This story is part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection.
The god-blessed was hunched in the corner of the tavern again, his body shrouded by a gray cloak. His breeches disappeared underneath tall boots, and his tunic’s sleeves extended to the fingers of his gloved hands. Perfect garb for winter.
Yet, outside, oppressive summer heat drove travelers to the tavern in search of a drink.
“Nothing good can come of him being there,” Erich muttered as he sized the god-blessed up. “You don’t linger in another god-blessed’s town unless you’re a troublemaker.”
“You could report him.” His daughter Erin cleaned off a glass. “Tanner would send men pronto.”
“And if this god-blessed retaliates and ransacks our tavern?”
She shrugged and filled the glass with ale. “Better than facing Tanner’s wrath if he learns you housed a god-blessed.”
“He’s not lodging here.”
“He slept in the stalls the last couple nights. I doubt the authorities will care for nuances.”
Erich dug his fingernails into his palm as Erin left to bring ales to the patrons. She was right, of course. If Tanner found out, their livelihood would be at risk.
But he couldn’t just evict a god-blessed.
A crowd flowed into the tavern, so he busied himself with taking orders, assigning rooms, and pleasing customers. But the presence of the god-blessed weighed on him. How could he remove someone who might be able to burn his eyes to a crisp?
Finally, the string of customers at the counter evaporated, leaving the tables packed—all except for the five surrounding the god-blessed.
Erich rubbed his forehead. Patrons would gossip about the man with the turquoise eyes, and word would reach Tanner. To avoid a fight in his tavern, he needed to tactfully kick out the god-blessed.
He picked up a mug and poured in a stout from the tankard before slipping into the main room. Five hunters yelled and banged their table as they recounted the details of a hunt. He edged past them and a few other tables to approach the god-blessed.
Erich set down the mug and pushed it over to the god-blessed. “Can I help you, sir?”
The god-blessed raised his head, revealing a youthful face with barely any stubble. Beneath furrowed eyebrows, dark rings lined his unfocused eyes. “Am I causing a problem?” he asked in a gentle tone.
Erich’s gaze drifted to the young man’s dagger; he knew better than to trust an apologetic god-blessed. He plastered on a smile. “Of course not, sir. I noticed you didn’t order anything today or yesterday and wanted to make sure your needs were met.”
The crease in the god-blessed’s forehead deepened. “So you brought me a beer.”
“I’m eager to accommodate you in other ways, sir.”
“So you can make me comfortable, or so you can bribe me to leave?”
Erich cautiously lowered himself into a seat opposite the god-blessed, hoping he wasn’t violating boundaries. “If you’re passing through, I’d be happy to provide you with whatever you need for your journey.”
“Because you want me gone.”
“Because I’d be privileged to serve a man beloved of the gods, and religion calls me to treat you with the reverence you deserve.” Erich studied the god-blessed. The shape of his nose and the angle of his jaw seemed familiar. “I should have checked on you yesterday, but—”
The god-blessed waved his hand. “I don’t need to hear it.”
As he turned his face away, a name rushed to Erich’s lips. “Damian—blessed Damian, I mean. You look exactly like your father.”
Damian kept his eyes averted. “I hoped you wouldn’t recognize me.”
Erich’s stomach knotted. Was that a threat? He shouldn’t have spoken. He cleared his dry throat. “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“It’s been what—five years since I came here with my father?” Five years since the old farmer had died. He’d been a good supplier.
Erich swallowed. “I know your family has had struggles.” Enough that this boy had become a god-blessed.
Damian shook his head. “That’s not why I did…this.” He gripped the mug but didn’t raise it. As the silence dragged on, Erich began to evaluate escape routes.
Then Damian returned from his distant stare. “My father had a high opinion of you. You didn’t cheat him when you bartered.”
“Times are hard enough without people cheating each other.” His tension began to ease. Perhaps Damian wasn’t putting up a front.
Damian inched a glove off one of his pale hands. “May I?”
Erich jerked in his seat, and it squeaked against the floor. “May you what?” What blessing did the gods give him?
“I just…” Damian gnawed on his lip for a moment as if reconsidering his request. “May I feel your hand?”
Erich glanced down at his scarred knuckles. “I…”
Damian shook his head. “I can’t hurt you. That’s not my blessing.”
But Damian must be hiding his skin for a reason. “What do you want?”
“It’s…hard to explain. You won’t come to any harm.”
Erich lived by two rules: Treat people kindly, and never trust a god-blessed. He needed to end this conversation. Though Damian was polite, god-blessed were unpredictable.
