This is short.
He had expected to hate Flown Raven, and a part of him did. Especially Fiona’s manor. He didn’t even remember much of it from his childhood, but the place, every corner of it, screamed at him. It was drenched with loneliness and fear and self-loathing. He couldn’t think in there. He felt stupid and useless. And almost disoriented. He kept spewing illogical words. Not the kind of illogic that created confusion among anyone aside from other Sources. The kind of words that everyone could understand, but were utterly stupid. And he knew that. He just couldn’t help it. His jaws ached from clenching his teeth in an attempt to prevent himself from snapping at people who didn’t deserve to be snapped at. It didn’t always work.
And he could barely stand to be around Bailey, Fiona’s butler. Bailey had been working in the manor when Taro had been a child and virtually locked in his room. Taro knew that his parents would have been a nightmare to work for, and that Bailey would have been in a much lower position in the staff hierarchy at the time, with no power at all to affect any change or flout orders. Still, Taro couldn’t help feeling bitter resentment for the man. Bailey had done nothing to help a child. It was cold.
Yet Bailey was not only respectful, but seemed kind behind his reserve. Taro found this confusing.
The room he had been kept in, most of Fiona’s staff refused to enter. They hated the feel of it. Taro, once upon a time, would have disbelieved that such a thing as misery could be soaked up by the very walls. He had come to know better. Certainly he couldn’t step into it. It felt black and hard and suffocating.
He escaped from the manor as often as he could. He had no memory of the land and sea that surrounded the manor, and so in them he found it easier to breathe. And he liked the space. Aside from travelling from place to place, and other than the first eleven years of his life, he had been surrounded with high numbers of people. It wasn’t that he hadn’t enjoyed the company – in fact, for many years he had craved it and almost panicked whenever he was alone – but he found it was almost pleasant wandering around the estate with all that space and all that silence.
This day, though, he had a particular destination in mind, which took him towards the village. As he got closer, the odd person passed him. They exchanged greetings. Most of them were polite. Others, not so much.
Miller Elic Sreen positively glared at him. “You certainly enjoy the leisure of a titleholder, so why don’t you do your duty?”
There were some tenants who resented him for refusing the Westsea title when it had become available to him and enabling Fiona to take it. Something to do with bloodlines and family names. It was wildly illogical, and he couldn’t understand it. All of the Karish titleholders had been incompetent or negligent or both, and he’d never had a moment of training in the immense task of managing an estate.
Most of the time, he couldn’t be bothered responding to these accusations. It wasn’t as though they could pressure him into going after the title – which was illegal and could get him executed – as he had dealt with much more powerful opponents, such as the Emperor and the Dowager Duchess of Westsea. And it wasn’t as though he would change their minds. One couldn’t reason with the illogical.
However, when they attacked Fiona, which Taro believed Sreen was doing in an oblique fashion, he had to speak up.
“Have you never seen Lady Westsea?” he asked sharply. “How can you claim she never puts her hand to labour?”
Sreen crossed his arms with the air of a sullen youth. “I’ve never seen it.”
“Perhaps you should seek Healer Browne’s advice pertaining to your vision.”
“Perhaps you should dig up some honour.”
“Streaks conflict the sun.”
Sreen stared at him, clearly baffled.
That reaction could sometimes be frustrating, but right then, it was entertaining. “I’m surprised someone who claims endless toil can waste so much time on frivolous conversation.”
Sreen’s face exploded into crimson. “You dare say the livelihood of these people is frivolous?”
“Not people’s lives. This conversation. It lacks the power to change reality. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some leisure to enjoy.”
The miller clenched his fists.
Taro raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you going to strike me?”
The miller really wanted to, Taro could see it, but he held on to his control and stormed away, spouting a string of insults about Taro’s personality and ethics. Taro didn’t understand all of them, but they certainly had flair.
