[This is the opening of a novel that could be a stand-alone, or could have a sequel or two. If it becomes a series, the series title is “Signs of Power.”]
The sign-reader sat quietly in the corner, huddled over a mug of dark beer, staring down into the liquid. He was not exactly thinking about the girl he had just identified, and what was to become of her, but neither could he think about anything else; the awareness that he had set her irrevocably on the path she would follow for decades, perhaps for her entire life, left no room for other concerns.
But he could not really think about her, all the same; his mind was too muddled for that. Every time he tried to tell himself that he had condemned her to what amounted to slavery, he was reminded that she would be honored, that she would wield powerful magic that was necessary to the community, that her role was essential to the survival of her people.
But she would have no choice about it; the people who lived under the Dragonâ€™s Breath could not afford to let her choose.
And she might even enjoy it; she would be grown by the time she was brought to the temple, no longer the scared child he had seen that afternoon.
None of this was new to him; he had been wandering these lands for twenty years and more, identifying all those touched by the Dragonâ€™s Breath, and had asked himself every possible question, thrashed out every possible outcome, a hundred times.
He just hadnâ€™t yet arrived at any really satisfying answers.
He looked up at the sound of a door opening and voices conversing quietly; he could make out none of the words, but thought the accents sounded local. Probably just someone come to the public house for a drink, he told himself, and dropped his gaze back to the beer.
He lifted the mug and took a swig.
When he lowered it again he found himself looking at a thin man in a damp brown cloak, who was staring directly at him from the entryway. The stranger stood somewhat hunched, with his hands clasped at his breastbone; the face half-hidden by the hooded cloak, and the fingers folded on his chest, were almost inhumanly white.
The sign-reader stared back for a moment, then lowered his beer and said, â€œCan I help you, friend?â€
â€œThey say youâ€™re a sign-reader,â€ the man said, in an unsteady tenor.
The sign-reader sighed and brushed the hair from his forehead, exposing the indentation there, a thumb-sized depression like the healed-over socket of a lost third eye.
â€œI assume even you can read that sign,â€ he said.
â€œI heard… I mean, yes. Then you are a sign-reader.â€
â€œI am. Why?â€ He was fairly sure what he was going to hear; some local youth had acquired an odd scar, or a babe had been born with a caul, or perhaps an old woman had had a strange dream, and the family wanted to know what it meant.
â€œA child… a child has been born. My nephew. My sisterâ€™s child. We arenâ€™t sure whether heâ€™ll live.â€
â€œHe has a mark of some kind?â€
â€œItâ€™s more… itâ€™s not just a mark, sir. Could you come and see, please, and tell us what we should do?â€
The sign-reader sighed deeply and looked down at the beer.
Duty called. The babe was probably just an unhappy mishap that would be dead by dawn, the result of a bad mix of bloodlines, but there was always that chance that he was something more, something marked by the Dragonâ€™s Breath, tainted with the magic that kept the Restored Lands alive, just as the sign-reader himself was.
His magic was to read the signs of the Dragonâ€™s Breath, and his duty was to use this whenever he was called upon, so he would have to go â€“ but that didnâ€™t mean leaving his beer. He lifted the mug and gulped until the last drop had trickled down either his throat or his beard, then let the vessel fall back to the table. He rose, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand and scooping his coat and hat up from a chair with the other.
â€œShow me,â€ he said.
The man in the cloak turned to lead him to the door, but then the landlord was there beside him. â€œSir, about the…â€
â€œIâ€™ll be back tonight,â€ the sign-reader said, cutting him off. â€œWeâ€™ll settle my bill in the morning.â€
â€œOh, we could find you a bed…â€ the stooped man began.
â€œNo,â€ the sign-reader said. He turned to the landlord again. â€œIâ€™ll be back. Iâ€™ve left my bag upstairs.â€
â€œIs there anything you need, to judge the child?â€ the cloaked man asked.
â€œNo. Lead on.â€
The man ducked his head in something that might have been either a nod or a bow, and hurried down the entryway to the front door, tugging the hood of his cloak up to cover his head better.
The sign-reader donned his own coat, glad now that he had not bothered to remove his boots before getting his beer, and clapped his hat on his head.
The cloaked man lifted the latch and swung the door inward; a swirl of cold mist blew into the entryway, and the sign-reader pulled his coat tighter as he followed the other out into the foggy chill of a marsh-country night.