Flash Fiction: Two Stingrays (1228 words)

Jace waited in the empty hall for four hours, and began to suspect that he was not exactly waiting. He had arrived precisely on time, right in the middle of the noon time bells, and presented himself at the door to Master Durell’s study. Durell was a ruthlessly punctual man by all accounts, and Jace had no intention of offering offense on the first day of his tutelage. There was plenty of time for that later.

A servant answered the door and slipped out holding the door knob close behind him, in the apologetically rude way of a man whose master does not want to be seen. The servant told Jace to wait a quarter hour. Master Durell would be right with him. Jace tried to accept it with grace, and rocked back a few steps and watched the door.

It was a pleasant door: rich, red wood a height and a half tall, carved into eight squares each with a picture of animal in fine detail. Jace could only positively identify a few of them, but he suspected their activities meant more to the artist than their species. Two were hunting, two were flying, two were digging, and two were sleeping. A rounded life: active and inactive, lofty and base. Jace would have expected the design on a philosopher’s door before a historian’s, but he wasn’t shocked. From what he knew, Durell played in many areas of study, which was exactly what made him an appealing teacher.

The quarter hour passed and the door seemed less pleasant. Jace turned his attention to the echoing conversations farther down the hall, but got bored trying to sort out the mottled syllables. No one passed him, and he saw no one walking at either end. The conversation, might have been ghosts, for all he knew.

He waited a while longer.

The wide hall was decorated in great squares of subdued color, each one with delicate patterns of filigree falling down the wall like the blooming white water of a waterfall. Jace traced the curls and arches for a few minutes, content to let his eye fall from line to line in the sway of the pattern. It took Jace a long time to find the names in the lines, the small letters with their own curves and pattern. They were family trees, laid out with a genealogist’s precision and an artist’s eye. He read a few names, traced a few generations on a nearby tree, and kept his attention on the door.

The bells rang the first afternoon hour and Jace was annoyed. They rang the second and he was tired of standing. They rang the third. He was angry. They rang the fourth and he felt and idiot standing in between walls of lessons and staring at a door with eight animals on it and an ambuscading master behind it. With a sigh, Jace wandered up and down the hall, stopping at each tree to mark out what it was, and moving on. At the end, he selected the only tree without names on it: a history of the Sea Clans marked out in the symbols they assigned themselves. It was the one he was least familiar with, and the simplest. Jace planted himself in front of it, started to memorize it, and waited.

Within ten minutes, he heard Master Durell’s door creak open down the hall. Jace thought up a long list of swear words, but didn’t say them, not sure whether they should be aimed at Durell or himself.

Durell ambled down the hall, unhurried as he examined both Jace and the wall he had selected. He had a dull brown hair, and a short brown beard with streaks of gray on either side of his chin. His shirt and breeches were plain cloth, but his coat was embroidered and seemed half cloak the way it swelled around him. His shoes were expensive leather. When he stopped in front of the Sea Clan tree, he looked a little amused.

“I like this one too,” he said.

“I was surprised,” Jace said, trying to sound just as unruffled. “I thought there would be more than eighteen Clans.”

“Nineteen,” Durell corrected. He pointed up to the top, and a pair of fish circling each other in the filigree.

Jace crossed his arms over his chest, hiding clenched fists.

“But, yes,” Durell continued. “Your part of the coast always seems to think there are hundreds of Clans sailing the ocean and parading through ports. I’ve met people who are surprised there is more than one. But numbers stopped surprising me a long time ago. I like the stories here, the who-stabbed-who, and who-mutinied, and who-just-ate-the-wrong-chicken behind each of these births.” He pointed to a few symbols at random. “Much more interesting than and then Eren begat Tomei and Tomei begat Dierk.

“Enlighten me?” Jace asked, and he made sure it came out a question instead of a scoff.

Durell paused for a moment, then pointed up to a string of four symbols – crescent moon, curled wave, shark fin, four-point star – falling in as straight a line as the filigree would allow, one Clan splitting off the last. “There,” he said, smiling like he’d just located the prettiest girl in the room. “Every few generations that Clan splits. It’s always for a different reason, though the fact that it happens over and over might suggest that their governance simply doesn’t work once it exceeds a certain population. But it’s always the same family, at the forefront of the revolution, splitting off, taking new water and half the Clan with it. Maybe they like revolutions. Maybe they like the challenge of hardship and reinvention. Maybe they’re just a little mad.” He raised his eyebrows at Jace. “And you’d think that the Clan would notice that the family has that tendency. Maybe barricade against their trouble? But they don’t. They carry on like the family as trustworthy as the sun. Even while every Clan around them braces for their next civil war. You’d think they learn. But maybe the rest of them like revolution too.”

“Is that what all this is for?” Jace asked, glancing along the hall. “Teaching us what to expect from our future?”

Durell chuckled to himself. “Doomed to repeat ourselves?” he murmured. He looked at Jace out of the corner of his eye. “Is that what you think history is for?”

Jace bit down on his immediate response, knowing he’d set his own trap. “I think it’s here to teach us patience,” he said slowly.

Looking even more amused, Durell faced him directly. “Really?”

Jace nodded. “Yes, sir. It’s here to remind us that the world has been around for a great long time before us, and that it will survive us by a great long time as well. There is no need to rush it.”

“Clever boy,” Durell said.

“Of course,” Jace added. He wished he hadn’t as soon as he saw Durell’s attention narrow back to him again. “It also teaches us about change, about how quickly things can move, and sometimes should move. When we’re there at the right time, say?”

Durell blinked.

Jace held his breath.

“We’re going to get along like two sting rays in a wading pool,” Durell said. He gave Jace a low smile, that was neither comforting, nor altogether malignant. “Should be fun.”

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