Flash Fiction: Count the Hours (719 words)

Brance was waiting. The sun was barely above the horizon, the breeze still pretending to be one of the cool midnight whispers as it curled between the pillars of the practice court. The shadows were all dull in the weak light, but stretched out across the whole length of the floor, lazily. And Brance was already waiting.

Coming up the last of the stairs, Donnemey was pleasantly surprised. It was the first time the boy had been on time in almost a month. Last year, he would have complained to Brance’s bodyguard, Haldard, – last year, he had – but Brance had begun slipping away, disappearing, leaving his guard behind. Haldard wouldn’t have had any better luck than Donnemey himself.

He went to Damion instead. Seeing Brance standing in thick jacket and breeches, he knew he had done right. Striding through the pillars, he started to smile.

Brance turned to watch him come. It was so sharp, Donnemey missed the motion in a blink, then paused in his next step. Brance had gone still, his hands in his pockets, his chin set dangerously high. Donnemey’s smile widened. Let the boy yell a little. It was in his blood to dislike being told where to be. Nothing in his words or tone could matter, because he had already come when called.

“Good morning, my lord,” Donnemey called, coming toward him. He was still two strides away from a polite distance for carrying a polite conversation, but he had stolen the first word.

Brance met his eye as Donnemey took the last few strides, and his mouth twisted upward at one corner. “Good morning,” he returned when Donnemey had stopped. His hair was a little too long, and mussed this morning, as if he hadn’t looked at it in the mirror yet. His clothes were wrinkled, not sharply as if he had slept in them, but as if he had thrown on the same clothes from yesterday and not cared.

“Are you ready for today’s lesson?” Donnemey asked. He held one hand away from his side, letting the familiar chill film under his skin, and liquid blue-white flames drip off his palm. The heavy drops broke apart and curled into mist before they hit the floor. Something too bright for smoke puffed above his hand.

Brance looked at his fingers for a long moment, still quietly smiling, standing too still. Maybe it was the shift in light, the shadows coming off his hand, but Donnemey saw tiredness in the boy’s face now. As if he had stayed up all night. The lack of sleep was making him sharper, too awake in the dull hours of the morning.

“I don’t think I need you anymore,” Brance said quietly.

The fire on Donnemey’s hand crackled. There was a dim echo off one of the court’s walls. Brance watched Donnemey’s hand, and Donnemey watched his eyes follow the drops down.

Then Brance looked up, met his gaze, and smiled.

Donnemey stared at him.

Without another word, Brance stepped past him. In easy, measured steps, he strode across the open floor of the court. Donnemey listened to the tap of his heels, the high echo that followed, the whisper of the breeze as it picked up just a little. For a moment, he felt chilled, frozen inside his skin. Then he heard the words again, and couldn’t stand still. He spun to face Brance’s receding back

“Turn around!” he shouted.

Brance kept walking. He didn’t even look over his shoulder. And he looked so small, twelve-years-old, and still narrow from shoulders to feet.

“What do you mean, ‘you don’t think you need me anymore?'” Donnemey demanded.

At the pillars, Brance paused at the end of his next step. “I guess I mean that you can sleep in tomorrow,” he said. He spoke quietly, facing the wrong direction.

Donnemey almost jerked backward, realizing he was leaned forward to catch the steady words.

“You need training!” Donnemey shouted. “Without me, what do you think you’ll become?”

Brance was past the pillars now. “That’s exactly what I want to find out,” he said, the breeze mumbling the edges of his words.

Then he turned down the stairs and, step by step, disappeared.

Donnemey stood still, waiting for the boy to come running back. Then he realized he was shaking.

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