A Prince of Shadows

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Chapter 1

Haleth watched the apple fly across the room. I knew even before opening the door what the grey-haired Master of the Guard was about to do, one of the benefits of being a seer. Perhaps he expected to catch me by surprise. Like all servants, I was expected to drop my eyes when entering a room. I stepped into the room, still keeping my eyes low and waited until the last possible moment before catching it, barely an inch from my nose.

“You are a good shot,” I said, “for a politician.”

It was a good shot for anyone. Behind his desk in the massive study, he had thrown the apple almost thirty yards from a sitting position and, had I not caught it, the apple would have struck the bridge of my nose. The stinging in my hand suggested that it would have left me with a nasty nosebleed at the very least, something I hoped he was not trying to do.

I looked up to make eye contact, a breach of etiquette that would earn any other servant a flogging. Of course, I was no ordinary servant. I was the son of a noble, an arbiter at that. It just happened that I was bound to servitude.

“And you have good reactions for a servant.” he replied.

“I am a seer, it is our job.”

“I was not complementing your precognitive ability, I was saying you had good reactions. That is one of the reasons why I chose to employ you.”

“You were looking for someone to throw fruit at?”

His silence filled me with dread, had I just overstepped a line? Had I just pushed a member of the ruling council too far? As a noble, I was above the 'justice' of the arbiters but the ruling council of Enareth were qualified to judge me.

“It may have escaped your notice but I do know what you did. I was there when you were sentenced, I was the one who suggested you be bound to servitude rather than banished.”

“And for that I am grateful.” I said quickly and honestly.

“Do you remember why you were before the council?” he asked.

“For being in possession of illegal information, as I recall.”

Haleth turned away from me, staring out of the large windows at the falling rain. This room was an exercise in decadence. In a city where the poor built their houses on top of one another just to build within the city walls, space was at a premium. This room was thirty yards long by perhaps twenty wide, with Haleth's desk two-thirds of the way down. The ceiling thirty feet above us was intricately decorated by some of the greatest artisans in the city. Full length windows looked out onto the city and bookshelves lined the walls.

“You were arrested,” Haleth continued with a smile, “because you were found with a seven-foot sharpened sword in your hands. Not only that, but you were using it to practice Ke'Shai; a martial art that was made illegal by your own grandfather.”

I couldn't argue with that, it was true. After the last civil war, before even my father's time, the city council had been formed to govern in place of the deposed prince. My maternal grandfather had sat on that council as Master of the City Guard and had proposed laws which prevented the use of bladed weapons and any practice promoting their use to all but the armies. Hence, I was caught for two breaches of my grandfather's own law.

“Had you been a commoner, you would have been ejected from the city as a dangerous and subversive element. Even with your father's status and his plea to the council, you probably would have suffered the same punishment had I not intervened.”

And there he had me. I escaped banishment at his request and so I was in his debt, for the moment at least. I had never understood why he spoke on my behalf that day, explaining away my actions as those of a misguided youth. I had, on occasion, asked him why but never received an answer.

His predecessor in the position had been my grandfather, so I suspected a bizarre form of loyalty may have been a factor. No other member of the council had shared this trait, however. My grandfather had been Weapon-Master to the Royal Household and the last royally-appointed Master of the City Guard. Unpopular as that may have made him, he was allowed to keep his position because nobody else was trusted to maintain peace in the city.

“But enough of this, I called you here for a reason.”

“Of course, your grace.”

He paused at that, before continuing, “You may be aware of a young servant named Sarel.”

I nodded with a smile, she and I had known of one another. It was no great secret that she and I spent a great deal of our free time together. For a second, I saw an emotion cross his face. Knowing what was to come I can almost believe now that he had shown a hint of sympathy.

“She was murdered last night, as she left the estate.”

I was speechless for a minute or two. I had spent the evening with her before escorting her to the gates, she assured me that she didn't need me to walk her through the area she had grown up in. When I could finally bring myself to speak, I could only manage to ask him, “Why?”

“We don't know why, we don't even know whom. That is why you are here. We think your gift could be useful in finding her killer.”

“I am sorry your grace, my training deals with predicting the future, not with unravelling the past.”

“And that is how you caught the apple? With your gift?”

“Yes.”

“How do you see the future?” he asked bluntly.

