The sun was still high in the sky. Surely he would be safe in the middle of the city, though he didn’t feel it. He turned a corner.
Two scruffy looking men stared at him. They didn’t glance. Or look. They stared. He turned back around, only to find the man who must have been following him.
‘Hello, boy.’ The man smiled, opening his jacket to reveal the glint of a dagger. ‘Now, let’s make this all quiet like. No point struggling.’
‘Well, there’s some point,’ one of men behind Rolland said. ‘More fun.’
Rolland tried to dash around the man with the dagger but stumbled over his long robes. Strong hands grabbed his shoulder. He shrugged off the man’s grip and ran another two steps before his foot caught in his robes and he tumbled to the cobblestones. His hands smashed into the pavement. Pain blossomed where his skin scraped off. He rolled over, only to see the three man standing over him.
‘Get up,’ said the man with the dagger.
Rolland got up, slowly, wincing at the pain in his hands. He glanced around. The street was deserted.
‘I’m a gentleman, you see.’ The man raised his dagger, tilting the blade to catch the sun. ‘I’d never want to kill a man on his knees. It’s more honourable if they’re standing while they die.’ One of the man’s friends sniggered.
The man slashed at Rolland’s torso. Rolland twisted, before he even thought to, grabbing the man’s hand. His vision blurred, clouded white. Rolland turned the man’s wrist. A scream escaped the man’s mouth as the dagger fell from his hand. Rolland caught it in mid-air. His vision blurred more, the white engulfing all he saw.
He kept moving, but the movements felt wrong. Foreign. Like they weren’t his own.
Rolland thrust the dagger in the man’s gut. Warm blood flooded onto his hand. The man gasped, coughed. Rolland ran the blade across one of the other men’s necks and heard boots pelting against hard stone. The third man was running away.
Everything went white.
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.