But he couldn’t refuse one either.
Devoid of options, he pretended to relax and slowly held out his trembling hand. “If you must.”
Damian reached out, flinched, and brushed his fingers against the back of Erich’s hand. Erich experienced no pain or odd sensations, and he exhaled in relief.
But Damian leapt back, toppling his chair, and yanked the glove over his hand. Terror brimmed in his eyes.
“Are you all right?” Erich jumped to his feet. Was Damian about to unleash his powers? Where were the nearest authorities? “If I may—”
“No.” Damian snatched up his satchel. “I’m sorry I ever came here. You won’t need to worry about me again.” He rushed out of the tavern.
The eastern winds battered Gresald as she leaned against her wizened staff. Draidra must be punishing the unfaithful tonight. A storm brewed on the darkening horizon, and she’d be weathering its rage with only sheep for company.
Gresald sighed. Turbulence and solitude had become part of her existence. She crouched to avoid the high gusts and rummaged in her satchel for her whistle. The notes would get lost in the wind’s roar, but she had a tradition to keep.
As she pressed the metal to her lips, she caught sight of a black shape climbing her hill. Human or beast? She dropped her whistle and darted her hand toward the long knife strapped to her belt. Over the years, she’d fended off many hungry beasts and thieves, though she’d been much younger when she killed that mountain lion. More foolhardy as well.
She ducked behind the tall rocks that jutted from the hilltop. With her stiff joints, the element of surprise would be her sole advantage if the creature had nefarious motives.
As the figure neared, human limbs and a long cloak became visible. Upon finishing his ascent, the man stopped amid her scattered flock. A thief? Gresald clenched the handle of her knife. But then he pivoted toward the path leading to her village. Only a traveler.
Except for his flapping cloak, the man remained stationary, gazing at the scene below. After several moments elapsed, Gresald supposed that he posed no threat.
She stood. “It’s an angry night for contemplation.”
The man turned as a shaft of moonlight burst through the clouds. Fabric covered his body from his feet to his chin. On one of the hottest nights of the year. How odd.
“The weather’s preferable to what I’ll find in the village,” the man replied.
Gresald stepped toward him. “What do you fear?”
She squinted at him as moonlight and shadows shifted intermittently across his face. “Damian.”
“I’d prefer you didn’t ask questions.”
“I’d prefer you explain why you fear my daughter.”
Damian’s shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. “I just came to retrieve some possessions. Lila would be safer if she believed me dead.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“A god cursed me.”
Gresald waited for him to divulge more, but instead he moved toward the path. “You stole her heart, Damian.”
“A decision I regret.”
“And you’ll abandon her without explanation?” She tightened her grip on her staff. Aged or not, she would be beating off travelers with it tonight.
“Gresald…” Damian looked over his shoulder. “You know I love her. Please trust me when I say that you don’t want my explanation.”
Raindrops pelted Gresald’s face. She hefted her staff and veered in front of him. “Now, listen here, young man—”
A flash of lightning reflected in his turquoise eyes—the mark of a god-blessed.
Her staff clattered to the ground, and she staggered back. “What have you done?”
“Something I shouldn’t have.” He brushed past her and descended the hill to the village.
“Isn’t often that someone enters the village this late.” Aaron narrowed his eyes at the cloaked figure slinking along the streets. “Recognize him?”
Ruan shook his head as he leaned against the warped battlements. “Technically my shift is over, so he’s your responsibility.”
Aaron snorted. “As if I’m able to confront him single-handed.”
“It will liven up your shift. Sometimes I prefer nights to be eventful.” The wood creaked under Ruan’s weight. If the boards cracked, it was a long fall to the ground.
The man crept up to Damian’s old house. He fiddled with the lock, then scanned the area. The night concealed his face, but his hood had fallen, and Aaron would recognize that clump of curly hair anywhere.
Ruan pushed away from the wall. “Well, I never… Where in Thanax’s name has he been?”
“I don’t know,” Aaron lied. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Lila will want to be informed immediately.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I’ll wake her.”
Aaron placed his foot on the ladder’s top rung and hesitated. If he abandoned his post, he’d break the rules, but no one would notice at that hour. “I’m going to talk to him.” He clambered down followed by Ruan, who hurried home to alert his sister.
Aaron headed for Damian’s house. Had he made the right call? Damian didn’t plan to surprise his fiancée, did he? A smirk twitched at his lips. Damian? Creative? He chuckled at the notion as he reached the door. It hung ajar, and candlelight flickered through the crack, so he knocked twice before pushing it open.
