This story is part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection.
Emiel was twice a heretic.
When he rejected the Twelve Gods for Adolsin, the church labeled him a heretic. And when he held onto the Twelve Gods’ powers after pledging himself to Adolsin, even his fellow heretics called him a heretic.
The numerous enemies Emiel had gathered over the years caused many near-death experiences. But he didn’t mind. Enemies made escapades more fun.
Emiel landed softly on the cold stone floor, his rope dangling beside him. He scanned the area. No guards this time of night. He stretched. Kesean always said he stretched like a cat. He was never sure whether she meant it as a compliment or not.
His back cracked. He grimaced. Hiding above the chapel’s rafters for seven hours had stiffened all his joints. Orin had suggested that he disguise himself as part of the wall. Unfortunately, Emiel’s shapeshifting powers didn’t work that way.
Emiel padded along the stone floor toward the exit. A chill crept through his socks. He probably should have worn shoes. But shoes were so unnatural. How could he stay on his toes if he couldn’t feel the surface he was standing on?
He arrived at twin doors adorned with fancy carvings intended to honor the Twelve Gods. As if the Twelve Gods gave a rat’s tail for the happenings on earth. Emiel considered finding a knife to make some interesting changes to the carvings. But he wasn’t sure Adolsin approved of vandalism—even if he would be defacing false deities. And Emiel had a job to do. He pushed the doors open and tiptoed into the main hall of the manor.
No guards in sight. Perfect. Emiel slipped down the hallway, winding the directions he’d memorized through his head. Turn right at the frayed tapestry, go straight past the double stairs (avoid being distracted by the gorgeous artwork in the entry hall), and descend the spiral stairs, then finagle his way past a couple guards, obtain the key, and get the goods.
Emiel turned at the tapestry and emerged in the upper part of the entry hall. Double stairs extended into the foyer below, where an immense painting of the Great Creation of the Twelve hung above three doors leading to the rest of the mountain city. Emiel blinked. So idolatrous. So beautiful. The Damian-era framing of the scene was breathtaking. People didn’t produce masterpieces like that anymore.
Emiel forced himself to move on and ducked into the spiral staircase. He eyed the rough walls as he descended. No attempts to conceal the uncut stone here. As rumored, parts of the manor tunneled deep into the mountain. The staircase exceeded the length Emiel thought was reasonable for a treasury. How had they recruited the manpower to excavate the stone? A god-blessed? But Felnir took pride in being one of the rare “free cities” that hadn’t been conquered by a god-blessed yet. How ironic if their manor had been built by one.
More likely, the staircase had been constructed by slaves. Thank goodness for “free cities.”
After Emiel had huffed and puffed down countless stairs, torch light glimmered ahead. He’d be in view of the guards any moment. He rubbed his palms together. He knew exactly who he wanted to masquerade as—the high-nosed, pale-skinned guard he’d seen earlier. Emiel didn’t like innocent people to get blamed for mischief he committed while impersonating them. But a jerk? That was a different matter entirely.
Emiel concentrated on his memory of the man’s appearance as he rounded the corner. The two guards blocking the treasury door spotted him immediately. His head began to ache. Cloaking himself was easy with only two people for an audience, but it did take a toll.
“If you would step aside for a moment,” Emiel said, trying to imitate the guard’s snooty voice. His blessing allowed him to change how others saw his appearance, but unfortunately didn’t affect his voice. He cleared his throat. “Lord Aren wanted me to—”
One of the guards stepped into the light, and Emiel stared into the dumbfounded face of the man he was replicating.
“Well, it was worth a shot,” Emiel muttered. He grabbed the pike from the quivering hand of the snooty man’s comrade.
The snooty man opened his mouth. “Sto—”
Emiel rammed the butt of the pike into his gut. What a dimwit. The other guard reached for his horn, but Emiel kicked him. He was good at kicking. Except when he struck metal-plated greaves instead of bare shins. His right foot blossomed in pain.
The guard pressed the horn to his lips. Emiel pounced, bashing his skull against both the horn and the guard’s nose. The man toppled as he fumbled with his horn. Emiel threw a punch and knocked him out cold.