He continued on to the little field he’d discovered earlier, the one in which careless idiots rode horses over death-defying barriers that were placed too closely together. It wasn’t proper racing, but it was exciting to watch nonetheless. So far, the only participants he had seen had been the local High Landed. He supposed they would be the only ones with the time to indulge in such a useless activity.
As he drew near, he saw there was already a spectator present. A whaler, from the look of him. Broad and tall. And leaning on a crutch, his left leg wrapped.
Taro, once he was used to being at the Academy, had never been reluctant to talk to strangers. But in Flown Raven, it was hard to know who would rail at him for abjuring the title, something he’d never had to deal with before. And really, he just didn’t feel like propping up the weight, with everything else that was going on.
But the man had heard his approach and turned to look at him. He didn’t smile, but he didn’t scowl, either. “My Lord,” he greeted with a nod.
Taro stepped up beside him. “Ah, Source Karish, if you want to be correct.”
“Don’t either work?”
“Not legally, not anymore.” When he’d asked the Empress to cut his legal ties to his family, it meant eliminating any rights he might have had to any family title. People didn’t usually understand all the reasons he had for making such a request, and often thought him just a cold bastard for deserting, as they thought of it, his family and their responsibilities. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”
“’Cause we never met.” The whaler held out his hand. “Alan Dellwo.”
“Taro, if you’re of a mind to be informal.” From his grip, Taro could discern that Alan could crush the bones in his hand if he felt like it. But he didn’t. Taro respected that. “What happened to the leg?”
The whaler looked disgusted. “Tripped over an oar.”
“I … see.” That seemed a rather odd thing for a whaler to fall prey to.
“You can laugh.”
Taro was tempted to, but, “I could never laugh at someone else’s pain.”
Alan raised his eyebrows. “You’re a delicate sort, aren’t you?”
“In every way possible,” Taro responded in a flat voice.
“You’re supposed to disagree.”
Alan studied him for a moment. “How are people supposed to know what you are if you don’t tell them?”
“Do you go around telling everyone what you are?”
“If they ask flat out, aye. Doesn’t do anyone any good if you just let them believe the wrong thing, if they’re asking otherwise.”
He supposed that made sense. However, there were so many people who thought all sorts of crazy things about him. And even though those who honestly inquired into his true nature were of the minority, that was still a lot of people to be explaining himself to. “Don’t you live on the shore? Is it good for your leg, hobbling around on it like that?”
“I know my own leg and how hard I can work it.”
“Does Healer Browne agree?”
“Healer Browne can be overly fussy.”
“I haven’t noticed that.”
“You don’t know her very well yet.”
There was something about the man’s manner that Taro found relaxing. He couldn’t be sure of the source of this. It just seemed to him that the whaler was not, at that time at least, playing any sort of game. There were no hidden meanings behind his words or gestures. It was pleasant.
They watched the two madmen currently racing the field. There was something invigorating about watching them direct their horses through the obstacle course, human working with animal charging through a dangerous and difficult task. Taro wondered what it felt like, to ride in that manner. Like flying? “Do you do this?”
Alan snorted. “Don’t have a horse. Don’t have the time. Do you?”
“But you can ride?”
“Aye. Everyone in the Triple S has to learn.”
“Would it be safe for you to do something like that? You know, when you have to do … that stuff you have to do.”
Taro thought about it for a moment, examining the activity on the field. Then he looked at the whaler and grinned. “Probably not.”
“Then, something that stupid, you have to try it. It’s practically an obligation. I can introduce you about. Lord Shepherd is a good sort.”
It would be stupid. As a rule, he could feel the approach of events long before he was in the position of having to channel immediately, and he really had no fear that an event would hit him while he was mid-jump, with no warning. Still, events had been so unpredictable pretty much since he left the Academy, it really wasn’t wise to rely on past experience.
But risking his neck riding a horse too quickly over barriers too high or wide in too small a place, it was the first thing he’d felt any true excitement for since arriving in Flown Raven, vile place.
And the motto that if something was ridiculously stupid it must be attempted? He could get behind that.