Damian spun around, bumping into the open chest beside him. He clutched a wad of clothing.
“Damian!” Aaron exclaimed, spreading his arms to embrace his friend.
Damian discarded the bundle and put out his gloved hands as a barrier. “Please. Stay away from me.”
“But…” Aaron met Damian’s eyes, and his jaw dropped. “When you swore to hunt down your mother’s killer, I didn’t think you—”
“I didn’t want you to worry.” Damian avoided eye contact. “Perhaps I should have.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind.” He resumed digging through his chest and pulled out some pendants that he shoved into his shoulder bag. “Listen, Aaron, I… I don’t want Lila to hear I’ve returned.”
Aaron blinked. Did he actually have a surprise planned? “You don’t?”
Damian fished out two scrolls and unrolled one to skim the first few lines before answering. “I’m just here to grab my parents’ possessions and leave. Better to let her assume I died.”
What? His soul belongs to Lila. Aaron gaped at him as he closed and latched the chest. He struggled with the lock, and while his back was turned, Aaron placed a hand on his cloaked shoulder. “Damian, what happened?”
Damian lurched away. “Don’t touch me!” He slung his satchel over his shoulder. “I need to go.”
Aaron backed up and planted himself in the threshold. “What did the gods give you?”
Damian glared at him for a long moment. With a huff, he walked to a window and stared outside. If he intended to climb through, he’d never fit.
“Damian.” Aaron would wrest the truth out of his friend if he had to trap him in the room until dawn. “Which god did you appeal to?”
Damian paced back and forth, grumbling to himself, until finally he stopped. His shoulders slumped. “Karif.”
“Karif?” Aaron’s mouth went slack again. “The god who twists blessings?”
Damian cringed. “Aaron, please. He’s the only god who grants requests for specific blessings, and I needed—”
“The god who gave a man supernatural strength that broke his wife’s bones with a single touch.” Aaron left the doorway and advanced toward his friend. What kind of idiot—or monster—had he become?
Damian retreated, hands out. “I know—”
“The god who gave a man the ability to teleport to any place that flitted through his thoughts. He died when he heard a story about a volcano.”
Damian sidestepped to avoid tripping over the items he’d strewn on the floor. “I know how Karif hexes those who ask for blessings!”
“But you petitioned him anyway!” Aaron spat.
“I… I didn’t think he could corrupt my request.” Damian swiped at the perspiration glistening on his face. “I just wanted to learn which of Tanner’s soldiers murdered and…” He swallowed twice. “Murdered my mother.”
Aaron pursed his lips. “What did you ask for, Damian?”
“A power that should have been straightforward.” He tried to maneuver toward the door again. “I need to go before—”
Aaron blocked him. “What did you ask for?”
Damian’s jaw worked as he ground his teeth. Aaron was getting under his skin, but he didn’t care. When Damian at last unclamped his mouth, Aaron had to strain to hear his raspy whisper.
“To read minds…through touch.”
Through touch? But Damian had been adamant against Aaron touching him. He frowned. “Then why—”
Footsteps sounded behind them.
A willowy figure swept through the doorway, haloed by the moonlight outside. No. The one person Damian couldn’t meet. The night had been a disaster. What had he done to anger the gods?
“Damian!” Her voice hung on the last syllable like the strum of a lyre. Gods, how he relished the way she pronounced his name. And the smile that curved her lips and lit her eyes as she approached him. And—
Damian shook away the thoughts. “Lila! Stop. You can’t touch me.” He stepped back, brushing his heels against his family’s chest. “I’m dangerous.”
Lila skidded to a halt mere feet from him. As she took in his attire, her joy faded. “Are you…unwell?”
“No. I…” Were those traces of tears in her eyes? Concern for him? If only he could wrap his arms around her slender body. He licked his lips. “I…um, I made some big mistakes, Lila.”
“What did you do?” Her breath came out heavy. “Is it related to your eyes?”
Damian searched for the right words, but he couldn’t find them—or hold her gaze. “I… I need to leave this place.”
She swallowed and glanced at his bulging satchel. “For how long?”
He couldn’t sugarcoat it. “Forever.”
She drew closer. “If you’re leaving, then I’m—”
“No.” His tone sounded harsher than he’d intended. He closed his eyes, briefly to calm himself, and shut out Lila’s pained expression. Why did she have to press him? “I love you, but…but you can’t come with me.”
“Damian.” She emphasized that last syllable again, and a wedge hammered into his heart. Her lips trembled. “What are you saying?”