Emiel slowly brushed himself off. This is why you shouldn’t let crazy men steal spears from you. He quickly fished around for the keys, then unlocked the door to the treasury. He scampered inside and untied the bag from around his waist. The lord had so many excess coins that surely he wouldn’t mind if Emiel permanently borrowed a couple.
He filled his bag and slung it over his shoulder with a smirk. Orin had warned him that the heist might be dangerous. But Orin had failed to count on his courage and wit. Sneaking out would be a cinch. He spun the key ring around his fingers as he exited the treasury.
The horn blared.
Emiel whirled. The guard, still looking dazed, was blowing the horn so hard that his face reddened. All for some misplaced coins? Emiel snarled and ran up the stairs. They’d probably made the staircase annoyingly long to hinder escape. Footsteps pounded above. Emiel swallowed. A normal man would be trapped.
But he wasn’t a normal man.
The snooty guard would be the perfect disguise. He conjured up the image as he rounded a corner and collided with a group of guards. Emiel gasped and pointed downward. “The blond thief nearly killed me!” He adjusted his appearance so that blood oozed from his chest. “I barely escaped with my life.” Projecting an illusion into the minds of six men intensified his headache. He clutched his chest and pressed himself and the bag against the wall to give the guards room.
The lead guard drew his sword. “Can you get to the infirmary?”
Emiel nodded quickly. “Go stop him.”
“We will,” the lead guard said. The group galloped down the stairs to capture the imaginary thief.
Emiel blinked as the headache faded. So long, idiots. He’d sounded nothing like the snooty guard, and why would they believe a man fleeing from the crime scene? Fortunately, when officials continually proclaimed that god-blessed couldn’t enter the city, people believed it and didn’t think to question peculiarities.
Emiel finished ascending the stairs and sped toward the entry hall. The bag of coins bounced and jingled on his back. If anyone was watching, the racket would be suspicious for a solitary guard. Perhaps he could say he had lots of change in his pockets.
But guards had no pockets. The stout merchant he’d seen setting up for market would have ample space for pockets. A merchant wouldn’t be scuttling around a palace during a theft unless he was guilty though. And Emiel didn’t like to incriminate innocent people.
A trio of guards burst out of a side corridor while Emiel was still debating. Their mouths dropped open.
Shoot. Too late to retract the questionable disguise.
“What are you—” A guard sputtered.
“Bye!” Emiel took off far faster than a stout merchant should be able to maneuver. The heavy bag of coins thumped against his back. The guards tore after him.
Emiel emerged in the balcony overlooking the entry hall and the magnificent Great Creation painting. Perhaps another day he’d return to steal it. That thievery would be harder to justify than the coins though. Especially with the idolatry.
Emiel hopped on the bannister and slid down, watching the steps whiz by below him. The guards weren’t armed with any range weapons and couldn’t shoot him.
But they could yell.
Emiel remembered why he was supposed to bypass the entry hall. Because guards were stationed by the doors.
As the doors swung open, Emiel resolved on his new appearance. Revealing his ability to change form was risky, but better than being caught. The guards sprang in from outside to get a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at Lord Aren gliding down the bannister and leaping onto the floor with a loud jangle.
“It’s a coup!” Emiel yelled as he gestured toward the bewildered guards above who had just witnessed a merchant transforming into their lord. “Stop them!”
Amid the confusion trailing behind him, Emiel slid between the guards, out the doors, and into the darkness of the urban mountainside.
Emiel heaved the bag onto the sturdy wooden table. “Look who snatched Aren’s finest.”
Orin sifted through the coins in the bag. His black beard cast strange and amusing shadows across his face in the dim candlelight of the kitchen. “Did you run into any trouble?”
“Don’t I always?” Emiel rubbed his eyes. “I never get caught. But they know a shapeshifter stole their treasures. Which destroys the myth that all the god-blessed are afraid of Felnir. They never saw me in my true form though.”
“Does anyone?” Orin’s voice was gravelly, like stones falling over stones in an avalanche. He looked up at Emiel.
Emiel’s head pounded. Perhaps he should let Orin see his true form. Or not. “Do I look like the sort of man who wants to have someone else’s death on his hands? If you’re ever exposed, you’d be thankful to deny knowing my identity.”
“Hard to trust a man you don’t know.”
“You’re still taking my coins.”
Orin snorted. “You don’t need to trust someone for that.”
