Part 1 - I
Benjin hadn't meant to overhear their conversation, but he was a teenage boy, and sometimes the temptation to eavesdrop was just too much to resist. Besides, Ortheus was his uncle, and it seemed harmless. He knew where all the loose floorboards were, every creaky spot. But his luck had run out. When he heard the footsteps coming his way, he fled, afraid of what they might do. He couldn't be sure if they had seen him...
“This isn't going the way I planned,” Ortheus had said. “I should have been at the top of the chain months ago! Someone is working against me. I think it's the bastard's son. He's planting seeds of doubt in his mind, poisoning him against me.”
“Well that certainly won't do,” a voice had replied, silky and snake-like.
“No indeed. I want you to get rid of him. Only then can my work continue.”
“It will be done, so long as you can pay.”
Ortheus snorted. “Don't worry about the pay until the deed is done. This will be a difficult job—Who's out there?”
Benjin's heart had begun to thud inside his rib-cage, and sweat beaded on his forehead.
“Someone's out there. I see their shadow.”
Then the footsteps came, and Benjin ran. He was terrified that someone might pursue, but there was nothing. He hurried to his room and shut the door, flopping down on his bed. The room was cool and sweet with fresh air. The pale gray floor was the same color as the walls...and the ceiling...and the windowsill. His blue quilt added a little color. He always imagined it as a faraway sea. At night when the lamps were snuffed he could almost see the fish swirling across it, and when he shifted, sometimes a great, scaled sea dragon would appear.
Benjin buried his face in his pillow, breathing deep and trying to make sense of his jumbled thoughts. Any moment now he expected to hear footsteps coming toward him through the huge house. Downstairs in the kitchen, he heard the maids bustling about. The occasional clatter of plates and pots and pans made him jump.
I should have been at the top of the chain months ago!
I want you to get rid of him for me.
Benjin knew that Ortheus was largely dependent on his social status, but he hadn't known just how much until now. No doubt the man that he had been talking about was the Keeper of the House and his prim son. The Keeper of the House was named Jon Gracefire, a careful, calculating, thin man with half-moon spectacles and eyes that surveyed every detail around him. In Silverdale, they were the equivalent of royalty. For years, the Gracefire family had held the position of Keeper of the House, which meant they took care of the city's finances. The Keeper was an overseer, reporting back to the king in the east.
His son was named Jacob. He was more carefree than his father. However, he did have a mind for business and a real skill for interacting with people. The city of Silverdale needed that.
Someone is working against me.
He's planting doubt in his mind, poisoning his mind against me.
Benjin took a deep breath and sat up. “Get it together, idiot. Calm down.”
It was obvious that Ortheus had been working in a way that was less than reputable. But Benjin still couldn't believe that Ortheus would resort to violence to get what he wanted. Then again, he had never known him very well. Ever since his parents died when he was little, he had lived with his uncle, Ortheus. There had been a few weeks in between when he lived on the street, but he couldn't remember those very well.
Benjin rubbed his hands against his face, his sharp nose poking out from between his fingers. He felt his high cheekbones and slanted brow beneath his tanned olive skin. For as long as he could remember, he had been able to get gullible women to give him treats at the market just by looking at them through his wide gray eyes. He'd been doing it ever since he was a very small child. There had been a time when it was a way of survival.
Heavy boots thudded against the floorboards.
He froze. They knew. They knew!
Whump! Whump! Whump!
They drew closer without
diverting from the path to his bedroom. He pulled a book from the
small table by his bed and opened it, as if he had been there for
hours. The smell of the paper gave him a slight comfort, but he
couldn't stop shivering. What would they do to him if they knew?
The door opened.
Benjin looked up and forced a smile. His uncle's tall, bulky frame was in the doorway, arms folded. His face was rather pasty and narrow, and he had the most piercing blue eyes Benjin had ever seen. Beneath Ortheus's gaze, he – and the other boys at the Academy – had never been able to keep a secret. His light blond hair was grayed and receding.
Benjin wondered if his father had looked like that.
“Hi.” Benjin leaned back against the wall.
“Hey, kiddo.” He came in, closing the door behind him. “What are you reading?”
“The Old Legends.” He tried to look neutral, to keep his hands from wriggling together. “Homework.”
That was true enough. His history teacher had assigned him a large amount of reading. And Ortheus, who was his uncle as well as the headmaster of the Academy, would be unforgiving if he fell behind. He was paying good money to give Benjin an education. Several other students lived with Ortheus too, but Benjin hadn't been friends with any of them.
“Hmm...” The bed creaked as Ortheus sat down.
In the silence, Benjin's heart was so loud he wondered if Ortheus could hear it.
“What have you been up to today?” Ortheus looked over at him.
Benjin's shoulders lifted. “Reading, and I went to the market a while ago. Why?”
“The woman down at the bakery says you snoop around there a lot, and she doesn't like it. Says you always look like you've got something up your sleeve.”
“Don't be sorry unless you did something wrong,” Ortheus said, resting his hand on his shoulder. “And I expect that you won't do something wrong, am I right? You wouldn't do something foolish?”
Benjin looked into his piercing eyes, and he knew that his uncle suspected. The hand on Benjin's shoulder squeezed, fingers digging in, until it began to hurt.
“No, sir,” he murmured, wincing.
“Good boy,” Ortheus tousled his ragged brown curls before heading for the door. “The maid tells me dinner will be ready soon.”
“Thanks,” Benjin closed his book and put it back on the table. However, when Ortheus left he didn't get up. He was shaking all over. Ortheus knew. Benjin quickly decided that he would keep quiet, wouldn't cause any problems. Threatening his precarious situation would be foolish. He didn't want to end up on the streets. His uncle had threatened it on more than one occasion, but only after a difficult day at work. Or after a few drinks.
Someone is working against me. I want you to get rid of him.
Jacob was in trouble.
Benjin had spoken with Jacob only a few times. He was in his early twenties and spent most of his time working with his father. Benjin had liked him, his sense of humor, his friendly smile.
“Oh, this is so bad...” Benjin groaned.
He was still contemplating what to do about the awful situation when the dinner bell rang. It was a friendly call, and he could hear footsteps like a stampede heading for the kitchen throughout the house, mostly students. Other slower footsteps said that his uncle had invited a few teachers from the Academy to dinner. But they would eat separately; that would allow Benjin some breathing room. For a while.
When he stood and headed for the door, he knew he had to warn Jacob. It would be the right thing to do, however dangerous.
Even then, Ortheus's voice whispered in his mind, I expect you won't do something wrong, am I right?
“You're right,” he agreed. “I won't do something wrong.”