I’m trying to say that I’m breaking our engagement, but Selsia help me, I can’t. “It’d be hazardous for me to—”
“Cut the dodging,” Aaron snapped, sliding an arm around Lila’s shoulders to support her as she swayed. “How did Karif curse you?”
“Karif?” Lila’s eyes widened for a second before she recovered. “Damian”—another pang struck him—“how could you?”
“Please believe me that it’s better you don’t know,” Damian said, a pit forming in his stomach. “Hate me. Curse me. I deserve it. But I can’t stay here.”
Aaron clenched his free hand into a fist. “She’s your fiancée, and you won’t—”
“I know!” Damian yelled, and he instantly regretted it. “If you understood—”
Tears burst from Lila’s eyes. She flung herself at him.
Damian gasped as her body collided with his, her lithesome arms grasping his shoulders. Heaving with sobs, she buried her face in his chest. Her hands rested inches from the slit between his tunic and hood.
For a moment, he froze. Then he clasped his shielded arms against hers, but he couldn’t bring himself to push her away. Holding her warm body felt so right.
If he kept this up any longer, everything would fall to pieces.
“I wish to Selsia that we could be together.”
Her tears stained his tunic. “But…but why can’t we? Is your life in danger? Did you kill the wrong person?”
Her hands drifted closer to his neck, and he fought rising panic. “I… I need you to let go, Lila. Karif… Karif’s curse could hurt you if you cling to me any longer.” It was the first lie he had told her.
Lila looked up at him with red, puffy eyes. “You’re contagious? With what?”
He hadn’t contrived that part yet. “I’ll explain everything. I just need you to get off me. Now.”
Squeezing him tighter, she choked, “If I must.” As she pulled back, her hands shifted inward, and Damian realized too late what was about to happen.
Her fingertips grazed his exposed neck.
The room disappeared, and he plunged into the world of her mind. Thousands of memories ripped through him, overwhelming his senses.
Her childhood. The first time she successfully skipped a stone. The day they explored the waterfall. The moment she fell in love with him. Her daydreams of marriage and thrill when he proposed. The fretful longing during his absence. Her shock and confusion upon his return. He experienced all of it.
But he also saw her maliciously attacking Ruan with every effort her five-year-old body could muster. The taunts she hurled at the other village girls and her grin when they ran off crying. Her fury with him for forgetting their three-month anniversary and speculating that he despised her. The satisfaction she gained from plotting how she’d get revenge on him for rejecting her.
Her fear for his life turned into doubt about his return, which morphed into hatred. The possibility that he had left her for another girl festered in her brain, and she nursed anger against this competitor. As she wallowed in feelings of abandonment, her interest transferred to…Aaron.
They shared conversation after conversation, and with each one her affection grew for this perfect man who lacked Damian’s faults. When Aaron began to look at her with the same desire, she stopped pining for Damian. One night Aaron hugged her, and she refused to let go. She imagined slipping her fingers under his tunic, pulling it up, and—
Fantasies Damian would never forget streamed through his mind.
Even as she’d wept and embraced him, her past vengeful thoughts had been resurfacing, and she planned to hurt him before he departed. Her unspoken words burned into his mind.
The visions collapsed. Damian became conscious of the real world again and Lila pulling away from him. Only a second or two had passed.
One and a half seconds of eternity.
Your blessing is granted. Karif’s words reverberated through his mind. From now on, you will read someone’s thoughts when you touch them.
Damian’s legs buckled. How could that face—that voice that clung to his name—mask such mental venom? She was just like the tavern keeper and the countless peasants and nobles he had tested his power on.
He had found the men who violated and killed his mother. But he’d witnessed the host of other crimes they had committed as well.
For a moment, Damian imagined staying and marrying Lila. She wasn’t worse than anyone else. But he would know every time she harbored anger or longed for someone else. He would have to bear her spiteful thoughts and disapproval whenever he failed to meet her expectations. The mental fantasies she entertained would play before his eyes in vivid detail.
Damian grabbed his satchel and scrambled sideways. “Get away from me!”
Aaron caught Lila as she lost her balance. “But…” She rubbed her tear-streaked cheeks. “I just—”
“I can’t!” Damian cried, sprinting out the door. He tripped on a stone outside, and his body hit the tight-packed dirt of the road. But the pain that blossomed in his ribs was nothing compared to the daggers needling his heart.
Aaron yelled from inside the house, but Damian bolted up and stumbled through the streets. Why had he risked coming back? He knew what would happen if he touched Lila.
Hurt was all any human relationship could bring him.
[This story is a part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection. Click the button below to download the whole collection.]