“No.” Emiel spread the coins out on the table. “Which is why you don’t need to know who I really am.”
“If you insist.” Orin leaned one arm on the table and scrutinized the coins. “How would you like us to distribute this?”
Emiel shrugged. “You’re more familiar with the community’s needs than me. Bless the people who need it most.”
“You’re not going to help? We must dispose of the coins fast.”
“Don’t you have two teenage boys to help you?” Emiel chewed on his lip. “I…I may or may not have accidentally copied the appearance of a local merchant during the theft. The guards may suspect him, and I can’t let someone die because of me. I need to find him tomorrow.”
Orin gaped at him. “You shapeshifted into whom?”
“It’s a long story that would bore you. But I need to get this merchant out of Felnir before Aren’s men arrest him.”
“How? Do you know this merchant?”
Emiel shook his head. “Never talked with him, actually. He was just memorable because of his chubbiness.”
Orin rolled his eyes. “I forgot I’m dealing with a kid.”
“I’m an adult.”
“Barely from the looks of you.”
“You don’t know what I look like.”
Orin didn’t respond. He just stared at the table. Some people had odd habits.
Emiel contemplated how he’d locate the merchant. He’d have to wander around the marketplace, which wouldn’t be the most efficient tactic to outmaneuver the guards. He’d hatch a plan. He always did.
Orin tapped his hairy fist against the table. “You surprised me, Emiel.”
Emiel turned back to him. “What?”
“Mistakes aside, you did rob Aren successfully. I doubted you. I was wrong.” Orin crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Have you ever considered using your talents more effectively?”
“What do you mean?”
Orin stroked his beard. “Stealing tax money and saving people from nobles is admirable work. But, if you can rob the governor, you could launch a coup and lift our oppression instead of patching up a flawed system.”
Emiel dug his right foot into the ground. People were never satisfied with one caper. Once they saw his craftiness and daunting persona, they always wanted more. “It’s not that simple.”
“Listen.” Orin looked straight into Emiel’s eyes. “You, me, and a couple of my friends could start a revolution.” He gestured toward the coins. “Give the people of Felnir more than the occasional treat.”
Emiel shook his head. “I told you that I don’t stay in one place long.”
“You’ve been in Felnir a month and a half.”
“Which is already too long,” Emiel said. “I need to travel. Find another place where I can do good. Especially now that Aren realizes there’s a shapeshifter in town.”
“You can do good here.”
Emiel shook his head, finished pouring the coins out of the bag, and draped the burlap over his shoulder. “Too much risk. People obsess over big, dramatic feats like overthrowing kingdoms and rulers. But when all is said and done, one tyrant just replaces another.”
Orin sighed in resignation.
Emiel picked up a coin. “Small kindnesses are what causes change. Relieving a starving widow or cheering up a penniless child means more than a fancy, official proclamation.” He glanced out the window. The sun would be rising in a few hours. “I need to go.”
He walked to the door and bowed briefly to his friend. Orin and his family were good people, although a tad idealistic. But they were essential for him to help the people of Felnir.
Orin shook his head. “Have a blessed evening.”
Emiel hurried through Felnir’s crowded streets. The early morning sun filtered through the ridges surrounding the mountaintop city. Emiel narrowly avoided getting his bare feet crushed by all the heavy shoes around him. Why couldn’t walking barefoot be the national pastime? And where was this unfortunate merchant?
“Excuse me. Passing through,” he called as he wove through a tight cluster of market customers. His head ached from maintaining an illusion to shroud his turquoise eyes from hundreds of people. He couldn’t cloak his appearance in a crowd, but he had to hide the telltale trait of a god-blessed. Why did the blasted gods instill their gifts with frustrating limitations?
An executioner’s block had been erected in the town square. On a market day? Emiel shook his head. What a twisted sense of entertainment. Better to have unusual entertainment.
He paused in front of the platform. He had been hunting for half an hour without success. The guards couldn’t have found the merchant that quickly, could they? He bit the inside of his cheek.
Hey, Adolsin. I haven’t talked to you as much as I should, but, uh, I need help. An innocent man may be in trouble, and you’re the protector of the innocent, right? Well, I could sure use some help to be your effective instrument here. If you could help me find this merchant before the authorities, he and I would greatly appreciate it.
