A Pretty Word

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Series Listing

Falhaer - 03. Kingdom

Of Many Colors

Land of the Five Cities - 03. Kingdom

Baker of Souls

Land of the Five Cities - 04. Rebel Council 02

The Commerce of Hearts

Land of the Five Cities - 04. Rebel Council 03

A Pretty Word

Story Within a Story - Esiran Desert Myth

Night Bride

A Pretty Word

For a little food and comfort, all Jaspen needs to do is betray.

Kindia is a street writer with the power to make the words she writes come true. Jaspen is a watchman with a mandate to haul in any of the powerful for destruction by the rebel council. One cold night, Jaspen’s world collides with the consequences of the powerful and must make a decision that could change everything.

Land of the Five Cities - 04. Rebel Council 03
Breath Fantasy
Short Story

She was a dangerous sort of writer, the kind who was sought out in back alleyways and offered thick marble rods as long as her own hand to just write a word, any pretty word, to comfort a poor lost soul. Lost from family, from friends, from work—it didn’t matter. The requests were the same, interspersed, of course, with the occasional visit of a plain-clothes watchman in disguise to make sure she did not breathe on any of the words.

As if the words were the issue.

Kindia snorted out a steamy huff of disgust into the chilled alleyway. Breath of a soul, the skin of a human vessel, something tangible to make it take… These were the tools of her trade, the implements of her power, and it was an easy thing to keep her hands full of breath without a soul suspecting.

Keeping the wrong folk unsuspecting meant her life now that the Old King was dead. She walked the back streets of the city where people tended to forget she and the other powerful existed if they just stayed out of sight. The rebels hated the powers, hated the powerful. Well, except the bakers—kind of necessary, them—and the former enforcers of the Old King’s guard who could raise the war again if they were forbidden.

They offered service enough for folk like Kindia, who had no other way to earn a coin, but she had seen the heartless, the downtrodden poor who sold off their passions and feelings for enough coin to feed their children. She sold her own banned power to save herself from such a fate.

Just write a word, any pretty word, to comfort a poor soul on a cold, dark night, lost from any other comfort.

“Madém?”

Upon hearing the honorific, she looked up from the brick back wall of the service shop she’d staked out earlier in the evening, before the city lights had been glowed. A street man, he looked like—could be just poor—stricken with age and bent-bone disease: dark skin and knobby hands, bundled up in thick mismatched coats and leggings under boots hardly thicker than night-time socks. Kindia could read the empty lostness in his muddy brown eyes.

“Cold?” she asked, ever the caustic.

The man bobbed his head, implored with those knobby fingers, wrapped in thin scarves he’d ripped tenderly in two. “Write me a warm?” His voice was dry and husky. The old man may not have been long for the world with a rasp like that.

Kindia nodded and settled into a crouch, still leaning on the wall. Crouching left her more options if a watchman should decide to try bludgeoning her for the craft. She rubbed her hands together, as if for warmth, breathed on them, and looked up speculatively at the old man. “You got coin, frít?”

He showed a gap-toothed grin, pleased at her naming him a respected patron. Pleased enough to flash his coin. Pleased enough to not hurt her when she snatched it in that flash.

Paper.

A scrap from the alley would do. For merely malachite, not quite a meal, she would not part with the sheets she’d bought down the front streets three weeks back. One malachite coin wasn’t worth enough to line her own fingers with carefully ripped scarves tied about the palms. But it was enough to write.

Warm your hands; you’ll never thirst. Warm your heart; you’ll never hunger. Warm your soul; the vessel conform.

Price: something back street people rarely thought about, something front street people never thought about, though she wrote the price in every line. She could write in power, but few would ever receive the blessings of her breath.

“Take it,” she said and flashed him a smile when she passed the paper.

The old man frowned. Her smile faltered. He knew she hadn’t breathed on it. An odd clarity glittered behind his eyes.

She scowled. “What? You wanted a pretty word? You have one.” Not a word that would come to life, not a breathed word, the heavens forbid. She hadn’t breathed on the paper, and he would never pay the price she wrote within those lines and know that it wasn’t the words that mattered. He would never guess she was a powerful. “Take it,” she shoved the words at him angrily.

