Flash Fiction: Hiding Places (1555 words)

The church was built in three aisles. The wide center stripe was splashed with sunlight from high windows with benches tucked around the edges. People sat or stood, talking quietly in the calm. A row of stone arches marked out aisles on either side, shadowed and cool. The walls were washed white so the lines of black ink were stark even in the dim light, spelling out the names of the dead. The crowd there moved, slow steps in an ever-winding circle around the building as they searched the walls for family and friends. They whispered their conversations. It sounded like a breeze had snuck past the doors, and the people let it tug them around the room, not because it was that strong, but because they were that polite.

Zain leaned his shoulder against the wall just inside the front doors, arms crossed over his chest, and watched. Passing him, one of the priests looked at him reprovingly. He was blocking the door and prayer had never been a spectator sport. He murmured a quick apology and kept scanning the crowd.

It took him a long time to finally spot her, standing at the back corner of the church on the right side. She was alone, reading the wall, while the rest of the crowd moved around her. Dressed in a long dark gown and standing still, she blended into the dim lighting, though he didn’t think that was her intention. Her blonde hair was curled and pinned, falling elegantly down the back of her head. Her gown was rich, embroidered at the edges and the skirt hung in perfect folds around her. She looked like she expected to be seen, even as she quietly ignored everyone around her. It was exactly what Zain imagined from a woman who had been raised at court.

Descending the handful of stairs to the main level of the church, he slipped into the flow of the congregation. He let the crowd carry him the length of the church, then stopped quietly beside her. “Karleigh, isn’t it?” he murmured.

She was tall, only two or three inches shorter than him. Looking over, she caught his smile and looked down immediately, dipping a perfect curtsey. “Milord,” she said.

“Terius said I might find you here,”  he said.

She nodded as she straightened again. “I am fairly predictable. He told me he didn’t expect you into port for a week.”

“I like surprises,” he said.

She smiled, like she knew something that made that twice as humorous. She hid it quickly, back to pleasant courtesy. “Would you care to walk with me?”

“You weren’t walking,” he said wryly. He glanced at the wall. They were newer names than he’d expected. Less than a year old. He looked at her curiously.

“I used to spend all my time over there,” she explained slowly. Taking a gentle breath, she nodded toward the opposite wall. “My parents’ names are there. My grandparents’. But after the shipwreck – after my uncle went missing – I came over here. I spend most of my time looking at where his name might have been. My family is gone. His name is the only one not on these walls, and I’ve never felt that absence so directly.”

“He’s not dead,” Zain assured her.

“Do you know that for certain now?” she asked. She looked up at him. “Last I’d heard, you couldn’t confirm.”

“We can confirm now,” Zain said.

Karleigh turned back to the wall, raising her eyebrows slightly. Her expressions were muted, standing in a public place, but she put a hand to her stomach, like she could hold a breath better than way. “So your trip was a success then?” she asked. It was a careful question, worded to avoid details she couldn’t ask from him, aware of how much he relied on being able to sneak through his business.

“Someone saw Nalem, out in public, but apparently not free,” he told her. He watched her face closely. “Your uncle is locked away somewhere, his usual uncooperative self. We hear he’s been teaching his guards new swear words.”

Without looking at him, Karleigh nodded. “And Jaera?”

Zain paused. He hadn’t expected her to ask. “Nothing yet,” he said. “A few rumors, but nothing that doesn’t sound like dolphin chatter. We’ll find her.”

“I hope so,” she said. He caught a twist in her expression, maybe something behind her smile, maybe just a shadow in the dim lighting. “Let’s take that walk,” she said.

Karleigh waited for him to start forward, then set her pace beside him, leisurely and graceful. They walked a few paces, moved a little to the left to fit more comfortably in the crowd, sped up a pace, slowed down, looked back at each other.

“We were surprised you decided to leave court,” Zain said amiably. “You’d been there so long, it seemed you might stay forever.”

“I might have if it weren’t for all this,” Karleigh said. “It’s pleasant enough. But I almost feel useful here, and I get my news faster.” She smiled warmly, thanking him.

“Terius told me he’s been happy to have you. He said you’ve been very calming, which I admit, is nothing I ever expected from someone related to Toar. He’s a good man, but he shouts a lot, helps you out when you need it, you always feel like you’ve just had a good sand scrub after he’s gone.”

She laughed softly. “Really?”

Zain tilted his head. “You don’t feel the same way?”

“Oh…” She looked down. “I suppose. I don’t know him very well.”

“But your parents…”

“I was very young. I don’t think he knew what to do with me,” Karleigh said quickly. “He didn’t know how to raise me, or he just couldn’t. He left me in the best place he knew. It turned out very well for me, with the single exception that I don’t know him.”

“But he raised Jaera?” Zain asked.

She laughed again. “Are you trying to make me jealous?” She shook her head. “She was his apprentice. I was his niece. He saw a difference. It didn’t matter that I didn’t.”

“So…” Zain hesitated, not sure whether to make the joke. “You were jealous.”

A low laugh that time. “Yes. Once upon a time.”

“What changed?” Zain asked.

“I met her,” Karleigh said simply.

Zain tilted his head, unsure.

“My uncle is not gentle,” she said. “And now, neither is Jaera. I am. That was the gift he chose to give me. I think it’s about equal to the attention he gave her.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, her mouth fading to a straight line. “Does that make sense, spy master?”

Zain blinked. “Well, that’s not my official title.”

“You care a great deal about bringing them home, don’t you?” she asked.

He slowed. She kept going for half a step, and turned back to look at him, expectant.

“Yes, of course,” he said.

“I’m not talking about bringing them back to the island,” Karleigh clarified. “You want to make sure they come home, to everything they had before.”

“Yes,” he said.

“Don’t look so surprised,” she told him. “You’ve been watching me for something, I just don’t know what. What is it you think I’m trying to steal from her?”

Zain looked her in the eye, but didn’t answer.

She laughed, too loud, and some of the people around them turned to look. “Is that a secret too? Something else you can’t tell me?” She stopped abruptly, turned her head and looked at him curiously. Then she glanced around, noticing the crowd. “Come with me,” she said, and swept out of the church.

It was hot outside, and the sunshine sank into his clothes as soon as Zain stepped out the front door. Karleigh blinked in the light, and her hair shone, and her dress turned from dark blue to shimmering gray. She walked, with all her elegance, away from the church and took a turn onto the first empty street she found. Then she waited for him to match pace beside her.

“Terius,” she murmured. “You think I’ll take Terius somehow.” She looked over when he didn’t answer. “I know they’re engaged.”

“He told you?” Zain asked.

“How does that work?” she continued, intent.

Zain shrugged. “A woman gets jealous, thinks another woman has stolen something from her, decides to steal something else to make it equal. Isn’t that what you talked about earlier? Everything becomes right again, once it’s equal again? It doesn’t even have to be conscious…”

Karleigh looked at him seriously. “I don’t want Terius.” Her voice was gentle as if they were still standing in the church. “Be careful, Zain.”

He hesitated. “I’m sorry?”

“How long have you been a spy for your cousin?” she asked gently. “Six months? And already you come home and see people like cards in a game, playing against each other for the win? Don’t do that. Terius hides in his work, because he can’t admit how much this hurts, I hide in a church, and I suspect you’ve convinced yourself you’re not hiding at all, playing this game.”

Zain stared at her.

“What?” Karleigh asked. “Just because it’s not your lover, or your uncle, you didn’t think you were hurting too?”

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One thought on “Flash Fiction: Hiding Places (1555 words)

  1. Gwen, we need to have a talk about you posting writing like this when I’m away. *goes back and rereads ad nauseum*

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