Emiel blinked and resumed searching. Adolsin didn’t always answer prayers promptly, but he needed to allow some space between himself and a god.
Two guards marched by hoisting their silver-tipped pikes. Emiel smirked. The people of Felnir had so many ridiculous superstitions. He was tempted to reach out and touch one of the blades to prove that god-blessed were not repelled by silver. Lord Aren swore that his guards and security measures steered god-blessed away from Felnir.
Emiel knew the truth. Nobody cared about a small, isolated city on the outskirts of Morshan that was prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Including god-blessed. Except for weird ones like himself.
As the guards moved on, Emiel decided on a new tactic. Puffing himself up with an air of confidence, he approached a merchant’s booth and leaned on the counter. “Hey, companion.”
The merchant’s bushy eyebrows merged in a frown. “Who are you?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Emiel said. “I was just wondering if you know a rotund merchant who was selling his wares yesterday. Wore a fancy green cloak and looked important.”
How rude. “Thanks for the encouragement and support, friend.” Emiel sidestepped to the next stall and made eye contact with the new merchant. “Excuse me—”
“Back off. I didn’t know him.”
Emiel opened his mouth to unleash a sarcastic remark, then snapped it shut. That was an odd use of past tense. “You didn’t know him?”
“I know what you’re up to.” The merchant lowered his voice and leaned toward Emiel. “One of your buddies came by earlier to interrogate us. You tell Aren we don’t know anything about this god-blessed’s activities or how he infiltrated the city.”
Emiel blinked. “Tell Aren?”
“Or whatever guard hired you. Word of advice: if you’re fishing for information, don’t be so obvious. None of us helped him. Just be content that you managed to catch a shapeshifter.”
Catch a shapeshifter? But…
Emiel burst into the woodcarver’s workshop as he finalized his altered appearance. “I need some of those coins I delivered last night.” The breeze sent dust flying through the air, and the scent of pine filled his nose.
Orin stopped chiseling a chair leg and glanced around, but no one else was in the shop. “What’s wrong?” His deep voice boomed.
Emiel panted. “They’ve caught the merchant.”
Emiel fumbled for words. “Yeah. You know—the one I accidentally impersonated in the palace. They think he’s the shapeshifter.”
Orin inhaled. “Latch the door behind you.”
Emiel hurriedly complied. His movement stirred more dust, and he sneezed.
Orin slowly laid his knife beside the wood shavings on his workbench. “Are you certain about this?”
“I think they caught him last night. The other merchants are scared stiff. I need some of those coins.”
“A bribe to rescue him.”
Orin tapped his fingers against the wood for a moment. Emiel cocked his head. Why the delay?
Orin looked up. “You realize this could be a feint.”
“A trick to draw you out. Why would they assume the merchant was the perpetrator rather than a victim? Unless they’re using him as bait.”
Emiel shrugged. “If he’s bait, they win. I won’t let an innocent bystander die on my account.”
“Do you know they’ll kill him?”
Emiel hated when people treated him like a kid. Just because his brain wasn’t screwed on straight didn’t mean he had the naïveté of a youth. “Listen. Felnir’s citizens gloat over the fact that a god-blessed has never conquered their city. Of course they’ll publicly execute him—turquoise eyes or not.”
“Unless they know he’s fake and this is a feint.”
“They don’t know my true form or how my powers work. Since most of the guards saw the plump merchant first, that’s the face they’ll associate with the shapeshifter. People aren’t used to dealing with beings who can radically change their appearance.”
Orin pursed his lips. “I’m not persuaded.”
Emiel threw up his hands. This is why he had trust issues. People took stuff he gave them and never reciprocated the favor. “Look. I don’t know their plans. But I can’t risk him dying because of me.”
“Fine. Assume they’ll kill him. How will you free him?”
Emie rolled his eyes. “I’ll shapeshift.”
“And get spotted like last night?”
“They believe they have the shapeshifter. They won’t be prepared for another.”
Orin scratched his beard. “Is one merchant worth endangering your life for? If you’re captured, think how many people you won’t be able to save.”
“An innocent man might die because of my mistake.”
“You’re being a fool.”
“I didn’t ask your opinion. I hear enough insults elsewhere, thank you very much. I came because bribes aren’t cheap and I have a right to some of my spoil.”