His eyes darkened—not muddied; she cursed: the man must have taken strong power to have escaped her discerning eye—and he backed away from her, one hand lifted shakily in defense. “‘Scuse, madém. Thank you.” That gap-toothed smile, the shuffling step out of the alley.

Kindia comforted herself as she gathered her things to move on. A precaution, some would say unnecessary. Perhaps, he was not a watchman—her inner cynic snorted at the idea—and she likely had little to truly worry about. He would never pay the price.

~

Jaspen was the sort of washed up fellow that years and years of ranking service turned out as soon as the skin began to sallow, the joints to stiffen, or the hair to turn empty as the white of milk. He was assigned to street watching. Every coin paid out from the rebel council was earned by another poor washed up man or woman being put away or destroyed for daring to keep the powers alive.

Ah, they weren’t the sorts of things that could be easily played with, or even done away. Powers kept the children alive; powers breathed into every soul; powers brought life; powers maintained life; powers were from birth within the vessels of the men and women who wielded them. To destroy the vessel of a person was death. To scrub the power from a vessel was all but impossible.

He stared down at his own vessel now, weak and stiff, wrapped in any scrap of powerless cloth he could find to keep himself warm. And in his hand that bit of castaway paper with a neat, scrawled message. He needed food, and he’d only get that by turning in a real, unlawful powerful in exchange for his weekly pay.

Warm your hands; you’ll never thirst, read the note.

Jaspen glanced up and looked about him. The Taken City was beautiful; its shimmering buildings on the main streets glowed with magnificent arrays of taken colors—effective colors, fraught with powers such as strength and illusion. The less fortunate streets, but still respectable, lined their glass windows with gold and silver and stacked the walls with brick. Other streets, more hidden and dangerous, darted like snakes past shimmering marbled steps and between comfortable, prosperous little neighborhoods. They hissed with the steam of heating and cooling vents and the vented curses of the poverty-stricken residents of their city.

He knew he could beg his way into a warm cookery and order a pot of broth to eat. It would warm his insides and his hands, but it cost stones he did not have. As it was, the malachite provided to pay out to the suspect were barely tinkling in his pocket when he shook them.

The alleys then—hidden as his own demise could be for daring to walk them.

Jaspen did not often know fear. It was hardly the friend of the watchman, nor was it the bedfellow of a former warrior. But age struck the fearless and the fearful alike. Few wanted his sorry old person, and he counted that to work in his favor.

He picked his way carefully through the gentle motion of a shopping throng. Delicate ladies and quiet, shy children clinging tightly to their hands, out to sample the delicacies of the cookeries and the sculptors. Down past the shop of a Collector; he did not allow himself to look beyond the glass at the buying and selling of hearts, but continued to a turning of steps toward the heart of the city.

Into the side way he went and found heat billowing out of the back of a small brick shop. Wide, circular—he judged it a glass sculptor’s abode. Others had come before him, a scrawny old woman and a thin, young man, not old enough yet to be castout, but Jaspen questioned not. He stepped into the heat and lifted his hands.

Feeling slowly returned into the gnarled fingers. He gasped, opening his mouth—his companions flinched away from the breath—and felt the heat dry his throat until he choked.

Thirst. He stumbled away, stumbled hands into the wall to hold him aright. He was thirsty.

~

Warm your heart; you’ll never hunger. Few in all of the Taken City did not know the meaning of heart—the heartless had seen to that: the seat of all feeling, entirely divorced from memory or moral compass.

Jaspen found what he wanted barely a step up from the twisting behind street where he had warmed his hands. A young girl with a soft cloud of pretty auburn hair whipped her head back and forth as her young green eyes searched for her lost parent. The child could not have been older than Jaspen’s youngest granddaughter, who had passed her fifth year this summer.

He approached the little one, smiling and hesitant, as befitted the bideless man he appeared to be. “Where you hale, midíam?” He addressed her as the daughter of a high lady.

The girl lifted her head and looked at him. Her straight back befitted the daughter of wealth. She clearly recognized the form of address. Servants in her household then.

