Flash Fiction: Not Charity (1459 words)

The boy walked in, uniform jacket carelessly open, curly blonde hair probably finger-combed that morning and forgotten where it settled across his forehead. He was barely past twenty, but tall, and there were Captain’s stripes at his collar, almost hidden in the casual hang of the fabric. Two men stepped in behind him and stayed close behind his shoulders when he paused in the doorway. They didn’t wear uniforms, though the taller one’s breeches might have belonged to a set, and the shorter graying man’s pressed shirt looked like it belonged under something other than his homespun coat, but they moved when the boy moved, and answered to the smallest turn of his head.

Padraic flicked one look at them, and returned to shaping the gunwales standing on the floor of his workshop. He leaned into it with both hands, scraping them down to the proper angles, and ignored them. As a rule, He didn’t have any care to give for little lordlings.

“Hello,” the boy said, stepping up to the work floor. The men behind him held back a step, giving him what was probably meant to be called privacy. They were still only six feet away.

Padraic glanced at them first. Then he glanced at the boy. Then he looked back to his work and dragged the shaver down hard into the curve of the planking.

There was a small pause while the boy’s smile stretched a little. Squaring his feet on the floor, resettling his shoulders, he looked at Padraic and tried again. “I need some help.”

“You lost?” Padraic asked without looking at him.

“No, it’s not–” the boy began.

“Cause the only place offering help around here,” Padraic said, leaning into the gunwales again and not even bothering to raise his voice over the grumbling of the wood. “Is the manager’s office thataway.” He rocked his head over one shoulder and kept carving down. “And last I knew, they didn’t do much for free either.”

There was another small shuffle as the boy adjusted his feet again. Then he pulled a bag of coins out an inside pocket and dropped it onto the tool table at Padraic’s elbow. It fell fast and heavy, and clinged for a full second as the coins inside slid to a stop. Padraic stopped, looked at it, then examined the steady smile the boy was still wearing.

“I said help,” the boy told him. “Not charity.”

Careful not to brush the bag, Padraic set his scraper on the table. He clapped his hands to loosen the wood flecks clinging to his fingers, then wiped them down the sides of his heavy breeches. “What kind of help are you lookin’ for?” he asked, sparing an extra glance for both the men standing on the sideline.

“You’re Padraic?” the boy asked.

“Yeah,” Padraic said.

“You know who I am?”

Padraic busted through a smile at the arrogance of the question, before he could stop himself. “Are we supposed to have met already?” he asked. “Sorry, no, I don’t remember you.”

“We’ve never met,” the boy said, and it was the calmness of it that made Padraic drop back into his flat expression on the next breath. “But if you’re the man to give me the help I need, you’ll still be able to tell me my name.”

“Your name?” Padraic repeated.

The boy nodded, and then shut his lips carefully, in just such a way that Padraic knew he wasn’t going to hear another word from him until Padraic came up with the correct answer. Padraic blinked at him. Then, he leaned back and he looked.

He was a Captain, but there were fifty of those that went through the manager’s office every month, and he’d been working in the workshop behind it for almost thirty years. He’d seen a lot of Captains, too many to run down the list and find him by elimination.

He was a Sea Clan Captain. The uniform was just sharp enough to belong to a man who cared, but worn like he’d had it on for a long time. The way he walked was a little loose for land too, a little too careful in its grace as if he was used to the ground beneath his feet suddenly pitching to one side, and he was prepared to step right through the change. He was definitely one of those that was raised on water, who spent more days there than on solid ground. If there was any doubt, it was stolen away by the strip of leather wrapped around his wrist, with one of their symbols studded into it.

But the way his jacket was hanging, Padraic couldn’t make out what the symbol was, only caught the shine of the gold it was made from. He realized that the boy had gone perfectly still, hiding the symbol in his motionlessness. Padraic considered taking one step to the side to get a better look, but couldn’t bring himself to do it if the boy had set the angle so purposefully. Somehow, it felt like the kind of cheating that would bite his pride fiercely after he did it. He glanced to the other two, found the same leather on their wrists, stamped out in fine silver instead, and only ciphered out a wing.

The wing had feathers. It wasn’t hard to figure it was some sort of bird, and from there, that it was the Sea Hawk he’d seen often enough on the wrists of the Isander. They came through this port often enough, though not so much of late.

Padraic looked back at the boy’s wrist. That hawk was definitely gold. He risked turning his head a little, looking for a glint of jewels out of the corner of his eye. There was something there, a green stone, but it was small, and Padraic suspected it was just as single stud for the bird’s eye. The boy was one of their high nobles. This wasn’t any relation of their Clan Lord, but he was only one or two steps below him. Some man in the First Lord’s family, then. One of the Visade.

Padraic could say that safely enough. There were plenty of Visade Captains running the water. The blonde hair fit. The height fit. The quiet command fit, though he was starting to be impressed, despite himself. The family had several islands to their name, and more than once the family had taken the whole Clan. There had been a steady rumor for years now, that they might do it again. The Clan Lord was only ten, after all, and even a twenty-odd pup would look steady next to that.

Terius Visade, the First Lord’s only son and heir was supposed to be just past twenty, in fact, full-grown, winning sea battles, and surviving ship wrecks, if the stories Padraic was hearing were true. He glanced over the boy, then stopped himself. He was the right age, and he’d heard a couple of girls swoon over the charming slant of the heir’s smile, but this boy wore more than a slant. This one was cocky, and Terius had eight male cousins to choose from.

When he figured it out, Padraic stopped himself before he smiled, and tried to count how many seconds it had taken him. He weighed whether it would be more impressive to stretch the time a little longer, or snap the name out as quick as he could. He rocked back on his heels and settled on lifting his chin and laying it out, lazy but clear. “You’re Zain Visade.”

The boy didn’t blink. “Am I?”

“Zain Visade,” Padraic said again, and said it slower still, like a recitation. “Born a nephew to First Lord Ryden Visade, and raised his son. Officer onboard The Zealot, when it wrecked, and supposedly, he never came up for air after it went down. Supposedly, he died.”

The boy raised his eyebrows, slowly, like he couldn’t quite believe the idiocy of what he’d just heard. “You have one chance to guess my name, and you choose the name of a dead man?”

Padraic shrugged. “You look like the kind of kid who could convince Fate that she’d numbered his days wrong, and tell Death to shove it.”

Slower still, the boy grinned. He looked helplessly to one of the men beside him. “Well… Matteo?”

Matteo, the taller of the two, rolled his shoulders back idly. “He’s right, Zain.”

Zain nodded, but he didn’t look sure.

“Except for the part where I’m dead.”

“Except for the part where you’re dead,” Matteo agreed. “But it’s not the craziest rumor I’ve heard about you.”

Looking at Padraic, Zain cocked his head to one side. “I’ve never been dead before.”

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