Orin fell silent again before speaking. “I don’t like equipping youth to make rash decisions.”
“I dislike helping someone who won’t help me in return.”
“You could save more than one merchant if you remain in the city with us.”
“Do you think I’d continue helping you if you won’t help me when I need it?”
Orin picked up a tool and chipped at the chair leg, grumbling to himself. The corners of Emiel’s mouth twitched. Ha! Trapped you.
“You will be careful if I relinquish the money, right?” Orin asked without pausing his motions.
“Would I want to die?”
Orin sighed. “I suppose you have a point. It is your rightful spoil anyway.” He tugged at his beard, probably still looking for an excuse to deny Emiel’s request.
But eventually even stubborn men have to admit they’ve been beaten. Orin set down his knife. “All right. Follow me.”
Emiel hefted the last barrel higher on his shoulder as he hauled it down the stairs to Aren’s wine cellar. He had persuaded a servant to hand over his job unloading wagons in exchange for three months’ wages. He hadn’t mentioned that he would be borrowing the man’s appearance as well.
Emiel lowered the barrel and rubbed his shoulder. His job was beginning to feel repetitive and boring. He’d invaded the same place two nights in a row, with virtually the same plan. Find the dungeon, surprise the guards, grab the keys, free the man, and run.
But this time he’d make sure the guards stayed unconscious. All that was left was to choose a person to replicate. One of the shocked guards from the previous night would work—as long as he didn’t run into his doppelgänger again. He fixated on his memory of the man’s face as he climbed the cellar stairs.
Emiel stepped into a hall in the lower level of the manor. The flicker of torches was the only movement. Perfect. According to the directions he’d bribed from the servant, he had to travel two doors down, then turn left. The servant probably thought he’d gotten the deal of his life.
His master would disagree after Emiel accomplished his mission.
Emiel veered left and glimpsed the line of cells through the open door. Most dungeon entrances were kept locked. Odd. Did Aren want someone to find the dungeon? Was he walking into a trap?
A scream ricocheted off the walls.
Emiel hesitated briefly. But trap or no trap, he had a duty to this merchant. He strode down the corridor and gripped the knife strapped to his belt.
The hall of cells jutted left and Emiel peered around the corner. The merchant was chained to the wall with a silver pike impaling his arm. Lord Aren and four guards surrounded him, silhouetted by a crackling furnace.
“Yes. Scream. Let the silver poison your blood,” Lord Aren hissed. “But screaming won’t tell me where my coins are.”
Emiel swallowed. Such ridiculous superstitions about silver. Such horrible torture for an innocent man.
“I swear I’m not one of them,” the merchant cried. “I told the guards to look at my eyes.”
“As if a shapeshifter’s eyes matter.”
“How do you know the god-blessed didn’t impersonate me?”
Emiel’s ears perked up.
“A shapeshifter wouldn’t pick such a preposterous disguise unless it was his actual form.”
Or the shapeshifter is an idiot. Emiel stepped back and pressed himself against the wall. His stomach churned. Vomit would be an improvement to the dungeon floor. He swallowed. An innocent man was being tortured for his mistake and he needed to stop it.
“Please,” the merchant begged.
Emiel blinked. He couldn’t overpower five men at once—not even with deception. He wasn’t that skilled at fighting. Two opponents were his max.
“Give me another pike,” Lord Aren said.
Adolsin, Adolsin, Adolsin, grant me strength. Don’t let this man die because of me. Emiel glanced around the corner as Aren raised the pike above the merchant’s right hand. His stomach lurched. He needed to reveal himself. He could save the merchant’s life at the price of his own. That’s what he’d told Orin he was willing to do.
Adolsin, please. But how could Adolsin rectify this situation? Adolsin worked through people. And an honorable man would accept his own punishment to prevent someone from suffering in his place.
There was a thud, followed by an ear-splitting howl. The second pike. Sweat drenched Emiel’s cheeks. It was time. One step into the open would save this man.
His feet didn’t budge.
The merchant screamed. Emiel’s arms shook. If they tortured the merchant to this degree, how much agony would they cause Emiel? Aren wanted his money. Was Emiel willing to betray Orin and his friends? If not, was he willing to endure hours of torment?
One step into the open would plunge his life into hell.