She placed two fingers on her chin, bewildered. She shook her head and auburn sparks went flying. Jaspen reached to smooth her hair, but halted himself before he violated her vessel by touching it. “Come now, midíam,” he said instead. “Let us find your lady mother.”

She trailed him politely, pointing out whatever shops her mother had entered. At last, a sobbing woman dressed in sweet pale blue scooped up the girl into her arms and thanked him. “You have no idea how much she means to me!” the woman cried, all decorum forgotten.

Jaspen smiled, bobbed his head with proper hesitance. He did not hope for a coin, though it would have been appreciated. The nobility may be grateful to such as a servant, but they were not in the habit of paying them. But somehow, the lack of potential reward made his deed seem sweeter. The girl clung to her mother and he thought he could see his grandchild, who he had not seen since the watchmen moved him to the streets. He felt warm pinpricks in his heart.

But as he passed the next cookery, his stomach growled. He was hungry.

~

“Jaspen, my fellow!” The chief watchmen of the night slapped Jaspen’s shoulder so hard that it hurt his shaken bones. “You have been out too long this night. You must be cold.” He offered his own spiced brew to Jaspen. It was clearly warm and smelled strong and pleasant.

Jaspen shakily shook his head. No. He was saying no to a brew that would almost serve as a meal if he sipped it slowly. “Thank you, chief,” he answered quietly. It would not do to displease the man, but it would be far worse to accept a favor and then not deliver. “I found only a scrip writer.”

The chief put a frown on his pasty face. Scrip writers were powerless. They offered pretty words, yes, but powerless words. They did no harm, for certain.

“Ah, well.” The chief slapped Jaspen’s shoulder again, as if in camaraderie. Jaspen winced. “There’s always tomorrow night,” the chief assured him.

“Yes, chief.” Jaspen bobbed his head. “Always tomorrow.”

~

He went out into the cold night with nothing to warm him, save for the cloths he had wrapped around his hands and stuffed in the layers of his coat earlier. He felt cold inside as well. He had not put effort toward proving the third phrase of the note: it was impossible to warm a soul, that long-swallowed bread of the newborn child.

“Ah, you young ones,” Jaspen murmured as he looked out across the city. “You will understand when you are old.”

The hours had deepened and night grown cold. There were dangerous men and women about now. The former enforcers and wranglers, the former warriors and assassins, the former thieves and guardsmen, now in whatever occupation could hold them glided silently over the streets with their hooded eyes and armored coats, on their ways to whatever comforts drew them, home or cookeries. What did it matter? They were young. They had work. Or at the very least, they could take or sell their heart.

Jaspen would not let himself fall so low until he had no choice. And so he made his way slowly across the street toward his own home, settled beneath a cookery eave, where it was warm and watched by the younger watchmen, where safety and the occasional bowl of broth awaited.

A cold prickle ran along his spine. He stopped, all the old senses from wartime coming alert. There were too many people about to know what had set off his trigger.

But no… Jaspen took off with a burst of speed he did not know he still had toward the corner of the street, turning down into steps, where a black-coated wrangler held a young woman up by her scruff and flung her toward the hard brick wall of a nearby cookery.

Somebody cried out, but Jaspen could not hear it. He launched his entire old gaunt vessel between the woman and the wall and caught her in his arms before his back hit the wall and exploded with pain. The agony intensified and he gasped. He felt the skin break, the pooling of blood. Surely, his vessel was finished; his path over.

What better way? He would die for the blessing of another.

A sudden warmth startled through his limbs. He stared wide-eyed and frightened into the wide, frightened eyes of the woman in front of him. The familiar woman. The scrip writer.

He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped at the shudder through his frame. His thirst quenched. His fingers ungnarled. His stomach filled. His vessel filled with a sense of wholeness and well-being that should have been impossible..

And then it hit him. No scrip writer, she. She was a powerful. The words breathed.

“Madém,” he stammered.

The woman flinched and drew away.

He could exchange her for stones, buy food, maybe find a place better than a mere eave.

Jaspen smiled and bobbed his head. “Thank you, madém.”

She stared at him, gaping.

He turned, pleased with the ease of motion, and flexed his healed fingers. He laughed and walked out into the night.

Warm your soul; the vessel conform.

#


Breath Fantasy

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