“I… I beg your pardon but I don't think I understand your question.”

“By what manner does the knowledge of future events come to you? Do you see the events? Do you gain some kind of supernatural intuition? What mechanism do you use to divine the truth?”

“I tell the most likely future, that is all. That is why we are sometimes wrong.”

“Ah, but do you see only the most likely future?” he asked with a smile.

“Yes,” I said firmly, finally sure of myself, “it is only a possibility, not a fact.”

He held up one hand and smiled at me, an act both confusing and terrifying at once. I though back over my words to see what he objected to, what I had stated that could be untrue. Since I was talking about my gift, I was fairly certain that I was more of an expert than he would ever be. At last, he spoke.

“Did you know I would throw that apple at your face?”

“No, I simply saw that you would throw an apple at me.”

“So you couldn't see the apple strike you?” he suggested.

“No… I did see it hit me.”

“In the face?”

“Well, yes… among the other possibilities.”

“So you don't only see the most likely possibility?”

Suddenly, I could see where he was leading. I still couldn't see what he meant to prove by it but at least I could see my earlier mistake.

“Personally, yes.”

“I see…” he replied, “And not all seers can do this?”

“No. It is a rare trait.”

“How rare? Do you know how many seers currently have that gift?”

“Well, Master Garren I suppose…”

“What if I told you that there were no others, just Garren and you?”

“Sorry?”

Haleth stood and walked toward me, taking the apple from me and finally leading me back toward the door. As he reached the door, he paused to collect a stout walking staff that was taller than he was.

“Your gift is for seeing the paths of fate, ” he said between mouthfuls of fruit, “though you are wrong to think that means only the future. The sight is half the gift, intuition is the other half. The sight will show the future but intuition and instinct tell you which possibility to trust.”

“I suppose so…”

“Give me a chance, I just want to test a theory.”

I shrugged and he led me down through the house, through rooms as large as the one we had left and corridors decorated with art that I knew to be worth more than most citizens would see in a lifetime.

“I know you saw her that night,” he said, turning to me, “show me what happened.”

I led him to my quarters, where we had shared a bottle of wine and each other's company. I told him about the wine but I chose not to tell him about our other activities. Among the Elari, as among humans, some topics were not discussed. After that, seeing that the rain had stopped, he asked me to take him to the gates as I had done that night. We walked an indirect but scenic route through the gardens and to an apple tree, where we had rested and talked about our future.

He asked what I had seen, both with my eyes and with my gift. He kept asking whether I had felt a sense of impending doom, whether I had seen shadows, anything I might now interpret as a portent. It was hard to retain my composure but as a member of the nobility, disgraced or not, I had a fair amount of practice when it came to hiding my feelings.

I told him truthfully that I remembered no portents or signs, though I was not sure whether there hadn't been any or whether I had just not seen them for what they were. I even confessed as much with tear-filled eyes, so affected was I by having to relive the experience.

“What happened?” I asked him when an awkward silence fell.

“Wait, I will explain it when we get there.”

I led him to the gates, where I had sent Sarel off with a final kiss, and turned to him. He asked me to imagine that I had decided to walk her home and led me through the streets that she would have walked. Suddenly, he went to walk down an alley and I realised he had taken a wrong turning. I could see a great darkness cling to the shadows here, something no light could banish completely.

“She would not have walked that way.”

“Why not? It is the fastest route.”

“I am not sure why, I just don't believe she walked that way last night.”

Haleth just nodded and carried on along the road. Perhaps he knew something, perhaps not. I could almost smell her as we walked, though I put it down to grief and stress. In my mind, I could see her walking these roads. Tears began to well up as I imagined her being grabbed while she walked.

I saw images of a cloaked figure dragging her back, toward the alley we had just passed. My foot slipped on something that made a metallic sound as it slid across the slick flagstones. It was Sarel's bracelet. A feeling like iced water trickled down my spine as I picked it up and faced the alley. This could not be true…

“Interesting…” came Haleth's voice behind me but I could barely hear it.

I just walked with dread back toward the alley, imagining that I could still see a trail in the grit where she had fought to regain her feet. I stepped into the alley and was overcome, falling to the ground as I was assaulted by the smell of sweat and lust. I could hear muffled screams, hear his heavy breathing and promises of what he would do to her.

