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Song Suggestion: River Flows In You by Yonezawa Sumitomo
Grayson Hafland was a thief. In Iviradelle, that was not a terribly strange thing to be; law abiding citizens that were not also Gentry had a bad habit of starving to death. There were plenty of men who spoke quietly of mercenaries brought from other lands or of trying to excite the people of Iviradelle into action, but he was not one of them; he believed that fighting men who could set you on fire before you were in stabbing range only ended up with a lot of unnecessary bodies.
Nor did Gray buy into the conspiracies that others whispered in the corners of taverns and along midnight river banks. The mental gymnastics of trying to believe the fantastic and ridiculous theories were tiresome and those people too often found their homes going up in flames, for to talk badly of The Coven was to invite death to your table. Gray thought that the more worthy something was of a conspiracy the less likely it was to remain a secret; people loved to talk and the only thing they liked to talk about more than themselves was a good secret. In short, Gray Hafland might not have loved The Coven, but he was content to stay silent and, more importantly, alive and that meant staying the hell away from anyone who did magic, talked about magic, or was under its protection. Some might have called him a coward, but never to his face, and he did not care if they did it behind his back.
It wasn’t as though The Coven tried to hide the terrible things they did. They didn’t have to. Maybe, once, they had needed to be secretive, but now they used their cruelty and foul deeds to frighten the people into utter submission. Any real rebellion that might have gotten started always ended when someone remembered the village along the banks of the Siradass, where someone had actually gotten about a hundred men armed and ready for war. The Coven had gone there and burnt those men in their armor. And when they were done with that, they had set fire to everything else, from livestock to infants, before walking away and leaving every other soul in Iviradelle terrified they might be next.
The Coven almost challenged the people of Iviradelle with its ability for horrendous acts; it quickly weeded out those who might have tried to be a hero. Any man who started talking about revolution was quickly turned into the authorities after that. Those who might have been strong enough to actually hurt The Coven were either in league with the weavers, or far too busy trying to survive. Gray did not try to excuse himself from this; he put himself in the last group. He’d been trying to survive since he’d been a child on the streets of Blossom Town and part of surviving was staying well under The Coven’s notice, something he’d always managed fairly well. Until now.
He’d always been quick. Slick as a greased cat, his sister had once said. It was only natural he’d end up a thief; he liked to eat and he didn’t much care for the Gentry and even if he had, working for them was nothing short of willful slavery. But he did not steal from The Coven. He only targeted the Gentry, of course; no-one else had anything worth stealing. But he only stole from those which were of no real interest to The Coven. In the ever shifting tide pools of favor and politics, it wasn’t easy to know who was under protection and who was dishonored, but Gray had a keen nose for those who were suffering from shame. Up until this night, he’d never failed in his assessments and there were few who cared to discover his identity; though the noble Gentry might, initially, be furious at his thefts, they were like spoiled children and often forgot the baubles and toys he had taken by the time they were again in favor and might demand justice.
And he hadn’t been wrong, exactly, about his target. They were, indeed, out of favor. More than that. He recognized them as having been out of favor long enough that they would soon be starving in the gutters with the rest of the commoners if they did not do something to regain their original positions. Their fine house had been nearly empty and the burnt remains in the fireplace looked suspiciously like a chair rather than true firewood. The carpets were threadbare and most of the rooms shut off and musty.
No. His mistake was in what he took. He had thought it was just a bauble, a pretty thing without any value beyond its beauty. A fake, of course, for the real thing would have been unthinkable in those surroundings. Only now, hiding in the rafters of an old barn, did he realize that it was real enough. A relic of the old kingdom, an object with True Power. And the weavers tracking him wanted it back badly.
Looking back, if he had simply taken a longer look at the stone, he would have guessed how authentic it was. He had mistook it for an imitation of the real thing because he was rushing; he had heard something from the upper floors and only been thinking of escaping. Now, though, he could feel it pulsing in his pocket, warm and alive and calling out to the fire weaver below.
All the weavers, eventually, could control all four elements. However, they were born with one that was stronger than all the rest, a talent that they were always more comfortable with. The one below him held a palm full of flames and the way he played with it, jumping it from finger to finger, twisting it around his wrist and hand and pouring it back into his palm told Gray that he’d been doing it so long he didn’t even realized he was doing it anymore. He looked like a child with a tic, a bully who had started a thousand fights this way and won most of them on sheer intimidation.
Gray saw things like this; in his line of work, they often saved his life. And now they told him a disturbing truth; it was common for thieves to be punished with public burning, which was bad enough, but if a fire weaver was involved, it was likely to include a lot of torture; a fire weaver could easily burn their victims just enough to hurt them badly without ever being in danger of killing them. A great fire weaver, one that had used his fire as a tool of torture even as a child, could keep someone alive for weeks, even months, until he’d burnt away everything that had made his victim human. He’d seen it happen before, to a thief that had been foolish enough to steal from a weaver. That it had been a public show was only slightly more terrifying than the fact that the public kept showing up to watch it, as though it was all just a couple of actors performing a play.
Gray stayed quiet, knowing it would do him no good, but hopeful anyway. He wondered how a family, especially one that had lost all its wealth, could have come by a true firestone. They weren’t common relics, even for the Gentry, who could not get their fill of magical things. Some said the Dwarves in Rhyador still found the veins of firesand in their mines, but no-one had seen any proof of that. Nor would a Dwarf shape a firestone, even if they did find it in its raw form; Dwarves did not trust fire. It was far more likely that they would call on the elves in Liranam to come and seal the dangerous substance away.
The Coven were the only ones that would have such rare relics, but Gray did not believe that the family would have stolen it. If they had, their house would have been a pile of ash. They would not have come into possession of the thing without knowing what it was; even the poorest man could identify a true firestone and knew what it was capable of. Which left Gray with a single, disturbing possibility. The stone had been a trap and he had stepped right into it.