Adolsin, Adolsin, Adolsin, I can’t do this. Help me. I can’t do this. Give me another way.
You know what you need to do.
Emiel’s throat tightened. Was that Adolsin’s voice? Or his mind playing tricks on him? He hated when his mind played tricks. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why am I such an idiot?
“Put the pike in the furnace,” Aren said. “We need to escalate.”
The merchant’s pleas for mercy became unintelligible.
Emiel felt like screaming.
By the Twelve, he couldn’t bear pain for someone else—even if the situation was his fault. He’d sneak into the cell after Aren and his guards were finished and save whatever was left of the man from death. I’m a wretch. I have absolutely no defense.
A blade sizzled.
Emiel stared at the ground. He didn’t have enough strength to stop five men, nor the wit. Only enough cowardice to let the innocent suffer.
“You’ll die tonight,” Lord Aren said. “Whether you tell the truth about the coins determines whether it’s a slow, painful death or a quick death.”
His hope of saving the man crumbled. Emiel closed his eyes. Would he give himself up or flee?
Emiel’s cheeks burned as he fled the dungeon.
“So the merchant’s still in the dungeon?” Orin eased into a chair at his kitchen table.
“Or dead.” Emiel refused to sit. He stared mindlessly at Orin. The shadows flickering around his bearded face weren’t as funny this time. For the second night in a row, Emiel had returned to him to admit defeat. This time was worse.
Orin raised an eyebrow. “I thought you wouldn’t let an innocent person die on your account.”
“I thought I knew who I was.” Emiel swallowed. “I was wrong.”
Orin’s face softened. “I’m sorry. That’s a heavy burden to carry. Especially for one as young as you look.”
Emiel glanced away. “I don’t need reminded of my age.”
Orin answered with his usual silence.
Emiel shook his head. “Aren won’t even consider the possibility that the merchant was framed.”
Orin shrugged. “Does he need to?”
“Shouldn’t he want the truth?”
“He’s the ruler. If he believes this merchant could be the culprit, it’s his right to execute him.”
“Idiotic is what it is.”
“Do you see why I want to raise a revolution?”
Why that topic? “I don’t—”
“We could achieve so much with you, Emiel.” Orin slapped his palm against the table. Passion seeped through his gravelly voice. “We could depose this tyrant and set up a new society.”
“And how many more innocents would die because of it?” Emiel dug his nails into his palm. “What if we fail?”
“Every exploit has risks.”
“I’ve already attempted one too many stunts.” Emiel frowned at Orin. “That man wouldn’t have been tortured if I hadn’t waged this big theft. I should have turned myself in.”
Orin shook his head. “And sacrifice all your potential for one merchant? You aren’t responsible for Aren’s stupidity.”
“I am responsible for my mistakes.”
“Dying for a merchant is inane.”
Emiel pursed his lips. “I never said I would do it.”
“I said I should.” Emiel’s voice broke and he gripped the edge of the table tightly. “That doesn’t mean I’m willing to do what’s right. I’m not ready to be tortured and killed.”
“Help us launch a revolution to depose this tyrant, Emiel, and the merchant won’t have to die in vain.”
“Stop.” Emiel’s words dripped from his mouth. His jaw clenched. “I know what you want—and my answer. I’m leaving tonight.”
“I’ve done enough damage here.”
Orin scooted his chair away from the table and stood. “You don’t get it, do you?”
“Don’t get what?”
“You told me that you don’t do great things because you’d rather do small deeds. I suspect that’s not the real reason. You don’t do great things because you’re a coward. And your cockiness is a guise.”
Emiel avoided Orin’s gaze. “Well, maybe I am. Everyone’s born with a fault.”
“You could change.”
“If I really had courage, I wouldn’t be joining your revolution.” Emiel grabbed his satchel. “I’d be turning myself in. That’s why I need to leave.”
The sun rose behind Emiel as he trudged down the road. The merchant was probably dead already.
A pit remained at the bottom of his stomach, but he refused to look at the mountain and city behind him. He had made his decision and couldn’t allow guilt to consume him. Even if he was imperfect, even if he was a coward, he could still do good things. Couldn’t he? Adolsin couldn’t be terribly angry with him as long as he used his powers to accomplish good.
If only he could forget about the merchant.
[This story is a part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection. Click the button below to download the whole collection.]