When I see things to come, they are like vague memories. Some details are unclear, as though I am not sure of them, and there is just enough to piece together a few possible outcomes. This was different, like a vivid nightmare. I closed my eyes and covered my ears but I couldn't shut it out as I staggered along the alleyway. In my mind, I could still see it. I still heard her muffled protests. I could still smell him. I started to vomit and I must have lost consciousness.

I awoke to find myself lying against a wall, in a confused state. My face and arms were wet and sticky, it felt like dried blood and that brought the memories back. I sat and opened my eyes to see Haleth staring back at me with a mixture of concern and shock. My hands and chin were covered with what I assumed to be grime from the pavement, though my nose was still assailed by the metallic tang I associated with blood. I could see around me the ground was stained a reddish brown, it must be Sarel's blood I could smell. I stood and looked back to the wall.

A fading image, not as strong as before. I thought for a second I saw a symbol in the ancient Kithani text, Inish'Qal, 'bloodline', but my eyes were drawn to the figure at the base of the wall. I saw Sarel's naked form collapsed as I had been, bleeding from so many wounds. Even as she lay dying, I saw that she was beautiful. As the spark faded from her eyes, so too did the vision from my own. I did not even turn as I spoke my curse.

“I will find the one responsible and he will pay for his crimes.”

“He?” asked Haleth, leaning toward me.

“A noble who will have a scar running down his face.”

“There are no nobles with that kind of facial scar.”

I could see the event in my mind, as though I had been there. She had managed to draw a piece of broken wood across his face, from temple to chin, as he forced himself upon her. I saw his cold grey eyes inches away, as she had. I saw that he wore fine clothes beneath his cloak, though I couldn't see the symbol of any house. Suddenly, I could feel his hand on her thigh and then the contact broke. I was grateful for that small mercy. I turned to Haleth and grasped his shoulder, drawing myself up to my full height. I was much taller than him but he tried to struggle, to escape my grimy hands. Staring into his blue eyes, I ran one finger down the side of his face, in imitation of the wooden shard.

“I said that he will have a facial scar.”

Despite the warmth of the morning, I felt him shiver as I traced my fingers from temple to jaw. I would never forget that face, never forget what I saw and now I could be sure that Haleth was never going to miss it either.

“Lets get cleaned up.” he said and took me back to the estate.

As we walked, while the vision was still clear in my mind, I described Sarel's attacker. I still held Sarel's last memories, vivid recollections of his appearance, his voice, his smell. Anything that could be used to find him, I offered up to Haleth. Days later, I found that my description of him had been passed to the city guard by an 'anonymous witness' from the area.

We staggered back onto the estate, both of us drained by our experience. I had spared no detail to Haleth, desperate to impress upon him the savage nature of the attack. When I had finished, I asked him what the city watch knew. He told me how he had been called to the scene and had seen her lying against the wall, just as I had described.

Apparently, her body had been found by a neighbour in the early hours of the morning, who had alerted the watch at once. By the time daylight had filtered into the alleyway, Haleth had been called to the scene. He had gone to console Sarel's family and had promised them that he would use all the assets at his disposal to find her killer.

He had returned, intending only to tell me of her death. He had known we were close and suspected more, so he thought I should be told. It was not until he had sent a courier to rouse me that he remembered Master Garren's gift and wondered if I shared some of his other talents.

Haleth led me to his personal chamber and to a shower, a tall cubicle with what looked like the spout of a watering can extending from the top. Apparently, it was a gift from the Mage Guild, a device that could rain down warm water from its copper spout at any temperature you desired. He taught me the incantations to start it, stop it and control temperature and left me with one final piece of information.

“Garren never experienced an event like you just did. He could see snatches of past events but never in any kind of detail. I should not tell you this but you are ranked as the second most powerful seer in Enareth. If news of what you just did got out, you might pull into the lead.”

I am not sure whether he was urging caution on my part or showing me an opportunity. It was well-known that Garren hadn't made my passage through the Guild a pleasant one but it was also known that Master Garren could pull more strings than most. He was often called upon to advise the ruling council and his favour could help elevate the lowliest of serfs.

I spoke the commands to activate the jets of water and decided to keep my head down until I knew how best to use this information.

   

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