Flash Fiction: Rumor Runners (807 words)

The halls in Lord Ryden’s estate were quieter than the ones in the Clan Lord’s court. There, Karleigh always shared the wide halls with faces she knew. Friends and acquaintances would pass her in both directions, chatting in small knots, or they lounged on the couches to read and play cards. Sometimes, they just stood at the windows waiting for their friends to arrive. Silence only slipped in late at night.

Here, at the right time of day, Karleigh could walk alone with her echoes. She had never expected that at the home of the First Lord. He was second only to the Clan Lord, and she assumed that his halls would be almost as full, situated in the center of his own busy island.

Surprising as it was, she couldn’t decide if the quiet suited her or not.

Karleigh had been wandering for a little under half an hour when she saw Jaera standing in the hall. The younger girl had her back to the wall, her shoulder inches from the frame of a large double door. She glanced up when she heard footsteps, and offered an easy smile.

“Toar’s inside,” Jaera said as Karleigh stopped in front of her. She tilted her head toward the door.

Karleigh nodded. Her uncle had left for the estate early that morning, and she’d meant to run into him. They were supposed to eat lunch together, and as little time as she spent on the island, she didn’t mean to let one of his promises slip by.

“Is he likely to be out soon?” she asked.

Jaera’s mouth twisted as if that was a funny question. “Maybe,” she said. “He’s meeting with Lord Ryden. If business goes well, it could be a long time.”

“If it goes badly?” Karleigh asked curiously.

Jaera’s smile stretched farther. “It might be very quick.”

Karleigh laughed softly. “I didn’t know he took you along for things like this.”

“Apprentices go wherever their masters go,” Jaera told her.

“And he leaves you out in the hall…” Karleigh said. She tilted her head, waiting for Jaera to explain how those two facts fit together.

“Sometimes,” Jaera said. She nodded with a small resettling of her shoulders that might have been a shrug. “Some things, I’m not allowed to hear.”

“And you just wait?” Karleigh asked.

Jaera nodded. “I just wait.”

Karleigh almost laughed again. She had another question on the edge of her tongue, but held it back as she heard someone else coming, just behind the corner. Three men appeared. The foremost moved at a steady pace, one arm holding a stack of papers to his chest, while the other two lagged behind a step and a half. They were talking quietly, joking, it seemed, though it was hard to tell. They dropped their voices when they saw the two girls, and moved just a little closer together.

They nodded to Karleigh. She nodded back, then dropped her eyes to the carpet as they came closer, letting them pass.

The nearer they came, the less their whispers hid their conversation. She was surprised when she heard Toar’s name, then Jaera’s. Nothing about their tone was a greeting. If anything their voices dropped farther and took a hissing quality that made them sound like snakes as they came closer.

Jaera straightened beside her. Karleigh glanced over.

Jaera’s chin was parallel to the floor, relaxed as if that was how she always stood. Her smile had not quite faded, though it lurked at the corners of her mouth more than it lit her face. Her eyes had gone very steady. She didn’t blink. She didn’t turn toward anything else in the hall. She simply met each of their eyes, one at a time as they passed.

It was too brief a contact to be called staring, and too hard to be an accidental glance. She didn’t look angry or offended, hurt or amused. She just looked, one at a time, and let her eyes flick away.

Two of the three men went quiet. The third was still murmuring, like his tongue was running on its own. Karleigh didn’t blame any of them. Quick as her look had been, there was some force to it, like an unexpected shadow that could almost have been a trick of the eye, but left you feeling followed.

Karleigh stayed quiet until they’d turned the next corner, and Jaera stayed still. Finally, they both shifted and relaxed.

“Do you know them?” Karleigh asked.

Jaera shook her head once. “I know of them.”

Karleigh hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to ask anything more. Finally, she allowed herself the plainest one to come to mind: “And he just leaves you out here?”

Jaera faced her quickly, maybe surprised. She blinked.

“Yes,” Jaera said slowly, without apology or dejection in the simple syllable.

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